Reeding between the lines
Adelaide band The Sunday Reeds' latest release, “Drive You Mad”, has been one of my favourite releases for 2020. A brilliant combination of Cramps-style ‘60s garage with elements of Riot Grrl, punk and shoegaze, it’s an amazing mix of genres spread over six tracks.
Core members, Romana Ashton and Drew Jones, have continued the band despite the two now living in different states. Singer-bass player Romana spoke to us via phone from her South Australian home base.
I-94 Bar: Before we kick off can I ask how have you been going in these odd times?
Romana: it’s been fine, the first few months I was ok, I prefer working from home and it suited me better. I’m alright on my own as I’m a fairly introverted person so I cope ok with that. But even now I’m a bit sick of the walls, seeing the same thing. I have a cat to keep me entertained and to kept me sane, taking up some time and entertaining myself. But I’m itching to see a few things now, kind of over it (laughs).
I-94 Bar: I’ve had a cat around my place for a year and it is a good feeling saying, 'Sod the world I’m gonna hang out with the cat tonight'?
Ramona and Drew. Rex Francis photo.
Romana: Yeah, it’s so comforting, I don’t want to be a crazy cat person but I am talking to the cat so it’s getting a bit dire (laughs) I did see a few people in a pub over the weekend which was good for me.
I-94 Bar: Let’s talk some music, how did you get started playing music?
Romana: Well Drew and I have known each other for a long time we met at Uni in Rockhampton of all places. We were in a music course and neither of us stayed in the course, but we hit it off. It’s been a long journey.
We didn’t really start playing together until years after we met. And then we moved down to Melbourne together round the 2000;s. We started writing songs, I’ve always been writing songs, but I’ve been in some bands I didn’t like, but he’s a really good guitarists. So it’s a matter of changing tastes there.
He has a really good ear and because we’re friends and we hung around a lot we know each other, what we like and don’t like. We wrote out first LP in a flat in St Kilda East; I always wrote songs but never been in a proper band but I’m used to working by myself, I just like writing songs. We got a bit of interest from a UK label via MySpace so that’s going back a while.
So we started playing live shows, and ended up getting a drummer, we did some gigs in Melbourne before going to the UK and playing some shows there and that was really cool.
I-94 Bar: You mentioned you studied music at uni, and even though you didn’t finish the course I take it you’ve always been playing music and it wasn’t like you learned three chords and started a band.
Romana: Yeah, well, Drew learned guitar when he was 10, and he was like a high school nerd locking himself in his room playing guitar. One of those guys - that’s all he did. He just loves playing guitar.
I was 5 when I started playing organ and piano, and I begged my parents for a piano, which was expensive. And they did and basically told me I had to take lessons for a long time which I did, I still took lessons till I was 12. I did exams and assessments and all that sort of stuff. I took classical singing lessons when I was 10, and I just took to it, I always wanted to do it.
I started listening more to rock n roll stuff when I was 13. So that was the end of the classical side, and I taught myself guitar, I just like writing songs, I sort of abandoned the classical piano stuff and changed gear internally I suppose.
I-94 Bar: was that true the Sunday Reeds started as a two piece and became a three piece over time?
Romana: We didn’t know anyone when we moved to Melbourne. We’re from regional Queensland, so (we were) country kids moving to the big smoke. We had a programmed drum for a few gigs. We just wanted to get out there. Our first gig was a Tuesday at the Old Bar, I think. We did two gigs like that and then the first drummer I saw, we got them to play. They came to the UK as well. Nice guy but not really suitable. We made some noise but he was one of the hardest hitters we ever saw and wasn’t appropriate.
I was struggling with my voice and wasn’t as good as it could have been. We’ve had about four or five drummers. We’ve gone through a few but the one we have now is the best one we’ve ever had, so it took a few. And it brings our playing up a bit as well; Sarah has such a good feel so it makes everything a lot easier.
I-94 Bar: Mark E Smith once said: 'If it’s me and your granny on bongos it’s The Fall'. Is it like that, in the sense that if it’s you and Drew and whoever else, it’s The Sunday Reeds?
Romana: That’s right it’s always me and Drew at the core. It’s a duo and people just join. At one point I didn’t play bass I just sang, because I was getting lazy I didn’t want to carry gear any more (laughs) so I thought that would be nice I can do some stage antics or something, something completely different.
