Bill Callahan on birth, death and the unstoppable quest

Photo: Hanly Banks

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, March 2020

“I’ve kind of tuned it out lately,” Bill Callahan says, making small talk about politics as he dials in from his home in Austin. “It seems like the full Trump thing has moved like an iceberg; nothing ever really seems to happen, it’s just both sides threatening for something to happen. So I’ll tune in when something’s actually happening.”

Callahan has had other things to tune into in the half-decade between his 2013 album Dream River and last year’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest; he got married, became a parent, and farewelled one. 

“Music was my baby – then I had a baby,” he ponders in the low, slow, considered baritone recognisable to anyone who’s paid attention to his decades-long output, first through the noisy, anti-folk moniker Smog and since 2007, the critically acclaimed brand of neo-Americana released under his given name. 

“I think it’s still the same guy, but there’s also another guy in there standing next to me. The old me. That’s what I think took so long, to find him. I knew there was really only one person inside me who could make a record – I had to re-find him again after all the changes. I don’t think that guy has changed… he’s just got company.”

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Revisiting ‘An Oasis In A Desert Of Noise’

Greasy Pop, An Oasis in a Desert of Noise. Photo: Courtesy of Tim Kelton
Photo: Tim Kelton

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, September 2016

For many music fans and former players, Adelaide in the ‘80s can be summarised by two words: Greasy Pop.

It’s a term that evokes a time when vinyl wasn’t the domain of de rigueur revivalism but a thing of necessity, the State Bank collapse had yet to quash the nauseating corporate optimism of the ‘80s and the band rooms of the Tivoli and Austral had yet to be extinguished by residential developments.

In other words, perfect conditions for a fertile, unapologetic wave of South Australian bands creating their own industry from scratch.

At the centre of it all was music store clerk and guitarist Doug Thomas, whose decision to fund the pressing of his own band’s first single led to a decade running one of Adelaide’s best-known record labels.

Thirty years ago Greasy Pop Records issued what has become its most seminal release, and an intriguing time capsule of Adelaide’s 80s underground: An Oasis In A Desert Of Noise.

“It still seemed like any artists serious about success had to move to the music industry centres of Sydney or Melbourne – most local independent releases seemed to be one-offs by the band themselves,” Thomas recalls from his current home in Perth. Despite a healthy independent scene in the 1970s, by the next decade the absence of labels left Thomas fielding requests from other local bands to release their records too.

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Tkay Maidza is calling the shots

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in Broadsheet, August 2018

On her new EP, Tkay Maidza professes to love growing up. That’s lucky, because the 21-year-old singer and rapper has had to do a lot of it lately.

“Weird” can mean a lot of things. For Tkay Maidza, it isn’t just unusual or odd, but a dry, distinctly Australian definition that can brush off all kinds of bewildering trauma and misadventure with one satisfying syllable. President Trump? Weird. Terrorism? Weird. Playing international festivals, fronting Nike campaigns and collaborating with Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike and influential French producer Martin Solveig at a time when most of your peers are still hanging at the local food court? Definitely weird.

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Inside Thebarton’s historic garbage incinerator turned studio

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, June 2019

Having famously laid out the nation’s capital, American architect Walter Burley Griffin spent his final years bringing a bold aesthetic vision to a most unedifying subject: burning waste. Now, the former Thebarton Reverberatory Incinerator is cooking up fire tracks in its new life as a recording studio.

Driving down West Thebarton Road a keen eye might notice the angular red smoke stack poking up from the industrial lots and car parks, its sharp lines and polychromatic brickwork resembling something out of Minecraft. It’s one of several architecturally significant ‘reverberatory incinerators’ around Australia that Griffin and colleague Eric Milton Nicholls designed during the Great Depression. When it opened in March 1936, less than a year before Griffin’s death, newspaper reports welcomed the influence of “modern architecture” on Thebarton’s “imposing” new addition.

