’90s musical memories: 2/7

Today’s choice of music is from a band I’ve liked for a long time, who moved to London and fell apart before regrouping years later to produce further compelling work. They were a band that I dragged most of my friends along to see at various places, and they were the first musicians I ever interviewed (for Honi Soit, the Sydney uni newspaper) after helping them load in to the now defunct Northpoint Tavern in North Sydney. They are the only band I’ve dressed up for – in a three-piece suit, no less, as some kind of impoverished student imitation of their dapper numbers – and yet also are one of the few bands for whom my enthusiasm does not, in hindsight, appear to have been misplaced. It’s time for The Paradise Motel, folks. 

The track I’ve chosen is ‘German Girl’, a track from the band’s first EP, Left Over Life To Kill, something I discovered by reading a brief piece in a copy of Juice, a now-defunct music mag I somehow ended up receiving for free. I liked what I read in the mag, and so I remember going to Red Eye Records, which I think was still in the Tank Stream Arcade then. I was the sort of kid that’d always be listening before I bought – hello, limited bakery-job funds – and what I heard hooked me straight away.

There’s something funereal in the track, like a wake scored by a Flying Nun band. Then, just bass and plaintive vocals. There’s strings, there’s the thundering sound of a kicked amplifier, and a soaring chorus or sorrow. It’s so close to overwrought but it’s underpinned by a kind of icy honesty that’s difficult to deny. It’s slower than I remember, but the ending vocals still chill. It’s a song for the unshriven, for the missing. It’s a razor, a lock of hair, or a half-remembered encounter; something not quite real, but possessed of its own weird power.

It’s the sort of thing that made a big impression on me, especially when coupled with the release’s design aesthetic. I was later given a promo tape from the band, which had been packaged in a little box, all fragments of maps, and straw, like some kind of cabinet of curiosities. Other copies had come in oversized petri dishes with rubber gloves. This wasn’t just your usual press-the-CD-at-Troy-Horse approach to releasing. And then there was the look of the band itself. I assumed that maybe this was a Melbourne thing: wasn’t everyone classier there?

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I still don’t look this snappy.

No slacker-rock duds for these guys.

(I must here admit that I once made my own band t-shirt, as they didn’t sell any. I had a black, long-sleeved shirt with the band’s name printed on the back, and lyrics – the agony will set you free – on the front. It got me a song request at a Dirty Three show (‘Everything’s Fucked’, natch.) so I figure it was a good thing to have made.)

They were frequently mentioned in the same breath as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but I think that was just poor shorthand for “dark and also wear suits”. Where Cave and co were always trying to channel Faulkner, TPM were more homeward focused. More inward looking. Perhaps a result of being formed between Hobart and Melbourne? Whatever it was, the music carried the sort of oddly discomfiting vibe I remember feeling when I first visited Tasmania, years before Martin Bryant’s spree; the sense that strange, totemic or unknowable stuff happens there. It’s something I can’t express adequately, but like the damp of mist, it’s there in the place and here in the music. That level of curious discomfort is the grit around which the pearl grows.

(Fun fact: the band’s name comes from an Eric McCormack book that is well worth reading if you’re interested in weird fiction. It’s… evocative. Actually finding a copy of the thing in the pre-Internet land of Oz was tedious in the extreme, but fantastically rewarding, eventually.)

There’s absolutely no doubt that this band was a terrific band to be in to as a mopey second-year English Lit student. There’s a sort of elegant sadness to a lot of their work, and a streaks of either lachrymose endurance or absolute catharsis in the tunes. I can’t tell you how many weepy uni-period times I listened to the song ‘Ashes’. I mean, it was emotional catnip. Listen to it, and try not to get goosebumps about four and a half minutes as the sunlight breaks through. I’d not heard it for the better part of a year before writing this post, but there they are, follicles awoken.

I must admit I became obsessed with the band a bit. They were much cooler than me, and made music of the like I hadn’t really heard before, and the whole suited spectacle of them life made an impression. It felt kind of wrong to just turn up in jeans, somehow. I remember wearing an old blue suit of my dad’s, replete with vest, and his very ’70s wedding watch to gigs to see the band, whenever they’d play. Because as good as the recorded stuff was, live was the real meat of things: it’s where guitars were assaulted, where Leslie boxes and Hammonds constantly ran risk of being upended, where a male maelstrom wrangled sonic bastardry on both their own songs and (usually) the Triffids’ ‘Raining Pleasure’ while vocalist Merida Sussex was the lost-in-the-moment center of the stage. It was some kind of dark glamour that I absolutely fucking inhaled, and they remain one of the most striking live acts I’ve seen.

(And no, this wasn’t because I had a crush on the singer that I would never, ever dare mention. Not entirely.)

I saw them pretty much every time they played Sydney, but two stand out: one was a gig on Broadway where Arrosa were the support (and fucking revelatory), and also the Flight Paths launch at the Globe, in Riley St, with strings, which I filled with my Manning Bar student mates who I think went along so I’d shut up about this bloody band. I became friends with members, and I remember spending a strange New Year’s eve in the middle of relationship weirdness driving around Melbourne with band members who were far more indulgent of a young obsessive than he’d any right to expect. For which I’m very grateful, and make retrospective apologies.

After a couple of increasingly great albums, the band decamped to the UK and eventually fell apart. II moved to London in 1999, and I caught them at a gig at the Union Chapel in Islington, on a bill with Black Box Recorder and Smog. I remember wishing I’d said hello, but the atmosphere at the show was strange, taut. Eventually, I left before Smog ended, because let’s just say that a Bill Callahan weirdfest is not the sort of place for a lonely boy living solo in London to be.

After that, it would be years before I’d see the band again – they lay dormant, before returning in 2010 with Australian Ghost Story, an album  about the death of Azaria Chamberlain, a uniquely Australian horror. They’re still around, and still releasing thoughtful albums. I travelled to Melbourne to see their first gig back (shows are generally few these days, I think, due to the spread-out nature of the group’s members) and had a great time: hearing those songs again, full-throated, was at once a reminder of the person I’d been, and of the happiness one can find in songs with their roots deep in sorrow. It didn’t seem indulgent, or some kind of weird gettin’-the-band-back-together thing. Instead, drink in hand in a Melbourne venue, I found that the things that drew me in initially were still intact.

Some dark glamour doesn’t fade.

 

 

 

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