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INTERVIEW: Mallee Songs

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Michael Skinner with a Palestinian girl at a skatepark in Asira, West Bank

Melbourne band Mallee Songs released Suburban Horse, their quiet and focused third record, late last year on Dusty Tracks, a label run by Lucas Harwood (King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Atolls). The dark-folk outfit is led by Lucas’ brother, Michael Skinner, whose wry, melancholic songwriting exhibits shades of David Berman, Jason Molina and Galaxie 500. The new album brings some Tex-Mex polish to the band’s introspective style, with flashes of trumpet, piano and pedal steel rounding out Michael’s fingerpicked melodies.

In March, Michael travelled to Palestine’s West Bank with SkatePal, a UK-based charity that runs skateboarding classes for local kids, building skateparks and bringing in equipment. It’s an attempt to provide a semblance of normal life for Palestinian children, who suffer disproportionately under the brutal Israeli occupation. Kids as young as 11 have been arbitrarily detained, beaten and shot; just the other day, a nine-year-old boy was killed by an Israeli sniper. The journey to and from school is hazardous. Random attacks by bored IDF soldiers have been reported, and the route home is regularly disrupted by gates and checkpoints. Schools themselves can be the target of IDF actions, and an appalling number of children experience conflict-related trauma.

Suburban Horse single ‘Drinking the Sea’ was written as ‘an expression of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom’. Set somewhere in Palestine (‘The pull of the ocean/Rust in the well/Endless white houses/Stretch out on the hill’), the song describes a dawn raid on an Arab family – a random act of terror that’s become routine across the occupied territories:

I saw a crowd around dawn
They gathered and swarmed
Tore all the wood from your door
And then you were gone
Dragged through the fog on your back
The awful sound of the rifle crack

Michael shot a video to accompany the track while travelling around the West Bank – from Asira, his village base outside the northern city of Nablus, to Ramallah and Hebron. Alongside familiar images of guard towers, razor wire, armed foot patrols and long queues at checkpoints are scenes from the old city, the skateparks, hillside bonfires and quiet olive groves outside of town. It’s an eloquent summary of the strange and cruel dilemma of life under occupation.

I spoke to Michael about his time in Palestine, writing ‘Drinking the Sea’, and the political scope of protest music.

How did you get involved with SkatePal, and what were your impressions of the project? What do you think it meant to the kids? I love that girls are a big part of the program. There’s a great video on your Instagram of one little girl in particular who skates like a demon.

I found out about SkatePal by following similar projects on social media, and I applied when their volunteer applications came up in late 2018. They’ve had some great exposure recently, particularly after an episode of ViceLand’s Post-Radical, a series documenting outsider skate scenes around the world.

I did have some reservations about participating in “voluntourism” or whatever you might call it, and there are for sure NGOs out there that operate as a more palatable form of imperialism. Plus there’s the long and recent history of Western intervention in the Middle East, so you have to ask yourself, am I just contributing to a colonial project? Maybe you can’t fully escape this, but after a point you’ve got to ask if, on balance, the thing has a positive impact.

I really think SkatePal does, for a few reasons. They’ve done a great job of partnering with local organisations in Palestine; they appeared on the scene just at the right moment when the first few kids were getting into skating in the West Bank; and they’re part of a broader movement working to push skateboarding away from its hyper-macho, sometimes weirdly libertarian roots. New skate scenes have been cropping up all over – across Africa and the Middle East, in Cuba, even in Gaza – and most of them have involved Westerners bringing over gear or helping build DIY spots; at this stage it just seems necessary to kick things off.

Plus, somewhere like the West Bank the only practical way to get boards in is via the monthly changeover of volunteers. Israel makes it extremely difficult to bring equipment into the West Bank in bulk; SkatePal once spent four years waiting for the approval of 30 complete skateboards to be sent into Palestine. As you can imagine, this means the project has had to remain outwardly apolitical to stay afloat.

