Sgt Hulka release their second single, ‘Forget Me Now’, at Bar 459 on Friday 23 November. A band with a growing following and taking a deliberately left-field approach to making and performing music, Sgt Hulka are worth looking out for. Around The Sound sat down for lunch with Kirsty Hulka, the band’s namesake, songwriter-in-chief and mistress of quirks.
Kirsty Hulka arrives at our table and looks around before she sits down. Feels like she’s looking for someone who isn’t me. Turns out I was right.
“I’ve been stalking Bill Murray. I heard he was in Freo earlier today, so I thought I’d have a bit of a look around. I’m not a fan, I haven’t even seen Stripes, but, you know, I share a name with the character he played and I had this teacher in school...”
We both take a look around the Leederville eatery when we’re meeting for lunch and a chat about Hulka’s band, Sgt Hulka. Once we’ve confirmed Bill Murray’s not in the house, we settle in and Hulka tells the rest of the story. It’s one of those familiar tales about that teacher who picks some small detail about a kid and just rides on it. Much to her bemusement, Hulka got called Sgt Hulka in school by a teacher who obviously was a Bill Murray fan and had watched Stripes. “Yeah, I had no idea what he was going on about.”
Instead of spending her adult life plotting revenge, Hulka just named her band Sgt Hulka. Probably the better option, what the with state of gun control in Aus.
“Anyway, I just thought I’d see if I could find him (Murray). No harm in a quick selfie with a celeb, specially as the band’s named after him.”
I’ve been stalking Bill Murray
Who could disagree with that kind of logic?
There’s a quite bit of quirky logic to Hulka and it’s threaded through her music and her choice of instrumentation for her band.
“Everyone plays guitars and I’ve always liked bands fronted by piano players or that feature piano, people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, Regina Spektor, Ben Folds, the Dresden Dolls. So, yeah, I front the band on keyboard and we have six-string bass (Brent Gillam) and drums (Tim Marshall). It works really well and people seem to like it. We are a bit different.”
It’s true, Sgt Hulka are different to your average band. They have the space of a three piece, there’s room for the music to breathe, and there’s something you just can’t turn your ears away from in the piano-driven power pop of their songs. There’s more than a passing nod to some of Hulka’s cited influences, the Dresden Dolls come through strongly, but there’s no harm at all in emulating the sort of smart ephemera put out by such an outfit. It’s a handy reference to make and Sgt Hulka do it well, while taking things in a direction that is also entirely their own.
“I made a pact with myself when we first started this band about it being a piano-based band. Everybody’s got a guitarist. There so many guitar players out there and it’s so rare that you get a keyboard fronted band. I treat the keyboard as if it’s a rock and roll instrument. Sometimes you just have to be different.”
A lot of the quirk of Sgt Hulka rests on Hulka’s shoulders. As the focal point of the band’s performances, Hulka has a way about her that is measured, but has a wild freedom to it. Her stage presence is a passion play to the cult of pop music and you feel that at any moment she might just break out and do...almost anything! There’s a delicious tension in the way Hulka goes about her craft that is constrained but free, tight but loose.
Maybe it’s got something to do with her drinking habit?
When Hulka gives the back story to the recording of her band’s current single, ‘Forget Me Now’, she’s just a tiny bit sheepish.
“We decided to do Sober October and when I went into the studio and tried to do it (record the vocals) it didn’t work. Then I got sick for two weeks, and when I went back in and tried to do it again, still during October, I still couldn’t do it. I listened back and it was just missing something. I was thinking about it too much. I was trying to get the right vocal tone and place all my vowels in the right place. I listened back to it and just thought it sounds like shit.”
“After October, I went back into the studio, had a few vodkas before I started, and got it pretty much straight away. I’d been over thinking my singing and it seems like I needed alcohol to get me through, to relax me enough so I could sing.”
“The song is about drinking too much.”
This last bit Hulka says without even so much as a hint of irony. I’m looking at her, waiting for the punchline, but it doesn’t come.
It is so refreshing in these days of political correctness to see the raw honesty of an artist in their early stages of development. Here’s hoping that Hulka ends up so successful that she’s surrounded every minute of the day by minders and PRs who craft every single word that falls from her lips and keep her protected from hacks like me. God knows, she deserves that level of success, even if only for the deadpan delivery of that line.
The song is about drinking too much
Besides the music, there’s another reason why Hulka and her band deserve success. It’s because she is her music.
“For about eight years I was in a band called the Gypsy Howlers. We started out small and it built into something, we played a lot of festivals. Towards the end, I went away for six weeks and it all just stopped happening after that. We didn’t book any gigs, we didn’t get together and, in the end, I just said, ‘I’m done.’ I almost became very resentful about it. I didn’t want to go out and watch gigs any more, I didn’t want to make music any more. It took about a year for me to begin to try to do something again. I started trying to do something, but by then I was teaching full time. I just didn't have the time and head space. I had a terrible year last year, the worst year of my life and about midway through I thought, ‘If I don’t do something I’m just going to be completely miserable and I’m never going to achieve what I know I want to’.”
“The three years that I wasn’t in the music scene, not doing music, just felt horrible. I didn’t feel happy. When I finally decided to quit full time teaching so I could concentrate on music again it was a big relief.”
“Singing is my saving grace. If something isn’t right or I’m not feeling well, I’ll sing. And, if I can see other people enjoying what I’m doing, that takes me to another higher level. I also love dancing and moving to music and if there’s a crowd there enjoying and moving along with the music, it just makes me feel so good inside; I get goosebumps all over my body.”
Singing is my saving grace
Here’s the business end of the conversation. I had to ask, did music save Hulka’s life? She looks at me for the briefest moment like I’m a bit of a loon and says, “Oh no, I’m just much happier now that I’m making music again. Life makes sense.”
And, with that, lunch is over (Hulka paid, yahoo and eternal thanks), and she’s off again in search of Bill Murray.
Seems that Hulka’s life, like her music, is more attuned to Sliding Doors than Stripes. A little shift in circumstances and everything changes. In this version of her life, everything looks like it’s changed for the better. Instead of turning out to be a school shooter or crazy cat lady, Hulka’s turning out beautiful pop music that lodges in your mind and makes you want to hear more. Her's is a story of triumph when for so many it would have been one of failure.
Wonder if she’s ever seen Sliding Doors?
Hulka’s turning out beautiful pop music that lodges in your mind and makes you want to hear more
Sgt Hulka launch ‘Forget Me Now’ at Bar 459 on Friday 23 November with support from Iceage Sugar, Kopano and Wild Oak Band. Event details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/181594589406628/