With touring on ice, Hugo Race turns inward
Starbirth/Stardeath - Hugo Race and the True Spirit (Gusstaff Records)
Hugo Race: Troubadour, manic perpetuum mobile and musical engine, was fortunate enough to be in his home town of Melbourne while the global pandemic unfolded, trapping him in a world he never made. Gigs were cancelled around the world, his plans spun away...and he turned inward.
Then, outward. Even after the first few songs, it seems clear that Hugo is looking for some sort of reinvention, a crossing of a Rubicon. "Starbirth/ Stardeath" definitely marks a new phase.
Alright, for the uninitiated, I could cite Race's lengthy rep: noted spark in Melbourne's late 1970s and early '80s underground; former Bad Seed (on what is arguably Nick Cave's most sonically extreme album); leader of The Wreckery, and his own True Spirit; writer of books, soundtracks, and songs for other people and songs for us...but that tells you little.
Modern music is filled with zealotry and narcissism, careless abandonment, the overt Covid connecting Thanatos with Eros ("Just Do It", "I Don't Care, I Love It"). But there are a few musicians who are fishers of men; Hugo Race handles 'humans in conflict' themes like a fisherman handles a net. Here is a darker, sharper, more modern Dylan - a sandpapery lightning-rod of disaffection, a man who cries for humanity, for belief, principle, for lost romance and romance found.
Enter "Star Birth/Star Death", Hugo Race and The True Spirit's new double CD - the band's 15th album.
"Star Birth" (cover art by Josh Lord) is the album proper, a flung fisherman's net, mighty in scope, irrevocable as looking up from the stone floor of a cathedral: The great beams fly above us, spreading out, encircling like the warm arms of an impossibly loving parent. There is space and grandeur, yet there is profound intimacy, part of which stems from the immediacy of the lyrics. Race implores us to recognise the obvious:
'It’s a new crush the brain trust/ hive mind rewrite rewind/ falsehood streaming'.
We've all wondered how to put our anxieties, our loss, our grievances, into words:
'You don’t miss privacy/ until your cover's blown/ don’t miss police/ til they’re staking out your homes'
It's hard not to wonder if Hugo had a divine vision of the year to come.
And here we have the nub: Race has taken aspects of areas previously explored, and made a quantum leap into the unknowable. "Can't Make This Up", insistent, creepy rap co-mingles with an early John Carpenter score; the gauntlet is flung down: Race is commercially acceptable, and politically scathing in a way most blunt rappers cannot conceive. No twerking, no hoes or pawgs, bling or gangsta bluff. "Star Birth" is the real deal - human demons facing their fears, telling each other. 'We will overcome'.
While every other songwriter is busy writing songs about either 1) how horrid Covid is, or 2) how I survived lockdown by discovering my inner selfish bore, Hugo was writing songs relevant to our inner confusion which presaged this period long before it started. Maybe he feels that we've been in a sort of moral lockdown for years. In some ways, it could be said that Hugo's songs have a tendency to see beyond the veils and shadows we put up to enable us to live day to day; which gives the impression of having predicted our current long, drawn out crisis.
As the stupidvirus crisis reveals the taken-for-granted she'll-be-right-no-fuckin-worries jury-rigged systems, the bodgy welds and hideous form-first architecture all around us, as if we're seeing all this for the first time, Hugo has always seen it. "We never had control/ in matters of the soul'... watchin' you watchin me ... love is the energy...," he sings in "Darkside".
Q But is it true? Or have I over-estimated the you? I
HR: Well, I don't know, when you put it like that, and I think about songs that I've written over the years, I can see that sometimes there's commentary about the way I saw things happening around me. If I think back to records like "Taoist Priests" and "53rd State", it's pretty clear that I was running a commentary on the forced exportation of American so-called democracy through all the world.
But that was Iraq War time and to me it was like watching the news as a little kid during the Vietnam War when my mum and brothers were going to street demonstrations against the Vietnam War, particularly because my eldest brother was probably going to get conscripted. That situation had a definite effect on me. It became part of my worldview.
And of course I questioned this over the years, like I questioned everything. Being a songwriter is very different to being a commentator, or a journalist. I try to create a synthesis between what is going on in the world around us and what is going on inside me, and inside us moving back and forth between these two different perspectives.
