Eric Gales

[Published in issue #533 of The Big Issue]

THE NEW BLUES

ERIC GALES is a bluesman for the current generation, fusing myriad styles to create something new, as he tells SAMUEL J. FELL

Eric Gales grew up in a household where roots music was king, these old musical forms providing a sonic backdrop from which he’s never strayed. Memphis in the 1970s was still a blues, soul, rock and gospel mecca, and it was here that the young Gales soaked it all up.

“My parents would be playing gospel, and my brother, Eugene, he’d be playing blues,” Gales recalls on his early exposure to the music he now has flowing through his veins. “Then, [over the years] I was introduced to a whole range of other styles… and I just tried to figure out a way to fuse them.”

Hailed early on as a child prodigy on the guitar, Gales released his first album as a teenager, a heady melding of a range of rootsy designs with a strong rock presence, a fusion as he says. And this has been his signature ever since – based in the blues yes, the blues will always be number one to Gales, but he fosters a want to explore the myriad possibilities thrown up via hybrids of multiple styles.

“You’ve got your classic 1,3,5 blues, shuffles and this and that, and that can be restricting,” he says on his need to explore. “I like to make it new and fresh… so giving [the blues] a new twist, is something I think will draw in new audiences, new ears and eyes, and if I can be the [champion] for that, then I gladly accept the challenge.”

Touring regularly from an early age, spending time behind bars in 2009 on drugs and weapons charges, writing and recording with a slew of collaborators (including Carlos Santana, with whom he may well guest at the upcoming Byron Bay Bluesfest, where both artists are performing), Eric Gales has lived the life of a bluesman; sometimes chaotic and dark, other times triumphant and free, but always following the musical path, imbued within him from an early age, the ethos and philosophies that have been drilled into him ever since.

“For me, it’s a combination of both; capturing the vibe of the old days, with the passion of now,” he says on what’s it like being a bluesman in 2017, a far cry from the days when the likes of Son House, Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy were plying their trade. As Gales says however, it’s not the time that defines this genre, but the passion that’s put into it by whomever is playing it.

“I think I’m managing to do that, combine these two [with passion], in an uncompromising way. Still respecting the old style, but using it as a foundation for the new, 2017 order, a [new] spin.”

It always comes back to the “new spin”, the fusion – Gales’ latest release, Middle Of The Road, his fifteenth studio album, has been described as, not a blues, rock or soul album, but an Eric Gales album, such has this “new spin” become his trademark. And he’s pretty happy with that, comfortable within the style he’s fashioned for himself.

Middle Of The Road stands as a sort of reinvention for this modern bluesman too, inspired by all he’s gone through thus far (ailed H“Just life man, surviving,” he laughs, explaining the inspiration in a nutshell). As he says in the record’s accompanying press material, “It’s about being fully focused and centered in the middle of the road. If you’re on the wrong side and in the gravel you’re not too good, and if you’re on the median strip that’s not too good either, so being in the middle of the road is the best place to be.”

Tracks like ‘Change In Me (The Rebirth)’ stand as testament to this, the man and the musician taking stock and deciding on a purer path, not one destined to lead him astray. Middle Of The Road is a freewheeling affair, bouncing from soul to rock to blues and back again, and yet in Gales’ hands, it all comes together in a way which doesn’t seem disjointed or patched together – such is his understanding of how these myriad styles may conflict, but also compliment.

It hasn’t hurt he’s brought in a few ringers to help him out too. “Oh man, they made it that much better,” he beams, referring to his brother Eugene (with whom he’s played in bands for years), Gary Clark Jr, Lauryn Hill and funk legend Raphael Saadiq, to name but a few. “If I have the opportunity to do this again, I’ll do exactly the same thing [with the same people].”

Blues/rock behemoth Joe Bonamassa has said of Gales, “[He] is one of the best, if not the best, guitar player in the world.” Dave Navarro of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers has also opined, “How [he] isn’t the hugest name in rock guitar is a total mystery.” Roots music works in mysterious ways, sometimes its best purveyors remaining anonymous to the greater unwashed, and yet it doesn’t stop them – Gales is testament to this. A modern bluesman, continually doing his thing, teaching an old genre new tricks, continually reinventing as he goes.

