The Pixies make peace with their past

Charles Thompson, the singer, guitarist and songwriter of the legendary Pixies, remembers the pivotal moment. It was 2010, and the band was eight months into a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of the band’s second full album Doolittle. At that point, the reformed group had been playing their greatest hits for six years – almost as long as the time in which it took the Pixies to release five of the most celebrated albums in indie rock between 1986 and their acrimonious split in 1993.

The band would begin with a few B-sides to throw the audience off-balance, then hit them with Doolittle in its entirety – in sequence, as contracted, almost note-perfect (“that was one way we really kissed the audience’s ass”, he notes) followed by an encore, and Thompson – better known by his stage name, Black Francis – was getting more than a little restless.

“I found myself spacing out,” he admits. “I [wouldn’t] know if we were in the first or second chorus, I’d have no idea. It didn’t happen every night, but it happened from time to time and to me that was a real turning point personally where I was like, ‘OK, enough of this shit! Let’s make some new songs!’ ”

Bands reforming and making new material after a long layoff is often a fraught process. For the Pixies, perhaps the defining American guitar band of the late 1980s, it was like returning to base camp, only to turn around to scale Everest all over again.

Not that Thompson would see it that way. You might expect him to be weary, if not downright prickly, about discussing the band’s past: he’s on the hustings to promote the band’s seventh album Head Carrier, following 2013’s “second debut” Indie Cindy. That record was a somewhat piecemeal affair, released as three EPs before being compiled as an album, and recorded without the band’s bass player Kim Deal, who had been opposed to recording new material and who walked out on the sessions.

The subject of Deal is inescapable. She remains a totemic figure: her beaming smile and apple-pie vocals offset Thompson’s sandpaper howl, her enormous charisma overshadowing the other members. In a band that was a riot of colour – Thompson’s screams, Joey Santiago’s surf-and-space guitar and David Lovering’s busy, inventive drum patterns – Deal was the rock; her steady, undemonstrative playing keeping the Pixies more or less earth-bound.

But her songwriting was suppressed by Thompson’s, and after the band’s split, she found huge early success with the Breeders. Thompson, meanwhile, changed his stage name to Frank Black, pursuing a solo career as his old band acquired almost mythic status.

None of this raking over old coals bothers Thompson in the slightest. He’s in what he calls his “atelier”, an art studio not far from his home in suburban Massachusetts, is booming with bonhomie, and as comfortable with discussing the Pixies’ past as their present.

He’s also self-deprecating. When Deal announced she was leaving the band (over dinner, the night before the recording of Indie Cindy was to begin), Thompson and Santiago simply got up and walked away. It was, he says, typical Pixies: “[We] had occasional blowouts and arguments and threw things at each other, but that was very much the exception to the rule,” he says. “We’ve always been very diplomatic, and I guess the flip side is that people are passive-aggressive.”

He cheerfully owns this trait himself. “Look at the way that the band broke up the first time!” he hoots. “ ‘Oh OK, here’s a fax, I’m going to type up a fax and send it off to the powers that be. Goodbye, thank youuuuuu!’ That’s just kind of our personalities.”

Deal has been replaced by Paz Lenchantin, from A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan, and she fits the sound and look of the Pixies to a T (whether the group’s rabid fan base would even accept a male bass player is an interesting question). Aware of the shoes she’s filling, Lenchantin has encouraged a rapprochement with the band’s past, writing the music for and singing All I Think About Now – a song she encouraged Thompson to write as a thank-you note for their erstwhile bass player.

Her presence has certainly made playing in the Pixies fun again – “We really like her, she’s given us a whole new life and we’re very grateful to her,” Thompson effuses – but even so, the musical as well as personal dynamics are inescapably different. “A band is who they are a lot of times, and the chemistry never really changes,” Thompson says. “It’s very difficult to change the original blueprint. Even though people grow older, it’s hard to escape the psychological imprint of the beginning.”

Perhaps the tension with Deal was part of the Pixies’ magic. But it was also something that had to be constantly worked around, until it became unbearable, and it’s here that Thompson’s aversion to conflict again emerges.

“In hindsight you can say that, [that] the tension that existed added to or altered the flavour of the final result,” he says. “There are so many examples of creative conflict going on between people in a group that affects the result in a positive way. So I think that’s totally valid, but I can’t say that I’d want to pursue it. I don’t really want to enter an enterprise in conflict, you know. There’s plenty of conflict to go around in human interaction; I don’t need to seek it out.”

Thompson knew that some fans and critics would view the Pixies’ new material cynically. Then again, they couldn’t win: previously, others disdained them as a cash-in for not writing it. It’s the price the band have paid for their unblemished first incarnation.

In the end, he couldn’t care less. “We’re not going to get into this abstract conversation with each other about, like, ‘Dude, is it valid?’,” he says. “It’s like, yeah, whatever the fuck! Of course music is valid. You just kind of get on with it.”

First published in The Age (Spectrum), 24 September 2016

(I’m) Stranded turns 40: the song that changed Brisbane

The ABC news radio announcer’s incredulous tone said it all. “An unknown band from Brisbane, by the name of the Saints, has earned rave reviews in England for a record it made itself,” he said. It was September 1976, and the words, complete with the plummy delivery, were loaded with cultural cringe – all the more so for the fact that the band hailed from the backwoods of Brisbane.

That record, (I’m) Stranded – dubbed “Single of this and every week” in a hyperventilating review in the UK’s Sounds magazine – turns 40 years old this month, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed Brisbane forever, both from within, and in terms of its external perception. And it was true: outside of a small clique, the band was all but unknown in its hometown at the time of the song’s release.

The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster once wrote that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia, for two reasons: we had Joh-Bjelke Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against”; and we had the Saints, the “musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” that gave a city that usually chased music history its own place in it.

