Trying to clear my head, with this.
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…
A new video for the song on “Australia Restless” called ‘I Will Always Go Seeking Water’, by Adam Gibson and the Ark-Ark Birds.
Stoked to see another great review of ‘Australia Restless’ in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper. I love Qld!
Adam Gibson & The Ark-Ark Birds, Australia Restless
(One Crowded Hour) ****
There is always a place for the Aussie yarnspinner who brings the local into sharp focus and Gibson is in a line that goes back through Paul Kelly and Henry Lawson. He delivers these tales as spoken word backed by a band. This album follows two classic recordings as The Aerial Maps and the suburban scenes, the open road, the summer heat, the joy in the vernacular and the Aussie place names (Marble Bar, Tathra, Macksville, Ulladulla, Nullagine, Currumbin) remain central. These poems/songs play out like movies in the head, the bloke from the towing service who picks up a stolen truck and shoots through to the Gold Coast to flog the hot TVs in the back (The Years Nobody Cared What You Did). The Year Our House Burnt Down is the true story of a bushfire, and the album concludes with the epic Blanchey (You Were Beautiful), about the “pale-eyed daughter of the Carlton Careys’’ and her child born of an affair with her sister’s husband. I thought, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Gibson didn’t: it’s the story of his grandmother and mother.
There is a cracker of an interview here with themusic.com.au’s Steve Bell.
Sydney songsmith Adam Gibson sees Australia differently than your average man in the street, extracting meaning and beauty where others might spy only mundanity or boredom. On the eve of dropping his band The Ark-Ark Birds’ new album, Australia Restless, he tellsSteve Bell that his national pride runs far deeper than jingoism.
Adam Gibson’s intrinsically Australian vision – delivered in his inimitable semi-spoken style in that broad Aussie accent – first came to widespread attention back in 2008, with the release of his band The Aerial Maps’ debut album, In The Blinding Sunlight. That collection highlighted both Gibson’s skilful way with words and his unique perception of the Australian way of life and our many cultural strengths and foibles, a skill-set further evinced by that band’s sophomore effort, The Sunset Park. Even though the second album took on more of a narrative structure, much of its power came from Gibson’s deft examinations of the minutiae of local lives and relationships, insights phrased in a manner conducive to the listener both comprehending and connecting with the tales, effortlessly able to draw parallels with their own life experience.
His newest assortment of songs, Australia Restless, rides atop those very same strengths – his compelling worldview, adroit songwriting skills and distinctive delivery – but is this time the product of a new collaboration with a group of friends and Sydney musicians now collectively known as The Ark-Ark Birds. It’s a shift, but not a seismic one, and is basically just the product of Gibson’s fervent desire to get back out there amongst it and not stagnate.
“In a sense The Aerial Maps still exist – and remain in the future an undoubted, ongoing entity – it’s just sort of me putting it on the backburner for the moment, just because the guys involved with that band like Simon Holmes and Sean Kennedy both have a lot of other stuff going on,” he explains. “In a sense, even though it’s thematically and structurally quite similar to what we did in The Aerial Maps, the way it was built was different. I was writing stuff which really felt quite personal, and about my life and stuff that felt really close to me, and I started to pull a lot of that stuff together with my brother Simon. It just evolved in a different way and it didn’t feel like it was The Aerial Maps, so I decided to draw a clear distinction. It’s the same but different. People have got commitments and families and things like that, and I’m keen to get out there and play and do as much as possible, so you just set it up in a bit more of a flexible manner to play live and stuff.”
Even though the content of Australia Restless is so overtly rooted in our wide brown land, a lot of its creation actually transpired a long, long way from home.
“In the last couple of years I’ve been over twice to Finland and Scandinavia,” Gibson continues, “and even though it’s a strange place, (a) to say I even went to, and (b) to write about Australia from, I really felt that sense of distance from Australia gave me a new perspective and I started to write about things that really affected me, whereas with The Aerial Maps stuff a lot of it had been really in situ – in the landscape or in small towns and crossing the desert and that sort of stuff. So probably for me there’s a slight psychological shift, in that even though Australia Restless is very much about – and more explicitly about – Australia than the two Aerial Maps albums, it’s just a slightly different psychological mindset. Again, similar but different.
“Sometimes I’ve never felt more Australian than when I’ve been in London or in Paris or somewhere like that.”
