Tangled Shoelaces’ Martin Mackerras: “You really have to make things happen. You have to do the work…”

Photo courtesy of Chapter Music. Mixed media art by B.

Tangled Shoelaces were an alternative-pop band, formed in 1980 in Capalaba (a suburb 20-minutes from Brisbane City’s centre). The band centred around three siblings Stephen, Lucy and Martin Mackerras, with neighbour Leigh Nelson on drums; ranging in ages from 10 to 14. Their music captures the innocence and magic of youth while their experimentalism is testament of imagination and fearless self-expression. Before the age of 18, they recorded at the legendary studios of Sydney label M Squared, supported the Dead Kennedys and John Cooper Clarke. Recently, Chapter Music has released a collection of their recordings: Turn My Dial – The M Squared Recordings and more, 1981-84. To celebrate, Gimmie spoke with bassist Martin Mackerra.

I’m very excited to be speaking with you. We love Tangled Shoelaces. We collect a lot of zines and came across Bruce Milne’s cassette zine Fast Forward, there was a Tangled Shoelaces song on their that we absolutely love. That’s how we first heard your band.

MARTIN MACKERRA: That would have been the song ‘World’ on Fast Forward. Those cassettes are great. I remember them.

We’ve always wanted to find more of your songs, and now Chapter Music is releasing a TS album of collected works, Turn My Dial – The M Squared Recordings and more, 1981-84. The album comes out tomorrow (23 April); how do you feel about it?

MM: Oh, great! It’s that thing of, you never know what’s around the corner [laughs]. We were happy with what we did all those years ago, we were always proud of it, but never in our wildest dreams did we think someone would want to put it out and make a proper release of it. Especially, someone like Guy [Blackman], Chapter [Music] is such a renowned label. I’ve played with [Chapter artist] Laura Jean a few years ago. Being involved with the label is just amazing! I’d always admired Chapter, not just for all the local artists they put out, but also that they do release old recordings, especially things like Essendon Airport; they’ve always had that interesting aspect to the label. It’s exciting.

When Tangles Shoelaces started you were around ten-years-old; did you have any hesitation joining your older siblings in a band at such a young age?

MM: No, never. You don’t think about those things. You don’t ask questions; you just do it. It’s, this is the normal thing, you play music in a band. That’s the interesting thing about being young.

Did you find your peers, other kids your age, being supportive? Or did they not believe that someone their age could be in a band?

MM: It’s interesting we were talking about Capalaba school before, on the record there is a picture of us playing at Capalaba Primary. To be really honest with you, I don’t remember anyone saying anything, they just starred like, oh, you’re the weird guy that plays music. That was basically it, it was strange. But, when I went to Villanova [College] in Coorparoo (that’s where I started high school, catching the bus all the way there) and there were kids there that had heard about us and knew about us. We had an article about us in The Courier Mail [newspaper]. There was more interest, because there were kids there that were actually interested in music; that might be the age too though, we were twelve and thirteen. I remember having kids come up to me, who later became my friends, and they’d be like, “Oh, I read about you. You’re that guy in Tangled Shoelaces!” There were kids that listened to 4ZZZfm. So, there was a little bit more support then. We played a few things for school. It was something I didn’t talk about that much; it was another world that we kept to ourselves. I was always involved with music in school though.

What bands did you first find growing up that were your own bands you loved listening to?

MM: Oh god! There were so many. They weren’t necessarily like Tangled Shoelaces. I was just obsessed with music from a young age. I’d listen to early Split Enz, the B-52’s. We went and saw the B-52’s, a long time ago [laughs], I was in Grade 5. It was at Festival Hall. We were so blown away by that concert, we went crazy dancing! Our mum took us and a friend of our mum who was in her 60’s, she was a photographer and took photos of all the amazing people there, the punks with their coloured hair; all the people that went got so dressed up. It was around ’80-’81 just after ‘Rock Lobster’ came out. It completely blew me away! We also listened to 4ZZZfm. We were completely obsessed with music. Always listening.

