Straight Arrows are a band that operate on their own terms. Since forming back in 2007, they’ve maintained an uncompromising approach to their music – it’s loud, fuzzed-out garage-punk that will slap you right across the head.
So shortly before they released their third full-length record On Top!, we caught up with frontman Owen Penglis and guitarist Al Grigg to chat about the benefits of bad Facebook reviews, the evolution of the Sydney music scene, and keeping it DIY.
This article will appear in print in Happy Mag Issue 10. Pre-order your copy here.
“There’s no infrastructure of people doing shit for us. We’ve got to do it ourselves“: We caught up with Straight Arrows’ Owen Penglis and Al Grigg for a chat.
HAPPY: So in preparation for this interview, I was having a browse through Facebook…
AL: That’s a good place to start…
HAPPY: They say it’s the starting point of any great interview!
AL: It is!
HAPPY: I found this review of you guys, and I think it’s really great, so I’m going to read it out…
“Caught your set at the Steyne tonight but left halfway through because of all the screaming amp feedback that was ear-splittingly painful. Rosa Maria were clean as, so I’m not sure who or what the problem was. Was trying to enjoy the music but I’m not going to listen through torture” – Ian, March 2018.
AL: Another satisfied customer…
HAPPY: Is there anything you’d like to add?
AL: We regret nothing!
OWEN: Ian’s always welcome back. That was a fun one. I think the Rosa Maria guys were a bit embarrassed about that too… like “oh yeah, I loved Rosa Maria but…”
AL: It probably is kind of annoying. But when you’re on stage, you don’t really care…
OWEN: You’ve got to have something horrible to make the okay bits even better.
HAPPY: You’ve got to take the shit with the sugar…
OWEN: That’s exactly right.
HAPPY: Your new album On Top! is all done. Congrats! At this point, is it still nerve-wracking releasing an album? Or has it just become part of the process?
OWEN: Usually it’s been so long in the process of writing and recording it. This album was ready six months ago. I mean, I hope people come to the shows. But for the release, I’m very resolved to it because it’s been living for so long.
AL: I guess I’m in a luxurious position in this band, because Owen writes the songs. I’m actually super excited for it to come out because I think the songs are super awesome… so I’m excited for people to hear it. I think it’s a really good Straight Arrows record. Owen’s done a really good job with the songs.
AL: I think it’s mad, so I’m pumped. But at the same time, if there’s a bad review, I don’t care. I have a bit more distance from it than Owen, so I’m not nervous about it. I just think it’s sick.
OWEN: Every bad review you can consider an Ian.
AL: But with every bad review, you can put up on your social media and get heaps of likes.
HAPPY: Yeah well the social engagement on Ian’s review was through the roof!
AL: Yeah they’ve always got the best engagement. Please bring on some more bad reviews so we can get more likes!
HAPPY: Is the reception to an album ever a consideration when you’re writing?
AL: I don’t think anyone is going to be a harder critic on a Straight Arrows record than Owen.
HAPPY: It’s been four years since you released Rising… have you been working on On Top for that entire time?
OWEN: If I say yes, will there be anymore questions?
AL: Four years? Holy shit that’s a long time.
OWEN: I get real busy. We did that last album, then we had to organise a tour of America and a tour of Europe. We played a bunch of other shows, and I had to record a bunch of other albums for other people… so shit just gets in the way.
AL: And I guess there’s no machine behind Straight Arrows. If anything needs to get done, we’ve got to do it ourselves. Everyone’s just working to survive, and on top of that, you’re trying to find time to book a tour, or put something out, or make a video, or do anything.
We don’t have a manager. I mean, we’ve got Rice Is Nice… but there’s no infrastructure of people doing shit for us. We’ve got to do it ourselves. So everything probably takes a lot longer than you’d want it to.
But it’s weird with this band, because I don’t feel like there’s ever been a time where we haven’t been doing anything. I feel like we’re always playing shows. We’ve been overseas, we went to the UK, and Europe, and America with the last record. So yeah, it’s kind of weird… like four years is so long, but at the same time, we didn’t just vanish for two years.
OWEN: That would’ve been nice. People ask us to put new records out, but there’s no one to say “we could really increase the potential of the band if we released records every couple of months.”
AL: I’ve tried to set Owen deadlines in the past, but they blow out every time, so there’s no point.
HAPPY: I wanna talk about the DIY ethic behind your music, because when a band first starts making music, the DIY ethic is generally something that happens out of necessity… but it seems to now be a preference for you guys. Why keep things this way?
