Concert preview: New Rock from Tasmania

Aussie band does noisy tricks with pop baselines

The Witch Hats, all the way from Australia, perform Thursday at the Hi-Tone Cafe. Laura Bamford

The Witch Hats, all the way from Australia, perform Thursday at the Hi-Tone Cafe. Laura Bamford

It's a long way from the wilds of Tasmania to New York City's Chelsea Hotel. But for Witch Hats frontman Kris Buscombe, it's been a journey with a purpose.

The Witch Hats, all the way from Australia, perform Thursday at the Hi-Tone Cafe. Laura Bamford

The Witch Hats, all the way from Australia, perform Thursday at the Hi-Tone Cafe. Laura Bamford

Calling from the infamous hotel, a historic haven for writers and musicians from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan, the Tasmanian-bred, Australian-based Buscombe is searching for inspiration. "I checked in because I've got a bunch of songs I'm trying to finish off, so I thought I'd try and write in here," says Buscombe. "I'm staying just a few doors down from where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy (Spungen). So, it's a pretty strange environment."

In a sense, the Chelsea is the perfect home for the Witch Hats -- which includes Buscombe; his brother, bassist Ash Buscombe; guitarist Tomas P. Barry; and drummer Duncan Blachford. Though little known in the States, the group has been hailed Down Under for its grungy sonic aesthetic, placing them in the tradition of other dark-hearted Antipodean outfits like the Birthday Party and the Moodists.

Buscombe and the band are in the midst of a lengthy two-month tour of the United States, which will bring them to Memphis Thursday to play at the Hi-Tone Cafe. "Well, it's our longest tour of the States by default, because it's also our first," he says, chuckling. The group's cross-country jaunt is something of a preview for American audiences. The band, which has been praised at home for its full-length debut Cellulite Soul, will see the album released here by the hip L.A. label In the Red early next year.

The 26-year-old Buscombe is no stranger to unusual travels. Born in Singapore, he moved back to Melbourne, and eventually to his family's ancestral home in Tasmania where he spent the better part of his life growing up. "It was pretty rural. Mostly countryside," says Buscombe of his early environment. Music was a constant at home, as his father was a blues drummer. Buscombe picked up the sticks himself as a child, before switching over to guitar. It was another drummer, Duncan Blachford, with whom he first formed a creative partnership.

The pair's passion for music was fostered amid a tiny but thriving Tasmanian music scene a decade ago. "It was very eclectic, just because of the sheer size and the isolation. But the mid-to-late '90s was a very cool time to be young and spend your formative years experiencing all this crazy artistic hard-rocking stuff that was going on down there," says Buscombe, mentioning influential Tassie bands like 50 Million Crowns and The Stickmen.

Eventually, in 2004, Buscombe and Blachford made the move to Melbourne, and began working up songs together. "Really, we were just hanging out one night and got really wasted and decided to have a jam and record stuff on the computer," he says. Adding his brother on bass, and friend Barry on guitar, the Witch Hats continued to record and play in and around Melbourne.

They attracted the attention of Aussie label In-Fidelity and the notice of Phill Calvert, longtime drummer for the legendary Birthday Party, who would go on to produce the band's debut EP, 2006's Wound of a Little Horse, and new LP Cellulite Soul.

Their association with Calvert has, somewhat predictably, brought about a rash of Birthday Party comparisons. And certainly, the Witch Hats do have the ability to make their music simmer and boil in much the same way as the legendary Nick Cave-led outfit did. But, oddly, it's another "B" band that Buscombe takes direct inspiration from.

"It seems to surprise a lot of people, but basically the way I write most of the songs is just by trying to do really direct pop music," he says. "The Beatles are the standard for me -- I constantly pinch ideas and arrangements from them, but I try to meld them to noisy rock songs. That's my trick, I guess."

Songwriting is weighing heavily on Buscombe's mind at the moment, as he's trying to complete lyrics for a set of tunes the band is slated to record in San Francisco at the end of the tour with Greg Ashley of the Gris Gris.

"I've been pretty lucky, I've been going through some pretty crazy periods (personally) so songs have been coming constantly -- as pretentious as that sounds," says Buscombe, alluding to the lost friends and lost nights documented on tracks like "Jock the Untold" and "Neil Diamond Entry."

The long summer journey in America has taken the Witch Hats to some 34 cities in 44 days, but compared to touring in their home country, Buscombe says, it's been a breeze. "Australia's massive, but there's only about three or four cities worth playing and they're all ten hours away from each other."

On the current tour, the group has shared stages with Jon Spencer's Heavy Trash and East Coast buzz band the Vivian Girls. "No one's really heard of us over here, so we're playing to completely new people each night, which is actually quite a challenge," says Buscombe. "And so far, the audiences have really been into what we're doing."

In fact, the Witch Hats' current jaunt may have some positive international implications for the United States. "It's been really funny, just given the way America's been perceived in (Australia) the last few years, because of the Iraq war. Everyone was saying, 'Oh America, it's dangerous and people are arrogant' -- and, for us, it's been the total opposite. Everyone's been so friendly and hospitable, it's been really great," laughs Buscombe. "We'll have to go back home and set everyone straight."

The Witch Hats, The Barbaras and The Dranks

Perform Thursday starting at 9 p.m. at the Hi-Tone Cafe, 1913 Poplar Ave. Cover is $5.

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