Eric Gales and band make their Australian debut at the Byron Bay Bluesfest, April 13-17.

The Waifs

[Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine]

IRONCLAD

The Waifs celebrate twenty-five years with eighth record Ironbark, which is dedicated to their many fans, and sees them return to their informal roots, writes Samuel J. Fell

 Think back twenty-five years. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? There aren’t many of us who can, firstly, remember, but secondly, claim to have been doing something we’re still doing now, having grown it exponentially over the course of a quarter century.

The Waifs can remember what they were doing – forming the band which this year celebrates this silver anniversary. It seems almost too hard to believe, that this trio – sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson, and Josh Cunningham (bulked out by drummer David Ross McDonald and pedal steel player/bassist Ben Franz) – are still going strong after such a long time. But it’s not, upon further reflection, that surprising at all. They’re one of Australia’s most loved bands, a group whose rootsy bonhomie, whose uniquely Antipodean tales of wanderlust and homeward bound, wind-swept and salt-encrusted, love and casual and barefoot and free, have endeared them to many.

It’s actually little wonder they’re still going strong.

Thorn, these days based in Utah with her family, cites there being “a lot of love between us and what we do”, as the secret to this success and longevity. “We’re family,” she says, “we love playing music, we love performing music, and we love connecting with people through music.”

There’s another part to it however, that “I don’t really talk about,” she confesses – this part goes deeper. “The band’s always been a democratic process as to what’s recorded, what goes onto albums, how [the albums are] recorded, basically it’s sort of fight for your song a little bit, get out-voted.”

“So there’s always been an element of compromise, as artists,” she says. “And I think that’s as big a part of the longevity – the fact we’ve, as individuals, always been willing to compromise, slightly, what we ultimately wanted in order for the band to go ahead and for the albums to come out. Every album we put out, there’s always a bit of an argument as to what songs should or shouldn’t go on there, and how they should be recorded, but in the end we’re looking at a bigger picture, and we realise that The Waifs is made up of three individuals, and what I love is not necessarily what everyone else is going to love… within all that compromise, something works.”

It does. From their eponymous debut in 1996, all the way through to 2015’s Beautiful You, the band have thrived. Sure, not everything is perfect all the time, but as a band The Waifs have endured and along the way produced seven records, each of which have brought them closer to their legions of fans the world over, fans who have literally grown up with the band, one big family, moving together.

“We’re having more fun, and we enjoy this more than we ever have, now,” Thorn says with an obvious smile. “Over a twenty-five period, obviously you have high points and you have low points, and there’s been a lot of both of those, but right now it’s sort of flat-lining into this very enjoyable part of our career. We have our lives and families, and then we get to go on tour when we want to tour, how we want to tour, where we want to play, total artistic control, and we do it because we want to be there.

“We love playing music, and music now for us all is so intuitive and natural. So it’s a great place to be, I’m stoked.”

This great place, twenty-five years into a career, has yielded more results – the band’s eighth studio record, Ironbark. And it’s the aforementioned fans of the band to whom this one is dedicated. “Waifs fans are legendary in the industry for their loyalty and enthusiasm,” Thorn is quoted as saying in the album’s accompanying press material. “It feels like we all grew up together. We are now the band you can bring your parents and your kids to hear! Your involvement in our career means everything to us. You are the very reason we are still playing music together, twenty-five years on.”

“This would be a release that was not so much about what we wanted, but what would our fans want,” she says today, on one aspect of what they wanted with Ironbark. “It’s not about us doing one thing or another, lets just approach this like, lets put out a really simple release that’s something we think fans would like to hear.”

It was this line of thinking that led the three of them to Cunningham’s unfinished home on the NSW south coast, where around the kitchen table, in a circle together, they began making this new album; true Waifs style, loose and casual, which as Thorn says, is what they felt fans would like.

