All posts tagged Music

  • The Weekend Australian Review story: ‘The Hardest Hit: Bliss N Eso and Johann Ofner’, May 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Review, published in the May 13 issue. Excerpt below.

    The Hardest Hit

    Since a tragic incident during the filming of a music video, hip-hop trio Bliss N Eso has changed its outlook on life and music

    'The Hardest Hit: Bliss N Eso and Johann Ofner' story in The Weekend Australian Review by Andrew McMillen, May 2017

    On Monday, January 22, a 28-year-old man named Johann Ofner left his home on the Gold Coast to go to work in Brisbane. Muscled, tattooed and quick to laugh, Ofner was thrilled by the role he had landed as a stuntman in a music video for an upcoming single by Sydney-based hip-hop trio Bliss n Eso. He called his friend and business partner as soon as he was picked for the part, and learned that his hulking presence was required for a scene ­involving a poker game that is disrupted by armed robbers.

    Ofner’s life was large and full, with key scenes, achievements and affirmations posted to his Instagram profile, where he had 19,000 followers. Many people knew him as Yogi, a nickname that had stuck with him since high school. An actor, athlete, stuntman and co-owner of a fitness training and lifestyle clothing business named AMPM, Ofner had recently recorded an appearance on the Nine Network television program Australian Ninja Warrior. It had not yet been broadcast, but he quietly hoped it might serve as the key to unlocking another level of his flourishing career in front of the camera. Ofner’s seven-year-old daughter, Kyarna, was an extrovert keen to follow in his athletic footsteps, as her own Instagram profile — set up by her dad — showed.

    The music video appearance was for a song titled ‘Friend Like You’, the second single from Bliss n Eso’s sixth album Off the Grid, which this week went to No 1 on the ARIA charts. Built on a message about being able to rely on the support of your loved ones during tough times, and a powerful vocal hook by American soul singer Lee Fields — “Is there anybody out there feeling like I do?” — its optimistic motif was in ­harmony with the trio’s overarching lyrical themes. Such positivity has long since struck a chord with Australian audiences: Bliss n Eso’s previous two albums both debuted atop the ARIA album charts in 2010 and 2013, and both achieved platinum certification of more than 70,000 sales. The group’s last major national tour was seen by more than 55,000 fans across the country.

    After a week-long production, the video’s final scenes were being filmed downstairs in a Brisbane city bar called Brooklyn Standard. From the closed set, Ofner posted media on his Instagram of the weapons that were being used in the poker robbery scene. “Our Asian gangster props today!” he wrote alongside a video of the firearms in their packing case.

    During the afternoon, however, troubling reports emerged. Later, detective inspector Tom Armitt addressed media gathered near the bar and announced that a man had died as a result of wounds to his chest. Soon his identity would be confirmed as a 28-year-old stuntman who lived on the Gold Coast. Johann Ofner would not be coming home from work.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • 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 Kernel story: ‘How The World’s Greatest Hand-Fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube’, October 2015

    A story for The Kernel, published in October 2015. Excerpt below.

    How The World’s Greatest Hand-Fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube

    Gerry Phillips got to travel the world making noises with his hands, and Iron Maiden loves him.

    The Kernel story: 'How The World’s Greatest Hand-fart Musician Captivated Millions On YouTube' by Andrew McMillen, October 2015. Illustration by J. Longo

    Beneath a tin shed during a hot summer in Melbourne, Australia, a bespectacled, middle-aged man sits on a stool before a small crowd. He pairs a white shirt and shoes with black slacks, looking every inch the kind of unremarkable guy you’d pass on the street without giving him a second glance. Today, though, the cameras are trained on him, as are the eyes of the 20-strong production crew. He’s here to play music, and he’s traveled thousands of miles to do so. His name is Gerry Phillips, and his music follows him wherever he goes, because his instruments are a part of him.

    His task on this December morning in 2007 is to perform the “Infernal Galop” from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a rousing, bouncy number most associated with images of high-kicking can-can girls. To complicate matters, however, he has been asked to play a different version—one he hears for the first time only a few minutes before filming begins.

