He’s a towering adorable soldier Mikel Simic. Mikelangelo. These days his musical purge is half adult contemporary folk-pop (abc radio listener stuff) and then he’ll surprise you with something completely discomforting and ignored (by abc radio). The suave giant of a gentleman started out with his nervous little cock out. It’s still there, sophisticatedly supressed beneath some briefs and often a nice pair of slacks.
Before I moved out of Melbourne I would watch him talk to people on trams, in cafes, at bars. I would try to evade him seeing me, pretending I was a private eye, greasing my ego. I preferred to just watch him, at a close distance, wondering what stuff he was putting away for a song.
Here is Mikel’s life story so far…
I WANT TO GO RIGHT BACK TO WHEN YOU WERE A FERAL CHUMP LIVING IN CANBERRA WITH A FRIEND NAMED GEOFF AND YOU STARTED A RABID BAND WITH AN ANARCHIC PUNK AESTHETIC CALLED PRIK HARNESS.
Its true, I’m a proud Canberran, as is Geffy Weffy, we were always well washed and our clothes neat and tidy, not feral at all. Geoff was always a computer wizard, and when we decided to kill off the band in 2000, he followed his calling, and now teaches in the design school at the Canberra School of Art.
To go back to the beginnings…up to my mid teens, I wanted to grow up to be a Conan the Barbarian comic artist, I spent so many hours a day drawing decapitated warriors and over shading muscles with black ink crosshatching. During this time, I was also writing and staging plays and singing Monty Python songs at school concerts. Geoff and I became friends in year 10, and before we could play instruments, our first performance was at the end of year school concert, where, with some accomplices, we staged an elaborate birth sequence that started in a hospital and then moved inside the womb. The principal stormed on stage and stopped the show just when I appeared wearing a blanket over my head and declaring I was a herpe virus. All 100% true.
When I was 15, I started singing in my brother’s Radio Birdman inspired band – Pyschotic – and everything changed. We only did one gig, but that was enough for me. Conan was out and rock’n’roll was in. I bought a $300 drumkit with money from an art prize and Geoff bought a Kramer electric guitar and borrowed my brother’s two watt Princeton amp (he had a Marshall Stack and didn’t need the Princeton), in the summer of 1989 Prik Harness was born. Our first photoshoot was shot by my mum in the the backyard. Our first gig was as a guitar and drums two-piece, on a stairwell at a party at Wollongong Uni. Geoff was set up on the ground, underneath the stairs, and I was playing on the landing above him with little to no aural or visual connection. An auspicious start.
HOW WERE THOSE TOURS BACK AND FORTH FROM CANBERRA AND MELBOURNE WITH OTHER WAY OVER THERE RECORDING ARTISTS?
Our first trip to Melbourne I ended up flying through a plate glass window while kickboxing with Geoff mid-gig. I was dressed in a pink crimplene button up one-piece cum two-piece bikini and tri-tone pastel leg warmers. It incredible that I came out unscathed. Then there was the surround sound show with Breatherhole at the Evelyn, where each member of the band was playing from a separate stage in a different corner of the room, facing inwards. Prik Harness was a three-piece, and our bass player had pulled out of the tour the day before we left Canberra. So we taught Ben Green our songs just before the show. Poor bastard, we actually couldn’t hear each other at all. I was playing drums and watching Geffy Weffy’s hands on his guitar to try to keep in time. No one else noticed our musical struggle, as they were hypnotized by the Melbourne debut of our nipple-less, bum-less and crotch-less lycra jumpsuits.
YOUR LIVE SHOWS AND COSTUMES WERE PARTICULARLY MENTAL. DO YOU STILL HAVE THAT JUMPSUIT WITH THE CROTCH, BUTTHOLE, AND NIPPLES CUT OUT OF IT?
Unfortunately those outfits suffered from bad lycra fatigue and encroaching mould after being left in our army disposals costume bag for years unwashed after our last gig. It was a sad day for culture when I had to throw them away.
