Dead Things

If you approach Alisha Abate’s installation, Negative Spaces, from one side, you’re presented first with the steel frame. It immediately reminds one of a doorway. The biggest space forms a wall, and two smaller spaces a doorway and perhaps a window. The barest of lines are there in the frame, enough to suggest structure. Once one recognises a doorway, there is a slight urge to use it. Of course, one could just as easily walk any which way as there is no actual wall. But there is direction. There is an immediate ‘what-for?’ response from me. Am I being herded through?
If my imaginary wall was real, it would be hiding the human hair affixed to a square concrete slab on the floor. At first it was peculiar, odd, but the longer I looked the more perturbed I became, yet still interested. Where did it come from? How many heads of hair? Very soon I was thinking about the holocaust—hair, shoes, hairbrushes, the thin steel wire frames of glasses, toothbrushes, hats. More generally however, it brought to mind the architecture of it. By this I mean how bare everything was, as if it had been stripped away of its previous material, leaving only the remnants of something living: hair, negative space. When faced with a collection of human detritus like this, it’s hard not to mention Auschwitz with its enormous piles of hair clippings that sit behind glass, looking out onto a wide-open room full of curiously stunned visitors.

Photography by Lauren Dunn

Directly opposite from the hair, and farther still from the steel frame, is an old wooden chair and atop sits a concrete block, its insides containing an irregular negative space exposed to the viewer. The space inside was, again, peculiar and made me curious as to what formed it. It could’ve easily been something living—a creature, an organ, a limb. The fact that it sits atop an old wooden chair only adds to this. I lean over, hands on my knees, trying to get a look in.
In fact, everything in the installation can be said to make you move in a certain way. The steel frame looks so much like a wall, doorway and window that you feel pulled towards the doorway, wanting to walk under the frame. When approaching the hair and after examining it for a time, you’re tempted to kneel down and take a closer look. The same goes for the negative space in the concrete atop the chair—something was there. It’s as if we’re being prompted.

Photography by Lauren Dunn

There is a bodily, even deathly feeling to it, this direction through object and architecture, along with the plausible signs of life having once been. Dead things, dead people, empty space. I might be tempted to draw out the comparison even further and say that whilst it may represent how something like the holocaust used direction for the destruction of people—through this door, off with your hair—ordinary architecture and objects push us in such a way that kills the possibility of other things, or at least guarantees the actioning  of certain actions: through the door, kneel down, look in.
Whatever the case, there seems to be a question of body and space. I’m left asking myself why? Why this direction? Why this action? Perhaps it’s my naivety—I’m terrible with art. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point, to question how the spaces around us, framed by architecture and filled with objects, affect us, how they make us act and feel in certain ways. We move through spaces shaped by forces aside from our own every day and rarely do we consider how we’re motivated or not because of it.

Before leaving I bent down towards the hair for one more closer look. Disturbed slightly by feelings of human decay and waste, I stand up and leave.

 More from Alisha

Same.

