Smokey's Blog

we gonna do the damn thing or what

The Beginning of Elefant Traks

I’ve been putting together a live show called Make Me a Mixtape featuring a bunch of guests helping me perform a live retrospective mixtape of songs for a trip I took to SE Asia as a youngster. After developing the show I remembered that Elefant Traks began out of a mixtape.. so I thought I should let Kenny Sabir, the founder of Elefant Traks explain a little more.

Founder of Elefant Traks and all round legend, Traksewt

Founder of Elefant Traks and all round legend, Traksewt

From Traksewt:
A defining moment was when one of my old best school-friends (Brad) was moving to Japan. I made a plan to get a bunch of friends together to make a farewell album for him, where we each did a track saying goodbye. A few of us worked on our tracks for a few weeks, others wrote it on the spot. We booked out a day in my bedroom, where each group was rostered on for 2 hours each to record their song, with myself as the learn-as-you-go-and-make-the-rest-up sound engineer. For some reason, that now escapes my old-age sensibilities, I had a four-poster bed – which came in handy to throw a blanket over to create a vocal booth for recording. We burnt up 20 copies and Brad loved it – though the epiphany was how damn possible it was to create a legitimately passable looking CD. What would happen if this was in the shops? What exactly IS an independent label? Sure it is going to be a bit of administration and bureaucracy, but more than that it is an idea, an identifier, a measure of quality.

From the humble beginnings of a mixtape, Elefant Traks was born.

I wanted to do something completely different with this show so I’ve called on a bunch of awesome artists to help pull this gig off. There’s the sparkling force of nature that is Patience Hodgson from The Grates; the majestic dad Bobby Flynn (who appeared on my recent album Smokey’s Haunt); my good friend and big hearted talent Rival MC from Impossible Odds/Black Arm Band; the brilliant and refreshing voice of Thelma Plum as well as one of Australia’s most compelling songwriters Sam Cromack from Ball Park Music.

The tracklist is inspired by events that happened on the trip to Thailand and Vietnam, as well as songs that were a big deal around that time for me. I had been working in a record store in Sydney and studying in addition to my first forays into music with my Elefant Traks buddies.

It’s all snugly wrapped up by a great live band made up of Lisa Purmodh (drums), Jarrol Renaud (bass) and Kristen Fletcher (keys), we’re bringing this thing to life. It goes down this Saturday Sept 6 at Brisbane Festival’s Speigeltent 7.15pm – and I can’t reveal the tracklist til then.

Presentation Night, Mixtapes and Footy

I was asked to join Jude Bolton in a night of music and football for an event called Presentation Night. The concept has been running in Melbourne for a couple of years with the likes of Cameron Ling, Bob Murphy and Matthew Richardson joining Paul Kelly, Tim Rogers and Paul Dempsey. All the nights have been expertly mediated by Francis Leach. Anyone who knows me knows I love sport and somehow I’ve forged some kind of career out of music so this is perfect.

Presentation Night

I’ve been a fan of the Swans since the early 90s and recall the heady days of empty SCGs and easy availability of seats, and long before I appreciated the musician, the footballer Paul Kelly was the player I most admired. When The Herd began touring more in the early 2000s Ozi Batla started packing his Swans scarf and hat (and this is a guy who traveled very light) and enthusiastically ripped in whether at soundcheck, hotel or the back of the tour van. I couldn’t help but convert from fan to obsessive and to be frank, you’re a mug if you don’t love or at least respect the Sydney Swans.

As part of this show I was asked to make a MIXTAPE of songs to get pumped up for a game. To find out what song sounds like a moshpit breaking out at a stoppage click the damn link already.

In related news the Community Cup is going down this Sunday at Henson Park in Marrickville. The annual Walers (musicians) vs Sailors (media) slugfest is a brilliant day out and all are welcome. Entry is by donation and funds are raised for Reclink. I’m playing and it’s become apparent at training that I’m in the bottom percentile of genuine talent.

See ya there.

