Creative Darwinism

This is my city and I’m never gonna leave it.
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WRITING ABOUT MY experience of making music in Perth is a strange thing, because as soon as a ‘scene’ is bound and gagged by the written word it is finished, petrified, swept up into the Rolling Stone archives and forever considered ‘history’. It might be revered and glorified, but it’s still long gone. This could be a very restricting view to take on a community like Perth, which is still just as inspiring and productive as it ever was. I can’t pretend to understand where ‘music scenes’ begin or end. It seems a futile and narrow-minded pursuit. So before I begin, I want to say that this is merely a reflective exercise. There was never a ‘golden age’, and if one does exist I can’t see it, because it’s floating all around, invisible and omnipresent.

For years I suffered serious cultural guilt as a Western Australian. The orthodoxy and banality made me feel isolated, relegated to the company of eccentric long-haired ghosts singing to me from inside my Discman. Every birthday and Christmas, Dad would give me a care package of CDs. This blessed nourishment of Jethro Tull, Lou Reed, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie shone a light into the murky tunnels of my future. Playing music and generally being a flaming Christmas fruitcake became my sole purpose, and me and a few other school friends – Steve Summerlin and Richard Ingham of Mink Mussel Creek, and many other brilliant but criminally under-recognised projects – revelled in our little corner of filthy otherness. This outlook was key to our musical and creative development. We railed against the boredom of Perth not with pickets or protest, but with a head-in-the-sand hubris that made us feel invincible and unique. We found more comrades along the way – Joe Ryan, Kevin Parker, Jay Watson – and together we erected great walls of noise and hair and mouldy dishes around our Daglish share house commune citadel on Troy Terrace where we incubated, practised, recorded, talked and grew. A friend stick’n’poke tattooed a spiral shape into my arm to represent that way of life (which I’d lifted from Hermes Trismegistus and other alchemical mumbo jumbo I learned at university). Look inside and the world can be whatever you want. Look out and it’s ugly and shitty.

In Perth, use of public space is regulated to the point of comedy, and Orwellian restrictions on tobacco, noise, bicycles, alcohol and public gatherings breed a festering discontent and boredom because no one likes being pre-emptively labelled a deviant. Being trusted enriches the soul – you can see it on the face of the child who leads the family trek. You can see the flipside on the faces of disenchanted detainees. On weekends, this restlessness is unleashed across clubs and pubs in Northbridge and Subiaco in an avalanche of Jägerbombs (17mL of Jägermeister dropped into a larger glass of Red Bull and then consumed with haste) and Midori and violence and cheap sex. When the Monday sun staggers over the horizon, people rub their eyes and heave a great sigh and the city reverts to its utilitarian state – the ‘bourgeois dream of unproblematic production’, as The 60s Without Apology (University of Minnesota Press, 1984) puts it, ‘of everyday life as the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption’. That this description of pre-revolutionary 1950s and ’60s America is so apt for Perth is damn scary. Or hilarious. I can’t decide. I guess it depends on the depth and colour of your nihilistic streak, or if you actually live here. Whichever way you look at it, it does not paint a picture of a city conducive to creativity. Art is the antithesis of logic and functionality – it is romance and wonder and stupid, pointless lovelies. As good old Mr Vonnegut so often said, it’s an exercise to make your soul grow. So how, in a super-functional and conservative environment whose every will is bent towards digging really, really big holes in the ground, have I seen and heard and felt some of the most brilliant, pure and original creativity in the world?

I USED TO dream about living in a cultural powerhouse like Paris or Berlin or New York, but after spending time in these places I’ve realised that the emptiness and isolation of Perth – boredom to some – was a far better environment for creativity. The ‘cultural capitals’ are so rich in art and wonder that it can feel pointless to add to it.

