It was hard to ignore all week. Walk into — or nearby, or past — any bar, venue and showcase during New York's CMJ 2015 and without fail there was an Australian accent somewhere. Tuesday through Saturday — and culminating in a 38-act Aussie BBQ at The Delancey (thirty-goddamn-eight!) — it proved a pretty great time to be an Australian act in the US. So Rolling Stone caught up with 10 Australian acts kicking ass and taking more names than the NSA and the OZ government's data retention combined, checking in with them to see how just how many NY slices they've had and how their US tours are going.
Credit: Andy Thomson
There was a moment during Fraser A. Gorman's first NYC show where, with a sly grin on his face, the Melbourne troubadour strapped on his harmonica, hefted his guitar, flicked his curly hair back and drawled, 'Y'know, I've had some people say they reckon I look like Bob Dylan.' After a long pause for effect to let the words sink in, he deadpanned, 'Yeah, I just don't see it.' Cue a roomful of laughter.
That was the story of Fraser A Gorman's conquering of NYC; playing six formal shows, plus extra spots, he quickly became one of the must-see acts of CMJ 2015. "It's pretty mental," he says, cooling down in the bandroom below Mercury Lounge, with members of The Maccabees (also playing that night) milling about. After shows in LA, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis and Philly — including Philly cheese steaks ("that was fuckin' sick") and a lost guitar in the MId-West — Fraser says he's "actually having the best time of my fucking life. It's real fun."
With new album Slow Gum released through Marathon and pal Courtney Barnett's Milk! label, he's having a hell of a time, but that only came after some pre-US nerves. "When I turned up I was terrified," he reveals, "and had a bit of a moment like 'I don't know if I can do this." It took his first show to settle down, saying "I was kind of like 'y'know what, people in New York are the same as in Melbourne, and no one's better than you or whatever, everyone's just cool. So that was a good thing to realise, and it made me a lot less scared of what I was doing."
Sitting in The Delancey's (heated) rooftop in the Lower East Side, Ngaiire is wrapped up in a huge shawl all in an effort to keep her warm and keep her voice alive. The Sydney singer has been a CMJ hit courtesy of her sultry blend of electronic soul/R&B — the kind of music hearts are won and broken to — but she also needed an emergency onstage whiskey during her Aussie BBQ showcase. Turns out Ngaiire has been sick all week and was losing her voice. "It's been a pretty intense couple of weeks," the singer (whose grandmother sadly passed away in that time) admits. "Lots of late nights, early mornings. But I"m quite happy with the response so far," she smiles.
Ill-timed illness aside, in between extolling the virtues of NYC's Cuban-Chinese cuisine, Ngaiire says she's "feeling great", primarily because her New York shows have been successful. But it's on a deeper level that the singer feels validated, saying that the trip "has been interesting because I wanted to gauge what Americans thought of my music, and they seem to really like it, which is really reassuring. It's intimidating to an extent too," she adds, "because everything I've been influenced by comes from here."
With plenty on the cards for when she gets home — including playing Falls, The Plot, One Day Only and Field Day — things in Ngaiire's world seem pretty tight. "I hope so," she grins. "For us it doesn't matter how many people in the room, it's just always about having a great time and putting out a good vibe, but being here in New York performing, that's been pretty great."
The smile on Brendan 'Tuka' Tuckerman's face isn't easily wiped off; it only drops when the streetscape sounds of NYC — a legit litany of dump trucks, postal trucks and seemingly every other goddamn truck in the world — goes by and cuts off his train of thought. The rapper and purveyor of some of Australia's most impressive hip hop is stoked to be in the birthplace of hip-hop, and it's that respect, bundled with his tunes — which are, to a fault, almost all infectiously upbeat — that sees a packed crowd for his first ever NYC show, who respond with a buoyant mix of surprise and admiration. His secret? "You just smile the fuck out of people — just vibe them out," the rapper grins.
"I don't have a lot going for me in terms of not having an instrument and having nothing to hide behind," the erstwhile Thundamental member explains, "so after a while it's like you just have to bare it all. Hopefully people respond to the character. And everyone here knows what hip hop is: it's raps, it's beats. There's nothing to hide behind. The only thing i've got is 'This is me, this is everything, 100. I'm in a dank club, this is my natural habitat, fuck with me!'
With his latest album Life Death Time Eternal out — it hit No.6 in Oz — and a big Australian tour to finish off the year, the rapper is still under no illusions as to what comes next. "It's a big huge world I'm just stepping into, putting out these imaginary tentacles."
The sweat pouring off Ryan Caesar is testament to how much effort the imposing Pearls frontman put into his band's debut NYC show… but also to the fact that he didn't take off his new jacket — a 'Hampton Primary' jacket he bought from one of Williamsburg's plague of vintage stores — during the show. "It was probably a mistake," he concedes. "But I like this jacket too much." Two shows in and the inaugural Pearls jaunt to the US is going, "really, really good," exhorts Ryan.
