At All Points Of The Compass With Art Of Fighting
Monday, February 12th. South.
No really, it does. All afternoon the temperature has hovered at around 35 degrees, though hover is quite possibly the wrong adjective for that unforgivingly dry, uniquely Melbourne summer heat that settles in and stretches itself out over long days like an unwelcome visitor. There’s no getting rid of it. Only an ocean breeze – and Melbourne is distinctly lacking in these – would succeed in scouring the city of the odours that cling to it. Debris from the lunch hour rush, half-eaten, forgotten. The sweat pooling in the small of a million backs. Wrappers and chalk and horse shit kicked up along the bargain basement stretch of Swanston Street, last refuge of the hungry, drunk or alone. Swanston Street always puts me on edge.
I dive around the corner into Flinders Lane, and thence to Degraves, sitting myself down by a fusty garbage bin to wait for Ollie Browne. He appears precisely on time, mop of brown curls turning about as he looks for the journalist. An interview is such an unfair situation: the subject can know nothing about the interviewer, and they’re not meant to know. The interviewer’s job is to know whatever they can about the subject, and to find out more. Revelation is supposed to be one-way traffic. I get up to say hello, and he holds out a hand.
Ollie’s nervous; he thinks it’s inevitable that he’s going to say something stupid. He punctuates his sentences with his shoulders, which rise sharply up and down like the silhouette of a bird’s wings. I’m nervous too: it’s a strange thing to meet somebody whose music you’ve been listening to continuously for so many years that you rush out to greet a new album like an old friend. But what I’ve realised is that I don’t actually know anything about Art of Fighting except for what comes through their music; nothing about Ollie Browne apart from what I’ve heard in his singing voice, his words and his guitar playing. I’m worried that it won’t be enough.
We head up a crooked staircase to Hell’s Kitchen. The name of the bar, the narrow confines of it, the relentless warmth of the early evening: it all feels – to use a word that will recur – incommensurate with Art of Fighting. It should be damp, it should be twilight, the colours should be grey and green. How little I know.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover for Runaways,” says Ollie, speaking of the new album, “but the whole thing is basically like a road through the desert, and a car on the road. And that was definitely an interpretation of this record, which is a lot drier than our previous records, and also a lot more desolate.”
The word dry seems an unusual one for an Art of Fighting record.
“Well, it’s actually just dry, sonically. On our past records we’ve used lots of reverb, and accentuated what was there in the room with microphones with reverb in the studio. And with this one we said, ‘Look, let’s scale it back, we want it to sound more like us in the room’.”
Or, as bassist Peggy Frew will later offer: “My bad analogy is that it’s like foundation garments as opposed to going with no underwear… We felt like it was the right thing to do with this particular set of songs, to let them stand and have them be a bit more bare. It’s funny because we all struggled with it so much [that] when it actually came to mixing the album we’d be sitting in the studio cringing, going, ‘Oh my god, maybe we should put some more reverb on this’. Because it really is like clothes versus going nude, but it’s always worth doing something that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable.”
The result of this deliberate break from habit is a recording that sounds emptier and more open than either Wires or Second Storey, Art of Fighting’s first and second albums, respectively. It is as if with each subsequent release the band have gained a further foothold on some cliff they’re slowly climbing; the view gets a little wider every time.
The increasing spaciousness is comparative, of course, for this band have always relished those moments, particularly on stage, when the sound drops away to almost nothing, leaving a great clear space in its wake: “To be able to sing so quietly that it’s almost a vacuum, over the top of really quiet music, is really quite cathartic,” Ollie states. Art of Fighting have always been slow and quiet, it’s what they do, but, as drummer Marty Brown observes, repeated listens to the previous records reveal “a fair amount of stuff going on”.
Wires – which won the band an ARIA for best independent album in 2001 – was an album built upon sonorous guitar strands, slow vibrations that, like the title, evoked a street-level perspective of a cityscape at night: strung cables and their radiant hum, the bleeding of halogen lights through bedroom curtains.
“Wires is definitely a very urban record because that’s the situation that it was written in,” confirms Ollie. “I was living in Carlton and my nights were filled with all kinds of Carlton-esque things: going to pubs, seeing bands… The songs are not, lyrically, specifically about living in Carlton but they’re exactly about my time living there, mood-wise.”
