Nicola Morton Interview: “I cannot believe I taped over Thriller!!”

Nicola Morton is an experimental artist, musician and organiser originally from Brisbane. After the close of their DIY venue Real Bad Music in Brisbane, they later co-founded the Life Groove Cafe in Sydney with Matt Earle (Breakdance the Dawn) in 2015. Nicola currently resides in the Hawkesbury, and works in Western Sydney on programs such as All Girl Electronic (AGE) and Club Weld, which, broadly speaking, help facilitate the sharing of knowledge and skills across music.

While facilitating a recent AGE workshop, the visiting mentor for the week Jannah Quill spoke about the importance of having a community of peers to ask questions and how it enabled them to find their direction. She stressed that there are plenty of folk almost everywhere with know-how who are happy to share—it’s often just a matter of figuring out who the people are, and asking. Jannah excitedly pointed at Nicola and said “You’re in the room with an experimental music icon!” The class turned their gaze to Nicola kind of surprised because maybe it was the first time they’d heard their facilitator spoken about this way. Nicola chuckled nervously. I raised my hand and said “It’s true!” After the workshop, that scene stayed with me. It got me thinking very deeply about how often POC, women, trans and non-binary people in DIY music scenes are continuously overlooked when it comes to acknowledging their contributions within their communities, and the result of this means that it takes longer to connect with younger peers.

I first knew of Nicola through releases by Breakdance the Dawn, a now Sydney-based label, and from attending shows. The music I listened to in my early 20s, released by Nicola, embodied a rebelliousness that was different to plenty of DIY garage and punk music from this period because it didn’t affix itself to any fashionable aesthetic, nor did it operate using a linear process—where the promotion of materials and tours were organised around an upcoming release. Sometimes Nicola’s music would just appear on various label catalogue listings and it would take time to connect the dots and figure out who was in which bands. Often the answers would only ever come from seeing something live and/or being in proximity to a bunch of epic nerds talking at shows. Approaching my 30s I still feel this way about Nicola’s practice, except it’s a little less mysterious because we’re mates and work colleagues (we’re both facilitators) at AGE.

In this interview I wanted to ask Nicola a number of things I didn’t know about them before: about their latest release under their electronic project EQUALIZER 24K (E24K), which is titled Lost & Found Compilation (put out through Melbourne label Vacant Valley). We also talk through their thoughts around community based workshops and why alternative spaces have become necessary in a period when ‘DIY ethos’ is talked about a lot.

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Can you recall the very first show you played? What do you remember?

It was as Equalizer 24K for 4ZZZ community radio station in Brisbane in 2001. I had submitted a track for the callout for the Gizmo compilation, an electronic compilation the station was putting together, and I still couldn’t believe it was picked. The show was a launch for the compilation at a new nightclub. I was so nervous but everyone was actually so nervous and people slam-danced and everything. I remember it being hard to get a full set together, the set was short and fast, somewhere around 15 minutes.

What is Equalizer 24K? How did this project come about?

I was in an angry headspace in my early 20s and Equalizer 24K was an anime action figure that was supposed to bring revolution!! Yah!! Break down the system!! When I searched it I found The Equalizer graphic novel (what the Denzel Washington movies are based on) and I thought that was perfect.

Also, everyday I would listen to Atari Teenage Riot, I was really obsessed with revolution and fucking everything up. One day I made my own song in a DAW (digital audio workstation) called Cubase. I was studying music at the Griffith Conservatorium in Brisbane, but I’d never made anything on my own before. Because of that first track I made getting picked for the Gizmo comp, it set me on my path through community radio, DIY communities, DAWs, synths, improvising and being broke as a musician. As I got older I managed to fix up my life better and the anger is less up-front now (no more lyrics about being a suicide bomber).

I still release solo recording projects as Equalizer 24K.

How did you go about selecting the songs featured on the latest E24K release? What was that like?

