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“The suburban ethnic fringe of dolewave”: Hurtsville interviewed

hurtsville-squat

L to R: Henry Luvsan Avila and Luke Vitale

Hurtsville is a pair of producers from south-west Sydney: Luke Vitale and Henry Luvsan Avila. They have no internet presence other than their Soundcloud, where they occasionally post the odd piece of instrumental grime or dubstep-inflected music. While the duo veers between delicate and aggressive, Hurtsville is always imbued with a curious, beautiful suburban melancholy.

While a lot of music made in this mode seems increasingly shiny and post-geographic, gesturing towards lives lived on the internet as much as anywhere else, Hurtsville’s songs (and accompanying blurry photos) feel somehow different – local, emotional and full of granular detail. When they perform, they’re usually accompanied by their friend Kevin Duo Jin, a performance artist who plays a sort of surrealist Bez to Hurtsville’s Happy Mondays – eating baklava with chopsticks, flexing, instagramming himself, and generally weirding out the audience.

I’m friends with them, so when I went around to Lakemba to have dinner at Jasmin’s and interview them at their apartment, I relaxed and forgot to hit record. We did the hour-long interview over again and started to slightly lose our minds.

Hurtsville isn’t a Jack Ladder reference, is it? Why Hurtsville?
Luke Vitale: When we first started hanging out we bonded over being from Hurstville and Yung Lean. So when you combine the performative sadness of Yung Lean and the suburb of Hurstville, you get Hurtsville.

Henry Avila: I was going through some sadness in my life – we all were – so we thought that name would fit.

L: Actually, before it was a music thing it was originally the name of a group chat on Facebook, like, “uhhh what are we doing on Saturday night?” A whole bunch of people got referred to as the Hurtsville sad boys. Most of them are here hanging out at our apartment every night.

But it’s significant that the title’s referencing a place. Is a sense of place important to the Hurtsville project?
H: I’m not sure that when we started we thought “yeah let’s make this about place”. That was an organic thing that happened. Luke and I would always talk about place and Sydney geography – demographics, anthropology. That was something else me and Luke bonded over, because he studied sociology and history and I studied anthropology.

L: We used to go to the club and sit there doing fieldwork. Interpreting things.

H: That’s my fascination with “the club”, if I think about it. The anthropological view.

L: We still always over-analyse every interaction that happens in the club. We find it interesting! The way the club, as a field, works. But the stuff about geography came up a lot in conversations, and like we said, one of the things we bonded over was being from the same area, and somehow that was a basis for a friendship, living near each other and knowing the same places.

You guys were also around the inner-west punk scene growing up.
H: Luke was heavily into it – I was there a lot but never really felt like I was a part of it. I always felt like an outsider, being there. But then I’ve always felt like an outsider at the club as well.

L: Ever since I was 14 I was going to warehouses in Marrickville and stuff, seeing punk bands and doing activist things and hanging out in anarchist bookshops. And yeah, over time I began to feel this weird disconnect between this stuff and where I would go home every night, where I would go to school. It began to feel almost wrong in a way. Going all the way to Newtown or Petersham to do something… why not look for that or find that in my own area? That became really important for me by the time I was about 17-18, to really create something in the area I grew up in. It turned into quite a strong negative reaction against the Inner West or whatever, I felt almost militantly anti-Inner West for a while.

H: I remember! We’d want to go to a restaurant in Newtown, and you’d be like “Nah, man, that’s shit. ‘Cos it’s in Newtown”.

L: Yeah, cos it was so valorised or whatever compared to where I lived and I just wanted to… I mean, I was doing stuff with activists in anarchist bookshops, and you want to talk about revolution? Revolution happens everywhere. It’s not a little centralised activist hub, it’s the world, it’s everywhere. And I also thought, if all these things are good – DIY, or activism – then I’d like to share them, or do them, in that place where I am, and I don’t have to sit on a train for an hour to experience something.

That’s what I loved about discovering Bankstown Poetry Slam. I met a whole lot of people who were from the area who were doing really cool, artistic stuff and we became friends. Every month you’d go there and people would be telling stories and just sharing themselves really sincerely, and it was amazing. To not have to catch a train to the city or catch a train to Newtown – it was just down the road. And as well as that it felt different. There’s a feeling of a different sort of cultural space, when you go to something like Bankstown Poetry Slam. The way in which people act and be there. It felt more connected to the kind of space I grew up in. After the Slam, we’d hang around and have a jam, and people would be singing Turkish songs or whatever. And I felt like there was this… maybe the absence of the white gaze, or the middle-class bourgeois gaze?

