BIGSOUND 2016 – Part One
Images by Claire Sullivan
Bigsound is probably the largest thing I’ve ever covered in the few years I’ve been doing this writing stuff. It’s overwhelming, stressful, terrible, irritating, and at times, utterly life-affirming to be there, be amongst it, scooting around Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley alongside all of the most passionate music supporters and enablers in the country.
I spent a lot of time while I was there thinking “how the fuck does someone write about this?” I was watching pieces go up on ToneDeaf and other such sites which essentially boiled down to; “okay here are the bands you gotta go like the Facebooks of and maybe notice down the bottom of some festival billing for the next few months, alright, out you get, shops closed, fuck off” with no mention of what the experience of Bigsound actually is.
That’s not to assert with any certainty that this article is gonna get any closer to what it’s like to be there, but I’m gonna do my best. I’ve boiled it down to a few moments which I’ve written about below, and I hope someone enjoys it.
Habits through a basement window.
One of the most talked about duos of the past year and a half have been Habits. Deservedly so as well. The two push boundaries in their sound, presentation, and dress and are seemingly constantly daring you to follow them down a rabbit hole; their sound could be described as the last thing you hear before your mind is broken by an inconceivable cosmic deity from beyond the stars. It speaks volumes about the voracity of human curiosity that they courted one of the most packed and devoted crowds I saw in my time at Bigsound.
Before I managed to duck inside and watch it all unfold though, I took a phone call on a bench just outside the basement venue Habits were playing in. The muffled thunder of their set, already well into its run, emanated out of the window. Staring through that window felt like staring down into another world, some version of the depths of humanity imagined as a dancefloor. The entire room cast in a sickening green glow as Mo and Maia convulsed and contorted over their collection of LED lights and dials (the way that Habits command not just a crowd, but the very atmosphere of a locale will never cease to amaze me).
I finish up the call and decide to just sit for a while, a rare thing once the sun goes down around the valley.
Soon enough, a voice nearby exclaims “oh my god! Is he wearing a g-string!?” followed up by the exclamations of other nearby voices. It’s a group of 30-something women who’ve caught a glance of Habits through that same window. A bloke nearby says “yeah it’s fucken weird aye”.
I think about judging the onlookers, and I kind of do. I think about whether Habits would ever be able to make it past broader society’s surprise at their whole deal. People love weird pop stars, though, would this be any different? I don’t end up being able to answer the question, aside from deciding that Habit’s deserve more than just societies acceptance, much more.
I go inside and watch the crowds, keeping to the back; the different, the unrepresented, they’re galvanised by a sound that loves them and wants to do everything for them. It is beautiful.
An Accidental Wave.
It was a funny moment – some mishmash collective of us, we’re there at The Foundry, just after Totally Mild finishes up their final set of the night, milling about before heading off to some official closing party for all the industry bigwigs and delegates (and me, pretending to be the person on my lanyard). I’m chatting with Lehmann, the bassist outta the band wot just played and the Milk Records crowd are hanging nearby.
Courtney Barnett is there, chatting away with some of the members of Loose Tooth; I think I see Jen Cloher as well. Jen and Courtney start making their way to the door and are sort of just waving to everyone as they go by. Eventually, her friendly departure lands upon Lehmann and myself. It’s…weird? I guess? I’m not sure; she gets this confused and embarrassed look on her face and she does this little movement with her gait that implies a sort of “I wasn’t intending on waving to you as I left, but, y’know, I wanna be nice so here ya go, have a good one”, and I wave back. That said, who knows, maybe the throes of fame had already taken hold and I was already waving before she started leaving the room.
It was an interesting moment. One that means literally nothing, and I know that countless blogs and posts have been dedicated to how ‘real’ and ‘relatable’ Barnett is; how she’s just a gal with a guitar and that’s all there is to it, but the accidental awkward wave from Barnett was a moment in which I kinda got the ‘simplicity’ of the whole music community experience that goes on up at Bigsound. It had nothing to do with her as consumable media iconography, nothing to do with fucking ‘Best New Music’, but rather that she is just there, like anyone else, walking about a space and having the same experience I was having. That closeness of experience is important. Maybe I’ve destroyed the purity of that moment by even writing about it in the publish, cos there ain’t that much difference between what I’ve said and all these interviews, but as someone who isn’t even that huge a fan of Barnett, it was an interesting feeling to reflect on.
I’d gone to get lunch with a friend after running into her and two other dudes who turned out to be part owners/operators of a music festival that runs in Victoria. We sat about and chatted about whatever for a while whilst eating burgers and basking in the late morning sun. It’s a conversation that escapes me now; unimportant and polite, but good enough to warrant a greeting at the upcoming gigs later in the week.
