The Bats: same as it ever was

Robert Scott has just knocked off work, “down at the local kids’ school” in Port Chalmers just outside of Dunedin, the university town near the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island that, from the late 1970s, was the birthplace of punk across the Tasman. Now, he says, he’s home to do some interviews: a reflection of the permanent double life of a musician in his home country.

Scott was, and remains, one-third of the Clean, probably the most influential of all the bands to be released on the famed Flying Nun label. He is also the leader of the Bats, who have just released their seventh album, The Deep Set, in a career spanning over 30 years. Both bands have proven extremely influential, especially in American college rock circles, and still record and tour internationally.

But unless you’re a Finn brother, making a living off music in the Shaky Isles remains a near impossibility (another New Zealand band, the 3Ds, once turned down an offer to tour with Nirvana on the grounds that it would have cost them their day jobs).

The result for Scott is an ordinary, domestic life punctuated by bursts of artistic activity. “It’s a wee bit strange, because when you tell people you’ve got a day job, they can’t quite believe it – they figure I should be relaxing and living off royalties,” Scott says. “But unless you have a really big seller, it doesn’t actually generate enough money to live off … You’d need to be touring a heck of a lot, and I’ve still got an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to still help look after as well, so I need to be around for them.”

The Bats and the Clean occupy separate niches. In reductive terms, one could say the Clean took the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground’s Foggy Notion as a starting point and turned it into an entire career. The Bats are a gentler proposition: jangling, often pastoral, closer to the folk-pop of Byrds.

But there isn’t a band on earth now that sounds remotely like the Bats, and Scott has cheerfully admitted that much of their music sounds more or less the same. “For a band that’s got, not a formula, but maybe a sound and way of approaching songs, they’ll do variations on the theme and it can still sound good,” he says.

“But then, having said that, I think that a lot of my favourite bands and a lot of their songs sound the same too, whether it’s the Velvets or Can or Kraftwerk … If we tried to do a reggae or a ska record, it would sound terrible.”

The trick, he says, is keeping the songwriting on par within the confines of the very familiar Bats house style. “Even though obviously it is us and sounds like us, I’d hate to think I’d put out a record that sounded like Bats by numbers, or that it was harping back to previous songs.”

There have been long breaks between recordings: it’s been six years since the band’s last album Free All The Monsters, and there was a full decade between 1995’s Couchmaster and 2005’s At The National Grid, during which time various band members started families.

But those breaks, imposed in part by the necessity to earn a living, perhaps help account for the remarkable longevity of both of Scott’s bands. The Clean were formed in 1978; the Bats in 1982: nearly 80 years of making music between them. “They’ll be giving us an award soon, I’m sure.”

Scott says it’s something that he’s taken for granted, at least until it’s pointed out to him. “Everything’s relative. It’s only when other people comment on the longevity that you realise it is quite a point of difference, if you think of other bands that have shone brightly for 10 years or five years and then stopped for whatever reason.”

Minds and bodies permitting, Scott sees no reason why both bands shouldn’t continue indefinitely. “If one enjoys it, if one is coming up with relevant stuff, that’s not demeaning the band’s name by putting out rubbish that doesn’t stand up to the other stuff you’ve done, then I can’t see any reason why to stop.

“I don’t really think about it that deeply, but I respect and admire I guess musicians who can keep producing good stuff, whatever their age, whether it’s 60, 70, 80, whatever.”

First published in The Age, 12 January 2017

Kirk Brandon: spear carrier

For a brief moment in the early 1980s, Kirk Brandon’s band Theatre of Hate was considered one of the UK’s most likely to succeed. They were certainly original. Somewhere between the foppishness of the New Romantics and the anthemic, tribal rhythms of Adam & the Ants, they rocked twice as hard, with rockabilly guitars, rolling thunder drums, a squalling saxophone, and Brandon’s war-whooping vocals.

They had the look, too: big cockatoo quiffs and Gretsch guitars, played by Brandon and Billy Duffy. They toured with the Clash, whose Mick Jones produced their sole studio album Westworld, the title based on their sole top 40 hit, Do You Believe In The Westworld, which scored them a slot on Top Of The Pops.

“I just think it was so far left of what was going on,” says Brandon, who is in Australia for his first tour here. “In the early ’80s, people were doing that kind of post-punk. They’d had enough of three chords and the truth and wanted something a bit more inventive, something different. Theatre of Hate was just a one-off.”

The band quickly split, Duffy going on to enormous success with the Cult, Brandon to the long-serving Spear of Destiny, who had another 10 UK singles chart entries without hitting the same commercial heights, remaining a cult act in the more usual sense of the term. Brandon is unfussed. “I’m not a jealous kind of guy about that sort of thing. We had some big albums ourselves.”

