From starting a band during a sleepover to supporting Foo Fighters, the remarkable rise of Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers
Guitarist Scarlett McKahey on her love for School Of Rock, the power of your family believing in you, and why she’s had to quit touring just as her band make it big.
Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers. Image: Michelle Pitiris
When a quartet of 15-year-olds based in Canberra formed a rambunctious rock band in 2015, they had no grandiose intentions. Eight years later, the fiery songwriting acumen and snarly sensuousness of Australia’s Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers has been caught and contained in the form of their debut album I Love You.
Exuberant vocalist Anna Ryan, raised by a musician mother, was the obvious choice to front the band, joined by bassist Jaida Stephenson, drummer Neve van Boxsel, and the jagged, melodic grunginess of Scarlett McKahey on guitar.
When McKahey sits for our interview, we begin by addressing her recent announcement that she is going to step down from touring owing to the tolls of chronic illness. She has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (better known by its acronym of POTS), a condition that affects the autonomic nervous system. For a young musician just starting to see the fruits of her hard work, it must have been a hugely tough decision.
“It wasn’t a decision,” she accedes. “I don’t really have a choice. If I can’t physically tour, then I can’t. It’s a big adjustment after touring for so many years, but it’s completely out of my control. Obviously, there’s a lot of processing to do, but it wasn’t a choice, and you just get on with it.”
The silver lining is that McKahey can dedicate her energies to songwriting and she will continue to be fundamental to the band, playing on all recordings and being strongly engaged in creating new music. It will be a relief, she admits, to have energy for this.
“The whole time we’ve been touring, I’d get exhausted by the time I was home, and I couldn’t do anything because I was too burnt out to write any songs.”
McKahey’s fingerprints are all over I Love You. Not only was she elemental in songwriting and the thrilling guitar parts, she also played cello throughout the album.
“I play cello all through the album, there’s so much cello on it! It was really fun, especially on Never Saw It Coming,” she recalls. “We had to hire one for a couple of days to get it all done. It had been a while, I was out of practice, and it was fun getting back into it.”
Unlike van Boxsel who had been playing drums since childhood, McKahey was not a child prodigy on the guitar. In fact, she was actually committed to the cello when Ryan first convinced her cohorts they could form a band during a sleepover in which the teen friends were watching Richard Linklater’s School of Rock. If Jack Black’s band reject Dewey Finn could wrangle a bunch of rowdy fourth-grade kids into a burgeoning rock band, surely four enthusiastic high schoolers in Australia’s capital city could have a hack at it?
Once the teenage friends had committed to forming a band, transitioning from cello to guitar wasn’t tumultuous at all for McKahey.
“I was so determined [to master it] that I forced guitar to feel natural. I played cello for so long, and it’s all about feeling where the note is because there are no frets, so going to guitar it was like ‘oh my god, this is easy’, and looking at tabs made sense to me because I’d already been reading music for so many years. Tabs were logical to me, it all clicked.”
She laughs as she adds, “I refused to learn anything other than The Strokes or Arctic Monkeys for years. I played the first Arctic Monkeys album start to finish, which drives my boyfriend crazy because I still do it to this day. Plus, I learned The Strokes’ You Only Live Once in my first guitar lesson. They’re still my favourite bands, I love them so much.”
Permission To Land
The melodic, distorted, bittersweet romance of early noughties rock weaves its way through I Love You, amplified by the synth-pop smarts of producer Oscar Dawson (half of Holy Holy and producer for Alex Lahey, amongst others).
“Oscar is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever met. He produced the whole album, so coming up with guitar parts with him was so good, he understood what I wanted,” she explains. “We had the best time. We stayed at his house for months and ate a kilo of smoked salmon every week.”
During the writing and recording of this album, the band moved into Dawson’s home in the Victorian beach town of Rye.
“His wife Ali Barter is also an amazing musician,” adds McKahey. “They have this beautiful big house and a separate studio with enough spare rooms that we can stay there comfortably without being on top of each other.”
For those familiar with Holy Holy, they’ll know that the Australian duo have a distinctive synth-based, electronic sound akin to Rufus Du Sol or The xx rather than obvious roots in indie rock.
McKahey says, “It’s funny because Holy Holy is definitely pop to me, almost synth-pop, but Oscar plays guitar like he’s in a metal band! It’s so intricate, elaborate and that’s what gives the edge to Holy Holy. Guitar like that isn’t normally seen in pop music, and it meant he worked really well for us because he’s able to cross between genres. His solos remind me of The Darkness, sometimes.”
I Love You doesn’t obviously channel The Darkness, though. It’s 100 per cent Teen Jesus and The Jean Teasers. It is a bold, versatile beast of an album that bristles with the confidence of a band that has received rave reviews for every single released to date and sold-out tours both in Australia and in the UK.
