Andrew Bencina lands in-between two deserts to break in one of the most remote studios on the planet and finds it’s just like home – without the noise.
Photos: Luke Nicholls & Tobias Hengeveld
If you’ve been toying with the idea of selling that vintage mic collection to reserve a seat on one of Richard Branson’s ‘galactic’ adventures, forget about it. A budget red-eye flight from Melbourne to Darwin during the wet season will deliver an equally alien and mesmerising view of nature’s wonderful mystery. The small, and less than ergonomically positioned porthole a more than adequate replacement for the Hubble space telescope as flashes of purple, blue, orange and white electricity bubbled through the clouds, Six hours in layover limbo on the floor of Darwin terminal, however, was much less stimulating – and my colleague Tobias Hevengold and I were still more than 24 hours from Balgo!
Nestled between the Great Sandy and Tanami deserts is the community of Wirrimanu in the Kutjungka region. The town of Balgo has a fluctuating population of about 400 indigenous residents, and white fellas (Kartiya) who administer and deliver a range of public services. By road it’s about 850km northwest from Alice Springs and 300km south of Halls Creek. I’m assured that only the drive can instil a true appreciation for Balgo’s isolation (try zooming in on satellite images of Wirrimanu using Google maps!) but I was willing to forego this privilege. Luckily, due to the surplus weight of our recording and cooking supplies it became necessary to ferry us in from Kununurra in a chartered Cessna. Even so, as the two-hour flight proceeded the postcard landmarks eroded into into dust until it felt like we were hovering over the same stretch of country for at least half an hour. Eventually the horizontal haze filtered away and a cluster of tin roofs radiating from the edge of a red gravel footy field came into focus. The jagged coastal cliffs of a prehistoric sound, widening into the distance. A timely reminder that even the nothingness is not what it seems.
We’d been enticed here at the invitation of the Warlayirti Artists Art Centre. The WAAC is a non-profit corporation that began operating in balgo in 1987. Administered by a small permanent staff, the centre’s operation is directed by a board of annually elected, local artists. Established to develop and service the talents of what has grown to be a significant group of indigenous painters, it is the commercial success of this organisation that has continued to drive the creative explorations of this ‘desert island’ community. In the last two years the centre has expanded to provide training in photography and the diverse range of skills associated with filmmaking. As an adjunct to this project it became possible to build a recording studio capable of serving both the new media department, and the bands of Balgo and other surrounding satellite communities (Billiluna and Mulan).
Alongside Aussie Rules, music seems to deliver the greatest opportunity for inter-community social exchange. The regular sports weekends – rotated between communities and attended by almost everyone – are generally accompanied by a battle of the bands. Just as Warlayirti has become a centre for excellence in the visual arts it is hoped that the new studio can attract musicians from all over the western deserts, providing new opportunities for expression and artistic development.
Almost the first building you encounter on the short drive in from the airstrip, the WAAC sits at the entrance to a valley of prehistoric sea cliffs known as ‘The Pound’. On the ground for only a few minutes and still recovering from an alien blast of dry heat it was surreal to be standing at the entrance of a brand new studio; ‘Pound Sound’ as I’ve personally come to think of it. The rust-coloured community complex melts into its arid surroundings. The crisp white walls of the studio’s expansive live performance space, however, seem out of place. Air conditioned to a relatively chilly 21 degrees, the studio is like the Tardis, transporting all who enter into a larger than imagined realm detached from the outside world – in here it’s just about the music. When you spend most of your life in a studio (particularly when it’s also where you live) you become so accustomed to the equipment, paraphernalia and layout, that almost any other recording environment feels just as familiar. it sounds funny to say, but a short three-minute drive from the airport unravelled 36 hours of travel to bring me home again.
SIDE BY SIDE
After a couple of days of unpacking, setting up and testing both the gear and the space we were slowly coming to terms with how we’d run things. I was sitting quietly trying to re-familiarise myself with Logic Pro (we parted when Emagic abandoned support for the Windows platform) and learn the ins and outs of the Presonus console when the boys from Cliffside Reggae bustled into the studio with some excitement. To this point we’d been keeping a pretty low profile and the studio wasn’t really open for business, but it was clear the word was out. I’m a relentless planner by nature and so hoping to complete my reconnaissance I stayed at the iMac in the control room – or more accurately, remained hidden – while Tobias was left to coordinate the impromptu jam session cum pre-production rehearsal.