Still, he has been through the mill at various times. He was declared bankrupt in 1994; shortly afterwards he took Boy George to court – and lost – over George’s claims in his memoir they had a brief affair (Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, according to George, was written about Brandon; Brandon himself simply says “I’ve got no idea.”) He has also had two rounds of major heart surgery.

Despite it all, he reckons he’s had a charmed life. “My girlfriend says I’m made of iron – titanium, actually, darling!” he says, referring to a titanium valve in his heart.

“To come through all the things over the years, all the way from my first silly little punk rock band the Pack, who were a complete bunch of loonies, I can’t even begin to tell you how lucky I feel about it all.

“I think, how the hell did you do that? And the other thing is I think, why do people turn up to see me play? I’m just a crazy bloke, a madman, and these people are coming to see a mad guy! For a bloke that should be dead – I really should be a dead man walking – I’m actually still walking.”

Brandon is referring to another of his occasional projects, Dead Men Walking, a British supergroup with a rotating cast of members and, I suggest, a name that’s seriously tempting fate. “I’ve been waiting for someone to pick up on that,” he says, roaring with laughter. “No one has yet!”

The personnel who have passed through that band – Jones, Duffy, Captain Sensible of the Damned, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, even the Living End’s Chris Cheney, who replaced Brandon for a time – is a fair indication in itself of the esteem in which Brandon is held in British rock circles, and why people still come to see him play.

On this tour, his sound is stripped right back, accompanied only by a cellist, Sam Sansbury, playing classic songs alongside material from a new album, Kinshi. It’s a far more challenging format for Brandon, making him work a lot harder without the aid of volume.

“You can always sit back a bit playing in a band, when there’s a great big racket going on and crazy people shouting and a drummer kicking the shit out of the kit behind you,” he says. “With this, there’s nowhere to hide, every second counts, so your nose is up against the grindstone a little bit.

“When I first started playing with Sam a couple of years ago, people would say well, that’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, is it? And I used to say well, it’s rock & roll; it’s just a slightly experimental thing against my songs. There’s still a lot of heart in it.”

First published in The Age, 6 January 2017

The faith healer

Chris Martin is up for it. Half an hour after soundcheck and a few hours before showtime at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, the Coldplay singer, flanked by guitarist Jonny Buckland, strides into the interview room in the underbelly of the arena. Big smile, big handshake, golden hair, a white badge on his chest. “LOVE”, it says in blue letters.

There’s a heart in the middle of the “O”, and the “V” is rendered as a whale’s tail, or maybe it’s a dove’s wings. It’s a sweltering late afternoon, and Coldplay have just gone through their paces on the outdoor stage, but on a day where most locals are complaining about the heat, Martin merely looks sun-kissed in a way few Londoners are. I wonder if he ever sweats.

Later, he addresses an ecstatic 50,000-strong crowd: “This is gonna be the best night of our lives, and we’re gonna give it all we’ve got, and all we ask in return is for you to do the same,” he shouts. “This is show number 70 on the tour, and as far as we’re concerned the first 69 were rehearsals for Brisbane, Australia!” (Which, presumably, makes Brisbane a rehearsal for Melbourne, which in turn is a rehearsal for Sydney, etc.)

What’s disarming is how easy it is to believe him.

Twenty years into Coldplay’s career – the band formed in 1996 at University College London – and things have never been better, as far as he and Buckland are concerned. Their seventh album, A Head Full Of Dreams, released a year ago, sees their enormous popularity undimmed, with worldwide sales around the 2 million mark and guest appearances from Beyoncé, Noel Gallagher and Martin’s former wife Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.

There’s no jadedness, no cynicism, no pining for the lost innocence that marks any young band’s early years. This is it; this is the golden age. “You’ve got to live in the moment!” Martin insists. (Exclamations become necessary when quoting him.)

A cursory glance at any tabloid headline will tell you that, no matter how extraordinary his life is, Martin has ordinary problems like the rest of us: his divorce from Paltrow, with whom he has two young children, was finalised this year. But while Coldplay albums work like a balm to their legions of fans – soothing, mellifluous, never, ever rocking – their leader has the energy of a faith healer.

Which is exactly why it works. After two decades, perhaps now more than ever, Coldplay, as earnest as ever, offer of reassurance in troubled times. “I think playing big, big shows connects you to an idea of music in its old-fashioned sense of being something that is supposed to just be of service, you know what I mean?” Martin says.

Coldplay – Martin, Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – emerged from the ashes of Britpop. Like their early Scottish contemporaries Travis, a band from whom they took early inspiration, they took the keening voice and sensitive lyrics of an American, Jeff Buckley, and paired them with the communal spirit of their forebears, Oasis.

But they rejected the excess and manic extroversion of the Gallagher brothers, dialling the music down into something more hymnal. “I see our stadium shows as a way to bring people together for a few hours and sing,” Martin says. “I think we’re all made alive by that feeling of singing with thousands of people at the same time, it’s what makes people feel connected to everyone.”

