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  • 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.

  • Mess+Noise Storytellers interview: Shihad – ‘Deb’s Night Out’ and ‘Home Again’, May 2012

    An interview for the Mess+Noise ‘Storytellers’ series. Excerpt below.

    Storytellers: Shihad’s Jon Toogood

    As part of our occasional Storytellers series and to coincide with the release of a new career-spanning documentary, ANDREW MCMILLEN talks to Shihad’s Jon Toogood about two tracks from their back catalogue: an unheralded gem from the mid-1990s and the most popular song they’ve written to date.

    Shihad, one of New Zealand’s longest-running bands, have enjoyed a healthy career marked by experimentation. Now based in Melbourne, they’ve moved from industrial metal (1993 debut Churn) to include elements of pop and electronica (1996’s Shihad, 2008’s Beautiful Machine) while maintaining a central obsession with guitar-heavy rock music, as best exemplified on 1999’s The General Electric.

    I met with singer Jon Toogood [pictured above, far right] upstairs at Brisbane venue Black Bear Lodge – he was in town playing shows with new outfit The Adults – to discuss two Shihad songs in-depth: ‘Deb’s Night Out’ from 1995’s nine-song Killjoy; and ‘Home Again’, the first track from the self-titled album that followed a year later. Much has been written about how much energy Toogood exhibits when fronting Shihad on stage, and the same remains true when he’s engaged in conversation.

    ‘Deb’s Night Out’

    Andrew: I want to start with ‘Deb’s Night Out’. This song sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb, not only on that record but across your whole catalogue.

    Jon: Musically, it was very, very heavily influenced by Skeptics, who we were listening to a lot at the time. They’re a New Zealand Flying Nun band, who were quite different again from the Flying Nun crew in the fact that they weren’t using guitars. It was a lot of sample-based shit, a lot of keyboards. They used Euphonics, or E-Sonics … Some fucking early sampler. They just sounded fucking unusual but they also had this edge … [that was] quite majestic, melodically. Hard to explain. Really beautiful, but really weird.

    Anyway, we were listening to them a lot at that point. Phil [Knight, guitarist] wrote the loop the whole song’s based around, that thing that starts the whole song. That’s Phil on a sampler doing that. When he played it to me I was like, “Whoa, it’s really beautiful.” Then we wrote a bass line and then it was like, “Wow, that’s cool,” and then I just wrote a little poem over the top which was about a friend of my ex-wife’s who was a heroin addict. She came around to our house one night, in Wellington. At that point our daughter was one-year-old. She was asleep in the bedroom and her friend came around and was asking for money. We sort of chilled her out and then we ended up playing games, like Monopoly, but she was cheating. She also tried to steal some money so I actually said, “You – get the fuck out!” And it was pissing down with rain. So that’s where that song began.

    It’s a pretty relaxed instrumental, paired with lyrics that describe a dark tale of a relationship dissolving.

    It’s a song about disappointment, and a friend, really. She was more a friend of my ex-wife’s rather than mine. Oh, it was just the classic junkie thing. She was high; just never trust a junkie, really. She didn’t do anything to dispel that myth, or that cliche. She lived up to it. It was like, “Oh, that’s really disappointing”. I was a bit younger, so I learned, “Right, that’s actually how that drug works.” It was one of my earlier experiences with it. It was before Gerald [Dwyer], our manager, ended up dying of a morphine overdose.

    I didn’t know that.

    That happened after Killjoy [1995] and before the fish album [Shihad, 1996], which is probably a reason why the fish album is all over the place. Our heads were all over the place because we’d lost our manager.

    Was that in New Zealand?

    It was at the Big Day Out in Auckland. He managed us and another band called Head Like A Hole and we both had really blinding sets. We had seen him in the day; he was backstage and he’d rubbed his nose raw … because when he was on heroin, he’d scratch … The last thing I remember, it was really tragic, us all going [at the BDO], “You look a fucking mess, man. Get the fuck out of here! What the fuck are you doing?” He’s like, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” He went back to the hotel between our sets: we were on the main stage earlier, and Head Like A Hole were on the third stage later. He went back and had a hit, and it was really strong and he died. There was no one there at the hotel to help wake him up. By the time we’d got back to the hotel, someone knocked on his door, and then got it open, and he was dead on the floor. We thought it might have just happened, or something like that. But, yeah, he’d been dead for hours.

    Did you know that he had a problem like that?

    We knew that he used recreationally. But he had cleaned himself up for a while, and I think that’s what fucking killed him. Because he’d cleaned himself up for a while and then got some really pure morphine and basically decided to hit up what he used to do when he was using it more regularly – which kills a lot of people, anyway. There was no one there go to, “Hey, wake up.”

    So, ‘Deb’s Night Out’; how soon after that night did you write that song?

    Pretty much straight away, the day after. It was like – bam. [Guitarist] Phil [Knight] had given me that bit of music … It sounded like the feeling that I had, sort of bittersweet. Just sad, you know? And it was good timing. “Here you go Jon, I’ve got this music.” Great … We recorded it at York Street [Studios, Auckland], and we’d wanted it to be a loop rather than a live drum track. At that stage, as well, the studio was still new to us so everything was recorded to a two-inch tape. Before we were using ProTools properly, we went, “Oh fuck it, we’ll just cut a loop of Tom [Larkin] drumming.” So we actually cut it, had the splice going and we had to hold a drum stick in place [so that it could loop continuously] because there was only a small bit of tape. That’s why it’s got this weird skip in it, because it’s not quite perfect.

    That’s another cute thing I remember about that track. I remember laying down those keyboards right at the end, because it was always just one loop. I thought after that last line, “Pray for the rain/To wash you far away”, it needed to “rain”, musically. That’s the most Skeptics-y part, that whole [sings descending chord progression aloud]. It’s that sort of anthemic thing that the Skeptics did, but with keyboards.

    Did you ever see Deb again?

    Actually, I probably did see her once or twice, but nothing too deep. She probably was a little bit scared of me once we kicked her out.

    Does she know you wrote a song about her?

    I don’t care! [Laughs] I don’t even know if she’s still alive.

    At what point did you show your partner the song?

    At what point did I show my ex-wife? I remember her being around while we were recording it in Auckland. She would have known what it was about. [Pause] I’m always a bit cagey with lyrics, even with the people who are close to me – even with guys in the band. They’re real personal and I was always real … I don’t want people to not like them, so I keep them to myself until the very moment where I can’t hide them anymore, because we’re releasing the fucking record. Which is probably why I’m so fucking overly sensitive to bad reviews! [Laughs] Because I live in denial all the time! [Laughs] I am getting better at it. I am getting better at going, “Oh, fuck it. I’ve been doing it 22 years, this is the idea I’ve got, boom.” But around that, I was, what, 26 when I wrote that? Still very, very uptight.

    For the full interview, including questions about the classic Shihad track ‘Home Again’, visit Mess+Noise.

    Speaking with Jon about these tracks in September 2011 was a huge thrill for me, as I’ve long loved Shihad; my overall Last.FM charts show that I’ve listened to that band more than any other since I joined Last.FM in October 2004.

    The music video for ‘Deb’s Night Out‘ is embedded below.

  • The Vine festival review: ‘Big Day Out Gold Coast’, January 2012

    A festival review for The Vine. The full review appears below.

