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Up The Guts: Inside Australia’s Regional Rock Roadshow

“WHAT the f**k did you lot come here for!?”

This was the incredulous response from the few people that came down on their Saturday night in Quorn, South Australia, to watch a bunch of Melbourne bands called Dumb Punts, Loose Tooth and Neighbourhood Youth.

Quorn is a pretty little town in the Flinders Ranges that is authentically Australian. The sweeping balcony surrounding the Transcontinental Inn looks like the set of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. It’s so real it looks kinda fake. Huge dusty quiet streets, three pubs and about three people.

Sound like a city boy? Yeah – well, I am. For the crew of 17 people on the Up The Guts tour that we are feeding, sleeping and transporting for four weeks we relied on a $400 guarantee for the whole night. Lucky we got a free feed.

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Touring regional Australia can be relentlessly tough. You have to have your wits about you. You’re gonna sleep rough, eat rough and unless you’re an established act, you’re gonna play rough shows.

You’ve gotta work for your applause and earn your rider and you better learn some covers. But for me, that it is rock’n’roll. That was the impetus for Up The Guts, a regional tour from Melbourne to Darwin involving 3800 kilometres, 18 shows, 12 workshops, four bands, and a bus named Gladys.

You have to look after yourself when you’re on a tour like this. You’ll have a long drive tomorrow. You’ll be responsible for your team. That means getting early nights where you can, factoring breaks into travel times, loading the bus after a gig to make things run smoothly the next morning, and hustling everybody out the door to keep on schedule.

“The real luxury is that after slogging it out in the bush, you get to jump back in the car and head to the reliable safety net of a music oriented city.”

These might sound like basic concepts on paper, but they are amplified a hundred times on the road in regional Australia. I promise. I’ve seen bands that can sell out Melbourne’s The Tote head four hours up the road and try desperately to convince the 20 people at the show to leave the front bar for the show (or the armchair in their living room).

The real luxury is that after slogging it out in the bush, you get to jump back in the car and head to the reliable safety net of a music oriented city.

In the city, the young musicians might hustle to be heard. They might send their songs to artists, management companies or radio stations hoping they might get plucked from the deluge. They might want what they see on the internet. They play at pubs that will take anyone. They will call on their friends to fill out the space. Their songs might get played on any number of local radio stations. They will have friends in bands. They will play shows together. Tour together. Form new bands together.

Now Imagine if you were a musician north of Coober Pedy, South Australia, nearly 850 kilometres from Adelaide. The scope of a career or attempt at one is so wildly different to what we experience in the city.

Resources are stretched, venues are few, stages are makeshift, PAs patched together – if there is one there at all.

The sheer distance a regional band needs to travel to play a show is dumbfounding. When East Arrernte Reggae Band played a set at the Guts show in Alice Springs they took off straight away to make a gig in the desert of WA.

“‘Long way, 800 kilometres,” says East Arrernte’s Donovan Mulladad. “It’s good, you know. It’s good travel. I like it, the younger ones not so much,” he jokes.

Even a band dynamic can be different. East Arrernte have two versions of the band. One made up of older musicians and another made of younger musicians. They get the chance to grow and learn in an already existing group.

“It’s not all about the older band,” says Donovan. “We can show that we can all play music. For me, it’s young and old together’.

IT’S a Sunday morning back in Quorn and we have to leave to make an afternoon show in Coober Pedy. Google maps tells us that it is a six-hour drive straight up the the Stuart Highway which will eventually take us to Darwin.

We know that in our bus  – which is towing about eight tonnes of human and music gear – that the drive will take us eight hours minimum.

After a quick rinse and a messy pack, the bus is loaded and warming up as the sun peeks over the Flinders Ranges. If I wasn’t so stressed out, it might almost be beautiful.

One of the hardest things about this leg is knowing deep down there isn’t much waiting for us when we get there. Coober Pedy was one of the hardest shows to book on the tour.

It is a town made up of clubs. There is The Italo Miners Club, The Greek Club, Coober Pedy Shooters Club and Coober Pedy Racing Club. Each club has a board and every decision has to be cleared by the board.

We had organised a show with the Italo Miners Club. Generally they are shut on Sundays out of respect to the local RSL. Learning and understanding these local set-ups is totally essential for this kind of tour. They had decided to open it up for us and put on the show; a decision cleared by the board.

