A day out with The Native Cats in Hobart

In this series, Australian artists take NME on an intimate tour of the special spots in their hometown. First up are the Native Cats, who show us where in Hobart, Tasmania they decided to form a band and much more. Photography by Eden Meure

When this interview is proposed to Julian Teakle and Chloe Alison Escott of post-punk duo The Native Cats, they politely decline – because they’re “too boring”. Their labelmates on Teakle’s Rough Skies Records, The Slag Queens, are “super fun people”, they say, who should tour me around Hobart/nipaluna instead.

Yet ‘Mr. Hobart’, as Teakle is known by some in the city’s culture scene, starts mapping out some places to go anyway. Escott warms to the idea, too. By the time we meet at Tommy Gun Records a few Saturdays later – where afternoon light streams in and Echo & The Bunnymen plays – the number of spots on Teakle’s list, jotted on a Libraries Tasmania notepad, where he works, has multiplied to about 20.

“Tommy Gun’s become an institution,” says Teakle. As an IRL record store trading on the main street of a city in which rents went up by 40 per cent in the three years to 2020, it’d need to be. Outdoors stores rule this part of town, selling hiking gear as well as merino wool thermals and ‘Tassie tuxedos’ (black puffer coats) to idiotic mainlanders who missed the memo that temperatures can drop to teeth-chattering lows here, even in summer.

Native Cats tour of Hobart Tasmania interview Chloe Alison Escott Julian Teakle
At Tommy Gun Records, which has “become an institution”, says Julian Teakle. Credit: Eden Meure

Co-owner Adam Macgregor says he tends to stock Tasmanian indie bands over touring mainland acts. It’s not small-city tribalism – “it’s easier to keep track of than a band that just comes through, leaves records and calls back 10 years later!” Some artists have been adopted as locals, though, such as Evelyn Ida Morris from Melbourne. “People who’ve come down lots and hung out have been embraced by the local scene,” says Teakle. “It’s a small community. We like hanging out.”

Both Teakle and Escott walked here from their West Hobart and South Hobart homes. But despite his day job, Teakle’s current rental may be the last one he can afford in the inner city. Most interstate buyers of property in the Hobart area are “climate refugees and population escapees”, a Huon Valley real estate agent told Domain.com.au in January, with the “COVID factor” convincing more still. Teakle adds “people who have this fucking fantastic time for two weeks at Dark Mofo and decide to move here” to the list. He’s blunt with them: “I say ‘Look, it’d be cool to have you down, but we’re a regional city and we have fewer jobs, lower wages and mainland rents’.”

“I’m very un-Tasmanian in a lot of ways. I like nature. But I don’t want to marry it”

In South Hobart, homes spread further across kunanyi’s forested foothills each year. “Julian doesn’t live far from me but it’s a short punishing distance up a very, very steep hill and I have to bring my equipment up there,” Escott says. Is that why she often uses nothing but a handheld Nintendo DS to make noise? “I’ve played in bands with full drum kits and stuff, but with Native Cats it was a decision at the start to strip all that back,” says Teakle. “Being without a conventional band line-up is better in so many ways.” Escott adds, “With four-person bands there’s always people chiming in and pulling in different directions. This has less ego. Fewer people to veto our great ideas.”

Native Cats’ 7-inch ‘Two Creation Myths’ came out last February. On ‘Run With The Roses’, Escott’s lyrics reach withering new heights with lines such as “I had a hero for a couple of weeks” spat out like a derisive head toss. Each line claims its own tiny yet irrefutable territory of truth like a thumbtack driven into a map.

“I like to find a sentence, a few words, whatever, that is directly, literally true,” she says. “But from hearing it you wouldn’t be able to know exactly what happened with me.” Native Cats’ national tour began in March 2020, but was soon extinguished by lockdowns. “It really hurt,” says Teakle. “It wasn’t the worst of people’s COVID experiences but I love this life in this band. It keeps me going: playing music, having those adventures, making great friends.”

Native Cats tour of Hobart Tasmania interview Chloe Alison Escott Julian Teakle
Chloe Alison Escott and Julian Teakle became The Native Cats in 2007. Being a duo, says Escott, “has less ego. Fewer people to veto our great ideas.” Credit: Eden Meure

Native Cats have been together since 2007 – that’s 14 years of being asked when they plan to move to Melbourne. “When I was 23 my mum said, ‘What are you still doing here?’” says Teakle (he’d sampled Melbourne in his early twenties but moved back). “It’s a rite of passage for young Tasmanians to leave, like Melbourne people go to Berlin, I guess.”

