Perfect Sound Forever

Aussie Underground

Left to right: Pimmon, Oren Ambarchi and Dworzec

by Jon Dale
(January 2001)

Common knowledge about Australian music appears to be that it's been hiding its 'experimental' nature under a bushel for quite some time. While those around us (most notably New Zealand) have been bustling with avant expression for many-a-year, Australia's been given a bad reputation by most of 'those-who-know' - the general consensus appears to be, "Australian music? No thank you." Now, I can't really blame a lot of overseas folks (hell, even local folks) for getting the idea that we're stagnating. For a long time, Australia's been seen as some populist retard home - all Men At Work and INXS and Kylie Minogue, although Kylie did the decent thing and released a few great pop singles before losing it with some 'cred'-tack (the "Impossible Princess" era). Given that we did offer the world one of the first punk acts - the Saints - the '80's and '90's have, by and large, offered little more than miniature cracks-in-the-pavement as far as good music from our fair country goes.

Sure, there's those Thug records, and Feedtime, and The Moles, and the Triffids and Go-Betweens, and I'll never complain if someone pulls out a Laughing Clowns album (particularly if it's Mr Uddich-Smuddich). But where those around us there have been perceptible movements - the glorious rush of the Xpressway continuum, the wave of guitar-reinvention from the US and UK in the late '80's, the cracked-media antics of Europe in recent times - Australia hasn't proffered much in the way of a focussed and fiery wave of invention. I'm sure it's partly to do with the distances between major cities - Sydney to Melbourne is a 12-hour drive, Melbourne to Adelaide a 'mere' 9 hours. It's hard to connect with like-minded freaks when you're so far apart. But neither has there appeared to be a fermenting 'scene' within each city. No little colonies of crazed experimenters, no sonic wastrels banding together and exploding out of their confines to overseas shores.

 That's still not really happening, either. But it behooves us to remember that Australia has offered those concentrated explosions of mad inspiration in previous times. The early '80's brought an astounding wave of post-punk eclecticism from Melbourne. Gathered loosely around the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, acts like Essendon Airport, Dave & Phil Duo, and Tch Tch Tch interrogated the spaces between experimental music, populist rhetoric, and avant-gardism. David Chesworth of Essendon Airport was notional 'head' of the Clifton Hill centre from 1978 - 1983, coordinating the live performances held at the Organ Factory venue, and acting as 'scene catalyst' for the nascent charges of experimentation. The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre also branched out into performance art, film and video works, and so forth - a real cross-wiring of artistic thought. The Innocent Records label released a lot of singles by all the artists mentioned and in general collected together a catalogue of primo other-air sounds. (For example, try and find the debut Essendon Airport single, "Sonic Investigations of the Trivial" - and then draw some parallels between that slab of vinyl and the electronic pop/lounge miniatures of acts like Stereolab, Broadcast and Minimum Chips - you'll be pleasantly surprised.) A lot of this activity was documented by the New Music Australia magazine, and there was also a great book by John Jenkins (created in collaboration with NMA), 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, which is well worth hunting down if you want to trace the complex and intertwining routes of this starburst of Australian sonic invention. (It's also online at

Simultaneously, Sydney was bursting with a wild collective of similar-minded wayward souls such The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast, Scattered Order, and Paul Schutze's first outfit, Laughing Hands. Sydney was also home to the stunning and overlooked early line-up of Severed Heads, whose early recordings were classic electro-brut renderings which shared head-space with the Residents and the Chris Watson line-up of Cabaret Voltaire. And in Brisbane there was always something happening, because something always seems to be happening there -the Go-Betweens, Saints and Laughing Clowns had left a certain fire-brand eclecticism in the water which showed up later in the incredible free-rock of the Holy Ghosts, possibly the most criminally-overlooked of Australian bands in the '80's. This all amounts to a hidden history of Australian music - and is in many ways the predecessor to the current wave of Australian experimentation. Chasing down the complex byroads that this burst of invention left behind is hard work indeed for many travellers, but Melbourne's Chapter Music label is curating a much-needed compilation of Australian early '80's post-punk/experimental music, and the Laughing Hands and Makers of the Dead Travel Fast records have been reissued on Extreme - so there's something to start with.

 As much as the history lesson is pertinent and worthwhile, though, the focus here is on what this decade has to offer. Australia is just beginning to hook together a loose but friendly experimental music 'community', much like the Clifton Hill community in the early '80's. A lot of the artists involved have been creating in an often self-imposed vacuum for a long time - The Lost Domain have a history that stretches into the '80's - and that they are only now becoming visible to more than the lucky few is simultaneously a great shame (that it didn't happen earlier) and a blessing (that years of woodshedding is coming to 'fruition'). And whilst there is no real 'nexus' for Australian experimental music at the moment, there are two major points of meeting. The first is the Synaesthesia record store, mail order, and Shin-Sound gallery space. Hidden away behind a church in Prahran, Synaesthesia's impact on awareness and interest in avant-garde music of all strains in Australia has been impossibly far-reaching. Everyone knows about it, everyone goes there. Run by good soul Mark Harwood, it spends equal time disseminating essential overseas cultural artefacts to Australia's avant-community and proselytising about the state of Australian experimentation. A powerful and wise voice in our nascent community, Synaesthesia's impact on listening and knowledge has been incredibly important to the establishment and growth of an up-to-date, energetic and open-minded vanguard of experimental musicians and fans.

