Back in February, a mysterious post surfaced over on the Instagram feed of Melbroune’s Milk! Records, showing little more than a pallet loaded to breaking point with boxes of stock. With nothing having been announced, speculation soon became rife as to what the new arrivals could be. Come Valentine’s Day the mystery became clear. They were joining forces with fellow local label, Bedroom Suck, to bring out a limited edition subscription-based project, Split Singles Club culminating in new material from the label’s biggest draws – Courtney Barnett and Blank Realm.
Helmed by two labels who’ve always taken the trouble to make releases that have always been well-presented and have felt special as a result, the project that has surfaced is characteristically far-reaching and ambitious. Taking the form of six records featuring a total of twelve artists hand-picked from the wider artistic community rather than their own roster and adorned by Australian artist Steph Hughes’ distinctive artwork on the sleeves, it offers a window into, and celebration of, independent contemporary Australian culture. As it enters its final week of subscriptions, closing on the 8th May, the time seemed right to sit down with those behind it to learn more about its genesis, ethos, and aims.
How did the idea for the project first come about, and looking back how closely do you think the finished project resembles that first idea?
Joe Alexander (Bedroom Suck Records): The idea for Split Singles Club came about after a discussion with some friends about the idea of a label as a brand, or as I like to think of it, a family! We at the label are really into the idea of using the label to gather a group of like-minded artists, sharing a similar approach to music making and maybe even life in general. We felt that Milk Records also approach their label in this way, and it made perfect sense to ask them to share in this project. Looking back, I couldn’t be happier with how the project has turned out – it is essentially a snapshot of a group of like-minded artists who share similar attitudes toward music and are writing great songs, which is what we wanted!
With the inclusion of Steph Hughes’ artwork, the project almost feels less like a singles club and instead a more far-reaching celebration of the local artistic community. Is that something you’d agree with?
Jen Cloher (Milk! Records): Both BSR and Milk have always loved using local artists – we’ve both used Steph for separate label projects so it felt like a no brainer to have her onboard for SSC. I love her work, it’s colourful and humorous. She brings a sense of celebration to her artwork. Good positive vibes. I think unconsciously, being a musician and songwriter herself, she really gets what we’re doing. We never had to sit down and talk about the concept for the artwork, she just went away and came back with something brilliant as always.
All of the descriptions of the artists on the site paint a picture of musicians able to conjure evocative depictions of Australia in their music. Was that the driving force behind the bands you chose, and did you have a particular aesthetic in mind?
Joe Alexander: That’s interesting! It certainly wasn’t intentional, but I’m not surprised as they are all artists of the highest calibre! The driving force behind choosing these artists, and the only criteria for any artist on our label, is that they were genuine artists, making music they believe in because they felt driven to do so. I think that comes across in the recordings.
A lot is made of the community spirit within Melbourne’s music scene. How emblematic do you feel the Split Singles – and its collaborative nature – is of that togetherness and do you feel it’s influenced the project in any way?
Jen Cloher: I think SSC captures the best of the Melbourne music scene. Inclusive, non-competitive, a genuine love for great songwriting. A singles club is nothing new, it’s been done a million times before, but good ideas never get tired. I’ve learnt so much from Joe. He’s one of the most incredibly hard working label managers around. His label has great momentum, there’s always something new and exciting happening over at BSR.
Given both labels have received coverage overseas and have an international following, to what extent have you treated Split Singles as a celebration of local talent? To what extent is it Milk!/Bedroom Suck trying to give some underrated bands, most of whom aren’t even on your labels, some exposure?
Joe Alexander: Definitely one of the key concepts behind Split Singles Club was to expose emerging or underrated artists to a wider audience. We wanted to be playful with the following and exposure both labels have been given internationally, and to use this to place some truly great music in front of new audiences. I don’t think the artists necessarily have to be local (we have artists from Hobart, Melbourne, Berlin, Brisbane, Perth and South Australia!) but they do certainly have to be great music-makers.
Speaking last year Julia Jacklin suggested that Australia’s cultural cringe phenomenon is starting to wane and there’s now a generation of young people willing to embrace their nationality and culture. Do you agree with that comment and do you think such an overt celebrations of local art like Split Singles would have been as well-received a few years ago?
Jen Cloher: I think Julia is right. Since the world has become more interested in what we do perhaps we feel more validated and that’s rubbed off on how a new generation of music listeners view Australian artists. Courtney, King Gizzard – those real DIY style bands that have gone onto do big things overseas are a great reflection back to bands in this country to aim high and get their music out to a worldwide audience. I’m so glad it’s happened and that it’s come from a grassroots scene, that makes us all feel like there’s hope for us and our friends.
When creating Split Singles did you have any preconceived ideas about the degree of international interest and subscriptions you’d have and if so, as we enter the home stretch, do you think those preconceptions have been met?