OR THAT KIND OF GRANDMA WOVEN OWL WALL HANGING THING YOU USED TO WEAR LIKE A CAVEMAN?
The macramae owl pot plant holders were purchased from an op shop in Adelaide in 1992, we immediately realised their great potential. Geoff and I bought them and wore them in combination with ug boots and macramae headband for a gig at Bent St. Gallery for Adelaide Fringe with Canberra ex-pat folk punk band The Bedridden. We performed our song Satan is the Devil while spitting fake blood, wearing the macramae owl pot plant holders as stoneage suburban loin cloths.
AT ONE POINT THE NAME WAS CENSORED DOWN TO P.HARNESS. WHAT WAS THE REASON BEHIND THAT?
We did that ourselves for the first album, The P. Harness Audio Visual Kit, which we put out ourselves in 1993. It’s pretty funny that quite a few fans thought it was outside censorship. We pretty much did whatever we wanted. Geoff came up with this fantastic logo of a capital P in an oval, which, as well as being on the album cover, the logo was stitched onto the chests of our lycra jumpsuits that he designed and made with his wife Imogen. We looked like some kind of misguided superheroes, trying to save Oz pop/rock, with super powers of unstoppable idiocy and uncontrolled banality.
YOU EVENTUALLY MOVED TO MELBOURNE AND STARTED A GREAT LITTLE WEIRD CLUB THE TRUFFULA TREE (NOW THE BEER PIT THE PINNACLE).
Yeah, I started the Truffula Tree with my folks and my brother, the name came from from the great Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax. My sister was still studying at Art School in Canberra at the time, and would come and work with us during her holidays. It was a wild few years, full of good times, amazing experiences and some downright nighmarish moments. It was great adventure, we really were doing it from the heart and acting on instinct, there was not much in the way of a business plan. We put on bands and acoustic acts seven nights a week, as well as monthly art exhibitions, and running the bar and the kitchen, which did breakfast, lunch and dinner. We certainly put in alot of hours and made alot of people happy.
AND THEN AROUND THE SAME TIME P.HARNESS STOPPED DOING SHOWS THE VENUE FELL INTO SOME TROUBLE. ONE RUMOUR I HEARD WAS THAT YOU SPENT ALL THE RENT MONEY ON GOOD TIMES AND THE LANDLORD KICKED YOU ALL OUT.
The end of the Truffula Tree/Toucan Club is a pretty Machiavellian tale. Here’s the abridged version: I had a good friend who worked with me who was keen to invest a big chunk of cash into the business. His money wasn’t through yet from his OS property sales, but I excitedly went ahead and started pouring cash into the venue anyway and told my real estate agents I’d pay them 6 months rent in advance in the next 6 weeks or so. They were happy with this deal but didn’t pass on the memo to the owners. When my landlord found out that I was 5 weeks behind on rent, he threatened to change the locks if I didn’t pay him immediately. I explained I wouldn’t have the money until the weekend takings, he said that wasn’t good enough. So I asked my business advisor if I could borrow the cash and pay back him in a few days time. He happily agreed, I talked to my landlord, he was appeased and all seemed well. BUT…(cue dastardly music), when I went to get the loan from my business advisor the next day, he said he’d changed his mind. I had to break the news to my landlord that I didn’t have the money and he sent around the locksmith to essentially lock me out of my own venue. As it turns out, my business manager had a meeting with the manager of the hotel next door and they decided they would make my landlord a direct offer to pay the back rent and take control of the business – a very cheap way to buy it for them. I saw the funny side of it, what can you do. Business can get pretty ridiculous, I prefer writing and recording songs and performing them to people, so maybe they did me a favour.
AFTER THE CLOSING OF TRUFFULA TREE YOU SEEMED TO DISAPPEAR FOR QUITE A FEW YEARS, TO RETURN TO MELBOURNE WITH EXTREMELY NICE HAIR, A BIT MORE WOG UNDER YOUR BELT, AND A BALKAN INFUSED FOLK-NOIR GROUP THE BLACK SEA GENTLEMEN.
