Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Big Day Out

Big Day Out is seen as the quintessential Australian music festival by music fans in the UK. It’s the one all the best British bands go over to play and the one we music fans read about most regularly in the British music press. Of course these days music festivals are ten a penny, both in the UK and Australia, but when it came to choosing my first Australian music festival experience, it could only have been Big Day Out.

Now, in the UK festivals are muddy, sweaty and smelly feats of endurance, albeit hugely enjoyable ones. They last for three or four days and truly test the commitment of even the most loyal music fans to their best-loved bands. Australia having different weather means that it more often than not doesn’t have that deep down and dirty experience. This, combined with Big Day Out being just that – one day, meant that the experience felt a little too lightweight compared to my previous festival experiences. I apparently need to be physically and mentally challenged by my festivals.

What also surprised me was how clean-cut and straight-forward the whole thing was. As Big Day Out is Australia’s most famous festival I immediately compared it beforehand to the UK’s most famous festival – Glastonbury. This was a mistake. Big Day Out is a much smaller, sleeker and newer operation, with none of the tradition and deeply ingrained character (and mud) that Glastonbury has. It’s like comparing Australia and Britain themselves. There is no comparison.

Once I’d gotten over the fact that Big Day Out was a sleek shiny camper van to Glastonbury’s beaten up old vee-dub, I embraced this smoothly run and neatly laid-out festival and made the most of the opportunity to see some amazing (along with some average) live music. Something I’ve been starved of these past two years.

Trial Kennedy: An Aussie band who first caught my attention with their song Colour Day Tours, I dragged Mark along at 11am to see them. He was pleasantly surprised, as was I. Him because they did a blistering energetic set and won him over as they had me, and me because the lead singer looks like a Hollywood movie star and not the greasy indie lad I was expecting. Only in Australia.

Children Collide: Another Aussie band whose Social Currency song first caught my attention. They sounded great but we were far back chatting to our friends so I have no idea how good the performance was.

Birds Of Tokyo: Again, an Aussie band whose songs have been a constant presence since I arrived. Again they sounded great but the performance was drab. They could have been shop dummies up there. It was more enjoyable when I wasn’t looking at them.

The Ting Tings: Something was missing. Sure there are only two of them up there but it wasn’t that, I’ve seen duos and three-pieces generate more energy than full bands. And sure there’s no depth to the music, it’s just party music. But for some reason this party was a little flat.

The Black Kids: The polar opposite of The Ting Tings, these guys roused the crowd into states of pure joy. Never have I seen such a bouncy, joyous crowd. This American band seems to have that magic locked in their joyful pop music.

Sneaky Sound System: Fun, bonkers, easy-going. This band knows what it’s doing and does it very well.

Pendulum: They started off really well, getting everyone going with their bouncy drum’n’bass but then it inexplicably just tailed off. As my friend put it, “Well they’ve done their three best songs now, we can go.”

Cut Copy: The surprise of the day for me. The album, good as it is, doesn’t suggest an exhilarating live experience. But exhilarating it was. They don't seem the most charismatic band but they infuse their music with so much energy in their live show.

Arctic Monkeys: Cut Copy was so enjoyable that we missed the beginning of their performance. We apparently didn’t miss much. The crowd was huge when we arrived but as the performance went on large chucks of it disappeared. It was lacklustre and irritating, latterly because they kept ‘ending’ songs only to start them up again. As another friend put it: ‘applause junkies’. It was a performance they could have phoned in and Alex Turner’s vapid between-song talk didn’t help.

The Prodigy: A-mazing. I’ve never seen them live before so I was excited to do so, not least because friends who’ve seen them have said they’re incredible. And they were. Blistering, visceral, aggressive, empowering, frightening, euphoric: it’s all there with added adjective.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Like a dog chasing cars

I’m sat in my living room writing my Christmas cards. What a mundane activity this is, I think. Easily distracted, I look down at my feet. I notice I’m wearing flip flops. I quickly become aware of my general attire – shorts, t-shirt – and ponder the surrealism of this moment. Everything really is a bit upside down here.

