VAMP pres. SNUFF & AMELIA ARSENIC @ LOBROW Fri 11th Nov
09 November 2016 by Sancho Murphy
Interview by Bianca Annamie.
In the lead up to VAMP’s Alternative Music night this Friday 11th November at Lobrow, DJ Robot Citizen gives us a history lesson behind the creation of VAMP, an in depth look at how the alt music scene has developed over the years in our humble city, and a thorough analysis of his favourite tracks and albums. Solidifying what we already knew about niche music scenes – how strong the community and friendships are – and reinforcing just how wide the scope of music genres can be, this interview is a must-read for anyone who loves the VAMP events, is interested in alternative music, or loves to learn about the thriving underground culture in Canberra. To put it simply, DJ Robot Citizen’s knowledge and experience is vast and extensive, and makes for an exceptional read.
How would you describe a VAMP gig to someone who had never been before?
Varieties of alternative music (DJs & occasional live bands/performers), friendly low-key atmosphere, lasers, video projections, dancing... people meeting, catching up with friends and eventually dancing like no-one's watching and there's no tomorrow. We welcome people to dress however you like - costumed or casual - with a respectful attitude towards others.
Tell us about VAMP – how it started, what your roles are and where do you want to take it?
My alternative music club nights have mostly been titled 'VAMP' since early 2007. I had run and/or DJ'd at several hundred events before that. I recently listed what I recall, around 400 events, with some images of flyers, at: http://www.DJRobotCitizen.com
I eventually realised that sticking with a consistent club name helps with long-term promotion. I chose “VAMP” for the multiple meanings of:
- Getting in to a music groove
- (re)vamping music from the past with more recent music that is inspired by it; and
- The tongue-in-cheek allusion to party-monster-creatures-of-the-night.
As to how I started with DJing and events, I recall at age 19 saying to a close friend: "I'm over clubbing!". A short while later she remarked: "My friend needs DJs for his event! You've got lots of music - you should give it a go with me!". From there it went from one event to another: invitations to DJ; do theatre soundtracks; to perform live music as with Clan Analogue, E.L.F. and EYE; to co-ordinate regular nightclub events; the longest stretch being a 6-year run at Heaven nightclub, hosting & DJing several times per month.
Regards roles at VAMP: I do the grunt work of organising, networking, graphics, promotions and usually about 1/3rd of the DJing. Guest DJs are mostly local with some from interstate. In recent years the regular door person is Kristen and the more regular guest DJs have been Mircalla and Black Temple.
As to where I want to take it: I run events like VAMP when I have the time and motivation and I sense there's a demand and a good place for them to occur. Sometimes they run in a series of monthly events that last for several years. And sometimes an event happens every several months. Sometimes I take a long break as other projects demand my attention. Each event requires from 20 to 40 or more hours to organise and do!
What do you love most about the alternative music scene?
The friendships and relationships that form; such events gather people with similar interests and aesthetics. I also love witnessing and assisting with the development and performance of people's artistic talents. I've met most of the dear people in my life through this broader scene and the events I've been involved with.
As a music n00b, how does the set up for a VAMP gig differ to others, like an indie band, or pop DJ?
Some VAMPs are DJ-only events while others include live acts. On those nights where there's a combination it has the continuity of DJ sets with the edge of a live act. While there's a central theme of music genres across all VAMPs the music varies somewhat as different groups of people - the participants and punters - influence it. The guest DJs tend to pre-plan their sets; as I do when DJing at other people's clubs. When DJing at VAMP I seek people's on-the-night requests; assessing what of those can work at a particular time of night, for the overall crowd.
If you had the opportunity to present an alt-music night, anywhere in the world, what venue would you choose, and who would you have play?
Hmmm well I certainly have pondered this scenario while exploring numerous cities in several countries. And I do have some ideas for in a year or two. However, other projects are the priority for now. Plus I've learnt - too many times - that in sharing one's plans to anyone, word gets around and other promoters can jump on them and announce it first as theirs. I've also found that announcing one's goals too early can deflate the motivation. It's best to have a project organised and locked in, ready to roll, before announcing it!
On pondering anywhere in the world - well I have co-organised club launches for one of my record label's albums in 8 cities. And I have had great fun DJing and playing live music in other cities. I've concluded though from those experiences that the people who know the "turf" of those cities can run the events far better than I could. Running a successful event anywhere requires a lot of time, work, networking, patience and knowledge about the location's scene and their tastes. So regards anywhere, I'd rather not be the organiser but instead be a DJ or in a live music act.
So my reply in regards to presenting a night is what I've chosen to still be doing: The place = this city, among friends. The venue = the one that has the right vibe, who is available, with a management and staff who are friendly and supportive. Who is playing = people whom I know are good DJs - or in a good live band - and who are very importantly down-to-earth, friendly, fun and easy to get along with. :-)
As a DJ yourself, how do you discover new music?
