Carmen Juarez

Thoughts on Music Promotion and Production in Brisbane: or Why Can’t Brisbane Get a Leg-Up?

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An interview with Nick Smethurst, one of Brisbane’s young musicians and promoters

by Carmen Juarez

Nick currently plays in the band Epithets, sometimes lends his bass-playing abilities to Little Scout, and is “getting something else underway” with Daniel van Zutphen of Paper & The Plane fame. He also promotes shows as In Finland and has been active within the Brisbane music scene since late 2004. He describes himself as, “a general thorn in the side of Brisbane’s established musical community, proudly so”.

He has recently put his promotional duties on the back-burner since devoting more time to his own musical projects, having just recorded an album which will be mastered later this month by “the guy who masters for Arcade Fire, Silver Mt Zion, Wolf Parade etc”. So what does he have to say on where things are at in Brisbane and where he’s at, creatively?

“I’m very selective about my projects. The last big thing I did was the Why? show at the end of 2009 and I’m fucking proud of that, that stands as one of my favourite things that I’ve ever done so, I’m ok with that. Eventually you have to make a choice between infrastructural stuff overall or working to the benefit of your own creative projects, and I picked the latter eventually and it’s going OK … Here and there I organise gigs still. I’m working on a festival [for] the end of the year. It’s called Endless Somerset, it’s going to be in my backyard – I live in Somerset Street.”

So when you’re working as In Finland, is that a solo project?

“[In Finland] is just me. I like it just being me and I’ve gone through phases of trying to be really professional which have all failed hideously and the basic reason for that is I don’t want it to be. Like I felt that it needs to be at times and it’s gone really poorly. I’ve kind of given up on that approach – it is what it is when it needs to be what it is. At various points I’ve managed venues, booked festivals, organised my own gigs and tours, brought bands to Australia, [In Finland] has been a record label, anything really.

“I turn to people for help when need be, like over time my friends have offered their services and assistance and it’s always done really well for me. I have a lot of time for Nick Kaiser – who did the Jens Lekman shows last year. He’s one of the best people going. And I’m glad to be able to turn to him for help when I need it.”

What prompted you to start all of these projects?

“When you look around, everything is wrong [laughs] and it shouldn’t be wrong and I burnt all of my fuel very quickly. Which is why there’s been a lot of quietness in recent times. Because I did work myself to the bone. I collapsed doing events a number of times just from sheer exhaustion. Because I’m an idiot, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I do tend to think I care beyond the point of reason. I’ll keep working at something beyond the point at which it’s healthy or sane to do so and after a while you get tired of screaming into the void, but you still do it. I haven’t given up yet and that’s saying something. I mean I was 17 when I started all of this and I’m 24 now – so I mean you like to think you’ve learnt something? But I mean I’m still learning and I will always be learning.”

Why Brisbane?

“I guess because I like it here. My roots are here and my family’s here. I believe in the untapped potential. I don’t know, it’s the frustrating reality of seeing the potential energy in something and not being quite sure how to tap it. And I’m definitely still not sure. And I definitely haven’t ever succeeded in any long-term and meaningful way. For a little while it’s worked, at times I seem to have captured the zeitgeist and people have really gotten behind it. But memories are short, attitudes are fickle. As soon as everything winds down people just leave. The next generation of people pack up and move to Melbourne.”

There are a lot more things happening in other places, why stay here?

“Don’t you like a challenge? I just like it more than most people. I just haven’t figured out how to make it work yet.”

Why not try things out in Sydney or Melbourne?

“They’ve got what they need. Every place comes with its own frustrations and [things they’re lacking in]. It’s just that Brisbane happens to lack almost everything.

“There’s no infrastructure here at all. We now have no venues, we’ve got very few bands – and people can rant and rail and say “there’s some bands all the time” but I mean they’re derivative – they’re not going to make any meaningful impact. What does it say about a place when the cultural capital you’re producing is fucking I Heart Hiroshima. That’s unacceptable. It’s five years behind the times and it’s only meaningful because people are late to the table anyways. They had something for a moment but then broad spectrum accessibility in a local context seems to be more important to a lot of people than making meaningful art – and that’s something that a lot of people will roll their eyes at – but fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em twice. It is art that we are in the business of. Unless it’s not. Unless you can consciously say you’re in it for the money. Or you’re in it for the ‘scene points’ or something.”

