Australian Indie Rockers Are Stealing Hearts Around the World
Get ready for a rude awakening.
The Australian indie band Rudely Interrupted has gained fans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. In 2008, they played well-known venues around the world, and wrapped up the year with a historic gig at the United Nations on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Not bad for a group whose members only started playing together in 2006, and whose drummer’s previous percussion experience involved banging on pots and pans as he listened to the radio.
The band is remarkable for another reason. Five of its six members have a range of physical and intellectual disabilities. But, far from being a novelty act or a charity project, the band writes and records its own songs, and it has enjoyed plenty of radio play Down Under. The group has also been featured at the Laneway Festival, one of Australia’s hippest music events, sharing the bill with beloved acts such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Feist.
The band released one EP, Don’t Break My Heart, in 2008. Its heartfelt, bewitching and deceptively simple pop/rock tunes quickly found favour with the press. Gary Butler, a Toronto music critic and editor of DRIVEN magazine, described the band’s first single, “Don’t Break My Heart,” as a “note-perfect new wave guitar-/synth-pop confection….This is a great song, end of- and regardless of- story.”
I met the band during their brief stop in Toronto last December. We chatted at their hotel the day before a show at Sneaky Dee’s, a downtown hotspot.
Rory Burnside, 21, is the band’s singer. He has Asperger’s syndrome, which makes it difficult for him to empathize with others. He is blind, and he’s had numerous surgeries for a cleft lip and palate. He also takes medication to manage epilepsy.
Despite being born without eyes, Burnside thinks in colours. He also has perfect pitch, and is honing his music skills at a prestigious arts school in Melbourne. He’s also an incorrigible flirt – during our interview, he declared, “You’re gorgeous!”
Burnside says he thoroughly enjoys being in a band and touring. “Every time we’ve gotten up on stage and performed, it’s been amazing. Oftentimes it feels like we’re doing a lot of hard work for not much reward, but that 45-minute period we’re onstage making music, that’s when I feel it’s really paid up. I just love making music, and it’s really helped to enhance my social life.”
The band’s name can be attributed to Burnside. “Because I have Asperger’s syndrome, that makes it harder for me not to interrupt people. Conversely, it makes it harder for me to not be interrupted. I’m either the interrupter or interrupted.”
As for his bandmates, Connie Kirkpatrick, 46, has Down syndrome and low vision; Josh Hogan, 21, has autism spectrum disorder; Sam Beke, 24, has Down syndrome; and Marcus Stone, 28, has Asperger’s and is hard of hearing. That doesn’t stop them from rocking out like their assorted musical heroes – Hogan, for instance, loves Guns ‘n’ Roses, while Sam dresses like Sid Vicious and loves KISS.
The band was formed by Rohan Brooks, who has been a professional musician since 1992. (He has played with The Everyones (U.S.), The Anyones (Australia), Jet, The Killers and Morrissey.) He met the other band members through his work as a music therapist for people with intellectual disabilities at the St. John of God’s Churinga Day Service in Melbourne.
“Rory’s the son of a friend of mine – I met him at an Australia Day barbecue in 2006. Marcus is a gardener on the grounds of the disability service where I work, and Josh, Sam and Connie all attend the day service,” explains Brooks, who is the band’s guitarist and backup singer. “We would muck around doing music programs, and then we received the good news that we received a grant to put together…not so much a band, but to write and record a song and do a performance. It took us three or four months to even play one note together as a band, but once we did that, everything sort of fell into place.”
“Don’t Break My Heart” was inspired by a conversation between Brooks and Burnside. A teacher who Burnside was very close to had just passed away. This painful loss caused him to feel an emotional “malfunction” – a word he repeats, robot-like, in the song. He wanted to know, “Can you die from a broken heart?”
The band’s other songs were created in similar fashion. “We just wrote about our experiences, and we all sit around and have lyric days and melody days, whatever’s on their minds at the time,” says Brooks.
As Beke starts whacking Hogan with a pillow, I can’t help but ask if the band has indulged in any rock-star behaviour, such as trashing hotels. Brooks looks on in exasperation. “We have our moments.”
Burnside pipes up: “When we were in Sydney last year, we were in a hotel and Sam wandered off somehow and ended up in the basement at 2 or 3 in the morning. Rohan got a call from the police!”
Brooks sighs. “There were like six security guards, and Sam was in his pajamas. We’ve had all sorts of dramas – our car being smashed into, our gear being stolen, Sam getting into the minibars, and we’ve had to pay a fortune.”
“I didn’t know about that!” Burnside shouts. “What’s a minibar?”
“We just get into general mischief,” says Brooks with a grin. “Wherever we go, we definitely have an impact. We leave an impression – good or bad, I’m not sure. But if people come see us play, they forgive us for everything.”
I can attest to the transformative power of Rudely Interrupted’s live gigs. Their Toronto show was incredibly fun – and packed. The band was bursting with energy, they nailed every note, and Burnside’s sweet ‘n’ sour lyrics and deadpan patter instantly endeared him to the crowd.
The band treated us to all the catchy songs from its EP, the wonderfully juvenile (and stomach-turning) “Pimple Song,” and an almost-better-than-the-original cover of English Beat’s “I Melt With You.” It’s obvious that they play for the sheer joy of making music – changing society’s perceptions of people with disabilities is purely icing on the power-pop cake.
The response to Rudely Interrupted has been very positive. “The thing about this band is that we’re not here to change the way people think, but we challenge the way people think about disabilities. It’s unique and difficult, but it’s what we do by default,” says Brooks, explaining that they’re working against the misconceptions of everyone from booking agents to music critics. “They hear the word ‘disability’ and don’t even listen to the music, so you’ve got to battle there, and battle with the media to get your story heard. So every step of the way, we’re challenging the way people think about disability. [They say] ‘Oh, isn’t that great, a bunch of disabled people playing music.’ We’re giving it a crack. We want to play in the good venues because we’re a bloody rock band.”
Brooks played drums for other bands; guitar is relatively new for him, and he practises daily like the rest of the group. “When we’re up on stage, we’re all going for it, playing our guts out. This band has played fundraiser after fundraiser, gig after gig in Melbourne. We’ve self-financed this tour with some support from the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation in Melbourne and Vision Australia, where Rory went to school.”
The band’s persistence has paid off. By tour’s end, they had been covered by The London Times, Fox News, MTV News, Time Out New York, the BBC and several other news outlets; in Canada, they appeared on CBC’s The Hour and MuchMusic. CNN shot their final concert, at The Fly in London, England, for its international show Impact Your World. (You can find a link to the video at www.rudelyinterrupted.com/about.php.) The band is planning more tour dates for 2009.
Ian Woolverton, the band’s media liaison, resident photographer and friend, sent me an email after the London gig. “The last show was a massive celebration for us all. The room was packed, and the crowd lost their minds…The tour was an outstanding success on many, many levels, but most importantly, the strength of [the band’s] musical ability shone brightly and stood strong above the disability. So the tour’s over, the band’s going home, and meanwhile, The Rudies have started to change the way people see disability. Seriously, it was an amazing experience for all of us – life-changing and affirming.”
To learn more about Rudely Interrupted and purchase the band’s music, visit www.rudelyinterrupted.com.