“So we made the plan to meet up in Josh’s unfinished house, and that was the extent of it,” she explains. At that point, other than wanting to make an album to thank their fans, they had little idea of what they wanted to come out with. There’d been no pre-production, no back-and-forth, just a germ of an idea that was to make a record.

“People asked me, what we were going to record, but I really had no idea,” she remembers. “We talked about doing a bunch of covers, find some classic covers we love, maybe re-work some old songs. And then we got there, and it was so informal and so relaxed that these songs just started coming… and it just went from there.”

That it did – Ironbark sits at twenty-five tracks (quite apropos), a veritable king-tide of inspiration hitting the three as they sat in Cunningham’s home over a two week period, working out how it would all come together. The three of them don’t write together, songwriting itself is a very solitary thing for all of them, but once songs started coming, it seems they were all able to bind together to bring them to life. Quite quickly in many instances.

“It was very formal and unplanned, and I think that’s the beauty of it,” Thorn says. “And the fact we recorded all live and some of the takes that are on the album, are literally the third or fourth time we’d ever played the song.

“And as a result of that, I can hear in some of those songs the tension – musically, there’s a tension in the songs because we’re all listening [to it], like, ‘Where does this go again?’ And we’re all really holding back a little bit, and it creates a really nice tension to some of those tracks, that I can hear. It was the best recording experience we’ve had.”

The results speak for themselves – an album to celebrate a quarter century together, an album recorded in such an informal fashion, an album created to thank the myriad fans the band has garnered over the course of these two and a half decades. It sees The Waifs in a special place too, one which as Thorn said, is one of the best places they’ve been.

“Twenty-five years is a long time in the life of a band, but not in the life of an Ironbark tree,” Cunningham has been quoted as saying. “Resilient and enduring it stands strong through the changing seasons, surviving hardship and adversity, all the while contributing something beautiful and positive to the world. A perfect metaphor of the journey of so many people that are dear to me, and the most perfect metaphor for The Waifs. Earthy, organic, enduring and Australian to the core.”

Indeed, the perfect metaphor to describe the band, and the perfect way to sum up Ironbark, an album sure to strike at the hearts of people the world over, who have grown with this uniquely Australian group.

Ironbark is available from March 3, via Jarrah Records.

James Cotton

James Henry Cotton died on Thursday March 16, in Austin, Texas. He was 81, and while perhaps unknown to people not familiar with the blues, the man was a behemoth – a working musician by the time he was nine, he cut his teeth under Sonny Boy Williamson II, before branching out and recording with the great Howlin’ Wolf for Sun Records. Then, as a 20-year-old, he joined Muddy Waters’ band, where he stayed for a decade or so, before moving out solo – a legend of blues harmonica, Cotton recorded a slew of albums under his own name over the years, and was still touring three years ago when he made his first trip to Australia.

I was fortunate enough to interview him in 2013 for a story about him and his work for a Sun Records special issue of Rhythms magazine. The brief Q&A style yarn is reproduced below…

Cotton Mouth Man

Harmonica legend James Cotton, whose career is still as strong as ever, looks back at his years with Sun Records.

By Samuel J. Fell

Harmonica legend James Cotton, perhaps the last surviving blues player who recorded with Sun Records, was born in Mississippi in 1934. He grew up on a cotton plantation, working the fields, but soon became all consumed by the blues he heard on the radio. He took his harp and was soon making money as a busker, before leaving home and joining Sonny Boy Williamson’s band, taking over as leader when Williamson left.

This was short-lived, and soon Cotton was driving a dump truck. It wasn’t long before he got back into music though, moving to West Memphis and hooking up with the likes of Little Junior Parker, BB King and Howlin’ Wolf, with whom he recorded his first Sun session. From there, his career began in earnest, he played in Muddy Waters’ band for a decade or so, and is still making records today. Cotton himself takes over the story, filling in the gaps:

Your mother gave you a harmonica for your sixth birthday, which you began to play, but it wasn’t until you heard King Biscuit Time on the radio that you realised the instrument could be played a completely different way – the way of the blues. Do you remember how you felt when you first heard that music? How did it make you feel? What was the connection like?

