So it's froidee noight, just gone, I'm kickin' back at home with my fave tunes blasting out of the stereo and I mean blasting, and I decided to do a little research on the music I was listening to. Well fuck me, not only did I find a relatively recent article on T.I.S.M, by the esteemed journal The Age, but they the band, also have a listing on wikipedia, so here's the Age article with all the swear words put back in for the idiots that can't work it out for themselves and used without permission too!
By Michael Dwyer
July 2, 2004
It's not surprising critics hate TISM. We're human. We fear what we don't know. We scorn what we can't categorise and control. Moreover, to borrow the blunt vernacular favoured by Australia's favourite techno-rock anarchists, nobody likes a smart-arse.
TISM's rare media encounters are infamous. One reporter had to forward questions in advance, then lie in a pitch-dark flotation tank while Humphrey B. Flaubert and Ron Hitler-Barassi piped in their answers. Another guy donned complete scuba gear for the privilege of interviewing the pair in a Fitzroy Street pizzeria.
So it's a long walk up the corridor of the band's smashing new corporate home in Collingwood. Behind the end door, Flaubert and Hitler-Barassi are doing last checks on The White Albun, TISM's audacious new three-disc CD-DVD package. As the handle turns, I'm preparing to be dakked and toothpasted at the very least.
"The thing about unmasking," a surprisingly affable Flaubert volunteers early in our meeting, "is that no one cares." Contrary to rumours about renowned musicians, even public officials, under the masks, they're "actually not famous", he insists. "We're just boring guys."
The six-pack of VB and bowl of Minties on the table support this suggestion. But the fact that he and Hitler-Barassi are decked out in custom-made tasselled silver spacesuits, with matching balaclavas and lower sleeves flaring into bulbous beanbags, makes a mockery of his modesty.
It's an extremely impressive and disconcerting sight. It always is, when TISM perform. For about 20 years, these uber-cynical rock'n'roll ratbags have concealed their identities in a range of impractical ensembles, while maintaining a fearsomely committed fan base and eluding litigation with some of the most scathing satire this country has heard.
More on this remarkable trinity - the anonymity, the brutal satire, the scary fanaticism - later.
Right now, though, I'm compelled to come clean on the subject of their music. I can't stand it, I tell them. I've always been thrilled by their iconoclastic daring and wide-screen performance-art vision, but I can only manage their shows and records in small doses.
It's weird. I would never give any other artist I dislike such a frank personal assessment, especially this early in an interview. But I feel like I can cut to the chase with impunity here. Flaubert seems to know what I mean too well.
"It's not what journalists say about TISM that's galling," says the more soft-spoken half of the band's core duo. "It's what they don't say about every single body else that shits me. They somehow feel we're fair game; it's like a sport to pick our many peccadilloes.
"But tell me," he inquires, leaning on rustling vinyl and polystyrene elbows. "When you go and interview the boys from Jet, are you sitting there and going, 'Well, they're nice guys, they're not that smart, I can't really get out the rapier wit here, so I'll just peddle the usual record company line?'."
Before I can answer, Hitler-Barassi launches into one of his trademark belligerent rants.
"'They drove a fucking* forklift truck,' " he scoffs, quoting a common media-bite about Jet's gritty working-class roots. "Of course they did - their dad owned the fuckin'* factory! You can drive a forklift truck any time you like! 'Dad! Dad! I wanna go on the forklift,' " he whines.
"I'm happy for people to say our music is bad," Flaubert continues, "but I turn the pages of these magazines every day waiting to read these other bands slagged off, and they never are. Now, why is that?" he asks.
"Yeah, answer that, Mister Rock Journalist,"
Hitler-Barassi spits, crossing beanbag arms with results more comical than threatening.
Um, well, sir, I think it's tied to a perceived degree of emotional authenticity. If you're playing what Bono calls "three chords and the truth", preferably with your eyebrows cocked just so, you're somehow considered to be contributing something of value to an emotion-oriented art form. As satirists, on the other hand, TISM operate on an intellectual level, so they tend to attract cerebral analysis.
But I only know what I object to personally, which is the abrasive texture of their music. I don't like relentless programmed beats at the best of times. Especially when there's so much shouting involved.
The evil silver spacemen regard each other through skew-whiff eyeholes. "Goodness," Hitler-Barassi mutters. "That's a very good point."
