Adam Gibson and the Ark-Ark Birds
“Australia Restless” tour diary
May 6 to May 17, 2015
Wednesday, May 6
When punters turn up to see a band that is on a tour, they get along to the show a bit before it starts, have a relaxed chat with their friends, a few drinks, watch the band, hopefully enjoy it. Maybe they buy a CD and then they go home, their night done and dusted. But for that band to get onto that stage, a helluva lot of effort has gone into it, long before they even get near the venue…
Thus as we get in the van in Sydney for the first leg of our ‘Australia Restless’ tour, it’s not some random whim that gets us going. Six months of calls and messages and hassling and organising and blah blah blah have gone into it and off we go, on towards Brisbane and our first show at the Junk Bar. Because we’ve got a couple of shows in Brisbane, the second at the Triffid, we’ve decided that my brother Simon and I will drive the Hiace with all the gear in it, rather than flying up and having to rely on borrowing or hiring amps and drums and guitars. The trade-off of course is that we can also throw in our surfboards and hopefully get some waves along the way.
Thus, we battle through the sort of Sydney traffic that just seems to be getting worse and worse every year, with no relief in sight, before grinding through the gears and hitting the Pacific Highway, heading north. It takes several hours to shake the sense of the city, with the drive as far as Newcastle and even beyond being a battle of weaving cars, speeding vans and tailgating double-B trucks. A nightmare that tenses the shoulders and tightens the jaw.
Eventually though we push on as far as Buladelah, now lying off the highway since the bypass was put through a few years ago. The bypass is undoubtedly good for motorists bypassing the town but at what cost to the town? When a town that relies on a highway going through it no longer has such a highway through it, what is it left with? Desolate service station bistros with shrivelled sausage rolls sitting in the bain marie which sell chips with every meal and chicken salt as mandatory. That’s about it.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a long forgotten poem called ‘Buladelah Caltex Station’, telling the tale of the place where my Valiant car lost the bolts on the front left wheel hub and myself and Avi Ronen amazingly found an identical wrecked Valiant car out the back of said service station. We managed to remove that car’s wheel hub and put it onto my car, paying the service station owner 20 bucks for his assistance (and his wheel hub) and off we went. True story.
Twenty years later, the Caltex station has fallen victim to the bypass and has closed, so we have a toasted sandwich “with chips” at the Mobil station instead. We then hit the road again, Simon driving, and I take the time to write some words for a Melbourne magazine about our album ‘Australia Restless’ and also do a phone call interview with a radio station in Darwin. It’s all very rock’n’roll and the highway and hot chips and sun and heading north…
Our intended first destination for the trip is Crescent Head, a neat half-way distance to Queensland and also home to a perfect right-hand surf point break. And so we plough on north, up past the Great Lakes and Taree towards Kempsey, where we take the turn off onto the old Pacific Highway (Kempsey is now bypassed too), and then turn east on the Crescent Head turn off. We stop briefly after the turn off to check our phones and emails as phone reception at Crescent is still, in 2015, sometimes non-existent. Which is kind of a good thing.
As we stop, a man with a matted beard, filthy clothes, bare feet and a terrifying look in his eye appears as if from nowhere and asks to get in the van for a lift to Crescent. As the van is completely full with gear, we must decline. He marches on down the road, talking to himself. Soon after, we drive down that road but don’t spot him until about 10km along it, right near the town. Even though no other cars have seemingly gone ahead of us, he’s seemingly nabbed a lift from someone. Or maybe he was a ghost of the great highway?
We pull into Crescent on dark and go straight to the surf point. It is reeling off with perfect waves, about 4 foot and luscious. Alas, sun sets over the Great Dividing Range quickly and it’s too dark to get out there. We find a room at the Seabreeze Holiday Flats, a place I have stayed at many times over the years and which has not been renovated or had the bedspreads changed since 1983. It used to be called Bourne’s Holiday Units and I like that name better. We have dinner and a couple of beers at the Country Club as a busload of retirees enjoy the restless chit-chat of people making the best of their lives with their new-found friends from the tour group and we adjourn, bed-wise, rather exhausted.
Thursday, May 7
Awake feeling surprisingly dusty from the day before but head straight down to the point to check the surf. It’s still cranking – sun-dazzled flawless waves firing us up immediately and we rush out there, all thoughts of music and the weekend’s upcoming gigs briefly forgotten as we get out there as quickly as we can.
It’s pretty much the north coast dream scenario for us and we surf some lovely waves, albeit a bit crowded with chubby longboard riders teetering with little control regularly through the line-up. Satisfied though, we get out, grab a pie and a pastie at the bakery and again start on the road north.
