One of the most uniquely wonderful bands on the planet is Thunder Fox, a wickedly funny, intensely creative, and outrageously talented five-piece based in Sydney, Australia. Drawing on elements of funk, soul, jazz, blues rock, hip hop, reggae and pop, they skillfully channel the sexy funk of Prince, the soulful croons of 70s-era R&B artists like Al Green, Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass, and the brassy exuberance of Earth, Wind & Fire into their delectable music stew. And while their sometimes bawdy lyrics and playful antics would seem to indicate a juvenile zaniness – not to mention the fact they could all still pass for teenagers – their music has a stylish, jazzy sophistication, thanks to their exceptional songwriting and musicianship, as well as having both a saxophone and trumpet player in their lineup. Finally, though they’re all straight men, they’re not afraid to be playful and affectionate with one another, as well as tear down gender barriers by sometimes showing a more feminine side. As a gay man, it makes me admire, love and respect them all the more.
Thunder Fox has been making and releasing music since 2015, but I first learned about them in 2019 when they reached out to me about their hilarious single “Been Busy”, one of the tracks on their wonderful debut full-length album Love at First Sniff. It was most definitely love at first sniff for me, and I loved the album so much I wrote a review about it. Over the past two years, they’ve experienced a few lineup changes, and now consist of the dangerously charismatic Sam Dawes (Lead Vocals/Guitar), Travers Keirle (Sax/Vocals/Rhymes), Jesse Tachibana (Trumpet/Vocals/Synths), Max Vallentine (Drums), and Casey Allan (Bass). They followed with several more singles, a few of which I also reviewed (that you can read by clicking on the ‘Related’ links at the end of this post). Now they’re back with a second album Sanctuary, which dropped November 18th, and it’s every bit as delightful as Love at First Sniff.
Sam has written a marvelous background piece about their inspiration and creative process behind the album, and rather than try to paraphrase, I thought I’d simply share his eloquent words verbatim:
“‘Sanctuary’ is our second full length album, which marks the dawning of a new era for Thunder Fox in many ways. After having a couple of members leave the band and experiencing a few other obvious set backs during 2020/21, we needed a second wind. As an artist it’s really easy to lose motivation and focus when faced with challenges that draw you away from your art such as band member turnaround and, say, a global pandemic. As such, I think we all really felt the need to pick up where we’d left off somehow and find some momentum by creating again. With the addition of Casey the Bass Ace to the crew, it was a great chance to dig into some new and improved sounds and try to reshape our art in a way we had yet to explore.
We had the idea to stay in a far-off Air BnB during one of lockdown’s rare lulls, and managed to snag a spot at a beachside bungalow in Nambucca Heads in order to get away from the bullshit and just create. It was a week of literal bliss, at least for me, where we could all engage in art fully and be immersed in the creation of a project again. In all honesty, we didn’t have much of a plan for the album’s concept or soundscapes; we’ve always got so many ideas spinning from all the unique inspirations of the different members that half the battle is just taming the flaming bird’s nest of ideas into a nice, silky coif. What we did have, though, was a bunch of time on our hands, a cathedral-esque living room with high, echoing ceilings and a glistening sun to spill across the verandah as we sat and flicked through old recordings of rehearsal jams.
Now and then, we’d land on a groove that tasted sweet enough to revive and try to mould into a full blown banger. Once the songs started shaping up and I began to feverishly type lyrics into my notes app, the mood of the record began to take shape. Turns out I was feeling all kinds of put out by the doomsday that was the year past and my lyrics would tumble out of my brain like multi-coloured, cynical snowballs, building in size and scope as they rolled. If I were to describe the sentiment of the record in one word it would be “cynical”. More broadly, though, I think I’ve always weaponised cynicism as a way of attempting to understand the world around me. I felt cynical about the political climate, about love, about my day job and how I felt I’d never leave. It felt good to write it out.”
The album opens with sounds of a plane flying overhead, then the guys break into a gospel choir on the joyously upbeat “Head in the Clouds” as they sing “Something pulling me up out of my seat. Rather be anywhere than where I’ve just been. Smile but stay silent. Don’t want no one to see. Head in the clouds. It’s a glorious thing.” And a glorious thing it is, chock full of funky grooves, sunny instrumentation and uplifting harmonies, highlighted by Sam’s gorgeous silky vocals which often rise to an angelic falsetto.
He’s provided wonderful background notes for each song that are more colorful and interesting than anything I could possibly write, so I’m just gonna share them all. It’ll likely make this review too damn long, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’m going to include them! Here’s what he has to say about this track: “If Thunder Fox are known for anything, it’s being able to avoid taking things too seriously. ‘Head in the Clouds’ came to me in a blue dream on one of those hot nights where your brain feels sticky. We wanted to open the album with some fun and familiarity before shit got real.”