The house is quiet. There’s a slight ringing in my ears because of it. Nearly two years of travelling and being constantly surrounded by people has left some lingering background noise in my head. I’ve gone from a three-bedroomed backpacker flat sharing with eight very sociable people to a four bedroom house with three people who have their own lives and get on with them with very few requirements from me.

I savour the silence. It’s nice.

I’m at work in the break area. There are stylish chairs and tables, old magazines and floor to ceiling windows that stare out across southern Melbourne. There’s never anyone around so I like to go right up to the window and test my vertigo. I stand with the end of my shoes touching the glass and press the top of my head against the window. That way I can look down at the city and pretend like I’m floating above it.

I like this city. Sure, under all those grey roofs I can see there are people stressing about their workloads. But at least when they go outside the sun will shine down on them, there won’t be crowds of people jostling them about, and they can get home via a comparatively less crowded public transport system.

I think of my own work. It’s mindless but occupying. It leaves lots of space in my head; space that is slowly being filled by other things: ideas, stories, characters, bits of my imagination and my real life that have melded together to form interesting shapes and words.

Slowly in the past few weeks these shapes and words and ideas have been shuffling forward from the darker recesses of my brain. They look a little shamefaced, not very confident in themselves, but I can feel them growing and their potential shines out at me.

Before Christmas I felt lost, unfocused. What on earth am I going to do next? Why have I still not found that answer I’ve been looking for? I look back at the last two years and see myself like a dog chasing cars. I’ve travelled the world with more enthusiasm than I’ve done anything before and yet I haven’t really achieved anything.

My friend Julia, suffering from her own lack of inspiration, suggested we spend Christmas doing something to lift our spirits and renew our confidence in our talents. We decided to write a sitcom. She’s a stand-up comedian. I’m a writer who can occasionally be funny. Our first attempts felt quite good as we drew out the story arc and shaped the characters. We decided to write about what we know and are telling the tale of five British backpackers who don’t really like each other but are thrown together by their mutual love of Australia. It’s about Britishness. It’s also about Australia through British eyes. And it’s mostly about why those eyes usually gaze so lovingly upon this country.

People are interested in our sitcom idea and are egging us on. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe it won’t, but it’s got the creative juices flowing. It has given purpose to my presence here, and purpose to the past year.

And it’s helped me realise that maybe, just maybe, this is what I’ve been looking for on my travels: a state of quiet that will allow me to create. Enough space in my head for my ideas to take shape and flourish. Maybe this quiet house is what I really wanted, this undemanding work what I really needed, and enough time passed that the distractive (destructive?) longing for past loves no longer dominates my thoughts.

And new relationships help. I've found a Huck Finn to my Tom Sawyer. I feel the gentle pressure of his fingers on my chin as he twists my head towards him. He smiles at me with his wide green eyes. It fills me with reason again.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Sounds of 2009

I love this time of year. It's the time of year when all the music critics start talking about who's going to be big in 2009. It's a ridiculous exercise really. Hype often kickstarts a backlash and all the acts that get trumpeted by things like the BBC's Sounds of 2009, or British paper the Daily Telegraph's nice take on it - Not the sound of 2009: the next small things, are in danger of suffering that backlash before they've even released a record. Plus it's all PR generated, with the many critics merely asking record company PRs what they've got coming out in the first quarter of the year and parading the press releases they receive as their own expertise.

But cynicism aside it's hard not to get excited by the fresh-faced musicians and their fresh-sounding tunes. Despite the big PR machine behind them, pushing them into the limelight, there is another reason they're there - they're actually quite good.

I've been lucky living in Australia that I've been living with some of the music acts tipped for greatness in the UK in 2009 throughout 2008. Lady GaGa in particular has been massive here, scoring two No 1s with her first two singles - Just Dance and Poker Face. They've been a dominant part of my soundtrack to 2008, proving big hits on both the radio and the dancefloor here.

Aussie duo Empire Of The Sun as well have been a strong presence on the radio and on my iPod with their debut album Walking On A Dream. It's lush sonic electronica has provides a perfect soundtrack to staring at the always amazing Australian sky.

Then there's Melbourne band The Temper Trap whose single Sweet Disposition has been a regular companion this year. Sounding a bit like U2 but without the earnest vocals and tiresome histrionics, The Temper Trap are an awesome rock band.

