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Last Word with Phil Mckellar

Phil McKellar is a multi-ARIA winning engineer and producer. He’s worked all throughout the ABC and recorded a bunch of Aussie hit records, including Grinspoon’s Guide To Better Living, which has been re-released on its 20th anniversary.


7 July 2017

I came to arts school in Melbourne, then dropped out and went back to work in the Shepparton canneries to get some dough together.

In ’79 a mate who worked at the local TV station told me the ABC was employing technical trainees. We had a crack at it, but neither of us got a return letter. I kept ringing them, annoying them and sending them letters. Eventually around Christmas 1980 they suggested I come do some staging work.

My girlfriend’s mum told me, ‘you want to get your foot in the door any way you can.’ I did that and ended up at Ripponlea near Melbourne doing staging for Countdown.

I was 21 when I started on Countdown. I was a kid from the country, and when they opened the door to the newsroom booth I thought, ‘that does not look right.’ It was the size of a closet. Then they took me to the ‘big’ studio where they did Countdown. I thought it must have been huge to cross to all those different stages, not all squeezed into that small room.

One shift would be installing sets in the middle of the night, the other was wrangling props like Molly’s set.

A year later they had another intake and I got into a three-year training course. I moved into radio in ’84.

You almost had to wait until someone died to move up in the ABC ranks. The music production gigs were very coveted. I was lucky because I moved through all the networks and learned different skills as well as assisting the music production team.

One of the jobs was covering sport. I’d go off with Greg Miles and set up one microphone and a Sennheiser 416 hanging out the window to catch the crowd going off at the races. Footy, cricket, golf — the great thing about the ABC’s trainee program was you got a great background in radio production.

I recorded dramas and music for Sing, a program pumped through classroom loudspeakers. Then there was more art-related and classical program for 3AR, which became Radio National. Triple J didn’t get to Melbourne until about ’92.

In about ’88 or ’89, I started working with Chris Thompson who’d come back into Triple J to look after some live music. The ABC had converted a big old Greek picture theatre in Waverley into Studio 325, which was big enough to house the MSO. We did ‘Live at the Wireless’ from there, it had a Quad Eight console kicking around, then a Harrison Mk IV.

I’d do a session with a band and when it went really well they’d ask if we could make a record. I did a Kim Salmon with STM record called Hey Believer, and Spiderbait’s song Jesus.

Triple J was leading the ascendancy of alternative rock and grunge and I got to ride that wave. It was fortuitous timing really.

One highlight was when Chris, Leah Baker and I headed off to record Nirvana at the Palace. When we got there they said, ‘You can’t record it tonight, you’ve got to come back tomorrow night.’ So we got to stick around and see this amazing show. The audience was so keyed up to see the band perform.

The other act which blew me away was Jeff Buckley. He was a rockstar in the sense of that ’60s and ’70s bigger than life performer; really charismatic.

In the van we had a Harrison Mk IV, a couple of Otari MTR 90 tape machines, recording at 15ips onto Dolby. You had an A and B reel with 30 minutes on each, hopefully you’d kick off the second one with enough time to get the cross over.

Unearthed was used as a way to reach new regional areas. As the broadcast transmitter went in we’d announce the competition and get all those people on board.

It was a battle of the cassette bands. There was a panel of about six of us smashing through an enormous amount of material for a couple of weeks. Sometimes you’d only get 20 seconds in before you flicked it because it either wasn’t good or wasn’t Triple J.

Grinspoon won the first year we did it. There were two winners that year, the other was Ode to a Goldfish.

The deal was they recorded a track and it got airplay on Triple J; a massive opportunity for kids on the other side of the radio. I recorded both bands at Rockinghorse Studios. Grinspoon recorded two in the end, Sickfest was one of them.

They put on a concert at the uni in Lismore, and when Grinspoon hit the stage those kids went crazy. Phil was an amazing front person; he had long hair then and was really commanding onstage.

I did Silverchair’s Tomorrow EP. Grinspoon heard that and wanted to do an EP, which became Licker Bottle Cozy.

At Rockinghorse there was a big beautiful house associated with the property you could rent along with the studio. The actual recording room at Rockinghorse was fairly small. Skunkhour had been there before us and Grinspoon heard they’d set up in the house and run a loom down to the studio, which is what we did.

It sounds like three bands in the first EP and Guide To Better Living. Later on they ended up being more of a hard rock band, but Grinspoon could have been an amazing punk band because Phil has the snotty John Lydon snarl going on.

I went freelance for 10 years after leaving Triple J, but the last few years in the music industry have gotten so tight. I had a mortgage and twins, and was working studio hours, so I had to look at something more concrete. Luckily, I got back into the ABC at Radio National, and now Double J.

I’m doing a lot of stuff now that I was doing in the ’90s. We recorded at Bluesfest, and a twilight concert at the Taronga Zoo, where we grabbed Kurt Vile, Martha Wainwright and Teenage Fanclub.

Because the ABC OB truck is so huge and we’re not broadcasting live, it’s often easier to take a Digico SD11 and Sound Devices SD970 MADI recorder and set up side of stage or in a green room.

Like every media organisation the ABC is downsizing. Sadly the ABC doesn’t make a Countdown anymore, or any of those awesome shows like The Factory, Beatbox, or Recovery. The ABC doesn’t really do training anymore either. Music gigs in the ABC are very tight now. You’d have to be a very lucky individual to walk in off the street.


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