An Oral History of the Stickmen
When the Stickmen took to the stage at the recent Melbourne instalment of All Tomorrow’s Parties (held in Altona on 16–17 February of this year and curated by the Drones), frontman Aldous Kelly introduced the band by saying “Hi, we’re the Stickmen. We don’t exist any more.” Their ATP set was their first live gig in fourteen years; they played another show the following Friday at the Tote, but have since made no firm plans to record or tour together again.
Kelly’s wryly low-key stage banter belies the fervour with which their live return was anticipated by a small group of Australian music cognoscenti. In the fourteen years since the Tasmanian band’s final show, their music—an unusual blend of surf rock, garage and ambient noise—had become legendary thanks to high-profile supporters (such as Mike Noga of the Drones) and an extensive article by Troy D Colvin on Mess + Noise that detailed exactly how hard it was to find their music. A small number of copies of their two albums—found in a box under Kelly’s bed—were on sale at ATP; when I returned to the merchandise stand after their set, those few final remaining copies of their first album had been snapped up.1
I spoke to Kelly about the history of the Stickmen in a pub in Fitzroy between their ATP set and their show at the Tote. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Chad Parkhill: I’d like to start by asking you how you came to be in Hobart in the first place. I notice that you’ve got a strong New Zealand accent—is that something you’ve acquired?
Aldous Kelly: I grew up there, in a small fishing village on the west coast of the South Island called Greymouth. It’s in the middle of nowhere, really. I just bought a one way ticket to Australia—I’d had enough.
Chad Parkhill: Yeah, the west coast of the South Island is …
Aldous Kelly: Remote.
Chad Parkhill: Remote to say the least.
Aldous Kelly: It was a hick town, and I just needed get out and see the world. I had family in Hobart, and my cousin was probably only fifteen at the time—and that was Ianto, who plays the drums in the Stickmen. So I just played in bands—a friend would come around and we’d just play a bit of music—and I ended up hanging around there for a bit longer than I expected. I went to Melbourne, back to Hobart—moving around Australia, playing rock ‘n’ roll.
Chad Parkhill: What made you want to stay in Hobart? Hobart’s not exactly a big town, and it must have been smaller then, in the early nineties.
Aldous Kelly: I think Hobart’s probably not much different now than it was then. Marginally more people, maybe—but it doesn’t seem like it. If anything it seems like less.
There was a good punk rock scene, so we played with cool bands there, and it was really great. I did a couple of years in Melbourne and we played with a few bands there but we didn’t know anyone and didn’t know where was cool to play—we played at the Tote and did a few things, went on tour, and went back to Hobart just to play with some of my mates I’d played with there.
Chad Parkhill: Is this the first lineup of the Stickmen you’re talking about here, the “Mark I” stickmen?
Aldous Kelly: No, this was other bands I had before that.
Chad Parkhill: Just because I’m fascinated by the concept of the band name in general, and what they can signify, what were some of the band names you were playing under in those early years?
Aldous Kelly: I had another band called Structural Dementia. Ianto was on drums again, and Matt Geeves who’s on turntables in the Stickmen was on bass—that was heavy blues, grungy, slightly even metal? Not really metal, but very heavy blues rock: noisy, rowdy stuff.
There was a lineup before the original Stickmen lineup, completely different players. The other three guys were in a band called More Television, and I recruited them because they were an excellent rhythm section. And we went from there.
Chad Parkhill: What was Hobart’s cultural scene like at the time? Was it particularly small?
Aldous Kelly: There was definitely a finite amount of people playing. But there were a lot of bands, and a lot of players playing in different bands. There would be, most weekends, either on Friday or Saturday or both, at least five bands playing per night. And it was cool, because you could play with a full-on metal band—like a black metal band—alongside a country band, then some noise bands or whatever, all playing on the one stage. That was quite cool.
Chad Parkhill: What fascinates me is that you’d expect a scene that was so geographically remote and so small to be very homogenous, almost, but it sounds like it was the opposite, really—that there was an incredible amount of diversity there.
Aldous Kelly: Yeah. People talk about the Dunedin scene in New Zealand—they say it was a “Dunedin Sound”—but you listen to a lot of those bands and they’re different from one another. They’ve got a similar approach to recording and playing, and a similar attitude to the way they make their music and live their lives, but the music is … well, if you put the Skeptics and the Chills together, you wouldn’t think they were from the same crew.
Chad Parkhill: You mentioned that people in Hobart would play in more than one band—presumably that was a way for them to flex their stylistic muscles?
Aldous Kelly: Yeah, there was a bit of that going on. I pretty much just played in whatever I was in—I only ever had one band at a time. I played with some other friends doing bits and pieces, but never seriously.
