On their long-awaited debut record, Sentimentalism, Naarm five-piece The Slingers craft melancholy ‘motel pop’ that speaks to this strange age of loneliness
A few years ago, in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Melbourne, I wandered onto a busy set. In the corner, three walls formed an open room, with the camera crew nestled by the fourth as the talent shifted about. Assistants pulled a loveseat from within, the walls pushed closer in, and a drum kit was shuffled inside. Eventually, five fresh faces joined the fray: there stood The Slingers.
The music video being shot that day, The Cruellest Cut, marked the band’s first release on Flightless Records, a graduation from self-starting success to lauded label recognition. The idea of their debut record, Sentimentalism, was just starting to form, and The Slingers themselves — Darcy Lechte, Greg Koumouris, Christian Hendy, Ben Hooper, and Robert J. Mahon — were poised for a breakout. It might’ve been put on hold by the pandemic, but that moment has well and truly arrived: in the wake of that pause, they’ve sold out The Corner, recorded their debut album, and made quite an impression on audiences local and international. In the moments before their much-anticipated debut, we spoke to lead singer Robert J. Mahon about loserdom, nostalgia, and making music for this “age of great estrangement, deconstruction, and rearrangement.”
There’s an old-school panache to Mahon, whose troubadour vocals anchor the melancholy of The Slingers’ modern meditations. His is both the laidback croon and the impassioned wail, every rendition imbued with a sense of classic rock longing. In some guises, he’s reminiscent of a lounge-era Alex Turner; in others, he’s more like an ‘80s Bowie. It’s character that carries into conversation, with Robert eager to wax on craft, culture and philosophy. There’s a definite distinction between Mahon and the characters he plays, and yet speaking with him calls to mind The Slingers’ lush arrangements, themselves conjuring some smokey spotlit stage.
“Motel Pop is kind of the word we've given it,” says Robbie of The Slingers’ recent sound, quick to compliment producer Errol Green, who played a “big part” in that evolution. “Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Talking Heads, that sort of milieu… production-wise, that was a blueprint we'd often use.” It hasn’t always been that way, with the road to their debut record littered with country-tinged singles and classic rock-infused loosies. “There was a little foray into country music, and I love country music,” says Robbie, reflecting on the band’s 2020 single, Kind Hearts. That eclectic approach, enshrined in joints like The Cruellest Cut, Little Conversations, and One More Day, set The Slingers on a path to their decisive debut.
“We've always thought the album is kind of like the peak form to aspire to for musicians,” says Robbie. “Even though they're not as relevant today in the world of streaming, I think, from the art point of view, that they remain the ultimate form.” He explains the long road to Sentimentalism, a journey that started with 2017’s Fake Fruit EP, as a matter of necessity over any sort of strategy. “It was really more of an economic restraint, to be honest,” he admits. “When we were unsigned, we just basically didn't have the resources to hunker down and do a big album.”
The wait, though forced, may have had some advantages: after years spent courting a dedicated fanbase and sharpening their skills and styles, The Slingers found themselves forced into a mandated writing boot camp. “We were sort of just starting to demo a lot when COVID hit, and in a way, the one thing you could do during COVID was write and demo music,” reflects Robbie. “We were lucky in that respect, because we lived in a sharehouse, at least most of the members, but we could actually write… we couldn't really tour, we couldn't gig, we couldn't do anything else musical.”
It may have deepened their musical bag, but as Robbie tells it, the sharehouse lockdown could hardly have brought them closer together. “As a band, we've been best friends since kindergarten, and we've been playing music together since at least high school,” he says, wistful. “That's probably the main glue of the band: the fact that we do have this pretty profound love for each other, and no one member is particularly uniquely gifted at music. It's more just we gel really well together, and we sort of have the same music tastes and the same love.”
Those tastes coalesce on Sentimentalism, which feels concrete in a way The Slingers have never been before. Where singles offered a chance at one-off experimentation, the record has seen them adopt a solid sonic foundation. A retro rock palette, slow and synth-laden, channels a bygone scene; lyrically, bittersweet estrangement duels with fading romanticism. It’s a pithy fusion of true emotion and rich reference.
“I have been there, and I think other people in the band have been there,” says Robbie of Tokyo, framing Streets of Tokyo as less lived experience and more a familiar abstraction. “The whole song is playing around with those '80s motifs… the song itself sounds a bit hammy.” The central image of a lover departing — “I saw you disappear into the station below” — folds in with classic images of “the streets of Ho Chi Minh” and “the neon lights in old Phnom Penh,” calling to mind the lonesome ‘soul searching’ in foreign locales. As Robbie explains it, they’re channelling “that '80s Bowie era… I guess it was supposed to be a little bit tongue in cheek, hamming up that sort of ‘80s excess.”
“I would never say anything we do is a joke,” he qualifies. “Everything we take seriously, but I think a lot of the stuff we write is still supposed to be kind of funny. I like that way of thinking about things.” It’s a perspective he credits to Bowie, who “knew he was pretty funny at times,” particularly on tracks like Fashion. In employing a kind of campy self-awareness, says Robbie, Bowie never undercut the tracks themselves. “I think it kinda adds to the effect,” he suggests, “there's this self-awareness in there. That's what we always say in the band: musicians should take music really, really seriously, but should never take themselves really, really seriously.” In the world of The Slingers — littered with lonesome figures and pained goodbyes — this ham is a powerful counterweight.
