Thanks so much to Tim Mortimer for the interview! Some time ago I wrote about his band The Mandelbrot Set in the blog and Tim was kind enough to get in touch and answer all these questions I have about his band. The Mandelbrot Set released two CDs, “A Place in Kansas” and “The Mandelbrot Set”, both on Ra Records, and then disappeared. They hailed from Adelaide, Australia, and should have made a bigger splash! Just listen to their songs! But now, sit back, read, and enjoy!
++ Hi Tim! Thanks a lot for being up for this interview!
Hi Roque. No problems. Happy that the “Kansas” EP sparked your curiousity to know more about the band.
I apologise however if you have wound up with more than you bargained for, this has ended up quite long….
I don’t get asked to talk about the band very often, so when I do it becomes something of an exorcism.
I hope you & your readers therefore enjoy the story, & hopefully a few people from the bands’ past will get the word that this information exists here, & can add their thoughts or comments.
++ What are you up to these days?
I’m doing a horticulture trade certificate this year while I “tread water” for a bit & think about my next move.
But prospects on the whole look fairly dire in terms of generating any income in this part of the world at present, unless you design military hardware or dig mines.
I guess the good news however is this might, hopefully, give me some more time next year to work on some music…
++ Is it true you haven’t been involved with music for a long time? When was the last time?
I haven’t played in bands for over 10 years, but I still work on music in my spare time, & am probably more passionate about it than ever.
The last 10 years or so I’ve been using the PC, in one way or another, to explore lots of different ideas & directions in my music making, that simply weren’t available to me before things like home PC recording & the internet arrived in my life.
Essentially, I am now trying to write instrumental music for as close to “full orchestral forces” as I can organise effectively, via my PC
using MIDI & samples.
I got to this point via a few years of exploring digital sound manipulation stuff (using things like Python, Max MSP, Csound programming – think Fennesz, 12k label etc, that kind of experimental digital aesthetic), but I think my songwriting roots saw me craving a way to engage with something more structured, & using tonality & “changes” to create that structure (as much as I am drawn to “stasis” & “wallpaper” in music). A lot of private study & research ensued, & this is where I have sort of wound up.
But I definitely was & am over writing songs for the most part. Apart from anything else, I always hated writing lyrics! ; ) Not to mention all the crap aspects of being in a band: booze, late nights, ringing ears, lugging amps…
It’s not something I am doing out of any sense of professional aspiration, but simply as a result of 20 years of accumulated interest & development in writing music, & an opportunity to indulge the more “academic” side of my tastes that were always there, but untapped, uncultivated, & without an outlet.
The dream would be a kind of hazy impressionism like Charles Koechlin or something, perhaps a bit more German, a bit more Bruckneresque, that sense of radiance & transcendence…
So all you indie kids reading this, go listen to a recording of Bruckner’s 8th symphony! (there are plenty on Youtube…) ; )
++ Was The Mandelbrot Set your first band? Or had you been playing with other bands already?
No, Mandies was my first band.
++ So how did The Mandelbrot Set start as a band? Who were the members, what did each of you play and how did you met each other?
Brian (guitar) & I were school friends, & the band really began with me “roping him in” to my dream of checking out of the reality of finding a shit job, & into super-stardom ; ).
Plus his brother had a guitar & an amp! & I knew he was passionate about music of course, but first & foremost, a good friend.
Adam (Bass) I met through a girl (Kylie Folvig, metal chick, Lita Ford etc. That’s kind of cool now really…) who shifted from my school to his.
He switched from guitar to bass to help us put the band together, hopefully based on the catchiness of some of my songs, & the fact that from the outset, unlike most other Adelaide bands of the late 80’s era, I had a vision that I wanted us to be “popular”., rather than “turgid with beer”, or worse, “clever”.
Mike the drummer I was jamming with when I joined another “practice room” band (concurrent to Mandies) as a bass player. Mandies had a drummer (Rob Davies), but Mike was far & away the best musician of any sort that I knew, so one day I took the opportunity to invite him to practice with us.
It was obvious to everyone in the room that all of a sudden our racket had a lot more going for it in terms of togetherness & appeal.
Christie was a part time member of the band essentially, & sister of a good friend of the band Nick. I had scratched my way through a small amount of violin on one of our first demos (got a lucky take essentially…) & she could play violin a little bit, so we got her on board. Plus it was nice to get a bit of gender equity into the band.
++ And where did the name of the band came from?
We had our first gig 6 weeks after Mike joined us on drums. We needed a name, & Mandelbrot Set was on my shortlist, in fact, it was probably the only one we had on the list to be honest.
