By Adam Gibson
Eleven years ago, I flew back home to Australia from an icy stay in Europe. For eight months I had barely seen a pure beam of sunlight as I lived in a tiny apartment on Rue de Sevres in Paris then relocated to a sprawling home beside a tidal bay in Northern Ireland, an hour south of Belfast. The purpose of that overall trip was the intention to write a novel. An earlier novel manuscript called “Blinding Sunlight” had been shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award and had attracted interest from various publishers. For one reason or another, it didn’t get over the line but I was subsequently encouraged by a major publisher to “write another novel and we’ll see how that goes.” And thus I set out with such an intention, following every cliché in the book and going to Paris to give it a crack.
Paris offered crowded Metro trains, late nights in smoky bars, long afternoons staring into the grey eyes of a Polish woman named Dorota I met when she was working in a Haagen Daz outlet, strong coffees and a deep eventual loneliness that no amount of red wine or “café au lait” could conquer. And, most importantly, barely a word was written. Having spent a lot of time rambling along those streets in the mid ’90s, by the time of my return in late 2006 I felt the city had changed markedly and that change seeped into my psyche. Always tougher and less romantic in real life, I felt, than the image portrayed in movies and novels, I latterly felt that it had gotten even tougher, less open and defiantly more unfriendly. It was like the borders of the Europe had come down with the EU but personal borders of everyday Parisians had gone up. But perhaps it was just something within me because, as Paul Theroux once wrote, “Travel is a state of mind – we always carry ourselves with us wherever we go.” Either way, the point is, I barely picked up my pen and scribbled a sentence.
Things simply weren’t feeling right so when an offer came to relocate to Northern Ireland, a place I had never previously visited, came up, I took the opportunity gladly. The house where I was to stay was located in a tiny village called Dundrum in County Down, best known for the ruins of Dundrum Castle and perched on the edge of a wide shallow bay called, funnily enough, Dundrum Bay. Through a contact, I had a four-bedroom house all to myself, looking out over the bay at the edge of town. It was February and it was freezing; the bay often enveloped in an impenetrable icy mist through which, it was said by the locals, at night you could hear the ghost shouts of the Vikings who once supposedly sailed there. It certainly had a dark, ancient, haunted feel about it, but the people in the village were friendly and the cafe in the nearby town of Newcastle was rather cosy.
And, for whatever reason, the writing began to flow again. The only problem was, it wasn’t writing for my intended novel. It was more fragmentary stuff, snippets of ideas, poems, stanzas for song lyrics, all with some underlying sense of longing for sunlight, longing for warmth and fresh air and an open landscape. Essentially, it was a longing for Australia. Echoing Hemingway’s idea about America, I had to go to the other side of the world to be able to see Australia more clearly. Or so it felt. But seeking to not stem the flow of words after months of inactivity, writing-wise, I just let it go; my visions of, and desire for, that landscape of “home” growing every day. I kept writing every day to capture that. Dorota came across for a few weeks, we went on long long walks through the rough countryside, I drunk Guinness in the local pub, I was asked to join the local cricket team simply because I was Australian and “all Aussies can play cricket” (apparently) and I filled a book with a vision of Australia that felt important to me. The intended novel went out the window (though I doubt the publisher is still waiting for my call…)
February 2007 then turned to March, Dorota went back to Paris, my time in Northern Ireland was coming to an end. Unsure of my next move, a few weeks after she had left, I returned to Paris to see Dorota. But something had changed. We met on a street up near Lamarck-Caulaincourt and the spark in her eye that had been there for months, through those early Paris days and in Northern Ireland, had gone. Paris in early spring wasn’t romantic at all. It all felt like shit and I went back to the El Dorado Hotel on the almost mockingly-named Rue de Dames and pondered my options. A couple were fucking athletically in the room above, I couldn’t find anything decent to eat and I felt the cold of Europe wearing too deeply into my bones. It was time to go home to the blinding sunlight. Within two days I was on that plane back to Australia.
