“Sunburnt country. Cracked highway, with the window down. Salt encrusts our hair. I found our freedom, and took her for a ride.” With these words, and this indelible imagery, Perth’s Last Quokka open their take-no-prisoners second album Red Dirt.
The belligerent 26-minute assault paints a damning portrait of the landscape we as Australians find ourselves in – socioeconomic, political and environmental. Despite its swinging-hammer musical nature, the album is also one that’s grounded in conscience – taking stock of not only what’s been lost, but what we have to lose. “There was a good few years where my politics were quite militant,” says frontman Trent Rojahn.
“In doing so, I think I maybe threw the baby out with the bathwater when it came to what Australia is really all about. I love this land, and despite the way it’s run I still love a lot of the people. I love the stories of resistance and fighting colonisation for tens of thousands of years. What they were fighting for is this land – there’s so much entrenched in it that is so beautiful and so powerful. When I was writing this album, I wanted to really show more of a balance: Yes, there is so much greed and corruption, but there’s something to fight for as well. There’s a lot of solidarity and camaraderie. This album shines a light on that dichotomy between what I love and what I despise about Australia.”
When it comes to the latter aspect, Last Quokka’s targets aren’t hidden behind vague metaphors and flowery language. These cunts have names and addresses. On “Eat the Rich”, the album’s firebrand lead single, the five-piece tumble into a brawling slice of proto-punk pub-rock that sardonically sends up the enemy – particularly in one of the album’s highlight moments, where Rojahn leads the mocking bridge hook of “What school did ya go to?” Elsewhere, on “Gina / Rupert”, the band take aim at two particularly corrupt individuals. You’ll never guess who. “The ruling elite are the cause of so many of our problems,” says Rojahn matter-of-factly.
“They oppress people. They’re greedy. They create division. They destroy this land. They’re ripping up the Burrup peninsula over here in WA at the moment. A real driving force to the lyrics was to call these people out. They’re responsible for the fucking cost of living!” Rojahn’s voice lowers, like he’s Haley Joel Osment about to tell Bruce Willis his deepest darkest secret in The Sixth Sense. “Can I tell you something?” A pause. “…I paid six dollars for a capsicum the other day. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to take it back immediately, but I was too embarrassed after the woman at the checkout scanned it.”
Red Dirt is another shining example of the bustling creativity within the Western Australian music scene, which one again has eyes on it thanks to the success of exports like Tame Impala, Spacey Jane and Sly Withers. Though none of those acts sound like one another – and Last Quokka are also obviously even further outliers – what unites them creatively is the freedom to work outside of the usual industry framework and truly be themselves. In the most isolated city on the planet, no-one can hear you scream – so you’ve just got to be loud enough to make an impact.
“I think our isolation from the rest of the country helps the bands here to influence each other and to build together,” says Rojahn. “There’s very limited chances for bands from here to make it, so to speak, so we largely just do what we want. We don’t stick to a certain sound, we’re not going out of our way to try and get signed or anything. We’re liberated by the isolation.” With that, however, comes what Rojahn perceives as an unfortunate downside: being largely disjointed as a musical community. “We just played in Melbourne, where the community there rallied together and raised three million dollars to save The Tote,” the frontman continues.
“I was thinking about it on the plane home, and whether Perth would be able to pull off the same thing if one of our venues was in danger. I’m honestly not sure if we could. I think there needs to be more solidarity – it’s such an important thing. There’s so much good within this funny little city, but it would be even greater if we came together more in support of important causes.”
Like many bands of both their ilk and their genre, Last Quokka is an outspokenly political beast. What sets them apart, however, is their willingness to put their money where their mouth is and walk the proverbial walk. Back in February, Rojahn was arrested by WA police over his involvement with the activist group Disrupt Burrup Hub. The collective have been protesting the titular project created by the Woodside corporation, expanding gas facilities across the Burrup Peninsula that will impact not only the environment at large but also the Indigenous rock art found in Murujuga National Park. Rojahn sprayed yellow paint across the glass windows of Woodside’s headquarters in the Perth CBD as part of the group’s protest actions, in turn becoming one of several group members to be intimidated and searched by police.
“I get really emotional just talking about it,” Rojahn says when describing the actions of Woodside – a statement reflected by the quiver in his usually confident tone. “We’re talking between four to six times bigger an ecological impact than Adani. They’re destroying petroglyphs on this outdoor art gallery – which is honestly one of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever been shown. Now, when you’re looking at it, in your peripheral you’ve got this fertiliser plant spewing out tonnes and tonnes of pollution. The custodians of the land, the First Nations peoples… they just feel like their heart has been ripped out of their chest. This is a site that should be treated like one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and it’s just being desecrated.”
Rojahn decided to join up with Disrupt Burrup Hub on account of not seeing any discussion regarding what was happening – not on the news, on the east coast or even his own city. Their peaceful, non-violent protests have been met with both authoritarian hostility and political indifference. When questioned about Rojahn’s arrest on ABC Radio in late February, WA Premier Mark McGowan sided with the oil and gas company – unsurprising, given the Labor Party funnelling of billions into fossil fuels, but nonetheless a perfect avatar for those sitting idly by while the planet is destroyed.
“It’s been a ride, to say the least,” says Rojahn. “We’ve had counter-terrorism police raid four people I’m close with on suspicion of committing a crime. My phone is still in the hands of police, which they took when they arrested out of my home – they still haven’t given it back. We’ve had data access orders served to members of the group – they’re facing two years in prison if they don’t hand over all their phones and laptops and social media passwords to police. It’s insane stuff. This is what’s happening to peaceful protesters in Australia. If it’s happening here in WA, it’s going to happen to the whole country. It’s important to talk about.”
Despite being heavily outspoken on these issues, Rojahn is not in the mindset of dictating any other band’s politics. Nevertheless, he encourages all Australians – musicians or otherwise – to be aware of what’s going on and to hold those in power accountable to the best of their abilities. “I’m not one to say artists need to be a certain way – I think that kind of thinking can run down a slippery slope, and become really uniform,” says Rojahn.
“I will say this: Once you start reading into what’s happening to First Nations peoples’ land, culture and language, you see that there’s still systems in place ripping it away from them. Colonisation is still ongoing, and what is happening to our country in terms of mining, oil and gas is fucked up. We are so far behind the 8-ball. I think the more people learn, the more it will start to in infect their thinking and behaviour – in a healthy way. Hopefully, they’ll feel aligned with the goal of trying to push out more awareness and step up in solidarity to create really effective, long-lasting and powerful change.”
Red Dirt is out now
Last Quokka will be opening for Sleaford Mods at the Astor Theatre in Perth on Sunday June 11. Tickets are available now via Handsome Tours.
Main image by Zoe Theiadore