• ‘Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs’ extracts and book launch, August 2014

    My first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, was published by University of Queensland Press in July 2014. Here’s the synopsis:

    'Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs' by Andrew McMillen – book coverOf all the creative industries, the most distinct link between drug use and creativity lies within music. The two elements seem to be intertwined, inseparable; that mythical phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll” has been bandied about with a wink and a grin for decades. But is it all smoke and mirrors, or does that cliché ring true for some of our best-known performers?

    In this fascinating book, journalist Andrew McMillen talks with Australian musicians about their thoughts on – and experiences with – illicit, prescription and legal drugs. Through a series of in-depth and intimate interviews, he tells the stories of those who have bitten into the forbidden fruit and avoided choking.

    This isn’t to say that stories of ruin and redemption are avoided – they’re not. These celebrated performers have walked the straight-and-narrow path of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and prescription medication, as well as the supposedly dark-and-crooked road of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine.

    By having conversations about something that’s rarely discussed in public, and much less often dealt with honestly, McMillen explores the truths and realities of a contentious topic that isn’t going away.

    Talking Smack is a timely, thought-provoking must-read that takes you inside the highs and lows of some of our most successful and creative musicians, including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Gotye, Steve Kilbey (The Church), Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon) and Holly Throsby.

    I worked on the book throughout 2013, between freelance assignments. Seeing it through – from my initial conversation with the publisher in September 2012 to holding the printed product of around 70,000 words in my hands – was the single most satisfying process of my life and career. It took nearly two years and I loved every minute. Writing a book is a great thrill and privilege, and I have every intention of repeating the process again – as soon as the next idea strikes me, that is.

    Talking Smack is available in paperback (RRP $29.95) at bookstores throughout Australia, and as an ebook throughout the world. For more on the book, including where to buy it online, visit its standalone website at talkingsmack.com.au. The book’s trailer, created by Brisbane studio IV Motion, is embedded below.

    Three of the book’s 14 chapters were published as extracts in Australian media outlets, beginning with an edited version of the chapter featuring Steve Kilbey, which was published in The Weekend Australian Review on July 26, 2014:

    The Dark Side: The Church frontman Steve Kilbey reveals his battle with heroin

    At the age of 37, Steve Kilbey found himself at a crossroads. He’d become a pop star fronting the Church, a band whose song Under the Milky Way, the lead single from their fifth album, Starfish, became a worldwide hit in 1988. He’d made quite a lot of money: he had a house and a recording studio in Sydney, a couple of cars, a load of instruments and some cash to spare. He wasn’t filthy rich, but he was certainly very comfortable.

    By this point, Kilbey considered himself a worldly drug user: he had started smoking pot in his late teens, tried psychedelics soon after and bought his first gram of cocaine after making his first record, Of Skins and Heart, in 1980. Eleven years later, he was recording for a new project named Jack Frost with his friend Grant McLennan, a fellow Australian pop star best known for his work with Brisbane act the Go-Betweens. One night, while out at a bar and feeling an empty sense of unhappiness at the life he’d earned, despite his success, Kilbey was taken aback by McLennan’s proposal: “Let’s get some heroin.”

    To read the edited book extract of my interview with Kilbey, visit The Australian. (Note: the full chapter is around 6,000 words; the Review extract is cut down to around 3,000 words.)

    The chapter featuring Mick Harvey was published on the blog of Brisbane author and journalist John Birmingham, Cheeseburger Gothic, on August 22 2014:

    Mick Harvey extract from Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, by Andrew McMillen

    Amphetamine is best known as a drug of alertness: snort or shoot a line of speed and you’ll be awake far longer than the body can usually tolerate. The avoidance of sleep is one of its major benefits, especially for creative people who feel compelled to spend their time on this earth productively, rather than being laid out in bed for one-third of every day. But the drug can be used medicinally in this sense, too, especially if you’re in a band where others are burning the proverbial candle for days on end. As Mick Harvey found, using amphetamine was sometimes the only way to keep up with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the band that he co-founded and managed.

    In the mid-eighties, while based in Berlin, the guitarist would look around the studio and realise that his bandmates were invariably loaded on one substance or another. He’d partake in half a line of speed and stay up for two days. ‘I don’t know why they would keep going back and taking another line every two hours,’ he says. ‘There was no need whatsoever!’ Sometimes, the group would spill into a bar at seven in the morning and rage on. All of this was fun to Harvey, then in his mid-twenties, who thoroughly enjoyed being part of a band perceived then – and now – as one of Australia’s edgiest rock groups. Speed was incredibly useful on those occasions, but its medicinal purposes only stretched so far. ‘I certainly never had a desire to continue to take it every day, or to deliberately go and find some and party,’ he says. ‘I just didn’t really do that.’

    To read the full book extract of my interview with Harvey, visit Cheeseburger Gothic.

    The chapter featuring Bertie Blackman was published on TheVine.com.au on August 26 2014, following Jake Cleland’s in-depth interview with me:

    Gotye, Paul Kelly, Bertie Blackman and more talk drug use in Talking Smack

    Her first thought was that she was having a heart attack. One night, on tour on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in early 2009, the twenty-six-year-old had a sudden and terrible feeling: she couldn’t breathe. Severe chest pains were accompanied by shallow breaths. She was scared, and so were her bandmates. Next stop: the emergency department of Noosa Hospital. The diagnosis: inflamed cartilage rubbing against her ribcage. The cause: overexertion on and off stage; drinking too much alcohol too often, and feeling invincible as a result. Yet here was concrete proof that the young musician was doing serious damage to her health and that perhaps it might be a good idea to rethink things.

    Anyone who saw Beatrice ‘Bertie’ Blackman perform in the years leading up to that health scare would have found her to be one of Australia’s most arresting rock frontwomen. Night after night, she’d be slugging from a bottle of Jameson between singing into the microphone, thoroughly inhabiting the loose, hedonistic image that rock history has conditioned us to expect, if not demand. Blackman’s body became conditioned to the abuse: she could drink a bottle of whisky each night, then hop in the van the next morning, inured to the ill effects. And off to the next city she’d roll, to do it all over again.

    To read the full book extract of my interview with Blackman, visit TheVine.com.au.

    Talking Smack was launched in Brisbane on Thursday, 21 August 2014 at my local bookstore Avid Reader, in conversation with one of my favourite Australian writers, John Birmingham. Footage from the event is embedded below, or click here to view on YouTube.

    For more on Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, including where to buy it online, visit its standalone website at talkingsmack.com.au.

  • Good Weekend story: ‘The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees’, July 2014

    A feature for Good Weekend, the colour magazine published with the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age each Saturday. This is my first story for the magazine. Excerpt below.

    The Whistleblowers

    Good Weekend story: 'The Whistleblowers: Australian football referees', by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    Who’d want to be a referee – the man everybody loves to hate? Andrew McMillen talks to those prepared to make the tough calls.

    ++

    North Queensland Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston has had enough. It’s an hour into a rugby league game at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium one Friday evening in June and Thurston’s team is menacing Parramatta’s defensive line when they make a mistake, which prompts tall, muscular referee Ben Cummins to blow his whistle in favour of the home side. Thurston explodes. His team is down six points to 18 before a stridently partisan crowd of 10,142 seething Eels supporters. Beneath his trademark white headgear, the Cowboys captain is viciously mouthing off at the official. He, too, has had enough, and raises both hands skyward as a signal to stop the clock.

