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Stories from inside life's big top.

An Auspicious Milestone…

Posted on January 13, 2018

Ten episodes, 11 guests, 12 months and a brand New Year…

 

As 2018 begins, I’d like to acknowledge all of the kind and wonderful people who have shared their precious objects and personal stories with me on the Auspicious Plastic podcast over the last 12 months.

 

For me it doesn’t get better than listening to conversations that come straight from the heart.

 

So on the launch of the 10th episode, I’d like to take this opportunity to gratefully thank the Auspicious Plastic “family”…

THANK YOU:

Auspicious Plastic is a monthly independent podcast – a series of intimate conversations about precious objects and the stories behind them – which emerged from my personal experience with grief. After developing, trialling and establishing the series (and investing in some decent sound gear!) I’m exploring ways to continue: to build the audience and make it financially sustainable.

 

The aim is to find the ‘right’ sponsor and/or a ‘good home’ at a podcast label. Suggestions welcome!

I’m also looking forward to bringing you the next two episodes for February and March.

 

A couple more personal and fascinating conversations are on the way…

The first is with devoted cat-lover and psychotherapist LUCIA, an Australian woman who lives in the middle of the English countryside.

Then there’s SIMON, father-of-two, devoted son and a third-generation bowhunter who loves the Australian bush.

If you’d like to share your story with me – or suggest a guest – please get in touch!

 

And if you’d like to support a conversational podcast series, made with love, that dives deep into the heart of human experience and connection, please feel free to listen, rate and share on iTunes or Soundcloud. Or – let me know!

 

Thanks also to Jeremy Conlon/Cooperblack for the music theme and Studio Ink for the logo.

 

And thank YOU for listening ~ Megan Spencer, producer & presenter.

More about Megan’s podcasts here.

Lily Tomlin & Danny Darst in Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts' (1993).

Mashville: Yun-hua Chen

Posted on January 2, 2018

“Jazz has endured because it doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. It’s a moment.”            – Robert Altman.

 

Some of my favorite films are ‘mosaics’. A fistful of the best include Nashville (1975), MASH (1970), The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). Made by American movie pioneer, Robert Altman (1925 – 2006), they’re shining examples of supremely satisfying, subversive cinematic storytelling, as intricately constructed as a Mesopotamian temple.

 

And so it goes: the paths of a multitude of seemingly discreet characters intersect and intertwine, eventually moving together as one towards a powerful denouement. Sounds like jazz to me.

 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic, sprawling tragedy Magnolia (1999) is another tapestry with a baker’s dozen worth of characters – and story lines – effortlessly held in the air all at once. As is Australian classic Lantana (2001), written by Andrew Bovell and directed by Ray Lawrence. A film I hold close to my heart, it’s a deeply affecting, serpentine, slow-burn of a ‘whodunnit’ filled with flawed characters who are somehow redeemed, dragged backwards through the thorny bushes of Australian suburbia.

 

Soon another mosaic will unfurl it’s multi-narrative feature tendrils. Kriv Stenders’ drama Australia Day (2017) will have its home entertainment release in January, telling three overlapping stories about racism and redemption in ‘real time’. Just in time for “Straya Day”, our most contentious of (colonial) public holidays.

 

Mosaic filmmaking – aka “circular” or “multi-protagonist” narrative – requires not only a certain way of seeing life and how we live it, but the potential of the film medium itself. That’s the contention of film critic, author, linguist and academic, Yun-hua Chen.

 

Taiwanese-born and Berlin-based, she’s written book ‘Mosaic Space and Mosaic Auteurs’ (2017), a 258-page treatise on this ambitious, imaginative film style, which she says harks back to the days of silent cinema with D.W. Griffiths’ groundbreaking Intolerance (1916). “His films are some of the very first which consciously construct a mosaic narrative through editing, with a very clear purpose in mind,” she asserts.

Still from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ‘A City Of Sadness’ (1989).

Focusing on four of the world’s leading proponents of mosaic cinema – Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico), Atom Egoyan (Canada), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan) and Michael Haneke (Austria) – in expert detail Yun-hua explores their work and techniques within the broader context of the shifting sands of our transnational, non-binary, “post-truth” globalized world.

 

When you think about it, her timing is perfect…

 

It’s an engrossing and compelling read, positing fascinating theories around time, space, place, identity and – as Altman might have it – the cinematic “moment”. And, how these elements are brandished within each filmmaker’s oeuvre.

 

At a chance moment of our own Yun-hua and I met at the 2017 Berlinale. Working as critics we saw 100 films together, formed a tiny film posse, ate Japanese food in the dark, made a podcast about the experience and riffed on film until the cows came home.

 

When I discovered she’d written a book about mosaic film, I couldn’t wait to hear more. So we decided to share another movie moment here on Circus Folk…

Yun-hua Chen in Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Circus Folk: Let’s start with the late Robert Altman: when it comes to multi-protagonist, inter-woven narrative film I always think of his films and how incredibly satisfying they are, even when the storylines are left a bit open-ended and not all tied up in a neat bow (Nashville in particular.)

Who are some of the mosaic film pioneers? And perhaps some of those that have been most influential on you?

 

Yun-hua Chen: I agree: Robert Altman is one of my favorite filmmakers who churned out inspiring mosaic films.

 

For other pioneers I would name the filmmakers as far back as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and Jean-Luc Godard’s polemical works in the 1960s.

 

The most influential ones for me personally are the mosaic films which are more labyrinthine and puzzling such as Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films including Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and A Century (2006) and Cemetery of Splendor (2015).

 

I really enjoy mosaic films that deliberately break down our expectations of linearity and any kind of logical connection. My recent favorites are Kaili Blues (2015) of Bi Gan and Ghost in the Mountains (2017) of Heng Yang. And, En Attendant les Hirondelles (2017) which I watched with great joy at the Viennale International film Festival this year.

 

CF: What was the first mosaic film you ever saw?

 

YhC: If we take a very loose definition of “mosaic”, the first I ever saw was L’Appartement (1996, Gilles Mimouni), which screened at a French Film Festival in Taiwan at that time. I was fascinated by the clever maneuvering of the narrative threads; the suspense – which was maintained throughout the film – and trompe l’oeil [optical illusion or “forced perspective”] in terms of the characters and timelines.

 

So I think my interest in how our presumptions and perceptions can be manipulated by film through a visual and audial manner stemmed from seeing it.

‘Nashville’ soundtrack album cover art, directed by Robert Altman, 1975.

CF: I usually think of music as the most ‘immediate’ mosaic space in the arts: a space where it is accepted, the norm and quite feasible for unique, seemingly discreet or oblique elements and styles to intertwine to make a ‘whole’ piece that works perfectly well as the sum of its parts. In film though, this kind of narrative ‘tapestry’ is more of a rarity; it’s usually much more conservative and linear.

Why might that be so?

 

YhC: It might have something to do with the way we understand narratives in a visual way, and the way we consume different art forms in different manners.

 

From Soviet montage we learned a lot [as it] extensively experimented with juxtaposition between oppositional images. Since then narrative experimentation still goes on – and continues to flourish – but it is rather restricted to a particular field with a particular ‘set’ of audiences.

 

Compared to [the] more easily consumable ‘linear narrative’, although it still offers pleasure and satisfaction, narrative “tapestry” [or “mosaics”] might find it more difficult to appeal to a wider audience and on a greater scale.

 

After the 90s outburst of ‘multi-protagonist’ films, [until] Babel (2006), the multi-protagonist film was exhausted, starting to seem unsexy and archaic. However with the advances of interactive virtual reality, there might be new opportunities to revolutionize the “mosaic” narrative form.

Film poster for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’, 2006.

CF: Given mosaic films are more complicated to conceive of and make (and likely more expensive too – thinking of Iñárritu’s Babel for one, shot across three continents with a myriad of stars and actors): why would you bother?!

What usually attracts a filmmaker to making a “mosaic”, rather than a film with more straightforward, linear structure? What kind of filmmaker do you need to be to undertake such a project?

 

YhC: It could take a certain way of thinking and looking at the world that drives some filmmakers to mosaic filmmaking – like the devoted Mexican director, screenwriter, author Guillermo Arriaga who is also renowned also for “mosaic narrative” in his novels…

 

Or a stylistic choice as in the case of Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) who was an experienced MTV director and interested in experimenting with narrative form within commercial [feature] filmmaking.

 

You [do] need to be a filmmaker who is genuinely interested in editing and very talented in seeing fragments in a holistic manner to be able to undertake such a project. And have a particular worldview and an understanding of the inherent fragmentation, discontinuity and disjointedness [in life].

 

I think making mosaic films can be addictive: Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wei has never made a film without a strong mosaic element in it. And Iñárritu still keeps his signature of mosaic even while attempting to go to the other extreme, by making seemingly one-shot films like Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015).

 

What attracts filmmakers to making a mosaic should be their inner drive of telling a certain story in a certain manner. I think the most apparent example is the aforementioned Arriaga, the long-term scriptwriter of Iñárritu’s films (until the rupture*). He is someone with a very strong drive of mosaic; his novels are mosaic and he thinks like a mosaic.

 

*Arriaga and Iñárritu reportedly had a disagreement over credit for ‘Babel’, leading the former to be banned from the Cannes premiere by the latter.

 

After his fallout with Iñárritu, he made a debut film The Burning Plain (2008) – by the way, a total disaster in many ways! But it seems that mosaic is his existential question and obsession.

 

However Austrian director Michael Haneke [who I also write about in the book], doesn’t have the same kind of mosaic ‘drive’. Instead he uses mosaic as a means to reach his goal of foregrounding contemporary society, and our mode of consumption of media.

 

So whereas mosaic is a drive – even a curse sometimes – for artists such as Arriaga and Iñárritu who have not yet managed to completely depart from it – for others, mosaic is an aesthetic tool out of pragmatic concerns.

 

Some artists look at the world in an ‘impressionist’ way and some look at it in a ‘mosaic’ way. The latter see assemblages rather than continuity, asynchronity rather than linearity.

 

I feel that to a certain extent this might also be the way I see the world, and that’s also why writing ‘Mosaic Spaces And Mosaic Auteurs’ was so attractive to me.

Film still from Claire Denis’ 1999 feature, ‘Beau Travail’.

CF: Because I often find mosaic cinema narratives really powerful, I get really irked when I see a “bad” one – those films that use the style more as a gimmick, a cynical ”trick” or a quirk to lure the audience into a narrative rather than explore something artfully by using this powerful style – style over substance so to speak! (Snatch and Love Actually come to mind)

What makes a ‘good’ mosaic film? And do you have examples of ‘bad’ ones?

 

YhC: Yes – I have a lot of examples of “bad” ones, ha ha! For me, “bad” ones are either as you said – [use mosaic as] a gimmick or a “trick” rather than something substantial. Or they are simply boring [where use of the style is] unnecessary.

 

Arriaga comes to mind again. As much as he uses mosaic in a powerful way through language, his mosaic through visual and audial means in The Burning Plain is far from being successful – totally agreeing with your criticism of “style over substance”!

 

This can tell us a lot about how film works as a unique art form which goes beyond just telling a good story: I think good mosaic films use different cinematic elements in a clever way to bring out something new, weaving something that has never been done before.

 

For me one important factor for the good ones would be a ‘mosaic beyond mosaic’ narrative, meaning a mosaic that is an interweaving of mosaic narrative, sound elements, different parts of the mise-en-scene (like what Chinese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien does in his films), and much more.

 

Good mosaic films also have a balanced approach to content and form without skewing over to the ‘style’ side. I think good mosaic films are not carried away by the inner drive towards fragmentation but rather keep a clear head about what is important in this visual and audial product. [They draw a clear line between] what is inspiring and what is purely ‘showing off’.

Film still from Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film, ‘The Sweet Hereafter’.

Film still from Michael Haneke’s ‘Caché’ (“Hidden”, 2005).

Film still from Ray Lawrence’s ‘Lantana’ (2002).

Spaces & places: Yun-hua Chen. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: The four mosaic auteurs you chose for your book were motivated by particular decisions: what were they? And what types of mosaics do you discuss in your book?

 


YhC:
The foremost decision driver for the choice of these four mosaic auteurs was global scope. As one of the main aims of talking about mosaic auteurs was to talk about a way of looking at cinema that crosses boundaries – one that demonstrates an innate mutually-feeding and -influencing network between diegetic cinematic elements and extradiegetic filmmaking contexts – it was very important for me to choose mosaic auteurs who could demonstrate these global networks and border-crossing/boundary-crossing phenomena.

 

Another was to do this by coming from a perspective that intentionally and innately avoids Euro-centrism.

 

For these reasons I included Michael Haneke, whose filmmaking networks are mainly based in Europe but also branch out to the US with the American remake of Funny Games (2007) which he also directed. [The film was originally made by Haneke in Austria in 1997].

 

Also Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu who mainly works in the continent of America but also consciously maps out to the global arena especially through ambitious mosaic projects such as Babel.

 

Hou Hsiao-hsien who works in the context of Asia and is strongly connected with the French funding system and cinephilia culture, and Atom Egoyan who works mainly in Canada and Armenia – as an attempt to achieve some sort of a balance between the continents of Asia, Europe and America.

 

Sadly I was not able to include Australia and Africa. I do think that they should have been included as there are a lot of mosaics to be written about in the cinemas of Australia and Africa. (What comes to my mind immediately is Jane Campion’s films and TV productions such as Top of the Lake (2013 – 2017), and Abderrahmane Sissako’s films including Timbuktu (2014).) This would have to be another book project!

 

[Regarding the kinds of mosaics I explore in the book though] – at the beginning of the 21st century there were a lot of films that portrayed multiple narratives: network narratives, multi-character narratives. One of the most famous filmmakers who made these kinds of films was Iñárritu with Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. These films spread out across different geographical spaces, especially in Babel. That is a horizontal mosaic, assembled from different social milieus, socio-political backgrounds and contexts, but in a specific time.

 

When a strong element of history is brought in, like in the films of Atom Egoyan and Hou Hsiao-hsen, time becomes an important factor in itself. That is a vertical mosaic: one that deals with history.

 

When vertical and horizontal axes intersect, a three-dimensional mosaic emerges. Michael Haneke for example interweaves different socio-political spaces and milieus, while at the same time being concerned with understanding the impact of historical events and ‘the virtual’.

 

So my book is structured in this fashion: we move from horizontal mosaic to vertical mosaic, and then end with three-dimensional mosaic, which combines both.

 

I think making mosaic films can be addictive… What attracts filmmakers to making a mosaic should be their inner drive of telling a certain story in a certain manner.

 

CF: Why is the mosaic structure useful within the film context? What kinds of conversations can a mosaic have with an audience that other kinds of films cannot?


YhC:
Mosaic structure is useful in many aspects, for its ability to connect and interconnect, its balance between fragmentation and assemblage, and its boundary-crossing capacity.

 

At the peak of mosaic filmmaking (in the 1990s), these films communicated the global interconnected-ness that everyone was experiencing, and the juxtaposition between different spatial concepts, like ‘the local’ and ‘the global’, places and ‘non-places’, the smooth and the striated – all which I discussed in the book.

 

When we watched Babel we all understood that, regardless of where we are, where we are from, how we live, and what we believe in, we have an impact on one another even in a very distant and sometimes invisible manner. At the same time there are forces that we cannot see which might originate from a place distant to our immediate proximity, that strongly influence our lives.

Film poster for P.T. Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’ (1999).

For the sake of convenience, if I may use the terms “global” and “globalization” in a very rudimentary and generalized manner here – this sense of being connected on a global scale and embracing globalization as well as all that comes with it – has been challenged since the financial crisis was triggered by Lehman Brothers in 2007.

 

I would argue that the fact that there are less mosaic films being produced and appreciated since that time is related to the feelings of resentment for the negative effects of global interconnected-ness, and the reflections on it, which, to a large extent, have returned us to our local and the immediate surroundings.

 

So mosaic, as a result of the filmmakers’ reflections through their films – and reach through their distribution networks around the world – in turn reflects the zeitgeist and the way the audience might feel about life, and ‘the times’. I think this kind of mutually feeding conversation between mosaic films and the audience is fruitful and very interesting. It goes into a reflexive loop.

 

CF: Did you do any research on the affect a mosaic film has on an audience? Are they more satisfying to watch, for example?

 

YhC: This would be a very interesting topic to look at for sure. For this specific project I didn’t do any empirical study on spectatorship. But the box office returns on these kinds of films do diverge quite a lot [which] at a guess [may be an indicator].

 

For example, Iñárritu’s Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel were hugely successful in terms of box office on a global scale. And Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s A City of Sadness was a record-breaker – until 2007 the largest grossing film in Taiwan.

 

But at the same time [again going by box office] Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Family Viewing, Adjuster and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Good Men, Good Women, Inarritu’s Biutiful and Haneke’s Time of the Wolf did not seem that attractive to audiences.

 

In terms of ‘satisfaction’, I think that the sense of satisfaction an audience feels during a mosaic film might have something to do with a sense of resolution: the coming-together of all the narrative threads, like solving a puzzle or cracking a detective game.

 

However in the case of the mosaics of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Michael Haneke and Atom Egoyan, in fact more puzzles are added instead of solved in the viewing experience. So the classical sense of ‘satisfaction’ is probably replaced by some other satisfaction on a more ‘intellectual’ level, and hence the appeal perhaps is to a smaller pool of the audience.

 

It also has to do with the timing of the release: Hou’s A City of Sadness (1989) came out right after the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan in 1987, and speaks directly to the audience who experienced that [38-year] history together, but were previously forbidden to discuss the trauma.

 

Iñárritu’s first few films came out at the perfect time to speak to the MTV generation who craved an aesthetic closer to their sub-culture, and an alternative to ‘classical narrative’. Iñárritu is also very clever in innovating his mosaic further; he continues appeal to his audiences and our times. Whereas Egoyan sticks with his own way of mosaic, and has gradually failed to attract the attention of new audiences, and boring the old fans with his most recent films.

