Farewell and goodbye to an era - The Last Ever Earthmen Gig
As I sit here trying to make notes of that night the Earthmen split up, as Whoever's Been Using this Bed is kicking in on the CD player, it still hurts. I can't believe it. Scott Stevens is breathlessly asking 'don't you hurt' but it's not helping. This song started it all. And on Friday 12th February 1999, it was the climax of the end of it all, in many respects. Not just the Earthmen either. It's hard to explain, but it ended an era in my life, with which I must replace with a worthy successor. And I'm looking forward to it.
I can't listen to this CD in the same way. Not without imaging Scott's harmless, innocent smiles and stares as his high pitched voice breathed out his emotional lyrics. Or Matt Sigley closing his eyes and squeezing out the high octave harmonies. I can't believe I never managed to see them live before this. I can't believe I never will again.
With a thorough lack of knowledge in the local gig scene, I decided to arrive early, very early to the Evelyn hotel. It was empty. So, this was an incredibly uninformed move, but as I cringe to say it a fortunate one. "It couldn't be, could it?" I asked to myself staring at the figures crawling around plugging in bits of equipment on stage. But then that unmistakable skinny figure with glasses and mop of blonde hair said it all. I had finally met my mentors. Walking in, feeling incredibly embarrassed and very conscious of making myself look like a no-life fan, I spoke to no one in particular, "Would you guys mind if I just hung around while you did you set up?"
And then I had my first conversation with the Earthmen, well, Nick Batterham and Scott Stevens more specifically. All through this, mind you, I still couldn't believe this was happening. That time I spent with them during the sound check would last two hours. I kept telling myself I couldn't afford to adjust to the situation. It wasn't hard not to. An emotional desire to meet, to know, these people was now squeezed into half a day of my life. I didn't need to physical watch them rehearse, just their presence was breathtaking. Is this the sign of obsession? Or the sign of utmost respect?
I started talking to Nick. "Hi, I'm friends with Courtney and Susan," attempting to claim some kind of reason why I should be allowed the honour of conversing with them. "If I'm not your biggest fan, then I'm your craziest." I had figured that out before, and it was the way I preferred it; I didn't want to be obsessive if I could help it; just madly and heartfeltly in love with their music. If I could do that well enough, nothing else should matter. I introduced myself, and he shook my hand and said, "Hi, I'm Nick." That really threw me. God that threw me. I felt absolutely silly. "Yeah, I know. Nick." I marvelled at the fact they were setting up their own equipment, something I wasn't used to previously having only attende big scale events. It just struck me as, sympathetic, that Nick was on all fours opening cases, fiddling 'round with a 9 volt Duracell battery to connect to his foot pedal. I found it intense that the big sound they produced was entirely dependant on all the small machinery, not just the talent. Probably surprised at my naivety, Nick said typically, "Who else is dumb enough to do it for us?" Just as well, I'll never forget the sight of him plugging all his cables. I told him, "I know I really shouldn't ask, but why are you guys splitting up again?" Simply, he replied, "We just weren't enjoying it anymore." I didn't have to question that. I understood. I couldn't dare suggest the effect on the people that shared their music. That should never be the sole reason to create, I think. I meekly enquired, "Do you think you could play Firestarter?" to which Nick apologised, "We don't actually know that one, we only rehearse a set list of songs and the old ones we tend to forget," to my disappointed obviously. He mused, "We probably should, a lot of people seem to like it." "Really," I said, trying to show hem that I liked it from my own listening experience and not just the bandwagon's, "I didn't know it was popular." He laughed. "Well, maybe it's just you and Courtney." "Yeah," I added, "we would account for half of the fan base anyway." Their banter with stage crew was all in similar self-targeting vain. They started talking about getting the set list together, who was going to be at the door to sell their CDs. The conversation led to Warner, and how they were treating the Earthmen. They said fine and that they were good people, much to the sound crew member's disgust. He talked about how they would rip off bands and you guys could only say they were fine? I mentioned something about the inate sensitive nature of the band. Craig Mitchell, drummer was yet to arrive, and they started wondering about his location. When he finally strode in through the door, they threw abuse at him, "Get your fucking act together, Mitchell!" Everything seemed very lighthearted on the set. "Come on little bummer boy," Matt prodded him.