Flying via Singapore, the plane took the beautiful route diagonally NW to SE down across the country and I remember waking to the hubbub of breakfast preparations and opening my window shade to see the deep red earth of the Kimberly down below. The longing and love for the Australian landscape that I had held within, which I had put on hold for months in Europe, broke inside me and I felt an overwhelming excitement about my own life and the possibilities that may be present in my home country. I peered out the window for perhaps hours, mesmerised by the deep fissures and tracks of rivers, the fuzzed green-white outlines of salt pans, the red corrugated unknown ranges, the jig-sawed plains, the fly-blown wilderness that looked like it was all baking in the purest sun. My eyes were aerial mapping the land, I felt, lodging the cracks and lines and earth deep within me. And then a phrase struck me. The Aerial Maps. It was a name I’d toyed with years before for an earlier band project but had pretty much forgotten it. But right at that moment, in that plane, it came back to me, and with an attendant clear vision. For many years I had performed spoken word poetry around Australia and then, in the couple of years before I’d gone away, had channelled that into incorporating that delivery style into the band Modern Giant. Suddenly, all those things I’d been writing in Northern Ireland felt like they had an outlet, a way of release.
By the time I’d landed in Sydney, the whole concept had formed in my head. A band called The Aerial Maps in which the core was spoken word stories (mostly) about Australia, about the landscape and people and other attendant visions I’d had thereof. It all made complete sense and felt right. Within a few months I had gathered a collection of people, briefed them very briefly on the concept and booked a few days in Damien Gerard Studios in Rozelle, Sydney. On board musically initially were my brother Simon Gibson, our long-time friend and musical guru Simon Holmes and Andy Meehan from Modern Giant. (Later recording sessions were to see singer-guitarist Lucy Lehmann, piano whiz Tim Byron and lifelong friend Sean Kennedy plus a cast of others join us.) With Simon Holmes producing and playing an array of instruments, we entered the studio with the barest of musical ideas – I just had a book full of “poems” and stories that I wanted to “put music to”, with no real thought as to what the end product might be and certainly with no real intent of ever playing the stuff live.
The very first thing we recorded was a track called ‘On the Punt’, based on a memory I’d had about coming home from school and hearing my father listening to the horse racing on his transistor in the kitchen and calling up the PhoneTAB and putting his bets on. I extrapolated that idea into a wider thought about travelling Australia and hearing those race calls in distant towns and distant places, a sense of a dusty unbridled landscape seen through the binoculars of the race caller, long highways, fly-blown towns. My brother Simon came up with the chord progression and played drums, Andy Meehan and Simon Holmes played guitar and bass respectively, Lucy Lehmann adding backing vocals and suddenly … suddenly we had a “song”. Jeez. That felt good, we said, let’s keep going. And thus we did, my brother Simon leading the musical writing charge and Simon Holmes taking the producer’s helm with ease. And, in less than a month or two, we had recorded 11 or so tracks and we suddenly realised we had an album on our hands.
One of the tracks we recorded was called ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ and, echoing my earlier novel manuscript, coupled with my blinking eyes seeking to burn the damp and chill of Europe away, it felt the right title for the whole project, and thus ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ became the album. With no previous thought of releasing it, I now thought it might be a good idea to put the feelers out and see if any labels were interested in doing so. Major labels were of course out of the picture and hip local Sydney ones didn’t want a (literal) bar of it. So I reached out to old friend Scott Thurling, honcho of small Melbourne label PopBoomerang, which had released the Modern Giant records a few years before. Ever the enthusiast, Scott was right behind the project without even hearing a note. I thus sent him the unreleased record to garner his thoughts. Within a day he had gotten back to me and said, “Let’s release this!”
And therefore, time moved ahead and we sorted out the technicalities like artwork and sequencing and mastering etc and eventually, by mid 2008, it was ready to be released. By this time my brother had relocated overseas but it felt right to form a band around the record and to see if we could replicate things live. With Simon Holmes leading that charge again, we got Andy Meehan on board on guitar, AJ Johnson on drums and Sean Kennedy on keyboards and thus the very first incarnation of the live Aerial Maps was born. With the album due for release any day, we launched both it and the band with a show at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and then shortly after with a more raucous affair at the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills. It was 2008.
