Forget the launch party: my approach to the release of a new album can be summed up in one old Aristotelian aphorism - The prudent man strives for freedom from pain, not pleasure. Genuflecting once more before the omnipotent marketplace, a man prunes the tree of his desiring into a stunted bonsai, the secateurs aborting each bud of potential into compost at his feet. To dream is to awake, drenched with sweat and disoriented at 3 in the morning, discovering only that some nightmares are real.
Where do you go when you've sunk your expectations lower than the foundations of the Petronas Towers only to find you've yet to hit bedrock and the superstructure is still wobbly? Pessimism's only flaw is a lack of alternatives when you need to go further down and the lift is telling you you're already in the underground car park.
It's fair to say our expectations for album number 7 were modest. In a marketplace searching for new stories, our hoary tales had the musty taint of one of Aesop's fables. A 2-year absence from the music scene has watched precious few hearts grow fonder. Two months after release I'm still yet to hear a song on the radio. I've barely seen a review: those I have read having ranged from bored and patronising to disinterested, caustic and ill-informed. We secured a handful of stories in street press - thanks to a commitment to spend advertising dollars on adjacent pages - all of which were printed straight from the you are lovable-losers-now-say-something-self-deprecating-about-yourselves-please template. Pronounced dead at the scene, this project was over in only marginally more time than it took Israel and its Arab neighbours to complete the 1967 Six Day War.
Having crossed prospective destinations from our list faster than an American tourist after 9/11, we decided to concentrate our efforts on those areas most crucial to our long-term survival. In short, the Victorian snowfields.
The lure of those alpine dollars called with the clarion insistence of a bell round a Swiss cow's neck. We'd intentionally recorded the album to sound better at altitude and knew that many of the musical subtleties currently eluding the unconvinced at sea level would shine to their best effect above the snowline. A generation of dissolute layabouts cooled their heels in outsized Gore-Tex suits awaiting enlightenment. Later, with the spring thaw, they would flow off the mountains like so much melted snow, heading back to civilisation to spread the revelatory Word.
We made for Falls Creek in separate vehicles. Doug and Doctor took the 2-seat van laden with equipment while Tim and I followed in the sedan. This configuration was designed specifically to afford me and Tim the quality time needed to repair our chronically fractured relationship. Our old friend Cal - hired for the trip as sound technician - occupied the backseat, preparing to play his Jimmy Carter at Camp David to our Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.
We made good time through the picturesque countryside, pausing only occasionally to litter, urinate by the roadside or otherwise defile the bucolic surroundings. Stopping at Myrtleford for tyre chains, I enquired about the availability of oxygen tanks but was met with a collage of blank stares. Watching Ted draw deeply on a cigarette in the car park outside, I felt the first prickles of concern stir on the back of my neck.
Ted, oblivious to my mounting fears, stamped a smouldering butt into the gravel beneath his feet and settled heavily back into the passenger seat, wheezing slightly from the exertion. Through the cling film of his translucent skin his foot-pump lungs, blacker than a chimney sweep's bellows, laboured valiantly on.
By the time we reached Falls Creek village, Ted was far from my only worry. The entire band was by now hypoxic and entering the advanced stages of Mountain Sickness. Waiting by the bus depot for the over-snow transport, I struggled against the waves of giddy euphoria that I knew to be the irrational manifestation of my debilitated state. All around me my colleagues likewise seemed unreasonably cheerful, gambolling playfully in the crisp mountain air and putting at great risk our hard-won reputation for gruff dourness and angst-ridden torment. Straining to control my inappropriate impulses, I herded everyone reluctantly back into the car so that our high-spirited revelries might less attract the unwanted attention of the large press gallery travelling in our train.
Thankfully the Snowcat arrived forthwith and we were soon occupied with transferring our equipment into its capacious hold. Settling back for the uncomfortable journey through the snow-covered village, I reflected gratefully that it was not before time. Even as we tracked upwards past the A-framed chalets, wood-panelled lodges and weary skiers I sensed normality returning. Our driver's overt friendliness and inappropriate informality had us quickly closing ranks. While we cruelly poked fun behind his back at his unsolicited advances, the last vestiges of ague vanished like a unprepared day-tripper in a blizzard. Acclimatised at last, we settled comfortably back into a familiar mindset of embittered resignation, despairing cynicism and small-minded vindictiveness.
