Lo-fi Layabouts

Hit the Jackpot’s frenetic, fuzzed-out sound belies their relaxed approach, writes DANIEL HERBORN.

As a particularly gruesome cliche informs us, there’s always more than one way to skin a cat. The broad church of rock’n?roll encompasses those whose perfectionism in the studio can almost drive them – and those around them – quite mad (think Brian Wilson, or even Morrissey, who famously bathed the studio in red light to ensure a certain atmosphere would seep into the recording of ‘How Soon Is Now?’).

Another route entirely is to start the process without any grand plan, any preconceived reference points, turn up the amps, hit record and see what happens.

Adelaide three-piece Hit the Jackpot, card-carrying members of the thriving Australian DIY scene, take the latter approach. Their new album Soul Money Gang Vibe* – their second full-length after the cult hit *Clowns – is very much a product of the their unfussy, instinctive approach to recording, committed to tape and mixed in their lounge room on and off from July to November of last year.

The vibe, as you can imagine, was a relaxed one, with their ?pretty laidback? label (Guy Blackman’s Chapter Music) offering unobtrusive support, friends assembling at their house and recording sessions beginning and ending when the mood took them. ?We’d kind of do a bit of recording, make some dinner, do a bit more,? says singer Jess Thomas.

The mellow sessions didn’t equate to sleepy music, however. In fact they yielded some of the group’s most stripped-down, fuzzed-out noisy pop songs to date. ‘King of the Pool’ is a high-energy, lo-fi pop rocket about a pool bully and his over-zealous splashing, while ‘Puppy’ is a darker beast; the simple lyrics (?You bought me a kitten/ I wanted a puppy?) belying some dark droning reminiscent of Batrider’s bleaker moments on Tara.

?We’ve always recorded our records at home,? Jess says, and this set up, largely dissembled at present, has also allowed them to record other bands, though it is unlikely to expand into a real money-spinner any time soon. ?It’s just kind of bands we know, it’s
more of a hobby thing, really, mostly Adelaide bands, a couple of interstate bands, there’s usually a bit of a payment, but not that much,? she says, laughing. Said bands have included the aforementioned Batrider, Lindsay Low Hand, Birth Glow and the sadly defunct Sydney punk kids Kiosk.

Such sharing of recording facilities seems to be a real feature of the lo-fi scene, with bands teaming up for split releases, cross-promoting each other’s latest shows and generally providing support for fellow practitioners of a musical genre unlikely to ever garner much mainstream support. So is there a strong community feel among like-minded bands? ?Definitely,? says Jess. ?We help other bands here set up shows, and they do the same for us in other cities, so it’s pretty helpful for us.?

As big fans of lo-fi icons Beat Happening, the experience of supporting Calvin Johnson remains a treasured one for the band. ?That was pretty awesome,? the always upbeat and often giggly Jess enthuses. His shoddily recorded but indelible tunes must have
reaffirmed the band’s conviction that – in music at least – enthusiasm and ideas can triumph over skill. ?I guess that statement is kind of just to say people can just start bands and do it themselves, it’s not like this really exclusive thing that it can be made out to be?

Such an attitude smacks of the class of ’77 punks, but unlike many musicians who have roots in punk before branching out into other genres, Hit the Jackpot’s sympathies have always laid more with experimental and lo-fi bands. ?When we started in Adelaide, there was quite a healthy lo-fi scene, the label Blank Tapes … did compilations of Adelaide bands, and half of them were just complete shit and half of them were amazing. I guess we kind of came from that culture as well, those bands had a similar aesthetic.?

?We’d kind of do a bit of recording, make some dinner, do a bit more.?

The City of Churches continues to punch above its musical weight as a smaller capital. ?Pubs in Adelaide treat us pretty well so we can’t complain about them … There’s some really good Adelaide bands here. I think it’s still pretty good, but it can be frustrating.? Such frustration, says Jess, stems partly from a lack of all-ages venues. ?It’s always good to play those DIY spaces because you can have all-ages shows there,? she says. ?It is quite hard in Adelaide to do an all-ages show … There’s been a couple of spaces, but there’s not really much like that happening at the moment?.

For smaller bands in smaller cities, the temptation to relocate to the brighter lights of, say, Melbourne, or to try your luck overseas (see the Devastations and The Death Set) must be ever present. But with a typical lack of careerist deliberation, Jess says the band only have vague plans to move ?maybe in a couple of years? and the motivation for such a switch would be predominantly personal. ?Just to experience a new city then to try to take the band up a level or something,? she says.

Already having upped sticks is former member Sebastian Calabretto, who decamped to London earlier in the year and he has since been replaced by Scott O’Hara, who also plays in local fuzz merchants Lindsay Low Hand and with Evelyn Morris (Pikelet) in experimental act True Radical Miracle. As a long-term friend of Jess and co-founder Kynan Lawlor, Scott was the obvious replacement. ?It’s good, he’s been in bands for a long time and … I mean it’s an adjustment, but, he’s fitted into the songs really well and we’ve written a couple of
new ones.?

Having started life as a duo, the brief when recruiting Calabretto was to find someone who could really play. But musicianship can be something of a double-edged sword in the ragged-edged world of Hit the Jackpot. Half a decade since they began, there could be a
danger that the charm of their unschooled, scattershot approach could be lost as the playing inevitably becomes better. But for Jess, this is a potential pitfall the band don’t so much work around, as ignore. ?We just kind of write songs, we don’t think about it in a calculated kind of way, we don’t go, ‘Could this be more raw?? We just kind of let it be a process that we do.?

Some of the reviews for Soul Money Gang Vibe have detected a distinctly early ’90s feel, with bands like Dinosaur Jr and Sebadoh often mentioned as influences. But again, Jess sees any likeness as unintentional, unconscious. ?We like that kind of music … I can see where people are coming from,? she says. ?We don’t set out to make it ’90s sounding, we don’t set out to make it nostalgic or anything like that. We just like distorted-sounding records. I guess that’s where it all comes from.?

In a musical environment where too much music sounds like it was micromanaged by a committee to fit radio playlists, and too many bands seem to spend more time on MySpace ?networking’ than playing shows, Hit the Jackpot’s lack of planning makes for a refreshing

They’re loud, fun, spontaneous. Get on board.