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Nicky DI

So I long ago gave up on the idea that I was ever gonna learn to play an instrument properly. I’ve gotten a good singing voice together through pure attrition, and collaboration and co-writing is my whole thing anyway, plus I’m lazy and I don’t care who knows.

But like I’m still hammy enough to want to do solo sets sometimes, and I get asked to sometimes. So that’s been a thing to work out.

The This Band Will Self-Destruct songs are maybe my favorite I’ve ever written (along with my co-writers of course) but the militancy of the band-that-only-exists-for-a-day format posed the question of how I’ll ever get to sing them live.

Cut to- Me on stage at the Phoenix, singing along to backing tracks on my phone that are just the live Self-Destruct tracks with my vocals removed to as much of a degree as Sam ‘producer of modern music’ King could remove them.

The Blade Winner was the first artist I saw do the Yes-I’m-Just-Singing-Along-To-My-Phone-And-BTW-You-Love-It thing. He’s since moved on to actual live instruments like an idiot, so I feel even less bad for biting his style. My girlfriend Adelaide helped me come up with the stage name Nicky DI, I know you don’t care but names are very important to me.

God knows how well it works, but’s it’s a Sometimes Food that you’re all have to swallow from now.

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qantas-club-broomeNick previously documented the genesis of the Northside Swag Unit. After that, we cut one amazing song, which we perform at Coolio & Housemouse shows whenever we’re all together. While we’ve talked about doing more, it’s taken until this year before those plans solidified. 

Alongside the mainstays (myself, Nick, Matt and Simon), we’ve brought Evan Buckley (aka The One Inch Grinch) and Liam White (Ghostnoises) to the fold. Work has begun on an EP – I’m especially excited as we’ve split production duties between myself and Simon/Coolio – both of us have contributed three tracks.  

A majority of rap lyrics are the same interchangeable riffs on braggadocio, crime and wealth (no shade, but you can drop any Migos verse into any other of their tracks and nobody would notice) – in contrast, Coolio and Housemouse write complete songs, with inventive themes that match their musical backing. Their rhymes still frequently sound like stream-of-consciousness and go off on fun tangents, but they keep to a topic close enough that that’s how I remember them – The Space One, or The 80s One, for instance. It gives a focus and a cohesiveness to their material that I don’t hear often in other hip-hops acts. With up to six emcees on any NSU track, the potential for songs to get disjointed is high. We’re going to cleave tightly to this model and have already agreed on themes for each of our tracks.

Nick came up with one of those themes – he coined the term Zonin’, which means to travel on a budget, but to do so with swagger and style. It’s a perfect jumping-off point – broad enough for each emcee to put their own spin on it, but focussed enough that the track will hold together. It’s The Travel One – we have The Heist One, The Diss One, and others in the frame.

The plan now is to reconvene for a lyric-writing session, where we all sit in the room, put the tracks on loop and write our rhymes together. As someone that likes to be prepared as much as possible beforehand this is going to be an interesting (read nerve-wracking) challenge.

It’s also been a challenge to not to work on any rhymes beforehand. In fact, I found myself coming up with ideas for Zonin’ driving home the other night. An opening four bars soon turned into a full verse and then another. Determined to write all my material fresh in the room for the EP, I hit on a novel idea – what if I took these rhymes and made them into their own track? I essentially created a remix to a song that does not yet exist. Have a listen below – additional bass and vocals by ‘Killer’ Kev Lauro.

For fans of Ill Communication and Bug Powder Dust (I didn’t help myself by sampling Reef, but my stuff always comes out sounding like the nineties!).


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I spent September visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone, Osaka, Hiroshima and the Okinawa Islands. It was an incredible experience, made all the better sharing it with my wife, and daughter Violet (this was the 19 month old globetrotter’s second overseas jaunt). Violet’s presence necessitated a different mode of travel than Lou and I have previously undertaken – the most significant change was getting back to our accommodation for her 7pm bedtime each night. Consequently, we didn’t see much Japanese nightlife. The upside was a month of evenings with no plans or obligations – I used them to level-up my beat-making and sampling skills.

