Tuesday, November 26, 2013

HIS RULES: An interview with Justin van der Volgen

After 11 years as bassist for !!! and the last 6 years building a reputation as a killer DJ and remixer, JUSTIN VAN DER VOLGEN brings his show to Melbourne Music Week. ANDY HAZEL pulls on his dancing shoes.

‘Do I dance in my studio? Yes! For sure!’ Justin Van Der Volgen expounds enthusiastically from his home in Brooklyn. ‘I’m a fan of dance music in general so I try to go out a lot. I still enjoy being in the club and hearing stuff I’ve never heard before; I want to dance!’
As bassist for !!!, member of renown underground electro band Out Hud, and currently one half of production/label outfit TBD with Doug Lee, van der Volgen has been working far harder than his output would suggest. ‘I try to do lots of remixes however I only release the ones I feel come out very well,’ he explains. ‘That’s why I only release maybe two a year. I don’t want to do stuff that is ‘just OK’. I want it to be really good, or at least the best I can do. I try to make it special and have a good feeling about it’.
Plainly, others agree. In an incredibly crowded marketplace for dance music, this quality control lends a buzz to what he chooses to be associated with. As a result, when van der Volgen thinks something works, it usually does. ‘I get good responses from my friends. If they tell me they are playing the stuff or sometimes I hear people playing my stuff out, I think it works.’
Though he’s never stopped going to clubs, van der Volgen doesn’t find it hard to switch off and have fun when he’s out. When we chat, he’s on his way to see friend and collaborator Eric Duncan (aka Dr Dunks) play a show at their beloved A1 Record Store, a source for much of van der Volgen’s legendarily large record collection. ‘I’m always trying to learn from what other people are doing,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes I’ll hear a song and think about the arrangement and how I would change it, and then I do! I edit new music for myself all the time. I only do a few mixes a year for blogs and zines,’ he says, reinforcing his quality over quantity manifesto. 
Striking out on his own and taking on greater responsibilities characterises the liberation that infuses his music. From the popping basslines that drove his work with !!! via the summery disco of his legendary Try To Find Me 2 mix and acclaimed reworking of Maserati’s pulsing Inventions, van der Volgen brings a hint of his underground electro upbringing in Sacramento to the ‘Brooklyn scene’ that he is most commonly associated with. ‘I was in !!! for eleven years and many things changed over that time,’ he explains. ‘I had achieved my adolescent dream of being in a band with friends and travelling the world, so really I left because it was time for me to do my own thing.’
After spending the years since leaving !!! jumping between labels for his releases, van Der Volgen decided now was the right time to start his own. It’s name? My Rules. ‘I’ve worked with many labels in the past, so it’s good to have that experience. Because it’s my label, I can do things as fast and slow as I want. I oversee the mastering and all the costs, so if it goes well I can keep all the profit - what little of it there is in making records now - or all the loss.’
No stranger to collaborations, van der Volgen’s individualistic take on naming his projects (Try to Find Me, My Rules) suggests a clear line between working on his own and with others. ‘I like to collaborate, but it’s really nice to have things you do on your own as well. With collaboration comes compromise but it can also get you to a place you may never have been able to go on your own, so I like both.’
The ‘Brooklyn scene’ of DJs and producers that van der Volgen often finds himself lumped in with isn’t something he thinks exists at all, but it’s also not an association that bugs him, given he plied his trade for years beforehand. ‘I think many artists here make a lot of music that sounds very different, which is a good thing! I moved to New York in the beginning of 2001, so I’ve been here a while, but I’m not sure if I’d be considered a native New Yorker. Sacramento, at least when I was there from the mid 90s to 2000, was cool in the sense that there isn’t much to do, so you have to find out for yourself what you’re into and go with it.’
While My Rules recently released its first 12” (van der Volgen’s own More Fry), with more to come and several buzzing projects on the go (though names are still secret at the moment), this an exciting time to catch van der Volgen live. ‘I’m doing a project with Eric Duncan, Pete Z, Johnny Sender and Aaaron Bondahoff. I’m also getting some more TBD stuff done in Berlin,’ he states effusively, ‘but really, I’m trying to focus on my own productions. All this stuff comes out in a show; all the good stuff!’


Billboard the Venue
Kicking off the night with victories for the Theatre Royal Castlemaine and the Corner Hotel in the Best Regional Venue and Best Venue categories, it’s hard to recall a better host for anything ever than footy-loving soul man Chris Gill.
Local combo Big Scary regale us with textured cuts from their Best Album nominee Not Art. Those not caught up in chat and schmoozing are seduced by their intriguing, layered take on trip-hop flavoured psych rock.

