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"I'd prefer to play in a library": A Big Chat with Darren Cross

$Darren Cross
Image: Darren Cross Supplied by artist

Darren Cross has experienced decades of life as a musician: First as part of iconic Sydney noise-rock and electronica chaos merchants Gerling, and then in the folk duo Jep & Dep with his partner Jess Cassar, his electronic project The E.L.F., and the garage rock three-piece Betty Airs. More recently, he’s been focused on solo instrumental acoustic guitar as D.C. Cross.

We sat down at Newtown's Carlisle Castle Hotel to get his thoughts on life as an independent musician, what his concept of a “listening experience” offers compared with trying to be heard over the background noise of a pub, and how it all works in the music economy of today.

Darren is currently running a Pozible fundraising campaign for the vinyl pressing of his 2020 album, Terebithian.

I'd love to get a bit of a picture of how you came up. What were your first environments for playing music with other people, or seeing bands? Did you get into it because you were a muso, or was music something that was already happening around you?

I grew up out near Blacktown. I just wanted to play music, starting probably around 12. And it all kicked off then, quite insular — it was just me and a guy called Brad Herdson, and we started Gerling. That was for a couple of years before we got the drummer, Presser.

But yeah, we started off in community centres out there — there was a place called the Cow Shed behind the local pool. At the time, everyone was dressed up like they were in Nirvana, there was like 15 different Kurt Cobains there, but Gerling were a bit different. Brad and I had spent so much time experimenting with distortion and loud guitar, really into Sonic Youth and stuff. So we had a thing that was a bit different at the beginning, and we weren't trying to – no one could sing like Kurt Cobain, you know. All these 16-year-old people trying to be Nirvana was just kind of shit, but we kind of did something different.

Once we got the bug, then we started getting gigs — there was a venue, right near the Lansdowne in the park…

In Victoria Park?!

Yep, an old crappy bowlo!

Gone without a trace!

Literally. One of the guys from Frenzal Rhomb used to book it. We'd play at The Lewisham Hotel. Forest Inn at Bexley… there was a bunch of these places you could play on a Thursday night. So then we started doing that, and it just developed from there. We got our act together and started playing at the Sando, the Annandale, Feedback... spaces like that.

So you migrated from Blacktown — that was your home turf, you could play to a home crowd?

I wouldn't even say that — that was only like two gigs or something. By that time I think we all moved into the city. By the time we had enough songs, I'd met some girl and I was an apprentice chef at the time, and I was just sleeping on her floor so I didn't have to go back to Greystanes. She didn't even have a roof at the time! She was a hippie from Tasmania. And I'd stay there for months, and then, you know, slowly bring my guitar and my amp in the lounge room and we were like... "Where are we gonna play? We'll play at the Sando!" so we'd play the Sando. So it was kind of a natural… we didn't give it a bash out in the western suburbs.

You've name-checked a bunch of wonderful venues of the late 90s, early 2000s. Apart from the fact that a lot of them are closed now which is its own concern and problem, do you find differences in the relationship you have with venues between then and now?

Yeah, I mean, because I'm independent and put out my music myself, manage myself, book myself, do my art — everything... I think COVID fucked it up because after COVID happened then you had to sell tickets, and there was all this "you need to bring 80 people to a show" and that. When you're doing something on a small scale bringing 80 people to a show is heaps, even at small local venues. That really kind of put me off a bit.

But where I am now — my last gig I put on at Annandale Community Centre, and billed it as a "listening experience". I brought my own PA, and me and Jess, my partner, we set up all the chairs and I paid for the hall and we got enough people and it was great and people sat there and listened to it.

Photo by Stephen Guille
Image: Darren Cross performing at Annandale Community Centre Photo by Stephen Guille

With the D.C. Cross project, I don't think I can do the pub thing anymore. They pay, but people talking over the top, a bar person making coffee or throwing beer bottles in the bin… it's like trying to eat your sushi on the top of a Tarago that's flying down the M4 — you can do it, but it's not worth it. There's really no point to put so much effort into these compositions with the guitar that have so many nuances.

