A Process In The Weather Of The Heart
In their hometown of Sydney, EMMY HENNINGS discovers Charge Group will not be rushed. Photos by PETER OTTERY.
It has become easier, as music fades into a sort of sonic wallpaper – downloadable, portable, phone - in - a - song - from - the - comfort - of - your - couch – to forget about its ritual power. When music is everywhere you lose sight of the fact that it works best when framed against silence. It goes to the places where language won’t – turning pain into grieving and happiness into celebration – the conversation-stopper. Or it should be. But often isn’t, just another thread in the blanket of noise, alongside the modems and the traffic and the chatter.
And so today I come in praise of the purposeful band, the ones who make a virtue out of holding back and who won’t put anything out until they’re good and ready; who can still count the number of shows they’ve played on available fingers and toes. They are slow – in pace, in outlook – and they are called Charge Group, a name that suggests ready rangers on horseback thundering into the camera’s frame, but might also, if contemplated from a lesser angle, mean initial spark. The quiet flash you don’t see that turns to conflagration.
And – and this is important now, so shut up and pay attention – their first show was a funeral. Sort of.
“That can’t not have permeated what we do, that whole experience, because it was so intense,” reflects Matt Blackman, talking on an after-work Thursday, early evening inside the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace isn’t a pub that has bothered to keep pace with the makeover madness that’s swept through Sydney watering holes like a communicable disease, existing instead to offer up its own small ceremonies: the warm plate of dinner, the affordable beer, the horse races on the telly. Matt talks through the racetrack commentary in measured paragraphs, green eyes flickering. He’s describing the initial spark, Charge Group’s embryo: the funeral where he and violinist Jason Tampake played music together for the first time.
“There was this guy in high school that both of us, Jason and I, counted as our best friend,” Matt explains. “But in different ways: Jason knew Luke for a lot longer than I did, from primary school years, and then I came along in high school and we hit it off and became inseparable mates. I became friends with Jason indirectly through Luke and through a couple of other people, but Jason and I were quite different guys back then, and the one thing that we really had in common was our music.
“And then years later, Luke was in America and was killed in a car wreck, and his family asked both Jason and I, separately, to play something at his funeral. Jason and I got together and worked out a couple of songs, and as you can imagine it was a really” – he pauses here, fixing carefully upon the right word – “transcendent moment to have to be in that position in front of people in a packed cathedral, playing acoustically and singing. That really, really bonded Jason and I.”
The funeral happened several years ago now, back when Matt was still playing in Purplene, one of the most-loved acts on the early millennium’s indie coast-to-coast circuit. Held close like a favourite jumper to the heart by locals, the band eventually received the outside world’s seal of approval via an album recorded with Steve I’ve-heard-it-all Albini. They called it Purplene, and twelve months later they broke up. Adam Jesson, Charge Group bass player, also played in Purplene, as did Matt Rossetti, recently recruited to Charge Group on drums. It’s Purplene minus one – or Purplene plus one, depending on which way you like to face these things.
There’s a lot space inside Charge Group’s music, like it was a thing that got left out in the rain and sun until only the strongest elements remained: melody, emotion.
“That was a pretty sensitive issue for a long time,” winces Matt, and I decide not to push him on the issue. He’s happy – they’re all happy – to have a settled drummer now, after months spent drafting in Bree van Ryk – “the hardest working woman in Australian music” – at any opportunity. But she’s in high demand, as hard workers always are; “We were very spoiled, being able to play with Bree,” says Jason. Now they can concentrate on booking shows, and playing shows, and though they’ve yet to reach double figures when it comes to live appearances, one imagines that climbing up onstage at the Hopetoun is a veritable walk in a sun-showered park compared to playing at your best friend’s funeral.
“Exactly!” Matt laughs. “It’s hard enough to get up and sing in front of people and to play music that, probably, not everyone’s going to like. But to get up in front of a whole bunch of grieving friends and family in a really ceremonial environment is not something that anyone would choose to do. I certainly wouldn’t choose to do it.” But then, we don’t choose the experiences that shape us – battered or lifted or bent – into who we are.
The unreleased Charge Group mini-album – they’re happy for the time being to sit on it, waiting for the right home – is called Escaping Mankind. Ready rangers enter stage left, take a good look around, and gallop straight off into the sunset – only some nightmare or reverie got stuck in the spurs. It is, to put it mildly, a breathtaking piece of work, a bona-fide conversation-stopper.
There’s a lot space inside Charge Group’s music, like it was a thing that got left out in the rain and sun until only the strongest elements remained: melody, emotion. Everything is tuneful and flows forward like a river from deep, crumbling banks: Adam’s resonant bass lines and the splashing cymbals they wind through; Matt’s textured, ever so sleepy-eyed singing; Jason’s violin like another voice. The violin – it’s a ritual kind of instrument. Folklorish, and unusual inside popular music unless it’s there as for-hire sentimentality or portentousness. Stump up the cash for a string section and value-add significance!
Of course, Australian music has another, more noble precedent when it comes to the solo violinist: Warren Ellis. I want to avoid the comparison but I can’t, partly because Ellis is so overshadowing.
“You can’t not make that comparison,” Jason assures me, bright-eyed and alert to the unfolding conversation. It’s a sunny Sunday a few weeks prior to the Crystal Palace and a drummer-less Charge Group are sitting around a noisy cafe table. Matt and Jason take each question and bat out an answer between them, while Adam, concentrating on his breakfast, drops in a quietly considered comment from time to time. “Any contemporary use of violin in Australia has to acknowledge Warren,” Jason continues.
