Hidden Currents – A look behind the scenes of the Bird’s Robe Collective
For the latest in our Hidden Currents series we asked Mike Solo to tell us about the Bird’s Robe Collective, an entity that supports, promotes, manages, releases records and everything else behind the scenes that allows the progressive bands we love to bring us the music we can’t live without. With a roster that includes sleepmakeswaves, Anubis, Lander Configurations, Solkyri, Pirate and many more, Bird’s Robe is an important part of the flourishing progressive rock scene in Australia.
We’re sure you’ll find Mike’s account as interesting and as much fun to read as we did, especially the “advice to others” section.
My band (super FLORENCE jam) was playing King Crimson, Mars Volta and Rush-inspired prog rock around Sydney and we were finding it difficult to land suitable shows. It was your classic case of not fitting in anywhere – we weren’t heavy enough for metal shows and we were too technical and loud to play with all the indie-pop bands. Our bassist Alex picked up on the idea of forming a collective, loosely-inspired around the success of the Elephant Six Collective, where a group of like-minded bands got together, organised shows and formed a label, eventually combining their audiences and creating something greater than the sum of its parts.
We thought a prog rock collective would be cool – all we had to do was find suitable bands. We stumbled across an awesome jam/math-rock/prog/psychedelic band called Captain Kickarse and the Awesomes one night and formed a firm friendship. A while later, I was walking past the Lansdowne Hotel in Sydney before a show and I heard a band playing King Crimson’s ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ – I ran inside and excitedly discovered a band called The Space Banditos. From there, I received a chance email about a New Zealand instrumental band called Kerretta looking for a Sydney show in June. They sounded cool so I got in touch with them and offered to help them out. I eventually had enough chutzpah to approach Dave Batty about letting us put together a show at Hermann’s Bar in Sydney. We billed it as a night of progressive rock/experimental music, told all our friends about it and waited to see what would happen.
Gladly, it somehow packed out – and we were on our way.
As it turned out, there were a bunch of musicians in the audience and they all started to get in touch with me about playing shows. Mutual friends turned me on to other acts like Meladora, AquaNaut and Shanghai. There was a chance/love at first sight moment when we met sleepmakeswaves at the Sydney Uni Band Compeition too (I had never heard this thing called “post-rock” before – I thought they sounded like an instrumental version of U2!). I did my own searching as well – the power of Myspace uncovered a few more interesting bands, like Meniscus and Space Project. It was around this time I first heard Pirate and Squat Club, both just starting out on the live scene and both amazing bands who brought new ears to shows and made them stay. Slowly, my band started moving away from playing prog rock, but the shows and community was flourishing, so I continued booking gigs. People appeared to be genuinely interested and excited to find shows entirely dedicated to serving an open-minded audience, so I kept doing it. I think the first product of this kind of thinking was Squat Club, who in just a short amount of time, quickly built a following based purely on their live reputation and word of mouth. It was exciting and unheard of for a band with barely a handful of shows to their name to then come back after a year away and headline to a packed house at the Bald Faced Stag.
I remember being so excited about all the great bands in Sydney that I wanted them to hear each other – so I organised an all-day event at the Annandale Hotel that I called ‘Featherfest’ and tried to get all of them on the one day. As it turned out, Pirate and Captain Kickarse couldn’t make it, so I organised another gig that they could play – I’ll never forget Captain Kickarse, Pirate, sFj and Squat Club being on the same lineup for the first time, watching each other from side of stage and getting all giggly over how cool it was.
I’m not sure how it happened, but eventually it seemed natural to convert Bird’s Robe into a label, rather than an intangible grouping of bands. It became clear to me that to reach a wider audience, bands needed to have good recordings, have these promoted and have something solid behind them to give support. We would all sit around complaining about how street press never reviewed us, or how radio never played our music. The obvious solution is that you actually needed to let them know you exist! I also found I had trouble promoting bands who I’d booked, because they didn’t have their music available anywhere.
One of the really early pie-in-the-sky ideas we’d discussed early on was the idea of putting together a supergroup to write and record together. There were so many awesome players in all these bands, it was obvious there was potential to create something special. It seemed natural therefore to launch the label with this being the first release.