“I think about people like Hemingway and Kerouac, more so Hemingway – he found that he was able to write about America or write about things which were more culturally American when he was away from there, and I certainly think that’s the case. Sometimes I’ve never felt more Australian than when I’ve been in London or in Paris or somewhere like that – it’s like your personality is reduced and you find those essential elements about yourself. It’s not about bullshit nationalism or even your accent, it’s just your approach to life. But also you really get that distilled image, you’re not overwhelmed by it day to day; I sit here now in Sydney and look out the window and see the sky blah blah blah, but if I’m imagining that from Paris I’m seeing it in such a different mindset and yearning for it and I see it quite clearly, I think.”
Did Gibson know from the get-go that Australia Restless would comprise a series of snapshots rather than the narrative form which served him so well on The Sunset Park?
“Yeah, we did The Sunset Park which was a really interesting exercise to do, and which came from a novel manuscript that I’d written so was a matter of placing the songs in a sense like chapters,” he offers. “It was a great thing to do, and it was emotionally and physically tiring, but for this one I had this idea – this kind of concept – in that I had the title first, Australia Restless. People all along the process have asked, ‘What does that mean? Do you think it’s gonna work?’, but I stuck with it because it’s a real underpinning of the album. I don’t mean to get all wanky about it, but there was a theory or thesis I had behind the whole work, and that’s just this idea of restless movement within Australia. A lot of people don’t even go overseas at all in their whole lives, but they’ll live in five different cities and they move around a lot.
“It’s not about bullshit nationalism.”
“So there’s that aspect, but there’s also the aspect that historically with Australia being a European and white settlement, it was characterised by that sense of restless movement that pushed people onto new towns and new places, going right back to the early explorers and the settlement and itinerant workers moving around and working in shearing sheds. Using all of that as a kind of theoretical construct, I built upon it with more modern stories and it essentially became that grab bag of snapshots; as Paul Kelly says [in Bradman], ‘Let the part tell the whole’.
“It’s probably something that has been in the back of my mind, and these things sort of bubble up or you’ll latch onto an idea when you’re writing an album. I like to try and write stuff that at its base has a meaning – I remember a friend saying that she liked everything I’ve done musically because essentially at the core of it was an idea rather than just saying, ‘Let’s just do this song because it’s fun’. So I was looking around thinking, ‘What’s this album going to be?’, and scratching around for different ideas, and then once the title came to me the ideas kind of encrusted around that title – it was a process where the ideas were there, the title took traction and then everything else kind of accumulated around that. Some bits washed away, and some bits stuck.”
There’s something unique about Gibson’s songwriting style that prompts a barrage of memories and recollections of shared experiences, and he attests that this is one of the aims of his creative process.
“I look at some of my early influences, and I’ve always done essentially spoken storytelling, and at the core of that was Jack Kerouac talking with Steve Allen about this very specific world,” he tells. “I don’t know the world that they’re talking about on those albums – I don’t know the physical places – but I’m just absolutely there, and to this day they affect me and I’m moved by them and their specifics. So I just thought that I’d try and write about my own specifics and hopefully that tells the greater whole. It’s funny, I’ll talk about something that’s really close to me or a really personal experience and after a gig someone will come up to me with tears in his eyes and say, ‘Oh, my grandfather used to do that and when you talked about that it was exactly how it used to happen’. So if you try to paint in broad brushstrokes by talking about big themes I think you can kind of run the risk of not really connecting with anyone, but if get really tight on specifics you can hit the mark very strongly with some people. I like to name names and name locations and things like that – put proper nouns on things, rather than just vague specifics – and if you cast the net some people really seem to enjoy that. I don’t do it as a cynical gesture to hook in someone who grew up in, say, Port Macquarie so they feel an affinity with what I do. I don’t know Lowell, Massachusetts that Kerouac wrote about, but I still know that he’s talking about a place that’s home.”
So the intrinsically Australian nature of his work is more a product of Australia being where Gibson is from rather than an actual ambition to have a national feel?
“It’s just where I’m from, this is the accent we speak in and it’s the world that I see,” he proffers. “But I have always thought on a higher, deeper or wider level that Bulli’s as important as Broadway or Fortitude Valley is as valuable as Soho in London – I think we’ve got to give these places credit, and if we don’t who else is going to? It annoys me but doesn’t surprise me that things that are specifically Australian aren’t given a lot of credit, but having said that look at Courtney Barnett who’s killing it now talking about our place sin our accent – that’s absolutely fantastic, I love that.”
