Gloriously sarcastic conversation with the RVNG Intl duo about how the expansive and languid Australian landscape formed their sound.
Gardland are the product of what one half of the techno duo, Alex Murray, calls “musical Darwinism”. I’m pretty sure that’s their party line but I’ll let it go for the sake of this particular thematic thread, as Murray and band mate Mark Smith talk through video chat and drink beers, side by side, from a friend’s Berlin apartment. They’re on a European tour ahead of their debut album ‘Syndrome Syndrome’, a RVNG Intl release and part of an unlikely collaboration with label owner Matt Werth’s New York label from their base in Sydney, Australia. Needless to say, this is not your typical techno album. There’s an element of the raw and exposed to their sound, as if they’ve seized the four-to-the-floor framework of said electronic genre, dug in and scraped it out to reveal all its hidden pleasures. There’s the swinging, manic rhythm and vicious clatter of One on None and the languid pulsations of a sub bass in Success in Circuit, skirting the realms of sound art. Shrill echoes linger in the near distance, a hollow click and screeching decay simulation gives a sense of what a field recording inside a synthesiser might sound like; its listener made miniature and transferred to its internal processes; an inner turmoil recoiling from a hazardous outer world.
“I don’t think Matt even liked the EP,” says Murray about their previous self-titled recording, released through their own Hunter Gatherer label, before a support slot with New York-via-Ohio duo Teengirl Fantasy in Sydney led to the group gaining notice by Werth late last year. “They went and told Matt about us and he listened in to a radio show where we were improvising. After he heard that he gave us an email and wanted to sign us for an album, which was really weird because we’ve never been contacted for an album just off some random local radio station.”
It’s fair to say that Murray and Stewart’s attitudes are pretty typical to the Australian underground. As both products and propagators of what Smith calls “that Australian inferiority complex”, they don’t get excited about much – or at least they don’t show it – everything they say being undercut by sarcasm, often surfacing with a deadpan humour (how else could you explain the serious, aggressive tone of a song called Magicville?). That can be hard to believe, especially for a prosperous country dubbed by its own inhabitants, “the lucky country”. But that very term was originally a negative one and, at least on a Western cultural level, Australia is as isolated as it gets – geographically, culturally and politically – and the music scene is developing accordingly, within an outward-looking insularity that makes for some brilliant, though mostly awful, results.
“The EDM, American-style thing is huge there. I’m not sure how big it is in the UK and in Europe, it’s probably huge everywhere. But apart from that, trying to get things going in clubs, it’s a pretty hard thing”, Smith says about what Gardland and those like them are up against when it comes to gaining exposure in the hot, expansive and sparsely populated landscape that is probably the least conducive to the sweaty orgies of dark basements you’d expect from it. “There’s barely any clubs worth doing something at. Half of them will have a bad sound system and the other half will not understand what you’re doing and expect some huge bar turnover. But when there is a good night, it’s like, ‘oh, that was really good’ but there’s no real consistency at all’.”
“In Sydney, everyone’s exercising or walking their dog, rather than going to a club at 7am" - Mark Stewart
Hence, the "musical Darwinism" Murray refers to. Here, it’s a process of natural selection where making things stick necessitates a certain perseverance, adaptability and strength in the face of extreme adversity. That adversity being a general focus on summer time party vibes on a mainstream level – from your slew of Jack Johnson-esque surfer blues roots music, to the pounding festival electronica care of Pendulum – and a heavy focus on pub-friendly guitar, as well as still very macho garage punk in the underground. Even the miniscule electronic scene splinters off into concentrations of the “lightly tongue in cheek” naïve disco tip, as Smith describes it, with the likes of Flume and Tornado Wallace. That zombie-fied modishness based around Italo and HI-NRG, plays a lead role in Australia's minority electro culture, leaving techno – even Gardland’s elastic perversion of it – as far down the food chain as you can get.
There’s a weird disparity between the good-life richness in resources and economic prosperity of Australia and its rough and raw focus on the outdoors that makes up the national psyche. How that translates to techno, a sound born and built in the cold and abandoned basements of Berlin and Detroit and translated to the literal and metaphorical deserts of Australia, is fascinating. “Everyone’s exercising or walking their dog, rather than going to a club at 7am,” says Smith, about the dominant culture of Sydney, which, as the country’s entertainment centre, also has a specific focus on the “body beautiful”.
Those that deviate from said norm tend to centre around places like “probably the most successful not-lame place in Sydney”, GOODGOD Small Club. It’s a tiny venue in the city centre; an alternative haven wedged into the city’s nightlife centre in Chinatown, where Gardland have been charged with curating the venue’s weekly programme by its owners. Born and raised in Australia myself – although all the way across the country in Perth, roughly two days' drive from the nearest city – I’ve been there a couple times, where there’s never a lack of familiar faces, friends of friends from the tight-knit and incestuous Australian music community-at-large that patron it.