Then comes "Embryo" and all I want to do is melt. There are so many classic songs on "Star Birth". "Everyday" and "United" cry out for "big names" to cover, for TV and film producers to spot and exclaim: 'that's perfect!'.
The second CD, "Star Death" is almost a dub version of the first, an inverse image, nudging and playing with our memory, a puzzled fish in a net so large it is invisible.
Artist Michaelangelo Russo is a huge part of this atmosphere; like the wind moaning on Mars, his approach to music is not that of a musician, but of an artist with a camera. We his subjects are before him, how he portrays us is down to his palette of mysterious implements and machinery - often these things are not what anyone would recognise as a musical instrument. Have you seen his art? Small, bypassed objects come to stand in for the whole, they are, like his music here, a landscape to explore for the first time, like a child.
Live today like there’s no tomorrow
Watchin’ you watchin’ me
We’re the nightmare and the dream
Love is the energy
Just atoms blowin’ free
With "Star Birth" and "Star Death", Hugo Race might just have nailed this whole dreadful year, teetering as we are on the balance of our interior world and a dreadful World War (always imminent, it seems). Hauling on his net, Race sees our inherent contradictions, our essential irrational humanity that despite it all, the better sides of human nature will prevail.
Q: So, Hugo, I know you wrote "Star Birth" before the virus became widely known. What on earth was going through your mind?
HR: The first track on "Starbirth", "Can't Make This Up" is a song I wrote about Trump's election. I remember that morning very clearly, drinking coffee in a hotel café, somewhere in Italy or Switzerland after a late show the night before, feeling bewildered by the speed of events, and then Antonio (from Fatalists) walking up to me with a plate of cakes and saying something like, 'Well, have you heard the news, they elected the Trump'.
And he and I both just really stared at each other in horror because I guess we knew it meant the worst side of the human psyche had been put on the throne of power. And I remember linking the Trump election with the death of Leonard Cohen just a few days before, and having this very strong sense of the shifting of eras.
In a sense, the album started with "Can't Make This Up". It's setting the scene for a kind of spiritualised science fiction take on what was about to happen next. Science Fiction! I started working on that track back in Australia sometime around late 2017, and I didn't know where I was going to use this song.
I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like. But that didn't necessarily intersect with [Race's other band] the True Spirit. This was a new point of departure and it felt right because of this sense of a new era beginning all around us. And, you know, a really dark era. There was one incredible disaster scene after another, Syrian refugees, the collapse of Iraq, Isis, the whole shit-show of revenge and hate bouncing like a pendulum of doom swinging from one extreme to another, and returning to Australia was always grim because the government are firmly committed towards enriching the mining and petroleum lobbies that keep them elected.
So I felt this ongoing sense of repressed horror; everything that was happening around, and I'll add Brexit to that mix. And this was the background of 'Star Birth'. I'm a bit cynical about political discussions but I am interested in the state of introspection, and outrage and hope, or lack of hope that these situations inspire in me, and in people around me. And that's what drives me to write about them.
There's nothing preacher-like, about any of this. It's more just recognition. You could see that every day reality was starting to resemble the narratives of William Gibson and JG Ballard and many others. Quite intensely. And sometimes I felt like other people didn't really notice it. And I found that a little disturbing, as if we were sleepwalking into disaster and I think that's where we are right now.
"Star Birth" really came together in the last half of 2019. "Embryo" was written about the Internet and the way information of all stripes moves across it and what that does to the collective mind. The idea of the virus was more to do with the work of William Burroughs than it was to do with what became coronavirus.
"Expandable" was in the first group of songs, another track that I find really eerie hearing back now, during this discussion of how much is a single human life worth, which is where the whole debate about elimination and herd immunity eventually leads. Are we all expendable? Well, yes, for many powerful people on the planet, we are all fucking expendable. That's your Trump. Your Murdoch, your Putin, your Bolsonaro and the rest of their cronies in Europe and Asia.
