JESSE DAVIDSON GIG REVIEW. TABULATED SIMILARITIES AND CRUDE SKETCHES INCLUDED.
From beneath the clothy weight of my (post) teenage angst, I could always feel the immediacy of Conor Oberst’s music. It was something cool and vital, like the feeling of a hip flask against my thigh. The weathered misery in his voice seemed endlessly repeated in the streets outside my headphones, something that my ears could instantly cling to, that my brain could make echo in the external world.
But these days, Conor Oberst’s endeavours take time, and increasingly so. Each new album takes me a little longer, and plunges a little deeper. Upside Down Mountain is such an album. It’s a reminder of how we grow with music—that I’m no longer listening to music that simply ratifies my despair, and that Conor Oberst is no longer making it.
Instead, what I’ve been increasingly listening to is Oberst dragging his pen over invisible moments of human experience; unseen tapestries of love, loss, yearning and quiet joy.
Whether it’s the final words between strangers on a doomed plane flight in 2004’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, some squatters spraying a mural of a Mexican girl in 2007’s Cassadaga or migrant workers smoking in an orange grove in his 2008 Self-Titled record, Oberst is striving more and more to cultivate unique moments, casting lyrical stones into his songs and watching the ripples bloom.
Over the last decade, the music Oberst has made with Bright Eyes, the Mystic Valley Band and as himself, has departed from the security of its gloom, wandering less certain paths. Increasingly Oberst’s music allows that joy and contentment are possible, even attainable, and aims to turn over every stone to find it. And more so than almost any other album, Upside Down Mountain sees this search turned inward, upon himself.
“Show us what’s inside your head…” intones a brittle, automated voice through a phone line in Oberst’s most recent video for the single ‘Zigzagging Toward the Light’—a request he answers with the opening lines of the song: “I’m blessed with a heart that doesn’t stop. My mind’s a weathervane, it spins around just like a top.” And his mind is truly like a weathervane, slipping between different stories, situations and moods. But always (as the song very much suggests) heading towards the light.
The sound of Upside Down Mountain retains the sonic consistency of his more recent work, Bright Eyes and Mystic Valley Band included. There’s no wild departures, just different colours to match whatever direction the song’s lyrical content is listing in. Colours like the weeping tremelo in ‘Artifact #1’, the haunting pedal steel in ‘Midnight at lake Unknown’ or the gales of distortion hanging over ‘Governor’s Ball’. I freely admit to wanting to use the word ‘beautiful’ more than once to describe the warmth of the album’s insides. It’s a beauty born of contemplation, doubt, and correspondingly, hope.
Time has indeed passed, and Conor Oberst has moved gently with it, the grief of his youth transfigured, unfolding into a richer spectrum of frailty that makes him, in 2014, more universal and vital than ever before. Listen, then repeat.
BEST TRACKS: ‘Zigzagging Towards the Light’, ‘Midnight at Lake Unknown’, ‘Hundreds of Ways’
WAITING IN THE WINGS
A Conversation With Golden Features
Using only the words: “Tom” and “Golden Features”, I pass from the curdling guts of Can’t Say’s dancefloor and into the murky streak of its backstage area. Everything’s sort of trembling with noise and movement—possessed by the kind of energy that fills a slowly capsizing ship right before the water does. Sasha, Golden Features’ manager shuffles through the stage door, peering into his phone, cap tilted back against his forehead, a giant melting hand tattooed over his forearm. He nods at Tom Stell (Golden Features) as he approaches.
SASHA: So we’re having some issues with the visuals, the files aren’t working…
TOM: Well if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work
SASHA: Yeah it’s not a big deal…There’s not a lot of light on the desk either so we might need to find a way to place my phone or a torch there. We’ll figure it out…
[Sasha scuffs back towards the stage]
WV: Problem with your visuals?
WV: Is that a big deal?
TOM: Yeah (tentatively)
T: Yeah it’s pretty fucking shit, but what can you do?
The backstage area splutters with activity. Someone’s yelling for ice, a small stream of bodies is tipping through the backstage door, nodding and shouting in an invisible cloud of thudding bass. Stell is looking behind me to the door, eyes flicking to the faces shambling towards us.
“Sash! Sash! Close the door!” Stell’s eyes search somewhere behind me. “Oi Petchey! Is there anywhere we can go where it’s a bit quieter for an interview?”
