The back of an organic food restaurant in Brisbane’s West End provides a surprisingly good space to hear some of the city’s most interesting sounds, even if it does smell a whole lot like rotten vegetables. This barely-lit loading area scattered with a few old couches, lamps, and yes, those bins of vegetables, has provided a forum for Blank Realm, one of the original artists to initiate the Audiopollen experimental music nights. Daniel Spencer, one of the four (three of whom are siblings), understands that it helps to make your own fun in Brisbane.
(Photo by Richard MacFarlane)
“The Audiopollen thing hasn’t been going that long but there are a lot of bands coming out of that scene. I think it’s all getting a lot better, having that space to play and work in. We’ve played, like, 20 times last year. We never would’ve done that before, it’s a nice no pressure environment where you can do anything. It’s not like playing at Ric’s in the Valley or anything. I can’t really imagine us in that setting, so it’s nice to have this really great environment to experiment.”
It’s all slightly under-the-radar though, because of the shitload of noise (of the ‘experimental’ sort – not everyone’s cup of tea). There are occasions on which noise complaints get the better of the evening. The night I watched Blank Realm play was low-key (just a small crowd as it was the first night back after summer holidays), made particularly good thanks to that secret, undiscovered sort of vibe. You couldn’t help but feel you were hearing something special, especially when it sounds this great. Still, elements of Blank Realm’s sound mean it really wouldn’t be that strange to see them soon at some of Brisbane’s more popular, trendy weekend hot spot sort of venues, like Ric’s. It’s not as if it isn’t entirely unaccessible music; huge swirls of textural noise with emphasis on progression and natural, improvised build ups, creeping and drugged out, sounding at times somewhere between Neu! and Black Dice, to name a couple, of which Luke and the rest happen to be big fans.
I was half-daunted and half-excited after walking into the home of the three related members, (Luke Walsh lives around the corner from the others) their record collection jutting out of one corner of the room, weird lo-fi folky stuff drifting from the stereo. An excited conversation about Fursaxa and Paarvoharju and other unpronounceable and obscure stuff ensued and it was clear that these guys love music, or new sounds, as much as anyone can. These four very humbled and well-humoured 20-somethings are keen to push things forward.
“Music and other things you take in have got to come out somewhere,” Spencer says. “There’s so much stuff to draw from these days. I guess there are some artists that come out of the outsider thing where they don’t listen to any other music really. I dunno, I’ve always listened to lots of music and it comes out in weird ways. It’s something I can never stop doing.”
(Photo by Richard MacFarlane)
It’s always seemed strange to me that in some self-proclaimed ‘experimental’ music scenes or nights, there’s really very little experimenting going on at all; instead, tapping into acceptable experimental modes of drones and textures or whatever the heck you can crank out of a laptop can lessen attempts at making things new. Blank Realm are self-consciously progressive, seeking new sounds and ways to make them. Theirs is definitely an organic process, always growing outwards.
“It can get a bit hippy when you’re talking about it, but I think its true,” Spencer says. “We’ve always felt like it was kind of something bigger than us in the sense that it’s something we have control over but also kind of don’t. Sometimes it feels like nothing happens, but we do practise a lot so it generally feels like something cool is going on.”
“It’s pretty much 100 per cent improvised. But we sometimes have ideas about how we’re going to start but they’re only ever skeletal. It never really pans out that way and if we try to reproduce something it never really happens that way, so we just kind of go with whatever now. But it’s pretty typical for us to finish a set and kind of look at each other and be like ‘what the fuck was that?’ was that good, or…?”
“In a way, I think we all have defined roles, even if we’ve never really spoken about them; I think everyone brings a certain thing to the band and you can tell if it’s missing. Sometimes we play shows without one of us because we have to work or something and it definitely feels like something’s not there, even if a lot of the time it’s hard to actually tell who’s making what sound. It’s quite democratic and ego-consuming in a way. I don’t think any of us is the soloist or lead singer or whatever.”
“We used to joke about it all the time,” says Daniel’s sister Sarah Spencer. “You’d be playing and making a sound and you’d think you know what you’re doing but then realise it was actually someone else making the sound… but I think we’ve become better at working out our own sound and own roles within the band.”
“It’s pretty intuitive,” the only non-sibling in the band, Luke Walsh, agrees, “but you do react to what someone else is doing. It’s good when you get to a moment where it seems like what you’re creating is leading everyone instead of forcing something.”
“We go through phases and get bored pretty quickly,” says Daniel. “It’s good to have the freedom to do that because we don’t have songs as such, we can change from set to set quite easily.”
“It’s sort of finding a particular sound and working that as much as we can then trying to move forward from it,” says Sarah.
“It’s probably a steady kind of progression, if you look at what we’ve done since we first started,” Luke says.
