Ohana: Academy Fight Song
[The set up]
Thirroul is a tidy town, hemmed in by green chiselled mountains on one side and choppy green sea on the other. The sky is huge and blue, lurching out over the Pacific, but the streets are narrow. The main road winds south, through Wollongong and towards Port Kembla and its smoking stacks, or backs up north, where Sydney stands behind the shadow of the escarpment. Thirroul is not as far from the big city as you’d think, but it feels it. Everything is quiet. A peg drops off a washing line three streets away and you could probably hear it, sitting here beneath the beating midday sun.
“People say that down here, politics means making sure that your neighbour’s dog will shut up,” observes Will Farrier, a petite singer who’s moving faster than anything else in within eyeshot, hopping around a pole on the back porch of the Thirroul Neighbourhood Youth Centre. Faded green paint is flaking off the weatherboard wall behind him, while further back the sea slaps into a turquoise-coloured tidal pool. Whatever action this place has seen, it probably dates back to the same era as the tomato-red Kingswood sedan parked across the way.
You wouldn’t guess at it, but Thirroul is the town where the famously free-spirited British novelist DH Lawrence fled to in 1922, to escape persecution in England for his stance against World War One. He wrote a novel here, Kangaroo, describing the ocean outside his doorstep as “ice-fiery, fish-burning”. Brett Whiteley dropped of his perch at a nearby motel, desperate and junk-addicted. But today louche bohemia or even youthful vigour appears thin on the ground. “We get angry about stuff,” Will says, “but really, we’re so far removed from it, tucked away here in the northern [Wollongong] suburbs. Who are we to complain?”
Middle-class guilt has set many an interesting band in motion. Rock & roll rests on the myth of being proletariat, but so often it’s those with the option to choose otherwise who end up channelling their outrage, at least for a few years, into walking on stage and making a big noise. It doesn’t matter so much if you fail because there are other chances to fall back upon. The band that Will sings in is called Ohana, and firstly, they’ve been together for more than just a few years now. Secondly, the noise they make doesn’t sound like the comfort of choice. When they play – particularly live – they have a propulsion which convinces you that something is at stake. What that might be – beyond the success or failure of the performance itself – is difficult to articulate, but I imagine it as the soft edge of a cliff face, crumbling away. Slipping over into politics, or at the very least the urge to do. Something.
Step away from the coast. Head towards The Pitz, a glorified rehearsal room tucked well inside the industrial dead zone of Sydney’s Marrickville. The old Flora margarine factory dominates the locale with a smell like a knacker’s yard, damp and gluey. Picturing dead horses turned belly-up on the conveyor belt, you keep walking, hands tucked inside your pockets. Take a right turn, then a left. Tiny laneway. Roller door hiked up. Follow the noise of the bleeding PA.
Ohana are giving a truly kinetic performance inside the cramped, concrete room: it feels like their set is a deft shuffle of cards from one note and tempo to the next, to the next. They never stop moving. Bodily, they twist across the stage, bending and dipping; musically, they pivot from abrasive hardcore to a delicate syncopation. Many bands have pursued this dynamic, this “bi-polar music”, as Will later describes it; few get beyond the basic parameter of loud/quiet/loud. Ohana’s success lies partly in their difficult rhythms, their determination to avoid a four-on-the-floor gridlock: it opens up their sound to the shifting contours of jazz, among other things. You can sense the primacy of rhythm to their overall sound by watching drummer Kino Versoza’s face, onstage, a picture of fierce concentration. His eyes are focused at the very tip of his drumsticks, and he hits each cymbal as if the timing of it would prevent the whole precarious musical structure from collapsing in on itself.
I see the band first in this context, and I initially presume one thing: that they have sprung from the febrile soil of the Wollongong punk scene. Like many regional centres removed from the trend-spotting pressure of a capital city, Wollongong has sustained a small but determinedly self-sufficient DIY community over the years, fed by the distribution of mail-order 7-inches and bands who are willing to tumble in and out of town for little more than the glory of playing an all-ages show, and a comradely floor to sleep on. This, I say to myself, is where Ohana have come from, fed on fiery righteousness. Small town, close friends: it’s a classic Boys’ Own gang story, another beloved rock & roll myth. Us against the world. Only it’s not.
“I don’t think you wanna know the back story,” demurs Kino. “It’s pretty disgraceful.”
