Panoptique Electrical – Ambient material sees light of day

September 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Published: The Age, Metro, September 29, 2008.

Panoptique Electrical’s debut collection charts a very different past, writes Dan Rule.

PANOPTIQUE Electrical was never really meant to be. The new solo guise for on-again off-again Melbourne resident, electronic musician and composer Jason Sweeney traces a decade’s worth of ambient material that he never thought would see the full light of day.

“I really wanted to bring all this stuff into the foreground,” says the 37-year-old, from his home in Adelaide. “It was a chance to work on something as a listener as opposed to creating it from scratch.”

In Panoptique Electrical’s debut collection, Let the Darkness at You, Sweeney — who is known for his roles in electronic acts Pretty Boy Crossover, Mist and Sea and School of Two — reworks and re-imagines 19 pieces that were originally commissioned as soundtracks for theatre, dance, short film and art installation.

Over almost an hour and a half, the album ebbs and flows with stunningly atmospheric, computer-born textures, languidly melodic piano and distant echoes of guitar.

“This work had only been heard in the context of a theatre performance or a dance piece or a short film, and usually it’s kind of hidden,” says Sweeney. “It’s just sort of buried in the mix as a texture.”

He felt that although the pieces were purpose-written, “they weren’t necessarily used to their fullest capacity”.

“I mean, some of the piano pieces on the record were mostly written for short film and the filmmakers ended up using maybe two notes from that piece.

“The composer obviously wants all their music in the foreground,” he laughs. “So it was definitely an opportunity to pull out and expose the whole feeling of a piece.”

In the past 10 years, the Adelaide-raised Sweeney has worked on independent films and performances in locales as disparate as Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Wagga Wagga, Glasgow, Brussels and Los Angeles, also completing an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.

Meanwhile, as one half of Pretty Boy Crossover — the other being Melbourne-based electronic musician and visual artist Cailan Burns — he has released six full-length albums and countless EPs and singles, becoming one of the more respected figures on the Australian experimental music landscape in the process.

Curiously, he never learned music in any formal context. Rather, he took early Cure records such as Head on the Door as a cue, and began experimenting with guitars and various antiquated keyboards.

His eventual start in composition came via his concurrent interest in theatre and performance.

“I think because I know the processes involved in theatre and dance, people seemed to find that quite appealing,” he says. “They realised I had that instinct about how sound can be used in that context.”

The Panoptique Electrical project — which features collaborative visual artwork and song-titles by Sensory Projects label head Steve Phillips — is a chance for the composer to further develop and diversify this creative mode.

But according to Sweeney, who describes Let the Darkness at You as a “kind of sleeping pill”, his objectives are simple enough.

“I just wanted it to be kind of uncompromisingly minimal and somnambulistic and really kind of sleepy, but still actually have a lot of variation going on. I also had the advantage of having all of this material from the last decade, which kind of allowed me to look at the similarities and relativities.”

It was an approach of gathering a collection of this material, reworking it “and then going to sleep every night with it on”, he says.

“And when it didn’t work, I’d go back the next day and reconfigure it again. Oh and I wouldn’t sleep much either.”

Panoptique Electrical plays at the Toff in Town, 252 Swanston Street, Tuesday September 30. Let the Darkness at You is out through Sensory Projects/Inertia. Details:


Richard Skelton – ‘Marking Time’

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, September 25, 2008.

Richard Skelton
Marking Time

Sometimes words just won’t do. Emotions and evocations of a certain ilk only stand to be trivialised by language and discourse. Marking Time, a harrowingly beautiful new series of sound sketches from Lancashire composer and instrumentalist Richard Skelton, engenders this schema indelibly.

A stunning ode to his late wife and to the landscape with which they shared such an intrinsic connection, Marking Time is one of the most striking, stark and deftly poignant records you’ll hear. With little more than whispers of cello, guitar and distant piano, Skelton’s vignettes render a vision that is both austere and gently ambient, remote and intensely intimate. Its true beauty pervades with repetition and time.

It’s difficult to separate the record’s seven pieces, although the subtly swooping strings and hushes of shimmering ambience that comprise opening overture ‘Grange’, the gentle twist of cello and piano that mark ‘Fold’ and the glacial vista that is ‘Heys’ seem to leave an especially enduring imprint. Closing track ‘Stake’ is a deft summation those before it; a sprawling, wide-screen outlook entwines a guitar so close you could touch.

The effect is startling and utterly affecting. Marking Time drifts and arcs; it swells and pulses; it fade into an opaque, mist-shrouded mid-distance. Only the beauty and tragedy that is memory remains.

Dan Rule

The Woods Themselves – ‘(C’mon) Do the Beach Thing’

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, September 25, 2008.