Often it's when artists or their fans send me links/emails regards their music. That commenced from my doing:
- 100s of radio shows on Community Radio 2XX with an emphasis of showcasing independent underground music projects;
- writing album reviews for music media;
- producing compilation albums that I release through the http://www.BlatantPropaganda.org record label.
Regarding other music projects I find them via: good old word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and people making requests when I DJ; as well as on YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Mixcloud, radio, podcasts, search engines, articles and websites like Discogs and Wikipedia.
I particularly love to discover old music that's new to my ears; to discover a large body of work by a project that was among the vanguard of a genre; that was somewhat "ahead of their time" with that particular energy of exploring sounds and ideas before they become over-polished or over-done; early artists who inspired the following waves of artists - some of whom were lucky enough, with timing and connections, to ride the wave of a genre's rise in popularity and make the $$$ and fame from it.
An example of a vanguard group like this is 'Sparks' - I've recently been going happily nuts about their discography: from camp Glam Rock of the mid-70s they changed style to be just ahead of the curve with early electronica/synth-pop in the late 70s. So much of what we've heard since then can be traced to them, among others.
Do you have a studio? What does it look like?
Yes and it looks like a herd of "white elephants"! :) I gradually built a home recording studio when it was only recently made possible. It was very expensive though preferable to relying on expensive recording studios that were far away. With technology developments these past 10 years people can achieve better quality recordings on a cheap laptop and cheap/free software. And so the old gear has become relatively worthless. Nonetheless I aim to employ some of it soon, along with new tech, to remix, remaster and re-release some songs, EPs and albums by EYE, E.L.F., Robot Citizen & AYA via http://www.BlatantPropaganda.org
What track is your go-to for getting the crowd hyped?
A dozen or so tracks come to mind as it depends on:
- the music genres that are being catered to by an event;
- the time of the night;
- the mood and tastes of the general crowd...
Based on those factors a particular track can work wonders or it can totally fall flat.
You learn over time - through interaction and trial and error - what works for a particular scene. So as a DJ I endeavour to pay attention and keep a dozen or two "go-to" tracks up my sleeve for in case they're needed.
For example, if it's a general kind of "alternative music" crowd and it's the right time of the night, then Rage Against the Machine's -"Killing in the Name Of" can still get a crowd really hyped. Similarly, for another crowd, Queen's -"Bohemian Rhapsody" can do it. If it's an industrial or goth or indie or electronica music scene then I'll of course choose something specific for that.
You also curate AustralianGothicIndustrialMusic.com with a focus on Australian and New Zealand artists – how would you compare local artists output to international artists?
Historically the output from our region is huge – especially so when considering the population sizes of different nations. Many of us, however, overlook that a major portion of the earliest, the most influential and the most productive long-term artists in these genres are Australians and Kiwis; who have been very influential internationally.
For example, there are Nick Cave's numerous goth rock bands like The Birthday Party & The Bad Seeds. There’s Graeme Revell (from NZ) who first made his mark with one of the most iconic early industrial bands – SPK from Sydney – who went on to compose many blockbuster Hollywood films that most of us have seen and heard; making him one of the most influential and widely heard musicians in these genres. Other notable and long-time producing early artists include Dead Can Dance, J.G. Thirlwell (of Foetus), Tom Ellard (of Severed Heads), Split Enz (who did the black & white goth look years before others), Ollie Olsen (of many bands) and also Valor Kand (of the U.S. band Christian Death). They’re some of the ANZ'ers who were there in the early days of the 70s-80s art rock, punk, post-punk, electronica, goth, industrial and noise genres - exploring these sounds, styles and related imagery. Furthermore they’ve consistently produced new works over the interim decades.
A special mention ought go to The Church as a band that originated in Canberra. They did a particular neo-psychedelic-goth-rock sound and style - and had chart success in several countries - years before similar British artists (like The Smiths, The Cult, the Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, Stone Roses etc.) whom we tend to give the credit to instead.
And throughout these decades there have been hundreds of lesser-known independent, underground, do-it-yourself ANZ music projects making great music. They don't achieve the greater fame because that usually requires the daunting prospect of all band members leaving their friends and family to go live and tour overseas. Otherwise the local music industry can view their music as too weird, too niche, to invest in. It’s easier and less risky for the ANZ music business to piggyback on the investments that UK and USA corporations have already made in to their artists.
So it’s a big uphill struggle for ANZ artists with:
- the relatively small population/markets here;
- very little in terms of local industry support;
- the great distances, costs and risks required to tap in to the markets of Europe & North America;
- the reluctance of many in our alternative music scenes to accept a band until it has “made it” in an international corporate market.
