“This album was like my therapy in a big way.”
My first thought upon hearing Totally Unicorn’s new album, the gripping and harrowing mathy hardcore sounds of ‘Sorry‘, was: “Jesus Christ, I hope Drew’s doing okay!” To say that the Sydney bands latest LP is an infinitely more personal and honest release in terms of what their wild frontman shares lyrically just wouldn’t do this album’s forthcoming nature justice. So, that was the first sincere question I had to ask Drew when he and I jumped on the phone together a few weeks back: “…are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m doing alright now mate” laughs Drew in response.
“Since the last record and the past two years or so, it’s been a really rough time for me. But I’m doing okay now though!”
Musically and instrumentally, ‘Sorry‘ is as skitz and as chaos-driven as other Aussie acts like DriveTime Commute, Life Pilot and Jack The Stripper (RIP), and even past releases from the band too. Yet emotionally and lyrically speaking, it’s such a confronting listen, not just in what Drew so honestly screams about, but also in how its mix and production has been constructed too. Brought to life whilst locked away in Adelaide’s Ghostnote studios for two weeks, you just cannot escape what’s being said. Drew’s vocals are placed front and centre, loud and unflinching, and it’s somewhat claustrophobic for the listener. You just cannot hide from what’s being shared via his gritty vocals; it cuts through so hard amongst all of the wicked riffs and rhythm-shifting musical chaos. Especially when there’s so many moments that only contain Drew’s vocals. Yet that’s what makes Totally Unicorn’s new LP such an arresting experience. That, and the sick discordant breakdowns and dissonant guitars, of course.
“When we were writing this record, my vocals were a massive focus for us; we wanted everyone to hear them and know what I was talking about. Instead of being so technical and spazzy like we’d always been, we wanted things to be more straightforward but still retain some of what we were before as well. So it came down to me and what I could do. I didn’t have a concept for what I would write about, I just sung about what was going on with me in my life at the time. I was so scared about what I was gonna say too. Being in the studio for the first time, and as the other boys hadn’t heard any lyrics until then, it was a very confronting experience, even for them too.”
The rest of the Sydney group were all about where Drew wanted to take this new record lyrically. They even encouraged it and supported him being so open and raw about certain issues occurring in his personal life. Resulting in an album that’s like a roller-coaster ride through his own private hell.
“They were all there for those periods of time in my life, and as soon as they heard what I was singing about, they knew exactly where I was coming from. I just got to the point where I was okay with talking about it all and letting it all be done. Most of the vocals were tracked late at night, as we were running out of time in the studio. So it was often just myself and Jono Boulet who was co-producing, with James Balderston, we really bonded over these songs. He gave me some really great advice on how to emote these feelings in these lyrics.”
The title of this new record isn’t just for the Totally Unicorn vocalist to apologise for his own issues and his own mistakes, but also a wish for other people who have wronged him dearly to admit their shortcomings and say sorry. Even if said individuals will never come around to having the guts to do so. Take ‘33‘; a chugging and riffy biter ending with a jab at someone Drew shared a house with: “I’ll see you around… probably not.” It’s a mad-house song reflecting a home in real disorder.
“33 isn’t actually just about my age [Drew’s 37 now], but rather the address of a house I lived in back when I was 33. This one is rough, as it’s actually written about someone who fucked a lot of shit up in my life and in a few of my friends’ lives too.”
Some of these ten songs are also more so about the vocalists day-to-day life, like ‘A Song for the Deadshits‘, written about Drew’s daily walk to work. On the other end of the spectrum, however, resides another deeply personal track for Drew. And that’s the album’s hectic closing cut, the lethal grooves and rabid screams of of ‘Alley (Fucking) Cats‘. It’s a piece of pure bedlam about his divorce, detailing various relationship highs-and-lows, harsh breaches of trust, and love failing.
“She definitely hasn’t heard it just yet”, he mentions.
“This song is probably the roughest song for people to hear. As it’s not really a ‘fuck-you’ song or anything, it’s just a story of what happened. I was saying to someone before, but this album was like my therapy in a big way. It can be hard for males to talk about their feelings and putting stuff out there like this. So this record was like that for me. That particular moment in my life [his divorce] isn’t something many people know about except for close friends who were there. It was a closer for me. It’s a rough one and I’m very nervous about people hearing it and playing it.”
A word Drew uses many times in our conversation is “rough”. As this album is the roughest, worst times of his adult life that have been cut to literal tape. There’s a very real feeling in the air of our talk that he’s extremely nervous about this record when it comes to friends, family and fans hearing the songs, and when the band eventually hit the road this month.
“Yep, pretty much all of it I’m nervous about”, he casually confirms.
“I’ve shown a few mates of mine the record early, as I’m so nervous about it. Just wanting to get their opinions on it so I’m not about to make some super big mistake. But they loved it, they were proud – both musically and me being me vocally and putting it all out there. It gave me confidence in what we were doing. It’s definitely the best thing that I and the band have ever done. Being so honest with it was the right move.”
Last year, I spoke with Garrett Russell from Silent Planet, who mentioned that it’s an odd experience when a fan mentions how much they love a particular song – how they got the lyrics tattooed on them or some such deep sign of appreciation – yet when the artist was crafting said song, they were in a truly depressed place. This is something I’ve heard from other artists during other interviews too, like Greg Puciato (The Black Queen, ex-Dillinger Escape Plan). Turns out, a very similar experience has been happening with Drew for the newer TU material, material they’re going to actually tour heavily for too.