The Woods Themselves
(C’mon) Do the Beach Thing

The interrelation between turmoil and good art is almost an unspoken law. Cliché or no, the ruling rings true again with (C’mon) Do the Beach Thing. Indeed, there’s something of a torrid undercurrent to the story of straggling Sydney-based ensemble The Woods Themselves. If we’re to believe the tales, their brand new second album – which follows on from their celebrated self-titled debut of 2004 – was anything but a smooth ride. Break-ups, creative tensions, marriages, births, deaths, redefinition; the quintet have led nothing short of a marred existence over recent years.

It’s written all over the collection of songs that string together (C’mon) Do the Beach Thing; it’s in their veins. From the pealing, fall-apart rhythms and melodics of opening sketch ‘Buy Some Time’, the record echoes with slow-moving volatility, both musical and thematic. These languid, loose-ended pop songs are neither sure of themselves nor comfortable in their own skin, and they’re all the better for it.

On paper it’s conventional enough; guitars, piano, plodding bass and drums score front man Davey Cotsios’s obtuse yearnings. But it’s the way these blues, country and 60s pop-flourished fragments are stitched and glued together that gives them their identity. Much of this would comes down to the man at the controls. Farmyard production maestro Tony Dupe plies his wonderful ear for both distance and proximity – looseness and essentialism – to these lovingly tangled arrangements and rattling odes.

There are several highlights, from the stuttering rhythms and melodics of ‘Groovewind’ and classic pop of ‘Comforted & Questioned’, to the limping balladry of ‘Peach’s Pit’ and the ridiculously pretty ‘The Ark’. But this record isn’t really about standouts.

(C’mon) Do the Beach Thing draws its idiosyncrasy from its collectively paradoxical qualities. A familiarity of genre and form is offset by succession of subtle off-kilterisms; a gently rambling dynamic brushes up against a sense of intimacy and closeness. Piano’s plonk like they’re in the room; stray guitar lines drift and bounce off walls.

While so many groups feel the need to harness a kind of exactitude of creative vision, it’s the unashamed uneasiness that makes (C’mon) Do the Beach Thing and The Woods Themselves all the more enthralling.

Dan Rule

Why? – Keeping it Personal

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Cyclic Defrost, #20, September 2008.

Why? Interview by Dan Rule.

At the turn of the millennium, Yoni Wolf (aka Why?) was playing one of the key roles in reshaping perceptions about hip-hop’s orientation in the cultural ether. As a crucial player in San Francisco Bay Area experimental clique Anticon, and more importantly, one third of iconoclastic rap ensemble cLOUDDEAD (along with Adam ‘Doseone’ Drucker and David ‘Odd Nosdam’ Madson), Wolf help put a hyper-intelligent, highly abstracted twist on a genre dominated by four-four beats and realist street story. But since going out on his own, Wolf’s giddying lyrical traversals have found themselves framed by an increasingly melodic and candidly personal indie-rock couture. Stunningly detailed third album Alopecia seems to signal a shift or perhaps even a completion of Why?’s metamorphosis. Recorded in a professional studio with a full band, it is his darkest, but most fully realised record to date.

“Sucking dick for drink tickets at the free bar at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah,” mumbles Yoni Wolf beneath the stark, guitar-strung break of ‘Good Friday.’ “Cutting the punch line and it ain’t no joke.”

There are very few places that that the man better known as Why? won’t go on new album Alopecia.

“In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court,” he croons on ‘The Hollows.’ “Just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing.”

Whether it’s admitting to stalking a friend he has crush on, or getting horny by reading a lost love’s handwriting, the bizarre brilliance of Wolf’s art is its ability to wrangle both deadpan humour and strikingly evocative, intensely personalised vistas.

During an artistic passage that has spanned five albums – 2001’s self-titled debut and 2004’s Ten (with cLOUDDEAD), and 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum, 2005’s Elephant Eyelash and this year’s Alopecia – and the best part of a decade, the 28-year-old has become a savant of the taboo. His patched-together lyrical snapshots deal in such internal, awkward daily happenstance and detail that they seem both immediately risqué and fundamentally, positively everyday. Indeed, if there’s one particular sensibility that echoes throughout Wolf’s work, it is casual, unabashed frankness, whatever the subject matter.

“Sending sexy SMSs to my ex’s new man / because I can.”

Wolf’s conversation, too – tonight, dispersed amongst cell phone static in a tour van in Montana – resonates with such a charming sense of candour. He extends the warmest greetings; he offers rambling explanations on cue; his twangy accent gives away his Ohio roots. “So much of my writing is kind of using these snapshots,” he says. “Just noticing things around me and feeling like I should remember them, you know.”

“Like on ‘The Hollows’ – that whole bridge, about seeing those guys at the basketball court and about being duped in Berlin by the guy with the walnut shells and the marble – that whole set of scenes I wrote separately while I was in Berlin. I was just taking notes on my life and things that I felt were poignant, you know.”

