Features

A Glimmer of Hope: Orion interviewed

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Photos: Tristan Price

Since forming in late 2013, Sydney-based quartet Orion has grown to mean a lot to people. The group makes accessible, powerful and sometimes danceable pop songs. Uplifting melodies and synced bass and drum machine blend with dark undertones of guitar and morose keyboards. It’s unsettling at first, but the delivery on every track is unabashed, and they’re a band unafraid to connect with human emotion.

Orion is made up of Yuta Matsumura of MOB and Oily Boys, Kerem Daldal, aka Dizzy of Oily Boys and Low Life and Sarah Davis and Chris Colla, both formerly of Whores. While Orion invites little comparison to any of these bands, there is a familiar underlying aggression to their brand of new wave pop. The group’s live shows are sure to break out into a pit of undulating bodies, some heaving, some dancing, many embracing frontman Yuta as he struts around the stage.

I caught up with Yuta, Dizzy and Sarah at the Huntsbury pub in Petersham to talk about pop, emotional maturity and the flicker of a future. The group is currently working on their first LP – a follow-up to last year’s demo cassette through Paradise Daily.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first straight pop band that any of you have been in before?
Sarah: Indeed.

Yuta: Pretty much. I was in one when I was 16 with Al (Haddock). It was rubbish. That’s actually when I first met Sarah. The band didn’t really work out, we didn’t really know any better back then. Everyone’s in shit bands when they’re young.

Was it hard to write pop songs initially, given that you’d never really done it properly before?
Y: Yeah it was – I think with pop music, you need to experience a lot of different emotions in order to write a good pop song.

Is that to say that your other bands were less rooted in emotional experience?
Y: Definitely less so than Orion.

S: I think the emotion was just different. In our early twenties I think a lot of us felt like we had no future so all the music was really bleak, mostly just grim shit. Now I guess the idea of a future is growing.

Dizzy: I dunno – aren’t we all still making that same fucken harsh music that we were before?

Y: Totally, but now there’s just like a glimmer of hope in it, I reckon.

D: I think now we’re just able to write good songs because we know what’s good and what’s not, so we don’t put out trash or anything.

So does Orion represent an evolution in songwriting for all of you?
S: I guess we’d just never tried this mode of songwriting before.

D: I think we just honestly have better taste now. I think if we all tried to be in a pop band in our early twenties, it would probably be pretty bad.

Y: Yeah, because we’ve played in other punk and hardcore bands before, I think now we just have a much better approach to writing pop music. Orion is just a different dynamic to any other band I’ve been in.

D: Just being in this band, it’s a much more communal thing – there’s way less ego in Orion. I mean, I suppose there is ego in this band but we don’t let it get in the way of anything.

Was the goal to try something different when starting the band?
Y: It all happened pretty naturally. Me, Sarah and Chris always talked about starting a pop band. The song ‘Sexy Alien’ came from a jam between me, Sarah and Chris – it was pretty much just us sitting in a room writing songs that captured what we thought pop was. Then I had a jam with Dizzy, and that’s when we wrote ‘Church Bells’, and then we figured we’d all just combine and start a band as we were all writing music that related to each other. It was never a conscious or set thing to start Orion.

D: I think we played our first show as a two-piece while Sarah and Chris were out of action. But it was always the intention to have them play.

Your music obviously draws on a lot of other much-loved bands. The instrumentation, particularly the bass lines and the drum machine compliment each other pretty precisely. Which came first for Orion, the sound or the idea?
D: I think the drum machine was actually just a stopgap for a while. We always said ‘Oh yeah, we’ll get a drummer some time’. We were debating it for some time, and then we all ended up deciding to go for the drum machine. People always asked us ‘When are you getting a drummer?’, ‘Uh…well maybe we won’t.’

Y: I definitely don’t think about the sound that often, like what sound we’re gonna make or what goes where – it all just happens naturally.

D: It’s never contrived or anything, never too much forethought goes into any of it.

Y: That’s why every Orion song sounds different I think. Like there’s a strong difference between ‘Red Lights’ and ‘Turbulence’.

D: We want to be able to write in a lot of different styles. We never want to box ourselves in to any particular mode or genre. Not to say that the past was great or anything, but I think bands were much less limited on albums where they could do like ten different styles. It seems like nowadays bands get boxed in much easier like ‘you’re this kind of band, so you’ve gotta subscribe to this style’, and it’s hard to move out of that.

