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February/March 2013

by Max Oldfield

Popstrangers – Diametrically Opposed

by Max Oldfield

Popstrangers – Diametrically Opposed

Over three years since the release of their first, self-titled EP, indie rockers Popstrangers are set to release their debut album which has international bloggers, publications and music fans alike licking their lips in anticipation. Entitled ‘Antipodes’, one might well be forgiven for thinking the record is an ode to the group’s homeland – which would be an acceptable, but a rather lack-lustre approach to songwriting in a place where the land is, well, pretty easy to write about. But antipodes has other meanings and Popstrangers have bigger ideas, as Max Oldfield discovers in conversation with front man Joel Flyger.

A challenging, swirling blend of pop hits and garage-punk gems, ‘Antipodes’ displays an earned maturity from Joel Flyger, Adam Page and David Larson, the Auckland three-piece known as Popstrangers, as they settle into a format of longer tracks and more complex arrangements, casting aside staple elements of contemporary garage and post punk groups.

Complimented by beautifully muck-ridden visuals snapped in the South of Spain, ‘Antipodes’ is out late February on Carpark Records in the US, Europe and Japan, and Spunk in NZ and Australia. The album may prove their best work yet, but it hasn’t been an easy road getting it to audience’s ears.

After what would seem like a horrendous botch up between the group and their former NZ label, the legendary Flying Nun Records, Popstrangers were left with a fully recorded, mixed and mastered album and no one to release it. In a move so typically modern day it seems almost unrealistic, following a series of emails ‘Antipodes’ was picked up by Washington DC label Carpark Records, and a new pathway opened. Ending up with an American record label and an international distribution deal has hopefully put to rest any qualms about whether the group is on the right track.

Mere months (and a trip to New York to play their second CMJ Festival) later, Joel Flyger finds himself contemplating the surreal nature of Popstrangers’ whirlwind success story. At the same time he can’t shake the realities of normal, everyday, Grey Lynn life as he relaxes into a chair and a cigarette after running back home from the laundromat in a hot Auckland rain storm.

“I’m working a day job for an ice block factory called Nice Blocks out in Penrose…”” he says. “I’ve only been doing it for two weeks, so this’ll be my third. But I’m definitely enjoying having some money coming in. I think there are jobs that kind of weigh you down in terms of, like, how much you have to put in, in terms of thinking about it and the stress that comes with it… but I’m still finding time to write music, which is good.””

After recording ‘Antipodes’ at The Lab with Tom Healy, and figuring out that Flying Nun and Popstrangers simply “…wanted different things”,” the band was left with a complete album with nowhere to deliver it.

“We wanted someone to release it; we didn’t want to do it ourselves. Not that doing that’s a bad thing, but we were just really keen for someone to release it. We sent [Carpark] our record and they didn’t listen to it, so we were like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll just try one more time’ and sent it back, and then they did listen to it. They replied and said that they liked the album but didn’t like the track listing, so that weekend we thought about it and put some of the songs in different places and sent it back.

“They were like, ‘Yep, sweet, we like it. How do you feel about releasing it with us’, then we had a skype date and they sent through a contract. So it kind’a happened in the typical internet way, but it was surprising, because you hear about that kind of stuff but you never really think it actually goes down like that.””

But not all experiences have been so simple of course. Asked why things didn’t work out with the iconic Kiwi stable, Flyger is a little less forthcoming.

“I guess we kind of wanted a different thing to what they were doing at that time. I think that we felt when we finished the album we wanted to do everything really quickly, and I guess they didn’t have the time, with signing so many new bands. I mean, it was fucking awesome to be a part of that… but maybe it all happened too soon. And adding, like, 10 bands to your roster in the space of a month is a bit much.

“I’m not bagging on them though””, he adds emphatically, a clear tone of respect for a label that has been so influential in not only Popstrangers’ careers, but their tastes and record collections as well.

Indeed, enthusiastic music commentators worldwide have used a slew of early period Flying Nun bands as comparisons (in what seems like an arbitrary link based predominantly on nationality and label), including The Gordons, The 3Ds and The Chills.

“Well, I like all those bands,”” says Flyger, struggling to answer a question that he probably gets asked all the time. “We were listening to The Gordons hard out as a band, and I guess, if you listen to something for ages – regardless of whether you know it or not – I guess it is kind of influencing you in a way. Playing open chords, a bit abrasively sometimes, they made it popular or made it big you know? I really like them, though it’s not a conscious thing to sound like any of those bands.””

Luckily for Flyger and Popstrangers, ‘Antipodes’ couldn’t be further from something that those bands would have released in their respective 1980s heydays. A combination of a more complex approach to the song arrangement, an exploration into lush, drawn out guitar tones, and a typically un-garage punk vocal sound that stands right out from the mix, makes for an album that sets itself aside from most bands doing anything remotely similar to the Auckland trio right now.

Flyger confidently acknowledges that the band has turned a corner in the way songs are written, attributing it mostly to finally settling on a drummer, after going through Elliot Rawson and Ruby Frost’s Jimmy Mac on the ‘Popstrangers’ EP and their second effort, ‘Happy Accidents’. A theme of cohesiveness runs through his comments on the group’s current status, and the music that they are writing (for a follow up record), from band members to song structure, to where and why each individual song ends up on the record.

Asked about the sound and level of the vocals on ‘Antipodes’, he displays an uncertainty that serves as a reminder that Popstrangers are still a very young group.

“I wanted them lower. Recording the album I was really unsure, just in terms of some of the songs being a bit poppier. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to hear them a week later and like them, or be like, ‘Oh shit, I can’t believe I did that’. With the vocals, it is easier if you hide them, but I guess having the input of the whole band and an engineer, it made them come through. I changed the vocal tones heaps… I was self conscious about them. But I’m not worried about it now. I guess there’re pop songs on [the album], but it’s still not a pop album.””

Not being worried is a sentiment that seems to be extending further into the group’s ethos as time goes on. Having started out with a name like ‘Popstrangers’, essentially detailing an aversion to pop music, the years have changed their musical tastes and approaches to sound in general, eliminating the worry of not being accepted for their current work.

“I don’t care about writing pop music anymore… Now we’re thinking of writing another album and putting it together, and there’s no, like, ‘Shit, we can’t write that song because it’s going to sound too different.’ I think it’s definitely better to keep mixing up the sound.””

Flyger still sees plenty of evolution to come in the nature of Popstrangers.

“We haven’t really found a sound yet, and I say I like chopping and changing, but I guess that’s what just actually happens, and I don’t have a say in it, or haven’t found out how to do it yet.””

His thoughts certainly provide a basis for plenty of further exploration of the guitar driven soundscape that Popstrangers has become over the past few years. The band’s acceptance of pop music structures, and pop music in general, should provide for some interesting journeys, as they continue to tread the line between popular and alternative with care and dedication.

With plans to head over to London (where ‘Antipodes’ has already received major props from NME, describing single Heaven as “… owner of one of the most killer choruses we’ve heard in a long time,’) to pursue the business further, chances are they won’t remain strangers for long.