Second Storey, conversely, was all about keyboards, rivers of them – “when it got to mixing Second Storey we had a choice of five different keyboard parts for any given song,” recalls Marty – in keeping with that album’s sense of stormy, panicked motion. “Second Storey was a very tempestuous record, obviously,” says Ollie, “because it was written after a major relationship breakdown” – he means between Peggy and himself – “so that was reflected in the cover art and also in the lyrical terrain.” Like the stranded houses on the cover, the music of Second Storey clung to a spot above the waterline as familiar streets went under, but on Runaways, Melbourne – or anywhere like it – has disappeared. The terrain has changed entirely.
“I hope that Peggy mentioned that she was in labour during her vocal take,” Marty tells me. “She didn’t actually let anybody know that she was having the first pangs of pre-labour going on during her vocal take, she just wrapped it up and was like, ‘I think I have to go now’.”
The disorientation and the sense of distance from home are there in the title, there in the very first lines that Ollie sings. “There’s a place I know of in the western state/Lost to any map that you can find.” The words hang against a backdrop almost as featureless as the night view from a plane window, with a simple, rhythmic strumming the only pilot. When the percussion arrives the whole song descends with it, foot by foot, until it lands with the friction of a guitar line that does, indeed, sound dryer and harsher than anything the band has previously committed to tape. From this opener, ‘Sycamore and Sand’, to last year’s single ‘Eastbound’, which brushes past Berlin, Tokyo and New York, there’s a sense of being lost, of spaces too big to absorb or to cope with.
“A lot of the seeds of the songs that I wrote and all of the lyrics were written overseas, when I’ve been away, or written about coming home from overseas,” Ollie explains. “And being overseas on my own,” he adds, “not associated with Art of Fighting. They’re all about that because I’ve been travelling quite a bit the past couple of years.”
He’s mainly been in Scandinavia – it later emerges that this is where his partner lives. “A lot of the lyrics were written in the Black Diamond Library in Copenhagen,” he continues. “It’s a very modern library by the river, and I went there every day. It sounds incredibly pretentious but it really wasn’t. I had a couple of listless days, a few weeks with some listless days while I was over there and I thought, ‘I may as well go and finish these lyrics’. I’d never really done anything like that before, and it was really hard, but really fun.”
Did you read any good books?
“No,” he smiles. “They were all in Danish.”
Leaning back in his chair the following evening, in the crimson half-light of Fitzroy’s Spanish Club, Ollie’s brother Miles – the band’s lead guitarist – offers this analysis of Runaways:
“Thematically for me – and I guess that I feel much more outside the process because Ollie writes the lyrics – I feel that he’s written a record which gets in some of the complexities of global life, in terms of people living a long way away from people they care about, and people travelling a lot, and the affect that has on relationships. And some of the longing that goes with being away from people that you care about, and some of the passion that one might derive from that.”
As for the complementary sense of sonic distance, “That was deliberate. I don’t know that it was linked to the theme,” he laughs, “but I think that we should all have a certain freedom to apply links after the fact.”
“It’s only now that I’ve played [Runaways] to a couple of friends in a limited way that I’ve realised it’s quite a mellow record, really,” Ollie considers. “And I always thought that it would be the opposite, that it would be quite a loud one for us, quite up. It’s interesting how those things happen. It reminds me a lot of when we made Wires, because when we recorded Wires I thought that it was going to be a pretty upbeat pop record, but it turned out quite similar to this new one, very listless and dreamy. The songs on Second Storey were written out of panic and confusion, and I think that the songs on this one are a lot more resigned and just sad, really.”
He says it so unaffectedly that I have to suppress a strong urge to giggle. Every Art of Fighting record has been sad.
Carlton does remind me of Wires, or maybe the other way around. Ollie is right. More specifically, that album reminds me of the view just past the corner of Elgin and Lygon Streets, late at night: an almost empty road, where a network of black fibres – telephone, tram, electricity – glitter together. Towering flats and lights high, high up, so they wash out the stars. Tonight, after Hell’s Kitchen, I stand in a phone box right near that corner and leave messages on three or four voicemails. Everyone is out of town or out of reach. It wasn’t that long – less than a year ago – since I lived in this city, and already I’m struggling to remember how I occupied myself. What did I do, where did I go? This isn’t my home anymore, and I’ve got time on my hands.
