Sound Summit: It’s A Long Way To The Top
JON TJHIA reports on Newcastle’s Sound Summit, a four-day music industry conference that probed the very foundations of Australia's underground.
In every aspiring indie musician’s life, there comes a time when one must have food propelled in their general direction by an impassioned critic. It’s a rite of passage, marking the artist’s transition from obscure nobody to the generator slash recipient of a reaction. Congratulations – you’ve arrived! Have some free food.
For the young hepcat(erpillar) keen to undertake this metamorphosis, a good place to begin is Newcastle’s annual Sound Summit – a component festival of the This Is Not Art juggernaut – where you can literally walk on eggshells as you make your way from venue to venue. While the locals’ insatiable hunger for shows knows no sensible bounds (“show us yer tits!”, “show us yer cunt!”, “poofter!” etc), there are plenty of other reasons for emerging soundsmiths to make the festival a key stop on their journey to the top. But what defines this mythical “top” that they aspire to inhabit?
The top seems to be a rather specific place, a tightly demarcated zone where certain magical factors converge. But Sound Summit isn’t all about ascendancy, and the factors of success aren’t all magical. What it does best is open up ideas for discussion, and over a long weekend, immerses you in its various debates.
After three days of panels and performances, it’s hard not to feel like part of one huge conversation – and this in spite of being unable to attend a whole bunch of sessions that covered copyright, industry networking and practical production workshops.
Friday, October 2
I hurried into a seat near the back of the TPI Auditorium for “Lo-fi in a Digital Age”, late for my first date with Sound Summit after rolling into Newcastle on the same wave of delayed flights that messed with half of that evening’s showcase performers. After 90 minutes of fairly predictable conversation about the merits of home recording, including much gear fetishism, I felt a little bummed.
Chapter Music’s Guy Blackman claimed that “people don’t want a clean-sounding record, because it’s not cool”, and a couple of people chimed in agreement, but nobody seemed to question the logic or investigate its origin much further. We got stuck in a discussion about different tape recording techniques (New Zealand artist Stefan Neville’s “Magnadisc” device trumped all others, if you were wondering), the obligatory references to treasured tactile artifacts in the age of MP3 blogs, and coasted through some rather unfocussed to-and-fro banter. There were good points too: Matt Mondanile (aka Ducktails) quietly suggested a distinction between lo-fi-as-sound and lo-fi-as-marketing-designation, and panelists considered whether they’d accept an offer to record with Prince for two years in a fancy studio. (Surprise, surprise – nobody said they’d decline.)
The beneficiary of this panel was the trainspotter, who learned that Fabulous Diamonds manipulate their studio loops in Pro Tools (who’d have guessed?), and that Ducktails sampled expensive keyboards at his local Guitar Center before going on his current tour. Oh, and that Blackman used Auto-Tune on his most recent album Adult Baby. But where the program blurb promised to interrogate “the political and aesthetic implications” of so-called lo-fi recording techniques, the conversation never seemed to penetrate that invisible layer that makes contemporary trends seem so natural while obscuring their mechanisms. And lo-fi sure is cool right now. Entertaining as it is, it also seems silly to be discussing with such earnest fervour the merits of an aesthetic which has never appealed to more than a few thousand Australians at any one time.
After a slightly frustrating brush with some cello and “sound art” over at the Festival Club (why are sound artists so obsessed with recording water?), the temptation to see contemporary classical trio Ensemble Offspring and revered laptop artist Pimmon perform in a sumptuous Art Deco auditorium proved too great.
The show opened with a solo set from Sydneysider Pimmon, known to wife, kids and bank manager as Paul Gough. Standing behind his Dell, his head rose and fell like that of a concert pianist as he sent filtered white noise and churning sawtooth chords into the vast space. As he shifted textures and keys, it was hard to tell if it was merely the space which imbued his music with an orchestral richness. Pimmon’s chords soon gave way to a dense, chirping environment resembling a (synthetic) pond while the sound guy checked his e-mail on his iPhone.
I suddenly realised that I’d just attended a panel about lo-fi aesthetics, and here was Pimmon quietly dispensing the mulched up, glitched-to-shit microscopic electronica that used to excite “aesthetics of failure” discussions on mailing lists I was on. The lack of a connection between the lo-fi discussion and this fairly vast strain of electronic music seemed to highlight how far Sound Summit has shifted away from its earlier electronic/hip-hop focus.
“As a creative community, we need to keep reassessing our approaches, priorities and aspirations, and this is the dialogue to which Sound Summit makes a crucial contribution.”
Gough was next joined by Ensemble Offspring, and the foursome tentatively began to improvise. Despite the violin, various clarinets and saxophones now onstage, Ensemble Offspring’s additions mostly mimicked prepared percussion, clattering and scraping around the laptop’s tonal shifts. It should no longer be a sign of accomplishment that a group’s acoustic sounds are inseparable from those Dell-born, but the impression here was one of pleasing cohesion.
