Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine: Get Yer Dag On!

DAMIAN COWELL was the guy in TISM. We know because he told us so (in a song called I Was The Guy In TISM, recorded with the DC3). Anonymity can be a tough mask to shed. Think of Kiss without the war paint, or the Residents without the eyeballs: what lies beneath can only be a disappointment. Years ago, a friend of mine ripped off Ron Hitler-Barassi’s balaclava in a mosh pit. Stupidly, I asked him who it was. “Some guy,” he replied. Who did I expect?

But amid the constant clamour for TISM to reform (how many original members would it take? Who would know? Would anyone care?) Cowell, the artist formerly known as Humphrey B Flaubert, has been quietly building a catalogue that’s not far short of his old band. And if people aren’t as interested in listening to an advertising copywriter in his mid 50s as they are in TISM, maybe they’ll listen to him alongside a supergroup featuring the cream of Australian satire. Hence the Disco Machine.

The first Disco Machine album boasted cameos from Shaun Micallef, Tony Martin, Kathy Lette, John Safran and the Bedroom Philosopher, along with a bunch of other celebrities and fellow musicians: Lee Lin Chin, Julia Zemiro, Tim Rogers and Kate Miller-Heidke. That, if nothing else, speaks of some serious pulling power and the esteem Cowell is held not just in Australia’s musical community, but especially in comedy circles.

TISM were the rarest of joke bands (their first gig was poetically called The Get Fucked Concert) in that the joke has remained as obnoxious, funny and true as it ever was – and the music was frequently as good, if often let down by the production. They cut to the quick of Australian society and manners, pricking the left’s self-righteousness and the right’s mendacity in equal measure. Sometimes they even played it (almost) straight: The Philip Ruddock Blues is as good a protest song as anything written by Midnight Oil, though they’d probably cringe at the comparison.

Get Your Dag On! is the second Disco Machine album, and Micallef and Martin are again present, alongside another stellar roll-call of guests: Celia Pacquola, Judith Lucy and many more. There’s an irony in there being a slightly identikit anonymity about many of these pounding dance-floor grooves, but that doesn’t matter, because (a) irony is central to everything Cowell does, and (b) Cowell can sing: his melodies and phrasing make many of these songs instantly memorable.

And then there are the lyrics.

It is honestly difficult not to quote some of these songs in their entirety. My favourite is 365 Lemmys, featuring Henry Wagons, which points out how everyone’s favourite rock & roll outlaw made fundamentally conservative music by never deviating from a proven formula: “Lemmy turned it up to 10 / Lemmy did it all again / And again and again and again and again / Lemmy was totally Zen.” In a similar vein, Can’t Stop The Music* (*conditions apply) observes that the most common revolutions in rock now are in the modes of distribution and consumption.

Come On Waleed features Henry Rollins (who just gets the title line) and Melbourne songwriter Liz Stringer. It rattles off a list of fallen heroes, both artistic and sporting: “No means yes, I learned that from Lance Armstrong / And Pistorius left us no leg to stand on.” The chorus then begs the beloved polymath columnist/academic/musician/co-host of The Project, Waleed Aly, not to follow them down the celebrity S-bend: “Don’t go changing on me!”

Another inspired duet is between Micallef and Regurgitator’s Quan Yeomans on When You’re Incredibly Good Looking, which imagines a beautiful person’s secret fear that they might not have got where they were on the basis of merit alone: “Thank God I’m ugly!” goes the chorus. Myf Warhurst guests on two songs: I Smell M.A.N., with Machine Gun Fellatio’s Pinky Beecroft, and My Baby Is Interested In Geopolitics But I Just Wanna Dance (with Tony Martin). The delight of these tracks is just how well she sings them.

Best of all is Barry Gibb Came Fourth In A Barry Gibb Lookalike Contest. Pairing Cowell with a purring Adalita, it shamelessly borrows its hook from Prince’s Controversy, and starts with an oblique reference to his own dilemma: “The truth is horrid / Never quite as good as fiction / That’s why we run away from it / How else do you explain religion?” Later comes this middle-eight: “Young girl with passionate views says journalism is the calling for me / Then finds out that her job at the news is to keep the public stupid and angry.”

It seems sadly unlikely that TISM are about to get back together anytime soon. But while Get Your Dag On! might not reach the heights of Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance (what could?), it stands tall alongside much of what came after. Cowell is an ad man you can trust.

First published in The Guardian, 16 February 2017

10 of the best: Flying Nun Records

ONE of the world’s great independent labels, Flying Nun Records was founded in 1981 by Christchurch-based Roger Shepherd. But the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene and many of its key players were further south, in Dunedin: all bar one of the following bands, Christchurch’s JPS Experience, hail from the university town in the region of Otago. At its peak, the label was home to dozens of bands and 10 of the best is exactly that (with apologies to Bailter Space, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge, all storied figures in the New Zealand pop history). Shepherd walked away from the label in 1999, selling it to Warner; in 2010, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, who owns a quarter-share, helped him buy it back again. Large chunks of the label’s catalogue are being reissued by Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, with the Clean, the Chills and the Bats – who release their seventh album, The Deep Set, today – remaining active to this day.

