Somewhere, in the heart of Australia, is a very special place that sees the coming together of two very important elements of life in this country - indigenous culture and heavy metal, some of the driving forces behind the birth of Blacken Open Air festival. The first time I heard about the festival was on The Racket, and needless to say I was intrigued from that very moment by the whole thing. Many moons later, I had the honour and pleasure of speaking to the vessel behind this vision, and to learn more about his journey bringing life to the heavy metal scene in the ancient lands of Mparntwe country. Pirate as he is respectfully called by all, is the vocalist of (SNAKES, Exdemission, Uncreation - RIP), founder of The Black Wreath label and collective.
Greeting me from The Black Wreath HQ, Pirate, was working on an upcoming film project that tells the story of the incredible Southeast Desert Metal band, their music and culture.
“I’ve been locked in a cave doing video editing and putting the finishing touches on a documentary about Southeast Desert Metal that I’ve been working on. It’s about their journey and also frontman Chris’ relationship with his Aunty growing up. His Aunty, artist Kathleen Wallace, spent her first, nearly 13 years living out bush in a traditional kind of lifestyle. She was then taken to the new mission in the nineteen fifties. She brought Chris up on dreamtime stories and AC/DC and so he became the man that he is today; writing heavy metal songs about cultural stories! The pressure’s on to get it finished this week. The premiere is at the International Film Festival in Darwin next weekend. After that it goes to the ABC, so it’ll be a national thing”
Southeast Desert Metal, hail from Santa Teresa, a town about 80 kms south-east of Alice Springs , also known as Ltyentye Apurte to the local Arrernte community and have brought to their hometown, the wonders of heavy music. While they may be the most isolated metal band in the world, Pirate, who has worked closely with them for almost a decade, considers it nothing short of a blessing to be surrounded by such a rich culture and environment.
“They are family to me; I’m kind of an adopted family for them and their whole extended family. Chris is my brother and I’m really blessed and fortunate to have had a rewarding relationship with those guys for the decade or so. I take a lot of rich experiences from knowing them and being a part of their lives. I’ve spent the best part of thirty years here in the desert and I think you don’t really appreciate it when you’re young. When you go to school here you feel very limited in what you can do, in outlets, especially if you want to be an artist. It felt like the pathway was, you know, finish school, leave and then go to the city. But as an adult, it’s absolutely incredible; I can drive five minutes in any direction and just be surrounded by stunning nature and colours, something that is completely different, silent and totally energising.”
The year that was, has been quite a year for us all. However, being in a place as remote as Alice Springs that needs to consistently work at growing it’s local metal scene, I wondered out loud as to whether it was even more of a struggle for him, his label and the music community there. While there were times of hardship, this time was also a blessing in disguise as Pirate says; one that gave him the time to reflect.
“When it all hit, I was touring quite a lot with Southeast Desert Metal at the time. We had a massive 2019 where we did about three Aussie tours in that year alone. We had announced dates for Blacken, which was happening over Easter as it usually does, and I’d locked in a couple of international bands and a bunch of Australian bands. Then it all happened and we decided to postpone till Winter, as everyone did, and then we had to cancel.”
“So, I guess in a way, it was a blessing in disguise because the festival itself; I’ve become a bit of a slave to it over the years. It’s a massive job and the more successful it becomes, the bigger the workload gets. It doesn’t get easier, it just gets more demanding and I think most people across all areas can relate, quite the same as being in a band. I think I’d just been running on go and on kind of an empty tank for years, just trying to keep up with it all. I think just having the gears suddenly put on hold and being given time to process things, take a moment to pause and reflect has made me appreciate where I am.”
Which is exactly what he did. Passion and motivation seem to be what make him a force to be reckoned with. On bringing up in conversation, just how he managed to keep that mindset going through the year, unsurprisingly, my thoughts were met with an inspiring response from the Blacken Festival promoter.
“I think for a while there, with no end in sight to the situation, there was a little bit of hopelessness and I was almost ready to walk away from it at some point. But now, it's really nice to come back after a year off; I feel re-energised and like everything has repurposed itself in my life. I feel like a lot of times, you pursue things and while they are meaningful at the start, sometimes along the way you can lose touch with that initial reason and calling. So for me, this was kind of like a death and rebirth; I feel ready to grasp it again and do it again with new meaning and total awareness of how much it brings to the community, the Australian metal scene and to individual lives.”
Pirate is also the owner and manager of The Black Wreath, a label he began dreaming up about ten years ago in 2011 with a group of friends to bring heavy music to Central Australia and provide a platform for musicians and artists. While live music and touring may have come to a temporary standstill in the last year, behind the scenes, The Black Wreath has been quite busy.
“We did a lot of recording; in fact we did a big recording session and recorded a bunch of albums that we’re going to put out over the next year or so. I’ve been busy with the label and the studio as well which has been good. We’ve also got a DIY venue space so I’ve just been putting a lot of energy into that, as well as on this documentary for the last three or four months. I actually just transitioned out of my old job, working out at the prison. I worked there for five years teaching media, filmmaking and stuff to prisoners. So now I’m moving more into working for myself, just doing the music and film stuff, working on my own terms full time.”
This is what I love most about being a writer. Hearing from people about their lives, their experiences and journeys; and needless to say, I was and am truly amazed at just how driven, hard-working yet humble he is. This awe led me into a very interesting and I’d even go so far as to say, powerful part of our conversation, asking Pirate just how he managed and continues to manage doing so much.
