Sunday, February 20, 2011
Reflecting on the recent Stephen Walker Benefit Gig brings on a montage of remarkable moments elegantly framed in the deep blues of the Forum’s interior skyline. These images would surely differ from attendees to performers to organisers to Walker himself, but there was an undeniable focus of energy that night. We found ourselves in glorious surrounds to enjoy a ripper of a party put on by a selfless few to help a man who has given a part of himself to the music community for thirty years. Given that all proceeds would contribute to stem-cell treatment for Walker’s MS, there was a gravity attached to the night that transcended the flawless, often stirring performances by all comers—an assortment of local artists that have moved Walker to move his listeners throughout the years.
These sentiments were invariably shared by the performers and DJs I spoke to about the night. “It’s the Ghost, you couldn’t fuck this up,” says Breakfaster Fee B-Squared. “You couldn’t have some lame-arse shit happening, you’d have to be on your game. It was exciting, wondering who they would end up with. And to end up with genuine fans of Stephen’s like Dirty Three and Warren Ellis saying what a privilege it was—it was amazing. I think Triple R listeners really get what music is, what it can do for you and how it makes you feel. The greatest honour as a broadcaster is when somebody tells you that you’ve somehow shaped their music collection. On the night you heard that a number of times, that Stephen had been this integral part of Triple R, the soundscape that became community radio throughout Melbourne and a real alternative to all the other shit that’s out there. They wanted to give something back to him.”
“He always gave people the freedom to play and say what they needed to on the station,” says fellow on-the-night DJ and Kinky Afro host Karen Leng of Walker’s tenure as Triple R Program Manager. “There was always a philosophy and an aesthetic there and he intuitively understood what was good about Triple R, where it should sit in terms of media in Melbourne and how it should agitate and stir the pot but also be accessible to the people as well. There was such a great feeling in the room on the night. When he spoke, it was everything you get on air. You could tell how much he loves the station, how much he values the audience and how happy he was that everybody was there, it was very touching.”
Given the quality of the music on the night, highlights are difficult to pinpoint. From the first bars of Sand Pebbles’ Wild Season to the death throes of Dirty Three’s Authentic Celestial Music, the standard of delivery bordered on astonishing. Walker commented that if he had have had a microphone with him for the night he could have presented the thing as a Skull Cave instalment with twenty minute brackets. With a different guest singer for each song, each indicative of a particular element of Walker’s musical tastes, it was the Skull Cave All-Stars that truly captured the ethos of the evening—a rag-tag bunch of misfits together especially for this one-off occasion. When I suggest to band facilitator (a term he’s not entirely comfortable with) and guitar player Phil Wales that any chance to permanently alter the trajectory of a man’s life for the positive is a rare and powerful thing, he tells me that by reading the smile on Walker’s face you’d realise that we already have.
By make-up the All-Stars—Phil Wales, Gary Young, David Bridie, Rob Craw, Pete Lawler and assorted guests—was representative of the association between the radio station and the wider music community. “It’s one of those things that Triple R and the music community do well,” Wales says. “The relationship between the two has been acknowledged time and again. They put together an event that you’d pay for even without a cause. That it does have a cause attached to it makes it very easy for everyone to get behind it. There was an amazing spirit in the room that night. It was very evident on stage.”
With each of the All-Stars’ hand-picked cover songs, the matching of vocalist to tune accentuated the connection between Walker’s ears and the breadth of his listener base through the musicians he’s spruiked over his thirty years of broadcasting. The All-Stars’ set built through David Bridie’s rendition of Magazine’s A Song From Under The Floorboards, Black Cab’s Andrew Coates and James Lee’s version of Joy Division’s Transmission, Kerri Simpson’s chanting and prowling interpretation of Patti Smith’s Gone Again, Rob Craw’s channelling of Iggy Pop’s Johanna and The Wolfgramm Sisters’ absolute nailing of MC 900 Foot Jesus’ Killer Inside Me and Tim Buckley’s ghostly Song to the Siren. It was an all-enveloping snapshot of any given Skull Cave episode and evidence of not only Triple R’s own but the wider music community’s respect for The Ghost himself.
“With these sorts of things you tend to do one run through with the band and one with the singers and that’s it,” Wales continues. “When I said to [ bassist] Pete Lawler that the hardest thing about organising these things is working out when the fuck everybody can get into the same room at the same time, Pete said, ‘that and working out which pair of leather pants to wear’.”
“I knew the Wolfgramm Sisters would nail it. I cast a vague eye upwards during Song to the Siren and thought, well, if you’re not fuckin’ happy with that! It’s a tricky song to pull off ‘cause there’s no time to it and you listen for this winding melody to work out where the chords should fall. It sounded pretty good from where I was.”
