A history of the Spooky Men – by Stephen Taberner

The foolishness came later. The original idea was somewhat more modest: to assemble a group of men and sing deep, sonorous, resonant songs, in deep sonorous, resonant places. Like somewhat hip, agnostic monks on a roving commission amongst the crypts of the world. This was the original notion for the Spooky Men’s Chorale.

The idea arose sometime in winter 1996, when from time to time I’d turn the lights out, light a candle, and listen to Georgian choirs with a glass of wine and a tear in my eye. The sound was raw, elemental and deeply thrilling. It was sung with no ceremony other than that required by the song, and suggested an ancient world which was somehow simpler and more direct than ours: where men were men, and in all probability you had to milk a goat on the morning.

That was the Rustavi Choir, the pre-eminent folkloric ensemble, who sung church songs, hunting songs, and songs about men. There was also, in fact, a mixed choir, the Zion Patriachal choir of Tblisi. This choir was astonishingly adept at creating a whole parallel world of shimmering harmonics which traced their own luminescent path an octave or two above the singing. I would follow them, agape with wonder, and dream.

Men’s voices always sounded good to me, so long as they could learn to sing with each other. Kind of like a slab of teak, where women were more like a crystal glass….There’s perfectly good reasons for this, of course. The ear is biased towards homogeneity, on the blending of like with like. String or Brass ensembles have a more immediate and easy pull on the ear than, say, a cor anglais, a double bass, a soprano sax and a recorder. Or indeed a mixed choir, which presents complexities of blending arising from the confluence of two different kinds of voice.

So, the experiments began. The first formal attempt was “The Choirboys”, a bunch of mates who would meet up in Glebe Town Hall, primarily to share repartee, but secondarily to conduct extended masculine vocal improvisations, sometimes musical but always grunty, and thus terrorise the yoga class immediately downstairs. It was good clean fun, but essentially a highly enjoyable side alley. It soon became clear that they would prefer to sing actual songs.

When the Spooky Men did emerge, they were almost perfectly formed. It was as part of an evening called “This was nearly my life”, at Paddington Uniting Church, in August 2001. Basically I called up every guy I knew who could sing and seemed to be a tolerable human being, taught them 3 songs, and asked them to show up wearing black and with an interesting hat.

The three songs were “Vineyard”, a Georgian church song, “Georgia”, a mock Georgian original, and “The Mess song”, an existential rumination on the aftermath of breakfast. The song is by New Zealand’s Don McGlashan, and was our first clue as to subsequent directions humour wise: The songwriter seems to express genuine shock that messes not only arise from the act of breakfast, but worsen if you leave them alone. Various sober lessons are then drawn from the whole sad experience. I had tried singing this in a mixed choir, but the women didn’t get it: clearly the kind of incomprehension regarding such areas of domestic anthropology was an largely male preserve.

The audience’s hilarity at our ultimate descent into mock catatonic oblivion was only one of several prophetic moments that evening. Another was the ecstatic response we got before we’d even sung a note: it seemed that even the sight of 15 black clad men preparing to sing was something they’d been unknowingly waiting for, for a long time.

I guess by then we were already noticing the paucity of healthy male choral antecedents. Leaving aside the Georgians for a moment, you’ve got the Welsh choirs, of course, the classical traditions, barbershop and the like, or doo-wop and gospel traditions. Interestingly, most of these traditions seemed to have become fixated on the extremes of the male voice, athletic freaks of contrabasso, tenor or falsetto. There was a distinct lack of blokes singing in the man range, if you like. And about stuff that was a little closer to home bloke-wise than a nightingale in Berkley Square, or someone else’s blues.

We did some gigs. We learnt a few more songs

It wasn’t long before I noticed a few things about working with a choir of men. The first thing was that there were no women there. That seemed to have an interesting effect on the general vibe. Most choirs I’d conducted till that point were mixed voice community choirs, which generally meant they were women’s choirs with a few men standing in the corner looking bemused. The women seemed to instinctively understand and promote the notion and reality of choirs as community networks. They were invariably the main shakers and movers, and blissfully exploited the possibilities of the choir for social networking and general brewhaha. Meanwhile the guys, who were fawned over like rare gems when they did actually show up, were more peripheral to the major action. When there was any kind of drama or conflict, the guys were usually charmingly oblivious to it. “what, there’s something going on?”

