Meeting Molly

[Submitted to the inaugural Horne Prize, 2016 – presented by The Saturday Paper]

He answers the door in shorts, a t-shirt with the face of Che Guevara emblazoned across it. It’s an unseasonably warm autumn day, and so his feet are bare. In place of his famous Stetson is a red baseball cap.

Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, short and slightly hunched and yet instantly recognisable despite his seventy-three years, stares quizzically at me as he leans against the partially open door, a small dog running about behind him barking, high-pitched. The door is set into a tall, yellow concrete wall on a quiet street in an inner-city Melbourne suburb. On either side of the wall’s doorway, on the outside for all to see, are stencilled metre-high replicas of the logos for both the St. Kilda football team and the Melbourne Storm, outfits Meldrum has a long history supporting.

He doesn’t say anything, so I introduce myself, remind him we spoke on the phone yesterday, and that we’re meeting for a chat – I’m interviewing the iconic Australian music industry personality for a book I’m writing on the history of the Australian rock press, which this year celebrates fifty years since its inception. It all started, essentially, via the pop paper Go-Set, for which Meldrum was a long-running contributor prior to his days as host of the popular Countdown television program.

He nods his head in recognition – ‘Yep’ – and invites me inside, into the small front garden to the doorway of the house itself, a double-wide terrace in which he’s lived for years. I ask him if I should remove my boots, he shrugs, so I kick them off and walk into the house, the sunshine receding behind us as we make our way down a dark hallway, dodging the accumulated belongings of a lifetime spent in the music industry, into the lounge-room.

It’s lighter down this end of the house. The room opens up through glass doors onto a bricked terrace with a small swimming pool to the side, a mirror ball suspended over the still, blue water, a giant sarcophagus head mounted on the high wall at the end. Meldrum has an affinity with Egypt and its culture, he’s been there countless times and so there are Egyptian themed artefacts littered all about the place, they meld into the framework of a house which is more museum than dwelling; Pharaoh heads and sphinxes affixed to walls alongside signed photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, gold records and pictures of Meldrum with the likes of Elton John and Paul McCartney.

He tells me to take a seat on the couch.

As he sits down the other end, picking up a milky bowl of cereal from the coffee table, which he resumes eating, I launch into my book spiel, tell him what it is, exactly, I’m doing, and what I’d like from him. He nods intermittently, keeps eating his cereal. On the table in front of us, among the detritus – books, unopened mail, CDs, ashtrays and the like – I place my Dictaphone, and open my notebook which I balance on my knee. I ask him my first question, looking over at him as I finish, waiting for his reply.

It doesn’t come.

Meldrum looks at the floor in front of him, spoons another mouthful of cereal, keeps looking down. I wait, nervous now. His mobile rings, and he places the bowl on the coffee table and answers it. It’s a journalist from the Herald Sun, I can hear her voice clearly, she’s asking him for a comment on something to do with naming Melbourne laneways after famous musicians. He listens, answers in one or two words, listens again, then tells her he’s in an interview and can she call back.

He hangs up, puts his mobile down, picks up the bowl and takes another mouthful, resumes looking at the floor. Tentatively, wondering if he’ll speak to me at all, I ask him my initial question again. This time, to my relief, he looks up and seems to think. He starts talking.

***

My father couldn’t stand him. I was never sure why at the time, I was probably only about eight or nine. Every time we all sat down to watch Hey, Hey It’s Saturday though, and Molly Meldrum’s segment came on, Dad would furrow his brow and grumble, get up to make himself a cup of tea.

“What an eedjit,” he’d say to no one in particular as he walked into the kitchen.

A few years later, no longer watching Channel 9’s long-running variety show but coming across Meldrum more and more as I began to ingest popular culture prior to the year I was born, I thought that maybe Dad didn’t like him because of the homosexual thing. As it turned out though, my sister is gay, and Dad went on loving her without missing a beat.

In hindsight, now I’m older again, I think it was Meldrum’s manner that so infuriated Dad. Coupled with the music he was talking about (with which Dad would surely have had no connection), the be-hatted commentator’s trademark almost stream-of-consciousness style of talking, his hair-brained way of getting his point across, would have been anathema for my old man; Dad, before he died late last year, was very straight-to-the-point, which is something Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum has never been accused of being.

“Molly churned out his… stream of consciousness, drowning in a sea of ellipsis, as I described it for years,” laughs Phillip Frazer, who along with Tony Shauble, founded Go-Set in 1966. I’d spoken to Frazer at length almost nine months prior to meeting Molly, and he’d given insight into the man himself. Indeed, just reading Meldrum’s columns which began to appear in the long-defunct paper not long after its inception, you can see where his jump-around style of communicating originated, in print before it ever graced Australian airwaves.

I get a taste of this as our chat builds momentum – I’ll ask about the entertainment sections of the major newspapers of the time and within seconds, we’re talking about Meldrum being a surfer down in Lorne; I ask him about the first issue of Go-Set, if he remembers seeing it, and before I know it we’re talking about Ronnie Burns, with whom Meldrum lived for years.

And yet it all makes sense. When I transcribe the interview a day or so later and read through it afterwards, there’s nothing Meldrum says that isn’t interesting or a part of the story, at least in some regard – his style is just to talk as it comes, which it eventually all does. What’s amazing is his recall; after half a century in an industry well known for its excesses, his memory of it all is remarkably clear.

That half century began in mid-1966. “I came in and there’s a guy sweeping the floor,” Frazer had told me. In those early months, Go-Set was produced out of a house in Malvern, a comfortable suburb in Melbourne’s east. Meldrum had turned up looking for some sort of work and Shauble had pointed him towards the broom. Frazer lobbed in, and there he was.

“He knew more, because he was a groupie, a band follower… he knew more about the local scene than anybody I’d met at that point,” Frazer remembers, and it was because of this knowledge that Meldrum became, soon afterwards, an integral part of this fledgling publication.

“Everything,” Meldrum says immediately when I ask what he got from writing for Go-Set. “It gave me a purpose you know?” It certainly gave him a beginning.

***

I would have sat down with Meldrum months earlier if I’d been able. I tried a number of times before it finally happened, a litany of missed opportunities and close calls that resulted in the situation just never coming to be. My contact was journalist Jeff Jenkins, who co-wrote Meldrum’s biography, The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story, which was published in late 2014. Jenkins tried his best to facilitate a meet, and his efforts eventually paid off, at least for me. He emailed me Meldrum’s number in March this year, and told me he was expecting my call.

I was nervous. A couple of other journalists had told me that he was hard to interview, that his attention span was limited and that he was likely to evade questions, instead just talking about whatever he felt like. He’d suffered a couple of well publicised accidents – a serious fall from a ladder in 2011, and an accident in Thailand only a couple of months before we met – and so he was reportedly not as ‘with it’ as he used to be.

Standing in a friend’s Coburg backyard though, I made the call, emboldened by numerous cups of instant coffee, and while he didn’t come across as overly enthusiastic about my talking to him, he offered his home as a venue for our chat, and we were finally good to go.

***

We talk, on the record, for around an hour. After the initial false start, Meldrum warms to the subject, one which is obviously close to his heart. He talks of bands and artists like Johnny O’Keefe, Olivia Newton John, The Twilights, Marcia Hines; he talks of The Beatles’ fabled 1964 Australian tour and how it then impacted upon the fledgling Australian music scene; he tells tales of going out all night and sleeping in his car before being woken by production assistants and then going on air on Kommotion, the television show he was involved with for a while at the same time he wrote for Go-Set, a show which has been credited with being an influence on Countdown.

