All posts tagged sydney

  • 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.

  • The Saturday Paper story: ‘Sobering Proposals’, July 2015

    A news feature for The Saturday Paper – my first for that publication – published in the July 4 issue. Excerpt below.

    Sobering Proposals

    Proposed changes to liquor licensing laws in Queensland are ruffling the feathers of venue owners and drinkers alike, but data following strict changes in NSW correlate with a sharp fall in assault rates.

    ++

    For bouncers in pubs and nightclubs, the turn happens about 1am. After that, there is very little good to come.

    “Most of the positive interactions happen by then, in terms of people finding partners,” says Peter Miller. “After that point, the night starts to take a different direction: the later it gets, the uglier people get.”

    Miller knows a bit about this, having spent a decade working security in Melbourne and Geelong. Now a 50-year-old associate professor of psychology at Deakin University, he still spends a fair amount of time in bars, but he has traded his walkie-talkie for an iPhone app, which he and his team use to conduct in-the-field academic research in the form of “unobtrusive observations” of bar-room behaviour and interviews with pub patrons. “I’m not an ivory tower researcher,” he says with a chuckle. “I worked in the industry for a decade, and I’ve spent the last five years on the street.”

    The bouncers’ maxim Miller relays, that ugly behaviour sees a sharp rise after 1am, is particularly pertinent given that the Labor-led Queensland government plans to follow through with its pre-election commitment to curb alcohol-related violence by introducing a raft of statewide changes to liquor licensing. The laws follow similar regulation in New South Wales.

    “We will be bringing legislation before this house to stop pubs and clubs serving alcohol after 3am, and introducing a 1am lockout,” the Queensland attorney-general, Yvette D’Ath, said in state parliament on March 26. “We will be giving police the power to breathalyse drunk or disorderly patrons so they have the evidence they need to prosecute licensees, managers and patrons who breach the Liquor Act.” Also on the agenda was preventing the sale of “high-alcohol-content drinks” – including shots – after midnight.

    The thought of breathalysing patrons to prosecute venues seemed wild and open to police abuse. Drunkenness is not an unknown quantity in any bar at closing time. The Gold Coast Bulletin seized on the claims, running a front-page story headlined “D’Ath Vader”, complete with a Photoshopped image of the minister dressed as the Star Wars villain. The strapline: “Attorney-General using the force to keep the peace … and keep you sober”.

    “Allowing police to breathalyse drunken patrons will help them to build cases for prosecution for court,” D’Ath told the Bulletin. “For example, police consider a [blood-alcohol] reading of 0.15 to be highly intoxicated.” Strangely, D’Ath’s office issued a clarifying statement the same day, which noted, “There is no plan to random breath-test drinkers and there never has been.”

    To read the full story, visit The Saturday Paper.

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

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

    The Last Page: Paddy Cornwall of Sticky Fingers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Qweekend story: ‘Beat Generator: Tom Thum’, October 2013

    A story for The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine, originally published in the October 26-27 2013 issue. Click the below image to view as a PDF, or read the full story underneath.

    Beat Generator

    A young Brisbane man with a versatile voicebox has built a career out of the unlikeliest of musical talents.

    Qweekend story: 'Beat Generator: Tom Thum' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013. Photograph by David Kelly

    Story Andrew McMillen / Photography David Kelly

    Moments after completing the most important performance of his life, Tom Thum gave a gesture that seemed fitting: he leaped in the air and clicked his heels. The Brisbane-based musician had spent the last eleven minutes with the thousand-strong Sydney Opera House audience in the palm of his hands, entertaining TEDxSydney conference attendees with little more than his voice and a microphone.

    “My name is Tom, and I’ve come here to come clean about what I do for money,” he said upon taking the stage in May. “I use my mouth in strange ways in exchange for cash.”

    Innuendo aside, Thum’s description of his own talent couldn’t be more apt. Beatboxing — a technique rooted in using the human voice as a percussive instrument in the absence of a boombox or a drum kit — is a highly specialised skill within hip-hop culture, and one that has proven almost impossible to cross over into the mainstream. Yet through a freakish ability to accurately mimic musical instruments and layer intricate compositions, allowing him to replicate the vibe of a smoky jazz dive or Michael Jackson’s signature hits – among many other unlikely and impressive feats – the 28-year-old has connected with a mass audience.

