Hunting... The Stickmen
TROY D COLVIN finds out the about The Stickmen.
I first encountered what turned out to be The Stickmen sometime around September last year. I was at work; walking across a concrete floor toward an enormous shelf of CDs when the lyrics “smoke makin’ me choke and you are lost inside,” threw themselves at me amongst a tirade of wailing guitar. That piece of shit stereo hadn’t sounded so good since someone chucked on My Pal by God. I know it was September because I was fired from that bunker of mediocrity soon after. Hey, no grudges here; like I said, it was a bunker of mediocrity. Let’s move on.
I was to learn later that the song was Without A Clue by The Stickmen and that Mike Noga - Drones drummer and acoustic folk hero - was responsible for its airing. “They’re one of my favourite bands of all time,” he beamed when I asked him about it. The disc was a burn of a burn of a burn. No song titles, no artwork, no date of release, nothing. Just this “wild band from Tasmania” that had apparently recorded an album and then sequestered themselves into myth and obscurity. “I’ll do you a burn,” Noga promised me. Fat chance. Like putting my name on the door at The Drones’ Sydney gig later that month, it never happened (bless his percussive little heart).
A month went by and with it a new season arrived; I could no longer remember how they sounded, but I couldn’t force the idea of The Stickmen out of my head.
Finally another sympathetic casualty from the bunker of mediocrity took pity and sent me a burn of the CD. I listened to it. Over. And over. And over. Where had this music been all my life? I got drunk. I turned it up loud and jumped around on the bed. I bragged to anyone who’d listen that they were amazing and vowed to track them down and find out what the fucking deal was. You can’t just be in a band like that and not tell anyone. It’s not fair.
Soon after this I went to The Tote, getting as intoxicated as $25 between two people will allow before making a woefully uninformed decision to write a story about this Stickmen enigma. “How was it that a band this amazing and important could remain so anonymous and undistinguished?” I asked people who I was convinced would know something, anything. Nothing but blank faces and tired looks stared back. I fired off emails with question marks in all directions, finally getting a reply that would begin to unravel both the mystery and my sanity.
Tim Picone: Unstable Ape Records.
Mon, 24 Oct 2005 23:28:47 +1000
One of the best bands ever. I can get you a burn of the CD you don't have (they did 2), and some live recordings I made. I’ll fwd yr email on to Aldous, Ianto and Sara who were in the bands at certain points - hopefully they'll get in touch with you.
This band drove me crazy. They made me pull out my hair. Like, actually pull out strands of my hair while staring at a blank screen waiting for a reply from an email I hadn’t even bothered to write yet. Researching this article made me never want to write about a defunct band ever again. I totally underestimated how much time and effort (and lost sleep) it would take to complete. What’s that song by Motorhead?.. The chase is as good as the catch? Bullshit. The chase is a pain in the arse.
I’d started out so confident. Tim Picone’s email was a breakthrough, for sure. And about a week later I received two CDs from him in the mail. One was some live shows he’d recorded and other was the band’s second album(!). I listened to it. Over. And over. “Thanks for getting me back into these albums,” Picone wrote in his letter, “it’s been awhile.” Gradually the emails came trickling in from former members and other contacts, all with offers of help.
Ianto Kelly: Drummer.
Tue, 25 Oct 2005 03:52:41 +1000
Hi Troy, My name is Ianto and I played drums in The Stickmen. It was great to hear that you've been getting into the old albums. I listened to the second one just the other day for the first time in about five years and I thought it was alright too... I keep hearing about people discovering or re-discovering the old Stickmen albums and passing them around. Which is about the best thing you can hope for when you make an album (besides making your money back and/or world domination).
Sara Pensalfini: Original drummer, opera fan.
Wed, 26 Oct 2005 23:13:01 +1000
Hi Troy? My name is Sara. A friend of mine gave me yr email and said that you were after info/pics etc of the band. I was the drummer in the original line up of Aldous Kelly - guitar/vox, John Reid - bass and me - drums. We were only together in that form for a period of months and I believe the only recordings are 4 tracks floating about but if I can help at all from my perspective I shall. Memories of that period are hazy but I'm sure I can clarify if it's of any interest to the story...
