Image: The Tambourine Girls – supplied.
Author: Melody Menu
The Tambourine Girls’ lead single ‘Plastic Eyes’ from their most recent record Different Streets is made up of many moments. It is being at Primavera Sound 2011 in Barcelona, captivated by PJ Harvey’s spiralling rhythms on ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’; it is driving through Macquarie Pass, a mountain road that reaches out and folds back in on itself for eight kilometres through national parklands; and it is listening to the backing vocals of Antonia Gauci and Chloe Dadd who leant their gorgeous vocal rounds to Different Streets after the passing of The Tambourine Girls’ guitarist Nick Weaver. The result is a circular song that can be listened to over and over again, featuring a brightness that belies the difficult circumstances in which it was recorded.
We’re at the home of The Tambourine Girls’ guitarist and vocalist Simon Relf, surrounded by the call of crickets and currawongs, with the occasional whipbird chiming in. He says that the story of ‘Plastic Eyes’ begins at Primavera Sound, the best music festival he has ever been to, where he was on tour with Deep Sea Arcade. He describes seeing bands like Interpol, Grinderman, and The Flaming Lips playing at one or two in the morning, lit up by spectacular effects. ‘But her [PJ Harvey’s] stage was just nothing; it was stripped bare and it was incredible, because it was like you could see her voice. And she was standing there playing that autoharp and she didn’t need any of that other stuff, it was really cool.’ After the festival, PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake was played throughout the rest of the band’s tour, and at one stage Simon and his wife Clara went on a drive to Uluru through the Flinders Ranges, where they played the album every day. ‘Every time I hear it now, I’m in the Flinders Ranges.’
‘Plastic Eyes’ is an older song in The Tambourine Girls’ catalogue, evolving from a jam groove that bassist Pat Harris, drummer Carlos Adura and friend of the band Stefan recorded. Afterwards, guitarist Nick Weaver added some guitar lines over it, and the chorus came to Simon as he was driving back from the session along the winding road of Macquarie Pass. And when it came time to revisit ‘Plastic Eyes,’ PJ Harvey’s ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ was used as a reference song to create the looping percussion. As can be expected from such serendipitous songwriting, Simon’s approach to writing lyrics is mostly spontaneous. ‘It’s varied; making notes of lines that I like, words that I like, and then if I have music I’m working on, sometimes things come together.’ He cites ‘Into Your Blue’ on Different Streets as a coming together of chord changes he loved and a sort-of poem he was working on, and similarly ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was realised after listening to Late Night Essentials by Caitlin Harnett & The Pony Boys. He was so inspired by the Caitlin Harnett album that afterwards he wrote ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that afternoon.
The Tambourine Girls’ Cuban-heeled rock ‘n’ roll has a timeless feel to it, and this stems from a wealth of influences. While the band often get compared to Tom Petty, Simon admits he hasn’t delved too deeply into Petty’s catalogue, and that the sounds of Bob Dylan resonate more with him. ‘Have you seen the meme going around? A guy goes ‘one day after listening to Bob Dylan’ and he’s dressed like a 50s beatnik…and he’s just going through that thing that you go through when you discover Bob Dylan and you get into each era.’ The music of Neil Finn is also close to Simon’s heart. ‘I think he’s like the luckiest man – I mean obviously I don’t know his circumstances, but – he seems to just always be making interesting, valuable stuff that people care about and that he cares about.’ The camaraderie of The Band ‘they just seemed so full of joy and I didn’t know that so much about rock ‘n’ roll,’ and the experimentation of Charles Mingus ‘there are these amazing points of dissonance resolving and I think that’s been something I’ve always liked to look for in harmonies,’ have also made an impact on The Tambourine Girls’ sound.
