The things that lift us up often end up dragging us down. For most people it’s a job or a relationship or money. For Sheppard, it was a song.
Then again, ‘Geronimo’ wasn’t just a song. It was a phenomenon. Released in March 2014, the six-piece’s infectious, unstoppable single would end up going five-times platinum in Australia and top charts throughout Europe. It went platinum in the United States, peaking at number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100, and achieved platinum or gold status in 20 other countries.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles recorded a version of the song. Two American men streamed themselves driving 1,100 miles across the United States, listening only to ‘Geronimo’ (with George patching in to say “hello”). “I’ve seen old ladies line dance to it,” vocalist Amy Sheppard says. “There have been proposals, flash mobs.”
The song lit a fire underneath Bomb’s Away, Sheppard’s debut album eventually going gold, and led to countless rounds of touring, with knock-out performances at Rock in Rio 2015, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Sold-out headline shows followed in New York and Los Angeles, as did appearances on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
And then, a moment of silence.
The band finally downed tools in December of 2015, returning to their hometown of Brisbane to rest and consider what they’d experienced. “It was only after we got back that we thought, ‘Wow, that actually happened,’” guitarist and co-songwriter Jay Bovino says.
But ‘Geronimo’ was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it presented opportunities that a previously unknown pop-rock band of early 20-somethings could only dream of. On the other, it set the bar extremely high for a follow-up.
“In the public eye, we were just this song,” singer and co-songwriter George Sheppard says. “People would stop me in the street and say, ‘You’re ‘Geronimo’, right?!’
“Everyone has those points where they have to get through adversity,” he continues. “For us, it was ‘Geronimo’.”
So how do you follow one of the biggest Australian singles of the last five years? For the band’s management, the answer was to get straight back in the studio. But the very first session almost ended in disaster. “There was this big blow-up between Jay and I,” George says. “It was simply because we were so exhausted. And that was the point where we all thought, ‘Nope. We need to take a break.’”
Over the next couple of months, the core songwriting team of George, Amy and Jay would regularly get together to pen material for a new album. But instead of a working as a team they were three people simply trying to top ‘Geronimo’. “We were telling each other how it should be, instead of listening to ourselves,” George says. “Jay would start a song and Amy and I would be like, ‘It’s not good enough’, and vice versa.”
Not helping was pressure from the industry and the media. “It was like being stuck in an echo chamber,” George says. “‘When’s the next hit coming out?’ ‘When’s the next thing coming out?’”
Sheppard needed a circuit breaker.
It eventually came via an enforced break on North Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane. George, Amy and Jay retreated to an apartment overlooking the sea. There was little else to do but write and swim. Soon, the arguing stopped and the songs started to flow again.
“We just blocked ourselves off from that noise. A few days in we thought, ‘There’s no one else here. This is just us,’” George says. “‘Let’s pretend if we were beginning a band, starting from scratch, what would we do?’ That was the turning point.”
The Stradbroke trip also forced the band to ask themselves why they write music. “We realised we do it for ourselves,” George says. “This is our job. This is what we like to do. Let’s keep going and be the very best we can be.”
None of the songs George, Amy and Jay wrote at Stradbroke would ever be recorded. But it didn’t matter: they were back, working together as a unit.
An intensive series of writing sessions in Los Angeles followed. George describes the experience as a “shotgun blast” of jumping from one potential collaborator to the next. The band ultimately hit it off with two pairs of producers: Peter Thomas and Kyle Moorman; and New Zealanders Gladius and Big Taste. “Pete and Kyle had actually been the first ones we wrote with,” George says. “We got off the plane, jumped in a room and wrote [lead single] ‘Keep Me Crazy’.”
Sheppard had their groove back. Both production teams were invited back to Brisbane, moving into West End’s Alchemix Studios to co-produce the album with the band and long-time collaborator Stuart Stuart.
The endgame would be Watching The Sky, Sheppard’s new album. And it’s a giant leap forward.
Sheppard wield pop music like a weapon, and on Watching The Sky it hits like a smart bomb. There’s the exhilarating, vertiginous ‘Castaways’; the thumping, guitar-driven ‘Choke’; the sheer climactic propulsion of ‘Riding The Wave’, which begs for a festival crowd to sing along with.
But there’s something deeper here too. George, Amy, Jay, Emma, drummer Dean Gordon and guitarist Michael Butler are all four years older and the album taps into more mature themes of love, fear, escapism and growth; of overcoming adversity through patience and acceptance. “It speaks to anybody who has ever been brave enough to put themselves out there and go for it,” George says. “Especially if they failed miserably.”
Does the band ever feel like they’ve failed miserably? “Of course,” George laughs. “We’ve fallen on our faces so many times.”
“Even when we were at our most successful, there was always someone trying to bring us down,” Amy says. “That’s why you just need to accept yourself and what you have — that’s what helped us get to the core of our band.”
These are stadium songs with heart. The gold-selling ‘Keep Me Crazy’ is an adventurous, maddeningly romantic ode to freewheeling relationships, while current single, ‘Coming Home’, with its name checking of ‘The Valley’ in Brisbane, captures the simple euphoria of arriving back to loved ones; premiering over Thanksgiving on The Today Show in the United States, it’s already gone platinum locally.
Watching The Sky is an album designed to be played live both in Australia and to Sheppard’s loyal fan bases in countries and regions such as the US, Mexico, Brazil and South-East Asia.
“It’s funny. The songs we write for ourselves tend to resonate with the audience the most,” George says. “’Coming Home’: I couldn’t wait for it to be released. That was a song for us, and it’s the one that’s popped. People feel that authenticity.”
Authenticity. Perhaps that’s how Sheppard overcame ‘Geronimo’. You peel your band back to its roots. You remember what matters most.
“What we’ve been through was make-or-break,” George says. “Proving that you’re not a fluke — it dissolves a lot of bands. We got pretty close but we’re through it and we have another hit with ‘Coming Home’. Now it’s like, ‘Let’s get on with it!’”