On India

I’m in India. Coughing my lungs out. I came down with something on the flight out of Melbourne and its been two days of searing headache, overheating body and gut-wracking coughs. Luckily we’re booked in to the second fanciest hotel in Cochin so I’ve spent the last 48 hours lying in the direct spray of the air-conditioner and ordering room service curry.

On the first morning we call in a doctor from the local hospital. He arrives in a pair of plastic Crocs and a business shirt, accompanied by a moustachioed nurse in a neat blue one piece uniform who carries an oversize briefcase. The nurse puts the briefcase down on the bedside table and it pops open, spilling papers and medical implements across the floor. He picks a thermometer off the carpet, wipes it off on his sleeve and gestures for me to slip it into my armpit.

The consultation is a comedy of misunderstandings. I’m new to India. New to the time-zone. New to the Indian head-wobble which answers every question. Are there any foods I should avoid? Wobble. Can I use the hotel pool? Wobble. Do I need any medicine? Wobble. Later I ask the hotel concierge what the head wobble means and he wobbles his head too. Mostly yes, sometimes maybe. The doctor writes down my weight as my age, then puzzles over how I can be seventy-one. We chuckle together when we realise the mistake, then I descend into a fit of coughing.

The doctor prescribes me six different medications and I’m reminded of Yemeni childhood, where doctors visits are deemed successful based on how much medicine you take home and how impressive the medicine looks. Where I’d probably recover on my own with rest and fluid, it’s assumed that I’ve called the doctor because I want results and I’m left with paper bags full of legitimate horse-sized pills in florid colours: extract of ginseng and garlic plus antibiotics plus paracetamol plus a mysterious looking cough syrup that tastes lightly of tea and slides deliciously down my throat, coating everything in a viscosity that I cough up a couple minutes later. Along with the medicine I receive a stern list of instructions: no showers, no milk, no swimming, no cookies, no spicy foods, and an admonishment to only drink hot water for the next five days. The culmination of my treatment is when the nurse receives a phone call and disappears downstairs to reappear with a nebuliser a smoking machine attached to a face mask that he straps to my face. Breathe deeper, he admonishes as I puff out small strands of smoke. We sit in a silent circle for twenty minutes until he appears satisfied and then puzzles the tangle of cables, medicines and papers back into his briefcase.

Getting to India itself was a comedy of sorts, from a wild sprints to the wrong gate at KL airport and an attempt to pull myself up straight and not cough as I show off my boarding pass. When I was seventeen I almost got detained in KL airport. It was a thirty-hour transit from Kenya to Australia as part of my final year of boarding school and I came down with the flu in the airport. I wandered into the in-airport medical centre to wrangle some Panadol and was seen by a kindly Malaysian nurse who told me if she referred me to the doctor I’d have to skip my next flight and stay in a hotel until I was well enough to fly. I backed out of the medical centre and disappeared into the throng of flyers browsing duty free.

Indian immigration is a line of neatly coiffured moustachioed men seated in a row, making decrees on the plight of the foreigners before them. In a remarkably comfortable scenario each desk is fronted by a large lounge chair lifted straight from the 1970s and I laze back as my officer fills a stack of forms, questioning his colleague between every line. It’s a lackadaisical affair, made comical by the fact none of them seem to be working from the same playbook. Part of the process is scanning fingerprints and each officer approaches it differently. Mine accepts a thumbprint from each hand, while the guy next to me appears to be scanning both hands at once. A couple rows down the officer is standing up, leaning over the desk and physically pushing an old ladies’ fingers in to the machine, squishing them down with one hand and slapping his computer keyboard with the other.

An Indian man energetically taps my testicles with a metal detector. “Part of the job” he chuckles and stamps my boarding pass. He eyes me off as I step down from the wooden box all airport attendees are required to mount as they pass security clearance and then asks: “Australian?” I nod and he responds, “oh the fires, very sad, so many animals dead.”

It’s a weird talking point, one that pops up constantly through this trip, from the hotel concierge to the taxi driver to the man who serves up steaming muttar paneer on our final dinner. At first I’m amazed: the news of the Australian bushfires is particularly current in India (cue giant billboards on the drive from Cochin airport depicting crying koalas and flaming trees), but it’s the loss of animal life that every conversation settles on. I wonder at the media landscape that pushes this part of the conversation to prominence. Maybe it’s the Hindu conception of the sacrality of life and the concept of losing millions of animal lives in one month of natural disaster seems to resonate.

Then its days of floating. Free from commitment. Free from worry. Free from the rigour and routine that flood my daily life. I can afford to float between an early lunch and a late dinner with no real plans. Everything is a brief taxi ride away and if you’re hungry on the way there’s delicious food adorning every street corner. There’s a beauty to the break in routine. There’s a beauty to the chaos of traffic where two lanes fit five streams of traffic. There’s a beauty to walking home each night to find the same white cow pulling rubbish from the same street side bin. There’s a beauty to the clamour and the brief moments of calm.

On Sunsets

It’s been a year of pretty sunsets, spread across a hundred different places. I’d love to say I make a habit of taking time to watch the sun set, pausing as it dips below the horizon, but the reality is that the only times I catch it in the act are when someone else points it out to me. Too often my attention is drawn towards the humdrum daily thoughts that flood my mind as I’m lost within the confines of human habitation.

The sunsets that have stood out this year have been enjoyed in the company of others and have spanned the entire year, starting in late January performing on the South Island of New Zealand at Luminate Festival with Hello Tut Tut. The festival was a booze-free, meat-free affair, six whole days spent in luxurious presentness (mostly deep within a book if I have to be honest) and embracing heavy beats whilst meeting musicians from as far afield as Denmark, the US and Brunswick. I observed the sunset from a luxury yurt in the artist’s camp and then wandered to the site office to ask for a spare sleeping bag to weather the five degree night. By the third night I’d reconnoitred four spare sleeping bags and was sleeping in a veritable pile of duck down. These sunsets were spent on a vast plain in the midst of a state park, thousands of eyes turned North West to salute the sun as it disappears into the forest above the doof stage.

