All posts tagged music-journalism

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Showcase: Tkay Maidza’, October 2016

    A short artist profile for Good Weekend‘s ‘showcase’ section. The full story appears below.

    Showcase – Tkay Maidza

    Artist Showcase – Tkay Maidza by Andrew McMillen in Good Weekend, 2016. Photo by Paul Harris

    Wearing an extra-large Boston Celtics basketball jersey and towering black platform boots, hip-hop artist Tkay Maidza is bound to attract every eye in the room. It’s close to midnight on a Wednesday night in Brisbane in September, seven weeks before her debut album is released, and Maidza is performing alongside her drummer and DJ to 300 fans as part of the Bigsound music festival. Even with the boots and the raised stage, Maidza is only a little taller than the faithful in the front row. But what she lacks in stature, she more than makes up with lyrical ability and vocal dexterity.

    In Fortitude Valley, a guerrilla marketing campaign is underway: Maidza, 20, appears on posters that bear only her face and her first name, or at least the abbreviated version of it. Born Takudzwa Victoria Rosa Maidza in Zimbabwe, she has lived in Australia since she was five: first Perth, then Kalgoorlie, on to Whyalla and then Adelaide, where her parents still live.

    The transient nature of her upbringing is reflected in her career as a touring musician. Maidza’s travel schedule sees her constantly playing festivals and shows across Europe, the UK and the US. “I don’t really live anywhere,” she tells Good Weekend in a Fortitude Valley cafe prior to her headline performance. “I think it’s cool, because I’m always seeing something new. I’ve been okay with moving to a new city and having to make new friends, because I never settled anywhere, so I learnt not to be attached.”

    Maidza graduated from high school at 16 and began studying architecture at university, before her YouTube covers and early demos – including the earworm track Brontosaurus – caught the attention of record labels here and overseas. Her debut album, Tkay, is an accomplished and balanced showcase of her songwriting in two styles: electronic pop and hip-hop.

    “I know you feel the heat because I’m nothing less than fire,” she raps on lead single Carry On, which features a guest verse by acclaimed American rapper Killer Mike. “I’ve always been a fan of rappers that rap really fast,” she says, beaming. “I’m a person who has a really short attention span, so I want something that twists, or something you don’t expect.”

    Just then, a young girl walks past the cafe and briefly makes eye contact with Maidza. Etched into the girl’s  T-shirt are four letters that Australia will soon be seeing plenty more of. “Oh my God,” Maidza whispers, equally thrilled and embarrassed. “She has a Tkay shirt on!”

    Above photograph by Paul Harris.

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘In From The Cold: Vivica Genaux’, April 2016

    A story for The Weekend Australian Review, which appeared on the cover of the April 2-3 issue. Excerpt below.

    In From The Cold

    Vivica Genaux: from an Alaskan log cabin to the world stage

    ++

    The Weekend Australian Review cover story: 'In From The Cold: Vivica Genaux' by Andrew McMillen, April 2016For a girl raised in Alaska, traditional gender stereotypes tended to be trumped by practicality. Jewellery, make-up and flashy clothing are much less important than staying warm or, say, learning how to quickly change a car tyre during a nine-month winter. It’s a harsh environment that demands self-reliance and resilience from its inhabitants. So it was for Vivica Genaux, one of the world’s leading mezzosopranos, who spent her first 17 years living in a log cabin in a valley outside the town of Fairbanks.

    Today home to a metro population of 97,000, Fairbanks is commonly known as America’s coldest city, where temperatures sometimes drop below minus 50C. “Growing up in Alaska, you had to be useful and functional, more than masculine or feminine,” she says. “You had to be strong and capable of confronting difficult environmental situations.” Old habits die hard: despite a successful and acclaimed career in the performing arts, Genaux still prides herself on an ability to solve problems and fix things — “Duct tape is a big thing in Alaska!” — and carrying a Swiss Army knife everywhere, just in case. Except when carrying luggage on to an aircraft, of course.

    Her home-town climate meant the young girl had to become comfortable with spending most of her time indoors, encased within the warmth of four walls. Genaux was drawn to artistic expression from a young age: she experimented with dance, pottery, stained glass-making, ballet, orchestra and jazz choir. Big band practice was scheduled before school. While some of her friends missed class for days on end due to being snowed in, Genaux’s mother taught high-school English and foreign languages, so absenteeism was never an option. “My mum had to be at school at 7am anyway, so I might as well do something,” she recalls with a laugh. “I’d get up at six o’clock, and there was Orion — which has always been my favourite constellation — smack-dab in front of me as I walked out into the 40-below.”

    One art form that didn’t take with the young performer was opera. She was no stranger to classical music; she played violin for nine years in the school orchestra, and her father — a biochemistry professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — would listen to symphonies as he graded papers. Opera was where she drew the line, though: Genaux’s vacuuming duties not-so-coincidentally overlapped with her mother tuning into Met Opera broadcasts. “I hated it!” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about opera. I always completely avoided it when I was growing up. But when I started singing, I learned that it was so much fun as a form of expression. I just loved it. There was an opportunity for expressing anything, and as a nervous, timid, shy girl, I found that I could really get my guts into it.”

    Call it fate or fortune but the music worked its way into Genaux’s heart, and this happy pairing has been humanity’s gain. She studied at Indiana University, where she received a bachelors degree in vocal performance, before spending five summers in Italy with the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers of Opera. Her career as a recording and performing artist began at age 24, and more than two decades later, this voice from the cold has built an extraordinary repertoire of baroque and bel canto music. She has inspired words such as these from The New York Times in 2006: “Her voice is as striking as her looks: less striking, even, for the light, free upper notes or rich chocolatey lower ones than for the runs of coloratura that she releases with jackhammer speed, gunfire precision and the limpid continuity of spring raindrops.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Man In Black: Ben Salter’, June 2015

    A short profile for the June 27-28 issue of Qweekend magazine.

    Man In Black

    Ben Salter likes to blend in with the crowd but, with a singing voice like his, that’s not going to happen.

    Qweekend story: 'Man In Black: Ben Salter' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photography by Russell Shakespeare

    When performing in public, Ben Salter wears an all-black get-up, including a suit jacket, more often than not. There are a few reasons for this. One, it’s a hangover from his early career busking in a black-clad trio. Two, it takes the decision out of what to wear. And three, it’s a way to casually fit into practically any stratum of society, whether he finds himself on a farm, on a plane, or in inner-north Brisbane, sitting in a Fortitude Valley cafe not far from the Brunswick Street venues where he has performed hundreds of times.

