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No Deaf Ears

Declan Kelly

When you go to Austin, Texas, and you land at the airport, it says ‘Welcome to Austin, Texas, the Live Music Capital of the World.’ And while they may claim that, I think Melbourne would certainly challenge it because it’s seven nights a week here, and it has been for years. —Dan Luscombe, musician

Returning to Melbourne after a year travelling abroad in 2004, I was seduced all over again by the city and those in it. The sense of purpose and place that my peers held, the quiet and unassuming way in which so many talented people conducted themselves and the endless waves of sound that were emanating across so many styles. Musician Evelyn Morris says: ‘It’s a really rare set of circumstances that has happened because of all the different people involved, both now and in the past. It’s a fascinating, intricate chemistry. I don’t know that it’s entirely unique but it’s rare.’

I wanted to explore this ‘chemistry’ and investigate our musical community; its wealth of talented musicians and producers and the labels that back them; the huge number of venues ranging in size, atmosphere and intent which mean nearly all styles have a home. And, most importantly, a willing public whose desire for music borders on the insatiable.

Since the late 1960s, Melbourne has always had a strong rock and independent music scene. From the Loved Ones to bands such as the Birthday Party in the late seventies, the tradition carried on through groups such as Severed Heads and The Models in the eighties and The Meanies and Magic Dirt in the nineties. The live scene showed stoic resistance with campaigns such as Fair Go 4 Live Music, launched when institutions such as the Empress and Bar Open in Fitzroy and the Town Hall Hotel in North Melbourne were threatened in 2003. Melbourne bucked the revolt against live music, staving off the residents, developers and poker machines that quashed band venues in other Australian cities.

In 2009, independent rock, pop and folk music in Melbourne is as healthy as ever. In much the same way that groups such as The Triffids and the Go Betweens evoked the desolate space of Western Australia and the cloistering sugar cane belts of Queensland respectively, Melbourne outfits Kes Band, The Drones, Fabulous Diamonds and Eddy Current Suppression Ring have pushed a distinctly southern sound. Dan Luscombe puts it this way:

There’s a definite stylistic sound that comes out of here. When I listen to Rowland S. Howard’s album Teenage Snuff Film, something in the sonic quality of the songs reminds me of this city. His music sounded exactly like the place that he was in … I love the Kes Band too; Karl [Kes] is such an enigma and so unique in his approach. They [Kes] could only really be an Australian band.

Across the city, there is a wealth of small to medium-capacity venues for bands to cut their teeth in, as well as larger venues for more established groups. The people who book these venues are open to music, to furthering the cause and to developing the scene.

In different corners of the city, a robust dance and electronic music nightlife developed in the eighties and nineties. A world-renowned graffiti culture fed into the vibrant hip-hop scene. Music for music fiends, the eternal beat diggers mentality of hip-hop served to introduce crowds to the sounds of funk, soul, disco, electro, boogie, rock and other strains of music that hip-hop sampled. Clubs such as Razor, Purveyors and Cocoa Butter led the way until the house, jungle and rave scenes bloomed in the early nineties. By the end of the decade, Melbourne was a key stop for techno, drum and bass and house pioneers from around the world. The scenes were diverse, and multiple events held on the same night would often attract solid crowds. Melbourne was home to some of our country’s most revered DJs—Phil Ransom, Dexter, Kano and J’Nett—all fastidious collectors of music whose enthusiasm was matched by their ability. They were (and continue to be) dance floor educators who did away with divisions of style and contextualised all that was good about music in a single set. Paris Kozaris, aka DJ PAZ, remembers:

Ransom and J’Nett had a huge influence on a Melbourne sound that was growing; they were in our community doing things that not a lot of people had the nerve to do. People stuck to their hip-hop roots or they stuck to this or that, they didn’t realise that all music was relevant. Having J’Nett and Ransom at the forefront has really meant a lot for Melbourne. They knew how to draw out the elements in these disparate sounds.

Today many of our electronic producers are coming into their own. Some of these artists will begin a label to release their own material, and will also undertake the distribution. But few of these personal labels expand their roster any further because to do so takes the artists away from their main aim of making music. Although small labels such as M Division and Straight Up are materialising, for the most part our beat makers need to search abroad for recognition. Guitarist and bandleader Lance Ferguson of the Bamboos has forged an ongoing relationship with esteemed UK label Tru Thoughts, while techno producer Christian Vance has found his home with a Swedish label. Sydney band Pivot are the first Australian signing to Warp Records, home to Ahhex Twin and Squarepusher among others. Given this climate I wonder if Melbourne producers are exercising the age-old cultural cringe and sitting on their material, unsure how to launch it into the world. Ennio Styles, producer and DJ, shares this concern:

There is lots of interesting music being made, played and performed here. I do sometimes feel a frustration that not all of the great music is as widely appreciated as it deserves to be. Maybe there is a lack of confidence; even where people are actually making great underground dance music they don’t necessarily want to take that next step to do something with it.

