Lost Albums: Bluetile Lounge - lowercase
Given the recent success of bands from Perth, it’s easy to forget the challenges and expense involved with promoting music outside of Western Australia. Before cheap flights and triple j Unearthed, bands could play 100-odd shows, release mesmerising albums and disappear with barely anyone east of Kalgoorlie noticing. Even a band with famous fans that played touring festivals and signed to major American record labels. A band you most likely have never heard.
Amongst the sugar-fuelled grunge pop driving most local gigs across Australia in the mid-1990s, one band applied the brakes. Bluetile Lounge, a band whose music seems born for a different time.
Bluetile Lounge's 1995 album lowercase is not, as the five-song tracklist suggests, an EP, but a 46-minute album of country-tinged indie rock played at tortoise-like speed. Songs don’t so much begin and end as appear, glitter, linger and recede. At times brittle and delicately constructed, there is a muscularity and sense of purpose that lulls and stuns.
So how did this band, lowercase and its follow up Half Cut escape attention?
"The 1990s were this weird bridge," explains singer and songwriter Daniel Erickson of the era before the Internet. "It’s so easy to record stuff now, you don’t need to have it on vinyl or CD or anything. It would take a lot to get a CD together. It was doable, you could do it yourself, but it would take a couple of grand."
"It was pretty rare for bands to go touring," says the band’s first producer and long-time fan Guy Blackman. "It wasn’t affordable really, so most people just stayed in Perth. We’re so far away and flights were still ridiculously expensive."
Bands like Jebediah and Ammonia arrived just as Juice, triple j Unearthed and Rolling Stone championed the Australian scene. But Bluetile Lounge lacked one key attribute, ambition.
Perth was a bit of a big-fish-small-pond place and we didn’t want to be a big fish.Daniel Erickson
"Perth was a bit of a big-fish-small-pond place," says Erickson of the scene into which the band was born in 1992, "and we didn’t want to be a big fish. We liked all these bands from New Zealand or North Carolina that weren’t big in their own hometowns. You’d rather be liked by people far and wide than be the most popular band in Perth. And we weren’t really playing music like that, so we never really aimed for it."
People from far and wide, it turned out, did like Bluetile Lounge’s take on what would become known as ‘slowcore’. Two of these people were in bands with enough leverage to lift their horizons. Without Alan Sparhawk from Low writing an impassioned letter to his friend Jason Reynolds of Summershine Records, the band may never have signed a record deal at all. Even luckier for them, Reynolds’ day job was doing A&R for Sub Pop, who, after hearing lowercase, signed on to distribute the album.
"It was all pretty exciting," says Blackman. "It was one of the very first times any band in our world got international attention." Until then, the band had released the early recording 'Concrete/Tunnels' on a compilation tape issued on Blackman’s Chapter Music label. They'd had lowercase highlight 'The Weight (and the Sea)' feature in a low-budget Perth music documentary Sitting Down on Sticky Carpet and had recorded for Triple J’s Live at The Wireless.
Off the low-level success of lowercase Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley agreed to release the band’s second album, Half Cut, on his own Smells Like label. Despite these scattered signs of success, little resulted.
Besides being squeezed onto the bill of the Perth leg of 1996’s Summersault Festival at the behest of Sonic Youth, few people beyond the band’s friends ever saw them live. They made no film clips and did few interviews. Both albums have been out of print since before the band split in 1998.
"We always had these distant relationships," says Erickson. "We had Jason Reynolds in the US for the first album and he didn’t seem to do much," he says laughing. "And Steve Shelley was in the US and had a big roster, so without us dropping everything and deciding to do tours and stuff…" he shrugs.
They recorded lowercase in the Fremantle Masonic Hall by a mobile recording unit. It was a place that allowed the band to take advantage of natural acoustics. They returned there for Half Cut and both recordings retain a big, roomy natural sound.
It was a bit like a reaction to going out – there’s lots of loud stuff so we’ll play quiet. There’s lots of fast stuff so we’ll play slow.Daniel Erickson
"It was huge," says Erickson. "If we were overdubbing guitar someone could play un-mic'ed in the background and feed into the track. There are bits in there where Gab (Cotton - guitar, piano, background vocals) was playing slide and I was noodling and it comes distantly through the mics. We also fed the recording back through the bass amp so it sounded all broken up. We did that a lot."
These techniques create a rich and intricate whole, all the stronger for its clarity and lack of quiet-build-crescendo structure. Which is a hallmark of many bands associated with the slowcore genre.
"It’s all pretty timeless," says Blackman of the band’s continuing online appeal. "I think of Bluetile Lounge standing outside of everybody else in Australia and that music. Not really aging at all."
Last.fm, tumblr and YouTube are full of people recounting their first encounters with lowercase. ‘Oh my GOD!’ ‘Holy shit'. Or, beneath one of their live recordings: 'I really wish the crowd could have kept fucking quiet while the best band ever were playing'. 'My favorite slowcore band bar none.' And the timeless: 'these guys are from Perth? Huh.'
"It was a really good scene at the time, a lot of fun," says Erickson, laughing. "It wasn’t depressing and intense, none of us are very intense people. It was a bit like a reaction to going out – there’s lots of loud stuff so we’ll play quiet. There’s lots of fast stuff so we’ll play slow. Trying to do something different. We had lots of people who were into that, people coming up and saying 'this is the best music to be stoned to!' that sort of stuff."
The band still occasionally reform at the behest of Perth radio station RTR, though with members spread between Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and, until recently, London, logistics have proven problematic. The original master tapes for lowercase were lost when fire destroyed the mobile recording unit, preventing any chance of remastering.
Coincidentally, lowercase and Half Cut were posted to iTunes just before Christmas, a sign that a widespread rediscovery is still growing. Slowly.
Hear Bluetile Louge's lowercase in full on Double J from 9am AEDT Sunday 22 February. Stream it in full until Sunday 1 March.
Check out our the rest of Lost Albums series:
The Riptides – Tombs Of Gold by Andrew Stafford
Black Francis – Svn Fngrs by Sarah Smith
Sibylle Baier – Colour Green by Jimi Kritzler
The Cannanes and Steward – Communicating At An Unknown Rate by Megan Spencer
Reverend Charlie Jackson – God's Got It by Dan Condon