Has COVID-19 killed the garage band?


As stages have fallen silent, so too have hundreds of rehearsal spaces for countless bands that rely on being in the same room.

For decades, Victoria’s celebrated live music scene has been fuelled – and constantly renewed – by bands busting out of the garage with a bunch of songs, a thirst for bright lights and energy to burn.

But months of restrictions on gatherings aimed at throttling the pandemic have devastated the live scene, strangled rehearsals and prevented budding musicians from jamming with friends.

Instead, a proliferation of online gigs have been a creative outlet for artists and entertained fans at home. Solo artists in particular have turned to technology to stream shows.

Charles Jenkins (second from right) from Icecream Hands, says lockdowns that keep band members apart can create time to explore new creative pathways.

Charles Jenkins (second from right) from Icecream Hands, says lockdowns that keep band members apart can create time to explore new creative pathways.Credit:

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But it’s not the same. Is this the death knell of the band as we know it? Is the future of music going to be a more solitary, remote affair?

Melbourne singer and songwriter Charles Jenkins hopes not.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun in my musical life than when you’re first in a band,” he said. ‘We’d get together two nights a week for five hours a night and just play and play and play … it’s a real artistic freedom and it’s fun.”

Jenkins, now a renowned solo artist, rediscovered the joy of the jam room with his old band, Icecream Hands, who last month released their first new album in 13 years. He says there’s nothing quite like the energy that fills a room when a band starts exploring their creativity.

And he’s upbeat about the future. Bands yet to break out of the rehearsal space should use this enforced downtime to get creative juices flowing, he says.

“There’s no pressure, you don’t have to be in the garage to come up with those ideas but it’s back in the garage they can bloom,” he said. “The whole band doesn’t have to shut down … you can still work on your ideas knowing that when the band gets back together, it’s going to be a whole lot more fun.

“The whole band doesn’t have to shut down … you can still work on your ideas …

Charles Jenkins

“Try writing half-songs, not the whole thing because eventually this will finish, and eventually we’ll get back together in the room and we’ll finish the song then. Writing half-songs takes the pressure off — they’re not masterpieces, they’re not complete items, just half a song and doing that can open the floodgates.”

Ella Hooper exploded onto Australia’s music scene with Killing Heidi in the mid-1990s, and although she’s gone onto a successful solo career, she sympathises with bands that for most of 2020 have not been allowed to crank up their amps.

Ella Hooper suggests looking to movies, books and other musicians for inspiration during lockdown.

Ella Hooper suggests looking to movies, books and other musicians for inspiration during lockdown.Credit:

“It’s like we’re all stuck in a crappy waiting room with crappy old magazines and wondering when this will end,” Hooper said. “The main thing is to not drop the creativity but to go into planning mode, which is what I’ve been doing.

“You don’t get into music because you want a safe and secure life — obviously we want things to be more safe and secure right now — but we’re already the types that can flourish in weird times.

“Even if it’s thinking about themes you want to explore and diving deep into material that’s going to inform your creativity, there’s always stuff you can be doing. Nobody can stop you doing that and yes, things will change and it might be a different musical landscape, but to some degree, things will go back.”

Victoria’s government hasn’t yet set out a roadmap to reopen entertainment venues, or even allow band-sized gatherings. Musicians of all genres, from rock to opera, are desperately keen to know when they can again plug in and play.

Punk veteran Paulie Stewart of the Painters and Dockers hopes the scene will come back with a bang.

“It was my daughter who said to me recently, when I was down in the dumps, ‘just remember after the last pandemic came the roaring ’20s’,” he said. “And I thought wow, that’s not a bad way to look at it. Rock ‘n’ roll is such a great way to express yourself, and while I think we’ll see smaller gigs, everyone wants to go to a gig.”

Paul Stewart with his band Painters and Dockers in 2014

Paul Stewart with his band Painters and Dockers in 2014 Credit:Wayne Taylor

His band emerged in the early ’80s with truckloads of attitude and a swag of songs thrashed out from deep within darkened, windowless rooms, much the same way many young bands still find their groove in the garage.

“I’d give anything to see a gig and have a couple of beers — that sounds like the greatest day ever,” Stewart said. “We’ll emerge eventually; you can’t keep people down and hopefully the scene will respond.

“It’s only rock ‘n’ roll but a lot of us firmly believe in it.”

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