A small room above Lygon Street’s newly revitalised Bar Romantica houses the control booth of Skylab Radio, the new online radio station from DJs Simon Tarrant and Gus Carmichael aka Simon TK and Chico G. Tarrant is a member of beloved Melbourne party crew Wax O’ Paradiso and as well as DJing, Carmichael is the creator of the Otis Armada experimental dining events.
The station – which launched last week – is a tightly curated mix of shows from some of Australia’s most adventurous DJs and musicians. The station was born out of an idea to simplify the daunting process of navigating the vast amounts of music online. While the format has been used overseas (London's NTS Radio is clearly an inspiration), Skylab Radio is Australia's answer to the worldwide phenomenon of online radio.
“How digesting music online has evolved, it’s just chaotic. We wanted to make something that was very curated, easily navigable and simple. Less is more, almost,” says Tarrant.
Broadcasts currently on the site include a hazy mix of jazz and hip-hop from Lori, a joyous live set of house and disco from party goddess DJ Jnett as well as Jim's Poolside Cafe, a two-hour show of border-crossing esoterica.
Tarrant and Carmichael met about five years ago while working in Melbourne’s hospitality scene; Tarrant was working at fine diner Epocha at the time, and Carmichael at the Builders Arms Hotel. It was around that time Carmichael first developed an interest in DJing.
“It [came from] having a really strong connection to music and wanting to show people. But I never thought it would end up like this,” he says.
Tarrant, who came from playing saxophone and listening to hardcore bands in his youth, remembers his first DJing gig about 10 years ago.
“Garbage, absolute garbage. I played Justice’s Waters of Nazareth into Stevie Nicks’s Edge of Seventeen,” he says.
Tarrant might not want to admit it but the pair’s inaugural Skylab Radio broadcast retains the adventurous nature of his first set. It begins by shifting through esoteric ambient jazz and deep boogie cuts until about 30 minutes into the set when an extended mix of Lullaby by the Cure drops in, bringing the listener back down from the astral plane. It’s this mix of discovery tempered with accessibility the pair hope to achieve with their broadcasts.
“It’s giving people that ability to be like: ‘Do I want something that challenges me? Or do I want something that’s good to listen to while cooking, or hanging out’,” says Carmichael.
Skylab’s site was designed by Sam Donaldson, whose work you may have seen on posters for Off the Grid festival and on releases for Melbourne dance label Voyage Recordings. When you arrive at the home page you’ll find a featured show as well as a selection of recently recorded broadcasts. Clicking on the drop-down menu to the right will help you navigate through Skylab-related events, a schedule of upcoming shows and, most interestingly, the “Explore” section. Here you can select from a number of genre tags, from afrobeat to post-punk to easy listening. Choose as few or as many of these as you like to be shown a selection of the shows on the site that match your interests. Presently the selection is small, but as the archive develops you’ll be able to filter the content to find your musical vibe at any given moment.
“Someone who’s at home listening can jump on the site once a week and not feel overwhelmed by the amount of content but be like: ‘Okay, what’s new? What’s come in this week?’” says Tarrant.
No longer beholden to keeping the dance floor moving, Tarrant and Carmichael are excited about being able to share the deep recesses of their musical interests outside of the nightclub, as well as experimenting fully with the radio format beyond DJ mixes.
“Specifically things like sound design, or audio narratives that might take on voice snippets and voice recordings from dusty, dark areas that you would have never ever heard of,” says Carmichael.
High-concept shows are being encouraged. Unofficial Soundtracks involves guest DJs and producers compiling a soundtrack to their favourite films and TV shows, be it Twin Peaks or The Matrix. One show being considered involves soundtracking a hypothetical celebrity funeral.
“He was very adamant that the soundtracks would be for people who are still alive,” Tarrant says laughing.
Stepping away from playing live and the protection of the DJ booth brings its own learning curves and challenges. DJ Toni Yotzi has used her experience at Perth-based community radio station RTR FM to help Carmichael and Tarrant transition to the studio.
Online radio also brings with it a new level of connection with your audience. Fans can comment on social media during live broadcasts, and then there’s also the option to stop the music and pick up the microphone. Tarrant says this is largely an unfamiliar concept to Melbourne’s club DJs like himself.
“A lot of radio stations in the UK come from a culture of pirate radio, from a culture of MCing over DJing [in the club]. Traditionally in Melbourne’s [club] DJ landscape, the microphone isn’t really there,” says Tarrant. “When we first started I was that person who froze up. But now, having gone through that process of thinking about how you interact with [the microphone] … now I really like it.”
“I’m pretty nervous still,” jokes Carmichael. “I think that talking is just another colour for someone’s show. Whether they want to use it, or whether they want to let the music do the talking, that’s what we invite them to do.”