    The cameras roll, and as the string introduction plays out for a few bars, he applies a touch of baby powder to his hands before passing the tiny bottle off to a stagehand. Three times he squeezes his hands together, smiling slightly when they produce a sound best described as flatulent.

    And then he’s off, the muscles and tendons in his mighty hands rapidly contracting and relaxing with a dexterity that approaches the sublime. A microphone underneath his shirt captures the space between his palms filling with air and being emptied just as quickly. Against a kitsch living room backdrop, this unlikely musician works that temporary vacuum to deftly perform the “Infernal Galop” in a style few have ever heard. The music that he makes is so surprising, so breathtaking, that some in attendance cannot stop themselves from laughing. Nobody plays music like Gerry Phillips, a man whose hands have been heard around the world.

    After one final, triumphant note, the crowd breaks into applause, and even Phillips seems surprised to nail it on his first attempt. “Wow,” he says softly, returning his instruments to his lap. Off-camera, someone says, “All right!” An onscreen tagline appears: “Exceptionally average.”

    Even eight years later, Kristian Jamieson remembers this day well, because he’s the one who booked Phillips to fly around the world and appear in an advertising campaign. Jamieson, now 41, is creative director at a communications agency named Marilyn & Sons. His client was Pacific Brands, and the product was Dunlop Volley, a popular but unremarkable brand of Australian footwear. “We wrote the line ‘exceptionally average’ because the campaign was based on being brutally honest about the product,” Jamieson recalls. “But at the time, everyone was wearing them, from hipsters to tradesmen.”

    The original concept developed by Marilyn & Sons was for the camera to slowly pan from someone’s head to their feet in a single shot. “But halfway down, we wanted them to be doing something amazing,” Jamieson says. “So we started Googling people who can do crazy things with their hands, and we came across Gerry playing this ridiculous music.” At that point Phillips had been posting videos for a year. To date, his YouTube account has amassed 24 million views across more than 170 videos. Impressively, virtually all of his videos are shot in a single take: There are no edits, and if he flubs a note, he starts over. And he’s covered a broad range of musical styles, from the classic heavy metal of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” (3.4 million views) and the Super Mario Bros. theme (2.6 million views) to ’80s pop hits like A-ha’s “Take On Me” (947,000 views) and the tricky instrumental piece “Classical Gas” (153,000 views).

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • 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.

  • Backchannel story: ‘This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar’, May 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar

    I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.

    'This Video Game Has Solved The Problem of Learning Guitar' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, Medium.com, May 2015

    Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.

    Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.

    But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s calledRocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.

    Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification—using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.

    My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher—a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix—was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb mustremain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.

    Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.

    Many of my favorite songs—from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine—sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar—a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster—and a 30-watt amp.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

    Note: I also published two outtakes from this story on Medium.com, which are essentially ‘deleted scenes’ from the longer story. The first is about Rocksmith’s origins, and the second is about the process through which Ubisoft licenses popular music to appear in Rocksmith.

  • 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

  • The Guardian story: ‘The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use’, July 2014

    A comment piece for The Guardian’s Australian culture blog, published the day after my book Talking Smack was released. The full story appears below.

    The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use

    In a new book exploring the relationship between musicians and illicit substances, some of Australia’s most successful artists say there’s more to the story than the usual chorus of condemnation

    'The drugs do work: top Australian musicians discuss their illicit drug use' story on The Guardian Australia by Andrew McMillen, July 2014

    “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” is a well-worn cliche that music fans and journalists use as shorthand for “someone else’s job is more fun than mine”. We fantasise about the wild excesses and rampant hedonism experienced by the world’s top performing artists on a regular basis.

    And yet, in writing my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, I discovered there is a kernel of truth to the cliche. Some of Australia’s most successful musicians – including Paul Kelly, Tina Arena, Steve Kilbey, Phil Jamieson and Holly Throsby – openly admit that the use of both legal and illegal drugs has contributed to some of their creative achievements and personal insights.

