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Interview: Tropical Fuck Storm

5 February 2023

Photo by Adam Donovan

The release of the new Tropical Fuck Storm EP, Submersive Behavior, was supposed to coincide with the Australian band’s tour of the West Coast of the United States. However, just before the tour was scheduled to start, the band announced that bassist Fiona Kitschin had been diagnosed with breast cancer causing the dates to be canceled. On a recent Zoom call with Gaz Liddiard, the TFS singer/guitarist shared that Kitschin, his partner, is currently undergoing treatment and chemotherapy and they are taking things day by day.

There’s been a great outpouring of support and love and hope and prayers for Fiona in light of the recent announcement that’s she been diagnosed with breast cancer. Is there anything people can do to help?

GAZ: Not really. Just don’t forgot about us while we’re having a bit of time off. It’s been weird. We did this gig up in the north of Australia, up in the tropics, and Fi was bitten by a mosquito and got this disease called Ross River virus. It basically meant she couldn’t get out of bed for three months. And then her mom died during the pandemic. It’s endless. And now there’s this. As if the pandemic wasn’t bad enough, putting us out of work most of the time. It was a shock when Fi got the diagnosis but, at the same time, we’re just kind of getting used to stuff being fucked up. Fi has to do a year or more of treatment and chemotherapy and all that stuff. We’re probably going to be able to do a few shows in Australia with Fi playing bass but we can’t travel overseas, it’s too hard. We’re going to make an album in the meantime, we’ll still do stuff but just not overseas touring.

If you could only either record and never play live or play live but never record stuff, what would be your preference?

GAZ: I reckon the recording. We wouldn’t make any money but the recording just like the Beatles did and they quit touring. We’ve got a studio at home. It’s fun. The studio is next to a river which makes it fun and even nicer for us. So, whenever we record, it’s more like a party than a really boring kind of sterile recording environment.

Do you usually start with a song and then build off of that or do you have a collection of songs that you’ve built up and start to pull from those?

GAZ: This particular EP started with that Jimi Hendrix cover. We did it during the pandemic because we were bored. I didn’t really have anything written that we could get together and play so we thought, “Well, we’re here, let’s do something for the sake of it.” I like doing covers because it means you can do something without having to write and writing is really hard. With Hendrix, we picked the most foolhardy cover to do. Covering people like Jimi Hendrix or bands like Joy Division or David Bowie, it’s a stupid idea because it’s hard to do a better version. We thought, let’s do Hendrix because that’s a stupid idea and let’s do the most ambitious Hendrix song. “1983,” the song is about him becoming a mermaid and going and living in Atlantis because there’s a nuclear holocaust on the surface and that seemed pretty fitting for the times. So, we did that and it felt really good. We were surprised.

Everything else came after that and we do have a lot of hard drives full of what we call the “Spare Parts Department.” We just sort of fish through stuff, we’ve just got so much material. We do stuff with drum machines and whatever and we just amass tons of half finished and weird ideas. Then you go back a few months later and you can’t even remember doing it and you’ll hear something in it that you didn’t hear initially. You’ll pull it out and reconfigure it in a different way.

In addition to the Hendrix cover, the rest of the songs on the EP are, wink wink, “covers” of bands that don’t yield any Google results. When you were recording those songs, were you taking on the personas of the fictional bands you were pretending to cover?

GAZ: It occurred to us that half the stuff on this particular EP was going to be covers and then we had our stuff. We thought, “Fuck it, let’s just pretend. Let’s do a fake covers record.” The names of those bands that don’t exist, Tropical Fuck Storm got together in 2018 and we were hanging with the King Gizzard guys. They were like, “We’re going to go on tour in the U.S. Do you want to come with us?” We were like, “Yeah, we’ve got a new band.” In three months, we recorded the first album and then did like 4 or 5 shows in Melbourne just to warm up before we went to the U.S. We needed names. Men Men Menstruation and Leonardo Decapitated and Compliments to the Chef were all the names we played those gigs under.

