Australia · Interviews

Things to Know About Live Music in Sydney

It’s been a little while coming but I’ve finally found the time to write up the first interview in my series on things to know about Sydney scenes.

Today we’re taking a look at live music–specifically hard rock and heavy metal–with Harrison Bray, a 22-year-old who has been making music for two decades and actively participating in the local music scene since he was old enough to do so.

He now drums for Bad Absalom, a band I have enjoyed seeing multiple times in Sydney during my visits in the past year.

With a calculated sound, energetic stage presence, and magnetic friendliness, Bad Absalom is sure to give you a good time. Feel free to come see them at the Townie on April 18, the Bald Faced Stag on April 20, and follow them on Facebook for updates on gigs near you.

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After a sit down with Harrison, I intruded on Bad Absalom’s practice Friday evening at Adversary Studios. Knowing I would be flying out before their next gig, I was happy for the chance to hear some of the bands new songs before then.

Having seen Bad Absalom at multiple venues in the past year, I’ve watched the band find its sound with a solid drummer as the latest addition to a long-standing trio of talented musicians.

Although Arthur May is the frontman, his younger brother and lead guitarist Jeremy takes an equally if not a more active role in pushing the band forward and was the one who convinced Arthur to come in and sing for the band. They continue to manage the band together.

The May brothers of Bad Absalom started playing with a good friend of theirs in Nepal back in 2013 and continued to do so when they moved to Greystanes, Sydney in 2014. It was in Newtown where they met their bassist, Richie Secker a year later.

As soon as he stepped into their house, they knew, says Richie, and the trio has been playing together for three years now.

But it was ghetto, back in Greystanes, they say.

With the May’s nephew as a drummer, the band was complete and played a few shows. However, on the night of their first gig at the Valve, the drummer was kicked out by a bouncer for being underage and their set was scrapped. They did play there again but as a band that was just getting started, the singer says they weren’t what he’d consider quality performances.

Over time, the band went through a number of changes, with a new drummer and second guitarist with whom they performed for a time under the name Mud Angel. However, over the course of the past year both the guitarist and drummer pulled out and the band was back to its three core members.

Enter Harrison, who came on board just eight months ago. As of 2018, the band has now landed its first paid gig, recently recorded an EP, and will soon be playing at one of Sydney’s prime metal venues, the Bald Faced Stag.

Harrison brings more to the band then drumming alone. As somewhat of a jack of all trades in not only music but photography and journalism as well, this Sydney local is an active participant in the city’s metal community and live music scene.

Thus, Mr. Bray appeared just the local to talk to for the lowdown on the music scene.

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Tell me about how you got started with music.

I was born into a musical family: my mother lays the piano and sings; my dad was raised with a father who plays guitar and I grew up listening to old music such as big band, swing, and jazz. So, from a young age, I’ve always had music as an influence.

When my older brother started drum lessons, we bought a second-hand drum kit from a garage sale and for a long time, I would just spend hours whacking around on it. I didn’t really know what I was playing or how to do it but I figured it out. Eventually, I started primary school and I started lessons. And I’ve been playing ever since.

Ever since…?

I’ve been playing since I was about two. I’ve had ten years worth of lessons.

Outside of school, what was your first live performance?

I guess what you could technically call my first performance would have been very possibly at Frankie’s for the karaoke, but I’ve done a lot of stuff since then.

As a drummer, I’d say my first proper performance outside of school would have been with my old band, Broken Knuckles. We didn’t survive for very long because our lead guitarist went back to Spain. We played a couple of originals and a few covers but yeah, we were a metal band.

How did you become a member of Bad Absalom and what was your first impression of the band?

There’s a mutual friend that the band has; I know her through Frankie’s–we became very good friends–and about two weeks before her birthday party, which was hosted at Foundry 616, she posted on Facebook asking if she knew anybody who’s a drummer. I contacted her and said yes, I play drums; I have for a long time. What’s up?

She said that there was a band playing at her birthday who’s drummer just pulled out and they needed someone to fill in. I said, yeah I’d love to, put me in contact with them, so she put me in contact with Arthur and I spoke with him for a couple of days. He sent me some demos and then about a week after he sent me another message that said, sorry mate, we’ve actually found a drummer who we’ve played with before who’s gonna do the party. And I said that’s absolutely fair because you want someone who you’ve played with before rather than someone who’s just heard your stuff.

I was going to the party anyway because she’s a friend and I like to party. About two hours before the party I jump out of the shower and I’ve got a few missed calls from her. I call her back and she asks me, can you please bring your guitar and put together a set with my boyfriend because one of the bands we had has completely pulled out.

