How sad is this? The Washington Post gets the drop on almost every Australian publication with its summary of Australian music in 2012
How sad is this? The Washington Post gets the drop on almost every Australian publication with its summary of Australian music in 2012:
It’s been an especially fruitful year for my favorite geographic micro-genre, with woozy, wobbly, strummy guitar rock emerging as a distinct sound Down Under. One reason for the largely unified aesthetic is that there’s barely a single degree of separation between these bands. Boomgates features members of the Twerps and Dick Diver. The singer is also in Eddy Current Suppression Ring, whose guitarist plays in Total Control, and who recorded albums by Woollen Kits and Royal Headache. It’s like a soap opera, but without the drama. They’re all mates. (Top 10 Australian indie rock songs of 2012, The Washington Post)
The writer’s Top 10 is as follows:
- Scott & Charlene’s Wedding
- Blank Realm
- Woollen Kits
- Royal Headache
- Dick Diver
- Bitch Prefect
- Pitch Control
- Constant Mongrel
Seven of which have made Song of the Day on Collapse Board.
I mean, it’s great that Australian independent releases are attracting international attention, but… where is the Australian media? Where is the killer music writing inspired by killer music, the voices in the mainstream championing such a wonderful groundswell of music and selling it further afield and back home? (Uh, aside from my article Underground music scene proves punk’s not dead based round Kitchen’s Floor and Royal Headache in The Australian in February: the ONLY foray I made into mainstream Australian this year… reprinted below)
See also Jake Cleland’s end-of-year round-up THE TOP EIGHT AUSTRALIAN SONGS IN 2012 JAKE CLELAND THOUGHT WERE QUITE GOOD, SOME OF WHICH YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD OF, and of course there are plenty of similar summaries in similar marginal Australian media outlets.
Ian Rogers rammed this point home in his excellent end-of-year round up on The Vine, once again one of the very few mainstream Australian places dealing in music criticism worth reading. It’s unlikely he’d seen The Washington Post article beforehand, but these two paragraphs could have been directly inspired by it.
It felt completely deflating when Pitchfork pipped the Australian music press over [Brisbane band Blank Realm’s third album] Go Easy. It’s a fine album, the sort of thing anyone who had even a half-cocked eye on the band knew was coming. So when Pitchfork ran their 7.3 review a week before Mess+Noise even, it felt weird. It makes sense: the band’s label for Go Easy is located in the US and that’s probably where a lot of the promotional push was (if there was much, to speak of). But for me, this moment really hammered home the state of things: Australian music writing is a bit fucked. Here was the biggest, most widely read music rag in the world leading the Australian press on the exact sort of local release we needed to be covering first. When we can’t even keep on top of our own emerging music, what’s the fucking point?
Go Easy is not an isolated case unfortunately. A lot of the Australian music on this list is absent from any broader national discussion. Melbourne’s Kane Ikin released (via 12K) a ridiculously great drone and beats record this year on Sublunar and critique of that album is nowhere to be found at home. I didn’t even know he was Australian when I first stumbled onto his album. Instead we’re lucky to get one or two album reviews a day—of anything, even the centre—from our higher level outlets and almost zero ongoing commitment. Worst still, there just doesn’t seem to be the budget nor the editorial power out there to cover music below a certain watermark—one that seems completely arbitrated by local industry and advertisers—and it’s getting worse every year. If you want to read about anything happening on any of the various margins of Australian music, you’re mostly reading the work of an unpaid volunteer, a blogger or a junior/developing writer or you’re reading about your own culture on an ‘international’ music website. To an extent, that’s fine. But I just don’t want that all the time. I don’t want only that. I also want to look at nice sentences about a wider variety of music, and to hear from people more experienced than myself regarding this music. The intent and interest is there, the money isn’t. And so in 2012, I went from harbouring doubts about this stuff turning around one day to thinking, ‘Oh well, the pay cut isn’t that drastic anyhow.’
I didn’t even know there was a new Blank Realm record out until Ian mentioned it in his round-up, although I do choose to be outside the music industry loop. There again, you could argue that as they are a band Collapse Board has often written about favourably in the past, and that I’ve often written about favourably in the past, and because I still have a certain amount of international cachet, and because I live in Brisbane, it might have been worth a press agent’s time appraising me of the fact. There again, perhaps Blank Realm don’t actually have a press agent for the Australian media? Such concepts do seem outdated in this age of equal listening opportunities.
