Regurgitator: The J-Files

Potty-mouthed. Wilfully contrary. Ironically self-aware. Genre-hopping. These are all some of the obvious things that come to mind when thinking about Regurgitator. Describing the music, though, is harder: after more than 20 years, the Brisbane band formed by Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely and Martin Lee in 1993 defy categorisation more than ever.

The thick layer of irony that surrounds Regurgitator can make them more of a head trip than a band to take to your heart. But that doesn’t mean they’re not serious: there’s a genuine moral centre to everything they do; it’s just more likely to be expressed with humour, rather than slogans – and you can almost always dance to it. It all makes Regurgitator one of the most original and subversive bands Australia has ever produced.

1: The Concept

Tu-Plang, the title of Regurgitator’s first album (which was recorded in Bangkok) is the Thai word for jukebox. And that’s exactly what Regurgitator are: a machine that absorbs popular music in all its dizzying permutations, then spews it back out. This technicolour approach means that, like American genre-hoppers Ween or New Zealand’s Flight Of The Conchords, Regurgitator are free to play whatever they want – as long as it’s delivered with a nod and a wink.

Quan Yeomans and Ben Ely have never been afraid to bite the hand of the corporate beast that once fed them. Mostly it’s playful mischief-making: the band’s first EP featured the famous Warner Brothers’ logo dominating the rear sleeve, before it was hastily withdrawn. Lyrically, I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am says it all, but Yeomans has been vocal about everything from the first world’s exploitation of the third (G7 Dick Electro Boogie) to music industry awards nights (Music Is Sport).

He’s particularly strong on gender issues. The band’s biggest hit, Polyester Girl, might also be their most misunderstood: once described as a song about a sex doll, a closer reading shows its real target are the men who take trophy wives to service their own vanity. Ben Ely’s hooky pop-punk confections balance out the band, whether he’s writing about addiction to video games (Black Bugs) or the Queensland constabulary (Fat Cop, which was set perfectly to a crunching nu-metal riff).

2: The Old Stuff

For casual listeners, this will comprise the band’s first two EPs, Regurgitator and New, as well as the band’s first three albums, all of which were recorded with original drummer Martin Lee. Regurgitator were an instant success, both on the live circuit (where they quickly attracted frenzied crowds) and on radio, with early tracks Couldn’t Do It and Blubber Boy being afforded high rotation on Triple J.

That established a platform for the platinum sales of Tu-Plang (1996) spearheaded by two big singles, the monstrous funk-metal clatter of Kong Foo Sing, followed by I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am, which opened the album. The album was something of a patchwork, with remixes of earlier singles padding things out, but it was strong enough to serve notice of a band to be reckoned with.

In typically provocative style, the band’s next album, Unit (1997) opened with a statement of intent: Ely’s brilliant I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff, its lyrics sung through a vocoder over a synth line. But if any old fans were put off by the change in direction, the album succeeded in winning over legions of new ones. Unit sold over 240,000 copies, spawning a string of hit singles.

The best of them was ! (The Song Formerly Known As), arguably Regurgitator’s greatest song – even as it acknowledged its debt to Prince. A song about living it up in your lounge room with your significant other, it’s set to a big, belching beat that was purpose-built for festival stages. Everyday Formula, Black Bugs, Modern Life and Polyester Girl kept the album on radio and video playlists for well over a year.

In the end, it was the band’s third album, …art (which featured the telling subtitle, “Actual Product May Not Match Expectations”) which proved to be the difficult one. The band was burnt out from touring, relationships had become strained, and the resulting album didn’t come close to matching Unit’s chart success. The best moment by far was Ely’s hilarious Surfin’ Bird-style rave-up, “I Wanna Be A Nudist”.

3: The New Stuff

While Regurgitator would never again scale the commercial heights of Unit – and by Yeomans’ own estimation, it’s unquestionably the most creatively interesting album of their career, too – the second half of the band’s career has thrown up its fair share of high points. In fact, the more one looks at the sheer breadth of Regurgitator’s output, the more impressive it becomes in its totality.

With a new, high-energy drummer Peter Kostic (on loan from Front End Loader), the band first made Eduardo And Rodriguez Wage War On T-Wrecks, which saw Ely and Yeomans move deeper into hip-hop territory, despite pop singles like Superstraight and Fat Cop. Hullabaloo was a truer indication of where the band was at. It was a change few seemed ready for at the time.

Then came Mish Mash (2004), the result of the band’s Band In A Bubble project for Channel V, recorded in a Perspex box in Federation Square, Melbourne. Ironically, the project left the band open to charges of being over-exposed. Probably the most contentious album of Regurgitator’s career, it’s also arguably the most far-sighted, and the most ripe for rediscovery and retrospective appreciation.

Love And Paranoia (2007) saw the addition of keyboard player Seja Vogel and is a brief (31 minute) blast that saw them return to the 1980s for inspiration, but the band was at a low ebb. Superhappyfuntimefriends, though, combined the band’s best set of songs since Unit with a renewed surge of public interest. It’s the band’s paean to the social media generation, and it’s scabrous, funny and true.

The band’s most recent album, Dirty Pop Fantasy (2013) takes everything to its logical extreme, cramming an ambitious 19 songs onto a single disc. Shake it down, though, for a handful of diamonds – Ely’s sharp Made To Break; Yeomans’ post-punk epic Mountains and We Love You, which declares: “We know what you want, but we’re not gonna give it to you, because that would be easy.”

4: The Legacy

Regurgitator’s reputation will stand forever on Unit, widely and deservedly regarded as one of the best Australian albums ever made – a clutch of sticky singles, production that still manages to sound both retro and ahead of the curve, and lyrics that gleefully run the gamut from straight-up nonsense to barbed social commentary that mostly went over the heads of radio shock jocks and fans alike.

But eight albums and two EPs have proved the band to be stayers. Instead of fading away when the going got tough, the band have adapted to suit themselves: they’ve slowed down on the touring, but continued to make vibrant, endlessly creative records with a high level of quality control. In doing so, they’ve set a number of examples for other bands to follow.

First: do what you want. Not what you think the punters want. Second: don’t assume every step up on the ladder is also a step forward. You don’t have to break America just because you’ve conquered Australia and that’s the obvious thing to do next; nervous breakdowns and bankruptcy lie that way. Third: make records at your own pace. Fourth: Keep making them, for persistence reaps sustainable rewards.

Above all, as Yeomans puts it on “All Fake Everything”: “Be yourself / Be yourself / Be your motherfuckin’ self!”

First published by Double J, 19 November 2015

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