On our walk to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), conversation drifts to Mona, the Museum of Old and New Art. Teakle grew up in the working class suburbs of Chigwell and Claremont, which you can see from the museum. “When I walk out onto that tennis court at Mona, it blows my mind that I’ve just experienced this world-class music and art in an area that was unfashionable, maligned – still is.”

The narrative that Mona’s flagship winter festival, Dark Mofo, delivered the arts unto a cultureless void of hibernating philistines, however, irritates Hobartians quite a lot. “It didn’t appear out of nothing,” says Teakle. “People were already in bands, running galleries and putting on exhibitions and festivals.”

Escott recalls a conversation she overheard “as recently as 2019” between a couple of mainlanders: “They’d imagined Dark Mofo was this thing unleashed on this unsuspecting little village, almost, and that everyone here shuts themselves away in their homes until it’s over while all the cool people come and run riot.” (A month after we meet, Dark Mofo will announce a work by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra that calls on First Nations people for donations of blood to soak the Union Jack flag with. Highly offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Tasmania and nationwide, it was ultimately pulled.)

Native Cats tour of Hobart Tasmania interview Chloe Alison Escott Julian Teakle
The Native Cats explore the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Credit: Eden Meure

Upstairs at TMAG is a permanent Antarctica exhibition. “My dad drove heavy machinery and had an opportunity to work in Antarctica when we were little,” says Teakle. His late uncle, meanwhile, is late nature photographer Peter Dombrovskis, who shot various expeditions on Macquarie Island, the Antarctic patch of oceanic crust claimed by Tasmania from New South Wales in 1890, once used to hunt and process oil from seals and later penguins.

Dombrovskis’s photograph ‘Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River’ is a thing of legend. Used in full-page Wilderness Society advertisements in metropolitan newspapers in 1982, its caption “Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?” triggered the emotional response the environmental campaign needed. The stand-off between the pro- and anti-dam groups surged into the national spotlight, with Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s pledge to save the Franklin and Gordon rivers from damming becoming part of his victorious election campaign.

“I’m very un-Tasmanian in a lot of ways,” says Teakle. “I like nature. But I don’t want to marry it.” He brings out-of-towners here on the reg, though, and has a photo of Al Montfort (Dick Diver, Total Control, UV Race, Lower Plenty) posing with the model penguins in the museum. Escott shrugs. “It just kind of feels like a bunch of museums I’ve been to? I do find it interesting that Antarctica is so much a part of Hobart history and culture, yet so few of us have actually been there.”

A week before our visit, TMAG made headlines with its apology to the palawa/pakana – the First Nations peoples of Tasmania – for its involvement, among other things, in the theft and trade of ancestral remains and for promoting “false ideas of ‘extinction’”. TMAG is in the process of returning 14,000-year-old petroglyphs, removed from Preminghana in the 1960s for display, to their coastal home. “The representations of Indigenous people I remember [at TMAG] as a kid were very problematic,” says Teakle. Change began to happen, he thinks, after “years of input and struggle by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community” and increased scrutiny from visitors touring Hobart and Mona.

“One thing I really enjoy about Hobart being smaller is that there’s a whole lot of bands who sound nothing like each other”

Outside TMAG, Native Cats whittle down the list. “OK, so we’ve picked out our next joint significant site,” Escott declares theatrically. We walk past The Hope and Anchor Tavern – a great spot for a pint and some Tasmanian pacific oysters – and through the Wapping district near City Hall, where Teakle’s nan lived in the 1920s when she worked at the Cadbury Factory. (“I’m descended from colonists and convicts,” he says.) Escott, meanwhile, detours us to “exactly the spot we decided to be a band” on Argyle Street. “We were here, walking downhill, with that big parking garage on the right,” she says. “I don’t remember any of this,” says Teakle, who’s 10 years her senior. That’ll do it.

On a wind-whipped street that looks grimly un-residential, Teakle points to the two-story brick house he lived in for seven years and where Native Cats wrote a lot of 2018 record ‘John Sharp Toro’. A block down, far removed from the cosy cluster of midtown pubs, is the Brisbane Hotel. It’s closed for renovations so we peer inside and look at peeling posters, including the scraps of flyers for Native Cats’ cancelled tour. “I don’t drink and I don’t go to the pub but I do come to the Bris,” says Escott. “It’s my main idea of a pub as a place to be.” Once, she heard it referred to as a dive bar. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. This is a dive bar?”

