All posts tagged australia

  • Qweekend story: ‘Think Inside The Box: Float therapy’, October 2014

    A story for the October 19-20 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    Think Inside The Box

    Solo enclosure in a dark tank of salty water isn’t everyone’s cup of calm, but converts to this niche form of stress management say there’s peace – and space for deep thought – to be found in the 60-year-old practice.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014

    by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    I’m floating naked with my hands behind my back in a warm, shallow pool. Calming music plays quietly. My ears are plugged and submerged. It’s so dark that I can’t see my feet; the only light comes from a lamp outside, which filters through tiny slivers in the sliding door on the ceiling. I close my eyes, and from time to time, feel the currents of this private ocean causing my relaxed body to gently bump the sides. With the merest flex of a toe, elbow or finger, I push myself back toward the centre. Outside of my mother’s womb and my eventual coffin, I’m unlikely to encounter such a closed, sense-deprived environment – which, plainly, is a claustrophobe’s nightmare.

    After ten minutes, the music fades out, and I’m left alone with the sound of my breathing and my thoughts. I’m in a flotation tank: a vehicle for introspection slightly bigger than a dodgem car, containing 350kg of Epsom salts – hence the ability to float, as this water has the same density as the Dead Sea. It sits inside a storefront called Brisbane Float & Massage in the south-western suburb of Sherwood, yet for the duration of my disconnected hour inside, I could be anywhere in the world.

    I’m here because of Joe Rogan. Sometimes alternative therapies need celebrity advocates to shift public opinion from a fruity-sounding way to spend one’s time to an attractive prospect. For many float converts, Rogan – popular American stand-up comedian, podcast host and television presenter – has been the canary in this particular coal mine. “The sensory deprivation chamber has been the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind – for thinking, for evolving,” he says in a YouTube clip that’s had more than 750,000 views. “Everybody should do the tank. You will learn more about yourself than any other way.”

    My first session reveals the truly abstract notion of time, as in the silence, I quickly lose all sense of the clock. For someone who has zero experience with meditation and a similarly low desire to spend time alone without some sort of stimulus – music, book, notepad, video game, smartphone – I wasn’t sure how I’d handle this dark, quiet vacation from reality. After I got comfortable in the water – whose warmth mimics my body temperature – time seemed to stand still.

    Before long, though, I was so deep in thought that I was surprised to hear the music return, signalling that five minutes remained in the hour. In the tank, a wide range of topics crossed my mind – partner, family, health, work, music, self – and I was able to carefully grasp each of these and examine it with newfound clarity.

    British-born John Battersby, 56, is the owner of Brisbane Float & Massage, one of only a handful of tank operators in Queensland. He shows me around his simple premises. “I built this myself,” he says, gesturing at the surrounding walls. “It’s not high-quality, but it’s functional.” A qualified sports therapist and local soccer coach, he leads me into one of his two float rooms, which both contain showers to be used before and after each session. Battersby explains that he found this therapy after a car accident in Sydney in 1989 left him with whiplash, a neck brace and limited mobility. He was sceptical of this alternative therapy at first: “A Pom, lying in a big bath of water?” he jokes with a smile. During his first 90 minute float, he experienced extraordinary pain relief. After that, he floated every day for six months.

    The sensory deprivation tank was first explored in 1954 by American physician John C. Lilly, who sought to isolate the human mind from external stimulation. Flotation therapy has since become a niche form of stress management. After its initial popularisation in the 1980s, public interest in floating dried up following health concerns about AIDS and the transfer of bodily fluids. “Now we know that’s not possible,” says Battersby, “as the water is so sterile that you can’t grow bacteria in it.”

    Battersby, who lives with his wife Kerry in the Lockyer Valley town of Laidley, 85km west of Brisbane, has used the tank at least once a week over the past 25 years. “It’s such a simple process that anyone can do it,” he says. Anyone, that is, except most children, whose short attention spans tend to limit the appeal of sliding the lid closed on a small space for an hour or more.

    When I mention Joe Rogan, Battersby describes him as “a breath of fresh air”. “I don’t believe in his use of drugs, though,” he clarifies. “We don’t allow people to use drugs here. But he’s an experienced floater, and he does good things. We need more of him.” For Battersby, the tank represents “one of the most creative spaces I’ve ever found. There are no distractions – only what’s going on between your ears.”

