When Brendan Tuckerman started performing in the Blue Mountains hip hop scene as a teenager, his knowledge of the music industry was so scant he didn’t even know what an album was.
So it was with some pride last month that he wrote the word “rapper” as his occupation on his census form.
Tuckerman can claim three top-selling albums with Australian hip hop group, Thundamentals, as well as three solo albums. He credits much of his success to the now-defunct Katoomba venue, TrisElies, which fostered a vibrant music scene in the early 2000s.
“I doubt I would be making hip hop if it wasn’t for that [venue]. I might not even be making music because there’s no outlet to perform it,” Tuka said.
Thundamentals manager Nathan Farrell vividly remembers one of his first visits to the venue as a manager.
“We were driving up [from Sydney] really pumped for this show and there was just a thick fog [when we arrived]. You couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t even see across the street,” he said. “And then out of nowhere I remember sitting at the door and seeing people just coming out of the mist. In any other place in Australia people would just stay at home and not bother, but there was just something about that place. It had fierce supporters.”
He bemoans its loss to the local music scene and the absence of a similar venue to fill the gap.
“Katoomba in particular has changed without it,” he said.
For Heidi Lenffer of Cloud Control - another Blue Mountains group that has enjoyed major success in Australia and the UK - the path to prosperity had to bypass the Mountains initially. As an alternative band, they weren’t part of a scene like the hip hop one that created acts like Thundamentals.
“We really just cut our teeth exclusively in Sydney,” she said.
Not that the Blue Mountains didn’t play a role in the band’s eventual success. Their neighbours in Faulconbridge certainly played a part, albeit unwittingly.
“Cloud Control rehearsed for the first three or four years just in Faulconbridge, surrounded by houses and trying to make peace offerings to our neighbours. There was no rehearsal space I ever heard of [in the Mountains] starting out,” said Lenffer.
The band’s first break came from a university band competition.
“I entered a band comp at uni primarily to escape my thesis writing and it really turned into something that no-one expected,” she said.
With her brother Ulrich on drums, school friend Jeremy Kelshaw on bass [he has since left the group], and fellow Mountains resident Alister Wright on lead vocals and guitar, the band has released two high-selling albums and won kudos from the fickle UK music press.
But however tangential, or crucial, the Blue Mountains has been to the success of Thundamentals, Cloud Control and other acts, it hasn’t stopped the media latching onto the common link.
“I guess interviewers who don’t do their job properly will always go for the easy shtick – ‘You’re from the Mountains – what’s in the water there?’,” said Tuka.
“There’s honestly been so many interviews where I’ve been asked what’s in the water in the Mountains.”
But occasionally, you just have to go with the flow.
Lenffer said she doesn’t want to “understate the positivity” of the Blue Mountains connection, even if it’s often overplayed in the media.
“I love the Mountains and I love to rep it as well – especially overseas when you might be talking to a Dutch journalist who has done a bit of googling about the Mountains [and] you can wax lyrical about the eucalyptus and the air,” she said.
“I’ve had many nice moments in this narrative, going – ‘you know what? I’ve answered this question a bunch of times but this time I’m going to give it a good run’.”
Even Tuka admits it’s hard to dispute the Blue Mountains has produced more than its fair share of successful acts.
“The population here is small and if you’re looking from Triple J’s perspective, we’ve had Cloud Control, Hermitude, Thundas, Down Under Beats, Dialectrix and Urthboy – all in the same five year spectrum of time. There really was an electric scene up here.”
Many of these artists have forged careers thanks to their own tenacity, an approach encouraged by Emily Collins from MusicNSW, the peak body for contemporary music in NSW. She said upcoming musicians shouldn’t always wait for a career break, but organise their own gigs.
In a place like the Mountains, you mightn’t always have a choice – which can be bring other benefits too.
“The other resource you have up here is isolation, in that it might take a while for a trend to hook on here but that doesn’t mean you can’t start one from here,” said Tuka.
“When you’re in a dense city and being influenced by all the other sounds and noise around you, you often just mimic other people, whereas if you’re on your own up here you can really strive for something original.”
The forum on the Blue Mountains music industry was held at Hotel Blue in Katoomba on August 23. It was organised by APRA (Australasian Performing Right Association), AMCOS (Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners’ Society) and Music NSW.