March 24, 2021

One of the most wonderful things about being a rock fan is that every now and then you are blown away by someone you’ve never heard of before, and your musical taste buds are revitalised as a result. Last Autumn I got to review an unusual looking album by a band with the fantastic name of Kimono Drag Queens. I say “fantastic”, although I have to confess, I had sort of assumed that this lot would be over-the-top exhibitionist glam-rockers (or something like that)…..

I hang my head in shame – Kimono Drag Queens are a seven-piece Australian psych-rock band, hailing from and based in Sydney. Their style is anything but over-the-top, being a carefully constructed blend of psychedelia, World Music, ambient rock with musical influences spanning continents, decades, genres…. With a focus on great rhythmic syncopation linked to intricate arrangements, they’ve generated a style that blends elements of psych rock, 60’s US West Coast, cinematic soundscapes and noirish lyricism that defies comparison!

They ain’t the world’s most prolific band – it’s taken them two years to record the six tracks on their debut album Songs Of Worship, released on 6 November 2020, and at least three of these had been previously released with earlier mixes as singles. But – although it’s a bit light on length, the mesmeric quality of this album made it well worth the wait, becoming one of my top ten albums of 2020. Imagine a kaleidoscope of colours drying on a large canvas – you can see it all there, only it’s not quite ready. I suspect that’s their creative process, working and re-working complex arrangements until all seven of them plus the Production crew are satisfied!

Kimono Drag Queens are: Harry Webber (vocals, guitar); Kellie Banyai (vocals, keys); Will Coleman (vocals, guitar); Zeppelin Hamilton (guitar); Amy Yoshiko (percussion); Billy Minett (drums); William Wood (bass) . All photos courtesy of Rik Saunders, processed By Rewind Photo Lab

I’m not sure to what extent Northern Hemisphere music press have picked up on the band to date, but the quotes I’ve seen to date include:

“I like my psych to have transcendental qualities, with the ability to transport me out of my reality, and place me far above the world and its troubles. I want a journey of sound that changes my perception while listening, and Kimono Drag Queens was able to offer me that on ‘Songs of Worship’, along with a whole lot more.”It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine

“A mesmerizing collection of heavy psych, euphoric dreamscapes and entranced tribal grooves.” Sly Vinyl

“I do believe each and every one of you could listen to Songs Of Worship and hear different influences emerging, and that’s the magic ingredient – so try it, they deserve a wider audience.” Velvet Thunder

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Having signed to Copper Feast Records, the band sold out of their first release of vinyl pre-sales in 48 hours, which is clear evidence that the appetite for other-worldly psychedelic adventuring from Australia is greater than ever. On the back of the album release, I was able to catch up with them (electronically) in early March 2021, to find out a little bit more about this tantalising band, and through them, to learn more about the wider music scene in Sydney. Harry supplied the responses on behalf of the band.

I start by asking for Harry’s forebearance with some of my dumber questions, hailing from the Northern Hemisphere, it’s simply me trying to get my head tuned in to the Aussie music scene!

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Harry is happy to go along with my corny-ness, and to also put me out of my misery, by explaining how the band came up with their name: “Haha, no worries! Yeah, we get a pretty mixed reaction to the name. At the time I was obsessed with komodo dragons, and I thought that could be a good name, I told some people who thought it was a little similar to King Gizzard, so we went with the pun.” 

I go on to confess that another of my sad traits is pinning labels on bands. The more I listened to their album, the more simultaneously fascinated and frustrated I got, trying to pin them down, so I ask Harry how they would best like to be described as – if at all? He ponders “Hmmm, I suppose we’re a “modern” psych band with influences that spill into non-western music. When we jam a lot of different stuff comes out that’s not anything like the record, but we all have a pretty good feel for what our sound is”

Next, I’m curious about how seven musicians might have got together. They were formed in Sydney in 2016, but I’m intrigued as to whether they’ve always been a seven-piece and whether they had all been based in Sydney beforehand, or whether some of them had moved there from elsewhere to “make their mark”?

