From Popcorn to Infinity (and beyond)

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I wrote a column about my love of arpeggiated synths for music site Mess+Noise in 2011. Since then, I’ve observed the explosion in popularity of what has long been my favourite sound in music. In short, it’s a run of synthesizer notes that groove back and forth – sparkling, colourful, magical and mysterious. The audio equivalent of a palindrome. A mirror image wave form, glowing and sparking on loop like an enchanted roller coaster.

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Here’s a quick example – the spritely business partying up the back of Lionel Richie’s Dancing On The Ceiling as demonstrated:

 

 

The most popular example of recent times is the Stranger Things opening theme which dropped in 2016. A good example of the slower, more agitating end of the arpeggiator spectrum.

 

 

Like the show (set in 1984), the theme was a throwback to a time when pop songs like The Never Ending Story and The Riddle (both released in ’84) and There Must Be An Angel (’85) had a melancholic sonic blowwave wafting ephemerally through the back of the mix.

In 2013 my favourite band Boards of Canada utilised their biggest batch of arpeggiated synths to date in a 1980s John Carpenter soundtrack tribute Tomorrow’s Harvest. Like Stranger Things, they took the warm cosmos of the Popcorn sound and reduced it to a steely, robotic chill.

 

 

To me, arpeggiated synths are the sound of infinity. The glorious, cascading, expanding universe of my imagination. The spiritual projection of what I imagine an all-star all-flying glittering afterlife to be. The Never Ending Story’s Fantasia meets Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road.

 

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A frosted, pulsing rainbow run.

Echo nebulas, rebounding through the galaxy.

Fireflies of sound, synchronised like hexagons.

 

In 2011 arpeggiated synths were thin on the ground in alternative music. There was my favourite song of all time Infinity by Guru Josh, in which he synth-bombed a whole decade with his audacious lyrics and a (count it) two minute piano solo. In grade ten I requested Infinity as part of my ‘Hi 5’ favourite songs of all-time played by Michael Tunn on Triple J! For a long time the only copy I had of the extended mix (which wasn’t on the CD album) was the cassette recording from the radio, including the bump where I accidentally pressed record.

Infinity contains what I believe to be the best 20 seconds of recorded music, ever. [2:06 – 2:25 of the 12” version] 

 

 

For the rest of the nineties the only place to find arpeggiated synths was in remixes of obscure techno songs like Pizzaman’s Happiness. 2000 marked an indie-rock retro explosion as Grandaddy brought the arpeggiator love on their landmark album The Software Slump. Tracks such as Crystal Lake were striking for the juxtaposition of synth used in a rock song. (The origins of which could be traced back to 1972’s landmark single Virginia Plain by Roxy Music, the same year that Popcorn was released. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon would appear the following year). Radiohead, having successfully married computers on Kid A were soon joined by Wilco with Heavy Metal Drummer and in five years LCD Soundsystem would take the dance/rock fusion full circle.

 

If xylophone is “the music you hear when skeletons are dancing” (Homer Simpson) then arpeggiators are the sound of a unicorn galloping.

Sometimes I’m asked whether I’ve ever wanted to make my own synth music. Unfortunately I’ve never afforded my own machine to play with. It’s a sweet dream with a long tail. I picture myself locked away in a strawberry-lime studio with lava lamp, buggy posters and velour robe, crafting my own downtempo ambient electronica like a sporty Tasmanian Jean-Michel Jarre.

In 2012 I made an unreleased album working with Melbourne cult-electro wildman SPOD (Brent Griffin) and my favourite psychedelic songwriter Richard Cartright of Sydney’s Richard In Your Mind. SPOD had a vintage Micromoog, the kind of which Popcorn was no doubt composed on. It looks like the dashboard of Dr Who’s Tardis and is about as abstract to operate.

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No ‘demo’ button here. You twist knobs and dials, squashing and squelching the soundwaves like a lightsaber manipulator. I watched SPOD with awe reserved for the Level 20 teenagers at my kiddie video arcade. This trucker-capped wizard of rhythm flounced and flocked the unit until it was growling and flanging with the savageness of Tom Morello’s guitar amp.*

Richard had an Oberheim synth with 100 prebuilt effects. He was soon able to recreate the impossibly warm sounds of everything from Take My Breath Away to Great Southern Land. It was exciting just to be in the same room as the equipment responsible for the friendly radio ghosts of my childhood. These unsung studio sentinels evoking the underlying longing and lunar loneliness that make up the soft padded bed of my eighties nostalgia.

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Oh yeah, I got to play with synths on my 2009 album Brown & Orange. Hanna Silver had a retro Korg with some delightful presets. The most notable use was this track, which was always a bit of a messy record favourite.

 

 

And now, the original column from 2011 followed by some recent examples of my favourite arpeggiated synth based tunes, featuring the likes of Daft Punk, Beach House and Gorillaz. You can make your own arpeggiated sequences on this Online Sequencer if you wish. Dig.