"None of us had jobs for a couple of weeks so we smashed it out when we were all unemployed. We’d eat Vietnamese pork rolls and make music” - Alex Murray
Those same people would probably spend their days in places like Marrickville, a final frontier of residential re-zoning, where you can still hear music in a warehouse, south west of the CBD and one suburb up from the since ‘revitalised’ blue-collar area of Newtown. “You can still walk around in your pyjamas vomiting and no one will care,” Smith says before adding sardonically, “but you can get really good coffee so it’s kind of in transition.” In fact, contrary to what the press release would have you believe, Marrickville is where the duo recorded ‘Syndrome Syndrome’ and not the desert; Murray offering the unapologetic shrug of “we kind of just ran with the narrative,” when I ask him about said white lie. “It’s a lot more sexy than ‘recorded in a bedroom in Marrickville, hell poor’,” Smith adds in a typically Australian vernacular. But, as far as I’m concerned, the bizarre urban landscape of a place like inner city Sydney is equally, if not more, conducive to the strange organic-synthetic narrative of ‘Syndrome Syndrome’, than the red dirt surroundings of Murray’s uncle’s sheep farm near Bourke (a small town roughly nine hours drive inland from Sydney) where their previous ‘Gardland’ EP was recorded in February of this year.
Besides, it all sounds like a romantic premise in theory but the Australian environment can be harsh and alienating. Walk barefoot in the grass and you’re likely to get pricked. Camp and you’ll be sleeping on dry leaves, rocks and sticks poking into your spine. Snakes, spiders, flies, cockroaches, rats are an everyday reality, whether you’re in the city or countryside. The music comes out accordingly, in the ritualistic diligence of Katarakt and the booming trumpets in Hell Flur, coming ever-closer over a rumbling procession that evokes a sense of passing traffic on a lonely, endless highway.
But I'm not sure how necessary the desert comparison is, given Australia generally, and Marrickville in particular, are weird enough places in themselves. “We were living a hundred metres up the road at that stage. None of us had jobs for a couple of weeks so we smashed it out when we were all unemployed. We’d eat Vietnamese pork rolls and make music,” say Murray. Unemployed benefits are good (depending on who you are), arts funding comparatively generous and, for lack of much distraction, time comes in abundance for those of an artistic temperament: “It’s not like you can go to Stattbad or Berghain or something and get some world class inspiration on a really good sound system. It might be once a month where an artist you love might be playing in a bad club with a shitty sound system,” says Murray before clairfying, “we ended up getting jobs. We’re not like degenerates anymore”. Now, at 23 years old (to Murray’s 26) Smith is studying musicology at Sydney University, while working part-time maintaining bio-diversity in certain areas of bushland and “getting rid of weeds and helping native plants flourish,” he explains, that permanent posture of relaxed eyelids and a subtle, ever-present smirk pervading. “I don’t know if anywhere else in the world does that,” he says before Murray retorts, “What, gardening?”
“It’s all just searching exploration with a four-four kick drum underneath...the whole time, we might spend a gig just searching for the sound that we want to achieve.” - Alex Murray
You never know when you’re being had with guys like these, so I double-check, dubious, "is that really your job?" It’s often hard to tell when they're being serious or taking the piss, their tone unshifting from just beneath a level of sarcasm, meaning I also have to reconfirm several times whether Murray means it when he says I can quote him saying they’re both “available for sham weddings”.
It makes me wonder whether that deeply ingrained cynicism isn’t a reaction to their harsh conditions, not only as artists and musicians in a social environment that is typically tremendously hostile to difference, but a landscape that is equally as unforgiving. Extremes in weather, the heat especially, make you hyperconscious of your vulnerability within that landscape and there’s an incredibly earthy feel to Gardland’s interpretation of what is entirely synthesised music. You can feel the glistening mirage of heat hitting bitumen in the distance in the pulsations of Katarakt, the sun, a liquefied orange orb sinking into its own reflection in the languid sway of Trepan Hake. “It’s all just searching exploration with a four-four kick drum underneath,” Murray says, laughing, about their process, not only of song-writing but live performance as well, “the whole time, we might spend a gig just searching for the sound that we want to achieve.”
Time. It’s something that appears to come in abundance in Australia, expanding with your blood vessels in the high temperatures, invoking a languor that makes things happen slower. For one of my first ever gigs on moving to London, I saw the doom drone of Earth, a US band but of a stylistic ilk that I’d become more than familiar with in my 20 plus years as an Australian resident. “It probably doesn’t take us too long to find the right sound,” Murray assures me when I suggest that time and space are essential to the kind of music that they make and one that resonates with this sort of searching expansiveness that a band like Earth seems to share with them. “People are always just naturally inclined for it to make sense, like there was a reason behind it; ‘it does this and this is why it does it’. When the actual genesis of it was way more chaotic and random but no one wants to hear that.”
That’s not to say, though, that Gardland are against being interpreted. They’re just as intrigued by how they’ll be read as people might be in reading them, Smith adding, “I’m interested to see how they codify it. How they make it fit, because I can’t really hear that myself. I’m interested to see how we make it in this disparate context and how it’s made sense of by cultures that are quite fluent in making sense of this sort of thing.”
RVNG Intl released ‘Syndrome Syndrome’ on the 28th October 2013.