This is a story in two parts, across two hemispheres, and two states, if you will. It may start easily, but it ends in complications. Nothing like a Tropical Fuck Storm song, which are never easy.
PART ONE: THINGS GET HOMELY
DOMESTIC TROPICAL FUCKSTORM is the sweetest Tropical Fuck Storm.
Which, admittedly, is not a sentence anyone might have thought to write six years ago when the band emerged from an on-hiatus Drones and began re-arming art rock with more razors and truncheons than a few seasons of Peaky Blinders, and more direct social commentary on our flailing culture than a lifetime supply of The Project editorials. But no less true for that.
As we speak, bassplayer Fiona Kitschin has just finished mowing her Victorian rural property – a big enough plot of land that requires a bit more than pushing the old Victa up-and-down the lawn, so she has a ride-on – but in the background, musical and life partner, guitarist and singer, Gareth Liddiard is taking a Hoover around the house. This is not a ride-on.
How domestic is this scene? Well, apart from the chores, there is a brief diversion into alternative names for a band which even if it did get played on the radio probably wouldn’t be named, and on some festival posters must make do with TFS. A suggestion is made for a Tropical Fuck Storm children’s offshoot, Tropical Fruit Salad. The suggestion bears fruit.
“Young children love Gaz,” says a chuckling Kitschin. “Even the aggressive music. I think it’s because he kinda looks like a Muppet: big ugly eyes and he dances around like a Muppet. So that that could be a really good lucrative idea, thank you.”
The thoughts of the vacuuming Muppet were not recorded, but maybe ABC Kids could investigate a TV episode based on a kinetic TFS live show, when drummer Lauren Hammel and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist, Erica Dunn, complete the lineup. There are few things like it.
Whether as TFS or The Drones or Liddiard’s other sideline, Springtime (with Jim White and Chris Abrahams), mild gigs, temperate gigs, merely going through the motions gigs, are not how they roll. Even the live performance filmed before no audience (except for their dogs) in a shed on their property, for the band’s darkly comic, experimental/arty/Australian Gothic film, Goody Goody Gumdrops, begins at high tempo and ends almost riotously.
“We always just go for it, every time,” Kitschin our laughs. “We just engage with it and let loose. Sometimes you have those magical gigs and it’s like, fuck!, and that’s what we try for each time.
“Everything else in our life is working towards the music, so for the small amount of time we get to be on stage, it’s like the easy, fun part of the whole working week, working year … working decade.”
Given that, it must have been hard – yes, a massive understatement – not to be playing for much of the past two years. They did seem to be filling the space with recording though, including the TFS pre-apocalypse/post-jazz album, Deep States, and this film, both released towards the end of 2021, five film clips, and other projects such as Liddiard’s soundtrack, with Jim White and Dan Lascombe, for Warwick Thornton’s Indigenous vampire hunter series, Firebite.
“We actually had a huge, a really productive year. And I manage the bands, TFS and Springtime, and we also have our own label, which I do as well,” Kitschin says, adding with amusement, “and I mow the lawns.”
They probably wouldn’t have had time to play gigs. “No. That’s probably the upside of [another covid year]. But we had this incredible year lined up for 2020 overseas, with every amazing music festival in Europe over the summer, so that was pretty devastating for us. But there’s always next year.”
Or one day. Maybe.
“Oh, don’t say that. What a nightmare.”
Well it’s sort of happening now with an Australian tour that started in country Victoria last week and finishes in urban Tasmania in the middle of next month, but the US and Europe is no closer.
If it happens, anyone who has seen Goody Goody Gumdrops would be hoping that it features the venerable bus that is dragged out from a shed for some seriously questionable transportation on their property. Old? Decrepit? Plenty dangerous? Yeah, and the rest, Kitschin admits.
“It’s parked under a tree now. Just needed to move the bus out of the barn/shed, so we could play the gig, but then Nina [Renee], the director, said can we film you trying to started because Gaz had been trying to start it the previous two weeks and it wouldn’t budge,” she explains.
“I don’t know anything about fucking cars, but I think the fuel pump was broken so Hammer [Lauren Hammel] had a water spray for the petrol that she was spraying directly into the fuel thing.”
Yes, on-screen it is as weird and scary as that sounds, even if, like me, you had no idea what it was Hammel was squirting but knew in your bones it couldn’t be good. I point out that in the film Kitschin is conspicuously sitting some way back in the bus, away from Hammel and Liddiard and the spray bottle of petrol.
“I’m kind of a scaredy-cat and I was near the fucking exit. They were saying if it explodes and there’s a fire, we’ll go out the back door. That was me, safety first.”
This may come as a surprise, but there was no OH&S supervisor “on set”. This may come as less of a surprise, the bus is not quite roadworthy. Victoria Police, if you’re reading this please look away now.
“We’ve got a friend down the road who’s got a car club and we were able to get a special club permit, these numberplates, and a few years ago we drove it to a music festival some 50km away,” says Kitschin. “One of our friends had a bus licence but he was sweating because we had to go on the highway for a bit, and there was no brakes, absolutely no brakes, and we were just smoking and drinking in the back, having cocktails. He was shaking when he got out.”
Yeah, ok. Maybe that children’s show should be put on hold for now.
PART TWO: THINGS GET TRICKY
Between speaking with Kitschin and this story appearing, Tropical Fuck Storm’s shows in Sydney, as part of the Sydney Festival, became part of a larger, more fraught and more complex debate.
The Festival’s acceptance of a sponsorship from the government of Israel, in association with an Israeli dance company’s participation, prompted calls from a number of community groups and some artists critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, for the festival to return the money and disassociate itself from that government.
When this did not happen, the calls broadened to a request for artists to withdraw from the festival, which a number of them did. Initially, TFS was not among the withdrawals, and some critics online accused the band of a level of hypocrisy, citing lyrics and commentary prior to this dealing with dispossession, government abuse, minority oppression and media control.
The band released the following statement.
“Unbeknownst to everyone out there in internet-mob land, we have been doing our best to talk to Sydney Festival about the possibility of them refunding and ending their partnership with 2022’s star sponsor (the Israeli Embassy, who donated a paltry $20,000 to some dance group). Rather than immediately announce online that we’d jump ship, we thought we’d actually try to do something in the real world for everyone involved and try to encourage Sydney Festival to do the right thing and fix the problem they created, that problem being Sydney Festival taking on a sponsor so dodgy, pointless and controversial it would inevitably mean that hundreds of unwitting artists (who are having a rough enough time with the pandemic as it is) would become the targets of online harassment, bullying, smear campaigns, ridiculous accusations, misrepresentations and abuse from total strangers who have no idea what’s actually going on behind the scenes, what any artist’s position is or even what they’re talking about.. It is a problem we didn’t create and one we weren't aware of until about 48 hours ago. At the time of posting, Sydney Festival has stated they have no intention to refund the money or sever the sponsorship relationship, even though the shit sandwich they’ve landed every billed artist in is blatantly obvious to them. Due to this complete lack of respect and integrity towards the artists billed from Sydney Festival and its partners, we have decided to cancel our two appearances. We want to apologise to our fans who have made arrangements to come to the show; we appreciate you all. When we do finally get to play for you, Sydney, it is going to be a corker. We will see you soon!”
Tropical Fuck Storm will play:
Princess Theatre, Brisbane, January 30
Torquay Hotel, February 11
Uni Bar, Hobart, February 12
The Forum, Melbourne, February 13
The Charles, North Perth, April 22
Freo Social, Fremantle, April 23
The Gov, Adelaide, April 24