So we had a bass player and drummer, and that was OK for an experiment but I do like the three piece. I can’t really give my control over to someone else with my bass. Unless they’re playing like me. In the end it was a good experiment but we’ll go back to the original idea.
I-94 Bar: How did you land a deal in the UK?
Romana: It was really weird. It just happened through social media. What happened was we wrote all these songs, and were recording everything. And I wanted to do it but I didn’t know what I was doing. So this guy on MySpace, I think he was in the US, and he heard some of our songs, and he said you should look up these labels, and he gave me a list of three labels, one from the US one from the UK.
So I wrote to all of 'em, wait and see what happens. I got a response from the UK one, but only after I thought they’d written something nasty. Sounds crazy. So I wrote them a message, heard nothing, so I thought, 'OK, that’s fine'. They wrote something on their website about unsolicited emails or something like that, I thought it was a reference to my email, and they were having a go, so I wrote back with this smartarse email, and he said. 'Oh I missed that other email you sent me. I love your stuff'.
So I got his attention because I was a real bitch, because I was really offended - like, 'How dare you?' And he’s a really nice guy and I felt terrible and he said, 'I want to put your stuff out'. So it pays to stand up for yourself even if it’s not about you. He was a really nice guy, and when we went to the UK he and his partner ran this little label and he stayed at his parents while we staying at their place, and he organised a few gigs for us.
I-94 Bar: You have a wonderful voice, and like all great singers it really stands out and is very unique, how did you develop your vocal technique?
Romana: I guess probably a combination of my early singing lessons, so I’ve gone from classical singing and was sabotaged by rock and roll. So I guess I was ruined by rock and roll. I always have an alto voice; it’s just the way I am. But I always try and emulate a lot of male rock and roll singers. That’s just how it comes out.
I listen to a lot of, people like Jim Reid who has a melodic, there no tones to it, and Ian Curtis who I listened to a lot in my teenage years. Some of it comes from that but also equally from singing lessons in a way.
I-94 Bar: Now your EP "Drive You Mad" is a very broad EP in terms of the styles of music covered, its only six songs but it’s impossible to land it into one genre.
Romana: Yeah, it’s all in there, everything I’ve ever listened too (laughs). Definitely skips around a bit, it’s like everything I like in one EP. I listen to a lot of '90s stuff as a teenager, which was highly influential, and I’ve always been curious about music and always open to listening to new music, so it’s never stopped for me, I’m always discovering new things for myself.
So it’s a mixture of things, like '60s girl groups and Nancy Sinatra, and Shirley Manson from Garbage, and L7. Lots of things in there, even though it has a retro sound I didn’t want it to be a garage '60s retro copy thing. I don’t want to wear bell bottoms and try and replicate things.
I-94 Bar: Closing track "Cult Girl" is my favourite track, and the other I like is "How To Be a Girl", which has a pretty powerful message.
Romana: The Cramps are a big influence on me, the Gun Club too. "Cult Girl": I wanted it to sound really desperate, and I didn’t want it to be perfect either, vocally. It’s about girl stalkers, about girls with no self-respect, talking about that groupie thing, Thery'e only interested in someone if they're in a band. So I wanted to capture that a little bit, and it’s a bit creepy when you think about it. It has a Cramps kind of sound, as well as Johnny Thunders.
"How To Be a Girl: I had that song for ages, and it’s something I feel strongly about. I wanted it to be really dirty and gritty, when I wrote it I was thinking of the Gun Club. I wanted it to be really dirty and get my point across.
I-94 Bar: What process went into recording the EP?
Romana: We recorded it Against the Grain Studio with Andrew Kite. He does a lot of local bands, mostly metal stuff, but he likes doing bands like us as it’s not so repetitive. He really enjoyed recording us, and was happy with the result. We went in and played live, so all the instrumental stuff was all live. I went back and did the vocal layering, and Drew did a few different guitar tracks. But yeah, was just live it was super easy, Andrews a great guy really relaxed, he knew what we were about, didn’t take long we did it in an afternoon and I went back to fine tune things, but it was a quick process.
I-94 Bar: When I first saw you guys live you did a GG Allin cover, and as our mate Nick pointed out, it’s refreshing to hear someone do GG Allin and make it listenable.
Romana: (laughs) Don’t talk to me! It’s a great pop song, and he wrote some great pop songs. So it’s easy to make it sound good. If it’s a good song, you can turn it into something. People are surprised when we play that; I guess some people don’t expect us to do a GG Allin song, but I just go on the song. It's rock 'n' roll pop to me. It’s so fun to play, I enjoy playing covers sometimes as it takes you out of your element and can inspire you to write other songs as well.