 Inspired by spending time with Coolio Desgracias, I had started dabbling with sampling again but the early results were hit-and-miss. I’d send the better ones through to Coolio to get his thoughts, and encouraged by his response, kept going. In hindsight, I was unnecessarily timid about it, making it harder for myself than needed – feeling the need to chop up the samples into unrecognisable portions, or over-egging things with extra instrumentation and effects.  

Part of this is a hang-up about ego – that if I didn’t substantially alter or embellish the samples, then I wasn’t really ‘creating’ anything. I needed to realise the obvious – that the most important thing was the song, not how easy or hard it was to arrive at it, or what self-imposed rules had been applied. The listener does not give a shit about process – either it sounds good or it doesn’t. Listening to the And The Writer Is… podcast further rammed this point home – modern pop songs have dozens of writers credited, and these songwriters are unfazed about sharing authorship, no matter who wrote what.

20170906_183325Coolio again is a huge inspiration – he is one of the most gifted multi-instrumentalists I know, capable of writing and playing anything. If he wanted, he could fill every corner of a song with filigree and detail. And yet his songs are masterclasses in taste and restraint (and of course, all the more impactful because of it). My love for his work is evident, and talking to him about some of his heroes (Madlib, Dilla, MF DOOM) gave me new avenues to explore.

I spent lots of these September nights studying. It would have taken me years to learn any of this before the internet, but now I have access to the very best 24/7. I ran songs through whosampled.com, analysing how they were put together and how the samples were treated.  I watched Marley Marl recreate the beat to LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out and added his tips to my arsenal. Seeing 9th Wonder and Just Blaze chop up then replay samples was revelatory.  Once you get out from under your ego and see yourself in collaboration with the samples’ original writers, then you are free to use whatever you want, however you want. The irony is the tracks I subsequently made were more creative (and often more personal) as a result.

20170909_173728My initial idea was to challenge myself to make beats from a handful of songs already in an old playlist on my laptop. It was mostly strains of garage rock – Thee Headcoatees, The Fall, Patti Smith, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – and a smattering of 90s alt-rock, like Cornershop and Kula Shaker. This was a great starting point – trying to identify worthwhile potential loops was good ear training, and attempting to seamlessly loop portions bedded down a solid workflow that’s now the basis for my sampling practice. Some of these loops were fun but I was finding it hard to tell if they could carry a whole song, or if rapping would even work over the top. I started adding rap acapellas over the top, essentially bridging the gap between my two favourite deejays – making beats like Coolio and turning them into mashups like Dead DJ Joke.  The first one I tried – the acapella for the Beastie Boys Intergalactic over a chopped up sample from Cornershop’s Who Fingered Rock’N’Roll? worked so perfectly, I used it as a template for the rest. 20170918_163302

One of the unexpected highlights of Japan was the sensational record stores. I’ve visited record stores everywhere from Reykjavik to Christchurch – most are in hipper areas of a city, often away from the typical tourist traps, so they’re a great way to explore a city. The stores in Japan were sensational – particular highlights were the four(!) floors of Disk Union in Shibuya (each dedicated to a different genre), Dumb Records in Hiroshima (specialising in punk and which had a bar inside the store), and Prototype in Kyoto (no bigger than a living room, but the only one I made two trips to, and the one I bought the most vinyl at!). I ended up buying 16 records, spanning 80s hip-hop, 70s Japanese film scores and 60s Brazilian rock. I took down the names of many more records and would investigate them at night, spiralling down Youtube rabbit-holes. After I had exhausted the songs on my laptop,  these listening sessions provided plenty of source material for the rest of my experiments. 20170918_162640

If I was to have a ‘sound’, I wanted it reflective of my love affair with garage rock and 60s pop – so I flipped songs by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Standells, The Shangri-Las, and the aforementioned Headcoatees, among others. But part of what I love about sampling is the raw luck and happenstance that is integral to the process – the unforced way you can stumble across the right song at the right time. Time and again, I would just seem to find the perfect complement (be it the underlying sample or the acapella), and then not be able to imagine it any other way.