    For some, that same space between the ears can be the source of seemingly endless darkness and despair. Michael Harding knows a bit about this. A former army infantryman, Harding was medically discharged from service in 2011 after developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) born out of an intense, prolonged firefight in Afghanistan during which he witnessed a fellow soldier shot and killed. He developed full-body twitches, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and sent home early. The two years that followed were a mess of prescription medications and alcohol abuse. He’d drink a bottle of spirits every day, while his partner was at work, and his junk-food diet saw his weight top out at 110kg.

    Qweekend story: 'Think Inside The Box: Float therapy' by Andrew McMillen, October 2014. Michael Harding and Rebecca Houghton photographed by Russell ShakespeareHarding discovered floating in March and in his first week completed three sessions. “The changes I’ve seen in him after floating are incredible,” says his partner, Rebecca Houghton, who left her office job to care for Harding full-time. Having since lost dozens of kilos, Harding now wears his brown hair in thick, curly locks that belie his military history. He’s sitting in shorts, thongs and a black cap in an armchair outside the two float rooms in Sherwood, with Houghton at his side. The pair [pictured right] met at primary school in Bracken Ridge, in Brisbane’s north-east, and reconnected just before Harding joined the army.

    As the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not view flotation therapy as a valid form of rehabilitation for Harding’s PTSD, their visits to Battersby’s Sherwood premises were paid for out of their own pocket. Both 27, they live in Lawnton, on Brisbane’s northside, and found that the 100-minute round trip was adding to Harding’s stress, eroding some of the benefits gained by floating. The solution? Battersby recently installed a reconditioned tank in their home basement. “I was in the tank by 3.20am this morning, for a four-hour session,” Harding beams. “It’s been great for my positivity, and my motivation. It allows me to de-stress, and get out of my head. A lot of my mates prefer to drink, take meds and try to forget about it all.”

    It’s a little early in my own floating career to expect to see the remarkable improvement in mental health and clarity that Harding reports. “When you first start doing the isolation tank, it’s hard to completely let go who you are,” Joe Rogan cautions in that popular YouTube clip. “But as you get more and more comfortable with the experience, you get better at actually letting go.”

    Once the music stops in the tank, I slide back the door on its ceiling, stand up and allow the salty water to run off. I shower, dress, hand over my $50 and bid Battersby a fond, grateful farewell. I look forward to my next session, and the one after that, as I float in the quiet dark and allow my mind to venture deeper and deeper inward.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Qweekend story: ‘Orange Crush: Thomas Broich’, April 2014

    A story for Qweekend, published in the April 5-6 issue of the magazine: a profile of Brisbane Roar footballer Thomas Broich. An excerpt appears underneath; click the image below to view a PDF version.

    Orange Crush

    His sublime skills made Thomas Broich one of Queensland’s most welcome sports imports. And his move from Germany not only revived his passion for football but gave Brisbane Roar a man for all seasons.

    Qweekend story: 'Orange Crush: Thomas Broich' by Andrew McMillen, April 2014

    Story by Andrew McMillen / Photography by Russell Shakespeare

    The Saturday morning sun warms the lawn as 20 or so men in orange shirts follow the path of a round ball. Players yelp after bone-shaking tackles and groan at the sight of missed shots skirting the crossbar. Complimentary coffee and bacon-and-egg burgers are on offer for the crowd that has gathered outside Ballymore Stadium in Brisbane’s inner-north Herston for this open members’ training session.

    Wendy Shaw stands with arms crossed beside a sign that reads Beware: flying footballs. The 55-year-old supermarket manager hasn’t missed a Roar home game since the club’s inception nine years ago. She stares intently at number 22, a tall, tanned man with dark hair and green boots.

    “He’s had a shave, that’s always a good thing,” she laughs. “That’s one of our superstitions – if Thomas has a shave, it means we’re going to win!”

    Just out of earshot, attacking midfielder Thomas Broich is delivering cross after cross to the team’s strikers, who attempt to put the ball past goalkeeper Michael Theo. The 33-year-old Broich – who earlier this year played his 100th game for the club – has been a professional footballer for nearly half his life, and has been subject to intense media and fan scrutiny.

    After a rollercoaster ride of a career throughout the 2000s in the German premier league, the Bundesliga – the world’s most attended football competition – Broich was near the end of his tether, and considering quitting. It took a timely transfer to a club halfway around the world to reignite his passion.