Scott was just walking about, obviously lacking any equipment to set up. He walked over to the corner where a couple of egg-shell chairs were mounted, sat in one of them and unfolded an street mag. I bit my lip and wondered over. "Hi Scott, I hope you don't mind if I spoil a few minutes of your time?" He laughed and said of course not. So I sat down next him, not believing I was chatting with the voice I tried to imitate. "Whatcha reading, Inpress?" I asked. "Don't you brefer Beat?" "Yeah, I do, but this was just lying around so I picked it up." His eyes lit up as laughed at something in the paper, mentioning odd bits of music news which amused him. "Everyone keeps talking about that new Silverchair single, but I haven't heard it yet." "Yeah, it's not that good, just heard it on TripleJ, but I'm not really into Silverchair." "Yeah, neither am I, but it's good they found some success." I scoffed, "You mean, they found their niche in the market."
We fell silent for a while. I asked him, "Do you think it's weird, that someone can become so into another person's music that they find themselves really wanting to express what it means to them and how it's changed their life?" Scott opened his mouth and looked up, recalling. "I do it all the time," he said casually, "I mean, I say things to bands I really respect as well." Okay then, please don't think I'm some kind of weirdo I pleaded. "Well, I'm kind of lost for words when I try and say how much the Earthmen have meant to me. It's just the, emotion, the romance of the lyrics. It's changed my perception on life." He was good in relating to these things I was saying to him, he took it all in his stride, maybe I wished he wasn't so used to it. "All your lyrics are to do with love," I said dreamily, "Do you always write about personal experiences which really mean something to you?" "Yeah," he replied matter of factly, "what else do you write about? Things that mean a lot to you." I told him how his music had affected the way I wanted to write music, just wanting to give him a sense that he had passed on a bit of himself and his style to the world. There was another thing I really wanted to ask him. "When you perform on stage, do you try and remember the emotion and personal experiences which were behind the lyrics?" "Yeah, yeah I guess I do sometimes." Just wondering whether I was alone in the world. I told him I knew this sounded silly, but I could never make out the words to Firestarter, do you think you could recite them? He started muttering about how he had written them down for the Japanese release of the album, but I clarified, "I mean, could you even just say them?" To my surprise he told me he couldn't remember them, and I didn't know what to make of that. Oh well world. The song would remain enigmatic like it always had been.
He told me he had to leave now and mess with the other members of the band, and I thanked him. I went back to my original position sitting on the side of the stage. Matt claimed he wasn't comfortable with some of the old stuff, so they proceeded to rehearse through a few songs. Up till then I had heard Nick strum a couple of very familiar chords which excited the hell out of me (Oh my god! That's Stacey's Cupboard!), but this would be the first time I would see and hear the Earthmen in full swing. Scott had done nothing to this point as well. So seeing him get started was mind blowing. I just felt I was so honoured to see his voice in action. I wondered to myself if they were keeping something in reserve. You couldn't pick it. It was such a great sight to see the members smile at each other. I guessed it would have a lot to do with the fact this was the last time they would, the end of many. They bickered and joked on stage; "No wonder you guys are breaking up," said Scott in dismay at his band members. "You're sacked," he pointed at Craig, to which Craig replied, "I quit." "I sack myself," Scott announced. I guess it was one way to ease the pain.