Coming from the UK, where we have probably the best music scene in the world, I was a little worried that the Aussie music scene wouldn't keep me interested. I couldn't have been more wrong. It's good enough to keep me from heading home.

Audit 2008

1. Overall, have you had a good year?
Yes and no. It’s been very up and down. The ups involved travelling, meeting new people, and meeting up with old friends. The downs involved work, money and family.

2. What has been your biggest achievement?
Working for and getting a 2nd year visa to stay in Australia. And I drove a tractor for two months. A fucking tractor!!

3. Did you take any exams, Pass?

4. Have you had your birthday yet?
In February. I turned 30, which was a huge anticlimax, and just got very inebriated with some lovely Irish friends of mine.

5. Have you been on Holiday?
Only one really, though some might consider my whole year has been a holiday. I wouldn’t, it’s been too stressful.

6. Where and when (list)?
I went on a tour from Adelaide to Alice Springs and had the most amazing time ever. I saw beautiful things and met some amazing people who made me laugh hard and taught me rude French words. Would I rather? I would actually, yes.

7. Have you bought anything expensive?
I suppose the ticket for the aforementioned tour.

8. Have you had a job?
Many, many, many jobs.

9. Made any big decisions?
To stay in Australia I guess. Yeah that was pretty big. I’m missing a lot at home – friends’ entire relationships, births, engagements, weddings, etc etc so it’s hard. But I like this country.

10. Lost a friend or loved one?
Hmm… no, not really.

11. Met anyone amazing?
Oh man, so many amazing people. Where to start? Mark, of course. A more loving, patient, sexy, generous, fun, adventurous, grounded, encouraging, supportive, unflappable and intuitive bad driver you’ll not find. Julia – my funny bone’s soulmate. Laura F – the essence of everything good about Essex girls with none of the bad (well, maybe some, he he.) Ben – a lovable bear with a sore head of a man. The Irish girls, who salvaged my 30th birthday from where I’d chucked it, dusted it off and presented it to me wrapped in a big bow. Mr Robert Cox, my boss on the almond farm – a full-blooded Aussie with a good heart and murky Melbourne past. Someone who I’ll no doubt characterise in one of my hugely successful novels in the future. Mikael the blonde gay surfer Swede – the campest straight man you’ll ever meet and entertainingly unhinged to boot. Craig, a man full of fascinatingly useless information and dry wit. His girlfriend Lucy, who might seem sensible at first but will fearlessly embrace party times at the first sniff of debauchery. Who else? Laura P, or Norman – the funniest girl I’ve met this year who isn’t funny for a living. And Emer, or Irish – such good banter, my belly still aches. And the others on the road trip – Aubs, Shellie, Vicky, the Frenchies Charlotte and Karl. We did good chemistry, we were lucky. Cornish Sarah, my tractor buddy – who’d have thought we’d have both left Cornwall for Oz and ended up driving traak-ters with a fellow Cornishman?? The Stoke man Bill – inordinately proud of Robbie Williams and the WORST storyteller in the world. But he is devastatingly handsome, despite his Punch & Judy chin. Alex and Mark, who have both now gone solo. Alex is gonna make a tenacious and unflinching journo one day, and Mark’s a lovely handsome fella who I defy anyone not to get on with. Megan, the lovely, lovely American who came to Oz and realised her dream of being a vet wasn’t what she wanted anymore. Hayley, a woman with the most Australian accent I have ever heard in my life – funny, shameless and camp as Christmas. The peeps in Darwin - Adam, Rob, Jo, Karyn - you provided more welcome distraction than you'll know. And I can’t forget the first Melbourne housemates – dancing Dec, lovely Anna, email buddy Nicola, delightfully deadpan Kiri, Laura and her Chaplin-esque drunkenness. There’s been many, many more as well and I’m sorry if I’ve forgotten you.

12. Made new friends?
See above.

13. Moved house?
I’ve slept in approx (give or take) 25 different beds this year. And on a few sofas. And in a few buses. Nuff said.

