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MUSIC

Oh wow, I found a 2016 blog entry I wrote but forget to post! This concerns the EP In A Day 3 sequence, what ultimately became the grant-winning, NFSA-showcasing (and increasingly ambitious) This Band Will Self-Destruct.

Presented below for your immediate pleasure:

I said to Nick the other day – half-joking – these sessions have started to feel like The Five Obstructions, except we are now onto obstructions 13 through 20. There’s only so many ways to make a music video out of an in-studio band performance. To counter this, we’ve spent more time ahead of filming generating ideas to differentiate each song. In the first Ep In A Day, all the songs were filmed with an identical camera set-up; the challenge was making each unique via editing and post-production tricks. In EP In A Day 2, I went in with specific ideas about filming/framing each song differently – for instance, I knew I wanted to film only close-ups of each performer’s face in My Own Little Girl, and I wanted a single take for Song To Be Played In The Event Of My Death.

For EP In A Day 3, the point of difference is wardrobe, set design and lighting.  Nick engaged the services of Imogen Keen, one of Canberra’s best and most in-demand stage designers. I came in with some strong ideas, and over several meetings between the three of us, we hashed out four different set-ups.

At a You Are Here meeting a couple of years ago, someone said they always throw out their first idea because it’s invariably terrible or lazy. However, I remain a firm advocate in the adage ‘first thought, best thought’. Lightbulbs is testament –  literally, I had Nick hold a lightbulb. It’s not without precedent – I love concert footage of Tom Waits with a similar apparatus to what we used.

The remaining band is filmed (and lit) by a roving spotlight attached to the camera.  The song is lyric-heavy, and Imogen struck upon the idea to highlight the words – these hang in cut-up segments strung above the performer’s heads – a point of interest in the inky darkness. The band is in white, providing a unity and simplicity to the set-up  – it also helps them stand out against the background.

My one concern at the outset was length – at nearly eight minutes, I worried the lighting gambit wouldn’t be enough. Thankfully, Nick is an increasingly magnetic screen presence – the clip leans on his ability to deliver the song direct to camera.

My Captain Obvious tendencies also resulted in a warmer/brighter light each time Nick sung ‘sun’ (get it?). Aside from the lyrical connection, it gave needed variation to the palette.  Some makeshift strobe lighting at the end complemented the rhythmic change in the outro, serving as a adrenaline hit (and recalling the lighting in numerous metal videos).

When coming up with ideas for music videos, my process is to listen to the song a few times, writing ideas as they come. Most are junk, but rough diamonds always emerge. Typically, I get one strong visual, and then build outwards. In Lightbulbs, it was Nick holding the bulb to his face. In this case, I saw the band looking towards a camera above, spinning as if in a Busby Berkeley sequence.

It didn’t make it into the clip, but something Technicolor and Busby Berkeley inspired (albeit on a Playschool budget) was the genesis for this bright and camp video. The set design is an abstraction on an under-the-water theme – the blue balloons are the ocean, the green netting is seaweed, the pink metallic streamers are… I don’t know, coral? I don’t know if it’s because the song is the most up-tempo of the group, or if it’s because it was the last performance of the day, but the excitement and energy of the band is palpable. The last things we filmed were the band goofing around – this included everyone swapping instruments and miming along.  A special shout-out to drummer/bandleader Grahame Thompson for his fully committed lead singer performance – probably the funniest moment in a day full of them. One day the footage of that incendiary performance will emerge (slash be leaked by me) and leave all lesser front-persons running for their mothers.

My other idea for this clip – and one of my favourite things I’ve filmed – is a mimed story about a relationship played out through the studio window. I still can’t believe how well this worked out – in most art-making you aim bigger than you need, knowing you will fall short. This is the rare occurrence where reality exceeded my expectations – all credit should go to the performers Aaron Kirby and Fiona McLeod (and to Nick for casting them). I explained the concept to Aaron and Fi and then they invented their own routine, far funnier and personal than what I envisioned. It’s a mid-video Easter Egg and I love how it is not referenced or explained in any way – just a slice of vaudeville sandwiched into a live performance.

Talking with Imogen and Nick in our pre-production meetings, our most elaborate ideas were reserved for this clip. I remember looking over my notes and having a panic attack – if we’d proceeded with what we had in mind, this clip would have taken all day to shoot.

Essentially, our raft of visual ideas needed set-up and filming independent of the actual song recording. In many ways, this is the natural progression for the series (the closer the sessions move to full-blown music videos, the happier I am – it’s more my wheelhouse than documenting live performance). In other ways, it’s a digression (and a distraction) from the central premise of the project.

