The Basics talk Racism, Refugees and Rock ‘n’ RollThe Basics are an Australian band formed by Kris Schroeder, Wally De Backer (also known as Gotye) and Tim Heath. Their style spans a wide range of genres, and they are recognized as one of Australia’s hardest working bands. The Basic’s latest album Age of Entitlement provides an insightful commentary on the state of Australian life and politics, as well as topics like offshore detention, human rights and casual racism. The Aware Project was lucky enough to catch up with Kris and Tim from the Basics and talk about the band’s beginnings, as well as refugees and racism in Australia.
Aware: Where did you guys grow up and where did you all meet?
Kris: I’m from Melbourne, from a suburb called Frankston and Wally was originally born in Belgium but grew up in Montmorency which is near Eltham, Victoria. A mate of mine from school was going over to the States to work as an assistant engineer in a studio. He’s gone on to win Grammy awards himself and does vocal work for Justin Bieber and Missy Elliot and all this other crazy stuff. But it was his going away party, where he set up a bunch of instruments for us to jam out and whatever. I’d never met Wally before but Wally had helped him out on a couple of battle of the bands things, and he played drums. A bunch of us just jammed and I thought “fuck he’s good on drums,” I hadn’t even heard Wally sing at this point. I had a gig in Frankston and I invited him to play along, it was for $100 each and that’s how The Basics started. A couple years later we wanted to evolve to something a bit more sophisticated and put an ad in the local street press for a guitarist who loved 60’s and 50’s Rock and Roll, and Tim was the only one to apply so we got stuck with him.
Aware: What brought you close as a band first? Was it the music you were making or was it your views on music and education?
Tim: Well it was just music to begin with. I guess we all evolved together and learned. Seeing a lot of regional and rural Australia has maybe subconsciously opened up our ideas about the country as a whole and I think that’s led us to engage with the community and learn together.
Kris: Traveling and experiencing things and learning together – we’re all pretty different people really. There’s been a lot of common experiences we’ve had where if you’re anyone with a brain you can read between the lines and start to ask the hard questions, and all three of us have always wanted to push boundaries and say “it doesn’t have to be this way”.
Aware: As a band you have a history of engaging with Indigenous communities and supporting charity organisations. Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done, and what you got out of it?
Kris: It kicked off when we went on a unique tour across the Top End. For me it was when we did a gig in Derby on the way to Broome where we played at a venue called ‘The Blackfella’s Pub.’ Doing that show and other shows where we were really engaging with parts of Australia that were heavily Indigenous, and coming from Victoria where there are not many Indigenous Australians, it starts to open up what Australia is really about and could be about. Which actually comes back to an article that I was reading the other day where Paul Keating emphasised how important it is that white Australia and black Australia create a new identity. I think we were headed in that direction in the late 70’s and 80’s, and then a lot of people got really pigheaded in the last 20 years. Since then there’s such a loss of community and loss of respect for people because everyone is getting in each other’s way for their own selfish reasons. Seeing something different to that was like, “Ah this is it, this is good!”
Tim: And you can’t get a sense of that unless you go out there – you can read all the stuff you want but you can’t form your own opinion until you’ve experienced it.
Kris: So that’s where it started. Then we did a couple of government funded tours when we went to remote and Indigenous communities. We did classes with the kids and took reggae bands like The Sunshine Reggae Band on tour up to Darwin, and engaged with kids in high school. I don’t think we even knew exactly what we were doing, I guess we were just trying to do something good. And then I decided I wanted to go on and continue the humanitarian work so I ended up with the Red Cross over in Kenya where the intention was to understand what development is, and I’ve learnt a lot from that.
Aware: Something that comes up a lot in your music, especially Age Of Entitlement, is immigration and that links to racism as well, for instance in the song Tunaomba Saidia. Where does that concern for refugees and the immigration system come from? And what should Australia be doing differently?
Kris: My girlfriend at the time was working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and she interviewed potential refugees, and hearing a lot of the stories and also working for Red Cross we had a lot of contact with Dadaab which is the largest refugee camp in the world, so it was just a part of my life. When you look at Australia from a distance you realise again that we’re a bunch of selfish pricks that are so shielded from the reality of what the world really is. And then there’s shows like ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ and there’s still one prick who still doesn’t get it so it goes to show that there are some people who just don’t have any empathy.
Tim: Growing up in inner Melbourne I think you can find yourself in a bit of a bubble with so many ethnicities and cultures around you so having a diverse community seems normal, but then you go to Rural NSW or VIC, even suburban Melbourne and there’s all this ‘go back to where you came from’. Kris’ dad is German, Wally’s parents are Belgian so I think we all have this sense of immigration being a normal thing to do in a first world country. So when people say ‘no we can’t let you in’ and there are stories and images of people being left for dead you’re like, what the fuck?
Kris: My empathy was also compounded by the fact that I grew up with red hair – as ridiculous as that may sound! Pretty much just from being judged on physical appearance. And I’m not saying that racism is unique to white people, in Africa we were sometimes called ‘Blue Eyed Devils.’ But what’s important is that we, trying to be the ‘bigger man’, deal with our own hang ups about how physical appearance defines our actions to people and whether we listen to them or whether we write them off.
It was a pretty horrible existence growing up at times with red hair. But then Tim’s also got red hair but he was just able to deal with it differently in a different set of circumstances. Being able to then empathise with someone who is discriminated against because of any kind of physical appearance, that definitely impacted on how much it matters to me. In a way I’m doing something for myself. Boat people only make up 4% of refugees arriving in Australia, which is a ridiculously small amount compared to those who arrive by other means, but these people are discriminated against because they arrived by boat. And they’re demonised as a technique to sell papers and to play politics. Tunaomba Saidia is an amalgamation of stories and experiences which I heard about from my girlfriend who worked at UNHCR.
Aware: How important do you think music is to increase awareness about these issues?
Kris: It’s a framework through which you can communicate with people and make connections. When we did this tour a few years ago when we were raising awareness about Lifeline and drug and alcohol abuse, the music was there to make us not just look like a bunch of white boy knobs going around and talking about those things, but going “hey we can rock out” and now that we’re cool and have got some kind of bond let’s talk about some other things. Whether we did that well or not is beside the point – we gave it a crack, and there’s not many people out there doing that. I don’t know whether we’ve even had any effect on anything but we try.
Aware: What would you say to young people who are aspiring to make music like yours that’s informative, and actually want to make a difference in their community and in Australia?
Kris: Just do it. Forget about triple j, forget about commercial success, forget about wanting to be a pop star, forget about any aspirations and just concentrate on speaking your views and not being afraid of them. And you’re going to get a lot of shit, and you’re going to get a lot of people criticising you but if you want to do that then that’s what you’ve gotta do. You’ve gotta be willing to take the fall and you’ve gotta be willing to fight.