However rudimentary, the notion speaks volumes about the assimilation between Wolf’s life and art. “It’s a totally necessary thing,” he says. “It’s my way of sitting quietly and meditating in a way, you know; it’s my form of meditation and sinking into my life and what I’m doing here.”

“Whenever I achieve a small scrap of what I consider to be truth, on a very small level, that’s what the writing is a documentation of. It’s my inner life and my inner thoughts and, I don’t know, my categorising of things and working things out. It’s just me being present in this life, you know.”

The present that Wolf lives today in the Bay Area is a world away from his upbringing in Cincinnati. Raised as part of the Messianic Jewish community, his childhood was steeped in religion. “Messianic Judaism, it has a tinge of a kind of charismatic feel,” he says. “There’s a lot of singing and dancing and clapping of the hands, and you know, some pretty eccentric – for most people – prayer techniques, like speaking in tongues and stuff like that.”

“So we were around that kind of stuff a lot, but also, I feel like music was a real centrepiece to all that, at least for me and Josiah (Wolf’s elder brother, who plays as part of Why?). We were really steered away from secular music and whatnot – secular anything really, you know, TV or anything else that could sort of infiltrate our brains – and guided towards the more religious alternatives to these things.”

“We would watch like Gospel Bill or Davey and Goliath or whatever on the Christian network,” he laughs. “And we’d listen to Petra and Stryper. At the time, when I was like nine or 10, hair metal was like the thing and these were the alternatives.”

It wasn’t until the Wolf boys’ mid-teens that they started to forge their own secular identities. “I don’t think I ever really liked that religious stuff, but I thought I did, you know. It wasn’t really until I was about 14 or 15 that I decided that the religion stuff wasn’t really for me. I mean, I had listened to some secular music before in dribs and drabs.”

While the pair began playing in bands during the latter stages of high school, it was visual art that really piqued Yoni’s interest, and with his family’s full support he enrolled in the University of Cincinnati art program. “I mean, people assume that because you come from a religious background, you had a bit of a hard time, but both of our parents have always been pretty supportive of whatever us kids wanted to do. They were never the kind of parents who would be like, ‘You’ve got to go to business school’ or ‘You’ve got to be a lawyer’ or something,” he laughs.

“We all did pretty well academically and kind of did what we wanted to do. I always had this very internal sense of wanting to do well or something.”

It wasn’t until sharing a subject with Adam Drucker (aka Doseone) – a then voracious battle-rapper – that Wolf found himself drawn back towards music and into an underground clique that would go onto to become the Anticon collective. After forming Greenthink with Drucker in 1999, they went onto establish the critically lauded cLOUDDEAD ensemble with fellow visual artist David Madson later that same year, relocating from the Midwest to the Bay Area.

Over five years and two albums, the group went onto to become the signpost artists for experimental hip-hop’s new wave. Whether it was Wolf and Drucker’s angular lyrical abstractions, or Madson’s artefact-riddled ambience and low-bit-rate sonic crunch, cLOUDDEAD were making music that fore ran anything of its ilk. After stunning the underground with their self-titled debut, the group’s second and (what would turn out to be) final opus Ten saw them at the height of their powers. Pendulum-like cuts such as ‘Pop Song,’ ‘Dead Dogs Two’ and ‘The Teen Keen Skip’ were wildly offset by ambient noise explosions like ‘Son of a Gun’ and the Boards of Canada collaboration ‘3 Twenty.’ The drone-drawled intensity of ‘Rifle Eyes’ still stands up as one of the memorable cuts to come out of the mid-00s.

But while their cultural currency was higher than ever, the group’s three players were already in the grips of an irreparable creative schism. With a debut solo album already under his arm, 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum, Wolf walked away.

Few solid details have emerged about the split, and while Wolf is relatively equivocal on the matter during our dialogue – instead choosing to discuss the change and development of his lyrical direction when the topic is broached – he chose to speak about it at more length in a 2005 interview with US website PopMatters. According to Wolf, the group’s differences were of both a personal and artistic bent.

“We were all kind of not getting along,” he said. “There was some tension underneath, and on the surface too sometimes. I mean, I get along with the two guys now; I don’t know that they get along too well. I made the decision in Sweden – I was in Stockholm, and I called Mush Records and I told them we weren’t gonna tour. I know we could have blown up if we would have gone on tour, but would I have been happy? You can’t think of success in terms of popularity. You’ve just got to follow your arrow toward the target.”

“I don’t like to use the word abstract,” he continued, “but that stuff was a little more removed from the reality of our lives… Adam and I were kind of playing with each other, which was fun, but it’s wasn’t exorcising demons in me. I couldn’t stand on the stage and sing that stuff and feel it every night.”

You didn’t need any more evidence of Wolf’s directional shift than Why?’s 2005 ‘solo’ follow-up Elephant Eyelash. Drawing on players such as Josiah, Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon, the record saw the younger Wolf ply a swathe of highly-confessional lyrical meanderings to a tapestry of bedroom-cut, psyche-inflected indie-rock tropes, becoming one of the most talked about and widely celebrated crossover records that year.

