Monday, 29 April 2013

#8. The Axolotl – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass.
Harry Fahey: drums.
Matt Hewson: saxophone.
Brendan Hoffmann: saxophone.
Matt Neal: guitar.

Lyrics by Matt Neal.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written 2002-2003?
Recorded at The Barker Residence, October 2003.
Produced and mixed by Harry Fahey and Dave Wilson.

21st Century Ox burst into life in 1999, burned brightly for a couple of years, and had fizzled out into nothingness by early 2004.

During that period we recorded an album (2000’s What Am I Going To Do With All These Portaloos), and almost made another one – there were studio sessions in 2002 that yielded about 15 tracks, but for reasons lost to the mists of time, we never put together a final mix, nor sent it off to the manufacturers.

Instead, sometime in early 2004, we set up a bunch of recording equipment at the house of bass player Dion Barker’s parents. His folks were gone for a week or more, so we all basically moved in there and set about recording more songs, ostensibly to go on the new record with the best cuts from the ’02 studio sessions.

This rad graphic was made by talented Warrnambool artist Nathan Wilkinson.

The week of recording was mostly a shambles due to the excessive drinking and partying that went on. The session was more productive for me and Jade McLaren, as we managed to write and record a few early Extreme Sprinklers compositions in between the sporadic 21st Century Ox bursts of creativity.

But it wasn't a total waste. On the first night of that recording week, our trusty sound guy Dave Wilson and drummer Harry Fahey set up the loungeroom and recorded us running through a few tracks live, just to check everything was working and to kick out the cobwebs.

This track – The Axolotl – is from that first night. It was written to make the most of the fact we now had two sax players in the band. Matt Hewson joined the band as a sax player in 2001 or 2002 upon his return to Warrnambool from Melbourne, and founding member Brendan Hoffmann was also a talented sax player, so The Axolotl was written as way to showcase the both of them.

I recall it being written at Dave Wilson’s shed, which was our usual jam space. Dave was so good to us. He dug the band and our tunes unlike anyone else and let us go to his house weekly to rehearse, as well as doing sound for most of our gigs.

At one of those rehearsals, we put The Axolotl together, with me and Dion throwing out basic riffs and progressions for the verse and wordless chorus sections, and Hewy suggesting what chord to move to for the bridge.

According to Dion, it was inspired in part by bands such as Dig, who we would put on as the in-between music in our set breaks sometimes. Occasionally, we'd come back on stage and start jamming along to the house music, which probably led us to making this kind of tune. Another inspiration was probably Supergroove, who were another band favourite, particularly Hoffa, Hewy and Harry. Towards the end of our career, I think we kinda wanted to get a bit funky.

In the early stages, The Axolotl was instrumental, and I think Hoffa dubbed it The Axolotl in lieu of calling it anything sensible. With that as inspiration, I made up a little rap to fill in the verses. It occurred to me that I only knew two things about axolotls – that they were also called Mexican walking fish and that we used to have some in a tank in our science room at high school. So I sang about an axolotl, whisked away from his home and family in Mexico and dumped into a classroom aquarium. Poor guy.

The song is one of a handful written towards the end of the band’s life that hinted at a new direction and what might have been – it was still grungy in a way, but definitely jazzy and funky at the same time.


Long ago as I recall I was kickin' by the Bay of Mexico, just chillin' out, uhuh.
Along comes a man with a fishin' pole, puts a hook through my head and sticks me in a hole in a science room, uhuh.

And all these freaks are just starin' at me, they're starin' at me like I'm some kinda freak, but they're the freaks, uhuh.
And all I do, I just wanna go home, get out of this hole and back to my place in Mexico, uhuh.

Bonus track:

Pretty much every gig 21st Century Ox played featured our cover of Britney Spears' Baby... One More Time on the setlist. In the '02 studio sessions, we decided to put a recording of it onto tape because our punk rock version seemed to always go down well at gigs and got a good response. It was often the closer of the set.

This recording was recorded and mixed by Tony Peel and Harry Fahey.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

#7. Attack Of The Killer Butterflies – The 80 Aces

Jarrod Hawker: drums.
Jade McLaren: vocals.
Kyle McLaren: bass, backing vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar.

Lyrics by Jade McLaren & Matt Neal.
Music by Jarrod Hawker, Jade McLaren, Kyle McLaren & Matt Neal.
Written on August 25, 2012 .
Recorded at Narrapumelap, December 3, 2012.
Produced and mixed by Chris Hedges.

Ok, this is getting kind of embarrassing – this is only the seventh song on the blog and already it’s the third one that owes a huge debt to English band XTC. Obviously they’re a big influence but admittedly this is getting a little ridiculous….

