Royal Headache Is Dead, Long Live Shogun
With his new project Shogun & The Sheets, the once-inscrutable frontman of the late Royal Headache is ditching all the punk and all the bullshit of his old band.
Shogun always cut a kind of quasi-mythical figure. As the lead singer of beloved Sydney punk band Royal Headache, he was inscrutable: a slight blonde man known only by his macho mononym, who looked like a punk but sang like he wanted to be an old-school crooner, who gave frighteningly manic interviews but wrote the sweetest, most romantic lyrics. He didn’t make any sense, which made him the perfect frontman for a band that didn’t make any sense, either.
Royal Headache were a typical-looking punk four-piece making deeply atypical music and taking a rarely followed path, all as if by accident. Their albums were tightly written and impeccably performed, but Shogun’s bleeding-heart vocals and the gauzy production seemed to gesture towards entropy—an image not exactly helped by the band’s anarchic public persona, their tendency to offhandedly mention breakups and accidentally cause mass stage invasions. And despite the constant chaos, they ended up on top—an underground Australian punk band who played stadiums with the Black Keys and performed at festivals like Primavera and FYF.
The quartet were never easy to read, despite the transcendent and artful simplicity of their music. So when they broke up last year without any explanation or warning—marked not with a final tour or emotive essay, but with a 9-digit Facebook post reading “2008-2017”—it felt strangely normal, a perfectly unsentimental ending for a band who saved all sentimentality for recording. Royal Headache were done, and that was that; there would be no explanation and no aftermath.
Shogun has no intention of cultivating that same kind of punk impenetrability that Royal Headache sometimes had with his new band, Shogun & The Sheets. In fact, he’s done with punk altogether; punk, he says, is for the kids. Ten years on from Royal Headache’s genesis, Shogun is grown up now, a few years off from 40. And now, on his own he can finally make the music he always wanted to make in Royal Headache, so he’s not going to screw it up by introducing an element as fickle as punk. So fuzzy garage is out and hi-fi vintage soul is in. He’s still prone to emotional outbursts and still has a loose tongue, but, for the most part, Sydney’s most chaotic punk is reforming.
On a Thursday afternoon in early October, Shogun meets me at the Lady Hampshire in Stanmore, a large, mostly-empty pub a few blocks from the home he shares with his mother. Shogun looks different today, without the ragged hoodies he used to wear in Royal Headache; now, his hair is thinning a little more and his face looks full and alert. He wears a nicely-fitting grey suit, the 9-5 attire he has to don for his job as a court monitor, and carries a grubby-looking tote bag emblazoned with the phrase “I Love Books”, despite the fact that, he tells me later, he’s “usually too drunk” to read anything. The warmth of Shogun’s presence is disarming; in this get-up, he looks more like Veep’s Mike McClintock than he does a rock and roll singer. As we try to begin our conversation, he gets a phone call and slips a light blue Nokia 3310 out of his pocket, baby steps towards connectivity for a man who used to not have a phone at all.
“I’m not good at social media,” he explains. “I use it for one minute a day, and that’s it. This”—he shakes the Nokia—”is good for my grey matter, man.”
If it’s good for the grey matter, Shogun wants it. While he’s still miles off from an Instagram-ready self care regimen, Shogun has recently taken some steps to try and ensure he’s “less punishing” in Shogun & The Sheets than he feels he was in Royal Headache. Towards the end of his tenure in that band, Shogun’s life began to fall apart. His friends were on drugs and falling into comas and dying, he was struggling with untreated mental illness, and the band was the biggest it had ever been. He couldn’t deal.
“It felt like everyone in Sydney was trying to shag me or ruin me,” he says of that time. “It just wasn't very normal and I didn't really have the emotional fortitude to deal with a situation so horrifically surreal.”
"There's nothing normal about being a rock and roll singer ... When people stop treating you like a regular human your sense of reality just disappears entirely." — Shogun
Shogun has a verbose, shy manner of speaking that’s at odds with his singing voice; his manners are impeccable—(a “beg your pardon” slips out when he realises he hasn’t explained the mechanics of his job to me in full)—and he’s playful and lyrical with his phrasing. It’s not smarmy or braggy. It more comes across like he enjoys experimenting with expression, and takes pleasure in considering his speech. (This aspect of conversing with Shogun makes me doubt him later in our conversation when he tells me that he doesn’t consider his lyrics very much.)