It put something inside of me, something I can’t name, and it made me feel really, really good. I’d never heard anything like that. I’ve never forgotten that moment. I realise now it connected me to the outside world, got me off the plantation and connected me to people all over the world. I never even dreamed that could be possible. My whole world then was the Bonnie Blue plantation, and the field work we all had to do. My mother took me to the field and showed me how to pick cotton when I was about four years old.

Your first recorded session was with Howlin’ Wolf in 1952, not long after you’d moved to West Memphis – how did you hook up with The Wolf? What was he like to play with? What are your memories of that session?

Howlin’ Wolf heard me play with Sonny Boy Williamson’s (Rice Miller) band. Since we both played harp, Sonny Boy and I never played at the same time with his band. In the middle of his set he’d call me up to play. I’d play a few songs, leave the stage, and he’d come back and finish his set. Wolf was a very nice guy to play with. He was a warm, decent man but I didn’t want to mess up his music or he’d let me know I did!

I remember he’d say, “Man, I want my music right. If you don’t play my music right, I’m gonna have t’let ya go.” He never had to. My memory of my first session at Sun Records with The Wolf, is I had never really ever heard my music played back. I always heard it out of an amp when I was playing it [but] I never heard it recorded before. It scared me! I was 13 years old and very, very country. I heard everything I was playing. Heard all the mistakes – and all the good parts I played, I heard that, too. I played harp for The Wolf on ‘Moanin’ At Midnight’. He played harp on ‘How Many More Years’. Those songs were released back to back on one single record. Both songs became hits.

It was that session that brought you to the attention of a young Sam Phillips, who then contacted you about making some records – tell me about your first meeting with Sam.

When I walked into Sun Records, Sam Phillips shook my hand and asked me if I had any of my own songs. At this time I had ‘Cotton Crop Blues’, ‘Hold Me In Your Arms’, ‘My Baby’, and ‘Straighten Up Baby’. He said he wanted to hear them. He recorded them straight away. Here’s how it came down – my drummer, John Bowers, didn’t show up, so I ended up playing drums. I looked around the studio. There was one bass drum and a 10-inch cymbal. I needed a snare, so I grabbed a 51 Goldcrest beer box made out of cardboard, turned it upside down and went to work. That’s why there’s no harp on any of the four sides. Pat Hare was on guitar. That was the original recording. Later, Sam Phillips added piano, bass, and horns. He might have added a drummer, too.

After your first session for Sun, recording with Willie Nix, you began cutting your own records with Sam Phillips – what was he like to work with? He’s got quite a reputation for letting the artist play what they want to play, for keeping it real, for keeping the blues pure – was that the case?

Working with Sam Phillips was all right because he let me play like I wanted to. I remember him asking me to do just two things differently. One time he asked me to make a song longer, which I did. I wasn’t a drummer and here I was playing a session for the first time and I dropped time. Sam heard that and asked me to do that again. Other than that, he didn’t say much. We were both so new at what we were doing, it was still strange to us, we were both feeling our way – we’re talking about recording these songs 63 years ago. We both had different dreams about this music, the blues, and, looking back on it, both our dreams came true.

Back in the ‘50s, when segregation was is full swing, Phillips didn’t seem fazed by that – it seems that to him, colour didn’t matter, it was all about the music and the people who played it, whether they were black or white. What was it like, as an African American artist, to have a place to record where race played no part, and you were free to do what you were made to do?

It was a really good feeling. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records was my very first studio. It was good to be free, respected, and accepted, both me and my music, by a white man. But I knew the second I walked out the studio door, I knew it would be the same racist world that I lived in, that was just the way it was, what I was born into. I’m thankful the world has changed, I’ve seen so much change for the better. Better for the music and better for me, too, and that’s the truth. Now it makes me feel that all the bumps and bruises was worth it.

Of course, after you cut those tracks with Sun, you hooked up with Muddy Waters and played in his band for over a decade, which is a whole other story! Focusing on Sun though, looking back, how important was what Sam Phillips was doing? How important for the blues was his work, was Sun Records?

