Remembering Royal Headache

In 2011 I had a moderately-trafficked music blog, just like everybody else. Part of the way that that particular system of music pollination worked was that I would occasionally be sent a zip file of MP3s to listen to and pick one to upload for the blog's readers. That would then be aggregated on the Hype Machine and maybe find a wider audience. It's hard to say that it was much better than today's system of monolithic DSPs, although it did have the advantage of feeling slightly more artisanal.

This context is the long way around on saying that in August 2011 I was sent a zip file with the songs from an album that I expected to love and did. Royal Headache were a special band. From the moment they blinked into public awareness with an iconic set, relatively speaking, at a punk festival and a four track 7", they were loved. I loaded the MP3s onto my MP3 player and waited to listen to them until I was in the park so I could remember the moment. I do remember the moment.

I think the thing that made people love Royal Headache was the contradictions that they represented, and how convincing and exciting those contradictions were. A lot of music is not contradictory. Bands and songwriters synthesise the music that they love into new music. Most people like a similar range of things, and it's easy to match things with the things they are like. That's fair enough. It doesn't mean their music is bad music. But a band that can crush together the unexpected and make it work is rare.

Royal Headache came from a community of bands and small labels that prized a rough and authentic DIY aesthetic, which we can probably imagine emerged, at least partly, as a response to the late 00s boom of polished indie rock. That community had many good bands. Many of them - both in Australia and in other countries - seemed to want nothing more than to do what they liked doing and play to the people who liked the same thing. That's also fair enough. Royal Headache were different. Their music included many of the sonic hallmarks of their fellows in that community, but it also included a thick melodic streak and the striking vocals of lead singer Shogun. Royal Headache seemed to suddenly present the prospect that band who shunned polished production and label investment could cross over. They were good enough for it. Their songs were catchy. Their live shows were famously thrilling. Their lyrics were memorable: self-deprecating, but in a way that was raw, not wry; personal; rooted in the real world. I'm trying not to be too hyperbolic, and it's hard, because the cumulative effect of the frankness of the songwriting and the rough hide of the recorded songs were like an IV. They hit hard and hit fast.

When Royal Headache was released, 10 years ago this month, it caused a fuss. It sold out at independent record stores. It generated discourse, a feat few Sydney-based independent punk bands have pulled off since. I remember seeing a thread on a message board about whether it was "an album for dudes". It got international attention. Royal Headache toured overseas. They, along with a handful of other acts, seemed like they could be on the cusp of ushering in a new world order, one where a marketing budget didn't matter and pretensions etc were torn down by an energised generation of sensible rockers. I'm sure it didn't feel like that to everyone. But I listened to the album in the park and thought: this is the model of how it works. What excuse does everyone have now that Royal Headache have shown it can be done? It's got heart, it's got melody, it's beholden to nothing but the priorities of the idiosyncratic individuals in the band.

Of course that never happened. Royal Headache released another album and then slowly and apparently acrimoniously fell apart. In retrospect it makes sense that the primal howl that Royal Headache barely funneled into a guitar music album was born from genuine conflict. You can listen to the album now and hear that. You should, too. There's still nothing like it. I can't believe that.