The Earthmen. Possibly my favourite band. Certainly the most emotionally influential. Performing live, for no one else but themselves, a couple of guys who had walked in, and me trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Sitting on the same stage they were on. Unable to dance, except inwardly. I tried not to garner too much attention, but it was inevitable, and I guess special in a way. The guys, especially Craig, would look at each other while they played and smile. Each time this happened it would be a great moment. They played specific songs to test out keyboards and so on. The were happy with everything, and with amazement I watched them take apart everything from stage. Watching Batterham carefully unplug each pedal and neatly slot them into their respective boxes. This took patience, especially after seven years of gigs. I wanted to do it for them. So the stage was cleaned. For them to do it all again.
The two guys who were sitting at the
table by the entrance walked towards Nick. They were working for
the Monash Student paper and were asking if it would be okay if
they did a quick interview. At least they had a reason for being
here, I thought grimly. Nick obliged, but went on stage to clean
some stuff up. Scott had pulled up a seat to arrange the set list,
so the students went and asked him. I decided this would allow me
to listen to Scott without feeling responsible for making him
talk. They talked about the emotion of being the last ever gig,
the pinnacle of their form, touring in the UK and US, Caroline
Kennedy and Deadstar who the two had interviewed previously in
the day, as well as Scott's new band with two Earthmen members (I
forget which ones), which was as yet unnamed. Matt and Nick
Murray came by and sat in chairs by the window, and said they
would just yell out their answers. This was becoming very
reminiscent of the internet interviews I had imagined. A group of
casual and playful gentlemen in a circle around a microphone. I
loved this feeling. Nick came round and received a recorder in
his face and the question "What is your favourite song?"
He said he couldn't pick one off the top of his head, commenting
that sticking the recorder in front of him wasn't very effective,
which was the impression I received. One student asked him what
were his future plans. He was going to study Film and Television
at the VCA, and was thinking that might lead to film score
composition. I almost blew my mind. "Where? The post-grad
degree?" I spluttered out, not sure I had heard correctly.
"The Victorian College of the Arts. No, the bachelor course."
I couldn't believe it. Had I been successful in the application
test and chosen to enter it I would be doing my schooling with
Nick Batterham from the Earthmen. This was too weird. "I can't
believe it. I tried the test for that course, I always wondered
what kind of person was able to get in!" "Yeah, it's a
difficult one." "So what did you do for your visual
composition?" "It was a five minute job, about a guy
packing up in the kitchen. It was awful." I was knew that
couldn't be true seeing how competitive this course was. "I
always wanted to hate anyone I met who got in!" I told him,
laughing. "So why do you think you did get in?" "Well,
I was successful in entering a photography course years back.
Though I didn't end up doing it. But I guess they knew I was good
at taking pictures." I asked him if he did any of the band's
cover artwork, and he said a couple some time ago. He claimed he
didn't know why they let him in, so I suggested that perhaps it
was his fame of being in a band. Yeah, right. "So what kind
of movies do you want to direct?" "Grey, depressing,
scenes on the street." "Kind of realism," I
remarked. "Yeah, realism." This was too cool.
"You know, you have achieved my vision of the perfect lifestyle," I said to him. "In a rock band while young, and then go into movies when you get too old for that shit." It was true. I many senses I was insanely jealous. But I can't really, because he has inspired so much of my life. "Yeah," he drawled, "you can't stay in a band forever, not unless you're successful." "What," I blurted out, "so you don't think the Earthmen were successful?" This made me curious. "Well, we were, I guess." I felt like he was trying to take it back. "You don't think you achieved all you wanted to? I mean, you said it, that you weren't successful, so you must feel it in some way." He gave it a thought. "What I meant was, we weren't successful in a money-making sense." That I understood, I told him, having heard about the shit-all you receive with royalties. He agreed, the companies were pretty much heartless in that respect, in stark contrast to the Earthmen's satisfied approval of Warners when talking during the soundcheck earlier. "You can't make a living out of a band. You have to make money some way," he said almost sadly. The harsh reality, I knew. Sad in many ways, but I didn't get the impression that was the real reason for why the Earthmen were breaking up.