Anyway, this one’s about stage fright, which is something I still get after 15 years of performing. Mostly it’s a fear of failure, whether it be my guitar and amp and pedals not working (my worst nightmare… which has come true once before) or a fear of completely forgetting a song or how to play something. I tend to try and block it out these days by completely focusing on something other than playing before I play.

Like when we played at this vegan festival, 
I went and looked at all the weird vegan stalls, 
like the ones selling vegan pet food. That's weird.

This track was written during a songwriting weekend in Port Fairy last August with my usual songwriting partner-in-crime, 80 Aces singer Jade McLaren. My folks have a nice little unit in Port Fairy right near where the folk festival is held, and it’s my favourite place to write and demo new material. The 80 Aces have had a few songwriting weekends over there, with varying degrees of success, ie. we often got too drunk and didn’t write anything useable.

This one began with a riff recorded in my phone. At the start of the session, Jade and I shared some ideas we had. He sifted through the riffs I’d recorded in my iPhone and picked out ones he liked, which we started developing. It was Jade’s idea to write about stage fright, though I’m not sure why – maybe because of our shared love of XTC’s Andy Partridge, who is famously (and somewhat erroneously) linked to stage fright.

The story often gets boiled down to “Andy Partridge got stage fright and stopped playing live”, which is the version we kind of appropriated for Attack Of The Killer Butterflies. A much better and fuller explanation can be found in this rather excellent article 2006 by Patrick Shabe.

At some point it was decided to kind of direct the song at Andy Partridge in a vague sense, hence the chorus “Andy, come out to play”, rather than making it a personal account, even though I know I definitely identify with the lyrics. I don’t think we’d ever put a name in a song before.

Here's Jade:

"When I suggested to Doc that we write it about Andy Partridge he wasn't keen on the idea. I think maybe he didn't want to put somebody's name into a song which I can understand but when the name fit so well into the chorus melody I think he changed his mind."

As usual, Jade and I did our list-making thing to come up with the lyrics. Here’s my list (Jade’s got lost):

It reads, from top to bottom: paralysed by nervous energy, stage fright, nerves/nervous energy, system failure, come out to play/don’t be afraid, sweat, killer butterflies (attack of the), debilitated, shakes + chills, something out of a bad dream, awaken to the adoration, calm your nerves, the spotlight in your eyes, an insecure sweat, nervously you’re shuffling your shoes, if you don’t play you can never lose, last night had the baddest dream (too dark), + now you must awaken to the screams (too dark), high anxiety.

As you can see, a lot of those made it into the song, along with Jade’s idea of slipping in an XTC reference - “senses working overtime” - to increase the homage. I'm pretty proud of the title line, because that's what stage fright feels like - like the butterflies in your stomach are attacking you. I also like the incongruousness  of "killer butterflies".

Musically though, it’s nothing like XTC. The verse melody that Jade came up with had me worried at first because I thought it was too much like the verse melody of John Lennon’s Crippled Inside.

As for the chorus, I borrowed a chord change from Radiohead’s Airbag (moving the major third to the flat fifth while playing an A) and we plucked the chorus melody from the ascending notes that I was playing on the G string.

When we first jammed on the song, our drummer Jarrod Hawker said he thought it sounded like nu-metal, which surprised me. I don’t know what it sounds like though. Originally the song started with the outro, before Hawk convinced me to change the intro, suggesting I play some variation of the verse notes with the delay pedal on.

Recently Hawk has been giving me shit about the song because he reckons I stole bits from some track by the much-hated emo band 30 Seconds To Mars. He didn’t know which one but said it was at the start of a song he saw them play on some live concert they did for MTV. I trawled through a video of the concert just for this blog (ouch), and I reckon it’s the U2-sounding bit around the 34:15-onwards mark in this clip. But who knows? And who cares – I’d never heard the fucking thing before in my life ‘til Hawk mentioned it. I’m only posting it here for a sense of completeness. Don't watch it.

As for this recording, it was made during a demoing/songwriting session The 80 Aces did at a mansion called Narrapumelap near Glenthompson in December last year. This was the first of six tracks we did a rough recording of over a couple of days there, but I’ll talk more about that session in future blogs.


Nervously you're shifting in your shoes
If you don't play you can never lose
I can see the spotlight in your eyes
and the attack of the killer butterflies

Andy, come out to play
Oh Andy, come out to play

Take a swig of nervous energy
to help you deal with the high anxiety
Senses are working overtime -
it's the attack of the killer butterflies

Monday, 15 April 2013

#6. Aquarium Life – The Extreme Sprinklers

Jade McLaren: vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar, backing vocals.

Lyrics and music by Jade McLaren & Harry Fahey.
Written February 2, 2004.
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, May 28, 2011.
Produced and mixed by Tony Peel.

According to legend, there was once a recording of this song made back in ye olde days, but those were difficult times, and the half-finished track was lost in the Great Hard Drive Meltdown of 2005. All that remained was a chord chart and some half-remembered lyrics and melodies, which remained half-remembered for many years….

