Room40 retrospective by Andrew Tuttle


Since 2000, Brisbane sound collective ROOM40 has released over seventy recordings, curated and programmed over a hundred events in Brisbane, Australia and internationally, and has made the occasional excursion into visual art and large-scale commissions.

From small beginnings as an outlet for releasing works by label operators Lawrence English and John Chantler, ROOM40 has since become recognised for an innovative and genre-expanding catalogue, with defining works from Brisbane and Australian artists including Robbie Avenaim, Robin Fox, Lloyd Barrett, Chris Abrahams, Leighton Craig, and Erik Griswold seamlessly nestling with those internationals including Taylor Deupree, Tujiko Noriko, Luc Ferrari, Marina Rosenfeld, Tim Hecker and Keith Fullerton Whitman.

ROOM40′ catalogue is one that reflects careful curatorial consideration by English and Chantler, with a broad focus on innovative and challenging (English: “A lot of the ROOM40 records are challenging to some degree, depending on where you come from”) sounds that take in drone, minimalism, abstract electronics and glacial melody. One of the primary elements of the label’s oeuvre is a dedication to the ROOM40 aesthetic, which has a constant base in deep listening and minimal design, whilst encompassing a broad church of minimalist and drone based parameters.

Reflecting over the past ten years, English’ stated belief in the primacy of a clear linear path for ROOM40 as a label is quite evident, with a specific aim to make it “like a catalogue or an archive, so that when you see everything up on a shelf it all makes sense together.

“All of my favourite labels and publishers and magazines, the sum of their parts contributes to a great body of work,” English says. “Ideally, you could also come back to something later and it then makes sense. It’s the whole vision of the label that it’s not just singular, there’ a weight about it. When you look at other labels like Touch as a model, they’ve been doing it for twenty six years now and there’ something that ties it all together, and that’s important as you could listen to something on Touch from fifteen years ago and it’d probably still be interesting. At the end of the day its curation – the best labels are curated labels, and the labels that I love feel very curated to me.”

A sense of timelessness and of mutual respect is another important factor for ROOM40, with English explaining that “every record we put out I have a love for, and a respect for the artist as well. Some of the early ROOM40 recordings, for example the Erik Griswold record or the first DJ Olive ambient record, I can put them on now, and while its been almost ten years I can still be totally into it and transported by it in the way that I was the first time I listened to it. The Buoy record still sounds as relevant as the most recent one, the Triage record, the better part of eight years later.

“I’ve always said ROOM40 is a friends and family label, for people whose work I genuinely love and respect, and I want to see them do well. Someone like Robin Fox, for example, I have the utmost admiration for this very confident and considered artist, a very nice guy, and an amazing scope of work. I want to see him become as internationally recognised as he should be – and its the same for a lot of the others who I strongly like. With Ben Frost, I’m really happy to see him getting the attention he’ getting for his records. Steelwound is a record of his from the early days, and I put it on recently (as we’re going to do a vinyl version of it late this year) and it’s still amazing. I still feel that feeling I did when I first heard it. I’m very conscious of supporting people that I really believe in, and that’s actually one of the main reasons I started the label: to have a platform to present this work and to get people excited about it.”

Like the vast majority of record labels, from the tiniest short-run bedroom cassette label to a multinational conglomerate, ROOM40 has had to negotiate the rapidly changing realities of how listeners engage with and approach recorded music. “We’ve got to come up with interesting ways to present music,” Chantler believes, “in ways that show the love for it and celebrate the idea of giving it some time. In the interim that will probably mean some lovely vinyl editions.”

Rather than taking a hardline approach against downloading, English accepts that whilst there’ something lost with the ubiquity of digital music, those who are interested in smaller labels such as ROOM40 may have a better understanding of the context of the original intended product – even if the reality of the absorption of the music doesn’ necessarily correlate with this.

