All posts tagged FasterLouder

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

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

    Urthboy – The Storyteller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To read the full story, visit FasterLouder.

  • The Vine live review: Porcupine Tree @ The Tivoli, February 2010

    Here’s my first review for The Vine, a Fairfax Media-owned youth culture site. It’s of British progressive rock band Porcupine Tree [pictured right] playing The Tivoli on February 5, 2010. You can read it here.

    British progressive rock band Porcupine TreeI want to discuss this review from a writing perspective. Some background is required.

    If you’ve followed my writing over the years, you might have noticed that this review is a return to the long-form, descriptive style that I became known for when writing for

    To illustrate: compare my Bloc Party @ Riverstage, November 2008 review for FL to this Robert Forster @ QLD Art Gallery, September 2009 review for Mess+Noise.

    With the former, I fell into a style that prized observing facts over engaging with the subject matter on an emotional level. To me, the Forster review reads like it’s written from a calm place more conducive to expressing one’s feelings, than simply listing songs played and key musical moments.

    To illustrate, it’s less this:

    It seems that foul weather has sidestepped Brisbane’s sore and sorry suburbs this weekend: clear skies greet Bloc Party’s arrival onstage, and an overwhelming sense of unity sweeps across the capacity crowd. […] Following the guitar freak-out during Positive Tension’s bridge (“so fucking useless!”), Okereke’s closing words tease the crowd: “play it cool”. The searing guitar tone of that track and Helicopter number among the likes of Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out as the most memorable rock sounds to emerge from the United Kingdom this decade. (Bloc Party @ Riverstage, November 2008)

    Than this:

    For seven songs, Robert Forster is alone, armed only with six-string, voice, wit and stare. […] There’s no hint of melancholy in Forster’s delivery, nor sense of mourning among the crowd; [songwriting partner Grant McLennan’s death] happened three years ago, after all. I feel obscene for writing these words, like I’m prodding at Forster’s bruised heart for mentioning McLennan in this context. But more than the half-dozen times I’ve seen the man perform in the last few years, this stage configuration highlights the emotional distance between us and he. (Robert Forster @ QLD Art Gallery, September 2009)

    I mentioned earlier that I ‘fell into’ the descriptive style when writing for FasterLouder and street press because it’s the norm. It’s easy. It’s what the majority of street press writers do, and when I stepped into music writing, I paid a lot of attention to my peers within the local community. (I still do read street press, but now I find it most useful when viewed as a resource that highlights what not to do as a music writer.) [Clarification: I’m referring specifically to street press live reviews in this instance.]

    I feel that this style of writing is problematic purely because it is so safe. You can’t be wrong when you’re just listing songs played and key musical moments. I’m not saying that anyone can do that. More accurately, anyone familiar enough with a band and able to write coherently can do that.

    And if you can do that, if you want to call yourself a music writer or a music journalist – I alternate the two terms loosely, which may be problematic in itself – then that’s fine. You can get your name crossed off the list at the door and watch the band and write down the setlist in your notepad (or crib it from online forums) and write your little description and send it to your editor (who won’t fuck with your copy because it’s so inoffensive and beige) and get published and show your friends and perpetuate the delusion that you’re a worthwhile music writer just because you get published.

    If you’re reading this and getting pissed off, hey – I’ve been there. I was that person for nearly two years until I took this role seriously. (You can read more about that here – but I warn you, it’s reasonably incoherent.) Between July 2007 and May 2009, music ‘journalism’, to me, was putting my hand up to review shows that, 90% of the time, I knew I’d like. I’d show up with a friend and get my free tickets and have some drinks and maybe take some notes and if it was a weekend show, I’d write it up late on Sunday night to meet the Monday morning deadline. (I now write most reviews immediately afterwards.)

    If you view it in terms of free entertainment, as I did, there’s no problem. You might even embrace your mediocrity as a writer because hey, it’s a hobby, right? You can impress your friends by getting your named crossed off the guestlist. Seeing bands for free and getting paid (miserably) for it – the dream, right? High fives!

    After nearly two years, though, I could embrace my mediocrity no longer. You realise that publicists are quoting your published praise not because it’s good writing, but because your praise is so unashamedly hyperbolic that of course it’ll appear on the press release. Because at the time, as a ‘music writer’, I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware to realise that I was being so fucking immature.

    This is not to say that a good writer can’t praise a band. I still nominate to review shows by bands whose music I’m familiar with, and usually fond of. I’m not sure how to define it, but I think that an important self-realisation has to take place before a music writer can put aside the urge to praise and describe, and instead rely on gut instincts and feelings to shape their work. Still the best advice I’ve received is from Andrew Ramadge, who I think of whenever I write about music. The most important question I have to answer: what does it feel like?