So naturally when rehearsals began, the guys would do their shuffling around thing. Only now, without the women, it was the main act. The shuffling gave rise to something I’d call “repartee”. This is the art form of sly commentary, in the moment, a collective witty improvisation. Guys seem to love this zone. In the crude and undeveloped form, it’s a series of jokes. In it’s higher form, it’s repartee, and there’s no limit to it’s excellence. Of all the things I love about the Spooky Men, maybe it’s the repartee I love best. When we tour I’m waiting for the comfort stops so we can stand around at the servo and talk nonsense. When we made our first album, the producer listened to this happy bullshit for a while and then said “I guess this is as close as you guys get to fighting…”

So the repertoire began to emerge. One early favourite was a cover of Kasey Chambers’“Not Pretty Enough”, which was mostly pointless foolishness gleaned from the sheer improbability of men singing such lyrics. In order to milk the humour properly, however, we began to untangle some of the key antecedents of the spooky ethos. The song begins with the chorus, so how were we going to approach that? It seemed obvious that we needed to browbeat the audience, point a finger at them and glower. How dare they accuse us of not being pretty enough? We came to name this state “accusatory”.

The song moves to a series of statements…”I live, I breathe, I let it rain on me…” It did not seem appropriate to accuse the audience any more, we were merely puffing our chests out and declaiming. Thus the second spooky existential zone, “expository”. Finally we move to the 2nd chorus, where all pretence evaporates: we are tragic, abject, unashamed losers, heads hanging in hapless asymmetry…we truly believe that there is no hope….thus, the third spooky state: “catatonic”.

All three of these are awesome fun: you could rename the states “mock bristle”, “pointless grandeur”, and “pathos”…they are funny because the protaganist seems oblivious to how he is perceived from the outside, whether he is puffing his chest out or sinking into despair. It’s partly based on the huge grownup who chases tiny kids around with purely imaginary menace, whilst the kids go “aaaargh” and hide behind mum, delighted and terrified by equal measure, and half on the bottomless traditions of the self defeating snivelling fool perfected by Baldrick.

Oh, did I forget the music for a moment? If so, then it’s neat mirror of what happened in the early rehearsals, when we seemed more intent on shirt changes or whether we’d hold our head this way or that, than the actual songs we were singing. That was not to underestimate the importance of the latter. There was a certain sound we were going for, and the Georgians had a lot to answer for in that respect. A rich, full vein of lower frequencies, which required the subsumation of individual honky frequencies, quirks of phrasing, and outbreaks of vibrato. We needed to learn to blend like beasts, and peel back the edgy harmonics to expose the juicy fundamentals underneath.

People liked us, that much was clear.

We were being guided not just by that, but by what seemed important to dwell upon in the modern male experience. Hence the emergence of “Don’t Stand between a Man and his Tool”…It’s ironic that I wrote the song, because tools and I meet as intimates only in my imagination, mostly: but at least I like the idea of having a magnificent stable of power tools and endless variations of ways to use them.

When a very clever animated cartoon of this song won second prize in the great Spookyclip competition, it was clear that the author considered that the sentiment was addressed to his wife or partner: that was not the original intent. We can only confidently speak of the world of men. How can we presume to speak for or even to the other species?

The joy of tools, is, of course, not merely confined to men. But the rightful place of the tool in typical modern day male communication cannot be overemphasised. When women interact, they appear to do so in a diad, eye to eye. With men the shape is more like a triangle, with the real or imaginary third side taken up by whatever it that is the object of discussion. In the classic format, it’s a broken down car. It could also be a problem, a football team, or….a tool. The analogy is capable of extension to the choir itself. The socio-dynamic of the Spooky men is a large open faced circle with the object in this case being the song that needs to be learnt.

In this regard, the work was surprisingly businesslike and lacking in rancour. After a little bit of repartee, the spooks would happily descend upon the task in hand. Unlike in mixed choirs, it seemed to be possible to offer blunt commentary such as “you’re flat” without consideration of what might need to be caretaken afterwards. The long bemoaned lack of male emotional sophistication was turning out to be useful after all.

So, yes, Tools. What we refer to as Prairie theory holds that men have a liking for wide open spaces, an archetypical need to ride naked and covered in pigfat in search of Mastodons. These days, the theory goes, the prairie has shrunk to roughly the size of the modern toolshed, the mastodon has become a flatpack Ikea bookshelf….but the pigfat bit stays the same……

The song seemed to strike a chord with the general public, maybe because it was unapologetic about something that most of us were, indeed, passionate about. It was also a further chance to perfect a singing style that was dense, lugubrious, heavy, fat in the bottom end, and also carrying a certain declamatory gravity, hallmarks of what we later came to think of as, in the vocal sense,“Spooky.”

A few observations of Georgian vocal culture may be relevant at this point. Georgia has, I believe, the oldest genuine polyphonic singing tradition in the world. At a time when the monks were developing Organum (harmonies in parallel 5ths), and the various African traditions represented no more than elaborate hocketing, The Georgians had already fleshed out a wonderfully complex world of three part harmony, where the melody was conveyed by no part in and of itself, but only by all three together.

