Turin Brakes

If serendipity is a marker of success, then Turin Brakes may be the greatest band I know. My journey with them began when I strolled into the record store near where I worked in South Melbourne and their album ‘The Optimist’ was playing. I quickly bought the CD and fell in love with it. For younger readers, a ‘record store’ was a shop devoted solely to selling music…it was a bit like Spotify, except you got to drink the music one album at a time…instead of wrapping your mouth around a musical fire-hose. A ‘CD’ was like a digital download…but without any of the convenience. CD’s did however have ‘liner notes’ that you could spend hours reading and dissecting because the artists didn’t have wikipedia pages where you could learn everything you ever needed to know about them. For older readers ‘hours’ were the measurement of time you used to have up your sleeve, before you had kids, to do things you actually wanted to do.
‘The Optimist’ was on pretty high rotation as Katie and I prepared to get married, and even played a part in our wedding. When Turin Brakes released ‘Ether Song’ the next year, they were pretty much locked in as one of our favourite bands. Whether we driving in the car or cooking a meal, Turin Brakes became our soundtrack. The only thing better than listening to the harmonies of Olly and Gale, was listening to the harmonies that Katie would come up with singing along with them. It was an absolute certainty that we would see them when they toured.


However, from memory, one of the two key members of the group had a serious fear of flying, and while they were regularly touring the UK and parts of Europe, the lengthy flight to Australia was proving a bridge too far. Then suddenly, in what was clearly divine providence a tour was announced that would coincide with our 1 year wedding anniversary! What joy!
But proving that the God’s can indeed be cruel, we realised that we would be in Tasmania when they were playing in Melbourne…and in what can only be described as a cruel blow, they would be in Tasmania when we were in Melbourne.
So we missed out on seeing them.

I bought their next album ‘Jackinabox’ in 2005 and it was a cracker…but in the liner notes there were photos that were clearly taken down on the St. Kilda foreshore, and it served as a subtle reminder that they had been in Melbourne…and I hadn’t seen them.

By 2007 we had a 1yo child and I had started a slow decline into musical irrelevance. I simply no longer had the money or the time to stay on top of new music. I was also riding to and from work everyday and so was no longer listening to the radio to hear new songs…besides, to paraphrase Homer Simpson ‘Why do we need new music? Everyone knows it reached perfection in 2001!’

But then I heard Fee B Squared on the RRR-FM Breakfasters announce that she had a new track by a band called Turin Brakes and played ‘Stalker’. The song still had the beautiful harmonies…but also had a sense of self-assurance and urgency. My love for the band was reignited by the simple good fortune of listening to the radio at the right time. Best of all, I was able to walk into a JB HiFi and buy a CD that didn’t have dust on it!


The album was great, but over the next 10 years (and two further children) I well and truly lost touch with the band. I briefly reacquainted myself with them when I stumbled across Olly talking to Phillip Bloom a photographer/videographer whose work I really like, and who was unaware that he was in a video battle with Zack Arias to see if I would go with Canon or Fuji for my big camera purchase.
Then, one afternoon some friends came over and on the spur of the moment we decided to get some pizzas. I drove to collect them, and on the way home I happened to be listening to the radio when an ad for the Northcote Social Club came on, and among the list of bands they had coming soon, was Turin Brakes! Now the odds of me happening to be in the car, with the radio on instead of a podcast, and of the radio being on PBS-FM when the ad came on, and of them having Turin Brakes on the list of upcoming artists seemed pretty astronomical. In fact part of me was pretty sure that there was a hot new band called ‘Curing Snakes’ and I had simply misheard the ad. Nonetheless, when I got home I jumped on my phone and checked the Northcote Social Club website, and sure enough, Turin Brakes were coming to Melbourne, and playing a venue less than 3kms from my house! Needless to say, tickets were purchased quick smart.

Taking photos at the gig

So that’s where the story could have ended. ‘Boy finds band, boy loses band, boy finds band again.’ But as the gig drew closer, I realised that it would be an awesome opportunity to take some photos of the band at the show. I’d recently taken some photos next door at the 303 Bar and Danny Ross was happy with those shots, so I knew I could do it…I just had to work out how.
So I sent the Northcote Social Club an email explaining that I’d like to take some photos at the gig, and that I already had a ticket, so it wasn’t going to cost them anything. They explained that I would need to get a press pass from the company organising the tour (Bluesfest touring), and at this point I started to wonder if it was worth trying to get a press-pass just so that I could take some photos of a band that I liked. Also, Turin Brakes have a song called ‘Stalker’…and I was starting to wonder how ‘some guy says he’s a big fan and wants to come and take photos of you’ was going to sound.


But I also realised that a large part of my reticence was having to step out of my comfort zone, and while that is never pleasant,  it’s usually where I learn the most. Plus, it really was a win-win. If the photos were good then the touring company got some free photos, and I got the chance to take some photos of a band I love that I could keep for the next 15 years until they toured again! So I sent the email, and a few emails later, I got the press pass.

I’d only ever shot at gigs where the band had invited me, so one of the first things I learned was that the photographers only get to shoot for the first three songs. I don’t know if this is so that the photographers don’t get to stay for a free show…but it does kinda suck, as bands rarely hit their straps until after the first three songs. Plus, it doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to work out which lenses and which settings work.


I decided I was going to rely pretty heavily on the 56mm as it handles the low-light so well…and is just a beautiful lens to work with. Plus I would take the 10-24mm so that I could at least get a few wide-angle shots that had the whole band.

I got the venue just before the support act started so that I could chat to the bar manager and get the lay of the land. The rules were pretty simple; First 3 songs, No flash, no backstage. I asked if seeing as I had a ticket if I could keep shooting…he said ‘no, that was the agreement they had with the touring company’. So I headed in to watch the support act, have a look at the lighting and try desperately to work out what was going to work in terms of settings.