Was Wires really an album about Melbourne, I ask Ollie? Was the terrain of the songs that specific?
“Definitely,” he answers. “They’re very specific. I think that Wires is a document completely of that time… how I felt, how we felt.”
There’s a moment early on Runaways, towards the end of the second song, ‘Distance As Virtue’, which takes the backdrop of that first Art of Fighting album and reflects it back, newly barren. “Don’t you got something to say to me/Don’t leave me hanging on empty wires,” Ollie sings, as the music surges behind him. Networks of communication have failed. There’s so much promise in the sound but nowhere to go, and so the song stops, suddenly, like it’s pulling up at the kerb of an uninhabited street.
The desert motif is starting to make sense.
“This is a desolate thing,” repeats Ollie.
Tuesday, February 13th. West.
The heat wears on. I borrow a bike with a seat so low to the ground that it feels like Toy Town and cycle from Preston to Brunswick, for a morning conversation with Peggy Frew. The U-shaped ride along Moreland Road – down, and then up - is a trip that I was once used to making. Today I think that I know where I’m going, but it transpires that I don’t, because I turn the wrong way into Albion Street and am pedalling along towards the city before I realise my mistake. It’s odd and also frustrating to be lost in a familiar place. Turning around, I make it to the cafe just on time.
Peggy is not lost. It’s clear that she’s a local, a part of the area. She greets the counter staff while ordering coffee and muffin, and stops to chat with some people on her way to a table. We settle ourselves outside. The street is still and quiet.
“A theme doesn’t come first, no way,” she declares, speaking of the listlessness and loss of bearing which threads itself through Runaways. “It just comes by itself, and then maybe you decide to try and elucidate it a bit when you do the cover art and give it a title.”
As on past Art of Fighting records, Peggy’s songwriting contribution to Runaways, ‘Ride after Ride’, intersects with the rest of the album in an oblique manner. If Ollie’s songs are about trying run away, Peggy’s song is about standing still, watching somebody else do the running. “Well no-one ever said time goes faster when you’re dragging your bones/Stuck at home,” she sings.
Time has been on her mind. “I used to write a lot more songs,” she says. “I used to do a lot more of other things but that’s a lifestyle issue now, being at home with young children. I haven’t read a book for ages, and reading’s my favourite thing. I keep telling myself that it’s only going to be a few more years of not doing my own things, but I’m actually starting to realise that it’s a matter of figuring out how to fit things in, because I’m never going to have the time that I used to have. When I think back to five years ago I had so much time and I did nothing with it. Nothing! I wasted it, and now I have no time.”
Aside from Ollie, every member of Art of Fighting is a relatively new parent, tending to young children. “Our band gag is that Ollie might not have a baby but he’s the baby himself,” chuckles Marty down the phone to me, several days later, where he’s at home watching over two-week-old twins. “It’s something to hack on him about, and that’s always fun.”
Babies are, at the moment, a part of the group’s fabric – they have no choice but to work around them. But everyone agrees that consequent time constraints have made them more productive and more focused as band. Everyone, that is, apart from Marty, who laughs again. “That’s good in theory. Ollie said somewhere that being in a band is fun because we don’t get to see each other that much really [nowadays], so when we do there are lots of” – he pauses for emphasis – “hi-jinks.”
For her part, Peggy sees the shift in emphasis as a good thing. “It’s not that you put less into it as time goes on, but you have it in less perspective when you’re younger,” she reflects. “You’re so passionate about it and you love it so much, and you think that what you’re doing is just so important… When all you do is music, it’s miserable. I think that you need other things in your life.”
On the topic of importance, I tell Peggy that this is what her songs are, and I mean it.
Though her showing has dipped to one track per album – down from two or three apiece on the early Art of Fighting EPs The Very Strange Year and Empty Nights – that one track always throws the rest into stark relief. She and Ollie have sympathetic yet very different musical styles: though Ollie’s songs are direct, Peggy’s sound immediate, and with the simplest of structures – ‘Ride After Ride’ is based around a small handful of piano notes – her songs remain emotionally complex. You keep returning to them, listen after listen, trying to nut out the dark puzzles lying beneath the lullaby melodies and the freshness of her voice. Without Peggy’s songs an Art of Fighting record would be only half of what it is – too consistent, too smooth. Ollie knows as much himself.