I went to Wilson’s Prom in November with a group of ex-housemates who excitedly plan hiking trips a couple of times a year and then complain their way through the actual days of walking. The celebrations start when the trekking finishes and we line up at the pub for a hearty meal and a beer. Then we talk about how much we enjoy hiking and how we can’t wait to do it again. When hiking, the sunset signals the end of activity, for we rely on light to function and to fight our fears (on a side note, a wombat ate a hole in our tent this trip). We eat slimy packages of dehydrated food in the dusk-light as the bushland fades to peace and retire to bed by eight pm.

I spent a particularly pretty sunset with my partner in Queenstown, New Zealand. It was the midst of winter and the towering mountains that surround the town caught the sun high up in the air as it set in giant shadows across the opposing mountainsides. It took several hours for the darkness to descend on the town and we wandered through the crisp clear air with a flurry of tourists and night shopping. The local ice-cream shop was a surprise hit, a trendy establishment with a line of almost a hundred patrons spiralling out the door and around the corner. A flock of ski-jacketed youngsters blow warm air into their gloves, waiting for scoops of rum and raisin while an enterprising busker attempts to pull the change from the wallets with pre-prepared dance moves against a pre-prepared beat.

There was the sunset that I drove into for almost two hours on my journey home from my Spring tour. I’d made the dubious choice of leaving Yamba in NSW at eight am and attempting to drive as far as home as I could before stopping. I drove for fourteen hours and paused in Canberra for dinner, then decided to push on for the last six hours. By this point it was just past six o’clock and the sun was a hand-span above the horizon and I assumed it’d be gone soon. Instead it floated in my vision till almost eight, burning small glowing holes in my retinas and leaving a sunburnt strip between where my sunglasses end and my moustache begins.

My sixth grade science teacher told me that sunsets are more magnificent when the air is polluted, but of course it has to be some sort of sliding scale. Too much air pollution (ala Beijing, or Sydney circa December 2019) and the sun disappears completely, replaced by the orange wash of smog. Too little pollution and the sun is a perfect ball, slowly being lowered from its zenith to the encroaching horizon. Shades of The Cyrkle’s Red Rubber Ball abound, a song that had always felt wildly familiar, something about the cadence of the words just tickles a certain itch. Of course I found out recently it was written by Paul Simon, which makes total sense.

In some inane attempt to get in touch with my childhood I’ve been reading Wilfred Thesiger’s book ‘Arabian Sands’, a meandering memoir of his time spent exploring Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter, a massive desert that covers parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and The Emirates) in the 1940s. While many parts of the book feel problematic, I’m attempting to view it through a lens of the time period (remnants of European Colonialism, Capitalism and WWII conspire in an uneasy mix). One particular passage stood out:

“When moved, Arabs break easily into poetry. I have heard a lad spontaneously describe in verse some grazing which he had just found: he was giving natural expression to his feelings. But while they are very sensible of the beauty of their language, they are curiously blind to natural beauty. The colour of the sands, a sunset, the moon reflected in the sea: such things leave them unmoved. They are not even noticed. When we returned from Mughshin the year before, and had come out from the void of the desert on to the crest of the Qarra range and looked again on green trees and grass and the loveliness of the mountains, I turned to one of them and said, ‘Isn’t that beautiful!’ He looked, and looked again, and then said uncomprehending, ‘no – it is rotten bad grazing.’ ”

I wonder at this reality, for I feel I often do the same, albeit from a viewpoint of heedless distraction rather than a pragmatic sensibility. But isn’t that always the way? We live in the shadow of the moment, relying on occasionally being shaken out of comfort zone to notice the beauty that lies around us.

On Life Balance

The year pulls into its last couple of stops with a screech and a scream of brakes. I’ve felt a build up of pressure, beginning somewhere around March and building building building non-stop till now. It’s been a frantic year of juggling a million commitments and a billion other things that I’ve wanted to do instead. The balance has been totally off, I’ve neglected most of the important things in favour of whatever has wandered into my vision and I’m excited to now finally have the space and time and energy to put towards the things that need it.

I’ve been dwelling on the idea of ‘holding space’. The term has been popping up a lot recently, first in a therapy context where one person commits their full attention/energy/consciousness to another’s needs. It has also popped up around various hippie festivals and, more recently, jazz gigs. I’ve been examining the idea of holding space for yourself and wondering what that looks like to me on a daily basis.

An interesting aspect of growing older is slowly getting more in touch with myself, recognising both aspects of my own psyche that I’ve probably always known but never physically acknowledged and things that I haven’t realised about myself that are slowly bubbling to the surface. I recognise that I’m highly driven, very self-motivated and excited about being included in other people’s projects, and that this means I often over commit. So to hold space for myself I need to first create space in my life and then attempt to inhabit it.

This is good in theory but so so hard in practice as the loudest parts of my personality are firing “go go go, got to be involved, got to be acknowledged”, whilst somewhere in the background the introvert me is whispering “hey, why don’t you take a year off and disappear into a book”. The healthiest option is obviously to combine these two aspects and live a fulfilling life of moderation but instead I veer wildly between the two. Every year around this time I disappear into a ‘book coma’, where I pull about twenty books off the bookshelf and lie in bed for a week, refusing to engage with the world. Notable book comas in my life include my teenage years where I read all seven Harry Potter books in seven days and last year where I read three notoriously dark books (Eggshell Skull, Normal People and No Friend But The Mountain) in a yurt on the South Island of New Zealand and then collapsed in a heap of despair. This all ties back into my childhood where I used to practice a form of escapism by reading and re-reading three of Enid Blyton’s kids mystery thrillers and imagine rolling green hills and doorsteps of bread covered in lashings of butter while peering out the window at the warm dusty streets of Yemen. Suffice it to say, once I start reading a book I find it very hard to stop until the book is complete and I compensate by speed reading and neglecting the outside world. If I allow myself to read when something important is occurring in life, the important thing gets ignored. But if I don’t let myself read I get sucked into an introvert’s nightmare of constant outward attention and no introspection.