It’s a weekday morning and Ohana are gathered outside their favourite Thirroul cafe. Our view from the table extends to a vacant lot being ploughed by earthmovers, which whine incessantly. The noise is distracting to Kino, who at 23 is already suffering from mild tinnitus, the after-effect of too many loud shows.
According to Kino, it was he and Will who began jamming one day – five, maybe six years ago. Walking past, guitarist Flyn McKinnirey and bassist Rob Mudge stuck their heads around the proverbial door, and Ohana was born. “The others will disagree with me,” he warns.
There’s a pause while he and Flyn look at each other across the table. “We’re a very, very different band to what we were back then,” Flyn says, picking up the narrative. “We all went to school together and we were listening to skate-punk. Foo Fighters bullshit.”
“We should play you some of our early demos,” Kino laughs.
“This is when we were 18, 19,” continues Flyn. “Then we got into Radiohead and things changed a bit.”
It’s taken them these several years of playing together – from stalwart Wollongong pub The Oxford to art galleries to local beach fronts – to arrive at a point where the music they are writing feels like their own. They’ve moved on from teenage apprenticeship, and now, says Kino, they’re semi-confident. “There’s never, up until now, been an Ohana ‘sound’,” says Will.
Now, they sketch out some current points of reference. Looming large is My Disco: “‘Language Of Numbers’ epitomised the post-hardcore sound that we all really enjoyed,” says Kino, speaking of the Melbourne trio’s early EP.
“And it helped us get into other bands that they’ve drawn from,” adds Will, “like Shipping News, Shellac – all that Chicago stuff.”
“You’ve gotta steal from the past,” says Kino, on the topic of progress, “but some bands leave off at a certain point, and then there’s an opening.”
Though their riffs can be equally minimal, Ohana lack the cold aluminium sheen of Steve Albini and his many acolytes, and this is doubtless to their advantage. Their two guitars are rougher, more textured, and never held in the same pattern for very long – a few jabs at a brutal chord and then they spin out, contrapuntal, buoyed along by one unfathomable time signature or another. When Will’s not yelling feverishly – his moments of real melody are infrequent, though never unwelcome – the band slip into instrumental mode, exploring the light and shade of their other primary influence: post-rock. They’re aware of the fact that for all its early promise post-rock has become a largely stagnant genre, dragged down by rigid dynamics and pedestrian rhythms. It’s a rut they’re trying consciously to avoid.
“We get chucked on bills with a lot of instrumental bands,” says Flyn, who gives his opinions bluntly, but with great friendliness. “A lot of them are like… ” he checks his watch, feigning boredom.
“A lot of the time it’s guys playing – or girls playing – post-rock, but with a rock mentality,” Will reflects. “Real rock, with big chords and stuff.”
Their own perspective draws more recognisably upon jazz, but though they’ll happily admit to being jazz listeners – Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Nina Simone – they scoff at the notion that their sound bears any resemblance to it.
“We’re just regular Joe Schmuck rock musicians,” declares Kino. “It’s a bit of an insult [to jazz musicians] for us to talk about being influenced by jazz.” He thinks it more likely that whatever trace of jazz has made it through to Ohana’s playing style has “filtered down” through their preoccupation with some of the more left-field post-rock bands; locals like Pivot and Triosk, or the Canadian titans Do Make Say Think and Fly Pan Am.
The spectrum of their influences shows through on last year’s Weak Wrists, a record that sounds more like the logical outcome of the band’s record collections than their location. After a first EP that was taken out of their hands and mixed until “it was a piece of over-produced shit,” according to Will, Ohana went back into the studio in pursuit of new demos, and surprised themselves by recording half an album in one day. It was getting the second half down that made them nervous. “The first session we were completely relaxed about because we didn’t think it was going to be anything but demos,” Flyn recalls. “The second session was much more tense.”
Weak Wrists is good, but it comes nowhere near to capturing the bite and urgency of the band’s live sound, despite the fact that it was recorded as close to live as possible. Learning how to mix as they went along, the band admit they are still puzzled as to how to best capture their dynamics inside a studio. “The initial desk mix was really good,” says Kino, “Some things got a little lost, but I think that it has a better feel than the final mix, where we were trying to be diplomatic and bring all the levels up.”