Why has it always been such an important part of your life?

MM: There’s musical blood in the family. We have an uncle who was a conductor, my dad is obsessed with classical music; I went on to do classical music too. They say you don’t choose music; music chooses you. I’ve always had a life in music.

What inspired you to play bass?

MM: Purely, I did what Stephen asked me to [laughs]. He said, “Right, I’m the guitarist and you’re the bass player!” That was it. I was just a little brother that did what my big brother told me.

Where did the name Tangled Shoelaces come from?

MM: I really don’t know; it was probably Stephen who thought of it. It was almost like anything, it just happened naturally and you didn’t question it. It could have been Stephen just said, “The band is called Tangled Shoelaces” and we just went, “Ok, yep!” That’s it. It all just flowed.

It’s such a great name. It has a nice flow to it, sounds great and is really fun to say.

MM: Yeah, I agree. I’m very objective about all of this now though too, it’s almost 40 years later. It is a fun name. It’s one of those great names that tells you what the music is in away, it’s kids making music.

You’ve mentioned that 4ZZZfm was big for you; do you remember hearing your band on the radio?

MM: Yeah, yeah. They were supportive of us. There were a few DJs that really liked us that we sent tapes to and they played them. We put out an EP too, there’s a bit of an evolution of the band. There are photos of us at the Primary School, that’s very early stages, I was ten. At about thirteen, fourteen and fifteen we were still playing, by then we had put out an EP on vinyl, 4ZZZ were supportive of that. 4ZZZ has always been integral, they put on gigs and you’d hear all these different bands, they’d interview us. They’ve always been so supportive of bands and are a great network for Brisbane music. I listened to them constantly, I had a radio beside my bed—4ZZZ all of the time!

It was the same for me growing up. I was a teenager in the ‘90s and I’d have the radio beside my bed and listen to 4ZZZ, that’s how I found out about all the local bands and shows and that we had a scene and music community here. You start going to local shows and you realise there’s people just like you that have bands, then you really get excited.

MM: [Laughs] Exactly! Its’ true. You would have heard of XERO?

Yes!

MM: John-e Willsteed, he went on to play with the Go-Betweens, he took us under his wing a little bit. Then there was Peter Pit [from The Pits]. We’d meet them, maybe through 4ZZZ, and they’d say, “Come play a gig!” It’s the connections that you make. Things are still the same today with community radio, down here there’s 3RRRfm.

4ZZZ had some really great people, there was a guy called Andy Neal, he told us, “This is great. This is wild. You kids, this is far out.” He told us to send it to M Squared. He said, “They’ll love it!” And, they did. They wrote back and told us to come and record. We’re very lucky.

I understand that when you were recording at M Squared Studios you would catch the bus down to Sydney on the weekends to record; what things stick out to you from that experience?

MM: It was just the normal, just what you do. It was like, ok, we’re going down to Sydney to record at M Squared, great, let’s book the tickets. Stephen organised it. We were lucky because we had relatives in Sydney who we could stay with. Being in Brisbane and having family in Sydney, it wasn’t that unusual to go to Sydney. Having grandparents in New South Wales and cousins living in Sydney, we’d go visit them. It was no big deal, Mum dropped us off and we just caught an overnight bus. By the time we were going to Sydney we were a little bit older, we were thirteen and sixteen (being younger than Stephen, I saw him as an adult).

So much cool stuff has come out on M Squared! Australian post-punk artists like Systematics, Scattered Order and Ya Ya Choral.

MM: Oh yes, I love M Squared.

You mentioned the local Brisbane band XERO; what other local bands were you into at the time?

MM: The Pits; Peter Pit. Pork, they’d put on gigs in halls in Coorparoo (Peter lived around there)… Wooloongabba and those inner city suburbs, there were lots of bands like, This Five Minutes.