But, according to Wolf, Alopecia – which features Fog’s Adam Broder and Mark Erickson in the place of Matt Meldon – represented a much larger step. “Elephant Eyelash was essentially recorded just like the stuff that I used to do by myself, just with more people involved,” he explains. “I was still recording it in my bedroom and what not, and just bringing guys in to record the parts and stuff, but still doing it one layer at a time. But this time, on Alopecia, it was all recorded in a studio and pretty much all at once.”

“I made demos for every song and then we learned the songs in a rehearsal situation, then we went in and tracked it. So it’s definitely more of a band record.”

For someone used to recording in a domestic setting, working in a studio wasn’t always a necessarily comfortable experience. “To tell you the truth, it scared me,” he says. “It was quite a different experience and I wondered if what we were getting was too typical-sounding or not unique enough or something.”

He worried that the artefacts and happenstance that recording on imperfect home equipment had garnered in the past might be lost to a more generic studio sound. “When you’re doing it in your bedroom you can do all these things to make each sound come across okay, like, recording through a bunch of different devices because you can’t get the right cable to work and it gives you some weird sound.”

“Whereas in this case everything was perfect and it was the best, you know, top-of-the-line equipment you could ever use, and I just didn’t know if what we were getting was right. It really only came together in my mind in the mixing process. I just suddenly realised that what we had was great and it was working really well. We recorded 20 songs in that studio in Minneapolis, and once we plucked out the songs that were right and sat together well, the album started to shape up and I started to realise that we did actually have a good album on our hands.”

He’s right. Over 14 tracks, Alopecia glows with a much fuller, more melodic and layered sonic palette, shimmering with angular guitars, dense tiers of keys and droned ambience, stark drums and skittering electronic percussion. But it’s Wolf’s ever-maturing poetics that really set this record apart.

There’s a darker personal dynamic to the record. Where Elephant Eyelash spent much of its time revisiting the fragments of a fading relationship, Alopecia deals with wider ideas of self and mortality. “I think it has the sense of a rebirth or of tearing oneself down to the absolute bare, like bare skin, a blank canvas or whatever,” he says. “I would say that this is a lot more of a lonesome record. This is about being alone, whereas Elephant Eyelash was about trying to maintain or salvage some sense of connectedness. This album is an acceptance of disconnection in a way.”

It results in a poignant, often foreboding feel. “Never in the night, when the knot grows tighter than fingers can untie,” he raps on the stunningly ominous ‘Gnashville.’ “And all the last half-dammed rivers have gone dry.” Where on final track ‘Exegesis,’ Wolf speaks of being “hung hight from a telephone wire / with no poor boy’s pile of books underfoot… to lessen the pressure of the phone cord choking my neck.”

But while Wolf is willing to admit to admit to the record’s disquiet, he’s quick to put it in context. “Sure, I think it’s darker but I think it’s funnier too,” he says. “I mean, it’s definitely darker and, in a way, more hopeless or something like that. But it doesn’t take itself as seriously as Elephant Eyelash did.”

“Like, with ‘Exegesis,’ if you really listen to that song, in a way it tells you to disregard everything I’ve said on the whole record. It says ‘If I really meant it…’ and I haven’t hung myself high from a telephone wire.”

He has a point. The record’s darkness is tempered by humoristic undertones at nearly every turn. “I sleep on my back ‘cause it’s good for the spine,” he sings on ‘Fatalist Palmistry,’ “and coffin rehearsal.”

“I mean, on Alopecia, I feel that I’m kind of using my life as a starting point and going from there,” he says. “In the past I was perhaps a little more documentary-like.

“I’ve got a little more into the craft of song writing. Even if I’m not writing directly about my life – maybe it’ll be a metaphor for something I’m going through or maybe just some fantasy that I had or whatever – but you know, it does relate to me on a personal level.”

Indeed, as Wolf admits, sometimes there’s no denying his songs’ referential foundations. “People do tend to notice when something’s about them,” he laughs, “I’ve had a couple of negative reactions, but most of the time it’s pretty positive, even when I’m worried about something or how somebody’s going to react.”

“For instance, with song 12 on Alopecia (’Simeon’s Dilemma,’ the song about the stalker guy), I gave the record to the girl who that song is pretty much about – the person I wrote it for – and I was really worried about what she would think about that one. But she listened to the record and called me and was like, ‘Yoni, you’ve done it again. This is a beautiful record, especially song 12’,” he laughs. “Man, that was a relief.”

“And you know, on Elephant Eyelash there’s a song about my dad and I was really worried about how he would feel about that. But he’s all proud of it, you know.”

“Whenever we play a live show and he’s there, he’s like, ‘Play the one about me, play the one about me!’,” he laughs. “It’s pretty cool. I don’t have any ill intentions about these songs, even if theyseem dark or dramatic or violent in a way. I think people realise I’m a good-intentioned person.”

