Stories from inside life's big top.

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?

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?

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’?

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?

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?

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…

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?

: 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?

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?

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?

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…”

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.


  * * *


Musca Volitans

Posted on June 8, 2017

Grief makes you sick

Grief makes you sad

Grief makes you so filled with sorrow that there’s no room to breathe.


Grief makes you yearn

Grief makes you bewildered

Grief makes you different –


Grief makes you difficult to be around.


Grief makes you kinder

Grief makes you forgiving

Grief makes you understand that there is life and

Nothing but.


Grief makes you listen

Grief makes you see

Grief makes you feel

Everything, all at once, all the time.


Grief makes you laugh

Grief makes you cry

Grief makes you cry



Grief makes you cry






Grief makes you cry like there’s no tomorrow.



Grief makes you wiser

Grief makes you new friends

Pushes away old ones

And makes you rekindle old relationships.



Grief is a tangled love affair with

The person who is gone

The new life without them

And those you still need to bear.



Grief makes you take refuge

Grief makes you astonished

Grief leaves you breathless



Grief makes you want to stop

And surrender.



Grief makes you go on when it is impossible to do so

Grief makes you love when it is impossible to do so


Grief makes you love when it was impossible to do so.



Grief makes you addicted

To memory, to get by



Grief makes you cherish old plastic containers

Send text messages to ghosts

And cry a river to old ABBA songs.


Grief makes you age and resemble your Victorian great-grandmother

Grief makes you slower and gives you eye floaters

Grief makes you realize that what you thought was

is no longer.


Grief gives you magical powers

To be in the past while you’re experiencing the present

At the same time.


Grief makes you fat

Grief makes you drink

Grief makes you heavy

Grief makes you light


Grief makes you yearn for light, especially the sun.


And the sea.

And home.


Even if it’s not there anymore.


Grief makes you ugly

Grief makes you beautiful

Grief makes others ugly and beautiful.


Grief makes you wonder when it will ever be over when you know it will never be –

Just different, over time.


Grief makes you live

Grief makes you love


Grief makes you love deeper than you ever thought possible.



Grief makes you.


   * * *

Words & images (c) Megan Spencer. All rights reserved.


Blood Crystals: Kris Keogh

Posted on May 26, 2017

“The crystals may be obtained for examination by covering a minute drop of blood with a glass slide, and after adding water, alcohol, or ether, to permit a gradual evaporation to ensue.” – ‘A Text-Book on Physiology’, John William Draper, M.D., 1866.


The cover art from Kris Keogh‘s new record is taken from a centuries-old old medical journal. It’s the sketch of a microscopic view of ‘crystallized’ blood cells.


Ornate, fragile, and frozen in time, the illustration distills the process of life and death. The blood crystals, inert and no longer living, reveal in delicate, minute detail, the miracle of life – the very blood that supplies our bodies with oxygen, the breath of life.


It’s the perfect visual metaphor for Processed Harp Works Vol. 2, inspired as Kris tells it, by “two, simultaneous life-changing events”: the birth of his daughter and the death of his father, in 2013.


It’s always fascinating to see how artists express loss: think David Bowie mourning his own passing with Blackstar; filmmaker Mike Mills’ funny, moving requiem for his dying dad, Beginners, and Philip Toledarno’s heart-wrenching photography essays, Days With My Father and When I Was Six, meditations both on the loss of close family members.


Enter Kris’s ‘Processed Harp Works Vol. 2’. Equal parts melancholic and ethereal, joy and grief  are comfortable bedfellows – you can hear them wrapped around each other, resonating together. Deep cavernous rumbles and spacious, sorrowful drones ebb and flow between liquid harp sweeps and uplifting melodies. It’s an album vibrating with ambivalence and hope. Impossible not to be affected by it, sonically it’s as exquisite as its cover art.



To make Processed Harp Works Vol. 1 (2011), Kris purpose-built Invert The Universe, a Reaktor software ensemble – also the foundation for Processed, the “setup” for the sonic exploration and musical meditations of Vol. 2. It creates a space for “processing” both disparate sounds and intense disparate feelings. Gradual evaporation ensues…


“Everything I make is about juxtaposition, about creating something unexpectedly cohesive from seemingly opposing sources, from polar extremes,” he says. “These extremes are ingrained at nearly every level of this album.”


Classically-trained and pop-inspired, musically Kris cites influences as diverse Prince and Debussy, to German click-music-maestro Oval and Atari Teenage Riot. Splitting his time between hometown Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory and Japan, Kris is prolific. In bands (Red Plum and Snow) and a solo electronic artist (Blastcorp, Laptop Destroyer), he’s been a fixture on – and a driving force behind – the Territory music scene for years, on stage and off.


Innately creative, Kris is an in-demand artist, producer, musician, designer, music label owner, community builder, and now a dad, which, with his partner Deb (also a creative force-of-nature!), might just be his – and their – most rewarding collaboration yet!


Kris Keogh spoke to me from his “second home”, Osaka.

Cover art for ‘Processed Harp Works, Vol. 2’. Image restoration: Nico Liengme.

Circus Folk: First of all Kris, the cover artwork for this album: it’s exquisite. What is the story behind it, and why did you choose it for this release?


Kris Keogh: It’s a woodcut from a medical textbook from the 1800’s of the blood cells of a squirrel under a microscope, of all things! I found it on, somewhere among the millions of out-of-print books digitzed and stored there. All you need is the time to go hunting, that site is a goldmine.


I love that image ’cause it looks organic and random, but also really intricate and structured. That’s kind of how I think the album sounds, so it’s a good fit. The web scan was pretty lo-res so I got a proper graphic designer (thanks Nico!) to restore it. He worked his magic and somehow remade it all hi-res.

Kris’s cover art for New Weird Australia #5.

CF: To the story of this album: you say that two simultaneous “life-changing” events inspired the album and its sound: the birth of your daughter and the death of your father. Compositionally, how did you go about ‘integrating’ these events, their ensuing emotional effects, and the ‘weight’ associated with both, into your music? Such as the extremes of joy, and extreme grief, I would imagine?


Kris: I wasn’t really consciously thinking about joy or grief or anything specific when I sat down to make this album. It was only once I finished recording that I kind of realized that was what it had made me reflect on: that that’s what I needed to get out.


As I’ve gotten older I feel like I’ve amassed all these life experiences which now include births and deaths of the people closest to me. My thinking is now hard-wired through those experiences; I can’t escape them, and wouldn’t ever want to.


They make me ‘me’, you know? So when I sit down and make harp music, I just let my hands and brain do what feels honest. Intimate and honest, with absolutely no showmanship.


All of my history is inside me, and when I play like that, I feel like the music that comes out is filtered though those experiences.

Kris’s “processed” Reaktor processing software. Image: supplied.

ZZAAPP Records artwork by Kris Keogh.

CF: And ‘Processed’, the “self-made Reaktor ensemble designed by trial and error” you made “over the last ten years” – what did that teach you? It must have been very frustrating at times and gleeful at others: why did you want to create your own software? And what were some of the challenges you faced making it?


Kris: Finding your own voice in music is a really hard thing to do. Reaktor is the thing that has gotten me on the path to finding mine. I’ve been using it since 2001, to experiment and then refine those experiments. It’s just like having a music shop with an endless supply of effects, which you can take home and experiment with until you have a setup you really like.


I want to make music that sounds new, beautiful and alien, so it’s great for that. It’s also a good setup considering the nearest music store is 1000kms by road from Nhulunbuy!


The learning curve is long and steep though; I still feel like a total beginner. It’s a weird combination of having to use really rigid and structured thinking processes to bring to life really loose and fluid musical ideas. Having both sides of your brain in full effect doesn’t come naturally to me, so it can feel like work sometimes.


But it’s well worth it. And I love that there’s an online community of people building with Reaktor, all sharing things they’ve built for free. And you can pull everyone else’s work apart and borrow bits and pieces as you see fit. It’s also a really nice feeling to be able to make creative tools that you can share with other people.


