One Degree of Sunfruits
Following the release of their much-anticipated debut album, Winter McQuinn of Sunfruits talks us through climate angst, making a statement, and grooving on the brink of the apocalypse
Image credit: Kalindy Williams
Sunfruits have been going through it.
It’s not that the four-piece Naarm group — vocalist-guitarists Winter McQuinn and Evie Vlah, bassist Elena Jones, and drummer Gene Arigo — have had any particular hardships lately. They’ve been going through it in the same way we all have: working in a COVID-tinged world, staring down a climate crisis, and navigating the labyrinthine complexities of social bonds. These days, there’s always some bind to navigate — the climate crisis, the COVID crisis, the housing crisis, the cost of living crisis, the ever-deepening financial crisis — but such is modern life; making ends meet as we make to meet our end.
It’s in this vein that Sunfruits have made their lot, fusing a love for psych-pop styles and garage band flavours with their nuanced take on this existential moment. Their recent string of singles have seen the up-and-comers cement themselves as a band to watch, channelling the spirit of ‘60s psych acts and ‘70s garage rockers into sharp songs and conscious lyrics. On their debut album One Degree, they take a psychy trip through both elation and panic, casting a sobering eye over life, love, and the slow-going apocalypse that hangs over us all.
Sunfruits have long had a penchant for heavier things. Their debut single, 2019’s All I Want, pairs their groovy psych jams with a condemnation of materialism, considering the “trinkets” that fill our spaces and minds. It’s not all serious, and it’s never doom and gloom, as exemplified by the self-titled Sunfruits. The band’s second single, it conjures the musical mission by way of their confectionary namesake. Duelling vocals, a floating organ, psyched-out guitar riffs, and lighthearted lyrics about buying “Sunfruits from the canteen” channel the spirit of the classic Australian lolly — sweet, addictive, and cloaked in warm nostalgia.
It wasn’t long before the group was on to bigger things. “We kind of started planning this album, or the very first inklings of this album, around the time that we put out Mushroom Kingdom in 2020,” recalls Winter of the record’s beginnings. The band, then boasting a different lineup, had just released their debut EP, the six-track Certified Organic. “We were stoked on that, but also wanted to really dive into a bigger body of work, and focus on writing an album.”
In a time where upheaval was the norm, the sporadic lockdowns didn’t do much to dissuade songwriters Winter and Gene from their goal. “It’s kind of what we knew… Gene and I always work like that in terms of songwriting, we just have a demo, we both use Logic, and we just demo stuff, and then send it back to each other and make changes.” If the ensuing pandemic didn’t influence their writing process, it came through the pen, infused with the angst and worries of lockdowns and breakouts. “I think it had a profound effect on me and Gene, in terms of what we were writing about,” says Winter. That isolation, spurred by the acute COVID crisis, brought other modern anxieties to the fore. None proved more prominent than the climate.
“Lyrically, this album is filled with a lot of climate-related feelings, which range from negative to positive, and optimistic to pessimistic,” he explains, with another thread in “human relationships and how they can be quite hard to navigate.” The pair are intertwined in Sunfruits’ songwriting, a ‘misery loves company’ combo that often feels more fun than fearful. “It was definitely a dark time for us,” he admits, “but we wanted to match that negativity, and pessimistic vibe, with positive musical things.”
That lease breaks through on single Made to Love, which marries frenzied overthinking with an insatiable desire. Images of devastation and ruin collide with calls for love and escape — “just me and you until the last dandelion floats away / Till the earth collapses and we all go up in flame,” sing Winter and Evie on the chorus — all buoyed by a punchy indie-rock pep. The luxe rock sound which runs through that track, and the record at large, betrays their recording studio: a DIY setup out in Kennett River, a small seaside town along the Great Ocean Road.
“It was amazing,” says Winter of those sessions. “We were there for 10 days at a friend's house, and it's so rare to get everyone in together, living at a place where it's kind of isolated, focused on this one creative project.” Joining the band was producer and engineer Theo Carbo, who helped the group build a makeshift studio in their rural digs. “We brought all the gear down in a couple of vans and set it up for a couple of days.”