I went to Canberra for a gig a few months after the demise of the Toucan Club, and met a beautiful philosopher, fell in love with her and didn’t go back to Melbourne. I started the Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen later the same year, it was the year 2000, so the band is almost 16 years old. Interestingly, I’d been writing songs in this vein since my beginnings as a songwriter, I just hadn’t found the people to bring them to life. I had a song I made up on clarinet in the early 90s called the Black Sea Waltz, Geoff and I even performed it a few times in the P. harness duo. So all the early Black Sea Gentlemen songs to be were written while I was also writing Prik Harness songs, even though the band didn’t exist yet. Geoff and I tried to introduce some of the “less stupid” songs we write into P. Harness, but was such a profoundly idiotic live show, that it was tricky to make it work. But as well as the our unhinged rock line-up, we did have a version of the band from early on called the Psauve Quartet, pronounced with a silent P. We wore suits and featured almost the same line up as the Black Sea Gentlemen, acoustic guitar, doublebass, clarinet, cello, and the same violinist who I began the Black Sea Gentlemen with, David Branson. P. Harness even had a slow sad European dirge of a song on our first album called Woollen Suits, as well as half a dozen other Euro-absurdst songs. So really the seeds of the Black Sea Gentlemen had already been planted. If you ever see the BSG live show, its full of humour and is entertaining without being lightweight. The band allows me a greater emotional breadth, I can go to places that I couldn’t go with Prik Harness. That said, I always have a few projects on the go. I write alot of songs, and its good to put them in a setting where they can really thrive. I’ve just started a new band called The Spectres of Love, so look out…
YOU RECENTLY RELOCATED BACK INTO COUNTRY LIVING AFTER SOME YEARS IN THE BIG LIFE OF MELBOURNE. YOUR LAST “SOLO” RELEASE WAS CITY OF DREAMS. IT’S KIND OF HORRIFYING, THE TENSE RIGID ELECTRONIC MUSIC WITH YOUR EARTH RUMBLING SMOOTH VOICE SMOKING ON TOP OF IT. TO ME IT GIVES OFF A HECTIC STINK OF THE DOG-EAT-DOG-RAT-RACE-PSEUDO-EPHEDRINE MAJOR CITY WITH ALL THESE SELF-CONFESSED ORGANIC HUMAN BEINGS ATTEMPTING TO SURVIVE.
You’ve put your finger on one of the strong themes of the album. I like your response. The songs initially all came out in their skeletal form while walking the streets of Melbourne at different times of the day and night, not with a concept in mind, just singing my reactions to the city into my phone. I realised there was something interesting going on, got some money from Arts Victoria and invited a bunch of my favourite Melbourne artists to be involved. Initially, I wanted it to be like a soundtrack album with a different singer on every song, I’d only sing one or two songs, it was more like I was the producer. When I asked Miles Brown from the Night Terrors to make an electronic version of my song Metropolis, it blasted the whole album open. I loved the way he brought the artificial, constructed and at times alienated nature of the city into the album, and so did Clare St Clare, who I was then living and working with. We got really excited and the whole trajectory of the album changed as the three of us worked on songs together. We also working with producers Daniel and Gideon Frankel and were able to work on lyrics and songs in the studio, which keeps everything moving and full of possibility. In the end, City Of Dreams felt even more like a movie soundtrack, a love story set in the city, with St Clare and I as the lead characters, with a great supporting cast. I’m really proud of this album. I love the way the sonic palette moves between electronic, electric and acoustic tracks, bound together by images, narrative threads and overarching themes. Music is an adventure, why tie yourself down when you are making art and telling stories.