Sasha rejoins us, eyes glued to his phone.
“Oh hey man” he smiles, looking up at me. I was just about to message you, is this you? Wax Volcanic?” he asks, tilting his phone towards me. I nod, smiling, (wearily I imagine, very aware that it’s already 1am). “Oh nice to meet you man. Mark was like: ‘look for the guy who looks like Where’s Wally’…”
Some convincing has transpired without my knowledge or input. Stell just says: “hey guys we can go in here” and we’re suddenly hustled into a back room which looks like Can’t Say’s attempt to balance out the shadowy crowd of oversexed and underdressed kids on the dance floor. By comparison, most people in the back room seem to have rejected the idea of the weekend decades ago. They sit crumpled in front of Excel spreadsheets and desks veiled in loose paper, completely ignoring us while as we collapse onto a small concrete step at the back of the room. Stell is bristling with what appears to be nerves and a thin bravado (designed, I imagine, to counteract nerves). There’s a definite gulf between real-life Tom Stell and the masked DJ responsible for some of Australia’s most merciless club tracks this year. The general mood from the talent backstage is consistently polarised with their stage alter-egos. Stell is apprehensive, amiable; Sable AKA John Dewhurst - purveyor of restless, nimble electro - is calm, talking evenly about aluminium-alloy mountain bike frames. But for Stell, being a deliberately concealed DJ, persona has become somewhat of a focus.
“That’s why we killed it” he nods. Golden Features began originally as a logo for press shots because I literally didn’t have enough money to get my photo taken…”
But soon the idea had stuck. So much that he commissioned the same Sydney-based prop designers who worked on The Matrix to make his golden face a custom-cast, professionally-designed reality.
According to Stell, the idea behind it all is that people “don’t know about the person, it’s the art that matters”. But as Golden Features gained notoriety, the guessing game begun and people’s attention swung paradoxically towards the man behind the art. Some even claimed it was Flume choosing to hit some darker notes. “It became a sideshow” he states coolly, “we killed it really quickly.” Stell leans down, speaking intently as we discuss the nature of Art in Golden Features, a project he hopes to be a synergy of music, artwork, live performance and stage persona.
“It’s all of me, hyper extended. Where I’m anxious, it is extremely nervous and anxious, and when I’m happy it’s over the top happy. So I try to push that in the music, there’s really high points and really low points…”
This emotional discomfort seems to be the sort of modus operandi for Golden Features, present in both the genesis and execution of his sound.
What started as the murky brother of Stell’s straighter EDM production - a style he became frustrated with and, by his own admission, “didn’t want to do” – has become wildly successful. Despite ascending in the same scene as contemporaries easily captured within the unwieldy designation of ‘the Australian sound’, Golden Features is clearly occupying a much darker corner of the dancefloor. The most radio-friendly single ‘Tell Me’, is still a loose fit for airwaves so flooded with Waveracer-grade sheen. Even when it borrows the voice of Nicole Millar (whose voice is also at the helm of tracks by Emoh Instead, PIXL, Cosmo’s Midnight and Peking Duk). Interestingly, Stell used to share a house with Peking Duk and has worked out through a brief chronological assessment of their respective songs that they were conjuring their respective Nicole Millar oriented tracks at exactly the same time, in exactly the same house. And, in true sharehouse style, without either party knowing.
At this point a security guard reaches over the top of us, treating us more like a small pile of discarded toner cartridges than a small pile of displaced humans.
[There is awkward glances, moving aside, looking up at the security guard and her impressive, caustically musical loop of keys]
SECURITY: It’s alright I need to unlock it.
WV: should we hop out of the way?
SECURITY: Uh not sure….Are yous gonna be much longer?
[More awkward glances, moving aside, looking up at the security guard and her impressive, caustically musical loop of keys]
WV: Uh, I don’t know, uh…
[Security Lady opens up the door, where three or four guys are standing in the dark, in a huddle of rangy frames, low, guttural mutterings and the smell of still-burning cigarettes]
SECURITY: Hi how are yas doing?
