Posts Tagged ‘Neil Young’

Words and music.

Iconic Australian songwriter Richard Clapton has celebrated 40 years of writing and making music with the simultaneous release of his autobiography together with a three CD (plus DVD) set.

Iconic is a lazy word, overused in the relentless sales pitch that is post-war popular music but in Clapton’s case, it is entirely apt. His music has been as much a part of (and a reflection of) Australian life as Lou Reed’s or The Beach Boys have been to the American landscape or Ray Davies to the British. And it is this intertwining of his words and music with our births, deaths and marriages that un-lazys the word ‘iconic’ in his case.

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The 50-track CD set ­– Best Years 1974-2014: The 40th Anniversary Collection – shows the consistency of his vision from the beginning. The tugging yearn of ‘Blue Bay Blues’ (from 1975’s Girls on The Avenue LP) has much in common with ‘Vapour Trails’ from 2012’s Harlequin Nights – an emotional directness, an almost country-perfect meld of words and melody, a crisp and  beautifully realised production.

What raises these songs – in fact, what raises all fifty of these songs and beyond into Clapton’s back-catalogue ­– is their deep humanity. No lyric cannot be understood and felt – whether poetic or everyday (the lines “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road/I’m so drunk and the car won’t go” somehow mean so much) – no melody fails to serve the words, no chord fails to serve the song. Nor does any production trick rankle or obscure the deep effect on the heart of these tunes. Which is triply remarkable since Clapton’s recordings have always taken production values from each of his four decades – to these ears, the best values: yes, his music even survived the synthetic, gated textures of the 80s.

Clapton’s voice of course is a big part of this. Always a little wounded-sounding, mellow or raw, its limits – like Dylan, like George Harrison – are its strengths. His is the voice of us, singing tunes that any of us can sing. (Check Jimmy Barnes’ grating howl on the live DVD reading of ‘I Am An Island’ to see how easily that spell can be broken).

Another big part of Clapton’s songs is the feeling of place, always vivid and undilutedly Australian. Songs such as the triple crown of “Goodbye Tiger”, “Deep Water” and “Down in The Lucky Country” from 1977’s Goodbye Tiger seem to breathe with a salt-breeze off the Pacific, and conjure brown-skinned girls, beach promenades, beer and humid Bondi nights. Remarkable that all three were written in a creative blue streak in a farmhouse in the freezing north of Denmark, Clapton snowed-in in more than one sense, self-exiled from Australia.

richard_clapton_best_years_1974-2014_0814It seems he took an ever glowing ember of Australia (or maybe a handful of warm Pacific sand), in his heart with him wherever he went. And went he did, and went and went – his autobiography, The Best Years of Our Lives, charts his pin-balling travels from Australia to Britain, from Germany (and all over Europe) to the US and back again. A geographical manifestation of Clapton’s truly restless creative spirit – one of many parallels to Neil Young, who also rocks like fury, yet writes clear-water ballads, and never ever stands still ­– his travels were as much driven by disaffection with Australia, his homeland, as they were by beckoning global fame.

Toby Cresswell in his liner notes to the CD set refers to his early impression of Richard Clapton as “a man on a mission of becoming”. The book maps this trajectory in great detail. Yes, there are the salacious titillations of parties, glamour, INXS, drug fun and boozy swashbuckling. Yet, there is the impression of Clapton as an artist always just a little on the outer, looking in on it all – not judging or voyeuristically but with affectionate observation, loading his palette and his brush with the hues and tints of beloved, fast-paced Life.

The book also gives the impression of a man to whom the music was all. There is nothing of his childhood or early teenage (beyond pale mention of boarding school and a distanced family), nor of his more recent divorce and its associated pain (which ironically, fuelled Harlequin Night’s sweetest moments). The book starts when music starts for Clapton and you gather this is when life started for him too.the-best-years-of-our-lives

The partying also stops when there is work to be done. Clapton as ‘headmaster’ while producing the second INXS album, 1981’s Underneath The Colours. Clapton working through the night to get things just right. The exceptional musicians he used on his albums ­– such as Kirk Lorange and Cold Chisel’s (often uncredited) Ian Moss – shows the value he put on the final work. Throughout his life we see Clapton bail out when the music seems to take second place to the satyricon.

Words and music. Please read the book, and listen to the music – take it all and enjoy it all. But leave the DVD till last.

The Best Years of Our Lives was recorded (for a live album) and filmed before a small invited audience at an Artarmon sound stage on 16 April 1989. It was a relatively drug-free event. Hardly a recipe for rock’n’roll fireworks. It was a retrospective of Clapton’s work over the years and featured a rotating band of musicians from his various past projects, such as Venetta Fields, Jimmy Barnes, INXS’s Jon Farris and Garry Gary Beers and the unknown Ben Butler (who bloody well shines on lead guitar). Despite the strong material, it could have been a self-conscious damp squib.

It is a triumph – the songs seems to galvanise the players, and Clapton’s obvious delight pushes the band into some white-hot areas. It is really what live music is all about ­– and Richard Clapton, that denizen of the all-night studio, shows his live chops in all their tooth and fang glory. (I saw him a couple of years back at Byron Bay Bluesfest and he thrilled the shit out of me there, too).

The DVD finishes with the song ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, performed only by Clapton with spare piano backing. This song of universal hope and love of this gift that is life is hugely affecting in its full band setting. But done in simple duo like this, by its songwriter many years on, it takes on a sweet nostalgia that every one of us will always be able to relate to, and cherish.

As Clapton sings, we keep waiting for the band to come in – heralded by a thunderous drum fill – to take it up to the anthemic place which awaits these words, this melody. But it never does. Bruce Springsteen would have taken it up there, but Richard Clapton leaves it down here, amongst us.

After all, it is where the song – where all his songs – live.

