4000 records. The sound of Brisbane’s independent music scene

I recently realised that I spend heaps of time praising and supporting the Melbourne music scene. For obvious reasons – I used to live there, know it first-hand and feel emotionally attached to it.

But Australian music is so much more than that. And it’s time I braved diving into the depths of other music regions Down Under. Luckily, a unique opportunity presented itself when I came across 4000 records, a Brisbane-based indie record label.

PART 58 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

In this post, I wrote about the importance of the independent music scene in Oz. The sheer talent of the local indie artists and the creative energy behind their indie labels and distributors are significant factors in strengthening Australian music as a whole. The related AIR awards that took place at the beginning of October 2020 were also testament to that.

Out of pure curiosity, I started exploring that topic a little more, going beyond my area of expertise (Melbourne) and the Aussie music biz capital (Sydney).

Having visited Brisbane and Queensland a few times, I knew cool things were happening there, too. But it was through a connection with John Russell from 4000 Records that I found out just how vibrant the local scene really is.

4000 Records is “an independent artist-led record label with a strong focus on collaborating with Brisbane creatives.” 13 acts representing diverse genres and moods are currently on its roster.

The label’s creator and director, John Russell, has been making a name for himself on the local scene over the past almost 20 years. As a former gig organiser, artist manager and – above all – an avid music fan, 4000 Records is the next step in John’s local music scene exploration.

And because it’s always best to check things out right at the source, I asked John to give me a comprehensive lesson on the ins and outs of the Brissie vibe, the status of independent music in Queensland’s capital and the role of his record label in the whole puzzle.

THE ROAD TO 4000 RECORDS

Silly McWiggles (SM): To start, tell me a bit about your previous experiences with music, please.

John Russell (JR): Oh man, I’ve tried my hand at lots of little bits and pieces from all over the shop hah! It started with putting on small shows around towns which included a few small tours as well. Most notable would be Melbourne band The Seven Ups’ first East Coast tour which was in 2015.

With my first label VHR [Valley Heat Records], I used to put on a monthly showcase event at Black Bear Lodge [a local Brisbane venue] which was dedicated to shining a light on emerging local bands. It was called “Live At The Lodge”, and it ran for just over a year.

When I was managing a local band – The Francis Wolves, we got them on to some great festivals such as Woodford Folk Festival, Jungle Love, The End of the Line, Caloundra Music Festival and a bunch of smaller ones. That was great fun!

The Francis Wolves live at Woodford Folk Festival, 2016

But yeah, at the moment I’m very happy to be focussed on releasing music and putting on the odd show, usually release launch events, and just being open to whatever collaborative opportunities might arise for the label and its artists. 

For example, last Christmas we helped put on a fundraiser show for a local charity in collaboration with Art As Catharsis [a Sydney-based indie record label] which was a killer time.

SM: That’s awesome. So what made you establish 4000 Records?

JR: Music has been my singular passion for as long as I can remember. But for some reason, I never did anything about it until I was 30. I realised that if I didn’t try and do something with that passion, then I’d very deeply regret it. And also to try and give something back to the scene that had given me so much in the preceding 10+ years.

I reached out to a couple of people I knew loosely through street-teaming and just being a general fanboy of some local bands, and I was lucky enough to link up with a couple of wonderful folks who were putting on shows, and they let me jump in and help out. That’s what started it all really; two kind people who saw my passion and gave me the time of day and some space to explore it.

I put on shows for a while and did a couple of small East Coast tours and then was approached by local band The Francis Wolves (FW). I managed them and their side-project Soul Mechanics for a while. And then when it came time to shop around for a label to release FW’s debut album, we struggled to find a good fit. So bandleader, Brian [L’Huillier], suggested we just start our own. 

That’s how Valley Heat Records [name of an FW tune] started and I very quickly realised that this is what I wanted to sink my energy into. Initially, it was for the sole purpose of releasing the band’s music and maybe one or two releases by friends. But as soon as we announced the label, we had local artists wanting to jump on board and the label steadily grew throughout its three-year lifespan.

As it grew, the ideas and tastes that Brian and I had started to splinter. So we decided to part ways in mid-2019 and I immediately started a label on my own, 4000 Records, which officially began on September 10th 2019.

SM: What differentiates your label from the other indie ones?

