Earlier this year an album emblazoned with a charcoal portrait of a dog turned up in the DIY section of Sydney’s Pigeon Ground records. The band that created it – Vincent over the Sink – had ‘launched’ the album at that record store only a week or so prior to my picking it up. It wasn’t an event that was on my radar at the time: I’d heard their recordings previously but as vaguely interesting as they were, I wasn’t following the group closely.
I regret that. Now in November, about 10 months later, I’ve lost sleep thinking about Vincent Over The Sink. 22 Coloured Bull Terriers is a bewildering album. Not for the fact that this two-piece – comprising Matthew Hopkins and Christopher Schueler – made it, but bewildering for the fact that anyone made it. This is the type of music that you imagine just fomenting in the innards of some rusted transistor radio.
These colours weren’t drawn from the same palette as any of their contemporaries. The album comprises 23 short melodious vignettes as fleeting and intangible as apparitions. They either lack context or flatly refuse to provide any. This is weird outsider art of the highest order yet these songs resonate deeply. 22 Coloured Bull Terriers is sometimes tender, occasionally malevolently freakish and always executed in an offhand way, as if the players were just channelling some primal pop instinct through a psychedelic, sleep-deprived daze.
Vincent Over The Sink formed in Sydney’s western suburbs in 2001. Matthew Hopkins (who operates under the solo guises of Bad Tables and Lamp Puffer, as well as making up half of Naked On The Vague) lived in Penrith, while Chris Schueler lived in Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains. I spoke to Schueler on the phone from Melbourne where he has lived for the past four years. Schueler speaks quickly and, in conversation, abandons ideas almost as quickly as he starts to utter them. It’s a conversation that, like the music, proves quite bewildering at times, but it comes with the territory.
The formation of Vincent Over The Sink was something of a coming of age. Previously, Schueler and Hopkins had bonded through skateboarding. “It’s one of those things where once you get older you lose the physicality of skateboarding, so we sort of went our separate ways for a little while and met back up when I was living in the Mountains and [Hopkins] was studying film at a university in Penrith. We were both stuck out in the suburbs and just bored, needing something to replace the physicality of skateboarding. We were interested in art, so it mostly came about through hanging out and having instruments around. We didn’t really plan it.”
“We didn’t understand the universe,” Schueler continues. “We needed some way to express ourselves. It was like an initial punk rock beginning, screw you to the world and we’ll do our thing. From meandering around the mountains and the suburbs, then moving to the city, it evolved like that.”
It wasn’t until 2006 that the pair committed something to record for public consumption. This came in the form of their 7-inch on the Shriek Sounds label, which came encased in individually handcrafted collages, and predicated the group’s interest in unconventional strategies of dissemination. “We try to shake up the way music is perceived and how we record,” Schueler says, “we try to suggest to people what else they can do, rather than say ‘this 10 track CD defines our music.'”
That early recording might be regarded as challenging in itself. If the malevolent pop sensibilities of, say, the Boredoms circa-‘Pop Tatari’, were to be shovelled into a cement mixer full of amplified guitars and cymbals, it might come close to sounding like this. It’s a bumpy ride, but it isn’t without its amusement. Shortly after that release the pair appeared on a split Chooch-a-bahn CD-R with fellow Sydneysiders Holy Balm. Their contributions to that record weren’t suggestive of any seismic stylistic shifts, and certainly didn’t offer any clues of what was to come.
“We realised we didn’t want to be defined by this sound,” Schueler says of the shift apparent on 22 Coloured Bull Terriers, “we wanted to provide ourselves the opportunity to explore other types of music. I think it’s okay for people to change and to record different records, especially as we captured the venom before and when you capture the venom it leaves you, and then you’re left with a more subtle fire. We spent so long recording [22 Coloured Bull Terriers]; it was back and forth between myself in Melbourne and Matthew in Sydney. When we recorded the previous releases I was living in Sydney so the process was different.”
The album took over a year to finish due to the distance between the duo. “We tried to use whatever was available,” Schueler says. “We’d record when we were together in either city, but we’d also send trinkets like lyrics and drum tracks to one another to try to perpetuate the motion of the band, rather than get stuck in the attitude where we had to be together to do it.
“We removed the structural constraints of what [normally constitutes]a band, and tried to be patient, we knew it didn’t have to be released immediately.”
The album does maintain a strange sense of eerie disconnectedness. ‘Threads of Beginning’ is based around a simple accordion melody that straggles atop a caustic, clipped drum beat. A reverberated voice sings in a disenchanted – dispassionate – register: “I’ve lost the thread of beginning / I don’t know why you are grinning at me / pricks tell me not to worry so much / ’cause I trust they’ll hold me up.” There’s a narcoleptic moment when the accordion and percussion pauses for a moment before the beat reappears, mapping a way through the four-track silence in a drugged, edge of sleep monotony. Other tracks like ‘Mektoub’ and ‘Mice in the Ocean’ depict a similarly beguiling exhaustion. These are the songs an insomniac might sing to himself as he drives himself quietly around the bend.
Since 22 Coloured Bull Terriers was released, Vincent Over The Sink have played no shows, and the album – despite garnering interest – has become almost impossible to buy. Matthew Hopkins left the country for three months to tour with Naked On The Vague, and so the project was rendered temporarily defunct. There has been no obvious attempt to distribute the album to any of the record stores willing to stock it, and yes, people are looking for this record.
Schueler says that while the group intend to reissue the album on vinyl with new artwork, part of their strategy with the CD was to create an aura of mystery. The album’s scarcity, in other words, was calculated. “It was part of the concept behind it,” Schueler insists, “at the end of this year we’re going to release it on record and start playing songs from that album throughout next year. We wanted to show people that while this thing is complete, and despite that it is on CD, that it’s still not over. When you exhibit an artwork and it doesn’t sell the first time doesn’t mean you can’t exhibit it again. For both of us, we had a busy year and that was what we thought was the best we could do given [Matthew] was overseas.”
When pressed about the difficulty in obtaining the album, even by normal DIY limited-run standards, Schueler says that he likes the idea that it’s hard to track down.
“I like that there’s a mystery about it,” he insists. “The sucker punch is that we’re going to turn around and say ‘here is 500 copies of the new record’ and it won’t even be new, it’ll be the old one again! You’ve been listening to it!”
If brand new Vincent Over The Sink material is a long way off yet, there might be some solace to be found in a project of Schueler and Hopkins’ called The Bowles – which is essentially Vincent Over The Sink with the addition of another member in Mary MacDougal. On the difference between the two bands, Schueler offers nothing solid, but suggests the creative process is what defines them as separate.
“After our show as the Bowles at Locksmith Gallery [Sydney] people were telling us that we’re a lot more reserved,” he says, “and it is different. I’m not filling as much sound because there’s a third person there.”
“I’m sure there will be overlapping parts with Vincent Over The Sink, but that’s fine. Let there be ambiguities. I’m not worried about whether people make the distinction and I’m happy if people are left a little confused.”
Vincent Over The Sink’s 22 Coloured Bull Terriers is not readily available.