“That’s exactly it,” he says. “With my songs they’re not all the same, but they’re approached similarly, and people might fall into patterns in the way they interpret them and the kind of things they play on them. And then when Peggy brings a song it’s often so different that we have to all think about what we’re doing and really shake it up.
“I’ve always been jealous of her songwriting.” He allows himself a small smile. “Completely professional jealousy.”
“Thanks for saying that they’re important,” says Peggy, sounding surprised that anyone would think it. “Every time [we record] it’s this big brow beating, and me saying, ‘Why do we have to put one of my songs on?’ And then, at the very last minute, we record it and I have a crisis and say, ‘No, I don’t want it on the record’ and the others say, ‘Come on, you have to’. I’m so grateful to my bandmates for always encouraging me. It’s totally because of them.”
Later on, I ask Miles to confirm this. Peggy gives the rest of the band credit for her songs seeing the light of day. Without you encouraging her, would she put forward any songs at all?
“No, she wouldn’t,” he answers. “I guess that a lot of our songwriting is about preparing songs to play live, and she doesn’t play her songs live, so they’re always left on the backburner until we actually get into the studio, because there’s really no pressure to get them organised at all, unless we’re recording.”
Peggy won’t play her songs live, though once upon a time she did, and hence a phenomenon has developed at Art of Fighting shows, predictable as the tide: at some point an enthusiastic cry goes up among the audience: “Sing, Peggy! Sing!” But she never does. Why did she stop?
“I stopped singing live because I wasn’t having fun,” she replies. “I wasn’t enjoying the shows, because it hinged on whether I thought I sang well or not. And because I’m such a quiet singer there were so many situations where it didn’t work and I’d feel utterly miserable. And also, putting aside whether I’m a good singer or not, anybody would probably feel inadequate going up against – not going up against Ollie, but singing on the same stage as somebody with a voice like that.”
I’m saddened though not surprised by her explanation. Peggy, I want to say to her, your voice is beautiful, though I don’t say this, and later regret it. And I understand – if only from a listener’s perspective – where she’s coming from. Ollie is a tremendously fine singer. He can reduce a noisy, inattentive crowd to hushed reverence within thirty seconds flat, and not by belting it out, but by doing what he always does: holding onto a melody with note-perfect clarity and undeniable emotion. It would, indeed, be a difficult voice to share space with, especially for someone who admits that she has “very low self-esteem in terms of my musical ability… It was giving my confidence a real bruising, every night, and I just thought, ‘Fuck this, I want to have a good time’.”
Her own voice remains a point of contention with Peggy. “I like playing bass – I think that I’m not too bad at that,” she proffers. “But it’s just the singing factor. I make up songs and imagine the melodies in my head with someone else’s voice singing it, basically, someone like Chan Marshall [Cat Power]. And then I sing it and just I hate it because my expectations are – what’s the word? – incommensurate with my abilities. It’s just so frustrating. Every time we record one of my songs I try to make Ollie sing it and he refuses to.”
This is lucky – lucky that Ollie’s view differs from Peggy’s, that he considers her singing to be “awesome”, and that he is less self-assured of his own vocal ability than, one might consider, he is entitled to be. “It’s not something that I’m extremely confident about… and I’d never say that it’s the main focus, because it’s not,” he says. “A lot of people say that they spend a lot of time listening to Peggy’s bass riffs,” he continues, “and that’s completely understandable, because they’re probably one of the most melodic elements of the band.”
Maybe this isn’t luck so much as consideration. There’s a clear sense of the way in which each member of Art of Fighting cares for all the others, looks out for them, and is happy to give everybody else all the complements and credit. It’s doubtless a consequence of the amount of time they’ve spent together as a band – more than 10 years – and the closeness of the relationships between them: two siblings, and two ex-partners. But it must have taken – and maybe still takes – a lot of effort to reach this harmony, a balance of wills and opinion between four people.
“We used to have enormous fights back in the early days,” reflects Peggy, “but that was part of that immature thing of it all being so important. You’ve got to go through that period of your life, your early 20s. But it’s good when it passes.”
