LISTEN: Buzzing Minds
Photo by Diana Shypula
Out back at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, the big-windowed ‘Rainbow Room’ looks out over the rooftops of Australia Street and the sky, and sometimes, actual rainbows. Most days it’s used for meetings, or booked out for a training session here, a community yoga class there. But earlier this year, on Wednesdays at midday, the space would fill with the drone and squall of experimental noise as it became an improvised recording studio for the Buzzing Minds project.
Buzzing Minds is the brain child of Jason Simonit (Jay), a case worker at Newtown Neighbourhood Centre. “I’m a noise artist myself and I remember sitting in my lounge room one day doing some stuff and the kids were running around and I remember thinking ‘Man, if I can do this, other people can do it. Anyone can do it,’” Jay explains.
Naturally his mind turned to his work at the Centre and to the folks who use its services. “I just had this weird and wacky idea that one day down the track I wanted to somehow get [our] service users involved in some musical endeavour. We thought about bands and stuff but you needed some skills. I’m a punk rocker, I don’t know how to play Blues.”
When some grants came up at NNC, Jay pounced. “I’ve got this weird idea about doing a noise CD.” he told the CEO Liz Yeo. “It was quite embarrassing to try and explain what a noise CD was.” Word quickly got back to his supervisor who pushed him for more info. “He went home and started Googling, came back with all the wrong stuff,” laughs Jay. After talking through examples a little more, the powers that be agreed to take a punt and Buzzing Minds was given the green light.
For over 20 years Jay ran Sydney punk label Snapshot Records / Inner City Uprising, but tinkering with noise had come out of practicality for Jay after he had kids and playing as part of a band had become a logistical challenge. “I’d - for the last couple of years - been accumulating and buying handmade weird sound effects; ‘toys’ I call ‘em. They’re little synthesisers, they’re just like a toy, you can’t go wrong - there’s no chords or anything, they’re just knobs,” Jay explains.
Both the equipment and the style of expression synced perfectly: Freeform, no need for skills or training, and an outsider ethos that shirks the need to make things nice and palatable or melodic. Sounds can vary from meditative and hypnotic, to the downright ugly and abrasive.
Jay worked with his fellow case workers on finding boarding house residents who would be interested in taking part. “One of the guys was in a noise band years ago, in the early days of Sydney noise, did all the cut & paste sound loops and stuff. He turned up with a saxophone and his guitar and went crazy,” Jay explains. “Carlos has got a DJ background, part of the old bush doofers from the inner city. Another guy in his 60s, I sort of mentioned it to him and he turned around and said ‘like SPK?’ - they’re like a really early 70s, 80s Australian noise band - and I said ‘….Yeah!’ and he said ‘I love ‘em!’
The project was not without its risks. “Some of these sounds can be quite ugly,” says Jay. “One of the challenges I identified when I first came up with this idea, was I thought that some of our service users just would not connect with these machines, which in turn could lead to a not-so-good experience for the participant, but it has been quite the opposite. I have seen participants come in quite anxious and reserved, and 40 minutes later they are tearing up the machines and asking when are we going to play a live gig, it’s been really exciting to watch”.
To give some context about what a leap this might be, contributors to Buzzing Minds are residents in boarding houses; unstable accommodation deemed by governments as a form of tertiary homelessness. Some 400 boarding houses can be found within the Inner West Council’s boundaries and, while individual situations vary, the NNC highlight: “Boarding houses are home to some of the most vulnerable, marginalised persons in our community. Many residents of boarding houses suffer from health issues both mental and physical. Many residents are exposed to substance use, violence and are extremely socially isolated.”
For the disadvantaged and marginalised in our community, recreational/musical pursuits are understandably lower on the hierarchy of needs. Food, shelter, warmth - yes. Creative outlets involving experimental synths - maybe not so much.
Carlos Robles, a boarding house resident who took part in the project, acknowledges it as one of the project’s unique benefits. “Being in that [boarding house] environment can be really alienating, I guess. To be able to connect, to be creative, to give [residents] that sort of outlet - it’s been fantastic.”
With the grant, they were able to purchase recording equipment, produce 500 copies of the CD and commission inner west artist and fellow punk rocker Glenno Smith to create the cover art. Each recorded track will be accompanied by a written component from the contributor. Much like the audio contribution they were each given free reign on the shape it would take.
Jay was kind enough to let us sneak a peak of the album. Check out "Restless" by Throwback below:
The original plan was to have it ready to launch and available for free at Newtown Festival but under closer consideration, Jay and the team didn’t want it to get lost in all the goings-on of the day. “We didn’t want people to just pick something up because it’s free and then never listen to it. We want people to seek it out,” Jay says. Instead, once it’s released, the CD will be available for free from a handful of select venues (see below).
At this stage Jay isn’t certain about what the project’s future holds, though a few of the contributors have a gig lined up at next year’s Inner West Noise Fest and there’s talk of releasing an all-female project, as a counterweight to the male-heavy (purely by nature of who was interested in taking part) Buzzing Minds.
Even before it’s been released into the world, as an experiment it seems to be having a resoundingly positive result. Of course, there’s the creative outlet it’s given contributors and the sense of pride that comes from being a published/recorded artist. For some of the NNC’s service users, it’s led to greater involvement in the centre, such as Carlos, who now is more involved with decision-making and represents his fellow tenants on the NNC's Boarding House Advisory Group. It’s also been immensely rewarding for Jay who chalks it up as his proudest achievement as a case worker. All in all, proving the sound of success sometimes sounds very different indeed.
Buzzing Minds: A Sydney Noise Compilation will be released in January.
Follow Newtown Neighbourhood Centre for updates on release date.