OWEN: Well I’m very uncompromising about how I conduct myself and about how the band works. So I guess I enjoyed doing a lot of the stuff behind it. But I’m a bit over booking tours…
AL: Yeah, if anyone wants to do our booking, that’d be sweet!
OWEN: But everything else I’m happy doing.
HAPPY: Did it ever get tempting to go to a big studio and record a big album?
OWEN: Fuck that. I don’t want some guy to come in and make it sound like some horrible modern pop-punk album. I’m constantly buying records, and I fucking love music. I’m always trying to find new and interesting shit for myself to listen to.
So I get a very fixed idea of how I want the songs to sound. And this time we a had a friend of ours, Nick Franklin, press record on all the stuff. He helped me set it all up, and sat in the control room, and shouted out whether it was a good take or a shitty take.
AL: He helped engineer the record.
OWEN: He did a great job. He was very good at saying “yeah, try that one again.”
AL: And I think you need that. You do need somebody else to make those objective calls… because you can get a bit too close to it. And this time we did it in a studio. The first album we did in our friend’s house-studio, the second album we did at Owen’s studio. But this time we were a bit more on the clock. It was a nicer studio, and we had it booked for two days.
I think it helped for us to have that deadline. Sometimes when you’re doing it yourself, shit can go on forever. But also, this band isn’t a career. We’re not trying to be the biggest band in the world… and if we were, we’d probably want to be putting out more than one album every four years.
This sounds very wanky, but having all that quality control gives it a bit more personality and character – all these things that I think get pushed out of music when you’re trying to get more streams or more social media engagement.
HAPPY: We mentioned your studio, Owen… and it feels like every great release from a local band is coming from you at the moment. Do you struggle finding a balance between working on other people’s music and your own music?
OWEN: Well I take a lot of work because that’s how I live. I’m not going to say no to anything unless I really don’t have time or it’s truly horrible. You know, whenever I do a record for someone, I really try my best and I really try to engage with it. So yeah, I guess I get tied up with things like that. I can’t really help it. Hopefully people appreciate it.
HAPPY: Going back now to when Straight Arrows first started in 2007… you’ve said that you started this band because you got kicked out of every other band you were in.
OWEN: That’s true.
HAPPY: What was Owen doing back in the mid-2000’s that was getting him kicked out of all these bands?
OWENS: I was a very energetic kid…
AL: I would say the thing Owen has learned over the past two years is when to use a filter, and not just speak exactly what’s on his mind.
HAPPY: There aren’t many bands that have been a consistent presence in the Sydney music scene for as long as you… so back when you first started in 2007, how did Straight Arrows fit in to the local music community?
OWEN: Yeah there wasn’t really much going on.
AL: I’m trying to think of the bands we first played with…
OWEN: Dead Farmers were kicking around.
AL: Yeah Dead Farmers!
OWEN: Eddy Current were starting out. We played with them a bunch. There wasn’t really much of a scene in Sydney for what we were trying to do… so we just had to put our own shows on. When Newtown Hotel used to be a gay bar and drag bar, our friend would rent out the top story, and we’d play shows there once a month.
AL: We did quite a few shows up there. So it used to be this gay bar, and they’d do shows upstairs, and you’d be carrying all your gear through a drag show or something. And when you were playing, there’d be all this gay porn on the video screens behind you.
HAPPY: Sounds like a vibe. I’d go to that.
OWEN: They’d just let anybody in. It was cool.
AL: Yeah so when we were first starting, there wasn’t much. Wasn’t one of the first R.I.P (Society) releases a reissue of the first 7inch?
AL: So that all happened a bit later, like late naughties. Then there were heaps of great Australian DIY bands. You had Royal Headache and Circle Pit and UV Race. There was a moment where it suddenly felt like there were a lot of bands.
OWEN: Yeah it really grew.
HAPPY: Sorry to keep quoting past version of yourself, but even in 2016 you said there wasn’t a healthy amount of Sydney bands playing… do you still think that’s the case?
AL: Are you sure he didn’t say there wasn’t a healthy amount of good bands playing?
HAPPY: Yeah that might be it.
AL: That seems like more of a qualifying Owen phrase.
OWEN: But now I feel like there’s more of a scene bubbling up again. There’s generally a band to go see every weekend now.
AL: The warehouse scene is sort of dead… but there are a lot of venues who put bands on for free in the front bar.
OWEN: Which is great. That’s what I want to see in a pub.
On Top! is available now.
This article will appear in print in Happy Mag Issue 10. Pre-order your copy here.