On A New Banjo EP

I’m releasing an EP on Friday!

It’s with the Backyard Banjo Club, a collaborative project that I started a couple of years ago with my friend Phoebe. We’ve been friends for over ten years, met at uni, and played in a bunch of bands together before she moved overseas.  

She came back around the start of COVID, which just happened to be when I bought a second-hand banjo from Cash Converters.  I had big dreams of learning clawhammer, but I found the banjo much more intuitive played as a chunk chunk trad jazz thing. Phoebe’s a great violin player, and an awesome singer, so we connected mainly so I could practice my jazz chops. As most often happens with projects I’m involved with, it moved from being a covers thing to an original thing, and here we are three years later.  

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On Low Stress Holidays

I spend a lot of my time entertaining silly ideas, and this last one was one of my silliest.

There’s a company that does campervan relocations. You get a free campervan, if you’re willing to drive it where the company wants it driven, and if you’re flexible so you can hit the dates they require.

I’d been thinking about a holiday somewhere warm over the July school holidays, so when I looked on the website my first hope was a trip from Melbourne across the Nullarbor, up the west coast and ending in Broome.

Nothing available, so I briefly entertained a four day jaunt from Hobart to Melbourne, ferry transport included. I realised that sleeping in a van in Tasmanian winter would be uncomfortable at best.

Option three was a five day trip from Cairns to Brisbane, 19 hours of drive time along a stretch of coast I’ve never seen. I’ve done the Melbourne to Sydney jaunt at least thirty times over the last ten years, headed up to Brisbane ten times, gone so far as the Sunshine Coast, but never driven any higher up the coast. The company was also offering $250 in petrol vouchers which sweetened the deal, so I booked it in, and booked myself a flights from Melbourne to Cairns and a return from Brisbane to Melbourne.

At this point I had no itinerary in mind and I was in the middle of a Gusto tour that was sapping all my admin head space.

I outsourced the trip planning to ChatGPT.

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On the 400 Bones Single Tour

Gusto just finished our second big tour, an odd collection of ten sets in three states across just over a month.

We were touring to launch our new single ‘400 Bones’. It always feels a little weird to release singles as an instrumental band, it doesn’t really tie into the whole internet marketing machine – we can’t release lyric versions of our songs on Youtube, and if people hear our song in a random playlist they often struggle to find it again later (googling ‘clarinet, violin, uptempo song’ doesn’t really work).

For the most part instrumental song names are fairly arbitrary, check out any of the post-bop albums of the 1960s. Without lyrics, meaning is a little harder to parse, and I often find I’ll write a piece of music with a place-holder title (inst. funk 3) and attach a title to it later based on the feeling it evokes. I’ll occasionally write using a title as inspiration – ie ‘Anathema Anthem’ from Gusto’s first EP, and it’s a nice creative exercise, but at the end of the day does calling a song ‘Amelia’ give it further depth, or imbue it with a stronger back-story?

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On The Snow

We are at the snow.

It is way too warm inside, we had to turn the heater off last night and crack open the window to let most of the warm air out, and even then most of the band was half-naked, lying on top of blankets.

We arrived yesterday arvo, rolling out of bed at six am and driving eight hours through the mountains. I spent most of the drive reading my book, a biography of Leonard Cohen. We dropped the car off at Bullock’s Flat to catch the Skitube, a train that runs through a tunnel in the mountain. The train is decrepit, reminiscent of the old Connex trains of the early 2000s, plastic bucket seats with big scratch marks from generations of skier’s poles. The brochure tells us this train is a feat of Swiss engineering.

At the top of the mountain we see glorious white slopes and streams of skiers drifting in rows. Some of them are standing, many of them are not. We meet the festival team who tell us the snow is actually pretty shit and the ski lifts aren’t running yet, so anyone who is skiing has to walk up the slope for each run. As we stand in the carpark the band stomp into the sloshy snow that steams on the tarmac. I’m over-dressed, wearing two jumpers and a jacket and sweating my arse off.

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On Japanuary

After almost three years spent at home, drinking beers solo by the BBQ in the back park and thinking wistfully of busier times, this last month made up for the years of inaction.

It kicked off on Boxing Day with a two week, twelve date Gusto tour, followed by a blessed two days at home (mainly spent invoicing venues, tracking spreadsheets, attempting to scramble together lesson plans and wash off two weeks of grime). Then we flew to Japan.