It was very important, not only to me, but what Sam did for music history. The four songs I recorded got me out of the cotton fields and made me known to the people as a real musician, even though I just a kid. Real musicians make records. I recorded at Sun Records before Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. We all know the Sam Phillips story and what he did with that little record company and his big dream. Sam started with the blues. Willie Dixon nailed it, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s what Sam did.

You’re one of the (if not the) last remaining blues artists who recorded on Sun – you must be immensely proud of not only what the label was able to achieve, but what you were able to achieve during those years (not to mention the years until now).

Of course, I feel good to still be around. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of my career. I started out a little boy wearing overalls, walking barefoot down a dirt road, blowing my harp. I’ve traveled the world with my harp over and over and I’m so thankful for that. Life has been good to me. My fans are part of my family, I mean that. I have played many countries, but one I have not played is Australia. I know this is an Australian magazine, I’d like to play for the people of Australia.

Just lastly, you’re about to release a new album on Alligator Records, which is fantastic – as Bruce Iglauer (Alligator) says, how many Sun artists from 1954 are still recording? Tell me briefly about this new release – how does an artist like yourself, who’s been making blues records for over fifty years, go about doing so in 2013? And for the sake of comparison, what’s it like making a record today, compared to back in 1954 at Sun?

Well, the first thing is there wasn’t a 51 Goldcrest beer box turned upside down for a snare drum on my new CD, Cotton Mouth Man! Nowadays, recording is technically much easier, but that doesn’t change my feeling for the music. That’s what it is all about, feeling. If I don’t feel it, I can’t play it. I’m serious about that.

Cotton Mouth Man is very different from any other record I’ve ever made, it’s got lots of new songs we wrote about my life. I even wrote one about Bonnie Blue, the plantation I grew up on in Mississippi. All the songs are originals except for one. I think people will learn a lot about my life when they listen to the words. I wrote liner notes for it too, telling people how we came about making it and thanking everyone who helped me put it together.

My producer is Tom Hambridge, who also played drums. Some of my favorite musicians and singers are the guests: Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton and Keb’ Mo’. We’ve got Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Colin Linden on Resonator. We also had Rob McNelley on guitar, Glenn Worf on upright bass, and Tommy McDonald on bass. My band members, who’ve been with me for many years now – singer Darrell Nulisch, Tom Holland on guitar, Noel Neal on bass, and Jerry Porter on drums – are on the record too. I was fortunate to have all these good people who are great musicians, come together to make this record with me. I hope everyone who listens to it feels it. I know I sure did!

Cotton Mouth Man is available through Alligator Records.

Hat Fitz & Cara

[Published in the January/February issue of Rhythms magazine]

LET IT RAIN

With their fourth album together, HAT FITZ & CARA have produced their best work yet, a near perfect melding of gospel, soul and blues, writes SAMUEL J. FELL

Sunday morning at Mullum Fest. It’s been a stellar couple of days so far, music abounding, booming from pubs and halls up and down the usually languid streets of this small, Byron hinterland country berg. The place is full to bursting, the ninth time this little gem of a festival has run, the colour and vibrancy that always defines Mullumbimby (albeit quietly), accentuated as people flock to one of the best little events this area has to offer.

I’m sitting in the Rock ‘n’ Roll café, just down an alleyway off the main drag. It’s full, people breakfasting late, fuelling up for the final day of music and culture so prevalent here, regardless of whether it’s festival weekend or not. The place hums and bustles, wait-staff toing and froing with coffee and bacon, eggs and avocado, the usual morning fare. The sun is out and it washes through the high windows, bathes the scene in early summer light and warmth.

Opposite me sit Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. They have breakfast on the table in front of them, half empty green smoothie looking things, and as you’d expect, they’re exactly the same offstage as they are on it. Hat leans back, ubiquitous work shirt and stubbies, thongs, an old cap atop his head, long beard framing his face. Cara is dressed nice, stylish, glasses and hair just so. They seem, at a glance, an odd couple, but they’re a perfect couple. One listen to their music and you know that for a fact.