    Big Day Out 2012
    Gold Coast Parklands
    Sunday 22 January 2012

    Twenty years into this festival’s existence and strangely, the Big Day Out has less cultural relevancy than ever before. Or so you might believe if you paid attention to the Australian music media in the months leading up to the 2012 event. Or the BDO Facebook page. There irate fans compiled a list: the line-up’s shit, all the acts are tired and stale, they booked The Living End for the 18th year in a row, they’ve been beaten to the punch by specialist festivals booking bigger and better acts, Kanye West isn’t a proper headliner – ad nauseum. No wonder festival co-founder Ken West got vocal with frustrations at such concerns.

    So travelling to the Parklands today, I’m half expecting to spend the festival in a relatively empty venue. It’s a pleasant surprise to be completely wrong. This show isn’t sold out – none of the 2012 shows reached capacity, for the first time in a long time – yet it’s hard to discern much of a drop in attendance. Despite the vocal online haters, a summer in Australia without a Big Day Out to look forward to seems a sad prospect. This year’s tour needs to be excellent if the event is to survive, and it needs to start here on the Gold Coast.

    Up first on the Orange Stage is Abbe May and her three offsiders, who play compact, elegant rock songs led by May’s strong voice and commanding stage presence. The Perth-based singer evokes memories of Magic Dirt’s Adalita Srsen in full-flight; boot resting on the foldback, guitar held aloft. There’s a lot to like here for rock fans, and she seems to impress a lot of newcomers today as her crowd slowly swells past triple figures. Next on the Green Stage are Stonefield, who’re running 15 minutes late due to transport issues. The four Findlay sisters are forced to swallow the embarrassment of soundchecking their own instruments before a nearly full tent. Once they start playing, though, they’re thoroughly impressive. This tour could mark the beginning of their transition into a band who deserve to be taken seriously: strong musicianship, quality songwriting and a formidable frontwoman in drummer Amy Findlay. They cover Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and it slays: the day’s first goosebump-provoking moment. Funnily, Holly – the band’s bassist, and youngest member at 13 – starts windmilling her hair during the drum solo, apropos of nothing. It’s awesome. The crowd goes wild.

    On the Blue Stage, Parkway Drive outline the crossover appeal of their distinctive style of metalcore. By now, they’re essentially a mainstream act, so well-known is their image and presence. In ten years’ time, will we look back on these five Byron boys’ output as one of the defining Australian sounds? I hope so. These songs are etched onto the DNA of a generation of young hardcore fans, and they run through a solid set before a big crowd today. They’re a fine example of a band who clearly enjoy the hell out of their success; there’s nothing but smiles on show today. Singer Winston McCall struggles with the heat but keeps up with his incandescent bandmates; he even manages to catch two airborne water bottles during a single song, ‘Anasasis’. Five huge Parkway Drive-branded beach balls bounce around the D section for the duration of their set, which thoroughly satisfies.

    The same can’t be said for OFWGKTA, the Los Angeles hip-hop collective. Today is the day that the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All bubble bursts. They sound like shit live. I wrote otherwise when they visited Australia for the first time last June, but today’s performance is truly horrendous. It’s not a matter of how the show’s mixed, either: the problem can be isolated to five dudes holding microphones and using them incessantly, rather than sparingly. Each line is barked by the rappers, not rapped. As a result, the sonic nuance that the group exhibit on record is non-existent today; instead, a hodge-podge of disparate, aggressive voices over a backbeat. The crowd at the Boiler Room is huge, and they explode with joy once the five rappers and one DJ – singer Frank Ocean nowhere to be seen, apparently – show their faces. After 15 minutes of watching and attempting to listen to their set, it becomes funny to think about how bad they sound. On record, impressive. Here? Appalling. At times it sounds like they’re just rapping over an mp3; during the Tyler, The Creator track ‘Transylvania’, the group’s original lines can be clearly heard underneath their live raps. 35 minutes in, ‘Yonkers’ could be the set’s only saviour, yet it too disappoints. Tyler barely raps a word; the crowd does it for him. When he does use the mic, he’s drowned out by his bandmates barking his best lines. In a short, it’s a bomb. Which ruins the last chance that this set had of redeeming itself. The crowd leaves en masse at song’s end and I wonder why I’m still standing here.

    Before the Orange Stage, Australian hip-hop heroes Hilltop Hoods are welcomed by a huge crowd. Featuring live keyboards and drums (the latter via Plutonic Lab, half of the duo Muph & Plutonic), DJ Debris and the two MCs stoke excitement in the crowd. I take it in while standing nearby the free Slurpee tent and admiring the extraordinary amount of waste caused by thousands of straws, cups and straw wrappers. The Hoods’ new stuff is not particularly remarkable – one chorus consists of “I’m no good” over and over – and when they threaten to play more, I shoot through. It’s been a disappointing couple of hours. I need to see something inspiring.

    Norwegian electronic act Royksopp fills that gap perfectly. Their hour-long set at the Boiler Room is commanding: it’s their first time in the country, and they’ve evidently brought a trunk full of props to mark the occasion. Flanked by a guitarist and bassist clad in capes and face-masks, the core duo of Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland adorn themselves with a range of costumes and enormous light-emitting helmets (a la Deadmaus, Daft Punk) as they work through tracks from their four albums. From the opener, ‘Alpha Male’, the quartet is outstanding: the sound booms loud and clear, and they’re met with a tent full of dancing bodies. After ‘Happy Up Here’, ‘Eple’ and ‘Remind Me’, an unintroduced blonde female singer emerges and faithfully reprises Robyn’s vocal part during ‘Girl And The Robot’, while acting alongside one of the duo (wearing a huge robot helmet with red and green lights, natch). She reappears for a slowed-down version of ‘What Else Is There?’, an achingly beautiful track from 2005’s The Understanding that was originally sung by The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson. Incredibly, the singer captures Karin’s idiosyncratic vocal style in whole, while wearing a Knife-inspired bird mask. They air ‘Poor Leno’ then discover that they’ve got time for one more, so the girl reappears to again reprise the role of Karin for ‘This Must Be It’. It’s hard to imagine walking away disappointed from the Boiler Room after Royksopp: intense, compelling and not boring for even a second, it’s the best set I’ll witness today.

    It begins to rain during Battles’ set under the tent at the Essential Stage. The New York City-based quartet became a trio last year; having them seen them dominate with four members, I’m interested to see whether the same is still true with one fewer musician. The answer is ‘mostly yes’. There’s an incredible amount of tension during the first few minutes of ‘Africastle’, before John Stanier starts drumming. Ian Williams and Dave Konopka wind their way through snaking guitar lines and teasing keyboard phrases that build up to Stanier’s first drumbeats. His kit has been mic’d incredibly well: the snare is so punchy that it sounds like a whipcrack each time he smacks it. Stanier is a demon behind the kit, and he pulls focus throughout their 50 minute set. To compensate for the lack of vocalists, they’ve wedged two LCD screens on either side of the kit, which display HD footage of Kazu Makino (‘Sweetie & Shag’), Matias Aguayo (‘Ice Cream’) and Gary Numan (‘My Machines’) singing along to the songs. (A huge, high definition Gary Numan glaring at you for a few minutes is quite an imposing sight.) The trio have worked out how to do tracks from their debut album, Mirrored, without singer/guitarist Tyondai Braxton; they play a sample of a children’s choir singing the nonsensical lyrical hooks of ‘Atlas’, and it works well despite a couple of miscues from Williams. That track is excellent today; so too ‘Tonto’ from the same album, though it’s a curtailed version. Things fall apart during ‘Wall Street’ midway through the set, though: one of Williams’ keyboards fails, and Stainer and Konopka spend a few minutes in a holding pattern, playing the same short phrase, before eventually ending the track. Frustration abounds on stage; such is the lot of a band so reliant on technology and carefully daisy-chained connections to make their music. They never quite regain their momentum after this technical problem, so it remains a good set, but not a great one.