    “Okay, Johnathan,” begins Cummins, in a measured tone not dissimilar to a headmaster disciplining an unruly pupil. He states his reason for the stoppage: “It’s the way you’re talking.” Thurston is furious. He’s not listening. His ears are shut but his mouth continues firing. The crowd responds to this conflict between match official and enemy captain by jeering enthusiastically; their team is winning and Thurston is losing his head. The ref has heard enough.

    “Johnathan, I’m talking here,” Cummins says. “It’s the way you’re talking to me. Talk like that again and I’ll penalise you.” Having poured cold water on Thurston’s fire, Cummins blows his whistle and the game continues.

    In the tunnel between team dressing rooms prior to kick-off, it was a different story. Cummins met Thurston and Eels captain Jarryd Hayne for the ritual coin toss. The trio traded easy smiles and handshakes. After the referee introduced me to Thurston, I asked the Cowboys captain whether he’s a Ben Cummins fan. His reply came with a laugh: “I’m a referee fan, mate!”

    Prior to the Parramatta game, I meet former NRL official Tim Mander at his office in Everton Park, in Brisbane’s inner-north. Mander, 52, called time on his on-field role in 2005, then worked part-time as a video referee for another six years. He is now the Member for Everton and Queensland’s Minister for Housing and Public Works. A framed photograph of a referee sin-binning Queensland league legend Wally Lewis is mounted on his wall.

    “I was involved with first-grade football for more than 20 years,” says Mander. “Every year, the same story would break, that the referees were ‘in crisis’. [The National Rugby League] has done everything you could possibly do to improve refereeing standards.” He counts them off on his fingers: they became full-time professionals, they adopted two referees per match, and they introduced the video replay system, among other changes. “What else can they possibly do?” he asks. “They can’t do anything else. The issue is that, unfortunately, the selection of referees is contained to people of the human race.”

    Few of us hold jobs in which our momentary lapses in concentration take place before televised audiences numbering into the millions. A mistake made by a referee can shift a sporting world on its axis; a decision to award a penalty or not in the final moments of a tight contest can end careers – of players, coaches and staff. It takes a certain kind of mind to embrace this role with confidence.

    As kick-off approaches at Parramatta Stadium, Cummins – a primary school physical education teacher who enjoys any chance to return to the classroom should his schedule permit – changes into his pink uniform and weighs himself. He’s 89 kilograms, but will drop two kilos in the ensuing 80 minutes. Every top-level sports official is a picture of health; NRL referees run nine kilometres each match, on average, while their AFL counterparts run 12.

    At the age of 40, Cummins looks strong and fit enough to be running with either team tonight, as does his slightly shorter assistant, Gavin Reynolds. The referees’ dressing room is a cosy four-by-five-metre box that contains an adjoining room with showers and a massage table. The jocular mood in the room belies the seriousness of the role; after all, there is security posted outside the door, and they’ll be accompanied to their cars at night’s end.

    “It’s a requirement that we’re escorted back to our cars,” says Cummins. “Generally, nothing happens. There are some games where the crowd gets quite heated, and you make sure you have security. If you give the game 30 to 60 minutes, most people have headed off by then. Most people take out their frustrations on forums or social media these days.”

    To read the full story, visit the Sydney Morning Herald.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Chemo’ by Luke Ryan and ‘Hitchy Feet’ by John Card, August 2014

    Two books reviewed for The Weekend Australian in a single article, which is republished below in its entirety.

    Running away only to find oneself

    Book cover: 'Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life' by John Card, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014A travel memoir based on the author’s experience of hitchhiking around Australia in the late 2000s, Hitchy Feet introduces us to John Card, a Victorian high school science teacher who tires of the classroom and seeks adventure.

    The plot is rather thin: Card has designs on becoming a radio broadcaster, and hitches a counterclockwise path up the east coast toward a university in Perth for an admission interview. This stated goal is something of a MacGuffin, though, as much of the book is instead devoted to narrating the situations Card finds himself in while hitching, as well as putting his past actions under the microscope while reflecting on the man he has become.

    Card was 33 at the time of undertaking his journey, and frequently downcast about his lack of overarching life direction. While in the midst of the book’s most amusing chapter — an all-night drive through the Pilbara with ‘‘Joe’’, who sinks a carton of beer and climbs onto the roof while the vehicle moves at 120 clicks per hour — Card is handed a stack of porno mags by his gregarious companion, a friendly gesture that sends the author into a tailspin of melancholy. He craves intellectual stimulation, rather than something that’ll give him an erection. “I needed a broadsheet newspaper, a certainty for keeping me flaccid,” he writes.

    Card’s experiences as a high school teacher here and in England are well-drawn, and I’d liked to have heard more about this aspect of his life. He admits his initial passion for the job was soon overwhelmed by its challenges — a common story among young teachers — which eventually became cynicism. He believes our public secondary school system plays a vital part in capitalism, as he and his colleagues “looked after children while their parents made money”. Card claims to have no answers to this troubling situation, but his observations from the coalface of a difficult profession are valuable nonetheless.

    While struggling with the job at a London school, he almost clobbers a mouthy Serbian refugee who claims to have seduced his girlfriend. “Admitting my violent longings caused deep conflict within me,” he writes. These desires are rooted in Card’s experience of being bullied as a child. The trauma has carried into his adult life and there are times where the ­author has to fight himself to keep the violence at bay. Add booze to the equation, though, and the task becomes harder. Directionless men and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand, and Card is no exception.

    These stories tend to be funny, but his segues can be weak: at one point, Card writes awkwardly: “By the time I’d stopped typing late in the afternoon, I’d obtained a raging beer thirst. I quenched it.”

    In the heat of the moment, though, his narration is compelling, especially when his inner monologue kicks in. The following section occurs after meeting some unsavoury parents at a pub in Richmond, western Queensland:

    I lay down on the torn mattress, thinking of Joe’s kids. I had the impression he would call them all little cunts, all the time, because of the ease with which it rolled off his tongue. I started to reflect on how this journey’s voyeuristic quality was patronising on my part. Was I putting myself in these situations in order to feel better about myself? Reaffirming myself as middle class? Was I just there for a laugh? Was I having a midlife crisis? Was I a snob? These were unanswered questions, but I felt very unlike the Joes of the world. Maybe even more middle class.

    Ultimately, it’s this sort of honesty that elevates Hitchy Feet from the middling travel memoir established in the opening pages to the salient insight into the psyche of a smart young Australian man with which we finish.

    Book cover: 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!' by Luke Ryan, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014In contrast, readers know exactly what they’re getting from Luke Ryan’s debut book. The 29 year-old author was unlucky enough to have been diagnosed with cancer twice, at the age of 11 and 22. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo centres on of the grimmest periods of the Melbourne-based writer’s life.

    Yet punchlines abound to the point where there’s practically a gag on every page, a large proportion of which cut through due to tragicomic circumstances or the sheer drollness of his observations.

    “Given my white, suburban, middle-class, Catholic upbringing, quite possibly these are the only things of interest to have ever happened to me,” Ryan wryly notes.

    His painful childhood illness is viewed through the wiser lens of adulthood, complete with staircase wit: after returning to school and slipping to the social periphery, the author was told by “a group of horny reprobates” to return to hospital.

    “This was, I felt, both cruel and frankly inappropriate advice coming from anyone besides a medical professional,” he writes.

