All posts in Music Journalism

  • Red Bull story: ‘It Took Two: TNGHT’, January 2014

    A story for Red Bull about the electronic production duo TNGHT. Excerpt below.

    It Took Two
    by Andrew McMillen

    Red Bull story: 'It Took Two' by Andrew McMillen, about the electronic production duo TNGHT, January 2014

    Chapter One: Like Minds Attract

    The two young men stand in a small room, each holding a laptop and silently sizing up one another. One is a lanky, pale Scotsman named Ross; he is better known as Hudson Mohawke. The other, a shorter Canadian with Haitian ancestry, is named Lunice both on stage and in person. Following their work, it’s pretty obvious what both men specialise in: creating beats and layering melodies that convince even the most dance-averse to join the surging throng that crowds the stage.

    Exchanging pleasantries and making small talk backstage at festivals is one thing. To make music together is something else entirely. Though Ross and Lunice both possess extraordinarily high musical IQs, their keen ears don’t necessarily hear the same things. Nor is it a guarantee that they’ll be able to tolerate another living, breathing presence in the recording studio. Electronic music production is a pursuit that demands isolation, introspection and patience. Doubling the humans in the room rarely doubles the quality of the music. As they plug in their laptops, power up the sound system and crack their knuckles in anticipation of the work ahead, both men know that this collaboration, named TNGHT, will either be a disaster or a roaring success.

    It helped that they both had the exact same equipment at that crucial first session. “That’s been an issue for me before – you get in the studio with someone who’s in there using something else,” Ross says. He gives a heavy sigh to indicate his frustration. “It’s a hassle to get parts from one computer, take a USB drive, put it in this shit” When he and Lunice got together, there were no such impediments to creativity, as “it’s more simple to just do it on one computer.”

    The pair of them had both been using the FruityLoops digital audio workstation software for years, but their set-up was identical, even down to the Virtual Studio Technology interface and the plug-ins they both used. This partnership was clearly meant to be. “What’s funny is that we approach it completely different,” Lunice says. We use the same things, but how I see him work is sort of how you’d see somebody work with an operating system; they’d hit ‘search’ instead of just writing right away. And I guess that’s how the whole jam [mentality] comes from, because we’re not specifically [making] anything, we just make it happen.” Ross nods at his musical partner while sipping a gin and tonic through a straw, and says, “Lunice would do things that I would never think to do, and likewise.”

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

  • The Vine live review: Big Day Out Gold Coast, January 2014

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Big Day Out 2014
    Metricon Stadium & Carrara Parklands, Gold Coast
    Sunday 19 January 2014 

    The Vine live review: Big Day Out Gold Coast, January 2014, by Andrew McMillen. Photo credit: Justin Edwards

    I love music.

    That’s about the most banal opening sentence to a live music review that you’ve ever read, but it’s worth dwelling upon a little here at the outset.

    Music has been a huge part of my life and identity for as long as I can remember. I am obsessed. If I’m not listening to music on speakers or headphones I’m thinking about it, humming or singing a melody, or learning how to play songs on guitar. It occupies my every waking moment. I love music and the Big Day Out has been a consistent, reliable lightning rod for that cause since I first attended in 2005. I’ve only missed one year (2010) since. As long as they keep booking excellent lineups, I’ll keep walking through these gates on a Sunday in January.

    Today heralds a shift in venue for the Gold Coast event, from the usual Parklands to a football stadium and its surrounds. It works well. The arena and its grandstands are where the main stages are housed; elsewhere, three big tents for the smaller acts. There are no problems getting around. Full credit to the organisers here, because to let loose tens of thousands of people in a new environment and to keep it all running smoothly is a remarkable feat indeed. We festival-goers are a fickle lot, generally quick to criticise an event’s logistical shortcomings, but today there’s literally nothing to bitch about. Amazing.

    When reviewing shows I tend to keep an air of bookish distance from the source material. In the past I’ve been the guy near the sound desk with his arms crossed, nodding his head and occasionally tapping a foot; always an observer, rarely a participant. As of today I’ve thrown all that shit out the window in favour of embracing the obvious: dancing. Clearly my past self is an idiot because this is a total revelation: I haven’t ever had this much fun at a festival.

    The first act to loosen my limbs is Toro Y Moi, about whom I knew nothing prior to wandering in under the Red Stage tent and finding myself in the funky soundtrack to a spy film. I especially enjoy the contrast between the studious-looking guitarist, with sensible haircut and collared shirt, against the rock-dog bassist with shaggy long hair, shades and singlet. Earlier, Bluejuice brightened my day with sunny pop songs, shiny gold Freddie Mercury outfits and good humour. And I’m the kind of arsehole who thinks that The Drones soundchecking sounds better than most rock bands in the world, so it’s no surprise that I award their set today full marks. I’m up against the barrier for the first time at a Drones show and it’s a nice change to see how the songs work up close.

    Guitarist Dan Luscombe thanks us for opting to see them over Tame Impala at the main stage, joking that at least a few people think The Drones are the better option. One band writes pop songs about elephants, among other topics; the other opens with a depressing eight-minute narrative about climate change and how fucked humans are as a species. (Not too many teenage girls seeing The Drones, I note.) I love both bands and I’m glad that I catch Impala’s tailing pair of ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ and ‘Apocalypse Dreams’, the latter being an incredible wash of sound that proves that Kevin Parker wasn’t fucking with TheVine when he told us that the band recently found a new way to finish their set.

