From Squats To Lots: The Agony And XTC Of Low Life

Original photo: courtesy of Lulu’s Sonic Disc Club. Handmade mixed-media collage by B.

Low Life are back with third LP From Squats To Lots: The Agony And XTC Of Low Life! A rich and complex album, that has vitality and backbone with an air of cool and restraint. There’s spades of texture and unfiltered emotion on this shining record. Gimmie recently caught up with Low Life’s drummer Greg Alfaro.

How are you? What’s life been like lately for you? What did you get up to today?

GREG ALFARO: All things considered, pretty damn good thanks. No band stuff for ages though, which sucks, just busy parent life. I’m far from the perfect father/role model type but I’m still learning things every day. There’s lots of lockdown home-schooling, work from home, trampoline sessions, feeding chooks, storytimes, watering gardens, kicking footballs, Lego, enforcing screen time limits, peacekeeping, nurturing and yelling, Dad shit.

Today was chill though, got first Vax jab, so come what may. 

Low Life are from Warrang/Sydney; did you grew up there? What was your neighbourhood like then and how have you seen it change?

GA: I actually grew up in a housing commish suburb down the freeway in the Dharawal/Illawarra. It was rife with the type of intergenerational criminality and mental illness you’d find in pockets of struggle all over the land. It was the typical BMX, bush and beach childhood mostly, but I do remember lots of overt and casual racism towards us wogs and Indigenous folk from the, I suppose, terminal bogan kids (Westies to us then) who didn’t know any better, and their older, scarier (to me) generations. Some wised up, worked hard and moved on from all that, some even became cherished friends, but most didn’t. Fun childhood, just fraught with bit of paranoia. 

I do remember lots of family trips to places like Fairfield, Liverpool, Redfern, Bondi for South American festivals, functions and family friends sleep overs. My uncle had a band so music was central to those Sydney trips. 

Sydney skateparks, record stores and eventually gigs featured a lot as I got older. Shows around all the ‘live music mecca’ venues from the Annandale over to Selinas. For me this wasn’t in some classic yobbo, beer drenched, oz rock, heyday nostalgia terms (that vibe was still around). I was just out of high school, so heading up to watch proper weirdo local and overseas bands most weekends was a real eye and ear opener. The 90s were also way darker and more violent in my recollection than the pre-pandemic decade or so. Young and winging it with a lot of funny and heavy ‘firsts’ to discover. 

These days (or before lockdowns) there’s still the proper weirdo bands and characters, just seems everyones nicer to everyone’s faces. There’s no real pub circuit and its punch-ons (no great loss). More warehouses and DIY shows by dedicated fans and the odd friendly swindling scumbag. Still heaps of great young and middle aged bands too.

Recently on the LL Instagram you guys posted a photo of a “pseudo squat” on Shepherd Lane in Chippendale where LL was born; what do you remember about the place? 

GA: That was just before I joined Lowlife. I did work with Mitch & Cristian & was in a different band with them around that crazy time too(2009-ish?), so I was all too familiar with that energy. I just don’t remember personally ever going to that particular house. From what I’ve gathered it sounds just like places I’ve lived and squatted in(some with Cristian) where decadent, deviant behaviour festered and thrived. But also a special place where deep, lifelong friendships and grudges form and intensify.

How did you first discover music?

GA: Remember that ‘Moscow!Moscow!’ song? Where the blokes are doing the Fonzie dance? It’s wild.  That’s my first musical memory. 

When did you start playing drums and who or what first inspired you to play? Was there ever any other option for you?

GA: My uncle’s wog band had this exotic looking  drum with a proper black and white cow skin, looked like it had been violently hacked off its rump somewhere in the Andes and plonked straight on this big arse bass drum. This thing fascinated me as a kid and I would whack the shit out of it with gusto every chance I got. From there I was hooked and would tap out beats and make whimsical childish songs on and about anything and everything. 

I kept tapping away, absent-mindedly encoding lots of 80s metal, pop and hip hop I’d hear as a kid for many years before I properly started giving two shits about bands. I’m pretty sure it happened one day when my older bro and his mates must have been smoking some of that gold-stamped red-cellophane hash that was everywhere back then. Because the dodgy fuckers put on The Doors (as they do). With those vapours swirling around I remember zoning intently into the drums on ‘Peace Frog’, a simple beat doing some heavy lifting on the galloping rhythm. After that, they probably greened out,  and I started taking drums slightly more seriously. 

