Friends of the Iguana (part 2)

Stradbroke cicadas. Marauding hippies invade the stage. Your neighbours want us to what? To rebuild. A sneeze in the kitchen. Having reached for, and grasped a successful collaboration, it can be hard to let it go. Read part 1 here.

Anthony Mullins, David sills,  Liz Elliott,  David Megarrity 1996

FOTI MK 2 Anthony Mullins, David Sills, Liz Elliott, David Megarrity 1996 photo Andrew Hodges

Our cellist Madelaine’s voice (instrumental, vocal and creative) seemed to me integral to the group’s modest success to date. She was gone. Yet it seemed like we should stay with it. We’d only just released our album, and we were playing frequently and well.

Anthony and I had realized that public funding was available to develop and present artworks. We wrote up a project proposal which involved a renowned songwriter we loved. It was an opportunity to reflect on where the band was ‘at’. We did our sums. What if we got paid for what we did? Worth a shot. We started work on the application.

We’d had a taste of this when Anthony and I had worked on soundtracks for a local group called BRINK, who made visual theatre. It was good, the one time we got paid. We submitted the FOTI application. Meanwhile,  I joined Madelaine in London, performing our songs there and in Dublin, but that’s another story. We were in the middle of looking for someone else to join the band when we got news that the application was successful. Kind of.  Though gratefully received  we got way less than we asked for, so we wrote to the renowned songwriter to say that plans had changed. I think he got over it.

Recording demos at  Headlands

Recording demos at Headlands

The new plan was to go to nearby Stradbroke Island to write and demo material at the Headland Chalets, a set of 1950’s fibro bungalows currently favoured by arty types as a budget getaway. We loaded Anthony’s van with our instruments, the Tascam four-track cassette recorder, and lots of beer, and caught the barge over. The accommodation was very basic. We would live and work in the same single room for almost a week. It was extremely hot during the day, and the air vibrated with the singing of cicadas.

We wrote separately, and worked on recording the demos together. It was strange, having dedicated time to write and play, when normally it was fitted around a whole heap of other things. At times the strangeness and heat shifted into tension. At others it was drunken and joyful. I recall singing Roy Orbison’s In Dreams by a fire on the beach. We worked harder than we needed to, I think. We found a tacit combination of remoteness with crowding each other out.

Tascam 4-track: hiss generatorThe songs were coming. Finishing off half-completed ones. Some new ones. But a bit directionless. There was a lot of hiss on the tape. The cicadas sang through every track.

There was a next step of some kind to take, artistically and personally, but we’d lost our footing. And who would play these songs?

Anthony Mullins, David sills,  David Megarrity,  Liz Elliott,  1996 photo Vincent Long

Anthony Mullins, David sills, David Megarrity, Liz Elliott, 1996 photo Vincent Long

Anthony had found David Sills to play cello. I’m not sure how. Conservatorium-trained, he was a quirky fellow with John Lennon glasses who was a bit of a wild man, really. He’d played live and recorded with Powderfinger.  He preferred working improvisationally to writing anything down, and consistently lost the cassette demos I furnished him with. It wasn’t until I got a lift in his car, and found myself ankle deep in cassettes of all kinds on the passenger side that I realized filing systems weren’t David’s strong point.  He had a friend, the lovely Liz Elliott, who played violin, and she joined too. Somehow we now had a string section.

Madelaine and I had a theatre background, Anthony film and visual art. David and Liz were solely instrumentalists so took a different approach to performance. I’d never worked at close quarters with musicians quite like them. While I’d made the decision not to put on ‘a show’ with FOTI I certainly had one eye and an ear on the audience. Might have made my face look strange.

The performances David and Liz made within the songs, however, emanated from a precise and focused relationship with their instrument (perhaps bred of Conservatorium training) but without the rigidity that might imply. They had to ‘lock’ with each other and their place in the arrangement, as well as stay in tune – a challenge in itself for a string player using a rock PA. I liked watching both of them play through the marriage of self and instrument. It lent a different energy to the group.

We rehearsed at Liz’s house in East Brisbane. Her neighbors once opened their window and asked us to play louder. There was a power to this lineup. We played live on ABC radio: 

While David S and Liz collaborated on rearranging the existing songs based in arrangements Madelaine had created, we set about getting strings arranged for a selection of the Stradbroke songs. Lynette Pratten and Sallie Campbell were local composer/musicians who I’d met through Music for the Heart and Mind and share houses respectively, and they’d do two songs each, paid way too little. We recorded the material at OPM studios out in Brookfield, added Linus Monsour’s drums and other stuff, taking a more layered approach.

photo shoot outtake: Vincent Long

photo shoot outtake: Vincent Long

The sound was rich. I loved the intertwining melodies the arrangers had come up with, and the new sound of the violin/cello combo: but the songs didn’t hang together as a set.