We put the word out and got responses from a bunch of different bands, who Alex from Captain Kickarse then pulled together and produced a record with, on a zero budget, with all their own equipment. It turned out to be this amazing Zappa-esque concept record that they called ‘Musodynamics’ and got me really excited. As a huge music fan, it was incredible to think that all these great musicians who had been introduced to each other, enjoyed each other’s company to want to collaborate and make such awesome music together, purely for the love of it. Think about how people dream about their favourite supergroups with famous musicians – for me, this was just the start of a series of potential dream teams, all coming together under this Bird’s Robe thing, whatever it was. That was just too cool.
From there, I organised a gig, printed some CDs and we launched the label. Ever since, it’s been a steep learning curve, trying to figure out just how to do it – how to promote, distribute and sell this kind of music to people. I started contacting (or was contacted by) my favourite artists, with a view to joining the label. When sleepmakeswaves joined, it really brought an international spotlight to the label due to their large online following. When Anubis came on board, we saw yet another big jump in our profile due to their large fanbase in Europe, which in turn brought attention to the other great bands on the label. Being branded as a ‘prog’ label hopefully means that fans of each band feel confident enough that they will find something they like in exploring our shows or releases.
The logic behind the whole thing has always been inspired by the success of bands like The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria, PVT (formerly Pivot), Sigur Ros etc. We all know how popular Pink Floyd and Yes are, but they came out of the 70s. The other bands are far more recent prospects, who nevertheless have a solid audience, including in Australia. The expectation I went into this was thinking – if you’re good enough, those same people should like you too. The question was (and still is) how do you reach those people?
How the collective works
Or rather, how it doesn’t work. Bands always used to asked me “how do I join?” You don’t. In my opinion, any band that has ever played a Bird’s Robe show is welcome to identify as part of the Bird’s Robe Collective of bands.
The whole thing has moved away from being a true collective in the sense that I tend to do most of the admin work behind the scenes. Not all bands know how to do this stuff and I found that I enjoyed it and it helped me plan ahead. I still feel that what we’ve created is a great community of musicians and fans, which is what the aim was all along. I’m totally humbled and excited by the kind words that people throw towards Bird’s Robe.
The shows cover a wide range of genres – pretty much anyone with a penchant for being innovative would fit on a bill. The common factor is the audience, who is usually open-minded and looking for something a bit different, or even challenging. The expectation is that bands will promote their shows and bring their friends and fans with them to experience it and hopefully turn them on to another awesome group as well. I’ve booked so many bands over the last 4 years that I can’t list them all here. Some have broken up, some have gone on to bigger things, others are still around playing locally, supporting each other and creating something cool.
The label is a bit more exclusive, in that I only really work with bands who I think will benefit from my involvement in promoting and releasing their work. Just because someone isn’t on the BRR label doesn’t mean I don’t like them – they might have another label that works for them, or may prefer the independent approach. Even super FLORENCE jam didn’t jump on the BRR roster the moment it was created, simply because it’s wasn’t necessarily the best fit.
I also distribute albums – Serious Beak are on Art As Catharsis and Meniscus actually put out their album independently at first, but I help with distro, seeing as it’s obviously a good match and people browsing our website might like them too. International acts like Vampillia and Ruins-alone have other labels but Australia is neglected in their distribution network, so that’s why I offered to get involved. Not just because I love the bands, but also so that Australian fans can more easily access their music. Lately I’ve been learning more and more about how licensing works – when a label overseas wants to distribute an album here, but doesn’t have any local contacts, they may want a local label to release the music so that they can help promote it. There’s a lot of fiddling around with contracts, but I’m honoured that a legendary band like 65daysofstatic and their label Monotreme sees value in releasing their music here through Bird’s Robe. I honestly never thought that it would ever get to that point.
I have also started managing a few acts personally. Usually I kind of pseudo-manage bands through the work I do with the label or booking them. But at the moment I actually only directly manage sleepmakeswaves, Pirate and super FLORENCE jam. Recently I also came on as co-manager for The Red Paintings. Being a manager is a sort of all-encompassing role but it gives me the ability to help plan a path forward for the band to achieve its goals (or reset them if they might be a little too ambitious). The difference between me just giving advice and actually managing a band, is that I actually have the authority to go and make decisions on their behalf, which are (hopefully) in their best interests. Otherwise I’m just a voice on the side being encouraging and hopefully adding some value to whatever they want to do, whether it’s world domination, or just trying to get their music heard by people who will like it, or asking where the cheapest CD printing places might be, or looking for similar bands to play with.