“It is a bit weird, but it’s really nice to have that connection. Everyone goes through their shit, so everyone can relate,” he states.
“We’ve been playing a few of the new songs at our last couple shows, and those songs got a fucking insane response. People were actually singing the words now, which we’ve never really had before. The new songs go down so much better than the old songs we’ve been playing for about five years. Everything before was so metaphorical in the lyrics, but now you can really tell what I’m getting across right away.”
“It’s definitely a little strange when people sing and scream back to me these songs about horrible times I went through, all of that heartache. And enjoying it too!” chuckles Drew.
Over it’s cathartic 35-minutes, ‘Sorry‘ doesn’t completely feel like an album of retrospective look backs upon past mistakes and old grievances; there’s still an on-going process of change and betterment occurring for Drew underneath. While he is doing better noways, he’s not out of the proverbial woods just yet. As ‘Grub‘, revealed, there’s topics of vices and bad habits being detailed across ‘Sorry‘, matters that still affect him. As Drew says, all of these things relate together.
“There’s a lot about substance abuse, drinking, and even smoking, and these vices I have that I’m trying to overcome. I wanted it all to be raw, in a way, and really fit the album’s feel. It’s definitely a long road, but you can still get there.”
The first Totally Unicorn song that’s ever grabbed me was the slower, bluesy and dirge-like ‘I’ll Be Fine Now‘. It’s easily one of this new record’s major high-points, showing that TU can do something different, something darker, and something with more heart and dynamism. It’s also my favourite song of the bands entire catalogue so far! As Drew reveals, that one – a track covering substance abuse for coping mechanisms and depression – was a bit of a “studio song”.
“I’m a ‘last minute’ kind-of guy for lyrics and vocals. We had the riffs, but I didn’t have a vocal melody or any lyrics whatsoever. On the night we were going to record it, I went down to the pub and wrote down what I was feeling at the time. I had maybe four lines for the song and then just ad-libbed the rest of it in one take.”
“I’ll Be Fine Now’ actually had two sections, there’s another part to it. But we’ve decided to wait and release that part for something else. Recording it and hearing it back, I was so stoked on it. We’ve always wanted to do a song like that, but never knew that we had it in us to do. We also never wanted to release it as a single at all, but all of the people who we showed the album too said that it was the best fucking song on the album. So we thought, “fuck it! Let’s do it!” It’s gotten the best, biggest response to anything – ANYTHING – we’ve done ever. It’s so humbling and so nice.”
This semi-laid-back approach to his vocals for the album also permeates into other songs too. On ‘The Island‘, he shouts at one point, “this isn’t even part of the song!” He wasn’t kidding; that was also an ad-lib. Because ‘Sorry‘ needed to be in-the-moment experience at all times. And that’s its biggest charm, that’s what makes it so raw: it’s fucking real. Drew could’ve always tracked a song or a certain section, and just said ‘no’ before re-recording some parts, but so much has been left in from those first few tender takes. There’s a magic in that.
“I did that for a few songs actually, like on ‘The Island’. I went off the cuff at times too, which was cool. It was also kinda weird. Jono would be sitting in the booth, going “what was that? That was sick“, and he’d keep it. Which is such a big thing for this album is about what you’re feeling at that exact moment. It maybe sounds wankey, but it was also strange.”
It’s been a decent length between drinks since TU’s last album, 2016’s ‘Dreamlife‘. Yet that time away has made the band now feel and sound refreshed; there’s so much more purpose; they’re a full, well-laced unit right now. The four-piece are all on the same wave-length and that makes for some great synchronicity, as evidence by the songwriting behind this album.
“Well, it’s pretty much a new band now. We have a new drummer [Adam Myers, former Robotosaurus], our old guitarist [Kerim Erkin] left and now we just have one guitarist [Aaron Streatfeild], so it’s all very refreshing. And, for the first time ever, we all get along like best mates and we’re also having a really good time playing together. Which didn’t really happen before. It was just a struggle to get everybody in one room together. Other people in bands can maybe relate to that idea of not really hanging out with other members outside of the band, but we do now. We don’t want to be the old Totally Unicorn, we want to be something new.”
“This is honestly the most fun I’m having in the band yet. Even though the lyrics don’t communicate that”, Drew laughs.
It may be selfish to love what is such an extremely personal record about the toughest moments of someone else’s life, but when a killer record like this newie from Totally Unicorn hits, it’s bloody hard not to love it. ‘Sorry‘ sure as shit isn’t your dad’s father’s Totally Unicorn. Rather, it’s something heavier, something darker and also more driven than anything else this band has created before. Buckle the fuck up, sunshine.
‘Sorry’ is out Friday, April 12th via Farmer & The Owl. Catch Totally Unicorn bringing these tracks to life at the following dates:
Sunday April 21st*
Hamilton Station Hotel, Newcastle
Friday April 26th
Crown and Anchor, Adelaide
w/ Arse, Tiersman
Saturday April 27th
The Tote, Melbourne
w/ Arse, Würst Nürse, NoLA (Japan)
Sunday April 28th
The Brisbane Hotel, Hobart
w/ Arse, Lake Myer
Friday May 3rd
w/ Arse, NoLA (Japan), Being Jane Lane
Saturday May 4th
w/ Pagan, Arse, Blind Girls, Tanned Christ, NoLA (Japan)