The Clean Anything Could Happen

Formed in 1978 in Dunedin, the Clean’s first single Tally Ho!, released a few years later, put the fledgling Flying Nun Records label on the map, reaching the top 20 with its nagging keyboard riff. (Disclaimer: it probably wouldn’t have taken a huge number of sales to reach the New Zealand top 20.) From there the band, formed by brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and future Bats leader Robert Scott, carved a reputation as probably the most influential band on the label with a sound heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But their best song, Anything Could Happen, would do Bob Dylan proud with its folk-rock chord changes and dry, deadpan lyrics.

The Verlaines Death And The Maiden

Another key figure in Flying Nun’s early history, Dr Graham Downes – he heads the department of music at the University of Otago – would bring classical influences to the Flying Nun sound on their 1987 album Bird-Dog. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on their first single four years earlier, which had Downes ecstatically chanting the name of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whom they took their name (not, as is sometimes thought, Television’s Tom Verlaine). Features the immortal lines “You shouldn’t talk to me / Find better company / There’s better things to know / You’ll only end up like Rimbaud.”

The Chills Pink Frost

It was Martin Phillipps that played that nagging riff in Tally Ho!, but he already had the Chills who, over well over a dozen line-up changes, became the greatest singles band New Zealand produced after Split Enz, achieving enduring success with a sound that was alternately pitch dark and lighter than air. Released in 1984, Pink Frost combined both in the same song, shifting abruptly from a spry opening guitar hook to a haunting, bass-driven pulse, as Phillipps tells a deeply unsettling story of loss and survivor’s guilt.

Look Blue Go Purple Cactus Cat

It’s tiresome to point to Look Blue Go Purple’s gender – something that followed the five-piece wherever they went, much to their justified irritation. But the fact remains there weren’t too many women on Flying Nun, and the band’s three EPs are a critical and often unsung part of its legacy. Cactus Cat is from the second of them, released in 1986. This joyously nonsensical paean to Denise Roughan’s moggy rides along on a couple of chords, punctuated by two backwards guitar solos played by former Chill Terry Moore.

The Bats Made Up In Blue

After four years in the Clean, bass player Robert Scott realised he needed a new vehicle for his own prolific songwriting. With the Bats, he has explored endless variations on an instantly identifiable sound. They nailed that sound on this ebullient 1986 single: bright, mid-tempo guitar pop, with the stinging lead work of Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean’s rumbling bass over the top giving a harder edge to Scott’s nasal, wistful vocals.

Jean-Paul Sartre Experience Inside And Out

There were more critical bands in Flying Nun discography than the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, but I can’t ignore the hypnotic opening cut from this often overlooked band’s excellent second album The Size Of Food, from 1990. Incredibly, soon after a lawsuit was served by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre, forcing them to change their name to the JPS Experience and, while it almost certainly had nothing to do with it, they were never quite the same again.

Straitjacket Fits Down In Splendour

By the turn of the 1990s, the Chills and the Straitjacket Fits looked like the bands most likely to cross over to major success, with American record deals and more polished – dare one say cleaner-sounding – studio recordings. It didn’t hurt that the Straitjacket Fits were the best-looking band on the label, either. Written by Andrew Brough, the breathtaking Down In Splendour, from the band’s second and best album Melt, shows off the band’s exquisite vocal harmonies and twin-guitar interplay without losing any of the tension that would ultimately destroy the group.

Straitjacket Fits APS

The Straitjacket Fits are privileged with two entries on account of them being blessed with two very different songwriters. The prettiness of Down In Splendour was the jewel in a crown of thorns: the Fits’ spikier side was dominated by brooding leader Shayne Carter. This live recording of APS (also from Melt) demonstrates their explosive power on stage; at its conclusion Carter checks: “are everyone’s strings intact?” But in barely the next breath, he cattily introduces Down In Splendour “for all you grandmas out there”; soon after Brough was unceremoniously ejected from the band, announced with a gleeful press release: “No more slow songs!” Unfortunately, it destroyed the band’s delicate balance; their final album Blow was a disappointment.

3Ds Beautiful Things

The 3Ds – Dominic Stones, Denise Roughan and David Saunders – emerged late in the 1980s, quickly added another D, David Mitchell for good measure and, like the Straitjacket Fits, based their considerable attack on a twin-guitar sound. But where the Fits exuded menace, the 3Ds were as bright, playful and often unhinged as their lurid cover artwork. Beautiful Things (from 1993’s The Venus Trail and sung by Roughan, previously of Look Blue Go Purple) caught them at a rare tranquil moment, with a gliding chord progression and beatific lyrics: “Don’t you see, beautiful things can be / Waiting outside your door, for all to see.” A famous story about the band goes that during a support slot on U2’s ZooTV tour, an associated nicked a bottle of wine from U2’s dressing room, leading the promoter to inform the band they would not be paid. Bono intervened, gave them another bottle of wine and told the promoter they would be paid double.