The guys claimed they had to get some stuff together, one had to go home, so they excused themselves again, and Nick was nice enough to say "See you 'round", leaving me not for the first or last time pondering if that was the end of my encounter with the purely talented. It was still dream-like. Anyway, I'm not sure what it was exactly that they had to do, because they seemed to be walking around. The Steinbecks were doing sound checks/rehearsing, and when they played some chords which the Monash dudes and I immediately recognised as Song to Sing we clapped. Nick popped out to see what the fuss was about, and leant against a pole while they (edgily, in my opinion) performed his song. He seemed very happy.
The Steinbecks finally were forced off the stage, and the long wait began. The doors were finally opened and people started scattering in. Scott was in the other side of the pub having a beer, looking very alone for some reason.
By the time the Steinbecks were due to play at quarter to nine, many of the Earthmen crew were sauntering around the room. I just couldn't believe this, or the fact that they weren't being bombarded by obsessive fans. So I was able to have a few casual words with Scott again, this night just did not let go. I had so many questions about the music making process, partly 'cause I try and empathise as much as possible with the songs I fall in love with, secondly because I was wondering myself how different methods produced different sounds. Sometimes they would write the lyrics first, sometimes the melody, Scott told me, and I would learn later that at times Scott would sing the vocals only to Nick without showing him the music, and Nick would write his own accompaniment. Matt and Nick Murray were next to him, so I asked Matt whether it was him who produced the high harmonies in their songs. He laughed and looked at Nick. "Yeah, I do, me and Nick (Batterham) both sing them. Don't know who does which." "I love those parts," I said dreamily. "Just look at our mouths when we do it," Matt advised. I told him how he got a mention from his dad when he appeared on Good Morning Australia with old friend Bert Newton, and he replied with an tone of familiarity. "Yeah I heard about that." I also asked why he wasn't playing bass for the Steinbecks right now, as I had heard them saying during rehearsal that Matt was playing (he and Nick played guitars on their ep), but they had told him not to worry about it (though later a string on Steinbecks's bass broke, so they borrowed Matt's; the player joked, "I actually planned this; this is a much nicer bass"). For their final song, the Steinbecks thanked the Earthmen for their music and played the tribute Song to Sing. I asked Scott whether he was happy with their version. "Of course, they're good friends of ours."
Throughout the night as I was talking to each member I kept hearing Scott and Nick mention how odd it was that some band was splitting up, which was so ironic. I kept hinting, "Yeah, a lot of bands or splitting up these days." I don't think either of them really knew what I meant or how I felt when I said this. Could they? They seemed to discount their acheivements at every opportunity.
The Steinbecks left and that signalled the departure of the Earthmen from the pub floor, this time I guessed for the last time. I had satisfied much of my great urge to meet them. I couldn't have been more grateful.
Auggie March were the other support band, and they too would thank the Earthmen before leaving. As soon as they did, my friends and I set up position against the stage. This was finally it. The band members bar Scott came out and set up all their gear again. I still wasn't used to this 'anti-climax' of an appearance on stage. Again I watched Nick Batterham arrange all his pedals, Nick Murray tune his guitars, and Matt slide out the keyboard. It took forever, so it seemed. Then out came the traditional Earthmen trait, alcohol, Stolichniya vodka and a six pack of VB. Once all that was set up, they could leave, just to come out again and have the audience pretend they hadn't seen them at all this evening.
It wasn't hard. They walked out and we screamed. As they smoothly took their places they struck me as a very suave, very cool band, and the four man line formation was very sixties-esque. Really appealing. They opened with Figure 8, and I knew my moment had arrived. Out of those at the front I felt I was the only one losing myself to the music, at least movement wise. But every beat was just so irrestible. I had waited too long to see them. I had never been this close to a performing band before, I become very conscious of myself especially since I made myself known beforehand. The last thing I wanted to do was throw any of them off! It had never occured to me that way before, as I mouthed the words I wondered if that would look weird. But, at the same time, if I could show just how much they were being appreciated, I guessed that might help.