    Of the 14 musicians I interviewed, all of them have had contact with illicit drugs at some point in their lives. The preference for substances varied widely, from cannabis and MDMA to methamphetamine and heroin. I discovered that the reasons individuals are drawn to the risky business of ingesting, inhaling, snorting or injecting foreign substances are complex and nuanced.

    Although stories of drug abuse, overdose and addiction have been part of the popular musical lexicon for decades, while working on Talking Smack I found an important distinction to be made: that despite the noisy negatives often associated with drugs at all levels of society, many of my interviewees had positive experiences. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for many Australians, regardless of whether or not they’re employed in the creative industries.

    Illicit drug use in Australia is often rendered as a black-and-white battleground: you’re either a drug user and thus looked down upon as a loser and a criminal, or you’re an anti-drugs totem of purity. My goal was to explore the shades of grey by talking to public figures who know what they’re talking about when it comes to a tricky topic, and where rational, expert voices are sorely lacking.

    Usually the discussion is dominated by politicians, police and sensationalist media outlets who stand together in condemnation of anyone who would dare consume a drug that isn’t alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or a prescribed medication.

    What I found during many hours of face-to-face conversations about this topic with such distinctly different musicians is that there is no simple story when it comes to drugs. Some people are early bloomers, and try substances in their teens; others, like myself, avoid the matter entirely until their mid-20s, or later. Some, like Gotye, choose to abstain completely. Drug tastes vary greatly between individuals; the chemicals that resonate with one person may repel the next.

    For some of these musicians, subjective experiences and sensations felt while under the influence had a powerful effect on songwriting. Steve Kilbey told me that The Church’s 1992 album Priest=Aura was an attempt to recreate the feeling of heroin through music, soon after he had started using the drug.

    “That was the honeymoon,” said Kilbey. “You can hear it’s working. You can hear that I achieved that thing. And then it went downhill after that. For 10 or 11 years, I still made records [on heroin]. But I struggled a bit. When the gear arrived, I’d get so stoned I couldn’t work.”

    Managing these motivations is a struggle met by many creative people, whether their task is to play an instrument, paint a canvas or scribble words. Sydney hip-hop artist Urthboy is unsure whether smoking cannabis while writing lyrics is an effective way to tap into creativity: “I’ve never really had any clear proof of that; you can’t say that’s a fact when you write really good stuff without smoking,” he said.

    “To ever suggest that weed is an essential ingredient in that process is almost to give up on your own abilities.”

    For Melbourne pop artist Bertie Blackman – who has struggled with alcoholism, depression and anxiety – abstinence is a matter of prioritising her mental health. “Recreational drugs in a safe environment are cool,” she told me. “I’m around it occasionally, and I don’t frown on it. I mean, they exist. It’s just that I make the choice now to not partake, because I know that, for me and my mental health, it’s not good.”

    That’s the bottom line for many Australians: an individual choosing whether or not to use a particular drug for an intended benefit, whether that’s buying a bottle of wine or a gram of cocaine. The illegality of the latter choice rarely comes into account. Humans are clever: where there’s a will to snort or smoke something, there’s a way.

    Almost all of my interviewees agreed that the prohibitionist “war on drugs” is failed policy that has had little to no effect on their overall consumption. As Steve Kilbey of The Church told me:

    “I think it’s becoming obvious to people that the whole [war] about drugs was a fucking lie,” Kilbey said. “It’s like fucking burning witches at the stake, or having slaves. I believe one day people will, in some enlightened time, look back at this and say, ‘You know they used to throw people in jail for five years for smoking marijuana?’ Why? What the fuck have you done except disobey some fuckwit in authority? That’s all it is. People are realising that taking drugs is a medical issue; it’s a social issue. It’s nothing to do with the law.”

    Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs by Andrew McMillen is published by University of Queensland Press.

  • Qweekend story: ‘The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco’, July 2014

    A story for the July 19 issue of Qweekend magazine; a profile of Australian music entrepreneur Paul Piticco. The full story appears below.

