Earlier this year I went to my first show ever at Brisbane all-ages venue, The Waiting Room. I’ve been going to shows since I was around 14 years old and I have to say that The Waiting Room is without a doubt one of my all-time favourite Brisbane venues ever! It has such a friendly, welcoming atmosphere and they give great local and touring bands an intimate place to play—imagine a kick arse house party with bands, that’s The Waiting Room. Going to that first show there this year, inspired me to get back into going out to see live music again, which is something I’m incredibly thankful for as, to be honest, I’d been pretty uninspired to attend shows at all. Tomorrow sees The Waiting Room kick off their 3-day-long 1st Birthday celebrations!! Show details can be found here – The Waiting Room and Sonic Masala present: Birthday Weekend!
The Waiting Room’s Cam Smith happily answered my questions about the venue he’s helped nurture to what it is today. He also plays in bands Tiny Spiders (read an interview with TS’ Innez Tulloch) and Ghost Notes, has a solo project St Augustus on the go and records loads of bands too, which we chat about, as well as art, commerce and DIY. I really appreciate his valuable insight and thoughtful answers…I hope to see y’all at a show this week! :)
The Waiting Room is an all-ages community-minded DIY music and arts space in West End, Brisbane; what inspired you to start the venue?
CAM SMITH: I’d been involved with the group who had the lease for the building before I took it over, Browning St Studios, for a few years. I’d put on shows there fairly regularly since 2009 or so, and had been invited to set up my studio in their downstairs rehearsal room at the start of 2011 after my old studio space in Taringa was no longer available.
In mid 2011 they let me know that they weren’t going to renew their lease, so I figured that I could take it over in order to continue running the studio there, but also to take advantage of the upstairs space to make it into a more regular venue. When it was Browning St Studios they tended to only have a couple a show or two per month, mostly because it wasn’t really their focus. I wanted to see if I could turn it into a space where there were a couple of shows a week.
I was inspired by all of the DIY spaces I’ve been to over the 12 years that I’ve been living in Brisbane. Back in the mid-2000s I was blown away by 610 in the Valley, I used to go there pretty much every weekend. That was the point at which Brisbane music became more than just a way to spend weekends. I’d been in bands for a few years already at that point, but the community that was built around 610 showed me just what was possible, how deep you could go with it. Since then there have been a heap of DIY venues that have run around town that have all had their influence, large or small. There are the longer running and ‘bigger’ ones like The Hangar, Burst City and Sun Distortion, and also smaller or less high profile ones like the Albion Peace Hall, Jamie’s Carpark in New Farm, and of course Thee Magic Mile aka Real Bad Music. I kind of cherry picked aspects that I liked from each of these places and combined them with the fairly unique vibe that the Browning St space had. People always ask me who lives there. Noone lives there, no one has lived there for decades, it’s a commercial building.
I find that more often than not clubs/spaces were shows are held seem to set the tone of the event. For instance at clubs I don’t think people are necessarily going for music—clubs don’t make money on music they make money on the bar. I’m stoked The Waiting Room is an all-ages venue and offers an alternative from the traditional club set-up. What are your thoughts on this? What tone do you think The Waiting Room sets for shows?
CS: The idea for the Waiting Room was that I wanted it to be a really relaxed, comfortable place to both play and see a show. I wanted it to be hassle free. It’s not quite as simple as that in the real world, because as a DIY venue we run up against problems that a ‘normal’ venue wouldn’t, such as dealing with neighbours and juggling the all ages aspects with also having an older crowd. Unfortunately we have to place various restrictions on things in order to keep things sustainable. I’d love to be able to let bands play late and do afternoon shows and have people stick around until 2am, but unfortunately we just can’t due to our location. But, I think for your average Waiting Room patron that stuff doesn’t really matter, I think it’s a really enjoyable place to see a band. We get a lot of comments from both bands and audience members that it’s their favourite place to see and/or play a show in Brisbane.
I have to ask, is it named after the Fugazi song, Waiting Room?
CS: Yep, it is. I always wanted to open a bar or cafe named after that song. Of course, there are a million venues all over the world that have taken that name. Plus, there’s actually a Brisbane punk band called that. I probably should have checked that first, I feel kind of bad that I took their name. But, it’s such an obvious name for anything punk related.