    The rain has ruined the potential to witness Tony Hawk skateboarding on the vert ramp near the main stages. Despite the efforts of a crew who optimistically mop up the wet while the legend walks around the halfpipe, posing for photos, his intended 6.30pm start has been thrown way out. Still, a crowd of hundreds hang around, hoping to witness the man in full flight; the sport’s only true ‘rock star’. A drunk guy near me yells, “Skate or die, Tony!”. Hours later, while standing inside the D barrier, I look over my shoulder and see dozens of skaters lining the top of the ramp while a single figure cuts a path inside. Perhaps the Birdman finally flew, some two hours after his scheduled time. On the Blue Stage, British act Kasabian are performing, but not inspiring. They’re being watched by a few thousand people but they’re decidedly vanilla. It’s only for the closing pair, ‘Vlad The Impaler’ and ‘Fire’ – the latter custom-made for licensing to late night sports shows, it seems – that they raise the bar slightly.

    Two acts to go. On the Orange Stage, Seattle grunge act Soundgarden sound really fucking good, and all four of them are all the way into it. This isn’t a half-arsed reformation. The worst thing that a reformed band can do is either perform without heart (The Pixies, I’m looking at you) or fail to match their on-record sound. Soundgarden pass both of these tests, and ensure that no-one’s fond memories are tarnished tonight. The opening trio (‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed’, ‘Spoonman’ and ‘Let Me Drown’) is impressive, and from here the band only get better. Rain begins bucketing down, and sticks around for a few songs. ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Loud Love’ and ‘My Wave’ are highlights, so too singer Chris Cornell’s stage banter. “Steal all the records!” he says after telling us about the band’s intention to release a new album this year. “You might as well, otherwise you’ll have to hear them on a CD, which sounds like shit anyway.” While they play, a dude is bucketing water off the top of the side-of-stage sound tent, directly down onto the stage area between Orange and Blue. It doesn’t seem like a particularly smart or safe decision. Cornell makes a weird announcement toward the end of their 75 minute set: “This is the last Big Day Out ever. I mean, right now. Get out!” he yells. Nobody knows how to react. “Not really,” he clarifies soon afterwards. “Maybe they’ll do it again next year. I don’t know.”

    During Soundgarden’s set, the Blue Stage has become an all-white affair for the headliner. Several stagehands are prowling the stage, very carefully observing the speakers at the front of stage. The same men are still doing this ten minutes after Kanye West was due on stage. Like there aren’t tens of thousands of people watching and waiting. A pretty funny situation, at first. 16 minutes late. and the men are pointing at a spot near the front of stage. (I bet they wish they brought a big black curtain with them, like Rammstein did last year, so we couldn’t see what they were doing.) This is excruciating and embarrassing. And nobody’s talking to the audience, telling us why we’re waiting. The Chemical Brothers’ 1997 album Dig Your Own Hole is playing over the PA. The stage manager keeps testing the wireless mic across the length of the stage, before the foldback speakers. He doesn’t look pleased. Backstage, the entire crew must be tearing their hair out. The headliner is 20 minutes late.

    At this point the D barrier opens up again – presumably due to punters attempting to find musical entertainment elsewhere – so I venture back inside. Stagehands are scuttling across the front of stage, running cords, replacing and reconnecting foldback speakers at the insistence of the stage manager. I keep thinking to myself: Kanye’s going to cancel, and shit is going to hit the fan. 9pm comes around; the headliner is half an hour late, and still nobody is communicating anything to the audience. Dig Your Own Hole plays on (good album, that). Bottles are being thrown. Stagehands dart out to retrieve the missiles. The stage manager looks ready to strangle someone. What a fucking nightmare. Someone is losing their job over this shit. Many people, perhaps.

    After 35 minutes, the crowd starts a “bullshit” chant which is quickly adopted by thousands. Sensing a near-riot on his hands, one of the stagehands grabs a microphone and belatedly explains, “The rain fucked with a lot of things. One minute wait for Kanye,” he promises, holding up his index finger. The crowd begins counting down from 60. It seems like a very Australian thing to do. I smile at this, and at the stupidity of the sound guy for promising something that clearly won’t be fulfilled. Around 30 seconds after that minute has passed, Kanye arrives! Clad in a white suit! Except it’s not him, it’s his DJ. Who stands behind his decks and laptop for a while, studying his fingernails, saying nothing. A few minutes later he steps down from his podium and retreats backstage again. It’s been 41 minutes since the headliner was due. Again, no communication. Lots of boos; people leaving; more missiles.

    After 43 minutes, a crew of people is led through the photo pit in front of the Orange Stage, including what appears to be a couple of members of Odd Future. Right on 9.15pm – 45 minutes late – the show starts. Operatic vocals are broadcast through the PA at enormous volume. Dozens of skinny female ballet dancers flood onto the red-lit stage. The music is from ‘H.A.M.’, a track from Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne. Then the vocal sample from the beginning of ‘Dark Fantasy’ is broadcast. The rapper isn’t on stage. People begin to look over their shoulders, searching for the man. A scissor lift clothed in black fabric has been erected directly in line with the stage that Soundgarden began performing on two hours ago. A spotlight is flicked onto the top of the lift, where Kanye stands, mic in hand, telling us to get our hands in the air. The beat drops. The crowd goes bananas. In an instant, we’re all transformed from pissed and impatient to ebullient. It’s a showman’s entrance, and it totally rules. Kanye, how can we stay mad at you?

    I’m in line with the scissor lift and I study the dozen security guards stationed at its base, and the two enormous black men who are evidently the rapper’s bodyguards. As ‘Dark Fantasy’ winds down, it becomes apparent that he’s going to have to walk through the Orange Stage side of the D barrier to rejoin the Blue Stage. The crowd realises, a few beats too late, that they have a chance of mobbing their hero. As the scissor lift descends, a few dozen fans tentatively move toward the star. The security bristles, forming a guard of honour as moments later, hundreds of fans – mostly young girls – flood toward the star, who steps onto the grass and begins dodging trash in his probably-expensive shoes. Kanye does not run, of course. He strides confidently, face impassive, flanked by strong men; he rounds the corner of the photo pit and deals out the occasional high-five to fans crowding the front barrier. Kanye, you glorious bastard! Even having seen a much more impressive version of this entrance at Splendour In The Grass 2011 – the star atop a ten-metre high, smoke-clad tower – it’s still an incredible sight; suspense, misdirection, surprise and joy, all within a couple of minutes, while ‘Dark Fantasy’ plays in the background. Given the ridiculous 45 minute wait and how quickly the crowd’s emotions were turned, I’m convinced that this is one of the funniest, most brilliant things I’ve ever seen. (I also love the idea of a random tradesman using that same scissor lift for a routine job tomorrow, completely unaware that it was used to hoist one of the world’s biggest rappers over the heads of tens of thousands of fans the night before.)