He wasn’t equipped to deal with with the sudden and strange fame that Royal Headache had attained, and the Sydney scene he grew out of—typically Australian in its tall poppy syndrome—weren’t ready to accept it either. “There’s nothing normal about being a rock and roll singer,” Shogun explains, spitting out that word: normal. “People wonder why [musicians] act like fuckwits, but when people stop treating you like a regular human being your sense of reality just disappears entirely.”
Shogun is done with the Royal Headache period of his life, and he’s reluctant to provide details about that band’s dissolution, “out of respect” for his previous bandmates—although he’s quick to add a mumbled aside of “not that they have any for me.” The reasoning for the split that he “would give publicly” is simply that he wanted to grow and Royal Headache didn’t. “The band was made in heaven for that rough and rugged, almost out of control kind style. I think that's what made it good,” he says. “You can't play punk in stadiums, and I think they knew that too.”
Of course, that’s not the whole story, but Shogun is too polite to ever pick fights in a public forum. Whatever the circumstances of Royal Headache’s breakup were, you get the sense that it was traumatic, to say the least; he describes the group’s twilight as an “emotional holocaust,” and he hasn’t spoken to a member of Royal Headache in two years. “I don't talk to anyone from that period anymore,” he says resolutely. “Not the band members, not the band members’ friends, not even my friends. I talk to my girlfriend and my mum who I live with and my boss and my band mates. And that's plenty.”
It’s not that the band wasn’t good for him at the beginning, though. When Shogun joined Royal Headache, it was the reprieve he needed from what he describes as a “severe mental breakdown” that had been occurring for the 10-or-so months before he became part of the band.
“I had a drug induced psychosis that was like a nervous breakdown,” ,” he admits.“I was only sleeping for an hour a night and I wasn't functioning, and Royal Headache gave me a kick that kind of plucked me out of that I think I'd maybe be dead or in a nuthouse if Royal Headache hadn't kicked off, so it kind of saved my life and then kind of ruined it later. I think I'm a create and destroy kind of person. That's just who I was. You create something and then you destroy it.”
The creation part, of course, was wonderful. Royal Headache and High are widely celebrated and cultishly beloved; I can still remember picking up a copy of Royal Headache at Poison City Records when I was 15 and feeling like it was sent from above, a perfect LP that somehow captured the sweet and acidic and violent tumult of life. Both Royal Headache records still stand up; their music was referential but the essence of the band was completely singular.
And yet the destruction part, in the final few years of the band, was very, very bad for Shogun. He suffered enough during that time that he feels like he knows how to avoid a similar situation occurring with Shogun & The Sheets. He feels like an entirely new man now, a metamorphosis chronicled on “Pissing Blood,” the first of two tracks on Shogun & The Sheets’ debut 7”. A slow-burning soul ballad, “Pissing Blood” was written during a period of deep despair a couple of years back.
“I more or less drunk myself to death,” Shogun says. “Some people say that over periods of time your cells exchange so much that you're a completely different person. I think I accelerated that process. I killed the old me and I don't miss him.”
Listening to “Pissing Blood” surely feels like witnessing rebirth; it’s darker and angrier than anything Shogun ever made in Royal Headache, but it’s also deeply camp and exhilaratingly theatrical, complete with piano glissandos and expansive guitar solos. It won’t be for everyone, and it probably won’t be for a lot of Royal Headache fans, but “Pissing Blood” is a moment of liftoff for anyone who ever heard Shogun’s anarchic soul through Royal Headache’s fuzz and wanted to know where he could take it.
At play in both “Pissing Blood” and its flipside “Hold On Kid,” a more Royal Headache-style punk scorcher, is Shogun’s continually fraught relationship with expressions of masculinity. In youth, Shogun found that he was picked on for being effeminate and disliking sports; as he started playing music, he was criticised for seeming chauvinistic and too masculine. Realising that his relationship with masculinity was only ever based on what others projected onto him, Shogun now has the chance to play with his own perceptions of how masculinity looks on him.
