Blackie’s Song a Day project
Blackie stands in the centre of the studio wearing headphones and listening intently. I’m huddled in a corner, trying hard to be the proverbial fly on the wall but feeling more like the fly in the ointment. A recording studio is a very private place and Pet Food Studios is more intimate than most. This small room doubles as the rehearsal space for Jay Whalley’s band Frenzal Rhomb, and their equipment is stacked high against every wall. Blackie looks completely in his element. He stands with his beat-up old Gibson SG plugged into a vintage Marshall amp – a classic rock configuration – wearing an old T-shirt emblazoned with Chinese calligraphy, blue jeans and nameless running shoes, his long hair with hints of grey. “What do you want to do, Blackie?” Whalley asks. “Do you want to do it in bits?” Whalley sits nearby, punching song cues on his laptop, looking equally punk rock in a red-and-black check flannel shirt, black jeans, black Cons and sun-bleached dreadlocks. “No,” Blackie answers. “I’m happy to do it all in the one take. One magical take.” He smiles. “If the vibe’s happening.”
Blackie is at Pet Food Studios to work on his mammoth Song a Day project. He’s set himself the preposterous task of posting a newly recorded, original song online every day for a year. As 2016 is a leap year, that means he’ll be writing and recording 366 songs, the equivalent of 30 complete albums, in the space of 12 months. To make things even harder, Blackie wants to make every song complete and fully realised: “Good enough for the radio.” No short cuts, no sitting in front of a webcam at home, strumming an acoustic guitar. The commitment required in time and money boggles the mind. Why would he put himself through it?
At his favourite coffee shop a week later, Blackie tries to answer this question. “I had the idea for a while,” he says. “I mean, to explain it to you would probably take half an hour. A couple of different reasons. My age would have been one of them, you know, getting on.” He turned 50 in April. “When you look back on your life and you go, ‘Oh well, what have I learnt?’ Well, the main thing I’ve learnt is I love music. I’ve loved it since I was four years old in my dad’s VW, hearing the power of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by The Beatles on the radio. Thinking, ‘This is just movement through the air but it’s making me wanna wet myself!’ As I’m getting older, you know, getting nearer the end, it’s like, ‘What do I wanna do?’ Well, I wanna do this and I wanna do as much of it as humanly possible. I really wanted to go nuts for the first time.” If we were in any doubt, the lyrics of the first song he posted on New Year’s Day say just that: “This is the plan / The plan is to go nuts!”
That song is called “Declaration of Intent”. It opens with a stuttering, chunky guitar riff, which is immediately doubled. A loud snare flam strikes and there’s a holler, almost a war cry, as the rhythm section kicks in. It’s an electrifying slab of stoner rock, powerful and mean. It also served to disabuse anyone of the notion that Song a Day would be anything like Blackie’s previous solo work, which was a lighter, poppier affair. This is heavy. It was an auspicious beginning.
On the second day, “Illest of Winds” sets up an immediate contrast. It’s a power pop song, in the vein of Dinosaur Jr, with a catchy bah-bah-bah harmony near the end. These two opening songs are sophisticated, with unconventional structures. A lot of thought has gone into them. And they were just the beginning. On Day Three “Flattery” arrived – acoustic chamber pop, with cross-weaving harmonies. On Day Four, “If Stress Is the Trigger It’s Also the Bullet”, a high-adrenalin blast of punk rock. Day Five: “Scowl”, a heavy prog flavour, perhaps with a soupçon of goth influence. Day Six: “Rex I Said Sit Not Shit!!”, a pretty acoustic folk-pop song, featuring delicate finger-picking. From the outset Blackie made clear that he wanted to graze, free-range-style, across a diversity of genres, a pattern that he is continuing six months in.
Blackie formed his first band when he was 13 years old. It was December 1979, and he had just watched Donnie Sutherland’s Saturday morning music show, Sounds Unlimited. That particular episode was a look back at the music of the decade just ending. Blackie had been enjoying the clips of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, but the next part of the program blew his mind, introduced with the words, “And then punk reared its ugly head.”
“It was incredible,” Blackie says. “I can’t even describe it. I think when the show finished I got on my skateboard and went to Keish’s place and said, ‘We’re gonna form a band, I’m gonna play guitar, we’re gonna be punk.’ ” Keish de Silva and Blackie soon formed The Dead Rats, changing their name to The Hard-Ons a few years later when their old schoolfriend, Ray Ahn, joined on bass. Thus a musical legend was born.
Ray, Keish and Blackie had all been at Punchbowl Boys High in Sydney together, although Ray was the only one who finished year 12. Punchbowl was, and still is, a melting pot of cultures, and the three of them were the children of immigrants: Ray’s parents were Korean, Keish’s Sri Lankan and Blackie’s Croatian. “It didn’t mean jack to us because we grew up in a very multicultural suburb,” Blackie says now. “We didn’t have any idea of what we were until we started playing in the inner city and people were, like, ‘Fuckin’ hell! SBS!’ It took a while to register, and then, for us, it was hilarious.”