    The more socially adept older Ryan met the second round with a resolution not to adhere to the cancer narratives of journeys, battles and survivors. These conventional stories were of no interest to him; instead, he opted to craft a comic persona to deny the seriousness of his situation. It worked: he got through the experience with good humour intact, and his 2009 stand-up show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Luke’s Got Cancer, was a sell-out hit.

    Though Ryan’s incisive wit is the chief narrative voice here, he’s not above lifting the curtain to show the anxiety and fear that swirled through his mind offstage. These glimpses of emotional honesty are some of the book’s finest moments and add gravitas to a fine memoir that never approaches self-pity. After all, as he writes in the introduction, this isn’t a book about denying cancer, but about seeing cancer as part of a life, rather than its sum total.

    An intelligent writer of great talent, Ryan wilfully acknowledges that with the publication of this book he has milked this particular subject and its minutiae of sickness and tedium for all it’s worth. Having proved himself a deft hand at the task of painful self-examination, Ryan seems highly likely to excel at whichever topic he chooses to write about next.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based journalist. His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, is published by UQP.

    Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life

    By John Card

    Finch Publishing, 224pp, $24.99

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!

    By Luke Ryan

    Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99

  • The Guardian story: ‘The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use’, July 2014

    A comment piece for The Guardian’s Australian culture blog, published the day after my book Talking Smack was released. The full story appears below.

    The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use

    In a new book exploring the relationship between musicians and illicit substances, some of Australia’s most successful artists say there’s more to the story than the usual chorus of condemnation

    'The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use' story on The Guardian Australia by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” is a well-worn cliche that music fans and journalists use as shorthand for “someone else’s job is more fun than mine”. We fantasise about the wild excesses and rampant hedonism experienced by the world’s top performing artists on a regular basis.

    And yet, in writing my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, I discovered there is a kernel of truth to the cliche. Some of Australia’s most successful musicians – including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Steve Kilbey, Phil Jamieson and Holly Throsby – openly admit that the use of both legal and illegal drugs has contributed to some of their creative achievements and personal insights.

    Of the 14 musicians I interviewed, all of them have had contact with illicit drugs at some point in their lives. The preference for substances varied widely, from cannabis and MDMA to methamphetamine and heroin. I discovered that the reasons individuals are drawn to the risky business of ingesting, inhaling, snorting or injecting foreign substances are complex and nuanced.

    Although stories of drug abuse, overdose and addiction have been part of the popular musical lexicon for decades, while working on Talking Smack I found an important distinction to be made: that despite the noisy negatives often associated with drugs at all levels of society, many of my interviewees had positive experiences. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for many Australians, regardless of whether or not they’re employed in the creative industries.

    Illicit drug use in Australia is often rendered as a black-and-white battleground: you’re either a drug user and thus looked down upon as a loser and a criminal, or you’re an anti-drugs totem of purity. My goal was to explore the shades of grey by talking to public figures who know what they’re talking about when it comes to a tricky topic, and where rational, expert voices are sorely lacking.

    Usually the discussion is dominated by politicians, police and sensationalist media outlets who stand together in condemnation of anyone who would dare consume a drug that isn’t alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or a prescribed medication.

    What I found during many hours of face-to-face conversations about this topic with such distinctly different musicians is that there is no simple story when it comes to drugs. Some people are early bloomers, and try substances in their teens; others, like myself, avoid the matter entirely until their mid-20s, or later. Some, like Gotye, choose to abstain completely. Drug tastes vary greatly between individuals; the chemicals that resonate with one person may repel the next.

    For some of these musicians, subjective experiences and sensations felt while under the influence had a powerful effect on songwriting. Steve Kilbey told me that The Church’s 1992 album Priest=Aura was an attempt to recreate the feeling of heroin through music, soon after he had started using the drug.

    “That was the honeymoon,” said Kilbey. “You can hear it’s working. You can hear that I achieved that thing. And then it went downhill after that. For 10 or 11 years, I still made records [on heroin]. But I struggled a bit. When the gear arrived, I’d get so stoned I couldn’t work.”

    Managing these motivations is a struggle met by many creative people, whether their task is to play an instrument, paint a canvas or scribble words. Sydney hip-hop artist Urthboy is unsure whether smoking cannabis while writing lyrics is an effective way to tap into creativity: “I’ve never really had any clear proof of that; you can’t say that’s a fact when you write really good stuff without smoking,” he said.

    “To ever suggest that weed is an essential ingredient in that process is almost to give up on your own abilities.”

    For Melbourne pop artist Bertie Blackman – who has struggled with alcoholism, depression and anxiety – abstinence is a matter of prioritising her mental health. “Recreational drugs in a safe environment are cool,” she told me. “I’m around it occasionally, and I don’t frown on it. I mean, they exist. It’s just that I make the choice now to not partake, because I know that, for me and my mental health, it’s not good.”

    That’s the bottom line for many Australians: an individual choosing whether or not to use a particular drug for an intended benefit, whether that’s buying a bottle of wine or a gram of cocaine. The illegality of the latter choice rarely comes into account. Humans are clever: where there’s a will to snort or smoke something, there’s a way.

    Almost all of my interviewees agreed that the prohibitionist “war on drugs” is failed policy that has had little to no effect on their overall consumption. As Steve Kilbey of The Church told me:

    “I think it’s becoming obvious to people that the whole [war] about drugs was a fucking lie,” Kilbey said. “It’s like fucking burning witches at the stake, or having slaves. I believe one day people will, in some enlightened time, look back at this and say, ‘You know they used to throw people in jail for five years for smoking marijuana?’ Why? What the fuck have you done except disobey some fuckwit in authority? That’s all it is. People are realising that taking drugs is a medical issue; it’s a social issue. It’s nothing to do with the law.”

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen is published by University of Queensland Press.

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, June – July 2014: Scott Spark, Sia, Jonathan Boulet

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in June and July 2014.

    Scott Spark – Muscle Memory

    Scott Spark – 'Muscle Memory' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, June 2014Piano-led pop is the domain of this Sydney-based singer-songwriter, who demonstrates a firm grasp of the genre on his second album. Backed by a compact rhythm section and occasional flourishes from stringed instruments, Scott Spark has arranged a winning follow-up to his 2010 debut, Fail Like You Mean It.

    His piano playing is inventive, but it’s his strong voice and fine ear for melody that sets these 13 tracks alight. The album bursts into life with driving opener ‘Days Are Business’ and maintains its momentum into the first single, ‘Two Alarms’, a workaday anthem for the disaffected modern wage slave. Spark navigates the space between such macro themes and more personal tales with grace; the heartache of missing a significant other is written large across album closer ‘Keep It Together’, while ‘Tag Along’ tells the story of meeting that same person for the first time. Well-trod though these lyrical paths might be, Spark’s unique toolbox includes a smart eye for detail, clever turns of phrase and a consistent ability to surprise the listener, such as when the string section in the latter track gently glides behind Spark’s voice until unexpectedly blooming into a sublime countermelody.

    ‘Going Out Tonight’ is built upon echoing, shimmering keys. The pleasantly disorienting effect doesn’t diminish with repeated listens, while the jarring chords of ‘Cut Loose’ impart a sense of urgency fitting for the album’s poppiest track. Muscle Memory is an engaging listen from top to tail.