TREBLE TREBLE  // POPCORN AND INFINITY (2011)

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illustrations by Leigh Rigozzi

My first memory of music is listening to Popcorn by Hot Butter. I’m standing beside Nan and Pop’s ‘Stereo Sonic’ entertainment deck with black sponge headphones wrapped around my noggin. I load a cassette into the deck and press down on the chunky metallic button. The oceanic tape hiss fills with a sci-fi whine, followed by a warbly synth waddle of baroque alien ducks and the novelty combustion of a robotic, whistle-ready melody.

I sit mesmerised, staring at a yellow and brown swirl print cushion. These sounds are colour to a blind man. An aurora to a caveman. A Christmas and birthday imagination sandwich. Cerebral sorcery that fits like a tshirt and springs like a trampoline. Music was shaking hands and asking to be my friend.

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The song continues, the pad chord bed hitting the profound F#m. The vibrations enter my ears like molten fireworks then vapourise, leaving puffs of awe. Popcorn, at once silly and profound, is a Moog minstrel with a weeping heart. The jaunty lead tickles my chin while the broody rhythm of the bridge places a steady hand on my chest. The song is trying to tell me something.

 

 

At 1:08, something incredible occurs. The carriage of the song slips off its rails and sails into the air, gliding on a glitteringly gorgeous magic carpet of harpsichord and arpeggiated minor chords. The chords are broken down to their base notes and knitted back together to form a musical spine which flexes and flickers, like the tail of an electric dragon. The sonic flux swings and snakes, mirroring the waves and mountain tops of a stereo equaliser. The luck dragon cycles its way through the dazzling axis of my mind. Lava coated flowers burn red, blue then yellow. My LCD creature zips and darts, spelling mathematical shapes before exploding into rainbows and lightning rods.

After this uplifting bridge the song breaks down into the tribal simplicity of tom drum and tambourine. An anxious two-note timer synth creeps in, adding a sense of urgency. Each layer of instrumentation is cleared, leaving only the ticking of a laser clock, soon blotted out by the squelch of Martian flatulence. It is at once comical and menacing. The sound of a spaceman being obliterated in a Commodore 64 game.

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I take off the headphones and gaze at the rows of tapes and photo frames, my head slowly morphing back into shape like ear plug foam. What is this “music?” This kaleidoscope of sounds. I am caught hook, line and syncopation.

My second memory of music is listening to I Just Called To Say I Love You by Stevie Wonder. For this six year old, the song is trumped by the micro-single which opens the tape. The XDR Test Toneburst that sits at the beginning of cassette albums from the era. An audio distress flare sounding out the basic spectrum of tones from sub bass to high treble. An arpeggiated fantail for my brain to decode.

 

 

The song plays. I am drawn to the warmth of the synths, blending sweetly with the early 80’s compression and Wonders rich voice. Listening back, I detect lightly arpeggiated notes in the mix, adding a mystical, tinkling ambience – crystal rain on glass. (A similar effect to The Never Ending Story.) The song has a lightweight of melancholy I am drawn to, and while my emotional palette is primitive, my synaesthesiac instincts associate the thick pad of the minor chords with a quiet internal warmth, as my heart increases the blood flow around my body, sending a rainstorm of thoughtfulness to my tummy.

Being a child of the 80’s, it’s little wonder my earliest memories of music are mostly synthesiser based. A glance at the children’s programming of the time shows cult classics such as Ulysses 31 and Mysterious Cities of Gold using the kind of synth-heavy soundtracks that Gary Numan could take back to his laser pyramid. I recently rewatched Mysterious Cities of Gold and found to my delight that not only had the animation aged gracefully, but the soundtrack was a full bodied tremolo dreamscape.

 

 

One of my first cinema memories was the opening credits to The Never Ending Story, featuring the title track playing while the camera tracked over dreamy clouds. While the single already contained brilliant melodic structure and a rousing chorus, my brain was excited by the arpeggiated bed, sublimely oscillating in the background like robo piano roll. Coupled with the epic adventure of the film, The Never Ending Story made me want to melt from happiness and sadness all at once. Add the prettiness of the childlike empress, the savagery of the wolf and ARTAX! and you have an original sex and death soundtrack with training wheels.

 

 

A few years later, in 1990, I would accidentally bump into the greatest arpeggiated synth sequence of all time. The song was called Infinity by the UK artist Guru Josh. The song revolved around a melody played on saxophone utilising a stirring F-C-G chord sequence similar to that found in Manic Street Preacher’s If You Tolerate This, Live’s Lightning Crashes and Scatman John’s Scatman.

 

 

Behind the sax are heavenly orchestral pad synths punctuated by a subtle oscillation of notes, brilliantly complimenting the chord sequence but not yet fanning all the hues to its peacock tail. It’s an ambitiously anthemic and acutely ambient opening, especially when listened to through earnest young ears.

The verses comprise of Guru Josh staking audacious claim to the entire decade “1990’s – time for the guru” backed by some industrial Terminator-esque effects and scattershot house beats. A looming three note bass line keeps the track in check while Guru Josh scats some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ landing somewhere between Max Headroom, Kraftwerk and David Koresh.