Brisbane certainly has people that could go places, but they can’t figure out what to do either. They might be stuck in your bind as well?

“Exactly right. I’m stuck at the moment with having the choice between focussing on my own stuff or helping other people, and selfishly I’ve chosen to do my own thing, by and large, because the other work is thankless. I learnt that over time. You do things to help people and you get shit on, you know? Which is not to say it’s always that way, but it is a lot of the time. And self-interest has to come into it eventually, you know. But being the idiot that I am I will continue to do things for other people as well when need be. Because I want it all to work. There is no infrastructure, no venues no bands. There’s no record labels. And that really fucks me up. We live in the third largest city in the country, and the only record label based here doesn’t really sign local artists – that’s Dew Process.

“There are other big players on the very low levels, but I mean, let’s be perfectly fucking honest here – noise music is its own niche – experimental – whatever you’d like to call it – whatever the politically correct association is. I feel like I can speak about it with some authority, having participated in that scene for a long time. And it’s as clique-y and as prejudiced as any other small community is, without the added bonus that, unlike pop music, no one is every going to get into it if they’re not already into it. There’s not going to be some pioneering noise record that changes your mind about whether noise is music or not. Nobody banging on a paint-can any one way or another way is really going to change your mind. Either it gets to you or it doesn’t. And it gets to me, so I can understand. But I mean, I digress, the point is there are record labels doing that, that’s because you make 50 copies, you sell 50 copies, you never try to be anything more than that. If it gets picked up overseas somebody else in Germany or Slovakia or whatever releases another 50 copies – it’s a fixed, tied community. You’re not winning any hearts.

“If you read [articles] written about fetishistic art product through noise, that’s fascinating to me, and it’s true. You’re not buying it to listen to it – you’re buying it to partake of the art. But the one thing that does have to say is, that’s the direction we all have to go into if there’s going to be any longevity in what we do at all – as cultural creators. The incredible record label in the [United] States – Enemies List – that to me is – they’re doing so much more to move forward than they might even realise themselves. They only sign bands that record at home – so there’s no money spent on the recording process other than the cost of purchasing the gear – that’s self-sustaining art. Then they release it for free online, and once word of mouth is built they do limited runs of vinyl. And they sell them all out.

“The band Have A Nice Life which is the guy who runs the label’s band as well as the biggest act that they’ve got – every time they do a pressing of 400 vinyl it sells out. Because they’ve spread word of mouth because they’re not arseholes about it. And that idea of fostering how an artist and why an artist makes art as well as putting the art out to make profit for yourself – I mean that’s really inspiring to me. That stands so at odds with Brisbane. Because Dew Process is the only label and their attitude is so far behind the eight-ball. It’s frankly kind of sad.

Maybe we need people who have been successful elsewhere to bring something back to us?

“People do do that but you can learn by listening, not just by doing. A lot of the experience that people bring back from other places when they do invariably move back here can’t apply to here because of the lack of basic infrastructure.”

So how do you fix that?

“Unfortunately, and this is the depressing realisation I’ve come across, is that it doesn’t start with the music. We can’t have shows that run late because there are no venues, but it’s not profitable for venues to open because they can’t stay open late and they can’t stay open late because – for a number of reasons – but the big one, the really kicking one that I’ve come to realise, is that there’s no public transport. The complete lack of portability. If we are going to be as backward as we are in this town and have everything based out of [a] one/two street district – which by and large we still do. I’d like to see West End progress more, but who knows, right? There’s no mid-level anywhere now that we’ve lost the Troubadour. No public transport makes it really tricky because how can you get home at two in the morning? You can’t. Who wants to [wait an hour for Nightlink] when you’re wasted and you’ve been to a fun gig – what more of a buzz-kill is there? The whole experience is paramount. Not just the bands you see or where you see them – every step of it. And I don’t like going to the [Fortitude] Valley. And never mind for people who aren’t six foot tall and fairly foolhardy – anyone with an ounce of personal caution would think twice about going there and that’s terrible. That’s just sad.

You can hear more from Nick at Brisbane’s UnConvention in June.

Photography: Pecha Kucha

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