Luke Dearnley: The Conductor
Words and Photos: Reef Gaha | In conversation with Sydney’s venerable electronic music maestro and underground intelligentsia, Luke ‘Snarl’ Dearnley
To those familiar with the electronic music scene in Sydney over the past 30 years, Luke Dearnley of sound system duo Sub Bass Snarl (https://www.snarl.org/v3/) will need little introduction. His own twitter bio portrays him as a ‘programmer, webnerd, live sound engineer, deejay, cat fancier, hobby aquarist, science enthusiast, [and] lover of sub frequencies’. He is indeed, all those things. What this modest description may not convey is the fact that Luke has been something of a prime mover and pioneer in the realm of electronic music in Australia, having worked to bring emerging sonic arts to the notice of the Australian public since the early 1990s. He’s also a conduit for vast amounts of knowledge and information on the subject; assiduously and meticulously illuminating the often-mystifying intersection where electronics, infotech, music, and visual arts meet. For those that would like more of an introduction, a brief biography follows the short interview, below.
Meanwhile, I spoke with Luke recently to find out how he spent the last few years, and to find out what shows he has coming up in the not-too-distant future. There’s one on September 29th, for those in Sydney town…
What have you been working on lately?
‘Well, I’ve been putting together a solo live set for a gig. Phil Smart (https://ra.co/dj/philsmart/biography) is running a weekly night called Tempo Comodo (https://www.facebook.com/tempocomodoclub) and the idea is that all the music should be under 120bpm, which I found an intriguing concept. I boldly suggested I could do a live set down there, and he has me down for late September – it’s good to have a deadline to work to, or I’d never get anything done. I’m going to try and use a modular synth setup and do it all out of that. Playing solo live is quite new thing for me, so we’ll see how it goes. Lots of work to do yet.
I’ve also been slowly working on a few of my own Eurorack modular synth module designs, and plan to launch them, hopefully later this year.
Last year I did a brief run of eight Thursday nights of live electronic performance called Vitalise, in the Rocks, at a 2-month pop-up venue called Good Space (https://goodspacesproject.com). For those who remember the old days, I suppose it was a bit like Frigid [which Luke ran with Seb Chan, Shane ‘Sir Robbo’ Roberts, and Dale Harrison]. This time, it was quite tricky to do by myself. I roped in a bunch of awesome helpers, but it was still a big workload. So, I have expanded the team somewhat and there have been a couple of spot gigs here and there. Good Space will be returning with an even bigger complex of pop-up venue spaces in Summer, and Vitalise may well appear there again in a weekly capacity.’
‘Of course, with gigs returning, my work with bands such as Hermitude has started up again, with a short album tour under our belts, and some festival shows on the horizon.’
The last couple of years (pandemic lockdowns, etc) have impacted music and the arts heavily. What changes did you observe within the arts, and electronic music scene?
‘Things lurched to a sudden halt almost overnight. People I knew with 6 or 9 months of [gig] bookings suddenly had everything cancelled, and zero chance of earning any income; not just the performers, but the sound engineers, tour managers, lighting operators, roadies, veejays, hire companies, venues, merch sellers, and so on. The impact was huge. Way bigger than many people realise.
So, people started coming up with ways of ‘carrying on’ such as streamed live gigs…
Please no, I just spent all day on Zoom at work…
And then when things (repeatedly) opened up a bit? Sit down gigs. Umm… No.
Really, no. These things were all terrible, and hopefully go away, and don’t come back.’
Now that restrictions have eased and all bets are off, what have you seen emerging in music and the arts?
‘Now gigs are back it is really, REALLY hard to get crew, presumably because many such people shifted into other lines of work when COVID killed their existing income streams. I’ve [recently] been to some gigs where the crowds were oddly small. I’m not sure if it’s because there are way more gigs on all of a sudden, or that people are still nervous about going out, but it’s pretty crazy. More uncertain than usual when putting on a gig. Also, I’ve found going back to the juggle between a day job and gig work a lot more challenging than usual, both time management wise, and stress level wise.’