14. Changed college?
Not for a long time!

15. Tried something new?
Loads. Driving a tractor. And a ute. I’ve cooked Thai food. I’ve moved into an environmentally-friendly house. I’ve made awesome sangria. I’ve been to a birthday breakfast (who does that??). Swam in rock pools in Kakadu. Got up close and personal with crocodiles. Seen Uluru. Slept with a soldier (two actually). There’s so much I’ve probably forgotten.

16. Been more happy or sad?
An equal balance of both, as always.

17. Made any enemies?
Not that I know of. I’ve met a fair few people I didn’t like this year actually, usually at the working hostels because you get to know people quite well at these places.

18. What music will you remember from this year?
God, loads. Adam K & Soha, Alphabeat, The Aston Shuffle, The Beautiful Girls, The Black Ghosts, The Black Keys, Bliss N Eso, Bloc Party, bluejuice, British India, The Charlatans, Children Collide, Chris Brown, Cog, Coldplay, Cold War Kids, Cut Copy, Daft Punk, Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip, deadmau5, Digitalism, Dizzee Rascal/Calvin Harris, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, The Duke Spirit, Dukes Of Windsor, Empire Of The Sun, End Of Fashion, Eskimo Joe, Estelle, Eugene McGuinness, Faker, Familjen, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Foals, Foo Fighters, Freemasons, bloody Gabriella Cilmi, Gossip, Grace Jones, Grafton Primary, Guillemots, Gyroscope, Hercules & Love Affair, Hilltop Hoods, Hook N Sling, The Ian Carey Project, Josh Pyke, Kaiser Chiefs, Katy Perry, Kid Cudi, Kings of Leon, Kisschasy, Kylie Minogue, La Roux, Lady GaGa, Ladyhawke, Ladytron, The Last Shadow Puppets, Leona Lewis, Lupe Fiasco, M.I.A., Madonna, Metro Station, MGMT, Miley Cyrus, Muph & Plutonic, My Digital Enemy, OneRepublic, Pendulum, Pink, Plump DJs, Pnau, The Potbelleez, The Presets, The Pussycat Dolls, Rihanna, Roisin Murphy, Salmonella Dub, Sam Sparro, September, Sneaky Sound System, Something With Numbers, Stafford Brothers, The Ting Tings, Trial Kennedy, Tricky, Urthboy, Vampire Weekend, Wiley, The Wombats, and Xavier Rudd. (Can you tell I just went through my iPod??)

19. What movies have you seen at the cinema this year?
I don't go as much as I'd like. I've seen The Golden Compass (disappointing), Cloverfield (brilliant), No Country For Old Men (overrated), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (hilarious), Sex & The City (entertaining), The Dark Knight (amazing), Wanted (silly but fun), Tropic Thunder (better than the reviews suggested), In Bruges (brilliant), Body Of Lies (awesome), Burn After Reading (overrated), and Australia (entertaining). Think that's about it really.

20. What was your best night out?
The night I met Julia was great fun for reasons too convoluted to go into here. It was just one of those nights that clicked and everything was funny. Essex Laura’s birthday in Mildura was good fun. The night I met Mark was great obviously. Getting drunk with the tour group in Coober Pedy was hilarious. The night I danced til six in the morning (without the aid of drugs) in Throb in Darwin was good. Getting drunk with Graeme in Melbourne was one of those unexpectedly good nights out. New Year’s Eve with Mark was good. I’m gonna go for the night I met Julia.

21. What was your worst night out?
The night Mark, Travis and I went to the Xchange and then the Market clubs in Melbourne. Drink and drugs don’t mix well kids.

22. Best Day?
The walk around Uluru probably. Amazing.

23. Worst Day?
The day after aforementioned night out with Mark and Travis.

24. Best month?
August, cos I was seeing lots of Australia.

25. Worst month?
First month in Darwin probably (September). Money stresses and that.

26. Was summer a good'un?
It is so far. (We’re in the middle of it in Australia!) Christmas went well, if pretty quietly. And I’m looking forward to the Big Day Out festival and Emma and Justin coming over from the UK.

27. Have you made better friends with anyone?
Yes. Stew and Kath who I knew briefly from the UK. And Graeme who I shared a room with in a hostel last year and now we’ve got to know each other better.

