The master of hyper-real sublime rock menace, Dave Graney gives DERMOT CLARKE a gentle reminder that there’s nothing particularly extreme in being too obviously grim.
When neo-Tsarist autocrat Vladimir Putin had Pussy Riot arrested, it wasn’t for trespass and slander — it was on the grounds of being talentless, shitty musicians with a semi-provocative band name. Had they staged their little protest to a cover of Dave Graney & The Lurid Yellow Mist’s Knock Yourself Out, the outcome would have been far more decisive: they’d either be stomping their empowered, vegan-friendly Doc Martens up and down Red Square or be ushered before a summary firing squad.
According to Dave Graney’s alien paradigm, the highest crime is orthodoxy. He always precipitates a definitive reaction: quite often bemusement and confused anger and sometimes pleasure. He’s wilful like that — it would seem there’s nothing hard about being obvious. Perhaps genuine weirdness is not a pre-existing set of identifiable traits that have nothing to do with what is culturally expected of the strange — it sits apart from some banal decadent bourgeois identity crisis.
Dave Graney doesn’t strike me as particularly masochistic or psychotic, but for nearly 35 years, he’s willingly blazed the path of utmost resistance. When asked why he and wife/partner-in-crime Clare Moore weren’t asked to join peers Enstürzende Neubauten and Beasts Of Bourbon on this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties bill, Graney dishes out the following heresy:
“The music that we’d play would be too smooth for that ATP crowd, which is like that kind of grim, bloke rock-type stuff. INXS-gauze, dopey orthodox hardcore rubbish. I don’t really like any of the stuff that’s on the bill, really. I wouldn’t mind seeing Neubauten ‘cos they’re kind of freaky, but I’m not interested in My Bloody Valentine or anything like that. They were too piss-weak to ever do many gigs, y’know? Stuff them if they’re that delicate.”
Oh my Judas Goat, how dare he! Dave Graney and Clare Moore have survived and triumphed without resorting to the ATP (Australian Post-Punk reunion) set. And no thanks to Triple J either: they’re doing just fine. If social Darwinism hasn’t been debunked as crypto-fascist pseudo-science, these two would be unlikely poster children. See, they’ve won — having survived the disintegration of the record industry of a decade ago, morphed with the revolutionary reality-shift caused by social media and refused to be shackled to some Clinton Walker-esque narrative that limits their relevance to the post-punk days as The Moodists.
“Hah. Well, I think that music we’ve made since The Moodists I find more interesting in a way. It’s more a complete expression,” Graney believes. “The Moodists was very frustrating. I love some of the music that we made. The Birthday Party I used to see all the time, I loved them. I love their records; I love The Boys Next Door records. I love The Laughing Clowns probably more than The Saints. Uh… the others, The Moodists were much better than them: better than The Scientists, better than The Triffids, much better than The Go-Betweens.
“Yeah, it is funny because I know all of those people. They were friends then, and most of them are friends now. I’m not really dragging a lot of baggage from the past, y’know.”
Graney and Moore’s stylistic journey is brilliantly and deftly covered by Graney himself, in his autobiography 1001 Australian Nights (released last year): the shifts from The White Buffaloes to The Coral Snakes to The Dave Graney Show, The Lurid Yellow Mist and finally to The MistLY — all centralised by Graney’s idiosyncratic weirdness. Attempts at describing their sound from the past twenty years inevitably results in confusion: smooth and angular, with a certain dogged cleanliness.
“I call it kind of West Coast Rock, but that might kind of… confuse people,” Graney says of The MistLY. “I guess West Coast because of the 12-string electric and the harmony vocals, that sort of stuff.”
Cutting a bizarre figure that dishes up such dizzyingly unclassifiable work comes at a frustrating price. The latest release from Dave Graney, You’ve Been In My Mind, is the first album of genuinely new material since 2008’s hyper-real cocktail lounge experience, We Wuz Curious.
“When we put out We Wuz Curious, it was fairly crushing that it didn’t get much recognition or didn’t get out to people. You can only put so much work into something, so sometimes we get the feeling that we run around presenting a new album, and that perhaps we’re running around a bit too fast, and that maybe we should wait for people to notice what we’ve been doing. A get up to speed-type thing. That sounds kind of arrogant, but it’s kind of true. Often we get things just before other people. So we wanted to just put out something in the meantime, reappraisal of things we had done, saying: This is what we’ve been doing; This is what we do. And Rock & Roll is Where I Hide [2011’s re-recorded “greatest hits”] was a bit more of that. We could’ve made this album last year, we had most of the songs, but we wanted to tell people what we’ve been doing in a way. We’re having to go out and play this album for people because that’s what we do: we’re a live rock show.”
One thing that can be definitively said of The MistLY is their development of clean, sublime rock menace. The best rock & roll music transmits to utterly personal experience. A clash of sound and image is best achieved by accident, rather than imposed: 2am, insomnia, waking sleep, You’ve Been In My Mind played on a loop and Al-Jazeera on mute. When I come to, I’m aware that the menacingly lucid track Midnight Cats is being played to footage of Somalian refugees. It’s perverse. It’s one of those moments you can’t buy.