From an outsider’s viewpoint there seems to be a deeper lineage happening too – Gibson’s songs contain snippets of other intrinsically Aussie works, such as lines from tracks by artists such as Midnight Oil, Paul Kelly, Weddings Parties Anything and Hunters & Collectors – and he explains that this is mainly just a top of the hat to those who have gone before him.
“It definitely is, but it’s also a little game I like to play, like an aural ‘Where’s Wally?’ – I’ll get the trainspotters to really find those sort of things,” he laughs. “Firstly, it’s not a cynical exercise just to have a connection with those artists – it is a tip of the hat, and also just a fun thing to do. We’ve got such a canon of great stuff, and there are so many great Aussie bands and poems and literature that have influenced me and I like to fit them in. At the end of each gig I can run a test and see who’s got what. Some of them are really tight and really obscure, and every now and then someone will pick one up and I’ll be, like, ‘That was a good spot!’”
“Bulli’s as important as Broadway or Fortitude Valley is as valuable as Soho.”
It’s clear from even a cursory listen that there’s a lot of his own self invested in his works, but Gibson explains that the balance between pure fiction and autobiography changes from song to song.
“Yeah, it does shift, and I’ve been in circumstances where people have been completely convinced that a certain part of a story is particular to my life or part of my true experience,” he says. “For example I had a friend of mine who really, really love the first Aerial Maps album, which has a song called The Shark on it where I talk about my sister – equally on the same album I talk about my father who was a big punter and loved a bet – so you could say On The Punt is explicitly true and about my life, but then The Shark is complete fiction, and I don’t have a sister. That really messes with people’s heads a bit. It’s about not giving people completely firm ground to nail me down. I want people to know enough, but I want there to be an element of fiction and the possibility that comes with that. If I just did my life, I’ve covered my Dad, done a bit of surfing and talked about the Roosters and that’s it! I’ve got to expand the palette a bit, mate!”
Of songs on Australia Restless, it seems clear that the epic closer Blanchey (You Were Beautiful) is one of the works that is heavily grounded in reality.
“That one’s very much so,” Gibson admits. “That tells the story of my grandma and how my mum came to Sydney from Melbourne, but even though it is essentially a story about my grandma’s – and by extension my mum’s – life, I really wanted their story to try to tell the story of Australia in the twentieth century. So it’s taking from the early-twentieth century when my grandma was born, right through to the end of it when she died. I’m using my mum and my grandma as a story which is a thread on the Great War and the Depression – the ‘hungry years’ of the Depression to quote the Weddoes – and then going through to the end of the Second World War and Victory In The Pacific Day and moving right out of that to the ‘50s and the ‘70s and Gough Whitlam. In a sense they’re the vehicle through which the story of Australia is carried for that period. Every aspect of that is really, really true but essentially the idea was to tell a bigger story – some people will just get the family story, and others will get that it’s wider, with bigger references going on there. A few people have gotten really emotional from that song – even people who played on it. Even when I tried to have a go at doing it at practice I couldn’t get the whole way through without welling up, so it’s not on the live agenda at the moment; (a) it’s too bloody long, and (b) it’s one of those ones that you don’t want to wear out.”
Another new song which fosters easily connections is The Years Nobody Cared What You Did, a song which manages to cast an eye back over the good old days without getting mired in mere nostalgia.
“You could live in your car out the back of Currumbin Surf Club and no one really cared.”
“I think we’ve got to a point now where every single thing you do is monitored or checked or appraised or dissected or searched for motives for why it’s being done by members of the constabulary or by the government or by our friends or relatives or your girlfriend or whatever,” Gibson muses. “I think we used to live a much more unaccounted life, where you were just able to do stuff and not feel as though everyone was worried about it; ‘You can’t do that!’, or ‘Don’t go doing that!’, or ‘What’d you wanna go doing that for?’ You just sort of bloody did things you know? You could live in your car out the back of Currumbin Surf Club and no one really cared, it was just kind of possible.
