Gold Class’s post-punk debut It's You leaves space for lyrics with angry bite and a queer perspective.By Dave Faulkner.
Gold Class, ‘It’s You’
We’ve got great plans for better health
Breaking news tonight
Save it for someone else
Bad from the neck down
Bad from the neck down
So begins It’s You, the debut album by Gold Class. On this opening track, “Furlong”, Adam Curley sings about failing to live up to his good intentions, but that hasn’t been a problem for Gold Class themselves. It’s You caps an eventful 18 months for the Melbourne post-punk quartet and during that time they’ve gone from being a casual writing project among friends to one of the highlights of Brisbane’s recent BIGSOUND conference.
The musical nonconformists are becoming popular almost in spite of themselves. It certainly isn’t by design, as It’s You amply demonstrates. Their prickly, uncompromising vision has been captured perfectly on the no-frills recording, which was completed in only four days at Head Gap studio in Preston, Melbourne. Virtually a live recording, the 10 songs have a striking, Spartan purity, untainted by any artificial sweetening.
“Furlong” is based around Mark Hewitt’s stuttering drum pattern, almost robotic in its lack of affectation, and is punctuated by Jon Shub’s intermittent pulses of crunchy bass. Guitarist Evan James Purdey dances around and across the groove, splashing chords between angular guitar licks, threading them like pearls, or glinting like jewels of morning dew on a spider web. Curley’s rich baritone declaims a tale of misguided intentions and the road not taken, mingled with memories of his childhood in North Queensland, his past still haunting his present:
Blue like a northern sky
Salt in our mouths
Never have to wonder why
Hands and they press down
We go free
Curley was born in Bowen, the son of a mango farmer and a school teacher. When he was eight the family moved south to Redlands, outside of Brisbane, but they would frequently return to North Queensland to visit his paternal grandparents and he retains a strong attachment to the region.
When Curley was in Bowen a couple of years ago, he found himself embroiled in the battle over the continuing plans to enlarge the coal shipping port at Abbot Point. This led directly to him writing “Pro Crank”, an angry song about the ad hominem tactics used by powerful interests to silence critics of the port, located in the middle of the threatened Great Barrier Reef. Curley explained the lyrics to me last week: “The very idea of the song being called ‘Pro Crank’… Someone calling you a crank is shutting you down for having an opinion – and I’m not gonna be shut down. I’ll be a professional crank if you want me to be one, you know?” The backing track of “Pro Crank” has a morose aggression that sounds both anguished and malevolent, reinforcing the belligerent outrage of Curley’s lyrics.
In a recent email to their US publicist, which was forwarded to me by their Australian label, Curley outlined his philosophy when he was writing the album’s lyrics: “I wanted it to be an angry album because there’s a lot to be angry about in Australia right now and it isn’t being reflected in a lot of the music that’s played on the radio here.” He went further: “We have one of the most conservative governments in our history; this is a government that is pulling funds away from regional Indigenous communities, blocking the reporting systems for abuse in asylum-seeker detention centres, backing away from humanitarian responsibilities and blaming minorities for it, defunding the arts sector... I wanted to make an album that took some of my anger about that and wove it into personal stories, I suppose because I find it difficult to separate the two.”
The personal-as-political comes to the fore on several songs on It’s You. “Bite Down” is another angry song of repression, this time within the confines of a personal relationship. It describes one where sex has become a bargaining chip, the act resented and withheld by one partner to humiliate the other. It sounds like Curley is no stranger to emotional blackmail. “You just want them to stand up and do something about it, you know?” he tells me. “It’s like, fuck! Be here, be here with me.” The music captures all the urgency and frustration of the lyrics, as the spiky guitar tone and frantic fretwork adds a psychotic edge to everything Gold Class does. On “Bite Down”, Purdey neurotically wrenches a minor third above a droning open D string, breaking into dissonant flurries of notes as the rhythm section motors along propulsively underneath.
The bare-bones approach Gold Class have used to record their sparse arrangements is exactly the right one. Every element is perfectly weighted and separated from each other, allowing individual nuances to come through in even the most hectic passages, of which there are many. But stripping things back didn’t rob the music of any power. In fact its starkness makes it more confronting. “That’s sort of intentional, the kind of restraint,” Purdey says. “We kinda like the sense that it’s chaotic – or it’s borderline chaotic – where we strain up to the point where it might just fall apart but then we reel it back in. That’s kinda fun.”
