Small talk doesn’t seem to be a priority for Alex Macfarlane. By which I mean the kind of conversation that’s often feeling out whoever is sitting across from you—Alex doesn’t really go in for that, and rightfully so.
“So did you grow up in a musical family?” I ask. “Yeah, dad’s a failed folk musician,” Alex offers. Like I said, no small talk.
“Would he agree with that assessment?” I prod. “Well…” says Alex, “He just got me to learn drums so I could play in his band, which was just me and him. We did Neil Young and The Troggs covers at school assemblies.” The frankness is respectable, the nostalgia warming.
Alex, who has played in groups such as Twerps, The Stevens, Faceless Burial, Tyrannamen and his own solo projects, plus running Melbourne-based label Hobbies Galore, holds no illusions about why he does what he does: there is no grand long-term plan. Yet neither does he covet an appearance of ‘going with the flow’. More precisely, there is something to be said for Alex’s preference towards the progressive and experimental—his early tastes imbued in him a desire to create things that continuously pushed his abilities and ideas, giving his music a unique personality. That same draw to be esoteric, to pioneer, to write the melody that sounds bad to some, but lights a fire in others, that’s something that sits at the root of his label. Yet rather than calling attention to this, Alex is simply there—in the shared rehearsal space, screeching into the microphone—as a reaction, making what he can of what is currently at his disposal.
A couple of weeks after this interview Alex stands front-row at his own show—well, his label’s show—as much a punter as a honcho. He snaps photos with an old disposable and refuses to take the mic for an impromptu lead vocal—back slappers be damned. By the end of the show he’s giving away what remains of the merch, bashfully accepting compliments for the night.
Maybe we’ve seen this film before: the quiet music fanatic who is low-key, but also one of the most active in a local scene. But despite this, they’ll never claim ownership over any success they generate, simply content to be there. Alex Macfarlane is a version of that story, but his is one threaded with warbling esoteric B-sides from every record you’ve never heard.
So would you count him [Alex’s father] as an inspiration?
Big time. The place that I grew up in—I just lived with him the majority of the time I was growing up—was just this one bedroom apartment on top of a shop on Hampton Street in Hampton. Everyone who was a musician at school would just be crashing there all the time because we had a full band set up in the front room, and there would just be twenty people sleeping on the floor at any one time.
Was your dad young at the time?
Nah, old enough to know better for sure. It was a real ‘rock’ house. Everyone would sit around and listen to King Crimson and YES albums with him, and he’d just tell you why it was great and why Pantera was shit or something. Classic prog-dad.
A lot of bands sprung forth from that time I suppose. All the dudes from The Stevens, Gus [Lord] who now does The Stroppies, and Steph Hughes from Dick Diver. We were all kinda ‘round that spot. Füj from Faceless Burial also basically lived in that house.
Just from looking at what you work on now, it can be pretty varied. When you were growing up though, what was your focus? The proggy stuff?
Well that was always what I kind of liked the most, but it wasn’t really do-able with my skill set.
But, yeah, I was always kinda doing two things at once. I recorded twelve albums in high school under the name Major Macfarlane, which I’d do stupid cartoon covers for and distribute around the school. It started off sounding like Primus with heaps of slap bass and novelty lyrics, but then it moved into 60s pop stuff with shoegaze overtones which was totally unlistenable by now standards.
And then on the side of that I was doing one-man death metal bands called like ‘Vomiting Knobs’ and ‘Deathbed Maniac’.
So were you just the one person doing this alone?
Not really. I’ve had really close friends for my whole life. A lot of my best friends now were the same from back then. We kinda just grew up in the same way and influenced each other a lot, Gus especially—our folks were friends and I’ve known him since like a week after he was born.
I thought I was going to be a cartoonist when I was growing up because me and Gus did a tonne of that, but then I was shit and he excelled at it so I was just like, “Okay you do that, I’ll cover the rock.” And now he’s covering the rock and excelling at that too.
Ah fuck, Gus, gimme a break man!
Exactly! You’ve had enough!
Why do you think you gravitated towards the weird or obscure when you were younger? Was it an attitude thing, a tad?
Yeah big time, I was like… a real jerk all through high school.
There are like five people in a year level who aren’t jerks though.
