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Here I come crawling out of deadline hell to tell you about some interesting stuff I managed to take in just before I sank into deadline hell, in chronological order as far as I can remember.

Peon, at Smiths Bookshop

The excellent indie bookshop Smiths is navigating the bookselling crunch by being not only an indie bookseller, but by turning itself into a hub for the sorts of cool stuff that the patrons of indie booksellers like to get out of the house and go and do. They have a coffee bar and outside tables, they do markets and readings, they’re getting a license so they can serve wine in the evenings. And they’ve got a setup in the main part of the shop that lets them rearrange the shelves and displays so that they can deploy some couches and turn the shop into a little performance space. The performers a couple of Saturdays ago were Melbourne percussion duo Peon.

I have no idea how to set about labelling the sort of music these guys do so I’ll just describe it instead. The core of the performance is a pair of drumkits, supplemented by a synthesiser, a couple of separate percussion instruments that I didn’t recognise (I asked the names of one or two of them on the night but didn’t write them down) and a laptop running a sound-mixing program. They co-operate on building up rhythms and patterns of sound on all the various instruments around them, and periodically pass control of the sound from one to the other so that at any point one of them will be concentrating on the drumming and the other will have eased off the drumming and will be using a free hand and some of their attention to add in synth notes or sound effects, and to balance the overall mix.

At first I thought that the synthesiser elements were pre-recorded, and that they built the rest of the set around a framework of sound that they’d laid down in advance, but when I got chatting to them at the interval they told me that nothing about it was ever pre-done; every single performance they do is improvised from the ground up, in every detail, every time. That put a whole new complexion on what I had thought I was seeing, and I began to really appreciate how seamlessly the two of them work together. They create a sound that rises and falls, sometimes offering up catchy rhythms that the audience were tapping their feet to, sometimes just combining their drumming to create chaotic tides of sound, and sometimes easing off to just tap out a gentle counterpoint to a sound like wind or water coming from the synth. They were joined for part of the evening by some musicians, I think locals, who added in some extra percussion and jazz trumpet to create another layer in turn.

I’ll be honest that at first I didn’t find Peon very accessible – for the first ten minutes or so I wasn’t sure what I was listening to or how much I was going to stay for. Once I’d relaxed into it and engaged with it, though, I found the sound fascinating and full of layers and patterns and changes to unpack and listen for. Not exactly mosh-pit material, but just the sort of stuff to sit back, let your eyes close and be in the moment with the sound.

Peon have a Facebook page.

Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger, at the Front Cafe

The Front is another cool little venue in Canberra’s inner north. Free wifi, couches, gallery next door, you know the sort of deal. They have a schedule of readings and launches and similar things, and the similar thing we went to recently was a gig affiliated with National Science Week called “Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger”.

The event was pretty damn interesting, but we arrived there in a slightly harassed mood on account of it being scheduled right in the middle of the homeward-bound traffic out of Civic and Barton. We got there just in time for the last minute of the jazz combo (which was a shame, what little we heard of them sounded very good) but were in time for a nifty hip-hop intro by Fenella “MC Feline” Edwards and some awesome beatboxing by Mal Webb. The main presentation was from zoologist Professor Marilyn Renfree, and was not quite about cloning the Tasmanian Tiger in that we’re not about to see packs of vat-grown Thylacines loping about the Tasmanian countryside any time soon. Which would be awesome, but will have to wait a while. The presentation talked about the extinction of the Thylacine, about its biology and what’s known about its life cycle, and went on to the way that the Professor found a foetal specimen that had had the good luck to be pickled in alcohol, not formaldehyde. (Formaldehyde apparently trashes genetic information in tissues whereas alcohol doesn’t.) They’re a long way off doing anything with the complete Thylacine genome but there was a fascinating series of slides showing how they had picked a gene out of the foetus that controlled collagen formation (collagen is a precursor to skeletal growth and is apparently a good basic gene to work with). They attached some sort of marker to it so that the gene became not only a thylacine collagen-generation gene, but a thylacine coloured-collagen generation gene, and then spliced it into a mouse embryo. And then showed pictures of said embryo with its skeleton laid out in dark blue from the dark-coloured thylacine collagen, next to a sibling embryo that had that weird translucent look that they have. Proof that they could take a Thylacine gene, put it in a new organism and actually have it activated, living and working.

The spoken presentation alternated with excerpts from a Catalyst documentary about the Professor’s work, which now involves research teams in Europe as well as here. I think she needs to get sponsorship from Cascade beer – imagine what having an actual live Thylacine as their mascot would do for them!

Ovum, the debut EP from Knights of the Spatchcock

Full disclosure: several members of the Knights of the Spatchcock are acquaintances, work colleagues, and some time training partners, and in fact I bought my CD at the desk of Brendan the guitarist. They’re all friends with each other, too, and I’m told that that’s how the band started: as a fun project by some folks who loved jamming together and one day thought “hey, you know what we should do…”

The sense of fun comes across in the band’s, well, everything. The CD art, band photos and notes are all relaxed and playful, with an integral part of the band charter being the promise never to take what they’re doing too seriously. They present a very skilful and professional CD but balance it with a lot of earthy humour directed squarely at each other: their website devotes rather more attention to reporting on one another’s bowels than is usual for a band’s PR material. I haven’t yet been to a live gig of theirs (their recent appearance coincided with the nadir of the aforementioned deadline hell) but apparently the music is supplemented by bright gold pants and a blow-up doll.

So, then, the music. A while ago I was friends with someone who was into a lot of wiccan/pagan/earth mother style of things and would fetch out the Spindlewood CDs to play at parties. The Knights put me in mind of some of that (or at least of my decade-plus-old memories of it), with a kind of olde-worlde folkish vibe given extra heft with a core of tough guitar. On a second listen, I think it’s mainly the singing style that evokes those bands for me, while the guitars have the sort of big power-it-to-the-rafters feel that I associate with The Cult. The lyrics continue the feel, particularly “In Winter’s Wake” which brings a lot of wild druidical imagery of forests and snow and the turning of the seasons.

The singing is good, the instrumentals are outstanding, and the songwriting avoids the traps of some other indie EPs I’ve heard lately which end up sounding very samey. The Knights’ songs are distinct and characterful, powerful without being pompous, and in the case of “1800 Maxx”, jocular and humourous without being twee. That one actually had me out of my chair and bopping about the flat waving a half-eaten slice of pizza in the air.

You can check out the Knights here; if I can make it to a gig I’ll be sure to report.

Alright, done for the night. Gonna try and blog up some recent reading in the next little while – well, I have to, now I’ve announced it here, haven’t I?