Australia didn’t even have its own national anthem in 1976. (I’m) Stranded was more like an anti-anthem, with its central theme of alienation. The singer, Chris Bailey, with the gritty sneer of a young Van Morrison, is marooned “far from home”. The literal meaning was actually more prosaic, the song’s music coming to guitarist Ed Kuepper on a midnight train home to the Brisbane’s far-flung suburbs.

Then there was the video, which begins with the unintended metaphor of drummer Ivor Hay kicking open a door. The band are playing in an abandoned building on inner-city Petrie Terrace, Bailey singing in front of a fireplace with the words “(I’m) Stranded” daubed above in red letters, which would form the backdrop for the cover of the Saints’ debut album of the same name, released in February 1977.

The cover is as much a harbinger of the Blank Generation as the first Ramones album. But there are no uniforms in sight, much less leather jackets. The band stares sullenly back at the camera, a large hole in the floorboards beneath their feet in front of them. In the ensuing years, countless bands and fans – including Brad Shepherd (then of the Fun Things, later the Hoodoo Gurus) and Mark Callaghan (the Riptides, later Gang Gajang) – had their own photographs taken in front of that fireplace until the building’s eventual redevelopment.

The Saints were seers. They’d formed in mid 1973, the same year as the release of the first New York Dolls album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, and while they hadn’t beaten the Ramones onto record (the New Yorkers had released their first album four months earlier), they were ahead of all the UK punks (the Damned’s New Rose was released a month later, in October 1976) and Sydney’s Radio Birdman.

But arguably more important than chronology and the Saints’ place in the bigger scheme of things was their determined independence. There were no venues to play in Brisbane, so the band hired out suburban halls. No local record company was interested in what they were doing, so they hired out a local studio, paid for the recording themselves, and put out the song on their own label, Fatal Records.

This fact was noted in Jonh (John) Ingham’s review in Sounds: “This Queensland combo had to record and release on their own label; for some reason Australian record companies think the band lack commercial potential. What a bunch of idiots.” EMI in London – partially in an attempt to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Sex Pistols – duly instructed its baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the band.

In the wake of the band’s inevitable decampment to England in early 1977, a local scene began to take root in Brisbane. There were archetypal punk bands like the Leftovers and Razar, whose song Task Force was the first in a long line of singles to take aim at the local police state. Then there were the more cerebral Riptides, the Apartments and the Go-Betweens, soon to leave for England themselves.

All had been inspired by the Saints’ willingness to “seize the sea of possibilities” spoken of by another seer, Patti Smith, a couple of years earlier. Brisbane now has a Go Between Bridge, as well as Bee Gees Way on Redcliffe Peninsula, where the Gibb brothers began their performing career. But (I’m) Stranded was a foundation stone in Brisbane’s cultural history for which the Saints deserve similar recognition.

First published in The Guardian, 14 September 2016

Kim Gordon at Bigsound: “This is not an essay”

At the end of her opening keynote address to Brisbane music industry conference Bigsound, former Sonic Youth bass player Kim Gordon told a packed theatre of a calamitous acoustic show the band performed in 1991 for Neil Young’s The Bridge School, a non-profit education organisation for children with severe disabilities.

The band, which relied on the fiery interplay between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, had never played acoustically and was performing for a mainstream audience. Fearing disaster, Gordon brought a guitar ready-made to destroy: “I had a feeling things were doomed to fail.”

Halfway through a cover of the New York Dolls’ Personality Crisis, with the band unable to hear themselves onstage, a frustrated Gordon swore into the microphone, smashed the waiting guitar, and walked off. Then she saw the kids in wheelchairs backstage looking horrified, and felt awful. Neil Young’s then-teenaged son Ben, who has cerebral palsy, rolled up to her.

“Everyone has a bad day sometimes,” he said.

Gordon repeatedly told the audience that her address was a poem or incantation, not an essay, and it was: a series of vignettes that interrogated the co-dependent relationship between the artist and the audience, based on a premise by critic Greil Marcus: that artists who submit to the whims of their fans by only giving them more of what they have already accepted are only able to confirm, not to create.

It was a portal into the approach of Sonic Youth who, after emerging from New York’s No Wave scene, slowly built their own bridges to pop through the 1980s. The classic video for Kool Thing saw them flirting with mainstream acceptance, while subverting it. It was a song that had them on the brink of stardom, but which they refused to build on as bands they encouraged and inspired, like Nirvana, rushed past them.

Gordon’s address began in the hippie dream of the ’60s, describing how the communal relationship between artists and audiences was punctured by race riots, the Rolling Stones’ disaster at Altamont, and the Manson murders. The concurrent emergence of a more challenging generation of performers including the Doors, the Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges, she said, effectively deconstructed the idea of popular music as entertainment.

“[Iggy Pop] walking out onto the audience, breaking glass, smearing peanut butter on himself – was this a stage show? Was this rock music or real life? His estrangement of the audience’s expectations created something new. He gave people something they had never seen.”

She later spoke of an infamous Public Image, Ltd concert she attended at New York venue the Ritz in 1981. There, the band played behind a screen, onto which images were projected, obscuring the “stars” as shadowy figures. The audience rioted, throwing chairs at the screen and forcing the band to flee. “For whatever reason, PiL fucked with our heads,” she said. “We were there because of their audacity, but then couldn’t accept what they were offering: it was [either] too much, or too little.”

Her point was that that an audience’s need to be entertained was an artistic dead end. “What is a star? Suspended adulthood? A place beyond good and evil? Someone who you want to believe in? A daredevil? A risk-taker, going to the edge and not falling off – for you?” Was a performance, she added, “transcendence, or just a distraction from daily life, humdrum, pain, humdrum, boredom, humdrum, aloneness? A nice transition that doesn’t end? A day at the beach, a trip to the mountains? An unending kiss, leading to nowhere – or somewhere you never dreamed of?

“That’s what I want to feel when I go see someone play,” she said. “Something fall apart – until it becomes something else.”

