Tagged: My Friend the Chocolate Cake

Smart collaboration bears “ego fruit”

In a world where the natural environment is under siege, it takes a shift in mindset to find comfort in the despoiled surroundings of our urban cityscapes. David Bridie, leader of enduring Melbourne chamber-pop group My Friend the Chocolate Cake, points out that often the most spectacular sunsets occur in polluted cities.

He speaks of crossing the West Gate Bridge, glancing down at the petrochemical plants and docks below. “It could be this grim industrial landscape, but from a certain point of view it’s just absolutely beautiful,” he says. And so was born a homage to the late, great Australian realist painter, Jeffrey Smart (Silver City): “We search out sanctuary, we search for stillness / We grasp at anything that’s out of the way / Sometimes the only thing to make it all spark / Is see the world through the eyes of Jeffrey Smart.”

Music entrepreneur Paul Cashmere, CEO of website Noise11.com, knew Bridie. He also knew Stephen Rogers, Smart’s archivist, and put the two in touch. Rogers was a fan of Bridie’s solo album Act Of Free Choice, though he thought “like everybody else” that My Friend the Chocolate Cake was “the world’s worst band name”.

But he loved the song – “You have to love the line, ‘shipping containers on the Cahill Expressway’” he says – and offered the group free access to Smart’s images, which are extensively used in Silver City’s accompanying video. “I don’t think they could believe we’d let them do that, but they treated them with absolute reverence.”

Towards the end of Smart’s life, Rogers convinced the artist to spend $45,000 digitising film transparencies of his work, against the wishes of some of his friends who thought it a waste of money. With the video, it paid off. “That stuff we did 20 years ago was used, and I could provide an image in five minutes.”

The song is the lead single from My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s seventh studio album, The Revival Meeting, their first since 2011’s Fiasco. Despite the long time lag – Bridie fits the group around multiple other solo projects, soundtrack work and his not-for-profit label Wantok Musik – it’s up there with the group’s best early work.

“We weren’t sure we were going to do another record, and then we were,” Bridie confesses. “Then we sort of effortlessly moved into that mode … I wasn’t sure whether we had it in us to do a really strong record. I didn’t want to be a band that just put out a record so that we could go on tour again.”

Part of the band’s initial reticence, but also drive to carry on, was provided by the passing of Andrew Carswell, whose mandolin and tin whistle playing was a crucial part of the band’s sound. Before his death, Carswell had recorded some parts with Bridie for another project, but they ended up on three of the album’s songs.

Carswell’s passing was tragic, and shouldn’t have ended the way it did. Like Bridie, he had Hepatitis C, practically an epidemic among Australian musicians of a certain age. But where Bridie is now thankfully clear of the illness, for Carswell it caused terminal complications.

Bridie explains Carswell’s own act of free choice. “He wouldn’t mind me talking about it in this way, because Andrew was going down really fast at the end; it was really awful,” Bridie says. “He was in a lot of pain and there was no future in it at all, and so he took himself up to the hills and did himself in.

“It wasn’t a problematic issue for him, it was just totally common sense. He loved living and he had a great life, and so it was actually a really beautiful death in its own way, but unnecessarily messy.” Carswell’s widow has since become active in Andrew Denton’s Dying With Dignity campaign for legal euthanasia.

Bridie says the lyrics of The Revival Meeting reflect a band that’s “at an older stage of our career and life”. He and cellist Helen Mountfort formed the band at the turn of the 1990s, when their other celebrated band Not Drowning, Waving was still a going concern.

Not Drowning, Waving was a pioneering group, championed by Peter Gabriel, and unfortunately saddled with the “world music” tag, primarily thanks to their album Tabaran, recorded with George Telek and other musicians from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, a connection which Bridie maintains to this day via Wantok Musik.

But, he says, it took half a truck just to get Not Drowning, Waving’s gear to rehearsals, and the idea of My Friend the Chocolate Cake was that everyone could get to practice taking their instrument on a tram (except for Bridie, who played piano, meaning early rehearsals were usually at his parents’ place).

It’s not an easy time to be a middle-aged artist in an industry obsessed with youth and in a shrinking media landscape. Chocolate Cake are fortunate to have an audience that’s loyal to the point of being rusted on: friends bring other friends; parents take their children; this writer, in a very un-rock & roll move, once took his mum.

Rogers draws a parallel between the work of Bridie, his band and “Mr Smart”, as he still calls his former employer and, seemingly, everyone else. “A little bit like Mr Bridie, Mr Smart was very true to his craft, even when the particular sort of art he was making didn’t sell,” he says.

“He was a realist, and in the 1960s everybody wanted abstraction – he just couldn’t bring himself to do abstraction. He could do it, he just didn’t like it, and so he stuck to his guns, and worked away at perfecting it. A little bit like Mr Bridie, I think he’s always done what he wanted to do or what mattered to him.

