Uncertainty and contradiction reign for Melbourne band Dick Diver. But that’s just how this busy foursome likes it. By Nic Price.

Dick Diver beat the dole drums

Dick Diver (from left) Alistair McKay, Stephanie Hughes, Rupert Edwards, Alistair Montfort.

I wanted Dick Diver’s second album, Calendar Days, to sound Australian. Driving around the Northern Territory late last year, it did. We played the album on repeat through our four-wheel-drive’s tinny speakers, and the music mimicked the openness of the landscape. Riffs loped in the heat; guitars shimmered. The second track, “Alice”, was set in Alice Springs. Elsewhere, modest stories were eked out in the IGA, driving through country towns, in food class at school. Our narrators – guitarists Rupert Edwards and Al McKay, bassist Al Montfort and drummer Steph Hughes, who all contribute songs and sing – did not hide their local drawl. The Guardian named it 2013 Australian album of the year.

But when I ask Edwards and McKay if they are building an Australian mythology, they want nothing to do with the notion. “I definitely don’t try to sound Australian,” says Edwards. “People talk about the Triffids being the most Australian band of all time because they evoke the desert or whatever, but most people live on the coast in a city and never see the desert in their life.”

It’s silly, Edwards says, that bands that write about the urban Australian experience, like Australian Crawl, are not talked of in the same way. He cites poet John Forbes, who spiked the comfortably romantic view of the outback. “There’s no mythology of it, it’s where the minerals are pulled out of the ground and people have had their land stolen from them.”

For his part, McKay says he doesn’t know what people mean when they say music sounds Australian. “I find it strange that Australianness is seen as a feature of a song, rather than something inherent to it. I am interested in Australia and the things that make it Australian. But it’s just as much about exploring other things as well, more universal things like relationships, or engaging with the world.”

Dick Diver’s output is literary but it’s also casual, self-deprecating and everyman. The band’s name was taken from a character in the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender Is the Night

Cue further contradictions. “On one level it’s pretentious, but it’s also pretty gross,” says Edwards. “So it’s a pretty honest representation of the band.”

They don’t like labels. Not the “Australian sound” one and not the “dolewave” tag they got after releasing their debut album, New Start Again. Granted, music writing can be an echo chamber at times, but Dick Diver are particularly keen to overturn lazy narratives where they find them. They’re not the types to spin an alternative narrative either. Part of this might be the national trait of not talking yourself up, but there is also a sense they haven’t worked themselves out yet.

“I’m conflicted about everything in the band. Everything,” Edwards told a music website last year.

And really, if music is going to tell the story of modern Australia, it’s probably best done by a band wrestling with contradictions and uncertainty, a band that doesn’t want the job anyway.

With the bands

Dick Diver emerged from a Melbourne guitar music scene that has thrown up Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Twerps, the Stevens, and Boomgates. What makes the scene remarkable is how fluid it is: most participants are in multiple bands and work day jobs to make rent. Montfort is a linchpin with six bands – Dick Diver, Total Control, UV Race, Eastlink, Lower Plenty and Straightjacket Nation – which seems faintly ridiculous.

“I love it,” Montfort grins. “I don’t really have time to hang out with people who aren’t in those bands, but it’s about 40 people all up. Sometimes it’s hard to co-ordinate everybody. Someone will be overseas, or on tour with another band, but it works out.” 

Most bands have multiple songwriters to keep the creative well full. Meanwhile, the cost of making a record has plummeted and there are always friends in other bands willing to record albums or provide artwork for discount rates. The scene hums with cross-pollination and, in a small miracle, is largely devoid of ego and self-interest.

“It’s not competitive,” says Edwards. “Feuds come when people are more careerist and they want to make music a full-time job and their life. Then more ego comes into it and there’s more at stake.”

Hughes – who plays in Boomgates as well as Dick Diver, works at Triple J and did the cover art for Calendar Days – says everyone in the scene “just wants to get their ideas out there. I dunno why it works – maybe because we all like The Simpsons”.

High school mates

The seed of Dick Diver was a high school friendship between Edwards and McKay during the early 2000s. They were music fans but didn’t start playing until they discovered the Velvet Underground at university. “They made me want to play because it seemed possible,” says Edwards. “Whereas, if I’m listening to Led Zeppelin, it’s impossible. You can’t do that shit.”

Edwards and McKay played a few low-key gigs, but Dick Diver became a genuine band in 2008 when Montfort met McKay at university and joined to play bass. At a formative jam at Montfort’s house, Hughes was in the next room and was roped in to play drums. The group clicked.

The 2009 EP Arks Up, and 2011’s full-length New Start Again, were recorded by Mikey Young – a member of Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Ooga Boogas, Total Control and other bands. There was nonchalance in the jangling guitars, but Montfort’s bass had a punk edge locked tight with Hughes’ drums. Vocal lines were low-key but inventive: one minute overlapping, then in harmony, next doubling up, then out of sync.

Calendar Days stepped beyond the leaner New Start Again to a widescreen, more assured sound. Unhurried guitar riffs on “Alice”, “Water Damage” and “Lime Green Shirt” were crystalline, and slide guitar lent a hazy splendour. It was easy to let the lyrics wash by, but careful listeners found plenty of bite.