For this set of shows, which next week will include gigs in Melbourne and Sydney, we are playing a mix of songs from both my other band The Aerial Maps and the former band my brother and I were in, Modern Giant, plus new Ark-Ark Bird songs from ‘Australia Restless’ and one or two brand newies which aren’t recorded yet. One of these is called ‘Torn Apart Town’, about the many small towns in Australia which just seem to be in terminal decline. It seems to me that the hope for the future that many people once held in many small towns is disappearing and those towns are just dying. Simon and I discuss the song and whether or not we will sing the chorus twice or four times at the end after a key change. We agree that this is something the other Ark-Arks, Danny Yau, Tim Byron and Stewart Cahn will no doubt make the call on.
And so we drive on. Our destination for the night this time is Yamba; a lovely seaside town with the iconic Pacific Hotel sitting high atop the main beach overlooking the rivermouth where the fishing trawlers glide out from every night and the lighthouse winks its beacon through the hotel rooms’ windows through the night.Again we arrive there nearing dark, with just enough time to check one of the world’s truly best surfing spots, Angourie. A heavily localised place, the point there is pumping with impeccable waves as we pull up. Alas, it is again too dark so we resolve to check it first thing in the morning, and head to the Pacific Hotel for a room and a beer and dinner and sleep.
Friday, May 8
The day dawns with a big day in prospect. We have to make it to Brisbane by late afternoon for a couple of radio interviews, but we also want to get a surf in along the way. First things first though – at 7am I do a live-to-air radio interview a Brisbane radio station while sitting in the freezing van outside the Pacific Hotel. I am genuinely still asleep when I do the interview and struggle to hear the announcers as they have put me on speakerphone and their voices are muffled. Unable to hear exactly what they’re asking me, I just ramble on until they tell me to stop.
We then head in the van down to Angourie. The number of cars in the carpark indicates to us quickly that there are waves. But there are also a thousand people out there and as such, we elect to pass on the surf and get on the road.
We stop in a great second-hand store in iconic highway river town of Woodburn, where my brother buys a single old photograph for one dollar, and then keep going north towards Ballina and the waves around Byron Bay. Our first stop is Flat Rock, just north of Ballina, where we see there is a decent swell running. In fact, it’s a bit too big and the current looks horrendous. And sharky. We head on towards Lennox Head but that looks packed and a little sketchy too and so we head right into Byron Bay itself and find a perfect wave on the inside of the Pass, and surf there for two hours.
But we need to get to Brisbane, we need to get our music heads on, so we crank the HiAce up and do what is always a difficult drive into Brisbane. I check in with the Footstomp Music guys, who are handling a bunch of press and promo and other stuff for us, and we push on towards Brizzy. We arrive there on dark again and find that the hotel we’ve booked is a beauty, perched atop Spring Hill, and we shower and head out for a beer or two with some local friends at the fantastic Kerbside bar in Constance St.
Saturday, May 9
It is gig day. There is a lot to do. Guitarist Bluey Cahn and keyboard/bass player Dr Tim Byron are flying in from Sydney, while bass player/guitarist Danny Yau is already in town. We must all connect up somewhere. But first, Simon and I must go to radio Triple Z to do an interview with Jay and Smithy on the show ‘Balls in the Air’. It’s a sports show, with a strong focus on Rugby League, which is one of my specialty subjects. Have a great chat to those guys about music and footy and we conclude with a live-to-air version of our tune ‘The Shark’, with improvised league-related lyrics. Very enjoyable.
Soon, after, we get word that Tim and Bluey have arrived on a Qantas plane and are heading to the hotel. Danny checks in and everyone meets up and heads down to Southbank for a wander and lunch, while I stay in the hotel taking it easy and do the very un-rock’n’roll act of watch Canberra thrash the Gold Coast on TV in our room.
At 5pm, Simon and the others return and we jump in the van, Junk Bar-bound. The Junk Bar is an amazing venue out in Ashgrove. In Sydney terms, it’s not far at all from the city, but people in Brisbane seem to think it’s out in the countryside. It’s an 8-minute drive from our hotel in the centre of the town. Owners Mia and Jamie are there with smiling faces to meet us and we in turn are happy to see them. They’ve set up a wonderful space there and treat us with a friendliness and respect that is often rare in such situations. With little drama, we’re all set up and do a nice soundcheck, Jamie going to great lengths to get things “just right”. The guys from support act Mexico City arrive and set up in duo mode, doing a lovely soundcheck too.
We can now relax a bit, so we adjourn to the front bar and have a few beers as the venue starts to fill up. Pretty soon, it’s pretty much packed and there is a real sense of excitement among the band. Lots of people want to chat and lots of people cram into the Skukum Lounge to watch Mexico City do their honey-toned thing. Great band.
Time quickly passes and before we know it, it’s our turn. The room has filled up to a hefty degree and I focus in on getting my head in the right spot as the other fellas plug in, tune up and generally do what they’ve gotta do. There’s many familiar faces in the crowd and it’s exciting to be playing our first show of the tour to such a good crowd.