    The Grass Is Greener

    Paul Piticco struck success while managing Powderfinger and now oversees an empire that stretches beyond music into events and hospitality

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    by Andrew McMillen / Portrait photograph by Russell Shakespeare

    ++

    Five of the men who walk out onto Brisbane Riverstage on this warm Saturday night are well-known to the 10,000 fans in attendance, as together they have written some of Australia’s most popular songs. Between encores, though, another bloke in a grey suit with short black hair makes an appearance. Drummer Jon Coghill playfully wipes a towel across the stranger’s forehead. The band’s frontman approaches the microphone. “Ladies and gents, we have to introduce the virtual sixth member of Powderfinger: this is our manager,” says Bernard Fanning, gesturing to the man who is now copping a good-natured head-rub from guitarist Ian Haug. “He’s been our manager for the whole time. His name’s Paul Piticco. Put your hands together.”

    The crowd obliges. After he gives a few quick bows to the hill and to each of the bandmembers, Piticco waves and jogs back to the side of stage, seemingly embarrassed at such public attention.

    It’s 13 November, 2010, the night of Powderfinger’s final performance, a hometown send-off for the Brisbane quintet crowning a 34-date national tour that sold more than 300,000 tickets and grossed $30 million. After a final encore performance of ‘These Days’ and a group bow, Powderfinger ends its career on a high.

    The band’s achievements are remarkable. Among them, more than 2.5 million albums sold in Australia alone, 18 ARIA awards, five consecutive ARIA No 1 album debuts, and twice topping Triple J’s annual Hottest 100 music poll. Behind their artistry was the business brain of Paul “Teaks” Piticco, a self-taught entrepreneur whose beginning as the wet-behind-the-ears manager of a little-known Brisbane rock band expanded into successful stakes in music festivals, touring and publicity, two independent record labels and a recent foray into the restaurant business.

    As he tells it, Piticco’s achievements can be attributed to persistence, enthusiasm and a willingness to have a go. “That philosophy that you’re only as good as the last thing you do is something that I’ve always subscribed to,” he says. “That’s how you do great work: by being really interested, and by giving a shit about the outcome. I certainly don’t want to die wondering.”

    It wasn’t always thus, according to Coghill, the last member to join Powderfinger, completing the quintet’s line-up in late 1991. In the 2011 band biography, Footprints, the drummer recalled his first impressions of the men with whom he’d spend the next two decades: “They were just these potheads who used to sit around the lounge smoking,” he said. “And Teaks was the ringleader … I remember that night [we met] he showed me this massive marijuana plant he had in the back yard. It was four metres high and two metres wide. I think before Teaks was the manager of the band, he was the manager of the lounge room and the bong.”

    ++

    An only child born to Sernando and Carmel at the Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital on March 7, 1969, Paul Anthony Piticco grew up in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Paddington and attended Petrie Terrace State School. He loved school because it was his first chance to measure himself against others. “Maybe that was the germination of my competitive streak,” he says with a smile.

    His father had emigrated to Australia from Italy at age 19, carrying only a suitcase and $10. He cut cane in North Queensland, bought a house in Brisbane and started a construction business. Piticco says Sernando advised his son to “figure your own shit out” and learn from his mistakes. Carmel – who worked part-time jobs in nursing and education – encouraged Paul to spring out of bed in the morning, follow his dreams and do what makes him smile.

    His parents’ record collection was “diabolical”, so it wasn’t until he started at Kelvin Grove State High in Brisbane’s inner north-west that Piticco’s musical horizons expanded. When KISS played at Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) in 1980, he snuck down Ranley Grove onto Given Terrace and watched them through the fence. It was the first time Piticco made a connection between hearing a song on the radio and tens of thousands of fans going to see a band play live in a stadium. He was enthralled, and started buying cassettes and vinyl – David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Dire Straits – while learning guitar and saxophone, both of which he failed to practise. At 15, he’d take a square of cardboard to Queen Street Mall and attempt to breakdance while dressed in baggy pants. This phase soon passed – as Piticco puts it, “The world moved on, and I moved with it.”

    It was during his first job, as a paperboy selling the Telegraph, that Piticco established his work ethic. He determined how to achieve the maximum return with the smallest effort by catching customers at the former Arnott’s biscuit factory on Coronation Drive when shifts were crossing over. A regular clientele earned the ten-year-old hefty tips for his value-adding personal touches, such as handing over the paper with the sports page or the horoscopes facing up, ready to read.

