Where Did You Go? Motor Ace, Melbourne & Life After Grunge

The whole idea of ‘post-grunge’ music is just plain uninspiring. Post-punk, post-hardcore, post-disco… The implication is that the real thing has been and gone, and in the aftermath some dudes are picking over the bones and ashes, stealing ideas and trying to make a buck. And it’s all a bit shit.

And indeed, there were plenty of bands cowering under the post-grunge umbrella whose music was turd-like. How could sunny Floridians like Matchbox Twenty ever muster the melancholia of the Seattle rains? How could the god-bothering Creed pretend that the sun didn’t shine in Tallahassee? Sure, Nickelback cranked out an album every two or three years and sold millions of them: the commercial imperative behind record companies signing bands like these office-rock Canucks was very real. But creatively, post-grunge was always going to be a pale, inauthentic shadow of something pure and unique – as hollow as a shotgun shell on the floor of a Seattle garage.

But what happened when post-grunge wasn’t just a barefaced cash-in? What happened when a band came along who took the best of grunge – the lustrous guitars, the pained lyrics and redemptive melody, swooping from minor-key verse to major-key chorus with Pearl Jam–esque intensity – and took it somewhere new? Add the hint of a love song to the mix, a few scoops of Radiohead, maybe a little Smashing Pumpkins and some country-and-western sincerity, and you could even call it progress.

It happened for a four-piece band from Melbourne called Motor Ace. And for a few shining years in the early 2000s, it was spectacular.

> FOUR CORNERS

Motor Ace formed, as bands do, from the remnants of another band. Snowblind was a five-piece line-up in which young singer/guitarist Patrick ‘Patch’ Robertson had been cutting his song-writing teeth. The band released the four-track EP Lorenzo[1] in 1996 on First Floor Records, but they span their creative wheels and never really got past ‘Go’. Yes, releasing a four-track EP remains the stuff of dreams for most neighbourhood rock bands, but it soon became clear that Snowblind was blind to Robertson’s vaulting ambitions. Robertson – looking altogether Brit with the doe-eyed marsupial good-looks of a young Ian Brown and a foppish kid-brother haircut, straight out of Manchester ‘89 – had rock star written all over him. He was going places.

[1] The transcendent title track of which would eventually feature on Motor Ace’s 2001 debut Five Star Laundry – and still possibly the only song glorifying Lorenzo Lamas that wasn’t sung by Lorenzo Lamas.

Robertson turned 21 in 1998, but he’d been slugging it out in various bands since he was 15. His deepest desire was never to be forced into the soul-destroying confines of an office job. As he told Adelaide’s Sunday Mail in 2019, ‘I wanted to be able to play music forever. That was the desperation.’ So, when Snowblind wandered into a crevasse in early 1998, Robertson cast his desperate gaze across a wider musical landscape.

If we believe the legend (as detailed in the Five Star Laundry CD liner notes), drummer Damian Costin was eking out a living as an assistant engineer at a recording studio where Robertson was laying down some tracks. Costin clumsily dropped a reel of Robertson’s tape (back in the days of tape), which, to Robertson’s considerable horror, unfurled itself across the studio floor. But the two soon hit it off once Robertson heard Costin’s drumming – a controlled creative explosion described in those same liner notes as ‘incendiary’. Call it what you like – ballsy, busy, weighty, pugilistic – Costin’s drumming, along with his temperament and his jawline, was never going to take a back seat. Better yet, in time he’d prove to have a savvy business head – John Bonham’s tub-thumping beef meets Mick Jagger’s commercial teeth.

The next cat to enter the room was ethereal, beatific lead guitarist Dave Ong, who, when he showed up to audition had just returned from protesting against uranium mining on indigenous lands at Jabiluka in Australia’s Northern Territory. A bearded enigma with the heavy-lidded gaze of timeless serenity, Ong kept his revolutionary zeal in check, sitting and listening for an hour before picking up his guitar and peeling off the intricate opening lines of the song that would eventually become ‘Siamese’[2]. Robertson and Costin were impressed – here was a guy with serious chops but a quirky, anti–guitar hero vibe. The perfect fit. Dave got the gig.

[2] Still possibly the only song lyric in rock history to include the word ‘inanely’.

