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The Cult Of Skegss

MULLUMBIMBY seems like a good place to start a cult.

Dubbed the Biggest Little Town in Australia for reasons only known to locals, it’s close enough to the hippy tourist community of Byron Bay to recruit followers but isolated enough to get your freak on without anyone really noticing.

Mullum’s biggest attraction is a Crystal Castle, where you can meditate in the presence of Buddha, have an aura photo shoot for $60, and centre yourself in what’s described as the largest amethyst cave in the world. And speaking of amethyst, world famous rapper Iggy Azalea (real name: Amethyst Amelia Kelly) went to the local high school here.

Mullumbimby is home to a large number of Rajneeshees, or disciples of a Rolls Royce-loving guru whose so-called “sex cult” was documented in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country. Once described as the Orange People for their uniformed dress sense, around 2000 are estimated to live in the Byron Shire alone. That’s about one in 15 people here.

Skegss bassist Toby Cregan is wearing no discernible trace of orange – he’s in a denim jacket and black hoodie repping his mates the Pist Idiots – but he’s been thinking a lot about the Rajneeshees lately and he’s come to a decision.

“We’re thinking about starting a cult,” he says, sipping his second beer of the hour. The cult’s colour? He pauses. “Green, green is my favourite colour at the moment.”

The band’s singer Ben “Benny” Reed has other ideas. “Light brown,” he says, prompting a round of light ribbing between the two bandmates that continues throughout the day.

“Benny is colour blind,” Toby says, pointing to a picture on the wall across from him. It’s a housewarming gift from Benny with two figures setting the house on fire with flame throwers. The trees are coloured burnt orange.

“I think my colours must have been limited that day,” Benny explains.

SKEGSS (FROM LEFT): TOBY CREGAN, BEN REED & JONNY LANI.

Gemini Soul

SKEGSS HQ is a quaint three bedroom house wedged between a cow paddock and a primary school in a sleepy Mullumbimby street.

Toby lives here with his girlfriend, but it’s the central meeting point between Benny, who lives in town in Byron; and drummer Jonny Lani, who lives more than an hour away in a “little shack in the hills” in The Channon, completely off the grid. That’s not an exaggeration. Even his refrigeration is solar powered, so if the sun doesn’t come up that day, Jonny’s food goes off and his beers get warm.

“Bit of a drive, but it’s nice,” says Jonny of his reclusive lifestyle out in the hills. “It’s got a cool little pub and a general store. It’s awesome. Go out there sometime.”

 

It’s a week before the September 2018 release of their debut My Own Mess, and Skegss have reconvened here at Toby’s place to demo a new song, which Benny is bashing out on an acoustic guitar on the couch in the front room. My Own Mess was written in a similar fashion.

The boys booked a “cowboy ranch”-style Airbnb in a small country town called Bucketty, and cranked out more than 50 songs. They narrowed it down to 20 – “We actually wanted to make it a real long record,” explains Toby – before taking it into the studio with “fun facilities”, including a pool and spa.

“We were taking time on it [the record] and we’ve been sitting on it around eight months or something,” says Benny.

“We didn’t even mean for it to take long,” Toby adds. “That’s just how long it took and how much effort we put into it, it’s f**king taken over a year.”

Skegss usually rehearse at a mate’s place in town, but they’ve decided to have a lounge room jam today for our benefit. They’re playing ‘Smogged Out’ from My Own Mess and it’s sounding so good they’re thinking of rehearsing here more often.

Do the neighbours know you’re in a band? “I don’t talk to ‘em,” Toby shoots back, deadpan.

A typical day in the life of Skegss generally winds up at the pub. “Depending on what day it is,” Toby qualifies. Their local, The Middle Pub, hosts amateur karaoke (or “krappyokee”) nights on Friday and there’s an open jam each Sunday featuring a local backing band that “knows every song that exists”. They’re all too terrified to join in.

