This country is headed in a bad direction. Let no amount of boredom distract you from that truth. Eastlink’s new record Mullum Mullum could be depressing but is inspiring instead. It’s that rare LP that sounds like it has conviction. The first notes of ‘What a Silly Day (Australia Day)’ come on like a lot of guitar bands you’ve heard before – the difference is what it locks into. This is ‘hip shaking’ music. It has ‘swagger’. It sounds like the drummer plays the snare with a shaker – you can’t not nod your head. A few bars later someone fills in the major chords. It’s not all new but it’s being done a lot better. The first lyric arrives from Al Montfort’s familiar voice: “They busted up your brain for an idea.” Later: “What a silly day”. What an understatement from one of the masters of that art. “You’re supposed to have fun – what a joke” / “I’m supposed to get down”. No one will ever write a better song about this disgusting day.
The other perfect song on this record starts the B-side, sung by Johann Rashid. Don’t let the video clip for ‘Overtime’ stop you from hearing the tune. Again it’s the groove, it’s the boogie. It’s the feeling that this group believes their own rhetoric, is behind their own message and inside their own sound. “It’s cement and fuckin’ plaster”. It could go for half an hour without changing. “Overtime is justified.” As with the line, “what a silly day,” it’s not really the words that are the key, it’s the space between them. It’s what they don’t need to say. To fill in those spaces, read the lyric sheet, look at the pictures in the sleeve. Read your tabloid. See the pictures of Hawke and Keating – the “sellouts,” according to Eastlink. I don’t know if I fully agree with that one, but maybe I should.
The opinions and convictions and sentiments of this record are an inspiration. This is a protest record, whether the group would want to call it that or not. It’s a humanist record. It’s that rare record that seems to care about what happens to people. It’s about the things that have gone wrong and the things that will keep going wrong. It doesn’t have solutions; it’s just one of the best sounding lists of the problems I’ve ever heard. Four of the tracks don’t have lyrics. The five that do aren’t exactly essay length, but it’s all there. “You’re supposed to have a little bit of fun […] you paid for the gun / I paid for the baton.”
I can’t think of many other groups that work with the dance rhythm Eastlink does. That drum sound on ‘Spring St’ reminds me of glam. It all sounds like T-Rex to me, but it also sounds like a group of young Australian people who don’t like much of what they see around them. There’s real power in this record. There’s power in the sentiments that plug into the practice amps inside it. It’s also relentlessly clever. Smart people made it; people with a sense of humour and with a sense of right and wrong. The sound of the young man screaming, the delay on the four guitars. Tom Hardisty has done another service to the community in watching over this LP – recording another group the way they truly sound.
Eastlink has done a service to Australia with this album. It’s a milestone in the ‘culture’. If there’s a message, it could be to pay attention to what goes on. Just because you can’t fix it, doesn’t mean it isn’t hideously broke. As Montfort recently put it in a piece for Mess & Noise, “Yes we need to get on with it… but ignorance is for toys.” Mullum Mullum isn’t.
Mullum Mullum is out now through In the Red Records.
When NUN plays live, a seemingly endless array of cables spew forth from tables of analog equipment, watched over blankly by Steven Harris, Tom Hardisty and Hugh Young. In front of it all extends a lead to the microphone of Jenny Branaghan, who contorts herself under thickets of smoke and a projected dome of white noise. In the right light, it can look like Branagan is being controlled by the wires of a demented puppeteer. At other times she looks like she’s thrashing against cabled restraints. Her warbling vocals accompany music which recalls some distant childhood memory of a perverted horror movie, and that’s probably where the mental images come from. Nun’s record is similarly inclined: it’s deliberately otherworldly.