I’d caught the tail-end of their set the previous evening, over at the High School. They’d easily filled the gargantuan space with their simple-yet-powerful music, building off a blues base and soaring ever higher, incorporating elements of gospel and soul these days; true happy music with a crunch and grind behind it, enough to add the requisite grit and grime one needs when one is playing music like this and it needs to be real. Raw.

This defines their latest release too, After The Rain, their fourth album together and perhaps their best. Both players, Fitz in particular, are known as blues players, but this record is so much more. Yes, of course the blues is where it’s based, but it’s used as a foundation as opposed to a definition. After The Rain is a solid, considered affair, a musical adventure, one set to paint these two as far more than mere blues players.

“We just fuck around, and shit happens,” offers Fitz with trademark candour when asked where the genre-bending that defines this album, comes from. “I don’t play nothing I don’t like. Cara plays a lot of old soul records, which has got in the back of my head over the years, and so it’s starting to come out a bit.”

“It’s hard to get that sound with the two of us, normally [it’s played by] an eight or 12-piece band,” he goes on, referencing the soul feel the record carries in spades. “So we’re just getting our own little version of it. Absolutely not looking to find a sound, it’s just, ‘Listen to this, how cool’s that?’”

After The Rain came together then, with little planning. It’s organic in that the pair spent a good deal of time jamming, obviously influenced by sounds they’ve been listening to, obviously incorporating sounds they’ve known all their lives, and so songs began to drip out, bit by bit.

“We’d take the boat out on the lakes, then come back and just play for, like, five hours,” Robinson says on how it all slowly unfolded. “We’d record what we played, and you know… there’s stuff that sticks. And the gospel influences, we’ll pick up these albums along the road like Dorothy Love-Coates, Mahalia Jackson, and a lot of stuff that’s raw, where they’re just in a church clapping and singing, just a guitar, which is amazing.

“I guess we are going for that energy, that real simple… I don’t think anyone is doing that, other than being in a church. And that’s not why we’re doing it, we’re doing it because it makes us feel good, you know?”

Hat, at this point, leans forward and interjects with, “It’s interesting, a white guy from Australia, a white woman from Ireland, playing black American music.” Cara laughs in agreement: “We’ve never been in a church in our lives!”

Listening to the album’s opening track, ‘Going Home’, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Not that the song has religious connotation, but the way in which it’s delivered is definitely very spiritual. It builds from a languid, fuzzy guitar line, courtesy of Fitz, which marries subtly with Robinson’s simple drum beat. Over the top then is Robinson’s voice, which rides the groove bareback, lilting up and down, before, towards the end of the song, breaking out in joyous harmony with Fitz’s gruffer vocal into a true gospel refrain, the blues coming to the fore briefly before the song finishes up.

It’s very powerful, even more so given there are only two of them, and it’s a fine pointer as to what the rest of After The Rain holds.

“I wanted to get back to the basics, stripped down and raw,” says Fitz when I ask what the pair’s MO was with the record. “I like singing backup vocals to Cara, try and get that Aussie, growly backup thing, which is quite unique. I just wanted to get back to basics, that’s all I wanted.”

They’ve achieved this for sure – it’s just the two of them for a start, along with a subtle smattering of trombone and trumpet, courtesy of David Stephenson, on the title track, and so the songs are indeed stripped and bare. This doesn’t detract from the power though – while the songs are, as Fitz says, back to basics, they resonate with a quiet power, which comes from both the music itself, as well as the lyrical content contained within.

“With this album, we still wanted to keep the energy up, but we wanted to tell the story – this is what’s going on,” Robinson says. “We’re looking for things that move you. As a writer, you’re constantly collecting lots of information… and you hear other artists, like Suzannah Espie (who is also playing at the festival), when she sings that song about her sister, ‘I Wish I Had A Sister’, what’s the line? ‘I wish you knew that you were my favourite work of art’. It’s like, fucking hell, it just jumps out at you, and you go, ‘Keeping that, that’s good’, and you’re inspired by that.”

