Another great band gone. No one notices. No one cares.
I recall when I first saw The Deadnotes play live in Brisbane.
It was the final show in that series of shows Lawrence English had upstairs at the Powerhouse, where everyone lounged around on cushions and looked on open-mouthed at Tenniscoats‘ deconstruction of piano strings. The Deadnotes – there were three of them: Leighton, Stuart and Eugene – spent at least 10 minutes trying to make a solitary amplifier work, becoming more and more wound-up, in front of an oddly attentive crowd. Maybe the crowd knew what to expect. I didn’t. When the three-piece finally started, it was … I’m not sure how to put it because hyperbole doesn’t suit the gentle garage/improv magic of the music they played. Stuart on trumpet plucked melodies out of nowhere, fucking with the tone through his effects pedals, and then discarding them rapidly as he went on search of more beauty. Eugene rattled and hewed at his shambolic guitar – you could tell here was a man who loved Half-Japanese, 60s Australian garage rock, No Wave. And Leighton played keys and uttered the occasional guttural vocal. It’s no good, as Samwise would tell you in Lord Of The Rings about Gandalf’s fireworks, I can’t do them justice. All three must have swapped instruments, because drums were also rattled.
This turned out to be standard for The Deadnotes: the three male musicians, and Sandra, when she joined shortly afterwards, would always swap around instruments others would kill to be as 10th as inventive on: nothing would give them greater pleasure, it seemed, than picking up a new instrument and immediately making sweet garage/jazz melodic improv.
They had a beat, a clear and excellent beat, behind most songs – that’s what so separated from the mewling herd. That, and the four musicians. There was no dead weight here.
Here’s what I wrote about them round about that time:
I should declare a prior interest somewhere. But really, what first attracted me to this band – trained in the “school of error” as practised by Maher Shalal Hash Baz and all those other naive orchestral delights, accomplished keyboards man Leighton Craig of the firm belief that where drummers went wrong was when they first started crossing their arms over – is what still attracts me to them: belief, brevity, melody, resonance, a fondness (acquired from having lived through it) for the early 80s post-Go-Betweens/early Fall mannerisms of derelict Brisbane nightclubs. Stuart Busby not only wields a trumpet like Brighton’s own Alistair Strachan (Hamilton Yarns, Crayola Lectern) but understands the absolute necessity of controlling (or not controlling) the sound. Guitarist/drummer Eugene Carchesio – an accomplished, exhibited visual artist in his own right – much favours the “play once, move on” approach to creating and inventing new songs that can’t help attract simple me. One of Eugene’s favourite musicians is Jad Fair. How can I argue with that?
Yet, with new member Sandra Selig (another representational artist) in tow, sometimes The Deadnotes will be hefting three saxophones, or someone will be trading a fearsome, joyful, melancholic bass line to match Busby’s beautiful dissonance, or a flute will be wielded to effect. Too often noise musicians deliberately eschew melody – as if to admit for a fondness for such is a weakness. The Deadnotes are as unreconstructed and wilfully abstract as the most experimental among us, but at the heart of the music is (usually) a melody, a structure, a beating heart.
They formed December 2005 and practise quite sporadically, but boast an estimated 300 song repertoire.
Plus, they know the fuck the importance of editing.
Since then, they must’ve written another few hundred songs, and that’s without the 150 or so they recorded in tandem with me. The Deadnotes first approached me to sing with them almost three years back, shortly after that aforementioned Powerhouse show. We were playing on the same bill at an all-day event at the Old Museum – there was another Deadnotes-related band, I believe it might have been The Lost Domain but I’m willing to be corrected – I was attempting a solo 20-minute concept performance, trying to recount the life of Daniel Johnston through narrative, cover versions and original songs. It was a dismal failure. It was, hands down, one of the most appalling shows I’ve done in 30 years. Which is saying a lot!
Afterwards, Leighton approached me to say how much The Deadnotes liked what I was attempting – “a welcome change from all that heads-down laptop electronic stuff we usually get lumped in with” – and asked if I’d like to collaborate with them. Would I? Whoa.
I’d been playing semi-regular shows in Brighton before we left for Australia around the nexus of Noah Taylor and Chris Anderson (and also Andrew Clare and Jon Slade), which were improv and semi-spoken word, but we’d never got together in any sort of rehearsal space to practice: simply, we turned up and we played, and maybe there would be Nick Cave and Shane MacGowan slow-dancing to us, maybe there wouldn’t. The Deadnotes would get together regularly in an art gallery in Woolloongabba and … not practice, exactly … but create. Every time they got together, another 10 or 15 or 20 songs would be created and recorded and filed away, and then – if there was a show up and coming – they’d sometimes reprise a few of those songs, and sometimes wouldn’t. An early gig at the back-end of the Step Inn in Fortitude Valley paved the way: they played incredible, beautiful, improvised, melodic, beat-laden music and I would make up shambling stream-of-consciousness vocals to go over the music, sometimes sung, sometimes not, sometimes words I’d used before, often not. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why they had me in to ruin their music – a sentiment that folk like Lawrence English seemed to echo, as he never booked them again – but they told me, unequivocally, that they loved having a front-man after all these years for their music, one that actually engaged with the audience. Kitchen’s Floor were there at that gig, and that proved to be important – forging one of the few connections I’ve made with Brisbane’s music scene since I’ve been here.
