Julian Knowles’ music career seems to defy categories. A member of indie groups The Shrinking Violets and Even As We Speak, and experimental music and environmental audio group Social Interiors. He has composed for theatre, dance, film and television, with his recent solo work moving between experimental music, sound design and IDM, and incorporating the rhythms, structures and textures from pop and rock traditions. Julian established the music technology program at the University of Western Sydney where he headed the School of Contemporary Arts, and subsequently led the School of Music and Drama at the University of Wollongong. He is now Professor of Music and Portfolio Director in the Creative Industries faculty at Queensland’ University of Technology.
Given the fluidity of his musical career, as composer, musician, producer and music educator, it’s not surprising our conversation began with a discussion of musical hybridity.
â€œI’ve got this theory we’re moving into a post-genre world,â€ says Julian, â€œwhere instead of thinking about music in terms of genres we’re starting to think about music in terms of key-words or in tags – all of that Web 2.0 stuff. Things like folk-electronic-New-Weird-America, whatever it is; you assemble a set of connections to different musical ideas, concepts, styles and forms. But they can be freely aggregated or combined in any way and that is where arriving at nowâ€¦ It’s like the “other’ section of the record store just got bigger and bigger until the “other’ part of the record store became the record store. That’s what’s exciting. And I think we’ve arrived at a climate, a zeitgeist, where people are quite happy for things to be intensely hybridised.â€
Julian is my PhD supervisor, overseeing a project that merges opera with ambient electronica. My understanding of his work comes from this context: sending off samples of music, arguing over structures and trying to work out where the hell my compositions fit into the broader sonic soup.
Over a cup of tea at his home in Bondi, Julian says his work is changing direction to focus on the use of popular music structures in experimental contexts, and after a pause for consideration he offers the “tags’ – ambient, electronic, indie, down-tempo and post-digital. As our conversation focused on a notion of what music can be (or, perhaps, can’ be), I’ve decided to focus this article on Julian’ music composition and performance career at the expense of his academic work, which has similarly questioned the hotly contested barriers between research and creative practice. In any case, Julian attributes a large part of his musical “education’ to playing in indie rock bands.
â€œMy first professional gig was when I was 14 and I played in a band at the Sussex Hotel in Sydney. That would have been about 1980 and I was playing sixties power pop. There was a punk venue up the road called the Civic Hotel, so there was a punk venue and mod venue, and the mod venue had scooters out the front and people with eyelinerâ€¦ We played three or four times, lying about our age to get in.â€
Beyond his own performances, Julian paints a vibrant picture of the Australian indie rock scene in the early 1980s, with bands like the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens.
â€œMy parents were English, so I used to go to the UK every two years to visit the relatives and, of course, I used to buy records and clothes from indie stores in London. I had been listening to Joy Division, early New Order, early Siouxsie And The Banshees, the first two or three Cure records, all the Factory recordsâ€¦ and Public Image Ltd, when I heard The Flowers of Romance it blew my mind! That was one of the most radical records, I felt, that had ever been madeâ€¦. But at the same time I was listening to the Yardbirds, Jimmy Cliff, a little bit of early ska like Desmond Dekker, a real mixture.â€
These records, especially the Factory releases produced by Martin Hannett, sparked Julian’ interest in music production because they were distinctive both in terms of recording and sound processing techniques. Laughingly, he recounts messing around with recording on cassette decks and his parents’ hi-fi before getting a Tascam 244 Portastudio.
â€œIt was more owning gear and playing in bands that got me started. I did go to university and got an honours degree in music, but electronic music was only a subject within a conservatorium-like course. I used to hang out a lot in the studio and find excuses to use the gear. Ian Fredericks, the electro-acoustic music audiophile who was running it at the time, was very kind and he used to let me mix records for my bands in the studio.
â€œHe walked in on me one day while mixing – I had re-patched the studio with all this outboard gear I had borrowed – Ian freaked and said, “What’s all this rock and roll gear doing in my studio!?’