Native Cats tour of Hobart Tasmania interview Chloe Alison Escott Julian Teakle
The Native Cats decided to be a band on Argyle Street. Credit: Eden Meure

The stories tumble out. From arts exhibitions to film nights, international artists such as late hip-hop icon MF DOOM and Japanese garage rockers The, and – crucially – all-ages gigs. Teakle has seen “explosions” in Hobart music, he says, when there’s been heaps of all ages gigs in the city. And while people might think the Bris a rough-looking spot, “as a trans woman and queer woman – visibly so – I feel safer at the Bris than almost any other pub I can think of”, says Escott. “There’s been a substantial shift in the demographic of who comes here but even before that, when there wasn’t anywhere near as many queer people coming, I still never felt anything but safe.”

Like with most places that have walked the inclusive talk for decades, no-one really knows how the Bris simmers so serenely along. “It’s just the unspoken ethos of, I don’t know, principled punks?” says Escott. NME’s photographer for the day, Eden Meure, chips in: “People in the crowd will band together to throw disruptive people out.” “The Bris is a refuge for a lot of people who don’t fit into Hobart, even post-Mona,” says Teakle.

Native Cats tour of Hobart Tasmania interview Chloe Alison Escott Julian Teakle
The Native Cats outside The Brisbane Hotel, known affectionately as The Bris. Credit: Eden Meure

Mr. Hobart would know. His band The Frustrations played their first gig here in 1994. Teakle’s theory is that if locals, past or present, fail to discover the Brisbane, they fail to truly see or understand the city’s music scene. When he meets people who left Hobart because it was “boring”, he asks what years they lived here. “I’ll say ‘so you had Little Ugly Girls, Sea Scouts and The Gentlemen. You lived in a golden age of Hobart music! You just didn’t find the Bris.”

We walk to the Alabama Hotel – part boutique budget hotel, part retro lounge bar. NME asks why it’s significant to Native Cats’ story. “I think we all just needed a sit-down,” admits Teakle. He’s sitting on a cushion with Bill Murray’s face on it; Escott on Zappa, David Bowie staring out iconically between them. Do they hang out when not doing band stuff? “We often run into each other completely by accident and take that moment to have a quick band meeting,” says Escott.

“Locals versus mainlanders feels really, really played out to me now”

Conversation drifts back to Mona. “Right from the start those festivals were a gamble on people from the wider Tasmanian population being open to experimental, boundary-pushing art,” says Escott. “And that was a gamble against the conventional wisdom about Tasmania, both outside Tasmania, where we were largely considered a cultural backwater, but also within Tasmania, where it became a belief that this is the small town you escape from if you’ve got ambitions to be part of a happening cultural scene.”

When Native Cats supported Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s sold-out show at the Brisbane in 2010, Escott says people assumed they were from Melbourne. “They were raving about our set, saying ‘Thanks for coming down’. It’s this internalised notion that nobody great or interesting could come from here or, if they did, why would they still be here?”

Native Cats tour of Hobart Tasmania interview Chloe Alison Escott Julian Teakle
Julian Teakle enjoys a drink at the Alabama Hotel. Credit: Eden Meure

There are lots of reasons, of course. The joys of a diverse music scene are one. Putting bills together in Melbourne ultimately made Teakle homesick for Hobart’s multifarious line-ups. “In Melbourne, you’ve got 20 different indie scenes that will never intersect,” says Teakle. “I’m not saying everyone from different scenes in Hobart are buddy-buddy, but we’re all playing at the same venue.” Escott loves it too. “Music scenes in larger cities form subgroups: here are the electronic acts, the raucous punk acts, here are the more folky things. One thing I really enjoy about Hobart being smaller is that there’s a whole lot of bands who sound nothing like each other. There’s never really been a defining sound in Hobart.”

The flipside is that small scenes can overcompensate for their smallness. “There’s a lot of people who go ‘Our fuckin’ scene rules’ in a defiant, parochial and maybe even musically xenophobic way, like, ‘fuck mainlanders, man’,” says Teakle. Escott thinks for a while. “Locals versus mainlanders feels really, really played out to me now – and it already felt played out,” she ultimately says. “I’d prefer to find pride in things that are peculiarly Hobart, distinct from finding pride in this idea of ‘we’re the smaller version of Melbourne, but look how we punch above our weight’.”

It’s a fine line – but one thing is certain. “I think we proved to ourselves and to others that you can have this career and not have to live in Melbourne and Sydney,” says Teakle.

See the Native Cats in print in the July 2021 issue of NME Australia, available for order now