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Yeah, funny you say that, I remember at Maggot Fest last year during your set, some punter shouted out ‘Fuck the ’80s!’ Do you ever feel pigeonholed as an ’80s style, new wave bad?
Y: Definitely – but they’re fucken ignorant.

S: For sure, but we’re not ashamed to be heaps of shit from the ’80s, we all love it. At the same time I’d like to think that we have our own take on it.

Y: People are always gonna look back on music from the past and it just so happens that the ’80s is where our music fits best. That guy who says fuck the ’80s is probably into millennium hardcore [chuckles].

S: Pop music is like a language – you draw on certain things because that’s just the mode of it, that’s the medium that you’re working with.

D: I’d say one thing about making pop music and I think why Orion formed when it did was mainly because we’re much more confident musically now to make pop music. When you are a bit less confident, and I’d say we all definitely were, it’s hard to make music for listeners to ‘have a great time’ to. I think that definitely takes a bit of bravery.

Y: I’m much more nervous about making pop music than any other type of music.

Is that because you feel there’s more honesty in it?
Y: I think so. I think there’s a lot more personal shit coming out of you in pop. Personally, I definitely have never ever sung with as much emotion or aggression before. When I was younger I was much more shy.

Do you guys find it challenging to perform live in Orion sometimes?
S: I do – I’m pretty fucken socially anxious so yeah, it’s pretty hard. I’ve gotten better at it with practice, but there’s no way I could ever sing.

D: I wouldn’t wanna do what Yuta does. It’s easy enough to hide behind an instrument.

Y: It was hard at first. But there was definitely one point in time where I was like ‘fuck this – fuck feeling anxious, I should be more confident in our songs.’ Once that happened, it became much easier. The more we played the more comfortable we became.

D: I don’t know if I’ve ever been nervous playing in Orion. I’m not too sure how Chris feels but he has his back to the audience mostly.

It’s palpable that when you see an Orion show, you really feel the emotion and passion emanate from the live performance. Audiences get really rowdy and into it.
D: Yeah it’s really cool to see people express emotion and respond to music you put out there.

How satisfied with your demos were you?
D: Very happy considering the amount of effort that went into them. It was all pretty rushed, and Lawrence [Hall] did a great job of making that shit chime. I mean, it’s definitely not great, and all of those songs are gonna be on the LP, and they sound so different now.

In what sense do they sound different?
D: The vocals are a lot better, there’s new drum tracks. Everything has a different feel to it now.

Y: When you get used to a song, you can play around with it.

I see you’re playing Maggot Fest again in Melbourne. How do you find Melbourne audiences respond to your music?
S: They were very receptive, and maybe initially I thought they wouldn’t be.

D: I think it almost embarrassed us. We had this preconception of Melbourne crowds and how they’d respond to our music and I think we were all totally proven wrong.

What’s been your most memorable live experience?
S: They’re all a blur.

Y: The Birdrib one was pretty fun. Even though we sounded like absolute shit.

S: Ha, yeah that was awesome. Christian (Low Life) just like Godzilla’d it on stage and knocked over the synth and all the shit – those are definitely the mad ones. The one’s where everyone gets really raucous and it doesn’t even matter so much what you play.

D: Playing a great set to people who don’t give a fuck is actually nowhere near as good as playing an absolute horror show to people who are really into it.

Y: The funnest ones are probably the ones where we don’t complete a set for whatever reason that might be.

A lot of people seem to be quite enthusiastic about Orion. Do you feel that you’re filling some sort of void in Sydney music?
Y: No, not at all.

S: That’s definitely not something I would have ever thought about. We just wanted to fill our time and do something fun with people we like and just do some shit musically that we’ve never tried before.

Orion’s demo cassette is sold out, but it can be downloaded here.

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Features

“The suburban ethnic fringe of dolewave”: Hurtsville interviewed

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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.

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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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Threads of Beginning: Vincent Over The Sink revisited and reissued

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L to R: Chris Schueler, Matthew Hopkins

Vincent Over The Sink were a Sydney two-piece you’d sometimes see on experimental and punk line-ups in the mid 2000s. They were low profile, and in the beginning at least, responsible for overblown and formless guitar noise the likes of which didn’t stand out at the time. Their first 7 inch released in 2006 through a small Newcastle imprint called Shriek Sounds operated by Alps’ Chris Hearn. Then, a year later, or maybe in the same year, they released a CD-R split with Holy Balm. Both recordings sounded decent at the time, but didn’t strike a chord with me.

