May 2020

Arts & Letters

The ripple effect: Cable Ties’ ‘Far Enough’

By Anwen Crawford

Cable Ties: Jenny McKechnie, Nick Brown and Shauna Boyle

A big year turned on its head for the Melbourne band

Melbourne band Cable Ties released their second album, Far Enough, on March 26. By this time the COVID-19 pandemic had taken hold, and Cable Ties were forced to cancel their Australian tour, which included an album launch on May 2 at the Corner Hotel, one of the busiest live music venues in Melbourne. In light of that cancellation, the group’s bassist, Nick Brown, is attempting to list the people immediately affected by this one lost gig.

“For something like that show at the Corner,” he says, “there’s the three of us [in the band], and then my job, which is that I’m in the band but I’m also the booking agent for the band.” Cable Ties also have a manager and a publicist, and the Corner has its own ticketing, marketing and booking staff, all of whom would have been working on the show.

In addition to these people, Brown continues, “we’ve got a sound engineer, we would use an in-house monitors engineer, and we’d also bring in a lighting engineer for an album launch like this.” There’d be “three other bands on the line-up as well”, though the full list hadn’t been confirmed by the time the show was scratched. “And you haven’t even got to the venue staff who are there on the day: the venue manager, bar staff, the box office person, security.”

That’s 30 to 40 people who’ve lost work, tallied up in as many seconds. And that’s just for one gig at an 800-capacity venue. Multiplied by the thousands of cancelled gigs across the country – some smaller, some much bigger – the sum is very grim. Of the live music sector, Brown puts it simply: “The arse has fallen out.”

Cable Ties’ singer and guitarist, Jenny McKechnie, adds that she recently saw a photograph of herself, taken when the band was playing live. It brought her up short. “I am never going to take being on stage for granted again,” she says. “By the time we get back on stage, I’ll be absolutely raring for it.”

This was meant to be a big year for Cable Ties. The trio, completed by drummer Shauna Boyle, has seen their profile rise steadily in the five years since they made their live debut. Born out of Melbourne’s politically progressive punk scene, the group has maintained that ethos – Far Enough is released locally by Poison City Records, and internationally by Merge, one of North America’s most stalwart independent labels – while also gaining the attention of no less a rock luminary than Iggy Pop, who recently played two of the band’s songs on his BBC 6 Music radio show.

In mid March, the band was booked to play South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas; the annual music festival is a prestigious showcase for rising artists from across the world. The band members were 48 hours away from boarding their flight when the festival was cancelled due to COVID-19. Further scheduled shows in North America and Europe in March and early April were cancelled, too, and then came the scrubbing of their Australian shows in May, which were intended to be followed by yet more overseas touring. McKechnie says that 2020 was going to represent “the most touring we would have ever done”. She laughs disbelievingly. No band could ever envisage their album release – a “once-every-three-years opportunity”, as McKechnie puts it – being so utterly disrupted. And yet, she says “after all this has happened, I’m really thankful that we have a record”.

Cable Ties’ self-titled debut album, released in 2017, leant towards a post-punk sound: compact bass melodies, vigorous but strict drumming, terse guitar lines. Far Enough is less brusque, without sacrificing intensity. This record feels more open to the world, and that openness derives, in part, from a willingness to be more vulnerable, both in sound and mood. The record opens with a song called “Hope” – that most fragile but powerful of emotions. Hope is necessary for love, for courage, and for action. “The meaning of hope on the album is about doing,” says McKechnie. The difficult thing then is to figure out what to do, especially when crises on the scale of climate change – or pandemic – can feel overwhelming.

“I’m back in Melbourne / I’m not doing the best I can,” McKechnie sings, over a simple rhythm guitar part. “On bad days I’m a parasite / On my good days I say, ‘At least I tried.’ ” At the 2-minute mark, this spare arrangement and melancholy mood shifts into something propulsive and defiant. “And if I can’t hope / Nothing’s ever gonna change,” runs the chorus, and McKechnie belts out the words at the top of her vocal range. The song’s two halves convey the protean nature of hope itself, which can be both passive and active, underlain by sorrow or by fervour.

For the members of Cable Ties, the work of hope includes what they do together as a band. They are especially committed to playing live, because performance creates bonds – creative, social, philosophical – among musicians and their audiences. Brown describes live music as a “galvanising force for positivity” in his own life, and for the past two years the band has hosted a Cable Ties Ball at the Corner, bringing together artists of disparate genres from across Melbourne’s independent music communities. These include the electronic duo Habits, and rapper P-UniQue, whose coolly assured 2018 track “Queen with Colour” featured on Triple J Unearthed.

Adam Camilleri, who books shows for the Corner, praises Cable Ties’ strong musical connections in the city and long relationship with the venue. In 2017, the group won the annual Corner Award, which recognises new talent. Camilleri and Brown had worked together on the booking for the band’s album launch, which was just one night of about six months’ worth of gigs at Corner – the venue hosts live music up to seven nights a week – that will need to be rescheduled.

Already, says Camilleri, there is a bottleneck of shows building up towards the end of 2020. That’s when rescheduled gigs will start to collide with the peak summer season, when festivals like Meredith bring a slew of touring artists, local and international, to Melbourne, with many of the more popular acts booking side shows at the Corner.

