When looking back at all of the releases that topped the ARIA albums chart in the 2000s, george’s debut album, 2002’s Polyserena, stands out like a sore thumb – and proudly so.
In an era when angsty rock music was standard, Polyserena found strength in sensitivity. In a world on the verge of war, Polyserena sought out peace and tranquillity. Against the backdrop of reality TV show pop stars and macho nu-metal bands, Polyserena dabbled in jazz rhythms, prog-rock detours and operatic vocal runs care of Katie Noonan’s unmistakable voice. When many albums felt as though they were being forged from near-identical moulds, Polyserena dared to be different.
2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, and to celebrate this milestone, Katie and her brother Tyrone Noonan – with whom she co-founded george back in 1996 – have teamed up to bring Polyserena to life on a national tour. On the eve of the tour’s commencement, Music Feeds spoke with Katie about the tour’s inter-generational backing band, the Polyserena legacy and communicating with her younger self.
Katie Noonan on george’s debut album Polyserena
Music Feeds: To begin with, a note on semantics: this tour is being officially billed as “Katie and Tyrone Noonan”, rather than under the george name. Was there an attempt to make this a full-scale reunion like the ones the band did in 2016 and 2021?
Katie Noonan: The reunion shows last year just seemed like a fun thing to do. That was when we were still in the full border lockdown, so we couldn’t tour and we thought, “Well, it’d be great to.” Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. Nick [Stewart], our guitarist, he’s no longer a professional musician. He’s got a full-time proper job now. Paul [Bromley], our bassist, is focusing on producing. Geoff [Green], the drummer, is still playing and he was open to joining the tour, but once it became clear that Nick and Paul couldn’t do it we decided that it should be all of us or none of us.
That’s when I got the idea to do it with my brother and make it a real family thing. My son, Dexter [Hurren], is just becoming such a brilliant drummer – he plays in my solo band too, so we thought it would be a really cool opportunity for him to go out on tour with his mum and his uncle. From there, it was a matter of finding the right musicians to augment the performance, and we definitely found that in Brandon [Momata] on guitar and in Steele [Chabau], who also plays in my solo band. We’ve assembled something that’s very loving in its re-creation of the album, I think.
MF: Has Geoff been giving Dexter any lessons on how to nail some of the fills and odd time signatures on Polyserena? There’s some deceptively tricky stuff on there.
KN: Dexter had already studied the album very closely – he loves Geoff’s drumming. He’s actually predominantly self-taught; he’s absolutely mad for drumming. Now, he’s been practicing away on his own and he’s very self motivated and self determined. If anything, we need to tell him to cut back on practicing [laughs].
MF: In the press release, you talked about how playing songs you wrote over 20 years ago is a way for you to communicate with your younger self. What do you think a young Katie Noonan would have made of what Polyserena has become over the ensuing decades?
KN: Well, we certainly never made music for the purpose of commercial success. We made music for the purpose of wanting to be as honest as possible and to be as authentic and unique as possible. With that being said, I think my younger self would definitely appreciate how things have changed for women in Australian music. A few months ago, they did the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Hottest 100 on Double J. Myself and Janet from Spiderbait were the only Australian women in the entire Hottest 100, which is a pretty sad state of affairs. It’s wild to think how much things have changed since then.
When our record came out, it was still sort of that post-grunge era. Lots of fellas with distortion pedals and guitars – and I love those bands, but there really were not a lot of female-fronted bands. You only need to look at things like the Hottest 100 to see how much that’s changed nowadays. It’s really exciting.
Also, I guess I didn’t realise this at the time – I was just being myself – but looking back on it, I was a very staunch feminist who believed I could do anything regardless of my gender. That’s become more and more of a prevalent issue in the couple of decades with the next generation of women and in the wake of third-wave feminism coming out.
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MF: Of course, Polyserena is 20 years old this year, but several songs on it go back to the earliest stages of the band – ‘Sellout’, for instance, was on george’s debut EP.