    The standing ovation was enough to prompt a celebratory heel-click, but the best was yet to come: in the hours that followed, his vocal talents contributed to an impromptu jam session with guitar virtuosos John Butler and Jeff Lang, and he was approached by Audi Australia representatives to star in an online advertising campaign that saw Thum mimicking the vehicle’s complex array of sound effects. Footage of the performance clocked one million YouTube views within two days of being uploaded in July. By the end of September, Beatbox Brilliance – so dubbed by conference organisers – had surpassed six million hits and become the most-watched TEDx video of all time. The boy from Brisbane christened Tom Theodore Wardell Horn had gone viral.

    ++

    While the empty building bakes in the heat of an early spring day, the artist reclines in a well-worn office chair in a recording studio at Elements Collective, a hip-hop dance studio in inner-north Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. He tweaks the vocal mix on a local MC’s debut album at high volume while hunched over a Macbook. Navy curtains block out the sunlight; a bold, colourful graffiti mural dominates the back wall. Wearing long pants, a baggy black shirt and silver sneakers, the jetlagged artist is enjoying his second full day back in the Queensland humidity.

    Some of Tom Thum’s appeal can be ascribed to his gregarious on-stage nature. In the video, he comes across as a personable extrovert who revels in the ability to share his talent with the middle-aged audience, many of whom have probably never seen or heard anything like it. It helps, too, that the tanned, blue-eyed young man is easy on the eye; plenty of YouTube and Facebook comments mention his appealing appearance. It’ll disappoint those adoring female fans, then, to learn that he’s been in a relationship for three and a half years. “I think she likes my work,” he says thoughtfully. “But she doesn’t like the things my work makes me do.”

    By this he refers to the fact that most of his year is spent on the road. The past several months have been devoted to touring throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and United States, performing both solo and as a duo, alongside Melbourne-based singer and guitarist Jamie Macdowell.

    While Horn’s dance card has been packed of late – he’s spending a little over a week at home before jetting off once again, this time to work on a hush-hush project with a well-known American animation studio – it’s been a hard slog to get to this point in his career. Born at South Brisbane’s Mater Hospital on April 2, 1985, Horn attended Yeronga State School and, later, Anglican Church Grammar School in East Brisbane. “People always ask me if my real name is Tom Thum,” he says. “My parents aren’t that sadistic! Tom Horn would’ve been a good stage name; either that, or a porn star name.”

    Horn is a true student of hip-hop, having embraced the art form in its four distinct elements – aural, physical, visual and oral – and excelled at each of them. His entrée into Brisbane’s underground hip-hop community began with taking an interest in graffiti writing in 1999. He started learning how to breakdance in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2001 that Horn heard beatboxing for the first time. “It was a couple of years after that until I realised it was something I could pursue,” he says. “I just really liked it, and worked at it. I never thought about it competitively; I did it because I was a hyperactive kid with too much time on his hands.” He was never diagnosed with attention-deficit or any associated disorders. “I just picked up a microphone,” he shrugs. “That was the medication.”

    After graduating from Churchie and exploring the fringes of Brisbane’s independent music scene, Horn started a Bachelor of Arts (Psychology) at southside Griffith University in 2003. He sat in a crime and justice lecture and wondered, “What am I doing here? I’m a hyperactive little graffiti writer in a room full of aspiring cops! The second that I understood that no-one was going to force me to go to uni, I was like peace, baby!

    Horn gave up breakdancing earlier this year as a result of constant injuries and between 2007 and 2012 toured the world with Tom Tom Crew, a theatre troupe that featured five acrobats backed by three musicians who blasted loud drum’n’bass, dub and hip-hop. Horn has also released three albums as a rapper under the MC name Tommy Illfigga, an EP as Tom Thum in 2012, as well as a 2010 LP of beats as Crate Creeps, a partnership with fellow Brisbane musician DJ Butcher. Beatboxing is Horn’s forte, though: his versatile voicebox won him first place at the World Beatbox Battles alongside compatriot Joel Turner in 2005; and in 2010, he was awarded “best noise and sound effects” at the World Beatbox Convention in Berlin.