The album includes four brief interludes that serve as intros or connectors, the first of which, “A Party“, leads us into the funky gem “Good Time“. Sam sets the stage: “Early twenties, share house, undesirable shindigs with desirable chemicals. This night I wasn’t so much pissed off as I was hammered and concussed after having hit my head on the pavement following a few libations too many at the bar. I returned home to my lovable city dirt shed to find hundreds of people swarming. As I stumbled through the crowd, blood still tacky on my forehead, I thought to myself, ‘this is a great idea for a song.’ Luckily when we got to nutting it out at our makeshift writing space up the coast, Max had the perfect drum groove he’d been wanting to try for ages. It came together in a flash.”
Each of the guys shine on this track. Sam starts things off with a funky little guitar riff as Sam and Casey lay down a soulful rhythm on drums and bass. Amid flourishes of Jesse’s jazzy trumpet notes and Traver’s cool sax, Sam cheekily complains “Why is no one acting like I’m the man of the house? No one at this party seems to know my name, and that ain’t right. Yeah, I’m pissed off coz I got here, and nobody offered me a good time.” Good times indeed!
The guys dial up the energy on “Not For Sale“, a bouncy, funk-infused take on the old adage that money can’t buy you love: “I know you got more money than me, but money is just temporary. Cash ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, when money can’t buy my heart, heart, heart.” The song has an irresistible Earth, Wind & Fire vibe, highlighted by the band’s signature horn section and Casey’s funky bass groove. Sam explains: “Casey, being a relatively new addition to the band at the time, brought with him a synth bass and a set of fingers carved by the gods. Man, he had such a groove on that pile of plastic, the rest of us were floored. We wanted to write something dark, but funky (duh) and bad boy Casey had just the stuff. I know I’m not the only one who had it etched into my brain early on by social media among other sources that success and happiness is defined by finance, followers and fame. Damn we were wrong. Sometimes we lose ourselves so immensely to the pursuit of materialistic ends, we forget how ridiculous it all is. I know I did.”
The second interlude “A Circus“, featuring carnival music, unnatural-sounding neighing horses, and Travers’ quirky vocals, leads us into “Fruitcake“, a delightfully silly song with nonsensical lyrics like: “Moose ate my tooth paste. Said his tooth aches. Ate a few too many half baked fruit cakes, more than he could take. Now he’s a on a diet, trying to shift the weight lifting rakes by the lake.” Sam elaborates: “I don’t even know if Travers knows what this song is about – more millennial existentialism, I’d say – but it’s gotta be one of the most fun, hilarious and groovy tracks on the record. Full Travers, as we say. We came up with the groove and guitar vamp at a soundcheck in Townsville. We were just fucking around at the time but it resurfaced months later at the Sanctuary shack. We jam packed it full to the brim with Thunder Fox-isms and fuckery ‘til it made us laugh our asses off and we knew it was a banger. Fruitcake was one of the many opportunities we all got to try and flex our production chops and collaborate using DAWs and samples, you know, like modern shit.“
The guys tap into their R&B side on “Love You 2“, a sultry, heartfelt song about apologizing to a loved one for having fallen short, and reaffirming that you still love and cherish them. Sam explains: “Drawing from the same existential angst of the previous tracks, there came a time in the months following the writing of ‘Sanctuary’ that I noticed I’d let my material pursuits get in the way of the most important thing imaginable – delicious, unadulterated, full throttle, hyper-vulnerable romance, baby. ‘Love You 2’ is an apology, in a way. Apologising for allowing myself to become so distracted by desire, work and anxiety that I almost forgot to tell someone how much I fucking love their sweet ass. Heed my advice, friends, tell whoever it is you love them. Every. Chance. You. Get.” Accompanied by a languid, soulful and jazzy groove, Sam softly croons “Trying to sort out my life. I know we’ve been here like one million times. I love you too by the way. I’m sorry it took so long to say.“
The 55 second-long instrumental track “A Dream” has more of an alt-rock feel than most of their songs, and serves as a fascinating lead-in to the reggae/ska/goth rock beauty “Blue Light Blindness“. Deliciously dark and melodically complex, the song calls out our mobile phone addiction. Sam elaborates: “‘Blue Light Blindness’ has a serious ring to it if you ask me. You know, us millennials and our god damn phones, right?! Seriously though, I couldn’t name a more potent drug than a smartphone packed with social media apps. We know it’s bad, it distracts us from the importance of self-worth among other things but, we can’t stop. I was listening to Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead’ and Marilyn (fuck you) Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ and I wanted that hardcore triplet groove so bad, I wanted the darkness. Luckily everyone was on the same page with that one. This one started as another off-the-cuff jam we happened to have recorded on one of our iphones (good for something after all) and it was pieced together intensely on the first day of writing. When we added in the horns we realised we had some James Bond shit on our hands.”