Alopecia is out through Anticon/Stomp

Lucky Dragons – Overlapping Utopias

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Cyclic Defrost, #20, September 2008.

Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara seem to possess an innate, almost telepathic understanding of each other’s thoughts. The pair – better known as the curatorial heart of amorphous LA sonic phenomenon Lucky Dragons – eagerly expand on each other’s musings; they break off on rambling tangents; they finish each other’s sentences.

It’s a telling intimation of their strangely beautiful art. If there is one space neither of them could be accused of inhabiting, it’s that of creative isolationism.

“I think that’s the biggest rule we impose on ourselves,” muses Fischbeck. “The whole idea is to make things open to interaction and interpretation.”

He’s not kidding. The rare level of exchange between the pair represents only the starting point for their music’s intensively discursive course. Indeed, Fischbeck and Rara tread an artistic path entwined not in their own individualised creative processes, but in notions of ritual, interaction and personal and community interface.

Over the course of eight years and an incredible 19 releases under the Lucky Dragons nom-de-plume – the latest of which is the wondrously quixotic and surreal Dream Island Laughing Language, through Melbourne imprint Mistletone – 30-year-old Fischbeck has worked to reconfigure, if not totally reinvent, the correlation between artist and audience.

For he and Rara, who joined as a collaborative partner in 2005, Lucky Dragons’ oddly ornate electro-acoustic syntax is grounded in fashioning a context for artistic and communal expansion, rather than delivering a completed product. According to Fischbeck, who has a background in independent film, their music finds its bearing in “openness”; in its ability to foster exchange.

“It’s what drew me to making music and putting music out in the first place,” he says. “I mean, I used to do a lot of filmmaking and I soon realised that once you had a film, there wasn’t really anything you could do with it. It wasn’t something you could easily transfer or share; there wasn’t any real way of distributing it.”

“Music was something that was very easy to share,” he continues. “Like, it’s always been very easy to share – you can just play music with your friends or something. There’s been so many different ways of entering it and addressing it, especially coming from a punk background. There’s a resistance and there’s an alternative and these sort of multiple entrances to it that don’t really exist in other kind of creative expressions.”

Rara, who along with Fischbeck is chatting on speakerphone from their home in the central LA neighbourhood of Echo Park, articulates the sentiment in more practical terms.

“Shows have been five dollars since I can remember,” says the 25-year-old, who entered music via visual art. “And there’s something very democratic about that and very universally available.”

“When we play live shows, we try and play in really diverse places,” she continues, running with the theme. “We play everywhere from the local punk club to house shows to museums, and we try and bring people from each of those worlds to each new place, like bring them along with us.”

“I really hope, not for a specific community to hear the music, but for communities to overlap when they hear the music and for the end result to be all ages and all kinds of people and totally open,” she continues. “I guess the dream for it is to be something that can link communities which otherwise seem really different and really separate. It’s almost impossible to achieve that in the art world.”

This sensibility translates to Lucky Dragons’ recording process as equally as it does their routes of dissemination. The duo track their records on-location, utilising whomever and whatever is at hand – crowds, passers-by, friends, whistles, flutes, sticks, rocks, voices, toys, percussion and more conventional instrumentation.

“I like getting into musical situations where you don’t know what it sounds like until you try it,” says Rara. “I much prefer that game or that playing aspect, and just not knowing from the beginning where it’s going to go. But part of the game is that when you improvise music, every sound you make should always generate another sound and have something that follows it; something that forces a continuation or development.”

Fischbeck elaborates: “Usually our intentions are setting up a situation and then we can sort of play around in it and see what happens, and then we have something that comes out of it and we can look at that and it shows us a lot more than we ever could have imagined to begin with.”

“And other people’s reaction to that teaches us even more about what we were doing, and I think it just all expands outwards.”

The duo’s sonic palette is vast, both ethnographically and stylistically. Dream Island Laughing Language echoes with dynamics and intonations as disparate as Kabuki-esque Japanese folk, fragmented west coast psychedelia, minimalism, ambience and lithe, micro-rhythmic and melodic electronica. The effect is remarkable. The album’s 22 fleeting sketches oscillate between vastness and intimacy, synthesis and organics.

Whilst the pair acknowledge the influence of Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre, they frame Dream Island Laughing Language in more figurative terms. “I see the record as a metaphor for a kind of turning point, where some sort of latent public sentiment becomes externalised,” says Fischbeck.

“The title is kind of two different titles squished together. In terms of the band name, Lucky Dragons, there’s sort of a legend that we’re using. It was a fishing boat that sailed into the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the ’50s, and was called the Lucky Dragon. It got immersed in radiation and everyone on board got radiation sickness. It eventually went back to Japan, where it came from, and the ship got cleaned up and renamed the Dark Falcon, which served out its life for about another 10 or 15 years. It was eventually destroyed and put onto a garbage island in Tokyo Harbour called Dream Island, and so this is sort of the continuation of that legend.”