 

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The first time I listened to Jen Cloher’s new record, In Blood Memory, I was in bed, awash on a sea of cheap red wine, rolling in that place between sleep and wake. I always thought it was the perfect place to listen to music – an uncritical space where intellect is irrelevant and feeling is all.

Sort of like the best rock and roll.

The second time I listened to In Blood Memory – thinking its beauty had seduced me on that first drunken listen while I wasn’t looking – was on a night train, rolling through the city. Once again, Cloher’s music took me away, the passing rail lights twinkling as if in a dream.

Jen Cloher

In Blood Memory is a collection of songs that seem to call from that primal place where the best music and art is made. Evanescent, ill-defined, dreamily visceral, cloudy. It is the hazy place of The Velvet UndergroundBitches Brew, one-chord blues, Mark Rothko’s blur-edged canvases.

It is also very very beautiful, with a beauty that is just beyond your grasp, and far far beyond language.

A song such as ‘Name In Lights’, the album’s second track, swings between angular rock and roll (with a nicely smacked-out ‘Wild Thing’ garage breakdown in the middle) and a frenzied ending, the band almost drowning Cloher’s “There’s nothing I can do” refrain in dervish-like intensity. This coda brings to mind that of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” where a repeated pattern is slowly sand-blasted by howling synthesized wind until detail is eradicated down to white noise. Once again, the blurred shape.cloher2

The final track, ‘Hold My Hand’ has a similar curve, with an ominous thunderhead of an ending (with a raw-edged dissonant final chord) surprising after a coolly passionate song.

‘Kamikaze Origami’ and ‘David Bowie Eyes’ (“one is green and one is blue”) are Lou Reed country-rock gems. The latter has Cloher singing “She’s got David Bowie eyes” with the same downward inflection that Kim Carnes put on 1981’s “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes”. Pop culture references abound throughout In Blood MemoryDarren Hanlon rubs denimed shoulders with YokoMeryl Streep breaks on through with The Lizard King. Cloher can’t help singing the word “changes” as “ch-ch-changes” on ‘Name In Lights’.

As wonderful as the songs are – and every one is wonderful – it is Jen Cloher’s voice and the band that elevate the album. She inhabits each song as only a songwriter can (think Paul Simon, Reed or Lennon), swaggering, aching (the luminous ‘Needs’), spitting over unwashed guitars (the Stonesy rolling ‘Toothless Tiger’). ‘Toothless Tiger’ shows her band as a band – a breathing many-armed beastie that lives a full life if only for 3:52. That the same band can also weave fresh-air country tapestries such as ‘Kamikaze Origami’ is nicely surprising.

In Blood Memory is a very beautiful album of great rock and roll. It puts Jen Cloher firmly to the forefront of Australian songwriters. If I hear a better Oz album this year I will be pretty bloody surprised.

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Prior to publishing this review I asked Jen a handful of questions. Here are her responses:

TOP: It is four years since your last album, Hidden Hands. What was the spark that led to In Blood Memory?

Cloher: I’d been writing for a couple of years, doing all sorts of stuff. I spent some time co-writing and even recorded some duets, one with Kieran Ryan and another with Courtney Barnett. But I found co-writing strange, it was fun but it didn’t feel like I’d want to write a whole album that way. I guess I was trying to find something new to open up my songwriting. One day I picked up the guitar and started writing a song called ‘Mount Beauty’ and it felt different, there was something about it that felt new. That was the first single from the new album and opened the door to the rest of the album. It came very quickly after that, over about six months, then we headed straight into the studio and recorded the album in six days.

TOP: The band really sounds like a band – how do you as songwriter interact with your chosen musos? Benevolent despot or one of the guys?

Cloher: We recorded live in a big room with my band at Headgap Studios in Melbourne. They’re my closest friends and I see them pretty much everyday, so there isn’t too much that needs to be communicated. When you’re recording live you have to listen closely to each other and move as a whole. I love that feeling, of finding a great performance in the studio and committing it to tape.

TOP: There are references to a return to youth in several of the songs – ‘Make me feel like I’m seventeen/Listening to the Lizard King…’ or ‘I’ll pretend I’m younger…’  Do you feel your generation feels this more keenly than any previous generation?

Cloher: It’s hard to say. All I know is that I’m getting older, and when you get older you start to reflect on where you’ve come from. It’s strange because you never think you are going to get older and then all of a sudden you are. We live in a society where expectation is placed on your age. I see younger friends feeling like failures in their mid 20’s! It’s ridiculous how much emphasis we place on achieving certain things by a certain age, people are celebrated for being young and successful. But when it comes to art, who really cares how old you are? It’s the art that will stand the test of time.

TOP: Where do your songs come from?

Cloher: If I knew I’d go there all the time.

TOP: ‘Ch-ch-changes’, ‘David Bowie Eyes’, Yoko, Meryl Streep – Pop culture seems to be just under the skin of your songs. Does Pop culture inform your approach to writing?

Cloher: It’s strange but for some reason all of these pop culture references started to find their way into my songs. I guess I discovered how much I am influenced by what has gone before me. While I was writing the album I was reading Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and Neil Young’s ‘Shaky’ – two artists with very different but equally intriguing journeys through rock n roll. I also name check Darren Hanlon in the song ‘Name In Lights’ because he’s a legend.

TOP: Your vocal delivery seems to carry a great deal of light and shade. You are a NIDA graduate – do you feel as if theatre work shapes how you deliver a song?

Cloher: Absolutely, it’s not a conscious decision I make when I write a song but songs are essentially stories, and a story is always going to end somewhere different to where it started. I love epic songs for that reason. After listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ or Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ you feel transformed. That’s the power and chemistry of music – the ability to communicate so much in such a sort amount of time.