    “I just want to be anonymous,” he says, wearing black spectacles beneath his trademark mop of curly brown hair. “I want to be one of those characters who can blend into the background and be the ‘everyperson’.”

    The irony of this third reason, however, is that as soon as he steps on stage and opens his mouth, the sounds that he makes are the exact opposite of background noise. Few other performers in the country can turn heads like Townsville-born songwriter Ben Salter, whose striking voice – as capable of full-throated roar as sweetly-sung harmony – was earned through grit and graft, busking in the Queen Street Mall four days a week for six years. “He’s an enormous singer,” says his friend Tim Rogers, frontman of esteemed Melbourne rock band You Am I. “He’s got the right amount of burr and purr. He could sing anything, and I’d believe him.”

    Salter, 38, has just released his second solo album, The Stars My Destination, on ABC Music. It is only the most recent collection of stunning songs that he has penned since moving to Brisbane and embedding himself deep inside the city’s independent music scene by fronting an array of bands, including hard-rock quartet Giants of Science and, later, nine-member pop collective The Gin Club, which in 2013 celebrated its tenth year of existence.

    At the beginning of 1994, ahead of starting his final year of high school, Salter rode 24 hours in a bus from Townsville to attend the Big Day Out music festival at the Gold Coast Parklands. The self-taught guitarist and admitted “total nerd” was most excited to see Seattle grunge band Soundgarden, but instead had his mind peeled open by another American rock act, the Smashing Pumpkins, whose landmark album Siamese Dream had been released a few months earlier. “They just blew me away,” he says. “I was like, ‘I want to do that’. I was already into music, but after that, I was obsessed.”

    After starting a Bachelor of Arts at James Cook University in 1995, Salter moved south two years later, ostensibly to continue his studies at the University of Queensland. In reality, however, most of his attention was invested in playing in as many bands as possible. (It took him ten years to graduate.) This open-hearted attitude led him to the Queen Street Mall, where under the name Trampoline, Salter and two friends busked without amplification, relying on the quality of their vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar interplay to attract, on a good day, $150 each for two hours’ work. Though the work was rewarding for the trio – who started with Crowded House, Neil Young and Simon & Garfunkel covers, before eventually settling on playing Beatles tunes exclusively – it wasn’t entirely hazard-free. “I used to stamp my foot on the ground to try and make a rhythm,” says Salter. “And on two occasions I had doctors come past and say, ‘You’re gonna wreck your knees if you keep doing that’. Then they’d say, ‘But you guys are great!’ and give us money,” he laughs.

    The Stars My Destination borrows its title from a 1956 novel by Alfred Bester, an American science fiction author. Salter is proud of its 11 songs, and rightfully so. “I think the title track and ‘No Security Blues’ are two of the best songs I’ve ever written,” he says. “When I studied literature, there’s this amazing essay by T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent, which is about reaching a mature point where you stop writing from an emotional point of view, and you start being detached. That’s when you can really resonate with people. I don’t think I’ve quite got to that, but I’m starting to.”

    Qweekend story: 'Man In Black: Ben Salter' by Andrew McMillen, June 2015. Photography by Russell ShakespeareThe album’s final track, ‘No Security Blues’, is a darkly humorous ode to Salter’s comparative wealth, despite the challenges of earning a living through voice, pen and guitar. “I have 99 problems,” he sings. “But they are not real problems.”

    “Compared to most of the world’s population, I’ve got it easy,” says Salter. “I’m on easy street. Just being born in this country, to middle-class parents, with opportunities coming out of my arse…” He pauses, smiling. “I don’t have a lot of time for musicians whingeing about how hard they’ve got it.”

    His friend Rogers offers an alternative perspective: “Ben’s got this God-given talent, but I know that he feels fortunate. He’s played so much around the world; there could be 100 people there, or there could be one, and he’ll put on the same show. He’s born to do it.”

    ++

    Ben Salter plays The Spotted Cow, Toowoomba, Fri 16 July; Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, Sat 17 July; The Bison Bar, Nambour, Sun 18 July. bensalter.com.au

    Photography by Russell Shakespeare.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘The Last Page’ Q+A with Sticky Fingers, March 2015

    An interview for Rolling Stone‘s regular ‘Last Page’ feature, which appears at the back of the magazine. The full Q+A appears below.

    The Last Page: Paddy Cornwall of Sticky Fingers

    We catch up with Sticky Fingers’ bassist Paddy Cornwall ahead of the band’s Groovin The Moo shows in April and May.

    Rolling Stone story: 'The Last Page' Q+A with Sticky Fingers by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    The last album I loved
    Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs. I put it on pretty much every day. It’s good to wake up to, it’s good to have sex to; it’s good for everything. I saw them at Oxford Art Factory at the start of last year; I hadn’t heard them before, but I was watching them and a schooner glass literally slipped out of my hand.

    The last time I Googled myself
    I haven’t Googled my name for a long time, but I Google the band’s name in different areas a bit, because obviously we’re competing with a pretty famous Rolling Stones album, as well as a plethora of other things called Sticky Fingers, like [former Stones bassist] Bill Wyman’s ribs restaurant in London, or a chain of day-care centres. For the band’s first three or four years, it was interesting to even be found [online], but I think we’re killing it now.

    The last time I shouted at the telly
    Probably at something like The Voice or Australian Idol. I just feel like it’s giving me brain cancer. [Laughs]

    The last time someone mistook me for someone else
    Last night at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown, a group of dudes were sitting next to us, working up the courage to come and ask me something. A guy came and said, “Hey, are you the guy from Tame Impala?” And I said, “Yeah.” They were happy with that.

    The last time I was starstruck
    When I met Noel Gallagher at the Big Day Out when he was touring with the High Flying Birds. It could barely even pass as meeting him; he walked past and said, “You right, mate?” and I went silent.

    The last time I got into a fight
    I don’t really get in fights. I used to. Matt Rule, who used to own the Annandale Hotel, is also a boxing trainer. I do that with him twice a week; I just did it yesterday. Maybe because of that, I don’t feel like I need to fight as much.

    The last time I offended someone
    Last week, I smoked a spliff for the first time for a long time, and you know sometimes when you’re saying everything that comes into your head straight off the bat? [My girlfriend] came home, and she’d dyed her hair blonde. It looked great, but she also dyed her eyebrows bright blonde. It gave me a little shock when she walked in the room. I looked at her and went, “Oh my gosh, you look very sick!” She got a bit angry at me.

    The last thing I do before going on stage
    Throw up, from anxiety. That’s how I get on top of it: it manifests in the physical action of throwing up, then I suddenly feel really light, and not anxious anymore.

