Beyond the Fatal Shores

Australian and New Zealand Bands landing at SXSW 04

The Sleepy Jackson, Women in Docs, Sodastream, Powderfinger
The Sleepy Jackson, Women in Docs, Sodastream, Powderfinger

Every March, a U.S. army of musicians is buttressed by an international peace-breaking force from across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans landing on our beaches as if Austin were Normandy. Japanese bands are always fierce, and the UK is sending more ammo every spring, but this year, more Australians and New Zealanders will travel farther than any other musical acts – 24 hours in transit – to partake in South by Southwest's D-Week.

Until now, Aussie music has been a mere blip on Yankee cultural radar. Contrary to Muriel's Wedding, Australia is not beset by a national obsession with ABBA, nor is the didgeridoo the primary instrument of all bands. It sometimes seems like Britain's former penal colony is reluctant to allow its residents to break out beyond its fatal shores. But for every inexplicable escapee (Kylie Minogue), there's at least one talented fugitive sneaking out and earning critical acclaim (Nick Cave).

By and large, trying to launch a career from the world's most isolated continent has its pros and cons. The Australian dollar is worth about 77 American cents, which makes stateside tours prohibitive for anyone who's not Rupert Murdoch. Then again, with its white sandy beaches, crystal-clear (albeit sharky) seas, and impeccable wines, Australia isn't exactly the fifth ring of hell, either. How hard can it be to spend one's career stranded in paradise?

The Aussie government is hardly blind to this problem, though, and is taking steps to thrust Australian music into the global concert hall.

"The government views exporting music the same as yellowcake uranium, wood chips, or steel. It's a resource," says Phil Tripp, founder of IMMEDIA!, a Sydney-based PR firm for the entertainment industry. "Intellectual property is worth a lot overseas. We have a forward-looking government that's seen success where it assists exporters – in this case, labels, publishers, managers, and artists – use trade fairs and showcases to gain a foothold in the market."

Compare this approach to the U.S. government's kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-it-out approach to arts funding. Who needs the arts when there are fights to pick in the deserts of the world? Rather embarrassing, yes?

But enough politics. Like the U.S., Australia is an enormous country, and the temptation to paint its artists with the same broad brush is strong. Rather than lump everyone together under the all-encompassing umbrella of the country itself, it's more useful to break the continent up into regions. So, without further ado, here's your walking tour of Australian music at SXSW 04, starting in the east with the holiday state, Queensland.

Florida's prettier cousin contains the appeal of Surfers Paradise, the Gold Coast, and the Great Barrier Reef, all of which have made tourism the state's big moneymaker. The best-known emissaries from the state's capital, Brisbane, are the enormously popular hard rockers Powderfinger, attending SXSW for the second time. Their fifth and most recent effort is Vulture Street, which, like Internationalist and Odyssey Number Five before it, has gone platinum a few times over.

Fellow Brizzy residents Screamfeeder are also insanely popular veterans of the Aussie music scene who've had a bit of a bumpy ride when it comes to successfully exporting their cheery indie rock. Their latest release, Take You Apart, is ragged power pop perfect for lounging on the beach under the raging antipodean sun. Be on the lookout also for the post-Indigo Girls folk-pop of Women in Docs, specializing in acoustic tunes for the Lilith Fair set.

Next, let's head down to New South Wales, one of the loveliest states in Australia. Home to lush rainforests, old gold mines, and some of the most fabulous coastal scenery imaginable, there's way more to this area than just the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of Sydney, which, by the way, is one of most gay-friendly cities in the world. It's also the center of artistic innovation of all stripes. Sydney is home to Macromantics, Australia's own "Feminem." Leave it to Oz to cultivate that most rare creature: the white-girl MC.

Then, of course, there's the Church, an exciting showcase for anyone cognizant of Eighties New Wave. The benevolent uncles of most of the Down Under acts this year, the Church has been making music since 1980 and is currently touring in support of their 17th album, Forget Yourself. Sydney is also home to psychedelic art-rockers Gelbison, one of the more exciting hardly known acts this year.

Down at the very bottom of the continent is the state of Victoria, which is quite possibly the country's cultural epicenter. All the Victorian acts this year come from Melbourne, a gritty urban center that should be on any aesthete's itinerary. Melbourne's diversity is reflected in its representatives.

Function is an artsy, mostly instrumental collective along the lines of Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Charles Jenkins and Shane Nicholson make with the brooding singer-songwriter act. In the "It Takes All Kinds" category, Riff Random brings the post-punk trash-noise for a rather narrow demographic.

Architecture in Helsinki recently released Fingers Crossed stateside on Bar/None, and they're definitely worth a gander. The eightpiece makes genre-busting indie pop influenced by the artsy, funky, Fitzroy area, known for its coffee shops, quirky boutiques, and more Italian restaurants than you can shake a calzone at. The most exciting Victorian participants are Sodastream, a duo comprising Karl Smith and Pete Cohen, two young men who put Belle & Sebastian to shame.

South Australia is best known in these parts for its magnificent wines. The lone representative from the area, Jedd Hughes, hails from Quorn, although he now lives in Nashville, a perfect setting for his new country sound. Fun fact: Hughes studied country and bluegrass music at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, in 2000.

Jumping over to the west coast, we find ourselves in West Australia, home of some of the weirdest music coming out of the country. Most notable of the Westralians is Perth's the Sleepy Jackson; it's hard to categorize Luke Steele's ambitious and eclectic project, with its eerie female vocals, steel guitar, and synth-pop vibe. End of Fashion also hails from the most isolated city in the world, and two of its members are former Sleepy Jacksons. Like many Australian singers, singer Justin is a Jeff Buckley acolyte, but isn't so sensitive that you'll need to bring a hankie. The Tucker B's make some of the strangest noise rock this critic has ever heard, and Fremantle's John Butler Trio takes a page from Dave Matthews' book.

Of course, we can't ignore gorgeous New Zealand, known for its sheep farming and epic movies about hobbits and evil jewelry. Lots of interesting music comes from this tiny island nation, too. From the capital city of Auckland come the Coolies, mistresses of primitive electro girl-punk, the lovely twee pop of Pluto, jazz saxophonist Neil Hannan, and the Tool-esque Metermen.

Little Thief, out of Wellington, make extremely interesting instrumental industrial rock, and the Have, from the remote mountain city of Wanganui, brings the Southern Hemisphere's version of hair metal to the Hill Country.

This year's SXSW offers a unique opportunity to experience Australia and New Zealand in bite-sized pieces for those who've wanted to visit the land Down Under, but never had the chance. Vegemite sandwiches not included. end story

Check for showcase times.

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Australia, New Zealand, Phil Tripp, IMMEDIA!, Powderfinger, Screamfeeder, Women in Docs, Macromantics, the Church Gelbison, Function, Charles Jenkins, Shane Nicholson, Riff Random, Architecture in Helsinki, Sodastream, Jedd Hughes, the Sleepy Jackson, End of Fashion, Tucker B's, John Butler Trio

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