    For the full review and photos, visit The Vine. Above photo credit: Justin Edwards.

  • The Vine live review: Falls Festival 2013 Byron Bay, January 2014

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Falls Festival 2013
    North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay
    Monday 30 December 2013 – Friday 3 January 2014

    The Vine live review: Falls Festival 2013 Byron Bay, January 2014, by Andrew McMillen. Photo credit: Tim da-Rin

    Mid-morning on the last day of 2013 and the second day of the inaugural Falls Festival in Byron Bay, a perky female staff member drops by our campsite with a clipboard and four questions for our group of thirteen to consider. On a scale of one to five, how would you rate getting to and setting up your campsite? One, we reply. How would you rate the camping amenities? Three. Not camping with your car? Zero. Overall camping vibe? Three.

    Clearly, our spirits are fairly low at this stage. For good reason: the day before, we had discovered that the supposed “short walk” between car park and campsite mentioned on the event website was a laughable lie; at least a kilometre separated our two locations, and when you’re carrying eskies, tents, gazebos, water and food supplies in the middle of a hot day, that’s no joke. It took our group at least three returns journeys on foot each, and around five hours before we were fully set up and able to collapse into chairs, exhausted. Quite the opposite of fun; instead, plenty of sweat, frustration and cursing.

    But music is the reason many of us are here, though there’s also an ‘arts’ component to the festival that’s largely confined to ‘The Village’, an eccentric section of the grounds that’s good for one stoned gawk and not much more. There are two main stages – the Amphitheatre, and the Forest – both of which offer fantastic views from wide and high angles. Local acts play between midday and midnight on a handful of smaller stages. The overall effect is one of overwhelming and occasionally disorienting noise. If you’re looking for silence, this festival is not for you: some form of music can be heard from seemingly every corner of the enormous grounds.

    The first act I see is Tom Thum, a Brisbane-born beatboxer who impresses a bustling Amphitheatre crowd with little more than his voice, microphone and looping devices. Having spent some time with Thum a few months ago while profiling him for Qweekend, I know his repertoire and abilities better than most, but I’m still bowled over by his talent like everyone else. This might be the purest musical experience I see all festival. A truly charismatic showman, Tom Thum possesses a unique and priceless musical brain. His half-hour set passes in the blink of an eye. I can’t imagine a human looking on his performance not being impressed or moved.

    The Roots (above) play the same stage later that night to bring in the new year; as much as I love them, their set feels like a major missed opportunity. Among only a handful of recognisable tunes – ‘The Fire’, ‘The Seed (2.0)’, ‘You Got Me’, ‘Proceed’ – they fall into the role of Jimmy Fallon’s house band far too easily, offering up a slew of covers (‘Jungle Boogie’, ‘Immigrant Song’, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’) and extended instrumental solos that drag rather than thrill. I’d liked to have heard more of the music that has made them widely respected masters of the genre. The entire hill moves to their music, of course, and it’s certainly a memorable way to see in 2014, but this group has written so many hip-hop classics – and visited this country so rarely – that what could easily have been an A+ night is instead a B.

    For the full review and photos, visit The Vine. Above photo credit: Tim da-Rin.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Beat Generator: Tom Thum’, October 2013

    A story for The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine, originally published in the October 26-27 2013 issue. Click the below image to view as a PDF, or read the full story underneath.

    Beat Generator

    A young Brisbane man with a versatile voicebox has built a career out of the unlikeliest of musical talents.

    Qweekend story: 'Beat Generator: Tom Thum' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013. Photograph by David Kelly

    Story Andrew McMillen / Photography David Kelly

    Moments after completing the most important performance of his life, Tom Thum gave a gesture that seemed fitting: he leaped in the air and clicked his heels. The Brisbane-based musician had spent the last eleven minutes with the thousand-strong Sydney Opera House audience in the palm of his hands, entertaining TEDxSydney conference attendees with little more than his voice and a microphone.

    “My name is Tom, and I’ve come here to come clean about what I do for money,” he said upon taking the stage in May. “I use my mouth in strange ways in exchange for cash.”

    Innuendo aside, Thum’s description of his own talent couldn’t be more apt. Beatboxing — a technique rooted in using the human voice as a percussive instrument in the absence of a boombox or a drum kit — is a highly specialised skill within hip-hop culture, and one that has proven almost impossible to cross over into the mainstream. Yet through a freakish ability to accurately mimic musical instruments and layer intricate compositions, allowing him to replicate the vibe of a smoky jazz dive or Michael Jackson’s signature hits – among many other unlikely and impressive feats – the 28-year-old has connected with a mass audience.

    The standing ovation was enough to prompt a celebratory heel-click, but the best was yet to come: in the hours that followed, his vocal talents contributed to an impromptu jam session with guitar virtuosos John Butler and Jeff Lang, and he was approached by Audi Australia representatives to star in an online advertising campaign that saw Thum mimicking the vehicle’s complex array of sound effects. Footage of the performance clocked one million YouTube views within two days of being uploaded in July. By the end of September, Beatbox Brilliance – so dubbed by conference organisers – had surpassed six million hits and become the most-watched TEDx video of all time. The boy from Brisbane christened Tom Theodore Wardell Horn had gone viral.