 

CF: You’ve said that it was difficult to choose which four filmmakers to discuss in your book, and that leaving out directors – especially the female directors, Claire Denis (FRA) and Ann Hui (HK) – was difficult for you. What would you like to say about those two female filmmakers when it comes to mosaic film? Perhaps you’d like to take this opportunity now?!

 

YhC: Yes! Both Claire Denis and Ann Hui both have very interesting personal experience in – and film production modes of – mosaic. Their understanding of assemblage of spaces through reflection upon history is reflected on screen in their unique manners.

 

Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) for example beautifully interweaves diverse geopolitical spaces, temporalities, the virtual and the actual, now and then, dream and non-dream, and between-body boundaries.

 

What makes Claire Denis especially interesting is the diversity of her mosaic space. She strolls between masculinity and femininity, different continents, cultures and even species  – as in Trouble Everyday (2001) – as well as different genres, with ease.

 

The half-Chinese and half-Japanese filmmaker Ann Hui’s context is colonial and post-colonial Hong Kong, within rapidly shifting power relationships within transnational Chinese cinemas.

 

Ann Hui’s three-dimensional mosaic is a mosaic of understatement. Mainly coming from a strong female gaze, her mosaic assembles different geopolitical spaces, different generations, the empowered and the disempowered, the oppressed and the resistant, places and non-places, tradition and contemporary phenomena.

 

In her most recent film, Ming Yue Ji Shi You (2017), the characters are interconnected with each other in a such a loose and restrained manner that the mosaic serves rather as a background and an excuse to unfold a bigger historical context. This is very different from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s focus on the interconnected-ness between “places” within closely knit family networks.

 

It’s a pity that I had to leave their films out within the scope of this book (it was because of overlapping geopolitical contexts with Michael Haneke and Hou Hsiao-hsien). I opted for Haneke and Hou because I felt that they helped demonstrate my ideas of mosaic in a more lucid and thorough way.

Film still from ‘In The Mood For Love’ by Wong Kar-Wai, 2000.

CF: We live in an age where ‘borders’ are in the news daily. Spaces – virtual and physical – are transforming through globalization. Financial systems and technology are shaping ethics and morality. Sexuality and gender identity is no longer “binary”. Workers are transnational “nomadics”, refugees “economic”. Our sense of ‘home’ and national identity is fluid. Things as we know them appear to be unstable and in a rapid state of flux. If, as you argue, mosaic films are the most powerful reflection of this fluidity in geography, society and culture, might now be the perfect time for mosaic film to come into its own? And would you like to see more of it?

 

YhC: This is a very interesting question. I totally agree that fluidity and instability are the overwhelming reality of everything and everyone nowadays, experienced to diverse degrees and in very different ways depending on geopolitical and socioeconomic contexts.

 

I think that it is the perfect time for some form of “mosaic”, but maybe not necessarily the kind of “mosaic” – as in the ‘merely mosaic’ narrative that we are used to.

 

I would definitely love to see “mosaic” being an open-ended concept and more films with creative handling and contemporary understanding of it. Some films that I mentioned above such as Kaili Blues and Ghost in the Mountains are good examples of new possibilities of mosaic, and new understanding of such spaces.

 

I would even argue that the concept of “the actual” and “the virtual” is open for new interpretation in our time, where augmented reality and virtual reality are giving cinema new grounds for experimentation and new possibilities for story-telling.

 

CF: And taking that a step further, closer to your experience: you are multilingual, have moved away from your home-of-origin in Taiwan and have lived in several countries and cultures, work as a freelancer across a number of industries and jobs simultaneously, counting linguist, film critic, PhD student and author among them… Given the mosaic of your own life circumstances, it’s perhaps no accident that you are attracted to this topic?!

 

YhC: Ha ha, you have nailed it completely! This is a project which is very deeply related to my personal experience and the way I look at space.

 

I really enjoy creating a mosaic and living in a mosaic through my own personal trajectories, which often are very unexpected and surprising! At the same time I am aware of the fact that “mosaic” is a luxury and privilege. I feel very grateful for the opportunity of experiencing “mosaic” first-hand, and I certainly am not trying to define any universal value of “mosaic”. As mentioned in my book, the mosaic auteurs are the privileged ones who can cross borders at will thanks to their socio-economic and artistic status.

 

In our time when the concept of border and border-crossing is a highly contested one – importantly, the question of who can cross a border is very relevant right now – I think this is worth mentioning. So in my next book I would like to delve into an underprivileged filmmaking mode which is under significant constraints.

 

CF: If you were going to write and direct a mosaic about your own life (!), who might you get to direct it, and star in it?!

 

YhC: I have to admit that I’ve never thought about writing and directing a mosaic about my own life, so it is a difficult question!

 

I guess it would be ideal to get a female version of Michael Haneke to direct it: I like Haneke’s precise and detached manner of mosaic, but I would like it to have a female [filmmaker’s] perspective, say from Ann Hui or Léa Mysius – I was quite impressed by the candidness and sensitivity in her debut film Ava for example.

 

And it would be nice if Vicky Chen, the 14-year-old girl who won Best Supporting Actress in Golden Horse Film Festival this year for her performance in The Bold, The Corrupt and The Beautiful (2017) could star in it.

 

I know there is a HUGE age gap between us! But I love her versatility. She is definitely a “mosaic” actress…

 

Many thanks to Yun-hua Chen for the interview!

 

* * *

 

  • Interview: Yun-hua Chen
  • Words/edit/photos (where credited): Megan Spencer
  • Film stills & posters: Short Cuts, A City Of Sadness, Nashville, Babel, Beau Travail, The Sweet Hereafter, Hidden, Lantana, Magnolia, In The Mood for Love.
  • Order: Yun-hua’s book ‘Mosaic Space and Mosaic Auteurs’
  • Read: an extract of Yun-hua’s book.
  • Read: more of Yun-hua’s film writing on her blog.
  • Follow: Yun-hua on Instagram
  • Out: Australia Day on Digital, DVD, Blu-Ray (January 17).
  • Read: more about the cinema of Robert Altman.
Big top painting by Mark Ogge (2017)

Fairground Attraction: Mark Ogge

Posted on December 15, 2017

It’s amazing who you meet in Berlin…

 

Artists are drawn to the city as if it were a kind of mythic, spiritual ‘big top’, seeking artistic inspiration, like-minded community and creative challenge. Something I’ve written about time and time again here at Circus Folk!

 

Mark Ogge is one such ‘pilgrim’. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia – and the brother of one of my dearest friends – Mark’s an “internationally renowned” mid-career artist with a passion for making images inspired by “the rich history of fairground and theatrical art”, the circus, vaudeville and Commedia dell’Arte.

 

Having studied all of the above, in 2001 he painted the Famous Spiegeltent Facade under which thousands have sat during Melbourne festivals (and elsewhere around the world). Also iconic carnival figures at St. Kilda’s Luna Park, and – with an international commission in 2016 – he brought to life the stunning travelling ‘Circus Automata’ at Melbourne Arts Centre.

 

So I kind of wasn’t surprised to see him in Berlin. He was in the right place.

 

With “a strong interest in German art” and on a self-imposed artist’s retreat, he found a supportive residential studio at Hidden Institute artist kollectiv in Neukölln. He was there to complete a series of 30 “smaller” works inspired by a long-standing fascination for Melbourne’s Luna Park and a recent two-month stay in Coney Island.

From Mark’s Coney Island series painted in Berlin, 2017. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Most importantly, he was there to rekindle a painting habit which in recent times had been sidelined by the time demands of environmental lobbying, another vocation Mark is equally passionate about.

 

Inspired by “literally hundreds of favorite artists” and with a distinct, mercurial style, Mark’s oil paintings are in-demand. He receives commissions – often large-scale and festive – from all over the world. His Berlin paintings however depict falling down theme parks glowing quietly with muted colours, ‘last leg’ landscapes and lonely figures.

 

Filled with hope and disappointment, celebration and pessimism, they distill a paradoxical kind of nostalgia. Outwardly they shine with the allure of symbols and structures that contain fantastic worlds. On closer inspection they reveal a stillborn, shabby existence falling down around our ears, forlorn figures lost in a world of broken promises.

 

It’s not so much nostalgia but what Mark calls “solistalgia”, “a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.”

 

Mark painted them during an intensive six weeks. Then exhibited, calling the show in German, Fahrgeschäft (“Amusement Ride”). It was simply beautiful, heart-achingly so, especially when it came to the paintings of fairground ride “The River Caves” from Luna Park.

 

They evoked in me sharp pangs of of loss. My Mum grew up on the rough, pre- and post-war working class streets of St. Kilda. Luna Park gave her much-needed respite. The River Caves ride was her favorite – mine also, years later. These were paintings she would have loved. Wiping away tears stinging with 5 ½ years worth of grief, I wished she could appear by my side to see them too.

 

I did what any person secretly crying would do: rest my head on the pillow of a kind room. The opening for this exhibition of small, intimate, personal work was a small, intimate, personal affair. People huddled around the work for hours, laughing and chatting, happy to support such a personal endeavour.

 

Bolstered by his time in Berlin and with his practice re-energised, back in Melbourne Mark runs social “ad hoc painting evenings” with friends and has again immersed himself in painting. “Excited,” he’s working on “10-20 very large paintings” saying they are a “watershed”.

 

Berlin helped him get there…

On show at Hidden Institute: Mark Ogge. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Circus Folk: Mark, it seems that you and I share a big ‘thing’ for sideshows, amusement parks, fairgrounds and circus folk! When did your interest in this kind of subject first kick in? And what draws you to this world?

 

Mark Ogge: The way I learned to paint was painting and drawing from life. I would go out every day and find a subject that I liked, and draw and paint it. It might be a tree, a corner of a back yard, an industrial landscape, a service station – just anything that I felt drawn to, that resonated for me.

 

One day I went to the Sole Brothers Circus that was set up on the corner of Punt Road and Swan Street in Richmond [Melbourne], and did a series of paintings of the tent, the stalls around it, the caravans… I felt a real fascination for the subject matter [then] started drawing and painting at other fairgrounds like the Royal Melbourne Show and Moomba.

 

I found it incredibly rich subject matter: visually – full of light, colour, people, shadows – but also full of metaphor and symbolism.

 

CF: Do you remember the first time you saw your first circus or fairground?

 

MO: My main childhood memory was a moment at the Royal Melbourne Show. I remember it distinctly: standing outside the Chamber of Commerce pavilion (the that was one full of show bags!) Until that moment everything had seemed magical and infinite, and then suddenly the magic dropped away and I saw it as somehow shabby and immensely lonely.

 

I’m not sure if my perception was changed by some other event or anxiety in my life at the time, or whether it was a moment of actual insight, but it was a powerful experience for me.

 

To me this experience is emblematic of our way of seeing the world: as children we are gripped by wonder, everything is magical. Then as adults we shift to a more ‘knowing’ perception, seeing the shabbiness, crassness [and] monotony.

 

But we are still capable of experiencing intense engagement and wonder, and often shift between the two.

“River Caves, Mawson Expedition” by Mark Ogge (2017). Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

“The Gravitron” by Mark Ogge (2017). Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Yes – your work has been described as a “dichotomy between enchantment and disillusionment”. For someone new to your work is that how you would describe it?

 

MO: My work aims to recapture the sense of wonder that a child can experience, but also the ordinariness behind it.

 

Take the painting of the Gravitron that I painted in Berlin: the Gravitron is an actual fairground ride in Australia. On one level, for a child, the Gravitron is a wondrous apparition, full of the excitement and mystery: space travel, aliens, the promise of some extraordinary experience once we walk up the ramp and enter…

 

But we also know that the ride cannot fulfill this. The bored woman in the ticket box [see above] hints at this underlying ‘ordinariness’. Yet to a child the ticket booth is a glowing portal to a transcendent experience.

 

Layered over that are the metaphoric associations of the thing itself, suggesting the optimism of space travel but fear of the unknown – aliens! It’s comic but also somehow deeply symbolic of our aspirations and fears.

 

Fairground imagery is often powerful and full of symbolism. To attract people it needs to tap into our desires and fears. Think of the ghost trains and haunted houses as archetypal images of fear and death, or the river caves creating exotic wonderlands of places we would love to visit.

 

And then there is the artificiality… When we go to a fairground we’re surrounded by an entirely artificial environment: everything is plastic, steel, paint, lights and amplified recorded sound. And in that sense it’s a metaphor for how we have transformed the natural world into an artificial wonderland. This results in excitement, spectacle and illusion of plenty, but also a deep ‘solastalgia’.

 

The artificial world we inhabit creates a deep anxiety and sense of loss for the natural world, even if these feelings are on a largely unconscious level. So for me the fairground is a metaphor for this, like the world in ‘miniature’.

“Neptune, River Caves”, painting by Mark Ogge (2017). Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Who are some of your painting heroes?

 

MO: I have pretty broad taste – I’ve literally got hundreds of favourite artists! I particularly love Quattrocento Italian Renaissance painting: Giotto, Piers Della Francesca, Bellini, Mantegna, Lippi. [I love the] the simplicity and clarity.

 

Also early Modernism: Manet, Picasso, DeChirico and many others. To me this was an incredible period of inventiveness and vitality as artists grappled with representing a world in rapid change. I particularly love Picasso’s Blue and Rose period paintings. It’s the simplicity and iconic beauty of the figures, also reminiscent of Quattracento Italian painting.

 

German Modernism: Max Beckman and Otto Dix are both extraordinary.

 

Leonora Carrington is a particular favourite of mine. I find her idiosyncratic world of magic and symbolism endlessly fascinating.

 

For me the greatest period of Australian art in the Western/European tradition was ‘The Angry Penguins’, particularly Nolan, Hester, Boyd and Percival. I think Sidney Nolan is Australia’s only artistic ‘genius’ in the western tradition. I’m constantly staggered by his lyricism and mercurial inventiveness, creating work of incredible sophistication in an almost ‘folk art’ idiom.

 

But I think Emily Kngwarreye is probably Australia’s greatest artist. She started painting at 60 years old, and over a ten-year period did a body of work that puts just about everyone else to shame – often huge, monumental works, always immensely aesthetically inventive.

 

Viewed simply as abstract paintings they’re phenomenal – and that’s [even] without really being able to fully appreciate them on a level of their actual meaning, in terms of [the] Indigenous people’s connection to spirit and place.

 

And contemporary art: Kerry James Marshall, Anselm Keifer, Peter Booth, Frank Aurbach, Neo Rauch and Christoff Ruckhaberle come to mind.

“Fahrgeschäft” vernissage, Hidden Institute. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Other than those you’ve named, what has your personal aesthetic and style been informed by?

 

MO: Rather than ‘try’ to develop a style or aesthetic, I’ve tried to express my vision of the world as well and honestly as I can. I see painting as a quest to find ‘a natural way of expressing’ as distinct from creating a pastiche of other artists – or, trying to be ‘original’.

 

What I take from other artists is finding better ways to express my own vision by understanding the craft of aesthetics and image making.

 

In Berlin I saw a talk by [African-American artist] Kerry James Marshall [whom I consider] one of the best living artists in the world. Asked why he looked to the “canon” of western art for inspiration rather than rejecting it or looking to a “black” tradition, he said that he had a moment of understanding when visiting the Uffizi [Gallery in Florence].

 

Surrounded by Quattracento Italian paintings he realised that some were great images and others were not. For example the Giottos and Botticellis were superior to many of the paintings around them.

 

He said at that moment he realised there were “things” that made one painting better than another – the craft of aesthetics (my words) – and that he needed to learn from these artists to understand those things in order to make the powerful work he wanted to make.

 

And he certainly did!

Big top painting by Mark Ogge.

Coney Island baby: Mark Ogge. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

So I guess the answer to the question is that I hope my work remains a true expression of my perception of the world, but that I can express it more powerfully by understanding great art from the past.

 

CF: In addition to your own paintings, you were also commissioned to paint the façade of The Famous Spiegeltent Facade that not only appears at the Melbourne Arts Festival every year, but travels to the States as well. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

 

MO: In a way I do two quite separate things. The first is doing paintings that aim to express something – hopefully something important! – about the world and about myself. The second is what I’d loosely describe as ‘theatrical commissions’, of which the Famous Spiegeltent Facade is one example.

 

These works are designed to entertain and create an atmosphere and character for a place or venue like the Spiegeltent. The facade design of the Famous Spiegeltent has life-size vaudeville, cabaret and Commedia dell’arte characters [professional, travelling circus folk popular in Italy 16th-18th century], to create a world of mystery and intrigue that people want to enter. And [that] reflects the atmosphere inside the tent.

 

This work draws on the rich traditions of fairground art and theatrical art, Commedia dell’arte, circus, cabaret and the like.

 

I love these traditions. For me the characters of sideshows, circus and Commedia dell’arte are avatars for ourselves. We all have a bit of ‘The Strong Man’, ‘The Half-Man Half-Woman’, ‘The Diva’, ‘Pierrot’, ‘Magician’ or ‘The Show Girl’ [in us]. It’s why the Commedia dell’arte was so successful: they would go from town-to-town playing the same characters. And in every town the audience would recognise local personalities or aspects of themselves. They’re timeless and universal.

 

Because I spent many years painting theatre scenery I was able to immerse myself in the tradition and craft of theatrical art, and to develop the skills to work on a very large scale. And I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to create large scale works of this type thanks to [commissions from] The Famous Spiegeltent’s and Melbourne’s Luna Park.

 

CF: What are some of the biggest challenges faced by painters nowadays? Is it still as popular a medium for artists to work in? Or are there ‘competing forces’ (ahem digital, conceptual) at work that have diminished its “cache”?

 

MO: For me it doesn’t matter what medium people work in. Painting is just one of many possible mediums. The test is whether an artwork is aesthetically compelling and has resonance. The reason I use paint/drawing and so on is that [for me] it’s the most direct, tactile and versatile medium.

