It’s only when I see Gold Class play live for the third time in as many months and I’m watching their drummer Mark Hewitt hit his snare and I’m counting in my head that I realise the band’s song “Life As A Gun” contains five beats to the bar. Four-five marks Mark hard at the end of the measure, an unusual time signature for a rock song, so unusual that as I count I’m thinking the song should sound odder than it does, jazzy or glitchy or falling off a cliff. In fact, it moves securely – it’s just that with every fifth beat the four people on stage seem to clear a little air, like they are going over a speed bump. “Cannonball of hope,” sings Adam Curley, the group’s sole vocalist, phrasing this movement in five syllables.
Today’s venue is an outdoor stage in the rear courtyard of the National Gallery of Victoria, partially shaded by plastic netting in a lurid magenta hue. The mid-afternoon heat and the sound dissipating across the open courtyard take the edge off the band’s performance, but by now I’ve noticed that when Gold Class play live the attention of their audience increases as the set goes on. We’re drawn in by some group spirit that I’m still trying to figure out even as I write this.
To hope is to risk. Sometimes you’ve got to go in prepared to wreck what came before, on the hunch that something better will come after. I am intrigued by Gold Class because they have an energy that feels purposeful, and which sets them apart from a slack-shouldered cynicism endemic to Australian rock music. They are serious without being pompous: they play tight and mostly fast, with no extravagance. Their one luxury is to leave a good deal of space between each instrument, which makes them sound bigger than they are; bigger than a band whose debut album, It’s You, was released only six months ago, with little prelude. In early February the album was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize, alongside records by high-profile nominees Tame Impala, Courtney Barnett and Sarah Blasko. The winner of the AMP will be announced in March. By April, Gold Class will have left their Melbourne base to tour Europe for the first time.
Since the album’s release Gold Class have been pegged as a post-punk band, and compared to Joy Division and The Smiths. The comparisons are understandable—in the former instance, because Mark plays his drums like they were a lead instrument, and in the latter, because Adam’s singing voice has a timbre not unlike Morrissey’s—but also lazy. In truth, Gold Class hew closer to an American than to a British punk (or post-punk) sensibility: Evan James Purdey’s economical guitar lines, made nasty with distortion, owe much more to The Wipers than to the sweet jangle of The Smiths. And bassist Jon Shub can suggest a countermelody without playing much more than two notes. Gold Class sound familiar but not jaded, as if, having rummaged through the wardrobe of past musical styles, they’ve emerged with something that suits them perfectly – a sound they can inhabit, not merely a costume.
Adam, in particular, seems a performer free of irony. He means what he sings, and, though the lyrics to Gold Class songs function more like elliptical short stories than personal confessions, that sincerity makes him vulnerable. He sings without vibrato, hitting each note squarely. On stage he’s in the habit of winding the microphone cord around his neck and shoulders, like he might merge the equipment more closely with himself. He has no instrument – there is nothing between between him and the audience but his own body.
The second time I see Gold Class play live it’s a sold-out show, late in January this year, at the Newtown Social Club in Sydney, in front of maybe two hundred people. The band’s set ends with Adam standing on the floor, singing from amid the crowd. What Gold Class have is poise, which is a rarer quality than you might imagine. I have the sense that I am watching a band who might get very big.
“Goodbye, disgraceful ambition,” sings Adam on “Furlong”, the opening song to It’s You. It sounds like a reprimand, but also like a warning against what it might mean to deliberately limit yourself. When I speak with Adam and Evan in Sydney, before their Newtown show, they tell me that they are increasingly agitated at being pigeonholed by genre. They want the room to move, rather than having to think of themselves only as “a punk band, or a post-punk band,” Adam says.
“If any of us had said ‘Do you want to start a post-punk band?’ or ‘Do you want to sound like Joy Division?’ nobody would have shown up,” adds Evan. But their spaciousness is deliberate, and they see it as a quality worth retaining, even if—perhaps inevitably—their songwriting changes. The sound that Gold Class have created for themselves is strict enough to beg the question of what comes next, less or more? No string overdubs, jokes Evan. Maybe the songs will get longer, but maybe not. They still seem surprised that anyone is listening to them at all. “In my mind the album is still an underground thing,” Evan says. “People don’t know about us yet.”
