Words: James Frostick
Band image: Ben Salter
Today Lutruwita/Tasmania-based trio Free Live Sports releases Stay Grounded, its first ever set of recordings put to tape. Over nine tracks the group cannily cobble together a collection of rough-hewn hooks, rickety riffs and rattletrap rhythms that belie the majority of the group’s neophyte abilities. Prioritising instinct over technique, Stay Grounded showcases the group’s keen sense for sound and ethos of placing fun over fidelity to engaging results.
I know – it’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. Sorry, I guess. I have no excuse for my absence besides the fact that my motivation bottomed out. Enthusiasm towards the purposeful tethering to a typing device diminished and each passing day made the prospect of returning to my old routines an increasingly tougher task. So, why am I back? Well, let’s just say I just needed a catchy enough sound to flush the cobwebs out of my brain and lubricate the finger joints again. Free Live Sports had just the right juice to stimulate, so here I am to tell you the about the how and why. The three-piece unit consists of a few faces you might recognise if you’ve browsed this page before – Stephen Rose and Dave Holmes play in garage-punk quartet 208L Containers, which released an excellent LP called Horseland last year. They’ve recruited first-time musician Madeleine Laing to play bass and sing, while Dave is sitting in the drummers chair for the first time, too. Overall the group boasts a mix of chops and inexperience, but that’s not stopping the group from running before it learns to crawl. Today the group releases its tape Stay Grounded via Rough Skies Records – a corker of a debut that encapsulates the group’s infancy period and earliest steps, which sound more composed that one would expect on paper.
Springy and plodding, scratchy and smooth, contemplative and frenzied – Free Live Sports prove to be a malleable entity capable of pirouetting from pie-eyed pub skronk (‘Faraday’s Fuck Room’) to blues-laced stomp (‘Ipswich Road’) to sleepy strine-infused strum (‘Achiever’). Whichever direction they turn, the trio freely lope across across the sonic terrain, uncaring if their stride is seen by others as ungainly. There’s a sense of low-stakes liberation at play – the kind of exhilarating energy that comes when you’re starting out and every idea is a good one. Free Live Sports isn’t beholden to any of the rules or scriptures considered sacrosanct, because why limit yourself from the outset? There’s plenty of re-listenability and playlist-addition-worthy material here, which bodes well for the group’s future. Technical ability is overrated, so the group needn’t worry about improving proficiency – though I’m very keen to hear what the trio creates when its confidence builds.
I flung a few questions to bass player/co-vocalist Madeleine Laing via the Internet to get some background on the group, its process and her take on Stay Grounded‘s appeal.
I suppose it’s best to start with some introductions! Can you tell me who comprises Free Live Sports and, if applicable, where we might have seen a few of you before?
Sure! Stephen Rose, who was in lots of bands in Brisbane (as seems to be the way in every punk scene): Sydney 2000, Pull Out Kings, Deck in the Pit, and since moving to Hobart is one of the main songwriters in 208L Containers, and plays drums in Mainlanders (an improvised folk-ish band lead by local songwriter Warren Mason).
Dave Holmes has also been in heaps of bands in Hobart – notably Power Nap, 208L Containers, and Liquid Nails. Dave and Steve went to high school together in Bateman’s bay, and have been in lots of teenage bands together. Their band Die on Planes (which they started in Lismore when they were at uni) was notable for being like, unhealthily loud and basically unlistenable. They got paid NOT to play at an art show they were booked at after their sound check, and their best show ever was at a party for people who like to get suspended by their skin on meat hooks.
I started playing bass in 2019 after a trip to Brisbane when I met up with my friends Jack Mitchel and Hayley Atkins and we all talked about how we always wanted to play music but were intimidated to start at a later age (in our late 20s). When I got home I said to Steve ‘I’ve been thinking about learning to play bass…’ and he said ‘ok let’s do it’ and taught me my first song (which I think was King of Rock by Run DMC). Jack is now in the incredibly cool arty poppy noise group Guppy and Hayley’s band Refedex have also just released their first album, so that’s pretty cool!
In regards to the band’s origin story, I get a sense that Free Live Sports began with largely expectation-free motivations. That being said, was there any inspirational drive or conceptual common ground that informed not only the decision to play together, but also what kind of music you set out to make as a trio in the beginning?
