Goth by Default: Shaun South of Nihilistic Orbs and Chrome Dome Interviewed

This interview took place on the grass/cement/brown glass behind Newcastle venue The Pharmacy during the Sound Summit long weekend. I’d arranged with Shaun South – the founder and operator of Nihilistic Orbs – to have a chat over the weekend for Crawlspace, but I hadn’t factored in the possibility that I’d be pretty lashed while doing so. As a result, much was left unquestioned, because I hadn’t prepared any questions. No problem though, because we met in high spirits – Castings had just finished their first show in a couple of years – and there’s never any lack of things to ask a guy who runs one of Australia’s best record labels.

Nihilistic Orbs has recently released singles for Nun, Forces, Repairs and South’s own band Chrome Dome. The label boasts a strong visual aesthetic that binds an increasingly diverse range of Australian bands. I chatted with South about founding the label, what unifies the various groups it houses, and why dark synth music is better when it’s “goth by default”.

I’m familiar with your work from Young Romantix and Chrome Dome. You used to be a Sydney local. Why did you move to Melbourne?
Let’s see, I moved to Melbourne in 2006. I guess at the time there were bands like Oh! Belgium hanging around, which I was really into. Fabulous Diamonds I also really liked. Basically there was stuff going on revolving around synthesisers in Melbourne that I really liked, and I didn’t even own a synthesiser at that point. Musically I felt like there was a reason to move there. In Melbourne there’s a lot going on every single night of the week. I was also offered a job at an animation studio, which fell apart after two months, but that was another of the main incentives to go down.

Chrome Dome and Nihilistic Orbs were both founded in Melbourne, but I initially associated you with Sydney: Young Romantix, and DIY shows like Chooch-a-bahn. Was there a culture shock when you left? What were the key differences when you moved down?
There wasn’t much of a culture shock, because there were people doing similar things that were coming up to Chooch-a-bahn. That’s how I heard about Oh! Belgium and Fabulous Diamonds, and in Sydney there was Kiosk and Naked on the Vague, and Holy Balm. Sydney nurtured me in that sense, with having that space at Lanfranchi’s [former Chippendale warehouse venue] to basically do something like Young Romantix, which isn’t really a band, has never been a band, and I wouldn’t really consider it one. I still do it, but it’s a collaboration with anyone. My first band was in Melbourne and that was in Deaf Deaf, and that was with kids that were from Brisbane. Even with Chrome Dome, Andrea [Blake] – who I write most of the stuff with – is from Brisbane, and Ben [Taylor] is from Brisbane too. Bryce [Sweatman] is the only guy from Melbourne.

Nihilistc Orbs has a strong unifying visual aesthetic. When you approached starting the label what was the philosophy?
To predate Nihilistic Orbs, I did Summer Winds, which was a DIY festival. That was pretty obnoxious and young and experimental, but I had a five year plan for that and it ended as planned, after five years. I stopped it then because I didn’t want it to turn into some redundant entity: a huge festival or something. The whole idea was that it’d be related to a specific space and time. To go into Nihilistic Orbs though, I was playing in Chrome Dome a lot and I guess before I played music I was more into community and putting shows together in that way, and that’s how I understood how to do stuff.

Nihilistic Orbs started as basically a frustration with playing in a band and organising gigs solely for that band, around that band. It wasn’t fulfilling because that’s not why I originally got into music. So it started as a fortnightly event at the Empress Hotel [in Melbourne]. The idea behind it was to record every set and then edit it and then have a cassette released every fortnight. That lasted three or four months and most of those recordings never saw the light of day beyond ten copies, but that’s where it began. I always wanted to do a label in that sense, but I didn’t really have the resources, especially because then, pressing vinyl overseas was limited to a minimum of 1000 copies, but now I can do 300 at a smaller amount (per unit). It’s easier to do short runs and find stuff faster that I find interesting.

Nihilistic Orbs really started with Jonny Telafone though. I was living with him and I showed him Joe Meek’s Telstar and he was obsessed with it and he had access to my synths. After showing it to him, he came out of his room 24 hours later and was like “oh man, I made a tribute to Joe Meek”. And it was amazing. He’s the sort of guy who would never show that to anyone or even release it, and I said I wanted to put it out. So I saved up and put it out.

With Summer Winds and Nihilistic Orbs it seems that one of your priorities was building a community.
Yes, exactly.

