THE BABYFREEZE FAN CRUISE OF LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN
LUKE: I’m in my car, listening to Charles Bradley sing Slow Love, circling the empty National Museum Of Australia carpark. Lost. It’s just after seven and the sun set over an hour ago. I’m looking for the Pirate Party Boat, whose website prominently lists ‘showboat girls’, ‘party strippers’, and pole dancing competitions, but doesn’t give clear directions to its location. On my third lap, I see it. Not the boat exactly, or not fully. Just a string of coloured lights, maybe three hundred metres away, behind a small hill. I follow the carpark around and discover a second road, one I hadn’t noticed in the dark. Now I’m past the hill and the boat comes into view. It’s ringed by chain mesh fencing, covered in even more lights, a split-level shack on water. The lights twist and blaze in garish nightclub patterns, but aside from the hum of the boat’s motor, it’s eerily quiet.
Exiting the car, I walk across to the gangplank, where four men stand at the entrance to the boat, smoking and talking. I’m dressed, somewhat self-consciously in this moment, in ersatz homage to Glenn Hughes, the biker from the Village People. A black vinyl peaked cap, aviator sunglasses, beard and coiffured moustache, black studded fingerless gloves, a black shirt with white piping. My one intentional deviation is that I’m wearing shorts, exposing dress boots with pink socks. Black swans wade in the water alongside the gangplank, incongruous in the artificial lighting. The light is so bright that it’s possible to see fat-bellied carp circling beneath them. I give the men a curt nod and step aboard. The next four hours are a blur.
The boat has been hired to do two cruises of the lake, but there won’t be any strippers on board tonight. Instead, I’m here for the Babyfreeze Fan Cruise Of Lake Burley Griffin, presented by You Are Here.
The night is Nick’s baby – the punchline of some post-2am riffing, mid-drink or mid-kebab, which got a hearty laugh from everyone present, and then was promptly forgotten. Or so I imagine. Except Nick didn’t forget – he’s periodically mentioned it for the last 12 months – each time I nod and say, ‘yup, sounds brilliant!’, not expecting it to go any further. And now here I am, loading my amp and drum machine onto a boat, blowing up dozens of pink and black balloons, handing out egg shakers and tin whistles to the rest of the band.
Of course, I’d heard about the type of celebrity cruise that Nick set out to satirise. I even know someone who went on the Backstreet Boys cruise, paying extra for photo opportunities and to attend dance classes with Brian Littrell’s wife. I laughed along with the rest of the internet when I read Wes Borland was dreading reuniting with Limp Bizkit to perform on one. The whole pay-to-meet-a-celebrity experience, whether on water or land, can only be shallow and unsatisfying, the extravagant cost creating a cognitive dissonance that alone convinces people it was worthwhile (‘Of course I had a good time – it cost thousands of dollars!’). It reinforces and then exploits fake boundaries between ‘celebrity’ and ‘fan’ – besides which, anyone that charges money to have a photo taken with them is a douchebag (and doubtfully in the bloom of their career). The reality of an actual celebrity cruise is more ridiculous than any parody we could conceive, but we wanted to comedically lean in to those celebrity tropes of narcissism, entitlement, and lack of self-awareness. Slathered over all that is an icky layer of commerce, and so we prepped our audience with a five page mailout I wrote, sent to each ticket holder, riddled with unnecessary stipulations and cod-contract language. An example:
SS BABYFREEZE is fitted with four life rafts (henceforth referred to as the ESCAPE PODS) – the Escape Pods are also for the exclusive use of the band . In the event of a life-threatening situation (e.g. fire, pirates, sinking/capsizing, leviathan sighting), audience members are invited to assist the band in entering their Escape Pods and launching them to an appropriate safe distance (please note, this level of access is only available for our premium members – refer below to ensure you don’t miss out!).
There was additional irony to our event – the cost of hiring the boat was so high, and our ticket price so low, that Nick (as financier of the whole she-bang) actually lost money, despite demand necessitating we put on an additional cruise. Let that sink in – we are a double sellout and still in the red.
I don’t get to see much of the ship, none of the outside areas or the upper deck. The lower deck, where we play, is a little larger than my living room – however, my living room doesn’t have a stripper pole in the middle. There are enough party lights for a dozen school discos, already spinning and whirring while we load in and set up. With the exception of Bevan Noble, every sound guy at every venue we’ve played never turns the drum machine up loud enough. They just don’t get it, view it as some rinky-dink effect we layer over the top, when the opposite is true – everything else is embellishment. It is our drummer and our bassist, so naturally (obviously), it has to be as loud as if there were two other musicians onstage with a drum kit and a Mesa Boogie stack. Every time we play we have to cajole the sound guy into getting the drum machine level up to 70% of where we would like, in the front of house and the foldback. But tonight, there is no sound guy, and the room is tiny, and Grahame and I crank the shit out of the PA, and we get it loud, and we turn it up some more, and it sounds like it should, and it’s amazing.
We’re more a four-piece than a duo at present, Grahame and Chris integral members (we were also lucky to have Julia as guest vocalist slash hype-woman). Having the groove locked in by the drum machine allows Grahame and Chris an incredible level of freedom and plays to their strengths. Essentially, they can play as much or as little as they like – Grahame in particular is freed from the drummer’s curse of having to keep the beat and can stop and start, try things out on the fly. I know Chris likes to woodshed parts but he is an incredible improviser – tonight in a bravura display of taste and stamina, he effectively solos for three hours – and unlike most guitarists, it never descends into ‘noodling’, every note he plays is in service to the songs, and as we stretch the tracks out, his playing rises and falls like a DJ set (I’m reminded of the fact his favourite band is The Chemical Brothers). The same freedom is afforded to Nick and I and we often ad-lib and make up new backing vocals as they occur to us – a lot of bands have this sense of ‘play’ in rehearsal but few carry it onto the stage, and I think the combination of the structure provided by the drum machine, with the looseness of the rest of the performance, gives us an exciting friction to work against (it also doesn’t hurt that most of us are hams. Tonight we dress like a Funkadelic tribute. Nick wears a fur coat sans shirt, Julia has a crop top and angular blazer combo, and Grahame outshines us all, a very short skirt exposing a leather codpiece and g-string whenever he sits at his kit).