[Security Lady slips around the door and into the dark]
Back in the regular backstage area Stell offers me and my slightly bewildered companion a drink. I quickly accept, but realize that almost noone else has. In the gutted walk-in freezer that serves as a sort of standalone Green Room (and contributes enormously to the ‘sinking ship’ type feeling mentioned earlier), roughly 1/3 of the bodies inside are drinking. Stell’s conversation at this point is becoming visibly clouded with pre-show intensity, bravado giving way to nerves. You can almost see him ghosting song changes and set nuances in his mind, turning over every possible reaction, good and ill. He disappears and reappears 2 vodkas later (mine, imbibed with juvenile enthusiasm), his persona now fully intact - black shirt, gold necklace, black pants and golden mask in hand. It’s like watching from the wings of an unseen play as Stell moves towards the stage door to perform his second show ever, to dive from the relative calm of the backstage into the brackish sea of bodies outside; featureless mask lowered, humanity muted, character complete.
Around 4 hrs until Showtime
There’s some kind of small quarry piled behind the NQR and the Pet Barn across the carpark. My eyes roll from the paralysed excavators half-buried in copper soil back to the Caltex sign above me. We can’t be in the right place.
“Kangaroo Flat” I read slowly, tracing my eyes along the roof of a liquor shop. Matty, my traveling companion and inside man, emerges from the Caltex and we pull away from the small colony of weary shopfronts and continue up the highway.
“So is this Bendigo?” I mutter at the windscreen as we sail past a bleached necropolis of budget housing. ‘Lansell Plaza 300 Meters on Right’, ‘H.J.’s Drive Thru’, ‘Central Deborah Gold Mine’. The highway surrenders us to smaller streets, blanketed in brick homes and exhausted-looking front yards, until the mystic calm that hangs low over rural Australia has all but disappeared.
“Who are yous with?” the girl at the Artist Entrance asks us collectively. I make my way silently through all of the regular ‘I-Bet-I-Don’t-Have-A-Pass’ type neuroses before we collect our passes and park opposite a cattle run.
Around 3.5 hrs until Showtime
It isn’t until the infrastructure and roiling clientele of Groovin the Moo is inhaled first hand that the possibility of GTM as one of Australia’s most important festivals can be realised. Even if this importance is mainly extramusical. GTM is a festival that roosts in the very bones of rural Australia, the showgrounds, saleyards and racecourses that make country Victoria plausible, both fiscally and teleologically. The borderline sacred nature of these venues and the reason for the fervour of regional festival crowds are far from unrelated. Matty walks keenly with me sloping slightly behind, tripping over my feet and attempting to decipher the careful preservation and veneration of the cattle runs, pig pens and poultry sheds. It feels, somewhat obscurely, like a church. Backstage is different. We stalk carefully up the steel stairs, into the transient tangle of long guitar racks scaffolding the inside of shipping containers, cavernous truck bodies waiting to be filled, ratchet straps swinging from their walls. Dammed between the two main stages are milling clumps of bodies, an arcane assembly of ukuleles, brass, road cases, and a colossal mixing desk with an unhealthy operator resisting sleep behind its controls. Illy is on the left-hand stage, one foot raised on a foldback, gesticulating aggressively at the crowd while he spits long, jagged lengths of rhyme. This is Oz Hip-Hop Heartland, and the crowd shows its fealty.
Around 3 hrs until Showtime
The artist area is arranged in the same basic fashion as a UNESCO disaster relief zone, with each artist afforded their very own white tent to occupy, all of which are collected inside a colossal shed. A rangy long-haired kid in pink tights sails slowly through the rows of tents on a longboard as Matty and I wander through the white vinyl ranks, catching small vignettes of band life—Violent Soho swinging beers towards their mouths, Madeline Follin from Cults straddling a full length mirror, running her fingers through her long black hair, Kim from the Presets moving slowly between interviews in tracksuit pants, Disclosure and Dizzee Rascal nowhere to be seen. I stop outside the closed flap of the massage tent when I spot, further down the row, the temporary enclosure for The Kite String Tangle.
Around 2.5 hrs until Showtime
Danny Harley is laughing, slouched in his chair with a bottle at his mouth. The man behind TKST is like some kind of universal little brother, a quiet mischief radiating from behind his black Ray-Ban spectacles and perennial smile. He stands, we shake hands. Warner Music A&R man Mark Wilson swoops around the table with a sort of detached calm, declares me and Danny “besties” and vanishes, leaving me in the company of Danny, Nicole Millar, Nick (TKST Tour Manager), three bottles of wine, two cling wrapped fruit platters and a black tub filled with beer and soft drink. Suddenly I feel the way I somehow always manage to feel in situations involving music and free booze– fucking old. Nick keeps himself invisibly occupied, his heavily forested features disappearing and reappearing through the jaws of the tent while I plunge my hand into the black tub beside me and extract a lemonade.