I uploaded my setup for this album to the Reaktor User Library a few weeks ago. It’s called Processed, so hopefully other people are making cool stuff with it too!

Kris playing night golf, Osaka, Photo: Deb Hudson

Kris’s home studio. Photo: Kris Keogh

Kris Keogh, Osaka 2017. Photo: Deb Hudson

CF: You spend a lot of time in Japan: it sounds as if the geographical, cultural and physical landscape there also finds its way into your work, perhaps even more noticeably in this album than the previous. Living in two cultures as you do – the Northeast Arnhem Land community of Nhulunbuy and with yearly visits to Japan – has this movement between the two changed your relationship with place, and perhaps even home? And is this somehow reflected in PHWV.2, given that you recorded this album in your home studio in Nhulunbuy?


Kris: I feel like a misfit in both places to be honest: I’m not Yolngu and I’m not Japanese. Living around two cultures that are very different from my own means I’m never really in my comfort zone. I understand so little of what’s going on around me in both places that I think I end up in my own head a lot.


It is really great to be around people with different perspectives though. That constant reminder that my culture isn’t the only thing going on in the world is a good for me as a person.


As for music, I don’t try and consciously work in elements of either culture into my music, but I’m sure the influences do seep in… I’ve definitely got lots of love for all aspects of Japanese music, from traditional koto music through to all the crazy underground electronic stuff. The same goes for living in Arnhem Land: Yolngu music, new and old, is so inspiring.

‘Just Before Forever’ video by Deb Hudson.


Those traditional descending manikay vocal lines are so raw and unbelievably gorgeous.  I feel it’s rude to just take specific things I like and use them in my own music directly, but I’m sure the influences do seep in subconsciously.


Circus Folk: When you sit down to compose, are working from a “blank page”, or are you the type of composer who has melodies and ideas bubbling away just below the surface all the time? And when is it the “right time” to sit down and compose: do a set of specific ‘conditions’ need to arise before you start a project such as this one?


Kris: I don’t really pre-plan anything. I’ll just choose a key, set the pedals on the harp and just play. I’ll play for ages and something will start to develop and I’ll go with that. I record it all and then I’ll often write the melodies (and even chord sequences sometimes) by editing the actual audio, cutting, pasting and moving individual notes around in the computer until it all sounds right to me.


I feel like if I can capture the vibe and the sound in the moment, I can then go back and edit the notes into something more concise and musical later. With this album the sound and feeling were more important to me than the actual notes when making it.


I don’t know if it’s just me, but the harp just has the saddest, most melancholy tone of any instrument I’ve ever touched. It’s heartbreaking; it sounds so sad, yet so beautiful, all at once. If you mute a string you played a few seconds earlier, the note doesn’t stop, instead you realise that the note has continued on as all these sympathetic vibrations in all the other strings. It’s so inspiring to play a single note on an instrument and have it do that and feel like that. Writing music in that kinda situation is so easy, it just falls out.


I wish it was more romantic than it is, but writing music is just work for me. If I waited for inspiration to line up with my free time, the house being quiet, my tech setup working smoothly and my harp being in tune, I’d never make anything. I have to schedule life so those things line up and then just get to work. Once I’m in the sound, luckily I get the vibe pretty quickly.


CF: There is so much ‘space’ in this record. What is your relationship to – and/or view of – the use of space and spaciousness, in music? Is it an essential factor in the composition process, and the sound of your music, in particular? I also remember tangibly noticing it when you were making music in Red Plum and Snow…


Kris: Space is super important. The act of adding even a simple reverb to a sound makes it go from lifeless to existing in some kind of (simulated) physical space.


People relate to spaces; they become attached to memories of feelings, people and places. A lot of what I do involves heavily processing the space that sounds exists in, and then layering and cutting between different spatial setups.


Glitches and cuts between drastically different spatial setups don’t happen to us in everyday life, and I think all the spatial edits help give this album that otherworldly kinda feeling.


So in short, yeah, space is really important to my music.


CF: You seem very excited by the release of this album: as someone who has made music your entire life – in bands, collaborations, and solo – what excites and compels you to make music?


Kris: To be honest, creating things and sending them off into the world just makes me really happy. Getting up and making something new and beautiful out of thin air is an amazing feeling. It’s a sense of achievement; making an album is like winning a really long and drawn battle against all your inner creative insecurities. If I stop making things, I start to question who and what I am, and that’s not pretty.


I’m also just a total music fan. I love music so, so much. Making music and being amazed by new music is the best thing ever; it’s like my one addiction, one I have no plans of giving up.


CF: Some feel that music is the most direct contact with the ‘spiritual’ side of life, especially when it comes to harp music! Do you agree with that idea? Do you think the harp – and music in general – has the capacity to moves us on some ‘deeper’ level?


Kris: Music moves me, for sure. This album is designed to do exactly that. It’s a 40-minute chance to zone out and be somewhere else. Hopefully that’s somewhere deeper, calmer and more relaxed. I’m not at all spiritually minded, but I feel music is a far more subtle and transformative medium than, say, language to express how I feel.


As for the harp, those sympathetic resonances that give it its tone, just move people.


I can imagine the sound of the harp in previous centuries having the same effect as walking into a big cathedral; there’s a humbling sense of wonder in both.


CF: Who are your biggest influences for this album in particular?


Kris: Musically, I’d say Bows’ sampled harp and guitar sounds, Oval’s glitches and the consonance and slowness of the solo piano work of people like Arvo Part and Nils Frahm. Conceptually, its just opening myself up to let the music come out.


CF: Six years have passed since ‘Processed Harp Works Vol. I’ (2011): how different are you now in 2017 as an artist and composer, from when you made the first record? Can you hear it in the music?


Kris: I’ve matured, ha ha! I’ve gotten over the need to try and use distortion to make everything sound intense.


Musically though, I had heaps more time and freedom to make this new album. The first one was made with my sneaking into the uni in Darwin, playing and recording the harp that was kept in the storeroom in the concert hall, then sneaking out. I wasn’t a student and wasn’t a teacher, so I was in some kind of weird “you shouldn’t really be here” kinda situation. So I’d take those recordings home and put them through my computer and process them.

Kris with his daughter in Himeji, 2017. Photo: Deb Hudson

This time though, I’ve since saved up and bought a harp of my own, so I could play the harp and computer at the same time. This meant I could do all the processing and then add extra notes and sounds, get things just right, rather than be restricted to only sampling what I’d recorded. The new album is definitely more melodic because I had the option to refine things and add notes as needed.


CF: You have a little girl now, Peach. I’m guessing she might be into music like her dad – and uber-creative like her mum! Is she showing signs of being interested in music yet?


Kris: She likes music, but she mainly listens to J-pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu on repeat, although she had a Sophie phase a while back. She makes up little songs on my drum machines; she’s got about a dozen little beats and tunes she’s made. She likes twinkly princess sounds, so I think the harp influence has seeped in a bit there.


I actually wrote this album to function as her bedtime music. She puts it on every single night to go to sleep to, without fail. It works really well in that context, I know, because I’ve spent every evening of the last six months laying there listening to it and trying like mad not to fall asleep at 7pm!


Many thanks to Kris Keogh for the interview and Deb Hudson for the images!


* * *

  • Interview & cover photo: Kris Keogh
  • Words/edit: Megan Spencer
  • Photos: Deb Hudson
  • Listen/download: Processed Harp Works Vol. 2 (Provenance Records)
  • Listen/download: Processed Harp Works Vol. 1 (New Weird Australia)
  • Visit: Kris’s website
  • Discover: Happy Yess, the music venue in Darwin co-founded by Kris
  • Note: Kris Keogh and Deb Hudson and have been in my friend circle since 2008.
  • Correction: Text amended: Kris used Reaktor software to create his own processing setups for both Volumes of his Processed Harp Works (he didn’t create Reaktor – my mistake!)

