Friday, 28 June 2013

#16. Cashman - 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass.
Harry Fahey: drums.
Matt Hewson: sax.
Brendan Hoffmann: guitar/vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar.

Lyrics by Brendan Hoffmann.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written in 2002?
Recorded at The Barker Residence, Warrnambool, October 2-10, 2003.
Produced and mixed by Harry Fahey and Matt Neal.

“21st Century Ox play this weird rock shit that doesn’t fit in anywhere.”
- the band booker at the Criterion Hotel

The above quote was overheard one night at one of our many gigs at the Cri and it remains my favourite back-handed compliment. It seems to sum up the band's entire modus operandi.

Cashman is probably one of the better examples of our “weird rock shit”. That intro riff sounds metal but is poppy enough to pull it back into grunge territory. But that backbeat is peculiar, and then there’s that epic rock outro and then there’s some saxophone and then things get vaguely psychedelic.

21st Century Ox, playing downstairs at the Cri in the Cellar.
(band booker not pictured)

Here’s drummer Harry Fahey (warning – some of this is in drummer-speak):

“(Cashman is) another foray into the wonderful world of feel-altering grooves. The rhythm section part is focused on avoiding the one, and landing heavy on the four. Successful foray, I reckon. I think it works. Actually in another genre that 'avoid the one but heavy on the four' mantra is a good ol' reggae philosophy. Not a reggae groove, but kinda similar beat philosophies. I’d call it a half-time faux-metal groove!”

Here’s guitarist Brendan Hoffmann, who was the principal songwriter:
“I don't know how you'd describe the groove - maybe psychedelic punk-rock grindcore?”

And back to Harry:
“Also the kick/bass on the + of 2 & 3 is kind of a samba rhythm, so psychedelic punk-rock grindcore samba faux-metal?”

Anyway, like that guy said: “weird rock shit that doesn’t fit in anywhere”.

Hoffa at work.

Here’s Hoffa again:
“(I was) inspired to write an anti-authoritarian song (about) my brother being an asshole on my birthday. But for 21st Century Ox, I tried to deflect the meaning and make it lighter, making the subject a cashman, ie. a banker. (There’s) not really (a reason I picked a banker), just anti-authoritarian crud, really.”

Hoffa might be a little dismissive of it, but I was liked the lyrics – very Cobain-esque. They were succinct but painted an intriguing picture of a character. I particularly loved the first couple of lines - "he doesn't make any sense/even on birthdays" - because it always implied to me that birthdays are supposed to be the one day of the year where you HAVE to make sense. That struck me as a wonderful idea/lyric that was both absurd and reasonable at the same time, like something out of a Lewis Carroll novel.

My only contribution to the songwriting (I think) was the outro chord progression, and I remember the whole band working hard on the arrangement, particularly the way it builds steam towards the finish line.

Here we are building up a full head of steam at some Wunta-type event (possibly Wunta).

As for this recording, it was one of the few fully completed songs to come out of the infamous session known as Dion’s Week Of Debauchery. I did some final mixing of it, building on Harry’s original mix. Even now, I’m still learning from Harry. He’s a freakin’ studio genius. We caught up recently and he gave from some pointers on mixing Cashman that have given me heaps to think about when it comes time to mixing down the future songs for this blog.

And finally, the film clip. This was made by the very talented John Turner and shot over two nights at a couple of parties we played in Melbourne back in ’02-’03. I only found out this clip existed about two weeks ago. I’m pretty sure hardly anyone’s ever seen it before (at the time of writing it had nine views on YouTube). The audio track is a live recording, so we were playing reasonably tight back then and rocking fast and hard. And damn we looked young!


He doesn’t make any sense even on birthdays
He tries to put up a fence so that you can’t understand him

Cash, Cashman

He doesn’t like to be happy, he’s always wearing a frown
He’s all so mellow and sappy, he should be wearing a crown

Friday, 21 June 2013

#15. Cash In Now Before We Die – 21st Century Ox

Harry Fahey: drums, effects, water bowl.
Matt Neal: vocals, guitar, bass, effects.

Lyrics by Matt Neal.
Music by Harry Fahey & Matt Neal.
Written in 2000.
Recorded at Harry’s Practice, Crossley, 2000.
Produced by Harry Fahey and Matt Neal.
Mixed by Harry Fahey.

Finding a good place to rehearse can be difficult, but over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to jam regularly in some very cool places.

My first regular jam space was dubbed Harry’s Practice, so-called because it was at drummer Harry Fahey’s place in Crossley and it’s where 21st Century Ox would practice (and we obviously had a thing for Dr Harry Cooper).


