Wednesday, May 30, 2012


My men’s circle is spending this Saturday night on Mount Hotham, and someone has suggested an activity for civilised after-dinner entertainment: we each select our favourite piece of music and present it to the group.

As I trawled through my playlist of favourite tunes in preparation, I was surprised by the one that stood out most. It’s not my favourite group or composer by any means. It is a beautiful song but, fittingly for the exercise, it’s the way it intertwines with my own story that makes it so special to me.

Let’s start in 1994. In January of that year, the Big Day Out moves from Adelaide Uni to the Showgrounds. I am not quite 14, attending a big concert with mates for the first time. I get my first whiff of marijuana; am caught in a mosh at, of all bands, Def FX (launching pad for future celebrity wiccan Fiona Horne); see TISM clad in balaclavas playing broomsticks; witness the Teenage Fanclub, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Ramones and Soundgarden – surely one of the greatest lineups in Australian rock history – ruined by the terrible sound in the indoor pavilion; and, finally, see someone wheeled out in a body bag as the festival closes.

I’m a little blonde kid with an older brother and a large emotional investment in rock music. I read Rolling Stone and Kerrang, write reviews for the street presses, and heap scorn on friends who are discovering techno. Any time they try to play me electronic music, I deliver a standard joke. “It’s DJ Farquar’s new track ‘Two Drums Beating’!” I laugh smugly and often.

Fast forward to 1998, and I’m on a tram to Dixon Recycled with boxes of CDs to sell. Painstakingly pieced-together collections of REM, Husker Du, King’s X and many more great bands are about to be traded in for a completely new way of life. My hair is spiked, my nails are blue and my wrists adorned with bright sparkling bracelets. Rave is the culture, and the music is electronica – a friend and I have just discovered Warp Records. I know nothing will ever be the same.

Two years further into the future, it’s now October 2000. I am camped in a tent city demonstration in Placa Catalunya, Barcelona. My companions are Thelia, a young South African, a Brighton crusty named Fluffy Dave di Dooda,  and seventy west Africans and fifteen Pakistanis who are demanding the right to work. There are protests every few days, and I do some basic French-Spanish-English translation. I feel so at home there that, when I head down to Valencia for a weekend, I take a small bag and leave my large backpack at Catalunya.

Each morning, before we head out to find fresh cardboard to sleep on, I wander over the road to the FNAC deparment store. Thelia has found an unmarked staff bathroom that we use for rudimentary ablutions. And each morning I spend fifteen minutes on the shop headphones, listening to the Radiohead’s new album Kid A. Each song plays for two tantalising minutes, precisely, before the store computer flicks it over to the next track.

The influence of Autechre, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada is palpable; later I will read that Thom Yorke ordered the entire Warp Records catalogue after making OK Computer. I’ve given away rock for electronica, and now it seems the biggest band in the world are doing the same thing. The warm opening chords and processed vocals of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ sound so damn significant. I may be sleeping on the street, but I couldn’t be happier: for me, at least, the world is as it should be.

I know there is no point buying the album – I am still carrying around an old walkman with a handful of dubbed cassettes – and in all but one case I come to accept the abrupt ending midway through each song. The exception is the eighth track, ‘Idioteque’, which always cuts out just as its booming industrial beat and intoxicating vocal line begin to shift up a gear.  I am desperate to hear the conclusion of this song. Finally, a month later and hundreds of kilometres to the west in the Basque city of Bilbao, a German girl called Eva plays me the whole album from start to glorious end. And the full version of ‘Idioteque’ is confirmed as my favourite song – the favourite song of a boy who doesn’t really listen to songs.

