Depending on who you ask, The Drones could be ‘the best band in Australia’ or merely ‘one of the best bands this country currently has to offer.’ So why are they leaving? ANDREW RAMADGE talks to Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin about playing for geeks and paying the rent. Photography by BEN BUTCHER.
Emotion is curled around the cigarette smoke tonight. It’s The Drones’ final show in Melbourne before embarking on an ‘indefinite’ relocation to Europe, and a certain intimacy has grown amongst The Corner audience. It seems to rub-off on weathered frontman Gareth Liddiard, who introduces the melancholy audience favourite ‘Locust’ with an extended, near-uncomfortable introduction. Alone on stage with guitar and neck harp, he details the sad demise of the number’s real-life muse – as if the teary-eyed front row needed further distress.
This is the easy part, relatively speaking. The Drones have spent the majority of this year impressing audiences since the release of their second full-length Wait Long By The River And The Bodies Of Your Enemies Will Float By, an epic of impassioned rock dirges, punk ballads and bleak Australian imagery. The hard part, as the band explained earlier in the evening, is paying the rent.
Five hours beforehand and Liddiard is reclined in a couch back-stage while bassist Fiona Kitschin perches on the cushion adjacent. Manager Tim Hegarty comes and goes sporadically, leaning against a cupboard in the corner and closing the door behind other wanderers-in. Kitschin tries her hardest not to add much, preferring only to reign in some of her bandmate’s broader statements. Liddiard seems relaxed and doesn’t bother sugar-coating his opinions on the nature of being a musician in Australia.
“John Scott from The Mark of Cain asked me what the best piece of advice for young bands is,” he says, raising his voice and pausing between words in competition with a string of support acts performing their sound-check just beyond the door. “I said, ‘Get a fucking job.’”
The Drones know this reality as well as any Australian band, having spent years working day jobs to afford touring and recording costs. In fact, it’s only today that Liddiard and Kitschin have been able to leave those jobs behind in preparation for the upcoming trip to Europe. For both, it’s an opportunity to focus solely upon playing music that remains out-of-reach in their own country.
“You’d have to be really into it to appreciate our music – a music geek,” Liddiard explains when I ask about the group’s audiences. “There’s only so many people in Australia who are like that, so that’s why you go to Europe. Just so you can tour and make a bit of money.”
The most obvious difference between the two continents being, of course, their population. With the distance between Australia’s major cities, it simply isn’t viable for an alternative band to make money by touring – especially when, as Hegarty points out, the travelling costs often outweigh the money made from a concert. In any case, that money has never reached the band members directly, saved instead for their expenses, instruments (“My whole rig costs five or six thousand bucks, just so I can play guitar,” sighs Liddiard) and most recently, international airfares.
“There’s only five cities, and touring is where you make the most money,” Liddiard continues. “You can’t tour Australia all the time, because you’d be back in Sydney every two weeks and no one would come to see you.
“We’re not a rural band, either,” he says, which comes as some surprise given the dusty and desolate landscapes painted by song lyrics and the band’s isolated choices for recording spaces (most recently, Tasmania). “No one comes, because it’s just too fucking weird for them. We’ve got a motto – if there’s no skyscrapers, we don’t play.”
For Liddiard, though, the problem can’t simply be reduced to geography. He speaks at length about the cultural differences between Australia and Europe, with particular reference to the way musicians are regarded and the spectrum of music considered ‘pop’.
“Here, if you’re not John Farnham, you’re a dole bludger. That’s what a musician is,” he begins. “In Europe, it’s bizarre – they treat you like a great human being because you’re doing something creative. They treat musicians with as much respect as their great engineers.” Liddiard’s unwitting choice of the word ‘bizarre’ proves his point as much as anything else.
This devaluation of musicians seems to be tied in with the singer’s general view of contemporary Australia. Like so many other performers and artists, it’s clear that he is feeling the emotional and creative burden of a long-term conservative government and even longer-term emphasis on the overriding importance of capital. Whereas “Australia looks at a forest and sees money and looks at culture and sees money,” in Europe, he claims, “they see it for what it is. It doesn’t have to exist to support an economy.”
To some degree, this view affects the structure of popular music as well. With a looser connection between economy and culture, the boundaries of popular music become less tightly regulated by trend and time. “In Europe, Alex Chilton is pop,” says Liddiard, speaking of the cultish American ex-Big Star songwriter who inspired groups such as Teenage Fanclub and produced the The Cramps’ debut sessions. “So why would I listen to Britney Spears when Alex Chilton is better? It’s just like that.”