“I guess when we first started we were really into Amon Duul and Can and things like that,” says Daniel, “but we couldn’t really play at all. So we sort of developed this way of playing noise and slowly learned to play a bit better, especially in relation to each other.”
They’re not just nerds about weird pedals and ancient synths, either, even if they have a penchant for both. They started out with pretty much nothing until Luke did a recording course at the University of Queensland. That gave them access to a strange, seemingly unused room, filled with old analog synthesizers and recording equipment, leading to a lot of very very late night jams and experiments. These days, though, Luke handily works at [music equipment shop] Allan’s Music.
“There’s a line between being obsessed with what a piece of equipment can do and what you can do with a piece of equipment. I see it especially at Allan’s, people coming in and are like, ‘yeah this is amazing, it sounds just like that synth from the ’70s’ or whatever. There’s a strange thing these days where people are trying to track down some old sound and replicate it, whereas I find the original stuff way more interesting. I think there’s a danger of everything sounding similar, with new software programs out there and you can just drop in loops and everyone’s using the same sounds, even though there’s so much out there. It can kind of take away from the equipment, I mean, sometimes if you have no equipment or you’re really stuck because of poverty or something, when you make do with what you have, it can be a lot more interesting.”
There have been plenty of releases from Blank Realm, but there’s not a whole heap of self-promotion going on. Instead, they thought maybe it’s better to actually work on making the music good and then eventually things will happen. It’s reasonably hard to get your hands on these releases other than through messaging the band yourself but they like it this way. Soon though, there’ll be a release on the Los Angeles label Not Not Fun, possibly on cassette (like most of their releases).
(Photo by Richard MacFarlane)
The way they work is highly improvised, capturing the best bits to put onto tape or CD by recording pretty much every jam they do, and there are a lot of those. The previous evening, the four had been up late jamming at their parents’ vacant house.
“It’s strange in a live context, because we always feel like what we do there isn’t as good as what we do in the rehearsal room,” says Sarah, “but sometimes it is and when it is it’s just the best thing. There are factors like being slightly less inhibited in a rehearsal room but also when we play live, the sound travels outwards, but in the rehearsal room it’s so contained and loud and all consuming. I think that has a lot to do with it as well.”
“We don’t really play shows that have fold-back [speakers] or where people have time to sound check or anything,” says Luke, “whereas in a rehearsal room you can tinker with that a bit. It’s different when you’ve been given a 20 minute time slot to get everything ready.”
No kidding; especially when you’ve got a plank of wood with a dozen or more pedals stuck to it, drum kit, keyboard and a whole bunch of other gear to somehow set up. When I watched them set up that evening at Audiopollen it was fairly frantic. But then, as the set started, it was a strangely measured sort of creation, growing steadily but not predictably, flourishes of different texture or a sudden drum freakout. It’s music for the heart and the body, exploring unknown territories in an instinctive way.
They’re pretty happy doing this in Brisbane right now, even if the scene is small.
There’s definitely a network of like-minded noise makers in Australia. If Blank Realm fit into any particular niche it’s from their DIY approach and appetite for real sounds and art. They’re inspired by people like Xwave, Castings, Trapdoor Tapes records, those involved with Intense Nest in Sydney; all who make the unique sort of sounds in Australia that are growing and finding recognition overseas.
“I guess, well, we’ve lived here all our lives,” says Daniel, “and you kind of get sick of a place when you’ve been here for so long. We always talk about moving to Melbourne or something like that. It’s kind of good, in a way, to be so far off the map from everything. There are places where there is more of a scene and you get more swept up in that whereas here, if you ask people in Melbourne or Sydney if anything cool is going on in Brisbane, they’d probably say no. It’s kind of cool; you can do things that maybe people wouldn’t expect you to do.”
“There are still lots of surprises, though,” says Sarah. “All of a sudden we met all these people like Joel Stern and Lloyd Barrett; all these other people who were leading parallel lives to us in the same town, going to the same concerts, listening to similar records. It was like, oh, hi. We should’ve been friends before.”
Luke says it’s easy to romanticise experimental circles in the states but they don’t mind Brisbane, even if Melbourne does have better food. After supporting Damo Suzuki in Melbourne, they’ll be considering a move there (like everyone else in Brisbane). But for now, it’s still a whole lot of fun.
“It’s been going around four or five years,” says Daniel, of the Brisbane scene. “It’s mainly just been us entertaining ourselves in our bedrooms, and we’ll probably do it until we die.”
“Whether anyone’s listening or not, we don’t do it to be part of anything, we’ve never had any aspirations of making money, it’s been more a thing to keep sane I guess. I remember getting sort of disillusioned once, saying something to Sarah like, what would happen if we just stopped it and didn’t have a band anymore, and Sarah was just like, ‘I think it’d be pretty boring.’ And that’s pretty much what it’s like.”
Blank Realm’s Blight Monument MC is available from Barnacle Rodeo. Their Free Time CDR is available from MYMWLY.