Let’s finish in the present: why ‘Idioteque’ today? There’s a yearning in the music that suits the litany of nostalgia I’ve just presented. It’s also the closest to out-and-out electronic dance music Radiohead ever came. In fact, it’s the only song of theirs I’ve ever heard mixed into a dancefloor set (by DJ Trip at Adelaide’s Crown & Sceptre in 2003). Remixes abound, and in 2010 a great version of ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ went down a treat on Rainbow Serpent’s Market Stage, but ‘Idioteque’ doesn’t need to be touched up. It straddles the dancefloor and the bedroom as it is – in other words, ideal electronica. Throw in a vocal line you can sing along to, and it really is the perfect modern fusion.

Perhaps most importantly, to my mind it hints at a potential Radiohead have never really fulfilled. This might seem a strange thing to say about a band so widely regarded as one of the greats. But Amnesiac? Some great Kid A outtakes. Hail to the Thief? Underrated but still patchy. In Rainbows? Hugely enjoyable but not challenging. The King of Limbs? A welcome return to experimentalism but lacking an emotional punch. Twelve years on, it seems Kid A – and ‘Idioteque’ in particular – represent a high watermark which Radiohead will never reach again.

So here it is.

How do you choose a favourite piece of music? In late autumn of 2012, this is how I chose mine. Like a true electronica geek, with no reference to the lyrics.

Friday, May 4, 2012

John Butler's "Tin Shed Tales" @ HiFi Bar, 25/4/12

There’s a Collingwood guernsey in the lineup, and a few drunk sailors wandering past from Young & Jackson try to blag their way into the HiFi. It’s been a long, wet Anzac Day, and thankfully Felicity Groom is downstairs warming up. She switches from guitar to autoharp and back again, finishing with a crowd-pleasing take on Mental As Anything’s Live It Up and haunting renditions of her own Siren Song and An Ache. This is John Butler’s “Tin Shed Tales” tour and the curtains part to reveal a beautiful corrugated iron set hung with instruments, skateboards and some interesting art (is that Donald Duck vomiting?). The man himself strolls out to rapturous applause, launching straight into the feelgood opening of Gonna Be A Long Time and Better Than. A kick drum brings the bass every time he taps his right foot, and punters bop and sing along.

Anyone hoping to dance all night is soon disappointed, because tonight the magic is in the stories Butler tells; the performance is as much spoken-word as musical, although one complements the other. Introducing Good As Gone, he tells of immigrants distilling moonshine, gene pools and Celtic folk music in the Appalachian Mountains – and then demonstrates the progression on his banjo. Perhaps anxious not to seem didactic, he speaks somewhat haltingly of the campaign to stop Woodside’s gas plant in the Kimberley. But what follows is an eloquent piece of protest music built around the simple but unforgettable image of Kimberley as a “wild and free” girl coveted by callous cowboys. Then, less than a week after David Bridie sang Danny Boy for Jim Stynes at the MCG, Butler puts his own spin on the classic tune with an exquisite intro whose high notes float effortlessly from his slide guitar. It’s a lovely moment imbued with moving family history and the power of music to help us heal and remember.

There is one song that loses its essence in the Tin Shed: slowed down and stripped of its rhythm section, Revolution seems more distant than ever. But Zebra ends the main set on a high, and then Felicity Groom reappears to sing Danielle Caruana’s part in Jenny. As voices clamour for Ocean, Butler takes us back to the time he left university to “busk next to a bin”, and discovered that music can convey feelings words simply cannot. It’s an invitation to share a moment of personal, even spiritual, reflection, as the instrumental epic builds inexorably to a climax of raw sonic energy and the house lights come up.

(written for Inpress, for print and online publication)

Mount Kimbie @ the HiFi Bar, 3/5/12

“These aren’t quite songs yet – indulge us.”

There’s a surprising echo of Spinal Tap (“We hope you enjoy our new direction”) as Dom Maker introduces an extended bracket of works-in-progress at the HiFi Bar. Mount Kimbie have talked openly of moving beyond the treated vocals and lo-fi synths of  “post-dubstep”. Tonight it seems that, not unlike Tap, they are digging ever deeper into art-rock for inspiration. It occasionally verges on self-indulgence, but then writing “not quite songs” is precisely what Mount Kimbie are known for: at their best they hover in their very own sweet spot between dance music, ambient and indie.  And if live jams of their new material don’t always find that spot, it’s still a pleasure to witness a band so fearlessly pushing their sound further out and further in.