    Since he first wore the orange jersey in the 2010-11 season, Brisbane Roar has been a consistent presence at the pointy end of the A-League, winning two of the past three championships.

    A home game on March 22 saw the team secure its second premiership in four years; the match-winner arrived in the 92nd minute, when Broich attracted the close attention of four Melbourne Victory defenders before he passed to midfielder Luke Brattan, whose pinpoint strike sealed the game 1-0. The team heads into the finals series as favourites to take its third championship.

    ++

    So deafening was the buzz surrounding the young midfielder in the seasons leading up to his Bundesliga debut that a television journalist named Aljoscha Pause approached him in 2003 with a tempting offer: to be the subject of a feature-length documentary, the first such film portrait of a German footballer.

    “I wanted to find somebody who would be charismatic enough to carry a whole film, and intelligent enough to reflect the business from inside – not an easy task,” Pause tells Qweekend. At the time, Broich was 22 and playing in the second-division Bundesliga; the project was initially scheduled for two years.

    “It was meant to show me break through into a big club, or the national team,” says Broich. “Then it just turned to shit. Excuse my language!” He gives a sheepish grin, momentarily forgetting his well-practised media manners. “It went the complete other way. That’s when the project became interesting for completely different reasons – it wasn’t about the rise of a footballer any more, it was more about the fall of a footballer.”

    Pause estimates that the pair spent about 400 hours filming together, over the course of eight years and several club transfers, first with Borussia Mönchengladbach (2003-06); later, FC Köln (’06-’09); and finally, with FC Nürnberg (’09-10). The pair became close during the process, which made Pause’s job more difficult; the line between filmmaker and friend became blurred. The result, Tom Meets Zizou, was released in 2011 and charts Broich’s youthful naivety.

    Early on, the football press picked up on his preferences for classical music and philosophy, dubbing him “Mozart”. The youngster was eager to please, and played up to the caricature by posing for photographs while engaged in intellectual activities such as reading, chess, and playing piano. These points of difference weren’t particularly well received in the hyper-masculine world of professional football. Says Broich with a grimace in 2014: “I look at the young guy in the film and think, oh my god, you’re so stupid. Who do you think you are?”

    Ultimately, the film chronicles an optimistic, skilled young player being gradually worn down by a ruthless industry. It was only when then-Brisbane Roar coach Ange Postecoglou travelled to Germany to offer Broich a lifeline that a fitting dénouement became clear.

    “When I hit rock bottom, I made the decision to come to Australia, and that’s where the fairytale started for me,” says Broich. “For the first time in years, I was able to enjoy my football again.”

    The film ends with the Roar’s spectacular first grand final in March 2011. Before a record home crowd of more than 50,000, Brisbane was down 2-0 to the Central Coast Mariners with just three minutes of extra time remaining. It would take something remarkable to claw back the scoreline. In response, Broich made a casual assist in front of goal to the Brazilian striker Henrique, who netted the chance and made it 2-1. Then, in the 120th minute, Broich sent a corner kick onto the head of fellow midfielder Erik Paartalu, who tied the game, resulting in a penalty shoot-out won by the home team. It was Broich’s first championship trophy. He was 30 years old.

    To read the full story, visit The Courier-Mail.

     

  • The Monthly story: ‘Queen’s Man: Jarrod Bleijie’, March 2014

    A story for the March 2014 issue of The Monthly, and my first essay for the magazine: a profile of Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie. Excerpt below.

    Queen’s Man

    The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie

    The Monthly story: 'Queen's Man: The crazy brave populism of Jarrod Bleijie', March 2014, by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    One Friday evening last September, some 60 members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang descended on a busy restaurant in the Gold Coast suburb of Broadbeach to confront a man associated with the Finks, a rival gang. In the ensuing melee, four police officers were injured. Later, a smaller group of Bandidos assembled outside the nearby Southport police watch house in an apparent show of support for their 18 arrested peers.

    For Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, that evening was a “line in the sand”. Three weeks later, just before 3 am on 16 October, the Liberal National Party–dominated state parliament passed three pieces of bikie-related legislation, including the bill that would become the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act. “Recent events have proved that certain groups have no regard for the Queensland public,” Bleijie said. “Enough is enough. By restricting their movements and operations, the community is protected and it prevents these groups from running their criminal enterprises.”

