Australian Electronic Listening Music – Surgery, Couchblip, Aural Industries, Surgery

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Intelligent dance music is an annoying term. Originally coined by UK ambient DJ and producer Mixmaster Morris (The Irresistable Force) back circa 1992, it is one of those ‘nothing’ genres like intelligent drum & bass or progressive house or progressive trance ‘ which are really neither intelligent or very progressive. It was supposed to mean dance music that wasn’t, back in 1992, hardcore breakbeat. And it was used to bring music from the Warp label who had just released their seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation under a banner that united it with the early work of other labels like Rephlex, R&S’ ambient (anti-Dyionisian) offshoot Apollo, and even labels like Germany’s Fax. This was at a time when Sesame’s Treat, Altern-8, and all those chart topping predecessors to happy hardcore were taking over the UK charts.

Ten years later, and successfully turned into an acronym ‘ IDM, it lives on. Where early music in this broad genre was influenced by basic electronics and the sounds of mid-late 1980s Detroit techno, Kraftwerk, and classic electro, towards the late 1990s IDM’s second-wave emerged. Led by Autechre’s influential third album Chiastic Slide, Squarepusher’s Feed Me Weird Things and continuing hyper-rhythms from Aphex Twin and crossbleed from jungle and drum & bass, the second wave of IDM moved away from the serenity and cleanliness of earlier works utilising the newly available software synthesisers and, later, DSP effects.

In Australia its works by Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Squarepusher that have been the most influential. These are all artists who had their most innovative years somewhere in the mid-1990s and whose local sales were, by and large, managed by the now defunct Melbourne-based Mushroom Distribution Services (MDS) for most of the decade. MDS prided themselves on achieving extremely high per capita consumption of labels like Warp and even did a local launch of the label in 1994 flying Autechre out to perform a live set to a bunch of industry and media types in a cold Melbourne warehouse ‘ it was a great but slightly odd show. Warp, Rephlex and the many related labels and artists that followed had a broad influence across Australia and by the end of the 1990s several Australian labels had sprung up to support a new field of artists inspired by those mid-90s sounds.

AURAL INDUSTRIES / JOHN BUS

Aural Industries is a Sydney-based label that established itself in 1998 and began by signing Adelaide producer, Tim Koch under the alias Thug. John Bus, who runs the label explains, ‘back when I set it up in 1998 there weren’t as many micro-labels around and certainly none in this country. We operate in a niche market which is probably the major factor why the label is now fully self-funding and has survived, as we can’t compete with the majors in terms of marketing, market saturation or economies of scale. The bloatedness of the current music industry, along with the internet, allows niche players like AI to become quite successful and being based in Australia is not as big a problem nowadays as it was 10 years ago. The world has become a smaller place with much cheaper and faster, sometimes instantaneous (internet relay chat and instant messaging), communication between far-flung places bringing many like-minded people together. The recent Thug:Remixed CD which started life as an idea I had to provide the elements, up on the AI web site, necessary to remix 5 tracks from the first album released on AI. Remixes came in from Finland, Sweden, NZ, USA, Canada as well as Australia. Now the internet plays a vital role in allowing the label to communicate directly with artists and other labels in far off countries. It’s also important in terms of getting information about our releases out there and obtaining overseas sales . . . [especially as]Australia only accounts for a small part of the sales which just comes down to the small size of the population here.’ Interestingly Aural Industries’ two key signings are both based interstate with Thug in Adelaide and Sense in Melbourne. ‘It is a hard slog and working with artists from other Australian cities [and this]means that the profile of the AI through live performances is somewhat lacking because it costs a lot to bring them to Sydney and unfortunately the Sydney scene for this type of music is quite small. The recent AI label showcase and cd launch over the June long-weekend was heavily promoted through columns in two of Sydney’s street press mags that cover this type of music, Radio 2SER and the internet. Even so it got about 120 payers through the door which was not enough to cover the two return airfares. Still it was definitely worthwhile for raising the artist and label profiles and for the fact that we sold over 40 CDs on the door that night.’

