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.
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”.
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.