The Collapse Board Interview: Erica Dunn (Tropical Fu*k Storm / Mod Con)

The Collapse Board Interview: Erica Dunn (Tropical Fu*k Storm / Mod Con)
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Tropical Fuck Storm started life as something of an Australian supergroup, featuring Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin from The Drones, Lauren Hammel, from High Tension, and Erica Dunn, from the bands Mod Con, Harmony, and Palm Springs. Over the last seven years, the band has released three albums, four EPs, a hatful of singles, made a film, won awards and played shows everywhere and with everyone.

Ahead of the Tropical Fuck Storm’s first live dates in a year, we talked to Erica about being a music obsessive, how she got into playing music and her experiences of joining and playing in TFS.


Gareth [Liddiard, TFS guitarist/singer] has previously mentioned you DJing at PBS and having this encyclopaedic knowledge of music. Where did that come from and what sort of music was in your house when you were growing up?

I’ve just been thinking about PBS lately, I’ve been missing the hell out of it. I’ve been thinking, “God, it would be so good to get something like that back in my life,” like it was such a perfect time where I felt like I could really lean in and just dedicate heaps of my time to fossicking and record hunting and getting deep into that kind of thing, but I don’t really remember what kicked it off.

I didn’t really have a very musical family and I remember just being, I’m not sure why, but from an early age, really into the physical product of vinyl and tapes and just enjoying them, even if they’re pretty poor taste, like the Eagles and the fucking Bangles and whatever around the house. My real mainstream 40s loving aged parents! But I just obsessed and had a nerdy quality. I used to try and listen to things and archive them and collect them and put things in alphabetical order and would obsess over things.

I had a couple of older friends and older siblings when I was a kid handing me down records, which I think I can remember crediting my interest in this other universe of subculture. It’s really cliché, but one of them was a Velvet Underground compilation. I was just obsessed and didn’t have the means to find out too much more about records, obviously like the pre -internet age, so just word of mouth and talking about and obsessing about different elements of records with friends. It just really started me off into the direction, just snowballed me into that world. It was like a door to another universe that was so transportative from the world that I was growing up in, the world that I was living in. It just drew me out in such a big way.

Even though it’s hilarious to think about, I was also desperate for a job in a record store.  There was nothing cool about where I was living out in the suburbs, near Forest Hill, which folks around these parts would know, and the only shop I could get a job in was Sanity, you know, the shittest most mainstream CD shop. I was, even then, kind of being subversive, like I would sometimes tell customers to go to JB because I thought that was cooler, but it’s funny now to think about it, but at that point it’s just like the stepping stones of getting deeper and deeper into the world of music. That’s just where it started, when I’d go to the food court and play some tapes and get mix tapes from older kids.

It’s so funny kind of looking back at our pre-internet world, that just doesn’t exist anymore, where you obsessed about albums, books or whatever, and you were trying to find them and the whole thing was the quest to find this record that you heard about and just couldn’t find anywhere.

Yeah, it’s so nostalgic and I was such a nerd. I remember having bought this really gross faux leather-bound address book, which I would get records or CDs or tapes and then I was with a fucking pen, writing the serial number and the name of the artist and the CD, like, you would in a record shop, that’s just really crap. Like an archive of what CDs I had, or eventually records, but I don’t know where that came from. I was just sort of like bored to know what CDs I had and being obsessive and also they were just the most precious things to me. I’ve still got it somewhere, it’s a hilarious document.

I don’t think you ever get out of it, I go to Lifeline, I go to op shops, I go to market stallsand whatever just to flip through whatever’s there, just in case there’s something random and amazing or some absolute bargain. It’s like I can’t walk past these places even though I could probably go on the internet and find a record that I’ve been meaning to buy for ages in a few seconds.

Yeah, I feel for me buying records is kind of a luxury at this point of finances in my life. There was a funny amazing window there of being able to take a chance. Like I remember just going into places and literally the artwork or the something about the font or the title, the words or whatever, would jump out and I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s it.” You’d get a connection with something and then take it home and be like, “What the fuck is this shit?” or on the other hand it was an amazing gem, but also that time of being able to take a chance on a record and lose yourself in it.

Yeah, that’s true. I bought most of my vinyl during early 90s when everyone was moving to CDs and you could just buy vinyl so cheap.

Oh, that’s so good.

