Sound Summit: 'Are You Here For That Art Shit?'
While just scratching the surface of a thriving weekend of live music, MAX EASTON ponders a nagging lack of arts options in Newcastle, both for locals and visitors. Photos by YASMIN NEBENFUHR.
Newcastle has an image problem. Outsiders view it as little more than a country town, a glorified suburb by the sea, lorded over by an indecisive mining magnate who owns their sporting teams. From the inside lies a youth fed up with limited options, either self-deprecatingly referring to the town as a hole or desperately trying to convince you it has more to offer than what you thought you saw. Alongside this lies an older contingent disgruntled by a council that's beginning to prioritise the arts as a strategy to battle the aging population, in part formed by the departure of the youth who support the local scenes only until they leave Newcastle. It's a dynamic city, one that can feel as friendly as it does seedy.
Friday, September 28
On the same night I'm taken off-route by a bus driver in order to help me get to the Croatian Club, the central venue for the 12th annual Sound Summit, I walk past a street brawl supervised by four security guards waiting for the punch-up to run its course. This is a city of contradictions, and amongst this turmoil is where the festival's co-directors, Brooke Olsen (Dirty Shirlows), Daniel Gottlieb (Ad Hoc) and Nic Warnock (RIP Society) assembled some of the country's most innovative DIY artists, given strength by the billing of overseas acts selected as reflections of what's happening locally. For Newcastle, it is with no irony lost that very few of the artists on the bill have ties to the festival's hometown.
“A festival of independent and innovative music” is Sound Summit's tagline, and for the artists assembled this tends to vaguely define a coming together of DIY scenes – punk, garage, noise and experimental, all incapable descriptors of what assembles on the Croatian Club stage. It's this look at the World According to Gottlieb, Olsen and Warnock (and their invited showcase contributors) that made it such a varied and challenging weekend. Early on, the sense of occasion overpowered any curiosity for fringe genres, clusters of ported-in Sydneysiders sitting cross-legged on the club’s bowling green with half-litre cans of Zamkowe (the Croatian beer of choice) while bands played inside. Again, the irony isn't lost that the beer drunk primarily on the night was shipped in from Croatia, not driven over from the Hunter Valley.
As the only Newcastle act on Friday's bill, The Gooch Palms had a lot to live up to – and their reputation preceded them. Scowls of “Fuck The Gooch Palms” and “I don't need to see that guy's dick again” seemed to be the half-hearted assessment from the green, while those grinning from inside the club reported not just the appearance of frontman Leroy Macqueen's flailing scrotum, but their maniacal energy in turn.
The two-piece garage act at least drew a crowd inside, as opposed to many punters seemingly without the patience to sit through the experimental offerings, regardless of how inspired they may have been. Secret Birds' guitar loops bled into Rites Wild, whose reverberating mess of cosmic atmospheres was one of the first to highlight the movements of the ’80s as an inspiration for much of these noise and drone bands. Cleveland's Radio People didn't strive for uniqueness, to the point that they smeared any sense of the familiar just for the sake of it – with Sam Goldberg unashamedly meshing 16-bit synths with Krautrock jams, eliciting ’80s film scores and discotheque nights.
“You can tell the arts funding bodies that this was a conference ... but for the majority, the only conferring occurred on the green.”
It wasn't until Twerps’ appearance that Sound Summit really kicked off, a set that both rewarded knowledge of their catalogue and showcased a band rapidly becoming bigger than their scene. These were arm-in-arm anthems, shifting receptions from audience curiosity to all-in sing-a-longs. Maybe Sound Summit's choice to experiment with people's perceptions on the first night of the festival was ill-advised, but with a sea of drinkers on the lawn taking only semi-interested glances at the bands inside, Friday night felt like a celebratory warm-up for Twerps and the days that followed. You can tell the arts funding bodies that this was a conference all you like (and the panels, documentaries and workshops were well-attended), but for the majority, the only conferring occurred on the green.
Saturday, September 29
Continuing the theme of importing talent, Saturday afternoon began with the premiere of the feature-length UV Race film Autonomy and Deliberation, an exercise in name-dropping, cheesy film techniques and laconic Australian humour. A panel celebrated the 20th anniversary of Melbourne's Chapter Music, while the appearance of characters from Melbourne's latter-day music mythology (many of whom appeared in Autonomy and Deliberation) dotted the crowd across the weekend, proving that Saturday belonged to the Victorian capital. Eastlink were an early slice of aggression, a clashing of psych and stilted, three-guitar rock. Featuring members of Total Control, UV Race and Repairs, they were probably one of the best examples of the incestuous nature of the weekend's bill, with Al Montfort moving from drums to guitar for Lower Plenty's ensuing set.
Deliberating over nervous feeling and softened romanticising, Jensen Tjhung winced through closed eyes adjacent to Montfort's blank-faced tales of loss. Yet there's something to Lower Plenty that didn't make their late-afternoon set a downer. Yeah, you walked out after with a kind of deflated sigh, but you did so with a sense of misplaced optimism. When that set was followed by the resurrection of Victorian ’80s/’90s charmers The Cannanes, it seemed a flashback may not have been the answer. It was interesting to compare the similarities of the new resurgence of jangling sounds in Australia to an act of the past, but it's always a challenge to witness a band made up of middle-aged players and still feel excited about what is to come.