Love, hate or ignore them, TISM are utterly unlike other bands. Although clearly a functioning part of the rock'n'roll business - The White Albun is at least their seventh, not counting copious EPs, bonus discs and rarities, and their shows invariably sell out - there are three fundamental things that disqualify them from pop culture as we now know it.
First, it seems, they genuinely crave neither celebrity nor money. The elusive identities, the expensive cossies, the infrequent shows, the triple-disc box-sets, the refusal to play by normal rules of product promotion, the mysterious yet "completely normal" day jobs they have no intention of quitting - it's no easy route to the high life.
"That is rather peculiar, isn't it?" Flaubert begins. "Although perhaps you give us too much credit there. There is evidence that we've been trying to fellate corporate c--k for years, but we obviously just don't have the technique."
Hitler-Barassi: "I think it's worth mentioning that other bands that sell out when no one's buying, they stop. One of our virtues is that we haven't stopped. I've actually begun to like that about us. We are the carcinoma on the ball-bag of Australian rock."
Secondly, TISM treat their fans with undisguised contempt. From footy yobs to homeboys to Britney enthusiasts to alleged intellectuals, no subculture emerges unscathed from their withering take on modern obsession. "Some of our fans," Flaubert once observed, "definitely strike me as idiots of the worst kind."
There are some on The White Albun's live DVD: beefy geezers up the front earnestly bellowing "Amway, Amway, Amway", like they're simultaneously saving every rainforest, whale and incarcerated refugee in the country, whereas they're actually illustrating the idiot consumerist herd mentality the band pillories.
"Lay off our fans," Hitler-Barassi says. "F--- 'em! There's a lot of big, brutal c---s up the front. That's fine. It's better than some nerdy, intellectual pencil-necks. Those blokes like what you don't like: the shouting, the relentlessness. I think there's a shouting, relentless part in a lot of people's brains, and I'm up for that.
"I think it's too easy to go, 'Oh, it's crap because it's shouting and relentless and they've got the Canterbury Bulldogs doing a spit-roast up the front every time they play'. But that's no more or less legitimate, and I don't think it's any less or more intellectual than if you're going to the grooviest, latest thing from England. That's got the same characteristics of group-think and conformity."
Which leads to TISM's third unique attribute. They attack their peers, by name, constantly. Once a cornerstone of a healthy music press, this practice has become an unspoken no-no in the sanitised modern pop world, where an honest remark can come back to bite an opinionated musician faster than you can say "internet chat group".
"Powderfinger," Flaubert offers with minimal provocation, "are an exceptionally talented group of intellectuals who make music for people who don't like music." Don't get Hitler-Barassi started on electronic poseurs Tricky and the Prodigy, whose "live" shows he claims to know to be "a scam, a front, a facade". The Dissociatives' record is "completely stupid and obtuse", he reckons, and Jet's lyrics "might as well not be there".
"The alternative to a battle of points of view," he observes, "is relentless PR. There's both an overt and subliminal stream of positive comment about these artists constantly pumped out by record companies and other media. If no one's gonna say, 'I reckon that's all tossing rubbish, I reckon he's a wanker', then we've got a world where consumption becomes compulsory and we must all completely accept that Delta Goodrem is a genius.
"The truth is, the reason she's no good is she writes her own songs," he adds. "She's a lovely woman and I really hope the Hodgkinson's (sic) abates, but her songs are crap."
TISM's White Albun is another sprawling litany of such bravely offensive observations. It takes stock of their 18-year recording career with such classic tunes as Defecate On My Face, (He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River, If You're Not Famous At 14 You're Finished, All Homeboys Are Dickheads and I Might Be A Cunt* But I'm Not A Fucking* Cunt.*
There's an intriguing documentary that follows them, in silver spacesuits, back to their suburban Melburnian roots. There's also an entire new album, including I Rooted a Girl Who Rooted a Guy Who Rooted a Girl Who Rooted a Guy Who Rooted a Girl Who Rooted Shane Crawford. Other smashing titles - one of TISM's undeniable strengths - are Everyone Has Had More Sex Than Me, Tonight Harry's Practice Visits the Home of Charlie "Bird" Parker and the ingenious pre-emptive disclaimer TISM Are Shit.
It's all good fun, and only one bit falls foul of their defamation consultant's bleeper: apparently a reference to a popular musical ensemble allegedly sharing a sexually transmitted disease. But there's one point on the first DVD, a concert film "by Antonionioni" shot at the Hi-Fi Bar last September, where TISM's incisive satirical wit might just go too far.