When it comes to the farewells that run throughout the record, Robbie gives a metaphorical read, saying it’s “more than it being any literal biographical thing.” His vision of estrangement pushes out beyond the personal, sparking a discussion of our culture at large. “I think we wanted this album to be set in the modern era as it is, because I think there are a lot of people pretending at the moment in their art,” explains Robbie. “Nostalgia is big, and people are kind of pretending.” The Slingers’ sound has its roots in yesteryear, but the songs themselves are unmistakably modern, taking on contemporary alienation through lyrical abstraction. “This age is quite frightening and void of vibe,” he muses, “[and] people want to kind of just pretend that it's either the '70s, or the '90s, or even the early 2000s.” He nods to the nostalgia mill, repackaging familiar thrills into weakened balms, those superficial throwbacks our current culture’s reigning opiate.
“I think it's really interesting to explore this age, because this age feels like a lot of things are ending, and not a huge amount of things are beginning,” he continues. “It's this sort of liminal period.” It’s no surprise that The Slingers’ visual aesthetics lean so heavily on these ideas, with the dual images of since-abandoned settings and fading legends bringing the music to life.
“Nic's, first and foremost, quite an old, good friend of ours,” gushes Robbie, lauding photographer Nic Ojae, whose striking photographs grace the record and each of the band’s recent singles. “His photographs, there's just something about them... I think they gel well with the album, and I can't describe it that much other than there's an element of tragedy,” he waxes. “There's something quite sad about them, there's something kind of farcical... they're not depressing, there's a lot of pathos in those pictures.”
Ojae’s art pairs perfectly with The Slingers’ mission, emphasizing the sombre undercurrent of Sentimentalism. There’s an eerieness to his eye, courting spaces in moments usually unseen, rendered with wistful grain. “That motel [on the Down To The Bone art] is kind of outdated, and the staircase with the flowers, I think that happens to be a wedding reception center in Uzbekistan,” explains Robbie. “They're all these places made up to look real nice, but just a little bit past their prime, a little bit dated, they don't really belong.”
It’s a melancholy mirrored in The Slingers’ characters, louts and losers navigating the moments after their supposed greatness waned. “A lot of the characters in the songs, they're past their prime too,” says Robbie, casting the lovelorn and brokenhearted protagonists that drift through the liminal worlds The Slingers evoke. “There's something very attractive about a loser, because we can probably all relate that a bit more than some absolute weapon, to the extent that even exists,” he says with a laugh. “There's something beautiful and romantic about a loser who is at least aware of it.”
“That's almost who needs music more,” he muses, wondering aloud about “the intended audience” of not just The Slingers, but the form as a whole. “All these CEOs and entrepreneurs that you read about in Forbes — not that I've ever read Forbes — I don't think music is necessarily their salvation so much as it is the people who are more beaten down by the world.” The characters within The Slingers songs, then, would surely be fans of The Slingers.
“I really love that phrase,” says Robbie of 'the age of loneliness', an evocation of which opens Sentimentalism. “I heard that in this documentary called 'Fighting in the Age of Loneliness,' by this political analyst, Felix Biederman. It's about MMA, which I don't have any knowledge of, really. It did a similar thing… whatever this weird dissociative age is, it was trying to explore it visually, and I guess we were trying to do that physically, facing the core of 'what's really going on right now?'”
It’s a difficult subject to grapple with, though recent reports suggesting that epidemics of loneliness and alienation have only worsened since the COVID pandemic. In the hands of The Slingers, loneliness is not merely discussed but embodied, given life through first-person laments and emotional performances. Their protagonists, though losers, are never judged as such, any hammy theatrics and melodramatic flourishes only enhancing their telling. There’s a tenderness at play, with Robbie acknowledging the absurdity and nonetheless empathising. “I think it's not exactly clear,” he says of the strange state of things. “People seem to have pretty weird feelings about the world as it is today. I think it'd be very difficult to pin any kind of label on what this cultural moment is… it's almost incapable of anything other than reflection and looking backward.”
That’s not to say The Slingers’ aren’t looking to the future, with an album tour taking them to cities and towns up the East Coast. “Sydney's been selling really well,” he happily announces. “We've actually never really traveled! We've played one gig in Adelaide and we've done a few regional shows, but we haven't ever been to Sydney which is a travesty!” A hometown gig at The Espy also marks the band’s first performance on the southside — an exciting prospect for Robert. “We have no intention of tying ourselves to any geographical area,” he admits. “We didn't really try to be a Melbourne group, that's just where we all met, so it kinda happened that way. I'm looking forward to playing to new people and playing in new places.”
They might have just got done with their debut, but new music doesn’t sound too far off. “Hopefully pretty quick, we'll get working on the second album,” slips Robbie. “We've got the material, pretty much, it'll just be a question of getting it locked in and recorded somewhere… we're gonna follow it up pretty quickly, I think.” What that means for a chameleonic band like The Slingers is anyone’s guess, but if Sentimentalism is anything to go by, it’s a promise we’ll be waiting on.