Crab Smasher :: It Is What It Is
Its half past two on a Sunday morning in Alexandria and Marnie Vaughn’s birthday party has been a great success. The party theme was the humble Rubik’s Cube, guests being required to come dressed in blank primary coloured garb. Earlier in the evening a frenzied clothes swap ensued as people in various stages of inebriation attempted to become the first to assemble a complete outfit in a single colour. The young man who won is stalking around downstairs, dressed in a uniform yellow. His prize: a rainbow umbrella.
We sit on Marnie’s bed, attempting to talk about Crab Smasher, the experimental noise / cheese-slathered pop outfit in which she plays drums. This is difficult. Out the window, Will, a young gentleman dressed in Himalayan garb, souvenirs from a recent trip to Nepal, is attempting to negotiate with police in reference to a noise complaint, irate neighbours taking umbrage to the hardcore punk being cranked from the stereo in the backyard. Neither of us are tremendously impressed by the choice of music either, preferring the Pixies that are competing for attention from the lounge.
“I was in my brother’s band called Anal Discharge” says Marnie, an assured twenty-two year old with a ready laugh. “We had a show and my brother wanted to replace me with another drummer who was my boyfriend at the time… it was a touch awkward, [as] my brother chose the other drummer to play the show. Crab Smasher said ‘Hey, we need a drummer, come and play with us.’ I was seventeen – I didn’t even know what noise music was at the time.”
Will strides back into the room, stopping in front of Marnie. “Hey, can you help us get the music off? There’s like six cop cars.” He holds up his hand, one finger adorned with an over-sized ring, and starts laughing, relating his exchange with one of the officers. “I fuckin’ shook his hand and cut it open”. He wanders off to tell more people of this amusing encounter without waiting for a response. Someone is playing Fur Elise on the honky tonk downstairs, Beethoven adding a suitably civilised edge to proceedings.
“I like improvising because it’s always different and you always react to the audience” Marnie continues. “It’s also very dependent on everyone’s mood and how we respond to each other. It’s great to be able to react to the audience and not have a set that you always just play. It can be rather nerve-wracking, it can go well, it might not – it’s difficult just overcoming that. There’s always an element of uncertainty. Expectations I think are always difficult – I like that no one really expects us to amaze them.”
Drumming is only one of Marnie’s talents. Aside from undertaking a Masters in Gallery Administration, she is an accomplished photographer, the downstairs lounge area being heavily decorated with her work, although she seems to spend more time “working in a horrible world where photography is commercial and brides are my enemy.” Above her bed hangs one of her pieces, a surreal primordial swamp scene: a Hadrosaur stands in the foreground, its vivid golden shape drawing the eye away from a pair of demonic eyes that emerge from the drenching green murk. I later discover that she used a garden gnome as a model.
An endearing youth with big brown eyes comes up to us. “Oh, is this an interview?” We explain that we’re talking about Crab Smasher. It quickly emerges that he is an avowed fan, his favourite Crab Smasher moment being Grant Hunter, the band’s de facto leader, or possibly someone else (the details are hazy), playing a typewriter at an impromptu gig at Grant’s old house in Newcastle. We sit and introduce ourselves. “I’m really drunk” says Simo Soo, “but I’m still here.” The pianist seems to have given up, although noise still emanates from the backyard in a half-heard background scuzz. It’s getting late.
“Have you got enough material?” Marnie asks.
“Well… about fifteen minutes” I reply.
“Fifteen, oh that’s a lot of minutes. I’m surprised I could talk for fifteen minutes about Crab Smasher.”
“Usually I let Grant talk and if I talk he gets angry about what I talk about. ‘That’s not what it’s about!’ The whole time I’ve been in the band it’s been like, ‘So Grant, what’s it about? I’m an artist, I can understand these things!’ and he would never tell me. It’s a mystery. It is what it is.”
It’s a chilly, somewhat desultory day in Newcastle. Aside from a few window shoppers and the odd bored-looking white-collar worker, the Hunter St mall in the middle of the city is deserted. It’s certainly doubtful whether many of the clothing or record chain outlets lining the main drag are bringing in much in the way of custom.
It’s pleasant enough on the other side of the railway line however, sunshine occasionally trickling through the clouds where we sit outside the Brewery, the stately flat-screen adorned boozatorium that squats next to the grey expanse of Hunter River. A middle aged man stands fishing off the end of the wharf, while seagulls play noisy territorial games in the puddles next to our table.