We subsequently went on to play a heap of shows all around the place as the Aerial Maps, with various members coming and going. Tours of Melbourne and Brisbane and lots of points in-between. It was a niche beast we were pursuing – spoken word storytelling with musical backing – but it seemed to work quite well and a lot of people seemed to be into it. We felt we were hitting some form of mark and ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ found its way into various nooks and crannies, the band receiving correspondence from all over Australia and, to our ongoing surprise, far afield from places such as Scandinavia and Italy. Something struck some sort of chord and jeez it was fun. The album was selling nicely, it won the Overland Poetry Prize for “Best Spoken Word Release”, people seemed to like it.
On the back of that, and now getting ambitious, we decided to record a second album. Not content to take an easy path and do ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ Mark II, we nearly broke our psyches and bank accounts by trying to turn the core idea of the novel I’d gone to Europe to write into an album. This album went on to be a record called ‘The Sunset Park’, a concept album if you will, that told a transcontinental start-to-finish Australian story. It was an intense experience and Simon Holmes, Sean Kennedy and I all went a little mad in the process. The chord struck by ‘ITBS’ had attracted some attention from bigger record labels and a key supporter involved with one such label asked to be the first to hear the new album. Little did he realise (at that point) that we had gone so far off into another direction that, commercially, ‘The Sunset Park’ was an absolute impossible sell. We finished the album and did in fact send it to him. The silence was very long and very loud. Whilst he remained a supporter of the Maps, there was simply no way known he could envisage releasing the record. It still came out though and, to this day, I get messages in regards to it by people who love it. Even I find it a difficult listen but I remain very proud of it.
The Maps again toured again around that time to support the record with the likes of Peregrine Chiara, Alannah Russack, Greg Perano, Lucy Lehmann, Paul Andrews and several more playing with us and being integral to the whole thing. But the recording process had drained our funds and a fair bit of energy. We weren’t the Rolling Stones and playing a thousand shows a year, but we ticked along and kind of wore ourselves out. We played a live version of ‘The Sunset Park’ on ABC Radio National, we did all sorts of things, but we were tired. And then life intervened for all of us, Holmesy moved out of Sydney, Sean started working as a producer at the ABC. I was doing this and that. The Maps basically went into an unintended / extended hiatus. In order to keep performing live however, I formed The Ark-Ark Birds, playing a bunch of Maps tunes but also newer stuff co-written with my brother. This soon coalesced into an album, and then another, and time moved on etc and so forth and that became my main musical “vehicle”, as it were, and remains so now.
Anyway. Anyway. In early 2017 or perhaps mid/late 2016, I was chatting to Simon Holmes and mentioned that 2018 marked the 10-year anniversary of ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’. Where had the time gone? Who knew? But maybe, I suggested to him, it would be a good occasion to mark? Perhaps we could re-release the album on vinyl, or something, perhaps we could do a tour, play shows as the Aerial Maps again? I’d always loved the band (and the band name) and it was always something I thought we’d eventually do. The 10-year anniversary was as good a reason as any…
Sadly, none of that was to happen. In July last year, just as my thoughts were privately coalescing into a plan to get that release or perhaps tour to happen, Simon Holmes took his own life, much to the devastation of many across the country. It ripped the heart out of so many of us and we’re all still dealing with it in our various ways. Perhaps even the very writing of this is part of that. I was honoured to be involved with Simon musically for a fair period and to equally call him a friend. The Aerial Maps were but one small component of his life but I like to think that the recordings we did and the shows we played gave him a lot of joy. I’m not intending to speculate on reasons or wherefores, but as it stands, it is 10 years since we released ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ and at a celebration of Simon’s life at the Factory Theatre last November, I felt his presence right beside me as we finished a set as “The Aerial Maps”, perhaps for the last time, with ‘On the Punt’, a raucous, rambling version that I am sure the big fella, 10 years on, would’ve been proud of.
Will we re-release the record on vinyl? I dunno, maybe it’s a good idea … and maybe that major label will at last come to the party? Probably not though and that’s okay.