Turns out the human existence is complex hey?

My most recent idea is to replace social media with book reading, so every time I think about checking Facebook or Instagram I instead read a page of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (which I got to via Eric Hansen’s Motoring with Mohammed, the next book I’m interested in is Lawrence of Arabia’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I’m slowly making my way back through a particular examination of the world’s largest expanse of sand, Rub’ Al Khali from the white European point of view). The idea is good in practice but I tend to check social media first thing in the morning and this week I skipped both breakfast and my morning shower and was almost late to the last day of school because I was attempting to finish David Byrne’s brilliant book ‘How Music Works’. Not sure if the balance is right yet.

Luckily, after tonight’s gig I have zero commitments until the end of Jan (other than a couple of thousand emails), so I can feel a book coma coming on, and it’s going to be a big one! I’ll tackle the life balance thing later.

On Tour Stories (part 2)

I’ve been thinking a bit more on stories I’ve gathered from the road. There’s been a lot of them. I’ve been touring seriously since around 2014, across a heap of different bands. I generally play around a hundred shows a year, some years more, some years less, but nearly every show has some sort of meaningful interaction that I take with me when I leave. The problem is remembering them, as my journaling is truly sporadic, verging between extremes of writing in my diary twice a day to a nine month period where I didn’t write at all.

There was the night in Katoomba where the pub was cleared by a man who excitedly leaned across the bar to order the next round of drinks. Accidently dipping his hair into a candle there was a flash of light, then an acrid cloud of smoke floating up towards the ceiling. The bar staff flicked up the house lights to see if he was ok and then the smell hit us in a wave. Literally one of the strongest things I’ve smelled, you could see the crowd on the dance floor lifting their heads and wrinkling their noses in disgust. In a mass exodus, the entire bar emptied out as everyone retreated to the smokers area outside for some fresh air. That was night over for us, the bar manager called last drinks and we got to pack out early.

There was the metalhead who heard one of our songs on the radio and excitedly decided to come out and see us play. ‘Yeah boys, really excited to hear you play, can you do that song about dying?’ So we played the song about dying as our first number and he sung along the whole way through then disappeared towards the back of the room. He reappeared one song later with a pint in each hand and yelled out ‘Yeah, play the one about dying again’. Dealing with hecklers is a fine art, and the finest part of it is often strategically ignoring people in the hope that they’ll go away, but old mate was one of about four people there and he stood solidly in front of stage and asked us to re-play that song literally after single song we played.

We got off stage and I was in a bit of a grumpy mood, so I strategically disappeared to the toilet. When I come back he is happily singing our song to the rest of the band. They were in a happier mood because he’d bought a round for the band, so we finished up and loaded our gear out and left him excitedly telling random punters that they missed a great show.

We thought this was the end of it, until we arrive back in that city about a year later, and he’s back. This time though he’s brought his entire extended family (a girlfriend, his brother, his brother’s partner, two random friends and his mum). They’d obviously been drinking for a while at that stage, but he makes a strong effort to introduce everyone to the band and tell us that he likes the new single, but he ‘really wants to hear that song about dying again’. Luckily we showed some foresight, so instead of blowing the one crowd favourite as the first song, we decide to keep it till later in the set. Cue him again, up front with a pint in each hand, enthusiastically yelling at us to play the song he knows. After about thirty minutes of this, the bouncers decide to cut him off and sit him on a park bench out the front of the venue. We play the song about dying to his mum, who gives us a thumbs up and then we load out the back door to avoid him.

There was northern NSW and sleeping in my car, down a back road twenty minutes out of town. The local petrol station has taken the initiative and flattened a square patch of ground behind the bowsers as a ‘free camping ground’. It’s basic, possibly even elemental, to the point where its actually just an open field with nothing in it. I wander into the petrol station to ask about using their toilet, an open bowl with no seat inside a wooden box with no taps, no lights and a spider literally the size of my face that doesn’t scurry away when I walk in by the light of my phone, but sits placidly on the back of the door and watches me do my business.

I walk back into the petrol station and strike up a conversation with the attendant. Anything to fill the time between a seven pm sundown and an honest bedtime, and lying in the back of my car reading books by the light of my phone gets pretty old pretty quickly on the road. We scamper in quick succession through small town life, his childhood, my childhood, my music, local town industry, the local footy team, breakfast options and finally stumble into a point of agreement with the latest season of Game of Thrones, swapping fan theories, dismissing directors and eyeing off the future of the story line. He excitedly tells me he’s just pirated the latest episode which I haven’t yet seen and asks if I want to watch it. At this point I’m well tired of conversation, so I agree and he disconnects the security camera from the in-store TV and plugs in his USB and we have a spontaneous GOT party, gathered around a little TV behind the counter in a petrol station out the back of nowhere.

There was supporting a high-profile female act at Port Fairy Folk Festival. She’s had a baby in the last year and is a little scattered as she’s in the midst of a national tour to release a new album as well as dealing with a new born baby and lack of sleep and breast-feeding at regular intervals.

She’s high-profile, but not quite high-profile enough to hire a nanny on the road, so her partner/manager tours with her to mind the baby while she performs and mind the business the rest of the time. Of course the baby experiences extreme separation anxiety when mum puts her down and walks on stage, and the backstage green room is filled with screams and a crowd of worried stagehands and musicians attempting to placate this little sobbing ball. Finally the manager takes the baby and walks to the side of stage, holding her out Lion King style towards her singing mum. The baby quiets and stares in wonder at the massive crowd before her.

Later I see the mum signing CDs at the merch tent, baby held in one hand, sharpie in the other.

