The day David Bowie died, Dan Sanders didn’t know where to turn. A lifelong musical hero, news of Bowie’s death hit the singer-songwriter hard, and stirred similar emotions to those he’d felt when Kurt Cobain passed away. Upset and feeling lost, Sanders did the only thing that made sense: he grabbed a bottle and, through the tears, made music.
“I went to my studio and I’ve never done this before, but I wrote and tracked the song ‘I Want An Axe To Break The Ice’ in its entirety,” he recalls. “I had everything plugged in, I was necking red wine, and that was musically a total Bowie thing. It absorbed me. “I’ve always got Bowie on one shoulder and Cobain on the other, but it’s not heaven and hell”, he adds. “When I’m doing stuff I check with them both, and if they’re cool, I just go with it.”
‘I Want An Axe To Break The Ice’ was one of more than 100 songs Sanders had written since 2008, but for which he was yet to find a home for. He’d worked on them sporadically over the years, but after building his own studio in his backyard shed – dubbed The Cabin, he found himself paying them more serious attention.
“I felt like I couldn’t write anymore, because I’d keep listening back to these same 10 or 20 songs,” he explains. “I’ve got to get this out of my brain.’ I had a realisation: I’ve got to write, but I was blocked up. What’s blocking me? These songs. Get them done. Get them out there.”
They were songs of despair, loss, hate, rage, isolation and drunken lust, the work of an artist desperate to evolve his craft. And some of them sounded like nothing he’d done before.
As a result, Sanders – best known as guitarist-vocalist for WA Perth alt-rock band Gyroscope – opted not to use his own name, instead giving the fledgling project a name that was entirely its own entity, free of the preconceptions that come with being one of Australia’s best-known frontmen; a name that said everything about him without saying anything at all. He chose XIII.
“I was born on Friday the 13th,” he explains. “XIII is me. And by recording under a different name I found it gave me a different headspace, and more room to explore my dark side perhaps.”
The moniker also lent the project something of a band feel, a vibe Sanders was keen to preserve even though he was determined to play all the instruments himself. “I sort of did a crash course,” he laughs. “I don’t even know guitar and vocals, that well, but the luxury of having a home studio meant I could come up every night and become proficient on bass and drums.
“I always wanted to try make it sound like a band, but not really,” he adds of the recordings. “The only thing I had to go off was Foo Fighters’ self-titled album, where Dave Grohl played everything. You can really feel that it’s just Dave jamming with himself, having fun, having that freedom.”
Even while recording the demos, Sanders wasn’t sure what would become of them. “I just wanted to see what I could do with it all,” he says. “Even if I called it an exaggerated hobby and I just did stuff in the studio.” One night though, after listening back to his creations while downing a few whiskeys, Sanders thought “What do I do with these?”
His realisation was make them into the debut album by XIII, Bloody Banks of The Swan. Some parts of Sanders’ demos were good enough to make the final record, while others were re-recorded with the aid of Dave Parkin (Jebediah, Bob Evans) at Perth’s Blackbird Studios, where Sanders also captured his vocals.
“I wanted that live vibe and sound not as shiny as maybe I’m accustomed to, and to let my hair down a little, that’s how I captured it in my studio,” he says.
By now the collection of songs had been whittled down to a tight 13.
“They were pretty eclectic and went in all different directions,” offers Sanders, “and I thought, ‘That’s what I used to listen to when I was growing up and first frothing on music. So I went off that vibe. I wanted a sense of adventure.”
Bloody Banks Of The Swan – a reference to the Swan River, an ever present part of Sanders’ life – opens with ‘(Don’t) Leave Me Alone’, its frenzied acoustic intro giving way to a thunderous set of power chords before settling on a stuttering groove. From here it’s a raucous ride that veers from the abrasive punk rock venom of ‘Lawyer’ and the Seventies stomp of ‘I Need You’ to the swampy title-track and Nirvana-esque quiet-loud dynamics of ‘I’ve Been Tripping My Face Off Since Last Christmas’, before a sense of calm envelops the album on upbeat acoustic closer ‘Vulture’.
Bloody Banks Of The Swan is a bold statement, one that encapsulates everything Sanders has learned as a co-founding member of Gyroscope – a band that heralded its return with a new single last year, and which has amassed four LPs, three of them cracking the ARIA Top 20 – while exhibiting the freedom that comes with having complete creative control.
When Sanders heard the finished record for the first time, he was overwhelmed.
I’ve carried these songs for a long time, and it’s nice to let them go.”