Singer, songwriter, guitarist and drummer – Simon Gibson is a well rounded performer. He returns to Australia, after living/performing in Vietnam, with the newly-formed band The Coolites and brings you their debut album Caravan Park Summers. I spoke to Simon about living overseas, performing, summer memories and the new album.
You just got back from Saigon. How was it? I’ve never been.
Saigon’s a great place. It’s pretty wild [and] it wears you out. It’s [also] very busy and noisy but it’s an interesting place to live – particularly when you first go there. In the first year or two, it’s actually really really good, but I’ve been there for over 7 years. Having said, I will be going back there in a while for a couple of weeks because I still have a lot of stuff over there. It’s a good place, it’s fun, it’s interesting. It’s another world really.
What’s it like coming home? Is it easy to readjust?
The first couple of times I came back here, it was quite hard to come back but in the last couple of years it’s been a little bit easier. I’ve come back more frequently. It hasn’t been 10-12 months between my trips back home, it’s only usually only 4-5 months, so in that respect, I’ve sort of gradually settled back into coming back here.
Prior to the thing in Vietnam, when I played music over here, gig-wise I always played drums. I didn’t have a kit over there for a long time so that’s why I started playing guitar again. When I started coming back here and playing drums again and playing the odd shows, I’d sometimes cover cover-band gigs with old friends or sometimes play, my brother also has a band, I’d play with him sometimes. It started feeling a little more normal reconnecting with my old circle of friends so it hasn’t been too bad of late to readjust.
How do you go from living overseas to coming home, starting a band and recording the album Caravan Park Summers?
I started writing songs when I was living overseas. I had a band [in Saigon] that basically we needed some original songs if we were going to be playing bigger supports over there. I started writing some songs, some bits and pieces that I had sort of floating around and then they came out quite well. I had my iPad with me so every song I recorded I’d record a demo onto the iPad and send them back here to Australia for a couple of my friends.
Last year, when I was coming back, I’d book a couple of days in the studio each time and I’d just call some of my friends, musicians from bands I used to play in and people that I just knew, and basically recorded it like that over the space of last year in about three or four trips when I was back here.
Do you think living in Saigon had an influence on the sound of the album?
Yeah, I think it did. It influenced the lyrics probably more than anything else because the lyrics were able to more crystallize a little more clearly in my head from a distance, what I was trying to say in reference to certain things, particularly things to do with Australia. It was easier to see what I was trying to say because I had a little bit of distance from Australia to make the feelings that I had a little clearer.
However having said that, the song that I wrote on there about Saigon, which obviously I wrote in Saigon, I was pretty happy with that. That came out very quickly and it was pretty much exactly the way I wanted it to be and said exactly what I wanted it to say. It wasn’t a struggle that one at all.
People would think moving to Asia would have stopped [me] from doing anything musical but its kind given me a spur on to do more of it because I was so far away and I had to be self-reliant. I think there’s no reason not to go out and see the world and do things.
I was listening to the album and I had quite a hard time trying to figure out what kind of genre it is. I’ve read it’s a bit indie, pop, punk, rock – but I found it to also be a little comedic and almost like listening to an autobiography. How would you describe the music and the album?
They’re autobiographical to a point. I tend to write things – some of them are sort of story-songs, some of them are about specific things that I might have experienced, and then there’s others ones there that I’ve kind of taken some small part of something that I’ve experienced and then I’ve then just run with that feeling and made it into a story.
I don’t really like comedy songs as such but I like songs that can make you smile when you hear a specific line in them and things. For me, I’ve always enjoyed music like that. In terms of the actual genre, I guess, it’s got an Aussie – I spoke to a friend of mine in Melbourne the other day and he actually said it sounds really “Sydney” and he said, “I don’t even know what I mean by that but I just know that’s the way it sounds to me” and I thought that was probably a pretty good summation.
But for me, I can hear a sort of almost folk rock kind of thing in there. I was a pretty big fan of American 80’s hardcore music and Nirvana before [they] became massive. I used to dig around and find old singles of those sort of bands and so that might not be overt, those influences on there, but I write songs that are appealing to me and tried to give music that was energetic and did justice to the lyrics.
The whole thing with the album is it’s not necessarily meant to be about looking back at the past and thinking it’s better. I guess it’s trying to encapsulate that idea that life is an adventure and the idea that there’s a lot of interesting stuff in the world. The lyrics I was aiming for it to be relativity authentic in the way they were written and the album was recorded. I wanted a cohesive old school rock album that you could put on and basically enjoy from start to end. And it could appeal from like a grandmother or a teenager type thing. I tried to write songs and be true to that feeling that I had when I wrote the song. I don’t know if that makes sense but trying to be authentic with it is the main thing.
Pop-rock music, it’s kind of timeless really. To be honest, caravan parks aren’t really a place I’ve spent a lot of time myself. It was most like the phasing of it I quite liked and I liked the idea of that. I think it’s universal that idea of childhood, everyone remembers their summer holidays as a child. It doesn’t matter how old they are and where they went. Everyone has these sun-kissed memories of them in Australia. I didn’t necessarily think that it had to be relatable like to an age or anything like that. You can just like a song to like a song type of thing. Regardless if it relates to a complete personal experience on the listener side of it, I guess.
I’ve always quite liked the idea of a general warmth in the air and the temperature seems to, and that could be inside on a cold winter’s night when it’s warm inside; but warmth in general seems to give a warmth to people’s personalities and their character and their interactions at a specific time so I’ve always believed on that theory, that warmth makes people more social and more open. I guess I was coming from that angle with that idea and also that in Australia warmth generally means holidays so people tend to be happier because that’s mainly when they take their holidays. All that ties into it, I guess.
The music video for the title track Caravan Park Summers features old home videos. How did that idea come about and are they your home movies?