Punk & hardcore stuff got me going faster and more intense. Fuck, I even tried and failed those blast beats, but that shit is unnatural to me, more human torture ordeal than drumming. But hats off if you can be bothered learning it.

I’ve played different instruments in different bands over the years too,  but plodding along on drums is my favourite thank you very much. 

How did you find your local music community? What was the first local show you ever went to? 

GA: Kinda inevitable, music was so linked with our skating so much back then, but also a bit of blind luck. We just happened to grow up where some older friends were getting amongst the Sydney and Melbourne punk underground scenes, which spurred us on. We sputtered through attempts at various covers and line ups until we got it going for ourselves. Eventually we’d get our own songs and shows on the scene. Sometimes our friends would invite us onto their bills. Been at it ever since. 

Pretty sure first show was ‘Proton Energy Pills’ and ‘Social Outcasts’ at Thirroul Skating Rink/Skatepark around 1990-ish. They were our older mates and had 7″ records so were totally legit to us. I remember seeing old VHS copies of ‘Decline..’ some ‘Target’ vids, ‘Repoman’ & even ‘Thrashin’ and the cluster of punk clips on Rage. We were doing our post pubescent aping of all that action down the front. Pretty funny memory. One of the records was actually sponsored by the governments ‘Drug Offensive’ harm reduction campaign, which we all found utterly hilarious.  Holy shit, if only they knew the completely unhinged animals they’d sponsored. 

I understand that Iggy Pop’s albums Lust For Life and The Idiot were reference points sonically for Low Life’s new album, From Squats To Lots: The Agony And XTC Of Low Life; in what ways? What do you appreciate about those records?

GA: Probably were, but I just can’t remember anyone mentioning it or writing that in the album notes. It’s been ages and too much has happened since. I can really only remember Killing Joke’s name being tossed around somewhere in the haze. 

But so they should be reference points, they’re amazing albums. I think there’s definite nods to them, and I appreciate shitloads. 

I knew this duo had form because my younger self heard Bowie’s polarising mix of ‘Raw Power’ first. That hellride became an instant all time favourite.

I heard ‘Lust for Life’ next and that immediately raced for the title, just via different neural pathways. The famous usual suspect songs are lauded with good reason. They are perfect anti pop masterpieces that manage to spark the intellect and warm the genitals. Thats some feat.

But songs like ‘Sixteen’ ‘Some Weird Sin’ ‘Turn Blue’ ‘Fall in Love With Me’, they carved slow & sinister routes into my subconscious, they’re still carving. This record has often been a flaming torch in a dark cave for me. The cover alone should cheer any sad fuck up. 

I heard ‘The Idiot’ last. This record took longer to seep deep into my bones. Big departure from what I’d grown up on to that point, but I trusted their instincts. Before actually hearing it, I’d read in Iggys ‘I Need More’ book that they were mostly Bowie arrangements with Iggy chiming in his nihilistic poetry and ad libs. I thought I was ready for it. So when ‘Sister Midnight’ kicked in like the depraved evil twin of ‘Fame’, it was clear it was gonna be an awkward journey through Bowie’s coke-ravaged musical psyche, just with Iggy, fresh from the asylum, as the (mis)trusted co-pilot. I love how its cold monotony almost smothers it’s funk pulse (Low Life turf), but it’s there, as is Iggy’s, reanimated from his death tripping scumfuck years, just without all the mania pushing his voice to its limits. Yep, less was finally more here (more Low Life vibe too). The rest of the album stays icy, but with beautiful, fleeting hooks on ‘Baby’ and ‘China Girl’.

‘Nightclubbing’ still washes over like a heavily tranquillised cabaret number, squinting west through a glory hole in the old Iron Curtain at all the fake, sexy madness swanning around. Uncomfortable, but at peace, piling out in its own warm fluids. Great song.

