Erica Dunn’s True Blues

Originally published in ISSUE TWO.

Put an old rock’n’roll soul in a 29 year old body and whadya get? Stirring solo shows, a raucous three-piece covers circus, a horror gospel choir, an eclectic radio show, and enveloping defiance against the end of the world. Erica Dunn has a lot to do, a lot on her mind, and a long way to go before she sleeps.

Deep in the Australian south, trapped in an abyssal winter, a thousand people are shoved inside the Hobart City Hall, there’s smoke everywhere, people are screaming, and Erica Dunn is thinking Why the fuck am I wearing this costume and playing this fucked up show? The venue just shut the curtains on her, a twentysomething Melbournite with an old rock’n’roll soul in a blood red cloak and epaulets, cabaret vampire queen. Minutes earlier she was playing the best guitar of her life, fireballs comin’ outta her fingers and the crowd frothing on every chord, then the curtain brushed her arm and she realised what was happening.

She looks over at Steve Miller. She can barely see him. She looks over at Phoebe Taylor, half drumming, half not knowing what the fuck is going on. Someone switches off her amp. And then a self-appointed hero appears, some grey haired nut with glasses who’s run on stage. Excited whispers sweep the crowd. It’s David Walsh! It’s David Walsh! — the billionaire tycoon who spent his fortune building an absurdist theme park in the sleepiest part of the country — but it isn’t. Just some old friend of Steve Miller’s, and he wants to see the end of the set.

He rips open the curtains, peels ’em back and there’s the band again! He’s running around screaming, ordering everyone to turn everything back on again. He’s screaming in Erica’s face, “PLAY ‘WHO DO YOU LOVE?’!” Everybody’s clapping for the disaster circus. Steve’s still playing. Erica starts playing. No wait, her amp’s still off. She starts screaming instead. The curtains close and open and close again and Erica’s being smothered by the cape and the guitar and the smoke and the screaming crowd and the screaming stage invader and she’s ripping it all apart when Steve quietly slips in front of the curtains. And plays ‘Who Do You Love?’.

By all accounts, this was the apotheosis of the SMB, nee Steve Miller Band, in the flesh, and damn ‘cos I didn’t see it but I’ve seen ’em enough, held onto the knife’s edge by which they tightrope walk every time they step onto stage enough times to believe it. The cool kids diss rednecks for their NASCAR leanings but live music at its best ain’t dissimilar: honed experts, skills on parade, with a couple spectacular crashes on the drag to let you know there are stakes. The SMB are able and willing.

But Erica Dunn, the SMB’s lead guitarist, has just played the opposite kinda set at the Old Bar as Palm Springs. “It was a conversation I had with my boyfriend, I was convinced he’d been the victim of a hoax. He’d read that someone found a hammer in a stone from 400 million years ago.” Erica’s talking about the genesis for one of the songs she’d just played. “He was trying to say humans or people like humans had been around for a really long time and the internet conspiracy was something like that the human race keeps evolving? It was something like the planet Earth has existed for a really, really long time and many species have tried to conquer it or whatever. And maybe here and there, there’ll be remnants of those previous attempts. It led me to think that if the human race was bombed into oblivion, how we will be remembered.”

Dya reckon we will be?

“Possibly not. The song sorta imagines if there’s anything that we leave, it’ll just be a map of how we fucked it up.”

Erica Dunn has been having apocalyptic dreams. The end of the world has always been a hot lure for poets, since long before Nick Cave’s twisted saints or the Stones hellish Vietname visions, before the jazzmen exorcised their front row seat to doom with raucous cries, before gospel singers, since even before the Revelation. The first primordial chimps to crawl outta the ancestral ooze and hear music in the death wails of their kin probably believed it to be a doomsday prophecy. The end of life, the end of times. Forces you to contend with a vital question: whadda we amount to?

“My parents’ nickname for me was ‘the latchkey kid’, which we laugh about now, but it’s true. I probably spent a great deal of time as a child alone and making up stuff.”

Erica spent a lot of her childhood in the bush, 16k’s outta Mansfield, 10k’s out of Jameson at her grandparents’ place. Her doctor parents got her on the piano young, tutored by a scary old lady who used to punish Erica for having sweaty hands. More than piano, lil Eri dug singing. Mum made her try out for an opera school, and after consenting to wearing a dress to the audition, she got in. Only they couldn’t fit it into the family routine, so Erica the Opera Singer was left to an alternate universe. In 8th grade she got a piece of shit Takamine semi-acoustic and busked at Parliament. She started bands in school, but her favourite, called Vivid, was pure teen angst. Her parents called her “the latchkey kid” ‘cos she’d hang out alone in her make-believe worlds, or lose hours climbing through drains and throwing watermelons off bridges with her gang.

