Blank Realm

Bedroom Suck’s Ramshackle Aussie Underground

Doug Wallen

By Doug Wallen

on 05.08.14 in Lists

It’s only been five years since Joe Alexander started Bedroom Suck to release a tape by his little-known former band Chanbara, but in that short time the label has grown into one of the most trusted names in Australian music. Between a longtime association with sprawling Brisbane quartet Blank Realm — who have gotten more popular and more pop with each album — and introducing the world to the slacker charms of Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Bedroom Suck have staked out a thriving corner of the Aussie underground. And a recent international deal with London label Fire means it can now bring that underground to the rest of the world.

That also means Alexander will have to keep explaining the label’s name to people. “I regret the name,” he admits, over afternoon beers at the hole-in-the-wall Melbourne haunt Hell’s Kitchen. The name is a quasi-sequel to his past illustration work as Yard Hand, itself a reference to his friend getting a handjob in the backyard at a party. “It seemed to me that the next logistical step from Yard Hand was Bedroom Suck,” he laughs. “Out of the yard, into the bedroom.”

He shouldn’t worry: Listeners are just as likely to associate the name with bands that record in their bedrooms and have a certain self-deprecating appeal. In fact, that’s a common thread for the label. “The unifying factor would be that it’s local music and it’s mostly home-produced,” he confirms.

The label started in Alexander’s then-hometown of Brisbane, along with Chanbara bandmate Sam McCabe, but now he runs the label alone from Melbourne, where he moved to be closer to his girlfriend. In its early years, Bedroom Suck was defined by unpolished Brisbane bands like Blank Realm, Kitchen’s Floor, Slug Guts and Scraps. More recently it’s spanned Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne with great albums by Scott & Charlene’s Wedding, Absolute Boys, Peak Twins, Boomgates, Full Ugly and Bitch Prefect, among others. There’s been only one non-Australian release to date: a 7″ for the Boston band Fat History Month, who did a U.S. tour with Kitchen’s Floor in 2011.

Alexander and McCabe started the label in high school after they submitted a tape by Chanbara (named after an At the Drive-In song) song to Brisbane label Handclappin and never heard back. “So we said, ‘Oh, well, we’ll start a label,’” he says. Having spent his childhood partly in Malaysia while his engineer father worked on road-building projects there, Alexander played classical guitar in school and dabbled in cover bands before he and McCabe discovered experimental music thanks to a show by former Can vocalist Damo Suzuki.

Fast-forward and suddenly he was dropping out of college to focus on the label. “I was having trouble committing to more than one thing. I got in trouble for it with my parents,” he recalls, laughing. In addition to the label, he’s kept playing in bands himself, drumming for Per Purpose, Terrible Truths and Tim Richmond. All the while he’s built Bedroom Suck up basically from scratch, first offering his releases on consignment to Aussie and international distributors. Now, with Fire distributing and promoting Bedroom Suck outside of Australia and Blank Realm’s lovable Grassed Inn becoming one of this year’s first breakout albums, suddenly Alexander’s decision to quit school makes a whole lot of sense.

Joe Alexander’s 7 Bedroom Suck Essentials

They were around for ages. They were playing a lot of shows and they were great. Kitchen's Floor covered one of their songs, "Bad Decisions." It became a massive [underground] hit in Brisbane. Everybody would know the words to "Bad Decisions," but only because of Kitchen's Floor. Nobody really knew who Bitch Prefect was. We would go down to Adelaide and stay at their house. They personified the Adelaide scene. Everyone would get together and have beers and have these spontaneous jams. They were just exploring and having fun. It developed into this record. It was a massive leap from this band I'd seen play house shows everywhere. It was really concise. It sounded like a record. "Big time" became like a catchphrase for us. It was about taking the next step.

It's weird: After their record there became this whole jangle thing [in Australia]. I was talking to Scotty [O'Hara] from Bitch Prefect the other day and he was saying it was really hard to make the second record [2013's Bird Nerds]. They weren't just hanging out in Adelaide and having beers and jamming [anymore]. After this record, it became this jangle scene and there were all these jangle records. But they just made a record.