Chad Parkhill: What was the impetus for bringing the first Stickmen lineup—“Stickmen Mark I”—together?
Aldous Kelly: At the time I was just playing and jamming with those guys. I had a band before that called Entrée, and that was only short-lived. I was just trialling different people—I played guitar and sung and wrote songs, and was searching for something that would work. So I tried out John Reid and Sara Pensalfini on drums. We played a few gigs, and that was quite a dirgy blues-rock thing. That just kind of fizzled—well, the guys left. Just one of those things.
Chad Parkhill: What kind of musical influences are you talking about when you say “blues”? Obviously that’s a pretty broad genre …
Aldous Kelly: That’s probably just the approach, just the way I bastardised my own sound. When I was a kid, I played guitar from a pretty young age, and listened to Jimi Hendrix and all of this blues music. My father had music blaring at us the whole time. Seventies rock: the Stones, Hendrix, all that kind of stuff, from Harvey Mandel to Bronski Beat—full noise stuff, it was pretty out there. So a lot of that seventies rock was in the first Stickmen lineup, but with a new approach.
Chad Parkhill: I’m not entirely sure about the timeframe here, but it sounds as if happening alongside the first efflorescence of grunge music. Was grunge something that influenced Hobart musicians?
Aldous Kelly: I wouldn’t say it was particularly grunge music being played down there—it was more referencing earlier punk rock and noise stuff, or maybe more of grunge’s contemporaries: My Bloody Valentine and some of the noisier bands of the that time, Royal Trux, things like that. Those were the influences that were current. There were a lot of Joy Division fans; it was a pretty goth scene as well.
Chad Parkhill: The impression I’m getting is that the scene down there wasn’t very siloed off in the way that, for example, the contemporary Melbourne music scene is. It sounds as though there was a rich musical stew, and that close proximity was kind of forcing people to interact.
Aldous Kelly: People were giving everything a go. I guess the approach to a lot of that stuff was all the same—no-one was making any money, you were just trying to figure it out. We always approached it like the only competition is to be original, to make something that was your own. That’s what we were trying to do.
Chad Parkhill: You mention that nobody was making any money from music. What sort of jobs did you have to do to keep yourself going while you were working on these musical projects?
Aldous Kelly: Oh, just crap jobs. A lot of people were on the dole—just being young and doing what you could to have fun, and survive. It was relatively cheap to live down there, so that was a bonus. A lot of sharehouse action going on. It was fun times.
Chad Parkhill: You mentioned that the first Stickmen lineup dissolved because people moved away from Hobart. Was there a tremendous pull from other, more exotic destinations?
Aldous Kelly: Yeah, definitely. John went to India. But people bailing to Melbourne was the big thing. For a period there, people would come and go, but there was no reason to—at the time it was just so creative, there was a little hub and it was going well. There were so many bands and we were all making albums, recording, playing. The idea of going somewhere … well, you might go on tour, but you wouldn’t move. It’s not always greener on the other side.
Chad Parkhill: How long was there between the first iteration of the Stickmen and the second?
Aldous Kelly: It probably wasn’t that long. The first lineup, I think our first gig was with Magic Dirt. That’s another thing about Hobart: you could just play with bigger bands that came down because there were so few people! So we just dissolved and it wasn’t very long before the other guys got involved.
Chad Parkhill: So when people talk about the Stickmen and their sound, they’re talking about the Stickmen Mark II, the second lineup? As far as I know there were no recordings of the first lineup …
Aldous Kelly: There are some live recordings, but we didn’t do an album.
Chad Parkhill: So what are some of the sonic differences between Stickmen Mark I and Stickmen Mark II?
Aldous Kelly: In between the two lineups, I went to Sydney and stayed in this place—this massive terrace house that had twelve rooms or something. It was a techno studio, and they were putting on raves; they were called Spiral Tribe. A friend of mine played guitar there, and we had this music together—my brother played as well—we called it “space music”, and it was a lot of surf riffs, really complex. So that was quite an influence, that trance-y element. That was the intention in playing that stuff, but in the end it was simplified into a rock, song-based thing anyway. Live, we’d get into these tripped-out repetitive riffs—it was like a DJ set, the way we played it.
Chad Parkhill: So less song-based and more movement-based?
Aldous Kelly: Well, it was song-based, but some of them would jam out in the middle, like some kind of weird surf, seventies rock thing.
Chad Parkhill: Was this where the impetus to get a turntablist in the Stickmen came from, your exposure to the rave scene in Sydney?
