Beaches break into Australia's heavy psych scene

The Australian band Beaches isn't an all-woman supergroup, although its five members play in other bands and a few perceptive fans might recognize guitarist Antonia Sellbach from the trio Love of Diagrams, which was briefly signed to Matador.

Considering the complicated reach of music exposure online these days, though, Beaches could make a real impact with its first Stateside tour. The group certainly stands out from its peers, cutting a unique figure against a growing glut of familiar sounds. With three guitars prowling and lashing in thick interplay, Beaches' Australian Music Prize–nominated, self-titled debut from 2008 spans thunderous postrock, splintered ragas, and New Zealand jangle without straying from its psych core. Violin, saxophone, and recorder lend more layers still, and the songs alternate between being fully instrumental and using all the women's voices.

Beaches sprang naturally from a group of close friends who were already attending and playing shows all the time; forming a band was a sensible extension. “We were all hanging out heaps and seeing each other's bands,” rhythm guitarist Alison Bolger says. “The idea came up to have a jam as another way of hanging out.”

That very first session provided Beaches with its name and two songs for its first album. The band played its first show at a party with no particular ambitions beyond that, and yet appearances at the Aussie editions of All Tomorrow's Parties eventually followed. A year ago, Beaches snagged the opening slot on Mogwai's Australian tour, suddenly bringing its expansive psychedelic rock to venues of appropriate size. Now a maiden voyage to South by Southwest is propelling the group into its first U.S. tour.

In the somewhat male-dominated Melbourne underground, five women playing in a heavy psych band might seem something of an anomaly. “People seem to notice it pretty quickly,” Bolger laughs. “I guess it's odd, really, in Melbourne. There's no getting away from that. But it wasn't consciously picking five girls.”

The only thing decided at the start of Beaches was that each member would try out a new instrument or role. For example, Sellbach plays bass in Love of Diagrams, but commands a fierce lead guitar in Beaches. That sort of reset button contributes to the music's open-ended, anything-goes vibe. Nods to various genres come and go on a whim, and even a three-minute jam can reveal spacious depths. And then there's the fact that everyone sings.

The band's communal approach makes Beaches as powerfully tidal as its name. That's no accident, and the lyrics celebrate the freedom symbolized by skies, fields, and horizons. Beaches' centerpiece, “Free Way,” is almost a rallying call: “I want to drive my car through the meadows and the valleys.”

Bolger says Beaches will record a follow-up after returning to Australia, but it won't be a huge departure from its acclaimed debut. “They're still three- or four-minute psych-outs,” she adds.

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