Introducing Christopher Port, and the grassroots scenes defining Australian electronica
The Australian electronic scene needs artists like Christopher Port right now. We know we have the talent in house, and there’s a quality handful of Aussie producers and DJs killing it internationally, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said our scene was running at full throttle. With too few high profile role models to inspire and too few opportunities to cultivate the next crop, much of mainstream electronica is cruising along a sun-soaked, Flume-esque slipstream, when it should be forging its own path. But, as Dylan once croaked, the times they are a-changin, and long-time musician, first-time solo artist Christopher Port reminds us that in musical microcosms across Australia there is a surprising diversity of sound ready for a much, much wider audience.
Vetement, Port’s debut EP, is unique. We could talk about the UK garage grounding, cast the net wider to similarities in Glaswegian Rustie’s game-changing computer sonics, or note how ‘Before’, the only outlet for Port’s own vocals, reminds of us of the moodiness of Presets circa-Girl-And-The-Sea… but we’d end up right back where we started, because what has Pulse and plenty of other Australian music bloggers so excited about Port is he really doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Though he’s not about to go on about it, Port is clearly an inherently musical guy. He’s made a living playing drums and other instruments for bands like Airling and Big Scary on his Pieater label for years, and is currently touring with singer/songwriter Ngaiire. When I ask just how many instruments he plays he shrugs and says, “I dunno - a couple?”, goes on to name four, and claims all it really takes to learn a new instrument is a deadline. He’s dedicated most of his life to music, “maybe at the sacrifice of making money” he admits with a laugh, so Vetement’s release last Friday was a long time coming for Port - and not his first shot at solo production. “I’d made a bunch of music before this EP that I thought was going to be good, but looking back it was probably a little forced,” he admits. Unlike previous efforts, the process of making this EP was relatively smooth. “Once I allowed myself to make music how I really wanted, it all came out really quickly…It's the times when it almost feels as if the track's already done. It's just a thing that you're given somehow; it arrives at your door and you just need to get it right. As soon as I tried to follow that initial instinct it became clearer, and I seemed to just know when they were done.”
Learning when to stop is one of the key things that sets Port apart - his work is boldly mixed and by no means over-produced. Port has trusted in each element enough to give it space to breathe, appreciated that silence is as important a musical tool as noise - and the result is raw and exciting. Just like the accompanying visuals - in both music video and album artwork - his music is an unusual collection of textures, patched together in an equally unusual way. From the fragmented jerking percussion of ‘Go Start’ and ‘Bump’ to the clear and graspable melodies of ‘Before’ or the irresistible groove of ‘Heavens’, the beauty of Vetement's five tracks is in the five-hundred possible tangents contained therein.
Creative rhythms are a defining feature - one we might expect from both a professional drummer and garage fan - but the percussive patterns are coloured by a surprising emotional depth in synth and melody lines, which Port admits was a little more hard earned. “I knew I could do drums, and I just wanted to make garagey drum stuff all the time, but I thought nah nah, that's OK, you can do that, but there's all this other stuff like chord parts and synth harmonies I knew I needed to work on. So I produced with no drums at all for probably a good year and a bit. I was just trying to put it off as long as possible because I knew as soon as I let myself do it, it would just be drum central.”
Though the UK influences are audible, Port’s love of garage is homegrown. “There's a funny pocket in Melbourne of a bunch of friends of mine..” he cites as the environment he fostered his garage vibes in. This ‘pocket’ of like-minded musical friends is clearly one which Port values highly. “Of course I listen to everything - all the stuff on the radio, new releases all the time - but I think the actual music that influences me the most, that I listen to the most, is all my friends' music. If I were to think of people to collaborate with it's just all those people. Having more time to do stuff with them is all I'd really want.” Port goes on to describe how important those friends are to his creative process, and the special moment of sharing when an idea becomes a reality. “It's so different when you show someone else for the first time. It's this beautiful moment when you've just been listening to this thing over and over, for days, or sometimes weeks, with no one else even hearing it. Then the first time you show someone it's this funny little transfer that makes it a real life thing as opposed to just this thing in your head.”
Port’s music has taken him right across Australia, so while his hometown of Melbourne may be immune, the effects of Sydney - and now Brisbane’s - lockout laws have been both a depressant and a powerful motivator. “I find it really annoying and really hard with lockouts in Sydney and all the stress and hysteria made up in the media… but then you go out and you see nothing but lovely people that just want to get their music out. It's not people that want to go out and fight, they just want to connect with other people that are like-minded. All of this stuff is really stifling everyone. If I thought about it too much more I'd probably get really down, but whenever I hear things like that it just makes me go out. I just go out straight away and see shows and get around my friends and support whatever I see happening that is good.”
Port’s reaction is the best the industry can hope to have, and the good news is, when faced with adversity, especially of the ‘establishment’ variety, electronic music does have a long history of thriving. “Of course dance music, particularly in the UK, has had such a long history of raves and parties put on by people who don’t have a venue license, they don’t have a liquor license, but there’s this rich history of people just doing it anyway… It changes the landscape and the music when times are tough, but it also spurs it on.” Port recalls that Australia too has its share of underground raving history which perhaps some fresh faced promoters are inclined to forget. “We have a lot of history of raves in the ‘90s - more than people remember. Through working with Ngaiire I've spent some time with Paul Mac in Sydney, and people forget how legit he is! What people are doing now and thinking they are super original and it's like - man - this is not new. People like Paul or like the drum and bass crews in Melbourne have been doing it since forever - and they've made it work. I think that's where we are all looking back to now, for answers. That's where we are at, back to little set-ups and independent things.”
If there’s one thing we can learn from Porto, it’s that “any scene that doesn’t have a grass roots base will never succeed”. If we are disillusioned with lack of opportunity or diversity in the Australian electronic scene, we know where to look. The “little pocket in Melbourne” which has given us Christopher Port is one of many across Australia, and “all these little pockets have one thing that differentiates them - one thing they do really well and that's really cool.” The electronic music platform is ultimately one of the most democratic, so whilst financial, infrastructural and general public support should be ours to demand, all the scene really needs to thrive is support from each other. And, of course, more music makers like our man Christopher Port.