    From here, the set treads a well-worn path: it’s much the same one that he’s been doing since Coachella last year, and the very same set that 30,000 people saw at Splendour 2011. But it makes sense that he’s touring it again on the Big Day Out, to ensure it’s seen by a wide Australian audience before he retires it and starts afresh for the next album cycle. Six songs in, after a curtailed version of ‘Monster’, the rapper apologises for his late start. The crowd cheers. He explains: “Water got in the [front of house sound] boards, and fucked up the whole system. I don’t have in-ears [monitors], so I can’t even hear myself. But I’m sure the newspapers won’t run that tomorrow, because they always find other shit to write about me.” (He was right, of course).

    Note: Here’s the shit thing about the entire situation: it wasn’t Kanye’s fault that he was late on stage, but the entire crowd probably assumed it was. Yet nobody from the stage crew – or even his manager, or DJ – addressed the crowd at any point to inform us of the real reason: technical failure caused by the rain. (Which raises many, many more questions of the organisers. Here’s a few to begin: why was this allowed to happen? Why weren’t the foldback speakers covered at the first sight of rain? Why did they allow tens of thousands of dollars of equipment to be (likely) destroyed by water? Haven’t they been doing festivals at this same venue since 1994? Why did it take 35 minutes for someone to accept responsibility for communicating to the crowd?) And so his reputation will suffer in Australia, and none of it will have been his fault.

    Once the set’s underway, very little goes wrong for the headliner. The ballet dancers are particularly impressive during ‘Love Lockdown’; that aside, the 808s and Heartbreak bracket is still a yawn-fest, and the crowd leaves in droves. He messes up the lyrics in ‘All Falls Down’, despite earlier saying that it’s one of his “absolute favourites”, and immediately has his DJ start it again. He does a cool little a cappella verse and chorus during ‘Touch The Sky’. He restarts ‘All Of The Lights’ because we don’t respond to his line “MJ gone” with the required “Our nigga dead!” at an appropriate volume. “I want you to remember this moment for the rest of your lives!” he commands as the track starts up again. Indeed.

    His take on ‘Runaway’ near set’s end is excruciatingly long. During an extended outro, the rapper ruminates on his heartbreak, his regrets, how “assholes deserve to be lonely” and how if we love somebody tonight, we should hold them tight. This goes on for what seems like ten minutes, while a sole dancer runs through an improvised routine at his feet, twirling and stretching while he drags the song out way longer than expected. The set ends with ‘Hey Mama’ at 11.08pm, nearly two hours after he began. In an apparent effort to redeem himself for the late start, he’s far surpassed his allotted 90 minutes. Kanye, his band, and his dancers take a group bow and leave the stage. While it hasn’t been the best ever Big Day Out, it’s certainly among the most memorable. Til next year. Hopefully.

    For the archived version of the review and many more photos, visit The Vine. Above photo credit: Justin Edwards.

  • The Vine story: ‘First Three Songs, No Flash – And No Copyright’, March 2011

    A feature article for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    First Three Songs, No Flash – And No Copyright

    Andrew McMillen inspects the contracts and copyright law related to recent Australian tours by Big Day Out artists Tool and Rammstein.

    (Main pic: Slash vs Photographers at Soundwave, Adelade 2011 by Andrew Stace)

    As the 2011 Big Day Out tour wound itself across the country this year – it ended in Perth on Sunday, Feb 6 – hundreds of professional photographers snapped portraits of an artist line-up that included Californian hard rock act Tool and German industrial metal troupe Rammstein.

    These two bands were the heaviest-hitting acts on the tour. Yet their photo release forms also revealed that they were the bands most protective of their image. “All copyrights and other intellectual property rights shall be entirely Artist’s property,” read a line from Tool’s contract, which photographers wishing to capture the band from the front-of-stage photo pit were required to sign. “[The photographer] is prohibited from placing the photos in the so-called online media, and/or distributing them using these media,” stated Rammstein’s decidedly archaic contract, which concludes with an apparently self-defeating line about being subject to the laws of Germany.

    Such rights-grabbing statements are nothing new in the live entertainment business, where artists’ images and ‘trade secrets’ have always been fiercely protected. Eddie Van Halen was known to turn his back to the audience when performing innovative electric guitar solos before Van Halen were signed, so as to prevent both his newly-discovered techniques from being viewed by rival guitarists – or being captured by keen-eyed music photographers.

    Recent Australian tours by popular rock acts like The Smashing Pumpkins and Muse have demanded that photographers shoot only from the sound desk; Muse, too, issued a contract which states that photographers “hereby assign full title guarantee the entire worldwide right, title and interest in and to the Photographs, including the copyright therein”. Which means that if Muse (or, more likely, their management or lawyers) happen to be browsing your live photo portfolio and they’re particularly taken by a picture of bassist Christopher Wolstenholme’s fetching red suit, they can request the high resolution image file – or negative – free of charge. You have no power to negotiate because you’re bound by a contract.

    Why, then, in an age where the vast majority of gig-goers carry web-ready media devices in their pockets, are bands still so insistent on attempting to shield themselves from the close scrutiny of professional cameras? And are these contracts even legally binding, or simply attempts to scare newbie photographers into surrendering their hard work – with zero additional compensation on top of their publication’s one-time print fees?

    For the full article, visit The Vine.

  • The Vine interview: Chino Moreno of Deftones, January 2011

    An interview with Chino Moreno of Deftones, for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Interview – Deftones

    January 2011 is an interesting time for Australian fans to be witnessing Californian hard rock act Deftones. Here in the country for their first tour since 2007 – they headlined the Soundwave Festival that year – it’s been eight months since the five-piece released their sixth album, Diamond Eyes, to extensive critical acclaim (TheVine included). They’ve been on the road for most of that time, seemingly becoming comfortable with splicing new material amongst enough tracks from their big-sellers – second album Around The Fur (1997), and follow-up White Pony(2000) – to keep the long-term fans happy. 

    Diamond Eyes holds some of the heaviest tracks the band have ever committed to tape. Built around Stephen Carpenter’s Meshuggah-like downtuned guitars and Abe Cunningham’s punishing percussion, the album’s 11 tracks marry beauty and brutality in a way that Deftones had never – up until this point – fully realised. Despite the melancholy the band had been confronted with in the last few years – an underwhelming fifth album in 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist; drug addiction; and bassist Chi Cheng’s car accident in 2008, resulting in a severe head trauma that has kept him in a semi-conscious state ever since – Diamond Eyes, against the odds, is arguably the band’s most uplifting and optimistic release in their 23-year history.

    In the middle of the national Big Day Out tour, The Vine connects with singer – and occasional live guitarist – Chino Moreno on Friday 28 January, the eve of their first BDO sideshow at the University of NSW Roundhouse.

    Andrew: I’m interested to know what an average day as part of the Big Day Out tour looks like.