‘Mass Production’ is an almighty closer. Building and writhing into almost David Lynch creep territory. An unnerving loop of self loathing & cruelty (LL anyone?) and oppressive, unrelenting head-in-a-greasy-vice synth that essentially does the job of squeezing any remnants of Dum-Dum-Motor-City guitar muscle out of Iggy (for some decades anyway) and any poor, unsuspecting, punker-wanna-be (young me included) who sat through a listen, axe at the ready, impatiently waiting in vain for some kind, any kind of ‘Extra’, ‘Rawer’ or ‘Furthermore’ fucking power. It’s brave. Glad I persisted with it. 

Each listen still astounds, and it’s still casting a long shadow over the rich post punk underground from mid 70s Berlin all over the anti mainstream music world & my feeble brain. I just can’t help but imagine influential bands like… ahem… Einsteurzende Neubauten, Tuxedomoon, Wire, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Boys Next Door, Warsaw, Big-blah-Black blah fucking blah etc, all having the initial fire cracker lit under their pimply post punk arses upon hearing ‘The Idiot’ back then. 

And so they should of, because despite Iggy’s penchant for self-sabotage back then, and Bowie’s possible own attempt on his careers life with ‘The Idiot’, it’s still an amazing fucking album. So yeah, shitloads. 

It’s up to each listener who gives enough of a flying fuck, to decide if we’ve summoned anything sonically from those records. I certainly won’t be dwelling on it, they poisoned my blood years ago. But from what I’ve heard so far of the new album, and remember making it, it definitely feels like they’ve been stirred through the LL cauldron of ideas. Mitch is a lifer, no hand-brake, always stirring. Next!

The album’s title borrows a little from the Irving Stone 1985 novel title, The Agony and Ecstasy, about Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo; how did it work its way into your title? 

GA: Hahaha, It does? Never read it. 

The boys may or may not have a deep appreciation for that book that they drew the inspiration from, I don’t know or care really. Sounds interesting though. I just figured it was a common enough relatable phrase that rolls off the tongue nicely? Innit? Triumph/Tragedy, Comedy/Horror, Pleasure/Pain, Mushrooms/Manure, it’s all part of the calm and the chaos. It all suitably applies to the Low Life saga over our lifespan that’s for bloody sure. 

What has been the most standout moment of both agony and ecstasy for you from LL’s journey so far?

GA: There are reams to draw from here, but I think the ill-fated USA tour some years back perfectly encapsulates both.

Imagine all that organising, booking, payment, anticipation, excitement & long arse flights. Only for poor Salmon to be detained in immigration limbo with Guatemalan gang bangers and unceremoniously shafted back across the ocean. After the initial confusion, stress & shock, and after it was clear he was home safe, we just accepted our cards. We were in America and we weren’t playing any gigs. So naturally we pivoted to glass half full mode. Met old friends over there and made new ones. Had a ball. 

Photo courtesy of Lulu’s Sonic Disc Club

How long did you guys spend writing for The Agony And XTC..? Is there a particular way that your songs often form/come together? 

GA: Maybe a year, Mitch had half the song ideas mostly worked out not long after Downer Edn came out. But different things stretched it out, and even standard band stuff like getting a jam locked in can take us ages. I remember getting a lot of these new songs started around practising sets for upcoming shows, then we’d run out of time. I really felt underdone before finally recording this one too. Covid wiped out heaps of preparation time. We only had a few proper band sessions where we got to write stuff, flesh out ideas and refine them where necessary. But I felt like I personally just needed a few more ahead of recording my drum parts. The guys, bless them, would sweetly reassure me it was sounding fine though. Liars. Normally we would have done just enough without over cooking it. 

What’s the song ‘Hammer & The Fist’ about?

GA: I’m so sorry but I haven’t even heard that song in ages. I still haven’t received the record, Cristian’s got ’em all. I only have scant memory of a slowish beat with a sombre bass run, no guitar or vox. So fuck knows what it’s exactly about yet. I do have my own suspicions about ‘Hammer’ & ‘Fists’, and they ain’t pretty. Mitch insists it’s all open to listener interpretation anyway, so choose your own misadventure I suppose, yeah sorry, maybe just ask Mitch?

How did song ‘CZA’ get started?

GA: I did hear a rough cut of this with some Samoh footage early this year. Dizzy started up that riff and it sizzled straight away. Yuta and I jumped onto it quick smart, not wanting to lag on the flavour he was frying up. Cristian rumbled in. I do remember pissing ourselves laughing at all the backing vox on this one, because Salmon had put on some suitably absurd, dark but hilarious lyrics to harden it’s crust.