    ++

    Brisbane beatbox musician Tom Thum performing at TEDxSydney in May 2013One Saturday morning last November, Horn woke with a start in his rented Berlin apartment. His musical offsider, Jamie Macdowell, was about to leave to get a second key cut. The pair had performed together the previous night and come home, completely sober; a strangely quiet Friday for two young men in a foreign country. Suddenly, Horn broke the silence by yelling for his friend. “I went into his bedroom and Tom was reeling,” says Macdowell, 27. “He said it felt like there was a ten cent piece on his sternum, and an elephant was sitting on the coin. As soon as he sat up, he just lost his mind. The pain got so intense that he couldn’t talk or move. He fell back down onto the bed and was shaking. It looked like he couldn’t breathe.”

    An ambulance took him to hospital, where he was admitted to a cardiac ward. His roommates were two elderly Germans. The pair listened to the doctor describe what had happened to Horn in complicated medical terms. “We couldn’t understand; we were nodding quizzically,” says Macdowell. “Tom got it before I did. He said to her, ‘is this the kind of thing that you would explain to someone who’d just had a heart attack?’ She looked straight at him, full of intent, and said ‘yes’.” The next day, Horn underwent an operation to put a stent in his heart; “a rollcage that stops your artery from collapsing,” in his words.

    That near-death experience provided fertile ground for planting the seeds of artistic inspiration. “It was fucking boring in the hospital,” Horn says. Naturally, his creative mind wandered. While he couldn’t understand what the doctors or his roommates were saying, he was intrigued by the beeps, hums and whirs of the medical machinery that kept him alive. A key moment in Horn’s solo show is a layered reimagining of the sounds of the hospital, which gradually evolves into an evocative cover of Hearts A Mess, a 2006 single by chart-topping Melbourne musician Gotye, aka Wally De Backer.

    To his frustration, the assumption that many strangers make upon hearing this story is that Horn’s heartrate must have been artificially boosted. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Everyone assumes that, because I’m a musician and I had a heart attack, [I should] lay off the cocaine a bit,” he sighs. “No-one can tell me what [the attack] was from. I’d been deemed perfectly healthy by doctors. It’s not what you expect at age 27. Now I have to live on these medications – but at least I get to live on them. It gave me a great piece for my show … Everyone seems to think that heart attacks only happen to people over 60.”

    Macdowell adds: “Tom’s the most sober person I’ve ever met. He’s changed a lot since the heart attack. His consumption of alcohol has almost completely ended. He eats really well, and tries to exercise. It’s really changed him for the better.”

    Ever the perfectionist, Horn says he’s got four full albums of original material that haven’t yet seen the light of day due to his “inability to let go of things, and to call something ‘complete’. I’ve got a vault of music that hasn’t been opened yet.” He adopts the voice of a Hollywood mad scientist: “Soon I shall relinquish my pretties!

    With a few more dollars in his pocket of late, he’s keen to outsource some of the do-it-yourself ethic that has always surrounded the production of his own music. “I’ll still have 100 per cent creative input and control,” he says, “but I can be like, ‘okay, press record now! Drop the bass out of this, filter out that sample, boost this’. Because now I know what I’m talking about, I can still drive the ship without having my hands on the wheel.”

    ++

    For those few months each year that he calls Brisbane home, Horn stays with his parents in inner-south Annerley. His 60-year-old mother, Sue, admits that the cloud of noise that surrounds her eldest son can be irritating.

    “Especially if you’re watching something really good on TV, one has to be very patient,” she says. “I think if he lived at home all the time, it could be quite difficult. [This living situation] probably works well for us all.” The former nurse and her husband Murray, a forensic scientist, occasionally fret about his chosen career in the performing arts. “I’m not really happy about it, because I think it’s not a terribly stable industry. But he’s his own person. We have no influence,” she laughs. “We frequently have these discussions.” Are they playful discussions, or serious? “Playfully serious,” she replies. “Tom doesn’t appreciate them at all! He went to uni for a year and said that was the greatest waste of time. But I think he does have a lot of talent.”

    Macdowell agrees. “Tom is a prodigious noisemaker. He has no attention span for anything except beatboxing and creating sound effects. His practice is relentless. The guy just doesn’t stop making noise. It infuriates me when we’re on tour; I was okay with the European tour ending, just to get some silence,” he laughs. “But every time I think about saying something, or coming close to telling him to shut up, I remind myself that that’s why he’s so brilliant – he doesn’t stop.”

