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David Bridie
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Deep in Bridie country

What's the connection between the South Australian desert town of Marree, the Ghan railway, Aboriginal reconciliation and camels? What does it say about the essence of modern Australia? What does it all mean? And is there a luscious, futuristic pop song among such weird truths?

This is classic David Bridie territory. Such an obscure conundrum seems built for him to solve. As songwriter for Melbourne groups Not Drowning, Waving and My Friend the Chocolate Cake, an accomplished producer and soundtrack composer, and as a potent cultural observer, Bridie weighs right into big questions such as this. He rises to the challenge. It has everything in which he trades.

So he wrote The Koran, the Ghan and a Yarn.

It's the signature song from Act of Free Choice, his first solo record after nearly two decades in music. The song is about the difference between right and wrong, about lost history, about desolation and hope, and exactly how it feels to stand humbled in the red desert. It's a beautiful poem, a beautiful song. Like everything of Bridie's, it's so delicate yet so strong.

"The Ghan railway from Port Augusta to Alice Springs," he explains, "was almost entirely built by Muslims from Afghanistan, with camels. I was standing there, in the desert near Maree, looking around, thinking of the Islams and their camels and thinking about who else was there, and what was going on late last century in the desert - the strange Europeans on the run and the Aborigines who had already suffered. This is in the heart of redneck white Australia. It's a strange meeting place. Still is. Australia is a strange meeting place. Strange things happen. That's really what I wanted to say."

The song is a quiet rush of filmic images and subliminal ideas. It's also very characteristic of Bridie's body of songwriting, containing all his trademark elements - threadbare voice, confidently minimal piano, harmony through unusual repetition and mysterious found-sounds, like alien signals, sifting through the mix.

On Koran...he's looped a box being hit instead of a drum. Electronic interference and field recordings of the wind ride through, hushed and subtle. The twisted choirs midway sound like samples from Pink Floyd's most psychedelic archives. And the guitar is only a deconstructed concession to the overfamilar. "There's a different kind of air," runs the plaintive lyric. "It's a strange meeting place..."

Act of Free Choice is full of such moments. It's an uncompromising album; there are no concessions by a musician seemingly always destined to be the Next Big Thing. Bridie is signed to multinational record company EMI now; they flew him around the world to make the album. But there are still no concessions. He's been working with integrity too long to start betraying it now. Bridie says he's finally made the record he always wanted; his sound and his visions have intersected at last.

"I think, 'Yeah, that's me'. At the end of the day, I'm only pandering to my own musical taste this time, rather than thinking about radio or singles.

"The older you get," he concludes, "the more confident you get."

At 38, with two young children at home in Northcote, Bridie's been around the music industry's wearying block several times. Not Drowning, Waving released their first album, Another Pond, a generation ago, in 1984, after Bridie met his longtime collaborator, guitarist John Phillips, in a share house. The pair started noodling around on musical equipment at La Trobe University. Soon enough the band swelled to piano, guitar, voices, strings, drums, percussion and electronics, and during the next 10 years released eight albums and several film soundtracks.

Even from their first release, a rare single entitled Moving Around, on Rampant Records, the nascent Not Drowning, Waving were clearly working outside the conventions of rock. The seven-minute track featured a Roland 808 rhythm machine five years before the techno revolution made them standard issue. Today, all this would be labelled "ethno-ambient fusion", but no one had invented a category back then.

The following year, The Little Desert set another benchmark. Almost entirely instrumental, and recorded in an Elsternwick church, it blended samples of old men talking, the ocean and birdsong into gracious, gently percussive music that aimed to conjure images of the Australian landscape. In 1989 came Claim, which Rolling Stone's critics voted album of the year. And it remains a local classic, containing the first evidence (Willow Tree, Thomastown) of Bridie successfully incorporating all his ideas - classical music, pop, indigenous sounds and ambience - into his growing repertoire. His lyrics, too, were refined into vital poetry.

Then in 1990 came Tabaran, Not Drowning, Waving's triumph. The band travelled to Papua New Guinea and hooked up with musicians from the Pacific Gold Studios, and the result is a joyous and inspired pan-Pacific jam session. It forged the long relationship between Bridie and singer George Telek, whose work he has since produced, and who now records for Peter Gabriel's Real World label. David Byrne of Talking Heads, incidentally, nominated Tabaran as his favorite album of 1990.

One album followed, Circus, recorded in Wales for Mushroom Records, plus soundtracks for the films Proof, Hammers Over the Anvil and the Richard Lowenstein-directed Say a Little Prayer. A side-project band, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, was only ever really meant to be a bit of fun, hence the name, but as Not Drowning, Waving's impetus faltered and Chocolate Cake thrived, the former broke up and the latter got a record deal.

My Friend the Chocolate Cake went on to make five albums, including Brood, their biggest seller, and the radio-friendly single I've Got a Plan. It remains a hobby band for the players.

But now Bridie feels he has come full circle. He says Act of Free Choice could quite easily be a Not Drowning, Waving record, albeit a decade on. At the very least it's a "logical progression" from his earlier outfit's work.