28. Lost any friends?
No, I don't think so.

29. How many people have you kissed in the year of 2008?
You mean as in boys and tongues? Maybe… 10? Not sure.

31. Did you have your heart broken?
No. Healed if anything.

32. Made any plans for next year?
The goal is to try and stay in Australia. We’ll see how well that goes.

33. How many hair colours have you had?
Just the one, my own.

34. Got pierced?

35. Got inked?
anted to but never had the money to do it. This year hopefully.

36. Changed your image?
I did the scruffy farmer look for a bit.

37. Missed anyone?
All my friends and family in the UK. A lot.

38. Enjoying this survey?
It's going on a bit longer than I thought it would.

39. Know what you want in the future?
To stay in Australia for a bit longer and try and settle here for a bit.

40. Regret anything?
Oh only a few financial things. I’m terrible with money. But it’s all good.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

frankie: Eugene McGuinness

Eugene McGuinness is one to watch out for. The British singer-songwriter is one to watch as well, as the buzz builds surrounding the recent release of his debut self-titled long player. But it’s the 22-year-old’s mischievous streak that would make you watch your back when hanging out with him.

“We had dancers on one of my videos who were doing all these really amazing elaborate things,” he says. “And I’d interrupt them and say, ‘Sorry, that looks really good but can you just do this?’ and I would make up some really shit move like something out of Napoleon Dynamite. Whenever they do something shit in the video it’s because I told them to.”

Eugene himself is not much of a dancer. “I’m too tall. And I’m from London. I think the English reserve comes into play. Whenever I start dancing I’m very much aware I’m dancing. I can’t relax unless I’m completely out of it, but that’s not dancing that’s just some sort of mild fit.”

Eugene’s wicked sense of humour rears its slyly-grinning head throughout his music. His nostalgic skiffle-punk balladeering first courted critical acclaim with the release of last year’s mini-album The Early Learnings of Eugene McGuinness. His recent full album proper picks up where that left off, with more light-hearted and surreal story-telling about the dark and sweaty side of life.

“I find absolutely everything funny,” he says. “If someone puts the right spin on it I’ll be in stitches. Even the most terrible things. But I don’t set out to put humour in my songs. It’s just a habitual trait. Often I’ll be writing about something that’s not particularly pleasant and the only way out is to say something tongue-in-cheek, a sarcastic kind of thing which doesn’t fit the mood at all.

“But that’s just in the upbeat songs. Whenever I’m in a sprightlier mood what naturally happens is I start being a bit stupid. Like this interview for instance - I’m on fire, I’m wicked here. Usually I’m terrible. It’s cos I’m hungover.”

Born in London and brought up in Essex and Ireland, Eugene says he had a playful attitude growing up. “In school I always used to pick on people who were like twice the size of me. And I’d always get away with it and run off, laughing. It was never bad fights, just playground stuff when you’re playing football.” He laughs. “I was always just really annoying.”

After considering studying fine art, Eugene instead went to the Paul McCartney-founded Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, the same establishment that produced The Wombats. But he found the university’s approach to music to be completely at odds with his own.

“There was nothing really going for me in London, so the idea of going to Liverpool to study music sounded quite appealing at the time,” he says. “But I had no idea what studying music would actually entail. I realised that I don’t agree with the idea of studying music at all. You start thinking about it in a very cold and contrived way. I did, anyway. I don’t want to slag that place off. It probably works better for classical music, or theatrical stuff. But it wasn’t for me. For me it was more about the city of Liverpool and the music scene that was there outside of that cocoon.”

Signed to the UK’s renowned Domino Records, home of Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys, Eugene obviously hasn’t suffered without the training. With descriptions like ‘one-man Arctic Monkeys’ being bandied about (“They are the best band in the world, but what I do is pretty different.”), Eugene’s currently enjoying his next big thing status. He proudly reports that “people are liking the album” in his native UK and talks like a caged animal about his upcoming solo tour and support slot with Goldfrapp.

“It’s nice to be busy again,” he says. “For a couple of months I was just waiting for the record to come out. People would ask what I was doing and I’d say, ‘Nothing, but I’ve got a record coming out, it definitely exists.’ But now it’s out and I get to do gigs and interviews like a famous person. Glorious. One can’t be trusted without the routine of a tour. I just end up upsetting people.”