Yeah, it was great. So how did that then translate to you wanting to play music?

I don’t really know. I think, again, I would probably credit it to a couple of older kids around the neighbourhood. Gaz and Fi and Hammel just don’t let me forget it, and also it really comes out in the karaoke department, but I just had this heinous busking period around the same time.  You’re getting to see a picture, it’s just embarrassing, me as a teenager working in a CD store and trying to be cool and then also being a busker in an awful time in the 90s, you can only imagine, but whatever.

I think there was a couple of kids around that I’d seen playing and something lit up in me. There was like local battle of the bands and shit like that that. I think a FReeZA gig in Mordialloc, which people would know as one of the government youth schemes that is still pushing along around the traps here, but it did used to put on pretty cool daytime punk shows. I think that was probably my first exposure to access to playing music. And I had a brother, God bless, who punished my parents for a Kmart Strat knock-off thing and got the guitar and managed to play the first two chords of ‘Come As You Are’ and then that was it, chucked it out and I got that hand-me-down and absolutely coveted it and just really felt like loved. Just that became the tactile sort of instrument, so many light-up moments of realising having an actual ability to practice at something and spend time with something. It was a couple of lucky things coinciding to pull me in and then late teens, or in my early teens, I started these really fucking terrible bands, of course, but really had a good time and took them really seriously with my friends. Got out, moved out and started playing with other people and just went from there. Just have never not really been playing, just loved playing and having that thing still in my brain being lit up by playing and communicating that way and never looked back.

Were you always a natural musician?

No, I mean, I’m not.  I’ve always been a teacher but I’m a literacy teacher and this last year I’ve been scrambling for all kinds of different work and all kinds of different roles and it’s the first time I’ve been put into some instrumental music teaching roles and also at a tertiary level involved in a music-like degree in a certain capacity. It’s funny, I just was talking with someone, you know, a year off from touring last year, and looking back and still feeling anxiety or imposter syndrome about knowledge of music and, with music theory and understanding technical aspects of music.

I didn’t ever really feel like a natural musician at all but I certainly was a precocious person, probably a real punisher, that loved it and had dedication and loyalty of playing music. In the early days, I think I resisted playing or learning music. There’s lots of reasons I think I could look back on. Some of it was, in some ways, gendered. I remember the lessons, the music teaching that was offered to me was, either piano teaching or, like, the choir. I was like, “Fuck you!” I really resisted it because of the feeling of certainly of it not being the right fit but also the resistance because of the anxiety about not being able to learn or understand and not really being supported.

So instead of trying or seeking out teachers that maybe could have made that language available, I was just like, “Fuck you, that’s not for me, I don’t give a shit about that.” So, resisting reading, writing music, and expressing music in technical and academic ways and then, later on in life, just feeling kind of hard done by it. I was like, “How did I fucking miss all that?” and feeling like other people were having a freedom just to understand each other in a way that I didn’t have access to.

Based on that sort of feeling, in lockdown, when I was also losing my mind, being unable to play, I actually sought out theory lessons for the first time and really took on those strange anxieties and just confronted them and had a really, really good time. But it’s been a strange journey to make those things relevant in my life and get access to them.

I’m forever fascinated by how people write songs, the actual process of it, but also the journey musicians and artists have to end up where they are. Almost the “Why them?”, and also “Why them but not the person who lived next door?” but I can never get my head around it.

Yeah, it is fascinating. That’s the thing, it’s why it’s this never-ending wonderful thing. What is the saying, it’s barely paraphrasing, “Three chords and something to say. The storytelling aspect is why it just never gets old, the lenses that you can try on or the overlap of experience and circumstance and feeling, it’s just so magical.

It’s interesting as well, taking on these teaching roles and having yet another window into music, its a mystical fucking universe. I was worried that I would turn up to teaching as this jaded unemployed musician last year and instead, thankfully, I just have been re-energised, like it is just infinitum, just interesting and exciting to walk in someone else’s shoes or get in touch with this kind of language. It is fucking miraculous.

When Gareth and Fiona first got in touch to tell you about their plans for TFS, I read that they said they wanted to do “Some weird shit.” Did they ever expand on what “Weird shit” actually meant?

