Posts By Annie

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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LISTEN: Akioka – ‘Right Here’

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Akioka is the solo project of Tess Darcey, a key member of Perth’s small but extremely industrious experimental electronic scene. She plays in both Mei Saraswati and Phil Stroud‘s live bands, and shares with those artists a taste for light-handed, organic compositions blending soul, dub and new age influences.

Her latest release, a two-song cassette called Right Here, is out this Friday on Pouring Dream, a bedroom-size label responsible for ambient pop releases by local artists Spirit Level, Leaving, Bahasa Malay and more.

The title track is a gentle, minimalist drone built around Darcey’s vocal loops, which flutter and tumble over a bed of sparse keys and thumb piano. Listening to it is almost a somatic experience – like lying in a shallow stream with sunlight and clear water running over your body, the sounds of birds, insects and rapids mixing in your ears.

Preorder Right Here on cassette and digital via Bandcamp. Each tape comes with a risographed cover and artwork by by Dolphin Secrets. West coasters can also catch the tape launch, presented by Pouring Dream and Semi-Decent, at Highgate Continental on 24 September.

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Romy Vager Group

Image by Anna Cunningham

Melbourne four-piece RVG write tightly wound heartbreakers, with characters poised between defiance and despair. On debut single ‘A Quality of Mercy’, frontwoman Romy Vager channels everything from Camus to Television, delivering a sermon from the electric chair. “You can open me up/you can dig forever/you won’t find what you’re looking for,” she sings, quicksilver riffs coiling behind her. “There’s no evil in me”. The climax sounds like a car crash on a rain-soaked highway, with layers of synths, cymbals and blaring horns.

Vager’s urgent, slightly off-kilter vocals (imagine Robert Forster could sing) are paired with an aesthetic drawn from post punk and new wave. It’s a vivid, natural dynamic, recalling the Jam in their more reflective moments, or Florida punks Merchandise.

RVG’s latest release, ‘That’s All’, is a slow-building ballad about the self-cannibalising that comes with unrequited love. “I’ve been trying not to ruin your day/I’ve been trying not to get in your way,” Vager sings, the crack in her voice revealing the strain.

Catch RVG at the Worker’s Club on 30 September supporting Oh Mercy, who’s appearing in a one-time-only line up with members of the Triffids, Laura Jean, Loose Tooth and Dorsal Fins.

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Golden Syrup

Golden Syrup is the new experimental pop act from songwriter and sound artist Sara Retallick. You might recognise her sweet-toned pipes from Melbourne band Jimmy Tait, whose 2013 AMP-nominated record Golden was a favourite here at WTH.

On debut track ‘Didn’t Go Home’, Retallick takes a sharp turn from her former indie rock project. Woven out of samples, field recordings and tape manipulations, the new material is spare, sinister and oddly ritualistic. Droning bass notes and a work-gang rhythm underpin Retallick’s incantatory vocals, while shards of noise and disembodied laughter unsettle the track’s placid surface.

‘I went to your birthday party/and I didn’t go home again,’ she sings, darkly. Seldom has a song about hooking up sounded quite so creepy.

Golden Syrup’s single launch party is this Friday at the Gasometer. Moon Rituals, Time for Dreams and Superstar side project Various Asses will be supporting, plus Laura Jean will pop in for a DJ set. RSVP on Facebook.

Golden Syrup Gasometer

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WATCH: Nic Belor – ‘Bestfriend’

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nic belor

Nic Belor, a gentle, long-haired guitarist and songwriter living between Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, is about to release his first solo album, Bestfriend, via Queensland-based imprint Feedback Town. Formerly of the post hardcore-influenced Wilde Child, he’s also a member of Figures, a three-piece band that pairs sweet, Teenage Fanclub-style vocals with rough-edged shoegaze.

Belor’s new material is pop music, plain and simple – an attempt to cut through the noise in a few harmonic minutes. The album’s title track and lead single is a sad-faced number with a chipper demeanour, kind of like Mac DeMarco minus the shit-eating grin. Easygoing and warm, ‘Bestfriend’ is nonetheless just a little off-kilter; its bright chords slightly detuned, twanging uncannily, while Belor croons about the one who’s left him.