I so loved the songs we were creating. I would listen to nothing else for months. I couldn’t believe how great it sounded, how great they made me sound, how finally – after 30 years of never really trying – I was able to give full expression to whatever it was I wanted to give full expression to. At some of our early sessions I documented Daniel’s birth, and our move to Brisbane – and way more else besides.
Here’s another post I wrote back then:
I swear to Bangs, this is just about the most incredible piece of music I’ve ever been associated with!
It reminds me of, variously, ATV, loneliness, The Door And The Window, useless energy, Lindsay Cooper, fierce skills, The Red Crayola, that scary bloke who always seems to pin you down with his eyes when you get on the tube, the more avant-garde side of Half-Japanese… and way more besides. Stuart’s trumpet is just fucking incredible. I was going to write that it’s only the vocals that let this down but… fuck it, I really like my vocals on this. Starts off a little slow, but really fucking hits the mark around six minutes, and keeps going.
Here’s your link. Don’t say I never treat you.
P.S. I just got a correction from Sandra, crediting all the instruments properly. (Man, you’d think I’d know, being there and everything!) I really couldn’t figure out at all who was playing what where on that track. I reckoned Leighton had to be playing the drums, but even I realised he had to be playing the clarinet… so it had to be Eugene on the delightfully loose, almost Turkish army drumming. But then I couldn’t figure out who the hell was wandering around doing the live effects (it was all recorded live, on one microphone), if Stuart was playing trumpet and Sandra was playing sax somewhere…
Turns out the “incredible trumpet” I’m referring to above is actually Sandra’s sax – so apologies, and major props for that. As Sandra explains, “Stuey is hardly playing trumpet at all in that one… part from right near the end. For most of it, he was mixing the effects on my sax. Anyway, doesn’t matter, just thought maybe you were thinking of a different song or something?”
No, right song. I just have cloth ears sometimes!
We’ve played with The Clean, The Bats, Songs, Blank Realm, Bitch Prefect, Kitchen’s Floor, played art galleries, semi-legal squats, regular venues. One particularly memorable evening saw me driving 12 hours straight from Rockhampton so we could support The Vivian Girls. We rarely recorded any live stuff, instead relying upon ex-King John or Matt Kennedy to document the shows and later release it on the Internet. We featured in Matt’s scene-defining Eternal Soundcheck film and had a live favourite – ‘Real Bad Man‘, inspired by my couple of days travelling with Daniel Johnston in Melbourne and Sydney – included on a Thick Syrup compilation.
Here’s a bit of what Leighton wrote about The Deadnotes a few months back:
While I’m on a roll, plans are still afoot for the Room is Nowhere 7′ ep on Soft Abuse.
This 5-track single is to my mind amongst the best material we’ve recorded. Hells bells, we even overdubbed a couple of parts. Sell outs! Jad Fair cover art, mindless expletives, double sax attack – well, could you ask for more in seven inches of punk rock? And if you did, what would be the point? I put it to you once again – there is no point.
Will keep you posted on release date.
That was it. The single didn’t happen. A band who had recorded – what? – 500 songs, plus another 150 with their English (now Australian) collaborator, split halfway through 2011 with just one album to their credit, and a compilation track. I had grandiose plans for them – a five-CD box set here, a series of 7″ singles there – but these plans always seemed thwarted by our own internal lack of ambition. (It wasn’t that we weren’t ambitious for the music, far from it. It’s just that everything else connected seemed unimportant.) I don’t think it helped that most of their live shows were fronted from 2009 onward by a misanthropic surly fat 50-year-old Englishman: it was noticeable that when Leighton and Sandra formed Primitive Motion (who play rudimentary layered electronica, vaguely like Cabaret Voltaire) just around the time The Deadnotes imploded mainly down to a complete surfeit of indifference from everywhere, they were immediately offered shows, 7″ releases, tape releases … the works. Good on them. Good band. Very good, some say. I still can’t listen, though. I miss The Deadnotes too much.
There’s an Electrelane show coming up at The Zoo next month. Don’t tell anyone, but I have the opening slot. It would have been so perfect for The Deadnotes + The Legend!
Here are two videos. Whatever.
Here’s a live recording. Not that anyone fucking cares.