I got spoiled last year, I played a bunch of shows with some of my heroes. You know, Ed Kuepper — did like eight or nine shows with him in theatres. Did a tour with Xylouris White [with Jim White of the Dirty Three]. I did the People's Republic as well. And I just did a bunch of these places that weren't in venues and I was like "Ah! OK... I don't have a fan base or email addresses at the moment, but I think that's what I want to do."

So that's my new model this year: I'm billing it as a "listening experience", and finding venues that are sympathetic. The next one's in Wollongong at Society City. It's a small place, but it's run by volunteers and you just go and sit there and listen to the music.

That's what I'm gonna do. Hopefully I can get more supports in theatre environments, because the pub thing doesn't work for solo acoustic stuff. I'd prefer to play in a library — I'm not really interested in the drinking culture, or, you know, the whole music industry — I'm a total outsider of that, and I choose to be that way.

Pubs and alcohol-selling venues being so central to the live music scene: you can understand why it's become a lucrative combination, and provides some financial viability for the music industry, but as a hard dependency it's got some negative traits. It can also create a specific sort of atmosphere that may or may not be compatible with what you’re trying to do. In terms of the venues that you were playing back in the 90s — all of the venues that you listed at the outset there, with the exception of maybe the Cow Shed, were licensed venues. Were you aware of alternate venues at the time that weren't licensed, or weren't relying on alcohol sales to do their thing?

I don't think so, no. When we first started it was the 90s — it was pretty lawless. I mean yeah, I'm not sure I even know why we picked those places. I think they were the only people, like they’d have them in the street press: “Want to play a gig? You can call this number.” "Thursday night? Yeah, all right. You can play." Lewisham? Let's go!

[At this point Darren has had enough of the in-house sound system piping a bewilderingly incohesive mix of old and new chart songs. He grabs a bar stool, climbs on top, finds the attenuator, and kills the sound. Victory!]

The drinking culture thing. I've done that. I'm over it. I think it's such a 20s to late 30s thing that a lot of people do. If you're still doing it in your 40s…

So the “listening experience” shows: what's unique about those? You've mentioned background noise at bars is a bit of a vibe killer for the very intimate music that you're creating. What else are you looking for out of a space that you ideally want to play?

Just for people to be able to sit down and listen — that's it. Without any unavoidable noises. The whole idea is to just come, sit down in a chair, listen — there you go. That's it. Simple as that.

Annandale Community Centre, it's an old hall, and it had this mad reverb as well. So there was lots of stuff happening that was special to that room, which I didn't really even take into account. It was just kind of "Wow, there's something going on here in this space". That's it. That's what I want.

I know you were playing live with Betty Airs, and that was a bit more of a "band" setup. Did you play live with the E.L.F. at all? Were you doing shows? I vaguely remember a Hopetoun show or something like that...

Yeah, I was doing the laptop Ableton thing. I'd do these things like sped-up House Of Pain, and then I'd do 'Cockroaches', an E.L.F. song. I did, like, a couple of festivals, horrible dance festivals. And I toured with Muscles.

How was that?

Horrifyingly confusing. Here's a guy, right, who had a PC, straight out of the headphone jack into the DI with a shit keyboard screaming out of key over the top of these rudimentary dance beats. He was making so much money, Joe. I'm talking fucking so much money, right? ... And after that tour — I was just like: I don't get it? I don't get Muscles.

The correlation between what I thought was good, and the commercial success of that project of his. At the time a lot of people were really into that guy, and I remember I said it to someone in Melbourne, some big festival booker, I was just like, "I don't get this Muscles thing!" People just didn't want me to say that. And so after that, I was just like “Ah, that's it.” No more dance music, but it was also at a time where I didn't want to be relying on computers as well. So that's when I was like, I just want to play acoustic guitar. I did do an E.L.F. record called Plankton Icke and Tina Turner David City Limits. That came out... I think there's a review on Polaroids of Androids still… [Ed note: As of publication time iconic music blog Polaroids of Androids is still, tragically, offline.]