Natalie texts me, she’s just pulled up outside. ‘Here now burnsie!!’
‘Two shakes of my bottom,’ I reply. We’re on our way to a 21st, somewhere bayside. One of the hosts (it was a joint 21st) is James. He’s the one I bumped into in Budapest last year in the wee hours of the morning. ‘Is that Luke Burns?’ I remember him saying, his voice coming at me from shadows, a streetlight holding him aglow. Neither of us knew we were in Budapest, or in Europe.
It’s a good little story. Natalie and I try to remember when we each first met him. We can’t quite recall. We do know the party is going to be ‘hipster as fuck’ and this doesn’t surprise nor discourage us. It feels good to get to a house party again—something I always say when I arrive at one, pushing my way through a gate I’ve never touched before, sheepishly navigating my way through some garage or garden path.
The idea is a bit rubbish, that to turn 21 is the burgeoning of our adulthood. Boy oh boy, does it make me feel young. It’s the sound of young people, definitely no longer teenagers, but not quite adults, talking excitedly about life; it’s the site of people sitting on the grass, rolling cigarettes and drinking tinnies; it’s a fire; it’s music; it’s a fair evening, just cool enough for a jacket. The presence of a blue sky, friends, alcohol and even just the slight smell of tobacco on the air hauls me back in time. I take a deep breath and feel good.
The music is different to what I’m used to. What am I used to hearing being spun at 21st’s? The same boring suburban garbage. What I heard this evening was what I think of as a mix of House and Nu Disco. James and his friends take turns mixing vinyls. He’s tall, 6’1 or 6’2 maybe, and he looms over the decks in shorts and a massive, outstanding short-sleeved shirt that I wish I could pull off. Admittedly I know little about the music so I asked James later for some recommendations, for somewhere to get me started. Like the gentleman he is, he was happy to do so. In total he recommended five different labels.
The first is Dark Entries Records, working mostly with reissues from the 80’s and 90’s. They’re ‘bangers,’ James tells me, ‘that for whatever reason, never got huge.’ Recommended is Victrola and Severed Heads to start with. This stuff feels slightly like a novelty, but it’s still good. Next is Fit Sound, based in Detroit and headed by Aaron ‘fit’ Siegel. It’s House/Techno/Experimental, and I’m told to start with Siegel himself, A Drummer From Detroit, and Marcellus Pittman. I love Siegel’s “Carmine” straight off the bat—there’s always something about a soft, ambient synth moving in the background that gets me (and reminds me instantly of Aphex Twin). A Drummer From Detroit’s “Part One” seems like an obvious place to start and offers what you think: drums. It’s tribal, it’s groove and it’s sustained by the bongo loops, good percussion, accompanied by wailing guitars and strong keys. “Part Two” (same link) I like even better—good vocal samples, groovy bass line, and the keys are fun.
I have a feeling I’m going to be listening to a lot of Marcellus Pittman. At a glance he looks like a prolific producer and I’m won over immediately. Pittman also appears under Sound Signature, a label that I take to be rather iconic, having been around for about 20 years and headed by Theo Parish, a well-known producer known for his genre jumping. It’s ‘complex, gritty, dynamic, arty house and techno,’ James tells me. I come across a track titled “Lost Angel“. It has that simplistic build I like, minimalist and meditative. I quickly discover that Pittman and Parish have worked together to produce tracks like “Questions Comments”, part of a three-track 2002 vinyl release. I know Parish works with Jazz also. I’ll have to look into this.
There’s still more for me to explore. Mood Hut, springing out of Vancouver in 2012. Newer, and releasing stuff from a range of different genres. I’m told to start with Aquarian Foundation, Pender Street Steppers, and Jack J. And lastly, there’s Tusk Wax, a rather curious sounding label that, according to James, is run by ‘one bloke in Nottingham, limited to 4 track house/disco/edit compilations, no digital, no repress.’ That considered, I’m going to have to hunt down the tracks, previews of which are here (also, mixes). Tusk Gold, Tusk Wax 1, 19, and 20 are my recommended starting points.
But enough of that. Back at the party, the people are different, I do realise, from those I’ve happened to mix with. I feel more at home for some reason, more than I do farther out in the suburbs. Of course, I love the friends from my youth, from east-side. It’s the general difference, a feeling. There’s a staggering uniformity about the outer suburbs, facile and crude. The closer in you go, the greater difference you encounter.
I think this and I quickly inquire of myself, ‘is it just wealth you like the look of?’ Is it some kind of liberal bias associated with the coast and inner suburbs, the city? I don’t know. I’m not sure that I care. It does, however, make me yearn to move on from the burbs, the land of listless dreams. The land of the same.
Natalie drives me home. Free wine and beer has its way with me and I’m jolly and talkative. We carry on about the music and whatever else. It’s a 40 minute drive back home. We say goodbye and I step onto the street, my street. I walk down the drive, feel the crunch of the stones under my boots, hear the familiar sound. I dig my hand into my pocket, feel for the right key. I don’t turn on any lights. I tap the walls as I go, feeling my way through the same rooms—the same as ever in the dark.

familiar, familiar, familiar.