In 2008 I found the duo’s newly released third album, 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers, in a now-closed Camperdown record store. At the time I was surprised to find it, but I can’t remember why. I think most bands that orbited that scene – the types that played venues like Lan Franchis and Yvonne Ruve – released their handmade CDs into a less-than-receptive world. Unlike a lot of those recordings though, 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers felt like a proper album. It felt like more than a documentation or sketch. It sounded like something a band would want to draw attention to.

Listening to the record now, it’s easy to remember how it made me feel, but I can’t quite remember why it had such a powerful effect on me. I suppose there weren’t many bands doing gentle and cryptic lo-fi pop music at the time, especially bands willing to explore such a broad expanse of territory. Sydney’s underground at the time was a diverse one, but few had explored sounds like this, especially sounds that dabbled tentatively in traditional pop song structures. Songs like ‘Mrs S and Mrs H’ were unlike anything I had heard before, a tired and manic march tempered by ghostly vocals and piano melodies. The abrupt mid-verse end to ‘Waiting For Your Hair’ is one of the most poignant songwriterly decisions I’ve heard, while the somnambulant melancholy of ‘Heavy Gum’ is achingly sad. Even now I can’t figure out whether these songs are works of meticulous craftsmanship or accidents. That ambiguity is one of the special qualities of this record.

If these personal highlights paint a bleak picture for the album, then that’s my own taste speaking: a lot of it is funny, and bright, and modestly smart. Sometimes it’s really creepy. Vincent Over The Sink is not a band you turn to seeking one specific mood. Each song sounds like a new idea, and nothing sounds like an iteration on a former success.

Adding to the album’s allure was the fact that no one seemed to know anything about this particular recording. It felt like something beautiful that only I could see. The band played a launch show a few weeks before I bought it, but didn’t play again for years. There was nothing about the album on the internet. Their MySpace page had no important information, least of all about 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers. I’d Google them pretty much every day, to see if anyone else had found this strange transmission. Maybe someone else could make sense of it.

It wouldn’t have been hard to approach Matthew Hopkins at a show – his other band Naked on the Vague played regularly at the time – but what kind of answer was I hoping to hear? Aside from shyness on my part, I might have preferred to keep the band a mystery. I interviewed Chris Schueler for Cyclic Defrost eventually, and my purple prose serves to illustrate how obsessed I was with the band for a long time. I just wanted other people to know about the album and love it. I wanted it to be acknowledged because I thought it was the best Australian pop record ever made. That’s seriously what I thought. I listened to it every single day.

Though I know all the songs, segues and dead ends on this album intimately, I have no idea what any of it is about. When I listen to a song like ‘Threads of Beginning’ I hear something profound, though I’ve sculpted my own meaning. In reality, Hopkins and Schueler don’t provide much to hold onto, and that is a huge relief. These songs feel like puzzles in a way, and trying to understand them or glean meaning from them is part of the fun. The duo offer vivid images the listener must interpret according to their own needs. I think most of my favourite lyrics on this album are misheard anyway. 

As time has passed I’ve grown reluctant to make declarations about music, so I won’t write that 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers is essential, or an invaluable artefact, or a masterpiece or anything like that, though it’s all these things to me. I just think you really ought to listen to it. It’s not something that you should hear in order to ‘make sense’ of a particular period in Sydney’s music history, because it’ll lead you in the wrong direction – it’s an anomaly. Instead, you should listen to 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers because it’s a very beautiful and strange record, one that still prompts me to question its origin, its meaning, and its logic. 

Vincent Over The Sink had two releases after this: a 2009 cassette on Goaty Tapes called Bible Bashers, and Dust Studies, a Kye 7 inch released after Chris Schueler’s death and dedicated to his memory. A related group, The Bowles, featured the VOTS duo with fellow Sydney artist Mary McDougall. Nowadays, Hopkins records solo, as well as with Half High and Four Door. To usher in the new double vinyl reissue of 22 Coloured Bull Terriers through Melbourne label Another Dark Age, Matt was kind enough to answer some questions about the record below.

Cover for the original 22 Coloured Bull Terriers CD-R, released in 2009. No label.

Cover for the original 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers CD-R, released in 2008. No label.

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Cover for the 2009 cassette reissue of 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers, released on Near Tapes.