If there’s one thing that Weak Wrists does it’s to shed a little light – via its closely typewritten lyric sheet – on the political undercurrents that move the band. The first song is called ‘Foucault You Diabolical Genius’ – a title that might well bring a rueful smile to the face of anyone who’s ever grappled with the 20th-century’s foremost philosopher of power. Michel Foucault ruthlessly analysed Enlightenment institutions: hospitals, mental asylums, armies, prisons and schools, and decided that in their origins lay the surveillance and discipline which now regulates our daily lives. Reading his work can be a very pessimistic experience – even though Foucault always insisted that his intentions were the opposite – because he sees power and its effects as everywhere, and inescapable. But his focus on systems and the points where they might break – tension and release – makes him in a way the perfect post-punk thinker, for his underlying questions apply perfectly well to music. How do you take a well-entrenched pattern and shift it? How do we change?
“You’ve gotta steal from the past,” says Kino, on the topic of progress, “but some bands leave off at a certain point, and then there’s an opening.” That opening might take you forward or even backwards or perhaps sideways – the point is to make the connections and move with them. “I’ve been listening to Gang of Four’s Solid Gold,” Kino reflects, “my girlfriend’s boss put it on the other day at work. Oh my fucking god. I thought that My Disco had found something and made it their own, but then I heard that.”
Gang of Four were committed Marxists – people tend to forget it in these fashionable days – and though their music sparked with the thrill of a thousand forks stuck unapologetically into sockets, their lyrics were harsh: Foucault’s pessimism stripped down to its barest, bleakest elements. “No escape from society,” they sang. In spirit, Ohana remind me more of Gang of Four’s early contemporaries, the wonderful Boston band Mission of Burma, whose lyrics touched on everything from the artist Max Ernst to mica, a heat-resistant mineral used inside electrical cables. Ohana have a comparable sense of bright, tumbling energy about them: though they have known each other for years they are still young, and they are still excitable, arguing about music, talking over the top of each other, thinking about things.
“I’m at uni, I’m an English major,” says Will, explaining the influences at work in his lyrics. “It’s that typical arts student thing of getting a little bit enlightened, being exposed to some new ideas, and wanting to change the fucking world. And then not changing it.”
[That’s how I escaped my certain fate]
Standing on the back verandah of Will’s house you can see the red rooftop of Rob’s family home, a couple of streets across the Thirroul townscape. Rob, a geology graduate and the quietest of Ohana’s four members, points up the valley to where Kino and Flyn grew up, and then back down to where he and Flyn have moved into a new sharehouse together. The bonds between them all are tight, and it shows, primarily in the fact that they all take delight in ribbing each other at any given opportunity. “Don’t leave us to talk amongst ourselves,” pleads Rob, jokingly, as they stand around between set-ups during the Mess+Noise photo shoot. “We really don’t know each other that well.”
There are two stories regarding how Ohana got their band name, and both of them are true. The first is that one night, long ago, they appeared on the local radio station – “Which nobody ever, ever listens to,” Will points out – and the announcer played some pieces by Maurice Ohana, a contemporary classical composer noted, according to one reviewer, for his “rapid shifts in mood” and “primal, visceral atmosphere”. The band was duly impressed. The second story is that Ohana is Kino’s middle name. It’s a Hawaiian word, and when I ask what it means the rest of the band respond with “family”, though Kino’s grumbles suggest that this might be a rather simplistic translation.
Between the welter of their interests and their near-familial closeness, the band has been torn since December by what Will describes as the “cliché” of post-album comedown. They want to record again this year – an EP, probably, and perhaps a 7-inch too – and they have their sights set on a more disciplined sound.
“We saw My Disco play a few months back at the Laneway Festival,” Will recalls, admiringly. “They played a new song which was just one chord. And it worked.”
They’re learning how to write each other’s parts, and how to step away from the sonic chaos that their self-described “noodling” so readily evokes. “Maybe it’s the difference between intensity and tension?” Will wonders aloud. “Though it’s a bit scary thinking that we could lose that intensity, because people really like it, particularly live.”
If there’s a clue to where they’re headed then it lies in a song called ‘Les Enfants de Marx et de Coca-Cola’, that just happens to be one of their oldest – you might think of it as a through-line. It’s also the standout track on Weak Wrists, with a clarity of atmosphere like a sharp, cold night. The band refer to it as ‘Keys’ because it features an old keyboard, and because Kino doesn’t know what any of their songs are actually called. “I don’t mind what Will writes [lyrically], as long as it’s not a love song,” he declares. Gang of Four would be proud.