A Podcast about Precious Objects

Posted on May 15, 2017

“Objects should not ‘touch’ [us] because they are not alive. You use them, put them back in place, you live among them: they are useful, nothing more. But they touch me, it is unbearable. I am afraid of being in contact with them as though they were living beasts.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Auspicious Plastic is a monthly podcast about ‘things’ that bring meaning to our lives, and even make us happy.


When using my Mum’s old Tupperware containers as “grief therapy” after she passed away, I discovered how such simple ‘pieces of plastic’ could hold so much meaning – and emotion. And how these objects touched me so profoundly, as if animated by something deeply mystical…


I wondered how my use of her beloved Tupperware – and other kitchen implements too – could be so powerful and therapeutic. And why we invest so much in ‘things’? How could a basic plastic container, a mere tool, make someone so happy? Help someone to grieve?

To quote Sartre again, don’t we become “possessed by the things we possess”? And Tupperware – it’s just a bunch of crappy old plastic containers bound for land-fill, right?


Or, might it be possible that they could be containers of fascinating, inter-generational stories? Something that connects us on a more profound level?


With my own experience as a starting point, I decided to find out, creating a podcast where I can talk to other people about their experiences with such “auspicious objects”. Through this world of dearly held things, I’m discovering a a plethora of stories about us: women, men, people, community, food, family, friendship, empowerment, and more. Sartre was right: objects aren’t just objects…


Delma & Katherine (07.02.2017)

Delma & Katherine Calcagno

This is an interview with my lovely Aunty Delma and her daughter, my dear cousin Katherine. The former is a quinti-decade “obsessed” Tupperware user, collector and “party holder”; the latter a lifelong “Tupper-kid”, now a demonstrator and freelance employee with the Australian branch of the company. They talk candidly about how Tupperware has deeply touched their lives – and provide me with some answers as to why why it might have touched mine… (Dur. 18:30 | Tx 07. 02. 2017)


Listen here.


Anna (16.03.2017)

Anna Brownfield

Next an interview sitting around the kitchen table of my old friend Anna Brownfield. A feminist erotic filmmaker and a ‘gun’ crafter, we’ve known each other since 1995, working on each other’s films, knitting on couches far and wide, and occasionally following each to the other side of the world. Anna’s always amazed and inspired me with her resourcefulness, dedication to craft, DIY and making. In addition to the odd bit of Tupperware she owns, anywhere she goes she puts her sizeable plastic container collection to good use, especially now that she’s a mum. We began our chat marveling at her “magic” blue and white icy pole makers, which she bought at her very first Tupperware party ‘back in the day’. (Dur. 14:00 | Tx 16. 03. 2017)


Listen here.


Michael Pieracci

In Episode Three you’ll meet Michael Pieracci, an American “installed” in Berlin. A talented and creative project manager, “photographer, presenter, traveller and drinker of tea”, I had previously listened to Michael give a moving and engaging talk about ‘tools’ at Creative Mornings Berlin. Inspired by his philosophy towards ‘things’ (and left-handed scissors!), I invited him to reveal more, and to share some of his favorite objects with me for Auspicious Plastic. (Dur. 18:35 | Tx 09. 04. 2017)


Listen here.


Robyn Overell

Robyn Overell and my Mum lived next door to each other for 35 years. Over the fence and around the kitchen table they shared a special friendship, many cups of tea, laughter and an appreciation for Tupperware – one of Mum’s passions. They also shared many stories, one of which involved Robyn’s only piece (a singular blue plastic bowl from the 1970s) and how it came to be ‘lone’ and ‘lidless’. It used to tickle Mum pink, and has to be heard to be believed… (Dur: 16:25 | Tx 20.05.2017)


Listen here.


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Listen on Soundcloud.


Auspicious Plastic podcast, theme, content & images (c) Megan Spencer 2017. Cannot be reproduced without permission. All rights reserved.

Sister art: Lucy and Molly Dyson. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Close To You: Lucy & Molly Dyson

Posted on May 9, 2017

History is littered with creative siblings, often in music, sometimes in film, occasionally in literature…


See the Sisters Bronte and Arquette; the Brothers Grimm and Gibb; the Coen Brothers, Baldwins, Wachowskis and Gershwins; soft-pop super-duo The Carpenters, hard-rock guitar heroes Malcolm and Angus. The families Corr, Barrymore, Boyd and Mora.


Then there are my personal faves, Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart. Seventies AM rock would have been nothing without these sisters, nor their songs Barracuda and Crazy On You. Nothing.


It’s come time to add a pair of visual artist sisters to the list: Lucy Dyson and Molly Dyson. Both are from Australia. Both live in Berlin. And both are starting to leave their mark in a serious way.


Landing in Berlin as a Neu wohnhaft in April 2015, Lucy’s was a name I kept coming across. Sounding terribly familiar I didn’t connect the dots until we finally met a year later, first at an exhibition opening and later at a mutual friend’s ‘going away’. She reminded me we’d first crossed paths in 2003: Lucy was 21 and just out of art school (we also share the same alma mater, RMIT Media Arts), and I was several years into a decade-long adventure as film critic for triple j.


‘Laika – Space Dog’ by Lucy Dyson

I’d seen her beautiful animated short, Laika – Space Dog. It melted my heart and burned itself into my memory, as had the little booklet she’d made to go with it, which I still have to this day.


I’d invited Lucy to do a radio interview with me and later to be a judge on a national shorts showcase and competition I was programming.


Since, Lucy has made a slew of music videos, album covers, prints and animations, now perhaps most well-known for her work in collagism, a form she is passionate about – both moving and still. She’s seriously in-demand as a filmmaker for some of Australia’s (and the world’s) biggest music artists: from Beyoncé, Sarah Blasko and Paul Kelly, to John Spencer Blues Explosion, Goyte, and most recently, former Powderfinger singer, Bernard Fanning.


Finding Lucy in Berlin was a happy accident – so was finding out she had a sister here! One humid Berlin summer’s night we literally bumped into each other at a huge open studio event at a labyrinthine former light factory, now re-purposed as an artists compound. Sweating in the crowd – and having been there for some time – I was about to go. Then there was Lucy. And Molly, who she quickly introduced me to. I lingered and learned she too was an artist equally immersed in her work, only an illustrator…


Poetry Is Dead cover by Molly Dyson.

Proficient in German and studying at one of Berlin’s best art schools (plus a Fine Arts graduate from VCA), Molly’s also becoming sought after – as an illustrator, exhibitor and poster artist.


Favoring “simplicity over realism”, she’s had illustrations featured in Yen and Frankie magazines, poster commissions from Mona Lisa Disco and Rhythm Machine, a book cover for Poetry Is Dead, a tea towel for Five Boroughs Melbourne and Covo Sportivo Coffee Lounge in East Brunswick sports her gorgeous custom-design on their coffee cups.


While their formats and methods might differ, both women love their work and the process of working. And while they do miss home they love living in Berlin, counting their blessings to have both 100% family support to be here and to live in a city that, while presenting distinct ‘challenges’ (eg. crap weather for 8 months of the year, gruff natives and an incredibly Orwellian bureaucracy), upholds and supports art and artistic practice in such a vociferous way.


For artists are its lifeblood. Especially if you contribute generous of mind and wild at heart…

At the open studio: Lucy & Molly. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Circus Folk: Both your dad Chris and mum Ann are artists, and your aunty, Cath Dyson, is a documentary maker and writer. Is it fair to say that creativity might be a ‘family trait’? And when did you both realise that creativity was a driving force in your lives?


Lucy: Ha, perhaps there is a sensitivity that has been passed down. I see it on both my mum and dad’s sides of the family – an appreciation for music, film, writing and visual arts – which has led to various [family] creative outputs. I also see it expressed through both extended sides of the family in other ways, be it in personal style, in the home, the children, and just the general feeling when everyone gets together. Cousins will get up to perform, there might be a sing-along… We’re just a big bunch of art lovers!


A far back as I can remember I have been making things. As a child I was always absorbed in drawing or writing stories, or building fun-park extensions for my “Guinea Pig World” corner of the back garden. I was given a lot of freedom and encouragement to express my interests, and a lot of free time come to think of it.