In 6th grade, Erica’s mum went to the UK and had to tell her patients. Some “opportune, thinking junkies” broke into the car and their house, and ‘cos it was the 90s, the insurance company gave the Dunns a CD allowance. “We all got 10 CDs to buy each. I had a friend’s older brother to get an idea of what was cool and I bought a Velvet Underground CD, a Bob Dylan CD, and a couple of Hendrix CDs. I listened to heaps of Hendrix, had Hendrix posters in grade six. I used to think Led Zeppelin was a person, like Jimi Hendrix. Like his first name was Led.” Erica herself spent some time in the UK, replacing rock’n’roll with drum-and-bass. “It was probably more to do with getting high.”

Last year Erica went travelling again, splitting six months between New York and LA. She’d been before, but this time it was to make a go of it as a muso in the great republic. Without a label or any real network, she spent a lotta time cold emailing names she’d been given by friends to get on bills and trying to scope out which Aussies might’ve been touring and could help her out. She’d roped together some industry ken from her time around the traps and a year stint interning for Chapter Music in 2011. “She was great, really hard working, smart, interesting, already involved and switched on,” according to Chapter’s Guy Blackman. “She was one of those interns that instinctively got what Chapter’s about.”

It paid off. She wound up playing a week of shows in both cities. The first thing she did was buy a new guitar. The industry was different there. Here, “if a sound person or a venue knows you, they’ll be happy to help, but you really have to make a relationship there and prove who you are and that you’re legitimately working hard, but you can experience a lot of jerks.” In the States, strangers were eager to help. “People would spend time checking your amp and they’d be like ‘Would you like this or would you like this?’.” She learned how to talk about herself. “It’s really important to be able to say ‘I’m this and I’m tryna do this,’ whereas I think previously I’d been a bit shy about talking about my intentions before.”

Before Palm Springs, Erica was was the scrappy screamer in Poor People with High Seas Deep Seas’ Lloyd Briggs, mclusky’s Jon Chapell, and Pat Walker. You can still hear the template for Palm Springs in Poor People tracks like ‘Mountain’, where Erica starts in a hypnotic hum before lurching into a desperate, shredded yell. Poor People imploded after their debut album but Erica couldn’t stop writing. “I was just like, fuck it, I’ve always been writing songs, I’m just gonna try and do something on my own.” She played around under the guise of Paper Tiger, got some necessary encouragement, and in 2012, Palm Springs was born. Recorded between Mansfield and Bakehouse Studios, a three-track demo called Winning & Losing is the only Palm Springs record which exists online. It’s maddening for how brief it is, but even over three songs she comes off well-schooled, splicing scales between distorted chords. She sounds more confident on Winning & Losing, more eager to explore the range of her voice with epic swells of longing following somber, downright lonesome moments.

Erica was living with Raquel Solier at the time. She plays electronic R&B in her solo project Fatti Frances. “I sort of maybe convinced her — maybe she pitied me — into not selling her drums and to play with me. Then Adam Sherry played as well.” Now that Sherry’s away, Erica sees it going on as a two-piece, but Twerps’ Gus Lord plays bass on a few songs on the forthcoming record, and plenty of people have put their hands up to play guitar.

The Tuesday before she played the Old Bar, Erica played to a small crowd at Howler. It was cold out. Lately it feels like it always has been. She was having some trouble nailing the chords. She had the smashed crab syndrome.

The ‘smashed crab’. “It happens when you least expect it. It’s when you have an out of body experience and you look down and all you see is a horrible crab, and it doesn’t do anything you want, and it seems not to be connected to your own body.” It was coined by Tom Lyngcoln. “My mentor. He would not like to be called that.”

Lyngcoln is the howling core and infamous ringleader of Harmony, a band of cult legends among Australia’s heavy music fans. Lyngcoln’s the alchemist behind what Doug Wallen calls Harmony’s “pretty/ugly thing,” a combination of brute instrumentation taking cues from doom-grieving blues and countrymen through to sodden punks, and the harmonies of its frontwomen. Erica’s one of them.