Later, concert-goers are handed LED wristbands, which glow yellow when the band play the breakthrough hit from their first album, Parachutes. “It’s not really about the band, it’s about everyone at the same time,” Martin says. “Since we got our wristbands that’s been easier and more enjoyable – you can see everyone literally light up! We just feel like we’re the house band, facilitating this big singalong.”

This is Coldplay’s brilliance, creating the illusion of intimacy in a stadium setting. It wins them few critical plaudits, but it’s harder than it looks, especially when the size of your fan base limits you to playing arenas. “A song arrives and you just follow it,” Martin says. “And of course we sometimes sit down and have discussions, can we do this song, can we do that song, and occasionally it doesn’t fit with the remit.”

What’s the remit? “Well sometimes you might get sent a reggae song that’s amazing, but if we did it as Coldplay, it would not serve the song and it would not serve us either, it would just look stupid.” (For proof, see YouTube footage of Martin dancing alongside Beyoncé and Bruno Mars at this year’s Super Bowl.) It’s not, he says, a matter of trying to give fans what they want, “but what we think might make people feel something. We never want to be wilfully obtuse.”

The word “sent” is important here. “When the song Yellow came through, something in my body was like – oh, there’s something different about this,” he says. “Occasionally you get a song where you think, oh, this is here for a reason, it’s not just crafted, it’s arrived. But that initial thing comes from a place you don’t really understand.

“It’s like if you’re running a hot springs and taking credit for the hot springs. You can’t. My point is music kind of gets sent through, from wherever it comes from, and sometimes you know when something is really going to connect.” So do the songs belong to you, or the fans? “That’s my point. They never belong to any of us. Only the shitty ones belong to us!”

Cynics will offer their own rejoinders to Martin’s cheerful self-deprecation. A quick straw-poll of friends – what would you like to ask Chris Martin? – presents the following: “Is it still all yellow? And have you seen a doctor about that?”; another suggests the terse, more existential “Why are you?” Among them, a meek voice: “I don’t mind Coldplay. I know that’s not cool, but they have some lovely songs.”

“Often the things people criticise us for are the same things other people like,” Martin says. “Everything in life is how you look at it, isn’t it? It’s about trying to see the value and beauty of everybody, and the joy of togetherness, but at the same time the accepting of differences of opinion. So I take it, if people are still able to say Coldplay are shit, well, there can’t be too big a problem going on in their lives.”

Buckland, who offers thoughtful rejoinders in between cracking up at his band mate’s woolly philosophising, doesn’t sweat the small stuff, either. “I think we just feel incredibly lucky for everything we’ve had. I mean, honestly, we’d be arseholes for wanting this to be even better.”

“You can’t go around the world playing stadiums and complain that something’s awful. It just doesn’t work,” Martin says. “You can’t say, it’s great we sold this many [records], and all these people seemed to have a nice time, but we didn’t make the end-of-year poll on that thing.

“It’s OK, we’re OK. And we stand for what we stand for and we’re true to ourselves and so we’re not pretending anything, that’s the key thing. It’s not like someone’s going to discover something about us that we’re trying to hide.”

Since their early days, Coldplay have been frequently compared to U2, and more and more – in their longevity; their staggering success (80 million records and counting: surely, as someone once said of Elvis, all those fans can’t be wrong); their unflagging belief in the ability of music to solve the world’s ills and their frequent forays into activism, it appears true.

I ask Martin and Buckland about the mood in post-Brexit Britain. (The band had vocally endorsed a vote to remain within the European Union.) “It’s very hard to not sound like a knob when you say that really, borders and all that stuff shouldn’t need to exist, should they, in an ideal world,” Martin says. “If you’re an alien and you landed on earth and you come from somewhere else in the galaxy and you saw the fractiousness of everything, I think you’d be surprised.”

Come again?

“We imagine when we land on another planet that all the aliens there get along just great, do you see what I mean?” he expands, Buckland hooting with mirth beside him. “No one ever thinks about, like, the election on planet Cybertron, you know what I mean – ‘Oh, these guys hate those people and these people want to leave that bit…’ So I personally am all for…”

He doesn’t finish that bit, but rolls on. “And we in our job get to go around the world, seeing how people respond the same way to certain music. I don’t know. My personal feeling is that this is the storm before the calm.”

You really are an incurable optimist, aren’t you?

“Yeah, I really am. Otherwise I’d just go and jump off a bridge. But even then I’d have a parachute and make it great fun!”

And with the interview done – thinking, perhaps, I’m in need of some love – he plucks the badge off his shirt, and presses it into my palm.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 2016

“Open bags full of herb”: Mullum Music Festival

Glenn Wright had sworn not to get involved with musicians again. He’d spent close to 20 years booking Sydney’s Harbourside Brasserie, before relocating his family just outside the town of Mullumbimby, an hour shy of the Queensland border. “I live on a farm, grow avocados and breed ducks,” he says determinedly. “I’m happier with that than trying to make a fortune out of promoting.”