He laughs as he calls his good friends Michael Gudinski and Michael Browning, who started Daily Planet, a short-lived rival to Go-Set, “hippies and radicals”. He smiles and laughs as he remembers things, things that happened when Australian music was young and growing and anything was possible. Things that happened when the Australian rock press was young and growing and anything was possible.

We finish up the interview, talking about The Beatles. “I love John, I loved both of them (Yoko), and Paul has always remained a good friend, and George was a friend,” Meldrum says, pointing to a couple of framed pictures hanging on the lounge room wall. Meldrum was the journalist who, in the pages of Go-Set, broke the news that the band was breaking up, after interviewing Lennon back in 1969.

I ask if he still keeps in touch with any of the remaining members. “Yeah, Paul all the time,” he smiles. “And Yoko as well.”

I turn off the Dictaphone, close my notebook, put it on the table. Meldrum asks if I want a cup of coffee – ‘Sure, if you’re having one’ – he gets up and walks slowly to the kitchen where he puts the kettle on. I sit and look around, pat the dog which is sitting on my foot, look out over the small courtyard where the sun is reflecting off the pool mirror ball throwing shards of dancing light all about the place.

He comes back with a full cup, he walks slowly these days, carefully puts it down on the coffee table in front of me, sits back on the couch and picks up a packet of cigarettes. He asks if I mind, which I don’t, I pull out tobacco and roll up, he passes me a lighter and we sit in his lounge room and smoke. He’d said on the phone, the previous day, that he was busy and we’d only have an hour, but he seems quite content to continue talking, even though the formal part of the interview is over.

He tells me how, only a week or so prior, he’d had a party at his place for his Melbourne Storm mates, “Around 160 people in here,” he says with a laugh, waving his arm about the house which while reasonably roomy, would struggle to fit a heaving mass of humanity within its walls, even a small one, given the amount of paraphernalia leaning and piling and squatting in almost every available inch.

He tells me about his Storm mates, and how he’s friends with Queensland league legends Jonathan Thurston and Greg Inglis – I grew up in central Queensland, weaned on a steady diet of rugby league from an early age, and so I hang on his every word. I’m a Brisbane Broncos supporter, so we swap footy stories for a while. He asks about Phillip Frazer. We talk about Byron Bay. He slowly ashes his cigarette into one of the ashtrays littering the table top.

“Molly is a staggeringly principled person,” Frazer had told me. I can believe it. He sits on the front edge of the couch, his hands together between his knees, gnarled fingers playing with the large rings which adorn same, slowly scuffing his bare feet on the rug. Even engaged, he keeps his head bowed for the most part; he comes across as honest, humble, principled indeed. Most of all, he comes across as passionate, even after all these years; as passionate now as he would have been when, as a youngster, he began his journey, writing for Go-Set, back when it began for everyone.

The Australian music press was the medium which brought Australian music culture to international attention, and launched the careers of not just countless musicians, but writers, editors, publishers and photographers, simultaneously providing a voice for an entire cultural movement. Meldrum was there for the beginning, and as such, became a crucial part of the Australian music press, and as a result, of Australian culture.

I finish my coffee, butt out my third or fourth smoke. I tell him I need to be off, I’ve another interview somewhere else in Melbourne this afternoon. He doesn’t get up, but offers his hand and smiles as we shake, tells me I know more about “bloody Go-Set” than he does.

I leave him sitting on his couch in his cluttered lounge room, the sun still dancing off the mirror ball outside, surrounded by a life in music. I make my way down the dark hallway, out the front door where I put my boots back on. I walk out the front gate and close it behind me. I make my way through the quiet streets to the tram stop back into the city. I leave an Australian icon behind me.

Samuel J. Fell

 

 

 

 

Worrying About The Future

[UNPUBLISHED]

A little after midnight on a Friday, almost a week into the new year, our daughter was born. Our first child, she entered the world in a flurry of flailing limbs, eyes wide in surprise at being wrenched from the warmth of the womb, howling like a freight train out of control on dark tracks. It was indeed an entry I will never forget.

She calmed quickly though, and spent the next hour and a half lying on my wife’s chest as we smiled and looked at each other, and her, in disbelief. Of course, we’d known of her impending arrival for quite some time, and yet in the cold, harsh light of the hospital delivery room, the reality of what was happening was almost too much to comprehend. And yet, as many will appreciate, it’s a shock that’s edged with awe and excitement – the thrilling possibility of life with this little creature far outweighing any fear or anxiety.

In the days since her birth, I’ve found little pockets of time in which to think on the life-changing consequences of her arrival into our lives. Of course, ‘life-changing’ is the operative phrase here – among other large changes, most of them sleep-related, I regularly find myself standing, with raised eyebrow, considering the almost inhuman amount of poo in yet another nappy. Indeed, things are different now.

With this new joy (and poo-related disbelief), also comes a healthy dose of worry, as I’ve quickly ascertained. I worry about small things, like whether or not that noise she just made in her sleep was a death rattle (it wasn’t); whether or not she’s warm enough at night (she is, it’s hot as hell at the moment); whether or not she’s cool enough (she’s probably not, none of us are, it’s hot as hell at the moment); whether or not our friend’s nine-year-old will drop her (he didn’t, he plays a lot of footy and has a safe pair of hands).

And, naturally, I worry about big things. I worry about what sort of world she’ll be growing up in, a world that largely denies climate change despite worsening natural disaster; a world that elects a misogynistic blowhard as leader of the most powerful country on the planet; a world where, here at home, politicians spend more time bickering with each other and frivolously spending tax dollars, than they do actually governing for a better future.

I also worry about the age-old issue of equality, whether she’ll be afforded every opportunity she would have were she born a male. Will she be treated differently because of her sex, or have we made enough inroads into what, in this day and age, should be a non-issue, so she’ll thrive in life, able to do and achieve whatever she sets her mind to, regardless of her gender?

Worrying, it seems, is the parent’s lot. When I catch myself getting carried away with thoughts like this though, I try and put the brakes on, focus on the here and now and the new life that’s been wrought for us. Look on the positive side, I tell myself – she has the requisite number of fingers and toes, she’s eating well, she’s healthy, she (mostly) sleeps well. She also looks more like me than my wife, which is actually another worry, at least for her.

The best we can do then, is just love and support her. Protect her from life’s evils as best we can, set her up to deal with challenges and obstacles in the best manner possible so she can thrive as she gets older. Some of the best advice I received prior to her birth, was not to take on anyone else’s advice. Listen to everything, it was suggested, and then ignore it, instead taking it all as it comes and listening to her and each other, forming your own ways of doing things. It’s this advice I’m taking to heart, when it comes to how she’ll grow up.

As such, one hopes, no matter what ugly paths the world may turn down, no matter how inept those in power seem to be when it comes to ensuring safety and prosperity for us all into the coming years, she’ll be ready to face whatever comes.

Just let me get some more sleep first though.

 

Samuel J. Fell

LIVE – Mullum Music Festival, 2016

[Published in Rolling Stone, November 2016]

THE MAGIC OF MULLUM, by Samuel J. Fell

Mullumbimby Music Festival

Mullumbimby, NSW

November 18-20, 2016

You can hear it long before you can see it. A New Orleans-style second line street parade, starting down by the Council chambers, slowly making its way up Burringbar street. It’s all brass, trombones and trumpets, the sun reflects off the big silver sousaphone mouth, the drummers start. That sound, that hot and sweaty sound, bounces off shopfronts as the crowd gathers and the tambourines begin to shake.