The actual story goes like this: One night, after a long day and night of recording some early Extreme Sprinklers songs at drummer Harry Fahey’s place (which was nicknamed Burndog Studios), I headed home, leaving Harry and singer Jade McLaren to their devices. Instead of playing FIFA ’04 on the PS2 as they would usually have done, Harry busted out the keyboard and the two of them wrote this beautiful song about a little fish faced with a bigger fish moving in on his fishtank turf.

Fish yesterday.

Jade’s the only one who knows much about the writing of this song. While messaging the boys to get their recollections on Aquarium Life, Harry thought a) we were talking about a different song that was b) written somewhere else, but c) noted that it was “a bit ironic that the song I couldn't remember inspired my 'goldfish' nickname for my crap memory!”.

I think our crap memories might be a running issue throughout this blog.

Over to you, Jade:

“I can definitely say the song was written at Burndog Studio as I remember sitting in there and writing it. I also remember drawing two fish in a fish tank above the lyrics.

Yep, there's the fish. Eagle-eyed readers will note 
the last verse is different to the recording. 
That's because we recorded it from memory, then later found this lyric sheet.

“I can’t think of any real life impetus that the song was based on but I (think) the lyrics are strong. My favourite line is ‘stuck sucking scum from the pebbles’ - that kinda summed up what it is like to be relegated to second place.

“The melody, I'm fairly sure, was inspired by Jeff Buckley. Not from any particular song but just taking on the challenge to try to emulate one of the greatest singers of our time. I think I failed dismally in this (recording) but I'd like to think the Shoebox (aka Harry’s computer) Meltdown version was a lot sweeter. I guess we will never know - thanks Apple computers.”

This is where Jade’s and my recollections differ – he reckons the lost version was almost fully formed, but I suspect it probably wasn’t that different to the recording above ie. pretty much just a guide guitar and a guide vocal. But as he said, we’ll never know.

Here are some of my notes from that lost recording. 
Doesn't say much, other than questioning whether to keep 
some of the guide guitar and that I thought it should have a watery sound 
similar to Ween's The Mollusk.

As an outsider (ie. non-writer), I’ve always really liked this song. It’s simple and stylish and layered with symbolism and sly humour. The melodies are sweet yet soulful, and the structure of the song (and the way the chords fit together) was, well, epic. Harry didn’t co-write much in The Extreme Sprinklers, but when he did, my goodness, what gold.

Harry chord chart - the bottom half is the only half 
that's relevant for those of you playing along at home.

Admittedly this recording isn’t the greatest. I think Jade and I practiced the song once in the intervening six years since we stopped playing it live (which only happened a couple of times, I think), but one day in May, 2011, Jade and I found ourselves with some leftover time at the end of a demoing session with The 80 Aces. We seized the opportunity to finally get this song on tape and bashed it out in one live take. I guess it’s testament to how much we both love the song all these years on that we still wanted to record it, if only for posterity.


Stuck in a box for life,
you don’t have to worry about anything,
when suddenly there’s strife
and here comes the new addition.
Now food’s in short supply;
stuck sucking scum from the pebbles.
Because you’re lacking in size
he’s taken over the diver and the treasure chest.

Big fish,
they’re all around you.

Now little guy you’re gunna have to learn
don’t let anyone swim you around.
Breathing is your only concern
but now your life is on the line.
Compared to some he ain’t that big
and there’s a million out there.
You’ve got no hands so you can’t dig
so you’ve gotta fight your way out there

Monday, 8 April 2013

#5. Anniversary - Jackson McLaren & The Doctor

Jackson McLaren: guitar, vocals, percussion.
Matt Neal: guitar, backing vocals, accordion, keyboard, percussion.

Lyrics & music by Jackson McLaren & Matt Neal.
Written and recorded August 1, 2008.
Recorded at the Princess Street Party House, Warrnambool
Produced and mixed by Matt Neal.

Jackson McLaren is a talented motherfucker. I first saw him playing with The Roaring 40s, who were a fantastic band with talent way beyond their years – all three of them (Jackson, future 80 Aces bassist Kyle McLaren, and their mercurial drummer Marcus Hall) were about 14 or 15 when they formed the group. Each of them was a talented motherfucker, but I was particularly drawn to Jackson because he was about eight years younger than me and writing songs that were better than anything I’d ever done. Bastard.

Look at these cheeky young buggers (l-r): Jackson McLaren, Kyle McLaren, and Marcus Hall. 
PIC: Warrnambool Standard

The 80 Aces played a bunch of gigs with The Roaring 40s and hung out a lot. In late 2007, Jackson and I caught up a few times to write together, penning about three or four songs that we never recorded but which reflected our shared love of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. We also teamed up with a few other friends for a one-off writing/recording project, but that song will feature later in the Anthology.

