an interview with Joel Stern
by Carmen Juarez (words and photography)
Joel Stern is a musician, artist, lecturer, curator and event organiser, among other things. Joel is behind projects and collectives like Disembraining Machine and Otherfilm, and you’ve probably seen him play an intriguing junk-yard musical instrument at some point.
Here he is explaining why he does these things, what he’s up to these days, and why Brisbane isn’t such a bad place after all.
Why do you do what you do?
I’m not sure why I do what I do. I kind of do a lot of different things for different reasons. Some of the things I do have really pragmatic reasons behind them like … survival. Other things are done purely out of an impulse that is more the pleasure of being in a creative situation and collaborating with people.
In terms of how I started, I sort of came from an artistic family – my mum’s a painter and my dad’s really into cinema and literature. So there’s always kind of music and films and art in my family and in my house so it was just natural for me to place a really high value on those things. If I saw a good film and it meant something to me, like “that’s really important to me”, it would be in my head for weeks. Or music – like the first time I heard Sonic Youth when I was maybe like 14 or 15. It kind of had a really profound effect. It wasn’t just like “oh this is cool” it was like “fuck me this is going to change my life” kind of thing. So it was probably natural for me to get into being an artist or working with artists and placing that at the forefront of my life.
I studied Media Arts at RMIT and it was a really creative situation there. It was a course in which the emphasis was on working with media and production techniques to create art. But some people were from [a] video background, some from sound, some were filmmakers … So you got used to being around creative people who had lots of different ideas and approaches rather than being in a little scene where everyone thinks the same thing and works the same way and wants to impress their friends who are doing the same thing as they are. It was much more of a diversity kind of principle. I guess everything that I’ve done, with events that I’ve organised like Audiopollen and Disembraining Machine, I’ve always been really conscious of different forms of creativity and different approaches. So I’d never put on a gig with four bands that are all made up of the same scene and the same friends, playing the same kind of music. I’d always have one performance artist, someone doing a pop song, some improv noise thing and then a film. To me that’s the most interesting thing – to try and connect the dots between all the different forms of creativity.
In all the projects I’ve been involved with all those things come together. I’ve always found something that you could call the ‘indie’ scene or the ‘punks’ … I’ve always found that really boring. Not that the artists involved aren’t great, but because the rules and conventions of the scene are so understood, and are so clear, and most of the artists operate within those parameters quite consciously.
I guess my interest is more in where does it kind of leak and break and burst and where do those conventions kind of get broken, busted open. With Audiopollen the main structural principle was probably intervention. So there’d be some people that would be invited to play, there’d also be people who would just … play – who weren’t invited [laughs]. Then the way the nights would evolve – there was often not really any order. People just played when they felt like it was their turn. The audience was not a passive body just there to watch. They would sometimes take over or get involved, or shout someone down or question what they were doing while they were doing it. The whole thing was more like a conversation in which the dialogue was around artistic practice.
In terms of Brisbane … I have noticed, somehow, people seem to have this attitude that there’s a lot of credibility to be had from bagging the shit out of Brisbane. Bands have press releases [implying] that they come from this horrible, boring place where the only thing they can do is be rock n’ roll heroes. I’m not from Brisbane. I grew up in Melbourne. I came here because I thought it was good. I’m not someone who grew up here and thinks, “This is shit, I’ve got to get out”. I’m someone who came here and thought, “Hey you know what, there’s like a particular creative spirit here that’s really amazing, like it’s really unconventional”. There are art schools here, and they’re OK, and there are artist-run initiatives and there are things that happen like the City & The City – like Gerald Keaney setting-up a generator under the William Jolly Bridge. There are amazing things that happen here.
So I don’t buy that whole kind of “Brisbane is shitty” thing. I’m not that interested in like BIGSOUND or Sounds Like Brisbane or any of those attempts to integrate us into the commercial music industry – that kind of doesn’t apply to me. But at the level of underground activity, I’m really positive about this place. We have bands getting international recognition and part of the reason is because they’ve come out of a really supportive scene that has helped them get to where they’re going – so they shouldn’t be bagging the shit out of … I know it’s part of the ‘schtick’ to do that… I find with American artists, for instance, they’re usually really proud of the place they’re from, and they’re usually really keen to say how great [it is]. Even if they’re from some small town like Athens, Georgia or Louisville, Kentucky or something – they’re all like, “We have so many great bands here, we’ve got such a great scene here, it’s so awesome” even if secretly they just want to move to New York or something. There’s a bit more… I don’t know. It’s like you want to help your friends back home.
I think it’s a whole Australian thing. I guess that’s because of how far away we are. Moving to London is such a huge, almost irreversible … Like you move to London you’re going to be there for like years or whatever, whereas if you live in London you can move to Berlin for a month, Paris for a month, Stockholm for a month – and it’s no big deal. If Australia was more connected then maybe we’d be more proud.
I guess what I’m trying to say with that is that my attitude towards Brisbane has always been really positive, and maybe part of the reason why the events that I have put on have worked in a certain way is because they come out of a really positive feeling about Brisbane artists and Brisbane creativity and what can be done to celebrate them and share it, as opposed to a more negative kind of attitude of like it’s just me and a group of friends and we do whatever we want to have a good time but it’s not, you know, geared toward making this place a better place or something. I think there’s a sort of fashionable negativity amongst young artists who have grown up in Brisbane, about Brisbane. Maybe it’s somehow cooler to portray Brisbane as a shit hole than to portray it as actually quite a supportive and exciting place where you can be a musician or an artist. Maybe it’s harder to get international recognition coming from here than it is in Melbourne or Sydney, but it’s not harder to live, generally.
Disembraining Machine [has] got a SoundCloud playlist on our website that has like 70 tracks by 70 different artists, all Brisbane based, all recorded in the last year. That situation of inviting experimental artists into a professional recording studio and record them free of charge and then give them the recording – there’s nowhere else in Australia that does that. There’s no one. The last two Kitchen’s Floor records have come from them playing at Disembraining and releasing the live recording. There are opportunities here for groups that are really special.