So yeah, that was kind of the level I was at then. But then after that, I had a meeting with these music industry people and they're like, "You know, you should do comedy techno! Like a funny Fat Boy Slim!" And I was like, "You know what? Fuck you. I'm outta here!" 

Do you make a variety of stuff at home? Like, independent of what you're focusing on as a project? Are you tinkering all the time? Or are you pretty focused?

Ambient stuff. Lots of field recordings, that's my thing — just manipulating them, fucking around with them. And I do a lot of video — making video, video glitching and I've got a whole... like descaling stuff from old cameras into, you know, CRT recording that and glitching it out. I've got all this stuff. But yeah, at the moment it's more of the guitar — just playing folk guitar in a dark room.

When did solo instrumental guitar present itself as being something that you wanted to focus all of your attention on?

I did this record at the same time that I was doing Jep & Dep with Jess, a Darren Cross record called _Xantastic. And then I did Peacer, and on the second half of Peacer there's all this open tuning, and I'm singing over the top of it. And I just thought: "No one wants to hear my non-conformist atheist views!"

I remember I was with a dear friend and his family, and they were of a denomination of a Christian religion, and there weren't many people in the room. And here I am, you know, singing about atheism and my beliefs. And I thought, "No, this isn't really appropriate". That was a big clincher for me: I was like "I just want to write music where people can just bring their own narrative into it". No language, no narrative. I can call it something fucking crazy, whatever. And that might take them on a journey, and that might be what I'm thinking about... it was just a bit of like a *clicks fingers* moment … and as I got better with the guitar, I could actually do what I wanted to do.

What do you hope to achieve with music these days? Do you think your intentions for music are universal across all of your projects, or do you feel like you could define different intentions depending on what you're doing?

I'm not sure, I just take every project as it is, especially with the D.C. Cross thing, I'm trying to get the balance between technical — because the guitar stuff is very technical — and then the emotion, the expression.

I'm doing music because I want to do it and I have to do it — just development and expression. Because yeah, it's not like I'm rolling in the dough. It's not like it's making money. I'm not trying to make it into a top 10 hit or something for TikTok or whatever.

You sound super aware that a commercial imperative shapes the art, inevitably. You've experienced some of those guiding forces at different times. You seem to have principles that take you away from that... Why do you think that is? What are you trying to protect, when you don't want to have your music be shaped by these commercial imperatives?

I think what everybody leaves behind as a human being is very important, and a lot of people don't really care about that. I think a lot of pursuits in people's lives, to me, like I said before — I find them completely pointless. I would hate it if what I left behind is this song [gestures at pub sound system] that's playing now. To some people, they might like that, but for some reason, I don't agree with this. It's repulsive to me on every level. Is it because I think that they're making a product? I don't know.

The whole thing about commerce gets confusing. I don't care if people don't like me because I say that, but that's what they leave behind. You know what I mean? Sure, there's been some dodgy stuff. Like, when I was doing the techno thing, that I listened back to, and I'm like, “Fuck, what was I doing?” But the rest of it I treated with utmost respect, because that's what I'm leaving behind.

What do you personally want to leave with the people that encounter your music?

It's about the song. That's it. And then I think everything will fall into place. Because if you like this song, then you will be listening to it and the experience happens.

The thing also with what I do, it's complicated, right? So it takes a lot of time to figure out how to play this style of music. And the thing is, it's not very popular. So you can kind of identify the kingpins of it, who are mostly dead, in what I do. [It’s mostly] American — there's not much Australian, I don't even know any other Australian people from these times doing this.

I mean, John Fahey — he's now passed away. So I've learned a couple of songs of his. So when I play live, people see it. It's kind of like learning traditional folk songs, to me. They're fucking hard to play! It takes three, four months [to learn].

There's another guy called Jack Rose, who was an American guy who was kind of [in the lineage of] Fahey. And I learnt one of his songs, that was really hard to learn. And I find that it is like learning folk songs.