Simon also enjoys the communal spirit of Sydney’s music scene, playing in bands such as Marcus Index and Oh Reach. However, the Sydney band that had the biggest influence was Deep Sea Arcade. ‘I cut my teeth in that band. It was pretty good practice, and also to see how the two of them worked as songwriters; it was pretty influential on me.’ Before Deep Sea Arcade dissolved around 2018 after the release of their second album Blacklist, the band were touring with the likes of Modest Mouse and Temples. The Tambourine Girls initially began as a side project for Simon while he was in Deep Sea Arcade: ‘I guess it started as a place for me to put songs when I wasn’t gonna have anywhere else to put them. I was still in another band at the time in my head.’ The Tambourine Girls also featured Carlos Adura and Nick Weaver of Deep Sea Arcade. ‘We thought it would be fun to have Weaver to play guitar because he’s such an amazing bass player, that he’ll never get a chance to play guitar. And we knew Pat and we asked him to join. That first EP didn’t do anything really, but it had a lot of support from the guys in the band and our management at the time were excited about it. Then we made the next record and that was when we became that band I guess, was the first album.’ Simon then left Deep Sea Arcade around this time in 2014 to pursue The Tambourine Girls as his primary project.
Fast-forward and The Tambourine Girls have released their self-titled debut record The Tambourine Girls and their second album Waiting For Pleasure. These albums capture the band’s progression from twanging guitar-rock to more polished rock ‘n’ roll with a strong propensity for ballads. In 2021, the band had almost finished work on their third album Different Streets, a selection of songs that the band’s friends and families were saying was their best work yet. ‘Everything sounded better, everything felt better, and we were very excited about it. So, we decided to book three more days and finish it off. And that’s when Nick got sick. We were about to have a Zoom meeting about this upcoming recording and he called us to tell us in a very roundabout way that he had bowel cancer. He was just worried about the dates; he wasn’t thinking he was going to die or anything like that.’
In the end, the days booked at the studio to finish The Tambourine Girls’ third album were dedicated to finishing the work that Nick Weaver had started in recording his solo album, Won’t Let Go, which was released posthumously by Weaver’s family. ‘It was two months from his diagnosis and he was gone. It was so quick and so slow and you kind of still had hope that whole time and you think back and he was a goner and it’s obvious.’ Grief is a complex creature, spurring you into action to try and process devastating and at times baffling loss. To Simon, finishing Weaver’s album was the only thing to do. ‘Nick’s mum was very keen too. She was just trying to find something to do for Nick and was very keen to get it out straightaway. And it’s a great record; it’s so good. It’s all cohesive because it’s all him, apart from drums, it’s all him.’ Won’t Let Go is alight with gorgeous grooves and Weaver’s vocals are lined in velvet. Mixed by five different people who had worked with Weaver previously, it is an album that contains multitudes while also being wholly itself.
The Tambourine Girls’ album was almost finished when Weaver was diagnosed with cancer, but the band didn’t have the energy to revisit the record for a while after completing Weaver’s album. ‘I think I always wanted to finish the album, but there was definitely a question as to whether the band existed.’ Simon mentions how working with producer Tony Buchen on Weaver’s album lead Buchen to mix Different Streets and tie the album together. This was a cathartic process, even if the band’s existence was uncertain. While Carlos didn’t question it, Simon and Pat couldn’t imagine the band going forward without Nick. ‘And so we thought we would just pretend we are starting again as a trio.’ One weekend at Pat’s studio, the three of them decided to leave all of their expectations at the door and just play music, with this resulting in the band writing a song on the first night they were there. ‘I enjoy being a trio, even though we can’t represent certain things on certain records. We’ve only had a couple of rehearsals and one gig, but there’s space that you can learn to play with and fill and that’s kind of exciting.’
On Facebook, The Tambourine Girls wrote that ‘grief is the risk in love.’ Simon expands on this by saying that loving people is the hardest thing you can do, as it encapsulates the potential for overwhelming joy as well as devastating heartache when you are close to someone. ‘But it’s the only real choice, otherwise there’s just a whole lot of hate everywhere. I guess it shows what a good life we’ve had, to be feeling things like that. And we’re all going to go eventually. It’s such a strange world; a strange existence.’ Our existence isn’t straightforward; it curves around and loops back on itself through time. So much so, that Different Streets will forever resonate in the sounds of Nick Weaver’s ethereal guitar playing; in friendships forged across multiple bands and albums; and a memory of Barcelona encased in song.
The Tambourine Girls will launch their album Different Streets at the Factory Floor on Saturday, 15 April 2023 with special guests The Melodrones and Marcus Index.