“I think it is a challenging thing, and the way ROOM40 is approaching it is that there’ two audiences. There’ an audience that wants to listen to the music, and some of them will decide to buy it. At some point there’ a give and a take. I think that there’ a lot to be said for music getting out there. You’ve got a digital audience, but at the same time you’ve got your artefact audience that loves the tactility and the design and the art object. Increasingly ROOM40′ moving towards producing things like that, whether multiples or editions that are different.”

Whilst still having a financial bottom line affected by the continuing trend towards accessing music for free (whether legitimately or otherwise) ROOM40 has outlasted other labels of a similar stature by developing a strong “brand’: by gaining the trust of their target audience along the way. English reiterates that the ongoing movement of the label; the creative freedom given to its recording artists; its positive working relationships, specific visual aesthetics and an understanding of the working methods of sound artists all contribute to the continued sustainability of ROOM40.

“What’s interesting is that the strength of the work and artists carries much further, and we’re lucky to have been doing it long enough and to be interested enough to find ways that work for audiences. What we want is that the records are going to be interesting in ten years time. Each album tends to have a concept or a theme or a quality which separates it from releases someone else does. The records we’ve done have tended to be the more esoteric albums, a chance for experimentation or reconsideration.”

Over the past decade, running in lockstep with ROOM40′ recorded catalogue has been approximately one hundred various live presentations. Primarily presented in Brisbane, but with additional forays into other Australian cities as well as in the United Kingdom and Japan, ROOM40 events are complementary to the label catalogue, whilst having creative license to showcase a broader spectrum of genres and forms of music.

Perhaps the most recognisable ROOM40 presentation series to date has been Fabrique, a semi-regular event encompassing 40 performances in various spaces of the Brisbane Powerhouse between 2001 and 2009. Fabrique was arguably ROOM40′ initial footing in gaining the attention of Brisbane audiences, bringing together international artists Keith Fullerton Whitman, Tujiko Noriko, Greg Davis, Fourcolour, Ulrich Krieger, DJ Olive and national and local artists such as Seaworthy, Oren Ambarchi, Robin Fox and Leighton Craig in a series that maintained a dedication to the exploration and advocacy of unusual and perhaps hitherto unknown sounds within an accessible environment.

A former art deco power station turned disused squat turned revitalised flagship arts centre, the Brisbane Powerhouse proved to be a most appropriate conduit for these formative ROOM40 events. The peculiar nature of the complex, with its black box theatre spaces, cavernous open spaces and various intimate rooms, hasn’ always coalesced neatly with the broad spectrum of sounds presented by ROOM40, particularly in early on when both ROOM40 and the Powerhouse were still finding their feet.

Early performances were held in the Spark Bar, where potentially transcendental sounds were overpowered by the chatterings of the influx of the well heeled nouveau rich residents of the suddenly trendy precinct. Elsewhere in the complex is the Visy Theatre, a more formal seated environment which English describes as “a great venue for concerts with 150 people in them, [but]not great for any kind of intimacy”. Whilst these spaces are still occasionally utilised for ROOM40 events, in the middle of the last decade ROOM40′ interactions with the Powerhouse have been placed in more sympathetic spaces – encouraging careful listening with a parallel democratisation of sound art through inclusive, and largely free events. English believes that “the physical change of space has made a big difference” to the dynamic of ROOM40′ events at the Powerhouse, and also other venues such as the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Institute of Modern Art, both in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

The physical change that English speaks of is one of preferencing spaces with a flexibility – to bypass the “standard’ conventions and didactics of both institutional and “rock’ performance venues. “I’m very lucky to have these spaces. The spaces in a lot of ways speak to the music. They’re not formal spaces, and once it broke out of the formal spaces something began to shift. When you sit people down in chairs in rows, it’s a different vibe.”

The final Fabrique event in February 2009 encapsulated the evolving approach to presentation by ROOM40. A lineup consisting of a Japanese free-twee husband and wife duo (Tenniscoats), a German post-punk icon (Gudrun Gut) and a rag-tag mariachi band (The Deadnotes) would be too incongruous, in most spaces, to obtain a sense of cohesiveness. But stripped of the austerity of academia and the dearth of subtlety at a pub gig, Fabrique embraced a rare middle ground – an engaging format that rewards careful listening and viewing whilst embracing the varying perspectives of a wider audience.