I feel like most of my friends weren’t ever jerks. I had a phase, but I think I’ve chilled out a bit.
As someone with so many touch-stones in different genres and so many projects, why go ahead and start a label?
It was mainly just to do things differently to other labels I’ve been involved in. There have been a lot of times where you’re dealing with bigger wait times, and so much effort goes into the advertising campaigns that I feel are largely fruitless. You’re just fitting into someones schedule to ‘hit it big’ when that’s normally not what the band wants.
Originally the idea was I’d just be releasing stuff that I worked on. A lot of the initial releases were a case of just finishing recording and saying “Alright, it’s done! Let’s put it out tomorrow.” But now everything has grown so quickly and immediately that I’ve actually had to tell people that they’ll have to wait.
How does it feel ending up there again?
It feels shit—I thought I should just pack in the label as soon as there would be a wait time, but in the scheme of things it’s really not that bad.
I was thinking about this earlier—I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard an interview with you…
I get asked, but I didn’t want my face to be attached to the label. Every release is its own thing. I feel like there are a lot of labels where it’s hard to tell where exactly ‘the music’ is ranked on a list of important things. Where they’re doing like t-shirts and tote bags and it’s just like, are you a fashion label or a record label? I probably sound really bitter.
Aesthetics is such a thing now. It’s funny when you notice that whether it’s a label or any kind of organisation, they start to get big and you think to yourself, “Are you just getting big because your logo is cool?”
I think it’s really funny when everything falls under the one curtain aesthetic that somebody decided on, and all the bands have to be represented by that. It takes away from the individuality of the artist, and then you basically forget about the artist. Then you’re buying everything that comes out on that label just because you think the aesthetic is cool.
This struggle between utopian artistic freedom and the demands added by becoming a relevant industry actor is a road tread by many labels before. Alex is not the first. However, rather than wanting to construct an institution, or a hierarchy, Alex seemingly views Hobbies Galore as simply an avenue. A largely anonymous stepping stone.
Aesthetics are a common tool in the application of hegemony, Alex understands. To force artists to conform to a Hobbies Galore identity is to essentially direct their talent and creativity. Bias is a slippery thing though, and from the start Alex was unconsciously cultivating that which would eventually form the Hobbies Galore’s ‘roster’, as it were.
How involved in each release are you? Obviously, to begin with, there was your own tapes, but what about now?
Well I’m just as involved as they want me to be. Everything is up to the artist. If they want me to record or mix it, then yeah, sure. I guess I’m never chilling—like ever. I don’t do much of that. So if I can be doing something for someone then I’ll be doing that, rather than ‘have a night in’. I’ve also got the benefit of not sleeping, ever.
Yeah. Most of the family has it actually. Not really sure what caused it to be honest. It partly sucks because I used to get a lot of my lyrics from horrifying nightmares I used to have, which I’d use in Faceless Burial songs [Alex is the vocalist and bass player]. But now I’m not sleeping so I’m not dreaming, so I have to force myself to be depraved during the day to force this stuff out. It’s really weird to have to intentionally do that.
So what do you do with the time that you’re awake?
I share a place with my girlfriend and so I can’t just go in the other room and start riffing or anything. Mostly I read. A lot of the lyrics I write are based off of whatever I’m reading. The cycle goes: the less I sleep the more I read, so the more I read the more I write.
It’s hard to absorb information when you haven’t slept, though. I read a lot of sci-fi and so there are a lot of things that don’t actually exist taking place that you’re trying to place inside your head.
How do you figure out which of your personal projects you’re going to release under your own name?
Most of what I write gets cut. Some of it is trying to make sure there are enough ‘song-y’ songs on something. I could put out cassette after cassette of electronic instrumentals but that’s not necessarily my strength—I don’t know how to use synths I just really, really like them.
I feel like it would be insulting to synth-heads if I was just putting out tape after tape of garbage instrumentals. So I feel like there needs to be a few choruses in there.
So is that the difference between something like your recently released 7” Planetarium Nights and your other self-titled tapes?
I don’t really know. I just had a bunch of tracks recorded and a lot of them were just too proggin’.
Yeah, and so I just kinda cut a tonne and chucked the best ones I had on there [on Planetarium Nights] as a way of giving people something like ‘maximum value’ for $9.00.