Blackie later formed a side project with Ray, Nunchukka Superfly, and both bands are still in demand around the world. Despite their international success, they have barely been acknowledged in their homeland. I’ve long thought The Hard-Ons ought to be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, along with some other egregious omissions, such as Chad Morgan and Died Pretty. When I mention this to Blackie, he’s completely unimpressed. “Music is really beautiful. It’s the most beautiful thing out there. It’s something that brings my life an insane amount of joy. I can’t abide anything that taints it, and to me the ARIA has absolutely nothing to do with it.” I keep trying to push him on it but he won’t budge.“I feel like we’re part of something anyway. I don’t need a fuckin’ trophy to validate my art. And also, I’ve got two really awesome indoor cricket trophies so there’s no more room on my shelf.”
It was October last year when Blackie first floated the Song a Day concept to Jay Whalley. “I honestly didn’t think about it enough,” Whalley says now, bemused. “I was thinking there’d be a lot of acoustic songs and we’d bash out a couple… sing a bit on top and that’d be that.” He laughs. “It turns out that about 85 per cent of them are full band, with drums, bass, multiple guitars, multiple harmonies, keyboards, saxophones, all the rest of it.”
Watching the two men work together it’s obvious that Whalley is indispensable to this mad scheme. He describes the kind of instructions he gets from Blackie, who comes in with detailed plans for each song: “Alright, I need the background sound to be like we’re in an office and I’m playing the role of the lawyer, and you’re the client and you’ve just ripped your jeans on a nail. Then it’s gonna come out of that sound effect into a four-part harmony doo-wop section. And then I need you to find a keyboard that sounds like the Gates of Hell are opening up, and the song is called ‘Pet Bird’. Let’s go.”
Having to come up with seven songs every week puts everyone under enormous pressure. When Nunchukka played a few shows in Japan recently it wreaked havoc on their schedule. “If you have five days off that’s five songs gone,” Whalley says. “At the moment I think we’re about five songs ahead. We’ve got songs up until Tuesday next week.”
They usually record for eight hours each day, three days every week, with one of those days dedicated to drum tracks. Outside of those three days in the studio, Blackie has to do a lot more work at home, writing and arranging the songs as well as driving a cab two days every week to help pay the bills. Whalley can’t believe his work ethic: “He demoes all the songs first. He demoes everything at his house on his phone, all the harmonies, and all the guitar parts and all that stuff, and he preps for the next set of songs. Most of the lyrics he has before he comes in, some of them he writes on the fly… It really seems like the ideas are the least of his worries. He’s one of these guys that is incredibly prolific.”
Blackie never got rich from music. The opposite, in fact. So how on earth does he pay the musicians and all the costs of recording and mixing his songs? Mostly, he has a core group of talented friends who admire his songwriting and who have been cutting him a break financially. Joel Ellis on drums has been essential, as has Chris Townend, a top-notch producer who does all the final mixes in his studio in Tasmania. “We’re all sort of willing him on,” Whalley says. “It’s such a nuts idea, and also brilliant idea.”
Though there are many more people involved, it is those three who keep this music machine humming. They’re sacrificing a large chunk of their lives to fulfil Blackie’s outsized dream. “I suppose the project for me is really equal parts inspiring and punishing,” says Whalley. “I’m a massive fan of Blackie and have been since I was a teenager. So every time I’m thinking, like, ‘Are we really gonna do another 200 songs?’ whatever… then he straps on his SG and starts playing, and I’m like, ‘It’s Blackie! In the same room as me!’ ” Likewise, Ellis just feels honoured to be part of it. “I’d keep doing it for as long as he wanted to,” he says. “If he wanted to do another year after this, I’d be into it.”
Blackie originally hoped to fund his extravagant scheme using an innovative subscription model, which he set up through a private Bandcamp page, peterblacksolo.bandcamp.com. His subscribers receive an email every day containing a link to the latest track as well as instant access to the ones already posted, currently 190 songs. Unfortunately, subscriptions haven’t lived up to expectations and he has had to cover the shortfall from an inheritance he received last year. Someone else might have used that money for a luxury cruise instead but, if you ask Blackie, he’s already on the trip of a lifetime and he has no regrets.
“Like I said before, the joy of making music is so intense that doing it on this level is huge. It almost makes you giddy on a day-to-day basis.” Blackie is beaming as he talks. “I’m serious. Even when I’m at home, shit, you know, I sometimes have to get up and walk around the room… Fuck! It’s so good. Or when Chris is sending mixes and I’ll hear something that I haven’t heard for a week and, you know, it sounds so sweet, it’s like, ‘Fuck! It just does not get better than this.’ It really is something that makes life worth living.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Hard on and on". Subscribe here.