I’m standing with Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson, I’ve just interviewed them over a late breakfast, we’re about halfway up the street and we can hear it properly now, see it coming. The first wave are twirling flags, there are kids on stilts behind them, sequined costumes glinting in the morning sun, the sound gathering and getting louder. People take every vantage point and the place heaves, the quiet little main street of Mullumbimby alive and moving for the one day a year this happens; most times you come into town on a Sunday morning and there are tumbleweeds – the Sunday of Mullum Fest though, the place is jumping.

Pic by Kurt Petersen

We join the back end of the parade as it makes its way past, strolling down to the corner of Dalley Street, a right turn and we all end up outside the Civic Hall, horns blasting, drums thumping, people are dancing and sweating in the early summer sunshine. We bump into people we know, yelling to be heard, smiles abound and hands are shook and we all stand in the middle of the road, a little community coming together, united by music in this odd little town, tucked away in the Byron Bay hinterland, Mount Warning hazy in the middle distance.

The street parade kicks off the final day of a festival which shares a Shire with some of the country’s biggest. Bluesfest, Splendour In The Grass and Falls all run around here, but it’s Mullum Fest which is truly the jewel in this area’s crown. While not able to boast an international reputation, while only small, while only a three day event, Mullum Fest isn’t about the prestige and the pulling power – no, it’s about voices rising as one, filling old halls; it’s about banjos and mandolins rejuvenating the backrooms of the local RSL, the bowlo; it’s about world music and hip hop and rock ‘n’ roll turning the normally staid high school gymnasium into a musical wonderland, a myriad sounds from all around, filling pubs and halls and all manner of spaces in this little berg, out of the way, off the beaten track – that’s why Mullum Fest is so good.

Running for the ninth time this year, there’s a lot to explore. Friday night I sit in the gloom and take in Gareth Liddiard’s solo acoustic set at the Village Vanguard. His songs are wordy, the acoustic accompaniment minimal, his voice creaks a little and at a glance, it’s nothing to take note of, but if you sit and invest the time, you become enamoured with the way he crafts those words, how he weaves tales through it all, how it all starts to make sense. His songs grow large, the stories larger. It’s a fantastic set – the man has a knack for creating swathes of power with very little.

Gareth Liddiard. Pic by Kurt Petersen

Jordie Lane takes to the same stage next up, a Mullum Feast regular, although he’s not been here for a few years. This is his only show with a band – keys, bass, drums – and the first time I’ve ever seen him wield an electric guitar. Lane’s songs are strong too, his writing has strengthened, he’s mature now – the music is muscular and powerful, Clare Reynolds harmonises with him, minimal piano accompaniment, her voice is strong and assured too and it melds with Lane’s perfectly. He showcases a number of tunes from recent release, Glassellland, along with a slew of older material, all executed with easy aplomb.

At one point I walk through town to the High School to see Hat Fitz & Cara, but am waylaid by Lez Karski on the Bowlo stage, who dishes out wave after wave of Chicago-influenced electric blues. Hat & Cara, by comparison, offer the blues too, but use it as more of a base from which to build. There’s a strong gospel element to their music these days, a lot of soul – they also showcase a number of tracks off new album After The Rain, bringing a choir up on stage to help them close out a strong Saturday set.

The Wilson Pickers fill out the Vanguard stage down the other edge of town, five-part harmonies, their songs strong, filling the big room. They don’t play too often anymore – all five members carry solo careers, or work with other acts – but they lose nothing with the passing of time, still as solid as ever.

To the Civic Hall and Eilen Jewell, the Queen of Western Swing – the place is full, people overflow into the courtyard where beer is swilled and it’s loud and hot. Jewell leads a stellar set, based heavily in country music but with more than a healthy dose of swing, a head-nod to the likes of Bob Wills and Wayne Hancock. Guitarist Jerry Miller is The Man, he’s the slinger of the weekend, his solos shimmer like gold, he bends notes to his every whim, a man who knows his way around a guitar and it shows, again and again, a weekend highlight.

Henry Wagons. Pic by Anthony Moulay

Henry Wagons closes out Friday and Saturday, resplendent both nights in sequins and sideburns, big glasses and country swagger in spades. He leads his new band onward and upward, as indeed, only Henry Wagons can. They cover Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’ on the Friday, and it’s one of those perfect Mullum moments.

Sal Kimber & The Rollin’ Wheel inject a solid dose of country soul on the Sunday afternoon; Jordie Lane and Clare Reynolds in duo mode again highlight their uncanny understanding of each other’s musical moods; Julien Baker, only 21 years old, holds a full Civic Hall captive with her ethereal voice, minimal electric guitar underneath, one to watch, no doubt.

It all ends far too soon, as most festival weekends do – Mullum tends to move faster than most though, almost too good to be true and so it’s gone in the blink of an eye. The town itself, a country hamlet, is half old farmers, half old hippies and this odd melding has, over time, created a place with its own extremely unique charm – only in a place like this, could a festival like this one go down. It’s a true community, playing host to a true happening, and as has been the case for the past eight years, this year was a hell of a happening indeed.

 

LIVE – Out On The Weekend, 2016

[Published in Rolling Stone, OCTOBER 2017]

AMERICANA FESTIVAL LETS LINEUP SHINE BRIGHT, WRITES SAMUEL J. FELL

Out On The Weekend

Seaworks, Williamstown (Melbourne)

Saturday October 15, 2016

There’s a gale warning for Port Phillip Bay, although one doesn’t need a warning. Winds batter windowpanes and shake down trees, limbs flailing and cracking, the power of it all hitting you in the face, making your collars flap angrily, slapping your ears as you walk from the train toward the pier through the usually quiet and gentrified Williamstown streets; one doesn’t need a warning, it’s painfully obvious, debris scattered everywhere, leaves and branches, overturned bins and the like.

The crowd braces forward though and navigates the headwind, we make our way to Seaworks on the water’s edge where Out On The Weekend is running for the third time. An intimate gathering of likeminded souls whose only aim, despite the inclemency of the weather, is smoked meat and cold cans of beer imbibed to music of the country variety, Americana, alternative country if you will.

It’s an industrial scene, towering iron sheds arching over concrete throughways and rusty bollards, the incongruous and ramshackle Pirates Tavern across the lot from the Outdoor Stage where All Out Exes Live In Texas harmonise over a bed of accordion-led merriment, guitar and mandolin and ukulele skipping carefree alongside. This quartet has come a long way in a short time and the overtly sweet nature of their music, at times in the past too syrupy sweet, has a harder edge to it today, their sound a little tougher, although this makes it no less beguiling. It seems at odds with its physical surrounds, and yet draws it all together in a way which makes sense. People tap booted feet on old and cracked concrete. It does all make sense.

Inside, the hanger-like space eked out to form the main stage, the wind is less obvious, no gusts whipping skirts up and blowing hats off, merely ominous rattles and creaks as the old structure leans into it. Pigeons fly overhead and settle on rafters. Josh Hedley – suited, bearded, ten-gallon-hatted – commands attention with a voice of uncommon power and poise, using just his guitar as accompaniment, along with Will Van Horn on pedal steel, a near-virtuosic player whose tear-jerking country slide adds a glorious, warm melancholy to Hedley’s already heart-wrenching country songs.