Why was 22 Coloured Bull-Terriers so scarce when it released? How many copies did you print?
Scarce it was. I cannot recall exactly how many we made up, although I’d offer a guess at somewhere between 50 and 100 copies. It didn’t make sense to do a large amount, as we just needed enough to simply pass around to friends or whoever was interested. The idea was that we’d press a double LP ourselves, but it never happened, as our finances were miniscule at the best of times…

22 Coloured Bull-Terriers was quite different to the 7 inch and Holy Balm split that released earlier. What prompted you and Chris to move in this more pop, songwriterly direction?
Both the 7 inch and the tracks for the split documented an early sound we’d begun with around 2002, a process that was shackled to forms of punk and noise I suppose. These tracks represented a kind of ‘jaggedness’ we were trying to carve out, but it just didn’t seem right to continue down this path… did the world really need more young angry men making a racket? Plus, the early sound was excluding a whole lot of other influences and moods we wanted to indulge in, like ’60s/’70s pop/folk/psych sounds.

I do have a distinct memory of us both agreeing on moving towards a pop song-y type sound, and clearly remember us discussing Syd Barrett and Faust as chief influences for the Bull-Terriers album. We would enjoy late night discussions about deconstructing songs down to their bare essentials, which I think explains the brief, snippet style feel to many of the tracks. I think we wanted to simply suggest songs, rather than actually write whole ones most of the time.

It sounds like you’re both having fun on the record, even during the more reserved tracks like ‘Mektoub’ and ‘Heavy Gum’. Can you describe how the record was made? What were the circumstances?
We had fun, we had hell, and everything in-between. We spent about two years making this album, between Sydney and the Western suburbs of Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and Melbourne. Throughout its creation we were anywhere from 5 kms to 1000 kms apart. I remember on several occasions each of us taking the bus between Sydney and Melbourne to visit each other and record. Bus for 12 hours or so, a couple of days of recording and then a bus home – cheap air travel wasn’t an option at this time. I have fond memories of Chris picking me up in in his Toyota T-18 and us collecting tapes from $2 shops in Penrith on our way to record, and then feverish chatter in the car about our plans for the session. Early on we were both kind of stuck out west in the ‘burbs, but full of bohemian enthusiasm!

A large chunk of the album ended up being recorded in Melbourne at Chris’ headquarters on a rather deserted street in Abbotsford, at the Grosvenor St Manor as we affectionately named the house. This was an incredible old wooden shack, with no real neighbours and a huge backyard where we would have fires, late night rambles, and hours of recording at all hours. We did have much fun and silliness but it was also an incredibly tough time for both us, and at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to indulge some sort of redundant rock myth or mystery, the making of this album had it all: break-ups, breakdowns, mental illness, drugs, deaths of friends and family, poverty, run ins with the law and more.

But this is life, yeah? These things are the nuts and bolts of life for some, right? What to do, what to do… make brooding, harsh, angry music???? No, no, no. Instead we chuckled at the devil, and danced around the fire rather than let it engulf us. We were incredibly focussed on the band, very pious about Vincent we were. We attempted to channel all the above anguish, all the heavy, lived things, into the songs that make up the album.

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How did you and Chris meet? What were the origins of your friendship?
The origins date back to teenage years. Chris and I became acquainted through riding skateboards. We were part of a large group of people that would hang occasionally around the mountains and Penrith skating. We didn’t really know each other that well then. Years passed, then we reconnected when I was studying at the University of Western Sydney, it was at a film night or exhibition or something. Chris’ partner at the time was also studying there, and we got talking and found we both had shared interests in art and were on the same page, so we hit it off and became incredibly close from then onwards. Music wasn’t a shared interest early on, we were meeting up and making visual art and discussing ideas around painting and drawing. One day I noticed a drum kit in Chris’ room, and I’d been mucking around with a bass guitar. We just sort of thought to ourselves ‘let’s have a bash’, and that was that.

How was writing with Chris different to say, Lucy [Half High, NOTV], or Jonathan [Four Door], or any of your other collaborators?
Writing stuff for Vincent Over the Sink, which was equally shared between Chris and I, was rather hard. It involved both of us writing whole, structured songs, with lyrics and various instruments. I’m untrained musically and suspect I’m tone deaf. I can’t tell one note from the next if truth be told, so me writing a song involves tons of clumsy trial and error. Writing music this way was a real challenge! But an interesting experiment nonetheless.