Harry confirms that “the band has been the same since day one, except for percussion where we’ve had a few other people before we struck gold with Amy. We’re from all over New South Wales but we all seemed to be in Sydney at the same time and it all fell into place.”

I continue exploring their past, whether they had been in other bands beforehand and, across the seven of them, there might be a wide range of musical influences….what their “unifying” influences might be: “Yeah we’ve all been in bands before and we do have a wide range of influences. It’s hard to pin them down precisely, but there was a time when Tinariwen were in Sydney for a show which a few of us had tickets to, but before the show they played a kind of family-friendly festival out in Parramatta.”

“We went out there not really sure what it would be like as it was free and it seemed like barely anyone new about, which was weird as their show the following night had sold out. Anyway, they came on and played a full set with a bunch of kids (and us) dancing around at the front of the stage. That was pretty special and unifying!”

It made me realise that as an outsider, I have no “mental map” of the musical hotspots across Australia in the way that I have for the UK (Birmingham and heavy metal, for example). I ask what the predominant flavour might be (if any) of the local music scene in Sydney, and whether there is a ‘raft’ of bands with similar tastes that they all keep in touch with. Harry agrees that there are definitely plenty of bands that share similar influences and that they perform with often “I wouldn’t say that our kind of sound is the predominant flavour though. We all get along great – it’s a supportive community.” He’s happy to add “If you’re looking for Sydney acts to sink your teeth into, give a listen to Narla, PEEL and Zeahorse.”

It occurs to me that the reason for their relatively limited recorded output since 2016 might be extensive touring – or other ongoing projects. Harry explains “Nah, we’re just super slow recording! Honestly, we started recording the record ages ago and we did five tracks one weekend. Then we sat on it and didn’t like it so we recorded another five or six tracks. The only one that made it from the first batch was ‘Hunters’. I’m not sure why we are so slow, but I feel like nearly every rehearsal we come up with a new song then push an old one out of the set, then forget about why we liked it…!”

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Which leads me nicely into talking about the album itself. All six tracks feel like they’re meticulously composed and arranged creations, with rich layers and melodies, underpinned by some fantastic percussion and syncopation, and nor forgetting some lovely guitar and keys! Not the sort of thing that gets written in half an hour, so I ask about how they all manage that creative process, are they all actively involved or are there a couple of “lead writers”?

Harry explains: “Hmm, initially it was a couple of us demoing tracks and bringing it to rehearsal, but now it’s more like someone will have an idea and then we all add our bits to it. Everyone gets a chance to shape the song a little bit.” He goes on to describe how the album’s closer ‘Willy’s World’ is a great example of this – the song organically develops a wall of sound that’s never overpowering but is hypnotising, guitars and percussion blending so effortlessly, a chorus line shimmering in the background, then halfway through a complete change of pace and timbre. He confirms that it needs several takes and mixes to pull it together….

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A quick summary of the album: the opener on Songs of Worship is the album’s title track which begins with vocalists Harry Webber and Kellie Banyai’s cult-like chants before descending into a jam led by a near-country guitar twang. It sets the tone for the record, you’re about to fall down a rabbit hole of addictive guitar hooks, spacey vocals, tribal percussion and hypnotic rhythms. Juxtaposing the entrancement of the opener is the wah-laden uptempo number ‘Hunters’. A live favourite that sees them construct a wall of sound before smashing through it with an ethereal bridge. It’s followed by ‘Delilah’ which masterfully blurs the line between Kinks-esque 60s rock and thrashy desert rock (the combination you never knew you needed). ‘Wild Animals’ sways from moody verses to mesmerising percussion-backed guitar riffery that brings together the band’s Eastern and Western influences and harmoniously marries them. ‘Evil Desires’ takes us further into the jungle with a collage of peculiar and funky guitar lines whilst Webber ponders subjects such as mind control and free will. Closing out Songs of Worship is the hymn-like ‘Willy’s World’ which starts as a meditative comedown before descending into a shoegazey trip, proving Kimono Drag Queens are equally as capable of dropping you as they are of lifting you up.