What’s more, the show starts and ends superbly. Opener Carbonated emerges from a foggy soundscape with a house beat bashed out on drum pads. It’s a rhythm that underpins much of the show and, with vocals chopped up or even performed live, the vibe is more post-punk than dubstep. In fact, bass weight is about the only thing Mount Kimbie draw from that most ubiquitous of contemporary genres. A glorious rendition of Field sees the duo cranking up industrial drums and electric guitar, and when the drop comes it’s a hip-hop beat that sends the place bananas. The bubbling melody of Before I Move Off gets the night’s biggest cheer, and haunting piano chords provide a perfect, unexpected counterpoint. “Australians, I love how much you love that song” says Kai Campos. “Paid my rent for a couple of months.”

In fact, the band seem genuinely surprised at the ferocity of support they have garnered. A pumping encore throws more than a splash of acid house in the mix, briefly threatening a rave re-enactment of the HiFi’s Teriyarki Thursdays in the late 90s. Then, all too abruptly, it’s over. There’s a restless potential about Mount Kimbie, a feeling that, with time, they will learn to fully employ the amazing powers at their disposal. They are already an excellent band. They could become one of the very, very best.

Tonight’s supports could be the main act’s kid brothers. Sicilia’s ambient laptop techno sets a rather neutral tone, which Oscar + Lewis then vandalise with blunted beats, bright synths, live R&B vocals – and a guest rapper/ dancer named Grant who steals the show and then hands out miniature zines by the bar. Post-dubstep? Post-everything.

(written for Inpress for print and online publication)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

James Vincent McMorrow @ Toff in Town, 12/4/12

It feels good to sit and listen to folk music, even on the bandroom floor at the Toff in Town. On stage a double-bassist alternately plucks and bows away beneath Emily Ulman’s fragile voice and guitar work – but, despite a neat cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, the songs don’t quite cut through.

It’s standing room only by the time James Vincent McMorrow steps into the spotlight, and from opener “Sparrow and the Wolf” it’s clear the direction this solo show will take. Slowed down, what is a rollicking song on record now hinges on the lyric “Seen no joy in this world”, and the “oh-oh-oh-oh” singalong becomes an evocative lament.

A stark version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is an unexpected reminder of McMorrow’s roots in the post-hardcore scene – it’s just that, these days, his voice alone provides the dynamic shift from quiet to loud and back again. And this voice is definitely the bedrock of his appeal. The falsetto is almost Buckley-esque, and sounds even purer live and bathed in chorus. The lyrics are poetic but not cloying and, when he finally speaks to the audience three songs in, McMorrow’s banter is endearingly humble.

A story about food poisoning, passports and airports breaks no new ground, but people still hang on every word. Later he abandons “This Old Dark Machine” halfway through the first verse, explaining he can’t bring himself to sing the whole song with his guitar out of tune. This draws laughter and applause, and he is moved to share the tale of his only other experience stopping a song mid-performance – politely shooshing an obnoxious bunch of drunks in Philadelphia. The Melbourne crowd might not be so rambunctious, but whoops of delight greet the opening lines of “We Don’t Eat”, and the country-folk feel of “Breaking Hearts” gets toes tapping.

Wishing the audience a nice evening and a good life, McMorrow sings “If I Had a Boat” off the mic at stage left. It’s a fine gesture, but one those beyond the first three rows have cause to regret. Thankfully he returns to the stage and the mic for a heartstopping and clearly much-anticipated encore of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. With rest, studio time and greater stardom now beckoning him after three years of constant touring, it has been a pleasure to spend this intimate evening with James Vincent McMorrow. And his beard.

