For Brisbane indie rock four-piece Babaganouj, it’s been a long and convoluted road towards their epic debut album Jumbo Pets – one rife with sparkling highs and the odd bruising low – but one that they wouldn’t change for the world.
Jumbo Pets itself is a brash and accomplished collection of finely-sculpted indie goodness, a captivating sonic adventure that veers between atmospheric dreamscapes, crunchy indie rock and bubblegum pop perfection with consummate ease. But the journey that the Babaganouj crew traversed together to make it happen was far from traditional.
Formed back in 2011 and taking their name from a 12-second song hidden way on an obscure 1993 EP by Sydney indie rock icons Smudge, the band’s catchy aesthetic galvanised quickly. Taking cues from the fertile field of ‘90s alt-rock and indie rock – as well as more recent indie-pop influences – the songs came quickly and were all given their own distinctive Babaganouj sheen.
While all of the band’s current members are veterans of other Brisbane outfits – Charles Sale (guitar/vocals) was co-founder of Yves Klein Blue, both Harriette Pilbeam (bass/vocals) and Ruby McGregor (guitar/vocals) played together in Go Violets and George Browning (drums) graced the stage with Velociraptor – when the four friends get together they forge a musical chemistry that’s both unique and undeniable.
During their first six years together they released a string of well-received albums and EPs, and as well as playing regularly in Brisbane they toured hard around Australia (even finding time for a well-received foray to Japan). Along the way they shared stages with international acts such as The Lemonheads, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Veruca Salt, The Wedding Present and The Coathangers as well as Aussie faves such as Smudge, Palms, The Preatures, Northeast Party House and countless more.
And then they stopped. Sale went to university, McGregor began an apprenticeship, Pilbeam started her flourishing Hatchie alter-ego and Browning buried himself in work and family life. Babaganouj – while still being coaxed out for the occasional show – was essentially put on hiatus, just as their hard-fought momentum started to gather steam.
“I don’t know, I guess we all kind of had mid-life crises,” laughs Sale. “I’d spent a long time being essentially a professional musician – it was an attempt to find a life in the music industry – and then when you realise that maybe it’s not possible things have to change, I suppose. I think it was a reconsideration and finding a new place for music in my life. It felt like the industry was difficult and with no assurances so instead you’ve got to find a new way to make it work – I think that’s why it took a while, and that’s why we’re back.”
Even while Sale’s uni studies at times seemed all-consuming, Babaganouj songs were still percolating in the background. “Most things I write are for the band, and are generally written with the band in mind,” he explains. “I like to think about how Ruby plays, how George plays, and how Harriette might play and sing, just what they might add to it. It was only when we decided to go and record and just throw everything at it that it kind of came together.
“I think in the past we’ve sat down and spent money in the studio with some finely-tuned songs, but this process was a little bit different and a little more slipshod, which was nice. I think maybe I like that approach a bit more, because you’re free to do whatever you want. I recorded a lot of just myself and George with a tape recorder, which was a novel experience because we hadn’t been unleashed like that before. A different process led to a different outcome, it’s all science really.”
And it wasn’t just any tape recorded that the Jumbo Pets came together on – it was a really crappy tape recorder. “It was a pretty drawn-out process,” Sale recalls. “I’d bought this Tascam tape recorder from Tasmania on GumTree, it was in shithouse condition but because I’m a tinkerer I fixed it up – I had to replace all of these parts using YouTube videos and stuff, which was fun. That was the basis of the recording.
“It’s funny, I always thought cassette recorders were supposed to sound like shit, but it’s only because people don’t really have any of the good gear and they don’t really know how to use it, whereas I spent a bit of time thinking about it and learning how to use it and it sounds really good. I didn’t realise it could sound like a proper drum-kit and stuff.
“So that was kind of the start of the process, and then we kind of sat on that and thought about it for a while. Then we went back to the studio and got Aiden Hogg to finish the recording process, and then Sean Cook to mix some of the songs as well. So it was pretty all over the shop, but we’re a bit all over the shop as well so it was essentially perfect.”
While Jumbo Pets sounds wonderful sonically (in spite of this somewhat haphazard genesis), it’s the quality of songs on offer which makes it the perfect calling card for Babaganouj’s long- awaited return.
“I think it is different to what we’ve done in the past – it’s probably a bit more reflective,” Sale muses. “All we’ve ever written about is inter-personal issues – usually romantic relationships and everything involved with them – and while this is a continuation of that theme it’s coming from a different angle and looking at them in a different light.
“We’ve never been reinventing the wheel or drastically creating anything new. I consider the band to be in the folk tradition of sorts, we just tell our silly little stories for ourselves and that’s kind of nice. I guess we’re just trying to do the things we like doing.”
And while Sale did ultimately contribute the bulk of the songs on Jumbo Pets this time around, he attests that the creative process on the album was still very geared towards capturing that collective Babaganouj magic.
“But the thing about the creative process for me is that I write songs for the group and the people in the group, and that’s why Harriette’s still such an important part of the band because it’s all written with her in mind, whether it’s her bass-playing or her singing or whatever. So I’ve been steering the ship creatively and George has been steering the ship in terms of making things happen and Ruby’s steering the ship by bringing her heart into it and Harriette was here from the start and is factored into everything we do, so it’s a genuine team effort. That’s Babaganouj in a nutshell.”
Release: March 31st, 2023, Coolin’ By Sound Records
Charles Sale (guitar/voca