Meeting Nic Cester, I’m not sure what I expected. All I knew of him was all that my twenty-two years of life has allowed me to: he was the lead singer and songwriter from Jet, the band that wrote Are You Gonna Be My Girl, otherwise known as that song that everyone, from men over fifty to pre-teens, just knows.
After an unprecedented rise on the Second Wave of the Rock’n’Roll revival, the band toured with Cester at the helm alongside the likes of The Rolling Stones and Oasis. This set the bar, for many, as to what they might expect from the future of the Australian band, but as is often the case, life had other plans. The band broke up in 2012 after a heavy few years, during which, I get the impression, they were all asking themselves what it was that the band had become.
Cester expresses how he felt he had to get away once it was over, setting himself a new challenge: “I walked off stage from the last Jet show, travelled around the Middle East for six or seven months and then I relocated to Berlin and studied German for a few months. After being the lead singer of a rock and roll band for my whole life and then finding myself back in a classroom.” I point out that must have felt very strange. “It was!”, he agrees. “But, I needed to challenge myself and I needed new challenges – and not even musical ones. Just more like… cerebral ones. I needed to exercise my brain again in different ways.”
When we arrive at Pretty Green for Cester’s solo album launch – entitled Sugar Rush – and the vibe of the venue feels very much like somewhere you might have expected to find Jet in their earliest days: a small, incredibly intimate setting filled with instruments and an open bar. That being said, the entire evening had elements of being much more relaxed than anything you imagine ‘Rock’n’Roll’ to be – including Cester himself. It was a surprise to find that the Jet front-man is quite a reserved personality – nothing like the persona that the world had come to expect from him ten to fifteen years ago.
Listening to Sugar Rush, I can’t help but feel like it’s fresh, road-tripping sound is a very earnest – and very deliberate – departure from his past: the greatest of challenges. I ask Nic what specifically about his new solo album challenged him: “By uprooting my life, more than once,” he says. “I moved to Berlin to live for a few years and I chose that as a place where I didn’t know a single person. I didn’t speak the language. I started by moving there and flipping my life.”
We were informed towards the time for doors to open that there was a cue that stretch right around the corner and down the street – which, for anyone who does not know Carnaby Street, is quite impressive. The crowd was incredibly excitable, and once Cester began introducing his new tracks to them, they greeted them with great ripples of enthusiasm.
The album is soulful and easy-going, filled with melodic riffs and a vibe that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Australian beach or a road-trip on Route 66. “My brother lives in LA – other people have said that,” he says. “To be honest, it’s not so much about California, because I didn’t like California all that much… but there’s definitely summer vibes and I think a few of my friends have said it’s a good driving record. It’s soul and there’s definitely a lot of summer elements. There’s a lot of percussion as well and I was listening to a lot of Brazilian music, so there’s definitely that.”
Despite the unbearable heat of the small venue – all thanks to this unbelievably Mediterranean summer Britain has been having – the crowd receives the new tracks with open arms, in particular the first single, Eyes On the Horizon. Cester introduces another track, no doubt soon to be a fan favourite, Psichebello, (described as the most psychedelic on the album). It feels like a refreshing smash of genres – in particularly thanks to the heavy feature of the bongo drums. Cester has formed a new band, The Milano Electrica, an eight piece with a great variety of instruments and skill to its repertoire, but a particular focus on percussion. Cester himself is seen with a set of maracas for a greater portion of the performance.
I ask him if this new melodic, breezy sound is something he has always listened to, and he is emphatic that he has. Despite Jet, I ask? “Yes, despite Jet– absolutely. My grandfather was a tenor. He was Italian and migrated to Australia after the Second World War and so I grew up with him playing a variety of instruments, like piano accordion, violin, piano… Just to give you an example – I grew up listening to a lot of weird stuff, a lot of weird Italian stuff from the 1940s and 50s.
My father wasn’t so much into music – or my mother – but all my aunties and uncles were, so I have always appreciated everything from jazz to classical music, all sorts of stuff, weird, obscure Italian stuff from the 60s and 70s. I just moved to Italy to live. I have been going there on and off for ten years – it’s been my fixed location for the last three years. When you move to another country and you’re exposed to the history of that country’s music, it sort of awakens things in you that were, maybe, lying dormant.”