With various other projects I’ve done over the years, if they’ve not been improvised, other members have taken the lead with writing and programming. The solo music I’ve been concentrating on for the last few years employs a very different approach to the song writing Chris and I did. Pop songwriterliness is not something I currently work with at all now, and haven’t done so for many years. My music making these days is largely about gathering various source materials, musical and non-musical, and spending time shaping these into something that resembles electro-acoustic/ambient/tape composition. [I’m] currently less interested in songwriting and more concerned with feedback loops and electronic squeals, some piano, maybe a bit of wonky trumpet, tape, processed breathing and absurd descriptions of things.

Who’s Vincent?
The name Vincent Over the Sink was one we selected from a list of possible band names we both made. Chris came up with it, and I think it might have been a line lifted from a poem, although I can’t for the life of me remember! It may have been in reference to Van Gogh huddled over a sink after doing the chop on his ear, although maybe I dreamt that. Anyway, Vincent became like an invisible third person, a connective force, a shared identity. Vincent was not so much a product of Chris and I, but rather, us combined equally, a shared identity, us two merged as one.

How do you feel when you listen to the album all these years later?
Often I look back on things I’ve made and feel ambivalent, or sometimes I can’t understand why I did a particular thing, you know? But this album really hits the spot, even after all these years. Listening makes smiles form, sometimes tears on occasion. It still gives me a buzz. Like an actual buzzing feeling in my skin. Hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life, no question.

22 Coloured Bull-Terriers releases November 27 on Another Dark Age.
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Features

Electric Shock: Shogun from Royal Headache interviewed

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Left to right: Shogun, Shortty, Joe, Law | Photo: Douglas Lance Gibson

Back in June I interviewed Shogun about the then-forthcoming Royal Headache album High. We met in the beer garden of the Huntsbury Hotel in Petersham, where Top Gear was screening on the widescreen television. The interview was for another publication with a strict 500 word length, so a lot of our conversation could not be worked into that piece. This is the full conversation, with a few edits for clarity.

At the time I had not heard the record, but I had heard the song ‘High’. Little more needs to be written about the album, because everyone wrote about it. The Guardian even gave it five stars twice. It’s a well-documented album, but it wasn’t when we had the conversation below, and Shogun appeared a bit nervous about how it might be received.

Why did you put the Petersham water tower on the cover of the album?
I live really close to it and it’s something of an urban monolith that I’ve lived in the shadow of. I think I’ve had a lot of significant experiences beneath the tower. I’ve actually been in there and it’s really beautiful. It’s a weird tranquil glade around this ugly industrial structure and it seems to symbolise something about inner west life. Having lived around here for the last ten or 15 years, it’s become significant and oddly beautiful to me.

For me and probably a bunch of other people in Sydney who love Royal Headache, you’ll have soundtracked their life between 2010 and now, particularly in the inner west. How have things changed in this area between then and now?
[Things have changed] all over the world, but it’s always going to affect areas near city centres I think. Everybody wants to be bohemian now, which is killing the condition of having an affordable area for people who would rather focus on their art and music and work. We don’t have that anymore. Royal Headache was maybe an expression of that transition, because in my 20s I used to do lots of noise and obscure stuff, punk and hardcore, but it’s harder to get a gig now, and it’s harder to keep that somewhat sustainable. I think Royal Headache was about the transition from one kind of society to another, and what I saw was lacking in that transition. Something that I was afraid would be lost in music and probably humanity.

What’s the transition?
Probably from subjectivity to a society of pure surface.

Is that change more obvious in Sydney?
Yeah, I think Sydney is a city of surface and the music community at the time seemed to be obsessed with detached cool. I always had the idea that underground rock and roll was about being an outsider, not this sort of out-of-work model actor type person, this glamour shot type person. That was never me and I was confused to encounter a lot of these people. I’d want to say all these things to them but was unable to do so, and they didn’t seem to want to listen. So [Royal Headache] was an outlet for me to discuss things a bit more deeply, a bit more cathartically.

Royal Headache are by some measures a pretty successful band. You seemed pretty adamant that the band would be over last year, though.
No, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve got nothing else going on in life, you know what I mean? I’m done with that tantrum. I’m not a total idiot, I’m just 84 per cent idiot.