    Returning to the Porcupine Tree review. It took me three or four hours to write, which is far longer than I’ve spent on any live review for Mess+Noise. In a way it feels like I’ve regressed, purely because of its length and my tendency to rely upon description instead of feel. As I’ve made clear, description without emotional engagement is for losers. There was some exposition about the potential hypocrisy of an internet-successful band disallowing the use of recording equipment, but as my first review for The Vine, I don’t feel that it’s particularly strong, or representative of my evolution as a writer.

    Why did I submit it if I wasn’t 100% happy with the outcome? I believe it’s because I was thrown by the show, and didn’t know how to write it any other way. I hadn’t seen a serious rock ‘production’ like that in some time, and while I was clearly impressed by the scope of their performance, I perhaps allowed myself to take the easy way out. I allowed my standards as a writer to drop, and I think it shows.

    Maybe I’m being over-cautious. Maybe I spent too long absorbed in a piece of writing that I can no longer tell whether it’s good or bad. (That happens sometimes.) What do you think? If you’ve read this far, I’d love your critical appraisal of my review, whether you’re familiar with Porcupine Tree or not.

  • If I Were An Unpublished Music Writer

    I’d start a blog and write about everything that excites and horrifies me about music.

    I’d write something worth publishing every day.

    I’d include visual elements that offer supporting evidence to each story.

    I’d watch and write about at least one live band every week.

    I’d rewrite what I wrote until the story was devoice of cliché, and I’d edit until only the story’s bare essentials remained.

    I didn’t know any of this when I decided to start writing about music in June 2007. I didn’t try to find the answers; I didn’t ask questions. I just wrote about some shows that I got to see for free, and thought that was reward in itself.

    I’ve changed, of course. I’m a better writer in that I’m less shit. I’m mindful of what I write. I finish a draft and immediately remove anything that I’d have written two years ago. This internal quality control requires discipline. It’s mentally exhausting. But the goal should always be to tell the story smartly and succinctly.

    I’d establish my favourite Australian music sites and study their best writers closely.

    I’d send the links to the best stories on my blog to the editors of my favourite sites every week.

    I’d send the links to the best stories on my blog to my favourite published music writers every week.

    I’d ignore street press and write for the web.

    Street press is a siren’s call to the young Australian music writer. The allure of free tickets and the anti-glamour of writing for a small group of passionate music fans captures many. I have no regrets of writing for street press: its influence afforded me many excellent musical experiences, and many opportunities to improve my writing. Of course, there’s the thrill of seeing your name in print for the first time. (It’s still a buzz, two-plus years on.)

    But I’d hope that there’s music writers younger than me who’ll shirk the notion that you’ve got to cut your teeth on street press and its fixed format. I won’t describe the benefits of writing about music on the web, as Andrew Ramadge already did that brilliantly.

    You can write for FasterLouder, who’ll publish your words in front of an audience in exchange for thanks. I wouldn’t discourage any music writer from beginning their journey there, as you’re mostly free to approach a story however you please. (Whether this is advantageous is up to you.)

    Or you can write for Mess+Noise, who’ll publish your words in front of an audience in exchange for money. The learning curve here for a street press- or FasterLouder-styled writer is steep, as I’ve discussed. They won’t publish just anything; the site’s reputation hinges on this ideal. But if you’re serious about this – becoming a music writer – the barrier to entry will inspire excellence in your work.

    (Note: This post was inspired by Shaun Prescott‘s ‘Flogging A Dead Horse… Still‘)

  • Drowned In Sound opinion piece: ‘RIP Music Journalism?’, July 2009

    Everett True, July 14:

    Hey Andrew

    Do you fancy bashing out 600w relating roughly to the changing role of the tastemaker music critic in web 2.0? I’m interested particularly on your own perspective, as a (relatively) new critic, trying to establish your own voice or authority via whatever means necessary (print/web). Does that appeal? No money, sorry. But plenty of kudos. Sigh.

    My response, July 17:

    I chose to become a music critic in Brisbane, Australia as a stupid 19-year old in June 2007, after reading a factually incorrect and otherwise poorly written review of a show that I’d attended. Two years later, I’d like to think that my critical analysis skills have markedly improved, but I’d probably be disappointed.