Aldous Kelly: Well, maybe. But really this was something I’d done with More Television—we had Matt play a turntable basically like a noise guitar. It was never intended to be sampled or played like a DJ, and it never was—it was just a noisemaking device. That was the intent there, and he did it well.
Chad Parkhill: Can you tell me a little about the technical process of using a turntable as a noise instrument?
Aldous Kelly: Originally he just had an old Bell turntable or something, and ripped all the guts out of it, all the bands and so on, so it was freewheeling (which the DJ ones don’t do). It was plugged into a guitar distortion pedal and a guitar amp, so it was effectively like a guitar. So you could scratch it, you could make drones, and you could tweak the distortion pedal to go from crazy to crazier.
Chad Parkhill: So it wasn’t at all playable without manual intervention? You had to physically turn it to make noise?
Aldous Kelly: Yeah, it was very analogue. So he had a few different records; he had opera ones that he’d play slow. It was pretty ragged.
Chad Parkhill: Combined with that, you had your own guitar technique—which I understand was very unorthodox, very personal?
Aldous Kelly: I learned guitar from guitar teachers when I was young; I played and knew all these songs, which I then went through a process of forgetting. I had some friends in a band called the Blood of Others, who were really noisy and would just—it didn’t matter what tuning, they’d just thrash out this complete sonic chaos. They taught me a lot about a certain approach to music that was completely liberating compared to where I’d come from. Then I was doing this surf thing, trying to do this alternate picking. I love playing guitar, and I love great guitar players, technically proficient players—so I was trying to make my own sound that was based on some of the things I like. It ended up having references to Link Wray and surf music, but it’s not really surf music.
Chad Parkhill: Obviously Hobart’s no surf mecca—there’s pretty flat waters down there. What was the attraction to surf music as an influence?
Aldous Kelly: I really like Link Wray and I grew up with a friend, this older dude who was the most amazing rockabilly player, so I was into rockabilly as well. But I didn’t know about all this revivalist sort of Hot Rod scene of rockabilly; I just knew this one guy in isolation in New Zealand—then there was a whole scene of it in other cities, with people wearing all the right gear. But I liked it, and I think of people like Rowland S. Howard—a lot of his stuff is rockabilly-based. I heard a thing on YouTube where he was doing ‘Jennifer’s Veil’, and there are elaborate chords in there that are like rockabilly chords; they’re complicated, they’re cool. I do like it.
One thing with the band is that personally I tried to not get intellectual about it; there was a subconscious flow to it, to a point. I didn’t want to affect it too much so it became conscious of what it was, for better or worse. In some ways I think it could have done with more styling, but I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted it to be what it was, and I think with the vocals part of the performance was just being who I was. My favourite musicians are just people who are being themselves, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.
Chad Parkhill: I’m interested in the concept of “death by analysis”, because that’s a danger for every form of creative expression. Musicians can imbibe too much music theory, or listen to too many other bands, and they get this paralysis, like, “Is what I’m doing worthy? Is there some way to make it more interesting?”
Aldous Kelly: Well, you can do one chord and sing some simple lines and it can be so moving, but if you over-think things you can lose that. My favourite stuff is quite simple, often. But there’s so much music in the world that I love, so …
Chad Parkhill: Let’s talk about the career of the Stickmen. I understand you started recording a first album but scrapped it?
Aldous Kelly: Yeah, we were going tour to record with Nick Carroll in Melbourne, and just before we went, Matt, the turntablist, decided he couldn’t make it, so we got another guy in called Mik Lavage, who was in a band called Colonic Lavage. He had a very different style, sampling fifties and sixties sort of NASA things. He was more like a DJ. He made some great sounds and did a really great job of it; we played some gigs with him and it was really good, but it wasn’t the same band. His turntablism elevated the band in one sense, but it wasn’t quite where we were at. It projected the music into more of a surf arena, and made it less of a noisy kind of thing.
Nick Carroll is a fantastic engineer and he did a really good; we were going to go with Fear of Children back in Hobart, because he was going to release it, but he decided he didn’t like the recording. We decided we were going to go with him, but it took a bit time. Then a friend, Johnny Grits, pirated all of this software, and we had it recorded again to eight-track, and we had mastered to computer then. In ’97, ’98 that was only for the big boys, unless you could pirate all that—Pro Tools was, like, half a million bucks then, so very much out of most people’s reach. So we spent ages going insane, doing that for the first one.
Chad Parkhill: This is interesting, because so much of the discussion about the Stickmen right now is focused on the idea that you were an amazing band that didn’t quite make it because the internet hadn’t yet become part of the fabric of our lives—that the ability to share music seamlessly hadn’t quite happened—but at the same time you couldn’t have made that first album without a pirated copy of ProTools. So how did you go about getting the first album out there? It was self-pressed—500 copies, yeah?