Was that tantrum initially triggered by what you were saying before, the fact that the world you had entered didn’t live up to your ideals?
I think I grew to be so angry with the pitfalls of the outsider rock and roll community and how high school the whole thing seemed, and I was suffering the same way I did in high school where I felt like I had no friends and no one wanted to talk to me because I didn’t look good and smell good and all that fake shit. I wanted to rupture things from the inside a little bit, and strip the skin away from things and remind people that it was okay to have a subjectivity, to have a conscious and an inner life, and not just be a drifty cool hologram.

Royal Headache pushes back against all of that.
I think so. I don’t know if everyone understood the simplicity of Royal Headache. It can be saccharine at times but it was actually a technique I used to try to bypass the rational mind, because I could tell that was making everyone really unhappy. It’s been the driving machine of civilisation for probably the last few hundred years, and I saw how little it was leaving us as human beings. I wanted to try to exercise something from beneath language a little bit, through just the texture of voice, and through melodies that’d come from the back of my mind and not leave me alone. I gave them a little bit of credence and thought they could be codes people might understand.

You’ve played in punk bands, and weirder bands, for some time. Where did your voice come from? Did you ever use it before Royal Headache?
I always wanted to sing but no one would let me because I wasn’t good looking or arrogant enough. But I always thought I’d do a good job. Since I was five, I’ve sung all the time. I was just waiting for people to work with who weren’t so arrogant that someone without swagger and a big fat bullshit story wouldn’t be able to sing. I had to wait until I was 27, 11 years, to find people humble enough to give me a chance.

Why did it work with the guys in Royal Headache? How did it all come together?
They’d already been together. They were humble guys and weren’t wheelers and dealers. In Royal Headache I feel like the black sheep but then, all the members are different. They’re humble and loving people, and as much as I’ve hurled abuse at them in countless drunken moments I’m so lucky to have them because they gave me a shot. In their own slightly shambolic fashion they play beautiful music and I’m lucky to have them.

Your voice, your singing, your input – that was the last thing to come along?
It was. They’d been rehearsing with another singer who was a friend of mine, but she had other commitments and maybe it wasn’t quite for her, I’m not sure. She’s done other bands that are quite good. Basically, I got involved with the songwriter as more of a talking head, and basically [the band] weren’t really able to write songs though they’d been practising for a while, maybe close to a year. They didn’t have tunes, just a bunch of riffs. I listened to their rehearsal tape and it was just really good, and it had something that I, as a cynical old fuckwit, didn’t have, which was naivety. Something you see in a little kid, just the pulse of life. I got inspired and I was supposed to just help them a little bit, but I ended up writing lyrics for all six or seven songs on the demo. I came to practice and started singing, and they seemed really into it. And you know, after an hour or two of singing with them I think it became pretty clear that maybe I was going to be doing more than being a ghostwriter. The only one who didn’t seem to like it was the first bass player who quit a couple of months afterwards. I think he said that I sounded like the Stone Temple Pilots. I think he was into that auto-tune emo thing.

You say you’re cynical, but that doesn’t shine through in the music at all.
Well it’s my only opportunity to believe in love, and to sing, and to… you know, have a boogie in a realm that’s a little bit sweeter. I think that’s a social function musicians need to provide. I don’t think it’s meant to be real. We already have real. The imagination and the dreaming mind is a real part of human activity and if we become too rational we lose everything and become a post-human society where computers are really the boss and we’re just statistics. What’s in that for us? What’s the advantage?

What makes you cynical? What are you cynical about?
Myself, just myself. I could be cynical about society at large but that’s arrogant, there was no written destiny for the world, and it’s no great surprise that it’s come to this. But I’m cynical about myself and my total inability to appreciate any of my fortunes, and to do anything that I promised myself that I would. I’m ashamed.

What did you promise yourself?
Just to be accountable, to be less emotional, to be more grown up. I have trouble with that stuff. I still have a teenage heart unfortunately. I’m doing everything I can to erase it, but I don’t know, maybe I have some kind of problem.

Do you think that’s what makes you a good rock singer?
Yes.

So is it objectively a bad thing?
I don’t know. In that circumstance perhaps not. I should probably enjoy it while it lasts because I can already feel it waning.

How?
I’m becoming arrogant because too many people kiss my arse, but I’m also becoming bitter because most of my real friends have abandoned me in jealousy, or disgust, or because there’s something easier going on. So the combination of those experiences is just turning me into a fuckwit.

