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Guest Playlist #08: H. Anthony Hildebrand

There are unlikely first albums and there are unlikely first albums. But H. Anthony Hildebrand, the prolific Australia-born, UK-based creator of some of my favourite noise music on the current scene, was the childhood recipient of maybe the most surprising formative record of any artist I’ve spoken to yet. Thankfully, nothing from it made his playlist of favourite tracks and influences…

“The first album I was given was Rolf Harris’ Greatest Hits,” Hildebrand recalled during our chat last month. “That’s how not cool the music happening at our house was. [Harris] was a local done good on the world stage, though I guess we don’t talk about that too much any more. I did love that album though.”

A stand-out element of Hildebrand’s music is its sense of humour. His album titles (Get Reincarnated or Die Trying, The Very Best of the Eagles and I Am Not a Mad Scientist, I Am a Disappointed Scientist to name just three) reflect the sense of fun you can find buried deep within his sheer walls of mangled sound, so it’s no surprise to find him at ease reflecting on dubious childhood taste. Having said that, Hildebrand says most of his childhood musical memories are of “utter boredom and mild depression,” so maybe we’ll get to the fun part later.

“Ours wasn’t a particularly musical household at all,” he continues. “Neither of my parents play music, though my dad has quite a decent singing voice on the rare occasions I’ve heard him use it. He was, and is, into country music, which bored me absolutely rigid as a kid. I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and I have a vivid memory of a hot summer afternoon in the early 80s, curtains drawn to keep out the sun, nothing on TV, and my dad washing the car outside while songs like “Harper Valley PTA” played on the tinny car stereo. It took me years to get over that association with country music and tedium.” There wasn’t much doing on Hildebrand’s mum’s side either, he says. “I remember she had some ABBA records, and she won a competition to get some Elvis Presley hits box set. She also had a Freddy Fender tape she used to play in the car all the time. Buddy Holly was played a lot and that never left me. “Peggy Sue” to me is a mix of both thrilling – with that propulsive drum sound – and funny, with Holly’s silly voice work. It’s a combination that always makes me extremely happy.”

The 50’s revival that kept raising its head throughout the 1980s helped Hildebrand connect some of the dots back to his parents’ own favourites. He learnt that Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind” was in fact an earlier hit for Elvis and it quickly became a favourite. “One of the reasons [it] is on this playlist is in tribute to my parents,” he says. “I loved it when it came out and I was flabbergasted to discover it was a cover, and not just a cover, but a song recorded by both Elvis and Willie Nelson. I think it’s probably the greatest cover version ever recorded. It was a song that united all of our musical tastes, and it inadvertently lead to me accepting that not all country should be categorised as tedious Sunday afternoon car washing music.”

Hildebrand left Australia before he was 10, with his family relocating to Papua New Guinea. The combination of heat and torrential rain on Bougainville Island meant a lot of time was spent indoors and there wasn’t much by way of TV to keep young kids entertained. As a result, a healthy trade in pirated cassettes sprung up and Hildebrand was able to purchase pop music from the UK and America to soundtrack his days. “I gravitated towards funny songs,” he remembers. “That’s where I first heard “Weird Al” Yankovic and “Chalk Dust” by the Brat. You could pick up all sorts – for some reason my mum bought us Cliff Richard and Bread albums at one point.” Slowly, though, Hildebrand’s own tastes began to solidify. “Eventually my brother and I sought out stuff for ourselves. We used our pocket money to buy Songs From the Big Chair by Tears For Fears, and I bought the Madness album 7 because I liked the idea of a song called “Shut Up.” One year we went to Singapore on holiday and I bought a Paula Abdul tape and that Cure Standing On A Beach collection, which was probably an accurate portrayal of my tastes at the time.”

