It makes sense that artists get better with age, for with age comes experience and thus a greater palette of colours with which to paint becomes available. Yet in popular music — in rock ’n’ roll especially — the common narrative arc is for young bands to burn brightly with their early releases before eventually losing some of the energy, hunger and joy that brought them together to make music in the first place.
There are exceptions to this trend, of course, and Brisbane band Halfway is one of them. The Golden Halfway Record is the fifth album that this eight-piece band has released, and it is the third album in six years on which the band has exceeded its own high standards. Any Old Love earned 4½ stars on this page in 2014; it was a near-perfect collection of songs that prompted me to describe Halfway as one of Australia’s best rock bands.
And after careful consideration I can only conclude that this album is perfect, and that there can be no doubt that Halfway is among a handful of the most talented and consistent acts in operation. It’s a major statement to make about a band that most Queenslanders haven’t heard of, yet alone those who live in the country’s south and west, but all of the evidence can be heard in this sensational 11-song set.
Book-ended by a dramatic intro and outro, The Golden Halfway Record offers yet another significant stylistic leap for the performers and particularly for the primary songwriters, guitarists John Busby and Chris Dale. The progression from 2010’s An Outpost of Promise to Any Old Love was pleasing and commendable, but this is something else. Heard here is a band at the peak of its powers, to use a critics’ cliche, yet the most scarily impressive aspect of this ascent is that the octet may have only just passed base camp. One can only imagine the summit Halfway yet could reach.
The trouble with writing, recording and releasing a perfect album, of course, is that the task becomes even harder next time. But that’s for the band to worry about, not us. We listeners get the pleasure of living inside such exquisitely crafted rock songs. The album as a whole is so well plotted and paced that to pick single moments feels barely adequate, but to name just one, fifth track ‘Welcome Enemy’ is a new high-water mark.
It pulses with an effortless wisdom and depth that belies how hard it is to write music so affecting with the same old ingredients available to every rock band in the world. From front to back, The Golden Halfway Record is exactly what its title describes. It arrives with the highest possible recommendation, and an insistence that if you’ve ever enjoyed the combination of guitars, bass, drums, keys and vocals, you simply must hear this.
I also reviewed the below albums for The Weekend Australian in 2016. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date and my rating noted in brackets.
As frontman of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard has cultivated a reputation that approaches reverence among Australia’s independent music community. His band were winners of the inaugural Australian Music Prize in 2005, were awarded 2009’s ‘Best Live Act’ by Rolling Stone, and Liddiard’s song ‘Shark Fin Blues’ was voted as the ‘greatest Australian song of all time’ in jmag late last year by his peers. The band have managed to drag this local reverence overseas, garnering ciritcal praise from both sides of the Atlantic while being regular visitors to the US and Europe, most notably as a semi-regular fixture at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals.
Between recording and touring with The Drones, Liddiard is set to release his debut solo album later this year. Ahead of a solo tour at three east coast venues in mid-April, Andrew McMillen spoke to Gareth Liddiard at length about the pros and cons of performing acoustically, playing Halo 2 while on the dole, ‘sub-par teen angst’, and reading one’s own reviews.
Andrew: I understand this is the third or fourth time you’ve gone out on a solo tour, Gareth, ahead of a new album. What do you like about previewing these songs in acoustic form?
Gareth: The chance to get to play them, not necessarily acoustically, but just to get to play them at all, that’s a cool thing. You do your first record where you get to play all the songs live, and then you record it, but after that it goes the other way around where you record then you play live. It’s a bit shit because the songs get better the more you play them live.
Do you feel a bit nervous bringing them out for the first time in these kinds of circumstances?
Yeah a little bit, especially when you play solo, you can stuff up. When you’re doing it with a band you can step on the distortion pedal. Acoustic is a bit weirder. I do a few songs I’ve been working on for this tour but it’s kind of more written for the acoustic guitar so I’m not sure if that’s going to make it harder or easier than doing something like previewing Havilah stuff.
One thing I like about your solo shows is the emphasis it places on your lyrics. Without the external noise of a Drones show, we’re left to concentrate on your stories. Is that your intention?
Yeah that’s a part of it, one of the reasons. I’m a mumbler anyway, so it’s hard enough with an acoustic guitar, let alone noise from the band. I like to be able to hear what people are singing when they’re singing.
A downside of acoustic shows is that sometimes you’re not loud enough to overpower those who choose to talk while you play, and that seemed to annoy you at the Troubadour show that you played here in February last year.
Yeah, I’m not alone on that one. You have to deal with it when it happens. Some people are always going to talk, but it can be irritating.
I find it interesting that people do that, they pay $15-20 to come see you play and then they talk through the main act.
A lot of people go up to The Troubadour just to drink, though. There’s nowhere else to drink unless you want to go across the road to that big joint on the corner. Not everyone is there to see the band. Some people have been dragged along by friends and they’re just looking for a beer in a place that isn’t full of women with boob tubes.