    The last time I saw one of my high school teachers
    My old principal got charged with 11 counts of sexual assault on a minor. That was quite surreal, seeing the footage of him being arrested at the airport. I went to a really strict Catholic school; I never did like that guy. He actually kicked me out of that school in Year 10. Then I went to Newtown High, my local school, and that’s where I met [Sticky Fingers’ singer/guitarist] Dylan [Frost]. So he kind of did me a favour!

    The last time I was accosted by a crazed fan
    Most of the time, they’re really cool. Sometimes when people show us tattoos, it freaks us out, because sometimes you don’t know whether or not you’re worthy of that yet.

    The last TV series I watched
    I’ve been getting back into The Sopranos recently, watching the box set. My girlfriend said she’d tried to watch it a couple of years ago, but wasn’t really following the way they talk. I’ve been watching it with her, and pausing to explain what’s going on.

    The story can also viewed on Rolling Stone’s website.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Player: John Collins and The Triffid’, November 2014

    A story for the November 1-2 issue of Qweekend magazine. The full story appears below.

    The Player

    Making it as a muso is a hard act to follow, but ex-Powderfinger bassist John Collins is rolling the dice with his new gig in venue management.

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    by Andrew McMillen / Photography by David Kelly

    ++

    For now, the only music heard in this room comes from a dust-coated radio audible in intermittent bursts between a dissonant symphony of hammering, grinding and sawing. Shortly, though, this formerly vacant hangar in Newstead, in Brisbane’s inner-north, will come alive with the sounds of live music. On this midweek morning in early October, John “JC” Collins wears a blue hard hat and bright yellow high-visibility vest atop a black dress shirt and blue jeans. Transforming this building from a forgotten shell into what Collins hopes will become a shining light in Brisbane’s sparkling live music scene has occupied much of the past two years of his life.

    Thick, black electrical cables snake down from the curved ceiling. At the far end of the hangar, a hip-high raised stage sits at the foot of a brick wall painted bright green. Its sizeable main hall and mezzanine will accommodate up to 800 guests. It will be the first significant venue to open in the inner city since West End’s 1200 capacity Hi-Fi debuted in 2009.

    Outside, in the beer garden, a temporary worksite office is stacked atop shipping containers that will function as bars and a kitchen. In the adjacent “band garden”, green astroturf leads through to a stage door being painted grey. As Collins tours the construction site while consulting with a squad of architects, acoustic engineers and insulation specialists, The Triffid’s distinctive look and feel is slowly taking shape all around him. What began as an aspiration is very nearly a live, loud reality.

    From the mezzanine vantage point, the team of hard-hats inspects the original rainwater-tank roof. It’s been kept intact, but perforated with thousands of finger-sized holes and stacked with several layers of insulation in order to absorb the venue’s maximum volume of 110 decibels – and, hopefully, to stop future nearby residents from complaining about the noise. The former industrial hub of Newstead is on the cusp of a property boom set to rival neighbouring Teneriffe and New Farm; across from the venue, five residential towers comprising 900 apartments will soon sprout.

    Tapping the 60-year-old ribbed roof, lead architect Mick Hellen says with a smile: “This was JC’s bright idea, but it’s the worst possible shape for a music venue.” Collins laughs, and shoots back: “It’s still better than a square box, though. Hey, it worked for The Beatles at the Cavern Club,” he says, referring to the Liverpool venue where Beatlemania was born. Who knows what The Triffid will mean in time to emerging Brisbane acts?

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David Kelly

    ++

    When The Triffid opens its steel doors next Saturday, it will be almost four years to the day since the former Powderfinger bassist joined his bandmates for their final public performance at Brisbane Riverstage. The intervening years have not been particularly relaxing for Collins, 44, a restless soul who searched high and low for a project in which to invest his energy. After a two-decade career in which his identity was synonymous with four fellow musicians united under what became a household name, Collins initially struggled to find his own way.

    In the two years following the band’s November 2010 finale, Collins hired a desk at a friend’s business in inner-north Bowen Hills with the intention of giving his days structure and purpose, and separating his work aspirations from his home life at Morningside, in the city’s east. There were protracted investigations into business ventures in race cars and printing companies, as well as extended travels with his wife of 14 years, Tara, and their children, 10-year-old twins Grace and Rosie and Scarlett, 7.

    Eventually, he threw his weight behind the idea of a live music venue and after months of location scouting in the surrounding suburbs, he found the empty hangar on Stratton Street. Collins met with its owner in February 2013 and spent almost a year working through proposals, budgets and designs. “It was a tough year, because I felt like we had a good idea between us,” he says now. “I felt really strongly about it; I hadn’t felt this strongly since the ‘Fingers started. It was a gut feeling.”

    Born in Murgon, 250km north-west of Brisbane, on April 27, 1970, Collins grew up in the town of Kerry near Beaudesert, 85km south of the capital. While attending boarding school at Brisbane Grammar in inner-city Spring Hill, he met fellow boarder Steven Bishop, with whom he shared a love for music. The pair began playing with another student, Ian Haug, after the budding guitarist noticed Collins wearing a handmade shirt that advertised Sydney band Sunnyboys. The trio formed the first iteration of Powderfinger in late 1988, and while Bishop vacated the drum kit in 1991, the three men occasionally play together in a band called the Predators, whose debut EP, Pick Up The Pace, was released in 2006.

    “Powderfinger was an awesome thing. I loved it,” says Collins. “I don’t expect it to ever happen again with music, but I’ve always wanted to do something else. That was part of the decision to stop [in 2010], because if we’d stopped in our fifties, things would have been tougher; we worked through half our working lives.” In the intervening four years, singer Bernard Fanning and guitarist Darren Middleton have proceeded with solo careers, drummer Jon Coghill has pursued a career in journalism, and Haug has been recording at his home studio and joined Australian rock institution The Church. “It’s taken me three years to get that next act going,” says Collins.

