Arriving in Austin, Texas for the legendary South By Southwest music festival, Melbourne-via-San Francisco psychedelic band Electric Jellyfish had an inkling of the intensity of the festival, its rich lineup and the clichéd commercial whims of the industry types and associated hangers on. “It was pretty overwhelming,” drummer Pete Warden says. “We’d been in Albuquerque the night before, and there’d been no-one on the road except for us. Then we pulled into Austin and it was like ‘woah’ – it was really full on!”
For guitarist, singer and now repatriated American Michael Beach, playing the Aussie BBQ showcase event had its moments of irony. “I got to put on an Aussie accent and pretend I was Australian – though I did give a disclaimer and say there was an American member in the band, and they were cool with it,” Beach laughs.”
Having been forced to leave Australia after his student visa ran out, Beach has spent the last couple of years living and performing in the United States. Now based in San Francisco, Beach has focused most of his creative energy on his solo career, releasing some new recordings on the Twin Lakes label, undertaking a few tours of the United States, and even heading across to France for a brief, two-week tour. “That was great going to Europe,” Beach remarks “I wished I’d spent more time over there – I definitely want to go back, including with Jellyfish.”
Earlier this year, Warden and Camilleri flew to the United States to meet Beach for an Electric Jellyfish tour, including a spot at SXSW. With such an extensive lineup at the festival, Beach says it’s easy to be daunted by the entertainment on offer. “There’s definitely room for scepticism, because there’s so many bands. And it’s a real corporate event, and they make no bones about that – it’s like, ‘Come play the Doritos Stage’,” Beach says. “With the death of the record label, there’s been the rise of the brand as the next business model,” Warden adds.
The corporate involvement transcends the basic branding of yore – it appears that fashion gifts are the new six-figure advance. “People were giving away shoes – they’d even trade you shoes. You’d be sitting in a pub and someone would offer you shoes, but you’d have to give up your old ones – just in the vain hope that the people they give these shoes to will break through and become the next big thing!” Warden laughs. And it’s not just shoes. “Adam [Camilleri, Electric Jellyfish bass player] met this hip hop group who’d just been signed by Gucci – we weren’t sure if that had something to do with music, or jewellery,” Beach laughs. “Everyone celebrates the death of the evil music label, but it’s going to be much worse when these corporate brands are putting out records instead,” Warden smiles.
Thankfully, it wasn’t all commodity fetishism. “The Aussie BBQ was really fun, and we also got to play this WFMU showcase, this New York independent record label,” Beach says. “We played with this band The Men, and The Wedding Present, who I hadn’t really known very well before then. It was great to play with them.” Unfortunately the cramped logistics of the official showcase meant that Electric Jellyfish had to wait on the street with their gear. “And there was no room on the street to park the car, because just about everywhere in town has been turned into a venue, so there’s no room,” Beach says.
Such matters aside, the opportunity to see artists of the calibre of The Gories and Kid Congo Powers was cherished. “They were all still wearing their own shoes – though it was sponsored by Sailor Jerry,” Beach laughs. Later on, Electric Jellyfish headed across continental USA, including a couple of support slots in New York alongside legendary Australian band Feedtime. “When we played in San Francisco, I was under pressure to get a good San Francisco lineup, and we ended up playing with this psychedelic band Carlton Melton – they’re old dudes who’ve been playing around for ages, but playing this great psychedelia, that real SF thing. It’s real, genuine psych,” Beach says.
With the members of the band now separated by thousands of kilometres of deep blue sea, Electric Jellyfish has had take a lateral approach to writing new material. “It changes the process, definitely – we can’t just sit around and start jamming,” Beach says. “But we trust each enough, so we don’t need to scrutinise each other’s ideas that much – except to make sure it’s the right genre, the right sound.” The wonders of technology mean that a creative inspiration can be sent across the Pacific immediately. “We went in with this idea that if you have an idea, just send it – we have enough implicit trust in each other. And that approach has meant that the songs we’re doing over here quite different,” Beach says.
In a couple of weeks’– during which time Beach, Warden and Camilleri will put down whatever tracks they can at Paul Maybury’s A Secret Location studio – Beach will return to the United States. Beach pauses to think when I ask him what he misses most about Australia and, conversely, what aspects of American culture he can never find in Australia. “I think the community over here is stronger, and much more supportive,” Beach says. “As for what I miss about the States when I’m Australia, I’d have to say burritos. I went somewhere the other night – I won’t say where – and it was like ‘you call that a burrito?’,” he laughs.
BY PATRICK EMERY
ELECTRIC JELLYFISH play The Gasometer Hotel on Saturday September 15 with High Tea, Spinning Rooms and Naked.