“Longevity, I think, is to be admired. Working at your craft, making your music or your art as well as you can and getting better each time – that’s got an awful lot to be said for it, rather than the shock of the new and the search for the avant-garde.”

Smart was a classical buff – a lover of Wagner especially, with over 2500 CDs in his library, 300 of which he kept in his studio to soundtrack his painting. Rogers isn’t sure whether he would have liked My Friend the Chocolate Cake’s music, but is certain he would have enjoyed the tribute, which he would have called “ego fruit”.

“That was his phrase!” Rogers says. “When somebody would send him a nice fan letter or he’d get a nice reference somewhere, he’d send you a copy and say “look at this ego fruit!”

And Bridie and Smart, he says, have something else in common. “Mr Smart’s art is very hard, in terms of the avant-garde world; it’s very hard to pigeonhole. He sort of stood to one side of your mainstream art market. He was a realist working in a classical tradition and stayed true to his craft.

“David’s a little bit the same … [My Friend the Chocolate Cake] has that bittersweet melancholy with a slight twist of humour, which was often what Mr Smart’s art was about. Often, as Mr Bridie points out, celebrating what’s around us. You know, we live in the cities; we don’t live in the billabongs.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 21 July 2017

Lifeline 13 11 44

“An absolute masterpiece”: the Triffids’ Born Sandy Devotional

Widely regarded as one of the finest Australian albums ever made, the Triffids’ second album Born Sandy Devotional turns 30 this month. Most famous for its beloved single Wide Open Road, the album uses the empty desolation of the Australian landscape, and particularly the band’s native Western Australia as a metaphor for loss and loneliness. To gauge its enduring influence, The Guardian asked 10 Australian musicians – both peers of the Triffids, and those that have grown up in the band’s shadow – to discuss one song each from Born Sandy Devotional’s 10 tracks.

Ben Salter (solo artist) on The Seabirds

“David McComb’s tempestuous holler kicks in immediately: ‘No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids, the screaming of the gulls…’ That thousand-yard stare sensibility, that Australian feeling which permeates the entire album is firmly established. There’s a devastating electric guitar refrain which finally flattens out to one plaintive, repeated note, and the song ends with McComb’s anguished cry: ‘So where were you / Where were you / Where were you?’”

Robert McComb (guitar/violin, the Triffids, older brother of David McComb) on Estuary Bed

“Sometimes I feel like it’s my life, growing up in Perth. Which is why [David McComb] got some credit as an Australian songwriter, because he used those images – the hot sand, the salt on the skin, the sun on the sidewalk, burning their feet. It’s just my childhood, as it was his.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)

Lindy Morrison (former drummer, the Go-Betweens) on Chicken Killer

“From the first snare beat at the end of the first line – ‘I knelt, I aimed, I missed, I ran’ – Martyn P Casey and Alsy Macdonald set a cracking, rolling rhythm that carries this wild tune to the finish line. Nick Mainsbridge was the engineer on the album, and I swear you hear his touch – ‘Just let them go,’ he would have thought. And David is as big and blustery and confident as ever as he sings for his lost love, with gorgeous imagery. It’s a shocking, sad, violent song of love and revenge.”

Sarah Spencer (keyboard player, Blank Realm) on Tarrilup Bridge

“Is this a live song? No, that’s spooky-as-hell canned applause at the start. So weird. Then a xylophone that mirrors the strange and beautiful elocution of Jill Birt’s vocals. Is she singing from beyond the grave? Yes, she drove off the bridge: “They say I’m going to be a big star. They’re making a movie about my life. And you’re going to play the starring part.” It’s the most gothic song on a goth album. Perhaps it’s a love song, or a dedication, to those driven over the edge.”

Steve Kilbey (the Church; solo artist) on Lonely Stretch

“You could not find a more Australian song than Lonely Stretch. Have you ever been lost at night in the bush? It all looks the same. The imagination starts to play its tricks. Ghosts of your former darlings seem to appear and your headlights pierce the night to reveal … Nothing! A monstrous epic of a song, Martyn Casey’s engine-like bass propelling it all along. Dave McComb, if you’re out there listening somewhere, I declare this to be the most vivid, crucial, exciting Aussie song of all time. Oh man, one that I really wish I could have written myself. An absolute masterpiece.”

Mia Dyson (solo artist; Dyson/Stringer/Cloher) on Wide Open Road

“I heard Wide Open Road as a kid, totally free and dancing around the living room. Years later my dear friend Jen Cloher re-introduced me to it and I fell in love all over again. It’s timeless, even though the production is very much of its time. It gives me the feeling that anything is possible and there’s a strength and defiance that I can carry with me as I navigate the endless forks in the road I encounter in my own life.”