I think in millennia past, all that bloodshed, all that cruelty, all that sacrifice, all that torment happening to people whose basic neurology and moral sensitivity was similar, if not the same as ours. So this is a traumatic planet, amongst other and better things. We've tried to recast it as a more commercially viable scenario and 20th century advertising has managed to turn our perceptions around, and then the phony invocations of the Internet have sealed the deal. And yet here we still are looking through the bullshit of things to find the facts, if there are any left.
The second group of songs on "Star Birth" included "2Dead 2Feel" and "Darkside". And I think that these are both key tracks. "2Dead" was partly inspired by the dramas of everybody recently fired from the White House. "Heavenly Bodies" and "The Rapture" reflect on how everything is interlinked, as above so below, Christianity and astrology. I had the music for 'The Rapture' for a long time before I read the lyrics in a fourth century heretical version of "The Lord's Prayer".
In December of 2019, I began recording final lyrics on the tracks that I'd created with the band in my own studio. It coincided with the Australian mega bushfire season. The idea of "The Rapture" was directly inspired by the fires. As in, pray!
The track "United" was completely inspired by the fires. I remember this sense of urgency and of reality transition becoming really intense towards New Year's Eve as the fires peaked and I couldn't help but feel as if this was just an entrée to a greater disaster. Of course II didn't know that it was the virus, but for weeks, I couldn't sleep at night; I was having nightmares. I've never thought of myself as a clairvoyant. But I am an outsider, and an observer of things.
As in my book "Road Series", that was always one of my main motivations to travel. And I think it's that process. That creates the lyrics that I come up with
Q: Now, what on earth possessed you to do "Star Death", the refracted version of the LP? what comes to the fore - what did you expect with this second LP, and did it turn out the way you anticipated?
HR: It started with isolating just the orchestrations or the electronics in the mix – you’d hear completely new songs. When you remove most or all of the voice on a track it becomes a different movie altogether. We started to get this vision of an alternative version of the "Star Birth" album with radically different, unrecognisable mixes that just take you completely somewhere else.
And this was also triggered by something else that I'd forgotten about which was that the original title for the record was 'Star Death'. This was in March 2020, exactly when the virus hit. It was at that point that "Star Death" became "Star Birth", which even to us, changed the way we looked at those songs. Conceptually it made sense.
Then because we had this new second record of remixes, this became "Star Death". If you find this confusing, let me tell you it was incredibly confusing for me and Michelangelo and Nico! In fact it was confusing the entire way through the mixing and mastering as to which fucking record were you working on.
And it continued right up to the cover artwork. Now that we've finally managed to subdue these projects, I understand which is which but for a long time there, there was a kind of dark side schizoid polarity going on. And of course, the implication that I'm trying to make, which is that star death and star birth, feeding into each other in a symbiotic loop. Much like the snake eating its tail.
Q: I don't think you're religious, yet your music retains a strong sense of the spiritual. Can this be traced to a religious upbringing, or was it more the sense of space and place in the blues you were listening to as a young man?
HR: My parents were both confirmed atheists. I went to a church school but I never took the religious part seriously. The first time I felt some kind of natural connection with spirit was through music.
There was a depth and a mystery in music that put me into some kind of altered state, the kind of music I was naturally drawn to tended to be of a mystical character. Growing up with Dylan and Hendrix and the Beatles and the whole psychedelic era suggested that there was something profound going on behind the veneer of everyday life.
My grandmother was a big influence on the way that I thought about such things. She had been a Christian Scientist and came from a Methodist background. The things she used to say to me about the nature of life and death was really the only instruction I ever received on this subject. When I first heard the blues, I was electrified by its spiritual nature. Which led me to gospel.
And, from another direction, I was enchanted by the "Planets Suite" by Gustav Holst, and I followed classical music in that direction, eventually discovering the music of Ligeti through the film "2001: A Space Odyssey", which showed how far out into space music could take you.
Q: You spoke of our global societies "sleepwalking into disaster"; that seems unpleasantly apt at the moment. It seems the critical thinking we were encouraged to do at school was tossed out with the maths and physics notebooks. Or is it true, that there are just more uneducated, as well as thick, folks out there these days?
HR: I don't think that there are more stupid people in the world now than before. If you think about it, mass education is a pretty recent phenomenon. I think there are two things going on in the background here. One is that there are just a lot more people on the planet, so the relative amount of under-educated people is massive. And then you've got to look at where people are getting their information from, uncritically soaking up bogus content online and making those views their own.