We’ve only written together twice since those early forays. The relevant one here is Anniversary, which we wrote and recorded in a single late-night session at the place I was living in at the time. The house was close to the Warrnambool CBD, so by default it became the party house for drinking before a night on the town or after the pubs closed. It even inspired Jackson to write a great song called Oh My God I Know, which was about my housewarming party and a few other random nights of madness at the house that shall be henceforth known as the Princess Street Party House.

This very strange clip contains some footage and audio of Jackson playing Oh My God I Know:

Surprisingly, there was just Jackson and I at the house on this chilly August night when we picked up our guitars and put pen to paper (usually the place was full of people looking for a place to party). Jackson recalls us using a few of the techniques my 80 Aces bandmate Jade McLaren (so many McLarens!) and I had been using for songwriting.

The first technique of these is the brainstorming lists. After settling on an idea of what the song is about, each of the writers goes off by themselves for 15-20 minutes and writes a long list of stuff to go in the song. It can be words or phrases, or even whole lines or sections of the song. Then we come together and try to smash the best of the lists into some kind of verse/chorus/bridge dealy-thing incorporating both writers' ideas.

The second "technique" is the Wank-O-Meter, which was what we used to measure if a line or idea was too corny or clichéd or just plain crap. It works like this:

Person 1: What do you think of this line: “I’m drowning in a sea of darkness”.
Person 2: I dunno… that’s registering pretty high on the Wank-O-Meter.
Person 1: Well, what have you got?
Person 2: I’ve got this line: “My soul is infected, you are my disease.”
Person 1: Dude, you just blew up the Wank-O-Meter.

Anyway, here’s Jackson's recollections of the night we wrote and recorded Anniversary:

“I remember sitting around with a few acoustic guitars in the lounge room (and) I believe we got the title/idea for the song by opening a dictionary and randomly putting a finger on a word. I think from memory we went about writing a few verses separately and then riffing off different lines/lyrics together. 'The Wank-O-Meter' (a term coined by Doc or Jade) was often implemented to fend off any ugly clichés creeping into the song.”

who recently supported Counting Crows on their Australian tour.

As I recall, from the word “anniversary” came the idea of writing the lyrics like a speech or a toast for a special occasion, but without specifying what the occasion was. Hence the lyrics come off as a very generic speech for any occasion, while also becoming a rumination on the passage of time, tinged with regret and reflection. This probably makes it unsuitable to use as a toast at your next wedding/buck’s party/bar mitzvah, but feel free to give it a go.

Having written the song (I reckon it took about an hour or so), we started recording it straight away, probably so we didn't forgot how it went the next day. The only problem was I didn’t have a microphone with which to record the strange selection of instruments in my lounge room - a couple of acoustic guitars, a couple of small drums, a few keyboards and a toy accordion that came from my Grandma's toy box.

To get around the lack of a microphone, we recorded the song using the built-in mic on my laptop. That’s why the sound is so lo-fi. Or no-fi. I distinctly remember Jackson sitting on the couch, leaning over my computer, seemingly singing sweetly into the spacebar.

For some strange reason, this is the only photo of Jackson and I in existence
(and that's my beautiful fiancee Dannii in the middle there). 
This pic was taken in the Princess Street Party House, 
in the very room and on the very couch where Anniversary was recorded.

After laying down some keyboard to a click track, we added our guitars, but without a bass, we had to use a little cheat I’ve often relied on – record the bass line on the acoustic guitar and use an effect in the recording program (CoolEdit Pro) to drop it down an octave. It comes out all wobbly and weird, but it works all right if you bury it in the mix.

A guitar case was called in for a "kick drum", and a bongo served as a "snare". At some point we thought it would be cool to add some accordion and I’m pretty proud of the accordion work in this, mostly because I have no fucking idea how to play the damned thing. Two days later I went back and filled in the gap we'd left for the guitar solo, and bang, there you have it - the only song Jackson and I recorded as a duo.


On this anniversary I'd like to welcome you,
ladies and gentlemen, to this auspicious day.
We've had our ups and downs, our sicknesses and healths,
and everything between as days became the years.

Raise your glasses to this night,
everything can start again,
like clockwork it's been reset,
will we make the same mistakes?

This occasion means a lot. We all know the reasons why.
It's something different to us all but we share it all the same.
To our families and friends, to our enemies and foes,
everyone has played their part and made us who we are.

Raise your glasses to this night,
everything can start again,
like clockwork it's been reset,
will we make the same mistakes?

This is one more memory we'll recall in one years time,
through the good times and the bad...
and I salute you all.

Raise your glasses to this night,
everything can start again,
now the clock has been reset,
will we make the same mistakes?

Because there are no photos of just me and Jackson, 
Jade McLaren helpfully whipped up this photoshopped image. 
Umm... thanks, Jade.