Since the conclusion of Fabrique other intermittent one-off events, festivals and curated series’ have become ROOM40′ primary focus. The Syncretism series, hosted at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, and Mono, a long-running collaboration with the Institute of Modern Art, have become integral events within the Brisbane sound art and abstract music calendars. These events likewise feature a combination of international and up and coming and under recognised Australian and Brisbane performers, with a focus towards cerebral and close listening sounds of a wide variety.

On a superficial and possibly paradoxical level, Frankly!, a large scale collaborative project between ROOM40, Brisbane Festival and Someone Good, is possibly the label’ boldest and riskiest move to date. Frankly!, with a tag line of “It’s a Pop Festival’, reached for a far wider audience than previous ROOM40 events, the lineup melding label associates Tenniscoats, Qua, and Heinz Riegler, alongside artists the casual observer might not otherwise link with ROOM40 including a Peaches DJ set, Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu) and I Heart Hiroshima. The melodic sensibilities of Someone Good, the ROOM40 partner label English operates in conjunction with his wife Rebecca, were evident in the programming of Frankly!.

Someone Good came about organically out of an interest in championing recordings that didn’ necessarily fit with the ROOM40 label ethos, but could be linked on a secondary aural level. “It wasn’ anything premeditated. It came from hearing records we loved that didn’ make sense for ROOM40 and responding to that. Bec was the driving force behind it.”

While sharing recent musical discoveries with English over breakfast on a crisp Brisbane winter morning, his passion for music and sound of all stripes shines through. Whilst the ROOM40 label necessarily employs a more specific curatorial sonic approach to releases, the ROOM40 events provide an outlet for the broad spectrum of sounds influencing English to be linked. “I think it’s about listening. What I like about some of the acts at Frankly! – Nikasaya for example – is that for me it doesn’ feel disposable. I can listen to Nika’ voice and be completely transfixed in the same way that I can find a field recording of a seal in Antarctica to be transfixing. There’ a quality in the act of listening that really takes you somewhere.”

ROOM40′ trajectory since 2000 has at many stages neatly dovetailed with the evolution of sound art and music within Brisbane. The past decade has seen Brisbane emerge as one of Australia’ leading communities for creating, facilitating and attending sound art and experimental music. A broad scene has flourished, driven by promoters and collectives including ROOM40, OtherFilm, Audiopollen, Consume, and Making Hey! in conjunction with interstate groups such as Heathen Skulls, dualpLOVER and What Is Music?. The limited options available to Brisbane audiences at various points over time, caused by external mitigating factors including governance and available spaces, has produced a community which is quite open to experience and experimentation when opportunities arise.

Reflecting the growth of South-East Queensland, state and local governments have intermittently poured money into Brisbane’ creative communities over the past decade, with the development of several major sites including the Gallery of Modern Art (2006), Brisbane Powerhouse (2000) and the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (2001). ROOM40 has tapped into these resources and created ongoing relationships. “Brisbane still feels like its growing,” English reflects. “Even at a major institutional level cultural institutions (such as GoMA) are popping up on the map here. That’s exciting, and a major change. I look at what’s happened at the Powerhouse, and it’s quite the same.”

Despite initial best intentions, the programming in Brisbane’ “cultural’ and “entertainment’s precincts has become increasingly middle of the road as it has become more recognised. Increased rents and competition has marginalised smaller commercial and not-for-profit establishments in Fortitude Valley, West End and the CBD, whilst funded venues seemingly prefer commercial ventures and “box ticking’ programming rather than their riskier stated aims. Official support for Artist Run Initiatives is rarely sustained beyond an official launch, and strict Liquor Licensing regulations and a bureaucratic push towards emphasising specific “precincts’ for live performance result in commercial enterprises and nightclubs thriving, at the expense of spaces cultivating creative, non-mainstream methodologies and practices. The reaction to this reflects a distinctly Brisbane-esque cultural insurgency, with Artist-Run Initiatives continuing to promote world-class art whilst drawing a strong base of attendees to reclaimed spaces.