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    While the empty building bakes in the heat of an early spring day, the artist reclines in a well-worn office chair in a recording studio at Elements Collective, a hip-hop dance studio in inner-north Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. He tweaks the vocal mix on a local MC’s debut album at high volume while hunched over a Macbook. Navy curtains block out the sunlight; a bold, colourful graffiti mural dominates the back wall. Wearing long pants, a baggy black shirt and silver sneakers, the jetlagged artist is enjoying his second full day back in the Queensland humidity.

    Some of Tom Thum’s appeal can be ascribed to his gregarious on-stage nature. In the video, he comes across as a personable extrovert who revels in the ability to share his talent with the middle-aged audience, many of whom have probably never seen or heard anything like it. It helps, too, that the tanned, blue-eyed young man is easy on the eye; plenty of YouTube and Facebook comments mention his appealing appearance. It’ll disappoint those adoring female fans, then, to learn that he’s been in a relationship for three and a half years. “I think she likes my work,” he says thoughtfully. “But she doesn’t like the things my work makes me do.”

    By this he refers to the fact that most of his year is spent on the road. The past several months have been devoted to touring throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and United States, performing both solo and as a duo, alongside Melbourne-based singer and guitarist Jamie Macdowell.

    While Horn’s dance card has been packed of late – he’s spending a little over a week at home before jetting off once again, this time to work on a hush-hush project with a well-known American animation studio – it’s been a hard slog to get to this point in his career. Born at South Brisbane’s Mater Hospital on April 2, 1985, Horn attended Yeronga State School and, later, Anglican Church Grammar School in East Brisbane. “People always ask me if my real name is Tom Thum,” he says. “My parents aren’t that sadistic! Tom Horn would’ve been a good stage name; either that, or a porn star name.”

    Horn is a true student of hip-hop, having embraced the art form in its four distinct elements – aural, physical, visual and oral – and excelled at each of them. His entrée into Brisbane’s underground hip-hop community began with taking an interest in graffiti writing in 1999. He started learning how to breakdance in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Horn heard beatboxing for the first time. “It was a couple of years after that until I realised it was something I could pursue,” he says. “I just really liked it, and worked at it. I never thought about it competitively; I did it because I was a hyperactive kid with too much time on his hands.” He was never diagnosed with attention-deficit or any associated disorders. “I just picked up a microphone,” he shrugs. “That was the medication.”

    After graduating from Churchie and exploring the fringes of Brisbane’s independent music scene, Horn started a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) at southside Griffith University in 2003. He sat in a crime and justice lecture and wondered, “What am I doing here? I’m a hyperactive little graffiti writer in a room full of aspiring cops! The second that I understood that no-one was going to force me to go to uni, I was like peace, baby!

    Horn gave up breakdancing earlier this year as a result of constant injuries and between 2007 and 2012 toured the world with Tom Tom Crew, a theatre troupe that featured five acrobats backed by three musicians who blasted loud drum’n’bass, dub and hip-hop. Horn has also released three albums as a rapper under the MC name Tommy Illfigga, an EP as Tom Thum in 2012, as well as a 2010 LP of beats as Crate Creeps, a partnership with fellow Brisbane musician DJ Butcher. Beatboxing is Horn’s forte, though: his versatile voicebox won him first place at the World Beatbox Battles alongside compatriot Joel Turner in 2005; and in 2010, he was awarded “best noise and sound effects” at the World Beatbox Convention in Berlin.

    ++

    Brisbane beatbox musician Tom Thum performing at TEDxSydney in May 2013One Saturday morning last November, Horn woke with a start in his rented Berlin apartment. His musical offsider, Jamie Macdowell, was about to leave to get a second key cut. The pair had performed together the previous night and come home, completely sober; a strangely quiet Friday for two young men in a foreign country. Suddenly, Horn broke the silence by yelling for his friend. “I went into his bedroom and Tom was reeling,” says Macdowell, 27. “He said it felt like there was a ten cent piece on his sternum, and an elephant was sitting on the coin. As soon as he sat up, he just lost his mind. The pain got so intense that he couldn’t talk or move. He fell back down onto the bed and was shaking. It looked like he couldn’t breathe.”

    An ambulance took him to hospital, where he was admitted to a cardiac ward. His roommates were two elderly Germans. The pair listened to the doctor describe what had happened to Horn in complicated medical terms. “We couldn’t understand; we were nodding quizzically,” says Macdowell. “Tom got it before I did. He said to her, ‘is this the kind of thing that you would explain to someone who’d just had a heart attack?’ She looked straight at him, full of intent, and said ‘yes’.” The next day, Horn underwent an operation to put a stent in his heart; “a rollcage that stops your artery from collapsing,” in his words.

    That near-death experience provided fertile ground for planting the seeds of artistic inspiration. “It was fucking boring in the hospital,” Horn says. Naturally, his creative mind wandered. While he couldn’t understand what the doctors or his roommates were saying, he was intrigued by the beeps, hums and whirs of the medical machinery that kept him alive. A key moment in Horn’s solo show is a layered reimagining of the sounds of the hospital, which gradually evolves into an evocative cover of Hearts A Mess, a 2006 single by chart-topping Melbourne musician Gotye, aka Wally De Backer.