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Jen Cloher and her band launch In Blood Memory at Melbourne’s Vic at The Corner Hotel Friday 28 June. In Sydney the launch is at The Oxford Art Factory Friday 12 July.

Published June 2013 on theorangepress.net

 

Firmly established in its 24th year as one of the premier music festivals of the world, the Byron Bay Bluesfest continues to top its already heady highs. The lineup for this year’s festival was a dream program for lovers of blues and roots music and anything else festival director Peter Noble decided to throw our way.

Criticised in the past for veering too far from its original blues brief, Bluesfest has outgrown these criticisms purely by booking the biggest acts in the world, and some of the most interesting – over the past few years headliners have been Bob Dylan, B B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, Paul Simon and (almost) Roger Daltrey performing Tommy (even though Daltrey didn’t show – next year maybe?).

Noble’s knack for picking the greats, blues or not – and a demonstration of the power he wields on the world festival circuit in doing so – was vindicated by this year’s record attendance: capacity crowds of 17,000 per day which adds up to 85,000 in toto.

And I was one of those fools dancing in the rain. And the smile is still on my face.

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Taj Mahal

Accompanied by Gaz T, my intrepid local tracker and native guide, my 24th Byron Bay Bluesfest experience started on the Friday with the wonderful Taj Mahal. Mahal was one of those bluesmen – like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee – that the 1970s hippie freaks took to their hearts back in those fragrant days. His popularity has remained undiminished since then. As is often the case, I expected a creaky veteran, tottering on a chair – but what we got was a big man, standing tall, whipping his trio through modern blues, pre-war country blues and even calypso flavoured blues. Yeah!

And if Taj Mahal surprised me with his age-denying vigour, reggae and ska legend Jimmy Cliff utterly floored me. Cliff was already a star in Jamaica while Bob Marley was merely learning his trade, and at 65 he has lost nothing – twisting, dancing, leaping through his set. It is this pin-sharp showmanship that reminds us of the huge influence classic 60s Motown had on pre-Marley Jamaican artists. Slick, soulful and bang-on, his beautiful songs had heart, message and groove.

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Jimmy Cliff

Shuggie Otis

Shuggie Otis

While everyone headed to Steve Miller in one of the big tents, I moved towards the smaller Jambalaya stage and blues guitarist Shuggie Otis. Otis was a child prodigy of the blues guitar, the son of rhythm-and-blues bandleader Johnny Otis. After a few semi-hits in the 70s he faded from view. After a 40 year hiatus for whatever reason, he is back touring the world and I could not miss him. Rail thin and now with the angular almost-Latin good looks of his father, Shuggie seemed troubled and ill at ease. But when he found his zone and soared, he soared higher and higher. His beautiful playing took my breath completely away. In a way it was more exciting to see an artist who could easily miss, but hit it so well; compared to all the other in-the-pocket coolly-pro bands at Bluesfest, Otis’s set had that element of danger. Sublime and edgy.

Then the rain hit and my Bluesfest experience sprung a leak. Not having brought a raincoat or wet-weather gear I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Not being able to squeeze into the Steve Miller tent I stood in the rain and watched him play ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ – rain will come and go, the beautiful epoch-defining voice of The Space Cowboy (some call him Maurice…) singing this glorious freedom song was here and now. Around me, teenage fans danced in the rain to Miller’s golden period hits, singing every word to ‘Rockin’ Me Baby’ and ‘The Joker’. It’s only rain, it can soak our skin but it can’t dampen our spirit.

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Carlos Santana

Keeping the San Fran psychedelic vibe going – albeit in a very very different way – Santana’s set began with cosmic interstellar graphics fading in and out of the two huge screens either side of the stage. Then it was a brief drum roll from drummer Dennis Chambers and the Santana band roared into 1971’s ‘Toussaint L’Overture’. As well as Chambers, the percussion backline was made up of long-time conguero Raul Rekow and Karl Perazza on timbales – who together propelled the music like a freight-train, but a freight-train which skips and dances lightly along the track. Of course the main voice of this band has always been the elegant guitar playing of Carlos Santana – always lyrical, always going for the emotional connection over the empty dazzle of technique. Which ultimately makes him, above and beyond his Latin and jazz phrasing, one hell of a great blues guitarist – as we heard from a short (and all too rare) snatch of Santana playing some straight blues during the set. Can music reviewers still use words like ‘celestial’? I guess I just did, because it is the only word I have left to describe Santana’s unearthly performance.

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi

The day ended with a truly soulful set from The Tedeschi-Trucks Band. The absolute highlight of my first ‘Fest two years ago, the band of slide ex-wünderkind Derek Trucks and his wife, vocalist Susan Tedeschi never fails to amaze. For their 2013 return they brought their three-man horn section along and their firepower went up a notch. The thrilling ‘Midnight In Harlem’ – a song that is built on an almost sexual upward curve – had Trucks’ solo coda taking it up and up into that region that Carlos Santana used to (and I am sure still does) call ‘spiritual orgasm’.

I was saturated with rain, good vibes and killer music. And I still had two days to go.

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Allen Toussaint

Saturday we eased in with the once and future king of the Big Easy himself, New Orleans magus Allen Toussaint. The man’s CV is virtually a history of modern R&B, soul and funk and his urbane cool belies his immense impact in shaping these musics. As if his beautiful, artfully funky music (and stunningly virtuosic piano playing) wasn’t gift enough, he threw Mardi Gras masks (and green and yellow AFL footballs?) to the crowd. A charmer in every way.

