The Space In Between
“It’s the same as saying what people listen to influences the way they play, which I certainly believe to be true. I think working in any sort of artistic form, what surrounds you seeps into your work.” ELIZA SARLOS reports.
Ahh the astute words of a pseudo theoretician. Ben Byrne, a sound artist, bass player, and promoter in Sydney’s burgeoning sound/ noise/ improv community, but also a partial academic on the issue, waxes lyrical on influences and music. You, reading this article right now, are less likely to take his words and apply them to your own scene, at least that’s my guess. Maybe you’re thinking that when you’ve got someone improvising it’s much easier to see how their environment is going to influence what they’re doing because it’s happening right there, and then, it is spontaneous performance, but I think that that’s easily transferable. Unless you’re seeing stadium rock or pantomime, shouldn’t every performance be spontaneous?
Every set from a band, whether they’re straight up rock, masters of pop, or twiddlers of knobs, they should all be unique events, which is why we head out to shows and invest in seeing live sets. It’s that opportunity to see something that you’re never going to be able to see again. To share an individual experience with the punters and performers that inhabit the same space as you at any one moment which, ultimately, is the product you’re buying when you pay your eight bucks at the door of any venue, established or not.
I know that sometimes I leave a pub (or a mega huge arena sized venue) feeling like I’ve just listened to a CD turned up to eleven, with a bunch of sweaty men. I end up feeling a mixture between let down, stinking and annoyed, none of which were the intended outcomes of my ticket purchase. I get the feeling it’s because the event becomes a commercial exchange, rather than a cultural one.
“When you play in pubs it can easily become about other things. They tell you to make sure that lots of people come. And make sure that they all drink lots of beer. Then you realise that your show, your music... you, just end up being another elaborate advertisement for alcohol and $5 steaks.”
Welcome to my world, and please note I’m referring to the space of postcodes spanning 2000 – 2204 (a limited scope, yes). In this world the Thaw regularly amaze me. They’re the three (relatively) young ones that so lucidly responded to my suggestion that pubs definitely have an effect on the world of live music (please see above).
I’d hate to think that that’s all there was for live music, that pubs and other established live music venues dictated the spaces where musicians were able to create. Luckily the artists in our fine country, some of them at least, engage with space beyond the ease that a regimented load in, sound check and performance dictates, and value their music a little higher than a replacement for pokies. It happens everywhere – wherever there are people making music there are people performing it, be it in a pub or on a street, in a warehouse, a bedroom, a backyard, a skate park – wherever – people, these people, are innovative about where they take their sounds and are hip to the way that these spaces effect both the parties in the, shall we say, cultural transaction.
Now that we’re in our comfy postcode zone that spans out (only) as far as Marrickville, lets traipse around a bit.
- Space 3
- The Wedding Circle
- Yvonne Ruve
- China Heights
- The Frequency Lab
- Lan Franchis Memorial Discotheque
- Twenty Two
- The Clubhouse
- Devonshire Street Tunnel
- Church halls
- Town Halls
You’re not from Sydney? You’re going to think I’m on crack, or practicing some bizarre form of free association. You might even be in Sydney, have lived here all your life, and still think that I’m grabbing at words floating in the ether. Think harder. Look further. These are the places, the spaces, rather, where stuff happens, and happens differently every time they’ve been used as creative spaces.
Climb up some stairs in a beaten down old building, avoid the randomly splattered green paint that invades your footwear, clutch your longneck and prepare – warehouses, artist run spaces, temporary autonomous zones – whatever – we’re about to embark on an exploration of DIY spaces, Sydney styles.
What does this exploration hold for the viewer (you)? Everything, but nothing simultaneously. A vast melee of the unknown that music, every musical performance you sit through, should contain. That unique experience, I guess.
I promise, despite the amount of visualizing I’ve made you engage with thus far, I’m not a hippie.
Here’s the thing: the year the indie geek was created I celebrated immensely. Let it be known I probably wasn’t even conceived yet, but at that time things changed, and the ethos of ye olde fave Punk became universally applicable to anyone with a DIY approach. That is, punk became an idea rather than a poorly performed three chords.
In my view, being punk is about circumventing the effects of industry at any level, and keeping culture as something attached to the people that create it. So DIY record labels are a great example. Beyond that? DIY spaces, most most definitely, and in the same way that DIY record labels, or indies, allow a relative freedom from the record industry embracing spaces outside of those the industry provides is another way of bypassing the necessity of attaching dollar figures to everything, or even better, circumventing it entirely.
At the core of this idea is the opportunity to create your own culture, to decentralize the modes of cultural production and consumption and focus in on localized instances of culture. In other words? To create your own world, your own (lack of) rules, so you don’t need to use theirs.
Now, remember we’re being Sydney centric here. In this town most things that have any (commercial) success in a recorded realm have a certain company’s stamp of approval whacked on the back under mastering credits. I don’t doubt for a second that the words lo fi send shivers down their collective spines, and that’s no dis on them, it’s just a recognition of what their sound is (incredibly samey) and where it’s headed (top 40). It serves its function, you see. For Tim, employed by said company, it “caters to a completely different end of the spectrum, which is great and all but all the music we play and all the creative output we have isn’t really present in that kind of environment, and times that by a hundred with all the bands and the friends and artists we know we just saw a gap.” The we refers to Tim and Mike (Mike being both Tim’s coworker and cohort).