On some of those long drives while touring the U.S., did you make up back stories for all these bands?

GAZ: Yeah, yeah, we did that. You’ll be doing anything, really, and someone says something and you realize that’s a good band name. We’ve got a list of band names. Most bands do. I think Fi came up with one yesterday. She can’t drink now so it was The Judgmental Non-Drinkers.

Did you also do a movie during the pandemic?

GAZ: We did. Necessity is the mother of invention. The lockdown laws here were so strict. I live in the center of the state of Victoria, [drummer] Lauren [Hammel] lives in the western side of Victoria, [guitarist/keyboardist] Erica [Dunn] lives in Melbourne. We weren’t allowed to get together for a big part of the pandemic. We weren’t allowed to travel that far through the state. But, it turned out, Amyl and the Sniffers got us onto this, because Amy’s boyfriend is a filmmaker, they realized that filmmakers could get a permit and work. They could travel out of the lockdown zones. So, Amy was saying, “We’re thinking of maybe a video or an extended film so we can get permits and actually record.” She got her boyfriend to get permits and he just filmed them recording their most recent album. That’s how they were allowed to do it. We were like, “We’ll do that too.” It steamrolled into rather than just recording in a studio, it could become a movie and it gave us an excuse to get together on our property. It was fun to do.

Are you ever on a timetable with pressure from labels to get something recorded?

GAZ: We always sort of get the kernel of an idea. We got on a trail of a scent of a song or an EP or an LP and then we’ll say to the label, “We’re kind of starting to get into something that’s either going to be a single or EP or LP.” Then they’ll go, “Okay, cool. We’ve got space in six months to release it. Do you reckon you could do it?” And we’ll go, “Okay.” You never know what you’re going to come up with. It’s always rush, rush, rush in the end. We work well on a deadline. We hang out and drink beer and go swimming. We’re kind of really lazy and a deadline helps.

With the weather being as nice as it is and having a home studio, it sounds like you’re living the dream. Why would you ever want to go on tour?

GAZ: It’s funny. We’ve had certain members of our business team who’ve come on tour for a few weeks with us thinking that it’s going to be a laugh. We had a woman who came with us and she was part of our management team. We finished the tour somewhere in Spain. On paper, it looks like it’s going to be amazing. At the end, we said to her, “Did you have fun?” And she was like, “Oh yeah, it’s been really good.” We said, “How many times did you cry?” She’s like, “Oh, about six times” because it’s the best of times and the worst of times. You can be on top of the Swiss Alps one day and the next time you are in some shit hole on the side of the road with the transmission blown out of the car and you’re freezing to death and there’s no food. Touring is where the suffering happens.

Joyful Noise releases your stuff in the U.S. Do you have a label in Australia?

GAZ: We’ve got our own label, TFS Records. We get the stuff manufactured and then just ship it to a distributor who then puts it in all the shops in Australia. There’s sort of about 7 cities that we have to service. In Europe and the U.S. and the UK, we have Joyful Noise and they do everything. It’s much bigger. We can’t handle that by ourselves.

Has it been a struggle to get stuff out because of the vinyl backlog?

GAZ: During the pandemic, it was like 13 months manufacturing time which is insane. It used to be 3 months. It’s so frustrating because you have to make the album which takes time anyway, then you submit it and you just wait. And then someone like Adele, she printed something like 700,000 LPs and the whole world had to wait while she used all the manufacturing plants. They put her album to the front of the line because her record company is the biggest client. Then we saw interviews with Adele crying. We were like, “Fuck you.” Everyone else, whether it’s a little scummy punk band or a little unknown techno outfit or even Depeche Mode and Nick Cave, they have to wait for her. It’s getting back to more like 8 months, which is good.

By the time you’ve written and recorded an album and then sent it off to get pressed as vinyl, it can be two years.