At the two minute mark of the extended mix we are treated to a twenty second burst of what I have, for most of my life, accepted to be the greatest section of music ever recorded. The chorus chords are reprised with an arpeggiated lead running brightly over the top. The stirring ambience of angelic electro wash, flush with a dramatic major to minor chord change are punctuated with a constellation of digital train tracks whose rise and fall evoke the exotic quasars of my spatial awareness. It’s like a squadron of effervescent sprites line my kinetic pathways, waving brilliant sonic pom poms as I run a victory lap around my swirling fantasia – the music shining a neon blacklight on the dream bursts of my mind’s eye – a cross between the last rainbow level in Mario Kart, the time travel scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a Flaming Lips concert.

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The reverb on the mix evokes an underwater dream – the audio equivalent of bubbles bursting as they rush to the surface. It is not dissimilar to Caribou’s Sun at the 3:40 mark, from a house album he wanted to sound organically underwater. Infinity creates a magic speedway inside my imagination where natural and synthetic are one. Circuits become veins and stars turn to pixels. I am the king of colours – flying through a psychedelic utopia, smelling the freshness and licking tears from my lips.

 

 

For a period of my teenage years, Infinity was my drug. I would slip on the earphones, press play on my walkman and escape. I lived for the arpeggiated section, and thankfully, after an astoundingly lengthy (2:05!) piano solo, Infinity offers a sixty second outro of the enchanting sequence, spiralling skywards before dipping and dissipating into a mushroom cloud of ambience.Infinity_(1990)

I was finding my own non-druggy relationship between electronic dance music and hallucinating. During car trips, I’d disappear into deep trances, triggering the stained glass screensaver of my mind. In grade ten I fully explored this concept with a short film I wrote called Infinity. The story revolved around a DJ who believed that if you took the live speaker wires and inserted them directly into the brain, while high on a certain drug, you could physically transform and “become the song.” (It was not long after The Lawnmower Man where the protagonist became pure energy via virtual reality). In the final scene two investigators burst into the DJ’s compound (bed-sit) to find he has been successful with his experiment. On his bed burns the infinity symbol, rendered in blue flames.

What I was expressing was my deep desire to completely connect with electronic songs like Popcorn, The Never Ending Story, Infinity and whatever was happening on my Strictly Techno 2 cassette. I wanted to trip as hard as I could, powered by my imagination and a box of Nerds. 220px-Space_Demons_front_coverLike in the book Gillian Rubenstein’s Space Demons where the characters are trapped inside a video game, I wanted to be sucked inside these songs – able to fly along the sonic dimension they existed within. I could hear and see music, I wanted to be able to touch, taste and smell it as well. I don’t think many other people my age wanted to smell anything to do with Guru Josh. He had a goatee and always looked sweaty. (I later discovered he fell out of favour after publicly supporting Thatcherism).

My love of arpeggiated synths continues to this day, and I’ve been drawn to it in recent alt-rock tracks such as Grandaddy’s The Crystal Lake, Wilco’s Heavy Metal Drummer and the music of Ratatat. I’ve used it on one of my own songs For The Love I Have For You, to moderate success, but have resisted the urge to buy my own keyboard. I fear that once I find the arpeggiation settings and put on the cans, I’ll swim down a sonic wormhole of no return.

FURTHER LISTENING — A PHOENIX DOUBLE HELIX

flat,800x800,075,fThe Gorillaz Plastic Beach features an arpeggiator drop so satisfying that the comments reference the 0:41 point of the song!

When you’re sleeping and your body does that fake fall thing
When you’re playing Rock paper scissors in the mirror and you win.

Gorillaz // Plastic Beach

 

Daft Punk // Motherboard

 

Midnight Juggernauts // Into The Galaxy

 

Rafael Anton Iriscuri // Arduous Clarity

 

Slow Meadow // Artificial Algorithm

 

Beach House // Space Song

 

Black Moth Super Rainbow // Psychic Love Damage

 

Blockhead // Life Support

 

Zarelli // Falling Light

 

Sesame Street // Geometery of Circles

 

 

DX-Ball

* Rage Against The Machine made their guitars sound like electronic effects, and each album contained in the liner notes “no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record.”

 

CONTINUE READING:

  • You can check the three other music columns on Radiohead, Selling Out & Sex in Indie Music here.
  • A cultural essay on the success of Northcote (So Hungover) and the ‘hipster thing’ is here.
  • All the books I can remember reading (and not reading) are covered in wicked detail here.

Surf City ’93

The Summer of 1993 in Tassie was turning out to be cool. For starters, Uncle Nigel had rocked up from the mainland to visit Nan & Pop for six weeks. He was the family member I knew the least but was growing to like the most. He was friendly, sporty and above all, a crack up. With my own popcorn humour warming up we cackled and sputtered over impressions of cricket commentators and family bloopers while fostering a mutual appreciation for T-bone steaks and Pearl Jam’s Ten cassette.