    To his frustration, the assumption that many strangers make upon hearing this story is that Horn’s heartrate must have been artificially boosted. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Everyone assumes that, because I’m a musician and I had a heart attack, [I should] lay off the cocaine a bit,” he sighs. “No-one can tell me what [the attack] was from. I’d been deemed perfectly healthy by doctors. It’s not what you expect at age 27. Now I have to live on these medications – but at least I get to live on them. It gave me a great piece for my show … Everyone seems to think that heart attacks only happen to people over 60.”

    Macdowell adds: “Tom’s the most sober person I’ve ever met. He’s changed a lot since the heart attack. His consumption of alcohol has almost completely ended. He eats really well, and tries to exercise. It’s really changed him for the better.”

    Ever the perfectionist, Horn says he’s got four full albums of original material that haven’t yet seen the light of day due to his “inability to let go of things, and to call something ‘complete’. I’ve got a vault of music that hasn’t been opened yet.” He adopts the voice of a Hollywood mad scientist: “Soon I shall relinquish my pretties!

    With a few more dollars in his pocket of late, he’s keen to outsource some of the do-it-yourself ethic that has always surrounded the production of his own music. “I’ll still have 100 per cent creative input and control,” he says, “but I can be like, ‘okay, press record now! Drop the bass out of this, filter out that sample, boost this’. Because now I know what I’m talking about, I can still drive the ship without having my hands on the wheel.”

    ++

    For those few months each year that he calls Brisbane home, Horn stays with his parents in inner-south Annerley. His 60-year-old mother, Sue, admits that the cloud of noise that surrounds her eldest son can be irritating.

    “Especially if you’re watching something really good on TV, one has to be very patient,” she says. “I think if he lived at home all the time, it could be quite difficult. [This living situation] probably works well for us all.” The former nurse and her husband Murray, a forensic scientist, occasionally fret about his chosen career in the performing arts. “I’m not really happy about it, because I think it’s not a terribly stable industry. But he’s his own person. We have no influence,” she laughs. “We frequently have these discussions.” Are they playful discussions, or serious? “Playfully serious,” she replies. “Tom doesn’t appreciate them at all! He went to uni for a year and said that was the greatest waste of time. But I think he does have a lot of talent.”

    Macdowell agrees. “Tom is a prodigious noisemaker. He has no attention span for anything except beatboxing and creating sound effects. His practice is relentless. The guy just doesn’t stop making noise. It infuriates me when we’re on tour; I was okay with the European tour ending, just to get some silence,” he laughs. “But every time I think about saying something, or coming close to telling him to shut up, I remind myself that that’s why he’s so brilliant – he doesn’t stop.”

    While Qweekend’s photographer and his subject explore the colourful canvases at Elements Collective, 25-year-old Alex Steffan slips into the studio, slides on a pair of headphones and listens to the latest vocal mix that Horn has spent the morning working on. He nods his head in approval. “He was always the most talented one of our group of friends; he always had freakish abilities with his beatboxing, breakdancing and graffiti,” says Steffan, whose stagename is DJ Butcher. “We’ve all been waiting for him to blow up. All of a sudden, the TEDx talk has let the world know what we’ve known for ten years.”

    Throughout the photo shoot, Horn’s voicebox produces soulful trumpet tones, intricate beatbox phrases, and even a note-perfect take on Fly Me To The Moon. He’s preoccupied with perfecting his saxophone – “reed instruments are hard; I’ll get there one day” – and says that the hardest thing about making sounds with his mouth is in finding the instruments’ accents; their defining characteristics. The pluck in a blues guitar, or the woozy feel of its tremolo arm. The way the pitch slightly wavers in a trumpet when the player stops blowing so hard. The breathy tone of a flute. These are the sounds that Tom Horn studies and rehearses in a constant feedback loop that fills nearly every waking hour.

    “People often ask me if I’m making a living out of beatboxing,” he says. “I reply, well, I’m making a ‘not dying’. I’m not hungry. I’m definitely not making a living in terms of the traditional sense of saving up for a house, a home loan, a wife and kids; an Audi …” he smiles. “I’m not rich monetarily, but I’m definitely rich in experience, and that’s my priority at the moment. I’m not earning mad cheddar, but I’m 100 per cent happy with my life.”

  • FasterLouder story: ‘Urthboy – The Storyteller’, July 2013

    A story for FasterLouder; a profile of the Australian hip-hop artist Urthboy. Excerpt below; click the image for the full story.

    Urthboy – The Storyteller

    Andrew McMillen charts Tim Levinson’s rise from petty criminal to one of Australia’s most important musical voices.

    FasterLouder story: 'Urthboy - The Storyteller' by Andrew McMillen, July 2013

    The middle child began acting out in his teens. Spurred by small-town boredom, a desire to test the boundaries of authority, and an absentee father, a fascination with petty crime took shape. The adrenaline rush of “bombing” public property with spraypaint cans, breaking into empty buildings, and shoplifting were all par for the course among his friends. The more audacious would steal cars and nearly run over their accomplices by accident, or go “searching” – their innocuous euphemism for the serious transgression of popping store tills, grabbing the money, and fleeing.