    While Qweekend’s photographer and his subject explore the colourful canvases at Elements Collective, 25-year-old Alex Steffan slips into the studio, slides on a pair of headphones and listens to the latest vocal mix that Horn has spent the morning working on. He nods his head in approval. “He was always the most talented one of our group of friends; he always had freakish abilities with his beatboxing, breakdancing and graffiti,” says Steffan, whose stagename is DJ Butcher. “We’ve all been waiting for him to blow up. All of a sudden, the TEDx talk has let the world know what we’ve known for ten years.”

    Throughout the photo shoot, Horn’s voicebox produces soulful trumpet tones, intricate beatbox phrases, and even a note-perfect take on Fly Me To The Moon. He’s preoccupied with perfecting his saxophone – “reed instruments are hard; I’ll get there one day” – and says that the hardest thing about making sounds with his mouth is in finding the instruments’ accents; their defining characteristics. The pluck in a blues guitar, or the woozy feel of its tremolo arm. The way the pitch slightly wavers in a trumpet when the player stops blowing so hard. The breathy tone of a flute. These are the sounds that Tom Horn studies and rehearses in a constant feedback loop that fills nearly every waking hour.

    “People often ask me if I’m making a living out of beatboxing,” he says. “I reply, well, I’m making a ‘not dying’. I’m not hungry. I’m definitely not making a living in terms of the traditional sense of saving up for a house, a home loan, a wife and kids; an Audi …” he smiles. “I’m not rich monetarily, but I’m definitely rich in experience, and that’s my priority at the moment. I’m not earning mad cheddar, but I’m 100 per cent happy with my life.”

  • Sydney Morning Herald story: ‘How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer’, April 2013

    A feature story for smh.com.au, the website of the Sydney Morning Herald. Excerpt below.

    How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer

    A malicious virus known as Remote Administration Tools (RATs) can be used by hackers to switch on your webcam and control the machine without your knowledge. Andrew McMillen reports.

    'How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer' story for Sydney Morning Herald by Andrew McMillen, April 2013

    The 14-year-old couldn’t believe his eyes. The virtual currency he’d worked so hard to amass in the online role-playing game Runescape had vanished. He’d lost the equivalent of $700 in the blink of an eye, after investing his pocket money into the game’s economy for months. All that remained was an instant message dialogue box: “Haha, you got RATted!”

    Sitting in his bedroom in Wauchope, on the mid-north coast of NSW, the teenager wrote back: “What does that mean?” He didn’t know at the time that his machine had been compromised by a Remote Administration Tool (RAT), an aggressive form of malware that allows hackers to access a victim’s entire computer. It was too late. The thief had disappeared. “He ran away with my money, like a girl,” laments Alex (not his real name).

    Weeks later, his desolation and rage had been replaced by joy. After researching RATs and spending an entire day spreading an innocuous link using Runescape’s in-game chat function, in the hope that someone would visit the page and run the Javascript application embedded within, Alex had his mark.

    Within a few clicks, the teenager had access to a stranger’s entire computer, without their knowledge. “I was the happiest kid in the whole entire world,” he says. “I could see their desktop, what they typed, the history of what they’d typed, stored passwords, files – everything.”

    His victim didn’t have a webcam, so Alex wasn’t sure of their gender or their appearance, although he assumes they were male. But he knew that they played Runescape, so he got straight to work on what mattered: looting their gold, just as he’d recently experienced himself.

    After emptying the stranger’s account, the teenager watched, intrigued, as his mark realised that he’d been hacked, and began trying to close the connection. Fifteen minutes later, Alex’s first “slave” – hacker shorthand for a compromised user – had disconnected himself.

    The RATted had become the RATter. “I felt unstoppable,” says Alex, now 17 and studying Year 11. “I was really insecure about myself at the time. I felt like the most powerful person on Runescape.”

    The senior security manager at antivirus software company Trend Micro has another name for RAT: Remote Access Trojan. “It’s a piece of software loaded onto somebody’s computer that allows it to be controlled or accessed from a third-party location,” says Adam Biviano in Sydney.

    “They often arrive on a computer masquerading as something else,” he says. “Just like the mythological story, you open your gates up and you allow it inside your protected walls. All of a sudden, you think you’re getting one thing, but in reality you’re getting what they call a ‘RAT’. You’re giving access to your computer to … who knows who.”