My older sister Marita and I would get really obsessed with our self-initiated projects – some would say nothing’s changed!


Molly: Like most kids I was always drawing. Mum has a good one I did when I was two or three, a completely scribbled mess with the title Molly Saving A Spider From A Fire. (I don’t remember drawing it but I like my sense of narrative – and kindness to spiders!) I also remember drawing naked people and then being embarrassed and scrunching them up when I was about 5 or 6. Then of course I went through a stage of only drawing people with Simpsons’ style eyes!


I think it was always something I felt that I was good at; I had trouble with maths and spelling and sport and learning the piano. So drawing and making things fitted best.


CF: Molly, what ‘draws’ (sorry!) you to illustration? Is it an enjoyable process for you?


Molly: As a teenager I made a lot of ‘zines and always tried to make comics, but found it hard to finish a page of sequential drawings. I still do. I studied art and found it hard to make things without a connection to narrative (the way illustration can have). I also love taking someone else’s story or idea, and bringing it into a visual realm or interpreting it.

Illustration by Molly Dyson. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I love making posters too, it’s exciting for me: they get to go out there into the world and be connected to an event or an idea. I like illustration maybe because each project has a definitive end point most of the time, where as I felt artwork sort of goes on and on and has a life of its own after you make it or install it. I think I get satisfaction out of making things that have some definite purpose: that ‘sense of purpose’ is probably the most enjoyable part of the illustrative process. I’m not saying that art “has no purpose”; it’s just not that often defined by a brief or specific job request.


CF: Lucy, you and I first met when you were an animator just out of art school. We ‘communed’ over your beautiful, sweet short film, Laika, Space Dog. How and when did you move from animation to collagism? Or was it the other way around?


Lucy: Ever since I was a child I have always made collages, cutting up old encyclopedias – and family photographs! So when I started at Media Arts I was interested in animating these collages. The Laika film was an exercise in how to use Flash software, so part of that learning meant I used my own sketches.


I never consciously decided on animation or collage; they have always gone hand-in-hand for me. The subversive nature of collage has always appealed to my sense of humour: making new worlds, escapism, being left alone to work out ideas that fail when I try to put them down in words…


Also developing a sense of self through my work, as I often feel unsure about where I fit. I don’t make commercials or commercial music videos or short films, so I don’t entirely fit into the animation world or the big budget music video/commercial world. Or the design world – something that’s always very obvious to me when I attend film festivals or design conferences!


I also don’t really belong in the contemporary art world; I’ve somehow ended up carving out own very independent thing. In animation it’s very satisfying being able to control very specific elements, when in life there is so much one can’t control…

Collage by Lucy Dyson. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Molly – what do you like to draw? And how would you describe your ‘relationshipwith drawing?


Molly: I like to draw people but also find it hard to settle on a particular thing. It’s still hard sometimes to think of “what-to-draw”, that’s why I do quite like having requests and specific jobs.


I would describe my work as some kind of quest to make a line work in a really particular way. I guess I’m on a quest to perfect that feeling of a single line doing its thing and making a shape. I really like effortless-looking doodles that sum up an object or space in swift movements, reductive impressions of things. I don’t have much interest in figuratively representing things.


I like to work some “personality” in there, but I guess I am always reducing my style. I also love printing, probably for that similar “reductive” element. I like working within some restrictions – such as colour and material – because it forces me to focus on one idea rather than being overwhelmed by too much choice.


I prefer drawing on paper to working digitally, and have been completely sucked into the Instagram cycle of making something: posting it and waiting for the ‘likes’, which has changed the way I work.

Sisters on the sofa: Lucy & Molly. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Sisters in art, now sisters in Berlin: could you please give us a snapshot as to how you both came to be living and working in Berlin?


Lucy: I moved to Berlin in 2011 after two fun but kind of difficult years living in London. I met some great people there and made music videos while also working in a bookstore. When I had to leave London (because my visa was up) I was annoyed: it had taken two years to feel that I had just about adjusted to the city, and then it was time to go!


So, with my boyfriend at the time, and everything still packed up in Melbourne, I headed to Berlin. While I was in London I had visited friends living there and I had thought it was such a great city. Molly came to visit me a year later and got sucked in too!


Molly: I came here on holiday with the vague intention of staying for a year or so since Lucy was already there, and I had heard all about how fantastic Berlin was. So I did stay. I met a European boy, and went back and forth between Melbourne and Berlin for a few years.


Initially I tried to make it work as a freelance illustrator (while also working several jobs, as a nanny, in cafes, the usual…) Eventually I got a full time job which had its ‘positives’ (regular income and health insurance) and ‘negatives’ (40 hours a week standing in a 7×5 metre store selling notebooks to people…) Now, thank goodness, I am a student, which is a 1000% improvement on being a full time employee. I’m still working part time though!


CF: What do you like about being here in Berlin? Does it afford you opportunities that staying in Australia might not? And do you feel lucky and/or inspired to be here?


Lucy: As a self-employed artist the fact that I can support myself and live comfortably on my own in a lovely apartment and have a studio space feels lucky: it allows me time and space for the work that is most important to me. And the fact that I can so easily obtain a visa to live and work here makes me feel extremely lucky.


It goes without saying that the museums and galleries are great, that there is always something interesting to attend – endless art and film lectures, events and festivals, on all levels, on all subjects, happening everywhere. It is so inspiring.

Collage by Lucy Dyson. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Illustration by Molly Dyson. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

I also think being based in the northern hemisphere has been good for work opportunities. I still do work for Australian clients but I also get a lot of inquiries from the UK, Europe and the USA. I think being here makes me more accessible as it’s only one hour ahead of London, or six hours ahead of New York.


Berlin is full of incredibly talented people from all over the world. The creative network is broad and far-reaching, and it’s approachable. And if you participate in it you become available to many different people who might want to collaborate or support your practice in some way. I feel incredibly lucky to be here.


Molly: I feel super lucky to be here too! I know so many people who have struggled, whose countries don’t afford them the same privilege of movement and travel as Australians have, and I feel very aware of my of privilege in Germany as a white educated Anglo-Saxon. Even though my German is still improving – and I am balancing work and study by supporting myself financially – I do feel better off here than I would in Australia. I couldn’t afford to do another undergraduate [degree] in Australia. The thought of ending up with a European university degree in design just makes me go “Wow!” – I can’t believe its happening! It’s great.

Things from Lucy’s sill & shelf collections. Photos: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Lucy & Molly Dyson. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

Also as a design student in Europe there are so many more design agencies to intern or work for – and some amazing competitions and scholarships to apply for too. I have friends from all over the world at uni, and opportunities for projects keep presenting themselves, which just keeps blowing my mind.


Lucy: The city is wonderful, I love it: I think Berlin is the best city in the world.


Molly: The city does inspire my work. Mostly friends who live here inspire me because I know so many people making such fantastic stuff, it’s motivating to be around them.


CF: Are there any downsides for you?


Lucy: Being away from family and friends! Also, I don’t speak German terribly well (I practice everyday, but it’s taking forever). So some days that gets me down, but I’ve managed so far. Berlin is a very accommodating, accepting and forgiving city.


Molly: I get homesick! Speaking German is hard. I feel so far way from Australia and financially getting back there is really hard. Financially in general things are probably harder than they would be in Australia, but it’s also fine. I have everything I need – bread, butter, a warm house, friends and internet!

Shadowlands: Lucy & Molly in Berlin. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Is there anything in particular, that you have learned from your parents about being creative that you have never forgotten – that you have carried into your artistic practice and work?


Lucy: My Dad taught me to take as many opportunities as possible as they might not appear again, and this way you can work out what you’re really interested in. And to be resilient and humble, and to accept that not everything turns out as planned but that doesn’t mean you quit. You have to get over it, and practice everyday to improve and develop the skills – to hone in on something just the right way so that it works!


More recently my Mum told me not to “overthink things” or let my perfectionist tendencies take over, “as you probably don’t realise how good the work is”. Which was very nice of her – and a good reminder that it’s difficult to judge your own work.


