Sunday, November 11, 2012

‘Lonerism’ and the Rise of the Aussie Isolationist Muso

Tame Impala’s latest album, ‘Lonerism’ is, as the title implies, a solitary kind of record. The band itself hails from Perth, well known to be geographically the most isolated city on the planet. Most of the album was recorded by one man, Kevin Parker. Parker has said about the album that it in part arose from the realisation that “I’m just a total outcast. I can’t really talk to anyone without feeling stupid … sometimes I just want to run home and never come out of my bedroom again.” The music backs up this feeling; most of the tracks are dreamy soundscapes that very much sound like one guy twiddling some knobs (pun not intended) in his bedroom. We’re not exactly talking Syd Barrett’s ‘The Madcap Laughs’ here, and Tame Impala’s first album, ‘Innerspeaker’, sounded like the work of a band (even if it may not have been), but it’s clear that this album doesn’t fit the Cold Chisel blueprint of Australian rock.

Which got me to thinking – a lot of Australian ‘bands’ that have found international acclaim (and  their way into my CD collection) over the past decade or so have also tended to driven by their own Kevin Parker-isolated-muso-types. The Vines’ sound was largely a reflection of Craig Nicholls’ part-schizophrenic mindset. Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson and Empire of the Sun is the archetype of the ‘temperamental-isolated-Antipodean-genius ‘, managing to work his way through more ‘bandmates’ than single releases.  While the circumstances that led to the departure of two-thirds of Wolfmother’s line-up were somewhat different, their departure still solidified the notion that Andrew Stockdale was the driving force behind that group. The three great hopes of Aussie indie dance, the Presets, Cut Copy, and Midnight Juggernauts, have an average of precisely 3.00 members. And the wildly lauded ‘Since I Left You’ by the Avalanches was basically the product of a few guys’ record collections. Only Jet (and possibly Wolfmother) fit the mould of your classic pub-rock band.

Head back to the ‘90s though, and there were plenty of bands that gained their popularity from making a racket live. Powderfinger, You Am I, Grinspoon, Jebediah, the Superjesus, Custard, The Cruel Sea, Spiderbait, Regurgitator, and of course Silverchair, were all bands whose music you could go to a sweaty bar and get drunk to, rather than lie on your bed and play it through your laptop speakers.  Yet few of these bands (Silverchair being the obvious exception) had that much success overseas  (some deservedly so). The recent crop of introverted musicians has been more likely to show up in NME, Pitchfork, or even non-Aussie Rolling Stone than the raucous alternative rockers of the decade before.

Part of the reason for this may be that the more recent crop of bands are better (I think they are, but then I’m a Beatles fan and social introvert).  But I think their success says something too about how the music industry has changed; in an increasingly globalised and digitalised world there are no ‘scenes’, or rather there is one global ‘scene’, and this has allowed the isolationist to flourish. Listeners, both in Australia and overseas, have many more opportunities now to discover the precocious muso twiddling away in the bedroom (sigh … there really is no good way to phrase that). In years past, bands like Empire of the Sun and Midnight Juggernauts wouldn’t have got past the bouncer at the door. In the past, your band needed to be a ‘gang’. Now you just need some friends to play the parts when you’re touring.

(By the by, I recommend ‘Lonerism’; I think it’s a step above ‘Innerspeaker’ in that the tracks on that album tended to blend too much into one another. They blend on ‘Lonerism’ as well, but each track also has its own distinct ideas to make it stand out.)  

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