Probably that I have no idea what I’m doing!?!? Hah! I think the label’s strong focus on the local scene is its point of difference. There are a bunch of Brisbane labels who support local artists but I think we’re the only one with an exclusively local focus. And that extends out to the artists we collaborate with to do our artwork and businesses we use to make our merch etc.

I operate in a nice little space where music is all about passion and creation. And I love that I can help emerging artists do what they love without having to worry about the nitty-gritty admin side of things, so they can concentrate on their music.

I am very happy with the label being a passion project whereby I can give some local bands that I love their first helping hand. And if a larger label or agency were to offer any of my artists a bigger and better deal, then that would be the ultimate compliment to what we’ve created with the artists.

I’d posit that we also have one of the more eclectic rosters out there!

THE 4000 RECORDS’ SOUND

SM: On that note… What’s the one element that brings all the acts on your roster together under one roof?

JR: The fact that I love them. That’s it! My time restraints are such that if I don’t absolutely love the music, then I simply won’t be motivated to put in the time that they deserve.

We get demos sent to us all the time and many of those I’d love to work with. But I’ve reached a point where if I take on any more artists, then everyone loses ‘cos I’d be stretched too thin.

So yeah, I guess the simple answer is that I only work with artists who I’m super passionate about and would be happy to give up the hour I get at night to relax and work on their music instead of unwinding in front of the TV.

SM: How do you choose artists for your label?

JR: I think that every single one of the artists on the label has come to be as a result of me seeing them play live, being blown away, and then reaching out to them after the show to see if they’d be interested in some kind of collaboration.

I don’t have a set number of artists that I want on the roster or anything like that. And I haven’t ever purposefully gone to a show with the intention of “signing” a new artist. It’s just been a case of rocking up to a show and falling in love.

Although I am facing the dilemma at the moment of seeing the next wave of incredible artists popping up and not having the means to be able to see if they want to jump in. But, thankfully, there’s no shortage of upstanding bastions of the scene that will always reach out to help these fledgeling bands.

SM: Every band and every artist has its own story. Are there any unusual things about the acts on your roster?

JR: Yeah, there are some interesting tidbits.

For instance, The Double Happiness is made up of two married couples, and their name is taken from the brand of a table tennis table manufacturer.

Lite Fails is the bassist of recently disbanded band Elder who were on the label.

Coalfalls are named after the suburb that two of the members live in.

And Greshka are just a super fun quirky band who I have been a massive fan of for over a decade after seeing them at Woodford Folk Festival. I’m very stoked to have them in the fam.

SM: So what does the collaboration with the artists on your roster look like?

JR: It’s slightly different for every artist, actually. The label is set up as an “artist-led” label, meaning that my role is whatever the artist wants it to be. 

Some artists have a clearly defined trajectory and vision for their art, so I merely provide them with a means of attaining a physical product (tapes, CDs etc.) and do basic PR and distribution. Others include me in every step from production to artwork creation. There’s definitely elements of management and PR involved with running the label, but I wouldn’t say explicitly that we provide those things for the artists.

When a new artist comes on board, we usually have a sit-down and discuss what they want out of the relationship and then go from there. There are definite limits to what I can provide, but most of the time the bands are simply happy to have someone out there championing their music on their behalf.

SM: You release music both the traditional (cassette or vinyl) and modern (digital) way. What does it depend on in each case?

JR: I’m just a massive fan of the cassette. I never really dropped off them and still have the same Walkman that I had in high school. 

For many of the bands and myself, doing a run of LPs for a debut album is simply not a smart financial move. So, as a base offering for each release, I like to do a small run of cassettes so that the release has a physical form – even if it’s just as a memento or collectable. 

A lot of the time we get the artist to include a bonus track or some kind of extra material that is exclusive to the cassette, which gives it that something extra. For example, my very favourite song by Cloud Tangle is called ‘Die/Life’ and it’s only available on the b-side of her EP ‘Falling Asleep’.

But at the end of the day, we work with what the artist wants to do. If they’ve got their hearts set on vinyl, or anything else, then we look at options to make it happen.

SM: Times are a bit weird at the moment, so I guess many bands have decided to wait it out, and they’re not as active as they’d normally be. So what’s currently cooking in the 4000 Records kitchen?

