TOTALLY Unicorn bassist Lee Nielson is a chronic apologiser. So much so it inspired the title of the Wollongong-born, Sydney-based band’s second album.
“It was Lee who inadvertently kick-started the idea of naming the album Sorry,” guitarist Aaron Streatfeild explains.
“From memory, Lee and I had turned up to a Sunday rehearsal after a bender – we had barely slept. While setting up, we started drinking again, rendering us completely useless on our instruments. It wasted everyone’s time. In between breaks – because we were absolutely slaughtering the songs – Lee would just blurt out apologies.”
For Lee, the word “sorry” came to represent the band’s tendency to self-implode at the most inopportune times.
“It was a good reflection on all of us being sorry pieces of shit, degenerates, at points in our lives when we really can’t afford to be. Ideally, we weren’t many weeks away from recording and Lee and I had wasted an important session. I think metaphorically it was something we could all relate to.”
The bulk of Sorry was written at the same decommissioned World War II bunker The Rubens made their most recent album Lo La Ru. It was later recorded with Jonathan Boulet at Ghostnote Recording Studios in Adelaide.
“We drank so much West End Draft in those two weeks [in Adelaide],” Aaron recalls. “I think we averaged one-and-a-half 30-packs per day.”
Aaron and singer Drew Gardner lead us through the album’s 10 tracks.
Drew: The first song on the album and the last one we wrote. I think we actually finished this one musically as we were recording it but sums up the whole album so well. Lyrically, I wrote this one the day of recording it (like a did with a lot of this album). As the other guys were tracking I walked down to the pub a block away and grabbed a feed. While I sat there watching some AFL game on the TV and ate my schnitzel I thought about all the shit that had happened to me in the past couple of years. With all these emotions/stories of my life now for everyone to hear, I felt a large relief and the strength to be able to put things behind me. That’s what this song is to me.
Aaron: This is also one of the last songs we put the music together for. We were stressing a week out from recording. We knew it had to be the album’s opener but didn’t have all the pieces together. Finally, we got a rough structure together and laid it down. There was always the intent to have some looped bass during the intro to help develop the song, but nothing we tried in the rehearsal space worked. Jimmy [Balderston, engineer] had a dig around the studio – he has so much rare and boutique gear – and set up a Juno 6 synth. It’s so ’80s but it worked a treat. We pitched it to the guitar and bass tuning and found our loop. Put with Drew’s vocals, it just all fell into place.
Drew: Life in a bubble, where it feels like you are going through a revolving door of the same shit everyday; hating your surroundings, but to scared to leave. This is my relationship with where I live. This is ‘The Island’.
Aaron: Our rehearsal studio is in Marrickville in Sydney’s inner-west. So it’s directly underneath the flight path. During breaks we would have a smoke out the front and have a band meeting. Because we’re directly under the flight path, discussions are usually cut short by an overhead plane. It’s funny how accustomed everyone becomes [to that noise]. You all just stop talking, while still looking at each other, then continue the conversation once the plane has passed. It’s funny how automated you become and how easily you adapt to life’s little inconvenience without even a second thought. At times when the planes were more frequent, we would stop conversation and wave to the planes, figuring they are so close and the passengers can most likely see us. That’s why we put the plane sample at the end of the song – it’s a nice little nod to our noisy and busy home. I’m not sure if that inspired Drew’s lyrics or not.
Drew: I have always been very scared of change, bottling up feelings and thinking everything is going to be ok until it all just explodes. ‘33’ is about a friendship that I did this to. You can’t please everyone. But in the end – once that toxic personality is gone from your life and you feel the weight of the world off your shoulders – you think to yourself, “Why didn’t I cut this shit loose ages ago?”
Aaron: This song is a celebration. Relieving your life from a toxic and manipulative person is one of the best feelings in the world. Life is most certainly better for it.
Drew: This one is about the lure of vices – alcohol, drugs, gambling -everything that in excess, weighs life down, making it more difficult and harder to deal with. I was there and from time to time go back. It’s a vicious cycle. People in life try to give you advice and like to tell you that you are doing it wrong, but yet seem to be doing the exact same thing. Get off your high horse and just listen for once.
