Gaslight Radio: Out Of The Wilderness
Fear, paranoia and artistic panic. Gaslight Radio may have evolved a lot in the 11-and-a-half years since their inception, but as Rory Cooke tells SAM FELL, some things never change.
It’s as cold as you’d expect it to be in mid-winter Melbourne, but we still sit outside so we can smoke as we talk. Trams rumble past, mere metres away, and people crowd the small pavement, hurrying home or out for dinner, flitting past our small table wrapped in jackets and scarves, not offering so much as a glance towards us. In skinny jeans and jacket, a colourful scarf wrapped around his neck (perhaps more for fashion’s sake than warmth?), Rory Cooke looks every part the well-worn musician. His slightly balding head confirms as much. Cooke has been making music for more than a decade with Gaslight Radio, a band he started with his brother Marty, back before I even finished school. And while peak hour on a Friday in Northcote pays no mind to time, we both know that a decade is a long time indeed.
?It’s just over 10 now, maybe 11-and-a-half years,? Cooke explains, somewhat wearily about Gaslight Radio’s reign. ?Marty and I had a flat in Mermaid Beach up on the Gold Coast, a really nice brick flat, and we just started the band out of there. We’d been living in Brisbane before then, trying to start a rock band but couldn’t find anyone who we liked, we ran out of money so we came home. The Gold Coast was where we had lived all our lives – I mean, we lived all over, we lived in Sydney at one point, but we were brought up on the Gold Coast. Not the actual coast, more behind it in the swampy parts.
He continues: ?Marty and I, we’d been playing music together for a long time before Gaslight, so if it wasn’t Gaslight, we’d probably be doing something else for that long. It becomes your art – it’s what you do. We realised we weren’t making any money out of it, so it was more important to keep it going. I feel like we have to keep going, despite a lot of people’s advice – And I’m sure there’ll be a certain point where it’ll be clear that we shouldn’t keep going. At this stage, we’ve got a good band, it’d be hard to get another good band together – We’re just a cliched band in that our relationships have highs and lows and all that, but yeah, it’s just something that we do.?
The Brothers Cooke moved down to Melbourne around the time they began putting together their breakthrough LP, Hitch on the Leaves. ?We moved down here just before we started working on it, it must have been around ?99,? Cooke explains. ?It made sense at the time. We were on the road all the time anyway. We’d released a couple of EPs that did all right for indie music in the late ?90s, so we were lucky enough to get a hell of a lot of shows and tours.?
Hitch On The Leaves heralded a turbulent time for Gaslight Radio. It resulted in their signing to Mushroom Music and garnered them an ARIA nomination, as well as triple j exposure and interest from overseas. ?That was on a very small scale,? Cooke says, modestly. ?It wasn’t that intense, we were pretty green. Not ?green? as in not being experienced in life, but just thinking the music world was a very strange world. We’d never really gotten close to show business.
?So it was pretty weird. We did the usual things that a young band does – we all left our girlfriends and went on the road. We were cold and hungry and all that, so it was kind of brutal in a way,? he recalls with a laugh. ?It’s nice having people at your shows, that’s nice, [so I do miss it]. But I don’t know, I might be being paranoid about it, but there was a lot of suspicion that’s often forgotten about Gaslight, especially in Melbourne. There was a lot of suspicion about us because we were from Queensland. Marty and I were poor boys, we weren’t polished Melbourne indie folk. And it was very polished, it was very studied, as all indie scenes are – So we were kinda hostile towards it as well.?
Cooke speaks of the friction between Gaslight Radio and the scene at the time. ?There was a lot of hatred and rivalry, walkouts, bitching to journalists and girlfriends,? Cooke says, a far-away look in his eyes as he lights another cigarette. Speaking to him now, it seems almost as if we’re talking about a mythical time and place. Cooke today is calm and serene. His answers are slow and calculated and he thinks about everything before he says it. Throughout our two-hour interview, he rarely looks me in the eye. This isn’t to say he’s arrogant, bored or anything like that – this is just the way Rory Cooke is and to hear him talk about bitching to journalists and band walkouts seems almost surreal. It’s even more surprising that a heavy punk aesthetic lurks not-so-calmly beneath the surface of what seems like a fairly laidback band.
?I think there’s something to be admired in any band that works in crappy jobs then lifts heavy equipment and plays a show to four people in Geelong. I think it’s heroic.?
?We really enjoyed confrontational gigs growing up,? Cooke explains, ?and I think rebellion informed a lot of what we did. There were a lot of gigs that ended in fights, getting on stage was a confrontational thing to do, it wasn’t about entertainment, it was a release; a gutsy strange thing that people did. A lot of our gigs ended like that. We used to get beaten up by security guards at gigs, crazy stuff. And I think there were parallels of growing up on the Gold Coast in commission flats, out behind the Gold Coast, going to a public school with all the nice Gold Coast kids whose parents were rich – We were considered freaks, I guess. We already had an ?outsider? feel by the time we came to Melbourne.?
After the Js and the ARIAs and the hype, there came what Cooke terms, the ?wilderness years?: a five-year period between Hitch* and the band’s second record *Z Nation.