Hedley himself is a character and his patter is upbeat and happy, belying the nature of the songs themselves. Van Horn hasn’t played any of said songs before, which highlights even more so his skill, and the pair embody country music and the big crowd raise cans of Melbourne Bitter in unison. Robert Ellis joins them for a track before it all wraps up and then it’s back out into the wind and to the bar and back to the Outdoor Stage.

The Cactus Blossoms, a brother-brother duo, two guitars and voices, somewhat reminiscent of The Milk Carton Kids, but with less punch and panache. They play well together and their voices meld into one and yet I’m left a little cold, not enough grit and grime for my liking – I like my country music set up against a bar, holding a beer into which to cry – but then, anyone to be seen after Josh Hedley had big shoes to fill.

Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega’s music has evolved over the past couple of years, more than just a little. Where before it held a strong element of western swing melded well with a rockabilly strain and was subtle and sharp, today it’s a full-blooded country rock assault. ‘Champagne’ James Robertson on guitar, along with Sly Juhas drumming, build the base from which Ortega’s impressive howl grows and yet as the set goes on, it all seems to blend into one and even the older songs are treated in this full-throttle style and so there’s no light or shade, just loud and fast. All well and good, but I feel this could have been done better.

They finish with a version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’, which at first seems tainted as the foldback seems to have failed and so they can’t hear themselves but then it all just meshes as they make the best of a bad situation and the song – dissonant, broken, cracked – becomes the highlight of the set.

Robert Ellis. Pic by Kane Hibberd

Robert Ellis, who’s swapped his casual day attire for a denim suit studded with rhinestones, has also evolved a great deal. No longer a solo artist armed with nothing other than an acoustic guitar and a clutch of well-written songs, Ellis today commands a crack regiment of musical soldiers who back his heaving, multi-headed beast of a set with an aplomb not often seen.

It all veers from near-cabaret to country to rock ‘n’ roll and back again, careening at breakneck speed from one style to the next and yet it’s seamless and adventurous, it’s stepped off the beaten path and can’t find its way back and yet it doesn’t need to – this is a musician who’s shed any semblance of normalcy and is intent on finding something truly different. It’s one of the most powerful sets I’ve been privy to and it leaves many standing stock still, mouths agape, limbs akimbo, not quite sure what just happened and yet wanting it to happen again in all its gruesome glory.

Many of us step outside, patronise the bar, stand around drinking beer, bourbon, stunned, before moving onto the next leg.

“Did you watch the last US presidential debate?” a colleague then asks me. “The last ten minutes or so,” I reply. “Did you see how Trump just stalked the stage?” “Yep.” “That’s what Cash Savage does, she stalks, although she does it properly.” It’s true, Savage stalks from one side of the murky stage to the other, stepping between members of her band – guitars, bass, fiddle – mic in hand almost daring someone to do something wrong or stupid before filling the air with her howl, her freight-train vocal express. The band pack a punch, the crowd heaves, almost breathing in and out as one, the band spend most of the set as silhouettes, country punk ‘n’ roll coming out of the blackness with more power than the wind which still whips the usually insipid bay water to angry, frothy, white caps.

Marlon Williams & The Yarra Benders

And so to the finale, Marlon Williams in his only Melbourne show of the year, a man whose star has risen so quickly and with such dazzling speed that one wonders where, if at all, it will finally peak. With his Yarra Benders in tow, Williams does as he has so well these few years past – songs of intricate beauty, a thin vein of country running through them all, crooned and howled, whispered and wailed, his voice is his weapon as is his arsenal of simple-yet-poignantly strong songs – it’s little wonder he’s as popular as he is.

A cover of Neil Young’s ‘Out On The Weekend’, for which this small festival is named, goes down a treat and it all wraps up a little too soon and one wanders out of the big ol’ shed at the end, with everyone else, and are buffeted again, gulls floating overheard in the dark on the wind above the taco trucks and burger bars (now long sold out), we all saunter out and talk it over, voices raised above the gusty howl, try and find a cab, an Uber, eventually to the train and back into the city leaving behind another example of how a music festival – one with the music and the punters in mind, more so, at least on a surface level, than the making of multiple monies – should indeed be run. A resounding success by all accounts, the music for the most part, truly great.

 

Samuel J. Fell

Gillian Welch

[Published in The Big Issue, issue #503]

In 2004, Gillian Welch conquered Australia; now she’s back with musical partner Dave Rawlings for not one, but two tours, writes Samuel J. Fell.

 

“I’m in Nashville where it’s a beautiful late fall, early winter’s day,” says Gillian Welch, the scratchy phone line doing little to dull a voice which has been a constant in my life for over a decade. Welch sounds relaxed, comfortable, happy in her little piece of the world, a town with a musical history matched by few others.

“Nashville has played a huge part,” she enthuses on the city she’s called home for over twenty years. “Before I moved [here], I had written three songs, ever, so my whole ‘finding my voice’ as a writer happened here, and happened because I feel connected here to the music that I love, the music that inspires me.

“I can feel, see and sometimes even touch the musical tradition that I’m a part of, it’s all around.” Nashville burns with this musical tradition – from the scungy bars of East Nashville, to the humble Bluebird Café, the ostentatious Grand Ole Opry, the boot-scootin’ beer halls on Broadway across the Cumberland River from downtown – everyone lives for the music, the tradition growing stronger with each passing year.

Gillian Welch came to notice in 1996 with the release of her debut record, Revival. Produced by T-Bone Burnett (Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, et al), it featured Welch and musical partner David Rawlings in what has become their trademark sparse and simple style, just vocal harmonies overlaying acoustic guitar, touches of banjo. It was nominated for a Grammy the following year, and set in motion a career that today sees Welch as the darling of the Americana scene.

She’s not one to move quickly. There’s no real need. While she was reasonably prolific early on (Revival was followed by Hell Among The Yearlings in 1998, then the modern classic Time (The Revelator) in 2001 and Soul Journey in 2003), Welch slowed down, waiting until 2011 before her next cut, The Harrow & The Harvest. As each of her recordings have been, it was worth the wait, another collection of heavy, mostly dark and moody songs in the true red-dirt country tradition.

As well, she’s contributed to both Dave Rawlings Machine records, 2009’s A Friend Of A Friend, and most recently, Nashville Obsolete, released late last year, again adding her haunting and lithe voice to Rawlings’ brilliantly subtle guitar work.

The last time Welch was in Australia was back in 2004, touring Soul Journey. When she’s here in late January then, with Rawlings in tow – the tour will comprise Welch/Rawlings shows, as well as Dave Rawlings Machine shows – it will have been eleven long years since Australian audiences will have had the pleasure of seeing Welch in the flesh, bringing these songs to life.

“We’ve been talking about doing this for years… doing the duet show in one direction, turn around, fly the band in, play it back the other direction,” she says with a smile. “It’s a wacky brain-child we’ve been wanting to do… ever since we were down there.”

“[But] I really thought we’d have got down there with The Harrow & The Harvest, we talked about it,” she then muses, on why so long since they’ve been to Australia. “Time kind of gets away from you, and other stuff [pops up], and you just keep rollin’ along, you know? I have no good excuse, except we just stay busy, and it’s a big ol’ world, it takes a while to get around.”

Welch has certainly been around. Her songs have been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Solomon Burke and Willie Nelson; her influence stretches around the globe (one listen to any of the myriad country-tinged singer-songwriters coming out of Melbourne at the moment is testament to this); Time (The Revelator) is cited as one of the great country records, by fans and media alike – it’s an album which has been played repeatedly in my house for years, I know it intimately, as do countless others.

