Interview with Rowan Mason/Sanpo Disco on Midday Moon & Australian ambient music

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Melbourne label Bedroom Suck recently released Midday Moon, an eclectic double disc collection of local ambient music from the 1980s and early 1990s compiled by Rowan Mason of Sanpo Disco. When Midday Moon arrived at Cyclic Defrost Towers, it was especially notable that we recognised only one name on the tracklisting. Sourced from unreleased recordings, small run releases, and wonderfully researched, it offers new look into the music that was being made far away from the mainstream in Australia during the 1980s.

Seb Chan – Australian ambient music – for someone who grew up in Sydney – reminds me of Arnold Frolows Triple J radio show in the late 80s. And the next generation of Australian ambient electronic music that sprouted out of the rave scene in the early 90s and the chill out rooms. However neither of these seem to be the source of the music on this compilation? Where does Australian ambient music fit, in your mind, in the context of other recent resurfacings like Leaving Records and Matthewdavid’s unearthing of US new age?

Rowan Mason – In 1987 Arnold Frolows put together a compilation titled Ambience as a companion to his show on Triple J. It’s a really nice one and contains a couple of the same artists that are included on the Midday Moon compilation. I think Ambience is definitely a great starting-point for thinking about ambient music in Australia.

One of my guiding ideas when putting together the compilation was to unearth and present music from the mid-80s that engages with notions of place in an intriguing way. As I noticed ambient music from this period often gets lumped together with new age music, and that [that music]typically views the natural landscape in a very simple and tourist-ic way. I hope that the time-markers (1980-1995) don’t mislead people too much into thinking I was trying provide an encyclopaedic overview of a particular period! Mostly I was just trying to create a sonic journey for listeners and share some interesting music I’d learned about.

There were many artists that I really admire like Paul Schutze, Anthony Asher Wright, Peter Miller and Sarah Hopkins who aren’t on the compilation. There’s also many greats artists released on labels like Clan Analogue, Extreme and Psy-Harmonics that have evolved out of the rave and chill out room music. And in the last 10 years there’s another wave of people making interesting sound art and ambient music like Lawrence English, Tim Coster, Fia Fiell, Nico Niquo, Tourist Kid, Sui Zhen, Corin, ju.ca and many others.

SC – So this is a really great collection of Australian obscurities. How did you come across these?

RM – Before embarking on this project, I knew some interesting albums from absent-mindedly sifting through record stores and markets around Melbourne or speaking to friends.

But the compilation involved a very intensive process of sitting at my laptop probing old forums, radio show archives, the National Film and Sound Archive catalogue, Discogs, eBay collections, reading articles, sending emails and trying to make sense of all the info I was slowly gleaning from these sources. I then began compiling a list of music and began trying to track down the artists via their websites or social media. To be honest, it was sometimes like working a rather mundane office job.

After one incredibly long stint at the computer screen – one of the most interesting connections came about. I was trying to track down the music of Sam Mallet. I noticed an interesting looking tape of his was posted on Discogs and I needed to know what was on it. After googling his name a few times I found that strangely someone had played a track from the tape on a radio show broadcasting in Portland, Oregon. I contacted the host of the show, who told me a few of the tapes somehow wound up at a flea market there and he’d also been on a similar quest to track down Sam. Sadly he’d discovered that Sam passed away a few years ago. He’d discovered that the majority of his music was being looked after by Tony Rogers, the co-director of the classic Australian TV show Wilfred. Tony was one of Sam’s closest friends and had included his music in films and shows like Wilfred. Coincidentally Tony was living a suburb away from me, and he came by my house a few days later, unloading a van full of DAT tapes, A-DATs, reels and other formats on me with Sam’s notes scrawled all over them. I’m now working together with the people behind the radio show in Portland (Musique Plastique) and Tony on another compilation to share more of this music.

SC – That must have been a challenge to excavate music from those old formats.

RM – Going into this I had very little knowledge of these formats. I quickly learned that some slowly deteriorate and some, like tape reels, require a level of understanding to digitise them – otherwise there’s the risk of potentially ruining the recording. It’s often important to bake the reels at an appropriate temperature for the right amount of time to remove any residue that has formed before attempting to play them. With some formats I learned that the technology was so quickly antiquated that the machines for playing and digitising them are very rare and expensive to source. This was the case with ADATs. Basically it didn’t take long to realise I was absolutely out of my depth and I immediately called Crystal Mastering to help me out. Conveniently they’re located within 10 minute walking distance of my house and they did an excellent job.