I went along and met up with the lead singer of Darker Half–a band in Sydney–and we sat down for about 20 minutes and put together a half-hour set. The boys from Bad Absalom were there that night as well. They saw me perform, except it was vocals and guitar. About six months later, I get a message from Jeremy that said hey man, it’s official, we’ve kicked out our drummer; we’d like you to come and join us. And I said absolutely, I’d love to join.

Jeremy said let’s meet up, have a few drinks, and discuss possibilities. I said absolutely, I’m completely down for that. Fast forward a couple of weeks, we met up at The Townie in Newtown–which is where we played our first gig–we had a few drinks, I got to meet the guys, and my first impression was: these are my guys. They’re good musicians, they know what they want, they’ve got a goal set and it’s very very similar to a goal I have. I just had an instant good feeling about it.

And that goal is?

Well, ideally, the goal is, you know, world famous, internationally known, touring the world, playing music, getting paid.

And that’s a goal everyone in the band shares?

Somewhat, yes. Everybody in the band wants to become known; everybody in the band wants us to take off. It’s just, we may all have different levels of notoriety. For example, I want to get signed to a label and tour the world but I don’t know where the other guys sit. I know that if we did get signed to a label, they’d be on board.

You’re a musician. When you started with the band, what did you think both of the individual members and its potential as a whole?

When we had our first practice, I’d say I looked at the boys and thought, yeah, these guys actually know what they’re doing. When I got into the practice with Jeremy and Richie and Arthur, we were talking in technical terms and I realized that these guys actually know their theory and know what they’re doing.

Tell me about recording your first EP.

Well, the EP, it was a lot of fun, We booked out Adversary Studios in St. Peter’s for about eight hours and we spent the day just recording. It was absolutely brilliant. Our engineer was absolutely fantastic and she seemed to really like the music. We’re not completely finished yet; we’ve still got to lay down a few guitar tracks. Actually, Jeremy is going to be doing that today.

The process was drums and bass, guitar, and we did those for three songs, and at the end of the day, we recorded the vocals. Out of everything the vocals took the least time because Arthur knew what he was doing and it’s a lot easier to focus on one person than it would be to focus on a drummer and a bassist or a guitarist with malfunctioning gear.

With the EP, we’re very, very close to releasing it. We haven’t got anything booked yet for the release party but it’s in the works. We do have two gigs coming up. One is on the 18th of April at the Townie, which is a Wednesday night. We’re sort of using that as practice before our actual gig which is on Friday the 20th of April at the Bald Faced Stag in Leichhardt.

That’s a big one for you guys?

Yes, the Bald Faced Stag is one of the best venues to play in Sydney. I guess you’d say it’s the ANZ Stadium of the Sydney scene. If you play the Stag people know who you are. And we’ll be playing with Hibiscus Biscuit and Cold Vulture.

What are some of your favorite live acts in Sydney?

My ultimate favorite band is sadly no longer together. They were called Under Night’s Cover. They were probably one of the biggest bands in the Sydney scene–very well known–and they played their final show last year to a sold-out crowd.

Is that something you aspire to with Bad Absalom, to reach that level of notoriety in Sydney?

Absolutely.

There are a lot of other Sydney-based bands as well. For example, there’s Snow Leopard, which is an Iron-Maiden style band. They play originals but they also play Iron Maiden covers. Then there’s Kvltofice, which is very power-metally, and also Carmeria. Funnily enough, all three of those bands have the same bass player. His name is Tory and he is an awesome guy. Then there’s another band I mentioned earlier, which is Darker Half, also I’d say very power-metally.

Although one of my favorite bands to go and see, and I’ve seen them multiple times–actually I’d call them my friends–are not Sydney based but they’re here two or three times a year. They’re called Lagerstein; they’re a band from Brisbane. Basically, the translation of their name would be “beer mug” and they’re a pirate metal band. I first saw them open for Alestorm–an internationally famous pirate metal band–back in 2015 or 2016. Every time they’ve come to Sydney since then, I’ve been because they’re my mates and it’s always just a fantastic show. It’s usually sold out: great crowd and fantastic music.

How did you get into music journalism?

I got into photography because another Sydney band that I have been to see a couple times, Molly and the Krells, had an album launch at Brighton Up Bar on Oxford Street and I got very, very drunk and started taking pictures on my phone at the gig. I was moving around, getting different angles, different types of shots, and I looked at the photos a couple days later and thought, wow, these are actually really good. I showed them to some people and they agreed. That’s when I started looking into photography and realized it was something I could do.