?We followed the traditional path of a band that gets screwed over in many ways,? Cooke jokes. ?We signed to a major [label], Silvertone, that lasted probably a year. They still own the rights to some of our songs – We released a 7?, and the guy who signed us originally got sacked when Silvertone withdrew from Australia. We were basically called into the office by this big, burly South African guy who was there with his lawyer and they said, ?We’ve decided to drop you.? We already knew it was coming, so we stole a lot of stuff that day, a few boxes of our vinyl – That was good.
?So we were all dirt broke, had no money. Marty and I, our mother died during that period as well,? he continues. ?Somehow though, we managed to keep recording and we recorded over two years. We grimly kept going, paying our way and we managed to get a little indie deal and somehow release our second record, Z-Nation – I suppose you could call those wilderness years if you were writing a tele-movie, sure.?
Released in 2004, Z Nation was a polarising release. Still, it was a record that found the band comfortable in their own musical skin; one where they developed their signature wall of sound. ?I like that album. Not many people do, but I do,? Cooke jokes. ?Marty and I had been doing it for a long time by that stage, we knew how to do it, realised strengths and weaknesses of certain things, it was a kind of indulgent time as well, I suppose. We were all drinking a lot and smoking a lot of weed, working terrible jobs and the recordings were all night until four in the morning type of thing, so I think it freed us up a bit, loosened us up a bit. And, yeah, we were also kinda bratty and wanted to be confrontational so we were always really loud and atonal at times. We were trying to be a strange-sounding band from the Gold Coast, you know – that’s where that sounds stems from I think.?
From Z Nation*, Gaslight seemed to mature. They channeled their trials and tribulations into their music and attracted a greater cult following as a result. Instead of entering another wilderness period, they released two albums over the next few years: *Good Heavens Mean Times* (2006) and *Magic Castles Broke Songs* (2007). So is new single ?Guillotine Sun? picking up from where *Magic Castle left off, or is it a new phase of Gaslight Radio’s existence?
?Marty and I started playing shows, just the two of us, about two years ago and these songs came out of that,? Cooke explains. ?We just worked them up in that way and so these recordings are us bringing those songs to the band. Lyrically, this song is about Queensland, growing up in Queensland, and I wasn’t ashamed of the retrospection of it. I thought, well, I’m kinda haunted by my childhood and I know how to write about it and I know I should probably write about other things, but that still informs everything, it still informs my world view.?
It’s quite poignant, given how much we’ve been talking about Gaslight’s history, how very much indebted to the past this new song is. So is it a precursor to a new album? ?Yeah, that’s right,? says Cooke, ?and ?Guillotine Sun? will be on the album, although it’ll be a slightly different version.? But while the backbone of the record comes from the brothers playing as a duo, Cooke explains, a cursory listen to ?Guillotine Sun? confirms that the wall of sound still remains.
?Yeah, we’ve got a style,? states Cooke emphatically. ?Things change subtly of course, but I guess like a lot of people in my generation – people who came out of the low self-esteem years of the early ?90s – I’m always suspicious of change of style, you know? This is our vehicle for what we want to say. I think we’ve gotten better at it, I think we’ve gotten way better at it.?
This new record, which incidentally is still a while off and is as yet unnamed, sees Gaslight continue on with a run they began with Z Nation in 2004. No longer are there prolonged periods of downtime between records – it’s as if the band are eager to collectively get things off their chest.
?Some serious life things have happened and there’s been a lot to write about, I suppose – [There’s an] urgency to say things more the older you get. And with this album, the one we’re working on, there’s this overall feeling that this one has to be our masterpiece, and that’s always been the feeling on the inside with us. Our past two albums have been pretty honest, straight-up recordings of us, not having much money, trying to record on tape – we never have much money, so we just slam out the songs – But this one will be different because we’re doing it over a long time period, we’re doing it in different studios, so I think this one will be more layered and all of that.?
Cooke doesn’t go into too much detail, however, not least because recording has been halted due to a lack of funds. ?Yeah, I think we’ve only got about $64 at the moment,? he jokes. ?We just want this record to get out there, whatever it takes to do that. We’re just really proud of what we’ve done and are aware that we don’t want to release a dog. We’ve always tried to release the best versions of records we can. I think we have and I’m proud of that. Hopefully, this’ll be another good album, without sounding too ridiculously over the top about it.?
As for whether it’ll make Gaslight Radio a household name, Cooke isn’t so sure. ?We’re kinda admired by a lot of musicians, but it would be nice to get known for being who we are as a band,? he explains. ?But why some bands get known and some don’t get known – if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be here.?
So what’s the feeling like in the band at the moment, 11-and-a-half years after their inception? ?The same as it’s always been – Artistic panic, financial panic all that sort of shit.? Still, Cooke isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet.
?We’ve certainly done our time and we’ve played a lot of shows and we’ve lived a fairly hard life, because we haven’t really known anything else apart from work and the band. We’ve always worked in jobs and played in bands, it’s all we’ve done,? he says. ?And there’s a whole invisible sea of musicians in the world, they play their whole lives and no one ever hears of them, there are millions and millions of them. And I think there’s something to be admired in any band that works in crappy jobs then lifts heavy equipment and plays a show to four people in Geelong. I think it’s heroic.?
?Guillotine Sun? will be launched on July 31 at the Northcote Social Club, Melbourne.