It’s the bruising melancholy of that keyboard that initially sets the song apart, over which is laid one of the band’s starker rhythms, all skittering snare and then cymbals like flashes of tin foil. The bass line is gorgeous though barely discernible, but between it and the drums there’s an urge to get up and move your feet. Call me perverse, but dancing to a sad song can be a lovely thing – the contradiction between defeat and wanting to escape it pulls at the heart. And that’s what the song’s about, too.
“Red runs the street light, Red runs the street light/Kids eat shadows, kids eat shadows/I am the knife light, I am the knife light/Kids eat shadows, kids eat shadows.”
The vocals are murmured, and then yelled, and then there’s a moan from which the air is pressed out of until it becomes a falsetto howl. It’s all over in two-and-a-half minutes, and as one of Ohana’s oldest songs it also recalls one of their earliest influences, Radiohead. Like ‘Idioteque’ in particular, ‘Les Enfants…’ evokes a beautiful kind of paranoia – flickering and desolate, like the white light on a suburban street that pools under telegraph poles.
“It’s like we’ve learnt all these lessons from the album and now we can apply them,” says Will. “And I can see how that song will stick [around] with the new stuff. The new songs have a fighting tension, I think, a kind of struggle.”
And they’re trying out the fight songs, onstage again at The Pitz. There are more people here this time – lots of friends in the front row. Though they wouldn’t necessarily say no to a different kind of venue – “The black and white politics of DIY can be just as bullshit as anything else,” observes Kino – it’s the offbeam and makeshift venues that they enjoy.
“A stage is there because when the room is packed you need the people onstage to be high up so that everyone can see,” says Will. “It’s got a function… but if we’re playing on the floor in a small room – especially somewhere like The Pitz where we’re playing in front of friends – then why should we be elevated above them? Why should they crane their necks to see us?”
“When we’re playing all on the same level [as everybody else], that’s when we have the best time together,” summarises Rob. “It’s more cohesive.”
Context makes all the difference. The second time around I can hear in Ohana’s sound what I couldn’t hear before: the landscape from where they’ve come. It’s in the way that Flyn’s guitar leaps up suddenly during ‘Vanquish Every Argument With Efficiency and Dispatch’ like an unexpected wave, knocking you sideways. The sound is savage. By contrast, one of the two still untitled new songs stings rather than belts, sharing its sharp, echoing melodicism with ‘Les Enfants…’ But it’s an angrier song: “Some things are irreplaceable/Some things are better off not lost,” shouts Will.
Thirroul is a town under threat. At one end, Wollongong’s suburban sprawl spreads ever closer, and once it reaches Thirroul the town will be irreversibly swallowed up inside the commuter belt that will soon stretch from Sydney’s southern suburbs all the way down this spectacularly-beautiful coastline. At the other end there wages a 20-year long battle with Stocklands, a development and construction company determined to build a residential zone on an ecologically-fragile patch of land known as Sandon Point. Threatened species live here; ancient sites of Aboriginal significance – including graves – are also present. Over the years, an unlikely coalition of local indigenous people, surfers, environmentalists and punks have struggled to save the land – they’ve done everything from writing letters to chaining themselves to machinery – but the excavation has gone ahead. It’s the same myopic, bottom-dollar notion of progress that everywhere is shaping people’s live for the worse.
Back outside the sleepy neighbourhood centre – Thirroul First Scouts is stencilled onto the wall – I ask Ohana why they called their album Weak Wrists. It implies defeat, yet their sound has so much tenacity. “We kick and scream about a lot of things,” answers Kino, “but we don’t really have our backs up against the wall. We’re a bunch of middle-class kids.”
Onstage, the noise they make belies Kino’s sense of their own powerlessness. They play the album’s title track, and they play it last, and there’s no doubting the fight in it. Will hefts his guitar towards the ceiling with each note, as if he’s trying to leap out of the song altogether, but it’s Kino that I’m watching the closest. He concentrates so hard and he never misses a beat, no matter how skewed the rhythm. It’s his wrists that are keeping this thing together. Far from weak.