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WATCH: Two Steps on the Water – ‘YoYo’

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two steps on the water

Having released a compelling set of country-punk tearjerkers late last year – the brilliantly titled ‘Having pop punk feelings in a country-western body’ EP – Melbourne-based three-piece Two Steps on the Water are now gearing up for their debut LP, God Forbid Anyone Look Me in the Eye. The band – comprising violinist Sienna Thornton, drummer Jonathan Nash and frontwoman June Jones – yesterday released ‘YoYo’, a tender, Kate Bush-referencing ballad underpinned by the trio’s lilting harmonies and Thornton’s intuitive counterpoint. Today we’ve got the video for you, beautifully shot in soft afternoon sunlight by the Yarra. June Jones spoke to us via email about the new record and the band’s upcoming June residency at the Gasometer Hotel.

Can you tell me what ‘Yoyo’ is about? did you write it for someone in particular?

‘YoYo’ was primarily written for myself when I was younger. I have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since I was 14, which made life pretty hard especially when I was a teenager. I used to beat myself up about being so terrified all the time and it took me a long time to realise that I wasn’t to blame for my trauma. ‘YoYo’ was written for me back then, but also for anyone who needs to hear that it’s not their fault, that they are beautiful and dangerous. I should probably mention here that the first two lines of the chorus are totally ripped from ‘Cloudbusting’ by Kate Bush (a timeless classic).

Is there a narrative behind the video clip? It’s a gorgeous setting – where’d you guys shoot?

Nah, no narrative. The last clip we made (for a song called ‘More True More Rowdy‘) was pretty heavily rooted in narrative, and we filmed that in a few different locations which meant that it was a pretty time-consuming process. This time around we just wanted something simple and pretty. Working with absolute legends Nina Renee and Olivia A Fay, we filmed the whole thing in Fairfield by the Yarra. One half was at the beautiful amphitheater and the other half was with a group of friends in a clearing that Sienna knew about (and I think people put on raves there sometimes?).

Congrats on recording your debut record! Can you tell us about how it all came together – the writing and recording etc? How would you compare the new album to HPPFIACWB, whether aestically or thematically, or the process in general? 

Hey thanks! We wrote all the songs in the second half of last year I think. Made some demos in Sienna’s shed and sent them to Simon Grounds (who was recommended to us by our friend Laura Jean, an amazing Melbourne musician). Recording took place from early February through to late April, starting at Bakehouse Studios with Simon and then RMIT with some friends who are studying sound production, then doing all the overdubs at Simon’s home studio.

Aesthetically I think we’re working with similar ideas to what’s happening on HPPFIACWB, but there’s no electric guitar this time around. Thematically I think God Forbid Anyone Look Me in the Eye is more coherent. I’ve realised that lyrically I tend to tackle three themes over and over again, and those are trauma (spanning the last 10 years), my social experience as a trans woman (the last year and a half), and lastly the object of most songwriting ever: love and romance. The three overlap and intermingle and fight between each other. For example, there are three songs about love/romance/sex on the record but two of those are very much about my experience of these things as a trans woman looking to be recognised as such by my partner.

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LISTEN: Civil Civic – ‘The Hunt’

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Civil Civic the Hunt

It’s been five years since Melbourne expats Civil Civic released their debut record Rules – a driving mix of noise, post punk and math rock. The duo met via email in 2009, and began trading ideas between their homes in London and Barcelona. It could be a slow, convoluted process, but the results were manic and immediate, and often gleefully nerdy, with fast-paced songs changing key and time signature mid-flight.

Since then, the band has released a single with outsider artist and lo-fi pioneer R. Stevie Moore (it sounds a bit like the Cure fast-forwarded to 160 per cent), and guitarist Aaron Cupples produced the Drones’ outlandish new record, Feelin’ Kinda Free. Along the way they worked on a follow-up record, describing it early on as “a big, ballsy expansion and escalation of the sonic turf we staked out on our 2011 debut Rules, with more high emotion and destruction and joy and carnage.

“Even at this stage, with the long and punishing mixing process ahead of us, we’re already scared of the results.

“This thing is going to give people brain tumours (the awesome kind). All we wanted to do was make a jaw-droppingly awesome record, not some sort of hyper-music-weapon that gets us ‘black-bagged’ in our sleep and end up working for the C.I.A.”

First single ‘The Hunt’ has finally landed, making its Australian premiere right here. It’s an acrobatic number, veering between shimmering, harmonic chords and blinding electronic passages, all underwritten by relentless 909s, prog solos and a wash of noise – kind of like Fuck Buttons spliced with TNGHT. Aaron sums it up like this:

“You wake up late afternoon, your hair a mess. You smell like a bin. Breakfast is the rest of the falafel from the night before. You’re volatile, energised, funny as fuck. You don’t give a single shit what others think of you.”

‘The Hunt’ will be out 24 June on Civil Civic’s Gross Domestic Product label, via Believe Digital, with an album to follow in spring. Check out the teaser below:

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