Shitty jobs, breakdowns, illness, deaths, girlfriends, Ataris, rehearsal spaces and lack thereof, stereos, music, Roman carparks, cassette tapes, alcohol and hallucinogens, breathing, eating, shitting, fucking and all the other (in)significant moments in between.
– Castings’ influences, from their MySpace
Approaching Sydney’s Central Station from the CBD, Hibernian House is an imposing old building – a crumbling remnant of Surry Hills’ industrial past. The dull green exterior is rotting away and the panoramic windows are fogged with years of rain and dirt. Across the road a towering dental hospital pitches a perpetual shade over the street and a grandly developed dive bar cum multilevel entertainment complex buzzes just over the way. Inside Hibernian, pokey graffitied stairwells lead to cavernous, fluorescently lit hallways; dubious suspension bridges hover over a treacherous central pit, surrounded by alcoves and residences. Somewhere in the maze is Yvonne Ruve: a small room with a gutted piano, some couches, ashtrays, leering posters, audio refuse.
For the six members of Castings, this is their home away from home. For most of this decade Castings have hosted shows and rehearsed here, with most of its members commuting from nearby Newcastle. Yvonne Ruve is, in my mind, the seventh member of Castings: the derelict decor, the bad lighting and the gracefully fetid surrounds are a perfect fit for a band whose experimentation is too urgent – too instinctual, pent-up, reactionary – to be relegated to elevated stages, stuffy music halls or grog-branded rock venues. They are the best band Australia has coughed up unwillingly in living memory.
Interviewing Castings is a long time coming: the members seem ill at ease whenever I bring the topic up over a six-month period, whether intermittently via email or at a Castings show. For longer than that the group has been preparing their forthcoming Lexicon Devil-released album, due for release later in 2009. I finally arrange to meet them at Yvonne Ruve, but we end up – over the Queen’s birthday weekend – at a pub nearby, where mid long-weekend inebriation is in full swing. Seeing the group outside their natural habitat reminds me of how tentative they look on stage: several members of the group will quizzically manipulate their instruments, presumably unaware of what kind of maelstrom they might trigger while scaling their treacherous and fragile form of improvisation. Amidst the furrowed-brows is the always shirtless Nick Senger, lurching, hollering and occasionally beating his drums.
When we finally fit ourselves onto a table on the street it soon becomes clear that some members of the band still aren’t entirely comfortable being interviewed while others, as I’ve come to expect, are disarmingly open and given to cheerful banter. They’re a friendly bunch – among the most friendly and likable interview subjects this writer has ever encountered – but the preliminary shit talk over a couple of beers is peppered with faint warnings: we can’t explain this; don’t ask us about that; we talk shit; this whole thing is stupid.
Despite this, the most vocal of the Castings unit express an undying belief in what they do. They proudly insist on their integrity both in navigating the machinations of the cottage industry they inhabit and their musical vision, but are also sceptical of how they’re perceived, whether in fact anyone actually likes them. More than any other band I’ve encountered, Castings really do seem to be doing it for themselves, and no one else. They formed in 1999 as a three piece, out of the ashes of previous bands. Kane Ewin and brothers Sean and Mark Leacy hail from the rural NSW township of Young. Sam Kenna is a Tamworth fellow, while Nick Senger – born in Sydney – has lived in Melbourne but now resides with the bulk of the group in Newcastle. Dale Rees, the quietest, least demonstrative of the group, was born in New Zealand and has spent time living in the United States.
The group was originally a three-piece made up of Senger, Rees and Ewin, with the group culminating in a six-piece in 2004. Ironically, Ewin and Senger met at TAFE while studying Music Business, a tenure they both describe as useless and soul-sapping. Most members played in other bands prior to Castings – Ewin, Shaun Leacy and Senger in Ex-Pat, and Rees in a group called Zodakahn. Music, it seems, has always been the focal point of each member’ lives.
“We’d all had experience with music, structure, performing, but we all got sick of it,” Senger says, describing the birth of Castings. “It was a communal thing: we’d all hang around, get fucken loaded, and play with a four-track. We realised one day that it was more fun than practising the same songs over and over again and performing them. So we just changed.”
Castings’ formative years were spent rehearsing in a dilapidated squat and a muffler shop in Newcastle. Their first gig was at the Hunter on Hunter in that town. Gradually the group grew into a five piece, producing an unreleased debut and their first public offering: 2003’s Electro Disco Weirdo. Spanish Magic – the label that Senger birthed in the late 90s to release some of his home recordings – was revived for the release, and is now overseen by each member of the band.