"I've built up a big library of sounds," he says, "that I haven't been able to use - snippets from old analogue synths, conch shells from around the Pacific, spoken word, school bells, weird drums. I had a wealth of sounds to work with. I was going for space, simplicity and lots of layers.

"If I have a criticism of my earlier stuff," he says, "it's that I tended to go one step too far, I reckon. Call it youthful exuberance, or youthful anger. This time I was unafraid of singing it right back in the mix, of keeping it very simple. I didn't want to overdo it. I didn't want the big, killer choruses. I didn't want to hit anyone with any 'big' songs. I want the listener to move quietly toward the music."

It's a powerful album, ambitious in scope, but also restrained, elusive and emotional. "Like 11 interlinked stories," says Bridie. "But I was trying not to be too polemical. I didn't want to necessarily just re-tell a story - 'This happened then that happened then this happened' - I didn't want that. The sounds evoke something, and I wanted certain phrases and words to do the same."

See Dive - a case in point. This was a track Bridie wrote for Torres Strait-born pop singer Christine Anu at the beginning of her career, for her record Stylin' Up, and it was celebratory, optimistic and energetic. Just like a good pop song should be. With the benefit of hindsight, though, he reinterprets his own song with a dark sense of foreboding, almost panic. He's turned it on its head. The simple line "...waiting for us to dive right in..." seems so loaded now, so menacing. A closely related track, Breath, is the most adventurous on Act of Free Choice, sounding not unlike the Orb paired with Randy Newman, or something. The interplay between deep, hallucinogenic electronics and Bridie's lyrical tenderness is extraordinary. He reprises an old My Friend the Chocolate Cake track, Salt, and uses his first orchestral score, with a 70-piece orchestra, on The Deserters - "...you can tell so much about a place/by the way they treat their own deserters..."

The rise of downtempo electronica, a rich microworld spinning off from techno, hiphop, ambience and breakbeats, provided his primary musical influences. Bridie says music such as this has swept through him like a tonic, a swift revitalisation. Mood has always been more important to him than motion, and artists such as Boards of Canada, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Peace Orchestra, Nitin Sawhney and Bill Laswell, the modern equivalents of ambient pioneers Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream, deal exclusively in hypersensitve textures, real emotions and deathly slow hypnotic grooves.

"Have you heard the band French Paddleboat?" Bridie asks. "No? Don't worry. No one has. They're amazing. Kind of Kraftwerk meets Boards of Canada meets Belle & Sebastian. They call their music 'organica'. That's where I'm at."

He amassed a small, select cast to help, not least Londoner Ian Caple as co-producer. Caple has worked with experimental electronic label Warp (Autechre, Nightmares on Wax), as well as with Tricky, the Sugarcubes and Tindersticks. Bridie wanted him precisely because of this diverse CV.

The album's waves of shimmering, layered guitars come from Melbourne's Phil Wales and Michael Sheridan, who was once in the noise-group No, with Ollie Olsen. Not Drowning, Waving's John Phillips contributes guitar parts, sent as sound files by e-mail from France, where he lives. Chocolate Cake drummer Michael Barker was involved. Phil Kakulas from the Black Eyed Susans co-wrote a song. And lending voice are Kerri Simpson and Kutcha Edwards, from Aboriginal group Blackfire.

It was recorded all over the place, which is typical for Bridie, a man with strong nomadic tendencies despite being based in Melbourne. He's extending a studio behind his house in Northcote - a fair bit of Act of Free Choice was done there. The rest was split between a lonesome clifftop house at Kitty Miller Bay on Phillip Island, a lonesome hilltop house near Mount Macedon, and at Caple's studio in Brixton, London.

But, without fail, Bridie likes to go bush to find inspiration. And, wherever possible, he likes to record in isolated locations.

"It's important to be inspired," he says. "You need perspective. Especially for me this time, doing something so personal and self-orientated. For me to be able to just walk outside at Kitty Miller, or Mount Macedon, well, that's why I love landscapes so much, because it knocks any selfishness away. In the city it's all 'Me, me, me' - how you look and how you appear. All about people. But in the bush or by the sea - you can see a wave crashing on to the rocks early in the morning and think, 'That could kill me, and it wouldn't care'."

This overwhelming sense of the land seeps through Bridie's work. It always has, to an extent, whether it be lamenting a forgotten working-class Melbourne suburb such as Thomastown, or celebrating the allure of the PNG rainforest, or the Trobriand Islands, as he did in a score for film maker Bill Bennett's In a Savage Land, or just trawling the dank lanes of Fitzroy, as he did behind the scenes for Archie Roach's landmark Koori-folk album Jamu Dreaming.

Once again, though, it's the unknowns of the great Australian deserts, the expanses of red earth and blue sky, where spiritualism only comes where you find it, that provided Bridie with his muse.

"Most of these songs deal with the natural environment," he says, "but I'm not talking about your Daintree postcard with water dripping off a green leaf. It's not that kind of beauty that I'm interested in. I'm talking about the light in the desert at midday. How some things can be beautiful and desolate at the same time. And how people reckon there's nothing in the desert because it's boring and flat. But just look at the subtleties and there's a real beauty there."

David Bridie plays at the Hi-Fi Bar, city, tonight. Act of Free Choice is out now through EMI.

Friday 30 June 2000