This next paragraph is apropos of nothing, but I’ve been wanting to explain something for a while now…
The last time I got properly called out for turning in a hack piece of writing was at The Vine, a couple of years ago. I’d interviewed a band I only semi-liked (at best) for my editor Marcus Teague and my written feature – barely expanded from the dull-as-Editors Q/A conducted on the ‘phone – reflected that fact. Marcus berated me for it via email, pointing out the sheer lack of effort involved. I argued back that the money involved hardly justified the effort. He pointed back to some of the amazing writing he was getting in on a regular basis , at a lower rate than mine. I figured that it wasn’t much to boast about, that a fucking major mainstream site such as The Vine was getting away with paying such brilliantly inspired articles so little – plus I fucking hate doing phone interviews anyway – but then shut up. Because he was right. I knew the going rate. I knew the level of writing he was expecting from me and my fellow writers. And I knew that it was me who was the dick, not him. So that was the last piece I ever turned in for him. I didn’t want to turn into a shit piece of cynical shit like 95 per cent of my music writing contemporaries out there, scraping out a bit of beer change from the street press and mainstream, doing the absolute minimum involved because the pay involved is the absolute minimum. The mark of a great editor is that they can inspire their contributors to go above and beyond, no matter what. It often has little to do with financial reward. Marcus can do that, demonstrably so. Some of my own personal favourite writing for Australian publications has been at The Vine. He allowed me the freedom to be myself.
For example: Wolfmother ‘Cosmic Egg’
So why didn’t I quit turning in the hack and go back to him? Simple. The pay rates are SO low, I might just well as publish here on Collapse Board. The audience might be around a 10th of what I was getting on The Vine, but it’s dedicated. And I don’t try to trick myself by turning in the hack. (Why would I?) I’m happy to adapt my style and write to another magazine’s brief if the money justifies it (and I can still retain pride at the finished result). It so rarely does, though.
Underground music scene proves punk’s not dead
For several years Brisbane musician Matt Kennedy has been a prime mover in a tiny musical scene.
Every few weeks, great bands – ranging from psychedelic dance-trance (Brisbane’s Blank Realm) to hardcore punk rock (Sydney’s Naked On The Vague) to melodic noise (Adelaide’s Bitch Prefect) to early 80s electronic (Hobart’s The Native Cats, Brisbane’s Primitive Motion) – play shows in unorthodox locations, sold by word-of-mouth and often attended mostly only by other musicians. This world exists far away from the government-funded safety of Triple J and from the commercial radio stations. This world has little to do with careers.
“For over five years now, I’ve been holding shows in my lounge room,” says Kennedy, who fronts the three-piece Kitchen’s Floor. “It’s a small dirty place, but they’re some of the best shows I’ve experienced. If it so happens that the only place available to play is your friend’s laundry down the street, then you just spread the word and borrow some amps from somewhere, and more often than not it will be an awesome show. You can only play so many crappy bars before the idea of playing something like a generator show under a bridge becomes a much more exciting prospect.”
While feted in Britain and the US for its brutal, brief barriers of melody and sound, Kitchen’s Floor is mostly ignored at home outside a handful of blogs, the Brisbane punk fanzine Negative Guest List (whose 22-year-old founder Brendon Annesley died recently) and the alt Australian music website Mess +Noise among them. Like many in the scene, however, Kennedy is involved to a greater degree than just as a musician. He runs an online blog, Eternal Soundcheck, which documents the emergent bands via a handheld video recorder. He also runs a record label, Bedroom Suck. It, like fellow independent labels Sydney’s R.I.P. Society and Brisbane’s Negative Guest List, releases cheaply recorded, abrasive slabs of primeval rock ‘n’ roll, often via cassette or vinyl.
All this helps to put together some of the most exhilarating rock music to come out of Australia for a generation. At the forefront of it all is Sydney four-piece Royal Headache, formed in guitarist Lawrence William Hall’s parents’ boatshed in the Sydney riverside suburb of Putney in 2008.
“It’s a whole bunch of bands playing at the same time,” Royal Headache bass player Joe Sukit says. “They all just come from the same place: the 80s American idea of doing it for yourself, on your own level. It’s a bunch of kids who never had any aspirations to do anything [other] than play music and listen to their friends play music.”
Royal Headache plays short, bitter-sweet songs: abrasive, but melodic. Singer Shogun – the only name he goes by – has a voice that’s a bit like a young Rod Stewart and a bit like a bare-chested Jimmy Barnes. The band’s live shows are equal part mayhem and melody. The music has some punky 60s mod attitude and some 60s soul behind it, reminiscent of the Small Faces and the Troggs. The outstanding single from last year’s self-titled debut album, Surprise, is 90 seconds long. Why do you need longer?