Lee Rosser

In the interests of not making the non-photographers read this want to gouge their eyes out by banging on about the technical aspects of the photos, I will just say that the 56mm was awesome, and that the X-t1 is a genuine joy to shoot with. Beyond that, if you have any questions, hit me up in the comments and we’ll crap on about f-stops and shutter speeds until our virginity grows back.

The wash-up

  • I shot just under 200 photos in the three songs with Turin Brakes and 3 songs with the support act (Lee Rosser), from this I got about 30 photos I was happy enough to keep and 12 photos I was happy enough to share.
  • walking into that environment and acting like you belong makes a big difference.
  • Drummers really do sit too far back for me to get a decent shot
  • There are things that happen during songs after your 3 song limit that would make amazing photos…and you just have to look at them, acknowledge that they would have made a great photo, and die a little bit inside
  • Getting to take photos of one of your favourite bands, and then stay up the front for the rest of the gig is pretty much a dream. Sure they didn’t stop halfway through a song and say ‘Wait, is that a Fuji camera? We love those. You should totally come backstage after the show, take moody portraits of us, then spend hours dissecting our lyrics before we all decide to appear on your podcast’…but you know…but it was still pretty awesome!
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone and take a chance!
  • Turin Brakes were worth the 15 year wait.

 

France vs Melbourne

Having returned from my recent jaunt to France, I’ve realised that there are some things that the French do very well…and some things that the French could learn from us. I’m quietly confident that they’re not listening to me, but here is my list anyway.

Things the French do better than us.

Driving

Now admittedly as you approach, drive through, or leave a town you will be met with a bewildering number of speed limit changes (they even put 30km/h signs in front of speed humps), but once you are out on the highway it’s 130km/h (or 110km/h if it’s raining). 130km/h! That really makes a difference on long journeys. Plus they don’t sit in the fast lane and hold other people up…no, they just sit in the lane that they’re comfortable with, and if they have to pass someone, they do and then move back into their lane.
Plus they pretty much all drive manual transmission, which means they actually have to pay attention when they’re driving. Chapeau France!

Cheese

I had always thought of myself as relatively knowledgeable about cheese. I wasn’t scared of blue cheese, I’d cooked with Taleggio, I’d tried Rocquefort. But arriving in France made me realise just how much I didn’t know. Over here, Chevre is pretty much a one trick-pony (or goat as the case may be), but over there, there are dozens of types of Chevre. Not to mention sheep’s milk cheeses, local specialities like Neufchatel and a dazzling abundance of all of the cheeses you already knew. Best of all, everything I tried was delicious.

Cheese peddlers
Cheese peddlers

Drivers vs Cyclists

The French appear to have taken an unusual approach whereby the cyclists aren’t jerks, and the drivers aren’t arseholes…and in a complete surprise, the ‘Drivers vs cyclists’ problem is non-existent. The two groups just co-exist. All it really takes is people being willing to forego 10% of what they want in order to accommodate someone else…but unfortunately with our new found national sense of entitlement, any time we don’t get 100% of what we want is seen as a calamitous loss. So I can’t see this happening here any time soon.

Freewheeling through a town in the Alps
Freewheeling through a town in the Alps

Mountains and chateaus

One of the downsides to having a nomadic population up until about 1788, is that we didn’t have thousands of years of people constructing buildings to basically say to anyone who was looking ‘You want to know how I rich I am? I’m this rich…and I’m so French that I built this one for my mistress!’

Chateau Chenonceau

Also, as a photographer, you’re always struggling to frame a nice shot that has a good material in the foreground and background. But in France, if you’re in the Alps, then you only have to worry about getting the foreground right…as having those mountains in the background makes every shot a winner!

Just place flowers in the foreground...and voila!
Just place flowers in the foreground…and voila!

Things we do better in Melbourne

Coffee

On our last day in France, as Katie and I sat drinking a cup of black, plunger coffee I said ‘You know, this really isn’t that bad’. But I now see that it was that bad…it’s just that over the course of two weeks my standards had fallen so substantially, that what previously would have been considered a ‘coffee flavoured hot beverage’ at best, was somehow being passed off as coffee.
Now I know that you seem to put 98% of your milk into cheese and butter, and so need subsist on long life milk…but come on France, even your espresso was crap! Stop using crappy little machines and get something that can actually extract a decent shot. Don’t leave the group head in the machine after you’ve made a coffee until the next customer arrives, and get the grind right so that it doesn’t just look like a cup of warm coke.
With that said La Pommetier and Le Petite Atelier, you will always have a warm place in my heart for the coffees you provided.

Coffee shot
Nectar of the Gods…not shot in France

Cheese

Ok, so I am already on record in this blog as saying that I love your range of cheese. But cheese should be enjoyed in refined moderation. It should be like that person at a dinner party who knows how to drink just enough so that they’re interesting and entertaining…but not so much that they become a bore. France, you are currently like someone at a 21st birthday party, drinking wine from a funnel! For the love of God, show some restraint!
Every time I didn’t know what a menu item was, it was invariably cheese. I had a pizza that looked like it had been on fire and so someone had tried to put it out by smothering it in cheese. Another time, my entree turned out to be a pot full of cheese, with occasional bits of ham and some bread to dip in there. If you’re going to serve fondu, at least have the decency to admit that it’s fondu!

Breakfast

For the first week of my stay in France I was riding at least 80kms per day, up some of the steepest hills I’ve ever seen, and in 40+ degree temperatures. The breakfasts provided were, a selection of pastries (3 days) and a croissant, tub of yoghurt & container of stewed apple (4 days). Now this is OK as a breakfast, provided it is either Mother’s Day in 1994 or you’re a 3 month old. But not if you’re an adult who is hoping to get something done that day.

Delicious...but not a breakfast.
Delicious…but not a breakfast.

Conclusion

So there you have it. France has more things to recommend it…but Melbourne has better coffee. So let’s call it a draw.