Back to the awards and Music Victoria’s ever-dapper Bek Duke reads a telegram from Aunty Meredith, accepting the Best Festival award. Best Regional Band goes to Stonefield and the Drones take Best Live Band, both wresting the award from stiff competition. While Vince Peach spins American soul cuts, the night begins to build toward the induction of Renee Geyer into the Hall of Fame. Fellow inductee Michael Gudinski is celebrated in a video outlining the long success of Mushroom Records, and similarly accepts via video.
The EG All Stars and Saskwatch Horns back stabs at soul songs from some of the city’s most noted singers. Kylie Audlist and Lance Ferguson open with Renee Geyer’s Stares and Whispers, Ella Thompson owns Geyer’s Be There in the Morning before Linda Bull and Daniel Merriweather stun with their takes on Paul Kelly’s Sure Got Me (Where You Want Me) and Cold Chisel’s Four Walls respectively. 60s pop hit Simon Says will never be the same now Dan Sultan has had his way with it, and Remi, representing the hip-hop soul connection, reminds us where much of Melbourne’s creativity now lies.

The final awards given see Best Male and Best Album go to Paul Kelly, the Drones collect a second for Best Band, Adalita take Best Female and Vance Joy’s Riptide a surprise but deserving Best Song.

From hear on out, the night is about one woman. A tribute video featuring Bonnie Raitt, one time Beach Boy Ricky Fataar, Ella Thompson and Gudinski highlights Geyer’s easy move between styles and wide influence. Inducting her into the Hall of Fame, Minister for the Arts Heidi Victoria calls for a ‘bit of shush’ to read a quote from Geyer’s father: ‘All modern music is shit. But my daughter’s shit is the best’.

Geyer and her 9-piece backing band are on stunning form. Combining her pop hits with soul classics (and Paul Kelly’s phenomenal Difficult Woman) we are left in no doubt as to what she was born to do, and how lucky we are to see her do it. Her voice, as Gill pointed out earlier, is only getting better. Closing with her 80s hit Say I Love You and the ever-stunning It’s a Man’s World, Geyer brings out Dan Sultan to duet on A Change is Gonna Come. Introducing him as ‘our Elvis Presley’ it’s hard not to see the torch of soul-powered rock legend not be passed from one to another, but shared and redoubled, ending a killer night.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The Shadow Electric
One of a number of cavernous rooms within the Abbotsford Convent complex, the Shadow Electric is tucked away near several other noisy affairs. Tonight, a Greek wedding and a disco compete with the sounds of the clanging guitars and squeezed, impassioned vocals in the courtyard outside.

Singer and songwriter Fergus Miller (who essentially IS Bored Nothing) has such an affectingly creaky voice and arresting way with hacking at his guitar that you can almost forget you’ve heard much of it before. His tender, bruised lyrics and piercingly vocal melodies betray a youth spent listening to Big Star, Elliot Smith and Triple J and more recent infatuation with Pitchfork-lauded guitar pop. In many hands this would be a bad thing, but Miller has a fascinatingly unique voice that is beginning to find its own way and with him, it’s wholly arresting. The slacker vibe that infused his 2012 debut album is being honed into something compelling, and his homemade band t-shirts, ironically self-deprecatory banter betrays a smart sensibility. Burst of howling feedback are never uncontrolled, and the other three members of Bored Nothing are excellent players, well attuned to the slovenly mess that comprises his secretly confident songs. Closing with a cover of Weezer’s Undone is done with a compelling finesse and doesn’t come across as the lazy choice it may seem.

Channeling the affectionate sneer of Paul Kelly, Palms’ singer Al Grigg opens the band’s set with the largely solo In the Morning, setting the stage for some raucous Rickenbacker-driven clamour. At times reminiscent of You Am I, with their squalid euphoria, Palms are a fantastically effective live band. While the musicianship is fine, it’s the songs that really show the chops at work here. Tracks like I Wish That You Were Mine, This Summer is Done With Us, Rainbow and the closing This Last Year are gloriously ramshackle and more than worthy of the legacy that Grigg and drummer Tom Wallace blazed in Red Riders, one of Sydney’s most underrated bands of recent years. While Grigg’s Dylanesque chewing of lyrics, softens the otherwise blazingly confident delivery, it’s not enough to undo a pithy set from a great band in an interesting and underused locale.


Northcote Social Club
Outside, the cold damp streets are devoid of people, but within the bustling Social Club, a very particular type of warmth is drawing in a thickly cloaked huddle. The type of warmth only bluegrass, country and beer can bring.