Pedalling about like Noddy in the midday sun necessitates a cold shower and a change of clothes before I head off to meet with Miles Browne. Though we’re within Johnston Street’s tiny Spanish Quarter and the thermometer suggests a definite Andalucian balminess, the evening is strictly sans sombrero. We do, however, get talking about the work of British filmmaking’s great dissenter, Ken Loach, and in particular Land and Freedom, his searing account of the Spanish Civil War. Miles says that he “used to be” a political activist, though his interests suggest that old habits might die hard, if at all. A few nights later he asks me if I’ve read Antony Beevor’s new, directory-sized account of the same European conflict; I haven’t. He’s planning on starting it.
Lest someone speculate that Miles harbours ambitions to play with The Clash – or any latter-day equivalent – he’s clear about his satisfaction with the ongoing musical mood of Art of Fighting: stately melancholia. “It’s the music that we’re good at and therefore really enjoy playing,” he argues. “I think that if we tried to play upbeat music we would probably not enjoy it, because it would sound terrible.”
“I don’t really think that our music is sparse,” he defends, in the face of my descriptions, “it’s not acoustic folk music or anything. But it is very part-sy,” he concedes, coining a term, “it seems very considered and that sort of thing. And I don’t know why that is, apart from the fact that we’re not a jamming kind of band.”
Miles lays the responsibility for Art of Fighting’s signature atmospherics squarely at his younger brother’s feet. “I think that Ollie’s voice is melancholy,” he states. “With Runaways we tried to introduce things to give it a more upbeat element – not it any attempt to make the record happy, but just because I was interested in it, from my guitar-playing perspective.”
Those elements include the aforementioned friction of ‘Sycamore and Sand’ – which begins with a distinctive, electric hum that serves to usher in the record a bit like a needle hitting the platter – and the staccato choppiness of ‘Mysteries’, growing outwards from an initially undulating guitar texture like time-lapse film, until it ends with breathless speed. ‘Mysteries’ is one of a few rare moments where the band’s mood approaches anger, and it might well join the Second Storey-era ‘Sing Song’ in their live set as a “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” number, as Ollie once memorably described the latter from the stage.
“But it still sounds melancholy,” Miles says, “and I think that’s the nature of Ollie’s voice and melodies.”
For the record, Marty disagrees with this reasoning, “but Miles and I always disagree,” he says. “When Miles and I agree we look at each other and go, ‘This is weird. Something’s going to happen’.”
Marty claims that the sadness of Art of Fighting springs from their influences: “I think that we play the kind of music that we like to listen to,” he says. Miles, predictably, contradicts this assertion: “It’s just the music we all make together, though I don’t think that it’s necessarily the music that we all listen to or love.”
Miles reckons that the band might be able to sustain longer tours if they were playing happier, easier music, though he brushes off the suggestion that playing live as intently as they do – “I think that if you’re going to play really slow, sparse, melancholy stuff you can’t just stand there and play your bits. It has to be about tension and flow” – requires any kind of Method-style immersion in misery.
“We’re not in that frame of mind at all,” he smiles. “Sadly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the songs and what’s going on onstage,” – as anyone who has witnessed the band’s unflappable demeanour and cheery stage banter will affirm – “I don’t know why that is.”
“I don’t know at what point anybody in the band even comes close to the mood of our music,” he continues, sounding puzzled. “I really don’t know where it comes from.”
“Every time we record one of my songs I try to make Ollie sing it and he refuses to.” – Peggy Frew
“I think that I will only write songs in a certain mood,” offers Ollie, when quizzed on the subject. “I’m not really a storytelling songwriter… it’s just a cathartic process for me, and it comes very rarely. So I think that all the songs have a very similar mood, and that mood is one of resignation and melancholy, I suppose. Contrary to what may be believed, I’m a pretty upbeat person generally,” he smiles, “I like going out and having fun, doing fun stuff, but in the rare moments of down time that I have, I suppose that’s when I pick up the guitar and start writing.”
Does Miles concur with this?
“If I was pushed on the issue, I’d say that everybody [in the band] has that side,” Miles answers. “I think that we write in that context somehow out of respect to that side of our personalities, but it’s pretty strange to think that people would think we came off stage and were really, I don’t know…” Here he gives a demonstrative frown.