    To read the full story, visit smh.com.au.

  • SMH IT Pro story: “‘Larger technical issue’ in Facebook ad system”, December 2011

    A short feature for the Sydney Morning Herald’s IT Pro section. It’s my first work published under the SMH masthead. Excerpt below.

    ‘Larger technical issue’ in Facebook ad system

    Self-service ad platform gives advertiser grief.

    A Facebook employee has suggested the dramatic shifts in advertising rates on the company’s self-serve ad platform may be due to a “larger technical issue”, in an email to an Australian customer.

    The customer, Tim Levinson [pictured], manager of Sydney-based hip-hop music label Elefant Traks, claims to have experienced price hikes of up to 1000 per cent on the social network’s self-serve ad platform.

    Levinson has spent around $10,000 on Facebook advertisements in the last two years; roughly $100 per week, using the site’s pay-per-click model.

    In late July, he wrote a concerned email to Facebook’s ad sales team, noting that the pay-per-click rates had gone “inexplicably through the roof” – from $0.50 per click to as much as $5. The Elefant Traks manager – who performs under the MC name Urthboy, and is also a founding member of popular Sydney hip-hop group The Herd – noticed in July that the estimated cost-per-click suggested by Facebook’s self-serve ad system wouldn’t budge on its ‘suggested bid’ amount, regardless of whether he was bidding on popular – and therefore, more competitive and expensive – keywords such as ‘triple j’ and ‘bliss n eso’, or significantly less popular terms such as ‘sydney underground rap’.

    “I run a music business where a click results in an actual ‘sale’ only a certain percentage of the time,” he wrote in the email. “This is consistent across the board. The art is increasing that percentage through clever targeting. There is no way that $2 per click is value for money, let alone $3 or $4. There is no way that I gain useful information about the best keywords for targeting people who actually buy our product when the fee per click is the same, regardless of the targeted groups.”

    It took two weeks for a Facebook employee to respond. In the month of July, Levinson had been charged between $25 and $71 each day. On August 5, “Josie” from Facebook’s ‘Online Sales Operations’ team wrote back and explained how the pay-per-click system worked, despite Levinson having used the ad platform without problems for two years. His concerns remained, so the email conversation continued.

    For the full story, visit SMH IT Pro.

  • The Weekend Australian album review: The Necks – ‘Mindset’, November 2011

    An album review for The Australian, reproduced below in its entirety.

    The Necks – Mindset

    On their 16th album, this Sydney-based trio opt for two 21-minute long tracks rather than the singular instrumental piece that characterises most of their past releases.

    The opener, Rum Jungle, is a claustrophobic jam laced with menacing bass notes, jarring piano chords and insistent cymbal-tapping.

    It’s a consuming piece of work; from the initial five-minute mess of noise emerges some flighty piano progressions and, later, a fiercely strummed electric guitar – a rarity among the Necks’ overarching modus operandi, which is best captured in the title of their 1998 live album, Piano Bass Drums.

    Rum Jungle is thematically similar to their previous release, 2009’s Silverwater, in that its sustained creepiness invokes a sense in the listener of being constantly on edge.

    Track two, Daylights, marks a distinct shift in mood; its gentle, noir-like atmosphere is a breath of fresh air. Its gradual uncoiling has more in common with the soothing perpetual motion of their 2003 release Drive By, which won the trio an ARIA for best jazz album.

    This contrast between light and shade works well, and the absence of a narrator invites listeners to fill in the gaps themselves. Mindset is a fine addition to one of the most consistent catalogues in contemporary Australian music.

    LABEL: Fuse
    RATING: 3 ½ stars

    This review was originally published in The Weekend Australian Review on November 26. It’s my first album review for the paper. For more on The Necks, visit their website.

  • The Australian story: Hillsong Music Australia, October 2011

    A short feature for The Australian’s arts section about Hillsong Music Australia, the record label arm of the Hillsong Church. Excerpt below.

    The power in grooving for God

    [Photo above: Hillsong Live plays at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in December. Thousands of fans attend Hillsong’s conferences and live album recordings each year. Picture: Trigger Happy Images Source: Supplied]

    The crowd roars as the lights dim. All eyes are focused on the stage, where smoke obscures the silhouetted figures. Four guitarists, four singers, two keyboardists, a drummer and a dozen-strong choir break into song. The sound is loud and clear. A boom operator swings a camera across the front rows; its images are fed on to three screens, which also list the song’s lyrics in a huge white font.