Which is not to say that each track arrived fully formed – some took days of persistence and trial-and-error to get right (these ones sound the most effortless to me now). Each sample called for its own process – some are a just a single loop, others are multiple layers, yet others are chopped up and re-arranged entirely. Some are layered with classic breakbeats, but I programmed my own drums for many – I’m particularly proud of the drums on Jermaine’s Out Tonight,  which I drummed in with my fingers and then treated with compression and reverb until it sounded like a classic breakbeat (the best of both worlds). Most are re-timed and/or re-pitched. 20170906_183009

I kept each song to a little over a minute long, and capped it at eleven tracks. Each has something of an intro and an outro – an indication of the potential of a full version. I called the resulting compilation Lion’s Mansion Beat Tape, a reference to the name of the first apartment building we stayed at in Tokyo. The phrase ‘Lion’s Mansion’ seemed beautiful and poetic to me (especially compared to the pedestrian ‘lion’s den’), a perfect example of how things change ever-so-slightly across cultures. It evokes how sampling takes an original song and switches it up. 20170912_082820

I shared them with the Northside Swag Unit (more on the Unit next time), and we’ve picked out one to rap over for our upcoming EP (with several others flagged for late use). I can’t wait to hear how it gets transformed again. 

I’m now creating a companion beat tape, sampling only the vinyl I bought while in Japan (as Nick pointed out, this would be more of a challenge if I hadn’t purchased so many records!). Still, work on Return To Lion’s Mansion has begun!

Listen to Lion’s Mansion Beat Tape here.

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Maybe you’ve never put any thought into how PROM might end. Maybe you don’t get sucked into the various bullshit narratives around the breakup of bands. But I dare say if you thought about it it would occur to you that a band as snottily meta and story-world-y as PROM would probably rent a theatre and present their last gig as the culmination of a seven-year-long live indie-pop genre show.

If cooler heads (read: Julia) hadn’t prevailed I would have tried to smoosh everything the band was into one show- the initial apocalyptic-horror stuff, the half-assed deconstruction of the nature of pub gigs, the audience choreography. For Jules the simple heart of the band, the main thing all along, was that we are Playing Our Own High School Prom. Every gig we’ve ever done has been about refusing to graduate, whether by choosing oblivion instead or just wallowing in a loop of pop-music arrested development.  Anyone who isn’t an idiot like me would have known that we were heading for a Final Actual Graduation all along.

In a way it was still a Greatest Hits show. Joel Barcham MC’d in his SOCE Teacher persona one last time (he finally got a name- Mr Harold), augmented and elevated by Claire Granata as the authoritarian principal Ms Bizcut. Julia basically created a complete theatrical set from $80 of materials, just like always. Chris broke a guitar string two songs in and still played spectacularly, as if to prove that he is utterly irreplaceable (yes he’s moving to Scotland that’s what’s actually happening here). We picked a couple from the crowd and crowned them PROM King and Queen and made them slow-dance awkwardly, casting a comical frame over the what is actually one of my most earnestly-written songs (Run To The Love). Dead DJ Joke played a set either side and is the best DJ in the world of course. We did all the most PROM things.

I couldn’t even to begin to wrap my head around the fact that this was the last time I’d be doing these songs with these people, with Matt, Sam, Julia and Chris. Or the fact that Mel, my dear dear friend who the whole band began with wasn’t there (I mean she was in Brisbane where she lives now so odds are she was having a good time that night regardless, Brisbane is very good).  The crowd came in force and in costume but with the various jokes flying around the stage and the detention essays Ms Bizcut was forcing them to write it’s likely they didn’t spot just how nakedly emotional I was at my inability to square exactly how to most correctly think or feel. Which reminded me more if my actual high school graduation than anything else possibly could.

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We played Cost In Lives last and the chorus high note that has been the bane of my existence for seven years came out as easy as sighing. Thank you to all of you who made this band what it’s been to me.

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Photos by Adam Thomas

It’s all Nick’s fault (I’ll get to that).

But firstly, Nick graciously invited me to be a guest at his Let’s Get Lyrical sessions – it was a fantastic experience. I felt I was on This Is Your Life – it was amazing to get asked songwriting questions I’d been waiting to be asked, and to hear my songs re-interpreted and contextualised. In particular, Evan Buckley’s rendition of Don’t Grow Up Too Fast was stunning – I often write country songs posing as punk songs (or vice-versa), and Evan was able to find that hidden core, drawing out the pathos and truth in the lyric in a way Faux Faux Amis‘ raucous shows will never capture.

