Royal Headache @ The Curtin – 11/11/11

On the front cover of an issue of a certain street press magazine around this time last year, there was a picture of Sleigh Bells with the caption “Hypey New Year” mocking the band’s ubiquity in the alternative press. The enclosed interview with the band had frontwoman Alexis Krauss address the arguably disproportionate intensity of their popularity: “As quickly as the hype may rise, it may fall. And if your music is that ephemeral and is that subject to trend and hype then you have to wonder if it’s music really worth creating. Music should be able to last, to pass certain tests of time, and certainly it should be able to survive a hype cycle.” Royal Headache’s hype cycle has been spinning since 2009 but hit a new gear this year in the lead up to the release of their debut LP. Shogun, Royal Headache’s frequently shirtless and much praised frontman for his soul-inspired vocals serving as the harmonious counterpoint to the band’s rowdy garage rock, might have some empathy for what Krauss was referring to: that hype doesn’t come without backlash, and Mess+Noise were notably disenfranchised, but when you have conviction in your performance those dissenters don’t much matter. Maybe this is how, after a US tour where according to tonight’s event page they played “empty bars to even emptier people,” they’re still putting on punk shows so vigorous they’d get even the stiffest, most socially awkward nouveau-bohemian pogoing all over Brunswick. Like the one at The Curtin tonight. Before them there Sydneysiders, though, we have to talk about Woollen Kits, another in a group of bands so real they’ll make you wanna chew your arm off for not getting onto them sooner. On the walk to The Curtin I see vocalist/guitarist Tom hanging out on Earl St talking to some girls and we exchange nods. Around the corner, The Curtin is more alive than I’ve ever seen it, bursting at the seams with good-looking young folk and bordered by locked-up bikes. On my way to the bar I bump into fifty of my closest friends; we’ve all arrived properly early, hours before tickets go on sale, out of a mix of fear and hope that it will sell out immediately and we’ll have to literally fight our way to the door when the clock strikes 8pm just to make it in. We fill the time by exchanging gossip and rumors about the night’s acts and conversation about current events, e.g. how Occupy Wall Street has emphasised how privileged we are in Australia economically and that, along with cultural champions like the above-mentioned bands, we have ways to feel proud of being Australian without having to co-opt an identity of subtly racist, misogynistic, violent fucked-up boganism. Then we sneak upstairs under the pretense of the downstairs toilets being out of order to watch the bands tune up. It is, as you can probably imagine, exciting as all fuck. After their soundcheck the PA begins playing the best of the 70s, “Blank Generation” and all that. “They’re playing Richard Hell!” I text a friend. “I feel like such a punk!” As silly as it sounds, I mean it, I’m caught up and the whole thing feels like a moment and I have no shame in admitting it. Irony is dead, man, sincerity is The New Cool, you know this. I’m sure there’s some eye-rolling old-schooler reading this right now thinking Yeah, fat chance you’re risking a stabbing by a bikie at the Curtin, mate, but actually I feel pretty content with today’s approximation of a punk show and not risking death at the expense of enjoying the band, because even if this isn’t CBGB’s in ’74 (or Altamont in ’69), thank god and who gives a shit?; this is about positivity and ebullience within a communal spirit, not cynicism and death and No Future, so get outta here with that purist nonsense because I quite like being alive.  Very few of the people I speak to even know Woollen Kits, and if you’re similarly afflicted with this now-conscious incompetence, please go here and listen to everything. Basically though, they’re part of the cohort of Aussie yoofs who’ve been diligently working their necromancy on all your favorite bands from the late 60s/70s. As reductive as that sounds, please don’t take it as such; getting compared to The Modern Lovers, The Cars and Beat Happening is hardly an insult and for anyone looking for something a little less placid than what’s on at Harvest, acquaint yourself with your new saviors. And they are magnificent live: the boys have come kilometres since their Teenage Love EP and play their garage rock with dare-I-say-it-yes-I-do professional messiness. Tom’s sometimes-frankly-sorta-dumb lyrics have been criticised but the whole noisy production is more than the sum of its parts anyway, and the songs burn brightly and briefly. This sort of music lends itself to live performance and at a time when albums are really just the ad for the in-your-face real thing, maybe the most savvy way to be musical is to shape a formidable live set and then hint at it on record. Within the relatively small and pretense-less confines of The Curtin’s band room, their warm drone enamors the full house and leaves the room ridden hard but wanting more. ‘Pon Royal Headache’s arrival, the crowd’s frenzy escalates. We charge towards the stage, tearing off shirts and jackets and anything else not necessary to bathing in the sweat of young strangers, the real live fountain of youth within the rumbling rapids of the mosh. Careful not to elbow anyone in the face, I’m spun round and round in a sea of smiling faces. The Polaroids of Androids review of Royal Headache points out the engrossing romanticism of being in love with Royal Headache, and the evidence is all around me. Whatever it is about them, and I suspect it’s a nebulous confluence of factors and not something easily recreated (nor sustained, mind you), everyone I can see radiates a sycophantic adoration and protectiveness for the band. The fluid coming off Shogun only adds to the drenched swarm as he leaps into the crowd – and may I take this moment to say that he has very smooth skin; Shogun, do you exfoliate? – and stomps around the front of his enclosure with as much ferocity as a caged lion. Towards the end of the set he begs for water but, in true ‘strayan fashion, settles gladly for the jug of beer in front of the drum kit. The most surprising part of the performance is how brutally efficient it is, and maybe disappointingly so; like their songs, the set is punishing but feels brief, and the absence of extended noodling and other musical masturbation to close out the set was as confusing and disorienting as a hit-and-run, or to keep with the theme of romance, a break-up after a succession of hot dates. Whatever, that’s Royal Headache, not flash-in-the-pan as much as punch-in-the-face, and we all wanted to get out of there as soon as possible anyway so we could get to the excited raving about what we’d just witnessed.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but those who can are blessed to. If music is cyclical then I’m pretty happy with the cycle we’re in right now, where there’s actually a chance that according to the barometer of taste, Triple J’s Hottest 100, the best song of the year won’t be so interminably dull as last year’s “Big Jet Plane.” YES I’M STILL HUNG UP ON IT. I like to think  this raucous proto-punk revival we’re seeing is tapping the energy of the 70s and blending it with the lessons we’ve learned since, because this is hardly Thatcher-era London, or even Obama-era America; we’ve got plenty of problems but relatively we Aussies have it pretty good and all the bleak nihilism of the old school just has no place ’round these parts. Indeed, tonight was about shared optimism and hope, and the confirmation that, every so often, believing the hype pays off. by Jake Cleland

November 16th 2011
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