Archive for the ‘Black Wire Records’ Category

Interview: Tom Scott of Sydney’s Black Wire Records

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Black Wire Records is one of Australia’s more vital institutions when it comes to nourishing underground musical talent. It’s helped to incubate a long list of varied and dynamic bands including Royal Headache, The Bennies, Smith Street Band, Oslow, Mere Women, Canine, Ted Danson With Wolves, and H A N N A H B A N D. Each year it opens its doors to tens of thousands of punks, rockers, grindheads, folk singers, indie kids, noise artists, prog freaks from the Con and all other forms of musician and music-addict.

I sat down with Black Wire’s Tom Scott to learn more about the history and ethics of this vital DIY space. Our wide ranging discussion touched on the final days of Paint It Black, gender diversity, the state of Australian music, the digital revolution, and how one can reconcile DIY punk ideals with the reality of operating a business in capitalist-consumer society.

Deep Heat. Credit: ZK Photo.

Lachlan: How did Black Wire Records begin?

Tom: That’s a good question but a difficult one. I guess it’s been a natural progression. I started running a record label, Deplorable Records, around 1998. I was starting to get into underground music, but none of my friends liked anything that I was into.

I am massively socially awkward, so it was really hard for me to go along to shows by myself. I felt like I had to justify my presence there: I didn’t want to be someone just standing at the back and passively observing. The music was special to me and I wanted to be involved.

Starting Deplorable Records justified my presence within the community. I’d have a box of records on a trestle table at the back of a show — it was like a security blanket. Then after a little while I started to put on shows.

Lachlan: What were some of the more memorable shows you organised early on?

Tom: I can remember putting on shows at Hornsby PCYC with bands like Heart Felt Self — who were My Disco before they became My Disco. They’re still a really special band to me.

Back then it was completely normal back for those sorts of bands to be playing with groups like Deadstare and Far Left Limit. I don’t think anyone really analyzed it that much at the time, but in retrospect when you’re looking through flyers, the line ups were a lot more diverse. Not in a forced way, it was just a natural thing.

Lachlan: Do you think the music scene has gotten more fractured over time thanks to the proliferation of sub-genres?

Tom: Absolutely. Obviously there are people who break out of that, but I see it a lot more. At Black Wire it’s really pronounced. For two shows that seem to be intrinsically linked there’ll be two completely different crowds which is weird.

But then at the same time, I think if you force different bands together, that often doesn’t work. People just come to see that one band they like and then all fuck off out the back when the other band is playing. It’s a weird thing. I would like to see more mixed bills, but if you start trying to force it to happen, it doesn’t work.

Lachlan: So you did Deplorable Records for a while. When did you first start a storefront?

Tom: It was the very start of 2004. Deplorable turned into Appliances and Cars, named after the I Spy song that I adore. When we opened up a store that was called Paint It Black. The initial collective was probably about four people, maybe five.

Arafura. Credit: ZK Photo.

Lachlan: How did that collective work?

Tom: Very haphazardly.

Lachlan: Did everyone pitch in to various degrees depending on how much they wanted to be involved?

Tom: That was the idea. Much of it was amazing and worked really, really well, but then there was a whole side that didn’t work at all. It was a weird scenario in that we were all relatively young and had ideals and a strong sense of ethics… but when you apply that to an actual business… well, we were all adamant that it was not actually a business.

Most people — even in the collective — are only used to dealing with a scenario where people dictate things to you. People are very stuck in that employer-employee dynamic. We didn’t have a cult leader or a figure head kind of thing. It just gets to a point where without any kind of clear cut guidelines, for lack of a better word, operating becomes a bit weird and tricky.

Anyway, we were just near the corner of King Street and Enmore Road for about three years. After a while we started doing shows — it was a tiny shop, just tiny.

Lachlan: How many people could you fit in there?

Tom: I’d say 20 tops. Shows would frequently spill out onto the street. We were in the main thoroughfare for people coming from the station going towards Enmore. It created a few problems.

It wasn’t like one day I said “I’d love to do shows, let’s go and try and do shows.” Being a record store we’re dealing with a whole lot of bands and labels. We found a lot of bands wanted to play in Sydney but couldn’t — bands that we really loved and thought were really important had nowhere to play. Pubs were just being shitheads and weren’t booking bands, so bands would just not play in Sydney. We were like, “Oh, fuck, we’ve got to try.”