Creativity…I kinda got me some

At the end 2012 I made the bold decision to focus on being creative for a year…so as I round out the year, I thought I’d have a look to see what worked and what didn’t…and to see if it made any difference to my life.

2 Degrees of Melbourne videos

One of my goals was to shoot and edit some videos of local Melbourne people who I think reflect what a great city Melbourne is. On the plus side, I got three of these done…and I was really happy with them (Andy White, Mick Thomas, Geraldine Quinn). On the downside…I only got three of these done over the course of an entire year, it’s not like I’m creating episodes of Sherlock FFS!
But on the whole I think that this was a triumph for creativity…they pushed me out of my comfort zone in terms of asking relative strangers to come and do something for nothing…and definitely out of my technical comfort zone as I tried to be interviewer, sound guy, camera man, lighting dude and editor, all on very basic equipment. But if the essence of creativity is doing a whole lot of work and not getting paid anything for it, then this was an unparalleled success. Plus I got to have Andy, Mick and Geraldine just hangout for a coffee and chat in our kitchen…and that is freaking priceless.

Singing

Another goal was to get some singing lessons and possibly sing in public. This was also a success. I did singing lessons with the amazing Emily Hayes (if you’re in Melbourne and want to learn to sing I cannot recommend her highly enough) and that lead to joining a choir called the Septemberists (we sang an entire Decemberists album…in September). Getting to rehearse and then perform with a group was an amazing experience, and getting to sing with Katie Hull-Brown and Emily during my singing lessons was again a great opportunity to push myself well beyond my comfort zone. It also got me back to playing a bit of guitar. But most of all it made me realise that there are few sounds more captivating than voices singing in harmony.

Photography

I really wanted to push myself with my photography this year as well. One of my goals was to do a masterclass with Veeral Patel, but my moving house…and his heading off to shoot the Tour de France made it impossible to lock in a time that worked. But I will do this…oh yes, I will do this (or possibly hide myself in his luggage and head over for next year’s tour!) I did manage to do some long exposure photography that I was really happy with,

ISO 400, 28mm, f11 & 30 second exposure
St Kilda pier
ISO 6400, 17mm, f2.8, 30 Seconds
A shack just outside of Foster

and took some portraits that I thought really captured the subject as a person rather than just an image.

Geraldine
Geraldine Quinn

 

I tend to put the lens cap in my mouth when I use the camera...Xavier clearly likes the look
I tend to put the lens cap in my mouth when I use the camera…Xavier clearly likes the look

But at the same time, I didn’t spend nearly enough time using the ‘manual’ setting on the camera…and relied on Lightroom to make the images really work, so there is still a lot of work to be done.
Also, 90% of taking a great photo is actually being there to take the shot…an average photographer who is actually there, has a much better chance of taking a great shot, than a brilliant photographer who isn’t there. So one of my big aims for this year was to get out and about to take more photos. But with three young kids and a house renovation to keep me busy, I only managed to head out for a dedicated photo session 3 times for the year. Which is pretty shitfull…but leaves a lot of room for improvement!

Surprising synergies

Not only was this the title of my highly unsuccessful 2002 business/management book, but it was also one of the big things that my year of creativity taught me; creativity in one area opens up creative options in others. If you go to a gig and ask if you can just stroll up on stage and take a photo, you will most likely be politely told to sod off. But if you’re there to sing…then you have full access to stage and can take shots like this with impunity.

Rock n Roller_sml-2Rock n Roller_sml-3Rock n Roller_sml-6

And if you walk up to Mick Thomas and ask to take a quick portrait shot of him, he may explain that he has better things to do with his time…but if you’ve just filmed an interview with him, he might let you take a shot like this.Mick Thomas-1

And if you shoot a video with Andy, you might be asked to ruin breakfasts around Melbourne by appearing as a page 3 boy in the Sunday Age.

So in conclusion…

While I certainly didn’t dedicate sufficient time to being creative, the benefits I got from the time I did put in were fantastic. My videos and photography for my day job came ahead in leaps and bounds, I got to meet and work with some people who I really admire and I had some experiences that I’ll remember and draw upon for the rest of my life. The challenge will be maintaining it next year when so much of my focus will be on getting physically ready for a tilt at the Melbourne Ironman in 2015…and of course not thinking to myself every time we visit someone out of Melbourne “I wonder if I could get any good photos there”.

2 Degrees of Melbourne: Episode 3 – Geraldine Quinn

Late last year I attended the live recording of one of my favourite podcasts (for the podcast fans among you it’s ‘The Sweetest Plum‘, I suggest you go out and subscribe to it). Part of the entertainment was a performer called Geraldine Quinn who was introduced as ‘a local star on the cabaret scene’ and my first thought was ‘Oh Christ, here comes a jazz hands solo.’ Now admittedly this was based on a single cabaret experience from about 15 years ago in Las Vegas that involved a very large gentleman dressed as Cher from the ‘Turn back time‘ film clip, yelling songs and telling dick jokes…but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let go of my ill-informed prejudices!

Anyhow, it would have been socially awkward to have just stood up and walked out, so I stayed and listened to Geraldine rework a well known song into a song about the two guys who do the podcast (Declan and Nick). The lyrics were really funny and she clearly was a fan of the podcast, but what really made me reframe any misgivings I had about cabaret performers was when she hit the chorus like the proverbial freight train. Not only could she sing…but she could REALLY sing, and she had a voice that filled the whole room and said ‘I’m not doing this by halves, I’m going to give this everything…and by the end of it, you will almost like a Whitney Houston song!’ (you can hear the podcast here, Geraldine is about 80% of the way through).

So when I embarked on this little project of interviewing people who represent my favourite things about Melbourne…I knew that Geraldine had to be one of them.
Now it may have taken about 2 months of organising to finally sort a time, but on Monday she came into the 2 Degrees studio (aka the dining room) and here is my interview with her

 

Two Degrees of Melbourne – Geraldine Quinn from 2 Degrees of Separation on Vimeo.