The final corner of the Motor Ace quadrangle was bassist Matt Balfe, a rock-steady rhythm man who was perfectly happy to slide in behind Costin’s percussive deluge. A master of creating and accentuating space within a song, Balfe’s bass work was taut, restrained and sweet-spot melodic. Just as critically, given the frenetics of Costin’s efforts and complexity of Ong’s lead lines, Balfe’s playing was often astutely minimal (sometimes knowing when not to play is just as important as hitting the right notes). And he could sing! In Balfe, the band had found its equilibrium.

Ambition, potency, creativity, balance – the four corners of rock ‘n’ roll. Just like Led Zeppelin. Just like The Who. Just like the freakin’ Beatles. Motor Ace put the pedal to the metal.

ACE 2

> BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Melbourne – now home to 4.4 million people and one of the world’s great Victorian cities – is critical piece of the Motor Ace puzzle. Culturally and developmentally, Melbourne lagged behind Sydney and even the far-flung maritime outpost of Hobart for decades, but the epic Australian gold rush of the 1850s brought hundreds of thousands of shovel-carrying hopefuls to the city. Plenty of them stayed and needed somewhere to live. Continuing through to the start of the 1900s, Melbourne was a boomtown, with street after street of Victorian terrace houses knocked-up in a hurry – some opulent, some modest, but all of them totally photogenic. And now – like New Orleans, like Paris – Melbourne’s faded cache of architecture forms an atmospheric backdrop to everyday life.

Melbourne is also grey, cold, wet and windy – like Seattle, like Glasgow, like Wellington. Who ever heard of anything creatively half-decent coming out of Surfers Paradise? Forget about it. The sun is shining and everybody’s at the beach. But Melbourne is an internal city: Melburnians read books, they drink coffee, they play guitars. They dress in black, they go to gigs. There’s an earnest, bookish substance here which feeds off the city’s wrought-iron fatigue; a beaten-down grit that fuels creativity – and especially music – like no other Australian city. Melbourne downplays artifice. Melbourne demonises narcissism. Melbourne is the real deal. And in the streetlight haze of August rain, under a cobweb of tram wires, it’s goddamn poetic.

It’s also true that Melbourne is one of the world’s great drinking cities, with pubs seemingly on every second street corner (gold mining was thirsty work). In inner-city neighbourhoods like Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, plenty of these pubs doubled as live-music venues. A grungy front bar with a little stage in the corner was the norm (extension cords gaffer-taped across the sticky carpet); or, if you were a big enough band to pull a bit of a crowd, there’d be a dim, poorly ventilated ‘function room’ out the back or off to one side which could hold a few hundred people, tops. Legendary rock rooms like the Corner Hotel in Richmond, the Punters Club and the Evelyn in Fitzroy, the Tote in Collingwood and the Espy and Prince of Wales down by the bay in St Kilda had live music seven nights a week. The scene was kickin’.

The late ‘90s was also a time when the music industry was cashed-up with profits from CD sales. Everybody bought CDs! Before the advent of Napster, then Pandora, right through to Spotify and beyond, in 1998 it was still financially feasible for a record company to a sign band for juicy multi-album deal, let them record where and with whom they wanted, promote their material and even pay a healthy royalty or two to the songwriters. If a rock band wants to make money from their music these days, they have to go out on tour and charge top-dollar for tickets – there’s bugger-all money to be made in digital music sales. But the 1990s were heady days in the recording industry, and a real purple patch for Australian live music. Motor Ace plugged in their guitars.

terraces 2

 > PURPLE PATCH

Unless you were living under a rock in Australia in the early 2000s (or at least, didn’t listen to Australian rock), it was hard to avoid Motor Ace. Picked up by Festival Mushroom Records’ pseudo-indie label Sputnik, the band recorded a five-song eponymous EP at the legendary Sing Sing Studios on Chapel St in South Yarra (since 1975!), where everyone from Blondie to Nick Cave, Jimmy Barnes and KISS (!) had graced the Persian rugs. Always on the lookout for spicy new local talent, national ‘youth’ broadcaster Triple J backed Motor Ace heavily and played the heck out of their new single ‘Chairman of the Board’, which, like ‘Lorenzo’, would also eventually find its way onto Five Star Laundry.

Triple J maintained their enthusiasm for the band right through 2000, playing similar heck out of the singles ‘American Shoes’, ‘Death Defy’ and ‘Hey Driver’ as they emerged one by one from the Sing Sing sessions, ahead of the release of Five Star Laundry in March 2001.

