Newcastle’ Croatian Club is the most accommodating venue in the city, perhaps in the state. After a day of unrelenting noise music at said venue, Chris Hearn turns up about an hour before his six o’clock set, nursing a hangover and a “special’ coffee, with his wife and recently born son Wolfgang along to watch. The night before was big for Hearn because it’s the weekend of the This Is Not Art festival, an event that has long put an otherwise artist-unfriendly city on the arts’ map. All throughout the evening friends are complaining of being accosted throughout the day by drunks in the city’ streets; being called “faggot’; being told “you must be from the city’ (you faggot), or to “get a haircut’s (you faggot). It’s always a strange weekend here, with the binary opposite revellers often clashing. Barely anyone ever leaves without a story.
This is where Alps’ base has been for nearly 10 years now, which is impressive for an artist whose music might best be described by a certain portion of the locals as “faggot music’. Tonight is one of the first times Hearn has played a set on guitar, putting him further at odds with the other acts on the bill. Alps, it turns out, was always going to be a â€œguitar actâ€, though Hearn’ hereditary arthritis and subsequent carpal tunnel syndrome meant that he had to find alternatives. The alternatives have come to define him: vintage synths and organs drowned in the hiss of tape and reverb, haunted by his subaquatic monotone vocals, efficiently resolving into blissfully down pop songs. Up until now, loving Alps’ music is loving these sounds, so seeing him play a guitar through a small amp to a jolly-drunk audience is a bit enervating – probably not the best first impression. When I tell him later that, given the circumstances, it didn’ quite work – he’ not visibly bothered by it at all. Rather, it seems I’ll just need to get used to it.
Because since he released his third full-length album Alps of New South Whales, Hearn is excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. Having shed an album long in gestation, his enthusiasm for something different, for possible new directions, is intoxicating. The next morning, I arrive at Hearn’ Novacastrian townhouse with a bottle of requested dishwashing detergent. Inside the sparse, meticulously tidy home, Hearn has Severed Heads on the turntable. A novel by controversial Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun is sitting on the kitchen bench, and his record collection sits in a store shelf scored from a recently closed Newcastle retailer. Hearn promised breakfast, and throughout the interview he chops up sweet potato and pumpkin into cubes. It’s unclear, for the duration of the interview, exactly what he intends to cook.
It’s funny meeting with Hearn in a domestic home, considering his reputation for being a sharply on the poverty line do-it-yourself artist. With the exception of a $2500 grant from the Arts Council for his last American tour, Hearn has twice embarked on lengthy international tours on his own; booking his own shows, bunking with friendly locals and staying just above the poverty line selling his albums and only just breaking even. He’ set to tour America again in 2010 in support of the new album, but the national launch for Alps of New South Whales has been quite different to before.
“For the tour that I’ve just completed everything was entirely weekends,” he says slowly and thoughtfully, in a way that wouldn’ come as a surprise to those familiar with his resigned vocals on Alps records. “I took one day off so I could do a three day New Zealand tour. I’m just flying to a different city in Australia every weekend and working full time Monday to Friday. That’s been a necessity because I have the family to support now – I have to work around having a stable source of income and it’s ridiculous to expect that coming from playing music. I’m also really tired.”
“It’s actually less of a chore than before,” he continues, “being able to sleep in my own bed is really great, and cook food at home. I eat what I want when I want. You really miss those simple parts of life when you’re away from home for so long, and it becomes a chore just waiting. It seems like when you’re on tour you play for 20 to 40 minutes max per night and the rest of being on tour is made up entirely of waiting: waiting for a bus, waiting for a sound check, waiting for the bands to play before you, waiting for the show to finish and then waiting for the venue to close, then waiting for someone to pay you before you can leave, and then waiting for people who are letting you stay at their house to have their last drinks, and then getting up the next day and doing it all again.”
