All posts tagged conversation

  • The Vine interview: Big Boi at the Hordern Pavilion, December 2010

    An interview for The Vine: face-to-face with Big Boi in Sydney. The full interview appears below.

    Big Boi – interview

    In Australia for one night only to promote the new Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit video game, American hip-hop artist Antwan “Big Boi” Patton had been booked wall-to-wall with media commitments from the moment he arrived at the Hordern Pavilion. From 1pm onwards, he was being filmed, questioned, and photographed by an extensive media contingent, all eager for a moment in the presence of one half of the multi-million selling duo OutKast. In the hall adjacent, a few million dollars’ worth of cars are having their tires kicked – though not literally, as they’d probably be escorted from the building – by a couple of thousand gig attendees, all of whom were offered free tickets through a variety of web outlets. Initially access was only guaranteed to those who pre-ordered the new game, but in the weeks leading up to the event, it seems that EA and their partners couldn’t get rid of the tickets fast enough. Indeed, at the height of Big Boi’s kickarse, hour-plus-long set, the Hordern was only about half full.

    Before the show, The Vine was initially scheduled for 10 minutes with Big Boi in a space upstairs at the Hordern that’d been designated as the venue’s green room. In actuality, it was a room flanked with thick black curtains, long tables, and a couple of dozen people milling around. A curious combination of anticipation, expectation, and desperation hung in the air. Only two chairs were set up, atop one of which sat Big Boi in front of a television, an Xbox 360, and the new Need For Speed game. The other seat was warmed by a revolving door of interviewers, most of whom were committing their conversation to video. This wouldn’t be a problem if each team filming used the same chair, game banner and lighting set-up, but of course, it’s never that easy. The Vine watched as a half-dozen video teams – mostly Australian, but a couple of New Zealanders, too – generally spent more time re-arranging the set than they did actually speaking to Big Boi.

    It’s past 8pm when my interview opportunity arrives, and by that time, I could tell that the rapper was well and truly over posing for photos and answering the same five questions. I’m informed that since they’re running behind schedule, my time with Big Boi has been cut in half. Great! “Try and keep it close to that five minute mark,” his tour manager tells (warns?) me; “We wanna get him to relax a little bit before the show.” And fair enough. I’d moved the chairs a few metres away from the television because I wanted his full attention, but his tour manager insists that they be moved back, directly in front of the screen. Big Boi mishears my name (“Anthony?”), shakes my hand, picks up a controller and turns his sunglass-clad eyes to the game, where he’s driving a yellow Lamborghini at high speed through a beautiful, snowy mountaintop setting. This will take some skill.

    “So I hear you’re a bit of a gamer,” I begin.

    “Yeah, man,” he replies. “I do a little somethin’ here and there, you know.” Eyes on the screen. Mind more interested in the game than in speaking with yet another journalist he’ll never meet again.

    “I’ve got this theory,” I offer. “Games are now cool, where once they used to be nerdy. What do you think?”

    “I think you might be right,” Big Boi says. Still disinterested.

    “Could you imagine this kind of event ten years ago?” I ask.

    “Not really. But you know what happened when the games started integrating the hip, new, cool music into the games, they brought music and gaming together. So you’d have fans of music playing games, and it brings everyone together. So now you have the coolest people playing games, and so it’s not looked at as just being the ‘nerd thing’. Everybody secretly loves video games. For real!”

    I try a little flattery, to try and get him to lighten up. “And the fact that companies like EA want to bring guys like you out to promote their game probably helps their cool factor a little bit.”

    “Hey, man, I hope so!” he smiles for a moment – then jumps back into contractual obligation-mode. “This is a cool game, though. I like this. Need For Speed – they are not playin’ around, you hear me?” The way he says this is hilarious, but I get the feeling he’s said it dozens of times today. “The police car’s a Lamborghini; this shit is super fast!”

    I make another attempt to divert his interest from the screen. “Did you check out the cars next door?”

    “Yeah, I was over there earlier, man. I was doing some interviews for MTV, and I saw the Lambos, and the car that’s made out of gold, and all that stuff.”

    Well, that’s a conversational dead end. I’ve already spent a minute on pleasantries. Shit. Time to try something different. His July-released debut solo album, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty (review), is fucking fantastic. Hell, my friends and I flew down from Brisbane just to see him play these songs live; nevermind this interview, which was only confirmed the day before. I need to communicate my enthusiasm; I need to show him that I respect his work. “Congrats on the album,” I offer.

    “‘Preciate it,” he acknowledges briefly. Then bang – straight back into promo mode. “Did you get a chance to play this yet?” he asks

    “No, man,” I reply, starting to get a bit annoyed with his diversionary tactics.

    “You ain’t played it yet? This is pretty kick-ass. You’ve gotta get a chance to play it!”

    With all due respect, Big Boi, I can play the game any time I want. What I can’t do at any time is interview you, which is the whole reason I’m sitting here. I press him on the topic of his music. “I’ve got this theory about your album.”

    “Okay,” he replies, eyes still on the screen.

    At this moment, it’s like 8 Mile all up in here; I’ve only got one shot. Here goes. “One of the reasons why it works so well is because you use your multiple personas to shrink and exaggerate your personalities as you need to.” I made this comment in my album review for The Vine – though he’s Big Boi through and through, on the album, he makes frequent references to several alter egos.

    It works. “There you go!” he says, looking at me through his sunglasses for the first time. “I’ll pause the game on that! Yeah, yeah! Exactly.” He nods. “That’s good!”

    I’m pleased to be sharing eye contact with him, if nothing else. “You think that’s a valid point? You’ve got your Daddy Fat Sax, you got your Sir Luscious Left Foot…”

    “General Patton…” he begins, listing another persona.

    I jump in with a name he drops midway through a verse in the album’s standout track, ‘Shutterbugg’. “Sergeant Slaughter,” I say, and from this moment on, I have his full attention for the remaining three minutes.

    “Exactly. It’s actually just different parts of your personality [that allow you] to be extreme on different types of songs. You don’t have to be the same person on every record. You can, like you say, exaggerate it or shrink it as you see fit.”

    Does that also come down to you being a bit restless, creatively? You want to challenge and expand yourself?

    “Definitely. It’s about playing roles. In certain songs, you can get into role-play. ‘Cuz really, the music is an extension of you, and I look at ‘em as like diaries, from the last time you heard from me, until the new album was released. So now that Sir Luscious Left Foot is out, all the content that’s building now is for the Daddy Fat Sax album, you know what I’m saying? [Note: Daddy Fat Sax: Funk Soul Crusader is said to be released next year.] So you really just talk about things that affect you, from relationships, to politics, to… whatever. Things you might want to speak out on. Sometimes it might be some good ol’ down-low freaky fun, just to get funky wit’ it. And nasty, and gritty, and grimy.”

    And there’s no shortage of those kind of songs on the album.

    “No. I definitely keep my shit freaky, all the way. Always. You know what I’m saying? Real edgy. You can work out to it. You can definitely make love to it. You can have a real sex party to the album. A real, real sexy party. Most definitely!”

    I saw the behind the scenes footage for the ‘Shutterbugg’ video, where you mentioned that you were aiming to do videos for every track on the album. How’s that coming along?

    “It’s coming along good. Next up I got the ‘Tangerine’ remix, with Fabolous, Rick Ross, and Bun B. And I already shot the video for ‘The Train Part II (Sir Luscious Left Foot Saves The Day)’. That’s already been done. Probably gonna do them two next, then I’m thinking about ‘Hustle Blood’ and ‘Be Still’.”

    You’ve gotta get Janelle in on ‘Be Still’. [In reference to R&B singer Janelle Monáe, who provides guest vocals on the track.]

    “Most definitely.”

    On behalf of music fans across the world, I want to thank you for discovering Janelle Monáe. [Big Boi saw her perform Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’ at an open mic night in Atlanta, and he asked her to feature on two songs on OutKast’s Idlewild soundtrack. Full story here.]

    “Word, man. ‘Preciate it, man.”

    She’s something special.

    “Definitely. It’s all about real, organically-made music that you can discover; every time you listen to it, you can hear something new. You don’t get everything on the first listen. A type of artist like that, with that type of depth; that’s what we’re looking for.”

    She’s coming out here for the first time in February, for the Good Vibrations festival.

    “Word? Oh, that’ll be dope, man. She got a lot of energy.”

    I saw the clip for ‘You Ain’t No DJ’, with Yelawolf. I’m interested to know your take on censorship these days, because in that video, Yelawolf’s verse is like…

    “Chopped up.”

    Yeah, you can barely hear the fuckin’ thing.

    “It really is some bullshit, man, you know what I’m saying? They show everything on television, you know, and in movies you can do whatever you want to do. But they censor the music, when it’s all the same thing. To me, I think it’s all really to hamper the success of certain types of music, you know what I mean? But the fans go out and get the dirty versions, and check it out, but I mean, you can work past all that.”

    And even the logos on your caps and shirts are blurred out, too.

    “Yeah. That’s weak as hell.”

    I think the best example recently is Cee-Lo’s ‘Fuck You’, where the radio cut is ‘Forget You’.

    “Yeah, and it totally takes away the impact. He still had almost a million downloads, though.”

    Yeah, massive. I think we’re about out of time, unfortunately.

    “That’s alright. We’re just getting ready to hit the stage.”

    Before I go: who’ve you got here in your entourage tonight? Who are you playing with?

    “I just brought my DJ, Cutmaster Swiff, and my homeboy BlackOwned C-Bone. And my sound man, my road manager. Micro squad.”

    No Vonnegutt? [an Atlanta rock act who feature on Big Boi’s track ‘Follow Us’ – video]

    “Nah, Vonnegutt didn’t come. They just performed with me down in Tennessee, though.”

    Cool. When are you coming back for a proper album tour? You’ve been here for the Winterbeatz festival, but you missed Brisbane.

    “Probably be like, um… me and Cee-Lo gonna do this ‘Georgia Power’ tour, and we might come back over and do some dates for that.”

    Alright. Thanks for your time.

    The full archived interview is on The Vine. More Big Boi on MySpace. The music video for his song ‘You Ain’t No DJ‘ is embedded below.

    Elsewhere: a review of Big Boi’s debut album, Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty for The Vine.

  • A Conversation With Trent Dalton, 2010 News Award-winning Features Journalist Of The Year

    Trent Dalton [pictured right] is the best feature journalist in Australia. I first had this realisation sometime in 2005, during my final year of high school. That year, Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail launched its new glossy magazine, Qweekend, which was included in the Saturday paper. Each week, the magazine ran three feature stories written by journalists in Queensland, as well as the occasional piece syndicated from overseas publications. From the beginning, the magazine’s editorial policy divided its attention between big, complex issues, and profiles of remarkable people doing worthwhile things with their lives.

    Qweekend has since built a reputation for exhibiting the state’s best feature journalism, and, by extension, its best feature journalists. Like Trent Dalton, who has been at the magazine since the beginning. Over the years, I’ve found myself continually drawn to Trent’s distinctive style of storytelling. It’s a habit I’ve been unable – and unwilling – to kick. The man has a freakish knack for crafting engaging, long-form narratives. I covet and cherish his words more than those written by any other Australian journalist. If I can become half as good a writer as Trent, I’ll die happy.

    Last month, Trent Dalton won the News Award for 2010 Features Journalist of the Year for the second time, having previously won the award in 2008. This time around, judges paid special attention to two interrelated stories named Story of a Man and Story of a Woman. You can read them both by clicking on the story names, or by clicking on the images below. (Both links open the stories as PDFs in a new window.)

    Last week, I interviewed Trent specifically about these two award-winning stories. I highly recommend reading both stories before reading my interview.


    Andrew: Tell me about the process behind the News Awards. Did you nominate your own stories?

    Trent: Yeah. So what happens is every year News Limited runs their national big news awards for all their publications, and so in the feature writing category you submit what you consider to be your five best stories, written throughout the year. I submitted what I thought my five best were. One was an interview with a child pornographer. Another one was an interview with a guy who was imprisoned in Brisbane for 20 years, and believed he was innocent. There was another one on euthanasia, and another one called Home Truths, which was about these boys out at Riverview Boys Home who were chronically abused when they were children. But now they’re 60 years old, and they had a reunion out there which they invited me to, and it was an incredible moment.

    The other one was a combined, two-part story, Story of a Man / Story of a Woman, which got great feedback. And that was the one that the judges highlighted.

    You write a lot of stories. Do you find it hard to pick favourites?

    It definitely wasn’t hard to put in the pair that the judges responded to, Story of a Man / Story of a Woman, because that was also my favourite thing that I’ve done this year. It was probably the first pitch that I gave to my editor that’s come out exactly as I’d hoped it would in the genesis of the actual idea.

    The pitch to my editor was: let’s do a story on a woman and a man, a completely ordinary woman and completely ordinary man, but tell their entire life story. Go up to them and say, “I want to know every last thought that is in your head, and I need you to be as honest as humanly possible.” I asked about hundred strangers in the street if they would be willing enough to share their stories, and everybody said “that’s a wonderful story but I’m not going to be the volunteer who gives you my entire life story, warts and all”.

    Luckily, there was this extraordinary woman called Liz Parr. She got the ball rolling. She said “yep, that’s a great story and I really want to do this, I think it’s going to be great.” She wanted to do it for womanhood, and she took it in the spirit that I was trying to do it. It was an amazing trust exercise, because she totally told me everything, from her hopes and fears and dreams, to literally her sex life and some of the misfortunes she’s had in her life. It was amazing. It turned out to be a really great journalistic experience. It wasn’t hard choosing those ones.

    All Qweekend stories have headings at the top of the page; the heading for these stories was ‘real life’. Did Christine [Middap, Qweekend editor] go for it immediately? It seems like going for this story might have been a bit of a risk for her.

    Yeah, she did go for it immediately, but only because she knew what Qweekend has been thriving on. This is where I think we’ve developed an audience; we’ve thrived on the stories of ordinary people. We have this column called Ordinary People which we started five years ago, and without a doubt, we get the biggest response from that column, more than any other regular feature in the magazine.

    It’s really connected with readers, so if it wasn’t for that column being successful, I think she might have balked at the idea. But given the success of that, she was like “Yeah, I can see the power of this,” and she knew where I wanted to go with it. She knew too that it would take finding the right people; it could have failed abysmally if we didn’t get that right people. It totally taught me the power of finding the right subject in any story that one might be writing. The right person, not just the right topic, but the right human being to actually be the conduit for the reader.

    Qweekend has been around for five years now. When did you first come up with the story idea?

    Around three years into it. I had the idea for a long time and I mentioned it once before to Christine, and then I got put on a really big story. It was a difficult story that took up a long time, and then I came back to it. Then I was chasing down someone to interview and that person couldn’t do the interview for a certain amount of time, so I needed a stop-gap and said, “Christine, what about this idea I had, about a man and a woman?” She said, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

    The man and the woman stories ended up being way more interesting than the story about the guy that I was chasing down, who was holding off on the interview. You never know what’s going to work. It was something I’ve definitely always wanted to do; an epic about just an ordinary person’s life, because I honestly think the person walking past you, any given day, is just as interesting as Tom Cruise… well, not anyone is as crazy as Tom Cruise, but that idea that every human being has an amazing story to tell; it’s just about how much they want to share with you to get to that amazing story.

    Where did you find Tony and Liz?

    Liz was in Indooroopilly Shopping Centre, and I found Tony [Mitchell] in the western suburbs, out where I live, near Darra. He lived out at Richlands, so I was just walking around the shops there and I stopped him and said “Mate, how do you feel about this idea: I want to tell every last bit about your whole life story?” He laughed. And he was a completely courageous guy as well. He’s a normal, blokey type guy and he just said “Yep, I want to do it.”

    He wanted to do it because it was a document for his kids, that idea of: where else do you get someone to write 4,000 words about your life? He was like, “why not?”. And it was totally his life up until that point in time, for better or worse. In his case, it was a completely, amazingly beautiful life, but with moments of such tragedy for him, and moments of doubt. But he was such a brilliant man. I admire him so much because he was willing to share that stuff. I couldn’t tell you how many readers wrote in saying “Tony inspired me to no end because it reminded me of my dad,” or “it reminded me of my brother,” or “it completely reflected my life story.” Seemingly an ordinary guy from Richlands turns out to inspire people; that’s pretty amazing. That was really something great to come out of it.

    Did you censor anything?

    I censored some elements about Tony’s relationships and things, but not to protect Tony, because Tony was more than willing to share aspects of his life. But having a sense of the people that he’s talking about. That was it, which is something we’re always running across, and I’m always getting in trouble with our lawyers because I’m inadvertently defaming someone through a quote that someone has said something about someone, perhaps an ex-wife, or cousin, or anything.

    It’s not saying that Liz or Tony said horrible things about anyone, but as a general thing, this happens to me all the time when someone might be bagging a relative or something, but the relative will be able to identify themselves in that. All the person’s other relatives will be able to identify that person, therefore I am defaming them, and I could get in massive amounts of trouble. There is always so much censoring that goes on, and a lot of times it’s to get me out of trouble. Which is great.

    Both stories centred around the home. Did you spend a lot of time in their homes?

    Yeah, totally. I spoke for a long time on the phone with both of them, preparing ourselves, readying for this one day. The idea was building up a relationship of trust with them for a couple of weeks, and in the event that I would be able to focus on one day in their home, in their ordinary lives, and it would be sharing every aspect, crystallised within one day. It was definitely that idea of home life: what goes on behind the closed doors? Any story I’ve ever written has been, like: the person’s out doing something, and you never really find out about what is actually happening in the person’s home, because it’s such a personal place.

    That was the concept. It was like: what happens in the home? And then: can we describe that in an exciting way or some sort of way that might be interesting, just the minutiae of life in the home. Can that be interesting? Can that be enlightening, and have bigger repercussions, or add bigger meaning to something?

    It really did get down to the more routine, mundane aspects of life. I remember the moment in Liz’s story where there’s a hole in a strawberry, and all the kids crowded around looking at it. It’s such a tiny aspect of the story, but it’s interesting and fascinating.

    Thanks for the observation! I love that stuff, from the writing perspective, that you can capture in a factual piece something truly beautiful and eloquent, just this little moment in time. I love little moments in time, that’s my big thing. I’m writing to moments of time this year; I’ve just been writing a lot of moments in time, and it’s been cool because I love that concept that life is just a series of wonderful little moments in time. That strawberry moment was this beautiful moment; the cutest little kids marvelling over a hole in the strawberry.

    Have you re-read the stories recently?

    I have, because to go in the awards entries, you re-read it and write about your thoughts on it and give insight into how it developed, and all that. I have re-read it and I really enjoyed it. Whenever I re-read anything with a certain amount of time in between… actually, it doesn’t even have to take time. It could be from the time I submit it to my editors to the time it’s actually printed on the page. I shudder when I read it on the printed page. You feel like, “that sounds a bit too strong” or it’s a bit too ham-fisted, because at the time you’re writing it, you’re getting swept up in the freight-train vibe of the story, and you’re not detached enough. All it takes for me to get detached is about a week’s time of not thinking about the story, and then you go back to it and you go “Oh no! I shouldn’t have written that. That sentence doesn’t work at all,” but you’re probably overly critical.

    Those two stories were one of the few times I’ve gone, “I’m really quite proud of how that stands up,” in hindsight, whereas some of the other stories that I entered into those awards I thought, “I probably could have done that a bit better”. The other ones were a little bit more complicated in the sense they all had a million different sources and all that; the complexity of a normal big feature article. The beauty of those two stories, Story of a Man and Story of a Woman, though, was that there was only one person that was really driving the story. That made it much clearer, and it was a joy to write. It was a real joy to write those.