However, removed from these philosophical concerns, it remained unfeasible to add more set-ups to what would already be our longest and most exhausting EP In A Day yet. We did keep the coolest one though – the idea of opening on a wound bleeding through a shirt. Imogen came up with the apparatus (and brought the blood) – however, in testing we used up two of our three white t-shirts. We got the shot on our third and last try, but I think our second attempt looked better on film. Unfortunately, the second attempt was with cameraman/stand-in Shane Parsons wearing the shirt – this meant I couldn’t use it for the opening, but I did end up using it (reversed) in the closing of the clip.

Another high-minded idea was an overarching throughline across all four videos. Eyelash opens the sequence with the band waking up, beginning in a seated/static position, and with a desaturated palette. Deadly Game Of Cat & Mouse is the last video – thus we start with the least animated and conclude with the most animated (emphasis on animated, DGOC&M being the most cartoonish). We don’t integrate this throughline as successfully in the other videos but I like that we were thinking of these things, and it’s something I want to explore further in other sessions (and other projects).

When I heard we had a set designer, this was one of the first ideas I had – to dress two different spaces and have Nick perform in one and the band in the other, only revealing at the end they are performing next to each other. The rest built from ideas Nick and Imogen had about making one space warm and earthy, the other cool and silvery. Nick performs a series of costume changes while singing the song, which also must have come from him or Imogen – while Nick always rises to these challenges, it’s a big ask for a performer and not one I’d be inclined to suggest.

On the day, camera maverick Shane Parsons had the idea to film Nick’s section in portrait. It’s a novel (and cool) idea which also serves to further differentiate the two segments. Filmmakers rarely monkey with aspect ratios and split-screens (especially during a piece) – I think part of this is that it dates a film to a specific era. Knowing this, and still using it for aesthetic effect, is increasingly in vogue – Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the recent (and most successful) examples. More and more music videos are tinkering with framing (particularly portrait vs. landscape, noting their audience use smartphones to watch their content). Recent great videos from Chance The RapperPusha T, and Charli XCX all shirk from using the entire widescreen/landscape frame available to them. For Going Home, I wanted to treat the frame similarly – to not feel obliged to fill it up entirely and to mess with people’s expectations around size and spatial relationships.

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SF 1

I describe Chenoeh Miller’s Sound and Fury parties as the sort of parties that a classic Bond Villain would throw. Lurid colours, pockets of performance firing off in every corner of the space, in and around the crowd, and an abiding sense that you’ve stumbled into a scene from some larger, life-and-death sequence in the lives of the performers.SF 3

I’ve been performing in the Sound and Fury Ensemble for I guess three years now. For me it’s a mix of out-of-the-comfort-zone (being part of full-blown production-number dance items alongside a group of actual highly-trained dancers) and fantasy self-indulgence (straight up pop ballad singing in an array of garish outfits). Chen and the rest of the ensemble are among my favourite people I’ve ever worked with, and the busyness of all our lives means that the normally once-a-quarter instances of Sound and Fury tend to rush by in a blitz of last minute rehearsals and frantically-rigged sound cues.

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That was until a few weeks ago, when S@F did more nights of performance in the space of a week than we normally do in a year. Five nights at New Zealand Fringe, comprising four 3-hour parties and one 5-hour party. My first tour as a performer in an ensemble rather than as a performer/writer/Producer and yes it was straight up my fantasy of Performance Art Sleep-Away Camp come true.SF 5

I got to sing some of my favourite ever weepie anthems- Nothing Compares To You, It’s A Heartache, Heart-Shaped Box- and leap around like a madman to our resident DJ/best DJ living Dead DJ Joke. I got to have my first experience of roving performance/space filling performance that I could actually enjoy (it’s not my skill set but being part of the shock and awe factor of a 10-person ensemble is defs the way to do it). Most of all I got to indulge my love doing of Long, Extended, Physical performances. Like seriously, doing physically challenging stuff for ages in front of an audience is so my thing. So so my thing.

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Venus 1

When Mayor Of The Canberra Arts Scene Venus Mantrap invites you to be her second banana for a 2-hour performance at the National Gallery of Australia, launching and taking aesthetic cues from the David Hockney exhibition, you say ‘How High?’.

Lip-synching, even just back-up lip-synching, alongside Canberra’s greatest drag performer was a daunting challenge, but the fact that every song Venus programmed is one etched into the fibres of my heart (yes there was more than one B-52s track) made it easy to dive right in.