"Only one point?" Hitler-Barassi snorts. "What, the point where you go, 'Select Menu, Start'?"
No, the bit in his relentless and shouty poem about the inanity of pop culture in which he says, "My prayers have been answered, Delta Goodrem's got cancer". Ouch, gentlemen, ouch.
"What I feel is most effective and valuable about what we do," he responds, "is when we say stuff that everyone else is thinking and no one is saying. The whole idea of an artifice, as this band is, allows one to go too far, to make jokes about cancer - the sort of jokes," he emphasises, "that everyone makes to their mates down the pub."
But people make racist and otherwise hateful jokes down the pub. Do they deserve amplified expression by rock'n'roll bands?
"You have to draw your own line," Hitler-Barassi says. "TISM would never make a joke that supports a racist point of view, because racists can go get fucked.*
"But Delta Goodrem has got a whole industry pumping out positive, saccharin, brain-dead, satirisable garbage about her. When you say something about Delta Goodrem and cancer, you're not really talking about Delta Goodrem, you're talking about the mindless tosser who writes about 'Her Brave Battle' in (a tabloid newspaper)."By the same token, Hitler-Barassi says, "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix", the line that famously enraged Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, "wasn't about River Phoenix at all. That song was about fame, and the people listed in it weren't even real celebrities."
But did he get the opportunity to explain that to Flea?
"I had him on the ground and I was just about to break his nose with my forehead and I said, 'You do know, Flea, that satire is a legitimate art form stretching back to ancient Greek drama?' And he said, 'Oh, that's OK then, Ron'. He's a good guy, Flea. He's a mate of ours," he adds unconvincingly.
"We love (pop culture) and we hate it," Flaubert summarises. "We are the guy at the party who finds the floorboard that makes the CD player skip. We're not anti-art and we're not anti-football, we're a part of that whole culture. What we are is anti-reverence. We're anti-small-mindedness.
"There's a whole industry pumping out propaganda and PR. We are the merest contrary squeak in a cacophony of non-satirical, non-abrasive, completely polite palaver.
"Sometimes people say we're tall-poppy-syndrome characters. I see it more simply as a typically Australian irreverence. We constantly come in contact with the emperor's new clothes in this rock scene we move in, and our reaction is like the Aussie guy who says to his mate: 'Nice jacket. Does it come in men's?'"
Hitler-Barassi: "It gets more pungent with TISM when we're satirising stupidity in the currently accepted groovy avant-garde area. The supposed avant-garde (enthusiast) is exactly like the kid out in Narre Warren listening to his Eminem CD. These people have no more or less originality; they'll move on to the next thing as quickly, they'll accept the next record company hype as quickly.
"The hype is what disturbs us the most. Which is why the lack of reverence is almost a badge of honour for us. That stays. The reverence for the latest thing is always gone in 18 months' time, and someone needs to stand up and say, 'That's crap'."
Like I said, it's not surprising critics hate TISM. They automatically call everything we profess to know and appreciate crap, regardless of any sense of its value, and they appear to be having more fun than us doing it. No wonder we call them charlatans and non-musicians and killjoy intellectuals hiding behind their cowardly masks.
"Who isn't wearing a mask?" is Hitler-Barassi's stock answer to that. "Who was the last person you interviewed who didn't have a mask on? All public personae are as masked as we are."
It's true enough. And very few of them, after two decades of active service, can still draw tens of thousands of punters around Australia by pointedly lambasting every single thing that defines their culture, and then sell them another triple-disc package of the same "shit" on the way out. It's a trick plenty of groovier bands may do well to learn.
"Head to head, Jet, Vines, bring 'em on," Hitler-Barassi says. "There's young men pretending to be in rock bands, and then there's bands that can change the atmosphere in a room. We might be old and we might be shouting, but we can generate that X factor in a room that means there's a real performance going on.
"You've got to burn away everything else," he says. "You've got to burn away success, burn away fame, burn away your public persona. We've burnt it away over 18 years now. Any idea of us being the latest thing, or in any way groovy or avant-garde, those factors are gone, and they were gone years ago.
"There's only one factor left that makes us work. And that factor, I think, we've burned away, with the crucible of time, into something that's actually genuine."
And that is?
He blinks at Flaubert through crooked holes. The whisper and squeak of polystyrene balls and vinyl is deafening as they shrug their silver shoulders. The enigma continues.*replaced swear words