I’ve been slowly dawdling my way back through five years of diaries, pulling out stories that I’d forgotten. It’s funny how fickle the memory is. Things that are massive deals in my life today slowly get their edges worn down over time and disappear into the bucket that is the past. Sometimes when I see old friends I get the chance to pull some old memories out of the bucket and twist and tease them back into shape, gnaw on them like buried bones, dissect how they made me feel and how they’ve impacted my life. I’ve always been pretty ‘forward-thinking’, more interested in the future than the past, often to the point that I ignore the present completely in favour of thinking about whats next. While I guess that’s a little more healthy than being consumed by where I came from, there’s definitely a fine balance and I’m probably weighted a little too heavily in one direction.

One day I’ll probably look back on this post in the same way…

On Tour Stories

It’s day three of this two week solo tour and everything starts to gain clarity.

It’s been a hectic start to the tour with three shows and around fifteen hours of driving. I’m feeling great emotionally, just tired and its starting to show in my daily routine, where every activity includes a little time for a power nap. So far I’ve napped before every show, napped roughly every three hours on the freeway, napped post-lunch, napped outside the library in Wagga (where I fell asleep in shade from the hot sun and woke to find bucketing hail). I’m getting remarkably good at closing my eyes, ticking off ten minutes and waking to a sense of peace. Think meditation but with a deeper dive than originally expected and occasional surfacing to find kids staring through the windows as I dribble down the steering wheel.

I wonder if this insistent napping is a sign of something below the surface, maybe a general life exhaustion borne not from burning the candle at both ends but from tossing the entire thing into the bonfire of running a small business and playing music and teaching part-time and also trying to be a creative being. But no, that couldn’t be it and introspection is for introverts, and I’m touring solo so I push all introspective tendencies to the background.

In normal life I don’t normally nap, although I often feel the urge. Tour life just allows me the freedom to succumb to it. Throw this into the mix of being an adult I guess.

I’ve come to realise that there’s a lot about touring that I love. Playing music is the main joy. Spreading music and practicing my live craft and experimenting with my songs in front of people. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails, but even on the worst gigs I’m generally getting joy from it, even if it’s a post-show wry chuckle at what went wrong. Other touring loves include: exploring new places, eating out most nights of the week, delving into Australia’s thriving craft beer subculture (I’ve been tempted for a long time to do a ‘beers I’ve tasted’ list), listening to endless streams of driving music, and finding park benches to devour books and nap.

But more than anything, it’s the people that I enjoy. I’ve got a small but growing network of people I have itinerant relationships with. People whose lives I dip into, borrow some anecdotes and important facts from and then disappear into the night. Over time these chance encounters re-emerge, the ‘emotional neural pathways’ (yes, I’ve been reading ‘Incognito’) get revisited and the bonds get stronger. There are people who I met ten years ago in some band that no longer exists who see I’m coming to town and shoot me a message to catch up. There are people who hang around after the gig and offer me a place to stay and music recommendations. There are people who send me messages weeks after I’ve been to town to carry on conversations we never completed. There are many people who I meet in once off encounters and may never see again, but the stories stick with me.

Here’s a couple of anecdotes, borrowed from the ether. I’ve changed some details to save some reputations and possible make the stories more compelling, but at the heart of each is a kernel of truth spurred by a late night conversation.

“My parents only had me cause they didn’t want my sister to grow up alone.”

A mumble from the bar amidst a literal pile of beer glasses. It’s closing time and the bar staff have piled all the empties in one long sopping line along the edge of the bar in an attempt to make him see that they want to close and go home, but he sits with a well-nursed pint clasped between both hands and eyes off the couple of stragglers who totter out the front door as I roll the last of my cables and throw them into my Bunnings bag.

I hesitate to dive headfirst into a conversation which I assume will be a) laborious at this time of night when all I want to do is pack up, drive five minutes out of town and have a deep sleep in the nearby caravan park and b) rambling as his tongue is well greased by the copious beer I’ve seen him consuming throughout the night. But I’m a glutton for punishment and it’s been a quiet night and I haven’t talked to anyone beside bar staff and service station attendants in almost three days. So I pull up a bar stool, armed with the knowledge I can call the bar staff to attention if I want to bail on the conversation. You develop conversation deflection tools when you spend your life amidst people who either don’t take social cues or are just so excited by new conversational fodder that they’ll chew the ear off anything.

It’s worse than I expect, a winding backroad ramble through some sixty years of life experience, beginning somewhere in the early 90s with a dubious career as a festival promoter (“I brought Nirvana to Australia man, that first Big Day Out was all my idea”) then wandering backwards to birth in Malta and a long boat ride at age three to Australia. Everything is tinged with a vague sense of sadness, and I wonder if it’s retrospect that’s making him sad or if he’s carried self-worth issues through from an early age. His opening comments make me suspect deep-seated worries inflicted upon him by external forces, and I understand it because worries bloom in the fertile fields of man’s mind. Without the capacity to pull the electric pulses from another’s brain and turn them into language, we rely entirely on what the other tells us through word and body language to determine what they think. It’s a flawed system, for who truly says what they’re thinking? Surely every thought is encircled in a ring of protective language, the edges sanded down and smoothed out before it is thrown into the world and allowed to take root in the soil of someone else’s expectations. At best, we almost express what we honestly believe and then rely on the person to take it at face value. At worst we obfuscate our thoughts, and the recipient confuses them again in their interpretation and we disappear into an ontological blackhole where all participants nod in agreement and walk away confused.

We never actually discussed his relationship with his parents and his sister, but I start to see my ‘on tour’ role as less of an entertainer and more as an itinerant therapist (sure I’ll take your emotional baggage) and handyman (sure I’ll help you move the living room table).

She is an olive farmer. An award-winning olive farmer. I ask her, tongue in cheek, if she eats olives for every meal, and it turns out that yes, yes she does, and her recipe for Mediterranean scrambled eggs (think fluffy eggs interspersed with creamy fetta, halved cherry tomatoes and garlic olives on a floating bed of olive sourdough) is a neighbourhood hit.