Why BRC is different from just a manager or label or promoter. What bands get out of it.
The label and collective is probably more of what people like to call a “boutique” label/agency. In some ways it’s not much different from having a good manager or label or promoter, but I suppose these days the difference is that bands have someone who believes in them and what they want to achieve.
For me, most of this is just good business or common sense, but I try to work closely with each band, offer advice (if they want it) and generally help them achieve their goals. For some bands, world domination isn’t their goal – they just want to have fun and make a good record that people will get to hear. I’m happy to help make that happen. Other managers/labels may not be interested in that.
For bands who do want to kick some goals and push things as far as they can go – hopefully with some support behind them, it puts them in a position to be heard and for people to decide whether to support that journey.
The other thing is that I’m not in it to take people’s money. I’d like to not lose money on this thing, but not every decision is financially based. Some might see that as a disadvantage, but in the long run the reason people play music is to be happy – so that’s what I’m in the business of doing. If there is a great band that people really like, they’ll hopefully support them with enough money for them to keep doing what they do. That doesn’t necessarily mean making a living from music, but it might mean giving them the ability to record the next album, or to afford flights to play for people in other areas.
The thing I’m most proud of is that I feel there’s a real sense of community behind the label and shows. This isn’t exclusive to Bird’s Robe, many other labels have a warm, fuzzy vibe. But I know what it’s like not to fit in as a musician and it’s a great feeling to know that there’s some support and a home for your music. Every time a musician or fan tells me how much they enjoy being a part of this, I get a huge buzz.
I have to say one unforseen difficulty is when people approach me to part of BRR or want me to manage/book them and I say no. I can’t work on something I don’t personally love and I can’t spread myself too thin at the detriment of the other bands I like and my own life. And sometimes the music just isn’t the right fit. Feels bad to have to do exactly what other agents/labels have done to me in the past, but I do try to offer as much advice as possible to anyone who wants my help. Hopefully that’s worth something.
Another problem I’ve run into as things have gotten busier is scheduling – I can’t be in 2 places at once, but sometimes someone needs to be there to make sure things run smoothly at a show. To this end, it’s encouraging that the bands who want to play the most, are also willing to learn how to manage their own shows effectively. Working with people who are motivated and able to think outside the box is a real pleasure and makes my job easier (and cheaper, not having to travel all the time). At the same time, sometimes tour managing or promoting is a thankless task, so there’s few people willing to put their hands up to help – or who can commit to the time it takes to make it work. Clone?
What people bring to the collective
I’m really proud of the way things have turned out so far, because the fledgling success of the label and the bands hasn’t been due to just one factor. Everyone is bringing something to the table, whether it’s simply by telling their friends to come to a show, or sharing contacts. When sleepmakeswaves came on board for their debut album, they brought with them a huge online following and a great degree of goodwill towards the other bands on the label. Anubis, in a similar fashion, brought a massive overseas audience with them and a bunch of media contacts who were following the band, who were then turned onto acts like Toehider, Pirate, Squat Club and Meniscus.
Since the label started, we’ve been very lucky to have had the support of Australian radio, particularly shows aimed at promoting experimental music – Triple J’s Sound Lab and The Racket programs, Edge Radio’s Kaleidoscope Ears, FBi Rado in Sydney, 4zzz, Triple R, RTR fm and heaps more community radio stations have jumped on board to support these great bands. This kind of support is crucial to introducing bands to people in areas outside of where they live – particularly in a country like Australia, with such a dispersed population. On top of that there’s people such as yourself who support music by writing about it and helping spread the word.
Many lessons about management, publicity and touring I learned on the road with super FLORENCE jam over the past 7 years. Coming straight out of high school, we had no one to show us what to do, so we made it up as we went along. All this has given me a bit of on-the-road experience to share with bands who are now touring the country (and the world) – and it also gives me a bit of empathy when booking bands, who have to drive thousands of kilometres and spend time away from home to pursue their dreams. There’s always a balance you need to find between music, work, family, life in general. It works for some groups – but sometimes it’s the reason great bands break up, or never reach the level of recognition that some feel they “deserve.”
I sometimes wish I had been able to do some work experience at a big label, or booking agency, to learn how things work. Instead, I’ve had to make mistakes, try to avoid making them again and just talk to as many people as possible about how they do things, learning one new thing at a time. Sometimes you just have to ask, it can’t hurt.