    Chino: It’s pretty mellow. We play semi-early, in the middle of the day, and I’ve not yet adjusted to the time change here, so I’ve been waking up every single morning at like 5 or 6am. So I’m up super early. I go out, I get coffee. I usually go for a run or something, and cruise around. I don’t get there until a little after noon. I get to the venue, and there’s usually a little bit of press or something like that, and then I get ready to play. We’ve been averaging to go on stage between 4 or 5pm. We play our set, and then hang out, and check out some of the other bands. There’s a few good groups who I’m into who’re on the lineup this year. So I cruise around and see some good stuff.

    I saw a video interview with a New Zealand website from last week, where you mentioned that you’re digging a band called The Naked and Famous.

    Yeah, I actually met them on the first night of the tour. They gave me one of their records, and I’ve listened to it, and I’m digging it. It’s similar to a lot of the stuff that I listen to, when I’m not listening to very loud music [laughs].

    Have you made any other musical discoveries while here on tour, so far?

    I wouldn’t say ‘discoveries’, so much. I got to see some bands live that I’ve never seen, like Crystal Castles. I got to see them perform live, which I was really into. I really like the records, so it was good to be able to see them live. Tool, as well; a lot of the time, I get to see them.

    Has Rammstein’s stage production convinced you to look into including pyrotechnics in your set?

    [Laughs] I don’t know, man. I don’t know if that’d work for us. I don’t know if we have the finances for that. They have, like, flames that go off every three minutes. That’s gotta be pretty pricey. But no, it’s cool; I always enjoy watching them play, because it’s very theatrical. They’re great dudes; they’re super nice. When you watch them on stage, you think they’re these huge beasts. But they’re very humble.

    For the full interview, visit The Vine. For more Deftones, visit their website. The music video for their song ‘You’ve Seen The Butcher‘ embedded below.

    Elsewhere: an interview with Abe Cunningham, Deftones’ drummer, for The Vine in April 2010

  • The Vine interview: Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles, January 2011

    An interview for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Interview – Crystal Castles

    A universal truism for music journalists: when a tour manager tells you to call back in 10 minutes because they “can’t find” your interviewee, it’s a bad sign.

    In this case, the interviewee is Ethan Kath, the producer and instrumental half of Canadian duo Crystal Castles. Kath has been dabbling with experimental electronica for over six years now, but it wasn’t until he discovered livewire vocalist Alice Glass – who, at the time, was in her late teens, fronting a noise punk band named Fetus Fatale, and spitting beer onto heckling middle-aged punks – that the act we now know as Crystal Castles took form. Since then, they’ve released two self-titled albums of glitchy, gaudy, distorted electronica, as well as the occasional beautiful pop song. See: ‘Celestica’, from last year’s Crystal Castles II – which rated highly on TheVine’s annual critics poll – and their most recent single, ‘Not In Love’, a song originally performed by Canadian new wave 80s band Platinum Blonde which was covered by Crystal Castles and featured The Cure singer Robert Smith on guest vocals. Powerful stuff.

    Which brings us up to date with the present. Which Ethan Kath isn’t in. This isn’t the first time a Crystal Castles member is missing from an interview: a 2008 feature in Toronto magazine Now was written largely around Alice’s absence. I alternate between thinking about that article and going over my intended questions, while I wait the requested 10 minutes before re-dialling the local phone exchange, re-entering the PIN, and re-entering the 13-digit phone number that connects me to a mobile handset located somewhere in Tokyo.

    “Hey, it’s Ethan,” says a voice; one that bears bad news, delivered in stilted tones.

    The bit you probably already know: Ethan tells me that Alice has a broken ankle. The bit that we published as a news story – rightfully, I might add – which cast Crystal Castles’ scheduled appearances on the Big Day Out 2011 tour in doubt. To wit:

    How was your day in Tokyo?

    A little bit stressful.

    Why’s that?

    Because Alice is injured.

    What happened?

    We’re at the hospital, having x-rays taken. It appears that she has a broken ankle.

    Oh shit. What will that mean for the Australian tour?

    I don’t know. Maybe she’ll be doing it in a wheelchair. I’m not sure.

    So this happened at last night’s show?

    No, it happened earlier.

    So to clarify, this is not going to affect your Australian tour?

    I don’t know. This is sort of a bad time to ask right now.

    Indeed. At the time, my mind was racing: Should I continue with the interview, given that Ethan’s right-hand lady is, right now, as we speak, getting her probably-broken ankle x-rayed? And…is this a scoop? I hadn’t heard about it anywhere else. (Afterwards, I’d check Twitter and find that a handful of Japanese fans had tweeted about it a few days earlier, but no other news outlets had reported it.)

    Having spent two hours earlier today researching dozens of past interviews with the band, I’ve been bracing myself for an unresponsive interview subject. I was right to. Admittedly, this was a difficult situation for Ethan to be in – attempting to answer questions about his music and career to an Australian journalist, while he’d probably rather be keeping an eye on Alice – but he didn’t sound too fussed about it all. I get the impression that he’s never fussed about anything much. I ask Ethan whether he wants to proceed with the interview. He says ‘OK’.

    For the full  interview, visit The Vine. For more Crystal Castles, visit their website. The music video for their song ‘Celestica‘ is embedded below.

    Sidenote: the initial news article about Alice’s broken ankle made it onto Hipster Runoff, which instantly became a career highlight for me. <3 U Carles.

  • The Vine festival review: ‘Big Day Out Gold Coast’, January 2011

    A festival review for The Vine. Excerpt below.

    Big Day Out 2011
    Gold Coast Parklands
    Sunday 23 January 2011

    It’s with no small amount of disappointment that the time we should have spent watching Gold Coast indie punk duo Bleeding Knees Club open the Boiler Room, and New Zealand electro-rock act The Naked and Famous open the Converse Essential Stage, is instead spent sitting on a bus. We’re just one vehicle amongst thousands caught in a tedious traffic jam caused by a two-car accident somewhere between Brisbane and the Gold Coast Parklands; call it a downside of Queensland’s reliance upon two- and three-lane thoroughfares between major cities. (I do get to hear the latter band’s final chorus in ‘Young Blood’ ring out from a distance, though, for what it’s worth.)

    Brisbane five-piece Blonde On Blonde are playing fairly by-the-numbers blues-rock on the Hot Produce stage when we do arrive at noon, but they’re interesting enough to avoid  sounding too formulaic. Put it down to frontman Jack Bratt, who charismatically lords over the crowd – which barely passes triple figures – like they’re headlining the festival. Ongoing sound problems threaten to crush whatever momentum and kudos they gain, but it’s a solid cover of the ace Queens Of The Stone Age tune ‘Regular John’ that wins me over. Doesn’t matter that the bass amp is emitting a low whine instead of what the bassist is actually playing. Bratt then closes the set by lashing his guitar into the stage in frustration.

    Brisbane local Sampology mixes up a storm under the shade of the Boiler Room. His adept turntable skills are usually augmented by cleverly-edited videos of famous films, but they’re curiously absent today. Instead, cameramen film his fuzzy mop and sleight-of-hand; a couple of times he glances over his shoulder at the screen, sees himself, and looks momentarily flustered. His mixing and musical taste is impeccable; his set pacing, not so much. While the first 25 minutes are wall-to-wall with killer mash-ups – Outkast’s ‘B.O.B.’ rhymes laid over Sleigh Bells’ ‘Infinity Guitars’ is my fave; I swear he throws in the theme from the ABC TV kids show Ship To Shore for a few bars, too – there’s a definite drop-off as he approaches the end of his set. It’s great to watch Sampology in action, though. The crowd’s with him from the outset, and it appears he’s building a decent fanbase.