Not really. I did some of the backing vocals on the last record that The Drones made and then also on the Feeling Kind of Free tour, and we’ve been friends for a long time. I think, if I can remember the conversations I was privy to on that last Drones record, I’d seen and heard Gareth’s frustrations, or maybe from both of them, or Gareth just about, like, guitars, or feeling limited by just what was at his disposal. Maybe that had given me some kind of inkling to what the “Weird shit” might be like, as in just not what he had normally been relying on over the last while with the output of The Drones, or just wanting kind of a change, to jostle the alchemy around.

I didn’t really have too much of an insight other than the fact that they were both feeling energised for a real refresh. I think the thing that was intoxicating about any proposal with absolutely nothing on the dartboard was just the energy around it. Like they were really, really buzzed about whatever it was going to be. Knowing them as people, and also seeing and appreciating their work ethic, I was just like “Yeah, let’s go! I’d love to be involved.” It’s so exciting to think about opportunities where you just get to play and create with people who really fucking want to do it and are committed to it as so much as they are.

At the start, did Gaz and Fi tell you what they wanted you to bring to the band or what your role was?

No, nothing exactly was prescribed. There was not a lot of on the table chat about it. It was a really a kind of excitement amongst it even being real and hilarious.

I was on tour and doing an arts residency in the States when we got booked for our first tour and we hadn’t had one rehearsal and it was like a “learn-by-doing”- type thing. It was like, “This is fucking booked, we’ve got to make some shit happen!” And that’s why we initially went to covers and we had really good time of chucking ideas around. We wanted to choose local bands for all the B-sides for the records in that initial line of records and it was really fun getting to know each other over what our musical choices would have been or what was on the table for what we could try out and cover, and it was really fun. We also had to chuck the covers into the mix because we didn’t have any songs. We had to go on tour, we had two tours at the end of 2017 that we just literally had played a handful of shows for.

So I think it wasn’t like, “Hey, this is your role,” but sort of naturally, just like, “Yes, I’ll sing, I’ll do that, I’ll play the synth, and I’ll play guitar, because we’ve just got to try and make these songs come together.”

It’s so weird, I don’t know why, but I still think of TFS as a new band but it’s been like seven or so years. Even the last TFS album, Deep Stakes is 2021, so three years ago, but it keeps feeling that COVID times did something to everyone’s perception of time.

Yeah, I think it is funny. I still feel like we’re a new band but then at the same time we’ve done so much and put out a fucking shitload of stuff and done a lot of shows and done a lot of tours and it’s weird for me as well. I don’t know if you get that sort of strange, weird double-thinker the last few years, because it’s like you’ve lost time but also in so many ways things have really distilled. Certainly our language around who we are and what we want to create has just really become much clearer to us, as it was in those initial days.

At the beginning, when they asked you, was it an easy decision to make to join up with them because it was going to have an impact on Mod Con and Palm Springs and I think you might have still been doing Harmony at the time, I can’t remember.

At that time, it was coming in a really good time. I was reaching the end of a job that I loved but was kind of really burnt out from and the place that I was getting was a department, like an education place, that was really awesome, that I loved, but it was kind of cooking me, but it was getting merged and I knew I had to leave at some point.  I also knew that I was really burnt out from part of the aspects of that job and just probably really wanting, feeling like I wanted a big change like that. I still went on and did teaching like in the way I am now, I just try and juggle in between dates and do casual teaching or semesters where I can between tours. But I was feeling really like it was a time to change something, and so jumping into something that could absorb all my energy and time in that way felt like a really good fit.

In regards to the other bands, I think I’ve always had the thought, which I guess I’m revising as I’m going along, but at that time certainly I felt like you say “Yes” to something like this and just more energy comes from it, not less. It seems like you’re going to end up being absolutely rammed and getting too busy for anything but actually, at that point in my life, I had so much energy to burn, and it just felt really good. It gave me a headspace to just try on heaps of different shit and it was good. It was a green light.

Given Gaz and Fiona had come from the Drones, did you feel any creative pressure that they’d done the Drones and had been critically successful and successful overseas and that you had to match what they’d done before and some of that onus was now on you?

Yeah, I don’t know. I think, I guess if I’d let that get into my head, I might have negged myself out, but, to be honest, the speed at which it all unfolded didn’t really allow for too much introspection in that initial stage. I’ve joked with Gaz since, everyone’s like “Fuck, we all really took a punt, like, what the hell, you got me involved.”

