Interview: MAX EASTON – MEATSPIN RECORDS

Words: James Frostick
Image: Jonno Revanche

Meatspin records has been responsible for putting out some of the most exciting sounds emanating from Sydney’s underground music scene. Ahead of a flurry of new releases, we chatted with Meatspin’s head honcho (and music journalist / musician of note) Max Easton about the label’s genesis, its creative ethos and how small-scale labels remain the lifeblood of Australia’s fringe music industry.

Sydney’s an odd place. No shade – I’ve always enjoyed myself when visiting the city, but I think a lot of its residents there share a sort of love-hate relationship with it, especially when reconciling its outward persona as a leading new-world city and centre of business, and its internal attitudes towards the arts and culture and the slow strangulation of its nightlife. As far as its music scene goes, Sydney is a city of give and take. While cultural festivals love to spotlight the artistic effort existing in the fringe, those that create outside of the mainstream tend to do so in fragmented bubbles, simply because accessible, safe and open spaces that can facilitate cross-pollination of ideas are hard to come by.

That is changing, though.

Sydney’s musical lineage remains strong, and these days a concerted effort is being made by those heavily involved to jumpstart a movement by curating diverse line-ups that traverse genres. These days, it’s not uncommon to catch an abrasive hardcore punk act, a warped electronica outfit and an off-kilter R’n’B unit performing on the same bill. The resulting patchwork tapestry is the perfect aesthetic counterpoint to Sydney’s polished, money-driven and restrictive sheen, and it’s the city’s independent labels that are wielding the unifying needle and thread.

Meatspin Records is a new-ish label that has quickly drawn attention for its tasteful catalogue and assortment of acts – ones that blur aesthetics and put out music for the pure joy of putting out music. It follows in the footsteps of other fantastic Sydney labels such as RIP Society and Paradise Daily Records – wherein it exists without a commercial agenda, only an unadulterated fixation on creativity in its purist form. Since dropping the phenomenal Tim & The Boys LP and cassettes from Basic Human and The Baby, the label has quickly built up momentum for a big 2019. Max Easton is the mind behind Meat Spin – his name might be familiar to some, he is a music documentarian in his own right, penning pieces for Mess + Noise and Crawlspace, as well as his own publication TemperedAhead of the next spate of Meatspin releases, we flung a Q&A back and forth to get a sense of Max’s angle and ethos when it comes to the label’s direction, and what he’s most excited about for his forthcoming releases.

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Before the label, you spent a considerable amount of time documenting Australia’s scene with words. What would you say was the most exciting element shared by most of the bands that resonated with you enough to write about?
It’s difficult to identify one element, but maybe their status as independent musicians with a vision for making something unique? I’ve been putting together a collection of my last decade of writing that I want to publish somehow, and while I’ve been reading it I feel like that’s a unifying characteristic. I obviously love when the ambition is to make something great without being tarnished by an urge to make money off it.

In regards to Meatspin, what was the core motivator behind firing up the label initially?
I’d just moved back to Sydney from a year living in Montreal and began to feel a bit of a storm coming. I think a lot more people were becoming interested in starting bands, and there was an energy around it but not a lot of infrastructure to help it turn into releases. The main Sydney labels were overwhelmed, or had grown to a higher scope than first-time releases, so I wanted to try to help out in a way. It moved a lot more slowly than I hoped because I didn’t think smartly about cashflow, I just hit my credit card limit too quick and then had to scramble to get it back, but it’s coming back to life now (the label/enthusiasm, not the credit card: that continues to stay maxed out).

Was there a gap in Sydney/Australia’s music scene that you thought you could fill with Meatspin? If so, what would you say the label is catering to?
Not so much a gap, but there was a lot of unfocused noise in a way. I wanted to help collate things and begin to create a hub that people could look to for some new things from Sydney. RIP Society and Paradise Daily Records have done a wonderful job of that – you could look to them and know that there was a likemindedness and variety across the artists they put out. Maybe I wanted to start something that helped them in a sense, or to be a bit more grassroots-y and focus on lifting up new artists rather than continuing to defer to established ones.  

In a related sense, does the label have a core ethos or mentality behind how it operates/what kind of artists it chooses to align with?
It aims to unify a lot of disparate and typically quiet voices into an umbrella idea. Every band on the roster interconnects with another, and gives to each other – members cross over and care about each other, and I’m pretty confident that every member of every band likes each other’s bands or each other as people at the very least! It aims to demonstrate the importance and value of new contributors to a band or sound, and encourages the ‘make noises with friends and see what sticks’ idea of music, rather than the idea of virtuosity being a sign of greatness. Just as an example, the drummers in Basic Human, The Baby, MUM and Xilch are playing drums for the first time on those recordings, the singer of every band (all those as well as Tim & The Boys) are singing for the first time, and the rest of the roster is mostly first-time guitarists or bassists or keyboardists. The label will never be about trying to highlight brilliant, technical music, but it’ll highlight interesting, unique people and ideas.  