For Hearn, travelling must come easier than for most people. Born in Tamworth, his family moved to Orange in the central west of New South Wales when he was still an infant, where he lived until he was 8-years-old. He then moved to Ballarat and then, shortly after, to New Guinea with his missionary parents. “In New Guinea it was difficult to make friends with the local kids,” he recalls, “we were the only ex-pats around where we were living.”
“Well, not the only ex-pats,” he continues, “there were other missionaries around, as well as Chinese families. But there weren’ any kids around the same age as me that I could relate to. I played a lot of sport with [the local kids]everyday but you couldn’ have them around your house because they’d steal your stuff. It got really uncomfortable and it was a guilty, weird sort of thing. I’d have all this stuff and they’d have nothing. You’d want to play with them and hang out but they’d say “can I have that?’. I was like “I’m sorry you don’t have that’, but I had to say “no, you can” [have that]. It was awful and strange.”
Hearn spent four years in New Guinea before moving back to Tamworth for the rest of his teenage years. When he hit sixteen, he left home and moved to Newcastle. After the obligatory budding musicians’ stint in a TAFE music business course (“everything they told me I’ve had to actively reject”) and work as a sound engineer, Alps came into being in 2005 with his self-titled, self-issued debut EP. At the time, Newcastle wasn’ as musically fertile as it has been in the late half of the decade, with Hearn pointedly refusing to play Alps shows in the city for a time due to volatile responses from the audience. His first show was in Newcastle however – in the comparatively welcoming environment of the This Is Not Art festival. Once he hooked up with fellow Central Coast artists like Castings and Crab Smasher, the atmosphere became more accommodating.
“I had been playing in some really obnoxious bands [up until Alps],” Hearn says of the early days, “we were trying to be mathematic, experimental, punk and political. Basically, Alps was supposed to reject all that. The idea was to make pop songs that were as simple as absolutely possible, using maybe two or three notes, a flat four/four and no vocal melodies. There was to be no verse/chorus/verse structure. They weren’t even really pop songs, just repetitions of one slight idea.”
“Which was kinda obnoxious of me now I think of it,” Hearn reflects with a grin, “it was the absolute opposite of what I’d being doing for a long time and it felt refreshing. But it only felt refreshing for about six months so I started developing the sound pretty early on, and incorporating different instruments, ideas, concepts. I think from everything after the first EP I’ve started to tread different ground and find a way to really express myself.”
Alps’ next public foray was the 2006 8” single Origin of the Species, released on Hearn’ own Shriek Sounds imprint. As the title suggests, the release grapples with Hearn’ reaction to Darwin’ theory of evolution – a concept that naturally clashed with his missionary upbringing. “I rejected religion in 2001,” he explains, “and it took me a long time to come to terms with that. I was raised by missionary parents and religion was the big thing. It really was what we lived for. I was scared of hell and really attached to religion for a long time. Once I came to terms with it I got quite depressed and nihilistic because I was thinking there’ no reason for anyone to be here or anything existing.”
Mostly all of Alps music is autobiographical. “They’re either about me or about what I’m directly involved with at the time,” He says. “A lot of my songs discuss ideas based on things that I’ve been reading, or seeing. So I suppose in some ways yes [they are autobiographical]. I definitely wouldn’ say that I agree with everything that I said earlier on.”
If Origin of the Species was the result of a young man’ existential falling out with god, its follow up LP Alps of New South Wales was markedly less grand in theme, though arguably his most downcast and unmistakably “depressed’ album to date. With lyrics as bluntly resigned as “I’m not living for anything worth dying for”, Alps of New South Wales was pure un-distilled youth drama, fomented in a broth of fuzzy muzak transmissions, all cheap porta-tone and reverb obscured vocals. It was a sound that predated the current zeitgeist of lo-fi electronic pop by a number of years. For all its meritorious honesty though, it’s a remarkably difficult album to listen to in a sitting, but like all uncompromisingly bleak music it resonates companionably when listened to in a similarly unhappy frame of mind. “I was having a really fucked up time in my life at that stage” he says. “I’d found myself almost thrown back into my childhood.”