At that point, it was also like, “I want to join this band because I want to play heaps and I want to commit to this as a challenge of how far I can push myself, as something that’s exciting to me as a musician.” I know that just by playing so much and getting my chops up that much, it made me feel so much more confident in playing and just approaching things. I can’t remember at that time feeling like necessarily nervous or a lot of pressure but it was like we all had to just dig in as a group and just get those first tours done.

I think we initially felt that excitement just transferred, like we just initially, just straight away became really supportive of each other. We did a couple of tours where we were not very well received, like we toured strangely with Band of Horses and initially with Modest Mouse, and I remember audiences fucking hating us, but us always thinking that was hilarious and still having a really good time. There wasn’t a culture of like “We’ve got to fucking have success at every turn, blah, blah, blah” it was like we were having a good time checking on each other, we were confident about the choices we were making, excited about the stuff we were making, so the rest didn’t really matter.

I think if I look back at now, I’m like, “Woah, that was intense,” but luckily that wasn’t in my mind otherwise maybe I would have just stayed at home.

Band of Horses is a bit of a weird mix for a TFS support.

Oh yeah, I know. I think it was extremely generous, there was a contact that The Drones had played with them.  TFS has been so well received and so lucky to find a real connection with a lot of different music communities which The Drones never really enjoyed, and it’s crazy to me that they just didn’t.

Gaz and Fi talked about that a little bit but that’s why they were sort of reaching out to anyone who they toured with, to just get us out and give us a go and playing and being in other audiences. Luckily that continued and that’s why we played some huge rodeo barns in Oklahoma and stuff like that and you could not believe just how badly we went out. The casino circuit as well, with a couple of rolls around that, which is one of the weirdest circuits to play in the States. It’s like an absolute twilight world and we went down like fucking lead balloon, but, whatever, they were good times.

You’ve got these shows coming up towards the end of March and into April, is it just an excuse to go out and play or have you got new songs for a new album that you’re road testing?

We’ve had a year away from playing pretty much due to Fiona being really unwell, being really sick and getting through. We put these shows together to dip a toe into how we can play again. We’re just so excited, we’ve all entertained that thought in our mind, just like we all did in COVID, like “Was that even real what we used to do, can we do that again?” It’s like the same as after COVID, feeling that sense of excitement about reconnecting and being double-fold amazed, and also grateful, that that could be an option for us, to live our lives, playing shows together and traveling together.

I think that’s the same kind of energy that’s feeding into these first few shows that we get to play back, like ultimately celebrating that we can do it, Fi’s going to be back and feeling healthy and good, and that also we just get to go out and see crew and see community that we haven’t been able to visit in a bit. It’s incredibly exciting, I cannot wait.

You’re also back doing Mod Con, just supported the Breeders and are also opening on the TFS tour?

Yeah, we were extremely lucky to do that little line-up the east coast with Breeders. It gave us pause to think because we’ve been so broke and time’s been so hard that we hadn’t even managed to get up to any other city, except for Melbourne, to do a show for our last record.  That’s just how hard the times have been. I think in this stage for Mod Con, we entertained “Would we like to join?” and I was like “Absolutely yes!” We’re having a heap of fun playing. Isabel joined the band and we’re just enjoying playing as much as possible at this point, so it’s a double show for me but I feel excited to do it.

You’re definitely earning your wage on this tour!

Yeah, bloody earning the big bucks! We’re all just ready to celebrate, and Fi just leaning into being back, playing together, just high fives all around when we get out onto the stage finally at the end of March.


Tropical Fu*k Storm
Present Cellphone Honeymoon 2024

Friday 22 March                        The Triffid                        Brisbane                   QLD
With special guests C.O.F.F.I.N, Cool Sounds & Mod Con Tix $50 + bf from tropicalfuckstormrecords.com

Saturday 23rd March              The Metro Theatre             Sydney                     NSW
With special guests C.O.F.F.I.N, Cool Sounds & Mod Con Tix $50 + bf from tropicalfuckstormrecords.com

Friday 12 April                          Northcote Theatre              Melbourne              VIC
With special guests C.O.F.F.I.N, Cool Sounds & Mod Con Tix $50 + bf from tropicalfuckstormrecords.com

Saturday 13 April                     Theatre Royal                    Castlemaine            VIC
With special guests Cool Sounds & Mod Con Tix $45 + bf from tropicalfuckstormrecords.com

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