We discussed it at practice, & reached our usual apathetic state of “no objections”.
I went home that night, flicked on the TV & there was a documentary on Benoit Mandelbrot screening, so I saw that as a bit of a “fate” thing at the time.
Fractal imagery was increasingly common as a pop “meme” at the time, & I chose the name in part because I wanted that sense of “pop”, much in the way that I believe Tom Verlaine selected the name “Television”, for the same reason.
Of course, this backfired a bit – whilst most people had seen images of Mandelbrot Set, they didn’t necessarily know what the name of it was. & 1 or 2 other bands of the same name have subsequently cropped up around the globe…
& of course, there was a general “psychedelic resurgence” happening at the time (late 80’s into early 90’s) which I was happy to associate with.
Aldous Huxley, “Doors of Perception” for the win! ; )
++ What were you listening back then? Who or what would you say influenced your sound?
An enormous amount of stuff.
Primarily, being a miserable, bored teenager growing up in what you could probably reasonably accurately describe as “middle America”, but with kangaroos…
Musically, I grew up a big 80’s jangle head (Church, REM, Rain Parade etc…I taught myself guitar mainly by playing along to “Reckoning” & “Fables of the Reconstruction”) also Television & even some of the weird 80s Tom Verlaine solo stuff.
Adam was the one who brought a lot of the more British influenced sound to the band, & MBV & Ride, & the whole shoegaze thing impacted on the sound of the band quite heavily at this point.
But Adam & I in particular were rabid cultural consumers of any sort in those days. Which wasn’t always easy, from the arse-end of the world in the pre-internet age. I remember films like “Blue Velvet” & “Santa Sangre” being constant points of band discussion. “Twin Peaks” was big at the time. I remember dragging the band along to see the first screening of Pasolini’s “Salo” in 20+ years. Just to add insult to injury, I had glandular fever at the time…
My listening was of course also a bit broader. By the time the band kicked off, I’d kind of moved on into 70’s & 80’s minimalism, Philip Glass etc. The David Sylvian 80’s stuff, Wagner’s “Parsifal” was probably the start of me starting to take any sort of interest in classical music.
But once the band did take off, obviously I began listening to a lot more indie music again, largely under Adam’s guidance.
&, of course, Janet Jackson’s “1814 Rhythm Nation”! & I’m still a sucker for quality commercial RnB.
++ And how would you describe Adelaide during those days? Has it changed lots? Where there any other bands in town that you liked?
The Adelaide I grew up in was basically a proliferation of grunge bands in the mid 80’s. & I use the term quite deliberately, as I think & see a lot of the influences that led to the “grunge” explosion in the 90’s being bred & cultivated in the Adelaide (& probably Melbourne) pub scenes during the mid – late 80’s. Cosmic Psychos etc etc…
Of course the whole lineage is pretty much a continuum back through punk anyway, but there was a lot of kind of “post MC5” / heavy garage kind of stuff (some of it actually pretty good, like early “Nest of Vipers” era Exploding White Mice…) but also just a lot of general “beery sludge rock”.
I set out to start the band with some pretty clear objectives, & having absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with what I saw around me as an endless vomit stained carpet of alcohol fuelled musical self destruction was pretty high on the agenda.
Our mission was simple: be catchy, be cool, be popular. Reach out & try & speak to people directly, in a way that the music we grew up on reached out & spoke to us, & gave us some sense of hope, rather than despair.
A band that did pave the way for us however was an Adelaide band called The Artisans. Adam knew these guys, & we played some of our first gigs with them.
I notice that you have a different band called “Artisans” featured on your site. I recommend finding an EP “Love & Sleep” by the Adelaide band if you can – as with many records of this type from the era (including our own) it only hints at the glories of the band in full stride, but will give you a taste of what was essentially a heavily Wedding Present influenced “hit-machine” / “indie jukebox”…
The Artisans had a revival of late, & Adam (our bass player) did play guitar in The Artisans during various incarnations.
As for the rest of your question, well, I could probably write a book about Adelaide for you, if you have the budget. Only the first 4000 words come free …. ; )
++ What about gigs? Did you play a lot? Which other cities did you visit? What were your favourite venues to play?
Adelaide is a relatively small & isolated town, so we risked over-exposure if we played too frequently.
At our peak, probably only once a month. Again, this attitude completely flew in the face of Australia’s accepted “pub rock wisdom”.
& Australia is a big country. The closest town is 900 miles away, & flights were a lot more expensive back then, so touring was very difficult.
++ And if you could pick a gig as your best, which would that be?
Definitely any of the first 5 or 6 gigs we played.