“I’m just wary of the idea that it’s a farce,” he adds, sounding concerned.
That the mood of your music is calculated or deliberate?
“Yeah,” he replies. “Because it really doesn’t feel like any of that. I think that if we felt [calculating in] that way, then we’d be totally the opposite on stage, because we’d be trying to convince people that we were morose thinkers who had the weight of the world on our shoulders. I guess we all feel that somehow we channel this vibe, and we can’t help it.”
Wednesday, February 14th. Where the heart is.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and no secret admirer has appeared in time to whisk me off to New York for Diamanda Galas’ ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’, to be performed at The Knitting Factory. I wish that I were there. Galas has a voice that could start a war, and a knack for turning love songs into pitiless, steel-hard curses that ricochet beyond the grave and back again. She knows what’s at stake.
Diamanda Galas does not sound like Ollie Browne. Comparison is ludicrous, apart from in this respect: as singers, both of them devastate me. With Galas it’s sheer terror, with Browne it’s beauty. It’s a difficult thing to admit to somebody, that their voice leaves you floored, speechless, sometimes in tears. And I don’t admit as such to Ollie; in Hell’s Kitchen, I fuck it up. All I manage to say to him is that his voice is incredible, which is not nearly the half of it. He graciously says thank you.
“When we made our first record the vocals were almost an afterthought, because we just wanted to be a noisy guitar band,” he says. “‘The Very Strange Year’ and ‘Empty Nights’ [EPs] were, for want of a better word, post-rock records. They were a lot about the instrumentation, and the vocals were almost supplementary.”
Over the years he’s grown into his capability as a singer, and now “I really enjoy it. I love it. I don’t enjoy hearing it back, but I don’t think that anybody in their right mind would.”
I ask him to describe it for me, the feeling of singing. He thinks for a moment.
“I suppose one analogy to it would be that [it’s like] whenever I go to see a jazz band and there’s a wailing saxophone, and it’s really powerful in the way that it’s sitting over the top of the music but is still completely integrated with the music, so it has a melodic expression that is very fluid. I suppose it’s a similar thing, just being able to sing really loud notes – not that I always sing that loud, I often sing quietly – but being able to have that melodic flexibility over the top of the chords. I just really enjoy it. Perhaps I’m a frustrated jazz musician,” he smiles.
And maybe he is. His father is a jazz drummer: “I started playing drums in high school,” says Ollie “and after high school [my dad] would sometimes ask me to fill in on gigs that he couldn’t make, and that would generally be jazz gigs, New Orleans-style jazz.” His jazz drumming has continued alongside his songwriting, “Though my other band doesn’t do as much work as Art of Fighting.”
It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m not in New York – or New Orleans, for that matter. Instead, I’m standing on the platform of Bell station, waiting for a city-bound train. Maybe it’s the late afternoon sunlight but the place feels like a film set to me, over-lit. Melbourne so often feels this way – distant, unreal – even when I lived here I could never quite convince myself that it was where I was, as if stagehands were due on at any moment to wheel away the buildings.
Wires is on my headphones, more particularly, the album’s final track, ‘Something New’. It’s a song that’s stuck around for a long time: as Miles observes, it often closes the band’s live sets. To me, it’s the quintessential Art of Fighting song, a love song that comes close – very close – to sounding like a curse. Art of Fighting have always been good at endings: Second Storey boats the achingly, gorgeously sad ‘Heart Translation’, while Runaways has ‘Night On Night’, a dew-drenched reverie. But ‘Something New’ is utterly bereft, still as an empty bed, and based around that universal lover’s plea: “Stay with me.”
I’ve always thought of Art of Fighting as playing within the tradition that the word aubade refers to. An aubade is a song to the dawn – it comes from the Spanish, albada – a song from one lover to another, as daylight arrives, asking why they must part. From ‘Your Resistance’, which opens Empty Nights, to ‘Something New’, to Runaways’ ‘Misty As The Morning’, Art of Fighting have always excelled at dawn songs. So many of the band’s musical elements – their limpid guitars, the bronze shadow of Marty Brown’s cymbals, the coolness of their melodies – suggest the muted promise, and the sadness, of early day.
