A full page feature on New Weird Australia in The Brag magazine, previewing the Sydney gig featuring Paint Your Golden Face (pictured), Alps, Caught Ship and Karoshi. If nothing else, the article proves once and for all that swearing is cool. ‘Fart’, however, is borderline.
Stu Buchanan’s name is unfamiliar to most, but he could be one of Australia’s most important champions of innovative music. After a three year stint as the general manager of FBi Radio he moved on to a new role, but his heart stayed in the same place – wrapped tight around the eclectic sounds of a subculture that hides in our country’s far-spread nooks and crannies. In May of 2008, Stu launched a free digital compilation series called New Weird Australia – a thoughtfully curated exploration of original ideas, challenging sounds, sublime atmospherics and experimental pop. Volume Five of N.W.A has just been released, with a showcase of new music planned for Saturday night. I called him up to talk about what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and where it’s all going.
“New Weird Australia is a not-for-profit initiative that’s designed to support experimental Australian music,” Stu explains. “Anybody pushing their genre or cross-genre to somewhere new, experimental and interesting; so ‘weird’ as in, unusual and unexpected and innovative.” Kind of sounds like he’s talking about a straight hour of unlistenable nu-wave art-noise but thankfully, the compilations are surprisingly engaging. “If you call something experimental, people immediately assume it’s going to be too difficult or inaccessible for them to be able to just sit down and enjoy. But when people get exposed to it, invariably the opposite is true.”
By trawling through the vast array of new “weird” music popping up in basements, bedrooms, warehouses and websites, Stu and the project’s co-curator, Danny Jumpertz of innovative artist-run label Feral Media, have filtered out some of the best in interesting Australian sounds – Kyu, Karoshi, No Art and Ghoul amongst others. By offering them up on a free digital album, the aim is simple: “It’s not to say, ‘hey people, we should all be making experimental music’ – that stuff has always existed. The aim is to try and put it all into a different context that’s slightly more accessible.”New Weird Australia, and the FBi Radio show of the same name, is also a way of bridging the geographic divide that separates different artists who seem to be working towards the same goal.
Power in numbers, people – Australia is a difficult country for local bands to crack. Whether it’s a cultural cringe, tall poppy syndrome or a simple long-ingrained reverence for anything that comes from overseas, we just aren’t paying as much attention to what’s going on around us. Stu agrees: “It’s like this tidal wave from Europe and America that just overcomes anything that’s happening here, and I just don’t understand it… You know, for every fucking Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear, there’s a band here that’s better.” Arriving here only seven years ago from the UK, Stu has a cross-cultural comparison to throw in. “There’s this weird thing in Australia where anything international is rarified in some way; it’s put on a pedastal that just doesn’t exist in the UK. The UK celebrates its own at least as much as it celebrates stuff from overseas – but here the equilibrium seems kind of strange.”
Buchanan thinks it could have something to do with the Australian music industry itself. It’s true that for the most part, the past string of ARIA winners haven’t done much to advance our standing as a global player in innovative, exciting music – and Lisa Mitchell’s recent win of the $30,000 AMP award has been decried by many as a triumph of mediocrity. “If we look at any band that we consider to be truly influential in a really kind of creative and interesting way in Australian music, they’ve never been celebrated,” Stu says. “Severed Heads, for example. Probably one of the most innovative bands to influence electronic music in the world… But here in Australia, they’re relatively invisible and to me that’s criminal. Those guys in particular should be in a hall of fame.”
Perhaps it also comes down to our isolation. In order to push something overseas from Australia, you have to invest a lot – and to be comfortable investing, you have to be sure it will work, right? “You’re right, and I think that model has been true for a while – but it’s changing!” He explains that the network of people he’s focused on aren’t actually working within the traditional operating systems, distribution networks or the mainstream press. “We exist outside of it, and because we exist outside of it we’ll always survive. People say, ‘if you want to play SxSW you have to go through this guy, and go here, and do that’ and it’s like – fuck that. We’ll find another way. All those old paradigms are no longer dominant.”
Stu takes a refreshingly hopeful view of the present and the future – in particular, of the pressures artists are under; economic downfall, filesharing technology and reactionary copyright laws to name a few. “The minute you put a barricade up against somebody, it’s an invitation for them to try and route around it. The more barriers you put up, the more creative people become… so I think in some ways you’ve gotto be grateful for the idiot stance of the record companies in the late 90s – they’ve given us a great gift!”
New Weird Australia has recently joined the ranks of the international Free Music Archive – an interactive library of legal downloads begun by WFMU, and curated by left-field tastemakers worldwide. I ask what’s planned for the future. “The next compilation is going to be very genre specific, which will help us take a bit of a refresh. And, unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been watching what we’re doing, one of the next steps will be to set up our own label. We want to kick that off this year for sure…”
Meantime, the message is clear. “Yeah, there are all those overseas bands, and yeah they’re hip, and every time they fart they’ll get an interview about it. Of course those guys are good at what they do – but just around the corner, at a warehouse three blocks away from you, there’s something going on that’s better.”