Jon Chapell — you remember him from Poor People — was playing bass for Harmony before Erica had met any of the rest of the band. Amanda Roff, another of Harmony’s singers, took off for the States to study at Berkeley, so Chapell roped her in. She was already a fan. “I drove Harmony to their first gig which was at a weird festival in Healesville just ‘cos I was a friend. I was really stoked to be asked.” She ran with the band through their first album tour and when Roffy came back, Erica figured the ride was over. Fortuitous, then, that Lyngcoln’s younger sister, Maria, another singer in the band, decided she wasn’t feeling all the touring. A spot for Erica opened up. Their second album, Carpetbombing, released last year on Poison City Records, was one of the most hailed independent records of the year.

First time I saw Erica was at the Copacabana a year ago. Dead inside from a four day bender after starting a new job which culminated in keeling over outside Public Bar the night before, the promise of a six buck Bloody Mary was sweet, besides the year before with Terrible Truths and Super Wild Horses stuck in the craw. The poster had 70s rockers the Steve Miller Band billed as the openers, and I couldn’t pass up whatever prank these folks were playing. To give you the scope of how weird this place was, every other night of the week the Copacabana hosts soirees on the level of salsa dancing lessons. The stage is rimmed by platforms carrying tables arranged like you’d see at suburban bowling centres and kids’ birthday parties. Down the road from the Tote and the Gaso, across the road from the Grace Darling, the area’s not in want for sacred ground. But the bands were coming to the Copa instead.

If you had tunnel vision for Steve Miller you might assume you were seeing the Frisco legends in the flesh. An old kook in flares and a tight tee with a smile like Georgia May Jagger, he had the swagger. But what of his cohort, the Duchess and the She-Wolf, Erica Dunn and Phoebe Taylor, blazing guitarist and brazen drummer respectively and each a quarter century younger? Phoebe hits the tubs like they done her wrong, they cave under the pressure, she plays on. Friend leans over. “You know she’d never played drums before she joined the band?” Word is they were on lend from Clare Moore, former Moodist. Now we’re getting closer to the truth.

Back in 80s Australia, before Erica and Phoebe had torn their way into the world, there was this band called the Moodists, a relative footnote in the canon but their brawn was undeniable, savage licks and manic lyricism fighting Moore’s gunshot drumming. They put out some records, mixed it up with the south side punks, did a stint in the UK like every great Aussie band, made their mark, then moved on. Years later, Steve Miller set up Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshment at the Abbotsford Convent, now also home to institutions like Lentil As Anything and the Shadow Electric. Half bar, half shrine to the Cats, Handsome Steve’s is where Erica and Steve Miller finally met.

Erica takes a long gulp before she tells this one.

“One of my oldest friends is Cameron Miller, Steve Miller’s nephew. I’d heard about the Moodists ever since I was a kid because Cam goes on about his famous uncle and I was just like ‘I couldn’t give a shit, man!’ I maybe meanly never listened to the Moodists and blocked it out. Cam and I moved into our first house together and at the same time Steve was opening up his bar, and I got a few bar shifts with Steve. Steve doesn’t even remember this period, I think for the first three months he didn’t even know my name. Then we had this weird bonding time which I won’t go into heaps of detail with but involves both of our cars being robbed by the mafia.”

Well now ya can’t leave it like that.

“We had this weird bonding time… it involves both of our cars being robbed by the mafia.”

“Both of us got stooged by this guy, a person who was working at the Convent who was on parole and the Convent was doing a community service thing where they were getting security officers who were jailbirds. This guy was a complete, amazing con artist and duped a huge number of people who were working at the Convent. He’s since probably got out of his jail term but he collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Convent and then disappeared. I leant him this beautiful F100 truck, which my boyfriend at the time and I both put money into, and Steve had his ex wife’s car and his own Mini, and got taken by this dude who was never seen again.”

They were bonded as victims. Later, Steve was going through a rough time and Erica was moving out of her place, so Steve got on the lease. “He’s like this old man, he was going through stuff, he was drinkin’ heaps, maybe I was too — I think I was going through a breakup — and we were just chatting about guitar, we were talking about how he’d played in bands for 30 years and he’d never done any singing, and I was like ‘I can’t play lead, it really bums me out.’ Both of us had nothing to do, we were going through a bad patch, and we decided to do some covers, have a practice. It was a joke at first.”

Erica’s got a kind of sympathetic admiration for Steve Miller. They seem like a hapless pair, but whenever she speaks about him, it’s in a tone slightly amused and slightly reverent. “Steve, he’ll be the first to admit he has a few shortcomings. But he’s got some incredible positives. He’s a really big fuck-the-system guy, old school, fuck-the-squares, I’m-just-gonna-do-something-different. And there’ve been different times when I’ve been annoyed by that in some regard, and then I hugely respect this unshakeable current in him that just does not go away. He can be really inspiring. It’s kept me with the band, I guess.”

