Saturday, 21 June 2014

#42. Hackysack – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass
Harry Fahey: drums
Matt Hewson: saxophone
Brendan Hoffmann: guitar
Matt Neal: vocals, guitar, keyboard

Lyrics by Matt Neal.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written 2000.
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, Warrnambool, 2002.
Produced and mixed by Harry Fahey and Tony Peel.
Additional recording and mixing by Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal at Hoffa’s, July 14, 2014.

Two things that remind me of my erstwhile band 21st Century Ox are hackysacks and Mr Bungle, and this song is the place where these things kinda meet.
Firstly, the hackysacks.
In breaks at rehearsal, before gigs, after gigs, at parties, wherever and whenever, we would usually be kicking around a hackysack. It was the closest thing to "exercise" that we did.
We were mad for it - so much so that we invented a sport called Hacketball which was a loose (yet awesome) combination of hackysack, cricket and baseball. People still talk about Hacketball in hushed, awed tones. Despite this, the IOC is yet to award it Olympic status.

Hacketball in action. PIC: James Colquhoun.

This song was our ode to the art of hackysack. I wrote the guts of the music and the words and took it to the band, who knocked it into shape. Lyrically, it’s nothing special but at the time I was working on the songwriting principle that you could write songs about anything at all, no matter how silly, and ultimately it could become a metaphor for something. Thus, the idea of hackysack – a non-competitive “sport” that can’t work without teamwork and sharing – became a hippy-ish plea to humanity for peace, love, and understanding: “No teams, just friends, we’re all the same”. This was like my Imagine, man… but shitter.

It's like the hackysack is the world, man... no, wait....

Here’s Ox bassist Dion Barker:

“Much like the activity of the same name, Hackysack is a fun, punchy and uplifting way to spend several minutes,” Dion said of the song.

“I don't particularly remember how the song came about but I do recall playing it through and Hoffa adding that awesome guitar riff that went on to become an awesome guitar-and-sax riff, with the rest of us dropping back in over the top... it just fit perfectly! I have a feeling that the whole song just fell together easily, as did a lot of Ox songs.”

That riff in the breakdown section is indeed the work of guitarist Brendan Hoffmann, and it became the coolest part of the song.

Hoffa steps up to the pitcher's mound in a hacketball game. PIC: James Colquhoun.

“My memory of Hackysack is that it was mostly a song written by Nealy, but when we jammed on it, it really came to life,” Hoffa said.

“The ripping riff in the middle was my idea – (I) just heard a swamp, pluck, hoe-down thing and my fingers just seemed to fall into place.

“(It was) one of our best live songs I think. I remember many a great gig with the crowd dancing or moshing their arses off to this.”

Drummer Harry Fahey said he doesn’t “ever remember the crowd response at the sudden end being as big as it deserved” and admitted the tempo was hard to nail (although I think that was my fault mostly – see live version posted below).

“(But) I loved playing the verses of Hackysack for the open/close hi-hat-snare syncopation - fun and bouncy,” Harry said.

Harry relaxes after a hard game of hacketball. PIC: James Colquhoun.

Time for a hackysack/Ox-related anecdote:

Ox once had the honour of supporting Something For Kate (one of my favourite bands) and someone had told us they were mad for hackysack too (I’m not sure who and I have no idea how such a conversation came up). So after we'd played and loaded out we headed to the green room to see if SFK wanted to kick the hack around with us. Our way was barred at the entrance to the green room by someone from their entourage who said we weren't allowed in because SFK were in the middle of a band meeting. Sure enough, they were huddled together in the centre of the room, arms around each other like a pre-game basketball team.

We explained to the entourage member that we just wanted to see if SFK wanted to come out and kick the hack around before the gig because we loved hackysack and we'd heard SFK did too.
The guy just looked at us weirdly, said he'd pass it on and told us to bugger off. So we stayed outside and began to play hackysack, hoping they'd see us through the window and come bounding out full of enthusiasm, keen to "hack in".

They never did.

Feeling slighted, we ate all their green room sandwiches in retaliation. True story.

Anyway, on to Mr Bungle (who Ox drummer Harry Fahey met but sadly didn't get to play hackysack with either).

It probably doesn't show in our music, but Bungle were a huge influence on Ox. We listened to their albums all the time and were endlessly impressed by their musicianship, genre-hopping and anything-goes musical attitude.

While California is my favourite Bungle album, I loved the weird circus-metal of their self-titled debut. It was something I was partially trying to emulate on the song Hackysack, which is only really evident in the sax line of the studio version but can be heard in the intro (0:30-):38) of this live version recorded the long-gone Cellar in Warrnambool.

The finished song ended up being far poppier and grungier than Bungle, which helped it become one the closest things we had to a fan favourite (along with Sweet Sweet Coffee). Dion recalls discussion of doing a film clip, which makes me think we discussed making it a single.

The intro on the studio version comes from another of Ox's favourite bands and biggest influences - Tool. We had always intended to record a keyboard intro to the song that captured the circus-y vibe of the Bungle song Quote Unquote (see above), but which was reminiscent of Tool's Intermission in the album Aenima (which was actually the song Jimmy played in muzak style).

We never got around to doing it at the time in 2002 and it was one of the puzzle pieces that was missing which left our second album The Last Sane Man On Earth remained unfinished.

