Mark Butcher formed the idea for his film Sticky Carpet, about the Melbourne underground music scene, appropriately, over a beer with a mate at the Rob Roy hotel – one of the key venues of Melbourne’s thriving scene.
In Sticky Carpet, untrained filmmaker Butcher has managed to create an idiosyncratic homage to some underground legends (The Dirty Three, The Birthday Party, The Cosmic Psychos, Ron Rude) and the next generation of underground acts, including the Hate Rock Trio, Hi God People and Batrider and other performance-based artists who transcend the boundaries of noise and visuals in a way that can’t be repeated in the average suburban loungeroom.
That a film as specialised as Sticky Carpet has screened to a packed house at ACMI and the Melbourne International Film Festival is a tribute to Butcher’s own vision and tenacity – and the power of word of mouth on the radio stations and in the pubs and venues of the very scene he has managed to capture.
Butcher says he felt it was his responsibility to make the film – to make a social document of his little corner of the world; a scene inhabited by a host of colourful characters and diverse sounds. “I’ve always loved documentaries and I reckon they’re getting more and more popular as people who enjoy film get bored with what Hollywood gives them and they seek out truths about the world.”
There are plenty of reasons why Melbourne harbours a disproportionate number of troubled souls – artists and musos who express themselves in ways that mainstream Australian rock can rarely accommodate – and why the underground scene thrives where in other big cities it remains lacklustre.
“Melbourne isn’t a tourist town. It’s bypassed for the glitz of Sydney, but the people that do come here linger and explore what’s under the surface. I think because of the art culture in Melbourne it’s a lot harder to impress audiences – they know their music and they like to be challenged. They don’t want to go to a gig and see the same thing over and over, so a band has to be a bit creative and diverse to make an impact.”
Making his own voice heard was a major motivating factor for Butcher. He describes his film as a ‘rebel yell’, a searing critique of modern mass culture. “I feel that knowing your passion and mixing it with politics is a very real responsibility today. Displacement and disempowerment is something we all suffer from. Allowing yourself to be challenged, engaging in debates, talking to strangers; it’s all vital in a larger solution. Every revolutionary is a social animal.”
In starting his own revolution, Butcher had to talk to strangers too – and famous, recalcitrant ones, at that. “I rang (veteran independent rocker) Roland S Howard every week for six months and got his answering machine. I kept on calling that number, and one day he picked up the phone.” It took a while for some of his other interviewees to open up too – especially since Mark tried to avoid the understandable inclination to have an ale or two with them in their natural habitat. “Getting someone to open up with alcohol is a more difficult business than you’d think. It just gets very messy.” Still, he manages to get some rabble-rousing sound bites from the participants, touching on all aspects of modern culture and politics with a resounding note of disillusionment.
But ultimately what Butcher does best is to let the music and images speak for themselves. He sets haunting, grainy archival footage of some of the seminal bands of the 80s against more recent images from gigs, managing in the process to make the archival music sparklingly relevant and the newer stuff hauntingly enigmatic, which is no mean feat for a first time director with no technical training. The result is a visual and aural cultural history.
“It’s a heritage being passed down. Like folk music which tells the story of a culture and people through communication between audience and artist. In many ways the audience is just as important as the artist because it does the interpretation.”
Butcher reflects that while there used to be more anger and more polemic in the lyrics of a song, there is now an anger in the voiceless white noise produced by some bands. “Sometimes you find just as much anger and rebellion in the darkness of the sounds as in the lyrical content. This music displays a discontent with society, with culture at large – it’s an alternative niche to the popular mainstream inclination for songs about love.”
The venues where people on the scene congregate to participate in the art, the noise and the performance are fundamental to the health of the scene. “In previous eras the pub was a social venue where people met to express ideas. The Union Hotel in Brunswick used to be a place where unionists would meet and literally punch the shit out of each other over their ideas. But you don’t go to the pub to be challenged any more, unfortunately. You go there to be…. sedated.”
The do-it-yourself ethos and intellect of major underground social movements – from existentialism to punk – have informed not only Mark’s approach to putting his film together, but his subjects themselves. “Sticky Carpet does take the angle that music and sound can be so much broader than your pre-formed ideas of music are in the mainstream,” says Mark. “If you look at the Beach Boys and Beatles, who were huge, they did introduce sound diversity into popular culture and really pushed a lot of limits. There’s nothing stopping people from doing that these days.”
Mark hopes that Sticky Carpet will show that good music comes from a need for people to express themselves – through ideas, views, sounds, stories – and that these don’t always fit the mold.
Appeared in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Poster magazine.