What was your first introduction to DIY?
CS: I guess I’ve been doing DIY all my life, before I even had any concept of ‘DIY’. Everyone does, I suppose. When you’re a kid you’re doing DIY all the time, it’s just how you interact with the world. At some point you grow up and get a real job and start being involved in consumer culture. You need that eye opener at a crucial age to show you that you don’t have to follow that path, that you can continue doing things for yourself and making things and placing importance on the process of creating something and on community. To recognise that there is great value in a sense of personality and genuine interaction.
I wasn’t really a punk kid at all. I think it’s still pretty obvious that I’m not a traditional punk by most measurements, even though I live my life by a lot of ideals and aesthetics that are definitely punk. When I was young I didn’t go to rock shows, because I couldn’t. For most of my teenage years I lived a thousand miles (literally) north of Perth in various towns through most of my teenage years, then I was sent to boarding school in Toowoomba. I didn’t hang out with cool music kids, I hung out with nerds. I was a nerd, I was a straight A student. I like sports and I’ve never smoked. I tend to not drink that much. I’m not particularly rebellious. I don’t do the things I do in order to ‘stick it to the man’ or anything as crass as that, I do them because I think they’re a better way of operating and I find them more fulfilling than going about creating those same things in a supposedly orthodox manner. I just try to make the world around me more like the one I want to see by taking control of the aspects that I’m able to. I’m not trying to fight the system, I’m trying to find a way to exist parallel to it. You know, ‘be the change you want to see’ and all that.
I think I came across the whole concept of DIY and punk the same way a lot of people my age did, which is through Nirvana. They’re the obvious gateway for people who were teens in the 90s, especially when you’re so remote from the major counter-cultural communities in the capital cities, like I was. I was a big fan of that band (still am), and through them I found out about more obscure bands, and through them I found out about more obscure again bands, and then the communities and networks that supported all of the people involved. Record labels like Touch & Go and Dischord and K. Recording engineers like Albini and Endino and Weston.
The Waiting Room is more than just a venue what other things happen/have happened there?
CS: There’s a rehearsal room downstairs, which up until recently was mostly being used as a recording studio for Incremental Records (which is just my pseudonym for recording stuff). I’ve recently moved the studio to a purpose built room under my house in Coorparoo, so now the downstairs is just a rehearsal room again. There’s also a drum teaching room that a friend rents from me to run drum lessons. Sometimes people also use the upstairs for things like theatre rehearsals or art exhibits.
What’s the biggest headache you encounter running the venue?
CAM SMITH: There’s not really any one main headache, it’s mostly a case of there being a whole bunch of little headaches. The main issue would just be the amount of time it takes up, there’s lots of emailing and cleaning and organisational stuff to do. It’s easy to go a week or so without having a couple of hours to sit down and answer emails, so sometimes I can seem kind of tardy with my responses. I try to answer questions as soon as I can, especially if it’s for a booking that’s already in place, but every now and then I get really behind, and then I spend a day responding to everything when I eventually get some time off.
Then there’s the cost of it, the lease for that building is not cheap. In retrospect the rent is far too high for what we use the space for, but I guess you learn these things as you go. There was never any thought that the venue would be ‘profitable’ in any way, but we have to charge a room hire fee to cover the rent, and even then it loses money overall. The recording studio ends up subsidising the venue, basically. That’s all fine, that’s the reality of running a space like The Waiting Room. At one point we were going to have a little coffee shop running upstairs during the week, but that fell through at the last minute. If anyone out there wants to utilise the venue space during the week, let me know!
The rest of it is just small things related with keeping it running, the sort of stuff that any DIY venue space has to deal with. Just trying not to double book nights (which I’ve somehow magically managed to not do), keeping up with maintenance, etc. The biggest annoyances are always the smallest things. Just really minor things that don’t matter in the scheme of things, but where you come across them and just scratch your head and wonder ‘why would someone do that?’. Luckily we haven’t had much in the way of actual malicious damage to the venue and gear. Nothing like when Burst City’s toilets were smashed up. People tend to behave themselves here, which is really nice and definitely appreciated.