Meanwhile, come Christmas morn there was a bag of happy spuds at my feet. Santa always left his ‘sack’ in the form of an empty pillowcase which by morning was filled with all manner of toys, treats and trinkets. My 7am ritual was to sit up and savour the radically logoed array of bouncy balls, cricket cards, furry friends and glow-in-the-dark anything. This time there was a mothership in the middle – a hefty box with a flying child on the front. Cowabunga dudes! It was my very own waterslide!

Last summer, a backyard waterslide had meant Pop rustling up a huge sheet of black tarpaulin from the garage while Nan applied a combination lather of laundry powder and hose water. Plusses were Nan and Pop’s naturally sloping keyhole-shaped lawn while minuses included
“scratchiness.” I noted the lack of a backstop – instead of ending up in a pool I tumbled arse-over-head into Nan’s marigolds.

Nah, this was a ramp up. Santa had delivered. A sun kissed, professional fun kit! This was the state of the art ‘Surf City’ waterslide system. Like any board game, you knew it was guaranteed coolness from the picture of the kid getting serious air via the Wahoo Bump™ technology (a long inflatable cushion halfway down the slide.) Liquefying the graffiti-art mat was the Bonzai Pipeline™ sprinkler design. By golly was my pulse racing, and not just from the gold chocolate coins I’d scoffed.

Waterslides (along with computers and fireworks) had always been one of my favourite things. I lived in the industrial township of Burnie on the North-West coast. Half an hour away was the colossal twisty tower of the Ulverstone waterslide. This spiralling tubeway filled my chest with buzzy delight whenever our yellow Beetle approached. I usually went with my best friend Nick. We wore our silky Adidas ‘Enforcer’ shorts for extra speed and went in pairs, slalom style, to get the maximum height in the turns.

With only a few days left of the already memorable Summer holidays, Uncle Nige and I set up Surf City. My fingers met the satisfaction of smooth factory plastic, folded as crisp as Nan’s bedsheets. The biggest buggar was the Bonzai Pipeline, which ended up being a tangle of tiny yellow hoses hell-bent on kinking. The impatience of tangled Christmas lights met the improbability of stretching a water bomb over the fat nozzle of Nan and Pop’s rainwater tank. After busting Nigel’s smokers lungs blowing up the Wahoo Bump, we finally had the chequerboard fluro orange and yellow F R E E S T Y L E slide assembled.

It was officially “Time to Boogie ®.”

With sprinkler mist casting faint rainbows over roses, I removed my glasses and began sprinting for the sleek Hammer Pants runway. This test pilot was wearing nothing but Piping Hot parachute shorts and a squint-eyed smile. I buckled my knees and sailed my arms as tum met warm slippery plastic with a playful “oof.” My face burst the spray like Kernahan through a Carlton banner as my legs floated skywards like a dutiful carriage.

For a moment I was air born. Like my favourite TV helicopter, Airwolf. Justin Marcus! Only child of Mum (still lying on the bed). A thoughtful, clever Gemini, about to start high school. So much worry on those shoulders, but here I was shirtless and sun surfing – just another blond kid on the box. Uncle Nigel stripped off and even though he was a fully grown man with a hairy chest and equally poor vision as myself, he reduced himself to brilliant-kid level, scampering in with the same glee he bowled spin in backyard cricket.

With Nan watching on and yelling gentle encouragement from the swing seat, we tag teamed the backyard strip and became the undisputed champions of radical water sports. Only when our slap-happy stomachs could take no more did we stroll in under the translucent blue afternoon. With feet cooling on bathroom tile, I towelled off the goose bumps. It was the end of holidays and I’d had my fill of play.

Justin Nigel waterslide

Ulverstone waterslide!

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Published in The Big Issue #603, Jan 2020.

GRAMMAR ADVICE: ‘Blond’ VS ‘Blonde’
The word originally came into English from Old French, where it has masculine and feminine forms. As an English noun, it kept those two forms; thus, a blond is a fair-haired male, and a blonde is a fair-haired female.

 

The Shirt Off His Back (Frankie Anthology – 2016)

After my Pop passed away last year, I found myself wearing his clothes. This was nothing new. Back in 1998 when I first discovered op-shopping, I realised I had an exclusive treasure trove right under my nose. During a regular weekend jaunt to Nan & Pop’s I asked politely if I could inspect their wardrobe, and with the excitement of one passing through the ‘Staff Only’ door at Salvos, initiated a gangly, late-teens version of dress ups.

Whenever a fellow secondhand droog complimented me on my retro jacket, it was with great pride that I said it was my Pop’s. Adorned in a full set of his clothes, I strolled through Melbourne one brisk winter morning like a soldier of nostalgia trying to blend in with the past. Top: safari jacket, dark green, pure wool from New Zealand. Bottom: dark green, flared suit trousers. Shirt: pale lime green Pelaco brand. Singlet: Bonds, athletic. Socks: knee-length bus driver style. Underpants: yes, underpants. They were a pair of cheap generic boxers that Nan had bought but he’d never worn. The clothes made me feel safe, purposeful, loved. He was a quiet man who never said “I love you.” But what an impoverished upbringing and the Second World War had economised in his language, he made up for with a generous smile and patient ear.