There were problems from the start. Everyone was spread so far apart: Two were in other countries, two in different states. No one could find any photos. I also became aware that I would probably have difficulty contacting the group’s founder, Aldous Kelly.
Introspective and private in nature, I had the feeling Kelly probably wasn’t all that interested in talking about the past. My Inbox lay in wait, the entire article resting upon his contact. Much to my surprise he did get in touch, and we arranged to talk. It was then that my phone was cut off, closely followed by my computer crashing. I’d managed to ruin my only chance of talking to what I assumed was a reclusive artist, and now the story was gone. I stumbled, lost heart. I stopped listening to this secret band with the songs with names I didn’t know and began a nicotine habit out of boredom. The procrastination and the masturbation spiralled out of control. Then, in January…
Tom Lyngcoln: The Nation Blue, Solar/Sonar records.
Mon, 09 Jan 2006 18:29:47 +1100
They were easily one of my favourite Hobart bands and there are a lot to choose from. They were totally unpretentious and genuine artists at the same time, which is incredible. In my opinion they were the band you went to see if you wanted to dance but couldn't stand dance music. It felt more like a rave than a pub show at their gigs, regardless of who played before or after them. The Stickmen all had great and interesting music tastes and would choose the occasional cover song that seemed to both dumbfound and totally sum up the qualities that made them such an amazing band. While other bands were covering Wire (Mouth) or Devo (UFO) or even Elvis (Sea Scouts), the Stickmen would choose something far more exposed like ‘Manic Depression’ by Hendrix or even more strangely ‘Voodoo People’ by The Prodigy and make you realise why you either liked the song in the first place (the former) or convinced you to buy the album that that song was on (in the case of the latter).
Tom Lyngcoln’s email saved my Stickmen article. When I read it, in the strangest of ways, it felt like the story was what I was put on this earth to do. I reconnected the phone, bought a new hard drive, and stubbed out a four month cigarette habit.
The Stickmen began life in 1996 as a trio, playing what vocalist/guitarist/lyricist and founder Aldous Kelly describes as “heavy rock ‘n’ roll blues.” The rhythm section comprised of Sara Pensalfini on drums and John Reid on bass. Kelly’s brother Pablo joined later on second guitar.
“They weren’t a very popular band at the time,” remembers label owner and musician Tim Picone. “They never really took off - but no Tassie band ever took off. Most were just happy to play for friends and have an excuse to go out. But looking back, if that band were playing now they’d put The Drones to shame.” Indeed, an audio recording of the trio at The Dog House – “Hobart’s roughest pub” - in 1996 has the band sounding how you’d imagine an early inception of The Drones to be. “It just sort of fell apart,” Kelly says of the group’s demise. “Sara went and played with the Sea Scouts and John went to India or something…I quite liked that first line up, it was quite raw. The other one became a bit more polished.”
‘Put your hand in the flames’
With the break-up of his band, Kelly was on the lookout for musicians to form another group he was planning. “What I had in mind and what we actually were, were two different things,” he says. “I didn’t want to control it too much. I wanted it to be a hypnotic kinda thing with surf based guitar riffs.” There was another element that Kelly was keen to explore: That of a turntable hooked up to a distortion pedal and played through a guitar amp, acting as a type of sonic guitar. At the time this was still a relatively unknown element for a rock band to employ; as yet untarnished by the ‘nu-metal’ craze of the late nineties. The use of the turntables would substantially inform The Stickmen’s sound, crystallizing their unique approach with ambient noir sound-scapes.
Kelly recruited his cousin Ianto Kelly on drums and Matt Geeves on turntables, the three being familiar with each other from a previous band, Structural Dementia. Luke Osborne filled out the quartet on bass. The Stickmen MK11 was born.
The new group played regularly and with almost anyone. Tasmania was full of bands and The Stickmen weren’t precious with whom they'd share a stage. Such an eclectic scene meant it wasn't unusual for punk, death-metal, and country genres to all share the same bill. They quickly built up a reputation as an exciting live act, playing frequently with bands like 50 Million Clowns, Your Arse, Puppyfat, 40 Watt Stars, The Nation Blue and Colonic La Vage.