    LABEL: MGM
    RATING: 4 stars

    ++

    Sia – 1000 Forms of Fear

    Sia – '1000 Forms of Fear' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2014Few careers in Australian pop music have burned as steadily and slowly as that of Adelaide-born Sia Furler. Her second album, 2001’s Healing is Difficult, yielded a couple of singles that hit on the British charts but barely raised heart rates here; a key placement in the finale of HBO drama Six Feet Under in 2005 added fuel to the fire, as did her ARIA Award-winning fifth LP, 2010’s We are Born. Yet it is only in the past couple of years that the spark has finally burst into full conflagration. Happily for the camera-shy 38-year-old, her greatest success has come through writing hit songs for the likes of pop luminaries Rihanna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Beyonce. For Furler, the result has been fortune without much of the fame.

    Fittingly, the blonde mop on the cover of her sixth album is presented sans facial features. Beneath that golden dome lies one of the world’s sharpest musical brains. Few would doubt that Furler is a master of her craft, and 1000 Forms of Fear is a fine summary of everything that she has learned about the art of pop songwriting. Furler’s long-time collaborator Greg Kurstin handles production; it’s a winning combination as he too writes regularly with big-name pop acts.

    This album is packed with soaring choruses that highlight the singer’s formidable pipes. Her voice is a curious instrument that’s perfectly capable of cycling through high-register scales with beautiful tone, yet Furler is just as keen to emphasise her vocal quirks. This stylistic decision is central to her appeal, as they remind the listener that a human being is behind the microphone at all times, rather than an auto-tuned studio machine scrubbed of all imperfections.

    Simplicity and repetition are key components of the best pop music, a fact Furler knows well and replicates across 1000 Forms of Fear. Its 12 tracks are named for key words or phrases sung in the choruses, usually leaning towards peculiar or memorable images (‘Hostage’, ‘Free the Animal’, ‘Eye of the Needle’). First single ‘Chandelier‘ is a stunning composition based on Furler’s experiences with alcoholism (“Keep my glass full until morning light / ‘Cause I’m just holding on for tonight”), while ‘Elastic Heart’ — which first appeared on a soundtrack last year — is a universal tale of human resilience.

    The instrumentation draws largely on keyboards, live drums, bass and guitar, though sparse piano is relied on for the album’s two big ballads, ‘Straight for the Knife‘ and ‘Cellophane’. Overall, its tones and moods are well-paced, with the poppiest tracks offsetting the slower tempos of the two ballads — tracks six and 11, respectively. Smartly, Furler saves her best for last. Six-minute epic ‘Dressed in Black’ ends 1000 Forms of Fear on a haunting note: in its final two minutes, Furler throws her all into impassioned, wordless vocalising amid dramatic chords, drawing a firm line under her best collection to date.

    LABEL: Monkey Puzzle/Inertia
    RATING: 4 stars

    ++

    Jonathan Boulet – Gubba

    Jonathan Boulet – 'Gubba' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2014The first time we heard Sydney songwriter Jonathan Boulet was five years ago, on a self-titled album that bubbled with nervous energy, clattering acoustic guitars and folk-rock sensibilities. It was a similar story with a stronger second album in 2012, yet Gubba heralds a considerable stylistic shift.

    Written, recorded and self-produced in Berlin, this third LP sees Boulet replacing acoustic instruments with distorted guitars and punishing drumbeats. Defined as “pop music with a scummy outer layer”, its 14 tracks are packed into 34 minutes and showcase Boulet’s previously hidden affinity for rock and heavy metal.

    We’ve known for five years he knows his way around writing a catchy song, and in that respect nothing has changed: although Gubba is noisier and more aggressive than its predecessors, musical and vocal hooks abound. Many of these songs are driven by fearsome bass grooves, most notably ‘Is Anybody Dooming’ and the Melvins-esque track ‘Bog’. Boulet is a notable drummer above all else, and innovative percussion is a consistent highlight.

    Five tracks fail to reach the 90-second mark and instead are used to showcase curious musical ideas that feel unfinished due to brevity. Of these shorter tracks, ‘Set It Off’ is the standout: its driving guitars call to mind New York noise rock band A Place to Bury Strangers. Gubba is best appreciated as an insight into the scattered mind of a talented songwriter whose musical abilities far outweigh his lyrical aptitude.

    LABEL: Popfrenzy
    RATING: 3.5 stars

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco’, July 2014

    A story for the July 19 issue of Qweekend magazine; a profile of Australian music entrepreneur Paul Piticco. The full story appears below.

    The Grass Is Greener

    Paul Piticco struck success while managing Powderfinger and now oversees an empire that stretches beyond music into events and hospitality

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Portrait photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    Five of the men who walk out onto Brisbane Riverstage on this warm Saturday night are well-known to the 10,000 fans in attendance, as together they have written some of Australia’s most popular songs. Between encores, though, another bloke in a grey suit with short black hair makes an appearance. Drummer Jon Coghill playfully wipes a towel across the stranger’s forehead. The band’s frontman approaches the microphone. “Ladies and gents, we have to introduce the virtual sixth member of Powderfinger: this is our manager,” says Bernard Fanning, gesturing to the man who is now copping a good-natured head-rub from guitarist Ian Haug. “He’s been our manager for the whole time. His name’s Paul Piticco. Put your hands together.”

    The crowd obliges. After he gives a few quick bows to the hill and to each of the bandmembers, Piticco waves and jogs back to the side of stage, seemingly embarrassed at such public attention.

    It’s 13 November, 2010, the night of Powderfinger’s final performance, a hometown send-off for the Brisbane quintet crowning a 34-date national tour that sold more than 300,000 tickets and grossed $30 million. After a final encore performance of ‘These Days’ and a group bow, Powderfinger ends its career on a high.

    The band’s achievements are remarkable. Among them, more than 2.5 million albums sold in Australia alone, 18 ARIA awards, five consecutive ARIA No 1 album debuts, and twice topping Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 music poll. Behind their artistry was the business brain of Paul “Teaks” Piticco, a self-taught entrepreneur whose beginning as the wet-behind-the-ears manager of a little-known Brisbane rock band expanded into successful stakes in music festivals, touring and publicity, two independent record labels and a recent foray into the restaurant business.

    As he tells it, Piticco’s achievements can be attributed to persistence, enthusiasm and a willingness to have a go. “That philosophy that you’re only as good as the last thing you do is something that I’ve always subscribed to,” he says. “That’s how you do great work: by being really interested, and by giving a shit about the outcome. I certainly don’t want to die wondering.”

    It wasn’t always thus, according to Coghill, the last member to join Powderfinger, completing the quintet’s line-up in late 1991. In the 2011 band biography, Footprints, the drummer recalled his first impressions of the men with whom he’d spend the next two decades: “They were just these potheads who used to sit around the lounge smoking,” he said. “And Teaks was the ringleader … I remember that night [we met] he showed me this massive marijuana plant he had in the back yard. It was four metres high and two metres wide. I think before Teaks was the manager of the band, he was the manager of the lounge room and the bong.”

    ++

    An only child born to Sernando and Carmel at the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital on March 7, 1969, Paul Anthony Piticco grew up in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Paddington and attended Petrie Terrace State School. He loved school because it was his first chance to measure himself against others. “Maybe that was the germination of my competitive streak,” he says with a smile.

    His father had emigrated to Australia from Italy at age 19, carrying only a suitcase and $10. He cut cane in North Queensland, bought a house in Brisbane and started a construction business. Piticco says Sernando advised his son to “figure your own shit out” and learn from his mistakes. Carmel – who worked part-time jobs in nursing and education – encouraged Paul to spring out of bed in the morning, follow his dreams and do what makes him smile.