Old mate Adam Sherry from A Dead Forest Index joined on drums having never played them before — the precedent was set — saying “I’m not using cymbals though. Fuck that. I can’t play cymbals. I’ll only play the drums.”

They jammed at Soundpark. Picture it: Steve on fire, flashing thirty years of experience. Erica, in between sessions, getting guitar lessons to level up. Everyone bringing in old rhythm and blues songs with a couple 70s punk gems thrown in, working through ’em together. “You think they’re so simple, all these old rhythm and blues songs you love, you think they’re just E and A or whatever, but when you try and cover them it’s like, ‘What the fuck is actually going on here?’ It was really food for us for a little while.”

Erica taps on a bejewelled iPhone 3, the container of a recording of their first live show at the front bar of the Tote, proof that they’d realised all their secret desires among all the shit started and chaos endured. “All three of us were going through funny life stuff and it was all new and exciting, especially because we were all doing stuff we hadn’t previously done in another band. Steve’s ability to sing out of time, the wrong words at the wrong time, the chorus when it’s meant to be the verse and vice versa — is the most bizarre fuckin’ savant shit. And impossible sometimes, but really keeping you on your toes. The idea was anything went. He was like, ‘I’m gonna sing this Shangri-Las song as a poem’ and I was like, ‘Sick!’ and Adam was like ‘I’m gonna play some moody sleigh bells!’ and everything got really twisted and fun pretty quickly.”

The early momentum of the band stuttered when Adam took off for the UK. A Dead Forest Index had been picking up and, in the same tradition as the Moodists, his other band took the opportunity to strike hot in Albion. Steve found a replacement same place he found Eri. An old friend of theirs worked at the House of Refreshment, a wildcat who’d turn up to the shows and couldn’t stay away from the stage. “She once came to a gig and played the sleigh bells for 40 minutes. She was completely sober as well. Automatically we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s put Phoebe on the drums.’ She’d never done anything musical before.”

Phoebe Taylor, “by name and nature,” is also the SMB’s costume designer. What you gotta know, having never seen the SMB before, is like all great rocknrollas they’ve got sartorial sense sharper than diamond scissors. Whether goth brides, leopard skinned or Santa’s elves, they got more Look than anyone in this town, fiduciaries to Iggy and Lou, Hell and the Ramones, Country, Cave, Howard, Lunch, Blixa, O, Peaches, Hanna and Samson and Fateman, and them’s just the punks. “Even the old blues artists. Leadbelly would’ve had his favourite suit.”

July 2 2015: all the hipster punks got down at the Tote for Xmas in July II to see this magnificent trogg trio in their fleshtight getups. The Duchess in red and green; the She-Wolf, howlin’ behind the kit in a pointed green cap and leaking tinsel; and Handsome Steve in black tailcoat tux and gapped front teeth, one for each broken marriage, cutting a shape somewhere between David Byrne and Dane Certificate. A spectacle such as rock’n’roll deserves.

“Some people have criticised the style over substance aspect of the band,” Erica says. “Sometimes I get pulled aside by old school rock’n’roll girls who’re like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? What’re you getting in a leotard for?’ Especially when I come from a background that’s a lot more punk, the basic form was who gives a fuck what you look like. It’s better to not care and pay less attention. The only answer I have is that I feel as a musician this band has pushed me — one of the important things you can do as a girl in a band is play really well, and I think this has been a vehicle for me to be so much more expert at my particular craft. That’s how I wear it, first and foremost. The costumes aspect is just really fun.”

“One of the important things you can do as a girl in a band is play really well.”

But it’s equally Phoebe’s artistic contribution to the band. “For her, it’s art, it’s a vision. We’re playing gigs later in the year and she like, fuckin’ already knows what would be great for the night. It’s not about lookin’ good, it’s about bringing an excitement. It raises the stakes.” Case in point: that disastrous Dark MOFO show, and one after it.

“The next gig we wore the same thing and it raised the bar. If you just play in the Old Bar wearing your jeans, there’s a lot more scope for self-doubt, questions like ‘What am I even doing here?’ whereas if you’re up there and you’re so prepared, there’s no questions. It’s like, ‘I know what I’m here to do. I’m gonna play some rock’n’roll and I’m gonna play really loud and I’m not even gonna think about who I am.’ That’s sick. I personally have never had to think about it before, and for someone who struggles to do laundry regularly, it’s great for Phoebe to be like, ‘Don’t worry mate, I’ve stolen you some flares from work.’”

