Blank Realm: Interview
If you are listening to it, your tape isn’t broken.
Brisbane, Australia’s Blank Realm are decidedly international. The four-piece improv/color-noise band’s releases fit comfortably on L.A.’s Not Not Fun, while their trashed grandeur nestles right in on Eagle Rock’s DIY imprint. It would seem that the heat-drenched Brisbane scene from which they mutate is not worlds apart from the streets of LA. Then again, I haven’t been to L.A. before.
The last time I caught up with Blank Realm, they were playing a show at the back of a vegan restaurant in Brisbane’s West End, surrounded by old couches, scruffy kids, and smelly dumpsters. Born out of that oppressive heat and a place that is likely to require either more response or backing away from both football/rugby jock culture and a red-faced beer-swilling mainstream, Luke Walsh, Luke Spencer, and Daniel and Sarah Spencer (they share a lot of names) shift around styles with a unique touch: kraut murk slips between crunched-out bass meddling; ghostly vocals provide a dirty, cosmic hauntology; and Double Leopards-style guitar texture swamps in at the crevices.
I talked to siblings Daniel and Sarah about this context, changes in Australia, their improvised recording approach, and pop music.
Allow me to start with some more esoteric sort of questions: First, I’ve been wondering what Brisbane is like these days?
Daniel: In terms of the music scene Brisbane is good, maybe better than it has been for ages. Some really inspiring bands around the place. Kitchen’s Floor are incredible, they have a new song called “Pissing On the Graves” that totally gives me goosebumps, it’s only about a minute-and-a-half long, though.
Sarah: We are lucky here to be surrounded by some great bands with awesome people, like Slug Guts, for example. Australia in general is kind of amazing at the moment. Stretching a little further South there are some pretty amazing bands such as Naked On The Vague, Circle Pit, Royal Headache, and Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, in Sydney, and Wasted Truth and the UV Race, from Melbourne.
Daniel: Some pretty cool and unexpected things coming out of Brisbane lately, like the Bedroom Suck label, which is looking pretty promising, and the Negative Guest List ‘zine, which is just one of those crazy opinionated publications that you always hope will come along.
Otherwise the city is hot and they are always building new buildings. They re-did King George square, which you might remember is this big public square in the middle of town, in this really expensive landscape-architect’s-wet-dream kinda way. Only problem was they used these concrete tiles that heated the square up to over 50 degrees celsius, and people hated the new square, and goths don’t hang there anymore. Brisbane just isn’t ready for that kind of change.
” I think if there is hell, they’ll just hand me a printout of every stupid opinion I’ve ever expressed, that’s really the worst thing I can imagine.”
When I left you guys seemed to be playing more and more shows and perhaps leaking more into the valley types of shows rather than just at the forest. Is that true?
Daniel: Yeah, that totally happened. I mean, I do like playing in art galleries and that kind of thing, but there’s just something about playing for a bunch of drunks that brings out some intensity in us. We’ve really honed our craft in that respect. I guess our music hasn’t changed all that much, we just tend to really go nuts on stage. It can be pretty exhausting, but at least we try.
Sarah: I think a lot of the best shows around this town are happening at people’s houses. Only problem in this old police state is that they can get shut down at any second by the fuzz. If they have to come a second time they can start taking your gear.
Daniel: Although last time we were at a show and the cops came, they were really friendly and nice about it. I guess that’s not a very punk thing to say.
How about wider Australia? Politically and life-wise?
Daniel: I think when you left Australia it was right after the change of government right? Everyone was excited that the Howard years [when the government led by Prime Minister John Howard] were finally over. I’m still glad that is the case. Has a lot changed? I mean I guess a lot of the really horrible shit that the last government did doesn’t happen anymore.
But I guess like with all changes of government for the better, you kind of hope for a bigger change. I don’t think that’s really been delivered. This year is an election year though, god forbid we go back to the way things were. I think a big part of me would die if we had to live with Tony Abbot as Prime Minister. Have you seen that guy in action? Ultimate creepazoid.
Sarah: There was a renewed sense of optimism in Oz, ‘round the end of 2007 at the end of the Howard era. Much like the hype when Obama was coming on board. Not too much has changed in some of the areas where I would really like to see it: We have abolished Temporary Protection Visas, though we are still detaining asylum seekers who try to arrive on boats in offshore places like Christmas Island. It doesn’t look like that is about to change any time soon.
Daniel: We still have bizarre personal issues dragged onto the political stage, like sex before marriage and contraception and stuff like that. It always turns my stomach when I hear politicians talking about things like that. I had imagined that we were civilized enough to allow people to make up their own minds about these things, and that politicians should be concentrating on things that are actually important. To be honest, I long ago gave up putting any faith in politicians to affect real change.
“I love discovering weird records that I have no context for and trying to work out what motivated these people to make this music, and I kind of get a kick out of the idea that someone might listen to our record and think, ‘What the fuck are these Australian yokels doing?”
I’ve been thinking after reading a few articles (directed more at pop than experimental stuff like yours) about lo-fi stuff being too much of a retreat from the mainstream and therefore less worthwhile/less political, which I disagree with. I feel yr type of stuff is about carving out a distinct alternative. How do you react/respond to mainstream culture in Australia?
Daniel: Well I guess I like a lot of pop music, but I think we are definitely trying to create some kind of alternative. I don’t think that we are super original or anything, but I never heard anything like us on the radio.
