They’ve been in existence for little more than a couple of years and yet The Barons of Tang have already cut a swathe through the Australian festival circuit, leaving a trail of deconstructed dance floors in their wake, from Alice Springs to Woodford. No band in the land has made a greater impact in a shorter space of time than the manic Melbourne purveyors of self proclaimed “gypsy death core”.
The Barons’ brand of musical mayhem is as magnificent in its madness as it is exhilaratingly original. Frank Zappa meets Fanfare Ciorcarlia with echoes of previous Australian genre benders the Blue Grassy Knoll and Bachelors From Prague, they make music that would not be out of place on a Terry Gilliam soundtrack. Tango, Russian folk, zydeco and jazz blend with East European Romany and French manouche influences, rockabilly rhythms and punk attitude in the band’s musical melting pot.
Bass player and de facto manager Julian Cue is ambivalent about the band’s success. “We never thought this wacky style would be so well received, but having an array of instruments and players putting out high-energy dance music has been a winner on the festival scene. Because we don’t really play in any one style, we’ve had the opportunity to play at circus, arts, folk, rock, world, blues, jazz and gypsy festivals … and always seem to sit somewhere on the outside of what these audiences expect.”
Given their stagecraft, it’s no surprise to discover that The Barons formed during rehearsals for a theatre show. They acquired their catchy moniker while performing in the play. The name alludes to an American powdered fruit drink. Cue explains: “At the time, we were all broke, so we basically lived off anything we could get out of the supermarket dumpsters and we found all these boxes of Tang. We put the contents on the bar we were running and by the end of the first night people were snorting lines of it for bets. It was hilarious and we became ‘the Barons of Tang’!”
When they started writing music, they used traditional feels but messed with them until “they sounded demented”. The band’s compositions are getting better all the time. “We’ve only just started exploring the limits of some of our instruments such as the bass clarinet, or the much feared contra-bass clarinet, an instrument so low in register that it can’t be heard, and in many cases causes the player and/or audience to lose consciousness!” They are also working on expanding their vocal output. “We plan to have a good deal more hootin’ and hollerin’ real soon,” promises Cue. “We’ve found the vocal pieces tend to be audience favourites.”
The most exotic musical flower in the garden of Tang is Carlos, their accordion player, who has Colombian heritage. “You can hear his influence in a lot of our music,” observes Cue. “The rest are generally mongrels of some vague European descent. Musically, however, we have a rich background and draw from a large range of influences,” says the spokesperson, a self-confessed rocker whose slap double bass technique is a legacy of playing in punk and psychobilly bands.
Percussionist Annie has played a lot of roots, folk and punk. Jules, the guitarist, has developed a love affair with all things gypsy-jazz over the past few years, but before that studied classical guitar while playing thrash metal.
The band’s drummer, Sean, had previously played experimental music, punk and metal. Clarinetist Aviva studied classical music, with a particular interest in contemporary and avant-garde composition, and also played a lot of Klezmer, Balkan and Turkish music.
Saxophonist and trombonist Anna played free jazz through uni but had almost given up a career in music until the band found her busking, playing sax and juggling simultaneously. “We thought ‘we want you!’” Cue declares.
The Barons display boundless energy on stage, which is not conclusively captured in either of their EPs, their latest release Knots & Tangles or its self-titled predecessor. “We approached recording as a completely different art form to the live show. For us it was an opportunity to really hone and perfect our arrangements, which inevitably produces a very different energy. It’s true that we do draw a lot of energy from our audiences in our live shows, especially when they are rollicking about in a mad frenzy, but it’s important to us to also enjoy each tune as a focused, dynamic and sonically detailed composition.
The erratic nature of our arrangements comes directly from all members having input in the writing process. There’s space within solo sections to improvise, but generally we arrange very specifically … the combination of influences, ideas and personalities get to shine through varying sections and instrumentation. It can be intense writing this way, but it certainly reflects our strong group dynamics. We all bring compositional ideas to the band, which can occasionally cause moments of incredible frustration, hilarity and creative genius in rehearsals.”
Cue and his colleagues simply haven’t stopped touring long enough to piece together and record an album yet, though it’s a goal they’re working towards. While the logistics of touring with a 7-piece, especially one with so many instruments, causes problems they won’t consider paring back.
The Barons’ love of gypsy music is reflected in support spots behind East European luminaries such as Fanfare Ciocarlia, Paprika Balkanicus and Besh o droM and their US heroes Gogol Bordello. “It’s just great music — wonderful dance rhythms, virtuosic soloing, and it uses awesome, otherwise obscure instruments. As well as that, there are plenty of various styles within European folk music, plenty of appeal to keep us inspired for years. It can be simple or extremely complex, and it’s honest. It’s dirt music, music for the underdog.”
The band is currently touring North America with a hot Klezmer punk band called Di Nigunim.. “We made the US tour come about with 4,578 emails … we’re playing anywhere that will let us in the door — barns, houses, pubs, festivals etc,” says Julian Cue.
Recording available: Knots & Tangles
Author: Tony Hillier
Tony Hillier is based in Cairns in far north Queensland, from where he has been actively involved in all areas of the music industry in Australia for the past 25 years, primarily as a journalist, writing for national publications such as the Weekend Australian and Rhythms magazine (for which he is World Music & Folk correspondent), and performing locally, nationally and internationally with the bands Kamerunga and Snake Gully. He has also presented and produced World Music and Folk music programs for ABC Far North, Port Douglas Radio and 4CCR-FM, netting a CBAA Best Specialist Music Program Award with the last-named for a documentary on flamenco. Before coming to Australia, he was a racing journalist of some repute in the UK, where he wrote a column for the London Evening Standard under the nom-de-plume of Ajax.