When Not Drowning, Waving—Australia’s most lambent, ethereal rock band—hit the scene in the early ‘80s, it was quite clear they would fall behind in a miserable and hopeless race headed by gargantuan rock titans like INXS. They weren’t like the other bands steamrolling the path for success. Unlike their stadium-domineering contemporaries, they didn’t belt their tunes out, they vocally incurred. And instead of pounding away with abandon on plugged-in guitars, a fellow named David Bridie, the band’s frontman and multi-instrumentalist, politely explored the scales of his piano with curious and deliberate measure.
Not Drowning, Waving made music that digs the heated depths of the scorched Outback earth as it much as it harnesses the alien colours of a twilit Australian sky. These two disparate textures are bonded together by Bridie’s disembodied voice, a hot, dusty breeze full of sand, earth and soul. It isn’t any wonder that Not Drowning, Waving never crossed over into the American mainstream like their fellow countrymen, INXS; they were too busy burrowing deep into Australian psyche and myth to care about global domination on the pop charts.
Bridie’s next musical project was the folkier, rootsy My Friend the Chocolate Cake, a band that recalls the arid landscapes evoked in Not Drowning, Waving with painterly skill and precision. Numbers like the warm, nostalgic “I’ve Got a Plan” pitch a perfect balance between folk and pop and communicated the long-standing desires of lovers and storytellers in true fashion of traditional songwriting. Once again, Bridie’s band didn’t storm the charts with a bona-fide hit. But My Friend the Chocolate Cake did make a lasting impression with audiences that carried the band over with seven albums.
By 2000, Bridie would truly come into his own as an artist when he released his solo debut, Act of Free Choice, which can now be argued as one of the most quintessential Australian albums ever recorded. The album, a blue fog of shuddering drum loops, haunting piano scales and sky-sweeping atmospheres, evokes the lonely stretches of Australia’s outback, while narrating a generation’s worth of political strife. Spliced into the thick, swirling mix are the sampled ambient soundscapes of the outback wilderness, surfacing amidst the textures and rhythms like eerie, subtle reminders of the natural world. The album explores all reaches and nuances of the pop format, with numbers like “Dive” trading on the minimalist scrapings of percussion and moody piano licks and the earthier tracks like “Float” exploring the bottom-heavy end of rumbling bass lines.
With Act of Free Choice, Bridie created a new world of sound to explore, one that would define him as an artist as well as create a sonic visual that would allow the listener to enter that world and immerse himself in the emotional experience created from the album’s imagined realities. Indeed, Bridie’s music exists in an alternate reality that doesn’t seem like your own, one in which you visit and feel the vestiges of emotion drift along in heated, languid spells of song.
The singer’s follow-up effort, Hotel Radio (2003), was a collection of work that was still suffused in the same haunted atmospheres of his debut. However, on Hotel Radio, the songs radiated a sensual, summer’s warmth. The album placed more emphasis on the rhythm section, employing a stronger groove sensibility which allowed for more use of drum loops and samples. Regarded as Bridie’s most pop-oriented effort to date, the title track served as a reminder to long-time fans of Not Drowning, Waving that Bridie indeed still had a keen ear for melody. Other tracks like the oceanic and peculiar “Canopy” displayed an expansive sense of mystery that delved even further into the artform of sonic texture.
Succumb (2008) was a return to Bridie’s more pop-rock exploits of his band Not Drowning, Waving, this time adding smart touches like a brass section to add colour to the gustier arrangements. Unlike the summery glow of Hotel Radio, Succumb was far more monochromatic and moodier, exuding a steely-grey elegance that gave the songs a wash of ghostly ambience. Bridie’s lyrics, from the mouth of a romantic polemicist, once again, examined the topics of love and politics with much more restless energy this time around.
In between studio albums, the singer would work steadily away at composing soundtracks for film. His work on such films like Gone and In A Savage Land would earn him accolades and awards that would ensure his status as a go-to man when filmmakers came calling for particularly evocative scores.
A five-year stretch from his last recording Succumb, would have Bridie working away at what would eventually become Wake (2013), the singer’s most politically-charged album, dealing with the concerns of Australia’s refugee laws. With all the elements of Bridie’s previous albums (pop, electronica, rock, ambient) now amalgamated into a fully realized sonic package, Wake plays heavily upon the human drama of struggle and loss. The album’s most affecting number, “Delegate,” discusses the strains of coming to terms with the socio-economic machines of the world which threaten to crush those who cannot assimilate into the designs of their political mechanisms. The accompanying video for “Delegate” is an equally heartbreaking comment on the heartless treatment of Australia’s refugees.
Still exploring the realms of electronica and pop, Bridie gives Wake a far more emotional immediacy to the proceedings, one that is extremely relevant in the wake of the recent uproars regarding Australia’s politician-fuelled “Stop The Boats” campaigns against refugees. On Wake, Bridie sings as though from the outer reaches of a half-remembered dream; if his voice was once a dusty breeze, it now becomes an urgent, nearly Olympian call from some darkened abyss, especially noted on the heart-rending, bluesy squall of “Delegate”. Other tracks, like the lushly rippling “Black Islands”, demonstrate a curious exploration into experimental pop.