But what about the music, man? “Steve’s line is, ‘They compose ’em, we decompose ‘em.’ I’m pretty sure that’s a rip, a paraphrasing of a Tav Falco line, but it’s kinda the vibe.” This is the challenge at the heart of the SMB. Pure regression, pastiche and atavistic snarl rubbing up against each other like warring big cats. What’s it take for a cover band to become more than a cover band? Costumes? The right and righteously dedicated in-crowd? They’ve put out two songs so far: a cover of the Everly Brothers and a cover of Bo Diddley. Even with this slim catalogue, the crowds are thirsty. The SMB draw bigger and more hip audiences than most bands with armoires’ full of ridgey-didge scribblings. Maybe ‘cos they’re clued in to the esoteric truth staring most of these other wannabe rocknrollas in the face: you don’t need to cloak your influences and dodge the comparisons in the hope of having your derivative slop one day prescribed as genius, there’s a whole half century just waiting to get ripped off, and I’ll call the SMB genius for being so upfront about it.

“I’m sure it’s been going on since classical music, people trying to find the original beautiful piece, but more recently it’s become less fashionable to play someone else’s music. But I think it’s really important.” Erica got schooled by Nirvana Unplugged. “People repping someone else’s songs as having influenced them and doing a version of it as a tribute, I think, is an important part of musicianship, and it should happen more. It should be a bit more loose. They’re great songs and people’s interpretations of them can be really interesting and informed by totally different things.”

The SMB make deliberately imperfect forgeries, changing lyrics ‘cos they forgot the originals and came up with better ones, but it makes for a better show than your regular pub cover band. They even wrote an original song once, back in the Adam Sherry days, called ‘The Sludge’. Steve pulled the lyrics from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, crowing about medication time. “But Steve Miller Band are a cover band,” Erica says. “And that’s okay.”

The SMB are probably only gonna make one record, a 7”, and they’ve already got the test pressing. They were recorded at Soundpark while they were filming the videos for ‘Who Do You Love?’ and ‘The Price of Love’. “Fuck knows if we’ll ever get it out. We did some artwork one night. It’s maybe coming. I just can’t tell you when.”

It’s been a whiplash ride through pleasure and pain, but Erica sees it ending “probably terribly! Probably soon!” She knows it’s been important for Steve and Phoebe. “If it ends it’ll be an absolute ball of flames. Recently we joked about going to the States and playing some shows. I think we’re completely dreaming. The brief period we spent over the ocean in Hobart almost killed me. Just from whiskey intake and general stress of having to keep Steve Miller on a leash. Maybe all three of us having heart failure at the same time.” Wouldn’t that be perfectly romantic?

In the mean time, she’s doin’ that good kinda work teaching three days a week at a new arrivals centre, coaching folks who’ve come from refugee-like backgrounds, and every Tuesday night her voice crackles through the noise on PBS 106.7fm. “I position myself as a novice that tries to approach different genres because I still find there’s so much to learn, and that’s the most fun. Sometimes I think if you’re an expert, you shy away from the greats. You’re always trying to find the lesser-heard stuff. But as a novice, you can appreciate everything.” The result is an ecclectic weekly comp, Erica rambling enthusiastically between and pointing listeners to wherever they can snatch whatever ribbons of biography they can find on the obscurities she’s spinning.

As for Palm Springs, that record should be out later this year. It’ll come as two 7”s, an A and B side on each and a handful of tracks to download. “It was initially recorded as an album but after getting it back and thinking about it for ages, it was two different groups of songs, and I didn’t really feel happy with it all sitting together. I’ve got the vinyl but I just haven’t done the artwork yet.” The sooner the better. The only frustration with Palm Springs is once you see her, confronting the fact of having nothing to take home seems unbearable. And it might be warming up now, pray for it, but some nights getting outta the house is a struggle, even when the weather is permissive. Up there, appearing miles away and close enough to envelope at the same time, ringed in gold and red and leaning over the striking black guitar she calls Moses, dragging agony from internal voids, maybe in exorcism, maybe in catharsis, maybe just to inflict ’em on everybody watching but dragging your own pain away too, she seems holy. And whether Palm Springs leaves anything behind, at the end of the band or at the end of the world, she sure made one helluvan attempt.

This story was originally published in STRINE WHINE: ISSUE TWO. You can support the zine by buying it here.