Fanatics: Surprise Chef’s Lachlan Stuckey On Turning a Vinyl Obsession into Fresh Soul Music

The walls of Lachlan Stuckey’s house are almost entirely lined with shelves of vinyl. He plays guitar for Melbourne five-piece Surprise Chef, who create the type of gritty funk and soul that you’d expect to turn up on seventies b-grade film set in New York. Yet this style of music is only one amongst many in Stuckey’s massive collection, as he explains:

“I collect a lot of Hip Hop and I think that influence is pretty present in Surprise Chef, but there's definitely areas of the record collection that may surprise people. Like, I’m really into Dancehall and Digital Reggae from the 80s and all the way through to the late 90s. My record collection also has West African records from the 70s; Disco and Jazz Funk records from the 70s and 80s; Soul records from the 60s and 70s; Reggae, Rocksteady and Dub from the 60s and 70s.”

Stuckey’s love of vinyl first began around the same time he started playing in bands. In his late teens, he moved to Melbourne to study music and had his ears opened through hearing PBS DJs like Miss Goldie, DJ Manchild, and Pierre Baroni. They regularly mentioned 45’s that they’d just bought and this slowly drew Stuckey into the world of crate-digging, especially after he discovered Fitzroy’s Northside Records.

Surprise Chef is a band of crate-diggers and Stuckey finds that the influence in their collection comes through in many different ways:

“We often talk about being influenced by records rather than being influenced by genres because each record is a little document of a particular process that was employed to elicit a particular outcome. Records often have a lot of factors connected to them that aren't necessarily put in place to make the best recording. For example, the artist has no money so they can only hire the studio for a few hours and they're doing things quickly, so they’re not trying to get things absolutely perfect because they can't afford to.”

The result is often a unique and atmospheric sound that wouldn’t have been attained if the recording was more meticulous. This partly explains why Surprise Chef have recorded the majority of their work live in the studio, with the sound of the band going directly onto a reel-to-reel tape machine, though they’ll often run through a single song dozens of times to get a take they’re happy with. Stuckey is particularly fascinated at the process that went into early Reggae:

“The most prolific period of Jamaican music which you hear on the Studio One recordings came about through the studio bands staying overnight cutting riddims and then all day they would have singers coming in laying vocals. In some ways, it was a particularly capitalistic consideration where it's like, we want to make money because we have to make money. So, it's those kinds of elements that we learn about from listening to particular records. First you think - this record sounds dope. Then you have to ask yourself - why does it sound dope? It sounds pretty ratty and very unpolished but it works. Then we start looking at how we can incorporate similar processes into what we're doing, not to copy the record but to make that sound fit what we’re trying to do.”

In this way, Surprise Chef are able to harness sounds and influences from across their record collections without needing to jump outside their self-described genre of 'Cinematic Soul'.

The Gospel Whiskey | Surprise Chef's Lachlan Stuckey sitting in front of a small portion of his record collectionSurprise Chef's Lachlan Stuckey sitting in front of a small portion of his record collection // PHOTO: CARL LINDEBERG

Stuckey also used to DJ Dancehall and Reggae when he first started playing out in clubs under the pseudonym 'Fairbanks Robinson'. These days he’s more comfortable playing under his own name and drawing more freely from his broad range of musical loves, although leaning heavily on his Disco and Boogie records which he finds are best at getting the crowd moving.

Having a band of crate-diggers does cause one difficulty - whenever they go on tour, they buy a lot of records. On their last tour of Europe and the US, Stuckey recalls that each band member ended up sending home their own weight in records, boxing them up and posting them as they went. His desire to find new records has taken him to some obscure places:

“I took a little holiday with my partner in Portugal after the last tour. Scott Towers from Fat Freddy’s Drop recommended a record store in this old, decrepit apartment building in Porto. We spent ages trying to find it. We went along all these hallways, getting lost. We finally saw this open door and a wall of records was inside. There was just this dude chain smoking cigars in this tiny little office that had records stacked up everywhere with no categorisation whatsoever. He was cleaning them with something dodgy that had a really pungent smell. All the records had this really thick residue on them. Anything we found that was any good just looked unplayable. I mean, obviously it’s easier going into a nice shop with a considered floor plan which is tastefully curated, but it’s also fun finding a place like that which is a total nightmare. It just makes it more of an adventure.”

More recently, Stuckey has also been able to explore more styles of music through his live playing. He has filled in for Melbourne Reggae group Kooyeh and at a one-off gig with NZ drummer/producer Julien Dyne which led to a new project, The Lahaar, that blends Disco, Nigerian Boogie, Jamaican Dub and Modern Jazzy House. Stuckey said that this odd combination came about organically:

“Funnily enough, I was Julien’s booking agent at the time, so I ended up playing guitar at the gigs and Henry Hicks [Horatio Luna] played bass. We did a mixture of Julien’s tunes with a handful of these late 70s/early 80s proto-rap disco tunes, because that’s what he has in his record collection and plays when he DJs. We also had time to get in the studio while he was here. We just improvised, which isn’t something I personally do very much, but I love any opportunity to just hang out with Julien. Then he took the tracks back home and edited them so they made a little more sense. He also drew upon his crew of incredible musicians like Mara TK.”

Meanwhile, Surprise Chef have continued to reach new audiences over their three albums and this has led to tens of millions of Spotify streams, though Stuckey feels their music makes the most sense on vinyl which is how listeners have been enjoying Funky Soul albums for over half-a-century now. He does have mixed feelings about vinyl sales taking over CD sales as the most popular physical format for music, since it often reflects major labels muscling in territory they abandoned for decades until the world of digital music forced their return to it.

The Gospel Whiskey | Lachlan Stuckey is sometimes a vinyl DJStuckey DJing vinyl records 

Hopefully this Record Store Day, buyers will be willing to dig a little deeper into the crates and discover indie labels like Stuckey’s own College of Knowledge, who put out vinyl due to a deep knowledge and reverence for the format and its history.

Keep an eye out for upcoming release on the label by Karate Boogaloo, The Pro-Teens and Let Your Hair Down or, if you’re in the Melbourne area, catch Stuckey and label co-owner Jethro (Curtin) DJing as College Of Knowledge at Section 8 on the first Sunday of every month alongside Jimi Dawg as part of the Central Business District club night.


Event details:
Record Store Day
April 22 2023
Various participating record stores here

MAIN IMAGE: Surprise Chef's Lachlan Stuckey holding a vinyl record

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