After all, Sound Summit feels like the intent is to lift the new, not hail the old. Luckily it was the significantly more left-field appearance of Mad Nanna that brought the day back, a dose of almost painful lethargy and a collection of the most unwilling funeral marches imaginable. There's a patience in Mad Nanna's drawn-out synthesis, guitar solos featuring notes that aren't so much bended as they are asphyxiated. Their set was the sound of a slow death, eventually obliterated by the cocksure thunder of Primitive Calculators (pictured at top), who followed immediately afterwards.
There's a reason Saturday night made a point of showcasing Blues Control, the US duo who released the experimental epic Valley Tangents in July. Inspirations plucked from jazz, electronica and punk were all tied together with the ethos of experimentation and deconstruction. Indeed, it was the encore, a complete pulling-apart and barely recognisable version of Wolfmother's 'Joker & the Thief' which was one of the most compelling offerings of the night. Devolving into repetition and progressively obliterating the song's riffs, it destroyed all sense of familiarity, filling the repeated segments with a sense of ensuing dread until after five or so minutes it was overtaken by a drum and bass mess before dissipating into the end of the evening.
It was these end of the nights that brought out the chaos of Newcastle. Beyond the bar brawls that litter the walk back to the CBD from the city's outskirts lies the confusion of the city's 1am lock-out. Where do you go at the end of the night in Newcastle? That's when rumours started spreading. Rumours of a Royal Headache secret show, a Straight Arrows appearance at the Pharmacy (one of Newcastle's premier DIY venues) or a house party at The Nugs' or Gooch Palms' house (both dwellings apparently housing half the festival's attendees.) The house parties existed, but were full of confused out-of-towners standing awkwardly in a pack waiting for the fun to start while the hosts looked on nervously at the growing attendance.
Sunday, September 30
In the impatience that many seemed to hold for the more externally-reaching experimental and noise acts over the weekend, Sunday's night proved to be the crowd-pleaser – and it was always going to be. The Nugs, another Newcastle local, kicked off the conventional guitar night with a grinning kind of ferocity, a stark contrast to Constant Mongrel's grunting brand of seedy thrashing. It was Straight Arrows who most defiantly drew the crowd out of chin-scratching for shameless rock 'n' roll frivolity. Disproportionately enjoying Straight Arrows over the noise acts felt like rockism at its worst, but by the time Royal Headache arrived on stage, any sense of guilt was lost.
The performance was barely affected by a tired, drunk and broken-voiced Shogun. Yes, Shogun was spitting his empty promises of “We don't do fast songs anymore,” but all the hits got bled out of him eventually. The new songs are slower jams, and in their own way they're just as much of a rush; if their next album does become the collection of controlled ballads Shogun keeps threatening, it's unlikely to disappoint anyone. The set ended with Edo Gila (Polyfox, Spew Your Guts Up) dragged on stage to sing 'Never Again' in place of Shogun, who by that stage had a voice that was genuinely shot yet no less stunning. There was a front row full of familiar faces from the last two years of Royal Headache’s Sydney shows, a pack that has now travelled from Sydney's inner-west to locations as exotic as Bondi and Newcastle. It's a strange feeling seeing a hometown band two-and-a-half hours from home, accompanied by the same faces you see every weekend.
Home Blitz were unfortunately placed last on the bill, leaving many to head back to Sydney after Royal Headache's set to miss one of the festival's highlights. At Home Blitz's heart lies the snarky, bratty words of Daniel DiMaggio, playing scrappy power-pop full of rapid-fire riffs and whining little anthems. But they weren't a band stained by simplicity. There's as much a sense of experimentation and deconstruction as in Blues Control, building clever pop songs before yanking them back down through odd shifts and noise. Their songs are anthems that are played too fast to stick, almost catching on before being torn into flag-burning ceremonies. Few did more to hold a mirror to our scene than Home Blitz, and in some ways their merging of DIY personalities transcend much of the genre-focused acts Australia has to offer.
Sound Summit deserves praise for doing a festival the right way. The bill is locally focused, with internationals not tacked on for pulling power but assembled to highlight the similar scenes stewing across international waters. They're showcased, not sold, the line-up curated to inform and stretch the limits of the imagination. Sound Summit is one of the highlights of Newcastle’s arts calendar, another step alongside the opening of vacant spaces for art galleries and the encouragement (or possibly just tolerance) of DIY spaces like the Pharmacy (which featured punk and noise shows across the long weekend) to prevent the exodus of youths. Whether that's enough to buoy the city's culture is another thing entirely.
It's just questionable whether Newcastle really wants it. “Are you here for that art shit?” asked one local. But none said it better than an operator of the Pharmacy on the final night, impatiently addressing a mass of post-Sound Summit attendees who loitered out front to see if some kind of rumoured event was about to kick off at the venue. “Who the fuck are you!? Why are you here!? I don't know you! Go the fuck away!” It might have been half in jest when he closed the gate to those calls, but when the festival ended up at the cluster of kebab shops and pizza places appropriately titled ‘Oasis’, it's hard not to note that Newcastle is a city with a dearth of options. Sound Summit may be one of New South Wales' most important music events, but it's hard to see it as any kind of saviour of Newcastle's music scene, playing out as much as a holiday for the out-of-towners as a temporary reprieve for the locals.