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In attendance was Chris Huet, aka award-winning performance poet and national treasure CJ Bowerbird. Alongside Chris’ many talents, he is also a generous patron of the Canberra art scene, and regularly comes to Faux Faux Amis gigs. Given his familiarity with the band, and his deft way with words, I had asked him to write old-school liner notes for Faux Faux Amis’s upcoming album, hoping it would be a fun challenge for him. Discussing it over coffee, I mentioned the Let’s Get Lyrical event, which he promptly said he would attend for ‘research’.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I get a message from him asking if I would like to support him at an encore performance of his poet-and-choir piece Downfall Of The Main Character. I immediately said yes, and asked him if he wanted Babyfreeze or Faux Faux Amis to perform. ‘I was thinking you solo, if you’re up for that’, he replied. After attending Let’s Get Lyrical, he wanted a chance to see more of my songs. See above: all Nick’s fault.

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To put it in context, in seventeen years of playing in bands, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve played on my own. I nervously agreed – in preparing for Let’s Get Lyrical I revisited a lot of songs I hadn’t thought about in years, and this seemed a perfect opportunity to exhume some of them.

I don’t typically play solo for a few reasons – primarily I find it exponentially more stressful than playing alongside others. I have no problem singing on stage with a band around me, but playing solo feels closer to public speaking, and I become incredibly self-conscious and unduly worry about forgetting lyrics or hitting bum notes. Couple that with the fact ‘male singer with an acoustic guitar’ is the least interesting/appealing format I can think of, and I don’t go out of my way to book solo shows (my favourite solo show was supporting Prom – billed as ‘King Handsome Luke‘, I backed myself on drum machine and electric guitar for a bunch of electro-punk rap numbers).

To offset some of these qualms, I invited Faux Faux Amis bandmate Catherine James to do back-up vocals and kazoo. Catherine also sang one song on her own, and duetted on two others, so it became more McGrath & James than just me, which I was vastly more comfortable with. It just helps tremendously to have someone to banter with between songs as well.

An acoustic gig lends itself to a certain type and style of song, and my set ended up ranging from cod-reggae to country (lots of country) to pop and even a couple of torch songs. They came from all over my back catalogue, some appearing on CDR albums I produced over a decade ago, others written for The Bluffhearts, still others seeing the light of day for the first time.

A couple bear special mention – Another Bad Habit To Break is a country song I wrote after I no longer had a country band. I’ve tried it with other bands in the past but it has never worked. Still, for years now it’s the song I’m most likely to spontaneously start playing whenever I find a guitar in my hand – it was great to finally share it with an audience.

Sucker For You is a song that had its sole appearance when I played the now defunct slot of ‘interluder’ at the Bootlegs many moons ago. While I loved the first verse and hook, I never really finished it to my satisfaction,. Using the gig as a prompt (thanks Chris!), I subsequently re-wrote the second verse, as well as adding a third verse and bridge. It’s really strong now, and I need to find somewhere to place it!

I happened upon Lyle Lovett’s She’s No Lady a couple of years ago – the video was playing on a country music channel while I was up late in a hotel room on a work trip. It instantly became one of my favourite songs, and this was a perfect excuse to share it. To calm my nerves, I kicked off the set with it, hoping it would serve as a good luck charm.

I’d been to a Sunday afternoon gig at Smiths a couple of weeks beforehand and there was about a dozen people in attendance. Thus expecting a low-key return to solo performance, I was shocked to find myself playing to a full house – a testament to CJ Bowerbird’s talent and popularity. The sound at Smiths is the best in the capital (down to sound maestro Bevan Noble), and the audiences the most attentive I have played for – their focus and attention is a gift. There was no sound in the room besides the performance – it was a rare treat and something I am grateful to have experienced.

It’s been an interesting year creatively – I had intended to focus on writing and film projects, but ever slave to the muse, I instead find all of my passion and drive being drawn to music. In particular, after giving away home recording for several years, I am in the thick of a production renaissance.

