For those who find inspiration in the stars, who dare to envelop themselves in a warm blanket of Komische sounds, who view synthesizers as sonic sputniks, exploring the outer reaches of our consciousness and beyond, then Cybotron are something of the holy grail. Yet they’re probably not what you think. Sure there’s that lush wall of pristine synthetic sheen, the proto throb of oscillating electrics and ecstatic synth ragas, but if you’re thinking about banks of synthesizers, tangles of patch leads and German accents you’re only halfway there, because there’s incongruity here too.
It stems from the notion that in 1976 these kind of otherworldly electrical experimentations were being created a world away from the source, in the heart of the rhythm and blues scene in Melbourne Australia.
It all began in 1970, when a 23-year-old saxophonist, Steve Maxwell Von Braund left Melbourne for the bright lights and new sounds of a seething and swinging London.
It was the equivalent of stepping two years into the future. What he encountered was a cacophony of new sounds, ideas and approaches to music. All kinds of progressive groundbreaking sounds, bands like East of Eden, and The Keith Hartley Band, but most of all Hawkwind. And it was exposure to this band that changed everything. Hawkwind had just released their self-titled debut album, a monstrosity of primitive electronics and hypnotic acoustic jams produced by Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor. In particular Von Braund was drawn to the mysterious member Dik Mik, who played oscillators from old WW2 aircrafts that he’d salvaged from junk shops and assembled himself. Live, he suggests they were mesmerising – he’d never seen anything like it.
“I can remember seeing them down in the tube tunnels in London, in those underpasses under the road to get down to the station. It was Dave Brock, and I can’t remember who the other guy was, but they used to jam down there. I can remember running into them a few times, so I got to know them. They both had acoustic guitars and they’d play these extended ragas. Nice guys.“
He stayed in the UK for three years, gigging occasionally, stocking up on Neu, Tangerine Dream, and Ash Ra Tempel at an early Virgin record store in Notting Hill, but most of all seeing these bands when they passed through London. Yet he also speaks fondly of the English jazz scene at the time, and in particular Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, who would be backed up by all the local jazz guys when in town – and would form progressive supergroup Go with Klaus Schulze (Tangerine Dream) in 1976.
After three years Von Braund sensed the golden period waning, got married and headed back to Australia, reconnecting with the scene and bands he left behind. It was here he met Geoff Green and it was Green who introduced him to the Korg.
Green would come and go from Von Braund’s life repeatedly over the years, but in the early stages of Von Braund’s electronic career he was instrumental. Not only did Green provide the impetus for Von Braund’s iconic solo debut Monster Planet by passing on the message that Jeremy and Daniel from the Pipe Imported Record store wanted to start a label (Clear Light of Jupiter), but by actually returning during the final stages of the album in time to pen the infamous Monster Sky lyrics that were voiced by Masters and Apprentices singer Jim Keays. Whilst the lyrics were the sum total involvement for Green on the seminal Monster Planet, his return created a new ally for Von Braund’s restless sonic experiments.
The response to Monster Planet, ostensibly Australia’s first electronic rock record, and one of the most singular, remarkable and possibly even provocative albums released in Australia to that point was strangely muted, and its significance is only now, some 39 years later being fully appreciated. Monster Planet, Von Braund remembers came out on Christmas Eve.
“I had one guy I got along really well with and he had this shop in Footscray, he really liked the German stuff, he was really looking forward to getting it. When he saw the cover he said ‘that’s bloody terrible, you would’ve been better getting a blot of red there, a blob of blue there and yellow, just four colours, that would’ve been better than that. It’s bloody woeful. ‘A lot of people didn’t like it, because it was different, there’s nothing like it.”
Admittedly Von Braund wasn’t all that enamoured with the artwork either, though he was happy enough to have the album finally out. Radio ignored it, aside from the community station 3ZZ (who recorded their incredible live show for broadcast – Live at the Total Theatre) and that was that. Yet with Green back in the fold they started jamming, the ideas started flowing and they began actively working on material for another record.
“It was another phase really,” suggests Von Braund. “I’d always worked with other people. Monster Planet was the first time I did it on my own. I probably could’ve done another on my own but its good bouncing your ideas off someone else and vice versa.”
They also began pooling their resources and expanding their artillery, firstly with the much more advanced ARP 2600, though also Green’s own Korg, a string synthesizer and a couple of other smaller synths. Whilst Monster Planet is in the main the sound of two Korg tracks overlayed, with some percussion, violin and vocal overdubs, their new work was something else entirely.
“You can only take that so far really. I thought,” Von Braund reflects, ”I had accomplished that so let’s try something different.”
