Ten years ago, in the dead of a Yass winter, an Australian gothic masterpiece was made. The record was called ‘Hurtsville’, and it was not an instant hit. The icy sound perfected by Jack Ladder and his new band The Dreamlanders burned the singer’s fans by veering away from the Americana sound he was known for. The Sydney songwriter and The Dreamlanders never toured behind ‘Hurtsville’, nor did they ever revisit the same style, flitting instead to aseptic new wave on 2014’s ‘Playmates’.
Pity: Jack Ladder and The Dreamlanders’ ‘Hurtsville’ was Bruce Springsteen-meets-Suicide-meets-The Triffids; its atmospheric textures swallowed melody, while Ladder’s psalmic voice plumbed the depths of loneliness only to find it went even deeper. The songwriter showcased heartache and bitterness in its basest, ugliest form, where wallowing is somehow cathartic: as he sang on its opening track, “When a heart breaks, it makes a beautiful sound”. For a time, listeners found it too uncomfortable to hear.
“You could live in the space of ‘Hurtsville’ and come out revitalised”
Turning 10 in June, ‘Hurtsville’ has been remastered and reissued on vinyl by Endless Recordings, and Ladder and The Dreamlanders will perform the album in full in Sydney and Melbourne next month. Also part of the anniversary celebrations is the Hurt Book, a collection of unreleased ephemera from the album’s sessions, and demos that sound dramatically different from the studio album – collectively realising what a vision that began nearly 15 years ago.
Jack Ladder, real name Tim Rogers, usually dresses in black with matching sunglasses (“They’re prescription, I’m not being a prick”) and a textured wave of long hair. He looks like a rock star displaced in time, and for most of his early career, so was his music. The singer has an idiosyncratic Australian baritone that lent itself to traditional American styles on his first two solo albums ‘Not Worth Waiting For’ (2005) and ‘Love Is Gone’ (2008).
On the latter, Ladder notched an appearance on Rockwiz and feature album on triple j – but Ladder had outgrown the music, even come to resent it, before he even began promoting the record. During the recording of ‘Love Is Gone’, Will Sheff from Okkervil River gave Ladder a copy of Silver Jews’ ‘American Water’, opening him to lyrical gallows humour. Then, after recording finished, Ladder’s producer Burke Reid gave him Suicide’s eponymous debut, incinerating his interest in traditional Americana altogether (“I was like, ‘Why didn’t you play this to me before we made this stupid record?’”).
After years of fixation with demure echoes of the ’50s and ’60s, all Ladder wanted to do now was write and perform like his subversive new hero Alan Vega – which came through in the self-sabotaging tour behind the album.
“[‘Love Is Gone’] was a bluesy, folksy record and had an audience, people liked it. And then when we did it live, it aspired for Birthday Party-esque squalor,” Ladder recalls to NME. “Kirin would be making this horrid noise, Donny would detune his bass until the strings were falling off, and I’d just be screaming on the floor.”
That caterwauling band’s name, The Dreamlanders, was cribbed from John Waters’ regular cast, and the freak show allusion couldn’t be more fitting: Ladder was backed by Kirin J Callinan on guitar, Donny Benét on bass and jazz/experimentalist Laurence Pike on drums. As a foursome, they were strange and imposing. “One of the earliest reviews we got of a live gig was someone saying ‘Nothing about this lineup makes sense, except for the sound they make together’,” Pike remembers.
“It did start to fall apart a bit. I think everyone became quite unsure of what we were actually making”
In the year between ‘Love Is Gone’’s recording and release, Ladder travelled to the US and Europe while deep in a state of musical existentialism.
“I had some weird experiences, living in a thoughtless, unplanned way. I found myself in bad situations,” he says. “I met a girl in Brooklyn and moved into her apartment the next week. We lived together for three months, then I left and she came to Europe. The whole thing was constant disaster.”
Ladder began writing the songs for what would become ‘Hurtsville’ while adrift, frustrated with personal life and his position in the music industry. The most biting of those reflections turns up on the title track: “Now all of my past lovers have become the best of friends / They hold a weekly meeting and they’re plotting their revenge”.
“Doing therapy and understanding the psychology of being a young man, now I can understand that a lot of the situations I was creating were born out of a toxic masculinity,” Ladder, who is now 38, says. “I don’t think I had any real intent to cause trouble, but I just was caught up in a thing. I just made a mess of everywhere I went.”
Pike, for his part, describes Ladder as “discerning and thoughtful”, if “quite reserved”. “He’s not necessarily someone in the past that has been super communicative, maybe to his detriment,” Pike adds. “He’s definitely changed a lot in that regard in the last few years.”