When my friend Peter Bramley suggested getting a compilation tape together for Vacant Valley, I had a bit of an emotional meltdown. I had deleted all the old E24K stuff on my hard drives. There were lots of things I wanted to forget from the beginning years of E24K—like an abusive relationship, me taking it out on punters, throwing ashtrays and plates at people during shows, etc. It was hard for me to be confident about the music I made during that time because, back then, I wasn’t a confident person.

But sometimes fate steps in, and part of the glory of now living in the bush is playing cassette tapes because you don’t have enough power for the TV. So our floor is a mess of tapes and one day Matt pulled out Thriller by Michael Jackson, but ahoy, it was actually one of my live tapes as E24K. (I cannot believe I taped over Thriller!!). My live setup back then was vocals and a tape player or minidisc through distortion and a multi-effects pedal. I cannot believe we found that tape, and in the end decided that the tape I found was what the newest release should be. I also wanted to put stuff I’d been making recently on it.

When did you start writing horoscopes and do they influence your musical output?

In the beginning E24K years I used to have coffee every morning with Laura (Scraps) and we would read our horoscopes. When I started Real Bad [more on this later!], Laura and I were sitting on the verandah watching the traffic, and put together a plan for a fortnightly newsletter where I would write the horoscopes, her sister would do recipes and Laura would write the news. The newsletter never came to fruition, but I did end up doing a lot of research into astrology. So much so it became part of my artistic output which I called #moonpsychics, where I observed the conditions of the full moon/new moon and how it affected my ‘psychic’ ability with a series of tests. I don’t do the tests anymore but I do the fortnightly email newsletter still. It’s nice because almost every prediction affects someone, and they’ll reply to let me know. For ISH (SafARI’s** 2016-Late night website program) Benjamin Forster asked me to compile a playlist for #moonpsychics and that’s when I started to associate the moons with music.

Fast forward to now, I have also started naming my own tracks according to their moon feel, for example the song ‘New Moon Taurus’. Since 2015, my solo music has been without lyrics (last song I wrote was protesting Westconnex) and I found it hard to title music without lyrics, so #moonpsychics has been a win-win for me.

You contributed to both Real Bad Music in Brisbane and Life Groove Cafe in Sydney. What were some significant differences, similarities and/or highlights you recognised between these spaces?

In terms of how Real Bad Music started, Matt and Melanie Jade Simpson from Craft Bandits found a house in Moorooka in Brisbane (a former sex store and hydro store). It was on the highway and Matt and Melanie turned it into an awesome jam space—there was even a small music store for a while there.

So I was still living in Berlin when Real Bad started, and my first encounter with the space was when my friend Leif Gifford took me there to a huge jam. I remember the junk xylophone under the stairwell and there were all these instruments just laid out for people to play. I started living there and putting on shows from 2013-2015.

The building that housed Real Bad Music was iconic. It was located in the (almost outer) Western suburbs, and people who visited would often be inspired to write something poetic/libertarian and share it online. A real special community developed from the space. It was radical, DIY and messy. For example, in the same afternoon I made and shared a funny video on how to flush our toilet, I also made some extra $$ by making and selling hand screened ‘Real Bad Music’ shirts. We were lucky to be right by a train station and have no near neighbours. We used entrance money to buy beer and make dinner for the bands playing. That’s a common thing between the two, Real Bad Music and Life Groove Cafe, it’s nice to share drinks, food, good times and music. But to restrict it to just during shows was not enough, so both at Real Bad Music and Life Groove Cafe we had weekly drop in jam nights. These really kept me going as a musician. It pushed me to try to find something new to play and it was a challenge learning to play with a lot of different people.

Life Groove Cafe was from 2015 to 2017. It was a lot smaller, and had a sound curfew with one neighbour, and due to these considerations we focused on experimental music. It was hard to decline rock bands, but a community grew despite the rock dog. At Life Groove, people still ended up spewing in our bathroom but most of them cleaned up after themselves.