Aaron: When we first began writing, we were struggling to get a decent slew of hours together in the jam space. Our manager had just come on board and sourced us a little studio for us to spend the weekend writing. It turned out to be an old WWII bunker that a guy hard turned into a studio. The Rubens had a setup there and I think These New South Whales had recorded their first record there, too. We did our very best to work hard but spent a lot of time hanging out having a laugh and hanging with the bunker’s owner, Tim. We did manage to get most of what would become ‘Grub’ from these sessions and the basis for a few other songs, too.
Drew: It’s about the struggles I had not to long ago with pain medication. I had really bad back pain the last couple of years and resorted to self-medicating. Obviously, this was a very bad idea and did not help the situation at all. This song maps out my daily thoughts during that time.
Drew: The nine-to-five struggle. “What am I doing with my life?” Bills, rent, gigs, clothes, Netflix. The endless money hole that is life. Stopping yourself from calling in sick for work every day. This song is about that and the walk I do down Parramatta Road most days with the thoughts in my head of turning around and going home.
Aaron: I had the main intro riff for this song for ages, years even. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t long after we had wrapped recording Dream Life. I tried for so long to make a song out of it. It kind of had this Queens of the Stone Age feel about it. I was forever bring different incarnations of the riff to practice but nothing ever developed. It took a new bass player and drummer to make it work. This was one of the songs that came together at the bunker. Even after we had most of the song written, we were all unsure of whether it was the type of song that suited Totally Unicorn and it we were doubtful of its worth on the new album. I’m glad we stuck with it.
Drew: We got fucked over massively right before we went into the studio. I’m not going to go into detail about it, but we decided to write this song two weeks before we went in to record the album and just let all the emotions we were feeling out at the time. It weirdly came very easy to write as we all had a real “who gives a fuck” attitude.
Aaron: Two weeks from recording we had shed some of the weaker songs we had written and fell short of an album’s worth of songs. We wrote this in three three-hour sessions. It was the most natural occurring song I think we have ever written.
Drew: I have always struggled with my weight and appearance. When I was younger I used to get super upset as not a day went past where a didn’t get some smart arse comment about my weight. It gobsmacks me that still to this day, grown fucking adults feel the need to comment negatively on someone’s appearance. This is a big fuck you to those people! Everyone is different and everyone is beautiful in their own way.
Drew: I am so proud of this song. Not just for the lyrical content but also because of the musical avenue the band went down. It’s a very different side to Totally Unicorn. I had about three lines of lyrics writing for this song before I went into the booth. I just ad-libbed the rest as I wanted it to be real and show how I was feeling at that exact moment. It was basically just myself and [producer] Jono Boulet in the studio at the time. It felt very therapeutic and as though I was healing in some weird way.
Aaron: I wasn’t doing well mentally for a while and I would often sit on my lounge at home with the guitar, being glum and just strumming along to this riff, dwelling on sad thoughts and anxiety about my where my life was at. It sounds like a real bummer but it was quite cathartic – it actually helped me make some sense of the whirlwind that was going on in my brain. Most of the song’s structure came from these sessions. It was like creating a soundtrack to all the horrible mental images swirling around in my head. I would send snippets through to Drew each time I uncovered a new part of the song. It’s interesting, ‘cause I didn’t have any idea of what Drew had for lyrics until we recorded it.
When he had finished recording his parts, I was taken aback – his lyrics and delivery was a complete articulation of what I had been dwelling on. I hold this song very close to my heart ‘cause it completely sums up feelings I had and still do have. I could never put it into words as well as Drew has. I sure as hell couldn’t make it as poetic either. It’s weird how the stars aligned with this one. I feel like it’s my life at that point (and some times now) in song – even the part about reading sad books. The Road forever.
Drew: By far the hardest song to talk about and explain so I’m gonna keep this one short. This song is about one of the worst experiences of my life. I’m sure you can work out the story once you listen. That’s it.
Aaron: This was the first song Lee, Adam [Myers, drums] and I wrote together. Drew was working, so it was just the three of us in the jam space. I had this pulsating riff idea that I brought to them. Within three hours, the other two had turned the riff on its head and together we had created most of what you hear now. It was a first for the band because usually it takes weeks, if not months, of rewriting sections and rearranging. But this just flowed out of us. By the time we had written all the other songs, this one kind of seemed out of place. That is until Drew worked his magic and turned it into one of my favourite songs on the album – purely because his vehement performance brings out the reality of the lyrics. The honesty is what makes this song what it is.