After a while cruising the human river and people watching (a Bluesfest pastime in itself) I chanced upon Jeff Tweedy and Wilco. And it was one of those wonderful music moments when seeing a band live makes you an instant fan – all subsequent listening experiences filtered through that thrilling ‘Eureka!’ moment of discovery. Wilco’s music seems to beat with the same American-classic heart at the centre of the songs of Neil Young and the darker Bruce Springsteen material. The band (especially guitarist Nels Cline) seem to be able to paint perfect soundscapes behind any of Tweedy’s songs, be they dark rockers or sweeter country-tinged ballads. A revelation.

Floating on the beauty of Wilco’s music I was yanked back down to earth by Status Quo. Britain’s answer to AC/DC, the indestructible Quo have been playing the same song for over 40 years – a variant on 12-bar pub boogie that has sold 118 million albums (think about that figure for a minute). Watching their flawless set, with mainstays Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt rocking hard before banks of white Marshalls, I could (almost) forgive them their awful Coles ads. Some bands are simply a force of nature and Quo are a blast of the simple joy of undiluted rock’n’roll.

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Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters

The straight-from-the-botttle thrust of Quo was perhaps a good brain-scourer –  an astringent appetiser – for the almost too-rich feast that was Robert Plant, which followed next. The fabled Led Zeppelin vocalist has been the main obstacle to any Led Zep reunions, as he has always moved forward with his music, taking his former band’s world-music aesthetic to greater heights than they ever did. His new band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, are the best version of Plant’s patented future-primitive groove – to one side of the stage we have Juldeh Camara working a Gambian wooden banjo, to the other side keyboardist John Baggott (ex-Massive Attack) sits in a nest of synths and laptops. Plant acknowledged the faithful with a few Led Zeppelin tunes, but messed with their anthem ‘Whole Lotta Love’, bedding it in a chugging African drum figure. Unlike almost every other ‘legendary’ act at Bluesfest he made no attempt to recreate his past, instead giving us a show we would think about for many months to come – a show driven by the restless creativity and often contrary nature of a true and uncompromising artist.

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Sunday we awoke to clouds and gray skies over the succulent green of Byron Shire. At the ‘Fest, Tony Joe White’s Swamp-Fox baritone conspired with the dull skies to lull us into maybe too deep a state of ‘relaxation’. We needed a wake-up!

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Saskwatch

And we got it in the shape of Melbourne nine-piece Saskwatch. Bursting with chops and youth – and fronted by their not-so-secret weapon, vocalist Nkechi Anele – the band mixes soul, funk and Afrobeat horns to great effect. Like Mayer Hawthorne in the US they also take the bouncier, pop-soul side of Motown and do great things with it. Last year it was The Eagle and The Worm that assured me music is in good hands for the future – this year is was the snap, crackle and (soul-)pop of Saskwatch.

My 2013 Bluesfest experience wound to a finish in a mix of rain, muddy dancers and 1970s progressive rock classicism. Jon Anderson, the vocalist of perhaps the greatest of all Prog bands, YES, played an intimate solo show for us that was quite sublime. (Oddly, YES played Bluesfest last year with –surreally – a replacement vocalist who was drawn from a YES covers band). Listening to Anderson peppering his set with acoustic, folky versions of YESsongs made me realise that it was in this form these tunes were written and presented to the band – who then proceeded to inflate them to Prog size. Unadorned with pomp, they are lovely songs, Anderson’s voice is one of the sweetest in all Rock and the man is once of our most beloved space cadets.

My prize for 24th Bluesfest Festival Moment goes, however, to the experience of standing in the teeming rain, with my 5 dollar poncho disintegrating on my back as I listened to Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson singing ‘It’s Raining Again’ (with not a drop of irony from what I could gather). But of course, the magic of his songs – one beautifully uplifting hit after another – sung in his spacey tenor blew away the rainclouds in my head and warmed the souls of all who listened. Once again, it’s only rain; this was bliss, a good reason to live right here, right now.

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Beautiful people

So that was it – right there, right then. Bluesfest 2013 – a festival beyond belief in so many ways. Criticisms? Around me I heard faint grumbles of over-selling and over crowding, and yes, it seemed fuller that previous years. But it is never anything like a problem – considering the logistics of an event that has grown to such proportions, artistically and attendance-wise.

What will Peter Noble conjure up for us next year? Being the 25th Bluesfest, he and his intrepid team will need to go beyond the pale to top the jaw-dropping line-ups of the last few years. The Jimi Hendrix Experience? The Beatles? Elvis Presley (pre-Hollywood of course)? I am just putting it out there – and knowing Noble’s almost supernatural powers (coupled with the soul of a true music fan), I really wouldn’t entirely put it past him.

 

Published April 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Several months ago I happened to catch a performance of a band called Video8 at The Annandale. They were tight, edgy, obviously influenced by the sharp end of the 80s and surprising. Surprising in their originality and sound, but also surprising because they were fronted by Maxine Kauter.genre maxine cred chris allen

I had only recently been enjoying The Maxine Kauter Band’s album Alibech The Hermit – a collection of literate, acoustic-flavoured songs that could not have been more opposed in style to the glassy funk of Video8. Yet the same Maxine Kauter who yearned and purred from within the carved wooden walls of Alibech… was up there before me proclaiming with equal intensity and depth from a very different place, an Orwellian synthetic tube-farm of right-angled rhythms and 80s guitars.

And she got me thinking about genre in music.

How can an artist seem totally and fundamentally committed to more than one genre? And how can their creativity work entirely effectively within both? Or in as many genres as they choose to work in? How can they even like such diametrically opposing stuff, let alone love it?

genre richard maegraith cred rifton recordsIt is not the pastiche of the teevee ad jingle writer, or the jack-of-all session muso or the numbed human jukebox of the RSL musician – it is original and fully-felt in creation. I’m thinking of Elvis Costello’s brief switch from caustic new wave to the alkaline pop-country of 1981’s Almost Blue, hippie roots-rocker Neil Young’s techno album Trans, and even Igor Stravinsky’s sudden dumping of High Art Modernism in the 1920’s for the cool marble touch of Neo-Classicism.