That was after countless phone calls (mobile and landline) back and forth on top of messages and emails. It was at times difficult getting across what we wanted to do. A week before the tour was to start, the board reneged on their decision to host the event. Posters printed, tour launched, sponsorship/grant expectations and all.

I wasn’t actually told that information and only found out when I made a routine call to check in. All of a sudden those regular band “problems” like not getting a worksheet ASAP or the venue being tight with a rider seemed like heaven on a stick. Right. Now what the hell do we do?

We had all hands on deck to try and wrangle a show in Coober Pedy. On the bus we have great bands, a sound system and a sound person. Hell, we can even put one of our crew behind the bar if you need the help. This shouldn’t have been a hard sell. But it was.

We tried the Greek Club but they weren’t optimistic: “You wanna do what? With who? Dumb what? Rock bands? Playing originals? Ummm.” This is a fairly regular conversation. “Well, we had the strippers come through from Alice last week and we only got 50 odd, so I don’t know if there’s much point.”

It looked hopeless. We had what you would call a minor breakthrough when Big Scary’s Jo Syme – who’s played in the Guts house band for two years running – made a tentative plan with The Croatian Club. Emphasis on “minor”. She got off the phone and said, “I think the gig is booked?” We had no choice but to go off that.

We were heading to a town in the middle of Australia, in a bus running hot, while gastro slowly made its way through the crew, to play a show we weren’t 100 percent sure had actually been booked.

About halfway to that show, at a roadstop in Pimba, I sat down and made a list in a notebook titled: The Pros and Cons of Cancelling the Gig Tonight.

PROS:

  1. Might sell some merch.
  2. People might come.
  3. Early start/Early finish.
  4. It might be nice to play at the Croatian Club.
  5. Everyone will have a comfy sleep/shower. (We were staying in a nice hotel)
  6. People can do a load of washing. (Which is a huge pro associated with cancelling the gig)
  7. NATURE OF THE TOUR. (In caps)
"We’ve got transport. We play many gigs. I wouldn’t mind going to Melbourne for something different."

CONS:

  1. Long drive.
  2. Limited town interest.
  3. Full load-in. (That means that there is no PA at the place we are going to. It is about a 90 minute set-up to get a place ready for a show).
  4. Morale killer (For me, managing morale is as important as managing money on a tour like this. Playing a show can actually ruin morale, not pick it back up – especially after an eigh-hour drive, in a spewy bus, facing a 90-minute load-in and soundcheck to potentially play to eight people max and then load out again. Rock and roll, eh?).
  5. Venue shifting won’t help.
  6. It will just be 17 of us watching. (Translates to: “At least if all 17 people from the tour are in the venue it won’t feel too empty”).
  7. CANCELLING A GIG IS WEAK AS PISS. (That one was in caps. I guess I rallied for about five seconds, before sliding back into reality)

We got to Coober Pedy. It was pretty quiet. We found the Croatian Club. It was locked. We made a call. Joe the manager showed up. We said hello. We went inside. There was no one there. We cancelled the gig.

Our first cancellation. There was genuine rejoice among the crew. Co-organiser James and I looked at each other, completely shattered. The rest of the crew hung out in the beautiful sunset and fooled around with a drone camera and an old bike while we worked out how we were going to afford the $300 that the local pizza joint was sticking their hand out for.

Why are we doing this again?

A KEY learning from this year’s tour was that these bands don’t really need us coming through and putting shows on in their towns, necessarily. These bands need opportunities in Melbourne and on the east coast.

“I teach music as well. We’ve got transport. We play many gigs. I wouldn’t mind going to Melbourne for something different,” says Donovan from East Arrernte. “It’s something that has never happened. Something we could do.”

Bands like East Arrernte – or The Barkly Boys from Tennant Creek, Apakatjah from Alice Springs, Double Dinghy and Horse Tranq from Darwin, and Jurum from Ngukurr – need the opportunity to participate in our extremely narrow definition of a national music scene. That, or the definition of a national tour needs to actually be a national tour.

“We want to go out and perform,” says Donovan. “There isn’t enough money to get there.”

The culture around Australian music would benefit exponentially with a few more gutsy bush tours. And a few city tours with gutsy bush bands. They are the true, hard working, max grit rock’n’roll bands of Australia.

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Jack Parsons is one of the organisers of the Up The Guts Tour and a member of Melbourne rock band The Pretty Littles.

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