There’s so much going on musically, from a bouncy reggae beat one minute, to a psychedelic gospel-like interlude the next, only to be broken by an explosion of goth rock distortion and mayhem before circling back to the reggae/ska groove. God damn, I love this song!
I love “The Weekend” too, on which Thunder Fox give us their delightful take on the drudgery of soul-sucking dead-end jobs that leave us in a continual state of living for the weekends. Sam opines on the subject: “More angst, more day job, more bullshit. Until it stops being the norm, I won’t stop writing about it. I mean, can any of us really imagine a bearable life that entails 5 days of working our asses off to afford 2 days of drinking away the stress? Not me. But, it be like that sometimes. We thought it was pretty funny to put the little kids voices (not real kids, just us, we’re not made of money) in there because it became apparent that this way of being was built into our psyches from the youngest possible age. Work, party, work, party, die. No thanks! The irony is, we made this song a party anyway, the screaming, the South American street festival dirty sax interlude is one of the best moments on the album hands down.”
The song is another melodically complex track, starting off with swirling guitar notes and quirky otherworldly childlike sounds, followed by a few seconds of children’s – that is, the band’s – sing-song voices. The song quickly transitions to a lovely melody with Sam’s beautiful smooth vocals, which are abruptly broken when he wails “I don’t wanna wait for the weekend! No!” The song returns to it’s melodic groove, as Sam laments “I feel like crying when I clock in. Feel my soul dying for a few cents. A hundred hours to cover rent. All this shit just makes me sick. The clock it ticks from nine til six. I don’t wanna wait for the weekend! No!” Man, can I relate! At around 2:20, we’re treated to a jazzy trumpet and sax-fueled burst of energy as the melody briefly turns into an exhilarating Latin-esque dance beat. These guys just keep blowing me away with their inventiveness and musicality.
“A Lapse” is a minute and a half long instrumental featuring super-gnarly, funky grooves that would make Grandmaster Flash proud. This lead us to “All the Stars“, a sexy and soulful song that sort of continues with the theme introduced on “The Weekend”, namely, what is the point of all this disorder and uncertainty in life? Sam elaborates: “Ah, sweet entropy, the cause of, and solution to all of life’s entropy. I wrote this as a poem in another one of my moments of existential disaster, still reeling from a day of working a call-centre job of all things. Believe me when I tell you there’s no stronger vacuum to suck the soul right out of the holes in your face than a fucking call-centre job. Anyway, ‘All the Stars’ is the epiphany that this happens to all of us at some point in our lives, maybe even forever. We’re all stars really, but we sure as hell don’t act like it. We run in circles trying to make sense of this chaos. All of us. One of my favourite elements of this one is the longing, weeping horns after the chorus. When Jesse and Travers get together to dream up a perfect horn line, they never miss.”
The first part of the song is gorgeous, with shimmery guitars, glittery synths, and those weeping horns layered over Casey’s sensuous bassline and Max’s restrained percussion, creating a dreamy, enchanting soundscape for Sam’s resonant falsetto. Two-thirds of the way in, the song abruptly shifts into high gear to become a rousing punk-rock banger, with blaring horns and frantic rhythms. It’s simply perfect!
The album closes with “The Stew“, a wild and funky ride with more grooves than a box full of vinyl records. I love the soulful James Brown-like vibe, driven by a funky bassline and stuttering drumbeats, and highlighted by fluttering horns and Sam’s rapid-fire vocals. Sam sez “This track is a band favourite from way back. We wrote it in 2017 and played it at a few shows but it never really saw the light of day and faded away eventually. When it came to putting together a track listing for ‘Sanctuary’, we listened to an old live recording of “The Stew” and all agreed we’d be crazy not to show this off. To me, ‘The Stew’ is Thunder Fox’s anthem. It perfectly sums up our chaotic mixture of anything and everything that brings us joy. It’s more than the sum of its parts, to say the least. When I wrote the lyrics, I was riding high on a wave of rockstar ego that feels so real when it hits but, when you wake up to jackhammers in your brain, you remember you’re so full of shit and you’re going to work hung over. I really wanted to just take the piss out of myself in a song, try bring myself back down to the ground. Here, I get in touch with my sarcastic, self-depreciating British roots. When all is said and done, I’m fully aware that I’m not God’s gift… Thunder Fox is.”
I wholeheartedly second that, as I adore this band, and adore this brilliant album. With Sanctuary, Thunder Fox has one of the best albums of the year on their hands, and it should also be in yours.