I’m really happy with how this video came up…so happy in fact that I had to break with the traditional ‘black and white’ look of the other videos because the colour version looked so good. A huge note of thanks to John for bringing me a tripod at very late notice when the base plate to mine failed to re-appear…and an even bigger note of thanks to Geraldine for making the time to be interviewed and being such a great interviewee.
You can check out where Geraldine is playing on her site or on her myriad social media sites…but whatever you do, get out and see her, you won’t be disappointed!

2 Degrees of Melbourne – Episode 2 : Mick Thomas

Given the number of times I’ve looked up on a stage and seen Mick Thomas singing or telling a story…it was a tad surreal to see him standing in my kitchen chatting about the real life person that Dickens’ ‘Fagin’ was based upon. But when you bite the bullet and decide to put some energy into being creative for a year…these sorts of things start to happen.

A bit of background

For those who don’t know, Mick Thomas is a Melbourne based singer songwriter. He is probably best known for his work with ‘Wedding’s, Parties Anything’, but has also released numerous albums as both a solo performer and with ‘Mick Thomas and the sure thing’…and has written soundtracks and theater productions.
While I had always been vaguely aware of ‘Weddings, Parties, Anything’ (it’s a memorable band name…and their constant touring meant I saw a lot of their posters around) it wasn’t until a friend of mine (Dave Walsh) brought a song of theirs in to play on my student radio show. The song was ‘A tale they won’t believe’ and basically tells the true story of a group of convicts escaping from a prison on Tasmania, and eventually resorting to cannibalism. As far as songs about cannibalism go, it was pretty awesome.
I bought a couple of albums and was hooked. Having been raised on a pretty strong diet of Irish folk music and occasional ‘Bushwackers’ dances…I recognised the sound and the energy of the music…but suddenly it had lyrics about Australian history, or the trials of being in a relationship and working different hours, or being mistaken for Jack Jones. Most importantly a lot of the songs were about life in Melbourne.
So when I came up with the idea of doing short videos on people who I thought were an integral part of Melbourne…Mick Thomas was one of my ‘must haves’.
Flushed with the success of the Andy White video (over 2,500 views on Vimeo!), I just decided to try my luck and simply sent Mick an email via his website explaining what I was looking to do…and in a rare display of poor judgement…he agreed to take part!

Preparing for the interview

I love listening to interviews by Mark Colvin and Jesse Thorn…if for no other reason, than that wonderful moment you can almost hear the guest think ‘Oh wow…this guy has really done his research’. There is a near-tangible change in the way the interviewee responds to the questions, because they realise that they aren’t going to be asked the same questions they’ve been asked before, by someone who is contractually obliged to talk to them….they are talking to someone who has put in some effort, has some great questions and the mental agility to respond to anything they say.
Clearly I wasn’t looking to achieve these lofty standards…but I wanted to be closer to them, than to Richard Wilkins on the red carpet asking ‘So who are you wearing?’
So I did as much internet research as I could…which proved to be a good idea, because one my questions was going to be about the brilliant lyrics in one song he sings…which research revealed to be a cover he does. Nothing makes a songwriter happier than having someone praise a song they sing that they didn’t write.

The interview

One thing I’ve learnt over the course of the two interviews is that when you’re by yourself and filming on one main camera, and filming on a second camera (my phone), and monitoring audio, and asking the questions, and actively listening to the responses and framing your next question, and doing your best to make sure your interviewee is comfortable…you tend to get to the end of the interview and think ‘Well that seemed to go well…but I’ve got no idea if it’s going to work as a five minute video?’
But I think it does…and so here is Mick Thomas

2 Degrees of Melbourne – Mick Thomas from 2 Degrees of Separation on Vimeo.

In conclusion

The music I wrote for Andy’s video just didn’t work with Mick’s…so I had to write something else (and by ‘write’ I clearly mean ‘stick together a series of samples in Garageband’). But I’m really glad I did. I also had to call an end to the interview a little earlier than I would have liked because the the camera was starting to overheat…and I ran out of memory on the card (shooting at 50fps is all well and good to get nice slow motion…but it chews through the memory!)…and editing in 1.5 hour blocks between putting the kids to bed and going to bed myself was less than ideal.
But I can live with all of these little issues, the one thing I’m still annoyed with myself about is that with Mick standing right there in my kitchen I didn’t have the guts to tell him that I think that he is one of the best singer/songwriters that Australia has ever produced…and certainly my favourite. And that Melbourne is so lucky to have someone to immortalise it in song. So I’ll just write it here instead, and pretend that this somehow makes up for it.
But if you’d like to make up for my inadequacy, then I heartily suggest that you all ‘do yourself a favour’ and go out and buy a ‘Weddings, Parties Anything’ album or a ‘Mick Thomas and the Sure Thing’ album, or head to Tassie and check out ‘Vandemonian Lags‘…or just visit Mick’s site and see when he’s performing next.
You won’t regret it.

2 degrees of Melbourne – Episode 1: Andy White

A while back I wrote a blog about how this year I was going to focus on being more creative. It turns out that living with your parents while your house is being renovated, and then moving back in to the aforementioned house, leaves very little scope for creativity. But we have been back in our house for about 6 weeks now, and I have just finished my first real creative project…and I’m really happy with how it has come out.

