Cannibalismo Oz Style
The late 1960s was a time of pretty severe political and social upheaval in Brazil, so much so that Brazilians thought it necessary to assert a kind of counter-cultural element through their music. Sure, it was a sound found in a melee of external influences, but the end result was so heavily filtered through a Brazilian movement, ethos and approach that Tropicalia really couldn't have come from anywhere else. In cultural studies theory they call it ‘cultural cannibalism’ … which I think sounds tops.
Fast forward 40-odd years, relocate to the other side of the world, and could this idea of cultural appropriation, or cannibalism, still be applicable? And even further than that, how necessary is it to have a sound that is markedly Australian?
My mission: To find out if there ever was an Australian sound, if there is one now, and why it’s important. My companions along the way: I gathered together five members from four of the most intriguing bands in Sydney, gave them beer, shoved a dictaphone in front of them, and talked Australia. These bands, and their members, were as follows: (ordered in seating arrangements from me) Dave from Dappled Cities Fly, Owen from the Holy Soul/Clear Spots, Matt from Decoder Ring, and Lucy and Andrew from Naked On The Vague (Andrew’s also one half of Vincent Over The Sink).
Just because I was a little unsure as to whether musicians could be articulate in a pub, I made sure I got some opinions from further a field. Stepping up to the proverbial plate were Chris Townend, esteemed studio producer from Sydney’s Big Jesus Burger, and himself a musician (Sun is the name of his band, although not the limits of his musicianship), and stalwart of Australian independent music – and my own personal hero – Bob Blunt.
The results? Read on, fine friend.
Was there ever an Australian sound? Long Way To The Top will have you thinking there certainly was, right from the word go. Which means you’d be legitimate in championing someone like Johnny O’Keefe as symbolic of true Australian culture, when really he was more a cardboard cut-out of all your fave rock’n’roll stars from America, circa 1950s. In a current context, it’d be like isolating Jet as the saviours of Australian culture.
But I know you’re an educated music listener, you’re reading Mess+Noise! And you know very well that music out of this country hasn’t consisted solely of a linear progression from Johnny O’Keefe to Jet. There have been definite periods in the way Australian music has progressed, when the presence of something markedly Australian has stuck out, along with the relative slumps. But, of course, and brilliantly so, opinions on it differ so, so much.
“For me, that period of the Birthday Party was a high point of Australian independent music, sticking it to the world.”
From behind his beer Decoder Ring Matt has opened up conversation, suggesting that Australian music is always created as a response, or a rejection of everything that’s going on internationally.
“And I think Australian music, when it’s really good, almost taps into that distance we have from other things.”
This idea of isolation is a big one, and it’s something that academic/fan Bob Blunt saw as essential to defining any sense of Australianness in sound.
“Australia is so far away from the rest of the world, and one of the best things about it is that it’s able to create and forge identities of its own. For me what a distinct Australian sound sounds like is something that’s not about that whole copyist idea: it’s not about ‘let’s mimic and imitate a sound,’ it’s creating a sound that’s distinctly something special.”
And it’s true – for originality and any sense of autonomous culture it’s important to get creative, inventive and progressive. So dispel your fears of cultural imperialism! Think of music progressing as a conversation – a dynamic discussion where both players (I guess the ‘us’ and ‘them’) are active.
Of all my interviewees, Chris Townend is the one transfixed on the link between the earth and an Australian aesthetic. From his vantage point as one of the most innovative producers our country has to offer, he’s been able to engage on much more than the surface of Australian music, recognising the role the environment we create in plays in that dynamic conversation.
“A lot of people probably don’t realise that a lot of those bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney, all those bands in the nineties, were all influenced by Australian bands. We had these bands in Adelaide – bands like Grong Grong, the Southern Fried Kidneys and the Celibate Rifles – a whole bunch of sort of ‘wild’ rock bands, and the Yanks just lapped it up. It was totally new to them. And that was very much a sound. That still exists a bit, but not as much.”
Historically, that idea of ‘newness’, or innovation, has always been linked to an Australian sound. So where does that idea sit with the players of today?
OWEN (Holy Soul): Even if you go back to bands like The Easybeats, they kind of had something that a lot of overseas bands didn’t have. Look at international bands like The Kinks and other bands at the time and The Easybeats had an energy that didn’t exist [with those other bands].
MATT (Decoder Ring): It’s almost the same thing in all of them – there are things happening in the world but the Australian version just had a rawness and integrity to it – it was a bit more ‘fuck off!’ than the international versions sounded.
