Tuesday, 25 August 2015

#62. Juliet & Her Romeo – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass
Harry Fahey: drums
Brendan Hoffmann: vocals, sax
Matt Neal: guitar

Lyrics by Dion Barker, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written late 1999.
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, Warrnambool, 2000.
Produced and mixed by Tony Peel.
Released on What Am I Going To Do With All These Portaloos?

If you’re a regular reader of these incredibly self-indulgent blogs, thank you. I’m not sure there’s much wisdom to be gained from them, so I hope you’re at least enjoying the music. The accompanying words are here to document and explain something no one asked me to document or explain, but if nothing else it gives me a chance to be nostalgic.

The biggest nostalgic rush comes from the songs that represent beginnings, because they’re often the best moments in a band or a project. They’re the instances when you’ve uncovered a new musical connection with someone and the opportunities are endless. The initial thrill of starting a band is something all bands attempt to regularly replicate throughout their careers. Each new song, each rehearsal, each gig, each recording – you want those things to have the giddy mixture of discovery and excitement like the first time, every time.

Quite a few of the songs in this blog have been related to beginnings and thus represented the spark that is a mixture of creative satisfaction and unblemished potential. Guatemalan Rock ‘n’ Roll was the first song Jade McLaren and I wrotetogether, Jamaica was the first song we played with our band The Extreme Sprinklers, The Ignored was the first song I’d with a band recorded in a proper studio. Each of those firsts set me and my friends on interesting paths where we tried to achieve those same levels of satisfaction and capitalise on the potential.

Pictured: Unblemished potential.

This blog is another beginning. Juliet & Her Romeo was the first official 21st Century Ox song, inadvertently beginning four or so years of great gigs, good times, and fun music. My recollections of it are thus:

It was the summer of ’98-’99. Brendan Hoffmann and myself had just graduated from high school, turned 18 and signed up to go to TAFE, but before we got to that, we had a summer of drunkenness to partake in. We were playing our final gigs in a band called Ted Dancin’ before our drummer Gus Franklin and bassist Julian Gilchrist headed off to uni in Melbourne. At any rate, the summer of drunkenness stretched into a year of drunkenness, and at some point during that year (alcohol affects the memory) we started hanging out with my fellow Target employee Dion Barker.

This guy.

Aside from a love of alcohol and partying, we shared a passion for music. Hoffa was already quite an exceptional musician. He could play guitar, bass, sax and clarinet, plus he knew how to record his own music. He could also sing like a motherfucker. I idolised his abilities and at every opportunity I tried to learn as much as I could from him. That year, I purchased an electric guitar and Hoffa and I talked endlessly about starting another band to pick up where Ted Dancin’ had left off. We wrote a few songs together but nothing really came of them.

Hoffa and I hanging out circa 1999-2000. Picture: Dion Barker

It wouldn’t be until early 2000 that we would get that band happening, but towards the end of 1999, Hoffa and Dion and I found ourselves at Dion’s place (the future site of The Week Of Debauchery). Dion had a piano in his bedroom and we gathered around it with the intent of writing a song.

None of us could really play piano. Hoffa was very musically literate and Dion and I knew a few chords, so between us we could pick out enough to write a song.

Sitting atop the piano was a copy of Romeo & Juliet, which we had all studied in year 10. In need of some words to go with our fumbled chords, we plucked bits and pieces from Shakespeare’s verse, intermingling them with remembered scenes from Baz Luhrmann version (which came out just three years earlier). Hence the mixture of bad ye olde English phrasing.

Hoffa recalls he and I had a “sing off” to see who would get to be the vocalist on this track. I don’t remember this but it seems spot on – I was (and still am) competitive although I’m far more realistic about my vocal capabilities these days. Naturally, Hoffa won the sing off. He sings the shit out of this and is a million times better than me as a vocalist. I’m glad he won – the song is all the better for it. This was a lesson I had to learn, and it was one of things I picked up by being in 21st Century Ox – everything should be in the service of the song, not an individual musician’s ego.

Hoffa and I share the mic during a Peppermint Anthology recording. Picture: Dion Barker.

We were pretty proud of what we’d come up with and I’m fairly sure we recorded the song on Hoffa’s trusty Tascam four-track, with some beats (via a program from a cereal box) laid under the piano for good measure, but the tape was soon lost. Either way, the song proved to be a catalyst – Hoffa and I began teaching Dion to play bass, and we set out in search of drummer. Eventually we found Harry Fahey, and the rest, as they say, is fodder for Doc’s long and boring blog.

Early 21st Century Ox pic from The Warrnambool Standard.

Juliet & Her Romeo was recorded on the first (and only released) Ox album (What Am I Going To Do With All These Portaloos?) and played at just about every gig we did. It was subtitled “part one” because I intended to write more songs about the Romeo and Juliet story. I did actually write a part two and played it live exactly once. There’s a recording of it and it sounds fucking horrendous. That will not be appearing on this blog. I’ve posted some shit on here but even I have limits.

Instead here are a couple of live recordings of the song. The first was done in The Cellar, below the old Criterion Hotel, on November 30, 2000. I’ve no idea what the gig was in aid of, but the fact that it was recorded and that November 30, 2000 was a Thursday (thank you, Google) leads me to believe it was an open mic night or a similar such night run by TAFE’s music industry skills students. We did a lot of those as the house band, which basically meant finishing the night with a 40-minute set.

Ox live at The Cellar.

Dion Barker: bass
Harry Fahey: drums
Brendan Hoffmann: vocals, sax
Matt Neal: guitar

Recorded at The Cellar, Warrnambool, November 30, 2000.
Produced and mixed live by TAFE MIS students.