Her farm produces some six hundred thousand jars of olives a year and I imagine some modern day ‘Plain of Jars’ scenario where down a back road in rural Victoria there exists vast fields covered in glass jars and the local village kids run barefoot, slipping in streams of olive oil and sneaking handfuls of puckered, salted olives into their mouths between replenishing the nation’s stock of stone fruit.

The reality is much more sanitary, an in-house bottling plant where all surface are sanitised multiple times a day and most of the process is automated. Imagine conveyor belts and hissing steam and vast quantities of freshly washed olives floating down stream to the olive pipping machine that gently punches each olive in the gut once, flicking the stone into an alternate life path where it leaves its fleshy covering to be soaked in brine and devoured amongst its own kind.

The olive stones disappear into bins and are then crushed and tilled back into the earth to create fodder for the next generation, but recently new experiments with olive stones abound, from potential use as car fuel, a replacement material for plastic and as a cleansing agent amongst industrial machines. Man’s ingenuity abounds and where once we discarded piled olive pits we now delight in second use cases, waste reduction and further chances to monetize our industries.

“I put Don Burrows in a mine” he claims proudly, assuming we have a knowledge of who Don Burrows is, and why we’d want him underground.

At first I assume it’s some word play on ‘burrow’ and ‘mine’ and underground semantics and maybe he’s functioning at some level of understanding much deeper than my own. But it turns out that Don Burrows is actually a renowned Australian jazz musician, and the mine was the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company.

As part of the mine’s centenary celebrations back in 1994, Don Burrows and his band Moment’s Notice (assumably named after the Coltrane album) were dropped two kilometers down a mine shaft to perform a show. The show was turned into a subsequent live concert which can be ordered via your local library’s VHS rental service.

Unfortunately all this information came to light months later via some internet sleuthing. In this current conversation he proclaims disbelief that we don’t know who Don Burrows is, and that we don’t know why he thought to put him down the mine in the first place. “How can you be an Australian musician and not know who Don Burrows is? If you don’t know your history how can you look to the future?” Relevant questions, but I’m a folk musician, and examining the careers of Australia’s mid-90s jazz clarinetists is not a current concern. Standing on the shoulders of giants, yes. Attempting to balance atop a revolving cast of the millions of musicians who have come before, not so much.

He storms off in a huff, muttering about youngsters who don’t know their heritage and I’m touched by the depth of human existence. For this man, one of the cornerstones of his life’s achievement is that time he put a jazz band down a coal mine, and I get it. It’s a beautiful concept. It’s newsworthy. It’s a memory that a select group of people will carry throughout their entire lives. It’s the kind of ludicrous idea that I’d probably put together myself and I imagine myself, fifty years in the future, beleaguering the next generation of young musicians who don’t understand their history and don’t appreciate the ludicrousity that is man’s imagination.

I gather these stories like blind mice gather grain. Haphazardly. Unplannedly. Totally-without-meaningfully. Some days the pickings are slim and some days I’m hickory dickory docking my way into fertile food stores and delighting in the flood of stories that I coat my body and mind in. I’ve started to journal the stories I’m told on the road for while the human imagination is a wild and wonderful thing, the human memory is remarkably suspect and I tend to forget more beautiful anecdotes than I remember.

I use these stories to springboard my own creativity: as song fodder, or anecdotal evidence, or even just as creative gristle to mentally chew over as I drive.

On Sparrow Song

This was originally a Facebook post. Copied here for sentiment’s sake.
It brings me great joy to share some new music. Click hear to listen.
 
When one of my primary school students asked me what this song was about (I showed them the live video in class and asked them to identify the instrumentation, tempo and mood, not sure if its a bad reflection on me that one of them identified Stephen Hornby‘s double bass as a banjo), another of the students blurted out… “did you want to be a bird when you were little too?”
 
Gillian Welch tells us that we should never dictate to our audience what our music is about, after all without an audience, music is causeless. In essence, the audience is the key part that makes the music meaningful and who are we to decide what our audience sees in our lyrics/art/performance?
 
So I had no choice but to say yes, and then we spent the last five minutes of class discussing what type of bird we would be if given a choice and then the bell rang and we went out to playtime.
 
 
Suffice it to say that I’ve never really dreamt of being a bird, but I understand the sentiment, and this song probably hints at some underground sense of escapism. Or maybe its a dissertation on the search for home amidst a shifting, shapeless 21st century multiculturalism. Or maybe I just saw a sparrow one day and wrote a song about it.
 
 
I found my first draft of the lyrics for this song, in my diary under the headline ’23/12/17′. I was interested to see that both the verses on this recorded version arrived fully-fledged in that first draft. The chorus was something entirely different and the bridge (probably one of the more interesting series of chords I’ve ever stumbled upon) didn’t exist.
 
I used the word ‘autotelic’ in the original draft. I had to look up what the word means as I’d forgotten it completely. It didn’t make the final version, but now I’m wondering if it should have.
 
 
autotelic
/ˌɔːtə(ʊ)ˈtɛlɪk/
 
(of an activity or a creative work) having an end or purpose in itself.
 
 
Big thanks to Lucy McKenzie-McHarg, Vinny Russell, Alexandra Keusch, Stephen Hornby and Damien Sutton for their musical expertise.
I’ll playing this song live with a full band. This Sunday, September 1st at The Wesley Anne.

 

On Creative Process

Today I spend thirty minutes wandering the backyard with a microphone. I’ve attached three mic leads together to the recording interface in my shed and cables crisscross the lawn in streams, knotting and twirling through the grass we haven’t mowed since summer.

I’m meant to be putting the finishing touches on my new single. It’s been a protracted effort: four months of recording and deleting and recording and deleting, because I’m remarkably self critical of my own voice. Not in a constructive way, I’m not constantly striving for a better performance, instead I’m a destructive critic, listening back and deleting everything I hate. And I hate everything I’ve made. So this single that should have been finished back in April has wandered unfinished into the start of August and now sits in a pile of its own filth, dreaming of the past and wondering why it wasn’t released in the press release for the tour I started last week.