Who are some of these bands, the ones with the raw filter? If you’re searching for something iconic (I think at the start of this interview, I was) it’s pretty hard to look past pub rock.
In regards to distinctness in the sounds coming out of Melbourne, Chris Townend reckons it’s again a landscape thing. “AC/DC is a perfect example. Years ago all these rock bands came out, and the sound was very rock, and very dirty, and I relate it back to the soil – this is a dirty country, there’s dust, the soil blows up, it’s a dry continent, and when you get those rock bands like AC/DC that play dirty, dusty rock music the dryness of the country really effects the music.”
Pretty much every one of our group of hot new(ish) things agree that AC/DC personified that rawness on an international scale, but dig further into the relative underground and you’re undoubtedly going to encounter better examples.
“They [Acca] still had that rawness,” Andrew from Naked On The Vague says, “but it was still that hard rock that was happening in other places. And I think that bands like the Birthday Party and the Scientists had something much more uniquely Australian. It was a bit more impressive, a bit more violent … which is the feeling you might get if you were in rural Queensland or something.”
It seems that conversation, in all three that I had, centres fairly heavily on a period continuously referred to as ‘then’. So what’s changed? It’d be easy to say that – quite simply – we’ve got that comfy vantage point of hindsight in which identifying a current sense of Australianness hasn’t yet been enabled, but I think there’s a helluva lot more to it.
ANDREW (NOTV): In hindsight, it seems that that [Australian sound] was really cool. And then somewhere in the nineties, and even now, there’s a bit of a cringe to think you’re proudly Australian. I don’t know if that came during the nineties, and if music became bigger globally, or that as Australia grew we became more Americanised …
MATT (DR): The way we’ve gone into this war that has nothing to do with us, it shows our lack of independence. And I think we’re so complicit anyway that as an artist, if you’re continuing to support our morphing into a state of America, then I think you’re complicit. But I don’t sing so I can get away with it …
DAVE (DCF): Our reaction is part of our international psyche. We’re followers, and we like being told what to do. [Not me, or any of us, he adds quickly.]
Whoah. Hold up. That’s a pretty severe accusation.
On first thought the idea that our cultural identity could be linked to a broader sense of nationality makes me shudder. Is John Howard really even remotely responsible for the way we react to musical movements internationally? Yuck.
Andrew seems to know what he’s talking about: “The decision to adopt national identity in music, or in any art – you’ve got to want to celebrate your culture. It can’t be a passion if you're obliged to make it.”
I think he’s right. And if you’re viewing Australian culture as something singular you’re going to encounter problems from anyone who actually cares about innovation. You can’t simply adhere to one dominant culture. In fact, it’s almost more empowering to go up against that dominant, because more often than not it’s going to be a streamlined, washed out, empty mainstream culture.
Like it is for Lucy, Andrew’s bandmate. Naked On The Vague’s sound is like nothing else, and it’s definitely removed from the dirtier rock moments of Australian musical history. In fact, I’d say they're (maybe subconsciously?) acting against it. For Lucy, it’s a lack of pride:
“I don’t think I want to celebrate the dominant Australian culture, and our recent colonial history. It’s pretty nasty.”
Good call – but maybe the avoidance of any sense of national being is a kind of active dissent. Can I be exceedingly optimistic and say that that anti-Australianness is actually a rejection of the dominant and caricatured culture we’re constantly fed? And that, in its own way, maybe it is Australianness?
If a national cultural identity is about having pride in the dominant culture and the need to assert it, I’d forgive even the most generic band for lacking said pride. But I shudder to think that everything coming out of our fair country has to come with an American/English tinge now, just because the national state of affairs is f'ked and that the dominant culture is so, well, dominating.
Look further afield, beyond our literacy in the language of indie music, and there are inspiring examples aplenty. Aussie hip-hop has so successfully crafted an Australian vernacular that it would literally be impossible to place bands like The Herd, Combat Wombat or even more production-based outfits like Hermitude in any other country. Same goes for a lot of the stuff that’s happening below the surface in improvisational and experimental realms. The players from each of these worlds are grabbing as many sources of culture as possible, just like our Brazilian counterparts 40 years ago. In doing this they’re doing something specific. They’re creating sounds unique to here both in terms of time and space. It’s a cultural reconstruction where place is as important an inspiration as that killer beat you witnessed last time you were down at your local. And while they might be reluctant to admit it, I think the same thing is happening below the surface with your favourite indie anti-star. It might just be that in its current standing as ‘subculture of the year’, the willingness of indie to dissent is sidelined from clear vision. Which is ironic, cos that dissent is where indie as a genre stems from.