Deftones, Festival Hall, Nov 11

Deftones ™
Deftones ™

It’s a warm night and my friend looks different—a new beard, hair cut short on the sides. ‘I lost the tickets,’ he tells me. ‘Oh,’ I say. I haven’t seen him for a long time, buddies since high school. He tells me about benching 100kg the other day, a new best. He’s no meat head, just a quiet, big-smiling friend who likes his hard-rock and metal, likes to lift weights. We head to the management office of Festival Hall to get a reprint of the tickets. There’s a girl in reception and I know her from somewhere. She was part of my environment at some point. Was it uni? I think so. She recognises me too and when our eyes meet the looks on our faces acknowledge the fact that we’ve known each other for a long time and know nothing about each other. Weird.
My friend is also named Luke and we’ve both been fans of the Deftones since I can remember knowing him. The first warm-up act I don’t know. The second is Karnivool, another favourite from my high school days though I’ve neglected them in recent years. They sound as tight as they do on their records. Interesting play with time signatures, rhythm and song structure, technically proficient. It’s impressive. “Cote” plays and it takes me back to the time when bands started to impress me musically. The Deftones tap into something a little more: teenage angst, recklessness, excitement, growing up.
The setlist doesn’t surprise me at all, opening up with a handful of tracks from their middle albums: “Diamond Eyes” (Diamond Eyes, 2010), “Digital Bath” (White Pony, 2000), and “Kimdracula” (Saturday Night Wrist, 2006). Diamond Eyes the album was decent but not nearly as ground breaking or original as White Pony or Saturday Night Wrist. It’s great to hear “Digital Bath”, a song both hard-hitting and ambient. It epitomises White Pony‘s mix of the band’s roots with their sojourn into shoegaze. Saturday Night Wrist, on the other hand, saw them further refine their hard-rock on the back of their self-titled album of 2003. It’s what I appreciate about the Deftones for the most part—a familiar formula and a discography that varies.
Gore (2016) is more of the familiar and I think Anthony Fontano from The Needle Drop is right in parking it with Diamond Eyes (though for some different reasons, much to the vitriol of his listeners). That’s the thing with the Deftones. Their fanbase is loyal to the bone, even a bit cultish, and I do admit to being one of them. So, I note my internal bias.
The title track of Gore follows “Kimdracula” and we’re only treated with two other tracks from their latest release. Not long into the set I realise that though the band isn’t breaking any more boundaries, they’ve still got the energy I fell in love with and play the way they should, as seasoned performers. I love seeing Abe trashing the drumheads and brass. None of them seem to tire out. And they constantly play with tempo—up and down, building up, crashing down. There are times when I think it jars, when the chorus is sped up too much. But hey, details.
“Swerve City” from Koi No Yokan (2012) comes soon after and I’m glad. I think the album is underrated as it stands amongst the more well-known in their catalogue. Chino takes up lead guitar for a moment and I think of Carpenter being at first reluctant to share his responsibilities as guitarist when Chino started dabbling some years ago.
We’re then treated with three big ones from Around The Fur (1997), their sophomore hit. We’re told to ‘drive far‘ and the buildup and drop in “Headup” is huge. It’s only after the eleventh track, “Rosemary” (Chino and Carpenter get into it, playing off each other in that cliché duo pose), that the band takes its first of maybe two small breathers before launching into more. There is some banter. Carpenter’s hair is blowing high into the air and Chino remarks: ‘that would be your Native American name: “His Hair Blows.”‘
Soon enough we hear “Change (In The House of Flies)” and “Knife Party”, two big favourites of any fan. The audience joins in for a chorus that tugs at your strings. “Knife Party” has Chino launching himself again into the crowd and he’s illuminated like a prophet as fans reach for him—‘go get your knife, go get your knife, and come in…’
The encore goes like I knew it would: one or two big songs from the catalogue, then something from Adrenaline (1995), their debut album—thrashing and angry. And yup, it was “Hexagram”, the only track played from their self-titled Deftones (2003), followed by “Engine No. 9”. None of this disappointed and the band worked the crowd hard. Look back at videos of them playing in the 90’s and 2000’s and you see the same screaming sweat, the same force.

I got what I expected. There were no big surprises. Maybe that was the appeal for a fan like me—something I know and love, something I often retreat into. The Deftones have been a working band for decades now and don’t seem to have lost any of their zeal. Abe still thrashes; Sergio’s eyes open wide; Chino screams, squeals as hard as he ever did, taking every chance to leap into into the crowd; Carpenter makes 8 strings bellow out something massive, and Delgado works quietly, hardly noticed (though if he does his job well he shouldn’t be). Yes, their best albums are well and truly behind them but they still play red-raw, enough to throw your neck out.

Luke and I walk back to the train station in the balmy rain, happy with nostalgia.

Setlist:

  1. Diamond Eyes
  2. Digital Bath
  3. Kimdracula
  4. Gore
  5. Rocket Skates
  6. Tempest
  7. Swerve City
  8. Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)
  9. Headup
  10. My Own Summer (Shove It)
  11. Rosemary
  12. Prince
  13. (L)MIRL
  14. Acid Hologram
  15. Change (In The House of Flies)
  16. Knife Party

Encore:
17. Hexagram
18. Engine No. 9

A Brief Sojourn

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Lake Constance, Friedrichsafen

A year ago I took a brief trip to Europe. Here’s what I wrote upon my return, late 2015.