Branagan’s vocals are chilling throughout the record, starting with the cringing shouts of “let me piss on your rich mother’s lips” on the painfully slow opener ‘Immersion II’. The album art consists of grainy nondescript images shot in monochrome, while the song titles referencing David Cronenberg and Uri Geller recall mysterious moments of the past rather than anything in the present. It also looks abjectly to the future: “Going to the cinema in the future is really grim” is emblazoned on the inner-sleeve and spat alongside references to replicants on ‘Kino’. It’s a record that’s inspired by imagery and phenomenon that is simple enough to identify – from ‘70s/‘80s cinema to the early synth-punks – but it’s thrilling nonetheless.
NUN is a band that has come from mixed sensibilities. The fact that their synth-punk/electro aesthetic comes from musicians also involved with Woollen Kits and Constant Mongrel may be surprising to some, but there’s a different set of rules for NUN. For some of the reasons listed above NUN excites me like few other recent bands have, but for the same reasons they’ve been swiftly dismissed by others.
Pick Your Context
In an unusually fiery comments thread on Crawlspace, the phrase “stylized nostalgia” was recently used to describe NUN. While the commenter intended it as criticism, I actually think it’s an appropriate description. I don’t think that referencing the past in an intentionally stylistic manner immediately makes music unimportant, forgettable, or as another commenter put it: “as relevant as Jet.”
In the case of NUN, half of the appeal for me is the idea that a band can tap into some kind of distant memory and add a modern relevance to it. This is probably a generational symptom (I wasn’t old enough to experience the ‘80s, for example) or a result of personal philosophy, but I think many would agree that there’s a freshly defined context to current Australian underground music that transcends the influences it may contain, especially for those who have only participated in it recently.
For longer than I’m capable of remembering pop culture has been referential, so the idea of a band being just another loop in a chain of recycled ideas is irrelevant to me. I’m not inclined to dwell on any perceived similarities between, for example, NUN and Suicide, because I really don’t find that interesting. I feel like the comparison between a four-piece from Melbourne and a duo from New York is increasingly misinformed when there is a much more accurate local context at play.
What I do find interesting in modern Australian music is that it has come to exist in its own bubble in both space and time, to the extent that it lives within a context that is self-defined. Perhaps unusually, I tend not to address bands in terms of their place in a 50 year musical history or as compared to bands overseas. Instead, when I listen to NUN I see them as contextual siblings to bands like Chrome Dome, M.O.B or Multiple Man. I actually feel that ignoring NUN for reusing ideas from the ‘80s comes from a lack of appreciation for context rather than an acknowledgement of a greater one.
When it comes to bands I like that dabble in nostalgic sounds, much of the appeal comes from the fact that you can subconsciously feel and identify the source of their influences. These bands and the relatively recent rise in their popularity among a new generation (see Angel Eyes, Primitive Motion, Flat Fix or Lace Curtain, all of whom are reminiscent of ‘something’) comes from a form of extra-sensory nostalgia. For me, most of the exposure to the sounds applied by NUN comes not from an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of electronic music, but of sub-conscious infiltration via the influences that flowed on from that. These can include film soundtracks, lingering aspects of past Top 40 hits and the primitive sounds of 8/16/32-Bit video game soundtracks. For a band participating in ‘stylised nostalgia’, it’s almost like they’re mining memories I didn’t know I had.
Too Much Culture
NUN’s Jenny Branaghan has talked previously about how her desire to re-watch Videodrome led her to write the song ‘Cronenberg’, and more generally, the routine absorption of horror films as a child via her older brothers. The cultural experience of a child or teenager is different to the more conscious one experienced as an adult. As an adult, experiencing culture is more deliberate: you choose to watch a film based on reviews or discussing it with friends, and you more or less know who Hans Zimmer is. As a kid, you watch a slasher flick just because someone put it on after school, or you play Castlevania on your neighbour’s Sega with the soundtrack playing incidentally for hours at a time. In that sense, hearing aspects of those distant, sub-conscious influences now elicits a different response compared with the music you’ve actively sought out as an adult. Acts like NUN elicit the same feelings within me that I used to feel as a kid: an unknown rush that comes from not fully understanding what is going on in Scanners, but watching intently anyway.