And just like that would suit The Drones just fine – though it’s not like they haven’t tried at home first. Wait Long By The River…’s first radio single, the wickedly morbid ‘Shark-Fin Blues’, received noticeable Triple J rotation, while its second, ‘Baby(Squared)’, recently appeared in several episodes of a mainstream TV comedy, Last Man Standing. “It’s great, we get paid,” is Liddiard’s first response to the topic, before he expands on the song itself. “That’s what ‘Baby(Squared)’ is, it’s our piss-take of a pop song. It’s what pop music is. ‘Baby’ to the power of itself.”
Momentarily offended on the song’s behalf, I move to speak before Kitschin jumps forward to assure me wholeheartedly that, “We still like it!”
But what about the getting paid part? The pair glance at each other, explaining in jointly finished sentences that the cost of the rights to their albums are modest at best (equivalent to, for example, a successful Melbourne gig). Beyond that, the only income from radio and television airplay comes in the form of APRA payments.
APRA stands for the Australasian Performing Right Association, an organisation representing musicians and composers who monitor the music broadcasts of radio and television stations, venues, cinemas, and so on, and then distribute the royalties back to the copyright holder, or the person or band who wrote it. In the case of television, the amount of royalties owed depends on when, how and for how long the music is used. For example, songs used during the opening credits of a program earn less per minute than those a character listens to on the radio during a particular scene.
“Every time something gets played you get paid by APRA. It’s not a huge amount, but shit happens,” Liddiard continues. When asked if bands should earn more from their songs’ airplay, he is stricken by an unexpected humility, refusing to claim anything more for himself amongst an industry of respected Australian musical peers. For him, the main contribution of APRA payments are to ‘ease out’ the shortfalls of undervalued licensing deals and band expenses, even though they fail to constitute a viable form of income.
“It’s funny. Every time all your gear breaks down, the APRA cheque comes in. All musicians know that, it’s uncanny. It’ll help you like that – to fix your guitar – but as far as a salary goes, you’re under $20 a week.”
Which is why, as most of us know, Australian musicians need a secondary job (often of the most menial kind) to get by. In turn, though, this can be problematic for touring and recording. Liddiard emphasises the amount of time required to write and record material – an introspective time of the type desperately despised by Young Liberals and government leaders, no doubt adding to the perception of “dole bludging” he spoke of earlier.
“You need time. Records take time. Songwriting takes time,” he begins, emphasising the word with each repetition. “When you’re writing or recording a song, it doesn’t mean shit if you haven’t been sitting there listening to Leonard Cohen in front of the stereo with nothing else to do. It doesn’t mean shit if you haven’t been reading about Eddie Kramer engineering Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin records.
“It’s that classic Picasso thing. He banged off a painting in, like, ten minutes flat – a portrait of a guy – and sold it to someone for 50 grand. All of these people said, ‘That’s fucked! It took you ten minutes to do!’ and he replied, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been working up to it for 25 years.’”
Those 25 years would surely have been miserable in this climate. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s this creative time – read unpaid and therefore unproductive – which is least valued in contemporary Australian society. That’s not why the band are leaving for Europe, though, and they don’t expect to gather much space between a busy touring schedule to record any new material. Thankfully, they’ve already got a third album fully recorded, and plan to return to Australia to launch and tour it in around six months.
“We’ll do our laps of Europe and the UK, come back and tour the record here, have some sort of time off and then go to the US, Japan and back to Europe. Once that’s done, then … ” Liddiard pauses and breathes in, no doubt realising the longevity of such well-formed plans. He looks up and finishes: “A break. For an extended period. Then do what you’ve got to do. Read and listen and figure out something else.”
And will they ever be returning home to stay? No one is sure. The singer is pessimistic about the feasibility of living in Australia while making an income from touring abroad, but acknowledges that it all depends on how successful the next 12 months prove to be. Any ears to have heard a preview of the third record may be more confident in The Drones’ prospects for the future. After all, four years ago Melbourne seemed as far away as Paris for the Perth-bred Liddiard. “The Beasts of Bourbon are just friends, now. If you’d told us that back then … ” he muses.
We finish another beer before I get around to that tabloid-friendly closer, almost apologising in advance before asking the pair what they are going to miss the most. “Friends, I guess,” says Kitschin, trailing into silence before Liddiard’s eyes dart over to her. “What about the dogs!?” he asks in mock-horror of her brevity. “Yeah, okay. Friends and the dogs.”