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China Beach's Carl Lenny on punk origins, the Sydney Road Street Party, and differentiating yourself from the crowd

“Crafting something that differentiates your band from other people is always a challenge, but…it’s not even enough to be as good as an artist or band.”

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Chris Cohen Photography

There’s a bemused sleepiness to Carl Lenny’s voice, as though he’s speaking from the depths of a thousand blankets after a thousand whiskey shots, a cup of steaming mate thrust into his hands. The ChinaBeach frontman is thoughtful and quietly gregarious, yet on stage a different creature emerges, as will be seen at The Brunswick Hotel Sydney Road Street Party.

“China Beach lives for the weekends,” Lenny explains, and laughs. “We’ve been working hard at pushing our live show, and have taken it to the point where we play every weekend. Over the next month, there’s a wedding and maybe a couple of other shows in Melbourne, but we’re playing a lot out of town, which is great. Sorry, what was the question?”

He laughs again, and you get the impression he’s trying to shake free of the cobwebs. The funk band are a relatively fresh force in town, but their songs are already starting to earn them a lot of attention. It’s not bad, given how removed their sound is from Lenny’s own musical past.

“I used to play in punk bands a lot when I was younger, but I never thought I could play dancey music because the people I was playing with weren’t really into that. It was more of a punk aesthetic. But in my heart secretly, that’s what I wanted to do. To be honest, [China Beach] didn’t start taking shape until February-March last year. That’s when it transitioned to playing more to that flavour, that up-beat dance-funk stuff. Coming together under the name China Beach, initially I chose it as something I was planning [as] solo stuff, just songwriting of mine where I got to explore weird ideas. But then, that started to take shape into something different quite quickly.”

The genesis of their name is also quite evocative. “The name comes from a place called China Beach in Vietnam, which is a stretch of beach along the coast between Da Nang and Hoi An, this really interesting place. There are a lot of weird marble volcano cave systems through there. I spent a bit of time travelling there and found it really inspirational.”

As talk turns to the Sydney Road Festival, Lenny opens up about an aspect of the Melbourne music scene often observed, but rarely discussed; the potential for bands in such proximity to break out of each other’s orbit. It isn’t just talent that’s needed for success, but difference.

“Crafting something that differentiates your band from other people is always a challenge, but when you’re in such a big fish-bowl, and there are so many different things going on, it’s not even enough to be as good as an artist or band. You then have to take it to this next level of pushing to have something different. It depends on what you want, though. There are so many different opportunities in different scenes, different environments.”

One of the more exciting opportunities, for bands and audiences alike, is the cavalcade of sound that is The Brunswick Hotel’s Sydney Road Street Party, and Lenny sounds genuinely pumped.

“It’s great to be a part of what is essentially a big celebration of diverse live music, all in one place. It’s going to be crazy, there are so many people playing and so many people watching them play. It’s a beautiful thing.

“I’ll be hoping to catch out Zoe Fox and the Rocket Clocks. The name gets me every time. People can be appreciating the street-party vibe, ducking in and out of bars along the way to experience the snippets of individual culture that’s up and down Sydney Road. It’s a feeling in the air, and something that rings out in the musicians, and rings out in the audience. People have really set aside the time to be present.”

China Beach will play at The Brunswick Hotel on Sunday May 4 as part of Brunswick Music Festival’s Sydney Road Street Party.