When you ask any given member of Castings what an album represents, or what the motivating factors for said album were, they invariably insist that it was “a moment in time,” a culmination of the unit’s lives interacting, clashing, communicating through music. They strive to challenge themselves and their audience, but rather than concoct elaborate or difficult methods to do so, the group are largely driven, they say, by instinct. Castings play what they do because they’re trying to find a sound they want that they’ve never heard before. When pressed about the process of recording, the driving factors, Kenna – initially the least willing of the Castings unit to be interviewed – becomes defensive: “The question you’re asking, the idea of the process – this whole thing is awkward. The idea is: we put an album out and it’s good music. It has to be a masterpiece. That’s our piece of art, and we put it out for whatever reason and that’s it.”
Unlike a lot of the improvisational groups that Castings are frequently lumped amongst, the processes of performing and recording an album are very distinct. Castings don’t document their development through regular missives but instead painstakingly piece together their output; improvising for long stretches of time and later connecting the most cohesive results into a thematic collage. “We don’t want to be off-cast shit,” Kenna insists. “We don’t want to show people what we’re like every day, cause we don’t want people to know what we’re like every fucken day.”
“We show up every week, and each week different stuff happens in our lives,” Ewin offers, to which Kenna adds: “And if someone is down, or absent, something will be different.”
“I think Castings is driven by the fact that we have six people that are friends, and that love each other, and who are willing to share their lives and music with each other” Senger elaborates, “like Sam said, on any given day something could be different and that’s reflected in the way we talk to one another, and the way we play. We don’t try to hide that because a) we can’t and b) most importantly, we’re transparent. We don’t want to tell everyone our secrets because we don’t feel we need to. You can hear it on the record and see it when we play. Explaining it is difficult because we already feel like we’ve given people enough.”
“We’re embarrassingly honest,” Kenna adds. For anyone who has ever witnessed and felt moved by Castings, the sense that real human beings inhabit these aural emissions – that real anger, joy, frustration and catharsis are embedded within these hazily chromatic sound worlds – will strike as the most blatant of truisms. The group’s 2004 album “Allo Hickory sounds like 35 years of punk rock stripped of its declamatory tendencies. All the benevolent and functional aspects of rock music are fighting on their last breath beneath a frozen pond of reverberating, decaying hubris. It’s one of the most disconcertingly claustrophobic but ultimately affirming albums I’ve ever heard: relentlessly bleak, but unrepentantly so, infused with the subtle hues of a faded Polaroid, where the picture captured is off-focus, ambiguous, familiar lines blurred by the malfunction of its means. Castings wield every commonplace rock instrument: guitars, synths, drums, but the way they’re utilised exists in a grey area between ability and anti-ability.
“Why does anyone want to start a band?” Senger wonders. “I figure people start a band because they want to play something they can’t hear. We play what we want to hear. We do our best. We’re humans and we fuck it up.”
The conjunction of at times contrary inclinations, moods and tendencies is what makes the six-piece’ music so colourful, but as Kenna points out: “Regarding the idea of achieving a particular sound, we do that sometimes. But another person in the band might be thinking at the same time “yeah I’ve got this sound in my head’ and I’ll be like “ah fuck this.’ I don’t necessarily know how it’s gonna turn out because I don’t know what’s going on in the [other guys’]head.”
When it comes to performing live, the group is divided. Kenna doesn’t like it. “I hate playing live,” he declares. “I don’t understand the process, so if I could not do it, I wouldn’ do it. But other people in the band think differently, they love the release and the idea of it. But I find it completely uncomfortable. It becomes such an aesthetic thing. For me the whole idea of it being analysed in such a public way seems ridiculous.”
“It’s just a different energy,” Ewin adds diplomatically. “That’s what I like about it. It’s the energy of being put on the spot. Sometimes it works 100 per cent, sometimes you finish wanting to kill yourself. There are so many elements and reasons why it can go either way.”
But when asked if Castings would prefer to be a “studio’ project, Senger claims “not in the slightest.” Other members of the group, Kenna in particular, vehemently disagree. Rees believes that “to be able to lose ourselves” in the performance is important, and Kenna concedes to that at least. “The last gig [at Yvonne Ruve]was good because the lights were out, and it worked because there was no focus on the person and it was just the music.” He says. â€œEveryone was in this hot sweaty room and all they could hear was it. There was no “oh what’s that guy doing’, they were like “oh I actually have to listen to this shit.”
“Playing live is difficult simply because we didn’ see ourselves that way.” Senger says, “We didn’ see ourselves as people that could do that. A lot of us thought that was stuff for people who weren’ like us. So it’s awkward but it doesn’ mean that it isn’t appreciated.”