    His parents’ record collection was “diabolical”, so it wasn’t until he started at Kelvin Grove State High in Brisbane’s inner north-west that Piticco’s musical horizons expanded. When KISS played at Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) in 1980, he snuck down Ranley Grove onto Given Terrace and watched them through the fence. It was the first time Piticco made a connection between hearing a song on the radio and tens of thousands of fans going to see a band play live in a stadium. He was enthralled, and started buying cassettes and vinyl – David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits – while learning guitar and saxophone, both of which he failed to practise. At 15, he’d take a square of cardboard to Queen Street Mall and attempt to breakdance while dressed in baggy pants. This phase soon passed – as Piticco puts it, “The world moved on, and I moved with it.”

    It was during his first job, as a paperboy selling the Telegraph, that Piticco established his work ethic. He determined how to achieve the maximum return with the smallest effort by catching customers at the former Arnott’s biscuit factory on Coronation Drive when shifts were crossing over. A regular clientele earned the ten-year-old hefty tips for his value-adding personal touches, such as handing over the paper with the sports page or the horoscopes facing up, ready to read.

    In his mid-teens, Piticco worked weekend nights at the 24-hour Windmill Cafe on Petrie Terrace, where he learned how to be patient with intoxicated people, which he notes has “come in handy working in bars, venues and festivals in the years to come”. He completed Year 10 at Kelvin Grove High but dropped out part way into the following year. “My passion for study declined rapidly,” he says, after he discovered smoking and drinking.

    In his late teens, Piticco tried working part-time for his father and uncle’s construction business. It didn’t take. “I didn’t want to work a manual job, grinding it out in the sun like my dad. I knew that I wanted something different; I just didn’t know what it was yet.” It was around this time that he discovered cannabis. “There was a fair degree of overlap between my pot-smoking days and my lost years,” he says. “It just heightened all my senses in terms of listening to music and having a good time. In a stereotypical way, it was a countercultural way to rebel as a late teen.”

    At the time, Piticco worked as a steel sales representative for Boral and lived in a share house in the western suburb of Indooroopilly. One night, he and housemate Ian Haug went for a drive, and the guitarist asked his friend whether he’d be interested in managing Powderfinger as Haug had grown tired of juggling his band’s business interests and writing music.

    “He knew nothing about the music industry; we gave him an opportunity because we could see something in him,” says Haug. “We needed a ‘bad cop’, and he was a good bad cop. We didn’t want to be the ones ringing up bikers saying ‘pay us our money’. He had to be the tough guy. And Piticco’s a pretty tough name.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph of Powderfinger in 1991; Piticco is third from left.Bassist John Collins saw it another way: “We thought, if he could sell steel, he could sell rock.” With the assistance of a lawyer, the band drew up a management contract which determined that everything outside of the actual music-making would be split six ways. “After that contract lapsed, we worked with him without a contract for most of our career,” says Haug. “Probably in retrospect it wasn’t a wise business decision for the band, but he did a good job for us.”

    It took years before the band started seeing any real money for their efforts. “As a manager, you’re only ever as good as your band,” Piticco says. “Your fates are hitched in a fiscal sense.” As Powderfinger’s star ascended, the six men named on the contract came into good money following years of low-income toil. “Money was always much more important to Paul than the rest of us,” says singer Bernard Fanning. “We were always surprised by the fact that we actually earned a living and made money out of being musicians. Paul has always liked the idea of money, and the potential of it, rather than the actual act of splashing out and buying a fancy bottle of champagne.”

    Haug suggests Piticco didn’t change much throughout the band’s two-decade career. “He’s just loaded now, whereas he used to be flat broke,” he laughs. The entrepreneur reinvested his earnings into the industry, forming an artist management company, Secret Service. His independent record label, Dew Process, was established in 2002 and has released popular albums by international acts such as Mumford & Sons, The Hives and London Grammar as well as Australian artists The Living End, Sarah Blasko and, of course, Bernard Fanning. Album sales still account for the majority of the label’s income. In 2012, Piticco established another record label, Create/Control, which in effect turns the old business model on its head by partnering with acts to distribute and market music they’ve funded and recorded themselves.

    In conjunction with Powderfinger’s longtime booking agent, Jessica Ducrou, he established Splendour In The Grass, an annual multi-day music festival – being staged at North Byron Parklands next weekend – sidestepping the competitive summer circuit. All 27,500 tickets to this year’s event, headlined by Outkast, Lily Allen and Two Door Cinema Club, were sold within hours of going on sale. “Paul and I have done all sorts of glamorous jobs – directing traffic, picking up garbage,” says Ducrou, 44. “He’s really positive, he mucks in. He has no airs and graces. He’ll do whatever is required.” The pair’s Secret Sounds touring company has also invested in The Falls Festival, traditionally a southern (Tasmania and Victoria) camping event which debuted in Byron Bay in late 2013.

    Critics point out that a handful of Piticco’s acts inevitably appear on Splendour’s bill each year, a tradition that stretches back to the first event in 2001, headlined by Powderfinger. “Why wouldn’t you book yourself?” asks Patience Hodgson, singer of Piticco-managed Brisbane pop band The Grates. “Paul doesn’t take any commission when we play Splendour, and that’s to lower his invested interest.”

    If such criticisms are laid at Piticco’s feet, so be it. He’s happy to wear the tar and feathers if it means his artists stay squeaky clean. “If people hate him, but love the band, he totally understands that’s fine,” says Hodgson. “He’s not trying to protect himself; the band always comes first. If he’s offered a gig and thinks we should be paid more money, he asks. I really appreciate that, because I could never do that for myself; I wouldn’t want to seem like a dick or be rude. Paul is happy to ask, and if people say no, he doesn’t feel shame.”

    ++

    Piticco has one favourite album – DeadSexy by little-known Rhode Island (US) alternative rock band Scarce – and two favourite songs: ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie and ‘The Funeral’ by Seattle rock act Band of Horses, who he has booked to play Splendour twice. His favourite Powderfinger album is 1998’s Internationalist. When asked to name a favourite song, he deliberates for two minutes. “The one that makes me feel and think most positively about the band is ‘Sunsets’,” he replies, referring to a single from 2003’s Vulture Street album. “Amongst all those anthems that they wrote, that one, to me, sounds and feels like Australian music at that time. It definitely pulls at my heartstrings.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAt 45, Piticco is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2014, he seems to have his fingers in more pies than ever before. “There’s a good balance between Paul being a serious, effective entrepreneur and knowing how to switch off and have fun, and not take things too seriously,” says Ducrou. For his 40th birthday, Piticco booked an AC/DC tribute band to play at the property near Mount Warning in northern NSW where he lives with his partner of 15 years, Lisa Wickbold, and their children Phoebe, 7, Ivy, 5, and Darby, 3.

    It takes considerable drive and intensity to create record labels, music festivals, national tours and artistic careers out of thin air, especially when based outside of the traditional Australian music business seats of power in Sydney and Melbourne. For Piticco and Powderfinger, moving south never appealed. “We were regularly encouraged to leave by labels, agents, promoters and other bands; ‘Come down here, it’ll be better, there are more opportunities!’” he says. “Brisbane had value to us. It wasn’t just more affordable, it provided a framework and an emotional base. Our social networks were here. It’s something we’ve always been proud of, this city. There was never any doubt. I’m glad we stayed.”