“That’s what I mean; I’ve really been juggling way too much for way too long. For a while there I was struggling to stay afloat with all the projects being constantly demanding. I was running, without taking time to put anything back into myself and not enjoying it anymore, feeling enslaved to it, wanting a way out but I didn't really have one. So I guess that reevaluation time was necessary because now I don’t have a full time job. How the f*ck I was doing all this and working a full time job at the same time, I don't have a clue. I’m still at the moment doing ten hour days on this documentary! I used to think I was working towards something but now, I feel like I'm kind of just here and trying to enjoy what I do; just putting positive, inspiring things out into the world you know?”
If ever you feel like walking away or the motivation leaving you, read the above. It serves as a reminder to keep going, and keep the hustle strong, which is exactly what The Black Wreath collective has been doing since their beginnings on 11.11.11, when a group of like-minded individuals came together to bring the heavy metal scene to life in the remote lands of Central Australia.
“I was inspired by seeing a younger generation than me doing exactly the same thing I did. I felt at the time there was nothing here for aspiring metal heads, but there was a lot of potential. That was the initial catalyst for it; those conversations with younger people. I guess we’re blessed in that we’ve got a tight-knit community here. And so I remember ten years ago, talking to a bunch of friends individually about this idea that I had to start a label, this sort of collective model. After gauging everyone's interest and getting everybody unified in a shared kind of vision, we got together, and we all just sat in a circle like a little cult. Then it just all happened kind of suddenly after that.”
“Within the next few weeks, we were constructing things, scavenging for resources, recycled materials to build the studio with. It was mid 2011 and 11/11/11 was coming up so we decided that, that would be the launch date. Once that happened, it was the turning point. In those next few months, we built the studio, recorded an EP with the first three bands, we did a launch and then we did a livestream of the launch to different venues around Australia, getting our name out there. It was to empower other people to express themselves as well, providing accessibility and platform. So we’re coming up to ten years this November! It’s been a massive journey but it's finally coming to a place now where I don’t want to constantly strive to reach for the next thing anymore. We can just be in it, enjoy it and share it.”
Pirate looked back on where it all started and how the dream continues to grow each day, as well as how he earned his name.
“Metal has been a big part of my life since I started out in crappy bands, as we all do. My first band was called Angry Pirate; it’s where I got my name and it was something I just started out with schoolmates, more for the experience than anything ambitious. We just used to play for the love of it, abuse ourselves, drink ourselves blind, record it, then play it back the next day. Most of our songs were written during blackouts I think. It was just one of those things; we’re in a small place, what do you do? There were no real venues, no festivals, no studios; we had no idea! We were just young and naïve, loved listening to music and decided to play it.”
And so, what began as a dream many moons ago, soon grew into a beautiful reality of people coming together to create a unique space of art, music and expression.
“It was like any rock n roll dream; it started in a friend's backyard where we had just a little space to rehearse. Then we built soundproof room in there, did a bunch of DIY recordings, screen printed merch. Then we got to a point about five years ago where we wanted to bring it all under one roof. So we leased out a warehouse in the industrial area. It’s just been like a constantly evolving project because it's a massive space. We’ve not left a surface untouched in the place to build what we wanted. It has taken a hell of a lot of contributions from a hell of a lot of people who have volunteered time and skills. We’ve just made a really cool space that offers a lot to different communities groups and a lot of different cultures around Central Australia. The studio room is also the live band room, so we record where the stage is and there's a control room attached which is also an edit suite where I can do my film work and stuff. You’ll have to come check it out Prat!”
An invitation I gladly accepted, excited to no end about the 2021 edition of Blacken. After a year of silence, so to speak, Blacken made it’s first line-up announcement this Tuesday past and may I just say, it is going to be a wild time of epic proportions but I’ll let you look at that below and grab a ticket after you do.
The sheer passion Pirate has for what he does came through so clearly even though we only spoke over the phone, as he began talking about what’s in store for the festival this year and how it has taken some time, patience and effort to make it happen this year.
“Last year probably took the wind out of our sales up here. Even talking about doing Blacken to bands last year about interstate things; most people were at a red light with it. There was really no end in sight to this pandemic so bands weren’t going to book anything or do anything. I’m sure there have been a few casualties in the music scene around Australia. But now with Blacken announced, and work at the studio continuing, I feel like we’re starting to build momentum again and everyone is inspired. New bands seem to be spawning. We definitely have to do a bit more paperwork for the Department of Health, have a COVID supervisor on board etc, but we’ve been jumping through all those necessary hoops. We’re in the safest place in Australia to do something like this at the moment and while there’s considerations we have to be aware of, it’s nothing that can stop us from going ahead and making something incredible.”
Quite simply, why Blacken? Here’s why.
“Heavy metal amongst the mountains and in the valley, big riffs under the stars! The stars out here are just next level; you can’t experience that in the city like you can here. It is one big stunning festival ground surrounded by Eucalyptus and amazing red escarpments with a river bed running through it, it’s absolutely mind-blowing. Previously it was a two-night camping festival but now it’s three and it’s going to be amazing.”
Truly taken by Pirate’s dedication to not just his work and passion but to the community he has grown up in, his desire to bring heavy music to the heart of the land and create a special place for expression, I asked him to honour our readers with a message, looking back on the incredible journey he’s embarked on.
“I guess, our lives are like stories you know? We tell stories. Milestones such as these last ten years, for me, put into perspective the finite time that we have as people on the planet; and so, I just hope that the story that I’m telling may inspire or resonate with people. I hope it may mean something to someone. I don’t know when that point is reached, but I feel like a ten year milestone is quite the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one, whatever that may be.”
Find out more about Blacken Open Air, taking place from July 30th to August 2nd, here.