Hildebrand carries this thread of eclecticism to the current day. It was fostered further by the arrival of the music video show Rage arriving on Bougainville, from which he and his brother would copy favourite clips onto VHS. “Rage was a constant in my music education,” Hildebrand recalls. “[I]nstead of watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, we’d watch Top 40 videos. I remember being scandalised and excited by George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.” The most selected song by the guest programmers, crossing genre and generational boundaries, was “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite. And fair enough too: it’s completely fantastic post-modern disco-funk aceness and it helped, I think, keep my ears open at a time when alterna-guitars were starting to take over. I’ve loved it ever since, and I always swore that if I got to be a Rage guest programmer I’d include it on my playlist. This might be the closest I ever come to that.” Most pertinent, though, was an early exposure to The Jesus and Mary Chain. “That marriage of noise and pop, simple propulsive rhythm and feedback squalls, hit me like nothing else. I never really understood leather trousers on the beach, but I did try and make my hair look as wild and interesting as theirs. Unrelenting 40ºC heat and straight greasy hair wasn’t particularly conducive to the style.”

The Jesus and Mary Chain helped guide Hildebrand through to US shoegaze originators Medicine and into what he now terms “popnoise” – “kind of an attempt to define an aesthetic in a way: noise music with pop leanings or pop music with noise leanings. Abrasive music with a sugary edge.” It’s a style he’s keen to promote via his newly-launched Ghost Nun label, with early releases from Menagerie Specters and Sirhc Trebmal launched to demonstrate the Hildebrand philosophy. “A lot of current noise is focused on harsh noise wall and adjacent sounds, and I love that stuff, static-filled and kind of grey and dark,” he says. “But I wanted to provide a home for people like me who are making what I think of as more colourful noise, trying to make weird dissonance seem a bit like pop or make pop seem a bit like weird dissonance. It’s vague because I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for, but I want to keep it as open-ended as possible.” 

Hildebrand still holds the synth-led music of his youth close to his heart, with a Casio VL-1 being the first instrument he ever owned as a child, and this is evident in his own music and the releases on Ghost Nun too, even if the influence of The Pet Shop Boys and Trio is somewhat distorted by the time it exits the gate. “I’m not sure if I heard Trio before or after I got the Casio, but when I realised “Da Da Da” used THE EXACT SAME BEAT FROM MY SYNTH I was completely blown away. I’ve [always] had a fondness for music with an unchanging, relentless, hypnotic rhythm at its centre. You can hear that in this playlist – Faust, Laurie Anderson, Ween, even Flipper – part of my appreciation for them is based on the way I can get lost in that hyper-focused beat or pulse. Dan Friel’s probably an easy way to connect: joyous, anthemic noise pop made on an outlandishly distorted cheap keyboard. I love that Dan’s songs have this simple core pop tune, usually, and the distortion and feedback and noise adds to it, like sparks flying off a saw cutting through metal.”

That fun, joy and colour matters a lot to Hildebrand, which shows both in his own music and the words he chooses to describe the music on his playlist: Pavement are “simultaneously taking the piss and being entirely earnest”; Ween are “like a couple of friends trying to entertain each other”; Faust could “involve Benny Hill at any moment”; Gold Chains is “joyous” and “delirious”; and Flipper are “gloriously stupid.” When I say that “O Superman” was the serial killer Dennis Nilsen’s favourite song, Hildebrand says “I can’t blame him – it’s magnificent. So weird and yet so simple.”

Humour’s incredibly important to me, really central to who I am,” he continues. “To be honest I’m more surprised when art doesn’t have an element of humour to it.” I ask him about the way he titles his music (recent tracks include “The Hotel Receptionist Was Checking Me Out” and “No Noose is Good Noose”), to which he extols their importance. “They’re like a filter or a guide for the listener, especially for experimental music, and doubly so for instrumental music. You can give the listener permission to have fun, let them know that this music was created in a spirit of playfulness; or you can go the other way and aim for serious pondering of weighty issues.”  And as prolific as he is, Hildebrand says his creative process isn’t exactly serious either, but I suspect reflects that of more musicians than maybe care to admit it: “Every now and then I will find half an hour or 40 minutes when the kids are at school or otherwise busy and I’m not on a work deadline, and I will grab my pile of effects pedals and my little mixing board and drag them onto the floor of my little office space, along with my laptop and sometimes an old kids’ keyboard. This is all done with headphones on so as not to irritate my family or our neighbours with a new-born baby… I just leave things running for a couple of minutes, try to play little synth lines through the mixer at the same time as it’s feeding back on itself, or otherwise experiment with beats or things [and] that’s basically it.”