The idea

I love Melbourne, and I love hearing people’s stories…so one of the big projects I wanted to embark on this year was to interview some Melbourne people who I admire and create a series of short videos. Basically to talk about my home city, via the people who I think make it great. In theory this is very doable…but in reality, people who are worth interviewing and making videos of, often have better things to do with their time than talk to you for a video that they are not getting paid for.
So it was with a fair degree of trepidation that I approached my first potential interviewee, Andy White (of Fyxomatosis fame). I put off writing to him for about two weeks, then I spent an hour or so crafting the perfect email, then I spent the next 12 hours preparing contingency plans for the inevitable rejection. So it’s fair to say that when he replied with ‘Sure. When/Where?’, I was both surprised and overjoyed…not to mention impressed with his brevity.
But once you have someone who has agreed to be interviewed, you then have to prepare for the interview. You have to make sure you have all the gear that you need. Most importantly, you have to believe that you are going to create something that your interviewee will be happy with, so that the next time they see you they don’t start screaming ‘You!’ and throwing things at you.

The filming of the interview

Andy was happy to come to my house for the filming, so at least I knew we would be able to get some good light…and if we used one of our new ‘Of course your happiness is my prime concern darling…wait, HOW MUCH?!!!’ chairs I might be able to claim them as a tax deduction. I used a roll of white paper as the background (I gave a guy my mountain bike when he was looking at getting back into cycling and he repaid me with reams of white paper, which make an awesome background for filming or photography) and I shot it all on my Canon 550D and my iPhone 4 (I used a Zoom H2 for the audio).
Any concerns I had about whether I would get enough good stuff to edit with were assuaged within the first 3 minutes. Andy is a dream interviewee, he was relaxed, fearless and best of all, engaging.
After 40 minutes of interview, the sensor on my camera was starting to overheat…and Xavier had returned to wreak havoc on my film set, so we called it a day.

The edit

As I said, the interview went for 40 minutes. Normally my first cut (where you get rid of all of the stuff you know you won’t be able to use) would whittle this down to about 10-15 minutes…then I would begin the tricky job of cutting it back to 3-5 minutes. But when I got rid of all of the guff from Andy’s interview I still had 30 minutes of footage…pretty much his entire interview was great! Which is great if you’re producing a half hour doco…but when you’re producing a 3-5 minute video for the web, it’s a freaking nightmare.
I was eventually brutal enough and cut it down to 5’30″(but there was some great stuff I’ll have to find another use for!), added some photos and footage that I had (and two that I got from Andy), wrote the music track in GarageBand…and the end result goes a little something like this…

or for the Vimeo fans

2 Degrees of Melbourne – Andy White from 2 Degrees of Separation on Vimeo.

So there we have it, the ‘Year of creativity’ is finally underway…my next interview targets are Richard Gill, Danny Collis and Hanna Assifiri. So if any of you have any good contacts with them, please let me know.

A big thanks

Last but not least, I’d like to thank Andy very much for taking the time, being such a great interviewee and most of all for running the best bike ride I’ve ever done, The Melburn Roobaix.

 

 

The song that changed my life…kinda.

Rafael Epstein has a segment on his radio show on 774 ABC Melbourne where people talk about the song that changed their life, and every time I think about it, there is one song that really stands out: ‘Red 2‘ by Dave Clark. But it’s not because it heralded the onset of some amazing time in my life, more that it marked the end of one.

The rave scene in the early 90’s

If this were a news report or documentary, this is the part where you cut to the footage of people dancing with glow sticks in a massive club while a light show explodes around them. But in truth this is not where this story starts. In year 11 and 12  at school (1992-93) I started listening to techno music. Back then it was called ‘trance’ and it was still well and truly outside of the mainstream. DJ’s who would eventually play at parties for 10,000s of people like Will e Tell and Richie Rich were still playing the back room at Insanity at the Chevron to a transient group of about 20 punters.

Community radio was the only place to find it. There was one show that I listened to religiously called ‘Beat in the street‘ (that later became ‘Transmission’) on RRR-FM hosted by Kate Bathgate. I used to tape every show, and then listen to the tape on my walkman again, and again and again at school over the next week.
Going to a private all-boys school meant that listening to anything other than MMM or Fox-FM was basically like walking into a steakhouse and just ordering a salad, it simply wasn’t done. So listening to these tapes in the common room at school had a sort of forbidden pleasure element to it.
I started going to dance parties (or in the parlance of 1994 ‘raves’) regularly when I started Uni and it was a total revelation. The venues were usually shitty warehouses with one toilet. The sound systems were prone to blowing just as everyone was going apeshit (Thomas Heckman, I’m looking in your direction) and the people attending them were the offcuts from society. There were tall and lanky guys and short squat women. They had their own dresscode (highly coloured clothes, with very wide pants and very tight tops). They didn’t drink and there was none of the agro that hung over the club scene like a fog as soon as the clock hit 2am. And the music…well it was like nothing I had ever heard! There was the big 4/4 beat driving it along, but there were also floating basslines and awesome melody lines that I just loved. If you can imagine my music up until this point being basically nothing but guitars and the occasional hip-hop track… then suddenly hearing this or this you can get an idea of just how big a change it was.
It was a very friendly and welcoming scene, and like so many sub-cultures, part of the pleasure was sharing an experience with a whole lot of like minded people. I would head to these parties at about midnight and then dance until the early morning…then catch the first train home. Some how I managed to also accommodate my exhausting 8 contact hours a week of uni. I was living the dream.

Cometh the drugs, cometh the pretty people…endeth the party

By the mid 90’s the parties were getting bigger and better, with the Hardware and Every Picture Tells a Story parties attracting thousands of people…and with that I started to notice more and more people from clubland appearing at the raves. It started with a slow trickle of muscly men in white t-shirts and their blonde bombshells…and eventually became a monsoon of pretty people armed with whistles, glow sticks and talcum powder. But of course these people weren’t here for the music…they were there because someone had told them that it was cool to go to raves and do drugs.
Now of course drugs had always been a big part of the rave scene, but suddenly people were no longer going to listen to the music and maybe do some drugs…they were going to do some drugs and maybe listen to some music. So the music slowly began to morph away from the flowing melodies and soaring chords, towards something that said ‘look, you’ve spent a lot of money on those two pills and that gram of speed…let’s give you something that you can just grind your teeth to all night’. To me Red 2 was the tipping point. It was so sparse, so mechanical, and so minimal that I felt no connection with it…and as the crowds around me generally lost their shit to it…I realised that I had no real connection with them either. And suddenly the spell was broken. I could no longer see my future self still going the these parties when I was 40 (I had earnestly announced this to people in the past), I couldn’t even see myself going to these parties in 6 months time. The dance was over.
Like any naive person in a subculture, I wanted the mainstream to see how amazing this scene was and to experience what I was experiencing. I was convinced that if the mainstream could just attend these parties, then the world would be a better place…but when the mainstream decided to drop by, they were like a drunken gatecrasher. They turned up at my house, made a pass at my girlfriend then vomited on the cat. In short they pretty much ruined everything, and Red 2 was the soundtrack they did it to.