Better to be Different… part 2

Hermitude’s first show is at Studio 2: a small venue forged out of an old recording studio off one of Liverpool’s numerous cobblestoned streets. Their slot is at 12.30am and Money for Rope, a rock band from Melbourne belts out an entertaining set beforehand. When Hermitude start the dance floor is empty and the projector can’t be mounted anywhere functional so the visuals appear in a warped rectangle stretching up to the ceiling. Within moments a flood of people enter the venue and pretty soon the dancefloor is full, and no Aussie accents to be heard. Earlier that day some industry figures had discussed the cul de sac of foreign bands playing to expats in London (he made special mention of Australians and Indians) and how it made for a viable tour but actually hindered rather than progressed an international career.

The post show cold is no obstacle to Liverpool determination.

Liverpool determination

As a manager I don’t oversell my artists but I’m not certain that’s the right way to go. I’ve sat in meetings in New York with flashy lawyers and fast talking middlemen whose eyes jump from mine to their computer screen, then to their phone. All the while fingers tapping the table swiping their phone on and off, laughing at their screen, looking back at me. Listening intently, not listening. I’m just some guy from a country who joins in on their wars and plays weird sports but this is New York Fucking City. I walked out onto busy Manhattan sidewalks laughing to myself, neither offended nor keen to work with them. It is what it is. There’s an infectious nervous energy to it all, like their lives depend on not only the deals but the status that comes with it. The reality is they do big deals with huge artists and so much of our pop cultural understanding stems from the wheeling and dealing of these individuals. Now, months later, I’m in the UK and the way industry people carry themselves is different but the competitive energy is much the same.

So Hermitude won the American Music Prize did they Tom?”

Uh. Hmm?

The second show Hermitude play at Liverpool Sound City is the Aussie BBQ and Sounds Australia do a brilliant job in giving acts a platform where they otherwise may be lost in the crowd. They do a lot with a little, generating a sense of ‘something happening’ and forging a personality for Australian music amidst the cacophony of international bands and industry. There are 10 bands performing here today and they casually load on and off around their 25 minute performances. Money For Rope are playing again and the 200 odd people at the Moon Museum (normally known as Parr St Car Park) dig it. Dune Rats‘ shambolic banter covers bongs and lads on tour but it doesn’t quite mask the fact they’re clearly a switched on band. Kid Mac follows to a very appreciative response although the tits out for the boys chant at the end missed the mark a bit. No tits were shared.

Hermitude kill it, of course.

Hermitude prior to the Aussie BBQ

Hermitude prior to the Aussie BBQ

At an official “networking session” earlier that day I stare at my non-networking brain in the face. I love a good conversation about music and industry issues but the blind date aspect of this kind of work doesn’t come naturally. There’s a guy sitting beside me reeling off all of his different industry interests, it happens to include writing a music biz course for Harvard. I think this is when I was staring at myself in the brain. Jeremy Stones, manager of Delta Riggs runs through a crapload of sync activity for his band and impresses the whole table. I start to think I should’ve elaborated on “my name is Tim Levinson and I manage Hermitude” when it was my turn earlier. I look around at the many people I don’t know and smile before heading out to put some posters up around the streets.

No one seems to poster here and I haven’t been pulled up for it. I keep waiting for some kind of violently heavy handed response from cops or over-zealous citizen as it’d at least explain the lack of posters.

After the Aussie BBQ we drank the tequila and consumed the Mexican with Mama Kin and her band including Bree Van Reyk who I was lucky enough to tour with last year. Tomorrow we catch a bus back to London.

Better To Be Different Than Merely Good

I’m currently racing through the British countryside on a fast train en route to Liverpool with my good friends Hermitude and our production manager Luke Snarl. We’re here because Hermitude have been invited to showcase at The Great Escape Festival in Brighton as well as Liverpool Soundcity. There’s also a headline London show and a gig in Berlin plus a stack of meetings for me, their manager.

Yesterday was a blur that started at 3am in Sydney and finished in London after a long haul flight. We prepaid $987 of additional luggage and found out we only needed a third of it when we checked in.

Once on the flight I employed my zen mind control to avoid getting up even once in the 14 fucking hours to Dubai. I was seated in the middle but that doesn’t explain me suspending normality. After a refresh at Dubai airport I preceded to achieve the exact same feat on the 7 ½ hours to London. I’m a robot.

