Muscles: Five Months
Categorising the music of avant-pop machine Muscles is no easy task. Getting to know the man behind it is near impossible. ANDREW RAMADGE does the seemingly unimaginable.
One day in March, a plain, black cardboard sleeve with a square of rainbow-coloured fabric glued to it fell out of the pile of new albums for review and landed on my keyboard. The cover was nameless, but inside was a hand-written note. “Dear Mess+Noise, here is a copy of my latest record, Muscles’ Four Months,” it read.
I vaguely remembered the name from a column Adrian Trajstman had contributed to our last issue; something about bastardised this and off-kilter, post-something or other that, written in Adrian’s hyperactive pop prose. I left Muscles’ disc resting by the space bar, unsure whether to keep it or assign the review to someone else. The following day, photographer Ben Butcher walked past my desk. “Oh, you got a copy,” he thought aloud. Four Months came home with me on the number 08 tram.
That evening provided a genuinely bewildering listen. The record was filled with muffled wails and sighs, grotesque synth-pop and ominous piano melodies with titles like “Come Over And Listen To Records” and “Mispronouncing Wine”. Many of its 21 tracks were no more than half-sketched ideas – “Massage” offered little beyond vocal gymnastics fed through an effects processor, “Warehouse Space” seemed a weird take on the chimes of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – while others bordered on revelatory. “One Inch Badge Pin” was particularly memorable, with an aesthetic somewhere between playful and biting. “Last night I met a girl who said she has connections in the Melbourne independent music community,” Muscles sung-spoke facetiously, his voice almost squealing with melodrama while patterning ill-fitting phrases around a dance beat. “Drive a one inch badge pin through my heart!” its chorus cried.
For me, parts of that first spin recalled all the right memories of record store dockets: The scathing wit of LCD Soundsystem, TV On The Radio’s droning, industrial melodies and the derailed vocal theatrics of Xiu Xiu. Most importantly, it was performed with a defiant naivety missing from so many other recent local groups. For my equally enthusiastic flatmate... Well, he dates an experimental noise DJ.
The next day I returned to the office, determined to find more information. The note hadn’t come with an email or website address. A quick search of the Mess+Noise online forums came up with a few threads, to which I appended requests for contact information. That night I received a message from Chris:
I am 21 years old, grew up in country Victoria, now living in Melbourne. Four Months is the first complete batch of recordings, created in a four month period between the end of October 2005 and February 2006.
There are around 70 copies of Four Months on CD-R floating around, distributed by hand and post only. Played an open mic circuit around Melbourne during October / November last year involving just live vocals and piano improvisation. [...]
Tracks 15 to 19 were written, recorded and produced in one day, ‘cause the microphone takes 20 minutes to warm up. I just set it up and forced myself to make up some words on the spot to some beats and chord progressions I made. It was hard trying to remember what I just sang in creating harmonies.
What began as an impromptu ‘one sheet’ for the record became a busy conversation, as Chris expanded upon his approach to finding new listeners: No record labels, no CD stores, no prices and no distribution, save for “meeting new people and giving out CDs.” The bulk of his fanbase, it seemed, was drawn from internet chat rooms and people he’d met at open mic nights. “People came up to me after [the set] and said they liked it,” he explained, “or they didn’t know what to think ‘cause they’d never heard anything like it before.” Both reactions earned a copy of the record.
No more than half-way through this exchange, an article on Muscles was pencilled into the magazine’s to-do list.
Chris and I first met in person outside a Xiu Xiu concert in Northcote one month later. “Are you Andrew?” came a voice from inside, swivelling around the band room doorway. The man it belonged to was softly spoken, extremely nervous and quick witted. He looked out of place in jeans and a dully-coloured hoodie, more suited to an underground electronic gig than a trendy indie tour. “How often do you write songs?” I asked. “Every day,” he replied. A few seconds later and the focus of the conversation had spun on its head.
“When I’m 60, I’ll be huge,” said Chris at our next meeting a few weeks later, with a voice neither entirely sincere nor whimsical. “The major labels have been building their market for that long, so I figure I’ll do my own thing for that long too.”
“What about you? You seem passionate about music,” he led, before skipping directly onto the subject of my age. I laughed uncomfortably; Chris dug around in his pocket for a burnt CD he had brought for me. It was a copy of Muscles’ latest project, Hyperpop!. We agreed to keep talking by email and headed inside separately.
