Even if you don’t know Sydney, Australia modern rock trio Sick Puppies, you’ve probably seen their groundbreaking “Free Hugs,” video, which has garnered more than 11 million views on YouTube.com since it started streaming on the site last year. The heartwarming clip chronicles the true life adventures of a man who walks around holding a billboard that reads “Free Hugs," the police who ban his humanitarian crusade, and the petition that earned him back the right to provide hugs to citizens in need.
The “Free Hugs” video, which accompanied the band’s song “All The Same,” earned Sick Puppies exposure on Oprah, Jay Leno, “60 Minutes” and CNN, and inspired people around the world to begin their own free hugs campaigns. It also propelled “All the Same” into a top-requested single at commercial radio stations across North America. But while the “Free Hugs” video helped spread the music and message of Sick Puppies, the band is anything but an overnight success.
Years before YouTube, Sick Puppies were winning prestigious commendations, including “Best Song” from Triple J Unearthed, and “Best Live Performance” from the Australian Live Music Awards. The Australian edition of Rolling Stone even called Sick Puppies “the most dynamic new band in the country.”
The band’s North American debut, Dressed Up As Life, validates the praise with a heartfelt collection of exultant rhythms, propulsive beats and choruses that span miles. It’s the kind of record that captures the beauty, pain and endless possibilities of LIFE.
The aching vocals, melancholy acoustics and triumphant guitar swaths of the renowned “All the Same” transcend even without the video. “My World” pinpoints the moment where epiphany turns regret into acceptance by juxtaposing layered instrumentation with bare, simple arrangements. “Pitiful,” combines start-stop blasts with brooding atmospherics, resulting in a song that’s both angry and undeniable. And, “Asshole Father” is even more sweeping and multidimensional, intermingling serene vistas with stabs of animosity.
“The record is an honest reflection of what we were feeling and going through when we were making it,” says singer and guitarist Shimon Moore. “There were times when we were really depressed and then suddenly we were happy. So these songs capture that whole rollercoaster ride.”
“The songs are a combination of all of our influences, from Rage Against the Machine to Green day, mixed in with our own style,” bassist Emma Anzai adds.
The origin of Sick Puppies dates back to 1997, when Moore and Anzai met in their high school music room. Moore was bashing away on the drums and Anzai walked in looking for someone to jam with. “She stared at me and asked if I knew all these songs by different bands, and I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and, we just started rocking,” says Moore. “At the end of the week she said, ‘You wanna start a band?’ and we’ve been together ever since.”
Moore stepped out from behind the kit and strapped on a guitar, and the two hired Chris Mileski to play drums. They started playing covers, then wrote their own material and booked local gigs. In 1999, Sick Puppies released their first Australian EP, Dog’s Breakfast, and two years later, their song “Nothing Really Matters” won Triple J’s Unearthed band competition. Their debut album, Welcome to the Real World came out later that year. After numerous tours across the country, Sick Puppies went on hiatus for a while so they could achieve their goal to record their North American debut.
Anzai got a job in telemarketing and Moore carried a billboard of a lollipop sign advertising two-for-one shoes at an outdoor shopping mall. It was there that he met Juan Mann, who came to the mall every Thursday with his “Free Hugs” sign. “We started talking and became really good friends,” Moore recalls. “Then I asked if I could film him. But we never ended up doing anything with the footage until we came to Los Angeles.”
Since Mileski was unable to come with them to the U.S., Sick puppies placed an advertisement on the Internet site Craig’s List, looking for a new drummer. Soon, they hooked up with Mark Goodwin, whose hard-hitting style perfectly complimented the band’s aggressive style. While they worked on the new album, Moore kept in touch with Mann, and during one of their phone calls, he learned that Mann’s grandmother had died unexpectedly. To help cheer him up, Moore pulled his old footage off the shelf and edited together the “Free Hugs” video and sent it to Mann.
“It was meant just as a video get well card, and that’s the only reason it got made,” Moore says. “He saw it and said, ‘Why don’t you put it on YouTube.’ I still have no idea how it got as big as it did.”
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, the band signed a new recording contract with indie label RMR Music Group run by Paul Palmer, co-founder of Trauma Records (Bush, No Doubt). The tremendous success of the video piqued the interest of numerous record distributors, including Virgin Records, which signed Sick Puppies to a deal in 2006, right as their new album neared completion.
“It was far more difficult to make than we expected,” Anzai says. “It was a lot of hard work and it basically took us a year to finish. We spent a lot of time discussing the style of the music and the arrangements, and we reworked the songs over and over until they felt right. So, it was definitely grueling, but it was character building as well.”
In addition to learning to write better rhythms and melodies, Moore flexed his lyrical muscles and tapped into a new level of emotional poignancy. He penned songs about his fear of abandonment (“My World”), a desperate effort to save a crumbling relationship (“All The Same”) and a freaky stalker (“Deliverance”).
“I think the songwriters who really connect with people are the ones who are willing to release their deepest, darkest secrets,” Moore explains. “So, I decided to bare my soul regardless of how embarrassing or frightening it might be. And I think when you give in to that, it can be very liberating.”
With infectious tunes, a jaw-dropping stage show and equal doses of hits and hugs, Sick Puppies are striking a blow against the horde of faceless modern rock bands that are virtually all the same.
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