“People like us” is a phrase that arises frequently during the conversation. Castings see themselves as separate from any music community or scene – whether imagined or otherwise – in Sydney or the country. “We try to challenge ourselves and the way we play,” Ewin offers. “We’re not going to give you a clique because we’ve always seen that as extremely redundant. To go and see a punk gig, or a rock gig, is absolutely ridiculous. It comes back to the question of “what music do you listen to? Holy shit, what kind of a question is that?”
“We don’t want to align ourselves with anyone,” Senger continues. “We play with people who are going to challenge us and challenge the audience. We want to play with someone who’s going to teach us something. I want to learn from the people we play with. And we can’ learn from one genre, we have to hear everything. So yeah we are a fucken punk band, punk as fuck for sure. But, Maggotville [the Marrickville punk warehouse]wouldn’t have a bar of us, they laughed their fucken arses off at us. But they’re wrong.”
Again, Kenna disagrees, stating that he doesn’t think there’ anything to learn from other bands. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever discovered,” he starts. “When you’re playing with other bands you’re in this world where everyone is meant to be sympathetic [towards one another]. But there’s no difference between me being a chef and working in a kitchen with a bunch of careerist fucking chefs and being amongst careerist musicians.
“They’re all the same fucking people.” He goes on, “I initially thought the utopia of something like SoundNoSound [the series of events Spanish Magic briefly ran in 2004/05]was ‘this is great, we’ll create our own world,’ then I realised that most people have an agenda. I can’t go to the pub with any of these people and talk about something normal. I have no need to be a part of anything like that. I don’t want to hang out with musicians or bands, or people who think they’re doing something.”
To the members of Castings, scenes, collectives, artists collaborating due to mutual aesthetic backgrounds or pursuits, is not for them. “We’re definitely trying to extinguish the redundant, the comfortable,” Kane admits. But what is comfortable? “Something that is routine. Something that is so familiar that you end up relying on it and somehow blocking out those emotional patterns of up and down and in and out,” he explains. “It’s easy to create a safe haven but the fact is that life goes in and out. Being friends for so long and not being ashamed of any of that means what we do is honest.” No matter what the outcome – whether indie rock or power electronics – dawdling in circles among a group of self-congratulatory peers would be the death of Castings.
Instead, in Nick’s words, Castings see themselves as “Pop music created by people using a different map.” The notion that Castings is an uptight experimental group of the noise variety frustrates the group. “There’s more to us than that. CD-Rs seem disposable,” he says, referring to the constant onslaught of output by noise musicians in that format, “We’re not disposable. We mean it.”
This point was amply proved on the group’ last album, 2007’s Punk Rock Is Bunk Squawk. Ironically, the album opens with one of the most aggressive and “noisy’ sounds Castings has ever created – a move the group say was calculated as a (rather deadpan) response to claims they were just another American Tapes noise band. Castings did release their 2006 album Lanky Says It’s Close Enough To Jazz on that label though, a distinction that might mislead some. On the contrary, Punk Rock… goes on to showcase some of their weirdest, bleakest and most blissfully kaleidoscopic moments. The closing track “I’m In My Warface’ sounds like a culmination of all the group’ idiosyncrasies; it starts in a forbidden zone of woozy hyper-melodic synth atmospherics before harsher industrial beats plough through the bliss, taking down the whole track in a spectacular storm of fire and brimstone. For many minutes the embers are allowed to calmly darken, before a welcome, numbing silence prevails.
Later, when we’re forced back to Yvonne Ruve after last drinks, we listen to Essendon Airport’s songs with Anne Cessna, Senger waxes rhapsodically about The La’s, and the group admit to Nick Cain’s legendary Opprobrium zine being a massive influence in their formative years as avid music listeners. Again, when pressed about their forthcoming Lexicon Devil release (working title: Reel Hot Lime Lights) the group claim that their music is a record of a collective “moment in time,” though what marks these moments is something the group are either reluctant or unable to define. “I think this album is a bit more of a slow burner,” Senger admits, adding that it won’t be as restlessly diverse as Punk Rock. “It’s probably a bit more avant garde,” Rees adds, “a bit more restrained and a bit more trance like.”
There is one moment I manage to wrest from the group though, a tiny portrait, something – at least – that might go some way in showing the kind of miniatures of life that presumably influence Castings’ output. Kenna explains how, before a show Castings played at the Mandarin Club in 2005, he saw a dishevelled man being angrily accosted by his partner on the side of the road, both lurching quickly, probably homeless. After a few moments of the woman’s tirade, having had a gutful the man swung around quickly and spat, “Well I buy ya food and I fuck ya don’t I?”
In addition to “shitty jobs, breakdowns, illness, deaths, girlfriends, Ataris,” etc, these tiny occasions bleed into Castings’s work. “That influenced my performance that night,” Kenna says rather solemnly. “Those are the types of things that influence me.”
All those (in)significant moments in between.