    ++

    Its name is rooted in both literary and musical references; not just John Wyndham’s 1951 science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids, but more appropriately, the Triffids were a seminal Australian band based in Perth during the 1980s. “A few people have said to me, ‘Why didn’t you call it The Hangar?’” says Collins, who is one of several partners in the venture. “But that sounds more like a beer barn to me. I wanted to make sure people understood it’s a creative space, not just a place to come and skol piss. If you’re in a band, and you ask ‘Where are we playing?’ and the manager says ‘There’s this new venue in Brisbane called ‘The Triffid’, automatically you’re more inclined to think, well, okay, they must be at least a bit creative…”

    Beside the bar on the mezzanine level is an office that overlooks the lobby through glass salvaged from Powderfinger’s rehearsal space in Albion, in the city’s inner north, which was flooded a few years ago. To complete the fit-out, Collins is in the process of sourcing historic gig posters that will illustrate Brisbane’s rich musical heritage. The venue will fill a gap between The Zoo (capacity 500) and The Tivoli (1500) in Fortitude Valley, as well as The Hi-Fi on the other side of the river. “We definitely didn’t want to come in and tread on anyone’s toes,” says Collins. “Places like The Zoo, The Hi-Fi and The Tivoli are really important. We want to make the pie bigger, not take somebody’s slice.”

    Qweekend story: 'The Player: John Collins and The Triffid' by Andrew McMillen, November 2014. Photograph by David KellyAs we walk downstairs, I ask Collins what’s at stake here. “My reputation,” he replies. “And a bit of money. I’ve willingly put my name and my hand up to back this project. If it doesn’t work, my partners can walk and do another one, whereas I’ll go down with the ship. Obviously I’ve put a lot of time, energy and passion in, and I’d like it to work financially, too.”

    Haug is confident his friend and bandmate has bet on the right horse, as it were. “We’ve played so many venues around the world; he knows how to do it, so the musicians will be happy with how it’s all set out,” says Haug of Collins. “He’s surrounded himself with the best people to do sound and lighting. He didn’t think it was going to be easy, but he probably didn’t realise it would be this hard to build it from the ground up.”

    With a laugh, Haug adds: “He’ll be glad when it’s open, that’s for sure.”

    The Triffid opens on Saturday, 8 November with a line-up that includes Saskwatch, The Creases and MT Warning. thetriffid.com.au

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

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

    Inside The Mind of Aaron Bruno
    by Andrew McMillen

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

    Chapter One: Nation Builder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Vine live review: Laneway Festival Brisbane, January 2014

    A festival review for The Vine, co-written with Matt Shea. Excerpt below.

    Laneway Festival 2014
    RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane
    Friday 31 January 2014

    The Vine live review: Laneway Festival Brisbane, January 2014, by Andrew McMillen. Photo credit: Justin Edwards

    We sent our music men Andrew McMillen and Matt Shea along to Australia’s first Laneway Festival of 2014 at the RNA Showgrounds in Brisbane on January 31. This is their story, just please be advised the following contains tales of creepy stalking, swearing and mid-strength Mexican beer….

    Andrew McMillen: How do you sell tickets to music festivals? Amid reports of a horror 2013 for promoters throughout the country, with cancellations, downsizing and low attendances almost across the board, the answer to that question has remained the same as it ever was: book bands that people want to pay good money to see. It’s simple in theory but tricky in practice, with a good deal of gambling and gamesmanship required many months in advance. In this sense, Laneway has struck a vein of pure gold in 2014: their line-up is stacked with in-demand artists, many of whom performed strongly at a certain music poll that aired five days prior to the touring festival’s traditional first Australian show in the Queensland capital.

    Matt Shea: My question is, how do you improve upon the Brisbane leg of Laneway, which was one of the best festivals to blow through the city in 2013? You upgrade the line-up for starters. If last year’s roster of artists was impressive, 2014 is a clean home run with the inclusion of superstars Haim and Lorde, a strong slug of rap courtesy of Run the Jewels, Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt, and an almost never-ending list of support players: Daughter, Four Tet, Kurt Vile, Warpaint, and god knows how many more. The festival app’s planner is pretty much useless. There are clashes everywhere. Thanks, arseholes.

    That’s from the audience perspective. From promoters Danny Rogers and Jerome Borazio’s perspective, you increase capacity. Which, given the ample space available at Brisbane’s RNA Showgrounds, makes a lot of sense. But does it make sense for Laneway?

    Laneway’s submission to do the same in Sydney was rescued by an eleventh hour plea from Michael Chugg — who co-promotes the festival — when he told Leichardt Council that no other Australian music festival quite has the same capacity to connect with music fans. But by bumping up the numbers, Rogers, Borazio and their collaborators are of course risking such a hard-won note of distinction. In it’s first year in Melbourne back in 2004, the gents were cheerily selling tallies and inviting their parents along. In 2014, we’re talking something much more widescreen.

    To accommodate the extra numbers, the RNA Showgrounds setup has been re-jigged. The Carpark Stage (better than it sounds) is no longer the place to see the biggest acts. Instead, it plays second fiddle to the Alexandria Street stage, which in a daring move during Brisbane’s monsoon season, is completely open to the elements.

    And those crowds don’t go unnoticed. Whereas in 2013 it was easy to get around, this year you often find yourself caught in great swathes of people, many of them careening into each other as sticky weather and over imbibing combine to nasty effect. After a while you find yourself wondering if this is what Laneway is all about. I’m not so sure.

    Andrew: Fittingly, the site is busy within a few hours of gates opening, as must-see acts have been scheduled from the early afternoon onwards. Up first, King Krule is a swing and miss at the Carpark Stage: the English songwriter is interesting on record, but unengaging in the flesh. To my dismay, a quick scout around the three other stages yields no alternatives, which seems like surprisingly poor organisation for so early in the day. King Krule delivers that rare, unedifying type of set that turns me off a band that I already liked. Adalita at the Alexandria Street stage is the exact opposite: alongside her three accomplices, she reminds me that I need to spend more time with her 2013 album All Day Venus. Their performance of the title track is the first great song I hear today, thanks to a monstrous extended outro. “I’ve got a touch of bronchitis,” the singer says. “But I’ll do my best. Fuck that excuse!” It’s clear during a solo reading of ‘Heavy Cut’ that her voice isn’t doing quite what she’d like, yet Ms Srsen powers through anyway. Heroic.

    A few songs into Adalita’s set, I clock the unmistakeable visage of triple j Music Director Richard Kingsmill standing before me, clutching a brown jacket and wearing a navy shirt, blue jeans and orange shoes. He shields his bespectacled eyes from the glaring sun and adopts a power stance, rocking his right leg to the beat of the bass drum with crossed arms.

    Richard Kingsmill watching Adalita at Laneway Festival 2014. Photo by Andrew McMillen

    The more avid conspiracy theorists of the Australian music scene would have us believe that Kingsmill ultimately decides which bands have careers in this country and the circumstances in which they succeed. No one man should have all that power, they posit, to crib a Kanye line. I watch him rub his chin and lean into the power chords that blast through the speakers. Momentarily, an enthusiastic blonde girl jumps onto a male friend stood before Kingsmill; he takes a swift step back in response, but it appears that the spell has been broken. The man with the golden ears flees in haste, as if he just remembered he had somewhere else to be.