Maybe just being in those ‘cultural capitals’ fills us up with wonder? Strolling through Berlin at night, ducking into a bar with fish nailed to the roof, skipping across the cobblestones for some cheap beers in a record shop in a Russian caravan in an abandoned peanut factory…that kind of stuff fills the romantic void. Having a Ricard and a few Gitanes on the terrasse of Aux Folies; stumbling through Camden after a lock-in at the Witch’s Tit or the Cock’n’Balls or the Cancerous Bowel or whatever you call it; recollecting a possible conversation with Jah Wobble over a pint…Perth? It has no secret tunnels to romantic fulfilment.

For me, music and art have always been a way to manufacture that romance lacking in upper-middle-class Western Australia. To be honest, if I had lived in New York I probably would’ve been so damn hung-over – or busy ensuring that I would be later – that a whole lot less creation would’ve gone on. Mundane and discouraging places like Perth create a vicious Darwinism for creatively inclined people, where survival of the fittest is played out with swift and unrepentant force and the flippant or unpassionate are left behind, drowning in putrid mind-clag. You have to really need it, and without the mysterious and poetic benefits of a vibrant city culture this has to come from deep inside. Amber Fresh, otherwise known as Rabbit Island, is one person who produces constant streams of music, drawings, essays, poems, calendars, videos and photos from her home. She fills her world with little pieces of homemade, lo-fi, photocopied beauty and magic. They don’t have funding or precedent or material ambition – and the result is something fresh and original. Mei Saraswati does the same thing, although completely different styles of music. She has produced, mixed, mastered and illustrated scores of albums in her bedroom and then released this other-worldly electronic R’n’B brilliance onto the internet with no fanfare, simply to turn around and start making more. These are just two examples. There are many more.

SOMEHOW, BY BEING a cultural long-drop, Perth lit a fire under my arse. In more scholarly terminology this could be called a ‘spirit of negation’ – a margarine version of the same zeitgeist that has catalysed most worthwhile movements throughout history, from dadaism to punk to all the intellectual and artistic wonders of The Netherlands freshly unchained from their dastardly Spanish overlords.

Being isolated spatially and culturally – us from the city, Perth from Australia and Australia from the world – arms one with an Atlas-strong sense of identity. Both actively and passively, originality seems to flourish in Perth’s artistic community. Without the wider community’s acceptance, creative pursuits lack the potential for commodification. There’s no point in preening yourself for success because it’s just not real. It’s a fairytale, so you may as well just do it in whatever way you like, good or bad, in your room or on the top of the Telstra building, which – as anyone with any common sense will attest – was built for that one potential badass to drop in on a skateboard and parachute off. Growing up in the Kimberley and then Fremantle, the true machinery of the music business evaded me. It was about as real as the Power Rangers and twice as awesome. Led Zeppelin and U2, all the way down to whatever was on Rage that morning, was just a pretty dream. But if I grew up in a city where success in music was common and highly visible, I reckon it would have been far more alluring. I would’ve understood how to go about it, probably before I actually realised how deep my love of music was. With the template for success laid out so precisely – gigs to be got, managers to be found, reviews to be had and the ultimate dream of ‘making it’ tangibly within reach – Perth would find itself producing far less original art. Because as it stands, it doesn’t really matter if you’re crap or silly or unbearably offensive, you wouldn’t get much further doing something different anyway. This helps to preserve a magical purity because it’s executed with love – with necessity. And what’s more, when these artists keep going and practising and advancing – which they must – somehow their crassness coagulates into something brilliantly individual and accomplished, and you can see it performed in an arena that makes the audience feel truly blessed. I saw Rabbit Island and Peter Bibby and Cam Avery play in backyards. I saw cease play in a tattoo parlour in Maylands. Me and Joe Ryan were plastered against the wall by their sound, gawking up at Andrew, the guitarist, precariously standing on his enormous amp wearing high heels and full fishnet bodystocking, slowly trying to drive his guitar through the top of his cabinet like some pagan-burlesque reimagining of King Arthur. After hours they slowed to a halt, and the crowd cheered from the stairs and bathroom door and kitchen and I remembered where we were: in a tiny share-house in Maylands, in the flaming cauldron of hell or the halls of Valhalla. Mink Mussel Creek played there a few times and once, in a flash of drunken inspiration, someone turned the only light in the room off mid-performance. I saw the fourteen guitarists of Electric Toad destroy a warehouse art gallery wearing ’90s WA football jerseys. Tame Impala and Pond played in Tanya’s garage and every time I cried and danced and felt like the breath of God was being embarrassingly saucy all over my skin. We played our very first show in that garage and I can still see Jay demolishing the tiny drum kit – kick, snare, ride, tom – as sparks floated from the forty-gallon drum and lit the faces of the people looking in from the dark. None of us had ever seen anyone play like it in real life, let alone in a garage, sitting on milk crates.

