Rising From Down Under
Australia and New Zealand have a long history of exporting influential music to the Northern Hemisphere by way of chart-climbing acts such as AC/DC, Crowded House, INXS, Men At Work, Split Enz, and Wolfmother, among many others. Today, a new wave of artists making the long trek to these shores such as GRAMMY winners Gotye and Kimbra and new pop/rock sensation Lorde are storming the charts and breaking down preconceived notions about what defines the sound from Down Under.
"We don't even know what the Australian sound is," says guitarist Tim Hoey of Melbourne, Australia-based electronic band Cut Copy. "A lot of people associate it with AC/DC, punk rock type of stuff, but there's an amazing bunch of bands that have come out of Australia that I wouldn't necessarily claim have an Australian sound. In this band we are all into really different kinds of music, not necessarily house music or abrasive guitar music. It's kind of everything."
"New Zealand gets most of its culture from places like the UK and America, and that stands for music as well," says David Beadle, bassist for Auckland, New Zealand, natives the Naked And Famous. "I guess in that regard the [New Zealand] sound is a combination of the two."
After garnering acclaim in his homeland, Australian sensation Gotye broke through in the United States with his 2011 album Making Mirrors. In addition to Best Alternative Music Album honors at the 55th GRAMMYs, he won awards for Record Of The Year Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for the single "Somebody That I Used To Know" featuring Kimbra, the video for which has racked up nearly 450 million views on YouTube. Thanks to her Top 5 debut album Pure Heroine and her No. 1 single "Royals," New Zealand vocalist Lorde is stirring up a buzz, while Kiwi singer/songwriter Gin Wigmore emerged as a breakout star on the summer 2013 Vans Warped Tour. And more artists are poised to follow.
"I think the culture in Australia at the moment permits you the ability to chase your dream," says Kim Benzie, frontman for Brisbane, Queensland's Dead Letter Circus, whose 2010 major label debut album This Is The Warning debuted at No. 2 on the Australian album charts. Growing Internet interest led to a few "test runs" in the UK, a sold-out performance in London and a small foray into the United States. Dead Letter Cirucs are currently in the midst of their fourth U.S. tour.
"It's really, really fun being the underdog," says Benzie, who is enjoying the grueling nature of touring clubs across the United States after conquering big theaters at home. "We're not on a bus here yet, we're in a van sleeping while sitting up, driving 10 hours and rocking a show. It's an awesome adventure."
"This [movement] is part of the whole internationalization of music," notes Mark Hosking, guitarist for Perth, Australia-based band Karnivool, who started touring globally after fielding numerous queries from around the world. "The Internet has brought people so close. It's taken geography off the map and made this a musical community that just happens to live in different countries."
According to Beadle, the Naked And Famous never had a plan or "dreams of grandeur," but once the song "Young Blood" took off via YouTube and other online venues, it "instantly traversed across oceans to new countries and to new places. That's what got us off New Zealand, but we never had that expectation."
After the Naked And Famous' full-length debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You was released in the United States and Europe in 2010, song licensing deals came in for TV shows ("The Vampire Diaries"), films (the snowboarding documentary The Art Of Flight) and videogames ("SSX").
Given that their genre-blending dance sounds emerged during Australia's new rock revival in the mid-2000s, Cut Copy sought out audiences in Europe and the United States.
"We felt like we were doing a lot more overseas, then it flooded back to Australia and a lot of people started taking notice, which is a very common thing in Australia," says Hoey. "There are bands who don't necessarily find an audience at home initially, then start doing great things overseas, and news travels back home."
"I think ideally for any band to do something in America or build in America, you can't do it like anywhere else in the world," explains Hosking. "You've got to set up a shop there and really tackle it, which some Australian bands are doing. It's such a big place and is a totally, entirely different market that is constantly changing."
Eclectic hip-hop/rock trio the Wyld hope to come to the States and the UK because they feel their music would resonate well in those countries.
"We find that we're too mainstream for college radio and too alternative for mainstream radio [in New Zealand]," observes vocalist Brandon Black. "I think over half of our fan base is American. The main problem for artists these days is that everyone is connected through the Internet, but there are still geographical issues."
Black says the Wyld have been invited to play South by Southwest, North by Northeast, and various New York and L.A. gigs, but it's a matter of accruing the finances to make the journey feasible.
As an indie band, Karnivool self-finance their U.S. tours.
"Australia is our bread and butter, and we've really used that as a launching point to fund ourselves overseas and push it each time," says Hosking. "To play overseas costs us a lot of money in freight and miles, so it kind of comes with the territory of living so far away from everybody else. You expect these costs to be high."
Benzie says that unless artists are taking risks with their personal money, labels in Australia are staying focused on the big artists.
"It costs $18,000 to $20,000 to bring us here every time, and we are at the point where maybe people will start taking a bit of a risk on us," says Benzie. "I'm pretty sure Gotye brought himself over here. Hopefully people will roll the dice because the quality is there. You can make a serious splash with Australian artists, it's just taking the risk."
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)