Referring to MS as ‘a mess’ on the night, Walker also quipped that it’s a bitter joke when your surname is the one thing you can’t do. Though open about his deteriorating health, Walker has never been of the nature to focus on this aspect of his life on air and therefore the announcement of the benefit show equated to a public outing of himself as an MS sufferer. “It’s irrelevant to most people who listen on the radio,” Walker says. “It’s like saying I’ve got pink shoes on today; they may think so what? It’s been a very positive thing coming out about it, there have been great bonuses. I’ve had some great emails and I met people on the night that have just been diagnosed, people who’ve tried different things or just wanted to know about it.”
Walker admits that he was terrified by the notion of a benefit on his behalf and he hoped for the Forum to be half full to at least avoid discomfort among the paying guests and performers. “It’s only a radio show, I’m the first to say that,” he continues, “but the show does seem to mean a lot to different people. Being an Australian I was a little twitchy about how it would go. Rather than say something good about someone we’d rather put shit on them, it’s a sign of affection. I do the radio show; I get maybe five or ten emails when I get home and a handful of phone calls during the show. I’m really not aware of how many people are out there and who’s listening.
“We do it [radio] for love; I certainly do. It’s a wonderful thing and a wonderful town to do it in. It’s just been a joy to me. I never thought I’d find myself in the position I did on the night of the benefit. I joked that it was like being able to go to my own wake. There were all of these amazing people being able to say how they felt about me and me to them without the filters. It was so lovely to meet all these listeners, the friends I haven’t met before, and find that we share so much in common. If not ‘the’, it was one of the greatest nights of my life.”
Luke Emmanuel Hindson’s talking voice is deceptively coarse in comparison to his alter ego Luke Legs’ smooth vocals. On the phone he demonstrates his natural story-telling talents, he has a lot to say; he talks cyclically, meandering through multiple topics in bursts of good-natured yarning. It’s no wonder he’s found himself writing country ballads. He takes time to let his stories evolve, relishes the chance to share. Hailing from a family of ten, you’d need to speak up or be forever sidelined you’d imagine. As Hindson explains, however, it was more a case of preferring to take the long way ‘round than him pursuing country music in particular.
“My favourite thing is punk bands that don’t make it so then they turn to country—that’s me pretty much,” he says. “I really like the story-telling side of country, it suits me. Some gigs I’ll show up and maybe only play one song ‘cause I’ll start telling a story and that will lead me away. I just like to get my songs across and get my stories out there through lyrics you can actually hear. Plus you can play it live anywhere, everyone likes a bit of country.”
Hindson’s debut album Why Oh Why (My Caroline), released this month, has such strong song writing and thematic cohesion it’s no surprise it’s been taken on board by Triple J and community programming alike. It wanders and wheels in equal measures—the delicacies of his lighter vocal moments are swept up in his veritable reinvention of the Whitney Houston-esque (his words, not mine) power ballad. “Different people I speak to have different favourite songs from the album,” he continues. “To me this means that either all the songs are awesome or they’re all mediocre. I think they’re all awesome [laughs]. I’m a walking, talking PR machine.
“A few years ago I was on tour with Jordie Lane doing my solo stuff and every night he blew me off the stage. It was embarrassing; I thought I was good but I was actually really shit. From then on I decided I had to start writing better songs, so I went back to the drawing board. I practised every day for a year and wrote and played for five hours a night. All I was writing about was the feeling of living in small country towns and being young and creative but not being able to express yourself because there’s not anything to do in these places. You just have beers with your mates and the same conversations, so most of these songs are about trying to get out. It’s not new, it’s been done before but it’s just kind of romantic.”
It’s this romanticism that opens Luke Legs up to the listener. These sentiments are universal, we can all relate in some way—some of us more than others. “Playing the East Brunswick Club recently I played the song ‘Why Oh Why (My Caroline)’,” he continues. “This guy came up after the show and asked me if the song was about Geelong. When I told him it was, he said that even though I didn’t mention Geelong in the words and he’d never even heard of me before he knew it was and had almost cried ‘cause it made him think about how he felt when he was growing up there.”
Hindson maintains it’s the live show that brings people back again. With arse shaking action and a random-by-nature aesthetic, the album launch is set to sell out. “I played a country fair where there was no microphone,” he says. “I had to sing through a megaphone, but they couldn’t get it onto the stage so I played on top of a fire truck, singing into the CB radio. I’m sure those people were thinking who is this guy and does he take a fire truck to every show? It can work in your favour.”
Though undoubtedly psychedelic by nature, Melbourne instrumental quartet The Night Terrors defy description. Even to label them ‘instrumental’ is something of a misnomer as Miles Brown’s Theremin sings in such a profound fashion that it nudges many ‘vocalists’ (garage bands, I’m looking at you) from their precarious perches. They are a band that transcends genre, audience profile and style. They have carved their own path and, like many ‘niche’ bands from this end of their earth, European ears seem somewhat more responsive to their distinctive take on psychoactive music.
