Word about Sad King Billy began seeping into our consciousness via social media late last year, creating word of mouth among those in the know and those who wanted to know. ‘Runneth’, the first single from this new, what is it? project? band? artist?, was released into the world late January 2021, around the same time Julian Peet started to put his name to this thing that was beginning to form out of a dark mist. Talk about different! Peet is best known for his guitar work with Perth bands, Old Blood and The Southern River Band, where, by his own admission, “as a guitar player, for a long time my playing wasn’t really a vehicle for the song or what was right for the band, it was like it has to sound as good as it possibly can on its own, it has to be perfect.” And, really, when you’re as good on your chosen instrument as Peet is on his Gibson SG, why the hell wouldn’t you?
This is me finally getting to a stage where I have where the confidence and the I don’t give a fuck anymore to be able to go here’s actually what I’ve wanted to do for a long time…Julian Peet
As Peet himself explained it, “Part of how I’ve been releasing the music is that it’s not Julian or Jules doing this thing, it’s Sad King Billy. It’s only just recently that I’ve been going, hey it’s actually me, because I didn’t want people to draw on their previous expectations.”
‘Runneth’ is a sultry siren of a song that laps at your shore in successive waves. It’s not until the end that you realise that you’re drowning in its high tide. Setting forth with a metronomic beat, the layers and textures of this first single from Sad King Billy — the herald of an album, Mental Wealth, that contains nine more songs that are bound to delight and confound in equal measures — morphs into a hammering demon living inside your mind and ends with the most sinister and atmospheric extended outro you would have heard in quite some time.
Reading that back, it would be easy to think that this is a song I haven’t really warmed to. Not so. ‘Runneth’ may not be easy listening, but it’s instantly intriguing and delivers new perspectives, new soundscapes with every spin. It’s a song that demands your attention and doesn’t actually care whether you like it or not. If this is the first taste of the album, the dealer at the schoolyard gate, it doesn’t take too many listens before you’re hooked and needing more.
As an exercise in listening to new music, ‘Runneth’ is entirely satisfying. It feeds your mind, plugs into your soul and leaves you changed for the experience of having listened to it. To say it’s a good, or even great, song would be too banal, too trite an assessment of this contemporary music masterpiece.
Getting behind the veil of Sad King Billy and inside the mind of its creator is an exercise in stripping back layers, much like listening to the music. It’s not that Peet is a reluctant interviewee, but there’s a certain shy reserve about the man that is in sharp contrast to the performer who, on stage, looks about 10 feet tall and exudes the fuck you charm of the eternal rock star.
“I see this record as a little bit of a farewell note to my 20s,” Peet said when asked about his new project, “a bit of a good riddance. It’s not that there’s any major regret there or anything, but I think for me it’s a summation of a lot of different periods of trying to find an identity as a musician within other bands and my song writing developing over the years; personal experiences I had with being in a long-term relationship that ended; and a lot of mental health issues that I dealt with throughout my 20s that I now have a much greater understanding of.
“I know how to put it into my art in a way that I feel expresses what I want to express but I’m also challenging myself with the kind of music I’m putting out and not leaning back on some old habits. A lot of people know me as a blues and rock guitarist. A lot of people haven’t heard me sing before.”
With Sad King Billy, all of that is about to change. If ‘Runneth’ is anything to go by, some of his current fans are going to be a bit confused, but will likely come along for the ride. What’s really exciting, though, is that this project, should it keep seeping into people’s consciousness, will win Peet many new fans that continuing to play a mean slide guitar perhaps wouldn’t have.
“This is me finally getting to a stage where I have where the confidence and the I don’t give a fuck anymore to be able to go here’s actually what I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Peet. “I was sort of searching through the last decade to be able to do that.”
So, what is it that enabled Peet to turn the corner and begin making the music he always felt he was destined to make? As with so many things in life, the good is often preceded by the not so good.
Asked to pinpoint his personal turning point, Peet said, “I’ve had persistent mental health issues from the age of about 17 and a lot of stuff came to a head for me about two and a half years ago. A long-term relationship that I was in ended, that I’d been in for most of my 20s. I’d been on the road with The Southern River Band a fair bit. I wasn’t really on top of my mental health and I basically had a crisis where everything fell apart and I decided to quit the band. But, also, it was a little bit like a rebirth where I realised I had to focus on fundamental things and go back to the core of why I started playing music.
“So many of my motivators in the industry were, I need to get ahead, I need to be in bands that are more successful, I need to be able to generate income, I need to be performing at a particular level, I still need to be practising x amount every day. A lot of ridiculous expectations and pressures on myself. I think when I finally saw everything crumble I was able to go, now I don’t have to put those things on myself and I can start again.”
For Peet, a big part of recovery and starting again meant focusing on creating new music.
“All I told myself, every day, was try to write, write stuff,” said Peet. “I had stuff that I’d collected over the years and I hadn’t finished, and I forced myself to finish those things. I probably wrote somewhere in the ballpark of 50 songs in about 12 months. Then I bought myself some basic recording equipment so I could get the demos down.
“All this stuff I’d built around myself as strengths compared to what really excited me about music, you know burning Dad’s CDs and sharing them with mates at school and then sticking in the headphones at the end of the night and listening to records from the 70s, and I was like, I want to make a really good record and write really good songs, that’s what I want to do. I want to put less pressure on myself to gig and be all these things that I think are part and parcel of being a great musician … I’d done that stuff and I’d learned from it, and I felt confident that I could continue to do it, but showing the inner songwriter and the producer, that was the focus.”