Around 2.2 hrs until Showtime
Danny’s pouring out his beer into a plastic cup, exiting the Artist Area as I run to catch him. We wander to the back left corner of the huge hanger the artist-related infrastructure is huddled under, to a small pen of temporary fencing cladded in black fabric. Danny and I are unsubtly impressed at the perfection with which he decants his beer from bottle to plastic cup, mentioning nothing about the deep correlation between struggling musicians and career bartending. We wait for the Speaker TV crew to arrive, sitting at a large, oblong table - a tiny jar of lavender forsaken at its centre. The small crew arrives, Danny has already met producer Sarah Guppy through his other band Pigeon, a connection indicative of almost all of the chewing gum-ish, one-degree-of-separation type interactions currently transpiring in the Artist Area. The Australian music industry is, and may forever be, some sort of levitating country town. Sarah asks some crowd comparison (volume and type) questions, then digs slightly further. Comparing crowds across different GTM shows seems like an appropriate platitude for an opening question, but it’s also, secretly, the most vital question. I sit in the orbit of the interview, quietly denying that I’m a functioning part of TKST while thinking about how GTM naturally highlights the demographic and behavioural points of difference between cultural centres and satellite cities and exposes the distinction between saturated and starved audiences. I imagine the Speaker TV team were thinking something like: “Isn’t it nice that Danny brought his autistic high-school friend along with him?”
Around 2 hrs until Showtime
In the same way that catamarans and kite surfers will happily scatter for a surfacing nuclear submarine, people seem to smile, nod and wave in the wake of Tony Harlow, Managing Director of Warner Music Australasia. He approaches slowly in my periphery, entering the tent while I’m attempting to ask on record the only two questions I’ve prepared for Danny. The interview is wordlessly abandoned. Danny stands as Tony greets me by name, wearing the kind of features (narrowed eyes and slightly pinched smile) that don’t simply know - they know that you know that he knows. Small gusts of nervous sympathy leak out of Nicole Millar, as I flick between her semi-complete gaze (she’s almost blind in one eye, she assures me) and the questions spread fruitlessly in front of me.
“QUESTIONS FOR DANNY (TKST): BOTH ABOUT EXPECTATION:
Danny continues to laugh, I crane in to listen and Tony entertains, continuing to emanate the kind of magnetism and menace that radiates from powerful engines in low gear. After Tony leaves Danny winces towards me:
“I think we should get over to the stage, maybe we could do the questions after the show?”
Around 1.5 hrs until Showtime
Violent Soho are somehow everywhere at GTM like a kind of hairy miracle. Physically I witness them drinking in the artist area and wandering in self-possessed Neanderthalic swagger through the grey bowels of the food hall. Mythically I hear them lovingly mentioned on the tongues of almost every industry body, regardless of label. And materialistically I see their name on the shirts of a fair chunk of the GTM audience. After Danny and I crawl over to the stage in a red people mover, meet Nicole and Nick and enter the back of the stage, Violent Soho are on the stage. I scuff through the wet racecourse sand, staring at the generator cables snaking towards muscular bundles of multicores blinking on the far side of stage. The noise is enormous. There’s small pockets of pure animalism erupting in the crowd, or at least in the parts of the crowd that can move. The audience has swollen into unbroken fleshy walls far beyond the boundaries of the tent. Danny sidles up next to me while Violent Soho are playing ‘Covered in Chrome’.
“Watch this, this is fucked up”
The entire, writhing crowd yells “Hell Fuck Yeah” before all shouting the chorus (mostly the word “Yeah”) so loud that their noise almost drowns out the band. Nicole Millar is sort of swaying with the music side of stage, gushing over the euphoria being broadcasted by the audience. Apparently GTM engenders this kind of euphoria fairly universally. Despite being relatively unknown, Millar still attests to the magnetised, malleable crowds at GTM. “I felt so in control” she laughs about her guest vocalist spot at a previous TKST show, “it was so cool”.
