Features

Strictly Business: Teen Ax Interviewed

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Teen Ax is a Sydney noise duo comprising Sam Chiplin and Tony McKey. Over the last couple of years they’ve issued short cassette albums on labels including Mazurka Editions and Confirmation Tapes, as well as two self-released CD-Rs. There are few — if any — reasons you should pay attention to a group like Teen Ax, because noise artists releasing short-run cassettes are a dime-a-dozen, and most of them are shit.

So what’s so special about Teen Ax? I tried to articulate why a couple of weeks ago, but on paper none of the reasons provided really set them apart. Barring all non-transferable emotional responses, I think what makes Teen Ax special is simply that they sound like they care about how their noise unfurls. Useless runs shorter than 20 minutes but it’s structured like an album: it feels delicately glued together for some greater purpose. It hints at something bigger than it is.

Also, the virtue of limitations isn’t just rhetoric here: Teen Ax make a guitar, a kit and some pedals sound like something entirely else, like something that breathes with you inside it. Not human.

I spoke to Tony and Sam via a series of emails.

Why the name ‘Teen Ax’?
Sam: We ripped it from a teen porn site that was kinda big in the late ‘90s / early 2000s. We thought it’d make for a fun Google, plus it meant we had a free website: www. teenax.com .

Is there an objective with Teen Ax? What are you trying to communicate, if anything?
Sam: Teen Ax is a vessel to funnel all of my frustration and anger through. It’s rare in life to be able to just let go and really open up, ya know? It offers a release of sorts, physically and mentally. As far as a message or communique goes, Teen Ax isn’t harbouring a strong or poignant message — it’s an immediate, visceral kinda thing — though when you pour your thoughts and feelings into something, messages, albeit cryptic, are likely to surface.

Tony: I guess the band acts as a release for me personally: I don’t really have any agenda or specific message and lyrics are generally stream of conscious. I don’t think we really have an objective other than this personal release, and whatever vibe that gives off is what it is. I don’t think we go out of our way to communicate a particular vibe or feeling, but that said, we don’t really suppress the bad vibes or creepiness, and at the same time good vibes and joy doesn’t exactly flow out when we play.

Sam, In terms of the frustration and anger you mention, are these the result of anything in particular?
Sam: That’s a pretty intense personal question. I guess there are definitely some recurring themes but I would hate to bore everyone with them. Unless you want me to flick you $50 so I can recline and get comfortable…

When I reviewed Useless, my opinion was that it’s totally resigned, despairing, hateful. Is that a response that you’re happy with?
Tony: Yeah, probably not in as many words though!

Sam: Well as I said above, I reserve a large majority of my negative feelings and thoughts for Teen Ax, so it’s usually just soaked in bad energy. Like a dirty tea towel or something. So I wasn’t hugely surprised at your review. When I was reading it I couldn’t help but think you had a cheeky masochistic side shining through, like it felt that you were truly disgusted but slightly aroused…

Teen Ax sounds like the ugliest band in Sydney at the moment. What are your feelings regarding the city – not just its music scene – at present?
Sam: Sydney is expensive, transport is fucked, people are cunts, gentrification is rife and fast moving, and the music scene is pathetic. For such a difficult city to live in, Sydney produces some enormously bland music and art. Where are all the artists pushing back? What are people doing? I can’t remember the last time I saw three or four decent shows within a week, and my taste is fairly broad. I was in Melbourne recently and I had a hard time deciding what to see, there’s just so much quality shit going on down there it’s ridiculous.

That’s not to say there’s nothing going on here, though. There are a lot of hard working bands, venues and people out there grinding away for very little return.

Tony: Sydney can be difficult: it’s expensive, the ‘music scene’ is for the most part terrible and boring. But it’s where home and work is for the time being. The shitty aspects of this place feel like a driving force at times I guess.

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Is there anything good about Sydney’s music scene? What do you enjoy (if anything)?
Sam: There’s plenty of positives about the Sydney scene, but it’s fun to hammer the negatives, to get the blood pumping a little. Part of what makes Sydney so fun is the fact that it’s tough. Tony and I have put on a whole bunch of shows that only three or four people have attended, so all you can do is giggle.

