Curtains. Drapery. Voluminous, billowing bolts of cloth. Yards of cascading fabric. The artful performer employs curtains like a knee length bathing suit on a modest swimmer, to keep a little something from the audience. Here parted from the centre to reveal the stars poised for action, there drawn closed to cloak them once more in the mystery from which latterly they so miraculously appeared.
Never ones for the time-honoured tricks of stagecraft, we typically just set up and play, cruelling all anticipation by milling around an un-curtained stage pre-show, tuning guitars, warming up on drums, answering questions from eager patrons. Recently, though, curtains have become as important to us on a list of venue specifications as the words stage, microphone and door. Oh, you’ll still find us defusing expectation on the curtain-less stage before we play, entering without fanfare, exiting in disarray. It’s just that we don’t need the curtains to help create anticipation. They are not even hanging in front of the stage. Now more than ever, our numbers falling like sodden confetti over a deluged wedding party, we need to deploy them aft, astern and to the rear of the room. They are still used in the art of deception, only in a different manner. Their seductive folds help cordon off rooms that are larger than we can hope to fill.
A guest list for our recent show in Sydney arrived from our record company on the Friday before the show. These lists comprise the names of staff, media, retailers and friends of friends, all seeking to utilise a tenuous connection to the band to gain free entry. The list was a carefully formatted template, laid out across an electronic spreadsheet, rows and columns shaded according to purpose. One column was designated for confirmed attendees; another for their consorts - plus ones is the show business term. Further rows were set aside for names of those whom wished to attend but, in the event of any limits on guest numbers, could only do so on the proviso that someone from the confirmed list withdrew. The whole document was a monument to careful organisation, a well-planned strategy to ensure hierarchy of importance was maintained and due protocol observed.
Sadly, it only contained one name.
Nowadays venues favour pre-selling tickets to our shows. Fans of our band are few and they certainly don’t expect to have to pre- book to see us play. Why, these are the very people who have stood time and again in half full rooms, waltzing in off the street upon which the queue is never known. Seasoned regulars cast a sceptical eye over venue advertisements claiming tickets are ‘selling fast!’ They know they will be able to leave home at 10.30, arrive five minutes before show time and still select their vantage point of choice. This ticket business is, in truth, all a little embarrassing. Weekly reports are emailed to our agent who dutifully forwards them on. Four. Twelve. Twenty-seven. Sales accumulate like calcified deposits on the end of a stalagmite – Drip. Drip. Drip. A week before our show in Brisbane, ticket sales stood at eleven.
Fortunately the Factory in Sydney is one of the most professionally curtained venues at which we have had the pleasure of performing. Management exercises discretion with their deployment. Long before the performer arrives, the venue is already reconfigured to a size apposite to the band’s crowd-pulling power. No awkward scenes as several gaffers hang the heavy curtains to the barking instructions of a disappointed promoter while a crestfallen band looks on. The landing gear was still snugly stowed in our plane’s undercarriage and yet the venue had already shrunk from an auditorium to an intimate lounge. In the event, we could have housed our audience in an area bordered by a curtain around a dying man’s bed. Still, there was something eminently diplomatic about the way in which the deception had been wrought; so we might all fool ourselves that the room hadn’t just been halved, that it had always been this size, that tomorrow the curtains wouldn’t be drawn back once more, revealing the rest of the space we couldn’t fill in all its cavernous emptiness.
Despite these exercises in tact and diplomacy, you always know what the venue staff are really thinking. At soundcheck they busily set about preparing for the evening, careful to ensure the mood remains unfailingly positive. Sure, they’ve seen the desultory presale figures, been briefed about the expected crowd size. Nothing in their demeanour, however, hints at anything other than the prospect of a successful night. They will issue promising statements about your prospects, all the while never admitting to knowledge of the precise figures. “I can find out if you’d like”.
Ask how the night before went and the responses are always cheerfully upbeat. “Not bad, we had about 250 in here”. Take 75 straight off that, make allowances for guests and you will arrive at something nearer the real figure. People answer mobile phones in slightly too loud voices, showing off while everyone else checks their phone in the fervent hope that theirs too will ring. “I’m important”, the body language explains as the talker paces the room in amplified conversation. ”Someone just called me”.
