I met with founding members of Perth’s own Mosquito Coast, Conor Barton and Naomi Robinson – Champions of the 2015 Triple J Unearthed High Competition with their song “Call My Name”. The spoils of their victory have kept them busy since August last year. After making it through their final high school year, the duo flew east to record two tracks with Triple J, and have recently been touring in WA. So, what have they learnt after snatching this double shot glass of opportunity? And how has it left their state of being? Here’s what I found.
You guys have certainly had your hands full since finishing school, playing at Groovin the Moo (GTM) in May, Ship-Wrecked! in April, and State of the Art festival this month, and now you are recording an EP. What touring is on the horizon?
Conor: We’re touring in September. It’s just been announced that we’re playing Big Sound in Brisbane, and then we’ll be doing Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
What have been your top three favorite performances since winning Unearthed High?
Conor: Mostly we have been performing within WA, so GTM in Bunbury was definitely a highlight.
Naomi: Supporting Gang of Youths, J Shed and San Cisco in Freo has been really good.
Did you get Shannon Noll’s autograph when you played at Ship-Wrecked! in April?
Naomi: Unfortunately, no. But he did borrow my guitar amp, and Conor’s symbols – which he did not end up using!
Given the size of their recent schedule, heading into this interview one might expect to find two smoldering piles of burnt-out humanity, rather than two alert but comfortable looking 18 year olds. When I met Naomi and Conor the only smoldering was coming from the rain on Northbridge’s roads. Our interview took place in a kennel-shaped hut outside of the Lot 20 café, across the road from the Brass Monkey. As heavy drops beat against the windows of the wooden hut’s door, our conversation began with a discussion about iron-on badges.
You have recently evolved into a four-piece band with the addition of keyboard and some funky bass. Has this transition been a necessity of touring? And has it been a smooth change?
Naomi: We can’t play the songs with only two people, as the music has been written in four parts, so it was always going to be a necessity. But, we love our new band members Nathan and Mitch – we’re all good friends – and the transition has felt pretty seamless.
Have you had much time to experiment and explore your sound with the new EP, or are six tracks going to be more similar to your first two hits “Call My Name” and “Commotion”?
Conor: We had nine days in the studio in June so it gave us plenty of time to work out what sounds we really liked. They will probably sound more complex, but still easy on the ears. The three words we wanted to get thrown around, when describing the tracks, were dreamy, otherworldly, and warm. I think the EP is pretty cohesive under these attributes.
Naomi: Those songs we made are from our set that we had been playing since the beginning of the year, so they were old songs when we took them to the studio. We could easily play around with them, adding or removing bits as we recorded.
In an interview with Pilerats Naomi, you cited the influence of your sister and step-brother in fostering your love for 70s music. How else did you acquire a taste for that period?
Naomi: I sink myself into a deep dark trench of YouTube music.
Conor: We send each other weird links back and forth – Italian disco beats and whatnot. Me, I’m more 80s, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, and The Cure at the moment.
You guys formed your band when you were fourteen after Naomi posted some flyers around her school. What motivated you to be in a garage band at this age?
Naomi: I was playing guitar by myself and then I decided to force a bunch of girls from my school to form a band with me. I don’t think they wanted to do it but I didn’t care. Eventually it became apparent that I needed someone else who was committed, so I put up those flyers and along came Conor.
Conor: I was getting to a stage where I was ‘satisfactory’ enough to start playing with others when I met Naomi. In the beginning, it was just a basement full of about eight people playing flat out all at once. Eventually we began shedding layers and then it was just Naomi and me left, and that’s when the music got serious.
It must have been chaotic to your state of mind – to go in only half a year from being a school kid to playing in front of large audiences and alongside famous artists. How have you been able to cope?
Naomi: We didn’t… We have been to rehab twice.
Laughs all-round… were followed by the two adopting vacant stares in what appeared to be a Vietnam flashback.
Conor: When we won, it was definitely weird because we had to live two separate lives, putting all the Unearthed High stuff aside and just focusing on finishing school. Once school was over though, it was straight on to UH recording and performing – not much time to contemplate what the future has in store.
Naomi: Also, people were kept waiting a long time until we were ready to play. January this year was when we started playing for audiences; before then we only had two songs and we needed to get a full band together. We did do a few secret shows at Mojo’s before then, under mosquito-related names, Ross Rivers and West Nile. But they were only as a means to get good enough to play in front of larger audiences.
Our producer Carl Fox has been very helpful in keeping us on track. He helped us a lot to get a decent song structure in our jams. And in motivating us to keep on the ball with whatever is coming up next. Otherwise, we would be on the couch most of the time.
Along with being flown to Sydney to record, another benefit of winning Unearthed High included a year’s worth of mentoring from the band’s choice of one of five Australian artists: the Jezebels, Northlane, Ily, Alison Wonderland, or Art vs Science. Mosquito Coast chose the Jezebels to give them guidance. Unfortunately, they’ve yet to meet the band in person given conflicting schedules, and the Jezebels cancelling of their 2016 world tour due to keyboarder and vocalist Heather Shannon being diagnosed with cancer. However, Connor told me they recently had a lovely chat for over an hour-and-a-half via Skype.
Has the advice the Jezebels gave at the beginning of the 2015 Unearthed High contest of “not listening to people too much and following your gut” come in handy yet?
Naomi: For sure, we’re going to stick to the mantra of making music for self-enjoyment. And only feeling pressure from ourselves to release the music that we appreciate.
Do you think there is enough opportunity for young musicians trying to make it in Perth? What improvements should Perth shoot for to make it easier for artists?
Conor: It is definitely getting better. Every Friday night at the YMCA HQ in Leederville they play four young up-and-coming bands. Also our friend Ali books Mojo’s in Freo for younger bands to get some recognition.
Given how determined you guys have been to be a band since you were kids, do you think you could have made it big in Perth, even if you had not won the award in August last year?
Naomi: It has been an amazing opportunity. We would have been looking for gigs instead of having them laid before us, and yeah we probably wouldn’t have as much exposure – but we would definitely have been here. Some of the bands we play with in Perth – Pow Negro and Koi Child – have only been heard of half as much as us, but we look up to them.
Interview by Reuben Wylie