SPINIFEX GUM Bring Sisters to Perth Fest

Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill have been playing music together since 1999 in Australia’s favourite circus-meets-rock outfit, The Cat Empire. But Spinifex Gum is much more than a side project.
Riebl and McGill’s collaboration with the all-female, all-Indigenous Marliya Choir of Far North Queensland has sold out venues across the country, including the Sydney Opera House. Self-dubbed “part protest, part celebration” Spinifex Gum create songs rich in storytelling and often told in traditional tongue. They’ll be hitting the stage at Chevron Lighthouse as part of the Perth Festival on Saturday, February 8, following the release of their second album, Sisters late last year. Felix Riebl chatted to MOLLY SCHMIDT about a Pilbara connection, and the stories and sounds that make Spinifex Gum. 

It’s as if there’s a layer of red dust encasing the music of Spinifex Gum. An iron ore train, a basketball bounced on the pavement, bare feet slapping the earth. Field sounds of the Pilbara are hidden within complex choral arrangements, backed by vibrant electronic beats and just a hint of that familiar jazz-funk sound…

Tell me how Spinifex Gum as a music group came to be?

Ollie and myself from the Cat Empire have been working on this project for about five years. It started in the Pilbara of Northern WA and I’ve been back there about five or six times and formed a strong relationship with the Yinjibarndi community. I got the great chance of working with Marliya Choir, which are conducted by Lyn Williams and choreographed by Deborah Brown. It’s this fantastic collaboration of very powerful young voices, all young women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait girls, and we’ve had this fantastic opportunity to make music for them.

Talk me through the musical process?

It was a very interesting electronic process creating the music. We’ve sampled beats from the area, and I really went deep into lots of different songs which are quite contemporary stories of the Pilbara to start with. I wanted to do it right. Spinifex Gum represents a genuine Australian collaboration. It’s got an Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian team working around it and it often speaks to stories that really relate across the board and that meant when I went to the Pilbara I really wanted to do it properly. I didn’t want to do anything tokenistic. That took five or six years to get into it. I went around with a field recorder and got to know people, interviewed them… Then it occurred to me in those field recordings there were little sounds on them. A hollow iron ore train sounded like a note, and it became like a synthesiser, and a kid bouncing a basketball could be a bass drum.  Scratching feet, sounds of industry, all these sounds from the area became these drum machines. And that, combined with the very careful and respectful research I did with the communities that were featured in the songs, meant that this very authentic sound grew out of it. It wasn’t something we expected, but was something we have followed, and has become the sound of the Spinifex family.

When you can follow something like that, follow the sounds and the art of it, it generally leads to very authentic relationships and it feels as if you’re on the right track. That grew into this national project which is one of the best things I’ve ever worked on.

Let’s talk about the choir – who are the they?

The Marliya Choir is the most fantastic group of girls and young women. They’re aged from about 11 to 19 and they’ve gone through the Gondwana Indigenous Choir, so the group of singers that I inherited when I started were already singing at a very, very high level. We certainly didn’t treat them like children musically, we set the bar about as high as we could. And they’ve since sold out the Sydney Opera House and played at Parliament House and more or less whenever they sing this show, people just get on their feet and you see grown men crying. It’s a very moving experience being in a room with them…

The music created by Spinifex Gum is important socially – what’s the message you guys are sending?

Part of it is the power of a choir – we’ve been able to talk about things as difficult as deaths in custody, as well as really getting behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and these really quite political and social moments because when many voices and young voices are singing it, it’s almost like the audience is able to bare what they couldn’t bare if it were one voice alone. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but if we are really to engage in this truth telling of Australia’s past then we need to find a way to get some optimism in there as well, and these young singers just have that in spades, they’re able to carry an audience that usually just wouldn’t go to these sorts of places and issues and fill them with hope instead of despair.

The album is made up of mainly originals, but you do have Dream Baby Dream and My Island Home – can you explain these choices?

The Dream Baby Dream song, we used the Springsteen version. That song was originally written by a neo-punk, electronic outfit called Suicide, and the Springsteen version was one I was really moved by. Michael Woodley from the Yindjibarndi community who I’ve worked very closely with for translations and cultural guidance and so on, he’s a real Springsteen fan as well. So, we chose that song and we used that as a vocal collaboration for people to join the choir. They can go to SpinifexGum.com and actually sing along with us. We presented a version of that song with well over 2000 Australians singing the last chorus of Dream Baby Dream and we presented a special vinyl to Minister Wyatt and Senator Dodson in Parliament House and that was a very special moment – that was in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

And I guess My Island Home is a throwback to a fantastic Australian song about longing to be somewhere else. Spinifex Gum has been quite unique because as you said the choir is from Far North Queensland, but we are singing of place in the Pilbara the other side of the country. I’m from Melbourne, Lyn is from Sydney and Deb is originally from Brisbane. It’s a very extensive national project and that song has that front to being somewhere and singing about somewhere else so we thought we’d include it and there’s a language section in the Torres Strait language that a lot of the girls know.

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