Image

After 25 hours in the air we’re to expect massive delays at customs says the inflight news.

We settled into London with a kebab and realised our imminent departure to Liverpool was in question due to invalid train tickets (wrong name, wrong credit card). We could replace them but it’d cost $600. Fortunately, and just as we almost coughed up over the phone, I took a chance on talking to the train staff at the station. We were in luck and all it cost me was an £8 bunch of roses.

Liverpool! I’d never thought of it as a destination but it’s a beautiful old town and every cabbie lined up a Lime St Station looked like an ageing football hooligan. At this stage the EPL title was in their grasp and I’d counted at least four separate panels at this music conference that were either partly or solely focused on football. One of them basically a rundown of the current season.

Image

Ken Dodd looks on dubiously at Hermitude.

The extroverted Liverpudlian accent sprang up from all directions and I love it. The accent has an upward inflection that feels like the curling tone of a question embedded in general conversation: as if stowed away in the wrong sentence. We wander along cobblestone streets and drink pints and lousy coffee. At £2.40 each, the mixed bag of coffees are almost $5 a cup. My habitual love addiction will bite me over and over on this trip.

The best talk I saw at Soundcity was given by Thurston Moore who made some interesting points about his journey from coming up in the ’80s to dealing with modern technology.

Image

Thurston Moore being interviewed by a guy under an ad for Jagwar Ma

He told the story of Sonic Youth supporting Neil Young in ’91, when Moore gave Young’s manager a Nirvana tape to consider for the final support slot. Nirvana had just released Bleach and had passed on a tape of songs that would eventually become Nevermind. His motivation was partly selfish as Sonic Youth wanted to have some friends on the tour (an instinct proven right when they were booed off stage each night). This live video Neil Young shot on the tour explains a fair bit. The manager knocked Nirvana back in favour of some band only Thurston recalled. As a sidenote, Young’s first choice for the main tour support was Public Enemy. My thoughts jump to Paul Kelly asking me to support him last year – and while it’s not as radical as PE supporting Neil Young – it brought to mind how rarely these ideas happen. I would’ve loved nothing more than to see that Neil Young crowd deal with PE.

Years earlier, in 1983, Paul Smith from Mute picked Sonic Youth up, promising them they could be as big as The Birthday Party. “Back then that may as well have been The Rolling Stones to us, it was massive, but in retrospect it’s comical”. I have no sense of the Birthday Party’s impact beyond connecting the dots backward, but it gives an insight into the buzz that must have surrounded them at the time.

Moore summed up Sonic Youth as a group that underpinned the mainstream rather than competing in it; something that resonated with me. Despite the contempt commonly held for mainstream culture, it’s still where most of us go looking for preeminent artists. On a micro level the public conversation we have around an act like 360 or Illy is far louder than that of, say, Tornts. It means that the former receives far more attention but does it mean that their art is superior? It’s an old discussion but perhaps there can be no Illy without the likes of Tornts providing the foundation that gives the acts on the surface their context. We’re not yet at the stage of US hip hop where the major acts are the pop cultural icons of our time.

In my eyes Sonic Youth have dipped into the mainstream more often than most bands – their rise coincided with a period of time that saw their subversive songwriting as an antidote to what came before. But like the majority of all artists that shoot to global acclaim, it’s a wild but ultimately temporary experience. It may not vanish entirely but more often than not they’re left to forge a career on the fringes of that blinding spotlight. Or just become crap or break up. The latter often due to the tendency to feel like anything less than that early success is a crushing failure.

There are some mainstream artists in Australia that inspire us forward but the majority create polished but conservative music. In a talk the following day, John Cale reflected on the Velvet Underground having been more interested in being different than being good. While simply being different is not a means to an end at least it aspires to something unexplored rather than unintentionally shooting for satisfactory. I worry about my own role in this.

Image

Hermitude with Luke Snarl in the middle

Tomorrow Hermitude play their first showcase.