There's going to be 5%, maybe 10% of people at my shows who will know that genre, but there's also new people, that's the beauty... they might have never even watched two hours of acoustic solo guitar before. Especially with a weird little guy making funny jokes in between! So they come and they go "Wow, I'm lost. I feel healed." It's just like turning your phone off and going for a run or something. It's pretty easy to understand. So yeah, it's kind of like keeping the folk, the guitar, just the guitar. I could just do my whole set now, just with a guitar. So much of new music is relying on electricity or technology, but mine isn't. That's also a big part of what I do.

Is there a meditative quality, do you think, to what you produce?

Definitely! I hate the new agey thing because a lot of that is just poxy and stylised and suggestive that you feel these emotions. But there is stuff out there that... it's like listening to Aphex Twin, you know, his Ambient Works... you put that on, you just go somewhere else. You know, I'm not saying I'm like Aphex Twin but...

What I tried to do was put the Australian aspect into it. With what I do with the solo acoustic guitar, there's the Americans, and then there's the British: completely different. Same time, completely different. Americans are more rudimentary. More blues. Then you've got the Brits, and the Celts, and the Irish — where all of it came from anyway. But in the 70s, as a resurgence of, in the 60s, this more medieval vibe, right? John Renbourn, Nick Drake, Roy Harper, the list goes on and on.

But then on the other side of the coin, you got the Leo Kottkes, you got the John Faheys, you got the Jack Roses. So that's American. That said, I'm trying to learn that, but I'm trying to do me. Since the D.C. Cross project, I always label it as "Australian escapist pieces for ecstatic guitar" — Australia, Australia, Australia, Australia, because I'm trying to do an Australian version.

So I have some songs called "Lithgow Pink", songs about Cootamundra. My new record, I sat out in Deniliquin writing songs about Deniliquin. I know I live in Arncliffe, but I'm inspired by Australia and regional Victoria... I love these places. It's just what I am. I'm trying to do that. So my expression, the more that I dig into it, I want to do something that's me, to make it about where I am and who I am. And when you just do instrumental music with a guitar... it takes a while!

So here you are, you've gone "I don't really want to play in the traditional venue scene anymore"...

Well, I do but it just doesn't work for me right now, with the level I'm at now. If I was big enough, and I could play the Metro Theatre, or the Enmore Theatre, and people would go and shut up... But if I can find the right places, like when I played with Ed Kuepper at the City Recital Hall... magical! I'm not closed to the idea, but at the level I'm at now, just me — yeah, I've got to hire community halls.

Does it feel like starting over? It sounds like you're rebuilding in a lot of respects, asking “How do I build an audience?” — even finding the people that are receptive to the ideas that you're putting out musically. Would you say that's true?

Everything changes all the time. When you're independent, and you don't have the money behind you, you’ve got to figure out how to do it all, otherwise it's never gonna work.

COVID changed small venues around here, a lot of them hit the deck. Now they want more people to come to shows, they want you to sell tickets at shows, and the big – what are they called? The big ticketing company?

Live Nation? They own Moshtix[Technically, they own Ticketmaster, which owns Moshtix.]

Moshtix. Right. So you put on a gig at a small venue for 16 bucks. Moshtix takes four. For what? You're playing at these small venues that don't need it anyway. That whole ticketing thing — that's just one thing since COVID that’s happened, it just rolls on. You’ve got to jump through the hoops and go “OK, well, I'm gonna use Humanitix”.

Why do you think DIY isn't as prevalent in Sydney as elsewhere? In other parts of the world DIY is thriving and healthy. There's lots of spaces — artist-run spaces, or people doing impromptu stuff in their own homes sometimes...

Well, look at Sydney! Everything is so regulated.

There's also not the audience. I think a lot of people are mainly devoted to the way of life of buying a house, having children, doing a 9 to 5 job. If you do that, you don't really have time to do DIY.

I find in other parts of the world, if you want to be an artist, and not particularly focus on making money, it's easier. Like Berlin or Baltimore, for instance, or even some parts of Scotland — wherever around the world. But Sydney, where we are, it's fucking hard — it's really expensive!

So if you want to do DIY, you can't because if you're a 19-year-old person, no matter what your intentions are, you still have to pay so much rent. And then you’ve got to go and play at a venue where Moshtix takes $4. So how am I going to make this? How can I navigate this? So I just think it's really difficult for the DIY artist, unless they hit the jackpot like Amanda Palmer or Tash Sultana.

