Nice Biscuit got together when they were asked to play a gig in a Mullumbimby barn.
The six members of the Brissy psych band were already mates, but when Billie Star’s mum was having a party on her property in Northern NSW, she asked them to play a set in the horse-stable-come-stage. They agreed, and after a loose jam night with a tight-knit crowd, they decided that they wanted to start a proper band.
A couple of years on, and Nice Biscuit have supported The Brian Jonestown Massacre, played Gizz Fest, and right now they’re gearing up for their first tour of Europe, playing a string of shows including Portsmouth Psych Fest and The Great Escape Festival in the UK. They released their first full-length album, Digital Mountain, in late 2018 and it’s a fuzzy psych-rock gem. It’s an album that strays into stringy eeriness at times but ultimately remains upbeat and uplifting. Driving riffs and a looping wall of sound are laced with the sprawling vocal range of co-frontwomen Billie Star and Grace Cuell.
Billie and Grace are Nice Biscuit’s front and centre, two striking blonde singers who are recognisable for their habit of dressing in matching, hand-made outfits. They make all their stage costumes themselves and, with a few exceptions, they never wear the same outfit twice. Billie says making clothing is another creative outlet in itself, beyond writing and performing music.
‘I think it’s just a thing with being best friends and wanting to dress the same, it just came out,’ says Billie. ‘It became almost like a drug… We get a platform to actually show off the things we make. It encourages us to go bigger and better every time, so we’ve really seen our skills grow as costume makers.’
While psych rock bands are often characterised by dudes with long hair and long, improvised (sometimes self-indulgent) jams, Billie and Grace bring a more performative and coordinated element to Nice Biscuit. Beyond the matching outfits, they also choreograph some of their dance moves and run an overall polished stage show. They are frontwomen who go to great lengths to put on a good performance, both visually and musically.
It turns out that although Billie and Grace only met six months before forming Nice Biscuit, they’d both grown up singing in choirs. Their vocals are arresting. As Billie puts it, ‘We have that ability to sing harmonies well and hold our harmonies.’
For me, Nice Biscuit’s first album invokes a bit of a Black Mirror vibe, making a few hints at digital dystopia and the way technology has become such a dominant force in our lives; the name, Digital Mountain, reminds me of some kind of virtual reality future world where beauty is exclusively digitised. Then the first track, ‘Captain’, has been described by guitarist Ben Mulheran as being ‘about the prevalence of seemingly indispensable technology nowadays [and] remembering that you’re still very capable of being in control of yourself and what’s going on around you.’
In the chorus, Billie and Grace sing, ‘Who’s the captain of this ship? You are the master of your trip.’ The point seems to be that you need to take control of the technology in your life and not let it control you.
When I tell singer Billie Star my digital dystopia interpretation of the album, she listens patiently but then gently shuts it down. ‘We didn’t really come up with a concept for the album, to be honest, it’s just an eclectic mix of the songs we’ve written since we started. I like that though… We should pretend that that’s what we meant to do.’
For Billie, ‘Captain’ has a spirited feminine underpinning; it’s about, ‘feeling strong as a woman while singing it. Feeling powerful.’ She tells me she didn’t know that Ben had written it about ‘seemingly indispensable technology’ and that the meaning for her had come through playing it and performing it—she feels strength and power while singing it. Of Nice Biscuit’s songs, Billie says, ‘Sometimes they mean something and sometimes they don’t mean anything when we write [them], but then they end up meaning something.’
Unlike most bands, Nice Biscuit run things in a democratic way. Instead of being one person’s creative project, all six members of the band are pretty much equally involved when it comes to doing band stuff and writing music. ‘We’ve got to ask everyone before we make any decisions,’ says Billie, explaining that they’re a very close and collaborative bunch. This seems to have made the album both tight and eclectic.
Billie wrote the lyrics to ‘Digital Mountain Sparrow’, a song about living with anxiety. She says it’s about being on the outside and ‘looking in and trying to figure out how to communicate with that person or that situation, and your anxiety stopping you from doing that.’ It addresses her fear of conflict and her desire for everyone to get along. The lyrics came to her one day while she was walking around the streets of Brisbane. ‘That was when I was going through the worst of it but I’m pretty good now,’ she says. ‘I’m a lot better now.’
Another song, towards the end of the album, ‘Outside’, is about the looming threat of climate change. It’s a deceptively poppy and upbeat number, but the chorus, ‘The world is dying in front of me,’ is a pretty stark reminder of impending global doom. Grace, who grew up in a big coal mining town called Narribri, wrote the song ‘when she was feeling quite fed up with how the world’s going,’ says Billie. ‘I think she’s seen the big mines being cut open and it’s quite distressing… That spurred her on to write the song.’
‘We’re all very socially conscious and environmentally conscious people,’ says Billie, who has an ecology degree and eventually wants to work in conservation. ‘I think if you can get anything out of being a musician ‘if you can actually talk to people and get a message out, that would be the aim.’ says Billie. ‘Try to say something, rather than just being… music.’