Molly: I think self-belief is probably the key. When I tried to be a freelancer I just didn’t have the confidence, discipline or the skills to get it off the ground. I had some successes and made great work that I am totally proud of, but I didn’t have that particular drive that you really need if you’re going to make it work (like Lucy is!)


I feel way more confident now, and know that is something Mum and Dad always reminded all of the kids in the family to be. They totally support us and praise what we do whilst also giving very good critical advice and reality checks from time to time.


I know I am so lucky to have parents who don’t ask when I’m going to “buy a house” or “get married”. They are totally supportive of our decision to be creative even though they know how hard it is.


CF: Molly, youre studying here in Berlin at Weißensee Kunsthochschule (art school.) Why did you choose to study here? What kind of experience are you having, say in contrast to studying in Australia?


Molly: I’m studying Graphic Design (Visuelle Kommunikation). Luckily I have been able to go straight into the second year because of the Bachelor of Fine Art I have from VCA in Melbourne. It was a more intense experience to apply [to get in] here than in Australia. Since German universities take a lot of international students, it’s more competitive, so the standards are pretty high!

Lucy with her window sill cactus garden. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

There was a three-day-long ‘creative exam’ after the folios were selected, and that was super stressful. Not only because it (and the interview) was in German, but also because it was in a hall of about 30 people crafting away from nine-to-five for three days! I was sure I’d blown it, but I got in and I am very, very happy. The university is very self-oriented which suits me well since I had the learning curve of a freelance life. The uni has excellent workshops for printing, ceramics and woodwork, and has departments in Fine Art, Design, Fashion Design and Textiles.


The contrast to Australia is probably that Design and Fine Art feel more connected in Europe, whereas in Australia the worlds seem more separate. I know a lot of illustrators in Berlin who have practices that are very art-based, but they still work and refer to themselves as illustrators. Weißensee has this sort of mentality: that creative practice crosses many borders.


CF: What do you hope the degree at Kunsthochschule will give you in terms of opportunity? What is your “dream job”?


Molly: I hope to find a way to take what I do “to the next level”, in that I guess I’m just super-focused on getting more skills because part of the “failure” of my freelance illustration career (ha!) was my lack of skills to be able to refine what I was doing. That means refining my approach and becoming very aware – as a good designer should be – of all the elements of the project and pushing it all through to a super-high level of realisation.


As I said, being connected to an international community of creative people is amazing: watching what friends who are already pretty established designers and illustrators do is the best source of inspiration. I hope also to intern more and take advantage of the European student-bounty.


My “dream job” is probably in art direction. I am learning more and more how much I love working with other people and not so much alone at my computer (which is the lonely reality for most illustrators and designers). Seeing a project come together with a bunch of people is the best lesson I have learned in the last few years. So establishing an agency or working in a team of designers to produce large-scale projects is essentially “the dream”. I used to want to be a children’s book illustrator and I still do want to do that too! So I’m attracted to both huge and tiny projects.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2016

CF: Lucy – you and I recently talked about the concept of “flow”, being “in the zone” when youre an artist. And you mentioned to me how elusive you feel it can be sometimes – that when it comes, you try to submerge yourself in it and stay there as long as you can, especially when youre working on an animation project.

Would you explain that a bit further – and what your approach is to making animations?


Lucy: Sometimes when I’m completely absorbed in what I’m animating, it can feel like a weird jolt being brought back into the ‘real world’; I might need a moment to recall where I am. It’s very satisfying to experience, however I don’t find it so easy to achieve. I’m still a massive procrastinator and am easily distracted by the most stupid things.


I suppose it takes a lot of discipline which is also why if I am up against a deadline I can’t be taking social breaks that disturb that sense of flow and progress. To maintain momentum can sometimes mean working in solitude, dead-focused, for several days. My animation approach for music videos is to try to find the right pieces, as if I am putting together a jigsaw puzzle of images I see in my head when I hear the music. Sometimes I can’t see the images clearly and can only feel them as colours/shapes/movement. The puzzle pieces can be scattered across hundreds of different pages in stacks of books and piles of magazines and I usually don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it.


I try not to ‘over plan’ my projects as things tend to develop intuitively while I’m playing around with various elements.


CF: Where do you find your materials for making collages?


Lucy: Flea markets, secondhand book stores, rubbish bins, things I pick up off the footpath… I was recently late meeting Molly for a coffee as I found lots of things out on my street that I thought would be useful for a project, which I then had to carry back to my apartment before meeting her! It wasn’t the first time it’s happened; she is very forgiving of this habit of mine, as was my ex-boyfriend.


CF: Molly – what kind of an approach to do you have towards “making”?


Molly: My method is also constantly changing but basically I just sketch and refine and repeat. And then, depending on the project, I end up digitally adjusting elements of the drawing.


CF: Who are your personal art heroes – who inspires each of you? And do you inspire each other?


Lucy: The pop artist Marisol Escobar, the German artist Hannah Hoch, the Paris-based Canadian writer Mavis Gallant; all the female animators from the last 70 years (Mary Ellen Bute, Sally Cruikshank, Lotte Reineger, Faith Hubley); my good friend Isobel Knowles, and so many remarkable women turning out exquisite work as independent animators and experimental film makers, who are relentlessly doing their thing!


Also my good friend Gemma Ray; she is a Berlin musician. We often discuss and share where we are at with our work and actually have similar approaches to creativity, and understand if the other has to isolate herself in the studio to make some headway on a project.


Of course Molly inspires me, not only for her brilliant artistic skills and the sense of humour in her work, but her German is so good (which makes me feel very lazy). And the fact she got into art school here – no easy accomplishment!


Molly: Yes, Lucy totally inspires me… I’m also inspired by other illustrators I have met in Berlin: Maren Karlson, Lasse Wandschneider and Aisha Franz are huge inspirations. I constantly refer back to Herve Leger’s paintings, Thomi Ungerer for his children’s books, and [Moomintroll author and illustrator] Tove Janson‘s artwork and writing.


CF: Lucy – last year you “got the call” from Beyoncé (well, her people I’m guessing!), who wanted to commission an animated collage projection from you, for her Formation world tour. Youve also worked with big names in Australia like Paul Kelly, Goyte, The Drones… When those calls finally come – after years of perhaps working isolation, wondering if anyone is even out there or taking notice – how does it feel?


Lucy: It’s validating. I work alone and without an agent. I can be quite passive about seeking out work (unless I discover something and it’s so on my wavelength I’m compelled to reach out.) I’m usually working on projects that come to me, so it is remarkable that simply by having my work online has brought in some of these opportunities.


I feel satisfaction, gratefulness and relief! But the moment I actually start working on whatever the brief is, or whatever I have proposed to do, I think “Hmmm, I wonder what we’ll actually end up with…” There is always the risk I could mess something up, and as the only person responsible – it can be a lot of pressure!

Photo from of Lucy’s projection work for the The Formation World Tour, Tampa, FL.

CF: What are some of your favourite projects you have done so far?


Lucy: In terms of scale obviously Beyoncé was my favourite. I would like to do more ‘monolithic world tour’ animations, and working with her huge creative team was exciting. Otherwise – all my projects! I love them all. They each remind me of what was going on in my life while making them: what was going wrong and right, what I didn’t know then that I know now, how one project led to something else…


For these reasons I don’t have a “favourite”: I’m still waiting to produce something that I think works perfectly and looks effortless. Ideally it will take the form of a short film.


CF: As sisters, how do you support each other in your artistic endeavours? Do you talk about your practice and work much?


Lucy: We talk about our practice, offer practical advice and sometimes aesthetic feedback. It’s useful to have a fresh pair of eyes take in your work. Molly and I know where each other is coming from, and while I don’t think it would be in either of our natures to say if we thought the other’s work was looking like rubbish, we can offer each other respectful and useful feedback. We’re nice to each other and supportive.