As far as genres go, our music ‘scene’ in Perth was an anomaly. A mad mosaic of groups and artists only held together by gallant separation from conventional Perth society. Nick Odell, the drummer of CEASE and Sonny Roofs, still has a poster for a gig at Amplifier Bar that I remember as a kind of microcosmic Woodstock – a tactile realisation of all the beauty and communion we cherished. The line-up included us (Mink Mussel Creek), CEASE (aforementioned stoner/doom/drone lords), Sex Panther (punk-party queens), Oki Oki (Nintendo synth pop) and Chris Cobilis (experimental laptop noise music). I think most members of the bands ended up on stage at more than one time, wrapped in Cobilis’ wires or yelling into a madly effected microphone in front of CEASE. I certainly did. Nowhere else would such a ridiculously mismatched line-up consider themselves a tight community. We all partied together, played together and are still friends.

I think this spirit is lacking in a lot of the more culturally enlightened parts of the world. Maybe in these vibrant communities the countercultural idea is so entrenched it becomes capitalist orthodoxy and loses its edge. It is subjected to the rationality it once challenged. In the cultural capitals – Paris, Berlin, New York – creativity and original thinking are accepted and valued parts of mainstream life.

In Perth they are not.

Paris has over four hundred streets named after artists and writers, and this honour is not restricted to the most unobtrusive or patriotic. Rue Albert Camus, Rue Marcel Duchamp and the recently proposed Place Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, show the state glorifying revolutionaries, absurdists, libertines and a gay, heroin-using, Haitian–American graffiti artist. Today we can stroll along the verdant Boulevard Auguste-Blanqui, named after the man who led the uprising of the Paris Commune. A revolutionary, a prisoner, an anarchist. In modern terms: a terrorist.

There, art is a basic fact of everyday life, while in Perth it is an anomaly hidden in garages and living rooms – deep beneath a conservative fishbowl of productivity. So, all things considered, ‘cultural capitals’ should be havens for art and music, and Perth should not. The romance just seeps into the pores, ja?

I always thought this before I left Western Australia, but have since found it to be otherwise. I asked a young photographer and artist in Amsterdam about the music scene there and her reply was wholly negative. A lot of Parisians seem to feel the same way. I look back on my time in Perth and think about the huge number of brilliant musicians and artists who I saw and knew, often not in official venues but in backyards or sheds or the abandoned entertainment centre (yes, CEASE). Perhaps with the freedom – almost expectation – to create, revel and throw it all around the streets, it all just gets a bit boring.

Like much good art, it doesn’t really ‘mean’ anything, so writing an essay about it is an odd activity. The experience of a city or community varies so much that it can never be defined while it is still occurring. When it’s actually happening, a ‘scene’ is not really a ‘scene’ – it’s completely intangible and only coagulates into a definitive and convenient ball when history puts it in a cage, when someone from the outside looks in and decides there’s something shared between a bunch of vaguely artistic fools. I guess that’s what I’m doing now, which is pretty ridiculous seeing as nothing is finished and the Perth artistic community is so ethereal that it couldn’t and shouldn’t be labelled at all.

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