    I was surprised when Everett asked me to contribute to this topic. True and I have butted heads in the past, following that Guardian column with which you’re surely familiar. I experienced the same irrational reaction as most Australians who heard that he’d dismissed some of our so-called cultural icons (Silverchair, The Vines et al) – and felt some vague, nationalistic desire to defend the attack on our musicians.

    With tentative maturity, I’m able to step back and realise that True’s column evoked the role of the music critic in its purest form. Ignoring the overused angle that this was an Englishman taking swipes at Australians, True’s words raised the nation’s ire because he had the balls to embrace the true role of the music critic – a role which I rarely embody, voluntarily. And therein lies the original complaint: that so few are willing to write what so many feel.

    I am a diluted version of the tastemaker critic with which older readers will identify – and which True became during his time at NME, Melody Maker and Plan B – largely because I tend to only write about music that excites me. While I agree there’s something to be gained by fairly critiquing half-baked or undeservingly over-exposed acts, it’s a writing style that I’ve distanced myself from. And, as True correctly surmised, so has the majority of Australia’s music press.

    There’s an enlightening article by Andrew Ramadge on the Australian music website Mess+Noise that discusses the broader causes and effects of the dearth of honest criticism in Australian street press – that is, the free, ad-filled newspapers you pick up off the street. Ramadge’s piece belongs at the heart of this discussion, as it highlights the increasing divide between print and online music journalism.

    “One of the most important roles of music journalists is to record the history, or create the folklore, of a particular time – to give music a context and a narrative,” Ramadge wrote. So to be a music journalist in the first place, you’ve got to want to to tell stories. It was this desire that led me down this career path – and I should point out that music writing has finally become a personal career-of-sorts, after I viewed it as a mere hobby for nearly two years.

    But – why write about music in the first place? This is a topic that other writers have already touched upon this week. It surely wasn’t about money when I began. I was first published on the Australian music website FasterLouder, who pay none of their hundreds-strong contributor pool across the nation. It’s an excellent business model – pay nothing, receive content for free – but the low stakes often mirror the quality of writing. I attempted to rail against the apathy and mediocrity by writing long, descriptive live reviews that maximised the benefits of the online format. With debatable success.

    At the same time, I began writing for one of Brisbane’s street press, Rave Magazine. Ramadge’s article suggested: “In many cases [street press] writers are paid as little as five cents per word for a story, and nothing for a review, with the CD or concert ticket considered payment in itself.” To say that Rave’s pay rates were modest would be understatement. Again, it’s a labour of love, but there’s only so much to be gained from adhering to the same format each week. Another of online publishing’s benefits.

    Mr True was also startled to learn that in two years writing for street press and FasterLouder, I’d never had a rewrite request. It wasn’t until I progressed to Mess+Noise that I was pulled up for sub-par copy. This is an extremely niche example based on my experience, but I’m supposing that this unwillingness for time-poor editors to provide guidance and advice to their writers may be symptomatic of a trend throughout Australia.

    While there’ll always be those who are willing to write passionately for free, one eventually reaches a point where $0 – or close enough – can’t cut it anymore. I’d wager that this is a feeling with which most music journalists will be familiar. Right, Everett?

    Print revenue streams are drying up, while online publishing is in a cautious period of course-correction. To quote Ramadge once more: “[the low pay rates] make it difficult for magazines to retain talented writers as their career progresses, or their costs of living rise.”

    There’s no money in this column. There’s no money in Everett’s guest edit. We do this because we love it. I’m far from a miser, but some money on occasional would be nice. As a freelance writer in Australia with an interest in music, there are few profitable avenues. There are only so many publications that’ll pay for well-researched, well-written music journalism, and they’re steadily decreasing.

    Where does this leave the state of music journalism, in the mind of this 21-year old Australian? It’s a given, but you’ve got to do it because you love it, first and foremost. Don’t ever expect thanks in return for your writing; indeed, do your best to expect nothin’ from nobody. That way, it’s hard to be disappointed.

    But do pursue passionate communities organised around a love of music and writing, such as Drowned In Sound. Do start a blog that acts as your portfolio. Do send your work to those who may gain something from it. Do write wherever you can, and do be prepared to write for free.

    After all, you’re a music journalist. You love it. Don’t you?

    Read the rest of the ‘RIP Music Journalism?‘ series on Drowned In Sound. Thanks for the invitation to give my input, Everett!

  • Andrew Humbled By Hungry Kids Of Hungary

    I received my first rewrite request last week.

    I’ve been writing for Rave Magazine, a Brisbane street press, since June 2007. I wrote for FasterLouder, an Australian music site, from the same time until February 2009. I started with Mess+Noise in April 2009.