Our latest run of gigs has been spectacular – we’ve performed with a string section in an art gallery, and counted down New Year’s Eve at Smiths Alternative. People take less and less time to warm up to us, and tonight they are up and dancing from the off (technical difficulties mean our first lot of passengers are left waiting in the rain for ten minutes before they can board, so maybe their dancing is less exuberance at hearing us play and more about getting their body temperature back up. Either way, I’ll take it). We open with Water Is No Liar, our danciest track, and don’t let up from there. I am not gig-fit, having not played live in over three months while adjusting to life with a newborn – my plan is thusly to pace myself, hold a little back from the first show so I can last the night. Of course, I fail miserably – the energy in the room is infectious and the band clicks better than ever – we have them in the palm of our hand and can do no wrong. Most of the time I forget we are on a boat – I miss the moment we depart and it’s a few songs in before I look out the windows to see we are moving. I’m on a high the entire time, the night feeling like a victory lap.
At some point, there’s a drum-off between myself and Grahame. In rehearsal last year I discovered a cheesy Latin preset on the drum machine. I play it all the time between songs at rehearsal – it was funny at first, then annoying, then funny again. It’s become a band in-joke and I trot it out at gigs as well, mostly to get a rise out of Grahame (when I couldn’t play our Fringe Festival gig, I pre-recorded all my parts, including that intro at a random moment). Grahame now replicates it whenever I play it, us doing a noisy call and response while the rest of the band patiently waits. This culminates tonight with a deliberately awkward drum-off where I hit play and stop on the drum machine and Grahame responds. I can’t tell if the audience gets it or not, but we have a good time – unbeknownst to Grahame, I spent an hour earlier in the week programming Salt’N’Pepa’s Push It into the drum machine and I trigger it at the end, Nick declaring me the ‘winner’.
Now it’s not just Nick and I, in-jokes have become an increasing part of the band. At our NYE gig, we found a box of percussion and whistles backstage at Smiths. We used these to add obnoxious intros to most of our tracks. Tonight, we have tin whistles and egg shakers I bought especially for this purpose. Not only do we play them between each song, but sometimes during – they sound awful, and again, I have no idea what an audience makes of it (I don’t even understand why I find it so funny myself – part of it seems to be about deflating the preciousness of our own songs, part of it having a dig at musicians that get proggy and pretentious and add ‘exotic’ instruments to their sound; a lot of it is just joy found in acting goofy).
We get to Tattoo Shop, our penultimate number, and I shred my voice in a succession of rebel yells, waving a mic stand and stomping around the pole (the size of the room means we play in the round, the centre acting like a moshpit circle). We close with a particularly energetic rendition of Mess Up The Kids, and I am utterly spent… in ten minutes time, we do it all over again for another audience.
It’s one of the top five gigs I’ve ever played.
NICK: I’m just gonna give you my top ten moments:
- The second the first song is finished I announce that ultra-exclusive Premium Black Level Fan Passes are available for $5 cash. The Passes are pieces of coloured cardboard on lanyards that Julia has drawn on with cheap texta. Crowd members surge forward and throw cash at me. The texta leaks onto their nice shirts as they dance.
- Julia ‘Massive’ Johnson takes command of the crowd and guides them through the dirty business of taking selfies with the members of Babyfreeze. Julia, who had no rehearsal or prep for her HypePerson role other than a quick chat at the You Are Here Festival hub space, is a force of nature the whole night, owning whatever absurd role we throw at her in the moment.
- My usual stick of repeatedly throwing myself at the ground during Luke’s rendition of Worked Up culminates in me blindly leaping at the stripper pole and sliding down the length of it upside down. Miraculously this presents as a deliberate and poised move.
- The winner of the Babyfreeze One Question Fan Quiz claims her prize- a song-length date with Trendoid, AKA Graham slow-dancing in a codpiece.
- My abstract running gag of referring bitterly to Chris’ romantic prowess culminates in me having a breakdown in front of the audience. I then use the full 6 minutes of ballad that is Defenceless to work through my existential angst, the crowd touching me lightly on the face and hair. I embrace Chris at the climax of the song, his beautifully underplayed reactions throughout remind me that he’s the only actual actor in the band.
- The incredible You Are Here staff members and volunteers guide the first of our two audiences and welcome the second one in an impossibly tight five minutes, thus allowing us to not go over time and cost me an extra $400. Extra-special shout-out to our Babyfreeze Fan Cruise Director for her oratory and crowd management skills.
- Our second audience, far less experienced with Babyfreeze than the first, have me curious as to whether they’ll succumb to the spirit until the moment they produce a birthday cake for a Birthday Girl among them. This gives us a golden opportunity for a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday, Babyfreeze Fan’.
- The second version of my Breakdown creates an even more awkward feeling in the room than the last, only broken when the aforementioned Birthday Girl cries out for us to make up. Ever the opportunistic hack, I lead the crowd in a fully-blown pantomime in which they convince me that I’m truly as great as I believe myself to be and must soldier on with the ultimate fan experience.
- Christmas Number One, the official Babyfreeze Christmas Song, has the crowd dancing gleefully when I finally take a moment to look out the window. Shit. We’re really on a boat.
- Man this one was really what I wanted it to be.Photos provided by You Are Here Festival.