Their 2022 debut EP Pretty Good For a Girl Band whet our appetites for a long player, and they’ve made good on the promise of those five tantalising tracks (including Girl Sports, which justifiably won heavy rotation on Australian youth radio station Triple J).
While it’s easy to neatly classify any band of women – or majority women – who play guitars and have opinions as “riot grrrl” or punk rock, that feels restrictive when it comes to the melodic feast of genres that emerge across Teen Jesus’ musical spectrum.
Take Never Saw It Coming for example. The acoustic, stunningly vulnerable ballad allows von Boxsel to take to the vocals to reveal her very personal experience of sexual assault. It is visceral in its honesty, in the vein of Tori Amos’ Me and a Gun, a heartbreaking acapella narrative of surviving rape in the backseat of her car, or Lana Del Rey’s recent A&W (with the violently honest lyrics “If I told you that I was raped, Do you really think that anybody would think I didn’t ask for it? I didn’t ask for it.”)
The distorted, serpentine snarl of Lights Out, that explodes into a multi-harmonied “woo-oooooh” chorus of savage riffery, has a strong matrilineage to Veruca Salt’s 1997 hit Volcano Girls, while the dreamy, jangly shapes of grungy guitar lines on Toe Bone evoke the ghost of Pavement’s 2002 Here. Elsewhere, they show off some serious pop chops. I Don’t Want It has the sonic fingerprints of Demi Lovato or Avril Lavigne-esque pop-punk all over it’s chanted, middle-finger-to-the-world attitude. The tentative melancholy of Your House My House could land itself on a breakup mixtape.
McKahey says, “Normally, and the way we’ve worked in the past, one of us will write music or lyrics then we’ll come together to work on it and continue it. This album is the first thing we’ve written collaboratively and that’s why we love it so much; it sounds like all of us.”
Between a week in New South Wales and one in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, the band escaped with only a laptop, an interface and a guitar to create Garage Band demos, DIY-style “off the grid”. It’s a lot of time for a bunch of creative humans to spend together, and McKahey admits it once weighed on their friendship, but accruing success and label investment has eased the pressure they felt in the early days.
“[Being in a band] definitely has strained our friendships at times. When we started touring properly and we’d just turned 18, we’d argue a lot because at that point we didn’t have a budget, so we were staying in bunk beds, living on top of each other, for weeks. We were so stressed, but we’ve been friends for so long that it’s become normal. I can’t imagine not being close with them. At this point we’re all like siblings, it’s a very intimate relationship because we see each other in every possible state you can be in. We were so extremely close before this, so it’s just brought us closer.”
“When we started the band, my father got me a 1970s Gibson SG, which I love so much.”
McKahey recalls how the momentous meeting of girl and guitar unfolded.
“My dad was in a band most of my life and when we started the band, he tricked me!” You see, McKahey’s uncle collects and sells guitars, so father and daughter went and tried all the guitars out with the goal of finding dad a new guitar, or so he claimed.
“I had always loved the guitar that Jack Black plays in School of Rock, so dad handed me a Gibson SG and said, ‘Why don’t you play this?’, so I did, and I remember saying, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’
When we went back to the car, he said, ‘This is for you.’ He doesn’t have a lot of money, so it was amazing that he’d buy this for me. He believed we could go really far, and he wanted me to have the best tools available. By that time, we’d played one gig at a school fair.”
McKahey remembers doubting her father’s faith and wondering how their teenage band would “go far”, but her father’s prediction was spot on.
“I’m about to play that same guitar with the Foo Fighters in December, so dad was right,” she laughs. Indeed, the band are the main support for the Foo Fighters’ December performance in Melbourne.
Typically, McKahey favours a sturdier guitar for the stage, though.
“For touring I have a Fender Meteora, which I got when they reissued those a couple of years ago. The Fenders are so sturdy. But, for the album, most of the guitars are either an SG or a Telecaster. I use the Meteora for touring because I got so worried about the Gibson on planes, and I knew I’d never forgive myself if something happened to it while touring.”
“I use the Tube Screamer all the time. That’s the distortion on the whole album, that pedal. It’s on my pedal board; I use it on every song we play live. It’s a staple. It’s got such a sick, meaty sounding distortion.”
The spangling, chameleonic I Love You is glorious in its juicy, distortion-filled, melodic, pop-friendly jangle of genres. It’s a powerful, celebratory debut from one of Australia’s finest new rock acts and, if you don’t take my word for it, then consider that Dave Grohl handpicked the band to open for the Foos this year. Case closed.
I Love You by Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers is set to be released on 6 October 2023.