Today it’s home to Lewis Wundenberg, an Adelaide engineer and producer who has spent years training his ears to avoid ‘rubbish’. But when the city studio he worked at went under, leaving him at a loose end with more recording gear than he could fit at home, this “really weird” online listing caught his eye.

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Elizabeth’s second reign

Photo: Sia Duff

Originally published in Swampland Magazine #2, April 2017

The quiet monotony of suburbia can be a fertile medium for creativity, and there’s no shortage of the stuff among the vast tracts of urban sprawl to the north of Adelaide. 22 years old and hungry, Gabriel Akon found himself here largely by accident. The rapper, poet and aspiring mogul behind artist collective slash label Playback 808 has spent the past few years assembling his own community of artists intent on building their own hip hop scene from scratch.

The area has form for nurturing fierce musical talent out of young migrants transplanted from the other side of the world. Jimmy Barnes grew up in Elizabeth after his family left Glasgow in 1962. Bernard ‘Doc’ Neeson, the late Belfast-born frontman of The Angels, made a similar move as a child, as did Little River Band co-founder Glenn Shorrock and guitarist of The Sports Martin Armiger. Akon lives a bit further out west in Golden Grove, a town that didn’t actually exist back then. Since sprouting out of rolling farmland in the mid-1980s, it’s perhaps best-known for being home to Guy Sebastian during his pre-Idol super-church days.

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Nakkiah Lui loves soppy love stories, Australian humour and Miranda Tapsell

Photo: Thomas McCammon

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, November 2019

Nakkiah Lui has emerged as one of the country’s sharpest contemporary playwrights. In November 2019, local audiences will finally get the chance to experience Lui’s work on a South Australian stage with romantic comedy Black Is The New White.

“My grandma used to say, ‘what can you do if you can’t laugh?’,” Lui tells The Adelaide Review. “I think that to myself every single day, and to me laughter is really important – laughter is love, it’s so innately human.”

Laughter and love form the crux of Black Is The New White, the 2015 ensemble comedy that has emerged as the Black Comedy and Kiki and Kitty writer/actor’s biggest hit. While Lui’s recent stage work such as 2018’s Blackie Blackie Brown and this year’s How To Rule The World have taken inspiration from pulpy revenge narratives and Canberra politics, Black Is The New White draws from the canon of romantic and ensemble comedies like Meet The Fockers, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary

“I love films, the first job I ever had was at a video store in high school,” she recalls. “I used to love going to the movies, I used to watch movies all the time. I love reading, and theatre, but I’m also a massive film nerd.”

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Derek Jolly’s electric dreams

Stephen Whittington with the Moog. Photo: Walter Marsh
Stephen Whittington with the Moog. Photo: Walter Marsh

Originally published in The Adelaide Review, October 2019

In 1969, eccentric wine heir Derek Jolly had a vision to make Adelaide a global music capital by importing a revolutionary new instrument. 50 years later, the legacy of Australia’s first synthesiser is still making waves.

“Derek’s mother came from the Penfolds family – that’s where he inherited his money,” explains Stephen Whittington, composer and head of Sonic Arts at the University of Adelaide. “He used to drive racing cars, maybe he was a bit of playboy. He was a colourful character.”

Recalling a sort of Adam West-era Bruce Wayne figure without the vigilantism, in the 1950s Jolly poured his money into car racing. Later, he imported a prefabricated Finnish ‘Futuro House’ which for years sat UFO-like on an empty Melbourne Street block. But by the end of the 1960s, his attention and money had turned to the bleeding edge of analogue technology.

“One of his ideas was that he could turn Adelaide into a world centre of advanced recording technology,” Whittington says. By the late 60s Jolly’s music industry exploits had seen him establish Gamba, his North Adelaide studio, and somehow end up with a credit on Johnny Farnham’s 1967 single Sadie (The Cleaning Lady) – for the vacuum cleaner solo. “He thought if he equipped his studio with absolutely the latest technology, it would not only stimulate people here, but musicians would come from all over the world.”

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