    The sun sets over the Brisbane skyline on a recent cool evening as we sit at a table in South Bank restaurant Popolo, which Piticco co-founded in late 2011 with restaurateur Andrew Baturo and Denis Sheahan, Powderfinger’s former tour manager. Its name is Italian for people, in reference to the menu’s inclination towards shared dishes. While we talk, plates are laid out in quick succession. It’s far too much food for two men; Piticco jokes that his children will have some interesting leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

    In addition to Popolo, Piticco co-owns a stake in CBD venue The Gresham Bar, which opened late last year. This left turn into the hospitality industry has been on the cards for years. “The chef is the artist, the restaurateur is the producer,” Piticco says. “The chef serves up his works; the producer critiques them, works out which ones are going to be the hits, which ones will pad out the menu. Instead of listening, you taste. The ambience is the marketing and packaging – the visual representation – but the real thing that makes a successful restaurant is the food. It’s just as it is in the music industry: a lot of bad bands have an image, but the songs are really the meat of the proposition.”

    Observing the detritus of a fine meal, Piticco sums up his life so far in simple terms. “I’ve always had this theory that stems from my mum,” he says. “Whether you’re a chimney sweep, a brain surgeon or a band manager, if you’re good at what you do, the rest takes care of itself. I just like having the opportunity to make a living out of music, for myself and others, and along the way make a whole bunch of people happy by enriching their lives in some way. And to get paid for it? That’s fucking awesome!

    Splendour In The Grass, July 25-27, North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay. splendourinthegrass.com 

  • Announcing my first book, ‘Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs’, July 2014

    I’m proud to share the news that my first book will be published on 23 July 2014, via University of Queensland Press. Back cover blurb below.

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen

    'Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs' by Andrew McMillen – book coverOf all the creative industries, the most distinct link between drug use and creativity lies within music. The two elements seem to be intertwined, inseparable; that mythical phrase “sex, drugs and rock and roll” has been bandied about with a wink and a grin for decades. But is it all smoke and mirrors, or does that cliché ring true for some of our best-known performers?

    In this fascinating book, journalist Andrew McMillen talks with Australian musicians about their thoughts on – and experiences with – illicit, prescription and legal drugs. Through a series of in-depth and intimate interviews, he tells the stories of those who have bitten into the forbidden fruit and avoided choking.

    This isn’t to say that stories of ruin and redemption are avoided – they’re not. These celebrated performers have walked the straight-and-narrow path of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and prescription medication, as well as the supposedly dark-and-crooked road of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin and methamphetamine.

    By having conversations about something that’s rarely discussed in public, and much less often dealt with honestly, McMillen explores the truths and realities of a contentious topic that isn’t going away.

    Talking Smack is a timely, thought-provoking must-read that takes you inside the highs and lows of some of our most successful and creative musicians, including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Gotye, Steve Kilbey (The Church), Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon) and Holly Throsby.

    For more about Talking Smack, view the below book trailer (designed by Brisbane studio IV Motion) and visit the standalone website at talkingsmack.com.au.

    The trailer premiered at Australian music website FasterLouder yesterday with a feature interview entitled ‘6 myths about drug taking in the Australian music community‘ published by the site’s editor-in-chief Darren Levin, who first began editing my work at Mess+Noise five years ago. This interview will tell you a little about the book’s origins and my personal interest in the topic of drug use.

    Talking Smack will be available in print and e-book format from 23 July 2014 via all good bookstores and UQP’s website. In the meantime, I encourage you to make an enquiry via Brisbane bookstore Avid Reader, who will be hosting my book launch on Thursday 21 August.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Game Plan: Midnight Basketball’, June 2014

    A story for the June 14 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears underneath; click the below image to view as a PDF.

    Game Plan

    A weekly basketball tournament for Toowoomba teenagers provides much more than sport participation – life-changing inspiration, for starters.

    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: Russell Shakespeare

    'Game Plan: Midnight Basketball' story by Andrew McMillen in Qweekend, June 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    The 198cm giant towers over the dozens of teenagers seated at his feet on a chilly Friday evening at Harristown State High School, south Toowoomba. “Some of us in this group are less fortunate,” he says, stern-faced. “Some in this group know what it feels like to have a really rough day.”

    The giant knows all about rough days. Growing up on in Chicago, Illinois, Willie Farley remembers “a lot of dark clouds in our house” when his grandmother, a nurse, left to work the late shift. He speaks of his early experiences of abuse in veiled language while clasping his hands behind his back. “The only thing that kept me going was that thing in your hands right now,” he says, pointing at a boy holding a basketball.

    His audience is sitting on a court purpose-built for that very activity. They listen to his ten-minute talk in respectful silence. “Make sure you understand why you’re here. You’re not here to cough all night,” the 38 year-old says, glaring at a girl at his feet who can’t control a tickle in her throat; his remonstration draws a murmur of laughter from her peers. “Make sure you’re not afraid to ask questions. And listen. You’ll be surprised what you learn. I know some of y’all have cousins and brothers who need to be here; make sure they’re here, too.”

    Farley is the player-coach of Queensland Basketball League team Toowoomba Mountaineers. Previously, a career in the National Basketball League saw him play for the West Sydney Razorbacks and the Adelaide 36ers in the early 2000s. His formidable presence here at Harristown High on the first night of the 2014 Midnight Basketball tournament lends the affair legitimacy. He’s someone for the teenagers to look up to; someone who overcame his early struggles to become a professional athlete and a responsible, intelligent adult.

    Earlier, tournament night manager Shane Adshead had addressed the motley, noisy group for the first time, while a dozen adult volunteers looked on. “Who can guess which town or city in Queensland is the first place to run Midnight Basketball?” he asked. The answer came quickly. “That’s right, Toowoomba. We’re still the only place in Queensland that runs it.”

    The inner-city Sydney suburb of Redfern hosted Australia’s first such event in 2007, and this evening’s program began with Adshead introducing some of the imported rules. Among them: all players must take the bus home unless a parent has provided written instructions to the contrary; foul play will result in yellow and red cards; if you miss two weeks in a row, you can’t come back; and, most importantly: “no workshop, no jumpshot”. These Friday night events are a package deal – in order to play each week, the teens must sit through mandatory “life skills” classes led by guests from fields such as employment, financial management and mental health.

    'Game Plan: Midnight Basketball' story by Andrew McMillen in Qweekend, June 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAdshead then asked the crowd to suggest their own rules by raising their hands. He wrote their responses in thick block letters on a large sheet of paper stuck to the wall. No swearing. Play fair. Don’t leave the building. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Respect. This last word was underlined at the bottom of the page and prompted a discussion about its definition, which included “no racism”. Satisfied with their additions, Adshead concluded: “If we can live up to these rules, we’re going to have a really enjoyable eight weeks. We’re going to get to meet new friends, and have some really healthy competition as well. Is there anyone here who cannot live up to these rules?” No hands went up.

    ++

    Having already been split into six teams differentiated by coloured singlets, the 54 teens leave to begin shooting hoops. The sound of bouncing balls fills the hall while Darren Mentor, 41, tall, bespectacled and dressed in a grey tracksuit, looks on. Mentor’s surname is apt, as he was the founding director of Midnight Basketball in Redfern. He is president of the Toowoomba Basketball Association committee in addition to his role as patron of this tournament, which debuted in October 2013.

    “About ten years ago, I was doing research about different basketball programs in the United States,” he says. The original Midnight Basketball was established in the state of Maryland, Mentor says, “to combat gangs and gun crime for 18 to 29-year-olds. Here, we specifically target 12 to 18-year-olds. We’re not a youth organisation, as such; we’re just another part of the puzzle. We come in twice a year to help get kids off the street; to try and teach them some life skills.”