Compelling duo Bill Jackson and Pete Fidler bawl lonely, heartfelt stories about pilgrimages to Tennessee and how to turn the tables on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fidler's inspired lap steel and guitar playing seems to draw down streaks of silver rain whenever he drags his slide or slips a sprightly lick between Jackson’s lyrics. Any excuse to hear this man embellish a sorry tale is valid, such is his talent, and it’s a testament to Jackson’s charisma and songwriting chops that he’s not sidelined.

The Bastard Children offer irreverent busker-y bluster to their folk rock. Banjo, mandolin and harmonica push their Celtic soul from middling fare to something that will hopefully be enlivening festival bills throughout the summer. Songs about long journeys with ferrets, whales falling in love with lifeboats and broken hearts intermingle with none seeming out of place. Songs like Come On In showcase their prodigious multi-instrumentalism and songwriting skills and offer and as the set moves from intelligent balladry to knees-up/elbows-out accordion-toting folk dancing, the audience loosen up and move forward.

By now nearly filled, the room is humming animatedly with plenty of drink assisting the warm reception The Stillsons receive as the curtains part and the band’s new album Never Go Your Way is launched. With carefully constructed alt-country ballads and superlative live mixing, the Stillsons have punchy, spacious songs that drummer and vocalist Cat Canteri’s warm tones spread over like hot molasses. Fellow songwriter Justin Bernasconi’s considerable skills as a guitarist and singer never overcome the classy songwriting. 

Occasionally drifting into soft rock territory (Family on the Run), or barroom boogies (Small Things) the sounds are always warm. The acerbic Go Home and Stay Awake tackle racism and tenement living in a Costello-esquely effective way, and lends some gravitas to the mix.
Despite songs falling into predictably wholesome patterns, the band clearly aces everything they set out to do. Pedal steel maestro Ben Franz elevates and distinguishes the band with a gritty grace and a litany of guests including Jeff Lang only reinforces the band’s rare ability to support a song as a collective rather than enhance the product of one ego. The more rockin' Dish it Up shows us the band riled up, and it's a good thing. Closing with the righteous swagger of You Don't Know What I Need, the band return for an encore of Another Lover and the massive Charity & Ghosts to which were are rendered nothing but raucous shouters with massive smiles. Win.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


MONA, Hobart  
Occupying a high, narrow room four stories underground, the long-sold-out Void (a bar within the Museum of Old and New Art) is a weirdly appropriate place to see one of the world’s greatest post-punk bands. From the towering concrete walls of New York’s Bowery slums, to the towering concrete walls of a slick bar in Hobart within a world-class iconic art gallery.

‘This is a band confession,’ says singer and arch-icon Tom Verlaine in his only moment of conversation during tonight’s show. ‘We thought Tasmania was 30 miles north of Sydney,’ he smiles sheepishly.

Smiling is something that happens a lot tonight, between chilled Tasmanians and excited mainlanders as they chat animatedly, awaiting the arrival of the band. It also happens on stage as Verlaine, drummer Billy Ficca, bassist Fred Smith and longtime collaborator guitarist Jimmy Rip ease their way through a set that ends up being very different to that bestowed upon ATP the previous week.

Opening with Prove It and weaving a set out of their long history, the foursome seem relaxed without ever actually expressing emotion. Labeled ‘the Ice Kings of Rock' by the British press in their heyday, there is still an arch languor in the way Verlaine spreads his virtuosity across the band’s seething post-punk. Looking like Kasparov mid-chess tournament as he casually throttles a guitar string from one end to the other, drops icy piercing swelling notes, his playing is never less than galvanizing.

Glory, from 1978’s Adventure album follows, before we get the early highlight Little Johnny Jewel, where the interplay between Verlaine and Rip reaches near telepathic heights. 1880 or So from their eponymous 1992 comeback album, and unreleased epic Persia pepper an otherwise Marquee Moon-dominant set.

The cascading bell-like guitar lines tumble over each other with stunning clarity. Arpeggios, spiky chord slashes and fluid lines build, burst and recede, their taut splendour accentuated by Verlaine’s straining neck, and flinty voice.

Closing with a searing Guiding Light and the high point of musical history that is Marquee Moon, Verlaine breaks both a plectrum and a string during the extended solo section yet finishes the song brilliantly. Unsatisfied, and brandishing a fresh guitar, the band return to encore with another, even better take on the plus-five-minute solo (not the song, just the solo). Returning again for a stunning take on Friction the band share another smile and leave the stage to even louder howling, ending a night that transcended the regurgitation of a classic album, instead showing how 30 years of life experience can enhance songs that were already showcase for a rare intellect.