But there’s more to it than that. Having visited Georgia in 2006, I got to see and feel the rawness and vitality of this amazing singing culture. They attack all aspects of life with an uncomplicated vigour, so singing is no more than the vocal equivalent of the hearty demolition of a good glass of Georgian wine (which often, of course accompanies it).

The songs themselves, are of course, rooted in, and arising from, the very elemental life experiences which inspire them, whether they be lullabies, love songs, songs for the toasting of the living and the dead, church songs, or songs about hunting, riding, or fighting.

Watching the local choirs, they violated every precept of Gilbert and Sullivan-esque diction, singing instead with heaving barrel chests and mouths that, seemingly, it would diminish their male bravura to open any more than necessary. It was laconic and muscular at the same time. And over and above that, exemplified that mysterious quality we came to admire, rightly or wrongly, pointless grandeur.

To explain this elusive quality accurately, we need to descend to the very core of male identity and assert that whether or not we are willing to admit it, we are essentially peripheral to the elemental processes of the maintenance of the species….hence of course, the ceaseless quest for meaning through male endeavour. The most dangerous of these activities, of course, has an assumption of grand self importance generally associated with archetypical small man syndrome, and generally results in the invasion of other countries or continents to ruinous effect. We call this Epic Folly, and it’s pitfalls are well enough documented for there to be no reasonable excuse for it’s continuing perpetuation.

Much better than this is when the protagonist, consciously or unconsciously, is aware that the whole damn adventure is merely a magnificent piece of nonsense to be enjoyed as much for it’s pointlessness as for any unhealthy obsession with any particular bit of gadgetry, heraldry, or grandplanning. What is the purpose of singing, in this context? Absolutely nothing, and that is precisely the glory of it. We are no more than a series of grand buffoons making the biggest, fattest, sweetest sound we can. And when it comes down to it, it makes no difference at all. Admitting that, of course is the only possible avenue to allowing it to, after all, make a difference.

But let’s return to the story. The general response to the Spooky men’s existence, as we have said, was moderately ecstatic. In the first couple of years we performed and rehearsed sporadically, appearing from nowhere like some secret cave dwelling gentlemen’s glee club. There was a certain relaxed equilibrium, and no particular desire to up the ante, until the National Folk Festival of Easter 2004, held in Canberra.(We owe an eternal debt to the Yackandandah Festival choir, whose withdrawal allowed our appearance).

So, blinking, we emerged onto a larger stage, in particular the 3,000 seat Budewang, which doubles as the counting room in National Elections. There may not have been more than half that number there, but that gig, and the response we got was a defining moment. This was the debut of what we called the Spooky Theme:

We are the Spooky Men
We dream of mastodons
Practice mysterious handshakes
And we can grow beards if we want to…

God only knows why we thought of Mastodons, but the image stuck. On two levels, perhaps: Firstly, in that their largeness and hairiness and inelegance, they were the best approximation to Spooky Men in nature, and secondly, that in the dream of the hunting thereof, naked and covered in pigfat, we were giving purest vent to male dreams of freedom that had long been concreted over, confined to small toolsheds, or reworked into guidance towards one’s kids as they constructed lego towers.

The brand of humour that we were beginning to define as Spooky was beginning to emerge from the primordial mists. There was always a tendency of course, to overplay, to overact, to be Jim Carey or Benny Hill, to put on Hawaiian shirts, to have punchlines. But that seemed like it had been done before, it seemed like we were collectively tired of people who try too hard to make us laugh, and besides, it used less muscles to be deadpan. 

In doing so, I guess we made a virtue of the sad and amusing fact that you can never tell what a man is feeling, or if indeed he feels at all, by looking at him. To general hilarity, we adopted the strategy of me describing a feeling (“tool envy”, “sheer pig dog hatred”) and the spookies “showing” it. The ruse was blatantly stolen from Gary Larsen, who offered a guide to your dog’s inner state, where in every case the beast was happily panting.

Incomprehension is a fascinating state to explore, and not only because it is amusing to watch. It also mirrors the seemingly natural male state of only dim awareness towards his own and other peoples’ internal states and gives rise to the tantalising question: does this guy really not know what’s happening on stage? In some cases the answer is yes, in which case the match between life and art is perfect.

At the National, we became cult heroes, but we only had ourselves to blame, because we blatantly promoted it, whether by secret handshake competitions, our costumery, our mock headlines (“Spooky Men deny any link with Creepy Men”, “Spooky Men honoured with replica in Brazilian Wax museum”), and our adoption of various icons (the mastodon, the giant spanner we carried around).