Self interest was a part of it; these were bands we wanted to see; they’re friends that we want to help because it made us feel good. It’s not entirely selfless.

After a while it became fucking impossible because the shop was tiny and heaps of people wanted to do stuff. We ended up leasing 22 Enmore Road a few doors up — which is where Black Rose is now — and started doing shows there. That went on for about two years.

All said and done, it was a fairly positive exercise. It all worked and we were able to see some amazing shows — some of the first Eddy Current Suppression Ring shows and things like that. This was in the early-to-mid 2000’s.

Eventually it became impossible to maintain. People in Newtown are shit. It’s a couple of generations back now, but there was a social group that fancied themselves as liberal, free-thinking individuals. They moved to areas like Newtown because of the appearance of culture that they wanted to associate with — but then, when that culture didn’t quite align with what their perception of it, they got really shitty.

Last Chaos. Credit: Lee Stefen

Lachlan: Are you talking about noise complaints?

Tom: Noise complaints and people used to complain constantly about people — the appearance of people. We’d have a few somewhat decrepit looking punks hanging around. They would complain about them. They didn’t fit in with what their idea of what the culture of Newtown was.

It was so frustrating. I was at a point where I would have to go to the Newtown Police Station before every single show and give them my phone number and say, “This is the show. This band is playing at this time, this band is playing at this time, this band is playing at this time.” Even with all of that done, there would still be constant complaints.

It was also the people who came to our shows. I’m sure there were scenarios where the complaint was completely valid, but obviously how you interact with people is important. There were a few people who were kind of representative of us, who just acted like shitheads. We lost all of our high moral ground and it just became untenable.

Lachlan: How did that all work out then?

Tom: We basically just handed the lease of 22 Enmore Road over to Black Rose. Then, very soon after that, we had the massive feud with our landlords. We were subleasing from our neighbors. It was awful… We ended up moving a bit further up Enmore Road, towards Enmore Theater. That was an even smaller shop, but we still did a couple of shows there.

We had bands like Taipan and Snake Run play, but around then we started shedding people. Then we were hit by the decline of the compact disc. CD prices and sales started dropping… that, coupled with interpersonal problems, meant Paint It Black crashed.

It ended with chained and padlocked doors and us losing a bunch of stuff. We blurted out a bunch of things and then I turned up and the guy was actually changing the locks and padlocking the doors. I was like, “Oh, fuck, mate. Can I just grab a couple of those things?” He was like, “Oh, yep no worries. You got to do it in 20.” We quickly grabbed as much shit as we could.

Lachlan: So that was the end of Paint It Black?

Tom: Yes, and it was bleak. The collective was still operating in a business framework, so we were still susceptible to rent increases or the decline of CD sales. We were deliberately underpricing things and were trying to be as ethical as possible, which just fucked us up. It’s not like I would have done it another way. It’s just how it ended up.

Lachlan: How did you go from Paint It Black being shut down to opening up Black Wire? How long did it take?

Tom: I don’t know exactly. It’s a weird and bleak period for me. It probably took about a year. I just had to gradually piece my actual life back together in terms of my living situation and being able to pay for food which took a little while.

The first two weeks following on from literally being locked out and having no option., it’s like, “Oh well, it’s closed. It’s shut.” That first two weeks was almost this euphoric sense of relief just because this massive weight off of my shoulders. I was so relieved.

Then, after a couple of weeks, what do you do? Paint It Black was such a big part of my identity and how I perceived myself.

Lachlan: It leads back to what you were doing in 98, you going to shows and you said, “I need to have a function and place in the scene.“

Tom: Exactly. That’s exactly it. Then all the sudden I didn’t have a place again. Obviously, I was in a slightly different position because I was more knowledgeable in how it all worked. After a little while, you’re kind of like, “Oh, fuck. That’s all I want to do.” So within a really short space of time, Bridget and I started piecing together the framework of what Black Wire would be. We didn’t have a mission statement or a big ideology thing. A lot of it didn’t need to be stated. It was always going to be a part of anything we were going to do.

Lachlan: What were some of those principles or ideas?

Tom: Just the idea that we didn’t exist primarily to generate income for ourselves. We wanted to help bands and put on shows — the fact that we needed to generate income was secondary.

We couldn’t afford to live in Newtown or Enmore anymore. A lot of people we knew were being pushed out to Summer Hill, Ashfield and the other side of Marrickville due to rent increases. There was a dramatic shift in the population of Newtown. We had to look for places that were further out.

