October 29, 2008

Interview: ex_king_john, Brisbane concert bootlegger

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , , at 10:26 pm by Andrew McMillen

A man seemingly inextricable from the Brisbane music scene of late goes by the pseudonym ex_king_john. He attends shows most weeks, and records the majority of performances he sees. He regularly blogs and posts recordings at Turn It Up To 10, while past recordings can be found on his LastFM journal. He’s kindly taken the time to reflect on several topics, including his motives for recording shows, street press, rock music and the wider Brisbane music scene.

Thanks for your time. First and foremost – why do you record shows?

In 2006 my kids finished high school.  It is surprising how much time that frees up for anyone who is even remotely involved in their kids’ education, especially on the weekend.  Weekend television is a wasteland and my social life – which had pretty much consisted of school-related stuff – fell off as well.  So I went back to doing what I had done before I had children: going out to watch bands.  I’d been taking the kids to the Big Day Out for a few years and listened to ZZZ [mainly The Yard] and JJJ so I knew a bit about the music scene but not a lot really about the local scene.  For a birthday present that year I bought myself tickets to Teenage Fanclub, and Bob Mould at The Zoo [my first time there].  Started going to Ric’s and seeing local bands ’cause it was free. I was getting morning coffee from Jamie’s in the Valley at the time and met Bo. who played all this reggae which I also love passionately and went to a couple of shows in the carpark there before it was closed down.  Saw I Heart Hiroshima, Nightcrash, early Scul Hazzards with Lachlan on vocals, Shakes, couple of other noise bands, Heavyweight Champion.  Suddenly you’re going out every weekend, sometimes twice. 

But before this I think it was the year before, I went to an Ed Kuepper show at The Troubadour and had a great time. Later I noticed it had been bootlegged and I emailed a couple of the guys who had it up on trading sites and asked if there was any way I could get a copy.  No one even answered the email.  So I figured if I wanted any recordings I’d have to have something to trade.  So I spent some time looking at the different technology options ranging from hideously expensive to really cheap and eventually went with cheap but good quality.

I got a basic [cheap run-out of an old model] Mini-disc from Sydney and ordered the mics and pre amp from the US. They all arrived the day before Market Day 2006 and I worked out how to use it that night and went along the next day and recorded Sekiden, IHH, jump2lightspeed, Iron On, a couple of others.  And finally went along to the next Ed Keupper show at Ric’s and hey presto, I’m a bootlegger.

Can you describe your recording setup?

A picture paints a thousand words.  Here’s the setup I used at Splendour this year.  Actually it’s the contents of my pockets.  Nothing bigger than a cigarette packet.  

ex_king_john's bootleg configuration

ex_king_john's recording setup - click for full size

The little foam balls are the microphones with windshields on them – they sit in my ears.  The small black box is the pre-amp and the gray thing is the mini-disc.  The other items are phone, spare discs, batteries, wallet, change and programme.  Technically I use Sound Professional binaural mics and a Sound Professional  Pre-Amp.  I record as wav files onto a Mini-disc [Model MZ-NH600]  The Mini-disc I use is inexpensive and only has a line-in not Mic-in plug so I need the pre-amp unit.

It seems to me that this has evolved from a curious hobby to something of a mild obsession – you said yourself that you aim to record every band you see. Do you remember a distinct point where you made this realisation?

There wasn’t really a distinct point. Early on, I do remember looking at the lists of taped shows and thinking, “I could get a copy of every show The Church ever did but there are no Sekiden recordings out there”.  And everyone asks if there are any <insert obscure 1970’s local band name here> tapes around but no one is recording anything except their reunion shows. Even now, all the tapers want are the big names. Fair enough, but it didn’t seem like it was helping the music.  In 20 years time when someone says “do you have any Nightstick or Sekiden tapes” at least they’ll be able to say yes to Sekiden.

You can see that it’s not exactly a heavy load to carry round.  I don’t mosh so I’m usually just standing watching the band anyway. Doing a shuffle and nodding in time is about as active as I get.  So it’s easy to have it and record.  I don’t see it as an obsession really.  I just go out a lot to see bands and I carry the rig with me so if I see a show, it’s probable that I’ll record it.  It’s not so much an aim as a natural consequence.  If anything I’m obsessive about going out to see bands.  I’m happy to admit to that.

