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
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