PUNK’S NOT DEAD

Everett True finds spine-rat­tling DIY rock is as vi­tal as it ever was. You just have to know whose house to visit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

OR sev­eral years Bris­bane mu­si­cian Matt Kennedy has been a prime mover in a tiny mu­si­cal scene. Ev­ery few weeks, great bands — rang­ing from psy­che­delic dance-trance (Bris­bane’s Blank Realm) to hard­core punk rock (Syd­ney’s Naked On The Vague) to melodic noise (Ade­laide’s Bitch Pre­fect) to early 80s elec­tronic (Ho­bart’s The Na­tive Cats, Bris­bane’s Prim­i­tive Mo­tion) — play shows in un­ortho­dox lo­ca­tions, sold by word-of­mouth and of­ten at­tended mostly only by other mu­si­cians. This world ex­ists far away from the gov­ern­ment-funded safety of Triple J and from the com­mer­cial ra­dio sta­tions. This world has lit­tle to do with ca­reers.

‘‘ For over five years now, I’ve been hold­ing shows in my lounge room,’’ says Kennedy, who fronts the three-piece Kitchen’s Floor. ‘‘ It’s a small dirty place, but they’re some of the best shows I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. If it so hap­pens that the only place avail­able to play is your friend’s laun­dry down the street, then you just spread the word and bor­row some amps from some­where, and more of­ten than not it will be an awe­some show. You can only play so many crappy bars be­fore the idea of play­ing some­thing like a gen­er­a­tor show un­der a bridge be­comes a much more ex­cit­ing prospect.’’

While feted in Bri­tain and the US for its bru­tal, brief bar­ri­ers of melody and sound, Kitchen’s Floor is mostly ig­nored at home out­side a hand­ful of blogs, the Bris­bane punk fanzine Neg­a­tive Guest List (whose 22-yearold founder Bren­don Annesley died re­cently) and the alt Aus­tralian mu­sic web­site Mess +Noise among them. Like many in the scene, how­ever, Kennedy is in­volved to a greater de­gree than just as a mu­si­cian. He runs an on­line blog, Eter­nal Sound­check, which doc­u­ments the emer­gent bands via a hand­held video recorder. He also runs a record la­bel, Be­d­room Suck. It, like fel­low in­de­pen­dent la­bels Syd­ney’s R.I.P. So­ci­ety and Bris­bane’s Neg­a­tive Guest List, re­leases cheaply recorded, abra­sive slabs of primeval rock ’ n’ roll, of­ten via cas­sette or vinyl.

All this helps to put to­gether some of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing rock mu­sic to come out of Australia for a gen­er­a­tion. At the fore­front of it all is Syd­ney four-piece Royal Headache, formed in gui­tarist Lawrence Wil­liam Hall’s par­ents’ boat­shed in the Syd­ney river­side sub­urb of Put­ney in 2008.

‘‘ It’s a whole bunch of bands play­ing at the same time,’’ Royal Headache bass player Joe Sukit says. ‘‘ They all just come from the same place: the 80s Amer­i­can idea of do­ing it for your­self, on your own level. It’s a bunch of kids who never had any as­pi­ra­tions to do any­thing [other] than play mu­sic and lis­ten to their friends play mu­sic.’’

Royal Headache plays short, bit­ter-sweet songs: abra­sive, but melodic. Singer Shogun — the only name he goes by — has a voice that’s a bit like a young Rod Ste­wart and a bit like a bare-chested Jimmy Barnes. The band’s live shows are equal part may­hem and melody. The mu­sic has some punky 60s mod at­ti­tude and some 60s soul be­hind it, rem­i­nis­cent of the Small Faces and the Troggs. The out­stand­ing sin­gle from last year’s self-ti­tled de­but al­bum, Sur­prise, is 90 sec­onds long. Why do you need longer?

Some­times it feels as if Royal Headache has been set up in op­po­si­tion to Aus­tralian Idol, the uni­for­mity of the soon-to-be ubiq­ui­tous K-pop (Korean pop) and a thou­sand other money-rak­ers. This isn’t true, of course, but the band’s mu­sic can feel com­pressed and tightly wound. One song, Re­ally In Love, re­calls the be­trayed teen an­guish of the Vi­o­lent Femmes’ self-ti­tled de­but al­bum, from 1983. An­other, Down the Lane, echoes the jan­gling pop gui­tars of early Hoodoo Gu­rus.

Last year Royal Headache com­pleted a month-long tour of the US, with a sub­se­quent spike in at­ten­tion. The band has been fea­tured on in­flu­en­tial US mu­sic web­site Pitch­fork, and four writ­ers for US punk bi­ble Max­i­mum Rock­n­roll listed Royal Headache’s al­bum in their top 10 for 2011. At home, the band won both the crit­ics’ and readers’ polls on Mess+noise. It feels as if Aus­tralian rock mu­sic could be on the verge of some­thing ma­jor hap­pen­ing, par­tic­u­larly fol­low­ing the suc­cess of por­ta­ble punk band Eddy Cur­rent Sup­pres­sion Ring, which won the 2008 Aus­tralian Mu­sic Prize, an in­dus­tryspon­sored al­ter­na­tive to the ARIAS (an award se­ries for which the Melbourne group has also re­ceived nom­i­na­tions). Iron­i­cally, this feel­ing has lit­tle to do with the mil­lions of gov­ern­ment dol­lars be­ing pumped into Aus­tralian record la­bels and ra­dio sta­tions.

