HATTIE O’DONNELL caught up with local comedian and all round cool guy MICHAEL HING, to talk about steampunk pianolas, unsuccessful serenades, and pop atrocities of the 90s.
What was the first album you ever bought? Where did you buy it and why?
I spent a lot of my primary school aged youth in the ‘90s ironically purchasing terrible albums as purposefully bad gifts for my older brother: Spice Girls’ Spice, Aqua’s Aquarium, S Club 7’s seminal pop atrocity S Club and Malaysian-Australian balladeer Kamahl’s holiday offering, The Gift of Christmas.
The first album I bought for myself that I genuinely loved and listened to on repeat however was the 1995 debut self-titled album by The Presidents of The United States of America. I mostly bought it because I heard the single Kitty on triple j and liked that it had the word fuck in it. I probably bought it from HMV at Hurstville Westfield. I think it has since closed down.
What was the first concert you ever went to?
I was a bit of a late bloomer in terms of going to concerts. I wasn’t cool enough to have a fake ID in high school and underage gigs always seemed to require too much costuming for me to ever really investigate – just a lot of make up and coloured hair product I wasn’t willing to commit to. I do remember trying to sneak into a gig The Whitlams played at the Metro, but got knocked back for being underage, and my friend Mark and I sat outside the George St Maccas for Tim Freeman to come out. I think we went home without seeing him.
The first proper concert I actually got into was the 2003 Homebake in Sydney. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds headlined, which remains one of my favourite memories of all time (he was at his peak, and was played a bunch of tracks off Nocturama and No More Shall We Part). I also called my best friend Michael Garbutt during Frenzal Rhomb’s set that afternoon so he could hear it down the line. This was first time I saw a then relatively little-known band called The Cat Empire, who, in the intervening 11 years, seem to have popped up at literally every music festival I have been to. Fuck, how good is live music.
What memory of music during your childhood stands out for you?
I was a dork of a kid who had to play a lot of music as a kid – piano, guitar, saxophone, etc. I was never good enough to make a proper go of it, but I was also never cool enough to be in a rebellious but ultimately skill-less band. I was often asked to play piano at school functions in primary school (eg. seniors morning tea, ANZAC Day, school fetes), and would trot out half a dozen dull Suzuki method pieces as background music in the school hall before bravely moving off script on to terrible improvised pieces for a bit at which point the teachers would remember this happened every time and would politely ask me to leave.
I also remember long car trips where my parents were really into musical theatre in a big way – hours and hours of off-key sing-a-longs. Harrowing memories that have led me as a 29-year-old, to view musical theatre as a largely illegitimate art form, focusing on the emotional manipulation of narrative rather than truth, and by economic necessity, too often needing to appeal to broad, mindless crowds, dead on the inside from years of commercial television and decreasing relevance, paying money to some whimsical folks in big costume to feel something, anything.
What sort of music were your grandparents into?
We have a pianola at my house that we’ve inherited from my grandparents. One of those old timey automated pianos that sort of plays itself with an almost steampunk mechanical combination of pedal power, compressed air and paper punch-card type scrolls that you hook into the piano itself – and the whole untalented family can pedal their way to a sing a long of the now culturally inappropriate hits of the 1920s to make up – mostly my family uses this as a distraction from meaningful conversation during the holidays.
The pianola is unwieldy, loud and complicated enough to be an obnoxious burden on everyone involved. I say we inherited it; my grandparents are still around. I think they eventually just found the whole apparatus quite tedious and just shoved it off onto us in the 1990s. So, we can safely say my paternal grandparents are no longer into old timey (sometimes racist – always sexist) pianola music.
I don’t really know what kind of music my grandparents are into. Though, the other day my grandmother woke me up to ask me who the fourth Beatle was – “I can remember John, Paul and Ringo…” – and before I answered she excitedly told me, “Actually don’t worry, this is the kind of thing I can use my Google for” – and she hung up.
When did you start getting into music, and what prompted that interest?
It was during high school. I mean, I’d always had music in my life but I think I started getting into listening to music in a big way around the time I found that having cool taste in music was a great way to impress girls. Then I found that actually, music isn’t subjective – there is objectively good music practiced by objectively talented artists and it is both culturally and emotionally rewarding to engage with thoughtful people making thoughtful art.
Honestly, I think during high school I saw my (frankly, impeccable) taste in music as kind of truer than other people’s, a sort of artistic and moral superiority to my shithead friends who listened to commercial radio and (I thought) were therefore empty, vacuous morons.
I was a truly insufferable friend during my teens and in many ways I still am. I’m working on it. I’m very sorry.
What sort of music are you in to?
I am into so much music. My iTunes currently has 27, 921 songs, most of it mirrored in the 3000 or so CDs that sit on my bookshelf. My favourite kinds of bands and artists (broadly speaking) come in three forms.
