Ben Hepworth is frontman of Melbourne-based synth punk band Repairs. The group released their first cassette on Captured Tracks in 2009, followed by a Nihilistic Orbs 7 inch earlier this year. Hepworth also plays in Interzone alongside Jarrod Zlatic and Shaun South, among others. The interview below was conducted over a series of emails, and touches upon the formation of Repairs, the Melbourne scene that orbits Shaun South’s Nihilistic Orbs label, and how Repairs’ aesthetic has evolved since the decline of all the instruments that were fundamental to their initial sound.
Regarding Repairs – your main project – how did it get started, how did you meet one another, and how has the band evolved over time?
I get asked this question a lot and people always seem to get a kick out of the answer – Repairs evolved out of a high school band. Al Montfort (UV Race, Total Control, East Link) has talked for years about writing a Repairs zine or biography where we all show up on the first day of school wearing Kraftwerk t-shirts and decide to form a synth punk band but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
I met Alex [Lee], Jon [Koop] and Andrew [Brocchi] when I was 12. Andrew and Alex have known each other since primary school. I started learning guitar when I was about 11 or 12 and began to seriously think about putting a band together when I was 15 or 16. Alex had left our school by then but Andrew and Jon both started learning drums to join. Andrew joined and we played with a few other people until we finished high school.
After we finished high school I ran into Alex a few times and I remembered that he could play piano – he was classically trained as a child. We bought an old ’70s Italian hammond style combo organ and Alex, Andrew and I started playing together as a three piece – organ, guitar, drums and sometimes bass. It was really raw post-punk no wave type stuff. We played a show or two but it just didn’t seem quite there.
I began to get a bit frustrated and bored with guitar based music. It wasn’t exciting anymore. I always thought Jon had good ideas, and we had a similar taste in music at the time, so I asked him if he wanted to join too. After that I bought a cheap ‘60s Farfisa organ and Jon introduced me to the idea of sampling. He wrote a few drum machine beats, played with the tuning, and they became the basis of songs like ‘Lottery’ and ‘Outside’.
Melbourne was in the middle of a heatwave and drought at the time and over a week or two the Hammond organ started to go out of tune. I would run it through my 30w tube amp and have to distort it to get even a half decent sound out of it. We bought a delay pedal and that was when things came together. The organ was so out of tune that every single note on the keyboard was different – not one was the same. By applying delay and distortion I found that when I hit combinations of certain notes I could create different harmonic tones, clusters and feedback that in a crude way reminded me of the more minimal drone based music I was listening to.
One afternoon we had our first jam together which resulted in ‘Lottery’. We named the band Repairs after a sample Jon had, and then we put the song online. That evening we were contacted by Mike Sniper (Blank Dogs, DC Snipers) who asked us to do a cassette for the label he was starting – Captured Tracks. We wrote the other three tracks over two weeks and sent them to him.
It got us a bit of attention because no one knew who we were and that resulted in Shaun South (Nihilistic Orbs, Chrome Dome, Deaf Deaf) inviting us to play the Chrome Dome Negative Vibes 7 inch launch with Primitive Calculators, Matthew Brown and Free Choice at Rearview Gallery. We booked a show beforehand as a warm up. It didn’t go so well – the owners of the bar were so unimpressed with our performance that they refused to give us our rider and most of the cash. Luckily the Rearview show did [go well] and we started getting asked to play shows.
After that things got a bit harder. All the equipment used during that period was lost, stolen, destroyed by vindictive housemates or fell victim to the heatwave. Our approach was completely nullified and we were forced to re-think it if we were to continue as a band. It was devastating and, in my mind, took us a year or two to completely recover from. We were approached by some labels such as Woodsist and S-S Records, and Captured Tracks proposed a follow up 7 inch, but we weren’t happy with anything we produced.
Changes in equipment also meant changes in approach. Originally it was Alex and I on organs and Jon and Andrew alternating between drums and singing. Then when we got our first synthesizer, ditched the drums and I started singing too. Then as we got more synths the sound streamlined to what it is now with Jon, Alex and Andrew all playing synthesizers while I sing and control the sampler. It’s moved slightly away from the sluggish industrial drone that it was to a more ‘70s influenced synth punk sound. It’s almost like playing a 33rpm at 45rpm in comparison. All the core elements we began with are still there, we just focus more on songwriting now.
The Repairs 7 inch (Nihilistic Orbs, 2011) was recorded by Tom Hardisty from Melbourne band Woollen Kits. How was it recording with him? Did you do just those songs, or was there a bigger session?
