Album Walkthrough: Sly Withers dissect their career-defining new album, Gardens
On their second album, the long-time Perth favourites show exactly why we've fallen in love with them time and time again.
Header image by Shannon Stewart.
To many, Gardens - the new album from Perth indie-punk four-piece Sly Withers - could be misidentified as their debut album. That isn't a low-blow at their actual debut album - a self-titled release that arrived five years ago, back in 2016 - but rather a testament to how quickly the band have blossomed within the last five years, and how their evolution has forged a trajectory that's now placed them as one of the country's premier punk bands, not just a highlight of the western capital they're proudly flying the flag for.
Since the release of their debut album, the group - composed of co-vocalists and guitarists Jono Mata and Sam Blitvich, in addition to bassist Shea Moriarty and drummer Joel Neubecker - have consistently showcased a sense of growth that has seen each release out-weigh the last, building an impeccable track record for intimate, yet grunge-y alt-rock that's capable of swerving between every sub-genre under the rock book. They switch between subtle and stripped-back indie-rock to the punkier moments in which their sound is at its heaviest; a contrast that parallels the influences and inspiration that the band pluck from themselves, and how they're able to make any sound distinctive with their Sly Withers charm.
This charm was something front-and-centre of their 2019-released Gravis EP, which came just as the band began to flourish in the national spotlight. Then, with the singles that followed - three in 2020, and a further one this year - they built upon it even more, proving their knack for writing personal and powerful bursts of alt-rock that broke down conceptions of mental health, self care, loss and beyond with poignant songwriting in the forefront, no matter how heavy or rough-around-the-edges the surrounding instrumentation may seem.
On Gardens, however, Sly Withers take this to the next level. Musically, the album's 12 songs capture the versatility of Sly Withers and their strengths across a broad range of sounds, leaning towards the punkier side of their discography as a start-to-finish record, but still flourishing in touches from elsewhere. There's a crunchy sense of grit within every fibre of the record, drawing comparisons to the rougher sounds of acts like PUP and Modern Baseball but with the cool, breezier harmonies so typically found in Western Australian artists - a touch they haven't lost despite the extensive touring on the east coast.
In saying that, it's in the album's lyricism that Sly Withers really shine. With Sam Blitvich having a larger presence on the album's vocal tracks, Gardens feels like a gradual dissection of both Jono and Sam; how their two worlds sit individually as separate people, but together in the family-like structure that gleams from Sly Withers' tight-knit connection. Take Cracks - a battle of doubt and confidence as told by Sam - and how it builds parallel to a song like Sleep On The Weekends, an intimate journey of self care from Jono that speaks about being there for others when you're not present in your own life.
There are many moments like that sprinkled across Gardens, depicting both highs and lows with the same sense of emotional intelligence that thrives within Sly Withers. Breakfast sees Jono reflect on supportive relationships in his life; Taking Steps recounts Sam's journey in recognising struggles and challenging them; Glad details the complexities of family loss, in a way that isn't too visible in music, no less with the detail and attention that Sly Withers so brilliantly provide.
It's all a byproduct of the connection Sly Withers have built within their time together, and how they - cliche aside - act more as know-all, help-all family for one another than a band that kick around and make music with one another. It's something that extends outwards too, with Sly Withers' work being the hand reaching out in a time of need; the sense of visibility so often talk in music, but rarely never comes with the emotional intricacies that Sly Withers' record does.
It's a brilliant, defining album for Sly Withers, and you can take a dive into it below, alongside a track by track walkthrough that sees Jono and Sam break down the album's themes, sound and creation, one song at a time.
SAM: Not being able to write lyrics turned out to be the perfect thing to write about with the beginning of this one. That lack of confidence in my writing ability spiralled into a whole song about insecurities, professionally and personally. You know those days when you get too caught up in your head and you decide everything about you sucks and no one really needs you? Yeah that kind of vibe.
The second verse and bridge are both the product of the amount of time we spent on the road in 2019. One time we played a show in Brisbane and some of us went out after while others went back to our hotel. People’s phones dying and not knowing where the hell we were staying is very much a thing that happened, the stress of the situation combined with the fact that we had a 6 AM flight home the next morning was a little stressful to be honest. It all worked out in the end though!
The bridge where Jono and I share the lead vocal, weaving in and out of each other with some of our lyrics matching up while others differ, was a big ol’ accident. Initially when we were jamming this one out, I had a rough vocal idea that Jono then elaborated on. I thought he was mumble singing and still figuring it all out so one time on a flight home I wrote my version of the section based on what he was doing in rehearsals. After we got home we had this lightbulb moment realising that we both had fully written parts that could be used together and sound real cool and so that’s what we went with.
JONO: We wanted to start big with this one as there was already a heap of slow start songs on the record and I like how the band really establishes the groove early on, which made a really nice bed to build the vocal melodies on. I think Sam’s subtle lead lines in this are really genius and did the perfect job of just enhancing everything around it rather than being a stand out feature.