Brown’s unusual choice of instrument sits remarkably comfortably wrapped in the waves of sonic propulsion the foursome creates. To have the opportunity to experience their fusion in intimate surrounds here at home is something not to be passed up. The band’s drawing and exhaling of sound is set alight by Brown’s weird and illusory Theremin playing—it’s like he’s playing the air itself, taming the atmosphere of the room and recycling the energy into melody. It’s a rare thing to behold and, as Brown explains, not a simple concept to grasp.
“There are a lot of variables,” he says, “that’s probably why you don’t see too many people playing them in rock bands. You take two opposing electromagnetic fields or plates and move them closer together and further apart. One plate is the Theremin and the other is your body. So not only does it react to my body but to everybody else around it. It can be affected by the temperature in the room, how many other appliances are on or how the stage is lit. You can be playing an awesome venue with great sound but the stage is too close to the toilets so every time somebody walks past it affects the instrument. It can be difficult when people come in close to try and work out how it works or if someone’s really rockin' out in the front row.”
The Night Terrors evoke the inner nerd in their listeners. Devotees will babble about the art and physics of the Theremin regardless of levels of understanding—it’s a geek magnet from hell and Brown is the first to embrace this. “Because the Theremin’s so unusual, it kind of stands out; it’s a door opener,” he says. “You soon find out who the nerds are. The Keyboardist from Black Mountain [Jeremy Schmidt] is the kind of guy who knows the serial numbers of instruments. I studied Theremin with Lydia Kavina who’s the grand-niece of Theremin himself, she was taught by him. We played a Theremin festival in Germany with about forty players. I met most of the European Thereminists there; it was a pretty unusual bunch of people. I played at the Sydney Opera House last year and got to jam with Lou Reed, Marc Ribot and Ichirou Agata from Melt-Banana. Lou Reed is a real gear nerd, he even has the same Theremin I have; all we talked about was Theremins. The downside is that after shows when you’re ready to go home there’ll be some dude in his forties with a ponytail wanting to talk Theremin.”
Recently back from their second European trip The Night Terrors’ year is off to a flier with support slots for Black Mountain and legendary psych pioneers Hawkwind here before their own fund-raiser to aid with another trip to Europe to play Polyhymnia—a Neo-Krautrock festival in Berlin—in March. This impetus is surprising to Brown who has been plugging away with The Night Terrors on the relative down-low for ten years now.
“It’s weird after so long,” he continues. “Initially I just wanted to see whether it would work putting a Theremin out in front of a rock band and seeing whether we could make a record. I never expected it to be released. It’s funny because for so long people were saying ya’ know, you should probably get a girl in to sing or why don’t you write a hit or why don’t you go more electro. We just consider ourselves really lucky to play with other people who make underground music and other people who appreciate what it is to stick to your guns and make it happen—otherwise we’d all end up playing garage music. I hear Hawkwind have a Theremin player too. I’m hoping for a Theremin off.”
The concept of Neo-Krautrock is hazy to Brown but the band’s interest in playing Polyhymnia was piqued by the mention of headliners Goblin. “We get compared to Goblin a lot and they are the archetypal horror movie soundtrack band,” he continues. “They say [Neo-Krautrock is] all these bands that are referencing Krautrock but combining it with modern sounds. We were trying to get a gig with a band called Circle from Finland who were touring the last time we were there and [the bookers] told us that they didn’t want us for that but that they would like us to play this festival in March. It was soon after we got back [from our last European tour] so we thought we wouldn’t be able to go but then we found out what the festival was and that they’d booked Goblin to headline, we just went ‘Oh my god’. We asked if they had any idea where and when we would play at the festival. When they told us we’d be playing right before Goblin we decided we had to go.”
With Neo-Krautrock yet to establish itself as a recognised genre here in Australia, I was curious to find where Brown considered The Night Terrors to ‘fit’ in terms of musical comparison. He told me that despite their disparity from other musical groupings, they’ve found connections with musicians across a range of genres. “We haven’t got a scene, so we’ve always tried to latch onto everyone else’s,” he says. “In Australia our sound is so niche that there are people who are into it but not that many. In Europe there are heaps of people doing unique and obscure stuff, the more obscure the better it seems. There are a lot of metal acts here in Melbourne that say they’re progressive and we’re happy to jump in with them. We’ve done tours with doom bands and electro bands. One promoter in Germany said we were like a mix between hyper-gay electro and doom and we thought ‘yeah that sounds alright’. We’ve played crust doom metal clubs where everyone’s dreadlocked and anarchy and we think they’re gonna hate us but we always seem to go down really well. Those communities in general are really open minded, they’re always cool shows.”
The Night Terrors fundraiser is at Gasometer on Thursday the 3rd of March. Supports are Tantrums, Pearls and Spacerock DJs. 8pm start, $13.