Conversely, Australia has spawned a high number of autonomous labels geared towards left-of-centre rock, indie, pop, experimental and folk music with the majority of the higher profile ones basing themselves in Melbourne. Chapter Records, Love & Mercy, Nervous Jerk, Unstable Ape, Remote Control, Trifekta, Mistletone, Sensory Projects and Lost and Lonesome Records are responsible for showcasing some of Australia’s most inventive artists alongside their overseas counterparts.

Experimental and avant-garde music also has rich and colourful roots in this town. From 1975 to 1986, the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (CHCMC) ran with a decidedly free-thinking policy and opened up its doors to anyone wishing to perform any type of music for no financial gain. Renowned composers David Chesworth and Philip Brophy were involved in the centre, programming concerts and acting as editors and contributors to New Music, a magazine that documented much of the experimental activity around the inner city at the time. Although the Clifton Hill venue was open to all music, during Chesworth’s tenure as coordinator from 1978 to 1982, the centre became a hotbed of experimental music. While academics scoffed at its worth, and the Australia Council’s only recognition of the space was to demand the return of some equipment that had been stored there, the anarchic structure and forward-thinking ethos saw overseas visitors compare it to New York’s underground venue The Kitchen.

Guitarist and Australian experimental music pioneer Oren Ambarchi became part of this rich history when he moved to Melbourne from Sydney four years ago. Although he spends much of his time in Europe where he is in demand, Melbourne feels like the right place for him:

I think Sydney’s also really interesting, there are a lot of amazing artists there, it’s just that there aren’t as many opportunities to do gigs in Sydney. Here, it’s the complete opposite, there’s just so much live music activity and I felt that people here were a bit more understanding.

Ambarchi grew up in Sydney tinkering in his grandfather’s pawnshop, taking home everything from 7” singles to effects units and reel-to-reel tape machines. Small pieces of fortune sent the young Ambarchi on an alternate musical path. Bringing home Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, he took the records out only to find that they’d been swapped with Miles Davis’s Live Evil. By the age of fourteen, Ambarchi was listening to free jazz, and the music of the Alice and John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor soundtracked his early high school years: ‘At school I definitely didn’t fit in but the music just made perfect sense to me, I was holed up in my bedroom listening to this stuff obsessively.’ Beginning as a drummer in free jazz bands around Sydney, he found his way to the guitar, rediscovering punk, hardcore and metal music before achieving acclaim as a solo artist with his delicate and beautiful tonal guitar compositions, as a collaborator in drone groups such as Sunn O)) and as a song-based artist in his duo Sun with Chris Townsend.

Since 2007, Ambarchi has been curating Maximum Arousal at The Toff In Town, a venue equally at home hosting DJs and rock bands as it is quiet folk and experimental sounds. Maximum Arousal allows him to continue showcasing experimental acts from Australia and the world, as he did for ten years as director of the What Is Music Festival. ‘A lot of the time in Australia, people equate experimental music with scummy venues with shitty PAs. It was nice to take it out of that kind of environment and do it somewhere else.’ But after a surge of initial support for the night, enthusiasm dropped off.

In the middle of 2008, I had four international acts on every Sunday and some of them weren’t that well attended. I think people just couldn’t or wouldn’t go to all of them so lately I haven’t been putting something on every Sunday night … Ever prolific, perhaps the city’s only problem is that it creates more music culture than the population can realistically experience/digest. If so, that’s not a worry for multi-instrumentalist Dan Luscombe. He’s recently returned after a capital-city tour playing guitar with The Drones. As one of the country’s most exhilarating bands they have had considerable success in Europe and America, spending much of the last three years taking their brash, poetic and unapologetically Australian sound to new audiences. When I spoke to him in late 2008 in a neighbourhood café in Northcote, Luscombe discussed his love for Melbourne, how he misses it when he’s away and how he was looking forward to spending the summer getting out of the house and seeing a lot of music:

It’s an amazing city to be born into. When I look at all the people I’ve played music with over the years, I’d say 20 per cent of them at most are people from Melbourne. And I notice when I go out with musician friends, the vast majority of them are from interstate; they’ve all just gravitated towards Melbourne.

Not only does Melbourne’s music scene continue to inspire people to create and get involved, but also the nature of the city, its liveability and inherent lifestyle facilitate this freedom. Rent, although now beginning to climb towards the higher rates of Sydney and Perth, is still attainable for most people. Restless artistic culture of all sorts as well as decent public transport and cheap food are also contributing factors to a reasonable life for an artist. In Luscombe’s view:

Melbourne allows creation. If you bump into someone on the street and they ask you what you’ve been doing and you say: ‘Look, I’ve just been writing, taking time off, working in the studio on this thing or other’, they know that what you’re talking about is work. And even people who aren’t involved in the arts in Melbourne have a vague sense that you’re doing something worthwhile. The city allows a lot of creativity because it’s part of the social fabric and even the stiffest citizen of Melbourne is probably aware of that.