(published in Inpress 25/4/12)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Espionage feat. Jacques Greene and Machinedrum @ Roxanne Parlour, 8/4/12

Heading out dancing still gives me butterflies. They flutter round my stomach like old friends bringing back all the nights out I’ve almost forgotten.

Section 8 is bouncing to “Blue Monday”, but I miss the carpark where we’d smoke and laugh at the Club X sign that read “Discreet Rear Entrance”.

At least the Shanghai Noodle House will never change: wait at least two hours after Spicy Bean Curd Noodle Soup before applying caffeine and alcohol.

The Exford must have a secret for every backpacker that passes through: mine is kissing an older woman under the table.

Who are these smokers? Oh, it’s the back of Billboards – that must have been me once, me and the long lost raver goths in the last days of Teriyarki.

Then into the dodgiest lift in town and up past Charlton’s, where Dan’s birthday rendition of “Lust for Life” ended with a stranger stealing the mic and pouring beer on his head.

Hard to imagine this place splattered in fluoro and fractals and goa for the first Earthdance Melbourne in 1998. Was it this floor or the next? Christian tripped out and we had to walk him home before midnight.

Now the doors open onto Roxanne Parlour, where The Operatives put on Flying Lotus, The Gaslamp Killer, Dam-Funk and Harmonic-313 – a killer show, and one of their first biggies. Soon Roxanne is closing its doors and, if worrying rumours about the structural soundness of its dancefloor are true, maybe it’s going out with a bang tonight. Vision of the infamous “Israeli wedding disaster” keeps floating  to mind – too much booty-shaking and we might all end up downstairs singing karaoke.

But I guess a lineup featuring Jacques Greene, Machinedrum and Funkineven is just worth the risk.

The crowd is quite sparse but the dancefloor thickens up as the first international takes the stage. Mr Dibiase seems squarely rooted in the West Coast glitch-hop scene, and most heads nod in appreciation. There’s even a few gangsta moves being thrown up the front. If the stereotype is true, this is definitely music for Gen Y – every thirty seconds brings a new track and a new vibe. I find myself recalling an old friend’s criticism of hard psy-trance: “there’s just no journey in this”. I simultaneously wish I was playing Nintendo and remember that I don’t much like hip-hop – hardly a ringing endorsement.

Dibiase starts and ends late, so local DJ Ed Fisher’s set is seriously squashed. He barely has time to drop a few soulful dubstep tunes that keep the floor warm for Jacques Greene. And when the French Canadian steps up, things take a turn for the housey.

I am not a great supporter of house. In fact, if people who have barely made my acquaintance were asked about me, I’d like to think their recollection might go something like this: “Blonde guy. Glasses. Hates house.”  I fantasise about wearing an undershirt that read “That’s not techno, that’s house”, so if needs be I could strip down and march around ordering everyone to leave the dance floor, or sit down, or whatever form of protest my ecstatic megalomania saw fit to organise at the time.

What is it about house that gets my goat? In short, it’s that I can’t stand easy listening dance music. I want to be surprised on the dancefloor, to be shocked into action by a rhythm, a sound, a melody, a sample – or preferably an original combination of all of the above. House is essentially minimal disco, the generic club soundtrack to a night of champagne, cocaine and dancing in high heels.

But despite this long-held vitriol (which may stem directly from the many precious hours of life spent queing to get into Q on Rundle St in Adelaide) Jacques Greene’s set is not even the first time this year I’ve felt glad to hear some house. The first came on the Monday of Rainbow Serpent, when the Sunset Stage’s all-night barrage finally mellowed out. And now, after the unwelcome assault of Mr Dibiase, a bit of four-to-the-floor goes down rather well indeed.

Not that Greene’s sound can really be pigeonholed as house. If there was a bridge between the UK funky scene and Radiohead, he’d be playing a party somewhere in the middle: black music rears its head in the R&B vocals and some of the beats, but it’s all drenched in bittersweet synths and often downright laid back. The crowd goes nuts for him, even singing along at times, but I find it hard to get a groove on – even when the rhythms syncopate and he wheels out the 303s.