 

It allows extraordinary freedom. An artist can create any world or image they’re capable of imagining and realising in the medium, with infinite variation. It also allows for expressing atmosphere and mood with enormous subtlety. By contrast [and this is just my personal taste and opinion] I find installation very limited in its expressive potential by its physical constraints, particularly in its subtlety. However there are [also many] really great artists who do fantastic installation work (Louise Bourgeois and Anselm Keifer spring to mind).

 

Digital and video allow more subtlety but in world utterly saturated by video and digital imagery, to me, it makes them pretty unappealing.

 

Personally, I find conceptual art unsatisfying. It tends to be aimed at making a political or sociological point about racism, colonialism, power, sexual politics and so on. Although I share the values of most of this work [often] I find the experience of the artwork leaves me cold. And I don’t think it has much – if any – value in bringing about social change, which is presumably the intention with much of it.

 

[I believe that a] sophisticated political or sociological discourse is far more suited to writing.

 

Conceptual art is now “the academy”, so these spaces are dominated by highly conceptual art. Where it worries me is that there are actually limited public exhibition spaces for contemporary art. [I also acknowledge] it’s difficult for artists to say this without it sounding like being disgruntled for not getting enough attention. In my case I feel very lucky: I can make a living from my painting and have been very well supported throughout my career.

 

[So] I’ve got no complaints! But [these days] I rarely see painting or any visual art that even attempts to engage with aesthetics in public contemporary art spaces. And [again, it’s just my personal opinion!], I think we are all the poorer for this.

 

CF: You have been a working artist for some time but you have also “recently’ begun working in the “political/environmental” industry…

 

MO: Being an artist was my sole profession until 10 years ago. However I became so concerned about global warming that I felt the need to act on this. For several years I worked in a volunteer capacity helping to build up a climate advocacy NGO, Beyond Zero Emissions. This became successful and ultimately I took on a paid role and then moved into a position at the Australia Institute working on challenging coal and gas mining in regional Australia.

Port Augusta power plants north view painting by Mark Ogge (2013).

In Australia huge coalmines and unconventional gas fields are largely approved on the basis of claims by the companies that they will provide a lot of jobs and economic benefits. In fact these claims are almost always vastly exaggerated and these mining projects can do a lot of damage to the rest of the economy. I work with economists at The Australia Institute who provide research to challenge the claims of the coal and gas companies; my job is to go to regional areas where mines are proposed and challenge the mining industries claims in public talks, with local businesses, council, farming groups and so on.

 

Admittedly it’s a strange role for a visual artist! But I have an aptitude for it and I think its important work. I also get a lot out of it! In a strange way it actually complements my life as an artist because it can be quite isolated. This allows me to work with amazing people from all walks of life all over Australia. And intellectually I find it interesting and challenging.

 

Working in this field is also very demanding so it has been challenging to maintain my art practice as a result. However I have continued to exhibit regularly and undertake major commissions over this time. Although this work is very important to me and I will continue to be involved, my aim is to wind back the environmental work and focus more on painting.

 

CF: So what is it then that you love about painting – and the process of it? What is it that keeps bringing you back?

 

MO: I find painting a profound mode of communication. When I see great paintings, they create an imaginative world and communicate an understanding of the world and humanity that is different to what can be communicated in any other mode – like say writing or music. It is contemplative and usually can’t be grasped at a glance, but [it] can communicate at a deep level.

 

There’s enormous imaginative freedom in painting. Painting can depict anything within the confines of the picture-frame, limited only by the imagination and skill of the artist. The imaginative worlds created by painting are almost limitless. Think of the world of Bosch, Van Gogh, Monet, Leonora Carrington, Morandi: they are utterly different universes, but all compelling and instantly recognisable to the point that they have become part of our collective imagination.

 

Painting is emotionally expressive. It can be applied with the elegant simplicity of Fra Angelico, the sensuality of Soutine, the harshness of Ensor or Dix, the delicacy of Watteau – or anything in between. And all these ways of ‘applying the paint’ [also] express emotional nuance, similarly to how different types of music evoke different emotions.

 

I also love the directness, tactility and beauty of the medium.

Circus folk roll call at “Fahrgeschäft” vernissage, Hidden Institute. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Why did you come to Berlin?

 

MO: I wanted to work for a while on my own work in an interesting place other than Australia – and where I had access to great art collections. I [also] really love German art and find Germany a fascinating place culturally and historically.

 

I’ve always had a strong interest in German Art – Max Beckman and Otto Dix are two of my favourite artists. I’m also a big fan of contemporary German painting, particularly Keifer and some of the Leipzig painters, Neo Rauch, Daniel Richter and Christoff Ruckhabrle. Having access to these collections in both Leipzig and Berlin was great!

 

In part I came to Berlin for the same reason as a lot of other artists do: that it’s possible to [access] studio space that is reasonably affordable. Berlin is also a very dynamic city that is still creating itself whereas many [other] European cities – which I [also] really love – are in a sense completed ‘works of art’. The relative dynamism of Berlin appealed to me as a place to work. It’s also somewhere with an extraordinary recent history.

 

CF: What was your take on the European (and Berlin) art culture? And did you find it inspiring?

 

MO: I really enjoyed meeting a lot of local artists who were so open and generous with talking about their practice. And I found the “important” collections in Berlin, elsewhere in Germany and Europe, enormously inspiring. I’ve got a particular interest in German Moderinsim [so] I loved the great collection in the Gemalgalerie. Seeing the Leipzig School painting was a real highlight.

 

[As I’ve said] I’m most interested in painting or visual art that is aesthetically engaging. I think there’s undoubtedly a lot really great contemporary artwork being done in Germany and Europe, but it’s surprisingly hard to find because highly conceptual art is so dominant.

 

I don’t think this is a problem peculiar to Berlin. I visited the Venice Biennale and documenta in Kassel which both profess to showcase European (and global) art, and found both pretty much entirely academic conceptual artwork.

Berlin party balloon. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Working in Berlin, was it much different to say having a studio in Melbourne?

 

MO: It was important for me to work away from Melbourne, in part to refresh and get some distance from my other occupation in political/environmental work and really focus on painting.

 

It’s so great to have access to great collections while I’m painting. For instance to be able to go to the Gemaldgalerie in the morning with access to extraordinary Titians, Bellinis and Holbeins, then paint in the afternoon – it was an enormously refreshing experience for me. It enabled me to re-engage with my work and take real lessons from the great artworks I had access to.

 

I only had about 6 weeks to paint – which is a very short amount of time for a body of work. But given that limitation I’m really happy with the work I did, and that there were some important developments that I would not have achieved in Melbourne.

 

CF: Please tell us a bit about the new series of works you made on your stay in Berlin… What inspired those pictures?

 

MO: The paintings are a combination of images I’d been working on in Australia and the US immediately prior to coming to Berlin. I began with 30 small studies of images I wanted to develop. Some were images I have been developing in one way or another over a long period, and others were based on drawings I made in Coney Island in the US.

 

I’m particularly pleased with the Gravitron image, and the River Caves series, which I will develop further this year.

 

I also worked on a series of images that I developed at Coney Island. I was there in winter when the park was closed – an incredibly atmospheric time. The huge fairground rides along the foreshore were deserted and enveloped in snow and fog. I think the studies of the Thunderbolt [ride] are successful and I’m looking forward to doing larger versions.

 

Besides works based on the fairground, I did a lot of drawings of street life in Coney Island. It’s quite a gritty place and gave me a glimpse into a pretty real part of America. I’m really pleased with some small studies I did of Dunkin Donuts, Checkers and Nathan’s, [which] I’ll also take further.

 

[Right now] I’m working on 10-20 very large paintings of images I have been developing over the last few years. I’m really excited about this new body of work; I think it will be a real watershed. I’m going to spend the next 12 months working on them and look forward to exhibiting them in 2019.

“Spiegel Automata” (2016) by Mark Ogge.

CF: And – did you manage to visit any fairgrounds in Berlin?!

 

MO: The only fairground I visited was the temporary fairground in Hasenheide near Hermanplatz! I did some drawings there. Actually – it wasn’t that different to Australian fairgrounds, they’re pretty universal I guess!

 

They had a particularly good ghost train that I’m sure I’ll do a painting of at some stage!

 

Many thanks to Mark Ogge for the interview!

  * * *

 

Tower of power: Massimo Maio in Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Satellite Of Love: Massimo Maio

Posted on December 9, 2017

Massimo Maio moved to Berlin “for love”.

 

Migrating from a “small and cosy” village in southwest Germany, he says that “friends, radio and art” also had a lot to do with him pulling up stumps for the German capital.

 

Like me, Massimo has BIG LOVE for radio. It’s a fundamental part of his life and has been since he was a child. He’s also been working in the medium for many years, both as a producer and presenter, starting in the days of analogue, later embracing digital with its creative freedoms and disruptive potential.

 

Snap! We’re also died-in-the-wool public broadcasters.

 

Massimo and I first met in 2015 just after I moved to Berlin from Australia. I was co-teaching a two-day storytelling workshop. In it I discussed and taught the role (and importance) of empathy in interviewing and storytelling. How being able “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” is key to human connection. And how necessary empathy is for bringing authenticity to a narrative – to make it truly meaningful and memorable. No “fake it till you make it” here!

 

As part of the workshop I produced a podcast from interviewing the participants. As I was listening to Massimo speak (shyly!) about his own work – and expressing opinions about what makes radio great – I realised that a) he was a kindred radio spirit, and b) he loved to listen to – and tell the stories of – others. Which also just happens to be the hallmark of a) a good radio maker and b) an empath.

 

Nowadays working at WDR and Deutschlandradio in Germany, he’s also a musician, theatre performer and somewhat of an activist, working with asylum seekers and displaced people who’ve entered Germany under Chancellor Merkel’s compassionate – and much decried – “open border” migration policy.

 

When it comes to radio, where my heart also lies, Massimo and I share a same imagined future: that even in this age of sound bites, disappearing news services and “alternative facts” – bobbing high atop a sea of noise and the ocean swells of a gazillion podcasts – live broadcasting will prevail: present, urgent, immediate, uncompromising and laced with the risk and ‘aliveness’ of ‘right now’.

 

And, instead of being crushed under the weight of the ‘audio on demand’ commercial imperative and unempathetic industry bureaucracies, live radio – real people with microphones broadcasting in real time, on the spot, in the world, prepared, researched, ready to listen, speak and commune – will become more necessary than ever.

 

That’s what we reckon, anyway…

The medium is the message: Massimo Maio. Photo: Megan Spencer 2017

Circus Folk: What’s your “Berlin story?”

 

Massimo Maio: I’ve been living in Berlin since 2011. It was friends, radio, art and love that brought me here!

 

I was born in a small and cosy village in the southwest of Germany, in the hills on the edge of the Black Forest. It’s very picturesque [but] it’s not a very exciting place. The longer I stay away [though] the more I have to admit it really is beautiful there.

 

My parents come from even further south, moving from Italy to the Black Forest at the beginning of the 70s. I grew up as a so-called Gastarbeiterkind (“foreign child”). In school the teachers would always emphasize how “proud” they were when I had good marks, because my first language was Italian. But I feel much more flexible and rich talking German now!

 

CF: Where and what did you study? And have you always had an interest in making music?

 

MM: After school I tried a lot of different things: I worked in a theatre, I learned to make movies and for three years I worked for a TV station. Only later did I feel a big hunger for university. So I started studying Cultural Science at the University of Hildesheim, focusing on Media, Music and Sociology. I loved it! University for me was the place where I could ask all the questions I had, and take my time to find out the answers.

 

I also got deeper in contact with the world of audio. I have been making music since I was a teenager. I played in punk bands and grunge bands, later making more electronic and experimental music. At university I started to combine music and sound with “reflection” and words. So very naturally I got closer to the world of audio art and radio – the world in which I still mainly spend my time!

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: I read that when you were a child you used to listen to Radio Colonia in the kitchen while your mum made cakes! (I’d also do the same with my Mum when I was kid growing up in suburban Australia, but to the ABC). Is this how you first become interested in radio?

 

MM: The radio in our kitchen was always on. My whole childhood it was part of my natural surroundings. At that time it never appeared to be something special to me because it was always there.

 

I have very lively memories of listening to “the Italian program” on Saturday afternoons. My mum would always turn it up loud and cook or bake to it. I helped her pouring flour and sugar in the bowls while listening to the Italian music. It’s the memory of a perfect childhood afternoon to me!

Gear: Massimo’s home studio. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: What appeals to you about radio? And where/when did you first start making programs?

 

MM: I have always loved to listen: to music; to my older brothers talking; to the sound of the river where I grew up… And I have always loved to ask questions and have long conversations. I think radio just naturally brings together a lot of the things that are part of me.

 

I made my first radio program at university. It was a documentary about how naivety is used as an artistic strategy in music, literature and film. We combined our own reflections with a lot of pop culture quotes and music. It was a great project! It was broadcast on local radio there, so afterwards I decided to make my own program once a month full of sound and radio experiments. It was pretty trashy but lots of fun!

Refection, Massimo Maio. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Radio room with a view. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Listen up: Massimo Maio. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Which networks or stations have you worked with over your career?

 

MM: I have mainly worked for [German] public radio stations such as SWR, NDR, RB, WDR and Deutschlandfunk. And of course on a lot of smaller projects like the audio guide Stadt im Ohr App (“Urban Sounds”), the performance collective Fischfell, and with different musicians.

 

Now I freelance, working on different programs and projects. I present a daily radio program for WDR Cosmo, which I like a lot. And I love to make longer documentaries, for example for Deutschlandfunk Kultur, such as the 55-minute documentary “Kevin”, my latest documentary which took me 5 years! It’s a portrait of a teenager who grows up in the far east of Berlin. Over five years I regularly made interviews with him, sharing his everyday life, recording his first attempts at hip hop… And in the end it became this one-hour story about a very normal and very special young person in the suburbs of Berlin, Kevin, after whom I named the documentary.

 

CF: What type of qualities is it useful or necessary to have when it comes to making radio documentaries?

 

MM: I think it’s hard to describe ‘general’ qualities: different people make different documentaries, and they can be great and surprising and touching in very different ways! But it’s possibly very inspiring if you have a very authentic interest in [the subject] you are dealing with!

 

CF: Well just on that – passionate or genuine interest in a particular subject – earlier this year you spoke about refugees on a panel at republica:17, in Berlin. [Republica is one of Europe’s leading festivals about digital culture and society]. You have a particular interest in working with refugees, making collaborative projects such as ‘Audiowalks’ and theatre within this community. Can you tell us about those projects?

 

MM: I made an audio-workshop for refugees with a friend of mine. We had a group of very interested people and introduced them to the field of sound recording, editing and making interviews. The idea was to create a space to talk to different people in the neighbourhood and to ask all the kinds of questions that our participants feel curious about. So we had a lot of questions and interviews in the end!

 

Together we developed an ‘audiowalk’ through the neighbourhood where the participants lived, presenting all the sound pieces they created.

 

It is really great to ‘hear’ just how much a microphone can open doors and make you feel justified to ask all sorts of questions!

 

CF: Given your interest in displaced people, as a radio journalist and program maker, what did you make of the European crisis, and Germany’s/Merkel’s response to it? Where are things at now from your perspective? And what needs to happen, policy-wise, socially, for this issue to be better handled? I’d be very interested in your observations and long-range views about it…

 

MM: I think that connected to migration policy there has been a lot of unhelpful hysteria in the past [few] years. It is a topic that has lead to very ‘short’ thoughts and narrow views, which unfortunately disable dealing with definite issues that are there.

 

From my point of view, one really important thing is to bring people together. I’m quite sure problems will never be solved if people are segregated, excluded, living in gated areas or in their small bubbles of communication. Encounters, interaction and curious self-criticism can probably help quite a bit!

Massimo in his Berlin home radio studio. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Germany has a lot of different faces. I am really surprised at how fast the far-right German party AfD has grown over the last two years. It makes me feel that there is much more intolerance and fear in Germany than I have ever experienced before.

 

It has been very unpleasant to see how fast an atmosphere of intolerance can grow.

 

But I also have the feeling that in many cases it really doesn’t have [anything] to do with refugees or immigrants. I think there is a more general fear of losing certainties in [what is] undoubtedly a very fast-changing world. And as the last years have shown, this fear can very easily be triggered – and not only in Germany of course!

 

Right now my impression is that feelings are cooling down again here; that people are finding new certainties, maybe… And I hope that they also find more precise and sustainable ways of criticizing things!

 

CF: What kinds of effects have the explosion of digital radio, and “audio on demand” streaming and podcast services made on regular live FM/AM radio in Germany? Is it a good thing? And do you think it possible that live radio could die out?

 

MM: My impression is that the public radio in Germany is changing only quite slowly – which I am sometimes very glad about! Especially because there is a general tendency towards making everything shorter and quicker and slicker… I really still love an ‘old school’ uncut one hour interview, if it is well made!

 

But what has actually changed – in a very good way – is that a lot of public radio content is now also accessible online. Only a few years ago that wasn’t a given at all!

 

Of course radio will change a lot in the next years with all the digital possibilities. And probably there will also be less live radio than there is now. But even in a more distanced future I still imagine quite a lot of live radio programs. There is a big difference between listening to something ‘prefab’ than to something that is happening right now – that is, listening to a person who is speaking to you in this very moment.

 

Maybe that will be even more precious in the future!

 

CF: Agree! Who are some of your radio inspirations – fave presenters, podcasts – and why?

 

MM: As I said earlier, listening to radio is something very natural for me. Especially listening to the news and documentary programs on Deutschlandfunk Kultur. This is what I hear live in my kitchen every day.

 

But I also love to listen to some podcasts, mainly from different public radio stations. For example, Philosophisches Radio on WDR 5, a one-hour talk by a philosopher, sociologist or author.