Which song on the new record means the most to you? Why do you have a fondness for it? 

GA: So far ‘Collect Calls’. This tempo is right in my sweet spot and the mood kinda shifts gears quickly into some unexpected guitar twists. Like that Crossroads-Battle of the Hot Licks duel, but with Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Marr vs Greg ‘Yuta’ Sage. Sounds like the lyrics could be about a troubled soul who isn’t completely detached from family and friends, but possibly wanting to detach from a desperate reality? Your mate? I dunno, ask Mitch. But they are kinda harrowing and beautifully delivered by him and his sister Beth. 

 I only heard a mix of some songs together while my son was in a major surgery in October 2020, which was a welcome distraction. Then nothing for ages while dealing with all that in hospital. When we finally got him settled home in December 2020, the Passport video came out with ‘Collect Calls’. Hearing that song in that video really snapped me out the hospital reality that had been all consuming and all around grim. That song reminds now reminds me of starting a very different phase of life with great hope for his recovery & future. Ripping skating clip and a beautiful song. 

The album was recorded last year with Mickey Grossman (who also did your previous release Downer Edn and Oily Boys’ Cro Memory Grin); What was the process like for you? What can you recall of the recording sessions?

GA: Disjointed & gruelling, but fun. With no practice for months, I did about 10+ songs in about four hours and was exhausted, pretty out of it and just plain struggling. The vocal sessions were cool though, just back to clowning around with the gang again, yelling & hooting funny backing vox and improper dining. Mickey rules, he seemed to innately know what we were doing more than we did sometimes, and had more patience with us than we probably deserved. He is a treasure. Luv him. 

One of the overarching themes of the new collection of songs is the celebration of resilience. I know that personally you and your family went through a lot last year with your beautiful boy Vincent having an awful accident while bushwalking. How is everyone doing now? What are some things that have helped you with your resilience and helped you get through this challenging time? 

GA: Doing great now, just got the all clear for all physical activities again but the nature of a brain injury means possible future challenges. He is totally still the sweet, fun loving and mischievous little boy he always was. We were lucky on many different fronts with this outcome because it is clear that after a whole year that his selfless nature and bright personality are still all there. That is probably the biggest joy and relief to us all. Getting him and his brothers back to the school environment amongst friends is next in his recovery. 

His strength recharged my resilience when it got dark for me. I can still be a nervous wreck around him in some situations too, but having the family, friends and band behind me, random texts, big and small gestures, sympathetic smiles and hugs, lovely meals cooked and delivered, rides to and from the hospital, babysitting, was all so important. All this support from family, friends and even strangers will be appreciated for as long as I’m breathing. Thanks again gang..X

Can you share with us a funny Low Life-related moment that still makes you laugh when it comes to mind?

GA: Yuta the scooter rebooter cracking the public scooter code in Adelaide and shredding down the boulevard towards our show was hilarious. We ended up getting fed so much food off the venue before playing that it actually ruined us. 

That may sound silly, and it is, but it stands out to me because it happened in a heightened emotional time just after some close friends had passed, and just before Covid stopped everything. This bizarre inter-zone period in time and space also coincided with a super rare Low Life purple patch of gig momentum (about 3 gigs!) that was focused and fun, with plenty more on the horizon. 

That and the last Maggotfest featuring Coco-the astounding human kick pedal, that was funny. 

Turns out these were our last two real life, beer drenched, oz rock, sweaty gigs. 

Why is music important to you?

GA: Wow, again, reams.

Being preoccupied with Vincent’s recovery in and after hospital, Covid lockdowns, home schooling and the general pandemonium of family life within this whole shitstorm, has just meant that music hasn’t been important at all for so long now.

But this interview has brought it all home for me. I’ve dribbled on heaps, so I’ll try to keep it short.

It’s been a direct portal and a soundtrack to countless worlds, perspectives, memories, emotions and the odd nightmare.  Creating music with friends (and kids now), and expelling all the energy, good and bad, through it. That’s important and shitloads of fun for me.  Hopefully do it again ASAP. 

Low Life’s From Squats To Lots: The Agony And XTC Of Low Life out now on Lulu’s Sonic Disc Club (AUS) and Goner Records (US). Please check out lowlifebandcamp.com

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