Thinking further on it, I realised this thing of genre-or-not can reveal something about the approach and mind-set of the creative artist – in music moreso than any other Art form – and that is something I always think is worth the price of admission.genre luis rojas cred john snelson

And thinking yet further I realised that it was probably best if I asked hose who knew – three Sydney musicians whom I have long admired for their individuality, genre-defying and plain great music.

As well as Maxine Kauter – who is always good copy – I sent the same six simple questions to jazz saxophonist Richard Maegraith and guitarist Luis Rojas. Richard has long been a leading light of Australian jazz and fronts his unclassifiable band Galaxstare. Luis is a member of the tranvestite-metal band Mechanical Black as well as Shanghai, an experimental group unfettered by genre, style or expectations.

Here are their responses.

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1. Why do you think so much music binds to one genre or another?

Maegraith: Humans love to compartmentalise. Genres help us feel safe and secure, and like we’ve got control over it.

Kauter: I think it’s because we need patterns to understand things right away. It’s the way we learn to play music too. Certain ideas are grouped together under particular headings known as genres. I think all of that comes back to narrative and to the way we pass on information. Like why is the Madonna always front-on in Madonna and child picture? Because that’s what tells me what the picture is about. It’s sort of like that with genre. Put a pedal steel on a simple chord progression and everyone will say ‘it’s country’, or ‘alt country’. Why? Because the Madonna is face-on.

Rojas: Two things spring to mind: Instrumentation/equipment and Influence.

A lot of genres are formed as a result of like-minded use of instrumentation, the line up of a band and the instruments played (eg. 4 piece: drums, bass, guitar, vocals) and the influence of past musical groups with similar instrumentation.

Take ‘post-rock’ for example, a non-specific genre that popped up out of nowhere, is basically a rebellion against the stereotypical 4-5 piece rock band sound. Compositions can involve classical and electronic influences performed within the confines of a typical rock band’s instrumentation. Different playing techniques and use of effects further help to differentiate from a typical rock band sound. A lot of these bands have a similar mindset, creating a community with a similar approach to their music and their influence. Influence begets influence until these bands end up painting themselves into a corner or pigeonholing themselves into that specific genre.

From a composer’s point of view, you have a choice of whether to compose for the limitations of an instrument (eg. an acoustic guitar may not be able to perform something written for piano), or the perceived rules of a genre etc.

A composer can begin writing a multi-instrumental piece on piano, for example, however, they would need to understand the various limitations and expressive playing techniques of the instrumentation for which they are composing.

A genre can arrive through a natural and organic process involving the progression from an initial musical idea which is then influenced by the choice of instrumentation and available equipment, as well as with the composer’s knowledge of musical styles and how instrumentation is used to create and execute certain musical ideas.

2. Is the idea of genre important to you and your music?

Maegraith: Not really.

Kauter: Yes, but in the sense of a history. Some ‘genres’ are really pointless. Like ‘indie’. Indie is the shark jumping moment in bending the definition of musical genres. That and ‘world’. In fact world might be worse because it’s also really racist. These genres are not really about music and are unhelpful as designations because other genres actually describe certain musical attributes that people have found a helpful name for grouping them together. ‘Indie’ and ‘world’ are the devils of genre. They’re the product of minds that actually don’t listen. Probably marketing minds. ‘Make it sounds like it didn’t cost a million dollars to make and then we’ll say it’s indie’.

For me the idea of genre is important when it is capable of evoking a history. For example ‘folk’ tells me about a long tradition of travelling musicians who comment on the political situation of the day and societal pressures on the common human, infusing these with their own personal stories so that the listener is reminded that they are part of something. Society exists. There is American, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and on and on. There are lots of sounds in folk, patterns of playing that are particular to regions. All are characterised by the fact that they focus on acoustic instruments and a prominent singer. Lyrics are important. Emotion, story, the listener… all king. It’s democratic, it’s for the people.

In this sense, genre is important to me. I want to exist in that history, it informs me. I don’t have to sound a certain way. The patterns played, the roads travelled etc, they don’t have to be the same. I don’t need to stand in a field with my shoes off to say ‘folk!’ I just need to acknowledge that history and genre by recognising what it is at its essence. But that’s for me, not really for others. It helps me to stay connected to an idea of music that is important and poignant to me. I imagine people feel this way about a lot of different genres of music.

So, actually, the genres we bandy about are wonderful language devices that conjure whole histories comprising musical motifs, patterns, standards, instruments, repeated narratives, certain innovations, particular regions, sounds, political revolutions, great love myths, heroes, heroines, failures and villains. They all manage to be referenced by this one word that shoots out great lightning pulses like neurons into the collective consciousness, lighting up a whole galaxy of meaning and culture. And that can happen with any of these genres.

It’s for this reason that certain ones are really offensive like ‘world music’ because the history it lights up is such a boring one about ‘you’ vs ‘me’. This idea that there is me and all of my nuanced history with the many genres needed to express it and then there is all the other people who make this one kind of music called ‘world’. That’s the kind of story we don’t need to be lighting up. That’s bad logic that only gets worse the more we use it.

Rojas: Audiences use genre in order to make it easier to seek out music they may like according to their individual tastes.  I think as a composer, genre can be a hindrance, more than anything. Catering to any particular audience is quite easy to do once you know how, usually rendering the resulting compositions stale and derivative. As a fan of music, I can relate to the need for people to categorise music into easily to digest genres, but when I have my composer’s hat on, that need is superfluous.