What do you aim to capture when recording a performance?

Because I have a fairly basic recording setup, I pretty much capture what I hear and I’m stuck with that though that is also the beauty of what I do.  I try to avoid doing anything to the sound cause I’m not very technically smart in that area.  The most I do is put the recording through a compressor if it’s a bit quiet.  Makes it a bit easier to hear over loudspeakers. On a couple of recordings I’ve filtered out some really low buzzy bass noises that made it hard to hear detail.  Usually it’s the drums being mic’d to hell but these days it could be aggressive bass amping. So it depends on the room and the sound engineer on the night. But I do like the room noise.  I have a couple of soundboard recordings and they are very clear but dead silent between tracks, and they lack that spark that a good audience recording can have.  I also like some of the audience noise though it is really annoying when people stand next to you and have a conversation about something.  I can’t really tell them to shut up ’cause I’m recording.  Though I have told a couple to shut up because they were actually interfering with my enjoying the show. 

What is it about rock music that you find exciting? What do you look for in a band’s live performance?

I am piss poor at analysing this side of it.  Music is transcendent and the best live music takes me out of the now, or arouses or hightens emotions, usually positively.  The physicality of rock adds another dimension.  In fact I’m musically fairly diverse and some of my most memorable musical experiences have been a children’s choir; the first time I saw Jay Reatard; a church pipe organ recital in a Brisbane suburban church; Little Feat at Festival Hall, and Eddy Current Suppression Ring at the Step Inn this year.  I never know what will happen, so I look forward to any musical experience and I’m rarely totally disappointed.  I’m just lucky I guess.

What do you find appealing about the Brisbane music scene?

First up, the music.  Then the people.  Plus it’s all pretty accessible in the Valley with a few venues outside like Rosie’s or Fat Louie’s in the City and the Hangar in Red Hill or a couple in West End.  Not like Melbourne which has a great music scene but way more spread out.  But seriously when I started going out again it was not like the old days. Pig City made it sounds great but once you got past The Survivors and The Leftovers and Razar and The Go-Betweens and The Saints etc doing one-off shows at suburban halls that hadn’t heard of them yet, there just wasn’t much else on.  Now there are hundreds of good bands and tens of venues.

And the people are great.

Since you’ve become friendly with many members of the Brisbane music scene, do you occasionally feel obliged to attend certain shows?

No. I don’t think I’ve felt that at all.  I try to avoid promising that I’ll tape particular shows because that generally means something will go wrong.  But I’ve never felt anyone expected me to go to certain shows.

I may have the year wrong, but I recall that Pearl Jam were offering live recordings of their 2003 Australian shows soon after the band had finished playing. I think Something For Kate did something similar more recently for a special show that they played at The Corner in Melbourne. Do you think that there’s a market for venues to offer similar limited edition recordings? This question immediately sends copyright alarm bells ringing, but I’m interested in your thoughts. Places like The Zoo get loads of quality bands each month, and I think they’re missing a legitimate opportunity by not recording. Or maybe they do, secretly…

Pretty sure The Zoo is not secretly recording anything.  If venues do record I’m also pretty sure the bands agree and get something for it.  The Drones seem to have a habit of recording their live shows and selling them in various formats to fans.  More and more bands are seeing these as legitimate recordings for fans and using them to make money or at least as marketing tools.  It’s becoming more common I understand for venues in the US to record and sell live shows to punters as they leave the venue, especially the larger venues and chains like Clear Channel’s live venues.  There are a couple of venues in Melbourne that record shows regularly and make them available on line like Moshcam, but audio instead of video.  I don’t know how money is made there but it is a commercial operation.  Copyright is relatively easy to work out I expect.

What do you think about Moshcam?

Moshcam is great.  I visit there occasionally. 

Does MegaUpload offer traffic stats? If so, which of your recordings have proven most popular?