How did you weather the ‘pandemic years’ yourself?
‘I’ve always had a blend of ‘normal job’ and music related stuff – be it deejaying, putting on gigs, touring with bands doing sound, or whatever. So, I simply retreated into the former, since there was for the most part, no option for the latter.
There was an odd 2 months [during 2021] where I put on [the aforementioned] Vitalise, with weekly electronic music performances, which seems surreal now. But yeah, generally no music stuff apart from occasionally noodling round at home with my modular synths and other gear. ‘
Tell us about the music you’re making at the moment.
‘So, I mentioned before the upcoming live set at Tempo Comodo. A few weeks back Seb and I did a ‘ye olde’ Sub Bass Snarl set at a ‘ye olde’ Swarm party. Sub Bass Snarl gigs are pretty rare these days, as Seb lives in Melbourne [Seb Chan is currently the director and CEO of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image] so it was great to get an opportunity to do a set again.
This is the recording: https://www.mixcloud.com/lukesnarl/sub-bass-snarl-at-swarm-18-june-2022-sydney-australia/
I’ve also participated in quite an unusual ‘shared’ process of making tracks using modular synth, called Modular Theme Time Sessions. The original idea started in Melbourne where a bunch of modular synth artists would get together, jam and end up recording an EP. But when COVID hit, the idea went online. The participants are put into groups of three to four people and given a theme. The first member of the group records a sound and uploads it, the next person in the group downloads that and adds a sound, and uploads the result. This goes on until you loop back ‘round to the first person again, and keeps going until as a group, you consider the track finished. Each group submits their track, and that becomes the release on Bandcamp. They are mixed and mastered by the organisers.’ https://mtts.bandcamp.com/
What’s changed in your music practice over the last, oh, 30 years?
‘Ha, good question. Well, focus on or interest in particular sounds and genres has shifted over the decades, but always seeking out new and interesting sonic territories. I’ve certainly been able to afford equipment more readily as I’ve gotten older. And in the last (nearly) decade, I’ve been more and more interested in modular synths, and their uses and techniques.
Within the confines of the Sub Bass Snarl duo Seb and I form, the techniques have been the same, but the hardware I use to realise them has changed. I’m always sampling Seb’s deejaying, looping bits, mangling, chopping, changing, and putting them back in the mix, adding effects, and adding layers of synth. Just focusing on the sampler part of it, I originally used a borrowed Mirage 8-bit sampler from my flatmate at the time, then an Akai S950, also borrowed. I then bought a second-hand Prophet 2002+ rack sampler, then got a Yamaha SU700 in the late 90s. I used that for ages, then tried out an Octatrak but it didn’t really work for me. Now I use various Eurorack modules. A lot has changed over the decades, and of course the gear you use influences how you do what you do, but it is all still improvised.’
What do you think has changed most in live electronic music audiences between the ‘90s and now?
‘Hmm. Well, the number of people over 30, 40, 50 (and even older) in attendance at any gig has certainly increased. And the rise in music festivals has meant local electronic acts can play to much, much larger audiences now than in the 90s.’
Venue lockouts preceded pandemic lockdowns in NSW. How much has government policy helped or hindered the emergence of new musical cultures here over the past couple of decades?
‘In NSW in particular, we seem to have been on a largely downward trajectory over these decades. Licensing of venues has meant very few could trade through to dawn, which was the norm for many places in the 90s.
The poorly aimed lock-out laws made things worse, and the pandemic worse still.
There seem to have been very few opportunities or spaces for people to experiment, try new works or forms, test ideas in front of a crowd, cross-pollinate, mingle, challenge each other, share ideas, and so on. I was trying to address this somewhat with Vitalise, as it had no proscribed limits around genre, or how long you performed, or what with.’
Fondest memories from the electronic music scene over the past 30 years or so?
‘Oof. There are many. Very many!
The Cryogenesis daytime chill-out picnics we (the Frigid crew) used to put on, on one of two islands in Sydney Harbour, were pretty lovely.
