Decades of cultural, social and political exposure have taught us to respect and worship the feats of individuals. We elect Prime Ministers instead of parties, we acknowledge sole contributors for their hard work in collective projects, we consider ourselves in charge of our distinct destinies. We also find it hard to ask for help or to check in on others, and even when we use the collective ‘we’ – we’re usually talking about ourselves. This may seem like it’s always been the case, but individualism, self-reliance and resulting loneliness is mounting on a social level.
Commentators like Jodi Dean and Wendy Brown have analysed the negative impacts of individualism and self-reliance as a parallel to free-market capitalism, while journalist George Monbiot has coined our times the ‘Age of Loneliness.’ These parallels are shown in the loss of collective institutions like unions and parties (and in rising rates of mental illness), but while aspects of this may seem to be a generational symptom, in the arts, the idea of the individual and the genius is a historical mainstay.
In music, the crowd (the band) is often less prominent than the individual (the song-writer or producer), and geniuses are raised on pedestals, negating the community that gave rise to their ‘genius status’. While an individual can often foster a sense of community (and in the case of remarkable figures, can even draw attention to it), the notion of individual art ignores the world that helped build it. In 2008, Brian Eno coined the (admittedly sloppy) term of ‘scenius’ as a counterpoint to the individual genius, calling it, “the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.” In witnessing underground music scenes, that notion resonates with me (even though Brian Eno is talking about it).
I look around at Australia’s underground music communities and I see worlds that operate and feed into each other, building movements and common sounds that don’t exist anywhere else. I see ‘scenius’ every weekend, through ideas that flow into and out of each other that occasionally yield a record, or a memorable live show, or a song that sticks for reasons that are unexplainable. Architect Josep Antoni Coderch referred to individuals and outcomes as “events” of collective thought, and there are certain records that come out of scenes that feel this way for me too.
As the headline to this article suggests, this is a record review about the Snake and Friends LP released in early 2018 through Sydney label RIP Society. It’s a recording project by the busiest person in underground music, Al Montfort–but I apologise to him and his fans as I focus on the ‘and Friends.’ In writing this, I grew to enjoy looking at Al and the Snake and Friends LP as events.
Underground music movements are an interesting lens to view the world through because they form and reform new contexts over short time frames. Bands are made to look, sound and feel as ‘one’ through extensions of a shared moment, as short-lived social phenomena (a city changes when a half dozen new bands form over a few months), or repetitive consistency (a city stagnates when the same bands play in support of each other every week). The underground is in constant flux, because in its very definition, it must exist in opposition to something. Its boundaries are loose, and its centre is hard to place: for it to be ‘underground’ it has to be ignored. Scenes are built around collectives of people who are largely uninteresting to the bulk culture and, on very special occasions, a forgotten collection of sounds form and thrive without the attention of someone willing to co-opt it. Underground movements result in ‘forgotten scenius.’
This idea is pertinent beyond the more obvious worlds such as punk or DIY. The first example that comes to mind when I thought of forgotten scenius was the sound of the Hill Country Blues, a distinct form of music developed in the far North of Mississippi around the 70s-80s, long after traditional blues was co-opted and appropriated in rock music. The limitations of its players, and the locations they played in, created a strange structural formula, which became an underground scene due its lack of commercial appeal. Jamming on one chord, often changing only once (and then back again a while later), it was made for holding a groove at parties and bars: it was cantankerous drinking music that existed for the benefit of nobody but the players and their community.
Central to the Hill Country Blues were people like Junior Kimbrough (whose juke joint was the centre of the scene through the ‘70s-90s), R.L Burnside (whose family was murdered in Chicago when he tried to make it as a Blues musician, before bringing the traumatised sounds back to Mississippi), Cedell Davis (who contracted polio and lost use of his hands, forcing him to play guitar upside down with a butter knife as a slide, thus adding to the sound’s tinny repetition), Jesse Mae Hemphill (the best of the lot, often overlooked by the historians’ insistence on referring to them as the Hill Country Bluesmen), Johnny Farmer (who refused to record, and blamed the devil for striking him down with various illnesses after being coerced into recording) and more. Their records have shared sounds and structures: the community itself is as much an event as any of their individual works.
Moving closer to the kinds of communities and relationships that foreshadow Snake and Friends, are a collective of underground musicians who recorded around the ‘80s and ‘90s in the American state of Ohio. Unlike the Hill Country Blues players, they didn’t have a moniker to rally around, but their disparate recording projects cross over each other regularly enough to build a scene of interconnected sounds and ideas. Their version of scenius culminated with a collaborative event in 1997 with the Ego Summit LP, The Room Isn’t Big Enough (a brilliantly named take on the ‘supergroup’).
