Rock and roll has been declared dead so many times it’s hard to greet the sentiment with anything more than an eye-roll, but there’s no question that it hasn’t exactly been thriving for the past couple of decades. Sure, various strains — from indie to metal — are alive and well, but the kind of adolescent, visceral, fist-pumping bands that introduced many of us to rock are in pitifully short supply.
Royal Headache is one of the few bands in recent years that evoke that spirit. Formed in Sydney, Australia, in 2008, their sound is not original and they certainly don’t claim it is — it’s solidly rooted in the early 1980s of the Jam and Stiff Little Fingers and the like. But they’ve got a rousing, uncannily catchy songwriting style and a true original in lead singer Shogun, an almost comically conflicted character who couldn’t fake his rock bona fides if he tried. (Ditto all of the band members, who also have rock and roll nicknames: guitarist Law, bassist Joe, drummer Shortty.)
Shogun is awkward but intelligent, oddly charismatic and very well spoken and so much a relic of an earlier era that he doesn’t even carry a phone — a situation that’s caused problems more than once. Toward the end of the group’s recent American tour, when the singer had a few too many drinks and thought his bandmates had abandoned him (they actually thought he was staying with a friend), and without knowing their phone numbers or how to find his way back to the house where they were staying, he ended up crashing on the couch of a Billboard staffer who took pity on him.
He even left the band, whose self-titled 2011 debut LP had made them one of Australia’s biggest new acts, for several months between 2013-2014 because he felt like he was faking it (more on that below). But Royal Headache regrouped and released their second full-length, High (on What’s Your Rupture), which has garnered them press raves. Like so many classic frontmen before him, all of Shogun’s neuroses and charisma make sense onstage, where his raspy voice and explosive presence bring the songs nearly double the energy they have on record — and that’s saying something.
Your show had the most multi-generational mosh pit I’ve ever seen. It literally could have been kids and their dads. Is there usually such a wide age range at your shows?
I think that’s mostly over here. In Australia, we play with younger bands with younger [followings], but I think when you go overseas, people appreciate your music a bit more objectively, outside of scenes and certain little bubbles of musical communities. And yeah, maybe there’s something over-30s relate to a little bit more — it’s like something of a nostalgic sound, a cry for the past, really. I’ve always had some kind of weird, grumpy agenda against new music. I’ll go up to 1994, but I have real trouble getting into anything after then. It’s not on principal; I just think something’s been lost or forgotten… I guess my point is I feel like people just stop trying and I don’t really know why. I don’t see Royal Headache as a particularly fantastic band. I mean, I think we’re okay, we do give it our best and I think when you pour a lot into your music, it becomes a huge part of your life. Sometimes I wonder if bands today are doing that.
Is that what led the band, specifically you, to go on hiatus?
Well… I tend to get a big mouth in interviews, I tend to divulge about this stuff. I don’t know, life got kind of bad and I was doing these songs and I didn’t feel like I was emotionally able to commit anymore. I felt like I was dialing it in and really was at a point where I would have rather just gone and played some really noisy, aggressive hardcore. It just seemed like it was all getting a little bit too cute, you know what I mean?
I can’t fully remember why I left, but there was a lot of shit raining from the sky and I just felt like I wanted to get out. I was also getting stressed out by the shows and maybe by the attention because we had gone from being a punk band to a mid-level band in Australia and I started to feel a little bit pigeonholed and I wanted to quit and do this really noisy, weird, depressive sort of music. And I did write some of that stuff, but of course it never saw the light of day, because I need the guys in Royal Headache sometimes. They’re a bit less erratic than I am and I need them to help me get my shit together. My life always goes a little bit awry when I’m away from Royal Headache. I think I have to realize, for better or worse, they’re like these weird sort of guardian angels.
And you don’t have that with other musicians?
No — every other band I did had too many people like me. That was the problem!
So did your bandmates actually abandon you after the Palisades show?
They didn’t. I thought they did and I was fuming about it because I was drunk and I was just being a pain in the ass. Because straight after the show, I wanted to drink with some punk guys and my friend from Australia was there and when you’re on tour … I’m quite a little bit of a mentally scrambled person, I don’t have a phone and I’m hopeless with the subway so I have to go with them. And after like three weeks of touring I was so sick of being told where to go and who we’re going to meet next, I just wanted to be drunk in New York. Sometimes [the band] don’t think what it’s like to be me — having no phone or way of getting back to the house. So they didn’t leave me, I thought they did and you know what? They probably should’ve.
A lot of people say that you sound like later punk bands and the Jam. Did you listen to them when you were young?