With that gap Tim and Mike got proactive, setting up Soviet studios, plus a label and rehearsal space coinciding, to practice their chosen occupation with artists they respected. Out of that stemmed the short but joyously lived Iraq.
Inhabiting an unused space in a warehouse set for demolition, Iraq became something of a Utopian respite for the way that venues had developed alongside commercial necessity. “We just had this huge space out the back that our landlords had never really given us use of for anything major, but one day – just the same as the label – we decided it was stupid and that we should do something, try and inject something into the scene,” Tim explains, in what is definitely an exercise in altruism rather than feigned humility.
Both practically and historically, when something is physically lacking there’s no better way to generate moves towards its creation. Few readers would be unfamiliar with the relative dearth of venues in Sydney, and within that there’s definitely a lack of official space within which to get experimental, which makes it even harder if that’s your musical inclination.
“I don’t think you can really play the pub circuit as an experimental, or a heavy, band, even these days constantly because of the way the music industry and the market work,” Tim, also of Fast Mountain Die, explains. What he means is that without a hook there’s nothing to sell.
Over at Paint It Black in Newtown, the record store that also acts as the daytime home to some of those involved in 22 on Enmore Rd and Maggotsville in Marrickville, they tend to agree. “When these spaces disappear, and it always happens – one gets shut down for a while and there won’t be a place to put gigs on for a while, and it’s a noticeable absence – the bands and the people that want to go out to those kinds of things I think they really feel that...
“There’s not really any places for the kind of stuff we want to put on, so we’re forced to make our own spaces, and I guess that’s kind of how Maggotsville came about,” Aaron, of Paint It Black, 22, Maggotsville and also Pure Evil Trio continues, “and 22 as well, we got offered this space and jumped on it.”
So, once you’ve got your space, where does everything else fall into place? I’m really interested in the politics of it all, and I’ve generated a pretty keen interest in the impact that space can have on the way music is created. How a performance might reflect a change of environment, and the way that the reception of that performance is also undefined, things like that. It’s something that is put into effect when the space isn’t codified, and both parties don’t have a strict idea of how they should be dealing with their respective spaces.
Ben Byrne, the one we’re entrusting with all the remotely theoretical perspectives, sees it this way. “You go somewhere like a pub, or an art gallery, and its very heavily codified in very subtle ways how you should react. In most spaces there are all these assumptions about what you should do, and I think warehouses to some extent can operate as a blank slate. You expect to see something a bit different.”
On their next East Coast tour rockin – actually, pubrockin - three piece Peabody have slotted in a show at Lan Franchis Memorial Discotheque, a warehouse space in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Chippendale. While they’re probably not a band I’d see in a pub by choice, there’s every chance I’d go to that show. Why? It goes back to the previously mentioned idea of a unique experience, and one that different spaces foster.
Peabody’s iconic frontman Bruno seems to agree.
“I think it [playing in a warehouse] does change the way you perform and I think it changes the way you’re perceived to perform. It’s weird because it’s not really a tangible difference – it’s not like you can say we play louder or we play slower or we play better. In a pub its more likely to be, at least for a band like us, sweaty rock n roll with out much going on in between, and then there’s times that you have to adhere to, and the people that are watching it, they’re there because they want to see you play and have a few drinks, and they like the idea of both. Whereas if you’re playing somewhere like a warehouse space you’re more likely to do things differently. Maybe you’d change the set list around a little more to suit the environment, to suit the crowd, and the types of people that go there may not have such an active interest in the band themselves, but more in the concept and the event.” Peabody have plans to fully utilize that idea of concept attached to performance, with this upcoming show at Lan Franchis having Peabody playing while, behind them, a blank canvas is chastised by ten people and some paint. Through sheer logistics and grumpy publicans you’re never going to see that in a pub.
This idea of space and performance, outside of the norm, fits in nicely with the awkwardly academic idea of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone (thanks Ben), “a transitory utopian space of uprising that escapes the controls and even repressions of modern society” (again, thanks Ben) but one that pairs warehouse spaces up with an idea of DIY, “and subverting the normal, an undercurrent of society that avoids the structures of capitalism and the pressure it imposes, and they’re also – as alternative spaces – they very often will into political arguments confronting the norms of society,” as, once more, Ben Byrne brilliantly surmises. And while the more cynical reader is going to see what are essentially artist-run spaces as a replica of capitalist, property based society, only with the hierarchies reshuffled, I think there’s a lot more to it. Like these places become a part of the underground. Or create an underground.