Is there a style of performance that you find more enjoyable as a performer?
I find if I’m doing electric a lot, I’ll yearn for a bit of acoustic action. If I do acoustic enough I’ll look forward to playing with the band. The grass is always greener. The older I get, the nicer it is to sit down and not have to scream your guts out, you know what I mean? That’s a plus.
When is the solo album due?
I think September, maybe. That seems like what the music industry is saying. I’m not going to put it out if it’s crap. I haven’t recorded it yet. If all goes well, I reckon September. I hope.
Who produced it?
I don’t know. Production – I don’t believe in that word. I think that word is kind of had its day. It’s too vague. Burke Reid, who did our last record, is going to record it. It seems like everyone how is involved in the recording process has a say. If our neighbour pops over and hears a song we’ve just done and has something to say, then we’ll listen to him. Do I give him production credit? I don’t know. I just think I believe people make records together, rather than one guy produces. It’s such a vague term these days. But, Burke will be recording it.
I know what you mean – I get some amusement out of reading the music press that places a huge emphasis on the producer behind certain records.
[Journalists] do that because it just gives them something to understand, that they can understand, but they don’t because it’s not anything that’s easy to understand.
How much material from that new album are you planning to debut at the upcoming solo shows?
It depends on what’s ready to go at that point and what I feel I’m capable of that night. I reckon about three tunes, maybe more.
You write your set lists on the night?
Yeah, I do them on the night. Some songs, if I was doing a really quiet song, if I hear people talking or something like that, or if it’s just not happening, then there’s no point in doing it. You kind of check the temperature of the room before you make a set list.
I want to touch briefly on the Kev Carmody tribute show you did in Brisbane in August last year. The Drones only did one song (‘River Of Tears’), and your performance was by far the loudest and most confronting. I think that’s a pretty fair thing to say that the show also exposed you to a crowd more accustomed to Missy Higgins and Bernard Fanning than The Drones. Was that an enjoyable show for you to play – all six minutes of it?
Yeah, it was. We’ve done two of them in Sydney and for each show we do a bunch of rehearsals, so everyone was already really friendly. It was cool. It’s really fun to be around other musicians, it’s like a big barbeque or something. The day starts, Paul [Kelly] gets money off everyone and goes and gets beer and we drink that during rehearsals. Then it runs out, so Tex [Perkins] ends up doing a beer run. It’s that sort of stuff, like a big house party. Then you get to put the show together which is something you don’t usually do, like a theatre production. I really liked it. Everyone was really cool. But you’re right; it’s weird, coming from where we come from, to then be with Bernard [Fanning] and John [Butler], it’s kind of… We come from a different part of the music industry, if you can call it an industry. Like, Detroit has an industry. [laughs]
It’s cool that you’re friendly with those people, that you can hang out with them even though sonically, you’re quite removed from pop artists.
Oh, yeah, no one pretends. I’m not a fan of everyone’s music and vice versa. It’d be a problem if we were all 18 – none of us could talk to each other – but we’re not.
You’re all mature adults.
Yeah and we all like a drink, and an obnoxious joke, and stuff like that.
I find the band’s treatment of ‘River Of Tears’ to be one of the most powerful songs in your repertoire these days.
The good thing about the Kev Carmody gig was we only did one song, so you can kind of give it everything in one go, whereas if you’re doing a whole live show you have to pace yourself. You just run out of steam otherwise, but when we do it in a set I don’t think it’s as good as when we do it at the Kev Carmody shows.
I see where you’re coming from, but I disagree. I’ve seen you perform it mid-set a couple of times, and it just floors me every time. It’s so powerful.
It’s a cool song. It’s one of those songs that just works for us. It ticks all the boxes. That was Paul Kelly’s choice. He’s pretty good at curating, and farming out work to the right people. Whether it’s The Drones, if it works for us, or Glenn Richards [of Augie March]. Paul’s had so many different musicians in his band and stuff; he’s got a really good sense of who will make the most of what.
More recently, I saw The Drones play All Tomorrow’s Parties, at Minehead (UK) in December. It was a bit bizarre to see you open the set to a pretty sparse crowd, having seen you play to full crowds here in Australia for the last couple of years. The Drones are a fixture at these ATP events – do you find them enjoyable?
Yeah I do, they’re cool. A lot of it depends on your timeslots and shit too. Last time we played to a lot more people. That was a bummer, but the whole general experience is cool. It’s an awesome place.
I went to the Mt. Buller event a year ago, and Butlins was the first time I’d been to the UK one. It was an awesome experience as a music fan. From what I gather, the musicians seemed to enjoy it just as much as the punters.
Yeah, they do. Everyone loves it; a lot of the time, it’s a lot of the same bands, so the more you do it the more everyone gets friendly and it’s funny; you bump into each other there or in New York. They also have an ATP stage at a festival in Barcelona, which was a good time. It’s good socially, as well as everything else.
Given your affiliation with the label ATP Recordings, I would have thought the Drones would have been one of the acts Barry Hogan is considering to curate the next installment of ATP Australia, whenever that happens.