Hyperpop! was nothing like what I’d been expecting. Gone were the peaks and troughs of noise, the scribbled sound collages and the wailing, replaced by comparatively straight-forward pop in a vein no further from Justin Timberlake than Aphex Twin. Each song title drove home the change in style, with a total of four exclamation marks on the final 5 x 4cm tracklist: “Chocolate, Raspberry, Lemon & Lime!”, “Dolphin Licks” and “Hyperpop! Anthem” amongst them. The rhythms seemed to be built around panting, with both opening tracks timed to inhaled (“Woo!”) and exhaled (“Aah!”) coos of breath. The disc’s opening line, full of bleeps and wind-chime jangles, radiated nothing but arrogance: “I don’t really care, I’ve seen it before/ You can face me, I’ll erase you... Oh, it’s a sad excuse for a party.”
One track, “Iced Cream”, should have been a hint of what to expect from our interviews. It was at once anxious, childlike and indignant, with surprisingly evocative lyrics about violence and confectionary. “There are people who are pushing me on the train... And I don’t know how to react or if I should fight back/ He could have a knife, stab me in the gut/ Bleeding on the floor, should have kept my mouth shut,” Muscles worried, before the song’s candy-coated chorus became his saviour – “Ice cream is going to save the day!/ Ice cream is going to save the day, again!” The rest of the song was structured around a juxtaposition of fear and celebration, focusing largely on its protagonist’s preferred club etiquette. “I don’t need a number/ I just want to dance with my shirt off!”
Over the next two weeks we emailed sporadically, usually late at night (Chris records mostly after dark, sleeps very little during the week, and catches up on Friday and Tuesday afternoons). His responses swayed between the ridiculous and accidentally honest. “INDIE BANDS CALL ME 0409 &%$@!&,” read one, talking about the possibility of remix work. “God, I just deleted my hard drive,” declared another, followed by a laugh. His descriptions of contemporary pop music were frequently scathing – “so many dance producers pick these seventeen year-old nasal sluts with nothing interesting to say” – and any analysis of his own was reduced to “I could get more done, more quickly, if I didn’t have to worry about writing the melody, lyrics and recording.”
I pushed on regardless, asking about his inspiration for the more deranged moments of Four Months. “I don’t take drugs and I hardly drink,” Chris exclaimed. “I’ve never smoked a cigarette, let alone whatever you mean by high.” The reason given for leaving Shepparton, where he grew up, was “to fulfil the prophecy.” My requests to share a beer and possibly photograph his recording space were met by “no, and no.”
But attached to the last email, at my request, was a schedule:
Average Muscles Day
8:30am Wake up.
9:00am Begin PHP self-learning.
1:00pm Go to uni.
4:30pm Begin nuclear physics correspondence uni.
7:30pm Cook lamp chops, potatoes and cucumbers.
9:00pm (If there is a gig on) go to gig alone and get infuriated if band is crap and think, “FUCK why would you bother, I could be so much better than these guys,” or if I really enjoy the band I think, “FUCK I’m really jealous and want to be better than these guys.” It is a peculiar, intense excitement and extreme jealously which makes my eyes water.
2:30am Watch half an hour to an hour of NBC’s The Office TV show on my computer.
4:00am Can’t sleep, so get on computer again and check mail, MySpace again. Lately I’ve tried to be more practical and use it as time to work on drawing and artwork for future use.
And that was it.
“When I’m 60, I’ll be huge,” said Chris at our next meeting a few weeks later, with a voice neither entirely sincere nor whimsical. “The major labels have been building their market for that long, so I figure I’ll do my own thing for that long too.” We were seated at an upstairs, open-air bar in Prahan drinking whisky and cola: An overdue attempt at productive discussion.
“I wasn’t going to give you a proper interview. I wanted Muscles to be mysterious,” he said of our recent email conversations. “I was just going to make things up... But you can ask me anything you want and I’ll answer it.”
Letting me document it was another matter. This time around, the bundle of nerves I’d met in Northcote was fidgety and intensely curious. When I pulled out a Dictaphone, Chris asked eagerly to hear the interview on Side B, but blushed and choked up when I pressed record on A. Upon returning from the bathroom, I half expected to find him poking through my things. Instead, he was standing behind me with another two drinks, smiling with amusement when I reached the table first. “I wanted to surprise you!” he said, handing me a glass.
We drank and chatted. His denigration of popular music continued, despite uncharacteristically optimistic slips like the confession to a fantasy list of over 200 artists to work with. I eventually left the bar with an empty tape and a bunch of notes, scrawled around the borders of a street press article in permanent marker. “You’re writing on Laura Jean!” Chris had warned when he saw me getting too close to the text. After that, the emails became longer.