First published in The Guardian, 7 September 2016


Henry Rollins: “I seek not to squander”

Henry Rollins likes to talk. Actually, saying Rollins likes to talk is a bit like saying an anteater enjoys ants, or a boxer doesn’t mind getting into a punch-on. On top of countless books and a column in the LA Weekly, his spoken-word performances can run upwards of three hours. On average, he says, he writes about 1000 words a day, a habit he describes as “awful, it’s just ridiculous”.

So it seems odd that a man with as much to say as Rollins could ever run out of lyrics, but it happened. “It was trippy,” he says. “I woke up going, ‘Wow. Am I done? And I soberly assessed it and went ‘Damn. I’m done.’ And I stopped.” He phoned his manager to inform him and hasn’t written a song since. That was more than 10 years ago now.

He has no interest in playing the old songs either; not those by the Rollins Band or Black Flag, the pioneering West Coast hardcore punk/metal band he fronted in the early 1980s. “It must be nice to be able to go out and play Satisfaction and Brown Sugar and all of that every night and have girls lift their T-shirts up and have everyone roar with approval but that’s not how I’m going to live my life,” he says.

Rollins, who is touring Australia again – it’s practically his second home – likes to keep moving. He spends most of the year on the road, which allows him to observe his first one from a distance. He says he’s still angry, though frankly he sounds pretty chipper and, at 55, he’s driven by his own encroaching mortality: “I know I’ve got more years behind me than ahead of me, and I seek not to squander.”

So he keeps saying yes to things. He’s been in more than 30 films, including last year’s Gutterdämmerung, in which he appeared alongside Grace Jones and his hero, Iggy Pop – ironically, the film was silent – and hosts a weekly radio show for KCRW in his hometown of Los Angeles. (Perhaps it’s helpful to note at this point that the young Henry Garfield was diagnosed with hyperactivity in fourth grade.)

But what does Rollins still have to be angry about? By his own admission, he’s a rich, white, heterosexual, educated American dude who has been spared what he calls the American beating. “I live in a really nice neighbourhood [in the Hollywood Hills] with ridiculously famous neighbours,” he says. “I call the cops and they show up in about 40 seconds and they call me ‘Mr Rollins’.”

It’s a far cry from the days when the LAPD routinely harassed Black Flag and their fans, often shutting down shows. More seriously, Rollins has seen the extreme violence of America close up too: in 1991 he bore witness to the still-unsolved murder of his best friend Joe Cole, who was shot dead in an attempted robbery.

Success has mostly insulated him from further trauma. On this tour, he’ll be talking (a lot) about the American election but doesn’t fear the result personally. “With my economic altitude, I don’t feel any of this. Donald Trump’s gonna suck if you’re brown, black, lower middle-class or poor … I’m just going to enjoy the tax breaks that rich guys get from guys like him and keep on grooving.”

If Hillary Clinton wins, he says, “Trump fans are going to be very dangerous losers. And, if he wins, liberals will be very whiny and hilarious losers. There’ll be lines out of Starbucks, people wanting quadruple lattes; there’ll be more hand-wringing, more poetry – that’s a liberal on a bad day. The angry Tea Party person on a bad day, you lock and load, and go find a Muslim or brown-skinned person.”

But Rollins doesn’t see it as his job to reach out across the aisle. When he speaks, he knows it’s to his flock. “I call it preaching to the perverted. I saw Dinosaur Jr seven times last year [and] I didn’t go there to throw things and go ‘boo’; I went to rock out.” His opponents, he says, “might be waiting for me outside with a sidearm but they’re not coming in”.

I ask him if he’s scared for his country. “No. America gets what America deserves. America’s a tough place full of tough people and I’m an example of a tough American. If you can’t take a punch in the teeth, you should move to Canada.”

First published in The Guardian, 6 September 2016

Robert Forster: Grant & I

Fifty pages into this long-awaited memoir, songwriter, critic and author Robert Forster gets very meta. “If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could start here,” he writes. It’s 1978, and he and Grant McLennan, the co-founders of the Go-Betweens, are driving from Brisbane to Sydney for the first time. After crossing the Tweed river into New South Wales, McLennan dashes into a shop, and emerges triumphantly waving a copy of Playboy, which was banned in Queensland at the time.

Of course, this being the Go-Betweens, they’re reading it for the articles – in this instance, Bob Dylan’s first full-length interview in three years, which McLennan ecstatically reads to Forster as the car races past cane fields on their left, Mount Warning on the right (“Cue thundercrack,” Forster says). The Go-Betweens always were the most self-referential of groups, as well as the most literate. Grant & I would make the most bookish of buddy films.

That’s not to say they were square. “On many occasions dark rock bands would encounter the Go-Betweens expecting namby-pamby, book-besotted, cocoa-drinking wimps, to find themselves partied under the table. We were a rock & roll band,” Forster declares. Yet it’s both a strength and a weakness that this often very moving book avoids the cliched recounting of rock & roll excess – until those excesses inevitably begin to catch up with them.

The obvious stylistic inspiration for Grant & I is Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which centres on her enduring friendship with the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. But whereas Smith’s book skirts around her years of fame (like Dylan’s Chronicles, another reference point), Forster revels in his: each album, each single of the Go-Betweens’ career is lovingly charted – if only they had actually charted. This is a tale of cult stardom, of missing hits and hits-that-missed.

At one point, Forster writes of “the lengthy entry in the rock encyclopaedia that we felt the group deserved”. With Grant & I, he has all but written it himself. Some of the best passages of this book are clear-eyed critiques of his own band’s work as they navigate the usual artistic pitfalls: grinding poverty, unrecouped advances, unsympathetic producers, and drum machines used to tame a true original, Lindy Morrison, with whom Forster was in a relationship for eight years.