“Apart from the time I spent writing lyrics in the Black Diamond,” Ollie says, “a lot of the other lyrics have been written in the wee hours, approaching dawn.” The songs become for him “another way to try and describe [a sensation of], ‘Look at that there, doesn’t that just break your heart?’” He pauses, his hand on his cheek.
“It’s really hard to put into words,” he continues, “and perhaps that’s why I’ve written so many songs about it. But it’s those moments that I assume everyone feels where you don’t even know why, but something makes you really sad. And it might be to do with your partner leaving, it might be to do with just looking at the dawn, I don’t know, but it’s that real moment where you just say, ‘Oh man, that’s fucked up. That’s really sad’. And I think that I’ve always been obsessed with trying to capture that mood in songs, because I’d like to unravel the mystery of those moments, and know why they happen, so that I could stop them happening.”
But if you could stop them from happening, what would you have left to write songs about?
“Exactly,” he concedes, smiling. “I’d start a pop band.”
“When we’re in the thick of it, writing and recording songs, we never talk about what the songs are about, the real nitty-gritty,” Peggy tells me. “We never have and we probably never will, but we’ll very obliquely refer to it later on, by saying things like, ‘There are themes of loss, or travel, or isolation’. But when you look at the lyrics there are some fairly specific things in there. It’s really quite funny when you consider that we’ve all known each other for so long, and Ollie and I were a couple for over half of the band’s life, but it’s like we’re all in this room together and we skirt around the fact that it’s there, that all the emotional stuff is there,” she says, sounding emphatic. “It’s like a big pile of burning rubble in the middle of the room and we’re standing around just pretending that it’s not there. But I guess that’s the only way we can make it work,” she concludes. “It’s got to exist only within the songs, otherwise I suppose we would implode.”
Thursday, February 15th. East.
I’m lost again. Miles has told me to meet him and the others outside the Great Britannia Hotel, on Swan Street. I know that the closest train station must be East Richmond, but at Flinders Street I can’t find any trains stopping there, so I take a gamble on South Yarra instead. Close enough, I think. I think wrong. I’m much further away than I thought I’d be, and running late now. Damn Melbourne. This cursed city won’t ever let me in.
I call Miles’ mobile from another phone box and forty seconds later he and Peggy pull up in a car beside me, a rescue squad on wheels.
Tonight I’m playing embedded reporter at a rare band outing – sans Marty, still at home with the newborns – the ostensible purpose of which is to vet a potential support band for some upcoming local shows. Their final choice might well be a surprise, if this evening’s entertainment is any indication of the shortlist. Up on the tiny stage – in reality, it’s more of an alcove – is the Tom Budge Goodtime Band. Tom Budge is an actor, and so are his bandmates: you might remember Budge from such films as Australian Rules and Last Train To Freo. He specialises in portraying weedy, gimlet-eyed sociopaths, and the persona obviously extends to his musical endeavours, too. I start to worry that it’s not a persona. Bare-chested, with a black skull-and-crossbones cape strung over his shoulders, Budge leads the trio with a rough acoustic guitar and a seemingly endless run of higgledy-piggledy verses.
Actually, it’s pretty good. The sound is somewhere between Tom Waits and a colonial bush band, with Budge’s gruff tones offset by the occasional warmth of a harmonica, or toy accordion. Peggy and Miles both approve. “I like it when we play with bands who are different to us,” Miles says. “People used to love it when we did shows with Sodastream – and so did we – but that makes for a very sedate evening.”
The band finish their first set but there’s no sign yet of Ollie, though apparently he’s a big fan of the Budge ensemble. “Ollie’s girlfriend is going back to Denmark in two day’s time,” explains Miles. And after a beat, “His muse is about to return.”
You can almost hear him cracking his knuckles. It’s the kind of joke that only a sibling could get away with – highly deprecating, but nevertheless affectionate. “Miles and Ollie have stupid fights because they’re brothers,” Peggy says, earlier in the week, “but no one takes them seriously even though they’ll say the most outrageous things to each other. Marty and I just roll our eyes.”
Ollie and his partner duly appear, just before the Goodtime Band begin their second set. Bush ballads aren’t all that’s on offer, either – the karaoke selection sheet is being handed around. Ollie claims to have won a free drink once, singing karaoke in a city bar. What song? “Eye Of The Tiger,” he grins. And is this – a group excursion to a below-the-radar venue – Art of Fighting’s normal method of operation when it comes to choosing supports? “No,” he replies. “We normally each write our own favourites down, and then put them in a hat or something, a bit like drawing straws.”