***

In mid August I boarded a flight bound for England, the start of my two month trip to Europe. Months prior I decided to finally buy a ticket, thinking it was about time. Friends had gone, I’d listened to stories, seen the pictures. Time to go, let’s see what it’s all about. Sheepishly and nervously I boarded my first international flight on my own, without any real expectations. Over 24 hours later I stepped off the tube and out onto Borough High Street in London. It was oddly warm and humid but that aside the city slacked my jaw: huge, busy, crowded, rushed. It was all surreal for a suburban Melbourne boy, and it was the start of my brief sojourn.

My first night in a mixed dormitory was marked by the scene of an Englishman having his bed pissed on by a very sleepy German. The accusations and the perp’s defence woke me. Did you piss on my bed?! The lights turn on to reveal the crime scene, dripping wet. The offending chap could neither definitively say it was or wasn’t him and it took some wrestling with the hostel manager on deck to get him out of bed to face the music. ‘You know,’ he said to the incredulous manager, ‘you can’t really prove it was me’. A Frenchman pipes up, annoyed at the disturbance. The German’s colleagues apologise on their friend’s behalf, despite his denials. Ordered out onto the street, gone, no bed, evicted. Glad to have watched this from a top bunk where my chances of being marked were slim (and gladder still to see that he had at least the courtesy to piss on the foot of the bed, not the head) I wonder if this is one of the first silly nights among many. Yes, yes sir. Yes it will be.
Apart from the drinking that wouldn’t really stop until I left Tullamarine, I set about my site seeing. I travel to Oxford for a day and take a walk through Balliol, the college of the late and great Christopher Hitchens. I sit in the Eagle and Child for an average fish and chips, the same place where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis sat to discuss their writing. The physical closeness and timely distance to and from the great and historical would become a constant thread, and one is consistently reminded of it. My guide at Oxford, Ian, an elderly man whose enthusiasm appeared endless, pointed out Tony Abbott’s old college and upon discovering my nationality, teased me for it. (This wouldn’t be the last time I couldn’t escape from the embarrassing turd: in my journal I would write every so often of any recent attempts at governance or leadership, although it would all turn to glee in the coming weeks when in Prague I learn of Turnbull’s coup.) I catch up with a friend and make a trip to Cambridge. Buckingham Palace’s apparent majesty is lost on me, made unimpressive by its hereditary principles, and paled compared to Westminster. The House of Commons seems even smaller than you’re told beforehand, and this makes it all the more impressive as a house of debate. The busts and statues of the greats line the halls and intersections, champions of politics, actual leaders—something I feel in wanting of.
Being so swamped in history I felt a slight disconnect with the here and now, but despite this I would be brought up to speed. After visiting Paris for three nights I booked a Thalys train service to Amsterdam, and it was a Thalys service that was only days prior, on the 22nd of August, boarded by a man who attempted to open fire with an AK47 before being subdued by off-duty American servicemen and others. The culprit managed to kill no one and was apparently dumbfounded at the terror charges laid against him. Though not at all scared because of this, I was reminded that a holiday doesn’t place you at that great a distance from world events.
Paris was more or less a city sized museum. I visit the Louvre, Versailles, see the Notre Dame, and cruise the Seine. A tour up to Montmart takes us through what has been known as the Bourgious Bohemian quarter of Paris. Or, in other words, home of the hipster. Mystique, an infamous street artist, once lived here and was broken up with and kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment in the middle of August—the worst time to be homeless in Paris—and told he never wanted to see her again. So she stencil’s her face and paints it everywhere she knew he’d ever be, even his home. The loser fled, never to return to the city of love. My other favourite story is that of the Beloved King, a man loved by many and who lived to party. On the completion of the New Bridge he threw a party: wine for all! Once the supply was exhausted, it was champaign for all! He then commissioned his artist friend to sculpt the heads of all his drunken friends, all of which now adorn the New Bridge. This King, amongst all the other monarchs I learnt about, with at least 54 mistresses and over 30 illegitimate children, was quite the cheeky standout. My favourite.
Amsterdam struck me as the first city I’d imagine myself moving to. A bike ride through the city, particularly through the Jordaan district, revealed to me in full the pretty streets and handsome canals. I note in my journal that parts of it remind me of places like Brunswick back in Melbourne. I would later feel and write the same of Berlin, Kreuzberg in particular, decidedly and easily my favourite city. Funnily enough the two places that reminded me most of home were the one’s I warmed to most, where I could imagine living.
The Netherlands is also where I began the necessary moral education: a visit to the Anne Frank museum. Even after later visiting Dachau and Auschwitz, this was easily the most touching, tearjerking experience. Two details struck me hard. First was the preliminary room, blank apart from those four perfect pictures of Anne: laughing, smiling, happy, the pictures spread across one corner of the room, all on their own. Then there was the picture of Otto, Anne and Margot’s father, standing alone in what looks like their hiding place. Such a forlorn look in the eye, a sadness, alone there without a family that came so agonisingly close to emancipation. I couldn’t help but feel there was a man forever recalling. How many small moments must’ve passed before his mind’s eye. I write in my journal that day: ‘my heart could weep forever.’
I’m surprised to learn that Anne was born in 1929, the same year as Werner, my Opa—my grandfather, my mother’s father. It was with this in mind that I made my next visit to Freiburg, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest. In the dying days of the war, Opa, only a teenager, was sent to the Western Front to face off the American tanks. Sent out in groups of three and under threat of punishment, he went out and was always the only one to return. At war’s end, he walked home, through the forest, through the hills. I took the Schauinslanbahn to the top of the mountain range and walked the paths, listened to the breeze running through the trees, touched the bark and the Earth in an unwitting ceremony of connection and left with two leaves placed in a book. My next stop was Friedrichshafen, Opa’s hometown on the edge of Lake Constance. Lacking any addresses, I attempt to gain at least an idea of the town, and it was just that: a small industrious population, home to one university campus. I had hoped to have a swim in the lake like my Opa must’ve done and before my hopes were dashed by the weather, I was encouraged by one of the students living in the apartment I was staying in. ‘You can’t not go in now that you’re here!’ Despite the odd looks from the locals, I wade in. Just a swim perhaps, but it’s the same lake Opa grew up by. Whether it means anything, I don’t know, but it felt necessary. A touching of bases, a loose connection despite separation, a brief dive into remembrance. I feel the cool rush of the water, the rocks beneath, and lying back my eyes are drawn to sun breaking through the clouds. I think of Opa and how strange it feels to think he died earlier this year. He lived a long and happy life, Anne did not. I take a couple of pebbles from the shoreline—a piece of Friedrichshafen for Mum.