    When those days of observation were taking place, were you framing the stories in your head? Did you see certain moments that would fit well, in the structure of the story?

    Absolutely, yeah. That stands for anything I write. They’re the ones that I write in my notepad and I put massive asterisks next to them, saying ‘this was key’; ‘this was some amazing key moment’. That day in Story of a Woman, Liz’s children mapped out the day. By focusing on a day, already you had a natural structure to a story, because it could start very early in the morning. I got around there at about 6am and it went until about 6pm. It had a great, natural structure to it, and then you could blend in Liz’s life story among all those daily things.

    Along there, there’s that idea of narrative payoffs. There are these in-built narrative payoffs. For example, she makes lunch in the morning and then you know that that lunch is going to come back into the story later on, because it naturally will; either the kids won’t eat their lunch, or she won’t ever get to eat her lunch, or a fly’s going to land on the lunch. You just know, so you make sure you take notes that the sandwich is going to come back into it. Take note of what’s on the sandwich, because it’s going to logically have a good, narrative payoff later on! [laughs]

    Did you show drafts to your subjects before you submitted?

    That is a great question, because if ever there was a story that probably the subject did deserve to see, because they were giving so much of themselves, it was this one. But it’s a really strict policy where I work at The Courier-Mail and on Qweekend; you can’t show the story to the subject. Oftentimes I call them and go through it with them. Maybe there’s flexibility there, or maybe there should be, because it’s kind of a nice… people want to have that access. If they’re giving so much of themselves, maybe they deserve to see and protect themselves.

    I called them up and said on the difficult areas, “This is where it’s going,” but they were really good in the sense that they said “Just write it.” They knew what it was about, and they said, “this is my life”. Even during the interview, if they were talking about a delicate thing, you might stop and say, “Do you mind if we talk about that for the story,” and they might think about it and go, “Yeah, right, let’s talk about it, let’s go there.” To answer your question, no, I didn’t show them beforehand.

    Liz told me that when she picked it up, it was really confronting for her. It was really hard for her [to be] picking it up; she was like “Wow! It’s really out there.” She knew it was going to be real, but it was really real. She was like “wow”. And it’s hard on her husband too; the really lovely husband she has. It’s hard to share that much of yourself, but Liz has since said she totally feels like it was really worthwhile because she’s got so much wonderful feedback from other women, and it tapped into something out there.

    She still stands by it, she’s really glad she did it, and I’m so glad that she feels that way. I’m so glad she doesn’t regret doing it, because so often as a journalist you feel so bad. That’s the great dilemma that keeps me up at night. I really lose sleep over the idea that you’re telling someone’s story; that you’re taking the stories and putting them out there. You’re exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s one of the harder aspects of the job.

    Anyway, I’m sounding like a tosser; it’s not all that… you’re being very indulgent! But that is a real concern, that side of things.

    What about Tony? Was he happy with it?

    He’s right down the line, in the sense of “it is what it is”. His wife had to read it – she sent me an email afterwards. She said “Trent, thank you for the story.” She hated it the first time she read it, and then she said “I really liked it on the second time.” So I’m so grateful she gave it a second reading, because I’m sure that first reading would have been “Oh no!”. It would have been all bad, because he shared too much. But I’m happy that on the second reading, she felt some of the power of it.

    Was it harder to write than some of your other work?

    Probably one of the easiest to write, and that’s a great indication of the power of the story for me. Sometimes the stories that I don’t quite hit a home run on…  I should change that. I hate using American terms.  I’m going to say ‘hit a six’;  we use too many American terms now, just in general parlance.

    What I’m trying to say is, the ones that you struggle writing often turn out to be the ones that a reader struggles reading. So often the ones that are easy to write just flow. That saying – ‘they write themselves’. Both of those stories did, because the subjects just gave such wonderful material.

    You nominated your five stories, and then you were shortlisted. And then on the night you were given the award.


    There’s a photo of you holding a statue and proclaiming something from the platform [pictured below right]. What were you saying?

    Probably saying how amazing my fellow finalists were. There were three finalists from Qweekend, which is fantastic. It was a great coup for Queensland writers out there. It was really wonderful. Basically I’m saying “I can’t believe I’ve got this!”, because those two writers I was nominated with – Matt Condon and Amanda Watt – are absolute inspirations, and heroes of mine.

    I was saying something along the lines of that, and then following it up with saying how amazing my wife Fiona is, because she’s the one at home looking after the kids for the past three years, and indulging me all those times at midnight, when you should be saying romantic things, and I’m saying “What do you think about this for an introduction?” She’s like: “Stop talking about writing!”

    Would you say you’re becoming more obsessive about writing as your career progresses?

    Yeah, definitely. It’s gotten to the point now where, when my wife and I go on holiday, I’m not allowed to bring a notepad and I’m not allowed to bring my laptop.

    Wow. Where do you keep your ideas?!

    I know; you have to write then down on serviettes and things, and secretly stash them into your pockets! It’s getting really bad! Really embarrassing. And it’s become a massive issue in our home. I’ve been really conscious of it because that idea of being present for your partner, and not thinking about a story or some sort of storyline, some way of saying a sentence or something, some little gem of an idea. You just go, “this is ridiculous – my family life is way more important than this”.

    As much as I love writing for Qweekend and writing stories and stuff, it’s nowhere near as important as having a really great relationship with your partner, and with your kids. So I’ve been really conscious. I’ve got countless notepads of just scribbles, to the point where you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re reaching for a notepad. It’s embarrassing, ridiculous. But it’s all good.

    Well, you’re well aware of how inspirational you are to me as a writer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in Brisbane – let alone in Queensland – who feels that way. So congratulations on the award, Trent.

    Man, thank you so much Andrew. People like you inspire me. I’m not just backslapping; people like you inspire me because it reminds me of the fire. It keeps the fire alive and I think it’s wonderful that there’s a community out there, particularly in Brisbane. If there’s one thing that comes from awards like this, it’s to show that yes, great writing is happening here in this state, and it’s going to continue. That all those people look up from Melbourne and Sydney and go, “yeah, there’s some great stuff going on”.

    Cool. I’ll leave it there.

    Thanks for indulging me!


    To keep track of Trent’s feature writing, pick up The Courier-Mail each Saturday for the Qweekend magazine, or keep an eye on the Qweekend website, which is updated each Monday with feature stories from the latest issue. You can also follow Qweekend on Twitter.

  • A Conversation With George Sotiropoulos, Australian UFC fighter

    In August 2010, I interviewed Australian UFC fighter George Sotiropoulos for a story in Australian Penthouse [‘Caged Fury’, pictured right]. You can read an edited version of that interview here.

    Below is the full transcript of our conversation, including a couple of touch-ups by George via email afterwards.

    Andrew: My research tells me that you had a history in amateur boxing in Australia before you decided to start travelling the world to learn other styles of fighting. I’m interesting to know what you found attractive about mixed martial arts (MMA) in the first place.

    George: Boxing was the last type of amateur competition I did before fighting mixed martial arts. I already had an extensive background in Jiu-Jitsu, Submission Grappling, and Freestyle Wrestling before I started Boxing. Boxing was the last stop that I made to round off my skills in preparation for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I started with Jiu-Jitsu to develop skills in ground fighting. Then I added wresting to learn takedowns. Finally, I implemented boxing to add striking to my skill set which got me ready for MMA.

    Why did you decide to stick with MMA?

    I decided to do MMA before I decided on anything else. I saw UFC back in ’97 at a friend’s place one night before heading out, and I basically decided then that’s what I wanted to do. So I set off on an expedition to get myself trained as a mixed martial artist. I had no formal training or skill in mixed martial arts. I was attracted to MMA by the display of Jiu-Jitsu by the Gracie family, and that’s basically what I wanted to learn. I started with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. MMA was evolving, and other styles were becoming effective, so I added wrestling.

    It was the grapplers/Jiu-Jitsu artists that were the most effective in the beginning, then the wrestlers followed by the strikers. Therefore, I added the boxing last as the sport and I evolved.

    I trained and competed in all the styles I practiced. My total experience in Jiu-Jitsu is about 130 grappling / Jiu-Jitsu bouts, 15-20 bouts in freestyle wrestling, 10 amateur boxing matches and one professional. My MMA record is now 13-2, plus the three exhibitions bouts I had when I was on The Ultimate Fighter. That totals 18 MMA fights.

    I developed the skills and experience by training and competing in the individual sports. It would be very hard to go out there and become a mixed martial arts fighter without the specific experience. So I trained specifically to acquire those skills.

    Congratulations on your 9-0 record so far in the UFC, by the way. I watched your last couple of fights in preparation for this. I’m interested to know where you think you’re strongest as a fighter.

    I train Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, boxing and Muay Thai. But I’m mostly known for my Jiu-Jitsu skills because that’s where I have given the greatest display. However, I address and work on everything equally.

    What does your average week of training look like?

    It’s a very gruelling and intense training schedule. I train three times a day from Monday to Friday, and I usually train once or twice on the weekends.

    Does that amount of training increase in the lead up to a fight or do you keep it steady, even up to the day before the fight?

    Training is usually six to eight hours a day, which remains constant right up to fight week.

    That seems to be working for you. You’ve been with guys like Eddie Bravo and Leonard Gabriel since November 2008. How important do you feel your team is to your success so far?

    Very important. They believe in me and I have faith in them. They’re guiding the ship. They’re as much a part of it as I am.

    I’ve seen you say that by the time you’re fighting, when you’re in the ring, you’re calm and there’s nothing frightening or surreal about it. Is there any difference between training in a gym with your team and fighting in front of 20,000 people? Is there a different kind of mindset required or do you feel it’s the same?

    No, you train day in and day out for that moment. All scenarios, possibilities, techniques and strategies are covered in training that will be executed in the fight. On fight day the work has already been done – the training is harder than the fight because so much was done in preparation for the fight.

    What happens after a UFC match, George? As the winner, do you now meet with the officials and they decide your next match, and who you’re fighting next?

    I’ll be informed of who and when I will fight next. My team and I will study the opponent, run strategies, scenarios and address his strengths and weaknesses.

    There’s some chatter about trying to get your next UFC fight to happen in Melbourne, but MMA events are currently banned in Victoria. Do you know why?

    Not sure why they’re banned, but I have been present at several sanctioned MMA events in Melbourne which were held in a boxing ring, not a cage. So it might be a technicality.

    There’s too many reasons why MMA and the UFC will be held in Melbourne. First, it is a legitimate, credible and regulated sport. Secondly, the boost which it will give the local economy is too substantial to be ignored; our economy needs everything it can get, along with the international exposure that comes from the events.

    Why do you think that some people have a problem with mixed martial arts fighting?

    There’s a misconception from some journalists, writers, politicians and other public groups. The sport has comes a long way since it started back in 1993. The sport now has weight classes, time limits and is strictly regulated, supervised and judged by professionals.

    Rules have been introduced, there’s structured ways of competition, fighter safety is paramount, and it’s a professional sport. MMA combines all the elements of the Olympic stadium events; amateur boxing, taekwondo, freestyle wrestling, Greco roman wrestling and judo. These styles are the make up and blueprint of MMA.

    MMA should be accepted and regulated because it is a bi-product of Olympic sports. Furthermore, MMA was in the ancient Olympics, originally named Pankration. There is a long history; we are witnessing the rebirth of true combat sports.

    To me, it’s one of the purest forms of professional athletic endurance. It’s just two guys in a ring using their training to take the other one down. There’s not much more to it.

    That is part of it. In a street fight, anything goes. People can utilise any object as a weapon; they can literally take a person’s life. MMA is a sport with technique. The only way you’re going to win is utilising real skills and technique, from boxing, taekwondo, muay thai, wrestling, judo, jiu jitsu and any other martial art style out there. Skill is effective, not brutality. There is no such martial art or style called ‘street fighting’, only the wild imaginations of thugs and misinformed politicians and writers.

    That’s the big misconception; people don’t understand. It’s a new sport which only been around for 20 years. People are not fully informed about the facts, so that’s why people jump the gun. But that’s going to change. UFC is the fourth most viewed sport in the U.S.A. It’s huge. Pay-per-view’s in the millions, and up to 20,000 in attendance at events. It’s mainstream now. Australia follows the same trends as the western world whether it be sports or any other professional field.

    Your Sydney fight in February at the Acer Arena (UFC 110) was huge. It set the merch record for the venue, beating out Iron Maiden. The fact that obviously it sold out quickly indicates that there’s obviously an audience for it, and it’s turned mainstream. Do you see yourself as an ambassador for MMA in Australia?

    Definitely, I’m one of Australia’s leading competitors representing my country. It’s also my responsibility to educate the Australian community and provide insight about the sport. It’s a safe and regulated sport. Safer than the boxing, muay thai, or kick boxing which have been around for decades. MMA is safer because of the wrestling and grappling components. Consequently, resulting in less striking during bouts and training which means less head trauma.

    Why do you think people are attracted to watching UFC, and MMA in general?

    To quote Dana White, the president of the UFC: fighting is in our genes. People are naturally attracted to fighting. This is the ultimate form of fighting, so naturally people are going to be attracted to it. Fighting has been a part of human evolution; we evolved fighting, dating back to caveman. That’s why it’s in our instincts. Finally, it’s definitely the most exciting sport and it sells itself. The presence of striking, grappling, and wrestling makes for exciting action.

    Can you describe the feeling once a fight begins?

    You must prepare for all scenarios; standing, ground, the clinch, submissions, striking with your hands, elbows, knees and feet. You’ve got to be prepared for everything. All bases must be covered.

    It’s exciting. The offense can come from just about anywhere. The only way I can describe mixed martial arts is navigating through an asteroid field, asteroids coming from any direction. You’ve got to be ready for everything.

    Outside of fighting, George, do you have any vices? Do you drink, smoke, play video games?

    I do not drink. But I will have a glass of wine after my fight. Mostly, I just like training and fighting, and not much else. It’s a full-time commitment. When I’m not training I’m preparing to train or getting ready for a week of training, which it leaves little time for anything else.

    One last thing. There’s a bit of a misconception that anyone who pursues professional fighting generally isn’t an educated person, but when researching you I was interested to find that you had a business degree. You’re clearly very articulate and well spoken.

    A lot of the fighters who are in this sport have college degrees. So you can’t stereotype people because of the misconception of fighting being done by the poorer or underprivileged classes in society.

    In my case, I went to school, graduated, have a degree and associate diploma. I worked in finance, shipping and various other professions growing up. I chose MMA because it’s what I enjoy and love doing. It’s also my obligation and duty to represent it professionally since I am representing my country.

    Congratulations on your success so far, George. I wish you more of it.

    Thank you.


    For more on George Sotiropoulos, visit his website.

    The above transcript appeared in edited form for a story in the September 2010 issue of Australian Penthouse – read it here.

    I’ve embedded a video of George’s UFC highlights below, but since UFC generally aren’t too keen on allowing their footage to appear on YouTube, I can’t guarantee it’ll stay up for long.

  • A Conversation With Matthew Condon, Brisbane-based author and journalist

    Brisbane author Matthew CondonI met with Brisbane-based author and journalist Matthew Condon [pictured right] in late June 2010, to discuss his newest book, Brisbane, for a profile in The Weekend Australian Review. You can read that story here.

    Full transcript of our conversation is below. As mentioned elsewhere, this was a particularly enjoyable interview, as Matthew is one of my favourite feature writers – I hold his work for The Courier-Mail’s QWeekend magazine in high regard. Brisbane is a great read, too.

    Beware: for those who haven’t read Brisbane, there are spoilers.


    Andrew: I read your book yesterday.

    Matthew: Right.

    To give you a bit of my background, I grew up in Bundaberg, then came to Brisbane for university in 2006. Although my father’s from Brisbane, I’ve not paid a lot of attention to Brisbane’s history, so I did find it quite an educational experience. I liked the way that you blended it alongside your stories from growing up in this city.

    Obviously, I had to include the history, but I wanted the book to move back and forth in time to try and get that effect of – ‘is the past still in the present?’, and so I structured it in that way, no chapters, that it would just meander, and that the present and past would constantly chafe against each other. There were little thematic links; I tried to stitch it through and run a few parallel narratives so that at least rather than a dreary history of a city, that it would have at least a few narrative lines that would pull people through it.

    It definitely had a narrative arc, from your experiences as a child through to you telling your children about the history of Brisbane, and them asking questions.

    That was organic, really, as the book grew. It was interesting how that line of it sort of came to the surface. I didn’t have an intention to write a book about children; however, maybe writing about Brisbane and my childhood is looking for the child that I was, and then seeing it perhaps in my children.

    So, in a way, that too is the shimmering of the past and the present, which I think is unique. Ironically, even though we have very little historical buildings, my point of the narrative line of F.W.S. Cumbrae-Stewart and the monument was this; what does it say generationally about the people of the city that really aren’t that fussed with historical accuracy? What does it mean, and does it flow through?

    Even though we had very few historical monuments left in terms of buildings and treasuring our historical sites, it’s still weirdly a city where the past is always somehow present to me. This is just my view, but is that nostalgia? Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s a city that I think most Brisbane people who go away and come back, it’s a city that puts its claws into your heart, funnily enough.

    The recurring metaphor you use, a ‘book without an index’, seems quite apt.

    Yeah, a lot of people will get upset with that but I think it’s very true. When I went to look for my relatives in Toowong Cemetery, I’ve since been in touch with them and they’ve said “you can always come to the office and we’ll guide you,” but the point is if you want to wander in and visit your antecedents, it’s a very difficult thing to do. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard.

    So to me, the cemetery in the end of the book became a microcosm of this entire city. Funnily enough, topographically, it’s sort of a miniature – it’s the leaders on the hills, the rest of us are down in the valleys, which is very much as Brisbane is now. The ridges are either populated by the church, or the wealthy, and that’s a paradigm that replicates itself in cities across the world. It’s not just Brisbane.

    So what was the brief you received for this book? How did Phillipa [McGuinness, New South books’ commissioning editor] bring it to you?

    The brief was probably the singular most simplistic, liberating brief that I’ve ever received. She just said “Look, you do Brisbane and approach it the way you wish,” which on one hand is brilliant. On the other, when you come down to practically writing, when you come down to trying to put your arms around an entire city, it was very difficult. It sounded great.

    The task was very difficult because I had deliberated for months and months, how does one write and capture a city? How do you go about it? Then I decided it’s impossible, it really is impossible to do it thoroughly. It would be endless. The city is organic. It’s constantly shifting and changing, so I had to not be afraid of giving myself limitations, that it would be my personal view, and after months and months of deliberating and thinking the usual; does one do it by the seasons, or to give yourself this sort of predictable structure?

    And then I tossed all of them through my mind and one day I just decided “Look, I’m going to go to where X marks the spot, where Oxley came ashore. That’s the Caucasian history of the city. I’ll start there, and I’ll see where it takes me.” I did that.

    One day I just put a notebook in a bag and a camera, and I went down to North Quay, to the dreary granite monument, and I’d never stood before it. I’d seen it a million times, all through my life, and as I wrote. So I stood there with the traffic roaring on both sides, and something about it… [laughs] I don’t know what it was, something about it struck me as wrong. The wording was sort of hesitant. It didn’t feel right. So I thought, “Okay, this is where I start. I’ll investigate the monument.” And that kicked the journey off, really.

    I liked how you brought your investigative journalism with Qweekend into the mix. That’s probably what influenced Phillipa in asking you to do it, in that you’d been writing in and around Brisbane since you returned.

    Book cover for 'Brisbane' by Matthew CondonThat’s a really good point, because I only realised halfway through the book how important it had been to be doing that journalism for five years, and how in fact I’d touched on many, many things across the city – both contemporary and historical – and I wasn’t as removed from it as I actually thought that I was.