Most people, when they see someone singing in a good band, think “well they’ve got their shit sorted, they’ve got a good band, a good outlet”.
They make a lot of assumptions.

So it’s not like that at all?
Well it is and it isn’t, but people shouldn’t make assumptions. You can safely assume that the harder a person sings the more shit they’re dealing with.

On that note, how come the vocals are so much more prominent on High? I’ve heard you weren’t happy with the official mix on the first record.
I just didn’t want to defeat myself. I was in a bad place when we recorded the first record, I was beneath the line of human functionality, and I felt really disgusting and had no faith in myself at all. But I thought the songs were nice: enjoyable and lively. So I thought I’d pull the voice back so people could hear the songs without hearing too much of me, or else they might cotton on to some detail in my voice that would show how much I was hiding, and how much pain I was in. Maybe they wouldn’t want to know me anymore. This time it’s a different record and I have more control, and I wasn’t so worried. You know the phrase: shit or get off the pot. It’s a disgusting American phrase, but you do it or you don’t do it. Don’t go into a studio and sing a track for an hour trying to get it right and then turn the fucking thing down. That’s fucking absurd.

Speaking of the pain that comes with singing that hard, there’s something about ‘High’ that’s really sad, but in a beautiful way. Certainly not in a terrible way. Is that something that you consciously channel, that mixture of emotions, or is that inherent?
It is conscious, there’s no way I’d want to write a purely saccharine tune, especially having to sing that song so many years after the event. That was a tough song to sing because it’s like a honeymoon song, a falling in love song, and having to sing it at the end of it all had a vicious irony to it. I never want to make something that’s purely saccharine. I think people judge me sometimes for writing melodies in major keys.

Do people really judge you for that?
I don’t know, people don’t really talk to me.

Do you think they’re just scared to ask you direct questions about your work?
Yes.

And that annoys you.
Yes! (laughs)

What’s the song specifically about, then?
It’s about falling in love in a disastrous circumstance, putting your faith in something that might destroy you, and not being afraid because it’s one of the only things that ever felt good.

Love is a huge risk.
And no one knows whether it’s worth taking anymore, because we’re in this transitional phase of human development and we don’t know what kind of creatures we are.

What do you think prompted that transition?
The internet. Information overstimulation. Secondary sources instead of sensory experiences are making people schizoid, eternally paranoid, and we’re over-developing the mind to the point where it controls the body.

You did an interview with Doug from M+N a while back where you explained why you were leaving the band. How did the disenchantment after touring the first album come about?
Let me think about it. In my personal life it wasn’t anything too much to do with punk politics, and feeling guilty for being a success, it was more to do with being a fairly anxious, reclusive person who was suddenly being scrutinised. I felt that I’d revealed too much to my audience and I understood why everybody else was doing the shady-sunglasses-at-night cool thing, because they were preserving their dignity, whereas I completely pulled my pants down to the world.

Some people loved it and some people hated it. Initially the music press hated it, they thought it was puerile. We had bad review after bad review for our shows, but there were people at every gig singing along and it seemed like a really warm response, and then the next week in the press there would be a review saying we were hopeless and that we sounded like shit. I think there was a polarisation of how people received what we were doing. I was bypassing the boring, kicked-to-death snobbery of indie and punk music and trying to put some immediate humanity back into it, in spite of credibility and good aesthetics and everything like that. To me none of that matters at all, because music is just like oxygen. It’s like a chemical element. Aesthetics don’t really come into it for me.

Was that mainly from the punk-oriented press that you were getting bad reviews?
No, it was the big indie music press. They didn’t like it. And then the record came out and it got five star reviews everywhere and it became clear that what they didn’t like was me: because I was drunk, because I dressed like a fucking low life, because I ran around the stage and I was unsightly, and the way I sang and looked reeked of despair. They didn’t want that. They wanted a Brian Jonestown Massacre. To them, that second rate shithouse American shoegaze band was about as vivid as they wanted things to get.

Has that changed?
Yeah, it’s good. It is changing and people are opening up because people are so desperate now for joy in any way they can get it that they don’t need to pretend. People need music to be pure more now because it’s hard to find simplicity and purity. It can be a real oasis in today’s world.