There are days when the loneliness really hits me and find myself scuttling through the sand layers of my mind to find my fondest memories of him. I’m six, it’s a breezy, summer’s day and we’re walking along the beach. This was our walk. These were our times. We’d do it regularly. Pop would plod along at a steady pace, watching me sprint ahead and poke around in the sand. I’d run back and find his large, warm hand. The beach was an endless runway of delight where my adventures could take off. The clear salt waves nipped at my senses, while the vibrations of his voice ran through me as I rode high on his shoulders. Constant shiftwork had not allowed him to have this kind of time with his own children. It must have been such a joy.

Today I wear his clothes like a hug. When I first got them they still smelt like the cool linen stillness of his cupboard. It’s a scent I wanted to bury my face into; to curl up like a cat and fall asleep in. I was transported to a time before custom and expectation, when a simple woolen jumper held me safe. Now they’ve been through the wash a few times, but the cloth still connects with my blood. I am reminded of the love for my family, and this man who would be a father figure to me. Wearing his clothes makes me feel strangely complete. Like a traveller returning to the place they were born.

The truth is I’ve been wearing the clothes of the deceased for years. Not everyone is comfortable with this. There are those who scoff and hang cruelly on the edge of secondhand shops, dabbling their toe in the dust-ridden air, daring each other to go in. What twisted expression could I evoke with tales of my grandfather’s undergarments keeping me snug at night? I wouldn’t want them to understand.

My friend in Hobart said his father had just passed away and he too had taken to wearing his underwear and socks. He didn’t offer an explanation. He didn’t need to. In this global shop-front/techno-paddock world, sometimes we need to walk like kingdoms and wear our memories like flags.

Why Comedians Get Depressed (from Overland)

‘Why are comedians depressed?’ It’s one of those age old paradoxes like ‘why are contact jugglers so creepy?’ I’ve been one for ten years (a comedian, that is: not a creepy juggler) and I’ve frequently pondered the equation.

Does it work the other way around? Are funeral directors the life of the party? Nick Cave seems pretty chipper in interviews. Jokes aside, there is a serious side to looking on the lighter side of life, which has been brought into the spotlight by the recent suicide of beloved comic actor Robin Williams. Like many comedians, Williams dealt with dark themes. It’s little surprise that his mental workplace was an occupational health and safety nightmare.

The distance between the onstage and the backstage persona is even more confronting when it’s a successful artist such as Williams. As a sharehousehold name performing as The Bedroom Philosopher, I can attest. Given the nature of my family history, my personality and ‘put all your eggs in one basket and break a few to make an omelette’ approach to creativity, I’m genuinely surprised when I’m happy.

Stand-up comedy is where sport meets service industry – it can be as draining as it is rewarding, and for a moody person, it’s consistently destabilising. Anxious highs dip into soul-crunching lows. The mood swing is the main attraction in the devil’s fun park.

These are the reasons why comedians often appear down. They are drawn from monitoring my own mental health over the years and somewhat coded debriefs with fellow cacktitioners. (Right click – ‘add to dictionary’)

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1. The nature of the job

Comedy equals tragedy plus time multiplied by anxiety squared. This anxiety may begin a week before the gig. That’s up to one hundred hours of nerve-tingling, bowel-clenching, stomach-sinking, dream-curdling, hope-dismantling worry before you even get to the venue. Then it triples. As your name is introduced by someone claiming to ‘love your work’, your body releases a civil war’s worth of survival adrenalin, your veins light up like a Christmas tree, and you stand beneath the glare of the headlights like a talking rabbit pulled out of your own sorting hat. Your soul is graded on the spot via laughter, or the lack of it. This crude survey information is stamped into you for life as you experience a terrifying emotional comedown: depleted natural chemicals quickly replaced by ‘electroheavies’ from the friendly barkeep.

2. The nature of the craft.

Comedians are miners. They must go inside the cave of human folly and swing a pick axe of anger at the iron walls until a hunk of coal comes loose. They must take the lump and flambé it in their imagination furnace, overthinking it until it becomes electricity. This is the satirical sizzle that finds its way on stage, powering the high-beam smiles of an audience. Coal mining is dirty, dangerous work. Most people sealed off their tunnels years ago, and wouldn’t enter it if paid. Comedians spend their lifetime in the darkness of emotional solitude. It gets lonely and it gets bleak.

3. Fitting the cliché

People expect comedians to be funny in real life. Surely to God they’ll be cracking gags on the tram, right? Aren’t comedians responsible for the crime rate at airports, their wits deemed too pointy to take onboard the craft? No. Instead, most comics I know are reserved and nervous, their personalities muzzled by a lifelong obligation to be abnormally hilarious. (With great power comes great responsibility). This social pressure, real or perceived, can be marvellously tiring. The expectation is downright illogical – and somewhat disrespectful of these professional speakers. If you were at a dinner party with a clairvoyant and she started reading your future – ‘you’re going to choke on a fish bone’ – you’d be creeped out. One can imagine the clairvoyant would say A) sorry folks, I’m off hours, and B) you want me to read your palm? I see you reaching for your purse, dude.