    From the shelter of giant tents, to absorbing the sun’s unrelenting heat; weather-wise, it’s as near to a perfect day that this region has experienced in some months. As Airbourne thrash about in front of 24 stacked Marshall amps on the Blue Stage – I’m serious, I counted – I watch the Motorola motocross exhibit from up in the pavilion, and think about where else in the world I could be watching three riders backflip across a ten-metre gap while shit Aussie pub rock plays in the background. From this distance, all I can see is the shirtless Joel O’Keefe’s leg stomping to the beat, while the band plays the same handful of power chords in different combinations. The crowd paying attention to the band isn’t particularly impressive; when Lupe Fiasco begins on the Orange Stage, the numbers triple. Except that Lupe’s not happy with the sound, or the band, or something, and directs them all to stop. With his back to the crowd, he stands for several minutes while his entourage attempt to fix – or at least ascertain – the problem. He’s not having it; eventually, he walks over to his DJ’s table, rips out an expensive-looking piece of equipment, throws it to the stage floor, and walks off. A stagehand replaces it, and incredibly, Lupe returns to stage, throws it to the floor again, and disappears. Then the ten-nine-eight-etc countdown begins again, the band strikes up, the MC returns, and the song is played in full. It’s a very entertaining spectacle to eat a steak sandwich to. ‘The Instrumental’ from Food & Liquor is played within the first few songs, before I relocate to the Green Stage.

    For the full review, visit The Vine. Above photo by Justin Edwards.

  • A Conversation With Maynard James Keenan of Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, and Caduceus Cellars

    An interview with Maynard James Keenan – vocalist of Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, and more recently, a winemaker for Caduceus Cellars – conducted for Junior in mid-November 2010, ahead of Tool’s headline appearance on the 2011 Big Day Out tour.

    You can read the Junior cover story based around this interview here.

    At the time we spoke, Maynard was touring with A Perfect Circle for that band’s reformation shows. This is the full transcription of our conversation.

    ++

    Andrew: How are you today?

    Maynard: I’m sick.

    Sick?

    Bit of a head cold or something. I’ve had it for the last seven days.

    In the middle of a tour?

    Yeah, isn’t it great?

    Oh man, I feel bad for you. How have those shows been going for you, besides the sickness?

    They’ve been a struggle. It’s difficult enough to go out and do a regular tour and have the same or similar set, but to do three completely different sets and some of the songs you’ve never played live, and some of them you haven’t played in six or 10 years, and then have a cold on top of it… Jesus, some of these songs I had a difficult time singing 10 years ago, let alone 10 years later and being sick. So it’s definitely been a challenge. I’m up for it, but it’s been a challenge.

    Are you cursing your younger self for his vocal range?

    Yeah, I’m kind of pissed off at myself for having written songs that were pushing the envelope 10 years ago. And when I say pushing the envelope, I mean pushing my range, what I’m capable of. It’s definitely taking a toll.

    Since you’ve had a few years away from that band, are you able to look at those albums with fresh eyes and ears?

    That’s a tough one. I think it’s really difficult to do that, because I’m always going to hear the flaws. All I hear is the production flaws, or what I would have done differently performance-wise, so it’s hard to be objective with those. I never judge them too harshly; they just are what they are.

    I watched Blood Into Wine last night. [trailer embedded below]

    The DVD?

    Yeah. I think it should be compulsory viewing for all Tool and APC fans, new and old, to see where you are right now.

    Uh, how so?

    I’ve followed your work closely for around a decade, and I thought the film gave a great insight into a side of you that I couldn’t have imagined seeing 10 years ago. It seems like you drop your guard more often. Or at least, you’re more willing to entertain the thought.

    Yeah. It wasn’t an easy film to be involved in. It’s hard to have people follow you around with cameras for a year.

    Did you enjoy the process, though?

    Oh, no. I was more concerned about… I wanted to be more concerned about what we were doing in the vineyard, and with the business in general. Building the winery was a lot of work and it was still in its infant stages. But it might not have been as interesting a movie if this was 10 years into the winery already being established. But you know, our chaotic first couple of years probably made the film more interesting.

    Are you able to look at a film like that objectively and judge your past actions?

    No. [laughs] I don’t know.

    Tool’s early identity was defined by this unwillingness to play the same image-driven game that every other band did. Am I right to believe that you’ve moved on a little since then?

    Well, I don’t think that there was a master plan in place, like a manifesto that we came up with that said “we’re not going to do these things”. It might have been that, as individuals and collectively, we were just dysfunctional enough to where we were incapable of playing along. And so it just managed to work in our favour when it could very well have worked against us.

    I think just the timing, and all the stuff that went on with Nirvana at that point in time; I think that opened the doors for A&R people who didn’t have a clue about what they were really getting into. They didn’t understand it. They figured they better sign it, because they didn’t understand Nirvana. “Sign ‘em, hurry up!”, and then look for the next big thing. That just worked in our favour as Tool, because they definitely didn’t understand us. We got to dig our heels in and do what we wanted.

    Did you know what you were doing at that point? All four of you saying “no we’re not going to do that shit, we’re not going to do a bunch of interviews, we’re not going to pose for photos…”

    We just didn’t know how to, so we just said no. We weren’t really sure how it affected us, but we just weren’t capable of saying yes, so we just kept saying no, and it kept working so we just continued to keep saying no.

    These days you say yes to a few more things, maybe not everything. Would you call that maturity or just a realisation that sometimes it’s okay to share some things?

    Yeah, I think once you understand something a little more, then you can discern what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. I think it’s still difficult for some of us to say yes to anything, because we’re so used to saying no. We just think about it too much and then at some point you start tricking yourself into thinking that you actually knew why you said no. And you have to get involved in everything to dissect it and think about it.

    It’s kind of like when you’re working on your house, or something, and have some kind of inspector coming by to look at what you’ve done. He has to say something is wrong. Otherwise you’re not justifying his existence if he doesn’t find something wrong with what you did. So by presenting the question to a band with them saying ‘no’ all the time, to get their permission. You’ve heard ‘it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission’?

    Yes.

    Yeah. That’s kind of how, at some point, people are just going to start treating you that way.

    Do you give much thought to why people are interested in Maynard James Keenan?

    No. I just kind of do what I do, and I try my best with whatever I’m doing, but I don’t know if it’s good or not; I just do what I do and people tend to show up for it. I’m thankful for that. I do my part, keep doing things, so at the end of the day I kind of get to stick to what makes sense for you to do, and hopefully at the end of the day you can sleep at night.

    Can you sleep at night, Maynard?

    Oh yeah, absolutely!

    In a similar vein, and a similar question, do you reflect much on your influence as an artist in the last 20 years?

    I don’t… Influence… What do you mean?

    The fact that you’ve inspired singers to sing, performers to perform, musicians to start bands.

    We have?

    I’m sure you have.

    Oh. I don’t know, I just assume people… really?

    Are you playing with me, Maynard?

    No, I – I thought it was a hypothetical.

    No, not at all.