 

For me it often opens up a very broad, pleasantly [unsensationalist] perspective about very interesting social topics.

Down time. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

And recently I also started to listen to American radiolab podcasts. I love their way of storytelling and mingling original sounds with presenter parts. It’s quite inspiring!

 

CF: What’s the best advice you were glad to receive, or that you have learned, about making radio, that you could share with us – especially when it comes to making good work?

 

MM: To bring together the most precious advice I have been given maybe could be summed up as, “more often than we think, just attentively listening (and perceiving) is the most powerful and mind blowing thing we can do!”

 

Also – try to be as honest as possible with yourself, then you can be as honest as you wish with your audience!

 

And – do something that challenges you every week.

Do something nice for somebody every day.

Attentively perceive in every second!

Being 100% honest with myself means I will be authentic with others!

And feeling fear is a better option than pushing it away.

 

Many thanks to Massimo Maio for the interview and photo shoot!

 

* * *

At "hom" in the kitchen: Hana and Sarah. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Where The Heart Is: Hana & Sarah

Posted on November 24, 2017

Recently I got lucky.

 

My husband Oliver and I  were coming to the end of our time in Berlin. About to move back to Australia, we managed to find someone who wanted to buy all our furniture and take on the new lease of our apartment. The only hitch being we’d need to leave a month early and find another place to live temporarily. Not easy in a city with a rental crisis.

 

A good friend helped us out, renting us his extra room. Not only did we have a sweet-as apartment to stay in (and a laid-back, lovely-as wine-and-cheese-fan of a housemate), we were about to relocate to one of the most exciting and talked about neighbourhoods of Berlin: Neukölln. And not only that, leafy, ornate Wildenbruchplatz.

 

Known for its vibrant and hospitable Turkish population, markets, busy streets and fistfuls of eateries and bars, Neukölln is in the middle of a boom – a controversial one. Once poor, rough and undesirable (except to its “indigenous” inhabitants), longtime locals have repeatedly protested against rising rents, increasingly priced out of the area by landlords profiteering from the international “roamer” and business workforce, flooding the city to take advantage of start ups and cheap rents.

 

Plus establishments often staffed by “hipster types”, sleeve tattoos, aloof attitudes and man-buns abounding. And, where the first language is often English: nicht Deutsch.

Hom corner store in the Autumn sunshine, with Richard, Maria and baby Mattis. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017.

That’s not to say you won’t still find a döner shop or a “spätie” on every corner. But now thrown into this colourful residential melting pot are those with new money: the new “new” slackers, seemingly with means, without the need to work (too much anyway), nor the need to speak German, a language so highly prized by its citizens it has been deemed “scientific”. And a proclivity to spend obscene amounts of time in cafes with free wi-fi: lock down and never look up.

 

It’s contentious. Gentrification has Berlin in its uber-capitalist, “things white people like”, vice-like grip.

 

Be that as it may (and until recently, admittedly part of “the problem”), how overjoyed was I to find a cafe just across the road from my new home. Hailing from Melbourne as I do, a city that has for decades pioneered community through hospitality – and food, wine and coffee culture – courtesy of its generous, diverse, inter-generational migrant population… Having lived in two very conservative Berlin neighbourhoods where “corner stores” consisted of smokey Kneipen largely filled with Auslander-suspicious locals… And utterly sick of the “hostility” unleashed on me every time I was in need of caffeine, hom café berlin was a sight for sore eyes.

 

There I found two incredibly friendly, creative cooks who made decent coffee, lovely food and didn’t charge like wounded bulls. They knew what good service was – and loved to be of service. Hospitality found! I felt ‘home’ again.

 

There is something to be said for kindness. There is case to be made for the warmth of connection. And there is definitely an argument to be had about finding a place to sit, reflect and eat well. To be looked after. That’s also what I found at hom, courtesy of its owner/operators,  Hana Hiriri and Sarah Playfair.

 

Hospitality ‘lifers’ and having taken over (and made-over) hom only months before, just like me they were part of the international “Wahlberliner” population who’d also fallen in love with the city, decided to stay, open a business and call it home. Perhaps in spite of the resistance.

 

To me, hom represents some of the best – and historic – aspects of Berlin: the glue that has held the city together for over a century, in spite of the wars and walls that have cleaved it in two. Manifestly, inclusiveness, openness and tolerance for ‘others’. Come one, come all. It’s not just about baking cakes and making pretty spaces. At hom Hana and Sarah not only create amazing food, they have also created an amazing, inclusive, kind space. Consciously. With intent. And, just quietly, with a communal agenda.

 

Speaking both German and English, Sarah and Hana welcome all through their doors, and do their best to give everyone a good experience, no matter what.

 

It’s part of their credo. And something I was very grateful for, as I said goodbye to Berlin. It’s what made me want to hear their story. Hom is where the heart is, for real.

Out in the streets: hom’s Sarah & Hana. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Circus Folk: Like so many living in Berlin, you’re both wahlberliners, “Berliners by choice”, hailing from elsewhere in Europe. Could you please give us a “snapshot” of your respective backgrounds before coming to Berlin?

 

Hana: I was born and raised in Austria, just a little outside of Vienna. My dad is Lebanese, my mum is Slovak, they came to Austria a couple of years before I made my first appearance.

 

I studied Design and Product Management in Salzburg, and did my first odd jobs in hospitality at that time. After I finally graduated (I took my sweet, sweet time), I realized that I had no ambition to pursue a career in that field.

 

That was the moment I packed my bags and started moving around, working in different jobs in different countries, ultimately landing in Berlin.

 

Sarah: I was born in London and grew up in Leicester. My parents are both teachers and my dad is also extremely politically active – which rubbed off on me – leading me to study politics at Leeds University.

 

After a year interning for politicians in London and Canada I realized that politics was definitely not a career for me and decided instead to train as an English teacher so that I could travel. I lived in France for two years teaching English, and then moved here to Berlin.

 

Hana: I arrived in December 2012 after traveling for a couple of months. I was so broke at that point I kinda had to stay and find a job! So that’s what I did; I ended up liking it so I stayed for a year. Then I moved to Scotland, where I stayed for another year, but ultimately my heart was telling me that Scotland was not where I was meant to be long term. So in January 2015 I came back to Berlin. I’ve been here ever since.

 

Sarah: I moved here almost 3 years ago, for that all-too-common reason of following my man! Although it goes against my feminist beliefs (hehe) I’m actually really glad I followed my boyfriend here, as now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. He’s doing his Phd in Berlin so we’re here for another year or so.

 

CF: Where did you both meet, and how did your paths cross?

 

Hana: Sarah and I met about a year ago (September 2016) at our last job at Cupcake [a specialty cupcake café in Berlin-Friedrichshain]. I was baking the cakes, Sarah was frosting and decorating. We spent a lot of time together in the kitchen and that’s how the idea of hom was born.

 

Sarah: It seems crazy that we met each other so recently because we’re both now such an important part of each other’s lives! We joke that we’re basically married because we have a joint bank account – there’s not much more committed than that!

 

After travelling around for years and having to make new friends in new cities, you realize after a while how special it is when you just “click” with someone. That happened with us. I’m so glad we both happened to be working at the cupcake shop together!

 

CF: You both have hospitality backgrounds: could you please elaborate – and about your area of ‘speciality’?

 

Hana: I started off as a barista at Starbucks. I know it’s a “big evil chain”, but I definitely enjoyed my time there. I met a lot of lovely people and learned quite a bit about coffee. After that I worked in a bar – even an office for a while – and then I “came back to coffee” when I moved to Berlin. So I guess you could say coffee is my speciality.

 

Another thing that I really enjoy doing (but I’m not a specialist by any means), is fermentation. So far I’ve been experimenting with Kombucha and Sauerkraut, but I’m planning more for hom in the future.

Every hom should have one. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Sarah: I had my first job in hospitality when I was 16, also at an evil chain working as a “sandwich artist”. Throughout my university years I went on to work in various cafes and pubs in the UK.

 

After a while my passion for baking became stronger and I decided to turn it into more than “just a hobby”. I started selling cakes to cafes in my local area before I got the job at Cupcake. So baking and decorating cakes is definitely something I absolutely love, although I wouldn’t say I’m an expert.

 

CF: Hana, when it comes to Austrian food, what “don’t” people know about it – what might be unique or surprising about it?

 

Hana: I think people generally associate schnitzel with Austria and for a big part that’s kind of it – Schnitzel and Sachertorte!

 

Where it becomes interesting is when the cuisines of the neighbouring countries come in. There’s a big Hungarian influence – dating back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – as well as a lot of former Yugoslavian things. Let’s be honest, it’s all quite meaty!

Snapped in the kitchen, Hana & Sarah, hom. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: What about you Sarah – what do you like about “British” cuisine? And what “don’t” people appreciate about it ?

 

Sarah: The thing I love about British food is that it’s generally not from Britain at all. Instead it’s so diverse and international. I guess a traditional “pie and mash” or “fish and chips” can be comforting and delicious sometimes, but definitely what I love most are our cakes and puddings.

 

As a kid I used to just love looking at the selection of sweet treats in our local Percy Ingle Bakery (East London shout out!). The colours and decorations were always so enticing even if they weren’t as refined as say, French patisserie. I’m definitely one for more rustic looking cakes that just make your mouth water.

 

Hana: I don’t think that my cooking is particularly Austrian-inspired. I grew up in a-not-very Austrian household. My mum cooked more Slovak food and some Lebanese things she learned from my dad, and I must admit that I learned most of my cooking from the internet. Maybe that’s why the only Austrian things at hom are beverages… I’d much rather talk about Austrian coffee!

 

Sarah: I think that Hana and I actually have quite similar cooking backgrounds as we are both self-taught cooks and don’t necessarily identify with our traditional national cuisine. We take inspiration from such a wide range of cooking, and at the end of the day we both love simple but delicious food. I’m also so glad that she appreciates Marmite and ‘beans on toast’ as much as I do!

 

CF: It’s fair to say that nowadays there’s almost a café on every corner in Berlin. Why did you decide to start hom? What is your point of difference, and what did you want to provide in this very full and growing “market” of Berlin?

 

Hana: We wanted to do our own thing: the idea was to have a place that feels very cozy and homey.

 

I also think that that’s what makes us different: now after almost four months [of being open] we know our people and they know us. We’re not a ‘faceless’ provider of coffee and food. I mean I hope that people love our food and drinks, but there’s a lot of great food and drink out there. So I like to think that people keep coming back because of our personalities and the atmosphere. I think we’re doing pretty well so far.

Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Sarah: Neither of us are professionally-trained chefs so we would never claim to be some fancy and pretentious ‘up and coming’ cafe with a totally mind blowing menu. Like Hana said, we make simple but delicious food that we would want to eat ourselves if we were visiting a cafe. It’s also all reasonably priced, which I think is really important considering that Berlin is full of artists and self-employed people. We also don’t want to be a pretentious hipster place where you pay crazy amounts of money for coffee.

 

However I do think we provide something quite rare in Berlin, which is actual customer service! There’s a reputation in Berlin of the “schnauze” attitude of service, basically where the server doesn’t care about making the customer feel welcome, or being friendly.

 

When I first moved here I hated that aspect of Berlin: as a foreigner as it can be especially alienating. We really pride ourselves on always being friendly and approachable, and creating a cozy atmosphere where everyone is welcome.

 

CF: Have you had a lot of support here in the opening of the café?

 

Hana: We have had an amazing amount of support. Our friends in Berlin were all super supportive and helpful (special shout out to Kim who made our beautiful website!) Also our families back home did what they could to help, which was mainly financial support. Without our parents we would definitely have had to take out a bank loan, and let’s be honest, a “dad-loan” has much better conditions!

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Multi-tasking, Sarah & Hana, hom. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Sarah: The fact that we could even open in the first place is thanks to the support from our families, so we feel incredibly grateful and lucky.

 

Really, the support we received was overwhelming especially at the start when we had no idea what we were doing, and spent about a month running around like headless chickens! We had a team to help clean the cafe and set it up how we wanted when we took over the lease from the previous cafe owner. My memory of that time is kind of blurry, but I’m incredibly proud that we managed to open two days after we took over the lease. It was such an impressive turnaround, only made possible with the help of our friends here.

 

Now we just have to make sure we are fabulously successful so that we can repay our debts!

 

CF: I feel cooking and baking is an inherently creative endeavour. Do you agree?

 

Hana: I think cooking and baking is equally creative and scientific: once you have learned the rules you can experiment and let the creativity flow. I really enjoy making special things every now and then, but in the daily running of the café we also tend to stick to the things we know. Humans are creatures of habit and they want things to stay the same.

 

Sarah: I absolutely love creating new cakes and sweet treats, and I don’t think that will ever get boring. There are definitely times when things don’t turn out how you picture them in your head, which can be disappointing and frustrating. But what I love is that it’s now even easier to learn new cake decorating techniques for free, with inspiration on Pinterest and Instagram, and YouTube tutorials.

 

It feels like the opportunities are endless and we always welcome any chance to try new things and experiment. There is absolutely nothing better than a group of people being amazed – and made speechless – by seeing or eating a cake that you made yourself.

Richard, Maria & baby Mattis, hom. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: In some cultures, hospitality is seen as a noble, worthy profession (eg Spain, Italy, France), whereas in other cultures (Australia, UK, US, maybe even Germany?!) it is often seen as “hostility” not “hospitality” – a “lower” kind of job that you only do to make money on the side while you pursue your “dream job”. How do you each approach it? And what is great about being in the hospitality industry and profession?

 

Hana: In Germany – especially in Berlin – I feel like being in hospitality is always seen as a temporary thing, while you pursue your “real” dreams. I can’t even count the amount of times that people have asked me “But what else do you do?”, because clearly working in a café isn’t enough and I must have other ambitions!

 

I’ve definitely gone through phases where I swore off hospitality and thought about getting a “real, grown-up job”, but somehow I always ended up going back to it. Having my own café definitely has been a dream of mine for a long time, but it took meeting Sarah to make it come true.

 

What I love about it is that you get to meet new people every day, and while we certainly have our routines, every day is different. You really can’t get bored in this profession and I wouldn’t change it for all the money in the world.

 

Sarah: Oh my, I’m so sick of people asking me “what else do you do” too!! It’s really frustrating being condescended to by your peers, when often I feel that many people I know would not be able to even survive a day working in a cafe on their own!

 

It is annoying that working in hospitality in the UK and Germany is often regarded as a side job, or temporary, because it takes real customer service skills, physical endurance, creativity and good humor to work in this field. All of which are traits I think should be celebrated.

 

I have worked in so many different kinds of jobs, and I can honestly say that working at hom is by far the most fun, creative, challenging and stimulating work I have ever done. It has also been a dream of mine for years to be my own boss and run a cafe, and though it can be extremely exhausting and overwhelming, it’s sooo worth it when a customer compliments your cake or the atmosphere at the cafe. Meeting lovely people every day, all the cake and coffee you could wish for, and being your own boss… I don’t think it can get much better to be honest!

 

CF: So what exactly attracts you to Berlin? Why make your home here, and open a business here, in particular? Why not elsewhere?

 

Hana: I think because Sarah and I met here. We wouldn’t have met anywhere else and I wouldn’t have had the “balls” to open and run a café all by myself. Even though the idea of opening my own café first occurred to me in Barcelona (inspired by their lack of breakfast places) and the name “hom” was born while I was living in Edinburgh. So in my mind the café existed in various places, but it took finding the “perfect partner in crime” to make it reality.

 

Sarah: I think that hom fits perfectly as a concept here in Berlin: it is such a lively and creative city with a truly unique vibe that encourages small businesses like ours. I don’t think any other city in the world would be as fun, and still affordable. Maybe in the future we’ll expand overseas – but I don’t see that happening any time soon, haha!

Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

 And I’ve really found a home here: there’s such a unique vibe for independent businesses; there is definitely no way I could open up a cafe in London. The prices are crazy and there are so many chains everywhere there’s really no room for a small cozy cafe like hom.

 

Something that’s also particularly exciting about Berlin is the diversity here: we have customers from all over the world which makes everyday completely different from the next. We get the chance to learn new things, meet some really interesting people, and all without that stressful hustling in other cities like London.

 

Hana: I love Austria, and it will always be my home, but I don’t think I would want to live there again. So running a business there is out of the question.

 

Actually the first time I wanted to open hom was [when I was living in] in Edinburgh, but I don’t think it would have worked as well there as it does here, also because I didn’t have Sarah there and she is my better half! There’s no way either of us would have managed to do this alone.

 

The thing that attracts me to Berlin – and the reason why I ended up coming back here – is the diversity, and the people. In Scotland I found it really hard to make meaningful connections with people because most people I met there were also from there, and already had their friend groups. They just weren’t as open, whereas in Berlin everyone seems to be from somewhere else, and, to a degree, “new” here. Which results in people being more open and approachable when it comes to making new friends.

 

I must admit though that none of my friends here are actual Berliners – make of it what you will!

 

CF: Well just on that point – many Berliners not actually being from Berlin; in a sense hom is part of this ever-changing face of Berlin, an example of new immigrants choosing to – or out of necessity having to – make Berlin their home. It is very much becoming an international city, and one of the destinations for people across the world such as yourselves, and until recently myself as well! A place to live, work, experiment, start new enterprises, or to ‘start again’. Recently the Washington Post dubbed Berlin a “major migrant magnet”.  Some locals detest and resist this change and/or “gentrification” aspect as they see it. Others see it as inevitable and go along with it, and then there are those who embrace it. Where you fit into this spectrum of immigration, in the “new” Berlin of 2017?

 

Hana: Hah, we’re coming back to the creatures of habit. People don’t like change, even if it’s for the better. A lot of the former regulars of Madame Zucker (the café that lived here before we did) didn’t come to us, because they felt like we were the “evil” face of gentrification. As if we had single-handedly raised all the rents in the Kiez and made Madame Zucker go out of business!