We didn’t have a vocal PA in our practice room, so at our first gig there was a degree of nervousness as no one had ever heard me sing, nor any of the vocals to any of the songs. Fortunately, it went OK.
I was very blasé about it in the early days, more or less threatening to “chuck it in” if we didn’t start pulling a crowd after 5 or 6 gigs. As it turned out, things did take off for us pretty quickly, & within 6 months or so we had generated enough hype for me to start receiving telephone calls at work (at my day job) from record labels, despite
not having sent out a demo tape …
But basically, as soon as drug dealers started coming to our gigs, well, the crowds really took off. When drug dealers like your band, it’s a greater career boost than any form of critical approval can bring. Although the venue owners constantly complained about not selling any booze to our fans.
Once we had a bigger budget, we got into having heavy club style light shows & smoke machines & what-not. Again, largely as this just completely went against an established pub rock culture that we were walking into. ‘Audiences’ were obviously over it too, as eventually, they started turning up in sizeable numbers.
Playing for free wherever possible also helped, & again, flew in the face of conventional wisdom on the subject.
++ You released “A Place Called Kansas” in 1992. What do you remember of the recording sessions? Any anecdotes you could share?
I remember being disappointed with the guitar sound, as we were always striving for something a bit heavier.
It was also very typical of our experience, in that by the time we got to record that EP, the material was 2 years old & we weren’t even really playing any of it any more, & had moved into more “shoegazey” territory. There are quite a few phases of the band that went undocumented…
++ This CD included 7 songs. Which is your favourite and why?
It’s difficult to say. I have never really listened to the record after it was made. All I really hear is a lost opportunity to do something better.
“Lush” was a good song – I was going for the whole Television 2 guitar duel in the big out solo. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much lost in the mix on the record (a familiar complaint…)
++ Mine is of course “Landslide”, what a fantastic song! Should have been a classic. Any chance you can tell me the story behind this song?
Thanks for the kind words of appreciation.
All the songs on the EP were written in the second half of 1990. Adam wrote “Massive”, & I wrote the rest. I wanted to credit the whole band at the time because I felt it was important to present a “unified creative front” as it were.
Lyrically it’s all pretty much dissatisfied adolescent whining. Chris Martin & I therefore have something in common, virgins with record deals. Although thankfully, the band did eventually help me to find a girlfriend! At least briefly…
EDIT: Tim later recalled that Adam had originally written “I Swan” for the Artisans, but it was reworked with the new middle section & outro, & new lyrics & melodies for The Mandies…
++ Tell me about Ra Records. How did you end up signing to them? And how was your relationship with them?
Unfortunately, that really is kind of a long story.
We had been contacted by the label (the one demo we did send, after a tip off) & flew over to Sydney to meet them.
I was working in a mailroom with, co-incidentally, a guy Don Morrison who had previously had some success in the States & Australia with a blues / rockabilly type band called “The Bodgies”.
He gave me the number of a guy named Richard Ortner, as I was desperately at this point trying to find someone (anyone) who could help us deal with this new stage in our development (dealing with labels & what not) & we were in a position where we were getting on a plane to go to Sydney to record for them 24 hours later.
I rang him & he said “just tell them I’m your manager”.
It turns out that Richard, unbeknownst to me, was one of the original founders of the label, originally set up as a bit of a development (“tax dodge” probably) label by INXS management. So once Richard was involved, that kind of biased our future direction. He’d previously managed a couple of fairly mainstream, “MOR” female performing artists
But as it happens, from before we had even played our first gig I had identified this was probably the label I wanted to sign to. Unlike comparable Australian “mainstream indie” labels (like Mushroom) Roo Art only had a small roster of bands, & once you signed, you generally got some level of support. For a period at least….
The rest of this very long story cut short is that the label eventually completely changed management teams. We were signed by a guy named Craig Kamber, manager of an Australian band worth checking out (kids) called Underground Lovers.
Unfortunately, Craig went to Festival or some other label shortly afterwards, signed Underground Lovers there, & Roo Art was taken over by Todd Wagstaff & co, managers of You Am I (which, in retrospect, carries a rather unfortunate similarity to will.i.am…).
You Am I then became the label darlings effectively, were Sydney based, & were prepared to drag their arses up & down the east coast playing out the “Pub Rock Fantasy” the label expected them to. Unlike us, who would have rather sat in the studio & be packaged & waited to appear on the cover of “Smash Hits”. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work like that in Australia…
There was a disintegration beginning within the band anyway probably around this time, but this certainly didn’t help or boost our already sapping confidence. I went into this adventure with a high degree of confidence & self belief, & probably my major regret, as it all unfolded, is that I didn’t have the faith to keep it.