Molly: Yes, we often give each other advice and feedback, and we are always very excited to share our projects and progress with each other. Usually one of us can pick up on something the other one hadn’t noticed or thought about. So there is a lot of support.


CF: Have you worked together before – or thought about working together? If so, what project might you make together? What might – if I can call it – say, a ‘Dyson & Dyson’ exhibition look like here in Berlin?!


Lucy: No! I think we have considered it, but I think it’s also good that we are forging our own paths. I think it would be fun to collaborate with Molly on some collages and an animation.


I am intrigued by sibling collaborations, like The Beach Boys and animators The Brothers Quay. But I’m not sure Molly and I see it as a marketing angle that we would employ!


Sometimes it’s fun to not say anything and let people work out the sibling connection themselves, especially if they then ask who is older or younger…


Thank you Molly and Lucy for such an interesting interview, a generous, graceful shoot and the Saturday morning Vegemite on toast : )


* * *

  • Interviews: Lucy Dyson, Molly Dyson
  • Words/edit/photos: Megan Spencer
  • Visit: Lucy’s website to see her collages, videos and portfolio.
  • Visit: Molly’s website to her illustrations, projects and portfolio.
  • Follow: Lucy on Instagram
  • Follow: Molly on Instagram
  • Read an interview with Molly on Grilling Me Softly
  • Watch: Lucy’s music video for Bernard Fanning and her short Laika – Space Dog.
  • View: my full photo essay on SmugMug
  • Watch: this video by The Carpenters
  • Read: my interview with Australian collage artist Karen Lynch.

The Iceman Cometh: Cooperblack

Posted on April 3, 2017

The last time I interviewed Yuendemu-based musician Jeremy Conlon, he was about to release Return To The Big Eyes.


His ninth as Cooperblack – the “plug n’ play” personal music project he began in the 90s – EP ‘Big Eyes (2015) was an intimate journey through fat bass lines, intensely danceable beats and a relationship that had not long fallen through the ice…


Two years on, while the prolific musician, producer and composer’s heart has healed somewhat, his sense of reflection and musical exploration is as open and raw as ever.


2017 sees him back with No. 10, Capsule, a darker, sparser offering influenced as much by a second sojourn to Berlin as the soundscapes he discovered walking the icy climes of the northern hemisphere.


Working alone except for track ‘Suomenlinna’ (on which Finnish artist Heli Valkama plays piano), and the EP’s haunting cover photo (taken in the Paris catacombs by Zoe Curren), 6-track release Capsule sees Jeremy combine dark, synth-driven songs with “found sounds” he enthusiastically recorded underground and overground as Berlin and Helsinki sank deeper into their respective winters.


After returning home with his sonic ‘spoils’, the artist swiftly set about combining these brittle, frozen atmospheres with the music he’d been previously brewing under the hot tin roof of his Central Desert studio.


While Jeremy’s signature fat bass lines are still prominent – and his inimitable sense of playful lyricism –  the songs are tempered by a sense of spaciousness and patience not quite found in previous offerings.


The resulting Capsule is delicious, getting into that space just behind your eyes.


It’s a melancholic journey through sonic counterpoint, rhythm, poetic atmospheres and the scar tissue that comes with loss.

Jeremy Conlon is Cooperblack. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Circus Folk: What was your process for making Capsule?


Cooperblack: I have an archive of tracks, about 50 or so that are constantly buzzing away at some level of  ‘completeness’. Some of these were hauled from that, and some were new.


Overall there was no specific “process” for Capsule, except to sustain a feel and sound that keeps the tracks together as one release. That sound and feel is the ultimate decision maker.


CF: What inspired the name of this release?


CB: Perhaps a “capsule” as it is small and easy to swallow?!


I feel like it is a release that really looks back at influences and feelings I have for music, emotion and aesthetic.


I also think of it as a ‘time capsule’. When I was at primary school we kids filled a time capsule with drawings and stories. But no one could find it in the building in which it was placed – by the stairs in the 3 Level red brick building at Antonio Primary in Adelaide!


I think maybe it’s a “time capsule” – meaning really me, now, yeah, a ‘time stamp’ of what I am into right now.

“Lovely lilting vocals, whispering regrets over snappy drums and super synth leads”.

Capsule cover photo by Zoe Curren

CF: Did you always want to have “found sounds” on this record?


CB: Lately I have really gotten into stereo environment recordings. I love the random nature of listening to those in different places, and the same places in which they were recorded.


Such as: the accidental sounds that pop out and make you feel like someone is in a room with you, or there is a dog barking outside, a train coming, or just people talking. I love how even the smallest sample of a place or atmosphere can bring up emotion, or make connections that were not intended.


With Capsule, as it was coming together, I spent a fair bit of time on the U-Bahn [underground railway system] in Berlin, recording the sounds underground.


I have this fantasy that all the people wearing headphones on the U-Bahn might hear tracks on Capsule and stand up for the train with there being nothing there, or hearing people in the cavernous underground while they are alone.


So many people were wearing headphones and travelling on the trains in a disconnected sonic state, it surprised me! When I wore them I felt vulnerable.


CF: Did you have a preconceived idea of the kinds of sounds you wanted to incorporate into the music? Or was it more a matter of turn up in Berlin, and see what took your fancy when you got here?


CB: No, no preconceived ideas really: I just wanted to capture sounds that I might like to hear later.


The flags waving in the wind were very intense: I was cold at the time and there felt some urgency about watching flags being pulled by the wind… Ultimately the words in that song ‘And The Flags Will Fall’ are partially about how I feel about borders and nationalism.


The bells in ‘You’re So Sure’ fell into place and sounded right: it was only afterwards I found a connection between the topic of a ‘failed marriage’ and the church bells I recorded and included in that song.

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

CF: What do you enjoy about sound recording in the field?


CB: The immersive nature of sound, the striving for better quality recording, the relaxing (or not relaxing!) sounds that we may listen to for a length of time…


I find field recording like swimming – or flying as I often do in dreams, where I run, trip and take off!


CF: John Cage and Brian Eno are two of your musical influences: both of those artists also worked with “found sounds” and “accidents” in their music, as you do… Specifically, what or who influenced your choice to include soundscape as part of Capsule?

CB: I feel like the found sounds or extended samples give an individual feel and flavour to the release. I love artists who mash up found sounds with electronic sounds – Christian Vogel and Adam Lamb for example.


So making a dense background similar to a large black heavy curtain, that places the music somewhere apart from where you are. And the fact that loads of people wear headphones nowadays: I feel as if I want to creep some of ‘the outside’ back in!


I feel as if soundscapes and ‘real sounds’ mixed with music add a level of ‘confusion’ for the listener. It also sets a place that the music is happening and possibly being performed in.


CF: You live in what many Europeans might consider an “alien landscape”, in a desert area of the Northern Territory. Then you travelled to Helsinki, a place that many Australians might consider “alien” with its icy landscape! What was that trip to Finland like for you? And could you draw any parallels between where you live in the desert (Yuendumu) and the ice (Helsinki)?


CB: I visited a friend in Helsinki so it was great to see how she lives, her house, what she eats and all the things that make her Finnish… The cold was even more of a shock than Berlin: deep snow and silence.


It was easier for me to find live music happening in Helsinki than Berlin, as there seemed to be a fair few rock n’ roll or punk bars with bands and loud music. There was also a piano at my friend’s – the artist Heli Valkama’s house. We pulled it apart and made it a live and responsive machine, sensitive to a sneeze or cough. That was great.


One day was spent travelling to an old fort just outside of Helsinki called Suomenlinna. The journey there was on a ferry; the gearing and engine noise was very interesting. I set up my recorder and through the headphones I could hear this sound, like concrete being smashed. I had never heard this before. I looked out the ferry window and it was ploughing through a frozen ocean – fantastic. On returning to Heli’s house, I composed a piece for “2 Humans and 1 Piano” (myself, Heli and the responsive machine). This dark piano piece and the sounds of the ferry seem to sum up the day.