“Up until the Lucky Dragon incident there was no real anti-nuclear movement; for 10 years after the end of WWII there was no real outcry about the use of atomic weapons. But then the Lucky Dragon, and these poor victims of radiation sickness, became like a rallying point for the world and anti-nuclear sentiment. It became a metaphor for a much wider idea.”

The second part of the title – Laughing Language – on the other hand, refers to an investigation into the possibilities of language. “It’s sort of a longstanding discussion that Sarah and I have had about language and about what language is, where it comes from, where it’s going, what is inside it and whether it is everything.”

“Or whether perfect communication is possible,” adds Rara. “Like directly transferring an idea from one person’s mind to another, or whether it always gets translated somehow. We constantly have agreements and disagreements about that. Also, it kind of refers to the idea of a language without words; a language of spontaneous sounds.”

“It all has a lot to do with the idea of spontaneous transmission and group awareness and stuff,” says Fischbeck. “Some things can be known and expressed by a group instantaneously.”

At the same time, the hazy, abstracted nature of Dream Island Laughing Language’s instrumentation and syntax make for anything but a prescriptive listen. Despite the fact that it stands as their fist ‘non-communal’ recording thus far – aside from a couple of fleeting guests, Fischbeck and Rara are the lone performers – they see it as their most unguarded work to date.

“We were trying to make something that was a little bit simpler,” explains Fischbeck. “I’d been kind of thinking about the record as a kind of minimalist thing, but it’s not always so much like that. It’s more about making something that people can put their own interpretations into, more than being a kind of didactic thing. It’s about, as much as possible, leaving some of the sounds up to interpretation and keeping these sort of ambiguous sources of sound.”

“With some of the past records we’ve made, we’ve tried to create a world that people can kind of enter into when they listen to it, and try to account for every element of that world. And this one was much more, like, we wanted it to enter into people’s worlds and be part of the outside world, rather than the other way around.”

Nonetheless, there is still an intoxicating sense of escapism – of dream-like immersion – to the record. But for Lucky Dragons, their sound worlds transcend mere imagination. “I think we would call it utopian,” offers Fischbeck, before Rara chimes in, as if on cue: “I guess when we make things, we think about the future and the past, and I guess we want to occupy a time that has the conditions for living that we desire,” she says.“ So maybe it’s less about escaping the world and more about trying our best to occupy a world that agrees with us, and hopefully that extends to other people.”

“It’s like an idea of overlapping utopias, where everyone we’re striving to live with wanted to live and lived how they wanted to live. I think people’s ideas of that wouldn’t ever be identical, but I think just that spirit, that approach; instead of looking to the future or looking back, just occupying the present as if it’s the way you want it to be already, like the future has arrived.”

“That’s maybe where I start playing music,” she pauses. “I start having that mindset.”

Dream Island Laughing Language is out through Mistletone/Fuse

Because of Ghosts – ‘This Culture of Background Noise’

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue, #313, September 2008.

This Culture of Background Noise
Because of Ghosts

A title along the lines of This Culture of Background Noise fits the Because of Ghosts back catalogue impeccably.

The brotherly Melbourne trio’s organic take on post-rock – expounded over countless self-produced and released EPs, and of course, their stunning 2006 debut album The Tomorrow We Were Promised Yesterday – has seen them make an art out of sonic flotsam and jetsam. A door closing, a hailstorm pounding on the studio roof, a dropped drumstick; it all takes its place in the mix.

It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, that their second album avoids background noise at almost any cost. Recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango by production luminary Howard Bilerman, this is by far Because of Ghosts’ most direct, focused and crystalline effort to date.

Over eight rippling vignettes, the trio’s core of guitars, bass and drums collide and coalesce in full view. The wondrous minor key melodic drifts, the stunning tonal detail, the ebb and flow of tension and release all peal out clear and stark. It makes for some of their most accomplished oeuvres to date; the stunning ‘Canadia’, ‘The Battle of Mont Royal’ and ‘The Content is Irrelevant’ included.

Background noise this record surely is not.

Dan Rule

The Jacky Winter Group – Taking Fight

September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, September 13, 2008.

A creative community of local illustrators is sending distinctly Australian visions out into the world, writes Dan Rule.

IT’S HARD NOT TO GET SWEPT up in Jeremy Wortsman’s enthusiasm. Good art, it seems, is something worth talking about – and talking about very loudly, very expressively and very rapidly at that.

The Melbourne-based New Yorker had been getting plenty of practice. Since founding boutique illustration agency The Jacky Winter Group a little less than a year ago, he has made communicating the values of his favourite art his living and for all intents and purposes, his life.

“I do feel like, in a way, it is my own stuff because I just love each of the artists so much,” he says, beaming. “I’m just crazy about them.