Perhaps it’s just the reheated pumpkin risotto and gargantuan banana smoothie that served as breakfast sloshing around his system, but Grant Hunter, artist, stoic, electronic wizard and self-confessed “bossiest member” of Crab Smasher, is in a talkative mood, despite being here on sufferance. His distaste stems from the fact that the Brewery and nearby Fanny’s nightclub are apparently focal points for the kind of nightlife that finds the dispensation of random beatings to be the highlight of any given evening. “If you’re out at night by yourself, you’re just a target for being assaulted” he tells me.
Crumbling commercial infrastructure and seeming stagnation of the local economy notwithstanding, Newcastle has changed considerably for the better over the last year – it was “like a ghost town” says Hunter. Although much of the CBD’s business real estate stands dormant, bought up by property developers with an eye toward eventually constructing a Westfield-style megamall, a ballooning number of the empty shop-fronts and office spaces have been occupied by young creative sorts, shielded from the prohibitive horrors of commercial rents under the enveloping wing of the Renew Newcastle scheme.
Conceived by arts philanthropist Marcus Westbury (writer, broadcaster and founder of the Newcastle-based This Is Not Art festival) and modelled on a similar project of urban regeneration in Glasgow, the project is aimed at keeping the mall area of the CBD active by providing space for people to pursue creative or community focussed interests. Successful examples include a millinery (The Mad Hatter, its front window resembling a race day madam’s wet dream), an animation studio (with the delightful moniker of Specially Trained Monkeys) and zine shop (the Bird in the Hand, run by the formidable Susy Pow).
Before we crossed over into enemy territory, Hunter gave a brief tour of Art Hive, the small art gallery and catacomb of studio spaces that he co-directs and utilises along with a number of other local artists. “There’s a lot of good people doing stuff under the radar of the rest of the country” says Hunter of the project. “You’re able to create opportunities for yourself without having to rely too much on other people. You just put your head down and do what you like without really worrying about it.”
“Do what you like” along with “don’t take any of it too seriously” and “it’s all about having fun” may as well form the unofficial tripartite band motto for Crab Smasher, a group that take outright pleasure in conforming to no one’s expectations but their own. The band began life as a duo back in 2002 when Hunter and fellow crustacean demolition expert Nicholas French (guitar) started making “really bad, cheesy stuff” for their own amusement on Windows Sound Recorder, uploading their sonic doodlings online for whoever cared to look. “We didn’t know how to play any of the songs live” says Hunter “[so] we just improvised, [which then] influenced how we recorded. We did that for a while – then we started taking it all too seriously.”
Boredom with making “arty noise stuff” was accompanied by a sense of going through the motions, as well as a recognition of the very real danger of the group disappearing up their own collective fundament. Hunter certainly seems to prefer party cats to chin strokers: “We were playing with lots of dudes who were really pretentious” he reflects, “people chewing chips into a microphone and making really boring noise music. We realised that we were kind of going down that path, [so] we went back to where we started, recording and layering stuff, but trying to get as far away from that sort of serious art noise as possible. So we started recording pop songs – I don’t know whether it was just to confuse people or to amuse ourselves.”
Of course, there’s pop songs and then there’s pop songs, Crab Smasher’s take on the genre being not dissimilar to Hunter’s version of breakfast: uncontained exercises in improvisatory dementia, suggestions of melody emerging from all manner of droning ambience, grinding scuzz and electronic discordance, all within a friendly verse chorus structure.
“It became a question of improvising smarter” he explains. “We stopped playing the twenty minute noise pieces that we had been and [started] playing songs without writing them, writing them on the spot with the emphasis on melody, rhythm and all the kind of stuff that pop music’s all about and trying to do that live. We kind of sound like a weird sort of rock band now. In the last year or so we’ve improvised stuff that’s in a pop song structure that we’ve recorded and then memorised from the recordings and then tried to play live. It’s sort of a backwards way of doing it.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising that for a group that takes unalloyed delight in provoking a reaction from its audience, Crab Smasher have practically exhausted the limited possibilities provided by the watering holes of Newcastle. Given some of the absurdities they’ve put up with, this may well be for the best, archaic curfew laws and militant security guards on two occasions gifting the group with the joyous experience of being locked out of their own gig. “It was ridiculous!” says Hunter. “They didn’t pay us and then they wouldn’t let us take the rest of our gear home. That’s the kind of stuff you deal with when you play in pubs.”
Not that such challenges have stopped them from taking on drinking establishments up and down the Central Coast, one night at a “pretty rough” pub in Wyong providing a crystallising moment as to the band’s raison d’être. “We had some new gear and were totally harsh and chaotic and noisy and the sound guy pulled the plug after nine minutes and the house DJ wanted to beat us up. From that point on we convinced ourselves that we were serious improvisers and that became the point of doing the band, creating something in the moment – later our recordings became more about documenting that process.”