One guy who has found his groove has also found his way on stage, a slightly chubby geek who is hyping the crowd and even grabs a mic to introduce Greene early in the piece. “Who gave that guy the mic?” My crew is not the only one exchanging rolled eyes – do they let just anyone up there these days? – but the laugh is on us when the stage invader turns out to be none other than Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum himself.

It all makes perfect sense: geeks do make the best electronica. The segue is quite smooth as Machinedrum begins in relatively ambient territory, but unfortunately he is a bit too comfortable on the mic. Outside the studio his voice is rather (what’s a polite way to say this?) tuneless, distracting from the crispness of the beats. Thankfully he only sings “Sacred Frequency” and one other track live, and then it’s down to business.

Although steeped in IDM, Machinedrum’s sound now draws heavily on the RnB meets happy hardcore vibes of the Chicago footwork scene. It makes for a frenetic dancefloor with loads of swagger, and things really ignite whenever a hint of jungle enters the mix. With footwork clocking in around 150-160bpm, the crossover potential is there – and already being mined worldwide by producers  including Africa HiTech and Om Unit (with whom Machinedrum collaborates as Dream Continuum).

At times I feel like my body is moving itself and I’m floating three inches above the floor. My feet haven’t moved this fast in years, and I keep pulling my jeans up around my knees in an effort to cool off. It’s euphoric but relentless and I run out of puff just before the hour is up, retreating to the back to prepare for the closing set.

The thing is, after the all-out assault of Machinedrum I just can’t quite catch the thread of Funkineven. He’s a cool London cat with a feather in his hat and he’s dropping the sweetest acid and electro (although I don’t recognise any of his own productions), but at 3:30am I need something dark to keep me going – and the ever present hint of disco in the mix keeps it a bit light and fluffy. I know I’ll regret it, but a quick conference reveals everyone’s pretty buggered. Back in the dodgy lift and out onto Coverlid Place we go.

It’s been another stellar event from The Operatives, with reasonable flow despite a seriously varied lineup. Machinedrum has destroyed the dancefloor and even brought some karaoke vibes with him – so, in the nicest possible way, my suspicions about what the night might hold have come true.

Before I know it I’m sitting on a couch with Burial on the stereo and a single malt whisky in my hand… then waking up walking to the train station, realising I’ve left my keys behind, running back and breaking back into my old house, running for the train and missing it, running for the tram and missing it, waiting for a bus that never comes, finally jumping on a train and dozing off until Melbourne Central then hopping on a tram, spotting Theresa walking in the opposite direction past RMIT, jumping off the tram and running after her to give her a big hug and tell her all about it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Round 2: Melbourne vs West Coast @ Paterson’s Stadium

“happy easter to u both, poor dees, but legs by 93 over eagles reigning premiers. visit soon. x”

For an Old English scholar and editor, Mum displays a surprising mastery of the condensed language of SMSes. Between wishing Theresa and me a happy Easter and urging us to come back to Adelaide, she commiserates with me over Melbourne’s terrible Round 2 loss in Perth – but strikes an appropriate note of Easter optimism with the news that Norwood have had a big win in the SANFL.

My favourite bit is the phrase “eagles reigning premiers”.

I get footy texts from two people: Mum often sends through Norwood results, and my friend Chris Nehmy keeps me up-to-date with the Crows, as well as occasional comments on the game in general. Yesterday, when I had already given up on the Dees for the afternoon, I received this fairly standard piece of sarcasm:

“I think this really could be Melbourne’s year”. To which I replied, in a similar vein: “Mark Neeld has really got the boys playing an exciting brand of footy”.

Last year, both our clubs sacked their coaches mid-season. Melbourne dumped Dean Bailey after the 30-goal annihilation at Geelong, and Neil Craig finally resigned when Adelaide played St Kilda back into form to the tune of 103 points. He’s now the Manager of Elite Performance at Melbourne. On a day like today, it feels like a bad joke.