I rarely start writing a song with any specific genre in mind.  As a song is formed though, it becomes clear which particular musical project I am involved in it would be most suited for.  Having said that, I have been able to translate a heavy metal song into a classical piece quite easily, because the compositions do not rely on the limitations or confines of any particular genre or instrumentation, rather their adaptability comes from a strong emphasis on melody and structure

3. Here are 3 genres: what are your brief reactions? – 1. Pop-country, 2. Blues-rock, 3. Hip-hop

Maegraith: Keith Urban, Gary Moore, Lecrae

Kauter: I think immediately of the film The Player by Robert Altman. There’s that great first shot that goes on forever and at one point we listen in on a writer pitching a film to a producer and he is describing a film in which a political candidate has an accident that results in him being able to read minds. The producer says, “So it’s a psychic-political-thriller-comedy… with a heart.”

I also think, “Hyphens are fun”.

Rojas: POP COUNTRY: Pop was my first love. I grew up listening to ABBA, The Village People, Elton John, and The Beatles.  I usually apply a pop mentality to everything I write. Pop music to me is catchy, concise and to the point, so just because you’re writing an avant-garde noise piece, doesn’t mean you can’t apply those same elements to it.

Coming from a guy whose standard answer when asked “what kind of music do you like?”, is “I like pretty much everything”,  I can honestly say that country music comes very close to the bottom of the list.  The amalgamation of something I love with something that I loathe can result in either one improving on the other, or one ruining the other.  When ‘pop country’ springs to mind, I would say it is the latter.

BLUES ROCK: I love rock music but I really do have a love/hate relationship with the blues.  As much as I appreciate its influence and importance in modern music, it is not the kind of music that inspires me or excites me on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, my guitar playing is for the majority influenced by blues.  One of the only scales I know is the blues scale and so any solos that I play end up sounding very blues influenced regardless of genre.  Despite my apathy towards blues, it is very much an integral part of how I developed musically and currently unwittingly express myself.

HIP HOP: Growing up through 80s, hip hop was an unavoidable part of my musical shaping.  There was a particular movie called Beat Street that introduced me to artists such as Grand Master Flash, Kool Moe Dee, and Afrika Bambaataa, at an early age.  Later on, I also found an appreciation for NWA and Public Enemy.  A little known fact is that Shanghai sampled a Public Enemy track from ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ on our first EP, ‘Esoterica’. In more modern times, two bands that stick out to me are The Beastie Boys and The Avalanches.  The Avalanches’ first EP ‘El Producto’ is one of my favourite hip hop releases of all time, especially with its use of Theremin being a personal highlight.

genre rojas - shanghai

In more recent times, I appreciate hip hop when it is approached organically.  For instance my appreciation of Beastie Boys and Avalanches stems from their incorporation of rock band instrumentation as opposed to relying solely or very heavily on samples, synthesisers and drum machines. It’s the fusing of real world instrumentation with the electronic realm that works best for me in this particular genre.

A lot of recent hip hop does absolutely nothing for me as its stagnated into this pool of sexist, macho, repetitive, derivative, formulaic droll.  The only artist of late that has stood out for me is Kendrick Lamar and his second release ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’.

4. Is current music, in general, moving further away from genre constraints or aligning tighter to them?

Maegraith: Both, at the same time, I think. There are what I call ‘archivists’ (people/groups who seek to retain the ‘true’ or ‘original’ genre) in all genres of music. They can be forthright about what is ‘jazz’ or ‘swing’ or the notion that any jazz after bebop was rubbish, or whatever. These archivists appear in most genres. Thankfully, they’re in the minority, but they’re usually pretty vocal about it. These people are keen to keep genre lines tight. At the same time, globalisation has allowed a new kind of genre blurring o occur which is exciting for the most part, I think.

Kauter: Further away. We assign genres to things merely as a way of branding the music in a certain way. Usually we really need to talk about bands or musicians that a particular artist sounds like because the genres have become either very mixed or perverted by people hijacking them as a way of falsely associating certain music with other music. That perversion sort of builds up on itself until genres mean so little there really isn’t much to move away from. That in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The fact that when designations become so important that people feel they need to manipulate their meaning to infer greater importance, eventually those designations come to mean nothing and yet it is still very important. You might say assertions of genre are only as powerful as the agents making them, whether that is musicians, executives, critics or others.

Audiences are never involved in assigning genre. I think that’s significant, especially when it comes to the nonsense end of genre meanings. Only certain agents can assign genre and now they’re saying things like “indie/alternative grunge/dance” and the listeners brain explodes, they have nowhere to put it so they HAVE to listen. It’s genius. Delusions of genre.

Rojas: I would say that the genres themselves are actually expanding.  For example, heavy metal – once fairly easy to define – is now awash with a sea of sub-genres.  While it’s easier for people to describe themselves as heavy metal fans, a metal-core kid could quite easily detest a founding band of the heavy metal genre, eg. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath fans may also detest the latest djent masterpiece.

The blanket term ‘Heavy Metal’ is a good example of where there are bands that have similar influences aligning under one broad banner, yet move away from each other in terms of sub-genre.

5. Have you ever been pressured to conform to a saleable genre for fame, limos and hoes?

Maegraith: No

Kauter: As a matter of fact I have. I was once playing at an open mic in a really upbeat afro-cuban bar in King Cross. It was a competition of sorts and my band and I were very much in the wrong place. It was the kind of place that you need to be high on cocaine to enjoy. The entire dance hall was crawling with B and C grade wannabe celebrities (now there’s a genre). After we had played I misplaced my drink and I headed to the artists’ dressing room to find an alternative. Metal featured heavily in in that room and from between a pair of bronze neo-celtic relief sculptures a woman appeared. It was Chan Marshall, aka, Cat Power: the queen of indie/folk. I’ve always really loved her so I was shocked. She said, “I really loved your set”. I looked at my shoes. She bought me a drink and told me that if I could ditch my band and become a lo-fi, ambient, trip hop artist that I could join her on a world-music tour as her support act. She had a lot of samples she’d been working on on her vintage casiotone and I wouldn’t have to write new songs, just set them to tiny drum beats and simple synths. I was quite freaked out.