What would you like to see? I mean, I guess there are all sorts of questions — the comparative lack of DIY in Sydney, it's probably a reflection of our overall cultural values, to hazard a guess?

I can't comment, Joe. I have no idea. I have no idea like, what are the Black Wire people doing now? [Ed note: This, among other things!] I used to go see punk shows there. I'll go and see Shogun play in Antenna because he's crazy and I really dig him and I've always liked him. And he's DIY. I'm always like "Man, that was a great show". But that's like one person.

I don't know what 17-year-old people are doing. Like Josh Patton, who's a sound artist guy, he lives out in the Western Suburbs. He's DIY. I don't know where he's playing. I can't really comment but hopefully I find out about this stuff. And then I can support it. But sitting in a dark room playing the guitar for six hours a day you don't really see it. So I’m trying to get out, I try to see where it's happening.

That's the worst thing about being a musician, it's really weird, actually. Because you do this thing, right? And then it helps you live, and it's part of what you are: it's meditative joy, medication, self-medicating, whatever you're doing through music. And then you have to put it out as a commodity, and then people review it, and then people buy it, and then people don't buy it. And then it just becomes this thing. That's the thing that I hate the most.

You know, when I'm sitting in my room — I'm working on my new record — and I'm trying to do something different now, a different thing… I'm trying to create something different. And it's a lot of work. I mean, the other day, I just played the same finger picking pattern for an hour. And I kind of got lost in it, right? And then you have to bring it back and write a song and then put it on Bandcamp or do a crowdfunding campaign. It's really weird.

The music part to me is never the problem. It's other stuff that goes with it: all the rest of the shit — taking the [promo] photos, it's even crazy that you have to sit there and kind of look good for a photo like that. Then you put it online for people to go "I like that! but I don't like that" even before they listen to the music. But it's always been like that — or at least for the last 100 years. But it's just really weird.

What's your ideal?

I'd like to be able to just tour and play to enough people each show to make it meaningful. That's it. You know, like, I had like 35 people at the Annandale show. It was awesome. I played in Katoomba social clubs that my friend John put on. Awesome. Go and play in Nowra, to a community called El Horses: awesome. It's just, you work so hard on the songs, then you play, people sit and listen to it, and they like it. That's it. It's really cool. And if they find that they love the songs, and they get the recordings on whatever format, and they listen to it, and they like it. That's even better. It's pretty simple, really. That's about it.

It feels like you've had a wonderful experience of discovering so many new places for it all to happen...

It's not even on any of the outlets. You don't hear about this anywhere. There's heaps of it — the Blue Mountains especially, and Penrith.

There's heaps of stuff happening that I don't even know about — nobody knows what's going on. Especially with the younger — that bedroom hip-hop stuff out there, that's huge. All that trap stuff. I find it very exciting and inspiring. I'm out of the loop. But I mean, if they're going to stick it to anyone with authority, I'm like “Fuck, yes! Can I help you? Can I do anything?” But how do you find out about it all unless you're in this environment, the culture or area?

But yeah, there's heaps of people — especially in the Blue Mountains — heaps of old folkies.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot is the regional connecting lines between cities as viable touring circuits. I know that you jumped in your car and did a huge string of shows, booking gigs at towns between all the cities that you played. How did you find the regional gigs?

Yeah booking stuff is cool! All the people are really nice. The thing about regional as well — like, I understand this — but the locals want to play as well. So if I rock up, I'm taking a local's gig, you know. There's a respect that you kind of have to understand. I've been trying to get back to the Blue Mountains, and everything's booked up till May because the locals all jumped in first. Fair game!

Super interesting. Even exciting, though, that it could be in that position.

I love doing the drive to Melbourne. I'll stop at Wagga! I'll stop in Albury!

Did you do much of that deeper regional touring with previous projects? I mean, it's one thing to play a Sydney show, and add some Newie and Wollongong dates around it. But that's not really a regional tour, that's just focusing on places that surround the metro centres. I'm from Armidale, we never had bands coming through Armidale...