MegaUpload offers basic statistics.  There’s a number of downloads for each file but there’s also a stat that should show where the downloaders come from.  Some files that have been downloaded 30 times according to the number of downloads haven’t been downloaded at all if I ask where the downloads went.  But I think at least the relativities are probably correct.  So far the most popular download by far has been the Wolfmother @ GOMA show – over 500 downloads.

Wolfmother – Live @ GOMA Warhol Up Late – 12 April 2008 – 504

Powderfinger – Live @ Splendour In The Grass – August 2007 – 170

Sigur Ros – Live @ Splendour In The Grass – 03 Aug 2008 – 168

Wolfmother – Live @ Splendour In The Grass – 03 Aug 2008 – 102

The Grates – Live @ The Troubadour – 24 June 2008 – 80

The Saints – Live @ Pig City – 14 July 2007 – 74

Band Of Horses – Live @ Splendour In The Grass – 02 Aug 2008 – 72

The Drones – Live @ Splendour In The Grass – 02 Aug 2008 – 71

Editors – Live @ Splendour In The Grass – August 2007 – 58

Battles – Live @ The Zoo – 22 Jan 2008 – 56

What role does the Brisbane street press currently fulfill, and where do you think they’re missing opportunities? 

Street press is important because it’s an easy-to-access guide to what is happening in the city.  Maybe not every single thing, but generally the gig guides are essential as is the advertising for upcoming tours etc.  Time Off‘s gig guide has gone off a little since the recent change and I hope they can bring it back up to speed.  The web is much less useful for gig guides.  It’s great for finding out stuff you know about already.  And I find it a lot easier to browse a single A3 sheet of closely-packed type than scroll through pages of sparsely-populated web pages.  Plus I read most live reviews and record reviews.

You’ve seen a lot of shows in Brisbane and visited most, if not all live venues. Is there anything you feel the scene is missing, or opportunities that haven’t been fully realised? We all know there’s a gap between The Arena/The Tivoli and the Convention Centre

If Brisbane has a problem it is too many good bands for the size of the fan base.  Many more venues might run the risk of spreading the numbers too thin.  The other problem is that for all the going out that’s going on, most of the people going out are going to clubs.  Music is secondary for them.  Not that there aren’t dedicated dance music fans who do follow the music.  

But the lack of a venue between the Tivoli and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre is a problem I think.  Pity they pulled down Festival Hall.  There is a rumour of a 1000 person venue in West End coming up.

Looking back over your recordings thus far, you seem to lean heavily toward rock acts. Are there certain genres you steer clear of? Can we expect to hear ex_king_john recordings of touring metal or hip hop acts?

I try to see different genres but obviously I’m a fan of rock music.  I don’t steer clear of any genre in particular but I’m not a big fan of metal so it’s unlikely you’ll hear too much of that. Or musical comedy.

Finally – 2008’s been a great year for live music in Brisbane. I’ve been to loads of shows, though mostly touring Australian bands. What are some highlights of this year on a local, national and international level?

The aforementioned Jay Reatard, and Eddy Current shows.  Golden Plains was a whole weekend of highlights.  The Drones at Splendour.  John Cale at the Tivoli in Nov last year, Battles at The Zoo.  Last week at the Step Inn was just about the perfect lineup of local bands – Violent Soho, Eat Laser Scumbag, No Anchor, Turnpike, Dick Nasty – just add Nova Scotia.  But then I’d go see I Heart Hiroshima, The Grates, Sekiden anytime, anywhere as well.  I will shamelessly plug the Before Hollywood compilation “Stranded” here as one of the best compilations ever.  If you don’t have it, get it and use it as your guide to Brisbane music as it exists in 2008.

Seconded – Stranded is great. Thanks for your time!

ex_king_john’s name isn’t John; he would prefer to remain anonymous. He can be contacted via email. His blog is Turn It Up To 10. If you spot a guy at a Brisbane concert wearing earphones and staring intently at the stage, say hi – just not while the bands are playing.

October 20, 2008

Website review: Time Off Magazine

Posted in Web tagged , , , , , , , , at 11:55 pm by Andrew McMillen

Imagine that you run a free weekly music publication. A pretty popular one named Time Off, that’s read widely across Brisbane, a city home to 1.8 million. You recently got bought out by – sorry, merged with – Street Press Australia, who own several similar publications across the country. You decide to upgrade the magazine’s website, which has become outdated.

