Chris Harms on RAVE Magazine
ZENOBIA FROST seeks out her ol’ boss, CHRIS HARMS, for a post-RAVE debriefing.
ZENOBIA FROST: You took up the RAVE helm, as editor, six years ago. What were your perceptions of Rave Mag at the time?
CHRIS HARMS: I remembered Rave from its very early days in the ‘90s as the Brisbane street press that covered the bands I liked more so than other mags. One of its first issues featured my all-time favourite act My Bloody Valentine as cover stars, whereas Time Off tended to focus more on artists that I would have considered mainstream or “bigger” at the time.
By 2005 my predecessor Kate Scott had modernised the magazine, overseeing the design of a new masthead and developing an editorial blueprint that I was happy to continue with during the transition. I knew Kate as an avid supporter of club nights I was running at the time, and so was keenly aware that she had good music taste — something that was reflected in Rave’s content. I also knew that she placed a lot of importance on developing a sense of community amongst Rave’s contributors; something that I tried to maintain during my tenure, but often found tricky given the number of people writing.
The main thing I took from the work she did tied back in to my initial perceptions of the magazine: that it could be edgier and less conventional than its competitors by focussing on less “safe” artists, and that it should be more fun to read.
ZF: By now your knowledge of Brisbane music would be pretty formidable. In what way/s has the shape of our music scene changed over your time as editor?
CH: Despite having a relatively small music scene compared to Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane has always been a very clique-y city. That said, within those scenes participants can be very passionate. The only downside to that is sometimes people central to the scene can become very protective of their business interests, blocking out newcomers or potential competitors. The people who are most willing to mentor or be helpful tend to be those not making much money from their music industry activities. People who are making money, from what I observed, aren’t terribly willing to share the knowledge around.
That gripe aside, the scene itself is constantly evolving and remains musically diverse. While a lot of new musicians tend to follow trends (consciously and unconsciously), flashes of originality do spring up. But not always. Early in my time as editor there used to be a running office complaint about singer-songwriters. For about two years, every second CD we received was by an acoustic singer-songwriter using their own name, filled with indistinguishable bedroom-composed songs and devoid of any lyrical originality. Even now I still get a shudder of fear when I see a person sitting down with an acoustic guitar on an album or EP cover.
The big explosion during my time was in punk and hardcore. The wave has now crested with bands like Parkway Drive and locals The Amity Affliction enjoying success, and festivals like Soundwave taking full advantage of the passionate fan base for heavy music. The local punk scene has always been very active, but street media was mostly ignoring it when I started at Rave. There were a lot of tattooed kids around who I knew weren’t reading about indie music and house DJs, so we tried to reflect that in Rave by increasing our regular coverage of the scene on a local and wider level.
The other trend I noted in the last few years was the micro-scale grooming of new Brisbane artists for Triple J success. With major label influence and money waning, independent and semi-independent labels were replicating the old development models with a very specific focus — J airplay. J airplay means tickets sold to gigs and a band’s (and their management’s) best chance of making a dollar. The next step is then getting indie bands to events like SXSW or The Great Escape, hopefully increasing their chances of touring OS or even getting playlisted on international radio. The trajectory is still very much Triple J followed by an OS showcase. Local radio, unfortunately, doesn’t factor as much into that equation in Brisbane as it does in other cities though, which is a real shame. I’m a firm believer that a successful local act should court a strong local fan base before they throw their underpants at the national broadcaster.
Getting back to cliques again for a moment, it was fun to watch scenes develop around venues, with particular places catering to certain types of sounds — The Troubadour for example (alt-country, folk, indie), or Woodland (garage/surf rock), or The Hangar (arty indie, post-rock, experimental electronic, etc). There would be some crossover, but generally if you knew one key artist in a scene, you could link them to every similar band.
As a city (and Queensland as a whole) we still have a reputation for quirky indie pop (Ball Park Music, The John Steel Singers), which goes back to Custard and in some ways further back to The Go-Betweens (who might not have been quirky exactly, but had an educated sense of humour), and more recently for garage-y party rock (DZ Deathrays, Velociraptor). But there are no real contenders for the Powderfinger MOR throne, as yet, which is interesting. Perhaps in Queensland terms Powderfinger broke that particular mould.