“They say it’s a jam band but f**k it’s intimidating,” says Toby. “You wouldn’t get up there, like there’s no way that we’re good enough musicians to jam there.”

You’re more likely to catch a Skegss show at Byron institution The Northern. They’re been playing under a fake name lately, which Toby has completely forgotten.

Toby: What is it again?
Benny: You know it.
Toby: I f***ing don’t.
Benny: We called it Gemini Soul.
Toby: Oh yeah Gemini Soul. Just to fit like, I don’t know, the hippy persona of the Byron region.

‘You Still Got That Guitar?’

THE Skegss origin story is convoluted, beer-soaked, and blurry.

After finishing high school, Benny relocates to Byron from Forster on the NSW mid-north coast. While the town is enjoying a cultural renaissance of late – thanks mostly to Jack River and her Grow Your Own festival – there wasn’t really much going on when Benny shifted here to start a band in 2013.

“You [couldn’t] really play any gigs down there, there was no music scene,” he says of Forster. “Now the scene’s actually popping.”

Anyway, Benny meets Toby outside a house party shortly after moving to Byron. Toby is too busy with his filmmaking career to join a band, but the pair remain close and end up living together. This is when Jonny comes into the picture – although technically he’s been on the periphery for a while.

A man of very few words, Jonny’s dad played the drums, but he’s effectively self taught. “He just taught me that Led Zeppelin was cool,” he says of his old man. “I’ve never really been that much of a punk dude. I’ve always just played in blues bands.”

Jonny grew up with Benny in Forster, but the pair lost touch when Jonny move to Byron around the same time Benny moved here from Berrara on the NSW south coast.

"For sure records have changed everyone's lives but I've never put that much actual labour into something that you won't even be able to see."

So Benny reconnects with Jonny and they start playing shows under Benny’s old band name The Single Fins, which he originally formed with members of Forster’s Los Scallywaggs.

A “hammered” Toby solidifies his place in the band at an infamous show at The Northern. “He just kind of jumped on stage,” Benny recalls. “It took us hell long to get through the set because I was teaching Tobes the songs … Ever since then we were in a band together.”

They changed the band name to Skegss shortly after, recruiting friend and surfer Noa Deane on second guitar. (You can hear Noa on the first Skegss single ‘L.S.D’, but he dropped out shortly after to concentrate on his surfing career.)

“We changed the name because it had a stigma about it,” Toby explains, “and wrote heaps more songs.”

Skegss isn’t a private girls school in Sydney, or the stuff you find at the bottom of a beer. The name comes from a rare French-made acoustic guitar that Benny found at a guitar shop in Japan. He liked the way it was written on the headstock.

Jonny: You still got that guitar?
Toby: No, I never bought it.
Jonny: I thought you had it.
Toby: No, I just played it.
Jonny: Oh, I see.
Toby: But, yeah, that’s the origin of the name.
Benny: Must’ve got lost in translation.
Toby: It did get lost in translation somewhere along the way.

A typical day in the life of Skegss generally winds up at the pub. “Depending on what day it is," Toby qualifies.

‘I’m Just Drawing Pictures’

EVERY cult has its leader and Toby seems to occupy that role in the band. He’s definitely the most outspoken.

The son of legendary Aussie surfer Brian Cregan, he splits his time between Skegss and a career making fly-on-the-wall surfing docos such as Carpark Stories and the Rage series. His first feature film, Nix Nic Nooley, combined footage of his pro surfer mates with a sci-fi premise. It’s set in the year 2879.

“Due to pollution the ocean has dried up,” the synopsis reads, “[and] the only way to surf is by time travel using a cybotactical head unit.”

Before moving to Byron, Toby spent five years working for his dad’s surf brand Ocean & Earth, involving himself in all facets of the business – from manufacturing to marketing and sales. Whether by osmosis or design, Skegss have been steadily building a brand themselves.