    Stints in juvenile detention followed for these boys, yet Tim Levinson was in awe of the wits that crime demanded. “Those graffiti artists and crims were the sharpest thinkers and quickest responders to nerve-wracking situations,” he says now. “I feel like I was never really that way inclined.” A voice at the back of his head told him, as the age of 18 fast approached, that soon, these boys would no longer be tried as children in the court system. And so the middle child and petty crime parted ways.

    Tim Levinson tells stories. His preferred medium is the song and verse of hip-hop, where he performs under the pseudonym Urthboy, a name which has no greater significance other than sounding cool, an all-important factor for a teenager registering his first Hotmail address. Levinson’s skill in this field has developed to the point at which the 35 year-old finds himself in mid-2013: surrounded by a strong national audience, critical plaudits (three of his four solo albums have been nominated for the industry-polled Australian Music Prize) and widespread respect among his peers of all musical stripes.

    For a genre that was largely derided and dismissed at the turn of the century, this country’s hip-hop culture has slowly but surely moved from the fringes to the centre. And at the centre of that culture is this particular storyteller. His father left the family home in the small Blue Mountains town of Wentworth Falls, NSW – population 5650 – when Levinson was nine, owing to issues over drinking and domestic violence.

    This separation shook up their lives considerably: suddenly, his mum became the breadwinner through necessity, working up to 14 hours a day to support her three children. Levinson processed this abandonment as best a child could, but would still find himself out on the front lawn some nights, alone, watching cars on the highway and wishing that the tiny headlights of his mother’s beaten-up Corolla would come home.

    Music became a refuge during this formative time. His elder brother, Matthew, introduced a raft of influences by sharing his CD and cassette collection. At first, Britpop bands like Blur and Pulp appealed, before his ears attuned to Leonard Cohen. Run DMC’s Tougher Than Leather was the first hip-hop record he truly loved. His own rhymes scribbled on pages would eventually be coupled with beats, and recorded. His first band was named Explanetary, a hip-hop six-piece that featured Levinson and two others on vocals.

    Staying in Wentworth Falls never appealed; he moved to Sydney after completing high school. His musical aspirations slowly shifted from a hobby – something done with friends, and not taken seriously – to a full-time career. Explanetary would only record one EP together: In On The Deal, released in May 2001. Twelve years later, Levinson has released four solo albums, five with influential Sydney-based nine-piece band The Herd, and worked with dozens of hip-hop artists to release their music on Elefant Traks, an independent record label that Levinson co-founded in 1998, and where he still works as a label manager.

    Despite the widespread enjoyment of this once-niche music genre nowadays, it’s worth remembering that it took quite some time for the nation’s ears to attune to Australian accents backed by synthesised beats. “Because hip-hop was such a strong Afro-American music, it was hard to hear it another way,” says Paul Kelly, who Levinson is supporting on a national tour this month. “But to me, hip-hop is like soccer: it’s very portable, adaptable, and can work worldwide. It just needed to seed for a while here, so that our own blooms could grow out of that. It’s well-suited to local vernacular, so once people get their own style, it’s going to work well, wherever it goes.”

    To read the full story, visit FasterLouder.

  • The Weekend Australian album review, July 2013: Karnivool – ‘Asymmetry’

    An album review for The Weekend Australian, published 20 July 2013.

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    Karnivool – Asymmetry

    Karnivool - 'Asymmetry' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, July 2013Never before has an album like this been released by a popular Australian rock act. Dark, deep and challenging, Asymmetry is the third album by Karnivool in eight years, and it sees the Perth quintet moving further away from the accessible, pop-like approach to songwriting that characterised its early releases in favour of intricate, unwieldy prog-rock suites.

    For this, the group is to be admired, as it certainly is not taking the easy way out by pandering to the sensibilities of its significant national audience. Taken in whole, as a 66-minute song cycle, it’s an interesting listen. The problem here is that the songs simply aren’t strong or memorable in isolation. “Interesting” is probably not the adjective these five musicians were aiming for, either.

    Better known as frontman for Birds of Tokyo, Ian Kenny is Karnivool’s most potent weapon. While this was certainly true on 2005 debut Themata and 2009’s Sound Awake, here, Kenny’s vocal hooks are frustratingly few and far between. Dominating the mix is the incessant sturm und drang of his bandmates, who appear to have become scholars of Swedish technical death metal band Meshuggah.

    Shifting tempo changes are the order of the day; aggressive and contemplative moods crash into one another, with little rhyme or reason. The overall effect is as messy and disorienting as the album artwork. Complexity for the sake of complexity soon numbs the ears, and even after repeated listens Asymmetry simply doesn’t make much sense.

    LABEL: Sony
    RATING: 2 stars

  • Wired story: ‘Daft Punk’s album premiere in Wee Waa, Australia’, May 2013

    A story for Wired.com – my first contribution to the website. Excerpt below.

