INTERVIEW: Augie March

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THE ABSURDITY OF CALIGULA

From his home in Hobart, Glenn Richards has a revealing conversation with Chris Familton about the life and times of Augie March, why he is proud of their new album and the challenge of combining intelligence and humour in songwriting.

Augie March are a band that have had their fair share of ups and downs, lost chances and a hiatus. The latest chapter in their now two decade career is a resurgent return to form. Previously it was a cautious re-emergence with the inconsistent Havens Dumb, a “regrouping” as songwriter Richards calls it. This time around they “got the groundwork done a bit better so it’s a stronger record in that sense, and in the songwriting too.” Richards emphasises that he’s “proud of this one, it has good energy which is often lacking when a band gets on in years. If anything there was an emphasis on not over-cluttering which we were prone to do in the past”

The album in question is Bootikins, the band’s sixth and it holds its own among their finest releases. after the touring cycle for Havens Dumb ended in disappointment. “It just kind of petered out which was a bit disappointing. I got stuck into other stuff – film scores and TV work, which I was quite happy doing. Then I found myself writing specifically to record to four-track and it brought back the fun and excitement for recording in that fashion and led to a couple of little purple patches that sounded like songs I could do with the band.”

As the songs were being written, Richards began to see a concept of sorts emerging, one where “an absurdly exaggerated version of myself was having rein in the lyric writing,” he explains. “I was becoming aware of something thematic, the awfulness of the the narrative in some of the songs, the ridiculousness as well. The apex of that was the song Bootikins – putting myself in the shoes of Albert Camus’ Caligula, not just an awful caricature but an intelligent, sensitive Caligula who is rapidly turning. It was a good excuse to write a ragged, retro rock song and try and convey the menace and absurdity of that character. It neatly tied up lots of the efforts I was making to get that across in some of the other songs. It was also a funny name to call an album!” laughs Richards.

Humour isn’t something that often gets mentioned when discussing Augie March but there’s a strong comedic streak in much of Richards’ writing that deserves greater acknowledgement. “I’ve always had the struggle to convince people that there’s a sense of humour there. I can hear it in my own voice, I just don’t convey it enough in the singing. Maybe because I have something of a choirboy voice. It’s getting rougher, maybe one day I’ll have my Nick Cave moment,” he says wryly.

The band were lucky to work with legendary Australian producer Tony Cohen, prior to his death in 2017. One of his strengths was to get the band in a room and let them play together and feed off each other. “While all of that was happening he was setting up his universe on the 24-channel desk and experimenting with certain kinds of effects on faders. He needed help on a big desk so we all got involved doing things. He essentially memorised stuff and was only satisfied when he got the mix where all the moves happened.”

Casting an eye back over a critically acclaimed career, Richards is circumspect and open about where the band missed opportunities and had others taken away from them. “We always wanted to make actual records and the chances that you get to do that are pretty slim. We were at the tail end of the dinosaur era in terms of big record contracts and it worked against us ultimately because we got stuck on a label that we didn’t really sign to,” he reveals. “To be honest, I don’t think the effort really matched the ambition along the way, we fell short in a number of ways and we had some bad luck too. I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to keep doing it. It’s about the other guys and their personal circumstances. We’ve got one more for now and it seems to be a pretty good one so we’ll see. I’d love to take this music to Europe for the first time. It’s ridiculous we never got over there. I could still do that but I’d probably have to look at taking some different guys over with me because of families and so on.”

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INTERVIEW: Underground Lovers

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THE JOY OF HUMAN IMPERFECTION

Underground Lovers return with their second post-hiatus album Staring At You Staring At Me and a run of live shows. The band’s Vincent Giarrusso talks with Chris Familton about the theme of the album and harnessing the human element in machines.

As is their trademark, Underground Lovers have created a new album that draws from a wide range of styles – acoustic songwriter, electronica, shoegaze, psychedelia and indie rock. They marry those sounds together with seamless synchronicity but never lose their grasp on the art of songwriting. “At the end of the day it’s about songs and songwriting and we’re really interested in the emotion of songs and how they can evoke feeling,” reflects Giarrusso.