We kick off with an austere version of our tune ‘Australia Restless’, just my vocals with Tim playing lonely keyboards behind me, along with the sample of the sound of the Australian raven, or crow, or “ark-ark bird”, if you will. We’re straight out of that into ‘Lighthouse Beach’ and on into the full set of old and new and newer. I’m not exactly as switched on as I’d like to feel, but nevertheless, the band sounds good and everyone seems happy. In the end, it’s a damn good gig, we sell a stack of CDs and have a good chat with all sorts of people at the finish. All in all, a wonderful start to the tour and a nice harbinger, hopefully, of the shows to follow.
We have a nice little “after party” with Mia and Jamie and their staff at the Junk Bar and then return to the hotel all rather sloshed after a very satisfying day. I sleep like a drunken log.
Sunday, May 10
There is an interview with ABC Radio Brisbane mooted and I awake early, and hungover, to check any messages for word whether it is happening or not. Despite the best efforts of our promo guys, however, it seems the bloke from the ABC who was organising it has gone AWOL and nobody can contact him. It’s apparent it’s a no-go, so after a couple of Panadols, I crawl back into bed for a little more zzzzzz.
At 11am however, we all convene and head down to the Lust For Life café in Fortitude Valley for some brekkie. A café that’s also an art gallery and also a tattoo parlour (!), they do brilliant coffee and better eggs. It certainly perks us up as we have to be at the Triffid for 1pm to set up for our arvo show.
Back to the hotel we go after that to get organised, then all cram into the van and head over to the Triffid, one of the newest but best venues in Australia. We’re doing an outdoor set in the beer garden with a young Melbourne bloke named Ben Wright-Smith. Nice fella. We set up and just after 2pm we begin our set. Unbeknownst to us however, we’re booked to do two sets! We only realise this after we’ve finished what we thought was our one and only set. So we hastily reconfigure things, dust off a few rarely-played songs, and, after Ben has done a set, do a second set. The improvised nature of it makes it a lot of fun.
It being Mother’s Day, the crowd is a little thin, but we still have a good time and enjoy Ben’s set immensely – the bloke is headed for some sort of stardom. Then it is time to pack the gear and get a few of the fellas back to the airport to return to Sydney. That done, my brother and I and a few other friends head back to Kerbside for a few beers to wind down after a massive few days.
Monday, May 11-Tuesday, May 12
We certainly aren’t fresh as daisies as we emerge this morning, but we must get moving back on the road. We need to be back in Sydney by Wednesday, when we fly to Melbourne for shows, so there is no time to muck around.
Thus, into the van we get and that day, after breakfast at Byron at former Bondi crew Adam and Ruby’s Roadhouse café/bar, a surf at Yamba, and then an overnight stay at the Pacific Hotel again, we hammer it back to Sydney, arriving late on Tuesday evening. There is one clear day before we head to Melbourne.
Thursday, May 14
Simon and I are flying to Melbourne, as opposed to driving, as we have to be back in Sydney the very next day after our gig at the Yarra Hotel on Saturday to play at the Vanguard on Sunday. No time to waste. (The other guys will fly down later.)
Our flight to Melbourne from Sydney is remarkable for the fact that the Qantas cabin crew treat us as if we’re superstars. We are certain they have mistaken us for someone else and they give us the absolute royal treatment. Very strange and culminating in the CAPTAIN coming out of the cockpit as we’re leaving the plane and saying, “Have a great show!” SERIOUSLY! Who do they think we are? Mick Doohan and Bernard Fanning, maybe?
Melbourne is freezing on our arrival but that’s nothing unusual. We bolt straight to our accommodation just off Brunswick St in Fitzroy, go for lunch, have a couple of beers, then later go to a Vietnamese place on Brunswick St before calling it a quiet night.
Big days ahead.
Friday, May 15
We’re booked to do an interview and live-to-air on radio TRIPLE R, on the Breakfasters show, so we get up bright and cold and early and head up to the station, where we meet Danny, who has just flown in. We have a good chat with old friend Alicia Sometimes and the team there and do a live acoustic version of our song ‘Long Time Dead’. Lovely playing from Danny on acoustic guitar and Simon on uke. It goes very well considering the early hour and the fact that we’ve never played such an acoustic version of it.
Outside it feels as if it is just about to snow, so we get an Uber (as you do) back down to Brunswick St and have a hearty breakfast at Joe’s Garage. There are a few other radio interviews I need to do on the phone, plus I need to make sure all is okay with Melbourne support band The Danny Walsh Banned.