    The visual aids seem superfluous, though, as most know these songs by heart. Once the strobe lights disperse at song’s end, one of the singers asks: “Does anybody love Jesus here tonight?”

    It’s Friday night at the Brisbane campus of the Hillsong Church, yet the production values wouldn’t be out of place at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, about 25km away. About 3500 worshippers surge through these doors each weekend for services on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. The first third of this 90-minute service is more rock show than sermon: there are about 600 people in attendance tonight, all grooving on the spot to the rhythm section, hands held aloft in praise, voices singing, “Our God is greater than all”.

    All the musicians on stage are volunteers, as are the sound and lighting technicians. But unlike other live music venues across Brisbane, there’s no pursuit of a pay cheque. Instead, we’re witnessing musical expression in search of divine approval.

    After the band leaves the stage, an advertisement for Hillsong’s annual live album recording appears. This year, the recording takes place at Allphones Arena in Sydney, where 15,000 people are expected to attend. Hillsong Music Australia manager Tim Whincop calls the recording — to be held this Sunday — “an extension of our church services”.

    “With so many services across a weekend, we don’t often get chance for our whole church to worship together at the same time,” Whincop says. “Our gathering at Allphones Arena will allow us to achieve this, and we will take this opportunity to record our next worship album.”

    Since its first album in 1988, Hillsong Music has become one of the most successful independent record labels in Australia. According to Whincop, the label has sold more than 12 million records worldwide, and more than one million records in Australia. It has 21 ARIA-certified gold records to its name, 11 certified gold DVDs and one platinum CD: the 1994 live album People Just Like Us, which sold more than 70,000 copies. Yet, apart from when it pops up in the charts a handful of times each year, the label exists outside the nation’s mainstream music industry.

    Hillsong Music emerged in 1983 out of the congregation at the Hills Christian Life Centre in Baulkham Hills, Sydney. Whincop says its music interests have grown from “a small team of passionate people to a group of hundreds of singers, musicians, songwriters and production volunteers” based at three campuses in Sydney, one in Brisbane and 12 extension services held in venues including bowling clubs, universities and cinemas.

    Hillsong Music Australia — a department of the church — employs 17 full-time staff.

    Its artists and repertoire have little in common with other labels. Where a company such as Dew Process in Brisbane has a diverse roster of artists, such as Sarah Blasko, the Panics, Mumford & Sons and Bernard Fanning, Hillsong has just three bands on its roster: Hillsong Live, Hillsong Kids and United, the church’s best known “praise and worship band”, which was founded in 1998 and has 13 albums under its belt. Like the Hillsong Live series, United releases an album each year. The label’s next release has a Christmas theme.

    For the full story, visit The Australian. [Note: you may have to register for an account to read the full article, as News Limited has imposed a paywall as of October 2011]

  • IGN Australia story: ‘Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years To Make?’, June 2011

    A feature story for IGN Australia. Excerpt below.

    Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years to Make?
    Examining the troubled development of Team Bondi’s opus.
    by Andrew McMillen


    Team Bondi’s film noir-inspired detective thriller L.A. Noire was released last month to critical and commercial success. Set in a lavish recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, the game eschewed a familiar open-world design for case-by-case detective gameplay that revolved around examining crime scenes and interrogating suspects. Featuring a vast city, cases that adjusted depending on the player’s actions and choices, and sophisticated motion capture technology that had never been used in a video game before, it was a mammoth project.

    So mammoth, in fact, that it took over seven years to complete, with a publisher switch – from Sony to Rockstar – midway through. That’s not the whole story, however. The development of L.A. Noire was anything but smooth.

    Much has been written about the long development cycles on games such as Duke Nukem Forever, Too Human, or Prey, but the story behind L.A. Noire’s rocky road to release stands out within Australia’s small, tightly-knit development community. Team Bondi’s crime drama is not just the biggest game development project ever undertaken in Australia, it also served as the first-ever project for many of the creative forces behind L.A. Noire. It’s perhaps the combination of all these factors that has resulted in surprisingly open testimonials from former Team Bondi members about their experience working on the game.