The heart of the book, though, is about a close friendship with someone who remained unknowable: a “naive boy” who kept a close watch on his inner life, only to pour it out in songs such as the revered Cattle And Cane and its companion, Dusty In Here. Both songs reference McLennan’s father, who died when he was six. Yet as Grant & I (and the band’s career) unfurls, McLennan recedes; as his friendship with Forster is attenuated to a few words or glances, it’s easy to lose sight of him.

And in this, there is an omission. The shadow of heroin hangs over this book, but we don’t know of it until Forster drops the bombshell of his own diagnosis with hepatitis C, a likely consequence of his own dabbling with the drug. It’s well known in rock circles that McLennan was a long-term user; Steve Kilbey’s book Something Quite Peculiar speaks bitterly of McLennan introducing him to opiates, and the journalist Clinton Walker has also written of his habit.

It’s obviously a charged topic. Yet towards the end, as McLennan begins to fall apart physically and emotionally – alcohol, Forster notes, was “eating him out, destroying him, and he knew it”, and songwriting sessions between the pair occasionally lapsed into therapy – it’s impossible for anyone familiar with the Go-Betweens’ story not to question the toll it took not just on McLennan, but on everyone in and around the band, not least his best friend.

The awful ending is already known and, as Forster has conceded publicly, McLennan’s death at the age of 48 from a heart attack came as a shock, but not a surprise. That’s another rock & roll cliche, and it’s to Forster’s credit that he avoids it in the beautifully written final chapters, which still manage to build tension leading up to the tragedy that finished the band 10 years ago. “I’ll carry it on,” Forster says, a promise to ensure the group’s legacy is not forgotten.

Behind the legacy lies enmity: Morrison and violinist Amanda Brown, who fought and eventually settled with Forster and McLennan for a share of songwriting royalties, are acknowledged at the funeral with just a nod – and, if there’s something missing, it’s an epilogue. If a film of Grant & I is ever made, it could end here: the surviving members leading the first walk across Brisbane’s Go Between Bridge, with Streets Of Your Town the soundtrack – the bridge an act of belated recognition that, cruelly, took the death of one of the city’s finest poets to bring about.

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2016

Police IQ shocker in Pig City

In episode three of the classic British comedy The Young Ones, there’s a scene where one cop tells another he’s had a “heavy bust up this morning with m’lady” because he insulted the Pope. “That’s a bit stupid, you know she’s Catholic,” the other says. “Yeah, I know she’s Catholic. I didn’t know the Pope was,” comes the reply. The scene then cuts away to a photograph of the pair above a Guardian headline: “Police IQ Shocker”.

But in an age where real life is becoming impossible to satirise, you couldn’t have made the following confrontation from last weekend up. A Queensland cop who identifies himself as senior constable Richard Power approaches a man minding his own business in a car park outside a hardware store. The man, who is suffering from a heavy cold, just happens to be the local police reporter for the ABC, Josh Bavas.

“Mate, the fact that you’ve got pinpoint eyes and you’re looking directly into the sun and they’re not dilating due to the sunlight, I believe you to be under the influence of a dangerous drug,” he says, before detaining him. When Bavas protests, the officer’s colleague replies “Oh fucking mate, if we hadn’t have hung onto you mate, you’d float off into fucking outer space.”

Bavas records and posts the exchange on Twitter, where it immediately goes viral – #dickpower trending nationally – and makes headlines. He is soon released without charge and goes back to building a retaining wall at home. The Queensland Police Service says it is investigating the behaviour of the officers concerned. Bavas then deletes the footage (you can still see it here) and declines to pursue the matter.

That is a matter for him. But there are a number of points to be made here, beyond jokes and stereotypes about Queensland police, about whom many songs have been written, a legacy of the vicious corruption that hung over the Bjelke-Petersen years (for more on that, read Matt Condon’s breathtakingly detailed Three Crooked Kings trilogy, and watch the bodies pile up over three decades).

The first reaction, beyond the “IQ shocker” of a narc who believes pupils should dilate when looking at the sun, is fascination at what happens when the surveillance state is turned upon itself. When the second officer swears, Power reminds him he is being recorded – not only by Bavas but Power, too, who has a camera planted on his uniform. We hear a grunted apology.

The lesson here is a reminder of your legal right to record any untoward interaction you may have with law enforcement. It’s not often we see such naked police hostility, and ineptitude, itself being policed by someone with the presence of mind to record, challenge and disseminate it, let alone by someone who reports on police and court proceedings for a living.

The second reaction is more troubling, and has been pointed out by the ABC’s Mark Colvin. It’s not that the wallopers picked on the “wrong guy” – a white police journalist who knows his rights. How does any member of the force think it’s appropriate to behave in such a contemptuous manner towards any member of the public?

To detain Bavas, the police needed a “reasonable suspicion” that Bavas had committed a crime, or was about to. Reasonable suspicions can be difficult to define, but it’s doubtful presuming a man to be “pinned” because his pupils failed to dilate in direct sunlight would impress any magistrate.

What has been said of the situation’s broader context only makes it worse. Allegations have been made that the officers’ suspicions were aroused because Bavas was seated close to a group of young Indigenous people. Power apparently asked Bavas if he was with them, before turning his attention to the youths and questioning whether the car they were travelling in was stolen.

Two dumb officers, or a wider problem? The “bad apples” theory is unlikely to fly with the Indigenous community, for whom such low-level harassment is a disproportionately high reality. Twenty-five years after the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the risk of Indigenous Australians being imprisoned remains 13 times higher than for the general population.

Of course, that is a national problem, not limited to Queensland. In the wake of the announcement of another royal commission into the abuse of youths at Don Dale Detention Centre in Darwin – which had been reported on for years before the image of Dylan Voller in a spit hood sparked national revulsion – there have been many calls for its remit to be widened beyond the Northern Territory’s borders.

