After 25 years of battling Sydney’s boozy rock conventions, Mitchell Jones and his seminal label M Squared are finally getting the recognition they deserve, writes SHAUN PRESCOTT.
Marrickville, July 2009. The young punks have vacated the neighbourhood for a night to make room for their ascendants. Entering the CAD Factory for this minor M Squared revival of sorts – Makers of the Dead Travel Fast and Scattered Order are playing – I half expect to see the same young Marrickville audience. With a few glaring exceptions though, this is a mild and respectable crowd where the more starstruck among us could play ?spot the Aus post-punk figure?. There are projections, wine glasses, fancy premium beers and a gaggle of professionally assertive photographers.
Until now, M Squared has remained frustratingly out-of-reach; a collective of idealistic artists who opted for a clean break from the industry way back in 1978 and who have since been glazed over in the popular histories of Australian rock music. Taking this route wasn’t rote back then – it was faintly ridiculous. M Squared – formed in that year by Mitchell Jones, Michael Tee and quickly joined by Patrick Gibson of Systematics – seems like a too-convenient parallel to the surge of private press imprints that have sprung in all corners of the country (and world) during the 21st Century. In some ways, M Squared was more idealistic and more daring than anything that has come since: not stricken to stylistic protocol, infused with a sense of humour, and naively navigating scaffolds still monopolized by an industry regarded, both now and then, as essential. An independent label wasn’t a cottage industry then – these albums were pressed to be sold, and it was imperative that they should be.
For a group that has, not always accurately, been associated with monochromatic extremes and obliqueness, Scattered Order – one of M Squared’s flagship bands – sound comparatively colourful and dynamic nowadays. The imperative for structure and narrative instruct their dystopic musical landscapes: what initially sounds improvised tonight, at the CAD Factory, eventually turns into a stretched version of ?Slot Car Synth? from the group’s debut LP Prat Culture. This is a world of crisp 90-degree angles and brutal aural architecture: life-spanning loops left to grind unrepentantly until they become, through repetition, strangely hospitable environments. M Squared’s most prominent artists were effortlessly modern then, but now curiously quaint – a vision of rock music embraced momentarily and then hastily abandoned once it was realised that most people didn’t want the future of ?rock?.
In an experimental context, Australian rock music has done little but stagnate and regress since the early 1980s, existing – along with its European and American peers – in a quicksand of period references, sustained by the notion that rock’s big bang came and went in a slight 30 years. Scattered Order and their contemporaries existed on the cusp of what today might be regarded as the canon of Aus rock – too late and too weird to be endlessly revered.
In an Enmore beer garden a month after Scattered Order’s return, Mitchell Jones is cheerful. In person he’s much less foreboding than he looked onstage at the CAD Factory – hunched over his array of equipment with a lock-jawed intensity and an occasional wry grin. His enthusiasm at the prospect of Scattered Order playing more shows and releasing new material is evident – an elation derived from the surprise of having found a renewed interest in his music, which waned in the late ?90s but has recently resurged thanks to German label Vinyl On Demand’s issuing of a five LP set of M Squared rarities. In addition to that, the appearance of a number of retrospective compilations have hipped a new generation to groups they might not have otherwise heard – with Chapter Music’s Can’t Stop It* series principal among them. By the time this is published, another German label – Klang Gallerie – will have reissued Scattered Order’s debut M Squared LP *Prat Culture. By contrast, in the ?90s you couldn’t even give their records away.
Jones says he’s happy with their first performance in years. ?We had a few technical problems as usual, to do with latency in computers – when you play something you wait five minutes and then there it is. But when we finished we thought, ?We want to do this again.? And that’s the best feeling.?
The M Squared label was partly inspired by Roger Grierson’s Doublethink label, a Surry Hills-based enterprise. ?I was doing live sound for the Thought Criminals [a Doublethink band], and Scattered Order had just done their first recordings. Doublethink had just released a record by The Barons [featuring Michael Tee] and they said they’d do it, but there were no real advantages for us in doing it with them. They weren’t offering any money, it was just [an opportunity] to be on their label. So we thought, ?Hang on, we can do the same thing and they’ll tell us how to do it and put us in the right direction.? At the same time, Doublethink introduced us to Patrick Gibson of the Systematics. They’d just recorded Pulp Baby with Double J, and they wanted a b-side for the release. We had the little four-track studio so Doublethink sent them over to us and we recorded the b-side for them. Then we found similar interests in Patrick and thought, well let’s form the label.?
