Shade, sunshine and the search for your sombre side: a chat with Sydney’s Sunscreen

Recording a breed of music which could lift the coldest of moods on the dreariest of days, Sunscreen have been a radiant spark shining out of Sydney since they made their live debut a little over a year ago.

Originally the  fusion between singer and guitarist Sarah Sykes, drummer Hugo Levingstone and guitarist Alex McDonald, three became four in April this year when the savvy Jett Thomson picked up the bass.

Now, after saying yes to a frankly unbelievable number of shows since their conception, Sunscreen are gearing up to release their debut EP Just A Drop, something we’ve been hanging out for since day one.

Right ahead of the record hitting shelves, we caught up with Sarah and Jett for a chat at Young Henrys, later to be joined by Alex. Luckily, he was just in time for a few shots.

sunscreen interview happy mag just a drop EP
Shot on film at Young Henrys by Dani Hansen

Despite casting an especially bright veneer, Sydney’s Suncreen live between light and shade just like everybody else.

HAPPY: So, the world was introduced to Sunscreen at a gig just over a year ago and since then your band name is one I’ve seen more frequently than most other Sydney bands. Was playing gigs that often always part of your mentality?

SARAH: Yeah! In the beginning when we started, we had no huge goals besides playing gigs, because we were all very new to it. I had never sung or played guitar before, Alex had never been in a band before, Hugo had been in other bands… but it was a very new project. Our goal was just playing gigs and booking gigs. Thinking back a year ago, booking a gig was an achievement. We were really nervous, I used to have panic attacks before we played so I knew that I needed to practice getting over that and getting onstage.

JETT: We still get those though.

SARAH: We still get those sometimes!

JETT: Not as often.

SARAH: Depends…

HAPPY: I was going to ask that, because I know you, Sarah, have played in bands before but I wasn’t sure about everyone else. So Alex hadn’t played onstage… Jett, had you?

JETT: Yeah, nothing major but I used to play in a band with my brother when I was 18, 19. I grew up in a really musical family so I’ve always played gigs though, here and there, so I was used to it. But I guess it’s different when it…

SARAH: Reflects you more?

JETT: Yeah, with my brother it was more like , I was playing his songs, and now it’s more of a conjoined effort at the moment.

SARAH: It’s pretty collaborative.

HAPPY: It does seem that way.

JETT: You want to do it right.

SARAH: And it’s funny, back before I had ever joined a band, before I had joined my other band Flowertruck, I went to the Marley and saw Jett play and thought ‘oh my god that girl playing bass is awesome’.

JETT: I thought that when I saw you in Flowertruck.

SARAH: There you go!

JETT: I remember talking to you like, we gotta ditch these guys and do a chick band.

SARAH: Chick band! Alex and Hugo are alright though.

JETT: They don’t count.

SARAH: In a good way. In a great way.

HAPPY: It was a baptism by fire then, but an intentional one? I respect that. Was bringing Jett in something you had to deliberate about? I mean it sounds like you’ve known each other for a while but…

SARAH: We were friends, we would hang out at parties and stuff, like one of those friends you see out drinking but you never properly hang out with. We needed a bass player desperately, but we definitely had a sense of waiting for the right one to come along. We didn’t want to just, kind of get anyone… we wanted someone who, I don’t know, who seemed like they would fit and liked the music we were making and our vibe. Then I suddenly remembered Jett, this girl I knew, was a great bass player and we took it from there!

JETT: Yeah, I was a fan.

SARAH: It was good, I actually put a call out at a show at the Botany View when we were still a three piece. I said in the microphone “we’re looking for a bass player” and it went a bit too well. I was a bit inundated with messages.

HAPPY: I can imagine.

SARAH: But Jett put her hand up as well, at that gig.

HAPPY: Had you seen Hugo or Alex play before?

SARAH: Well Alex and I have been friends for years, we’d always go out to gigs together, shared music and had the same music taste, but for some reason we just never played music together. I didn’t know how good of a guitarist he was until we started the band. I’m glad he did.

HAPPY: A secret guitarist? There are a lot of those.

SARAH: There are! Heaps.

HAPPY: So, the debut EP is coming out on November 17, Just A Drop…

SARAH: You’re the first to say its name.

HAPPY: Oh, cool!

JETT: Yeah, it’s cool to hear it.

HAPPY: For Jett, you haven’t put out a record before or been in a band that’s put out a record. Is that same sense of nervousness you get playing live shows creeping in a little?

JETT: It’s definitely different. It’s definitely like, in a good way, a nervous experience but in a longer amount of time. When you record it, and then months later… we recorded it a while ago now and I think we’re just anxious to get it out there.

SARAH: Totally.

JETT: But it’s a totally awesome experience though. Like, spending that week in the recording studio, hanging out or just witnessing the way it was made. Just spending days together with you listening…

SARAH: Yeah listening back is a long and tedious process sometimes, and it’s good to see it come to fruition from the beginning. Cause you make this thing, you spend so many months making it and you think ‘oh, now we have to release it’, and ‘I hope everyone else likes it’.

JETT: It’s not this immediate thing. Also you don’t really hear yourself back live, so hearing yourself play was cool, really cool. Really different.

HAPPY: Where was it recorded?

SARAH: Damien Gerard Studios in Balmain. It was recorded by this guy called Russ who’s been doing it since the ’80s and he knows all the classic stuff.

JETT: He recorded my dad in the ’90s.

SARAH: He recorded Jett’s dad in the ’90s!

JETT: My dad was like, ‘say hi’.

SARAH: He’s cool.

HAPPY: I’ve seen you play once or twice and I did recognise some songs when I listened to the EP. Is the live set essentially the EP at this point?