If it’s going to happen. I think Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds [who curated the first one in January 2009] were a good choice – they’re always going to pull more people than us. I think there is a bit of that, if they were considering getting us, they’d have to consider the possibility to get someone from overseas that Australians are going to tend to prefer that to their own. I don’t know. Maybe if they do it again. Either way, I was happy to go as a punter last time and not do anything. Returning to Australia to discuss more recent events, can you describe what you felt when covering [the GOD song] ‘My Pal’ at The Tote?
I felt hot, and a bit drunk. [laughs] Actually it was a fun song to play. We played it at ATP with Joel [Silbersher] a few years before, too. Me and Mikey got up with Joel at an ATP at Butlins. That was a good one – we played to about 5,000 people. You should have seen that one!
Most of them probably had no idea what that song was?
A few people did, ex-pats and that. It’s a fun song to play. It’s just straight-up kind of three chord punk song. It kind of plays itself. No matter how much you fuck it up, it sounds good to them. But I tell you, the Tote thing was really bizarre being the last band to play there, and that was the last song. That was a strange experience, going “Wow, this is it.” We played there more than we’ve played anywhere else in the world, so it was very odd.
I have no connection to The Tote. I had never been there, and yet reading the coverage and checking out the YouTube video of you playing, it was extremely moving that ‘My Pal’ was the last song. It obviously meant a lot to people.
Yeah, it’s a bit of a crowd favourite down there, the favourite on the jukebox. That pub had been around since the last ’70s, early ’80’s or something? That’s where The Scientists played the bulk of their shows. It’s been around; it’s been a huge incubator for years.
To change topics entirely, are you becoming more comfortable with your position as something of a celebrity among the Australian indie music scene?
No, if anything I just get more uncomfortable saying I’m a celebrity. I’m the sort of guy… To be famous is good, because it means that more people are giving me money. I always felt that success was being able to do this for a living. That’s how I see it. I don’t make very much money at all. I get a little bit more than the dole, contrary to popular belief. That to me is fine, because I can just play music and make a living. So the more the merrier as far as fans go. You do get anxious about – this is Australia, sooner or later they’re going to go, “The Drones suck.”
The more people who know who you are… It’s just weird. I’m not a social animal, anyway.
Do people you meet in the street feel like they can relate to you through your songs?
I guess. They seem like they do. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell when you meet someone for 30 seconds.
Does it bother you that people have an image of you that’s cultivated by what they see on stage and what you write about in your songs?
No, because that’s the way I saw the people I liked when I grew up. I’ve had plenty of people who I’ve formed an opinion of them through whatever they’ve done musically, which is probably way off the mark. I’m not going to blame anyone for being off the mark.
Is there a particular song among your catalogue that you’re most proud of?
I don’t know. I have favourites on each record.
Do you want to list them?
Okay. The first one [Here Comes The Lies] would be ‘I Walked Across The Dam’. That’s a good song. I think it’s just too long and too psychopathic for most people. I think it’s good. The band sounds good. ‘I’m Here Now’, on Gala Mill, that’s a good one. That’s just a well-written tune. It sort of plays itself; it does what it’s meant to do. Wait Long By The River, I dunno. ‘Freedom In The Loot’? I like that. It’s kind of got a really fucked up Tony Iommi-type riff, and the lyrics are completely stupid. It’s just about getting laid, but I’ve made it sort of sound really intellectual and ridiculous. [laughs] That’s got a huge guitar solo at the end, which is fun. And Havilah, what would it be on Havilah? I like ‘The Drifting Housewife’, I think that’s kind of cool. It feels good to play it. It just plays itself and it’s a really weird song about not very much at all, really, just about a guy whose got a messy divorce out of the way.
Thank you for listing those. What did you make of the jmag award late last year?
I can’t remember it. What was it?
Well, your musician peers voted ‘Shark Fin Blues’ as the best Australian song ever written.
Oh yeah yeah, I remember that. I thought that was pretty weird. We beat those fuckin’ shitty Easybeats! [laughs] I thought that was pretty funny. We beat ‘Friday on My Mind’, thank God! [mutters indecipherable expletives] You know what I make of it? I think I would say that most of the people who voted for that [poll] were probably 5-6 years younger than us, and hence more likely to hear “Shark Fin Blues” than “Friday on My Mind” or The Loved Ones doing whatever hits they had, or fuckin’ X or fuckin’ Saints. You know what I mean? They weren’t asking Paul Kelly. They weren’t asking Warren Ellis . They were asking people who were… I’d say Sarah Blasko, but she wouldn’t have voted for us.
Are you more comfortable with praise from musician peers than from critics and journalists you’ve never met?
I don’t know. It’s all the same. I’m sort of ambivalent about it because it’s like, “wow, this is amazing, it’s incredible that anyone would think that,” but at the same time it’s not really a good barometer of your sense of worth anyway. It’s a hard one.