“I think I parody masculinity,” he says. “It’s a humorous joke to me, a trove, an outfit you put on.” “Hold On Kid,” with its chorus of “Hold on kid / You’re supposed to be a man someday” aligns with this realisation, taking a familiar ‘boy-to-man’ narrative and troubling it: how can you be a man, the song asks, if you have no idea what a man is?
These ideas can be traced all the way back to Shogun’s childhood; he’s never really fit in, even in spaces meant for outsiders. Shogun was born Tim Wall in Pennant Hills, a “comfortably middle-class” suburb near Hornsby, in Sydney’s outer suburbs. Pennant Hills is “about as fucking conservative and white as you can get,” and Shogun didn’t enjoy growing up there. “I was called a faggot for listening to Nirvana, the biggest band in the world at the time,” he recalls.
Counter-culture was deeply uncool and deeply unavailable in Pennant Hills, and at around 14, Shogun—a nickname given in high school that happened to stick—began heading into the city, hanging around on King St, Sydney’s great punk centre, and learning to skate. Shogun and his friends learned about Sonic Youth and The Doors and Hendrix but were chastised for listening to “American shit” by some older kids; they were introduced to Frenzal Rhomb and other Oz punk, and slowly started going to PCYC (police-sanctioned) rock shows, where “everyone was tripping on acid and the kids smelled like whiskey, even though they were 12.” After high school, Shogun’s obsession with punk evolved into hardcore, which became straight-edge, which became what he describes as “gang shit.” “The whole jock thing ruined punk,” he says. “It ruins everything.”
Shogun & The Sheets is a chance for Shogun to reclaim what he loved about Royal Headache—making music—without all the bullshit that accidentally came with it once they achieved a certain level of underground fame. “I’m not bent on success with Shogun & The Sheets. I’ve already had it and it’s awful. It ruined me,” he says. “It just felt as though everyone hated me for it. Everyone just sort of despised me for singing melodies or something, instead of doing a fake tough guy hardcore thing or an esoteric electronic thing. There's a lot of rules in underground music that I don't miss. It's not very creative.”
Shogun doesn’t even really see Shogun & The Sheets as a band that really belongs to the same Sydney community that Royal Headache came out of. Nearly everyone in his new band is partnered off and living a quiet, domestic life, and the music itself is completely out of step with whatever might be cool. “I like grooves, I like soul music, I like funky shit, I like musicianship, I like Led Zeppelin,” he says, “Sue me. I don't wanna listen to somebody squawking like a seagull for 25 minutes, singing indecipherably about something that's apparently important but not important enough to make the lyrics audible.”
While he feels that the 7” is “ordinary,” Shogun is excited about how the project might evolve. The band are going to record an album soon, and Shogun wants to distil as much of himself into it, something he didn’t always feel was possible in his old band. “I've been misunderstood—like, violently misunderstood—for years now, and I became really obsessed with these completely warped perceptions of who I am. It was fucking exhausting,” he says. “So I want to make a record that has a lot of me in it. Just a lot of sound and a lot of sadness and a lot of sweetness and maybe when I leave this fucking, when I leave this shit hole—which will probably happen within the next decade—maybe people can have a piece of me, and remember me that way.”
That’s at the heart of this band: even in the face of Shogun’s create and destroy ethos, even in the face of a constantly changing scene and the fear of death, Shogun’s songs will endure. It’s right there in the band name: conceptualised by his mother, ‘The Sheets’ refers to the hundreds of handwritten lyric sheets that Shogun has scattered around his bedroom. It works for a group just as well as it does for Shogun, alone—while he likes his current band, they might not always be there. “People are incredibly fickle and they're awful and they lie a lot. It's really sad, but I'll always have my sheets. I'll always have my songs,” he says wearily. “I had them before Royal Headache, and I still have them now. That’s what I do.”
Shogun & The Sheets' debut 7" is out now on What's Your Rupture? and Inertia Music.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian editor. Follow him on Instagram.