Interview: ‘People think we’re Geronimo still’, Sheppard returns with ambitious new album

Brisbane indie pop band Sheppard have never quite been wholly accepted by Australian audiences, despite massive world tours, top 10 hits around the globe and boasting more than 740 million streams across all platforms led by huge 2014 hit “Geronimo”.

Sheppard – now a core three-piece consisting of siblings George, Amy and Emma – are back in 2021 with their third album Kaleidoscope Eyes, due for release on Friday 26 February.

They’ll launch the album with a rare show (they’ve only played four times in the past 12 months due to COVID-19, although the AFL Grand Final was among those shows) at Brisbane’s Fortitude Music Hall on Friday night.

Lead singer George Sheppard is pumped, but also ambitious about the album shaking some preconceptions about the band.

“It’d be nice to like to have people see what we are as songwriters,” he tells The AU Review. “A lot of people just think that we’re “Geronimo”, still, three albums later.”

He’s also cautiously hopeful that Australian audiences may re-frame their view on Sheppard.

Speaking exclusively ahead of Friday’s album launch, George also discussed the throat surgery which led to his self-described ‘quarter-life crisis’, and the potential demise of Sheppard, along with the thrill of playing at the AFL Grand Final which had him close to achieving his Coldplay dream, and how his father Greg’s arrest in Papua New Guinea has impacted the band.

You’re releasing your third album this week. You drip-fed out a bunch of the singles last year but you must be so excited to get the collective album out?

Oh man it’s going to be so nice to have it out there as one complete package. It’s one thing to release singles and they’re all sort of standalone singles but to have them put together as an album and from start to finish, which has created this really nice listening experience, there’s an intro to the album and to side B and interludes, it’ll just be nice to have it all together as this one product that we’ve been working towards. It’s my personal favourite album that we’ve that we’ve ever made so I hope that everyone else feels the same.

Big call! What makes it stand out above the other two?

I think we’re more confident in our song writing abilities and who we are as a band. We’ve been trying to perfect this Sheppard sound for the last 10 years and I feel like we’ve finally done it with this album. It’s like the end of an era, we’ve set out to try and achieve this level of euphoria and an anthemic nature to these songs. I feel like this is the album where we’ve actually perfected it from start to finish.

So where’s that come from? How has it all clicked?

It’s all encompassing. Definitely the music and the production side of things we’ve really taken ownership of it this album. We’ve built a studio in our house in Brisbane. Jason from the band produces. We’ll just sit around and do it together, so it’s not been some other producer from LA that’s coming in and helping us do it. It’s been all us, which has been really freeing. We’ve had the freedom to experiment with a lot of different styles. For us personally, it’s been a very creatively freeing process.

With the staggered release of the singles, is there a cohesive theme on Kaleidoscope Eyes, which you’ve called a concept album, to bring it all together?

The general theme throughout the entire album is celebrating and recognizing love. It’s the kind of thing that really changes your perception of the universe around you in such a profound way that we really wanted to explore those themes of falling in love, falling out of love and self love.

How when you’re in love it feels like the saturation has been turned up on the world around you. Things feel black and white when you’ve fallen out of love. We want to explore love’s relation to colour. That was the general theme of Kaleidoscope Eyes in a world that’s colour blind we see it all through kaleidoscope eyes and how the world around you looks different.

I want to ask you about your throat surgery in January 2019. How’s that going? Any ongoing issues?

It was actually like six months of recovery. I had one of the best doctors in Australia so I wasn’t too concerned about the surgery itself. But the recovery was six months until I was feeling back to 100%. But then after that six months, it just kept getting better and I feel like I’m at 120% now, if that makes sense.

It took me it took a while. I was a bit worried for a little bit. After five months in I’m like ‘it doesn’t feel, it doesn’t feel right’. But it just takes time, let the healing process do its thing. I feel much stronger vocally than I did before the surgery.

When were the symptoms to lead up to it?

We were doing a recording session with Jon Hume at a studio in Byron Bay for three weeks. I couldn’t get my throat clear. Like I just kept clearing my throat. I felt like there was like a bit of phlegm that was stuck on it, on my voice. But there was nothing. I wasn’t drinking, I was getting heaps of sleep. It shouldn’t have been like that.

Jon told me to go and get checked by specialists who put a camera down my throat and saw that there was like a lesion. The specialist said it’s not too serious but if you don’t sort it out now, then it’s going to turn into a polyp nodule type thing and it’s going to be much worse.

How’d you deal with that as a vocalist?

I had this weird, quarter-life crisis moment where I was like, ‘my job is hurting me, I’m not supposed to be a singer’. It was a confusing time for me because I thought I should be able to do this without hurting myself and I can’t do it without hurting myself. So I took that this is going to be the end of the band. We wrote this song called “Die Young”, which touches on those themes if we were to go before our time, we can still be proud of what we’ve done. I went to Sweden on my own as soloist/songwriter, and just wrote a bunch of stuff. I just had this couple of months of enjoying my last few moments of singing.

So you actually thought that was it for Sheppard?

Yeah, I did. I did have that feeling at some point. I didn’t like the fact that the job was hurting me physically. It felt for a moment that I didn’t want to do it anymore, even though that’s ridiculous.

Did you have any reassurances that the surgery would resolve it long-term?