AI001CD – Thug – Isolated Rhythm Chock – 1999
AI002CD – Tim Koch – Please Don’t Tell Me That’s Your Volvo – 2000
AI003CD – Sense – Fourier Transformations – 2001
AI004CD – Sense – Goodbye Mr Henderson EP – 2001
AI005CD – Various – Thug::Remixed – 2002
AI006CD – Various – Please Don’t Tell Me That’s Your Remix – 2002

SURGERY RECORDS / TIM KOCH

Tim Koch who releases as Thug for Aural Industries also runs his own label, Surgery Records from his base in Adelaide. Tim tells the story, ‘We began in around 1999 with three mutual friends, James Reid, Ian Hamilton, and myself toying with the idea of starting an electronic music label initially to promote local Adelaide electronic artists to a wider audience. Later Yvonne East came on-board to keep us silly boys from misbehaving. That initial aim grew to taking on board overseas artists with the release of the then New Zealand-based Aspen (Bevan Smith). We have since released UK-based Vim! although we are now looking at more Aussie acts simply due to the fact that there is so much music being made locally . . . [it was]an attempt to get a steady flow of local electronic artists’ material coming out with a view to exposure overseas while at the same time keeping the design and packaging elements up to standard with the music . . . it seemed to be mainly in 2000 that there was a surge of backyard electronica labels (for example, Kracfive, Merck, Component, Involve, Couchblip, Bip Hop). The important thing is that there are a lot of these labels that do put out really fine music. Of course there is the flipside in that there is so much average stuff around as well with software like Fruity Loops allowing tracks to be churned out really quickly.’

Despite living in Adelaide, Tim Koch has managed not only to run Surgery on a global scale but also release his own music on many overseas labels and even start up a new label in collaboration with a US-based friend. Internet friendships play a large part in the behind the scenes dealings with this sort of electronic music. ‘ It can be difficult living so far from the market where this style of music thrives and has a healthy scene, like in Europe or to a lesser extent in the USA, but I guess it is just about putting the feelers out and seeing what exists in the way of distribution and opportunities for exposure overseas. The internet has been crucial both for my own music and with Surgery, providing a quick and usually reliable way of communicating with other artists, distributors, shops, print publications. [In dealing] with overseas artists we consult with the artist we are releasing to get an idea of the best way to market the release in their own country as they should know the best outlets for their music in their own music community.’

‘I think [my releases overseas are an]indication of the friends I have made with other musicians and other networks overseas. All the friends that I have made over the net via my music are usually involved in other labels and recommend that I send a demo to x or y label. My upcoming full length minidisc on US label n5Md purely came about because a friend of mine, Richard Bailey (Proem on the Merck label) recommended my music to Mike Cadoo who runs the label. And Proem is a graphic designer and did the artwork for the upcoming ‘Please Don’t Tell Me That’s Your Remix’ CD of mine – and also has a remix on it too . . . this all works nicely and creates a smooth environment to collaborate and swap new music as opposed to larger labels where there is so much more money involved and therefore more people get disappointed in some way or another with what happens . . . To some extent different labels that I work with represent different styles of the sounds I work with. The Defocus album [Shorts In Alaska] was completely arranged by them so it ended up being more melodic and loosely song based whereas the remix stuff I do for Merck Records (run by my brother Gabe Koch) in Miami is a lot more unpredictable. I have some material coming out on two Belgian labels, U-Cover and Zeal Records. The Zeal album is almost like a pop record and the U-Cover one features mainly drone and guitar based atmospheres rather than tracks.’

‘[Back in Australia], there really isn’t enough support locally in Adelaide to hold regular nights that are themed around more unusual electronic music. At this stage Melbourne probably has the most healthy scene in that respect. [And despite the silent computer nerd stereotype] live gigs are still sometimes the best form of promotion in that people who like what they hear can usually buy material at a gig and also talk to the artists first hand.’ With the international market so important to the music that Tim is making he heads to Europe in September to play some live shows and meet people face to face.

