Marshall and The Fro are a household name these days, on the roots festival circuit and in their home, the North Coast surfing mecca of Lennox Head, NSW. They’re known for their powerful, pulsing roots music, the soundtrack to the summer for many a carefree festival freak.
Their songs feature on cult surf films like David Bradbury’s Going Vertical and in Billabong ads. Having played virtually every big festival in the land, they’ve also had tracks on Australian TV shows like East of Everything and No Way San Jose. And they’ve just completed a new album, ‘title’, that looks set to eclipse these landmarks.
Marshall Okell, driving force and songwriter, recently recruited his newest member, Fergo, on bass. The big, affable redhead has a five-octave range that lifts their dual choruses into deep space. Their drummer, known affectionately as Poodle, is a hugely likeable unstoppable force, who pummels the kit like it’s his little brother and has done so previously for the likes of Pete Murray. Marshall reckons he’d jump in front of a bullet for either of ’em.
This tight-knit outfit have just spent three months hunkered down with producer Anthony Lycenko (ARIA Nominee, Pete Murray, U2, Beautiful Girls, Xavier Rudd) at 301 and Rocking Horse studios in Byron Bay. Together they’ve garnered an enormous, tempered and timely record that reveals an artist and band in permanent progress.
The band’s first, self-titled release was a party record, the sound of young bucks on the hunt. Get Up and The Player were aimed smack bang at the heaving throng in the Far North Coast, the epicentre for grooving grommets and geishas. Yet even on tracks like the much-covered Thongs, a bouncing, full-blooded tribute to the surfer’s footwear of choice, OKell sang like he meant something else, something important.
On ‘title’ he establishes his intent beyond doubt, with a potent collection of songs that defines an artist and band in a blazing trajectory – but still firmly anchored to their roots.
Friends for Life is the breakthrough – a life-affirming festival romp bound to be a massive hit on the circuit. The anthemic chorus, “We came here with an open mind, we leave here, friends for life …” will be on every summer pilgrim’s lips come November.
The chunky descent of We’ve All Got Something To Say owes as much to heavy rock as the Chilli Peppers’ staunch funk attacks – this is the kind of onslaught that fans of the band are itching for.
Bleeding Hearts is a gentle ballad in the mould of Ben Harper. Deft touches of mandolin and bittersweet harmonies underscore a radio-friendly regret for lost innocence.
Back to business as I Don’t Mind features OKell’s trademark blizzard of slide guitar reinforcing the urgent refrain, “You took too much, it ain’t ever comin’ back”, a gentle warning to naysayers of the power of boogie.
In the big drums and gospel chorus of Crocodile Tears there’s a measured lament laden with cracked emotion, and a nod to the righteous accord of the Living End. One of the album’s truly soaring moments.
The funk-on of White Collar Thieves co-opts hip-hop cadences as a call to arms against the depredations of gun-happy goons with monied credentials – there’s no roots music festivals in Iraq, kids.
Meanwhile Tall Poppies is another formidable radio ballad with a tactile melody that winds itself around the tongue. It evokes the classic beauty of superbly handled slide guitar against a declaration of artistic and emotional sovereignty; “Tall Poppies grow just high as they can, why cant I go with your wishful consent, its the tribulations of the grateful dead, where tall poppies grow just as high as they can” – the most pop moment, and a truly definitive one, on the album.
OKell’s voicing is extraordinary – powerful and wild, it chimes with restless, taut guitar and over the neck slide virtuosity which the band meets, blow for blow.
Press reactions for the first disc were effusive, with Sam Fell of Rhythms magazine declaring the album “infectious as hell’ and Brisbane’s Courier Mail embracing “a stunning display of musicianship from the tight-knit trio.”
Three years down the line, Marshall OKell is a different animal to the man who roared, “I’m a player and I share it around, I take a dollar when I’m bringing you down …”
He’s toured hard, playing 200 shows in 2009 alone. Three East Coast Blues and Roots Festivals bookend a whole swag of tours and altered states. The miles have left their marks on him.
“This album draws on different experiences and emotions to the last one,” he admits. “It’s not as happy – there’s heart-break and loss in it. Like everyone I’ve been broken down, had to bounce back up.”
It reflects the choice of music in the band’s touring van; Them Crooked Vultures, Karnivool, Muse, Xavier Rudd, Keb Mo, Derek Trucks Band, Miles Davis …
“It’s an honest take on my life over the last 3-4 years. It’ll drop ya down and then pick you up, remind you of who your real buddies are and hopefully scare off the succubus.”
Steeped in quieter, contemplative moments , it also buckets and roars like the progressive roots music of say, Ash Grunwald or Dallas Frasca.
“It goes from straight out hillbilly rock to deep roots/rock ballads. There are fun festivals songs and songs about heartbreak. We used Marshall stacks and Fender twins on 10 as well as mandolins and 1930s Gibson acoustics with brushes … it’s totally honest music.”
To be released in May 2010 with a nationwide tour, the album is eagerly awaited by a nation hooked on independent, home-grown Aussie music.
“We can’t wait to get back on the road,” grins OKell. “We’ve spent almost 4 months making the record and ‘Mad Max’, our tour van, has been calling us. We’ve got 30 shows booked around the country in 8 weeks, that’ll sort us out.”
Okell learned all about excess the hard way, growing up in Dad’s touring guitar cases, soaking up rhythm & blues and the rules of the road. He was born, truly, on a full moon on Friday 13th, to a musician father and a music-loving mother.
Reared in rental properties in tough West Ballina he mixed it with Aboriginal kids from the Bunjalung Nation, who taught him to move quick and respect the original custodians of the North Coast. With three Koori godchildren and years working in high schools he became as much a part of the coast as the surf. Studying social science at nearby Lismore University he’d hitch-hike to Uni, then rehearsals with his first bands, where he developed his mighty voice and devastating guitar hands.
Surfing informed his music, and vice versa. The band’s first album had immense exposure in the surfing industry, including songs on Surfing Life compilations, surf movies and appearance at a Quicksilver pro show. An avowed supporter of the Sea Shepherd, Marshall is always picking rubbish off the beach after a surf.
Meanwhile, his performances are igniting fervent reactions up and down the country. He displays the ability, like all great performers, to go inside his music, and inhabit it like a shaman.
“I go somewhere in the cosmos when I play, time stops and I really don’t know how long I’m out sometimes.
“When a massive crowd loses their shit I go a step further, I’m excited to find out how far a big explosive crowd can push me or tip me over the edge.”
Wherever he goes, it’s working. Marshall and the Fro are set to ride into the big leagues and the release of ‘title’ is the tipping point. Once that wave rolls they’re in for a helluva ride.