    The rewrite request was from the Mess+Noise Editor, Darren Levin, who wasn’t happy with the copy I’d submitted for a review of Brisbane band Hungry Kids Of Hungary‘s EP, Mega Mountain.

    My original submission:

    See that mountain? It's mega, apparently.Hungry Kids Of Hungary – Mega Mountain

    4 track, EP (2009, Independent)

    The Beach Boys. The Beatles. Now that we’ve got those two very obvious influences on Hungry Kids Of Hungary’s sound out of the way, let’s discuss their music. The Brisbane locals exhibit indie pop that’s just as bright and colourful as their cover artwork. The four members make no apologies for their pursuits of strong vocal melodies in the style of past greats, and nor should they: this is an engaging second release from a promising act.

    Disc opener Two Stones is a well-paced, keyboard-led track that features vocal input from all members. These combined vocal harmonies – used repeatedly, yet sparingly throughout these four songs – are one of the act’s strongest assets. Two Stones dissolves into a vocal melody that’s mirrored by a guitar, until the band’s post-song applause and hoots are punctuated by the sound of drumsticks counting in the next track. Goddamn, I love it when bands do that. It’s an effective tool to create a sense of coherence, and Hungry Kids do it well.

    Second track and lead single Scattered Diamonds is a disarmingly brilliant pop song. Its bass, floor-tom and clean guitar introduction set the tone for an exceptionally catchy romp through the band’s narrated weekend. Enchanting harmonies and a xylophone appear a minute into the track, by which time you’re already nodding your head and humming the melody. That they can pull off a bass-led, bottle-clinking interlude and maintain the listener’s interest argues a strong case for their adept songwriting skills. “You want it? You got it all,” the band repeatedly suggest. It’s this sense of humility and lack of pretension that endears the listener to their cause.

    The disc’s latter half is subdued: Old Money is another keyboard-heavy tune that positively drags when compared to the wholly engaging pop of the previous two tunes. The Kids close with Good Times, which picks up speed across four minutes before climaxing amid cymbals and ‘whoa-oh-oh’s. All that’s left wanting with this release is an increased coherence between these two tracks and the opening duo, whose sheer likability trumps any doubts regarding the quartet’s pop proficiency.

    Darren replied:

    Hey Andrew,
    I think you might need to have another crack at this one mate. It’s a bit too streetpress/FasterLouder for our readership. 
    First, the review’s far too basic; a song by song description of the album with no flair or critical edge. Have a look at some of the reviews on our site to see what we’re after.
    If you need any pointers, let me know. 


    I was taken aback. What? Something that I submitted isn’t good enough for publication?

    This is what two years of writing for street press and FasterLouder had done to my ego. Due to the comparably lower standards of those publications – the week churn and demand of street press, and FasterLouder’s seemingly laissez-faire attitude to content – I’d come to believe that everything I submitted was fit for publication, just because I had taken the time to sit down and write it.

    Or more importantly, during those two years, I’d received little other than either silence or praise. I took the former to mean the latter. 

    I’m not proud to admit that I reacted irrationally to Darren’s rewrite request. While I do my best to remain calm and in control at all times, I probably swore and frowned at the screen. I didn’t reply to him for several days, even while knowing that as a freelance writer, silence toward an editor will rarely achieve a desired outcome.

    My desired outcome was to continue believing that everything I write is golden, and that my editor was wrong, rather than to start afresh and rewrite a review of a disc that I liked, but probably wouldn’t listen to very often.


    After a couple hours stewing on my rejection – sob – I emailed Andrew Ramadge, a fellow Mess+Noise (and Sydney Morning Herald, and The Brag) writer whose work I greatly admire.

    Hullo Mr Ramadge,

    I’ve run into a mite of trouble with an EP review I submitted last week.

    Now, I am a bit lost here. Sure, my review was mostly positive, but that’s because I really liked it. Especially the first two tracks. In terms of artistic vision, Hungry Kids are remarkably accomplished for a band so young.

    So is my rewrite a matter of introducing the (few) negative aspects first, before admitting that it is really quite good? This seems like a rather backwards, dishonest way to write. Counter-intuitive.

    Your help appreciated,


    He responded with:

    Hi Andrew,

    It’s not a bad review. As Darren says, the problem is more the style. That’s a review I would expect to read in street press, not really Mess+Noise.

    In a nutshell, it’s because it reads like it was written by a musician.

    These are the musician words, in order: “keyboard, vocal harmonies, vocal melody, guitar, applause, drumsticks, bass, floor-tom, clean guitar, harmonies, xylophone, bass-led, keyboard-heavy, cymbals”.