It is worth considering the effect of our Georgian antecedents on all of this. The sound and ethos that we were aiming for was undeniably influenced by all of this in at least three clear ways:

Firstly, Georgian vocal music is inevitably 3 part, which means that chords are often “open”, containing , for example, reading upwards, 145, 151 or 152. (this means that there is often no third in the scale, by contast to a typical choral 4 part chord such as 1513). The sparseness that results is a direct contributor to the rawness or directness of the perceived sound, compared to the rococo lushness of, for example, barbershop harmony, which inevitably states all important harmony notes.

The second major influence is in the presentation of the voice, which part of the voice you choose to turn into song, and how. Major singing traditions always make a choice in this respect. Folk traditions tend to be raw, amplifying talking, sobbing, or shouting, and making them into song. In our world, the more mannered presentations which are common in classical singing, opera, and barbershop share a more distant relationship with the primal self. There is a certain stylisation, in that the singing in no way resembles the way they would talk, cry or shout. Singing is, in this respect, high art, high artifice, and divorced from the more visceral realities of life.

The Georgians make a different choice, and we attempt to follow them.

We stand, open our mouths, and make a sound something like a bunch of men singing, like men. And all of that, of course, implies the third point, which is the way they stand, the pointless grandeur. And none of that, of course, obviates another point, which is to at all times to sound as heartbreakingly beautiful as we can, whether singing loud or quiet. Which does takes a lot of work.

The attention we received at the National Folk Festival 2004 gave rise to a series of opportunities to put our music before a wider audience. This included a wide range of festivals in Australia, an ongoing mutual love affair with the ABC, and three tours of the UK. We made four CDs and successfully foisted various lines of merchandise upon the public, including t-shirts, bags, teatowels, and badges. The parameters of the imaginary Spooky Universe and the pantheon of completely unnecessary Spooky icons expanded exponentially. We explored the lonely world of the man who (it seems) had a lightpole as his only friend, the possibilities that the Lithgow panther really existed, and the world of Neville, who could never get any satisfaction.

Two songs in particular seemed to touch a good warm zone with the audience: “Dancing Qveen”, which was a version of the Abba hit as sung by an inscrutable and gruff Svedish Glee club, and “Vote the Bastards out”, a desperate plea in regard to one of the less spooky men ever conceived, john winston howard. When we hit the right spot, as we did with these two, the audiences would almost bay with pleasure.

The socio-pathology of the typical spooky performance became refined over time, after early experiments with hawaiin shirts and leopard skin loincloths. It became clear that great subtlety could be conveyed within the confines of deadpan. Some men glowered, some gently wallowed in pathos, some quietly beamed like Cheshire cats. The Spookies had the luxury of being able to explore who their spooky self was.

That, of course, gave rise to the question of what “spooky” actually is. It was clear that we were rediscovering an archetype that had been around for a long time: an archetype well represented by Georgians, but also maybe, by Visigoths or Obelix the Gaul. It could be styled archetypical big man syndrome, as defined by vastness, geniality, a warmhearted masculinity, an elemental pleasure in food, singing, fighting( at least the idea of it), the ability to wink at the audience at any time,. And interestingly, life resembled art in this respect. The more we pretended to be like this, the more we actually were.

And in regards to the more than ecstatic response we have received over time, I can only say that in a happy accident, we have bumbled into public life at a time when such a redefinement is prescient. We often joke about exploring the territory between “thug and wimp”, but there’s some truth to that. Rightly or wrongly, I think we’re loved because quite apart from all the stupidity, we’re attempting to embody unapologetic and non-abusive masculinity, a balance point which, it seems, is tricky to reach.

We are sometimes thought of as a comedy act. I would vigorously deny that’s what we are, preferring instead the idea that whilst we aim to make people cry, we also hope to make them weep too.

One interesting moment in early Spooky history was when we presented our first public workshop, entitled “Sing like a Bloke”. When we arrived, we discovered a happily expectant crowd of 150 or so, more than half of them women. Actually, we had imagined that it was to be a men’s only workshop, but the chutzpah of the friendly invaders (imagine 80 men gatecrashing “Get in contact with your authentic feminine voice”) was only exceeded by the sheer unthinkability of turning any of these good women away. So we made it a workshop for “blokes of all genders”….and needless to say, many of the women were better at singing like blokes than the blokes themselves. It was grand fun, and we always specified from then on that blokes of all genders were welcome.