Knowing all this then, perhaps it’s not so surprising, as it was at first thought, that when she’s here in January, it’ll be almost exactly twenty years since the release of Revival. “Wow, you’re right, I’d not thought of that,” she says, with an almost self-conscious laugh.

“We got a lifetime achievement award for songwriting this year (from the Americana Music Association), and it was funny and took us by surprise, and we were very moved,” she recalls, adding with another laugh, “but also we were kinda laughing at ourselves, because you know, I feel too young to be getting a lifetime achievement award!”

“But in the course of that, someone said to me, ‘Well, it’s been almost twenty years since your first record, so they’re allowed to give you a lifetime achievement award’,” she says, laughing again like she can’t quite believe it’s been two decades since that debut cut, laboured over so intently, finally released into the world, the beginning of something so lasting and meaningful for so many.

“We’re still trying to write better songs,” Welch says simply, towards the end of our interview. Her contribution to that great Nashville tradition is far from over, a lifetime of songwriting achievement still not done.

Fat Possum Records

[Published in the July/August issue of Rhythms magazine, July/August 2016]

Founded in 1991, FAT POSSUM RECORDS this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. For a quarter century though, it’s been anything but normal, writes Samuel J. Fell.

 

I don’t know when I first heard T-Model Ford. I remember how it made me feel though. Like I wanted – nay, needed – to fight, fuck and forget all at once. Guttural and shit-stained, all piss and bile, the music barely hung together by the skin of its teeth as it rumbled along all fractured and fucked up, so close to slipping off the rails but managing to cling on until the song ended with a rattle of a laugh, a guitar twang, the out-of-time thump of a snare drum.

I loved it.

I loved RL Burnside too, whether he was by himself or immersed within the punk blues the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion trafficked in, their 1996 collaboration, A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, an eye-opening revelation for me. A few years ago, I was introduced to the music of Junior Kimbrough and I loved him too. Their music was hypnotic and droning, trance-like, thumping and riding off a primal beat, a far cry from the acoustic folk blues players, even the electric guys. This was something else entirely. Ragged and raw. No one seemed to give a goddamn. It was beautiful in a way.

T Model Ford

All those guys are dead now. They were outlaws – drinkers, murderers, miscreants – and it’s amazing some of them lived as long as they did. Burnside died from a heart attack in 2005. Ford died of respiratory failure in 2013. Kimbrough also died from a heart attack, allegedly leaving behind 38 children. They were outlaws and it came through in their music.

It was this music that also captured, firstly the ear, but then the heart of a young man named Matthew Johnson. In 1991, in his early 20s, Johnson and fellow Living Blues writer Peter Redvers-Lee founded Fat Possum Records, the now legendary indie label which championed these outlaw bluesmen, which brought them the fame and, ultimately, money, that they deserved. Or at least coveted.

This year marks 25 years since Johnson and Lee founded the label, a quarter century of highs and lows, of bringing this blues to the people in a variety of forms and stylistic mash-ups. It’s been anything but normal, anything but boring.

“It was recording RL Burnside, that’s all it was,” recounts Johnson on why the pair started Fat Possum. “I did not think it was gonna work, you know what I mean? I would have called [the label] something better, I wouldn’t have called it the stupid name that it got.”

He laughs when he says this, then adds, “We wanted it to be like, rock records. All that [old blues] stuff, people were very precious and that’s not what we were about at all, obviously. You know, we were like, screw this. We wanted it to be more of a rock ‘n’ roll thing.”

Which is exactly what it was. Records like Burnside’s A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, which was licenced to Matador, was pure rock ‘n’ roll. A slew of the label’s other releases were hard and electric, droning and dirty, nothing like any of the other blues stuff going around.. This hard-driving, hard-drinking, foot-to-the-floor style of the music was all these bluesmen knew, and so Johnson and the label tried to harness that.

“There was something that was missing,” Johnson explains. “There were all these folklorists… big fat guys with a vest on, with cameras and shit, right? Everything was like, ‘Oh, this is a legend’. I was like, these guys aren’t gettin’ it – these [artists] are so much rowdier and more insane… fuck that, so that’s when we started putting [these guys] with Jon Spencer, or Iggy Pop, or The Beastie Boys or shit like that.”

“It got a lot wackier, I’m kinda proud of all that. I’ve been taken to task about the [purity of blues] which I thought was funny, I don’t care,” he goes on, his enthusiasm taking hold. “You know, no one will play acoustic if there’s an electric guitar there, for the most part, you know? The fact all those guys were being made to play acoustic because that was tradition and shit, that’s kinda bullshit, that’s not right. I was like, why should the kids have the Marshall stacks, and they don’t? So that’s the first thing we got, with RL.”

RL Burnside

This is what set Fat Possum apart from the get-go. They quickly made for themselves a reputation for not conforming in any way, shape or form, which is why they’re so highly regarded today. The blues they were working with was different to begin with, but they took it further – there were hip hop hybrids, punk hybrids, rock ‘n’ roll hybrids. These artists began to cross over, picking up fans in the unlikeliest of places. The label’s reputation grew.

Despite this, they’ve never really made any money over the years (they were funded by Epitaph in the mid ‘90s, saving them from certain death), but they’ve always managed to keep afloat. There’ve been a few events which have also helped – signing The Black Keys early on in their career; securing the rights to Al Green’s back catalogue. For the most part though, it’s not been easy.

“I’m not really sure, to be honest,” Johnson laughs when I ask why he never called it quits, why the label is still here after 25 years. “Epitaph and The Black Keys [saved us] as we were teetering on the edge… I hope we still have relevance today, I mean, we’ve had to change our game. I do miss those guys a lot. We still have some guys, like Fat White Family, to carry the torch of RL Burnside.”

According to Johnson, there’s nothing happening in rural Mississippi these days. Not like back then, no one of the ilk of Burnside, Kimbrough, Ford, Fred McDowell, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Johnny Farmer. “RL’s gone, Junior’s gone, all the stuff I liked is gone,” he concurs. “The people who learned it and had those crappy jobs, the real-deal guys, they’re all gone. [Today’s kids] don’t care, they’re doing the hip hop thing, and I get it. They think it’s a white person’s thing.”

He pauses after he says this. I get the impression that despite the hardships he would have endured dealing with these artists, (“It was basically like chaos theory,” he laughs at one point), he misses the fucked up unpredictability of it all, not to mention the raw power of the music itself, now only existing, gathering dust, in the label’s vaults. It’s sad in a way. Sad that these renegades have died out and there’s no one to replace them.

The label itself of course, has managed to survive, essentially by expanding their sonic horizons. Their signing of The Black Keys is well documented, as is their work with Iggy Pop, Solomon Bourke and Dinosaur Jr. It’s fair to say they’re still known as a blues label, but these days Fat Possum has many different fingers, in many different pies.

“A lot of it was necessity,” Johnson explains on this sonic expansion over the past decade and a half. “[And] it has to be bands that I like, that’s the only criteria. There’s something about all of these bands, The Districts are one of my favourites, and I love Seratones. We just had to evolve, or it would just get kinda old, you know?”

Now home to the likes of the lo-fi rock of Sunflower Bean; the roots/rock hybrid that is Seratones; the unhinged punk roots of Fat White Family; the country of The Felice Brothers; Jon Spencer’s disjointed side-project Heavy Trash, Fat Possum has indeed changed its focus. What hasn’t changed though, is the quality of the acts that call the label home – sure, it’s different music, it’s not as hectic and chaotic as it would have been in the early ‘90s, but Fat Possum is still very much alive, still very much focused on what they see as good music.

