Pretty much as soon as they’d finished minting their two-part epic Race Car Blues, Slowly Slowly were thrust into a whirlwind of personal highs and lows. Like he’d done all his life, frontman Ben Stewart chronicled all of it in song, leading to some of his darkest material yet – but also some of his brightest. Musically, Stewart was inspired by artists like Chaka Khan and post-split Paramore, and this broadened palette offered a stark contrast to his sharp and sobering, melancholic poetry.
In announcing Slowly Slowly’s fifth album, Daisy Chain, Stewart said that if Race Car Blues saw him “wiping the slate clean and trying to reinvent [him]self”, then its follow-up “highlights the downfall [he experienced] after that”. He admitted that in the pursuit of self-evolution on Race Car Blues, he lost sight of what – and who – was around him: “I was so hellbent on my personal development that I had my blinkers on. I think I was a little too self-centred and forgot what’s important.”
So came a period of re-reinvention, where to move forward, Stewart was forced to reckon with his past and face his demons head on. Not only did he succeed, he channeled the experience into Slowly Slowly’s most surprising album to date. As the band start hashing out the setlists for a packed year of touring in support of it, Australian Guitar caught up with Stewart to learn more about how Daisy Chain came together.
Was there a thematic significance, for you, in having the record start on the title track?
Yeah. That song came pretty late in the piece, and I went through a couple of stages with it. I think originally this was going to be a self-titled record, but then it didn’t feel quite right. And then for a while, I was going to call it Papier-Mâché, which is the closing track – but you know, that’s a pretty dark song, and I was kind of waiting for that “resolution point” to come around. So when ‘Daisy Chain’ came along, it kind of just tied everything together.
I think we’re probably known for music that errs on the more depressing side of things, but I always fight to have some sort of resolution in all our bodies of work – so I really hoped that something like that was gonna come along [for this record]. And when ‘Daisy Chain’ happened, I was just like, “That’s it!” It’s circular – it feels like the resolution to all the issues that had been happening [in the process of making the album], so it’s kind of like the bow that ties it all together.
How did you go about finding the right balance between the rawness of the lyrics and the beauty of the music?
A lot of the music was written over a super dark period. And I think for the first time ever, because it was so dark, I needed to put [the lyrical themes] up against this shiny, happy exterior because that was the only way that I could work through it – it was almost like I was cloaking it. It just would have been too much to be going through all of this, in lockdown, and then writing the most depressing record ever. I needed to be almost like fooling myself, like dancing around the room while I was writing this super sad stuff. And at the time, when I was writing the music, I felt super inspired by all these new sounds, and that was almost like a distraction from the content itself.
So how did that translate to the way you approached your songwriting as a musician?
I think this record is our biggest departure, guitar-wise, from stuff we’ve done in the past. I wouldn’t even call myself a guitarist. I play guitar like a drummer – it’s very rhythmic, and I play a lot of open tunings and things that make sense in the moment. I’ve never had a guitar lesson, so I definitely approach the guitar in my own way. And so I think on our past records, I’d just play block chords throughout a song because that was how I envisaged the skeleton of that song. But for this record, I used bass and drums more to build that skeleton.
I would write a song and I’d have the chord progression set, but then I would take all the guitar chords out of the song and be like, “Okay, now let’s start writing guitar parts that complement the arrangement, that aren’t necessarily the bare bones, like, structural chords of the song.” And I think that helped because I’ve always had a very self-conscious approach to guitar playing – I don’t feel worthy enough to call myself a guitarist. You know, I’d always felt this need to write intricate guitar parts, or stuff that you’d need a knowledge of chord structures or scales to understand. But I realised, making this album, that you don’t need any of that. As long as it sounds good, it doesn’t matter how complex it is. And so for [Daisy Chain], I just took that freedom and ran with it.
One song that really sticks out for me is ‘Turn It Around’, where you’ve got this really swaggering, Strokes-y kind of groove. Where did that come from?
I drew a lot of inspiration for it from my favorite song of all time, which is ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan. I think [‘Turn It Around’] sounds like this mash-up of the groove from that, and then something in the Venn diagram of Michael Jackson and Incubus – it’s f***ing weird, but it works! I just wanted one of those hypnotic grooves, and it all came together from there. It’s three chords for most of that song, and yeah, it was an opportunity to put a different hat on and really tap into that swaggery kind of thing.
That super percussive vocal and that little guitar movement, right before the chorus – that’s almost like a Jackson 5 chord progression. It was super fun to write. And we deliberately held it back from being a single, just because I feel like there’s nothing worse than when a record comes out and you feel like you’ve heard all the best bits. So [‘Turn It Around’] was like my big chocolate cookie crumb – it’s my treat for all the die-hards that stay up ‘til midnight to hear the record.
When you look at Daisy Chain as this one, cohesive body of work, what do you hope the listener gets out of it?
I want to help people party through the pain. I didn’t want to wallow. I think in the past, I’ve wallowed, and I didn’t want to do that on Daisy Chain. I mean, ‘Turn It Around’ – that song is literally about not being a victim, and taking the onus upon yourself to be more positive. It’s like, “You’ve been kicked in the guts before and you got right back up, so what’s another one? You have the powers in your hands, get up and get it done.” I wanted to capture that sort of energy.
It’s inspired by some of those great records by bands like Paramore. They’re able to still carry the soul of what makes them Paramore, but they move it through the full spectrum of emotion. That’s the sort of band I want to be – if someone’s having a good day, I want them to be able to put on one of our songs and party to it, just as much as I want them to be able to put on one of our songs if they’re having a terrible day. And this record, I think, is us trying to step into that light.