Are you comfortable with praise at all, with regard to your music? You mentioned earlier that you think particular songs are well-written, or that they’re good songs, but are you comfortable with people praising what you create?
Yeah, because if they want to do it they can, like the way if I want to do it I can if I say to someone, “That’s amazing what you did there. That song is something else.” I’m comfortable, but I don’t take it on board that much. It’s like, “Wow, that’s nice,” but I don’t know. There are plenty of people doing all sorts of shit that impresses me, too.
Do you ever wish you could escape your back catalogue? Do you get tired of playing ‘the hits’ in every set?
Oh yeah. Fuck yeah. There’s one song – guess what that one is. I’m sick to fuckin’ death of it.
‘Shark Fin Blues’?
Yeah. [laughs] But at the same time, it’s only because I’ve heard it too many times. I don’t think it’s shit. It’s alright. But I wouldn’t go changing the back catalogue. It’s fine. If anything, it’s a back catalogue for a 25-year old with more stamina than a 34-year old. [laughs] I wish that would change.
For example, that jmag award has set the expectation that you’ll be playing ‘Shark Fin Blues’ at every Drones show, forever. ‘I Don’t Ever Want to Change’ and ‘The Minotaur’ seem to be fixtures among your set lists too.
Yeah, you get them. You get those songs that are gonna stick. Everyone has that. There’s nothing you can do about that, really. I’m always saying, “Let’s fuck ‘Shark Fin’ off, we don’t have to do it!”, but it’s the band who probably want to hear it more than anyone else. I don’t know why.
You get outvoted?
Yeah, I guess. Vetoed!
Democracy within The Drones.
Yeah. It was a bad idea!
Are there certain songs that are more enjoyable than others for you to revisit?
Yeah, the ones you do less than others. Keep them fresh. That’s the main thing; you get sick of repetition and when you drag something out from the vault that you haven’t played for a while, then it’s great. You look forward to them in the set. It depends what that song is at that time.
I want to ask you about ‘The City’ which appeared as the last song on The Miller’s Daughter. Have you ever played that live?
Yeah, we used to play that all the time, back before people came to our shows.
I think that’s a killer track.
Yeah, it’s a good song. I forgot about that one. That’s probably on that record, that’s about the favourite on there, too. The recording is live in the studio 100%. That’s what we used to do on stage because most of The Miller’s Daughter, Wait Long and Here Come The Lies is just 100% [recorded] live.
Is there anything among your catalogue that you’ll never play live again?
Yeah, there are tons of songs that are just too hard. Some of them are really, really fucking hard. I’m trying to remember which ones. Actually there are not that many. ‘Are You Leaving For The Country’, that song from Gala Mill. It’s never worked live, people just go “Yeah, whatever”. We liked it, the crowd didn’t. I’d say something like ‘I Walked Across The Dam’, which I mentioned before. You’ll probably never hear that one; when we’re in the rehearsal room, me and Fi are like “Let’s play that!”. Dan and Mike – because they didn’t play on that record – they’d be like, “Fuck that!” I think that song uses every root note. That’s a record. How many are there? [counts to self] It uses all 12. That’s a record.
I’d like to refer to your comments that you made in Ampersand in 2008, that “blogging has cut the balls off music criticism”. Do you read reviews written about your music and your performances?
Fuck yeah, of course.
Do you seek them out?
Yeah, like not every day, but I particularly like the bad ones. I found a good one the other night. Pretty awful.
Who wrote it?
I can’t remember. It was in the States or something like that. Hang on, I’ll have a look in the history. Anyway, of course I read my reviews. Everyone does. Any musician who says, “Nah, I don’t,” is just being a fuckwit. Or they’re not doing it, like an alcoholic doesn’t drink, you know what I mean. Here it is – Prefixmag.
What did they say, that you’re a shit songwriter?
Oh fuck yeah! [laughs] “Opaque and impenetrable listening.” This is my favourite – “sub-par teen angst. Torturously slow-paced.” [laughs] Which sounds great! If I was reading the review I’d go, “That sounds awesome. That sounds like good music!” Anyway, I dunno, I don’t really care what this guy thinks. It’s pretty funny. But yeah, everyone reads their reviews.
As a journalist, I can tell you that most fellow writers that I know hold The Drones in high regard. It’s like writing about your songs and your music is somehow more enjoyable than nearly every artist I can think of. I think it’s something to do with the dark lyrical content, the confronting music, and also the anti-image that you guys have created over the last few years.
Yeah look, I can see how that works. Things like, if we go to a mill in Tasmania [as they did when recording Gala Mill], that makes your job easier than if we don’t. It gives you an angle. I can see how that works. Clever marketing on our behalf. [laughs]
Part of the marketing strategy.
Yeah, totally! That one came from management.
Have you ever considered writing a tour diary around your solo tour, like Dan [Luscombe] did for your 2007 Europe tour?