He soon found he couldn’t help himself. Mullumbimby, he noticed, had many venues to play music, but they were underutilised, and while northern New South Wales already boasted the Byron Bay festivals Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass, there was room for something more boutique. “I had a lot of contacts and artist connections – and I was short of cash,” he confesses.

The result is the Mullum music festival, now in its ninth year. The festival stretches across four days and half a dozen halls, including the RSL, bowls club and high school, spanning either end of the town’s main street. It’s an easy stroll – maybe 20 minutes – but if you’re in a hurry, you can catch the double-decker “Magic Bus”, which trawls up and down the strip in obvious homage to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

“In smaller venues you can have more intimate contact with the audiences,” says Wright. “There’s no VIP areas; there’s no backstage. The artists stay in the town, they get restaurant vouchers and mingle with everyone. I try to program artists that know each other, or there’s some similarities, so they end up collaborating. We develop relationships.”

The Mullum vibe is comfortably relaxed. Ticket sales across the festival’s four days are tightly capped, so while the town is bustling – especially on the Saturday – there’s no need for pushing or shoving. And while there’s a diversity of musical styles on offer, it’s mostly acoustic, roots, folk, world music and alt-country. There’s not a lot of rock & roll.

Wright says he quickly realised the festival had no room for growth. “I try to make sure that it’s always comfortable and go for the longer-term goals rather than how many people can I fit in the venue.”

Around the music, there’s yoga and forums on sustainability and renewable energy. A major theme at this year’s event is reducing plastic waste; there’s even a weaving workshop to “jazz up” your water bottle carry cover through recycled materials including packing tape and festival armbands to “bring style, ease and self-responsibility to your carry wears”.

Of course, there are other ways to jazz things up. “I see we’re coming into jazz territory,” notes a visitor wryly on the Saturday night. He’s not talking about the music. Melbourne songwriter Henry Wagons, who headlines on both the Friday and Saturday nights, is impressed. “I’ve just walked past a sea of dreadlocks with open bags full of herb,” he says with a grin. “This town is gonna get fucked up.”

Wagons is a born entertainer who will do anything it takes to win over a crowd, including jumping into the lap of a septuagenarian audience member, but others can’t help but be a little more cynical. “So whaddaya farm up here? Healing?” asks the Drones’ Gareth Liddiard, before pausing to shush a particularly vocal local. “Hey, pipe down, I’m trying to create some atmosphere here.”

Similarly, Melbourne singer Olympia – who provides a welcome splash of glam-pop colour in a pink, shoulder-padded pantsuit – seems disconcerted by the local freestyle. “You guys are gonna have to dance in time to this, your bad rhythm is depressing me,” she tells the kids in the school hall. “I’m gonna have to get the metronome out.”

Other acts are treated with more appropriate levels of respect. Indigenous singer-songwriter Yirrmal, a young Yolgnu man from north-east Arnhem Land and son of a Yothu Yindi dancer, has an enormous voice and appeals to the older crowd. Another Indigenous performer, Tash Sultana, can play seemingly anything and attracts a much younger but equally devoted audience to her high-energy show.

But the emphasis is on fun rather than earnestness, typified by Dustyesky, the punning result of Wright bemoaning his inability to afford a Russian folk choir. “I suggested to him in a drunken moment, why don’t we start our own?” says his friend Andrew Swain, who assembled a cast of local doctors, nut farmers, chefs, builders and Wright himself – none of whom speak a word of Russian – to learn the songs.

Dustyesky, coached in the lyrics by a Russian friend of Swain’s, are now a Mullum staple. “It’s just for fun, but we do get a lot of people coming to the gigs, and you can always pick the Russians because they’re the ones crying in the audience,” Swain says. “Because they know all the songs! They come up to us afterwards and say things like ‘These are the songs from my childhood.’ It’s unbelievable.”

First published in The Guardian, 21 November 2016

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016

George Michael

When I was about 14 years old, kids in my class – or maybe it was the entire eighth grade of Norwood High School, in Melbourne’s outer east – decided they needed a singer for a band. I had no idea who was in this band: who was gonna play guitar, bass, drums or most importantly synthesiser (it was 1984) was all a mystery to me. All I knew was that I wanted to sing in it and I decided to “audition”.

Wham’s Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do) was big at the time, and I rehearsed diligently at home, quite possibly into a hairbrush, for this big moment. It involved singing along to the song in front of most of said eighth grade in the school hall at lunchtime – I think, if memory serves me correctly, with headphones on.

Naturally, I have done my best to suppress this memory. But if it is correct, that means the kids (whom I suspect had set the whole thing up, and were pissing themselves laughing as I gamely switched from the falsetto chorus to the ever so butch “rap”) were in effect listening to me sing this song a capella as I grooved along in my school uniform. I am unsure, but I don’t think my voice had quite broken at this point. It really must have been quite a spectacle.