Spite House. Credit: ZK Photo.

Lachlan: How did Black Wire begin? Did you have any experiences that helped rekindle your faith after the Paint It Black experience?

Tom: Not really, no. The night before we opened, I got a really serious head injury from a show at the Sando when they had that shitty fucking stage with the lip on it. I got taken out by the Taipan dancers and fell onto the stage but smashed my head on the lip of it. At the same time, I was holding a beer so I managed to spill the beer all over myself. Then got hospitalized while covered in beer so everyone was like, “Oh, it’s the drunk person with the head injury.” Actually, it was my first beer.

So the night before we opened I got this really, serious head injury. As a result I can’t actually remember much about the first few shows.

Lachlan: Were there any spaces in Sydney, across Australia or internationally that inspired what you were doing?

Tom: No. Not to say that those spaces don’t exist, but we were just doing what we felt needed to be done. We weren’t based on any other model or anything.

More recently, there are a few ideas I like — such as the Japanese model of having backline provided for all bands. I’d really like to do that. Then there’s the European model of actually feeding bands — making sure touring bands get fed after every show. These are things that we’ve been trying to do the whole time, but in terms of an actual existing space that we’re imitating? No, not really.

Lachlan: I’m guessing back at Paint It Black, you didn’t have a lot of support from the local council. Do you feel like you have that bit more now?

Tom: Not necessarily. Back then, it’s not like we didn’t have the support of the council — the council was just nonexistent. All of our dealings were with the police directly. We had no dealings with the council whatsoever.

Lachlan: So if you called the police and let them know what you were doing, things were largely fine?

Tom: Yeah. Newtown police are a bit weird in that they tend to get a lot of the younger new recruits in to get trained, so you get some weird shit going on there. On the whole, they were alright.

Even prior to Paint It Black, any dealings we had with council — when we’re doing shows at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre — were always adversarial. The council only existed to make things harder and worse.

Lachlan: Was this is a couple years ago when you experienced all that legal trouble?

Tom: Yeah. It all came from one vindictive neighbour — which is something every venue has to deal with.There is a minority of extremely vocal, disgruntled people who make issues.

We’d been so used to this dynamic of ducking and weaving to avoid the council, but we finally had to engage. As I’ve gotten older I started to realise that we have agency. The council is supposed to be representing the community of which you’re a part of.

Still, initially it was impossible. It was the most bureaucratic bullshit I have certainly ever encountered, but we were eventually able to find some sympathetic people — which is not to say the sympathetic people helped us coast through or anything. Having sympathetic people meant that they were able to explain the absurd hoops that everyone’s being made to leap through.

We were also really lucky because we had friends on radio and in print that were supporting us and who called out the council publicly. If that hadn’t have happened, I don’t know what position we would be in. It meant that the council were forced to engage with us on somewhat equal terms.

Lachlan: I had an interview Kegan of Space Bong and FALSExIDOL Records recently. His perspective was that while there was a time where institutions like Black Wire could work with government and receive some kind of support through funding or otherwise, these days the government is a lot more antagonistic towards these spaces, which in turn makes it harder for these collectives to exist. Do you agree with that?

Tom: I think it varies dramatically, not only between states and local councils, but also within the people that you’re dealing with on council.

It’s strange when you’re dealing with the council. We’d get emails from them talking about how they love arts and culture, kids, and all kinds of shit. Then five minutes later you’ll get an awful email demanding all kinds of shit off of you.

Lachlan: Do you agree that Australia has a problem acknowledging or honoring arts and culture?

Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Arts and culture in general, but Australian arts and culture even more so. I don’t know why it exists, but I know what I’d do about it though — exactly what I and most people I know are doing about it: championing Australian arts, music, and culture.

Burlap. Credit: ZK Photo.

Lachlan: It’s almost fashionable to have a pessimistic view on the future of Australian music, especially live music. Do you buy into that?

Tom: No, no. That goes back into the cultural cringe I was talking about. People are quite happy to go on about some band from Philadelphia being amazing, because somehow they’re more exotic than a local band.

I don’t buy into it at all. It’s absurd. The bands in Australia, at any given time — but certainly at the moment — are, to my ears, at the forefront of what’s going on globally.

People who are pessimistic about Australian music; they’re coming from a good place and they’re trying to argue for something like more funding, but the way they’re doing it is dismissive of everyone who is already trying to strengthen and develop Australian music.

