Despite such a short initial half-life, Primitive Calculators hummed on in the brains of future generations of would-be Australian sonic iconoclasts. In 2009, they were propositioned by original Bad Seed Nick Cave to play the inaugural Australian edition of international music festival All Tomorrow's Parties. At first they thought, "Get fucked." But then they realized that in the thirty years that had elapsed since their split, the means to make their particular brand of caustic machine music had become ubiquitous, their attitudes of nihilism and abrasive cultural cynicism had matured and ripened, and the world was just as fucked as it had ever been. More so, even.
So they reunited, and in 2013 finally released their debut album:
That's when they jumped on your humble correspondent's radar. The World Is Fucked was my favorite record of 2013. Actually I think it's an early front-runner for best record of the third millennium, depends on how quick we wipe ourselves off the planet. Also depends on what the next Primitive Calculators album sounds like, I suppose. That one's already in the can. It's called On Dr*gs. Primitive Calculators vocalist Stuart Grant says that the album's title track was banned from their China setlist, even though "the song is about the fact that love is a dr*g, and ownership is a dr*g, and all of that kind of stuff. But they didn't care… it had the word 'dr*gs' in it."
So I'm editing out the "u" in that word in this article, because if there's one thing I've learned through being a writer in China, it's the art of tasteful self-censorship.
Primitive Calculators has been in China for the last week, preparing for a whirlwind tour of the country. That starts with their headlining JUE Festival set on Friday at Yugong Yishan.
I sat down with Stuart and original bassist Dave Light for a quick chat on the band's history of alienating audiences, gaining a following in the process, and the peculiar set of circumstances that has led to their current residency in the PRC:
SmartBeijing: So can you guys briefly introduce yourselves?
Stuart Grant: I'm Stuart.
Dave Light: Hi, I'm Dave.
SmBJ: And you're both original members of Primitive Calculators.
Dave: From the very beginning.
SmBJ: Well that's where I wanted to start, obviously enough. You guys formed in '77, right?
Stuart: Yeah… We had done other things, when we were teenagers. We all come from the same neighborhood, and we had played little bits and pieces of stuff in different styles. Kind of almost Beatnik stuff, a lot of it. But then, when punk started, early '77 I guess, we put together our first punk band.
SmBJ: What were the influences coming to you at that time? What music were you hearing? What cultural influences led you to form the band?
Dave: One, we'd been music fans. Velvet Underground, Stooges, The MC5, a whole range. I think the thing that really triggered it was seeing a local band from Brisbane called The Saints on TV. It was thrilling. It was just… "Hey, let's do that, we can do that."
Stuart: I was living in another city at the time. The morning that "Anarchy in the UK" came out — and it was only released for a morning before it got banned — I went to a record shop and I got it. And I saw those guys on this little ten-minute music show that used to be on in the afternoon. See, the thing is, we played music, and we were really big music fans. We were really big fans of '60s punk, of psychedelia, and we sort of played folk and country and this kind of stuff. But what punk did was it gave us — we were like 19 at the time — it said, "This is it. This is our time." We had this sense that, as music fans, we hadn't had our Haight-Ashbury, we hadn't had any of this. But when punk happened, it was like, "Finally! This is it." I had a big brother who was a few years older, and he'd been into Hendrix and Cream, but it wasn't my thing. I liked it all, but it wasn't my generation. And we didn't look like hippies and all of that kind of stuff. So it just felt like, for me, my time had come.
SmBJ: Can you describe the context in which you formed Primitive Calculators? You were coming from a working class suburb outside Melbourne, right? Was there anywhere you could play in your hometown, or did you have to go into the city to play shows?
Stuart: We moved into the city.
Dave: Stuart came over from Adelaide, and we were around in [our friend] Jim's bungalow, and he said, "I bought this little amp, I bought this little guitar, let's start a band." And I'd never really played a musical instrument before. I'd never thought about it. I was just a huge music fan. And seeing The Saints on TV, and Stuart saying that, I thought, "Yes. Yes I'd like to do that."
Stuart: But the cultural context was that there was this bunch of bands in Melbourne who were like upper class private school kids, who were the punk scene, and we came along and said, "You're just a bunch of frauds." They hated us and we hated them.
Dave: We instantly made enemies. [laughs]
Stuart: And they could play, but... To me, the big cultural divide at the time was: they were David Bowie fans. They'd come through being David Bowie fans. They had fancy clothes, and they had coiffed hair, and they made this more polished kind of a sound, like the Boys Next Door and bands like that. And we just made a horrible fucking noise.
Primitive Calculators cameo as themselves in 1986 cult classic Dogs in Space
SmBJ: What instruments were you playing when you started? How did you go about writing songs? What were your practices like in the early days?
Dave: I played the bass because it was simple. Simple and easy.
Stuart: We lived in this house… This is when we still had a drummer and stuff, before we actually became the Primitive Calculators. We lived in a house in this neighborhood, the junkie neighborhood of Melbourne, St Kilda, and we just played and made horrible, loud noise. The neighbors hated us and called the cops on us.