 

Now they’re slowly accepting us as part of the community, especially once they get to know us and see that we’re not an evil corporation. Gentrification is a many-faced god. It can be good in certain aspects and bad in others.

 

The good thing about it is that we now have a café in a pretty nice and safe neighbourhood. Which didn’t use to be this way. Andrea, the former owner, told us stories about the time when she first started and got threatened by the local “gangs”. We haven’t had any of those issues, which is nice.

 

And a lot of our regulars are families with small children, and it’s really been amazing to watch them grow. They’re learning to walk and talk and growing up in the café. That makes me feel like we have a real community thing going here and aren’t just yet another hipster café.

 

On the other hand, the rate at which rents are going up even here in Neukölln is more than just alarming. I even had to move outside “The Ring” [Berlin’s inner-city defined by it’s S-Bahn “rapid transit railway” loop], because I couldn’t afford to live in good old Neukölln anymore. Not that my new neighbourhood is that bad, but currently, gentrification stops when you cross the Ring-line.

 

Rents ‘magically’ drop by a significant amount and so does the number of expats living in these areas (you know, the “fancy” kind of immigrants who come here because it’s “cool”). What my neighbourhood lacks in fancy cafés and shops, it makes up for in Lebanese hairdressers and creepy old-man-pubs.

Saturday morning happy at hom: Hana and Sarah. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Sarah: My feelings about gentrification have actually changed a lot since starting hom. Not to go against my socialist roots, but I have to say that many aspects of gentrification can actually be positive even though I know it’s often viewed as a bad word to describe areas becoming crazy-expensive and kicking out local people.

 

The magical thing about Berlin lies in its contrasts – it’s what makes the city unique. My mum recently visited and couldn’t get over the graffiti everywhere [often on old historical and ornate buildings on neighbourhood streets], something I have completely gotten used to.

 

But I think despite its occasional griminess and a healthy amount of weirdos, there’s so much beauty and innovation here. And I don’t feel like our area [Wildenbruchplatz in Neükolln] has become unaffordable at all. So from my point of view it doesn’t feel like there are any disadvantages to have nice cafes and bars here. Perhaps In a few years things will get too pricey and hipster, but for now I think the balance is pretty great.

 

And for hom, the feeling of being a home for other foreigners who might feel isolated or homesick is really important. Since opening we’ve been so lucky that we have been constantly collaborating with artists from across the world, and have exhibited amazing artworks and held some amazing gigs and events here. We’re pretty much booked out for the rest of the year!

 

So we’re so happy to be part of the “migrant magnet”, especially when so many people bring such talent and new perspectives.

 

CF: What would you be doing if you weren’t running hom? And what are your dreams for hom, say, if you look a few years down the track??

 

Hana: If we weren’t running hom I would probably still be baking cupcakes!

 

The dream for hom is that it grows and prospers, and that one day we will even be able to take some time off, or have a real weekend. They aren’t huge dreams, but they’re important to keep us going.

 

Sarah: Wow, that would be nice – a holiday seems like a distant dream at the moment! I know that if I hadn’t started hom with Hana I would still be baking and decorating cakes somewhere! Even if it was a hobby, and I was working in an office, I’m sure I’ll always have a passion for baking.

 

To be completely honest, the idea of working in an office now gives me the shivers. I can’t think of any workplace I’d rather be than coming to our corner of Neukölln and looking out into the park, accompanied by the smell of baking cakes and the sound of people chatting or babies gurgling.

 

CF: Final question: favourite hom recipe and why?

 

Hana: I think it would have to be the carrot cake, mainly because it’s not just one hom recipe but two. Sarah and I are both convinced that our recipe is the best ever, so we each make a different carrot cake. It’s like an ongoing battle…

 

Sarah: My favorite recipe has got to be our date-and-peanut-butter truffles. They are sooo simple, and a guilt-free treat, because they don’t have any refined sugar. I’ve been trying – with varying degrees of success – to cut down on my refined sugar intake. So these chocolatey-gooey balls help me to avoid eating all the cakes in the café!

 

Many thanks to Sarah Playfair and Hana Hariri for the interview!

  • Interview: Hana Hiriri, Sarah Playfair
  • Words/edit/photos: Megan Spencer
  • Visit: hom’s website
  • Like: hom on Facebook
  • Follow: hom on Instagram (especially for cake lovers and baking nuts)
  • View: the full hom gallery on SmugMug

 

The Go-Betweens, Maxwells, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1983, Photo: Laura Levine

Before Hollywood: Kriv Stenders

Posted on October 1, 2017

Watching Kriv Stenders’ film about The Go-Betweens made me homesick.

 

Hearing ‘Cattle and Cane’ killed me. It’d been a while. Only music can do that. Bang! That forlorn bass-line wrapped itself around my heart and squeezed out a river of tears. From the depths. From a lifetime ago.

 

Nostalgia had come calling. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of where you’re from, especially if you’ve given over swathes of your life to leaving it behind. I’ve come to know that a sense of ‘home’ is necessary. Especially when you’re living oceans apart.

 

Viewing the film in Berlin, Germany – my home for not much longer now – it also stirred a deep sense of yearning. For the lush tropics of northern Australia, a place I’ve lived once before. For quiet suburban streets with lawns, wrought-iron front entrances and canvas window awnings – the place in Australia I lived the longest. For streets punctuated by orange-brick, post-war houses with rounded windows, cracked pavements and the sea just down the road. Places of pain. Places of sorrow. Boredom. Compromise. Trauma. Play. Fun. Learning. Rites of passage. The full catastrophe.

 

There’s nothing romantic about it. It’s just home as I know it. It contains the familiar. I think it may not even exist any more.

 

Nonetheless, The Go-Betweens: Right Here stole the breath from my lungs, an echo of my youth writ large, only down south.

Robert Forster in ‘Right Here’. Credit: Essential Media

So were the stories of trying, loving, succeeding, failing, repeat. And looking back at it all from within the prism of a creative life. The 80s were a time – a space – where dreaming was allowed. So was stumbling around in the dark without a fucking clue, looking for a way out and a path forward into the luminescent possibility of your own making.

 

“Back then” when you were “a bit arty”, no-one really cared much or knew any better. Or what to tell you. It was beyond the suburban experience. You just made it up as you went along. You’d find ‘your people’ at Victorian-terraced parties or in crumbling record stores. You’d look to heroes at home or across the waves, often not much older than yourself. You’d commune with them by ‘taking in’ their work – for hours, deeply: next to a stereo, with book in hand, magazine on lap, or in front of a screen usually big and sometimes small if you were lucky enough to know someone with a VCR.

 

If you’d done the work and had some talent, you might get lucky. Eventually. Or not. But you gave it a crack. There was no-one to tell you otherwise. Crap day jobs would fund the “night job” – the real work. The one where you’d spend time practicing. Over and over. Trying to not get waylaid by exhaustion, despair or giving in to convention.

 

In many respects this is what Kriv’s film is about. It’s as much his story as it is theirs. It belongs to both the filmmaker and the band. Those kids with ‘Marquee Moon’ tucked into the crooks of their arms might as well have been him. Or me, as it turns out, given the sentiment that sprang forth so readily.

 

It’s a very affectionate portrait of a band that paved the way for so many. The Go-Betweens were truly inspiring. Our Talking Heads. Our Modern Lovers. Hearing their music for the first time changed everything. There was an alternative. There was art. There was an original. Right here. At home. We knew because we could hear it through the speakers.

 

Right Here is poetic. It can’t have been easy juggling the truths everyone carried with them for so long. Pain. Betrayal. Abandonment. Affection. The Go-Betweens were a beautiful entity, loved by many. Inside and out. What struck me most about this film was was its sense of kindness. It is honest, it is direct. Contradictory too. Sad. Fucking funny in spots. But kind. These are people, not “subjects”. And crikey do they look good in that old weatherboard Queenslander.

 

Hats off to Kriv. For finding a way to bring everyone together. For telling this significant Australian story. For making it “just so”. And emotional. I’ve always been excited by the prospect of his new films. Ever since I saw the gritty cell-block (sur)realism of short Two/Out. I’m over the moon about this one. I think it’s his best yet.

 

We need our poets. “Further, longer, higher, older,” sang The Go-Betweens in the dying strains of ‘Cattle and Cane’. Too right. Das stimmt.

Where it all began… Damian Nelson (Toowong Music Centre, Able Label) & Kriv Stenders. Photo: courtesy Kriv Stenders.

Circus Folk: The story around how you first met The Go-Betweens is fantastic: would you be kind enough to share that with us – and perhaps some of your own Brisbane story too?

 

Kriv Stenders: Yes – I was born in Brisbane and lived on the Gold Coast, then Kenmore, Toowong (which is where and when I met the band) and later Annerley. My parents still live in Brisbane.

 

I went to high school in a [Brisbane] suburb called Toowong. Every afternoon I would walk home via a shopping arcade and in that arcade was a record store called The Toowong Music Centre. This was 1981, and I was 17 and already totally obsessed with cinema and music.

 

The guy who owned the store, Damian Nelson started to chat to me about movies and we became friends. I told him I was making Super 8 films and at that point in time wanted to become a cinematographer.

 

[Go-Betweens co-founders] Grant and Robert were also working at the store. One day Damian asked if I would shoot a short film he was producing that Grant had written called Heather’s Gloves. Of course I said yes. From that moment my life changed forever.

 

I became friends with Grant and Robert and their circle of friends and that’s when my own creative journey began. I was kind of like the kid in that film Almost Famous: instead of a pen, I had a camera.

Lee Remick artwork, Able Label. Artwork by Mark Ross.

CF: What was the first Go-Betweens song you remember? And your reaction to it?

 

KS: I think it was probably ‘Lee Remick‘, as everyone at that point in time in Brisbane was playing those early Able Label songs at parties and on the local university radio station 4ZZZ.

 

I remember finding those songs very funny, almost tongue in cheek, and just loved the honesty and purity of them. They were like the films we were making – technically rough but full of ideas, made in a naïve style and always referencing other movies or pop culture.

 

I was always humming ‘Lee Remick’: it had such a great hook and riff. I still do!

 

CF: Like so many at the time I became a bit obsessed with The Go-Betweens after I discovered them in 1983, stopping in my tracks when I first heard ‘Cattle and Cane’. Were you also obsessed by their music?

 

KS: Yes! ‘Before Hollywood’ and ‘Cattle and Cane’ [the first single from the album] just blew me away too. I loved that album so much – for a number of reasons. One was the songs: each was just so great and pure, like crystal jewels. There was such a direct clarity to them.

 

The second reason was that I was just so excited that I knew these guys and that they were making ‘real’ records, living in the UK, getting noticed, and had become (from my small Brisbane perspective) ‘famous’.

 

They were living the creative life and had succeeded in doing what they loved, and I just found that album so personally inspiring on so many levels. It was a kind of beacon for me.

 

And finally I think it’s the emotional worlds those songs and lyrics create inside me. I find them very cinematic and full of feeling and yearning. I think that’s why their music connects and endures. They are very unique songs and that makes them kind of timeless as well.

Bachelor Kisses.. The Go-Betweens meet Tom Waits, circa 1984. Photo: TGB FB page.

Waiting for The Go-Betweens. Photo: Kriv Stenders

Down from the volcano. Kriv on location in 2017. Photo: Kriv Stenders

The Go-Betweens, 1987, ‘Tallulah’. Photo: Peter Anderson

CF: You’ve said part of the reason you made the documentary was because you felt “haunted by their music and story”. What has “haunted” you about The Go-Betweens, enough for you to make a film about them, and, all these years later?

 

KS: For me The Go-Betweens’ story is very epic, yet a beautiful, bittersweet story about love, friendship and growing up. These are the things that define all of our lives: we all have friendships and relationships that have either endured or have failed, and we’ve all made mistakes in life.

 

What you have with The Go-Betweens is this very intense narrative – or rather melodrama – in which love is tested in some very dramatic and sometimes tragic ways. With that you also have these amazing songs and incredible characters. So for me as filmmaker, my ambition was always to try and tell the emotional ‘saga’ of that band one way or another.

 

CF: Was it difficult getting the remaining band members involved? [Co-founder Grant McLennan died in 2006 aged 48].

 

KS: Yes and no… Robert Forster was very open to it once I explained my creative ambition for the film. Getting Lindy and Amanda [Brown, multi-instrumentalist and former partner of McLennan] on board was certainly more difficult. Mainly it was an issue of trust. I think they were very unsure at first about my motives and my agenda.

 

At the time I had approached them Robert’s book, ‘Grant and I‘ had just come out, and they were very concerned that I was making a film based on that book and that this was going to present the story of the band from Robert’s perspective.

 

But once I re-assured them (after much fine wine and dining!) that I wanted to tell everyone’s story, and that I wanted it to be full of contradictions and contrasts, I think they thawed and then saw it as a chance to finally have their side of the story heard once and for all.

 

CF: Shooting in the old “Queenslander” house with the surviving band members locates The Go-Betweens story as not only a uniquely Australian story but a uniquely Brisbane story. Was that your intention? And do you think The Go-Betweens’ story would have been a similar one had the band evolved out of a different town in Australia?

 

KS: The Queenslander served a number of purposes. One, it was practical. It was cheap and I could get the band members alone, without any distractions, totally focussed on digging deep and telling their stories.

 

Secondly, as Grant is no longer with us, the house and its surrounds were a way to subtly evoke his spirit. [Grant’s family owned a cattle station in remote Far North Queensland, 300 miles west of Cairns].

 

Thirdly, having grown up in Brisbane and a Queenslander, there is something very sensual and unique about living in those houses: the way the light works in them, the textures – the whole feeling of them is just very romantic and specific to the Queensland experience.

 

And finally I think Brisbane itself – especially in the late 70s – was a unique place to grow up in. You really felt that you were on a remote part of the Australian coastline living in a hot, humid town in which nothing happened.

 

So when you heard about other people doing and sharing the same passions as yourself, those bonds, those connections, were absolutely earth shattering and vital to your survival as a young person.

 

And I think that intensity and lust for breaking away and escaping boredom, conservatism, and banality was amplified a thousand-fold in Brisbane. That’s why bands like The Saints and The Go-Betweens were created. They were a kind of chemical reaction to the environment around them.

 

There really is something to be said for repression and tropical humidity; they really get the creative juices flowing…

 

CF: Could a band like The Go-Betweens be born, survive, and be ‘successful’ today?

 

KS: I think every era has artists who live outside of their time. I’m sure there are bands like The Go-Betweens around today that are struggling to be recognized in one way or another.

 

But the whole world of film and music is changing so radically now because of technology and the internet, so the [definitions around] what an audience is – and what ”success” is – are constantly evolving.

 

Therefore I think there will always be people who are original and striving to do things on their own terms like The Go-Betweens, because that’s what these kinds of artists do. That’s what makes them unique and beautiful.

 

I also find the notion of “success” kind of irrelevant and absurd anyway: to me the band have always been successful because they created truly great music. And for me personally, success means work: in my mind if I’m working I’m successful. No amount of “good box office” or “good reviews” is going to change that.

At the Queenslander: Lindy Morrison & Kriv Stenders, on the set of ‘Right Here’. Photo: courtesy Kriv Stenders

CF: Lindy Morrison, The Go-Betweens long-time drummer and former partner of Forster, said that she feels for the first time “the women’s side” of the band’s story has been told in Right Here. I’ve always felt there’s been a lack of their presence in the ‘post-mortem’ of the band – a kind of ‘shunting’ to the side, as often happens with female members of bands where there are romantic involvements. There’s a tendency to characterise women as ‘distractions’ who somehow jeopardise the ‘genius’ of  male band members, rather than acknowledging their musical contributions and talent at ‘the centre’.

 

While there have been some attempts to redress this (the ‘16 Lovers Lane’ episode of SBS series ‘Greatest Australian Albums’ comes to mind), how did you approach this aspect of the storytelling? And did anything surprise you when you recorded their interviews?

 

KS: I just tried to let them tell their side of the story. Just like everyone else in the band. The girls were an integral part of that version of the band [pre-1989] and I couldn’t make the film without them. If Lindy and Amanda didn’t agree to be in the film, there wasn’t going to be a film. Simple as that. So my approach was very direct and straightforward.

 

It also helped that Lindy is one of the most candid and intelligent people I’ve ever met, and that Amanda was willing to open herself up so honestly about her relationship with Grant.

 

I guess what did surprise me was that despite all the anger and bitterness [after the band’s acrimonious split in 1989], I can still see and feel love there. For what they had, and who they all were, together…

‘Right Here’ editor Karryn de Cinque & Robert Forster, Splendour In The Grass, 2017. Photo: Kriv Stenders

CF: The editing in Right Here is remarkable: you and your editor must have worked very closely on shaping the material, especially given some of the sequences, which are like watching an emotional shipwreck crashing against a jagged shoreline. It was very symphonic in structure…

 

KS: The edit was a terrifying process for me. I guess because, not only was I a huge fan of the band, I also knew this was an incredible story of a much-loved band, and that my responsibility to ‘get it right’ was just enormous. So personally it was a very intense and gruelling experience that I don’t ever want to go through again!

 

But my editor Karryn de Cinque was absolutely incredible. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to watch over 100 hours of footage and was able to elegantly distill and glean the material that you see in the film.

 

And she did all of this over only a short period – four months. It was an extraordinary feat.

 

She is a great editor who takes huge risks and is willing to fail, but it’s in that risk-taking where you make the most exciting and beautiful discoveries.

 

I will be forever grateful to her and I am just glad that I didn’t panic, and that I let her find her own path through the material and the story, even when sometimes it felt like we were going nowhere.

 

CF: I feel as if this is if not one of, your best film to date. How do you feel about it?