Lachlan: I have a few friends who all used to play in bands ten years ago, but they’ve since fallen out of the loop. They’re always eager to proclaim that there are “no good bands around these days”. I always want to reply: “I haven’t seen you at a fucking show in a decade. Don’t talk to me about a lack of bands.“

Tom: Yeah. It’s like, “Punk died as soon as I stopped going to see the one punk band that I like, so therefore punk is dead.”

Lachlan: How do you think the Australian music scene has changed in the last couple of decades?

Tom: That’s a good question. It’s hard to say because I don’t get reflective very often. There’s a lot that I care about historically that I revisit and stuff, but in terms for what’s actually changed, it’d be hard to identify.

Lachlan: Well, for example it seems like the era of rock bands playing in pubs is coming to an end.

Tom: Yeah, you’re right. There used to be heaps of jazz trios playing all along this stretch (in Annandale) almost every night of the week. Parents and older people would always be going along.

Lachlan: This is probably a dumb question, but are you optimistic or pessimistic about Australian music?

Tom: I’m absolutely optimistic. I don’t want to sound like a lunatic, but I’m hugely optimistic. There are bands around now that I adore, and I think are really important not just in terms of Australian music, but music internationally.

But it’s not just about the bands who exist right now either. I’m excited about bands that haven’t even started yet. I’ve seen a sequence where kids aged 14, 15 or 16 start coming to shows, start identifying with certain styles, then start their own bands based on what they’re into — and then they end up playing with the bands they first started coming to see.

There is a huge amount of promise in younger people starting to play music. Maybe everyone isn’t privy to that. Maybe I’m in an especially privileged position to see it, but I’ve seen that cycle play out quite a few times. Watching it play out is really quite special.

Then you’ve got the issue of female representation — there is still inadequate representation, but at least people are paying attention to it. More often than not, people try to have some kind of gender diversity when they’re booking shows. Even bands that I wouldn’t exactly consider to be at the forefront of gender politics are paying attention to it.

I’m not an optimistic person — I’m an incredibly cynical and pessimistic person, but all this makes me optimistic.

Lachlan: As a contrast, I know a few people in gender diverse bands who feel uncomfortable with the idea that they get booked simply because they have female members.

Tom: That’s something that is rarely acknowledged by people who are campaigning for representation — how people are choosing to identify. I’ve seen lineups being criticised for having no queer performers when I’ve known that there are a number of queer performers on there.

It’s just that they are not a visibly queer band; it’s not part of their identity. Does that make them less queer and then less representative? I don’t think so, but then how do you quantify that? I genuinely don’t know.

It’s an argument people tend to be really passionate about which kind of bogs down a lot of the discussion. I understand women being passionate about it. Some people — like some dudes that are passionate about defending their institution like they’re in some way being personally challenged — is just bizarre to me. I understand it in terms of how when you’re feeling personally attacked you lash out, but you have to understand it’s not a personal attack.

Lachlan: What do you think of Spotify and digital streaming services?

Tom: I’ve certainly made many obnoxious statements pertaining to them before. Essentially, I have no interest in them. I don’t use them. There’s a lot of hugely unethical practices going on involved with it. At the same time, I acknowledge that that is how a huge number people engage with music.

As it stands, it’s these companies that are reaping all of the massive profits. It’s easy for me to go, “Fuck streaming, fuck this, and fuck that”, but I don’t know what is the best way to address it. I genuinely don’t know.

Lachlan: I really hope for an ethical alternative to Spotify where they actually back artists.

Tom: Yeah, I think that that’s where every platform falls really short in actually adequately compensating artists.

Lachlan: I’ve heard many people say that stealing music is fine because music should be free anyway. They’re asserting they should be able to possess White Walls new album for free even though the band is asking for five or ten dollars to download it. How do you feel about that argument?

Tom: It’s tricky. Again, it is a nuance, and the nuance is always lost. I am definitely more inclined towards music being freely available, but I understand that music costs money to produce.

I’m conflicted. I do feel like that music should be freely available. I feel quite strongly about it. From my own experience, when I was getting into music I was mail ordering shit and paying 40 or 50 bucks for an album. I’d wait two months to get it, then it’d be shit. A lot of people argue that’s why when you do come across something and it’s amazing, and special, and then it stands out.