    With assistance from many departments within the federal government and sponsorship from the Commonwealth Bank, 28 Midnight Basketball tournaments now take place nationwide in locations including Alice Springs, Geelong and Geraldton. Of its 60,000 participants over the past seven years, 65 per cent have been indigenous Australians.

    While Mentor stands on the sidelines, the six team coaches wrangle their energetic charges into groups of nine. Across two adjacent courts at Harristown High, the rest of the night follows a structured round robin tournament with four teams playing at a time, while the two remaining groups cheer and restlessly wait their turn. The standard of play is high, if a little scrappy at times. All of the players seem to understand the fundamentals of the game, and ball-hogging is kept to a minimum so everyone gets a turn to shoot, pass, dribble and defend. As this is the first night of an eight-week tournament, there are no workshops; instead, three-and-a-half hours of competitive basketball punctuated by some high-energy ball-skill drills as midnight draws nearer.

    Adshead, a 35 year-old youth worker with a friendly manner, is overjoyed to see that, from the beginning, the teams end each game by shaking hands without being prompted by an adult. “How many places do you see African, Asian, indigenous and white kids playing together?” the tournament manager asks.

    Harry Spencer, 65, is the tournament’s committee chair and a recent retiree from the University of Southern Queensland. This year he is celebrating his 50th anniversary of basketball coaching by spending his Friday nights here at Harristown High. Decades ago, he coached Darren Mentor in the QBL; when his former pupil called and mentioned this idea, Spencer signed up on the spot. He points out that many of the children here tonight have backgrounds of limited means. These kids couldn’t afford to pay the registration fees set by competitive leagues. Midnight Basketball is free, and its significant running costs remain entirely hidden to the players.

    Some of the players are clad in bright branded basketball attire, but many are in the same functional footwear and clothing that they wear each day. Some come from broken homes, live with single parents, have experienced abuse, or fit into none of the above categories. Some attend private schools and have had comfortable, privileged upbringings. The program does not discriminate: if the kids want to be here and their parents give consent, they’re welcomed with open arms.

    At a quarter to midnight, it’s 11 degrees and the kids are sitting comfortably on a bus supplied by local business Stonestreet’s. Some of them have a long journey ahead of them. Since it’s the first night of the year, the bus route will be improvised by a driver studying printed maps of the surrounding suburbs.

    Marshalling the teenagers and keeping spirits high is silver-haired, mustachioed tournament security officer Wayne Clarke, 48, a well-known local identity who has his own Facebook page and more than 6000 followers. Clarke will learn tonight that some of these kids live down streets too narrow for the bus, so he’ll walk them a couple of hundred metres to their front door. He’ll wait to sight their thumbs-up from inside before continuing the process until all of his charges are delivered home. It’ll be two in the morning before he’s in bed.

    ++

    The teenagers think they’re here to play basketball. The adults know that what happens on the court is only part of the whole. In the same way that a crafty parent might introduce cauliflower to a fussy eater by masking its taste with mashed potato, these Friday night meetings contain a raft of implicit benefits that begin with the hot, nutritious meal dished up by Rotary Club. Tonight, three weeks after the first games of the 2014 tournament, a barbecue buffet of steak, sausages, rissoles and salad is on offer.

    “There’s a couple of good carrots for them here,” Adshead notes. “Years ago, when I started a sports program, an indigenous worker told me, ‘if you can feed them, they will come’. I always put ‘free food’ on the posters, in writing just as big as what sport we were playing.” After this evening’s cohort of 57 – up three from the first week’s attendance – have had their fill, two big boxes of fresh fruit supplied by local grocer Bou-Samra’s are set out between the two courts. By night’s end, they’re empty.

    Upstairs, in a classroom with the furniture stacked to one side, Midnight Basketball’s motto of “no workshop, no jumpshot” is in full effect. Phil Renata, a stocky 57 year-old who owns the nearby Team Ngapuhi kickboxing gym, stands while addressing the 20 members of the green and white teams between games. “No one can change who you are; you’ve got to develop who you are, and that’s what we’re here for,” says Renata, gesturing at the four imposing men seated behind him. “It’s all about making yourself better. Maybe you’d like to be like…” Renata pauses. “Who’s a famous sportsman?” A tall girl suggests LeBron James, the 29 year-old Miami Heat basketball. “You might think, ‘I want to be like LeBron James. Nah, I want to be better than him!’ Don’t just be like him; give it 100 per cent. Don’t go in 50 per cent, because you’ll end up hurt.”

    'Game Plan: Midnight Basketball' story by Andrew McMillen in Qweekend, June 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareTalk turns to respect. Renata asks his four kickboxers, three of whom are brothers, what it means to them. Junior Milo, 17, is the shyest of the bunch. “When I was growing up in New Zealand, I lived across from a gang area,” he says. “I saw a lot of fights and stuff…” He pauses. “So I made sure I respected them.” The adults and children explode with laughter. His brother Justin, 20, was training with NRL club Melbourne Storm a couple of years ago before a back injury ended his league career, and he turned to Muay Thai kickboxing instead. “When you respect people, you learn from them,” he says quietly. “I trained with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk; I respected them because they’re successful, and that’s what I aspired to be. But by respecting everyone, you can learn off other people, and it kind of makes you a better person at the end of the day.”

    Renata acknowledges that the teenagers won’t remember everything said in this room, but they’ll take away the parts that resonate. The four fighters sitting before the teenagers are evidence of how discipline, direction and education can orient lives in a positive direction.

    Gerard, the eldest Milo brother at 22, tells the room he’s one year away from completing a Bachelor of Science degree. “What got me there was hard work. Talent can only get you so far. I was really dumb when I was little,” he says, prompting more laughter. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it,” he adds. “I wasn’t that smart, but the brain is like a muscle. You can train it. You’re not born smart. Hard work gets you what you want.”

    These words might resonate, or they might be forgotten as soon as the teenagers head off to the next game. They might have detected the cauliflower within the mash but decided it didn’t taste so bad after all.

    As the night winds down, the weekly best and fairest awards are handed out. In turn, each team’s coach announces a winner; players rise to their feet to accept the awards and shake the adult’s hand, while the crowd applauds their efforts. “Thanks for another great night,” says Adshead. “We’ll see you next week.”

    ++

    The Toowoomba Midnight Basketball grand final is on Friday, June 20. www.midnightbasketball.org.au

  • Red Bull story: ‘Inside The Mind of Aaron Bruno: AWOLNATION’, March 2014

    A story for Red Bull about the electronic rock band AWOLNATION. Excerpt below.

    Inside The Mind of Aaron Bruno
    by Andrew McMillen

    'Inside The Mind of Aaron Bruno' AWOLNATION story by Andrew McMillen for Red Bull, May 2014

    Chapter One: Nation Builder

    Minutes before the stage lights dim and he walks out on stage with his bandmates, Aaron Bruno carves out a few moments for quiet reflection. Long ago, his father handed over a nylon-string guitar and taught his son the rhythm part to ‘La Bamba’. While his old man played the lead riff and nodded in appreciation, the young boy became hooked by the strange power of these sounds.