Everything was going swimmingly – Motor Ace were fast becoming everybody’s favourite new Powderfinger. This lofty status was sealed when ‘Death Defy’[3] was picked up by Network Ten as the theme song for their sassy new 20-something TV drama The Secret Life Of Us. Starring a crop of soon-to-be-world-famous-in-Australia actors like Claudia Karvan, Samuel Johnson and Deborah Mailman, the show ran for four seasons from 2001 and was a genuine hit, even finding its way onto small screens in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and unexpected countries like Israel, Serbia and Estonia (they love a bit of unresolved sexual tension, the Estonians). Secret Life didn’t exactly line the band’s coffers with boundless funds, but it did carry them across the threshold from impoverished indie radio listeners to the receptive ears of the mainstream Australian proletariat, sitting in their suburban beanbags watching telly on a Monday night.

[3] Still the song with the best bagpipes solo since AC/DC’s ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll’).

Motor Ace was riding the fast train to glory. Crowds numbers at gigs leapfrogged from dozens into the many hundreds. Five Star Laundry rocketed to #4 on the Australian charts, eventually going gold[4], and when their follow-up release Shoot This debuted at #1 in August 2002, it looked like Motor Ace had it made. Produced by esteemed London rock lord Chris Sheldon – who’d worked with everyone from Radiohead and the Foo Fighters to the Pixies, Big Country and Anthrax – the album’s lead single was the anthemic ‘Carry On’, which hit #13 on the Australian charts. In another piece of fortuitous collateral promo, the song was picked up by The Australian newspaper for a TV ad campaign, which kicked sales along even further. Laced with synth and luscious strings[5], ‘Carry On’ had Motor Ace sounding like a very mature, accomplished outfit indeed. The follow-up single ‘Keeping Secrets’ was just as polished – a poignant urban fable crowned by a gloriously uplifting middle eight and a haunting Dave Ong guitar refrain, which sounded complex but was deceptively simple (all the best ones are).

[4] Which means different things in different countries: in Australia it’s sales over 35,000.

[5] Arranged by Robertson with some help from Iva Davies, the driving force behind ‘80s synth-rockers Icehouse – and a man whose curly mullet and too-often-naked torso left scars on a generation of young Australian video-watchers that have yet to fully heal.

Shoot This stepped away from some of the grungier guitar tones and raw vocals of Five Star Laundry – it had, after all, been six years since the release of arguably the last great grunge album, Soundgarden’s elegiac Down On The Upside in 1996 (even post-grunge had a use-by date). But as a listening experience, Shoot This hangs together better than its predecessor: all killer, no filler, it’s a masterful collection of songs. The album shifted 100,000 copies in no time. Game on.

flyer 2

> LOST IN TRANSLATION

As soon as the bigwigs at Festival Mushroom smelled dollars, the idea of breaking Motor Ace overseas was high on the agenda. But as Australian bands have discovered time and time again, cracking the overseas market is easier said than done.

Whether they hailed from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth or anywhere else, there have been plenty of awesome Australian bands who have failed to translate on the world stage. Only occasionally has an Australian act been able to wow the northern hemisphere crowds with any real certainty or staying power. And when they have, Aussie bands have usually had to stoop to gimmickry to get them over the line – some kind of goofy schtick or whacked-out point of difference. AC/DC had a 5’2” maniac schoolboy who played a Gibson SG with the clarity of a Chicago bluesman; Midnight Oil had a bald 6’4” banshee for a frontman who danced like an electric-chair escapee; INXS pumped white-boy funk through the conduit of one of the most irrefutably sexy singers of all time. Men at Work had to bounce around like demented kangaroos in their ‘Down Under’ video for American radio jocks to give it a listen; the Bee Gees even had to invent a whole new way of singing. But for everybody else – mightily talented bands like You Am I, Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, The Cruel Sea, Baby Animals and Powderfinger – having great songs, great singers and a shaggy backyard aesthetic just didn’t cut it beyond the shores of this great southern land[6].

[6] With apologies to Suze DeMarchi’s haircut and Tim Rogers’ velvet jackets, neither of which you could ever describe as ‘backyard’.

Of course, the difficulty that bands from small markets face in trying to access big ones isn’t unique to Australia: just ask anyone from Canada about The Tragically Hip, any New Zealander about Shihad, or a metalhead from Copenhagen about Disneyland After Dark. For rock bands around the planet, America and the UK were, are and will always be the promised lands. You can sell all the albums you want in Australia – and Motor Ace certainly did – but to really make it, you still need to make it overseas. It’s not a case of cultural cringe, and it’s not about talent: in the age of social media we’ve moved beyond the need to bounce like kangaroos and sing like eunuchs to get the point across. Bands can record themselves, promote themselves and be themselves now, working from whatever remote global nook they happen to find themselves in. But selling music in Australia remains an economy of scale: there just aren’t enough people here to make playing rock ‘n’ roll profitable in a sustainable way.