JR: Yeah, all the bands are still a bit apprehensive about touring at this stage as most of our borders keep getting opened and closed! A lot of the bands have laid low and have felt a bit weird releasing music during these odd times, so I think that you’ll find next year will be very full of releases and I think literally every artist on the label is in the process of recording their next release – some singles, some EPs and a few albums.

The upcoming release is the debut album by The Double Happiness. It’s called ‘Surfgazing’ and is a reverb-drenched ode to afternoons spent sun-kissed and wave-side, to letting the wind take your hand as it dangles out the car window along the highway and to ’60s beach parties and the dance crazes that accompanied them. The album’s coming out on November 26th on LP, CD, CS and digitally with a launch show at The Old Museum on January 16th with Ancient Channels.

We’ve put on a series of three shows over the last couple of months to celebrate our first birthday which has been great as we’ve managed to get all but one artist to play those shows. So it’s really been a lovely little family event series. The 3rd and final birthday show is on November 12th at The Zoo [a local music venue]. 

Oh, and all three of them sold out, which is super lovely!

Part 2 of 4000 Records’ 1st B-day celebrations

We also do a monthly Spotify mixtape that features 100% Brisbane bands, as well as ad hoc sets on Mixcloud where we focus more on harder to find, rarer and weirder music. 

A LOOK AT THE BRISBANE MUSIC SCENE

SM: Aside from your own roster, what are the most intriguing acts that have shaped the local scene (according to you, not the general narrative)?

JR: Firstly, Requin – a sadly short-lived band. However, I’ve never been more engaged with a group of performers on stage than I have with these guys, who carved their own space out in the art-rock, progressive indie sphere. 

We had them on the label briefly before they disbanded earlier in the year and there’s a blisteringly good, completed album waiting in the wings. But I’m not sure what will end up happening with it at this stage.

When Hazards of Swimming Naked moved to Brisbane from North QLD in the early 2000s, I was immediately drawn to them. They were the first band in town that I came across doing anything with post-rock, which I was heavily into at the time. They opened the door for me to a local subculture of warm guitars and never-ending songs. And I’ve never looked back!

Kooii were possibly the first local underground “scene” (whatever you wanna call it) band that I saw live, and they instantly made a lasting impact which I carry with me still today. They seamlessly blend afro beat, funk, reggae and jazz into a cleansing balm of completely wholesome auditory joy.

Man, there are honestly just so many amazing bands that have come out of this city that I could go on forever!

SM: You also seem to have a very good relationship with a local radio 4ZZZ. What’s so special about them? And are there any other community stations supportive of the local scene in Brisbane?

JR: 4ZZZ is the angelic beacon of the Brisbane music community. They pay special attention to local music in all its forms, put on diverse and inclusive events, amplify the smaller voices and are a safe space for everyone. 

Cloud Tangle is one of 4000 Records’ artists

4ZZZ really is our biggest supporter. The feedback and love they give is the foundation for a lot of the confidence that we and the bands have to push the music outward rather than just timidly uploading to Bandcamp and hoping for the best.

4EB is another great station with a large range of culturally specific shows and brilliant music from all over the world.

And there’s also a wonderful, locally focussed show called Emerge hosted by two heavily dedicated and lovely young gentlemen [Calen Le Couteur and Russell Thompson] who have a deep affinity for local music.

SM: Through your website, I found out that you also run a project called Brisbane Music Graveyard. What is it exactly? And what prompted the idea to “resurrect” old recordings?

JR: Brisbane Music Graveyard (The BMG) was actually one of the first projects I started. When I was talking to a musician friend of mine about doing a Brisbane-based compilation album, he mentioned the idea of starting a database/archive of local recordings that would otherwise be lost to the ether.

So, with his blessing, I made a start by asking some old bands who I still listened to but whose music was only available to the lucky few who had been to shows back in the day and had CDs. From there, it’s just been a slow and steady process of connecting with these local artists and getting their permission to include their music on the site.

So yeah, it’s basically just a digital archive. All the music has been provided by the artists and it’s all free with an option to pay. All money that does come in is injected into 4ZZZ annually during their yearly Radiothon drive.

It’s a bit of a fun side-side-side project that I wish I had more time for, honestly.

SM: You’ve been involved in the local music scene for a long time now. Are there any unique characteristics that define it? What differentiates Brisbane from the rest of Australia?