4. No fallback emotion

There is a theory that comedians have it tough because, unlike other artists who fall on shit times, they don’t have their sense of humour to rely on. A sense of humour is their main tool of trade. It’s like Kate Miller Heidke trying to sing herself to sleep after a show instead of watching Game Of Thrones. Unlike a theatre troupe, who can drink and laugh together after a bad show, a touring comedian will sit alone in the padded cell of their hotel room. They may take a drag on their humour to find the charred, singed remains of coal dust. If you’re not laughing, you’re crying.

5. You don’t have to be crazy to work here …

Comedians are mad. Anyone who would actively choose this career path, to willingly undergo the mild emotional torture of running the validation gauntlet of live performance must be deeply imbalanced in some way. Perhaps it’s not that comedy makes comics depressed, it’s that they do comedy because they are a mess already. Most comedians report being picked on at school. Their sharpened wit was a mechanism built for survival. While this sword is attractive and effective, behind the armour is often a pale, vulnerable nerd still trapped in the perpetual self-loathing and rejection of their teenage self. Relationship anyone?

6. Success doesn’t buy happiness

We all know money doesn’t buy emotional prosperity. By the same token neither does career affluence. In a truly sinister twist, for the neurotic weirdo described above, being lauded and loved only feeds the mould of low self-esteem. Deep down, most comedians will casually hate themselves and rarely feel comfortable in the yellow jacket of their stage win at the Tour De Farce. This guilty paradox is doused with a cold-fusion pressure to perform, creating a peace-sapping spiritual hamster wheel of micro-angst that would leave anyone as ashen faced and hollow eyed as Robin Williams’ recent press shots.

7. Self-medication

Comedians might make great clown doctors for sick children in hospital but, by golly, those clowns shouldn’t be operating on themselves. Most performers will try and counter the gross emotional rollercoaster by applying lashings of ale, nicotine, pot, coke and whatever else is cool. (Smack kind of died out in the 80s). You now have someone prone to depression treating their on-stage high with a stimulant washed down with a depressant. This is akin to giving yourself a hug then slapping yourself in the face (which is only okay if you’re Frank Woodley doing a bit.) If the comedian did a dodgy show (which is a 50/50 probability, at all levels), they will be left with a steaming pile of sorrow to absorb. Drugs are a snooze button for emotional processing, and when they wear off, the steaming pile is still there – only now stale. Breakfast of champions – and then it’s back down the coal mine!
Actors are narcissistic.

Writers are arrogant. Puppeteers are … different. The clichés are all there. The sad clown image has been around for years. One of the most pertinent issues to be raised by the death of Robin Williams is an understanding and awareness of mental illness. My personal mantra is ‘better out than in.’ It’s a subject matter that cannot be discussed enough. Hopefully more comedians are encouraged to Come Out of the mine and talk about their experiences. Goodness knows: if handled correctly, they are the perfect ambassadors for depression, making this ghastly topic not only palatable but even – god forbid! – joyous.

Love

retro valentines

Did you know that every thirteen minutes a relationship in Australia ends? Statistics tell us that only 5% of these relationships will end cleanly. The majority will haemorrhage into heaving silence with one staring into space and the other in tears. Sentences will get said: “I don’t know what I feel any more. I just don’t think I can give to this relationship.” The carcass of trust shall hang from necks. There will be gazes from the doorway. Beautiful creatures in knee high socks and soft cotton dresses sprawled on the bed, faces buried in pillows. Nervous men out of scripts and drawing on movie memories. Walk out the door. Just walk out that door. There’s no turning back. We’re past the point of no return.

Having done a snap-survey of my friends I’ve concluded that for those of us that are single, it’s not easy. We’re all nursing a photo album of bruises in our hearts. We’re all staring longingly into the suburban sunset, waiting for the smooth arms of a perfect match to cradle us through this spiritual recession. We have so much to give and we feel like we are going to waste. We sit on public transport retina scanning from afar, while love songs poke us like senseless siblings. We glance at stockinged legs wondering if now’s the time to stand up, ride the bumps like a fate surfer and wander over with business cards in hand and a ‘hey…you seem really…nice…let me know if you want a coffee sometime…’ before thrusting our little rectangle mangle of a lifeforce into the clenched hand of the long-haired lovely, nursing shopping and a good book – innocent royalty in this fraction of a possibility.

How can we meet new people? Us loners. Us washed up lovers. How can we tune into the frequencies of those who would hold our arm as we picked out videos. Who would add a ‘kiss me’ to our things to do lists and watch the ground for us as we text-walked? What combination of words and actions could unlock the vault of chance that would lead us to a universe of warmth beneath covers and the body lock of sweetheart sweat – the autumn-fall of thoughts leading to the timeless utterance ‘I’m so glad I found you.’

How can we find those we’d be so glad we found?

We go to gigs, parties, we flick about on Facebook. Everyone looks occupied and unattainable. The beautiful people have their friends, their drinks in hand, they don’t need us and our overthought desperation. We over thought it already. Our sentences are like highschool clay, all fingerprints and lumpy joins. What could we possibly offer? We are on the outside of the painting looking in. Colours are creamy and expressions are effortless. It’s a dream in there. How could we approach? We are covered in shadows.

