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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