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Looking back on the album as a whole, I ask about how they all collectively decide their preferred mix for each track – Harry explains: “We worked with Phan Sjarif at Parliament Studios in Sydney, who recorded us and mixed. We have a joke that we are always putting him through the ringer by adding more layers to everything that he has to somehow try and fit. Phan also likes to push things too, so he often has ideas, like pumping the bass/low end in that ‘Willy’s World’ breakdown, that we all love. Other than that we share a document to make notes on each mix for him to decipher and sweat over. We tend to agree on most things…”

In a similar vein, I suggest that ‘Delilah’ sort of morphs from an initial 60’s sound into an altogether darker, more contemporary Australian soundscape. I’d not seen the lyrics at the time of writing so I asked Harry to tell me about the story: “‘Delilah’ lyrically is about being infatuated with someone and then eventually winning them over only to find out that they are not what you expected. In the first couple of verses I’m singing about admiring Delilah from afar, then in the middle section there’s a king of meeting, then in the final verse it’s me who is wanting to pull away from her. We had never really done a call and response kind of song before, so it seemed to fit to have a really old school theme behind the lyrics!”

In contrast, I suggest ‘Evil Desires’ has a completely different vibe, almost Caribbean, those hazy vocals again floating above a gradually building rhythm. The band and their producers must be very skilful song arrangers, given this is only 3 minutes 41 seconds long but still has a sense of a small, fully-formed epic! Did the band think long and hard about who they wanted to produce the album? “Nah! We’ve always loved working with Phan and I feel like he gets the band, plus he’s just a cool dude to hang out with. Maybe he’s the only one that could handle having seven of us throwing seven different ideas at him at one time!”

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I move on to discuss Covid. Sadly, like many other artists, they’ve had to postpone lots of live dates due to Coronavirus, so I ask whether this has “forced” them back into writing mode? Is there any new material on the horizon? Harry is humble on this “Given what’s happened on a global scale, we’ve been super lucky that only our music has been affected by covid. We definitely wrote a few new songs during that time, some of which we’ve chucked into our set in recent shows” (Bands have been able to perform live in recent weeks in Australia).

As a flip side to this question, I ponder on the difficulty of the seven of them being able to rehearse together or remotely. In the UK it’s clear some bands have found it easier than others, making more of social media, and I ask how all that side of things has affected them as a group of people? Harry agrees “Yeah we didn’t rehearse much during that time. I think, like most of the world, we were just adapting to the new way we had to live and trying to get into a groove and manage what we could within our own lives. I think overall we’ve managed to survive okay… Having each other to talk to (mostly rubbish in our group text) certainly helped!”

So, looking to the future, I ask what’s next – are they hoping to start serious touring again this year, and in fact, is there any chance of them coming over to Europe when the time is right? Harry enthusiastically responds “We’d love to come over to Europe! Willy and I lived in London for a couple of years and were lucky enough to travel and see a few places over there that we’d love to revisit. I suppose that’s where the first ideas of this band started to form so it would be cool to come full circle and head back to the UK. Our label Copperfeast Records also started there and have helped get the record into some ears in Europe which has been cool, so who knows! As long as there are some couches we can crash on and some amps we could borrow, I don’t see why not!”

I wind up by thanking Harry for a fascinating peek into their and Sydney’s music scene. Harry and the gang come across as genuinely creative musical arrangers, and the degree of “internal harmony” seems a force to be reckoned with! I’ve genuinely loved the album, and I look forward to hearing more from this band in the future. Good luck guys!

I like these guys! They genuinely transcend boundaries, snippets of 60’s stuff like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane fuse with Manchester’s The Charlatans and especially those shoegazers Ride; hints of REM in their hippyish folky moments; Richard Ashcroft’s compositional flair – the common thread being great percussive arrangements, jangly guitar work and softly spoken, quite delicate vocal harmonies, all woven into standalone, complete pieces. Songs Of Worship deserves a trial listen, the band deserve a wider audience, and I really do hope they get across to the UK sometime!

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