There’s probably a broader reason bands of a nostalgic ilk are rising in prominence, and while it’s not limited to bands of an electronic bent, I think it’s especially prominent in that realm. In my social circles there seems to be a general desire to return to simplicity in many regards, perhaps due to the realities of a modern life that we didn’t grow up expecting. So dramatically has exponential technological progression occurred, that it’s almost like there’s a push to reclaim what dropped out of vogue in the process. See the way ‘retro’ has affected fashion (the rise of the ironic ‘90s t-shirt for example), the fetishised acceptance of tape decks and turntables, or here, the re-emergence of the analog synth.
Meanwhile in mainstream culture, films are stuck in a race to be increasingly larger in scope, and AAA video games consist of artfully crafted video sequences that eventually fold away into actual gameplay. Personally, the return to what felt like the more honest or relatable mainstream culture of my youth is inspiring and exciting. I will never again be mystified by Blade Runner like I was as a 13-year-old, but NUN’s LP makes me feel approximately similar to how that movie did the first time around.
NUN’s LP may have been created with evocations of the past in mind, but I don’t think that makes it any less sincere or honest than someone who is trying to forge new frontiers through experimentation. I think the amount of sincerity involved in forcibly trying to ignore aspects that artists of the past have addressed would be equal to those who happily go with whatever sound comes to mind, or those who set the boundaries of recalling a certain era. I also don’t think those three philosophies need be at war with each other.
My interest in synth-based electronic music has mostly been piqued by Australian artists of the last five years, any of whom may fall into any of those three philosophies of intent: Lace Curtain, Primitive Motion, Angel Eyes, Flat Fix, Lucy Cliche and Superstar are examples. NUN are unlike most of those bands, but they all seem to fit into something common, via an aesthetic that’s hard for me to place other than that they all dabble to some extent – intentionally or otherwise – in a nostalgia that I can only experience hazily. They may not all be setting out to mine sounds of their youth, but it interests me because they’re often mining mine.
Alex Cameron is a hack. He’s a showbiz guy. He’s a guy who says he’s a showbiz guy. He’s been around the traps. He is exhausted by the world’s ambivalence to his genius and he does not suffer fools. He’s a showbiz guy who knows nobody in showbiz. Alex Cameron is the mythical genius at your suburban RSL, and he is a nightmare. His handsome well-wrought face is peeling and scarred, and he may not be real. You’d better touch his face to make sure.
In his own words, Alex Cameron’s debut record Jumping The Shark “is a story about all which ways [sic] you can fail and believe me you are going to one way or the other. I wanted each track to allow for a story to be told. The music is ground floor. The words take you up to the lookout.”
On his personal website, Alex Cameron often insists that his lyrics are worth soaking up for the philosophical truths they may contain.
In actual fact, Alex Cameron is a Sydney artist who has worked for many years as part of electronic trio Seekae. The trio is not unsuccessful. The trio does not have worldwide kitchen table renown but it is doing okay, for a Sydney electronic trio. Seekae is a capable and enjoyable electronic trio specialising in music which is just nice. Seekae has released two critically well-received records and when they release a new .mp3 people tend to care, which is close to the epitome of success as far as Sydney electronic trios go.
Seekae is Alex Cameron’s biggest failure. In order to appreciate Alex Cameron, you must forget that Seekae exists.
Alex Cameron, as Alex Cameron, strives for kitchen table renown but is the embodiment of failure. His debut record Jumping The Shark, released independently in 2013 but now available on LP through Siberia Records, is a vehicle for a make-believe failure. Alex Cameron is your uninteresting uncle making beats in Garageband, and occasionally namedropping industry powerhouses no one has ever known and who may never have existed. He wears leather jackets indoors and smokes mini-cigars between courses. Alex Cameron probably bought a beer for Michael Chugg back in the ‘80s, only to be ignored. He may have gone on a bender with the guy who booked The Excelsior in the mid ’90s.