Obviously, my buddy Alex Tulett has a lot to do with how we got here – he came up with the original idea, the name, and is always there to lend an ear to whatever I’m thinking of doing. Along with Adam and Laurence from sFj, he got me listening to all kinds of cool music and was cool enough to go talk to bands like i like cats, sleepmakeswaves and Captain Kickarse in the early days and sell them the story about being part of this prog collective and playing at our shows. He’s got his own projects going on now but will always be part of wherever this thing goes.
Other people are always contributing to the overall “scene” from outside BR too. Lachlan at Art As Catharsis, Ron Baumann, Lochlan from Monolith, Rob at Heathen Skulls, Dave Cutbush at Life Is Noise, Shaun at tenzenmen, Dave Batty from Custom Made/Artist Voice, Damian at Peats Ridge, Scott at Drum Media/TheMusic, Andrew Haug, Chris Maric from Drum, Dan at Harbour, Fenella Kernebone, Mitch Booth from Metal Obsession, Tim at Welkin, Tom from 10k Free Men, Brad and Salty who started OzProg… Even AJ and his huge Soundwave and Harvest Festivals. All these people (and more) continue to support interesting, underground, progressive, experimental, innovative music in some way, whether it’s playing in cool bands, promoting shows, giving local bands support slots, touring international acts or spinning them on the radio. Some people like Lachlan actively go out of their way to tell people about how good these bands are. Ron gave my band (and heaps of others) our first pub gigs and showed us how to run a show from scratch – he’s incredibly supportive of discovering and booking alternative music. It’s got less to do with what we do individually and more to do with the fact that we’re incredibly inspired by and passionate about this sort of music. That’s why we spent huge amounts of time (and money) on things that people would consider uncommercial.
Things to smile about
People familiar with Bird’s Robe would probably know all about sleepmakeswaves and Anubis. SMW have had such a fantastic response to their debut album, they’ve now been able to tour nationally for the first time, had the opportunity to support bands like Karnivool, Russian Circles, Mono, Tortoise and Boris – and have had such a boost in profile overseas that they were invited to play one of the headlining spots at Dunk festival in Belgium alongside 65daysofstatic, This Will Destroy You and Pelican. A year ago this would have been totally unheard of and beyond all our expectations. Not only that, the guys went to SXSW, played a small US tour and toured Europe. And now they’re touring China too! It’s exciting and seems all very heady and a massive tick off their bucket list – but it’s the product of serious hard work, time away from home, plus the support of fans, friends and family. They still don’t have any money and probably won’t for a while, as they have to repay debts from touring and find a way to fund recording their next album. But speak to any of them and I don’t think they would have traded these experiences for anything else, it’s been lots of fun.
Anubis still have a moderate profile in Australia, but in Europe, their album sales are going nuts. I’ve been at the post office pretty much every week since September last year, shipping hundreds of copies of ‘A Tower of Silence’ all over the world. They’ve been in the top 10 of our German distributor’s sales chart for months and continue to attract fans. It would be great to see them get up and be able to tour more as a result of this, but it’s difficult with families at home and the money required. Still, for a little band out of Sydney to do so well, it’s an amazing achievement.
There have also been so many other awesome stories since 2008 – Pirate have gone from being completely unknown, to dropping their debut album in 2011, touring with Floating Me, as well as selling a bunch of records in Germany; Meniscus released their debut album last year and just went off on their first European tour, including Fusion Festival; and Mike Mills, via Toehider, has finally started getting some recognition overseas, selling albums, getting some radio play and touring with Unitopia last year. Seeing Captain Kickarse and the Awesomes blow minds on their tour with Tatsuya Yoshida was also one of my proudest moments, along with Space Project’s sold out EP launch, the first Sydney Progfest, Featherfest, Mish’s album launch and of course pretty much anything Squat Club ever did. Now, Dumbsaint have an album out, Solkyri are recording a new release and of course The Red Paintings are going to head off and tour the world when their album finally drops…plus there’s a bunch more great bands who I’m looking forward to seeing in future.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing international artists as well – Vampillia absolutely blew minds on their first Australian tour in 2009 and Ruins-alone came to play Featherfest in 2011, which was a huge thing for me.