With the writing, it comes down to the twins, with whom I became friends and then learned about their business, Twin Musix. They showed me the website and around this time Alice Cooper came out with his first studio album in a few years. It was called Paranormal. I was very, very excited–being a die-hard Alice Cooper fan–and I asked if I could write an album review for them because I’ve always had these thoughts about albums that I listen to but never had anyone to express them to.

They said yeah we’d love you to help. I wrote the review; they loved it; they posted it online, and they got more and more work. I said to them, if you need some help, you don’t have to do it alone, And they said yes, we’d love some help, so I started working with them doing writing, editing articles and interviews, and I’ve only recently gotten into the photography part of it. The twins are very particular about the type of photos that go on the website. Up until recently, they only trusted themselves–which I understand–but they allowed me to do the Arch Enemy gig because they were in Melbourne at Download and I was here n Sydney.

I was lucky because, had I not gotten a photography pass, I wouldn’t have been able to go to the show because it was sold out. So I got a free ticket to see one of my absolute all-time favorite bands and I got to go in front of the barrier and take photos up close and personal, which was such a rush.

How long have you been involved in the live music scene in Sydney?

Going to shows, I’d have to say since about year ten of high school. Because, being underage at the time, you can’t really go to many local shows. I could go to concerts; my first concert was AC/DC back in year ten.

I’ve been in the scene for a long time, but I’ve been active in the scene for the past few years. I wasn’t really able to get into the scene as much as I wanted to until I turned 18 and once I hit 18 it was like a whole new world opened up to me There were all these venues that were playing local bands and all these events at nightclubs with live music and these 18+ gigs.

In that time, how has music in Sydney been evolving?

I wouldn’t say it has been evolving; I’d say the music scene has stayed the same but thanks to the government and their ingenious lock-out laws I’d say it’s actually been slowly dying. But that being said, there are countless numbers of people trying to keep it alive and they’re doing a very good job. But unfortunately, with the lockout laws forcing business to shut down due to lack of income and lack of patronage more and more live music venues are getting shut down.

I read recently that the Basement is set to shut down. Is that an important venue for local acts?

Yes, the Basement has been one of the key places for big-time local acts to play. It’s like you have different levels. For example, Somebody can go and play the Valve and that’s the first level. Then you get places like Frankie’s and the Bald Faced Stag, that’s the next level. And then you’ve got places like the Basement and Manning Bar and that’s sort of the peak of the Sydney scene.

When I went and photographed Arch Enemy at Manning Bar the two bands that opened for them were Sydney-based. The first one was called Potion; I hadn’t heard them before but I really liked their sound. The second one was actually fronted by somebody I know and they were called We May Fall. They’re very hardcore metal.

Is Manning Bar a metal venue?

No, Manning Bar is a live music venue. They host all kinds of music there. For example, when I’ve been to the Rock ‘n’ Roll fair they’d have rockabilly bands playing. I personally have been there for metal gigs but I know that they’ve played other people there.

And the Basement?

I’d say the Basement was more for bands rather than solo artists. If, say, Ed Sheeran was to come along and Green Day was to come along when they were nobody, Green Day would play the Basement and Ed Sheeran would play something like Foundry 616.

What’s one thing you love and one thing you hate about the live music scene in Sydney?

One thing I love is the community. Everybody knows everybody. I’ll go to a gig as a performer or just as a punter and I’ll know people in the band or I’ll know other people in the audience. Everybody comes out; all your friends and other bands come out to support you and because they’ve come out to support you, you in turn go out and support them. That way you always pull a crowd.

The metal community in Sydney, our bond is, it’s, it’s thicker than blood. We care about each other, we look out for each other. We contact a band and say, hey we’ve got a gig coming up. Would you like to be on the bill with us because you haven’t played a gig in a while and we know you want to. Or, hey we’ve got this gig coming up and there’s gonna be these types of people here; we know that you play that kind of music and we’d love to have you.

Is it a small or closed community?

It is not small; I guarantee you it is not small. It is a massive community and it’s definitely not closed. The Sydney community, especially the metal community, is very welcoming. I’ve gone to big concerts like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, stuff like that. I’ll be waiting in line for hours on a day and I’ll be making friends with people in line; people I’ve never met before in my life. I just start talking with them about metal; I start talking to them about bands we like, bands we’ve seen, even people we’ve met. And then fast forward six months, we’re friends, seeing each other every now and then, they’re coming to my gigs, I’m going to their gigs, and it’s just so open and welcoming.

I’d say, anyone who wants to check out the metal scene in Sydney but is afraid to, doesn’t need to be because they’re just such nice people. Yes, unfortunately, every scene has one or two dickheads (Just one of two?) but the majority of the people in the scene are incredibly nice.