How do you create these oases when you’re, like you say, cynical? Is it a concerted effort?
Not when I’m in the right mood and I feel like writing. I care about people and I don’t want to be isolated. I want to communicate, and I don’t want to be afraid as to whether what I’m saying is stupid or juvenile… though most of it is. I suspect people have that in them too, and I try to leap across a gulf and take a risk because when I started this band I honestly had fucking nothing. I pictured myself chain smoking in a mental institution for the rest of my life, so I thought I might as well be a little more truthful with everybody and see what happens. The results have been nice. It’s good for people to reciprocate that leap of faith.

Do you have any hobbies or pastimes other than music?
No, my other hobby is getting out of it.

For better or worse, that seems to come hand-in-hand with playing in a band sometimes.
It does.

Seems to me that all the things you worry about are possibly the reasons you’re such a good artist. On the one hand you sing powerfully about love – Royal Headache have so many great love songs – but they couldn’t have been this good without loss.
Yeah, I guess I got to a point where I chose to see my sadness as a resource rather than something that was going to destroy me, and I just thought I’d push it into the music. To try to make it worth something to other people rather than something that was ruining me.

Is it the easy option to make dark music?
It can be. I find it brave in a way, because I see it as a betrayal of your community. Maybe I’m conservative or a bit communist, but I feel like music should have a social function and that it should be uplifting, to a certain point. Otherwise it’s self-indulgent. We don’t need to be torn down. We already get that.

Is there value in dark music?
Of course. I wish I was brave enough to make it. I deride it sometimes but deep down I know that it’s a part of myself that I’ve found. A pitch darkness. I saw that it would destroy me so I ran away from it. I think it can be a bit of a luxury, really. I think you’ll find that people who’ve struggled don’t generally make really dark music. I could be stretching it.

Is that the reflexive thing to do? Does it take some kind of effort to acknowledge that going down that path and making explicitly dark music is not the right route for you? Or did you not overthink it?
I made a lot of dark music when I was younger, and then I got to a point where I saw that I was really going to need to fight my way out of a hole, and it made sense to do stuff that had vitality and up-ness to it.

And that was for your own personal benefit.
Yeah, to celebrate energy and life as the final salvageable piece of my humanity. The crudeness of a beating heart and a melody with power. It was never really an artistic endeavour for me, it was supposed to be a bit of a primal yell.

So when you were making less approachable music, how different was your philosophy then compared to now?
I was always secretly listening to pop music and honestly most of the dark stuff was just fun. It was about hanging out with your friends, getting loaded, and enjoying some naughty frequencies. I think people were really afraid to sing the gospel of life, afraid to get too close to the bone, and at the point where I lost everything that made me an agreeable or credible or well-liked human being I thought: well, it’s time to take care of this. I always knew that was what I wanted to do with my music – to say the most obvious thing that seemed to go unsaid in my rock and roll community.

You seem to have a strong determination to be a good person. That’s good, but is that common? Do you think that’s something most other people feel?
I need it because, in spite of what this autistic culture of technology tells us, I don’t think that we can survive and live a rich life on our own, and I really need other people. Without them I just kind of fall apart, and I think we all do to an extent. I wanted to make something that would remind people of togetherness and trust and shared joy.

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New Music

Listen: Low Life – Friends

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Sydney’s Low Life have only ever been as good as the length of time they can hold their shit together on a stage, but in their recordings have sat some of the most brutal punk tracks I’ve heard from this city. In their self-described brand of thug/lad-punk lies scathing societal comments wrapped in mock macho, and they almost always hit a little too close to home. Their first LP Dogging has recently been released by Disinfect/RIP Society to immediate regard – justification for the small group of people who have always been convinced by the often unreliable three(now four)piece.

‘Friends’ closes out said LP, and is a blurry vision of internalised bitterness that plagues whatever social circle is being held in such low esteem here. It’s a good hint of what to expect from the record. Mitch Tolman’s words go from crushed to depressed before crossing into comedic territory with the appearance of Ross, Rachel, ‘ol Chandle’ and Sterlo mid-track. It’s all masked under a mire of guitars that can only be a Tolman patch-job, cut through by a low-end that is typically thuggish in its scope. This isn’t even the best track on the record either. The rest of it has a speed-freak genius quality to it that is easy to get caught up in mythologising.

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‘Friends’ is from the Dogging LP available now on RIP Society/Disinfect. Low Life play in Melbourne twice this weekend; on Saturday with the UV Race at Boney and a free show on Sunday at the Grace Darling. Their hometown shows include their LP launch at the Square on July 4, and a support slot on the Ruined Fortune LP launch on July 11.

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