“People say, ‘Oh, the internet changed everything blah blah blah’, but I think it’s more than that – I think it’s a deeper level where everyone has a sense that they’ve got to have some input into everyone else’s life. It’s like, ‘Just leave me alone mate, I’m happy!’ You could just do things, and I don’t know whether it’s a uniquely Australian thing that we’ve lost, but there just seemed to be more possibilities and happenstance – maybe it’s just when you’re younger that the world seems a bit more like that? I think it’s more of a societal thing though, where everyone’s a bit more accountable these days. The idea for that actually came from that song by The Go-Betweens, Surfing Magazines, where [Robert Forster’s] talking about being, ‘the type of people that authorities can’t reach’. Not that it directly came from that, but it psychologically stemmed from that; ‘Going to get a kombi and go from beach to beach/Be the type of person the authorities can’t reach’. You can see that connection there. It’s a funny kind of restrictive world we seem to live in, but it ain’t all bad.
“Maybe a lot of the album’s about that older sensibility – not in terms of being physically older or people growing older, but in terms of an older world. But on the other hand I don’t want to be always looking backwards and going, ‘Things were better then’; I don’t want to be painted into that spot of always banging on about the olden days. I think there were aspects which were good and aspects which were bad.”
One of the new album’s most memorable lines comes during Long Time Dead, when he espouses that, “they weren’t better days, just younger ones”.
“If you keep saying how everything was better then and the music was better then and everything was much brighter or whatever – it’s only because you were younger that that was the case.”
“That’s exactly what I meant, and that whole idea does underpin the album,” Gibson says. “I have been accused of looking backwards in the past; one of the reviews of The Aerial Maps’ first album In The Blinding Sunlight was titled In Yesterday’s Blinding Sunlight, and I was, like, (a) fuck you, and (b) you missed the point! That whole album was about that whole nostalgic backyard fence world, and the reviewer obviously didn’t get the point that it was a conceptual piece looking at a certain place and time in a psychological. I did say, ‘They weren’t better days, just younger ones’, and the sooner you realise that the better it is for everyone. People are always going on about, ‘Oh, it was better back then’, and ‘Before the internet it was this and that’ – it was alright, but there were still plenty of dramas. That’s a plea, saying that you’re just giving up if you keep saying how everything was better then and the music was better then and everything was much brighter or whatever – it’s only because you were younger that that was the case. Move on, stick with it, keep doing exercise and keep looking forward rather than looking back.”
Now that Australia Restless has been birthed into the world, it’s time for The Ark-Ark Birds to take the album on the road and Gibson couldn’t be happier.
“People sometimes think that because it’s a spoken-word sorta thing that we don’t really play it live, but all these songs were built to be played live, and I think in a live context – once people get over the fact that I’m not singing at them and they understand that – then they can go with it,” he gushes. “The band’s sounding really good, and we’re trying to go back to a sensibility of that oral tradition of storytelling where people gather around in a room – or around a fire – and gather in really close to hear a few yarns about this place or that; that’s the idea. I certainly think that it does work in a live context, and we’re really stoked that we’ve got the opportunity coming up to do that.”
Has he experienced much resistance to the spoken-word aspect of his art when he’s been performing live in the past?
“Yeah it’s funny, I came from a band background – I played in different bands for a long while before I ever vocalised anything, just writing songs and playing bass or whatever – but concurrently with that I did a lot of spoken word stuff in Sydney, and that was originally my lineage,” Gibson smiles. “Then I started to marry the two and do the band stuff with the spoken word, so in my mind I always saw what I did as songs and approached it as a band kind of thing – it’s more sometimes about creating the perception that it is a band and they are songs and don’t be scared. I do speak them but it’s not The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, it’s not heavy poetry or TS Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock – people might use the word poetry in relation to it but I see it more just as lyrics anyway, just spoken. I’ve seen people at our gig to watch the support bands or whatever, and after to or three of our songs they quietly gather their jacket and bag and kinda slide out sideways – it’s always about the third song when they realise ‘this bloke’s not gonna sing’. I always make sure to mention them from the microphone, like, ‘We’ve cleared better rooms than this so I’ll see you later!’ But once people sit back and don’t resist – God, that sounds bad! – but just go with it and put down those barriers, it usually ends up okay. Mate, I hated poetry at school, you couldn’t me out of that English class quick enough when poetry was mentioned so don’t worry, I understand: ‘Just relax, it’s going to be alright’.”
We have arrived in Melbourne in preparation for our show at the Yarra Hotel, Abbotsford, on Saturday night, May 16.
We have old mate The Danny Walsh Banned (that’s not a typo – it’s spelt “Banned”) in support and it should be a great night. Proceedings will kick off at about 8pm … and it is FREE.
Come down or over or up.
Yes, the headline is correct … you can buy the new album ‘Australia Restless’ right here…