But just becoming friends with people through that, and realising people were doing cool shit here, and that it’s happening – it’s nice.

hurtsville-coles

I found it interesting when you talked about places being valorised, whether that’s the Inner West, or London, or Berlin…
L: Or south-west Sydney being valorised for, like, food or cultural tourist-y things… the cultural capital that you can gain by visiting there.

For me, part of the way that sense of place is communicated with Hurtsville is with songs named after “ethnic” food or accompanied by photos of suburban shopping centres or Chinese supermarkets. I wasn’t sure whether I was projecting something onto that, as a white Inner Westie. And when you put it in terms of that question of cultural capital, it really does seem like I’m exoticising the place, or exoticising you guys. But there is this feeling of a series of small details that add up to a sense of place.
L: On one hand, there is something intentional about that, but on the other hand those were just the things we bonded over – the food we ate together when we hung out and made beats. The photos of Hurstville shopping centre or whatever, that’s just where we’d hang out. It’s just this part of our life that happens to come out.

H: I don’t think it’s very intentional, but naming our songs food names… I mean I’ve always had trouble naming songs, sometimes it’s just the first thing I see lying around. (pointing to packet of pitted dates lying on the floor) Like ‘PittedDates‘!

L: ‘buried in pandan‘ is just called that because we were trying to sound like Burial and we were drinking heaps of pandan. You’re right that we have a strong attachment to place, though. Just in the way I like to talk or write or take photos. I have a disposition towards geographic, local detail. And that comes out.

H: And that does come out when you study something like anthropology or sociology, it brings out your interest in minor details, what makes a place a place.

This stuff is noticeable in your presentation though, because a lot of the electronic artists you see on Soundcloud, the imagery they use is free-floating: it’s all jpgs of shiny 3D CGI spheres or whatever. It could come from anywhere, it’s post-geographic. It’s the result of a scene that’s constituted or even located on the internet. So all the stuff about Hurtsville that I’ve interpreted as local references, it sticks out.
L: I guess in a way that was kind of intentional. Because we’ve had conscious discussions about this. In this internet, late-capitalist, post-modern thing, how do we go about creating culture? My answer to that was always… to draw from that local space. Because no matter how much these broader, larger internet cultures might become much more homogenous – in terms of like grime or punk or whatever – as the internet makes it faster for these things to be picked up and appropriated by people all over the world, the way that can keep them interesting or different is the way in which they can have inflections of hyper-local cultures. Because obviously local cultures do exist. And that’s not necessarily on a provincial or national level, it can be just a matter of a suburb or an area of a city. It can make stuff interesting, set it apart from the same sounds and aesthetics that are reproduced over and over again.

H: That’s also due to place though! A lot of cities, especially global cities, are homogenous to each other. A person my age somewhere in Tokyo would probably be into the same stuff I’m into. I don’t necessarily feel like our stuff is that different from that internet aesthetic. That’s why it’s interesting that you’re telling us it is different.

Well, I’m starting to wonder now. I suppose a lot of the time when I get into music made by people I know, I can’t help but read it as a kind of meta-text. I’m listening to the music and looking at the way you’ve presented it, but for me it’s also tied up with conversations that we’ve had, or other projects you’ve done, or stuff that I know you’re interested in. It’ll be interesting to see, when I write this up, whether it’s going to make sense for someone else.
L: Yeah, but there does seem to be this obsession at the moment with cultural production coming out of urban Australia, with dolewave and stuff… there is something in trying to reflect a local-ness, an Australian-ness. Look at You Beauty. You have all these bands like that who are going on this Australia thing, and sometimes I don’t think we’re that different from that.

You made a joke before we started the interview about Hurtsville being on “the suburban ethnic fringe of dolewave”.
L: Exactly! But the dolewave stuff seems to be looking for an Australia of the past. It’s a very nostalgic, ironic exercise. To me it feels like it’s romanticising an Australian-ness that’s very specific but ultimately, not the Australia that I’ve experienced. I feel like there is this very specific romanticisation of Australian working-class whiteness, or something. So what I’m very conscious of here on the “suburban ethnic fringe” is: if we’re all gonna have a bunch of fun using our art to negotiate or come to terms with whatever the fuck Australia is, the contribution I want to make is to have it represent Canterbury, Hurstville, Bankstown, whatever.