SARAH: Um, yes and no. It’s usually the EP but we’ll take out one or two. Arms, I think it’s the second track on the EP, sometimes we judge the vibe of the gig and think it might be too slow to play. It depends. We’re playing a lot of new ones, the new new ones that aren’t on the EP live. Songs that we’re going to put on our debut album, we have those in now.

HAPPY: Did any not make the cut? It sounds like you’re constantly building rather than being selective.

JETT: Yeah, to the point that we’re writing all these new ones, excited to get to the next step. Record the new ones, and play them live.

SARAH: That’s the thing. One of our favourite songs to play is one we kind of wrote just before we recorded the EP but it wasn’t quite ready. We’re definitely thinking into the future now, thinking about when we’ll next have enough money to record the next song, or where we want to record the album.

HAPPY: I always find that release cycle really funny. A lot of people don’t realise that you’re listening to something that was recorded two, three years ago.

SARAH: Absolutely! Some of the lyrics for some of the songs on the EP I wrote maybe three years ago when I first moved to the city. There’s a few lyrics about counting the till and waiting tables, I used to work at cafes. I don’t work at cafes anymore… it’s good to have it out. Well, nearly.

HAPPY: Voices, which is out, is about anxiety but also keeping a glass half full mentality. Tide is about waking up hungover and not knowing what to do with your life. What else can we expect to find on Just A Drop? Lyrically.

SARAH: The songs on the EP range from being written three years ago, and some songs I wrote just a few months before we recorded it. So I think half the songs are about, I suppose, romantic confusion. You know, the general thing that songs are about? But I think the theme of confusion and uncertainty runs throughout the whole EP as a project. I also wrote a lot of these lyrics while I was between houses or between friends, boyfriends, relationships, so I think any young person can relate to that.

HAPPY: I definitely got that! A lot of people would think they’re uncomfortable issues to talk about themselves, but a lot of people do feel uncertain! But then again your aesthetic is almost the opposite of that, it’s quite sunny and positive.

SARAH: I suppose so. I guess the aesthetic of Voices is quite sunny and positive.

HAPPY: Visually especially, but also sonically.

SARAH: You’re right. The lyrics are quite dark at times on the EP, but I think there’s room to move into a more…

HAPPY: There’s always room to go darker!

SARAH: Our friend is painting the cover of the EP currently and we took some photos on this overcast day on the beach in Wollongong, we’re going to film a film clip too which is definitely a lot darker than the Voices look, which I think works with the EP being a bit darker as well.

HAPPY: Cool. So was that important at any point, keeping a happy vibe when you’re singing about something darker?

SARAH: That’s a hard one…

HAPPY: Song by song basis?

SARAH: Yeah, song by song basis, and I think it’s possible to have a positive energy and be energetic onstage even if what you’re singing about is isolation, loneliness, I think. As long as you’re sincere about what you’re trying to say onstage, I think the audience is alright with it. But I sometimes stress out onstage, I always go ‘oh Jett, what am I going to say?’ Because I feel like I have to say something!

JETT: Usually we’re like ‘you don’t have to say anything’, because I usually think of something to say and then go, ‘no’… I remember trying to say something once and the mic wasn’t on!

SARAH: My moment! My one moment!

JETT: It was something really good to say as well! I don’t know, it’s great. When we rehearse these amazing tunes come out and Sarah comes back with these lyrics, it just works. She gets a feel for the music first, it doesn’t have to be a really sad tune or a melody, but her lyrics always blow me away.

SARAH: Aw, thank you.

JETT: It’s just quite honest, and interesting. But depending on the lyrics, they are quite diverse.

SARAH: It’s diverse for sure. It’s never just ‘happy’, or ‘sad’.

HAPPY: And I don’t think it should be.

SARAH: Absolutely not. Everybody needs a bit of angst, you know?

JETT: Oh, love it.

SARAH: As much as everyone enjoys a fun, happy pop song, everyone’s got that angsty teenager inside them that needs that bit of darkness, I think.

JETT: I agree…

SARAH: I feel like I’m Avril Lavigne right now.

JETT: Oh I love Avril. We’ve all got it in us.

HAPPY: You mentioned uncertainty being a theme to the EP, if there was one. In speaking to a lot of new musicians like yourselves, aside from romance that’s probably the topic that comes up the most. Do you think it’s becoming somewhat of an issue of our generation?

SARAH: Uncertainty, as a feeling? For sure. I think always, at any point in history young people have been uncertain, but at this point, for sure, definitely more. Now we have so many more things to be anxious about, like social media. I feel like a lot of young people are getting more an more overwhelmed as time goes on, because there’s less opportunity to calm down and switch off. Is that what you’re asking?

HAPPY: Yeah, that’s a good answer! Does Sunscreen have an official strategy when it comes to such feelings?

JETT: I don’t know, that’s the thing we’re trying to figure out!

SARAH: We’re good at calming each other down.

JETT: Yeah, when I’m onstage I look at Sarah when playing.

SARAH: I look at you!

JETT: I guess uncertainty that I mostly feel onstage, or something like that, I think you just have to step outside of your mind for a minute and not get locked into your thoughts.

SARAH: We all calm each other down. When I feel anxious post-gig, and during gig, and also pre, during and post, these guys cop it sometimes but we’re all really good at calming each other down. If you’ve got your friends there…

JETT: If anyone asked me, that’s the only thing I could tell them. But not everyone plays music, I’m not sure if there’s a larger answer.

HAPPY: I can’t ask you to solve uncertainty!

SARAH: The answer I guess is good friends who will reassure you when you’re freaking out.

HAPPY: Well, what a great thing to finish on. Good luck with the EP!

SARAH: Thanks!

JETT: Thanks!


Just A Drop will be released November 17th via Dinosaur City Records/Spunk Records.