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SELFLESS ORCHESTRA Art as activism


Local post-rock collective Selfless Orchestra will unleash their debut album Great Barrier this Friday, October 23. The record is an ode to Australia’s most precious natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef, and will be performed live in an immersive audio-visual experience at The Naval Store, Fremantle, on Saturday, October 24. BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with founding member Steven Alyian to find out how the ensemble were formed out of a shared passion for pushing creative boundaries and using art as a weapon for positive social and environmental change. *The political opinions of Alyian are personal responses and are not intended to reflect the views of the members of Selfless Orchestra.

Both the album and the live show sound epic in their scale and the importance of the message behind it. What came first, the music or the cause?

At a Yardstock in 2018, Ray Grenfell (bass) and I casually talked about starting an epic instrumental rock project together, expressing how much we love that style of music. Not long after, I was having a passionate conversation with my partner about the dredging and bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and in a moment of despair, thinking “what the fuck can I do?” I was struck with inspiration. It all came flooding at once, like I saw a vision of the future.

I realised I had friends who had been filming everything unfolding with the reef in Queensland and who I knew would lend me their footage, and I thought of my conversation with Ray and many other musicians who I knew who would share in the belief of this idea. The next day I called up a bunch of these artists and collaborators, saying “Hey I’ve got this crazy idea…maybe we can do this sometime in the future?” To which everyone pretty much responded “Why would we wait to do something like that?” And within a matter of weeks we had already put together most of the project.

It was one of the most blissfully flowing and creative musical projects I’ve ever worked on. Even though it’s technically very complex, with an idea and a message, everyone understood their purpose and was driven to make it happen.

And how did you then go about capturing that energy and enthusiasm on record?

What makes this recording unique is that we performed the entire thing live. By that I mean we recorded it in one take, in the studio, all in the same room, without headphones or monitoring – so it’s as pure as it can get. It was the idea of Kieran Kenderessy our mixing engineer. He said “You guys are a live act. I want to capture the energy of that as authentically as possible.”

We broke every “rule” of the studio, like having amps in the same room as string players, and with drums hitting mics across the room. But we just used that all to our advantage. It was hilarious actually. Two times while we were setting up our mics and instruments other engineers who worked at the studio came into the live room saying, “You can’t do that!” They were offended! I literally had to order them out of the room.

We wanted to get a studio recording that sounded as authentic as possible and when you listen back, you can hear that difference. You can feel it on the recording that we’re actually playing and responding to each other, actually reacting to that presence of the other members. When a band goes into a studio and puts every musician in a separate room or isolated box, with headphones on, you remove their ability to actually be present with the other musicians and react and feel the emotion of the band. We’ve become so technical with studio recording we’ve actually forgotten what the purpose of making a record is – to capture the magic of the performance.

There’s tons of mistakes on this record, and that’s what makes the ear pick up and pay attention. That’s human, that’s real. This whole recording really made me investigate a new ethos in my recording process as a musician. I learnt to embrace every accident. Life isn’t perfect, so why try and force a recording to be? With the exception of the vocals and some instruments on the interlude tracks, everything came from this one live session. Fuck the rules.

As someone who has devoted plenty of your time on efforts to support the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef, what are the immediate challenges it is currently facing?

Recent research shows that the amount of corals on the Great Barrier Reef has dropped by 50% in the last 25 years alone. Tragically, this year, whilst we have been distracted by the outbreak of COVID-19, the reef suffered another mass bleaching event. It was the worst and most widespread ever recorded, and the third such event in only five years.

This is a mass extinction caused primarily by rising sea temperatures. It’s depressing news and is the canary in the mine of climate change. It’s a warning to all of us of the impact we are causing on the fragile balance of our environment. Some may say it’s too late, but it’s important to see this as a sign, a warning for us to become more conscious and change our ways.

That’s what makes it such a visually striking tale to represent in our performance. The fate of the reef has become tied up in political debacle and money laundering, and while we bicker and argue and governments pander to the desires of fossil fuel industries, the lights are going out for this stupendous natural treasure which is an idyllic representation of the fragility and beauty of nature. It may be more than simply trying to save the reef, but rather to preserve the species and the memory of this entity, so that we can learn from our mistakes and eventually redeem ourselves.

We donate part proceeds to the Reef Restoration Foundation, a coral nursery organisation so that in light of whatever may transpire in the coming years, we can keep these coral species alive. It’s not about hope; hope doesn’t achieve anything. It’s more about redemption. It’s about action, and every small action can help us realise and make the changes necessary to right our wrongs. Once the reef is gone, everything else will follow, including us. So the more we learn now, the better equipped we’ll be to save our sorry arses.

Is there anything at play with the upcoming election in Queensland or do both sides of politics fall short of the mark in terms of their commitments to protecting the reef?

