Music to Drive-By is the infamous first record put out by the Dual Plover record label, run by Australia’s Lucas Abela. The album captures the bizarre sounds emanating from the malfunctioning stereo system of his Kombi, which is the Australian name for a Volkswagen Bus, or Volkswagen Type 2.
This release, which garnered accolades in The Wire and Bananafish for its odd concept, was also included in Aquarius Records’ famous distribution list. That’s where I first learned about it many moons ago.
Today, Lucas Abela records music under the name Justice Yeldham, and is famous for working with contact microphones and broken glass. He’s even contributed shattered-glass sounds to Death Grips’ 2018 album, Year of the Snitch. But before he became Justice Yeldham, he was known as DJ Smallcock, and even before that, he put out Music to Drive-By, credited to A Kombi.
I asked Abela about this unique release via email, and he filled me in on the details. “I was homeless when we recorded the record, and was actually living inside A Kombi for that entire summer,” he explains. “But A Kombi, to me, wasn’t about just that record but more the entire period of time I owned that van. The recordings were done in 1994, not long before A Kombi died somewhere near Newcastle, Australia and was abandoned. But before that we had a good few years together.
“I brought the Van in ’92 just after finishing high school in order to move to Sydney, but it wasn’t until a year or so later that we had the accident that started the whole A Kombi phenomenon.”
That harrowing accident led, in a circuitous way, to the van’s profound ability to generate unusual sounds. “The van rolled an entire 180 degrees, landing on its feet while traveling down Mount Tambourine in Queensland. Fearing that the engine would stall if I stopped, I just decided to keep driving. It was quite a surreal experience and I guess the adrenaline made me carry on, bleeding from my elbow and staring through a shattered windscreen. Anyway, the body of the van was trashed but the engine was still good, so I shopped for a Kombi with the opposite problem and switched the motor out.
“I also switched out the stereo and must have done something wrong as somehow I had inadvertently turned the entire van into a contact microphone of sorts. To this day I’m still unsure why, but the body of the van became amplified in a way like if you turned on the windscreen wipers an electric screech would blast out from the speakers. The sounds emitted were quite random and always changing and honestly the album only hints at the kinds of sounds the Kombi started to produce.”
I asked him if there were patterns to the noise the stereo system would make. “Whenever you remained motionless in the car and did nothing it would make a clicking sound. If memory serves, these sounds are best documented in the ‘Plight of the Bumblebee’ track. The sound would then careen into noise whenever you moved inside the car or ran the motor.”
He then got the idea to record the sounds the car made using a microphone next to the car speakers. The results were channeled to a DAT player that was sitting on the roof. All this happened with the car parked in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, which is situated on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
This recording was an early example of his fascination with avant-garde sounds. “Although I had an interest in experimental music and had done some bedroom experiments with vinyl records in the eighties to replicate a NON record I had read about but couldn’t buy, I wasn’t really making my own music at this point and wanted to become a film director. Weirdly, this interaction with my van steered me in the musical direction, that and finding myself with a graveyard shift on community radio when I first moved to Sydney.”
I wondered what compelled him to record the Kombi sounds specifically. “Because I had an appreciation for discordant sounds, I knew these blurts of static were more musical than your average malfunctioning stereo,” he reasons. “One of my favourite things to do with A Kombi was to pull up to a bus stop full of people and do a quick drive-by recital at full volume. The van even played live at a club once.”
All of the tracks were unaugmented recordings of the vehicle alone, apart from the three-parted “Moonlight Serenade,” which was a recording of the car speakers playing a tape of an experimental radio show that Abela was running. Those tracks combined the Kombi’s cacophony with a broadcast Abela had done in which he rigged up a record to play on a mutant turntable with four or five styli on “bendable wire arms” playing the same record simultaneously. Thus, these tracks carry an extra background ambience, which was augmented by some reverb.
The cover of the A Kombi disc features a grainy image of the Kombi driving across the Harbour Bridge next to the Popemobile. In a moment of serendipity, Pope John Paul II came to visit Sydney in 1995, and Abela ended up driving next to the Pope’s car vehicle by accident in his noisy Kombi. “I was coming back home across the bridge after buying a Lenco turntable I found on the trading post. Us driving alongside each other was totally random.”
The Pope’s ride across the bridge was caught by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I didn’t even know they had footage but assumed someone must have filmed as it was historic I guess, and the Harbour Bridge seemed like the obvious place to get a shot of the Pope. So I called up the ABC and asked. They looked it up in archivals and asked if I was driving the Kombi with the smashed rear end.” A screencap of that video found its way onto the cover of Music to Drive-By, and has also been put up by Abela on Youtube.
After sending out the recording to several labels who weren’t interested, he decided to put it out himself, creating the Dual Plover label for the occasion. It was those other labels’ loss, since the record is now a cult album, and Dual Plover has grown into a seminal underground label.
Abela says he was taken aback by how people responded to Music to Drive-By. “I sent copies out to people I admired and was blown away that people like EYE, Merzbow, Kramer and others wrote back loving the record. The copy I sent to Gregg Turkington at Amarillo Records (which I loved) was even handed over to Bananafish who wrote me wanting to do an interview. It was these initial connections that allowed me to do my first overseas tour in Japan and America where I got to meet and play with a lot of these people I adored. it made me realize the world is so small and that even though I was culturally marooned on our stupid antipodean island that I could still take part in the music world I observed from a far. It wasn’t totally removed, which pre-internet was an amazing feeling.”
As a fun footnote, Abela also recalls sending a copy to a magazine for Kombi enthusiasts (perhaps VW Magazine Australia?). They didn’t respond.
Today, Abela looks back fondly on this release, and figures it is due for a revisit. “Would be great to see a reissue on vinyl. Only 500 CDs were pressed and a lot of people still think it was my best work, as the naivety was especially naive compared to what followed.”
Thanks to Lucas Abela a.k.a. Justice Yeldham a.k.a. former owner of A Kombi for the interview. You can explore his various goings-on at http://dualplover.com/.