The first are generally acoustic singer-songwriters who write and perform a combination of sad songs about failed relationships and childhood trauma, and happy songs about escape and substance abuse (The Mountain Goats, The Velvet Underground, Bright Eyes and more recently, The Smith Street Band).
The second type are hip hop artists who are either overweight (Raekwno, Notorious), or who at least appear to rally against the hip hop establishment and/or material wealth (Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Nas, The Roots, etc).
The third type of musicians I love are ambitious, semi- orchestral, (often) North American artists who make sweeping concept albums that are able to define entire cultural moments surrounding their release (Sufjan Stevens – Illinois; The Arcade Fire – Funeral; Sigur Ros – Takk; Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).
Who was your absolute favourite artist during high school? What sort of memories do you associate with that?
It changed a lot. From Years 7-9, I was really into piano based alternative music like Ben Folds Five and The Whitlams. Then in Year 10, I got into alternative Australian guitar rock like You Am I and Custard and The Go-Betweens, I spent most of Year 11 listening to Something For Kate’s Echolalia on repeat, and then I think in my last year of high school, I was just listening to The Velvet Underground and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I remember summers, climbing on to my various friends’ roofs with a stereo, listening to music and smoking bongs.
If you could go back in time, what would you give the younger version of yourself to listen to?
I think I would have gotten into hip hop earlier. I think as a young teenager I kind of thought hip hop was part of a wider American cultural imperialism that made me sad, not realising how counter-cultural it actually was. I wish I’d listened to hip hop when I was a kid. I wish I’d bought Ready To Die in 1994 when it came out.
What is your ultimate car jam tune that you shamelessly rock out to?
Jonsi’s ‘Animal Arithmatic’ is a great driving song. So is Kishi Bashi’s ‘Bright Whites.’ They may not be proper rock out songs. Maybe like Dropkick Murphys – ‘I’m Shipping Up To Boston or Smashing Pumpkins’, or early White Stripes, like ‘Hotel Yorba’ or ‘Fell In love With A Girl.’ Ooh ooh, Kings of Leon – ‘Fans’; that’s also a fucking great driving song. And maybe the last good track they released.
What are your plans for world domination?
Honestly? Maybe this answer will be too earnest. I have no interest in world domination, top down power structures are innately problematic. I’m all for peaceful, democratic and thoughtful revolution, but it would involve things like getting rid of state governments, making investment properties illegal, heavily taxing oil and mining companies to fund public services, and severely shortening the lifespan of intellectual property rights, publicly funding research through public universities.
But that answer’s not very funny, so let’s say, I dunno, side-boobs and chiselled abs or some shit.
How do you think music has influenced your outlook on life? Has it had a large impact on getting where you are now (professionally and personally)?
I guess now that I’m doing radio it’s affected me professionally in the most literal and boring sense, sure. Personally? I think every major period of my life is signposted in my brain by what I was listening to at the time. Catching the bus home from school in Year 12 listening to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’; backpacking across Canada it was Hilltop Hoods’ ‘Nosebleed Section’; working late nights in a bottleshop, it was Nikola Sarcevic’s ‘Lovetrap’; walking on stage at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival to Jay-Z’s ‘Lucifer.’ Those are moments I will remember forever not necessarily because of anything about them, but because of the music.
Also, every girl I’ve ever been in love with is (often painfully) linked with a song too: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – ‘The Ship Song’; Death Cab For Cutie – ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’; The Jezabels – ‘Disco Biscuit Love’; Vampire Weekend – ‘Unbelievers.’ Fuck. That answer got so sad. Sorry.
Do you play an instrument?
I have perfect pitch and I play a bit of piano still. A very small amount. I haven’t touched my saxophone in about 5 years and even then it was just for fun. I fuck around on guitar a bit but I am juuussst terrible. One of the more embarrassing things I’ve done to woo a girl was write a song for her and sing it to her guitar in hand. Years later, she told me she had actually had a huge crush on me until I sung to her, an experience she described as, “I think it would have been creepy if it wasn’t so poorly performed.”
Finally, can you give us your current top 5 track recommendations?
Okay, so these are all tracks from the past year that I’ve been digging.
CHVRCHES – ‘The Mother We Share’
I am so fucking excited to see these guys at Splendour.
Highasakite – ‘Since Last Wednesday’
I don’t know if I’ll love this song forever, but it’s filling a Norwegian indie-pop hole in my life for right now. I like the drums in this track.
Busta Rhymes – ‘Thank You’ (Feat. Q-Tip, Lil Wayne & Kanye West)
I think, the best party track of 2013. Rogue opinion: Busta Rhymes is getting better at rapping the most muscular he becomes.
The Family Crest – ‘Beneath The Brine’
This is like a 6-minute epic cello powered perfect storm of orchestral indie rock.
Future Islands – ‘Seasons’
I was sceptical about this when I first heard it but watch the Letterman performance of this song they did, it’s incredible.