Much of Bridie’s work is still shrouded in obscurity, usually finding its way out of Australia when the singer occasionally tours his material. Recently, the artist embarked on a tour that brought him to Canada for the third time in his career. But no matter where his music travels, it carries with it an innate sense of place and time. Bridie’s music may speak about an uncertain future currently taking shape in his homeland. But it is also rooted in a past running far and deep; the kind that gives birth to dreams.
Your new album, Wake, still deals with a lot of political issues like your first solo album did; sound-wise however, the rhythmic structures have changed. Act of Free Choice was an exercise in texture and atmosphere and explored many samples and electronic beats, really using the mixing board as an instrument. Then Hotel Radio moved much more into pop territory; Succumb leaned more toward rock. Wake seems to level out all those influences and where they can coalesce. It has a much cleaner, sharper sound, your voice mixed upfront rather floating in the atmospheres of the music like on Act of Free Choice. Can you discuss this progression in your sound as you’ve been recording solo these last 14 years or so?
Interesting observations. There is no doubt that anyone’s most recent work is influenced by the circumstances that surround it and those events that most immediately come before it. Succumb preceded Wake. It was a more forthright sound. Lots of tethered abrasive guitars, less texture, atmosphere and delving into sound. It was more of a conventional band record than any of the previous releases. It satisfied an itch that I had. It had a grunt. Dipped into my love of post punk music. But I was not known as an edgy guitar band guy so it didn’t necessarily find its place in the vast ocean of music industry palaver.
Wake was a return to small piano songs written and played on my own (live), with embellishments and soundscapes littered around the piano and vocals (studio). Songs written late at night on an upright piano in the living room or on the keyboard set up in a remote country house. Lyrical musings, matters that had been preoccupying me, micro and macro. It was probably more of an attempt to return to Act of Free Choice, the solo album I am perhaps most satisfied with, but also to re-visit some of the approaches from my early band days with Not Drowning Waving on albums like The Little Desert and Cold and the Crackle.
Whilst the initial idea was to make a small album, i.e. just piano and vocal and some analogue keys layerings, I did end up working with some valued musician friends, quite a variety actually, so it involved some collaborations and sonic multi layerings as well.
However, I did want to make a record that I could play live, quite simply, with one or two people, some technology, but not overburdened. That the album would transfer well onto the live stage.
As a solo artist, you’ve become brazenly political. One point of contention amongst many Australians is the immigrations laws that have come to light with the rest of the world recently (many of the “Stopping the Boats” commercials which have surfaced on the Internet). Opinions of this matter are split in Australia. You’ve been pretty vocal about the situation and it’s earned the ire of some in your home country. Your new video “Delegate” deals with this matter. What kinds of challenges have you dealt with for your views, and what kinds of difficulties might an artist face in Australia for publicly taking a stand?
Songwriting, like any art form, is by its nature political. Songwriters are like court jesters observing on the court from the periphery. I value that role in other writers; I take on that role myself. I can’t see how a person cannot have an emotional reaction to the incarceration of children and the heartless legislations and commentary of the Australian government to people fleeing the horrors of war in search of a better life for their families.
To say nothing, to remain silent when confronted by such human tragedy is heartless and an abrogation of duty as a commentator and that’s what songwriters are, commentators… we commentate on love, on the human condition, on life in the suburbs, on droughts, on sunsets, on history, on the mundane, on war, on injustice, on taking drugs at music festivals… all of it.
I don’t see myself necessarily as political in the way that, say, Midnight Oil was. I see myself as piano player and singer and composer who have a humanist bent. There are many songs on Wake and indeed on previous albums that are not “political” per se…However I don’t for a moment shy away from tracks like Treason and Delegate that are more polemical. That kick against the pricks. And to refer to Jarvis Cocker those pricks are still running the world. However that is just one tenet of what I do.
The film clip for “Delegate” was a wonderful piece of film making by Mat Govoni. It took the line that what if Australians reacted to the tragedy of this nationalist boat policy in the same way Tibetan monks have reacted to Chinese military rule, i.e. self-immolation. It is set in a very bland public service office, neutral colours, bureaucratic boredom and dealt with in quite a subtle way by some very fine actors (if you indeed can be subtle about setting fire to yourself ).
There have been some extreme reactions from some people, the kind of people you don’t necessarily want on your side anyway. I don’t think any artists should shy away from that kind of reaction if they believe in what they are doing. But for me the song Delegate sits alongside little musing songs about small things like “Chatter”, “The Shortest Day of the Year”, “You’re No Flower”, “Dr. Seuss and The Flatlands”… they all go to make up the album…
Musically, I think your sound is indeed very Australian. It’s evocative of much of the country’s landscape. I really felt this on Act of Free Choice. Many of the sound textures called to mind the dry, hot winds of your home country (I think the album even sampled some of the bush fires, if I’m not mistaken?). Even the chords you use in a lot of your music is just suggestive of your home country, the same way Björk’s music can be very evocative of her native Iceland. Ironically, most of Australia’s famous acts known to the rest of the world seem to have nothing particularly suggestive of their country in their sound. Björk has been very vocal about how she is conscious about making “Icelandic music” (Homogenic was a deliberate exercise in making Icelandic music). How conscious are you about the place you live and how it finds its way into your music?
