Erica Dunn is a Triple-Threat Rocker Fronting Palm Springs, Tropical Fuck Storm, MOD CON, and More

Erica Dunn with MOD CON

What’s more impressive than being the member of one of Melbourne’s most iconic rock ‘n’ roll bands? Being the member of several. Erica Dunn – of MOD CON, Tropical Fuck Storm, Harmony, and Palm Springs –  is a rarity.

The signs were all there early, though. Her school guitar lessons morphed her into a non-stop busker at the age of 13. She recalls taking the train into Melbourne’s city centre with a friend, then “playing the most horrific, full-on, original compositions,” she tells Audiofemme. “We were really serious about it!”

Somewhere along the line, she recalls, she got into punk and rock ’n’ roll bands and immersed herself in the British live music scene. She returned to Australia and began hosting her own radio show (Mixing Up The Medicine) in 2008 – which ended up running for 11 years on Melbourne’s community station PBS 106.7FM before her schedule with Tropical Fuck Storm, MOD CON and Harmony took precedence. “I had this show that was my special little pocket, and I only had to give it up because we were touring so much. I still miss it,” she says.

Before leaving the show, she also began solo project Palm Springs to exercise her acoustic persona. Back in 2017, Dunn applied and got a songwriting residency in upstate New York, where she felt duty-bound to write a record. Palm Springs & Friends came out of that time; the album was released in limited edition on cassette, and the gorgeous, pared-back sound is reminiscent of recorded-to-tape, ’90s lo-fi bands. That’s no accident – she tracked most of the album at NYHed Studio, which she describes as “this amazing underground 8-track tape analog place on the Lower East Side. It was a real dream.” It was mastered by prolific producer/engineer/musician Mikey Young. Soon, Poison City Records will put out a Palm Springs best-of collection on vinyl. “It’s amazing that anyone cares,” Dunn says. “It’s really nice to think that someone values it and wants it out on record. Mikey’s been on the blower today because it’s his job to master everything.”

Dunn inhabiting her Palm Springs persona

It is in Palm Springs that Dunn is at her most vulnerable, though her punk-rock soul meant she’d chafed at being boxed into the stereotype of a folk rock girl. “My relationship with just being a girl and a guitar, having that pigeonholed, I full on flipped and rebelled against that,” she explains. “It’s been interesting to get back, enjoy the depth of the craft, and just picking on a nylon string guitar, which is so terrifying and such a stretch of skills. There’s no distortion pedal, nothing to hide behind at all. I really love playing in that way.”

Around the time she started Palm Springs, she was living with Raquel Solier, who played drums on a few of the project’s early 7 inches. Along with bassist Sara Retallick, Palm Springs put out a tape called Flowers in a Vase as a three-piece, but their work together quickly mutated into the energetic, angular MOD CON. “When we began writing together,” Dunn remembers, “we saw that Palm Springs was one thing, but MOD CON is a whole other thing.” Their fabulous single from June, “Ammo,” is all-femme power-punk, with guitar sweeping over the atmosphere like a venomous tail. Ten days ago, they released a second single, “Learner in an Alpha;” both will appear on their forthcoming LP Modern Condition, out October 22 via Poison City.

“You start a little band and you never know the longevity of it or what’s going to happen… especially, three women. You play in punk bands in your 20s and then people have families, or they start to treat it as a hobby,” she points out. “Raquel became a mum, Sara does this high-level study, and I’m away all the time, but actually the three of us are like, ‘This is part of our identity, this is how we express ourselves.'” Dunn says it was “a great relief” that Solier and Retallick both opted to continue MOD CON.

But Dunn’s most well-known musical endeavor formed practically on a whim, and has endured, seemingly by happenstance, against all odds. She was on tour with dark pop project Harmony (“I Love You” on 2018’s Double Negative is both pleading and seemingly resigned, with its sad doo-wop harmonies, the thunk of a drum that sounds like it might just give up, and a sense of echoing loneliness around vocalist Tom Lyngcoln) supporting The Drones when she became fast friends with Gareth “Gaz” Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin. They’d just started a side project called Tropical Fuck Storm and were fleshing out the lineup, which would also come to include Lauren “Hammer” Hammel.

“We’d go up to their ramshackle place in the bush in the summer, hanging out. I’m not sure exactly when the conversation came about, but it took them a little bit of time to work out what they wanted TFS to be like,” Dunn recalls. “It was really exciting. There’s not that many people in Australia who can make music and live off that, and they spend most of their life touring. They’ve got big plans, always looking to make something out of nothing. One moment they’re like ‘Do you wanna jam?’ Then they’ve booked a tour to the States!” That’s exactly what Tropical Fuck Storm did, releasing debut LP A Laughing Death in Meatspace in May 2018, less than eight months after their first live shows.