We recorded the songs as demos, but released them as the Black and Brown EP. On cassette, of course. A difficult second album. The sound was richer,  but the songs themselves  seemed attenuated as we looked for new directions. The old melancholy seemed outmoded.

We played the Valley Fiesta, and recorded a new song called ‘One Extra’ in a gorgeous wooden room at the new Conservatorium with a chap called Justin Tressider, for a recording project he was doing for uni. I played grand piano.

The song was strong. The cello was too. Stronger than the vocal, for sure. It was starting to work, but in a new way. We’d have to keep reaching for this new sound. We kept playing gigs, but they were a mixed, and somewhat dispiriting bag of cafes, gallery openings and performances at Ric’s and The Zoo. In retrospect, I can see that backwards step. There was no strategy or management at work. The last lineup had honed themselves through playing ‘anything, anytime, anywhere’ Just like The Goodies. But that didn’t mean it was going to work for this lineup.

David, Anthony, Woodford

David, Anthony, Enjoying the backstage comforts of Woodford

I’d been trying to get us into the Woodford Folk Festival for some time, and finally they’d said yes. Four gigs over the festival, on various stages. Paltry fees, but we could sell our recordings maybe to make up for it.  I said yes to all their suggested times.

We drove up. We played well, but morale was low. One gig we started very late because the previous performers before us would not leave the stage. They were called Erth Erth Erth and focused mainly on percussion and ecstatic dancing. The crowd and the performers communed in sweaty cheesecloth and dreadlocks. As the time ticked away and our likely set time reduced from 30, to 20,  to 10 minutes, I remonstrated with the sound guy who just pointed to the desk where he’d already switched all the sliders to ‘off’. Erth Erth Erth didn’t need microphones. The final Woodford gig was at 9am on New Year’s Day, 1997. We were tired.

FOTI 2 Plays

art gallery opening, New Farm

Having consolidated new arrangements of older material, the Stradbroke songs, and a bunch of new songs with string arrangements by David and Liz, the second lineup of Friends of the Iguana gathered at Andrew Meadow’s house in April 1997 to demo the new material live to DAT tape as the next step towards a third album. In my mind it was also about capturing where we were at in case the whole thing folded.  We recorded a dozen songs over a weekend, standing in his lounge room while he set up an erstwhile control room in the kitchen. It was a hot,  but productive session. We were more comfortable with each other. We were a good lineup, getting somewhere, but it was a way away.

We played Rics and The Zoo in May and June, then in July 1997 played for the last time at The Valley Fiesta. David had misplaced his cello. Someone ran up with it,  puffing and panting. we went on. It was a Brisbane-y, stormy day, and a lightning strike cut power to the stage so the set was cut one song short.

I don’t recall the formalities. I think we had a sense it was the last time we would play. Anthony’s reason for ending the group seemed reasonable: it had stopped being fun. And that was the end. Anthony and I shifted our collaboration into making short films.

Time Off article covering Keep off the Grass reunion, 2005

Time Off article covering Keep off the Grass reunion, 2005

Seven years later, with Madelaine back in Australia, first lineup of Friends of the Iguana  reunited briefly in 2004-5, initially for the ‘Keep off the Grass’ anniversary. James Lees then organized and released the FOTI Collected Recordings compilation, and we played a few times in support of that. John Winstanley made a website. I was thrilled to have this music (which I thought would continue to moulder on cassette) released its tender, crystalline form. We re-recorded Net with Brett.

In this period, when the original lineup rehearsed and played in lounge-rooms, and took the sound through some small stages, I realized what we were best at. Maybe what we should have pursued all along. Instead of pushing the songs out at our audience, to invite them in: to play quietly, to listen out for and to love the spaces inbetween the instruments, and inbetween the people that played them.

There was plenty of space between folks in the audience, often enough.

This is the last thing we recorded. The mic sat on a coffee table, in a flat in Herston,  capturing the crickets and clink of crockery in the night quiet. A sneeze in the kitchen. Bless you. Simple.

reunion rehearsal, Herston 2005

reunion rehearsal, Herston 2005 photo: John Winstanley

With Friends of the Iguana, I created a brace of songs that I continued to explore in other projects. Some resonated unexpectedly. One of the best things about music is that it’s not limited by its origin or execution.

Once the internet had got going, a fellow from the UK  tracked me down,  looking for Friends of the Iguana. Many years earlier in 1996, he and his girlfriend had been to a gig at the Mean Fiddler in London – it may have been their first date – to see a little band from Australia. A guitar/cello duo. They bought a cassette. Years later they were getting married. He wanted to surprise his bride-to-be with music from their past. I sent him a CD. I believe they walked down the aisle to ‘Come into my Garden’ by this strange little band from Brisbane.

The music’s out there, and people make of it what they will.

Listen to more Friends of the Iguana here and here for free or purchase here not free

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