    We Went to the Daft Punk Album Premiere in Wee Waa, Australia, Pop. 2,100
    by Andrew McMillen / Photographs by Rachael Hall

    Wired story: "Daft Punk's Australian album premiere in Wee Waa" by freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, May 2013. Photo by Rachael Hall

    WEE WAA, Australia – The world premiere of the latest Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories, was originally scheduled to take place on May 17 at a farm show in the rural Australian town of Wee Waa, population 2,100. The unconventional choice of locale made worldwide news, as intended. The event (and its marketing) was always about more than just two French guys releasing an album: It was an attempt to breathe life into the idea that a distinct collection of songs could still be relevant in 2013, when digitally downloaded singles dominate and launch dates have become almost meaningless.

    Imagine Sony’s frustration, then, when Random Access Memories trickled onto the internet on May 14, three days ahead of the intended world premiere in Wee Waa, and Daft Punk hastily started streaming the album on iTunes to tide over listeners till the actual release date. The impact on the planned celebration was immediate. A journalist from the local newspaper The Narrabri Courier told Wired that the Wee Waa Motel experienced 37 out of 60 cancellations in the day following the leak. What had been sold as a world premiere now seemed humdrum, an experience that anyone with an internet connection, BitTorrent or iTunes could have.

    To many music fans, Tuesday’s news was an inevitability, and surprising only in its lateness: most big releases appear online weeks, or even months ahead of their true street date. So what value, if any, does an album release event have after once an internet leak has removed the mystery? I went to Wee Waa to find out.

    When I wake up on the morning of 79th Annual Wee Waa Show, I add Random Access Memories to my to collection on the streaming music service Rdio, a process that takes only minutes. During the seven-hour drive to Wee Waa, the temptation to listen to the album is powerful. After all, it’s right there. I resist, though, out of respect for the album and the experience ahead. I figure that saving that crucial first listen for the first night will be worth it.

    Situated 560 kilometers (347 miles) north-west of Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, Wee Waa was previously known for its cotton production, and little else. The choice to host the album launch here had everything to do with sheer disorientation — hence the global headlines. Sony first floated the idea with the Narrabri Shire Council in February, two months before the news was made public in mid-April. The Wee Waa Show committee discussed at length how the showgrounds would cope with the influx of tourists; local accommodation was fully booked soon after the news broke.

    This three-day event is an important cultural staple of the region, even when Daft Punk isn’t around. The show format combines elements of agricultural presentations (cattle judging, pet shows) with competitions (horse-riding, cake-baking) and carnival rides familiar to attendees of American state fairs. It’s easy for city-dwelling outsiders to poke fun at these meets, but for local farming families, these regional shows provide a welcome respite in their routine. It’s a chance to put down tools for a couple of days, socialize with one another, and celebrate successes.

    In the days before the main event, rumors of a last-minute appearance from the French duo still circulate, and Sony stokes the flames by refusing to rule out the possibility. On Friday, there’s talk of the local airport being temporarily closed for a couple of mysterious, high-security chartered flights. Perhaps Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had elected to make the trek after all, people say; perhaps their statements to the contrary were a smokescreen to deter all but the true believers, the fans who still thought an album launch meant something, leak or no leak.

    For the full story, and more photographs, visit Wired.com.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Hungry Kids of Hungary Get Serious’, February 2013

    A story that was published in the March 2013 issue of Rolling Stone Australia. Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

    Hungry Kids Of Hungary Get Serious

    Personal tragedies and isolation inform the Brisbane band’s second album

    'Hungry Kids of Hungary Get Serious' story in Rolling Stone by Andrew McMillen, February 2013A band that writes a debut album brimming with sunny indie pop songs can be reasonably expected to write more of the same for their follow-up. Such was the situation in which Brisbane’s Hungry Kids of Hungary expected to find themselves following 2010’s Escapades, which hit a sweet-spot between classic Sixties-era pop and their modern take on the form. Real life has a habit of intervening, though.

    In March 2011, the four-piece – Dean McGrath (lead vocals, guitar), Kane Mazlin (lead vocals, keys), Ben Dalton (bass) and Ryan Strathie (drums) – were booked for a three-week tour in North America, including showcases at South By South West and Canadian Music Week – great opportunities to extend the band’s growing reputation overseas. Then, suddenly, all shows were cancelled and the band was homeward bound.

    “2011 was a pretty full-on year for me,” says McGrath, whose experience triggered the return journey. “A lot went down. Naturally, that really coloured the songs I was writing.” He won’t be drawn on specifics, but notes that a “personal tragedy that affected someone I was close to” meant that he had to catch the next flight home.

    “That incident echoed throughout the whole year for me,” the singer/guitarist continues. “It was an ongoing ordeal. It’s funny; writing songs for this band, we’ve always been fairly carefree, but after that [experience], these songs started coming out that were fairly intimate and personal. I was like, ‘shit, how are people going to react to this when they hear it?’”

    The result is You’re A Shadow, a collection of songs somewhat divorced from Escapades’ brimming optimism. Kane Mazlin’s contributions were coloured by a sense of isolation and melancholy, too, in part influenced by a stint in Denmark while his girlfriend took an internship. “She was busy during the day. I was by myself: I didn’t speak Danish, didn’t know anyone,” he says, over a beer in late December. “That had a huge impact on two or three of the songs that I wrote.”