Japan’s been on the cards for a while. Facebook memories informs I went there exactly ten years ago with my friend Steve, but time and I have done a pretty good job of wiping most of those experiences away. There were a couple of key Japanese phrases lodged in the old memory bank, arigato  – ‘thank you’, konichiwa – ‘hello’ and watashi wa baka na gaikokujin – ‘I’m a stupid foreigner’, as well as memories of Fuji-Q – an amusement park at the base of Mt Fuji that sports horrifying rollercoasters (enter my fear of heights) and a terrifying haunted house (enter my fear of everything else). There was a vague recollection that the ticket inspector on the shinkansen – bullet train would bow everytime he entered and exited a carriage (still true), and a lot of memories of sitting stark naked in an outdoor onsen – hot spring as snow powdered down around us, toasty bodies holding up frosty heads.

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On Touring With One Arm

My band Gusto Gusto just did a 4000 km two week round trip up and down the East Coast of Australia, playing twelve shows on the way with stops at Woodford Folk Festival. I went into the tour with a little trepidation – we had a couple of door deal shows that I had genuinely no idea what the turnouts would be, plus a handful of pub shows that I knew were going to be hard work.

With the birth of a new project you discard most of the successes of your previous projects. None of the fans of the myriad blues or folk or country acts that I’ve toured the country with are particularly interested in the new thing I’m doing, because for the most part they’re fans of the sum, not the parts.

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On How I Experience Life

Welcome back to the blog, it’s been a big old year since I’ve updated it, and there’s been a fair few things going on.

I’ve done a very small handful of solo gigs in the last year. Gigs are basically back to normal which is nice, but I haven’t felt any strong desire to play solo. I spent a ton of time during lockdown playing guitar on my own, and the thing I missed about music was sharing it with other people. I’ve still got an album to release, I just need to decide how it comes out, and carve myself out a couple of weeks of free time to promote it. If you’ve got any big bold ideas of where I should play and what format (solo? trio? full band with all nine people who played on the record?), feel free to message me.

The main thing I’ve been doing this year is teaching full-time, which was a great way to fill in time while lockdown was on and weekends were empty, but now that gig life is back to normal and national tours are starting to peak over the horizon I’m feeling a little over-committed. The plan is to cut back on teaching at the end of this year, though I’m not sure how much to cut back and what to drop, because I love everything I’m doing right now.

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On The Return of Live Music

I have a band called Casabella. A group of friends who get together seven or eight times a year to play a gig. It’s incredibly loose, to the point that the band has been around for over ten years and is literally on its hundredth iteration.

It started as a background jazz band, playing a weekly gig at an Italian restaurant in a shopping centre. We got the gig via Myspace, when a chef at the restaurant found our nascent social media presence and called us up. A one-off gig turned into a Friday night residency that carried on for seven years. The deal was simple – $100 each and a pizza for three hours of low volume jazz.

Over time the low volume component became the most important part of the gig. We were regularly asked to turn down, at least three or four times a night. I started leaving my sticks at home and just turning up with brushes. Then I started cutting my kit down – ditching the toms, ditching the cymbals, eventually buying a smaller kit – an 18” kick, snare and ride cymbal. One gig I forgot my kick drum at home and no-one noticed. If anything it probably made the gig better.

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On Normalcy

Back into the swing of it. It appears life is accelerating to normalcy at a much faster rate than expected. A much faster rate than hoped to be honest. I was ready for another couple of weeks rolling out of bed at 8.30 am, but it wasn’t to be. The government has decided we’re back to it on Friday and suddenly I’m staring down the barrel of getting out of bed, putting on actual pants and riding my bike to the various schools I teach at. Wild.

I’ve also booked some gigs. What a concept. I had one day of productivity a couple of weeks ago where I emailed a venue I’ve played at for years to see how their opening up was going, and next thing I knew they’d booked me in for two gigs. Then another venue emailed me to reschedule a cancelled gig from July and suddenly I’ve got two rehearsals this weekend for two gigs the next weekend. Ludicrous.

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On Ongoing Priorities

I can feel the first breaths of summer. It’s been a long monotonous winter, another one to tie into last year’s where we thought it could never get worse. Turns out it could get worse, we could do the exact same thing again but without the novelty that got us through the first one.

To be fair, I’ve been pretty happy this lockdown. I’ve got enough on my plate to keep the weeks rolling past. I’ve been exercising and eating well and spending enough time catching up with friends on the internet that I feel connected. I’ve been reading and listening to new music and doing practice, although not as much as I’d have liked to in hindsight. But that’s how it always is.

Steve told me the other day that this might be it. This might the last month of lockdown passivity we might ever live through. We might never be given this much free time in our adult lives again.

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