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Melbourne band Terry operate outside the mainstream industry. For them, ‘dolewave’ is less a put-down and more an arch declaration of artists angry with inequality. By Giles Fielke.

Melbourne dolewave band Terry

Terry
Credit: UPSET THE RHYTHM

A shirtfront for the worst cunt. These six words, without the need to explain to whom they’re delivered, are sung in unison by Melbourne band Terry about halfway through their song “Moscow on Thames”. It’s glam-country made by men and women troubadours who in another breath you might call anarcho-conceptualists.

This is the sound of discontent and it’s pealing out of Melbourne’s inner north, coming across at certain points like a throwback to pre-Portlandia era Dandy Warhols. From another angle, Terry simply blow back into life the paranoiac inducement of “classic” rock’n’roll, taking their cues from bygone bands such as Swell Maps.

Terry is Xanthe Waite, Zephyr Pavey, Al Montfort and Amy Hill. The band’s four members have all featured in Melbourne’s “dolewave” scene in some form or other for the past decade. Montfort alone is a much-celebrated local music figure, and a member of long-standing outfits Straightjacket Nation, The UV Race, Total Control, Dick Diver, Lower Plenty and A Country Practice, to name only a few of his musical adventures.

When asked about the difference between rock bands from the United States and from Australia, Montfort quips deadpan: “Lack of ambition.” In the background of my mind while I read this, the announcement from the new band’s debut album Terry HQ repeats: “Why would you say sorry for that?”

Despite the larrikinism, Montfort’s relentless musical work ethic is enough to make pointy-booted yahoos quiver on their milk crates at the thought they should be this busy on the “fringes” of society. Beyoncé? All the coffee mugs in Melbourne should read instead: “You have as many hours in a day as Al, ay.” As you read this he’s doing volunteer work transcribing for Legal Aid Victoria.

But Terry isn’t all about Al Montfort. This roustabout collection of hard-boiled jammers who will roll a seamless lick off the end of one track into a tidy quip about the public transportation system, are part of a nexus of Melburnian rock’n’roll and punk set against the backdrop of the digital music age.

Towels and thongs. Ice-cream and dongs. Hill and Waite sing of Terry’s simple things on multiple tracks named after “Uncle Greg”, on “Chitter Chatter”, before they get to the last track of Terry HQ, “Hang Men”. Beneath the threat of castration and violence of the lyric backed by wildly out-of-tune guitars, the sense of exhaustion caused by the cynicism and hubris of our leaders, who’ll tell their own children to button down and tighten their belts while they themselves are smoking cigars, is unmistakeable. “Work is dead” reads the badge on one of Terry’s self-styled jackets – they’ve got their own clothing line – and the slogan echoes like a rally cry out the window of a dilapidated rental house.

Women in politics cop it, too. An earlier single, “8 Girls”, released by Aarght Records, features cartoon images of Jacqui, Jenny, Tanya, Kate, Penny, Pauline, Julie, Bronwyn, Nova and more in its accompanying video. In the song itself it’s not all about name or number, but time is up according to Terry and they have the riffs to prove it.

While they’re more than happy to discuss the patriarchy and federal politics with you, nationalism is still number one on Terry’s hitlist, and enough is enough. The names of the various other projects of Terry’s members gives you the sense of what this music is about: Russell Street Bombings, Constant Mongrel, The School of Radiant Living, Sleepless Nights, Primo.

When I speak with the band on the road in New Zealand, it is songwriters who’ve come before – Paul Kelly, Bad Brains’ H. R., even Odetta and Woody Guthrie – whom they name as inspirations for an outsider music wedged against the mainstream.

Last year I met with Montfort at Tom’s Restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The Terry band members were taking a break after various touring duties with their other bands. The two Vegas of New York, Alan and Suzanne, were the topic of conversation, as well as the cliché of the landmark setting for us as tourists.

Montfort’s approach to pop music sits somewhere between the performance-punk of Alan Vega’s Suicide, which he formed with Martin Rev in the very different New York City of 1970, and Suzanne Vega’s acoustic-driven nostalgia ballads, with a healthy dose of Larry David-style wit thrown in for good measure.

Montfort admits he’s more of a fan of The Simpsons than Seinfeld’s neurotic characters. He named his solo musical project Snake after one of the more memorable denizens of Springfield. Snake is the outlaw archetype in Springfield’s timelessly simple world, and for this reason he always figured as the foil for that generation hung out to dry by the “turn on, tune in, drop out” utopianism of the North American countercultural revolution. All that trickle-down capitalism and Reaganomics is now being exposed as total hippie bullshit.