The workshops that we conduct are in many ways the most satisfying part of the work we do. To see the visceral delight when a crowd of strangers nails a Georgian song, or to invade downtown Sidmouth (in Devon) with a makeshift army of 500 mock Visigoths in full voice is, I fondly believe, the best public service work that I know how to do, as well as being pretty cool to witness.

For many of the men who come along to such events, they come to realise that rather than having any deep and unresolvable issues around singing, they are merely reacquainting themselves with a piece of equipment they haven’t used in a very long time. There are amusing errors of calibration, as they either wildly overshoot or scarcely move at all as you try to coax them to a new note. They usually find their range, more or less. It’s a kind of anomaly that in our world singing, for men in particular, has been removed from the lexicon of primal and enjoyable activities.

The current plethora of reality singing shows is not necessarily helping in this respect. For the people who say “oh, you don’t want to hear me sing”, such shows are merely reinforcing the connection between singing as performance rather than something you just do. Normally there isn’t the time in such a conversation to explain the shortcomings of this world view. I could, if there was time, invoke the story of the Georgian taxi driver who was driving with one hand and conducting my bass drone with the other whilst he sung a folk song. He was just another Georgian.

Which brings me back, I suppose, to the problems of fetishing excellence rather than goodness in such matters as singing. In putting all your time into the polishing, you may lose sight of the actual object, which may be something of a quite disappointing shape, or in particularly bad cases, a turd. You got to keep a view on the whole picture, and most of all, never forget the response of your good beating heart and your enormous brain.

At a forum on men’s singing in Brisbane, a prominent secondary school music educator said that there was a problem of perceived status with boy’s singing, and that they should attempt to address this with such strategies as awarding them colours on their blazers. My take is a little different. Until boy’s singing consists of something better than tiresomely florid rearrangements of “Bridge over troubled water” delivered with what seems to be a choir sized set of mouthsized plums, then boys will stay away in droves. The material, at least as seen at the Pemulwuy conference was terminally square, and the musical presentation artfully managed to convey everything except what you would hope for, namely, balls.

The Spooky Men went down like a big black stupid bomb at that conference not because they are that good, but because they alone seemed to occupy the yawning void thus opened. Here’s how to fill the void: Men’s and Boy’s choirs for one, could give up singing in bullshit pseudo-classical pofflevoice, especially when they are singing pop or rock songs. They could discover the rich zone of possible material that has been written since Simon and Garfunkel, which seems to be the closest we get to contemporary. They could ransack any number of global singing traditions of which Georgian is only one, which has the requisite boof which has been leached from our own. And they could rediscover the joys of highly cultivated stupidity.

At that conference, there were two moments which restored my faith: one, where a choir of ageing men from Adelaide in maroon shirts sang of all things, Advance Australia Fair in quavering 4 part harmony, and despite the cheeseball nature of the song, it moved me (and my colleagues) because it was congruent with who these men were and they sung it (and their other songs) with heartfullness; the other was when a boy’s choir sang What shall we do with the drunken sailor? which was hardly inspired material but offered the lads the chance to unleash the masculine vigour which had been till then entrapped in artifice, and the result was liberating for them, and us.

So the Spooky men carry on their elusive search for what it is that we are searching for, and though we might not have found it, the delight in the journey more than compensates. It’s a work in progress, and more than every so often we are no more than spectators to the pure spirit of manbooferie which inspires us. One such occasion was when we went toe to toe with a Cornish Fishermen’s choir in a Sidmouth pub. The resultant disturbances to the airwaves torpedoed the nearby diddly jam and revealed the choir’s leader, sixteen stone of grinning blood, meat and resonating cavities, to be possessed of the kind of fearless vocal bloodcurdlery as may have inspired the Visigoths or the Gauls. To all of this, we could never be more than happy and boyish witnesses.

Our own strength, such as it is, is more in the collective, the ability to move as one big black low frequency organism. Not one of us is necessarily possessed of a golden voice, and I don’t mind that at all. We are thus forced to find our strength in concert, to learn, as I have said, to blend like beasts, and within and without the musical framework to find a place for our own brand of foolishness, or perhaps seriousness: to in fact, allow ourselves to become closer to who we actually are.

In all of this, needless to say, I am constantly inspired by the languid, elephantine grace of many of these men that I am proud to count as friends and colleagues. Most of them are engaged in post modern experiments in multiple role holding: worker, dad, partner, tool fetishist….to which we can add the tantalising and fiendish extra temptation of international folk star…the goodheartedness, humour and practicality which attends the ensuing juggle and all ensuing tribulations is sufficient to gladden my beating heart, inspire me to some kind of decency, and suggest that after all, we are somehow on the right track.

 Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Read “spooky men or dinosaurs? musings on the occasion of our 20th birthday”, by the spookmeister …