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Sunship Balloon Float to The Top

Comprising two-thirds of English rockers The Wombats, Sunship Balloon has fast gone from a bedroom side-project to its own eclectic entity.

When The Wombats released their last album, 2018’s Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life, few could have imaged what life would be like for the band just two years later. While frontman Matthew “Murph” Murphy launched his Love Fame Tragedy project in the interim, so too was the world introduced to the majesty of Sunship Balloon, the product of bandmates Dan Haggis and Tord Øverland-Knudsen.

Formally entering the scene in mid-2019, the pair released their first EP, the psychedelically-titled Intergalactic Teacup Travel Centre, just months later, with their sights firmly set toward the future. Before long, new music had begun to form, and 2020 was looking like it was set to be a banner year for the group. Then, well, the year truly showed its teeth.

With live shows and tours booked, the group – which had recruited a handful of touring musicians – were forced to cancel these shows and retreat inside while the music industry found itself put on pause. Not content to let something like a global pandemic get the best of them, Sunship Balloon forged onwards, sharing a run of singles in the lead-up to their debut album, Everywhen.

While tracks like “A4 Life”, “1234 Fantasia”, and “1000 Conversations” helped to provide listeners with a chance to see what the genre-shifting monolith that is their debut album would sound like, the group quickly adapted to the format of the times, launching a run of “Live from Lockdown” performances to help tide over not just fans, but the band themselves.

Now, with Everywhen officially out today, Dan Haggis spoke to Rolling Stone about the creation of the new record, life in lockdown, and the potential arrival of a new album before too long.

I should probably kick off with the standard question. How have you been coping with the world in recent months?
There’s never been an event in the world that has united people in such a way that we can all relate to the same experience. We actually had a tour ready to go with Sunship, we’d rehearsed and everything, we’d booked the van and the hotels, and we were ready to go, then all of a sudden it got cancelled. We were obviously gutted by that, but at the same time it was like, “Well, let’s see how long it lasts for” at the time. It was like, “Maybe it’ll just be a month or two?”

There was definitely a lot more optimism at the beginning of things.
Exactly. Then I think the reality just kicks in and it’s like “Alright, this is not going anywhere for a while.” Obviously as a musician it’s a double-edged sword, because it’s gutting not to be able to do any live shows; we had some Wombats shows booked over the summer as well. I really miss playing, but obviously we’re lucky that we can use the time to just make music, and that’s kind of a blessing in a way.

I could just set up a little home studio and I’d just work on music everyday, trying to keep a routine, trying to do like, yoga in the morning, then into the studio from 10 until 6 at night, and then dinner… Y’know, just trying to keep a routine, because I know myself, and if you don’t have any structure in your day, it can very quickly turn into just binge-watching series for weeks on end, and just losing sense of… I lost sense of time anyway, but at least I’m doing something constructive.

You mentioned you had some shows booked, but had Sunship actually managed to play live yet, or were these going to be your debut shows?
No, our first shows was going to be like, ten days after lockdown started. It was so annoying, because we’d gotten two extra musicians in – friends of ours – to play with us, rehearse, and it went to well. You know, that exciting feeling when you’re playing new music live, and we were playing a bunch of songs from the new album…. Anyway, cross your fingers, stay positive, and hopefully next year.

Obviously we’re all hoping you’ll be able to make it back to Australia sooner rather than later. But before we really look at the new music, let’s look back slightly. What was it that inspired you guys to work on this project? Was it the fact that Murph had Love Fame Tragedy, or had you considered doing something like this beforehand?
Obviously we’ve been making music together for years, and we’ve always worked together on various backing tracks, and there’s been music that we’ve made in the past that sometimes we didn’t necessarily find a home for with The Wombats. When we did our first EP last year, a couple of songs on that were songs we’d started with maybe The Wombats in mind, and we sort of realised they weren’t quite right, so we finished those off.

Then last summer, we decided, “Okay, let’s make another EP; that was so much fun.” You know, just to get to produce it ourselves, experiment in the studio, and all that side of things. We had this mad burst of creative, and I don’t know if you ever have it where sometimes it can be hard to write stuff, and sometimes it just flows. We were just working on ideas and little bits and bobs over the summer, and by the end of it, we were like, “Woah, this isn’t an EP anymore, this is an album.”

