In Search of the Sydney Underground feature by Alexandra Savvides


As we trundle ever further into an age where musicians, consumers, and the industry are being forced to redefine notions of music creation and distribution, there seems to be little in the way of a traditional scene that holds creators of particular types of music together.

The notion of a ‘scene’ has been particularly sullied over the past few years, especially in relation to the more electronic pockets of music in Sydney and surrounds. The proliferation of the so-called “fluoro crowd” and its associated performers has done much to distance many artists and fans alike from using the term scene to describe their shared experiences.

So, the terminology itself presents a problem; it seems to separate its creators from their audience, while the term’s use in its vernacular form is a particularly derogatory remark – they don’t call them scenesters for nothing. For all intents and purposes, the term as outlined by Peterson and Bennett in their work Music Scenes seems to provide the least loaded definition: a situation or location where the production, performance and reception of popular music is constructed.

If we take the next step forward, this situation is not so much created through choice, but rather the lack of choice; the neo-electronic space in Sydney has emerged because of what doesn’t exist as much as what does. This is not a scene in the manner which we’re used to seeing it, from literature and from our own experiences – no raves in Sydney Park for starters. There is no set uniform, no collective experience for those who were only just scraping together their record collections in the mid-1990s, when the Sydney scene was arguably most active.

Currently, even the type of music that these artists are creating, ostensibly in the same style, shares little in common apart from the geographical location in which it was created. Gathering spaces are few and far between. Since the demise of the Frigid club night in 2006 (the birthplace of this very magazine), only a couple of regular nights have popped up with a loyal following – CDR, Headroom, and Void at various locations.

Venues are a little more plentiful, such as Serial Space, St Petersburg and Bohemian Grove, but by their very nature they are home to a diverse assortment of performances, not exclusively electronic music variants. There are so many sounds being created that it is impossible to cover all genres, all versions of what really should be included in this discussion. Just as an example, there are incredibly important pockets of dubstep, particularly in Sydney, that deserve another article entirely dedicated to them.

Of all those nights previously mentioned, CDR, held at Hermann’s Bar on Sydney University’s Newtown campus, is the most interesting, designed to be a collaborative experience for producers and listeners alike. The format has changed little since its inception in Sydney in 2006. The first hour consists of a talk by an influential producer, followed by a showcase of songs from international producers, and then finally, local music makers are invited to drop in a CD of their latest work, whether finished or still in production, for playback on the sound system. It’s a situation where producers can bypass the usually restrictive policies of getting their music played in clubs, and where they can actually meet other musicians and creative people they may have only heard about. Plus, there’s the all-important self-criticism and self-praise, when, as the night progresses, they have the chance to hear their own sounds on rumbling speakers with the bass turned up. Over the relatively short period of time between 2006 and now, the participants at CDR have steadily grown – be they audience or producer – and influential speakers from around the country and abroad have congregated on the evening.

Lorna Clarkson, along with Mark Pritchard, Simon Hindle and Sofie Loizou, established the Sydney CDR night after the example set in London by original creators Tony Nwachukwu (Attica Blues) and Gavin Alexander. Clarkson sought to create a place for producers and music lovers to meet and listen to new work in a supportive setting, yet sees her role as merely facilitating CDR’s audience. “I had long been aware that there existed a disconnection between the music makers that I knew. There were lots of people making music but I rarely heard that music on radio or in clubs. Also, no-one was aware of what each other were doing. I saw CDR as a way to bridge some of these gaps.”

Intriguingly, over the course of the past few years CDR has seen a convergence of sounds – most certainly more dubstep and beats oriented – which Clarkson puts down to the nature of the evening. “Obviously, we are not out to shape or influence anyone directly but the night, by its nature, is a sharing of ideas so I am sure that some of the regulars have been influenced in some way – if not stylistically, then by different production techniques and sounds used by the other artists.”

“We have noticed a lot of electronica and dubstep coming through, but we are keen to not have the night become genre specific. It’s difficult to know how to encourage music makers and fans of other styles to come along, but one way is through our invited guests. I have always found inspiration in hearing other people’s stories, so, when appropriate, I invite a respected artist or industry person down to CDR to be interviewed so that they can impart specific knowledge and share their experience and perspective with the rest. No matter what genre of music these guests are involved with, there is always someone who comes up to me afterwards saying, ‘I don’t usually listen to that sort of music but…’ and goes on to relate that they got something important out of listening to his/her story.”

In conjunction with physical meetings like CDR, the intervention of the internet has had a lot to do with collaboration, in acquiring contacts and securing live dates. Adrian Elmer, from local group Telafonica, and a music reviewer for Cyclic Defrost, likes how the internet has bridged many of the gaps he had experienced in finding gigs and like-minded musicians in the 1990s. “In terms of working with other bands, all of our favourite gigs so far have been ones where we’ve put the line-ups together ourselves. This has generally been through finding people on MySpace that we like the sound of, and asking them if they’d like to play. All of those, so far, have been great and we’ve got to know them in real life as a result. But, without the internet, most of those would not have happened.”