I have at least six recording projects on the go – including a Faux Faux Amis album and EP, two Babyfreeze EPs I am co-writing and producing, a kid-friendly ukulele reworking of some of my songs under the name Luc Faux, a clutch of beats for the Northside Swag Unit, and a nascent top secret pop project. This last month, I’ve also challenged myself to do a couple of covers-in-a-day of favourite local acts. Coolio & Housemouse’s recently released Where Ma Dawgz At? 7” has barely left the record player, and was the initial inspiration and first cab off the rank. It was intended as a one-off until Faux Faux Amis performed with Finger Your Friends the other Saturday, and I couldn’t resist trying my hand at their kick-ass song Astrotel on the Sunday.

Done being the engine of more, I now need to buckle down and complete some of these other projects and get them out into the world!

LGL 2NICK: Of my 9 nerdy obsessions Songs Lyrics and The Writing Thereof are possibly number 1. Of the 6 things I hate most about modern journalism, the fact that you no-one is doing techy-craft based analysis of the Words Bit of songs is definitely number 1. Canberra has an embarrassing surplus of world-class lyricists, a hip indie writers festival that specializes in panel-y discussion-y events, and 1 arrogant dickhead who thought he would be the best person to present said world-class lyricists to an audience, despite having no experience with interviewing at all.

If the two-night event went well at all it was because of my Rogues Gallery of Guest: Damien Flanagan and Bec Taylor from Hashemoto, Luciana Harrison from Pocket Fox, Sam Seb and Cathy from Burrows and indeed the co-parent of this very blog Luke McGrath!

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I was spoiled to have such a diverse range of writing styles to pick apart, from the finely-wrought images of a Damo to the wry darkness of a Luch, to the haunted playfulness of a Cathy, to the anti-narrative embrace of pure sound that you get with a Seb. Each discussion was peppered with performances of songs, and I nudged the artists to find unusual ways to perform them in the hopes that the audience would approach them as products of craft and thought. Burrows swapped each others’ usual lead vocals around, Damo took us through a song that wasn’t finished yet and Luch stripped her songs right back from Pocket Fox’s normal 8-piece arrangements. I was most excited for what we did with Luke’s interview. We sourced a bunch of our favorite performers to do solo renditions of Luke’s songs while he sat in his chair and listened. The most amazing thing about Luke as a writer is the sheer breadth, diversity and quality of the songs he’s written, there’s no way to wrap your head around it by seeing just one of his bands. It was great to at least attempt to present him to an audience in a way that drives home how unique he is.

LGL 9As an interviewer I was just about passable. Luckily my guest were on-point and articulate because I was perfect storm of rookie mistakes- rambly questions, closed questions, reductive binary questions, the works. I didn’t frame the genius of the participating artists to the extent that I hoped, but they did a very fine job of framing it themselves. As I might have guessed, the best moments were the ones where I hung back and let the interviewee hold forth.

 

Who knows whether I successfully drew the audience into the nerdy study of language and music that I was trying for, but I can tell you the song performances hit home hard. As a raving fan of the acts in question the whole thing was a geeky delight.LGL 12

Slush Pile 5

Life is supposedly a bleak unjust affair but then the incredible Chiara Grassia asks you to write songs for her You Are Here project which is a tribute show for a legendary 80s Canberra Indie Band that never actually existed. And then the band turns out to be made up of some of the coolest and best and loveliest musicians there are (including members of some of you favorite acts like No StarsAgency Pocket Fox and Petre Out). And then you get to go full method on imagining the entire life and death of your favorite Canberra cult band that never was and attempting to write the parallel-universe indie-guitar classics that you’ve always wanted to exist. And then you show up to the first meeting and the band have written their own songs and they’re perfect and amazing and you realize you aren’t needed at all, but they still want to use a couple of your songs on the set. And then the gig happens and you’re in the crowd and your songs sound just like you imagined but 12 times better plus the songs that the others wrote are your new favorite songs and Nikki H made great music videos for each song and best of all at least some of the crowd are convinced that Slush Pile was actually a real band and the gig goes great and the tribute band (named Plush Style) are keen to make a record of the songs and sure maybe my life is a crazy miracle dream whatever.Slush Pile 7Slush Pile 2Slush Pile 9Slush Pile 3