“It just felt like Sunship Balloon had actually become this thing. It wasn’t just a little side-project in our bedroom.”

We just went with it, because it just felt like Sunship Balloon had actually become this thing. It wasn’t just a little side-project in our bedroom, both of us had realised what it was and what it was supposed to sound like, what I was getting out of it, what he was doing… We’d sort of realised how to make it work, and it was just exciting and fun.

You know, that feeling when you’re making music, to sit in front of the speakers and listen to it back and get that real buzz; there’s nothing quite like it in the world. Whether it’s The Wombats or Sunship Balloon, you still get that real exciting feeling and yeah, it’s addictive.

Since the album was born out of this real creative burst, does this mean you weren’t actively trying to do anything particularly different, or was it more of a creative continuation from the first EP?
All this album was kind of new, to be honest. After the EP, it just kind of came about between June and September, last year. Then I went over to Oslo and we recorded it there, in Tord’s studio, then we got John Congleton to mix it. He mixed the EP as well. His mixing is almost kind of like, not production, but he does mess with things quite a bit, take things out… He’s got such good taste that he sort of sends stuff back sometimes and you’re like, “Woah, never expected it to sound like that.” It was really fun working with him as well.

He does great work. I actually realised just last week, after looking at his discography, how many of his albums I’ve got in my personal collection.
I know, he’s amazing. When we were originally looking for someone to mix it, we were listening to, with a bottle of wine, a lot of different mixing engineers, and when we were listening to his stuff, we were like, “Oh yeah, I love this! Love this!” Loads of it was just… He does such eclectic stuff, doesn’t he? Some things from Angel Olsen, to St. Vincent, to Bombay Bicycle Club. He’s got such different genres… Wye Oak, and stuff. I feel like our album is quite varied in that it goes from electronic instrumental kind of tracks to more kind of garage rock things like “Hashtag World”. I don’t even know what “Riding with Elephants” is, but more electronic, hip-hop stuff. It felt like he was the right person to really nail, somehow giving coherence to all the different styles to the album.

With that in mind, how does the writing process for Sunship Balloon differ to The Wombats? One feels quite boisterous while one feels as though it leans on different genres, and has a real sort of dreamy quality to it at times?
Once I knew where we were kind of going, I made a few songs just on my own in London, and at the same time, Tord made some of the instrumental ones. We’d sort of said quite early on it would be quite cool to make a real journey album, from start to finish, and have little segues where we sort of meander. Tord’s got an electronic side project as well where he loves that sort of ambient, electronic soundscape sort of stuff, so it was like, “Cool, this will be amazing to be able to put in at just the right time.”

After that, Tord made a lot of backing track ideas that maybe felt more Sunship Balloon than The Wombats, because we had this dreamy sort of psychedelic, alternative idea in our minds of roughly where we were aiming for. Then he’d just send over ideas and if I felt like I felt inspired, or just heard a melody or whatever, I’d just put the headphones on and go for a walk… Actually, I was in New York for one of them, just looking out the window at 6am, not being able to sleep. So it was really nice to have some songs on the hard drive, and backing tracks I could just put on when I couldn’t sleep, or if I was on an aeroplane, or whatever, and just listening to them.

The thing that’s been really cool with this project for me, in The Wombats apart from the occasional lyric here and there, it’s pretty much Murph who does all the lyrics. So it’s been pretty nice for me to be able to kind of use it as a project to see what my subconscious wants to tell me. I don’t know if you’ve ever written a song, but often it can after you’ve written a song that you realise what your brain was trying to tell you. In a way, same with the trip through lockdown, we’ve almost made the second album because there’s been so much change and uncertainty, and it’s such a strange time for everyone. So there’s been lots of songs that have come out. it’s just therapy, to be honest.

“We’ve almost made the second album because there’s been so much change and uncertainty.”