This is why I find myself wandering the backyard with a clump of cables and a condenser mic. I realised early on in the process that it’d be impossible to cut all outside noise out of my recording. The traffic rumbles under everything I sing, shaking the walls of the asbestos shed I call my studio. For a brief period I recorded at night to eliminate car noise, but a family of possums tap and squeak in the roof and thumping on the wall only served to make them scratch louder and leave little droplets of poo that fall through a widening crack in the ceiling when my drum practice shakes the shed.

Meanwhile our neighbour sneezes absurdly loudly in the backyard and a tree full of birds chatter throughout. My recordings are a literal snapshot of this period of my life, background noises individual to today inscribe themselves into the background of my recordings. Rather than fight it I embrace it with open arms, recording the birds as a background soundscape to frame my songs.

This current song is ‘Sparrow Song’, a Tallest Man on Earth inspired ode to nature, and it seems pertinent that I adorn the edges of the song with bird sound. I did a class at university on semiotics, the signifier and the signified. There were days spent on Wagner’s leitmotifs and the augmented 6th chord and I have a jumbled mess of notebooks from that term where I scribbled business ideas and venue phone numbers around the edges of pages filled with nonsense copied verbatim from the slides our lecturer Tavis (no R, thanks parents) read from. It seems when the learning gets hard my mind wanders, and when my mind wanders it’s the business aspect that takes hold. I’ve always loved the planning side of everything, but now I wish I’d spent a little more time engaging in 17th century semiotics to make this whole thought pattern a little more circular.

The artists I love take these extra-musical ideas and make them commonplace. So obvious and so included that they don’t pull in your attention until you listen again and again and again and wonder at man’s ability to dwell in tiny details. Robin Pecknold does this well, tying lyric and melody and harmony and linear motion into a web that hides the millions of instruments tucked away behind the machinery (listen to his Song Exploder podcast for a great example).

I used to think that the creative process was this hidden spark mechanism that clicked in to gear occasionally and created something amazing. But the more I delve into others work, the more it seems that its just a lot of hard work to make something magnificent. Paul Simon talks about his creative process and how there was a period in his early 20s were the songs just flowed, and then the next 50 years were a deliberate process where he sat down and worked and worked and worked to make it good. Interesting to note that his arguably most celebrated work Graceland involved a recording process where he recorded all the instrumental parts in South Africa, took them back to New York and spent a year writing songs to suit their vibe. Then he had to cut the original recordings into parts, pasting them back together in a new arrangement to suit the songs he’d written. All in all a remarkably laborious process, but the results speak for themselves.

So who am I subvert the creative process, hoping to twist it into a seamless system where ideas spark up regularly to create intriguing masterpieces to shift the social psyche and bring joy to the masses? Instead I’ll spend the afternoon wandering the backyard with a microphone and a head full of ideas, hoping that what I make resonates with people.

As an aside… I will be releasing this song this month, if you’re interested in hearing it when it comes out, please sign up here!

On Touring New Zealand

I wake on an alpaca farm twenty minutes out of Dunedin. It’s a homestay on the far south of New Zealand’s south island, an odd return to an unexplored part of my family history. Outside, a thin old growth forest grows stunted, pushing up against gravity’s interminable pull. The trees here grow at slant, aiming towards the sun, but the rolling hills and bleak cliffs are a poor place for trees, and the brusque winds gust off from the raging ocean and barrel down the hill towards the homestead.

Greg is short and smiley. His dad built the place and he was born here and has lived here ever since. At some point he bought a small herd of alpacas as a business investment (as you do), with the idea that he would breed pedigree alpacas. Now he just has a field with six alpacas in it, and an electric fence that has to be turned off before we wander around the field. We attempt to photograph each other petting the alpacas for Instagram. He tells us the alpacas are ‘just like cats, sometimes they like the attention and sometimes they don’t’, and suggests we crouch down and the alpacas might come close. So we crouch down for a bit as the alpacas munch through the mist and wee on the wet grass.

The local area is a smörgåsbord of introduced species and failed attempts to address the ensuing fall-out. Three people so far have told us of the possum plague that has engulfed the islands. Australia’s native brush-tailed possums were transplanted in the 1800s to fuel the world’s growing fur trade and promptly grew morbidly obese on the fat of the land, literally doubling in size and growing long luscious hair that was a boon to the fur traders. Little did they realise that two hundred years later there would be eighty million feral possums in a country of four million people, a much larger population than the second highest, sheep at thirty million.

A selection of deer were dropped here around the same time, and fled far and wide, multiplying in number until local hunters started to close in. Now the south island has a small thriving deer farming industry and an elusive supply of North American moose that were considered extinct in the 1930s but somehow still stoke up occasional tracks and hair samples. The national park of Fiordland is a wild and wonderful place, prone to hiding mysteries and bodies and vistas of astounding beauty.

It’s been ten days of wonder. First a flurried rush of days, burst from plane to airport to hire car to gig to bed to new town to gig to bed to new town. And then languid lazy days spent driving south, stopping at any sight that caught the eye. Owlcatraz, a pun worth stopping for, turned into a bird sanctuary, unfortunately closed today for a family event. A half hour down the road, a stream of sails setting forth across a parking lot turned into ‘Blo-karts’, literal go-karts powered by the wind. They roll silently in wide circles across some vaguely pre-determined route, while a kindly gentleman attempts to explain us the mechanism. ‘oh no, there’s no brakes, you just have to lean in to the wind to stop’. I’ve had vast experience with brakeless vehicles before (skateboards, childhood billy-karts, my first car), and these karts don’t appear to need a nearby fence to stop their forward motion.

On south to Queenstown, to find our fill of artifice. Ski-town dreams, built around tourist shops that stay open till ten pm, flogging an endless supply of overpriced t-shirts, precious stones and sheep puppets. We swear off consumerism, and swear on to veganism, but I buy a pair of possum merino socks anyway because they are truly silky, and local possums are a pest and besides I need a new pair of thick socks to fill these oversized boots.