    I looked at this book personally as a way of trying to write my way back into the city. When I came back, I felt I knew it was the city I’d been born in. In those first couple of years, I’d drive past my childhood house several times. It was me trying to reconnect with a city that I’d lost touch with for 18-odd years. And something deep inside of me told me to do this book, because perhaps it would embed me back into Brisbane. In many ways, it did that.

    It required me to concentrate on the geography, the landscape, where I was living, and to open my eyes, basically. So, it served a very important personal purpose for me. Doing the book made me feel more comfortable and relaxed here now, and at home, in a sense.

    And along the way you did touch upon some personal experiences, like finding that film canister in your great grandfather’s darkroom.

    Yeah; that’s a story from when I was about 12, and it just fitted into this book, in terms of me searching for evidence of myself and hopefully the wider populace of my generation in particular. You’re of a different generation, but as I’d mentioned in the book; when one leaves a city like Brisbane, the longer you’re away, the more the city that it was to you calcifies in your mind, and becomes fixed as ‘Brisbane the city’, your home city. But cities move on. People grow older, things happen, buildings get torn down, landscapes change, cultures change. Brisbane’s culture is phenomenally, vastly different from when I left.

    When you come back you’re shocked. It’s not what you thought it was, because you’ve sort of fairytale’d it in your head. I realised only after I’d written it and read through it that the book is a partial examination of memory and the function of memory.

    Indeed as you’ve noted, at the end of the book I test my memories against living contemporary people in my life. They say “No, that didn’t happen, that’s not here, no.” So it’s an examination of memory and how we fictionalise ourselves, so there’s that game playing in the book as well.

    When that part came up, it was a real shock because it was almost like breaking the fourth wall, I suppose, to say “So this is what I’ve written, but these parts might be false. These might not have happened.”

    Exactly, and it’s sort of a spring that unloads in the book, I think. And, when I wrote that little section, it’s not huge, I was trying to be as honest as I humanly could. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe all of that memory I have has altered, changed, mutated over 20 or 30 years. Maybe that’s what we do with memory, we fit it to suit ourselves, and we reinvent lines of family life and history. How do we do that? Why do we do that? Why does that happen?

    Maybe it’s like the monument in that we ultimately end up believing that’s really where Oxley came ashore, even though in the back of our mind we know it’s wrong. So maybe that’s a sort of human trait that is obvious to most people, but it’s just something that grew as part of the investigation, and the journey through the book.

    I wanted the book to represent a journey as well, because it was a journey for me. It was while I had young children and all of that was kicking in, and looking at my son; he stars in the book to some degree. There were moments when I’d look at him and go “That’s me. I’m time travelling here.” Some things that he would do, I did that, precisely.

    And so there’s a way we can travel through time in that sense and I wanted to try, whether it’s even humanly possible to replicate that in literature I don’t know, but I was trying to do that, as best as I could to enunciate the passage of time, which has always been funnily enough a preoccupation with my work. Now that I’m older and have written several things, I see now… you see a recurrent theme. Now, there’s a primary theme.

    I like how you dwelled upon the issue of time in Brisbane, centuries ago, when there was no one clock that told the time, and it was driving people crazy.

    [laughs] It’s always been a city that has an uncomfortable relationship with time I think. [laughs] I really do think that. To others, for decades, we were always seen as “behind the times” and you know; that’s a part of the fabric of this town, really.

    I like the way that you segued into the city hall and the clock tower discussion, how you and your son were sitting in your home and you heard the bell chime from city hall.

    Yeah, and that’s happened a few times since. I was just sitting there with my son. I remember my grandmother lives not far, around the corner from where I live now in Paddington, and I remember sitting on the back step of her tiny little old Queenslander and you could hear the clock. To hear it again, through the business of a modern metropolis, raised the hairs on my neck, basically. That might seem uninteresting and minor to some people but it was like reaching your arm back in time 40 years. It was creepy.

    And little things like that happened. When writers are doing a book they often go “Oh there was an incredible coincidence while I was writing the book, this happened.” I’ve had that for several books, that things – you go “That’s perfect for my book! I can’t believe that just happened.”

    But I think when you’re working on a project, your antennae are so sensitised to what you’re doing that things come in and you notice things specific to your project. You’re more attentive to everything, and sensitive to everything. And they’re not coincidences; it’s just that you have a heightened sense of appreciation when you’re embedded in a project like that. That’s sort of what happened with this book when my son and I were down at the park opposite Suncorp [Stadium, Milton], as I wrote in the book.

    I’d just been researching how that was the first major cemetery for the city, and that day after it had rained and he said “Daddy, it smells like skeletons,” and that’s a direct quote from him. I thought “Wow, I can use that!” [laughs]

    I hope your son appreciates how much of a star he is in the book when he reads it.

    At the moment he’s reading about dinosaurs and spiders, but he may. He narrated to me his first short story the other night. He’s almost five. It was called “The Mantis in the Plane by the Sea”. And so I transcribe it and read it out for him so that one day he might look at that and go “Wow, that’s interesting.” I guess I’m quite a sentimental person, human being as well. I’ll keep them; whether he addresses or not is not important, but I’ll keep them for him.

    Phillipa tells me that the series was pitched as “travel books when no one leaves home,” but you’re a bit of an anomaly to the book process because you did leave for the middle part of your life so far. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing because it allows you to step away and describe and outsider’s perspective of Brisbane and how you felt upon leaving and upon returning.

    Brisbane author and journalist Matthew CondonExactly. I think I was in a unique position, having been born here, and left for important years of my life to come back and see this demonstrable change. On one level, yes, enormous change, but as I’ve tried to portray in the book, a constancy running underneath as well. The Brisbane light, the feel, the weather, the lushness, the vegetation – that’s the same as when I was a kid. Other things change around it and I think to get that perspective was unique in the sense that I did have that time lapse, came back to it with fresh eyes, I guess, and it may have been a very different book if it had been written by a writer who had stayed here.

    I tried to give it justice and to give it fairness. If I’m a critic of the city, I’ve tried to balance it as I would my journalism, or whatever. But there may be some things in there that Brisbane people disagree with or are offended by. That’s great. That’s indicative of a grown up city. We should be debating, questioning ourselves, tilling the soil, and asking these things of each other because that’s what a civilised community is.

    I do point out in the book that my supposition is that there are some traits that are in Brisbane people, have been from the start because of the nature of our birth, white birth; it was a very aggressive city, violent. There was death, crime and punishment just over the river there not far from the executive building that the current Premier sits. That’s where the convicts were flogged on the A-frame, the short walk to the Premier’s office 200 years later. Things change enormously, but sometimes they don’t change that much, at the same time.

    So, our relationship with Sydney and the colony of New South Wales is always aggressive and we always felt we were poorly treated by them, and so a chip on our shoulder evolved from that. I think if you look and listen carefully enough, we still have some of that. The ghost of that is still around. While I think we’ve moved into the 21st century to a large degree, there are those beautiful generational traits that only your place can give you and I think we still have them. I tried to examine that, but that may ruffle some peoples’ feathers and it may not. I just tried to be honest.

    It wasn’t overwhelming, but there was I feel a recurring theme of romanticism that you brought to your experiences in Brisbane, how you said you “keep coming back to the light of Brisbane,” and you describe how that tends to bring people in. That’s “the first thing they notice when they get off the tram,” and so forth. Did you realise that before you started writing it?

    I think I did because when I moved away, Brisbane was always my home. It was always where I was born, the place on the planet where I was born. It does have distinct, peculiar characteristics that delineate it from other cities in the world, let alone Australia. And [David] Malouf has written about this, Rodney Hall and others have written about this. They write about it because it’s very true.

    The greatest, strongest memories of my childhood are the light, and the pitch blackness of the shadows, and that’s different when you live in other places in the world. It’s distinctively different. The smell, and in summer when a violent storm comes over the ranges, and the steam comes off the bitumen and the plants are breathing out, it’s unique to the city and it strikes you as something new every time. “Oh wow, that’s Brisbane.”

    And it’s something that you keep very deep inside of you, I think. I’m a lot older than you. The older you get, these things are like little drawers inside of your person, and nothing will change them.

    That may be romantic, that may be nostalgic, but as I said to you earlier; this is a city that from my own experience prompts sort of nostalgia and as a birth place, loss of heritage, mistreatment of the landscape and heritage; as a Brisbane person I feel that very keenly the way the Sydney people probably do about their own environment. This was where I came into the world. Nothing’s going to change that.

    This is not so much a question as a comment; when I interviewed John Birmingham the other day, I asked him to comment on the divide between popular fiction and literary fiction. He brought up that he thinks you are one of the finest literary fiction writers in Australia.

    God bless him. I’ll have him stuffed and mounted. [laughs]

    This was without even mentioning that I was interviewing you for this book. He just came upon that. I thought that was a nice little turnaround.

    I’ve known John for years and some of the old dudes are coming back home: artists, painters, writers, musicians, actors. It’s was a very different place when we left. It was very claustrophobic. I won’t say it was parochial… there was an element of parochialism, to be honest with you, but the politics was suffocating, all of that. The assumption, right or wrong, was that “if I’m going to make it I can’t make it here”.

    Twenty-five years later you can be in Brisbane and be making it [like you would] in London or New York or Berlin. Everything has changed, and the city has changed too as well, clearly, but the imperative to leave I don’t think any longer exists. We were sort of refugees for a reason that’s no longer here.

    Why do we come back? There’s a myriad of reasons for that. I just got tired of Sydney and it just became very hard to live daily. I was freelancing and doing all of that. Where do you go in that circumstance? You drift home and see what happens. Then my partner – now wife – fell pregnant, and now I’ve got two children, and it sort of becomes home again.

    I wonder whether this project was more gratifying for you than your fiction work.

    It’s very different. I found it exhilarating but very difficult in the respect that I’m not an historian. There are some brilliant historians in Brisbane that have combed the soil over, and over, and over; there virtually wasn’t a corner I could look into that hadn’t been effectively and interestingly covered by a gaggle of local historians. The city has been documented quite well, but I don’t know how they do it, historians.

    The freedom of fiction, to me, is so much more pleasurable. That element is part of my journalistic work too. Obviously, I deal with fact every day and I wanted a book that was not mired in dreary history and it wasn’t a history book. But I would hope that someone visiting the city would pick it up and go “I didn’t know that about this place,” get a feel for the city, rather than a raft of facts.

    I don’t know how you’ll feel about this, but upon finishing the book; I thought it’d be great and very apt to see that book start appearing on high school recommended reading lists.

    I’d be very happy for that to happen! [laughs].

    Because as you said, it’s not a dry, factual, historical piece. It mires in your personal life as well, which I feel is more important than ever for the next generation of Brisbane residents to come across.

    That’s a really nice idea.

    Just to elaborate on what I was saying then; I hope the book gives people a sense of what the city has been like, and what it’s like to live here. I would hope that it gives them that deep connection to their heart, rather than just their head. That’s a huge ambition for a little book. That was underplaying everything that I was trying to do with this piece of work. Whether I achieved it or not, it’s a big question, but that was my aim to do that. The other important element, too, is that I was really loath to actually write about my own life here, because in all honesty it was quite dreary; suburban, unremarkable.

    Yet you made it sound remarkable.

    I thought, “How am I going to do this?” I didn’t want to be self-indulgent or dull, and then I thought “I’ll employ a fictional technique, and just look at a boy in Brisbane.” That boy is largely based on me. The minute I stood back from that boy, all the details, fine details, the smells, the senses, everything came in. If I’d written just about myself, and I started to do it, it died on the page. When I stood back and looked at myself as a novelist and journalist, and looked back at this separate figure, everything unlocked. All these memories and things that I hadn’t thought about since I was five years old rushed in.

    Brisbane author Matthew Condon

    So that’s the liberation of using a fictional technique on fact. It was a really interesting process for me as a writer to do that. I’d played around with it. “Should I try it, should I not?” The minute I started doing it – bang. It just bloomed.

    Many elements of this book were a journey for me, in writing, in memory, in trying to get back to what the city meant to me, what it is now. In many ways, when I finished it, I wasn’t quite sure what I actually had. There were so many new paths I was taking in this little book, so in that sense it was a very gratifying project that gave me more than I had imagined when I first agreed to do the commission.

    I think [the City series] is a terrific idea, which has been done loosely in the northern hemisphere. I found it a really interesting and obvious idea. I was surprised no one has actually ever done it, but we would get writers to do the major cities of the country, so as a series project it was very attractive. But yeah, that was the trip.

    Phillipa tells me that when she read the book, she was struck by your love for Brisbane. It really shone through, and I agree with her summary, the way it flows from the character as a child through to standing in the cemetery; it’s quite beautiful.

    Thank you. It’s a recognition that one is mortal… [laughs] And that the next wave [of children] is out there. I’ll always love Brisbane. There are things I hate about it, there are things that annoy me, that frustrate me but that’s like any resident I guess in any city. But since coming back, it’s given me a lot as well, I think. It’s been wonderful to come home with my own kids and I may move from the city; I don’t know. Who knows? I’m not saying I’ll be here forever, but yeah it’s been a very pleasurable reacquaintance.

    As an extension of Philipa’s comment, do you think it’s fair to say that it’s a kind of love letter to Brisbane?

    Yeah, in the way that some love letters are raw and honest, can be confusing and upsetting, but if it’s a love letter, its heart is in the right place. I agree. It’s a nice phrase. At the end of the book, I pay homage to many writers. Several of them aren’t quoted in the book but I felt it was important to say thank you to all of those others that have written beautiful stuff about this place.

    Gerard Lee, when I was young, when I read his novels, what I understood from that was I could write about Brisbane and it’s okay. That was a vital breakthrough for me. When I was at university in my late teens I read him and thought, “We can do this.” When I read Thea Astley’s It’s Raining In Mango and all of those, I thought, “I can write here. This is going to work. I can do it.” And so they were vitally important to me. The great Peter Porter, [David] Maluof… So I hope this adds another page to that homage to a place, and others will do it again.

    My son might do it!

    That’d be nice.

    That’d be interesting. God save him! [laughs]


    I highly recommend ordering Matthew Condon’s Brisbane through the publisher, NewSouth.

  • A Conversation With John Birmingham, Brisbane-based author, journalist and blogger

    John Birmingham; photograph by Vincent LongI met with Brisbane-based author, journalist and blogger John Birmingham in late June 2010, to discuss his newest book, After America, for a story in The Big Issue. You can read that story here.

    Full transcript of our conversation is below. It begins in the middle of discussing the book – which I’d only finished half an hour before we met – and ranges from discussing the characters and writing process to the merits of genre fiction, time management, and his social media usage.

    Beware: for those who haven’t read After America, there are spoilers.

    Andrew: I’m sure it was no coincidence that much of the descriptions [in the book] are quite cinematic. [note: John’s publisher, Pan Macmillan, also commissioned a teaser trailer for After America ahead of the book’s release]

    John: Yeah. I mean partly, yeah – I’d like it to be a movie. There are guys in the U.S. at the moment arguing with each other over the rights to do the previous series [Axis Of Time] as a movie, but this one would be so much easier to do. Partly because I’m writing it easier, but also the more I get into the thriller headspace… It’s a cinematic form of storytelling. It’s got lots of colour, lots of movement, you’ve got that whole Bruckheimer accelerated narrative thing going – every seven minutes something has to happen! Yeah, so I guess it’s not surprising that people start seeing it in terms of movies.

    One of the things I like doing when a book comes out, any book comes out like this, is I wait a couple of weeks and then I put a blog up and run a discussion on who everybody would cast in the various roles. It’s always interesting, because I have very strong ideas about who should be there. The problem is no one agrees with me.

    I must admit I haven’t read any of your other fiction work. This is the first one.

    That’s actually not a bad thing, because the books are all so are fucking different. It doesn’t strike me as an odd thing but it does put the zap on some peoples’ head that I’m writing something like Leviathan one year, and then I turn around and do Weapons Of Choice the next year. You’re not necessarily coming with a disadvantage for not having seen the other books.

    I found myself more drawn to Miguel and Sofia’s side of the story, instead of the military stuff.

    I really like Miguel’s character. I really liked his relationship with Sophia. It almost didn’t happen. In the first draft of the book, he’s alone. The deal with Miguel was to be almost a biblical burden that he had to carry, and his family… [spoilers]. In the first draft, his family wasn’t killed. They were just kicked off the farm and driven away. He decides he’s got to get to Kansas City to tell Kipper because he has this naïve faith in Kipper to save him.

    I wrote the entire book where he was just travelling with his two dogs; the dogs were basically to give him something to talk to, and emote to. But it just didn’t fucking work. We just kept asking ourselves, “why is this guy off on his own when his family are travelling on their own through the badlands that he himself says are fucking badlands?” And also it didn’t emotionally justify how fucked up he was in the story.

    So having sort of gone through it, we agreed in the end that the family had to die. But then of course to kill them all off, he was just going to ride down there and go out guns blazing, and so that’s why he has Sophia with him, to give him one last thing to live for.

    And as a storyline, I loved this Caitlin storyline. I love just inverting all of the old action thriller tropes; you know, how the two most dangerous characters in the book are both chicks. One is not pregnant, but breastfeeding, and just recovering from pregnancy.

    But I gotta say, writing the book, the most satisfying story to dwell on – and you do dwell on it, it’s so fucking long you live inside the story after a while – was the Miguel story. I’ve always liked cowboy movies, and again the nice thing about his was it’s a very traditional, a really fucking traditional cowboy story. It could be any of the Steve McQueen or John Wayne movies, you could easily lay that template over and it would match, millimetre perfect. It’s not because, of course, Miguel is a Mexican; it’s actually his ethnic background which gets him into trouble and kicks the story off.

    'After America' by Australian author John BirminghamYou really did heap it upon him though, even at the end. He didn’t get a break.

    No, he doesn’t. I’m not a religious person at all but I do like the idea of the story of Job where some poor average prick just gets pounded and pounded and pounded to see whether or not he’s going to break. That is Miguel’s role, to just see how much one person can take. In the third and final installation of the series, there will be the whole idea of biblical vengeance that I’m going to work through as well. I’m with you; as a storyline, it’s probably my fave, despite the fact that as a character, I think Caitlin’s my actual favourite.

    This was always going to be a three book series. I wonder if your feelings toward the arc of the series have changed as you’ve been writing it.

    Yeah, the first one for me worked just as a standalone book. I was very much aware and remained aware that a lot of people like the idea of a series. They like the idea of being able to go back in another book with the same characters. If they enjoyed the first one, they’ll enjoy the second one. They also hate fucking series because you have to wait a long time for the big questions to be resolved.

    I agree with them. I’m a huge fan of Peter F. Hamilton’s work: he writes these huge arcing space operas that just go on and on and on. I love them, I’m addicted to them, but it just drove me nuts to have to wait 18 months to two years between each of them.

    I wrote Without Warning so that you could read it, close it, and if you wanted to, you could walk away from it. It’s got a dénouement at the end where you obviously set up another story, but it didn’t have to go on. And I found After America really fucking difficult to kick off because I was really happy with the first book as a novel, as a book really. I haven’t written any others that I’ve been as happy as I was with that.

    Having written what, to me, was the perfect book – although others would disagree vehemently – I just thought “Fuck, how do I top that?” And I had about six months where I just sat around. I know what I have to do in this second book because I’d already plotted it out, but it was just really difficult firing up.