I guess you can’t help but reflect where you come from. I’m certainly not draping myself in our flag about it; Commercial Australia does a fine line in bombastic chest beating. (Barry Humphries said there is nothing quite as loud as the sound of Australians patting themselves on the back ...and our flag still has the Union Jack on it!) But I love working with sound and I love working with story and Australia has an abundance of both. Some wonderful stories and characters.
And the landscape here is this wide brown land is awe inspiring Only last week I was out in the desert 1000 kilometres west of Alice Springs at a place called Wilkinkurra…It is a large, big sky country. It can kill you at a moment’s notice if you aren’t prepared (get a flat tyre without water supply or shade in the summer and you’d last barely a day). There is an intense beauty as well. The sound is quiet, there are harmonic frequencies in the wind, on the salt lakes… the land over powers you, and it is great respite from the mundane city life.
Australia also has a unique history… 200 years of abrupt colonisation by the European world on a people with a 60,000 year history… There are some wonderful stories, there are some tragic consequences. Australia has its idiosyncrasies, its unique story and feel. And then in some ways it is just like every other industrialised country… same suburban sprawl, banks, houses, government, fast food outlets. The world is getting more and more homogenised.
I’m not sure I’m conscious about this search for a uniquely Australian sound, but it is certainly there somewhere in the creative process. I think every artist needs to find what they do that makes them stand out from the plethora of other acts performing and releasing records, and drawing on influences from the unique parts of Australia and the surrounding islands (I have spent a lot of time in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbour to the north and have a record label, Wantok, that releases some fantastic artists from the Pacific Islands. Also as I guess Björk alludes to in the title, to prevent the homogenising effect of Hollywood, and global marketing. Working with the idiosyncratic aspects of your countries landscape, history, language and sounds is a way of trying to hold strong.
Your music has a very strong visual component, which really helps to give an overall picture that your music paints; your album covers and videos all have a certain texture and “colour” to them. This is very noticeable. For Act of Free Choice, there were a lot of cold blues and moody greys. Hotel Radio used a colour scheme of a lot of hot oranges and blood reds. For Wake, there are a lot of natural earthy colours, and I guess this has a lot to do with the human issues you deal with on the album. Those earthy colours in your music videos and on the album cover for Wake really call to mind the stone, flesh and heart of the matters you talk about on the album. How hands on are you with the visuals when it comes to your music?
I like music that is visually evocative in other artists that I like so I’m glad that this is something you pick up in mine. And that’s a fairly accurate take on the colour and textures of the album booklets and covers. On the last two album designs I have used a lot more of my own photographic works. I’m taking more of an interest in photography the older I get. I trust my eye and certainly venture out to a lot of places where even I can take a great photo.
However, I also have worked with some amazing photographers and photojournalists over the years who have allowed me to use some of their works. Stephen Dupont, Liz Thompson and Ben Bohane have spent a lot of time in Melanesia and Afghanistan as war correspondents and they are all very good friends of mine. Stephens’s documentary Stoned in Kabul was the inspiration for the song of the same name on Wake and Ben and I have collaborated on a project called the Black Islands: Spirit and War in Melanesia.
Luzio Grossi shot the cover work for Wake. He is an extremely talented photographer. I love the collaborative process, even in the making of a solo record whether that be with guest singers—I’d like to make special mention of the wonderful Rebecca Coseboom from San Francisco outfit Stripmall Architecture and also PNG singer Ngaiire, the engineer Brett Doig, the mixers Ryan Coseboom and Simon Polinski, all the guest musicians, the designers and so forth. It is quite an enterprise, as it is for all albums that are made, and whilst the songs begin as me sitting up late at night on the piano musing away, the process from there is quite integrative.
You are touring outside of Australia for Wake, including some date in North America. Have you performed in other parts of the world, particularly in the US? How do you find overseas audiences?
I love playing the piano and singing. Live performance is nerve wracking and wonderful at the same time. I have played Toronto twice in Canadia (our pitiful prime minister called Canada that), have toured the USA a number of times both solo and as the musical director of a Melanesian troupe named Sing Sing. NDW were signed to Reprise for two albums and Act of Free Choice was on Nettwerk. I have toured the UK and Europe a few times as well.
But then again, I have been releasing albums for thirty years so was bound to accrue some frequent flyer points over the journey. I must admit I never bit the bullet and resettled overseas as much as I was encouraged to base myself in the US… I could never bring myself to do it. I have no regrets, I guess. I am very much looking forward to this tour. Frank Yamma (whom I’m touring with) is an astonishing artist and I am very proud of Wake and look forward to playing the songs to new audiences.
// Notes from the Road
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