Sydney’s Chooch-a-Bahn are recreating DIY for the next generation.
Do you remember the first time you heard that one band that’s permanently dominated your stereo since? The first time you wore your favourite sweater? The first time you saw your all-time favourite crush? Of course you do, they’re significant life moments.
Me, I remember my first Chooch-a-Bahn. Coming at the tail end of a hectic work night, I snuck out early to get me a dose of what I’d been hearing so much about, a sudden burst of energy from an underground that had, until that point, remained so heavily stashed away in the obscure corners of Sydney’s cultural landscape. Stumbling into Lan Franchi’s Memorial Discotheque that night was like strolling towards a creative haven. All subsequent Chooch gigs affirmed this belief, and erased the countless shows of tired and trying banality that came before.
Let me recreate the dystopic reality the Chooch-a-Bahn collective deposed: venues pulling punters solely to pull beers. Promoters concerned with the bottom line and the bottom line alone, when the top line is innovation, ingenuity and passion. Where alternative culture is the very same alternative culture you were digging on five years ago, only now the mainstream have co-opted it and any sense of dynamism or intrigue has suffered from over-saturation and under-enthusiasm. Basically, things were boring. Things in Sydney were, at the best of times, sporadically engaging. At worst? Dire.
Yes, there are great things happening in Sydney. These things actively counter the stale nature of this city’s more accessible music scene, and involve a lot of inspired people taking it upon themselves to rectify the dearth of options available to people making music a little left of left of centre. But life before Chooch-a-Bahn and life after Chooch-a-Bahn are clearly divided spheres of living, and Chooch itself offers an element to this town that has been missing for at least the generation I’ve been brought up in.
But what is it? Their website (www.choochabahn.com) suggests that Chooch-a-Bahn “exists in oblivion to the rock n roll hierarchy, and was born to defy its dominance. The Chooch-a-Bahn throws a fire cracker in the imagination of the future, and the future of Chooch-a-Bahn! The Chooch-a-Bahn is run by four people who felt suffocated by the mundane music scene in Sydney. The aim is to provide a platform for musicians and artists that don’t fit a predictable mould.”
Since that’s more a definition of what it’s not, let’s meet the four former suffocatees and find out what Chooch-a-Bahn is. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, roughly one year after the first Chooch-a-Bahn show, I’m treated to choc-banana cake (delicious) at the home of Chooch-a-Bahn co-organiser Lucy Phelan shares with fellow organiser and music-maker Matthew Hopkins. Together they are post-apocalyptic pop duo Naked on the Vague – one of the first bands to play a Chooch-a-Bahn. Joining Lucy and I are Kat Baron and Kurt Eckardt, also organisers of the event, and also music-makers – making up two thirds of melodic scuzz-neo punk group Say Cheese and Die, who played the very first Chooch as well.
“I think we were basically planning on all playing a show together, our bands, and then all of a sudden we decided to get a whole bunch of other bands that we wanted to play with in Sydney, and it became Chooch-a-Bahn,” Lucy begins, explaining the origins of an idea that would come to encompass the event, a purpose-built festival and the natural evolution of a label.
“The first one had three other bands where it was everyone’s first show – all of them – and then it was [Say Cheese and Die!’s] second one, and then Naked on the Vague,” Kurt continues
“Yeah, it was everyone’s first show,” Kat adds, in reference to the other bands that joined the first Chooch-a-Bahn line up – Holy Balm, Maintain the Love and Young Romantix Make Love – who all warrant their own descriptions but quickly escape them through severe genre inversions.
It’s all smiles sitting in Lucy’s living room, discussing what is so obviously a love project for the three (Matthew is absent due to familial Easter obligations). “I remember us having a conversation about venues in Sydney,” Kurt recalls, “and about how hard it was to be a new band and get gigs – there seemed to be a really big jump between a house party, and where else do you go? I guess you’d have to play the Hopetoun or something, and it’s this really big gap, with nothing in between.”
"Chooch-a-Bahn is one of the reasons Sydney's small DIY scene has been injected with so much life recently, giving a lot of bands opportunities to play their first shows in a really nurturing and supportive creative environment of people who are there for the music and not for the money.” – Catherine Kelleher (Kiosk/Catcall)
There is a sizeable gap between being a “real” band – the ones that get written up in street press and approached by labels – and bands that take a more DIY approach. Despite providing a platform for bands to get started, Chooch is by no means a way to gain a ‘leg up’ for a band just starting out. It’s more than that, or not more – rather miles away. The ‘leg up’ concept doesn’t apply because that’s not the language they’re speaking. Their discourse is a whole other conversation.