Unloaded and inside the venue at last, the day's second major crisis hit almost immediately. One of my capos was missing. As a generation of unloved homeless people accommodated their chalky spines against the unforgiving boards of a thousand park benches, I raged uncontrollably against the wanton injustice of Life. That capo had cost me close on $30 and buttressed my quavering voice against the stark improbability of an uncomfortable key for more gigs than those worthless bums had eaten hot dinners. Where, I wondered, were the Salvation Army soup kitchens dispensing hot capos to disenfranchised rock stars? And the social workers to slip a comforting arm around my despairing shoulders and lead me like Shepherds of the Lord onto the warm shopfloor of a nearby music store? Who was the philanthropist with the compassion to bankroll the depths of my despair, showering my parched muse with a rain of gilt fret-altering devices? All the do-gooders in the world were no use to me now, here, abandoned and capo-less in the pitiless wastes of Alpine Australia.
Again and again I rummaged fruitlessly through our gear, tossing aside succeeding cases like Cyclone Tracy dispensing with a suburb of corrugated iron roofs. Needing a scapegoat, I quickly convened a star chamber and interrogated the others as to the whereabouts of my erstwhile guitar accessory. The results were predictable. On the rack of my incisive questioning they fell apart, to a man implicating Stan, the stage hand who had packed my gear as I gladhanded an awestruck audience after our last show. I heard the crackle of stakes burning; the bloody slop of viscera on a cold stone floor; the dull thud of a guillotined head on a wooden dais. Forsooth it was a fortunate Stan who at that moment found himself in absentia.
I began writing a series of satirical couplets - Alexander Pope style - for publication in next month's Quadrant. I ran Stan through with the point of my sardonic rapier, presently committing 20,000 further words to a press release that went out on that night's wire. Stan's reputation suitably destroyed, I rang several close underworld figures who promised to beat the living shit out of him on my behalf.
Fortunately for Stan I found the capo not five minutes later, stowed safely in a place that I had heretofore neglected to check. While reflecting that my destructive vengeance had perhaps erred on the precipitous, I reasoned that an important message had been sent to the roadies of Australia. In future I will require documentary evidence - presented in at least 3 different media - as to where each of my personal effects has been stowed after a show.
The ship righted, we sailed through soundcheck and on to dinner's glistening shore. Doug, Ted and Cal had the pizza while Doctor and I had the oil, within whose stygian depths an occasional strand of pasta could be faintly discerned. Our appetites sated, we settled back for some post-dinner divertissement, enjoying several lively rounds of Pin The Anecdote On The Raconteur , Doug taking the points by connecting an obscure yarn about an eccentric shoe salesman in the Caucasus to a Parkinson appearance by the late Sir Peter Ustinov. At length we vacated the table, laughing and content, and walked straight into the biggest break of our career.
Out on the dance floor the crowd was building. While coming off an admittedly low base, the numbers were already at least double those of our last visit and growth was poised to explode into an exponential J-curve of virus-like proportions. Through the swelling throng we moved, courteous and gracious but always moving, understanding that to stop is to be bailed up, cornered and regaled with the dull life stories of a score of anonymous acolytes. We smiled, we shook hands and we exchanged parting pleasantries from over our retreating shoulders. And then we met Bryan Sia Nicholas.
Bryan Sia Nicholas is the executive director of Tangerine records, the legendary Malaysian label based out of the Hock Kui Commercial Centre in downtown Kuching, Sarawak. While a fruit yet to cross the threshold of our sideboard, we understood Tangerine's importance the moment we were presented with Bryan's extremely professional looking business card. At his request I repaired immediately to our room to secure a complimentary copy of our latest album while my colleagues entertained him in their inimitable style. Upon my return Bryan sequestered me and ushered me deep into the wood-panelled den of his confidence. He knew The Fauves would be a success, he explained earnestly. A continent was waiting to fall at our feet like a Sarawak rainforest to the chainsaws of a Western timber company. "In Malaysia", Bryan continued. "White guy creative guy". While initially a little uneasy at Bryan's candid geopolitical analysis of racial stereotypes, I rationalised that his point was based on sound logic. After all, the planning for the centuries of enslavement, colonisation and random elimination borne by many of Bryan's forebears had doubtless exercised every bit of White Guy's considerable creativity. We parted with a commitment to re-establish contact just as soon as Bryan and his brother had finished their Australian skiing holiday and reinstalled themselves on the Malay peninsula.