Everyone has stopped whinging that there are no venues in Sydney and that’s pretty good. People are rolling up their sleeves and have started to put on bands all over the place: weird pubs, backyards, warehouses, parks, record stores. It’s feeling better. At one point a couple of years ago it felt like Black Wire Records on Parramatta Road was single handedly floating the underground. You’re a gentleman Tom! Keep up the good work. I also feel like a lot of the new bands that have surfaced over the last 18 months… the majority of them are pretty shit, but it [at least] feels like something is happening here.

And you know, like all subcultures it’s comforting to be surrounded by people who are similar to yourself. There’s a pretty strong community spirit here. Which is a blessing and a curse. Everyone kinda pats each other on the back and says how much they enjoy each other’s bands. It’s part of why Sydney seems to be a hotbed of mediocrity, no one is pushing each other. Sorry I’m sounding like the most pathetic fuck.

Tony: Yeah there is [good things]: it’s easy and lazy to write off the whole city and it’s music scene as boring, that’s probably a tiny bit unfair. Off the top of my head, I always enjoyed Justice Yeldham and Rice Corpse. Whores were really good. Desert Luck are probably the last thing I saw that I enjoyed. If you go to enough NowNow shows, you’ll eventually catch something really good. One of the last things I’ve heard from Sydney I really got into was Gardland. I’d also have to mention Black Wire as one of, if not the, best things about Sydney’s music scene for the past few years as well.

You say the difficulty of Sydney is a driving force. Would you say some of Teen Ax’s sound is a reflection of your feelings about the city?
Sam: Yeah I suppose. I mean for example, because there’s only two of us it’s too expensive for us to jam in a studio or jam space – and we like to play loud so we can’t exactly play at home – so we’ve been forced to find an alternative. We hire a storage space all the way out in Auburn, which is about 40 minutes outside the city. Have you ever been to Auburn? It’s fucking depressing. So by the time we get out there and set up all our gear in a 3 x 3 metal prison, after being stuck in traffic on Parramatta Road, we’re not really going to start singing about the sunshine lapping our faces as we cruise down Bondi Beach on a little banana board or whatever.

Tony: [It’s not a reflection] in the sense that we play with a “RARRRGH SYDNEY SUCKS” mentality. It’s probably more so that after the daily commute and work routine, then the trip to Western Sydney to the practice space, the last thing I feel like doing personally is ‘kicking out the jams’, so to speak.

Do you see Teen Ax aligned with any specific tradition within the noise style, whether locally or internationally?
Sam: I guess we slot into the ilk of noise that uses ‘traditional’ instruments to create a fairly ‘abstract’ sound. Non-Traditional. Tony and I both play guitar and have always worked under the ‘less is more’ ethos. I’ve used the same one or two pedals throughout Teen Ax’s existence, and Tony has only used two or three pedals and he will also occasionally use a contact mic taped to a cymbal for vocals. Before I was playing guitar I was actually playing drums very primitively.

In a way we’ve limited our equipment and gear so that we can push and explore how far you can venture within certain boundaries. I think if you dig and explore and push something for long enough, then something’s gotta give: something worth experiencing. I don’t think we’re there yet but we’ve got our whole lives to keep fucking about.

Tony: We’ve always tried to keep a minimal setup, mostly using live instruments to try to get the most out of the equipment through volume and force rather than knob twiddling, so I guess other groups using these methods we can relate to. We pull influence from a lot of different noise ‘styles’, but for better or worse I don’t really think we sit too comfortably in any of these.

Any plans for the future? Are you happy with where you’re at with Useless?
Sam: Yeah I’m happy with Useless. It’s definitely the most restrained release we’ve ever done. Pretty creepy at times. I think over the coming months we’ll just keep recording and head down to Tassie for some shows. It’s beautiful down there. And there’s some really good music.

Tony: Nothing planned, we’ll probably just keep recording and playing sporadically like we’ve always done. I’m pretty happy with Useless personally, though it drew from about six months worth of recordings so the vibe at the moment is leaning more towards the creepier parts on the tape rather than the harsher parts. Maybe it’s maturing slightly, or maybe we’re just getting too old and too fat to keep up.

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Teen Ax’s Useless is available now through Street Muscle. Purchase at Eternal Soundcheck. Above photos are by Patrick Mason.

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