The surgery is never 100% guaranteed. Stuff like that, which scared me a little bit, but I knew that he was one of the best in the world. He’s done a million surgeries. He’s worked on Keith Urban and Kasey Chambers. It’s a very common for touring problems to have something like this.

It was more of a psychological fuckery that came with knowing that you’ve got this thing stuck on your throat. I was like, ‘I’ve got cancer. Oh, my God, I’ve got this tumour on my vocal cords. What am I going to do?’ It was all very overly dramatic. It didn’t need to be that dramatic, but a couple of good songs came out of it.

So let’s talk about the album again, what’s the ambition for Kaleidoscope Eyes, your third album after all you’ve already achieved?

It’d be nice to like to have people see what we are as songwriters. A lot of people just think that we’re “Geronimo”, still, three albums later. This album doesn’t have one or two big standalone singles, so it’d be nice if the entire body of work is appreciated. That’s what we’d set out with by releasing every song on the album as a single. We wanted each song to have its moment in the sun, and have people realize that we can do all sorts of styles and genres of music. That would be my dream for it, as Sheppard, we have this album that we’d love for people to appreciate as a whole.

You’ve done massive world tours, had huge singles, got massive Spotify streaming numbers, yet it’s strange that you’ve not quite received that recognition in Australia. Is that something you’re hoping this album changes?

Yeah, I mean obviously it’d be nice to be a bit more embraced by our home country, but that’s OK. It’s a very different culture and vibe here to how the rest of the world digests and appreciates pop music. I mean it is what it is.

We’ve definitely got our fans here in Australia. We’re so lucky to be able to call this country our home. I don’t think we’re going to go anywhere. We’ll see, I guess it remains to be seen. We’ll release the album on the 26th of February. Hopefully, people enjoy it enough to embrace it.

Do you think the Australian music industry or audience isn’t pop friendly? It’s a strange one, isn’t it?

Yeah, I guess it’s the whole Triple J thing. They’ve got a very specific particular thing that they do and a crowd that they are catering towards. That’s the main tastemaker of this country. If they don’t play the kind of music that you’d find on the top 40 commercial music charts, then that’s what it is. There’s other stations that do that. But I guess I’d like to think we sit somewhere between the two. We’re not like the Rihannas or Justin Biebers. We still are an independent band, we’re making it all ourselves, we’re playing our own instruments and writing our own songs. So it’s this middle ground that we don’t really have a space for in Australia. Whereas in America and all over the UK and Europe they’ve got radio stations specifically for this middle ground. I guess that’s where it is.

Obviously, it would’ve been a thrill playing at the AFL Grand Final in October, I think it was 30,000 people inside a stadium so a different dynamic at a time when playing shows was very rare?

Man, it was cool, because obviously it was a huge event and a huge honour for us to be able to do. But it was just really nice to be able to finally showcase the band and then what Sheppard are and what we’ve had the vision for. That was like the first time we’ve ever properly been able to do it in a stadium, with all this amazing production and we essentially got to pretend to be Coldplay for 10 minutes. That’s like been my dream for the last 10 years!

Are you hoping to do more shows like that, big stadium shows?

Man, that’s absolutely been the dream. I went and saw the “Mylo Xyloto” Coldplay concert back in 2012 and I was just blown away. I was like, ‘we’ve got to be able to do this at some point’. Hopefully. You never know. In this day and age, I don’t even know if it’s possible to sell out stadiums anymore. But it was the dream that we finally got to somewhat taste with the AFL Grand Final.

You’re launching the album at the Fortitude Music Hall in your hometown Brisbane on Friday too, with the show streamed worldwide, so trying to make an impact at a time when you can’t tour?

We didn’t want anyone to miss out because obviously we can’t tour this album, the way that we would hope. We’re not even sure we’re going to be able to do a national tour at this point so we’re putting all our eggs into one basket and just doing this really awesome epic show that we can then stream to everybody live via the interwebs.

But dude I can’t wait to play that show, especially because it’s a hometown show. It’s going to be great!

Also, I’m reluctant to ask, but your father was recently arrested in Papua New Guinea. Is he OK?

It’s very complicated. It’s obviously politically motivated. He’s doing a case against the PNG government, trying to get some money for the townspeople of the Western province, the landowners because their land has been decimated by the Ok Teti Mine. Over the last 30 years, they’ve just been dumping crap into the into the Fly River.

Last year Dad won this case against the PNG government for about a billion kina for the land owners of the Western province. In an illegitimate way to try and get control of those funds again, they’ve slapped these BS allegations on my dad, which is a real shame, because we get dragged into it. It’s just politically motivated corrupt nonsense.

He’s actually the guy that’s fighting for these people. The damage is all done in the allegation. Now we’re dealing with this shitstorm unnecessarily which has got nothing to do with us. All of a sudden we’re having to defend ourselves from money launderers and criminals and we don’t have anything to do with all that. We’re just about music.

Fair enough. Hey sorry to finish on a sour note, but sincerely wish you guys the best of luck with the new album and Friday’s show! Thanks for chatting!

Pleasure mate, thanks for the support. We can’t wait for Friday.

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Sheppard‘s Kaleidoscope Eyes is available for pre-order and will be released on Friday 26 February.

Tickets to Sheppard’s all ages Album Launch at Fortitude Music Hall on Friday 26 February are available here. If you cannot attend, you can also watch the streaming event too.

Ben Somerford

Aussie freelance journalist, sports, music, entertainment, top 10 lists. Take beach pics too.

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