“Since I was around thirteen I’d been writing on the piano – this is also the same time I started writing on the computer as well. Piano writing and computer writing were always separate,” Chris explained, telling me about playing his own material for the first time at a high school student performance. “So this electronic song (although I’d been making heaps of other electronic songs) was the first song I played live to an audience... There were troubles plugging the laptop into the PA, then it came on and it was blasting I think and everyone covered their ears and I turned it down. Then I went to the microphone, and it wasn’t loud enough (I found out after) so nobody could hear the singing anyway except for the people up the front. I was just standing there in the middle, hunched over probably.
“There are kids I went to school with that could probably recite every word back, ‘cause everyone was really in shock when I played it, I think. There were around 200 kids there sitting on the ground and by the end of it, everyone was up and dancing. It was bizarre... This one kid who could dance like Michael Jackson got up and started dancing and another girl went up and started dancing with him, then all of a sudden this huge rush of the whole school stood up at once. I don’t really get how it happened. It made me feel really good, but it was so crazy and unexpected, like the end of an 80s teen movie or Simpsons parody at the end of an episode of people partying for no reason. It really was unbelievable and whimsical... I was remembered for that one moment for the rest of the year: The guy who made music on the computer.”
The story seemed sincere, and more snippets like it began to come through my Inbox – Chris playing Julian Lennon’s “Saltwater” at assembly in Grade 2, practising singing for 40 minutes or so every night before bed – even while he insisted on their irrelevance. When I tried to focus on a particular point, his attention would usually slip away.
“I don’t think artist background stories are at all relevant to the music,” he replied to questions that were too direct. “When I read articles and reviews it’s all just bullshit, bullshit, bullshit and mostly boring and self-satisfying. I don’t want to give [potential] listeners non-musical reasons to enjoy Muscles before they’ve listened to it.”
His cheeky side never wandered far either. When asked about opening up to the interview process a little, Chris flipped the question back at me in an instant. “‘Opening up’ sounds funny,” he mused. “Next we’ll be talking about our ‘feelings’?”
I made a note to give Chris the “harsh and unreasonable” review he’d sardonically hoped for, then switched off the computer and went to bed.
Three days before June, Chris performed his first publicly announced show as Muscles to around 25 people at Plan B Lounge in Richmond. The gig had been advertised on the Mess+Noise forums; when I left home an hour before he was scheduled to begin, the thread had accumulated more than 180 posts.
The venue was long, narrow and dimly lit, with lanterns hanging above the bar and listeners bunched up on lounges and squatting on footstools. Chris stood behind his keyboard on a small platform, in a corner between the bar and glass shopfront. A few false starts and mishaps were framed by expectedly self-deprecating banter, as he politely warned the audience before playing a second number in case anyone wanted to leave. In the absence of a laptop, his set list revolved entirely around the keyboard: Inhumanly overwrought vocals and oscillating, faux ivory melodies.
“I think everybody was expecting to dance,” Chris reflected later. “While I was playing I felt awful, it was good to finish. There is nothing more uncomfortable than keeping your head positioned in one spot while both arms are attracting and repelling like magnets... What was funny was when I’d sing or play a wrong note, I’d have a moment with whoever I was staring intensely at that second, and for a slight moment we’d cringe together. It was beautiful.”
With no beats, the Plan B show had recalled the moody atmosphere of Four Months more than anything from Hyperpop!, even if some parts were unfamiliar. “I can’t play the same thing twice on the piano,” Chris admitted. “There’s no concrete piano composition, I’ll just be improvising over the structure of the song.”
At the same time, on the tram to and from Richmond, I’d been listening to something new: Gold Coast Babes, a concept record created entirely within 24 hours which had arrived at the office a few days earlier. True to our first spoken words, Chris was indeed capable of writing new songs everyday.
That is, if you could call them songs. Gold Coast Babes was a collection of brief harmonies and a few beats, with most tracks ranging between one and three minutes in length and built around no more than layered, a cappella vocals. The dryly named “Without Accompaniment” (the definition of a cappella) was, again, all about breathing: Groans sliding slowly in... and out..., hanging in the background between pushes like a perverse joke about tide rhythms. Chris would later tell me that he had set his stopwatch for the project only hours after seeing New York experimental band Liars perform in Melbourne, though it was hardly a secret after listening to the record. Track 8 was listed as I Stood Alone As The Liars Lied To Me”; a slyly intelligent reference to the American group’s preference for long, stuttered song titles and their fixation upon the theme of betrayal. It came as little surprise when the song was more interesting than most moments of Liars’ sophomore release They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. Somehow, it came as even less of a surprise that a few others sounded like Gregorian chants.