It was so so fun learning into the sidekick/bit-of-stuff-on-the-side role, and if I do say so myself Venus and I had an easy chemistry that the crowd loved. I really really want to do it again.

I decided this year to learn the drums. The idea’s been burning in the back of my head for a little while. It’s likely the confluence of a few thoughts – I’ve always imagined Violet’s first instrument as the drums and want to be able to teach her. Also, I’ve programmed so many drum patterns over the last couple of years that playing an actual kit feels like the next step to up-skill my arsenal. When Lou suggested we convert our junk-filled garage into a rumpus room, the carrot she dangled was there’d be space for drums. And now there is! 20180410_193738.jpg

One of the amazing things about learning an instrument (or any new skill) is how you notice and appreciate things you never did before. I’ve played with some amazing drummers but never considered the extraordinary coordination and dexterity they possess. I’m going to gigs and just watching the drummer. Songs I’ve loved for years I hear with new ears.

I’ve been taking lessons for the last couple of months and loving it. In another six months or so, I hope to have worked up my technique and speed to start playing with others – Lou, Nick and I have already discussed a live version of Lulu & The Tantrums!

 It sounds like a radio station in GTA” – Catherine James on Return To Lion’s Mansion.

 lion's mansion cover

 I completed my second mixtape Return To Lion’s Mansion two days before Christmas. As I’ve written about, my plan was to go old-school and build it around samples ripped from records I brought back from crate-digging across Japan.

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I’d been casually listening to my haul since returning, but I spent a super-fun day sitting by my record player sampling any open notes and fills, along with anything that sounded like a potential loop. The records comprised Brazilian music of the 60s and 70s (four albums), soul (five albums), hip hop (2 EPs), spoken word, Japanese film music, 70s soft rock, 80s dancehall (one album a piece),  and one stunningly misguided blackface Japanese doo-wop group, The Chanels.

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I had learnt a lot doing the previous mixtape and found this one much easier to put together. I pushed myself to make the beats longer and to add more variety. In the last mixtape, I often only looped a section and added some drums (which was hard enough to get right when I started!). This timeI tried my hand at more modern sample integration – in most cases the sample is heavily filtered and/or chopped, plus I’ve added a lot more instrumentation – chords, basslines, sound effects – as well as using contemporary drum sounds and rhythms. To my ears, the beats hold up a lot more on their own than the first tape, with less reliance on mash-up novelty and a greater variety of arrangements.

 In some instances, the sample only formed a very small part of the overall track – for instance, the final (hidden) track only has a few Biz Markie utterances floating over the top – with me playing guitar and Rhodes as the backbone of the track. Magnolia Shade just has some micro-chopped wordless vocals turned into a quasi-bassline.

Several of the last mixtape’s mashups were happy accidents – I made more of an effort this time to think of which vocalist might best complement each track. For instance, when I discovered the song that forms the basis for Capoeira on a 1967 Brazilian LP, it just screamed Wu-Tang to me. I added verses from separate Inspectah Deck and U-God songs, plus some ad-libs from Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Honestly, it sounds more Wu than their last couple of albums!

There’s also several interstitial pieces – some were deliberated created as such, others were beats I dug but not enough to turn into a fully-fledged song. My fave is the thirty seconds or so of JLo and Ja Rule singing over Yellowman’s interpretation of the ubiquitous Sleng Teng rhythm.

The last mixtape had an emphasis on garage rock – this one is indebted to Central and South America. Not only are samples sourced from four different Brazilian LPs, but scattered throughout are verses by rappers B-Real, Daddy Yankee and Pitbull. I also discovered this amazing record in Kyoto – How To Speak Hip – which I didn’t buy upon first seeing it, but after listening to some tracks on Youtube that night, I had to return the next day. It’s a satire on beatniks masquerading as a self-help audiobook, delivered seriously and all the more hilarious for it – I used samples of it across the mixtape as a sonic glue.

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 The cover is so good I’m going to show it again:

lion's mansion cover 

I’d been listening to several Awesome Tapes From Africa and wanted to imitate some of their art brut graphic design. The image is utterly perfect (and the first thing that appears when googling ‘house shaped like lion’). Amazingly, it’s a real place –  a hotel in Senegal.

Return From Lion’s Mansion has scratched my itch for mixtapes at present – making more feels like folly when I now have a surplus of beats that need a home. I’ve earmarked some for upcoming Babyfreeze projects but I would love to get some out to other rappers and hear what they come up with.

Listen here.