Personally, I see both sides of the political system as one and the same. It’s just red vs blue. Our current political system is nothing but a carefully executed distraction designed to slow down any actual change or action. It’s an utter pointless shit-show. We love it. It’s reality TV at its finest. It’s a circus, a train wreck, mindless entertainment designed to drain our energy and distract us from our families and friends, make us angry with each other and it works every single time.

Left. Right. We’re all fools. I’m just as guilty as everyone else, of taking sides and not taking action – and that’s why I’m spending my time doing something to help spread awareness of the issues and shed light on the work of those humans who can actually do something. You won’t find any salvation in politics. There are no winners, only losers, and the biggest loser is the environment.

Labor promises to clean up reef pollution and partially promises to push renewable energy. Liberal promises to do sweet fuck all, but no surprises there. The Greens promise to do everything, but can any of these parties actually enact real change when operating within the framework of an utterly flawed political system? It’s all bullshit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote, but if you think that just voting is going to fix our problems or make things better, then you’re gravely mistaken. If you want to make the world a better place, don’t pay attention to political parties, start by spending time with your loved ones and create some art.

And here in Western Australia where we don’t get a say in that outcome, what else can we do if we want to help this cause?

Issues like this are often bigger than ourselves. They can belittle us and make us feel powerless. Everything in this world is intimately connected and even on the smallest scale, an action of care and creativity can resonate into larger and greater change. Whenever I get asked this question I say, “Look at what you can do in your neighbourhood, look at what you can do in your backyard.”

It can be as simple as planting a tree or starting a vege garden. Sounds like hippy bullshit but it’s true. You’re never going to help anyone by being a keyboard warrior or signing an online petition. That’ll just stress you out and make you into a nervous mess. Nobody saved an Indigenous life with a black square on Instagram. Wake the fuck up and walk outside. Start at home, connect with the pure biology of your body and realise how much you’re linked to and supported by this ecosystem. Once you realise how powerful and vulnerable you actually are – the sky is the limit.

Western Australia’s biggest issue right now is deforestation. Our South West forests are being absolutely decimated at the moment and logging companies have been sneaking into old growth forests while we’ve been distracted by COVID and raping the only Jarrah forest on the planet, which will lead to massive impacts on our agricultural industries, and threaten the food that lands on your plate.

If you have the energy, connect with the WA Forest Alliance, see where logging is happening right now and go and connect to those people on the ground who are actually stopping those machines from destroying that rich nature. Go and meet some of the most honest and inspiring humans in your community and breathe in that fresh air and feel better about yourself. It’s good for your mental health. Life is enriched by tangible experiences such as these. It doesn’t matter who or what you’re fighting for, but community will enrich your life and you will receive the full experience of being a living breathing human.

You have previously performed this album both at Freo Arts Centre and as a Fringe show earlier this year. For those that might have enjoyed those shows will there be anything new or different with this performance at the Naval Store?

This will be the final performance of Great Barrier in its entirety. We will be premiering two new compositions on the night that have not been heard by any audiences yet. It’s a preview of our second creative collaboration. These two songs are inspired by stories of Indigenous Australians in the central desert who have been fighting a court case for over 40 years to stop the mining of uranium. It is an exploration of the torment of not only the land, but the families of our Indigenous people and their intimate connection to and understanding of the land. It explores how the incorrect notion of “Terra Nullius” as defined by European settlers has been the basis for foreign companies to decimate these connections and unearth the rare radioactive ore that is used for nuclear weapons and dangerous nuclear power.

Humanity has a complex relationship with this metal that has resonated throughout the impact of massive events including World War II and the Fukushima disaster, and in the unique story of the Wangkatja people who knew, long, long before any settlers arrived in Australia, that this metal was to be left in the ground. One composition is called Yeerlirre, taken from the name of one of these regions rich in uranium, which in the traditional language means “Place of Death.”

And who else is performing at this show? Why were they a good fit for such a unique show like this? 

We will be joined by two formidable solo performers; Elsewhere / Rebecca and Filth Goddess. Both are incredible female musicians who represent unique approaches to music production and the use of voice. We will be followed on the evening by a performance from Dead Jerk, a juicy heavy palate cleanser of sonic surreality.

Other than the Great Barrier Reef, what other social or political issues do you find are particularly pressing right now that you might turn your attention to with a similar approach in future?

Through our exploration of the uranium mining plight facing the traditional owners of the West Australian desert, we wish to dive deeper into the cultural identity of Australia and how this has been defined and defiled by the idea of “Terra Nullius.” We will explore how this resonates with the Black Lives Matters movement and also our increasing disconnection from the environment that could potentially lead to our own destruction. It is through the creative connection to our traditional people and their ways of connection and creativity that we can begin to make true change.

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