Babes’ sister disc Popular Music Is A Joke, recorded in an even tighter 16 hours, was more immediately likable. Whereas the first ‘time limit’ record had been an exercise in creating vocal textures, Popular Music brought together a greater number of elements in even shorter bursts. “Let’s Get Pretentious” was catchy in a Casio-and-handclaps kind of way, while “Tug At My Heartstrings” pulsed with static and distortion. Each track seemed like a chrysalis: The 3” CD was less a fuzzy demo tape than a catalogue of polished and colourful gems for an audience with no attention span. Added together, its 11 songs totalled no more than 12 and a half minutes.
“They were more brainstorming sessions than anything else. The ideas that came out of it I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise,” Chris told me of the projects. The challenge wasn’t so much to create ideas, but to process them musically. Ideas themselves are something that Muscles rarely runs low on: “I have a few notepads and a million notes on my phone for writing down every idea I get during the day. Usually, I’ll just have things I’ve written here and there that just sit there until the right beat or mood or rhythm comes along that fits. When starting on the computer, a lot of preparing goes into getting a quality result quickly. I might have spent the last three weeks or three months just developing synth sounds and recording noises I plan to use for a new batch of songs.
“All [my] set-up is, is a microphone on a mic stand in the middle of the room plugged into the computer,” he said. “Each song’s feeling and mood is completely different. As a writer, I feel like I’m just stringing together similar or contrasting ideas, and however the finished product is interpreted is something that I don’t really understand ‘til long after the song is finished.”
A few weeks later, Muscles was played on Triple J for the first time. The track was “One Inch Badge Pin”, which Chris had finally sent to the wider media as a low budget promotional single. It was spun by Zan Rowe and then Richard Kingsmill, in a high profile slot immediately before the airing of a new Something For Kate track.
When we next saw each other, Chris didn’t seem overly excited about his airplay on the national station. He had tuned in both times to catch the last 20 seconds after receiving text messages and phone calls from friends, but even hearing himself on radio was described with a detached smile rather than exuberance. The “30 year plan” Chris told me about in Prahan hadn’t been a throwaway quip, and it occurred to me that his bashfulness concealed an enormous degree of patience. “I don’t get scared about anything anymore,” he said, but couldn’t really explain why.
The meeting was a ‘farewell’ of sorts, with Chris planning a trip overseas to record new material and myself packing away old records in preparation for a move to Sydney. Chris had intended to travel to Cyprus to work on his next album – a much larger and measured affair than his recent EPs – but had just been told of a family member’s recent engagement and switched his flight to North America instead. He remained elusive until the end: As Muscles, the experimental pop artist who would berate other musicians over MySpace to gain new listeners and send journalists bullshit answers to questions; and as Chris, the sweet tempered and softly spoken man sitting in a pub wondering aloud “Who comes to places like this during the day?” and missing the humour in describing the public speaking lessons he had taken at a private school in Shepparton while his voice was being drowned out by the blips and beeps of an outdated arcade game half a room away.
By dialogue and email, we spoke about “One Inch Badge Pin”. “When I first recorded it, it took me ages to get into it,” he said. “I hated my voice, the whole thing was going in the Recycle Bin. I didn’t know what to make of it myself. Thinking about it now, it’s just about being really vulnerable. Most Muscles songs are, I think. Disillusion with the indie scene wrapped up in a love song.”
Usually accustomed to the wide range of references listeners have used to describe Muscles’ music, Chris was cynical of the reaction that this particular track seemed to provoke. “Every guy I’ve played it to is all like, ‘Yeah, me and my girlfriend love it so much, we play it in the car all the time’,” he laughed.
Instead of a broken hearted story, he moved back to a critique of the music scene. “It’s disappointing to see local [labels] releasing really average records from overseas bands just ‘cause they have a bit of perceived hype,” he explained. “And how RRR and PBS shows will happily support popular indie adult contemporary artists like Antony And The Johnsons and Sufjan Stevens on their shows every week for the past two years, whereas if an Australian artist releases a record, they’ll play it for one or two weeks and chuck it in the drawer to collect dust.
“I’m scared that if I am ever signed to a label I’d lose everything that makes me creative,” Chris said of his own immediate future. “Wouldn’t you rather work at writing songs you want people to remember? Or work hard at creating your own style for a good ten or twenty years until newer bands are influenced by you?”
I wasn’t sure if this was naïve or brilliant. But through all of our interviews there’d been no mention of festival headlines or backstage parties, just three whisky and colas, a fear of commercial interests and incessant creativity. Muscles was already armed with what he needed: His computer, a microphone, some blank discs and a deceptively casual confidence.
We wished each other luck and went in separate directions. After getting home, I sent Chris an email with the magazine’s print date, July 25th.
“Cool. It is my birthday,” he replied. “Fate?”
I wondered whether or not to check his date of birth.