She showed me her limo and told me she’d found a way to take the carcinogens out of cigarettes. She offered me one and it tasted sort of like the way I remember Malboros tasting when I was about 19 and they were still called Malboros. Of course, those days are over now. Hers were in these blue plastic bags marked “experimental house”. We made it to Japan before I woke up. My musical dream, in which I struggle with selling out and in the end reconcile myself to a life of public fame and personal sacrifice, was over.

Rojas: Not pressured, no. The only pressure in that regard would be any pressure that I put on myself in the past as a naïve young composer to try to fit into the stereotypes that I thought necessary at the time to progress successfully in a musical career.  Now with the benefit of hindsight, limos and hoes do not appeal to me, although some fame would be nice.

6. Who are your genre-bustin’ heroes? Why?

genre maegraith - Chris PotterMaegraith: There’s the obvious people like Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell but I’m pretty taken by Avishai Cohen and Chris Potter. They both have so many current influences permeating their music but still sound like jazz musicians. I dig that. Sometime world or really blurry genres end up sounding like what a potluck lunch tastes like. Neither this, nor that. And the musical conviction suffers.

Kauter: Hmmm, this is a tough one. Maybe my mother. She left school at 15 as a wayward fun loving, pubescent puberty blues-esque tearaway. At 16 she ran away with her sweetheart to Queensland where the odds were stacked against them and from where they returned 8 months later pregnant, prodigal. She worked as a checkout chick and had three kids by 22, a tough and kind-hearted down-on-her luck mother, fiercely protective of her kids and husband. Young and hopeful she began work for a major insurance company answering phones, ambitious and hard-working in a man’s world. Eventually she became a senior manager and policy writer at that company and was the high flying executive who feels guilty about leaving her kids at home alone after school. She was the perpetually busy career woman whose husband resents her success on some level. She was also a triathlete. Then she was the stay-at-home wife and mother who has seen the light and forsaken her career for the sake of her man and children. Now she is the happy, empty nester and grandma who spends her time working for the church and taking motorcycle trips through rural Australia with her teenage sweetheart.

Rojas: Frank Zappa. He has probably been the biggest influence on me since I first discovered his music, around the very early 90s, just before he passed away.  His prolific tendencies alone forced him to explore more musical styles within his lifetime than most composers of any standing.  I know that his roots lay in styles such as the blues, pop music and doo-wop, but even as a child, Frank appreciated the avant-garde music concrete just as much, with Edgard Varese and Stravinsky being two of his favourite composers.  He not only influenced me as a player – giving me a new found appreciation of the electric guitar – but also as a composer seeking out ways to fuse and reinvent different musical styles in a coherent and palatable way.genre frank zappa

John Zorn: Another prolific composer that has had a big effect on my writing, as well as exposing me to new musical ideas, approaches and artists.  From his covers of classic film soundtracks, to his intelligent use of musical game pieces, Zorn, and in particular his band Naked City, taught me that genre need not be a limitation on songwriting, and that the only restrictions as a composer or a musician are the ones placed on yourself.  Never did I think that an improvisational death metal grind-core band could exist with alto saxophone at its centre, totally devoid of guitar, but Zorn made it work in his band Painkiller, which also featured Mick Harris and Bill Laswell.

Carl Staling: Also a major influence on Zorn, Staling’s infinite smashing of genres and cut-and-paste aesthetic rings through my music in Shanghai.  I guess spending all that time watching Warner Brothers cartoons as a kid is paying off now.

Maxine Kauter, Maxine Kauter Band – http://www.maxinekauterband.com/
Richard Maegraith, Galaxstare – http://galaxstare.com/
Luis Rojas, Shanghai – http://www.myspace.com/shanghaimyspace
Published March 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Every year for the past five, iconic Australian songwriter Richard Clapton has held a show at Sydney’s State Theatre previewing new material and playing his Greatest Hits. Every year Clapton at the State sells out within days, largely because Clapton and his songs have been so much a part of his fans’ lives, stretching back to the mid-70s.

Songs such as ‘Deep Water’, ‘Down In The Lucky Country’ and ‘Capricorn Dancer’ were – like all meaningful pop music – very much part of the wild colonial soundtrack of Australian life back then, and they still resonate today.

This year’s State Theatre concert was significantly different in that this year Richard Clapton has a shiny new album to play to us. In fact, the August 18 show was the opener of a national tour, August through November, to promote ‘Harlequin Nights’, his first album since 2004 and containing, in Clapton’s own estimation “some of the best songs I have put my mind to for many years”.

Clapton seemed almost apologetic to the full house for playing a selection of songs from ‘Harlequin Nights’ in the show’s first half. He mock-sardonically promised us a second half of “the songs you love” – the Hits. He needn’t have worried. ‘Harlequin Nights’ is an easy album to love – very much a Richard Clapton album in every way: wise and wry by turns, drily observational and giddily poetic and – yes – essentially Australian in its accents and its pictures.

A gentle maracas shake from drummer Mick Skelton and the band dove into the warms waters of show opener (and ‘Harlequin Nights’ opener) ‘Sunny Side Up’, a bright note of optimism from a man known more for his dry take on life’s chafing realities.

Then it was the beautiful and wide-screen ‘Vapour Trails’ – this has to be one of the songs of Clapton’s career, if not Australian rock. Like the best of Neil Young, ‘Vapour Trails’ makes a vaulting magnificence from a few simple elements, swelling to a heart-filling high. It is truly magic. It made my wife cry.

