Tagged: the Dirty Three

When Kurt met Courtney

A few years before Courtney Barnett was known to the wider world, during a period of life where she was, by her own estimation, “kind of unemployed and a bit depressed”, she bought a record on a whim and a recommendation. It was Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, his breakthrough fourth album from 2011. She took a particular shine to the track Peepin’ Tomboy, an odd folk song with dense clusters of fingerpicked guitar.

“I didn’t even know who he was,” she says. “And it was beautiful – it’s still one of the most beautiful-sounding records that I’ve ever heard. There’s something about that album in particular that has a real magic to it, and I’ve followed him ever since. Apart from the sonic level of that album, I really loved his phrasing and lyrics. I felt really akin to it.”

A couple of years later, when Vile was touring Australia pushing the follow-up album Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Barnett found herself supporting Vile at a show in Melbourne, at Abbotsford Convent. Later at a barbecue, the pair briefly connected, and Barnett slipped him a copy of A Sea Of Split Peas, which compiled her first two EPs, including her own breakthrough hit Avant Gardener. Vile particularly fell under the spell of the opening track, Out Of The Woodwork.

“I’m a fan of all her music, but I’m a sucker especially for the pretty, kind of floaty melodic ones, and then I started listening to her new record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Think],” he says. “I feel like a lot of music today doesn’t have the classic songwriter thing, you know. Depreston – that’s a classic song.”

It’s interesting that Vile connected with a song that, on the surface, is full of local suburban references, but he speaks of Barnett’s easily relatable voice and deadpan delivery. “The lyrics are good no matter what they’re about,” he says. “And the melody is really classic – it’s just the right amount of melancholy, but still poppy, you know.”

It’s also easy to see why the two songwriters sensed an affinity: the casually drawled vocals, multi-layered storytelling, and a mutual love of Neil Young, both in singer-songwriter mode and the slacker-grunge sounds Young’s band Crazy Horse helped spawn at the turn of the 1990s. Over what Vile calls “a perfect storm” of two Australian summers, the friendship spawned a full-length collaboration and a cryptically named album, Lotta Sea Lice.

The pair had slowly become closer, bumping into each other on the festival circuit and through mutual Melbourne friends when Vile was in Australia. “You kind of forge these strange friendships with people that you don’t know all that well, but you hang out and kind of have a special love for, and then you don’t see them again for a year until you bump into them in Scotland or something,” Barnett says.

Vile says he was smitten by Barnett’s songwriting to the point of obsession, and eventually he emailed Barnett saying he had written a song, Over Everything, with her in mind to pair with him on a duet. On his next Australian tour, a couple of days in the studio were booked. Jim White and Mick Turner from the Dirty Three were brought in, and Barnett came up with another song, Let It Go. The pair also recorded a cover of a golden oldie, Blueberry Hill.

It could easily have ended there. Vile says the original plan was to do an EP, and with his time in Australia up, the pair went their separate ways. But the idea wouldn’t die. Barnett and Vile kept in correspondence, and more and more song ideas were slowly stockpiled. By this time, Barnett’s international profile had exploded, and time had to be carved out for a second recording session.

Even then, there was no real plan; just two songwriters lost in the joy of their own craft. Beforehand, emails with demos attached flew back and forth between the pair, and lyrics were cut up and spliced amid the flow of conversation. “The next time I came back, we went from two and a half songs to 10 songs, if you count Blueberry Hill, which isn’t on the record,” Vile says.

“We were having so much fun, and then we realised we had enough for an album,” Barnett says. The results transcend the recording’s rather ad-hoc approach. It’s everything you might expect from an album between the pair: nine spaced-out folk-rock songs, played loosely, but with real clarity and purpose. Two more covers – Barnett singing Peepin’ Tomboy; Vile tackling Out Of The Woodwork – rounded things off.

Barnett had recorded Peepin’ Tomboy solo, and sent it to Vile finished. “That was the first song that I really connected with back when I bought that album,” Barnett says. “I was going through a dark time … You know how music is – half of what you fall in love with is the memory of it, or the feeling that surrounds it when you listen to it, and that’s what’s always stuck with me.”

For Out Of The Woodwork, Vile says he needed extra backing. Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint was brought in to play drums, but what he really wanted was Barnett’s voice: “There’s a chorus in there which every man, woman and child sings on in her version, so I wanted at least get her to sing along on the chorus,” he says. “I kind of needed Courtney as a muse for my version of her song to really feel it.”

It’s rare, but some of the best music can be born this way. “We just kept adding to the pile without any real end-goal, which was kind of nice,” Barnett says. Vile agrees: “I never thought that it would be a full-length album, but it came together that way, which was kind of beautiful. Nothing was forced, but it was very musical.” Lotta Sea Lice is one of this year’s happiest musical accidents.

First published in Spectrum (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), 6 October 2017

NB: There are in fact two more covers on the album: Jen Cloher’s song Fear Is Like A Forest, from her second album Hidden Hands, and Belly’s Untogether.