I can't recall the set list they played that night, mainly because more that half of it was unfamiliar to me. I couldn't believe it, after all I had seven of their cd's for crying out loud! As it turned out I wasn't familiar with them because they were unreleased, familiar only through gigs. Oh well. I still thought they sounded great the first time round. I guess to my disappointment it was a more rockier set. And I there during Lie Without thinking there wasn't going to be much opportunity to move to the music. No Second Sight, This Much I Know, Firestarter, Untitled II or College Heart, or Tell the Women We're Going. I guess it's the slow ones which kill me the most. Well, hard to complain that any song was wasted. I was surprised however to find that Love Walks In was not played. That is another one which would have killed me. So those songs and a string section were the only additions I could've asked for. Nothing else.
I really enjoyed the unreleased stuff, they made me think, oh my God, I'm going to have to live the rest of my life knowing that this material exists and I can't listen to it ever again! But, of course, it was the songs I knew too well which really hit me. There were moments during many of these, and for each member on stage, where everything I ever imagined about them had become true. Nick Batterham so cool with the guitar and tearing his face up for the vocals. Scott and his incredible soft high voice, eyes closed, fingers hanging on to each other or one hand by his side, with his child-like smile as he looked down at the next song in the list, the clap of his hands when he approved of the beat, and sliding of his body. I will never forget these moves, as I never forget the expressions of most vocalists on stage. Craig to me resembles the devil with that goatee, but his playing is just as mad, chained to the sequences. Matt surprised me the most, his relentless pounding to the music, rocking back on forth on bass or absolutely jitteringly out of control on keyboards. His face was the least restrained out of all of them; it was pouring sweat, shiny in the stage lights when he looked above for some kind of support, at other times he would just close his eyes and move in spasms. And when singing those high pitched harmonies it was pure strain. Just they way I would do it, I thought amazed. Nick Murray had many of the best guitar parts, and at times he would show how much they meant to him. They all showed how much that night meant to them. This was a band I could look at for days, genuinely into their music. I don't know whether it was just because it was their last night.
After Lie Without I think it was Craig who announced, "You'll never hear that again." This was funny, but very sad in a way. It reminded me how the cd's lying around at home only told half the Earthmen story, and I again regretted I hadn't been to any previous gigs. It was the same bittersweet humour found in most of their stage banter. In a similar exchange to their sound check, Scott told Craig he was sacked, where Matt chimed in, "Hey, I quit first!" I wasn't sure what to make of that.
At one stage after Scott had announced the title of their next song, Nick Batterham began to play the chords to Stacey's Cupboard. He stopped as Scott turned around, and told him, "Made you look."
I guess Arm's Reach was as close to a slow song I would hear. I would kind of just half close my eyes, or look down at every soft spot. I was easily overwhelmed. Occassionally I would feel the stare of each band member, for good or bad. For an instant there would be eye contact. I just hope everything was worth it for them.
Certainly the most emotional number to me was Whoever's Been Using this Bed. I had been waiting so long for this song. It had been associated with so many fragile moments in my life, standing there I didn't know what to do. Just attempted to match my imagination with their actions on stage. And drift away.
They were incredibly happy on stage. Especially Scott. The way he smiled and nodded his head to the words, unabashedly, during Nine Day Wonder, so assuredly. And Nick B and Matt would play to each other.
Most people I knew didn't think much of the newest EP The War Against Rock and Roll, but this gig confirmed to me that the songs were just as catchy as any other collection. It would be songs like Suspended and Body of an American which would never cease to play over and over inside my head all the way home and for the next two days.