Joe Alexander: I didn’t really have much of an idea of what international reception we would get, as almost all the artists are smaller Australian artists with perhaps a smaller following overseas, but the results have been great! It’s been interesting to note that a considerable number of orders have come from the U.S, perhaps that’s a Milk thing. I feel as though Bedroom Suck has always had a stronger presence in Europe. It’s also been great to see a few orders from interesting places like Thailand and Croatia!
On reflection, how would you summarise the experience of making Split Singles and does the suffix Vol 1 suggest that you’re considering a follow-up?
Jen Cloher: It’s been a lot of work but I’m so happy we made Split Singles Club happen. The most important thing for me is not the volume of bands or ideas but the quality. I would rather work on three quality projects a year than 30 half baked ones. Everything about SSC reflects Milk! Records and Bedroom Suck’s love for our fans. We want the most beautiful handmade products to arrive in people’s letterboxes. A handwritten note, a cheeky sticker or two, those things really count for something in a world that favours digital and instant gratification. The quality of the music on this release is what I’m most proud of though. It’s always about the music.
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Musically, the projects takes in a variety of styles, and a cast of artists at various of stages in their careers, where charming bedroom pop sits alongside raw garage rock, catchy post-punk and rich blues all bound together by an ability to take everyday observations and to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Having heard from the labels, it seemed only right to finish by asking a handful of the bands what the project what Split Singles Club meant to them. To that end, we posed one question: what was it about the SSC premise that first attracted you to the project, and on reflection how do you feel your contribution fits into your perception of the aesthetic of the finished SSC project as a whole? Much like their music, those we spoke to took a different approach in answering it.
Anika Ostendorf (Hachiku): I was asked to be part of SSC by Milk! and co while actually back in London for a year to finish uni (I was in Melbourne on exchange the year prior and started interning at Milk! then). It sounded like a very exciting project to be part of. I loved the idea of musical cross-pollination and bringing a plethora of different musical styles together in a joint project, especially since my background is quite non-Melbournian [Ostendorf was born in Detroit and raised in Germany] and at that point I hadn’t had the chance to collaborate much with any Australian band. It seemed like a mix and match of Bedroom Suck and Milk!’s favourite artists, almost like a vinyl style playlist and I felt very honoured to be asked to be a part of it.
I guess the SSC project as a whole I perceive as a colourful mixture of quite distinctly different bands and its main appeal, in my opinion, is that it created another community within the already amazing, supportive Melbournian music community. I think my 1/12th provides the project with an international, more European, quite non-Australian influence and it adds to its diversity.
Lehmann Smith: I felt a little out of the music scene for a couple years and Split Singles Club seemed like a good way to jump back into the fray and get up on the shoulders of cool bands. My song might be a touch more downhome countrystyle, but I think it’s got a similar melancholy party vibe as the rest of the singles. I’m loving the SSC so far. It has a real refined everydayness without that don’t-care-too-cool posturing Melbourne usually goes for. I think it’s a good thing, the best of both worlds – sort of shabby but classy, sincere but not lame.
Dave Mudie (LA Mood): I see the SSC project as a great way to release music via a very cool inclusive concept that doesn’t seem to happen enough these days, mail order music is the best!
It’s an exiting way to hear new tunes and be introduced to new artists and it also doesn’t hurt that my favorite Australian labels are Milk! Records and Bedroom Suck so I’m extremely stoked to be working with them on this project. I think my contribution fits into the aesthetic of the SSC by adding a bit of a blues/country twang to the project.
Dusty Anastassiou (Dag): It was really a matter of Joe telling us about the project and running with his energy and enthusiasm to collaborate with another label. Dag are big fans of Treehouse, Primo, Blank Realm and Emlyn Johnson, so it was great to be involved in a project with those bands too; something that was inclusive and community oriented, all about sharing ideas and sounds.
Callum Cusick (Treehouse): My initial understanding of the project was that we’d be lucky enough to have a song of ours put on to one side of a 7” single, and that the other side would have another artist’s song. That was all I knew, and more than enough for me to say yes
In fact, the SSC concept was much more than that. I discovered this months later. A friend’s sister and her partner actually had copies of the singles that had been released so far, and explained to me the concept’s finer points: two labels combine forces; the subscription basis of delivery; the spirit of collaboration and cross-pollination shining through. I couldn’t have been happier to hear that our material was not only in the same beautiful packet as the excellent Hachiku, but that it was also part of a much greater, and unique project involving heaps of different artists! I’m very attracted to the idea of compilations, especially those involving a fairly localised time and place, so it was a great surprise. That night was the first and only time I have seen or heard the singles, so I hope that our offering fits in okay! I was very pleased with how well the visual element of the project tied the singles together, they look unreal – I’ll have to get a hold of them all and have a proper listen.
You can find out more about Split Singles Club and subscribe here.