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Marcus Whale’s singular music spans popular and classical forms to expose the monstrous transcendence of desire. By Isabella Trimboli.

Musician Marcus Whale

Marcus Whale.
Credit: Andrew Haining

In The Hunger, Tony Scott’s chilly bisexual vampire film, bloodthirstiness is secondary to betrayal, sex is always close to death, and seduction is the ultimate violation. The film features Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as a pair of svelte bloodsuckers who become erotically entangled with a scientist – played by Susan Sarandon – who is attempting to reverse the effects of ageing.

It’s an odd relic of the ’80s: a film that reaches for refined Gothic horror but cannot help but indulge its more crass, slasher impulses. It’s full of confused, outrageous images: dusty tombs of dead lovers, caged apes, classical music lessons and a comical abundance of sagging skin. It is also strangely tender, capturing the mental agony of choosing between eternal loneliness or despoiling the living for permanent companionship.

Sydney musician, artist and composer Marcus Whale watched the film in April last year, just as the pandemic was about to steamroll our lives into prolonged stasis. We speak 15 months later, our faces still confined to pixelated squares. “Those moments [in The Hunger] where Catherine Deneuve’s character is mournfully playing Ravel... there is something that is really magical to me about that music,” he says.

Whale taught himself to play Ravel’s Le Gibet, which led to his own piano ballad The Hunger, the title track of his latest record. The song is elegiac and spare, Whale’s angelic vocals accompanied by a delicate keyboard that sounds as if it’s coming from the bottom of a cave. A submissive plea to be stretched into a master’s likeness – “Hungry to be just like you” – it’s desperate, haunting and deeply beautiful.

The Hunger is Whale’s third solo album. Over the past decade the 31-year-old has been a prolific, singular presence in Sydney’s music and art scenes. To list his works would be perilous – I’m bound to leave something out. There have been poetry books, performance pieces and video works, as well as a number of releases across his bands Collarbones and BV. And also his work in classical and screen composition.

Despite Whale’s range, queer longing – and all its avenues for pleasure, perversity and projection – has remained his most persistent theme. His work circles tortuous, transformative desire and annihilating devotion, often taking the form of gorgeous melodrama and grand myth.

Angus McGrath – a Sydney-based musician and writer who hosts the long-running late night radio show “Sleepless in Sydney” with Whale on community radio station FBi – puts it plainly: “Inevitably being in this queer context, it’s really easy and really boring, I think, to [take] this kind of Troye Sivan, ‘I wanna kiss a boy’ [approach],” he tells me.

“Marcus leans into how monstrous and freakish being into someone is. When you’re crushing on someone, it feels crazy. It’s so extreme!”

Whale’s solo records are where his work takes its most imaginative and theatrical form. His debut, The Inland Sea, tears apart Australia’s colonial, patriarchal myths, constructing a queer utopia in its ashes. Lucifer – released last year – reimagines the fallen, forsaken star as a liberatory and filthy force, a doomed angel transfigured into a gay icon. The Hunger takes the perspective of a vampire’s familiar: grovelling, fantasising, yearning to be bitten and made undead.

Vampire literature and film served as the perfect material to investigate devotion and the desire to be transformed. As Whale explained to me, he was thinking a lot about Renfield, the psychiatric patient in Bram Stoker’s Dracula who feeds on moths and flies, hoping to imbibe their life force. Renfield worships Dracula, under the promise the vampire will make him immortal.

“I’m only interested in the familiar in some ways, because the familiar is kind of dreaming of this grotesque power that they could have,” he says. “I love the in-betweenness and grotesqueness of doing what you can to try and make yourself more than human and in the process becoming this sort of weird monster.

“There’s [also] something really sexy about blood-related imagery and the [idea of the] thirst for blood being like other types of desire where you want to consume a person. It becomes this kind of a metaphor about the way that desire makes you want to break the boundaries of me and you, me and the other.”

Whale has classified The Hunger as his “adult contemporary album”. While I wouldn’t go that far, he’s given his usual skittering electronic arrangements space to stretch out and expand. It is an album of slow, creeping violence; sorrowful, sometimes serene, with vocals that inch towards the heavens. Maybe I recoil from the term because “adult contemporary” so often translates to an artist confining themselves into duller, more palatable forms, creating goopy, neutered pop. If anything, on The Hunger Whale is tunnelling deep into his inquiry, exposing the connective tissue that binds desire to the abject.

Whale staged an hour-long theatre performance based on the album in June. He wore what has become the unofficial uniform for The Hunger: assless fur chaps, fencing bib, cowboy hat, Victorian collar and a jockstrap. The gloriously camp amalgamation of the cowboy and the satyr was designed by Sydney artists Athena Thebus and Chloe Corkran, with whom he frequently collaborates. Performance has become central to Whale’s artistic practice, his stage shows and concerts growing more extravagant over time.

This initially came from necessity, as he attempted to capture the interest of audiences at cramped, airless venues across the country. He still asks himself: “What do I need to do with my body to make people pay attention to it?” Last year, along with musician Rainbow Chan and artist Eugene Choi, he wrote and performed In the Mood at the Sydney Opera House, a live-streamed show that pays tribute to Wong Kar-wai’s canonical film and Hong Kong. His album Lucifer came out of a collaboration with Thebus, the pair staging various performances based on the fallen angel, often involving Whale singing, draped in loose fabric and suspended in the air. In one show at Sydney’s contemporary arts space Carriageworks, he flung a six-metre train off a balcony.

