Aside from sounding like the creepy guy with two first names that your mum told you to avoid, Geoff Kevin are a Sydney based duo who make delightfully skewed suburban psychedelic pop that seems to draw upon a rich tapestry of musical influences yet remains resolutely individual. They’ve just released their debut album Avoidance on Soft Records, and it’s a widescreen folk pop opus drawing on elements of everything from 60’s pop, to psychedelic folk and numerous other times and places in between. It sounds pretty damn Australian too. Confused? You wont be when you hear the music, which is melodic, catchy, soulful and bewilderingly beautiful – when it isn’t being odd. It’s the work of multi instrumentalist and Sydney institution Kevin Purdy (Tooth) and vocalist and composer Geoff Towner (El Mopa/ Decoder Ring).
“It’s us grabbing whatever turns us on musically and running with bits of ideas, not stopping to worry,” reveals Purdy via email. “We’re both very instinctive artists and if it makes us happy it’s good. At the end of the day I can’t think of one album I own that, as a whole, that sounds like this one.”
With melancholic heartfelt vocals over some really curious unexpected at times quite elongated music, you can hear everything from Robert Wyatt to Can, to Neil Young in country rock mode or the Canterbury sound, but there’s also something distinctively Australian, distinctively suburban. It’s this combination of influences and experiences that makes it so fascinating and difficult to place. It keeps you coming back.
“I very much like the terms “suburban psychedelia” and “folk for the suburbs”! A lot!!!” Suggests Towner, also via email from Sydney when I offer this take. “I can’t speak for Kevin, but I am as influenced by local music as I am by international music. And we both like a LOT of different styles from a lot of different eras!”
“I see it as a combination of a lot of the things we love,” offers Purdy. “We could share some things inspirational motivations like Jimi Hendrix or Neil Young, David Axelrod or Morricone, but when it comes to the end result it’s shaped by our lives, growing up in Australia, yeah, folk music from the suburbs, from the bush, from the band room out the back of the pub, it’s very much Geoff and Kevin. Guitar wise I’ve been playing my take on Gilmore, Daevid Allen and Fripp for a while now, but I don’t think it’s an imitation it’s inspiration. I think that even though there’s mellotrons and other 60’s sounds there, there’s also Television, Patti Smith, Bowie..”
To some extent they both knew what they were getting into thanks to Purdy’s extensive solo recordings and Towner’s celebrated post rock excursions in Decoder Ring, El Mopa and his own solo work.
“I’ve been well acquainted with Purdy’s production skills for many years (especially the amazing Fairytale Insurance),” offers Towner, “so I was expecting, and hoping for, a “wide screen” sound. But I had no idea about how the exact genesis of one song idea (or sketch) to the end result would eventuate… with some of the songs anyway.
“I had a strong feeling of trust in whatever he would come up with,” reveals Purdy. “My feelings ended up being spot on, as he revealed to me what he’d been working on. The lyrics and the vocal ideas were so strong and so right, I was blown away. Also, I had no idea of what a wiz he was with string and brass arrangements, especially with the two instrumentals, which we created from scratch. I know, basically, my style of production and had an idea of how things might turn out but Geoff’s ideas took the album to a completely other level.”
When they first began working together in 2018, after knowing each other for decades they both had an abundance of material in their back pockets. In fact they were spoiled for choice. Purdy had more than an album of material that he’d intended to work with on with the band that recorded his sunny 2010 album Deviant Nature and had since shelved when the band members went their separate ways. Towner meanwhile, at least in Purdy’s estimation had about three albums worth of music.
Out of this abundance of choice they selected 6 songs, 3 from each.
“With Purdy’s songs (which he had been working on a while before we hooked up), 2 of them he had done vocal tracks for, and he had a vocal melody for the third,” Towner remembers. “I ended up writing completely new lyrics for his songs but stuck to his vocal melodies and tried to keep to the general tone of his original lyric ideas. The other 3 songs were all my own lyrics & melodies. This is the first time I sat down, from 9 to 5, and WROTE for a song. Sometimes for a few days! Usually I’d just whack them out in an hour or two! I really tried to concentrate on complex rhyming structures and themes, with multiple themes and patterns occurring in the one song. It was hard work!”
It’s not just that the vocals are such a strong feature on the album, it’s that they’re so diverse, so playful, so joyfully experimental, melodic and catchy, echoing the music, which is also brimming with an abundance of ideas. Whilst Purdy is predominantly known for his instrumental and electronic work he willingly admits to an earlier life where he sang in bands before diverting into more electronic and instrumental work the late 90’s. He also confesses to still harboring some degree of suspicion about vocal based music.
“I’ve had a problem with songs for most of my life,” he offers, “in that singing and lyrics can take up too much attention and ruin a tune if it’s not interesting, but with Geoff I was safe there. I knew it would be cool.”
For Towner it all begins with the music, and once that structure is nailed down only then will he begin the lyrics. But what exactly is he singing about?
“I guess I tend to write deeply personal lyrics, then try to tweak them so that they are relatable to the average listener. They often begin inspired by a real life situation and then mutate into something all their own. A song can often be about multiple subjects and storylines, but that reality can be hidden to the listener. Subjects on my mind for these songs were: love, death, anxiety, honesty, time and it’s passing, relationship decay, alternate dimensions, cults, class distinction, getting older, stagnation and vampires.”
“One thing I learned from my time in El Mopa was little things that Simon Wooldridge would do in his songwriting, like adding a snippet of a known song into one of his own, like a line or two or a riff. It wasn’t intended as a “rip off” but as a wink of the eye to the listener… “did you catch that?”… and could often change the original intention or meaning of the song being referenced. I found that extremely inspirational and have constantly done that ever since. There are lyrical “winks of the eye” in this batch of songs to Thin Lizzy, Something For Kate, This Mortal Coil, AC/DC, Johnny Cash, Will Oldham and Madonna.”
So about the name. Whilst Towner suggests that there have been so many famous duos who combine their surnames (Seals & Crofts, Godley & Creme, Loggins & Messina et al) that it seemed kind’ve funny to miss the point and do the opposite, Purdy’s inspiration came from a more concrete place.
“I was watching an episode of Number 96 on DVD around the time we first started the project, and when the credits rolled I saw that the guy who played the adorable character Arnold Feather was Jeff Kevin. I thought it was a great name, if we changed the J for a G.”
Geoff Kevin never intended to be a band. To play live Towner muses that they’d probably need about 15 musicians and a bunch of rehearsal time. But both seemed to have really enjoyed the experience, speaking of the chemistry they enjoyed and egoless collaborative experience. To both it seems inevitable that they’ll record again together. Just don’t hold your breath.
“We are both quite active with our families and musically with our own stuff also,” offers Towner. “However this doesn’t mean it won’t happen again! I mean, I get about 10-30 song ideas a year, that probably end up as about 8-12 finished songs. Whether they seem to be Geoff Kevin songs is entirely up to the songs!”
“I see “Avoidance” as a night time record.” He continues. “I would like at some stage to do a daytime record to match. It depends on the planets.”
Avoidance is out via Soft Records. You can find it here.
Photo by James Tsai