Not really. Dan really lucked out that one because it was a fucking schmozzle. On the next European tour, he tried to do it again and the tour went reasonably well and it was the shittest, most tedious read. He just lucked out on getting the fuckin’ worst tour ever undertaken by anyone. You don’t really get horrible tours like that in Australia. It just isn’t like doing 50 or 60 shows in a row in fucking Europe. So yeah, a tour diary here wouldn’t be entertaining.
An Australian tour for most artists seems to just involve visiting the same five or six cities, anyway.
Yeah, well that’s it. It’s not like going to France. If you go to France five times, you play a lot of different cities. The route is different every time and sometimes you hardly ever go back to the same place twice. Whereas here, it’s just bizarre. I should have been born in America, I’d be rich.
In preparation for this conversation I’ve revisited some of your past interviews, including one with Mess+Noise writer Andrew Ramadge in 2005. In that story you related a story where John Scott from [Adelaide hard rock band] The Mark of Cain gave some advice for young bands. Do you remember that?
Yeah, he said that in an interview. He said “get a fucking job”.
I believe you’re at the point now where music is your full-time pursuit, is that correct?
Yeah it is, but that’s good advice from John. I think he said something like “get a trade,” like what he was saying is – you’re in Australia, mate. This is going to be hard going to make a living so you have to have a backup plan. Which is perfectly sensible.
Yeah, Kim [Scott], the bass player, work on missile guidance systems.
Yeah, that sounds like the most interesting job for a musician to have.
That’s why they don’t put out records every year, which is good. It’s a good way to do it, like Eddy Current or someone like that. It’s a very wise job. Looking back, if I could change anything, I’d probably get a trade. Then I wouldn’t have to do this fucking… all the time.
You said in that same interview with Ramadge that “You’d have to be a music geek to appreciate our music.” Do you think this still holds true, given the band’s increasing popularity?
Yeah, to a point, I guess. There’s a lot in it. We sort of somehow pack a lot in to a small amount of space. If you’ve got your music history, you’ll realise that we rip off everything.
Have you still held true to the touring motto you told Ramadge, that “if there’s no skyscrapers, we don’t play.”
Fuck yeah, yeah, which is another fucker because that means we can only play in five cities. Everyone else, be it The Gin Club or Grinspoon, everyone else can play in a lot more places than us. We’d have to learn fuckin’ martial arts to play in rural areas.
This is based on personal experience, I take it – you have tried to tour regional areas.
Yeah, everyone gives it a shot. If you want to open up more places to play, there are more places to play. But it just does not work for us. Either people don’t show or they think we’re all homosexual. It’s weird. I mean, it’s not weird at all. I can totally understand that a farmer isn’t going to get what we’re on about.
It’s interesting the contrast between city and country mentalities then, if city people can accept you and country people can’t.
Yeah, but that’s just what you’re exposed to. People out in the sticks aren’t exposed to much. They’re not going to know who fucking [French singer-songwriter] Serge Gainsbourg is because there’s just no-one down the pub getting into Serge Gainsbourg. That’s all it is.
Central to your discussion with Andrew Ramadge was the notion that contemporary Australian society undervalues creative ventures like writing songs and like touring as a band. From your perspective, has this perception changed?
No, no, and it never will. That’s us from here on in. It’s cultural cringe; it just is what it is. There’s one way to stop that, and we’re never going to do that.
Boot the English out in a fuckin’ extremely nasty way. That’s where all that shit comes from. America is a colony that doesn’t have cultural cringe because it is one of the only colonies that doesn’t have cultural cringe because it’s one of the only colonies that had a very traumatic uprising against its coloniser, who happens to be England. Now America, after the fucking trauma that was, it must have been a hideous time and then once they booted the Poms out, they didn’t feel English anymore. To them, the English are now an ‘other’. We’ve never done that. We’d have to fight to become a republic. Otherwise, we don’t want to be America or England, and we don’t want to be them forever. It’s cultural cringe. Google it!
To change topics, your comment in Ampersand that music critics should “do something useful” struck me as a bit hypocritical in light of what you’re saying about society undervaluing creativity. I mean, like songwriting and playing music, writing – whether about music or otherwise – is a creative endeavour. Is it fair to say that you value writing music in higher regard than writing about music?
That Ampersand thing is pretty blown out of proportion. [laughs] It was meant to be a lot funnier than the way music journalists took it. The editor said, “do this, but go to town”. She wanted a full-on thing, so you know, I gave it to her. Not that music journos don’t annoy me sometimes, but I don’t write them all off. I wouldn’t take [my comments] literally, as ‘the last word’. If I said that to you in a pub, face-to-face, you wouldn’t take it on board, you know.
I’m not taking it seriously. I’m just curious. It amused the shit out of me when I read it when it first came out. I could tell you were taking the piss, but some other people I showed it to were like, “Oh, that’s bullshit. What a hypocrite.”
Look, in that thing as well, didn’t I say also that rock and roll is a dumb thing to do?
