I traveled to Australia because it’s what I know least.
It’s the farthest place from home and literally the opposite end of my world. Where better to begin my digital wanderings than in a huge, almost-empty continent on the flip side of the globe? (It also helps that it’s summer down here.)
I flew to Melbourne because Sydney seemed too obvious–and obvious is what we like to avoid around here.
I also confess a little travel itch I’ve had for Melbourne for quite some time. It all started with a band that I liked way back in college. Then another band and then another. Each time I discovered some great music, I’d later find out what all these bands had in common: they all came from Melbourne.
A coincidence? I think not. How can so much coolness derive from one city? I wondered–and when Melbourne appeared on my schedule, I decided to find out.
To help me in my quest, I enlisted the help of my favorite Melbourne band–The Lucksmiths. Formed in 1993, these guys played solid and strong for a good 15 years and 11 albums, then broke up last year, much to the chagrin of countless worldwide fans (myself included).
It was grey and pouring rain when I arrived in Australia, but I was fortunate enough to connect with songwriter Marty Donald and guitarist Louis Richter, who kindly agreed to show me around their favorite bits of Melbourne. Despite my feeling jetlagged and rather foreign, they made me feel right at home as they walked me through their music, one city block at a time.
Over the course of the afternoon, they shared the band’s geography–the Evelyn (where they played their first show), the famous Punters Club (now a pizza parlor), the rotunda in Edinburgh Gardens (mentioned in one of their more popular songs), the “Shine on Me” bench, the houses they used to live and practice in, and the wrought-iron balcony where Marty wrote most of his early songs.
It was my first time in Melbourne, but somehow it all seemed so familiar. I knew each place from the music and I realized that so many of my impressions of Australia go back to the lyrics in Lucksmiths’ songs. Travel, geography, and weather are all major themes, for example “The Great Dividing Range,” looks at long distance relationships with two lovers living on opposite sides of Australia’s greatest mountain range. “T-shirt Weather” is a joyful ode to Melbourne’s ever-changing weather, when sunshine follows prolonged rain. “Tomorrow Vs. Yesterday” reminiscences about growing up in a tiny Australian town, which for Marty, was Marysville, Victoria. Ironically, he actually wrote the song while on tour in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from where I live.
We compared neighborhoods, theirs and mine, both now in the throes of rabid gentrification. Fitzroy was Melbourne’s working-class-turned-artistic quarter that’s since blown up with impossibly high real estate values–it’s quite close to the city center, the architecture is historic, and again, it’s still cool.
Both Marty and Louis bemoaned the changing character of Brunswick Street, where back in the day, people gathered on any given night “to hear a band,” never knowing exactly who would be playing but confident that there would be music and that it would most likely be good. Out of this musical atmosphere emerged bands like The Paradise Motel, Frente, and Architecture in Helsinki.
But why Melbourne? What makes one city “have a scene” while another one lacks one?
“Geography,” explains Marty, remarking that Sydney is all “water and hills” so that a night out demands a bit more planning. Meanwhile, Melbourne is built along tramlines and easy to get around, even late at night. Marty doesn’t even have a driver’s license, because he doesn’t need one.
Also, liquor laws. In Victoria, licensing is quite liberal, with pubs serving drinks until 1:00 or 3:00 in the morning, while in New South Wales, the majority of pubs stop serving at 11:00 p.m. or midnight. Melbourne’s longer drinking hours allows for one venue to feature several successive bands. The Empress Hotel is a famous Fitzroy venue where dozens of Melbourne bands still get play. On the stage hangs a battered white guitar–a legendary relic from The Legends of Motorsport, who as part of their act (and while still playing), brought their audience out on the street as the lead singer got into his car and repeatedly backed over his guitar.
Melbourne’s music scene also feeds off of several public radio stations, two alternative presses, and a major university right next to Fitzroy. “It’s like having a college town inside a city,” says Marty, comparing it to Athens, Georgia or Austin, Texas. There’s always a steady supply of ready listeners right nearby.
So, if you’re looking to grow good music in your city, there’s the formula: Liberal liquor laws, public transportation, a college nearby and lots of cool Victorian houses with cheap rent. Also, weird weather. The weather means everything in Melbourne. I’ll let Marty explain:
Follow along with Andrew’s travels — his tweets, videos, blogs, and daily photo clues– at www.nationalgeographic.com/wheresandrew.