    Some of those are necessary, of course — I’m not suggesting you never say “keyboard” in a review!! — but in general it sounds like you are describing the songs by relying too heavily on just describing the instruments used.

    So, as a reader, I get a hint of what it sounds like, but the question you don’t answer is: what does it feel like?

    Why does it sound like The Beach Boys? Is it because it has themes of young love or sunshine or US nostalgia? Or is it simply the instruments and melodies used? If it is just the latter, and not the themes / feelings, then what other themes of their own are Hungry Kids Of Hungary exploring? Same question for The Beatles.

    If you find yourself stuck writing about that — and you might be, not every album makes you picture something or feel something — then perhaps tell us a bit more about who Hungry Kids are or how they formed or how they fit into the Brisbane musical landscape instead. Give us a bit of context.

    Also there are a few cliche no-nos in there: “well-paced”, “promising act”, “disarmingly brilliant”, “exceptionally catchy”, “enchanting harmonies”.

    You’ll notice most of those have the same two-word format. I’m sure there’s some technical term for it but I don’t know it. :P

    As an exercise, try doing one of two things when you catch yourself using those double-ups. Either use one word only — “brilliant” instead of “disarmingly brilliant” — and use them sparingly, so that the one word means quite a lot. Sort of a minimalist approach.

    The other option is just to expand on the idea. If the harmonies are “enchanting”, and it’s worth saying so, then tell me exactly why. What is it about them that is enchanting? What sort of desire does it provoke in you?

    Hope that helps.

    If you’re a little bruised, it will pass — from experience, I can say that there is nothing better than an editor that pushes you to do better, even though it’s a pain in the arse at the time.



    That’s some awesome advice. My ego = humbled.

    Andrew made me realise that I still write like a flaming imbecile fairly regularly. The regularlity’s decreasing, I think. And as much as be called out for writing like an idiot hurts at the time, it’s definitely for the better.

    Days later, I listened to the disc with fresh ears – and, perhaps most importantly, without distraction – and realised that I’d barely registered the lyrics while writing my review. So I focussed on that aspect, because there’s little else to fault musically. 

    Here’s what I came up with.

    See that mountain? It's mega, apparently.Hungry Kids Of Hungary – Mega Mountain

    4 track, EP (2009, Independent)

    Is it too much to ask for meaningful lyrics in pop music? Perhaps it’s folly to compare the lyrical output of Brisbane’s Hungry Kids Of Hungary to the oversexed, plastic tripe that features throughout the ARIA charts. But how many years of writing and performance did it take for pop visionaries The Beatles to overcome their fixation on girls, love and days of the week, or The Beach Boys to write songs about something more than surfing? Although musically proficient, the lyrics of the four songs on this EP dissolve under a critical microscope.

    Non-sequiturs and a dead-end narrative haunt ‘Old Money’ which, “Goes a long way/But not long enough to shake that frown.” I can’t tell if they’re singing about worldwide decline in newspaper sales, but it seems plausible: “Still the readers of these publications buy/But now Daddy’s overseeing/So maybe this time.” As awkward as these words appear out of context, their enthusiastic in-song delivery matches Hungry Kids’ uncomplicated keyboard-driven pop perfectly.

    This is an easily enjoyable release from the Brisbane quartet, who first came to attention with their self-titled 2008 EP. Producer Matt Redlich captures an undoubtedly relaxed studio environment: the band cheer between takes, clink bottles mid-song (see the bass interlude of single ‘Scattered Diamonds’) and lean into the microphone for those sweet Beach Boys harmonies. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the majority of the band’s attention was spent on composition and harmony, instead of the words between.

    Darren’s feedback:

    mate, it’s much better! it actually tells the reader something; it’s not just a track by track summation, but an analysis of why the album is good/isn’t good.
    almost like a different person wrote it — i like this andrew more ;)


    This exchange and rewrite exercise taught me more about music writing than nearly two years writing elsewhere. And I’m not suggesting that my other editors’ lack of critical feedback is a failure on their part.

    But consider the force with which Darren’s request hit me. The couple of lines that he typed were the biggest reality check I’ve had as a writer so far. And I can’t thank him enough for that.

  • A Conversation With Shan Welham, Queensland Editor

    shan_welhamShan Welham (aka QueenNahs) is Queensland‘s newest (FL) state editor. FL is a popular Australian rock music portal whose coverage is divided into six key Australian city centres. Shan assumed the role in January 2009 and now guides the creative contributions of over 40 keen writers and photographers through the south-east corner of Queensland.