That was 20 years ago. All of the flyers I used to have stuck on my bedroom walls are gone, the recordings I listened to religiously are on redundant technology and it takes weeks weeks to organise someone to look after the kids if I was to go out on a Saturday night…and even then, I’d have to be home by 1am because otherwise I’d be too tired for the next day. But while writing this I jumped on YouTube and started listening to some of the tracks I used to love, and suddenly I was back in a warehouse in Footscray, at 4am, dancing my heart out with a room of people who were having the best night of their lives…and I’m so glad that I got to experience that.

Guns n Roses at Calder Park

Come gather around children and I’ll take you away to a mystical time called ‘the early 90’s’ and I’ll regale you with a tale of one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever attended…Guns n Roses at Calder Park.

The early 90’s were a very different time. Your ability to get good concert seats was determined by your willingness to sleep out in the carpark of Doncaster Shopping Town rather than by the speed of your internet connection. Young men in Commodores blasted heavy metal out of their speakers and felt nothing but disgust for people playing doofy dance music. And the hottest ticket in town was Guns n Roses. I had done the requisite wait in the cold at Doncaster and had got my ticket, and was pretty much like Charlie on his way to the chocolate factory (however I did not have some octogenarian tagging along for the ride).
I was 17 and was going to start Year 12 the next day…so the concert had a real ‘final fling’ feel to it, and I was a pretty massive Guns n Roses fan. So the fact that we had to wait for about 2 hours in the city to get a bus out to Calder Park in 38 degree heat didn’t seem like such a problem. Similarly, when we arrived at Calder Park and security threw out all of the food and drink I had brought with me (a packet of Monte Carlo biscuits and an eggflip BigM) I was willing to tolerate it…after all, surely there would be food inside…and I had mistakenly purchased the eggflip BigM because the yellow ‘M’ looked like the yellow ‘M’ on the banana BigM. What wasn’t so good, was that somehow during all of the bag searches and pocket emptying, my ticket had disappeared. The ticket I had spent cold hours of the morning lining up for, the ticket that a scalper had offered $100 (roughly equivalent to $1.3Billion in today’s money) for just 10 minutes ago was gone! It was hot, it was windy, and I suddenly had to face the reality that I may be heading home without even entering Calder Park.
Just then, I saw a spindly tree about 20 meters away, and wedged in the fork of one of its branches WAS MY TICKET! It must have blown off the table when I emptied my pockets. I bolted over and grabbed it before it blew any further and walked into Calder Park.

The support acts
From memory Rose Tattoo were the first band to play…but I don’t really remember because I spent their entire set lining up for some food from one of the 3 food vans that were there. There were at least 10,000 people in the ‘A reserved section’ where I was (the remaining 60,000 were restrained behind a cement barrier) and none of us were allowed to bring in any food or drink…so yeah…I reckon 3 food vans with 3 people working in them was just about right.
Next up were SkidRow. From all accounts when the lead singer (Sebastian Bach) did the triumphant hands in the air salute to the crowd after one of their bigger songs, the drummer snuck up behind him and pantsed him…and I think the guitarist was heading off to join the army and so had his long ‘metal’ locks shaved off on stage. I say ‘from all accounts’ because I was back at the food van explaining that my dim-sims were still frozen in the center, and that I would kind of like some cooked ones.

The weather
We had already sweltered in close to 40 degree temperatures for most of the day…then an enormous wind storm came through. I can still vividly remember all of the people on one of the hills at Calder Park throwing their polystyrene cups in the air and the wind catching them and creating swarms of white cups…ah, then I think a few people threw some plastic chairs…which only flew a few meters…and didn’t end so well.
Fortunately the wind storm only lasted for about 10 minutes…not so fortunately we then got rained upon from a great height for about half an hour. It was an absolute deluge, and suddenly the guy selling ponchos for $5 who I had laughed at during the extreme heat, seemed like a freaking genius.
Then the lightning started.
Legend has it that the reason the gig was out at Calder Park was that Axl Rose (the enigmatic lead singer) had been told by his clairvoyant that if he ever played in a town starting with ‘M’ then he would die. Technically Calder Park was outside of Melbourne at that stage…but the wind, rain, lightning and massive scaffold structure, probably had Axl checking a few local council boundaries.

The actual gig
By about 6pm we had gone from stinking hot in shorts and t-shirts, to drenched in shorts and t-shirts…and then inevitably cold and wet in shorts and t-shirts. The only water we had access to had come from the sky, we hadn’t eaten, and Angry Anserson hadn’t even arrived in the Batmobile as he had done at the 91 Grand Final. So I think it’s fair to say that the general consensus amongst the crowd was ‘Well I sure hope Gunners put on a good show…or we are going the riot the bejesus out of this place!’
Well they did put on an awesome show. They played songs off their new double album, songs off Appetite for Destruction and even a Misfits cover. They were freaking awesome! My personal highlight was when Axl threw his wireless microphone out into the crowd. There was at least a 5 second delay between him throwing the mic and the sound engineer turning the signal off. So you got to hear the mic sail through the air end on end, then land in the crowd…then the sounds of at least 8 bogans beating eight shades of shit out of each other in order to get it. It was beautiful.
Then after an encore of ‘Paradise City’, the gig was over.