Historically, art has always provided a platform through which to display disapproval – and this dissent so often comes out of finding an identity that stems out of what it’s not. I think in searching for an Australian identity, be it in culture, in politics, or even in geography, you’re always going to come back to that identification of what we’re not. And I know for sure I’m not what Rolling Stone or Cosmo or Riot tell me I am.
But that’s just it – this idea of identity, and of identity through sound, doesn’t exist as a singularity. That's why it’s great that magazines like Mess+Noise, or its online forums, or community radio or DIY spaces exist. They’re spaces that function outside of the muddy waters of commerce and agenda, or at least in terms of expressing agendas they’re hell keen on expressing a couple and being relatively transparent about it. And I think the same can be said of musos, or the better ones. It’s just a matter of finding the confidence to express that voice.
So where’s our identity going/gone? What’s changed?
“I think in the early to mid eighties there was a distinct ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture against the world, particularly in Australia with the underground music scene, and there was a really thriving underground music scene that existed because at that time there wasn’t a national radio network that introduced that music to the masses,” Bob Blunt suggests. And, I hate to throw in a plug, but his Blunt: A Biased History Of Australian Rock is a f'king bible on the topic.
With both physical and time distance (Bob’s now in South Korea, and has – through geography more than anything – disengaged with the scene he was such a part of), I reckon Bob’s got a kind of removed privilege that no one else has.
“You talk about if it’s possible now and I think it’s possible for people to get out there and do active and creative things. And I think it’s important. I’m not this major sort of patriotic nationalist kind of person, I just think it’s really important that there is something that exists otherwise we’d be existing in a vacuum of major labels and bands aspiring to be The Strokes or Franz Ferdinand. And if there’s not something that’s bubbling under the surface, if that’s not happening, it just means everything’s so streamlined and boring. It becomes like a big game.”
OWEN (HS): We need to develop an artistic identity. I think that there’s something undeniable about being Australian, no matter what you’re doing. I’d hope that something would come through. If we were all to go overseas and start new bands and try and deny the fact that we’re Australian, I think the result would be quite poor.
MATT (DR): I think history shows, and even now it shows, that people are interested in Australian music – really interested in it – and people want to write their own music. It would just be crazy for us to become a receptacle for stuff from other countries and reproduce that locally, which is what we’re doing. We’re going to write better music if we’re expressing what’s actually real to us because we’re going to have more emotional integrity, and people are going to relate to it more. Sometimes, you’ve got to be a bit brave to do that.
DAVE (DCF): We’re in an interesting situation because rock’n’roll, and just bands in general, have suddenly taken a high spot – the clubs are off the agenda for youth and the bands are in. And because of the fact that we’re all bands in such an isolated place, we just love the fucking hype so we’re always going to have a knee-jerk reaction to try and sound like the stuff that’s coming from overseas.
Ugh. Nails. Heads. Hit upon.
Integrity, be it artistic or emotional, never ever equates with a priority of commercial viability. And, right now, the obscurity of the late 80s underground seems like a heavenly existence for an artist prioritising innovation.
MATT (DR): I think the idea of being signed to a major label was just not an option [X years ago], so who gives a fuck what you do? And I think now a lot more bands are aware of the idea of trying to make it big and I think that they compromise, and they borrow. Whereas I think back then the lack of any commercial ability is what sort of drove them to do what they wanted, and that’s ultimately where they found their success, because they were making their own sounds.
DAVE: But that’s always the way. That’s why it’s such a flaw to come from Australia and try and be Jet. Where Australia wins in the international scene is in persistence, and bands like Nick Cave, The Bee Gees [Laughs].
ANDREW (NOTV): My grandma sold her house to The Bee Gees.
DAVE (DCF): Why isn’t she fucking here?
MATT (DR): Well, thank your grandma for her contribution to Australian music.
But really, the idea of commerce is as pervasive in music as it is in your cyclical destitute existence of paying rent, bills, and beer buying.
MATT (DR): It’s become about major labels, international deals and multi-national promotion, which is an attack on our culture because we’re not a primary market. So they’re only interested in us if our bands sound like they’ll go well overseas, and they’re not actually interested in bands that sound different. You either have to be the ‘classic Australian’ caricature or something that sounds like the latest thing from somewhere else. They’re your two options.