Julian’ interest in music technology was twofold, and he became involved in both producing experimental electronic compositions under the guidance of Martin Wesley-Smith as part of the university associated new-music scene, and recording music for his indie rock band the Shrinking Violets.
â€œIn the “80s I was producing records for my own band – initially out of necessity because we had no money. By “86, I’d bought an eight-track, half-inch tape machine, and had a home studio. I couldn’ afford a mixing desk, so I would hire microphones and a mixing desk when we recorded and connect them up to my half-inch. We had a half-inch eight-track at uni, so I could record at home and mix at uni.â€
â€œThe first releases with Shrinking Violets started off as demos. We recorded four songs at home on the eight-track. I mixed them and we made some cassettes and we sent them round to the independent record labels. Jules Normington [Phantom Records] contacted us and said, “I want to put it out’. I said, “It’s only a demo’, and he said, “No, no I want to put it out. What is on that tape, we’re going to put it out.’ They put out the demo recordings as a 7-inch record on coloured vinyl, which was very cool.â€
Other bands heard the Shrinking Violets releases, and by the late 1980s were asking Julian to produce their records. This led Julian to working with indie pop band Even As We Speak. Initially, as producer, but in his words, â€œIt got so hands on that I just had to join the band.â€
â€œThey were a really quirky indie pop band that was a bit shambolic but had a fantastic songwriter, Matthew Love, who would write these amazing pop songs. He was a three or four chord guitarist and it was beautiful songs played by people who could hardly play, which is cool.â€
(Even As We Speak)
Even As We Speak was already enjoying success in the UK, and had been receiving regular airplay on John Peel’ BBC Radio 1 show for their cover of New Order’ “Bizarre Love Triangle’. This was around 1989, and through this airplay, Even As We Speak was signed to English independent Sarah Records, which Julian describes as a home for â€œwistful, very light, twee indie pop.â€
â€œThey [asked me to]produce the records for the next release. I did, and those records charted on the NME and Melody Maker charts. I can’ remember the exact numbers but they went top 10,â€ he says.
â€œEveryone talks about how scared they were of the NME and Melody Maker, because they were so powerful as taste makers in the UK. If you got panned then that was it, you were finished. They were notoriously style conscious, so if you weren’ styled right, if you didn’ have the right haircut or didn’ look how they wanted you to look, then you were in trouble. Australian indie bands were pretty slack compared to English indie bands. But for whatever reason, they liked us a lot so we got great press reception and good radio play.â€
Even As We Speak was invited to perform the live recording segment on John Peel’ program, the famous Peel Sessions. Julian describes this as a â€œbig dealâ€ because Even As We Speak joined a short and prestigious list of Australian bands to perform on the show including the Birthday Party, the Triffids and the Go-Betweens.
â€œPeel Sessions were amazingly powerful. The thing you did for Peel was to record unreleased material and then it was like an exclusive for him, and you were always thinking about later, when you could release the Peel Sessions record. You would record something for Peel, he would then play it on his show, and the next gig that you played, if you played those songs, you’d look out in the audience and people would all be mouthing the words to songs that hadn’ been releasedâ€¦ Everyone who was interested in independent music was listening to his show, so when you were played, you were played to the entire potential record buying public for indie music in the UK.â€
This warm reception contrasted starkly with indifference from the Australian media. Julian describes this as a â€œchronic problemâ€ and part of the plight of Australian bands in general from that period.
â€œTriple J had just gone national and you couldn’ get on their playlist. But later, when I was in the band, we were filmed for SBS television. Nomad came over and did a story on us while we were at the BBC doing our third Peel Session. SBS were interested enough to be there in the UK, and I remember saying in the interview that Triple J was a lost cause because you could be charting in the UK, and you couldn’ get local radio support. In a way this convinced us we’d done the right thing, at that time in Australia on Triple J all they would play were endless repeats of The Cruel Sea – it was an Oz Rock monoculture.â€
Despite the band having label support they were given only $3000 to produce their first full-length album, Feral Pop Frenzy (1993, Sarah Records).