When I search “Gold Class band” on YouTube the algorithm returns a link to a video titled “Having Fun Onstage with Fugazi”. Like Fugazi before them, Gold Class have tension, and that quality in their music is connected to a sense of unrest, even disgust, at the current state of politics. Australia is sardonically referred to on their album as “the clever country”. In other interviews they have spoken about anger as a motivating force behind their songs, but they are wary of becoming, in Adam’s words, “mouthpieces for any political concern”. There’s a song on It’s You called “Athena”, and I am reminded each time I listen to it that Athena was, in Greek mythology, not only the goddess of war but also the goddess of justice, and of wisdom – she never waged a battle merely for the sake of waging it.
What Gold Class evoke is, as Evan puts it, “a gut feeling” of discomfort, and that feeling is self-implicating, too. It’s You dwells upon shame: “Bad from the neck down”. It’s a feeling I recognise, a skin-crawling sense of being wrong. It is perhaps why I trust Adam and Evan when they voice their support for feminist politics, though in general, men who call themselves feminist are guaranteed to provoke my suspicion. They are self-aware enough to realise the conundrum involved in being an all-male, pro-feminist rock band. As Evan notes, “the world has seen enough men with guitars.” Ain’t that the truth. Still, a male guitar band with an openly queer front person is more unusual than not, and the ties of solidarity between queer and feminist politics are substantial, if complicated.
“Your breath on my neck / Makes me want to fight,” sings Adam on “Life As A Gun”. In an historical echo that is accidental but nevertheless significant, the lines recall a song by the English trio Bronski Beat: “You and me together / Fighting for our love”. That song, “Why?” was released in 1984, and formed the opening track to Bronski Beat’s debut album, The Age of Consent, a record that came emblazoned with a pink triangle on the cover and which, on the inside sleeve, listed the varying ages of consent for homosexual sex in countries around Europe. In England, at the time, the age of consent was twenty-one. In Cyprus, Ireland, Italy, Romania and the USSR, homosexual sex was completely illegal.
We’ve come a way since then, though not nearly far enough. Gold Class don’t sound much like Bronski Beat, but the two bands share thematic resonances. “And the answer you seek / Will never be found at home,” sang Jimmy Somerville, of Bronski Beat, on the band’s most well-known song, “Smalltown Boy”. “You told me once / The hardest part of not wanting a home / Is letting one go,” sings Adam on “Half Moon Over”, the mid-point of It’s You. To be queer is—still—to exist in a kind of exile from mainstream society, but a weirdly visible exile: the queer body is always politicised, always a site of public interest and, often, of public prurience. Same-sex intimacy feels different from heterosexual intimacy because you carry the doubt and fear with you, from private into public space and back again. Courage, also. Athena is the goddess of courage.
“I’ve always been interested in outsiderness, and outsider characters,” Adam tells me. “But it seems like no one really needs ‘outsiderness’, anymore; everyone needs outsiderness to become okay – to talk about it.” This, too, is a kind of paradox—a community of outsiders—but an appealing one. It carries the promise of reconstruction, of starting over.
I like to listen to It’s You at a volume loud enough on my headphones for the distorted guitar sound to start to hurt a little. I like to play the album out loud, dancing to it until the sentences I want to write about it arrive in my head. Though it carries with it a plain unease, It’s You is an album that makes me feel better about being in the world.
The first time I see Gold Class play live it’s early in December, 2015, at a small punk record store in Sydney. The band are launching the vinyl edition of their album – there’s a modest stack of copies sitting on the store’s counter top. The room is so crowded and hot that the unlovely, exhaust-fumed ambience of Parramatta Road is a relief, by comparison. But the discomfort is worth submitting to. Gold Class are nervy and alive. Something is happening.
Anwen Crawford is a Sydney-based writer. Her essays have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Best Australian Essays, Meanjin and Overland. She is the music critic for The Monthly, and her book Live Through This is published by Bloomsbury.