“It was a crazy time, that initial year,” Dunn says. “It’s amazing working with people who are so gung-ho, who live, breathe and do. We made an album, then we were away playing hundreds of shows. It was intense, but then of course last year, we came to a total standstill.”

Tropical Fuck Storm / Photo Credit: Jamie Wdziekonski

Dunn was in Melbourne, but domestic partners Liddiard and Kitschin live in regional Victoria, which was off-limits during lockdowns. “Gaz and I were trying to send each other videos and audio but it was crap because we’re so bad with technology,” Dunn says. “When the ring-of-steel lifted in November, I went and lived with them for three months and we recorded up there. It was strange, getting back into it. We’d been in a van all together every day, and we wondered if that intuition would ever come back. When you think you’ll never do anything like that ever again, it was so exciting to play as a band together again. I plugged my guitar in and was like, ‘Can I even use this?’”

In fact, Dunn plays guitar and keys and shares some of the vocal duties on Tropical Fuck Storm’s latest release, Deep States, which arrived in August of this year via Joyful Noise Recordings. The album “absorbs and distils some of the madness of the time” they spent getting used to one another again. “It’s funny – we were trying to have days off but we’re used to being up in each other’s grilles in a way. It was like I’d missed my family for a year and the ridiculous sense of humour we have grown together with,” Dunn says. “We’d work hard, then have times of just going swimming. We’d be trying to make a barbecue, but discussing the bridge, the harmony, the lyrics. Three months is a long time. It was a hard slog; it was great.”

So too, does Deep States mine the current political and social climate for all its gory, disturbing and darkly humorous gold. Single “G.A.F.F.” is a cosmic journey of fuzzy, furious feedback, raw daggers of reality delivered by Liddiard’s snarling vocals, all riding upon a twangy bassline that treads a narrow brick wall, threatening to fall and crash any moment. And, in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, the sentiment – “Give A Fuck Fatigue” – hits home. Elsewhere, “New Romeo Agent” is a melodic post-punk ballad delivered over the gentle handclap-style drums and jangle of keyboard chords.

With so many of her projects finally releasing material again, Erica Dunn is not likely to leave Melbourne’s musical radar this year. There are even tentative plans to record again with Harmony. Hailed as something of a cult hero, Dunn explains her wildly prolific output rather humbly. “It’s funny to have these different hats and different projects,” she says. “The different things that I’m inspired by seem to present a different trajectory in what I’m making and doing.”

Follow MOD CON, Tropical Fuck Storm, and Palm Springs on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Raven Mahon on The Green Child, Her Duo With Mikey Young

Raven Mahon doesn’t do predictable. The mixed-media designer is also a musician, currently half of The Green Child with Mikey Young (of Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Total Control). The duo started out as a long-distance collaboration, but Mahon and Young now live in the same house. The Green Child references ’60s dream-pop along with adventures into experimental synthesizer and drum machine. Mahon’s vocals, familiar to fans of her former work with San Francisco post-punk outfit Grass Widow, are the human connection to an ethereal soundscape.

“Music has always been self-initiated and self-guided,” she tells Audiofemme. Though she is evidently well-practiced in working with others, at heart her creations are, as she describes it, a solitary practice. That worked out well given The Green Child’s origins: Young was living in Australia and Mahon in California when they’d created their self-titled debut album of 2018.

“Mikey and I met playing a gig together in 2013,” explains Mahon, who has pulled over to talk to me on the drive back to Rye from Melbourne. “He was touring with Total Control and my previous band, Grass Widow, shared a practice space with one of the members of Total Control for the live tour. We had a mutual musical community, and it turned out he knew a lot of people I knew in San Francisco.”

The gig where they met ended up being the last one that Grass Widow played; they broke up later that year. Mahon stayed in San Francisco and Young went back to Rye, and the two started working on music as a natural extension of their long-distance relationship. “We’d record things in overdubs, but most of the songs were created in separate places and sent back and forth. They weren’t constructed into a process of jamming or trying to create songs live in the same place,” Mahon explains. “Most of them started out as electronic instruments, synths and beats, and slowly we’d add layers to me. How people are able to effectively recreate that in a live setting battles me.”