Employed to run workshops on songwriting and singing, Tobias was forced more often into the role of general studio dogsbody, conceptual translator and ringmaster – charged with keeping order in the studio circus while I focused on capturing sounds. With Tobias out with the bands demonstrating new ideas, explaining processes and offering constant encouragement, not to mention policing the main entrance, I was able to remain in my own little world isolating and resolving each problem as it arose under the stress test of this hastily convened session. From the guys’ point of view I may as well have been tilting at windmills. The guitars were plugged into an amp – turned up to 11 – ‘so let’s record!’ – completely understandable really.
This unexpected dry run also fortuitously gave us a much better idea of what was to come. Specifically we’d been given a chance to hear the musicians using the instruments in the way they wanted to hear them – big, loud, flashy, full-on! The music of the indigenous interior of Australia is too often described as ‘des-reggae’. which fails to adequately describe the eruption of fervour and energy. If anything it’s ‘red dust ska’. Music here exists in the moment. Few individuals own instruments, so when you get the opportunity to jam or play a gig you better go for it. Can’t hear your instrument over the band? Turn up, or find a new sound that’s even more piercing. Back home, guitarists spend years honing their style and equipment to maximise and sweeten sustain. Here, it’s all about the shred.
But while there seems to be little focus on how the group may sound as a whole, there is also no ego. Instruments are shared freely and each individual relinquishes their turn without a grumble. Everyone wants the chance to be heard but doesn’t resent sharing the spotlight. We had been warned that there would also be layers of social hierarchy in operation that we couldn’t hope to fully perceive or understand. However they functioned, they only served to simplify what was a pretty chaotic environment.
From this initial exposure we were determined to take control of the individual elements of the groups and cast a more focused light on their musical roles. Guitar amps were banished to adjoining isolation booths (the storeroom and bathroom) and the Yamaha MM6 keyboard would be recorded via MIDI and simultaneously revoiced by one of Logic’s virtual instruments. The electronic drums would also be recorded as MIDI but their sound replacement would have to wait until my return home. Bass would be recorded primarily through an Avalon U5 instrument DI. In one fell swoop we had solved the issue of overwhelming volume levels and ensured that the selection of any sound would require at least a short discussion of what was desired and why that sound was most appropriate.
Our first official recording session took place the following Monday. Working with John Tchooga and band we were able to quickly establish a method of capturing a great band take, then focussing in on overdubs to replace or develop certain elements. The setup we’d established post the Friday afternoon jam, relying entirely on a monitor mix delivered via headphones, was effortlessly assimilated as the ‘right-way’ to record. I was amazed how quickly the band embraced multi tracking and quite frankly they maintained their feel and confidence when monitoring in cans far better than many of my city clients. Within 24 hours every new band that entered the studio came with at least some understanding of the process we had established. The grapevine was working overtime and the speed at which information was shared and embraced made our task that much easier.
DO AS I DO, NOT AS I SAY
What also became clear was that by creating a setup that spatially implied our techniques and set clear limits on what was possible, we were able to quickly pass on some understanding of what our expectations were. Anyone who’s worked with me will tell you that I’m a talker. I tend to verbalise ideas as they stream just to get them out. In Balgo this simply won’t work. For almost all the indigenous inhabitants of the town, English may be a third or fourth language – seven main language groups still endure in the Kutjungka region. Somewhat uniquely, in this community even children are likely to speak in ‘language’ before they tackle English. Add this to slight variations in phrasing, the fresh and unfamiliar jargon of recording, and a tendency to minimise eye contact, and verbal communications can be challenging. Like an SMS conversation without the emoticons it doesn’t take too much of a misunderstanding to imbue even the simplest expression with a completely different meaning.