KN: Yeah, and it was terrible [laughs]. It was, like, bad white funk. We were trying to do this sort of disco thing, and oh god, we failed miserably. I still liked the lyrics of that song, because it’s about watching a friend basically lose themselves to heroin addiction, and I still wanted to tell the story – it felt important. I wanted to totally change the vibe. Paulie brought in that gorgeous, amazing bass line that turned it into a completely different song.
Bizarrely, the actual song ‘Polyserena’ is on the next EP but is not on the album. At the time, we felt like it was a complete body of work with the 13 songs we had selected for it.
MF: Where did that name come from? Was it something just rolling around the lexicon of the band at the time? What’s the etymology?
KN: Well, ‘Polyserena’ was a song that my brother wrote with his then-flatmate, a guy named Craig. It’s a word they made up – “poly”, of course, means “many”, and “serena” means “serenity” or peace. So, “polyserena”: “much peace,” “many peace”.
We were a bunch of hippies from Brisbane. We were pretty into djembes and nag champa and patchouli. It just felt like a good title. We also had, let’s be honest, a very silly band name. It didn’t really mean anything. It was more of an accident than anything. It just felt like “polyserena,” that word encapsulated our journey, but also it referenced one of my favourite songs of Ty’s.
george – ‘Polyserena’
MF: You mentioned not writing these songs with commercial success in mind. With that said, did you have any inkling about songs like ‘Breathe In Now’ and ‘Special Ones’? They’ve gone on to more or less define your entire career.
KN: All we knew was that we were making something special, and we knew that we were a special combination of people. That magic in the room, the energy of all of you being committed to making this thing, it’s sort of like the sixth band member. The band actually started with two sets of siblings – it started with me and my brother, and Nick with his twin brother James. I was living with James at the time, but he left the band to pursue acting, which has worked out well for him, because he’s on Home & Away now.
We never thought that our music would be ever played on radio, though. It was only through building this big wave of momentum and touring our arses off that we got the support from triple j and eventually commercial radio.
We were going to do our album independently, but our indie label went bankrupt and we lost a large amount of money on our independent EPs due to their bankruptcy. We thought about doing some sort of pledge drive so people could chip in to help us make the album – we basically wanted to do crowdfunding before crowdfunding was a thing. I sort of wish we’d done that, in a way, because it would have been really groundbreaking, but it was legally just too difficult.
We agreed to sign with a label, but our one insistence that we would not budge on was complete creative and artistic control. Apparently, we were the first Australian band to have that in our contract in writing – ever.
MF: Are you content with viewing george strictly as this archival, nostalgia-based thing? Or does part of you hope that you make a third george record at some point?
KN: The reunions we’ve done have just been because they felt nice and they felt right at the time. We celebrated 20 years since the band formed in 2016 and we celebrated 20 years since making Polyserena last year. We’re celebrating 20 years since Polyserena came out now, and they all feel like things that deserved to be commemorated. It’s really nice reliving this music-making from our early 20s, but I don’t think we’d ever make another record as a band. I don’t think the feeling is there.
I daresay Ty and I will probably work on stuff together again someday, though. I think the weird thing is we’ve never written together. The songs we sang, we either wrote ourselves or we co-wrote with Nick. I always found songwriting such an exposed, vulnerable thing, so much so that I was quite scared of doing it with anyone else. I didn’t do any formal co-writing until my first solo album, which was 2006. I was hearing lots of music in my head that I knew wasn’t george, so I had to pursue it without them.
MF: What is the one thing you are most proud of insofar as Polyserena is concerned?
KN: I am really proud that it sounds very unique – not just for its time, but still now 20 years later. When I first listened back to the album, I had never heard a record that sounded like that before. There are obviously influences, whether that be Jeff Buckley or Tori Amos or all the amazing artists that we loved and admired, but I do think we made a thing that didn’t sound like anything else.
I guess it was essentially a pop album with colours and textures of classical and jazz and whatever else thrown in there. That was ultimately our goal – to make interesting pop music. Chamber pop, even.
george – ‘Breathe In Now’
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