With Race Car Blues, Slowly Slowly are reaching their true selves

With Race Car Blues, Slowly Slowly are reaching their true selves

On Race Car Blues, the band's third record, Slowly Slowly shift perspectives and chase something bigger (most of the time).

All photos by Pat O'Hara.

It opens with a tumble. The first few bars hit, those guitars gently pulsing, and then the words start firing away, rapidly, as if someone had grabbed the head of Ben Stewart – lead singer and guitarist of indie-rock band Slowly Slowly – and tilted it, letting a cascade of lyrics pour out. These “lightning strike moments” are less frequent third time round, but when they hit, boy do they hit. This particular wildfire came from a caffeine high that started with a sporadic guitar riff and morphed into something that reaches through speakers and yanks at your attention, in the most delightfully expected Slowly Slowly way possible. It’s urgent, demanding and a sonic depiction of all those thoughts you, me and Ben have swirling in our heads, fighting their way out. 

As an opening number, Creature of Habit does a pretty damn good job of achieving the band’s goal of “just hitting the ground running.” It’s representative of where the Melbourne band sits, and for the most part has always sat, musically, but there’s a newfound clarity to the lyrics; one that quite literally represents growing up, whether that be physically (“now I gotta think about my wrists when I ollie”), emotionally (“high school friends, well I only got two now”), or professionally (“‘Ben’s got a gig, did you hear he’s got a gig? We should all go, yeah, they’re getting pretty big now. Something ‘bout slowly, maybe it was softly?’ Fuck my life, this is always gonna haunt me.”) With the fourth wall almost instantly broken, it’s easier to digest Slowly Slowly’s third album as somewhat of an encompassing conversation, rather than diary pages shrouded in shame. 

“I’m not a hyper-emotional person in my personal life,” Ben Stewart plainly says, ahead of Race Car Blues’ release. “I’m actually pretty jovial and skip over emotion, and the band is really like my outlet for all that. When I first started writing, I was writing about really private matters to me and I didn’t want anyone to understand, so I could write it off as this is just a silly song.” Now, five years after the band was conceived, Stewart’s reached a point of comfort and maturity, ditching the poetic secrecy for confident takes on life, death, love and aliens.

In a cinematic universe, Race Car Blues is Slowly Slowly: The Sequel. You’ve had a taste of melodrama and now the follow up is here to expand on everything you know of the band, this time with added passion, risk and sophistication. Based on the premise of hitting a point in life where you’re forced to grow up and take ownership of any choices, or lack of, Race Car Blues breaks down a specific kind of “victim mind frame,” with its self-awareness-cum-retrospection. It’s also a release that sees Slowly at their most refined, perfecting the balance of punk numbers, boppy numbers, an unconventional love song, and a ballad, all tied up with a bow. There’s even Creature of Habit Pt. 2, another track that retreats back into familiar territory, without ever feeling bland, and heightens that intensity heard in those pivotal opening moments, in a seamless full-circle way. 

Down a crackling phone line, ahead of Race Car Blues’ launch, Ben Stewart opens up about what made him want to “own his own life,” whether he’s still going through the pains of modern life that plagued 2018 album, St Leonard’s, and how lead single Jellyfish was almost never released.  

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Race Car Blues feels more melodic than previous releases, in the sense that songs have time to breathe on this record, as opposed to back-to-back quick-fire songs like Creature of Habit. Is this a reflection of where you are in life now versus when you were writing the first two Slowly albums?

Yeah, I’m always surprised to see what comes out. Those [songs] that happen really quick, I always feel a bit guilty because it’s almost like someone else wrote it. When you do stream of consciousness writing, which I do quite a bit of, I try to do a brain vomit most mornings where I sit there and just do a bit of a purge. I can see how my thoughts have changed, and I think it’s a really honest interpretation of your inner narrative. Hopefully, that shows through on the record, I always try to do a bit of a positive spin, no matter how dark the song is. I feel like this record, in particular, seems a bit more well-rounded than our others. 

Around the time St. Leonard's came out, you said the album was about "the pains of modern life.” Would you say Race Car Blues is still about being in the midst of pain?

I think it’s a bit of a progression. I wanted this record to move away from that ego-centric victim mind-frame that can come with negative thoughts - and everybody has [those thoughts], I’m not demonising them, I just wanted to really own my own life. I think that comes with getting older and realising that no one’s really looking out for you; it’s just you, and if you let your aspirations or your art fall by the wayside, no one’s there to pick it up for you. It’s about taking ownership. Of course, there are a few reflective moments there and weaker moments too - you kind of need a bit of light and shade. That mind frame I spoke about in Aliens and on St. Leonards, they’re still there, everybody has those pains of life that never really go away, but I think it’s just shifting my perspective on those and stepping up to the plate more frequently.

Was there one experience in particular that made you feel like you had to step up to the plate and take ownership?