After a brief intermission, Bernadette Balkus and Claire Edwardes embarked on a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seminal work ‘Kontakte’, dusting crumbs of piano and percussion over the composer’s tape treatments. Crashing and odd, it settled into pleasing balance just as my stomach started to rebel. I sheepishly snaked out of the theatre, into the dank Novocastrian evening.
Headlined by veteran local punkers Bitchcraft, Scary Canary was the event I didn’t intend to attend and never managed to leave. Melbourne six-piece Suzanne Grae and the Katies win all kinds of prizes for their amazing band name, but a combination of terrible sound and frankly pretty shabby musicianship couldn’t buoy what occasionally interesting riffs they’d penned. Fronted by charismatic illustrator Arlene TextaQueen and boasting a dazzling spew of gold lame and colourful 80s getup, I had to leave them be after a couple of songs. Maybe next time.
I heard Bitchcraft through the wall and they sounded bitchin’.
I never made it across town to Sound Summit’s Friday showcase, but the next day outside Pizza Hut on Darby Street I bumped into Matthew, aka AOI, who performed at it. I asked him what he thought of the Australian acts:
AOI: “Qua were really, really, really good, and Lawrence Pike is a fantastic drummer. Free Choice Duo were good … they’re very claustro-”
Kid leaving Pizza Hut: “Excuse me, are you American?”
Saturday, October 3
After the good natured but fairly unremarkable discussion of the “Lo-Fi” panel, I didn’t hold such high hopes for “Passion Project: Future Folklore and Niche Output” at King Street’s TPI Auditorium. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the frank, lively and concrete discussion about active fandom and creative compulsion from an experienced group of touring agents, radio fiends, record labelers and writers. The panel moved swiftly beyond the, “Is this worth it?” and “I’m poor” mantras, addressing instead the cultivation of financial and creative sustainability, the relative importance of workaday income to offset inevitable losses, competition and even the usefulness of a supportive girlfriend/boyfriend in decision-making.
Populated by logistical tips and financial disaster stories, dorky confessions also featured in the conversation, as Blink (New Zealand’s Camp A Low Hum) and Blackman (again) each admitted to aspirations of “legendary status” at some point in their respective careers (but for all their self-effacing bashfulness, both will probably achieve this). Others acknowledged that both contemporary exposure and a sense of legacy played a strong hand in motivating them, and underlined the importance of balancing obsessive control freakiness with the equalising effect of collaboration, particularly as a way of ensuring ongoing quality. All emphasised that quality was the key condition for a labour of love to flourish.
My only minor gripe was that the panel could have represented a more rounded contingent by including both troubled passion projects (for example, sound&fury, Bravery, Repetition and Noise) and collective ones (such as Two Bright Lakes, Vox Cyclops).
My favourite meal in Newcastle ended up being the Mexican pie I purchased from Natural Tucker on Darby Street. While I waited for it to be microwaved, there was a girl in there quite obviously from the festival. We exchanged tentative banter briefly before she handed me a small piece of paper with her name and phone number printed on it. And the words “I will be dancing!” She explained that any time somebody dialed the number, the special ringtone would sound and she would start to dance – it was her performance for the festival (“Call Me Your Experiment”). Being the moron that I am, I keyed the digits in straight away and caused her phone to ring. She hastily set her can of organic soda down beside the tamari almonds, added her tofu wrap and note pad and wallet, and proceeded to awkwardly negotiate a compromise between her gestural performance and the narrow walkway of the organic store – while her phone beeped and clucked nearly inaudibly beneath the sound of frazzled shop staff yelling at each other.
Having carefully avoided the “Are Poets Nice?” forum and a whole bunch of raindrops, I rejoined the weary mob at the Festival Club for “CDR”. The idea behind CDR is to expose the work of unreleased Australian electronica producers, and so the organisers worked their way through a pile of CD-Rs left for them earlier in the weekend, projecting the details of the current track onto a screen beside them. Kicked off with a production Q+A with Qua, the afternoon’s submissions were impressive, encompassing everything from downbeat abstract electronica to deep house, heavily tweaked dubstep and yacht-rock re-imaginings. The event was ostensibly about sharing unreleased tunes, though as producer Faux Pas intimated, really it served the greater function of assembling a community of producers into a single space, providing a good way to meet new friends and future influences.
Late and sober is how I arrived at The Cambridge as The Vivian Girls (US) noisily wound things up to a crowd clearly in “awww” of their cuteness. An extreme frequency performance from Greece’s ILIOS paved the way for Melbourne weird-wads Bum Creek to take the stage, and they did so with keyboardist-percussionist Trevelyan Clay donning a large cardboard box, bearing the words “Heavy Duty Keyboard Stand” in large print. (As it turned out, my weekend flatmates were at home watching Maru the Japanese box cat wrestle with a similar fate on YouTube at the very same time). Tarquin Manek plotted a sparse pattern on the drums with one hand, shaking a gourd and singing as third guy Sam Karmel built loose electronic sounds from his keyboard and drum machine. Bum Creek sure do love a good gourd, I noted, as Clay unboxed himself and whistled away on some other WOMAD accessory. As the group’s stewing tribal incantations slowly drowned out the drums, Manek joined the front-of-stage lineup to vocally molest the crowd into a frenzied bounce. Sporting beardy vibes and shirts slightly louder than their woozy beats, it seemed they’d won a bazillion new fans.