With their stunning, vaseline-smeared debut album Pretend You're Mine out through Remote Control, Pearls' grimy disco-punk has captured ears in the US — "The internet's working," Ryan laughs — and the crowds in NYC have been a surprise. "This is the first time we've been here," he points out, "and no one knows who we are, or what to make of us, and that's great. Also, I got the jacket. I came to America to buy a jacket," he laughs.
With new songs in the bag and festivals in Oz coming up — "It'll be nice to come home to that," Ryan grins — there's one tried and true rule for US touring is simple. "Customs; don't fuck around with customs. I did everything right; I was legitimately allowed into the country, and my voice was still trembling, like a schoolboy in a choir."
Fittingly enough there's a huge mural of Joe Strummer adorning the outside wall of Niagara, the legendary NYC venue that The Bennies debut their latest US tour in. It's so fitting that three of the band duck outside seconds before they play to look at it for inspiration. It's irreverent, funny, but also heartfelt and genuine; basically an ideal encapsulation of The Bennies. Guitarist Jules is working on "about two days worth of a hangover," having caught their buds Smith Street Band during a two night stand in NYC, and says they're in the "throes of reconnecting and finding our feet over here Hell," he adds, "we're here for a week longer than I thought too; that's how my brain's working at the moment."
The good news is that the band are also "sitting on an album worth of fresh sounds," with Jules describing The Bennies creative process as necessarily intense, especially considering the band never seem to stop touring. "We stopped for three months to write, which wasn't really a break," he laughs. Considering the band party hard enough to make Andrew WK need a change of underpants, that's an understatement.
After a couple of US tours, spots on festivals around the world and supporting a slew of their heroes, Jules says that the band are trying to take it all n stride and take everything in. "Nothing is lost on us; we're like kids in a candy store. And I hope that never stops; I'm prepared to have my mind blown over and over again, and I hope it happens every time."
Coughing up blood might slow down some bands, but Jack and Pat Pierce (top featured image) — the busking brothers who've made a ridiculous international impact — are as far from 'some band' as Jared from Subway is from 'Sandwich spokesperson'. The Pierce Brothers' epic world tour involved the two busking the streets of Melbourne every day for a week, (getting the EP to chart at No.10) then play nine shows in seven countries in ten days. "One of which," reveals Pat, "we had to cancel because Jack was coughing up blood." Yup. Coughing up blood. "We thought we had pneumonia," Pat grins.
Explains Jack, "I came off stage, collapsed — well, we were supporting the Cats (Cat Empire) so we were going mental — and after the first one, I walked off, started coughing, and then just couldn't stop and collapsed." After a trip to a German doctor (who laughed at their Swiss antibiotics, dropped them in a bin, prescribed something new and gave his lungs a shot of cortisone) and leaving an impressed Cat Empire in their wake, the brothers spent "really late nights, early starts, four flights back to back just getting through that," says Pat. Adds Jack with laugh, "Our shows are pretty energetic, so it takes a bit out of you."
Their NYC shows though, have been "awesome," says Pat. "We were getting up on tables, doing solos standing on people's tables… for an acoustic duo, that's what we go for." Nor do they stop — Barcelona, Madrid, Portugal, a couple of shows back in Oz, an Australian tour, a couple of days off, then India and straight into the studio for their album — and their new Into The Dirt EP out, their only regret so far? "I haven't had a New York slice yet," says Pat, "… and we're staying in Little Italy!"
It turns out the satin jumpsuit Sui Zhen is clad in — something an electro space princess might tote — after her showcase is multi-discipline: "I've got one for my day job too; I'm giving a talk at a conference in it in a couple of days," laughs the Sydney multi-instrumentalist. "It's become a marker. Someone actually hung around — because I arrived in it — because they wanted to see what my music sounded like. Like, 'I want to see what THAT sounds like'," she giggles.
Having flown through Perth to Melbourne to LA to NYC — she fell asleep at LAX and almost missed her flight — her first actual show came after a trip to NYC's amazing Museum of Natural History. "It's so good," Sui beams. "I was losing my shit in there; I bought a T-shirt! I walked through Central Park, and went to a stand up show. It's been, like, the most New York-y trip." That, says Sui, is all part of NYC's allure for artists and musicians. "It's a big city thing," she points out. "You get inspiration from seeing things, collecting stuff; you're not reinventing yourself, but you're feeding yourself inspiration of things you really like for the next couple of months of working or whatever, so you can get your head down and get back to work. I feel like I'll come back next year; it feels like a nice natural progression from Big Sound."