And so, in 2003 Motor Ace hit the road. But their series of shows across Japan and the US didn’t go to plan, The Age newspaper in Melbourne going so far as to describe the tour as ‘disastrous’. Back home in Melbourne, the band licked their wounds and skulked away into a temporary hiatus. Then, a European tour playing alongside so-hot-right-now Scottish band Biffy Clyro was in the offing, but they turned it down. A tasty record deal with the behemoth global label Interscope was even on the cards – yes, Interscope, with its stable of mega-artists that included everyone from U2 and Guns N’ Roses to Eminem and Madonna. But with the band still recovering from their overseas tour (what did happen out there?), negotiations stalled. It’s actually amazing that they managed to cobble together their third album, Animal, produced by Robertson flying solo. Costin laid down his drum tracks at Sing Sing, then Ong and Balfe filed-in individually to record their parts at Robertson’s home studio. There was clearly a deep level of dysfunction within band ranks, but this creative process seemed to suit Robertson. ‘I enjoyed making it more than any of our albums,’ he said at the time. ‘Musically it’s our most interesting record.’

Released in August 2005, Animal is mature, reflective collection of songs which was critically well received but promptly tanked on radio: even the previously steadfast supporter Triple J didn’t give it any love. Animal didn’t make a dent in the Top 20 and dropped out of the charts after just three weeks.

Motor Ace had stalled their creative engine. At the end September 2005, barely two months after their third album had been released, Festival Mushroom Records’ general manager Michael Parisi took a call from Robertson. It wasn’t good news: the band was finished. Motor Ace played one final show at Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar in December of that year, then wandered off into the night towards their separate destinies. Perplexed fans were left with a handful of shimmering rock songs, a headful of ‘what might have been’ dreams and plenty of unanswered questions.

Maybe now, as the band comes off the back of a successful reunion tour marking 20 years since the release of Five Star Laundry, it’s time for some answers. For Motor Ace, who stood in the wings of the global stage and blinked into the bright lights, only to turn around and walk away, there was much more going on behind the scenes than anyone outside the band suspected.

But that’s a bedtime story for another night…

 

© Charles Rawlings-Way, 2019; images by others.

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Here And Now

‘What are those?’
‘B&H Ultras. Trying to cut down.’
Ha! Rain falling up. Salmon swimming less. Springsteen singing ‘isn’t’ instead of ‘ain’t’… Nina cutting down was never going to happen. Cigarettes were her thing, and by association they’d become my thing, too. Lying on her wrought-iron bed in the flat below her parents’ house in Lenah Valley, we’d smoke and watch TV, exhaling towards the open window so the nicotine fug wouldn’t circle up the stairwell (Jean upstairs didn’t mind, but Big Nev would get shitty). Nina really knew how to smoke – a talent honed through years working behind the bar and further years studying for her Psych degree, reading late, coffee rings on the table, ashtray brimming. There was a native nonchalance in the act: the angle of the wrist; the hollowing of the jaw; the way she held in the smoke until she’d finished her sentence. She never exhaled through her nose. She never had yellow fingers. Never even coughed. Borderline divine.
‘At least you don’t have a cigarette lighter in this thing. Might help… What time do we have to be there?’
‘One. But I told them we’d be late.’
We were always late. Mostly because we’d been lying around in bed, smoking.

Nina’s little white Austin-Healy Sprite puttered across the causeway to Midway Point, flashed past the solitary petrol station then hit the second causeway before the suburb had time to register. Who the hell lived at Midway Point, anyway? The few houses there were drab ‘60s brown-brick numbers, hunkered down in the lagoon air, tiled roofs and aluminium window frames dulled to a salty patina. The tide washed around the headland in a slow surge, stirring the muddy shallows and leaving everything funky and damp. At night the flounder fishermen waded in off the rocks with spears resting on their shoulders, their torches faltering in the darkness like distant wicks.