“I hope so,” Johnson says after some thought, on whether the label has another 25 years in it. “I mean, hopefully we’re not gonna undo what we’ve managed to accomplish so far.” He laughs again here, and then lapses into silence before adding, “It’s gotten so damn hard… for a while things were flying off the shelves, not hugely, but you know…”

The label’s motto is ‘We’re Trying Our Best’, which says it all really. That’s what they’ve been doing since 1991, and even as the record industry continues to slip and slide, they’ll keep on trying their best. It’s why they’ve survived as long as they have – an unflinching belief in the music they’re working with, regardless of any outside influence. Just like the lurching, jangling, fucked up outlaw bluesmen they originally championed.

For more information on Fat Possum and its roster, head to www.fatpossum.com

 

Bernard Fanning

[Published in the July/August issue of Rhythms magazine, Cover Feature, July/August 2016] 

While BERNARD FANNING’s new album stems from a feeling of unease, it blooms as one of the songwriter’s strongest releases. He talks to Samuel J. Fell.

 

It’s a Monday afternoon. Late autumn and sunny. It’s crystal clear and the air is sharp, cool in the shade courtesy of a light breeze but warm in the sun, brightening the scene; makes the grass seem greener and the surrounding shrubs livelier despite the fact there’s been no rain for a month or so.

Bernard Fanning sits on a day bed, leaning against the wall of his small studio, up on a hill above Byron Bay. You can see it down below, spread along the coastline in among the trees against the water’s edge. Out in the bay itself is Julian Rocks. It’s so clear you can see the whitewater breaking around their base. The lighthouse sits atop Cape Byron, slightly to the south, the sunlight glinting off its tall, white walls, standing guard over the most easterly point in Australia.

Fanning sits taking it all in. It is, as I’d mentioned to him when I’d first arrived, a view you’d not get sick of. He agrees and during the couple of hours we spend sitting out here, we both periodically gaze out over it all. It’s calming. Serene. Seems to me to be a perfect place to put together a record.

Fanning, in light blue jeans and black jacket, hair hanging down to his shoulders, flipping across his face, grey stubble, pale skin, is in good spirits. He smiles a lot and his laugh rings out across the green, sloping garden, occasionally startling lorikeets playing in the trees hanging over the driveway to the side. I’m always wary prior to speaking to prominent rock stars, well aware they could be completely consumed by an inflated sense of self-importance, nothing more than preening posers.

But Bernard Fanning’s not like that. Sure, he’s a prominent rock star, he fronted one of the most iconic Australian bands of all time in Powderfinger. His solo debut, Tea & Sympathy, was incredibly successful, five-times platinum. But he’s just a guy with a wife and kids, sitting here having a chat about music, about the state of the world, life in general. Just shooting the breeze like any of us.

Inside the studio, producer Nick DiDia is tinkering. Occasionally, music drifts out from the open door around the corner, soundtracking certain parts of our conversation. “It’s shit, isn’t it,” Fanning says at one point as he looks out across the Pacific. He laughs again. I do too as I follow his gaze. “Yeah,” I say. “Terrible.”

***

Bernard Fanning’s new album, his third solo effort, is Civil Dusk. It’s the first in a two-part series, the next being Brutal Dawn, slated for release sometime next year. Civil Dusk was written in part in Kingscliff, a small coastal village a little further north, and partly in Madrid, Spain, where his wife is from. It was all recorded here, aside from the demos, in this little space on top of a hill overlooking Byron.

Civil Dusk, the term actually comes from civil twilight, which is a photography term,” he tells me. “It’s when the sun has gone down beneath the horizon. Scientifically, I think it’s when the sun is six degrees below the horizon. But pretty much everything is still visible, but not in direct light. And it looks different. So that idea, that metaphor…”

He trails off at the end of that sentence and switches focus to the term brutal dawn, which we both agree is the perfect name for an album by a Norwegian death metal band, but the sentiment is clear. Civil Dusk is about things not being quite as they seem, or quite as you remember them, and they’re about to change. Perhaps to be revealed once more, in a different light later on, under a brutal dawn.

I ask him if, as a person, he’s a worrier, if he’s prone to anxiety. “Oh yeah, totally, I’m a real worrier,” he says candidly. The reason I ask this is because in the bio that accompanies the new record, he’s quoted as saying, “Each day, I wake with a feeling of unease.” It’s a line which ties in with the idea behind the record, the civil dusk preceding a brutal dawn.

“Yeah, doesn’t everyone?” he asks with a laugh when I read that quote back to him. “It sounds a little too depressing. I don’t mean… it’s unease, it’s not full-blown anxiety. It’s more like, I’ve got shit to do, lots to do. As an artist and a human being. Firstly as a dad, the basic stuff of making breakfast, getting school lunches ready, you know. Making sure everyone’s got two shoes on when they leave.

“[But] it’s a combination of everything. When I’m writing, I don’t sleep very much. I wake up a lot of times at night, and often with the last idea I had before I went to bed, kinda ringing in my head. And it’s pretty annoying, and pretty annoying for my wife. It’s hard to shake when you have an idea that you haven’t abandoned yet, that you haven’t managed to go, ‘I’m not gonna keep going’.

“And what I mean by that, that’s a completed song as well. It’s not like, ‘That song’s finished’, it’s ‘I’m not working on that anymore’. Because inevitably, a few months later, you’re gonna find holes in that idea and go, ‘Fuck, I wish I’d done that’.”

I venture that this is the lot of the artist, that no matter what you do, you’ll never really be satisfied. Or at least you’ll think you’re satisfied, only to realise a little while later that you no longer are. “Yeah, that’s exactly right. You have this momentary satisfaction,” he says. “Anyway, the anxiety thing, I don’t want to play that up too much… it’s more because I usually get up first in the house, at around 4:30, and I read the paper. And that usually starts that feeling of unease, just reading about the state of the world.

“And that impacts a lot on the way that I write.”

Despite this assertion, Civil Dusk isn’t a record populated with songs dealing with literal world events. It’s not an album that bemoans the state of the world, not in a direct sense anyway – Bernard Fanning, who in the past has been very vocal about, and supportive of, a number of pertinent social issues, isn’t setting out to preach to a world he sees as wrong, or broken. Civil Dusk seems to be more about a feeling and a state of being, as opposed to presenting like a list of injustices, set to song.

As well, these feelings are framed through a series of love songs, whether happy or sad, disguised somewhat – the meanings are visible, but not in direct light, the songs civil dusks in themselves.

Another strong thematic vein that runs through the record is the idea of decisions and their resulting consequences. “I guess that’s another symptom of age and being forty-something,” he muses. “Looking at decisions I made when I was in my 20s and things that I thought were a great idea at the time. I mean, I’m in the unfortunate position… of having a lot of the things I’ve said, recorded, when I was in my 20s and maybe not at my smartest.”

He laughs again. “So, things like that. But also looking at that in the wider sense, how are things like, even on a personal basis especially, Powderfinger breaking up, how that has impacted on me and other people around me, stuff like that.”

“I don’t really want to be drilling down into the detail of what the songs are about, because I don’t really like doing that,” he then says, changing position on the day bed. “I want people to have their own discovery of songs, they have that thing where they… it’s what I do, put myself in the position of the author, pretty much all the time, when I’m listening to music.

“If I can really relate to it, then I can sing that song with a real kind of verve, it resonates with me. Otherwise, it doesn’t really impact… I like people having the opportunity to do that themselves, without it being all explained and spelt out to them. I mean, you don’t really need to do it anyway.”