Well, there you go. It’s all retarded. Rock and roll seems like a fairly immature pursuit. And everything surrounding it, be that journalism or the business… Anyone who sort of takes it seriously seems a bit absurd. Like, fuck, there’s more than this to life.
And yet it’s your life, Gareth; you’re living it.
Yeah I know! [laughs] That’s why I write about it. I can totally see your point of view. I do understand that one needs the other. It’s symbiotic; it goes both ways. We both make a living from doing this.
Are you aware of the music journalist Craig Mathieson?
Yeah, from Mess+Noise?
Have you seen his latest book Playlisted, which has a photo of you on the cover?
I have, yeah.
Did you read it?
Yeah I did, because they sent me a copy.
He said of the Drones’ last three albums, that “there is no better sequence of albums from an Australian artist of this decade,” which is pretty damn high praise.
Yeah, it’s great. He likes us, even when I say he’s useless in my Ampersand thing! [laughs] He’s a nice guy. He’s come to my house a few times. And he put me on the cover of his book as well, which is a very nice thing to do.
Yes, okay before we end I have to ask you about the line in ‘The Minotaur’ [“He spends all day looking at porn or playing fuckin’ Halo 2″] Are you any good at Halo 2?
I did have a go at it. I’m aware that it’s now hopelessly out of date. What are we, like Halo 4, 5, or 6 now? Three-and-a-half, or something like that.
Is that all? That’s good, so the song’s still half-relevant. I did a work for the dole thing years ago and I came in a week after this course had started. The guy went, “Oh, fuck, you’ve come in too late, so you can’t catch up this week’s work. There’s a computer, it’s online: go and play Halo 2.” I went in a couple of times and did that all day, during office hours, and played Halo 2. I had a great time! [laughs] Then one morning I woke up and went, “I’m not fucking going in to play that game all day,” and they never kicked me off the dole. The guy was obviously understanding enough not to strike me off the list. Why – are you a fan?
Yeah, I enjoy it, it’s a good game. I’ve been amused to watch people sing that line – and that line only – when you play the song live.
Yeah I know, and it’s a certain age group that does it.
It seems to resonate with overlapping communities of indie rock fans and gamers.
Yeah, totally, though there are a lot of gamers these days. It’s crazy. I do occasionally open my eyes and look down at that point. People love it. I love the porn bit, too. But then, [the blokes] are giving themselves up, they should keep it down. There’s women in the room.
Alright Gareth, final question; is there any music lately you’ve been enjoying that you’d like to recommend?
Yeah. How’s this – you know The Wipers? I only heard them the other day.
‘Return of the Rat’.
Yeah, a friend of mine showed me that, I was like, “Fuck, why didn’t you show me that in high school?” I’ve been enjoying them, Toumani Diabaté, the Kora player. I listen to a lot of that. There is a guy called Abdel Hadi Halo, who’s a North African singer with a huge orchestra, so it’s got these Moorish rhythm crazy scales and shit like that. It’s really mean music. I don’t know how devout they all are, but it’s interesting. It’s kind of really sexy. I don’t think that’s what they’re trying to do. What else? I can’t think of anything else, but it’s stuff like that. Stuff that’s not rock and roll, apart from The Wipers, obviously, which is very rock and roll.
You tend to keep a distance from rock and roll when you’re not playing it?
Yeah, because you get sick of it because you do it all the time. And I’ve heard The Stooges and I’ve heard Black Flag and I’ve heard MC5 and I’ve heard Led Zeppelin, I’ve heard Hendrix. It’s like – beat that. If you can suggest anything or if you’re a band who can do anything [better than that], I don’t know. Why should I listen to anything that’s ‘sub-par’, as they say. I can just stick Raw Power on. If someone’s like, “come and see this band!”, it’s like, “Nah, I’ve got Raw Power at home,” and very powerful speakers. Is that wrong?
You’re obviously a bit tied to the past there, Gareth. You’re not keeping with the times.
Yeah but – come on. Who is? Apart from someone like Deerhoof or Lightning Bolt, I haven’t heard much very ‘new-sounding’ stuff for a while.
Well, we’ve spoken for 48 minutes. Thanks for your time, Gareth.
Oh yeah, no worries. Thanks for talking.
(Note: This interview was first published at The Vine, but as of 2016 much of the original site content has been deleted, so I’m publishing it here instead.)
To my knowledge, this was the most comprehensive interview with Gareth published at the time (2010). I researched extensively in preparation, and I think that comes across in both my questioning and his responses. Moreover, because The Drones are my favourite Australian band, it was an absolute pleasure to engage with their key songwriter for most of an hour. It’s one of those occasions where I truly love what I do.
Melbourne‘s Hi-Fi is a day away from the public opening of their Brisbane venue. They’ve opted to establish it in the southern suburb of West End, outside of Fortitude Valley‘s live music hub. The Drones will be the first act to headline the venue, while fellow Melburnians Witch Hats and local act Hits will strike the first cymbals and chords. I spoke with The Hi-Fi’s General Manager, Anthony Osborne, about his expectations for the new room and the nature of the promoter-venue relationship.