Within a typical day the average single person will create over 186 conflicting thoughts about love. They may tell themselves things like ‘this is a good time to be single’ within the same stanza as ‘I’m horny, everything’s fucked.’ This is normal, and is reflective of the human experience. We are wise-cracking muddles all wrapped up tight in string, like Kris Kringles waiting to be given to the right person. We are store-bought bundles of poetic observations, clever humour and kisses. Oh dear God we are good kissers. Did we mention this? Upon the well-timed mouth we’ll make you forget every insult you’ve ever been given. We’ll take you up in a hot air balloon and land you in a forest of flowers, make you biscuits of the ripest honey and read you the funniest and saddest story, in voices soft as rain.

You just have to find us.
We just have to find you.

love coaster

First published Frankie 2011. 

Treble Treble #2: Radiohead

The first cut is the deepest, and Radiohead’s Creep cut me in a big way. It was one of my first experiences of a rock band. I watched the film clip, mesmerised. The picked tremolo notes rang like a macabre musical box while the chorus cut through like a chainsaw. Who were these pale, effeminate men, slinging and scrunching their way through such a pretty tune? In the stage lights Thom Yorke looked alien. His face contorted in ecstasy and angst. Johnny Greenwood hid behind a wall of noise and fringe, revving his guitar like a lawnmower.

When asked about Creep in 1993, Yorke said, “I have a real problem being a man in the ’90s. Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem. To actually assert yourself in a masculine way without looking like you’re in a hard-rock band is a very difficult thing to do.”

Until then my poster boy for masculinity had been Lenny Kravitz, strutting his way through 70’s pastiche glam. Radiohead sat brooding in the corner of the charts party, showing how vulnerable rock could be. No more Party Uncle, this was Arty Dad sitting me down with a bag of minor chords and telling me the birds and bees of sexual emotions. My world was ready for the juxtaposition of self-loathing in popular song. John Lennon had sung I’m a loser, Henry Rollins I’m a liar and Dennis Leary I’m an Asshole but they were all delivered behind a front-line of irony. Thom Yorke was compellingly exposed. An anti-hero who didn’t ask you to believe in him. His karaoke-slaying falsetto and crooked-eye weirdness gave the impression of a long suffering schoolboy – a life spent reading in shady rooms, sticky with illness, never getting enough sun.

Creep was a song for a generation of boys lusting clumsily through the schoolyard of life. Yorke said: “It is one of the things I’m always trying: To assert a sexual persona and on the other hand trying desperately to negate it.” Repressed sexuality was something that would define my school years. On one hand I was trying to be nice and Christian, and on the other I was feverish with hormones, keeping a diary of which girls had looked at me that day and taking too many baths.

Drying up in conversation, you will be the one who cannot talk
All your insides fall to pieces, you just sit there wishing you could still make love

When I first heard this lyric I nearly cried with embarrassment. Any closer to the bone and I’d have a heart attack. When asked what inspired the songs on The Bends Thom Yorke replied “Impotence.” While he was probably referring to a more general feeling of powerlessness, I clung to the word like a life raft. I’d just spent a bleak Australia Day home alone not having sex with my girlfriend. My Oasis poster wasn’t helping. I could hear Noel and Liam dissing me, back with another one of their cock-rocking bleats. The Bends was audio balm – gentle medicine for my collapsed soul. Someone felt as sad as I did.

* * *

Kid A is my favourite Radiohead album, and in my opinion the last musical masterpiece. I remember bringing it home in second year Uni – my flatmate Adam and I turned off all the lights and lay on the lounge-room floor, swimming in sound. A few days later I was home by myself listening to the vocal crescendo of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack.’ The CD skipped, causing Thom Yorke to hold the note indefinitely. Perfectly.

I’ll see you in the next liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…

I stared at the stereo in disbelief. It was bizarre and beautiful. A moment created just for me.

I remember Triple J’s Morning Show first playing my favourite track The National Anthem.
“It’s a long way from Creep isn’t it?” Said Francis Leach, with a sense of respect and trepidation, as if he still wasn’t sure which camp he belonged to. The disc dropped like a buzz saw, cleaving the world in two like great art. There was no sort-of liking Kid A, you were either saluting their inventiveness or mourning the lack of guitar songs. On writing the album Thom Yorke said he’d “completely had it with melody” and just wanted rhythm. He liked the idea of his voice being used an instrument rather than having a leading role.

The National Anthem is menace and finesse. Ominous and tough. Haunted and defiant. Entrancingly simple and deftly layered. It’s strut-prog drone-funk that flutters the subconscious and churns the stomach like butter.

Death jazz.

At 0:01 we hear an electro glitch, the delay of a switch – the mother ship of malevolence warms her valves. The bass lays cables of dark fuzz, the stunningly primitive three note loop lurking down the scale. (Yorke wrote the riff when he was 16). The cymbal smashes in like white sun on ice, leading a galloping drum pattern, swinging and bowling like an eight legged kinetic road horse.