Dave: Eventually the street took up a petition to get rid of us. As we were leaving the neighbors in their flat, which was two stories, all stood up…
Stuart: And applauded that we were getting kicked out. But the big thing was, punk was finished by 1978. It had lost the rush, it had lost the enthusiasm. And so you just weren't getting the same thing when you tried to bash it out. We tried to play faster and faster. And then what happened was, the world of punk split two ways in 1978. Half of them went to be power pop, and got more polished and professional. And then there was this movement — and it happened all over the world, in lots of places spontaneously, and we were the Melbourne end of it — but we started to look for something more savage, more brutal, more primitive, to get that sheer rush back. To me, by 1978, punk bands all sounded like the Rolling Stones. So that was when we decided to go electronic.
Stuart: We bought the first ever programmable drum machine, the Roland CR-78, and we also bought a Roland SH-101, and we had a little synthesizer called a Wasp. And the idea was we wanted to make music that hurt. And we wanted to be able to go as fast as we possibly could, and be as obnoxious and loud as we possibly could. But definitely hurt people. I, as a sort of 18-year-old musical composer, thought that by causing people enough pain through music, that you could liberate them and they wouldn't want to be in their drab little lives any more.
SmBJ: What was the reception when you were doing this in Melbourne in 1978? Were there other bands that were in your same mindset? How was the audience reacting?
Dave: I don't think there were any other bands… and I don't think we really had an audience. The few people that did see us said they liked us, but I really doubt it.
Stuart: All of these other bands that were the punk bands who'd gone slicker and glossier used to come and watch us. We just played a couple of parties. And they sort of knew that there was something going on, but they didn't quite understand it. But no, people just left the room when we played. People just didn't get it.
Stuart: It struck me… I was at some gig a year or so ago, and every band was playing drones. When we first stood, in 1978, on a stage in St Kilda, and played a drone, the room cleared. Immediately. The world just did not get it. What there was, was we had a circle of about 30 or 40 people around us who got it, and liked it, and knew about the stuff that was happening in the States, bands like Half Japanese, Chrome, the New York bands. There was another band in Sydney called the Slugfuckers who were doing a similar sort of thing. Interestingly enough, Wollongong, on the south coast of New South Wales, had a little scene of people who would mike up anything, and play anything just by miking it up and banging on it. And when we talked to these people, it was kind of a self-conscious relation into 20th-century composition, John Cage, Stockhausen, all of that kind of stuff, but mixed with rock, and pop. We were big Abba fans. There were a lot of people juggling all those kinds of things around.
Dave: And avant-garde jazz. Late '60s / early '70s Miles Davis…
Stuart: But even more of the more extreme stuff. Anthony Braxton, really atonal noise and mathematical systems for composition. But it was like it was conceptual art. We didn't really care what the music sounded like. And we didn't go, "That sounded great." We said, "What would happen if we set that up like that, and that up like that, and that up like that, and let it go?" We were incompetent, the music sounded like shit, but we didn't care. We were just trying stuff out.
SmBJ: What was the trajectory of the first incarnation of the band? How long were you going?
Stuart: Primitive Calculators only existed for two years. We were starting to get a following… There's this book written by Clinton Walker, an Australian rock journalist, that says, "The Primitive Calculators set out to alienate the audience, and developed a sizable following in the process." [laughs] But by the end of two years, you know, we'd been asked to play the big New Year's Eve show, and we were supporting all of those other bands that we hated and that hated us.
SmBJ: Which bands?
Stuart: The Birthday Party, and… I can't even remember the names of them. But they were getting us to support them, because they knew that we were doing something that they were supposed to like. [laughs] So that was the first incarnation. And then in 1980, we all just split up and went and lived in other countries. We were supposed to meet in England and get the band back together, but it never fucking happened.
SmBJ: So how did you get back together? I read that Nick Cave asked you to reunite for All Tomorrow's Parties in 2009. What went through your head when you got that request? Had you already been thinking about getting back together before that?
Dave: No… what happened was [band member] Denise [Hilton] got a phone call from Sydney, from a manager, saying would we like to get back together. And Denise said, "What would we want to do that for? Why on earth would we want to do that?"
Stuart: And also, "Get fucked." [laughs]
Dave: And, then, they said it was from Nick Cave, and Mick Harvey, and they had requested that we play All Tomorrow's Parties, and there was this sum of money that was more than we'd ever seen as a band. And Stuart had just come back from Hong Kong, and all the little pieces just fell in together. So we said, "Yeah, let's go to All Tomorrow's Parties." Not realizing that we hadn't done it 30 years. It was much more difficult than we'd imagined.
