Interview with Chris Smith by Dan Rule
Chris Smith is something of an underground iconoclast in the Australian music community. A signpost artist in avant-guitar, experimental and ambient circles, his mood and drone-heavy guitar explorations, abstracted field recordings and abrasive improvisations – best exemplified on 1998 debut Cabin Fever, 2000′ Replacement, 2003′ Map Ends and last year’ Eponymous collaboration with Justin Fuller – have been consuming listeners in a dense textural fog for the best part of a decade. But for Smith, his most recent opus – the ragged, blues-stained Bad Orchestra – represents a considerable stylistic and dispositional departure. A work of intense personal catharsis and aesthetic polarity, Bad Orchestra sees Smith poised somewhere between his most vulnerable and adroit.
A gently twanged feedback drone rises from silence, gently at first, wavering faintly in tone and pitch. The lazy rumble of a freight train sinks into the midground. A guitar peals out, strong and stark – as if across fields, as if under sky, as if against decaying weatherboard and rusted tin. It stabs, resonates and then fades against the din.
Seconds pass, maybe half a minute. Then in an instant, all hell breaks loose. Clanging, smashing, burning, screaming hell. Guitars snake and scythe and strike; they unfurl in a tearing, bloodstained, blues-sullied clamour. Drums rattle and shake and vibrate and shatter. A voice wails out; distorted, urgent, guttural even. And then, as before, all is silent.
To describe Goose Run and Living Dead Blues as intense would border on gross understatement. The two tracks – the opening stanzas of Victorian sound artist Chris Smith’ latest work – stunningly merged into one extended introductory phrase, go some way to sum up Bad Orchestra. The record, Smith’ fifth in nine years, is both opaque and austere, dulled and serrated, considered and visceral, and in many ways completely different to anything he’ done before.
But for Smith, more than anything Bad Orchestra stands to represent a somewhat difficult phase in his life. Racked with personal fissures and dramas, the last two years have proven a time of personal and geographical upheaval for the reserved 30-something guitarist. And Smith, who is tonight chatting from his home in the tiny eastern Victorian town of Rosedale, is the first to admit that it’s been anything but easy.
â€œUm, not wishing to dramatise, but yeah, it has been two or three pretty complicated years,â€ he sighs. â€œI kind of moved out here from Melbourne partly out of necessity and, well, it’s a long story, but amongst other things, I wasn’ super keen on having my daughter grow up in the city.â€
â€œI think I had a lot of catching up with myself to do in terms of being a musical bum for 14 years and still essentially having nothing to show for it, and working crap jobs and having nothing to show for them either,â€ he continues. â€œSo I moved back here basically because I could afford to invest in a property and offer us some stability.â€
It’s been something of odd a homecoming for Smith, who actually grew up on a farm just out of town. â€œIt’s been a real experience,â€ he says. â€œI never ever imagined coming back here. Moving away from here was my attempt to leave it all behind.â€
â€œEveryone pretty much knows each other; it’s a pretty tiny place. I have no idea what the population is now, but I remember when I was growing up, the sign on the way into town said 1800. I mean, that was a fair while ago, but it’s definitely still a one-horse town and it’s pretty quiet. I keep bumping into people from when I was growing up. Thankfully, some who I hope don’ remember me don’ seem to, and others do, and that’s good too.â€
It’s where, two decades earlier, Smith was first introduced to the idea of making music, when an aunt gave him a classical guitar for his 10th birthday. â€œShe was full of good intentions,â€ laughs Smith.
But even from the start, he had little curiosity in making music via the usual means. â€œOf course, I wasn’ the least bit interested until I bought a cheap electric guitar from my brother when I was 14,â€ he recalls. â€œBut I could never play in the conventional sense.â€
â€œI consider myself to have only started to learn to play in the last six or eight months, which is interesting and a lot more fun than I thought.â€
This shows on Bad Orchestra. When compared to the glacial guitar structures and fragmented melodies of some of his earlier material, much of Bad Orchestra – namely the band dynamics and vocals of the aforementioned Living Dead Blues, and later in the record, Grain Elevator Blues – veers closer to the dirty, primal rock of bands Crazy Horse, or even Australian rockers the Drones, than the ambient and noise-based guitar craft he is known for.
For the ever-humble Smith, the shift was a real achievement. â€œJust personally, that was a real coup for me,â€ he offers. â€œI was actually a bit shy about those two tracks – Living Dead Blues and Grain Elevator Blues – which really stand on their own, I guess, in terms of the rest of the albumâ€¦ It’s very much a new thing, I suppose. I’ve always loved that kind of stuff, and it always made a lot of sense to me on an intuitive level, but in terms of actually pulling something like that off I had no idea even where to begin.â€
â€œI mean, it’s a very poorly played, rudimentary version of conventional music or whatever,â€ he continues. â€œAnd I think the only thing that really made it work was getting Warwick Brown around to get the guitar down, not to mention the band.â€
Interestingly, Smith cites 70s LA punk band the Germs as one of the chief conceptual influences on the record. Smith had been reading a biography of front man Paul Beahm – aka Darby Crash – during the recording sessions for the album and soon became captivated by the group, drawing parallels to some of his own experiences.
â€œThere are a lot of references there, including the actual artwork,â€ he says. â€œSo yeah, it’s sort of embarrassing to talk about. But it’s just a result of being a big fan and then reading a biography, which was filled with some really interesting, twisted tails.â€
â€œI was really having a lot of trouble coming to terms with, well, just personal stuff. I was having a lot of issues, a lot of drama, and the guy from the Germs was a similarly troubled guy and I kind of related to that. It was kind of like, for him, and maybe for me, doing music was scratching an itch.â€
In many ways, Smith’ link to punk and dirty rock isn’ all that surprising. Having left Rosedale for Melbourne in 1993 – soon after forming the Golden Lifestyle Band – he served his musical apprenticeship in the working-class Geelong rock scene. As Smith remembers, the early nineties was an active time in Victoria’ second most populous city.
â€œI spent a year in Melbourne after school, but didn’ really meet anyone,â€ he recalls. â€œAll my friends were down in Geelong, so I cut to the chase and moved there.â€
â€œI just had no aspirations for a day job or a conventional career in music, but it’s all I ever wanted to do. That was about the extent of my thinkingâ€¦I got to go and see shows at the Barwon Club, and there was so much exciting stuff happening at that time.â€
Of course, not all of Bad Orchestra is informed by retrospective rock. A great deal of the record – including the dense piano melody and haunting field samples of Glue Factory, echoing drones of The Orbit and sinister, abstracted collage of Your Tunnel – stays truer to form.
Yet, Smith is as baffled as anyone when it comes to actually deciphering what that form is. â€œIt’s all very base, that’s all I know,â€ he says.
One thing he is sure about though, is his music’ effect on his own personal and emotional state.
â€œIt’s very much therapeutic,â€ he pauses. â€œMaybe a lot of what came out in this record was…well, there’ a lot of wrestling with being raised in a really conservative, Catholic environment. There are no direct references in there, but I think it’s me being a recovering Catholic in a sense.â€
â€œI don’ know,â€ he pauses again, mulling over the thought. â€œWhen it comes down to it, it’s really very selfish music and it’s a really selfish record.â€
â€œThe whole reason I made it was because it was extraordinarily cathartic.â€
Bad Orchestra is out through Death Valley