“There’s a lot of small spaces being run by legitimate people in Sydney that I feel is operating as the underground in Sydney, because aside from those spaces the only other options you have for putting on musical or cultural events is fucking pubs and typical spaces, places where perhaps the money’s going to an outside source that doesn’t really have anything to do with the culture or the music that’s operating in that space,” Aaron from 22/ Pure Evil Trio suggests that its got plenty to do with who’s running it, regardless of if there’s money involved. “It’s being able to put on shows without lining anyone’s pockets, keeping it all in the family.” Ha. Nice one. But further than that, it’s about developing what are burgeoning scenes in a city where the arts are significantly disabled because of a foolish State government and, well, pokies.
“I think that’s what spaces like ours are attempting to do in a really unplanned sort of way,” Aaron continues, “offer a consolidation point for the underground to decide what they want to do and give them a space to do it.”
It’s a common theme, that one of altruistically investing in the idea of something happening. I’m not going to be simplistic and say it’s the first time in eons – I know damn well that Sydney’s got a significant hardcore scene, a fully functioning improv community, and noise-makers establishing their worth internationally – but it is the first time in a while that these disparate areas of music makers are becoming a little less disparate. Blurred, not crossed, as Tom from Paint It Black/ 22 put it so poignantly. For mine that’s an underground that’s developing with longevity at the fore, rather than exclusivity.
The kids over at Soviet identify it as being more about community, and developing those communities, rather than being focused in on individuals. Who’d have guessed it with a name like that?
As Tim explains over some caffeine I can kind of imagine it being in the dank environs of a disused warehouse space, clutching a longie with a self satisfied grin. “Being able to stop and go – well usually you wouldn’t put this band on with this band cos it might piss a few people off – but the thing was if I was there I was there to watch an Iraq night not to have a preconception about a band. Making it about the music and not a type of music. It’s an experience – these bands are offering experiences to people to take in.” Sounds like the closer of a mastercard ad, but that’s what makes it great. These are things that aren’t for sale.
“Because people were coming just to watch bands there’s definitely that community vibe that people are there for a similar reason and have a similar respect for what’s happening...I just think Sydney needs to have 50,000 more creative spaces doing stuff like that before we even start grasping the relevancy of that type of community in that different end of the spectrum.” Tim’s busy creating a collective ready to acknowledge the relevancy, but I say fuck that. Individuals can see how crucial these types of communities are for everyone from a kid just playing guitar all the way to a superstar stuck for ideas – the underground has always been the site where music gets creative, and sure it always gets co-opted, but that’s not an issue because it’s similarly always evolving. That five of these spaces exist in Sydney, while it’s not enough, is damn good.
Before I offer you the relief of blank space, or someone else’s text, I think it’s important to think more about these spaces as zones where do-it-yourself becomes synonymous with independence, even if you’re not doing it yourself but are rather doing it with someone who does it outside of that mainstream. Look at a band like Peabody – career-wise they’re different to Wolfmother (obviously) so it would make sense for them to exist in a realm where they weren’t going to come up against a band like Wolfmother (obviously?).
“I think it does create that environment of doing it yourself, and being independent of certain things like how many people are going to be there and how many beers are going to be bought.” It’s here that Bruno from Peabody reflects, albeit silently, on what he’s saying about the alcohol fuelled education 12 years in pubs has given him.
“I’m not criticizing pubs for doing that, they’ve got costs and they’re running a business and people have to go and see [bands in pubs] for them to survive, but I think it’s really important to have spaces for people to do something differently and promote that kind of independence, because I think too many younger bands get caught up in the business side of things and end up trying to compete with things that they can never compete with.” It’s not reclaiming the music in some lame appropriation of outdated feminist politics, but it is making music about music, and not about money changing hands. “Even bands like us, not a young band obviously, but who have some level of profile (but we’re obviously not really really popular), its useless for us to play the same game that bands like Wolfmother would be playing, and try and compete with them, when realistically these days you do need a certain amount of money and power behind you to achieve that kind of stuff,” and at that Bruno’s defined it. When you’re inhabiting disused spaces the running costs are likely to be more affordable without the leg up that alcohol sales are going to provide you with, in much the same way that indie record labels work on a different level to the way that majors throw around advertising budgets, hair stylists and limousines.
“We’re trying to put ourselves outside of that,” Bruno suggests, in relation to the circuits and defined spaces that a band at the level of Wolfmother, or Powderfinger, or Guy Sebastian for that matter would inhabit. “It used to be easier to put yourself outside of that mainstream, like 15 years ago, I guess when people talk about alternative – it used to be really alternative but I think after Nirvana that blended in and it stopped existing to a certain extent. “ Maybe it stopped existing, or maybe it just became less visible. Maybe it relocated to spaces with bad plumbing and even worse publicity, which has its own problems (my faves from the beginning, the Thaw, are quick to point out how these out of the way venues and their word of mouth publicity quickly lead to a different form of elitism). Or maybe it’s just waiting to re-emerge, follow the path of Alternative rock, or Punk rock before it, or Rock rock before that; be co-opted; and wait for a new underground to save it from cyclical irrelevancy.
“We don’t have heaps of money, and we’re not experienced, not yet, we just know if you get a PA and a space and ask a bunch of bands to play they probably will.” That’s Tim Soviet with his final words on DIY spaces. Damn Straight.