‘Alex Cameron’ is a joke, but not a joke Cameron will readily admit to. He is steadfast in his roleplaying. Read through his surreally retro website and you’ll find a compellingly pathetic universe of empty self-affirmation, preemptive artistic defense and lurid self-promotion. When scrolling through his hugely entertaining website it is easy to forget that he is a musician at all. Alex Cameron is a joke. He is a viral marketing campaign. He is a myth, and the myth is probably pissed that AU Review gave him a 7.7 score for his debut record. Ball Park Music’s new one got 9.0.
In light of all this, it feels contrary to say his record is actually good, and it feels more disingenuous to say that it’s good despite the depressing universe Cameron has built around it. The record is not amazing, it’s not something I’d highly recommend to everyone, but it’s a record I enjoy listening to divorced from the myth. Basically: the music is not a mere punchline to the website, which I wholly expected it would be. Overall, the unexpected competence of Jumping The Shark as a piece of music you can happily listen to without applying several layers of lead-strong ironic straightjacket, serves Alex Cameron’s concept very well.
Cameron recently posted a video (embedded above) tracing his adventures at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. The short documentary presents a day-in-the-life of an aspiring artist at a global industry showcase, desperate to be recognised but resigned to the impenetrable nature of the global independent music hype machine. In the documentary, Cameron’s hotel is a distant roadside dive in an off-the-chart suburb, far away from the throbbing heart of Austin. It sets the scene for a film which bleakly reveals how futile the rags-to-riches pop/rock star myth is: he is far away, hiking on an eight lane highway kilometres from the sex and drugs at the city’s centre. He’s flown eleven hours from Sydney to be close to the oyster of success, but it’s still too inaccessible. On top of that, he’s chintzy. He’s uncool. He’s got no hope. He’s a loser. Alex Cameron sucks. He’s too showbiz. He’s not showbiz enough.
The world of Alex Cameron is very funny but it is also very sad. It is sad and funny in the way that many headstrong yet reputedly lacklustre artists are. People love to poke fun at ‘headstrong yet lacklustre’ artists because it reinforces the genius myth at the heart of pop music, but even the genius myth is a ruse papering over uglier truths.
Jan Terri, for example, is a Chicago-born pop musician who is best known for how reputedly terrible she is. When people share Jan Terri videos on social media, it is often because she is not a conventionally pretty woman. The joke is that she’s not a conventionally pretty woman and yet, there she is, acting like a pop star. Her audacity is the joke. Her hope is the joke. The dissonance is a joke. She is a joke because it is shocking to see someone who does not look like a pop star, acting like a pop star.
Terri’s most famous song, ‘Losing You’ (embedded above), is a gorgeous and infectious pop song, and yet it is not taken seriously because she is not conventionally beautiful. She is not shaped like a pop star. She exists in an errant slipstream of pop, where it is executed by plumbers or tuckshop mums or Brian from accounts. It is an unfathomable underbelly open to ridicule because pop music is not meant to present any blemishes, and it is not meant to be executed by normal looking people. Even a sophisticated 21st century pop artist like Lorde, adored by sophisticated people the world over, is considered a brave deity when she posts Instagram photos of her acne.
Jan Terri released ‘Losing You’ in 1993, but it didn’t blossom as an anti-pop classic until YouTube. Now, we relish the unsuccesses of pop as eagerly as we do the successes. In fact, pop music in the internet age seems to bond people based on what they object to more so than what they agree on. The bad has more stickiness than the good, because badness, mediocrity, patheticness, is virtually the only shock-and-awe tactic pop music has left in its arsenal.
The truly terrible is bracing and fascinating. Watching people fail is gratifying because it redeems those – most of us – who do not try. We can be shocked at someone’s futile audacity, but we cannot be shocked by much else. Why isn’t this arsehole in the trenches with us, and what makes he or she so special that they think they can transcend it? We see an imperfection and we toss a hook into it, and drag them through the muck. Rebecca Black, RAED, Dirty Boyz – they’re all considered pathetic because they tried and failed on our terms, but wouldn’t it have been more pathetic had they not tried at all?
