Music

Step inside the nerve centre of Melbourne's vital jazz and jazz-ish scene

© Nick Herrera
Written by Emma Finamore
Co-owned by members of 'future soul' band Hiatus Kiayote, Melbourne recording-space-cum-house-share The Grove is helping propel the city's adventurous musicians into uncharted territory.
“It's a mystical place. It's a place where magic happens… to me it is an ethereal space, a groove oasis," says Chris Gill, owner of Melbourne's Northside Records – a mecca for funk, soul, beats, disco, jazz, Afrobeat, hip-hop and the funkier end of electronica. He's not describing his own shop, but another of the city’s thriving musical hubs: The Grove.
This house-share-cum-studio in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Coburg is a hotbed of creativity that's propelling the city’s thriving jazz and jazz-ish scene. It's co-owned by one of the members of pivotal Melbourne group Hiatus Kiayote, who've recorded albums there; and producer Nick Herrera, who worked on Brownswood Recordings’ recent compilation showcasing the city’s sound, Sunny Side Up, lives there. Fellow producer Silentjay stepped up as musical director to record the album at The Grove in just two weeks.
The compilation put the spotlight on Melbourne’s myriad sounds, running the stylistic gamut from deep house and broken beat through cha-cha, samba, p-funk, soul, hip-hop and R 'n' B, all of it folded together with a jazz mindset. It’s a microcosm of the space it was made in – a freewheeling expression of its collaborative environment. The record features groups of interconnected musicians constantly improvising and jamming together, like 30/70 Collective and Mandarin Dreams, who include the Hiatus Kaiyote drummer Perrin Moss; a new wave of artists working together to build their own future-jazz and neo-soul world.
Listen to Sunny Side Up below:
It’s easy to see why The Grove draws people into its dream-like world. There's a pool surrounded by tropical foliage; Archie the dog wanders around; rooms and studios overlook lush greenery; and a 'Producer Cottage' is tucked away behind a billabong and rush of green trees.
Spaces like this are freeing and inspiring. They have a deep impact on the work made within them. The Grove is part of a wider pattern in Melbourne, where large, sprawling houses allow artists to set up music spaces in rambling backyards, garages and house shares, and hone their skills at parties that go on for days.
“A lot of us have been playing together for a long time,” explains Silentjay. “I think what’s very unique to Melbourne is the house party scene… a lot of jams feel close to a Steam Down session [the weekly new-jazz jams setting Deptford, in south London, alight] – just playing with a bunch of musicians, having a crazy party, meeting people through that. It’s a different environment; it’s welcoming, it’s loose.”
That looseness can be heard in the sounds coming out of The Grove. Compare Sunny Side Up with Brownswood’s London-focused new-jazz compilation We Out Here, released in 2018 and featuring artists including Ezra Collective, Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia. There is a frantic, almost claustrophobic energy to the latter, while the funkier sounds of Melbourne’s reply echo the freedom that artists feel when working at The Grove.
There’s a camaraderie and an energy that comes from an environment like this. Herrera says it’s all friends that live at The Grove and there’s a bustle to the place that breeds creativity. “There are often so many different things going on at once,” he explains. “It’s a lively house with lots of stop-ins from friends and rehearsals with different bands as well as parties and nightly hangs. But on top of this, the Hiatus crew might be working on arrangements for their new album or recording the strangest noises you could possibly hope to hear and always collaborating with other musicians. In the room next door, I’m always experimenting.”
That’s not to say Melbourne is a housing utopia where anyone and everyone can access vast swathes of space. In fact, the city is currently going through something of a housing crisis and the waiting list for public housing grew from 34,618 applications to 38,775 in the four years to September, 2019. But it is different to many other major cities and that has an impact on its musicians.
A photo of producer Nick Herrera working at Melbourne's recording-studio-cum-house-share, The Grove.
Producer Nick Herrera captures another session at The Grove
Hiatus Kaiyote bassist, Paul Bender, has spent a lot of time at The Grove and is in the process of establishing another similar space: The Villa. “It’s not like everyone is living in a giant castle or anything, but in comparison to London, there is a lot more space,” he explains. “Melbourne isn’t endless skyscrapers or anything; it’s basically like we are all in ‘the suburbs’.”