It was just the break we needed, coming only a matter of weeks after the bitter disappointment of a similar opportunity that had somehow gone awry. This one too involved the importune advances of a foreign music conglomerate, desperate to secure our cherished signatures. 16 years of stymied endeavour seemed finally to have paid off when I opened my email inbox to find the following message.
Hey Fauves, Frank at shock pointed us in your direction. Would you be interested in touring your new album in North America in 4-5 months time? Do you have exclusive international licensing through shock? Or is it possible to license your album for release over here? Asa Cohen, Boston Entertainment
Hands trembling with excitement, I dashed off a hurried response full of fevered enthusiasm and slavish ingratiation. We began renewing passports the next day and checking the Boston property market. Wholesale relocation to North America seemed the most sensible option and we looked forward to a life as expatriates, professing in carefully re-modulated accents, a profound love for our country of origin via satellite hook ups on ARIA night. Later, having successfully sought American citizenship on account of the increased business opportunities, we would launch a new Faith-based music career, Born Again from the Godless exoskeleton of our arid secularity into the nurturing bosom of Fundamentalist Christianity.
That was until the reply:
Hi Andrew and Fauves, After a few more listens to your latest album we will be in touch with a ball park offer. We may also release some of your back catalog. A digital copy of your earlier track I'm on the Drug that killed River Pheonix (sic), (heh heh!!) has been on rotation in our office. If you can pump em out like this then I do believe we are onto something. Question: In the lyrics 'I drank the slab that Bon Scott drunk', what is a slab? Contact details? Asa Cohen, Boston Entertainment
I left Asa to investigate for himself the nuances of Australian vernacular and politely replied that I believed him mistaken as to the identity of the band to which he was currently listening. It was the last we heard from him.
None of that mattered now that Brian had walked into our lives. We kicked off with the same set as that with which we opened the ASEAN conference the year Mahatir stayed at home, certain that our suitor would appreciate the incisive irony. Over 2 brackets of our best material Bryan constantly reaffirmed his long-term commitment to our career; both by dancing to some of the more upbeat numbers and with a series of enthusiastic thumbs up gestures from the dance floor. Afterwards we made love to several of the audience before retiring with a flourish to our room.
The great problem with complimentary accommodation is that one feels obliged to be grateful, irrespective of the depths of its degraded squalor. Inevitably impressions of such modest lodgings are dictated by one's response to the old glass half-full/half-empty conundrum. Anything exceeding the amenities at Stalag 13 is enough for those who aver the trusty goblet half-full, and they fall asleep sure in the knowledge that man is indeed the most rational, enlightened and humane force in the universe. Personally I found myself longing for the heavy footfall of German boots, the menacing snarl of Alsatian guard dogs and a hastily repositioned board over the entrance to an escape tunnel. This was an unreconstructed shit hole.
Pulling a lousy, threadbare blanket gingerly to my chin I was reminded of our early years touring: five to a room plus guests after the show. Dependant for sleep on the hour at which the last sedated body fell fully clothed onto the bedspread, one slept restlessly, tossing in furtive anticipation of the proprietor's first peremptory fist slamming into the door in accordance with his 10am check out policy. Now, as Ted and Cal continued unabated the audio technology conversation they had begun in East St. Kilda some 17 hours earlier, the scars reappeared, as livid as an old keelhauling wound on a scorbutic sailor. With Doug and Doctor snoring in unconscious assent I broke into the schoolboy timbre of their excited conversation with the stentorian impatience of an angry headmaster. I bid them quiet with a finality that brooked no response and monitored the cadence of their breathing as it wheezed quickly off to sleep, leaving me in peace at last; alone and wide awake at half past three in the morning.