JR: I think Brisbane probably has the most localised scene, in terms of venues, in the country. I’d say 90% of Brisbane’s live music venues can be found within a 5-10 km radius.

I haven’t been to Melbourne or Sydney for a couple of years, and Adelaide or Perth or anywhere else, ever, so I can’t say for sure. But from what I can gather from those limited past experiences, and from what I hear from folks who travel to Brisbane from around the country, is that our scene doesn’t suffer from a lot of the pretension that those larger music communities do. It’s got its troubles, for sure, but overall it’s very wholesome and inter-connected.

Along with that, I’ve found that Brisbane artists seem to be genuinely supportive of their fellow creators. It feels like we are all each other’s greatest cheerleaders, and when one of us succeeds, then, in some way, we all do. 

It’s kinda got that small-town spirit thing going on. I can’t speak for the other scenes, but I feel like we have that, I guess, “team spirit” more so than other places. It’s very humbling to be a part of it.

SM: So what are the live music suburbs in Brissie nowadays? Is Fortitude Valley still the place to be? 

JR: West End definitely used to be the hub, and I’m sure that’s still true to a degree. But in terms of live music, The Valley and surrounds have long been and for at least the near future will continue to be the dominion of live music in Brisbane.

To be fair though, I am getting a bit long in the tooth now and have no idea what the kids are all getting up to while I’m passed out at 9pm on Wednesday night haha!

SM: Do you have any fav off-the-beaten-track music venues and niche events in Brissie? Or the ones that only an insider might know about?

JR: Not off-the-beaten-track so much, but my absolute favourite venue is The Bearded Lady in West End. It’s a place where everyone’s accepted and you can go and see a myriad of styles of music from hardcore to soul to folk and hip-hop. It’s a truly unique place and has just been given a spruce-up so there’s more space to boogie and the layout works a whole lot better. 

The Bearded Lady has been wonderful to us and more often than not will get behind any show/line-up ideas that we have at 4000 Records.

Lefty’s Music Hall in Petrie Terrace is another intimate space to see music with a fantastic semi in-the-round view of the stage. 

And I’ve recently been out to Ipswich to a venue called Goleby’s Basement which is a super cool room run by great folks.

In terms of niche events, there’s heaps going on all the time, but I really dig the Ruckus Poetry slams. Even though I’ve only been to a handful, they really stick out to me as unique and important events.

Before lockdown, there was also a great monthly event called Freestyle Fridays which was a brilliant space for up and coming MCs to test out their chops on the mic hosted by veteran MC Master Wolf.

Freestyle Friday with Master Wolf from 2017

ON INDEPENDENT MUSIC

SM: This might not be a fair question because I can imagine the competition is stiff but… are there any other independent labels (not necessarily from Brisbane) that you admire?

JR: There are some great local labels who I admire for simply being comrades of the local scene who I can reach out to for advice etc. False Peak, Team Glasses, Zang!, LCMR, Green Chimneys, Eternal Soundcheck to name a few.

But when I first started looking at how I wanted to set up the label, I really was inspired by Asian Man Records. Dan’s approach is so simple and straight-forward, and all his releases sell out. Plus he does so much for his community, and I really love that.

Also, I really love College of Knowledge and Music In Exile, both from Melbourne, both releasing incredible music!

SM: What are your short- and long-term aspirations for 4000 Records?

I am very happy with the stride we’re in at the moment. We’ve got an incredible roster of wonderful artists and giving their releases the time they deserve as well as putting on the odd show is very fulfilling.

I’d love to collaborate more with other local folks to put on things like mini-festivals or do some interesting merch or get our bands doing some cool stuff across the non-music artistic disciplines.

At the end of the day, I’m just grateful and humbled that I get to work with these artists and that they entrust me with the safe delivery of their music to the ears of the sonically hungry.

SM: And what are your hopes for the independent music industry in Australia once things stabilise eventually?

JR: I guess I hope that people remember what it was like when there were no gigs at all for those awful 5 months and that live music has countless benefits beyond the social and sonic realms.

It’ll be great to see touring kick off and have international acts play in Brisbane again, and I really hope that this time of being limited to only being able to see local bands live drives home a lasting impression of the sheer amount of incredible talent that we have right in our backyard.