 

Don’t Let It Go

When this happened I was bugged out that we were putting our big naval fleet up against asylum seekers in small boats. The language was militaristic, the information was tightly controlled: it seemed bloody obvious we were being taken for a ride at a hefty price. Even though offshore detention has been loudly criticised, I’m not sure a lot of people comprehended just how bad it could be. One centre is in Nauru, described as effectively a dictatorship. Another is Manus Island, with a population a bit smaller than Wagga Wagga. I don’t need to repeat what’s been written elsewhere but suffice to say that prospects for both asylum seekers and locals give little cause for hope.

I started writing to Jaytee’s remix of Sietta’s Let It Go without telling them, settling on a 16 bar verse and 16 bar chant-chorus. Then Manus Island happened and I scrapped the chant and wrote a second 16 bar verse, adding bridge/outro ideas.

I called my brother Matt for advice on getting a video done and we both brought up Dan Ilic’s name. Although I’ve never worked with Dan before, he was instantly on board and had access to footage he shot in Afghanistan. I asked him to drop by the studio where I was recording, partly to get him energised to actually follow through but little did I know he’d already done the bulk of the editing. He rocked up with a camera and jumped in the booth to record as I was putting down vocals. In the end he turned the whole thing around in little more than 48 hours. For free. Legend.

A little over 10 years ago The Herd released 77%, written by Ozi Batla. Nothing has changed. We’re riddled with xenophobia and it’s crippling our ability to produce a humane and sustainable policy around the arrival of people seeking asylum.

Follow Asher Wolf for the most bullshit free insight into what’s going on.

Lyrics

Treated like soft invading hordes
Part of a descending force
Nothing that the navy can’t sort
We don’t want to know about the
men and the women and the children on board
Don’t fix it block it that’s the logic
We watch with our hands in our pockets
Drop the access, stop the facts, get Morrison
To come in with a chopping axe head
That’s in our name now
Even though it’s really more of the same now
Here we are again don’t you think it’s funny how
What these ministers about when they choose to go the same route
Not our problem like fuck you world you solve em
International security is what we told em
The big grey warship towered the little boat
Big spend for the big vote yoyo
Put em on a one way trip to Manus
Throw a billion on the boatloads make em vanish
Wash the blood off our hands that inflict the damage
We can pretend we care when our hearts are savage
If they react and they riot
Even if they’re attacked in the dead of the night
Either way they’re the villain we don’t want em in sight
Too bad look the loss of a life
You’ll be sent nowhere and you might die
We don’t care about your back story don’t try
77% of us abide by being more brutal
We get what you want with a roaring approval
Act like that doesn’t leave a stain
What is being done in our name is inhumane
Says a lot about us and Australia’s shame
Fuck you if you don’t feel the same

This is how we let it go just turn your back
This is how we let it go when we don’t have your back

We’ve got a problem with some refugees
Better bring the military in
Operational, we can’t tell a soul
We’ve got a problem with some xenophobic fucks
Shake em down, wake em up
Take em down, pull em up

 

6 Things I Learned at Field Day 2014

1. My wife and I joined the hordes of topless buff blokes, and matching ladies sideboob & shortshorts. I learned that we would’ve fit in perfectly if not for our pram and baby.

Artist impression

Artist impression

2. Once an exclusive dance and electro event, I learned that Field Day is anything but in 2014. The final 4 acts on the main stage were: Hermitude, A$AP Rocky, Wiz Khalifa and Flume. Hats off to Fuzzy for a caj atmosphere backstage and yet another huge NYD.

I googled field day photos. I dunno, maybe this was the first one Fuzzy did?

A lot has changed since the 1st Field Day in 1874

3. I learned that squillionaire Skrillex keeps it real by raiding artists’ riders backstage. Maybe he defaulted on his spaceship repayments?

4. Standing on your mate’s shoulder, pulling your pants down and wanking in the middle of a 10000 strong mainstage crowd is the new titty flash? I didn’t learn anything here.

Hermitude Field Day 1/1/14

Hermitude Field Day 1/1/14

5. Some of their peers have more fame, more sales and more fans but none of em want it with Hermitude‘s live show. I learnt that no one can fuck with em, still.

