Perth's Music Scene: Know Your Product
Is it time for the Perth music scene to stop second-guessing itself?
Tim Harrington was standing at the load-in entrance to the Rosemount Hotel stage, telling people to come inside. “Hey everybody, come in, come inside now, the show’s about to start. We’re cutting a cake, it’s a wedding cake, it’s Harry and Lisa’s wedding and we’re about to cut the cake, come on …” He was doing this because there were few people inside. In fact, there were few people there at all, maybe 100 and change. It’s no wonder this gig, the Perth bit of Les Savy Fav’s 2006 tour, was cut back from also featuring Thunderbirds Are Now and the Hold Steady to just the headliner supported by some locals. Presale tickets were weak and door sales weren’t strong either. This was bumming me out, as I entered the Rosemount, but it could’ve been worse – they could have had the Gossip and Pretty Girls Make Graves’ crowd of two nights ago. That turnout really sucked.
This scene nicely demonstrates something frustrating about liking music in Perth. There is this idea that we on the west coast don’t get the good tours. It’s not entirely true. We do get them, we get Erase Errata, Jason Molina, Wolf Eyes, Calvin Johnson – we just give them shitty crowds. Great bands, innovators, icons, and out of 1.5 million people we can’t muster up a few hundred to give them a good welcome, or make the dozens that we can muster cheer loudly, or consistently, or not walk out and demand their money back.
It makes me worry about appearances. Are the people over east looking at us and thinking, “Hicks. We made the Laneway Festival out of those bands, they made a stinking pile of faeces with them. Let’s not let them come to our cool parties and meet our cool friends. Let’s throw mayonnaise packets at them”? Mostly, I am a Perth music nut, and a Perth nut, loathe to trot out the cliché that Perth’s geographical isolation somehow sets us back culturally. But when I witnessed the Les Savy Fav and Pretty Girls incidents, that nuttiness collapsed under the weight of two tiers of cultural cringe – the pervasive rest-of-the-world cringe that Australia as a whole suffers from, and the more specific eastern states cringe that WA suffers from.
This anxiety, this terrible, irritating insecurity, comes into play too much in Perth music. Either explicitly, when a venue is praised for its likeness to bars in Melbourne or Sydney (mainly Melbourne), or implicitly, when a band gains a quick following because it fits in with trends either established over east, or picked up from the US or Europe by the east coast. It’s nothing too overt, decisions are not made daily by weighing up whether Victorians would approve, but there is often that question being asked in the back of a punter’s mind: is this a step forward or a step backward for us? And the arbitrator of that is how a person from a ‘more cultured’ place would react to it. It’s stupid, small time thinking, but it’s like seeing someone with a deformity and making a big deal about not making a big deal about it. The knowledge of one’s own insecurities does not eliminate them.
Partly, I attribute our inability to judge our own music on its own merits to Australia and especially WA’s awkward relationship with art, which, by extension, can be attributed to the double cultural cringe again. The art and music scenes here are developing and developing healthily, but the baby steps still trip us up sometimes. Art and creativity are not always given room to breathe and develop on their own, or to exist for their own sake. They are not seen as things beneficial to humans, but rather as a career choice, and a trepidacious one at that. It is probably something to dabble in for your early twenties, maybe into your thirties, but if you haven’t made it by then, give up. There is a do-something-with-it, bums-on-seats attitude to art that can stifle the growth of a supportive and organically evolving scene.
Regardless, some Perth bands prosper. To me, the main ones are a bit naff – the Eskimo Joes, the Little Birdies, the John Butler Trios – but some aren’t, such as the Sleepy Jackson and the Snowman. Or maybe they’re all naff, depending on your taste, but the point is that a number of those bands render wrong the idea that Perth’s geographical isolation fucks up a band’s chances to be heard. In the main, though, far too many of Perth’s very good bands go under not only the nation’s, but also their hometown’s, radar. They either don’t release albums or release only one, cruelly aborting their nascent talents and ambitions and leaving our lives all the drabber.
Josh Fontaine is, perhaps, the greatest songwriter to ever come from our side of the country, but his band, the now-defunct Stickfigures, never got themselves together to release a CD. He is now recording a single under his own name for release in 2007, but it’s only one of reportedly dozens of songs he’s written, with a remarkably good strike rate on the few he’s played the Perth public. That he has come this close to never exhibiting his talent, to letting his fans go without some sort of document of the existence of his music, is tragic.
If there is any message to this article besides “Perth might be a bit shit sometimes but give it a go”, it’s a call to make our city, and our country, a place that can give your favourite artist a fighting chance. Maybe Fontaine isn’t the best songwriter WA has known, but I want, nay need him, to find out if he can be. The 2007 WA Next Big Thing competition winners Streetlight are interesting, but melodramatic. Right now, I’m not that into them, but maybe in two albums’ time they’ll blossom into something more. Joe Bludge is a charmingly eccentric blues and folk solo songwriter whose percussive playing style and quaint songs blow me away every time I see him. Eleventh He Reaches London are prog-metal megalodons whose debut album I can’t stop listening to – imagine what they can accomplish when they’re over 25.
I entered the Rosemount at Tim Harrington’s beckoning, stomach falling with the realisation of how few people were there. The deflated Pretty Girls and Gossip gig of a few nights ago was fresh in my memory, and I dreaded watching another idol of mine fall flat. Instead, they combusted. Harrington was what everybody says he is: the greatest human alive. He strutted and screamed and ran shirtless through the crowd, out the front door, and came flying back in wearing a motherfucking cape. He didn’t care at all where he was, he didn’t let being in Perth get in the way of transmuting his performance into a betterment of the soul.
God willing, neither will we.