As the band’ producer, it was up to Julian to work out the logistics. His solution was to create a record where each track was produced in a different way, recorded in different contexts and studios. Julian says the band â€œPicked two or three of the most accessible pop tracks and recorded them in high end 24 track studios with SSL consoles and they sounded really schmick.â€ This contrasted with very low-end, DIY production for tracks like “Anybody Anyway’, recorded with a stereo-pair in the drummer’ kitchen.
â€œHe was living in a semi in Pyrmont out near what used to be the CSR factory, so I just put the band in front of me and put the vocal out the front and had a listen through the cans and said, “Not enough vocal, Mary can you step forward. Banjo’ too loud, Matthew can you step back one pace’.â€
They rolled tape for several hours and at the end listened to it back, and chose the best take for the album, which was then minimally mastered and sweetened. This was â€œzero dollarâ€ recording, according to Julian, with his own DAT machine and borrowed mics. His home studio half-inch eight track was even dusted off for the recording. The main challenge was to develop a production aesthetic that would allow recordings with different production aesthetics to cohere as an album.
â€œI didn’ know it at the time, but this was the beginning of my interest with wild hybridisations of genre. We did everything from text sound pieces to poetry to hillbilly banjo tracks to country and western tracks, to rock tracks and programmed electronics. They were all on that same album. So when you listen to it you went, “What the hell is this?’ but there was a consistency through the song-writing.â€
The album was a success and Julian notes that his â€œgambleâ€ went to plan, with the high-end tracks getting rotation airplay on Radio 1.
â€œIt’s hilarious when you look at the critical response. It was just the most bizarre record they’d ever heard in their lives. But because the songs were really beautiful pop songs, people could tolerate things that in classic production school you would never tolerate, like wildly eclectic and differing approaches to tracks recorded in different studios. I don’ even think we could afford to have it professionally mastered. The only way we mastered it was through a friend who was working at the ABC and we got them to sequence the tracks in order and that was it. We did a bit of EQ on the way over and that’s what happened.
â€œBut what it said to me, was that you could make a record for $3000 if you apply yourself to that as a creative problem to solve. It’s about the context you put everything in.â€
At this point, Even As We Speak moved to England to tour, playing â€œendlessly,â€ six shows a week, all across the UK. Feral was licensed for sale in Spain and Japan. The band did â€œas well as an indie band could do,â€ according to Julian, coming from a boutique label without much financial backing for promotion, and he attributes the success of the album to word of mouth coming from their live performance.
After a year of all five band members living together in a Brighton flat, on top of constant touring, the band was feeling the effects of being so far away from home. They approached the major labels, hoping to attract a contract via their regular radio play. After talks with seven or eight different labels they found there was only interest if the band could permanently relocate the UK.
â€œThis highlighted the fact that major labels in the world don’ talk to each other between offices. You would think that if you signed to Polygram in London, you could just move back and deal with their office in Sydney, but noâ€¦ We thought we couldn’ just move our lives to the UK indefinitely. In retrospect some people might say that was a mistake, but I think at the time that if you’ve played, say, 150 gigs in a year and driven around the UK in a van, living off next to nothing, in the pockets of the other band members, it’s not an unreasonable position to come to. So the band came back to Australia, to indifference, and we just let it go.â€
Interestingly, their recordings are trading vigorously on peer-to-peer networks, and Julian has noticed that most of the bands listeners on Last.fm are under the age of 25. Listening to Feral now, out of context, as a 20-something, I really love it. It’s kooky and strangely infectious. Songs like “Beautiful Day’ would glide easily into the contemporary mainstream pop consciousness, except for the breakdown into a very off-pitch rendition of a “there once was a man’ limerick, and added lo-fi ambient noise.