In 2013 I listened to the Swedish indie pop musician Jens Lekman speaking on Melbourne’s 3RRR about how unambitious the Melbourne music scene appeared to him. Lekman, who’d sought shelter from the northern hemisphere’s cultural machinations by moving to Melbourne, was speaking in particular about another Montfort band, Dick Diver, and I remember thinking, “He just doesn’t get it.”

In the global recording industry pop music has bifurcated: there is the commercial music business, music as a job in entertainment, which is laid ersatz on top of plain old music. Terry’s Zephyr Pavey, who plays drums and sings, doesn’t even watch music videos.

Most “amateur” music, by untrained or self-schooled musicians, takes place in between the two poles of pop today, and without pushing the line that things are as simple as they might at first seem, there is a sense of “inauthentic authenticity” to much alternative music being made in Australia. Terry offer themselves as an alternative to that – they’re authentically inauthentic.

Perhaps there always has been this impossible aspect to pop music, but graduations to the status of pop-star – read “entertainer” – are no longer that interesting to an audience raised on downloaded and streamed music channels, who find themselves on an increasingly flattened plane for access to culture globally.

To an outsider such as Lekman, who lasted a couple of years in Melbourne, and who found a large community of people whose dreams often extended only as far as playing the Tote on a Friday night, it must have seemed odd that many local artists were not out there expecting to make a living off their own music.

This is true elsewhere, of course. In New Zealand in the ’80s punk upstarts The Chills debuted one of the most devastatingly beautiful guitar rock songs of the era, “Pink Frost”, to a crowd of about 10 people at the Dunedin Coronation Hall with The Clean on the bill as support. Terry report a theory from the road in NZ that because it’s off the touring schedule of most industry heavyweights, the music scene allows something more interesting to happen. It’s not hard to imagine this idea extending to small towns and cities across the region. Montfort grew up in country Victoria, Pavey is from the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, and Hill is originally from NZ.

It isn’t mythologising to say it is bands like The Chills that were largely responsible for the sound of a lot of rock music that came from the north in the 1990s. From stalwarts such as Yo La Tengo to Kurt Cobain’s love of Melbourne teen-band God’s one-hit wonder “My Pal”, the influence on guitar-driven music consistently moves from the periphery to the centre and back again, like playing up and down the neck of your childhood Stratocaster.

The “dolewave” label applied to Terry, which seemed to pop up overnight online in the Mess+Noise forums and then fix itself like a sticker to the side of instrument cases, has only ever been taken seriously by a few writers, let alone musicians. Prior to Terry, Shaun Prescott wrote sincerely about Amy Hill’s band School of Radiant Living in early 2014 for the online magazine Crawlspace. He considered that their self-titled, self-published album was the exception to dolewave that proved the term meant something other than just a pejorative stamp on a group of wannabe rockers.

The upcoming album Good from Melbourne’s The Stevens features a kind of parting shot to the moniker, a song called “Dole Waivers”. If dolewave is a pejorative, the way many cultural labels are initially meant, there is still something that can be said about the sentiment. It’s not really a surprise that so many people, young and old, are disillusioned by the idea of gainful employment and productivity when they witness the brutal outcomes of the bloody-minded commitment to growth of ideologues everywhere.

Displaced people, dispossessed people, homeless people, and alternatively people who own more homes than they can occupy and prefer to keep empty in case they might, all seem to go into the mix that produces the music Terry have distilled into the mostly sub three-minute jaunts on Terry HQ.

Perhaps if bands such as Dick Diver hadn’t wanted to become the face of the cynical branding of struggling yet privileged performers as “dolewave”, they probably shouldn’t have named their first album New Start Again. But in the tension between self-identification and disavowal their borrowing of the neoliberal re-branding of the dole now reads more like of a comment on aspirational middle-class values than the down-but-not-quite-out, let alone the underground.

Terry’s music is protest music, but instead of reactionary opposition it offers you an alternative. Their community suggests a way of life that rejects false friendships and emboldens an urban clandestiny sharing a vernacular in rock’n’roll as opposed to the usual military myths of blood and soil.

If there is one thing that Terry manage to expose best, however, it is that sense of territorial nationalism that continues to fester in the pub rock scene. While this may be one thing that helps resist the slickly branded globalism of much easily transferable electronic music perhaps, it still finds itself standing awkwardly alongside the more one-eyed view of nationalists such as the bigoted Queenslander back in the game in Canberra.

This tension is explored by Terry, on record and on stage, and it is producing some of the most compelling and complex music on the east coast. Back to murder, Waite and Hill sing straight down the line. “Hot Heads.” “Hang Men.” The harmonies on Terry HQ suddenly stop, breaking into a hectic spoken-word message: They killed a man on King Street, they killed a man on a tropical island. They drowned a family in the Timor Sea.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 22, 2016 as "Terry Australis". Subscribe here.

Giles Fielke
is a writer and musician.

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