And the multi-room all-night dance parties, Freaky Loops (https://www.snarl.org/v3/?page_id=20) we put on (with a HUGE team of helpers) as benefit gigs for 2SER were extremely memorable.
Can’t forget Frigid. From just the week-to-week, seeing a great crew of punters turn up to socialise and check out the acts, to the big parties like Squarepusher playing live for the 5th birthday, and the Dung NYE series.
Also seeing my talented Elefant Traks friends grow and thrive, and being able to do my small part to help out in the live aspects of some of that, has been really rewarding.’
Top three artists to listen to right now?
‘I enjoyed the first release from Sydney modular dub techno duo 80T: https://eightyt.bandcamp.com/
After 20+ years of making tunes, Deep Child’s first outing on Mille Plateaux called Fathersong is a must listen: https://forceincmilleplateaux.bandcamp.com/album/fathersong
And the raw energy of Haiku Hands: https://haikuhands.bandcamp.com/music
I gotta admit – I’m a huge fan of Haiku Hands – absolute powerhouses of awesomeness.
They will go far.’
Catch Luke performing live at Tempo Comodo, Club 77, on Thursday the 29th of September: https://www.facebook.com/tempocomodoclub
Luke Dearnley: A Brief History of Bits (and Bleeps)
Scratch the surface, and it’s clear that Luke’s industrious, even scientific approach to electronic and dance music, is no accident.
Growing up around Bondi and Coogee, Luke attended school in Sydney’s Surry Hills. His interest in electronics began at an early age. His dad worked both authoring and teaching the electrical engineering course at TAFE, so naturally, young Luke grew up helping him repair electrical things around the house, or for family friends. Luke recalls his dad, Dave, getting him to read out the colour bands on resistors so he could tell what value they were. Soon, as computers evolved from being cupboard-sized things used as business machines, to becoming the kind of device most homes would eventually possess, TAFE decided they’d best get their workforce familiar with the new-fangled devices, and Luke’s dad came home with an early ZX80 to brush up on.
At some point Dave loaned Luke a book called ‘Teach Yourself BASIC Computer Programming in Eight Hours’. Luke read it, and at the ripe old age of ten started writing what he refers to a ‘probably very naïve’ computer programs in an exercise book. A few years later, Luke and his brother Ben would receive a Commodore 64 for Christmas, and Luke got stuck into that in a big way, not only coding in BASIC but also at a lower level in machine code, pulling apart games to see how they worked in calling up processor threads, memory, display adapters, and one other crucial piece of hardware attached to the computer’s system board…
Luke remarks that amazing thing about the C-64 was that it had the SID (Sound Interface Device) chip built in, dedicated to doing audio, so all the games had amazing soundtracks. ‘The designers of that chip made it like a mini synth. [It had] 3 oscillators with selectable waveforms, 3 ADSR envelopes, an analogue filter, and so on. The designer went on to co-found Ensoniq.’
At this point, Luke discovered that there was a link between programming computers, and making music. ‘At the same time there were monthly electronic magazines that would come into the house – Electronics Today International I think was one. I remember reading a series of articles in it, that detailed the design of a mixing console.’
Luke did well enough in school to get into the Elec Eng/Comp Sci double degree program at UNSW, and it’s while studying here that Luke would go on to eventually meet Seb and also key founding members of Elefant Traks socially.
Luke recalls ‘I was at uni for a lot of the ‘90s. Seb and I met at uni, but only because we recognised one another from going to the same ‘alternative’ clubs and band gigs. He was in a completely different faculty and degree [and] started a few years later. Eventually we were like “Hey weren’t you at PWEI [Pop Will Eat Itself] last night…?” – I forget which [actual gig] it was.’
During this time, a lot of the crowd would hang out at the now defunct UNSW café know as Esme’s. I even recall a mutual friend remarking at the time, that Luke and co pretty much had the coffee shop annexed on any given day. Luke concurs that once the café made the move from indoor smoking to fresh air and outdoor tables, with a vantage of campus rolling down toward Anzac Parade, ‘sitting at Esme’s and drinking coffee with whichever mates were around between classes was very common.’