Although such fearlessness can only be marvelled at, no wonder that Hunter prefers the infinitely friendlier forums provided by house parties, warehouses, galleries or Vox Cyclops, the nearby underground record shop (another Renew Newcastle project) run by the folks from fellow noise-meisters Castings, the mutual encouragement provided by this tight knit community of culture manufacturers as well as the solid friendships that lie at the group’s core perhaps helping to explain Crab Smasher’s surprising longevity. “There’s a really supportive group of friends that’re doing similar stuff around town. It’s really low key” he says. “I think that that’s much more valuable.”
As well as generously streaming all of their material through their website (newer stuff for a small nominal fee), Crab Smasher put an exceptional amount of effort into producing small runs of aesthetically interesting physical products, adorning a steady flow of releases with the original artwork of band members as well as that of illustrator or cartoonist friends. Their new cassette Thick Mosquito Sky is a case in point, a total of sixty covers having been hand screened in a tri-coloured design. “It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get it all to line up” sighs Hunter, “I like that they’re all a bit different and uneven though. They’ve each got their own character.”
While recognition from initiatives such as New Weird Australia have undoubtedly provided satisfying ego-boosts, it’s clear that fundamentally the band gain most fulfilment making music by and for themselves while gleaning as much amusement from it as possible. “I try not to get too philosophical about DIY” Hunter muses. “it’s just a means to an end. None of us agree on anything, but we go into a room and something comes out. It’s not identifiable as being any set thing, it’s its own thing. It’s just us having fun together. That’s what it’s all about – we’d probably be doing it even if we didn’t invite people to listen to us. Just us in a room, doing it.”
It’s Friday night at the Hardware Gallery and a girl has just thrown up in the corridor. “I drank warm beer” she gasps weakly to the concerned lip-ringed woman who moves to assist her before she vanishes into the bathroom, mortified. A pair of gallery attendants nearby seem more interested in apportioning blame for allowing the girl entry than locating a bucket and mop. It’s a minor shemozzle. Ah well. Better out than in.
The front room of the gallery is elegantly lit, people standing around chatting and sipping wine. A young woman in what look to be second hand men’s clothes stands to one side, painting a pair of female figures on a large canvas. Her hands work quickly, her face a picture of absolute focus; it’s a moot point as to whether she’s working to a plan or making it up on the spot. Not that it seems to matter either way.
Vinyl twelve inch records, painted with an amazing array of designs line the walls – a pair of large mutated ears; a man in a suit with the head of a beagle smoking a pipe stands before a blackboard inscribed “A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence”; one enterprising sculptor has created a glass duplicate of the vinyl single of 90s dance hit Groove is in the Heart by Deee-Lite, recording the resulting scratch-ridden cacophony and making it available for the public’s consideration through a pair of headphones next to the artefact. The original beat is almost perceptible within the resulting din, a half-remembered image emerging through fog.
In a shadowy corner in the back room, Grant is fussing over a small bank of sound equipment, adjusting levels on the keyboard, twiddling knobs, completely oblivious to the surprised squawks of people stepping over the splatter of vomit in the corridor. Marnie looks nervous sitting next to him, occasionally picking up her sticks before replacing them, while Nicholas French, his face obscured by a heavy mop of blonde hair, and bassist Nathan Martin fiddle with their instruments in the corner opposite.
Finally they begin, the music commencing without any clear signal to the sparse audience, the fading murmur of the listeners blurring into the growing soft distortion emanating from Nicholas’ guitar. People stream into the darkened space, standing in a thick clump at the back while others form a cross legged semi-circle a respectful metre or so around the band.
Alien sounds emerge from the noise, both harsh and strangely muted, Grant yelping into a microphone before twisting and contorting the sound around the ostinato of the guitar. Then Marnie kicks into action and suddenly the noise is transformed, Grant moving to the synthesizer, a twist of harmony curling out to twine around the bass line – lines of attention focus the band members on one another, cues being given and responded to.
The room is pulsing now with a jaunty beat – why isn’t anyone dancing? – Nicholas striding over to stand in front of the desk, ripping a new theme into the mix, the sound kicking up a further gear for a long minute before they allow the layered noise to dissipate back into the air. “That was fantastic” someone calls out as people start to clap. The girl with the lip ring is standing close by. “That was shit” she mouths into a friend’s ear. “C’mon, I want more wine.”
by Oliver Downes
Contains material originally published at Throw Shapes