Tamara Bell (guitarist, HITS) on Life Of Crime

“This aches, musically and lyrically, with those first young dalliances with lust – of desire’s convincing reassurance that giving in to it will reward a future brighter than any punishment. ‘I believe you will lead me to a life of crime’ is the utterance of the consentingly doomed. The lyric ‘My chest burning, rising, falling’ just stabs me – they speak of involuntary propulsion, addiction, and a lover’s regretful, inexorable abandonment of their better selves to whatever prize desire will yield, at whatever cost.”

David Bridie (Not Drowning, Waving; My Friend The Chocolate Cake) on Personal Things

“It’s not my favourite track off the record, but it has that Jacques Brel/Bertolt Brecht vibe that the Triffids occasionally tapped into, which I like – a slightly theatrical German cabaret feel. It’s got the cheesiest organ sound I’ve ever heard in my life, but the drums really kick it along. It’s like a waltz. I like the line ‘Some secrets of love you take to your bed, and others you take to your grave.’ The album works as a whole; there’s all these characters and short stories that made up the whole collection.”

Gareth Liddiard (the Drones, solo artist) on Stolen Property

“I sang this song for the Triffids gig [at the Perth International Arts Festival on 15 February]. It’s quite similar to what we would do because it runs on about three chords and then gets really abstract at the end. There’s a shift halfway through that always sends chills down my spine, where Dave sings, ‘Maybe lost possessions, maybe stolen property.’ It’s Dave losing someone, but regaining himself – like he’s had to steal himself off someone. He’s not lashing out aggressively, but he’s taking a stand – he’s sort of telling this person off, saying, ‘You know what – you’re fucked!’”

“Evil” Graeme Lee (keyboards, pedal steel, the Triffids) on Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)

“I love the final part of that song, where he says, ‘Where you are, it will just be getting light.’ Which is an amazing way, in so few words, to say you’re not here, and I miss you.” (From The Great Australian Albums documentary series)

First published in The Guardian, 31 March 2016

“He was like a god”: Australian musicians mourn David Bowie

As the Australian music community absorbs the news of the passing of David Bowie at the age of 69 yesterday, musicians and songwriters – especially those who came of age in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the songwriter was at his peak – have spoken of his profound influence on both their work and their lives.

Melbourne soloist Jen Cloher expressed commonly recurring theme of disbelief. “I turned to Courtney [Barnett, Cloher’s partner] last night and said, you just never thought that David Bowie would die. Which is ludicrous, but that’s how it feels … He was like a god.”

Cloher also spoke of Bowie’s indirect impact on her as a queer artist. “The ’70s in so many ways were far more dangerous, far more edgy, far more open to a broad idea of gender than today. It would have rubbed off. You grow up around that, and it infiltrates in ways that you don’t even think about at the time.”

Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, has often written and spoken of his admiration for Bowie. “Bowie was obviously the most important white musical figure of the ’70s. He bestrode the decade like no one else.

“Bowie was beautiful, which was confrontational for a 14, 15-year-old boy. The most beautiful pop star of the early ’70s was a man, which is an amazing thing by itself, and Bowie played it to the hilt.

“All the Melbourne boys at the time – Sean Kelly, James Freud, Nick Cave – loved Bowie. The Brisbane boys loved Bowie too, but they didn’t want to be Bowie. All the Melbourne boys loved Bowie and wanted to be Bowie. There’s a lot of photos of those boys in make-up, believe you me! That’s how the different cities took to it.

“He was this beautiful flittering presence, and an amazing songwriter. It was Rebel Rebel; it was Golden Years; it was Diamond Dogs. I could name every track off Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory. It was Sound And Vision; it was Heroes, it was just an amazing run.”

Yet Bowie was also remembered as an open and friendly presence, a world removed from his alien persona. Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, who supported Bowie on his first Australian tour in 1978 as a member of the Angels, recalled Bowie introducing himself backstage over a bowl of soup.

“It was one of the first times I had met someone really famous who was incredibly normal, and he put to shame a number of people I met who were nowhere near as talented.”

Kim Salmon, of pioneering punk-blues group the Scientists and later the Beasts of Bourbon and the Surrealists, posted a personal note on his Facebook page that highlighted the intergenerational nature of Bowie’s cultural legacy.

“A few months ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the Bowie exhibition. Today she said it – I said it – he gave people permission to be exactly who they were. When I was a 14-year-old spaced-out science fiction kid he was my man.

“When my drop-dead gorgeous friend was wondering about his sexuality, Bowie gave him permission to be what he was. Lately my daughter’s been far above the world, floating in her tin can, and it hasn’t been easy. Bowie was there to let her know it’s OK. Thanks to his massive body of work, he’s still there.”