    Recently, a group of former Team Bondi employees launched a public website with an amended staff roll for L.A. Noire that includes 100 developers omitted from the official game credits. But the look behind the curtain started much earlier. On January 23 2010, an anonymous source on Twitter began leaking stories heard through the grapevine regarding the Sydney-based studio. The account wasn’t run by an ex-employee; it was anonymously dishing the dirt on Bondi as heard through unnamed sources, Wikileaks-style.

    The tweets alleged that studio founder Brendan McNamara had mismanaged Team Bondi and development of L.A. Noire, and had spent “tens of millions” on proprietary technology in just a year. Despite then-publisher Sony Computer Entertainment America’s faith in McNamara based on his PS2 hit The Getaway, Sony dropped the project in 2005, when the studio “had far exceeded SCEA’s expected price tag for the game.”

    According to the tweets, this situation “threw the studio into disarray. Strangely, McNamara quickly found hospice in his former rivals–the Houser brothers–and L.A. Noire was picked up by Rockstar [Games] in spring 2006… Since then, the game has been revamped, ported, and delayed four times. Rockstar spent more [than] Sony in their efforts to make it not suck.”

    Locally, when the tweets were reported by the Australian gaming industry hub Tsumea, several anonymous commenters stepped in to back up the reports: “I can certainly attest to the appalling working conditions, the angry and abusive boss and the ineffective leads who were completely unwilling to do anything to protect their team members,” wrote one. “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with perpetual crunch and weekend overtime,” wrote another.

    The comments on Tsumea recall events that took place in 2004, when an anonymous LiveJournal post by a user named ‘EA_spouse‘ expressed frustration at the fact that she rarely saw her fiancé, an employee of Electronic Arts, due to the long hours he was forced to work while attempting to meet deadlines for the title The Lord of the Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth. The blog received wide press attention and eventually led to three class action lawsuits against EA for unpaid overtime.

    After the initial tweets and short-lived online discussions that followed, the situation returned to all-quiet-on-the-Bondi-front. In the meantime, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel: L.A. Noire’s worldwide release date had been set for mid-May 2011. The game would finally see the light of day, but many questions remained. Are the allegations true? Why did it take seven years to bring L.A. Noire to market?

    IGN Australia reached out to dozens of former Team Bondi employees to help get a deeper look and tell the story. Eleven agreed to speak on the record, under the condition of anonymity; many feared reprisal from current and future employers if they were to be tagged as whistleblowers. The combined experience of these former staff is extensive: between them, they represent 24 years of service. Their individual tenures range from a few months, to four years, and they include artists, programmers, animators, and software engineers. We also spoke extensively with Team Bondi studio head Brendan McNamara for his perspective.

    For the full story, visit IGN Australia.

    This story runs to 4,500 words. It’s the biggest story of my career thus far, in terms of length, readership, and impact. As is hopefully apparent, a lot of work went into this story.

    I first pitched it to my editor at IGN on February 14, 2011. My initial email, entitled ‘Story pitch: What was it like to work on L.A. Noire?‘, is below.

    Hi mate,

    Just catching up on some industry news via Tsumea and elsewhere. Am loving the allegations by (seemingly) dozens of anonymous ex-Team Bondi employees about the horrible working conditions behind L.A. Noire.

    Favourite comment? “It’s abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with their perpetual crunch and weekend overtime.”

    I’d like to investigate these allegations and find out how much truth there is to it. Like my Krome story, could be the case of ex-employees agreeing to speak anonymously. As long as we can verify that they were employed by the company and they know what they’re talking about, we should be good to go. Right?

    Interested?

    Andrew

    It wasn’t until I got the nod from my editor and began reaching out to former Team Bondi employees that I realised the Tsumea story was published in 2010, not this year. Those allegations had existed for over a year, and no-one had checked them out. Curious.

    As mentioned in the story, I contacted dozens of former Bondi employees. Some were silent; some told me to leave the story alone, as they didn’t want their former colleagues to suffer in the event of the allegations being found to be true. Over the months, I rounded up eleven ex-Bondi workers who were happy to speak to me, anonymously, about their experiences working for the studio.