We subjected ourselves to some pretty hardcore touring over the past 18 months and I realised I was a lot happier when I was playing shows and performing in front of people. We were playing more and more, and it had this beautiful ripple effect where people were telling other people about our band and the shows were growing. I had a real external validation for a lot of yearning I had internally, and I think seeing all that sort of stuff actualise around me instilled a lot of confidence in me. I was able to trust myself more. It’s a slow process, there was no lightbulb moment, but I started slowly shifting my perspective on the little things on the way and started to, without sounding cliché, enjoy the journey a bit more.

I love songwriting because I think you can put parts of your life in a jar and look back on it and, if you get it right, it’s really poignant. When I come back to [songs Michael Angelo and Race Car Blues] I feel exactly how I did in the moment, so there’s a couple of cool road signs on the record that I can look back on and feel empowered by. 

Speaking of Michael Angelo, you say, “tell the status quo that I’ll be letting go of everything I ever said.” It seems like that’s one of the lines that best shows growth in this album.

Totally. I think it happens to every band that starts to get a little bit of traction. As soon as you’re exposed to a bigger sample size, you’re going to get people where you’re not within their taste. Over the past 18 months, we’ve had that exposure where - it’s like every band – there’s nothing to back out of. It’s interesting because we’ve come from this microcosm community in Melbourne where everyone pats each other on the back and it’s very constructive. I think with triple j play and playing bigger stages with international artists, you get thrown into a pool where everybody has an opinion and suddenly people can write you off without even understanding you.

For me personally, I went through a bit of a learning curve there, learning how to deal with that. That was a huge catalyst in the growth factor. It’s tough for people to criticise your band but I think Michael Angelo is almost like saying thank you for that, because it really made me stick to my guns and step up to the plate. 

Absolutely, comments sections can be wild. Did you feel more pressure writing this album because of all those eyes on you now? 

It’s kind of like a bad tattoo? If the tattoo means something to you then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It made us stick to our guns and make the most honest music we could because, at the end of the day, we’re going to be criticised anyway by a fraction, whether its five per cent of people or 10 or 20. If you’re honest to yourself and you’re doing the best you can, it washes over you at the end of the day. It is a tough one - I feel bad because a lot of artists cop it a lot more than us - but I’ve learnt to be thankful for it. I think that’s the only way to deal with it; don’t read it, don’t get caught up in the spiral of it. 

And a lot of this album does lean towards more personal experiences… If we look a say, Soil, it’s sort of an unconventional love song. It has this warmth and togetherness but it’s also gritty and visceral, and you talk about organs a lot.

Yeah. I just wanted to play a love song that’s sort of weird, almost as a backdrop with mortality. It’s something I’ve always come back to, and something I circled around in Jellyfish. I find it really hard to fit things like love into a physical realm. It’s something that I love to write about because you never get to the bottom of it, and I think with Soil it is talking about decomposition and organs and the body. It’s a very traditionally romantic song… I had this imagery of people wrapped inside each other. But it’s funny, I walk around my whole life with all these organs in me, they’re such a part of me, but I’ll never see them. I’ll never make eye contact with them. It’s just little things like that, I just get lost in. I’m glad you say that the warmth came through because I didn’t mean for it to just seem like some sci-fi, alien movie. 

Similarly, there’s Superpowers, which is usually something that’s quite whimsical and childlike but instead, you’ve brought it to this place where reality is shattering in front of you. 

That was a really fun one to write, it stemmed from the delirium of touring. We were sitting in the van after a very long drive and we were so tired and laughing about the ridiculousness of having a superpower. If you could fly, it would actually be a huge inconvenience because it would fuck up your hair and all your clothes and maybe you’d opt to just drive sometimes because it would be easier. When I was home, [the idea] was swimming around in my head, but it had a bit more of a nostalgic or emotional lens around it.

It was almost a song I was just going to send to the other band members in our group chat to just get a laugh, and then that changed and the whole song [turned into] setting up dominoes. It is quite whimsical and a little tongue in cheek, then the last verse sort of knocks the ball over and makes it a bit more sinister. When it got to that bit, I was like well maybe this is a Slowly song. That’s how that one came about, it’s just about doing what you love. 

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Looking back at the album now, do you feel like you’ve taken a risk with some of these songs?

I feel like we have. It’s really hard when you start to conceptualise the thing people know you for and like you for. It’s really hard not to let that play into your writing and become a toy who claps their cymbals together when they’re told. I was really conscious of that while writing this record and tried to step out of the box. Obviously, there are the classics, there are songs like How I Feel and Suicidal Evangelist, that probably could’ve fit on past releases without being too jarring – I can’t run away from myself. I just feel like there’s a couple of new colours to paint with on this record. 

What about the title track, Race Car Blues? What does that mean?

That was another song that happened really quickly. I have a music room at home, and I was recording. I have a side project that’s more pop music so sometimes when I start writing, I’m not sure what project it’ll be for. I think I had in my mind that [Race Car Blues] was probably going to be more for Congrats, just because there were so many weird sounds happening but then that first verse/repeated lyric in the outro happened really quickly and instantly my stomach dropped. I was like, oh my god. I wrote the next section – and there are only two sections that get repeated in that song – and quickly mocked up a structure.