    And then when I finally did fire up, I broke my arm. I’d written the first draft and I was just about to sit down and edit that. That is actually where I did most of the work, in editing the first draft. I busted this arm in a training accident in Jujitsu and I had a plate inserted here [he shows me]. Although I was in plaster and then in a splint for only about seven or eight weeks, I didn’t get range of movement back in the arm for months. It threw everything out by about a year, which compounded the initial difficulties I had coming at this story because it was a perfect excuse not to engage with it. “Sorry, I have a broken arm – I’m not doing anything on this fucking book for a while now.”

    The funny thing is I reckon it was, in a sense, a left-handed gift. The enforced break allowed me to sit back and actually spend about two months in my Relaxo lounge chair thinking about the characters, thinking about the stories. When I could literally lay fingers on a keyboard, I came back much more charged up. Miguel was actually part of that because I had changed his story completely. I really liked the idea of working in a very old fashioned western narrative under the guise of what’s virtually a military techno thriller. It changed a lot. Doubtless, the third one will be the same.

    Did you do much storyboarding for this one?

    No. I knew there were certain things I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to have a cattle drive, which is afflicted by a giant flood. Originally it was just an image I had. I saw these guys driving a big herd of cattle through a dead city and a flood comes through. So again, it was a cinematic vision – how fucking cool would that be?

    When I was doing my very rough outline I just had this note, “Must have cattle drive and flood together. It will be awesome.” I also knew that, with Caitlin, I wanted her to parachute into New York at night with a battle going on. Again, I just thought that would be a great scene for her as a character, because the essence of Caitlin is isolation, and you don’t get any more isolated than freefalling through sub-freezing air into a dead city. So I knew that was coming, but in terms of structuring the entire narrative, as you do with a movie, I didn’t. I learned that lesson with Designated Targets; I did storyboard that out scene by scene.

    I could tell you before I’d written the first word what this chapter would be about and what that character would be doing in that scene, hundreds of pages before they were written. And although it was a really efficient way to turn a book out, I wrote that book much more quickly than the other books I’ve done. It was also incredibly frustrating because the thing about characters is once they take off, once a character comes alive, which takes about 30 or 40 pages, they start doing their own thing and talking and speaking their own dialog. You actually don’t need to think stuff up.

    Someone tweeted [at me] earlier today, they had a review copy and they said their favourite line in the book was on page 453, where Caitlin talks about the definition of disingenuous. I thought “What the fuck are you talking about?” I went and got the book, and it was really good. I had no memory of writing that at all because I really didn’t write it. That was just Caitlin speaking.

    What you lose with really rigid storyboarding is that spark where the characters just do what they want to do. So although I block out the story and I know where I effectively want people to go, I don’t do it in the minute detail that I had in the past.

    I follow you on Twitter, and I’ve subscribed to your blog [Cheeseburger Gothic] for a couple of years. I’m intrigued by how often you call upon your followers and your fanbase for motivation, for inspiration, for the little facts that crop up. I wonder; do you know of many other authors that are doing that? It seems really obvious.

    It works for me, but I’m a bit unusual because I worked in journalism for 10 years before I wrote Felafel, for instance. I like people. I love literary festivals. I love going on tour. I just love this [gestures between us]; sitting in these bizarre, shitty little cafes in back streets, talking to people who I’ve never fucking met. I love all that stuff. Twitter is almost the perfection of that way of dealing with people. So it works for me. Other people would just die of horror.

    I know publishers – all publishers, but mine in particular – are trying to get their authors to take up social media in the same way, for exactly the same reasons; to reach out and talk to their readership, to create bonds. They’re all coming at it from a commercial point of view: you create that bond and the next time you put a book out they run out and buy it. That is the core of their thinking; it’s quite cynical.

    Eliza Dushku

    And yet, I’ve got great friendships out of Twitter. As you can see from reading the blog – when I travel now, I say I’m going to be in Melbourne next week and they all sort of gather in one spot, and we go out drinking and we have a good time. So there is a real personal bonus to doing it.

    Other writers? I know Nancy Kress, who is an American sci-fi author, runs a blog. Peter Temple runs one, I think. Who else? There’s half a dozen or so, usually mid-list authors. If Stephen King or, God forbid, J.K. Rowling, was on Twitter, it simply wouldn’t work. You know exactly why it wouldn’t work.

    I follow Eliza Dushku [pictured right]; me and 100,000 people follow Eliza Dushku [on Twitter], and we’re all firing our little tweets off. She was in Sydney the other week, and I just said she was shopping and I sent this tweet off to her. I said “You’re shopping around QVB, you should go to Pendalino for lunch,” because I went the other day and it was beautiful. That would have been one of maybe 600 tweets that came in the previous minute. There is no fucking way that somebody like that can afford to pay any attention at all to what’s happening in the tweet stream.

    But for someone like me, who’s much more of a microcelebrity, it works really well. Having said that, most authors I know are social cripples, and they just would not have the wherewithal to pull it off.

    It’s funny that you made these realisations yourself because you are a people person, whereas the publishers are looking at it from a commercial perspective. I’m not sure that Twitter would work if you had to hit them with a stick, saying “You must do this.”

    No, a lot of [authors] don’t even like touring. I can think of some very big names who won’t sign books. If you’re getting that close to a reader, it’s such a horror to them that they just refuse to do it. It’s madness, but a lot of them are the same way.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on the divide between literary fiction and popular fiction.

    I do. There was a very funny piece by Tony Martin on Scrivener’s Fancy. There was a panel discussion on Jennifer Byrne’s TV show with Matt Reilly, Di Morrissey, Bryce Courtney, and Lee Child, and the interviewer was asking this very question.

    Lee ChildLee Child [pictured left] is an interesting guy. He’s really fucking smart. But he writes thrillers. He’s not writing literature and I suspect that he decided he was going to play with this interview and so he just acted like a pompous git saying his books were every bit as good as literature. And anyway, Tony Martin wrote this fucking hilarious tear down of the interview. It’s totally worth going and Googling it up this afternoon, if only for your own benefit. Your life will improve having read it. [note: it’s here]

    He just pointed out there’s no way what Child’s does is literature, with this brutal demonstration. He took apart a couple of pages from one of Child’s books. I would never ever be so fucking foolish as to make that claim. I do entertainment. That’s it. Not completely low-brow, but upper middle-brow… not even that, lower middle-brow entertainment with a lot of explosions is what I do in the thrillers. And they’re great fun. They’re read by people who are not going to read literature and they’re read by people who like literature.

    But [the books] aren’t literature themselves. There’s not a lot of point trying to compare and contrast because it’s like trying to compare and contrast first person shooters with traditional theatre. They’re both mediums for telling stories but they do very different things in very different ways; both are enjoyable and they both have validity.

    One is not necessarily worth more than the other. They’re just very different things. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years making fun of literature, but I read it and at times I love it. I think the best writer working in Australia at the moment is Matthew Condon. Everything he’s written since The Pillow Fight has been absolutely fucking stunning, and it’s all ‘big L’ literature. Matt doesn’t do mere entertainment. He’s a really great fucking writer.

    But he doesn’t sell a lot of copies at Woolworths and Kmart, and I guess the thing that energises this debate is that people, particularly literary critics and some literary authors, get themselves really worked up because they perceive, quite rightly, that literary authors are working really hard to not get the rewards they deserve.

    And they do deserve the rewards, because they do work every bit as hard as the rest of us and their craft is honed to a much finer point than ours is. And yet they’re selling 1,500 and 2,000 copies of their books sometimes. Their writing is usually their second job. And their first job, if they’re lucky, is in something like journalism where it’s at least a related field. If not, some are in advertising, which is slowly losing their fucking soul from being sold day in and day out. It upsets people. There was a great review of After America in The Australian by their chief literary critic (Geordie Wilkinson) a couple of weeks ago who –

    I didn’t read the review, as I didn’t want to spoil the book.

    Well, you’ve read the book. Go read the review now. It’s fucking fascinating because this guy, he hates doing it but he admits the book is well written “for a thriller” – and you have to capitalise FOR A THRILLER. But he finds the politics of it, and the business of thrillers so fucking poisonous that it just fills him with hate.

    I emailed one of the eds at The Oz and said “Everyone thinks I hate that review. Could you just pass on the word to Geordie, that I actually really liked it.” I enjoyed reading it as a review, and as a piece of advertising for the book… it worked. But I did enjoy it. And then the reviewer sent me an email back and said “Thank you very much”. I can’t publish it because it’s private correspondence, but one thing I can reveal is that for most of the time he was reading that book, he was seething, absolutely seething because he thinks I’m writing beneath myself. Which in one sense, I guess you could say I am. In the other sense he’s talking through his fucking arse, because thrillers are really fucking difficult to get right.

    There are so many things that can go wrong and you do need to actually bring some skill and consideration for your audience to the business of putting them together.

    I read an article in The Australian that was written when Without Warning came out. At the time, you said that you feel your primary audience is “security guys, military, ex-military and gun bunnies”. Do you think that’s still true?

    'Dopeland' by Australian author John BirminghamI’m constantly surprised by my audience. Before I wrote thrillers I was surprised to discover I even had a geek audience. I was doing research for Dopeland [pictured right], where I travel around the country smoking dope and writing about it, and I ended up at a science fiction convention in Perth with these utter fucking freaks. And every one of them had read my books, every fucking one of them and most of them could quote slabs at me. It was a disturbing revelation, but a revelation nonetheless.

    I try not to make suppositions about people who read my books, and it’s a good thing because I’m constantly surprised. A lot of chicks read them. They’re certainly not in the majority and they’re not half of my readers, but they’re probably about 35-40% of the readership, and they’re not the sort of chick you’d necessarily expect to read the explodey thrillers.

    You do have strong female characters.

    Exactly. My publisher Kate explains it that way. She says, “You write great female characters.” My old agent, Annette, who was a fiery, fiery fucking woman, emailed me about an hour or so ago to curse me because she’s supposed to be putting together a festival up in Noosa or something and she hasn’t been able to get to it because she’s been stuck in After America. And the reason is she loves the female characters; they’re tough.

    I guess the sort of gun bunny thing comes from the fact that my blog regulars, there’s a preponderance of ex-military, ex-serving cops and security guys who hang out at Cheeseburger [Gothic, JB’s blog]. So they set the tone of the place. Having said that, they’re a fraction of the people who pull through. I have lots and lots of lurkers… like you. You don’t strike me as a gun bunny. But they’re happy just to drop in. And some of those guys are very fucking funny. Boylan is just a comedic genius. I will scan my own blog looking for a Paul Boylan comment because I know there’s always going to be a big payoff.

    I couldn’t tell you who reads them now. I know it’s 60% male, mostly over the ages of 18 which is reasonable enough. I don’t think they’re appropriate books for school kids. They’re incredibly violent. Beyond that, I couldn’t say. As an example, my friend, my blog buddy MonsterYuppie, who lives down the road here – he’s a monster yuppie. He owns his own medical technology company, he’s someone that flies all over the world first class, spends 200 days a year running it.

    When Without Warning came out, I actually ran into him on his way to the airport. I had a box of Warning on me and said, “Here, take this for your flight.” “Thanks,” he said. He popped on the flight and texted me later on. He was in first class. There were five businessmen in there and three of them were reading Without Warning. [laughs] I would never have imagined that.

    I’m interested to know how you balance fiction writing for this book with your regular journalistic work. I know you have two blogs [for Brisbane TimesBlunt Instrument, and The Geek].

    Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I fuck up. Sometimes I take too much on and I fuck it up. Particularly with feature writing, because to do features properly, they’re hard work. And I get paid well for them, but I get paid much better for the books, and it’s always tempting to go where the money is and to just – because I’ve written so many features, it’s really tempting to me to just go “I’ll throw this together at the last moment.” Of course, you fucking can’t. So you know, I could point to half a dozen stories, cover stories for big magazines I’ve written that… they’re not shit, because I’ve had enough experience that I know how to put a feature together, but they could have been a lot fucking better than the published version, because I just wasn’t very good at juggling my time.

    I try and assign different parts of the work day and the work week to different things. Blogs for instance take nothing to write. I did a blog about ninjas last week. Twelve minutes, I think it took to write. Hugely popular.

    The thing with blogs, however, is the work is all at the backend. It’s in the comments, managing the comments. A lot of gallery journos, for instance: they’re not writing blogs, they’re still writing their own columns but they’ve been opened up for comments. Those guys never, ever reply. Probably a good idea, because unless you’re willing to get down to the same level as your nutty fucking blog followers, you’re on a hiding to nothing.

    I got hired as a blogger by Fairfax and I work as a blogger, which means I read every comment and I reply to as many to them as I can. That can chew up a lot of fucking time. I did one, which I knew was going to go off the other day, about the World Cup. I did it purely to piss off soccer fans. It’s one of my shameful joys in life. And it did; it went off. Like, 400 comments in an afternoon or something, and I’m fuckin’ sitting there reading every one. Which would have an ego cost if I didn’t have such a massive ego, because these guys just were fucking hammering me, from one end of the day to the other.

    That sort of thing can be really addictive and distracting because although it is work, I’m sort of doing my job, even though my contract at Fairfax doesn’t actually require me to do anything other than file cop, I’m compelled to. Also, I think blogs suck if you don’t get in there and engage. But it can be incredibly distracting. So once I’ve written the thing [a blog], I tend to have set times a day when I’ll go in to read comments and answer them, because otherwise I’ll sit there waiting for them to pop up, responding to each one.

    With books, I try and have one book that I’m working on full-time, which means it gets four hours a day, and then I’ll have another one which I’m bringing up to speed that gets maybe an hour or so a day. And then once that one is done, it gets shunted off into production and the other one comes up. It’s a very unromantic, production line way of putting out the words, but it means I can work as a writer.

    Australian author John Birmingham

    It also means you get the day-to-day interaction with people rather than being lost in your own mind.

    That’s exactly right. My friend Peter Robb, who I fucking haven’t spoken to in years – he wrote Midnight In Sicily, a great book, one of the great books of the 1990s. Peter is a funny dude. He loves the fine life, he loves a meal, he loves wine, and he likes going out to lunch with friends, but he is prone to locking himself away in his apartment for years at a time. He told me once that when he was writing his biography of Caravaggio, he went so long without human contact of any kind, that the first time he stepped outside of the apartment he had a moment of panic, that he had forgotten how to speak. It’s not good.

    I avoid that. [laughs] Facebook is my friend.

    Even if it’s typing, it’s still interaction.

    That’s right.

    I’ll leave it there. Thanks, John.

    After America is available now via Pan Macmillan. Follow John Birmingham on Twitter, and/or subscribe to his personal blog, Cheeseburger Gothic.

  • A Conversation With Dave Miller of PVT, Sydney electronic rock band

    Sydney, Australia-based electronic rock group, PVTI spoke with Dave Miller [pictured far right] – one third of the Sydney-based electronic rock act PVT – for Rolling Stone on May 11. At the time, it hadn’t yet been announced that the band were changing their name from Pivot to PVT due to legal threats. I’d been listening to an advance copy of their third album, Church With No Magic,  for a couple of weeks. Dave and I spoke about the new songs, the addition of Richard Pike’s vocals to their formerly instrumental-only approach, and the name change. (In either case, the name is still pronounced ‘pivot’.) Our conversation is below.

    Andrew: I’m not sure what’s the most obvious question to begin with, Dave: the name change or the presence of vocals on your new album. Let’s go with the name change.

    Dave: We got issued a cease and desist letter by a band in America, and it was just one of those things where we could have been clubbed. It was probably going to be extremely costly, and the potential of losing a court battle was not really worth the money and also it would have just held the album back a year or something while we had to do this. We figured we’d kind of do a cut and dry type thing.

    It’s just one of those things, where if we want to keep this name so badly, it could cost us loads of money and we would have to put the album back a year because of some righteous American emos who think they deserve the name more. That was just one of those things, so in some ways we kind of saw it as a positive thing, and kind of shedding some old baggage and moving onto new things. That’s how I’ve eventually thought about it.

    Do you think that thing’s been a long time coming? I’m sure you guys were aware that there were other bands called Pivot?

    Yeah, we kind of thought they’d go away and the one band that was issued the court stuff was – they’ve never played outside their hometown. They’ve never put out a record on a label. We’ve played 10 times more places than they had in their own country, yet they still wanted to hold onto their dream of making it big time or something, I don’t know. We kind of gave up on guessing what the reasoning for it was. It could have been money or whatever, but regardless we’ve let the babies have their bottle.

    When you put it like that, it’s a drag, man.

    Yeah, it was a drag and we found out when we arrived in America, for SXSW, which was really bad timing. But as I say, we’re kind of seeing it as a step forward for our band, rather than a step back.

    Do you think your fans will understand the change?

    I don’t know. As far as liking the new name or something, I hope that they’ve all realised that sometimes these things happen. It’s happened before, loads of times before. There’s sometimes stuff like that happens, and on the Internet everyone in this sort of Internet world, everyone is just as important as each other, or seemingly as important as each other.

    I saw that the name has been changed briefly on your Facebook page, and a couple of fans picked up on it.

    I didn’t see that. Did they like it?

    Dave Miller of the Sydney, Australia-based electronic rock group, PVTYeah, the comment was “Good work on the name change PVT. It’s way more efficient now.”

    Okay, yeah it’s more efficient, like Kraftwerk. [laughs]

    Moving on to discussing the addition of vocals. Who argued loudest to include them?

    It was just a thing that when we first started jamming our stuff and recording in studio, a lot of the ideas were vocal ideas rather than guitar or keyboard or something. We just rolled with that. Richard’s always been able to sing and it was just one of those things where we thought, “Well, why don’t we do this? We can do this.” It was a challenge and we could’ve quite easily done another instrumental album like the last one – O Soundtrack My Heart II, or something – but that would’ve been done in 3 months. It was a sort of challenge and we kind of realised, being in a touring band for 18 months altogether, we realised we don’t really listen to much instrumental rock music at all, and a couple of times we were like “If we don’t listen to it, why are we making it?” That was just an aside. It was more about the fact that we wanted to progress, I guess.

    Is it just Richard singing on the album?

    Yeah, it’s all Richard.

    His vocals in ‘Crimson Swan’ are excellent.

    Yeah, thanks [laughs] I’ll pass it on to Richard. That was one of the songs where we sort of wrote and recorded it in the same room in a couple of days. It was one of those things that was really organic and felt right straight away. We didn’t really work on it a great deal. It was just like “okay, we’re done. Let’s move on.” We don’t want to add to it too much and we don’t want to over think it.

    Is there a particular track on the new album you’re most fond of?

    Probably ‘Crimson Swan’ the most at the moment. It will probably change. I like playing ‘Timeless’ live, that’s really fun at the moment, when we’ve been playing it at the shows. But I guess it varies, as what happened with O Soundtrack. Those changed throughout the time. Sometimes you get bored playing certain songs or whatever, but I think ‘Crimson Swan’ has been a favourite of mine for a while.

    The album is a bit of a brief affair. It’s 10 minutes shorter than O Soundtrack. Do you have many outtakes and B sides from that recording session?

    Yeah, we’ve got loads. [laughs] We have about almost another album actually, but there’s just some songs that didn’t fit in with the [hearing] of it and other songs that were better – fit the general overall feeling of the record, that it just didn’t feel right. Like I said, there was maybe one song that might have gone in or might not, so we just decided to leave it out, as far as the continuity goes, and flow of the record.

    Is the album’s title of particular significance?

    It’s just a phrase I had. I kind of caught an idea that Laurence and I recorded, ‘Church With No Magic’ and I liked the symbolism of it. Richard decided to use the phrase in the chorus of the song and then it turned out to be the title of the record. It was just one of those things. But it was just something that I picked up.

    When recording O Soundtrack you were in London and the Pikes were still in Sydney, most of the time. Did the process differ this time around?