    It wasn’t all bad news internationally, though: footage filmed at the Dutch festival Pinkpop in May 2012 shows the band performing before a crowd of thousands. “The Netherlands seems to be the area where it’s taken off, which is weird,” says McGrath. “When we started talking about doing overseas stuff, that’s not really the area that we imagined we’d be delving into.” Mazlin chimes in: “I think Nirvana started there, didn’t they? It’s a goldmine!”

    After the rush of Pinkpop, though, it was an abrupt comedown in Belgium. The band played that show – “a giant blur of fun” is how Mazlin describes it – and then drove half a day to Antwerp. “We played a tiny show there, where no-one knew who we were,” says McGrath. “We were like, ‘what the hell? We only drove for a few hours, why don’t people know us here if they know us there?’ You forget that it’s a different country! We crossed a border, and they don’t get the same radio [stations]. Touring Australia has conditioned us to think that it’s natural to drive a few hours to get to the next big city!”

    When it came time to choose which tracks made the new album, the four tended not to argue too much about what made it past the rehearsal room. “We do try to keep it to four equal votes, but if two of us feel really passionately about something, then the other two will probably either give it a go, or scrap it,” says McGrath. “Song-wise, we haven’t had to do that a lot leading up to this record, because we’ve seen eye-to-eye on most things without any need for debate – which makes life easier.”

    Five things that influenced You’re A Shadow

    Classic pop

    Kane Mazlin: “I listened to a lot of Camera Obscura, The New Pornographers and The Shins; really nice, classic-sounding pop records with great guitar sounds.”

    Live quintet

    Dean McGrath: “Knowing that there’s a second guitarist during live shows drastically affected the way that I write my parts – it’s not so chordal, busy and strummy.”

    Debut co-write

    Mazlin: “We were on the same wavelength this time, to the point where we were able to co-write a song, ‘When Yesterday’s Gone’ – something we’d never done before.”

    Deerhunter

    McGrath: “I listened to Halcyon Digest on repeat for months, and it heavily influenced how we recorded a few songs in the studio: that ‘lo-fi pop songs, washed out’ approach.”

    Producer Wayne Connolly

    Mazlin: “He had great ideas from the very first email: he told [bassist] Ben Dalton, ‘you need a hollow-body bass and flatwound strings’. It sounded awesome!”

  • The Vine interview: Gareth Liddiard of The Drones, February 2013

    An interview for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    The Drones: “I’m not addicted to love”

    Gareth Liddiard of The Drones, interviewed by freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, February 2013

    It’s a busy time for Melbourne rock band The Drones – or so I thought. When singer/guitarist Gareth Liddiard (main photo, far left) calls in early February, their sixth studio album I See Seaweed is less than a month away from release, and the second All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) festival to take place in Australia – curated by Liddiard and his bandmates – is but a fortnight away. Yet the singer is lazily strolling around at his home in the Victorian bush, oil can in hand, searching for strong mobile phone reception. A picture of calm.

    I’m being slightly disingenuous in this depiction, of course. Late in our half-hour interview, it emerges that Liddiard’s had little time to himself lately. While their ATP curating duties have long since finished – judging by what I hear today, it seems there’s little more required of The Drones beyond showing up next weekend, shaking some hands, plugging in, and playing some songs – completing I See Seaweed has been a full-time concern of late.

    It shows in the songs. I’ve played the eight-track album perhaps 25 times by the time Liddiard and I speak, and I’m convinced it’s a contender for their best yet. Our conversation contains in-depth discussion around songs that, at the time of writing, you won’t have heard. Album spoilers aside, Liddiard offers a typically expansive conversation that touches on space-bound canines, alternative ideas to programming festivals, The Drones’ newly-confirmed fifth member, and experimenting with topless photography.

    The lyrical themes of I See Seaweed are as varied as ever; it seems that nothing’s out of bounds for you. How do you decide what to write about?

    It’s more what not to write about. Some things are boring, and they’re done to death, so I steer clear of them, really.

    For example?

    Any sort of clichés. I don’t pick cotton; I’m not addicted to love. You know what I mean? Some things have been done before, so I try not to do that.

    I’m just trying to think whether I’ve ever heard a Drones love song before. I don’t think I have.

    There are love songs, but they’re not really obvious. It would be retarded if we did love songs, because I’d either get into trouble from the bass player [Fiona Kitschin, Liddiard’s partner] for being in love with someone who isn’t her, or if I wrote a love song about her, imagine me showing her the chords and telling her how to play it! That’s really wrong.

    Point taken. You mentioned avoiding clichés; has that always been something you’ve aimed to do? Has this changed since [2002 debut album] Here Come The Lies?

    I’ve always tried to avoid it, but I wasn’t always successful. I wasn’t always aware that some things were clichés. It’s self-awareness, that’s all. And being self-critical, I guess. Everyone has their blind spots, but you’ve got to work on those. Some people go, “check this out, man!” as if it’s some amazing thing, but they’ve just copied someone else. They have this enormous blind spot.

    I think the best example for all that is something like American Idol, or Australian Idol. There’s some severe fuckin’ blind spots going on there; people who aren’t self-critical at all. They think they’re good at what they do, but they’re not. If they just rationalised it – or if they used rational thought – they would see where they’re going wrong. But often that’s painful to do.

    I don’t find any clichés in your writing. Certainly not in the last few albums.