“I almost shed a tear the other day when I heard that all the Jacky Winter guys up in Sydney all met up and had dinner together,” he continues, looking genuinely chuffed. “They’re all from really different backgrounds and age groups and all had a really good time. It’s kind of like a community.”

We’re taking the tour of Lamington Drive, a compact gallery space that Wortsman – a graphic designer and art director in his late 20s (he is uncharacteristically coy when asked his age) who makes up one half of award-winning design practice Chase & Galley – has just opened off Gertrude Street in Fitzroy to exclusively show the work of Jacky Winter Group artists.

Set in an otherwise raw shell, it’s an unusual, nonetheless striking space, enclosed by corner-lit cardboard walls and recycled chipboard flooring material. The spooky pop-art prints of the gallery’s inaugural show Surrender, from WeBuyYourKids (the collective moniker of Sydney-based Jacky Winter artist Biddy Maroney and her partner Sonny Day) adorn the walls, while a central Perspex plinth encases an installation of notebooks and drawing materials.

“We really didn’t want to put a white cube in here and make it something that it wasn’t,” he says of the space, which he designed in collaboration with Chase & Galley partner Stuart Geddes and architect Martyn Hook. “The idea with the cardboard is that it’s a very tactile substance and it brings out the kind of tactile nature of illustration.”

It’s the latest chapter in what has been a remarkable induction for the agency. Since launching in October last year, The Jacky Winter Group has procured upwards of 120 domestic and international commissions, including work for The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Harvard and Columbia universities, and upcoming campaigns for American Express and the Sydney Theatre Company. Its stable of artists has grown from an initial group of 12 to a current roster of 32 – which includes the celebrated collage and watercolours of Kat Macleod, the hilariously awkward cartoons of Oslo Davis and the meticulous line work of Dylan Martorell.

“Jacky Winter was kind of a nice metaphor for giving home-grown artists ‘flight’ by engaging them with work overseas,” he says of the agency named after a native Australian robin.

It says a lot about Wortsman’s objectives. Since moving to Melbourne in 2001, he’s found himself in awe of the dynamism and quality coming out of the young art community (he is one of the founders of cult Melbourne poster-magazine Is Not) but dismayed by the lack of infrastructure or representation to support it.

“I was just shocked, you know,” he muses. “Basically, there’s no real commercial art training or education in Australia as such; there’s no real BA, BFA or masters programs. There’s fine art programs or graphic design, but there’s really nothing in between. So there’s this huge population of people who are doing this incredible work, but have fine art backgrounds, so they don’t understand the business aspects of things and how to really make their work fit into a market.

“And when it comes to representation,” Wortsman says, “there was virtually nothing. The agency was set up in response to that, you know, corralling all those people together who had this incredible talent – like, the best of them – and helping them try and make a living out of it. A lot of the artists, like Eamo and Oslo Davis and Lachlan Cohn, I just met while I was doing Is Not.”

Nigel Buchanan, a Sydney-based artist who is part of collective illustration website and has more than 30 years experience as a freelance illustrator, says that Jacky Winter is something of a first in a domestic landscape almost void of adequate representation. “There really just aren’t agents who operate like that out here. Most agencies take a number and pass it on and are basically just brokers.

“My agent in America is incredibly proactive,” he says. “And that’s really what needs to happen here. Jeremy would be about the only one who seems really interested in helping foster people’s careers.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Fitzroy-based artist Rik Lee, who was one of the first illustrators to be approached by The Jacky Winter Group, shares similar views. While his finely rendered pencil illustrations and playful computer-based compositions have appeared in Nylon, Vibe, Oyster, Girlfriend and Vice magazines, on T-shirts designs for Graniph, Lee Jeans and Stussy, and album covers for cult Scottish band Arab Strap, he feels that living in an isolated country like Australia necessitates the kind of constant promotion and bridge-building that artists just can’t manage on their own.

“Australian cities still don’t have the kind of creative reputation as places like New York, London or Tokyo, and the relatively small population means there just aren’t as many opportunities here as there are in certain places overseas,” he says. “Therefore one of the most important facets of working as an illustrator is getting your work out there and seen by as many people, in as many varied audiences, as possible.

“There are just so many doors that, as an artist, you don’t even know how to approach. Being part of Jacky Winter has opened a lot of those doors.”

But how can a comparatively tiny flock like The Jacky Winter Group open doors in already established European and American markets? For Wortsman, an unabashed comic book art and tattoos enthusiast, it’s a matter of differentiation. Instead of offering a kind of generic artist-for-hire service, Wortsman trades on his artists’ idiosyncrasies. “One thing I’m really trying to encourage with the gallery is that even though everyone is a kind of print-based artist, they do explore the kind of fine-art side of their work and really develop that,” he says. “All of these guys have such a remarkable style. If a client were to pick, say, Kat Macleod for example, no one else would be able to do the job in the same way that she does. It has Kat’s signature on it. Other people might use similar techniques and there might be some crossover but it won’t be a piece of Kat’s.