This however is countered by a highly developed culture of learning through observation. The speed at which a demonstrated task seems to flow from eyes to hands is surprising when you first encounter it. Education through experience has greatly diminished within modern western cultures. While this shift may help in some areas, it’s easy to see how much more freely skills and culture can be shared throughout a community when the practice remains vibrant. In the case of music, the speed with which individuals absorbed a new chord progression on either guitar or keys had little, if anything, to do with an understanding of musical theory and its patterns. Their keen observational skills get them to a point where the jam or session can continue without any need to dwell on the theory at its root.
Of course, this has some obvious drawbacks. Bad habits can easily be passed on as youngsters watch the older more experienced guys; several of whom we found had received some level of musical instruction during time spent away from the community at boarding school. Instead of learning the rudiments of an instrument, you’re likely to start with some of the slightly more tricky techniques employed by the musicians you look up to. Making it easy to quickly adopt small mistakes as a permanent fixture of your style. As an example many guitarists in Balgo pick up funk and reggae chords, requiring the use of the thumb to fret the bass string, before they learn the standard open chords or traditional bar chords – if they ever learn them. While completely understandable based on the prevailing musical taste, we found this commonly had evolved into chords omitting the necessary thumb position and generating dissonant bass notes. Also this practice has a tendency to produce songs in the same key sharing similar chord structures. This only serves to reinforce the importance of continuing the exchange of ideas and techniques between visiting musicians and the community.
Education through experience has greatly diminished within modern western cultures. It’s easy to see how much more freely skills and culture can be shared throughout a community when the practice remains vibrant
LOST & FOUND IN TRANSLATION
It’s not always quite so easy to explain recording techniques via demonstration when the result can only be heard after the performance has been captured. In this context trust becomes far more important. Within the space of a single session I experienced three different examples of this communication challenge. In the first case it became necessary to stop and assemble a core rhythm take from a number of partial performances when we found the musician was getting tired. This was no problem for me within Logic and avoided embarrassment and tension for the performer. While I completed this process many of the other musicians sat behind me on the obligatory control room couch. Quinton Milner, one of Balgo’s best guitarists (and a gun bush mechanic, I’m told) could clearly see and hear what I was doing and without any prompting from me was able to accurately describe to the others in his words how I was ‘matching up the waves’. The next day this experience lead directly to Quinton embracing the process of editing a great feeling performance of his own band which hadn’t quite nailed the desired form. In fact, he realised that editing would also allow him to request different arrangement variations not previously considered.
By contrast, when we returned to layer overdubs over the initially edited rhythm track I found it very difficult to explain to Cyril Calyon, guitar hero from Mulan, why I was asking him to move around the room and use different guitars for each of his different parts. He just wanted to nail each part once (which he was eminently capable of) and get into the control room to hear how it all sounded. I described how the different tones and spaces would allow us to make his instrumental song sound deeper and more like the country he had written about. This level of abstraction simply tried his patience further and under his breath Cyril muttered, “Next thing he’ll have me playing on the roof.” I could understand his frustration but knew we needed to finish the session before I could actually prove my point – I’m tempted to send Cyril a DVD of 24 Hour Party People, just so he knows that given a different engineer the roof may well have been a valid option.
Immediately following, we were faced with a confrontation from a different perspective. Cyril was insistent about laying down drums on what was rapidly becoming a spacious flamenco tour de force. Even Tobias, who’d almost exclusively played the part of ‘good cop’ in our duo was concerned that drums, of the style that we’d been hearing for days now, would destroy the vibe we’d all worked so hard to create. The issue was delayed while Darryl Yoomari laid down bass with his trademark, understated aplomb and we listened to Cyril jam along. The signs weren’t so good. Thankfully we were able to distract Cyril with the keys. Laying down yet another restrained layer with a filtered string pad that complemented the existing energy of the composition.
Once again, we faced off over the drums. None of us could hear how they could make the piece better and Cyril couldn’t describe, in terms that we’d understand, what he had in mind. This time a little voice somewhere deep in my conscience convinced me to listen. After a false start Cyril proceeded to belt out the simplest most considered drum take we’d heard in weeks and Ottmar Liebert was transformed into Pink Floyd. We were gobsmacked! As some justification for our hesitant approach Cyril revealed that, “the strings made me play that way.” It was a welcome smack in the head. I find at least once in every project you get ahead of yourself and assume that you know best. Always let artists explore their ideas first. There’s no point resisting because you think it’s all going pear shaped. Generally, it will lead somewhere new. All the more true when you share neither the same language nor frame of reference.