    By sheer coincidence I clock him again at set’s end, over by the food stalls while I buy a cup of lemonade. He’s using chopsticks to eat from a cardboard box while chatting to a fellow radio presenter. Since I have nothing better to do, I follow him to an indoor stage sponsored by an energy drink company. Tracking an individual through a crowd of hundreds is a new thrill; I feel like Jason Bourne or some shit. It’s so loud in here that I apply earplugs immediately. Kingsmill doesn’t. I’m leaning against a steel barrier before the sound desk, watching him watching… I don’t even know who. It doesn’t matter.

    I have spoken to him before, once, years ago, for a version of the played-out “Does triple j have too much power and control over the artistic fates of music in this country?!?!” story that was resurrected in the Fairfax press earlier this month, to much navel-gazing and hand-wringing among those who care about such things. Then, as on the air, Kingsmill struck me as an unashamed music geek; an obsessive who just so happens to be paid to be immersed in the art that he loves. Nothing I see here diminishes that impression. Ten minutes later, I stalk him back out to the Alexandria Street stage, where Vance Joy has attracted a huge crowd.

    Kingsmill remains unmoved throughout the performance, often deferring to the smartphone kept in his left jeans pocket. He remains still as a statue even when the crowd around him erupts for ‘Riptide’. Perhaps he, like I, finds nothing of value in their music. I wonder at that feeling, though, of being at the centre of a love-in for a performer and a song that, without triple j’s support, nobody would have heard. Without certain decisions being made by triple j staff, this crowd of thousands certainly wouldn’t be singing along to every word while waving a can of imported Mexican beer in the air.

    I can’t wrap my mind around this last point: the only mid-strength beer on sale is a brand I have never seen or even heard of before today. It’s called Alegria, it’s in a bright yellow can, and its contents are best summarised by a friendly guy I meet late in the day, “It tastes like 50% Corona, 50% Mount Franklin”. (He said this after drinking six of them and right before tipping half of number seven over his head without provocation). I respect the Laneway organisers for bucking the overwhelming festival trend of selling tinnies of Carlton Dry, but how they settled on this piss-poor home-brand swill as a replacement is beyond me. Must’ve gotten a sweet bulk deal from a likeable Mexican exporter.

    Matt: What the fuck is Vance Joy doing here? Not at this festival, but on this stage, at this time. I ask myself this despite actually enjoying the Melburnian’s set. It’s just that there’s really not much to it. Simply Vance out front singing sweetly while drums, keyboards and bass propel him along. Every song’s a winner — particularly ‘Red Eye’, ‘Perfect Teeth’ and a new cut called ‘All I Ever Wanted’ — but every song also goes on for too long. Vance is fine, the band is fine, it’s all just fine. There’s no intimacy and no electricity, and you soon start wishing you were in a club at 10pm rather than on a massive apron of bitumen. It’s a pleasant way to start the festival, I guess, but this just doesn’t seem the setting for Vance.

    My mind wandering, I turn around towards the sound booth and catch a glimpse of what I think is Richard Kingsmill and behind him a blue t-shirt. Quality stalking, A-Mac, you fuck.

    We stay for the Hottest 100-winning ‘Riptide’ — which at least partly answers the stage question — and it means we get to watch a healthy crowd lose its collective shit. But it also means we miss most of Daughter, which I feel is a mistake. When we get to the Carpark Stage, the London three-piece is blowing everyone away with a peerless take on ‘Winter’. Diminutive singer Elena Tonra’s lyrics can barely be discerned from the noise but it hardly matters: most interest can be found in the great washes of sound being swapped between guitarist Igor Haefeli and a touring multi-instrumentalist.

    We’re there long enough to witness cracking renditions of ‘Candles’, ‘Human’ and ‘Tomorrow’ – each an exercise in precise control over Daughter’s surging song craft — before Tonra icily coos her way through ‘Home’, the audience going apeshit. And then they’re done. Haefeli thanks the audience profusely and then Daughter disappear, leaving us feeling like dickheads for getting there so late.

    Andrew: Upstart American electronic producer XXYYXX plays an interesting set at the energy drink stage, though he tends to shy away from a consistent backbeat, leading to some equally interesting interpretive dances. A young girl is passed out on her side out on the edge of the room, not far from the speakers. A caring photographer stands guard while a security guard seeks medical attention and I look on, concerned. An idiot in a singlet runs up and takes a selfie in front of her prone frame, before returning with some mates for a group shot. Taking in this scene, it’s tough to imagine a better image of the selfishness and callous indifference for which my generation is supposedly renowned. Ten minutes later, she’s helped to her feet by a stranger; she runs unsteadily for a few metres before falling into the arms of two paramedics, who ask her name and lead her gently toward the exit.

    It’s not until I join the horde crowding the main stage at Alexandria Street for CHVRCHES that I realise how crap this space is to watch bands. It’s essentially a flat bit of bitumen flanked by two small grandstands; one side is slightly raised, thanks to some thoughtfully-placed woodchips, but when the area is busy – as it is from Vance at 3.45pm through to headliners The Jezabels – it has about as much ambience as the average suburban garage. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by recent experiences at natural and manmade amphitheatres at Falls Festival and the Big Day Out, respectively. All of this detracts from the otherwise serviceable set that CHVRCHES put in, though the thinness of their live sound – due in large part to the programmed drums, I think – reminds me of Sleigh Bells, another act with strong songs on record that fall flat before an audience. To their credit, ‘Lies’ is one of the best songs I hear all day, though.

    Matt: Pro tip: if you like CHVRCHES, maybe don’t see ‘em at a music festival. The Glasgow three-piece bring plenty of firepower to the Alexandria Street Stage, but much of the mystery that surrounds these electro-indie rockers is lost in an odd late-afternoon setup that has keyboardists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty on a couple of risers that flank an already tiny Lauren Mayberry. From this distance she looks like Chloë Moretz. It’s pretty hilarious. You couldn’t accuse these guys of not giving it 100 percent, but in this wide-open setting it feels like they’re shooting blanks. Still, songs such as ‘Lies’, ‘The Mother We Share’ and the Doherty-sung ‘Under the Tide’ have an impact — the latter providing a much-needed mid-set injection of energy. I was already lukewarm on CHVRCHES, and this set has done nothing to help my appreciation. Still, if it was more 11pm and less 5pm, my opinion would probably be different.

