Melbourne indie band Art of Fighting
“We’ve been in hiding,” says Ollie Browne, bashful, from the stage of Melbourne’s Howler, between gentle strums of his guitar. He looks around at the other three members of Art of Fighting and notices a dissonance in his strums. “I thrashed my guitar quite a bit in that last song,” he says, twisting its tuning keys. “I guess I haven’t played much in the last 10 years.”
Bassist Peggy Frew chimes in: “Well, you haven’t been working on your banter.” The rest of the band and much of the audience laugh.
Browne isn’t exaggerating. Art of Fighting has been missing since their 2007 album, Runaways, which received much of the same fawning attention from critics and listeners as their previous releases, Wires and Second Storey. Tonight, Frew, Ollie Browne, his guitarist brother, Miles, and drummer Marty Brown are playing their first show in their home town in 12 years, an announcement that surprised fans, who’d been waiting for news since the band slid into hiatus during the age of MySpace and Kevin ’07.
During the Howler set, the audience remains largely silent – exploding into rapturous applause at the conclusion of each song. There’s a Garfunkel-esque keen to Browne’s voice that hasn’t aged at all and the songs still seem as much about charging silence and space with meaning as making music – the new melding with the familiar. The lengthy, unanswered calls for another encore suggest it was all very much a triumphant return.
“Everyone at work was shocked that we were playing at Howler,” says Miles Browne, a social security lawyer by day, “and even more shocked we sold it out.” We are sitting at a cafe with Ollie and Frew.
“Meaning that they didn’t think that we could?” says Frew.
“They just don’t know,” he says. “They’re all in their late 20s, and I don’t talk about the band. But someone mentioned the ARIA award and then people asked me questions about it.” He shrugs. It’s as though Art of Fighting has never considered things that to an outsider may seem obvious, such as why the band vanished after Runaways, and why they are now back. Their new album, Luna Low, was released in June, and they will be playing shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to promote it.
“I don’t remember discussing the hiatus,” says Miles.
“It just happened,” continues Frew. “For a band that discusses a lot of things, that’s one thing we didn’t really discuss.”
“I’ll be pretty frank,” says Ollie. “I don’t feel the band are as big a fan of Runaways as perhaps the other two records. Maybe we felt like we’d run our creative course to a point and there was a fear of eroding the artistry even more.”
“I think it was more just an unfocused record,” adds Miles, and his brother murmurs in agreement. “The two records we did before that were very focused,” Miles says, turning to Frew. “I think you went into labour while you were doing your backing vocals on one song.”
“Yes,” she says, and laughs. “My attention was obviously somewhere else.”
In conversation, the band’s members constantly cross-talk, interject with affirmations and sometimes answer questions directed to another. Sentences trail off on one side of the table and continue on the other and it’s easy to imagine this is how their songs evolve, the thoughtful and collective filling of silence – or, as drummer Marty Brown describes it, “a collective muscle memory”, born from extensive democratic analysis and long rehearsals.
“I do think there is a lot of listening in the band,” says Ollie Browne. He pauses for a full 10 seconds, as if to prove his point before continuing. “When we started playing together again one of the most depressing but also the most uplifting things to me is how much we did sound the same on the new songs. We can’t break that. It feels incredible to have four people with different creative energy just come out the same way with the same feeling every time.”
“Art of Fighting is a democracy band,” says Marty Brown, “there aren’t very many of those.
“For the most part every other band I’ve worked in is built around one personality, they direct how things are going and everyone’s kind of happy to toe that line. There’s lots of opposing forces in Art of Fighting. Everyone has their say and pulls it in different directions and that’s why it’s greater than the sum of its parts. Often three out of four of us will be in agreement about something, but the fourth person pushes it all back in a different direction and that creates something we wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.”
Water imagery recurs across Luna Low. Songs swell and ebb, befitting of intensely personal music that sounds as though it was made for headphones and bedroom. The album opens with “Genie”, which begins:
Sometimes I see the moonstruck madness in your eyes
I know if you get loaded you capsize
I know it feels like rivers on the rise
In his lyrics, Ollie is often straining and pushing for something or borne along on the energy of a greater force. He observes and relates with impressive economy. As to what it all means, he’s hesitant to clarify.
“I guess some of the characters are going through life changes and tumultuous scenarios,” he says.
Frew steps in to offer her take. “They’re kind of archetypal images to do with life changes,” she says. “The ideas of tides and cycles and water and the moon.”
“There’s always been a lot of that in my songs specifically,” Ollie continues. “There’s always been elemental references. I sing way too much about the moon. Songwriting 101: don’t make songs about the moon.”