Of course, the cringing humiliation of it all meant that I rejected George Michael’s music for a very long time afterwards, through no fault of George’s of course. I also endured quite a deal of homophobic bullying in the following couple of years, despite being entirely straight. I had no idea George was gay – I was so sheltered I barely knew what that even meant. But I was very small, slightly built and known for my love of both birds and reading.

It was a bunch of birders, actually, who introduced me to punk towards the end of that year. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and Never Mind The Bollocks hit me at the same time as Like A Virgin topped the charts. This was naturally a revelation and set me off on a path that saw me reject the cruelty of my peers. I was still a most earnest young lad, but at least this much more aggressive new music lit a new path forward.

Fast forward 30 years and I am still that earnest lad, but happy to share this story and report that I made peace with George and his music some time ago: that in recent days, the sounds of Last Christmas – even during this most vexed and horrible of seasons, after a wrenching year – gave me comfort; that Faith is a fuckin’ killer adult pop song; and that Wham! Rap is still naff as hell. But holy shit, that man could sing. His passing makes me as sad in its way as (to take two entirely different icons) Lemmy or Alan Vega’s, and it pleases me that a lot of my punk friends seem to feel the same way. Go well, George.

Yarrabah gets the band back together

Yarrabah, an Indigenous community about an hour’s drive south of Cairns, is sometimes referred to as paradise by the sea. Although only just over 50 kilometres from far north Queensland’s tourist capital, it’s isolated, separated from the city by Trinity Inlet on one side and, on the other, dense tropical rainforest that covers the rugged Murray Prior range. The town was not connected to electricity until the 1960s.

Before that, Yarrabah was an Anglican mission, established in 1893. Over the ensuing decades, Indigenous peoples from across far north Queensland and South Sea Islanders were forcibly relocated here to live alongside the local Gunggandji people. Families were torn apart: the town’s mayor, Ross Andrews, estimates around 80 percent of the community is comprised of the Stolen Generations and their descendants.

Unsurprisingly, Yarrabah continues to struggle with the knock-on effects of profound intergenerational trauma. But in recent years there’s been something of a sea change in the outlook here, brought about by a revival of a relic of the town’s colonial and missionary past: the Yarrabah Brass Band, which was originally established in 1901 to accompany church hymns.

After the mission’s closure at the turn of the 1960s, by which time Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones had gained as much of a foothold here as anywhere else in the world, the brass bands withered. In 2012 a local, Greg Fourmile, revived the concept with the support of jazz musician James Morrison, then the artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival, who pioneered the Yarrabah Band Festival in 2013.

Fourmile says that even though the bands were imposed upon his people, along with Christianity, they became a source of pleasure and nostalgia: many townsfolk had fond memories of their uncles and grandfathers performing. Reinvigorating the concept was a form of paying tribute. “A lot of the members had family in prior brass bands leading up to today, so for them it’s like carrying that torch.”

Now, though, the brass – which is better able to weather the effects of the tropical humidity – has been augmented by woodwind instruments, and even guitars and drums in a nod to the power of rock & roll. “It’s a stage band,” Fourmile says. “It’s come full circle now, so you’re chucking in your guitars and everything else, making it more inclusive.”

The new artistic director of the Queensland Music Festival is singer Katie Noonan, and the 2016 Yarrabah Band Festival was the biggest yet staged, headlined by a genuine icon in Archie Roach and 21-year-old Jessica Cerro, better known as Montaigne. On Saturday, there were close to 3000 people here, and while the majority were locals, there were whitefellas too; visitors from the surrounding towns of Cairns, Innisfail, the Atherton Tablelands and beyond.

It’s a reflection of the community’s desire to present a new, more open face to the world: In the 1970s and ’80s, a permit was required to visit here. Andrews says the festival brings energy to the community, and that the music is a source of healing. “There’s been trauma here for many, many years, and the music and performing arts that the festival provides is a kind of a therapy.”

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Archie Roach, Yarrabah Band Festival. Photo: Andrew Watson

This is Roach’s story, too. Introducing Took The Children Away, he stops to address the crowd. “People ask me if I get sick of singing this song,” he says. “And I say, no, because every time I sing this song, I let a little bit of that pain go. And one day all that pain will be gone, and I’ll be free.” Roach’s voice has a guttural edge these days, but he still reaches for spiritual highs; when he hits the chorus of the song that made him famous, voices in the crowd shriek and cry out.

More upbeat are the Bay Boyz, a local R&B trio chosen by Noonan to support the headliners after a Battle of the Bands the night before. It featured 20 acts (“I’ve never seen a mic stand so low,” says Noonan, marvelling at the performance of a four-year-old girl). The Boyz are serious – they even have a manager, Zane, who pushes a card into my hand and speaks of bigger things.