    Andrew: Kurt Vile at the Carpark Stage is nothing less than sensational: opening with the ten-minute title track from Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, his winning album from last year, Vile and his three offsiders work through several of the best songs from that record, including its sleepy closer ‘Goldtone’. No pretension; just skilled musicianship and singular songwriting. Haim’s set at the main stage is similarly pleasing but for the overpowering slickness that permeates every second the three sisters – accompanied by two blokes up back, on drums and keys – spend going through the motions. Their act is so polished and compelling from the very first note that it takes several songs for my critical faculties to catch up. This is a very good trick, I think to myself. But try as I might, I can’t pick a fault: they’re great performers with an album’s worth of clever and interesting songs. ‘My Song 5’ is a wondrous thing, both live and on record; that lead guitar break is perfect. 20 minutes in, I text Mr Shea – who is closer to the stage – three words: “This is great!”

    Matt: There was a point in my Laneway preparations where I was considering skipping Haim. Now, I can safely say that would’ve been a cock move. The three sisters from Los Angeles, along with drummer Dash Hutton (and a touring muso), absolutely nail their twilight set on the Alexandria Street Stage, having a massive audience eating out of the palm of their collective hand. It’s hard not to when you line up a succession of pop hits as pristine ‘Forever’, ‘Don’t Save Me’, ‘Falling’ and ‘The Wire’.

    Of course, Haim’s shtick is super slick and there are times today when I wonder if I’d prefer to be watching them in a velvet-curtained club with some coked out Solid Gold Dancers as back-up. But every time things are in danger of getting a little too perfect Danielle shreds the shit out of her Gibson SG, or Alana jumps down into the snapper’s pit and high-fives the creepy dudes in the front row. The only misstep is Este talking about how she’s wants to hit the beach with some fans after the show. Don’t you have some ungodly redeye to catch in the morning, lady? These people might be high, but they’re not idiots. Regardless, it will be Haim tunes running through my head the day after the festival. Kudos, ladies.

    A generously sized German sausage later and it’s time to catch Lorde. I stand towards the back, telling myself that this is more social research than review, and Lorde pays me back with an appropriately studied performance. Seeing the 17-year-old Ella Yelich-O’Connor a week after she won a Grammy award has a slightly anti-climactic feel. Hers was the story of 2013, but it’s a story that suddenly feels like it has a full stop behind it.

    As it is, the performance is fine, but with band members Jimmy MacDonald and Ben Barter all but obscured by the lights and smoke, it’s totally down to Lorde. And while she sashays back and forth across the stage, flicking curls in all directions, it gets old quick. The songs are classy — ‘Glory and Gore’, ‘Tennis Court’ and ‘Ribs’ all standing out – but the minimalist music is ultimately there only to brace Yelich-O’Connor’s phenomenal pipes. In the darkness it’s all very ominous, but then you remember she’s just a teenager and it becomes both a bit more amazing on the one hand, and a bit more callow on the other. When ‘Royals’ arrives, it’s greeted with an air of inevitably that probably says a lot about why it was knocked off for the top spot in the Hottest 100.

    At this point, you wonder what’s in future for Yelich O’Connor. Surely a bigger, badder live show is top of the list.

    Andrew: Lorde has a lot of work to do up on the main stage: the songs from her debut record – the singles aside – lean heavily on introversion, both in music and lyrical themes. As a result, she struggles to connect with the crowd for at least half of her set, at least from where we’re standing on the mound of woodchips amid hundreds of talkers who seem only interested in the singles. They’re performed competently, without fanfare or adornment; a keyboardist and drummer are confined to the shadows, leaving the heavy lifting and body-jerking theatrics up to the star. It makes sense to me that experiences such as this, playing before crowds of thousands, will influence the scope of her future songwriting from small rooms and small thoughts to big, universal ideas. What I see tonight isn’t entirely convincing, but I’m interested in where Lorde goes from here.

    Matt: Now comes Laneway’s leap into the unknown. Instead of finishing the night with its biggest draw cards — Lorde or Haim — the festival locks down its outside areas and turns into a three-hour club party. And why not, when you have Danny Brown, Run the Jewels and Earl Sweatshirt in your arsenal; pound for pound, they’re arguably three of the biggest acts of the entire festival.

    If nothing else, it’s led to a noticeably different, more dudebro mix in the crowd, which comes to the fore as the clock strikes 9pm and Danny Brown erupts onto the Zoo Stage in a fit of demented testosterone.

    Seeing Brown perform since the release of Old, his schismed, highly personal third album, is an odd experience. Split, as it is, into a grim first side and a riotous second allows Brown to compartmentalise his personality, but you can no longer watch one of his infamously juiced up live shows without the ghost of his tortured self hanging about in the background. It leaves this performance feeling like a riotous, dark-edged party — one perhaps best consumed with a side order of drugs, but which makes a sober person feel a jittery, paranoid high anyway.

    As expected, Brown largely eschews the fist stanza of Old, reaching into the album’s molly-addled back stretch, as well as cuts from his 2011 sophomore release, XXX. People start frothing at the mouth. Dudes pound against each other. Girls get it on. It’s a heaving, sweating orgy, all conducted by an imp in a leather t-shirt. Brown barely breathes for 45 minutes, ending, as he was destined to, on the ferocious single, ‘Dip’. A muscled bro in front of me turns to a buddy and bites him fair on the bicep. That about sums up Danny Brown at Laneway 2014 — arguably the performance of the entire festival.

    Andrew: Closing the Carpark Stage is Warpaint, a band from Los Angeles who have yet to disappoint me in the live environment. They keep that clean sheet tonight, though stiff competition from Danny Brown’s punishing beats clanging around the tin shed of the Zoo Stage means that the deck is stacked against them from the outset. Their music is delicate and complex; material from their recently-released self-titled second album especially so. They lean heavily on those new songs, and it’s clear that the intricacies of performing these synth-heavy numbers are still being ironed out. The closing bracket of ‘Love Is To Die’, ‘Disco//Very’ and ‘Undertow’ – the latter which includes a jaw-dropping extended outro that culminates with Stella Mozgawa gradually accelerating into a warp-speed drum solo that ends with broken sticks –ensures that they finish strongly. In sum, though, their set isn’t as convincing or powerful as the last time they played here three years prior.

    Matt: Compared to Danny Brown, the darkness is a little more obvious with Run the Jewels, even if Atlanta’s Killer Mike and New York’s El-P tend to think of last year’s self-titled debut as the breakout party from their gritty solo work. Either way, when the duo wander onto the stage it’s with their faces split by massive grins. On their own, these guys are icons; together, they’re legends.

