LODGED in Australia’s Red Centre with a population of around 30,000, Alice Springs isn’t the most likely candidate for a thriving music scene.
Darwin and Adelaide each lie a daunting 1500 kilometres away, making Alice famously isolated.
Yet it punches way above its weight as both a touring destination and incubator for diverse local talent. Midnight Oil kicked off their 2017 tour there, and the regional road trip tour Up the Guts makes sure to stop there, even hosting youth music workshops. And indie acts like The Smith Street Band, The Ocean Party, and In Hearts Wake have all included Alice on touring schedules.
The biggest drawcard for interstate bands and locals alike is a handful of robust festivals. There’s Wide Open Space, a three-day camping fest an hour east of Alice that’s been running since 2009.
While Music NT, the Northern Territory’s peak body for contemporary music, hosts the Bush Bands program and Bush Bands Bash, mentoring and showcasing musicians from Indigenous communities. That initiative has helped nurture acts like East Arrernte Reggae, who played locally at Up the Guts last year.
Each year over the Easter long weekend, hordes of metal and heavy bands converge on Gap View Hotel – a sprawling pub complete with two outdoor swimming pools – for Blacken Open Air. Boasting the slogan “Live in the dead centre of Australia”, this blockbuster three-day affair got its humble start at the local RSL.
Smaller music venues like the carnival-themed Monte’s and the roof-decked Epilogue offer a regular rotation of local and visiting live acts, plus DJs and music-themed parties of all stripes.
Alice is also home to the long-running Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, or CAAMA, which was Australia’s first Aboriginal-run radio station and now doubles as a record label, recording studio, management company, and music retailer.
Bucking hard against its geographical limitations, Alice Springs is a surprising hotspot. Here are five rising artists who have played a part in the music scene there, braving its unique challenges while relishing its equally unique rewards.
Tom Snowdon (No Mono)
Born in Alice Springs, Tom Snowdon lived there until he was 18, when he departed for Melbourne to pursue music with his band The Moxie, who became Lowlakes.
Snowdon is now half of No Mono, an atmospheric art-pop duo with Tom Iansek (Big Scary, #1 Dads) that hangs minimalist arrangements on Tom Snowdon’s high, fluttering vocals. The duo included Alice in their intimate three-city tour in February.
It was a real homecoming for Snowdon, nearly a decade after he’d left. He describes it as “a big party,” with plenty of old friends and family in attendance. Over the phone from Melbourne, he elaborates on coming full circle with his hometown.
We really wanted to make an effort to get back to Alice. We played at Epilogue, the same venue where I launched my first ever CD when I was 15 or 16. So going back was really special. If I’d known at age 15 that I would be able to come back with my band and sell a bunch of tickets around the country, I would have been really proud of myself.
Alice Springs is a wholly supportive place. Because it’s not saturated with music, there are a lot of opportunities. It’s such a small town that it doesn’t take long to get anywhere. You have a really supportive network of people. It’s also the kind of place where you can dream and do whatever you want, and you don’t really see the bigger pond until you leave.
It’s a really weird dynamic, where you have a multicultural community and a large Aboriginal population, a lot of whom come from communities outside of town. There’s also a large progressive service sector, primarily driven by people who move there because they believe in trying to mend the relationship between black and white Australia.
A lot of teachers, doctors, architects, nurses and lawyers, who bring a lot of skills with them. It means there’s a lot of stuff happening, because they bring with them a lot of cultural capital. Then you’ve got this American base [Pine Gap], so I went to high school with a bunch of Americans. It’s not like any other small town in Australia.
Southeast Desert Metal
Chris Wallace has been leading the anthemic Southeast Desert Metal for almost a decade.
Chatting in person on the edge of a sports oval in Alice’s Gillen suburb, the vocalist/guitarist is still beaming from the band’s reception at Blacken a couple days before. Having played the festival many years in a row, Southeast Desert Metal released their self-titled debut album in 2015 through The Black Wreath, the label run by Blacken founder Pirate.
Based in the Indigenous community Santa Teresa, home to about 800 people, they’re often dubbed the world’s most isolated metal band. Yet they’ve guest programmed Rage, appeared on an Adam Hills TV special, and hosted their own festival called Rain Maker, reinforcing their positive message at every turn.
Meanwhile, their namesake local landscape – situated about 100 kilometres outside of the Simpson Desert – appears in full force in their video for ‘Eagle’.
I’ve got four young fellas with me [in the band]. I grew up listening to Acca Dacca, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden. I’ve always wanted to be somebody in the metal scene. When I first picked up a guitar, I said to myself, “I just want to be rock.” [Now] I’ve got a few little fans that come up. I teach them how to use the double kick drum and work out a few riffs. It’s really cool. I work at the school sometimes, teaching boys there a bit of music.
It is a bit challenging [to be so isolated]. We’re not really metal, we’re more hard rock. Like ’80s metal. But it is challenging for us here because a lot of Indigenous populations aren’t into metal so much. [And] if you’ve got a festival that’s charging too much money, a lot of Indigenous mob can’t afford to see us. [Bush Band Bash] was probably the last time that mob have seen us play. But in the communities, we just get in and mix up with other bands and have a jam, even if it’s not metal.
A couple of years ago we went on a small Australian tour [in 2016]. We went up to Darwin and played two venues there. Then we played in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney [and] places like Bendigo and Ballarat. We played at the Brewtality Festival at The Tote. That was awesome. The crowd was really diggin’ us.
Despite making her debut on Music NT’s landmark 2012 release Desert Divas Vol. 1 – the first compilation of Indigenous female artists in Australia – Casii Williams has been making music since she was around three years old.
Based in the Hermannsburg community, about 125 kilometres west of Alice Springs, she’s a single mum who grew up absorbing disparate genres of music.