Producer and DJ Ennio Styles agrees:

I’m not convinced that it’s just the music scene that keeps musicians here. I think it’s the broader lifestyle we have, which, once you’re used to it, it’s pretty hard to match elsewhere. Sure, you go to New York or London and there’s all these mind-blowing things going on musically but you’re going to be living in a shit hole and it’s going to be hard to make a buck. I think some of those things are just as much factors in keeping people here in Melbourne.

Paris Kozaris, aka DJ PAZ, has been resident at institutional nightspot Revolver for more than eight years and holds down a hectic weekend DJ schedule across Melbourne’s club and festival circuit. Paris started listening to hip-hop in his early teens. Fascinated by the raw nature of the music and free-flowing obscenities, his path to dj’ing and producing was dogged if not circuitous: ‘I remember in high school, my mates and older brother wanted to write a rap. He said to us “You guys are brainy, program the drum machine”, and I realised I could do it.’

PAZ gravitated to the early jungle scene, listening to DJs like Atom 1 as well as community stations PBS and RRR, where J’Nett and Ransom and Chrissie had a show broadcasting hip-hop to Melbourne’s hungry ears: Ransom and Janette were the ones who influenced my hip-hop sound. I was listening to DJ Ransom with Chrissie on a Saturday night on PBS and I taped every show. And then I heard Ransom playing club sounds but it was more eclectic.

During the week PAZ produces music and contributes to Scattermish and The Late Show, two music blogs taking Melbourne out into the internet blogosphere. The contributors to these blogs are making exclusive material for them all the time, creating edits of new and old music for DJs and collectors across the world to share.

For those savvy enough to embrace it, the internet has become a tool for development and growth and its influence on all types of music has revolutionised the industry. I think this change is for the better. Independent labels that operated for years in the shadows of the music scene are now far more powerful than they were. Small electronic labels that previously garnered most of their revenue from physical sales of vinyl or limited editions are now reporting that the majority of their income is coming from digital sales on their own web portals and pay-per-download websites such as iTunes, Beatport, Juno, Turntable Lab, Bleep and Boomkat. With the advent and subsequent rise of digital dj’ing through software such as Serato and Traktor—programs that enable DJs to play digital files using a piece of vinyl as a control mechanism—electronic music’s early adoption of digital technology will stand it in good stead.

Some people say the music industry is dead, but it seems to me that the position of the independent music scene has never been stronger. As the giants of the industry downsize and amalgamate, traditional major label success is only an option for a few artists. Those labels’ ideals and grandiosity don’t reflect what has happened to the industry and they have been incredibly slow to adapt. The changes have empowered artists who are proactive in promoting their music. In the digital age, a musician’s ability to utilise the internet is possibly their greatest tool.

Sophie Best and Ash Miles threw their hat into this uncertain ring when they started Misteltone Records and Touring from their home in North Fitzroy in 2006. Twenty-four releases later, Mistletone is now seen as one of the world’s most progressive independent labels, releasing not only the cream of Australian electronic and alternative music from Kes Band, Fabulous Diamonds, Barrage and Ross McLennan, but also licensing progressive albums from abroad by artists such as Panda Bear, Ariel Pink, El Guincho and Beach House. ‘It’s very important to us to only release things that we love, and treat people right. We also want to give the people we work with total artistic freedom. That’s our basic mission,’ said Best. In the hands of a major label these records would be likely to fizzle out after a small promotional burst but the attention to detail that such a small operation provides seems to be the right recipe for label and artist alike. While major labels sing a mournful and tuneless lament to anyone who will listen that the Internet is killing them, labels like Mistletone see it as their most important tool. As Best sees it:

The digital revolution has made everything we do possible. We are very conscious of the collapse of the major label business models, and at the same time we wanted to set up a label that was inspired by some of the old-school indie music business models (for example, 50/50 split with artists). We are able to discover and reach out to bands and form relationships that would never have been possible before. The collapse of the major label system and the emergence of new technologies make this a very exciting time to be releasing music. And now there are so many ways to reach new audiences, enabling people who would otherwise never have heard of Mistletone to discover our label.

One of Melbourne’s other charms is that things on a minute local scale manage to survive. Progress isn’t measured in volume; it’s measured in quality. Sophie Best is impressed: Apart from all the artists on our roster, who I think are all doing amazing things, there are so many brilliant people in Melbourne making really great music. There is a lot of that kind of DIY energy happening right now in the Melbourne underground, which is also very inspiring.