Leaving behind the familial connection I travel to Munich, enjoy the beer, sit in Hoftbrauhaus for a pork knuckle and two litres of HB, and otherwise continue my backpacking as well as the education, paying a visit to Dachau, forerunner concentration camp for the Nazi’s. Why the gas chamber and crematorium if the killing was done beyond German borders? No one really knows for sure, apparently. After leaving the birthplace of Hitler’s popularity, I travel to Prague and was happy to stand on the same ground the Velvet Revolution made its stand on. I visit a monastery where monks undertook what was considered a sacred duty: the brewing of beer. It was the safest thing to drink, once upon a time. It was during my final hours in Prague that I learnt of Turnbull’s challenge and I knew that as soon as he made the pitch, he’d won. So much experience and political maturity means he’d know when to strike. It was all over for uncle Tone, and if there had been a time to drink to it it would’ve been right there and then but there was a night bus to catch. I write an ecstatic email home instead. In any case, much much more drinking is to be done at my next stop.
Budapest. Staying at a party hostel, I book for six nights but in the end I stay for nine. This is a common theme, I discover. For eight nights straight it was a party and I quickly empathised with those who told stories of arriving at the hostel a long time ago, planning only to stay for a couple of weeks but ending up staying for a year, two or even three. I’m reunited with my high school chum a few days in. Seeing an old friend is most welcome alongside the sea of new faces. There’s a spa party, a boat party, a karaoke night, ruin-bar pub crawls, and most memorably a beer bike. I learn here that it’s a very small world by running into a friend from Melbourne on the street at 2.30am. ‘Is that Luke Burns?’ I hear a voice to my side. I turn and we embrace, laughing at the coincidence. Some of the best people I met I met in Budapest—Buda-Fuckin-Pest—so it was with a slight pang that I left for Serbia. The night before I leave, two Mexicans check in to my dorm and upon learning of my next destination they are shocked, being concerned primarily for my safety. Irony always goes down well.
The wars of the 90’s and their closeness were obvious in Belgrade and especially so in Sarajevo. There was a slight hint of terseness from one tour guide when I asked how Serbians think of the wars, with the answer being they don’t, ‘we just want to move on.’ Another was more open to the topic suggesting the Serbs suffered too, although granted they weren’t invaded nor was there a Srebrenica equivalent committed in Republika Srpska and there is definitely no denying the plans for a greater Serbia under Milosevic. In Sarajevo the act of remembrance is strong and reminds me of the German tradition. The Srebrenica exhibit was thorough, though interestingly it isn’t at all supported by the government. Sarajevo Roses—fatal mortar impacts painted red—keep announcing themselves throughout the city. Bullet holes riddle building facades, houses still lie in ruin and one realises that many, if not most of the people walking the streets lived through the siege, were there, were shot at, targeted, and you can’t help but feel that the old man passing by looks slightly more weathered because of it. Youth unemployment here is at around 65% and our guide, who was just a boy at the time, taking us to the Olympic bobsled track and Serb sniper and tank positions, tells us that you only get work by making friends, connections, doing favours, that much could be solved by a constitutional change and, most obviously, much less corruption.
It wasn’t all war and bad economies. The befriending continued in both cities. Sarajevo is beautiful, a true melting pot: there is a real line in the stone that shows the Austro-Hungarian side and the Ottoman and my best meal was had in Belgrade, in a theatre styled restaurant with live classical music, made all the better by a more than favourable exchange rate. At this point, one becomes proficient in delivering a standardised, verbally efficient account of their trip and circumstances when meeting fellow travellers. Many I will never see again, and names become, because of this realisation, a passing detail.
I take a flight up to Krakow and, despite experiencing the worst hangover I’ve had for a couple of years, I make the most of it. There comes the eventual trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where I wasn’t necessarily surprised by any of the details, even those new to me. Made clear to me was the scale of the murder, made into a large-scale industrial process. In Krakow, a walking tour takes me through the old Jewish quarter of the city and we pass through sections and passages related to Oscar Schindler and the film. The guide makes sure to tell the group that it’s important to remember that the businessman at first took full advantage of the dispossessed before a change of heart.
Berlin is my final destination, and I saved the best until last. Again, I’m reminded of home as soon as I arrive in Kreuzberg and I arrive just in time for the Fall. By chance I find that a good friend is staying at my hostel and he tells me this is the place where he’s felt most at home, where he’s most able to be himself. A few days later I begin to think he’s onto something. It must be the diversity—in people, cuisine, music and art, all in a once divided city. I ride a bike along the East Side Gallery, I’m shown the underground art scene, I experience the Berliner nightlife (It’s easy to have fun in Berlin. In fact, one is offered fun in many forms as they walk certain streets and parks. Prices negotiable), and there is the history lesson at every turn: the marks left by the Third Reich, the catalogue of crimes and police terror in the Topography of Terror, and the Cold War. I’m amused by the story of the bronze Goddess of Victory that rides atop the Brandenburg Gate. When Napoleon took it as a war trophy it was known as the Goddess of Peace but when he then felt defeat the Germans took it back, renamed it Victory, and the Goddess now looks down on the French Embassy. Another detail. Thoughts of home started to resound in the last couple of weeks despite my fondness for the city. Happy to go home, sad to leave Berlin.