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Audience at Real Bad Goth Night. Photo thanks to Blanket Canvassing.

Do you miss Brisbane?

Yes. In particular I was so sad when Real Bad Music burnt down in 2016. I was secretly hoping the whacky landlord was keeping it for us to return to. There’s something unique about the scene in Brisbane. When you are making music it’s kinda isolated from everything else. That’s why the indie pop music from there can sound so odd. You can be in a million bands because everyone has the time to hang.

Being responsible for a creative space over a period means that you get to see folks in those circles try out new ideas/grow. Do you see similarities in AGE?

I think about that all the time. The weekly AGE workshops are similar to our previous weekly jam nights. The theme really is social group. The position music has in our society today means musicians need support from each other. Nothing speaks this so plainly as AGE, where the additional disadvantages of POC, socio-economic backgrounds and locale are brought into the mix to fight the lack of diversity in gender identities and culture in electronic music.

The key to creative development in these spaces is meeting up, talking, sharing. A mentor or a fellow participant who comes to the jam night can inspire someone into a whole new trajectory, like field recording air conditioners, or even just a new free plug-in or sample pack. There’s also a lot of life moments to grow from too, music is a way for many people to cope with their issues and having a safe space to share. All of that really helps.

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Clarissa Mei & Nicola Morton at AGE, Information and Cultural Exchange, 2018.

As a mentor for AGE, are there any topics you have found difficulty in sharing and/or needed to mull over before you discussed them? What were they?

Because of our job description as facilitators, I have a bit of difficulty sharing my life history. Instead I tend to focus on the technical and skill building. However, I was really moved by the recent story of a mentor named Thaylia. It struck me how to acknowledge what’s happened in your life is equally as important as telling people where you learned music and what shows you’ve played. It really breaks down the barriers in class, and you can see how chatty everyone is after someone has shared part of their story. I’m still a bit nervous about sharing my story. I’m afraid of crying, but I’m actually getting inspo from our participants—it’s time to embrace that AGE is a safe space for me too.

Are there needs you recognise within the AGE participants that are similar to those who attended spaces like Real Bad and Life Groove Cafe?

Yes, at all these spaces there are people who come and you know that the space has made a difference or goal in their day. There’s no pressure to play and people can just be free about their passion for music and appreciate others. Developing creatively needs to be as free from your day-to-day worries as it can be. And sometimes there is nothing as soothing as creating a giant noise wall, or hardstyle beat…

Another important need that these spaces have addressed is the need to belong. For instance it’s really disheartening to see how many AGE participants are affected by racial abuse, and it makes it clear how necessary it is to have open creative spaces. In the music we make, we can open ourselves up to ideas that music is social, it can be more than just hit singles and/or being technical.

**SafARI was an independent art festival in Sydney that ran parallel to the Biennale of Sydney with a focus on artist run spaces.

Equalizer 24K – Lost and Found Compilation
Released by Vacant Valley in April 2018

Nicola Morton’s Projects – Past, Present and Future
Equalizer 24K 2001-present (solo electro-punk, noisy)
Abbaabba 2006-2009 (freehcxpunk)
Wardenburger 2011-2015 (improvised free folk/noise)
Club Sound Witches 2012-present (minimal techno/noise)
Bad Intentions 2012-present (2 girl duo changing instrumentation, text based)
Sun of the Seventh Sister 2012-present (anonymous freek folk improv collective)
Tracey 2013-2015 (improv intersex and girl group)
Xwave 2013-present (garage rock covers and originals done real bad and noisy)
Life Groove Orchestra 2015-present (Sydney free improv collective)
Vavenge 2015-present (inspired by the dearth of emotions on Parramatta rd, Leichhardt)
Cutlery 2018 (duo with Del Lumanta, first show Aug 31 2018!)

Del Lumanta is an artist, musician, dj, producer, educator and organiser based in Sydney.

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