    Yes, it was entirely different. We recorded almost everything in the same room, and it was recorded and edited everywhere. It was recorded mostly in Sydney but some parts in London, and edited when we had some time off on tour [laughs] in London, and France, and Sydney, and it kind of was a moving project as we were touring around the world. Any time we had a small chunk of time off we’d start working on it again. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it has a real live feeling about it; it sounds like 3 guys in a room, and I like to think it sounds like all our live shows have over the past year. There’s mistakes, and there’s bombastic drums and lots of air in the room. That was my thing, we kind of wanted the record to sound a bit more – not “garagey”, but like 3 guys playing in a room.

    Dave Miller of the Sydney, Australia-based electronic rock group, PVTI was re-reading the interview with Richard Ayoade from a couple of years ago. During that discussion you were talking about the advantages and disadvantages of using digital gear. One of the quotes was “Inconsistencies are great. Mistakes are good, and to have rough edges is kind of important.”

    That’s what we made sure, that we… we didn’t focus on it, but that was another thing that we kind of made a point of in this record, to not sand off the edges and to keep it a bit more live and raw.

    So it’s less reliant on the cut-and-paste style of digital recording?

    It was recorded digitally, but not anything like chopping up drums and guitars so that everything fits perfectly, and sounds like fucking U2 or something. We didn’t want to do that. We just wanted to leave it as we played it. That’s basically it.

    From that same interview there’s another quote one of you said, “we’ve seen a lot of live electronic music and been very bored, so that’s something we wanted to avoid – we don’t want to be cold and faceless.” Have you got anything special in mind for the next album tour?

    I don’t know. I’m not sure if we’ve thought that far ahead, but one thing that we have realised makes a big difference is lighting. I know that’s not a new thing but it makes a difference as far as the audience’s interaction with the show. I think when we’ve had good lighting, it seems like it’s given us a far bigger boost. It’s like the comparison between having bad sound and good sound, having no lighting versus lighting makes a massive difference. If we can find the man who’ll make us light up well, we’ll take him on tour.

    But I don’t think as far as live or electronic music, I think there’s probably a big difference between solo electronic stuff that I’ve seen, and what we do. Just because there’s a guy that plays electronics doesn’t mean that he’s an electronic act. There’s always exceptions to the rules as well; Jamie Liddell’s solo live act is absolutely amazing.

    As a musician, do you find that an album release is less exciting in 2010 than it was a few years ago, given how easily accessible and traded music is these days?

    People don’t really know when release dates are, do they? And they don’t really care for them. They just kind of want it as soon as it’s available, which is kind of… that’s the ‘me’ generation, which is not really my feeling but I understand it. Life moves on and society moves on, but I’m still totally excited about the record gig. I kind of wish that that particular date was a big deal. I remember when I was much younger, waiting for the date that the new Nine Inch Nails record would come out and go to the record store, and buy it that day. I wonder how many people do that anymore. [laughs]

    But I’m excited, and I know Richard and Laurence are. It’s just a matter of… I’m more excited about people hearing this record than the last one, mainly because it’s a bigger progression, maybe, for us.

    I’m interested to know how many labels these days have contingency plans in place for if an album leaks, or more accurately when it leaks?

    Yeah, I don’t know; I think it depends on the band and the manager and the label and everyone else. It’s not just the label I don’t think. Everyone kind of has a say in it. You’re right, it makes a big difference as to when it happens and stuff. I can’t answer that question.

    As I understand it, you’ve been a part of Pivot for 5 years now, Dave, is that right?

    Maybe a bit less than that, 3 or 4 years probably. I’d probably played the first gig with them in 2006, so 4 years now.

    At this stage, is there a particular band leader or do you all have equal input into what goes on?

    [laughs] I think it’s pretty democratic. Any sort of ideas, being musical or otherwise, anyone can kind of shut down and anyone can get a ‘thumbs up’ too. Yeah, it’s good having a 3-piece group. There’s always a majority.

    Dave Miller of the Sydney, Australia-based electronic rock group, PVT. Photo by Glen WilkieFrom what I’ve seen of you playing live in Brisbane over the last few years, the audiences keep growing and growing. I’m curious to know how you feel about where the band fit into the Australian musical landscape.

    I don’t know, to be honest.

    I find that at festivals, people know the Pivot name by now and they know you’re pretty different to everything else that appears on festival line-ups. They’re drawn to that.

    Yeah, if people are open-minded like that, that’s great. [laughs] It’s just a matter of getting the gigs in the first place. That’s probably the main problem.

    Was making a living from touring outside of Australia always the goal for the band?

    Making a living any which way we can as far as the band goes, whether it’s playing in Europe, Australia, or America, or whatever. It’s not really – like lots of territories and lots of places you don’t really make any money. It’s more about the fact that you’re playing to a new audience and they’ll get excited and next time you might make money. It’s a slow process, but we played loads and loads in Europe over the past 2 years and I’m hoping it’ll come out to something next time we tour there as well.

    I gather from your mailing list that the live video for ‘O Soundtrack My Heart[embedded below] was recorded for a French TV show. Is there any chance it’ll be released as a whole performance on DVD or something eventually?

    Yeah, when we got sent the DVD of the show, it was actually the first time we’d ever seen us videoed before, in decent quality, rather than just off our phones or something. It couldn’t have been a better situation and it was like an amazing lighting show and playing in front of 5,000-10,000 people in an outdoor festival with night time in France. It was pretty amazing. [laughs] Everything kind of fell into place.

    I don’t know; it’s been a while since I looked at the video. I guess eventually maybe. I can remember there being a few duff notes that Richard was blushing about. But other than that I think we’ve got the whole concert. It’s just the matter of whether.. I guess it’s all in good time.

    Final question, Dave. You’re a professional touring musician in a band that’s appreciated in indie circles throughout the world. What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician? Was there ever a plan B for you?

    I used to do programming for websites and stuff. I’d probably be pretty bored of that by now and would’ve turned to something else. I don’t know, it’s never bothered me before, but maybe I’d be a florist or something, I’m not sure. [laughter] It’s best not to think of at the moment!


    PVT’s third album, Church With No Magic, is released July 16 2010 (today!) via Warp/Inertia. For more information – including links to buy the album – visit their website. Video for the first single, ‘Window‘, is embedded below. You can read my album review for Mess+Noise here.

  • A Conversation With Get Busy Committee, Los Angeles hip-hop group

    Get Busy Committee koala/uzi logoKoalas, uzis, and ‘Heartbeats’: Los Angeles-based hip-hop group Get Busy Committee (GBC) don’t mess around. Their 100% self-funded, self-released debut album Uzi Does It was released on their own label, Tokyo Sex Whale, and declared 2009’s ‘hip hop album of the year’ by Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park/Fort Minor off the back of their lead single ‘My Little Razorblade, which sampled the rhythmic pulse of Swedish electronic act The Knife’s distinctive track ‘Heartbeats’.

    Consisting of underground rapper Apathy, Styles of Beyond‘s Ryu, and producer Scoop DeVille, GBC took the unlikely step of releasing the album in a USB uzi format that won them coverage on Wired, thereby reaching a tech-mad fanbase and creating buzz ahead of a digital album launch that saw Uzi Does It offered in mp3 form for just $1 via MySpace Music. Confused? Get busy. Below is an email conversation with the group, which was answered for the most part by Apathy.

    Andrew: Hey GBC. I follow music industry news, I heard about you through guys like Bob Lefsetz (music industry commentator) and Ian Rogers (CEO of online music marketing company Topspin Media). Is it true that all publicity is good publicity, or were you weirded out by having a mid-50 year old guy like Bob write about you?

    No way! Bob Lefsetz has been around long enough to have a good idea of what he likes, and I hope we’re on his good side! GBC does not age-discriminate, and we are definitely NOT for the kids!

    Ian’s involvement and enthusiasm seems to have boosted your profile to a level that other acts might spend months or years developing. How important is his guidance and experience to the group?

    In all honesty, Ian Rogers and the folks at Topspin have been the best thing to ever happen to our career. When in the past we would have a crazy idea, it would just stay a crazy idea. Ian is able to take a crazy idea, add sweet peppers and Giardiniera on top of a paper thin cut of beef, throw it in a French roll, and make a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich out of it. (Sorry… Man V. Food is on in the background as I write this.)

    We also have to thank our good friend Mike Shinoda [Linkin Park/Fort Minor] for linking us up with Ian!

    “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Get Busy Committee hasn’t even played a live show since the record came out yet,” wrote Ian on his blog. Do you have an interest in the marketing and promotion side of things, or are you happy to let others take care of it while you work on the music?

    Ryu: Yes, we are heavily involved with the marketing of the group. From the conception, it was very important to me that every detail of the group was carefully thought out. From the way we comb our hair, to the stylish clothes we wear. [A reference to their song ‘Stylish Clothes‘]

    I also have a background in marketing/PR with the clothing brand True Love & False Idols. With GBC I wanted our image, logo (koala with uzi), website, and merchandise to be an extension of the brand. Everything is designed by our good friend and owner of TLFI (and sometimes GBC collaborator) Alex (2tone) Erdman. The marketing for this album has been a fun experience for us.

    “Financially we’re doing slightly better than break-even at the moment, which means no one is making a bunch of money but we aren’t losing money, either,” wrote Ian in the same blog post. I take it that – having been in other groups – GBC have been realistic about the financial situations for musicians since you formed a couple of months ago?

    We were very realistic financially with this album. The point was never to become rich off of the album; we just wanted to generate enough money to continue to raise awareness.

    Los Angeles hip-hop group Get Busy Committee

    Hypothetically, what would it take for an independent hip-hop act like yourselves to be able to live off your music – touring, merch, record sales, etc? Is this even possible in 2010?

    An artist being able to live off of [recorded] music, touring, merch, etc is a very real possibility in 2010, provided that the artist is patient, and the margin of profit works in the artists’ favour. It’s also important that you offer a product that people can’t live without. Everyone can live without a CD, but nobody can live without an uzi-shaped USB, with a free album included!

    In the end, the funds you take is equal to the guns you make!

    From an interview here: you said “‘My Little Razorblade’ is probably the worst recording ever. The vocals are all blown out.” What? Are you serious? Fuck pristine, I love the edge this track has. It’s the first thing I heard from you guys, and still my favourite. Was it difficult to clear the ‘Heartbeats’ sample? Have you heard any feedback from The Knife’s camp?

    Thanks! Razorblade is one of our faves as well. We like the blown out vocals as well!

    As for the sample? The Knife have been really cool for not suing the shit out of us. We assume they are familiar with the track, I think one of the band members follow us on Twitter! @GetbusycommittE

    In that same interview, Ian stated that the album is “something that you guys have been working on for over a year; in your spare time, and across the country, and for essentially no money”. You later said “Don’t make a record, it’s the worst way to try to make a living.” What are your day jobs? Do they have any relation to your music?

    We have been fortunate enough in this business to sustain us through the years: Styles Of Beyond, Fort Minor, Demigodz, as well as producing for outside artists have paid the bills for years. Some years are better than others, but we have been very fortunate thus far. Some of the things we do to earn money are:

    Scoop DeVille: His production credits include Snoop Dogg’s ‘Life Of  Da Party‘ and ‘I Wanna Rock‘, Fat Joe and Young Jeezy ‘Ha Ha‘, as well as upcoming tracks on albums from Busta Rhymes, The Clipse, Bishop Lamont, and of course the Get Busy Committee. Safe to say, the kid don’t need a day job.

    Apathy: Shitloads of solo records including the recently released Wanna Snuggle? as well as upcoming albums with Army Of The Pharaohs, and the Demigodz. Production for Cypress Hill, Busta Rhymes and more. Your boy is good!

    Ryu: Get Busy Committee, and PR/Marketing for True Love & False Idols.

    You’ve all been part of the hip-hop scene for over a decade. You knew the music business pre-internet. It must be quite a change to work as GBC, whose marketing and promotional output is almost entirely online.

    Yeah the marketing and promo has changed a lot, but we’ve been in the business long enough and have worked albums in just about every climate of the ever-changing music business, so the new way of doing things hasn’t come as a shock to us. It’s actually a welcome change after spending so much time on major labels. The new style of marketing is much better suited to a group like us. We love it.

    Scoop, have you shown GBC material to Snoop or The Game? What kind of feedback have you been getting?

    Scoop: Yeah I was just out in Miami recently with Fat Joe, DJ Khaled, Cool and Dre, and they loved the USB uzi! I should have brought more with me, everyone was taking pictures with them and shit! The industry is definitely taking notice of the moves we’re making. We’re actually working on a Get Busy Committee and Busta Rhymes song tonight! Shit is gonna be nuts!

    Learn more about Get Busy Committee on their website. Follow them on Twitter at @GetbusycommittE, and watch their bittersweet debut video for ‘I Don’t Care About You’ below.

  • A Conversation With The Gin Club, Brisbane rock band

    Five-eights of The Gin Club: Conor Macdonald, Dan Mansfield, Ben Salter, Bridget Lewis, Scott ReganThis is the full transcript of the conversation I used as the basis of my feature article on Brisbane rock band The Gin Club for Mess+Noise. Tim Byron from The Vine said some nice things about my article in his June 30 ‘music dump‘ column:

    Band profiles are a dime a dozen, but this is a good one, whether or not you even know who the Gin Club are. This is partly because the Gin Club’s leader Ben Salter is an articulate and unpretentious fellow – most indie bands are going to be all “this was influenced by Suicide and the Scientists” where Salter just says self-deprecatingly that “we’re MOR pop” and that he likes La Roux. But also because McMillen, in a way, gets to the heart of the band and how they go about doing things, where they record, and that they’re willing to let a Salter’s farmer brother-in-law join the band simply because he’s written a good song.

    Thanks very much, Tim.

    This interview took place at The Fox in South Brisbane, on May 20 2010. I spoke with The Gin Club’s cellist/singer Bridget Lewis and guitarist/bassist/singer Conor Macdonald; after a couple of minutes we were joined by singer/guitarist/leader Ben Salter. They were heading to QPAC afterwards, to watch a performance of King Lear. We spoke for just over an hour; this is what we said.

    Andrew: This interview is for Mess+Noise. Their audience isn’t too familiar with you guys; this is one of the first times you’ve been mentioned on the site. If it’s not too lame, I thought I’d get you guys to give some background information on how you came to be The Gin Club, and how long you’ve been involved.

    Bridget: We all joined at the same time, Conor and me, Ben [Salter], Adrian [Stoyles], Scotty [Regan], Brad [Pickersgill], Ola [Karlsson], and Ben Tuite. That was us beginning in about 2003. That morphed out of a group of people playing at an open mic night. That’s where we met and then we sort of started messing around; we probably met Ola and then had our first gig with him the next week. It happened very quickly.

    Conor: We did our first album pretty quick. We did it in a day, and then played more. In the first year, we played so many shows. We had residences at Ric’s and The Bowery, and Ben had solo residencies at Ric’s as well, so at one point we were playing three gigs a week, just through residencies, and then plus supports and stuff, so we played a couple of hundred shows at least in the first year that we were together and sort of slowed down since then.

    Bridget: We all lost our jobs, and had nervous breakdowns. [laughs]

    Before we talk about Deathwish, I wanted to return to [previous album] Junk briefly. What did you learn from recording and releasing a double album, the pros and cons associated with it?

    Bridget: A lot of people said “you shouldn’t do it” and a lot of people said “it’s too long; we won’t play it on the radio”.

    Conor: But it reinforced to me that most people don’t know what they’re talking about [laughs]. It’s not worth worrying at all what people think that it’s going to mean for your career. I didn’t listen to it [Junk] for a long time. Last night was the first time in ages I listened to it and it sounds really good. The songs are really strong, it’s good the whole way through, and I think that should be enough.

    Bridget: I don’t think there was anything meaningful about it being a double album. People will always bring that up; it just is what it is. I know that sounds a bit glib, but we sort of made it as a snap decision to put it out as a double album. It wasn’t a tough decision.

    Conor: [Second album] Fear of the Sea came out in 2005 and we recorded Junk in 2007 and 2008. So that’s three years and it’s only five songs each, so we had plenty of songs and thought, “why not?” We had the opportunity to do a double album, so we did.

    Bridget: I guess we probably weren’t going to do another one this time around, but that was as much because of the number of songs we had ready to go as anything else. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to cut back, because we thought we’d gone overboard the time before. We don’t have any real illusions about people wanting to buy the albums anyway, [laughs] we just do what we do. You can download the three songs you like and be done with it.

    Doesn’t that run against the whole idea of what you guys do though, to put your best songs out there?

    Bridget: We do do that. For Junk we whittled down to 26, but we still had 26 we were really happy with and couldn’t see any point in ‘sitting on them’. They were all songs that we wanted to release at some point in time, so you either put them out then or you hold them back and you’re in the same position in 12 months’ time, when the new songs get piled on top.

    Conor: Then you’re doubling up your manufacturing costs and promotion. There’s two ways to look at putting out albums. I’m a fan of putting things out every year, but at the same time, if you work it as a cycle or something where you’ve got to get the most out of each album that you can before you can do another one, I understand that as well. But if we put out a single album, of half the Junk songs and then 12 months later put out another one, it’d just be expensive.
    Bridget: We’re just cheapskates. [laughs] That’s why we put out a double album and then we didn’t do anything for three years.

    I just want to clarify how I think your songwriting process works. Is it a matter of you guys getting together, putting all your songs out there, and then voting the best of them to record?

    Bridget: It’s probably most often a case of us all getting together and just recording whatever people have and having a go at it. Quite a lot of the stuff that people bring us hasn’t been demoed, and is still very rough. So for Deathwish we recorded 30 songs, and some of them were going to be more appropriate than others.

    Conor: Of those 16 or 17 were ones that we sort of considered seriously. We just picked 13 out of that.

    When viewed against Junk, it does seem more streamlined because it’s one disc. And maybe that was the intention: to have 26 on one album and then cut it down to half again, to reel everyone back in.

    Conor: One of the overriding things we were going for this time was to fit the album onto vinyl. We wanted to have it go under 45 minutes just for that reason.

    Ben: It was pretty convenient too. 45 minutes is as good a length as any. Otherwise you start umming and ahhing about putting this one on. Even though it was the length of the vinyl, it kind of seemed like a good spot to go, to make it 45. We didn’t pick a number of songs. It just happened to be 13 that fit on there.

    How did you guys become involved with Mick Thomas?

    Ben: Gus Agar’s band The Vandas were on Mick’s label. Gus knew Mick, and Mick was really interested in what we were doing, and we’re obviously big fans of Mick’s. So he kind of expressed an interest to Gus and coming up to the property and Gus said to him, “You should come up” and I said “That’d be awesome,” obviously. So he came up and it was pretty amazing. He’s a very nice fellow.

    Brisbane rock band The Gin Club

    What about Jacob [S. Harris]?

    Conor: We’ve been friends with him for years.

    Ben: He’s got a song on the second album. He’s been a ‘kind of’ member of The Gin Club.

    Conor: Yeah, probably not long after we first got together, maybe within a year or so of the band starting we met Jacob and were friends with him. When it came to the second album, it seemed natural to get one of his songs on it because we’d been hanging out and playing shows with him.

    Ben: When we went to go to the property, which was two years ago almost to the day, he’d just got back from being in Canada for a year.

    Bridget: He’d been gone for ages, and hadn’t found a job yet, so he had nothing better to do.

    Ben: He bumped into Bridget somewhere and said, “Are you going out to Prior Park? Could I come?” We were like “yeah, why not; the more the merrier”.

    Bridget: “We’re leaving tomorrow!”

    Ben: He recorded about five or six songs, but none of them are on the album. It kind of seemed unfair to put one of Jake’s on when the rest of us are all vying to get songs on it. Jake’s got his own outlet. He released his own album, so it’s not so much a big deal for him to have a song on the album. But we’ve got six or so songs [with him].