Around 1 hr until Showtime
“So its 2 acts before your show” I say to Danny, “when do you get nervous?”
“Uh…now?” he shrugs. There’s definitely been a small, rising tension. His perennial smile sometimes falls suddenly from his face as he races towards his gear. He and Nick have arranged it precisely on a sort of large drum riser, so it can all be wheeled onto stage. With Violent Soho finished, Danny plugs his gear into power.
“Oh I hate it!” he replies rapidly when I ask him about MIDI instruments and pre-show nerves. “I see Vance Joy with the ukulele, that’s the dream, that’s the dream…” He’s tried to eliminate as much as possible, or at least is in the process of doing so. He has duplicate MOTU soundcards, and hopes to run duplicate computers, so if one fails the other automatically kicks in. In addition to an ancient piece of midi hardware, he uses an ALESIS Control Pad for onstage percussion, comparatively ancient to the Roland SPDX’s I’ve seen lurking on the stages of most young electronic acts. But simple is best, and looking at the deepening concentration rippling over Danny’s face, I get it. “I’ll see you in a bit” he smiles at me.
Around 30 mins until Showtime
Nick, TKST Tour Manager is again disappearing and reappearing. Nick and Danny have lived in the same house, play in the same band (Pigeon), and have known one another for over 8 years. “I’ve sort of seen it all take flight” he nods. Thundamentals are galloping through the second half of their set, and there’s not a lot to do except wait. It feels a lot like waiting for weather—weather that will shape the rest of your night, or even your week. Nicole Millar stays side of stage, appearing to know almost everybody. Nick and I saunter outside, Danny’s already leaning against a fence on the phone. It’s starting to rain. I-SEC security guards are wandering slowly around the site, weaving slowly between the AUSA excavators and Budget rental trucks pulled against the fence at the rear of the stage exit. Danny hangs up and we stand around for a few minutes, completely distracted, now completely full of nerves.
“Alright, I’m gonna go inside and warm up” he says.
Around 5 mins until Showtime
A roadie has managed to step on a trigger for a confetti cannon, sending shredded paper and a bewildered “Aaaaaaahhh” into the thickening air inside the tent.
“Fuck” whispers Danny, as confused as the crowd clearly is. “Now they’re gonna think that I have confetti!”
Around 0 mins until Showtime
Green and white striped balls are sailing through the tent. The dim light and gentle swell of the music makes the crowd look oceanic—Danny’s floodlit face bobbing in synch. At the front end of TKST cover of Lorde’s ‘Tennis Court’, Danny goads the crowd into a deafening series of ‘Yeah’s, This is that sort of moment, not dissimilar to ‘Covered in Chrome’ by Violent Soho or even the Killers ‘Mr. Brightside’ being played in between bands, where we can glimpse a shadow of the entire modern musical experience. A moment that transcends geography and genre and binds people together simply because of its collective meaning. The rapturous response to the rest of the ‘Tennis Court’ cover further galvanises this idea. GTM doesn’t just show the differences between urban and regional areas, but also shows the power of popular culture, that these Popular Culture/Collective Experience type moments exist unchanged, regardless of place. During Danny’s set, Nicole Millar stands right at the side of stage mixing desk, mic in hand, sunglasses on, swaying, no longer talking and eyes on the stage. When her song comes on she rushes onto stage, kicking one of the striped balls into the crowd.
“How you guys doin?!”
Danny finishes the set with his big one, ‘Given the Chance’, and I swear everyone in the venue seemed to be on someone else’s shoulders, the first five rows seemed to be triple-stacked. Through the euphoric strains of the song, I was reminded of the first question I was meant to ask Danny:
You’re at a kind of pivotal juncture, albeit an early one. With the runaway success of ‘Given a Chance’, do you find yourself trying to replicate that same sort of sound in order to keep people keen?
Looking out at the sea of humans losing themselves, I wish I had gotten the answer to that question, but the song will have to remain, (with TKST’s set and GTM at large) as a moment. Tomorrow the ground we’re swaying on will turn back into emerald lawn and poultry sheds, transforming utterly. But as ‘Given the Chance’ comes to a baronial close, I look into the crowd, assured that nobody’s thinking about that. For tonight, this is Bendigo.