Breakfast is really just about listening to people. I’m really lucky to have a close group of friends around me that will tell me when they can see something or someone is having a negative impact on me, as well as when my actions are having a negative impact on others. That line “I don’t know what I should do but I swear I’ll make it home for breakfast” is me saying I have to go do something for me but I’ll be back to try to make this better. And when I say “Yeah I will carry you anywhere, wherever you have to go, everyone else out here you must be crazy” I was talking about that feeling of everything going great in a relationship and how that creates a really good setting to combat problems and everyday stresses.
JONO: This was either the first or second song I wrote in an alternative tuning and it was really just some random experimenting with different shapes that I thought sounded nice. I remember I was listening to heaps of Gang of Youths at the time, I think they influenced this one quite a bit. I guess it’s about being stuck in a confusing part of a relationship early on where no one really knows what the other is thinking and it leads to a lot of assumptions and the questioning of motives and reactions. In this sort of situation where you're developing feelings for someone you don’t know that well, you’re completely in the dark on what they’ve been through in the past and I think that creates a lack of understanding.
SAM: Taking Steps is about recognising the struggles you’re having and the challenging process of trying to take action to get better. It’s not always as smooth in practice as it sounds in theory. I sing about stuff like breathing exercises aimed at calming anxiety, but also about the idea of just staying in bed all day, unable to actively help yourself. I find there’s a duality to self-help where one moment you’re feeling empowered and motivated to help yourself, and then sometimes you just crumble into your instincts to stay in bed or do a bunch of stuff that gives you short term satisfaction with damaging long term consequences, convincing yourself that it’s alright because tomorrow you can “start the change”.
The problem I find there is that it can be hard to follow through with the idea of that “tomorrow” where you’re going to do all the right things to get yourself on the right track. This is where the “yeah I’m worried that tomorrow never comes” line in the bridge comes from. The self-talk of reminding yourself that “everything’s ok” can be really helpful for me in keeping calm and trying to move forward but sometimes I find being too good at convincing yourself everything’s fine can make it really hard to actually take action.
SAM: The opening lyric in this one is about how my late Grandfather used to hate the big bougainvillea out the back of my parents’ place because he was the one who had to cut it back every day and a half to stop it from swallowing up the entire neighbourhood in its prolific branches. The rest of the track is about taking a little look at yourself and trying to be better/do better. I feel like these two things are related in that I think I was subconsciously writing about hoping that my Grandpa would’ve been proud of how I was living my life since he passed.
The overt pop-punkness of this track scared the shit out of me initially. Pop-punk is looked down upon by so much of the “hip” music community and whilst we love the fuck out of the genre, I was super scared to put this out as a single. The chorus is me trying to write a Neck Deep chorus and the reference point for the drum intro was 100% Hey Mickey. Joel’s favourite movie is Bring It On so he wanted to pay tribute to that on this song.
Sleep On The Weekends
JONO: This one's sort of about two things. You could say it’s about accepting that you're not always going to be able to please people and feeling like you need that extra bit of time to think through a situation. At the same time, it’s about feeling guilty because in the interest of self-care you had to step away from helping someone in a time of need. I think when you're dealing with a person who suffers from self-doubt, anxiety and just general instability when it comes to their mental health, there is a line you have to draw between being available to help that person in any way you can, and then taking on their current problems as your own.
I think I noticed myself becoming entangled in this person's situation to the point where I was no longer in a position to help and the only option I saw was to take a big step back, collect myself and approach things from a new angle. It’s a scary thing to step away like that and I felt like I had failed this person and left them vulnerable.
The last two sections are me just talking about my parents' backyard. We lived in the same house my whole life until I moved out and I think that just created the ultimate comfort blanket/safe space whenever I’m back there. It’s the perfect spot to sit and share a breakfast with my dogs (I eat human food while they eat dog food obviously) and there’s just something really peaceful about watching them stroll around the garden so, that became the nice spot to escape whatever else was going on and just watch 3 dogs be 3 dogs for an hour every now and then.
JONO: I wrote this one at a time when I was noticing the mental health of a few important people around me spiral and I just remember feeling so poorly equipped to help and completely out of my depth. At the same time, I was working long overnight shifts in the outer northern suburb of Clarkson, doing some really mundane work where I would just get all up in my head and it was just a really unhealthy setting to be trying to process what was happening around me.
I had the initial idea down for a while and we workshopped it as a band to the point I was almost happy with it but it seemed to be lacking something in the end section. Originally the song had nothing to do with Clarkson lyrically, but Joel came up with a working title of “We all get stuck in Clarkson sometimes” and I think that act of giving the song’s theme a location connected a few dots for me in terms of why I wrote it and what was going on at the time and that was the spark I needed to come up with the bridge section onwards which is heaps better than what we had before in my opinion.
