Shrimps on the barbie, Crocodile Dundee, Bondi Beach, Steve Irwin, Kylie Minogue, the Sydney Opera House; Australia has always touted — for better or worse — its own strong and symbolic sense of identity.
Its dance music scene has some equally notable and iconic acts (cue The Presets, Cut Copy or more recently, Flume), who've achieved a ubiquitous level of overground success, but it's Australia's underground scene that's starting, slowly but surely, to bubble.
For a comparatively small and, at times, insular industry, Australia's dance community is surprisingly segmented and nostalgic, with electro, thrash electro (electro's often best forgotten cousin) and the bassier side of house still commanding a significant club audience down under.
EDM, trap and tropical house has seeped, unsettlingly, into the overground, a trend no doubt appropriated from the United States dance boom, whilst authentic house and techno — or at least the type UK selectors would identify as such — still sits, in contrast, on the periphery.
Independent and commercial radio still has influence on club playlists, and big budget, corporately backed festivals reign supreme in the sunburnt summer months. Long-standing nightlife institutions, particularly in Sydney's infamous Kings Cross, are feeling the tightening stranglehold from increasingly conservative government licensing restrictions, whilst a rising — and internationally unappreciated — crop of underground producers are slowly starting to turn heads in Berlin, London and beyond.
Sweat It Out Party, Miami
NOBODY LOST, NOBODY FOUND
When EDM hit America, it felt alien. When EDM hit Australia, it felt somewhat familiar. Unlike America’s pre-EDM purchasing populous, children of the schools of Detroit, New York and Chicago aside, Australia has long had a deep-rooted and loyal affinity with dance.
Trance and harder styles (hard NRG, happy hardcore, hard dance) have attracted and retained a following down under since the early '90s, with international and touring mega festivals like Defqon1 or Sensation White garnering significant pull within their smaller but specially tapped Australian market.
The “bush doof” has long held a fabled place in the hearts of old skool Aussie ravers, with DJs like BeXta, Nik Fish and Jason Midro orators of the rough-and-ready late '90s and early noughties dance scene.
John Course and the Ministry of Sound clique (the Australian franchise of the popular UK club brand) made a veritable killing on the club circuit in the early noughties, thanks to a slew of well-marketed two-disc compilations, including the Australian versions of 'The Annual', 'Clubbers' Guide' and 'Electro Sessions', whilst Australia's al fresco festival culture began to explode from 2000 onwards.
Promoters rubbed their hands together in glee at the big budget potential of it all, with tiny 2000-person events like Brisbane's first-ever — and now sadly deceased — Parklife Festival morphing into a corporately backed, big-act-booking festival force within five years, alongside a now-familiar crop of dance-focused festivals — cue Stereosonic, Future Music, Summerfielddaze (RIP), and to a lesser extent, the once hippy, now hipster festival, Splendour in the Grass.
The innocent-sounding, spangled “band disco” of Cut Copy's second record ('In Ghost Colours') whipped up fervour near the close of the noughties, bleeding into other home-grown “almost dance, mostly indie” acts like Midnight Juggernauts and Lost Valentinos by the end of '09.
The metal-meets-electro aesthetic of Parisian two-piece Justice had translated superbly two years earlier, with 2007's '†' paving the way for a flush of Ed-Banger-influenced thrashers from Kid Kenobi, Bass Kleph, The Presets, Bag Raiders, Van She and much-loved DJ collective, Bang Gang DJs.
Bang Gang's 'Light Sound Dance' would prove an essential for pattern-wearing club kids that same year, whilst forward-thinking imprint Modular Recordings picked up ARIAs — that's an Australian Grammy to non-Antipodeans — whilst pushing everything from mutant fidget house to nu-rave to sparkly synth pop.
“Being in Australia, when we were growing up and getting into music, we never got anything,” says Matt Handley, one half of Yolanda Be Cool and label A&R of seminal Australian dance label, Sweat It Out.