Originally pursuing a traditional pop/rock sound, Casii has recently adopted a more electronic approach, incorporating shades of modern soul and R&B. Recorded at CAAMA’s studio, her stunning, cathartic 2017 single ‘How Can I’ was featured on Desert Divas Vol. 2 and earned airplay on Triple J.
Talking over the phone from home, she touches on the region’s entwined support and isolation.
Feeling isolated? Yeah, that’s Alice Springs. Well, it’s in the centre of Australia and it’s a long way away from other big places. Yet you get all these really good musos coming out of there, from folk to electronic to heavy metal. There’s a lot of support, especially for community bands. When they have gigs in town, there’s a lot of turnout.
Usually when I play live, I’m accompanied by a guitarist. Lately I’ve been singing with a pianist, Dave Crowe, because I wanted to see how I sing with piano. Because I’m a single mum and I work, I don’t really look for gigs. They find me. And because I’m in a community, it’s really hard now to find people that will play for me, because of cultural boundaries.
I come from a remote community, and the music here is all reggae, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. I grew up with that, but I didn’t want to be the same. I always wanted to be different with music. I wanted to make music that would recognised as mainstream.
I didn’t expect to get that much response for [‘How Can I’]. The original was just with a guitar, written for my mum. I’m always having disagreements with my mum. You say things you don’t mean and you wish you could take it back at the end. With the music I put with it, a lot of people think I wrote it for somebody else, like a lover. But it’s really for my mum.
Karnage N Darknis
Having grown up in Hermannsburg and Alice Springs, Tristrum Watkins (aka Karnage) met his partner Corinna Hall (aka Darknis) while in Adelaide for uni.
Forming a hip-hop duo while starting a family, they released their debut album in 2010 and then moved to Alice, where they released the 2017 follow-up, Muzik Is 4eva. Karnage N Darknis have since supported everyone from Paul Kelly and Jessica Mauboy to Naughty by Nature and Ja Rule.
Sitting outside their home while their children play, Watkins cites Alice as a regular draw for touring hip-hop acts like Horrorshow and Thundamentals. Despite the lack of proper record stores in Alice, you can buy both KND albums as a USB slap bracelet (among other formats) at CAAMA’s office on Todd Street, the main road through town.
Their earworm single ‘Cut Me’ is gilded with soul and electronic touches, plus a woozy vocal hook by The Voice finalist Kristal West. For Watkins, it’s the culmination of decades working in the hip-hop community, beginning as a teen.
We had First Group and Flavour Four, back in the early ’90s. There was no hip-hop around [Alice] at that time. Then that turned into Central Mob, [with] a lot of added singers and rappers. It was pretty underground. We was doing shows and a lot of workshops, teaching the youth, ’cause they’d only seen that American stuff. That’s why I moved [to Adelaide], because there wasn’t much happening here. So I went down south to try to build it up. But when I come back, there was a lot more happening. It’s built up heaps, actually. It could be better, but it’s pretty good for the size of the place.
Because we’re doing a lot of stuff with CAAMA, we get more shows interstate than at home. CAAMA is the first aboriginal radio [station], and it broadcasts all over Australia. [The label originally] was a lot of country, a lot of reggae, a lot of community language. But now they’ve broadened their horizons by signing other genres and different artists, even some from interstate. Through them we’ve done Bigsound, and now we’re doing remixes for some ’90s rock legends like Chocolate Starfish – we’re doing a remix of ‘Mountain’.
Since day one, I’ve been doing a lot of the hustling myself. Always try to network, be in the right place at the right time. A lot of it’s my doing, but CAAMA’s backin’ me up. We’ve been around for a lil’ bit, but it’s hard. I reckon if we were on the east coast, we’d be much bigger than we are now. It’s just hard that we’re in the middle of nowhere. I love doing it [myself], but it’s hard to crack through.
Originally from Adelaide, Xavia Nou has been making music on and off for well over a decade.
She moved to Alice Springs three years ago with her husband, starting a family while pursuing solo work as Xavia, not to mention session work playing cello and collaborations with electronic producers like Resin Moon, Broadwing and her brother, Dante Nou.
She played cello with Alice Springs saxophonist and solo artist Ed Francis when he supported No Mono locally earlier this year, whereas her solo work is a dreamy, genre-defying layering of looped cello, autoharp and vocals. Over the phone from Alice, she expressed gratitude for how the local community has helped foster her music.
We weren’t sure how long we were going to stay, but it feels quite good here. It’s a strange place that draws certain people in. Some people don’t get and some people do. I think you have to love rocks. [Laughs] The landscape is a big part of it. For me it’s actually been a really rich place to work as a musician, even more so than living in a city. Obviously I’m a mum and I work part-time, but I’ve been busier here than at any other time in my life.
The cost of travel [for touring] is a real barrier. It’s not impossible; it’s just part of living here. I think now that I’m at a place where I’m ready to tour a bit more, it might become more frustrating. Having a young family, I can’t afford to take a ton of time away. But I’ve been up to Darwin, I’ve been to Adelaide twice and I went to Melbourne in January. It hasn’t held me back. And if you flip that around, we’ve had some really good acts come here.
No Mono was a great show, and people like The Waifs come through. Last year at Wide Open Space, I got to see Hiatus Kaiyote, which was amazing. Every now and then you’ll see a couple of bigger bands, and that’s enough to keep you going.
There’s a solid grassroots scene. People know each other up here [and] amazing things happen that way. Everything’s quite accessible. Audiences here are pretty open-minded and generous. There’s not enough of each genre for everyone to separate out. Things are really well attended and supported. People are able to try things that are a little bit different, and not be too nervous about what people think. And some really interesting things come out of that.