Brown raises a similar concern. He worries that when the bans are lifted, the result will be a glut. “We’re gonna see nine months’ worth of releases that haven’t been able to be toured yet, and they’re gonna get crammed in together, with a struggling economy and not a lot of people with a lot of money.” It won’t just be a matter of flicking the switch back to “on” and getting people in a room again to watch a show. “There’s a long way back for the sector.”

Had Cable Ties’ gig at the Corner gone ahead – had there been no pandemic to contend with – one person involved in it would have been the band’s sound engineer, Alicia Saye. She has been working with Cable Ties since 2016, first as a stage technician and then as their live mixer. Though she works “predominantly in live sound”, she’s also employed as a production assistant at Melbourne community radio station PBS, and has played in various bands. It’s not unusual, of course, for technicians and crew to go back and forth between industry jobs and their own musical projects.

Saye’s work on Cable Ties’ launch would have begun before show day, with the band sending her the details of their staging in advance. This would include each member’s equipment, and whether or not the bands, including support bands, “need anything specific that the venue may not have. We discuss if there will be any gear sharing on the night, and then we can plan what needs to be taken on and off stage.” On the day itself, Saye would arrive at the venue early to set up, check and adjust the sound system in the room, and make sure that her “show files” – pre-prepared audio levels and settings specific to an artist’s requirements, which are loaded into the digital mixing desk – “are all functioning the way I’d like”. Then would come a soundcheck with Cable Ties and, finally, the show.

“The beauty of mixing in larger venues like the Corner Hotel,” Saye says, “is they have a dedicated monitor engineer, who looks after what the band hears on stage, allowing me as the front-of-house engineer to concentrate on making the band sound good to the audience.”

All of Saye’s work in live engineering has now come to a halt, and her studio mixing work “has also dried up”, as local musicians prioritise basic living costs. She can still work remotely, three days a week, for PBS radio, but that station relies to a large extent on its subscribing members and on local business advertising – much of it related to the arts – for revenue. The catastrophic effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on live music in Melbourne “has been quite an eye-opener”, Saye remarks. “Live music really fuels this city.”

From an audience perspective, it can be hard to see past the effect of this crisis on musicians. They’re the ones we go out to watch, after all; no punter is also keeping tabs on the audio engineers, the merchandise seller, the door person, the cloakroom attendant, and the cleaner. But each of these workers loses income all the same, for every gig that has had to be cancelled. And while larger, more established venues like the Corner may be able to see this crisis through, the long-term effect on small live venues, and the emerging artists who play there, could be very damaging. “You’re not going to go and straight away play an 800-capacity room,” comments Camilleri. The health of any local music scene depends on small events as much – if not more so – than big ones.

At the midpoint of Far Enough is a song called “Lani”, which appears to be addressed to a young girl. She could be a stand-in for the band members’ nascent selves, or for any listener who’s felt young, bewildered and hurt by the cruelties of the world. “Mum was laughing ’cause you’re crying at the TV telling how it is,” sings McKechnie. It’s a tense song that builds up over more than 7 minutes, without a chorus to loosen its anxiety. The bassline creeps lowly along; McKechnie’s vocal is light and high. In between is a lot of space, charged with threat but perhaps also with promise. When the climax arrives it brings not a break but a tiny shift in the atmosphere. That fragile hope again. “So tie up your shoes,” McKechnie sings, “Honey, you might lose / But go out and play / You’ll be okay.” It’s a song that makes sense, of late, while walking empty suburban streets, sensing the world’s shared fear.

To play is to imagine and create, in the moment. And for a musician to play live, no matter how rehearsed they may be, is to enter that mutable space, where the present matters absolutely. It’s why we gather, as human beings, in concert rooms and theatres, from the grandest to the most makeshift: to take part in an experience of time that is unfixed. There’s nothing else quite like that ritual. “That’s at the core of who we are,” McKechnie says.

The pandemic, I suggest to her and Brown, is exposing systems that we already knew to be deficient, including the labour conditions of the music industry, where so many people work without any long-term job security. When this is over, can we rebuild something that’s less vulnerable?

There’s a long pause. “Fuck. Sorry,” replies Brown. He shakes his head. (We’re on video conference.) “The notion of it not being precarious, the notion of it not being a struggle: all that kind of stuff is so foreign a concept to me, do you know what I mean?” For younger musicians in particular, the idea of any employment, let alone musical employment, being based on anything but short-term contracts and casual labour is difficult to conceive. And that’s an indictment of the labour market, not of these artists’ political horizons. “It’s just so huge that I don’t even know where to begin,” says McKechnie.

But their album itself provides a kind of beginning. “And I know that I’m only 26 and not every shot that I fire’s gonna hit on the target,” McKechnie sings on “Pillow”, the album’s closing track, which, with “Hope”, bookends the record with a poignant, hard-won optimism. “But I’m learning how to screw it up and carry on anyhow.” Even the title, Far Enough, stands as both a self-accusation and a reply. Have I done enough, gone far enough? It’s a hard question to answer, in a context where the possibility of action has become so proscribed. And yet, across the country and the world, people are trying to help each other by whatever means available. Perhaps for now this is enough.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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