‘What do think of the stereo? Donovan put it in on Tuesday.’
Fucking Donovan. ‘Donnie’ to his mates. The rock singer. He’d left Nina two years ago for a hairdresser called Barbie (Barbie!), and now that I was on the scene he was hanging around like a bad smell. Trying to assuage his guilt. Screening me for appropriateness. Testing me. Attempting sabotage, sauntering up between sets at Café Who and saying, ‘Can I borrow you for a joint?’. Under different circumstances I would have liked the guy… I reached down and cranked up the volume: Del Amitri’s ‘Here And Now’. Sounded perfect.

Donnie sang in the best (only) originals outfit Tasmania could muster in the early 1990s. They wheeled out wet, mainstream soft-rock fodder as per the rest of the home-grown pap on Australian radio at the time: 1927, Rick Price, James Reyne post-Australian Crawl, Jimmy Barnes post-Cold Chisel… They’d managed an uninspiring single or two which earned them a TV slot on the lame Hey Hey It’s Saturday variety show, which in turn landed them a gig opening for Bryan Adams at the Derwent Entertainment Centre. In a little city, they were a big deal. By 1995 Donnie had done his musical dash, but he was still everybody’s small-town hero. Donnie sang like Bono. Donnie looked like Daniel Day Lewis. Donnie installed the stereo in Nina’s Austin-Healey. Fucking Donovan… I stewed for a long, silent minute then steered the conversation elsewhere.
‘Starting to rain…’

Nina wheeled up next to a newsagent in Sorell and went inside to buy a lighter. I jumped out, opened the boot and wrestled the Sprite’s black canvass roof up over its tube-steel frame, snapping the fat press studs down with wet thumbs. Over my shoulder a dark brood of clouds massed behind Mt Wellington but seemed content to stay there. A late summer shower. I climbed back into the Sprite and watched the runnels on the windscreen.

The moment before you die, does your whole life flash by you like they say it does? Or does your mind boil it down to a few distilled, shining moments? As my father lay dying he wrote a list of the moments he wanted to take with him: my sister’s laugh; the smell of Erinmore tobacco when he first opened the tin; the view from Down Gate after he’d trudged over the common behind his uncle’s house in Devonshire.

Moments matter. Donnie the rock singer didn’t matter. We didn’t know it that summer Saturday, but Nina and I had seven good years ahead of us. She came out of the newsagent, stopped to ignite a B&H Ultra, then climbed back behind the wheel.

midway point

Sad Songs & Success: A Tale of Del Amitri

‘Justin Currie from Del Amitri just messaged me on Facebook.’

‘WTF??? In other news, Dave Grohl fell off the stage in Sweden and broke his leg. Need anything from the shops?’

Just an everyday text exchange between a husband and wife, really. Apart from the Justin Currie thing… Three question marks barely seemed enough, given the lustrous glow of Del Amitri’s star in the ‘90s pop galaxy. And you’d never catch Liam Gallagher or Bono stooping to reply to some random punter’s Facebook message. Well, Bono maybe, on an off day. But Justin Currie!

WTF???

Continue reading “Sad Songs & Success: A Tale of Del Amitri”

scenes from the aztec inn

21.09.94 > LAS VEGAS NEVADA > 3.10PM

I charred another cigarette down to the yellow butt. A woman across the bar slid down off her stool and staggered over towards me – short, about 30, dark flashing eyes hooped with black makeup, legs wrapped in black fishnets with a hole in the left thigh, a smooth circle of skin showing through just above her knee. She slumped on my shoulder and breathed alcohol into my ear.
‘Got a cigarette for a girl?’

Continue reading “scenes from the aztec inn”

into nevada

20.09.94 > GLENWOOD SPRINGS COLORADO TO LAS VEGAS NEVADA > 1.35PM

All through the night across the great flat state of Utah I fought off lucidity, curl necked against the glass on the 11pm Greyhound. I tripped through half-sleep dreams, sometimes so real they drew a physical response, twitching in my seat as the grey bus motored quietly through Grand Junction and out past the Wasatch Range, moving southwest on Interstate 70. Continue reading “into nevada”

rocky mountain high

17.09.94 > DENVER COLORADO TO EAGLE COLORADO > 6.35PM

Waiting for the Greyhound at the 19th St depot in dark sunglasses, I had an insane one-sided conversation with an unshaven architect from Seattle who wanted to sell me some pot. He was taking the bus down to New Orleans. High as a bird on a thermal, he talked at an incredible rate about the pitfalls of AutoCAD and spouted a lot of useless crap about Seattle. When I mentioned Nirvana, his eyes shot redder than the stripes on the flag.

Continue reading “rocky mountain high”