Ah, democracy. “Democracy is hard work,” Ollie confesses. “It’s very slow.”
“I don’t think that democracies work,” Marty wryly observes, later on. “But it gets the job done without too many tears. My wife said to me once that being in a band is about getting your own way enough of the time to make you happy, and it’s very true.”
What’s making everyone happy tonight is news of an offer that has appeared, this very same afternoon, in the group email account. A martial arts school in Los Angeles wants to buy the rights to the band’s internet domain name, artoffighting.com, and the band are highly diverted by the idea. Miles insists that they can’t settle for less than US$1 million. Ollie says that he’d be satisfied with US$650 and some free martial arts lessons. Peggy seems to be siding with Miles, though maybe Ollie has a point. “Certainly not in physical prowess, that goes without saying,” replies Marty, when asked if the band have ever managed to live up to their name. Now might be the time to seize the opportunity.
Earlier in the week, Peggy had put forward her own training analogy. “If you’re not quite prepared to record an album, it’s like sport or something: you have to be match-fit and you’ve got to play and play to get any good.” She’s talking about the fraught circumstances around Second Storey, an album made, in a sense, to keep the band from splitting up. “We’d had this huge extended break, none of us had been playing together, we got together for this little tour and went, ‘Oh, let’s do another album’, and then before we knew it we were in the studio,” she explains.
Runaways, by contrast, was made in relatively relaxed circumstances, though Peggy still has doubts about the band’s collective confidence. “We always question our musical ability,” she says, “and maybe that’s why the songs are simple, because none of us apart from Marty,” she pauses, “and Ollie,” she pauses again, “and Miles, can play.”
I’m not sure that I believe her.
“I hope that Peggy mentioned that she was in labour during her vocal take [on Runaways],” Marty tells me. I nearly drop the phone. “I wasn’t there, unfortunately,” he continues. “She was doing the vocal take down at Martin St Studios and I think that Ollie and Miles were both there. She didn’t actually let anybody know that she was having the first pangs of pre-labour going on during her vocal take, she just wrapped it up and was like, ‘I think I have to go now’. And off she went. I can’t believe she didn’t tell you that” – I can’t believe it either – “maybe she doesn’t want anyone to know, but it’s such a great story that I’m quite happy to put it out there.”
Friday, February 16th. North.
It was late when Peggy and Miles mobile dropped me off near that familiar corner, Lygon and Elgin Streets, and it’s early by the time I’m standing there again, 6.00am. I’m on my way to the airport, heading back to Sydney. My hometown, in the deepest sense.
The dawn skyline looks a little like the cover of Wires, buildings collaged against the clouds. Each skyscraper is in two clear dimensions, one side shadow, one sunstruck; gun-metal grey and a shimmering pale orange. It’s still dark enough for the signage on each building top to be switched on, that brief time when neon and natural light compete and reflect off each other. When street lamps bleed through curtains. Morning becomes electric.
There’s a line running through my head, a line from ‘Territories’, the mid-point of Runaways. “Clarity fades with the day”. It’s true. Everything looks sharper, more present in one’s field of vision at dawn. Past Spencer Street station (sorry, Southern Cross) Melbourne’s industrial patchwork sits alert, almost alive. Tower blocks on Racecourse Road. Electrical substations. Gantry cranes. It strikes me, again, that I’ve never been over the Westgate Bridge. I’ve left this city too many times, left and returned, left again. Still not seen enough of it. Still don’t know it.
You have your heart broken in a place and you have to leave it, eventually, or it drives you crazy. Maybe that’s why Runaways sounds about as far from Melbourne as it’s possible to get. But it still sounds like Art of Fighting.
I arrive back in Sydney. Leaning, half asleep, against the window of a train carriage. ‘Night On Night’ is on my headphones: another ending, another dawn song. It sounds like an empty paddock, slow as a sleepwalk, glimmering on the verge of tears. The melody trails like fingertips. As the band pushes into their final coda, the train pulls out from a tunnel into daylight. My head snaps up. The buildings surrounding Central Station are lying flat against the mid-morning glare and the weather is, once again, incommensurate.