 

KS: I am simply very proud of it and glad that it’s connecting with people. Next to Motherland it’s my most personal film so far. I’m just relieved it’s all over and that the film can now stand as a testament to the band and their enduring legacy.

 

CF: And finally, if you had made a fiction film – a ‘drama’ of The Go-Betweens’ – as you originally planned, what film do you think it would most resemble?!

 

KS: Well my original idea, even over ten years ago, was to make a film about a band ‘like’ The Go-Betweens. I wanted to tell the story in reverse, in four acts, that began (kind of prophetically now) with the death of one of the band members, that then ended on the first day the band formed.

 

I was inspired by the Harold Pinter play Betrayal, which tells the story of a love affair in reverse in four acts. I thought that would be a great template to use, as I think the narratives of bands are kind of like love affairs.

 

I still have my outline for that film tucked away somewhere. I might dust it off one of these days…

 

Many thanks to Kriv Stenders for the interview! Excerpts of this interview appear in my  article on Double J.

  • Interview: Kriv Stenders
  • Words/edit: Megan Spencer
  • Photos: courtesy of Kriv Stenders, Essential Media and as credited
  • Watch: The Go-Betweens Right Here in cinemas from September 28. Check the website for details.
  • Read: my Go-Betweens: Right Here article for Double J
  • Visit: The Go-Betweens website
  • Listen: to The Go-Betweens music
  • Follow: Kriv on Instagram
  • Watch: Kriv’s short film Two/Out and Streets Of Your Town music video.

Rock Solid: Alex McMillan

Posted on August 28, 2017

Alex McMillan is a player of hard rock and a lover of rocking hard.

 

Raised on a diet of guitar gods and double-denim ’70s hair bands, he is also a third generation motor mechanic.

 

His dad Trevor is my mechanic. And my dad’s. He’s been keeping our cars on the road – and in great nick – for years. It’s always a pleasure to chat to him. He keeps a box of old pennies next to the till, which he lets me fossick through whenever we finish up a “transaction”.

 

The Central Victorian business was built by Trevor’s father, and ‘the shed’ in which it is housed a metal wonderland filled with 8o years worth of screws, spanners, engineering equipment, toil, grease and memories. “McMillan A and Son Garage: Motor Mechanics and Engineers” reads the sign out front. It’s for real too, not just a remnant of nostalgia waiting to be painted over.

 

It was there in this giant, old, corrugated iron shed Trevor told me about his son’s band. “They’re getting a bit of airplay on triple j” he said, remembering I used to work there. He gave me a CD to listen to. Resplendent with lead breaks and rollicking rock cycles, it instantly took me back to the mid-70s gate-fold sleeve albums my friends’ older brothers used to thrash on their bedroom stereos: AC/DC, Sabbath, Status Quo, Motorhead, Nazareth, Kiss, Thin Lizzy, Lynard Skynyrd… His son’s name was Alex, he worked with Trevor too (another “son”), and the band was called Black Aces.

 

It took a while for us to meet, but eventually we did late in 2016 at said shed, after I dropped off our old campervan for a service. Alex told me he and Black Aces – in which he played bass – were about to embark upon their first overseas tour with a bunch of dates lined up in Germany and beyond. He was excited. I was excited for him. I invited him to let me know when they’d be playing in Berlin. I’d come to see them when I got back home there…

Wall of sound. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Heavy metal history. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

In the centre of the ‘McMillan and Son’ shed is a 1930s Land Rover jeep which Trevor and Alex are quietly restoring.

 

Out the back is a not-so-quiet band room, where Alex and Black Aces rehearse, a lot – especially in the lead up to a run of local gigs, an overseas tour or a new album – all three of which are taking place now. In November (2017) the band will again travel to Europe on what will be their second overseas tour, and, a chance to square the ledger on – were it not for their resilience and sense of humour – what could be considered a version of hard rock hell: the tour of 2016.

 

Born and raised in Bendigo, Alex loves his ‘day job’ working alongside his dad, fixing cars of all descriptions and chewing the fat with the steady stream of customers who come through those historic garage doors.

 

Equally, he loves playing music (and cracking a beer or two, three..) with his Black Aces band mates who sound more like soul brothers than “mates”. A stalwart of the local music scene, Alex previously played guitar in psych-rock five-piece Wolfy & The Bat Cubs (alongside uber-drummer Nadine Muller from Killerbirds), and earlier in boogie-n-Quo-inspired Made In China, which emerged from his high school days and wound up in 2015 after a decade on local stages.

 

Now bass player with Black Aces, the story of their evolution and overseas rite of passage is recounted by Alex below.  They book steadily and rock steady, supporting the likes of Cosmic Psychos and Dallas Crane, with solid interest from OS labels and an ever-growing fan base in the UK, Europe and metro and regional Australia. Debut album ‘Shot In the Dark’ (2016) “reached number 17 on the iTunes Australia rock charts“, with another about to be unleashed just in time for “Hard Rock Hell” (the UK festival this time), where the Aces share billing with Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider.

 

Alex’s enthusiasm for music (and life) is infectious. He’s the classic hard-rocker ‘paradox’: off stage the antithesis of ‘blokey’: self-effacing, good-natured and polite. On stage, full-rocker: wild, loud and larger-than-life.

 

Surrounded by decades’ worth of working man’s tools and stories, it was a fun shoot in his “old man’s” garage, and a delight to listen to Alex’s tale, one that could only be forged by a hard-rocking heart and a larger-than-Lemmy sense of adventure…

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Circus Folk: Do you remember the first time you picked up a guitar?

 

Alex McMillan: The first time I picked up a guitar was in primary school, and I haven’t put it down since. A friend of mine played and I thought it was the best thing ever. Everybody used to hang around him. I thought it was great! He showed me a few chords and away I went. I had a few lessons and kept going from there.

 

CF: What kind of music did you listen to growing up? And is your family musical at all?


AM:
When I was a kid, on long drives mum and dad used to play lots of Status Quo and Van Morrison, Neil Young, Queen and Led Zeppelin. (My mum’s a huge Zep fan!) But I wasn’t very keen on [this kind of music] when I was younger, and didn’t really ‘get it’ until a bit later on.

 

When I was about 13, me and Pete [McMillan, drummer, no relation] were hanging around in the shed at home – I think it was Christmas Eve or something – and we found my folks’ old records stashed away. What a find! We dusted them off and got the record player going, and it was the first time I listened to ‘Back In Black’ by AC/DC! Then there was High Voltage!! The guitars were amazing. There were lots of other great records in that collection too: the Beatles, Stones, Dylan – even Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell.

 

My family isn’t very ‘musical’ but they love listening. My pop does play the banjo & mandolin, so maybe that’s where [my musical ability] comes from.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: How did you make your way to playing bass in Black Aces?


AM:
I’d known Tyler [Kinder, lead vocals, lead guitar in Black Aces] for a very long time, since we were teenagers. I was in another band called Made In China with fellow Aces drummer Pete, and both our bands used to play at the same pubs together. And we both played rock n roll!

 

Around 2011 the Aces’ bass player quit the band and I got a call from Tyler to see if I could fill in for a couple of gigs. I thought this was awesome! I’d always really liked the band, and was thrilled to play with them. Since those first few jams and gigs, every time we get together the music flows very naturally – they’re a great bunch of guys who love rock n’ roll.

 

CF: Although you’re not ‘technically’ from a musical family, you are from a ‘mechanical’ family, and you’re in fact a third generation mechanic. Could you please share a little of the story behind ‘the family business’?


AM:
Yes, I do come from a mechanical background. The business was started around 1930 by my great-grandfather; he built the garage and made it what it is today. I never met him, but he was an extremely clever fellow and a very gracious person. We still use a lot of the spanners that were there when it was built, ha ha!

 

Ah, it’s great working with my old man. There’s lots to learn and he’s a great teacher – “nothing that can’t be achieved” sorta thing! And I guess that mentality flows though the band too: “play as much as possible, play well and have a great time.”

 

CF: And what does your family think about you playing music?


AM:
They have always been very supportive – always! They love helping, especially years ago when I was at school. They would take us to the pubs, watch us and help us with all the gear. Dad’s driven us to so many gigs in the past, he’d even drive us down to Melbourne for gigs before we could drive! They enjoy coming along to the shows and seeing the band live – they dig it.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Could you please give us a bit of a snapshot of Black Aces – its history – and your other band-mates?

 

AM: The band was started by Tyler, gee, maybe around 2004? They were a three-piece for a long time, so it has seen a few different line up changes over the years. But our current line-up has been together for about two years now, since “Jazz” joined the band [Jarred Morrice], our ‘powerhouse’ rhythm guitar player.

 

His old band (The Deep End) were calling it quits after many successful years together, and our rhythm guitar player at the time (Rhys Collier) decided he couldn’t play in the band any longer due to other commitments. So it was perfect timing for Jazz to join the group.

 

It’s been a rock solid line up since then – the band really came into its own. Everyone is on the same page and wants to play the same rock n’ roll – the kind that should be played: hard, fast and as loud as possible! Tyler is the lead vocalist and guitarist, and one of the mightiest singers you’ll ever hear (he’s a great guitar player too).

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Bloke you can trust: Alex McMillan. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Pete McMillan is a bloke I’ve known for such a long time; even though we share a last name he’s not my brother. But we do share a love for a “Black and Tan” (a pint of beer with a mix of half draught beer and half stout: tastes like success.) He’s a great bloody drummer too – he can swing like a dunny door, solid!

 

CF: What kind of success have Black Aces had so far?


AM:
Over the years we’ve been very lucky to have supported some great bands and toured all over Australia, the UK and Europe. We’ve recorded at some great studios, slept on some magnificent couches, drank some quality riders and had all sorts of truck stop coffee!

 

Every time we hit the stage we want to play better, rock more arses off, get people banging away and having a good time. We want to see people getting up, getting into it and really enjoying themselves.

 

Success can mean many different things. But I think we are extremely happy with what we have achieved so far and there’s still a lot of music yet to be played, all over the world.

 

CF: You’ve also played in other local, Bendigo-based bands…


AM:
Yeah – Wolfy & The Bat Cubs was a very fun band! Think The Kinks meets The Yardbirds meets Dylan: very ‘60’s garage RnB. We had some really good times playing together, toured around Australia and had some great supports. It was fronted by the man from Lockwood [an outer suburb of Bendigo, Central Victoria], Josh Lobley; I was on guitar, Nadine Muller (Killerbirds) played bass, Maddy Ellis was on electric organ and Brendan McCarthy on drums.

 

I also played in a band called Made In China, with Pete (from the Aces) on drums, Declan McLaren on bass, Daniel Mangan on guitar. It was boogie rock n’ roll. We started in high school and played countless gigs at the Newmarket Hotel in Bendigo. We played nearly every week, and on the ‘off weekends’ we’d be perched at the bar. The old publican Des used to call us the “house band”, ha ha!

 

CF: How would you describe the music you play, and the Black Aces sound? Do you have any particular music influences?


AM
: The Black Aces’ sound incorporates Aussie pub rock and Gibson guitars at full volume through Marshall stacks! Its balls-to-the wall sorta stuff, stomp ya foot and have a good time.

 

Influence-wise, I guess many, many different sorts of music. We all love the blues of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, but we also all have different tastes. But that’s what makes everyone approach playing and writing with different points-of-view; then you can bring it together and make something new and fresh. Personally I go through phases: I have a varied record collection and I do enjoy cooking with Bob Dylan on in the background!

Eight years of metal.. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Our van blackened that fingernail… (Sorry Alex!) Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: It’s very apparent that you – and Black Aces – really respect good ‘old fashioned’ rock n’ roll, and seem to be really committed to it. What do you like most about the ‘genre’? And how do your audiences usually respond to your music?


AM:
I guess it’s the ‘no nonsense’ attitude, the excitement… You can drink lots of beer to it and we don’t muck around with pedals and other stuff – we just plug in and play! That’s the way we do it. The crowds we play to always enjoy themselves. [Our music] always gets people up and about – that’s what it should be: people digging it and letting their hair down.


“He kept us fed with his many varieties of nachos: plain; with cheese; and with cheese and sauce.”


CF: Black Aces toured Europe late last year, with album ‘Shot in the Dark’. But things went kind of  wrong when you got there. What happened?

 

AM: Yes we did tour for two months, and ah well, probably it was just [a case of] the usual “touring band problems” – shows being cancelled and so forth. We landed in Berlin and found out our first seven or so shows had fallen through. But not to worry – off to the pub we went! We got talking to the barman who put us in touch with a few clubs, and we managed to book a show, and then made our way to Holland.

 

The next show on the tour was booked in Utrecht [Netherlands], so we found a small caravan park near Arnhem which was cheap, and bunked out there for eight glorious nights! First things first though: we went to the record store and got talking to the blokes behind the counter, and one of them was in a band, the other was a sort of a booking agent bloke for a few clubs. And we scored a couple of shows around a few towns in Holland, which was awesome!

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: So how did you all feel while all this was happening? And where did you wind up playing?


AM:
We were alright with it really – it was just “soldier on”, you know? It’s the four of us against the world – you just have to put your head down and go for it with nothing to lose!

 

It was a bit of a blow: each show pays for you to travel to the next one, so having a week’s worth of gigs cancel leaves you going “Bugger!” But all bands go though this: you just go out, talk, meet people and things can happen if you want them to with a bit of good luck on your side!

 

We did one show at a bar called “Cafe De Baron” – that was great. A very nice chap who ran the bar – he kept us fed with his many varieties of nachos: plain; with cheese; and with cheese and sauce. It was an endless menu!

 

It was kind of playing in the window of this bar, but people were enjoying it. We made a few fans, sold some t-shirts and it was a good show really… Then we had another one in Tilburg [Netherlands] supporting a great band called Black Bottle Riot. It was a great show with a good crowd, and great people ran the venue.

 

CF: Leaving aside the potential disaster of losing seven gigs on arrival to Germany (!), what was your favourite moment from the tour?

 

AM: Playing Hard Rock Hell was definitely a highlight! It was one of the last gigs of the tour. We had never really played a festival before. I certainly hadn’t played in front of a crowd that big. [It was the 10th anniversary of the UK hard-rock festival with a daily capacity 6000 – Ed.]

 

We were all really nervous, pacing around backstage before we went on… We kind of just exploded once we started playing and the crowd seemed to really get into it! We even got given an encore by the stage manager, which was pretty incredible for a festival. Then the organisers immediately came back stage and offered us a spot at the festival the next year. We were blown away!

 

I wouldn’t say it was a “disaster”; more a “learning curve”. It was a great experience to learn how to navigate our way around different countries and pick up ‘some language’. Knowing how to politely order a beer is the most invaluable thing ever!

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Will you return to Europe to play again?


AM:
We are booking our UK tour at the moment and will play the 2017 Hard Rock Hell Festival in Pwllheli, Gwynedd, North Wales around mid-November, so we’ll book other dates around that. It’s looking like we’ll kick off the first week of November, and hopefully tour for 3 to 4 weeks up and down the UK.

 

We’re all very excited to be heading back and playing again. The crowds in the UK were fantastic last year and we can’t wait to catch up with everyone again. We’ll be playing as much as we can in Australia from now until then, so there’ll be plenty of shows for people to check us out at!

 

CF: And there’s a new album on the way?

 

AM: Yes, we’ve been working on our new album, rehearsing every spare moment and recording. When we returned from Europe last year we really knuckled down on rehearsing new material; we wanted to record a new album and had a list of about 30 songs written.

 

We spent roughly 6 months after coming back to Australia rehearsing and honing the songs. There were many, many hours spent in ‘the shed’!

 

We eventually cut it down to about 14 songs and booked some studio time. We recorded with the legendary [producer] Mark Opitz and [mixer/recording engineer] Colin Wynne at Thirty Mill studios in Brunswick, Melbourne. We recorded it totally live all standing around in one room, which was great – how it should be done!

 

We are all really happy with how it sounds, and it’s great playing new material. At this stage it’s going to be a 10-11 track record, (we’re still in the mixing process and editing). There’s not much more to do though. It sounds great, it’s very exciting and we’re looking forward to putting it out.

 

There’s no set release date yet, but it would be nice to get it finished before we hit the road in the UK. We don’t want to rush anything either: it’s like a maturing a single malt scotch, it needs time.*

 

We’re working on having a single – or a double A-side – ready to take on the road, so there will be new ‘merch’ available.

 

CF: Please finish this sentence: “In five years time Black Aces will be…”


AM:
Rockin’ all over the world.

 

Many thanks to Alex McMillan for the interview!

 

 * * *

  • Interview: Alex McMillan
  • Words, edit + photos: Megan Spencer
  • Visit: Black Aces’ website, on Facebook and triple j unearthed
  • Find: Black Aces music on iTunes
  • Check out: Black Aces upcoming shows
  • Watch the Ace’s ‘Soul Stealer’ video.
  • View: the full album of the photo shoot with Alex on SmugMug
  • *UPDATE: Black Aces have signed worldwide to Off Yer Rocka Recordings and their second album is called “Anywhere But Here”, releasing November 2017.

 

When Tomorrow Comes: Christian Vance

Posted on August 2, 2017

Berlin is no stranger to ‘cross-cultural exchange’. An historical “hub” between Eastern and Western Europe, immigrants have been steadily arriving for over 800 years.

 

You could say the city was built on it.

 

Something former mayor Klaus Wowereit was supremely aware of when in 2003 he proudly proclaimed the German capital “poor but sexy” to the entire world.

 

Perhaps ‘crass’ in the eyes of some, “Wowi” was not only hoping to encourage economic immigrants (ie big business, tech start ups and the eventual “roamer workforce”) to set up shop and part with their cash in his “impoverished” city. Simultaneously he renewed and acknowledged Berlin’s longstanding historic commitment to welcoming cultural and creative migrants as well.