You’ve got two options: fast, easy and crappy, or slow, meticulous and attractive.

Which option do you think Time Off chose?

Time Off Magazine website screenshot, 20 October 2008

Time Off Magazine website screenshot, 20 October 2008. Click for full size.

I think it’s pretty obvious. 

It’s an out-of-the-box, CMS-based site with minimal focus on design. Okay, fair enough; not every site needs to be eye-catching, so long as it gets the job done, right?

Unfortuntately, the redeveloped Time Off site fails to get the job done. Content is cumbersome and slapped onto the site directly from the latest printed issue with little rhyme or reason. 

Mysterious capital letters abound throughout the site’s content. Album reviews are awarded SEO-unfriendly URLs, and they’re grouped per-issue on the same page. Nice one.

Two live reviews from last week’s issue – #1395, 15 October 2008 – are attached to the same article named ‘Feedback’, which is the name of the live review section in the print magazine. The fact that they opted to devote that issue’s entire Feedback section to 2000 words about the Time Off-sponsored Sounds Of Spring festival is another discussion. What’s more, that review was part one; part two will be printed in #1396. Can’t wait.

Clicking the top-level Time Off item on the site’s menu results in the following page, cleverly named ‘Rock’:

 Rock

Wow, useful! When were these articles published? Let’s click one to find out. Gig guide, sure. Oh, another page, that lists those three associated articles. Two named ‘gig guide’ and one named ‘venue guide’, all authored by ‘Webmaster’. I’m really glad that it shows me how many ‘hits’ each article has! Unsurprisingly, the gig guides are pasted in a plaintext format that’s needlessly difficult to process.

Okay, so their content sucks, and it’s evident that no one within Time Off gives half a crap enough to check for consistency, or anything resembling quality control. That’s fine, I didn’t really want to use the website much anyway.

But after clicking around a bit, I uncovered some truly awful content that I must paste for posterity, as they’ll surely change it once someone decides to actually.. I don’t know.. look at their fucking website.

This is under the readership section. Subtitle: Who are our readers?

Time Off readers are divided equally between male and female.

Time Off readers are predominantly aged between 17– 30 but the nature of the industry and the refusal of bands such as Rose Tattoo to call it a day suggest readers will more often than not continue to pick up SPA publications well into their 40’s.

Time Off readers are avid consumers of music, entertainment and technological devices and products. They own iPods, Blackberrys, video game consoles, Macs, Laptops, Wiis, records, record players, Mobile Phones, DVDs and MP3s. Their need to have the latest model/product available coupled with the urge to spend rather than save sees readers replacing said items as frequently as once every 6 months.

Time Off readers have access to the internet both at work and at home, on which most time is spent accessing websites of bands and performers, shopping online, watching video clips on You Tube and blogging about how the band they saw play last night changed their life…. or destroyed it.

Time Off readers go to shows, get their hair cut, buy new jeans, are addicted to coffee, see films, occasionally turn up to Uni and party hard. And wherever they are doing these things, SPA publications are within reach.

Time Off readers are a product of a consumer driven age where brand awareness has taken place of literacy and social etiquette. They were born in the ‘80s when greed was good and they know what they want and when they want it, which is sooner rather than later. This puts them and their peers ahead of their game.

Time Off readers have one best friend that never lies – the mirror. They preen, puff, spray, squeeze, flash and luck all in the name of fashion. They buy what they don’t need and are willing to try anything once if it’s considered hip, regardless of cost.

Time Off readers are educated and informed. They value substance over transparency and integrity over wit. The wool is not often pulled over their eyes.

Nevermind that it’s the most awkwardly-worded piece of copy you’ve read this month, possibly this year. Nevermind that nobody at Time Off cared enough to edit out all the instances of ‘SPA publications‘.

No – most of all, I’m genuinely disgusted that Time Off, or moveover, Street Press Australia felt it necessary to attempt to classify their readership using some broad, sweeping statements that are neither funny nor accurate. I’m not sure which outcome is more disturbing – the fact that someone was commissioned to do a half-arsed hack-and-paste job to create content just for the sake of it, or that the above paragraphs made their way onto the site apparently without quality control.