Another Melburnian circumventing the traditional method of bringing his music into the world is Nick Huggins. Since 2006 the 26-year-old has produced more than thirty albums. Moving from Western Australia to landlocked Grafton in country New South Wales was a significant moment. Not knowing anyone in town and with a whole summer to go before school began, the fifteen-year-old locked himself in his bedroom and played guitar for seven hours a day:

I suppose it’s that time when you’re trying to define who you are … Although I was completely obsessed with music, I was kind of sceptical about it for a while because I knew lots of people who made me think that to get involved you had to pose a certain way.

Fortunately what had been private soon became public. Huggins began playing in bands in about 2000 and producing records not long after:

I remember seeing The Necks on Studio 22 on the ABC, receiving the Dirty Three’s Ocean Songs in the mail after reading about it. [I had] these little glimpses of things that were so powerful. Around the same time some friends asked me to produce their record based on what I’d been doing with a 4-track recorder at home. So at someone else’s behest I fell into this intense period of researching, producing and recording. Being in the studio you get a really detailed, intimate knowledge of people’s musical mind; in the last three years that’s probably been more inspiring to me than any outside musical influence.

Huggins started his label Two Bright Lakes (TBL) in 2007. As much an artists collective as anything else, TBL incorporates the groups Seagull, Touch Typist, Otouto as well as Huggins’ solo output and the work of animators, web designers and DJs. Along with brother Tiggus and drummer Mark Gretton, Huggins formed Touch Typist to satisfy a more urgent, pulsing and electronically driven sound. The combination of synthesizer, voice, guitar and drums is simple and beguiling, audacious and bombastic in a way that no other Melbourne band is at the moment. That Huggins and his cohorts execute their endeavours so lightly makes their humble mission all the more endearing.

Evelyn Morris, aka Pikelet, began piano lessons at the age of three, insisting to her mother that she was going to be a concert pianist. Although classical didn’t work out, music stayed a close companion all through Morris’s schooling and the self-confessed nerd converted to the drums at the beginning of high school:

I had a lot of things working against me; I wear glasses and I had braces so I was like ‘I’ve got to try and do something!’ So I took up the drums. But it didn’t work … I played in the jazz band so it made things worse.

When she moved to Swinburne Secondary College in Hawthorn, the delights of the city began to reveal themselves to her:

Swinburne was kind of alternative in the sense that a lot of dropouts went there. I wasn’t a dropout but I was a social dropout … Because I was in this new environment, I clicked that there were bands I could get involved in that weren’t related to school.

Morris’s musical talent led to invitations to join heavy-hitting Melbourne bands True Radical Miracle and Baseball.

Realising that playing music was imperative if she were to keep on top of her emotions, Morris decided that she needed a more introspective outlet for her music:

Pikelet came out of [my] wanting to do something totally on my own. I started playing [accordion] around the same time and I wanted to do a band that was similar to stuff that influenced me to play accordion. I wanted to write songs that were really musical and lyrical. I tried to do a band with some friends but I realised I was too much of a control freak. So I went into my room and I borrowed my housemate’s loop pedal and started just making loop jams on my own.

The debut Pikelet album came out on Guy Blackman’s label Chapter Music in 2007. An assured collection of dreamy, honest and intimate rhythmic folk gems, Morris’s songs were as simple as they were dense, with the accordion lilting in the foreground of many of the arrangements.

We spoke in 2008 during a break between the tracking and vocal recording of her sophomore album due out in 2009. American producer and local Casey Ricecheck, famous for his work with Chicago post-rock bands Tortoise and The Sea And Cake, is again at the controls and Morris has assembled a band from the rich pool of talent that surrounds her:

I always knew music was going to be my life and it’s never changed. The only thing that’s changed is how much I believe it’s possible. Previously—and especially when I was nineteen because I’d heard it from my father and all the older people I knew—[I believed] that there was just no chance you could make a living, that you should just give up on music. I’m still working in a bar and I have to but I’m incredibly busy with music and I’m doing all right at it.

Morris works at Hell’s Kitchen, a small Melbourne bar that opened in 1997. Recently she began programming intimate musical evenings:

The good thing about [Hell’s Kitchen] is that I can put on shows that are only going to draw sixty or seventy people and that’s a successful night. I don’t really have to consider who’s popular, and those kinds of shows are important for a band when they’re starting out. There’s something really special about being two centimetres away from the band while they’re playing and I think it’s quite a test for bands too.

The age and resilience of Melbourne’s indie, folk and experimental community has pushed those scenes into their halcyon days. As more of our electronic exponents mature, we will see more confidence in this side of our community. Sophie Best also expresses confidence: ‘The future is bright here … There are so many awesome people doing such great things in a mutually supportive community that’s brimming with creativity and energy.’ Underground dance floor sounds that are as vital and diverse as anything in the indie, folk and experimental scenes will be proudly introduced to the world on Australian record labels.