The most important thing to keep under control is our relationship with our neighbours. We need to make sure that the people who come to shows aren’t making a mess of the neighbouring properties, and that we’re not making too much noise when they’re trying to either operate a business (our neighbouring businesses are a beauty salon, a meditation centre and a massage parlour) or get to sleep at night. It can be hard to explain to someone who has had a few drinks why they can’t stay in the carpark out the back of the venue until the early hours of the morning, that they have to move on or else we’ll start getting trouble with the people who live a few doors down.
In the end it’s all absolutely worth it for those nights when there’s an amazing show that probably wouldn’t have happened without this venue, or at least wouldn’t have happened in the same way. Things like the Seven Nights of No Anchor, or when Harmony or Useless Children played here, or the Undead Apes residency, or any number of great gigs that escape my memory right now. And as I mentioned before, the vast majority of the people who come to shows here are respectful of the venue. We’ve had a pretty good run in that regard.
You also operate a label Incremental Records. Tell us about its origins; you started it in 2008 right?
CS: The label is pretty much a failure as far as labels go. It’s basically just a name that I put on records that my own bands put out. There was a point a few years ago where I was wanting to start doing it seriously, putting out other bands’ records, but when I started talking to the bands I just ended up convincing them and myself that it would be better if they just learned how to put their records out on their own. I realised that any reasonably self-sufficient band doesn’t need my help.
I’ve recently thought that maybe I should give it another go. You know, because I need something else to occupy my time.
How has your idea of how to run a record label evolved since Incremental started?
CS: Only to the extent that I realised I’m probably not the best person to run one. Although as I just mentioned, recently a few things have happened that make me think that perhaps I should have another shot. I don’t think it’ll ever be a particularly major concern, though.
You’re an audio engineer; what’s been some of your favourite releases you’ve worked on?
CS: Hmm, there are lots. Some of the early ones will always be memorable for me, partly because I was lucky to be able to work with a lot of bands who did really well early on. Things like the first two No Anchor albums, the Loomer album, the first Little Scout EP, the DZ EP. The first record I ever recorded for a band that I wasn’t in was for a post-rock band called Mass Migration – that was really fun (although a bit intimidating), and I’ve now played with every one of the four members of that group. Their drummer Casey played drums in my old folk-rock band Mt Augustus, Jamie and Owen are in Ghost Notes with me, and their bassist Innez is now the other half of Tiny Spiders.
I was also really lucky to have this band called Running Guns contact me when I was just starting out. They were the first band to email me completely out of the blue, where I’d never met any of them before. I’ve done a bunch of records for them since, and through them I got to work on the Velociraptor records, which are always great fun, and a lot of that band’s offshoots, like Tiger Beams and Tiny Migrants. I really like working with all of the bands from that scene. They’re good people and the sessions are always really enjoyable.
The recent Nikko album was also a cool thing to be a part of. We hired out The Old Museum in Spring Hill (which I’d done previously for the first Ghost Notes album) and recorded most of that record in four days, with a few overdubbing sessions back in West End for vocals and strings. It’s fun recording in interesting environments like that.
Do you have any interesting or memorable stories you could share from recordings you’ve been involved in?
CS: Not too many, really. Most of the time it’s just people hanging out, making music. It’s relaxed but it’s serious, usually people are there to get stuff done. Occasionally there are things like band meltdowns that occur. I remember one early session at my old studio in Taringa where this band was under a lot of time pressure to make an album because one member was moving overseas pretty soon, and they were struggling to get good takes because their songs were still pretty new. After one aborted take I sat in my little control area waiting to be told to hit record again, but after thirty seconds or so no one had said anything. I popped my head around the corner and the door was swinging open, with the drum seat empty. The rest of the band were just looking at each other and then looking at the empty drum seat. After about an hour the drummer came back, he just needed to go for a walk.
But yeah, most of the time it’s relatively uneventful. Fun, but not filled with crazy adventures. Like a normal job, except it’s rarely a drag.
Are there any particular conditions you’ve seen that have fostered the creation of killer songs?
CAM SMITH: Not really. Just good bands. A good band can be a good band for any number of reasons, there’s no formula. For me, the best bands are the ones where you get a real sense of their personality through their music. I suppose by necessity this tends to mean that they’re not just approximating their favourite band. Then again, I’ve heard it said that the best bands are the ones that attempt to copy someone else but end up failing and just sounding like themselves. I like that idea.