The QPS has looked into its own culture in a series of reviews in the last 12 months after widespread allegations of excessive force, bullying and inappropriate behaviour centred on the Gold Coast, unfortunately bucking an overall statewide reduction in complaints. Another review looked at how to de-escalate violent confrontations, following a series of fatal police shootings between 2013 and 2014.

What happened to Bavas by contrast was petty, even ridiculous, and made the officers concerned look like fools. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk expressed her concerns and reminded the force of its obligation to treat all members of the public with respect, before acknowledging that officers had a difficult job to do – sentiments quickly echoed by Bavas.

No one doubts policing is a tough gig. But in a culture where “tough on crime” talkback rhetoric rules, civil liberties have been steadily eroded, surveillance is endorsed by both major parties as the price we pay for security, and racial profiling is officially frowned upon but unofficially viewed as cautionary, the security apparatus of the state can only be emboldened.

What happened at Don Dale shows where that can end. What happened to Josh Bavas gives the rest of us a glimpse into where it begins.

First published in The Guardian, 16 August 2016

Bernard Fanning: “At least 50 percent good”

Bernard Fanning, former singer of Powderfinger, is ruminating about decisions and consequences. The theme runs throughout his third, back-to-basics solo album Civil Dusk. Over the finger-picked guitar of Unpicking A Puzzle, he sings a song from the bottom of the bottle: “Where silences are gold and secrets will abound / The hostage in your conscience will have tape across his mouth.”

On the equally spare piano ballad Rush Of Blood, at the album’s centre, he is even more plain-spoken. “In a rush of blood I threw it all away, oh Lord what was I thinking of that day?” It would be easy to listen to lines like this and presume Civil Dusk is a confessional album. Put to him that it sounds like he’s got a lot going on, though, and he laughs.

“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying!” he says. “[But] hardly any of it’s about my life. It’s just talking about stuff I’ve observed. Some of it’s invented, and of course parts of it are me as well.” He’s not concerned about people mistaking the album for autobiography. “Once it’s out there you can’t control any of that anyway. I’ve got songs that I’ve never released that are way more personal.”

Fanning’s reality is considerably calmer, even ordinary. He and his Spanish wife Andrea have moved back to Australia, settling in New South Wales’ northern rivers region to put their two children, aged four and six, through school. Life is going rather well for the 46-year-old. “It’s probably a symptom of my age and my circumstances,” he says. “Having kids helps you to contextualise problems.”

It’s just that the type of songwriting on Civil Dusk – first-person, emotionally direct and, in his words, “unencumbered by coolness” – is what Fanning happens to do best. If that puts him squarely in the confessional singer-songwriter camp of the early 1970s – Jackson Browne, James Taylor et al – then that’s just fine with him. “Oh, fuckin’ James Taylor for sure,” he says enthusiastically.

“I’m gladly unhindered by the credibility meter. I don’t care about name-checking the right singers or anything like that … I was just actually debating with Andrea yesterday whether to introduce the kids to ABBA or not. I want to, but she doesn’t; she’s not an ABBA fan. I’m not really sure about that. I don’t know how you can’t be an ABBA fan.”

When Powderfinger were beginning their ascent in Brisbane in the early 1990s, there was a strong thread of folk music in the city as much as there was rock & roll. Essentially a post-grunge band, Powderfinger eventually were able to broaden their appeal to both camps, in their home city and beyond. Fanning’s last solo album, Departures, did everything as differently as possible; Civil Dusk sees him playing to his strengths.

“[The songs] could have been played in 1995 or 1975 or 2045; that’s kind of the way I approached it,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve gone in for a huge innovation music-wise. I just wanted to present the best work that I could do, and I was really comfortable just sitting around playing my guitar again, and the piano.”

Civil Dusk is actually the first part of what is effectively a themed double album: part two, Brutal Dawn, will follow in early 2017. Fanning and producer Nick DiDia were determined to make a 10-song record, but Fanning had a surplus of material, and splitting it up made sense. “It would be incredibly rare for people to listen to 20 songs by one artist in a row now. But there’s a chance they’ll listen to 10.”

Some of Civil Dusk, particularly harder-rocking numbers such as Change Of Pace, don’t sound that different to his old band, and guitarist Ian Haug (now playing with the Church) also appears on the album. But if there’s one thing we won’t be seeing any time soon, it’s a Powderfinger reunion. “Yeah, we do get asked it all the time,” Fanning says flatly. “And, no. There’s no plans to do that.”

Mostly, Fanning is just enjoying the greater control that goes with steering his own ship. Powderfinger were a very democratic band. “It’s certainly easier to have one or two people making decisions than seven [the five members of the band plus manager Paul Piticco, who is still with Fanning, and DiDia]. “In Powderfinger everyone was throwing ideas in.”

Not that he’s uncomfortable with his band’s legacy. “If you put my voice over a dirty guitar, then there’s a possibility that it’s going to sound like Powderfinger, but it would have been played and executed completely differently by them. I’m happy to embrace what we did in Powderfinger. I don’t adore all of it. But I think, on balance, we ended up at least 51 percent good, you know?”

First published in The Guardian, 5 August 2016

Peter Garrett is back, and he’s ready to dance again

In the nascent Sydney punk scene of 1976, the Oxford Funhouse on Taylor Square was ground zero. The venue had been established by Radio Birdman who, along with Brisbane’s the Saints, can lay claim to the title of Australia’s first punk band.

Peter Garrett, who was leading an embryonic band not yet named Midnight Oil at the time, checked them out early and came away a changed man, marvelling at how the hipsters in the crowd kept their sunglasses on amid the mayhem. “The sound was laser-bright and ferocious, and frontman Rob Younger was riveting, stalking the tiny stage with a leonine fury,” he wrote in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, released late last year.

If you want an idea of where Garrett got the unique dance step that captivated audiences for over 20 years, watch Younger in action. Garrett wasn’t informed by his movements so much as the idea of performance as an altered form of consciousness. “I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out,” Younger said at the time. “I don’t know, I try not to think about it.”

