Rock and Roll Organisms: The Strange Case of Volvox & Antony Riddell
It’s a bitterly cold, grey Saturday. The wind cuts right through me as I walk up toward Federation Square in downtown Melbourne. I’ve arranged to meet Greg Wadley who runs the Spill record label and performs as New Waver, a music and art project focused on failure, mental illness, gentrification and dread in Australian suburbia. As I walk up through the Square, sound blares from multiple video art projections, bands and buskers, all competing for the crowd’s attention. Children scuttle between my legs as they run towards giant interactive sculptures, manifestations of Melbourne’s heavy public investment in the arts and, by association, the inner-urban families that enjoy them–people that are most likely the antithesis of Greg’s suicidal suburbanites.
Through the creative cacophony I see Greg sitting outside the Chocolate Bhudda café, looking slightly apprehensive. I approach him and introduce myself, shake his hand. My jittery banter doesn’t appear to make him any more comfortable. We have a mutual friend in Glenn Normann, one time member of Melbourne group Volvox. I used to visit Glenn at his place in Brunswick in the mid-2000s, a decaying weatherboard house on Albert Street. Rolling and chain smoking cigarettes, he introduced me to strange music like P.16 D.4, John Waterman, The Door and the Window, and 60s girl groups like the Crystals and the Shangri-Las. He had a photocopied poster from the English anarcho-tabloid Class War in his room that read, “We have our own concept of time and motion,” along with a cache of cassettes produced by radical Islamic groups. Glenn was known for his bizarre sense of humour: he would often make insane prank calls to indie rock scenesters, was obsessed with bizarre conspiracies and had been known to literally wear a tin foil hat. By that stage, Volvox was long gone, and Glenn had moved on to minimal electroacoustic compositions and field recordings, sporadically performing under names like The Voice of Invisible Speakers.
Volvox consisted of Glenn (aka Reg Egg), Dave Taskas (aka Reg Egg), Christine Thirkell (aka Reg Egg) and Antony Riddell (aka Reg Egg, aka Lester Vat). Greg Wadley co-released a trilogy of Volvox CDs on his Spill label between 2000 and 2005, in collaboration with Lucas Abela’s Dual Plover label in Sydney. The trilogy was a reissue of the band’s first three cassettes, self-released in the early 90s.
Volvox was an anomaly. Vocalist Antony Riddell describes the group as a ‘rock and roll organism,’ and it is a strange, lurching thing that sounds like it bubbled up out of the drain of a mouldy Melbourne share house. Greg laughs when I ask him about Volvox’s live performances, “The first time I saw them it was Lester Vat walking around babbling, coming out with this weird stuff, and all the other people had rubber hoses. They were walking in a circle around him making noises like trumpets. It worked really well visually and as sound. It was as far away from laptop sound art as you could get. It was just really over the top.”
Greg has been known to indulge in provocation with his own band, New Waver. He recounts how he has often performed alone and naked, with only a synthesizer between him and his audience. “The worst crime is to be boring,” he says.
“After I saw them at that party,” he says of Volvox, “I started seeing them at venues a lot. They were my favourite group for a long time. I really thought they were going to be huge. I really thought, These guys are so incredible, that they were going to be as big as the Birthday Party or something. And for similar reasons, they were just really over the top and everyone loved them.”
Speaking via Skype from London, experimental musician Oren Ambarchi remembers walking into the middle of a Volvox performance in 1993, while touring Melbourne with his then-band Phlegm. “I remember just being really intrigued and baffled about what was going on. I think it was one of the first things I ever saw live in Melbourne. The scene in Sydney was really interesting but seeing that off the bat just completely blew my mind. I thought, Where am I, what is this place!
“I just remember entering this venue and there was a synthesizer, there were electronics and at the time it was Lester who was doing vocals, and there may have been an acoustic bass. It was just completely awesome and completely odd. I love the cassettes, they’re incredible, this DIY four-track aesthetic which is really appealing. The live thing was very different to that.”
Oren was so entranced by the group he immediately approached Antony, and they became friends. When he founded the experimental What is Music? festival along with Robbie Avenaim in the early 90s, Antony was one of the performers they wanted to include.
“I think Volvox is really outside of most things and most categories. That’s what attracted me to them immediately. You know, what are we listening to? What is this? Who are these people? That’s the stuff that I love and they were just outside of everything, outside of the experimental scene for sure. Even though people in the scene were supportive of them and loved them. I just think they were very very different. It was just very strange.”
Oren recounts a now legendary performance that Antony, as Lester Vat, gave at the Punters Club on Brunswick Street for What is Music? in 1997. “There were probably 200-300 people there and he stood on the stage with a microphone and just uttered the words ‘Why am I a pie?’ over and over again, for 30-40 minutes. Over and over again. It was just really interesting how the audience dealt with it. They went through these phases where people were fascinated and repelled and pissed off and even joyous. At one point the entire audience started screaming it along with him.
“It was amazing and he was just in a trance, he just said it over and over again and it was beautiful. So many people talk about that show, still to this day.”