Note: this interview was conducted on behalf of Mess+Noise. This is the entire conversation that I had with Anthony, while an abridged version is contained in my feature article, entitled High Stakes, which also includes interviews with several Brisbane music authorities and stakeholders.
We’ve always wanted to grow our business, and Brisbane is one of the key touring markets on the east coast. Brisbane’s part of the roster for most acts; it’s a good market that’s growing in terms of youth culture and population, so it just made business sense.
Did you guys have a knowledge of the local scene up here, or were you assisted by some industry contacts?
We’ve had a good look for a few years before diving in. For all the capital city markets in Australia, we’ve had consultants from a property and hospitality perspective who we’ve worked with to look at different areas of the city, to see what we can put together in terms of a live music venue. Our own knowledge of the touring market has assisted, too. In particular, West End stood out as a good spot, as a good cultural fit for our target market.
Why the West End location, when The Valley has become known as Brisbane’s live music HQ?
We’re in the business of placing bands who will attract people from anywhere nearby. We’re not really a ‘drop-in’ venue; we put on headlining artists in an effort to fill the room as often as possible. Although we’d like to be in a spot that has a good fit, at the end of the day, we can be a bit more flexible. West End is as suitable for us as The Valley, because of the fact that people will come to the destination to see a particular headlining artist.
And I suppose that the audience will hang around after the show and get to know West End a bit more.
Yeah, definitely. We think that pre-show and post-show is important, as you don’t want to be stuck in a cultural desert. People like to be able to go and do something. It’s no sin to not be in The Valley; we’d have happily taken an opportunity in The Valley, but we’re very happy to be in West End.
Did you encounter any resistance when planning for the venue, either from locals or other Brisbane venues?
Everyone’s pretty much welcomed us with open arms. We’ve got a real sense that our venue will be a good fit, and that it’ll be nice to have another venue in the mix.
So you recognised a gap in the market? Did you think that Brisbane was missing a mid-range venue?
There’s room in all the capital city markets for professionally-run venues that have a good tech solution, and a good customer solution. So Brisbane wasn’t missing a venue more than any other market; Melbourne has a lot of options for venues, but you still see people coming in and out of the market, and you see improvements for artists and promoters who want quality. There are some good operators in the Brisbane market, but there’s certainly room for us. It’s not that we recognised a gap; we see ourselves fitting into any market, if we can provide the right solution.
I’ve read that the venue capacity is 1,200.
That’s roughly correct. The capacity tends to get slightly reduced due to guest lists and so forth, but that range is where we’re aiming to be.
Yeah, The Arena closure is disappointing for Brisbane. That venue took some bigger events. We always saw The Arena and The Tivoli – and to some degree, The Zoo – as being competitors who offer alternatives. Artists may still play multiple Zoo shows, as they haven’t had historically had many options at that 1,000-1,200 capacity level.
The Hi-Fi has taken a few of the shows that were scheduled to be played at The Arena; are you looking to occupy a similar market space?
The live industry is essentially promoter-driven at that end of the scale. We can’t match the capacity that The Arena offered [note: commonly quoted at 2,000], but there’s certainly other ways to package the experience. If we’ve got turnkey operations and good marketing and ticketing support, then we can offer a more cost-effective alternative for promoters to use The Hi-Fi. This means that they can perhaps look at reduced capacities with a similar cost result.
We work on keeping the costs down for those who book the room. We think that’s the best competitive advantage that we can offer, in addition to offering a great live experience. It’s about punters and artists; if they’re both happy, then promoters are happy. The ultimate clients in many cases are the promoters, who we get much of our business from. To make them happy, we’ve just got to make sure that the fans want to come to the venue, and that the artists have a great experience. That starts with a good tech solution, a smooth ticketing system, bars and a great sight-line for all in attendance. Melbourne’s Hi-Fi is one of the best viewing venues, and we’ve tried to replicate that with the Brisbane Hi-Fi. It’s purely designed for live music.
I read that the venue will offer seven levels of tiered vantage points.
We’ve designed it to allow everyone in the room to see the stage easily. That’s the most important thing we can do – you know yourself from going to gigs. All of a sudden you wonder why you went, because you’re stuck in a back corner and you can’t see anything. As much focus has gone into that aspect as the sound system.
The venue was previously a hotel for years, which did some live music, but in its last incarnation it was a pool hall. So it had a big space out the back – a big ‘footprint’ – but the inside has been custom-made to our requests. We put in a mezzanine, added a stage, tiered the floor and completely remodelled inside the building.
I’ve noticed that The Hi-Fi has some great national and international acts lined up; what are your plans to support the local scene?
We held a promotion to recruit local support acts for the opening night, headlined by The Drones, which received over 200 entries from local acts. Those entries have allowed us to build a database of artists comprising many different genres who’ll be interested in support work. We’ll be pushing those into the mix whenever we’re after local acts.