I’ve tried to take this idea and let it inform the way that I work when recording. I figure that I’ve never had a hit song or a hit band, so who am I to tell anyone what they should and shouldn’t do with their music? Who is ANYONE to tell another band what they should be doing? Sure, if I have a suggestion then I’ll let them know, but it’s ultimately their call at every step of the way. They’re the ones who’ve worked the songs up in their rehearsal rooms, they’re the ones paying for the session, they’re the ones whose name will be on the cover. Just let the band be the band that it wants to be. Or even better, just let the band be what it is, even if that’s not what it wants to be. Sometimes what a band actually is is better than what it wants to be, if you can understand what I mean by that. It can sometimes be a tricky thing to bring up when a band is recording, that they shouldn’t try to ‘fix’ certain things. ‘Sure, your guitar sounds kind of crap, but it’s sounded crap for the past year so why are you wanting to change it now? That crap guitar sound is the sound of your band, which means that maybe it’s not crap at all.’
The best bands to work with are always the ones who are most comfortable with their identity, who realise where their strengths and weaknesses are and are ok with them. It doesn’t mean that they won’t challenge themselves, but that they’re comfortable with the idea of maybe failing, as long as they fail in a way that is true to themselves.
What do you find most challenging in regards to your work as an engineer?
CS: Probably trying not to fall into routine too much. I have to remind myself every now and then that even though I do this pretty much every day, for the people who come into the studio this is often a new and/or rare experience. I try to leave my ego at the door, which can be hard because I have a big ego sometimes. I try to be whatever the band wants me to be, whether that’s just the guy setting up the microphones and pressing record through to being someone who is making musical suggestions and kind of acting as quality control. I’m comfortable being either of those things or any point in between, as long as I’m comfortable with the band and I know that it’s what the band wants. Sometimes figuring that out is the hardest thing.
Often when I work with a band for the first time I’m just feeling my way, trying to get a sense of the band’s personality, figuring out what are the important aspects of that band, the things that make them unique. Often that won’t become apparent until the end of the session, unless I’m already pretty familiar with the band. Because of this, usually I let them dictate how things are run at first, only making suggestions when they have a problem or are struggling to make a decision. I try to stay out of their way as much as possible. If they come back for more sessions I might start making more suggestions, but only if I know that they’re open to that.
Although people tend to associate me with indie rock and garage (assuming they associate me with anything at all), I work with a lot of different styles. I do a lot of folk and country, for example. Because of this I see a lot of different approaches that can often be taken from one style of music to another, sometimes with interesting results. I suppose one of the tricks is recognising the difference between having a genuine insight that can be useful to a given piece of music and just wanting to make a band sound more like the sort of music that I want to hear. It would be easy for me to start moulding a band into something that I want them to be, but that’s not really a laudable thing. I don’t think many bands would be happy with the results if I were to do that. Occasionally I realise that I’m doing it and have to reign myself in. Although, sometimes people come to me hoping that I’ll do just that. I’ve had more ‘straight-up’ rock bands come to record with me in the hope that I’ll add an element of rawness or weirdness that might not otherwise be there. As long as I know that from the start then I’m cool with that, although it’s still their call on which ideas of mine they accept and dismiss.
Tell us about your new studio. I think I heard somewhere that it’s been a couple of years in the making?
CS: I’ve just finished building a new studio space underneath my house in Cooparoo. We dug out a bunch of dirt and rock under our Queenslander home and built it from scratch. From first starting the designs with a draftsperson and engineer through to completing the final electrical fittings it’s been a year and a half, maybe a bit more. It’s worked out perfectly, I couldn’t be happier at this point in time. I’ve only been using it for about a month, but it seems to work really well, it’s a really comfortable space to record in and it sounds good.
Building a space like this is a big financial commitment, but when you look at it in terms of the yearly rent you’ll pay for an appropriate recording space it’s really not much at all. It’s equivalent to maybe four years’ rent at West End, so it makes sense in the long term.
You play drums in Tiny Spiders; I wanted to ask you how long you’ve been playing for? What drew you to the drums?