Alex comes from a background of ‘maximum value’ releases. The Stevens’ (for which Alex was the guitarist) previous two releases numbered 18 and 24 tracks respectively. Often short, often sweet, with a throughline of guitar pop strangeness that crops up on many Hobbies Galore releases. Especially ones from former Stevens members themselves, e.g. Big Supermarket.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the value is incidental though. Not forcibly cutting a release down allows for massive changes in tone, either across single songs or the entire release itself. For that reason The Stevens’ albums have always felt like journals to me, rambling and emotive, coming from a similar place, but refracted through differing lenses.
Was that an approach shared on your work with The Stevens, because History of Hygiene is what, 25 songs?
Well Travis McDonald is one of the most prolific songwriters I know. He sends me little snippets of stuff and I’m just thinking, “Why aren’t we putting this out?” But he’s also a super perfectionist, he labours over things for so long that in some cases they don’t ever come out.
The way we actually selected the songs for The Stevens albums was just by playing ‘Spin the Bottle’. With cut outs of the track titles in a circle. We had two circles. One circle was actually determined by a coin flip and the other was the bottle, so it was complete chance.
How many cut-outs are we talking?
Fucking heaps. Like sixty songs! We just couldn’t decide on anything.
This was for The Stevens’ album Good?
Yep. The record that came out wasn’t 100% the one I signed off on either, it changed even more before mastering. I’d never even heard [the song] ‘Family Silver’ before.
I think that’s what makes those albums special though—songs like ‘I Know’ contrasted with interludes like ‘Purple & Grey’.
It’s a shame, I suppose, we’re not actually really doing it anymore—Stevens, that is. We’d actually already disbanded by the time it came out. But then we came back to do the launch.
It’s hard to get everyone on the same page sometimes. Like the reason I started doing the solo stuff was just so I could go back to working at my own pace, putting things out when I want to. Which is true for all the other members too. We’ve got a tape out for Matt [Harkin] now, Gus [Angus Lord] has got Stroppies, Trav is [Travis McDonald] doing a lot of painting and he’s doing extremely well at it—everyone’s working at their own pace. That said, Trav is getting back into the rock, which I’m thrilled about.
So I wanted to talk about the different musical environments you’ve found yourself in, contrasted to now with Hobbies. I’m thinking specifically of Twerps, around the time of that band’s last album Range Anxiety. What was it like being an ‘Aussie Export’ for a while?
It was pretty weird. Because I was just drumming, it was like hanging out. Obviously I was there, but Marty and Julia are obviously more the faces of that band.
You might be interested to know that in that Pitchfork video they made about Twerps, you are the one member where someone actually talks into an interview mic.
I was very hungover, as was everyone else. Nobody really wanted to talk. That whole video was actually just one extremely long interview which they just cut into us walking around.
Did you feel like you learned anything from that?
I learned it wasn’t necessary for me to do those kind of big showcases. I feel like when you’re a band on that scale and doing those kind of shows it almost makes the band smaller. You’re on these lineups where there is no separation between what is good or bad, everything is a hyped band. Everyone is equally trying to hit it big, to the point where everyone is interchangeable.
So moving between all these spaces, from Twerps to Hobbies to whatever else. Do you ever think about it, does it impact you?
Not really, I just sort of do it. It just happens, over and over again, constantly. I’ve been rockin’ and giggin’ since I was very young, and it’s all a bit of a blur because of the heavy drinking constantly as well. None of it seems very intentional or planned.
Are you happy with it that way?
It’s definitely exhausting—but I’m also doing a lot less than I used to. I was doing six bands at one point, rehearsals every night, gigging all weekend, working every day. But now I’ve replaced that with the label.
Do you feel ‘present’ when you’re doing it?
Not really. I don’t really remember shows or recording or anything like that. I get really involved. I don’t think about things when I’m doing them.
Does it ever feel like too much? You’re very relaxed but it sounds like an overload.
I just want to do heaps more. Not in the distant future, like, right now.
Alex Macfarlane – Planetarium Nights
Released by Hobbies Galore in May 2018
See all of the Hobbies Galore releases here.
Nicholas Kennedy is a writer who lives in Melbourne. He has previously been published in CollapseBoard, WhoTheHell and Rolling Stone Australia just before it went out of business, a fact he enjoys correlating to his contribution.