“The future’s suffocating on an echo from the past.” A line from ‘Belly Of The Beast’, the final song on Civil Dusk. One could interpret that in myriad different ways. It’s a strong line though, one of the strongest on the album. It sums up the civil dusk, the decisions and resulting consequence. It’s powerful.

Fanning laughs again, and I sip from my cup of coffee which is cold now, and light a cigarette, moving over to a sunny patch on the grass. We both look out over the ocean and we’re silent for a bit.

***

“All I knew is that I wanted to base it around acoustic guitars and pianos, that’s all I knew,” he says when I ask him what his initial MO was for Civil Dusk. “Whether I had a band or not, I didn’t know, and then I soon found out I’m not an accomplished enough musician to do a guitar and vocal record that would stand the test of time.

“I wanted to do most of it myself, I wanted to play most of it myself, which is kind of… Departures was the opposite of Tea & Sympathy, and now Civil Dusk and Brutal Dawn are the opposite of Departures. They’re reactions to what you’ve done before. And also stepping stones, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.”

I suggest that despite how different this new album is to Departures, his second solo record which came after 2005’s Tea & Sympathy, to him it would no doubt seem a natural evolution. “Yeah,” he concurs. “Totally. But at the same time, I can understand why some people when they heard ‘Battleships’ for example, were like, ‘What the fuck?’

“Because for me, that was part of the whole evolution of making that record, going through all the processes of getting to that song, but that ended up being the first thing that a lot of people heard.”

Civil Dusk is very much a return to vintage Fanning, for wont of a better phrase. Where 2013’s Departures was much more of a rock record, this new one is closer to his solo debut in that the songs, all of which were built around acoustic guitar and piano as he’s explained, are softer and more intimate, there’s more of a folky vibe, a rootsy vibe.

This isn’t to say there aren’t capacious and loud moments. ‘Wasting Time’ is almost a throw-back to the Powderfinger days, and ‘Change Of Pace’ too is upbeat and up-tempo, chugging along, very aptly named, appearing as it does mid-album after a couple of slower numbers. Sonically, the album is very warm as well, it throbs with a low warmth, due in large part to Fanning’s want to use only timber stringed instruments.

“It’s what appeals to me, it’s what actually hits me in the chest when I’m listening to music,” he says on this warmth. “I’m totally open to synthesisers and whatever else, but even when it comes to guitars, I prefer an acoustic guitar to an electric guitar, just the sound when I’m writing, I feel that richness. When you’re sitting playing with it, you feel it in your body.

“You do with an electric guitar as well, but it’s manufactured a bit, and that’s why my favourite thing to write on is a piano, because it’s like a fucking band. It’s massive and delicate and super melodic and has all those different ways you can voice things… so that’s why I wanted to do that. That’s what gets me. And I listened a lot, while I was writing, I listened a lot to Late For The Sky by Jackson Browne… it’s a fucking masterpiece. I really liked how this record was talking about the problems of society, through the prism of the problems in relationships.

“I’ve always tried to do that, and I’ve never particularly been able to articulate it for a whole record, and this is the closest I’ve got to being able to do that, I reckon.”

It’s fair to say that of any of Fanning’s records, whether on his own or with Powderfinger, Civil Dusk is his Late For The Sky. And this isn’t comparing Fanning to Browne. It’s comparing a style of songwriting, and in this instance, Fanning has produced some of his best work.

***

We finish up the formal part of the interview but stay sitting where we are, looking out again at the view from our vista in this ranging garden up on a hill on the New South Wales north coast. Fanning asks me what music I’m listening to at the moment, and we spend the next ten minutes or so discussing what we’re hearing that we like, what’s worth getting into. He writes a few of my suggestions down in his phone, always on the lookout for something new to stimulate his never-ending lust for good music.

He’s added something of his own to that canon with Civil Dusk. Whether it strikes as many chords as his solo debut, remains to be seen. Tea & Sympathy was an extremely high bar to set after all – indeed, as I drove up here, I couldn’t get ‘Wish You Well’ out of my head, having listened to it as part of the research for this story.

Regardless, with this new album, he’s done something worthy, something good.

“Well, I guess I’m in a situation where I’m starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of having been in a band that was really, um, popular,” he muses when I ask him where he’s at, as an artist. “I’m starting to have a better understanding now of why as well. Because we never thought about that stuff when we were in the middle of it, we were always thinking about what we were doing next.

“I guess now I’ve had a bit of time to look at it. And it’s from what people tell you, how the songs of the band impacted their life, concerts or whatever, and I’m really proud of what we did. I think it’s really good, and so far has stood the test of time. It’s 20 years in September since Double Allergic came out actually.”

We both marvel at that thought – how can it be two decades since the release of one of the band’s most enduring albums? Fair boggles the mind. Fanning’s come to terms with it though, as well as the rest of the band’s success and it seems to have set him up well, for where he’s at today.

“I’m really excited about getting connected again with writing music that hits me really hard, and that will make an impact on people, emotionally. Primarily on me,” he concurs. “And I’m the only barometer that I really have.

“And obviously Nick, we’ve got a studio together now, so it’s pretty likely that we’re gonna be making a lot of records together for a long time. I’m really excited about the idea of just keeping on making records. I didn’t know, when I turned 40, whether I wanted to keep doing it or just try and do something else with my life… it took me a little while to work out what I wanted to do.”

“Making a break from living in Brisbane and being in Powderfinger has really invigorated me as well, given me a lot of energy to get back into work,” he adds. “And now having a studio, with this horrible view…” Another laugh.

I tell him it’s paying dividends, that I’ve been enjoying the record, and that it’s a grower, an album you really need to explore. “I hope that’s [the case], I would hope that it takes ten listens to go, ‘Oh fuck, that’s fuckin’ awesome’, the back of the record especially,” he enthuses.

“Because you know, from growing up listening to records, you tend to start with track one and you go through and get to know the back of the record later, maybe months down the track. And we put a lot of work into the sequencing with that in mind, so that there’s rewards for perseverance.” Another laugh. “That’s the thing with working with Nick, we both put such value on the ‘album’, because that’s how we grew up loving music. I would hope that that would have some impact on younger people who listen to this record. And with people more my age too I guess.”

Soon afterwards, we finish up properly and Fanning walks me out the front to where I’ve parked the truck. We shake hands and he stands for a bit before turning around and walking back towards the studio where DiDia is still tinkering. He’s in a good place, and regardless of whether he wakes with that feeling of unease or not, it’s translated into some deep and thoughtful music, which befits the man responsible for some of this country’s most iconic songs.

It may be the civil dusk before a brutal dawn, but Bernard Fanning is doing all he can to make sense of that. And that’s all he can do.

Civil Dusk is available from August 5 through Universal Music. The second instalment, Brutal Dawn, will follow in early 2017.

Game Of Drones

[Published in The Saturday Paper, July 30/2016]

The fledgling sport of drone racing has pilots viewing the course through cameras mounted on their stripped-down, supercharged craft. Samuel J. Fell meets the US champion, in his hometown of Brisbane.

 

Like a bat out of hell, the little X-shaped machine, small propellers mounted at the end of each four arms, shoots off into the distance. In a matter of seconds it’s no longer visible to the naked eye, although you can hear it, buzzing through the trees at speeds of up to 140 km/h.

It suddenly reappears from on high and like a demented magpie at the height of nesting season, it swoops, pulling up at the last minute and executing a series of barrel-rolls, ripping past the two of us standing on the wooden deck of a house on a hill in Ormeau, just south of Brisbane. It banks sharply, a left turn, and darts back into the bushland, again invisible.