They also have the pipes, the moves, and are beside themselves with excitement at this first career break: Michael “Mikey Boi” Yeatman says this is only their second performance. The Bay Boyz exemplify a town that’s turning its gaze outward – their music is inspired by all the big names of their chosen genre – but as brothers Benjamin (BJ) and Thaddeus (TJ) Johnson add, country music is what they grew up on.

Later, a group of nervous school children, on stage for the first time, perform a song by local rap artist Dizzy Doolan. The words are trenchant and speak of ongoing problems in the community. Doolan says the kids could have chosen any song, but chose this one: “Stop the violence, make a change / Stop the violence, be on your game / Stop the fighting, stop the drugs / Put your hands up, show me some love.”

The song was workshopped by Doolan as part of the community’s artist-in-residence program, led by traditional owner and songwriter Elverina Johnson – who is also the mother of BJ and TJ – alongside the Briscoe sisters, Deline and Merindi. The workshops, Johnson says, “aim to inspire the kids to tell their own story about where they come from and who they are”.

The results are giving Yarrabah a sense of pride. Earlier in the evening, the night’s MC David Hudson opened proceedings with a cover of Paul Kelly’s Special Treatment. The song’s final verse sings of the far-reaching consequences of cultural dislocation and disempowerment: “I never spoke my mother’s tongue / I never knew my name / I never learnt the songs she sung / I was raised in shame.”

Deline Briscoe says that culture of shame is slowly being broken down. “Our parents were looked down upon and told to be ashamed of things, especially anything to do with culture, and then it just kept getting passed along,” she says. “So seeing these kids get up and dance and do songs in their language, and being proud of that, is really groundbreaking.

“You hear it less these days. When I was growing up, ‘shame’ became more like a swear word, we weren’t allowed to use that word in any context, even if we were joking. Now, everyone is just building each other up.”

First published in The Guardian, 8 November 2016

Singing in Gunggandji: the Wiggles at Yarrabah

In a classroom of excitable primary school children in Yarrabah – an Indigenous community that lies across Trinity Inlet, an hour’s drive south-east of Cairns – language and culture teacher Nathan Schrieber makes a grand entrance in traditional garb, using biraba, or clapsticks, to call the kids to attention.

“Are youse ready?” he asks. “Are you set? Then we’d better get some Wiggle action in here!”

And from a side entrance, in they come – Anthony (in blue), Lachy (purple), Emma (yellow) and Simon (red). Schrieber asks the children to make them welcome. With that, the Wiggles bursts into Rockabye Your Bear, a song the children have been learning for weeks in the local Gunggandji dialect.

Most of them already seem to know all the songs in English, as the band runs through a short set of hits. Emma leads the Whirlybird. Simon, of course, does Simon Says. Captain Feathersword charges in, and falls over. For the finale, everyone stands to Do The Propeller.

A short time later, the band returns and sings Rockabye Your Bear again, this time in Gunggandji, accompanied by Schrieber, his sister Elverina Johnson, elder Uncle Daniel Murgha and the children. It’s being filmed for the upcoming TV series Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle, which will stream in more than 190 countries. One of the kids cheekily asks Anthony if he likes fruit salad.

The Wiggles are here in Yarrabah at the behest of singer and the Queensland Music Festival artistic director, Katie Noonan, as an adjunct to the fourth annual Yarrabah Band Festival, which will be headlined on Saturday by Archie Roach and Jessica Cerro, better known as Montaigne.

There’s also the Yarrabah Brass Band, a crucial part of the Yarrabah story: a revived relic of its history as an Anglican mission. The brass band was first established in 1901 to accompany hymns (brass, unlike other instruments, being better able to withstand the sauna-like humidity of the tropics).

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The Wiggles and Katie Noonan with staff and students from Yarrabah State School and Nathan Schrieber (far right). Photo: Andrew Watson

The music stopped when the mission folded in the 1960s, but in 2013, QMF got the band back together and, despite its colonial heritage, it’s proven a popular initiative. Meanwhile, the Yarrabah Band Festival has become a platform for local artists, with nearly 20 bands – drawn from a community of roughly 2,500 people – competing on Friday night for the chance to join the headliners. One act will be selected by Noonan.

But even though the Wiggles aren’t performing at the main event on Saturday, they are, by some distance, the biggest stars to ever appear in Yarrabah. “From the day that we found out, the kids, you couldn’t contain them,” Schrieber says, adding that the children were sceptical. “They were jumping out of their skin. We told them, ‘The Wiggles are coming’, and they were like, ‘The real Wiggles? They’re coming here?’”

Mostly, he says, they knew more about them than he did. “They wanted to know about Emma and Lachy. Actually, they beat me, they were like, ‘Yeah, they’re married’. I didn’t know that.”