Festival Hub
One of the big drawcards to this year’s Melbourne Festival and one of the organiser’s more leftfield choices, Fuck Buttons are a duo never known to disappoint. Selling out within hours and playing their first Australian show since being a highlight of 2009’s ATP Festival, the venue is packed and buzzing for an hour before the band begin.

Thick, shifting synth chords hang in the air, the room similarly twilit as the night outside and the stage hosting a perfunctory table littered with Casios, synth pads, Fisher Price karaoke machines and dozens of leads running from mixers. A mirrorball hangs waist height and a large screen stands behind the table completing the carefully arranged chaos. Andrew Hung and Ben Power wander on, deliver an acknowledging wave, and proceed to rupture the space-time continuum.

Opening with the relentless drum loop and disembowelling synth of Brainfreeze, the first track from their latest album Slow Focus, the screen bursts to life with shimmering silhouettes of the two men looming over fractured images of the Victorian coastline. Patterns and images come, go, are refracted and mixed with unusual colours and are never less than arresting. Bass tones shudder up through your shoes and slabs of synth pad push the limits of what ears can stand, but Fuck Buttons seem to intuitively know the right frequencies to push and to which levels. Their complex layers of tones and filtered sounds clash brilliantly with the visuals; no sci-fi landscapes here, just deep, rich colours, strange shapes and silhouettes.

Following up with the immense and blazing Surf Solar the duo seem to operate without any need for visual communication. Sounds like tuned fire extinguishers explode over tsunamis of ball bearings moving through aluminium canyons as Colours Move melds into Olympians; the sound of lush, violent euphoria.

The swaggering beats and pinging melody loop of Slow Focus highlight The Red Wing announces the arrival of the mirrorball, splattering shards of bronze light around the room. Bursts of jungle drums and Badalamenti-style refrains give a melodic depth to aural assault as the audience begin to dance as only a crushed crowd, half of whom have their eyes closed, can.

Despite remaining expressionless throughout, Hung and Power raise their empty beer bottles, nod, smile slightly and depart the stage to the dying sounds of album closer Hidden XS. The crowd roar until they return, whereby they again annihilate us with previous album Tarot Sport’s epic track Space Mountain. Spilling out into the cool night the lingering sense of a typically Melbournian repressed euphoria is silently communicated between rapt punters and loudly expressed between friends. Yet again, Fuck Buttons move onward, upward and outward blazing a path we’re more than happy to follow.


Festival Hub
A full moon hangs over the Festival Hub, as ska fans of all ages are drawn to what promises to be one of the finest Australian ska line-ups in history. Not only are all the legendary clich├ęs out in force (pork pie hats, mod suits, Specials t-shirts and moonstomp boots), but the true multicultural nature of the genre, lifestyle and its current status in the music firmament is out in all its glory.

The Melbourne Festival’s idea of celebrating ska involves engaging more than the ears tonight; the scent of jerk chicken wafts over a booth that shows 1950s instructional videos on how do dance ska, but the main reason we are here is for the music itself.

Twelve-piece collective Ska Vendors pack out a sweaty room by 8PM and show you what it is that is so fantastic about ska. The energy, talent and sheer danceability of the music is undeniable and the audience respond enthusiastically. After a short, exuberant set, two women, Marie and Victoria teach us basic ska dance moves before Melbourne legends Strange Tenants take to the stage. Opening with the searing Soldier Boy the band, apparently showcasing their original lineup for the first time in around 30 years, show their political stripes. With so little change in social concerns since their formation the songs feel as vital as when they debuted at the Lygon St Festival in 1981. The blazing Two Steps Back, the mellow Grey Skies and the furious Zombie Killers inspire a passionate response from the audience, many of who look over 60 but dance as if they were 16 and drunk for the first time. It’s an exhilarating sight. Guitarist Johnny Holmes and the peerlessly tight rhythm section are the highlight, as is the introduction to the two youngest members of the band, sons of Holmes and singer Ian Hearn, inspiring hope that the band will be around for another 32 years.

Headlining the night, and indeed the history of ska in Australia, are the ska/calypso/mento legends The Caribs, reuniting for only the second time in 52 years. With a near-unbelievable story of moving from Melbourne to Jamaica to become the country’s first studio band, performing to Winston Churchill and backing Ben E King, the fact that the founding members are here at all is a privilege all appreciate. Backed by members of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra and the Strange Tenants, the septuagenarians resurrect pioneering cuts such as Taste of Honey, Your Eyes are Dreaming and their sultry Jamaican hit Taboo inspire euphoric responses. Guitarist Dennis Sindrey (now living in Florida), keys player Peter Stoddart (still living in Jamaica) despite being the true stars, effortlessly hand the stage over to a litany of guests; Patou Powell, Rodrigo Pino and Sarah Heffernan all shine, but the Caribs made the light.