I remember running out of the room and telling everyone that was at my house, “the new Slowly record is going to be called Race Car Blues and I just wrote the title track!” I came back in and looked at what I’d written, and I just had this feeling while reading the lyrics that... it’s still quite cryptic to myself, but it feels like my life. 

The idea of race car blues, for me, it was a poetic way of saying tunnel vision or being something that is built for a particular purpose and you only get to do that. The song is about yearning and coming of age and respecting that it means something different to me sometimes, when I listen to it in different headspaces. I’m really proud of that one, it’s probably my favourite song I’ve ever written. 

I love that even you as the songwriter can take away a different meaning from your own material depending on when/how you listen. It seems very Slowly Slowly to be deliberately vague in songs.  

I think it’s a symptom of two things: the first one is that I love language and a lot of the artists I grew up listening to, like Bright Eyes, are great at painting imagery. I love that, I love putting images in people’s heads. I would rather have something open to interpretation and have it be a bit more poetic than just say, a diary read. The second is, I’m not a hyper-emotional person in my personal life. I don’t talk to anyone about [emotions], I’m actually pretty jovial and skip over emotion, and the band is really like my outlet for all that. When I first started writing, I was writing about really private matters to me and I didn’t want anyone to understand, so I could write it off as this is just a silly song. I’m getting better at being a little more decipherable but I kind of like that it’s not any way. 

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You do touch on a really mixed bag of things on Race Car Blues, from moments of death and darkness to “have you ever seen a jellyfish? Now that shit’s crazy.” What was the thought process on leading with that particular song?

That one became fuel ingested and had its own life really early on in our album process. I’m obviously extremely proud of how that song’s done, and it’s exposed us to so many new fans but when I first wrote it, I thought it was this kitschy little song. I didn’t feel the weight of that song at all – shows how much I know! I think I sent a voice memo to the group chat and they were like cool, this will be a nice little private moment on the record, nice job. Then we were touring, and we were playing an all-ages show and I thought oh, maybe it’ll be nice to do a taste of the new record… I played this jellyfish song then, within a week, all these bootleg videos had been sent around. By the time we played it again on the next leg of the tour, everyone was singing the words. Our booking agent was there in Sydney and was like, ‘oh that jellyfish song, that’ll be the next single yeah? When are you going to release the full band version?’ And I was like… what is happening?!

I went home, mocked up the full band version and the dude was like ‘this is going to be huge; this will be in the Hottest 100,’ and I was like what the hell is going on with everyone, this is ridiculous. We learnt the song as a band and we were at rehearsals, sitting in the floor in a circle because I was having a little neurotic moment, and I was like, I don’t think this jellyfish song should be the single, I’m just not sure about it, I think we should put it on the back burner and come back to it in another album's time because there’s too much pressure. All these fans were messaging us like, where’s this jellyfish song? Where can I find it? I just felt overwhelmed by it all - we’d never had that kind of demand, especially for an unreleased song. I remember the boys all nodding like yep, not sure, let’s not do it and then I spoke to our label team, our manager and our booking agent the next day and they were like are you kidding me, this thing is so good! So, we pulled the trigger on it and it grew legs on its own.

I think the light-heartedness of it, topically, people are attached to – the people who don’t particularly listen to music for a deeper meaning – but then if you want to dig in that song, it’s a song about existential crises. It’s a choose your own adventure that one, and I think that’s what people love about it.

That’s an amazing story. Honestly, and I say this lovingly, the first time I heard Jellyfish, my first thought was this is fucking ridiculous! But I love that the final song is a product of exactly what it was – something you were just tinkering around with that organically took off.

For me, it was just like, a jellyfish sums up the exact ridiculousness of our world. It’s like, just look at the jellyfish. It’s fucked. It’s just this goop cloud floating in the ocean and has no internal organs or anything. We’re all obsessed with aliens and extra-terrestrial life, but like, there’s one floating around in the ocean right now. It’s so strange. I think sometimes you get these moments where you’re like, what the hell am I looking at, and then you zoom out on this bird’s eye view of your entire existence and you’re just like, hang on, EVERYTHING’s ridiculous. I’m walking around in this skinsuit with a bunch of ridiculous thoughts swimming around in my head and ideas of what it means to be a human, or even be conscious, and that to me is what that song circles around. 

Is there anything else you want people to know about Race Car Blues?

I feel like this is closest to the sound in my head when I envisioned Slowly Slowly, many years ago. I feel like we’re getting closer and closer to it. I hope [Race Car Blues] resonates with people, it’s always a really nice by-product when it does. I’m really excited to share the more private moments on the record that you wouldn’t necessarily take to radio; it’s a really nice part in the album cycle where we get to share [these moments] with our closest fans that they hold so dear.

Slowly Slowly's new album Race Car Blues is out February 28th via UNFD. Pre-order the record here.

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