“There is that kind of inimitable quality to everyone. If some company is like, ‘We need you to render this cell phone for a cell phone ad’, and they don’t like our prices, then they can get anyone to do it. That’s not what we’re really about.”

It’s a quality that has, so far, paid dividends. Don Besom, senior art director at BusinessWeek in New York, has commissioned several pieces from Wortsman’s agency ahead of several of his American counterparts. “We’re always looking for new and contemporary talent,” he says. “And that’s the first thing you notice about The Jacky Winter Group: it has some very talented artists.

“Beyond that, we’re a US-based magazine with an international outlook and audience, so we like to get a fresh perspective on our subject matter from outside America. There’s a definite advantage in that.”

However, Wortsman is realistic about the agency’s early success. “It really goes in cycles and illustration will be big for a year or two and then it will just die, and then new art directors will come in and it will happen all again,” he says.

“What we’re seeing now is an upswing in illustration, for which I happened to come in at the right time.”

That’s not to say that the signs aren’t positive. Even a native Australian robin seems pretty darn exotic to some.

“I’ve sort of done my best to make the agency as accessible as possible for everyone, because people still have this idea that Australia is so far away, and that frightens them,” he says. “We have phone numbers in the UK and the US that all just ring my office here, or ring my mobile, because if you put an international dialling code on something people won’t ring it.

“For the first six months I was taking phone calls at three or four in the morning, you know, waking up in the middle of my sleep and going, ‘Yawn, Jacky Winter Group!”‘ he laughs. “I think I seriously did a couple of commissions in my sleep.”

Making Doo by Niels “Nails” Oeltjen opens at Lamington Drive, 89 George Street, Fitzroy, next Thursday, September 18, 6-9pm.



Eamo (Eamon Donelly) draws on his childhood in suburban Geelong to create his vivid take on Australiana. The 26-year-old doesn’t believe in cultural cringe. “I’m not ashamed to put a raw prawn or gum leaf in my work,” he says. “It’s my experience, my upbringing.”

His work has recently appeared in US magazines Blender, ESPN, Complex, Radar and King.

“My art is definitely a celebration of Australia, its humour, its larrikinism and its history. Growing up, I was like a sponge shaped like a map of Australia with corks hanging off it.”

Cailan Burns

33-year-old Melbourne artist Cailan Burns paints monsters that are both playful and ominous. His psychedelic hues and curious characters have featured on the cover of Cyclic Defrost magazine and on album covers for local group Mountains in the Sky and his own band Pretty Boy Crossover.

“I’m really influenced by Robert Crumb and a lot of the poster art from the 60s,” he says. “And I think Maurice Sendak, who did Where the Wild Things Are, is incredible.”

“I’ve always really loved wobbly shapes and organic forms. I don’t really into the whole post-punk 80s thing that’s going on at the moment – I’m too fuzzy and curly for that.”

Marcela Restrepo

31-year-old Columbian-born Sydneysider Marcela Restrepo finds exoticism the everyday. “I draw just simple things,” she says. “I try and show complex things through simple objects, because just from objects you can tell things about people.”

“When I first came to Australia, I started drawing things like Vegemite jars. They are very familiar to your culture, but not to me, so I like to draw these things to remember for the day I go back home.”

Her pencil and ink drawings have found their way into Nylon Guys, Bon Appetit and the Sunday Telegraph magazine, and in campaigns for American Express and Energizer.

Niels ‘Nails’ Oeltjen

For Tasmanian-raised Niels ‘Nails’ Oeltjen, art is about lineage and progression. “Folk-art is a big influence in terms of an aesthetic sensibility and probably an approach as well,” he says. ”It’s very hands-on and it’s an evolution; it’s carried on and passed down through generations.”

The 31-year-old highly detailed and patterned drawings and painting utilise walls, objects, clothing and paper as their canvas. “I don’t like anything that’s really clean,” he says. “I’m suspicious of cleanliness in design. It kind of takes the human energy out – It’s more the realm of machines.”

His new show Making Doo opens this Thursday at Lamington Drive (see below).

Tin & Ed

Melbourne graphic designers and illustrators Tin & Ed (26-year-old Tin Nguyen and 28-year-old Ed Cutting) frame their abstract collaborative art works in terms process rather than aesthetics.

“Disruption is an important part of our process,” says Nguyen. “We like juxtaposing images and ideas – the raw and the refined, the literal and the abstract.”

Their work – which has ranged from traditional illustration, collage and photomontage to sculpture, installation and moving image – has featured in campaigns for American Express, Nike, Next Wave Festival and in several local and international magazines.

“Abstraction and ambiguity is vital in a commercial setting,” says Cutting. “Nothing is really that definite.”

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