    Like anyone, I fuck up. I just try. I like it; it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s like science. I’m sure a lot of scientists would be a wee bit striking [in their approach] when they initially put their hypothesis out there. People shoot ‘em down. But I’m sure there’s a large part of them that would be excited to see where they went wrong.

    It’s all about the truth; it’s getting close to the truth. They’re trying to find out what the hole is. I’m just trying to figure out what I’m capable of. I mean, I’ve got limits. I’m just using up everything within my limits to make music that’s interesting. Because I want to hear interesting music. That’s all that is.

    For the full interview, visit The Vine.

  • The Vine live review: Soundwave Festival Brisbane, February 2013

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Soundwave Festival 2013
    RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane
    Saturday 23 February 2013

    This is the paragraph for the requisite context-setting that precedes every festival review ever. Soundwave is now easily bigger than the Big Day Out. They’ve long since sold out all five shows on this tour. This is where the real money is spent and earned each year as far as the Australian rock festival circuit is concerned. Each year Soundwave drops a line-up that’s more bloated with international talent than the last. Twenty-thirteen is no exception.

    James Hetfield of Metallica at Soundwave Festival Brisbane 2013, reviewed for TheVine.com.au by Andrew McMillen. Photo credit: Justin Edwards

    THE LOSERS VS INDIFFERENT VS WINNERS SCORE CARD:

    The Losers 

    Playing their first Australian show in nine years, A Perfect Circle had a fantastic opportunity to crowd-please in a late afternoon slot. They dropped the ball. We got a languid 50 minute set that drew heavily on material from eMOTIVe, their so-so covers album from 2004. Only one track from their 2000 debut, Mer de Noms (‘The Hollow’) – a disorienting remix of ‘3 Libras’ notwithstanding – and two from Thirteenth Step (a great take on ‘Weak and Powerless’, and ‘The Outsider’, wherein the guitars were barely audible).

    They did play a new song, ‘By And Down’, right near the end, but by this point the crowd’s energy had sapped considerably and most people inside the D barrier just stood there, staring, confused as to why they were choosing these songs. Far too earnest for their own good, this was by far the most disappointing set I witnessed all day. I had way more fun at Puscifer the night before – the other other band of APC/Tool singer Maynard James Keenan – despite that group having far fewer great songs than A Perfect Circle. I get it: Maynard doesn’t give a fuck about conventions or expectations. He’s his own man! Isn’t he rebellious? What a guy! But this set sucked, plain and simple.

    Kyuss Lives! were mixed so poorly that I fled after three songs. John Garcia’s vocals twice as loud as any of the instruments on stage? No thanks. These guys were good when they toured last year (review), so I’m not sure what went wrong today. When they first arrived on stage, Garcia’s mic was inaudible; someone at the sound desk massively overcompensated for their fuck-up. Also, no Nick Oliveri?

    Stone Sour are surely the least offensive band on the bill. Despite the grandstanding of Corey Taylor, who is an excellent frontman with one of the best voices in rock, there’s really not much to like about this band. I heard the majority of their set while waiting for Slayer and I couldn’t recall a single hook or melody. Beige.

    Myself, for losing my sunglasses. I can’t blame this on drink, drug, or mosh-pits, either. Just carelessness. Idiot.

    The Indifferent

    Local band The Schoenberg Automaton open main-stage proceedings as gates open on the stroke of eleven. To my ears their sound like generic hardcore with some highly technical guitar and drumwork tacked on. This formula is generally a win at this festival, though. They sound huge through the PA. These are my observations from the shade of a grandstand as the temperature climbs into the low thirties and we all begin losing litres of fluid hourly.

    I don’t find Anthrax to be especially engaging but it feels like I’m in the minority. They unveil flags bearing the visages of Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell, which is a nice touch. ‘Caught In A Mosh’, ‘Indians’, ‘I Am The Law’…they cover ‘TNT’ by AC/DC, one of the few heavy bands to not have graced these festival stages (next year?), and it doesn’t scan as a forced attempt at getting us onside — the entire arena already was. “Please remember to always worship music,” says Scott Ian at set’s end. OK.

    Dragonforce play all of the notes there are to play during their opening song, which goes for 10 minutes and contains as many guitar solos. Trying to listen to their newest album yesterday in preparation (while keeping a straight face) was hard work, and so is standing in the scorching sun while they shred. I can only stick it out for a couple of songs. I do like Herman Li’s whammy bar trick though: he holds the guitar aloft while it feeds back, then drops it onto his upper thigh with a flourish and continues playing. Dexterity.

    Shirt slogans spotted throughout the day:

    Tell your boobs to stop staring at me – worn by suss-looking, chubby 20 year old.

    Guns don’t kill people, Ray Lewis kills people.

    We’re just old farts who love music – worn by three 50-plus year-old guys in uniform.

    Fat guy wears Mystic Wolf shirt – worn by same.

    Suck my Richard – worn by tall, pasty redhead.

    It’s all good when you’re the big dude – worn by fat dude struggling to climb stairs.

    A singlet that reads  I’m a Lars Ulrich guy – exact meaning unclear.

    My favourite: You’ve never been drunk till you’ve shit yourself – Fraser Island 2010. Graphic.

    For the full review and photo gallery, visit The Vine. Above photo credit: Justin Edwards.