    I have no idea. I guess the answer is no, I haven’t really reflected on that because I haven’t really… That’s nice to know that we’ve inspired people to do stuff.

    To turn the question around, which artists have been influencing and inspiring you recently in a musical sense?

    Well just in the artistic sense, people like Penfolds’ wine. Max Schubert. His dedication to following his heart. People like Lance Armstrong, people like Joni Mitchell, who just do what they do and everybody else be damned. Not that they don’t like people, but they have to do what they do.

    You have that quote at the end of the film [Blood Into Wine] where you say “As artists, it’s our job to observe, interpret, and report.” That seems to read as a kind of mission statement for you. I’m interested to know when and how you decided upon this role of the artist?

    I guess it was more hindsight, when you look back and see what you’ve done and you go, ‘Okay, what the fuck have I been doing?’ You kind of have to fill out an outline of what it is you’re doing and the best explanation I could come up with was between making wine and handmade pasta, and painting and sculpting, and architecture and music. Then you just like look at the thing, digest it, and then re-present it.

    Has your belief in art strengthened over time?

    I don’t know if I understand that statement. Believing in art?

    As an artist, you value art. Has that feeling become stronger?

    If you have any success with your interpretations, the hardest part is staying fresh and not falling into a rut, and thinking that you know all the answers. That somewhat chaotic state, that confused, vulnerable state I think is important to at least have a finger on. You don’t have to beat yourself up, you don’t have to suffer for your art but you definitely have to be a little confused to understand where to move.

    If you’re a chef and you’re trying to use fresh vegetables, the weather is going to affect your menu, and you can’t just rely – if you’re a good chef and you present something that’s alive and vibrant, you have to embrace the fact that it’s not going to be consistent. You have to be able to roll with the changes.

    I watched an interview you did with Patton Oswalt, where he asked you about performing live. You said “It’s safer to act than to really be it anymore.” By that, did you mean you can no longer relate to what you’ve written in the past?

    No, I think I’m not quite sure – is that… that was in the film?

    No, that seemed to be like an outtake from around the same time. It was on YouTube.

    I don’t know. I’d have to see the clip to see in context what we were talking about.

    Fair enough.

    I would answer that but I would need to see it in context to really comment. Sorry. [clip embedded below]

    Sure. For example, what would you get out of performing a song like ‘Stinkfist’ nowadays?

    There’s always something I can improve in it. There’s parts of that song that I never quite get right, so I’m always looking for those spots to see how I can do them better but everything else is… At some point, some of it becomes autopilot. I don’t have to think about those pieces, I feel like I’ve got those down.

    I saw the Smashing Pumpkins recently. It felt like Billy [Corgan] was rushing to get some of his more well-known songs out of the way so he could play the new stuff. Can you relate to that kind of feeling?

    No, no. I mean, especially since James Iha’s not in the band, I can’t really relate to the fact that Smashing Pumpkins are out there.

    I see. Well, since you don’t necessarily have an album to promote this time around, will you be constructing a set list a little different to last time?

    Yeah, I’m hoping. We’re trying to re-present things in a different way, or pick different tracks that people haven’t heard. Which isn’t hard to do, since some of the songs that we perform, most people won’t have been born when we actually wrote them. It’ll be fun, regardless.

    Have you given much thought to the fact that you’re headlining Australia’s biggest national tour, which sold out in record time despite the fact that Tool hasn’t released anything in four years?

    Well in a way, it’s inspiring because it means people are still paying attention to what we’re doing and that’s good. We’ve definitely made a mark.

    I’d agree. I first saw you play live in 2002, when ‘Lateralus’ was really the pivotal moment of the set, where you gave that speech about going out and doing something positive and creating something. I want to ask; what did you get out of that little social experiment, of pausing to ask people to reflect on themselves, to go out there and do something that inspires them?

    Oh, I just took my own advice and started a winery.

    Thanks for your time, Maynard.

    Thank you very much.

    ++

    For more Maynard James Keenan, follow him on Twitter.

     

  • Junior interview: Maynard James Keenan of Tool, December 2010

    The cover story for the Dec 2010-Jan 2011 issue of Junior: an interview with Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan. Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

    Tool: Pushing The Envelope

    At first glance, Tool might seem an odd choice as a headline act for Australia’s biggest national touring festival.

    However, their level-headed approach to crafting immersive, long-lasting works has resonated with a hard-core of devotees who number in the millions worldwide. Although they’ve not released any new music since 2006’s 10,000 Days – which debuted at #1 on the ARIA charts, and remained in the top 50 for nine months – come January 2011, they’ll close each Big Day Out with a powerful selection of their best material (if their 2007 appearance on the same festival circuit is anything to go by).

    Examining just how and why Tool inspire such passionate devotion among so many progressive metal fans is a topic more suited to a book than a magazine article – and if you’re so inclined, one already exists (2009’s Unleashed: The Story Of Tool, by Joel McIver). A brief summary of the facts, then.

    After forming in Los Angeles in 1990, the quartet established themselves as an act diametrically opposed to the fame game pursued by many of their musical peers. Surprisingly, their preference for anonymity in the golden age of MTV earned them credibility in an era which decidedly lacked such merits. As a result, Tool aren’t the kind of band you can ‘sort of’ like. There’s no such thing as a casual Tool fan.

    With their potent combination of distinctive, heavy instrumentation and singer Maynard James Keenan’s singular voice, they’re perhaps the only rock band who were able to push back against a crumbling record industry and opt for quality over quantity. Including their 1993 debut full-length, Undertow, they’ve released just four studio albums; they’ve also maintained the same line-up, bar one bassist changeover in 1995.

    In mid-November, Junior had a rare opportunity to speak with Tool’s vocalist, Maynard James Keenan. Keenan is also known for holding the microphone in A Perfect Circle (APC), a less threatening – but no less remarkable – American rock act who released three albums between 2000 and 2004. After a five-year hiatus, APC are in the midst of shaking out the cobwebs on a short reformation tour, wherein they performed each of their three LPs in full, on successive nights in four American cities. Keenan is halfway through the short tour when Junior connects with him; we soon discover that the singer is suffering from a cold.

    How have the APC reformation shows been going for you, besides the sickness?

    Maynard: They’ve been a struggle. It’s difficult enough to go out and do a regular tour and have the same or similar set, but to do three completely different sets and some of the songs you’ve never played live, and some of them you haven’t played in six or 10 years, and then have a cold on top of it… Jesus. Some of these songs I had a difficult time singing 10 years ago, let alone 10 years later and being sick. So it’s definitely been a challenge. I’m up for it, but it’s been a challenge.

    Are you cursing your younger self for his vocal range?

    Yeah, I’m kind of pissed off at myself for having written songs that were pushing the envelope 10 years ago. And when I say pushing the envelope, I mean pushing my range, what I’m capable of. It’s definitely taking a toll.

    Since you’ve had a few years away from that band, are you able to look at those albums with fresh eyes and ears?

    That’s a tough one. I think it’s really difficult to do that, because I’m always going to hear the flaws. All I hear is the production flaws, or what I would have done differently performance-wise, so it’s hard to be objective with those. I never judge them too harshly; they just are what they are.

    Tool’s early identity was defined by an unwillingness to play the same image-driven game as every other band. Am I right to believe that you’ve moved on a little since then?