Both also put the quiet power down to fine producing, citing Govinda Doyle in this instance, who worked on the album with them. The bulk though, comes from the two of them and their playing. The blues comes through on tracks like ‘Doing It Again’, ‘Tank Man’ and ‘Won’t Bow Down’, while it’s all soul and gospel on ‘Going Home’, ‘Try’ and closer, ‘Keep’n On’. And, of course, it all melds together effortlessly. This isn’t a blues album, a gospel album, or a soul album – no, it’s a Hat Fitz & Cara album.

“It takes you a while to find yourself, we’re from two completely different backgrounds, it’s taken a while to mould it together, you know?” says Fitz.

“It’s a wonder it works,” laughs Robinson. “Sometimes we’re like, ‘How does this work?’ After seven years though, maybe we’re getting a system.”

Whatever the system is, whatever the method, however it all comes together, it’s working. After The Rain is a fine example of the depth and quality of roots music coming out of this country, executed by two of our finest players – long may that continue.

After The Rain is available now through MGM Distribution.

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

 

 

Shooting Stars

[Published in The Saturday PaperNovember 19/2016]

Amateur astrophotographers are more than just hobbyists, writes Samuel J. Fell. Their backyard observations and images are welcomed by the likes of NASA as important contributions to astronomy.

 

It’s a balmy, late spring Saturday evening in Byron Bay. Dusk is steadily descending and across the way, in town proper, people are gearing up for another big night in one of the country’s most noted party spots. Here in Belongil though, a satellite suburb off to the side of the Arts & Industrial Estate, just out of the CBD, things are quieter. It’s a peaceful part of Byron, where the locals live, where young families have set up. There are kids riding bikes on the street, people are lounging on verandahs in surrounding backyards, talking and laughing in the soft, gathering gloom.

In Dylan O’Donnell’s backyard though, there’s no laughing or lounging, and there’s certainly no party. There’s not enough room, for a start. A good portion of the small area behind his little townhouse is taken up by a large, homemade observatory. Large relative to the space, anyway.

Its plastic domed roof is half open, and from the cavity within protrudes a large black and white telescope, pointed skyward. O’Donnell himself is in there too, contorted somewhat due to the space restrictions, attaching plugs and adapters, running cables to a large computer monitor set up to the side, which projects an image of the waxing half moon, via the telescope, easily visible to the naked eye in the darkening sky.

O’Donnell, 37, is an IT professional by day, but over the past couple of years, come nightfall, he leaves that behind him and dons his hobby hat – that of an Astro photographer, and a noted one at that. His images of various parts of the night sky have twice been featured on US space agency NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site (which, incidentally, is one of the oldest websites on the internet); as the European Space Agency’s Image of the Week; on the websites of Time and National Geographic magazines; and a couple of days prior to our chat, he’d found out another image of his was to be used on the ESA’s annual Christmas card. For an amateur Astro photographer, O’Donnell is no minnow.

“When you look up at the stars, really, it’s darkness, you’ll just see points of light in the sky,” he says on what the appeal of this hobby is to him. “And when you get a telescope, you don’t see much more; you look through the eye-piece, you might see a smudge of a nebula. But when you stick a camera on it, and do an exposure for five minutes, and then do thirty of those and stack them all together and [then] tweak the dials in the software, suddenly what was just a black patch of space, becomes this magnificent cloud of dust and gas and glowing emissions that you couldn’t see before.”

“I get the photos back and I can’t believe this is just hovering above my house,” he adds with a laugh. “And I can’t see it with my own eyes, but I can reveal it with these cameras and this technology.”

O’Donnell is one of many ‘backyarders’ dotted all over the globe. Amateur astronomy, along with amateur Astro photography, while a relative niche, is a growing area of astronomy as a whole, particularly in America. As he explains, in Australia at a star party (a gathering of like-minded hobbyists), you might mingle with a hundred or so people, but one in Florida for example, would draw thousands. “It’s like being at a rock concert,” he laughs. “There are ovals of people, and there are telescopes everywhere.”