Befriending people came easily and I fell into the company of many fine people. Australians were everywhere and it was clear to me how small the world can be. I’d make friends with people who were friends of those I was yet to meet; I ran into friends from back home in the dead of night; there were unexpected rendezvous with others, and I even ran into the same person three times in three different cities (and would later see them on a Melbourne train, months later). The refugee crisis I largely missed, though the increased police presence here and there and the unexpected border checks were a reminder. I also learn niche things about myself: I prefer the Impressionist movement of the 19th and early 20th century rather than the ghastly aesthetic of the 16th and 17th century and in seeing the Van Gogh collection, I realise the similarities between painting and poetry. More details.
Tim Winton in his essay Thoughts on Landscape suggests we, Australians, have part of our consciousness still dominated by our geography. It’s still so wild, large, and at times menacing compared to Western Europe, relatively boxed in by mountains and cities. Our landscape still holds a profound place in Australian art because we’re yet to reign it in. During his time in the Old World, Winton found that the European cities cramped his constitution. He was too used to the long horizon and the untamed nature of the island continent. At first I didn’t feel this. I enjoyed the enclosure of the forests, the sight of Swiss Alps, the old and dominant architecture. Though towards journey’s end I began to feel the need for a hotter sun, a bigger sky, for the dry Australian air. The foreign allures, but the home country is still that.
I’ve heard people refer to such a trip as a right of passage for young Australians. Maybe it’s just a holiday. Whatever you want to call it, it would be, overall, an education in difference, an exercise in character development and indeed, perhaps a necessary one, for despite the grandiose natural world of our home continent we share no borders like many other states. We’re not entangled in a group of smaller nations, of huge language groups. Regardless, many of us tend to look beyond our shores, and young Australians seem typically drawn to the Old World.