PROVING THEMSELVES: An interview with Stonefield

While the pressure of cashing in on the buzz surrounding their Unearthing may rush other bands to release their debut album, Stonefield have taken their time as Amy and Hannah Findlay explain to Andy Hazel, they want to do it right.
With the release of their debut album, Stonefield move from being a band about which the talk of their gender, age and hype may actually be drowned out by the music. Many have opinion about the Findlay sisters (and some who have an opinion can even name a Stonefield song), but soon their crashing riffs, pile-driving drums and full-throated vocals look likely to be leaving firm impressions the nation over. When making the album, bigness, the sisters agree, was the goal.
“It’s so nerve-wracking,” says drummer, singer and songwriter Amy Findlay with a laugh. “You distance yourself from it, and you’re not sure if it’s big as you think it is. You keep on listening more, and as time goes on you think: ‘Ahh, maybe it’s not that good,’ she laughs nervously.
Nerves are to be expected for an album on which so much is riding. Since exploding onto the scene in 2010, the four sisters released singles and EPs that garnered high rotation and quickly saw their fanbase expand. Touring followed, including a set at Glastonbury, an all-important ‘whoah!’-inducing visit to the Corner to see Band of Skulls that resulted in the band using their producer Ian Davenport, and hours and hours of practice.
While three years may seem a long time, it’s also a mark of careful confidence. ‘I think it worked out perfectly,’ says Amy. Guitarist Hannah agrees, ‘It was good for us because we had that extra time to write. Our songwriting developed and it gave us time for our experiences to sink in so we knew that this is really what we want to do.’
The album itself is the product of much collaboration. Not only with Davenport and engineer Tim Palmer (U2, Pearl Jam) but for the songwriting too, a worthwhile experience says Amy.
‘We didn’t want to write with anyone, we had to feel like we had the same vibe going on,’ she says evenly. ‘We wrote a few things with Adalita, that was really, really fun, but that song didn’t end up fitting with the album. It’s an awesome song, but it was a completely different thing to everything else. We also wrote with the Delta Riggs, which was completely cool. They came up to our place, set up in the lounge room, we kicked mum and dad out for a couple of days and jammed,’ the sisters laugh. ‘That was fun. Jared from Eagle and the Worm as well, those two made the album,’ says Amy.
While fun is definitely an energy coursing through the album, lyrically several themes recur; power dynamics and proving yourself. ‘Because we’re all sort of at this age where everything changes and so much happens in your life, becoming an adult, that kind of thing,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘The whole ‘proving yourself’ thing…obviously that’s a big part of it and it’s important because…debut album, here we are. Especially because it’s been three years since we were Unearthed by Triple J, so it was important that we came back with something really good and we weren’t just a hype band. We definitely wanted to prove ourselves,’ she says pausing. ‘I think that we’ve got good instincts, that’s pretty much what we’ve run off of the whole way through. Even picking a manager and label and all that stuff, it’s all about instinct.’
Amy’s instinct is a guiding force for the band as Hannah explains. ‘Mostly we do agree on stuff, but if we don’t normally it’s just one person that doesn’t agree - Holly, the youngest,’ she laughs. ‘Normally Amy is the leader and if she thinks really strongly about something then we have a lot of trust and faith in her.’
A word likely to be used a lot over the coming months, and one they’re not bothered by, is ‘mature’. ‘I feel like we have probably matured,’ says Hannah laughing before Amy continues. ‘As people and musically…I don’t know, we’re still very youthful,’ she says, continuing to laugh. Hannah responds, ‘I guess we are for 15-23 year olds, compared to when we first started. I guess we have matured a lot’. One thing that hasn’t changed however, is a love of rock. Other teenagers might go from twee-folk to hard house in the space of three years, not the Findlays.
‘Well, Sarah who plays keys is really into bands like Parkway Drive,’ says Amy outlining the diversity of her sisters’ listening habits. ‘Which is weird because she’s probably the most placid…very pretty and cute,’ the sisters devolve into laughter. ‘But she’s into…’ starts Amy, ‘really heavy stuff as well,’ continues Hannah, ‘and you pretty much did a jazz course.’
‘Yeah,’ she agrees ‘but I was never really into jazz. I was open to trying it and learning about it and stuff but always felt out of my depth singing anything but rock,’ she laughs again. ‘It’s so true that as teenagers you’re into rock and later something else. So many people we know were into grunge when they were teenagers and now they’re into tekkers (laughs), which is weird. But we’ve carried through with a love of it.’