O’Donnell came into this hobby initially as a way to quit smoking. A number of years ago, when his rent was raised and he didn’t want to pay the extra, he lived instead for six months in the back of his 4WD, working as a Unix Systems Administrator by day, and camping by night. “My strategy for [quitting smoking] was, I’ll buy myself an expensive digital camera… and every time I feel like a cigarette, I’m just gonna take photos,” he explains.

“So I had this thing in my hands to distract me from the reflex of smoking. And in that six months, I was waking up with waterfalls, I was outside under the stars, I was in these amazing locations with rocks and forests and wildlife, I was doing a lot of wildlife photography. I really cut my teeth there.”

The marriage between photography and astronomy came a few years ago, when O’Donnell bought his first telescope, inspired by a US trip. “That was a really spur of the moment thing,” he explains. “I’d gotten back from NASA, I’d gone over there for a visit, it was a lifelong dream to go and visit NASA and see the space shuttle. I came back really energised, and it’s such a wonderful part of modern human history, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna buy a telescope.’

“So I paid a thousand dollars and got myself what I thought, back then, [was] the bee’s knees, this is gonna take me ages to figure out… but a month later, I was telling [my wife], I need to buy a new telescope. I need this other one, and this other mount… I think I’m about 30k in the hole now, all up, with the observatory, structure, telescopes, cameras, the computers. So it’s not a cheap hobby.”

While not a cheap hobby, it’s becoming an incredibly important one. Backyarders like O’Donnell, citizen scientists, are these days playing a large part in astronomy as a whole. Indeed, astronomy is the only remaining science where an individual, and an amateur one at that, can meaningfully contribute in a way that enhances the overall body of knowledge in a specific field. So much so, that serious backyarders are now relied upon by the world’s largest space agencies like the ESA and NASA.

“The exploration of the solar system and beyond is a wondrous journey that’s meant to be shared by all, and NASA values and encourages the contributions of students, citizen scientists and stargazers,” concurs Dr. Jim Green, the Director of Planetary Science at NASA, via email. “Whether it’s searching for asteroids, processing photos from our Juno mission to Jupiter, or capturing the beauty of the night sky, all contribute to our understanding of the universe and help inspire future generations.”

Pic by Dylan O’Donnell (T: @erfmufn)

“Astronomy in general is buoyed by the amateurs because no one can look everywhere in the sky all at once, particularly at high magnification,” O’Donnell expands. “At any given time there are people like me with their telescopes trained on certain parts of the sky… there might be groups of people doing supernova surveys, where they swing over and shoot fifty galaxies every night, then they compare those photos to a control set of photos of those galaxies.

“They’ll literally blink them on and off and do a subtraction, subtract one from the other, and see if anything has changed. Sometimes they’ll notice stars have exploded, so suddenly there’s a big, bright patch in this galaxy, and then they report that back to scientific groups, and those scientific groups confirm it with their own telescopes, and then if it’s big enough, NASA will say, ‘We need to point Hubble there, it’s time-critical, stop whatever you’re doing, swing over, take a photo, confirm the discovery’. And that happens on a very regular basis.”

Night has properly descended on Byron and so the two of us are huddled in O’Donnell’s small observatory as he tries to zero his telescope onto a particular spot, high above us. It’s not going well however – there’s some high cloud about, and the wind has picked up, playing havoc with the sensitive equipment. He’d hoped to take shots of the Triangulum Galaxy, but it looks like tonight won’t be the night.

He shows me instead a number of images he’s taken recently. It near boggles the mind to think that what he’s produced, thanks to his arsenal of modern technology, is a picture of what is directly above us, and yet can’t be seen with the naked eye. The colours are astounding, the detail incredible. He’s helped immeasurably by the fact there is very little light pollution in this part of the world, but you can easily see how well he’s married art and technology to create images of great beauty.

There is, of course, a lot going on above our heads. And it’s thanks to citizen scientists like O’Donnell, that large parts of this are available for us to see, no matter how dark it is.

Samuel J. Fell