SAM: Glad is basically just me processing the death of my Grandfather a few years ago. We were close and it affected me and my family really significantly so the whole period was a very intense and emotional experience. I had this really strong feeling of pride and joy when reflecting on his life with my family in the time immediately after he passed. Although I was absolutely devastated by the loss, I found myself looking for the silver lining as a way of coping, and a feeling of “gladness” is the best way to describe the feelings I found when trying to actively think positively about it all. Glad that I had my time with him. Glad that he lived a long and fulfilling life. Glad that he touched so many other people, and being able to see that at his funeral.
I feel that this is the best job I’ve done of articulating a specific feeling in a song and because of that, along with the incredibly personal nature of the song, I think that it’s my favourite song I’ve ever written.
JONO: Fun fact - this is the only one of my songs on the record I used a standard tuning for. I wrote the opening guitar line for this after watching the second Narnia movie with that Prince Caspian guy. There's a Regina Spektor song in the final scene I thought was really cool and that sparked the initial idea for the song. Constant Wreck is about throwing in the towel after you’ve devoted a lot of time and effort into a situation without that level of effort being reciprocated back, knowing if you do that you’re not gonna get any kind of closure. Then it ends with a guitar solo.
You could say it’s about making that decision to let go of the hope that anything good will come out of this relationship you’ve been working on. You say to yourself if it was ever going to work it would have by now and you can’t keep offering yourself up to be disappointed. Everyone's sick of hearing about it and you’re sick of dwelling on it. Making that decision to walk away might leave you with no real sense of closure and that can make it really hard to move on. For a long time, I still felt like I was waiting and hoping something would spark and turn it all around.
SAM: This one goes pretty hand in hand with Taking Steps in its self-reflective themes. Originally I brought it into the boys and pitched it as a fast and loud punk song but we quickly realised that keeping it downtempo and sombre felt much more natural and sincere. We turned down the lights in the rehearsal room and got real saucy with it. After we recorded the first demo onto our phones, Shea either pitched the name “Sizzle Me Timbers” for it, or just said that phrase out loud as a way of describing the feels it was giving him. Either way “Sizzle Me Timbers” became the working title for this one for a good couple of years until we had to give it a real name.
Turns Out felt right as it conveys the message here pretty concisely. The idea of thinking one thing and then realising that actually it turns out the situation is not what you once perceived. Bad habits are easy to ignore when you’re young but as many before me have experienced, there comes a point where you realise the damage that you’re doing. Those bad habits can come in the form of stuff like smoking or overindulging in crappy food, but also more social things like not talking about your problems as a way of pushing them down and pretending they aren’t important, which the chorus delves into.
SAM: One time we had the absolute privilege of supporting emo royalty Tigers Jaw in Perth and after the show, I locked my keys in my car outside the venue and had to wait ages until the RAC came to help me sort my shit out. The next morning I woke up feeling pretty rubbish mentally and had a real hard time getting going, but I went and made a coffee, made some phone calls I’d been avoiding and then sat down with my guitar and this one fell out of me.
As with most of my songs, it started with me talking about one thing, then rapidly morphed into something else that the initial idea had somehow led to me uncovering. Keys is about wanting to be a better partner and feeling like your significant other deserves better from you than they sometimes get. I think self-reflection is a pretty important thing in relationships and I think the ability to pause and recognise faults in your behaviour is key to growing any kind of important relationship in life, romantic or not. There’s a line in here where I get to compare my amazing partner and her strength and resilience to that of this hell dope Japanese pro wrestler Kazuchika Okada and I’ve never felt like my passion for the ol’ “you know it’s fake right?” artform has served me better than in the moment I wrote that lyric.
This song also has what I would like to officially claim to be the spiciest chord on the whole record. It’s the third chord in the chorus and I think it’s a C#m7b5 but the person who taught me it told me it was a “half-diminished” chord but like who really knows hey? I guess there’s no way we’ll ever really know. Music theory - much like life itself - is a mystery.
JONO: Positives is about doing your best to keep the ball rolling even if that means ignoring things that upset you or things you don’t agree with and how long that can go on before something implodes. Also, it’s about the idea that my own ideas of self-care can have a negative impact on people around me, especially when it isn’t communicated properly and that toss-up between doing the things you need to do for yourself and being responsible for the impact those actions have on others.
From the beginning I wanted this to be the biggest sounding track of the album and I think it was a really good opportunity to push the dynamics in both directions. We had a lot of fun messing around with different levels of layering throughout the track and when we got Sam to take the beginning of verse two it made such a subtle but important impact on how the song's intensity mapped out. I think the gang vocal section at the end of this is the coolest shit in the world and when Sam pitched the idea he sent me the most ridiculous personal choir demo recording where he did 4 or 5 different harmonies all layered together and it was fun.