The Aftermath
We walked back to where the buses had dropped us off, only to find that the buses taking us home were in fact on the other side of Calder Park. Then we heard that all of the buses were full and had gone.
So we all started walking along the Calder Freeway back to Melbourne. It’s hard to describe the sight quite of 10,000 thousand sunburnt, damp, hungry and exhausted bogans walking along a the side of highway. But if anyone has seen the episode of the Walking Dead where all of the zombies were walking along the highway…you’ve got a pretty good reference point.
Some of my strongest memories of the walk were:

  • seeing a guy in a Mr. Whippy can auction his final can of soft drink, for about 15 times more than he would normally have charged
  • hundreds of people converging on the BP in Taylor’s Lakes, and simply eating the food right off the shelves…as a helpless service station attendant just looked on
  • spending my last 30c on a phone call to my Dad to come and pick me up.

So Guns n Roses are back in town…do I think this could all happen again?
Not really…and if it did, there would be so much righteous indignation and whining on social media, the internet would probably need a cup of tea and a lie down.
But I’m so glad that it did…and that I was part of it.
And if I have one last parting piece of advice I wish I could have passed on to myself, it’s that spending all day in the sun headbanging leads to a both sunburnt and very sore neck…but no matter how sore your neck muscles are, forgetting you’re sunburnt and rubbing deep heat in is a really, really, really bad idea.

 

The Melburn-Roobaix

If, as the result of some bizarre gypsy curse, I was only able to watch one bike race per year- it would be the Paris-Roubaix. For the non-cycling tragics reading this, the Paris-Roubaix is a one-day 250km bike race through the Northern part of France. What sets is apart from so many other bike races are the numerous cobblestones sections. These cobblestones destroy bikes, they jar every bone in the riders bodies, in the wet they are slippery and treacherous…in the dry, the dust makes them slippery and treacherous.  It’s affectionately known as the ‘hell of the North’. To see what I’m talking about just type ‘Paris-Roubaix’ into YouTube…or look at the awesome photos from O’nev or Kristof Ramon

If, as a result of having 3 children and a complete lack of fitness, I could only do one bike ride per year- it would be the Melburn-Roobaix. The Melburn-Roobaix is the brain-child of the indefatigable Andy White. It’s a one day bike ride that varies from about 25kms to 40kms and meanders around Melbourne, taking in as many of cobblestone lane-ways as possible. At the end of each lane-way there is a question for you to answer. It’s sort of like the friendliest alley cat ever…but it’s not a race, it’s open to everyone…and it is the best fun you can have on a bike.

My initiation to the Melburn-Roobaix was 4 years ago when a friend invited me along. As a result of a technical issue, I completely missed the start and my friend headed off with the main group. So I was now doing a race that I had no idea about and no-one to talk to. I was about to just head home and chalk it up as a waste of a Sunday, when I recognised a guy who I had chatted to briefly on the ride to the start. We got chatting, and he introduced me to some other people and pretty soon I was racing around the streets of Nth. Melbourne with a variety of groups of people who clearly didn’t know where they were going…but were having a hell of a lot of fun getting there. We ran upstairs with our bikes, we rode alongside the drains, I watched a guy casually do a wheelie for about 4 minutes and I discovered numerous parts of Melbourne I had never seen before. Best of all I had the best fun I’d had in years.

I rode again the next year, and it was just as much fun. So the year after that I invited my best mate along and we hired some BikeShare bikes and did the ride on those. What the BikeShare bikes lacked in agility, handling, and lightweight materials…they more than made up for in overall indestructability. Yes it was like riding an armchair…but it was someone else’s armchair..and the wheels weren’t going cost you $500 if they were damaged.

This year, my 6 yr old son came with me. I was a little nervous about how he would find riding with so many people, riding such a long distance and of course riding on the cobblestones. But those fears were unfounded. While we didn’t do the full 38km (I’ll leave the Koppenberg for him to discover next year), we had an absolutely brilliant time…and I look forward to Josh repeating Stuey O’Grady’s heroics in the 2007 Paris-Roubaix sometime. But the best part of the whole day was how many people took the time to tell him how well he was doing, and what a great effort it was to be doing the ride. He spent the whole afternoon after the race feeling 10ft tall and bullet proof and perhaps more importantly he went to sleep early (tired but happy).

For him the idea of a group of people getting together to just have fun, probably isn’t that foreign…kids do it all the time. But as we get older, we tend to look for the competitive side of things instead of working together for no reward other than fun, we don’t want to spend a day chatting to random strangers because frankly that’s just weird, we don’t want to spend hours with people dressed as ninjas or riding unicycles…because…well…they’re dressed as ninjas or riding unicycles. Most importantly in a world where we can ride road bikes, mountain bikes, fixies, single speeds, BMXs and cruisers. And where we can spend as much money on a bike as we would on a small car…we can forget why we love riding in the first place…because IT’S FUN! The Melburn-Roobaix is my annual reminder of just how rewarding life can be if we get together with a group of people with the sole purpose of having fun. That’s why I hope to be doing it for many years to come.

I’d like to say a massive thanks to Andy for organising the ride. I shudder to think how much time and effort goes into putting it all together, but I hope he gets as much out of it as we all do.
If you’re interested in doing the ride next year then head to Fxyomatosis and entertain yourself with great stories and photos until registration for next year’s ride opens…and then hopefully I’ll see you for ‘the Hell of the Northcote’!