At the end of the night I found myself out in the abandoned foyer, settling the account with our CD merchant. After pocketing the modest proceeds, I turned to leave when on the merchandise desk I noticed several photocopied sheets headed: ‘THE FAUVES SAT 20 SEP’. The stapled pages constituted a handout designed for staff members, offering a comprehensive run down of the night: relevant contact numbers, running times, names of staff rostered on for the evening and sundry other details.
Under the sub-heading BOX OFFICE the leaflet detailed some relevant numbers. The room had been curtained off into ‘concert’ mode, giving it a capacity of 450 people. Attendance was anticipated at 250 and, at the time of printing, sales were sitting at 80. So, we were not even a fifth of the way to filling the room and less than a third of the way to reaching the projected figure. The pre-show boosters were exposed. In the event we reached 188, betraying a deficit in forecasting accuracy that bookmakers utilise to make a living.
Sub-heading 17 ended the document. OVERVIEW OF EVENT offered a short summary of the evening’s deadline act for staff unaware of our curriculum vitae. “The Fauves are an Australian band from way back…they played their first gig in 88 and in the 90s had a few indie hits – Dogs Are The Best People…Self Abuser…others…after a long time off the band have reunited and released a new album When Good Times Go Good”. With this précis we were brushed aside like a cobweb in an attic of memories. Employing brutal brevity the overview reduced our career to a match lit 20 years ago, a brief torchlight illuminating four startled faces around the time of Future Spa and then pitch darkness for the next decade. One meets humiliation like an old acquaintance in the street – by the time it registers you’ve been spotted and it’s too late to run.
Every other mention of us nowadays seems accompanied by two words – old and sardonic. Occasionally less capable writers replace sardonic with sarcastic: clearly unsure of the meaning of either word, they opt for the one they think the reader most likely to have previously encountered. Our next album could be a compilation of Russian death marches and the reviews would be lauding our ironic take on man’s mortality. “Veteran rockers take the piss out of death” “Middle-aged cynics put the humour back into funerals”. “’Death is not fun’, say sarcastic old band.”
We never allow ourselves to become disheartened by the indifference that accompanies our diminished profile. The music industry is like panning for gold. A man breaks his back by the waters edge, swishing a lot of worthless gravel round until he spots a glimmer of precious metal. Securing the shiny speck in a jar, he sets back about his work, happy in the knowledge that sometime in the next five thousand years he’ll have enough to retire on. Hope does not spring eternal but rather seeps slowly like oil from an ageing engine.
Our faith was rewarded when an email arrived from the Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors inviting us, our associates, friends and family for a VIP, behind the scenes tour of the late Steve Irwin’s Queensland facility. Every second sentence ended in an exclamation mark, a sure sign that the message bore exciting news. The invitation promised to ‘cater for specific requests by the artist/talent, agents and management’. Clearly the day would only be limited by the breadth of our imaginations. An audience with the urn holding Steve’s ashes? The chance to record some B-sides with Bindi on backing vocals? An evening of passionate lovemaking with Steve’s stoic widow?
CRIKEY! Our VIP’s are spoiled rotten when they have their very own ‘Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors’ experience and by jingo it will be an experience they will never forget! Why worry about a few bored journalists! The evidence was in - we were clearly still VIPs. Granted, the invitation had a decidedly generic nature, but Steve must have been a fan. His will had obviously left specific instructions inviting us to tour the compound in the event of him suffering a freak death. More exclamation marks punctuated the breathless sentences, sticking out like the exposed teeth of an enraged beast when being poked at with a stick by a man in khaki as a laughing audience watches on. Visiting VIP’s enjoy a private tour behind-the-scenes of the world famous Australian Wildlife Hospital. Our VIP’s get up close and personal in the operating theatre. This seemed like the opportunity for which we had long waited, the chance to poke and prod some heavily sedated wildlife. Watch for us in our next video, inserting our heads into the slack jaws of an anaesthetised big cat, wrestling an unconscious crocodile and taunting a drowsy python.
Unfortunately the invitation arrived too late for us to incorporate it into our visit to Queensland. Moreover, precious kilometres would be spent travelling north to the zoo’s location on the Sunshine Coast. The attendant fuel bill may have had a profound bearing on our budgetary position. These days deciding whether to tour interstate is like framing a drug policy. There are two basic approaches: just say no and harm minimisation. Generally we favour the latter, especially following a new release when, seduced by the romantic remembrance of days past, we imagine taking our music to as many audiences as possible.
