As Bido Lito! reaches what feels like the twenty-bloody-first floor of one of Liverpool’s rehearsal spaces, the constant barrage from some of our city’s finest metal connoisseurs starts making us wonder whether we can be in the right place to find the spaced-out wanderings of SUNSTACK JONES. As the door to the final corridor of the final floor is pushed open, though, the lethargic euphoria of If I Could Only Find A Way drifts through, transforming a space that previously felt like one of Guantánamo Bay’s interrogation rooms into a stretch of the Mediterranean gazed upon by a disappearing sun.
A diplomatically suggested exit and a pint later, and Sunstack Jones (minus bassist Dan) are in a very candid mood. As Chris (Vocals and Guitar), Lorcan (Guitar) and Richy (Drums) talk us through the making of their second record Roam, a picture starts to emerge of Sunstack Jones as a brilliant barrel of contradictions. They’re at once cloaked in that psych-indie haze so linked to Liverpool and critical of some bands’ small-town mentalities; both openly praising their tunes for being “fucking good”, and self-deprecatingly observing that their slabs of vinyl will most likely still be gazing forlornly out from under their beds in ten years’ time; simultaneously outlining their ambition to equal their heroes (The War On Drugs and Sharon Van Etten are mentioned) whilst conceding that, if their talents go unrecognised, they’ll still be plugging away in ten years’ time simply for the selfish joy of it.
“We’re not desperate, but there’s not a lack of ambition either. It’s working for us,” Richy says of the band’s balanced approach, as his older brother Chris adds that “There’s just no fuss really. Some people are like ‘we’re gonna be the next x or y.’ That’s just embarrassing… We’re just making good music and hoping that someone hears it and likes it.” Ambivalent it might be, but it’s a modest plan which has slowly been winning the band the plaudits that their welding together of billowing soundscapes and sharp melodies deserves. “When we sold the 250 copies of the first record [Surefire Ways To Sweeten The Mind] we were happy because it funded the second record, but at the same time you’re thinking, ‘well, 2,000 or 20,000 people would like that record’, but we’re not good at promoting ourselves. We can’t even walk down the street properly…”
“We’re not good at promoting ourselves.” It’s not a sentence that you’d have heard escape from many bands’ mouths before the turn of the millennium, but then, as the popular cliché goes, ‘the internet changed everything’. Well, perhaps not everything, but, as the record labels’ business model was eroded by a torrent of free music, suddenly bands who would previously have found themselves on the receiving end of a record company’s hefty marketing budget found themselves locked in a perpetual online battle-of-the-bands, fighting it out with thousands of other hopefuls for the fleeting attention of ‘the internet’. As Chris puts it with a definite air of exasperation, “We’re going to put our album out on the 28th, and it feels real to us because we’ve finally got that physical copy of it, but on that same day millions of people will put up their latest shitty demo. There’s no sorting. That’s the best thing about the internet but, fucking hell, how are we going to get heard? The reality is that some people will buy it online, a few will be in a few independent shops, but there’s not going to be a deluge. Your mates will say, ‘What have you done this week,’ and you’ll say, ‘Our album came out on Monday’ and they’ll sort of go ‘Oh’.”
There’s no denying that the current SoundCloud-off that dominates those initial stages of the music industry ladder is an imperfect democracy, and one that is still at the mercy of record company dollars and industry connections, so all you can do is make sure that you’re impossible to ignore. On those grounds, Roam stands as good a chance as anything. Its unique charm lies in the disconnect between its woozy psych pop and its morbid observations of illness, love, and loss. “Miserable, innit,” concludes Chris. “It was a weird year. A lot of people we knew, or ourselves, were ill or breaking up.” That said, there’s an optimism to the album thanks to the ethereal fog of hooks that soften the blow of the bleak subject matter. Chris nods in agreement: “I think it’s hopeful-sounding, isn’t it?”
We then approach the elephant in the room:Surefire Ways To Sweeten The Mind was relentlessly compared to Americana, whilst Roam has a slightly spacier, gently psychedelic vibe. Was there a revelatory, narcotic-fuelled, out-of-body experience or a Sunstack Jones trip to a self-healing commune somewhere deep within the Himalayas’ foothills that inspired this shift? “What even is ‘Americana’?” asks Chris as a response. Satisfied that none of us can come up with an adequate description, Lorcan goes on to politely remind us that they were slightly surprised with the Americana tag that lazy writers (we assume that means us) slung around their necks. Instead, they’ve always had aspirations to craft immersive and transportative music: “It would be more psychedelic if I could play the guitar,” admits Chris, “it would sound like a giant marshmallow.” Lorcan explains that Roam’s wide-eyed spaciousness came from the album being a democratic full-band effort, in contrast to Surefire Ways To Sweeten The Mind, which was largely based on Chris’ demos. Lorcan: “The songs on Roam were built up and up and up, which can have that effect. A lot of the songs on the first album were quite fully formed when they came out. But a track like Circular Sun has layers and layers and layers.” “Are you kidding?” blurts Chris. “There’s so much space in there!” Right on beat, Lorcan fires back: “Well that’s the gift, innit.”
Although there’s no doubt that they’ve made a slight lean towards the mind-altering on Roam, there remains something indistinct but fundamentally Sunstack Jones about the record. At a loss to nail down this feeling into words, we ask the band themselves what this quality is that separates their music from that of those thousands of new bands clamouring for attention. To this Chris offers the speculative and partially tongue-in-cheek response that “It’s better than it…?” Richy steps in to prevent his older brother saying anything else incriminating: “I think that the melodies that he [Chris] puts to the music are what set us apart from other bands… they’re clever melodies.”
That might seem a big claim on paper, but even a cursory listen to Roam suggests that there’s wisdom to his words; opener Library is a velodrome of melodies, with echo-laden vocals, chiming guitars and even the subtle lament of a cello snaking around each other for its three serene minutes. Lorcan, who has been absent from the conversation for the past half a minute, suddenly interjects with a stanza worthy of Wordsworth: “I’d say we’re a cool breeze on a hot, still summer’s day; the break in the clouds on a winter’s night.” It’s a fittingly ambitious description for an album that constantly evokes panoramic images of blinding sunrises, hazy sunsets, and all the introspective moments in-between.
The band seem ambitious in another sense, too: at various points in the interview Chris has casually dropped in references to having a ten-album box-set of the first ten Sunstack Jones records in ten years’ time. Given their remorseless self-deprecation, do they view the band in that long-term frame? “I do,” comes Chris’ instant response. “We don’t have to do it – there’s no record label, so we don’t even have to be here right now – but we love it. We love making music, that’s the only reason we do it.” So if nobody listened to their music and their tracks were simply being cast off into the black hole of the internet, would they still do it? “Absolutely, we’re compelled. I just can’t see a time where you’ll get a melody in your head and go, ‘Nah, I won’t bother writing that one down’.”
By now it’s hardly surprising that, when probed on their post-album release ambitions, they aren’t to be found outlining future plans to headline Glastonbury or swivel the heads of a label with a marketing budget the size of an emerging nation’s economy. Instead, the blunt answer that Chris delivers with the steeliest stare that we’ve seen from him all night is “We’ll make another album.” It’s as simple as that; as natural as breathing to them, and almost as inevitable given the lethargic intensity with which they go about making their music. Breezes will continue to relieve stifling days, clouds will continue to break on winter’s nights and, with just as much certainty, Sunstack Jones will be holed up someplace, laconically crafting dreamy gems. Their restless motivation is hard not to admire, but it’s worth just pausing and basking in Roam’s dark lyricism and sun-warped melodies before they return with number three (of at least ten).