So I do what little I can to help promote these artists on the website, on compilation albums, via social media and (in the past) via radio shows.
How have you seen the scene develop over the years, particularly in Canberra? Where do you see it going in the next five to 10 years?
Thinking about it broadly, genres and fashions come and go and some come back again with twists; aspects of different subcultures and music genres cross-pollinate.
And over the years a subculture, let’s say “I”, can eventually come to resemble another one, “R”, more than its own roots. This can cause confusion and annoyance between older people and younger people who are employing the same terms for quite different things. On one hand younger people believe that they're using the terms correctly – picking them up from people a few years older than they; terms passed on like a game of "whispers" or "telephone" played over 10, 20, 30 years. On the other hand people who were in the scenes much earlier can feel that their identity is being hijacked, distorted and misrepresented - by music, aesthetics and ideology that is marketed under the same terms but has little to do with what they had originally identified with and loved.
As a promoter/DJ that presents the challenges of figuring out what different people really mean by certain words, like genre terms, and trying ways to try to please them all with appropriate music.
As for Canberra's alternative scenes the ones I have been most connected with are the goth and industrial clubs, the electronic music artist scenes, the alt-indie music band scenes. I've witnessed each of them rise and fall and shift numerous times.
For several periods, lasting several years, we've had large scenes (of those) in Canberra. It happens when there are several very motivated event organisers and several venues that facilitate it. That can produce bountiful times with lots of events of diverse original live music, performance art and raves/clubs with DJs; that can regularly attract hundreds of people; multiple events per week and choices of several events per night.
However for every peak in the scene there is a valley. Sometimes one scenes dies off and another one booms as a number of people's interests change. Sometimes what was "alternative" becomes "mainstream". Mainstream people then flood the events. If they've got the wrong attitude - like an ignorant and somewhat aggressive one - they scare off many of the prior alternative scene people.
Sometimes the alternative club nights wane as live music and performance nights surge. Or it's the other way around. Sometimes they merge and rise and wane together.
I recall times where there was not much more than one pub (the Phoenix) and people's backyard parties; that one might label "the alternative scene".
When I emerged in to the Canberra scene, in teenage years, it was in retrospect both a bad and a good time. On one hand it felt very dangerous to look alternative.
Specifically it was dangerous to present in a way that was gender transgressive eg. for guys to be "feminine" with long or dyed hair, to wear make-up or gothic/glam clothing. That risked being considered fair game for abuse and physical assault. Most of my friends and I endured regular taunts and abuse from strangers in public: at malls, on public transport, at clubs and pubs. Occasionally one of us would be assaulted. Alternative-looking people lived in a degree of fear; causing many to move away. It's still not ideal however it seems significantly safer these days. Contemporary Western society overall, and here in particular, has become much more accepting and welcoming of diversity. I frequently see people exercising their identity in public ways that one did not see a few decades ago, because it was far too dangerous.
On the other hand it seemed that back then people of the different alternative tribes understood and hung out more. So you'd often see goths, punks, metalheads, rivetheads, ferals, hippies, skaters, mods, skins, rockers, cyberpunks, ravers and bohemians hanging out together. At other times the tribes have been more separated. It's been better overall, imho, when they interact more because those larger numbers of people can support more frequent and viable "alternative" events.
A fundamental driver of Canberra’s scenes is that it is a small city with a transient population. This plays a major part in the rise and fall of Canberra's scenes:
- A lot of alternative scene people leave, usually in their early-mid 20s, to seek big city options for their art, career and social lives. It seems to me that a smaller percentage move away now than in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In any case a sizeable portion move back later on for work and family; to raise children or nurse elderly relatives.
- Many new people arrive each year to study at the Universities or join the Public Service.
And so the scenes can transform greatly within a few years. If you go away for a year or two you can find on return that the old scene has gone. Sometimes there is a new one. However those people can have little or no connection with what was happening several years before. And so you can find yourself as a stranger - as the new kid in town - in your home city.
Another factor that has a big impact on scenes in a small city is when several relationships break up within a short space of time within each other. If some of those people, or others around them, spread bad rumours, bad energy, it can divide a scene. Social Media has made it much easier for people to spread that bad energy. It can lead to the death of a scene. For if the scene splits over the gossip then promoters can't attract enough people to the events. So they stop. People get bored with the lack of appealing cultural events and so they move to another city. The friends and family left behind feel further alone and disconnected and so some of them eventually move away.
That's what gossip can do to a small city - erode it - leading many of our friends and family to move away.
Regards the future I suppose that similar cycles will continue to occur.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing instead?
More of what I do otherwise! :)
Top 5 tracks and albums of all time?