So how does a Chooch-a-Bahn show work? It starts like most shows do: getting your line-up.
Lucy: “A lot of [the bands] approach us now that we’ve got a bit of a name for doing this type of thing, but probably just through word of mouth, and a little bit of the internet.
Kurt: [mock-coughing] “Myspace.”
Lucy: “As much as we do get young bands to play, I think that we still try and curate it so that they’re of a particular style – it’s not like an incentive scheme, or like Jagermeister Uprising [an alcohol-sponsored shot at capturing niche markets]. It’s not like, ‘Do you want to be the next big rock band?’ We actually like the music that these bands play; it’s not as if we’re, ‘Oh, that’s good for a band that’s just starting’. We like the music and we like the attitude.”
Lucy mentions attitude, and it’s a big thing in this emergent community, being both informed by and informing the music. A do-it-yourself approach and/or aesthetic is nothing new, it’s been happening since forever: popularized in punk scenes 30 years ago, perfected in hardcore 10 years later, and appropriated into the (indie) pop side of life somewhere in between. What makes it different in each circumstance is the locality that spawns it, a locality that can be ethos-based or geographical whereabouts. While every Chooch, and noticeably every band to play a Chooch, is musically different, I’d say that both continuations of locality are relevant.
“Typically a DIY show in Sydney would be noise-experimental or hardcore crust punk, it’s rarely been a mixed bag,” Kurt offers, trying to discern what it is that makes a Chooch-a-Bahn band. “You have the NOW now [Sydney-based ongoing improvised music festival] and you have Maggotville [a venue in Sydney’s inner west that mainly espouses the hardcore breed of DIY], but you rarely have much in between.” Chooch-a-Bahn somehow grabs at the in-between, attempting to build a scene that traverses the musical demarcations so much of Sydney adheres to.
So you’ve got those [distinctly divided] communities, but what always surprises me is how sometimes those divisions are broken down. When an international band comes and is doing something vaguely comparable to what you guys are doing and also similarly vaguely comparable to what those scenes would do, people from all different communities will go and see this international band, but the same thing isn’t generated on a local level.
Lucy: “It would be cool if people banded together a little bit more, but I think Chooch-a-Bahn has acted a little bit like a bridge, because we’re not doing crust punk DIY gigs.”
Whenever I go to one of those shows, either one of yours, or a NOW now show, or whatever, I just look around at the handful of punters and think of how many people were at Animal Collective…
Lucy: “When I was there I was like, who are all these people? I actually thought – I was a little bit angry afterwards – why do all of these people not come and support local music. And I also thought the same thing as I was trying to get into the V Fest – fair enough that’s a major corporate music festival – [but] these people that come out for the international gigs don’t come out for the local gigs, I guess it’s because they haven’t been marketed to them as something they should like
In the most endearing display of faith in his community, Kurt pipes up with a, “Meh, they’re the ones that are missing out anyway. There’s so much good stuff happening in Australia at the moment, and it’s not an exclusive thing, it’s there to be shared.”
So when talking about sharing, what is it that Chooch is there to share? Conversation rolls around to endless chatter of what a Chooch-a-Bahn band is, could, or should be, spliced up with a bit of a circular discussion about DIY. There’s no conclusive answer, a Chooch-a-Bahn band is a Chooch-a-Bahn band.
Kurt: “I think that concept of DIY in the approach to music – it’s got something to do with that, for me anyway. In the bands that I like, I think, ‘Oh, that’d be great’, because they’re doing stuff for themselves, making tapes and CDs and T-shirts, putting on their own shows, more than a style of music.”
Lucy: “For me I think it’s a little bit of a style of music.”
Kat: “[For me it’s] a bit of both.”
Lucy: “We want to have bands playing that aren’t generic and aren’t jock and are kind of pushing some kind of new boundaries or ideas about music. I mean, there are kind of cock rock bands out there that have a DIY approach, and we haven’t asked them to play.** ** I guess it’s a bit of both but I think – I like experimental music, I like punk music.”
Kat: “I don’t think it’s a certain type of music, genre, but…”
As Lucy attaches the ‘experimental’ and ‘punk’ tags to Chooch-a-Bahn I suggest that both these ‘genres’ can be interpreted as approaches as readily as they can be genres. The three agree, and while reluctant to attach an ‘ethos’ to whatever it is Chooch-a-Bahn is (it’s proving to be as non-descript as the bands that play there), there’s an unspoken mandate floating around somewhere.