Most recently, I’m totally honoured that 65daysofstatic have chosen to release in Australia through Bird’s Robe. We met them at Dunk Festival and it was one of the best live shows I’d ever seen. I’m really looking forward to sharing their music with people here.
Overall though, the great thing is that any of these goal-kicking moments feels like a win for the team, not just one band. So many of these bands are fans of each other, it’s exciting for all of us when someone drops new music, plays a great show or gets a nice review.
Plans for the future
I thought last year was incredible, but 2012 has shaped up to be a ridiculously amazing year too.
The latest thing that I’m super excited about is bringing 65daysofstatic to Australia for the first time. They’re one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen and I’m stoked to be part of their first Australian trip. We haven’t announced the dates yet, but they are playing Peats Ridge Festival in December and we’ll be making some further announcements about headline shows pretty soon.
There is heaps more going on too – sleepmakeswaves and The Red Paintings have Australian tours coming up soon. Dumbsaint have just released their debut album and are touring, as well as supporting Grails in Sydney. Solkyri are promising a new release, which is super exciting. Mike from Toehider just sent me a new single which is insane, as you might expect. I’m also really hopeful we’ll see new stuff from Slimey Things, Pirate, Anubis and The Bird’s Robe Collaboration Band soon. Oh and the guys from Squat Club recently told me they’re working on new music and will all be in Australia in January for some shows, which is beyond exciting!
There are so many great bands I’d love to bring to Australia. It’s just a matter of money – flights and visas are expensive. It’d be great to help facilitate a return tour for Vampillia, or see This Will Destroy You or And So I Watch You From Afar out here for the first time. Maybe one day some of our favourite US bands like Vasudeva, Beware of Safety and If These Trees Could Talk can come out here as well. Hopefully I’ll have time to assemble another Featherfest lineup too!
There’s a few other things I’d like to do. Work on an online presence, find ways to connect with more people, open up more touring opportunities for bands overseas, encourage more collaborations. Push more great music in front of more people. Pirate, Tangled Thoughts of Leaving and Toehider are acts in particular I’d love to see getting some more recognition. It’s all very time-consuming, so it’ll take a while to achieve, but hopefully we’ll get there one day. I think I need a clone or something to help.
Advice to others
Love what you do. If you don’t enjoy it, there’s no point. If you’re in a band who wants to tour, you need to be prepared to work hard and be physically and mentally up for anything. If you’re managing or promoting, you need to be able to work through the tedious nature of digital uploads, packaging CDs and constant email communication (oops- ed) in order to help bands achieve something special.
Be organised – keep records, a contact list, do your accounting (a basic excel spreadsheet is all you need).
Seek advice – all you have to do is ask. It doesn’t hurt. The worst thing that can happen is that someone will ignore you. The best thing is that they will give you some advice that will prove invaluable to your future. You’d be amazed at how much a 30-second conversation could change your world.
Be realistic. If you’re playing the most complex, technical death metal known to man, you’re probably never going to get signed to a major label and play Wembley Stadium. You may, however, be able to sell out a local club and have the most loyal fans in the world. Don’t bother handing out flyers at the Usher concert – spend your time promoting to a suitable audience, if you want people to come to your show. Don’t just expect people to hear about you and just show up – there’s too much else going on for people to notice.
I know we all play for the love of it and music is subjective etc., but if you want to perform in front of an audience in public…be good. Please, do this. Every half-baked music concotion is just taking up the ear-space that a really good band could be filling. When you put your friends through an under-cooked performance, you’re wearing down their goodwill and making it less compelling for them to support you when you really want them to come. “We’re better now” is not a plea that works too often.
Play somewhere that you would actually go to see someone play.
Promote your shows.
Figure out what you sound like. People always say “we sound like nothing else”. It’s not true. Aside from that, when I ask “what do you sound like?” I’m not trying to pigeon-hole you, I’m just trying to figure out where you might fit in. You should be able to think of 3 bands who vaguely share some similarity to your band. Words like metal, pop and folk are also immediately useful.
Keep your bio to 1 page. No one will read any more than that. Don’t go off-topic in interviews and keep your answers short and to the point…oh wait…
Finally and most importantly…have fun!!
B.R.C. facebook page
Tags: Australia, Bird's Robe, Dumbsaint, Hidden Currrents, Meniscus, Mike Solo, Pirate, Post Rock, Prog, sleepmakeswaves, super FLORENCE jam, Toehider