“Vinyl would hit shops here three months after it was in the UK, or just never make it at all. I think it stunted our influences in that sense — but streaming, the internet, the noughties, totally changed that. It’s a different world now.”
Ten years into the new millennium and everything was burning — or rather bouncing — bright down under, with much of the music from Modular, Sweat It Out and OneLove influencing the sound of Australian dance’s soon-to-be “new wave”.
“I'm definitely a child of the Modular era,” says Anna Lunoe, a DJ and producer who rose to prominence thanks to a kick-start release on Sweat It Out. “You know, when it was Bang Gang, The Presets and Cut Copy, that is. I'm actually wearing a Bang Gang t-shirt right now!” Lunoe points to an obviously much-loved Bang Gang logo emblazoned shirt.
Even with only a peripheral knowledge of dance music, you’d be pressed to find a UK house fan who hadn’t heard of Flume, arguably Australia’s most successful electronic export to date.
The architect of Australia’s now widely recognized “sound”, Flume’s wonky hip-hop-meets-house captured hearts, ushering in a brand-new era for Australian electronic music in his wake. “I’ve been touring in America since 2007 and I think Australian music definitely has swung in stages.
You know in '07, '08, '09 there was so much hype around the Cut Copy lot… and then it died off a little,” explains Lunoe. “And then Flume happened in 2012, and now we’re living in this present/post-Flume America. There was a cluster of artists that really grabbed attention at the end of 2013, so it’s a really different climate now than ever before. And that’s a good thing.” she says.
KLP and Anna Lunoe in Miami
I GO HARD, I GO HOME
Miami. There seems a no more obvious home for Australia's sun-soaked, overground sounds than that of the States' very own golden coast. Australian labels and artists have been out in force at Miami's annual World Music Conference in the last several years, spurred on by the prospect of expansion outside Australia, thanks to EDM sympathizers and a shift toward “dancier” sounds Stateside.
There’s no better place for DJ Mag to nab Australia’s best and brightest for a chinwag; given the nation’s inconvenient geographic location, it’s a rare insight into the inner workings of Australia’s petite and fiercely loyal scene.
A hefty dollop of Sydney-based movers and shakers jetted out to Miami's 2015 WMC edition, culminating in a label-showcase-cum-family-reunion for one Sydney label in particular, Sweat It Out.
The label's lovable founders, Yolanda Be Cool — best known for backpacker’s bar favourite, 'We No Speak Americano' — continue to run the imprint, sans third member Ajax (a local hero and key part of the Bang Gang DJs), who sadly passed away after being hit crossing a road in 2013.
“When Ajax died, it really shattered through the entire Australian industry you know, and way beyond. From the French Ed Banger guys, to A-Trak to Steve Aoki, to everyone. We started the label with him, and we're still striving in his memory, for perfection and excellence,” says Matt solemnly.
The influence of Ajax should not be understated, as much for his DJing ability as for his affable personality, creating a blueprint upon which Sweat It Out — and later labels like Jump To This, Medium Rare or Chameleon — continue to work.
“We're not really genre specific you know, I'm not sure if you need to be so much in Australia. We have a leaning towards house music, but if it's really cool and we love it, we'll sign it to the label — 70bpm to 140bpm really!” Matt explains.
“It's a common thing said in dance music but commercialization — this EDM thing or whatever — is actually a good thing, because it means that someone who might have gone to a Metallica concert goes to see Knife Party instead, and in a few years they might come find us. We’re open to that.”
Just like the US, Australia has created a strong and resolute divide between EDM and the underground, though the popularity of both continues to swell. “There are two different communities going on and existing, and there’s so many dynamics that go with that,” says Lunoe.
“There’s a dance music community of people that have been sharing ideas, and throwing parties and creating concepts for years. And there’s this other side that is built, purely and simply, for commercial purposes, and I think that distinction is really important.”
Today, Australia's electronic music scene — when it comes to production exports at least — is strong. Anna Lunoe, Nina Las Vegas, Kristy Lee Peters, Bella Saris, Tigerlily and Alison Wonderland are all flying the flag for female Aussie talent, whilst acts like Flume, band-cum-DJ-duo Flight Facilities, Hayden James and Motez are lining up significant gigs across the globe.