Eventually, Mahon moved to Australia, and the experience of relocating resulted in the lyrical exploration on their sophomore record, Shimmering Basset, released via UK imprint Upset the Rhythm, in October 2020: the impact of being distant from your birthplace, family and past life; making a home in a new place; how to remain connected with the people and places that you love. Young and Mahon, living in their beachside home in Rye, an hour away from Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula, worked on the album in their basement. There is a sense of having found their footing, being able to dance in step completely and ultimately, a greater confidence to Shimmering Basset than their debut.

There is a cosmic, dark vibe to much of The Green Child’s work, perhaps a sense of raising ghosts that are not entirely harmless or escapable once conjured up. Layers of drums, synthesizers, horns, reverb and fuzzy psychedelia build up to an all-encompassing atmosphere – it’s anarchic, almost intoxicating.

Neither Mahon nor Young have done much, if any, media around The Green Child. “Honestly, I don’t do interviews that often because [Grass Widow] was pretty political and we communicated more through our interviews than our music,” says Mahon. “So, I used to do that a lot; for this project, I’m surprised anyone’s even heard of it! We haven’t played live up until this point, so it feels almost like a secretive project.”

Fittingly, the band is named after The Green Child, the sole novel written by English anarchist poet Herbert Read. Published in 1935, it is inspired by the 12th-century fantasy-folk tale of two green children who appeared, inexplicably, in the English town of Woolpit. The two children speak an indecipherable language in this mythical tale, which divided critics both at the time and ever since, on whether it was a great work of philosophy in the spirit of Plato or whether it was too obscure to be understood. Read wrote a letter to the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung explaining that the novel resulted from a stream-of-consciousness series of writing sessions, that it was born more as result of a meditative state than of any particular publishing ambition, derived from his interest in the difference between wisdom and understanding, intellect and intuition. 

“Mikey had come out to California and we went to this far flung town and found that book,” she remembers. “I later found out that it was a cult novel in some circles, but it was the only novel he released. We both read it on this holiday together in California and later decided to name the band after it. I wrote a lot of lyrics on the first album based on imagery and sci-fi concepts of that novel.”

A passionate reader, Mahon can name titles and authors she adores with ease (she’s currently reading Monkey Grip by Australian author Helen Garner). When it comes to formative music experiences though, she is reluctant to name names. “I would have to say that there’s an obvious answer, but it’s hard to articulate,” she says. “It’s more to do with San Francisco in the early 2000s and the ethos of the community I was in when I started making music: [people] putting on shows and touring with whatever resources they had.”

“It’s so different to now because you’ve got the internet at your disposal to connect with people and broadcast your music in this anonymous, broad-spread way,” she adds. “It was so concentrated in a pocket of a neighbourhood of San Francisco when I started out, so people were hijacking power from the bus station and playing on the street corner and putting on house shows. That said, lots of bands like the riot grrrl bands were formative. Politics in the music scene and conversations about gender really shaped how we communicated with each other while I was in Grass Widow.”

Both Mahon and Young are prolific creators, though while Young’s remit is entirely music-related, Mahon is a furniture designer and maker by trade, and she can appreciate the parallels in both crafts. “I think that they are probably both expressions of personal propensity towards working independently,” she says. “I’ve played with other people, and sometimes I’ll collaborate with clients and designers and architects, but for the most part I’m in a space crafting something by myself. There are these potentials in both realms to be inventive, staying within convention to the degree that things are functional and meets needs, but there’s potential in both places because I’m not working for someone, or beholden to anyone.”

At home in Rye, where Mahon is about to return once I release her from her roadside stop besides a cow paddock, she and Young are often talking about music, or making reference to it. “I’d say our life is art and music is really integrated into our lives – there’s dimension to our musical lives too,” she says. “Mikey is mixing and mastering at the home studio, and four times a year he has a radio show on NTS he contributes to, plus other projects like curating records of obscure songs from the deep web. We’re constantly talking about some element of music, not necessarily our music.”

It’s hard to say when those discussions will turn toward making another record, but last year, The Green Child also released three stand-alone singles: a cover of Canned Heat’s “Poor Moon;” their contribution to Melbourne’s Chapter Music comp Midnight Meditations, “Rats on the Roof”; and “New Dungeon,” part of Mexican Summer’s Looking Glass Singles Series. “We never make a concerted effort to write a Green Child album, so it could be another two years. We talked about playing a show, but I’m not sure if that will manifest,” Mahon says. But, she adds, “We’re always tinkering with different songs and ideas.”

Follow The Green Child on Bandcamp for ongoing updates.