During their heyday, Volvox had a reputation in the Melbourne music scene, though they were (and still are) barely known outside its fringes. “Volvox was a real force of nature in Melbourne,” says Greg Wadley. “It was the live act that everyone loved…or just didn’t understand! They had a share house, if you were lucky enough you could go and visit, and it was a pretty weird place. It was like a much weirder version of Dogs in Space.”
Greg talks a little of how Melbourne has changed since the 90s, the music scene, gentrification, Facebook. A recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, just metres from where Greg and I are sitting, included some of his work. The exhibition also had a large sound component, including a room dedicated to John Nixon’s ‘anti-music’ group the Donkey’s Tail, and experimental sound workshops for children. I jokingly ask what it feels like to be canonized by a major state institution. He seems a little taken aback by the question and retorts, “We only had one track on an iPad that was tucked away in the corner!”
Glenn Normann now lives reclusively in Melbourne’s north, still vehemently anti-everything, not just the music. “Glenn’s someone who doesn’t bother to partake in society that much,” says Greg. “And he has a very unique vision as a result. And I think Lester’s in the same boat.”
* * *
It’s another Saturday afternoon in winter, still grey but with the sun occasionally peaking through. I get off the number one tram at the northern end of Lygon Street in Brunswick. Antony Riddell lives in a block of flats on a leafy street, just around the corner from a busy café strip. When I lived here in the mid 2000s, this strip was mostly boarded up shop fronts.
Antony’s block is quiet and out of the way, with a tidy garden. I ring the bell and he calls out from his ground floor apartment. We’d arranged to meet and talk about Volvox, He opens the gate and shows me inside. His flat is small, one bedroom with a couple of couches, a desk with an old PC and some bookshelves. It has big windows with a view out onto a private garden. There’s an old CD boombox on the ground with some CDs and CDRs scattered around it. Antony tells me he’s been listening to the psychonaut Terrance McKenna, “He’s very good!”
I take a seat on one of the chairs, Antony maneuvers around and winds up laying on the floor facing me. I turn on the recorder. Antony experienced a brain injury in 1985 when he was living in Sydney, and fell through the roof of a Redfern squat. The injury affects his balance, speech and movement.
Antony has lived in this flat for the last five years, before that he says he was in a ”human storage facility”, an institution full of people “and all they can move are their eyes.” He was placed in the facility after falling and dislocating his shoulder. In Australia, many younger people with disabilities can be forced to live in nursing homes due to a shortage of suitable housing. A friend of Antony’s from the local organic food store (Antony is keen on organic food) with connections at a non-profit, helped him to get out of the nursing home and into this apartment.
I ask Antony about life before Volvox, and he talks of Sydney in the 80s and the bands he was in. “Before my injury, which was a significant moment, I was in Sunday School and Nada plus a few other little things. I stopped with my injury. And then later I formed the Good Chamber and was in a band called King Carbon and the Enemies of Algebra.”
He moves over to the bookshelf and looks through a stack of old cassettes. “I’ve got a bit of the Good Chamber on cassette.” He inserts the cassette into the deck and hits play, strange voices emanate from the stereo, along with atonal piano notes and a distorted bass guitar.
“It’s from a cassette called Lumpch. The studio at art school wasn’t working much at that time and so I did things where I lived. My housemate had a four track. I had a bass guitar. It’s backwards. A lot of things I didn’t understand electronically happened with that band, weird things with my recording it at art school.
“King Carbon and the Enemies of Algebra, we played at art school a couple of times. And we did it once in a pub, we wore gooey things like treacle, other things. Toothpaste may have been involved.”
Antony is originally from Adelaide, and moved to Sydney in the early 80s. He left Sydney for Melbourne in 1990, because, he says, he “wasn’t doing anything. I have to do something. I have to do things. And Melbourne, I’m very much engaged, still.”
Around the end of 1991, Antony got together with Dave Taskas, previously of the punk band Grong Grong, who he knew from Adelaide, and Glenn Normann, who he’d met in Brisbane in the 80s; both were now living in Melbourne. “It just coalesced as Volvox,” he says. “A volvox, I found out later, was the first creature that knew death. The first creature to actually die.”
In 1991 Volvox released their first cassette, Bad Earth, in an edition of 100. The album begins with someone blowing raspberries into a plastic tube, which quickly gives way to a repetitive synth arpeggio. “It’s as though you are crawling along the floor and you encountered some unbearable patch of tar,” Antony explains–“AND THEN YOU TREAD IN IT”–he wails in horror, as if this is worst possible outcome. From here it only gets weirder, Antony getting lost in the wobbly tape collage and MS-20 buzz as he educates us about “Shit Blake” and “The Breaking of the Egg.” In “Multivalorisation,” Volvox turn their attention towards academia and depression: a stream of ridiculous academic jargon is contrasted with a monologue by a woman who is taking anti-depressants and suffering suicidal thoughts. It’s these abrupt shifts in register, their mastery of the anti-climax, that sets Volvox apart from much of the noise and experimental music produced in the 90s, or even today.