Hmm... I feel I ought to preface that the music I listen to most often is quite different to what works in a club setting. Also in recent years - after many years indulging electronic and angsty music - I've come back to adore the music genres that I first really clicked with which were:
- the classic psychedelic rock of the late-'60s to mid-'70s; and
- the late-'70s to early-'80s post punk new wave eras.
Top 5 Songs - in no particular order - and different to my top 5 songs for DJing in Clubs:
David Bowie - "Life on Mars" ... Although "Blackstar" is the one I'm currently playing over & over.
Skinny Puppy - "Spasmolytic" … Wonderfully crazy and intense; one of the first electronic-based bands I fell in love with; heavier and scarier than all of the punk and metal I'd heard; their first song that hooked me; among others they paved the way in the '80s for the commercial peak of "industrial" in the '90s; getting in to them led me to eventually be able to appreciate and love simpler electronic (aka dance) music; from having been exclusively in to heavy guitar rock previously; they even inspired me to actually make music.
Queen - "Bohemian Rhapsody" … The first band I fell (most) in love with; they inspired me to study music; just one of so many gems by them; was tempted to choose a lesser known song but I can’t overlook how brilliant this one is; the grand journey it takes us on; those amazing voices with stellar musicianship all 'round; and usually a major crowd pleaser, among all ages, when played at the right time of night.
ACDC - "Long Way to the Top" ... It's a liberating epiphany to appreciate that in the '70s, with Bon Scott, ACDC made some of the greatest dance music ever made. ACDC certainly knew how to 'vamp' - to rock out on a groove. I loved this track as a youngster, but then disowned them for too long in that awkward phase of being "alternative" - when we reject what the "mainstream" people around us like (and what we once liked). Then thankfully, hallelujah, I got over that and embraced this as euphoric magnificence that makes me want to jump around in a state of joy with a huge smile. :)
The Shamen - "Move Any Mountain" ... A little before the peak of techno and rave the (excellent initial version* of their) album "EnTact" was a crossover of indie-rock and acid-house dance music; the first "electronic dance music" album I bought; it broadened my music world. Groovy, trippy, positive, uplifting; on-the-edge for the time; sounds dated now; the video is likewise hilariously so; but good memories; a good song to help one out of a blue mood. (* Later on alternate-mix versions of the album flooded the market and they aren't (anywhere near as) good).
Top 5 Albums - in no particular order:
Pink Floyd - "The Wall" … It's the gateway album for many people, including myself, to the many pastures of "alternative music"; it’s so diverse, so awesome; the gate to which many of us often return to appreciate what a masterpiece it is.
Einstürzende Neubauten - "Strategies Against Architecture Volume 2"... Few things get more "alternative" than this iconic German group who made their own instruments from scrapyard waste and employed industrial tools and machines with howls, screeches & sinister whispers over the top. This is a compilation of works from the second half of the 80s when they were at their peak form - the middle period between their early grating, raw and harrowing portrayals of angst, passion and despair and their later mellower psychedelia. Along with their "Halber Mensch" (1/2 Man) video documentary this collection was my favourite music for a long time around when I started DJing.
Midnight Oil - "10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1" … A blitzing mix, from despair to triumphant euphoria, of 70s punk energy with early 80s post-punk innovation and the melodic sensibilities of new wave electronic rock; a great mix of quirky edgy sounds with catchy hooks; an un-toppable (imho) template for the electro industrial rock music of many years later.
David Bowie - "Earthling" ... As he's my favourite artist I have to have a Bowie album in my top 5 and something from the '90s; being when I DJ'd week after week; frequently with tracks from this. For me not many albums from that era stand the test of time. Whereas this album does and sums up - imho - the best of the '90s: the electronica, industrial, jungle, drum & bass, the manic electro punk rock. Bowie had the desire and knack through most of his career to hear and absorb a zeitgeist and present it so well in his way.
Foals - "Antidotes" ... This has been my favourite album to listen to, again 'n' again, these past 6 months. A great album of the mid-late '00s post-punk revival; described by terms like dance-punk and maths-rock. The non-album singles "Mathletics" and "Hummer" and their B-sides are equal gems to my ears. Sadly as you get older so much new music sounds bland - like a photocopy of a photocopy of what you've seen and heard 1001 times before. In contrast, for me, this early work by Foals achieves the rare thing of taking a bunch of influences to come up with something unique, new, fresh and full of life.
That was very hard to choose just 5! :-)
VAMP Club Canberra presents SNUFF & AMELIA ARSENIC
Friday 11th November ~ 7PM
$10 concession / $15 full price
Facebook Event for more details.
LOBROW GALLERY & BAR
Lvl 2, 181 City Walk,