David Herington

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Skegss: A Fever Dream

They’re a staple of Aussie stages, and a constant presence on the ARIA charts, but Skegss are living every day as if it might just be their last.

We are in Byron Bay and it has barely stopped raining for over a week now. It’s the kind of intermittent downpour of any given March in any given town in sub-tropical Australia: announcing itself to you days before it actually begins to rain with an overbearing humidity that slows everything down to the tempo of a bong-induced high.

This climate seems to suit Toby Cregan, Ben Reed, and Jonny Lani just fine. It’s ten in the morning and Skegss have gathered at Toby’s house to await a delivery truck of vinyl for their then-upcoming ARIA number one album Rehearsal. Toby’s backyard overlooks an empty paddock with an aluminium garden shed, two wooden benches and a fire-pit filled so high with rainwater, debris, and floating cigarette butts that the boys ask me what I think of their new water feature before inviting me inside for a beer.

With its sucker-punch drumbeat and the sardonic, rasping wit of booze-fuelled pub banter, Skegss sound uniquely Australian. But listen twice and youll note the subtle nods to folk-rock Americana — sounding something like the love-product of Bob Dylan busting his nut into an empty can of XXXX Gold. Since rising to notoriety on the surf-punk gig circuit, Skegss have enjoyed almost seven years of creating music together. In many ways, they have come a long way.

Of their new album, Benny (lead guitarist and vocalist) notes that their sound has matured from the high-octane, frenetic energy of protracted adolescence into each song being its own journey — with all the peaks and valleys that give human experience its particular shape.

What emerges from their new 13-track LP is an unnameable sense of being haunted by unknowable forces. From “Valhalla” to “Running From Nothing” to “Curse My Happiness”, hedonistic pleasure-seeking is accented by an unsettled energy — lending an intimacy to Rehearsal that fans have yet to hear. On the process of creating Rehearsal, Benny tells me the themes evolved as a natural part of the music-writing process.

“Sometimes you might write three songs in a week and they have a similar shape but the key might be different and it creates a kind of constellation,” he notes. In many other ways, things remain very much the same. The boys remain faithful to capturing the joie de vivre that propels each moment into the next with the speed, excitement, and endless opportunity of an underemployed, overcrowded mosh-pit in an otherwise sleepy, east-coast surf town.

“Sometimes you might write three songs in a week and they have a similar shape but the key might be different and it creates a kind of constellation.”

It is this tension between progression and fidelity that has earned Skegss a cult following both at home and internationally. On the question of fame, the band members recoil. “I’m just scared of it,” Toby admits. “The old boys at the pub know I play in the band but my neighbour thinks I’m a miner or something,” he adds, of his sporadic work schedule.

Jonny’s neighbours were also convinced he must have been doing shift work because he’s always “hanging around at home during the day doing fuck all.” He lives out on an acreage in the Byron Bay hinterland where he spends most of his days pulling out lantana, restoring the decrepit house to its former glory, and he adds with a shimmer of irony, “seeing how long I can stay out there without leaving.”

The boys are rolling darts in the living room and exchanging funny stories about live gigs that were “absolute bloodbaths.” Their larrikinism is infectious and makes me want to spontaneously pledge allegiance to only ever riding single fins; to getting on the piss; to huffing nangs until I touch God; to slowly mud-wrestling a wild boar while screaming, ‘Yeah the boys!’; to feeling alive; to experiencing the kind of everyday mindfulness that Byron Bay influencers could only ever dream of — but which somehow seems second-nature to Skegss as I watch them polish off their last few bottles of Coopers Pale.

Instead, I ask them how they do it, how they remain level-headed in an industry which sanctions the destruction of well-intentioned musicians as collateral damage. Toby pauses to think. All the while he balances a bottle-cap on top of his thumb, like a coin ready to be tossed in a moment of indecision. “Seeing people that are doing music as a vehicle to becoming famous…I hate that shit. If you break it down, all we need to be doing is putting albums out and playing gigs — everything else is just a weird by-product of the industry. We don’t worry about it.” Benny and Jonny concur. It’s all about the music. “Having a crack at it all day and all night. Our intention is just to play.”

“If you break it down, all we need to be doing is putting albums out and playing gigs — everything else is just a weird by-product of the industry.” 

The three of them concede that the music industry stops for no one and despite having played sold-out shows at the Enmore, and jam-packed festival slots at Laneway and Splendour in the Grass, every show is played as if it could be their last. With the band set to tour again in August, Jonny confesses; “Every time we play on stage I still think, ‘Fuck, this could be the last time I get to do this, to scrape in and play here’. There’s so much on the line at all times being in a band these days.”

For those that have beheld the sweaty splendour of a live Skegss performance, there’s an ambience that feels like a collective head-rush. Benny tells me about their most memorable performance where an audience member threw a beer at his mate who ducked and missed it. The bottle hit their sound system and cut off their power.

They spent the rest of the gig sitting on the edge of the stage, playing a barely audible set while the audience huddled close and sang along. “For me, one of the most enjoyable things about having played larger venues is not feeling nervous for pub shows anymore. You have so much fun playing in an intimate pub that now it feels like a home zone and you realise that it took playing these bigger shows to really appreciate it.”

“Every time we play on stage I still think, ‘Fuck, this could be the last time I get to do this’.”

The Skegss trademark is a fever-dream immediacy, recorded in one long take in the studio. Jonny tells me, “Not that many people record this way but we want to capture the same energy as playing live. The whole band as a three-piece is done in one, original take.” He jokingly adds, “That’s why when we’re in the studio, we work tradie hours…were at our best from seven to three-thirty.”

There is a purity to their craft that feels refreshingly honest in an age where false pretences are rewarded with attention. Toby muses, “I don’t want to move shit around and change sections of it. I feel like if you finish a song you should feel confident enough to not need some producer cutting it up.” The boys each describe the adrenaline of nearing the end of a song, knowing that it’s going to work:

Jonny: “You’re almost not conscious, when you know a song so well and you can put your whole soul into it.”

Benny: “It’s like we’re all in our own heads, racing towards the end of this song but all of our adrenaline combines into one.”

Toby: “Yeah it’s sort of telepathic when you start to collectively hold your breath.”

“Not that many people record this way but we want to capture the same energy as playing live.” 

In true Skegss fashion, the television drones quietly in the background and prophetic moments are punctuated by the humour of the mundane. One moment, they are ruminating about the existence of a collective consciousness in the recording studio, and the next, they are bantering over an advertisement for Scratch Solution on The Morning Show, awakening themselves to the realisation there are no more beers left in the fridge.

You may have heard the expression that punk rock is dead (long live the algorithmically generated click-bait industrial complex), but ask any of the basement dwellers that line the sticky surfaces of The Great Northern during any given Skegss performance and they will wholeheartedly argue that punk rock isn’t dead, it just went into the witness protection program as a dart-punching, part-time tradie.

It’s almost midday and Jonny suggests they hit the pub for a celebratory piss-up. Toby counters, “We’re supposed to wait for those vinyls, remember?”