“It was pretty much 10 to 10 — like 10am to 10pm — with breaks for breakfast and lunch and dinner,” explains Winter. “Sometimes it would go till midnight or 1am… if we were tracking a lot of strings and vocals, we kind of do that late at night, and keep the loudest things for the middle of the day, just because of neighbours,” he says with a laugh. “It was really a magical time.” Taking long days in the country helped fuel the flames of One Degree, both metaphorical and strikingly literal. “I've always been quite concerned with climate things,” says Winter. “It's always been front of mind for me, in terms of what makes me most anxious, and the band is… well, everyone's super concerned about it.” Kennett River has been narrowly spared from bushfires a handful of times over the last decade, including once in the 2015 season, multiple times in the 2016 season, and again earlier this year.
“I think it's always just kind of been in our subconscious, and then when you write music, what's in your subconscious comes out,” he explains, with that simmering angst both burnished and partially purged by their surrounds. “I think it was super cathartic because you're in this beautiful natural environment, writing about conservation and environmental things. It felt like synergy, like it was all tied in.”
The result, far from myopic, weaves these fears into tracks about burning love (Made To Love), yearning love (Spiders), nostalgic recollections (Believe It All), and the inexorable passage of time (Hello Future Me). If closer Warning Signs brings an orchestral flair to our sequestered modern lives, it doubles as a tender call to action. “I think there's almost a toxic positivity lens you could look at it through, which we were thinking about,” Winter explains of the record’s bent. “It's also examining what's most important for people in life,” he elaborates, “[climate change is] such a big issue, it isn't an individual one, but it's… just controlling your anxiety about things that you can control. I think positivity won out, but I'd have to look at all the lyrics again and do a tally!”
One Degree brings the group to the forefront, with the psychedelic illustrations of earlier single art replaced by a string of stylish band shots. “I think we wanted to evolve from that psychedelic route and evolved into something that was a little more polished, and something that… showed our identities a bit more,” Winter offers. “I think on previous covers, we were still working out what we wanted to do as a band.” It seems no coincidence that their image has emerged alongside a newly invigorated intent, though Winter’s quick to shower love on their previous aesthetics. “I still really appreciate those covers,” he adds, “and I think it's such a good capsule of where we were at that time.”
This visual progression not only centres the band before the camera, but also places them behind it, with Evie directing and editing the clips for singles End of the World and Made to Love. “I think that's just been like an evolution of everyone in the band's roles,” explains Winter of their blossoming creative input, “recognizing the different skill sets, with Evie having such a good eye for design and directing, and letting her roll with that and giving her the onus to really control that vision.” It’s flared pants and striped suits, disco balls and old sports cars, glamorous hallmarks that pop on film stock and light up a room before the quartet have even played a note.
Winter himself starred in End of the World, with makeup and styling from Evie; the Made to Love clip was edited by Gene, who also served as the Assistant Director on Believe it All. “Playing those skill sets and letting them kind of explore that was really fun,” he beams, “and something we hadn't done on previous releases. We always kind of outsource the videos, which is fun and less work, but I think this way the product we came out with was quite tied in with the music.”
In the meantime, however, Sunfruits will be taking matters into their own hands, heading abroad to the Manchester Psych Festival in September to spread the good word. “Super excited about that,” chirps Winter. Therein lies the beauty of Sunfruits’ One Degree — while it grapples with catastrophe, it finds solace in community, pulling hope from existential despair and linking arms as we stare down a potentially untimely end. It’s when things seem desperate and hopeless that resolve and hope are most needed, and in their tales of love, loss, and armageddon, there’s a shoulder to lean on and a tempo to move to.
It can be tough, and it can be daunting, but with One Degree, Sunfruits find a woozy groove on the road to ruin. Don’t just sit there and listen — get up and make your change.