Maybe not the hair and Italian film star glasses. Or the born-this-way angle of his not-quite hipster clothes. But there’s a lot about Joel Sarakula which feels very Australian even after nearly two decades in Europe and the UK: his playful language, humour and cultural references, his parents.
However, there’s a reason why this Sydney-born and raised musician is European by choice. And yes, it starts with his morning/night habits.
“I like coffee, does that count?,” he asks, before admitting that he doesn’t actually have much of a breakfast and takes his food later in the day. “I’m a bit of a night owl and Europe has a better sense of nightlife and opening late that Australia should really, really learn from. The shops open till late in the bars and clubs are open till 3 or 4am.
“Australia took its cultural cues from England when with our climate it should have been modelled on the Spanish or Italian culture.”
Not that Sarakula, whose new album, Companionship, has a kind of hands-across-the-water philosophy, has ever lived for an extended time “on the continent”, basing himself in the UK even when he was doing a lot of work in cover bands which might set up for weeks at a time in a different European city. But his attitude, his approach to his music, and the music itself, is one that has found recognition and respect whereas here the ground would not immediately so fertile.
Across seven albums now, Sarakula has perfected a style of music that is deeply rooted in the 1970s, that draws from sweet smooth pop, jazz-influenced rock, soul and the silkier end of disco. It’s golden hits radio material, but new; it’s technically adept but hides its technique under big pop hooks; it’s creamy and just enough cheesy, but made seriously. And that’s the rub.
In Australia, playing what he does, it would be expected, you might even say demanded, that he be ironic, that these songs be played with an arch sensibility.
“Yes, to do a complete piss-take,” he says. “It’s totally influenced by the seventies but there is a level of humour in what I do; it’s not complete pastiche or homage. The concept of guys, basically middle-aged with glasses, coming on doing music, yacht rock, that was seen as sexy, smooth, back in the day, there is potential for humour in it. But there is sincerity and respect in what I do as well. I can honestly say that Steely Dan is one of my favourite bands of all time, and I can say that without a wink a smile.”
While he may be operating on a small scale, Sarakula’s ventures into a cornucopia of styles means in Europe he has fans in soft rock, soul, Britain’s northern soul scene, and jazz rock pockets, finding himself on the bill at pop festivals, jazz festivals, rock festivals “and I’ve even snuck onto festivals that had ska bands and rockabilly”.
“I thought how do I pull this off?,” he says of one festival in Spain. “I looked out and there are all these rocksteady guys with suspenders and massive Doc Martens, and bald, and I thought this is going to be tough. But by the end of the set they were like dancing to my disco tunes.”
Seriously though, what appeals about a sound and a style that back here at least is more 2CH than triple j?
“I always been a bit of a jazzer, or wannabe jazzer, and that was a time when jazz connected a lot more with pop or rock music, there was a lot more crossover. I think it’s potentially more about that, that I like those kind of jazzy chords that make things sound a little more seventies, just because they fell out of fashion after that.
“But hearing songs like Peg and What A Fool Believes, it’s amazing the sophistication and breadth of the harmonies underneath the songs, and they were huge, huge hits. And that’s a lost art form as well and I want to regain that idea of doing a sophisticated song and still making a three and a half minute pop song that is really catchy.”
No wink, but definite appreciation. And if that makes him sound a bit out of step, well Sarakula can live with that – even as he laughs at himself, saying “I know I sound like Homer [Simpson] when he says 1972 was the greatest year of music, though he’s probably saying it for different reasons, and probably the bands his thinking of are Lynyrd Skynyrd or someone like that.”).
After all, as they say used to say in the ads for European furniture back in the day, craftmanship matters and Sarakula, whose attention to detail in his productions belies the budgets, is apt to say things like “That’s one thing that I think has been lost a little bit: the craftsmanship in songwriting and production”, and mean it.
In any of these discussions though there is that line that you have to walk between recognising the quality, appreciating the style and at the same time understand that there was humour done at the time as well, that it wasn’t all nerdy blokes impressing each other in the corner. Think of it as high-end precision and low-end accessibility.
To see how cleverly someone like Sarakula walks that line you could look at some others who haven’t been able to consistently deal with the split personalities, for example Los Angeles hipster humorists, Chromeo or local ironist Donny Benet.
The American duo toiled for several years trying to be simultaneously funny, ironic, technically apt and reverential about a similar period without ever nailing it commercially or musically, until the 2014 album White Women became a hit. And then once they’d achieved that, they found they couldn’t repeat it with the subsequent album.
By comparison, Sarakula who hasn’t had a commercial breakthrough, has consistently balanced craft, humour, respect and pop sense. “Nobody’s bought any copies,” he says sardonically, declaring he has what is probably appropriately called a “cottage industry”. But the point is you can’t sustain interest and quality with just humour or an ability to mimic perfectly what’s gone before.
As ever, but especially in a style that is fraught with danger because of the ease of slipping into humour, if you don’t have the songs and a genuine element of truth, of heart, the rest of it doesn’t matter eventually. What a fool believes? Maybe so.
Anyway, let’s finish with what you might call the ultimate irony of Sarakula’s irony—free career. His music roots are so obviously 1970s as we’ve seen, but even more, so deeply Los Angeles you suspect it might come with a side order of an EST session and a meeting with David Geffen. However, Sarakula has run from the very idea of the city.
“I’ve never wanted to live in LA. I hate driving cars and as a teenager I just wanted to leave Sydney, I wanted to leave suburbia, so why would I want to go to another version of suburbia with car highways, massive houses and pools?,” he says. “I’ve wanted the opposite of that, always: to live in apartment blocks in high density cities. And I was more romantically in love with the idea of Europe and the UK, or New York.
“If I’d moved to LA my lungs would be full of soot by now and I’d have type II diabetes.”
Companionship is out now.
A version of this interview originally ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.