He goes on to explain. “I’d gotten myself into a bit of trouble, and a bit of debt, kind of overnight I guess, and was forced to move back to Tamworth with my dad and just work for him for 9 months. I didn’ see any friends. Newcastle is rough but Tamworth is so much rougher. I got really depressed and got caught up in a work and no social life situation. I’ve always had troubles with my family, and I started reliving the isolation that I was feeling in New Guinea. It was a similar lack of connection.”
“It’s really hard to listen to, it’s just way too depressed,” Hearn admits. “Every now and again people come up to me and say that they can relate to it, and that’s really nice, I’m glad that they can do that, but I think it’s hard in this day and age [for that to happen]. People aren’t looking for music to relate to, they’re looking for entertainment. And I guess I’m guilty of that as well, if you look at my record collection.” I glance over to the record stand and a copy of Swans’ Children of God stares back.”
Alps’ newest record is less startlingly sad, though perhaps the name – Alps of New South Whales – offsets any perceived profundity. It is, after all, a bad pun. Never someone to let go of a theme, Hearn named each song on the album after a different whale: the Blue Whale, White Whale and Minke Whale all get the opportunity to shine here. The theme resonates on a purely musical level. Hearn is reluctant, in fact refuses, to elaborate on the lyrical content, and regrets having ever included a lyric sheet with his album, as he did with Alps of New South Wales. “I just think the lyrics that I’m writing now, as a person with a lot of appreciation for writing, cannot be separated from the context of the song and appreciated in a written form.” He explains, “they lose all their meaning when they’re separated from the song. I don’ want to be read, I want to be listened to. When I feel like I want to be read I’ll publish something.â€
“It started off as a pun,â€ he admits, explaining the whale theme that ties together his newest album. “It comes out of my really bad sense of humour, and some people might pick up on some of the jokes, like one for instance – there’ a song on the album called “Narwhal’, which is a whale with a big thing sticking out of its face, and at the end of that song there’ a big “nah nah naha” moment.”
“Blue Whale’ is a very blue song, not in a synaesthesic sense – it’s probably more red – but lyrically it’s kind of a depressed track. There’ a similar link between the titles and the lyrical content to the musical textures that relate to the whales that I’ve chosen. I was thinking a lot about Brian Eno’ ambient series, and the idea of making a music that can be listened to actively or left in the background. I really wanted to do that with this album.
“There’ a Makers of the Dead Travel Fast track [“Tael of the Seaghors’] where they have a fish tank, which inspired me,â€ He continues, â€œas well as a lot of other things. I was watching this television series called Metalocalypse where they record an album underwater because they think it will be more brutal.” He laughs.
After the interview, Chris catches a lift with me to an afternoon gig he’ playing in Newcastle as part of the New Weird Australia showcase. He’ playing in a church in Newcastle’ central business district alongside Moonmilk and Kyu, and the rain – as it’s known to do over the This Is Not Art long weekend – is pouring. On his way out, he hugs his infant son before gathering a handful of Alps of New South Whales for the merch stand, along with his guitar, an amp and a projector. As we negotiate the wide arteries of Newcastle into the old town Hearn is business-like: not particularly nervous or excited, just calm and not perceptibly fazed.
It’s funny, witnessing the mundane preparations that occur before an artist like Alps performs: these otherworldly emanations, reflective and emotionally vigorous, don’ sound like they could be rooted in routine but rather something more intangible, like the caustic frequencies that invade provincial AM stations on rainy nights. They just are. In reality it’s difficult to romanticise, but as he wanders into the church with a guitar and none of his signature organs, it’s tempting to simplify. He’ off to express himself, fulfilling that primal urge that inhabits some people. There is the sense nowadays Hearn is living for something worth dying for.
Alps’ Alps of New South Whales is released through Beat is Murder.