Alex Cameron wields this modern appetite for failure. He knows you’re more likely to listen to him because someone said he’s remarkably shit. In some ways, Alex Cameron the man – ie, not the imagined, mythical, patently pathetic Alex Cameron, but the actual Alex Cameron – is the most canny businessman in pop music. He knows that the only way to drag you into his clutches is to make you ogle at him. You want to watch every permutation of his failure, in all its bloodied, cartilaged detail. You are fascinated by his unfounded self-belief, and by his unhip and arcane approaches to The Music Industry. He knows that the only four-minute bracket in your day he’s likely to gain access to is the one you’ll spend watching something which further barricades the entry points to Proper Stardom. He knows you’ll watch him because someone said he’s outstandingly shit.
And then he goes ahead and sells you a reasonably decent pop record. You just bought into a new pop myth that no one wants to make official.
None of Alex Cameron’s songs are as good as ‘Losing You’ by Jan Terri (because few are), but they’re mostly very good. Sometimes, due to the strength of songs like ‘Happy Ending’, with its immaculately minimal bass lines and the plainly-spoken severity of Cameron’s lyrics, you wonder whether the myth is a cloak for an artist lacking confidence. Maybe Cameron did not have sufficient belief in his ability to write pop songs like this. Maybe he needed to buffer them with this fiction in order to shield himself from ridicule, as a member of a respected Sydney electronic trio. Maybe there’s a part of the real Alex Cameron which fears becoming the fictional Alex Cameron. That would be very sad. I hope this is not the case.
Because as a lean and infectious synth-pop record Jumping the Shark is outstanding, and it deserves to be listened to. One of Cameron’s early singles, ‘She’s Mine’, is a lyrically and musically interesting song if you don’t know about the Alex Cameron myth, but then, it is even more interesting if you do. Alex Cameron recognises that his music will fail on pop music’s terms, and so he focuses on its imperfections. His fiction justifies the blemishes and makes them a story, and yet, without the story the blemishes align him with a milieu of artists whose imperfections are their selling points. He has his cake and eats it too.
In an early ‘album trailer’ for Alex Cameron’s record (a pervasive and transparently amateur Web 2.0 method of promoting music), he is depicted peeling his face off in a shower. It is a grotesque piece of film which undermines any hope Cameron may have of being a sexy, iconoclastic, orthodox pop artist. That’s the beauty of it though: the only hope Cameron has to be that icon, that showbiz doyen, is to peel away the skin and become someone else. You must be beautiful to be important. Alex Cameron could not be himself for this record. Not now. Maybe Alex Cameron’s universe is a charade, and he really believes in these songs. I think he does. I hope he does.
It’s easy to trace the origins of Ruined Fortune within Sydney’s music community. Angela Bermuda (Circle Pit, Angie) and Nic Warnock are a recording two-piece (the live band also includes Sam Chiplin and Jon Duncan) who both discovered the city’s underground more or less at the same age, and within half a decade defined a small percentage of the city’s musical aesthetic. It was inevitable that they would eventually collaborate, and the timing of their first LP comes at an interesting personal intersection between the two.
Warnock has been progressively moving into weirder territory (see his Exotic Dog project and the evolution of the RIP Society release schedule) while Bermuda – with her recent solo release Turning – has been working hesitantly away from Circle Pit’s dirgery towards a classic rock realm. The Ruined Fortune LP loosely borders the midpoint of these two directions – either in leaving or arriving at what could be seen as each other’s territory – and the record retains the feeling of pushing at those fences.
The approach of Bermuda and Warnock here is like a butcher’s paper brainstorm that no one wanted to refine. It’s a mess of conflicting ideas: grunts that fight moans for space, melodies that blow like tumbleweed past oversized riffs and subject matter that, but for the landmark ‘Closing Till’, is hard to pin down among the noise. It’s not sprawling so much as strewn across the fields, but there’s a definite form that’s created by its physicality.
