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The Belligerents on 'Science Fiction', changing direction and what comes next

“I don’t have a problem getting on stage, making an idiot of myself while I’m performing…But I always feel really embarrassed to talk. I hate public speaking.”

If The Belligerents are, true to their name, openly hostile, they’re doing a good job of hiding it. In fact, frontman Lewis Stephenson is as friendly and down-to-earth as they come. He’s walking his dog through a park in Brunswick as we chat, enthusing about the audiobooks he’s been enjoying, his need to move house, and the shifting musical sands between Brisbane and Melbourne.
 
Ostensibly we’re talking about their appearance at the fourth Beyond the Valley festival, and it is one hell of a lineup on display this year. But with the release of Science Fiction – the much-anticipated album that came to life after six years of evolving – conversation turns to the road that led to this moment, and what strange shape the future might hold.
 
“The writing has definitely changed,” Stephenson concedes as children run past, screaming. “It used to be a really difficult process for me to write lyrics, especially when I was younger. But it seems to have gotten easier as I’ve gotten older. Part of that is being less concerned about what I have to start with, and then coming back and finishing things a bit later.
 
“I’ll record a song, and half the lyrics I’ll keep, the other half I’ll come back to later. And when I come back to it later, I’ll realise I’m singing something else there anyway. If I sing a line and it doesn’t have a word, I’ll sing it as gibberish, and a few months later I’ll have a better idea of what I’ve been saying. I don’t rush.”
 
It sounds like a much less stressful way to get a song off the ground, and Stephenson agrees. “Usually the songs I’ll grab onto and love the most now, the whole idea is done in a short amount of time, a day or something. If I grind away at something for a couple of weeks, I keep going back and working on it, I’ll totally lose the direction of what I’m meant to be doing with it. I’ll get sick of bits that I should have just left alone in the first place. So the ones I have the biggest connection to are usually the ones I finish in the one day.”
 
It’s a fascinating notion, the prospect of finding some secret seam in your head that the words and music pour out from in one epic flood. It implies a level of preparation and insight that has been building for some time, that finally reaches a tipping point and becomes a song. More often than not, however, the reverse is true.
 
“Most [songs] definitely happen as I’m rolling with it. Say I have a song and have a verse done and half a chorus, and then I’ll come up with a lyric, I’ll realise that’s what the songs should be about, that’s the direction. But that usually comes in halfway through.
 
“I have friends who work in a totally different way. They’ll come up with the song name first and base everything around that, and that’s a good idea, but I don’t come up with song names until I get struck by inspiration. I think I’m a bit more random.”
 
Whatever the method, The Belligerents are clearly on to something strong. Since forming in 2010, the five-piece has a string of singles and EPs in their wake, each an example of a band exploring different paths to try and find the sound that elevates them. Despite the accolades they’ve received along the way, the band has gone on record about the pressure to conform, to write songs in a frustrating attempt to please the industry. Today, they very much walk to the beat of their own drum.
 
“Especially in terms of writing and performing, and probably the way we work together, around three years ago we suddenly took a right turn and took off in a completely different direction. And it wasn’t really to do with working towards that,” Stephenson says. “I’d just written this new collection of songs, and after we recorded them, we were really happy. Then the show took a lot of inspiration from the new songs, and became energetic in a different way. We had these long rolling grooves and slow builds, stuff like that. But it was kind of from this couple of months of writing that made these new songs, and we completely changed direction based on that.”
 
For those who caught the album tour throughout November, the energy of their live set has certainly shifted gears. They’re working no less hard at keeping the band moving, but you get the impression they’re more engaged, more comfortable now; hell, they just seem to be having more fun these days. Well, with the exception of between-song banter.
 
“I don’t have a problem getting on stage, making an idiot of myself while I’m performing,” Stephenson says. “But I always feel really embarrassed to talk. I hate public speaking. I don’t mind singing and really putting my back into a show, but I talk as little as I can between songs. I freeze up and never know what to say.”
 
While Stephenson is tight-lipped about the prospect of hearing any brand new songs at Beyond the Valley, fans shouldn’t fear; the creative wheels are well and truly still spinning.
 
“From recording to releasing, it’s a long process, and by the time [Science Fiction] was released I was already 20 songs of demos into the next record. I think we’ll be aiming to record early-to-mid 2018, and release at a similar time next year. Try and get a record out a year after having not released anything for so long.”

The Belligerents will perform at Beyond The Valley, coming to Lardner Park from Thursday December 28 until Monday January 1, with Schoolboy Q, The Presets, Matt Corby, Little Dragon, and more. Science Fiction is out now via Sony Music Australia.