“The initial idea for this album was just a bunch of songs about Melbourne – St Kilda, Richmond, Warrandyte. As we started structuring the album we realised it was about the things we always write about which is male/female relationships within a chaotic and unbalanced world. Those ideas drove it. There are lots of ideas and themes that recur in our music over the years. That’s just how it works,” Giarusso reveals. “Having a few years between albums gets you thinking more and thinking deeper about what you want to do. I think that comes across on the album. It’s quite complex at times even though we’re always striving for simplicity.”

The album title refers to a world where human contact is diminishing and as well as exploring that subject lyrically, it’s also reflected sonically in their songs. “Instead of people looking and staring at each other they’re looking at screens. We tried to get that idea across in the technology we used. We all come from the school where we think that computers are dumb instruments and just tools to use and that they have to suit your needs instead of you following what they do. Whenever we use loops we try to make them as manual as possible so we are in control and it still has some human imperfection.”

The realities of life, full-time jobs, having to organise six people and waiting times for German-pressed vinyl meant Staring At You Staring At Me has has a long gestation process, explains Giarrusso. “It was hard to get six people together when everyone is busy. We recorded it over six months and we didn’t know how it would turn out until the end. We pushed ourselves and found a new sort of structure for the long-play which was surprising for us. That kept it fresh.”

The great story behind Underground Lovers is that after a nine year hiatus, which Giarrusso puts down to the “twists and turns of human life” and describes personally as a tough time, the band are still creatively as strong as they ever have been.

“When we came back together it was brilliant. It just the same as it ever way which was fantastic. It was worth the wait. We’re getting a lot of young people coming to shows which is exciting. They’re saying they like our new stuff better than the old stuff which is great and surprising!”

INTERVIEW: Mikelangelo & The Black Sea Gentlemen

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A SHOCKWAVE OF MODERN MULTICULTURALISM

With a brand new album based on the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme, Mikelangelo talks with Chris Familton about the genesis and process of the project and how it relates to contemporary Australia.

Many musicians might be loathe to admit to making concept albums but basing your album around one of the largest engineering projects of the 20th century must surely make it just that? “Every album I work on has some degree of being a concept album, whether it is covert or overt. There’s always something that links the songs together, some subterranean narrative or overarching arc,” Mikelangelo reveals.

“This one is interesting because it came about when myself and The Black Sea Gentlemen met with an arts company called Big hART who have been around for over 20 years and who work with communities to tell interesting yet invisible stories. We’ve been interested in doing an album based on stories about the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme because it was such an explosion of mid-20th century European-ness when 200,000 men came out post-World War II Europe to work on the scheme. This little town [Cooma] changed irrevocably and it started this shockwave of modern multiculturalism around Australia,” explains Mikelangelo.

“My dad came out from Croatia as a migrant worker and worked on the scheme so it had always been of interest to me and a key to understanding more about him as he’d never opened up much about it,” Mikelangelo confides. That personal connection makes it more than just a history-meets-music exercise yet the project can also be viewed as a commentary on the current political climate around the issue of immigration.

“Big hART were interested in how the story stacked up as a positive refugee migrant story that has been accepted into the Australian identity and how that might reflect on our current inability to deal with immigration. All these people were moving around the world trying to find places to live, similar to now. If there is any message that comes through on a base emotional level it is acceptance. I think that’s a very simple concept that many governments peddle the opposite stance. Their narratives are so weak and thin that they’re coming apart. You can only lie for so long.”

This was the first time all the Gentleman wrote for an album,” says Mikelangelo of the songwriting process for the album. “They’re all vibrant songwriters with their own projects. They’ve always loved my songs but it’s evolved into me writing half the songs and the others writing the rest. Working with Big hART we got this creative residency time – a house in Cooma or a work space like an old church and so we could work for days on end together. It meant we could work on our songs and then bring them back into the group and we haven’t really had an opportunity to work like that in the past,” he enthuses. “That was an exciting way to work. My songs really came out of being interested in the men working in the tunnels and their trials and tribulations. That was my way of thinking about how my father’s life would have been then. Some of the other Gentlemen took quite different angles which makes the album really interesting.”

Working with arts companies, funding bodies and local councils means dealing with vested interests and expectations, yet at the end of the day, like the scheme itself, everyone seems to be very happy with the finished product. Mikelangelo recalls meeting with the local Cooma Council who “wanted a certain thing out of it” before adding with another bout of healthy laughter, “They appreciated us but they probably wanted a bit more Man From Snowy River and a bit less wog!”