By the late stages of his double degree, Luke was working full time at the Uni in IT support and systems administration, and trying to finish uni part time. At the same time, Seb and Luke were DJing several nights per week, and were running the earliest iteration of Frigid, publishing Cyclic Defrost (https://www.cyclicdefrost.com/), putting on the Cryogenesis outdoor island gigs, and running Freaky Loops benefits for 2SER, where they also ran a weekly radio show. In Luke’s words, ‘The uni was quite rightly hassling me for not getting through [the double degree program] fast enough and failing the odd thing here and there.’ It was eventually proposed by UNSW that ‘they would take me out of the double degree program with Elec Eng and Comp Sci, but I was closer to finishing Comp Sci and more interested in that than electronics at this point, so I asked to finish the Comp Sci component!’
Sometime during uni, Luke became involved with Clan Analogue, an ‘Australian record label which started in 1992 as a collective by a number of individuals interested and active in electronic music and with a shared passion for analogue synthesisers and digital culture.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clan_Analogue)
‘I think with Clan Analogue, I met one or both founders [Brendan Palmer and Toby Kazumichi Grime] at a gig, and was given a flyer to a ‘Clan meeting’ and went along. Since Sub Bass Snarl were/are a combination of deejaying and live hardware, I was interested in meeting others using electronic hardware and making music in their studios or live, so I could learn from them. It was also a way to access people making dance music, whether for deejaying on the radio, solo, or with Seb. Until then I was playing almost 100% overseas artists, and so wanted to find and play local stuff.’
By the mid 1990s, Frigid was well on its way to becoming an institution within the Australian electronic music scene. In a time prior to most forms of online social media, it not only gave a platform to emerging artists from Australia and overseas, but also served as a hub for the community. Prior to Frigid, however, there was Cryogenesis, existing in two forms. At first as ‘a fortnightly Sunday recovery, in the back room of now demolished pub in The Rocks [Sydney]. It overlooked this incredible rusting industrial crane yard, which went amazing colours at sun set. Probably all gone for apartments and casinos now.’ By 1994 Luke and Seb were playing a lot of “proper chillouts” at raves, rather than in the main room, and purveying ambient and downtempo electronic music. ‘The idea [for Cyrogenesis] was spawned because people were putting on Sunday gigs and falsely calling them recoveries, when in fact it was up-tempo dance music being played. We were incensed, and decided to put on a PROPER [rave] recovery. We teamed up with specialist chill out crew Punos [designers of chillout spaces in the early Sydney rave scene] and each fortnight would have to drag all the furniture out of the back room of this pub, to be replaced with the famous Punos cushions! We’d set up some decks, a TINY sound system, and charge folks five bucks.’
We asked some people, who to us were really big names at the time, if they wanted to play. People like Phil Smart and Sugar Ray. I never thought they would say yes as we couldn’t offer much pay, but they actually jumped at the chance to play tunes [outside the dancefloor context] for a change.’
‘That was our first regular event. It was a lot of hassle and people were always confused about which Sunday of the fortnight it was on. But it did OK and went for a while.’
Cryogenesis then did several one-off events, renegade-style in parks, which would occasionally attract the attention of rangers, ‘but I don’t remember one actually being stopped. I mean it was a bunch of ppl picnicking in the park, where we played very quiet, very relaxed music, hardly a violation of the concept of ‘park’. ‘
Luke recalls that at one of these events, Dale [Harrison, bass player and later DJ, Elefant Traks co-founder, and member of the Frigid crew] ‘pointed at one of the islands in the harbour and said, ‘you should do one out there’, half as a joke I think. Seb, being the tenacious bugger that he is, contacted National Parks and Wildlife and found out you could rent the islands for functions, but you were not supposed to have amplified sound.’