We tour the local vineyards, and drink our fill of pinot noir. The first tasting is quiet and awkward, scattered couples sipping and spitting glasses while an Argentinean sommelier makes small talk, but by the second winery we are all friends and the third winery brings in-depth knowledge of each others lives, and a request for my CD on Spotify as background music, and suddenly I’m here, sitting in a tin-shed on the arse-end of the world, listening to myself on record while we down glasses of wine that frankly all taste the same and talk about the unhappiness that is life and how we should all move back to Britain because life was so much better then.

And I question myself, small dark questions that get bigger and bolder and build on the horizon in growing waves. You can see the swell building. You can feel that this question is going to be a big one, and maybe you should jump ship and dive down below before it engulfs you, but suddenly its here and you’re here and I’m here, and we have to think through our opinions and face the reality that at some point you have to start taking responsibility for who you are and what you’re doing.

It’s a wonderful space to be in. First you worry and weave all the worries together. Maybe I’m not enough. Maybe the way I express myself isn’t healthy. Or maybe what I’ve said is the true me and you won’t like it. But instead you grasp my responses and think through them, and respond in-kind. It’s like I’ve taken woven worries and willed them into a life raft, and we stand on this set of watery woven worries and float and float and float. And as much as you know everything might pull apart and you could get flung into the water below, its kind of ok, because this is life and you’re in it with someone you love and the heady enthusiasm of youth is enough to pull you through it.

Thanks for reading. If you got this far have a squizz at this? Unreleased music, consider it a reward for persisting through my ramblings!

On Mist

I wake to an early morning mist. It’s Melbourne winter, and the mist is within my bedroom, rising from my lungs and dissipating in a cloud across the room. A house that has stood for sixty years lives with its foibles, and these particular foibles are finger-width cracks around the window frames, plywood walls that flap when the wind blows, and a gaping hole where someone leant a little too hard and the plywood cracked and disappeared in chunks into the wall itself. Combine these to find a house that holds no warmth and hides no sound, allowing the outside to permeate the deepest depths of its interior.

We combat the cold with a massive gas-heater, the central point of the house. The house is built around the remnants of an actual wood oven, but this was removed in the 70s and replaced with a gas heater that still blows bright. It takes ten minutes to cough to life and then burns burns burns, turning imperceptible gas into invisible warmth. You lean against the heater at the beginning, a cup of tea grasped in hands to help the heat sink in, but after a couple of minutes you pull a chair a meter out to soak up the heat. Another twenty minutes finds the entire household gathered in the farthest extremities of the room, fighting against the searing warmth. That’s the perks of a gas heater designed with no temperature gauge but only a simple on and off switch. Unfortunately, the cold still subdues the rest of the house and we brave bed only when we’ve exhausted the ability to maintain conversation.

My twenties were a round of cold sharehouses, bundling into three jumpers and a beanie to practice drums in gaping garages. My thirties ease the trend: moving to a centrally heated house, an almost airtight shed that quickly warms with the glow of a space heater that warps the wrap on my vintage drum shell and sizzles moisture against the windows. I step out from an early afternoon practice session to find fingers of mist flaking in the backyard before the house.

I have a love of mist, and today it hits me that this love is hardwired, tied somewhere into my genetic makeup as a remnant from my ancestry. Two generations back was Northern Ireland and I delve into my own wistful remembrances of visiting the Cliffs of Moher (not Northern Ireland, but my closest experience). Scattered groups of tourists clicking their way through the fog, trying to get an iconic photo of sea swept shorelines between the mist and the crowds. Buses crowd the anteroom road that skirts the cliff-face and I stand rosy-faced and raincoat-clad amidst a place I’ve never identified with, but which clearly identifies me in language and skin colour and woolen jumper heritage.

I missed the chance to talk through childhood with my Grandpa but the romantic in me ties history into fantasy and Belfast sticks in my memory as a place to live and love and leave. I follow the fault lines back farther through supposed Celtic history and tribes who scattered through rain soaked hills and eked out a living amidst the peat. All of human history has been pushing for new horizons from the earliest of man, and my particular tribe has done its share of chasing new vistas (interesting how the word ‘tribe’ has re-emerged amongst the 21st century internet zeitgeist). This mist has permeated all of my memories.

I feel an ache when the mists roll in, driving me to walk home from the bar down the road. In summer this walk is languid, slow steps unslurried by a desire to arrive home, for the thirty degree Australian summer turns this sixty-year-old house into a heat-box. Why is it that the one time our homes trap the heat is when we sweat and stir beneath sticky sheets and long for sleep?

But this is winter, and the mist cloaks the street in both directions. We walk briskly, bundled against the cold, clutching each other for warmth and stability. Little did she realise my late night plans included a twenty minute walk, so she wore the cute heels that buoy her body to an almost tenable height but are completely unsuited to carrying her from one place to another.

I’ve stumbled home amidst the mist in countries all across the world.

The mist of Yemen’s highlands, sweeping in across terraced coffee plantations. This is the purest coffee in the world, built from hardy plants that relish the cold mountain air. Farmers who have lived generation by generation in the same little village in the same little tribe for the last two thousand years, have farmed the same coffee plants on the same terraces built by their great great great grandparents. The idea of ‘eking’ out a living in its purest form resides here amongst these people. We set-up camp along one of the larger terraces, a group of scattered white expats in pitied plastic tents while the locals live in stone houses built in Roman times and maintained by hand ever since. Late night downpours emanate from above and we flee the tents to shelter in a stone-circled goat shed among the local livestock.