DAVE (DCF): It’s because we have no fucking culture.
MATT (DR): That’s our own fault. It’s our responsibility to fight that fight. As musicians we’re supposed to be the cultural vanguard that reasserts that [idea of independence], and if we don’t speak with an independent voice – mass media isn’t going to do it for them, they’re already being saturated with things from overseas – independent artists need to provide an alternative.
It seems pretty pointless at times, though. You only need to look back to M+N Issue #3 and The Drones’ departure to see how small the audiences are in this country, and how it means commercial viability is located in the where of else. It’s a ridiculously roundabout way to success in your home country, when the numbers of people that are going to engage with the media supporting you on an independent level are so small that unless you return having conquered the world, you’re unlikely to see that success.
MATT (DR): The NME thing is a classic, which EMI love to do – before they release something here they say “NME said this band’s great …”
Look at a band like Youth Group. Owen, who lends his tambourine/theremin talents to the band, sees it as a textbook example – and you really don’t have to think back that far to when the band were playing in tiny rooms to disinterested audiences. “They signed to Epitaph, went overseas, and have since then gotten bigger and bigger [here],” Owen identifies. Look at The Vines, Jet, or get some cred and refer back to the ultimate heroes of innovation and Australian sound, The Dirty Three. It’s the same story in repeat. I dare say it’s going to happen again when The Drones grace our shores as expatriates.
Back to Chris Townend, over at Big Jesus Burger, who’s had ideas brewing for an eternity. They’re ideas that stem from the dirty sound that comes from the physical being of our country and our music-making environment.
“We take risks because we’re so far away, and who wants to compete?” Townend suggests. “It’s the same in the film industry; it’s just turning around now after so many years in the doldrums because all we did was try to emulate American films and all we did was fuck it up. And now we’re starting to make films, great films, that have this Australianness about them, and that’s what the people overseas want to see, and what they want to hear.”
And an example?
“The Dirty Three. Warren Ellis’ violin playing is really reminiscent of Australia – there’s a real Australianness in it, and that’s a perfect example. When they go overseas, people love them because they’ve got an angle that no one else in the world has got. And it’s very Australian, because they don’t sound like anyone but who they are.”
I get a kind of sardonic glee over the fact that mimicking sounds is unlikely to get you anywhere in terms of longevity and an international career – and that if you really want to stand out it’s not about replicating sounds, or even searching for something that can be easily characterised as Australian. There’s not really a singularity to an Australian sound, and I guess that’s the conclusion I’ve been looking for ever since I started to love the guitar chime, the vocal twang, or the intricate arrangements of my ever-changing favourite Australian band/s.
Lucy says with a marked note of closure, “I think that to do that would be to identify something that can’t be identified, because the minute you identify it you limit what it can be, which is scary – not having boundaries on what ideas are, and what sounds are is a good thing.” And I think she’s right.
Decoder Ring’s Matt seems totally on the money as well. “We can’t define ourselves now by what Nick Cave did,” he identifies. “You’ve got to be contemporary and Australian, not just Australian, otherwise the only way you could be Australian was if you played pub rock. And God help us all.”
But lastly – back to Brazil, Tropicalia and that idea of a cultural cannibalism. I reckon at the moment, originality is so far off that I’m just not sure it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Instead, where virtue in music making lies is in innovation, applied to creation which might simply be the way you throw together/ reference the sounds you love. A national culture is so damn elusive, but in terms of generating that abovementioned dissent, maybe it’s important we try to identify one, or even a couple. I’m no theorist – but Owen seems to have the answers.
ME: Do you think it’s possible for something like what happened in Brazil with Tropicalia to happen here, now?
OWEN: I think it would be difficult to ‘create’ a new national culture that can be identified with using so-called popular music and art as a conveyance. Especially in regard to music, people just aren’t so accepting of such a complicated concept in popular music anymore. So, could a group actively exist to cannibalise all the influences that come into Australia, thus creating an ultimate up-to-date Australian culture that we can all identify with? Yeah, sure they could. It just wouldn’t be popular, so we wouldn’t hear about it via the regular media channels, if any at all. Who knows if they’d be able to do such a thing anyway, with the HUGE number of very, very different aspects affecting our current ‘cultural climate’.
I think he’s talking about globalisation. Or something. But you know what, I’m an optimist – Tropicalia existed because there was a reason for it to, and the here and now is no different. I reckon the ultimate up-to-date Australian culture can happen. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion it’s already happening.