    Hey Shan, congrats on the shiny new FL QLD editor badge! I gotta know – what was your motivation behind applying? I understand you’re working this around a full-time job; are you driven to make a difference to a popular Australian music portal.. or just a sucker for stress, punishment and a sleep deficit?

    Thanks Andrew.  I thought long and hard about whether I really wanted this role as there were many things to consider.

    You’ve pretty much answered the reasons why I was debating it with myself and also the reason why I chose to give it a shot and apply – namely, the full-time job and the sacrifice of time with my partner and friends, versus the opportunity to do what I have always wanted: help those who share that passion increase their contribution, develop their skills and demonstrate that there’s a real melting pot of talent here in Brisbane, on and off the stage.

    The goal: to help all contributors, and the site, reach their potential. And here I am!

    The professional skills I have developed in my 9-5 corporate leadership position provide a strong grounding in building and leading teams, organising events, and the like.  But it’s not just me that will make the difference to FL QLD – there’s a whole team who are working hard to achieve this aim. Finding a balance is my next challenge, as with any change program, it takes a great deal of time and effort at the outset.

    But if there’s a strategy, a plan to execute and a willing and motivated team, the results will come – and already the lack of sleep feels very worthwhile!

    I like that the job was advertised on-site and that the community was encouraged to discuss the suitability of potential applicants within the QLD portal. Did you enjoy the trial-by-media process? Judging by the public support you received before you were appointed, it seemed to work in your favour!

    The support was very humbling, really. However I don’t feel it was necessarily a defining factor in FL / Sound Alliance‘s [note: FL’s parent company] decision to appoint me, as there were many equally qualified and community-supported.

    FL were very clear about the aims they have for Brisbane in 2009 and the type of person they needed to achieve them.  I guess they embraced my ideas and saw what they were after in me.

    To be very honest, the appreciation that I’ve had come my way since starting this role has been surprising. It gives me a sense of pride that I hope to instill in everyone!

    As a national music portal, FasterLouder occupies a particular role within the Australian web community. How do you perceive its role, and how would you like to see it develop during your tenure?

    FasterLouder presents itself as the go-to portal for interesting rock music information and a sense of music community; however, I feel it only skims the surface right now.  As on online presence, it’s about accessibility, the swiftness of delivery of breaking news, reviews of music releases, retelling and photography of live performances etc while providing a medium for social networking, discussion and free expression.

    fl_logoSpeaking for myself when coming aboard in January 2009, the focus appeared to reflect a very southern-states centric vibe; that is, a lot of stories from Sydney and Melbourne or even moreso on the international… and not in any great depth. Though perhaps this is a product of the medium and our shrinking attention spans.

    There’s so much happening locally in Brisbane: we’ve got more than our share of amazing musicians, artists, bands, venues, exhibitions, studios, labels and people in general in this scene. They need to be represented and celebrated.  I am working with all interested team members and people in the local industry to increase the coverage of local gigs, news items and encouraging more in-depth articles and photographic assignments in the region.

    I’m always happy to make more contacts and hear from more people. The aim is for FL’s Brisbane/Gold Coast pages to be the primary online resource for current, relevant, quality information, writing and photography, that sense of community with a very Brisbane / south-east QLD sensibility.  It’s a long way before we’ll be Queensland’s answer to Pitchfork, but we’ve a pretty good place to start!

    It’s widely known that FasterLouder contributors operate on a volunteer basis. What effect do you think this has on the quality of the writing and photography that appears on the site?

    There was a disgruntled contributor who wrote to me when I first started who complained about not getting certain gigs, and having to purchase CDs and the like themselves in order to contribute.  They asked to be removed as a contrib, especially as they had an ethos of journalism being a solo occupation.

    I found this quite odd, as after after three years of writing for FL and knowing that if you worked hard, covered a range of gigs and delivered consistently, then the spoils of free CDs to review, interviews and those coveted gigs would come your way.  Additionally, media is a team like any other – promoters need media who need writers who need editors and publishers, presenters need cameramen and sound guys, and so forth.

    I may be jumping like a CD with a scratch, but this is a team effort and anyone who is keen will be embraced and supported. For some it’s about the gig tickets, for others it’s an opportunity to get a leg up into the ‘paid’ music media through experience and a demonstrable portfolio of work.

    shan_2For myself, I didn’t feel so much like a volunteer unless the gigs were free or an $8 local show. $35-$130+ priced tickets (often with a free plus-one) is a nice little sum for a couple of hours writing about what you saw, smelt and heard.  Plus there are generally some freebies – such as those where tickets are available gratis, where no review or photos are required – along the way as “thanks” and a show of appreciation.  I intend to up the ante in this regard while I’m in the hot seat.  I am working to ensure the team feel appreciated in different and measurable ways.