“We’ve got a manifesto, and we’ve signed it in our blood,” Lucy says, jokingly, when I ask about the possibility of an underlying theme. “We often joke that Chooch is like a cult or something,” she continues. “But it’s a joke.”
The phrase DIY or Suicide gets thrown around during the interview, and it’s a proverbial adaptation of the classic DIY or Die indie mission statement, an adaptation borrowed from Melbourne-based DIY maestro Shaun South, of Young Romantix Make Love and Deaf Deaf, and organiser of the Summer Winds festival.
When contacted to offer some words on Chooch-a-Bahn for this article, Shaun wrote back – verbatim – “I feel I owe so much to Chooch-a-Bahn cause without them I don’t think I would have had the courage to try play music in the first place, and wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.” He ended with profuse thanks for contacting him to contribute, seeking extra time for a “proper” response to my request. What he didn’t realise was that what he’d written in brief was as great a testimony as necessary. That something so off the cuff could be so convinced and convincing about Chooch only intensifies the impact Chooch-a-Bahn has had on its participants, players and punters alike.
Back in Lucy and Matthew’s inner-city apartment, the Chooch-a-Bahn collective are still searching for an all-encompassing definition. “It’s not like a one-off monthly thing that can only happen when we organise it at Lan Franchi’s,” Kurt offers, “but it just shows how easy it is for those other people to do the same thing, not that we were the first to do it. It’s just another one of those nights like the ones that inspired us to do it, so hopefully that ethos carries over.” Shaun South is an example of one such person. The countless bands that have formed for, from, or around Chooch are too. Think of it as an all-inclusive club, rather than a cult.
The three of them refer back to the Tri-State Carni Chooch festival, an ambitious two-day affair that included20 bands, performance art and vegan hotdogs, presented with the help of Melbourne’s Tiny Mice Records and Brisbane’s Handclappin’ Records. Of the performance pieces one was by a group called tetronomikon – a “performance punk band,” as Kat describes them. All three of my interviewees refer to performances like theirs as essential to the events, a necessary element to create a markedly different vibe at a Chooch-a-Bahn than you’d find in a pub, club or elsewhere. In this forum you’ll find a “comedy piece, absurdist – whatever,” Lucy suggests. “Something that’s totally off the wall. Sometimes when you’re at a gig everyone’s so serious about watching the band, and we wanted to break up that intense vibe that can happen.”
Going back to Chooch fest and the performance by tetronomikon, Lucy remembers someone yelling out at them, “Get your set together,” as they were – ostensibly – “a band.”
The confusion, it seems, is intentional. “A lot of the time it hasn’t been a publicised part of it,” Kurt explains. “So people who come for the first time, or when we first started it, will be like, ‘What is this? Is this a band? Is this part of it? Is this just some random person getting up and doing something in the break?’
“The cool thing about it is that they’ve since started it as a band, they’ve gotten a keyboard player and they did another performance on Wednesday night at an art show, so that’s really cool – that kind of brings it back to the Chooch-a-Bahn ethos, it makes it really great that we could help something like that happen,” Kurt notes, accidentally sputtering out that word again as the ethos behind it all is beginning to unfold.
“Definitely [DIY] is a big part of it. All of those other elements – encouraging bands that aren’t particularly known to play the gig is part of, I guess, that DIY approach, and the fact that we’re keen to encourage other people to put on shows, and for the bands that play at Chooch-a-Bahn – I mean, it’s pretty obviously DIY. If you come along you can see that it’s DIY. We’ve got handmade T-shirts, CD-Rs, it’s all for the love of it. Just a love project, and you can kind of see that if you come along…”
If you’re reading this and are thinking this all seems a little *too *perfect, rid yourself of that cynicism and learn the powers of an embrace. Sure, Kat, Lucy and Kurt present a world full of ideals, but that idealism is inspired, and inspiration is something Sydney needs more of.
Lia Tsamoglou of Sydney-based manipulated sound duo Moonmilk shares it. Having needed time to be converted to all things Chooch-a-Bahn, she’s since become a devotee. Through a quick exchange she inadvertently establishes what, perhaps, some kind of Chooch ethos could be.
Ethos 1: “At first I was a bit sceptical about the idea of Chooch-a-Bahn because it seemed like the same bands were playing in the first few shows that they organised. But when Moonmilk were asked to play we were really impressed.”