That was until a couple of weeks ago when Ox guitarist Brendan Hoffmann and myself got together and finally recorded that long forgotten intro. We were pretty stoked with the end result. Others weren’t.

“To be honest, I don't think much of the recently recorded intro,” Dion said.

“But if that's the sound we were aiming for, then you've nailed it perfectly!”

Thanks, D.


Come play the game it’s always fun
One for all and all for one
Hack in, join in, enjoy the game
No teams, just friends, we’re all the same

Come and play with the hackysack
Come and play

To find us follow the laughing sound
And watch the hack go around and around
Hack in, join in, enjoy the game
No teams, just friends, we’re all the same

Peace and love and harmony

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

#41. Guitarzan – The 80 Aces

Jarrod Hawker: drums.
Matt Hewson: bass.
Jade McLaren: vocals.
Matt Neal: guitar.

Chanting by Jackson McLaren, Kyle McLaren, Tim Emanuelle and Marcus Hall.

Lyrics by Jade McLaren & Matt Neal.
Music by Jarrod Hawker, Matt Hewson, Jade McLaren & Matt Neal.
Written late 2006-early 2007.
Recorded at Noise Studios in mid-2007.
Produced and mixed by Marcus Jennings.
Released on The 80 Aces EP.

Alan Brough, he of Spicks & Specks and ABC Radio fame, once called this "one of the greatest names for a track I have heard in a long time". Credit for this goes to 80 Aces singer Jade McLaren, who penned the majority of this song and came up with the clever titular portmanteau.

Unfortunately, as with most good ideas, it had been done before. Here's a song called Guitarzan (although it’s spelt Gitarzan for some weird reason) recorded back in 1969 by novelty song specialist Ray Stevens (probably best known for The Streak).

We didn't know this song existed until well after we'd recorded and released our Guitarzan. The two songs couldn't be more different, plus I'm fairly certain Stevens' song isn't about our good friend Jackson McLaren like ours is. I can't be 100 per cent on that, but I'm fairly certain.

Jade's starting point for the song was watching young Jackson cut his teeth playing with The Roaring 40s (a band which also featured Jade's younger brother and future 80 Aces bassist Kyle – Jackson is no relation to these McLaren’s, by the way). We were bemused, impressed and intrigued by the dichotomy of Jackson back then - at rest he was a quiet, polite and calm teen, but put a guitar in his hands or place him on stage and he became a wild man; a raucous, unbridled soul beyond his years who could howl up a storm and stomp a rocker with the best of them.

Jackson, Kyle and Marcus aka The Roaring 40s.

Here’s Jade:

Guitarzan started as a word play idea I had at the time. I thought the word Guitarzan was interesting but was struggling to find a way to use it, then I thought about writing it about a guitarist and the most impressive guitarist that I knew personally at the time was Jackson McLaren.”

Jeez, thanks dude.

I kid. Jackson was better.

“If anyone was lucky enough to witness Jackson McLaren fronting The Roaring 40s, you'd most likely agree he was impressive. A 14-year-old kid who played the guitar upside-down and left-handed and moved around on stage like Chuck Berry… I thought he was great.

“I was also interested in the way Jackson, as a relatively softly spoken, shy kinda guy, would get a guitar in his hands and perform like he was a beast. I’d never written a song about someone I’d known before and thought it would be a fun challenge.”

Jackson in action aka Action Jackson.

Jade came to me with the melodies fully formed and it was my job to put chords to them. First I had to convince Jade to switch the verse and the chorus - he had the 'Hey kid" part as the chorus and the climbing falsetto section as the verse. Eventually he agreed I was right and we carried on.

As is usually our way, we did the song over two sessions, leaving the hard part of writing the second verse til later (I know there aren't many words, but we tended to take our time). Once that was in the bag, we took the song to the rest of the band - drummer Jarrod Hawker and bassist Matt Hewson.

“It came to me pretty fully formed except for the bass line,” Hewy said.

“Even then it was obvious what I had to play. It was one of those tunes that required resisting the urge to get fancy or overplay, which I think I almost succeeded at. It was punchy; a very energetic song. It was always fun to play for that reason, and because it was easy for Hawk and I to lock in and just drive it.”

Me, Hawk, Hewy and Jade.

Hawk recalls attempting some Tool-esque beat before giving up and acquiescing to mine and Jade's suggestion to play something "jungle".

“I always liked it,” Hawk recalled.

“It came together quickly and was a good set opener. I felt it had a good pulse, and the guitar rhythm sat well with me.”

Lyrically, I think it captures the essence of Jackson and the “beast” he became on stage, as well as hinting in the chorus that Jade and I felt he was destined for great things. Jackson actually sings on the song too - the chanting in the outro features himself, fellow Roaring 40s Kyle McLaren and Marcus Hall, and our good friend and one-time Greens candidate for Wannon Tim Emanuelle.

Yep, this guy.


Hey kid, you’re the man, Guitarzan

Leap off your branch and swing
On vines made of guitar strings

When you’re on the ground you wish you were howling at the moon
But you’re not, you’re stuck here with the rest of us baboons

Your hair, undergrowth, you wild thing
Cut loose, primal, and plugged in