Many people still understand the group as a novelty, perhaps due to Antony’s brain injury. Others give up and deem them entertaining, purely of interest only for supposedly being incomprehensible or uncategorisable. Antony’s take is more coherent, revealing a sharp sense of humour and a defiant joy in deflating sentimentality and good intentions: “I’d been trying to get at life, existence. Things that thrive, develop, grow. There’s no one reason, just that things grow, enchanting when they grow. And then someone puts their foot through it.”
In Antony’s lyrics, everyday events take on a sinister character, becoming grotesque, terrifying and hilarious. Song titles like “Strange Eggs in Even Stranger Containers,” “Riboflavin Horror,” and “Fear of the Television” suggest a horror and incredulity of everyday routines, the creeping dread that comes from being landlocked in Australian suburbia.
Antony is also a prolific writer, and has produced over 15 books, mostly printed in tiny editions by small publishers in Australia and the United States. Thumb, Antony’s best known book, overlays strange drawings of microscopic organisms, animals and brains with chunks of type-writer text. His stories describe absurd, meandering adventures where characters and situations operate on an obscure internal logic, like a DIY Raymond Roussel.
“It must be remembered that I’ve got a brain injury,” Antony says of Thumb, “I wrote this book before this particular therapy. Since that particular therapy I’ve written all these books, and the one that I’m writing. I think there is a significant difference. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I wrote Thumb and some of the music that you heard, even Volvox was before that therapy.”
As well as writing and tai chi, Antony performs as part of Weave Movement Theatre, a dance company made up of people with and without disabilities that has been active since 1997. “It’s very highly rehearsed. It’s the most rehearsal I’ve done for anything. It’s a kind of discipline that was new to me, I’ve taken to it quite well.”
Antony joined Weave Movement Theatre 12 years ago, after founder and artistic director Janice Florence saw him in the organic health food shop in Brunswick. “We’re both into organic vegies,” Janice tells me in her garden in suburban Preston. “He was talking to the staff behind the counter and I thought, He’d be a good performer. When he left I got the woman who ran the shop to ask him if he was interested, and he was.”
Janice explains that Weave is different from many “inclusive” dance companies in Melbourne, which are generally run as day programs specifically for people with intellectual disabilities. Weave has no restrictions on who can join the group, and favours serious artists who have been trained in theatre or dance. Because it is run as an art project and not as art therapy for people with disabilities, Weave skirts the line on government funding: the group runs off small arts grants, but occasionally receives philanthropic money. “In some ways having disability as a focus is a disadvantage and in some ways it’s an advantage,” Janice says.
“It’s not as though we let people do anything they like. It’s also about getting them to take themselves a bit seriously, because a lot of people don’t take you seriously if you have a disability. Sometimes people who grow up with a disability rather than acquiring them, like Antony and I did, they’re a bit molly-coddled and indulged. There’s a negative side of it where people are really deprived, but there’s another side of it where their parents have really indulged them and not had them experience any hardship.”
Weave regularly attracts well-known choreographers to write pieces specifically for the group. In the past it has performed works by Michelle Heaven of Chunky Move and Phillip Adams Ballet Lab, Gerard van Dyke of Cage Physical Theatre, Sally Smith, and Born in a Taxi. Janice explains that with Weave, choreography is often a group exercise, where dancers improvise, and actions or poses are ‘set’ into a series of movements that will become the final piece. “It’s a two way thing” Janice says, “it’s an education for the choreographer as well.”
Antony’s roles in Weave performances are often absurdist characters, and in the past, parts of his books have been used as the basis for scripts or dialog. “He has an enormous sense of the absurd,” says Janice. She recalls a piece where Antony and her partner (and Weave member) Trevor performed an improvised, Waiting for Godot-like dialog. In another piece that was “vaguely based on The Birds by Aristophanes” Antony had a role as an outsider, an Icarus-like character who flies too close to the sun. In the final scene, Antony stands in the middle of the stage, arms outstretched while the other performers build gigantic wings from wire coat hangers.
* * *
Antony and I finish talking around lunchtime. He’s hungry and wants to eat and we walk to the tram stop together. As we leave his building, I notice a young couple in their 20s. The girl is in an expensive looking dress and clashing patterned socks and sandals – the kind of style you usually see at hip exhibition openings here. Her boyfriend is in a checked shirt and jeans, and looks like he’s in an indie rock band. They’re waiting to inspect a rental property across the road from Antony’s block.
As we walk, Antony tells me he will have to move soon, his apartment, which is specially built for older people and people with disabilities, is run by a local non-profit and they are conducting an ‘asset review’. It’s possible that the building will be demolished to make way for luxury apartments: this land is prime real estate. All the tenants will have to move out. The non-profit has arranged alternative accommodation, but the new building has stairs, and Antony can’t walk up stairs. He’s worried about finding a place to live.
We talk a little more about music in Melbourne, he’s recently designed the cover for a Mad Nanna 7”. Are there any other Melbourne musicians that he likes? “Not really.” Antony seems nonchalant about making music. “At a certain age you can be in bands and see bands more, when you’re younger and then when you get older it’s more my path which is writing and tai chi.”
The wind picks up. It’s cold, I say. “Yeah, it’s winter,” he quips. I guess I was stating the obvious.
Matthew O’Shannessy is a writer who recently relocated from Melbourne to California.