GAZ: Yeah. And because of that wait, you then have to rush an album, like our last album was rushed during a pandemic and then you sit there and wait for a year and you realize all the mistakes you made during the production and you just go, “If we had more time, it would be much better.”

Did you grow up buying vinyl?

GAZ: A little bit. I was more of the cassette generation. My parents had a pretty good collection. They had all the Beatles stuff, they were an English family, and good stuff like Miles Davis, so that was cool. I used to play a lot of that. There was a library down the road from us and they had a section where you could take cassettes out the same way you could take books out. Whoever stocked it was a mad free jazz fan. I was really young and this was the only music I could get my hands on so I’d take it all home and copy it and just listen to Ornette Coleman and Albert Eiler and Thelonious Monk and not knowing it was weird.

Were you pulling out cassettes based on the artist’s name or were you doing it based on the covers?

GAZ: From the library, there was only free jazz so I took what was there. There was a record store down the road. Every week, I’d get $10 as pocket money and I’d go down and get tapes. When I was like 13, I must have heard Led Zeppelin on the radio. I heard “Immigrant Song.” The record store had all of their albums and so I went and bought every tape, every week. It took about 9 weeks. I didn’t know, at the time, what the song was, and finally, on the last week, I bought Led Zeppelin III and I was like, “Ah, there it is.” The whole time, in that section, there was Led Zeppelin but above that was Raw Power by The Stooges. Every Saturday I’d go there and buy a Led Zeppelin tape but I would look and there would be the Raw Power album cover and I’d go, “What is that guy? He’s like an alien.” After I got all the Led Zeppelin record, the next Saturday I bought Raw Power, took it home and while Led Zeppelin was amazing, The Stooges was like discovering a lost city. It was so wild.

Between free jazz, Led Zeppelin and The Stooges, it’s pretty obvious where your influences come from.

GAZ: It’s that simple, yeah.

Your album covers are the kind that, when I was a kid, would have caught my eye the way Raw Power caught yours. Who’s responsible for your album artwork?

GAZ: We look for, and get introduced to, artists. The main one, Joe Becker, who did the Laughing Death cover, he’s in Montreal. All the other covers, we just either cold call them on the internet or we get introduced through Ben Parish who works at Joyful Noise. He worked for years at Kill Rock Stars, he’s an underground art nerd and he helps us with that stuff. We approach people and say, “We’ll sling you $500 or $1000 if you let us use that.” It just seems like you don’t need to get a cover that matches the music. You don’t need to match the mood, you just need something that captures everyone’s attention. It’s got to have some aesthetic integrity or something of worth, it has to be good. But it doesn’t really matter.

In 2023, as you’re vying for attention among all the other releases, is it important to have different vinyl color variants?

GAZ: It really is. It’s the visual side of things. I don’t want to get all business like but it is all marketing. We want people to hear our music. In the last few years, everyone’s album covers have gone pretty bonkers, psychedelic, they scream for attention. You have to stay ahead of the curve. Everyone’s doing crazy splatter, multi-colored crazy shit. Maybe we’ll start doing limited-edition black vinyl.

I don’t want to know the specifics of your finances, but is the band staying afloat?

GAZ: We are reliant on the next tour. We’ve been touring so much that I think we’ve got a little bit of money. We’re going to run out of money if we’re not touring with Tropical Fuck Storm but I can do solo gigs as can Erica. Lauren’s got a job, she builds houses. We’ll stay afloat but it is fucking hard, especially after the pandemic. We went from earning the same amount as someone with a regular job to just earning nothing.

Every time we come back from a tour, we have an envelope full of merch money, cash from selling t-shirts. Fiona stashes it away in a drawer and then we go on the next tour. We did that 13 times. She would stash cash everywhere, like a squirrel hides it’s acorns. The pandemic came and we were like, “We’re broke.” Then it occurred to me to go around the house and search. Me, and our neighbor, we grabbed a few beers one day and I said, “Come help me count all this money.” There was money from Poland, money from the U.S., money from France. In the end, there was $36,000. That saved us!