David Bridie, of Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend The Chocolate Cake, also pointed to Bowie’s astonishing output.

“There are very few artists you could say made at least eight classic albums – Hunky Dory, Lodger, Low, Aladdin Sane, ‘Heroes’, Scary Monsters, Ziggy Stardust and Station To Station. Fine work, Mr Jones.”

“Regardless of his image or his sense of how he projected himself, there was always the songs, and he wrote some of the best pop songs ever written,” Cloher said. “He transcended our idea of what rock or pop music should be. I guess the Beatles started fucking with those ideas, but I felt that Bowie took it to the next level.

“He never lost melody, his sense of what a good pop song is. Genius is thrown around far too often, but in the case of David Bowie, he really did possess that quality.”

First published in The Guardian, 12 January 2016

Jimmy Stynes

Jimmy Stynes was an amazing footballer. More impressive than the fact that he won a Brownlow medal in 1991 – Australian Rules’ highest individual honour – was the fact that, in a senior career with the Melbourne Football Club lasting 11 years, from 1987 to 1998, he played 244 of his total 264 games in succession. It’s a benchmark for durability that’s yet to be beaten, and probably won’t be.

It’s also a benchmark for bravery, at times reckless bravery. In 1993, Stynes – a ruckman, the most physically demanding position in the game – had the cartilage of his breastbone severed in an on-field collision with a teammate, leaving his chest looking like a tent. Amazingly, and quite possibly stupidly, he fronted up the next week to play after passing a fitness test in which his coach, Neil Balme, pitted him against a few of the Demons’ hard men, one of whom was Rod Grinter.

Grinter was a known sniper, suspended so often for acts of on-field malice that satirical Melbourne band TISM (This Is Serious Mum) once namechecked him in the following lyric: “I’ve mixed heroin, cocaine and angel dust / I’ve played on Rodney Grinter, and been concussed”.

Balme put Stynes through his paces with Grinter knowing he’d face similar treatment (or worse) against the next week’s opposition. The session apparently ended with punches being thrown, although I find it hard to imagine Stynes hurling them, certainly not throwing the first. He was a scrupulously fair player.

All of this is impressive in itself. Now imagine this: Stynes arrived in Australia as an 18-year-old from Dublin in late 1984, having never played a game of Australian Rules in his life. He was in the vanguard of what’s become known in the game as the Irish Experiment, wherein young Gaelic footballers were imported to Australia on spec to play a different game.

It took until 1987 for Stynes to break in as a regular to the Melbourne side. The Demons, a former powerhouse of the competition, had been impotent for decades, but they were surging, and that year they made the finals. They would have made the Grand Final, too, had Stynes not given away a free kick in the dying seconds of the preliminary final – a technical rule breach of which he was unaware – that gifted Hawthorn a match-winning goal.

Stynes would never escape, or be allowed to forget his error. His side actually made the Grand Final the following year, only to be smashed again (by a then-record 96-point margin) by Hawthorn. Stynes was Melbourne’s best player on that day, but they never challenged for the premiership again in his career. Life is about taking your opportunities, and learning from your mistakes.

And that’s the lesson Stynes went on to prove, over and over again, after his playing career ended. In fact, it’s where his legend grows almost to the stature of myth.

A few years before his retirement, Stynes set up the Reach foundation. Broadly, it was aimed at teaching life skills to young people, particularly disadvantaged youth. This work, it transpired, was his real calling. He was a firm believer in the power of each individual to realise his or her gifts – but also recognised that often, they need someone else’s belief and love to help them unlock that potential. Here lay Stynes’ profound sense of social justice. Martin Flanagan recounted this quote in his obituary today: “What’s happening in this society is scary … We’re splitting into the haves and have-nots. A growing number of kids are getting caught in dark places.”

In 1997 he joined the board of Victoria’s Youth Suicide Task Force. He also took up a position as an anti-racism officer with the AFL, not long after Michael Long had brought the issue within the sport to a head. He resolved not to return to Ireland.

He became increasingly celebrated. He was named Victorian of the Year in 2001, and again in 2003. He was awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2007.

Then, in mid-2009, he was diagnosed with cancer.

By that point, he had returned to his beloved, ailing football club as chairman. The Demons were $5 million in the red. Stynes, with his charisma, organisational skills and sheer bloody-mindedness, wiped that debt within three years, but his team continued to take a beating on field. After a horrible loss to Geelong in 2011 that saw the sacking of coach Dean Bailey, the toll on Stynes’ faltering health was clear.

What Jim Stynes did better than anything – better than his ability to run, kick, mark and jump – was connect. The football community and Australia is a lesser place without him, but we’re all better for the lessons and the legacy he leaves.