Sometimes the looming prospect of financial catastrophe requires that we just say no. Forget the Western Australian mining boom, the Fauves are already in recession in the country’s largest state. Until such time as government pump priming can stimulate our micro economy, we must, perforce, continue to remain remote from our occidental cousins.
Leaving Brisbane airport en route to the Gold Coast we quickly became traffic-bound. Not for a lack of passing trade would our show struggle later that night. With forward progress stymied by the Friday afternoon peak hour, we began running some rough calculations, tallying our estimated expenses against projections of the weekend’s door takings. We are known within the industry as fiscal conservatives and cautiously decided to work from a figure of 45 customers for that night’s show. To have ventured even another 20 would have invited hubris, fostered unrealistic expectations and risked crushing disappointment. It soon became clear that we had very little chance of breaking even on the weekend’s endeavours. In fact we stood to lose a good two thousand dollars if our predictions were accurate. As soon as the traffic cleared we concentrated on keeping our speed at 70km/h, the optimum speed for to conserve fuel use. Harm minimisation took on a new priority.
There was little harm minimisation in evidence at our Surfer’s Paradise hotel. Where the numbers counselled a couple of pup tents in the foreshore caravan park, we had reserved a couple of the establishment’s finest rooms. Ted had already occupied one of them, having flown in from Perth earlier in the afternoon. Ted’s circadian clock is permanently set to Australian Eastern Daylight Savings time. His internal chronometer thus overrode the LED reading on the bedside alarm and declared the time beer o’clock. To this end the mini bar had already been laid siege. It is a stated policy of ours that we drink beer at large mark ups wherever possible. Just say no was out of the question and harm minimisation no longer of consequence. Truth be told, Ted favours harm maximisation, combining a diet high in trans fats and beer with a complete absence of all but the most incidental of exercise – typically that which is involved in getting up from his seat to secure another beer from the fridge. As a nasty postscript on he employs nicotine like the military use cluster bombs – just to make the damage a bit worse.
Resigned to a poor attendance at that night’s show, we resolved not to do a sound check. That would show them! The hundreds of potential customers who had made other plans would have to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives. The several dozen who did attend would live with the consequences for just the hour-long show, plus encores if prompted. They might well leave with ringing ears and a steadfast resolve never to waste money on another Fauves show, but at least their consciences would be clear.
Missing sound check afforded us extra time in searching for somewhere to eat. We needed all of it. Previous visits had revealed a total absence of Michelin-starred restaurants in Surfer’s Paradise’s Cavill mall. This did not stop us re-scouring the entire locality on the off chance that Ferran Adria had recently opened a franchise of El Bulli downstairs from the Hard Rock Café. Budgetary imperatives were ignored as we walked past cheap take away food joints and modest Korean barbeques, eventually settling on an Italian place in the heart of the nightclub district. But for the 24-hour sport channel running in the background, it could have been the Amalfi Coast as we sat holding our laminated menus waiting for someone to get glassed on the adjacent footpath. On balance we decided the homely trattoria did not meet our exacting culinary standards and made hastily for the exit as soon as our waiter’s back was turned.
It had been a cowardly departure that showed none of us in a good light. The mood became progressively more ill tempered as we wandered without purpose, bickering amongst ourselves, each one attempting to sheet the blame home to the other. At length we allowed ourselves to be coaxed upstairs into a Chinese restaurant, primarily by way of avoiding an undignified fracas in the street. Inside the prospects appeared hardly more promising than at the Italian. Waiters hovered, bent double with groaning menus that offered a 55-course tour of the top 40 most well known Chinese dynasties. No matter the epicurean achievements of this ancient culture, finding the vegetarian section was like looking for sex advice in the Koran. Those vegetables we did locate were inevitably dressed in that omnipresent flavourless clear sauce so beloved of Oz Chinese cuisine. Someone brought me a bowl of corn soup that looked like the throat hackings of a jaundiced consumptive. All thoughts of the evening’s show were banished as I wallowed in self-pity. From the confines of their bubbling aquaria a host of doomed crustaceans waved their claws in sympathy. I had a notion to set them free, smashing the tanks in a screaming fury before leading the escaped prisoners to the kitchen. While the lobsters extracted pre-emptive revenge against their putative murderers, I would rewrite the menu, replacing the hundreds of options with just one dish: Chinese chef in clear sauce.