IT ALSO HAS REAL GENTLE MOMENTS. LIKE THE SONG “BEAUTY” MAKES ME THINK OF FROSTY WINTER MORNINGS IN CARLTON WITH THE SUN PEAKING THROUGH SOME CRACK IN THE SKY.
I love that song. Happy, pretty songs can be the hardest to capture, but when you do they are often more powerful than all the smoke and noise of louder, angrier songs. “BEAUTY” completely lifted off into some kind of heavenly place with the dreamy vocals of The Nymphs. They came into Bakehouse for just a few hours and quietly and confidently proceeded to spin a magical web with their phenomenal harmonies. The group have called it a day now, but two members, Jane Hendry and Kelly Day, have formed a duo called Broads who are really worth checking out. Two of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard, together their voices melt my heart.
The album definitely moves through different times of the day and night. At first I thought it might just be one day and night, but then I realised I couldn’t straightjacket the album, it was doing its own thing. The best albums take their own path and allow you along for the ride.
HAD YOU CONSCIOUSLY WANTED TO MAKE THIS MELBOURNE DEVOTIONAL BEFORE ABANDONING IT?
I think our unconscious runs the show, so a deeper part of me may have known that this was a goodbye, but it took my conscious mind a few years to catch up. I moved to Melbourne to be with Clare, and threads of our love story are woven through the album, the joys and the struggles, and with the song she sings at the end of the album, Closer, we come to a place of peace. I fund it much harder to leave a relationship with someone I love than to leave a city. The city is always there to go back to, but the person is not.
I IMAGINE YOU HAVE NICE SATIN PYJAMAS…
You know I had a lovely pair of silk pyjamas for a few years recently. I wrote some good songs while wearing them. Now that I live near the Snowy Mountains, I wear flannelette PJs.
I’D LIKE TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR DEMONS AND HOW YOU DEAL WITH THEM…
I like to meet them head on. We all have demons, I let them live in me for a long time, but I don’t anymore. I think laughing at your own predicament is a good way to cast them out. And not letting your ego run the show is a good way of not letting them back in. I know myself well enough that I can admit my failings most of the time. I can see my weaknesses for what they are. Fear runs the show much more than any of us would like to admit. It is like an epidemic, the world over. Mediation is good, and so is walking. Demons are lazy, you can out walk them if you keep at it.
WHAT’S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS AN ARTIST?
To always explore. Not to be afraid of judgement or being misunderstood or ignored. Not to fear difference or change or failure. It almost seems a cliche to say that we learn more from our failures than our successes, but I think in most cases it’s true. If an artist stays only in safe terrain, they are not really doing their job to their best ability. That doesn’t mean making noisy or avant garde music is any more valid than easy listening music. This isn’t an idea that is tied to genre. I love music that makes me feel things, its rarely the genre that excites me, its the particular artist or artists and what they are channeling. Its about the connection with the listener/viewer. And at the same time it’s all about how the music feels for you as an artist making it and playing it to people. That’s not a selfish thing, it has to feel good to you and then you take the leap and share that feeling with the world.
You have to remember that word – ‘play’. You play together, it doesn’t have to be deadly serious and career driven the whole time. Your enjoyment of spending time in a room, like kids, making up stories and games and songs, that’s exciting and fun. The guys feel the same. We don’t always agree, everyone has their comfort zones and their trigger points. I do what I can to break down the walls. Collaboration is a pretty amazing thing.
I get great inspiration from landscape. From my place, I watch the light move across the hills, I look at the trees and the dead branches are as beautiful as the one’s that are alive. I look at the sky, the clouds and the stars. Every day is different. The world is an amazing place.
It can also be an overwhelming place. Artists have to try to remain light on our feet and not let ourselves be burdened down. Then we can do our job well and allow people to see the world as a place of wonder, filled with possibility. It really is true, anything is possible.
Keep your ear on Mikelangelo’s official website to smell him in person.
Here he is performing with P.Harness at Wollongong University many many years ago…
* Main photo courtesy Luke Canty