Chris Knox Not Given Lightly

Talisman, spiritual heartbeat and conscience of New Zealand punk, Chris Knox all but started the movement in Dunedin with his bands the Enemy, then Toy Love. He later maintained a prolific career as one-half of the Tall Dwarfs, as a soloist, and as a newspaper columnist and cartoonist. His best-known tune, released in 1989, was a plain-spoken love song to “John and Liesha’s mother”, and featured just a percussion loop and fuzz guitar. Tragically Knox was cut down by a severe stroke in 2009 that has left him unable to say more than a few words; a tribute album to raise funds for his ongoing rehabilitation featured Yo La Tengo, the late Jay Reatard, Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, as well as many of the bands mentioned above.

Originally published in The Guardian28 January 2017

Bruce Springsteen: Perth Arena, 22 January 2017

ON page 209 of his autobiography, Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen describes the effect of growing up as a child of Vietnam-era America, and of the Kennedy, King and Malcolm X assassinations. “Dread – the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured – was in the air,” he writes.

With that dread in the air again, clearly The Boss feels it his duty – the artist’s duty – to respond. On Sunday night, in Perth for the first leg of his third Australian tour in four years, Springsteen laid his cards on the table early. “Our hearts and minds are with the hundreds of thousands of women and men that marched yesterday who rallied against hate, and division, and in support of tolerance [and] inclusion,” he said. “On E Street, we stand with you. We are the new American resistance.”

If such sentiments sound absurd coming from the now 67-year-old Springsteen, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are many in his home country right now who would damn him as nothing less than an American traitor. Springsteen isn’t usually quite so politically direct: he knows full well that many of his fans back home voted for Donald Trump. They are the same economically downtrodden folk he has written so sympathetically about for more than 40 years.

Such a rallying cry might have led fans to expect an onslaught of the E Street Band’s fieriest material. That’s not quite what happened, at least for the first half of their typically immense three-and-a-half hour, 30-song set. Opening with the 10-minute New York City Serenade – after which the above sermon was delivered – the show’s first half saw Springsteen dive deeply into his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.

These albums, recorded when Springsteen was one of many being touted as the next Bob Dylan and before the E Street Band fully coalesced, are filled with long songs and long jams, and that’s mostly what the audience got: Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street, Growing Up, Spirit In The Night and Lost In The Flood in a row; shortly afterwards came Kitty’s Back In Town, Incident On 57th Street and the perennial Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Before them came Lonesome Day, from The Rising, and the title track of Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

It’s something of a downbeat beginning, giving the band lots of time and space to find their mojo – and that meant the audience took a little while to find theirs, too. While the early material was probably cherished by hardcore fans, it slowed the momentum. Saxophonist Jake Clemons (nephew of the late, great Clarence), pianist Roy Bittan and Springsteen himself took solo turns all over the place, at length, and often all piling into one song. Even Nils Lofgren, usually the most tasteful of guitarists, shredded Because The Night to a bloody pulp.

In the end, though, there’s no stopping the juggernaut. The longer the set goes, the more the hysteria builds as The Boss works the room like a secular Billy Graham. Rock & roll church is in. The Ties That Bind – the opening cut of The River and delivered halfway through the set – follows Rosalita and kicks off a roll call of shorter, sharper classics: Darlington County and Working On The Highway, both from Born In The USA; The Promised Land; a thunderous She’s The One; Badlands.

The first encore is a gem: a solo Springsteen taking a request for the relatively obscure Blood Brothers, for an audience member’s fallen sibling. From there it’s predictable, but still devastatingly good: Born To Run, Dancing In The Dark, 10th Avenue Freeze Out. Dancing In The Dark sees Springsteen pick out a girl who can’t be more than 12 and who actually breakdances in front of him; like an indulgent grandfather, he hands her a guitar to “play” as the song draws to its conclusion.

Yes, it’s hammy, especially when Steve Van Zandt offers his leader a cape, like a retiring boxer, as the band pound their way through Johnny O’Keefe’s Shout. Springsteen says; “I don’t think I’ve got any more,” and half-descends the stairs leading offstage, but he keeps peeking up, then – of course! – he’s back up for one last chorus. Springsteen, his band and their fans are the sort of true believers in their music’s transcendent power who will brook no cynicism.

Cynicism, at any rate, is not going to serve anyone in the coming years. The E Street Band are about total commitment. They are an ideal, and an appeal to our better selves. After 42 years, they still dare you not to be caught up in their own fervour, and it would be a stony heart that failed to leave such a show exhausted, elated, invigorated and inspired. They’re also famous for varying their set lists, and perhaps the most accurate thing to say about this – their first show in six months – is that they’re just getting started. The east coast awaits.

Originally published by The Guardian, 23 January 2017

NB. I copped a lot of stick from readers for this review, mainly for two reasons relating to the second-last paragraph. Shout was originally recorded by the Isley Brothers: my defence was it is probably more famous in Australia for JOK’s version, one of the country’s foundation rock & roll singles. The cape routine was, of course, a James Brown reference, which I somehow failed to mention. Oh, and for not awarding Bruce a fifth star. Oh well.

In the video above, that’s me asking the second question about art’s responsibility to the times in which we live.

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