So wisely or not, the group went on to do a Cryogenesis on the island, and moved on to doing roughly two such events per summer, either on Rodd Island or Shark Island. ‘They were daytime chill-out picnics, where you were trapped on the island all day, and had to bring supplies with you or barter with other attendees. Glorious times! Eventually we had international acts play, and everything.’
What happened next was pivotal in giving genesis to the ‘institution’ that was soon to follow.
Luke recalls that ‘in mid-96 we needed to raise some cash for a deposit on one of these islands and decided to run four weeks of Sunday fundraiser shows in the ground floor [Chapel] bar at Kinselas.’
‘Toward the end of the four-week run, people were telling us the night was great and that they didn’t want it to end. As a result, we ended up running a Sunday night called Frigid for ten years from 1996 until 2006. It ran across five venues around Sydney over the years.’
‘Those four weeks of fundraisers were done in collaboration with another crew, maybe called ‘All Funked Up’ or something like that. Sir Robbo (DJ and subsequent member of Tooth and Astronomy Class) from that crew ended up sticking around, as one of the four of us who ran Frigid;
Seb, myself, Robbo and Dale.’
Through Frigid, the group had the opportunity to offer DJs and musicians live gigs, and went on to host interstate and overseas acts, as well as locals. There were also regular album launches, label nights, film screenings, live visuals, turntablism exhibitions and a lot more besides.
I ask Luke to recount any particularly memorable experiences from the Frigid years. ‘One was when some guy called Kenny Sabir said he had a compilation CD he’d burnt copies of, and wanted to launch it [at Frigid]. Apparently, he was ‘starting a label’ or something. A lot of people were starting their own independent labels in the late ‘90s, as the majors were ignoring interesting and electronic stuff. So we said ‘sure, come back to us with a line-up of acts’ probably expecting 3 or 4 live acts for the night.
He came back with a list of 13 live acts! It went down in history as the biggest Frigid we’d ever had, with around 600 people paying the massive $3 cover charge at the door.’
This was of course the start of the now renowned Elefant Traks (https://www.elefanttraks.com/) record label.
Later on, as bands from the label such as The Herd started to tour nationally, Luke was asked to go along as their live sound engineer. ‘I think at the time [early 2000s] I was the only person they knew who did sound. I was quite new to it, and inexperienced back then. But I learned a lot on the job, and have now done sound for a lot of the acts on the roster, and toured all over the place, from the US to NZ, to the UK, and Asia.’
This kept Luke pretty busy.
‘A downside of this was that I sometimes had to turn down DJ gigs with Seb when tours came up, but we were getting less opportunities to play anyway, as new event and club promoters came through and booked their mates.’ Such is the cyclical nature of emerging culture.
Whilst with Elefant Traks, Luke also worked with Urthboy, Astronomy Class, Horrorshow, Hermitude and more.
‘Throughout the 2000s, there were national tours when records came out. Hermitude have probably kept me the busiest. In 2011, they asked me to tour with them as sound person, production manager, and to do their live vision switching, which was a handful. 2012 was crazy busy; I was working full time, and did seven back-to-back national tours that lasted eight months – four [tours] with Hermitude, and in between [one each] with The Herd, Urthboy and Horrorshow. That was wild!’
Also in the mid-to-late 2000s, Seb and Luke were frequently asked to play at a night called VOID (https://www.facebook.com/Voidsound), which showcased a range of new (at the time) UK bass genres, such as Dubstep. ‘This was a pretty vibrant and exciting time, with new sonic adventures and PA systems being pushed to their limits with the sheer amount of deep subsonic frequencies in the tunes!’
‘VOID ran for about 5 years, touring a multitude of international DJs then went into hiatus, until around 2016/2017 when it started up again, at which time they invited myself and Vaughan Healey to co-run it with the others.’
This is where the trail goes a little cold…
You see, what happened next was precipitated by a little outbreak, that eventually became a pandemic, which all but put paid to live music performances for a few years, bringing us neatly to the Vitalise series of shows Luke organised during 2021, touched upon in the interview above.
And the rest, as they say, is history? Here’s to the next chapter.
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