By the following afternoon we had completed the tricky descent down from Falls Creek and negotiated an equally arduous ascent up neighbouring Mt. Hotham. We pulled up to the Snowbird just as the last lifts were closing for the day, the hour of Jagermeister, schnapps, roaring log fires and apocryphal anecdotes of off-piste derring-do. The venue was thick with Après ski hedonism while, for their part, the Après ski hedonists were just plain thick - Après-brain prototypes of an extreme sport fraternity that carved the slopes unencumbered by the damping effects of neurons. Here was John Howard's Australia, relaxed and comfortable, the green and gold face paint of larrikinism starting to run in the cloying heat of the room, revealing a drab, conservative sameness beneath. Carefree smiles, stretched to exaggeration with drink, threatened teeth-baring aggression at the first confrontation with the new, the different or the unfathomable. Scrota heavy with testosterone sat uncomfortably in thermal underwear as bull males postured around pool tables, only ever an imagined slight away from locking antlers with a rival stag on the contested rutting ground. The women teased like an empty podium at the end of a marathon. As trophies they played their role with ham-fisted overstatement, exhibiting all the subtlety of a cedar wall of stuffed reindeer heads. Each was possessed of a nature so ugly it defied organic chemistry to organise a body beautiful enough to disguise the rotting soul within. As night descended on the Arcadian glory of the surrounding ranges, this Alpine trash littered the mountain slopes like the detritus of a failed expedition to Everest.
Adjourning to the dining room, we prepared for a repast truly apocalyptic in scale. The menu was miserly in the breadth of choice offered; quixotic in the style. Personally, I found the curried pumpkin to be about as welcome on its bed of linguine as the sight of Robert 'Dolly' Dunn at the doors of a maternity ward. While the Michelin guide may not yet have poked its probing pince-nez into the idiot naiveté of the Snowbird's kitchen, some of its namesake's tyre products appeared to have been used extensively in the creation of the meal. The food sat in my stomach as though I'd just been selected as a toxic waste dump for the Lucas Heights reactor and I eyed Cal enviously as he excused himself and repaired downstairs to start throwing up.
The show followed the script like a blind man's finger over a Braille novel. Desultory applause; intermittent heckling; heedless indifference - it was as predictable as the razor over an army recruit's dreadlocks. The only surprise came as we unplugged our leads after the allotted hour and the crowd turned petulant, demanding we continue. They were a nation of Iraqis, preferring the tyrannical and despotic reign of their erstwhile leader above that of their American 'liberators'. Fearful that our payment might be in jeopardy, we reluctantly resumed our positions and ploughed stoically on.
Later we unwound in the sub-zero ambience on the snow outside while Ted set about securing for himself the use of a toboggan. A bitter wind visited directly upon our shivering forms, carrying with it the unmistakeable scent of hubris. By this stage Ted's brain was a savoirdi biscuit in a tiramisu - a mushy, alcohol soaked sponge - and his lightweight frame was buffeted about the frozen night like an anorexic snowflake. While the bar manager departed on an optimistic toboggan search, we sought shelter once more inside. Here Ted posed for a dramatic series of photos; stark documents of a man, if not on the edge of sanity, then at least on that of consciousness. On his knees with a toy gun in his mouth, Ted struck an iconoclastic blow against the tired conventions of the holiday snap. Presently he took a little Chartreuse - straight; afterwards inhaling the fumes in a novel reinvention of the bucket bong principle. He was now pickled like an onion in a jar on the counter of a fish and chip shop. As the last remnants of his rational thought punched the clock and retired for the night, we moved back outside for the start of the show.
The quest for a toboggan proved beyond our gracious host but no matter - an alternate means of propelling our bass player into an uncontrolled death slide down a perilous incline had meanwhile presented itself. A snowboard appeared, courtesy of a personable patron who had miraculously found something in our company worth hanging around for. Somewhere Warren Mitchell was about to miss some of the best ski footage of his life.
Ted acquainted himself with the board by assaying a short run down a modest nearby slope. Though designed for those riders intent on engaging their Alpine challenges in an upright position, the board accommodated Tim's narrow arse with room to spare. He sat on it with his legs spread either side of the foot bindings and in this manner was able to amuse the assorted gathering for several minutes, sliding gently but past our ironic cheers. Long term, however, this lightweight horseplay had little to recommend it as a spectacle and our interest quickly started to flag.