In 1998 The Stickmen headed to Melbourne to record their debut album with producer Nick Carroll and temporary turntablist, Mick La Vage. The sessions were a disaster. The band were unsure what they wanted and the finished songs were sterile in both performance and production. The album was scrapped. The songs were eventually re-recorded, in one session, onto eight-track.
The Stickmen's self-tilted, self-recorded, self-released, and self-funded album ("we did 50 gigs for $1,200 or something ridiculous," says Kelly) also contained QuickTime videos of the songs ‘Without A Clue’ and ‘Paradise’, a feature not widely practiced at the time and indicative of band's forward thinking aesthetic. 500 copies of the album were pressed. Good luck finding one.
Ianto (drums): "[The album] represented us more truthfully, gave a bit more of the sense of who we were and what we were like live, which, for the record was fucken great and never really captured on either album."
‘Kill the creep inside’
By all accounts, The Stickmen were a captivating live act. The band often dressed in drag and wore make-up onstage. Their sets were well thought out and evenly paced, with all four members in musical tune to the moment’s mood. An adept guitarist, Kelly only needed to look at his band mates if he wanted to change tempo or style and they'd instinctively feel his direction. The songs were constantly modified live and would often be played really fast or overly slow. "That's where we were at our best - playing live," Kelly asserts. "We could do a set that was quite long and would start off with these slow instrumentals and some balladry type things, then get up to this big rock ‘n’ roll machine at the end.”
Central to The Stickmen's sound was Kelly's guitar technique, a style he'd developed from playing for hours at a time, attempting to hypnotize himself by repeating the same riffs over and over. "I had this great Music Man amp," he recalls, “like a Fender Twin kind of thing, and a Maton JB6 guitar. A great machine, a real workhorse. When you get those valve amps so loud, they do sound great - pretty punishing for the punters - but great."
Tom Lyngcoln recalls the band’s innovative use of turntables thus: “They sat so well and so in sync with the rest of the band without sounding like 28 Days or 311 or something,” he says. “Matt would find these records that were totally indistinguishable and seemingly useless but when placed in combination with the band they added the equivalent of an orchestra over the top of the music. The songs would take on another form all together.”
Lyrics were another important aspect of the songs. While Kelly freely admits that some of his lyrics were flighty, most were well considered, evolving from a sub-conscious flow of ideas. Typically they dealt with bleak and nihilistic themes. Lyngcoln remembers recording the band once, when Kelly insisted on reading the lyrics rather than singing them.
It’s just the shell of a man, what happened to his insides?
Lost sight of his instincts - years ago.
And his inclusion in the world,
Does it make the world a better place?
The world is a better place
The world is a better place
No! No! No! No! No!
‘Wake up and I'm wishing I was dead’
Man Made Stars, The Stickmen's second and final album, appeared with little fanfare in 1999. By the time it was released, the band had almost ceased to exist. "We recorded Man Made Stars and then before it was released we sort of tipped up," Kelly says. “We did a CD launch in Hobart, and that was pretty much it."
Ianto: "We broke up a bit because Aldous didn't want to do it anymore, and a bit because he wanted to leave Tassie and the rest of us didn't." Understandably, Kelly is more guarded when I quiz him. "I don't really want to go there," he says quietly, before adding, “It was just time. Time for it to stop. I don't think anyone expected it; it was a pretty crazy time."
Kelly left Tasmania to settle in Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. He has a new group called The Field that he's working on with his brother Pablo, and partner, Erin.
“It’s not as rocked out [as The Stickmen]; country, surf, stuff. I think it's far superior myself." Ianto Kelly went on to play drums in The Night Terrors before following love to Paris and relocating there permanently. Luke Osborne works in a Government department in Canberra, while Matt 'the turntable dude' Geeves resides in Hobart.
“It was cool at the time and we did some good stuff,” Kelly sums up. “People got into it and it was great. At the time, maybe I didn't fully appreciate it. I was just doing what I liked and some of the great stuff came out because I didn't really care too much. I find it hard to listen to; some of it’s a wee bit angsty. I think what I'm doing now is way cooler, but that's just natural I suppose.”
A retrospective of The Stickmen is due late 2006 on the Solar/Sonar re-issue label. http://www.solarsonar.com.au