We did these festival things in Brisbane. We named it Deadshits, after a Kitchen's Floor song. This guy Andrew [Cowie] was gonna be in town and emailed me. [The lineup] was already full but we were having this BBQ/after-party thing at our house [and told him] "You can just play this party if you want." So he flew up from Melbourne to play this party and got really drunk and did this awesome set. He had a cassette that came out on Not Not Fun that's pretty amazing. I had a tape player in my car. I wrote him an email, being like, "Hey man, I listen to this tape all the time." I would go on drives at night and just listen to the tape. (Laughs) Then, about a month later, he sent back this new record. The whole thing was about driving at night, so I thought he was having a joke. But then we put out the record.

I spoke to him the other day and he said he recorded a new one that was kind of a super hi-fi pop record. So that'll be interesting. I haven't heard any of it. I think he works quite a lot: he'll just be at home and write a new record in a night or whatever. But there hasn't really been much since that record. I love that record. I was really happy to be exploring a new angle in the label, as opposed to the guitar/rock sort of records.

I was living with Matt [Kennedy] from Kitchen's Floor in Brisbane, and Kieran [Hegarty] from Superstar is a Brisbane guy. He and Matt are really good friends. Matt was like, "Dude, you have to put out this record. This is amazing." At that time, we'd only really put out guitar records, so it felt really weird. I felt really nervous about it. [I was] like, "I don't know how to tell if this is good or not. But I like it." We paired [Superstar and Angel Eyes] together and we had the same release date. I don't know if that was good or bad for the records. They were in a similar vein. They were a new thing for Bedroom Suck. It's fun to try and go down different paths.

They spent years working on this. We were halfway through the pressing when they broke up as a band. They were like, "We're not gonna play shows anymore. This is not really working out." I think that was part of [more people not hearing it]. They were building this whole thing and then they were like, "Nah, pull the plug." But that's a massive favourite of mine.

I was a fan of Ohana, the band [they were in] before that, a post-punk band. It was the good old days of Aussie punk and screamo. I was in high school and on our lunch break we would go listen to Ohana. So we knew about Absolute Boys, and I was at this Camp A Low Hum [festival in New Zealand] and it they got up and they'd do these weird, ambient, kind of dub-y songs. I hung out with this those guys that weekend. Will [Farrier] wrote to me a little while later and said, "Here's our record, if you want to put it out."

This record — I couldn't even believe it. This was like the reason why I wanted to have a label. I was so excited. Leighton [Craig] plays in this band the Deadnotes, who have been around in Brisbane for ages. They ended up doing stuff with [rock critic] Everett True as their vocalist. It was like, spoken-word stuff on top of their music. They put out a record on Soft Abuse, a label from Minneapolis. Then Leighton and Sandra [Selig], this visual artist who does amazing installations, had a band called Primitive Motion. I remember going to their first show. It was at this warehouse party. We just talked and they sent me the record.

It has that perfect balance for me of exactly what I want: It's pop music but also kind of exploratory. The whole thing for a while was that it was all semi-improvised, so they would never play the same songs. They would just do all these different jams. And the whole idea of Worlds Floating By was putting down their "greatest hits." They played in Brisbane last night and apparently it was all new material. So they're constantly reworking stuff.

So, Liam [Kenny] from Bitch Prefect and Joel Carey [from Wolf & Cub] lived together, so they were involved in late-night jam sessions. Liam and Joel always had a really strong songwriting sensibility. They really wanted to do these beautiful, pure, pop songs. They'd record all these songs at home. That evolved into them wanting to make a record. They went "big time." That was really exciting as well.

I've heard of people going into a record store and being told, "There's a new record on Bedroom Suck." And then the people will be like, "But is it the jangle Bedroom Suck or the ambient Bedroom Suck?" They kind of hate one or the other [laughs]. Which is cool. [Peak Twins] probably fall under the pop side, mostly because it's Liam Kenny's project. But that's what I'm trying to work on: trying to make it all one thing. So Peak Twins fall somewhere in between.

They used to have a thing called Audio Pollen in Brisbane. It was every Sunday out the back of this vegan restaurant. In the shed they would have noise bands play. I was still in high school but my mom let me go. I had to bring my [older] brother along. He was bemused by the whole thing. Blank Realm played and they were just these four stoners with long hair doing these psych jams that would go for 10 minutes.

Their record Deja What? was one of the first records we ever put out. They decided they wanted to try and make pop music. It was the greatest idea ever. Fuck, it's a really good one. It's them trying to do simple pop structures, but there's still so much beauty in the sounds. It's exciting to see a band that are so local, and they still are; they still book their own shows. It's kind of like the Eddy Current [Suppression Ring] thing: The band manages themselves, book their own shows. It's cool to see that they can still achieve some kind of success.