The members of Ego Summit (Ron House, Mike Rep, Tommy Jay, Don Howland, Michael Hummel and Jim Shephard, who played in Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, The Quotas and more) threaded music from strange field recordings and experiments to ‘90s indie-pop, all with a flippant sense of humour clashing with moments of defeated depressions. The inspired weirdos recorded to tape, distributed independently, and were stuck with only cult followings that last to this day.
The Ego Summit record is one of my favourite examples of an event of scenius, taking aspects of outlaw country music and tastes of Hill Country Blues, and pairing it with honest acknowledgements of their place in the world. It is the perfect death knell to the 20th century, with cultural icons fading out (“We got Deadheads finally looking for jobs”) and their own scene dying as they do: “You’re not the one who’s getting old / You’re the one who’s dying out.” The depression of the Hill Country Blues led to the fatalism of Ego Summit, and further paralleled the descent of America: they are interesting and ever-lasting when witnessed as events. If we take this notion and then turn towards worlds we’re more intimate with, we can see the formation of new scenius communities, particularly in Melbourne, Australia in 2018, as an event.
The world connected to Al Montfort was drawn together in a mini-issue of Distort zine, handed out as a programme for the only ever Snake performance at the Sydney Opera House. Titled ‘History of Hate, Power and People in Australia, 1986 – 2014,’ it included song lyrics prepared by Al that featured in recordings by Snake, Terry, Total Control and Russell Street Bombings. The zine gives a thematic preview to the 2018 Snake and Friends record: context for songs like ‘Forever New’ and hints at what an instrumental track like ‘Mounting Evidence’ might be circling. The zine is a useful entry point, because it’s Al’s previous work and the surrounding texts that give Snake and Friends meaning as a collaborative event.
The first Snake tape was partly recorded on a four-track while travelling India, with the stilted practice of unusual instrumentation (Sarangi and Assamese buffalo horn) giving the project its unsettling cadence. But the loneliness of the first tape disappears on Snake and Friends, making way for contributions by a sprawling web of interconnected musicians. The record may primarily feature Al playing solo, but it also includes additions from Mikey Young and Zephyr Pavey (who with Al, make up Russell Street Bombings), as well as Xanthe Waite and Amy Hill (who, along with Zephyr, comprise the country band Terry). Further still are the synth contributions of Nick Kuceli (who recently released the NKDX tape with Dan Stewart, who in turn is Al, Zephyr and Mikey’s Total Control band-mate). It’s hard not to witness this web of contributors as anything but scenius in action.
Enlighteningly, Al has always appeared as a contributor to a collective, and it’s no doubt intentional: when Snake started to feel like a moniker, he necessarily added ‘and Friends’ as a clarification. You can feel the strange folk of Lower Plenty on ‘Sight and Sound,’ the unsettled experimentation of Russell Street Bombings on ‘Moe River,’ and parts of Terry on ‘The Missus and the Masses.’ But there is a new (and completely uncategorizable) sound on Snake and Friends. It’s more exploratory than any of the members other works, and it’s hard to pinpoint beyond this intangible feeling of the strange. The record won’t find much of an audience, even with adoring fans of Total Control or Dick Diver, simply because the reference points can’t be placed easily–or maybe because the record has little narrative to latch onto.
Acknowledging records like Snake and Friends as an event, rather than a celebration of one contributor’s song-writing chops, feels like a positive way forward to me. As members of George Monbiot’s ‘Age of Loneliness,’ concepts like scenius seem to be a vital and positive way of framing underground cultures. It gives us awareness that in the underground music communities, groups of people are in this together, and, by association, you and I are too–even as spectators.
The difficulty is that this takes re-schooling. Most people will see music through in-built ascendency narratives that claim that an artist must improve along a linear trajectory to be important. From the bottom of the bill to the top, from a tape to a 7” and then an LP, from a smaller stage to a larger one–it’s ingrained that a group of musicians can’t just create, but need to grow and develop to be considered vital. Healthier narratives would involve the redistribution and infiltration of ideas around a community and scene: it motivates people who have never contributed to join the chorus. I’d advocate more than anything for the breaking down of genius worship in favour of the concept of scenius: it has promise in encouraging contribution to the collective effort.
Max would like to thank Lena Molnar, Toto Shorey, Chloe Allison Escott and Nic Warnock for conversations that helped lead to the ideas discussed in this article.
Snake and Friends – Self-titled LP
Released by RIP Society in February 2018
Max Easton is a writer from Sydney. He was a regular contributor to the now defunct websites Mess + Noise and Crawlspace from 2011 – 2016, is the editor of the TEMPERED music journal and runs the record label Meatspin. He is currently writing a book-length version of his zine series on musical subverts (published by MoodWar in 2017) and plays in Sydney punk bands Basic Human and BB & The Blips.