It is a strange change of pace to be home again. I’ve woken several times not knowing where I am, more often than I did in Europe, and it’s odd to be alone again after being surrounded by others so often—over breakfast, along walks, over dinner, whilst going out. But it feels good, even after only two months away, to be home. Some details amiss, indiscretions and naughtier details aside, but there it is, my brief sojourn.

A Few of Us

Two friends, two brothers. Dan and me.
Two friends, two brothers. Dan and me.

Six people wake up in a Newcastle hostel. One of them is sick, another is even sicker. The whole room is listening to a pair of congested lungs slowly rise and fall, sounding as sick as one might look—puffy, swollen, sore. All of them are dead-tired. They arrived at 12.30 the night before and had to ring the manager to leave the key outside. They plan on driving back to Melbourne, 800 kilometres away, by the day’s end.
It’s David’s heavy breathing they can hear. Daniel, on the bunk above him, sits up and shoves a comb into his fro before his alarm goes off for the third time. The bunk behind him sways and Vikuman pokes his head out from under the covers, running a hand over tired eyes and a thick dark beard, unkempt and unwashed. Gabi below is still, also sick and not bearing the thought of getting up. Adrian in the bunk above me is the first to jump down, his long hair shaking against his back as he lands with a thud. The wallpaper is peeling, there are sheets for curtains, and the wall beside me is loose plaster and framework. For a long moment I look around the room, casting a lazy gaze over my friends. It goes faster every time, whenever we do something like this. Eight days have flown by and we’re headed home already. Even though a huge part of me doesn’t want to leave, I’m looking forward even to this last leg of the journey if it means the company around me.
It was wild, it was filthy, memorable and touching.
It was Splendour in the Grass.

***

The weather was perfect. Of all the muddy Splendour’s that have passed before, this one delivered not one drop of rain. It was luck we couldn’t believe as we finally entered the grounds late on a Thursday afternoon, dust moving in waves around the cars as they filed in. Most had travelled a long distance and our group had driven for over 24 hours, so there was electricity in the air as everyone found their place and started setting up. New neighbours greeted each other, there were excited cries, music was already thumping around us and the sound of tinnies being torn open could be heard below the ruckus. Just before we rolled in we had rendezvoused with our final member, Natalie, and finally the crew was together.
The first night is a blur. As we began what would be a four-day marination process, four of us—Gabi, Natalie, Adrian and me—ran off whilst the rest busied themselves attending to the King (David) when his long shot of gin came back for a brief and potent protest. Nothing to ruin an evening, but enough time for the four of us to slip away and go gallivanting for what felt like all night. We later calculated that the night of running around, dancing, tackling, laughing, biting holes in t-shirts (yes, we’re still not sure about that one), more dancing, and politely goading the security, lasted just over one hour. This isn’t so shocking, really. When Adrian ran up the iconic hill where festivalgoers would cross over to the amphitheatre for the next three nights, dragging Gabi behind him, the security guard gave him a stern warning.
‘Get back, or I’ll stand on my head!’
‘What?’ yelled Adrian, a tone of honesty in his voice, ‘you’ll do what?’
‘I said—I swear to god—I said I’ll stand on my head if you come up here!’
At least, this is what we think she said. I know what you might be thinking reading this: just another jumped-up piss-up. Maybe at times, yes, it is a bit of that. But it’s not all that.