SURGE001 – Various Artists – Initial Release – 2000
SURGE002 – Super Science – Love Like Life In Miniature – 2000
SURGE003 – Modula – Audio Dismantle – 2001
SURGE004 – Aspen – Are You That Retail Snob – 2001
SURGE005 – Pretty Boy Crossover – The Building And Formation – 2001
SURGE006 – Vim! – Linden – Home Of The Hits – 2001
SURGE007 – Various Artists – 2002AD Analogue To Digital / Adelaide Fringe Festival Sampler – 2002
SURGE008 – Qua – Forgetabout – 2002
SURGE009 – Epoq – Scintilla – 2002

COUCHBLIP! / MELINDA TAYLOR & LUKE KILLEN

Sydney-based Couchblip! Records started very recently in 2001 with a compilation release featuring tracks by its founders, Melinda Taylor (Robokoneko), Luke Killen (Disjunction Reunion) and Jim Dodd (Bloq). Deciding to press ahead with their plans to start a label as a result of the Sound Summit conference in 2000, they have since released solo albums by Disjunction Reunion, Bloq, and Pellarin (from Denmark) as well as a second compilation fundraiser CD for the Humane Society called Other Animals. It has been a very busy time for Couchblip! with both Melinda and Luke running the label on top of holding down ‘regular’ jobs. Melinda explains that rather than release their own music on someone else’s label, ‘the quickest way to get it out there was to set up another record label. Based on the number of excellent demos a small label like us receives – and we are geographically isolated and its not cheap to send demos out here – I would still say that there is possibly still not enough labels to release all the good music that is being made. [But] getting a CD out is a long process, I think if we had more time we would be releasing a lot more’

Melinda and Luke’s musical paths crossed a long time ago and the influences they bring to their label are very diverse. ‘We both met in high school when my record collection only included Smiths records. Luke has a broader background pre-smiths with a heavy interest in early hiphop. From The Smiths we moved into bands like James and the Manchester scene (1989/90), Inspiral Carpets and the great Madchester raves. There were clubs at The Site [now Yu]where we went to listen to The Smiths and got introduced to [more sampladelic]music like Pop Will Eat Itself and the Happy Mondays. The Madchester raves led us onto ‘real’ hardcore raves which is where we first heard Aphex Twin’s Digeridoo and the electronic link started there . . . I didn’t ever really get into techno music and instead we started to buy CDs like the Ambient Dub series [Beyond Records], Positiva’s Ambient collection, Aphex Twin, Future Sound Of London which eventually led to Warp, Rephlex, and onto those exciting labels of today – Morr Music, Schematic, Chocolate Industries.’

‘The major difficulty I find [with being in Australia]is that it costs a fortune to get your stock to distributors and as a small label we can sometimes spend as much money on postage as we do on the actual CD production run. Its also hard as you can’t tour to your major market in Europe. We obtained our distribution deals in Japan, UK and the US over the internet and we make a large proportion of sales through our own online shop as well. About 70% of CDs we sell go overseas and the majority of our press to date has also been internet based.’ Like for Surgery and Aural Industries the local scene is not strong enough alone. ‘ In Sydney at the moment the live scene is not as good as it could be. Without places like Frigid at which I played 60% of my gigs at last year, and Drop which are both regular nights you could almost say the live scene is dead. However there are a few things on the margins Disjunction Reunion played an interesting gig the other week at Speak Easy in Erskine St in the city which runs every month. This night has been described as a David lynch-ian musical event with acts ranging from folk music, Bulgarian music, punk improvisation and noise, open mic for poets and electronic music. It was a fantastic night and good to see quite a different and diverse regular event springing up in the city.’

BLIP001 Various – Couchblip! – 2001
BLIP002 Disjunction Reunion – Computer Dead Reckoning – 2001
BLIP003 Various – Other Animals – 2001
BLIP004 Pellarin – Tangible Abstractions – 2002
BLIP005 Bloq – Life From the Outside – 2002
BLIP006 Robokoneko – TBD – 2002

Sebastian Chan

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Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.

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