MONA and The State of Hobart’s Underground Music Scene

For those who have made the trip to the nation’s southernmost limits, few would deny that Hobart stands as one of Australia’s most beautiful cities. Brisk arctic breezes sharpen the senses while sweeping natural vistas of the River Derwent and the ever domineering presence of Mt. Wellington imbue the city with a natural beauty. Well-preserved architecture sees the majority of the mountainous city free from towering mega-developments and forever cast in the grandery of Colonial, Georgian and Victorian eras.

Yet with an ageing population of only a little over 200,000, the cultural output of Australia’s second smallest capital city is often overlooked. To the outside world, it would seem that many of Tasmania’s artists operate in seclusion. Even if  this perception holds true, it’s those at the fringe of pop culture’s periphery who possess the greatest capacity to innovate or surprise.

But things are changing. The opening of eccentric millionaire David Walsh’s “subversive adult Disneyland” the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in 2011 accompanied by the museum’s biannual MONA FOMA and DARK MOFO festivals, has not only garnered the attention of creative minds domestically and abroad but also opened the city up to a new wave of cultural tourism. It’s beginning to rival the traditional hubs of Melbourne and Sydney as a destination for cultural tourism. More so than ever before there’s light shining on Hobart’s underground creatives.

The city’s music scene is no exception. Given its newfound boost cultural prominence, it’s an undeniably vibrant time for the southernmost city. While only scratching the surface, we called on three Hobartian music fanatics to provide a snapshot of the current state of the city’s musical underground.

Vinyl fanatic and co-owner of Hobart’s Tommy Gun Records for the last six years, Adam is well-placed within the local scene. “[The musical scene in Hobart] is pretty healthy I think,” he reflects. “When you work in here you get to know a lot of musicians. It does seem that there are a lot of bands for the size of the population. It’s a small town when it comes down to it but there are quite a few pretty good bands which have come out of the city recently.”

In his view, it’s artists from within the metal scene which are currently making the biggest impact outside of their home state. “Psycroptic and Ruins two big acts touring internationally,” he continues. “There’s also a lot of younger metal groups touring nationally.”

While metal might be a commercially visible genre, there’s a more eclectic mix of punk and indie acts which have been building buzz in 2016. “I’ve really been enjoying Power Nap, which kind of sounds like an early 80’s group off Dischord [Records],” Adam is quick to add. “Underground acts like The Native Cats, who are always great, and Heart Beach have been doing a lot this past year as well.

Adam’s store has welcomed the tourism MONA has brought to the city. He believes the benefits of this increased attention has definitely filtered through to the music scene. “It’s definitely had an effect on business, especially as far as retail sales go,” the shopkeep reveals. But he believes the real benefit is the platform the festivals are giving resident artists to promote themselves and reach a wider audience. “Normally we try to do something in here around Dark Mofo as well,” he adds. “We’ll often have two or three bands playing which might not be playing the festival in-store prior to the big events.”

As a member of local underground act, Naked and the mind behind Hobart’s Wrong Place Records Ronnie Fisher possesses a near encyclopaedic knowledge of Tasmania’s underground music. While themes of isolation are often used by outsiders to describe the music of Hobart, Ronnie disagrees. “[The idea of ‘isolation’] is a running joke for us,” he shares. “We don’t feel any more or less isolated. At risk of sounding Kumbaya, I think the Hobart scene is perhaps more open, collaborative, and less careerist, which is perhaps a necessity attributable to our size. I think bands don’t feel like they have to prove themselves to anyone else, which means there’s space to be eclectic and esoteric.”

He struggles to determine whether the cliched relationship between the climate and the city’s music rings true. “I’d say it’s somewhere in between,” he finally concludes. “For example, it’s hard to imagine a band like Drunk Elk originating in Brisbane.”

He’s initially critical of the impact of MONA. “MONA and the associated festivals have brought increased national and global attention to Hobart sure, but I think a lot of that attention is directed at MONA itself,” he laments. “For outsiders, it’s a reason to come here, but I think there has been less benefit to the underground music scene than people might assume. Bands from Hobart are largely ignored by the festival curators, the same handful of bands are generally chosen to play every year.”

But the ties between the festivals and the underground scene might be strengthening. “With the likes of Quivers and Catsuit playing Dark Mofo’s Blacklist event this year and All The Weathers being part of the 2017 MONA FOMA I’ve got some cautious optimism,” he adds. This said many local artists still capitalise on the increased tourism by planning their own events during festival periods. “The best thing is that those festivals also bring more people to alternative events that coincide with the official shows, both people from out of town and locals who are for whatever reason more inclined to check out music and art if it’s during MONA,” Ronnie adds. “During the festivals, The Brisbane Hotel curates killer lineups; equal parts touring bands, Hobart’s best underground bands and local artists’ installations. Other events such as Hobart + Music = Yeah! and my own Wrong Place Records shows are doing the same. Interstate bands are more interested in coming down to do those shows during festival periods.”

Fisher wasn’t holding back when it came to listing his favourite bands and albums of 2016. “My favourite new band this year is The Foxy Morons, who sound what it would be like if all The Velvet Underground’s songs were sung by Mo Tucker,” he states with genuine enthusiasm. “The standout release of the year is certainly the Centre of Their World cassette by Treehouse. Other great releases include Steven Wright’s album Repetition, All The Weathers’ Tactile Textiles cassette and Wasted Idol’s Free Az LP. [Label] Rough Skies Records also put out killer 7”s from Heart Beach and Mount Trout.”

As a local music fan and frequent contributor here on Howl & Echoes, writer Alex Crellin shares a similar enthusiasm for the city’s music. “There are always going to be hidden gems in any town, no matter the size, but in Hobart it’s really easy to find great artists,” he contends. Crellin doesn’t view the city’s smaller size as a disadvantage. “There’s a really cool level of continuity in the music scene down here,” he adds. “You go to a gig and you’ll see a lot of people you know, just by chance.” Crellin’s standout acts for 2016 include the sound collages of noise artist Olm and the melodic angst of dream pop duo Sarah Lacey Ann.

Alex believes that the impact of MONA is not something to be understated. It’s a breath of fresh air for resident music fans. “MONA has had a huge impact on Hobart in general, and the music scene is no exception,” he states. “Even five years ago, we never really got any big names down here. But now Hobart’s become a cultural island. MONA’s put us on the map, especially for the more hip crowd. Hobart’s now known for more than old things and wine. Even bands that aren’t associated with MONA are coming down here.”

It would seem that even for those who aren’t entirely sold on MONA’s newfound influence, there’s still a begrudging appreciation. Hobart’s growing prominence is affording the city’s tight-knit community of musicians a platform to reach out to a broader audience. In turn, local fans are benefiting from more Australian and international acts looking to bring their music southward. Yet despite the boons the subversive gallery has brought to the city in the past five years, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the talented collection of local musicians would continue to thrive nonetheless.