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Paul Mac has gone from playing the organ at church to forming a band with Daniel Johns, remixing tracks by Kylie Minogue and recording his latest album, Mesmerism. Here, he discusses his art, his love of trains and his political activism. “Unless we are continuously vigilant about the rights that we’ve gained, they can quite easily disappear again.” By Drew Rooke.

Queering the air with musician and producer Paul Mac

Musician and producer Paul Mac.
Credit: Ben Sullivan

“I don’t know what it is. It’s very hard to understand,” says Paul Mac. “I never get bored watching them from the balcony upstairs. At night they have this magic glow to them. And they all sound different. There’s a grace to them, an order, a whole system. They’re just fucking beautiful.”

The veteran electronic producer is sitting in his Erskineville studio in Sydney – a space that feels lifted from East Germany in the ’70s, down to the brown and mandarin-orange colour scheme of the carpet sound baffles. It’s a mess. The couch lining one wall is covered with books, blankets, bags and a teddy bear. A broken smoke alarm hangs from the roof.

Two banks of keyboards and synthesisers sit on either side of a two-tiered computer desk, which is crowded with a laptop, desktop and drum machine. Above the desk, tacked onto the wall, there is a square poster of Kraftwerk cut out from a magazine. Tangled cords, like swarming black snakes, cover the floor, save for the small area around his chair.

Somehow, we have ended up talking about trains. “I’m not into steam trains,” says Mac. “I’m not a nostalgia buff. And I’m not a trainspotter; I don’t like going out and ticking all the trains I see off a list.

“I often wonder what train drivers think about on the job,” he continues. “What would it feel like to look at two lines that have a horizon point for eight hours every day? What does that do to your brain?”

I ask him what he thinks it does. “I don’t know,” he replies. “But apparently there’s no age limit on applying to be a train driver. So, there’s still time if this whole music malarkey falls over.”

Mac’s phone rings. He apologises and walks outside to answer it.

“Where were we?” he says when he returns. “I’m sure it was fascinating. I think we were up to…” He stops to search his memory. “Ah, yeah.” He laughs. “Train driving.”

Mac has loved trains since he was a kid growing up in Arncliffe in Sydney’s south. He has been playing music since then, too, though it wasn’t his choice at first. He says his strict Catholic parents forced him and his six older siblings to learn classical piano at home. The pressure to practise grew when Mac started playing the organ at his local church, where the nuns were always ready to strike him over the knuckles if he hit a wrong note.

Despite this, he enjoyed the feeling of the keys under his fingers. He did a bachelor of music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which sharpened his growing talent, although it also reinforced in his mind that music was made regimentally using classical instruments. This myth was dispelled by the eclectic record collections of his brothers and sisters – full of pop, hippie rock, progressive rock, hip-hop and Detroit techno. Hearing the music of Severed Heads, Public Enemy, Kraftwerk and Underground Resistance was, by Mac’s description, “revolutionary”.

“I realised the best musicians aren’t necessarily the ones who can play the fastest notes; the best musicians are the ones with the best ideas, those who can create vast new sound worlds,” he says.

This is what he and Andy Rantzen were pushing towards when they formed Itch-E and Scratch-E in 1991. The duo was at the forefront of Australia’s burgeoning underground rave scene. Their song “Sweetness and Light” was an anthem of the era and helped to popularise electronic music in Australia, winning the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) award for Best Dance Release in 1995, the first time the prize was awarded.

Mac’s musical career continued to blossom in the new millennium. His debut solo album, 3000 Feet High, won an ARIA award in 2002; about the same time, he and Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns formed The Dissociatives, releasing their self-titled album in 2004. Mac and housemate Jonny Seymour – known together as Stereogamous – have remixed tracks by the likes of Kylie Minogue, LCD Soundsystem and the late George Michael, and recently Mac has composed music for Bangarra Dance Theatre productions and Nakkiah Lui’s play How to Rule the World.

But in 2015, when his album Holiday from Me – the product of seven years of labour – flopped spectacularly, Mac’s confidence was shattered. “I loved it,” he says. “But no one else really gave a shit.”

In time, he realised he had been writing music according to the same narrow, commercial dance-pop formula for more than a decade – a formula he, and the wider musical world, now found boring. Unsure if he could write differently though, he wondered if he had reached the end of the line in his music career. “I didn’t know what to do anymore,” Mac says.

Returning to the conservatorium to complete a doctorate of musical arts helped him rediscover his creativity. Given the opportunity to compose music not for an album but for himself as part of his studies, Mac started having fun again, experimenting freely with sound as he did when he was younger – not for anything other than to exercise his creative impulses and see where they took him. He began composing music to match whatever the dictionary’s word of the day was.

He calls that process “one of the most liberating things I’ve done in quite some time” and, although it wasn’t his intention, it led to the creation of his latest record, Mesmerism. The album is challenging and bold, shifting between trance, techno, experimental and ambient. At times it is dark but at others euphoric. On “Redfern Address (In Memory of Vision)”, it also becomes deeply political.

In the song, slow electronic beats underlie an extended sample of Paul Keating’s famous 1992 speech in Redfern Park – the first time an Australian prime minister publicly acknowledged the violence committed by Europeans against First Nations peoples. According to Mac, it was also one of the last times an Australian political leader took “a visionary approach and actually tried to change the nation rather than just caring for their mates or getting over the line at the next election”.

