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The spirit of liaison

Nicholas Underhill goes sightseeing around Sydney’s forgotten relics with Melbourne duo Client Liaison. Photography by Liam Cameron.

Nicholas Underhill
Jul 13, 2015 · 7 min read

It was like I was on the Magic School Bus or had stumbled into the world of Harry Potter. I turned off a main road in Sydney’s CBD and into an impossibly long, Diagon Alley–like brick tunnel. But instead of finding the secret world of wizards, I escaped the bustle of Sydney life to meet synth-house, 80s revivalists Client Liaison. In the CL world, Diners Club is still used and accepted, Ansett never met its inglorious end and fax machines are still the most efficient form of communication.

Client Liaison took me on a tour of Sydney that Buzzfeed would call ‘749 Reasons You Should See Underappreciated Cultural Icons of Sydney with Melbourne-based Indie Synth-Pop Duo Client Liaison’. Move over Circular Quay, the main attractions are the seriously dated and unappreciated: decommissioned monorail stations, fern gardens, and really pink things like the Darling Harbour Novotel.

Client Liaison’s apartment seemed to reflect this mentality, sitting uncomfortably between towering skyscrapers — a piece of old Sydney jammed between modern, glass-and-steel behemoths. Apart from the multitude of ferns (which I was later told were collected last minute from a local nursery for Client Liaison’s show at the Secret Garden festival the night before), the first thing I noticed was the impeccable dress of Harvey Miller. Smoking casually by the entrance of the apartment and wearing a winning combo of pastel blazer, polo shirt, trousers and boat shoes, Harvey instantly made me feel like I was overdressed. Or that, with my denim jacket, skinnys, and boots, I’d tried too hard. Or maybe not tried hard enough. I’m still not sure.

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Harvey showed me around their Sydney quarters. As I caught my first glimpse of CL HQ, I couldn’t help but assume I was aboard a cruiseliner named The Spirit of Liaison: wood panelling, dated kitchen, framed authentic-looking vintage prints, mustard curtains. The only available onboard entertainment was watching the other half of Client Liaison, Monte Morgan, doing his hair.

With introductions officially made we went to leave the apartment. And right on cue, The Spirit of Liaison hit stormy seas. Thunder rolled in and the heavens opened. There was a moment of worry when Monte realised that all the work gone into constructing his voluminous, curly mullet perm could be wasted (“it doesn’t do well under the elements”), and we all scrambled for mullet perm protectors. As we finally left the confines of the apartment and covered the short distance to Chinatown, the constant rain took the saturation out of some of the offensively bright reds, giving everything a pastel hue.

The next four hours saw us take a very original, highly unorthodox tour of Sydney. Chinatown, the monorail, and a series of unplanned diversions eventually led us to the tour’s highlight: Darling Harbour. It became pretty clear that I’d considerably underestimated Client Lia son. Before meeting them I really appreciated their aesthetic and cultural throwbacks. In person I witnessed a seriousness and thoughtfulness that was somewhat surprising. Not every band will have formulated an opinion on masculinity, nationalism and multiculturalism—but they definitely had.

As we reached Chinatown, our first destination, I thought the Liaison boys were trying to be ironic. There would be something true to form about choosing to show off Sydney’s cultural complicatedness by visiting the one street that is pretty much the same the world over. We strolled through, taking care not to get coathangered by Harvey’s umbrella, talking to restaurant hawkers and taking selfies with lobsters. But whether or not it was their intention, Chinatown springboarded us into a conversation about Australian identity and multiculturalism.

“The term multiculturalism gets thrown around a lot,” Harvey began. “In most cases we try to avoid it.” He went on:

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“It implies that there are multiple cultures here functioning independently from one another. Rather, for us, ‘Australian culture’ embodies the experience of multiple cultures functioning cohesively between one another.”

Their sometimes affectionately derisive lyrics are clever and funny and beg the question: is this our Australia? In these days of Tony Abbott, of climate science obfuscation, of vilified ‘boat people’, of reinforced patriarchy, of political doublespeak; are we any more than the “provincial backwater” Monte says we are in ‘End of the Earth’?

As we continued our walk, we stumbled onto one of Sydney’s last remaining monorail stations. We had a spontaneous moment of silence as we looked upon the fading, giant block-red “MONORAIL” lettering.

Despite their myriad flaws and impracticalities, there’s something really, well, cool about monorails. I’m not sure who managed to convince the NSW State Government to invest in a transport system that was $20 million more expensive than light rail, serviced fewer passengers and cost an incredible 40% more per ticket, per trip (probably some shady yet highly likeable Lyle Lanley–type), but I could kind of see how people would buy into them.

“They inspire you with some kind of utilitarian hopefulness,” Monte said. “We were definitely fans. If we thought people would get behind it, we’d have organised all sorts of protests to its decommission.”

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As we walked on to Darling Harbour, I began to realise this trip was less about the route, and more about stumbling onto apparently interesting things. Monte and Harvey seemed intrigued by seemingly random back- drops. Ferns and concrete. Pastel coloured barriers. Really ugly architecture.

“Everyone today views art deco architecture of the 1930s with a firm sense of appreciation and unquestioned romanticism,” Harvey said looking at the incredibly garish and ridiculously pink Darling Harbour Novotel. “We need to be doing the same with other architectural movements that haven’t had the luxury of time to develop a critical appreciation or stylistic grounding.”

“Places like Darling Harbour need time. Instead we’re just ripping them up and replacing everything with glass, steel and concrete.”

Although Harvey Miller and Monte Morgan spent the day dressed in what looked like stage costume, it didn’t feel like they were acting or performing. It helps that they, and their manager Adam de Costa Coffee, are really good guys. And while Client Liaison are known for dressing up, for appropriating Australian cultural cringe so outdated that it’s no longer cringeworthy and for endorsing an international highflying cosmopolitanism, it didn’t feel fake or overly contrived.

“Australian identity, masculinity and the nomadic business man — these ideas and sentiments of the late 80s and early 90s not only inform the music sonically but also inform us on other levels: socially, politically, aesthetically and stylistically.”

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Regardless of their reasoning, it’s their cultivated balance of irreverence and showmanship, of humour and seriousness, all wrapped up together into their “multi-sensory experience,” that has put Client Liaison on the radar—both in terms of their rising star and in terms of their live shows. Ferns and fax machines, costume changes, and an unrelenting energy have won them countless fans. Among Sydney and Melbourne music circles, CL are on the ascent, or maybe we could say they’re finally leaving the port, assuming we’re still using that cruise ship metaphor.

After riding a carousel we sat on the edge of the “forgotten” harbour, which despite undergoing significant change hadn’t lost its industrial past and dated cityscape backdrop. I could see where CL were coming from — there was something so cheesy about it, something so dated, and just so 80s that it was interesting. It demanded to be talked about and responded to.

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We wrapped up our day there, and as I parted with Harvey and Monte, I tried for a moment to understand what they’re doing, to categorise Client Liaison, to break it down into something neat and classifiable. And despite spending hours of wandering and talking, I’m still not exactly sure what it is. Perhaps there’s a clue to be found in doublespeak copy adorning the duo’s Facebook page:

“Feel everything. Think nothing. Pleasure is good. Fantasy is truth.”

This is an article from a print magazine from Sydney, Australia called Future Perfect. Buy a copy online here.

Future Perfect Magazine

A magazine for the socially and culturally enraged.

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