Someone wrote a book about this period of OZ indie rock called “The Sell In” I believe. I’ve never read it, & don’t think we are directly mentioned in it at all, although we were silent extras in the portrayed drama, from what I understand about the book…
I remember being at the label & one day Ivo Watts from 4AD came in for a meeting re: Australian distribution. We desperately wanted to run into his meeting & plead “save us!”.
++ With them you also released your second EP. I have never heard to it, but I’ve read that you changed your sound into something more electronic. Is that so? If so, why the change of direction?
The sampler, initially, was Adam’s idea, (forever the progressive…)
An Adelaide muso by the name of Mike Gordon created the sample based intro to “Massive” on the “Kansas” EP for us, & we decided to blow a large slice of our publishing advance on a sampler (now dwarfed in capabilities by the average phone of course…), in the hope of expanding the musical avenues of the band, who, with stars in its eyes, had moved beyond any notions of wanting to remain “guitar purists”.
Obviously as indie kids in the 80’s, Adam & I had both grown up as New Order fans, so this was an obvious point of departure for us. More specifically, the first Electronic album had come out, & in a way this was more directly a template for where we saw that the band might head.
Hip Hop was also a bit of an elephant in the room for a lot of indie groups at this time (the MBV influence after Glider / Soon etc…) but the album that concretised this for me ironically was St Etienne’s “Foxbase Alpha”.
Let me say once & for all that the cultural abomination that is “Australian Hip Hop” is not something even we, in our naivety, remotely contemplated. But what “Foxbase Alpha” said to me was essentially (without wishing to too overtly play into dangerous “race card” territory) here was the production & aesthetic of De La Soul’s “3 Feet High & Rising” re-invented as a piece of quintessentially British 60’s kitchen sink nostalgia.
Listening back now, the album is nothing special, (the 1 or 2 singles aside…) but like all ideally fertile grounds for plagiarising ideas, the original did indeed, suggest possibilities way beyond that which it realised.
However the Pandora’s box was definitely opened once the sampler arrived, my girlfriend basically never saw me again, & I locked myself in the bedroom &, not for the last time, became a mad scientist.
The EP ended up a huge mush of possibilities, with the band then layered on top for good measure.
Originally, the label, having heard the demos & been impressed enough to give us the go ahead for the second EP (after a 3 hour phonecall from me where I ad-libbed them my mission statement…) wanted to put us in a warehouse for 3 weeks with newly emergent digital recording technology (remember the ADAT machine?) & let us record it all & sort out the mess & make a record out of it.
This would have been a MUCH more sensible option, but they eventually saw it as too risky, threw us into a conventional 5 day studio setup, with 2 days to mix.
There were times when the EP was partially recorded, where parts of what we were doing were sitting in a fairly sparse isolation (strings, drum loops, a few stabs etc) when I genuinely sat back & thought “This is it. We’ve cracked it. We sound like fucking Chic!”
However in the end, the band exhausted (&, to be honest, pretty wasted), the record was mixed down in a hurry by the production team, everything, including the kitchen sink just stayed in there, & we ended up with what essentially boils down to a big fat crappy electro mess.
Which is a shame, as fundamentally, there was a strong possibility of 1 or 2 singles there that I think could have opened us up to wider audiences…
I would like to take this opportunity however to thank anybody who was involved at the label for giving us the opportunity. (In a previous piece I wrote about the band, I did vent a little on the subject, but that was more to offer insights into some of what we were collectively feeling at the time, rather than any attempt to apportion blame or inject malice. For what it’s worth, I apologise if that was ever the case, & if anything bilious ever did reach any targets.)
++ And it was just after releasing it that you split up. What happened?
In a word, nothing.
The second EP sold about half as many as the first, & I think everyone (including the label, not sure I ever spoke to anyone there personally ever again) I think just really couldn’t be bothered anymore. & drink & drugs then started seeping in a bit more than they should have ideally.
That & the fact that the band was constantly developmentally about 2 years ahead of the rollout schedule, & got to the point where the production & performance ideas really became, for 1 reason or another, impossible to execute. There was no such thing as home PC recording in 1992/3 after all….
The band never really ‘split up’ as such. One day, we all just stopped turning up essentially. No one had to say anything really at this point.
I started going out & listening to a lot of House Music, & then drifted into doing an Architecture degree for a bit, but I dropped out & moved to London in ’97.
I kept getting like $20 royalty cheques for many years after from places like Eastern Europe. Rock & Roll baby!
++ Are you all still in touch? What are the rest doing these days?
Not really no.