Not many people have been doing all that through electronic music though.
L: Well, yeah. We want to do it in a way that isn’t playing stuff that sounds like what my dad used to listen to. Why would I listen to a dolewave band when I can go through my dad’s records? I grew up with that shit, we’re in 2015 now!

What do you think you’ve taken from club culture, and what have you taken from punk or DIY?
H: I used to go to Dirty Shirlows all the time and see all these amazing Sydney emo, skramz bands… I loved it all, the emotion, the sincerity, the fact that anyone could just get up and scream. I thought it was really powerful to be able to witness this catharsis in front of you. But no-one really danced at those shows. Whereas in club music, everyone dances but no-one’s emotionally sincere!

But yeah, more recently I started listening to guys like Bones and Xavier Wulf and Team SESH… and other producers who were capturing that same sense of emotion in their electronic music, like FIFTY GRAND, who used to make grindcore. And they were kind of reinventing that standard hip-hop, boom-bap sort of stuff. That sounded amazing to me and I wanted to get in on that. To put across how I’m feeling in a finished song instead of just sitting in my room playing sad guitar loops to myself.

L: And as well, this stuff is rough, it’s not perfect. It has the same roughness that I found appealing in screamo. It’s rough but it captures a feeling. That’s what was so appealing about finding producers like that – it felt punk! It felt like they were using the same kind of approach. The idea of releasing stuff yourself, your own label, or putting everything up on Mediafire. They were doing it in a way we understood and recognised from our “punk upbringing” or whatever. But with a different sound.

H: Electronic music has a lot more possibilities.

L: And you can make it in an apartment block.

You’ve told me that when you were actually asked to play a show, though, it felt really weird.
L: I was aggressively against it. Hurtsville was purely a thing we did in our bedrooms – capture a feeling, deal with an emotion. Hang out together. When we got asked to play I was like “oh fuck, I dunno if we’re good enough, what are we gonna do? I don’t wanna just fuckin’ stand there with a laptop and play shit”. So on the original Hurtsville Sad Boys group chat we had a brainstorm, we opened it up to the greater Hurtsville tribe, like a dozen people. Out of that came Kevin’s role, his performances.

H: Being an extrovert, he was happy to be like, “yeah I’ll get up there and draw attention away from you guys”. The concepts for his performances are kinda planned, kinda improvised on the day.

L: I have this guilt about whether I’m good enough to take up that space. You’re gonna give me half an hour to play my songs over a club system for a bunch of people? Am I worth that? Bringing Kevin in is a way of alleviating that guilt, maybe.

The performance that I saw and loved was Kevin Duo Jin standing in front of you guys while you were playing, solemnly eating baklava with chopsticks. It was this great incongruous combination and a perfect visual metaphor for what it’s like to live in a global city, a Eurasian city.
L: I bought a kilo of baklava for that! He was meant to offer it to everyone. But yeah, in a sense that combination of baklava and chopsticks isn’t that incongruous. Because those are like the incongruities of everyday life in places like Lakemba or Hurstville. Everyone’s just being, and doing shit, there’s no pretence to authenticity.

H: Also, the other day our mate Edmund was eating Doritos and dip with chopsticks, so…

L: Part of this whole exercise though, this interview, is us realising things that we took for granted. Like the food references. We didn’t even notice that. Or just little things that seem very normal to us – having it shown to us from your viewpoint, there’s like a “oh, really?”

This has been a really interesting exercise for me as well, because I realise the assumptions I’m bringing to my observation of Hurtsville. There’s a real sense in which the idea of these suburbs of south-west Sydney is genuinely strange to me. I grew up in a town with only a thousand people living in it, and multiculturalism was the Chinese restaurant at the bowlo. I didn’t even know what laksa was before I moved here. So I necessarily read all of those perfectly normal local references you make as different and interesting, exotic even. I didn’t consciously realise that I was doing it.
L: What’s come out of this interview for me is that what we do is this strange mix: an intentional, self-conscious thing, but also with this spontaneous, embedded stuff. I mean, we do talk about these ideas of place, or emotion. We discuss it, we have self-awareness of a lot of this stuff, but when it comes to expressing it, it often is a matter of spontaneously drawing on who we are and where we live.

Hurtsville can be streamed on Soundcloud.

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