We chat with independent music label Art As Catharsis about entering Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive, the importance of artistic expression and the state of Australian music.
Recently, independent Sydney-based music label Art As Catharsis was approached by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to submit their entire and future catalogue for preservation in the NFSA’s museum online and in Canberra. This is a notable accomplishment considering the label’s youth and eclectic range which spans progressive pop, experimental classical, mathcore, postrock, heavy metal, ambient soundscape, middle-eastern inspired prog, folk and shoegaze.
I caught up with Art As Catharsis’ founder, Lachlan Dale, to discuss what the archives means to him and for the label, and to share a valuable read to those interested in learning more about the incredible talent Sydney is nurturing in its underground.
What led you to start Art As Catharsis?
I’ve always loved helping people discover new music, and I’ve been writing about music since I was about 15 years old. The label is just a natural extension of that. I spent five or six years helping a friend with his record label but I wasn’t satisfied promoting music that I felt no connection to – I needed to express my preferences and identity through my own label.
Since starting in 2011, the label has grown to host almost 70 releases from over 40 other groups and solo artists. What was it like back then and what was the process to get to where you are now?
At the start I was afraid the idea wasn’t coherent – how can you mix weird, punishing, psychedelic drone with pretty folk and experimental pop? – but now I feel more confident in presenting that idea to the world. I get people saying, “I never know what you’re going to put out next, but I’m always going to give it a listen.”
The first thing I released was Huxwhukw (Serious Beak – 2011). Bandcamp made it possible to give free digital releases reasonable promotion, so I followed up Huxwhukw with a bunch of old releases that I really liked and felt not enough people had heard. Over time the concept has broadened and evolved. I try to support music that moves me emotionally, or that I respect for its intensity or experimentation.
When was the tipping point, where you knew you were reaching broader audiences?
We Lost The Sea are an obvious high point. With their last record, Departure Songs (2015), they’ve really managed to jump three or four levels. They’ll sell out Oxford Art Factory or Newtown Social Club without too much trouble these days, and have just finished their tour of Europe for the first time. A lot of that has to do with their dedication, as well as the strength of their music. I’m just happy to have helped in some small way.
And there’s Brian Campeau too. He’s played some big shows in the past – he supported Joanna Newsom at Sydney Opera House, and toured a few times with Katie Noonan. When he asked me to release his last album (Don’t Overthink, Overthink, Overthinking… – 2015), I’m sure that within the non-heavy, more experimental scenes, people took notice.
You’ve done a lot in the last five years to earn the trust of the community whose ear you hold. Do you know what specifically it was which drew the NFSA to you?
My assumption is some of the stuff we released in 2015 caught their attention. Drowning Horse did really well; we got them an exclusive stream on VICE’s Noisey and we had Hannahband on The Guardian. We Lost The Sea were featured in the Sydney Morning Herald last year for their Oxford Art Factory show – which they sold out. I think there are a few things popping up from the underground which caught their attention.
Do you feel any pressure to represent Sydney’s underground music community in any certain way to the NFSA?
The only pressure I feel is to do justice to the bands I work with and get them more coverage. I’m looking to reach out to people who are in more, traditionally, institutionally-respected, experimental and avant-garde spaces, so I think it will help on that front.
With all this constant talk of grants, cuts and education, why should Australia care about the arts?
Well, firstly there’s the need for psychological regulation. It’s vital that people have these channels to express negative psychological and emotional content. Then there’s the importance of forging connections, and a sense of community. Seeing our own experiences reflected through other people’s art allows us to communicate on another level. It can be difficult to encapsulate a lot of things in speech, but art performance is a lot broader.
Australia’s rootlessness, isolation and lack of a strong, traditional view of the arts has given us a unique character when it comes to production of art. Perhaps that means we’re less traditionalist, but when you see how other countries have been shaped by music, performance, theatre and literary culture, it seems sad that Australia doesn’t have that.
It’s a shame that there’s so little concern for music in Australia, because, thanks to that rootlessness, that sense of isolation and lack of tradition, we do things very differently here. Some of the best bands that I hear are coming out of this country doing incredibly progressive things.
Yeah and we have a couple of hundred people who know about them. It’s frustrating. I feel that Australian music is undervalued and undermined globally – people aren’t aware of it. I’m still kind of upset that more people don’t know about bands like Gauche or Squat Club; they’ve kind of just faded away into the annals of history. I hate that.
But then you’ve got bands like sleepmakeswaves going overseas and building a following, or Hiatus Kaiyote, who went from being this small, unknown band on their first EP to being quite significant in the global, modern, experimental hip-hop scene. I think that’s amazing, I feel personal joy when I see that stuff happening – bands like Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving, Kyu, Twelve Tone Diamonds. Hope Drone ended up signing to Relapse Records and are starting to break new ground, and it seems Anklepants is at a level now where he will get solid turnouts just about anywhere he goes in the world.
Who are doing the most interesting things experimental and progressive from your own catalogue?
The first band that comes to mind is Fat Guy Wears Mystic Wolf Shirt. They used to be a very chaotic sort of band, in the style of The Dillinger Escape Plan. Their latest album Accord/Dance is more restrained, more interesting and broader. There are a lot of sections driven by sax or violin. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything quite like it.
Hinterlandt are a synthesis of classical ensembles and chamber music with a little bit of an avant-garde edge but some really odd kind of “metal” sensibilities.
Kurushimi play bizarre, twisted, improvised, swampy jazz – they’re like John Zorn’s Naked City mixed with doom metal. They create an unsettling and foreboding kind of atmosphere, which I think is quite unique.
Brian Campeau’s Overthinking… album is one of my favourite releases of all time. There is so much to love in it: the instrumentation, the fact that it’s so restrained at times and yet so open and emotional.
And there’s an artist called Wartime Sweethearts who does, I guess you’d call it a bit of an experimental pop type thing, maybe related to St Vincent or Björk, or the Dirty Projectors. It’d been self-released in the past but I heard it and it blew me away. I wanted to try and bring that to a bigger audience.
Any artists or releases that you’re proud to know will be held on to thanks to the NFSA?
We Lost The Sea’s last album I really, really love. A lot of post rock is plagued by repetition and a lack of authenticity, but they’ve managed to hone a cinematic, emotional kind of sound in a genre that is often quite stale and have really breathed new life into it. As I see them growing – and I think they’ll continue to grow, they have the opportunity of being pretty relevant, globally – it’s nice to think that I’ve helped in some small way.
Another album that sticks out is Instrumental (adj.)’s debut (A Series Of Disagreements – 2015). I think it’s really unique, so it makes me happy that it’s going to be preserved or seems relevant. I absolutely cannot wait to hear their new one.
I would say Drowning Horse feels quite uniquely Australian. These are all good representations of the country.
Awesome. So what’s next for the label?
We’ve also got a new album from Peter Hollo’s raven. Peter plays in the string quartet, FourPlay, and Tangents, and has been involved in experimental music for quite some time, so I’m delighted to be helping with this release. It’s essentially a cello loop album; a mix of beautiful textural playing, soaring layered strings and glitchy electronics.
I’m also particularly excited have the new Slowly Building Weapons album coming up on our schedule. The small snippets I’ve heard have blown me away. It might be another representation of the beautifully deranged and utterly unique music we produce down here.