The skatepark in Asira felt just like one at home; it had quiet moments and sometimes it was really packed. There were a core group of kids – mostly girls – who went along as often as they could. The girl in the video is Sedra (check out her Instagram, @sedrathefearless), and she’s definitely the star of the park. She absolutely shreds! She can drop in from this one spot where I didn’t see anyone else go: a two-foot vertical drop into a really zippy quarter pipe that shoots you out over a flat section and then off another five-foot drop!

What was your impression of daily life in the West Bank?

Normal life persists as much as it can under occupation. People have a rich and generous culture they want to preserve and share. You can buy delicious food and a locally brewed beer in Ramallah. I milled about in cafes, barber shops and gyms in Hebron. The pace of life is quite slow and relaxing most of the time, everyone seems to know everyone else in their home cities and towns and will welcome you into these social circles without a moment’s hesitation. There seemed to be a real building boom in Nablus, and most people drive late-model cars. If there’s a wedding or two on in town, you’ll be invited at least one and it won’t matter if you accidentally stumble into the other. People study law and comparative literature and medicine. And they do all of this in the face of the world’s longest running military occupation.

Even in Asira, a village that, on the face of it, may seem relatively unchanged by the occupation, the IDF still carries out its routine campaign of targeted violence and intimidation. For example, a few days before the first group of SkatePal volunteers arrived in March this year, the IDF arrested Abu Ali, one of the village’s most talented skaters, and hauled him off to an undisclosed military prison. As usual, they raided his family home in the middle of the night, trashed the place, and left his parents terrified. We found out shortly before I left that he was being held for three months in administrative detention, without trial. A teenage skateboarder poses no threat to the IDF, of course, and it sounds like they don’t even bother justifying these kidnappings on their own absurd terms half the time. It strikes me as just the blasé operation of the military-industrial complex, finely tuned to constantly punish a minority population. I’ve just seen on Instagram, though, that Abu Ali has just been released and the whole village of Asira is celebrating his return.

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WATCH: Tralala Blip – ‘Pub Talk’

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Photographer Kate Holmes

Tralala Blip have been treating audiences around Brisbane and their hometown of Lismore/ The Northern Rivers of NSW for almost a decade. In that time, they’ve continuously developed and refined their sound, and are now one of the most exciting, fun and thoughtful electronic bands in the country. Their first full-length record in five years is Eat My Codes If Your Light Falls, and now they’re inviting the rest of the country into their world of experimental music through the gaze of musicians with disabilities.

Their latest single ‘Pub Talk’ is spare and moody. The bare electronic backing leaves room for the understated tenderness of Lydian Dunbar’s vocal performance to shine – drawing you in to an easy intimacy. The repetitive, almost robotic backing beats slowly ramps up; there’s a feeling of urgency in Dunbar’s message ‘I am same but different/ my heart is full of sounds and light’. The video, directed by Jake Taylor from In Hearts Wake, is appropriately melancholy, glitchy slow-motion accentuate the feeling of alienation, while lingering close ups on the sensory experiences of the world outside Dunbar’s, making a personal longing to connect feel universal. ‘Pub Talk’ takes its time opening up, but then seems to be over all too soon, lingering bitter sweet.

‘Pub Talk’ shows a different side to the band after new-wave disco-dancey first single ‘Facing Monsters’ earlier this year, and it’s clear Eat My Codes… will have plenty to interest all kinds of electronic and experimental music fans. It’s also clear that we’ve been missing out on some amazing music from differently-abled musicians, and there’s a lot more work to be done in making Australia’s music scene open to everyone with something to say.

Eat My Codes If Your Light Falls is out on Laurence English’s Someone Good label today! Buy it here.

If you’re lucky enough to live in Brisbane, Tralala Blip will launch Eat My Codes… at The Foundry on August 1

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LISTEN: Joan Banoit – Clerical

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clerical

Sydney artist Joan Banoit delivers his debut album, Clerical, an impressive collection of splintered art pop full of moody electronics and longing vocals.

Following the hazy, neo soul of his self-titled debut EP, Banoit, assisted by producer Artefact, adds surprising dimension on Clerical pushing the music beyond any easily identifiable genre.