At 0:22 the cymbal is robbed on the first bar – delectable editing from Nigel Godrich. The percussion jumps a ravine before picking up on the fifth. It’s dropouts like these that add funk to the fury. At 0:54 there’s lashings of ride cymbal smacking. Beneath it synth lasers spiral and howl like remote space stations shooting digital comets into the lunar abyss. Snippets of ghostly brass warp and warble. The song paces back and forth like a horseman.

When I listen to The National Anthem on public transport, I feel tough and fucked up at the same time. It’s the soundtrack for my loner superiority. If I were a professional wrestler it would be my themesong. I’d be called The Ultimate Worrier. My signature move would be The Schitz. I’d wriggle my limbs uncontrollably, psyching out my opponent.

Synths and cymbals stop. Vocal begins.

Everyone (bassbassbassbass-bassbassbass)
Everyone around here (kickety-snarity-kickety-snarity)
Everyone is so (smasssshhhhhhhhhhh) near
and so alone.

Thom Yorke’s voice has a metallic echo on it – half robot / half ghost. We are treated to a Theremin trail and the wack-tableaux of a child’s la la la. It’s an eerie nod to the patronising monotony of city living. The lobotomy of misspent intelligence. The kid in the back seat of the car, young and free, poking his tongue out as your blood boils.

Everyone / Everyone is so near / Everyone is ? fear / It’s all a lie / It’s all a lie.

There is no song more audacious. From it’s very title it runs a dark claw beneath the stiff upper lip of modern day Britannia. It’s the Kraut-rock opera for a traffic jam, a pummelling hymn for those encased in the metal coffin of capitalism. The spiritually constipated. The Ok Commuters. It’s an unromanticised, unapologetic, undiluted musical army barnstorming the restrained recesses of popular music and turning over tables like Jesus in a temple. Charlatans! Hypocrites! It cries. Your pomposity and saccharinity has stagnated. Where’s the show don’t tell?

At 2:38 horns become weapons. Radiohead show us what blood and guts sounds like. The microscopic screech of a life half-lived. Amplified. Contorted. Mutated beyond human shape. Alarm wails for the professionally world-weary. Rails buckle under artificial heat. Trains of thought rattle and tip. Dreams lay crushed in stagnant ambulances. Unapproachable wounds. The blunt reality of our unpublishable selves.

Nick Drake sang I am the parasite of this town, while Trent Reznor wrote You could have it all / my empire of dirt. REM’s Everybody Hurts film clip features human traffic stepping out of their cars and moving on. The closing three minutes of The National Anthem is a furnace of sonic distress. A brassy black hole where sentiments melt down to their base elements and erupt with backlogged, unresolved emotion.

It’s all a lie.
It’s all a lie.

At 3:46 there is respite. The song stops to breathe, like a crazed man tired from self-rumpus. Voice and trumpet are one. Blood flows. Traffic moves. At 4:03 a string is tightened. Nerves pull taut. At 4:08, a death scene. A lone trumpet speeds out of control. A poisoned wind-nymph spiralling through death throes. It’s musically graphic. The sound paints a thousand pictures.

The horns are wonderfully ugly, like the creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a labour of love in their ghoulish design. They bleat like sheep, wail like children, harrumph like Roald Dahl characters, zigzag like autistic etch-a-sketch, compete like sperm, jostle like chimps and clog up the void like orchestral off-cuts. As with an audio Jackson Pollock, strips of colour have been thrown on the canvas with such precision of vision that the final mix, as messy as sin, convinces the audience it is as much and as little as it needs to be.

It’s busy.

Like life.

By 5:00 the song’s been going for dog days. No more ABAB. This is alphabet soup. I want to cry. Sympathy for the demons. The subconscious hits and conscious misses. A booklet of bruises. At 5:15 the song runs out of steam. In the studio Johnny Greenwood orders the players to choose a random note, waving his stick like a wizard. “Just blow. Just blow, just blow, just blow.” There are two such ghastly blasts. The sword is driven into the dragon. Swirls. A chilling vocal sample. Man caught in limbo. Falling awake.

Delay is sped up and sped down – the Godrich signature.

Finally, there is end.

The National Anthem is compelling, disturbing, offensive and exciting. An anthem that hammers the dimensions. Each play, a moment in history. A personal revolution.

* * *

To off-set their overblown presence, Radiohead are often met with a teenage aloofness. “I kind of stopped bothering with them.” They dwell in their own chamber – off the mainstream radar but alternatively popular beyond scale. I like to think of them as The Beatles of my time. Too often they are the round peg for my holy soul.

First published Mess+Noise 2011.
Illustrations by Leigh Rigozzi.

Hola!

home brand

Welcome to the new blog. (A blog is not a website, I’m learning – you can’t just write a post and have it send to the page you’d like. It’s like driving a manual.) I’m taking my writing more seriously this year – watch out. My new book will appear in June! I’ll endeavour to add to this each week and not be sabotaged by American spell-checks. (“I put a spell on you…”)