Something different was more structure, or more control over structure, their new tools, and another hand increasing the complexity of the music.
“Geoff was a keyboard player and I was a synthesist. He still knew a bit about it too, but his main part was working out the chord changes. I was the one who worked out all the synthesizer stuff. He used to do a bit of that and I used to do a bit of the keyboard stuff as well, but I was mainly a saxophonist, I’d never played keyboards before that, but he used to show me how to do different things and I’d play along with him.”
“Jeff was very good, he could play all the bass stuff with his left hand and lead stuff with his other hand. I’d do the electronics and play the sax and also do one handed keyboard stuff, as I just had a single note synthesizer. I could only play one note at a time with the old Korg 500.”
They termed their sound ‘electronic rock,’ progressive music that evolves over time, using dynamics, repetition, density and multiple parts to create a unique form of cosmic ecstasy.
Perhaps the biggest departure from the Monster Planet sound is the introduction of the drum machine. “We needed something to give it some rhythm and we didn’t really fancy having a drummer sitting there at that particular stage playing drums and having to compete with that volume because most drummers play so loud,” laughs Von Braund. At the time the duo were looking for a rigid repetitive Neu like, or perhaps Arthur Brown percussion sound. That said Von Braund would periodically reduce the relentless metronomic effect by producing drum rolls.
“We knew what we were trying to achieve but we didn’t know what we’d end up with. The songs kept changing over the course of maybe six or more months.”
This was a period of exploration and experimentation for the duo, chasing sounds and textures, pushing their instrumentation and themselves as far into the ether as they could go relentlessly searching out their unique sound.
“We knew what we were doing,” Von Braund reflects some 44 years later. “We liked Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schultz and As Ra Tempel and we liked Hawkwind, or I did anyway, Geoff just wasn’t into all that stuff as much as I. He was into it a little bit obviously, but he didn’t partake as much, he was into his compositions.”
They may not have always agreed, but as a duo they were rigorous – practicing three times a week until they had everything down. There was no time for anything else, no time to socialise or listen to any other music.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea to listen to other peoples music too much or you start to get influenced by it, you start to copy it subconsciously,” he offers. “We tended to stay away from all that and just work on our own stuff. We were practicing all the time, and when we weren’t together we’d both be working out things separately. Geoff would be around his house working out bits and I’d be at home working out my bits and then we’d put them together.”
Before they went into the studio it was even more intensive, particularly given that the album was recorded at Armstrong studios, where producer/ engineer/ percussionist Gil Matthews (The Aztecs) was able to secure a cut price at night for recording demos. Yet according to Von Braund even that was expensive.
“We knew it note for note,” remembers Von Braund. “We had completely rehearsed everything. All my sax parts were completely learnt. We never used improvisation. We did when we played live, we veered from that, we’d lengthen the tracks and play them twice as long.”
In the studio there was a mellatron just sitting there so they hooked that up, and Gill Matthews played drums on Gods of Norse, yet otherwise it was just the two of them late at night playing as they did in their garage. In and out.
With the band starting to gig at local Melbourne universities they needed a name. And it was Von Braund who came up with the iconic Cybotron in a typically pragmatic way, mashing the words cyclotron and cyborg. It’s a name that is not only incredibly apt for their music, but has since spawned a comic book and a 1980 Juan Atkins helmed Detroit electro act.
“We just liked music with a good feeling that went from one section to another, starts off gradually, builds up into a frenzy and then changes into something else. We didn’t talk about it. We just did it,” Von Braund laughs.
Before long the duo had developed something of a cult following, playing all the universities, including a high profile show at the planetarium, and even supporting Split Enz (“I don’t think anyone knew who or what we were”). The transition to the live arena wasn’t a huge adjustment for the duo given their rigorous rehearsal schedule. In fact the biggest issue was inept roadies banging their sensitive equipment, meaning by the time they arrived at the venue to play, often all their instruments were out of tune.
There is something distinctively more pop on this self-titled debut 1976 album, or at least more pop than Monster Planet. We’re still dealing with oscillating synths and peculiar otherworldly sounds, but the structures are more sound, the developments clearer, the tension and release more palpable. That said it’s still relentless and feels uncompromising and new some 38 years later. Yet as Von Braund reminds us, the musical climate in 1976 was significantly more progressive than where we find ourselves in 2014.
“We wanted to be popular, we didn’t want to be playing in a garage,” he laughs, “the music scene was really changing in those days. It’s not like it is now where it’s all formulated. Back then there were lots of different bands playing all different things, and there was an underground scene. You could almost do anything.”
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