There's nowhere to play! The Armidale university... I think we played there… With Jep & Dep we tried as much as we could because when you're touring, like driving, it's great to stop, get a free bed, have something to eat. It's cool. I love regional Australia, especially Victoria — just love it so much.

But yeah, with Gerling we did some big tours, man! We toured with Spiderbait when they were at the height of their power, and we did like, oh god, 30 shows with them and they went everywhere. South Australia, you know. Mining towns. We toured with Machine Gun Fellatio. Fucking Kalgoorlie with Regurgitator. We were in Broome tripping when the World Trade Centre got hit, hanging out with an Aboriginal local guy in Broome — that's pretty fucking regional! So yeah, we did heaps of stuff for Gerling. We'd go anywhere that would let us play there! Used to go to Canberra a fair bit. Lot of the unis...

I'm wondering what the chicken and egg is with regional touring. It feels like regional touring doesn't get as much importance placed on it anymore, like the idea of a 30 date Spiderbait tour. I don't really see a lot of that anymore. There are exceptions: you've got Missy Higgins, she's got her gigantic regional tour. Paul Kelly...

Kim Churchill, Ash Grunwald...

But that's a certain scale that you're operating at there. In terms of a thriving existing musical ecosystem in the regions...

If I'm going somewhere like Deniliquin, I always try my hardest to try to get a gig there — at the pub, or if there are people who put on these town shows. If I do a show somewhere, I'll do local paper, local radio, Facebook group, I'll do the whole thing. I'm trying to build up just like a database of places that work.

I played in Wagga last, there were only like 15 people there on a Tuesday night, in an art gallery called Curious Rabbit, and the lady who ran it was just so awesome. It was really good. And she's like "Next time you come, there's music on down the road, we should get the kids in and have a look". With regional, because I'm not there, it's hard to figure out what's going on, unless I go there. And I look, and meet the people, and I'm like "Oh, that place is cool!".

What would make it easier for you to do all this?

No idea!

Not a solved problem.

Yeah. Jamie Hutchings — I find such parallels with Jamie. He kind of does the same thing. We, like, spar off each other. “What's that place in the Mountains?” “Yes. Do that.” “How much does that cost? Where'd you get the packaging? What's going on here? Can you mix this? You want to do this? You want to do a tour?” That's a good thing, like — there's no ego, and we’re both supportive. In Sydney, you often don't really get that…

So what would you say to someone that was 20 years younger than you, who was in your lane in terms of their creative ethos. What would your advice to them be, if they were just sort of going "I don't have a Jamie Hutchings in my life, how do I find my way?"

I'd just probably say: "Think of it when you're my age". If you put some shit out, it's gonna always be there. Just make sure you know what you want to do, if you're doing it.

If you're not in the cage, in the music industry making money, if you're not making money for someone in the music industry, they're not going to help you. That's the way it is 95% of the time.

It takes so much emotion, ego, effort, dreams, love and struggle to do music... you can do that without being in the music industry. But if you're not making anyone else money in the music industry, then they’re not going to help you most of the time. They're not. Sorry!

You look at the big bookers — how many big bookers in Sydney are running so many of the venues. And if you're not part of that vibe, or you're not going to bring 80+ people per show, or whatever, they don't want to know about it. I find with Sydney, you know, like, someone starts a bar in Newtown. They just try to get the most amount of money straight away to get the money back: to pay the council, to pay for the refit. That's why there are no cool old places left, like sure we've got the Midnight Special, but I mean old old. You go anywhere: New York, fucking Berlin and you go...

Here's this 100 year old historic club! There's Charlie Parker playing here on the wall! There's Mingus!

Perfect example.

After the interview concluded, Darren did turn the in-house speaker back on.
Image: Darren turns the sound back on After the interview concluded, Darren did turn the in-house speaker back on.

Listen to Darren Cross:

Photo supplied by artist
Image: Darren Cross repping a SydneyMusic tote bag Photo supplied by artist

Joe Hardy
02 Apr 2024