Garrett similarly deflects questions about his dancing, as if talking about it might cause him to freeze. “You’re suspending rational thought, as you should when you go into that zone,” he says. “When you start to move and feel the energy around you, if you think about it for one second you become a clichéd plastic statue. Which we’ll try to avoid for a little bit longer.”

Garrett – as he proclaimed on Tall Trees, the first song and single from his first solo album, A Version Of Now – is back, and he remains a man of formidable energy. If his 63 years have slowed him somewhat, he won’t be merely treading the boards on an upcoming promotional tour, either. Later in the year Midnight Oil will reconvene, with the band planning to spend much of 2017 on the road. Again.

There are two public sides to Garrett: the whirling dervish on stage, and the highly organised figure who, years before he left Midnight Oil to join the Labor party, served his first term as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the band’s success. He then served a further two years on the international board of Greenpeace.

“They’re both the same person,” Garrett says, lounging in a community café in Redfern, where he’s just done an interview for Koori Radio. As distinctive as ever, he doesn’t escape without shy requests for selfies and signatures. “You might discover different sides of the same person when you go on holidays with them, or sitting around a campfire, or if you have a big night in a karaoke bar.”

Garrett is used to being reduced to a caricature. So was his band. “[Midnight Oil was] misunderstood in terms of being seen as specifically constructed to deliver a political philosophy,” he says. “Misunderstood in being seen as very blokey and pub-ish, which we weren’t at all, certainly not as people. Misunderstood overseas, because no one knew where the hell Australia was, or what we were writing about.”

That didn’t stop Beds Are Burning ­– a pointed call to white Australia to return the land to its original inhabitants – from becoming the band’s biggest hit in America. Still, there was always more to Midnight Oil than slogans. “I thought there was some abstraction in what we were doing,” Garrett says, before conceding: “Probably not a lot of humour, it’s fair to say. Not my strong suit. Humour ain’t Oils!”

A Version Of Now isn’t played for laughs, either, but it’s often unexpectedly tender and sweet. There are love songs to Doris, his wife of 30 years, which are as direct as anything he’s ever written. Their three daughters, Emily, May and Grace, sing harmonies; May even plays drums on one track.

And while it features the Oils’ guitarist Martin Rotsey, it sounds like a genuinely personal solo project. There was no thought of bringing the songs to rest of the group, he says: “They came so quickly, and then I knuckled down and tried to knock them into shape and get people to play them as quickly as I could. They sounded like Peter Garrett songs.”

What it does share with his old band is some of the rawness that marked their early records. The approach was basic: “We’re in a room, we’ve learned the chords – or maybe we haven’t quite learned them – and we’re going to grab the moment.” The album was produced by Burke Reid, who has worked with the Drones and Courtney Barnett. Garrett was inspired by the unvarnished sound of both.

“The Courtney record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Think] was like being on a skateboard, rolling down a hill – ‘This is what I am, this is what I sound like, this is what I talk about’,” he says. “It had a spirit of music that I love that is timeless in some ways, because it was so gritty, real and without pretension.”

People often ask who dares to talk about big issues in popular music these days and it hasn’t escaped Garrett that the Drones and Barnett are among them. “There’s plenty of it out there [and] I was interested in what they had to say, but I also liked the sound.” The music, he insists, always comes first. “If it doesn’t have that internal combustion, you’ve got nothing.”

None of which means that Garrett has nothing to say. I’d Do It Again, the album’s second song, should stay a thousand journalists’ questions: “I didn’t jump, I wasn’t pushed / I went on my own, I’ve got to do what I could / I got my hands dirty and had a go”. Garrett’s rejection of the purity of activism for the messy compromises of high office remains unapologetic.

But those words “I’m back” also suggest he’s nothing if not happy to be making music again. “And who wouldn’t be, really? It’s not that I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but they’re very different kinds of vocations and there’s not a lot of blend. I guess my starting point is that I think we can have a go at more than one kind of thing, and many people do.”

He concedes he “sometimes” felt like an outsider in politics, and in the Labor party too, partially because he wasn’t part of any faction. But neither was he a career politician. “The fact of the matter is, and most politicians would recognise it, that to some extent the lives that they’ve lived prior to entering the parliament are quite narrow.”

The result, he says, is an entrenching of the political classes, in which he includes advisers, lobbyists and various apparatchiks and insiders, including the press gallery. “The ultimate result of that confection is that it’s very difficult to break out from stasis or antipathy and the never-ending striving for short-term political advantage.”

Political progress is an illusory thing. Sometimes we go backwards; at others, around in circles. After the 2010 election, he remembers, suddenly “there was a row of younger, seriously hardline right-wing climate sceptics sitting on the other side of the parliament. It makes you pause for a second to think, and it also makes you demand of someone like the current prime minister [Malcolm Turnbull] that they do live up to their convictions.”

But the intractability of issues such as refugee policy, for example – which Garrett admits was “deeply, deeply challenging” – often meant personal convictions came a distant last in the same political machinery he has just described. Part of our disenchantment, he says, is driven by a skewed view of what politics can realistically deliver. And when it doesn’t, “there’s no shortage of people howling it down”.

No one, at least, could accuse Garrett of not having experienced life before entering politics. Two high points he names from Midnight Oil’s career were playing the first multi-racial concert in South Africa in 1994, following the election of Nelson Mandela as president, to roughly 80,000 people in Ellis Park, Johannesburg; and playing Beds Are Burning at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, with the band wearing “Sorry” suits.

That – like the band playing on a flatbed truck outside the Exxon building in Manhattan in 1990, in a guerrilla-style protest after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill the previous year – was essentially a prank but it was also extremely effective political theatre. And very punk. “It was agitprop,” Garrett says. At such times, “we felt we were part of something bigger that was at play”.