CS: I’ve always loved drums. When I was young I used to set up pillows and coat hangers around my bed as if they were drums and cymbals, and play along to my favourite records using two wooden rulers as drum sticks. I even had different sorts of pillows for different sounds – a harder pillow for the snare, softer pillows for toms. I asked my parents for a drum kit for years, and eventually they bought me an acoustic guitar in the hope that it would shut me up. It didn’t, and I didn’t really pick up the guitar until a few years later when I was shipped off to boarding school. Eventually I bought a cheap kit once I moved to Brisbane, and started playing drums in bands shortly after that (I was already playing guitar in a band when I bought my first kit).
So that’d make it about 10 years of playing drums? I’ve never had any lessons and it shows, I’m a fairly poor drummer from a technical standpoint. I’ve been trying to teach myself a few cool techniques over the past few years, just so that I can play the things that I hear in my head. Drums are probably the instrument where not knowing proper technique is most easily overcome, from a performance standpoint at least. As long as you’re not playing in a way that’s going to damage your body then you can make up for any technical shortcomings through pure enthusiasm. At least in a rock band context.
You have a really unique style of playing drums. When you first started out were there any drummers whose style you’d emulate or that influenced your playing?
CS: Going back to the Nirvana thing, Dave Grohl was a big early influence. His drumming just sounds so massive. I went to see Them Crooked Vultures a while back even though I was lukewarm on their album, purely so that I could watch him drum for an hour.
After being into the loud rock drummer thing for a few years I got into The Dirty Three. Jim White’s drumming was so different from what I was listening to, and at first I hated it. The Dirty Three were a band where I kind of loved the music, but the looseness of it all frustrated me, especially in terms of the drums. Why couldn’t he just play a straight beat? But after a little while I started to fall in love with it, I started to realise that he played the drums like someone might sing. He had so much expression, and he used so many different ways to modify his playing. Most drummers just use variations in volume and speed to change their feel, but White also uses things like looseness of playing as a form of dynamic change, as well as getting such a wide array of textures out of standard drums. There are other drummers out there who use similar ideas as him, but I’m yet to find one who does it as well. He’s a big influence on the way that I drum in my other main band, Ghost Notes.
A few years later on I stumbled upon Deerhoof, and their drummer Greg Saunier is pretty much everything I love about drums in one package. He has the power of Grohl with the looseness and creativity of White. He’s pretty much perfect, and I mercilessly rip him off to the extent that my abilities allow. Between these three drummers you can see where I get most of my ideas from, although there are dozens of other drummers I adore too. Britt Walford from Slint, Mitch Mitchell from Hendrix, Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt, Jeremy Barnes from Neutral Milk Hotel. Even Mimi Parker from Low, I love her sense of minimalism. I love the big, pometronomic players because it’s something that I can’t really do, drummers like John Stanier, Todd Trainer, Mac McNeilly from The Jesus Lizard. Chris from the Brisbane band Turnpike was a big influence when I first started playing. There are heaps out there. They say you can’t be a great rock band without a great drummer, and I’d agree with that.
Art and commerce has always had an interesting and often tricky relationship; what are your thoughts on this?
CS: For most people, making music is ‘just’ a hobby that they do in between working and, eventually, having a family. There’s almost never a hope of making money off it. If you can break even on playing music then you’re way ahead of the pack, especially in Australia where most music-related things are really expensive and there’s not a lot of opportunity for extensive touring and selling records.
That said, I don’t think that being aware and involved in the financial aspects of being in a band and making music is at all a bad thing. If anything it’s empowering. It puts you more in control of your music. Sometimes I kind of enjoy geeking out on the more mundane aspects of playing music, such as looking after money for a tour.
You work across so many different positions – musician, engineer, venue operator etc. – in the music industry and get to see it from many angles, what insights have you garnered from your different experiences?
CS: One thing I’ve learned is that there are so many different sorts of people who do this, all with their own motivations and goals and guidelines. It becomes ridiculous to hold anyone else to any sort of hard and fast rules, or to assume anything about why anyone does what they’re doing. I think it’s fostered a ‘live and let live’ mindset in me. I’ve come across people who make what some might assume to be the most inauthentic, audience-focused music you can imagine and yet their reasons for making it are totally genuine and they’re incredibly enthusiastic. And I’ve come across the exact opposite. You can’t make assumptions about why people do what they do. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t stop them from doing it. I like that John Peel quote that basically says ‘if I come across a piece of music that I don’t like, I have to assume that I’m just not hearing it in the way that the artist intended, and it’s a shortcoming on my behalf, not theirs’. I like that. I guess I’m just a hippie at heart.