No, they weren’t my home movies. Someone who I met a while back, she had this stuff and I said, “could I borrow/use some of that?” And she was like, “yeah, for sure.” I make all the clips myself [and] did all of those clips when I was back in Saigon. For the first part of this year I was working so when I had time off after work I was working on videos.
The Super 8 footage and all that was just my own idea. I just thought it fitted nicely with that idea of Australian memories and the heat and summer and that type of thing so I just put it all together. I was really happy with that one and lots of people have contacted me about that particular clip. It seems to be quite popular so that’s quite good.
There’s kids in that video riding coolite surfboards, the old foam ones so I thought that kind of tied in nicely as well. So yes, I was very happy with the way that worked out actually.
I was going to ask you if that was where the band got its name from.
Yeah, that’s where it came from. To be honest, I just quite liked that word. They’re the foam surfboards that most of the kids start learning [to surf] on. In the old days they were made out of foam, now they’re made out of something else but everyone still calls them coolites. And it’s quite a nice word even if you have no idea what a coolite is. One of my friends came up with that. I was talking to him about names. He thought everything I told him was rubbish and then the next day he came back to me with that one and I said, “mate, that’s perfect!” so I used it.
What’s the album and live-touring response been like?
The response has been really good. Any positive response is always really welcomed. I get emails or messages pretty much most days from people who have either reviewed it, bought a copy, heard it on the radio or something like that. And also from the YouTube clips as well. I’m really happy with it. I think most of the other guys in the band, they’re pretty much the same. They don’t get overally excited or worried about it but when good responses come they’re pretty happy about it as well.
It is interesting to perform live and it’s good to perform live. When we perform live those songs, I mean I’m the drummer in the band now, but obviously on some of those songs I recorded some of the guitar parts as well; but for me it’s very pleasurable to play them live because the other guys in the band they’re all very good players, and, obviously, I got them to play with me because they’re my friends, but also because I really like the way they play. I’ve essentially assembled a little super group of my favourite indie rock musicians here in Sydney to play my own songs and they do me favours because I’ve played drums on a lot of people’s albums over the years so I called in one of my favours in that regard.
All the guys I got to record the album they all play live with me now because they really like the songs so they’re all really nice guys. The only problem is a couple of them are really good players, well they all are, but some of them are in demand with other bands so sometimes it’s a little hard to pin them down for rehearsals. But it’s [been] really good.
Do you only perform in Sydney?
We have at the moment. If we perform [interstate], we may have to do it in more of a stripped back format because when we perform there’s either 6 or 7 of us and it’s a lot of people to pay for airfares and that sort of stuff. so I’m not quite sure how I’m gonna do that.
When I was living in Saigon I performed a lot of these songs myself just on guitar and singing, just solo. I only did that out of necessity [as] I prefer not to do that. I prefer to at least not have to sing them all. That’s a possibility I may do some more acoustic type stuff but the songs work quite well acoustically. I’ve got a bunch of other songs written for another album that I’m going to hopefully, it’s half recorded already, that’ll also work well acoustically so I think that might be the way to go. [But] I haven’t got any plans right at this moment no.
Is the second album going to be similar to the first album?
Yeah, I think so. It’s probably more so, I guess it’s more of an Australian record in a lot of respects in the subject matter, although some of it’s universal. I’ve got a song on there called Just Kids that I wrote after reading the biography of Patti Smith. It was entitled about her time growing up in New Work. I really liked that book so it just came into my head to write a song about it. The next might be of a slightly more European one I guess, subject matter, in the thoughts of traveling and being restless and that sort of stuff. That’s always been part of my life. I travel a lot in my life. I’ve always tended to write songs that kind of give that kind of a world view.
What drew you to music?
Myself and my brother, who’s just a little bit younger than myself; we’ve always been obsessed with rock music since we were little kids. We had an older next door neighbour who introduced us to it. I was buying albums when I was 6 or 7 years old and I probably saw my first gig when I was 10 or something. My father was a swing jazz musician so it was kind of normal in my family. As a ten year old, most parents wouldn’t take their kid to a rock gig but in my family you’d go, “can we go see this band?” and they would get you a ticket and take you.
So I’ve just always been involved in music. I’ve been playing drums since, I can’t even remember, but very small and having instruments around the house has always been pretty normal for my family. I’ve always loved music. I’ve basically seen gigs consistently my whole life, bought records and played in bands, that sort of stuff. And pretty much my whole life and most of my friends, if I haven’t met them through surfing, I’ve met them through music.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to dip their toes in the music industry?
Try and do it yourself if you can do it yourself. It’s a much easier to do it yourself than it used to be. I think it is worth wide recording in a studio if you can. Some people talk about recording one song in a day and all that – that’s just rubbish, you can, if you know what you’re doing and you’re organized and everyone knows what they’re supposed to play, you can get five songs done in a day and probably mix five songs the next day. That’s half a record done in two days. It’s so easy to demo stuff and even you can take guitar parts from your iPad, iMac and put it straight across into a studio computer if you wanted to those guitar parts.
YouTube’s pretty amazing so I’d say just go with that. I wouldn’t wait around for someone to finance you. Essentially you can make a record, get it mastered and press 200 copies or whatever and get it up on Bandcamp for not that much money. I’ve obviously had to work normal jobs to have the money to do it but I think it’s definitely doable if you want to do it for sure.
Probably the hardest thing at the moment still is gigs. It’s definitely worth organizing your own shows if you can organize them. Particularly if you’ve got something to sell so you can have a way to earn money back from putting the gig on.The other thing I’d say is try and have different set ups – your band should be able to play an acoustic show with two people or play a full band show with five or whatever. Be flexible, I think that’s the way to go.
You can find out more on The Coolites Facebook page here.