Kharkov interview by Matthew Levinson


Interview by Matthew Levinson

John Bartley released his debut recording on Melbourne’ Brothersister records in late 2006. Although it was badged with the nom de plume Kharkov, Bartley grew up far from that Ukrainian city, in the Dandenong hills on the eastern edge of Melbourne.

His childhood was coloured by big trees and wide-open spaces. It’s an experience you can see reflected in the young sound artist’s expansive debut, Something Tangible. Bartley still heads up to the Dandenongs on weekends to see his folks, but nowadays he’ based in South Yarra, close to Melbourne’ Royal Botanic Gardens.

“I’ve been making music for a long time, but a couple of years ago I got interested in electronic music,” says Bartley, 24, who credits Reich, O’Rourke, Fennesz, Eno and Colleen as formative influences. All too often producers in this sphere – drone, musique concrete, minimalism, ambience – can be far more interesting on paper; all clinical concept, not enough emotional resonance.

Bartley’ record, on the other hand, takes an inventive approach to sampling that’s built on dub, glitch and musique concrete. It’s poetic. You see, Bartley samples old and discarded classical records – the ones littering second hand shops and garage sales everywhere. Where so much about classical recordings aims to achieve an extremely high fidelity sound, Bartley zooms in on the skips and pops caused by lifetimes of poor treatment. It’s a romantic, fascinating take.

“I’ve always been interested in classical music,” he says, “and I suppose notions of beauty that are often associated with classical. I’d listen to those old records and they’d skip or I’d hear some crackling or distortion in the background, and I actually quite liked that. I suppose the starting point for me was wanting to extend those degraded records into some kind of new song.”

Although Bartley’ working in post-techno/dub music, a sphere that tends to attract gear freaks and technically advanced producers, when it comes to new software and equipment he claims neither status.

“I’m not really a tech-head as such,” he says. “It can be frustrating some of the time because I feel I have a lot of ideas, but realising them with the software you have can be rather a challenge. But if you find a set up that works, that can really liberate you to some degree. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve been using the same programs for quite a while now.”

Brothersister was inspired by another Melbourne label, Pocketclock, and both have been instrumental in supporting the growth of another “little bands’ scene. Each imprint works almost as a self-contained unit, with intermingled band membership, and multi-tasked design, publicity, label-management, promotion and performance.

For example, after finishing his art photography degree at Deakin University, Bartley joined labelmates Royce Ng and Rowan McNaught to contribute to Mechanical Kingdoms, a photographic show at the Narrows Gallery, Melbourne.

Bartley’ part of another band on the label, Emperors of Blefuscu, along with Ng, which has a CD out soon, and he plays with Inquiet and Anonymeye from time to time. Some of those connections show up on a new Brothersister compilation called A Fifty Gallon Drum of Savage Customs, Fresh Flesh and Random Pop. As with the rest of the label’ CD catalogue, the new compilation will be available at shows and by mail order, but surprisingly it also runs as a free download net-label.

“We just wanted as many people to listen to all the releases as possible,” says Sam Szoke-Burke, Brothersister co-founder along with Ng. “We like reading about people who have been ‘free-loading’ from our site, passing it on to friends, and so on. And some of our releases have been played on Canadian and Aussie radio as a result of them being freely available, which is cool.”

Bartley agrees: “At the end of the day you want people to listen to what you do, particularly when you’re starting out. I’ve gained far more from my music being available on the site than I could have ever bought from the meager money I would have made from CD sales.”

Getting together for extended label shows gave the label and its individual artists a profile boost, and connected them up with fans and like-minded performers including Muscles and Always.

“The electronic experimental scene in Melbourne is thriving at the moment,” Bartley says, “there are lots of great things going on. I’ve been checking out a lot of gigs over the past couple of years, it’s exciting to be in a city with so much great music being made and expertly played. I’ve really had only minimal contact with the experimental scene as an artist and it’s something I really hope to change this year through playing more gigs.”

In the live domain, Kharkov uses a laptop, keyboard, and a couple of delay units to massage the sounds live, melding the whole lot into one long piece. The sound is complemented by live visuals, which Bartley says are likely to show up on a DVD with his second EP, due later in the year. Taking Something Tangible‘ bucolic influences full circle, Bartley’ second EP will be a remixed set of improvisations recorded at the Botanic Gardens and the Dandenongs.

Listen/download: Kharkov – ‘Dub’ (from the Something Tangible EP).

Kharkov’s Something Tangible and the compilation A Fifty Gallon Drum of Savage Customs, Fresh Flesh and Random Pop are out now on Brothersister Records.