Took this back to the lab, added a filter and some photography technical stuff you probably don't know about.

Took this back to the lab, added a filter and some photography technical stuff. It’s complicated.

6. A$AP Rocky, due on stage, stops and comments on how “adorable” my baby Jetta is. I learnt there’s nothing like a baby to shake out the staunch.

Orphan Rocker – Live at The Recital Hall

Recorded during our support of Paul Kelly’s Spring and Fall Tour in 2013. We recorded our set at Sydney’s City Recital Hall in August and packaged it with a 20 page booklet containing my tour diary. It’s a beautiful limited edition CD – once it’s gone we won’t be repressing it – preorder here.

The 4 Stages of a Banksy Piece (NYC 2013)

Luckily there was an "abandoned" block in the densely populated lower east side of Manhattan

Luckily there was an abandoned block in the densely populated lower east side of Manhattan

Stage 1 involves the discovery of one of Banksy’s #banksyny series.

"I don't know art but I know what I like"

“I don’t know art but I know what I like”

Stage 2: A crowd gathers and takes photos. All day. A local cafe puts up a sign “Banksy drinks coffee here”.

Art lovers or auto wreckers looking for spare car parts?

Auto wrecking art lovers

Stage 3: Rip that shit off.

Like it never happened. Care and temporary wall mysteriously disappear.

Car + wall disappear revealing a private car park like the whole thing never happened.

Stage 4: Fortunately, someone efficiently disposes of everything as if the whole thing was meticulously organised – less than a week after it emerged. Local cafe changes sign to ‘Banksy is a fake’. Kinda like this.

Jimblah

I heard about Jimblah through a good mate BVA from Mnemonic Ascent years ago. For those who don’t know, BVA is a dope producer, rapper and lyricist who had a little studio in his house in Adelaide, while he cared for his grandmother in the attached granny flat. The Herd reluctantly toured Adelaide in those days because we’d be playing to 800 people in Sydney and Melbourne, only to scratch our heads as a trickle of Adelaide’s finest would make for a sparse venue. Hard to justify when you’re flying 10 people around. We did, however, look forward to hooking up with BVA for the odd studio session so there were never any regrets. Actually that’s a lie – we had band members who swore blind never to return to South Australia. We did though, many times.

BVA worked with Jimblah in a kind of mentoring role, and this is one of the first songs I heard that made me really take notice in 2006 or so.

The moment Jimblah stopped me in my tracks was with his debut album Face the Fire – it’s undeniably underrated, but it’s arguably a classic. I clearly remember driving around Adelaide airport dropping a hire car off after unloading the band to check-in, tears welling up in my eyes as I played the title track – and its heartbreaking outro. I was struck by how good it was. How on Earth was this record not being talked about, everywhere? That moment set off a chain of events that included Jimblah enthusiastically agreeing to join up with Elefant Traks; Pegz being magnanimous enough to allow us to sign him despite a contract with Obese Distribution in place; and us re-releasing Face the Fire. Here it is in full:

 
He’s been productive ever since. He brought that distinctive warm strained soul to Glimpses and On Your Shoulders on my most recent album Smokey’s Haunt.

Then took The Tongue to a new level with his part in the push and pull of Victory from his 2013 album Surrender to Victory.

After he signed off on the mixes of his album mid 2013 he flew to Sydney, dropping into triple j to cover Matt Corby‘s Resolution. By flipping some of the lyrics he completely recontextualised the song in a manner consistent with the single-minded focus and dedication he’s shown on his new album Phoenix.

The following month saw Horrorshow‘s third album King Amongst Many land at #2 on the national charts with a brilliant collection of songwriting and production. One of the most memorable songs on the album is Own Backyard, the collaboration with Jimblah – a stunning match of mood and lyrics with a showstopping verse from Solo and a heartfelt chorus from Jimblah that knocks it out of the park. A future classic.

And at last, the follow-up to that incredible debut album is almost upon us, with this beautiful video and haunting introduction to Phoenix.