Well in 2020 we had a lot of time on our hands for some reason… We were already talking about wanting to start a band for me and Dave to play our new instruments, so when lockdown came around (though it was quite short in Tassie) there was no excuse not to start writing songs. Basically Steve comes up with all the songs and teaches them to me, then we practice them all together. The songs generally come about quite quickly, Steve comes up with a part, we decide if it needs more parts (or, in songs like ‘Ipswich Road’ or ‘Achiever’, that it’s just gonna be a groove).
The initial process of coming up with the riff is the part that takes the longest – Steve kind of struggles between wanting to explore lots of different aspects of music theory and makes complicated, twisty, super melodic songs (at home he likes to play a lot of fingerpicking guitar and country music), and wanting to make fun chord-based pop songs with catchy choruses.
We didn’t really set out to make any style of music, but we all have the same mindset that playing music should be fun, you don’t have to make anything perfect, that having high energy and commitment is more important than playing every note, and I think this comes across in the vibe of songs.
Free Live Sports is a band of firsts – Dave is new to playing drums and you’re new to writing and performing music in general. How does this dynamic feed into the band’s songwriting methodology?
It means Steve writes all the songs! Haha we don’t really ‘jam’ (Dave is perfectly capable but I’m still not comfortable with improvising or making anything up myself) but I think it is still collaborative in a way because we all decide what songs we’re going to go ahead with and what aren’t working, what need more work, what the ‘vibe’ should be. I write all the lyrics that I sing, and Steve and I a collaborate on who should sing what and when.
The sound of Free Live Sports still manages to be sonically diverse, despite its bare-bones aesthetic. How would you describe the personality of the band’s blend of noise?
Steve and I just have very short attention spans, and want to be doing something different constantly. We want to write fast songs and shout, but then we kind of want to keep people guessing not being a total punk band – though there’s plenty of punk influence, we also always talk about “Oh, maybe we should have samples maybe this needs synth maybe I’ll learn to play guitar for this song…” though these things don’t often actually end up happening, we’re not really thinking much about making three-piece rock band music, we’re trying to make music that keeps us entertained. When I first started singing, I was really self-conscious about not having a ‘good’ voice, but Steve just told me you have to perform every show like you’re Freddie Mercury and not give a fuck and I think that’s what we’re trying to do in general – put on an entertaining show even if it’s sometimes abrasive or a bit shit, at least there’s a lot happening and if you don’t like this song you might like the next one!
Your new tape Stay Grounded is the group’s first recording. How long have these tracks been in the oven? Did they come together during a concerted writing effort or assembled over a longer period of time?
These songs were basically every song we’d written between starting the band in early 2020 and recording this in April this year – initially it took a long time to write the songs because every practice was more like a music lesson for me and Dave. We had to have a 15 minutes set ready to play Little Bands for our first gig in October 2020, and it basically took six months for those five songs to get done. Since recording this one though we’ve done almost a whole other album’s worth of songs – things are coming together a lot quicker, and we’re finding more of a consistent sound, without losing the weirdness.
Lyrically, Stay Grounded seems to boast an interplay between slice-of-life and the surreal. Can you share any insight into some of the general themes and topics that feed into the subject matter of these songs?
Often me and Steve will be singing about two completely different things in the songs, which I think gives them a good push-pull feeling. Steve is great at taking a story from the news or childhood and turning it into very abstract, poetic lyrics, whereas I’m often more just singing about feelings and stuff. ‘The Lizard’ is a good example, where Steve’s verses are kind of about finding a surfboard and trying to fix it as a teen, and mine are about kind of isolation and my feelings directly before moving to Tassie. Even ‘The Draft’, which seems like a kind of literal song, is more about realising you didn’t really live up to your potential, or all the advantages and opportunities you had when you were younger, and dealing with feelings of mediocrity and loss. The songs that I sing by myself, ‘Achiever’ and ‘Ipswich Road’, are also the most simple and literal songs on the album but hopefully people find something in the emotion that they can relate to – even after singing them a lot I find them both very raw and difficult to perform.
I’m very new to songwriting, so I have to listen to the song and see what words kind of ‘fit’ in the music, where Steve has a more freewheeling melodic vocal approach.
As an introductory statement, what do you hope listeners take away from their time with the tape?
I hope that they find themselves humming the tunes to themselves, that they hear something that resonates with them, and also something that makes them go “what the fuck?”. I hope that they hear us having fun and being excited about playing music together.
You can listen to the tape in full below, but first be sure to check out the video for ‘The Lizard’, directed by Ben Salter:
Stay Grounded is available for purchase on cassette and digitally via the Rough Skies Bandcamp and in select record stores.