 

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As I’ve spent the last few years sliding and stumbling into the role of (coughs, gags) Interdisciplinary Artist, Newcastle’s Crack Theatre Festival has been an invaluably reckless enabler of my stuff. It’s a festival that presents unfinished and still-developing work to a engaged, savvy and generous audience. I hadn’t taken anything to Crack since launching Bomb Collar in a storeroom full of empty boxes and pigeon feathers (still the most correctly suited venue I’ve ever had for a work) in 2014.

I remember being nervous ahead of that one but it was nothing compared to this year. I feel more pressure to get Single Leg right than with anything I’ve ever created, just because of the sense that I’m repping wrestlers and the world of wrestling while not being the best wrestler myself. The Crack production team were amazing (sourcing a combat-sports-enabled venue in the centre of Newcastle was no mean feat but they achieved it through bloodhound-like tenacity) but sourcing participants in a town that has no specific wrestling scene was a down-to-the-wire nailbiter and there was basically no possibility of anything as fancy as a rehearsal before the show.

Instead Team Single Leg (Co-Devisor Rachel Roberts, Producer Skye Kunstelj and me) did as much combing over the script (which is largely just a performance model as the idea is for my interaction with the wrestlers to unfold spontaneously) as we could, trying to make sure the ideas were tight and clear.

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In the end the show was largely defined by my participating wrestlers:

-Mark Howe, a good friend from Club ACT who agreed to travel with me and do the show at one week’s notice. Mark is a loquacious Man Of Letters who shares my obnoxiously cerebral approach to the sport, and also happens to be twice my size. Mark’s unguarded and dry observations about the psychology of combat sport were a hit with the audience, as was the brutal spectacle of me getting crushed beneath his leg sprawl.

-Jye Milton, a purple belt in Brazilian Ju Jitsu from the Newcastle area. I only met Jye in person 30 minutes before the show, which was purely a function of necessity but added something truly potent to the set-up. The audience fell completely in love with Jye, his earnest drive to represent his sport well (BJJ is both very similar and very different to wrestling, which added an extra expositional challenge to this iteration of the show) was matched with the natural flair for holding a room common to martial arts instructors.

-Luke Beston, Jye’s teacher and a BJJ black belt of some 25 years experience. Luke took over from Jye for the second of our two performances and was a similar hit with the crowd, projecting a craft-loving humility alongside a deep deep well of experience and skill.

I was the smallest of the four wrestlers by a fair few kilos, so the ‘underdog in the sport’ aspects of the narrative took no effort to sell (though I still managed to score here and there in the live-for-real-wrestling bits). As nervous as I was before both shows (the narratives’ recurring focus on my injury history had my paranoia about getting hurt sky-high-through-the-roof), once I was in the moment my instincts to care for and curate the experience of my participants took over and the whole thing whooshed by quite smoothly.

Which was good and bad. The show went over great with the audiences, who were made up equally of Crack crowd and Jye/Luke’s friend-and-family. Judging from the audience survey that Rachel ran they found it to be a warm, fun experience that made them feel well-educated about the subject matter. Many of them also seemed to relate the themes and ideas back to their own lives which is a key goal of the show. The form of the show is sound and the right form, we can proceed confidently from where we are.

BUT, warm fun and diverting is not gonna cut it. In my instinctual drive to care for my participants I defaulted to my Endlessly Positive Coach persona, even when demonstrating the depths of my failure and frustration. That can’t be enough. I need to be moving towards complete vulnerability, complete breakdown, my guts strung out on the floor. I need to make a space where my participants can feel free to be vulnerable, and more importantly to pounce on and exploit my vulnerability in a way that reflects the nature of athletic competition. Balancing that with the duty of care inherent in the premise will be the centre of the next development of Single Leg.single-leg-crack17-2-51

Still, we got through two super-physical shows unscathed so that’s enough for one festival right? Definitively yes, but since I’m a complete idiot…

That’s right, the third day of the festival Claire ‘The Dervish’ Granata and I zipped up our leotards and graced the people of Newcastle with the latest edition of our three hour fitness-industry-roasting live aerobics telethon Aerobicide: Feel Better. Our first daytime foray into this show, the chief highlight was the two of us dealing with the weather conditions by spontaneously incorporating a constant butoh-slow application of sunscreen into the choreography.

Crack is many things, but most importantly it’s a theatre festival that takes place at the seaside, essentially right on the beach. Never more important that when you finish three hours of non-stop heavy-costume-based physical performance. I’m asking for the ocean to be included as my primary artist support need in all of my festival applications from now on.