The M Squared headquarters on Wilshire Street in Surry Hills still stands. ?It was one of those tiny terraces that didn’t even have a corridor,? Jones remembers. ?So you’d walk straight into the front room which was the recording room, and there were always bands in there. In the middle room there was the control room. There was a kitchen at the back and there were two bedrooms upstairs. Me and my wife [Drusilla Jones, who would later join Scattered Order] were living in the two rooms upstairs.? The Wilshire Street landlord was a friend of Jones?, so M Squared was given the freedom to do what they wished with the place under the proviso they didn’t ?knock it down?.
The M Squared studios turned into a meeting point for likeminded groups in the late ?70s/early ?80s Sydney scene. ?That’s how we got to meet Tom Ellard [of Severed Heads], Phil Turnbull of Voigt/465 and a lot of other interesting people. Because it was a central point, you got to know these people well.? Groups who convened and recorded in the M Squared studios included Makers of the Dead Travel Fast, SoliPsiK (an early version of SPK) and Systematics, all of whom released music on the label.
?There’s nothing worse than seeing an average rock band. It’s fine if you can go to your local pub and see Rose Tattoo and it’s really packed and loud, it’s fantastic. But if you go to see a Rose Tattoo cover band that is playing to five people, it’s not so great.?
Naturally, it was hard for these ?difficult? bands to gain a foothold into the live music scene circa the late 1970s. When they did, as was eventually the case for Scattered Order, audiences and venues weren’t sure how to respond. ?The Detroit guys, the ?ghosts of Radio Birdman? groups just abhorred anything that had a keyboard in it.? Jones remembers. ?It was at the stage where if you turned up with a Casio they’d lump you among Flock of Seagulls and ask, ?Where’s your drummer?? We once played out in the suburbs with Systematics and they got abused because they had a drum machine. This was years before karaoke became popular,? he laughs.
As legend goes, Sydney was always a boozy rock city, and that’s precisely what most audiences in the ?brash boy’s town? expected from a live show. ?I always like a good rock band playing good rock songs in a full venue,? Jones says. ?It became very narrow though, if you were slightly different to that people were wary. We thought that there’s no point everybody trying to be like everybody else, it got boring. And there’s nothing worse than seeing an average rock band. It’s fine if you can go to your local pub and see Rose Tattoo and it’s really packed and loud, it’s fantastic. But if you go to see a Rose Tattoo cover band that is playing to five people, it’s not so great.?
The prevalent balls-out nature of Sydney’s rock scene did rub off on Scattered Order though. Despite their awkward instrumentation at the time, landmark releases such as ?I Feel So Relaxed With You? showcase an energetic – if markedly darker – rock music, wielding unconventional equipment and, most cloyingly to audiences back then, a drum machine. In Jones? words, Sydney was ?fast, flashy, a bit shallow, and abrasive without being nasty?, which he says aptly describes Scattered Order’s sound as well.
?I think that’s what it was like in Sydney at the time. There was lots of aggressive music being made – even if it was being made by Radio Birdman-type bands. But it was always a friendly audience and the audiences were open to things. There was never a threat of violence. At that time Sydney was like that, but I think Sydney is no longer like that – I think an air of violence hangs over things nowadays, which is a bit sad. I think that’s nature though – it’s a bigger city now.?
Scattered Order’s audience were inner-city folk: students and people with good record collections. One place where M Squared bands would be accepted without too much fuss was the (now legendary) Trade Union Club on Foveaux Street in Surry Hills. ?It was like a tired RSL club,? Jones recalls. ?Over the years things would be slowly falling apart but nothing would ever be fixed. There were three levels, and on the bottom floor there’d be a bar and a little band playing in the corner, the second floor would have bands and the third floor was the big room with the biggest stage and a bar at the back. You’d fit 1500 people into that place. There was one lift in and a tiny emergency staircase. Nowadays with the regulations it’d never survive.