I can’t even think of anything I hate too much about the Sydney metal scene apart from, obviously, venues closing down. I guess that would be it to me: the venues closing down; the lack of venues. If we were to travel back in time to the 80s, or even to the 70s, every night you could pay five bucks and go and see some of the greatest bands playing in any club–local bands, and sometimes these local bands went on to make it big.

Back then you could pay five bucks and get in for a whole night and see about ten different bands playing. Nowadays you’re lucky to get more than two or three venues playing shows in one weekend. Yes, there are a lot of live venues but a lot of the times these venues won’t go out and book people. The band has to turn around and book it themselves; they would contact the venues rather than the venues contacting them. How would I put it? Back in the day, you would have had multiple bands playing, whereas nowadays there would be two or three bands paying just for one night.

Wow. I’ve never been to a gig in Sydney with more than four acts; usually there are just three.

No, same here. I’d say the most I’ve been to would have to be a four-band act. And there’s just so much potential for so much more to be done. There’s always potential for more music to be played and more people to get involved but there’s no space. There’s no venue because they’re all shutting down.

What was the last Sydney band to make it big internationally?

Off the top of my head, I don’t actually really know. I do know that there are a lot of bands from around Australia that have made it big. For example, Airborne. They’re a Melbourne-based band. I’ve got a poster in my room that’s signed by the band from 2006 and it’s their Aussie pub rock tour. I got that off my old lead singer who must’ve been at the show and it would’ve just been a pub show, but then I got to see Airborne play the Metro a couple years ago. And I’ve seen footage of them playing some of the biggest festivals in the world such as Wacken Open Air, Download in England, all kinds of stuff. They are internationally known.

There’s another band I mentioned before, Lagerstein. Last year they were on tour in Europe. It was a completely self-promoted, self-funded tour but they now have an international following. Lagerstein is from Brisbane.

Do you think Sydney is missing out because the music scene isn’t giving bands that potential?

Not necessarily. It’s more of a case of, Sydney is a very expensive place to live and the bands that are living in Brisbane and Melbourne, they’ve got more venues there to play; those places have got a nightlife.

Were they not affected by the lock-out laws?

No, the lock-out laws were Sydney-specific; New South Wales only. If you go to Melbourne, you can leave a bar at 1:30 AM and go into a number of bars and there is a nightlife there and they have bands playing there. But no, I don’t think that Sydney is missing out. I just think that because I’m based in Sydney I don’t see these bands touring.

Actually, no. I’m wrong: Darker Half. They are from Sydney and they did a tour in Europe a few months back; I think they’re going over again real soon. But yes, other than Darker Half I really can’t think of any international Sydney bands, apart from of course ACDC.

Where do you go to catch the best live performances in Sydney? Are they venues you can walk into on the weekend knowing you’ll catch a live band?

Yes, there are venues like that; for example, Frankie’s, who are very public in their promotion of live music. It’s a free entry venue, which in Sydney is pretty amazing. Frankie’s doesn’t have live music every night but I’d say they have it three or four nights out of the week. Then there’s the Townie (which is also free entry) but they only have it maybe two or three nights out of the week.

Of course, there’s the Bald Faced Stag but that’s not necessarily free entry. Sometimes bands will be playing there for free; other times it’s a ticketed event. But there’s always usually live music on there at least once or twice a week.

How about your upcoming show there?

It’s a free entry gig but we’re not playing the stage; we’re playing the main floor. I think it’s something that’s only come out recently. They did a massive renovation of the Bald Faced Stag not long ago. They completely got rid of the Pokies Room and expanded the Live Music Room–a big empty room with a stage–and that’s usually where they have the big acts play.

I recently saw a friend of mine, he’s in a band called ThunderDome, play at the Stag a few weeks back and they played in the main area, right next to the bar. It’s kind of convenient actually, and similar to the Townie. Except, the Townie has a stage; the main area of the Stag does not. You’re right on the ground, up close and personal with the fans.

How do you find what’s going on online?

Obviously, these venues have their websites, which would have a list of events coming up, but Facebook is your best bet. There are a lot of pages (check out Sydney Metal Gig Guide and Anything Music Sydney) for the music scene in Sydney. You could even go to “Events near me” and have a look who’s playing.

Would you say every live gig is going to have a corresponding event on Facebook?

Yes. If you’ve got a live event and you’re not advertising it on Facebook, you’re not really advertising

Alright, let’s wrap this up. Anything else to say?

Come and check out Bad Absalom play at the Stag on April 20. We’re also playing the Townie on April 18. It’s my birthday on April 19 so the Stag gig is going to be a really big party. Come down, have a few drinks, see some great music, and let’s just have a great time.

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