Purdey names Fugazi, Sonic Youth and the West Coast hardcore scene as key influences on his guitar playing. “You know, that kind of slightly wonky, slightly kind of dissonant but still really melodic playing? That’s the sort of stuff I really love and grew up listening to.” Greg Sage’s band The Wipers were a particular favourite. “There’s that kind of dirty undercurrent. Like, Greg Sage is always bending the notes and messing with it a little bit so it doesn’t keep that pop sheen.”
Inventive guitar parts are a remarkable feature of It’s You, often contributing just as much melody to the songs as the lead vocals they support. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Perverts”, where Purdey puts on a dazzling display. “I was trying to rip off Marc Ribot [Tom Waits’ long-time guitarist]. I really enjoy the way it trips over itself, that guitar line. It takes a bit more concentration but it’s pretty rewarding.”
Gold Class formed early last year after conversations Curley, Hewitt and Purdey had during a creative writing course they were taking. Hewitt and Purdey were already friends, having met through the Melbourne music scene, and Purdey and Curley knew each other from working shifts together at The Old Bar, one of the more important music venues in the city. It was only natural the trio should discuss music between chats about fiction. Purdey had some instrumental guitar demos he wanted to develop further, and soon they had recruited Shub, another musician moonlighting as a bartender at The Old Bar. One of their first surprises was discovering Curley’s extraordinary vocal gifts. “Well, it was pretty mind-blowing because I had no idea,” Purdey remembers. “Like, we would just be kinda chatting at work… He’s a quietly spoken, lovely guy, and then suddenly he’s got this huge set of pipes. That was pretty exciting.”
In addition to his vocal skills, Curley is a talented writer with a strong sense of his place in the world. He is queer and also an ardent feminist. The remarkable email I mentioned earlier, to the band’s US publicist, contained this statement from the singer: “I’m also aware of our position as an all-male rock band and I wanted to make a feminist, queer album from that perspective, because that seemed like an interesting and honest idea to me. Even though I get pinned to the same male post-punk influences, most of my vocal influences are female or at least not cis-male, people like Nina Simone, Siouxsie Sioux, Antony Hegarty. I identify as queer and am happy to speak to queer media.” I describe Curley’s email as remarkable because, as a gay musician myself, I have never before seen a record label so supportive of an artist about such matters. Despite Curley’s misgivings about our current government, it’s clear there has been welcome progress elsewhere in Australian society.
“I grew up listening to a lot of punk music made by straight men,” Curley says. “So I suppose I’m pretty conscious of those things, and the fact that Gold Class is made up of four men – though I’m sure we all experience our genders and sexualities differently – and in some ways I do want to queer and feminise the spaces I inhabit.”
Punk music has always been a very broad church. In the early ’80s it spawned the queercore scene, which continues to be a force today. Punk was also the first music genre that accepted female musicians as equals, and it gave birth to the influential riot grrrl movement. The members of Gold Class are very conscious of the enlightened role they can play but their guitarist, for one, recognises the challenges they face. “The history of music is littered with people who have the best intentions in that regard and have zero control over who actually listens to it or the way they interpret the songs,” Purdey says. “You ultimately have no control but you can only keep on point message-wise, I guess, and hope that people listen and maybe change a few minds along the way.”
Two months after they started writing together, and armed with their first five songs, Gold Class ventured in front of an audience for the first time. They were taken aback by the strong, positive reaction they received. Even today, Curley still sounds a bit dumbfounded by the memory. “It didn’t feel like something that was at all aimed at an audience, if that makes sense.” Having people hear his deeply personal lyrics was another adjustment for the singer. “I’d never really thought too hard about whether people would respond to the lyrics or what people would make of them, so in that sense it’s just been constantly surprising the way that people have taken to it, you know?”
Gold Class had better get used to people responding positively to their music. There is something special about this band and It’s You is bound to win them fans around the world. What started as a little writing project, and then turned into a hobby, is fast becoming a career.
Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 24-26
VISUAL ART Pleasure & Reality
Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Melbourne, until February 16
CINEMA Cause Film Festival
Lennox Theatre, Riverside, Parramatta, September 24
CABARET La Petite Mort
The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, September 22-27
VISUAL ART City of Hobart Art Prize 2015
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until November 29
VISUAL ART X-Rated: The Sex Industry in the ACT
Canberra Museum and Gallery, until September 20
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Gilt conscience". Subscribe here.