It's the internet that has no doubt helped catapult Aussie acts into the spotlight, allowing Australian talents to jostle for position, or — more importantly, thanks to a club scene in near-crisis down under — secure bookings on a global scale.
“I think the US has always looked at Australia for more of an indie dance vibe,” says Nina Las Vegas, the undisputed Queen of Australian youth radio station Triple J and a longstanding club DJ.
She also reared her head in Miami this year, embarking on (surprisingly) her first-ever US tour. Nina Las Vegas — real name Nina Elizabeth Agzarian — rose to prominence as a radio DJ on much-loved alternative radio station, Triple J, during the late noughties, hosting Triple J House Party every Friday night. Like Lunoe, Las Vegas started to tap into Australia’s dance scene in the midst of the internet streaming explosion, using forums to reach outside Australia’s still-limited international selection.
Nina Las Vegas in Miami
“I was in low budget forums back at the very beginning of the whole internet music craze. We were so into fidget house, we’d go on these bizarre Russian blogs and download every weird remix we could find,” she explains.
“In Sydney, we had always had this really strong CD culture — thanks to the Bang Gang guys especially — we’d do swaps and play CDJs. If I’d been in Melbourne maybe I would have been around the rap dudes who played on Serato. We would have had vinyl wars, or been part of the Animals Dancing party collective, but that’s not how it started for me. We were always online.”
It’s a combination of online and radio that now formulates much of Australia’s popular music taste — be it electronic, or otherwise. “The radio is still hugely influential in Australia, I feel so lucky to be part of Triple J,” says KLP — AKA Kristy Lee Peters — a singer and DJ who took over from Las Vegas hosting House Party in 2014.
The government-backed station has long been a promoter of quality Australian talent, alongside smaller localized radio stations like Triple R and PBS in Melbourne or FBI in Sydney, who’ve given Australia’s fringe scenes a voice, though Triple J has been responsible for pushing artists like Flume, DJs-cum-party-boys Peking Duck and much of the Future Classic roster to the Australian masses.
“Triple J is backed by the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], and it’s national and non-commercial, and they genuinely just care about the music. I think it’s just one of those rarities that has really worked” says Las Vegas.
D IS FOR DISCO, E IS FOR DANCING
In the absence of any definitive dance print press down under, digital has become the go-to for scene discussion and commentary. Dance blogs exercise more power than in music media-saturated nations like the UK or US, with fast response news sites like content and media agency In the Mix and Sydney-based blog, promoters and record label, Stoney Roads dominating a relatively small market share.
The youth media backlash to Sydney’s recently introduced lock out laws has been significant, spurred on by the blatant threat the tightened laws have put on Australia’s indentured club culture and — by proxy — its artists and DJs.
“We’re playing late night sets at midnight because everything now closes at 3am, and you can’t enter a club after 1am. The lock out laws have affected everything, they’ve significantly damaged our club culture,” says Nick Drabble, one half of Sydney-based DJ and production duo, Set Mo, who just wrapped their first European tour last year.
“There’s been a movement toward warehouse events — events hosted by the likes of Spice, S.A.S.H, Heaps Gay and Motorik among others — and more of a focus on day parties, but it's the clubs in iconic spots like Kings Cross that are being hit hard.”
With talks of New South Wales’ aptly-dubbed “lockout laws” spreading to Queensland’s party capital of Brisbane within the next six months, promoters nationwide have reason to worry. Arguably Australia’s most revered underground rave cave, Melbourne’s Revolver, has built a sweat-soaked, backroom culture around its 24-hour rave-ups, something a nationwide expansion of NSW’s lockout laws could potentially wipe out.
“It’s genuinely terrible,” says Las Vegas of Sydney’s lock out. “It’s just been made so very hard. The sad part is that even if the government does change, the lock out laws probably won’t. The worst part is I literally can’t run club nights in Sydney anymore because there’s not enough time for turn over [of people through the door].