â€œWe were never seriously trying to be a country and western bandâ€¦ [we]always stood aside from genre in that hard way. There was an unreleased recording that was this strange sci-fi concept thing. I don’ know what we were thinking or what we were doing,â€ he says. â€œIt had these ultra modern Bladerunner interludes, and then this broken, single voice guitar-vocal song, so it was ultra hi-tech and broken-down low-tech juxtaposedâ€¦. We sent that to the record label at one point and they turned around and said basically, “What the fuck are you guys doing?’â€
Even As We Speak separated after Feral Pop Frenzy, and Julian established a music technology program at the University of Western Sydney. Around the same time, he met tape collagist Rik Rue, who opened Julian up to experimental music cassette networking channels. This fired Julian’ pre-existing interest in environmental audio, which had continued to develop post-university by working in sound for film and television during the 1980s. Rik was working with Shane Fahey, co-founder of Megaphon Studios, and a member of the band Makers Of The Dead Travel Fast. Julian joined their group Social Interiors, and appeared as a guest artist on their album The World Behind You (1995, Extreme). He joined properly for Traces Of Mercury (1997, Extreme).
Traces included sounds from satellite signals, seawater lakes, metal and timber wharves, which were recorded with a variety of microphones and then heavily processed. Following up from Traces, Extreme asked them to participate in a double CD marking the label’ tenth anniversary called Untitled (ten) (1998, Extreme). Untitled featured one disc of new tracks from the label’ artists and a second disc of remixes provided by Social Interiors who cut-up and re-assembled material from Extreme’ back catalogue.
Julian describes the transition into remixing as a â€œreinventionâ€ of the group. As part of this reinvention, the group worked on tracks individually and Julian began to experiment with hand-calculated rhythmic granulation effects.
Despite his background as a producer, Untitled was Julian’ first remix project. He attributes this to his absence from the emerging Australian electronic music scene before returning from the UK in 1994. He did, however, program and mix for some of Darling Harbour’ infamous Sweatbox dance parties and played in an off-the-wall collaboration at the Phoenician Club. Master-minded by drummer and multi-instrumentalist Louis Burdett, the changing line-up included figures like Tex Perkins, African rapper Mr Razzleman, jazz singer Lily Dior and bass player Cameron Undy (Kidzen) playing largely improvised sets to crowds at the Apotheosis Now dance parties.
By the late 1990s Julian became interested in the post-digital movement and he entered an extended correspondence with Kim Cascone, author of The Aesthetics of Failure.
â€œThere was a whole wave of practice around the late “90s onwards that was problematising the notion of digital being a clean space, a hi-fi space, and thinking about it in terms of exploring the idiosyncrasies of digital – the click, the glitch, the CD skip, all of those sorts of sounds which only really come from digital environments. From about 2000 my work started to draw upon those sound worlds.
â€œLike a lot of people, I’ve moved from high-end, very clean digital environments, to actually embracing lo-fi and desktop environments and, beyond that, to developing experimental approaches to software where the unexpected happens – finding ways of using software with unusual outcomes.â€
Rather than working towards a minimalist-inspired microsound aesthetic, Julian drew upon the ideas of glitch but tried to incorporate a â€œdense and fuller set of musical structures,â€ likening his work to that of Paul Gough (Pimmon).
â€œEven As We Speak was quite experimental, and perhaps if I hadn’ been interested and involved with experimental music then maybe we wouldn’ have adopted that very weird production aesthetic and angle. So there are points when you can see it before, but in the early 2000s it was really about solo work to bring all that together.â€
Julian began to develop his own video for projects around the same time.
â€œI’d become obsessed with the idea of time delimited pieces, setting myself constraints and forcing myself to work within those constraints. One Day was a 12 hour drive and the objective was to gather the materials and create something out of thatâ€¦ A few different versions were created. The first one was in collaboration with a couple of other artists at a performance art festival in Korea. The next was a solo version, which I took to Experimental Intermedia in New York as a one hour performance with three video screens and live electronics.â€
A great response in New York led to Australian performances and in 2005 Roger Richards from Extreme Records gave it to the Melbourne Film Festival. It was programmed in the Australian features section alongside Cate Blanchett in Little Fish (2005, Dirty Films). This time, rather than being a live performance, Julian had created a single screen cinema version, which Extreme Records plans to release to DVD.