It was just a shed out the back of Harry’s place, which was great in summer but slightly less great in winter as I recall. Occasionally, when it was cold and no one else was home, we’d drag our gear into the house and jam.

Harry's Practice on a summer's day.

Before or after one of these rehearsal sessions, Harry and I decided to make the most of the gear already being set up inside the house and lay down a song. Maybe the other guys were coming out later, I’m not sure, but for whatever reason, me and Harry had the old Tascam four-track and a loungeroom full of gear all to ourselves that day. The end result was Cash In Now Before We Die, which ended up as one of the four secret songs (yes, four) on 21st Century Ox’s first album, What Am I Going To Do With All These Portaloos?.

Ox bassist Dion Barker puts it this way:
“You bastards organised a pre-recording recording session without telling (guitarist Brendan Hoffmann) and I. And you came up with an awesome song! Bastards!”

I found the chords for this scribbled in one of my songbooks (with no date, naturally) as part of a list of song ideas that were basically just rows of chords with a word at the top to serve as a reminder for the rhythm or feel. Above the chords for Cash In Now… it just says “bouncy”.

Mmm... bouncy.
PS. That dirt smudge is a paw print from one of Harry's dogs,
 who came in to help us record.

But on the next page was the lyrics, and while my memory of mid-2000 is hazy at best, I can still remember what the hell I was on about in these lyrics. I was thinking about artists such as Tupac and Jeff Buckley who seemed to sell more records after their death than while they were alive thanks to a steady stream of posthumous recordings of varying degrees of quality. The lyrics were about imploring people to buy our music now and beat the rush before we carked it.

Speeding up the track may have been a homage to Ween although I’m not 100 per cent certain Harry and I had heard much Ween when we recorded this. Realistically, the effect was used to cover our sloppy timing and my out-of-tune vocals. Speeding it all up (which just involved adjusting the tape speed dial on the four-track) made everything a tad tighter and sharper.

It’s still pretty messy though. But I know Harry and I were proud of it at the time – proud enough at least to “hide” it as one of the secret tracks on What Are We Going To Do With All These Portaloos?.

Here’s Harry:
“That was an awesome, fun tune to record and mixdown! I remember using Hoffa’s old Tascam four-track and we messed with the tape speed as an afterthought but it really makes the song. Good lyrics too, Doc, hit the proverbial nail on the head. And the random water bowl... what was that about?”

Random water bowl… yes, what the fuck was that all about?

This is a photo from the actual recording session.
That's Harry in the top right corner (water bowl not included).


Everything’s better after you’re gone
The music’s appreciated more
Better to play fast, leave a beautiful corpse
Wouldn’t want to live forever, oh no

Cash in now before we die
The price is low but it will get high
Cash in now before we die somehow, somehow

Unfinished masterpieces found on the floor
Polish them up for an album or four
Selling more records than you did before
and better known
It’s a shame you're dead really

Friday, 14 June 2013

#14. The Canadian Song – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass.
Harry Fahey: drums, keyboards.
Matt Hewson: sax.
Brendan Hoffmann: guitar, backing vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar, vocals.

Lyrics by Matt Neal, Dion Barker, Brendan Hoffmann.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written 2000/2001?
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, Warrnambool, 2002?
Produced and mixed by Harry Fahey and Tony Peel.

There have been a couple of awesome spin-offs from this blog so far, including people saying lovely things to me in the street about it. Which sure beats the abuse I usually cop.

But the greatest flow-on from Doc’s Anthology happened last week when the four original members of 21st Century Ox – myself, drummer Harry Fahey, bassist Dion Barker and guitarist/vocalist Brendan Hoffmann – caught up to have a few beers, listen to some old tunes, and reminisce. It was probably the first time we've been together in a room since 2003 when we played our last gig. Ten years is a long time.

It was a spur of the moment decision to catch up, but it was fantastic. What started with discussing old songs and past gigs via Facebook led to Hoffa, Dion and Harry digging through old boxes and uncovering old tapes, mini-discs and CDs. Lost songs, entire gigs and rehearsals, and even unseen video footage emerged.

Discovering a lost treasure trove of music was great, but what was better was hanging out with the guys again. We were all older and wiser (and somewhat balder, fatter and more sober), and I think it made us realise how much fun we had back in the 21st Century Ox days. And also how much we can’t remember….

In particular, I don't remember my head being so enormous.
From left: me, Harry, Dion and Hoffa.