ZF: Predictable but necessary questions come next. Tell me about your favourite/most memorable Brisbane a) gig and b) venue.
CH: This is a very tough question . . . pre-Rave it would be either Ride supporting Ratcat at Easts Leagues Club, Livid at Davies Park with the Beastie Boys, or Boredoms supporting Regurgitator at The Arena. All formative gigs for me for different reasons. I also attended some very fun shows by Brisbane bands Squelch and The Melniks in the ‘90s. During my tenure at Rave it’s hard to say — I went to so many shows. Last year’s Thousand In Twenty party for Rave’s 20th anniversary was pretty memorable thanks to the BrisBand Experience featuring Katie Noonan, The Bloodpoets, Drawn From Bees and more. Sekiden headlining Rave’s South Brisbane office car park Christmas party also sticks in the memory, although perhaps more for the debauchery that occurred.
In terms of venues, I’d have to say The Zoo is still my personal Brisbane favourite. I’ve probably sweated more in that space that at some dance festivals I’ve been to, but it really is the heart of live music in Brisbane. People talk about certain venues being irreplaceable, but I would argue that The Zoo is the only genuinely irreplaceable music venue still operating in Brisbane. It would be next to impossible to replicate The Zoo.
ZF: What was the interview you were proudest to publish in Rave? And which interview proved the most difficult?
CH: I was very proud to publish last year’s interview with Ron S. Peno, 20 years on from Died Pretty being the first band to ever feature on the cover of Rave. The circularity of that was perfect. I also enjoyed printing the infamous Basics/Gotye back and forth, in which Kris from The Basics lamented about the band being ignored by Triple J and Wally being too successful as Gotye. The interviews that came from that, written by Chad Parkhill, were highly entertaining, and that’s something that can be lacking from Australian street press as people are afraid to offend potential or actual advertisers. Things are often played safe at the expense of vibrant writing and humour.
As for the interviews I was most proud to do, I’m glad I got the chance to speak to Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain and Tunde Adebimp of TV On The Radio for the album Return To Cookie Mountain. They were both excellent interviewees and gave me material that shed light on their personal and professional lives without it ever seeming wrote or scripted. I also had the chance to interview several of my early music heroes (Mark Gardener of Ride, Neil Halstead of Slowdive, Paul Hartnoll of Orbital, Emma Anderson of Lush, Ed Simons of The Chemical Brothers . . .), which, to me as a fan, just seemed like the best perk a job could possibly offer. Another notable highlight was the Watchmen film junket, which put me in a hotel room with the director, producer and two of the stars for individual, one-on-one interviews, although admittedly the most exciting thing about that was sharing a waiting room with David Stratton. I think I nearly asked for his autograph.
In terms of difficult interviews I can only speak for the ones I did, as I know of some writers who had subjects more prickly than any I came across. I lead something of a charmed existence in that respect. My memorable interviews tended to be odd rather than difficult (like the singer from an American indie band who lead me through a 16-minute explanation of the custody battle he was currently embroiled in, and then told me none of it was for print . . .). Alison Goldfrapp had a reputation for being difficult, but after a few minutes warming up she turned out to be quite personable. Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) is almost as notorious as Lou Reed when it comes to interviews, and I have to say, he was . . . interesting. It’s not that he was difficult, but the lengthy pauses in his answers often made me wonder if he’d finished speaking (usually not).
I should note, while not specifically an interview as such, I took a great deal of pleasure from publishing the POP editions — our special issues that changed the format to loosely resemble the old UK Smash Hits mags. Putting the Veronicas, Short Stack and Beyonce on the cover and changing the masthead, layout and editorial tone each time confused and surprised a lot of people, and the reader reactions were wonderful to see.
ZF: What do you think has put the greatest pressure on the Brisbane music scene — economic strain trickling down from global influences, monopolisation or audience apathy?