    Under the VLAD Act, a “vicious lawless associate” found guilty of any criminal offence listed in the legislation, from the smallest drug possession charge up, would serve a mandatory prison term of up to 25 years on top of their sentence. The Tattoo Parlours Act bans members of criminal associations and their associates from operating, working in or owning tattoo parlours. The Criminal Law (Criminal Organisations Disruption) Amendment Act amends various pieces of legislation to label 26 motorcycle clubs as criminal organisations and ban their members from congregating in groups of more than three or meeting at their clubhouses. The Queensland government would go on to establish a “bikies only” prison, where inmates may be dressed in fluoro pink overalls.

    Police have arrested dozens of people under the new laws, including a group of five men drinking beer at the Yandina Hotel on the Sunshine Coast and a group of five Victorian men buying ice-creams on the Gold Coast. Clubhouses were closed; interstate bikies called off their trips north. The United Motorcycle Council Queensland hired a PR firm. Tearful family members hit the airwaves. A High Court challenge was touted (and is in train). Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets, on motorcycles and on foot. The tabloid press, normally so keen to demand a crackdown, any crackdown, on crime, no longer knew which way to turn. Even the Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, appeared to waver for a moment, hinting that the laws might be a temporary measure.

    But Bleijie remained steadfast. As he put it in a radio interview at the time: “These laws are targeting these particular types of grub and thug to make people in Queensland safe in their homes at night. They don’t have to worry about these types of thugs on our streets any more … We’re dealing with a different type of criminal: the toughest of the toughest and the worst of the worst.”

    The VLAD Act, with its broad definition of “vicious lawless associate”, would target not only criminal motorcycle gangs but also organised crime gangs that are not “patched” – “akin to the Mafia in the States”, Bleijie said in the same interview – and paedophile rings “that are grooming and doing all sorts of terrible things to our young kids”.

    In Bleijie (whose Dutch surname rhymes with “play”), Queenslanders suddenly had a tireless warrior for law and order: a former lawyer who could debate the finer points of complicated legislation through the dead of night, then front up to a morning media conference looking no worse for wear. The Courier-Mail dubbed him “boy wonder”, Robin to Newman’s Batman.

    The night after the passing of the anti-bikie legislation, another populist bill was sped through parliament. This one was a response to the case of Robert John Fardon, a 65-year-old who had served time for a number of violent sexual offences against girls and women, including acts committed while on parole. In 2003, Fardon became the first prisoner to be detained indefinitely under Queensland’s Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act, legislation introduced by Peter Beattie’s Labor government. Last year, a review by the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered that Fardon be released on strict conditions. In response, Bleijie introduced an amendment to the legislation that would allow him to ask the governor to make a “public interest declaration” to keep offenders like Fardon behind bars.

    In legal circles, the amendment was branded a publicity stunt, and Bleijie was ridiculed for not understanding the separation of powers – the courts, not politicians, send people to prison. Tony Fitzgerald, the man who’d led the inquiry that had exposed corruption and political interference at the highest level in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government 25 years earlier, was prompted to write in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail: “It is incomprehensible that any rational Queenslander who is even remotely aware of the state’s recent history could for a moment consider reintroducing political interference into the administration of criminal justice, even to the point of making decisions about incarceration.”

    Weeks later, Queensland’s Court of Appeal struck down the new laws, agreeing that they would have required the Supreme Court to “exercise powers repugnant to or incompatible with [its] institutional integrity”.

    “To have any politician alone decide who’s going to be in jail or not is scary,” says Dan O’Gorman, a prominent Brisbane barrister. “I’ve acted for Fardon for seven years. He’s had a terrible life himself, which doesn’t justify his behaviour, of course. But Fardon is not the issue; the issue is the process. [Bleijie] just doesn’t seem to understand the role of an A-G. Unfortunately, not only has this fellow not defended the institutional integrity of the judicial process, he’s the leader of the cheer squad that’s attacking the courts. It’s an unbelievable situation.”

    To read the full 3,000 word story, visit The Monthly’s website.

  • Introducing ‘Dispatches’: a weekly email newsletter, March 2014

    In March 2014 I started Dispatches, a weekly newsletter about my three passions: writing, music and reading. A screenshot of the first dispatch, Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars, is included below.