Part of the importance of ROOM40 in Brisbane in 2010, English feels, is as a conduit to remove boundaries between established organisations and underground arts. “I see ROOM40 as some kind of feeding, somewhere between low-key artist run (initiatives) and those that operate above it, with everything cycling around together. Hopefully we provide an opportunity to play quality shows, and for people to interact with internationals that they might not get to otherwise interact with.”

As the largest growing capital city in Australia, Brisbane’ status as both a thriving metropolis and an incidental location of transit benefits its sound art scene, in that artists have further scope to present their work in a relatively inexpensive city. The passion and motivation of curators such as ROOM40 has transformed Brisbane into a cultural hot spot where “high’ and “low’ art, genre and audience have developed as a discerning unit, largely uninhibited by external and ephemeral trends. English concurs. “Brisbane in the past has been really good in terms of opportunities. In terms of performances it’s a great place and there are lots of really good venues here that are very supportive, and we’ve been very lucky to have them on board. I think what Brisbane has afforded me and also ROOM40 is time to work on it, which I may not have had in another place.”

As a Brisbane ex-pat living in London for the last several years, it is fascinating to gain Chantler’ perspective on the growth of the city from an external perspective, as well as the wider Australian experimental music and sound art communities. Chantler’ recognition of the innovative and idiosyncratic artists that Australia lays claim to is interesting to note, because indeed, through labels like Editions Mego, 12k and ROOM40, prolific Australian sound artists are often more likely to be more recognised for their work internationally rather than at home.

“There are some really fantastic artists coming out of Australia: Robin Fox, Oren Ambarchi, Chris Abrahams – each of them has something going on that is so distinct, so personal that it just seems a bit crass to lump them together in any kind of scene. My outsider view is that ROOM40 seems to provide a pretty crucial nexus in bringing good folks to Australia to play and has done a great job of creating a listening culture – in Brisbane certainly – [and]for some Aussie folks, we provide a platform to help get their sounds out into the world.”

One facet of ROOM40′ success in Australia and internationally is the increasingly central role that Chantler plays as the head of ROOM40′ European operations. The Open Frame festival has expanded in the last few years to incorporate events in Brisbane and London. In an interesting parallel development to ROOM40′ genesis in Brisbane, in London the label and touring organisation was influenced by appropriate performance spaces as much as any location specific sound, with London’ Cafe OTO only recently emerging as a primary base of performances for ROOM40 in the United Kingdom. “In London the difference is that it is a much older city,” English says, “but it’s a much bigger one too – there’ a huge population base there. To be honest the UK hasn’ been one of Room 40′ priorities at all until recently, until Cafe Oto (opened), and John having more time to actually put on events.”

While discussing the established ROOM40 bases in Brisbane and London, the experimental music and sound art communities in Australia’ Oceanic and Asian neighbours both existing (Japan, New Zealand) and emerging (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, China) are regularly mentioned by English as resonating with Australian abstract musics. In addition to ROOM40′ engagement with the Asia-Pacific, one-off projects such as Lucas Abela’ Rice Corpse trio with Chinese experimental musicians, and regular tours from Shoeb Ahmad of the Canberran label hellosQuare are consolidating creative relationships between Australia’ closest geographic neighbours.

Some of the most enduring ROOM40 creative relationships occur between Australia and Japan, including musical collaborations between English, Chantler and members of Tenniscoats, as well as a trio project with Tujiko Noriko that has resulted in two successful albums and a series of touring performances. ROOM40′ annual ninehoursnorth event is another reflection of English’ interest in Japanese sound culture, with musicians including Noriko, Haco and Lullatone some of the acts performing to date. English’ passion for Japanese sounds is obvious, with a list of recent interests including “the more experimental work that was circling around the ‘Onkyo’ movement, through to Otomo’s Jazz groups and then of course people like Tenniscoats, Tujiko Noriko, Minamo, Akira Kosemura and the artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with – I think these guys each have very unique and appealing musical qualities.”

