Running with The Herd
June 30, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, EG, June 13, 2008.
The Herd aren’t known for their conventionalisms. Since trampling onto the scene in 2001, the Sydney octet have reshaped hip-hop in Australia, with hard-spat political ruminations, clarinets, piano accordions and acoustic guitars intow.
Even so, Kenny Sabir – aka Traksewt – is still a little uneasy about their latest musical incarnation. Among fourth album Summerland‘s clustered beats, melodic hooks and multi-accented musical intonations is a rollicking reworking of 19th-century Australian bush ballad Toorali.
“Man, I had a dark history of bush dances in my primary school days,” laughs the 32-year-old. “We did the Heel and Toe Polka, the Strip the Willow, you know, playing at barns with hay bales all around, so maybe it was that. But no. It was something we’d been thinking about since the last album. Like, what’s one genre that we haven’t massacred yet?”
Sabir’s take on the song isn’t just self-derision. Across 2001’s self-titled debut, 2003’s An Elefant Never Forgets and 2005’s brilliant The Sun Never Sets, the Herd have crafted a musical aesthetic so boundless that it has threatened to do away with the hip-hop tag altogether.
It’s a notion easier said than done. After years of battling self-definition and identity, the Australian hip-hop community has become predictably synonymous with interior politics. But as Sabir prefaces, the Herd’s philosophy has never been about striving for acceptance.
“Of course, Urthboy and Ozi Batla (rappers Tim Levinson and Shannon Kennedy) have always been much closer to the hip-hop community,” he says. “But I’ve always been quite detached from it, as have a lot of the guys. We never really seek approval from any one genre. But especially with this album, we just made the collective decision that we don’t need anything holding us back.”
Spend any time with Summerland – which was recorded in a tiny holiday house on the NSW central coast and debuted at No.7 on the ARIA charts last week – and you’ll realise that the record strays far from hip-hop archetypes. Summerland sees the group expand on their pop-tinged sensibilities, with the siren-like vocals of new member Jane Tyrrell, also part of Newcastle quartet Firekites.
Cuts including urgent opener 2020, the glowing roots-reggae flavours of A Few Things and the soaring surf-rock guitar of Zug Zug add an upbeat twist to the Herd’s musical plot. “Once we started playing around with these more melodic ideas, it was almost as if this whole new world opened up,” says Sabir. “There were just suddenly all these possibilities and there’s just a lot of room to explore them.”
Lyrically, too, the band – who have become renowned for their tough anti-Horwardisms – finally seem to have something to smile about. On first single The King is Dead, Urthboy and co. celebrate the end of the coalition era. “Fucking pirate, history will damn him,” he spits. “Crook, you got your arse played in Mandarin.”
But while Sabir describes Summerland as a “strange kind of holiday”, he’s quick to snuff any insinuation of complacency. “The record may not be as overtly political as some of the others but we haven’t gone easy on the politics either,” he says. “Not to be a complete whinger, but it’s not like the whole world is saved now that Rudd is in.”