In regards to what you choose to release through Meatspin, what makes an outfit suitable for the label’s roster? Is there a quality you look for?
I guess I look for good people who have the priority of giving back to the people they play with as a first call. Group-mindedness, or community mindedness maybe – the idea that your music isn’t about making you more well-known, but about creating a world of common interests that brings people together. I think when it comes together like that, you’re collectivising, and there’s the potential of pooling thoughts and ideas in a way that’s musical, but also political. I think it’s no accident that good underground music communities usually have a united social and political vision, and I want to deal with bands who are also passionate about that idea. I don’t think you write profitless music to discover the best rock’n’roll riff of the year and sell all your LPs and headline a festival, but are maybe there to build something that means something.

You’re currently building up momentum ahead of a string of releases – what is it about these acts and the material itself that you’re particularly excited about?
Maybe the connectivity of the people in the bands? The next few releases are starting to show that there’s a world of people in Sydney who have similar interests and ideas about what music can offer to people. Del Lumanta and Andrew McLellan who are Call Compatible and Enderie are both incredibly busy in the community, through organising, recording, playing, and I was very excited to do a split tape with them and highlight their contributions across Sydney. Similarly with MUM and Xilch and Basic Human, everyone is working hard at building something in this city.

In your opinion, what is the role of a small-scale label operation in Australia’s contemporary underground scene?
I think it lies in platforming and highlighting small and outsider communities – that collectivising I was rambling about before. I think it’s important also to focus on communities and inter-related ideas, and labels can often do that, but it’s important to notice connections across labels too. I wrote an article about that for Difficult Fun a while ago, this idea of ‘scenius,’ where groups are to be encouraged over individuals. I think there are ideas in there that might tie into what small-scale labels can do, and often have done historically.

You also perform in a bunch of bands around Sydney – what sort of music do you personally prefer to create and perform as opposed to release? Or is there no such separation between the two?
I’m a bit limited in what I can do when I play an instrument, so I feel I have less control over it. I think I try to feel the room and let the riffs or drum parts or solos or whatever be an extension of that feeling, which sounds very 1969, but it’s very unplanned when I play music. I don’t practice at home or really do anything musical outside of the bandroom, and since everyone’s so busy in Sydney, that might mean three hours a week to write, rehearse and play. With bands I want to release, I can usually have a good think about it, about the people in the bands and their values, what the band itself is doing, what sounds they’re mining or generating… I can have an opinion and ask a band because I love them. I love the bands I play in, but I have no idea why or how I do anything on guitar or bass or drums.

Getting real for a spell – what are some things bringing the scene down?
I think its biggest downfall is a failure to communicate within and across scenes and communities. There are lots of bubbles that are falling to the reconfiguration of online networks from record stores, to message boards, to personal social networks over the past decade or so. There’s a lot of good things happening, but with few central and open spaces to communicate the existence of a show or album or the ideas behind them, people get stuck in bubbles. I don’t know how to break this down or change it either, that aspect is feeling difficult, but not yet futile.

Time for some plugs! Beyond the acts that you perform with and distribute, what labels/bands/organisations do you think are doing amazing things in/for Australian music?
The people behind the Anticolonial Asian Alliance and Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (and related groups) are engaging with music communities in addition to the broader culture, and in doing so create a bridge that I think is important in bringing their mission statements to sub-cultures. In that bridge, there’s potential to be influential on a level that’s bigger than music making. The Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) in Parramatta has been very active in creating a hub for grassroots music and organisation in Western Sydney, and we’ve played a few shows there which have been great. They also facilitate programs like All Girl Electronic (AGE) which are focusing on information exchange and community building in a demonstrably positive way.  

There are other pockets in different cities which are great. The new Brisbane bands are beginning to collectivise and community build in a really interesting way, seemingly around the incredible band Soot (and surrounding bands like Pious Faults, Sorry Golden State and Brick Brick), who make their own zine that focuses in on Brisbane and Australia’s underground communities. It’s a scene that’s unlike anything anywhere in the world, and is being done in a way that I think the rest of the country should follow.

Head to the Meatspin Records Bandcamp to get around its excellent back catalogue, then get ready for the forthcoming releases!