This sprawling effect is likely a result of both the erratic Ruined Fortune aesthetic and the involvement of Cured Pink’s Andrew McLellan in the studio (someone with an innate ability to introduce turbidity to whatever he touches), with the trio mixing muddy distractions through guttural rock songs. They could’ve played this straight (in fact, Angie did with Turning), but there’s too much going on here to be that easily controlled. This kind of record can only come out of collaboration; maybe even a slightly uncomfortable one.
The vocal delivery is forever strained, words that push at restraints before being plunged into thickets of distortion. Bermuda and Warnock fight each other for space on ‘In A Hole,’ Bermuda grits her teeth on ‘Black and Red’ and a couple of minutes pass on ‘All Seeing Eye’ before anyone clears their head to approach the microphone: it’s damaged. Hearing Warnock drawl “the fear of failure takes a hold of me” on ‘On the Screen’ is like tapping the wire of a tensioned fence: even at rest it carries a load that stretches a mile.
Ruined Fortune’s persistent self-description as a “freedom rock” act might be a joke about the hog-on-the-road quality of the band’s guitar-driven core (Warnock even used to wear a red bandana at Ruined Fortune shows to fit this character), but there’s probably some other truths to that. This record has a certain chaos, maybe because both songwriters have been removed from their comfort zone. They’ve been separated from their close confidants and made to table ideas without any backup for a veto. The record sounds full of conflict and tension, but it thunders ahead anyway. Ruined Fortune carries an engine so powerful that the whole machine falls apart as it runs.
1) There are no humans playing on this xNOBBQx record. Of course there actually are, two to be exact, but it’s more enjoyable to imagine this sound just suddenly appearing. xNOBBQx sounds like a phenomenon. If Jandek focused on rock and folk music’s negative space, then xNOBBQx seems to focus on the negative space within the negative space. xNOBBQx is a blurry scribble papered over an absence. xNOBBQx seems like a corrupted silence, or something only a fraction in existence. It’s the shadow that remains when the long hanging painting collapses from the wall.
2) The music of xNOBBQx is actually very jagged and abrupt and occasionally ugly, but because of the way Hamburger Hill is mixed, every edge is sanded into a throbbing, murmuring drone. xNOBBQx sounds like several bands playing several hills away. Only the fact of it being rock music remains. It is a truth, even though it cannot be substantiated. It is an assumption. Maybe this is just music. Maybe it has no other name.
3) It is difficult to avoid describing xNOBBQx in the same way many other writers have done for groups like The Dead C. xNOBBQx shares some sonic similarities to groups of that ilk, but Hamburger Hill is not and cannot really be a statement or a critique of the rock complex in 2014. At least not a relevant or interesting one. Instead, xNOBBQx exists even though rock music has been declared dead numerous times.
xNOBBQx relishes the decay. It celebrates it. It does not want anything to be done about it. It is rolling in the filth, maybe even taking sips from it. Not just rock music though: any sonic phenomenon that implies grit or substance, or power. It relishes the collapse of these characteristics. It relishes the death of demonstration, of emotional signposts, of narratives and interpretations. It is just a series of sounds, and because it sometimes accidentally sounds like rock music, that is what we’ll call it.
4) Adults used to tell me to avoid rainbow flavoured Paddle Pops because they were, the myth stated, the factory floor drippings of the mainline flavours, like chocolate, strawberry etc. xNOBBQx is like a rainbow flavoured Paddle Pop in this sense, and the myth is true.
5) No one could ever make a compelling argument for why xNOBBQx is an important group. This duo create the least consequential music you could ever imagine. Everything is so loosely threaded, so barely recognisable as music, that if you really assess what you’re hearing you may begin to feel like you’re just listening to things happening. Not men playing instruments, but things happening which involve men and instruments. xNOBBQx does not sound human. It does not sound measured or spontaneous. It does not sound artistic. It does not sound whimsical. It is a horrible ambiguous mess. It is transfixing.