Stuart: So we started off with a bunch of the original songs, and I realized that what we couldn't do in the '70s, we could now do. The technology existed. I can remember, within the career of the Primitive Calculators was the first time where you could go dukka dukka dukka dukka dukka dukka [vocalizes drum beat] on a machine. There was a little sixteen-step sequencer. And we couldn't afford it. And so now, all of the things that we tried to do then were much more doable. And plus, I'd been playing in funk bands, and soul bands, and singing jazz the whole time. So when we got back together, I thought, "Hey, this is really good, I can try this and that. Get much more of the James Brown in there, can get much more of this in there and that in there, make it funkier." So we kept doing it, and we wrote new songs, and then we recorded the new album in 2013. The World is Fucked. And we just recorded another album.
SmBJ: What was the process in between getting back together for the festival and releasing the album? I guess the themes that you were talking about in the '70s hadn't changed that much. You still have a very terse, abrupt, aggressive style on this record, which you also seem to have had when you were gigging in Melbourne in 1978. So can you talk about how you took those ideas, let them germinate for 30 years, and then put them on a record, finally?
Stuart: [laughs] Looking back, at the age of 50, to when you're 20 years old, I realize that punk was this gigantic thrash of no. It was a statement of nihilism. Here we were, a generation — and I've spoken to people in America that had a similar experience, in England that had a similar experience — we were brought up as working class kids to pull levers in factories. And we were trained to fight wars. And we were all really hit as kids. We got caned and we got strapped and stuff like that, as kids of that era. And what happened in the 1970s was, suddenly there were no wars to go to, and war was no longer glorious as a result of Vietnam. And those factories that we were born to pull levers in all got shut down. So we had nowhere to go. And it happened all across the Western world. It was the early days of Thatcherism and Reaganism. And a significant part of that generation just went, "No. Get fucked." And there was a cry of nihilism.
So when I came back to those themes, when I was 50 years old, I realized: I'm nearly dead. I know about fucking nihilism now. I know about nothingness and I know about fucking death. So I found that, as well as being able to do the music in a much more effective way, I could write lyrics which were much more perfectly and beautifully nihilistic than I could when I was 18. Because when I was 18 I had hope.
SmBJ: That's something else I wanted to ask… With a record called The World is Fucked, is this something that you're projecting outwards to people? Or something that you're internalizing? How much is it you absorbing this life that you were born into, and how much is you projecting it back out towards people? What kind of reaction are you looking for when you play these songs today?
Dave: ...I don't know what to say.
Stuart: [laughs] I know what kind of reaction I want: I want people to like it. I want people to fuckin' dance. I want them to throw themselves around, and go, "Yeah, that's cool!" Apart from that, I don't care. But, interestingly enough, what happened is that probably the most famous right-wing shock jock in Australia took affront to the record, because I also work at a university. And he put it on his website, like, "Look at the scum that's working in their universities." And there was this massive couple of days of death threats and flaming from all of his little right-wing nutbag followers. And I thought, "Oh, OK, I think the next load of stuff, the next record, we should get more overtly political." And so the new album's got all this stuff on it about competition, and Chicago school of economics thinking. But, again, it's more about saying it than wanting anybody to do anything with it. People will do what they do with it. When you're a tin pisspot little band like us, you're always preaching to the converted. Nobody's gonna go, "Fuck, I heard the new Primitive Calculators record, and I have decided to change my life!" I don't think that's gonna happen.
Dave: But that happened the week that our album was released, so it was incredibly good publicity. In that sense it was fantastic!
SmBJ: Can you talk a bit more about the new record? I read that it will be called "On Dr*gs." What's the motivation? Are you changing the style? Are you changing the content?
Stuart: It'll be much nicer! Compositionally, the first one was about trying to create a flat, two-dimensional wall of noise, of metallic, silver-grey kind of sounds. Just a flat wall that had this internal funk within the wall. But it was pushing all the sounds to the point of indiscernibility. It was like a real rhythmic precision with harmonic chaos, is what we aimed for. With this one, we wanted to make more space, we wanted it to make it more psychedelic, wanted to get things coming backwards and forwards a bit more, and work with more colored sounds. If those compositional challenges didn't exist, I wouldn't fuckin' bother doing it. But that's the main difference. It's about the creation of space and color rather than this big flat wall, which is what the first one is.
SmBJ: One last token question… I've been thinking about your name. At first it made me think about an abacus, I guess because I've been in China too long and that's the ultimate primitive calculator. But then I thought a primitive calculator is probably a human, because we're replacing our brains with computers. But I wanted to ask you about the origin…
Stuart: It was this psychedelic band, The Human Beinz. I was thinking, "Mm, it would be good if we could have had that name." And, it was 1978. There was no such thing as the personal computer. Computers were the size of fuckin' houses. The most sophisticated device that you could have was a calculator. And calculators were really amazing. They could add up real quick. [laughs] And so, I thought, "Wow, a human being is kind of like a calculator but not as smart." And so I thought, "Yeah, we're primitive calculators."
Primitive Calculators will play a warm-up, improv set tonight at School Bar, joined by Denmark's DJ HVAD and local bands XHYXXH + Vagus Nerve. Then they storm the stage for their main JUE Festival show on Friday, March 13 at Yugong Yishan, joined by local heavyweights SUBS and Birdstriking.