Whether the band will enter the studio again remains to be seen. “I think [the band members] obviously are still creative, [we’d] like to be creative. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons.” He notes the band’s contemporaries Cold Chisel have had a second life, “and they’ve made a fair fist of it. It’s been good, the stuff that they’ve done, I’ve enjoyed it.

“There’s no reason why not. We’re not bound temporally; we’re only bound by how fearful, how brave, how imaginative, how hard we’re prepared to work, and I think if we continue to bring the love of music and making music together then maybe we’ll see something come out the other end. Whatever it is you do, if it’s still moving you, then try to do as much of it as possible, before it’s too late.”

But, always, it’s the live shows that will come first. Midnight Oil became effective users of the studio as an instrument – particularly on their 1982 breakthrough album, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. But the studio is a bit like the parliament: sounds are negotiated, compromised and brokered. It’s on stage, in front of an audience, where Midnight Oil made its reputation.

Garrett’s upcoming solo tour will give him the chance to splay his hands and wave those long arms around again, in those inimitable jerky movements that somehow work with the jagged angles of the music. But really, it’s a prelude to the main act next year, when the Midnight Oil juggernaut rolls back into action. It’s also a test. Can they do it again, or will they be, in Garrett’s words, clichéd plastic statues?

“It’s not like we can go out every night, [whether] it’s a club show or a theatre show, and just switch it,” he says. “We’ve got to suck the music out of the marrow of our bones and spit it back out over people, with all the sense of no tomorrow that we can muster up.”

First published in The Guardian, 17 July 2016

Witch Hats: Deliverance

The cover of Witch Hats’ third album Deliverance is an 1861 sketch by Ludwig Becker, the German artist and explorer who died as a member of Burke and Wills’ ill-fated expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Titled “Border Of Mud Desert” and drawn in the last weeks of the artist’s life, it’s a desolate, despairing image, catching a blinding reflection of light across a dead, treeless plain.

It’s a suitable accompaniment for the music. There’s a wildness and a barely contained sense of desperation across Deliverance, and also something defiantly Australian – although that’s probably just the phlegmy sneer of singer/songwriter Kris Buscombe, who recalls a young Chris Bailey circa the Saints’ masterpiece, Prehistoric Sounds.

It’s also tempting to read into these eight taut tracks some of the same sense of mortal dread that imbued Becker’s imagery. Like the Drones’ Feelin Kinda Free, Deliverance paints contemporary Australia as a dystopian nightmare, a paranoid surveillance state where incest occurs behind closed doors while peeping toms keep watch from the bushes outside.


But whereas Feelin Kinda Free distorted the Drones’ sound into something barely recognisable from their past, Witch Hats have perfected theirs: rough-hewn but intelligent, intense blasts of mid-paced post-punk and pop. It’s not new, but they don’t sound much like anyone else, either, and the songs – most of them a classic three and a half minutes – stick like glue.

Weekend Holocauster opens the album with a sledgehammer beat and a lyric to match: “If you’ve got something to say, you’d better mean it,” Buscombe hollers over an ascending bass line. He means it, alright. These are outsider songs: “Collecting coins from the drain that missed the meter … We spit and wipe the floor with you, in a conventional world.”

Trying To Forget tells of how the frailties of human psychology compel us to inevitably repeat our own mistakes. “Bloodied is our mind / Distorted our vision / We’re going to war now / In an endless revision.” The song’s coda drifts ironically into what sounds like the distant, nostalgic sound of AM radio, the band briefly playing their own warped take on ’60s pop.

It betrays a melodic sense that lifts this Melbourne band above the pack. The hooks of Peeperman and Religious Sickness are subtle but insistent, even when they’re buried under clouds of guitar squall. Recorded almost live in the studio, Deliverance is beautifully mixed: the guitars of Buscombe and Rob Wrigley alternately pan and dovetail across the spectrum without ever losing clarity or punch.

Buscombe continues to exhibit a fascination with disturbed characters. On the band’s previous album, The Pleasure Syndrome, the subject of the single Hear Martin was Port Arthur killer Martin Bryant. Here, on Insecure Fear, it’s Jihadi John, the British Arabic man who gained notoriety as a puppet for the so-called Islamic State. If Buscombe finds empathy for them, it’s only as marginalised figures desperate to make a statement.

The highlight, though, is the transcendent finale, Strange Life. Here, Witch Hats reveal one clear debt: to Neil Young and Crazy Horse, particularly in the long, ecstatic solos that dominate Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Locking into a mesmerising groove, the song ends in a splatter of guitar that’s more Jackson Pollock than Becker. It could theoretically go on forever, and it’s so damn good I half wish it did.

First published in The Guardian, 1 July 2016

Ruffled Feathers

Steve Murphy was ascending a small spinifex-covered mesa when the night parrot exploded from a clump of the spiny grass beneath his feet. What might once have been a lifetime thrill was no longer quite so unexpected. He’d begun to lose track of how many times he’d encountered the long-lost species, which he’d been keeping tabs on for nearly three years.

What was unexpected was the timing. It was well after dark, and normally the bird would have left its daytime roost to feed. It was a bumper season, with both summer and autumn rains, and Murphy had been recording calls he hadn’t heard before. The birds weren’t following their usual pattern of behaviour. He flicked on his torch. There, buried deep in the spinifex, were two white eggs.

His first urge was to flee. “We’ve got to go,” he said to his partner, Rachel Barr, dismayed to have disturbed the bird at such a critical time. She reminded him to take a photograph, and then they left. “It was spine-tingling,” he says.

Over the following week, Murphy and Barr kept watch on the nest from a safe distance using a night-vision device. “We were acutely aware of the risks associated with excessive visiting of that nest,” he says, “but we were also acutely aware of the opportunity that this gave us to better understand the bird.”