When Sunship Balloon began, was the idea to realise the ideas that you couldn’t quite do with The Wombats, or was it just a way to have this sort of different sound?
A mixture of both really, I think. For any musician, especially with The Wombats, all three of us make a lot of music – we’re all kind of songwriters as well. So it’s a bit unusual in that sense because it’s three people sort of throwing ideas in at a time. Obviously for an album, there’s always going to be ideas that don’t quite get through, so you end up with like, a hard drive full of stuff.

So it’s really nice to have an outlet. You’re not as bothered if a song doesn’t end up making it onto the album, or an idea doesn’t end up getting worked on, because it’s nice to know that in the future we can work on something else. So that’s how it started, but as I said, this album was very much kind of that we started writing songs, knowing that it was going to be for Sunship. So we actually went off in a different direction to start with. It’s so nice to have that.

You mentioned as well that the album came about quite quickly after the EP. Was the album always set to appear around this time of the year, or did COVID push it back a bit?
I think COVID definitely did push it back a bit, because obviously we’d have the tour kind of lined up, and we were sort of thinking like we’d do the tour, and the first song would be out in like May. To be honest, it only really got pushed back by like a month or so, and then in terms of the music videos, I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but we did a trilogy of animated ones, stop-motion. At first, we were thinking, “Maybe we could do live videos,” but obviously with COVID, that hit those plans on the head pretty hard. So we just had to reorganise a few things and work out how to approach it.

I think with lots of projects I’ve heard from, in that first few weeks of lockdown, a lot of labels and management were thinking, “Okay, hang on, let’s just wait for a minute and see how long this is going to go on for. Is it just going to push things back by a couple of weeks, three weeks?” Obviously if you’re doing a release it’s nice to be able to do some touring alongside it.

But honestly, we made the decision pretty early, like “Listen, we’ve never really done gigs anyway, and we just want people to hear the music anyway. So if we can’t tour, it’s not a big deal for us really.” We really do want to do gigs, but it’s more important we get the music out, because especially with lockdown, we can’t play, we can’t get out there and have that connection with people in a room. So at least if we can have that connection through a streaming platform.

At least on the positive side, when you do get around to doing shows, they’ll be some of the most highly-anticipated shows of your career, won’t they?
For us, yeah!

On the topic of lockdown, you’ve managed to play a few live from lockdown shows online as well. How have they managed to tide you over during this time?
Just to break up the monotony of lockdown, it was really nice to actually – for all four of us – to focus and actually go, “Okay, we’re going to record this.” I’d record myself singing it, and then send it over to the other guys, and they’d add their parts on top. It’s great because we obviously couldn’t be in a room together, but it’s the next best thing, because you can actually hear each other singing it. You just have to close your eyes and imagine that there’s people in front of you.

We did a few kind of acoustic things with The Wombats and Sunship online, and I suppose it just scratches the itch of being able to play live. And the same with every industry, you’ve got to be able to be entrepreneurial about it, and you’ve got to think about ways around the current situation. There’s no point just sitting in the corner just grumbling – you’ve got to try and do something. So I suppose it’s the best that we’ve got at the moment.

You also mentioned before you’re already working on the second album now. Do you have any sort of plan in mind as to what you’re doing with that yet? I think I’d heard you guys were working on a new Wombats album as well?
Yeah, we’ve got a [Wombats] writing session tomorrow actually. We’ve been doing Zoom writing sessions during lockdown, which is a new experience, but it kind of works. We’re going to be recording the new album in November, December of this year with a view to hopefully coming out next May, June time. But again, it’s not sure, but we’re really excited.

We’ve got a bunch of songs, and obviously COVID has messed apart all of our plans as well. So in a way it was nice that Murph had Love Fame Tragedy and we had Sunship Balloon to sort of look forward to some more immediate releases. Obviously we can’t actually get together with The Wombats, and now it’s looking like we’re actually going to have to record the album remotely as well, which will be a first – it’s going to be crazy. But it’ll be fine, you just have to embrace it, and with all the technology we’ve got now, there’s no reason we can’t make it.

Sunship Balloon’s debut album, Everywhen, is available now via AWAL.