    I saw that Jacob co-wrote ‘Say You Will’; how did Mick Thomas contribute to the record?

    Ben: He didn’t end up getting anything on the record, but one of his songs is on the b-side of ‘Rain’ on the vinyl. We were kind of umming and ahhing once again, the same kind of thing as with Jake. Whilst there’s a certain amount of prestige to be gained from putting Mick Thomas on your record, it’s a bit unfair to the rest of the members of The Gin Club to go “We’re just going to bump you off because we’ve got this famous guy…” and Mick’s not the kind of guy that’s going to get upset about that. Although, actually, one of his songs was going to go on the record.

    Conor: Sara Storer vetoed it.

    Ben: It wasn’t her; quite reasonably, it was her label. Mick wrote that song with Sara Storer and other guy at one of those Mushroom songwriting camp things that they do. Then he came and recorded it with us. We didn’t know that he’d co-written it at the time. He just said “Here’s one of my songs” [laughs]. I think the lyrics must be pretty much all Mick’s, but I’m not sure. Anyway, we were umming and ahhing about whether to put it on and we finally decided we were going to, and I rang him up and we were mastering it, and I was like “Mick, I need to find out if it’s going to be okay with the publishing because Sara Storer’s album is actually called Calling Me Home and it’s the title track.” And that was coming out in two weeks, so I rang him and it was pretty much if I didn’t hear back from him I was just going to do it and put it on the album. Then I got a phone call and he’s like “Oh, have you done it yet?” And I’m like “No,” and he’s like “Oh, bugger, I was hoping you were going to say that you had and I wouldn’t have any choice.”

    That would have created a shitstorm, though.

    Ben: Yeah, that’s why he didn’t do it, because he said “My publishers have been really good to me and I wouldn’t want to piss them off.” But I’m sure Sara Storer sells a lot more albums than we do.

    Bridget: I’d like to hear the version so you can see how different it is.

    There was a quote from Dan [Mansfield] on the press release where he said you’ve always done things your way, and you trust your instincts. Has that feeling intensified as the band progresses? Are there moments of self-doubt?

    Ben: Has it intensified? [laughs] There are definitely moments of self doubt, all the time.

    Bridget: We’re probably cockier than we used to be. [laughs] Is that fair?

    Ben: That’s at both ends of the spectrum. One minute, one day –speaking for myself – I’ll be like, “We’re the best band in the whole world, and everyone else can get fucked.” Then the next day it’s “Oh my God, what are we doing?”

    Bridget: I’ve got a theory.

    Ben: What’s that?

    Bridget: Maybe what we have now is because we’ve been doing this stuff for seven years; maybe we feel like we still think we’re the best band in the world, and everyone else can get fucked. But, we have this feeling that we have to give ourselves the best opportunities to do things, so sometimes that makes us think harder about stuff. When we started, everyday it was just awesome to be in a band. Now the business side of it makes us think more carefully about strategy. Not much – but certainly more than it used to.

    Ben: It’s basic stuff. It’s not like self-doubt on an artistic level because we’ve got absolutely no –

    Bridget: We’re definitely cocky.

    Ben: We’re very cocky about that. Conor and I listened to Junk last night and I was going “This is amazing.” But you definitely get self doubt; there are so many people that are fantastic. But only some of them manage to be successful. For us, it’s just a daily struggle to keep your head above water financially. That’s the stuff that creates all the doubt. We’re wasting our time – but then when you listen to the stuff I get all like, “This is great. Who would want to be doing anything else?”

    The Gin Club at The Troubadour, in Brisbane

    On that note, how often do you allow external factors to influence your decisions as artists?

    Ben: When we had management, we started to, because I started to think maybe we don’t know what’s best, maybe we should just write the songs. We never let external factors determine the music, ever. That’s the great thing. There’d be no point in being an independent band on an independent label making no money, and then having someone else tell you what you can do and can’t do. It’d just be completely… If someone’s giving me heaps of money, then maybe they can have an opinion about what goes on. But until then, they don’t get…

    Bridget: [laughs] Not while we’re still starving.

    Ben: Exactly. But when we had management we kind of took a bit of a back seat and said “maybe we’d let someone else see if they know best”. We let them do little things. We’re such control freaks though, so every single press release has to be a certain way. I can’t abide punctuation mistakes and stylistic stuff, so when we had management we thought “this is the whole point of having management; we’ll let them do it”. And it wasn’t really working. If someone was giving us lots of money or we had all these reasons to be cheerful about our position, then I’d be willing to let go of a bit of control, but as it is we just go “this is our pet project and we care very deeply about it and why would we possibly want someone else to influence our decisions?”

    So you’re saying you don’t have anything to be cheerful about?

    Ben: No, we do! Not at all; I didn’t mean it like that. I guess I just mean in financial terms. That’s what it comes down to. You’ve got to make concessions when there’s money involved… That’s when the question could seriously be asked, because [right now] we don’t really make any money. It’s not even a question of us compromising. I don’t see the point, anyway.

    Conor: Even if we were to compromise what we’re doing, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to bring us any more success or anything either. We’d just be unhappy and stupid.

    Ben: And feel like idiots and poor. [laughs] We’d be better off feeling self-righteous and poor.

    Bridget: Self-righteous and poor. [laughs] That’s definitely preferred.

    On the artistic side, it was interesting to note that Gordon [Stunzner, Ben Salter’s brother-in-law] has a song on this album; someone outside the collective. Although I understand he taught you guitar.

    Ben: Yeah, and he kind of encouraged me. I always had this thing – he lets us use that place [Prior Park] for free and I always said to Gordon that when he turned 40, I’d take him on tour. He’s a farmer, but he’s pretty rock and roll; I’m in a band but I really think that being a farmer’s amazing. So it’s this thing; I kind of grew up a lot there and learned ‘how to be a man’ and all that crap at the property, and so I always said to him “We’ll take you on tour when you turn 40, and you have to write a song.” There was absolutely no expectation that it would be any good or that it would go on the album or anything like that. I just thought, “we’ll force him to do one” but it just came out really beautiful. The more I listened to it the more I thought this was so –

    Bridget: He’s got such a great voice.

    Ben: I kind of fought for it from the beginning and then I understood that everyone else in the band would not necessarily have the same kind of attachment to it. But even the people who were against it to start with are now like, “It’s really good”, because when we were putting the album together, because Mick’s song wasn’t going on, it was like “what are we going to put on?” I just said “No, we’ll put Gordon’s on. It brings a certain balance to the album,” and I think that’s true. It goes to prove that everyone has a song in them. Everyone’s got at least one good song. Gordon’s written a few more now and so he’s going to come down and play the songs at the launches.

    Oh, awesome. It’s given him confidence to take it to another level.

    Ben: I hope so. At least – even if it’s not another level, it’s just so satisfying to write a song and record it and release it. He came up to me after he finished recording it, and he was just beaming. He was like “Oh, I understand now why you do it. I understand.”

    Bridget: It’s a huge buzz, especially when you’ve been reluctant about doing it and someone bullies you into it. I know this. And you never thought that it was good enough or whatever, and that’s really exciting.

    Conor: With the band behind you… We’re all friends and everything, so I’ll be playing my song and Gordon playing ‘Book Of Poison’ or something and we’ve got half a dozen awesome guys behind us backing us up, who know what they’re doing. They bring the best out in you.

    Ben: When you’re first starting to write songs, generally you don’t listen back to yourself, so that’s the first step: to record it and listen back to it, because when you’re playing it yourself you just don’t have any idea. So then you listen back to it and then you go “that’s shit; it’s just me and the guitar, and it sounds awful”, but I think – myself, at least – but as a band we’re getting a lot better at hearing, when you hear a rough version of a song, hearing what it could be, hearing how it will sound once everyone adds their little bit to it. With that song we must have done about 20 takes or something. We just kept doing it and doing it, and it just sounds beautiful.

    At what age did he teach you guitar, and when did you start writing your own songs?

    Ben Salter performing with The Gin ClubBen: I had guitar lessons when I was in high school, but then I really wasn’t interested in playing guitar. I was just going through the motions, but then because I really looked up to him – he’s a bit older than my sister, and he was this cool, handsome dude. He could play guitar and had long hair and an earring and stuff.

    Conor: He was very handsome. Still very handsome.

    Ben: Yeah, and so he really encouraged me with everything I did. I guess because he was trying to crack onto my sister, so he had to impress the little brother, but he didn’t really have to. [laughs] But he taught me how to play – there was always “The One I Love” by R.E.M., for example – and just a couple of songs, and he kind of made me excited. He took me to my first ever Big Day Out in 1994, which is when I actually decided I wanted to be in a band. Before then, I liked music, but I went to the Big Day Out and it was like “Oh my God”. That would have been in… they got married in ’92 so like ’93 or when I was in high school and stuff. My first Big Day Out was in ’94, when I was in year 12.

    How long after that did you start sharing your songs with others?

    Ben: Pretty soon, because I’d already been playing in bands when I was in high school, so we’d already written songs when we were in year 11 and 12, so it’s only now that I’ve got older that I realised how – it’s the ‘young man’s thing to do’, a young person’s thing to do. When you’re really young, you’re too stupid to be scared. That’s why when people are young they do all this stuff like get blind drunk and go swimming, and when you’re a little kid and you go swimming in the ocean, you don’t think about anything that’s dangerous in there. You do all this stuff when you’re young but you just don’t even think twice about it.

    I was playing all these songs and singing; now when I think about it I’m just horrified. Like when Gordon was 40, writing his first song, playing, he was so terrified about people hearing what he really thought about something. The older I get, I realise it’s only because I’ve been doing it so long, it’s just a habit. But for someone, the older you get, the idea of actually singing songs you’ve written is just terrifying. I started so early that I was too stupid to know how bad it was.

    The same question to you, Bridget and Conor; when did you start writing songs and when did you start sharing them?

    Bridget: I wrote my first song in 2005, when I was living in England and I recorded it on a webcam camera and I sent it to Conor, and I’ve written like two or three since then. I’m far from prolific. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
    Conor: I think I learned to play guitar when I was 15 or so. I would’ve started writing songs shortly after that, playing solo shows when I was 16 in Hervey Bay. There’s not a lot else to do in Hervey Bay.

    Ben: It’s the same as Townsville.

    Conor: Yeah, so the city council had a youth committee and they would put on gigs and stuff and get bands like Nancy Vandal and Sunk Loto to come and play. I’d play solo shows. Women In Docs played as well, when I was 15 or 16, and I played with them.

    Ben: Oh wow. My sister went to school with Roz Pappalardo [of Women In Docs], and then she was a student teacher at my school. When we were in year 10 we got roped into supervising the year 8 blue light disco or whatever, and Roz was a student teacher and we were in year 10 and we used to think Roz was super cool because she played music and stuff. [laughter] So, we all know each other now.

    This is a really straightforward question, but what compels each of you to write and share songs? What makes you do it?

    Bridget: [to Ben] You wouldn’t have anything else to do.

    Ben: I just love it. Since I’ve first done it, I love the attention, I love being on stage and people acknowledging you. It’s like a craft because it’s something that you’ve made, on par with a poem, but then it’s also poetry mixed with a technical ability, or efficiency. So it’s good to be acknowledged by your peers for being able to produce [music], and then the courage and confidence to get up [in front of a crowd] is attractive to people.

    I’m always saying this, but if you ask most people what their biggest fear is, I think the biggest percentage is public speaking. People are terrified of it. It gives you so much confidence to get on a stage, but then I love the writing part, too. I love words and I love music, so why not do it myself? I just love it. I love lots of things, but it’s the thing that I’ve been doing the longest, and that I’ve had a chance to develop. I think I want to be a chef now. [laughter]

    What about you, Conor? What compels you?

    Conor: I just feel like I have to. I’m not as fussed on the performance side of things. I write songs and I play them. I pretty much write them for myself and sort stuff out in my head, or express things or something. And so even if people weren’t listening, or if I wasn’t in a band, I’d probably still be writing songs. I’ve got songs that I’ve written that I don’t play live when I do solo shows or anything, just silly, short little songs that I play for myself now and then. So it’s just something that I feel like I have to do to help me get by.

    A coping mechanism.

    Conor: Yeah, to an extent, and then it’s fun as well. When you feel like you’ve written a song that you like then it’s great. You feel quite pleased.

    And to take it from the process of just you and guitar to the whole band must be gratifying.

    Conor: Yeah, mostly; it’s funny because I always feel like I write two kinds of songs, and I just write them over and over again. And thankfully with The Gin Club, they don’t always sound the same. They certainly don’t sound the way – they don’t turn out the way I wrote them. ‘An Horse’ on Junk has got brass [instruments], and the arrangement and the feel to it is mostly Ben. Otherwise it was just another Will Oldham rip-off. [laughter] So it’s good like that, seeing it fully realised and fleshed out. That can be good.

    Same question to you, finally, Bridget.

    Bridget: Look, I don’t feel compelled at all. I feel bullied occasionally, reluctant always. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I don’t think, and sometimes when I’ve got nothing better to do I’ll tinker around and occasionally something will come out of that that might have potential, but I don’t consider myself to be a songwriter. So I don’t really know how to answer that question.

    Ben: You’ve written songs.

    Bridget: Yeah, but –

    Ben: They’re good too. You’ve written four. Bridget wrote two for Deathwish that we didn’t use although they were quite good. She insisted that she’d written a new one that was better, and she was right.

    Bridget: So four. Actually I wrote a song when I was about grade 6 or 7, called ‘Heatseeker’, and then I found out that AC/DC has a song by the same name, so I scrapped it. It wasn’t quite as good.

    Ben: Was yours similar to the AD/DC one?

    Bridget: [laughter] No.

    Adrian Stoyles and Ben Salter performing with The Gin Club

    Returning to your comment about confidence earlier, Ben. I’m interested to know when it turns from confidence to cockiness that you mentioned earlier.

    Ben: They balance each other out. Every person that you see, the more cocky they appear, the more insecure they are within their heads, and I think it’s really wrong to assume that anyone who’s really arrogant really isn’t just totally insecure. It’s obvious so we’re never cocky… Well, that’s not true; we are cocky. We do think we’re good, but that comes from a sense of camaraderie more than anything else.

    If we really thought we were better than anyone else, that would be cocky, but we still love music and we’re just totally in awe of [other] people. We’re very selective about the people that we do like, and we do think a lot of music is shit, which it’s true of just about anything that you know. There’s a lot of mediocrity, but I’m so competitive and I see bands all the time that just make me go “God I wish I was in that band,” even though I’m in the best band in the world. But I still want to be in everyone else’s band because I get so excited about other musicians and other songs, and think “God, I wish I’d have written that” So I think that pretty much prevents you from being cocky.

    I can’t listen to my own songs, generally. Unless it’s with [one of his other bands] The Young Liberals, in which case I listen to that all the time. Generally, because that’s done so off-the-cuff, it’s so refreshing to listen to because it’s so bad, in a way. But with anything that I’ve put a lot of my time into, it’s really difficult to listen because I just feel so awkward and embarrassed by it.

    Bridget: We’re very lucky that whatever we do, we know that we have nine of us to back it up, so it either gets filtered out really early or you can rely on the fact that at least everyone else in the band’s going to think it’s great, and it’s a bit of a buffer zone between… You don’t feel quite so exposed because you have everyone else supporting.

    I think one of the nicest things I like about watching you play, Ben, is that you have a confidence – I don’t know if this works – a confidence that allows you to actually be really humble about the way you do it, and that’s stuff you say to us all the time about “if people pay their money then they’re entitled to talk,” and I think that’s really meaningful. It shows that you don’t have an attitude that “everyone in the world should shut up and listen to me”.

    Ben: If you want to teach someone a bit of humility and about what the entertainment business is really about, then make them go and busk for five years, because it just takes your ego and just destroys it. You’re just there to entertain people. They don’t want to hear your songs. And that’s such an awesome thing because for every time that you just go “Oh my God, I just want to kill myself,” there’s a thousand other times when people just come up to you and go “Oh my God, I was having such a bad day and you played that song and it made me so happy”. And that sounds so trite but it’s not. It’s really awesome.

    That’s what we are. We’re entertainers. We’re artists as well, and the art always comes first, but I also want to entertain people, so it’s a delicate balance. I know we’re kind of off the point here, but the busking thing is so true because you just realise that making people happy is not the worst thing in the world. It’s a really cool thing and if you can make people happy through your own expressions of your own songs, then that’s even more amazing. We’re very privileged.
    I just can’t stand it when there’s a sense of entitlement from bands or from people towards being in a band, where it’s like “the government owes me a living because I make songs”. It’s like – get fucked. Go get a real job. No one is entitled to make a living from being in a band. No one’s entitled to make a living out of doing something they love. It’s a privilege, not a right. We’re just very lucky that we’re able to do it. Everyone has to work. We all have to.

    Before we move on, returning to your comments about favourite bands: Ben, I remember standing behind you while Spiritualized played at the Riverstage [in January 2009 as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival].

    Ben: Oh, I love that band. I saw them the first time they came to Australia, I went and saw them. We were mixing the first Giants album. We drove up specially and saw them at The Arena, and it was just amazing. They’re such a good band. Definitely that band. [laughs]

    I saw them at Mt Buller as well, with ATP, and went to England in December to see them play [the album] Ladies And Gentlemen [We Are Floating In Space] in full.

    Ben: Was it amazing?

    It was amazing.

    Ben: I was this far away from going and seeing them do it at ATP with The Drones, and then I had this car accident and realised that I was going to have to pay for someone’s insurance. The Drones basically said “you can come sleep on the floor and roadie for us”, and I had some other friends that were going… and then I didn’t go. I hope they do it again because I still haven’t seen that. So it was really good?

    They had a 21-piece band, full string section, full brass… just fucking sensational.

    Ben: When they did ‘Electricity’ and they get to the end and just do this meltdown, that trick you hear them do on the Albert Hall live disc as well. I read a quote from Jason Pierce [of Spiritualized], and he said “We never really made much money from touring because every time, it’d be like ‘we’ve got some more money, could we get some more strobes?’” [laughter] I could see now why, because the end of ‘Electricity’, the strobes just build up until you think “this is fucked; my brain’s going to melt” and then they just get louder and louder and the strobes get stronger, and then without any cue at all they just go into ‘Home Of The Brave’ and that first slide line starts, and it’s like “Oh my God, that’s unbelievable”.

    You guys spent two weeks at Prior Park again for this album. What’s an average day at Prior Park like?

    Bridget: Awesome. You get up, put the kettle on.

    Ben: Some people get up earlier than others and go and potter around, but generally everyone’s up and about by about 11. When we had [Junk producer] Magoo, he was very good at telling us not to drink, at least for the first couple of days. He taught us so much in that, he kind of said at the start “I’m not going to produce you…” Anyway – We’d wake up about 11 and eat; someone makes breakfast, bacon and eggs.

    Conor: Ham and cheese on toast. Beans.

    Bridget: We’re usually pretty good at sending somebody in to do some work pretty early on.

    Ben: Then Murray [Paas, The Gin Club’s recording engineer] will go down and fire everything up. I’ve just come back from doing the same thing with Giants Of Science [one of Salter’s other bands]. That was the first time I’d been there with a different band, so it was pretty much the same ritual. But some differences in that with The Gin Club, one person can go down and have a song and just go and start working on it with Murray, and the rest of us are just happy to just read or wander around, play cricket or something. Then someone will come play some bass or something.