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Yellow Wiggle Emma with Katie Noonan and children from Yarrabah State School. Photo: Andrew Watson

Then Johnson came to him with the idea of translating Rockabye Your Bear for the kids to sing back to the band. “We just sat down one afternoon and translated it,” Schrieber says. “The funny thing is, in our language, we didn’t mean it to match, but it almost fits rhythmically, exactly the same. It’s amazing how these two separate languages and cultures have come together.”

It’s part of the Wiggles’ job to smile, but today the smiles are perhaps wider than usual. Like rock stars – one of the band’s sound technicians wears a T-shirt mocked up to mimic the Ramones’ famous logo, another depicts the band crossing “Wiggly Road” – the band don’t often get the chance to get this close to those they entertain. “I reckon we’ll remember this more than any entertainment centre gig,” Lachy says.

Simon adds: “Intimacy with the children is something you can’t recreate. It’s incredible being up on stage in front of 10,000 people, but just having a couple of hundred children there, singing and joining in with us is pretty wonderful.”

First published in The Guardian, 4 November 2016

Suzanne Vega: two hits are better than none

Fame froze Tom’s Restaurant in time. Situated on 2880 Broadway, a block from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Manhattan’s affluent, intellectual Upper West Side, its pink-on-blue neon signage formed many of the exterior scenes for Seinfeld, and it’s been coasting on its reputation as a pop-culture tourist attraction ever since. Framed photographs of the cast line the walls.

Peruse the menu and it’s casually noted, almost as a footnote, that the restaurant was also the setting for a song by “Susan” (Suzanne) Vega: the indelible, acapella Tom’s Diner. The misspelling is not lost on its author. “Whenever I go there I still have to pay for my whole breakfast, and they’re still kind of bad with the service,” she says, rather tartly. “So between you and me, I prefer the Metro Diner these days.”

Vega remains best known for two songs: Tom’s Diner and Luka, both top-10 US hits from her breakthrough 1987 album Solitude Standing. Some with longer memories may recall Left Of Centre, from the soundtrack of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink, or Marlene On The Wall, from her self-titled debut. These numbers still turn up on hit compilations from the ’80s.

But for those who have kept up, they are merely the underpinning of a rich, remarkably consistent solo career by a songwriter’s songwriter. In the years following the punk explosion on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Vega was at the forefront of the Greenwich Village folk revival, but her drily delivered, acutely observed visions of New York are as gritty as her late friend Lou Reed’s.

She tours constantly, partially because the streaming age means she has to “for cash flow”, but also because she loves it: “I started performing when I was 16; it’s what I do.” She also continues to make records, the latest being Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, the tragic American author whose Southern Gothic classic The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter captivated Vega as a teenager.

Some of the songs were written decades ago, before Vega had a record deal. In 1981, she adapted McCullers’ short stories into songs for a one-act play for her college thesis. Thirty years and many rewrites later, the expanded 90-minute production, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, had a six-week run in New York. In a page-boy wig and pinstripes, Vega bore a striking resemblance to her heroine.

But while the songs were uniformly well-received, Vega still wasn’t satisfied with the script, which hadn’t captured the context in which McCullers’ greatest work was produced: a Southern woman determined to mix it among New York’s literati. “It was a little too abstract,” she says. “I’ve always thought of Carson as a kind of timeless person, but the production was not rooted in anything.”

This time, she’s been more specific. An Evening With Carson McCullers is broken into two acts, the first set in 1941, the year after The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published when the author was just 23; the second in 1967, in the months before her death at the age of 50 after a brilliant but tumultuous life blighted by alcoholism, disability and suicide attempts. It was a character that Vega found rewarding to play.

“I loved how independent she was, especially as a young woman – her fearlessness in what she wrote about; her lack of inhibition,” she says. But McCullers had a pitch dark side, exacerbated by the bottle; one song, The Instant Of The Hour After, pictures a late-night drunken argument with her husband Reeves: “The pulse in your neck, how I’ll know it, right to the end / How I love you / How I loathe you.”

While the script tells McCullers’ story, the songs are among Vega’s best character sketches. One song, Harper Lee, records McCullers’ annoyance at being compared to the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, bragging “She only wrote the one book; I’ve written more than three”, elevating herself above a string of other more celebrated writers: “I have more to say than Hemingway / Lord knows compared to Faulkner, I say it in a better way.”

“She might not have found that very funny, but I would hope she would know I mean it affectionately,” Vega says. “She was a difficult person to be married to, a difficult person to be friends with, but ultimately I think there’s something very endearing about her, and childlike – naive, and yet wise. So I think she’s still a sympathetic character, in spite of her also being a pain in the ass.”

Vega’s empathy for others has distinguished her songwriting since her earliest years. Luka is told from the perspective of an abused child; the emotional tug of Tom’s Diner – following several verses of deceptively banal detail – hinges on the ringing of the bells of the nearby cathedral, as she remembers the voice of a lost friend, “And of the midnight picnic once upon a time, before the rain began…”

The song has since been covered and sampled dozens of times, most recently by Britney Spears and legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder. “I’m just astonished at the variety that keep coming,” Vega says. “The Britney Spears version, I remember thinking wow, this really is something special, and then I learned that it was her idea, she was a fan of the song, so I was very tickled.”