After San Francisco’s DJ Ripley turned in a stunning mix of dubstep and ragga, oft bewildering veteran Toecutter showed up on the main stage and began screaming, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” at an attentive/drunk audience. Dressed in gym clothes, bespectacled and with long hair cascading from the shores of his cheerful bald patch, Toecutter was hilarious to watch as his laptop threw speedcore remixes and spastic breaks - punctuated by yelps of “Suck on shit!” – at a crowd who desperately didn’t want to go home. Unfortunately, daylight savings kicked in, pushing the clocks forward an hour to closing time and denying the night’s final act the additional stage time he had most definitely earned.
I decided to walk the two to three kilometres along Hunter Street back to my beachside apartment. Each and every time I passed a group of men, at least one of them would toss a racist comment my way. Thanks, dudes.
Sunday, October 4
“The Decline of Western Civilisation” aimed to address the question of who will fill the gaps – and how – as the traditional music market diminishes. DIY movements, internet communities, blogs and net labels: how is the way we create, share and consume music changing?
This one turned out to be perhaps the most stimulating conversation of Sound Summit, as panelists – Blackman, Mondanile, Anna John (Knitted Abyss/Holy Balm/Cloth Ear), Kell Derrig Hall (moonmilk/Tuff Puffin) and Stuart Buchanan (FBi/New Weird Australia – traded opinions on how music blogging culture has altered not only the way people source new music, but also the way they talk about it. It was the kind of chat you might have over afternoon beers if all your friends were in bands hoping to filter out into the big, wide world. The roundtable style of this panel seemed to make it easier for a more participatory discussion to unfold.
There was broad agreement that the recent flood of blogs trying to “get there first” with token coverage of new bands and trends was a disheartening development for artists and fans. (M+N writer Shaun Prescott had the previous day noted this trend too, citing Cyclic Defrost’s longer and more detailed pieces as a conscious antithesis to the “quick and dirty” approach.) Mondanile criticised the idea of limited releases by choice while Blackman agreed that keeping all releases in print was a priority for his label, also saying of limited editions: “I think it’s the smartest thing for any label to do now – it’s not necessarily something that I agree with, and I don’t want to do it myself, but … for people grappling with the sales downturn … people love that shit.” And it’s true – they do. Especially young males, dontchya think? I’m looking at you, Southern Lord.
Things got most interesting when the group broached the hierarchies of approval that exist throughout the indie music world – from “exclusive indie” distributors such as US giant Revolver to revered Philadelphian boutique label Siltbreeze (stateside home to Fabulous Diamonds and Naked On The Vague) and tastemaking publications like Pitchfork. Derrig Hall raised some key points reflecting how, at least in some senses, DIY culture mimics the hierarchies of mainstream music culture: “We’re still approaching, as a country, DIY like major label – seeking approval from certain labels to give us credibility.” Mondanile agreed that “the tastemakers of the world are still always the tastemakers of the world”.
Curiously, Mondanile added that before his Ducktails act brought him to our shores, he knew little to nothing about Australian music. And the clincher? That back home in the US, “you’re thought of as pretentious for liking overseas music … I didn’t even know AC/DC were Australian.”
It’s a depressing thought, really – that Americans are being pretentious by trying not to be, and we remain stuck at the arse end of the deal slash world. At least Mondanile knew who Jet are – sort of. It’s ridiculous when you think about it: Australian artists desperately craving the attention of North American tastemakers so our own communities will think us worthy, while Americans do their best to ignore us so they don’t look bad. And yet they still let Creed, Puddle of Mudd and Eagle Eye Cherry happen.
At some point in that last session, Derrig Hall complained that ‘there’s not enough people in Australia saying “this Australian band is really good”. We wait for someone else to say that. Sound Summit is clearly attempting to avert this trend, and to contribute to a self-sustaining identity for the Australian underground. It’s strange, though. In some ways it resembles a conference/festival about occupying the space halfway to the peak and no higher, shielded from the chill of too much success and the frustrating toil of too little.
It’s admittedly difficult terrain: our Australian peaks are only so high and we must go further afield if we’re to prove upwardly mobile. But we’ve got to be careful about the paths we choose. After all, there are Avalanches and even Jets lurking above, threatening to crash at any moment.
As a creative community, we need to keep reassessing our approaches, priorities and aspirations, and this is the dialogue to which Sound Summit makes a crucial contribution. It should continue to provide a forum for us to rigorously work through our musical decisions and the values they reflect, because let’s face it – it’d be dangerously easy to just hang out here with our friends, halfway up the hill, terribly pleased with how cool we all feel.