    A Run the Jewels show feels like you’re part of an inclusive club holding onto a diabolical secret. It spans from El’s garrulous soliloquies, Mike’s late-set incursion into the crowd and a genuine affection for one another, right through to the regular acknowledgement of Trackstar, the duo’s touring DJ, who at this point feels like an elemental part of the show.

    During a set of fire and charisma compiled from both the self-titled Run the Jewels record of last year as well as Mike and El’s recent solo albums, R.A.P. Music and Cancer For Cure, I watch two MCs at the top of their game and an eager audience soak it all up. This is a different crowd to Danny — less insular and pill driven, more community weed-smoking — but it goes bananas anyway. Two dudes high-five each other after every song, another grabs me by the shoulder after ‘Banana Clipper’ to confess a deep man love for Mike, while to my left I get to watch the conversion of a trio of Run the Jewels n00bs within the space of three quarters of an hour. (I see another guy in tears: could be unrelated to the show but, y’know, probably not) I expected to love this set, and I hardly walk away disappointed.

    I won’t front, I’m exhausted by the time Earl Sweatshirt rolls onto the Zoo Stage with Odd Future crew-mate Domo Genesis in tow. Earl seems to understand the marathon the punters have been through and works hard to re-light the fire. For the most part it works, but for every punter going bonkers at the front of the stage, there are two or three standing back, nodding in appreciation.

    If this show illustrates anything, it’s Earl’s natural charisma and ferocious ability as a rapper. But his set is too bits-y and shuffling for more fair-weather fans to engage. It’s impressive without being exciting, and the appalling sound of the Zoo Stage — in one of the Showgrounds’ older pavilions — means the vocals echo back towards the performers and drown out the subtlety of the beats. Earlier it could be forgiven, but after three sets worth it’s just tiresome. Earl, Genesis and DJ Taco are fun and often very funny, but I want to enjoy this more than I ultimately do.

    So what to make of Danny Rogers and Jerome Borazio’s baby in 2014? It’s still a great music festival, but is it Laneway? The simple pumping of the numbers mean your instinct is to say, “No.” Like the roiders who plague much of the rest of Australia’s music festival calendar, Laneway’s sheer size is starting to outstrip its original raison d’être.

    The nature of the crowd has changed too. There was less of a community spirit and more aggression — at one point I witnessed a 40-something dude randomly but purposefully shove into a girl half his age. She threw him the bird and afterwards I could only admire her ability to laugh it off.

    Rogers and Borazio made a monsoon-season gamble with the Alexandria Street stage and on this occasion they won. During Vance Joy the rain came down, but it lasted just five minutes and that was it for the entire day (I carry my poncho under my arm for the rest of the festival, copping all sorts of shit from high people).

    What was perhaps not so successful was the skewed playing order, which disposed of the major acts early and turned Laneway into a club party. It’s a great way of working around curfew times, but the festival lost a bunch of punters and therefore a large degree of eclecticism, while the appalling sound of the inside stages eventually took its toll. Then again, it was a long day; maybe I just needed to put my feet up.

    Ultimately, though, Laneway is growing. And with that growth comes change. Some will embrace it, others will turn away from the festival. But as it expands onto ever-larger numbers the event will leave behind a gap in the market, one that another festival promoter will no doubt fill. As it is, this is still one of the best live music experiences you can have for $120.

    For the full review and photos, visit The Vine (at archive.org). Top photo credit: Justin Edwards.

  • The Vine live review: Big Day Out Gold Coast, January 2013

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Big Day Out 2013
    Gold Coast, Parklands
    Sunday, 20 January 2013

    Big Day Out 2013 Gold Coat review by Andrew McMillen for The Vine. Photo credit:: Justin Edwards

    It’s comforting to walk back into these festival grounds. I’ve barely given this event a moment’s thought in the preceding months, yet I know instinctively that I’m in for an entertaining day. This is what the Big Day Out has been synonymous with for 20-plus years: putting on a reliably good fucking show. In last month’s Rolling Stone, festival co-founder Ken West said that if this year’s tour goes wrong, the game’s essentially over. No more BDO. Was he exaggerating? Shouldn’t that be the case every year: don’t sell enough tickets, don’t make enough money? Yet as the venue fills throughout the day—this show hasn’t sold out, though they seem to have come awfully close—the stakes seem, strangely, lower than ever. It’s an eclectic, strong line-up led by one of the most popular rock bands in the world. What could go wrong?

    Before we get there, though, there are ten or so hours of live music to experience. Some of it good, some of it not. triple j Unearthed winners Jakarta Criers fall firmly into the former camp. They’re not doing anything particularly fresh or original within the confines of rock music, but the songs are good. So’s the musicianship and stage presence. They combine ‘Wicked Game’, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Gone Away’ into one mega-cover, which is a kinda cheap tactic but handled well, so the young Brisbane quartet score points. They play before several hundred applauding people today. I think they’ll be just fine. A career rock band in the making; a Birds Of Tokyo with balls, perhaps.

    Melbourne quartet ME are impressive, despite the bad band name. With a debut album out next week, they’re a tight live unit thanks a couple of years touring overseas. (An interesting take on the well-trodden path to indie rock success in this country.) If you’ve never heard of them, you’re forgiven: they’re playing the main stage, yet among the hundred or so initially paying attention to the band, it appears only a few dozen know what to expect. ME are an operatic rock band, essentially: somewhere near Queen and recent Muse — the four-piece write some of the most shameless arena rock you’ve ever heard. It’s awesome. It’s so transparent, what they’re doing, that you can practically see their internal organs. Yet it works so well. Falsetto vocals. Excellent guitar work. Powerhouse drumming. Good songs. I can’t look away from a chubby fat guy in a white shirt near the front, who spends a few minutes playing the most intense, unselfconscious air guitar I’ve seen. That dude sums ME up. You should check them out.

    Evil Eddie sucks terribly; real lowest common denominator stuff. Every Australian hip-hop fan discovers Butterfingers at some stage, and likely has a laugh at the funny/crude lyrics, but that shit’s just like the candy bar the band named themselves after: ultimately, bad for you. Eddie fronted Butterfingers, and he’s pulling the exact same shapes solo. It’s embarrassing; Australian hip-hop has come so far since Butterfingers were first amusing, yet here’s more of the same. He closes with two recent singles, ‘(Somebody Say) Evil’ and ‘Queensland’; the former is by far the worst thing I hear today. Just awful. I’ll note that there are hundreds of people jiving away before the Lilypad stage, so he’s evidently still mining fertile ground.