I was just up in Brisbane and there’s this exhibition of all of these old music posters from all of these bands. Have you seen it?

Yes! The Cut Copy: Brisbane music posters 1977-87 exhibition. That’s at my work, I work at the State Library of Queensland.

MM: Great! Half of those bands on the posters, I saw so many recognisable names. There were so many bands I loved, but the ones that stand out is John-e Willsteed from XERO (who we played a lot of shows with) and Peter from the Pits; we ended up becoming good friends. He came down to Sydney with us and sings on the record.

Looking back at the record now, which are the most interesting songs for you?

MM: The very early ones. ‘I Need A Stamp’ is just a bizarre and amazing song, Stephen’s voice is really high. ‘Little Bear’ that’s Lucy singing on it, I love that one. And, ‘What Do You Want From Me Now?’ They’re the ones from the very beginnings of Tangled Shoelaces. I don’t know where they came from, they just happened. I love all of them though. As Stephen matured, he started to write some really, really great songs. ‘Just For You’ I always find that really touching. There’s some extra ones that aren’t on the vinyl, like ‘Beware Of Falling Objects’. It gets a bit experimental. I like ‘Bordumb’ because that’s my song, it’s a bit of a snapshot of being in Brisbane at the time and being ten-years-old. I’d be playing Space Invaders, riding my bike down to Capalaba Park shopping centre [laughs]. I love all the songs but I especially think ‘Little Bear’ and ‘I Need A Stamp’ are amazing because we are very young there. Stephen’s voice hadn’t even broken, he was around eleven or twelve and I was nine or ten.

‘Little Bear’ and ‘I Need A Stamp’ along with ‘What Do You Want From Me Now’ were all recorded at Capalaba Primary School, right?

MM: Yes. Huge thanks to our teacher Steve Colbourn. Guy wrote up a great thing about it all in the album’s liner notes. Steve was also a professional musician as well as our teacher, he played gigs and did lots of things. Without him we wouldn’t have made those recordings and without those recordings we wouldn’t have had something to send to M Squared. It was a 4-track, he set it up in the school library for the holidays. I’m incredibly grateful. He’s passed away now, sadly. He organised the show for us at Capalaba school too. He helped us do everything. We didn’t know how to plug in a microphone, we didn’t know what a P.A. was even [laughs].

You might not have known how to put it all together but you sure did know how to play!

MM: [Laughs] Yes! It’s not that hard to play a bass, for me I just picked it up, I never had a lesson. I did have clarinet lessons though. We practiced and worked at it though. Mr Colbourn showed us what foldback is and how to plug in a P.A.

It must have been such an exciting time for you!

MM: It was! People ask about my recollections and I don’t know how school fitted in! We had the weekends to work on music. I never took school too seriously; I was much more interested in music. I knew from an early age and through Tangled Shoelaces that I just wanted to do music. I played clarinet in the Queensland Youth Orchestra.

I was the same with school. My mum would drop me off at the front gate and I’d walk out the back gate, change my clothes, catch a bus to the city, find whatever bands were in town or local ones and hang around, eventually interviewing them for my fanzine.

MM: Fantastic! Isn’t that brilliant.

All these year’s later, I’m still making zines.

MM: It’s so great! It’s lucky if you can find what you want to do while you’re at school when you’re young. If you find what your passion is and what you love doing, you’re a lucky person.

Totally! I know that Tangled Shoelaces supported the Dead Kennedys when they came to Australia in the early ‘80s!

MM: Yes. We did some crazy things! That was a funny one because, somewhere in there is a joke, someone was thinking wouldn’t it be funny if we got Tangled Shoelaces to play with Dead Kennedys, let’s do it! We did it. It was scary, there were some pretty scary characters there—they didn’t like us. We were not a punk band [laughs]. We wanted to get out of there pretty quickly after we played, we thought we’d get picked on. It was a funny little episode.