    For photographers, it’s a bit different. I feel they’re undervalued in terms of their contribution in promotional material, especially considering the limited time they get to enjoy the performances (or payment when it’s very seldom applicable).  Most work extremely hard, spending a great deal of time, money and effort on their chosen profession – or passionate side-project.  I can’t imagine how much it used to cost to get a professional-quality set of photos done and out to thousands of people almost immediately.. or even if it was possible, as it is now.

    The proliferation of free online commentary, photography and other media content serves to diminish the commercial value of these art forms and skills.  It’s tough when Art (capital A as a professional passion) rarely pays much/at all, especially in this business.  This is the way the world is unfortunately – sweat the asset.   For FL to not be in the red and to pay more staff, the commercialism that’s already present would need to become pervasive and voluminous. I believe this happening would damage the site’s credibility.  Just like when your favourite underground, no-commercial-airplay song somehow ends up on a micro car ad

    Now, as to quality.  Honestly?  Hit and miss.

    But that’s all part of people having and refining their own ‘voices’ and skills.  Development of talent is something that FL should look to do much more of, and that’s why I’m starting some writing and photography workshops in the near future for contribs – an idea which has been warmly welcome, particularly by the photographers – to help impart the learnings and skill of those who I would call the more “senior”, experienced contributors.

    I’d be absolutely ecstatic to have anyone whose talents I help develop at FL land work with radio, or such publications like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Q, NME and – my personal favourite and type of voice I aspire to – The Word.

    I’m interested in the ‘voice’ that you endeavour to portray in your writing. Can you elaborate on your personal style, and discuss the kind of music writing that turns you on? Proverbially, of course..

    Something that’s real, knowledgeable and insightful without snobbery or affectation, has integrity and always strives for an edge – with a great sense of humour.   I’ve really gotten into reading The Word in the last 12 months. Rob Fitzpatrick is a gemini wordsmith after my own heart.

    Though your career finds you managing srs bsnss operations, you’re effectively wrangling a bunch of hyperactive young’uns in this new role. Which is easier – rational, boring suits, or creative, driven youths – and of the current FL QLD stable, whose work is shining brightest?

    Fortunately when reigning from 9-5 corporate battlements I choose my own brave knights to fight the wars.  This makes it easy.  Plus, they’re in the same realm, so they understand the pressures of competing priorities while being time-poor.

    With the rapscallions of FasterLouder, you don’t get to choose, but if I did have to, I’d certainly select the greater majority of the “regulars” – they’re all so motivated, enthused and awesomely talented. As well as being super-nice people! I wish FL was a profitable exercise and they could be paid in more than free gigs and promotional oddities from HQ. It’s fairly evident that the younger contribs don’t quite appreciate how much time goes into this role and maybe don’t know that it’s not my only occupation!

    In this world of instant gratification, it’s a challenge to communicate with everyone from all the various media and social-networking sites we’re ‘expected’ to maintain!  But that’s okay… they’ll learn in time that quality is what counts…

    As you may have gleaned from your interaction with me and what’s happening with the FL site, I encourage active collaboration and participation – that is, empowering those who are working “for” me to take the lead where the opportunities present.

    I’m not here to get all the kudos and opportunities myself, I’m here to find them for my team and support them in their development however I can.  They’re all doing so well that I’d say the regulars all take their turn to shine.  It’s the way it should be.

    Alright, I suppose that I should ask you about your musical past, given that you’re now editing a frickin’ music site. This is where you flaunt your fantastic taste, boast about legendary shows witnessed and describe which sounds you’re currently fond of, from the streets of Brisbane to worldwide. Go!

    Far out.  I could go on for ages… Here’s what I put on my resume for FL:

    • Attend 2-3 live music performances per week, generally these are local up and coming bands in small or underground venues. Eg. Hangar, guerilla gigs (eg Art’s building alley), Ric’s, local pubs.
    • Travel regularly for significant events – eg. Sigur Ros’ release of Heima and live performance in Melbourne 2007; Air at the Hard Rock Hotel, Las Vegas 2007.