The sense of a strong mutual admiration between Japanese audiences and ROOM40 as a collective is also highlighted in a practical sense for label operations, with English explaining that “when ROOM40 started, Japan was in fact the first place [internationally]we sold CDs – before anywhere else we had a home there, and I guess that may well have helped form the initial stages of the relationship we have now.”

This early impetus is also reflected in ROOM40′ Japanese sojourns, with the genuine and ongoing creative and personal understanding resulting in a constant performance aesthetic that ties together operations in Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan. English stresses the importance of ROOM40′ “friends and family’ ethos in these situations. “It’s really good having local partners as it makes such a big difference to articulate the message to the audience – particularly in Japan with the language barrier.”

The visual design and packaging of ROOM40′ recorded output and curated performance events has consolidated over the past decade to be an important signifier, with a monochromatic colour scheme, and sharp fonts creating a brand identity which aesthetically unites ROOM40′ varied projects. Chantler and English both have a strong interest in visual art and graphic design, and create the majority of ROOM40 artworks. Chantler also describes the flexibility. Tthe level of input Lawrence and I have on individual releases varies,” He explains. “There is a pretty tight specification as far as the font type and size, and the one-colour rule, but beyond that we’re pretty flexible. Some of the folks we release – like say Ralph Steinbrüchel and Richard Chartier – are pretty fantastic designers as well as making great sounds.”

Although tenth anniversary year celebrations, events and editions currently comprise much of Room40′ happenings in 2010, both English and Chantler have taken the opportunity to reflect on the past whilst expanding the organisation to continue its relevance over the coming years. Chantler’ ongoing interest in diversifying the label to incorporate further British and European operations is obvious, as is following through on a passion for releasing ROOM40 editions on vinyl. “We’re planning on a stack of vinyl to begin with. We’re both fans of the format, its been a logistical problem up until now. Postage to and from Australia is a killer, but we’ve put in place the infrastructure for download-with-purchase to make it easier for people to get into, which means we can put effort into making a pretty deluxe release – HQ pressing, silk-screen sleeves etc – without having to worry about crazy shipping fees driving the cost sky high.”

Later this year, ROOM40 is diversifying into the world of print publishing with Site Listening, a guided tour through a series of everyday sounds across Brisbane that allows the participant to engage with an environment through fresh perspectives. An avid acoustic ecologist, listener and field recordist, English says of the genesis of Site Listening that “it came about because I am constantly struck by how little people listen. I walk around most parts of the world and am just dumbstruck by the dynamic nature of everyday (and not so everyday) sound and I think if you tune in the ears there’s a wealth of inspiration, beauty and oddness that can be experienced.”

“In terms of Brisbane, I remember shortly after I met John Chantler we were making some recordings and I stepped out on his porch in Highgate Hill and it was quite late. You could literally hear the city like a choir – hundreds and thousands of little voices all uniting to make this epic drone. Air conditioners close and distant, trucks on the freeway, distant winds across tree tops…it was just such a compelling experience. Since then I’ve really paid attention to Brisbane’s sounds and sought to find and document some of the more interesting sounds.”

English’ stated visions for the future tend to drift between specific plans and also an awareness that ROOM40″s success to date has come out of flexibility as much as through set intentions. “I think what’s been good about it so far, and that I hope will remain, is that it’s been quite organic. I’d imagine that in the next ten years – if it continues as it hopefully will – things will naturally present themselves. At the same time though, I am relatively strategic about what I want ROOM40 to do because I realise that we’re not funded in any ongoing way, there’ not loads of money driving it, it really is based on each project contributes to the next, and there’ a collective good that comes out of doing all the different things. Someone’ tour may not break even but the album that comes out two years later breaks even from that. For the next few years the mission will be to play to our strengths, and also to start tapping into other things like accessing and engaging audiences. We’re trying to get people interested in work that was previously thought to be inaccessible.” Chantler concurs, stating that “the other thing [we continue to aim for]is bringing people out of their homes and giving them reasons to find the time to stop and listen.”

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