Similarly, I find that I don’t necessarily need to enjoy someone’s music in order to enjoy helping them to make it. It can be totally fulfilling to help someone create something that, if I were to divorce it from the act of creation, I would perhaps hate. It comes down to the personalities of the people I work with, rather than whether or not their music happens to appeal to my specific set of qualities that I look for.
This isn’t to say that I like everything that I hear, but more just that if something doesn’t appeal to me I just ignore it. People offend me, music doesn’t.
What projects are you currently focused on?
CS: At the moment I’m trying to finish off a couple of albums for Ghost Notes. We recorded enough songs for two albums over two sessions in April and June of this year, so at the moment we’re trying to get the first of the two records mixed and sent off for pressing by December. Then we’re hoping to tour in the early months of 2013.
Tiny Spiders are resting a bit after the big album launch and tour in the middle of this past year. We’re doing a bit of writing, we might put out some smaller releases in the new year, maybe do some small tours. We haven’t discussed much in depth.
In between those two bands I’d like to find some time to finish an album for my solo project, St Augustus. And then there’s playing bass in Tape/Off, although I don’t think that band is doing much that involves me for the rest of the year. They’re writing and recording a new album I think, but I just play with them at shows so I don’t really have much involvement with that.
The studio is buzzing along. I’ve been doing some work with Tiny Migrants, Turnpike, Seaplane, Running Guns, Rusty Datsuns, a whole bunch of bands really. It’s coming up to the busy time of year for me, traditionally, so it should be pretty fun. It makes it much more relaxing having the studio underneath my house as opposed to at West End.
The Waiting Room will be continuing. Our lease runs out in September so I’ll just be trying to keep it going until then. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe it will keep going, maybe it will end, maybe it’ll move location. At this point in time I don’t really know. I think we’ll be trying to cut back a bit on shows in 2013, which means that we’re going to have to be a bit more selective with what we put on. It’s perhaps not optimal, but it will help keep the venue alive and perhaps has other benefits, such as keeping it a bit more special.
Lastly, what are your current three favourite songs? What is it you love about them?
CS: Deerhoof – Breakup Songs. I adore Deerhoof. They’ve just released a new album, and this is the pick of the songs on it for me. It’s so ridiculously simple, and yet they spin the couple of elements that make up the song into so many different permutations that it turns into something that’s actually quite complex. The lyrics are simple to the point of ridiculousness, there’s only nine words in the entire song: “when you say it’s all over, hell yeah, anyway”. I wish I could write lyrics like that.
The Dirty Three – Deep Waters. I was going to pick a song from their new album, which is a really great record and does that thing where a band with a very distinctive, unique sound puts out something new which is simultaneously everything that the band has always been and yet stakes out its own unique territory. But, ultimately, I couldn’t go past this song from fifteen years ago. The Dirty Three are kind of known for taking their time and letting a song stretch out to whatever length is necessary, but this song takes things further than anything else they’ve done. There’s a superb version of this song on their Live at Meredith record, with a really great opening monologue from Warren Ellis that I found extremely relevant and profound when I first heard it. I love listening to Ellis’s (sometimes not so) little speeches at D3 shows.
Low – Shots & Ladders. I’ve been on a bit of a Low kick, lately. They’re another of my all time favourites. This song is just completely devastating, it’s the saddest song on probably their darkest album. It’s like a punch in the stomach. I’ve shed tears to this song. I guess there’s a reason why this is the song during which Alan Sparhawk had his onstage breakdown a few years ago, it’s just so intense. But beautiful, incredibly beautiful. The final verse just destroys me every time, those parting words of ‘send you home to your own bed, see how you feel in the morning’ and the way that Alan and Mimi extend the final vowels into a wordless harmony that breaks up and morphs into a drone for the final few minutes of instrumental. Low are a special band. Their show at The Troubadour on the Drums & Guns tour was one of my all time favourite shows.
Party time! Excellent!
*Photo credits: 1 + 2 – by Justin Edwards / 3 / 4