â€œThis was a 65 minute experimental music video – manipulated field recordings and video. I was freaked out by that kind of work being put in front of those kinds of audiences. The Australian feature film industry is notoriously conservative, and totally narrative-based, and realist, and here was a very abstract thing.â€
Since the mid-1990s, Julian’ solo work has travelled widely: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s survey of Australian experimental music and sound work, Variable Resistance: 10 Hours of Sound from Australia (2002), curated by Philip Samartzis, the UNESCO Digi-Arts Knowledge Portal and the Australian Sound Design Project databases, the compilation Motion: Movement in Australian Sound (2003, Preservation), and locally, performances at Impermanent Audio and Electrofringe. Interestingly, it is the emphasis on live performance that Julian has found invigorating.
It has given Julian time to consider future avenues for accessing and distributing experimental music.
â€œIt’s not to say that I’m against releasing CDs but I think it’s a good time to question whether physical CDs are the way of the future. Perhaps there are other ways of engaging with your audience? I’m a huge Last.fm user. You can put up free content and attract a pretty significant audience through those networks. So one way of thinking about it is to work in social media spaces and make a fair amount of work available for free, build audiences and then tour. Connect with your audiences on that level. It’s an interesting pause point, and everyone is in that space thinking, “Well, what next?’â€
What’s next for Julian? There’ a collaboration with his partner, experimental musician and vocalist, Donna Hewitt, and an upcoming collaboration with post rock group The Dead Sea. Both focus on merging aspects of popular and experimental music.
Donna’ solo work considers a vocalist’s gestural relationship to the microphone stand. She sees this as a readable and complex language, which has become encoded into conventions of popular music performance. She has tried to address the difficulty of performing as a vocalist, embracing this gestural tradition, while controlling a laptop on stage.
She designed an alternate gestural controller called the eMic that is a â€œmodified microphone stand, with different sensors and controls. It’s got a joystick for the mic-clip, pressure sensors and distance sensors. Basically it’s a mic stand that is aliveâ€¦.â€ With the eMic, Donna generates data that can be shared between laptops. In order to collaborate, Julian and Donna had to work out an aesthetic approach and decided to work with BPM as a way of anchoring their performance within popular music structures.
â€œI was working with Ableton Live. Donna was working with PD (Pure Data) and AudioMulch. But you could still have timing information in there, so we put it into an IDM territory where it was very fractured, but with a very strong sense of BPM and metre. We started slicing and dicing the vocals live, with the processing calibrated to divisions of musical beats, so it became, very much a sense of gestural controller stuff sitting within an IDM musical terrain. Then we took it a step further and I brought the guitar into the act.
â€œI thought if we’re going to work with the gestural language of popular music, then it’s probably a good time for me to break out the guitar. I it into Abletonâ€¦ Rather than playing it in a straight way, I fed it into an effects processing chain so it was a gestural controller, it was live, it was going through the computer and it was being chopped up and processed.â€
Donna and Julian took their collaboration to the International Computer Music Association, where they used it as an icebreaker, opening up conversations between some of the more formal electro-acoustic traditions and popular electronic music forms. This is what he hopes to achieve with his Dead Sea collaboration also.
â€œI’m actually quite excited about the idea of getting a drum kit on stage because I think that is the next logical thing if you are talking about gesture. There are all kinds of difficulties associated with drum kits but they have this very beautiful gestural thing about themâ€¦ there’ a free space that’s opened up over the last five to 10 years through post-rock and out the end of IDM and post-classical, all those post everything genres where there is this fluid space. And I think audiences are ready for it to take place now. There are no rulesâ€¦â€