CH: As always, it’s a combination of all of the above, although I do believe in particular that audience apathy plays a much larger part in Brisbane. It’s hard to get people out to local band shows in large numbers, to the point that if two similar gigs are happening on the same night, both will suffer. You can put that down to relative population size, but I’ve honestly always felt that Queensland’s climate and the generally laid back nature of its citizens simply doesn’t gel easily with the idea of spending the evening in a dark, noisy rock & roll venue. If more people went to shows and actively supported a live music culture in the city, we would see better bands being produced, more creative cross-pollinisation, more opportunities, just generally a more productive scene. Most musicians don’t want to make music for an audience of five people, and it’s tragic seeing great local bands playing to nearly empty rooms (as I have on many occasions). Tell your friends to stop downloading Game Of Thrones and get out to a show!
ZF: Given your experience with Rave’s demise, what are your feelings about the future of street press and the future of print media in Brisbane/Australia?
CH: My attitude used to be that street press was the cockroach of the media world. Not in the sense of being a pest, but more in a surviving-a-nuclear-apocalypse sort of way. Rave was a victim of several factors, including intense competition from other print media and of course online media, but also of timing. Despite Rave ceasing publication, I don’t expect to see all other street press following immediate suit. However, I do now believe that its continued existence is either as a smaller, economically sustainable stand-alone affair (small press), or as an integrated component part of a multi-platform entity (incorporating a print edition, enhanced digital edition, website, mobile version and social media). The day of a printed street press magazine existing by itself as a profitable construct is more or less over, unless said magazine exists in a mythical market with no competitors, and has advertisers who have no other avenues to turn to.
ZF: Rave was a strong supporter of diverse arts coverage. Brisbane arts communities are becoming stronger and stronger; why do you think arts coverage hasn’t risen to the occasion in Brisbane?
CH: The more mainstream or established media outlets are profit-driven and they have to pay good writers with specialised knowledge to write informed editorial about complex subject matter — which arts material can often be. Unfortunately a lot of arts organisations don’t have a great deal of money and rely on diminishing funding, meaning that they can’t afford the advertising budgets needed to make profit-driven media take notice. You could argue that’s a cynical view, but there’s some truth in it, and it’s not helped by what often feels like a general cultural indifference to the arts. Other activities often seem to be valued more highly in Queensland, and often get the lion’s share of coverage and support (I’m looking at you, sport). That said, high profile events like the Brisbane Festival do have some trickle down effect in terms of getting the public more interested in local arts producers, and that spike in interest in turn requires more well-written, intelligent and informed coverage of the other elements of the community. Feeding the interest (via good coverage) leads to more interest, which equals more patronage, which means more available money. I think some media take a short-term view and don’t see the value in supporting the scene, which is silly and counter-intuitive. As the state’s population grows, not everyone is going to be happy with rugby league and surfing. The arts community deserves to be given just as much attention. Of course, people who are willing to do that with the level of care needed (for, probably, very little money) are rare . . . but in that regard Rave was very lucky.
ZF:You’ve just moved down to Melbourne. What will you miss about Brisbane-town?
CH: Even though I just dissed surfing in the last answer, being able to hit a warm water beach within an hour when the mood strikes . . . That, and the good people I worked with. Many of Rave’s contributors I only saw in person occasionally, but I did genuinely enjoy reading their stories as they came in on deadline. My stomach misses Punjabi Palace at South Brisbane and Singh’s at Rosalie (I’ve yet to have Indian or Thai as good in Melbourne – although give me time to eat around more…), and, on some strange level, I’ll miss the sense of being able identify how everything interconnects in one city. Melbourne is a much bigger place, and the networks are complicated and very established (although more welcoming than you might expect). Maybe it’ll come in time, but I doubt I’ll ever have the same sense of understanding of how a place works that I had in Brisbane. That may not be a bad thing though, as surprises are good for staving off boredom.
ZF: Any salient words of advice for us crazy cats at OffStreet?
CH: You are pioneers. Stay inspired. Never think for an instant that what you’re doing isn’t valuable. Just keep at it! I’d love to see Offstreet build a name for itself that puts it on the same historical map as Rave when people look back on arts and music media in Brisbane. And given that what the “other guys” are doing really isn’t that exciting, the field is wide open. Make your mark.
ZENOBIA FROST (@zenfrost) is an Australian writer, critic, and poet. She is the arts editor (and founding member) of OffStreet Press. She is fond of strange myths, incisive verse, theatre, graveyards, tea, and editing.