What a fucking shambles.

Hey, Time Off. This is 2008. People use the internet all the time; they check your website, and if it sucks, you’re going to get called out about it. Invest the time and money into planning a genuine strategy for the website to complement the printed magazine, or don’t do it at all.

The old site sucked too, but at least it didn’t describe me as someone who “preens, puffs, sprays, squeezes, flashes and lucks”. 

The bullshit readership copy quoted above was at least partially correct, though: I’m educated and informed. I value substance over transparency and integrity over wit. The wool is not often pulled over my eyes.

So who the fuck are you trying to kid, Time Off?

Disclosure: I write for fellow Brisbane street press Rave Magazine – who have a functional, attractive and well-utilised website – and I work for a Brisbane-based web development company. The sentiments expressed above are my own, and should not be attributed to any entity other than myself.

October 16, 2008

Musings on Music Writing and Everett True

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , , at 12:05 am by Andrew McMillen

Pig City author Andrew Stafford interviewed Everett True before an audience at Brisbane’s Barsoma last week, and I was one of the nineteen in attendance. True incurred the wrath of Australian mainstream music fans in August, upon which I commented at the time. The event was held as a pilot for QMusic‘s proposed series of music-related public interviews, and while it was poorly attended, I have a feeling that this was due to minimal promotion on QMusic’s part. Some retrospective Googling uncovers that a few sites picked the event up, but it still flew under my radar; evidently, I wasn’t the only one.

During a Q&A discussion about critical discourse within music writing, or the lack thereof, one audience member asked the group how many writers from Brisbane’s local street press were in attendance. My hand was the only one in the air, which he then used to attempt to prove a point about local writers’ general apathy, or something. But dude, come on. I only found out about the event after being nudged by a fellow FasterLouder writer.

Everett stated in his characteristically humorous, self-promotional manner that his goal as a writer is to make everyone jealous of Everett True, and to make people talk about Everett True. In his words: “if you’re not writing to be read, then why the fuck are you writing?”. He and Andrew spoke about street press audiences, critical discourse within music writing, and established that all music writing is inherently subjective, which is something I’ve long since realised. It’s foolish to ever attempt to hide behind the veil of objectivity when discussing music you either do or don’t like.

The interview and resulting discussion certainly prompted internal debate regarding my writing method and purpose. I came up with a few answers, but I expect more to reveal themselves to me in time.

I review concerts primarily for free entertainment, and because live music is the most exciting and readily available form of public entertainment I’m comfortable with. The fulfilled expectations, the brilliantly unpredictable deviations from the standard rock ‘n’ roll script: those are the moments that excite me. There are loads of bands – local, national, international – with whom I’ll happily share my evening.

Of late, I’ve become more concerned with sound dynamics and artistic merit than a conventionally ‘entertaining’ performance, which often translates to the musicians occasionally ambling around stage. This may be simple subterfuge on my part, as I’ve recently become enamored of enormous-sounding shoegaze-type bands, though as ever, I still find the time and place for tastelessly entertaining bands – Bluejuice is the example that springs to mind.

I write about these events because I fucking love them. There’s also the attached personal challenge of whittling several hours of physical and musical theatre down to a few hundred words.

Audience has never been a huge concern for me, and still isn’t. My first reviews were for the eyes of my family and a few close friends; I’ve since become happy to let my articles stand alone, without the need for self-promotion. I update my LastFM journal with a copy of each review as they’re published, which allows fellow event attendees to read my words if they’re so inclined.

But by and large – though I still share published work with my family – I write for myself. Freelancing, as it were, though obviously still subject to the discretion of my editors. I know that my articles get glanced at in print by bored commuters, but the web audience is entirely different: they’re there because they’re interested enough to click.

It’s essentially a thankless job, which I am completely comfortable with. I know the nature of the game that I volunteered for. Not just anyone could do this, as most people don’t care enough to put pen to paper.