This certainly does explain a lot about Cester’s knowledge of genre and his desire to not be confided by it – as proven by tracks such as Psichebello. He reveals to the crowd that he wrote this particular song, in part, about his infant daughter. Is she a Jet fan? “She’s only six months old, so she doesn’t listen to anything yet. Hopefully they’ll just be a lot of music, always around… Although, despite whatever you play in the home, the moment your kid leaves your four walls, they’re going to be exposed to all sorts of awful shit,” he laughs.
I confess to him that as a teenager, one of the songs that I discovered once I left my parents’ four walls was, in fact, Are You Gonna Be My Girl. Cestor seems unsurprised, as I imagine that song has come to be synonymous with youth for more people than he can shake a stick at. I was interested to find out what his break-out ‘teenage-hood’ favourite song was and he reveals that it was, of course, a 1990’s classic. “Every time I hear the Smashing Pumpkins’ song, 1979, it transports me immediately back […] because it reminds me of my youth, but also it touches on something that resonates with me, that meets between hopefulness and melancholy. I think on Walk On, [the closing track on Sugar Rush], I touched on that feeling in that song – that song is in that world too.”
Perhaps it is the unwritten rule that all parents think that previous generations’ music is ‘all sorts of awful’, but in the case of Cester, I found myself interested in the juxtaposition being both a father and a songwriter must cause. As Cester admits, he was only seventeen or so when he wrote the songs from Jet’s debut album, Get Born, and since then the advent of social media seems to place a heavy responsibly on the shoulders of songwriters over the content in their songs. “Yeah, that’s true,” he agrees, “I think there’s a lot more insecurity now, absolutely.” When I ask him if art should trump the rules, he is quite surprisingly diplomatic – for a rock star. “It’s a shame because one of the necessary things in order to write a good song, or do anythinginteresting, is that you have to be completely fearless. I think that’s probably – it could be a bad thing. I don’t know, but then other challenges come, interesting challenges I could never have thought of, that I’m sure are happening to younger a generation now.”
Well, he’s diplomatic until, refreshingly, he suddenly isn’t. He adds: “The other thing is, despite the fact that now I’m doing as solo album in a time when insecurity is rife, I’m thirty-eight years old now. I don’t give a fuck anymore, you know?”
I ask him how it feels now, in the spirit of ‘no longer giving a fuck’, to come full circle back to Jet’s debut album just in time for its 15th anniversary this year. “It was weird – to be honest, I had no idea it was 15 years. It sounds like it was pre-meditated but it absolutely was not. There’d been many opportunities to get the band together for a long, long time but I personally didn’t feel like I was ready. It wasn’t something I was prepared to do until I had made some progress personally, but also musically. Finally, having spent the few years that it took me to finish Sugar Rush, then we got an offer to support Bruce Springsteen in Australia. It was right at that moment when I was feeling really fulfilled.”
Could one ever turn down Bruce Springsteen? “We turned down other big stuff like that before… One of the things that I’m grateful having been in Jet, there’s always an interesting offer around the corner.”
I ask him a question I always like to ask because it says a lot about people – if you could time travel and see any artist or gig, who or what would it be? His response, given his confession of loving more genres than most, is unsurprising. “You know what? I know this is going to sound like a weird answer, but my favourite, favourite singer is Dean Martin and I would love to have gone and seen the Rat Pack in Vegas because, unfortunately, there’s very, very little recordings of that stuff. Woodstock and all those classic concerts? You can find stuff on the internet, but you go back a little further and there’s just no record of it. So, if I had a tie machine, I’d go back and see something that is more difficult to find.”
As we rounded up, I was curious to find out what made him decide to name the album after it’s titled track, Sugar Rush. “Well, a lot of the lyrics kind of flirt with this idea that – my wife will validate this – I still find it very difficult to say no to things,” he says, almost as though this isn’t a common trait in many of us. “So, it’s about over-indulging in the sweeter things.”
I confess that I never can say ‘no’ to sugar.
“Well, not exactly sugar but––.” Metaphorical sugar? “Yes.” He laughs. “Exactly.”
SUGAR RUSH is released in the UK on 27th July, 2018 and is produced by Jim Abbiss via Bloodlines, the new label from Melbourne’s Mushroom Group.
Interview by India Rose Meade & Portraits by Ruby Gaunt with Nic Cester, Carnaby Street, London 25th July 2018.