The two rockers from ‘Harlequin Nights’, ‘Skanky Town’ (“This song could be about Sydney or it could be about Tokyo”) and ‘Dancing With The Vampires’ (“So many things driving me insane/Till I feel like Charlie Sheen”) saw the band really loosen up and shake out the jams. (I could have sworn I saw a vampire dancing during ‘Dancing With The Vampires’ but it could have just been a trick of the gothic shadows of the ornate old State).

After an intermission Clapton returned with his Greatest Hits. From the more secure vantage point of the Hits part of the show, he admitted nerves and ‘trials and tribulations’ during the ‘Harlequin Nights’ songs. They sounded fine to me – kicked along by one of the better bands in the country: Clapton himself said of the band “it’s like taking the Ferrari for a run”.

And to hear that band – slick when they had to be, grinding raw when they had to be – power Clapton’s hits from the 70s and 80s was a thrill. From the Byron Bay lullaby ‘Blue Bay Blues’ through ‘Deep Water’, ‘Down In The Lucky Country’ and ‘Capricorn Dancer’ to the streamlined rocker ‘I Am An Island’ they were all there.

Nostalgia shows are one thing – RSL clubs host these sorry waxen spectacles every week – but this was very very different: Clapton’s powerful and smart songs, beautifully shaped for speed or for drifting or for dreaming, played with heart and fire by this five piece, was immediate and often hair-raising.

Young guitarist Danny Spencer, Richard Clapton’s collaborator on much of ‘Harlequin Nights’, worked like a Trojan on his side of the stage, obviously in a place of joy. Harmony vocalist Natasha Stuart (one of Sydney’s finest) provided bright sparkle to Clapton’s big choruses throughout.

One of the most affecting pieces of the night was the first encore ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’, with just Clapton and Stuart singing over the top of feathery keys “Don’t waste time/These are the best years of our lives”. It seemed to affect Clapton as much as it did us all; he walked over and clung to Stuart in a hug.

That hug showed the humanity and the vulnerability of one of our most important songwriters and musical thinkers. That humanity was always what grabbed you in a Richard Clapton song – even in those pieces where he is all steely-eyed cynicism, it is always there. And the new album ‘Harlequin Nights’ shows, 35 years after ‘Girls On The Avenue’ and ‘Goodbye Tiger’, Richard Clapton is still a voice for his age.

Richard Clapton’s tour details are at his website

Photos by Ant Ritz – www.antritz.com.au

Published August 2012 on liveguide.com.au

 

The protagonist of Robert M Pirsig’s 1974 book, ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ drives himself to near-insanity in his quest to define Quality. What is Quality? What makes this mountain or that taco ‘better’ than that mountain or this taco?

It is a thought that crosses my mind more than a little as I sit in the audience checking out this band or that, this artist or that – why is she so so so much ‘better’ than so-and-so? Unlike Pirsig’s poor thinker, it hopefully won’t put me in the nuthouse but it can be maddeningly undefinable – its very undefinability the very juice of art appreciation across painting, writing and, yes, music.

The thought has risen up in my head on the last few occasions I have seen Sydney’s Maxine Kauter and her Band (and hit me hard when listening to her CD ‘Alibech the Hermit’). This is Quality stuff – the good oil, the real deal, kosher, dinkum. Of course all the elements are there – smart and sharp songwriting peopled with intriguing characters, literate without being yawningly clever-clever, beautifully sung, lovingly played by the Band – none of which remotely begins to explains the music’s Quality. (Of course, part of me worries that if I do define it, the magic will evaporate – but there is no danger of that here).

Enmore’s intimate Green Room Lounge was far from intimate on the drippingly humid Thursday I chose to check them out. In fact, the hot-bodies bar-crush could be a little too intimate at times, but a good place to check first support, the fantastically named Piers Twomey whose deep songs caused ripples in my vodka and tonic.

Piers was followed by Suzy Connolly whose bright and sweet music (and good-humour) was challenged by the loud indifference of too many there. She very nicely mentioned Jeff Tweedy’s famous lecture to a chatting audience, and retained her composure when the noise didn’t die down. They really should have listened; her songs are worth it.

The Maxine Kauter Band’s full-band muscle over-rode the blabbing barflies but their Quality shut them up good and proper. Opening with the title track from ‘Alibech The Hermit’, a swinging folk-pop gem swung by the surefooted rhythm section of Shannon Haritos on double bass and drummer Stephen Beverley, the set moved from mood to mood, all of it entrancing.

Kauter’s songwriting touches on folk, pop, rock and so-called ‘roots’ music but, like all truly gifted songwriters, her songs create and inhabit their own world, one we are invited to peer into from odd angles, sometimes through coloured-glass windows. Often the mood is made from two or three repeated chords but, like the best country music, the music is never allowed to break the spell of the telling. The Neil Young-like darkness of ‘Slow Reveal’, the humid eroticism of ‘My Maria’ – with a popping and moaning double bass solo from the always-happening Haritos – the irresistible pop choogaloo of newie ‘All Of This’; it is a jewel-box of a set.

A just-for-fun cover of King Missile’s 1992 hit ‘Detachable Penis’ – Kauter having some gender fun as well as belly-laugh fun – roils with electric guitarist  Peter Holz’s reverb-a-grind Stratocaster. Over the remainder of the set Holz plays with a gift for atmosphere: chiming jangle here, a touch of aching slide there, very tasty.

Through the surreal glass garden of ‘Going Down’ and out through the rocking ‘Hey’ – the explosive ending a showcase for snapping drummer Beverley  – and we wake up in Enmore’s Green Room, out of a dream it seems.

In dreams, as in Art, the definition of Quality is as meaningless and ephemeral  as the band’s last trailing dying note. I don’t worry about it anymore; I know what it is without knowing what it is, and that is enough.

Published January 2012 on theorangepress.net