But I think what is really allowing us to sleep walk into disaster is simply that people believe what they want to believe. Accepting the reality of climate change confronts many people's belief systems about religion, security and a benevolent natural world. Maybe the pandemic is going to change that, because we've witnessed this global disaster, maybe we’ll recognise how things can spiral out of control.
As regards the popular skepticism about experts and the validity of science, I think this whole situation has been engineered by the gas and petrol and mining lobby in much the same way that the tobacco companies tried to discredit the research on the link between smoking and health problems like lung cancer.
And our government is an active participant in this wave of misinformation. Its denialist agenda hasn’t changed since it got elected seven years ago. I wouldn't necessarily call this a conspiracy, because on some levels it’s just people believing what they choose to believe because it makes them feel more comfortable.
It really is hard for most people to accept that the way of life we've become used to is no longer tenable because of climate change. But profiteers will spin this out as long as they can, telling themselves whatever lies they need to in order to feel as if they have some kind of moral right to behave in this way.
Q: A few more questions, then I'll let you go ... covid has forced many of us into unwelcome areas of self-contemplation, however I suspect you have been in that cathedral for many years. Is that an accurate guess? How does that affect how you interact with the everyday?
HR: I think of all the creative highs and the great nights, the shows you never forget, all the overnight journeys, thousand-kilometre road trips and trans-global air flights connected by haggard exhaustion, jet lag and the constant self-questioning, as to whether all of this is worth it.
Still, nothing prepared me for how I felt when I rapidly understood that the pandemic was going to shut us down for the indefinite future. Today, for example, watching the virus spiking once again in Europe, as it heads towards winter is intensely demoralising. And I worry for all my friends, but I also wonder what this means for the soul, the voice, creativity, joy and everything else. 2020 has given me an extended down period and actually, it's been one of the hardest things ever not to spiral off into a vortex of depression and that's a battle I'm still fighting.
I started on Patreon when I realised there’d be no live music for the rest of the year which turned out to include rehearsing or getting together in any form – we’ve all been in lockdown for six months and we live on different sides of Melbourne. Then our label Glitterhouse decided they’d no longer release foreign touring artists if they couldn’t tour. Not great news. And that's when I thought of Patreon. Because I wanted to continue to create, but I needed an audience to create for. And I needed their support in order to be able to do it.
Patreon allows me to privately share unreleased albums, outtakes, demos, bootlegs ... everything that I've done that is non-commercial or anti-commercial as well as advance release material of the things that I would do anyway. And I'm finding the conversations I'm having with the Patreon's suggestive and inspiring. It’s like playing in small clubs, that atmosphere of intimacy where there's not that much separation, you can see people's eyes. Or think you do.
There is a second memoir on the way but I think it's going to be very different to "Road Series". I think it has to be. It won't be linear in time. Already it's jumping around like spiders. I’m working on it, but lockdown, these last six months, motivation is a real problem. Writing about your life is at best a scary proposition and sometimes it feels better, more natural, to just pick up a guitar and see where it takes you.
Q: You touched on your imperative to create, and that travelling to do that is built-in to that, but also that you question a lot of what that's about. It seems very much an emotional roller-coaster - I find myself wondering why the constant shifting of scene, of visiting different cities all over the world to play. I know part of that is simply financial, but this constant ... running. Are you running to, or from, or a bit of both ...? And, while I'm wondering about this, have you ever pondered where this creative imperative comes from?
HR: I really don’t know why I create, I just always have. I mean, all kids are born creative, but it's what you do with it, how far you go and if you really believe in yourself.
Creativity is some kind of sorcery, birthing new things, ideas, songs. Our music is modern magic and so are the movies. I never saw my cycle of travel around the world and music creation as being running to or from anything. I thought of it more as research, adventure, life.
The world seemed so incredibly vast, I thought there wasn't enough time to investigate it all and that's where a sense of urgency came from. Yes, part of my reasoning is financial, because to keep all the projects going, I have to keep moving and playing shows of all different kinds. But I'm not moving very much at this point in time in fact I'm standing still! And yet it moves!