    Rockstar Games found out quite early on that I was investigating this story – via an overzealous source contacting an existing Rockstar employee, I think. They weren’t particularly happy. In an attempt to ensure balanced coverage, they eventually offered me access to Team Bondi CEO Brendan McNamara – though speaking with him was necessary if the story was ever going to be published, as it would be rather slanderous to publish the ex-employees’ comments without juxtaposing them against the responses of their former boss. Yet, as picked up by many of those who commented on IGN and the article’s resultant media coverage, McNamara did little to deny what I’d been told by his former staff.

    With a gestation time of over four months, this is by far the longest amount of time I’ve spent pursuing a single story. It was worth it, though, because I feel that it’s a story that needed to be told. I hope you agree.

    A final note: I’m interested in pursuing this story – and stories like it – on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to share your experience of working for Team Bondi and/or Rockstar Games, you can email me here.

  • Mess+Noise interview: George Nicholas of Seekae, March 2011

    An interview for Mess+Noise. Excerpt below.

    Seekae: ‘We’re Too Busy Forging Battle Plans’

    While other bands are out partying, Sydney’s Seekae are too busy playing LAN games backstage. Ahead of the release of second album ‘+DOME‘, they talk to ANDREW MCMILLEN about poverty, illegal downloading and how they recently “annihilated” Cloud Control on ‘Starcraft’.

    Since releasing their debut album The Sound Of Trees Falling On People in December 2008, Sydney trio Seekae have become one of the most interesting independent acts in the country. Both in the studio and on stage, their set-up consists of laptops, MPCs, live drums, keyboards and melodica; their sound, a distinctive and complex brew of electronica. Rarely do vocals work their way into the mix, yet the band have a reputation for delivering: they won a Sydney Music, Art and Culture (SMAC) award in 2009 for ‘Best Live Act’, and re-released Trees with a bonus disc of remixes (and a PVT cover) upon signing with indie label Rice Is Nice.

    So how have the trio – John Hassell on synth/guitar, Alex Cameron on synth/drums and George Nicholas on synth/melodica – spent the couple of years between their debut album and its forthcoming follow-up, +DOME? Playing too much Starcraft, according to Nicholas, though he confirms they still attempt to record new ideas each day, even if most of it is “absolute garbage”. It’s fitting that a video game would distract these three from their artistic calling; they were originally named after the DOS game Commander Keen, before shortening to a stylised version of its initials after discovering that the name had already been taken.

    Though Cameron was initially scheduled to do this interview, some unexpected laptop problems ahead of a show supporting Mount Kimbie in Perth on the next night – simply, a computer wouldn’t turn on – caused him to flee to the nearest repairs store, leaving Nicholas to fill his shoes.

    There was an article published in triple j mag in March last year, where you wrote: “Musicians don’t have any money. They spend all the money they earned on new instruments and laptops.” Is this still the case?
    George: Yeah. I think I’m the poorest I’ve ever been, actually. I don’t think we’re going to hit the jackpot for a while. I hope we do, but we’ve still been eating spaghetti for a couple of weeks now, waiting for our cheque to come in.

    You’re the poorest now that you’ve ever been?
    Yeah. I mean, we put some money into recording the album, and stuff like that. What people don’t understand is that, in order to write an album, you have to take a lot of time off work. You have to dedicate a lot of your time to doing it. I think that’s the main reason why we’re so poor, I guess. But it’s not that bad. We’re not entirely starving. [Laughs]

    Does the lack of money bother you?
    No, it’s alright. I mean, it does bother me, because it’s always hard juggling a shitty day job and a band. A lot of my friends are going and getting real jobs and careers, but I look at this and just see – although I’m not being paid that much for it – it’s good to be able to do this stuff, and have people listen to it. It’s all fine. It’s all gravy! [Laughs]

    You also wrote that you have to “try and convince security that an MPC drum machine is pretty much the same thing as a laptop, and that it was designed to destroy dancefloors, not jets”. I take it this conversation happens every time you’re in an airport.
    [Laughs] Yeah. We always get a few snickers and laughs every time we go through the x-ray machine. I carry all my stuff in my backpack. I carry my laptop, my soundcard, my hard drive, my MPC, my Kaos pad, all in one bag. There’s like 10 different things. It’s really absurd when you see someone taking out all these suspicious-looking things out of their bag. We get a lot of strange looks. But we always make it through, although every single we time go through, we get the explosives check.

    For the full interview, visit Mess+Noise. For more Seekae, visit their Myspace. The audio for their track ‘Blood Bank‘ is embedded below.