I was a hardcore kid in school. When I was about 13… you realize people don’t like you and you don’t know how to talk to people and you get really angry. Until I was about 18, it was all aggressive early ’80s hardcore, but then I realized it wasn’t enough. The anger started to wear a little thin; you realize it’s just a mask for more complex issues. I started getting into Bowie and it was like this incredible flash of color after years of angry, grey, dark shades of rage. It sort of lit my world up, it was like diving into this rich pool of brilliance after this total monotony and masculine, sort of brainwashed… which I still love to death and it’s got its place, but I just went berserk and listened to everything. In the ’90s, dance music usurped everything, so by the 2000s, everyone had forgotten about the bands like the Jam or Wire. But yeah, I think we all rediscovered great music together.
You bring a lot of commitment to the live show.
I do really commit myself to it. I feel like it’s totally terrifying, being a little bit of an awkward person, standing up in front of all these discerning music fans… having been a person that’s generally at odds with social worth. People wonder why I get so involved; there’s no other way. It’s like being in a fight. It’s a very bracing experience and you have to go for it until everyone’s dead and you are too.
Do you feel that way even if the crowd doesn’t care?
Yeah, that just makes me push even harder, because I can tell that it’s losing vitality and I can use an unresponsive crowd as a sign that I need to give them more. I stopped watching YouTube videos of Royal Headache about two years ago — if I watch them, I’m just going to quit. It’s so terrifying seeing myself possessed by whatever that rage is… it’s totally bizarre and disturbing, so I don’t. In fact, I don’t look at any press or videos anymore.
Does it feel like the person that goes onstage is somebody else?
Yeah. Or, maybe it’s a part of myself that I wish I could express in all avenues of life but I feel like it’s not appropriate. It probably isn’t!
What enables you to get in touch with that part of yourself?
I think there’s a simmering social anxiety that’s pushed to the boil by being on the stage, with a bunch of fashionable, younger music types listening to me who are — let’s face it — the cruelest people on earth and it sort of flips the switch and I’m fighting. And then sometimes, if I’m really relaxed and halfway through the set, I see them dancing and smiling and I realize that I was full of shit and then I’m with them and that’s the greatest thing ever. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s happened a few times. My favorite shows are like Montreal and Baltimore, the smaller, punker sort of venues and kids really just getting into it.
Your band has a punky sound but the lyrics aren’t very punk — they’re often romantic. Does it feel odd to be singing lyrics like that over that music?
I think punk is about voicing whatever you think is unsaid or pointing out whatever’s missing and for some people it’s nihilistic sort of stuff. But I think the nature of what punk is can change. To me, it all comes from real experience and maybe there was an aspect of life that no one’s even talking about…and loyalty and commitment and love are increasingly becoming difficult and dirty words these days that no one wants to hear about. For me, it felt punk, in a way, to talk about that — I think open-heartedness is punk, especially in Australian culture, which is quite sterile and stifled and cold.
Yeah. I think, to be an Australian male and to be seen with any kind of vulnerability is punk, because that’s typically not encouraged in Australian men. It’s generally seen as disgusting.
What is your day job? Are you still at the call center?
Yeah, I’ll probably be there ’til they go bankrupt.
Actually, what is a call center?
Oh, it’s for TV ratings. Just imagine the most humiliating teenager’s job and then imagine yourself as a 34-year-old doing that job. You’re just making these shitty calls every day to see that people’s TV-rating equipment is working and booking technicians to fix it and stuff. I’ve been there forever. I’m a little work-phobic, let’s face it, so I find something that I can do that doesn’t torment the hell out of me and then I just stay there forever and ever until the company goes bust. I’m not the aspirational type! It’s pretty good. I can write songs at work and stuff.
What do the other guys in the band do?
They have pretty okay jobs. One is a town planner for Sydney City Council and the other one is like a graphic designer and the other one is just like an admin kind of guy. They’re more grown-up than me.
Have you written new material since you finished High?
What’s happening next?
Probably an EP and then another record. It’s going really well. Some [songs] are a bit slow, some are a lot slower. There’s a ballad we’ve been doing live, then there’s this song “Strange Old Man,” more like a Britpop sort of song, more of a harder, sort of U.K. punk influence.
You seem to not like the things you’ve done right after you do them.
Yeah, because life is changing and you need to keep up with yourself, so what you do is legitimate and authentic to you because something can be totally insincere but then you change and you’re sort of trotting out a weird echo of who you used to be. On [High], the songs are three or four years old, [recorded] before the breakup. I only tracked the vocals in March this year. It was hard to sing the songs, kind of bittersweet, because the songs were about things and situations that weren’t around anymore.
And how do you feel about the album now?
I feel really lucky. The record was incredibly hard to make. I thought it was going to be really tough to make a record after the first one, which was really nicely received. I thought people were going to think this record was disgusting because there was so much tortured emotion on there. Then again, I generally think everyone is going to hate everything I put out. Maybe the next time I’ll be a bit more optimistic.