So, this concept of a ‘scene’ – at least in the traditional sense – appears to be redundant. Many musicians interviewed for this article mentioned the emergence of a new method of music making as an impetus for this change. Indeed, Telafonica’s experiences ring true for a number of other artists. “There is a larger scene of bands mixing electronics, and more regular rock styles,” says Elmer. “While we are probably at the electronic end of that spectrum, having that live aspect has meant we’ve played lots of gigs alongside bands like Underlapper, Seekae, Parades, Karoshi, and The Dead Sea, and have felt like we fit in there. Maybe it’s because we’re not purely electronic/dance oriented so we haven’t looked for the scene that is, but for us, we feel like the scene mixing electronics and more traditional modes is more exciting and where we are at.”

Ivan Vizintin from the group Ghoul expresses a similar sentiment. “There’s a big DIY electronica/noise scene in Sydney that doesn’t get enough attention. Bands like Castings, Moonmilk, Alps of New South Wales, Naked on the Vague… all great bands that are a bit too left-of-field for some people. It’s a shame, because there are hundreds of young kids that lap up all that Pitchfork/Stereogum hype of US experimental acts, when they could just look in their backyard and find exactly the same stuff. The same scene that they dig over there is thriving under their noses.”

This brings up yet another issue pertinent to any discussion of a geographically based scene, particularly in Australia – the worth of local producers and local musicians when compared to what is coming out of the rest of the world. Clarkson is adamant about this particular point, and sees CDR as breaking down some of the issues relating to the cultural cringe. “I hope more than anything that CDR is a place of encouraging new ideas and new sounds. I’m tired of people looking to Berlin or London, hoping to find a music community that is inclusive and supportive. This idea that Australian music is somehow not as worthy on the international stage is complete bollocks, but until people start getting behind each other it will remain this way. For me the great thing about CDR is that it is a level playing field and everyone there has their ears wide open.”

Martyn Palmer, who records under the name Broken Chip, is located on the periphery, producing music from his home in the Blue Mountains. He says that regardless of the internet and radio, information still takes time to trickle down to him. Like many others, Palmer’s notion of the ‘scene’ seems to be still entrenched in the mid-90s aesthetic. “I really don’t know how strong it is at the moment and what’s going on everyday and where it’s headed… as for locations and venues, I’m not really sure where they are. I know of one place up in Medlow Bath called Akemi that has had a number of experimental performers play shows, and I’ve played in a great venue in St Peters called St Petersburg.”

Amidst the fracas between space, performance and collaboration, the humble bedroom producer might feel slightly ill at ease. The distinction between programmed (electronic) elements and live performance is an entire discussion in itself – so where does that leave producers and bands without a physical space to congregate? Palmer comments, “I’ve not really collaborated with many people. If you count doing remixing as a collaboration then it’s been word of mouth I guess. I’ve done three remixes so far and they have all been for local Sydney groups: Underlapper, Comatone and Telafonica. I have been approached by all of them in person. The remixes are done then uploaded to a server or posted back to them.”

Closer to the city’s centre, Ghoul’s methodology is similar to the way in which other electronic musicians and bands are forging collaborative relationships. Though most of the interchange occurs online, via e-mail and exchanging files, Vizintin hints that there is still the opportunity for meeting at shared gigs and through word-of-mouth. “Sometimes we get lucky and are asked to play at a show or jam with our friends, which is always a great deal of fun. Seekae are very good friends and jamming in the same room with them is a real treat. Completely different and refreshing dynamic. They’re very open to throwing ideas around and we all love sharing. They’re our first port of call if something needs to be critiqued.”

Like Ghoul, Telafonica have had collaborative experiences with people whose music they found online. “[We’ve] asked if they’d like to exchange remixes with us. They’ve mostly been more than happy to and we’ve had some excellent music come from all around the world as a result.”

So while the ‘scene’, in the way it has been shaped by preconception or collective memory, is all but gone, this new wave of music makers have created something new. It’s a neo-electronic collection of artists who have a traceable history (though they may not be aware of it), and as a result have evolved into a different form. It is collaborative; reduced to ones and zeros floating around the internet; forged through handshakes; nurtured by listening to music over speakers in a bar and it can even be strengthened through sitting in bedrooms tapping out melodies on equipment old and new with no company apart from the birds sitting outside the window.

It seems then, that there is at least one commonality shared by these producers, musicians, performers and facilitators: the love of what they do. Clarkson sums it up perfectly: “We have had Theo Parrish and Flying Lotus playing their beats alongside Monk Fly and Lauren Horton – house next to hip hop next to electronic dub next to folk. It is this broad appreciation and openness that keeps me going as a non-producing music lover. While the music geekiness exists at CDR, this night is for people into music. Without us – what would be the point?”


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