 

Artists, performers, thinkers, writers, poets, punks, workers, musicians, outcasts, academics, philosophers, explorers and those at the vanguard of every creative pursuit imaginable, have their left homes from every country imaginable, to migrate to Berlin, bringing with them not only financial but cultural capital. (Don’t just take my word for it: read Stuart Braun’s excellent historical examination of this, ‘City Of Exiles‘).

 

For better or worse this “creative wealth” is what gives Berlin its European “cool capital” reputation, one that to this day continues to attract arty (and party) types from all corners of the globe. Lots of them. Some stay for a long time, others short. Some forever. Some leave and come back, repeatedly so. Either way these creative immigrants don’t just ‘take’, they also contribute, leaving behind traces of their own lives and influences. The effect is viral and ‘infects’ both ways.

Vance on vinyl. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

A fact not lost on Christian Vance. The “Australian electronic music industry veteran”, DJ and event producer has been living and working in Berlin for the last four years, the unsurpassed hub of electronic dance music in Europe. For longer he’s been doing his darndest to foster relationships between the Australian and German dance music communities. He says both camps have contributed mightily to each other’s music, tech, arts and business sectors.

 

He thinks it’s time this was recognised. Officially.

 

To that end Christian seized a rare opportunity. With the support of the Federal government’s annual Australia Now cultural initiative (this year taking place in Germany), Christian has not only attempted to drag electronic dance music ‘above ground’ and into the cultural ‘centre’, he’s also managed to make visible this decades-old, little-known, Australian-German cross-cultural relationship. And get it publicly acknowledged. With public money.

 

He created The Zeitgeist, a two-day showcase of Australian dance music in Berlin and celebration of German-Australian dance connections. He also put a big fat panel discussion called “Australian electronic dance music now” front and centre Opening Night. Nothing invisible about that.

 

Invited to speak were a range of Australian DJs and event producers, including veteran dance pioneers Simon Caldwell and Mike Callander; Brisbane-born DJ and soundtrack composer Claire Morgan and Berlin-based Australian DJ, Emma Sainsbury (“Eluize”). In his first time out (easy done!) Christian moderated. The audience was heartily invited into the conversation.

 

As Christian stated in his introduction (both with humour and gravitas), a serious discussion about where dance music sits within Australian arts culture wasn’t ‘usual’, more-oft dismissed as the meaningless, hedonistic pursuit of ‘the young’. Roger that: heaven forbid dance music, its practitioners and audience be perceived as a legitimate artistic, cultural and industrial force in its own right, cultivated over years of practice, inter-disciplinary and international relationship-building…

 

That – plus laying claim to a rich, vibrant cultural history of its own. The world as we know it might end… (It didn’t.)

 

It might take more than two days of The Zeitgeist to convince the folks ‘back home’ otherwise, nonetheless the event had plenty of happy, engaged Australian and German supporters. The conversation was intelligent, lively, specific but not ‘exclusive’. It was an inclusive, germane dialogue – a generous and interesting exercise in inquiry, listening and response.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Panelists shared observations made over long periods of working hard for little or no money (or recognition), having to do everything solo (Business! Tech! PR! Performance!). Also looking to mentors across the sea and jumping into the deep end of the pool in places like Berlin, where dance music is more respected and taken seriously as an art form.

 

Where it’s given a seat at the cultural table.

 

As both Emma and Claire iterated, performing and promoting in Berlin – often in world-renowned, seminal clubs such as Tresor or Berghain – means you have no choice but to ‘excel’. ‘It’s put up or shut up’ in front of audiences and promoters who expect the best. No room for slackers.  (Someone also likened DJing at Berlin clubs to performing at the “Olympics”.) Watching and working with Berlin DJs on home soil also creates a similar ‘upscaling’ effect.

 

Leave it to a diplomat though…  It was perhaps Sinje Steinmann, the programmer of Australia Now from the Australian Embassy in Berlin, who brought the best comment of the evening. Genuinely excited by the discussion, she compared the long history of Australian DJs working and honing their skills at the uber-clubs of Berlin, to that of the exodus of Australian classical musicians to the concert halls and music schools of Europe, a hundred years before. Undertaken to better themselves as artists. To cross-pollinate. The room suddenly went quiet under the weighty insight of the question. A line between the past and the present had just been drawn.

 

Had just made everything clear.

 

In that moment Australian electronic dance music was indeed elevated to ‘legitimate’, the parallel history on offer suggesting that dance music was as valued – and valuable – as classical. (Quite ironic too given that, commercially at least, the popularity of dance now surpasses that of classical music, struggling to survive by comparison.)

 

Christian looked pretty happy. ‘The experiment’ was a success – this night in Berlin anyway.

 

Let’s dance.

Ad-Vance Australia Fair: Christian Vance. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Circus Folk: How long have you been involved in electronic music? And what inspired you to dive in?

 

Christian Vance: Professionally almost two decades, however I’ve been collecting records since 1993 and the age of 14. My uncle, only twelve years my senior, had been studying in Switzerland in the late 80s and came back home raving about these cool new club sounds he had been hearing – and dancing to – in Europe.

 

The early 90s also saw some crossover House and Techno music in the charts; I was watching Rage on ABC at all sorts of hours to catch snippets of these new electronic dance sounds.

 

Independent and community radio was also a big factor for me as a young teenager in Melbourne: Liz Millar with her show on PBS and Kate Bathgate on RRR were great introductions, not only to new music, but to new sounds and foreign accents on air from visiting producers and DJs. Later triple j had Mix Up late on Saturday nights and stations like Kiss-FM were born. It was a window into another universe – what more inspiration does a teenager need right?!

 

CF: How would you describe your own particular “oeuvre” of electronic music? And who are your influences?

 

CV: Honestly, I’ve always cited the Underground Resistance EP “Belgian Resistance” from Detroit as one of the first records I ever purchased that blew my mind. This was different – obviously dance music with a repetitive groove, but wild and otherworldly. Powerful actually. It also played from the inside out with some crazy conceptual etchings. It was Mike Banks, Rob Hood and Jeff Mills all on one label.

 

So for me, Detroit Techno has always been a staple, and as a result of that, House music from Chicago and New York. This record drew a line for me, from Europe to America and back.

 

I could trace the historical, political and musical connections. Far away, obscure, hopeful. Basic Channel records from Berlin were closely-tied artistically and also shared a similar ethos and aesthetic.

 

It was music to think about and dream to while dancing – primal and futuristic at the same time. I hope, in some small way my “oeuvre” is part of this continuum. I would also have to say Derrick May was undoubtedly a mentor, with [other inspirations] many friends, producers, DJs and creative minds in Melbourne.

DJs in the (beta)haus. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Panel chat: Christian with Emma Sainsbury (“Eluize”) Photo: Zoe Spawton (c) 2017

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Why have you devoted so much of your musical life to this genre – how did you find your way to it? And where does its power lie for you?

 

CV: Answering this particular question made me hesitate a little, [as] the real gut response to this is intensely personal. It was not only a coming-of-age experience to first dive into this music, but also coincided with a very devastating period of my teenage life, inextricably tied to grief, pain and triumph. And joy – yes – but an overwhelming sense of triumph. I had found a new language, something which many of us deeply into electronic music truly still feel even after all these years.

 

I’m a huge science fiction fan and there are aesthetic elements that quite obviously tie neatly into this particular way of experiencing music.

 

There is also freedom: to me House music has always exerted an energy of freedom – social freedoms, the good fight.

 

Techno music bridges that with a desire to contemplate the future and delves deeper into certain philosophies when you consider the more experimental, ambient and industrial offerings related to it.

 

Then there is celebration. This is music for ‘searching within’, exploring possibilities and to celebrate life with others. This is where the power lies: dance music that at times can be fun, intellectual, crazy, communal and also spiritual.

Sign o’ the times: Christian moderating the Zeitgeist panel. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: I think – like so many born in the 60s! – the first electronic music I ever heard as a nipper was ‘Popcorn’ (Hot Butter version) and also ‘Switched on Bach’ by Wendy Carlos. I remember being shocked (it was so ‘alien’) and intrigued (it was so exciting), then totally falling in love with the sounds I heard in these recordings. You’re a late 70s baby: do you remember the first “electronic” artist you heard, and recording?

 

CV: The first ever electronic sounds I heard were probably on the radio in the early 80s: Eurythmics and ‘Sweet Dreams’, Jean-Michel Jarre and ‘Oxygene’. And in the late 70s even with Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, and the synth parts on Michael Jackson and David Bowie records. These are still pieces of music that gel with me even after severe radio overkill!

 

The most monumental memory though is the Boss Dr-55 drum machine my Dad used as an accompaniment to his electric guitar. It was quasi-programmable and the machine and its sounds intrigued me no end. I was playing around with that thing before I even started school! Music meets outer space in the comfort of your own home…

 

CF: Generally speaking, I find electronic music is such a diverse, cross-referential and inclusive type of music, with propelling people to get up and dance its universal ‘spine’. It’s far more organic, skillful and creative than people often give it credit for. So has the prejudice against electronic music – that it’s not “real” music, that it’s “synthetic” or somehow “illegitimate” – passed now? Or does the genre still face resistance from the ‘music mafia’ and other detractors?

 

Electronic music is very inclusive compared to many other types of music, both institutional and underground. To all its detractors – go jump in the lake! To create this music – for me anyway – you have to be part-musician, part-artist and part-engineer. It intersects many things that have come previously and begins new conversations around ‘what music is’ and ‘what it means’.

 

That “universal spine” you refer to is an interesting one. While the popularity of it is inextricably tied to dancing – this is how the culture has evolved and expanded – yet much of the first electronic music composed was much more experimental with no thought of engagement or entertainment.

Zeitgest performers and speakers, Simon Caldwell & Mike Callander. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

All the way from Oz: Zeitgeist DJ, Trinity. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

And “synthetic” is a fallacy. We are human, organic, and we have created these machines and forged a new acoustic experience out of them. “Hyper-organic” perhaps? I feel that narrow judgement has definitely passed in much of Europe, perhaps Japan, but in many other places it can be a different story.

 

CF: From where do you come from in Australia and how long have you been in Berlin? How did you come to be here – and what do you love about living and working – in this city?

 

CV: I was born and raised in Melbourne and for the last five years I have lived in Berlin. There are actually a few reasons I came to be in the German capital. I was always fascinated by its relatively-recent 20th century history. It is the largest German speaking city and I’d already had an introduction to the language via my father (who had emigrated to Australia from Austria). So the language was therefore not completely foreign to me.

 

However the key reason was the fulfillment of a teenage desire to visit the famous/infamous clubs and record stores. I turned 18 in 1997 and can distinctly remember one gift that I received: a Tresor record bag – black with a bright red logo threaded on the outside. It lasted 15 years that bag! I already owned some of the records from the label and heard stories about the club. It was part of a dream.

 

That dream is still a major part of what I love about living and working in this city. I literally came for the history and the techno. The fact that they coexist at all is awe-inspiring regardless of the clichés. After visiting a couple of times a decade ago, feeling the energy of the different neighbourhoods – the liberal freedoms, playing gigs – it felt like a natural progression to move here.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: Berlin has such a history of supporting electronic music – and being somewhat of a “lab” for experimentation of this musical form. Why? Where has this come from?

 

CV: This is evident in much of German culture really – you just have to look at other fields and disciplines to see this. I respect that. Berlin, long before techno music, had been a melting pot of ideas. It is a big city with an intense history. The rise of the infamous clubs, Techno scene, Loveparade and so on, all evolved out of the time the wall came down. The story of electronic music, dancing, world events, communism, capitalism, squatters, late nights, cheap rents, cheap studios, transience, impermanence, partying – the list goes on! – all of these things were attractive reasons to visit, to stay, to try things out.

 

In this way Berlin didn’t ‘sell out’ too early or get stale. There are many forces at play and it could not have happened anywhere else like it did here.

 

CF: How did The Zeitgeist come about: what ‘impulse’ did it grow out of?

 

CV: Even before moving to Berlin I had questioned what kind of exchange existed between Australia and Berlin in regards to electronic dance music – and how it might be enhanced in terms of awareness within the cultural sphere. If it was important enough for many individuals to travel to Berlin ‘on a wing and a prayer’ – in some respects like TV or movie actors heading to Hollywood – then what kind of help or even awareness [of Australian artists] existed, if any, in an official sense?

 

There are so many young Australians in Berlin right now because of the music, compared to even 5 or 10 years ago. In this sense it really is a special time, one that I truly feel should be celebrated, discussed and put on record – literally! We are a long way from home!

 

This is a first for me to direct and curate an arts program or festival of this nature. But I have organised many music events over the past fifteen years, toured many artists from all over the world and programmed music for various labels.

 

The Zeitgeist combines that experience and knowledge with the goal to bring [electronic dance music] towards the cultural sphere and the so-called “real music” that is usually associated with anything official in the arts and so forth in Australia. It’s a valuable cultural commodity.

 

CF: Do you expect The Zeitgeist program to be well supported here in Berlin?

And why did you program a panel discussion into it? And what kinds of conversations are needed at this particular point in time, about electronic music – especially with this emphasis on Australia and Berlin?

 

CV: I hope it will be well supported. Of all the artists, bookers, DJs and promoters I have discussed this project with in Berlin – from every corner of the globe – the interest and response has been great so far. The panel discussion was conceived in order to have an official document and dialogue on record: “The Zeitgeist: where are we at now?” This is about exploring the past, current – and hopefully – future connections between Berlin and Australia within electronic music.

 

There are some important differences that are worthwhile discussing if we indeed value its cultural significance. I will leave that for the panel discussion itself, but by exploring the differences and similarities – then using that information in a practical, meaningful way – that is the goal of the panel.

The Zeitgeist panel: L-R, Simon Caldwell, Mike Callander, Christian Vance, Emma Sainsbury & Claire Morgan. Photo: Zoe Spawton (c) 2017

CF: Including yourself there are 10 Australian DJs included in The Zeitgeist program: how did you go about selecting the artists involved? What is it you appreciate about their individual work and/or contribution to electronic music?

 

CV: Many and varied! It was a selection process not only about individuals but creating a representative mix. One artist will be performing for the first time in Berlin but has released music on a Berlin label. One DJ first played Berlin at the original Tresor in 1998. Some run events, labels, play live, engage artists from Berlin for their own record label, work within education of electronic music… Some live here, some are on tour and so on.

 

I appreciate every single one of them for their contribution to the advancement of Australian electronic music culture. They are all an important part of that story right now.

 

CF: “Celebrating and exploring the connections of electronic music between Australia and Berlin” is the by-line for Zeitgeist: what are these connections exactly? Has there been a healthy exchange of artists and collaborations between both?

 

CV: I think electronic music is a great example of the connection between the two countries right now. On any weekend there will be Australian DJs playing in Berlin in a respected club. There are always artists and DJs touring Australia from Germany, artists from Australia that visit, tour and play in Berlin, and those who are living and working professionally in the city. These are where most of the connections lie – there are myriad as a result of this. Events, collaborations, labels, records, parties, tours all come about because of these relationships.

 

The ‘snapshot’ is that now, more than ever, this exchange has reached a new intensity with more and more Australians moving to or performing in Berlin. There’s not really that much on ‘official record’ about those past connections or even the current ones.

 

If young creatives flock here then hopefully that’s all the motivation needed to ‘inquire a little further’ – to dig a little deeper. It is incredible that many make this move to explore their creative potential.

Set up at betahaus. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: The Zeitgeist festival in Berlin is being supported by the Australian government, through its annual cultural initiative ‘Australia Now’: how does that make you feel? And does it mean electronic dance music is perhaps moving away from its oft-referred-to “niche” subcultural status, and being recognised for the cultural ‘force of nature’ that it is?

 

CV: It feels terrific to be honest! I also feel it is very unique but very representative of Australia right now in Berlin. It is quite common to hear an Australian voice at a cafe and at the club – and not just during the summer.

 

Berlin is the world capital for this music and culture right now. Perhaps by drawing a line from here to Australia and back it can set the wheels in motion to bring that subcultural status closer to the traditionally recognised arts back home.

 

Berghain, here in Berlin for example [one of Berlin’s most famous and seminal dance clubs], has collaborated with the ballet, the Staatsballett Berlin. They also have a special tax exemption because the venue is considered part of “high culture”. This sets a great example for other regions and institutions. It is not just a cultural “force of nature” in Berlin, but one that is becoming increasingly global.

 

[Zeitgeist] is perhaps a small step, using the example of Berlin, to identify electronic music and the people involved, as a genuine, legitimate part of culture. The Australia Now 2017 program provided that opportunity and it was a great honour to have the proposal for The Zeitgeist and ABEC [Australia Berlin Electronic Connections, the entity presenting the inaugural Zeitgeist program] supported in this way.

 

CF: Do you feel that ‘cross-cultural’ events such as this are important to a country such as Australia?

 

CV: 100% yes. Because we learn through the exchange of not only new ideas, but of shared experiences. It still takes one whole day in a plane to fly back and forth [between Australia and Berlin.] The internet has changed many things; but that of the ‘physical’ experience – sound and conversation in particular spaces – that will always be fundamental.

 

CF: What do you hope comes out of The Zeitgeist?

 

CV: I hope we establish new connections and respect the existing ones. And I hope it’s a stepping stone towards uniting electronic music culture with more-established and recognised art and culture, within our institutions.

 

* * *

 

Many thanks to Christian for the interview and invitation to attend The Zeitgeist; to the panelists and guests for the photos; Sinje Steinmann, Rachael Vance, and Zoe Spawton for sharing her images with me!

 

* * *

Requiem for Hugh

Posted on June 21, 2017

I’ve been putting off writing this. Since last Friday. The day Hugh Waller left our world for another.

 

Hugh Walter John Waller. Born October 23, 1959. Died June 16, 2017.

 

Hugh was a friend from Bendigo, the regional centre in Australia where I lived before coming to Berlin.