You can’t drink past three and kids are locked out, [meaning no re-entry into clubs] from one, and you need that stream of people coming through. How are you meant to promote any party for more than 100 people if you can’t get that turn over or busy vibe?” she muses.
“I can’t imagine a Bang Gang event stopping at two, that’s when it really started, it was just the best time, a community vibe. You’ve lost the ability to be flexible, to be exposed to different stuff. The music you hear at 4am is vastly different to the music you hear at headline ticketed timeslots.”
“It’s the opposite of radical self reliance,” Matt Handley explains passionately when we broach the topic in Miami. “It’s a nanny state, I’m not sure what can be done.”
Sleep D Live
ARE YOU THE ONE?
In the wake of Sydney’s dwindling club scene, Melbourne’s dance music output never looked healthier. Having spawned some of Australia’s most impressive and irreverent producers to date, Melbourne is nursing a penchant for techno and deeper analogue sounds not normally associated with Australia’s catalogue.
Melbourne’s current house and techno scene offers up a more mature timbre than that heard on Triple J, or in the majority of Sydney clubs. “The beauty of the Melbourne scene right now is that you can exist without even knowing about EDM,” says Fantastic Man, a long-respected DJ and producer in Melbourne’s eclectic electronic melting pot.
It’s in the vinyl market where Melbourne is really paving the way, with a small-yet-devoted flush of underground imprints committed to the art of stamping the wax. Much hyped techno label Untzz are fans of the 12”, as are BBW (an imprint founded by Melbourne house hero Francis Inferno Orchestra and Tyson Ballard), plus label heads and fast-rising DJs, Sleep D, who run label and party series, Butter Sessions. Then there’s Home Loan Records, Noise In My Head and Ruff, who all offer up 12s of key label cuts — from spiky techno to funky house.
Francis Inferno Orchestra
It’s also the niche clique of parties in Melbourne that has allowed the scene to steadily percolate, away from the clutches of EDM, trap or tropical house. “People in Melbourne take partying seriously and with the success of parties like Pleasure Planet or the Wax’o Paradiso parties we run, people not only expect a certain level of quality, but something unique,” says Andy Hart, a Melbourne producer, promoter and DJ who’s pricked the ears of Heist label founders and DJs Detroit Swindle with his textural, soul-influenced sound.
This talented Melbourne house and techno flock, including Hart, Francis Inferno Orchestra, Harvey Sutherland and Sleep D — among other impressive up-and-comers — have all gradually extended their influence in the last 18 months, signaling a potential new genesis for the Australian underground.
“Tornado Wallace, Zanzibar Chanel, Otologic, Fantastic Man, Daze,” Francis Inferno Orchestra reels off the names when DJ Mag asks what Aus acts aren’t getting enough attention — something that’s hopefully on track to change.
No better primed is this close-knit crew of Melbourne creatives for a European take over, in particular Butter Sessions bosses Sleep D, whose spacious, pearlescent techno might just be the innovative “next, next wave” Australia has been waiting for.
Harvey Sutherland Live
From electro to techno and back again, Australia’s dance scene is as recognizable and vibrant as the nation itself. With proud and talented key players flying the flag for Australian sounds — be that commercial, underground or somewhere in the middle — and despite the challenges presented by government restrictions and geographic distance, it would seem the best dance music from down under is yet to come.
Nina Las Vegas on Flume
“For me, Cut Copy and [The] Presets were everything to me. But tens of thousands of kids saw The Presets and never liked them on Facebook. It’s a completely different world now for kids like Flume, who have amassed that new attention through socials.
I think Australia right now is cool. They’re [America] is looking at us right now because we’ve got the attention of the new wave. When Skrillex bigs up Flume, you see this kid from the Northern Beaches being able to get massive, and it’s amazing because Harley is the embodiment of a down-to-earth Australian male.
Surfs, makes music in his room. You see that and other Australian kids think ‘Oh that’s me, I can do that!’ and that’s the stuff that really changes industries.”