McKay’s “Alice” could be a love song for a woman of the same name, with a jaunty vocal stutter in the verse, but revealed itself to be a multifaceted, deadpan view of white and black Australia in Alice Springs. A conversation overheard in the Safeway deli hints at domestic violence.

Edwards’ “Water Damage” found a rejected and humorously pathetic character walking home as the birds start singing. Edwards professes a love for the “liberated” music of the Smiths. 

“There’s a lot of joy in the music and then you’ve got this arsehole from Manchester singing about these weird things. We all like sad songs,” Edwards says.

“I hope Dick Diver is a band where the words drift over your head completely and you just enjoy the music, but then you come back and realise there is thought and effort put into the lyrics. It’s a massive way to differentiate yourself from other bands as well, because most bands don’t give a shit about lyrics.”

Playing live

One morning in early March, band members meet at the inner-suburban house Edwards shares with his girlfriend. Two Dick Diver side projects, Edwards’ Backstabbers and Montfort’s Lower Plenty, are booked to play the Kyneton Music Festival about an hour north of Melbourne.

Edwards takes the wheel and Montfort is in the backseat with his girlfriend Amy Hill, who also plays with Edwards in the Backstabbers. Hill is putting stickers on cassettes to sell at the show and musing on how to fill a half-hour set.

“We’ve only got 10 songs, it’s about 16 minutes of music,” she says. “We’ll have to cry, or break a string, or have a fight.”

They are playing on a side stage out the back of a gallery, not far past the It’s a Trap hunting store. A modest crowd mills about in the garden, but Edwards sighs distractedly. “I get a bit nervy at shows like this. There’s no big electric guitar solo to hide behind.”

Edwards is a high school English teacher by day. With a black fringe falling over brown eyes, he’s not far from the hip teacher archetype.

He and Hill get through the set, filled out nicely with a little banter and tuning, and grab a beer. Half the crowd is made up of other Melbourne bands on the bill and Dick Diver know them all.

Later, following Montfort’s gig with Lower Plenty, the band heads back to Melbourne where they will support American alt-country songstress Neko Case at the zoo that night. They pile in Edwards’ small Suzuki: guitars and boxes of T-shirts stacked on laps, Ooga Boogas on the stereo. Tawny gold hills roll by and the band talk shit.

“It’s going to be a good rider at the zoo tonight – regional Victorian wines,” Edwards says. 

“They better have regional Victorian energy drinks,” says Montfort. “I’m pooped.”

Two minutes into the set, Edwards launches into one of those big electric guitar solos he couldn’t hide behind earlier. Band chemistry blooms quickly, sparked by Hughes’ drums. As soon as they hit stride she’s looking to catch the eye of her bandmates and laughing. She’s thumping the kit and laying down sweet pop harmonies in a clear, schoolgirl voice. She’s got a grin as wide as a road and her joy in the moment is infectious. “That’s just Steph,” McKay says later. “She’s just a legend. We definitely feed off that.”

Playing at the zoo provides plenty of fodder for banter. Montfort makes a crack about looking for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison at the goose enclosure. After the next song he calls to his mum in the crowd, “Put your hand up if you’re my mum. There you are. She’s an angel.”

The band ends the set, as they usually do, with “Head Back”, a breezy Montfort jag of understated humour, name-checking near-forgotten Victorian tourist attractions and offering a “be yourself” message. It’s the Montfort personality on full display and to most people it’s near irresistible. Last year, there was a semi-serious Facebook campaign for him to be named Australian of the Year.

With the best mullet in Australian music, Montfort is brimming with scruffy charm. Growing up in eastern Victoria, he spent summers at the beach where he and his brothers would play a game of mini-golf in the morning, spend a few hours bodyboarding, then play another game of mini-golf in the afternoon. “It was only $2 if you were under 12,” he says. “And we were under 12 ’til we were about 16.” He appears permanently on the edge of laughter, which balances the analytical nature of Edwards and McKay. 

New territory

Two nights after the zoo gig, Edwards makes pesto. The band – minus Montfort who, naturally, has a gig with another band – are finalising songs for a new album to be recorded over Easter. After dinner they amble to the front room for practice.

Edwards sits on the floor with a tiny keyboard and five pedals of various colours. McKay grabs his electric guitar and adjusts the sound of his amp, which sits in a cupboard. Hughes takes an acoustic guitar. I move some washing and slot in the corner of a couch.

They run through some sketches. There’s some new territory for the band, with one track built around a distorted, arpeggio synth line and tinny drum machine. But the trademark harmonies, prismatic lyrics and laconic delivery remain intact.

Baby-faced McKay, who works as a consultant in the city by day, says the band record their music “as raw as possible”. Ideally on an early take, before things lock in too tight.

“Perhaps it’s more expressive in a way because you’re capturing the whole thing moving together, rather than perfect parts laid down,” he says.

“It’s not like we try to make mistakes. It’s not like we don’t try and sing, either. We put effort into that stuff. It’s a balance between something that technically sounds perfect, but is sterile, and something that has a little more character.”

No blinding musical or vocal talent, no Led Zeppelin shock and awe, instead fault lines where you can take a hold and, if you’re inclined, grow some serious affection. Somehow, perhaps, the sound of Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Beating the dole drums ". Subscribe here.

Nic Price
is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer.