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Original Pressings – Steve Towson Interview

January 21, 2010

On a spring evening in Sydney, a crowd of punters line up along George St, outside the Metro. They are there because of Billy Bragg. So too, in a roundabout way, is Steve Towson. He stands outside the venue, with his guitar is in hand, singing his own brand of political protest songs. He is adamant he is not busking, but one of the crowd just won’t take no for an answer. They remove Towson’s black, full-brimmed hat, shove some money in it, and jam it back on his head. Towson shrugs and keeps playing, as he will outside every gig on Bragg’s Australian tour, from Byron Bay to Perth.

Towson, the story goes, was so incensed on missing out on the support slot for the local Brisbane leg of the tour, he maxed out his credit card on airfares and supported Bragg anyway. Like Bragg, his lyrics are infused with social and political commentary, but his music is punk. Towson is often compared to the Clash, and there are some similarities. He shares their clean cut image, rather than the safety-pin punk look, and shares with Mick Jones an appreciation of black hats. His voice has a touch of Joe Strummer about it: raw, passionate, designed for belting out socially aware lyrics rather than crooning serenades. But Towson’s music is rawer still, with earlier recordings verging on hardcore, his guitar screaming out chords at breakneck speed.

Bragg’s fans reacted positively to Towson’s songs. “I got three free tickets on one night in Sydney, and I got two the next. Just from people saying, ‘Oh you can go in if you want’,” Towson says. He gained notoriety during this unorthodox tour thanks to Triple J. Bragg, for his part, was accommodating. When the manager of the Brisbane venue tried to get Towson moved on, Bragg’s management intervened. Towson met the man himself near the end of the tour and was given some wise words: “Busking is the highest form of art.”

Bragg is a renowned busker, and tours tirelessly. He infamously toured Britain’s music halls early in his career, armed with only his guitar, amp and the hope he could blag his way onto the bill each night. Towson is a kindred spirit, with a similarly carefree approach to touring but played out in the more exotic climes of South-East Asia, where he has met many punk and hardcore bands and immersed himself in the local communities. “When we played the Philippines I played one show and then all of a sudden someone said, ‘Hey, we’ve got someone who’s having a birthday, do you want to play that?’” Towson says. He ended up playing three gigs that night.

The haphazard nature of his tours is perfectly suited to the haphazard reality of the punk and hardcores scene in South East Asia. The scenes are hampered by a lack of resources, a lack of venues, a lack of radio airtime and other traditional means of promoting music, and, depending on the country, the government. Poverty plays its part in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, which can make instruments hard to come by. Indonesian punk band Marjinal only recorded Predator, their debut album, when they could finally borrow electric guitars. The band had spent years playing with unreliable acoustics. Even then, the album was only released on double cassette. “(Marjinal) are such good musicians, (but) they’re just poor. And being poor reflects in the presentation in music,” Towson says.

Presenting music live in South-East Asia is also a problem. Unlike his native Brisbane, Towson found proper music venues had a fleeting existence, with bands playing wherever they could. His tours saw him play art spaces, city parks, a book store, a disused petrol station, and even a ritzy Indonesian shopping centre, complete with gold coloured pillars. In a high-rise city like Singapore, space is tight. Bands hired jamming studios for not quite legal gigs. Such gigs were set up quickly and advertised by word of mouth and email. He managed to play in some established venues, like Paul’s Place in Malaysia, but such venues sometimes come under official scrutiny. On New Years Eve, 2005, police raided Paul’s Place, accusing bands of playing Black Metal and displaying satanic artwork and magazines. After urine tests, and a small number of drug arrests, most of the crowd was released without charge. Local bloggers claimed the show was not promoting Satanism, but it was just kids enjoying music.

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and it would be easy to see the raids as a result of religious censorship. But Towson believes most Australians, himself included, do not have a strong understanding of living in an Islamic dominated country. “It’s just really good to go to a country you’re told is an Islamic state to see how the average person lives and to see the reality behind people’s lives rather than just assuming that people are somehow different,” he says.

Towson travelled to South-East Asia to challenge his own assumptions about life in the area. While his music provided a common ground, it would be wrong to assume he only hung out with the local punks. These same punks invited him to sleep on their floors, and in the morning their parents cooked him breakfast. This allowed him to glimpse everyday family life. Even something as simple as a bus trip can reveal much about a country. In Indonesia, Towson has seen musicians jump onto buses and entertain passengers in lieu of a ticket. He heard one story of a drummer hauling aboard a full drum kit and proceeding to play. Sometimes passengers with more political inclinations would stand up and start talking revolutionary leftist politics. “My friend would be translating for me, and I would be like, ‘Wow, this is intense’” he says.

For Towson, politics takes a second place to social concerns. While he takes issues with the policies of Bush and Howard, he says the names or parties may change, but social problems often remain. Simply targeting the individual personality leading the country does not further the cause of social issues. Towson discusses these issues at gigs and on his records. His third and latest album, Shah Mat, includes songs about racism, domestic abuse and the alienation of living in a foreign country. He also feels strongly about the right to education and the strength of local communities, the latter he feels is lacking in Australia.

Not surprisingly, his favourite all-time gig was at a community art exhibition in Bandung, the capital of the Indonesian province of West Java. Towson, with a toothy grin on his face, recalls the tiny art space with its dodgy PA overlooked a street ghetto in which the crowd sat. The audience had to move every time a car tried to pass. Little kids ran past grannies, mothers bounced babies on their knees, while punk kids drank to one side. The line-up was similarly mixed. First up, a revolutionary poet gave a recital, followed by a Bandung community leader and his son played local Sundanese music on a mixture of traditional instruments and the ubiquitous bongoes. Towson was next on the bill, one man, one guitar, playing songs and talking about social issues with everyday people.

Social issues also underpinned the uniquely titled YoPeFe?005 multicultural festival of music and dance, held at Nami Island, ninety minutes from Seoul, South Korea. The festival was aimed at Korean youth who, like Towson before them, only had an academic understanding of foreign cultures. But whereas Towson went in search of other cultures, the festival brought these cultures to Korea. Participants came from thirty-three countries, and included an Indigenous dance group from Western Australia, a Chilean rock group, and, unsurprisingly, Steve Towson.

With airfares and accommodation for once provided, Towson was able to convene a version of his recording band, The Conscripts, with regular bassist a Ness Glenn, and a local Korean drummer. The band played the main stage, as part of an international music showcase. “I had six fold-backs just surrounding me. That’s just me!” Towson exclaims. Technological South Korea came as a shock after several tours through the makeshift venues of South-East Asia. “That was the most insane PA system I’ve ever played on in my life,” he says.

According to the festival’s website, the organisers hoped the foreign, “polished” performers could help the “semi-professional” locals perfect their art and go onto greater things. The unlikely idea of Steve Towson’s raucous music being referred to as polished is reminiscent of the story of Billy Bragg’s tour of Soviet factories, as seen in the documentary Mr. Bragg Goes to Moscow, where he was introduced to the workers as playing “Western pop music”.

In another Bragg story, the legendary troubadour suggested calling the cops on Steve Towson. Towson thought it was a joke, but Bragg was half-way serious. He thought it would give Towson some good publicity. But who needs publicity when the community has already taken you to heart.

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