But the other thing I realised – and have been realising since beginning this blog project – is how good some of Ox's music is. Yes, it’s juvenile and slightly silly, but some of the tracks stand out and I really love them. It didn’t really matter who wrote the songs or how unsophisticated they were, but the modus operandi and creative environment of the band meant we could try anything and the results were often surprisingly cool.

A case in point is this week’s track, The Canadian Song. It’s an utterly, utterly silly piece of nonsense, but to me it seems like a quintessential example of what 21st Century Ox did really well – it’s rocking and kinda poppy, but it’s weird and bent. It never takes itself seriously, but still explores interesting timings, cool production tricks and great band dynamics.

So who came up with this pile of Canuck-loving rubbish? That would be mostly me, with a little help from my friends.

The story goes that one day I was feeling a little under the weather after a day of overindulging in The Love Shed, which was the garage of the house that Hoffa and I shared and which had become a communal hangout place for many of our friends.

It was still early in the afternoon (we used to start early in The Love Shed) so I took my leave, headed to the loungeroom, and flopped into a bean bag with a guitar and a glass of water in an effort to collect my thoughts and recover my senses.

Over the next 15-30 minutes, I wrote two songs. The Canadian Song was one of them (we won’t go into the other one at this stage). Despite its peculiar 7/4 verse/chorus and 6/4 bridges (or is that actually the verse?), it just came out – it was one of those songs that required little-to-no effort to write (which probably shows).

“I remember Nealy coming to me (on more than just this occasion) to ask ‘what timing is this?’,” Harry recalled.

It’s true. I was a self-taught musician who knew nothing, so I tended to look to
Harry and Hoffa, who’d had a proper musical education, to teach me stuff.
The Ox years were a great time of learning for me.

I took The Canadian Song back out to The Love Shed once I was feeling better, showed the assembled crew, and it seemed to go down all right. Next thing we knew, it was in the Ox setlist and was well on its way to becoming a fan favourite (and perhaps a band favourite).

Dion recalls Hoffa and he helping out with the lyrics, with the band working on the arrangement for some time.

“I'm fairly sure you brought the music to us, and perhaps the shell of the lyrics, but I still remember jamming on it and thrashing out some further lyrics for the verses,” Dion said to me recently.

This is as good a time as any to use one of my favourite photos of Dion.

This is likely. The words seem to change in certain some live versions, such as a reference to Degrassi High that’s not in the studio recording.

But why Canada? I have no idea. I’ve always liked Canada (doesn’t everyone?) and I remember we had a Canadian exchange student staying with my grandparents when I was a kid, but other than that, there was no special reason for writing about Canada. I think it was just a syllabic thing – lyrically it just fit together with the weird rhythms.

The studio recording of this was pretty cool and was intended to go on the unfinished second album. Harry’s drumming is great – it keeps the track moving and grooving despite the kink in the time signature – and the distortion effect on his kit in the verse/bridge bit sound cool. Some of that got put on my vocals too, which I thought worked well, and although there was probably a bit of mixing to go on the song before it would have ended up on a record, it seemed to come up all right from my point of view.

Here’s Harry again:
“An amazingly obscure piece of information: The heavily distorted drums at 0:44 were directly influenced by the song Resurrection Day Soundtrack: Hot Pursuit in Eagles' Nest by the band Secret Chiefs 3 from the album First Grand Constitution & Bylaws!”

And Dion:
“I knew Harry and Peely were pretty proud of that sound! Peely did say he went on to use the same effect on someone else's recording.”

While digging through some live recordings of the song, I found what I believe to be the first time we ever played The Canadian Song. I’m pretty sure it was recorded in The Cellar below the old Criterion Hotel, most likely in 2000 or 2001. I think the performance was at one of the old TAFE Music Industry Skill (MIS) course open mic nights, which we often played as a house band. I’ve no idea who recorded it, but it was most likely Harry or some fellow MIS students. The recording doesn’t have the groove that the song would eventually achieve, but the drunken banter at the start seems to indicate that they were, indeed, fun times.
Here's a clip Hoffa threw together with added Canadian imagery!

Before I post the lyrics, I'd like to point out one of my favourite Ox mondegreens. I can't remember who told me this, but someone said they thought the line "Ice hockey rocks" was actually "I'm sucking rocks". Gold.


I'm a Canadian, yes I am
I'm a Canadian, yes I am
I have a maple leaf on my flag
I'm a Canadian, yes I am

Michael J Fox
He says "aboot"
and ice hockey rocks
Michael J Fox

Celine Dion
'cept she's from Quebec
and they all speak French
but they say "aboot" (probably)

Thursday, 6 June 2013

#13. Bowie In A Box – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass.
Tim Conlan: bass.
Harry Fahey: drums.
Matt Hewson: saxophone.
Brendan Hoffmann: saxophone.
John Hudson: guitar.
Matt Neal: guitar.
Ruben Shannon: bass.
Richard Tankard: keys.
Matt Wearne: flute.

Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written 2002?
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, Warrnambool, 2002.
Produced by Harry Fahey and Tony Peel.
Mixed by Harry Fahey.

Much like The Axolotl, this track was written to capitalise on having two sax players in the band (I think.... My memory – and indeed the band’s collective memory – is a little hazy on the matter). But I'm reasonably sure this was in the setlist so Matt Hewson and Brendan Hoffmann could wail away on their saxophones while drummer Harry Fahey, bassist Dion Barker and myself chugged along underneath.

But when it came time to the hit the studio, the idea was to have more than just two sax players soloing away. Instead, we decided (and I may have to take the blame for this idea) that it would be better to have a heap of musos going nuts over what is essentially a bad blues song.

So we roped in a who’s who of Warrnambool musicians – keyboardist Richard Tankard (Tank Dilemma, Blue Heat, Guy Smiley Trio), guitarist John Hudson, bass players Ruben Shannon (Frisky Go-Cats, Tank Dilemma) and Tim Conlan (Sky Rockats, Slap ‘n’ The Cats), as well as our good buddy Matthew Wearne on flute.

 Tank Dilemma in action. (l-r) Shannon Bourne, Ruben Shannon, 
Brenton Smith (obscured), Matt Hewson, Matt Trenery, and Richard Tankard. 
This band is seriously awesome. "Do yourself a favour." - Molly Meldrum.

Here's Richard Tankard, who very kindly and wittily contributed his thoughts on the track:
"When I was sent this, initially I thought, 'why?'. I had no idea. Then, I heard something 30 seconds in that sounded like me. Aha, I thought; that would be why. Despite this, I still had no recollection on this whatsoever - until about 1.10-1.15 when an extra bar, a 13th one, gatecrashed this 12-bar modulating ... thing. Then, the vaguest of memories came flooding on back. I know not who wrote it, or even if that mystery extra bar was intentional.  I do know that it's a series of 12 bars (except for that rogue 13th) modulating each time, complete with blues ending 1A.

"It seems everyone is soloing at once (this is not something I would have advised). And in the mix, different instruments are brought randomly to the foreground. Hey, this was a new millennium.

"One final keyboard observation - it's a very dry, non-rotating organ sound.  I know there was a period where my Hammond XB2's leslie and chorus effect went completely on the blink for some months. Sounds like this might have been smack bang in the middle."

If Tank took better care of his equipment, maybe these things wouldn't happen.

Here's Matt Wearne, critiquing his flute playing:
"I wish I'd put in some dynamics, put a bit of guts into it and put some accenting in, sheesh, bit embarrassing. I think it was the first (only?) time I've seen Tony Peel's studio and we talked about Volvos. I was impressed with the reverb-baffling, funky-shaped wooden wall with nice bright woodgrain."

The resulting recording is admittedly a mess, but I seem to recall that remixing this song was one of the few things left on the ‘To Do’ list to finish off 21st Century Ox’s unfinished second album, which I had dubbed The Last Sane Man On Earth and which was recorded some time in 2002 (I think) at Tony Peel’s Motherlode Studios in Warrnambool.

Having said all that, someone (most likely Harry) pulled together a mix that got the general idea across of what we were going for – a bluesy riff rippling with cool solos, fading in and out, from some of the best musos in town.

Here's Harry:
"Yep, definitely my mix. I remember mixing it down a dozen times and trying to remember which solo to pull up when (it came in), as it was back in the days of analogue desks - none of these 'com-pu-ter' thingys."

Harry at the mixing desk at Motherlode Studios 
during the recording of The Last Sane Man On Earth.

The riff itself was an inadvertent rip-off. I’m sure it’s 100 things, because it’s based on a basic pentatonic scale, but the thing it sounds the most like, and which I was listening to a fair bit at the time, was the Ben Folds Five song Kate. I don’t remember copying it, but I do remember realising the resemblance later and thinking, “Damn! This sounds like that!”.

I did like the way it shifted keys, starting in F (I think), then moving to A, then C#, before moving back to F. One of the few things I recall about the recording session with all the special guess was explaining (very badly) about the key changes and the way the song moved between them.

As for the song title, this track was named after Hoffa's cat Bowie. Like all cats, he liked to get into boxes. For some reason, that was enough to become a song title.

Bowie, not in a box.