Why? Was there a gap that you thought needed filling in Australian music?
Not necessarily that. I didn’t think that there was a hole in Australian music because I don’t think about it in that industry sense. Basically, all the people on my label are friends of mine because we have a similar aesthetic. This is building that together. More people are coming along like Nun – I wasn’t friends with Nun before. Same with Forces: I wasn’t friends with Alex [Akers] before releasing the 7 inch. They weren’t people asking me to put out their record, it was me seeing them play and just wanting to release them. In a way it’s building a community in the sense that we all have a similar aesthetic.

Nihilistic Orbs has a strong unifying visual aesthetic, but there’s also the unifying theme of synth-based music. But Jonny Telafone and Sky Needle don’t always neatly fit that theme.
I got asked this question before about why Sky Needle was on Nihilistic Orbs. I like pop music essentially, but pop music that has an unsettling feeling, where something just doesn’t feel right. When you listen to Sky Needle, you don’t feel “oh wow I’m going to wake up in the morning!” [Shaun says this in a comically optimistic voice]. I guess that’s it: it’s downer pop. Sky Needle pull that off in a weird and different way. It’s unsettling but listenable. Everything is listenable but you still don’t feel so pleasant after hearing it. That’s Nihilistic Orbs. Downer pop.

Why does that unsettling style of pop music appeal to you?
I can go to a club and there’s songs that I like being played by DJs and stuff, and I see a bunch of people dancing around to it, and sometimes it just feels wrong to me. Going to an indie club and seeing people dancing around to Joy Division is like… “what the fuck? This guy hung himself, and you know, destroyed his personal life!” but you know, he made this pop music. I guess it’s ingrained in there somehow, in my head, that I enjoy the happiness that comes from creativity, but that feeling of desperation and hate is still possible without it being a grindcore band or a crust band or something, you know what I mean? It feels more honest. I find something more sinister about a simple drumbeat and downer lyrics. Instantly in your head you want to enjoy it as pop music, but people who would analyse it or listen closely would be like, “oh god, this is horrible”.

Chrome Dome, with South on far right

When I listen to Chrome Dome or Forces it puts me in mind of the type of goth and industrial stuff that I listened to as a teenager, like Coil, or even some EBM stuff. What are your influences, musically?
Fad Gadget and The Normal. Malaria! and Nervous Gender. Stuff like that, I guess stuff from before new wave became popular: when it was still sitting in bed with punk. There are bands that are popping up now that fill that element. There’s a nihilism, a dissatisfaction with life, but you know, [it still results in] catchy synth tunes.

It’s funny you mention The Normal, with the Ballard connection. That feels almost ingrained in industrial, goth-leaning music in a way, that sense of futurist debasement.
I agree, but I guess I just wasn’t from that. I come from a punk, thrash and hardcore background. When I first heard Primitive Calculators, when I was 16 and saw Dogs in Space, I was like “what is this”? I looked it up on the internet, before Chapter reissued them, and there was one flyer saying “Melbourne’s first synth-punk band”. That’s before I knew about The Screamers or Nervous Gender, and I was like “what is this? This is me.”

I remember really liking the first Chrome Dome 7 inch. The album that followed was enjoyable on a sonic level, but it felt almost comically dark, which I didn’t like.
The first 7 inch was goth by default. I had all these influences in my head but it wasn’t specifically made to be that way. I had a small setup with an organ, a synth, an amp, two samplers and it was me and one other dude. Basically we just got fucked up on prescription pills and then we came down – so it was like “beats… and everything sucks” [laughs]. So we had those songs and tried to translate it into a band, and then from being default goth it turned into “trying to be goth”, you know what I mean?

What made the difference?
Most of those songs were from me and Ben, and then we took them to a band, where it got confused. We were just trying to find our feet. We did that last 7 inch [on Nihilistic Orbs] and it came closer to us unifying as a band, and writing new material as a band as opposed to trying to translate something from a bedroom into a studio into a live act.

Why do you create dark music? What’s the source of that?
It’s a way of being able to have a smile on your face, and to have a bit of a joke. Microphones are a weapon. It’s a natural thing: I get a drum machine beat and a synth, and then the words go through my brain, and then I can articulate stuff I wouldn’t really want to say to other people. It’s an outlet. It’s goth by default. Even though I’m dressed all in black, that’s where it differentiates between being part of goth culture. I see it as a way of venting, but feeling good about yourself at the end of the day, because of that poppy element. You can say whatever the hell you want through delay and reverb and no one ever needs to hear about it. Then after that you can sit down, have a smile, have a beer, have a ciggie, hang out and be part of a community, rather than crap on about how life sucks so much.

So making dark music makes you a more positive person?
Exactly. Goth by default.


Visit the Nihilistic Orbs website for info on releases.


High Rise Horizon: Repairs Interviewed

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.