Her Secretly Susan album came out at the end of August, and with a couple of EPs already under her belt, Sui is optimistic about how her music is translating to the US. "A bunch of people I'd been in touch with have come to see the shows, and it's just starting to build up over here," she smiles.
Jake Webb of Perth's Methyl Ethel — the woozy dream-pop foursome who've scored hushed 'fuck, have you seen those guys!?' reviews from music industry loudmouths and fellow bands alike — is stoked about most things in NYC… but one stands out: the Australian take-over of New York coffee. "There's a cafe around the corner from us called Flinders Lane. Gotta have good coffee I 'spose," he shrugs.
The crowds for the band, though, have been "great," says Jake. "At least, I think they've enjoyed it — so that's a good thing: six shows in, four to go," he grins, standing out the front of Leftfield Bar on the Lower East Side as the band showcase their new album, the quite brilliant Oh Inhuman Spectacle. "It's a lot; but we're all feeling well, but we're a bit knackered — the post show adrenaline only lasts so long, y'know. We kind of bail out of shows pretty quickly, because we have to get to the next one."
"The US," he explains, "is both personally somewhere you want to be playing your music, and also I think it's just good to come over here. This city alone gets me excited about music; most of the bands I love are from this city, all that post-punk stuff." It, he adds, also appears to be an ideal time to be an Australian band overseas. "I feel like even though we're an Australian band, the Australian voice is growing," pointing out the success of Pond, Courtney Barnett and Chet Faker et al. "People," he adds, "aren't ashamed of their Australian-ness. Which is great."
For a band with only one EP — the Tom Iansek (Big Scary, Number One Dads) produced TQ — Slum Sociable are riding higher than Snoop Dog in the Swiss Alps. "We've been almost overwhelmed by New York," grins Miller. "We've been here a while, twelve days, and it's been incredible." They've slipped in a little sightseeing too — Central Park, Katz's deli — but as Cregan point out, "it's hard with five people in the house; it takes like three and a half hours for people to get ready and organised."
But judging from their shows in NYC — and the tour they have booked back in Oz when they return — the psych-y, washed out pop Slum Sociable are peddling is finding plenty of new fans. "Yeah," adds Cregan, "we had a moment when we walked into Pianos and someone recognised us from a couple of nights before and freaked out. She was lovely, but it was weird." Adds Miller, "And there was one as we waited to get into a venue, some guy was walking past, then was like 'Hey, did you guys play the Mercury Lounge the other night', all aggressive-like, 'you guys were fuckin' sick, keep doing what you're doin'.' It's like, 'okay...'."
With the EP going great guns back home and having only just played their first run of headline shows (two of which sold out), the pair will be hanging out in New York 'til November to "do New York stuff, do some writing, sightsee. Well," clarifies Miller, "hopefully we'll do some writing." Adds Cregan, "But, y'know, it's going great back home; it's fun playing to people, as basic as that sounds, creating something and have that translate live and people appreciate it feels good."
There's a moment at The Delancey while Kingswood are shredding through "Ohio" that their melange of hair, denim and rock'n'roll elicits mid-song 'fuck yeahs' and raised fists and drinks from the packed crowd. It's sweaty, swaggering and brutal: what rock'n'roll is all about, basically, but on this tour has proven to come as a surprise to some Americans. "What's strange," posits guitarist Alex, "we've had some Americans come up after shows and they seem surprised, they seem shocked to see a 'rock band', and that's kinda great for us. We've even had people say 'Rock'n'roll is coming back!' to us, and it's like: 'What!'?" he laughs.
"Yeah," agrees vocalist Fergus, "the weird thing is, rock'n'roll always exists, and the people who like it and who're into it will always be there; it's just quite a distinction that we're finding, that people are genuinely surprised that we sound like a rock'n'roll band. It's like, 'Ok, cool. Yep, that's what we do.'"
And what they do is kick more ass than an ass-kicking machine made by Barry Hall and powered by the blood of Alan Border. One listen to Kingswood and it's pretty obvious as to why AC/DC chose the Melbourne foursome (alongside the Hives) as their support for their upcoming Australian tour. Suffice to say, it's been a constant talking point on this tour. "When people find out about it, they lose their minds... and so did we when we found out," grins bassist Mango. "To put it into perspective, it's one of those things where you can't really fathom it. We were talking to someone, and they were like, 'There are only two things you can tell your grandchildren about left; Stones or AC/DC.'"
Meanwhile their US shows have been going better than "when we did it two years ago," laughs Alex. "We were actually recording our album at the time and it was just a fun thing to do. We actually had way more showcases that. But it's been good." "Yeah," adds Fergus, "It's funny; people are getting it now; this CMJ week has been very, very positive, as far people coming up to us and going 'I get it!'"