All seems well and Danny Walsh invites me to attend that night’s Courtney Barnett show at the Forum, to which he has a guest ticket. I say yes, and later on we meet Danny (Walsh) in central Melbourne, have a drink at Young and Jacksons, and he and I head to the Forum while Simon goes off to see Sydney friends Jamie and Scott Hutchins’ band Infinity Broke play at the Tote. Courtney’s show is massive and great and later on we pick up Simon and end up at the after-party at a house in Melbourne’s north, where we catch up with old friend Jen Anderson, legendary violinist from Weddings Parties Anything and many other bands while Courtney and pals cook up pasta in the kitchen after playing to 6000 people.
Get to bed at 3am absolutely farken wrecked.
Saturday, May 16
Gig day again. Bluey and Tim flying down at around lunchtime so Simon and I take it completely easy before they arrive. Thank god for Melbourne’s cafes. So many good places to hang out.
Bluey and Tim land safely, Bluey comes to where he, myself and Simon are staying, while Tim goes off with friends, we have another coffee and then hit the op shops of Brunswick street. End up buying some incredible western shirts that we vow to wear at that night’s show at the Yarra Hotel.
Front up at the Yarra at 6pm and get set up. Danny Walsh and his band arrive. Simon and I met Danny in San Sebastian in Spain in 2002. A completely random meeting of Aussies abroad but we have been firm friends ever since. Everything is set and Danny’s band plays a brilliant set of country-tinged rock. Very very entertaining and a rollicking show to watch.
By the time we’re due to go on, the crowd has swelled to a solid level and we’re excited. As we begin, a bunch of people head in from the beer garden and take up residence on the floor in front of the stage under my nose. Wow! Who are they are and where did they come from? But they seem to really enjoy the show, as do we. In fact, I think it’s the best we’ve ever played and I feel unstressed and clear-headed and have a bloody great time. Tim, Danny, Simon and Bluey are in top form and everything is sounding spot-on.
Again we sell a heap of CDs and have a good chat to everyone who wants to have a chat. But there’s not much time to muck around again as we have to be on a flight back to Sydney at some ungodly hour in the morning, so we up stumps and get to bed as soon as we can manage, all feeling a little sozzled but happy.
Sunday, May 17
Last day of this leg of the tour and it’s gonna be a bloody big one. First we have to get ourselves to Melbourne Airport, via Mick Thomas’ place. Mick, one of Australia’s greatest songwriters, from the band Weddings Parties Anything and an extensive solo career, has agreed to do us a favour and come to Sydney to play our launch tonight at the Vanguard. A massive favour, and we’re stoked he’s up for it. We pick him up and off we go to the airport, the 20-stone taxi driver telling us he can’t wait to have a big muffin for breakfast. He probably could do without it.
Through check-in and onto the plane and I think we all fall asleep the instant we take our seats. But before we know it, we’re landing in Sydney. We have to be at the Vanguard at 4.30pm, so we don’t have much time. Everyone makes their way to their respective homes while I take Mick for lunch and a beer at North Bondi RSL. A glittering Bondi day presents itself and Mick is happy to chat whilst he keeps one eye on an AFL game over my shoulder while I do the same for a rugby league game over his.
Time to hightail again though and we pick up Simon and Bluey and head into the Vanguard for an early-ish Sunday night kick-off. The Vanguard is probably the best venue of its size in Sydney and we’re stoked to be playing there. Soundman Darren is one of the best we’ve dealt with and within a very short space of time we’re all set up and ready to rock, as it were. Mick does a nice solo linecheck, playing a couple of songs, and we adjourn to the upstairs bandroom for a good chance to relax and actually sit down for a few minutes.
But time waits for no band and soon it’s nearing 8pm, when Mick is going to start. After we do a bit of workshopping on his song selection (with me relaying a couple of requests from Facebook), it’s time for him to go onstage and for us to go out among the crowd and watch. He’s one of my favourite ever performers so it’s a rare chance to see him in such easy circumstances. He plays a cracking set and the crowd, which has filled up really nicely, give him a lovely reception. He is the perfect person to play such a show and seems very relaxed and to be greatly enjoying the experience of not having the pressure on of being the main act.
But then we do have that tonight. Pressure more so because this is our home town gig and we want it to go well and for there to be a good crowd. It turns out the crowd is great and that we play, we feel, very well. In fact, I would say it’s the best show we’ve done. Everything just feels synched and perfect, everyone hits every cue point and Bluey, Danny, Simon and Tim are just ripping it apart. At one point I realise we’ve hit that rare spot where the songs seem to be carrying us along, playing themselves, and it’s a wonderful feeling. We bust out a few new ones, including ‘Torn Apart Town’, doing just two choruses at the end after the key change (much to Simon’s surprise) and a near-completely improvised track we’ve done once before called ‘The Bird’.
All up it is a simply fantastic gig at the end of an equally fantastic little tour. We adjourn to an unnamed venue in Sydney for a long and boozy after party, at which new songs are played and Mick busts out some of his iconic tunes and stories as the beers go down very very well. And we begin to make plans for more. Adelaide. Perth. Onward, more…