 

I’d not long been in town. I’d seen Hugh around at art shows but we first ‘properly’ met at a group exhibition at Dudley House, a fundraiser Hugh had organised for the catastrophic floods that had recently swept through the region. (I soon learned such generosity was typical of his nature.)

 

We took to each other straight away, the professional turning social pretty quick – with Oliver too, my husband. Not long after we opened our wee hole-in-the-wall laneway cafe and art space, El Gordo. Hugh would regularly come in and drink Oliver’s coffee. Then another cup. And chat, or think, or chat and think.

 

He was ‘contemplative’, was Hugh.

Hugh Waller in Bendigo Magazine, June 2013. Photo: David Field

I invited him to be in our very first art show. He was pretty much at every opening and art event thereafter. Our Facebook page was regularly punctuated with photos of him. He became part of our support crew.

 

Hugh generously and publicly wished Oliver and I well when we left to live in Berlin in 2015. He surprised us with a lovely message on the Bendarts Facebook page – the online support portal he’d set up for local artists, working tirelessly in their service, for free.

 

I was amazed when I saw his message, including the coolest graphic of David Bowie – an artist we both loved and admired. “Auf Wiedersehen und Viel Glück” he wrote in psychedelic Deutsch lettering (“Goodbye and good luck!”)

 

His kindness moved me to tears. I’m looking at that picture now and tearing up again, only this time for a different reason.

 

Hugh was the kind of guy to always acknowledge others. Now I must acknowledge him under the saddest of circumstances.

 

Here’s the thing: Hugh was just one of those incredibly rare kind souls. He was – still is – a talented artist, a great community builder and a selfless carer of others. It needed to not go unnoticed – a fuss about him needed to be made. I wanted to make it back in 2011. As I do again now.

 

Hugh also loved 80s music. The good stuff. Fuzz guitar. Hard-edged synths. Punk. Post punk. Whenever I posted a grainy old film clip on Facebook (usually late at night after a long week), Hugh would often be the first to give it the ‘thumbs up’. He was up late too. It made my heart smile.

 

But then again, so did Hugh.

 

I wrote about him several times for Bendigo publications: about his origins studying Fine Art at the then Bendigo “CAE” in the pogo-pit 80s, a good time to be making art.

 

About his community work in the contemporary local arts scene.

 

And about his “new found” love for photo-digital art after years of printmaking and 35mm photography.

Hugh by Geoffrey O’Donnell, 2016

Hugh at El Gordo’s first exhibition, June 2011. Photo: Megan Spencer

And I have to say it was my great pleasure to ‘lure’ our former landlady towards his work when we hosted that first art exhibition at El Gordo. (I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist; Hugh was not so convinced.)

 

Before the show opened I invited her in to have “a bit of a look” at Hugh’s pair of pictures. She stared for ages at one piece and bought it on the spot. Then she came back the next day and bought the other. “Told you so,” I winked at him, such was the exquisite beauty of his work.

 

He also loved a natter. We’d often sit out in that laneway talking about the ‘state of the arts’ in Bendigo: its virtues, vices – the “full catastrophe” as the saying goes. Hugh served that community so well, selflessly mentoring artists young and old, setting up art shows, showing up at art shows, at new venues, creating opportunities, being a supportive ear. Group shows, solo shows, collaborations. Speaking with council. Speaking with traders. Looking for art spaces. He just loved art – and the arts. He was always there for it and the people involved. He was grass roots. He was great with people. Even the difficult ones.

 

When you live a long way from home Facebook can become a bit of a lifeline. I was so happy to see a couple of months back Hugh had finally gone on holiday – his first in 10 years I think. To Canberra and the the South Coast of NSW, on a road trip. As it turns out we probably passed each other on the Hume: I was back in Australia on a road trip of my own in the same region. Our timing was out though: this trip home I’d miss miss him by a matter of days. As he was pulling back into his Bendigo driveway, I was hopping back on a plane to Berlin.

 

He posted some beautiful photos from his time away. Always in nature, his favorite place. He has a beautiful eye. (It’s hard to talk about him in the past tense. Too soon.)

 

Hugh’s images are all about nature – it’s beauty and richness, it’s ceaseless decay. He spent hours honing that fragile balance between life and death in his imagery. I never find it maudlin, just more and more beautiful. Like a ballad you can’t shake from your internal jukebox. His work is quiet yet distinct. It gets under your skin. Nuanced and engaging. Like Hugh.

Hugh’s laugh was infectious. We also spent a fair whack chuckling like hyenas over the ridiculousness of things. Sometimes at our backyard barbecues, sometimes in the courtyard of the Goldmines Hotel, a mutually favorite ‘local’ where we’d also bump into each other.

 

Oliver and I have often mentioned Hugh here in Berlin as one of the people who we miss in our dear Bendigo mob.

Dried Roses, Hugh Waller, 2017.

 

It always made me feel good to see Hugh producing new art. Another thing he worked at tirelessly. He’d finally opened the ‘shopfront’ on his website. He was getting some serious recognition, collectors were calling. He’d had work shown as part of an international video installation in Times Square…

 

I don’t know what else to say. Other than come Thursday – the day of his send-off in Australia – here on the other side of the world Oliver and I will light a candle and raise a glass to dear Hugh. A gentle man and a gentle friend. Vale.

 

*  *  *

Sending deepest sympathies to Hugh’s family.

 

*  *  *

Davidson Bothers at the National Folk Festival, Canberra, 2014. Photo: Lance Black

Raised On the Road: Hamish Davidson

Posted on June 11, 2017

Amazing who you meet on the Calder…

 

On the other side of Melbourne’s infamous Calder Park Raceway – in what looks like the middle of nowhere – are a pair of BP petrol stations, “Calder 1” and “Calder 2”.

 

Parallel to each other on the M79, one services the “outbound” traffic heading north towards the Great Dividing Range. The other is for “inbound” travelling ‘down the Calder’ to the big smoke.

 

Twin sprawling icons of petroleum industries, these lurid green prefab structures house fast food outlets, caffeine franchises, convenience stores, a dozen petrol pumps, flanked by enormous concrete carparks, truck bays and drive thru Golden Arches. The only hints you might be at the gateway to the countryside are the unassuming grassy paddocks in the background and the unfettered skies above.

 

Some days you can even spy twin rainbows after a heavy downpour, the rain quashed by ferocious sun. They remind us nature and beauty are ever-present even in the vicinity of ugly, noisy, industrialised filling stations zoned for one of Victoria’s busiest freeways.

 

Trip Advisor tourist attractions they are not. But if you’re a country dweller and driver – as I still am – they’re a sight for sore eyes, an oasis of caffeine, loos, refrigerated rolls and quite possibly the only human contact you’ll have till sunup.

 

On a recent trip ‘up’ that dual carriageway I bumped into a musician I hadn’t seen for a while. Squinting through the steam rising from my cardboard cup of tea (the cup of tea ‘drug’ I was hoping would keep me going for another 150kms), I spied the well-worn boots of Hamish Davidson, one half of Australian bluegrass duo, the Davidson Brothers.

Hamish & Lachlan 2017. Photo: Kane Hibberd

“Human contact!” I thought. “I heard you on the radio the other day – on this very highway. You’ve got a new album, I heard it on RRR!”

 

Delirious from hours of freeway driving I decided  to launch myself at someone who in all likelihood wouldn’t remember me from the occasion whence we’d met four years prior (he didn’t). It was a photo shoot with Hamish when he and (younger) brother Lachlan played with American bluegrass star Don Rigsby in Bendigo.

 

Undeterred I said hi. The friendly (and polite) fella that he is, Hamish engaged in the kind of conversation that comes not only with having manners but the chance to talk music with a fellow enthusiast and weary traveller, en route back to the same home town as you are…

 

All You Need Is Music is the Davidson Brothers’ eighth album. They’ve been at it – making bluegrass and country music – since they were kids living in Yinnar, a tiny rural township in Gippsland, egged on by their equally musical parents.

 

Cutting their multi-instrumentalist teeth at some of Australia’s biggest music festivals  (Tamworth,  Port Fairy, Woodford, Meredith), overseas (IBMA Fanfest, Kentucky; European World Of Bluegrass, The Netherlands; Grevengrass in Germany), and winning a swag of Australian country music awards, the brothers Davidson are now getting the kind of recogniton that comes from singular talent, commitment and determination: putting in the hard yards.

 

Their new album is perhaps their most original and intricate yet, a sincere, toe-tappin’, finger-pickin’, down-home journey through romance, heart-break, memory and humour (‘Side A’ is a “bluegrass session”, ‘Side B’ is “country”.) Their musical prowess is astonishing: they sing, harmonise and between them play a swag of instruments, including banjo, fiddle, dobro and mandolin. I’ve seen the brothers on stage: they are forces to be reckoned with as are their musical compadres, which these days include Australian singer Joe Camilleri and other luminaries of the bluegrass variety.

 

All you need is music, right? Especially on long drives up and down the Calder, where under the late autumn sun one night you might chance upon a chat with one of Australia’s most talented and friendly bluegrass players.

 

Thanks Hamish Davidson.

Hamish performing at the National Folk Festival in 2014. Photo: Lance Black

Circus Folk: Who first got you and your brother into bluegrass? And do you remember the first time you ever became aware of it?

 

Hamish Davidson: We were first exposed to bluegrass music when novelty-bluegrass band Coolgrass played at the Gippsland Acoustic Music Club.

 

Our family used to look forward to attending these club nights every month and occasionally we’d get to open for one of the acts passing through.

 

When we saw Coolgrass it was also the first time I’d seen a banjo played – on the spot I decided I was going to take up banjo.

 

CF: How ‘instrumental’ was your family in both supporting you playing music and inspiring you to play music?

 

HD: We are fourth-generation musicians – at least – on both the Davidson and Young sides of our family. So playing music has always been considered a ‘normal thing’ to put time into in our family.

 

Our parents have always played with highland pipe bands. So before OH&S policies started systematically destroying the culture we used to attend loads of events and festivals. Our weekends were very full!

 

As we got older our parents got braver and took us further. Highlights of our upbringing included attending the major Australian folk festivals and in 1997 a music tour of Ireland, Scotland and the USA.

 

CF: What do you love about bluegrass – both as a fan and as a musician?

 

HD: Bluegrass is a social form of music as opposed to ‘spectator’ forms of music. Most bluegrass fans at least dabble in an instrument and participate in jams on the fringes of the bluegrass festivals.

 

Bluegrass is impressive to me personally because the musicians who play it are usually of an extremely high standard and they compete with one another to create excitement.

 

The style of singing in bluegrass is intense too: the ‘organ-o-phonic’ use of vocals comes from gospel traditions and is incredibly powerful and at times moving.

 

I also enjoy the culture that goes with the music – the camping and cooking outdoors, the rural accents, jamming through the night, teaching each other new tunes…

Cover of Hamish’s banjo tabs book

CF: It seems like incredibly complicated music to play: do you have to rehearse a lot – more than say if you played other genres of music? And is it ‘tricky’ – or ‘trickier’ than other types of music to play?

 

HD: It does seem complicated at first, and Bill Monroe [bluegrass pioneer] used to insist that, “If you can play bluegrass music you can play anything.”

 

Like jazz, bluegrass is very improvised, so we don’t rehearse very often unless we are introducing a bunch of new repertoire.

 

It’s a lot like learning a language.

 

CF: You and Lachlan made your first recording when you were 15 and 13: when did you both start writing your own songs? What do you tend to write about?

 

HD: Yes, that’s true. We made our first recording in 1998 and released it the following year. There were two original instrumentals on there but it took longer to build our confidence enough to write lyrics.

 

English was my worst subject at school, but I read a lot to keep creative language flowing in my head – to ‘keep the gates open’.

Hamish on dobro. Photo: Megan Spencer

At Meredith Music Festival, Lachlan and Hamish Davidson. Photo: supplied

Early on we wrote material in the ‘timeless’ themes that have always been popular in bluegrass [such as heartache and lost love, financial hardship, life struggles – Ed]. These days, although we keep most of our songs universal, they’re definitely more autobiographical. Even the silly songs! 

 

CF: Your new album ‘All You Need Is Music’ is just out. It’s your eighth and recorded in Nashville: what was the process of recording this one like for you, say compared to earlier albums?

 

HD: Because of the “Side-A”, “Side-B” concept, this project was basically like recording two separate albums. It was two different bands and two different headspaces. Lachie and I naturally write differently so in a way neither of us were restricted creatively, but mixing and mastering does become more complicated.

 

It is the fifth time we’ve physically recorded an entire album in Nashville so that gets easier. But each time we always invite a few people that we’ve never worked with to keep it fresh and exciting.

 

CF: Is it a satisfying feeling finishing an album?

 

HD: Well… In the past finishing albums felt like more of a milestone because you’d print the thing, then they’d start flying out the door. But things are different in 2017. Everything you learn while peddling your previous album should be abandoned when you release the next album, because the game keeps changing!

 

In the past, personally, I always expected to ‘crash’ once we picked up the physical CDs. But now that moment feels like the ‘birth’ of the album, not so much it’s completion.

 

That said, regardless of whether or not we’re recording albums with the intention of selling them, we still feel the need to regularly create new music and capture it. Hopefully our recordings will stand the test of time.

Hamish performing at the album launch of ‘All You Need Is Music’ at Longhorn Saloon in Melbourne. Photo: Tony Proudfoot.

CF: What are some of your favorite songs on the new album? And why?

 

HD: I like Brown Snake because it’s on the edge and you rarely hear banjo tunes in minor keys. The theme behind Can’t Change the Weather turns me on too: it’s about living in the moment and surrendering to things which you can’t control.

 

The autobiographical songs like See My Girl and What You Mean to Me really resonate in my heart and have personal meaning – but god it was fun recording Lock Horns and Scrambled Eggs! The latter two songs are more abstract and visual, and borderline nonsense were they not held together by a common thread throughout the verses.

 

Pending Arrival is a fiddle ballad I wrote when I was expecting my first son, but we were expecting our second son when we made this recording, so that was an emotional experience.

  

CF: When you and I met in Bendigo in 2013, you and Lachlan were playing with bluegrass star Don Rigsby in his band. You recently played on Joe Camilleri’s new album and he in turn played with you at the Longhorn Saloon at your album launch. What are some of your favorite gigs you’ve played over the years?

 

HD: Oh man, yeah, we’ve been blessed to play with some wicked talents over the years.

 

Moments I’ll never forget are jamming with Chris Thile in Kentucky when I was 14 years old; playing Ralph Stanley’s banjo backstage in Tennessee; playing at The Forum in Melbourne with Dan Sultan; playing with Sara Storer and my brother Lachie at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne; at Richmond Football Club’s centenary celebration… And the two shows we did with The Black Sorrows [Joe Camiller’s band] at Crown Casino in Melbourne. I could go on all day!

 

But there are other gigs that stand out because of the locations: at White Cliffs, NSW; Kununurra, WA; Augathella Queensland; Noumea in New Caledonia; Amsterdam-Holland… Holy crap, we’re lucky SOBs!

 

CF: To me, in Australia, (especially when you look at live music venues in the city), there does seem to be a bigger presence of bluegrass and Americana-style music these days. You and Lachlan have written about bluegrass in national country music magazine Country Update for many years: what have been your observations about its pervasiveness and popularity? Is it on the rise?

 

HD: Absolutely it has grown. I was the youngest banjo player in Australia for twelve years: when we were learning we were literally dragging pickers out of retirement, doing our best to inspire them to play again, and teach us how to play!

 

There was no YouTube and bluegrass CDs were hard to come by. Other people who wanted to learn banjo would have similar trouble learning so it became necessary to teach banjo from home when I was as young as 13!

Double rainbows at “Calder 1”. Photo: Megan Spencer

Americana has also been on the peripheral edge of our awareness while learning bluegrass, but Australia has a habit of grouping niche genres together so there are enough people to ‘host a party’. For example, serious bluegrassers would consider bluegrass music and country music to be mutually independent, but bluegrass has always been welcome at country music festivals in Australia.

 

We have always been conscious to push bluegrass and encourage its growth and that is our motivation for running the Australian Bluegrass Scholarship. We are not acting alone though: many others like us wish to see it grow too and we all play different roles. 

 

CF: There are some stellar bluegrass and Americana artists and bands in regional Victoria: The Duck Down Pickers and Freya Josephine Hollick being two for me, alongside your good selves. Who have you got your eye on at the moment?

 

HD: As I mentioned earlier, bluegrassers genuinely don’t pay much attention to Americana music except in the case of artists like Buddy and Julie Miller who have one foot in the bluegrass world.

 

Freya is absolutely an exceptional talent. I just met her for the first time at our album launch in Carlton. Freya is a killer singer and one hell of a nice person.

 

CF: Your ‘day job’ is as a chiropractor, you travel a fair bit to play gigs and festivals, you have a young family – you must be the busiest guy in the world! How do you find the time to balance music and the ‘rest’ of your life?!

 

HD: I try not to believe the hype but yes I am quite busy! However my mentors – and other people I look up to – are clearly a lot busier. I just have to be extremely efficient! And we usually perform on weekends to balance our other work and commitments.

 

CF: Will you tour the new album? Which festivals will you be playing over the coming months?

 

HD: We’re booking shows regularly and we do have some interstate gigs coming up. The Gympie Music Muster [Queensland, August] is one we haven’t done in a while and one we are looking forward to. Also we are returning to the Deniliquin Ute Muster in NSW later this year [September].

 

CF: So here’s the ‘cheeky’ question: given you’re doing this interview solo – a rare occasion?! – would you like to take this opportunity to ‘dish’ on your brother? On his terrible tour habits – in the nicest possible way of course!

 

HD: I won’t say too much, but: on the road Lachie is in the “snoring room” and I am in the “non-snoring” room…

 

Seriously though, we share the load so we can cover more bases. And over the last few years we’ve become open and honest about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work to supplement each other well.

 

The team spirit is strong which means the partnership has a healthy future.

 

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