Whale tells me he’s fixated on horror and fantasy because they focus on the way personhood can be stretched and distorted. “I think I’m really drawn to that as a way of building a world in which we can envision other ways of being.”

His oeuvre often summons the Catholic Church – its rituals, hymns and iconography. The song “Undead”, about the mysteries of longing, may be his most brilliant invocation. Whale connects the sanctuary of the church to cruising, reciting a phone number scratched on a cubicle door. It’s an inspired, apt association: both are symbols of desire, both are places of repeated submission, both involve waiting for an encounter that you hope changes you. But this is a rarity – one never leaves fully sated. “I feel there’s an impossibility programmed into it as well – like we can never know God, we can never know another person,” he says.

The act of reclaiming Christianity’s images – either by bringing forth its latent homoeroticism or subversion through smut – has precedent. One has to only look at some of the most distinct filmmakers of the 20th century – Pier Paolo Pasolini, Derek Jarman – whose work bares the church’s cruelty and hypocrisy while yanking back its godly, romantic splendour for themselves. Whale’s work sits neatly in this tradition.

“I think that is a very powerful form of fantasy – to take the cultural mythology that is powerful and represents transcendence, that has been gatekept in this aggressive way,” he says. “Taking all of that, and then stealing it: for me, that’s the transcendent act. I can take this imagery and this mythology, and fill it up with what is resonant to me because, like that and me aren’t meant to mix. I’m not included in this, but when I bring it to me, it becomes magical.”

Whale became a choir boy at St Mary’s Cathedral when he was 10. The St Mary’s choir was formed in 1818 to sing vespers at the residence of James Dempsey, an Irish convict whose Kent Street home became the first place for Roman Catholic worship in the colony. The choir, now more than 200 years old, remains all male and multigenerational, practising three days a week and performing at Mass every Sunday. Whale received a yearly scholarship to study at the corresponding high school.

“It was this tiny little class of primary school kids, 20 of us, and we’re all little music nerds. There were a lot of boys who ended up gay as well, so I felt kind of insulated from any possibility of being bullied,” he says. “I was also surrounded by all these older boys, sort of like mentor figures.”

Catholic Mass – its Gothic, grand spectacle, intense pageantry and heavy symbolism – captivated Whale. Considering the act of communion as the faithful literally consuming Christ, Whale remarks how this ritual is a clear “example of the way in which the Catholic Church takes its liturgy, symbolism and iconography so seriously, as a way of expressing the love of Jesus Christ. To me, this love feels the same as sexual desire, it’s very erotic.”

Singing in such a hallowed, imposing space made Whale a believer. “The air is alive, the sound when you’re singing… [it’s like] yes, of course I believe in God.” But his belief fell apart when he watched George Pell deliver anti-gay speeches at the cathedral and became aware of Catholicism’s punitive moralism. “There was this strange dissonance, because it was an almost utopian environment for me,” he says. “But then it was also about making the feelings that I had feel evil.”

Like many teenagers during the early 2000s, Whale spent endless hours on online forums. It was here that he began posting his own music – ambient music under the name Scissor Lock – and met Adelaide musician Travis Cook, with whom he began the electronic pop duo Collarbones in 2007. They have made music together, remotely from their respective states, for more than a decade. Their early shows were loose and chaotic, with the pair ending their set by dancing around the stage to a song of their choosing, “Marcus realises that you have to do something to keep people watching,” Cook tells me. “We were playing a lot of the shows with people hunched over laptops. It’s hard to differentiate yourself.”

During high school, Whale also harboured aspirations to be a classical composer, solidified when he witnessed a 2006 performance of French composer Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum. This led him to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he studied composition. While he enjoyed learning the work of 20th-century masters – Stockhausen, Ligeti and Boulez – and writing pieces for classical ensembles, he soon realised the conservatorium’s aim was to preserve a particular canon. “I really was trying to pursue it, until I realised that it was a very small world that maybe I wasn’t super interested in. It was very academic and a bit elitist, and [I realised that] there were more interesting things happening within contemporary pop music.”

As with so much of his work, Whale found a way to strip this classic, institutional art from its stuffy confines and cast it anew. Last year, Whale planned to debut Possession, an experimental electronic opera. In the work a single performer clasps feedback-producing microphones that emit squeals and thrums; the performer’s body squirms in unison, controlled by the uncanny sounds. Of the performance, Whale writes, “In Possession, desire is a monstrous means of transformation, a portal towards new and triumphant ways of being and becoming.”

Longing loops, finding no resolution. It emerges from a desperation for connection that can never fully be obtained. To Whale, this unfulfilled promise, this infinite hunger – which keeps us in a constant state of searching – is precisely the divine power of desire. “That tension, to me, generates everything,” he says. “That impossibility is what makes everything possible.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Immortal hunger".

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Isabella Trimboli is a Melbourne-based culture writer.