I-94 Bar: You’re currently based in Adelaide, but is Drew still in Melbourne?
Romana: I’m here and the drummer’s here, but Drew’s in Melbourne. It’s a bit hard with what’s gone on now. I lived in Melbourne for 10 years, I moved to Adelaide about three years ago. It’s been alright, I liked Melbourne but I was up for a change, just a bit more space here. It’s got a good little music scene, it’s been good for me.
I-94 Bar: Is trying to organise a rehearsal a pain or is it OK?
Romana: Oh it’s fine because the way it works is, I wrote three of the songs on the EP by myself and three with Drew but predominantly, some of the older songs when I wrote in Melbourne. But the other three I wrote in Adelaide. So it hasn’t been that hard, when Drew comes over when we play a gig we have a bit of time, where if either of us have something new we show each other, or I’ll send him some recordings of what I’ve done and he’ll come up with something and when we rehearse we go through it, it doesn’t take that long.
I-94 Bar: The dresses you wear on stage, I read on Facebook you wear them as a tribute to sex workers who were murdered and harassed in their line of work, how did that come about?
Bryan Lynagh photo.
Romana: Firstly, I didn’t always wear those outfits, it was actually pretty boring compared to what I just to wear, so I’m glad I made that decision, I was wearing a lot of black at the time. I like Poison Ivy from the Cramps and I love retro show girls, and all the retro styles of shows girls, especially from the ‘60s.
So I had ex-boyfriend tell me I shouldn’t wear that, so then I wore it all the time. It was like ‘oh you can’t wear that people will look at you it’s too short’. And it’s like, ‘yes that’s the whole point I would have thought’. Also I wanted to ensure, that wearing that on stage, it has nothing to do with anyone else, except for me.
People can look and do whatever they want but it’s my decision to wear that. And I’m not wearing it for men, that point needs to be said. It’s my own decision, and its fashion and a lot of women come up to me and say, 'Where did you find that, who made that for you?' But I also feel kind of powerful wearing that, and it is a tribute to women who have experienced sexism, harassment and were not treated well by their boyfriends or men in general.
And I like standing up there with a bass guitar singing songs I’ve written for people that want to see us play and I can wear that. So it’s actually just a big ‘Fuck You’, I think.
I-94 Bar: You mentioned you wear it for yourself, and that the thing, if you’re not wearing it for yourself who else would you wear it for?
Romana: Yeah, I get sick of that viewpoint that women are dressing for men’s attention. I haven’t experienced any of that at a gig. Most people say nice things about the dresses. And also, it’s a show, you know it’s a performance and I’m a performer, it’s part of the performance.
I-94 Bar: It also beats wearing what you wear to work.
Romana: (Laughs) Yeah that’s right, I’m not wearing it around the house. Not now - it’s too cold. But if I wanted to I would to go and get the mail. I haven’t had a chance to dress up much this year.
I-94 Bar: I also noticed online that before lockdown you were doing some solo gigs.
Romana: Yeah, I’ve done a couple but I don’t really have the time. I have an acoustic guitar. I haven’t played for so long I hurt my fingers, I’m not used to it. But that’s where I started, doing solo stuff. When I was 17-18 I used to go busking and things like that. So that’s how I started but it feels weird now, but I would like to do more. But I have a band, a full-time job and a radio show, there are so only many hours of the day.
I-94 Bar: Specking of radio you do Three D Radio in Adelaide every Wednesday morning, with a program called Rebel Girl and like your music you play a wide variety of music, shows you ain’t no music snob.
Romana: No, no, not a snob at all. I’m fairly eclectic, I like listening to a lot of different stuff. Some people get surprised at some of the stuff I play, I’ll put on some rap or hip hop, I’m attracted to people that have a strong style and presence. If it’s a good song it’s a good song.
I-94 Bar: Now with what’s going on it’s a bit hard but do you have any plans for the rest of the year?
Romana: Yeah. a bit hard to say. We had booked a show in Adelaide for an EP launch in November (and) we had some interstate shows booked but I don’t think we’ll be going interstate until next year. Will have to wait and see, like most people have no idea what’s gonna happen.
I-94 Bar: Do you have a favourite Fall LP?
Romana: No (laughs) - they’e all so different!
*Matt Ryan is the editor of Melbourne zine Munster Times.