Single, ‘Bet Me’ is a masterful piece of songwriting, the rich arrangement drawing comparisons to genre pushers These New Puritans. Brass flourishes are punctuated by military drum bursts before opening up to make way for the devastating hook, an aching commentary on the internal struggles of a long distance relationship.

The complexity and minute attention to detail make the album even more beautifully difficult to pigeon hole. But this is pop music at its core, albeit not in the traditional sense. There are memorable vocal melodies and catchy rhythms but the treatments are intriguingly fractured, cloaking the more immediate moments in a haze of esoteric electronic soundscape.

Clerical is an arresting, multi-layered album that is as equally enjoyable listening to on the surface as it is going for a deep dive. Available now through Lazy Thinking Records.

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LISTEN: Angie – The Underling LP

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Angie

Angie’s 2013 solo record Turning was one of the first things I wrote about for this site, and her 2017 piano album Shyness is one of my favourite Australian albums of all time. So my first hearing of The Underling’s first single, ‘Blood on My Eyes’ with its ROCK beat and its simple riff, took a little change of expectations. But maybe this was on purpose – a classic rock song to throw off all the nerds that just wanted more fancy piano. Because there’s nothing simplistic about the rest of The Underling.

The Underling illustrates the total uselessness of genres, the way Angie’s refusal to be restrained. Sometimes it’s a heavy sounding noise record, vocals are dredged up, with effort, from under layers of guitar and effects. Then ‘Your Style’ has a rhythm guitar like The Go-Betweens or something, totally out of place and easy breezy but still somehow it works. ‘Your Style’ is followed by ‘A Century of All This’; the biggest downer of the record, with its droning guitars and droning vocals and noise like a plane taking off.

You hear a song like ‘A Century of All This’, and you think there’s no way this is gonna turn into something easy or fun. But while The Underling sounds like a struggle a lot of the time, sometimes it’sounds like victory, like on ‘This House (Athens Reprise)’, a reprise of the track of the same name from Shyness. Where it once was a haunting piano ballad, a quiet statement of defiance, on the reprise the power of a full band is let loose and becomes less about desperately trying to ‘move on’ on more like fighting words; ‘gotta get it, before it gets to me’.

More in feeling than sound, The Underling seems to reference back to some of the stuff from Turning (which is, somehow, 6 years old now) but with all the growth and experimentation that’s happened in the period clearly audible. With her uncompromising attitude and classic rock sense with a noisy, experimental edge, Angie makes guitar rock seem like something worthwhile to invest time in, rather than just background noise to a night out. Something worth loving. And, at least when she’s doing it, it definitely is.

Buy The Underling on bandcamp here

Angie’s touring Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and you can find out more about that on wonderful Facebook

LISTEN: Brick Brick – Chip 4 Chip EP

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Brick Brick

Brisbane forever favourites Bent may have stopped playing a couple of years ago, but singer and multi-instrumentalist Heidi Cutlack has given us plenty of good music since then. Her solo project Scaredy Snake was breathy, stripped back pop, and now, with bassist Phoebe BMX (from Come Die In Queensland, who released a truly terrifying tape early this year) and Matt Kennedy (from Kitchen’s Floor, of ‘pissing people off at The Sydney Opera House’) on drums, Brick Brick is Cutlack moving away from cuteness or naivety into something more disillusioned, heavier and ah, more rock.

Cutlack might be channelling a bit of Kennedy’s downer-than-you lyricism in the opening track’s drawled, ‘everyone is boooooooored / everyone is saaaaaaaaaaaaad’, but then, that song’s called ‘Sooky’ so you know it’s more tongue-in-cheek than that. ‘Sooky’ is that belligerent brat we can all be, grumpy for no reason, picking fights with whoever, and it’s making no apologies – a ratbag song and a fun listen.