This next recording is a slightly heavier version made (I think) in Portland on September 15 at the Henty Hotel. Matt Hewson had joined the band on sax by that stage and we'd played close to 50 gigs in the previous 12 months. Both versions are a bit patchy but as Dion said recently, Juliet & Her Romeo was hard to nail live for some reason. I think our lack of fundamental skills and passion for getting messed up before gigs is showing somewhat in both recordings (and probably the reason why we didn't nail things live).

Dion Barker: bass
Harry Fahey: drums
Matt Hewson: saxophone
Brendan Hoffmann: vocals, guitar
Matt Neal: guitar

Recorded at The Henty Hotel, Portland, September 15, 2001.
Produced and mixed live by Dave Wilson.

And finally – I’ve posted this before, but it’s apt to post it again. The song was covered by Negative Hold, a local metal band at the time who were great friends of ours and who we used to gig with a lot. I love their version. You can read more about that here.


He espied her ‘cross a crowded room
With angel wings and eyes in bloom
Glazed expression and troubled mind
Star-crossed heart leading her unkind

And I defy you stars
I challenge you, Fate, to take my breath away
And leave me cold
I challenge your fate

Entwined and tangled in a web of sheets
Two young lovers, one heartbeat
A storm is brewing on horizon cold
Death does drip from the sword he holds

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

#61. A Journey Across Space & Time – 21st Century Ox

Dion Barker: bass
Harry Fahey: drums
Matt Hewson: saxophone
Brendan Hoffmann: guitar
Matt Neal: guitar, vocals

Lyrics by Matt Neal.
Music by Dion Barker, Harry Fahey, Matt Hewson, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Written 2000/2001?
Recorded at Motherlode Studios, 2002.
Produced and mixed by Tony Peel and Harry Fahey.

Epic. That’s what I was going for here. This collection of weird chords was always intended to be a dynamic slow-burner, perhaps with a hint of psychedelic and prog-rock that burst to life and took you on a trip … hence the hilariously overblown title. Space grunge, perhaps.

I’m sure this sounds like something pre-existing – at the back of my mind is the feeling that the arrangement and the strange array of chords are very similar to something else, but I can’t figure out what it is. All I can pin it down to is an odd mixture of the stuff I was listening to aged 19 and 20 – Pink Floyd, Tool, Nirvana, King Crimson and The Smashing Pumpkins. Nothing specific really but just a mash-up of musical elements I’d probably picked out of the sounds of those bands.

So kinda something between this:

... and this:

The idea in my head was for this to be the final track on the unfinished unreleased second 21st Century Ox album, The Last Sane Man On Earth. It seemed like the kind of epic closer I like to see at the end of an album. From memory though, we used to open sets with it when playing live – that moment at 1.38 tended to get people’s attention and let people know what we were about.

“It was definitely one of my favourites to play live - I think it (was) pretty indicative of Ox’s stage presence,” Ox guitarist Brendan Hoffmann said.

“It's probably my favourite track on that album – it’s a real shame that we never got to release it. Hewy’s solo is epic! The vocals were equally epic!”

21st Century Ox live at the Lady Bay Hotel 
supporting 28 Days and Bodyjar in 2001 or 2002 (I think)

Hewy’s solo is indeed epic. It’s patently obvious to everyone who’s seen him play that he is an amazing sax player, but it’s his inventiveness and the way he fits into a song that make him truly awesome. You should all buy his jazz album. It’s king. His cover of Everlong is awesome.

The odd thing about A Journey Across Space & Time is that it began life as a track on a weird side project album that Ox bassist Dion Barker, Hoffa and myself put together in about 2001 called The Peppermint Anthology.

The idea behind The Peppermint Anthology was to get a bit messed up and to improvise songs (a bit like Gutsy As!! to be honest, but not as good) and record them into Hoffa’s Tascam four-track, sometimes layering strange instruments or sounds, sometimes just improvising lyrics and melodies as we went.

The rig. Pic: Matt Neal.

The results were generally shit. From memory, we sold two copies.

“Yeah, I remember it was pretty crap, but it has sentimental value,” Hoffa said.

Here’s the Peppermint version of A Journey Across Space & Time:

Dion Barker: acoustic bass, vocals
Brendan Hoffmann: beats and loops
Matt Neal: acoustic guitar, vocals

Recorded on a Tascam four-track at Janlor Drive, Warrnambool.
Produced and mixed by Dion Barker, Brendan Hoffmann and Matt Neal.
Released on The Peppermint Anthology Volume 1

This recording was slightly more organised than most of the other Peppermint stuff. I’d written the chords some time prior, probably with the intention of taking them to an Ox rehearsal, but we decided to have a muck around with them one afternoon at Hoffa’s place, with me on guitar, Dion on acoustic bass, and Hoffa at his computer using some weird DJ program to live trigger various samples. Dion tells me the program came free in a cereal box. He’s not even joking.

"And I got my bass guitar in a tin of milo!" - Dion
Pic: Matt Neal

That pre-organisation meant that this was the stand-out track of the Peppermint Anthology album. It had the fewest amount of fuck-ups and we actually sounded like we vaguely knew what we were doing. The aim of the Peppermint experiments was to capture magical musical accidents, which it did from time to time. Unfortunately the bits either side of those happy accidents was usually shite. But you live and learn.

Like how I just learnt it's apparently not cool to wear shorts on stage,
even if it was the Cri and the year was 2001.


Say goodbye tonight
We gotta fly tonight