WINSTON Surfshirt greets me at the door of his house in a pair of black striped tracksuit pants and a plain T-shirt. It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon in Manly and he’s spent most of the day working on the backing track of a Justin Timberlake cover with his designer dog – Pops, a pug-cavalier cross – never too far from his feet.
There’s another pugalier here, a 15-year-old adoptee from a friend who moved overseas, and he’s curled up in a bed in the corner. Later I’ll step in his shit, but we’re not even on a first-name basis at this point. “You can call him anything – he’s deaf,” Winston says. “Call him” – he pauses for effect – “Stanley.”
Winston has lived in this two-storey unit for about six months with his girlfriend of 11 years Dudley, which is obviously not her real name. Why Dudley? “When she used to get drunk, we called her Dudley Moore.”
Winston rolls a spliff before we head out into his courtyard to talk more about the record, which has been slowly melting away in the sun this whole time.
Winston (not his real name either) was born not far from here, but he spent his formative years in the UK in a quaint village called Bolney, west of Essex – and you can hear it as soon as he opens his mouth. It’s all over the walls too – from the the Monty Python and David Bowie prints in the lounge to a vinyl copy of Sgt. Peppers that’s perched about a door frame in the hallway.
He describes The Beatles as a “painful obsession”, particularly John Lennon, whose bespectacled mug hangs above a set of studio monitors in his front-room home studio. Lennon’s middle name is Winston. Connect the dots. “I struggle to listen to The Beatles sometimes because I get upset. Like, ‘That’s it?’” He inherited a love of soul from his mum, and his older sister turned him onto acts like Missy Elliott and Destiny’s Child.
Winston and his family moved back to Australia in September 2000, just two days before he watched Cathy Freeman win gold at the Sydney Olympics IRL. He eventually reconnected with a couple old friends – Mi-K and Bustlip (not their real names) – and started playing some “shitty three-hour gigs” at a place not far from here called Elbow Room (now a Mediterranean restaurant). Customers would sit there eating finger food, while the band played covers of OutKast, Taylor McFerrin, and Pharoahe Monch for $150 a show.
Around that same time Winston was working on what would become his debut album, Sponge Cake, mostly at home, alone, on his keyboard. Sometimes the songs would be fully formed; other times he’d leave enough room in the arrangements for his friends to come over and add their parts.
Winston rolls a spliff before we head out into his courtyard to talk more about the record, which has been slowly melting away in the sun this whole time. “Does that look bent?” he says of the test pressing sitting on the window sill of his recording space. “Oh God. What an idiot!”
Like its cover – a collage featuring Winston’s faceless head, members of the band, his dad’s eyes, and a photo of Oakley Street in Chelsea, England – Sponge Cake’s 16 songs were stitched together like a musical patchwork. Winston says this approach was inspired by Philly rapper Bahamadia’s 1996 album Kollage, Liquid Swords by GZA from Wu-Tang Clan, and – of course – Monty Python.
“I wanted it to be like a Python sketch,” he says of the interludes and samples that link the tracks together. “There’s even Python references in the vocals, and Blackadder lines.”
Sponge Cake was effectively finished in 2015, but was put on ice after Winston secured an 11th-hour release through Sweat It Out, the Sydney label formed by the late Australian dance legend AJAX. It’s evolved a bit since then. Songs were added (‘Same Same’ and ‘Ali D’) Python samples were scrapped due to clearance headaches, and George Nicholas from Seekae was brought in to give the songs a professional sheen.
The first song he mixed was ‘Be About You’, the album’s insanely catchy first single, which began life as a set of chords and a drum beat two years earlier. “I heard a super-rough version and even then I thought it was a banger,” says Winston Surfshirt bassist Mi-K, aka Lachlan McAllister, who arrives mid-interview for an afternoon writing session. Winston agrees. “People sort of gravitated towards it more than anything else that I’d ever done.” Is it about Dudley? “They all ‘kinda are,” he says.
We take a short walk down to Manly Wharf as Mi-K discusses how the pair pieced the track together a few years ago in a London flat. “We recorded it in Chelsea, just smoking joints out of this tiny window on the laptop with a shitty guitar.” McAllister, who has been living in London for the past three years, decided to leave a dream job as an editor to rejoin the band, which has now swelled to a six-piece with Winston as the focal point and primary songwriter.
Since releasing ‘Be About You’, the band has attracted some high-profile admirers including Zane Lowe and Elton John – the Elton John – who invited Winston on his Apple Music radio show, Rocket Hour. The audio of that interview is still up on the internet, and you can hear the nerves in Winston’s voice as he’s dialled in with the OG rocket man. “I just panicked about it for about two weeks and then got a message saying, ‘Elton will call you in 20 minutes.’ It was crazy,” he says. “Lovely guy.”
We settle in for a pint at the 4 Pines brewery, where the pair used to pull beers and play covers back in the day. Bob Marley plays over the in-house system as they reminisce about those early sets with Bustlip that really laid the foundation for this band.
With such a huge repertoire of covers, I’m wondering why they picked 50-Cent’s ‘21 Questions’ for their performance on triple j’s Like A Version.
“That wasn’t our choice. It was our last choice. You have to pick six or seven songs, and I would’ve picked any other of the other ones.”
The response on social media was divisive, but was he happy with the performance? He responds as dryly as you’d expect from someone raised on Python, Blackadder and Dick Lester ficks. “I was as happy as I could be doing a 50-Cent song.”