Throughout the night Scott was thanking various individuals he'd spot in the crowd. He told anyone who knew Jeff, 'who we were unfortunate enough to be managed under', to hit him. He thanked all the people who stood around like idiots in the Whoever film clip. And after announcing their last song, summed up their whole journey, thanking everyone for having them. They departed the stage to a thunderous applause and yelling, and yes, after a minute Nick Murray showed up again followed by the rest of the crew and they picked up their instruments. They were all in incredibly high spirits, which suited their next cover; Rhinestone Cowboy. I laughed because I found the song itself hilarious, after hearing Thom Yorke cover it in his English accent, but also I guess also because I this was too much for me. It was too much for them. The Earthmen laughed. Then Scott was in tears. It was an amplified selection of every emotion that night. And the last ever Earthmen song played on stage? Cool Chick #59. Which was very special for someone I knew, and I thought a gift for those who were with them from the start.
I wasn't, although I find it hard to recall what it was like without them. If you think I'm a weirdo after this quasi-review (more like emotional expression), well, I guess I'm sucked into emotional things easily. Don't underestimate how important this group was to me, it was so good to have a melody for my life to cling on to.
The song ended. And Scott thanked us for the very last time. I couldn't believe it. As I saw them turn their backs to the crowd and one by one disappear through the curtains, I wondered alarmingly: "So this is it? I never see them again? I can't call on them for support, for inspiration?" It took me time to figure this one out. And when I did, things were very big and alarming. I headed down to Starshaped with a few friends. The Boo Radley's were playing. I bought a Stolli, found a comfortable corner and broke out the cigarettes. And then I started talking to myself, sometimes inside my head. I go through this introspective periods sometimes, and they always seem like life was so large, so much to decide, and this was no exception. What, what is this? The end of an era? So what does that mean? What do I do? I strained my face like I was about to cry. Then, I went into mad fits of laughter. "Why are you laughing?" my friend Kristen asked incredulously. I couldn't tell her. Just like I couldn't tell the cab driver why I was so quiet. "A mystery," he had remarked. "It's no mystery," I said quietly. "I just can't explain it." I just smiled at her and hugged her. It made me feel a lot better. And the promises I made to myself made me feel better. I knew that when something this important was to leave my life, then I had to fill it with something equally important. That could only come within. A will to write songs inspired by the Earthmen. That was the legacy I had to believe in. So, I really did have a lot to look forward to. So laugh.
A friend admitted she cried. That made me feel better as well. As I sit at home now, the only thing I could wish for is that I could keep the delirious happiness I felt whenever I put on an Earthmen cd and could associate those high notes with the band's emotion movements on stage, without having to feel the pain that there would be no new melodies to string my life upon. They exist inside, I tell myself. It's the only way to stay hopeful for the future. All because of one group. A group which taught me the meaning of love songs. Thank you, the Earthmen.
luffy (at) diamondsky.org
islisis: have not seen many articles on the earthmen so i'll put this here. hi nick if you are here, how did the film and tv stint go?
well. i should listen to more music these days.
All the bands i listen to are still young! except for radiohead.
jamie: i saw the earthmen back in 97 as support to the church, was completly blown away.
where the hell can i get this magic love walked in album?????
islisis: it doesn't seem available for download anywhere, so i assume you'd have to chase a second hand cd! whatever you have to do to chase up the album, i recommend it! still an extremely refreshing love pop album
daz: there was a JJJ live session many years ago which i had on tape and now the tape is knackered,
anyone have one ?
natsu: this is just such a crazy interesting post. So random...a friend of mine just gave me a brand new record to listen to, it's a Nick B solo effort. Listening now.....not obliged to report at this stage but the story with the listen feels apt. April 2010, nat
Scott: There is a new Earthmen retrospective album called College Heart" due this year with 4 new tracks. Exciting.
islisis: scott, is that you...? ^^;
that is a fantastic idea through and through
just when you felt safe enough to leave the past alone...
Scott T: The new album can be sampled and purchased here: https://theearthmen.bandcamp.com/releases - the last 4 are brand new 2014 recordings of unreleased 90'S tracks
Script by Alex