The song has left another, more troubling legacy. In the late ’80s, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, who pioneered the development of the MP3, heard the original version and thought its minimalism might be a foolproof way to test the new technology. Vega remained unaware until many years later, when she was dropping her daughter Ruby off at nursery school.

“One of the parents, who I didn’t even know, turned to me and said ‘Congratulations on being the Mother of the MP3,’ and I said ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just read about it in Business Week,’ she says. Vega later travelled to the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where Brandenburg played her the first, raw MP3 version: “It sounded like something from The Exorcist.”

Ironically, the song that continues to provide her with her most consistent stream of income is the one that upended the record industry. “I guess the ’80s were just not going to go on forever,” she says. “It was such a bloated time period, and so much money was wasted that I could see it coming, in some ways, as a kind of correction.”

Vega has adapted well to changing circumstances. With the publishing rights of her records owned by A&M, she started her own label, Amanuensis Productions, and re-recorded roughly three-quarters of her catalogue in a series of four albums she called Close-Up, divided by theme: Love Songs, People And Places, States Of Being, and Songs Of Family.

Apart from reclaiming ownership of her own material, the themed approach and intimate, not-quite unplugged productions served two purposes: it introduced her later work to those who lost touch with Vega after her hit-making period, and stripped the originals of some of the production tricks of the time in which they were made. Many of the new versions are superior to their predecessors.

She’s also engaged with her fan base on social media. “At the time I did [the Close-Up albums] I was trying to get 100,000 people on Facebook that I could stay in touch with. Not everybody on Facebook buys, though – if all of them bought a CD I’d be in great shape, but it doesn’t work that way. They’ll like a picture of my dog, but they won’t buy a complete CD.”

In 2010, in a thoughtful blog post for the New York Times, Vega wrote about being a “two-hit wonder”. She said that the demeaning description “makes me look as though somehow I managed to squeak out those two songs and then shuffle back to being a receptionist”. In fact, the songs have had exactly the opposite effect on her life: “they have been my passport out of life in an office”.

What’s to complain about? Being a two-hit wonder is better than one, or none. “I see people at the gigs and I say, OK, they know me for Tom’s Diner, or they know me for Luka, and that’s fine with me. However they come is fine.”

A shorter version of this piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2016

The Laurels: Sonicology

The Laurels started life as a shoegaze band in thrall to the British sounds of the late 1980s and early 90s: Ride, Swervedriver and, most obviously, My Bloody Valentine. Their first album, Plains, was all Fender Jaguar and Rickenbacker guitars, played at deafening volume (with liberal use of tremolo arm) and, while it wasn’t exactly original, the Sydney band had close to perfected the approach.

Four years on, Sonicology sees the Laurels taking a slight left turn. The band still love MBV’s Kevin Shields, but this time it’s his work with Primal Scream circa XTRMNTR that finds an Australian echo. These are densely psychedelic wall-of-sound collages with clear dance floor and hip-hop leanings – minus the paranoid political edge that made XTRMNTR a classic.

Instead, the Laurels sound more like 24-hour party people: there’s a pronounced Madchester / baggy rhythmic influence, particularly the Happy Mondays, and there’s a lot going on. On top of layered guitar tracks, several songs feature trumpet, flute and saxophone; Some Other Time even features a bulbul tarang, a south Asian instrument which translates from its Punjabi origin as “waves of nightingales”.

That’s a pretty good description of Sonicology. It’s highly melodic, but not easy to assimilate when everything is coming at you at once. Give it time to settle, though, and there are songs here – and good ones too: the clipped funk of Trip Sitter, at the album’s centre, is a highlight; so too the rubbery bass line that underpins Frequensator (song titles, perhaps, are not this band’s strongest point).

There is still the sense that the Laurels are following, rather than leading the pack. While the reference points remain British, Sonicology positions them clearly as part of the new wave of Australian psychedelia spearheaded by Tame Impala. The lyrics? “When you see sound / Sine waves marching / Oscilloscopes darting / It will be all you ever need,” they burble on Frequensator. They’re cosmic, man.

At times, they slip into banality. Mecca, which features the lines “I’ll tell you something that I’ve told nobody / I really want for you to know / That this life and this time / Is everything that matters most” makes you wish they’d taken another leaf from Shields’ playbook (not to mention the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, the godmother of this sort of psychobabble), and buried the words altogether.

But words aren’t really the point here. Sonicology is all about pills ’n’ thrills, and if you find yourself with a bellyache (or earache) afterwards, that doesn’t take away from the fun of listening to it. It’s a good trip, while it lasts.

First published in The Guardian, 14 October 2016