Such a time came; myself, walking along having just left The Brightside (a sort of ye olde church-ish building where Japanese Wallpaper would later wow the punters) heading towards some other unremembered event, and there I see one of my lunch friends walking towards me. I raise a hand for a cool-dude-high-five greeting, and ask him his plans for the evening.
“Insurance meeting” is what I get in return, probably in reference to his music festival. Wait, what?
It’s the truth. It could be argued (and often is by many attendees) that Bigsound is more for the suits than the artists, and ultimately running a music festival is an elaborate and bureaucratic undertaking.
Terrible Truths Three Times, Totally Mild Four.
A person I knew back in Melbourne who I cemented as friend up at Bigsound could chew your ear of at her frustration surrounding why Totally Mild aren’t the biggest band in the world right now. I’d probably help her do it, too.
If you weren’t completely blown away by their 2015 debut Down Time, then I don’t know how to help you, and their follow up is, somehow, even better. Elizabeth Mitchell’s song-writing is transcendent, it leaves every convention of what guitar based pop music could, or should be. Zachary Schneider remains the greatest guitar player Australia has produced in years, not content with simply playing with six strings and some frets, he forces it to bend, buzz and crackle.
I watched Totally Mild play four times over the course of Bigsound, and every set felt like a treat, like I was seeing something that was at its essence a privilege. At this point I’m just waxing lyrical about them, but at this point, it’s all I can honestly do.
A similar feeling overtakes me when thinking about Terrible Truths. I caught them three times over four days, and it felt like nowhere near enough. If it weren’t for the fact that both the Truths and the Mild were such close friends I’d probably imagine them in constantly in battle for the mantle of unofficial best band in Australia (can’t forget that the whole triple J complex would want a say in that).
Terrible Truths’ new stuff feels like less of a continuation of a sound, more of a refinement of it, paring it down to a razor sharp point that’ll piece your heart and your ears all at once. They’re playing with rhythm more now, forcing you to alter your expectations slightly on where a song might head, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. I complained a lot during my time at Bigsound that nobody really dances, and it was at Terrible Truths’ sets that I did my part to fix that.
Ultimately all these repetitive gigging results in me watching Bedroom Suck head honcho Joe Alexander drum seven times. He’s filling in for Totally Mild’s Ash Bundang while she’s off in Japan with Sui Zhen, and it’s a lesson in how different the same drum lines can sound when played by people on totally different ends of the spectrum of intention. Bundang is all vibe; jamming along with Liz’s tunes with a bounce that makes you think she’s about to go out of time, however, her drumming grew alongside these songs, so she knows how to play to ‘em best. Alexander on the other hand is a volatile whirlwind on the set, sweating and heaving over the rhythm, punishing the beat into submission when he’s backing up Terrible Truths, so it’s strange hearing him on Totally Mild songs that demand him to just calm the fuck down for a second. It’s not wrong, it’s just different.
The Bit Where I Talk About Bands I Saw – #1
Showing up the day before the festival actually starts is a great idea. There’s a ton of unofficial goings on to fill your time up the night prior, and if you’re smart like me and went to the Paradise party at the Bloodhound bar you probably got some cool stickers and some drink cards. That was the first place I hit once I settled in to the area, and it’s where I caught the end of what I think was an ALTA set and the whole of a Habits set. Most of my time spent there was mostly saying my hellos to pals up from Melbourne, catching up and talking plans, so paying attention to the music wasn’t quite on the cards yet.
Later on that night, I found myself at the Rice is Nice & Spunk thing. Reckon I got there sometime around when one of the guitarists out of Shining Bird did a weird jump guitar chord strum thing which he must’ve seen watching old hair metal music videos. He’s also wearing aviator sunglasses indoors I think, which doesn’t exactly endear me to the whole Shining Bird experience. The sound is shocking.
Soon afterwards, DEN are up. They’re a new Rice is Nice signing and seem to have taken it upon themselves to force Total Control out of retirement just so they can get their sound back. I mention this a few times to a friend I’m watching them with and she retorts with “all you Melbourne people think fucking everything sounds like Total Control”, and then explains to me why she loves DEN’s first single. Admittedly, DEN are good live; their sound is absolutely impossible to deny, matching the electronic dystopic vision of Typical System with the trash of Henge Beat, but when your set is done and the sound dude chucks on “Expensive Dog” (which by the way is the cheekiest thing I’ve ever seen happen), then something might be wrong.
By this point, the timings have gotten all sorts of fucked up, so Totally Mild go on at around 2am. It kinda takes a toll, as 7/11 coffee only gets you so far. Schneider has a bit of trouble with his slide and ends up just using his lighter, which is very #rocknroll.