The drinking might start early most days, even with a breakfast beer, but it only ramps up late in the afternoon (at least for us). The rest of those days were spent exploring, eating, rejuvenating, and getting up to whatever mischief we could. Four of us took a bus into Byron Bay, taking advantage of the unreasonably fine weather, going for a swim and some lunch. The water felt good and it was strange to be enjoying an ocean swim in the middle of winter—Melbourne would never offer that in late July. By a stroke of what you’d surely consider good luck bad communication, we ordered too many pints at the pub with lunch and ended up delivering a boisterous performance in the back row of the bus back to the festival grounds. There were two or three sniffer dogs at the gate when we returned, the only show of them I saw all weekend. Ironically all this seemed to do was produce a marijuana deficit, yet getting your hands on pills and powder (just about odourless) was very easy. So easy that it would come to your campsite in the form of a friendly salesman.
On another day Adrian and I went exploring. You can do as much shopping you like, eat whatever you want. There are times when the place resembles (or just is) an outdoor shopping centre—expensive brand clothing stores along with the thriftier outlets. We pass one guy, about the same age as us, early 20s, giving a closed-eyed talk on spirituality and creativity, long gaps in his words, others sitting and lying around in the sun and shade listening, or sleeping.
‘And now… I want you,’ he smiles, ‘to harness that… that creative spark for… it could be anything, for designing a… building or… painting portraits.’ He placed his hands together, head craning towards the sun, ‘or growing a hydroponic marijuana crop or… just being naked, free in your own skin… or rearing hamsters.’
I kid, mostly. The rest of the days were relaxed. We sat around together, others went off on their own, friends bumped into friends, and there was enough shit talking and story telling to make your eyes water. Each day was a day in the sun.
The three nights were filled with music. I finally got to head-bang to Violent Soho, to dance around with the Avalanches, old enough now for me to make my parents jealous for having seen them. I stomped in the dust to Gang of Youths, frontman Dave Leaupepe letting us know that he too is afraid of the world. I hummed along to the DMAs on the hillside and swayed and jumped to the Strokes and let go to SnakeHips. These experiences to me were tiers of excitement, of synergy, even a feeling of spirituality and connection that music breeds and imbibes.
‘This is what I love about music,’ Daniel tells me one night. ‘No matter what you do, who you are, it lets you be yourself, to let loose.’
This is one reason why 32,000 people came together: love of sound. And all the while, by my side, are my friends. Sigur Rós, my most anticipated act, played the last show I saw. Adrian and I wasted no time getting there early, knowing we were in for something not often seen. As I stood and listened to the most ethereal, superb sound I’ve ever heard live, I was struck deep and hard. It reminded me, made me feel great heights and deep lows, put sweet and sombre pictures in my mind, and sent tears down my face. I couldn’t turn away. There’s a photo of me, teary eyed, Natalie under my arm, Adrian beside her, and I’m smiling. This is another reason: love of love. As we, a motley bunch of friends, gathered again, we embraced.
This was one moment among many when we felt especially close to one another. These moments spread over the weekend—as we danced together under the stars, as we drank and sang at camp, as we dove into water, as we burst with the giggles and howled with laughter, as we screamed for more from the stage, as we walked together early in the morning, in the middle of the day, in the dust and dusk. One scene represents many: Daniel might be giving an impromptu DJ set out of Vikuman’s car, Adrian is snapping photos of us all, Natalie and Gabi are laughing as Dave delivers a comedic routine and Vikuman is revelling in us all, pouring drinks. I stand amongst it, look up at the blue sky and bleeding clouds, and I am happy.
All good things must come to an end, so they say and insist, and although many of us talk about the urge to stay forever, I dare say it would become rather tiresome. What would the 275th trip to the drop toilet feel like? What would the 854th night sleeping on a thin, damp mat be like? Surely scurvy would settle in. Could you dance for that long? Maybe, maybe not. And this is not to mention the environmental degradation such a high-octane concentration of humans can cause. That all being said, just a little while longer in the field with my friends would’ve been good. Couldn’t we stay, I wondered, just a little while longer?
No. The splendour was just a pause in the day-to-day. It’s back to university, back to work—normal things, expected things. Yet I’m sitting here at my desk, the post-Splendour blues still rolling around in me, and all I can do is think back.

***

We arrive home that night, earlier than expected. We made good time and the drive was easy. We are tired and sick (another typical post-Splendour symptom) but even this, this last piece of the journey, I had enjoyed. It’s almost nasty to be surrounded by your beloved friends for so long to then be suddenly alone, driving late at night, having dropped the last one off home. It’s lonesome, crawling back into your own bed, no one beside you, no one close by to call out to for a joke, no one to whisper to for a hearty giggle.
The festival experience might be thrown around as simple youthful excess, maybe even something to be laughed at, ridiculed. But who could care less? It’s memorable, and this is what you’re paying for. Music, for any one person, is saturated with associations, and these memories are for each of us now in the music we heard and will keep listening to. There’s the music, the attractions, the drugs, the drinking, the journey, and then there are those glorious moments, huge and small, burned into my brain like a hard love bite on my skin.