A ride on the Arthurs Seat chairlift sparked a Dromana love affair for musician Michael Spiby. And 16 years later, it’s still going strong.
words eleanor mckay photos warren reed
With his blonde hair and laid-back smile, he could be any old-time surfer. And in fact Michael Spiby is no stranger to riding the crest of a wave, either during his time with chart-topping band The Badloves, or at his favourite break at Gunnamatta. Taking refuge in this beachside suburb has been a vital part of his quest to reconnect with nature and balance his creative energy.
“The Peninsula was my childhood holiday destination. My grandparents lived in Rosebud and we came down every chance we got,” says Michael. Dromana itself, however, was a curiosity, a place he never visited. A ride on the Arthurs Seat chairlift with his daughter Ella, back in 1999, changed all that. “We were coming down the hill and spied a house for sale from the chair. We went and had a look and decided against it, but I thought, ‘this is a pretty kooky place’ … I could feel the energy of it.”
After looking at more than 40 properties, he stumbled upon an old beach shack and fell in love. Years after he bought the house, local indigenous people told him his home is on the female side of the mountain – the healing side. With all that was going on in his life at the time, it made perfect sense. Although he is now contemplating a move to accommodate his family (“it was a perfect bachelor pad, but as a family facility? No!”), living by the ocean still provides a sanctuary. “There is a strong arts community down here, but I don’t tap into it. My artistic community is in the city: that’s my factory floor. Here, I’m just doing what I love … wrestling my dog, being Dad. That’s what this place is to me.”
Growing up in the housing commission suburb of Reservoir, one of four boys, he says he was blessed with a happy family life. “It was gang-central in Reservoir in those days, but I didn’t see any of that action. My brothers and I had our own gang.”
It wasn’t the most likely spot to develop a love of surfing, but the family trekked to Rosebud at every opportunity. As a teenager, Michael didn’t know anyone else who surfed, but that didn’t stop him getting to the ocean. “I used to hitchhike from Reservoir with my board. I’d get on the train and come into town, then catch another train down to Geelong.” From there, he’d hitch to the coast and “camp in a rotten little tent and just surf. It was a long haul … I guess that’s what you do when you’re desperate.”
His connection with the ocean provided him with a physical outlet and a spiritual barometer. “There’s an element of surfing that is survival – especially on this coast. You can’t afford to be blasé about it. You have to match it physically. And that requires complete concentration. There are times when it seems like life or death … when a big set comes through, you’re caught inside and you know you’re going to be in trouble. Afterwards, when you get out, it’s full-on endorphins. You’re high for hours.”
These days, he still thinks of himself as a surfer. “But if I have a look at my diary, I go: ‘no you’re not … you haven’t been in the water for a year now’. I’ve stopped surfing, because I just don’t get the time for family, music and getting into the water.” Despite that, he says it’s only by the coast that he feels truly normal. “You see the intrinsic value in stillness and water and the connection of having to work out the tides – all that stuff is missing in the city existence. These are important fundamental things that we must tune into. Life’s so much richer when you do.”
Alongside surfing, the other mainstay in Michael’s life was music. He grew up in a musical home: his truck-driving father whistled and “sang like a bird. He had a very strong sense of melody, and was quite Bing Crosby-like in his singing.” Michael was walking home from school one day when he heard someone playing the piano in his street. “Dad had brought mum a new piano. It was the first time I knew that she was a pianist, so it was a shock to me to hear it being played. I’ve always had a really strong love of piano. I still do.”
Despite being surrounded by music, Michael didn’t initially consider it a career option. “I wanted to be an architect from when I was about 10. I drew houses and plans … I figured that’s what I’d do. I went to a trades-based high school and hated the whole experience so much that I didn’t pursue it.” Disenchantment drew him to music. “When I listened to music, it would transport me somewhere. I went into physical shutdown and just lost myself. And it was my sanctuary when things were strange.” Inspired by his guitar-playing oldest brother Ray, the young Michael went and brought himself the same guitar: “I really fell in love with his guitar, but I’m not sure on which level … I know I was fascinated by it sculpturally. I spent all my teens totally immersed in music.” The following decade was no different. “Through my entire 20s I was in my bedroom writing songs, and then I’d play them with whatever band I had going at the time. I wrote songs, interspersed with truck driving or swim teaching or working at the county court.”
It wasn’t until his 30s, when he joined Daryl Braithwaite’s band, that he started to make a living from music. For someone who’d never even been on an aeroplane, joining the tour opened his eyes to a whole new world, and it was an incredible opportunity. “I got a taste of what it was like to live on the road, travel, meet people, get in trouble … all the good things. While I was eternally grateful for the opportunity to be paid to travel and see places other than Reservoir, I eventually left, because I had a really, really tight concept of what I should do next.” Returning home, he wrote songs, put a band together, rehearsed, played shows and wrote more songs. That band eventually became The Badloves. Their debut album Get on Board went to the top of the charts and the band picked up three 1994 Aria Awards (Best Debut Album, Single and New Talent). The boys toured constantly across Australia and Europe and released a follow-up album the following year before dissolving in 1997.
These days, Michael writes, records and performs with a new incarnation of The Badloves, as well as lecturing at the University of Tasmania. “The university gave me a free hand. I could teach from what I knew to be true. I try to impress upon my students that all the techniques and toolkits you’re taught and shown are about .07 per cent of the equation. They’re useless unless you’ve got some idea of how to manage creative energies.”
Learning to manage and nurture his own creativity has been a big learning curve for Michael. “I couldn’t even sing pie-night songs at my local footy club when I was growing up. I was just too nervous. The thought of it made me sick. Public speaking still terrifies me. It’s only through a song that I can feel safe to go on stage. If I’m in a song, I’m happy to be there.”
Agreeing to take on the teaching role at university meant he had to figure what drove him to write songs, to perform despite his shyness, and what keeps him getting back on stage. “It really hurt my head … I had to figure out a few home truths about myself, and about the creative process. A lot of ideas for songs are instant … they come in a rush. You don’t know why, and often I’m suspicious of them. I think they must be somebody else’s ideas. The constant nature of being fed inspiration is a process. I worked out if I don’t get onstage or record it and give it to other people … then it’s all useless and selfish.”
Understanding how to respect his muse, and finding a place where he could be in tune with the ocean, have brought him happiness and perspective. “I know how important the creative side is to me, and I’m an awful human being if I don’t deal with it. It’s nothing to do with career or success. If I totally, selfishly, immerse myself in music, when I come out of that, I’m as happy as Larry and useful as a human … then I can go and mow the lawn.”
Visit www.badloves.com.au for new music and upcoming shows from The Badloves.
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