?There was a family atmosphere about Surry Hills then. Most houses then were rented, before it was gentrified too much. Nobody was spending millions of dollars on homes. But it was a lovely venue, and some of the best music I’ve ever seen was there: Laughing Clowns, John Cooper Clarke, The Fall.?
The Scattered Order that performed in July was the first – and very soon to be expanded – incarnation of the group, made up of Mitchell Jones and Michael Tee, who would soon after go on to form Ya Ya Choral and record as A Cloakroom Assembly. Since M Squared disintegrated in 1983 Jones and Tee have had no contact. ?It was the first time I’d spoken to him in that many years,? Jones says. ?M Squared fell apart a bit, not messily.
?Well, sort of messily,? he qualifies. ?By that stage Michael, Patrick and I were all sick and tired of each other and we all had our separate bands. We were all thinking that the label was spending too much time on his band and not my band. It got a bit messy, so it split apart and we all went our separate ways. I had no reason to get in touch with him, and I always thought, ?Well, I have my career, and he has his.??
To prepare for the CAD Factory show the duo rehearsed three times in Jones? Mount Victoria home and also swapped material online. Jones says it was ?wonderful? being reunited with Tee: ?It was one of those situations where you think it could go really badly or really well, and it went really well.?
With the ever-mounting interest in M Squared in the late ?00s, and the currency M Squared has among vinyl collectors (Scattered Order’s 12? EP I Feel So Relaxed With You* goes for around 150 Euros, with Makers of the Dead Travel Fast’s first LP going at double that) it’s interesting to reflect on the way Scattered Order were virtually discarded by their fan base in the late ?90s. ?We did Chicken Hilton in 1997 and we hadn’t played live in four years. We got out and started playing live and it was going very well, we were getting good crowds, and we thought we’d just keep playing where we can and start recording the next thing. *Pretty Boffins was ready in 1999, and by that stage it felt like we’d overstayed our welcome. When the CD was ready people had moved on. It took us 12 months to organise a CD launch that was under-promoted and that was pretty depressing.?
Scattered Order’s line-up changed frequently during their quarter-century career, with their sound moving in an arc that saw a shift away from their volatile beginnings into a series of Volition/INK releases that displayed a more ?pop? songwriterly approach. This period – best heard on the LP Career of a Silly Thing – was an uncomfortable time for Jones. ?At that stage we were more of a rock-oriented band with a serious record label behind us, and we had serious intentions of making our career in music,? he recalls. ?It was all a bit misguided looking back. After that period we lost our drummer and we just retreated back into the studio. Our record company (Volition) wanted us to write dance music and they couldn’t really position us. We lost heart really, and the record company lost heart in us.
?We drifted off in the ?90s and did our own releases [on Jones? Rather Be Vinyl label, which released Chicken Hilton* and *Pretty Boffins]. Then, it was more like the very early Scattered Order material: we had a drum machine and loops and [we were creating] more constructed soundscapes rather than writing songs. We developed that sound throughout the ?90s.?
Shortly after the release of Pretty Boffins Mitchell and Drusilla Jones moved to Wales and Scattered Order was effectively – though never officially – dead. The last show the group played was a one-off performance in 2002, and ever since Jones has worked solitarily in his home studio, amassing a formidable cache of half-realised ideas. ?I sit in the studio and build up a library of semi-ideas and then I go back to the best ones. Some might stay there for years, but I’ll go back and find them and think, ?Oh that’s good I can use that in something I’m doing now.?
?With Michael, we put the ideas together and we have a song,? he continues. ?But by myself I’d have a whole lot of semi-ideas, and get to a point where I know it needs somebody else’s input, so I’d shelve it and go on to something else. So with Michael it’s been liberating, fantastic. It’s weird, because we’ve got a sixth sense together. We know, even after all these years, how each of us operates. He can give me an idea with plenty of room for my input and vice versa. It’s working out well so far. But like any musical relationship you can’t say what will happen next.?
Material on M Squared’s Vinyl on Demand boxset will be reissued in condensed from on Ascension Records, with the first edition slated for a November release. The second edition and a new Scattered Order LP will follow next year.
Scattered Order, Makers of the Dead Travel Fast and A Slow Rip will perform on November 28 at the Abercrombie Hotel, Sydney.