    While the blonde Californian sits in silence, ruminating on a career marked by a series of draining trials that were passed only through sheer bloody-minded persistence, he’s drawn back to the present by a familiar, intoxicating sound. A smile spreads across his face as adrenaline courses through his body. There are no nerves, now, only excitement. Just out of sight, a teeming crowd is chanting the name of his band, over and over: AWOLNATION.

    It wasn’t always like this. There weren’t always chanting crowds and wistful backstage smiles. Aaron Bruno knows all too well the stinging disappointment of pouring his heart into music that doesn’t connect with the public. He has learned that there are few worse feelings than spending years honing songs and sounds that remain largely unheard.

    There’s an empty desolation that comes with playing show after poorly attended show; with releasing albums that gather dust on store shelves and in unsold boxes. All those long hours and spent energy – for what?

    Five minutes into AWOLNATION’s debut album, Megalithic Symphony, the singer – who wrote all of its music and lyrics – introduces the fourth track with a heartfelt message to his new legion of followers. “Thank you for listening again,” Aaron says over dramatic synth chords in the opening seconds of ‘People’. “Or for the first time, or for the last time. We share this moment, and I am grateful for this.” It’s the kind of genuine appreciation that could only come from a performer with over a decade of skin in the game, so to speak; from someone who knows what it feels like to be on the wrong side of popularity.

    “I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” he says. “I’ve been in two bands that were signed to different labels. We had all the hopes in the world to have some great success, and none of it really worked out that way.” Throughout his career, it’s been a case of two steps forward, one step back; an ongoing battle of attack and retreat, fought within the boundaries of several distinct musical genres, culminating with the electronic rock of his latest project. “So this time around, when AWOLNATION started to take off,” he says, “I feel it was well-deserved, if I may say so.”

    To read the full story, visit Red Bull’s website.

    Elsewhere: I also wrote about electronic production duo TNGHT for Red Bull in early 2014.

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, April – May 2014: Future Islands, Astronomy Class, DZ Deathrays

    Three reviews published in The Weekend Australian in April and May 2014.

    Future Islands – Singles

    Future Islands – 'Singles' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, April 2014Four albums and eight years into its career, this Baltimore pop trio has hit its stride with Singles, a 10-song collection that all but lives up to its title. The band’s previous release, 2011’s On the Water, was memorable but lacked the consistent hooks that set Singles apart. The songs are assembled with the usual suspects on keyboards, bass, guitar and drums, but vocalist Sam Herring dominates.

    Even after cycling through every synonym for “unique”, I fall short of capturing what Herring offers. He possesses an improbably wide vocal range, from sweet high melodies to a surprising death-metal growl that makes a brief appearance in ‘Fall from Grace’, but he has the emotive weight to sell the lovelorn concepts that take centre-stage. There’s no room for second-guessing his sincerity. Herring is as compelling a frontman as I’ve heard in any genre, let alone in the pleasant pop music with which Future Islands concerns itself.

    This point of difference is worth the price of admission, yet the leap forward in songwriting that William Cashion (bass, guitar) and Gerrit Welmers (keyboards, guitar, programming) have assembled around Herring is remarkable. Standout moments include the driving guitars on album opener ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’, the sighing synth sounds in ‘Doves’ and the poignant mood that imbues ‘A Song for Our Grandfathers’.

    It’s to the trio’s credit that all 10 tracks are uniformly strong. Naming an album Singles takes no small amount of self-confidence, yet in this case it’s well-earned.

    LABEL: 4AD/Remote Control
    RATING: 4 stars

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    Astronomy Class – Mekong Delta Sunrise

    Astronomy Class – 'Mekong Delta Sunrise' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, April 2014For all the great strides that the genre has made since attaining critical mass more than a decade ago, Australian hip-hop can tend to mine the same soil over and over. Familiar thematic tropes have become entrenched in the minds of artists and audiences; to pursue sounds from outside of that comfort zone is to risk alienating listeners.

    For that reason, this is an ideal third full-length release for an established hip-hop trio whose reggae-influenced 2006 debut Exit Strategy sounded unlike anything else circulating at the time. So, too, does Mekong Delta Sunrise, an album overflowing with original ideas that again separates Sydney-based Astronomy Class from the usual suspects.

    By immersing itself in Cambodian culture, the trio has tapped into a rich vein of stories and sounds. Gifted MC Ozi Batla (The Herd) is the perceptive guide through this unfamiliar territory; his fantastic wordplay is a consistent highlight, but the way his percussive voice bends around the two evocative verses of ‘Four Barang in a Tuk-tuk’ may be a career highlight. The musical accompaniment layered by producers Chasm and Sir Robbo bustles with traditional basslines and beats offset by local instrumentation and samples, while many of the chorus hooks are beautifully sung in the mother tongue of Cambodian Space Project singer Srey Channthy. This is far from opportunistic cultural tourism; instead, a compelling and unique snapshot of a band extending itself and succeeding. Too brief at 37 minutes, Mekong Delta Sunrise makes clear that Astronomy Class has a deep respect for the country that has inspired its third — and best — album.

    LABEL: Elefant Traks
    RATING: 4.5 stars

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    DZ Deathrays – Black Rat

    DZ Deathrays – 'Black Rat' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2014Two years between releases finds this Brisbane duo evolving beyond its self-dubbed “thrash party” roots in favour of songwriting maturity. It’s taking a risk of alienating their established fan base but, to DZ Deathrays’ credit, it works. This new sound suits the pair better than the comparatively juvenile approach heard on the ARIA award-winning 2012 debut Bloodstreams and its preceding EPs.

    Shane Parsons’s penchant for catchy, effects-heavy guitar riffs hasn’t diminished, nor has Simon Ridley’s hard-hitting work behind the kit, yet these 11 tracks represent a significant step forward. Aside from the monstrous headbanger ‘Reflective Skull’ — the heaviest track they’ve released to date — the mosh-friendly moments of their early career are largely toned down. Instead, the pair demonstrates a firmer grasp on the mechanics of writing memorable, replay-friendly songs within the limited confines of guitar, drums and vocals.

    This compact format is ideal for the live circuit, a realm wherein DZ Deathrays has plenty of experience both nationally and overseas. Parsons mentions in the promotional material that “all we’ve done for two years is drink and tour”; fittingly, the bones of Black Rat were formed while on the road.

    Lyrical depth or complexity has never been high on the duo’s priorities, and here, the trend of serviceable but unremarkable hooks continues. Parsons’s tortured yowl remains a central force, but it’s just as often superseded by a more confident singing voice, and several tracks feature pretty vocal melodies. The subdued verses and explosive choruses of ‘Keep Myself on Edge’ contain shades of Brisbane labelmate Violent Soho, whose successful sonic evolution on last year’s Hungry Ghost has undoubtedly been studied closely by many rock acts around the country.

    Like that band, however, DZ Deathrays’ chief appeal is huge riffs and punchy percussion. On that front, Black Rat certainly delivers. Parsons describes it as “definitely a night-time record. After 9pm; that’s where it finds its place.” He’s right.

    Distinctive first single, ‘Northern Lights’, is an impressive departure from the duo’s regular formula; its busy follow-up, ‘Gina Works at Hearts’ — written from the perspective of a stripper who “just loves the attention” — could have been a Bloodstreams B-side. This stylistic seesawing is typical of Black Rat.

    It’s not quite a classic — album No 3, perhaps? — but it’s the sound of a confident band torn between its populist, party-friendly beginnings and a new-found ability to embrace glimpses of beauty amid the sonic destruction.

    LABEL: I Oh You
    RATING: 3.5 stars