Sometimes it feels as if Royal Headache has been set up in opposition to Australian Idol, the uniformity of the soon-to-be ubiquitous K-pop (Korean pop) and a thousand other money-rakers. This isn’t true, of course, but the band’s music can feel compressed and tightly wound. One song, Really In Love, recalls the betrayed teen anguish of the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album, from 1983. Another, Down the Lane, echoes the jangling pop guitars of early Hoodoo Gurus.
Last year Royal Headache completed a month-long tour of the US, with a subsequent spike in attention. The band has been featured on influential US music website Pitchfork, and four writers for US punk bible Maximum Rocknroll listed Royal Headache’s album in their top 10 for 2011. At home, the band won both the critics’ and readers’ polls on Mess+Noise. It feels as if Australian rock music could be on the verge of something major happening, particularly following the success of portable punk band Eddy Current Suppression Ring, which won the 2008 Australian Music Prize, an industry-sponsored alternative to the ARIAs (an award series for which the Melbourne group has also received nominations). Ironically, this feeling has little to do with the millions of government dollars being pumped into Australian record labels and radio stations.
“There is an aesthetic that links these bands, but gawd almighty is it hard to define,” says Nic Warnock of R.I.P. Society, the label to which Royal Headache is signed.
“There’s more of a kinship between a band like Royal Headache and Kitchen’s Floor than Royal Headache and those cute 60s dress-up party bands every town seems to have.”
Some call this music punk rock; Royal Headache’s members certainly do. This means it traces a lineage from Nirvana through US punk band Black Flag and back to the Buzzcocks (a perfectly matched collision of pop melodies with a punk heart). It’s about attitude, the knowledge that it’s better to choose your own path. It’s a fondness for sticking to the brief: the idea that great rock ‘n’ roll, ultimately, is simple: excitement, melody, tunes, energy, a good riff. Keep it short.
“The reason a band should make music is to express something,” says Warnock, “even if that something is completely intuitive to the point where the artist themself is confused to what that it means. It could even be a purely musical expression, as long as you really put something of yourself into it. The aesthetic link between these bands is that they abide by this idea; no matter what shape or form the music exists in, they have the goal of creating music for the sake of music.
“I think a lot of people make music in their quest for notoriety or to seem interesting, creative [and] talented rather than having the actual urge to create. I think something that links bands that are on labels such as Bedroom Suck and R.I.P. Society is an affinity to punk, DIY culture and the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s 2012 and it’s easy to be a fan of both Negative Approach and New Order, hence the lack of a cohesive or definable sound between these bands that could be considered a community.”
There are so many bands creating their own audience, defining their own sound and linked only by attitude. For example, the drawling laidback pop of Sydney’s Circle Pit, who Matt Kennedy describes as “throw[ing] the idea of looking after your health into the ashtray and before you know it you’re in a drunken death spiral that oddly feels more right than wrong”.
Melbourne has the U.V. Race, and the wonderful ramshackle pop of Woollen Kits. The city also boasts Dick Diver and the Twerps, two more bands that have been hailed by Pitchfork, and two bands that effortlessly reference the 1980s glory days of influential New Zealand record label Flying Nun.
Adelaide is home to Hit The Jackpot and Dud Pills, “a band that perfectly capture through the sound of an eternal hangover the highs and lows of sharehouse living in this modern era”, as Kennedy puts it.
“Most of the current Australian bands I like to play with seem to be in love with the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, and the freedom it promises,” says Blank Realm’s Daniel Spicer, whose band has been described by Sydney music writer Shaun Prescott as “the best live band in the world”.
“It’s kind of anything goes. I think that gets lost when people are making records and playing shows for anything other than the fun of it. No one’s a careerist, each other’s successes are celebrated.”
It seems the Australian underground is as focused as it’s ever been, but with one crucial difference. No one wants to be their generation’s Nirvana and create a “breakthrough” record like Nevermind was for the pioneering Seattle grunge trio. They’ve already seen what that can do to a band. (Nirvana’s singer, Kurt Cobain, killed himself with a shotgun in 1994.) Punk in 2012 is an attitude, not an entrenched-in-photographs haircut. We’re talking under-30s.
“When we record, essentially our goal is to set up in a room, play at the same level we always play — loud — put a microphone in front of it all, and record,” Sukit says. “I want it to sound like us playing in a room. A lot of records end up with a haze of sound that triggers people to go, yeah that’s a good record, but when you break it down it’s a piece of shit. We don’t pretty our songs up, we don’t have access to studios or money. It’s what we can do on our terms.”
“The music being made is just an honest attempt to create a decent soundtrack to [our] lives,” Kennedy says. “You can’t fuck with that.”