    In his mid-teens, Piticco worked weekend nights at the 24-hour Windmill Cafe on Petrie Terrace, where he learned how to be patient with intoxicated people, which he notes has “come in handy working in bars, venues and festivals in the years to come”. He completed Year 10 at Kelvin Grove High but dropped out part way into the following year. “My passion for study declined rapidly,” he says, after he discovered smoking and drinking.

    In his late teens, Piticco tried working part-time for his father and uncle’s construction business. It didn’t take. “I didn’t want to work a manual job, grinding it out in the sun like my dad. I knew that I wanted something different; I just didn’t know what it was yet.” It was around this time that he discovered cannabis. “There was a fair degree of overlap between my pot-smoking days and my lost years,” he says. “It just heightened all my senses in terms of listening to music and having a good time. In a stereotypical way, it was a countercultural way to rebel as a late teen.”

    At the time, Piticco worked as a steel sales representative for Boral and lived in a share house in the western suburb of Indooroopilly. One night, he and housemate Ian Haug went for a drive, and the guitarist asked his friend whether he’d be interested in managing Powderfinger as Haug had grown tired of juggling his band’s business interests and writing music.

    “He knew nothing about the music industry; we gave him an opportunity because we could see something in him,” says Haug. “We needed a ‘bad cop’, and he was a good bad cop. We didn’t want to be the ones ringing up bikers saying ‘pay us our money’. He had to be the tough guy. And Piticco’s a pretty tough name.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph of Powderfinger in 1991; Piticco is third from left.Bassist John Collins saw it another way: “We thought, if he could sell steel, he could sell rock.” With the assistance of a lawyer, the band drew up a management contract which determined that everything outside of the actual music-making would be split six ways. “After that contract lapsed, we worked with him without a contract for most of our career,” says Haug. “Probably in retrospect it wasn’t a wise business decision for the band, but he did a good job for us.”

    It took years before the band started seeing any real money for their efforts. “As a manager, you’re only ever as good as your band,” Piticco says. “Your fates are hitched in a fiscal sense.” As Powderfinger’s star ascended, the six men named on the contract came into good money following years of low-income toil. “Money was always much more important to Paul than the rest of us,” says singer Bernard Fanning. “We were always surprised by the fact that we actually earned a living and made money out of being musicians. Paul has always liked the idea of money, and the potential of it, rather than the actual act of splashing out and buying a fancy bottle of champagne.”

    Haug suggests Piticco didn’t change much throughout the band’s two-decade career. “He’s just loaded now, whereas he used to be flat broke,” he laughs. The entrepreneur reinvested his earnings into the industry, forming an artist management company, Secret Service. His independent record label, Dew Process, was established in 2002 and has released popular albums by international acts such as Mumford & Sons, The Hives and London Grammar as well as Australian artists The Living End, Sarah Blasko and, of course, Bernard Fanning. Album sales still account for the majority of the label’s income. In 2012, Piticco established another record label, Create/Control, which in effect turns the old business model on its head by partnering with acts to distribute and market music they’ve funded and recorded themselves.

    In conjunction with Powderfinger’s longtime booking agent, Jessica Ducrou, he established Splendour In The Grass, an annual multi-day music festival – being staged at North Byron Parklands next weekend – sidestepping the competitive summer circuit. All 27,500 tickets to this year’s event, headlined by Outkast, Lily Allen and Two Door Cinema Club, were sold within hours of going on sale. “Paul and I have done all sorts of glamorous jobs – directing traffic, picking up garbage,” says Ducrou, 44. “He’s really positive, he mucks in. He has no airs and graces. He’ll do whatever is required.” The pair’s Secret Sounds touring company has also invested in The Falls Festival, traditionally a southern (Tasmania and Victoria) camping event which debuted in Byron Bay in late 2013.