We also supported John Cooper Clarke! It was one of the first ever gigs. People there loved us. You know how with popularity it comes and goes?

Yes.

MM: That point seemed to be the time, at least for a few months, we were the flavour of the month. Whenever we played people would cheer, but then that dissipated and we got on with things. A big thing that happened, one gig, we were offered to support Public Image Ltd at Festival Hall. It would have been incredible. It was last minute, they rang us on the afternoon of the gig that as on a Friday night because someone pulled out, but our drummer had gone away and we couldn’t get in touch with him, long before mobile phones. To say I played at Festival Hall, that would have been amazing. We did do other stuff that was great.

Do you remember meeting Jello Biafra or John Cooper Clarke?

MM: No, none at all. I was aware of the Dead Kennedys but I wouldn’t have known who Jello Biafra was. Often support bands don’t meet the main act because they’re tucked away in their room or they’re not even there yet when the support act play. It’s a hazy memory.

Album art and design by Carolyn Hawkins.

Can you tell us the story behind the album cover image please?

MM: Yes. Being from Capalaba, you would know about Leslie Harrison Dam.

Yes! It’s supplies the water for the area.

MM: We lived there (my parents are still there), literally two minutes’ walk from the Leslie Harrison Dam. We weren’t supposed to, but we spent a lot of time there and went swimming there all of the time. We grew up there, it was our back yard, you can see it from our house. You can see the spillway, it’s all fenced off now but it wasn’t then, that was our playground. Stephen put it all together. He did photography at school and had a camera. It was all his ideas.

Is there something really important that you learnt from Stephen that has stuck with you all these years?

MM: Heaps of things! He was a mover and a shaker, so I’ve taken that on myself. You really have to make things happen. You have to do the work first; you have to write the songs and then people might cotton on to it. You have to practice. He was always very motivated, that taught me a lot. I’ve carried on with music.

Tangled Shoelaces went on to become Wondrous Fair?

MM: Yes, that’s right. I don’t know all of the details of why Tangled Shoelaces didn’t continue. When you’re kids, I guess it’s natural to move on. Leigh became a born-again Christian, he went on to play in Christian bands, he’s an excellent drummer. Lucy went to uni, she moved out, she had her own interests. We didn’t think, oh we have something interesting here, we should keep it going. You just went along with whatever. Oh, this girl Deborah [Cavallaro] wants to have a jam with us at her house, it was all fun and great, let’s form a band from this! [laughs]. You didn’t think about things, you just went along with things, what felt good. Wondrous Fair evolved from another friend of mine who did play in Tangled Shoelaces from maybe one rehearsal.

Stephen eventually went away because he was more into film. After he left school, he went down to Melbourne. He was very motivated, he wrote to [director] Paul Cox and said, “I’m really interested in film, can I just come and help on the set of your next film?” He got invited down to Melbourne and helped with Paul Cox.

Wow!

MM: Stephen’s that kind of person. He’d just write to people and ring people and ask to help them.

You mentioned that you’re still making music now.

MM: Yeah, I am. I’m a composer and songwriter. I absolutely continue to make music.

Has there ever been a time in your life when you didn’t make music?

MM: No! I live and breath music. There would never ever be that. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant.

No, not at all. I get it.

MM: It is my life. Music is the life force; it’s how I live. I teach music, that pays my bills but I always make music. After Tangled Shoelaces. it was Wondrous Fair. I moved to Melbourne and formed about three different bands. I have a band currently called Maya-dreamer & The Future Happiness Orchestra. They have not been popular; I haven’t had that sort of success but that’s not necessarily what I want in a way—I just want to make the music that I love. I’m working on a third album now. I compose avant-garde music, more obscure music. It’s weird, very experimental music [laughs]. (You can find it at martinmackerras.com). For me, it’s about the experience of making music, getting in a room with five other people and singing together. We have a lot of fun! Music is always there. I can’t live without it.

Please check out Tangled Shoelaces and get their record HERE.

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