    Shan hearts Mogwai

    Have attended the following music festivals:

    Which sounds I’m currently fond of?  Too eclectic to give a comprehensive listing..!  Let’s just say I have a very wide range of tastes, jazz (like to sing it a lot) through blues to rockabilly & psycho billy to pure rock, prog to post to post-post, desert, stoner & electronic ambient (still don’t get math so much), LOVE psyche & shoe-gaze indie, oh… man the list just grows!

    My favourite band of all time without question is The Beta Band.  I cried like those who disintegrated when Elvis or John Lennon were shot on the news of their demise.  Seriously.  I had to leave work, assume The Caterpillar’s position and lose myself in their sounds for two days. I almost flew to the UK to catch their last show at some summer festival over there.  My one true regret… I should have bought those tickets and boarded that plane.  Now I console myself with rarities, The Aliens and King Biscuit Time to mix it all up…

    Locally?  I really dig Idle Cranes and Restream… whatever Tim Steward does always pulls my attention as well… oh and my friend Richie’s rocka/psychobilly band Zebra Rodeo is always a tonne of fun, Richie’s voice is a delight.  I don’t have the chance to get out as much as I used to since I’ve taken on this role, which is a shame really… but it’s for a good cause!

    Re: other musical dabbling – I’d send you a shot of the band room in our house, but there’s a shit load of equipment, including some tasty vintage items… so… yeah… *puts hand up to the camera lens* “no pictures!”

    Finally: got any hot tips for 2009?

    Split various chilis length-ways and put them open in an oven tray with your roasting vegetables, cover with oil and roast as normal. The chili spice will infuse through the vegetables – yum!

    Oh, and hit the FL QLD home page… there’ll be a hell of a lot more Brisbane content than ever before!!

    FasterLouder Queensland is forever searching for enthusiastic young music writers and photographers. If you’d like to gain experience in either of those fields and you live in south-east Queensland, you should email Shan Welham.

  • Describing The Mars Volta

    I saw The Mars Volta perform at the Brisbane Convention Centre last night. I’d elected to review the show for FasterLouder a month ago. In the weeks leading up to the show, the enormity of my task became apparent. That is, to describe the performance of an eight-piece experimental, progressive rock band in a few hundred words.

    I should point out that writing about music is not new to me. I’ve been paid to do it for a year. I’ve written about some popular international acts, both at festivals and in separate shows. Of all my writing, I’m most proud of my Laneway Festival review for FasterLouder in March 2008. A dozen acts and the vibe of the festival itself covered in 2300 words.

    Last night was different. For the first time since reviewing The Drones in October 2007, I was a little afraid of the task before me. I was nervous before that show because it was my first 500 word feature review. I’d never written that much for Rave Magazine at the time, though I’d previously written 1900 words for FasterLouder when covering Pig City in July 2007. In retrospect, my trepidation before The Drones was entirely baseless.

    Returning to The Mars Volta. I’d been aware of them for several years and made a few attempts to dig their style, but only made a concerted effort in late 2007 when it dawned on me that Relationship Of Command by At The Drive-In might just be my favourite album. The creative brains of At The Drive-In, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, formed what is now known as The Mars Volta following the demise of ATDI in 2001.

    Their reputation precedes them. They are well-known for their explosive and lengthy shows comprised largely of improvisational jam sessions. Their music is rooted in progressive rock with elements of jazz and funk, though it is difficult (and erroneous) to pin them to any specific genre.

    I sat watching them for two and a half hours, almost entirely transfixed on the band. I took no notes. I went out after the show, but my mind was filled with the sounds and images of their performance even when I awoke the next morning.

    Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Someone once said that – probably not Elvis Costello, though it’s generally attributed to him.

    I’m well aware of the responsibility that a music reviewer has when describing a concert. I’m well aware that this responsibility is very often tied to appearing pretentious. The opportunity to embody a voice who is (often) perceived as an authoritative figure within the music industry – that is, a critic – is not, and will never be lost on me.

    I value the opportunity to critically reflect on the music of bands just as much as I value the perks. I don’t have to pay for shows. But I’m responsible for the words that appear above my name. I always endeavour to write what I would like to read as a music fan. I am my own quality control. I can’t submit poor copy because I won’t let me.

    I struggled with the task before me today. It took 800 words and several hours for me to describe The Mars Volta in the live environment. References to the crowd and myself were minimal because neither of those responses mattered during this show. It was entirely about the music they created on stage. That we were present to witness their creation was something of a happy coincidence.

    Okay, that previous statement was entirely bullshit. I jest, I jest. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that they’re people who like to get paid, just like the rest of us.

    Anyway, I’d like to think that I painted an interesting picture, but the brush is now out of my hands.

    So, how did I do?