Ethos 2: “The Chooch is better run than most pubs and music venues. I remember when we were loading we were talking to Kurt and complimenting him on being so organised. And he told us that that was the point of the Chooch, to provide a better alternative to pubs. And I've basically been to all of the Chooch shows ever since. They won me over!”
Ethos 3/4/5: “As a music person, it's really refreshing in Sydney to come across a place that’s so well organised, so welcoming and friendly, and that isn’t focussed on profiting for themselves, but to better the Sydney music community. Both Kell [the other half of Moonmilk] and I have met a number of great people at those shows as well! And you get paid, which is becoming rarer in Sydney.”
Want another shot at the idyllic? Chooch-a-Bahn is all ages as well.
I suggest in conversation, having come out of the same cultural conservatism that floods Sydney, that something as idyllic as Chooch-a-Bahn is a response to that very conservatism – in a way akin to political activism, but appropriated to cultural realms.
“I think it’s totally a political thing, a reactionary thing,” Kurt agrees. “It’s not like a fuck you, we’re doing this, it’s like, we don’t need to do it this way and other people realise they didn’t really want to do it that way anyway, so it’s like – wait – there’s something else. There’s another way to do this.”
Kat, Lucy and Kurt are all quick to acknowledge the importance of the Chooch-a-Bahn playground that is long-term counter-cultural site Lan Franchi’s. When I spoke with them Lan Franchi’s had been sold but an exchange date had not yet been confirmed. At the time of writing it looks like the month of June will be the last that Chooch-a-Bahn has in its spiritual homeland, as the whole building embraces the lucrative world of youth hostels, evicting its artist residents for a bunch of sunburnt Poms with pounds to plunder. It’s a pretty massive loss for a city that has these kinds of spaces shutting down with monotonous regularity, but despite the setback it poses for Chooch-a-Bahn, the organisers are positive that the shows will still go on.
Somewhat prophetically, the idea of a Lan Franchi-less Chooch was explored in our interview: “I think it would exist outside of LF. We were talking about if we couldn’t find another venue possibly doing a fundraiser and getting a generator and doing it wherever,” responds Kat, with a conviction to be believed
Kurt: “We’re lucky that Lan Franchi’s is still going, and that’s the thing with it coming up for sale – that doesn’t mean it’ll be the end of Chooch-a-Bahn, it’s just another venue gone. I think that’s the sad thing about those venues closing, is that the people who were putting those shows on have stopped doing as much, which I can totally understand, but I don’t think that’ll stop us – the venue is secondary. Even if there’s half as many people in a park, in a garage… Without the convenience of Lan Franchi’s that’s where I personally would like to see it go, but it’s a bit hard to step away from that being all set up. But if we had to I’d just love to see it happen in public spaces and really move around.”
Lucy: [Naked on the Vague] played a show like that in Brisbane – everyone met at Roma Street station and we were all set up in a park with a generator, and a little PA… More people came to that than the show in a proper venue.”
Kurt: “You could hate the band and want to go.”
Lucy: “I used to go to a lot of raves, and that was the most exciting part, just going to these weird undiscovered places that people would set up a party, and finding it – the excitement.”
Ultimately that’s what it’s about: the excitement. A show at the Chooch-a-Bahn isn’t about carbon copy sets based on recordings, acted out performances and perfunctory appreciations of ‘artistic’ displays. Music shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be like that.
“I think it can be really confronting to see some of the bands at Chooch-a-Bahn, but that’s what makes it interesting,” Kurt offers, referring to the countless acts that have matched the love project that Chooch is with pure passion. A non-exhaustive list of acts you may or may not recognise includes: Naked on the Vague, Say Cheese and Die, Holy Balm, Love of Diagrams, The Stabs, Fabulous Diamonds, Cabaret Callado, Kevin Blechdom, Pikelet, Moonmilk, Quebec, Yes Nukes, The Garbage and the Flowers, Justice Yeldham, Batrider, Deaf Deaf, Always, Lakes, Young Romantix Make Love, Kiosk, Hit The Jackpot, Witch Hats, Ohana, Shiver Like Timber, Sydney City Council, On/Oxx. There are more, and more to come.
“If I went as a punter and I saw one or two of the bands and hated it, I would still go back,” Kurt says, summing up the allure something like Chooch-a-Bahn can present. And what it presents is the present: Chooch-a-Bahn aren’t making claims of having invented DIY, they’re just making it easier for a whole new generation to discover, or even rediscover, its merits.