The colour of Finland is so white; the desert of Yuendumu is so red (though right at the moment it’s rather green from all the rain). I would love to visit Lapland in the north of Finland one day. So the found sounds may sound “wintery”, but perhaps not to everyone. For people who hear them first on Capsule, they may think they are something totally unrelated. I enjoyed laying them in the compositions and creating space for the songs to live in.


CF: When it came to making the music for Capsule, you kind of went ‘dark’. What is this EP inspired by in particular? What if any themes might be running through it, or emotions are you mining, especially with reference to sound and lyrics?


CB: Right up into the final weeks of finishing the release, I was still writing lyrics. I tend to scat or ad lib nonsense in a song and carve out meaning from what I may be hearing.


I am mining past emotions that I thought had disappeared many years ago; they are not necessarily my own, but of those close to me.


I am mining the need to be ‘present’ and real to myself, and others.


Some songs lyrics are deeply emotional for me (‘You’re So Sure’) and some are a really free form about me at that particular moment in time – how I am physically and mentally (for example ‘When I’m Gone’).


Lately I have been delving into The Cure’s back catalogue: I really appreciate the songwriting and production, namely the albums Disintegration and Faith. This has also been an inspiration.


CF: You’ve been fascinated with – and drawn to – Berlin, its culture and music for some time. Since when did it kind of come across your radar? Do you recall that moment? (I’m guessing it might have been through music?!)


CB: Yes, through music: a lot of the musicians I love and have been influenced by, have worked or lived in Berlin and Germany: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Kaftwerk, Nina Hagen, Planningtorock, to name just a few…


I really appreciate the way the city influences new electronic music by having so many places for electronic musicians and DJs to perform. Plus an awesome, receptive audience who appreciates it, as well as some great music labels based there.


Berlin feels as if it’s in a state of flux: a new city coming of age in an old city with an insane history. I have to stop travelling there in only winter though – I want to see the sunny side!


CF: You’ve been to Berlin twice: can you articulate why it is you are so attracted to the city and culture here, especially given that your most recent trip was spent working on your new EP in Berlin?


CB: I feel like with the second journey I looked closer at the people, met people outside of my great friends already there, and took a few more risks by being adventurous.


I also saw more poverty, more extremes of classes of people.


I looked at the history and variations of buildings, and got lost in the streets. For some reason I feel navigationally confident in Berlin; this in turn made me feel more creative.

Cooperblack is Jeremy Conlon. Photo: Megan Spencer (c) 2017

The many voices and many accents you listen to there make the soundscape in the city unique. I just find getting to know a city fascinating, and Berlin is a city that I have dreamed about getting to know since I listened to [David Bowie’s] Low as a teenager.


Berlin seems to ‘own’ artists too, and recognise their influence and importance to the artistic character of the place. I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of the Berlin I want to – and hope to – discover. I think visiting again in the spring or summer will change that a bit.


CF: In the music of Capsule, I really enjoyed hearing resonances of “Berlin” artists, from Depeche Mode and Lou Reed to David Bowie and Brian Eno. All of them worked in Berlin, were influenced by the city, and left their mark here. But you’re also a fan of many women musicians and artists, some of whom live and work in Berlin – or have. Can you tell us a bit about your “female canon” of artists, particularly the ones who have a Berlin or European connection? And also why you love their music?


CB: I find voice manipulation fascinating, and there are some great women producers who I love for that reason.


Planningtorock is based in Berlin, and her music is spacious, questioning and totally interesting. The Knife (and their offside projects) often perform in Berlin; I find them a great influence, for their sound, voice manipulation, their political stance on gender and social issues.


And Chinawoman is fantastic, once again for the same reasons as the other artists I mentioned. She also delves deep into relationships, and has a particularly awesome bass guitar sound that I melt over.


CF: Do you find making music a healing or therapeutic process?


CB: Totally therapeutic – and totally necessary! Music is a massive tool for me, a way to process and contextualize what is happening to me, and the world. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether anyone likes it, hears it or whatever… It’s what I need to do.


* * *


Many thanks to Jeremy Conlon for the interview!

  • Interview: Jeremy Conlon
  • Words/edit/photos: Megan Spencer
  • Listen/download Capsule on Bandcamp and iTunes
  • Visit: Cooperblack on Bandcamp.
  • Read the Circus Folk interview with Jeremy about Return To The Big Eyes and the essay about losing David Bowie.
  • View: the Cooperblack promo photos on SmugMug.
  • Note: Megan Spencer has been friends with Jeremy Conlon since 2008 and produced & directed Cooperblack’s ‘Salted’ music video.

Gang of Film Berlin

Posted on March 16, 2017

Ninety-nine films, four per day, one month on your butt and no end in sight…


Film festivals are fun. Invigorating. Inspiring. But it has to be said, they are also hazardous to your health – especially if you’re a film critic covering one of the biggest in the world.


Marathon swathes of time are spent away from sunlight. You spend so much time sitting in the dark you worry about turning into a vampire and getting deep vein thrombosis. Kind of insane when you think about it…


I was comprehensively reminded at the recent 2017 Berlinale, the above being the ‘statistical’ outcome from my own ’embedded’ experience there. I covered the festival for three Australian media outlets: ABC Local Radio (Overnights with Rod Quinn: 3 x sprawling chats and tons of fun); ABC Radio National (film program ‘The Final Cut‘ with Jason Di Rosso. Great to ‘talk festivals’ with possibly the last remaining cinephile on Australian radio); and Guardian Australia (a feature about compassionate, Australian-made game changer, Casting JonBenét.)


True, I got to see a gigantic, excellent swag of films (Competition selection aside, the Berlinale programmers excelled themselves in Panorama, Generation, Forum, Retrospective and Shorts). And, after a “hiatus”, to re-inhabit one of the great passions of my life: cinema.


But that wasn’t the best bit. I also got to meet some lovely folk. Lovely film critic folk.


They became my community.

It’s been a while ‘between drinks’ for me at Berlinale: twelve years to be precise. (Eleven really – last year I dipped a toe back in, covering genre-blending Aboriginal TV series ‘Cleverman’ for Guardian Australia. Directed by Wayne Blair, it world premiered in ‘Berlinale Special Series’.)


The first time I hit the ground running at Potsdamer Platz – sampling my first curry wurst in sub-zero icy climes – was in 2005.


I was a critic and presenter for Australian TV program, ‘The Movie Show’. I got lucky: it was the year The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was in Competition – a dream come true to interview not only Wes Anderson but Angelica Huston *swoon*. (She had a cold and I told her about echinacea).


Ken Loach was there with film ‘compendium’ Tickets. (We chatted atop the not-long-completed, highly contentious Renzo Piano glass triangle, “Potsdamer Platz 11“.) I interviewed George Michael (vale) at the Adlon Hotel about documentary George Michael: A Different Story. (He was super lovely. We talked about the “difficulties of being Cancerian”.) Plus it was the season of mighty films Paradise Now, Thumbsucker, Sophie Scholl and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, blitzing at the festival awards all.


Two talented Aboriginal Australian filmmakers were also recognised: Warwick Thornton’s Green Bush took home the Panorama Best Short Film prize, and Wayne Blair’s The Djarn Djarns won the Kplus Crystal Bear for the Best Short Film.


Both starting out in their careers, we met for the first time in Berlin.  I remember standing in the middle of the (then) AFC Festival party, the three of us a bit dazed and confused from jet lag and the crazy energy of the night. Desert-hued snowflakes sprinkled down outside the window, tinged by the Festspiele‘s orange lights shining on from the platz below. It was a bit special.


It was a bit special again when I interviewed Wayne at Berlinale 2016, now years on with a smash hit under his belt (The Sapphires), not to mention an LA agent. Grinning back at me, he thought so too.


To paraphrase an old Deutsch theologian, nothing like “the magic of beginnings”…


* * *

Too many hours in the dark.. L-R: Yun-hua Chen, David Mouriquand & Teresa Vena.

2017 rolls around. I’m living in Berlin. I’m still a freelancer. And when it comes to festivals, Berlinale’s one of the “big three”. I’d be silly not to cover it again, right? In my adopted home town? This is where I live. Doubts arise.


