The last few years have been hard for the Sydney music scene, with the loss of music venues left, right and centre, and opportunities for up-and-comers thin on the ground.
The adversity makes the few local success stories all the more significant for it.
In the past few years, post-rockers Sleepmakeswaves have shouldered their way into the same party as the big acts, sharing stages with every marquee name in their scene – Underoath, Pelican, Karnivool, Opeth, Monuments, Cog, Russian Circles, Boris and Mono, to name but a few.
“It’s cool hearing them all listed – these are heroes!” laughs Otto Wicks-Green, one of Sleepmakeswaves’ two guitarists (alongside Daniel Oreskovic). “All of the bands you listed have achieved a lot of success in their own fields, doing stuff that’s pretty unique and out there, which is one of the cool things they all have in common. That whole idea of sticking your guns and doing stuff that’s original – not being pressured to conform with what’s happening at the moment but doing your own thing – is such an important lesson, and it’s also just how hard each of these bands have worked.
“We’ve spoken to a lot of the bands and a lot of the time, people just see the success, you know, they just see the end result, but the truth is there’s so much blood, sweat and tears. And I know that’s a cliché, but it’s the reality of being an artist in Australia.”
Wicks-Green came to realise this while co-headlining Belgium’s Dunk Festival in 2012, on one of the band’s career-defining tours with 65daysofstatic. After a few whiskies, 65days drummer Rob Jones admitted the reality of their chosen field to Wicks-Green.
“He said, ‘Look man, prepare to sacrifice everything towards it if you really want it. You’re gonna lose jobs, you’re gonna lose girlfriends, you may end up living above your mum’s garage in a little attic. And that’s what you’ll have to do.’ That was a bit of a wake-up call for me – there’s no easy way out here. There’s no golden ticket in this scene, in this genre; there’s just hard work and sacrifice and trade-offs, and so that’s what we’ve done since 2011. I don’t regret a thing, but sometimes you look back on stuff you’ve lost and it stings a lot.”
The sense of loss bleeds through Made Of Breath Only, the band’s latest album to be released next week. Each of the band members has recently suffered loss in one form or another over the last two years, learnt to adjust, and brought that experience to the emotional landscape that Sleepmakeswaves build in the record.
“With this record we set out to do something quite conceptually and musically cohesive,” says Wicks-Green. “Not like a concept album per se, but something that’s informed by this concept of the Arctic and the Antarctic as a metaphor for loss and for loneliness, and tried to group and write music that fit that theme into something powerful and conceptual.”
Given the epic soundscapes they craft – and the fact their second album was named Love Of Cartography – it’s plain to see Sleepmakeswaves’ infatuation with place and landscape, which informs the emotional spaces they seek to create in their music. For Wicks-Green, landscape acts as natural visual metaphor and as a reminder of that which we lack in an urban environment.
“[Cartography] was around maps, map-making and stars, and these things evoke a sense of the energy and optimism in travel, and so with this record it was a couple of things I wanted to explore. The first was this idea of loss and adjustment to loss: we all went through our versions of loss in 2015 and 2016, and they’re all poured into this record in their own form. The metaphor that I kept thinking of for this was the Arctic and the Antarctic because they’re simultaneously very beautiful and awe-inspiring and fragile, but also very bleak and deadly.
“I love the paradox of a desert of water – this idea that you’re surrounded by what you need and you can’t access it – and I love that metaphor of going through mourning and grief as being lost in the desert. The paradox of an Arctic desert is quite compelling for me. And then along with that there’s this large thing that we’ve lost connection with place, and human beings in this Anthropocene age we live in, as I’ve heard it described, we walk around on concrete and don’t get out into the bush and into the world enough, and it has all these knock-on effects on our mental health and for the way we relate to one another.”
While this may make the record sound like a maudlin experience, those who’ve seen Sleepmakeswaves live know the sheer joy with which they perform and the profound catharsis they indulge in along with their audiences. Even at a time of loss, these experiences bring life and energy flooding back into a seemingly cold, barren world.
“There’s definitely a lot of joy,” says Wicks-Green. “This band is at its heart a live band … In the more serious moments we do get a bit angry and shouty, and we bring both of these emotions along, a sort of healthy aggression. And I suppose a few smiles sneak in as well. It’s generally a very positive energy that we try to bring out, and that’s the vibe that we try to bring to every show, no matter what size the stage.”