Aldous Kelly: Yeah, we had it pressed up in Melbourne, and Choosy Distribution distributed it. It was a small-time thing.
Chad Parkhill: How did you go about promoting it at that time?
Aldous Kelly: We did a couple of gigs in Melbourne, and appeared on Triple R and PBS—we played live on air on PBS, and ended up doing a whole set, which was cool. But we were hopeless at promoting ourselves, basically. I remember one time picking up this magazine in Hobart, and I look at the back page and there’s a big thing saying that we were playing that night—and I wasn’t even aware of it! Half the time you’d walk downtown and see a poster and be like, “oh, I’m on the bill.” None of us had phones, and we were notorious at the time. But we rocked it live.
Chad Parkhill: Was Triple J part of the musical landscape in Hobart at the time?
Aldous Kelly: It was definitely there, but it was a bit mainstream for us.
Chad Parkhill: Were there community radio stations in Hobart?
Aldous Kelly: There was a community radio station, yeah, and a couple of friends had shows on there. But it was mainly people playing tapes and CDs and vinyls, hanging out in their flats, stuff like that.
Chad Parkhill: So it was very much a contained musical scene?
Aldous Kelly: Pretty much, yeah.
Chad Parkhill: Did you have your sights set on Australia in general? Was that the nut to crack with the band?
Aldous Kelly: I was keen to take it further. Maybe it was because I had played more, but I think the other guys didn’t quite realise what we had in our hands, as much as I could tell at the time. So I wanted to take it further but it didn’t happen.
Chad Parkhill: What were the reasons it didn’t happen? Was it the lack of promotional activities? The lack of mobile phones that meant you couldn’t always be contacted? What—with the benefit of fourteen years’ hindsight—do you think it was, exactly?
Aldous Kelly: It probably wouldn’t have taken much longer—things were changing fast. Maybe if we’d done another album. It fell apart, really, and I bailed on it out of the blue one day. That was it; it was all over.
Chad Parkhill: That happened after you’d recorded and pressed the second album—put it to bed—but before you launched it, yes?
Aldous Kelly: I think we did a CD launch, but it was basically us getting back together for the launch gig. We’d lined up to record an album and a lot of cool things were potentially in the pipeline, but the guys at that time wanted to stay in Hobart and I was keen to go to Melbourne and just find it out.
Chad Parkhill: After this breakup, what happened in terms of your own musical career? Where did you go straight after?
Aldous Kelly: I went to Melbourne and worked for the Snuff Puppets for a while, did a bit of travelling, and ended up back in New Zealand, where I live now. I’ve had a couple of bands over there—I’m currently playing. Had a band called the Field, and I play drums for a guy called Rex, and I play with my brother as well. He was in the Stickmen for a few gigs, actually.
Chad Parkhill: Was this the same brother who you played with in the rave scene in Sydney?
Aldous Kelly: He wasn’t there, but a guitarist friend, Jamie, was. The three of us would play this baroque, surf, strange, complicated guitar riffage.
Chad Parkhill: You mentioned at the start of our interview that you had a burning desire to get out of New Zealand, but you’ve ended up back there.
Aldous Kelly: Yeah, that was kind of weird. In the end I couldn’t think straight in Melbourne. I needed a bit of space. I wanted to write songs at the time, and needed a bit of mental space to do.
Chad Parkhill: So where did you end up when you went back to New Zealand?
Aldous Kelly: I live back in Greymouth, the small town I grew up in. Right back, on the hill overlooking the sea.
Chad Parkhill: Carving out a musical career in a space like that must present a few challenges.
Aldous Kelly: It’s been interesting doing this show, and being asked to play this show, because it has put to question how seriously I want to take it. When you’re in a place like that, there’s not a lot of validation that what you do is worthy. Back then, people thought what we did was cool, but to come back after all that time not realising that anyone gave a shit about the band—to think maybe they did, and they have done, and there’s a whole other generation of people who might be into it—that’s pretty cool, you know? That’s really great. So it’s like, “what will I do now?”
Chad Parkhill: I suppose it’s an opportune time to ask whether or not the Stickmen are going to continue existing as a project.
Aldous Kelly: It’s hard to say, really. Geographically, it’s not simple. But we played a couple of new tracks together, just jammed them out, and it felt really good. I’ve got heaps of material. When we split up I had a whole other album that was destined for those guys; it was very much Stickmen kind of stuff. But it wouldn’t be a problem turning out some new material that I would like to play—whether it’s good is not for me to say.