INTERVIEW: Moon Duo

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Anything Can Be Psychedelic

Moon Duo’s Sanae Yamada discusses their place in psychedelic music, adding a live drummer to their line-up and performing to the ashes of dead people, with Chris Familton.

As the name suggests Moon Duo are a musical pairing, the collaborative project of Yamada and partner Ripley Johnson. The latter is best known for his work with San Francisco psych/drone group Wooden Shjips but with logistical issues slowing progress with that band and Moon Duo becoming more prolific and popular they’re able to spend more time exploring their lunar landscape.

“This will be the first time we’re doing two Moon Duo records instead of alternating albums between the two bands. Wooden Shjips can be more difficult to organise and get them all together as some of them have intense day jobs and families so it is harder to organise. It’s easy for us to pack up and hit the road and John (Jeffrey – drums) is young, he’ll do whatever!” laughs Yamada.

Jeffrey joined the band a couple of years ago, replacing the drum machines they used on stage and in the process reinvigorating and breathing new life into some of the band’s songs.

“There are some songs that I’m way more into because we’ve found this other mode for them which is more dynamic than the recorded versions. A big part of it is having John who opens us up to be dynamic and flexible in a way that we weren’t before. We can play with tempo and length and explore realms on the spur of the moment which is fantastic for us. Having John was great because we could do this kind of man-machine thing where we programmed beats and then got him to recreate them with a human touch. I was really happy with how that worked out.”

Playing in new countries and in unique venues is another way to maintain enthusiasm and variety in their live performance. Recently, one such setting was the Bohemian National Cemetery Chapel in Chicago.

“That was amazing. That place just made the hairs on my arms stand up. It was a crematorium as well as a chapel so it had these walls with little glass cases full of urns with people’s ashes and photographs, mostly from the early 20th century. The room was round with a domed ceiling. Very spooky but very cool.”

There has been an increase in the popularity of psychedelic-based music, from Tame Impala to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, in recent years but does it constitute a scene and if so, is it one that Moon Duo feel a part of?

“I like both those bands but I feel the concept of psychedelic rock is very broad. The idea of psychedelia is to open up doors and possibilities and not put boundaries on things or box anything in. For me, anything can be psychedelic. For instance I find some of Herbie Hancock’s music from the mid-70s to be deeply psychedelic. There’s this minimal synth woman Laurie Spiegel who I really like and her stuff is super minimal but amazing and I find that extremely transportive in a psychedelic way. I guess I appreciate the label for our music but I think the current scene around that concept has a very specific sound aesthetic which we don’t really fit but I like the concept of psychedelia in general.”

SONIC KICKS: Jamie Hutchings

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Earlier this year Jamie Hutchings (Bluebottle Kiss, Infinity Broke) marked twenty years in music with a retrospective solo show at Camelot Lounge in Marrickville. With a such a strong back catalogue that spans both solo and band releases it was an impressive and rewarding trawl through his discography and a remarkable overview of the evolution of his songwriting craft.

Hutchings chatted more than he probably ever has on stage, giving an insight into the genesis and inspiration of the songs and experiences that surrounded them with self-deprecating humour, dedications and some healthy sarcasm. That personal interaction was crucial to the success of the evening and connected Hutchings to his audience who showed genuine love and passion for his body of music.

The success of the evening has resulted in an invitation from the venue to repeat the event on Thursday, August 27th. This time Hutchings will be supported by his sister Sophie Hutchings, an acclaimed pianist and composer whose 2010 album Becalmed was a real favourite of ours.

Thursday August 27th

Jamie Hutchings, Sophie Hutchings

Camelot Lounge, Marrickville

Doors 7pm

Jamie was kind enough to answer our Sonic Kicks Q&A plus a few other questions relating more directly to the upcoming show. Read on to find out which album inspired a switch from drums to guitar, the band that leaves him breathless, the soundtrack to his teen surfing years and his next musical plans.

The first album I bought.

Probably something by Split Enz. I was a huge fan from around nine years old and I started randomly buying their albums from there on in. I still dig Dizrythmia out sometimes. It’s pretty fantastic.

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An album that soundtracked a relationship.

Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. It makes me dizzy and reminds me of stuff.