Artist Jack Irvine (known just as Irvine) has been instrumental in perpetuating the Skegss name beyond a devoted grassroots following. And vice versa. The band have given Irvine a global platform for his art, which adorns all of their merch – from tote bags to hoodies, zines to t-shirts.

IRVINE (PHOTO BY TOM HEALY)

Irvine met the band at a show at Space 44 – a multi-purpose art gallery in Cronulla which he ran with Skegss manager Aaron Girgis – in 2014. “We went huge,” recalls Irvine from his home in Stanwell Park. “You could only fit like 50 people in there but there’s probably 80 jammed into this place, guys crowd surfing.”

Irvine designed the poster for that gig – a crudely drawn cartoon of a wizard with his eyes popping out of his head – kickstarting a creative partnership that continues to this day.

Like his hero Reg Mombassa (of Mambo fame), he’s created an ever-evolving cast of characters. There’s the beer drinking guy, the big-headed guy and his personal favourite: the guy with the bald head.

“It’s fun to have a comical version of the songs when you can and Jack does a good job of it,” Benny says.

Irvine is behind the band’s famous flame logo – a riff on the classic skate brand Thrasher, which was later “ripped off” by Lil Yachty associated rapper Reece. While widely covered in the local music press, Toby describes the incident as “nothing”.

“There’s a collaboration between the art that he’s keen to make and the music,” explains Toby. “When he made the zine – the magazine that comes with the album – he would just listen to songs and then draw whatever the f**k he wanted … So they both compliment each other: his art and the music.”

But Irvine isn’t comfortable with the suggestion he’s the fourth member of the band.

“I don’t feel like I’m in the band, I feel part of the band,” he corrects. “When they do big shows my ego does kind of go up because my banner is up there. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty much in the band’, but as soon as they go on stage I realise, ‘Nah, I’m just drawing pictures.’”

‘It’s Just Noise, You Know’

IT’S mid-afternoon at Splendour In The Grass 2015 and Dune Rats are causing havoc in the media area.

They have an entourage with them – with three scraggly looking surfer kids so fresh a reporter refers to them as “co”. (As in “Dune Rats and co.”)

They gatecrash several interviews and by the end of the day every journo knows their weird name. Well, you can’t miss it – it’s emblazoned on Dunies bassist Brett Jansch’s t-shirt in flaming red letters.

Skegss are later confirmed as the first signing to Dunies’ Ratbag Records. “We froth the music and the dudes are real as f**k,” singer Danny Beusa said in a press release announcing their signing. “They love doing the same s**t that we do too.”

And that’s true to an extent. But if Dunies are the guys at the party with the kegs on their shoulders, Skegss are the introspective kids in the corner sussing everyone out. Even the band’s most hedonistic moments are tempered with an existential takeout; that all this partying comes with a price.

“I might not ever work things out,” Benny sings on the album’s opening track ‘Up In The Clouds’; his voice sounding like he’s been up all night smashing cans and punching darts.

“It’s a pretty mixed, like the range of the songs,” Benny explains. “They’re still all pretty upbeat and stuff, but definitely some are pretty emotional and some are just little stories.”

“I just remember chilling in the spa being pretty hammered and just being so stoked that we were doing it, and playing it, and all singing it together.”

They jokingly describe the making of the album as a two-week bender, but that downplays how hard they worked on each of these 15 tracks.

“It’s crazy that it’s just noise, you know,” says Toby, philosophically. “I mean for sure records have changed everyone’s lives but I’ve never put that much actual labour into something that you won’t even be able to see. It’s invisible.”

Still, he concedes, it’s a snapshot of a “pretty crazy” 18 months that has taken them all over Australia and the world. They celebrated, fittingly enough, with a boozy singalong of the title track in the studio’s spa.

“I just remember chilling in the spa being pretty hammered and just being so stoked that we were doing it, and playing it, and all singing it together,” says Benny.

The cult of Skegss is a cult of life, and they’re on a pretty big recruitment drive.

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