I really enjoy thinking about the historical impact that I’m having, though mostly on a personal level: words written at a particular time and place, when linked with my personal writing, will provide a rich tapestry of experiences upon which I’ll reflect fondly in my later years. The same principle applies for the artists I’m writing about. I like that my words capture a snapshot of an artist at a point in their career.

Maybe my sense of realism is unique among music journalists, I don’t know. I’m constantly mindful of the responsibility attached to my words, which are attached to my name.

But to return to my core purpose, free entertainment: all of my work up until this point has been to make a name, carve a niche for myself among my editors, so that I’m more likely to be chosen to write about the artists I want to see.

I suppose that I’m a faker, somewhat, because I wouldn’t write about bands if I wasn’t required to. I didn’t review the handful of shows that I paid to attend this year. I certainly enter a show in a different mindset if I’m reviewing, notepad in back pocket. Fewer beers are often consumed. Which is not to say that I enjoy myself less if I’m reviewing, fuck no; it’s just that I’m more mindful of my peers, my surrounds, and the context of the performance.

All of these ruminations spring from the fact that my music writing is a hobby, a personal passion. The thought of pursuing this as a career has not seriously crossed my mind in years, and funnily enough, not at all during the sixteen-odd months I’ve been a paid music critic.

While following the discussion between Everett, Andrew and the vocal audience, I reflected on whether I was being critical enough in my writing. Whether I was producing memorable words; or offending enough people, if I were to subscribe to Everett’s shit-stirring journalistic methodology. His goal was, and is, to be memorable, perhaps because the inverse possibility would be financially unsustainable.

I think that there’s an inherent sadness in being known first and foremost as a music critic. I mean, fuck, you sit around listening to bands by day and stand around at night watching bands, actively analysing their sound and craft for perceived weaknesses. Stewing on appropriately clever ways to judge their artistic output in a snarky or humourous manner. I know, because I’ve been there. What kind of profession is that?

I disliked how Everett spoke of the lack of critical discourse within music writing; that is, that there’s not enough writers out there sticking the boot into subjectively crap performers, as if it’s some kind of Herculean effort worthy of merit to chastise sub-par musicians. Because I get this picture of a middle-aged, wizened journo spewing forth bile onto his keyboard in the middle of night, this bitter, repulsive person, and I think – fuck that. My imagination may get a little carried away at times, but that image scares me a lot.

Of course, I’ve been concentrating on the negative side of music criticism, as that’s my first connotation. Its antonym is praise, which is what I tend to dole out in my music writing, as I tend to only see artists who I like. And that’s to my advantage, as like I said, music writing – while an undeniably strong passion of mine – is still a hobby. I can’t help but admire those who dedicate their career to writing about music, as they have more energy than I. 

I’m simply content to keep carving my niche, honing my craft, within the small pool of Brisbane music journalists. Memorable? Maybe. Honest? True.

October 10, 2008

Seth Godin On Luck

Posted in Life tagged , , at 10:48 pm by Andrew McMillen

If you need motivation today, Seth’s got you covered.

…effort is directly related to success. Not all the time, but as much as you would expect. Smarter, harder working, better informed and better liked people do better than other people, most of the time.

For sure. Motivation is key here. Fear of failure is a big stumbling point, but I think that inertia paralysis is bigger. Fear of moving outside of one’s comfort zone.

…that’s the key to the paradox of effort: While luck may be more appealing than effort, you don’t get to choose luck. Effort, on the other hand, is totally available, all the time.

I’ve written about luck before. I don’t buy into it. Anything that’s worth having is worth working for, and in many cases – except lottery winners – it is worked for.

But I’ve slacked off lately. I could throw a dozen half-baked excuses at it immediately – too busy, would rather relax, I’ve got other things I’d rather do – but really, there is no excuse. I’m falling short of the standards I set out for myself earlier in the year. My RSS reader is barely prodded of late. I have a stack of unread books that I haven’t touched in months. I can feel the inertia setting in. Recognised patterns are becoming habits; known personal responsibilities are being shirked.

And it doesn’t feel good. Cognitive dissonance. I look back on most booze-fuelled nights in the company of good friends with fondness, but dude, what exactly are you trying to achieve here?

This is a question I’ll continue to ask myself; this entry will serve as a reminder.