    'Dispatches #1: Bikies, suicide contagion and drug wars', a weekly email newsletter by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen

    I named it Dispatches after one of my favourite books: Michael Herr’s classic ‘new journalism’ narrative, first published in 1977, which placed the author near the centre of the Vietnam War while reporting for Esquire. I first read it in March 2012 and even writing about it here is almost enough to send me running to my bookshelf to tear through it again. Herr has a remarkable command of language. Clearly, the book comes highly recommended.

    The format will no doubt change over time, but for now I’ve split it into thirds:

    Words – highlighting my newly published writing, when applicable
    Sounds – music and podcast recommendations
    Reads – a selection of the best longform journalism and books I read in the past week

    If you like any of those three things, you might consider subscribing via TinyLetter here. If, like me, you spend too many hours each week immersed in your inbox, you can ‘try before you buy’ by viewing an archive of past mailouts here and deciding whether it’s worth your time. I hope it is.

    Besides offering a more regular way of keeping in touch with my readers than through this rather static blog or my cautious public engagement on social media, Dispatches is intended to be an interactive experiment-in-progress. At 26, I’ve done a reasonable amount of work of developing my own tastes, but I’m certainly open to your suggestions when it comes to reading and music.

    Finally: I’d like to note that Dispatches is inspired by Ryan Holiday’s fantastic monthly reading recommendation newsletter, and by the weekly emails sent by journalism hubs Longform and Longreads. I’m not aiming to compete with any of those mailouts – in part, because all three are so fucking good that I’d be setting myself up to fail. Instead, I’m offering a personalised take on the words and sounds that enter my skull each week and influence the way I interpret the world and write about it.

    Welcome to Dispatches.

  • The Weekend Australian album review: The War On Drugs, March 2014

    An album review published in The Weekend Australian on March 15 – my first ever five-star album review, I believe.

    The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream

    twod_dreamAbout 3 ½ minutes into the first track, ‘Under the Pressure’, is when it first becomes apparent that Lost in the Dream may be a masterpiece: a muscular brass melody seeps into the mix, mimicking the chord progression and adding a new urgency to an already brisk tune. Its final three minutes are free of percussion; instead, waves of shimmering guitar tones and bass harmonics slowly fade out, to stunning effect. It’s one hell of a mood-setter that summarises the album’s pervasive feel of hazy discontent tinged with brightness.

    Within moments of track two settling into its groove, all bets are off. This galloping indie rock number is an instant classic that captures The War on Drugs at its most vital: four players locked into one of the most remarkable and moving grooves I’ve heard. It’s a cop-out that one hates to defer to, but words don’t do it justice. ‘Red Eyes‘ — the album’s first single — is a towering musical achievement that will be studied decades hence, just as we still study Led Zeppelin, the Stones and the Beatles.

    The War on Drugs was formed in 2005 by singer-guitarist Adam Granduciel and Lost in the Dream is the band’s third album, yet as with its predecessor Slave Ambient (2011), many of its complex sounds were assembled piece by piece by the frontman. “I wanted to do something that showcased what the band had become without necessarily giving up control of the recording,” the 35-year-old recently told American website Grantland. “I feel like with this record, I wasn’t ready to do that yet.”

    A break-up left him alone in a big, empty house with the task of finishing this record, which sees the band teetering on the precipice between indie acclaim and mainstream acceptance. (The quartet visited Australia at the end of last year, playing day slots to modest crowds at Falls Festival and a handful of smaller headline shows.)

    Granduciel’s anxiety and depression during this period played their part in Lost in the Dream’s sonic footprint; despite the upbeat bravado of ‘Red Eyes’, many of the remaining nine tracks favour introspective, world-weary instrumentation and narratives.

    Sixth track ‘Eyes to the Wind’ is a fine example: at a key moment midway through the song, Granduciel sings “There’s just a stranger, living in me” in his sweet, distinctive accent, which sits perfectly amid strummed acoustic guitars and delicate piano runs. Album closer ‘In Reverse’ dwells in late-night self-examination — “Sometimes I wait for the cold wind blowing/ As I struggle with myself right now/ As I let the darkness in” — amid a buoyant chord progression and insistent backbeat.

    There is darkness on Lost in the Dream, as in life, but these moments ultimately are outweighed by hope. In sum, this is a striking statement from a visionary songwriter and his dedicated bandmates. It’s a masterful hour-long work whose strengths and charms are immediately evident yet whose secrets are buried deep.

    LABEL: Inertia/Secretly Canadian
    RATING: 5 stars

  • 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.

    ++

    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.

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    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.”

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    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.”