    Well, I don’t think that there was a master plan in place, like a manifesto that we came up with that said “we’re not going to do these things”. It might have been that, as individuals and collectively, we were just dysfunctional enough to where we were incapable of playing along. And so it just managed to work in our favour when it could very well have worked against us. The timing, and all the stuff that went on with Nirvana at that point in time; I think that opened the doors for A&R people who didn’t have a clue about what they were really getting into. They didn’t understand it. They figured they better sign it, because they didn’t understand Nirvana. ‘Sign ‘em, hurry up!’ – and then look for the next big thing. That just worked in our favour as Tool, because they definitely didn’t understand us. We got to dig our heels in and do what we wanted.

    Did you know what you were doing at that point? All four of you saying “no we’re not going to do that shit, we’re not going to do a bunch of interviews, we’re not going to pose for photos…”

    We just didn’t know how to [do it], so we just said ‘no’. We weren’t really sure how it affected us, but we just weren’t capable of saying ‘yes’, so we just kept saying ‘no’, and it kept working so we just continued to keep saying ‘no’.

    These days you say ‘yes’ to a few more things, though maybe not everything. Would you call that maturity, or just a realisation that sometimes it’s okay to share some things?

    I think once you understand something a little more, then you can discern what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. I think it’s still difficult for some of us to say ‘yes’ to anything, because we’re so used to saying ‘no’. We just think about it too much and then at some point you start tricking yourself into thinking that you actually knew why you said ‘no’. And you have to get involved in everything to dissect it and think about it. It’s kind of like when you’re working on your house or something and have some kind of inspector coming by to look at what you’ve done. He has to say something is wrong. Otherwise you’re not justifying his existence if he doesn’t find something wrong with what you did. So by presenting the question to a band with them saying ‘no’ all the time, to get their permission… you’ve heard the saying “it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission”? At some point, people are just going to start treating you that way.

    Do you give much thought to why people are interested in Maynard James Keenan?

    No. I just kind of do what I do, and I try my best with whatever I’m doing, but I don’t know if it’s good or not; I just do what I do and people tend to show up for it. I’m thankful for that. I do my part, keep doing things, so at the end of the day I kind of get to stick to what makes sense for you to do, and hopefully at the end of the day you can sleep at night.

    Can you sleep at night, Maynard?

    Oh yeah, absolutely!

    Has your belief in art strengthened over time?

    If you have any success with your interpretations, the hardest part is staying fresh and not falling into a rut, and thinking that you know all the answers. That somewhat chaotic state, that confused, vulnerable state I think is important to at least have a finger on. You don’t have to beat yourself up, you don’t have to suffer for your art but you definitely have to be a little confused to understand where to move. If you’re a chef and you’re trying to use fresh vegetables, the weather is going to affect your menu, and you can’t just rely – if you’re a good chef and you present something that’s alive and vibrant, you have to embrace the fact that it’s not going to be consistent. You have to be able to roll with the changes.

    What do you get out of performing a song like ‘Stinkfist’ nowadays?

    There’s always something I can improve in it. There’s parts of that song that I never quite get right, so I’m always looking for those spots to see how I can do them better but everything else is… At some point some of it becomes autopilot. I don’t have to think about those pieces, I feel like I’ve got those down.

    Since you don’t necessarily have an album to promote this time around, will you be constructing the set list differently to your last Australian tour?

    Yeah, I’m hoping. We’re trying to re-present things in a different way, or pick different tracks that people haven’t heard. Which isn’t hard to do, since some of the songs that we perform, most people won’t have been born when we actually wrote them. It’ll be fun, regardless.

    Tool were my favourite band all throughout my teenage years, so being offered the chance to speak with Maynard was a pretty big deal for me. Thanks to the staff at Junior for making it happen.

    If you’re interested in reading the full transcript of my conversation with Maynard, you can read it here.

  • The Vine interview: Thom Powers of The Naked and Famous, December 2010

    An interview for The Vine with Thom Powers of New Zealand pop/rock act The Naked and Famous. Excerpt below.

    Interview – The Naked and Famous

    Throughout their long musical history, the island nation of New Zealand couldn’t lay claim to a single blog-worthy buzz band. Split Enz? Pre-internet, by a long shot. Shihad? They’ve been mining the same hard rock territory for 20-plus years, and they’re unlikely to extend their influence beyond anyone who’s not already a fan. Cut Off Your Hands? A contender, sure, but they’ve not released new music since 2008. Die! Die! Die!? Amazing band, but probably too punk-niche to be retweetable. Flight Of The Conchords? More of a comedy act than musical, I’d argue.

    Formed around the creative partnership of Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith, The Naked and Famous took their name from a Tricky song. Soon joined by electronic whiz Aaron Short and then David Beadle and Jesse Wood, The Naked and Famous’ fortunes took off with the release of ‘Young Blood’ in May 2010, much to the delight of music fans with an urge to scratch the same itch first disturbed by Passion Pit (and earlier, by MGMT’s debut). A divine slice of electro indie-pop, ‘Young Blood’ – 900,000 views and counting – is a monster single that taps right into the vein of naïve adolescence (for real: its first line is “We’re only young and naïve still”). The September-released album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, shot to #1 on the New Zealand off the back of that single and its equally addictive follow-up, ‘Punching In A Dream’. (Interestingly, first single ‘All Of This’ was released in November 2009, nearly a year before the album’s release. It failed to chart.)

    Despite their neon-glow, both singles betray the band’s true sound. Influenced by acts like Nine Inch Nails and Tool, Passive Me, Aggressive You’s non-singles exhibit more of a fascination with walls of shoegaze-like guitars and electronic sequencing than bright synth-pop. This is promising; it suggests that The Naked And Famous have a plan that extends much further than a couple of hypeworthy singles. Ahead of their appearance on the 2011 Big Day Out tour, TheVine connected with the band’s co-founder, singer, guitarist and producer, Thom Powers, to talk hype, remaining independent, and Reznor.

    I’ve seen the word ‘hipster’ getting thrown in the band’s direction a bit lately. How do you respond to that?

    Dissing us, are they?

    Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s negative. The connotation of ‘hipster’ tends to shift a bit.

    I don’t know. Hipsters are always going to exist, I think, and then they move out of home and grow up I guess. [laughs] I’m not sure, I don’t know. I don’t really know what to do about it. I’m not one of them, so I can’t really relate.

    Good answer. Do you read your own press?

    Sometimes, yeah. I skim through it. I try not to take it all too seriously. But it’s really hard unless you’re some sort of Zen Buddhist to actually detach and not become emotional about things, so it’s more to protect yourself. Don’t read the good ones, and don’t read the bad ones either. I do skim through them. I take it at face value, really.

    Do you care about what people think about the band?

    It’s a weird question. Yeah, I think I do, but at the same time if all I cared about was what people thought about [us], it would be superficial. I think that’s a pretty complicated question to ask, because I would care about what people thought if they thought it was destroying the world. But if some hipster thinks that I’m not cool enough, and he wants to call me a ‘faggot’ on the Internet, then I don’t really care about that. I can’t quite answer that question because there are too many social levels to answer it on.

    For the full interview, visit The Vine.

    More of The Naked and Famous on their website. The music video for their song ‘Young Blood‘ is embedded below.