SC – The theatre connection in some of the selections on Midday Moon is part of the reason I didn’t recognise most of the artists.

RM – I think music for theatre usually aims to create a particular atmosphere that compliments a performance or dialogue without disturbing it, and in turn it seems to fulfil Brian Eno’s criteria being ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. So sometimes this connection is an accident.

At the same time – with the popularity of pub rock in the 80s in Australia, I think plenty of artists interested in making more textural and spacious music had to make an income by producing music for art exhibitions, films and theatre productions. I found some of the records or cassettes I liked were incidentally once theatre pieces or made for documentaries – John Elder’s ‘Derelicts; is an example of this. It was made for a documentary of the same name. I’d love to track down the video one day.

It didn’t aways work out though.

We were actually sent on a wild-ride when we tried to license some music originally produced for a local circus. The composer asked us to seek the permission of the circus itself and the musician he collaborated with before he would agree to license the track we were interested in. Finding all the appropriate parties online involved a huge amount of detective work After almost a month or more of searching, we returned with permission from the circus and the other musician. To our surprise, the composer had completely changed his mind and said he was no longer interested in being part of the project.

SC – Licensing is such a challenge – how do you deal with this with the label more broadly? Bedroom Suck has made some great music possible, how do you guard against these same licensing whims for the future – say 2040 when someone unknown to you now is making a compilation from the discards of old 2020s hard drives after the power goes out?

I think since Joe who runs Bedroom Suck has plenty of projects on the go, to speed things up I was doing most of the groundwork for this project, tracking down artists and going over the licensing agreements. It’s plenty of work and copyright is another realm that was completely new to me. Luckily a music lawyer had written the document the artists were signing, because if it was me – it would’ve probably looked like a post-it note with something like “Can I use your thing? Yes or no? If yes, please sign here. Thanks.” written on it.

SC – Ambient music, listening music – there were real scenes around this in the 1990s, places to go and listen, people play live, all that. This has started happening again. What do you think is driving this renewed interest in quiet, slow?

Maybe as the poles of right and left stretch further apart and humanity heads closer to the brink, people are instinctively seeking to calm themselves. First disco, then balearic, now people are finally easing into ambient, maybe next musique concrete. After that we’ll be sitting in ruinous buildings striking stones together to start a fire.

I don’t really believe this though.

Maybe it’s easiest to retrace the way my own tastes evolved and assume other people are going through a similar process. My own tastes definitely shifted as I began listening to electronic music outside the club context and began seeking different types of listening experiences in general. Through friends I became familiar with DJs, musicians and online platforms that were sharing mixes that were quieter, slower and I was receptive to them.

I just asked my partner this question and she said, maybe the renewed taste in ambient music mirrors the current breakdown in communication; the mainstream focus on ‘wellness’; the necessity for space away from the intensity of pop culture; the birth of online radio; the constant revisiting of genres via the internet; and the internet becoming a valuable resource for excavating a seemingly endless supply of music from the past. This is a pretty comprehensive list of things that might be contributing.

Midday Moon is available now on Bedroom Suck via Remote Control on vinyl and digital.

Vinyl/digital tracklisting:

Side A
1) Not Drowning, Waving – Frogs
2) Mark Pollard – Quinque II
3) Blair Greenberg – Beach
4) John Heussenstamm – Sawan
5) Beyond the Fringe – Guitar Fantasia

Side B
6) Meera Atkinson – White
7) Free Radicals – My Lips are Moving
8) John Elder – Again
9) Helen Ripley-Marshall – Under the Sun
10) Blair Greenberg – Rainforest
11) Sam Mallet – Westgate Bridge at Dawn

Side C
12) Gary Havrillay – Temple
13) Ros Bandt – Starzones
14) John Elder – Wayayisma Petra

Side D
15) Sam Mallet – Stream Daimons’ Speak
16) Blair Greenberg – Gleaming
17) Robert Bleeker – Glowing Trombones
18) Tom Kazas – Blankets of Ice
19) Errol H Trout – As Darkness Falls

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About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.