If people want to call it smart pop that's better than people calling it dumb pop.
When Shea Duncan walks into a Surry Hills cafe to meet me, he's not wearing any shoes. A wardrobe malfunction brought on by cheap thongs, I'm told, although he seems to be taking it quite well. Joined shortly after by friend and fellow bandmate Jess Pollard, the three of us settle down for chai and a chat. The pair make up Sydney band Toucan, and they are diligently toiling away to create their jazz-influenced 'brainy' pop, which is altogether difficult to dislike.
Lucy Rennick: How did you guys meet?
Jess Pollard: We met at The Con [the Conservatorium of Music], and found through the powers of deduction that we liked the same stuff, started writing together. We also had separate projects going on and Shea got really into production so I guess from that stemmed what is today Toucan.
Is this a childhood dream? What did you want to be when you were little? Is this it?
Jess: I always wanted to be a singer when I was growing up.
Shea Duncan: I think the dream was to do music for the rest of our lives, so this is definitely part of it.
You're doing it!
Shea: Gradually, yeah.
Jess: We've succeeded already. We can just stop now! Please don't put that in the article.
What's the experience of being up and comers in the Sydney music scene? Is it supportive?
Shea: We've been pretty lucky so far with the opportunities we've had. The Triple J unearthed feature was really helpful.
I read an article recently about the monopoly Triple J unearthed has on the burgeoning Australian music scene. What's your opinion on that? Do you think it's a good or a bad thing?
Jess: Tough one. I think it should be a balance. And that's not saying one way or another; I think we like to stick neutral in this because we've been lucky enough to have Triple J support us. We really respect what that does and we saw the opportunities that came through that, but is it the right thing having the power in one hand? I guess that's a question that people can answer for themselves.
Shea: I think there are other ways as well. Triple J is billed as the only national broadcaster so it's definitely pivotal. But there's so many other bands doing well through other means. It's easy to say it's the only way, but there are alternate methods.
Jess: You can be presented on Triple J and have a crap live show, no one's going to come watch you. The bands that come through there and are good and have a good live show get what's due. I think there's a lot of great Australian music, so I think it's tough job to decipher and to go with trends, go with what's going forward.
What are the main challenges you guys are coming up against?
Jess: Supporting ourselves.
Shea: Financing the whole thing early on is tricky. It's a lot of investment, time and money wise.
Jess: It's a big gamble.
Shea: It's a big labour of love. You have to do a lot. We've just started playing our first out of state tours, but because the country is so big it's a lot of time and money, depending on whether you want to fly or drive.
Reviews are coining your music 'brainy' pop. Is this something your conscious of when you're making music?
Jess: I think we've got a different sound to a lot of other Australian bands, because we don't have guitars and we're based out of a computer. It also has relationships with English pop and American pop, so people are finding it hard to coin it. It's still in the indie basket, but not so indie at the same time.
Shea: Maybe that's a polite way of saying it's extremely pop.
Jess: Which we totally don't mind. The music is what it is. If people want to call it smart pop that's better than people calling it dumb pop.
I was thinking that maybe it's a reaction to growing disillusion of the pop industry these days.
Jess: In what sense?
Shea: I saw them for the first time on the ARIAs last night. I've never heard of them. I've been living under a brainy pop-rock. They were the biggest international act or something and I've never heard of them, that's so bad!
Jess: I was at a party last night, so I missed the ARIAs. Don't put that in the article!
Kylie got inducted into the Hall of Fame!
Jess: I like Kylie. I think if you last that long in this industry, all kudos to you. It's totally the survival of the fittest.
She's still quite gracious as well. She was very humble.
Shea: I think when you get to that level most people are. I think they're just so grateful to be still doing music.
Jess: There's probably still always a challenge I guess, in that there are new challenges!
I bet hers isn't making money?
Jess: It could be! I was looking at a list of all the people that have gone bankrupt. Lady Gaga was declared bankrupt after she went 20 million over her budget for her live show.
Who are your influences?
Shea: We do listen to a lot of music. It's true in a sense but it's an annoying answer. We could probably each give a few examples of what we're really into at the moment but I think it's hard to pinpoint specific influences. You're influenced by everything on the way.
Jess: It's kind of like osmosis. You're always influenced by everything you listen to and everything you see. Like in fashion and art, everything is connected holistically. You sometimes don't even know the things that are changing your sound.
Shea: I'm going to go with LMFAO. I think they're subconsciously influencing me.
Jess: We saw Boy & Bear last week, and we took away the things we liked. If you see and artist and you love the colours or something, you try and incorporate that into your own thing.
Is the whole Aldous Huxley theme quite prominent?
Jess: It wasn't a direct link, initially. The EP wasn't conceptual in that sense, but it sort of turned out to be quite related. When you look at the lyrics I guess there are links. Subconscious osmosis! Maybe that's the word of the hour.
Comparisons are something artists have to deal with frequently. I was listening to you last night and I think you sound like Roisin Murphy.
Jess: Who's that? I love when people say I sound like someone I've never heard of. I have a doppleganger!
Someone else told me you sound like Nina Simone.
Jess: Well I grew up listening to a lot of jazz, and it's still predominately what I sing in. Again the powers of osmosis, you take sounds. That's the great thing about singing, You can so easily take on sounds, and you can do it without even realising. You can take on the smallest inflection.
Have you had any bad comparisons?
Shea: We've been really lucky so far in that all the reviews we've had are quite positive. Maybe the people that don't like our music haven't taken the time.
Jess: I want a delicate neutral I don't think I'd love to be slammed. I think our comparisons are Adele and Florence and the Machine.
Shea: And they're not particularly bad.
Do either of you have any ridiculous skills that are totally impractical for every-day life? Like opening a beer bottle with your belly button? Although that's quite useful?
Jess: I think my watching of rock-umentaries and my researching and cataloging of articles on artist health is pretty ridiculous. And I'm a really good scrap-booker.
Shea: Most people get over that at age 5. Jess is still doing it.
Are there any Sydney artists that you'd like to plug?
Shea: Mrs Bishop. I really enjoy their music. They're really lovely guys and you can definitely see where the music comes from.
Sydney. Friday 9 December, at Spectrum
Canberra, Saturday 10 December, at Transit Bar
Glenworth Valley, Friday 30 December, at Peats Ridge Festival
Melbourne, Wednesday 4 January, with The Kooks at Festival Hall
Sydney, Friday 6 January, with The Kooks at Hordern Pavilion
Newcastle, Saturday 14 January, at Newcastle Leagues Club
Wisemans Ferry, Friday 2 March, at Playground Weekender Festival
Sydney, 13 March, at Jurassic Lounge, Australian Museum
Words: Lucy Rennick