Lost Albums: The Cannanes and Steward – Communicating At An Unknown Rate

Primary tabs

You could argue that every Cannanes album is "lost", such is the band's low visibility on the Australian music radar.

According to Baby Take A Bow: a short history of the Cannanes, their first 'unofficial' gig was at "12.08am, 15/2/1985 on the steps of the Hellenic Hall in Abercrombie Street" in inner Sydney. In a matter of weeks 'the world's most indie rock band' will officially celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Cannanes Original Line Up Bored Angry and Jealous Ep

 The Cannanes' original line up. Taken from the Bored, Angry and Jealous EP cover

Inside the teetering terraces of 1984 Newtown, the Cannanes were formed by Michelle Cannane (sister of The Drum's Steve Cannane), David Nichols, Annabel Bleach with neighbours Fran Gibson and Stephen 'Hairy' O'Neil.

For three lively, rambling decades the latter duo has lovingly kept the Cannanes alive in various incarnations and cities, nowadays Central Victoria.

They've released 13 albums, countless EPs, splits and singles, and contributed to more compilation cassettes, LPs and CDs than you can poke a stick at.

Steve Fran Cannanes 2015 by Megan Spencer

 Stephen O'Neil and Fran Gibson in 2015. Photo by Megan Spencer.

Courted by major labels – and variously signed to notable indies – the Cannanes have frequently toured America, Japan and Europe. Small armies of fans around the world adore them.

Inspired by the post-hardcore lo-fi fuzz-and-jangle of 1980s Olympia, Washington (though later exploring funk, psychedelia and dance), seminal recordings pinpoint the Cannanes as the forebears of Dick Diver, Twerps, The Stevens and Beef Jerk.

'Hairy' drummed for Sleater-Kinney, they were honoured with a 'Chuck Taylor' All-Star Converse sneaker and on page 229 of his posthumously published diary, Kurt Cobain names the Cannanes as a favourite.

Cannanes Converse Sneaker

 The Cannanes shoe. Designed by David Nichols

They are Australia's Yo La Tengo, yet while that legendary Hoboken indie three-piece plays the Sydney Opera House, the Canannes struggle to get a gig on home soil, barely rating a mention in rock publications worth their salt.

Not that they're complaining. Disdainful of 'industry' and fiercely independent the Cannanes' story is built on idiosyncratic, 'anarcho-collective' architecture too complicated to explain here. Their music however is simply awesome. And their luscious sound has evolved in league with an extensive rollcall of talented collaborators.

One is fan and friend Stewart Anderson (aka 'Steward'), formerly of '90s Leeds fuzz-pop band, Boyracer. Landing on Gibson and O'Neil's Erskineville doorstep in 2000, he helped instigate and shape what singer Fran nominates as the Canannes' most overlooked album, Communicating At An Unknown Rate (2000).

"I always thought it was one of our best but it got… no notice in Australia and maybe not much elsewhere. Though I note there was a Pitchfork mention and Greil Marcus gave it a mention," she remembers with characteristic humility.

"More importantly, no friends or fans ever refer to it, really. The few people who give a toss about the Cannanes seem a bit fixated on the early stuff."

She's right. While A Love Affair With Nature (1989) is considered definitive and Short Poppy Syndrome (1994) an affectionate favourite, Communicating... was a watershed recording for the band. It didn't get the recognition it deserved and it's still fresh as a daisy.

It wraps around you like a giant serpent. Upon striking, its songs rapidly flow into your bloodstream. A journey into ethereal, drum-loop dream-pop, live instrumentation fuses with synthetic to reveal an artistic maturity perhaps unseen on previous records. Digital technology transformed their process.

Guitarist/producer Steve had just bought a Power Mac. He says "it was the first time the band recorded on computer and an [entire] album at home." Along with bass player/singer Andy Coffey, they negotiated Cubase software, drum loops, synth, MIDI and sampler to transform what drummer/singer Stewart calls "random bits and pieces" into cohesive songs.

 

Retaining their indie sound they wholeheartedly embraced loops on tracks like 'Oh Yeah', a sweet psychedelic instrumental, sparse love song 'Astra' and sparkly dance number 'Savage'.

"We worked up the songs," remembers Stewart, "and [Fran] did the vocals after [she] came home from work."

Her voice is mesmerizing, showcased sublimely on 'Not Quite Right', 'Kurrajong Hotel' and masterful exercise in space, 'Remember The Theremin'.

Cannanes New Jersey 2000

The Cannanes in New Jersey in 2000 

It's on opening track 'Hey Leopard' she emerges as a force to be reckoned with, responding to Stewart's angry jilted-lover lament like a breathy Marianne Faithfull. Over melodic trumpets and snarky guitar, her heart-wrenching vocals insist he let it go. Her sorrow is palpable as she trails off… "there's just nothing left to say". Beautiful work.

By the Cannanes' standards Communicating... sold okay, with repeat CD pressings and a glorious vinyl picture disc. Later that year they toured it to Melbourne, Sydney and the States, playing eight east coast shows. But it's kind of been forgotten – like their other albums.

A decade would pass before they'd release another, the superb Howling At All Hours (2013). But the Cannanes abide, continuing to produce better and better music, perhaps now at the height of their powers. Along with a backlog of material a 'sequel' to Communicating is forthcoming, recorded late last year in Arizona with the original players.

"Presuming we are still alive, we have agreed to meet in another 14 years to finish off the trilogy," laughs Fran.

Gough Whitlam passed away while they were there. To mark the loss of one of their heroes they quickly wrote a tribute song and released it as a free download.

By the time the Cannanes reach their distant demise, a slew of notable musicians will undoubtedly line up to pay similar respect to one of Australia's most heroic independent bands, sadly still underneath that radar…

Hear Communicating at an Unknown Rate in full right here.

Check out the rest of our 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
Reverend Charlie Jackson – God's Got It by Dan Condon
Bluetile Lounge – lowercase by Andy Hazel

Open