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)