Inspired by Suicide, Leonard Cohen’s ‘I’m Your Man’, and Young Marble Giants, Ladder recorded his new songs as austere guitar and drum machine demos. He thought he could largely record them alone with Reid. But they ended up in the unlikely town of Yass, triangulated between Sydney and regional Victoria, and the even unlikelier location of Blackburn Estate, a historic homestead modelled on a Scottish castle, owned by a senior member of the National Party.
The band used as a live room Blackburn’s large central atrium which had four flights of stairs heading into wings of the home. It had no heating aside from its fireplaces, which couldn’t be used anyway while they were recording, because it would get too hot and loud for the microphones.
Ladder recorded alone with Reid in the first week, but when the rest of the band arrived, the atrium and their personalities caused the music to expand.
“People come to that house and they see the magic in it. But when you’re living in it, you think you’re just living in squalor”
“We were blasting drum machines through the PA, everything had six mics on it and it just started sounding quite massive,” Ladder says. “As you add one thing, then it’s like, well now I’ve got to put big drums on it. I was also really into sub bass frequency, so there’s three basses on everything.
“Kirin and I had different ideas about stuff… I’d be standing there trying to play Kirin’s guitar ’cause he’d be quite defiant. It did start to fall apart a bit. I think everyone became quite unsure of what we were actually making.”
Pike, preferring to record quickly in the freezing atrium, left after finishing his drum takes. When he returned for the end of the sessions, “I felt like I was walking into a Twilight Zone because they’d totally reversed their body clocks,” Pike laughs. “Tim and Burke especially were getting up at four and five in the afternoon and then wanting to work till five in the morning.”
When Ladder was spat out the other end of the month-long process, he was so dissatisfied with the sound he tried rerecording it with the band live in a Sydney studio. When that didn’t work either, he spent months finessing it at home, piecing the eight final tracks together from the various versions. Of course, by then Ladder hated it.
“It was a beautiful house where things were falling down. All the rooms are a bit different with different wallpaper in each room,” he says. “People come to that house and they see the magic in it. But when you’re living in it, you think you’re just living in squalor and what would be nice to do is just to knock the whole house down and rebuild a metallic palace where everything is clean and you can hear all the different sounds.”
Ladder and The Dreamlanders, so captivating on stage, couldn’t even bring ‘Hurtsville’ to life in concert, as Ladder’s then-manager effectively blocked any touring of the record. “We had a band meeting, maybe it was an ultimatum,” he remembers. “It was like, ‘Unless you guys are willing to move to England for six months and get paid $5 a day, then you can’t be in the band’.”
But the broken home of ‘Hurtsville’ lived on in spite of its family dysfunction. In 2012, American photographer Matt Draper contacted Ladder about releasing the record stateside on his label Holloweyed – the only album they would ever put out. Hoping for the ‘Hurtsville’ sound, Alex Cameron from Bad//Dreems sought out Ladder and Reid to produce his band’s 2019 record ‘Doomsday Ballet’; it was Cameron who founded the label Endless Recordings, for whom the ‘Hurtsville’ reissue is its first full-length release.
The record, simultaneously shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize and ridiculed in Mess & Noise forums as Nick Cave pastiche, started being hailed as “a clear Australian classic”. Despite his initial dislike of the final studio product, Ladder kept ‘Hurtsville’ songs in his solo sets and never stopped selling t-shirts bearing its name. What listeners first couldn’t bear – the record’s utter despondency – slowly became its appeal.
“I’d have people turning up to shows that were heavy goths, thinking the music was like Sisters of Mercy or The Cure,” Ladder says. “The conflict was my voice is very serious in tone, but I was listening to the Silver Jews and Bill Callahan, who are funny. My jokes get lost, ’cause the tone doesn’t necessarily match the humour.”
Between the black humour and apocalyptic loneliness, ‘Hurtsville’ is an experience of “sensory deprivation”, as Ladder says now. “You could live in the space of that music and come out revitalised.” That is why ‘Hurtsville’ still stands today against the cultural tides of the decade since its release. Its songs – long, honest and uncomfortable human – defy an age of fragmented attention spans.
“It appeals to really basic human emotions,” Ladder muses. “People are always going to be going through a thing.”
The 10th anniversary edition of ‘Hurtsville’ is available now. Jack Ladder and The Dreamlanders will perform ‘Hurtsville’ in full on May 6 in Melbourne, and on May 27 in Sydney. Find out more here