Frew leans forward: “It stops being autobiographical the moment you make it into something else. But it still has its roots in reality. There’s this interview with Jonathan Franzen, I think it was in a copy of The Paris Review, where he talks about masks and what he calls ‘hot material’. ‘Hot material’ is what you want to use to make your art, but because it’s so personal, it’s too volatile, if you try and write directly about it – maybe I shouldn’t try and extend the analogy to music – it just kind of melts. It’s too strong. So, you have to come up with the right mask that fits it, which is the fiction.”
Unlike Ollie Browne’s more observational songs, Frew’s are more narrative-led, from a place of omnipotence. Even in situations where it seems power has been ceded, she exerts force. In 2007 she sang:
In your eyes I caught
The actual fire of just what living could be
And that’s gone from me
So you had to go
Luna Low’s centrepiece is Frew’s seven-and-a-half-minute “The Digger and the Dragger”:
Now that I’ve got you standing here with me
In the shade of such indifferentry
Take up your shovel, babe; you’re going to do some digging
“It’s far more fragile when I bring a song into the band,” she says. “So, I think everyone is a lot nicer, or more gentle with their feedback.” She turns to Ollie. “Not that we’re not gentle with you.”
“No, it’s always respectful feedback and constructive criticism,” he agrees, “but we usually have to convince you to bring something. I’m always a little bit envious, because the ideal for any songwriter is to be able to write something that is really simple and really good. And all of your songs manage to do that. Often, they’re two chords and there are great vocal hooks and I’m always like, ‘Why can’t I write a song with two chords?’”
“If you’re only writing one song every five years or something, it had better be okay,” says Frew.
Since Art of Fighting’s last tour, Frew has become better known as an author than as a bass guitarist. In 2008, her short story “Home Visit” won The Age’s short-story competition. Her first novel, House of Sticks, won the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript by an Emerging Victorian Writer. Her second novel, Hope Farm, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and earlier this year her new novel, Islands, was published to positive reviews. For someone so proficient with words, songwriting is a domain that seems to foreground insecurity.
“For me,” she says, thinking about her words, “the struggle was always to get the confidence to actually sing. It was just a set of muscles that I never built up. I remember early on I would think of songs, and I would sing them, and they wouldn’t sound like what was in my mind. It was this constant frustration and I had to keep living it, so I was very easily discouraged, and still am. My priority is really to work on my writing and I’m happy with where I’m at and the role I play in that. I get enough out of that.”
“I get the impression that having to sing live really dominates your experience of the show,” says Miles Browne. “It takes away your enjoyment of being in the band.”
Frew nods. “I don’t lose sleep over it, but I really wish that I was a good singer, that I was born with what Ollie has.”
For the first several years of the band’s existence, Art of Fighting was just Frew and Ollie Browne. A couple before they were a band, their partnership formed the core of the group. As they gathered Miles Browne and then Marty Brown, they moved from the Sonic Youth-inspired noise rock that defined the band’s first two EPs to the more nuanced approach for which they would become known. They signed to Trifekta Records, which released their first album, Wires, in 2001. There are many bands born in the mid-1990s whose sound evolved from the anger and angst of their teens to self-reflection and heartbreak in their 20s to more thoughtful and quieter songs in their 30s. But on Wires, and later on 2004’s equally acclaimed Second Storey, Art of Fighting already sounded wise and restrained. Initially it was a difficult thing to communicate from stages more used to volume and sweaty lunges for attention.
“It did dawn on us at some point that it was working,” says Ollie Browne. “When we started to get a little bit of traction for the band, people came to our shows because they knew what experience they were going to have, but I don’t feel like we were forging any new territory. We just had a philosophical shift in the band that we can play really quiet music. I’d always really loved it; I just didn’t realise it was what you could do.”
Still, it was a surprise when the band won the 2001 ARIA Award for Best Alternative Release over higher-profile groups including You Am I, Magic Dirt and Something for Kate. Oblivious to hints from the awards’ producers that their attendance would make for a better ceremony, the band were midway through a tour of Germany when they got the news of their win, amid a volley of excited screams from their publicist.
“We were too dumb to realise,” says Frew. “I guess we just didn’t know anything about that side of the industry, because until that point we’d only been playing shows at [small venues] like the Empress Hotel [in Fitzroy North].”
“That category ended up being cancelled after we’d won it,” says Brown. “Bands that weren’t affiliated with record labels were winning it, like Dirty Three and Not From There, and they were like, ‘No, it’s meant to be The Living End winning this, not you guys.’”
Miles Browne picks up the thread: “It is depressing the extent to which a band is judged by the ARIA award. If you have one, people will think you’ve done something. Whereas obviously most of the music I was listening to in the ’90s was never going to get an ARIA award. Other people are obsessed by it.”
“But that’s the story of music,” says Frew. “[It’s] what’s precious to people.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Fighting fit".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.