I ended my post on Round 1 with the classic footy cliché that a week’s a long time in footy. Usually this refers to the possibility of bouncing back from a bad defeat with a win the following weekend, but in this case it took on a different meaning. Melbourne has endured what some journalists are describing as the worst week in AFL memory.

First came the deflating loss to Brisbane, then a media scandal over the coach’s alleged handling of indigenous players. Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse, the CEO of the club’s major sponsor, Energy Watch, was revealed as a total bigot. The Board dumped Energy Watch (a principled decision that will cost the club around $2 million), and the players ran out yesterday with duct tape covering the company’s logo.

I watched the game at Bar Centrale on Lygon St. Years ago it was Sabatini’s, and Socialist Alternative comrades would wander up there from Trades Hall to drink and play pool after Thursday night branch meetings. Now it’s very much a sports bar, and yesterday a few abashed-looking Melbourne fans gathered to see how bad the carnage might me.

It was pretty bad, a classic belting. The Dees fought hard, especially early on, but looked completely inept. At times we seemed to bring the Eagles down to our level, but as the first half wore on they shifted up a few gears and ran away with the game. I left at half-time, when the margin was 48 points, and predicted a 100-point loss. In the end, it was 108.

The only consolation is that our next two games are at the MCG, and we play two other winless teams: Richmond and the Bulldogs.

The main problem I have with all this is not even that my team is losing. Its that, having committed to following them closely this season, I have the awful feeling I’m not going to see many good games of footy. And I’m not a one-eyed supporter, it’s the game I love.

I guess I’ll just have to watch a bit of Hawthorn vs Geelong tomorrow – or get Mum to send over the VHS of Norwood beating Port in the 1984 SANFL Grand Final.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Steve Earle @ the Corner, 29/3/12

It’s a full Corner Hotel tonight– even the front bar is packed with Tigers fans undergoing the traditional Round One disappointment. Meanwhile in the band room, the Jess Ribeiro Duo battle sound issues to showcase a set of mellow originals that merit more than polite indifference.

But there’s only one man the crowd have come to hear – and that’s just as well, because there’s no one else on stage with him.

On reflection, this intimate solo show is a fitting way for Steve Earle to present his new album I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. Earle may have bested heroin – and been rewarded with remarkable, sustained vitality over the last two decades – but he is clearly feeling his own mortality. He recently moved from Nashville to Greenwich Village to ensure he retains a community of fellow artists well into his later years.

So far so gloomy, you might think. But staring death in the face gives Earle an undeniable power which at times borders on the holy. This is a man who lives his values, and tonight he shares them not just through music, but also the meandering introductions that flesh out the philosophy behind his songs.

Early in the piece he introduces his bazouki (which he later swaps for a guitar and then a banjo) as an “immigrant instrument”, one that washed up on the shores of Ireland to be reclaimed by a new musical tradition. “Immigration is our past” he declares, “it’s our present – and if we have a fucking future it’s our future as well.”

Before playing “Jerusalem”, Earle talks of his unshakeable belief in a peaceful future in the Middle East and around the world. When he says “I am a recovering heroin addict and I cannot afford to believe in a lost cause or a hopeless case”, it’s hard not to be swept up in the moment.

Not everyone is feeling the love, though – there’s a core of drunk revellers wanting a more toe-tapping set. As early as the spine-tingling acapella intro to second number “Gulf of Mexico”, a lone voice responds to shooshers by hollering “I don’t want to be in church!”

It’s an oddly apt complaint, but the majority are clearly rapt to be in the house of Earle tonight. Even new numbers “God Is God” and “Every Part of Me” are greeted with reverence, while“Copperhead Road” and “Devil’s Right Hand” close the set on a note of jubilation.

Troubador, preacher, activist and prodigal son: Steve Earle stands in all these traditions, and his voice is as vital as ever.

(published in Inpress, 4/4/12)