The mist of Kenya’s Rift Valley where the year’s two seasons (wet and dry) alternate with frightening regularity. Over night the shift comes and you wake to torrential rain: weeks and weeks of torrential rain where the red soil slips and slides and swells into a red river that slowly washes down stream. Everything is caked in the mud of my youth, and we return to the dorm to find nineteen pairs of shoes under the porch overhang. This is the time of year to play rugby (the grass grows better in the wet), and the Junior team traipse out to the bus twice a week, riding to other towns to foe other teams of boys who fight dirty. They arrive home with black eyes and stomach scratches and talk of fields turned into swimming pools, and holes near goal lines where one boy was held under water for almost a minute by members of the rival scrum. When the rains finally stop, the mist settles in and with it comes hordes of flying termites. Tiny ant-sized bodies with four long wings, they flap and flutter their way in through the window my room-mate left open and we arrive home to find several thousand infesting the hallway. A simple solution from a boy born here, he pulls tennis rackets from beneath his bed and we spend a half hour smacking the termites out of the air to ground below. When hit, the wings come dislodged and fall featherlike, while the termite scurries for a shady crack in the wall. The joy continues, as the same boy sweeps handfuls of crawling termites into a dustpan and runs them to the kitchen at the end of the hall. He pours them into a frying pan coated in ghee and they sizzle and snap and taste a little like crispy chunks of bacon.

The mist of Tasmania’s Forth, a town of four hundred people. We leave the pub and wander, mandolin in hand, towards the top of the hill. Ahead is darkest forest, behind are scattered street lights, so we turn and eye off what should be a beautiful view of Tasmania’s old growth, but is instead a sea of white. Walk in step through town looking for some entertainment, and finally stumble head-long into the misty lights of a hotel and realise it’s the same pub we’ve been playing at for the last three hours.

And other mists remembered:

Years spent living in Sunbury’s abandoned Insane Asylum.

Early morning city mist in Yemen where the city sits eerily silent and government workers spray clouds of chemicals into the mist in an effort to defeat an oncoming scourge of mosquitoes.

Glasgow mists and couch-surfing with uni students who take me to the fish and chip shop to sample a deep-fried Mars Bar.

sonder, noun: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”

On Worry

Two nights ago I woke at 2 am. It’s a fairly regular occurrence, and normally I toss and turn for a couple minutes then drift back to sleep. Sometimes I get up and wander the house before returning to bed. Occasionally I dip into my latest book for half an hour until sleep slides through the back of mind and tugs my eyelids downwards.

We have a new couch in our spare room, liberated from a lady in Preston who ‘wanted it to go to a good home rather than land fill’. It’s not particularly new (it came replete with stains reminiscent of a well-loved life, the wrinkles we gather through a life well lived), its not particularly comfortable (‘hard as a rock’ was one quote), but it was free and we’re saving the planet, one uncomfortable stained couch at a time. It also creaks slightly when you shift your weight.

So imagine me: sleepless, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sideways on a slightly creaking couch, reading a book on copyright reform. After mindlessly flipping the same three pages for twenty minutes, I close my book and allow my mind to drift. I’ve become aware over the last several weeks that there are some issues I keep coming back to, and rather than resolving them, I’ve pushed them down into that back part of my mind, the part that only works when I’m incredibly bored or asleep. I’ll admit that I don’t think I’ve been bored since around 2008 (symptoms of a busy life, and the smart phone revolution), so my mind doesn’t get much time to work through the issues I choose to ignore.

It’s somewhat similar to the computer at my old workplace that no-one turned off for seven years (actually), and when someone accidently plugged the toaster in to the same power socket as a hair dyer, the building’s fuse flipped. When we flipped it back on, the computer attempted to restart itself, but being four versions of an operating system out of date, and having never had a security update it attempted to download 600 gigabytes of data to a 100 gig hard drive. We left it chugging away for two weeks and finally put it out of its misery, sending it to the repair guy who gutted it and put a brand new computer into the old metal box. Same old body, brand new mind, some slight foibles. The main negative was we lost some seven years worth of scanned documents (it was ostensibly my job to re-scan all these documents, but I quit shortly after to begin a career as a jazz drummer).

So what am I dwelling on, and how do I protect myself from allowing it to overload me? Where’s the reset button for the human mind? Are there effective ways to regain healthy sleep patterns?

I find my biggest sense of solace in a little diary that sits by my bedside. I’ve perfected the art of picking it up, scrambling for the pen that always finds its way to the floor below and shuffling in darkness out the door and down the hall to the spare room in silence. Flip the lights and begin to write.

It takes pages of fluff to get to the crux of the issue. And the issue is never the same. But as I flip in daylight through my night-time journal I find the same issues re-appearing, re-creating themselves in different guises, sliding themselves from the hidden cracks in the back of my mind and through my head to my eyelids where they force themselves into consciousness and force my eyelids open and force my awareness to engage with them.

Writing them down helps. My conscious mind knows I can engage with them later if they physically exist in the world. Writing them down also gives me scope to scoff at past Nathan’s worries. Like the worry I had in 2011 that I’d pissed off a friend who wasn’t returning my calls (turns out he’d dropped his phone into a toilet and spent two weeks living on vegemite sandwiches to save up the $200 needed to buy a third hand iPhone 3). Or the worry that I can’t play drums (turns out that I can play drums, but comparing yourself to others is a quick trip to an unsatisfied destination). Or years of worry that I might occasionally suffer from insomnia. You know, just casual stuff.

Drinking wine with friends helps. There’s a beautiful space, generally one or two wines in where you gain the ability to download your worries on to other people. Sort of like the Matrix, without the technology or karate. Heck, you can probably do it without the wine at all, it’s the friends bit that’s truly effective, but man is good at making tools to suit every occasion, and wine suits this scenario.

Exercise absolutely helps. It’s probably the most effective method of dealing with worries, but hardest of all to implement, because it requires putting on running shoes and that’s often a bridge too far. If only putting on shoes was as easy as opening a new Google Chrome tab to watch Youtube.

In the end I wrote down three big ideas that had been worrying me for the last couple of weeks. I woke up today and one of them had silently resolved itself. No input from me, it just untangled its knots and appeared in my inbox. Not sure if there’s a lesson here.

And heeeere’s some Bjork.

Ps. If anyone needs a couch to crash on, we have one. 😉