Through his difficult 20s, Peet has found a way to free himself to focus on creating the sort of music he’s always wanted to. Looking back, he said, “I can’t help but think that I invested so much energy into these things and it should be better, but that’s just not looking at it in the right way. The right way to look at it is, yeah you did, and you learned so much, and now you’re in a place where you can use all those things to do what you want to do.”
It’s not so much a sense of regret that Peet feels, it’s more like relief now that he’s able to put everything in its right place; and an opening up of his creative vista.
“I’ve always told myself time and time again that it’s about different for the sake of being better,” Peet said, “making different choices for the sake of being better as opposed to making different choices for the sake of being different. When I approach music, I try to keep that in mind. As long as I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of maybe fucking something up completely I think that’s a good sign that I’m probably doing something relatively creative.
“As artists we receive a lot of information that basically tells us to do the opposite of really being truly creative. That might sound a little bit pretentious, but it extremely difficult to find yourself in a position where you can truly make truly creative decisions without letting down your bandmates, or maybe taking too much money out of the kitty, or spending 20 hours mixing a song that’s three minutes.”
As to the music on the upcoming debut album for Sad King Billy, Peet has been co-producing with Dan Carroll at Rada Studios in Perth. Carroll has worked as producer on countless projects and also is a revered musician. Though the shadowy world of the studio producer doesn’t get talked about anywhere near often enough, those who’ve worked with Carroll never fail to sing his praises, as was the case with Peet.
“I started with about 25 demos that I did at home,” Peet said, “and then I brought them into Dan (Carroll) and we sort of chiselled down to 10 songs. It’s myself and Dan playing everything on the record. For me to be truly creative on the guitar I have to force myself into a situation where I’m not doing something that leans heavily on 18 years of technical ability and conceptual understanding. It’s very easy for me to slip into a more academic and analytical brain about what should be right and a big part of it was, when I walked into Dan’s studio, I didn’t bring anything that was my comfort zone. Everything around me, I had to…necessity was the mother of invention so to speak. The amount of restriction I was putting on myself being in Dan’s space with his tools around me was like being in a new playground.
“This record, stylistically, opens up a few doors for me, stuff that I’d listened to and been into for a really, really long time, but stuff that I haven’t recorded and written songs in the style of that much. The songs are very heavily to the song focused. There are parts where it’s more experimental in terms of instrumentation as a whole and maybe moving away from anything that is overly guitaristic. There are a lot of sounds on the record that give it that other worldly experience.”
As well as foregrounding Peet as a song writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Sad King Billy also sees him step up to take on lead vocal duties. When I first listened to ‘Runneth’ it took me a little while to get used to the idea of the guitarist taking centre stage, hence why Peet released the music into the world without telling anyone it was him that made it. Expectations can lead to all sorts of hare-brained ideas. But I still felt compelled to ask Peet about his vocals and he was generous enough to play along instead of just punching me on the nose for being so impertinent.
“With the development of my vocals, I had done a lot of experimenting in the demo period with using all the different parts of my range. The next single that comes out has four-part vocal harmonies and stuff like that. I’ve been replaying some of the songs that we’ve written on the record recently at home to not lose track of the vocals as an instrument and I have noticed, maybe no massive technical jumps forward, but much more of a sense of confidence in myself where I’m feeling less exposed because I’ve put a song out there and anybody can hear it. It’s now out there and it’s exposed and I’ve had some great feedback. It’s been a healthy boost of confidence for me to give less of a fuck about how my voice sounds. Now, I enjoy what I might see as characteristics and imperfections in my voice, because I think if there are those idiosyncrasies there, they become things that people can identify as the artist.”
As he has been throughout the development of this project, Peet was a little bit mysterious when asked what was coming next for Sad King Billy, he chose not to say exactly what and when. “I’ve got the masters back for the next single,” he said, “which is, I daresay, a little bit more audience friendly, it has more of a pop tinge to it. One of my friends said there’s a strong 10CC vibe on it, which is great. That’s a very nice compliment. But there’s still smatterings experimentation, all the kind of stuff that Dan and I were getting into. So, I think I think, yeah, I’m really excited to put that one out, it’s a really good second step. I think ‘Runneth’ was a really good entry point, the way I see it the song is a good piece of connective tissue between all of the different things I’m trying to do on the record as opposed to me putting my best song or my most audience friendly song first. I thought it would be a good idea to put that song first as a good marker of what’s to come.”
As to performance, don’t expect anything conventional or to see Sad King Billy stepping onto a stage any time soon.
“There are plans for some level of performance in the future,” Peet said, “which may not be face to face, but will be a live performance style project. A lot of what’s important with this project for me is working closely with the artist, Cody Roberts, who’s been doing all the art. He’s a 3D artist. A big inspiration for me growing up, coinciding with listening to a lot of records from the 70s, was reading Dad’s sci-fi books from the 70s and 80s. Sad King Billy is a character from the book Hyperion, by Dan Simmons. So that’s a big part of the aesthetic that I want to try and put across.
“Eventually, Cody and I will be doing some sort of live streaming performance, perhaps a pre-recorded performance in the studio where we can move between a lot of the animations that we’ve been doing into the live performance and mix everything in the studio and create an otherworldly move into that space for the listener and the viewer.”
Whatever comes in the name of Sad King Billy, whenever it comes, one thing is certain, it will be worth the wait.
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Get all the music as it’s released on Spotify.