‘‘ There is an aes­thetic that links these bands, but gawd almighty is it hard to de­fine,’’ says Nic Warnock of R.I.P. So­ci­ety, the la­bel to which Royal Headache is signed.

‘‘ There’s more of a kin­ship be­tween a band like Royal Headache and Kitchen’s Floor than Royal Headache and those cute 60s dress-up party bands ev­ery town seems to have.’’

Some call this mu­sic punk rock; Royal Headache’s mem­bers cer­tainly do. This means it traces a lin­eage from Nir­vana through US punk band Black Flag and back to the Buz­zcocks (a per­fectly matched col­li­sion of pop melodies with a punk heart). It’s about at­ti­tude, the knowl­edge that it’s bet­ter to choose your own path. It’s a fond­ness for stick­ing to the brief: the idea that great rock ’ n’ roll, ul­ti­mately, is sim­ple: ex­cite­ment, melody, tunes, en­ergy, a good riff. Keep it short.

‘‘ The rea­son a band should make mu­sic is to ex­press some­thing,’’ says Warnock, ‘‘ even if that some­thing is com­pletely in­tu­itive to the point where the artist them­self is con­fused to what that it means. It could even be a purely mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion, as long as you re­ally put some­thing of your­self into it. The aes­thetic link be­tween these bands is that they abide by this idea; no mat­ter what shape or form the mu­sic ex­ists in, they have the goal of cre­at­ing mu­sic for the sake of mu­sic.

‘‘ I think a lot of peo­ple make mu­sic in their quest for no­to­ri­ety or to seem in­ter­est­ing, creative [and] tal­ented rather than hav­ing the ac­tual urge to cre­ate. I think some­thing that links bands that are on la­bels such as Be­d­room Suck and R.I.P. So­ci­ety is an affin­ity to punk, DIY cul­ture and the spirit of rock ’ n’ roll. It’s 2012 and it’s easy to be a fan of both Neg­a­tive Ap­proach and New Or­der, hence the lack of a co­he­sive or de­fin­able sound be­tween these bands that could be con­sid­ered a com­mu­nity.’’

There are so many bands cre­at­ing their own au­di­ence, defin­ing their own sound and linked only by at­ti­tude. For ex­am­ple, the drawl­ing laid­back pop of Syd­ney’s Cir­cle Pit, who Matt Kennedy de­scribes as ‘‘ throw[ing] the idea of look­ing af­ter your health into the ash­tray and be­fore you know it you’re in a drunken death spi­ral that oddly feels more right than wrong’’.

Melbourne has the U.V. Race, and the won­der­ful ram­shackle pop of Woollen Kits. The city also boasts Dick Diver and the Tw­erps, two more bands that have been hailed by Pitch­fork, and two bands that ef­fort­lessly ref­er­ence the 1980s glory days of in­flu­en­tial New Zealand record la­bel Fly­ing Nun.

Ade­laide is home to Hit The Jack­pot and Dud Pills, ‘‘ a band that per­fectly cap­ture through the sound of an eter­nal hang­over the highs and lows of share­house liv­ing in this mod­ern era’’, as Kennedy puts it.

‘‘ Most of the cur­rent Aus­tralian bands I like to play with seem to be in love with the true spirit of rock ’ n’ roll, and the free­dom it prom­ises,’’ says Blank Realm’s Daniel Spicer, whose band has been de­scribed by Syd­ney mu­sic writer Shaun Prescott as ‘‘ the best live band in the world’’.

‘‘ It’s kind of any­thing goes. I think that gets lost when peo­ple are mak­ing records and play­ing shows for any­thing other than the fun of it. No one’s a ca­reerist, each other’s suc­cesses are cel­e­brated.’’

It seems the Aus­tralian un­der­ground is as fo­cused as it’s ever been, but with one cru­cial dif­fer­ence. No one wants to be their gen­er­a­tion’s Nir­vana and cre­ate a ‘‘ break­through’’ record like Nev­er­mind was for the pi­o­neer­ing Seat­tle grunge trio. They’ve al­ready seen what that can do to a band. (Nir­vana’s singer, Kurt Cobain, killed him­self with a shot­gun in 1994.) Punk in 2012 is an at­ti­tude, not an en­trenched-in-pho­to­graphs hair­cut. We’re talk­ing un­der-30s.

‘‘ When we record, es­sen­tially our goal is to set up in a room, play at the same level we al­ways play — loud — put a mi­cro­phone in front of it all, and record,’’ Sukit says. ‘‘ I want it to sound like us play­ing in a room. A lot of records end up with a haze of sound that trig­gers peo­ple to go, yeah that’s a good record, but when you break it down it’s a piece of shit. We don’t pretty our songs up, we don’t have ac­cess to stu­dios or money. It’s what we can do on our terms.’’

‘‘ The mu­sic be­ing made is just an hon­est at­tempt to cre­ate a de­cent sound­track to [our] lives,’’ Kennedy says. ‘‘ You can’t f. . .k with that.’’

Royal Headache at last year’s I Used To Skate Once show

in Bris­bane

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