It was clearly time for a drink. We started with a bottle of sweet Riesling. Unfortunately Doug, ordinarily a faultless sommelier, failed to notice the small ‘I’m a sweetie’ sticker on a bottle that appeared in all other respects to be a dry white wine from the Clare Valley. The wine’s cloying sweetness married perfectly with an overripe menu upon which a plate of stir-fried snow pea shoots retailed for $44. Harm was abroad in the world. It lurked in every fold of the waiter’s apron, every solicitous encouragement to order generously from the menu’s endless pages. Like the seagoing creatures flailing hopelessly in the nearby tanks, we were powerless to minimise it. Deep in my hip pocket I felt my credit card cringing in anticipation of the approaching trip to the cash register, pinned helplessly next to an exorbitant bill inside on of those little black folders.
We exited the restaurant another $250 over budget and made for the gig. A lonely bouncer stood shivering at the foot of a staircase into the venue, his muscles having shrunk dramatically for want of some heads to bash. Frankly though I was surprised at how many people were inside; not for the first time did I have cause to contentedly scrape at pessimism’s meagre offerings. A good 45 to 50 people were dispersed throughout the room, living parcels of issue and bone, each worth $12.70 a head. Waiting to perform, I kept a weather eye on the door and was delighted to oversee the entrance of at least eight more customers in the next half hour. I had by now become expert at my 12.7 times table: 1 x 12.70 = $12.70, 2 x 12.70 = 25.40…At this rate we would have the weekend’s loss down to $1750 in no time.
Those seeking an account of the show are welcome to check back here in 30 years when, along with the cabinet papers for 2008, a small review will be published. Sensitive information about the show has the potential to severely damage our career and is therefore subject to a strict embargo. For the persistent I can provide some basic facts. There were fewer than 100 people in attendance though more than our most conservative estimates. We played exceptionally badly, fought after the show and then continued the debate on the drive back to the hotel. Frightened that our car would be broken into during the night, I carried three quarters of our equipment up to my room single-handedly.
The next day we drove to Brisbane knowing that only a full house would deliver us from financial ruin. We had monitored the numbers like a Wall Street trader watching the Dow after Cuba has invaded and installed Fidel Castro as U.S. president. On arrival we were mollified by the panoramic view of the Brisbane skyline from the balcony of our room on the 29th floor. Up here the possibilities seemed endless, not least among them the opportunity to make a quick exit over the side should the show go even worse than predicted.
We spent the afternoon before the show in much the same way as we spend each afternoon on the road – together. Twenty years in a band has gradually blurred the edges of our personalities to the point where quantum uncertainty renders us almost indistinguishable from one another. We have become a Venn diagram, four interlocking circles with a large pool of shared characteristics in the middle. We are on the road to a true death of the ego, when we at last become all one consciousness. As soon as we get there we will do a concept album to mark the occasion.
In the meantime, when someone makes for the door the rest of us become edgy. “Where are you going?” “What are you doing now?” “I’ll come too”. The remainder quickly scramble for their wallets and sunglasses, dashing out into the hallway lest the lift doors close, leaving the excluded party inconsolable on the landing. Who can risk being the one person left in the room while the others go out and have a good time? The fact that nothing exciting ever happens on these excursions only makes joining them more imperative; statistically a good time grows ever more likely on each succeeding trip. Think of Qantas and its famous safety record. There will be a crash one day.
That night we redeemed ourselves on stage. Our bankers, however, remained unconvinced and loitered uneasily backstage, valuing guitar cases and drum sticks for possible repossession. Unfortunately the equity in our clapped out equipment was deemed barely enough to cover a loan for a milkshake and a sandwich. Only $170 in slightly soiled notes – the proceeds our of CD sales – was able to reassure the financial tsars as to our solvency. In the event we lost about a grand on the weekend’s venture but bought a couple of very affordable sub-prime mortgages to help fund our next twenty years.