How Canadian psych rock informed Sonic Animation's biggest hit

Primary tabs

Why is a Canadian psychedelic rock opera band the lost key to understanding late-'90s Australian dance music?

Dance music duo Sonic Animation was one of the biggest Australian acts of 1999. Their second album, a sprawling double LP called Orchid for the Afterworld, was released that year and featured hits like 'Didley Squat', 'Love Lies Bleeding' and the irrepressibly popular 'Theophilus Thistler (An Exercise In Vowels)'. 

 

That song, which reached number 18 in triple j's Hottest 100, was built on a simple funky guitar sample with the group's Rupert Kellier providing vocal gymnastics over the top.

But to get to the song's core, we need to travel back to Montreal in 1968, where Kellier’s father Andrew Kellier was the frontman of a band called Influence.

 

"He played harmonica, guitar and did vocals as well," Kellier told Richard Kingsmill in 1999. "They had this really weird rock opera show. It was during the period where all the record labels were going around signing up what they called ‘psychedelic bands’.

"They were like psychedelic rock opera. It was just a big joke, actually. They hated most of the other stuff that was happening around at the time and were just taking the piss."

The first ten seconds of the band's 1968 song 'Baby, That's My Bag' will sound very familiar to those who were dancing up a storm in Australian in the late-'90s. Kellier lifted the guts of 'Theophilus Thistler (An Exercise In Vowels)' from his dad's old recording.

 

"Musically, the track is based off something off my dad's record," he explains. "I'd played around with some of the sounds that he had, formulated this little loop with the guitar riff and stuff."

The lyrics were also largely borrowed, this time from a vocal exercise that Kellier was subjected to years before the song was written.

"I just happened to stumble across the lyrics one day from some singing lessons that I'd had a few years before. He didn't like the way I said certain words and he'd ask me to sing 'Theophilus Thistler' to get my mouth into the correct position. It's actually an exercise in vowels."

The J Files returns next Thursday at 8pm.

Open