Melbourne’s blessing and curse is its constancy. Its constantly inconsistent weather; the constancy of extraordinary choice at extraordinary prices; consistently good art trying to pull consistent audiences for sustainable money; and the constant handful of stalwarts driving every Melbourne scene.
Sean M. Whelan is one the stalwarts of Melbourne spoken word. In the mid-2000s he was convening a night called Babble, and The Mime Set were an art-rock band in the loose constellations of Melbourne’s post-rock and indie scenes. Guitarist Andrew Watson and I created the songs that would end up on our album sleeping is the hardest part, then we added bassist Justin Avery and drummer Chris Chapple and wrote as a group for I’ve Only Ever Lived In Rivertowns.
We were honing our Cocteau Twins-meets-Dirty Three aesthetic, trying to push our own and others’ emotional boundaries with earnest, beautiful and intense sounds. Twice in 2004 Sean invited us to be the guest band at Babble. Unlike too-cool rock audiences, poetry crowds were receptive to our sincerity. I remember a full bandroom at Bar Open, silent, attentive, letting themselves go on our journeys. I was asked about my lyrics. Maybe this was our crowd?
In April 2005, we had a residency at The Builders Arms, pairing ourselves with a support act and a poet. Sean performed twice with us. We decided to try uniting our music with his romantic, surreal poetry, giving ourselves the Melbourne Fringe Festival as a deadline.
As in ‘Honey O’, where Sean’s poem duets with my lyrics of relationship breakdown, Sean responded to existing Mime Set songs, re-contextualising our work with his own, while we jammed out, argued over and lovingly crafted responses to his poems.
The next three years were some of the most productive of my musical working life. We created three one-hour theatrical performances: Death To Your Dreams, LCUK: Falling In and Out of Luck, and Sweet Cowboy. We added new member Jon Shannon. We played often, including festivals in Melbourne, Adelaide, Wellington and Paekakariki. It was a rigorous, exciting and intensely creative period.
In 2008, The Mime Set as a band ended messily on tour in Europe. As a final chapter before I moved to Berlin, we and Sean spent a stinking hot week in tents for our two final shows at the Woodford Folk Festival. So it came as a gobsmacking surprise earlier this year to receive Going Down Swinging’s invitation to re-form for one show.
Editor Geoff Lemon’s kind email, expressing his regard for our work and place in the spoken word scene, and outlining the One Night Wonders series, left me sobbing happily. In over 20 years in bands, I have rarely received such a gracious, warm assessment of my work.
A careful, constructive email conversation ensued, with all but our original bassist back on board. I will always be grateful that my bandmates decided to donate our performance fee, funded by the City of Melbourne, towards my airfare so that I could be part of the reunion.
In the interim, Sean and Andrew have worked together in the Interim Lovers. Chris, Jon and our newest member Tom Hoskins play together in Swamp Moth. I’ve been in Berlin, running monthly house concert series Sofa Salon and making albums as Wasp Summer.
For our show at the amazing Mission to Seafarers, we’re presenting a kind of Best Of Sean M. Whelan and The Mime Set. It’s been both profoundly weird and completely natural to be in a rehearsal space with these guys again, revisiting this work which was so important to us. It’s been a rare and unexpected joy to discover that the work was important to other people, and receive such practical affirmations as a specially recorded concert and a ticket home. I can report that the musical intensity is still there, even as the interpersonal intensity has mellowed.
Melbourne constantly surprised me, and if our band, for a few years, surprised and pleased it with lovingly made art, I’m only too happy to reunite Sean M. Whelan and The Mime Set, revisit our soundtracked spoken word project and, with a roomful of well-wishers and art lovers, celebrate wonder for one night.
Sam Wareing’s current band is Wasp Summer.