Can I still do this? Cover a festival? This isn’t what I do now – well not  often, anyway. Do I still love film enough to watch four movies – FOUR! – a day, and surrender my life to it for an entire month?


Moreover, does film still love me?


The answer – like most things as I’m learning – lay in ‘finding community’. Enter three sweet souls: firstly David Mouriquand, “half-French, half-English” he tells me within moments of meeting, which we do by chance on Day Two of the pre-festival press screenings, waiting in the cold outside of the big-arse multiplex where films are being previewed.


Asking “whether the doors are open yet”, I apologise for assuming he speaks English and not German. He tells me he doesn’t speak German “just French and English”. Oh yeah, “and Spanish”. Whereupon I blush with the shame of my Antipodean mono-lingual upbringing.


He writes for English-language Berlin pop-culture mag EXBERLINER, and is steeling himself to blog daily once the Festival begins (read tight turnarounds between snatched snacks and three daily Competition screenings.) Within seconds he offers up his love for Tom Waits and helpful advice on how to navigate this freaking behemoth of a Festival. I sigh audibly in relief and watch the breath from my lungs freeze mid-air.

Out on the streets: Ava Gardner & Gregory Peck, ‘On The Beach’ (1959).

Day Three and David introduces me to Yun-hua Chen. From Taiwan and Berlin-based, she speaks Chinese, German, French and English (possibly even some Greek), writes reviews in all four, and works for the Goethe Institute’s international critic program. She’s a hardcore cinephile. I quiver in admiration.

Day Four, and anticipating a massive dose of home-sickness, I see On The Beach (1959), a movie set in and around the beaches of Melbourne, my home town. The titular “beach” –  Canadian Bay on the Mornington Peninsula – and the suburbs in which many of its dramatic scenes play out, feel so close. This beach was one of the the places my parents swam, socialised and formed the narrative of their early life together, in their 20s.

It’s at Arsenal, the cinema for cinephiles. Covered in classic posters (Herzog’s 70s masterpiece Stroszek among them, original creasefolds still visible), I bump into Yun-hua. She  introduces me to Teresa Vena. Teresa’s Swiss, speaks German, English and French (and most-probably Italian.) She writes in all three, and for online magazine Berliner Filmfestivals. I wind up seeing snippets of her reviews on my daily U-Bahn ride to and from the Festival. Playing to the sleep-deprived commuters, they cyclically flash onto the TV screens inside the crowded train carriages.


Teresa spots me after On The Beach: I’m a teary mess. Not just because I’ve just seen my home town (and the beaches where I grew up) rendered empty and soulless by an eerily-imagined atomic apocalypse, but grief has reared its familiar head. The fifth anniversary of my Mum’s passing was only days before. The sadness is still near. The film returns to me a memory of hers: the time she got to shake the hand of Gregory Peck when he was shooting the film in situ. It was the year before she and Dad married and she was working at the city’s iconic department store, Myer. The actor was paraded through the grand building as a token of goodwill towards the city of Melbourne for being so “hospitable” to the production (and it was.) So the story goes, the “ladies of the office”, of whom she was one, lined up to meet the 40-something Hollywood star.


Mum also proudly told me that one of her girlfriends was an extra at Canadian Bay, for the key scene where Ava Gardner and Peck get their romance on. It prompted one of the film’s best lines, uttered by Fred Astaire, who, watching the lovers cavort in the water with binoculars from the shore, declares “It’s like looking at a French movie!”


No matter: I think Teresa was impressed that I could feel so much in a movie. In a world that shuns vulnerability, perhaps that’s the currency cinephiles share, and value: an appreciation for the possibility of being moved to tears in the communal privacy of a darkened cinema.


Deeply inspired by film and energised at the prospect of Berlinale starting – I’d found my people. A Whats App group formed. So did this “gang of film”. With three weeks of previews over, we saddled up and rode into the sunset of the Festival proper: ten days including Competition.

Still from ‘Skins’ by Eduardo Casanova.

A month after meeting, the four of us emerge from the dark. We’ve spent countless hours together, watching countless films – also working, sharing stories, information and snacks, celeb spotting and ‘communing’ at screenings, a few parties, nightly knock-off drinks, and press conferences.


This caravan of critics attracts others. The community ebbs and flows as does the icy weather and occasional sunshine. We laugh stacks, argue kindly and listen deeply.


I’m astonished such a disparate group of people can share so much, so quickly. I’m not used to groups being so functional. Especially not in ‘the workplace’. At odds with today’s competitive click-bait eco-system, these were folk who took themselves lightly but the responsibility of reviewing films seriously. A dying breed.


Between the four of us we see close to five hundred films. Expats all, the  diversity of opinions is as fascinating as it is instructive. Listening to Yun-hua’s perspective on the Taiwanese and Chinese films was illuminating, especially around the nuances involved in the narratives (The Foolish Bird, Mr. Long, Almost Heaven, A Taste of Betel Nut.) Teresa takes no prisoners when it comes to attacking the cliched tropes of French cinema (see Strange Birds, Final Portrait), and recalling the ‘best of British’, David’s merciless take down of conceits, Return To Montauk and The Dinner, was nothing short of hilarious.


The culture of consensus – and nepotism – that so often riddles Australian criticism is mercifully absent. Taste-pusher Skins divides us. So does Golden Bear Winner On Body And Soul, and out-of-competition studio entry Logan, its central ten year-old ‘killing machine’ character racking up double-figures in grisly, bloody kills.


It’s the first time I really feel ‘close’ to European cinema, in all of its complicated, ancient, fraught, sprawling, borderless glory, now somehow less distant, less ‘other’. I kind of get it now. I have Berlin, Berlinale and the Gang Of Film to thank.


* * *

The last film I see at Berlinale is a lavish, big-budget popcorn flick, as happily high-camp as it is high-action. On the advice of David (thank you) I watch The Fifth Element (1997) on a massive screen with a massive sound system. It was so pleasurable: a great way to finish what had been, frankly, a marathon that had deprived me of the natural world, and the company of loved ones who I’m sure believed I’d joined witness protection.


Jammed into a packed cinema with five hundred ‘civilians’, intoxicated by its excesses, aesthetics and craziness, together we giggled, marveled and swooned as one giant hive-mind, happily under the influence of 1990s Luc Besson. He was so on fire with that film.


I was moved to tears again, this time feeling a palpable sense of community, as we sat there, strangers, connected by such an intense experience and not wanting the credits to end.


Either that, or Chris Tucker made me cry from laughing so much. He’s sooo funny (and “Lovesexy” in TFE). All hail.

‘Chris Tucker does Prince’. Still from ‘The Fifth Element’.

So. I ask the Gang Of Film if they’d like to commemorate our Berlinale ‘moment’ by making a podcast. So that we can ruminate over the great art we got to appreciate, consider, and write about – Top Tens. Bests. Worsts. Parties. Awards. And argue – especially over whether a) Aki Kaurismaki was in fact drunk when he won the Silver Bear for Best Director, b) His film The Other Side Of Hope was sorely ripped off by not winning the Golden Bear for Best Film, and c) The national drink of Finland is in fact Lakka or Mesimarja.


They say yes.


A quote to end this rant, by the aforementioned Herra Kaurismaki, one of Europe’s greatest filmmakers, chain smokers, lovers of Lakka and and riotous destroyers of vapid award ceremonies:


“When I was young, I would sit in the bath and ideas would come to me. But I’m not young any more, so now I just sit in the bath.”


* * *

  • Read: David Mouriquand‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Read: Yun-hua Chen‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Read: Teresa Vena‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Read: Megan Spencer‘s Top Ten Best Films from Berlinale 2017
  • Listen: to the Gang Of Film podcast
  • View: my Berlinale ‘Awards’ gallery
  • Big thanks to the others who saddled up: Paul, Mohamed, Sarah, Stephanie, Wellington, Susanne and Nathaneal.
  • And to the helpful team at Berlinale.