Cutlack’s voice on this EP is strong and expressive – pouting then powerful, sinister on ‘Fill Me Up’, then plaintive and desperate on ‘Houseshow Song’. ‘Houseshow Song’ is chaotic and catchy – one you could imagine shaking some floorboards and inviting noise complaints. Anyone coming to this record looking for Bent’s wonky pop savant won’t find it, but there’s plenty to like in this collaboration of Cutlack’s bare-bones poetry with BMX and Kennedy’s tough-as rhythm section. The bass especially fills up all the cracks with a deep kind of muck. Combine that with the thick, uncomfortable, production, Chip 4 Chip is the kind of tape that makes me pine for Brisbane.

You buy a digital download or cassette with secret track from Eternal Soundcheck.

LISTEN: Sweet Whirl – Love Songs & Poetry EP

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Sweet Qhirl

From the first golden second of Love Songs & Poetry, I’m blissfully drowning in sweet melancholy, nostalgia, romance. I put it on in the background at work but it’s too beautiful to focus on anything else. Esther Edquist’s voice is so rich it’s rude. Like how dare someone sound so good when they’re saying ‘I don’t wanna be your girlfriend / I just want someone to hold you / give you all the love I told you you deserve’. Oof. That’s from the very first track, ‘Girlfriend’, and while that song hints at an irony in the EP’s title (also see: ‘some of us are made for coupling and suffering / but that girl ain’t me’), these are definitely love songs. More in how they feel than what they say – the way they build and shimmer and fill up your whole heart. The goddamn strings. The low-key intricately lovely base and guitar. Fucked me up.

Love Songs & Poetry is Edquist’s first release on Chapter Music, and it’s a perfect fit for their clever Aussie pop vibe. I loved O.K. Permanent Wavethat moody, intimate LP Sweet Whirl put out in 2016, but this release is so good in such a different way. Can’t believe I put off listening to it for a few days cuz I thought the first single ‘Strange News’ was a little too cute at first. I was wrong! It’s a gently swinging country-tinged gem, looking up under its eyelashes asking for a kiss, while warning you all the reasons you shouldn’t give in; ‘I’m not the kind you should be taking home / drunk and lingering’. That’s a trend across lyrics on this EP; they’re resigned, knowing, sometimes cynical, warning you to keep your eyes open the whole time the music is begging you to just let go. The music wins every time.

These are six songs for people who wish that Sharon Van Etten had could have resisted the synth a bit longer (… even if they’re still insisting they love the new direction). It’s emotionally generous; Edquist gives us plenty of material to get to know her, to relate to her hopes and mistakes. Final track ‘Rubber Heart’ is a perfect evocation of that ‘oh no, I’ve kissed every single person in this town’ feeling, ‘each ghost has a street name, each corner a voice I once knew’. It’s a movin’ on song, skipping along, shaking off the cold water ready to start again. Edquist, like the rest of us, is unable to resist the pull of another big, messy splash.

You can buy a tape or download this EP here

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LISTEN: Lucy Roleff – Sometimes Do

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LucyRoleff

Melbourne’s Lucy Roleff returns with another taste from her forthcoming album, Left Open in a Room, following on from whimsical lead single, ‘A Woman’s Worth’.

Roleff’s enduring, folk-leaning music draws comparisons with understated artists such as Vashti Bunyan and Nick Drake. Its ageless beauty is imbued with a sense of history despite its current context, even Roleff herself at times appearing to have emerged from some mystical time capsule. This is not to say the music is in any way passé, more so that it is impervious to the fleeting (and ultimately forgettable) tendencies of some contemporary music

The songwriting on the new album is refined and confident, exposing a vulnerability in the lyrics, adding to her already rich musical universe. Latest single, ‘Sometimes Do’, exemplifies this vulnerability; a delicate harp arpeggio cradling Roleff’s exquisitely elegant vocals that appear suspended atop the sparse, pin-drop arrangements.

Left Open in a Room is due out May 15 on Lost & Lonesome, Little Lake Records (au) and Oscarson Records (eu). If you’re in Melbourne, you can catch Lucy launching the album on May 26th at Eastmint, Northcote with supports from Mindy Meng Wang & Genevieve Fry, and Pascal Babare & Band. Full event details here.

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