“Most musicians I know live in share-houses, and like most places, the housing market is keeping a lot of people renting indefinitely – especially poorer creatives,” continues Bender. “The upside is that a lot of musicians end up living together and rehearsing in lounge rooms, garages, sheds… Most of Hiatus Kaiyote’s first record was recorded in a house in Northcote. It had a shop front which was a jam room; some people pooled resources and got a computer, an interface, some monitors… with no soundproofing, though. The neighbours grew to hate us. Deeply.”
The Villa is starting to come together. “It’s an amazing property in Preston that used to be a clothing factory, a gorgeous warehouse and residences. Our intention is to build a studio complex and creative hub and basically pool all our skills and resources to become some kind of giant, sexy Voltron together.”
A photo of a recording session with Melbourne's Mandarin Dreams and Silentjay.
Mandarin Dreams get down to business with Silentjay
Despite not being finished, Herrera is already recording material there: a choir for a new record by Danika Smith, who makes soul-infused folk, and some big cinematic guitars for acclaimed vocalist Emma Donovan and her Melbourne rhythm combo The PutBacks. Clever Austin, drummer for Hiatus Kaiyote, has moved in, too.
Herrera is reluctant to label the sounds currently coming out of places like The Grove, or even Melbourne as a whole, emphasising instead the diverse music created in a place where collaboration and the space for freedom is key. “If anything, The Grove is more of a mutant post-pop factory or something. Who knows?” he asks, reflecting a genre-blind approach to music. “I feel like most musicians here are like that too and maybe that’s what makes it special. Someone might dedicate their time to insane saxophone chops, but also be obsessed with death metal or techno. It's what I love about Melbourne – resistance to the confines of these narrow words. This city offers headspace and actual space to really create and has some local legends who support it.”
Chris Gill of Northside Records is one of those Herrera cites as a key enabler. A flag-bearer for his city who has released artists like Allysha Joy on his own label, and who put together a compilation called The Soul Of Melbourne, Gill is described as 'the godfather' of Melbourne music by Silentjay. He’s been championing local sounds since the turn of the millennium, when bands like funk and soul outfit The Bamboos spawned the future-soul of Hiatus Kaiyote, who found fans in the likes of Q-Tip, Questlove and Erykah Badu. As well as a huge wall-to-wall section dedicated to local funk and soul, Gill’s Northside shop doubles as a live music spot, with shows from Sampa The Great, 30/70, Bradley Zero, Joe Bataan and Hiatus Kaiyote.
Donald Byrd had it right: places and spaces,” says Gill, reflecting on the vitality of The Grove, “a studio that specialises in groove music”. He’s a firm believer in cities providing tangible room for creativity and believes things have improved immeasurably in his own home city over the last 20 years. “The physical is very important in its significance of community… These spots are important in the story of our sounds and to have spaces that continue is integral. Physical spaces give movements home and home is important.”
A photo of Allysha Joy's band performing live at Melbourne's Northside Records.
Allysha Joy performs live at Melbourne institution, Northside Records
Different urban environments inspire different scenes. The urgent, uplifting sounds of Steam Down and Ezra Collective have, in part, emerged from defiance against an inhibited and gentrified London, while Chicago’s exploratory and experimental jazz label International Anthem is inspired by that city’s long history of radical arts movements. And Melbourne’s own bubbling jazz (and jazz-adjacent) scenes are, it seems, energised by Northside Records, The Grove, and those informal spaces that are constantly in flux, where sounds coalesce and people are free to hone their craft and blur the lines.
“Some of my favourite collaborations and micro-scenes have developed through the house party culture in our city, where a room in the house will be set up to jam all night,” explains Laura Christoforidis, founder of music collective and label Wondercore Island, which evolved out of “share-houses and squats with big backyards, longer leases and makeshift studios, allowing for multiple people to move in and out during a home's lifespan, thus creating larger, long-term communities that form around them.”
“You might get to play with a musician way older and better than you for four hours or so and be able to learn a different language and energy from them,” continues Christoforidis. “Along with being more spaced-out and less stressed about money, compared to somewhere like London or New York at this particular time, people here take it slow more often than not, which has made the overall sound of our music community different to other places.”