We’ll be supporting local promoters who want to put on local bands. If promoters approach us with a desire to put on themed nights for whichever genre they’ve organised, such as a collection of indie, or hard rock bands, we support that by actively seeking these kinds of requests. We also make it efficient and reasonable for promoters to put these shows on. We do this a lot at the Melbourne venue, too.
Our main focus is headlining Australian and international acts – that’s certainly the ‘bread and butter’ of our business – but we want to be as open as possible, to support the local scene by creating opportunities for promoters and acts.
How did the idea to get The Drones on board for the venue launch come about, and how did you arrive on the invite-only free show idea?
We were always going to do a free show on the opening night, because we thought that was just a great way to launch the venue. The Grates were booked two days after the launch; we could have just opened with that show, but we wanted to open with an artist who is a good cultural fit for our business. We thought that The Drones were suitable for that purpose as they’re a great, artistic indie band. We approached The Drones with the idea, and they accepted.
We’re doing the free opening show to give everyone an opportunity to come to the venue. We’ll have a lot of people who won’t know The Drones – they won’t be Drones fans per se – but they’ll want to check out the venue. And these people might become Drones fans on the night, or fans of the bands who are supporting [Melbourne’s Witch Hats and local promotion winners Hits]. We also allocated 300 tickets to The Drones’ fanclub, which went like wildfire. But we haven’t limited the event purely to guests, as we wanted Drones fans to come to the show, in addition to letting people in ‘off the street’, so to speak.
It’s great that The Drones enabled us to do that, as to some degree they’re making a sacrifice of their own by playing to a percentage of the room who aren’t necessarily passionate Drones fans.
I read a news release that mentioned live video feeds and occasional acoustic sets in a nearby bar.
There’s a standalone bar on Boundary Street called Vinyl, where we’ll be taking live video and audio feeds from particular gigs in The Hi-Fi’s main room and feeding them to Vinyl through a couple of big projector screens in the bar. We wanted to offer this as an add-on to sold-out gigs. We thought we’d take the opportunity to run the gig into a nearby location that contains venue-quality production sound.
We’ve had great responses from the artists, who’ve been very supportive of the idea as most of them realise that it’s an opportunity to spread their ‘brand’. It’ll be up to the artists and their management as to whether they’re comfortable going through with it, but the response we’ve had so far indicates that we’ll be doing the live Vinyl feed quite often.
We’ve done that with Jim Beam, who’ve been partners of ours for a while. They helped us pull the deal together, invest in a bit of production infrastructure, and support it with a bit of marketing, without being overtly commercial. If we can get a good, regular roster of local and international acts who’re keen to run the feed, then it’ll be great for people to be able to hang out at the bar and watch some great acts playing live nearby.
Vinyl will also be putting on some smaller ‘side shows’ where some artists will occasionally perform some smaller sets in an intimate location on a day surrounding their Hi-Fi show. These won’t be heavily promoted; maybe a week out from the show, we’ll advertise that a particular artist is taking a ‘lo-fi’ – most likely acoustic – opportunity, if that suits their style. The venue has a small stage and a decent production set-up, and has a capacity of around 150.
What’s The Hi-Fi’s policy on punter recordings and photography?
In most cases, the decision is made by the artist a couple of weeks prior to the gig, so our hands are tied in that aspect. We don’t have a problem with punters taking photos or recording, and most artists these days seem to agree. We provide that service as a part of our business, so if the artists want to enforce a ‘no camera’ policy, then we will oblige.
So photography will be dealt with on a per-artist basis, instead of a blanket venue policy. But it’s a fairly difficult thing to stop, since most phones now contain cameras. And I think thatif a band gets more exposure, regardless of their position, it’s probably not such a bad thing.
Considering the number of venues that are emerging in Brisbane, do you anticipate that ticket prices will go down?
I don’t think that the number of venues will have any impact on the ticket prices at all. Ticket pricing is driven by the number of touring artists and global exchange rates. So if our dollar loses its value and it becomes more expensive to tour the country, ticket prices will increase, though we haven’t seen that occur yet. Ticket prices are promoter- and volume-driven; booking agents won’t necessarily bring more artists to a city if there’s more venues.
I take it that you’re attempting to distinguish the Melbourne Hi-Fi from the Brisbane Hi-Fi.
They’re part of the same group. We recently dropped the “Bar and Ballroom” part of our name from The Hi-Fi in Melbourne; we tended to be colloquially known as “The Hi-Fi Bar”, which is wrong since we’ve never been called that. It just got adopted by our punters, who ran with it. But both venues are run by the same management structure, and they’ll very much work together.
Finally; you’re based in Melbourne, Anthony. Is there going to be a Brisbane-based Hi-Fi team?
There is. There’ll be a production team, an operations manager for the venue and some other full-time staff for marketing and promotion. Although the main company administration is based in Melbourne, we may have some people representing the company nationally over time, while operating out of Brisbane. We’re very excited to get into Brisbane; we can’t wait to get on the plane and have a big opening night!