An alternate run was surveyed, this one an altogether more extreme proposition. To the side of the hotel a sharp, icy drop led to a large man-made hump in the snow, purpose-built for launching the daring rider skywards. Beyond the jump, the hill dropped away alarmingly. A small stand of snow gums clung tenaciously to the mountainside and behind these loomed the impenetrable blackness of a yawning void. It was to this course that a pliant Ted was re-directed. He was reminded of his duty to the small but devoted audience and - lest any lingering fears for his personal safety start to weaken his resolve - farewelled on his journey with a hearty shove in the back.
The board reached terminal speed quickly. Its base was more heavily waxed than Salvador Dali's moustaches and friction was but a crepe banner to its marauding football team. Approaching the ramp's sharp incline, the first signs of fear became manifest in Ted's posture. He began leaning heavily to the right, endeavouring to steer the board so that it might pass over the shoulder of the jump, rather than directly over its crest. The measure of Ted's success in this exercise can be gauged simply by the fact that he is still alive. Unretarded progress over the apex of the hulking mound would surely have required a 'Bass Player Wanted, Backing Vocals an Asset, No Time Wasters' notice in the following week's classifieds.
As he careened off the side of the jump, the bond between Ted and the earth was momentarily loosed. Gravity was not overly troubled in re-establishing relations, however, encouraging the earth to rush up and meet his head like a custard pie in the face of a silent movie star. Stupefied with drink, his reaction times were left on the platform as the train pulled out of the station. Some three seconds after making the close acquaintance of some of Hotham's finest powder, Ted's arms flew up in a belated attempt to cushion the impact. He gave up his hold on the board and inertia helped it down the mountain unabated.
I watched the first 50 metres of its journey. Bereft now of its passenger, the unencumbered board appeared weightless. Beyond the first copse of trees visual reconnaissance became impossible as a dramatic gradient differential gave the impression that the board had simply dropped off the edge of a flat earth. Roughly 1000 metres below, the Dargo River boiled and foamed with the promise of a cold, watery grave.
The snowboard's owner maintained a stiff upper lip throughout his ordeal, not least because the frigid alpine air had rendered it frozen. While we hollered with laughter and slapped gloved hands into padded thighs, he doubtless had pause to reflect on our failure to acknowledge his loss. It was a heartless exhibition, lacking all semblance of compassion and we quickly set about remedying the situation by spending 30 seconds on a cursory search for the missing board. Having demonstrated the depth of our concern, we quickly resumed laughing, clapping excitedly and generally congratulating Ted on the foolhardy genius of his reckless abandon.
Morning knocked on Ted's door like a debt collector. The previous night's heroics accounted for nothing as we forced him from bed and into the human chain we had formed to ferry our gear over the snow and into the van. The spotlight of celebrity had been replaced by the painful glare of a winter's sun off the white snow. His help proved something less than useless and I bade him instead to go and search for the proprietor in order to secure payment for the previous night's concert. The proprietor, however, had not yet risen. An underling estimated fifteen minutes. Ted took a number and waited in purgatory.
We timed the load to finish just as he emerged into the bright morning with a fistful of crisp notes. The timing too was propitious for our snowboarding friend who, after a fruitless early morning search for the missing board, was chatting amiably with us in wait. At day 2 of a planned fortnight on the slopes, the lost board threatened to derail his holiday entirely and he was understandably concerned to see that he might be compensated in some fashion. Ted, nothing if not a man of honour, reckoned upon a payment of $200 - something less than half the cost of the board but considerably more than the guy would have got if we'd risen half an hour earlier. He handed over the money with equanimity; a man who long ago learnt the price of adventure. Doug and Doctor, whose relentless cajoling left them as complicit in the act as a couple of puppeteers at a Punch and Judy show, acknowledged their responsibility and each promised Ted a subsidy of $50. I rationalised several whispers of caution as having absolved me of all responsibility and contributed nothing to the account. Full toll, however, was exacted on the journey home when Cal and Ted once more turned on the dripping tap of an audio equipment discussion that did not cease its inexorable patter until our tyres hit Ted's driveway.