    Critics point out that a handful of Piticco’s acts inevitably appear on Splendour’s bill each year, a tradition that stretches back to the first event in 2001, headlined by Powderfinger. “Why wouldn’t you book yourself?” asks Patience Hodgson, singer of Piticco-managed Brisbane pop band The Grates. “Paul doesn’t take any commission when we play Splendour, and that’s to lower his invested interest.”

    If such criticisms are laid at Piticco’s feet, so be it. He’s happy to wear the tar and feathers if it means his artists stay squeaky clean. “If people hate him, but love the band, he totally understands that’s fine,” says Hodgson. “He’s not trying to protect himself; the band always comes first. If he’s offered a gig and thinks we should be paid more money, he asks. I really appreciate that, because I could never do that for myself; I wouldn’t want to seem like a dick or be rude. Paul is happy to ask, and if people say no, he doesn’t feel shame.”

    ++

    Piticco has one favourite album – DeadSexy by little-known Rhode Island (US) alternative rock band Scarce – and two favourite songs: ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie and ‘The Funeral’ by Seattle rock act Band of Horses, who he has booked to play Splendour twice. His favourite Powderfinger album is 1998’s Internationalist. When asked to name a favourite song, he deliberates for two minutes. “The one that makes me feel and think most positively about the band is ‘Sunsets’,” he replies, referring to a single from 2003’s Vulture Street album. “Amongst all those anthems that they wrote, that one, to me, sounds and feels like Australian music at that time. It definitely pulls at my heartstrings.”

    Qweekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'The Grass Is Greener: Paul Piticco', July 2014. Photograph by Russell ShakespeareAt 45, Piticco is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2014, he seems to have his fingers in more pies than ever before. “There’s a good balance between Paul being a serious, effective entrepreneur and knowing how to switch off and have fun, and not take things too seriously,” says Ducrou. For his 40th birthday, Piticco booked an AC/DC tribute band to play at the property near Mount Warning in northern NSW where he lives with his partner of 15 years, Lisa Wickbold, and their children Phoebe, 7, Ivy, 5, and Darby, 3.

    It takes considerable drive and intensity to create record labels, music festivals, national tours and artistic careers out of thin air, especially when based outside of the traditional Australian music business seats of power in Sydney and Melbourne. For Piticco and Powderfinger, moving south never appealed. “We were regularly encouraged to leave by labels, agents, promoters and other bands; ‘Come down here, it’ll be better, there are more opportunities!’” he says. “Brisbane had value to us. It wasn’t just more affordable, it provided a framework and an emotional base. Our social networks were here. It’s something we’ve always been proud of, this city. There was never any doubt. I’m glad we stayed.”

    The sun sets over the Brisbane skyline on a recent cool evening as we sit at a table in South Bank restaurant Popolo, which Piticco co-founded in late 2011 with restaurateur Andrew Baturo and Denis Sheahan, Powderfinger’s former tour manager. Its name is Italian for people, in reference to the menu’s inclination towards shared dishes. While we talk, plates are laid out in quick succession. It’s far too much food for two men; Piticco jokes that his children will have some interesting leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

    In addition to Popolo, Piticco co-owns a stake in CBD venue The Gresham Bar, which opened late last year. This left turn into the hospitality industry has been on the cards for years. “The chef is the artist, the restaurateur is the producer,” Piticco says. “The chef serves up his works; the producer critiques them, works out which ones are going to be the hits, which ones will pad out the menu. Instead of listening, you taste. The ambience is the marketing and packaging – the visual representation – but the real thing that makes a successful restaurant is the food. It’s just as it is in the music industry: a lot of bad bands have an image, but the songs are really the meat of the proposition.”

    Observing the detritus of a fine meal, Piticco sums up his life so far in simple terms. “I’ve always had this theory that stems from my mum,” he says. “Whether you’re a chimney sweep, a brain surgeon or a band manager, if you’re good at what you do, the rest takes care of itself. I just like having the opportunity to make a living out of music, for myself and others, and along the way make a whole bunch of people happy by enriching their lives in some way. And to get paid for it? That’s fucking awesome!

    Splendour In The Grass, July 25-27, North Byron Parklands, Byron Bay. splendourinthegrass.com 

  • 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Welcome to Dispatches.