Sadly, Mike Bajer passed away in December 1999 (& I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I throw in the obvious Spinal Tap joke here about dearly departed drummers…). He was a good friend, & is very much missed by all who knew him.
Brian has a business that he has done quite well out of doing posters & promotions, visual merchandising stuff etc. for record labels.
Adam still plays but is something of a mystery man these days, but always immaculately dressed.
I believe he is in a band called Swimsuit I saw a few years ago, as well as playing with Artisans intermittently. He lived in London for a period, as did I (for 4 years…), but he more or less arrived the week I left…
Christie is married, has her own business & a couple of kids approaching their teens.
Nick (honourary member & Christie’s brother) lives in Sweden with his wife & child.
++ What about more songs? Are there any other recordings by The Mandelbrot Set that never saw the light of day?
Demos & stuff. Adam has a box somewhere. To be honest, I listened to some of it a few years back & a lot of it was rubbish. ; ) . I’d like to get our very first 3 track demo up & into circulation however.
I have a Soundcloud page, but Soundcloud reorganised their site, & for me it was a real pain, as it’s very difficult now for me to isolate my “pop” demos directly away from some of the other sketches & experiments, which are mostly a few years old now anyway.
None the less, this link should do the trick, if people are interested. But I’m not really active on the site & would like to find somewhere else to host my music in future.
1 or 2 of the tracks I think definitely represent a direction Mandies eventually could have gone in (“Ticket to Ride” in particular).
Some of it however is songs I wrote for the band that, if I were to put one together, would be the only type of thing I’d like to do now – a straight ahead, power pop trio or quartet, ideally situated somewhere between the Smithereens & the Bangles. (the choice of overtly commercial examples of the genre being, ideally, deliberate) It aint going to happen though.
As “once we were young & beautiful, but now we are old & withered”…
++ Looking back in retrospective. What would you say was the biggest highlight of The Mandelbrot Set?
Being young, & living with a sense of hope & opportunity that you might not have to spend your life as a paper shuffling debt-riddled wage slave.
Playing music with my friends. Some of the early practices we had with Mike in the band we actually fell apart mid song laughing because we couldn’t believe how fucking good we sounded. This is not an experience I have ever relived in 20 years of music making since. Maybe, on a good night, some of the people who used to come & see us got a glimpse into that.
Having your friends sister cut your picture out of the newspaper & stick it on her fridge…
Having people believe in you & what you are trying to do.
Having the arrogance & the audacity to rail against mediocrity from the middle of nowhere, even when doomed to failure.
++ A couple of last questions, just out of curiosity, what would you say is your favourite Australian band ever?
Easy. The Church – in the period from 81 – 87 .
“Tear it all Away” – youtube it now kids! – The perfection of indiedom.
Also a lot of time for the Go Betweens (“Liberty Belle”, “Before Hollywood”, “Spring Hill Fair”).
Stems / Someloves, early Died Pretty, first Hoodoo Gurus album, Sunnyboys (esp. “Individuals”).
A couple of EP’s & bands from the era you may not have heard of:
‘Ups & Downs’ were a really good band from the late 80’s. early stuff was very Church influenced, but very good. They made a shoegazey EP in the early 90’s, & then became “Big Heavy Stuff” with some kind of success….
& there was a Sydney band called ‘Jupiter’ who put out a full tilt Shoegaze 3 track EP in the early 90’s. You’ll never find it, but keep looking… I’ll have to dig it out & record it sometime.
Glide (Sydney) were a band we played with a lot, & stayed with in Sydney a few times, & are worth checking out if you’re a diehard indie person…
Hummingbirds were good, when they were good…
Falling Joys were another band who predated us slightly, but who we played with a few times.
++ Aside from music, do you have any other hobbies or passions?
My hope for the future is to have a little house away from the neighbours that won’t fall over in a strong wind, do some gardening & work on my music for at least a few hours a day…
I like to go on day bushwalks & stuff…
I watch a fair bit of NFL: it’s like this exotic alien fantasy world to me, but very entertaining. Go Colts!
++ And one last one, what’s the best thing to see, do and eat in Australia?
I don’t eat out much, I can’t really afford it.
But food here is generally very good. This is the country that produced “Masterchef” after all, which is simply to suggest that a large slice of “middle-Australia” is obsessed with food as an expression of their petit-bourgeouis credentials.
To see? I haven’t been there yet, but I hope to make it to the Tarkine forest in Tasmania soon. Flinders Ranges is awesome. Australia to me is all about the grandeur & expanse of the country.
After all, you can go see crappy globalised (sub)urban hipster culture anywhere…