“Midnight Cats is about the subconscious/unconscious ideas and thoughts that kind of crawl across your mind during the night, or all through your waking hours — but you don’t know about them and I call it Midnight Cats because cats are those kinds of creatures of the unconscious,” Graney says. “They’ve inspired poems by people like Baudelaire or Rimbaud. I come at it from more of a musical kind of way than a kind of rational shove-it-together kind of way.”
The subtlety and sublime lightness of latter-day Graney is often suggestive of a lurking threat. Its innocent presentation only heightens the danger that the music will turn around and bite you (pro tip: do not drive a car while listening to I’m In the Future Now). Additionally, there’s no logical reason why tracks such as Mt Gambier Night or Cop This, Sweetly might elicit a heightened emotional state.
“I put a lot into my music but most of the time I’m treated like an idiot. My music hasn’t been featured in Rolling Stone since… I don’t know, 2001 or something,” Graney admits. “I’m just not on the map of regular orthodox rock & roll. So I appreciate that you’re saying to me that my music has some power. I’ve put a lot of thought into it. I think it’s loaded with ideas and emotional stuff.
“I think my music is quite light, y’know, I don’t carry a lot of baggage. So when I get heavy, it sorta drops like thunder. Other people like Nick Cave… he can be heavy, he can’t be light. He can’t ahhh, he can’t get any lightness. He has tried, but he can’t. I like his music heavy. I think my music is pretty balanced, y’know, it’s pretty transparent and opaque in the way I’ve learnt to do my stuff. So people who get my music really get it, really dig it. Other people just like the flashiness of it, and I like that, too. I like music that works like that.”
But does Graney not think that there’s an extra dimension of power emotionally in being able to elicit such responses so unusually?
“Well, I experienced it in music that I really love… I recently started listening to a Syd Barrett compilation called Wouldn’t You Miss Me? All of a sudden his music just made sense to me. To some people it just seems mad or cracked. When it drops in front of you it’s pretty amazing: very wilful in his arrangements and in his grooves, they’re really quite earthy. He’s like a bluesman in a funny way, like: “Baby Lemonade, so sick, feeling sick…” He’s calling out for some lemonade: PLEASE baby, lemonade! It sounds so funny when people talk about the Blues: it’s usually grizzled, beer-drinking fat guy music. But Syd’s a great bluesman, I love that kind of blues.”
A major chunk of Graney’s blog entries from 2008 to 2011 has obsessed over purchases of cheap and unusual gear — guitars in particular. What’s made this fascinating to a non-musician has been in the recorded results. The refinement and tinkering with effects and sounds over the last four years’ worth of releases has been striking.
“I enjoy being boring in that kind of way, yeah. I guess it’s my kind of obsession with playing the guitar,” he says. “The big difference between The MistLY and the Coral Snakes’ music is that I’m playing the guitar a lot; I’m more into sounds than words, in a way. You know, the words: I’ve got a handle on what I want to say, but I really love to execute the sounds and work on the tones, that sort of thing. I was going on about guitar sounds because of early 2000s ‘new rock’, it was a kind of orthodoxy in rock music — this classic rock stuff which was all about valve sounds and Telecasters, all things that are very admirable. But I have really cheap Chinese-made guitars and a solid-state amplifier: that’s my thing. Cause I love… I don’t know, I’m a cheapskate and I love a lot of those old blues guys who’d just play shit that cost twenty bucks and made it sound great. I don’t want to be fucking around with guitars that cost thousands of dollars. That’s the world I’ve been in, yeah: just fucking around with cheap gear.”
Would Graney and Clare Moore put their strength to adapt to an obscenely brave new world or plain dumb luck? The second part of Graney’s book offers particular insight into this — that they’ve triumphed over it.
“Really? This is a very positive statement. I haven’t heard anything like this from anybody,” he laughs. “In our world, we’re generally ignored or treated like freaks. I think being in Melbourne is very good for us. The Melbourne music scene, there’s lots of people we’re in touch with — they’re more noughties-type people… a lot of people from Tasmania who are in the Melbourne music scene, like Go Go Sapien and The Bedroom Philosopher. A lot of contemporary music from people who are in their 20s and 30s.
“I guess Clare and me haven’t been hamstrung by hanging around our own peers or contemporaries. We see Kim Salmon a lot and have kinda worked with him. But otherwise we have been hanging around and getting influenced by people younger than us in the Melbourne music scene. We don’t get any kudos from that grim rock & roll crowd, although we’re friends with those people. But people who go to see music like that never come to our shows ‑ we’re much too weird for them. A lot of our music is very upbeat. Fast tempos, upbeat, quite funky a lot of the time. The guitars are mostly clean. We have a female in the band. A lot of things that make us a no-go area for grim rock & roll types.”
YOU’VE BEEN IN MY MIND is out now through Fuse. The faithful – including this writer – saw Dave Graney & The MistLY at Miami’s Shark Bar on Fri Aug 24, Brisbane’s Beetle Bar on Sat Aug 25 and Coolum’s Sol Bar on Sun Aug 26.
DERMOT CLARKE is a Brisbane-based freelance writer who wasn’t smart enough to leave six years ago. He haunts the Cleveland line and is one part Scotch-Irish, two parts Mi Goreng.