Chad Nowak, standing beside me, is the one controlling it. Via a set of goggles, he sees what his machine sees courtesy of a small camera mounted on its nose, beaming its feed directly back to him. A large silver remote controller hangs from a lanyard around his neck, the machine operated by almost imperceptible movements of his thumbs on the two small joysticks. He brings it back towards us, slowly now, and lands it expertly on the wood next to my left foot, removes his goggles and grins at me. Welcome to the weird, wonderful and relatively new world of First Person View (FPV) freestyle drone flying.

Chris Nowak

Nowak, Australian born and bred, is the current US Drone Nationals champion, having won the inaugural event last July in California. He’s the poster boy for a rapidly burgeoning aspect of the growing drone industry – FPV racing and freestyle. Having flown line-of-sight RC vehicles and fixed-wing gliders since he was 14, the now 37-year-old is in high demand at events around the world: a year and a half ago, he was mixing automotive lubricants in a factory. Today, he has sponsors, fans, and a reputation as one of the world’s top drone pilots.

“It’s just something so different,” he muses when I ask why FPV freestyle and race flying has become so popular in such a short time. “When I go flying out in the park and I’m just flying around, people [see it and] go, ‘Oh it’s a drone’. Their reaction would be no different if it was a foam airplane or something like that.”

“The moment I put the goggles on them though, they go, ‘Wow!’ It’s the same reaction every single time,” he goes on. “And that’s the best way to explain it – why it’s taking off is because of that wow factor. It’s like playing a video game, it’s like the pod racers in Star Wars, it’s that extra dimension that we haven’t been able to access until now.”

Simon Jardine, head of drone consultancy company Aerobot, has been flying drones longer than anyone in Australia. His company provides advice and builds and modifies custom machines for the likes of the military and Surf Life Saving Australia. As he says, “Right now, technology is racing forward at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up. We can fly further, [we can fly] behind obstacles, with zero lag, so it’s instant: what you see is what you see.”

“You have to have zero latency,” concurs Paul Dumais, an aerospace engineer currently building a new prototype for Aerobot. “They’ve gotta be able to send a signal via a video transmitter wirelessly on a 5.8gigahertz frequency, to his goggles, with zero latency. Or as little as possible. Because if you’re doing 140 km/h, a couple of milliseconds [out], you’re hitting something.”

While talking with Jardine and Dumais, in a park in Byron Bay, I’m handed the goggles and Jardine flies line-of-sight while I see what his drone sees. The speed and manoeuvrability of the stripped-back machine is incredible; it’s easy to see how you’d come unstuck if the feed back to the goggles was even a tiny bit out.

Drone racing and freestyle has, in the past twelve months, become big business. The inaugural event Nowak took out was a relatively small affair, but since then the profile of this fledgling sport has grown almost as fast as the accompanying technology. In March this year, in Dubai, the World Drone Prix offered a $1m prize pool. This year’s US Nationals in August have partnered with American sports channel ESPN. The World Drone Racing Championships will run in Hawaii in October. The money and the interest are growing rapidly as are, by default, the politics: a number of bodies jostling for control of the fledgling sport.

“Unfortunately, [these bodies] are all just sitting there arguing, and all the pilots want to do is race,” Nowak laments. “And we’re going, would you guys stop fighting and just let us have some fun?”

As a result, Nowak and a handful of other top pilots have begun to distance themselves from the organised racing aspect, preferring instead the more renegade freestyle side to a pastime with almost limitless possibilities. “It’s kinda the same as skateboarders, they go out there and they make those videos,” he smiles. “You’ve got the rebels that just wanna make the videos and lead the lifestyle, then you’ve got the guys who wanna go to the competitions. I’m the guy that just wants to be the rebel and lead the lifestyle.”

Nowak has just returned from the States where he’s been filming episodes of Rotor Riot, a YouTube-based series not unlike Top Gear, but with drones instead of cars. Nowak and a handful of other pilots head to different locations (abandoned warehouses, woodlands, even shooting ranges) and put their machines through their paces, everything filmed and uploaded to an audience of, at time of writing, 34,918 subscribers.

YouTube has proven an incredibly important medium for these drone pilots – Nowak’s channel has 17,228 subscribers; US pilot Mr Steele (Steele Davis) has 26,361; and Charpu (Carlos Puertolas), the “godfather of FPV”, has 55,289 – it was from the popularity of his channel, that Nowak initially began to attract sponsors, and was invited to the first Drone Nationals.

Drones today are more and more common, being utilised in a variety of everyday situations, from aerial filming to shark spotting. Hobbyists have been flying line-of-sight drones for a number of years now too, beginning with the Parrot AR drone, which could be operated via an iPad, and the DJI Phantom, also relatively simple to control.

These racing drones are a different beast though. Stripped back to maximise speed and efficiency, the tech is incredible. Dumais talks to me about 32bit boards, Electronic Speed Controllers, and software like Baseflight, OneShot and Cleanflight. Jardine is flying a Warpquad 6-Inch on 25 volts – it weighs around half a kilo, flies at a 55 degree angle, has a five minute battery life, and can hit speeds of up to 140km/h. And it’s only going to get better.

“In the very near future, perhaps before the end of the decade, the FPV experience will be hyper-realistic,” says Dumais. “Like you’re actually flying in the drone but on acid. It’ll be the combination of high-end computer gaming to provide insane virtual reality tracks, superimposed over real physical terrain.” The sky, quite literally, is the limit.

Samuel J. Fell

 

 

Stars & Hype: First Time Notes On The American Deep South

 THE DEBUT BOOK FROM AUSTRALIAN JOURNALIST SAMUEL J. FELL

Australian / New Zealand Customers:

$AU 20.00 (+$AU 5.00 Postage)

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American / European Customers: The title is available from Amazon in your home territory

ALSO AVAILABLE ON E-READER (Kindle, iPad, etc)

“The hotel room door is dead-bolted and a few people are sitting on the upstairs balcony walkway smoking weed. It’s hot again, high humidity, the noise from Interstate 55 across the used-car lot seems muted in the heat which in turn drowns out the talk from upstairs, adds to the industrial atmosphere.

The Mississippi State Fairgrounds are just over the road on the other side, back on the edge of Jackson, an area made up of switch-backs and one-way streets, cheap motels and the same fast food joints – Whataburger, Shoney’s, Waffle House. A literal dead-end which defines what lower-America is all about; cheap, fast, move on and forget.”

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A non-fiction novella, Stars & Hype: First Time Notes On The American Deep South, is the first book from Australian journalist Samuel J. Fell.

A rough, raw and largely uncut account of his maiden trip through the US Deep South late last year, Stars & Hype… was written “on the run, across five states and as many time zones, drunk, sober and somewhere in between.”

Finding time to write and record his thoughts on a place “as alien as it was familiar” during the six week trip he undertook in October / November 2015, Fell recounts the experience in vivid fashion, the dust and grit, the glitz and glam coming to life on the page – the book is truly a wide-eyed account of a time and place that both lived up to expectation, and fell well short.

Best known as one of Australia’s most prolific freelance music journalists, Samuel J. Fell is a Senior Contributor to Australian roots music bible Rhythms, and has contributed to a range of publications from The Sydney Morning Herald and Rolling Stone, to The Saturday PaperThe Guardian and Australian Guitar. Concurrently, he is writing a history of the Australian rock press, which this year celebrates 50 years.