What I don’t say aloud, for fear of sounding like an obsequious flatterer, is that the comparison also comes to mind because I haven’t heard anyone else since Ellis play the electric violin as movingly – with such instinctive understanding of melodic line and the push and pull of dynamics – as Jason does. He’s put his feet inside of large and well-trod boots, and it’s not the only way in which Charge Group are journeying along The Dirty Three’s pioneering paths.
We are considering the colonial. A tricky concept at the best of times, and to be sure, we are not living through the best of times in which to talk productively about it. What does it mean to try and call up Australia’s strange history – ex-penal colony, frontier war zone, arse-end of the British Empire – in sound? There are many ways of going about the task, and what Charge Group and The Dirty Three share in common is a musical strategy that’s rough-edged and potently melodic, with tunes at six or seven generations removed from Gaelic folk ballads. There’s a lilt to it, and a burr, and a sense of big, empty space. ‘Empty’ is the catch, however, for Charge Group manage to convey through their music a lingering unease. “Blood on my hands/Never even asked why” Matt sings in ‘Redcoats & Convicts’, and men drink themselves senseless while death mocks from all sides; “I’ll leave that wretched colony/And fly” – but the song’s soaring conclusion is mirrored, darkly, in the instrumental ‘Speakeasy Death Song’, where guitar harmonics echo and violins spiral and cry out, all like birds fluttering away from a scene of some terrible violence. Escape is fraught, perhaps impossible, and nothing is silent so much as silenced. If the frame is empty, it’s only as aftermath.
The band is reluctant to view their references – musical or lyrical – in clear narrative terms. It’s not about story so much as an overarching atmosphere.
“Lyrically,” says Matt, “I’ve always liked the idea of testing out abstracts in order to create a mood, rather than pushing any agenda to do with colonialism. Maybe it’s that those ideas are metaphors for other things.” When I ask him later at the Crystal Palace what those ‘other things’ might be, he finds it difficult to elaborate. “I’m not even sure that I know,” he replies. “A lot of those [lyrics] are metaphors for very base human emotions, not any historical or political perspective.”
“I think that’s what I’ve always liked about art,” he offers, “that it’s a more indirect, roundabout appreciation of something. I like being able to make up my own mind about what I think a song means, and I like the idea of imparting a theme or a mood through a song, and then letting the listener make their own meaning around that. And I think often, you can do that with music alone.”
“So,” reflects Jason, back at the cafe, “rather than make those associations for [the audience] we’re taking them down that path that we’re travelling as well, without it being made absolutely clear that ‘That is the colonial’.”
For his part, Matt admits to having been “profoundly affected” in recent years by The Drones, who have been determinedly shaping their own sonic vision of Australia – and a haggard one it is too. Charge Group are melancholic where The Drones are as murderous as highway robbers – perhaps the two bands should swap names. “They really do walk that line,” Matt comments, “They play every show like it was their last show. I stumbled across them in a live setting without owning any of their records, so I didn’t realise that lyrically they were alluding to anything Australian. For me it was more about a sound and a presence in a live sense.”
It’s obvious that live performance is a primary concern for all of Charge Group: the relationship between playing with each other in rehearsal and playing for an audience is a key to their process. And it’s all about process; they love the word, for it suggests duration over immediacy. How to listen and learn, and how to weather a sound.
“We’re drawing on the fact that we’ve all been playing together for a long time,” Adam reflects, “and the sound comes out of a process of responding to each other. I guess that a lot of new bands would write songs based on how a ‘rock band’ would write songs.” Tight 1-2-3-4 unit, eyes to the front, the unspoken implication being that Charge Group don’t do it that way.
“I think that what we bring is a more spontaneous approach, a more loosely constructed approach to the songs,” says Jason, “and you always run that risk that playing them [live] might be magical, or they might just fall apart. We’ve got the benefit of strong songwriting as well,” he gestures towards Matt, “but we’re definitely open to pushing that. It is just about playing the shows and engaging in that process. And maybe recording every rehearsal,” he concludes, laughing.
Inside the time-worn confines of the Crystal Palace, I ask Matt whether this process of playing live is at all cathartic. Because it sure sounds it, a listening audience pulled inexorably within the songs’ yearning wake.
“Yeah,” he responds, “yeah, it is. And I think that probably is somehow connected to that point where we got back together and played again, [Jason and I]. I guess there’s a sensitivity that permeates the music because I guess, for both of us, having gone through that process of having to grieve in a really full-on way makes you become a lot more comfortable with a certain side of your own sensitivities, or something?” He considers his own question. “I’m not really sure, but it’s a pretty dark place to have to go, and… I think that a lot of people find it difficult to go to dark places in music, or to leave themselves emotionally vulnerable in music. It seems a lot of the time the temptation is there to just do fun, throwaway stuff, or stuff that doesn’t probe beneath your sense of comfort.”
There’s a song on Escaping Mankind called ‘Lullaby for the Apocalypse’ where infantry kick down doors and bedrooms are warzones, though truly, it does sound like a lullaby, at least for the first half. “If we abandon each other/Then no more harm can come/To me or you tonight” goes the refrain, a cruel irony indeed, but sung most sweetly. And then the violin comes diving in and the rhythm section kicks up dust, and you get the feeling that this isn’t about abandonment at all, but survival played out as long hard stare beyond the darkness. For what use is music at all if it isn’t a reason for surviving, and then for celebrating, with others, the fact that you have done so? Births and deaths. Weddings and wakes. The times where people must listen as one.
“At the funeral we held it together while everyone else was falling apart,” Matt remembers. “Six hundred, seven hundred people were just losing it and we’re playing as people are filing out and leaving, and we’re holding it together and singing and playing. And then once everyone left we just lost our shit, we totally fell apart.”
And now, years later, they’ve pulled together into a new shape.