A miniature surveillance camera was ordered from Brisbane but by the time it arrived, Murphy had a bad feeling. As he advanced upon the nest for the second time, the bird didn’t flush, and when he examined the clump, he found only fragments of eggshells inside. The nest itself was entirely intact, indicating that a tiny predator – probably a marsupial mouse or other small mammal – was the likely poacher.

Poachers of another kind have loomed large in discussions surrounding the night parrot since the first live photographs of the species were taken by naturalist John Young in 2013. The parrot is Australia’s “grail bird”: two specimens, a mummified roadkill from 1990 and a juvenile found decapitated under a barbed-wire fence in 2006, were the only undisputed evidence of its continued existence in more than a century.

Both birds came from the Channel Country of south-west Queensland, and it’s on Brighton Downs, a cattle property just north of Diamantina National Park, close to where the 2006 bird was found by a ranger, where Young discovered a sedentary population estimated at 20 to 40 birds. A single bird, or its eggs, might be worth a six-figure sum on the black market.

The previously closely guarded location, a chunk of which has since been purchased by the non-government conservation group Bush Heritage, was leaked by a journalist last month. This enraged Murphy, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the night parrot recovery team. Information management was seen as crucial to the team’s strategy.

The Queensland government has since made what is now known as Pullen Pullen nature reserve subject to an interim conservation order, which places it off limits to both birders eager to see the famed species and poachers intent on trafficking. It is also under surveillance. Any unauthorised person entering the 56,000-hectare reserve is subject to a fine of $353,400 or two years’ imprisonment.

But the placement of birdwatchers and poachers in the same sentence has alienated the small Australian birding community. It feels not only aggrieved at being bracketed with criminals, but deprived of the chance to find other populations of the species using the best tool available: its call, which has proved critical to locating it, has not been publicly released. Playback of the call encourages the territorial birds to respond.

Only two people are known to have the call: Murphy and Young who, in a curious twist, is now working for another non-government conservation body, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and is looking for more parrots in Diamantina and Astrebla Downs national parks.

Young is a polarising figure in ornithological circles. After rediscovering the species, he vowed never to involve government scientists in its conservation. He was later persuaded to work with Murphy, who had been developing predictive modelling tools with the CSIRO to find the birds, but the pair soon fell out.

Young refused to be interviewed, but not before railing against Murphy for disturbing the birds. Murphy declines to elaborate on the cause of their disagreement, and reserves praise for his predecessor’s skills. “We wouldn’t be sitting around talking about night parrots if it wasn’t for John.”

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based wildlife guide and consultant with a background in bioacoustics, points out that Brighton Downs is unlikely to be the sole surviving refuge of the parrot, once known from all mainland states. The problem is that until now, no one knew how to find them in the vastness of the outback: one may as well thrust one’s hand into the spinifex in the hope of extracting a needle.

“Birdwatchers could be their biggest ally in this, in terms of resources, time and money, but instead we’re treated like lepers,” he says. “If these parrots at [Pullen Pullen] were the only birds, then they may have done the right thing, but no one really believes they are. We’ve had three years now where people have the tools to look for them, but they’re not sharing those tools.”

The threat of human disturbance, he adds, pales in comparison to the number of land-clearing permits issued across the outback in the intervening years, especially in the Pilbara of Western Australia, which is highly likely to contain night parrots and where he was contracted by a mining company to search for the birds only months before Young’s discovery.

Murphy is acutely aware of these arguments. “We’re torn here. We’re copping a lot of flak for not releasing information.” He describes the public release of the call as a matter of when, not if. “The recovery team [doesn’t] need to be told of the value of getting this call out,” he says. “It’s obvious. It’s been obvious since day one. But there’s other issues involved.”

He knows, too, that the threat of poachers is as remote as the bird’s country, in which an ill-prepared traveller could easily die. Still, a species that was once completely inaccessible now seems tantalisingly proximate to those who have dreamed all their lives of glimpsing just one. “The fact is we still only know about a single site,” Murphy says, “so the stakes are still quite high.”

There is an inherent contradiction in the recovery team’s position. Murphy’s own research shows call playback disturbs the species; on the other hand, he is permitted to trap and handle the bird, one of which was fitted with a miniature GPS device to log its movements. Even ornithologist Penny Olsen, with whom Murphy is writing a book on the parrot, says, “There is a strong argument to leave the birds alone.”

But without Murphy’s work, we would still know next to nothing about the parrot’s behaviour or requirements. The habitat at Pullen Pullen is a mosaic of spinifex-clad hills, ironstone pavements and flood plains, upon which the birds forage. The broken-up nature of the landscape has protected the bird from fire, and dingoes have suppressed numbers of cats and foxes.

Further, the GPS-fitted bird showed itself capable of movements of up to 40 kilometres a night. The information all has implications for how landscapes are grazed. Brighton Downs, Murphy says, has been conservatively managed, and not overstocked. It might be necessary to trap another bird in a dry spell, to see how it sustains itself in drought conditions. In the meantime, he pleads for patience. He aims to publish his findings within a year.

Even Australia’s peak ornithological body, BirdLife Australia, is keeping at arm’s length. Its CEO, Paul Sullivan, said on Twitter that the bird was more likely be found by co-ordinated searches by scientists than by “vigilante efforts”, a comment that provoked fury from his own membership. While he expressed regret for his choice of words, he also declined to be interviewed.

In the meantime, every decision Murphy and the recovery team has made is a tradeoff inviting scrutiny and criticism. “We’re out there because we care about these birds. We’re certainly not there to do anything that’s going to jeopardise them.” His voice is full of frustration. “I’ve even written verbal descriptions of what this bird sounds like to try and satisfy people.”

He reflects on the nest, and the broken eggs. “Here these birds were, doing their bit to try and bolster their numbers. If ever I needed strengthening or reinforcing the need to do what we do, to try and get these land management practices right, that was it. The birds are doing [their] thing. It’s absolutely essential and incumbent on us to do the same. It’s a partnership.”

Or it should be.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 25 June 2016