Of all the skirmishes we fought in the studio, by far the greatest challenge was to encourage diversity in the musical choices. In Balgo decisions are generally made by consensus. As in a small town ’50s radio station somewhere in U.S. of A. where each day’s record travels directly from lathe to DJ, if no-one calls in to hear it again, it’s back to the drawing board. In the desert this feedback loop resonates during nightly sessions at the basketball courts with a CD boom box. If the kids are dancing, you’re the king. On the day I flew out, Efram Biendery had clearly won the battle for hearts and minds as his song ‘Warriors’ blared through every passing car’s windscreen.
In the studio it was a little different. It’s amazing how much the material would change depending on the dynamics of the personnel. When it’s a group playing, then you can rest assured that the song will be played ‘right-way’, which is generally the way it has always been played. While working with Quintin, on a day where it’d been impossible to rustle up collaborators, it was interesting that the song we started to record was slower and had different rhythms than those we’d been working on in previous sessions. He even sang it down the octave in a way that we were very keen to explore. We certainly weren’t achieving the tightness of a band, as Quinton multi-tracked all the parts himself, but it was heading somewhere interesting. Then Aaron (Quintin’s younger brother) and Darryl strode through the door like the day had just begun and we were very quickly back to the ‘original’ version. We were running out of time in the afternoon and they were playing nicely with a tighter groove, but we’ll never be sure if the new way was how Quinton wanted to move that track forward.
I think both Tobias and I will treasure the time spent alone with one of the younger talents of the community, Roderick Daniels. Not yet ensconced in any one permanent band structure Roderick was free to work alone on a couple of songs while much of the community was away at a very long sports weekend. With nobody else around, he was also happy to take some chances just to have the opportunity to spend more time in the studio. He knew that not every choice we made together would appeal immediately to his own community but we were thankful for the trust he invested in us and he can be proud of the results.
After a false start Cyril proceeded to belt out the simplest most considered drum take we’d heard in weeks and Ottmar Liebert was transformed into Pink Floyd. We were gobsmacked!
It’d be easy to read this account and assume that working in Balgo is just like any other place. In a way, it’s true. Pound Sound is like any modern studio. It was my country and I was able to set the agenda. On the other hand I had several pet huntsmen in the control room that back at home would not have been tolerated due to a rather irrational arachnophobia. It was just much easier out there to settle for the devil you knew, as there were so many other worse alternatives. It changes your perspective when at the end of a working day you’re just as likely to be rewarded with an unforgettable sunset as to be surprised by a death adder rustling through the scrub. The extremes are palpable – forty degree baking heat followed by intense rainfall capable of leaving the WAAC surrounded by a moat. When you can clearly see the full arc of a rainbow from end to end you can’t forget that this is another world.
Without the slightest struggle you’re up every day at six and destroyed by 10 at night. You become desensitised to the heat, the geckos on the fly wire and the cockroaches patrolling the halls at night. Well maybe not the cockies, but I swear one was wearing a Richmond guernsey. There’s one shop, our TV was on the fritz and we’d elected to forego access to both our mobiles and the web. When there’s no alternative, you quickly get on with living life.
SKY FOR THE CLOUDS
I’m home now, and driving into town along the Eastern Freeway I was drawn to the epic storm clouds looming over the Collingwood skyline. It’s not the first time I’ve stopped to look up since I got back to town and on each occasion what I’ve seen has matched the majestic and inspirational desert skies over Balgo. The only problem is the increased noise floor. People, cars, buildings, trees and a less than pancake flat geography all diminish our ability to experience the simple wonder of the sky.
Recording in the Kutjungka was the opposite. It’s not so much our presence in the desert that makes everything seem clearer, but rather the absence of everything else that makes any focus more acute. Of all the experiences, it is this perspective that stays with me most strongly and will no doubt inform my recording choices as I plan for future adventures into sound.