They’re valid arguments, but I don’t think they outweigh the other side. If I was 16 now, I could download the entire Black Flag discography and go, “All right, everything after Damaged is shit.” I would not have to go into Red Eye and spend $29.98 on In My Head and have to listen to fucking Greg Ginn…

Lachlan: That’s an example of the market or the established institutions having all the power to the point where you don’t have enough information to make an informed decision about what you want support financially. It becomes a gamble.

Tom: I’m very, very conflicted about it. There are arguments on both sides that I strongly disagree with. There are arguments on both sides that I absolutely agree with. The main one — and I guess I have very cliché punk rock ideals in my view of major labels and distribution networks — the idea that labels are making loads of money at the expense of artists, and then try to make people feel like shit for ripping off artists by downloading music… it’s ridiculous. It’s not the consumer ripping off the artist — it’s the label.

Lachlan: Surely it is possible for a Spotify-type service to fairly distribute cash. At the moment it just seems like older power structures are attempting to co-opt new technology like streaming services while still enforcing their old models. The technology doesn’t have to be used like that.

Tom: The argument that you don’t want to pay for something because you’re going to stream it and listen to it and you can familiarize yourself with it and know that you like it — it’s weakened by the excesses of free streaming services.

Lachlan: I’m going to ask a handful more questions. What bands this year have blown you away?

Tom: That is also a good question which sounds like something I should have prepared for. In terms of releases, the new White Walls album and Halt Ever’s new 7 inch I adore. The new Infinite Void release I’m really excited about. Infinite Void are probably one of my favorite bands of all time. I cannot express how much I adore that band.

Deep Heat have just recorded an album that’s about to come out so that’s exciting. The new Making record is phenomenal. The Tanned Christ record is phenomenal. The Carb On Carb record that we released is amazing. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I just absolutely adore it.

The new Thorax record is amazing. The new Royal Headache and Low Life records. And a lot of demos too — bands like Deafcult and Ultra Material and Nature Trails. There is a whole lot of awesome music coming from Brisbane at the moment. They’re ruling it. New stuff like Clever and FOREVR from Brisbane as well.

Lachlan: I’ve been listening to that Deafcult album a bit recently. It’s quite cool.

Tom: Yeah, we’re releasing that too — as well as the new Burlap record.

Lachlan: It sounds like you are getting busy on the record-pressing side again.

Tom: A little bit, yeah. Don’t tell Bridget because she yells at me and punches me in the arm. Releasing records is what first got me into all of this. We were supposed to be releasing records when we opened Paint It Black, but within about a month the shop just sent the label broke.

We were trying to separate it like “this is label money and this is shop money”, but when the electricity bill is due, you can’t go, “Oh, no we can’t pay the electricity bill with label money!” Because I was still dealing with records and labels and stuff, it took a few years to hit home that I really missed that aspect of involvement. There’s a great amount of satisfaction in being involved in music that you adore and you absolutely support. I crave that. It’s an absolutely stupid business decision though.

Lachlan: Since Black Wire began, there have been a few times where you or another concerned party have gone to the community and said, “Look, we need a hand to survive.” How have you felt about the response to those call outs?

Tom: I was genuinely so overwhelmed. I cried. I burst into tears. I didn’t know how to process these kinds of emotions. When you have this influx of people, not only who are donating money, but also sending these amazing messages and amazing testimonials and stuff that I can’t process it. It’s too much for me. It’s amazing. I do process it, but it takes me months.

It was a weird thing because you go from struggling to function because you can’t make all of these financial demands, to being able to meet all of them. Then I can’t function because I’m overwhelmed with emotion. It was a very weird thing. Yeah, you’re right, it has happened a few times. Every time, there’s been this amazing outpouring of support.

Lachlan: How do you feel about Black Wire’s future then? Do you think about the long term?

Tom: We’re in the start of September now. My whole afternoon has been planning and booking shows for December and January. That’s the extent of how far I look ahead.

There’s a few other elements. For instance, with the last bit of money we got from fundraising we were able to get a sub and replace a whole bunch of mic stands and mics and stuff like that. Which are things that I hope to be able to do, but you don’t work towards them, they’re just in your mind as something you’d like to be able to do. That was amazing.

Yeah, I’m satisfied that people are fairly into what’s happening here. I can still identify a few areas that could be better. In terms of future planning, I just want to perfect things. That’s the kind of thing that is never achievable and I acknowledge that it’s not achievable. I think being able to work towards that unachievable goal is part of what keeps us going.

Lachlan: All right. Thank you very much for you time Tom.

Tom: No worries!

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