Tom was great to record with. Besides the Captured Tracks tape there were only a few attempts to record Repairs, which all ended in disaster. The Captured Tracks cassette was recorded on an old ‘70s 2 1/4″ track reel-to-reel I’d bought off a classifieds ad and two $10 microphones. Prior to that I had no means to record or document anything I was doing and a reel-to-reel appealed to me because I wanted a certain level of quality. Unfortunately that broke as well. Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Over the Sink, Naked on the Vague, Half High, Four Door) once offered to help record us if we came up to Sydney but logistically it was too hard for us to coordinate due to work and other commitments. I approached Tom because he’d mentioned he was looking for bands to record and he came to see us play a lot, so he had a good idea of what we were working towards.
We only recorded three songs for the 7 inch. Nihilistic Orbs had given us a very strict deadline, but we recorded all three in two different styles. ‘High Rise Horizon’ evolved into it’s current state during that session. It was originally slower and based around a stock sample taken from a Seeburg drum machine – an American furniture company that had their own line of drum machines in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. They were one of the first purchasable drum machines. The outtake, ‘No Future’, is a song we used to play a lot but the recorded version was a little lackluster – it works much better live. We’ve talked about re-recording it live and releasing it on another 7 inch.
With some of the money we made last year we bought a 4 track 1/4″ reel-to-reel and have begun working on an LP. The plan is to record the basic tracks ourselves and mix them with someone so that we have the freedom and space to work on it more than the last time.
You play both guitar and synthesizers, but have a strong understanding of drum machines, programming and effects. Did you teach yourself? Was the learning process about trying to fill something that was lacking or did you genuinely want to make programmed music? If so, was it a matter of control or style?
I did teach myself, but that process was never about filling a void. I genuinely wanted to make programmed music and I would say at first it was a matter of style. I had a very specific concept so it was about finding the right way to effectively realise that. Control became a more important factor later on. Once those basic stylistic elements were in place it became about refining the individual sounds.
Since Shaun South started Nihilistic Orbs, do you feel it has created a ‘home’ or ‘hub’ for like minded artists working in Melbourne?
I think it has, but Shaun has always sort of tried to cultivate a ‘hub’ or ‘community’. Over the past seven or eight years he’s run Summer Winds (music festival) and Nihilistic Orbs, both of which had a similar focus. Nihilistic Orbs is more specific and had to start on a smaller local scale to get things moving. There are more and more bands forming interstate that could fit into his aesthetic and in the next year I think Shaun will release more interstate bands.
It took him a while to get the label off the ground but it’s been interesting watching it come together. Repairs, Nun and Asps are playing a Nihilistic Orbs showcase at Sound Summit this year which is great for the label and bands involved. I doubt any of us would have been invited to play otherwise.
You said you focus more on songwriting now. What exactly do you mean? Do you feel the LP will be more “songy”?
Originally it was much more free-form, instrumental and chaotic. Songs lingered on a singular theme with no progression or development. It was obnoxiously minimal and monotonous. Now I put more thought into the structure, lyrics, effects and programming while trying to incorporate those original elements in a more interesting way. One of the newer songs is eight minutes with a simple driving beat and two note bass line, so the placement of lyrics and effects is important. The LP will definitely be more “songy”.
Your lyrical themes are ambiguous to me. Would you care to elaborate a little on what motifs and ideas you write about?
My lyrical themes are usually autobiographical or observational and quite nihilistic. I’m influenced by what’s happening around me. Relationships, suburban boredom, addiction, loneliness, cities and escape are all recurring themes but I try to write about them with a sense of humour or from a completely neutral, emotionally detached perspective.
I really love your other band, Interzone, which seems to have gone through many different line-ups. Will there be a release in the future? It seems that Jarrod Zlatic (Fabulous Diamonds) has been a fairly consistent member, along with yourself. How is it working with him?
Interzone has gone through a lot of line-up changes but has finally stabilised. There have been seven members and three distinctly different versions of the band. We now have Albert Wolski (Nevada Strange, Exek, Slug Guts) playing lead guitar and Andrew Brocchi (Repairs, Safeway Cafe) has been a consistent member for a while. Jarrod Zlatic and Shaun South are the only original members besides myself.
I really enjoy working with Jarrod. He always has an interesting take on whatever I bring in and he really drove the band in a different direction. I probably never would have played a guitar solo if he hadn’t insisted on it. There will be a release soon, hopefully. I want to record a 7″ before Jarrod and Albert go overseas. There are a lot of live recordings we’ve tracked down and also looking at releasing. Jarrod is considering releasing a live 7″ of the current lineup as well as a cassette of live recordings, rehearsals and demos chronicling all the different line ups on his label Redundancy next year. Fidelity would be an issue but it could make a good LP too.
I’m really curious about what you do when you’re not playing music. What are you favourite ways to spend your time?
I’m kind of boring and reclusive at the moment. I read a lot, hang out with my girlfriend, drink with friends and I’ve started writing a bit. I don’t have a TV or internet so I have to keep myself entertained. Next year I want to travel more.
Repairs’ High Rise Horizon is available through Nihilistic Orbs. Top photo by Max Milne.