See a few of my photos from the day here

Coffee

There are some addictions that I won’t admit to publicly, and there are some that I won’t even admit to myself…but I wear my coffee addiction like a badge of honour. I love it. I make myself a coffee everyday before I ride to work, and yet every time I pass someone drinking a coffee on the way to work, I think ‘Man, a coffee would be so good right now!’, despite having had one no more than 10 minutes ago.
What’s more, I have added insult to injury by becoming a ‘coffee snob’. I’ve walked out of cafes when I saw they way they were making other people’s coffees…I’ve walked right past cafe’s because a cursory glance at the coffees being drunk by people at the tables outside didn’t look like they would make the grade…I have even asked the person making my coffee in small town in the Mallee if they would mind if I came behind the counter and made the coffee myself!
This is not socially acceptable behaviour! I would never walk into a Thai restaurant, order my Pad Thai and then stroll into the kitchen telling the chef “I’d use a bit more fish sauce. Actually, step back from the wok…I’ll take it from here.” But such is the power of coffee that I will transgress social norms just to ensure that I get a good coffee.

Now the purpose of this blog is not to tell you what makes a perfect coffee, or where to go for the best coffee (although I will be dropping some pretty blatant hints about both of these) because, like many of the finer things in life, a ‘good coffee’ is a very subjective thing. Some people like it weak, some people like it strong, some people like it scalding hot and some people like soy milk. So instead of telling you the coffee you should like, I’m going to tell you some of the things I’ve learned over my 20 year coffee drinking career.

How to find a good coffee
OK, look around. Are you in Melbourne? If ‘yes’, then you should be fine. Just walk into any non-franchise coffee emporium and order your coffee with confidence. If ‘no’, then I’m afraid you have your work cut out for you, but here are some key pointers:
– If they are offering ‘Mugachinos’, run
– If they start heating the milk, and then walk away to serve another customer, you are doomed
– Don’t get too picky with your order. Yes you may like a 3/4 latte with 1/2 a sugar, but order that and at best you are going to get some horrific fraction based version of a coffee (I’m talking to you Geelong!)…or at worst you are going to get a withering sigh from an elderly woman who really doesn’t have time for this crap (hello Numurkah), or the distinct impression everyone else in the shop now wants to kill you (hello Rainbow/Orbost/Waragul).

All you need is love
A passionate barista who doesn’t have the best materials, but is determined to make you a great coffee, is going to do a hell of a lot better job than someone with the best equipment who just doesn’t give a damn.
Fortunately, there are plenty of places with great coffee, great people and great equipment. If you are ever in Melbourne, then you need to go to:
65 Degrees
The League of Honest Coffee
D’Marcos
Manchester Press
Because these people love their coffee, and the lines of people waiting to order show that people love their coffee too!

Get a coffee machine
Some people frivolously wasted their baby bonus on plasma TV’s, and those people are clearly not fit to be parents. We on the other hand purchased a coffee machine and grinder. Now before those of you without young children get all angry and say that we were being selfish, think about this- by purchasing the machine and therefore having our coffees at home, we were no longer cluttering up your local cafe with prams and screaming children, leaving you to read the newspaper/pretentiously work on your laptop/nurse a hangover in peace…so we were basically providing a community service!
We got a Rancilio Silvia machine and a Rocky Grinder for about $1,100. For over four years they have made at least two coffees everyday and have not missed a beat.
Also, the cred attached to saying ‘No I don’t need the beans ground…I have my own grinder at home’, is pretty much the same as introducing yourself as a Formula 1 driver.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
I have had some truly memorable coffees; a coffee with lots of cardamon in Sharjah, my first ever espresso coffee at a little cafe in Kew that was the only place that would let my friends smoke in there before school, and any coffee that provided respite during a freezing cold bike ride. But if I know my audience, you don’t want to hear about the good times…you want to hear about those moments that make you glad that you are you…and I am me.
So let us cast our minds back 4 years to our family holiday to WA. We had a toddler and a baby in the car and we were driving from Margaret River to Pemberton (about 4 hour drive). We had decided not to get a coffee in Margaret River, and instead find somewhere along the way so we could break up the trip. In Victoria, as you travel through the countryside you can usually find somewhere that offers a serviceable coffee, but after 2 hours of driving (and the dull thud of caffeine withdrawal starting to emminate from the back of my skull) we finally made the executive decision to go to a McCafe. The logic was that it wouldn’t be a 10/10 coffee…but it would be a dependable 7/10 and that was all we needed. So I parked the car and went in and ordered two lattes. The girl behind the counter went to grab the percolated coffee. I said ‘No, no…I’d like them from the machine’. After a lot of huffing, the girl went over and put the steam wand into the milk to warm it up…then went of to serve someone else. By the time she returned the jug was glowing red hot…and I think I was weeping a little. She then made the espresso and walked away again (clearly the burnt milk would balance out the lukewarm espresso). She then came back and filled the cups to the absolute brim with scalding hot coffee, and I walked back to the car doing that thing where the cup is so hot that you have to rotate which fingers are doing most of the holding for fear of burning them. When I got back to the car I discovered that our baby needed a nappy change and was screaming about the fact that this was happening…at the same time our toddler was trying to drown out the cries of our baby by screaming louder…causing the baby to cry even louder. In a state of zen like calm that can only be achieved by a true addict, I was in the process of removing the lids from the coffees and adding the sugar. The first coffee was fine and I had put it in the cup holder for my wife, and having added the sugar to my coffee I was replacing the lid when I somehow pushed down to hard and tipped the contents of the cup all over my lap.
I’m not 100% sure what happened next, but I do remember both children suddenly going quiet…and my wife hurriedly saying ‘You can have my one!’
Within about 30 seconds the coffee in my lap had gone from scalding hot to tepid and clammy…and thus began one of the least comfortable drives of my life.

But for all that I still come back to coffee as the perfect start to my day, the best way to reward myself and my happiest vice. But anything that gives so much and takes so little must have some sort of horrible secret, and when in 20 years time people look back at the way we drank coffee with much the same horror as we look at the smoking in Mad Men and say ‘But didn’t they realise how much damage they were doing to themselves?!’ I’ll just smile and say ‘It was worth it!’