Happy birthday to Zoo

Note for overseas and interstate readers: The Zoo is a music venue in the quaintly-named inner suburb of Fortitude Valley, in my hometown of Brisbane. It’s 20 years old this week, a startling achievement in an industry where places to play appear and often disappear in the space of 12 months. This is my happy birthday message to one of my favourite places, which changed the face of the Valley, and helped change the way we viewed our own city during a time of great change.

The Zoo was always different.

The first time I walked up that short but steep staircase, it was to see former Go-Between Robert Forster. The stairs brought you not to the entrance, but smack into the middle of the venue. There was a small stage in the far right-hand corner; a basic wooden platform less than a foot above the floor. I heard the cracking of pool balls as I walked in.

In the left-hand corner was the serving area. The conditions of the nascent venue’s license at the time meant that food had to be provided with drinks. Being an impoverished student (and a lousy cook besides), there were many times when the Zoo’s cheap, nourishing meals were seriously appreciated.

On the walls, covering most of the available space, hung paintings by various local daubers. So The Zoo was a gallery space, too, as well as a pool hall and venue. The dedication to promoting Brisbane’s musicians was matched by its philosophical alignment with, and commitment to the city’s artistic community.

That word: community. That was what made The Zoo different. When you went to see a show there, you felt like you were part of something special, vibrant and new.

Part of it came down to timing. The early 1990s was an era of transition for Brisbane. Queensland itself was in a process of profound social change. Musical change, too. The punk generation had grown up; the grunge generation was moving in. There was a feeling of political and cultural renewal.

Part of it came down to place. The venue was in Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, which a corrupt alliance of cops and criminals had called home for decades. The Fitzgerald Inquiry had seen them off – to exile, or to prison – but the Bjelke-Petersen years were not yet a distant memory, and the Valley could still be a little scary.

It was the middle of a recession, too. It seemed like every second shop in the Valley was vacant. The ultimate example was the old Target building, in the middle of the decaying, neglected Brunswick Street mall. That was where many of the bands that played at The Zoo – and would soon become household names – honed their craft.

That was important, because the cheap rents then available in the Valley allowed the musical community to set up house. The Zoo was among the first in, and it quickly became the new face of the changing district and, in hindsight, an early harbinger of its gentrification.

Anyway, I remember sitting on the floor with the attractive young lady whom I was (hopelessly) trying to woo. There were maybe 100 people sitting in a semi-circle around the stage, watching Robert hold court. He was playing an acoustic guitar. “I want to be quiet,” he sang. That was quite a statement in a post-Nevermind world.

The Zoo liked acoustic artists. Amid the tide of grunge, there was something of a folk revival happening. Mexican-American songwriter Rodriguez was as important a part of Powderfinger’s early makeup as Soundgarden, and arguably it was the former’s influence, more than the latter, that eventually turned them into million-sellers. Others, like ISIS and Paddy Dempsey, were beloved acts here.

Women always found a voice at The Zoo, too. Women ran the venue, after all, and there was a distinct absence of machismo in both the presentation and the atmosphere. There was no balding publican pulling beers with a tea towel slung over his shoulder; no security guards built wider than they were tall.

Instead there were two young ladies – Joc and C – who had a vision of the kind of place they wanted to run, and they had strong values. They didn’t sell cigarettes, or rum, and preferred not to book metal bands. The venue had no dress code, but you were expected to mind your manners. All of this commanded respect.

I have countless gigs and memories to cherish. The Dirty Three, just before their relocation overseas, with Nick Cave sitting in comes to mind. A young and messianic Ben Harper. The so-called Australian Go-Betweens show, marking the debut of the new line-up with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance.

Even some of the less palatable aspects of the venue – like the unrelenting heat of a full house in summer – had its virtues. Perhaps my strongest recurring memory of being at The Zoo is just standing by the big timber sash windows, sucking in the fresh air while a storm raged outside; the rain making the city sparkle afresh in the night.

Over time, The Zoo grew and changed. Soon there was a real stage, and a real bar. You no longer had to order a meal to get a drink. The paintings on the walls disappeared. More and more international acts played there, though the commitment to local artists remained.

These days, Fortitude Valley might be regarded as a victim of its own success. Tens of thousands of revellers swamp the entertainment precinct every weekend. There’s more alcohol, more drugs, more violence, and I wouldn’t like to ask how much higher the rent is. But The Zoo has endured. Indeed, it’s something of a haven.

That’s because, despite the aforementioned alterations, what hasn’t changed are the values the venue embodies. Those values, above all, give The Zoo its atmosphere and warmth. It’s a culture, which everyone who works there buys into. There’s still no dress code, and you’re still expected to mind your manners.

So, with that, there’s really only one thing left to say.

Thank you, Joc and C, for the gift you have given Brisbane: from all the musicians who have performed on your blessed stage, and all the punters who have enjoyed so many wonderful nights here. May The Zoo endure another 20 years.