    Sampology, on the other hand, rules. I walk into the Boiler Room while he’s mashing up footage of the Wiggles in that fucking Coles ‘down down, prices are down’ ad while a much better song plays over the PA. That’s what the dude does: he DJs, skilfully, while cleverly-edited visuals play on the screen behind him. It’s compulsive viewing and listening; worth watching purely to see what he samples and mashes next. We dance while watching looped snippets of Free Willy and The Hangover, among loads of pop cultural touchstones that each get a cheer as they appear. Perfect festival fodder. Deserves a standing Big Day Out booking.

    The sum of my notes taken while watching Gary Clark Jr.: “CLASSIEST MOTHERFUCKER”. That’s really all there is to it. He’s a 28-year old Texan singer/guitarist who put out his major label debut in late 2012, Blak and Blu. Clark can sing, but it’s the guitar wailing we’re all here for. Fronting an incredibly tight four-piece band, Clark exhibits perfect guitar tone and phrasing. It’s such a pleasure to watch a master at work, and that’s just what Clark is. People keep throwing around the ‘H’ word in this context, referring to a legendary guitarist. It’s not really fair, but it’s basically true. This is one of the best sets I see today. All signs point to a healthy career shredding for a living, blowing minds like he does mine. If you get a chance to see this man play guitar, don’t hesitate. Please.

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

  • A Conversation With Craig Mathieson, Australian music journalist

    Craig Mathieson, Australian music journalistI wrote recently that Craig Mathieson wears the crown of Australian rock journalism. Allow me to elaborate. He’s recently released Playlisted: Everything You Need To Know About Australian Music Right Now, his third music-related book, and his byline has regularly appeared in Rolling Stone, Juice, Mess+Noise, and Fairfax news publications. He’s even got a Wikipedia entry.

    Craig, at this point in your career, which writers do you view as your contemporaries?

    My contemporaries are simply the good writers, those who have a voice and critical faculties. In terms of age that group is all over the place. Most are younger ; I named Shaun Prescott, Tim Finney and Emmy Hennings as talented examples on my blog. A few are older – I’m 38 years old. And I’m still flummoxed that someone decided to knock up a Wikipedia entry for me.

    You stand as an example that it’s possible to earn a decent living as a full-time freelance music journalist in this country. Am I right, or do you have another job on the side to supplement your writing?

    I’ve freelanced full-time for twenty years, but it’s been divided between music and film. In the music scene I’m a veteran, in film I’m still something of a kid. My career to date comes in two parts: 1989 to 1999, which was very music-orientated, mainly in Sydney; burn out and a corporate sojourn at Sony Music during 2000 and the first half of 2001; back to Melbourne and dividing my time between film and music ever since.

    The way film and music writers/critics are considered is chalk and cheese. Everyone has a film critic, but the idea of a music critic – as opposed to the music writer who might pen the odd review – being on staff is anathema. I was the film critic for The Bulletin, the ACP-owned news weekly, from 2002 until it closed in January of 2008, and that was an absolute pleasure.

    Having two disciplines to write about has also made me a stronger critic – it gets you thinking about the work you’re appraising in different ways.

    Do you think it’s still possible for freelance writers to earn a decent living in 2009?

    I’m sure it would still be possible today for freelance writers to swim upstream as it were, but there’s the question of what they’re striving for? There are very few secure full-time jobs at the end of the rainbow and not everyone is comfortable doing the freelance shuffle, because there’s not a safety net present.

    Playlisted by Craig Mathieson, featuring Gareth Liddiard of The Drones on the cover

    Though you mostly focus on how the musicians profiled in Playlisted sound and appear, I noticed the occasional comment about demographics and marketability. Is the marketing/promotion side of the industry of particular interest to you?

    It does interest me, because it impacts on how music is perceived and sometimes, to the artist’s detriment, it can be the defining element of someone’s career, as opposed to the actual music they produce.

    Before playlisted.com.au, a blog created when Playlisted was released, you’d not blogged elsewhere. Why?

    I didn’t have the time or the inclination. I knock out a fair few words every week and I’m focused on maintaining a decent standard of living for my family – marriage/mortgage/offspring tends to refocus a lot of younger freelancers and move them onwards; I have a stubborn streak. Even now, doing the blog for Playlisted, I’m sporadic at best.

    Aside from Mess+Noise, you seem to write exclusively for print. Aside from the fact that its publications pay better, what do you enjoy about writing for print?

    As a freelancer, you can’t underestimate how important “pay better” is, but aside from that I’m attracted to the audience size, which is pretty sizable when you file for The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m also a traditionalist, in that almost every day of my life since the age of 12 I’ve read one of those two Fairfax titles, so to be a part of them now is very satisfying.

    Which are you favourite music blogs, both Australian and otherwise?

    Mainly the online voices of writers whose work I already enjoy, be it Simon Reynolds or Anwyn Crawford. I don’t have much time for the blogs that are focused on being first – first review, first streaming – with something. “First-ism” grows dull quickly.

    You wrote most of Playlisted in the summer of 2008. How much editing and revision was required between then and its November publication?

    There was a sturdy editing process, then proofing, for a solid period between April and June. I’m not the cleanest writer and I’ve never been much of a sub myself, so I’m sure it needed work (“needs more,” I’m sure someone will snort). But after that it entered a kind of publishing limbo until November, when finished copies appeared and the whole release/promotion rigmarole kicked off.

    Craig Mathieson

    When writing, are you much of a procrastinator?

    It can take me a while to start, but once I do I tend to find a groove very easily and I work quickly, until finishing, after that. It’s rare that I junk a draft – most pieces come together reasonably smoothly.

    As for procrastinating at the start, unless I’m under extreme deadline pressure then I actually try to take the time to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s worth letting your mind wander a little, you might have a far better lede than that intricate one you’ve been obsessively plotting just come to you.

    Finally, what’s thrilling your ears lately?

    I’ve been compiling end of year lists for various publications, so this week’s scope has been a little wider than an ordinary week, but in terms of recent releases I’m enjoying Fuck Buttons, Whitley, Denim Owl and Rihanna.

    I genuinely like pop music and I write about commercial releases quite frequently – to me that’s part of a critic’s job, to try and take everything in and see what may or may connect the mainstream and the alternative scenes. I get frustrated that some younger critics are almost specialists, they can become completely niche-orientated. I’d love to read them taking on something completely outside the aesthetic they’re drawn to.

    Thanks Craig. I highly recommend Playlisted; buy a copy here. Keep an eye on Craig’s blog here.

  • 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!