The second major 'gathering-of-the-tribes' is the What is Music festival. Building from humble beginnings half a decade ago, the festival, curated by Sydney musicians Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim, has developed into a two-city (Sydney and Melbourne) extravaganza of live performance sonic exploration. 2000's festival brought the Mego label, Simon Wickham-Smith, Neil Hamburger, and Keith Rowe (amongst others) to our fair isles, and cross-thatched them with local artists such as Pimmon, Dworzec, Martin Ng, Minit and Menstruation Sisters (names which you'll hopefully be rather au fait with by the end of this article). As an intersection of thriving cultures from overseas and our own backyard, it's a startling success. More importantly, it's a damn pleasurable four night foray of sound-art blow-outs. What's more, it's reach gets wider and wider every year, with truly surprising turn-outs in each city. The word is spreading, after all. What is Music also makes an effort to bring the history of Australian experimental music to the fore - long-running improvisers such as Jon Rose appeared at the last festival. The only problem faced was a certain superiority- complex from the old-school improv community - copping an attitude toward the lap-top brigade of Mego, Pimmon and Wickham-Smith. A sign that bridges have to be built, surely, to allow more incorporative spaces have to evolve.

 So that's 'where we meet,' but what about the artists themselves? Who should you be checking out in order to get an idea of the burgeoning renaissance in Australian music? Well, I toyed with the idea of tracking the complexity of their interconnectedness in flowing form, but it was too much of a head-fuck task. So instead I'll list of the names you should be keeping close to the tip of your tongue at all times, and that'll serve as a good starting point for those of you interesting in exploring further (and that should really be all of you, right?)

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as such. There's plenty of other names out there you should be checking out too. There's some interesting electro-acoustic crazies in Melbourne, like Delire, Squinch, and so forth, loosely based around the Plant Syntax venue (which I'm hoping is still open). Artists Marco Fusinato and John Nixon have branched out into noise-brut feedback excess with their duo Solver and their label Freewaysound, which has just released a Thurston Moore disc, and has a Handful of Dust title on the way. Brisbane's Terminal Moraine does a stunning line in keyboard dronology. Eugene Carchesio, once of the Holy Ghosts, is still painting and occasionally recording more Lol Coxhill-esque saxophone etudes under the name DNE (whose self-released 47 Songs Humans Shouldn't Sing album is a lost classic). Outsider sound visionaries like Stevie Wishart, Rik Rue and Alistair Riddell are still as active as ever. Ace concret-turntablist Martin Ng is working solo, broadcasting his Hydrogen Jukebox radio show in Sydney, and also collaborating with improviser Jim Denley (who himself has a fascinating history within Sinfonie and Machines For Making Sense). Lucas Abela runs the Dual Plover label and performs on his self-invented noise machines in Peeled Hearts Paste. The more disjointed, noisic and Bananafish-sympathetic strand of invention is well represented by Volvox and its offshoots, the work of Lester Vat, and New Waver (whose Greg Wadley has presided over many a fine recording at his Spill studios, and released several fine compilations on the Spill label).

Tasmania has a rather intriguing scene centered around Hobart - apart from throwing up some great rock bands (The Frustrations, The Sea Scouts, Little Ugly Girls), they also have an ever-evolving home-spun noise scene circling around the Consumer Productions label - top acts include The Human Host, HMAS, and Do You Mind If I Stab This? And my home town Adelaide is way behind on all this stuff, but ex-pats Pretty Boy Crossover (now Melbourne based) do a nice line in melodic electronica that's way ahead of their contemporaries on, say, the Skam label (who they've actually just signed to), Matthew Thomas explores the outer reaches of radio static minimalism, and local digital-fucker Pix has tracks on the compilation and is looking like becoming a major visionary.

 So, far from being behind the starting line as far as experimentation goes, Australia has a burbling, ever-growing and quietly inventive community of acts that appear to be expanding exponentially. I don't know why you, dear reader, haven't heard of it yet, but surely that's just a sign that you've got some serious work to do. Try Synaesthesia, at, do some web searches, email me and ask them questions at (but don't go expecting a coherent answer, I'm by no means an 'expert', just an enthusiast), do whatever you can to kick Australia's truly essential underground musics out of your peripheral vision into direct glare with your eyes right now. It'll be well worth it. Trust me, I have a vested interest.

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