    It’s pretty much like, “Who wants to play?” You’ll be like “Okay, I’ll pay bass”, or “I’ll play drums”, so someone’ll come up. We’ll work all the way through ‘till the sun starts to go down and then in winter, this time of year, as it gets to dusk it’s just spectacular; the whole countryside turns all these different shades of purple. It’s a really cold light. When the sun starts to go down everyone goes and gets firewood, because you always run out of firewood. All the while, people are still recording.

    Bridget: Then somebody puts dinner on.

    Conor: It’s usually like four people, maybe five people recording at any one time.

    Ben: There’s at least one person there just to have an opinion because Murray’s not much of a one for having an opinion. He just kind of engineers. So you need someone there. There’s no dearth of producers, ever.

    Conor: When we were doing this stuff for Deathwish, there were those days when we brought a bunch of girlfriends up.
    Ben: Yeah, we had like three days with girlfriends or something. [laughter] We did the girlfriend thing so all the girlfriends came up, which was really quite nice actually. They were pretty good, mostly.

    Conor: They were pretty good at getting stuff ready in the kitchen. [laughter] Keeping me out of the way.

    Bridget: It’s good, it kept the pressure off me!

    Ben: I did all the cooking for Giants [Of Science, one of Ben’s other bands], pretty much.

    Anyway, we try not to start drinking before the sun goes down because it’s very easy with so many friends, at a campfire… Magoo was really good at teaching me the practicalities of productive work. He was like “You can keep recording stuff well into the night [while drinking], but you’re going to wake up the next morning and listen to it and it’ll just be shit and you’ll have to do it all again. When you start to get sloppy, you’ll do take after take and it’ll just get worse.” Then we’ll stop at around 10 or 11. If you get excited you can do overdubs until three in the morning.

    Bridget: If you decide you want to re-record the whole of The White Album, then you can be there all night.

    Ben: We did that, and we recorded a couple of rap tracks. [laughter] That’ll be on the next Hissy Fit [a collection of The Gin Club’s outtakes, b-sides and live recordings]. There’s a great one about the Canberra Raiders in there.

    I cannot describe to you how much fun it is. There’s really no mobile phone reception, so once a day someone drives the car down to the grid. You only have to drive about 50 meters to get reception, so someone bunks all the mobile phones into a car once a day, drives down to the grid, and get all the messages for all the people at once, and then drives back and everyone checks.

    There’s TV and stuff, but you’re just so focused. The beauty of it is that as soon as you get bored, or you’re sick of hearing stuff, or you’re sick of recording, in The Gin Club you can pretty much take a day off because there’s so many other people. I remember listening to all the other songs we’d done and going, “What’s this song? I’ve never heard it before.”

    Bridget: When you get home after two weeks, and there’s stuff that you just didn’t notice was going on.

    Brisbane rock band The Gin Club. Photo by Stephen Booth

    So there’s a dedicated studio there?

    Ben: No. I’ve had my eye on a worker’s cottage there [at Prior Park]. It was built at the turn of the century, so over 100 years old. It’s all falling down, but it’s very sturdy in its basic construction. I always had my eye on it as a potential studio, so I finally mentioned it to Murray. So we went and did an initial test run for Junk, so we pretty much recorded all of Junk and then we went back and recorded it all again. I think we only kept one song, ‘Abigail’.

    We just take everything. We hire a three-ton truck, load it full of gear, and Murray doesn’t charge us too much. We bought Magoo for Junk, but this last one was just Murray and Dan [Mansfield]. It really doesn’t cost that much. The main expense is the three-ton truck and we’re trying to get around that because Anne and Gordon, my sister and my brother-in-law are keen for us to keep doing it, and they’re prepared to if we invest in a certain amount of infrastructure. It doesn’t really need soundproofing, unless you’re worried about the sounds from outside coming in. There’s no real concern about the sound from inside going out. But we get a lot of bird noises and stuff. All it would take is just a desk to do headphones, mic stands, and then we just take everything else there. Murray pretty much deconstructs all of [his studio] The Foundry and puts it in the truck. We’ve got so good at it that we can disassemble it, drive it and assemble it in a day and we’re ready to go.

    Did you set yourself to a deadline, or did you happen to decide you were finished after two weeks?

    Ben: We only had two weeks; everyone’s got to work and stuff. When we did these sessions, the same as with the Giants, we just see what happens.

    Bridget: We did do quite a bit after we got back.

    Ben: We got shitloads done. We did 13 songs in two weeks, which is – but we did a heap when we got back. We re-recorded whole songs, but the guts of the album…

    Bridget: It’s all linked back to that stuff.

    Ben: There are songs on there, about three or four songs that we demoed that I’ll probably do on a solo album or save for the next Gin Club album, and songs that Jake did – we didn’t use any of his, but we enjoyed recording them. He can use them for whatever. But we really didn’t have any set goal. The main reason we wanted to go was because Ula had to go back to Sweden and we wanted to get his songs down before he left, so that if we did have another album coming out we’d at least have his component before he went to Sweden. So we did that and the rest of it was just there.

    So Ula’s back in Sweden for good?

    Ben: Well. Every time he says that he is, he comes back. So I don’t know exactly what’s going on with the visa, but he reckons he’s coming back again later on this year. Hopefully the next tour we do, he’ll be back again. Brad’s back at the moment as well, from Canada, so that’s exciting, although I haven’t seen him yet. He’s a very busy man.

    It’s time for me to ask you about ‘Milli Vanilli’, Bridget. [A song from Deathwish – you can stream the song via my Mess+Noise album review] Is the story real or fiction?

    Bridget: Real, not me personally but the neighbours at… I won’t tell you where I live. No, neighbours of mine across on the other side of the creek where I used to live, whose house got badly damaged in the first of those bad storms we had in November 2008, and then again in March 2009, those bad storms that hit The Gap. They lived right by the creek, and they had to move out of their house. They gradually rebuilt it and about a week after they moved back into it, the second lot of storms came and knocked the whole thing down. I wrote pretty much all of the lyrics while walking back from the bus on Waterworks Road, back down to my house, as I walked past where they were cleaning out their pool again for the second time. [laughs] I shouldn’t laugh. It’s not funny at all. It’s based on fact, inspired by truth. And I love Milli Vanilli, they’re awesome.

    Ben: She does not, that’s bullshit. [laughter]

    Conor: She’s actually a massive No Doubt fan. [laughter]

    Like Ben said earlier, it’s a fucking great song.

    Bridget: [laughs] Thank you.

    I was listening to the album while I was on the internet, as background music. The song went through and it was ticking through my head, then I was like “I have to hear that again” so I sat back and listened to it that song. It blew me away.

    Bridget: I’m glad you like it.

    Ben: Told you! It’s not just us. [laughter] And it’s got such a sting in its tail, and it’s such a great song in that it can be – you can apply it as a metaphor for so many things. You can use it as a relationship metaphor, because it’s like a sonnet or something. It’s got the whole bulk of it within that last line of “if you live beside the bank, guess you’ve got yourselves to thank”. It’s such a… all the way through, you’re feeling really sorry for these people, but then you’re going – not quite “it’s not your own fault” – but it’s kind of like, “you reap what you sow”.

    It’s deep.

    Ben: It’s mega deep.

    Bridget: So was the water. [laughter] It really did carry a Falcon down into the creek. It was pretty intense.

    Brisbane rock band The Gin Club

    Ben: There’s lots of storm metaphors in King Lear, which we’re about to go and see, as well.

    Conor, I want to ask you about ‘I Am My Own Partner’. It seems to come from a deeply personal place. Is there hesitation before sharing that kind of thing?

    Conor: Oh no, not really. I don’t think about…

    Ben: Conor’s so emo, he loves it.

    Conor: That’s awful. I have my songs and I sing them, but I don’t really think about people listening to them when I write them, or when I sing them. ‘I Am My Own Partner’ is fairly straight forward. I think it’s kind of funny as well.
    Ben: It’s pretty emo though. [laughter]

    Bridget: I love the way it’s got lots of animals in it.

    Conor: A lot of my songs have lots of animals in them, so it’s the same as before. I feel like I write two kinds of songs, and try to get better at writing them. I think ‘I Am My Own Partner’ is probably the best song I’ve written of that type.

    Is it a matter of creating a positive thing out of a negative experience?

    Conor: Not especially, but having said that it is kind of positive, I think. It’s not just a miserable song. I like being fairly self-reliant so it’s fairly important to me to be able to look after myself.

    Ben: I think it’s magnificent. I don’t think it’s entirely sad, but it’s a real ‘me against the universe’ kind of sadness, that desolation of going, “There’s nothing else”. I find that honesty so amazing, in songs like that. There’s just this real existential – not dread, but affirmation almost – of all around there’s darkness and all around the edges fall away to infinity or whatever, and you’ve just got to go on. That’s the image it conjures up to me.

    Conor: I did have a cat that I loved very much and she disappeared, and I was pretty devo about that. Still am. [laughter]

    Okay, moving on. I want to talk about the notion of making a career as musicians. In each of your minds, what makes successful independent musician?

    Ben: It depends on what you mean by success. To my mind, we’re a successful independent band in that we have – the most important thing to us is the respect of our peers, and mostly our peers are each other and we all seem to like what we do. And then we have people like The Drones and Tim Rogers and Mick Thomas, to name just three, who all think our band is really good and I constantly scratch my head and go, “They don’t really like it, they like it because of some other reason.”

    People go “What is that reason?” and I go “I don’t know, but there’s some other reason. They think that they’ll appear cool if they like us, but they don’t really like us.” And I have to constantly be reminded and told they actually like our band because we’re good at what we do. In that respect I think we’re very successful, but to be self-sufficient and to make a living, I guess that’s the aim of every musician, independent or otherwise.

    I just think those days of – it’s one thing, everyone goes “Oh, back in the ‘80s, everyone went to see bands…”. Back in the ‘60s, as someone else pointed out to Conor and I the other day, and something that I know anyway, even in the ‘80s or early ‘90s a band like us would have got a major label deal fairly quickly. But then maybe not, because logistically it’s a bit tricky, but the quality of the music, I think, is really high, but those days are gone. There’s no use getting nostalgic; things need to change and it comes back to that thing, in my opinion, that no one owes us a living.
    We make music. We are privileged to live in a society where we can make music and even make money out of it, and have a job, and say what we want, and play what we want, and go where we want. It’s a privilege, not a right and it’s something that even though I bitch and moan all the time about it, I’m able to pretty much support myself through the generosity and patronage, a lot of the time ,of the people around me who are very tolerant.

    Ben Salter performing with The Gin ClubI’m pretty much the only person in the band apart from Gus, sometimes, who makes their living out of doing music all the time. I’ve got to be in like four bands or something and play all sorts of other gigs to do it, but I just feel that’s an absolute privilege. So I feel that we really are successful. We release albums, they’re good, I think, and people come to our shows. Most of all, we have the respect of our peers.

    Bridget: From a purely financial perspective, we do well enough to keep doing what we’re doing without us all having to chip in all the time and pay for everything ourselves. We have some debts, but…

    Ben: They’re not like major label debts.

    Bridget: Largely, we can keep doing what we’re doing and it’s self sufficient. I think that’s terrific.

    Ben: My biggest regret is that we’re not able to travel more. I would really love for us to be able to go to Europe or America, because I want to travel. That’s one of the reasons I love being in a band, because we get to travel around Australia so much and we’ve been to Canada and we’ve been to the States, and we’ve been to New Zealand. That’s one of the main things I think is great about being a musician and being an entertainer, and it’s upsetting to me that we aren’t able to do that more.

    At the same time, we get to go to America and New Zealand and Canada. We really can’t complain. If I did complain – I just can’t stand that. I think you can have the artistic integrity and I’m all for that; I’m deeply passionate about artistic integrity and about art and about abstractness and I’m constantly defending stuff that’s crappy, or perceived to be crappy, because I think the intent is there. But I think that it has to be separated from the sense of privilege or expectation or entitlement, this sense that ‘just because I care deeply about art that everyone should give me money’. Those two don’t necessarily go together, I don’t think.

    Picking up on your comment about music that’s perceived to be crappy, can that be applied to La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’, which you throw into ‘Drugflowers’ live?

    Ben: I don’t know if that many people think that’s crappy. This is one of the many things I’m always raving about: people seem to think that because a lot of people like something, it must be bad. Which is just such bullshit. The only difference between popular music and indie music is a production aesthetic and a name.

    If you’re talking about avant garde metal or experimental noise music, that’s different because it’s challenging peoples’ perceptions of what a hook is, or what an aesthetic experience is, but all [The Gin Club] do is really pop music. People call us indie but what we do is kind of, MOR-y pop. It might be delivered with a certain honesty of intent, or honesty of conviction, but really it’s not that different from what La Roux is doing except that she like synthesisers. That chord progression is beautiful. I guess that’s what I’m kind of talking about, but that’s just within this band that I was talking about, not in general. [laughter] We all have our arguments about what’s crappy and what’s not.

    I want to ask about the three album launch shows at The Troubadour [July 2-4, 2010]. Why is The Troubadour your favourite venue in Brisbane?

    Bridget: It was the first place we ever had a show, in those early days where we pretty much had all our shows, The Troubadour, Ric’s, and the Bowery. As Conor said before, it’s kind of where we cut our teeth. We’ve become good friends with Jamie, who runs The Troubadour, and Cory and all the staff there.

    Ben: They gave us our name.

    Bridget: They named us. We didn’t have a name, and we drank a lot of gin.

    Ben: Conor, myself, and Adrian were playing at Ric’s – or maybe it was just Conor and I playing at Ric’s – and these two guys in the crowd came up afterwards and said, “We’re starting a new venue over the road.” We were like [sarcastically] “Oh yeah,” because venues generally start and then they disappear. Then they said “Would you like to come and play on the opening night?” And we were like “Sure, that’d be great.”

    We went up there and it was like “wow, this place is awesome”. Three of The Gin Club played the opening; we don’t go there as much as we used to. We just love it and we love the intimacy. That’s the reason why we wanted to limit the numbers because I can’t stand going to The Troubadour when it’s full, because you can’t see and you’re stepping on peoples’ toes.

    Conor: You can’t get to the bar and you can’t get to the toilet.

    Ben: We thought if we could do 100 people a night there’d be enough room for people to move and see, and it’d maintain all those things we love about the Troubadour without having heaps of people clogging up the place.
    Conor: It’s the best sounding room in Brisbane. I’d rather play to 100 people a night for three nights than 300 people at The Zoo for one night, just because we get to play more songs. [laughter] It’s nicer for the crowd.
    Bridget: We’ve done the last three or four launch type things in a room like The Zoo.

    Ben: The Zoo is great, don’t get me wrong.

    Bridget: But it’s nice to try something different.

    Ben: It is, and once again, it’s coming down to this thing about there’s no money really playing in music anymore. So one of the things you have to do – and Brad would be so proud of me – you have to add value to stuff [laughter]. People want a unique experience, like this whole idea getting a live CD of a show after you’ve just seen it.

    People want something that they saw, that no one else did. And this is getting beyond the whole [matter of] everyone taking video footage of everything. I’m not even going to get started on that. It just defeats the purpose. You want a unique experience that not everyone has on their mobile phone, and by limiting it and having 100 people per show, that’s our way of making it unique, and having a different setlist. The people that were there can say “I was one of only 100 people that saw that show.” That might not be a big deal, but for me it’s a way of giving the audience a bit more, something a bit special and unique.

    My final question is about the quote “Someday this war’s going to end,” which appears in the album liner notes and on your MySpace. How does that relate to The Gin Club?

    Ben: That’s my fault really.

    Bridget: You brought this on us.

    Ben: It’s from Apocalypse Now. I just loved it. I don’t necessarily love that movie, but I love that speech because it’s the ultimate nihilistic speech. I’m a big fan of – not so much nihilism, but –

    Conor: I’m a pretty big fan of nihilism. [laughter]

    Ben: I just think the ambiguity of that statement is because you can’t tell whether he’s happy or sad about it. That’s the thing that I love about it, when he just relates that “smell of napalm” and all, relating this horrific thing about something that’s happened in the war. My father and all my grandparents were soldiers, so I guess I have a certain affinity with that kind of shit. But then afterwards he says “Someday this war’s going to end” and it’s just so… you just don’t know whether he’s happy or sad.

    Still to this day, I can’t figure it out, and it’s a bit of both. I think that’s what’s great about it. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be a bit of both. You can be happy about something, and sad about it at the same time.
    Something about when you’re in an intense situation, or a situation where your life is on the line and your whole existence is challenged, somehow everything is brought into perspective. You’re still in a horrible, life-threatening situation, so I guess it’s him saying “one day all this will be over, and I can’t decide whether I’m happy about that or not”.

    Conor: I’ve always just figured it was about the war of life; the war against yourself.

    Ben: Life is the war in a lot of ways. “This whole thing is hell, where we are now” [in reference to that scene in Apocalypse Now]. So we’re going to go watch King Lear and sort it all out. [laughter]

    I’ll leave it there, guys.

    Brisbane rock band The Gin Club


    Hear more Gin Club on MySpace, or visit their website. Their latest album, Deathwish, is outstanding. Go buy it. My Mess+Noise profile of the band is here. View the video for ‘Rain‘ below.

  • A Conversation With Benjamin Law, author and freelance journalist

    Brisbane writer and author, Benjamin LawBenjamin Law [pictured right] is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist (for Frankie, QWeekend, and The Monthly, among others) who recently had his first book, The Family Law, published via Black Inc. I interviewed him for The Courier-Mail about its genesis and release; you can read that story here.

    What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which took place in late April in a New Farm coffee shop.

    Andrew: So I read the book, and found it pretty damn enthralling. The way you tell stories is quite engaging. I like how you switch between first person-like dialogue, then switch away to tell a story.

    Benjamin: Thank you very much.

    I saw you had your first review.

    Yeah, in Bookseller & Publisher, so that’s mainly an industry magazine, but that’s important and a relief because I know from working at a bookstore, Avid Reader, that magazine’s important to know how to sell things and whether to sell things. So yeah, pretty chuffed.

    How does your family feel about the book?

    It’s always the first question, isn’t it? [laughs] Well, I’ve written about my family a lot because I write for a magazine called Frankie, a lot of those first person sort of stuff, a lot of it is personal anecdotes, funny stories from your life, and pretty short funny essays that a lot of other writers write for Frankie as well, so not just me. I’ve been writing for them for quite a while now, so my family is quite used to me writing about them.

    They’ve gotten accustomed to it, and to be honest; we’re a pretty open family when it comes to most things. You’ll read the book and you’ll hear the stuff that my family says. It’s pretty outrageous. If you’re a friend of mine and you’ve met my mother for the first time, most of my friends have a story of when they met my mother for the first time. They can usually pinpoint the exact moment where she started talking about all of our births, in graphic detail. It’s not a very closed family. There is not much that’s too sacred, really.

    When I was writing this book, it was funny; I got a book contract, and I said, “Hey guys, I’ve got news for you all.” They were like “What?” I’m like “I’m going to write this book,” and they were all like “that’s amazing, what’s it about?” “It’s about you guys.” They were like “That’s … really good.” You can sort of see it’s really great because whenever my family, especially between the siblings as well, are completely different but everyone does really well in their field and we really celebrate everybody’s wins, so when I said I’m writing a book and I’ve got a contract for it, everyone was over the moon, thrilled.

    I think when I said, “Guess what it’s about,” they were like “cool,” but when I finished the draft, all 6 of my immediate family members – I sent a draft to all 6 immediate family members and they liked what they saw. I think because I’ve been writing about them for a while now, I’ve got an internal gauge of what I can and can’t… To be honest, the stuff that I wouldn’t be able to get away with wouldn’t be that interesting anyway.

