By Jake Stone
For many Australians in their mid-twenties and early thirties, Brisbane’s genre-mashing pop group Regurgitator represent the epitome of the local pop and rock scene in the mid-nineties. The most recognisable faces of the group remain guitarist Quan Yeomans and his towering, tattooed partner-in-crime, bassist Ben Ely. The pair were the home-grown stars of the emerging indie/slacker culture, and their music embodied and pioneered the adolescent energy, wry humour, enquiring intellect and artless style of your average nineties kids.
“We have a party element to our live shows, and also have a little cynicism or political element in there too,” says Ely. “It’s a good way of confronting reality. It’s like having a fight with your girlfriend – you should do it in a funny way. You can resolve the situation, but not let things get too heavy…”
Ely is less flip when explaining why the group’s anarchic attitude resonated with young fans. “It was easy to stand out in an Australian music scene dominated by bands like Rocksus, Chocolate Starfish and The Sharp. It was a funny time for music in Australia, the early nineties,” says Ely. “Other bands were either full-on hardcore bands, or punk, or tech-metal.
“Quan and I were listening to hip hop, and bands like Helmet. Our favourites were Cypress Hill and albums like Meantime. We wanted to do something different – a bit simpler, as well as being a bit more groove based. We wanted to do something a bit fun, too.”
Tu-Plang was recorded in Thailand with a minimal spend (due to drummer Martin Lee’s shrewd decision to avoid large studios) and won Best Alternative Release and Best Debut at the 1996 ARIAs. Their follow-up LP Unit trumped Tu-Plang, moving the band away from their focus on heavy guitars and rock/hip hop combinations, and airing an 80s pop sensibility with a healthy dose of humour. Produced by Brisbane local Magoo, Unit went triple platinum in Australia and won five ARIAs in 1998, an enormous success for the group by anyone’s standards, and Ely remembers the period as a career high. “It was a happy and positive time in our lives, because we felt like we could make music and anything was possible.”
“Unit was recorded in an abandoned warehouse, a squat really,” Ely recalls. “It was due to be demolished because Porsche had bought this block of land. We asked them if we could move all this gear in and record before they knocked it down, and they said sure.
“It wasn’t a studio,” he says of their makeshift recording environment, christened ‘The Dirty Room’. “We finished the last song, and they literally bulldozed the site the next day… We drove past it and there was just the concrete foundation slab, and a solitary Coke machine sitting on top.”
The popularity of Unit was also indicative of the shift in the stylistic attributes of the Australian alternative scene. The cod-funk and electro-pop of ‘The Song Formerly Known As’ and ‘Black Bugs’ represented a mature take on pop songwriting for Quan and Ely, who candidly explains what drove him to make Unit sound so different. “Grinspoon had just come out, Spiderbait were kicking on. It was the Nirvana years,” he says. “A lot of guitar bands were coming out, and we had just been doing that for a while. We felt like everyone was doing that now, and when we’d done Tu-Plang it had seemed different. I wrote ‘Black Bugs’ and took it to Quan. I’d been listening to a lot of Prince and Cyndi Lauper, and thought the 80s [sound] was great fun.
“It was also a reaction to our crowds, which were mostly dudes. There was a lot of testosterone when we toured Tu-Plang. Bouncers got glassed, and we weren’t into it. We wanted [a few] more women at the shows, so that it didn’t turn into a football match.” It’s somehow comforting to think that their brave decision to be cheeky and non-violent turned out to be so artistically credible, but Ely shrugs it off. “Nobody wants fights at their gigs… unless you are Agnostic Front.”
The creative combination of punk, hip hop, and funk on their seminal albums made them that rare combination of things in the domestic market: both an immediate hit and a critical success. They were well-loved, and resonated with kids because they were fun – and that enduring attitude to energy, volume and tight, accessible pop has kept the band more-or-less in favour with Australian fans ever since. For anyone who went to gigs in the mid-nineties, their live show was a rite of passage.
Over a three-year period I watched the band play ecstatic, heaving sets at Australia’s biggest music festivals, and it’s almost impossible to imagine the period of Australian radio spanning 1994 to 2000 without songs like ‘Kong Foo Sing’, ‘Blubber Boy’, ‘Polyester Girl’, or ‘The Song Formerly Known As’.
Sequestered in a televised bubble for a reality TV show, Regurgitator recorded Mish Mash in 2004. They were criticised for it at the time, but Ely was unfazed. “There’s so many ways you could represent yourself as a band,” he says. “We like that about being in this band. It feels like anything is possible, whether it’s embarrassing, or whatever…”
Since the band’s most productive period, Ely has had two children with his ex-wife, Channel V presenter Yumi Stynes, and occasionally released Regurgitator records. But post-Unit, many fans of the band would be hard-pressed to name stand-out songs from their recent incarnations. Tunes like ‘Fat Cop’ and ‘The Drop’ did OK, but it seemed the vibe for making hit albums had faded.
“I guess when I got to my thirties, I had kids. That’s what I was doing. I like to do a lot of stuff – painting, drawing and creative stuff. That’s time-consuming, and keeps me pretty busy,” Ely says of the last decade. “The band has been around for nearly 15 years. When you are with a band for that long, despite the fact that we enjoy playing simply as a band, we look at doing different things, like Akira.”
As a feature of the massive Graphic event last month – Sydney’s leading graphic art and comic expo – Regurgitator re-scored the classic manga film Akira live on stage at the Opera House. Ely enjoyed the experience because there was “less focus on the individual and more on the creation of music. I thought that was a pretty good thing to do as you get older – and uglier,” he adds, laughing.
“Last year we created a show with a contemporary dance company in Brisbane. It was called Rock Show, a bizarre performance-art take on the rock industry. It was really fun to do something completely different, and there were a lot more foot pedals and synthesisers onstage.”
Ely and Yeomans plan to record and release without the aid of expensive studios and engineers, debuting singles periodically to fans via the Internet. “The quality of the recording doesn’t matter as long as the intent is there,” Ben says. “We are releasing as we go, instead of waiting until we have an album’s worth of songs, we are doing a quick mix ourselves, and putting them online.”
“Then when we go to tour we’ll get all the songs we’ve recorded over the last month and put them on record. When you create something, you want to just put it out there and move on. That’s the beauty of the Internet.”
Where: Festival Of The Sun, Port Macquarie
With: Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Xavier Rudd, British India & more
When: December 10-11