I don’t feel that we are in any way retreating from the mainstream, I think doing things on your own terms is a pretty powerful act, and it’s something people have always done. To suggest that you have to play by the rules of mainstream popular music to make any kind of effective political statement is bit ridiculous. I mean, if punk was just disco with nihilistic lyrics, I don’t think it would have had the same impact; it could have sounded pretty cool though. We do love a lot of pop music, I think it’s just all the really crass aspects of popular music – like Vodafone product placement and viral Twitter 2.0 bullshit – that really ruin it.
Sarah: I think that pop music can sometimes touch on some big issues too, like ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyonce. That tackled some big themes, and is an all-round great track.
Daniel: I heard that song too many times, the magic is gone. Having said all this I will say that if Lady Gaga wanted to collab with us, we would almost definitely say yes, although the result would probably make for rugged listening.
Do you feel like having releases on a label like Not Not Fun diffuses the context under which you are making your music?
Daniel: I think it definitely does, I mean a lot of the people who bought the record maybe don’t know too much about who were are, or the scene that we come out in Brisbane, but I think that’s fine. I love discovering weird records that I have no context for and trying to work out what motivated these people to make this music, and I kind of get a kick out of the idea that someone might listen to our record and think, ‘What the fuck are these Australian yokels doing?” I guess it’s possible for bands to not have a local following and exist sort of just in this hazy internet community, but I don’t think that the case for us. We’re part of a pretty strong local scene here.
Sarah: We all feel totally stoked to be on a label such as NNF, which we like so much. They have been really good to us and just seem like the nicest people. I think that having an opportunity such as this allows people, particularly outside Australia, to hear what we are doing here. And perhaps get a sense of what is happening in the Australia weirdo scene a little more.
How does your recording set up work these days? Are your recorded songs from Heartless Ark from improvised sessions?
Daniel: Well, I have a 4-track, and Luke W has a computer with ProTools and all that kind of gear. If we feel we need to go hi-fi and mic everything up properly we will use the computer, otherwise we’ll use the 4-track. Often our playing is so distorted and loud that it’s probably hard to tell the difference between a computer and a 4-track recording. Heatless Ark is all from improvised sessions we did in a farm house in the Lockyer Valley called Saint Tegram, which is maybe one-and-half hours out of Brisbane. It’s near this town called Tent Hill, which has a pub and small takeaway shop where you can get a great deal of chips for not much money. The pub had a sign up behind the bar that said, “If it has tits or tires, it’ll give you trouble.” We recorded hundreds of hours of stuff there, and gradually sort of trimmed it down and added some overdubs. It took forever, but it’s all improvisations edited and pieced together. I know it probably sounds we just turned on the tape and let fly with a whole mess of funny biz, but it wasn’t like that at all. It’s pretty painstakingly constructed.
“The pub had a sign up behind the bar that said, “If it has tits or tires, it’ll give you trouble.”“
Do you feel things rub off you on more locally (in a physical way, that is, ie. in Australia) or from elsewhere?
Sarah: I guess it is a bit of both. We have learned a lot from playing shows around Australia. It pushes us further when we see great bands around us. We are also huge collectors and listen to a lot of music from everywhere really. As a family band we recently travelled to Sri Lanka, where our father is from. There we were inspired to write a new song called “Coconut Man.” It’s kind of a chant about the coconut man, the government bus, and that kind of thing. Hopefully we will be able to return there someday to record an album there. I think something new and different for us would evolve from that. We will also grow large from many curries.
Daniel: I think local stuff probably has the bigger influence though, I mean you listen to records all you want, but going to actually see someone play is always going to have a more profound effect. I think when we sort of started out getting to see groups like 6majik9 a lot [it] really influenced the way I think about music, and the ways in which a group of people can play together, and the way in which bands can really have their own internal logic. I don’t think you can get that from a record.
You guys had a pretty formidable record collection last time I was there; do you ever feel like the more you listen to the more music comes out of you?
Daniel: I wish it was that simple! It’s really hard to say how being a listener effects your musical output. I mean, people often tell us we sound like certain bands after we play, or a review will mention a band, and it’s usually one of our favourite bands, so it must be pretty obvious which records we’ve spent way too much time listening to over the years.
Sarah: We like all kinds of music, except psy-trance. Amongst other things I’ve been going through what seems like a never-ending Fleetwood Mac phase. A lot of our influences really do come through in our music, which I think is a good thing.
In terms of the NNF Dirty Ark tape, there’s a lot of unrest, lucid and heat drenched feelings, it feels kind of hallowed or something. Can you talk a bit about how it came about?
Daniel: The tape is mostly songs that we liked, but because of sound quality or continuity, didn’t fit on the album. A friend said to me that he liked it more than the LP because it sounds more like we sound live. It’s kind of more immediate, we didn’t mess with it too much. It’s funny that you should say it sounds heat-drenched; the first side is track that we took off this tape that got all warped and messed up in the heat. If you are listening to it, your tape isn’t broken.
The track “Trick” feels loaded with an emotion that I haven’t heard from you guys before; is that coming from anything in particular?
Daniel: Yeah, that is weird one, very direct. Perhaps that’s why we buried it at the end of the tape where almost no one would listen to it. I can’t remember exactly what it is about, we recorded it really late one night, and then when we listened to the tape we thought it was really strange, it almost didn’t sound like us. I think it’s probably about how you can’t always trust your own mind, how even the strongest emotions and the things you are certain of, can seem horribly misguided in retrospect. I think if there is hell, they’ll just hand me a printout of every stupid opinion I’ve ever expressed, that’s really the worst thing I can imagine.