I know I write more words than is maybe necessary. Sometimes I find it hard to encapsulate just how much this music means to me. It feels so important not just as works of art, but in the insights it provides as we seek to understand ourselves. His posts on his facebook page are an accurate reflection of the way optimism and turmoil have to slug it out. It’s honest, like his music. The entire world should pull up the handbrake and stop to listen to artists like Jimblah. But if that’s unfeasible, then at least you should.

Jimblah’s album Phoenix comes out October 11 through Elefant Traks.

True Tears of Joy

Sometime in late 2012 I happily received a call from Paul asking if I’d produce a song he’d been asked to do for the upcoming Hunters and Collectors tribute compilation. I said yes before the soundwave had properly entered my ear canal. The straggling second half of his question was still weaving past the wax on my eardrum after I’d started making plans.

The song was True Tears of Joy and he had Emma Donovan in mind as a collaborator. I knew it’d be better if Jimblah joined in too.

Jimblah. Pic by Dave Stefanoff

Jimblah. Pic by Dave Stefanoff

My only condition was that it wasn’t going to be anything like a Paul Kelly song, which I suspect is what he wanted to hear.

The first call I made was to one of my favourite cohorts Elgusto, producer of half of my solo albums and better known as one half of Hermitude. We had a preliminary session with Paul at the Elefant Mansion coinciding with his visit to help induct Yothu Yindi into the ARIA Hall of Fame. After playing a few electronic artists on youtube it was agreed we’d work with textures that took it as far away from classic PK as possible – without losing the essence of True Tears.

There are multiple audiences here – Hunnas fans, Paul’s fans and our own ears. If we go all out electronic we might make Paul’s voice jarring and incongruent. If we stay safe and close to the original we risk being red brick bored at the pointlessness of it all.

Emma Donovan

Emma Donovan

Emma is an incredible vocalist and Gusto and I felt that she’d be perfect for a soulful treatment – her voice is layered and rich with character. Jimblah is like crackling smoke if there were such a thing, and his flow is endlessly listenable.

Then you have Paul Kelly.

Gusto and I hooked up to work on the beat and he manned the boards, programming and playing the melodies – the producer in a hip hop sense. I was steering the direction, overseeing all aspects – a producer in a more classic sense.

Finally the session went down. Vibes were great in The Cave, Hermitude’s studio above Parramatta Rd in Leichhardt. Jimblah wrote a new verse on the spot, did a few takes and nailed it. He perfectly complimented Emma’s verse in backing vocal duties. Emma was a joy to work with – she adlibbed a range of little grabs that we pitch-shifted and incorporated into the song (you can hear them throughout).

Song Selfie!

Song Selfie!

Originally Emma did two verses to Paul and Jimblah’s one but I was a little concerned about the pace and flow. We worked on the song a little more before I got the courage up to ask Paul if we could remove the third verse altogether. Lyrically I couldn’t make much sense of it so I wasn’t concerned about sacrilege of compromising Hunter’s artistic vision – but songs are weird, man. There may be a profound meaning I’m missing and anyway, who am I to deliberately break something so important on loan?

Paul took it on board, tentatively agreeing, and taking on the task of asking Mark Seymour. It turns out Mark had discarded that verse in his live shows long ago and was completely cool about us doing the same. Mind blown.

Were you there?

Were you there?

The final piece of the puzzle was Mitch Kenny mixing the damn thing. Our instructions were to reel the electronics back in and make it thump a little less. Yep, what the fuck indeed. During the course of retelling this song we had to keep coming back to our original goal of it making sense sonically. Nothing was going to change the vibe (especially when it comes after The Living End in the tracklist!) but the treatment of the kick and snare and the proximity of the vocals to the bass and synths were crucial in finding the right balance. I don’t know how Mitch did it. I was still uncertain when we sent it to him but I wasn’t when he sent it back. Dude is good.

We did it.

It’s worth a listen.

Paul Kelly and Emma Donovan featuring Jimblah – True Tears of Joy

Crucible came out Friday Sept 27 through Liberation. It features covers from Alpine, Cloud Control, The Rubens, Matt Corby, Missy Higgins and more.

Jimblah’s debut album Phoenix comes out October 11.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 53 other followers