Mac isn’t trying to position himself as a leading advocate for Indigenous affairs with this song, and he knows it won’t magically fix the ongoing theft and destruction of traditional lands and waterways, the suicide crisis among Indigenous youth, or any of the other crucial issues confronting First Nations peoples in Australia. His hope for it is much simpler: that it will encourage more white Australians to “just listen” and remember Keating’s advice from all those years ago about how they can begin to contribute to equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people:

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians.

 

Mac was in his early 20s when he attended his first dance party. It was a Recreational Arts Team – or RAT – party at Paddington Town Hall in Sydney’s inner east. “I heard about it on the radio and went on my own. It was super gay, and I wasn’t out yet. There was a big stage, a cloud of amyl on the dance floor, men in chaps, crazy costumes, wild choreographed performances, and tables where you could buy a line of speed or a rolled-up joint. It was crazy. I thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I was terrified, but I also knew I wanted more.”

Soon Mac was a regular at Sydney’s queer dance parties. He rattles off their names – Sleaze Ball, Sweatbox, FUN – with a glint in his eye.

The parties were a radical change from the rock gigs he was used to, upending the notion that an audience was just a passive observer. “Suddenly the audience was the artist,” Mac says. This redefined how people related to one another: they were more loving, empathetic and expressive. The ecstasy helped, but the main aim wasn’t getting wasted. “It was about breaking down barriers between each other and embracing a euphoric, utopian vision of what the world could be like. It was really, really inspiring. It felt like a religion.”

The increasing presence of police and outsiders who didn’t respect or understand the queer ethic led to the scene splintering and the emergence of Sydney’s underground rave scene. As has happened more recently since the introduction of lockout laws in 2014, which have contributed to the closure of at least 176 venues, the parties became decentralised, unregulated and unlicensed, held in warehouses, abandoned buildings and parks across the city.

“You never knew what was going to happen,” Mac says. “There was no guarantee that a party wasn’t going to get shut down, so you just took a punt and went because you believed in it. You’d rock up and play a show in some random building, then suddenly you’re on the way to another party with all these other like-minded, mental people, then next thing you know it’s Sunday evening, and you’re like, ‘Where’s my synthesiser?’

“When it was right, it was fucking beautiful. It was Woodstock every weekend.”

Mac acknowledges the dance parties and raves were “indulgent” and “hedonistic escapism”. But they provided an escape from a bleak reality. The AIDS pandemic was at its peak, and homophobic and transphobic violence was surging. As a 2018 New South Wales police review found, at least 27 men were murdered in Sydney between 1976 and 2000 probably because they were gay.

“Partying offered an escape from that fear,” Mac says. “It felt very vital to have spaces that we could not just survive in but thrive in. It meant so much. It was like everyone was saying, ‘We’re in this together and we’re going to get through this together.’”

Recently, Mac was painfully reminded of the hate that still exists.

Following the death of George Michael on Christmas Day in 2016, Mac and Jonny Seymour commissioned artist Scott Marsh to paint a mural of the English musician and queer icon in their neighbourhood. It depicted Michael in flowing white robes with a rainbow scarf around his neck, a halo behind his head, a joint in one hand and a bottle of amyl in the other.

For 11 months, it existed without public controversy; in fact, it became a popular community meeting place. But in November 2017, immediately following the “yes” result of the same-sex marriage postal survey, it was repeatedly attacked and, despite the local community’s valiant efforts to protect it, destroyed. On the internet, those responsible – and many of their supporters – expressed their wish to do far worse to people like Mac.

Mac decided to respond to the bigotry, hate and threats not through his computer but through his art, co-writing The Rise and Fall of St George with esteemed Australian playwright Lachlan Philpott. Part musical theatre, part opera and part concert, it tells the story of the creation and destruction of the mural, using comments from social media and conservative politicians as creative inspiration. The show features an array of high-profile singers including Ngaiire, Joyride, and Brendan Maclean, as well as a local community choir. After a soldout performance of the work in progress at this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, Mac is hoping to develop it into a full production and an album.

Aside from the personal therapy it provided – both to him and to others involved – Mac believes the show is important for other reasons: it documents a very dark event in Australian history and continues the conversation around sexual equality.

“Unless we are continuously vigilant about the rights that we’ve gained, they can quite easily disappear again,” he says.

Equally concerning to Mac is the rapid gentrification and increasing government crackdown on creative spaces in Sydney. “The only things that are valued are those things that make money,” he says. “The idea that magic happens and amazing relationships form in weird hours in clubs doesn’t seem to matter at the moment.” But he doesn’t want to leave his home city. His community is “like a family” and he is eager to “contribute and support the amazing things that are still going on here”. One way he is doing so is by mentoring local queer and trans musicians. “You do some jobs for money, but you do others to help ‘gay it forward’,” he jokes.

Mac feels “unbelievably lucky” to not only be in a position to be able to do this but also to still be alive and producing music. “I’m 53 and still making a living out of doing the thing that I love,” he says. “Asking for anything more than that is just greedy.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Queering the air". Subscribe here.

Drew Rooke
is a freelance journalist and the author of One Last Spin: the power and peril of the pokies.