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An album that inspired me to form a band.

I’d been playing drums in bands but it wasn’t until I heard You’re Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr that I felt I really had to teach myself to play guitar. I’ve never been as immediately effected by an album as that one. It just sounded like the best concoction ever and totally inspired me.

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An album that reminds me of my high school years.

Maybe the first Midnight Oil album. Everyone used to call it Powderworks or The Blue album, the first song has such a great high energy guitar riff, lots of surfers were into them and I was a pretty hardcore surfer so it was the perfect soundtrack. MI0001759825

An album I’d love to hear live and played in full.

Mariposa by Rein Sanction. They’re a lost early ’90’s Sub Pop band with an incredibly claustrophobic playing style. There’s some rough live footage on Youtube, I’d have loved to have seen them, I kind of forget to breath when I hear them.

My favourite album cover art.

Warehouse Songs And Stories by Husker Du. I bought it on gatefold vinyl back in the day, it look amazing. There’s no text on the cover which was pretty unheard of back then. The colours are so rich, crazy and explosive but it’s kind of ethereal too.Husker-Du-Warehouse-Songs-and-Stories-Front

A guilty pleasure album.

I don’t know…Tapestry by Carole King? It’s kind of classic AM radio stuff, such a amazing songs though.MI0001534574

The last album I bought.

Tea Time for Those Determined to Completely Exhaust Every Bit of This Body They’ve Been Given by Keiji Haino/ Jim O’Rourke/ Oren Ambarchi. It’s with the mail man but technically it’s my most recent purchase. They release a live album each year edited from an improvised set they perform annually. They really reach way out and bury me every time.BT012LP_CU

The next album I want to buy.

I’ve been trying to find the first Faust album on vinyl at a normal price which has been tough. When I do that’ll be it. I’m a huge Can fan but haven’t heard much of Faust, I recently watched a Krautrock documentary by the BBC and these guys really intrigued me.

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What are the BBK/solo/Infinity Broke songs that get requested or referenced most by fans?

It depends, when people are requesting stuff on social media or by email it tends to be album tracks or more obscure songs. At Infinity Broke shows people always want to hear ‘Monsoon’ which is fine because we love to play it. Solo if someone yells out stuff it’s usually stuff like ‘Fathers Hands’ or ‘Last Playboy in Town’. It really varies though, I think people that listen to my projects are pretty across most of the stuff which is nice.

If you had to choose between Neil Young, Tom Waits and Greg Dulli covering one of your songs, who would it be and which song would you be most interested to hear?

Geez…what a conundrum! Who to choose! Yes I’d allow Tom Waits to cover me I guess. I think he’d do a good version of ‘The Judas Hands’.

With a 20 year career, do you ever see your influence in younger bands on the Australian scene?

Not that I’m aware of, the best ones probably hide it I guess. On the rare occasions I have heard an overt influence I feel really embarrassed.

Playing a retrospective show, does that conjure up certain emotions, memories, people and places via the range of songs you play?

Not specifically or consciously, but there are some songs that suddenly put me in a spin out of nowhere emotionally and I have to try and hide it somehow. What I found about some of my really old songs when I was relearning them earlier in the year for my January show was how uncanny some of them were. It was like they were mini self-fulfilling prophecies.

How close is your songwriting style and process now compared to your 20 year old self?

I was very inside my songs when I was younger, often pretty earnest and naive which isn’t always the tastiest combo. Apart from becoming a better and hopefully more imaginative musician, the main difference is that I began to stretch myself way more lyrically. I began to feel like I could fly around and inhabit different worlds lyrically whereas in my ’20’s I was really stuck inside my own head. I still am a bit but I don’t feel disingenuous when I attempt to write outside of that little universe.

After looking back, what are the next steps forward for you musically?

Infinity Broke will hopefully start to play live again sometime, it’s been really difficult since our album tour to get everyone together, but it’s a blast when we do. I’ve been recording an album with Peter Fenton from Crow. We’ve got a collaborative project called The Tall Grass. We’re about two thirds of the way through. It’s been really humbling and refreshing working with him, sometimes we wonder where the music’s coming from! It’s sounding great. I’m also planning on recording a very bare solo album soon. Probably just acoustic guitar, double bass and vocals. Hopefully I’ll start working on Mark Moldre’s next album soon too.