Jazz and swearing with Foreign/National. We caught up with Melbourne’s psychedelic frontmen at BIGSOUND

When they’re not reclining on the Mornington Peninsula, Foreign/National occupies the role of one of Melbourne’s cult psychedelic acts. Drawing upon jittery rhythms and guitar-laden texture, the group weave drifting swirls of jazz leaning psych pop.

Capturing them north of the Queensland border for BIGSOUND, we jumped on an opportunity to chat with bandmates Sean and Rhys about jazz, explicit lyrics and the status of their long anticipated debut album.


Foreign/National’s homegrown psychedelic sound has taken the Melbourne underground by storm. We shoot the shit with them at BIGSOUND.

HAPPY: Welcome to BIGSOUND. Is this your first time in Brisbane?

SEAN: We’ve come for the occasional show. We’ve actually come up to BIGSOUND before too. Rhys, Tom and I did live backing for a bloke called Hayden Calnin a few years back.

RHYS: We just kind of souped up his live set. It’s probably like our third or fourth time for the band.

RHYS: But it is the first one for BIGSOUND, so we’re pretty amped to be doing it.

HAPPY: There’s definitely jazz component to Foreign/National’s sound. When did you guys first discover jazz?

RHYS: When I was young I couldn’t really stand jazz, I didn’t understand it. I grew up with a lot of blues. But then in early high school I played in the school Jazz band. There was this wicked guy called Gil Askey.

SEAN: He was an old jazz man. He ran the school’s jazz band.

RHYS: He’s passed on now but he’d worked with like the Jackson 5 and Charlie Parker, not to mention Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, The Supremes, the Four Tops, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. He moved down to Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula and taught at our high school, just for fun really. He broke me! Musically he broke me down and built me back up. That’s where I learnt jazz. It was then that I really started listening to jazz.

SEAN: My dad loves jazz and has a big jazz collection. I started learning saxophone when I was fourteen so he started introducing me to classic trad jazz. But it’s only really been in the last couple of years that I’ve been exploring the genre a bit more.

RHYS: I still feel like I’m still scratching the surface.

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HAPPY: Recently I’ve noticed that more and more jazz seems to be creeping its way into popular music, everything from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and BadBadNotGood’s IV. Why do you think that is?

SEAN: It all stems from jazz. All the classic 90s crew like Wu-Tang Clan and DJ Premier really popularised the sampling of jazz, recently we’ve had a bit of a 90s resurgence. Jazz is really cool again. I definitely know a bunch of bands that are bringing jazz back in Australia. Melbourne bands like Hiatus Kaiyote and Kirkis

RHYS: Bands much more qualified than us!

HAPPY: You don’t mind dropping a few explicit lyrics. Do you feel that there’s something can be lost when people self-censor, when they edit things out?

SEAN: We’ve received a couple of emails in the past asking “Do you have a censored version of this song?” But I think we’re lucky in Australia where we don’t have particularly strong laws surrounding swearing on radio, all you need is an advisory statement before the song is played. In certain places in America you can’t play songs at a certain time of day if they have certain words in them.

(At this point frontman Tom ambles into the conversation)

TOM: Do you mind if I weigh in on this? You can just say Sean said it.

HAPPY: Okay.

TOM: It’s about using everyday speech and trying to express yourself. I don’t know about you but I do swear a lot. Most people I know do too. It’s part of our auxiliary vocabulary, so It would seem untruthful to leave that out of music altogether. They’re words that have a lot of weight. I find in writing songs they’re really useful to bring across frustration.

HAPPY: It’s the age of the internet. You’ve had some viral success overseas. Vacant, nostalgic and mildly melancholy, what is it about your music that people find so enticing?

SEAN: I think it hasn’t translated to the Australian market as much, but overseas there’s definitely this romanticised notion of Australia: The beach and sunset, all that…

HAPPY: Do you feel your music fits in with those themes?

SEAN: It’s no deliberate we all grew up on the coast and there’s a bit of that in all our press photos, maybe that’s just something people latch onto.

HAPPY: You’ve stated in earlier interviews that you’d love to get your music overseas, which is a huge undertaking for an emerging band. Are you getting any closer to that goal?

SEAN: It is very difficult. [Bandmate] Mark and I are planning on moving over to Germany next year for a little bit. It’s unconfirmed, but the boys will likely come over and meet up with us for s shorter period of time. Mark in particular and I have had a fascination with living overseas and learning new languages. It’s captured our imagination.

HAPPY: There’s a fairly laid back attitude to your music, is this something that reflects your personalities outside of the band?

RHYS: Mark can wind himself up sometimes, but otherwise we’re pretty relaxed.

HAPPY: Your eponymous EP is amazing. It came out a few years back, are you working on a follow-up?

SEAN: We began recording an album with Joey Walker from King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in about November last year. We worked down in a little shack off Rhys’ dad’s property in Flinders. It’s almost done, but it’s been difficult to find the time and sit down and finish it with Joey being busy in his own endeavours. Hopefully it’ll be done by the year’s end.

RHYS: 90%! It’s 90% done.