    When they read through the drafts, it was mainly stuff like “Change some of your spelling, your grammar is wrong here, your syntax is a bit awkward here”. They were just like “You know what, this is totally fine.” There were some disputes as to how things happened. There were some discrepancies in memories as well, in terms of whether this happened, how it happened, what people said, and that’s because it’s so long ago. These are stories going back through the ‘80s and ‘90s, which is when I grew up. Beyond that there wasn’t too much of a problem. Everyone is pretty happy.

    So you weren’t taking too much creative license with these stories; you tried to faithfully recreate them as they happened.

    As faithfully as possible, totally. Names have been changed and I think there are some pretty obvious reasons why some names have been changed. All my family have been pretty happy to stand by their names and their dialogue. I’ve tried to make sure they sound as natural as they can; I obviously didn’t go back in time and record their dialogue. I didn’t take too much creative license and everything that happened in the book pretty much happened.

    It’s interesting to me that you didn’t actually talk about the act of writing about the family at any stage during the book, so it was all from a distance. You recounted a story instead of saying “I was thinking at the time I’m going to write about this afterwards.” At what stage did you start writing about the family in Frankie?

    I think I started doing a creative writing degree and I think I reached a point where I realised my family’s material was pretty good material. When I was doing my creative writing degree, everyone was writing fiction. I realized I’m rubbish at fiction. All of my fictional works were thinly disguised memoirs. I think that’s what a lot of people do for their first novel; they write a thinly disguised memoir.

    I thought I would instead write it straight because especially after you read this book and a lot of other memoirs, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. I think with my family at least, that’s often the case. You’ll come across stories that defy belief a little; my dad meeting his dad for the first time after a decade and his dad dying that very day. That seems beyond anything any fiction – if you wrote that as fiction it would seem contrived.

    I think there is something cool about writing it straight. At what point did I decide to write about them? I think I’ve been writing about them in one say, shape, or another throughout the years, but I think Frankie sort of gave me the opportunity to write about the stuff that’s happened but also through a humorous lens as well. There is some stuff in the book that’s quite heavy but I think unless it’s coupled by humour, it doesn’t really work. I think that’s one thing my family is quite good at, all of us, we like laughing at horror, at least after a while. Everyone has a pretty black sense of comedy.

    What was it, that Minnie Mouse rape story…. “I was raaaaped!”

    [laughs] That comes early [in the book]. That’s dark. We weren’t sure whether to include that or not, but I just left it in after a while. If I wouldn’t have left that in I don’t think you would have gotten a very true sense of how inappropriate my family can become.

    Have you ever kept a diary?

    No, I’m really undisciplined. I’m incredibly undisciplined. You would talk to a lot of other writers who would say, “I’ve kept a diary since I was a child, and then I kept a lock on it under the bed.” I went back to my family house recently and I found an old diary and like all of my diaries from childhood, all of January is filled, and then the entries become bullet points, and by February I’ve given up.

    I don’t know about other people but I never thought as a kid that when this stuff was happening that it was incredibly interesting. I was born into a big migrant family, into a pretty odd family in a lot of ways, but I never thought it was that unusual or interesting to write about. I think you build up that self awareness later in life. I’m not a disciplined enough writer to write every day. It’s interesting; writing these stories has been – it’s not until you start writing them that you start remembering some of the details that come through.

    And your family’s feedback would have assisted along the way.

    That’s right, after the first draft.

    Speaking about heavy topics, the chapter about how parts of your mother’s family were deported to Hong Kong, that was heavy and to get that kind of perspective, for me as an Australian, I think that’s one of the most important takeaway aspects of the book.

    Absolutely, the family is really interesting because they’re supposed to be the family, the people you know most about but in so many ways, and I think this is the case for a lot of people, but you never really get the opportunity to get a full account of some of those stories until you start writing about them, or until you start asking certain questions, like exactly what did happen. I’d grown up in a house that was really full of stuff, and it wasn’t until I was a bit older as a child that I thought, “None of this stuff is ours. How did it actually get here?” That turned into me writing this story about my extended family being deported, this incredibly traumatic time for my family in the mid ‘80s and I only would have been 4 years old and pretty oblivious to what happened.

    I think writing that story was really important because it gave me a sense that I do come from pretty amazing stock, really resilient people who were really willing to take a bet on this country. My parents were lucky they got to stay, that they became citizens. I think that’s the case for a lot of children with migrant parents, as well. You really want to try hard because you constantly, whether you’re aware of it or not, you are constantly reminded of how much they went through just to come here and what they had to give up to come here. I think that story is probably an illustration of that.

    Benjamin Law - 'The Family Law' book coverIs there a story in the book that you’re most proud of, or a chapter in the book that you favor?

    I really like the story about my dad, and his dad. It starts off with me not knowing how to buy my dad presents because he works 24/7 and he doesn’t have any pastimes because he works so hard. That of course leads into the story of his dad as well and he’s not someone I grew up with. He died way before I was born. He died when my dad was a kid, so finding out that story was really important to me, getting a sense of who my dad was when he was young, as well, was really important to me. That’s probably one story I’m proud of because it’s the kind of story that none of my siblings had unearthed either, and I hadn’t really investigated it until I started writing this book.

    This really interesting process of “Dad, tell me what happened”; sometimes those stories aren’t told until you ask those questions. I’m not sure if it’s pride but I’m really glad and relieved that I got that story out of dad. He’s not the biggest storyteller. He’s not about to tell you stories for the sake of it. He’s a very practical guy but when you ask him questions, all these stories come out and that story wasn’t even half of it. It gave me a much clearer sense of who dad was, and what drove him to the guy he is now. All these interesting processes of finding out what were you parents like when they were your age; you sort of forget that your parents were your age. That was a really good, fun process.

    Another topic I found interesting was how you didn’t gloss over the divorce. You told time and time how unhappy your parents were. It was obviously a very frightening thing as a child but you kind of accepted it.

    Divorce is interesting. One of the things about this book is I think I’ve written it from a point of pride. I’m proud my family went through this incredibly difficult time of my parents splitting up and came out of it relatively okay. For all intents and purposes, we still like each other, probably not my parents, but everyone else likes each other. I think divorce is one of those things that, especially in the Chinese community, it’s not really talked about.

    You mentioned that in the dialogue, that the Asian community came and spoke to the kids.

    They totally feel it’s their right to come in and give their opinions. I always thought that was a bit strange. It’s not until you grow up that you realise how hard it would’ve been for your parents, like you always feel like “this is such a miserable time for me” when you’re a child who comes from divorced parents and the broken family. But, it’s only when you become an adult that you start to realise how difficult it would’ve been for them.

    My mom is a tiny woman. She had 5 kids, all school aged at that stage and she decided to say no to my dad, break off the marriage, and raise his children on her own. I don’t even know where that impulse would have come from. I don’t know how she could’ve brought yourself to that point to say, “I’m brave enough to do this”.

    I think writing the book has given me an opportunity to look back on that as well. I think writing the book has also given me the opportunity to see some of the humour in it, as well. When you’re in that situation it’s pretty grim. But in hindsight it’s sort of hilarious as well.

    There is this one story that I really like and it’s all about my dad taking us on his weekends, during the divorce. On paper, shared custody is supposed to be a pretty clean thing. Maybe the mother gets you Monday through Friday and the dad gets you every weekend or second weekend. It’s quite quarantined how everything works.

    The reality of it is completely different and it’s wild. We grew up in the Sunshine Coast, and of course the Sunshine Coast has these terrible theme parks, totally completely opposite to the Gold Coast, so Sunshine Coast – we went to things like the deer sanctuary and Superbee for my dad’s weekends, and Nostalgia Town as well.

    I went to Nostalgia Town as a child, too. I thought it was kind of cool at the time, but in retrospect, maybe it wasn’t…

    It was quite strange wasn’t it? You can’t help but laugh. My dad tried to take us to these places to show us a good time, but they were sort of lame. He wanted to have time with the kids but my mum insisted on going with him. We went to these places that were supposed to be fun, but smelled like urine. It’s sort of this tragic comedy, really. But at the time it just seems tragic. With retrospect you realise it’s actually a really funny piece. I guess that’s where most of the book comes from, black humour. I dig tragic comedy.

    I know the press release mentioned David Sedaris, so he’s obviously one of your influences. You did mention that when we first met. You described it as a ‘David Sedaris kind of book’. Are there any other kind of humour writers you enjoy?

    Sedaris is probably the main one. I remember reading him for the first time and thinking “this guy is pretty awesome,” and I identified with him because similarly he came from a big, sprawling family, had a migrant parent, gay, and had that perspective on grim humour that I quite liked.

    Augustine Burroughs probably does that, as well, Running with Scissors. I also like people who write good, straight personal essays, who aren’t necessarily in it for laughs as well, like Joan Didion and Zadie Smith. Michael Chabon’s essays, as well. I’ve read a lot of fiction, but I really like when people just write about themselves and I get to know them, probably, as people as well. I like that sense of intimacy. Those are probably the big guys for me.

    You’ve been tagged as a comedy writer, or a humour writer. There is some kind of danger associated with that because comedy is subjective. As soon as I started reading… for starters, I could picture your voice as I read it because I’ve met you, obviously. I could picture your deep, baritone voice. That made it funny to me, but then, your humour appeals to me.

    Brisbane writer and author, Benjamin LawIt’s not going to appeal to everyone.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing.

    I’ve already heard from various people that they really like the book but they also couple it with “It’s not going to be for everyone, is it Benjamin?” It’s a bit vulgar and crass but to be honest, that’s how my family is as well. My family often claims that I corrupted them with how disgusting I am, but when I look back into the family archives, and memories of what people were saying at the time, that’s the family. That’s actually the family dynamic, to be quite crass.

    The comedy writer tag is dangerous because I think anything that’s considered as comedy is dangerous as inherent failure associated with comedy because not everyone has the same sense of humour. The task of comedy is to make people laugh. You’re not going to make everyone laugh so I think this book is for a very specific audience. That audience probably has some familiarity with dysfunction, to some extent, with their own family. Maybe our younger audience don’t mind a bit of vulgarity and crassness as well. If you get all that you’ll probably like my family. You’ll probably like the book because it’s about my family.

    I really liked the chapter about how you met Scott at the end. That was really touching.

    Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write that because you don’t want to write too earnestly about love. Of course, throughout that story, because that’s one story of a few stories in that section, of course I throw in some fart jokes as well. I think that story is sort of important to be in there because growing up gay, it’s still sort of a big deal, and no one was open about it when we went to school, as well. There is always this arrested development involved, especially if you’re someone of my age. I’m in my late 20’s now. You only start finding love a little bit after everyone else, as well.

    It’s funny, I interviewed the former Justice of the High Court, Michael Kirby, the other day for Frankie and he was talking about how he didn’t find love or even start looking for it until he was in his late 20’s, early 30’s. There was this whole gap in his life where he didn’t look for love. I hope that a story like that, some young homo might read it and think, “That’s cool, and I might find my own partner one day.” You aren’t particularly vocal about how you are at that young age because you’re vulnerable. That really cuts off your chances in finding someone you might want to be with as well.

    Certainly in the book, there is that whole section where I’m 12 years old and already wondering whether I’m going to die alone, that whole fear, crazy things for a 12-year old to be thinking about but that’s the type of kid that I was, completely neurotic. If I was a young teen and I read this book at that young age, and nothing like that existed for me at that age, I think I would get something positive out of it. At least as the writer, I hope young people would.

    You mentioned in the book how your fellow high school students didn’t suspect that you were gay. To then, there was no way that you could be both a racial minority and gay.

    It scrambled their radar. It scrambled up everyone’s sonar.

    You were invisible to them.

    Totally, but I think a lot of the people who read my work, like Frankie readers especially, they’re probably in their late teens and their generation sort of has its shit together. I don’t think we necessarily did.

    The book kind of goes through the full range of emotions. I just realised that, at the end, when you were speaking about how you were despairing that you might be alone for your whole life, to finding someone; to being unhappy with the family situation, to that breakup happening and people being happier; you kind of nailed the full range of emotions, I think.

    I like that. I never really thought about it that way but it probably makes sense, as well. My parents’ divorce started when I graduated from primary school, and only really ended when I graduated from high school. I had my whole teen years just smothered by these feelings of tension and not wanting to belong to this family at all. I don’t think everything is solved, necessarily, at all, but I do feel like it’s only at this stage of my life that I’m quite happy to be a part of my family. I’m quite happy, proud to be a part of this shambolic, odd family.

    And when other people read my work, one of the loveliest things that people say is “Your family is so awesome, I wish I could have been raised in that family.” The 17-year old side of me thinks “What the hell are you talking about? You would not have wanted to belong to my family at all” but I can sort of see in another sense that my family is sort of strong and funny people and nowadays, especially, I enjoy their company immensely. It takes a while. It’s taken a while at least, but I like how you sort of described it as starts in one place and ends in another. That’s probably the chronology of the book, as well; starting in one part of my childhood and ends in a more positive time.

    The book ends with the destruction of the house.

    Which hasn’t happened yet.

    Oh, that was the one creative license that you took?

    It hasn’t happened yet. I speculate on what’s going to happen. That’s in the process of happening now. I think it’s going to be incredibly traumatic. I never moved as a kid. I have a lot of friends who say their whole childhood was defined by moving from house to house, from school to school, and they never got that sense of security. I was sort of the opposite. We never moved.

    I was born into a house and when I go visit my mum that’s still the house that I go back to. It is the “childhood home”. I certainly don’t want to destroy it. If I dream about a house, it will be that house. It’s a really old house now. It’s sort of falling apart by the seams and I think there’s going to be some total sense of devastation when it’s gone because I’m coming up to my late 20’s, 30’s now and to know that’s been the one house, your family house. Those are where your roots are; I think it’s going to be sad to see it go. It’s a long process to make it all happen.

    I like how in the end you acknowledged your editors for encouraging you to write along the way. I wonder how much your journalistic tendencies from your freelance work informs how you wrote the book itself.

    Journalism skills came in handy for some of the stories. Interviewing is an obvious one, but also stuff like…  It could have been one of those montages from a detective film: microfilm blurring over your face, zooming in and printing out copies.

    That was really interesting and that’s not just from journalism but because I’ve studied for so long, as well, that I know how to use all that stuff, and get into the archives. It wasn’t until I did that that I realised how big news that was. Obviously, my family being deported was big news in my family and it’s a pretty defining era in our history, but it was sort of defining to the whole community, the whole Sunshine Coast community at that stage. It was front-page news for probably a few weeks, and continued to be news for two months, broadcast news, and newspapers. It was really interesting and it was interesting knowing – listening how the tone of reporting those issues changed as well.

    This was in the mid ‘80s where my extended family got deported and most of the coverage was incredibly supportive of my family, whereas I think now if that story happened, I’m not sure it would be that supportive of a migrant family who had stayed here illegally and were now being deported; most of the editorials that were written were in favour of them staying. Most of the headlines were in favour of them staying, as well. My baby cousin was born and she was born a citizen but her parents were illegal immigrants. Everyone really rallied for that loophole to be taken advantage of where hopefully her parents could stay because of her. It was really fascinating reading my family story as news. I’m trying to think if there are any other ways journalism came into it. Probably those are the main things, skills wise, at least.

    I hear you’re going to South-east Asia for your next book project.

    That’s right. A completely different book project, the first book is all about myself and my family. The second book is a travelogue. In another way, the second book will sort of be about myself. I’ll tell you what the concept is.

    The concept is traveling throughout Southeast Asia and profiling different gay, lesbian, transsexual, queer communities. One of the fundamental questions at the heart of the book is; here I am as a young, gay Asian dude in a relatively tolerant society of queer rights, when it comes to the world at large; we’re relatively good here in Australia. I’m going to be traveling throughout China, Thailand, Japan, India, Nepal, Singapore, some regions where homosexual conduct is illegal, and asking what would have happened if I’d been born anywhere close to where my folks are actually from; who would my life be different.

    Brisbane-based author Benjamin LawIn one sense, the second book is going to be quite different in tone and subject matter, but in another way it’s still asking some fundamental questions about what would life have been like for me in a different place. I guess that’s what a lot of children of migrants ask of themselves as well; what would my life have been like if I’d been raised as my parents had been raised. I’m looking forward to researching that.

    Are you keeping a diary on that trip?

    I will be. I’ll be more disciplined this time. I think there are reasons to, as well. I’m about to attend the world’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand. I think keeping a diary for that would be a good idea. I’m looking forward to it.

    Thanks for your time, Benjamin.


    More Benjamin Law on his website and Twitter. Go buy The Family Law via independent retailers like Avid Reader [Bris], Readings [Melb] or Glee Books [Syd].

  • The Vine interview: Mike Patton, May 2010

    An interview for The Vine.

    Mike Patton, Mondo Cane

    Interview – Mike Patton

    Mike Patton has a reputation for restless innovation. He’s best known as singer of Faith No More – who toured Australia with the Soundwave Festival earlier this year – as well as his other experiment rock acts Fantomas, Peeping Tom, Tomahawk and Mr Bungle. Patton’s voice is one of the most distinctive of this era, and he’s also lent it to collaborations with artists like Dillinger Escape Plan, Dangermouse, Dan The Automator and Rahzel.

    His latest project is named Mondo Cane (pronounced ‘Carn-ay’). The newly-released album sees Patton singing 1950s- and 60s-era Italian pop songs before a 65-piece orchestra. It’s effectively a love letter to his time spent living in Italy a decade ago. The Vine discussed this concept with Patton during our half-hour conversation, in addition to touching upon his fascination with Italian composer Ennio Morricone and whether his record label, Ipecac Recordings, could be considered a tastemaker among alternative and indie music fans.

    Full interview at The Vine, which includes a couple of Mondo Cane video embeds. I can’t recommend this stuff highly enough.

    Mike Patton, Mondo CaneOn a personal note, this was an immensely satisfying interview to research and conduct. I have a lot of respect for Mike Patton; I remember being enchanted by his voice when I first heard it via my brother Stuart‘s copy of their greatest hits record, Who Cares A Lot?, which even my parents dug. So it was a thrill to speak with the man and uncover some aspects of his latest projects that other interviews hadn’t considered.

    Sidenote: I put the call out for interview questions on Twitter and Facebook, and was contacted by a Chilean guy named José Ignacio Vidal, who runs a Mike Patton fansite. He emailed me several questions that I ended up using, including those related to Mondo Cane’s musical arranger, Daniele Luppi and the album art designer, Martin Kvamme. José translated and republished my interview on his blog (!!)  alongside a couple of kind introductory paragraphs, which I’ve translated (from Spanish, via Google, to amusing effect) below. Thanks, José!

    Exactly two weeks ago I read online that a guy named Andrew McMillen was looking for people, “x” to send him questions and Mike Patton Mondo Cane and specific about was how to send you a simple question of entry, which I’m liking very grateful and asked me if it was possible to send him more. Blindly I did send him seven questions of which one of them Pogo gave me the lights for one of the funniest questions regarding this interview Daniele Luppi and another involving a female question and thinking in those days who had the disc their hands? I went to Sofi ^ ^ who enlightened me to ask about the cover art and oddities, like a butterfly because the pole.

    Addition and continues with the romantic effect Patton’s Mondo Cane and some subtleties that are seen in this most entertaining interviews in recent days, if not more than five years. Mike Patton talking a lot, reveals the most intimate nuances of the new album from Mondo Cane, full of surprises that really had not read before. Patton was very comfortable and it shows because they are about 8 sheets of non-stop interview.

    Without further ado and especially thanking Andrew, all the best for you buddy, thanks a lot! I leave this great interview, in our view the best of 2010 ;)

    Visit José Ignacio Vidal’s Chilean Mike Patton fansite here.