The Sweets of Sin - Embracing Innovation
Sydney three-piece The Sweets Of Sin were formed In Adelaide late in 1985. They plan to migrate to Europe next year for what they have called 'an extended sojourn'. They will leave behind a self-titled debut album of esoteric techno pop that may leave many newly converted fans wishing the trio had never left. CHRIS NEWTON spoke to the mysterious STEVE Z, the man responsible for the saxophones, French horns, flutes, clarinets, keyboards and lyrics that make up much of the band's equally mysterious sound.
Given that they are often classified as a dance/pop band, the background of the members of The Sweets Of Sin are somewhat surprising. They go like this:
Steve Z - horn in England, studied French horn and composition at the conservatorium of Adelaide University, played with orchestras and various experimental ensembles.
Frank Mankyboddle (lead singer) - born in West Germany, began vocal training in a church choir and toyed with the violin as a teenager.
Daniel O'Shae - studied mime and played trumpet with various groups before becoming the bands drummer in 1986.
True that would be unusual if The Sweets Of Sin were a standard dance/pop band, but their new album suggests otherwise. It's lyrical conundrums, sophisticated technology, and experimental use of brass and percussion makes the pop label seem rather silly. As Steve Z describes the history and developent of the hand it becomes even sillier.
'When we first started in Adelaide, we were very different, to what we are now. Our live show was more theatrical. It was very much in the style of German cabaret of the 1920's, using regular wardrobe changes and breaking the performance up into sections and themes. At that stage we used backing tapes as we were still a two piece without a drummer. On moving to Sydney, Daniel became our drummer and we scraped most of the theatrical stuff because people would treat it like the theatre, thinking that, like a play, you only go to see the show once."
The band's flirtation with various continental sounds, such as the Middle Eastern flavour of Steve Z's clarinet, has been instrumental in earning the band another ambiguous label: World Pop (?). Whatever that may mean, it probably refers to album tracks sung in Turkish and German.
"That was just because we wanted to do something different," says Z. "One day we were sitting in this Turkish cafe in Sydney and we heard a Turkish pop song on the juke box and decided to do it. The original is quite a soppy love song and it's funny to see Turks listening to our version. They usually laugh because they hear the love song and sentimental lyrics given this strange treatment. Although we do things like that, it doesn't mean the music is not Australian: it is, there's no doubt about that. I don't agree with the 'world music' label.''
Both Steve Z and Frank Mankyhoddle are sophistcated songwriters. They can be quaint, funny, endearing and also frightening. The Orwellian pessimism of tracks such as Experiment With Me, and Futurissimo, ensure that the bands view of socio-politcal man is never far beneath their surface of playful eccentricity. The "icy winds and misty moors' of Z's song, Ghost of the Battlecry, give it the tone of a European novel. This is not surprising. Steve Z himself has admitted to a certain tendency toward the intellectual aspects of music.
'In a way it is a disadvantage having studied music and composition often puts me in the position of intellectualizing everything - it doesn't leave enough room for emotions. Other musicians, who have just learnt by ear, just go ahead and play the music as they feel It. We used to call ourselves existentialist when we started, which got us into a bit of trouble.''
With the Increasing popularity of simple guitar rock, particularly in Sydney, any band going on such a label would surely be pushing it just a little. But the Sweets Of Sin are not oblivious to the fancies of audiences and Z unashamedly admits some accomodation.
''I have a bit, of a problem in that I tend to write things that are too general - I try to encompass too much in the one song. One of the things I will be trying to do is pinpoint something specific so thatmore people will be able to relate to the material, for example, in targeting the human condition, I could talk about one human in particular. This would be more familiar to people - afterall we are looking for some sort of commercial success."
If Steve Z has a problem with songwriting he can take comfort in the fact that his musical skills are far from problematic. As the creator of most of the music on the album, he is able to entertain and intrigue simultaneously. Much of his inspiration comes from the desire to be adventurous. To the Enghish-born composer, the concepts of innovation and experimentation are as exciting as the status quo is boring.
'We are always looking for sotnething different. I like to set a tonal sensor and play around with different modes. The Middle-Eastern sounds on the album are a result of scales built on diminished chords. This is something that Messiaen (a twentieth century french composer used to do a lot - it comes down to employing alternative ways of looking at things musically."
The current project leaves the hand mnenmbers truly in their element. Both Z and Mankyhoddle have previously languished in guitar rock bands, an ex- perience that stifled their penchant for the unusual. There is no doubt about the fact that they are now happy to continue developing the Sweets Of Sin.
"Both Frank (Mankyboddle) and I had been in other bands. Frank's band was doing stuff like Dexy's Midnight Runners and while the band I was in was slightly more adventurous, it still stuck pretty much to the guitar as the base instrument. I suppose a lot of reason for our current sound is the desire to get away from that and do something else."
The new album, largely self produced, sounds very much like a technological artefact - a piece of highly crafted engineering that would he hard to reproduce away from the mechanical environment. It would be easy to assume that the multiple layers and precise sampling leave it as a static object, forcing the band into a more simplistic live performance. Not the case. According to Stve Z the album is only a hint of what the band can do on stage.
''We are actually mutch better live. The record took around a year to finish and a big problem was trying to get the energy and spontaneity of our live acts onto the album. On our next recording we will try to make something more instant.''
And what of the European sojourn? Does the band hope to do a Triffids or The Church and come hack to their homeland with the overseas nod of approval'?
''Yes, I think it would be great If that happened, we plan to stay in Europe for quite a while. Though I think that Australia is a huge cultural melting pot with lots of interesting things happening, it seems that we are working too hard considering the relatively minor rewards. Touring, for example, is much easier in Europe simply because the towns are much closer together."
Whether Melbourne audiences will get to see The Sweets Of Sin live depends on their coming south in the six months or so that they have left in Australia. Fortunately, the band are planning to do just that.