Ellen Virgona*

Home Music Music Features

Sydney Bass: A Love Letter to The Harbour City

For a decade, Mitch Tolman has soundtracked the madness of Sydney. He speaks to Rolling Stone about his latest outing, 'Sydney Bass', a homage to the dizzying chaos of the Emerald City.

Mitch Tolman is a prophet of the underground. A member of Low Life, he’s an elder-statesmen of the Sydney punk scene — born from the same community as pantheons Royal Headache, Total Control, and Repressed Records. 

Low Life have two records to their name, 2014’s Dogging and 2019’s Downer Edn; both trenchant bodies of work that cut to the core of the Australian psyche. Unpacking the shady underbelly of the city, toxic masculinity, addiction, and lad culture. 

In 2020, the band made their Sydney Opera House debut, with a livestreamed performance at its Joan Sutherland Theatre. It was fucking biblical. 

In August last year, Mitch unveiled his latest album project, Sydney Bass. Operating under the moniker 3NDLES5 and working alongside producer Crazymike (Michael Hassett of DEN) Sydney Bass is an eleven-track love letter to the Harbour City, in all its grit and glory. 

Sydney Bass feels like Burial on an E-Rush; frenetic, somnambulist music to disappear to. It’s nervy and chaotic, it triggers the muscle memory of a sulfate-fuelled walk through Kings Cross at an indeterminable time of night, where everything feels hallucinatory and unreal. 

The album recalls the mid-2000s gutter rap of Sydney Searchaz, and the recent proliferation of Western Sydney drill with trailblazers like OneFour, in the way that it gives voice to the unsung characters of Australia’s low socio-economic backgrounds. Those that have slipped through the cracks, hustlers and looters working their angles, cooking up schemes, joyriding through life at 180 mph. 

Mitch is a penetrative writer with a profound understanding and appreciation for subculture and truth-telling. Sydney Bass leans heavily into slang: there are trinkets from the ‘earcher’ lexicon, and nods to the Lo Lifes. Dense and impenetrable to the untrained ear. It’s music that could only have been written by somebody entrenched in the culture.

“That album is all real life everything,” Mitch notes. “There’s nothing fabricated. It’s lived experience either personally or you know, indirectly from friends.

“I think I’m more interested in that. That’s just what emotionally resonates with me. I would never tell a story of something I hadn’t done personally. Or someone I didn’t know very closely, I wouldn’t, because it’s not my place.”

He’s a natural storyteller, our conversation veers off into tangential rants about Sydney city, UK Drill, football hooliganism (Mitch is a devoted Tottenham supporter), and the secret language of rappers behind bars.

Mitch paints deeply empathetic portraits of characters that live outside of society’s usual layer of protection. Stories of the restless and disenfranchised that have been failed by systems of power.

Dave 1” and “Dave, Pt 2” explore a person on the fringe. It’s oblique, ambiguous songwriting. As a listener, we know something has gone awry in his life, leaving him stranded without employment, or hope. 

“When you’re told you’re nothing / Well that shit adds up / When you’re told you’re garbage / You’re impartial to reason.” 

Instead of resigning to government payments, our protagonist opts for self-reliance. “Job Seeker this / Do a job instead like Lad.”

It’s implicit that in this incorrigible fight for autonomy, “Dave” reverts to self-destruction, relapse. The details of his downfall are obscured, “I did some things, I’m well ashamed.” Mitch offers us a glimpse behind the veil: vignettes, places, conversations, that frame the character’s life. 

“And of all the things he said he won’t do / Of course they’re all the things he ended up doing.” 

The themes are hefty, but the bleakness is alleviated with humour. Mitch’s songwriting oeuvre recalls the films of Mike Leigh; striking a balance between hilarity and despair. The album’s most poignant, painful moments are neutralised with a lippy turn of phrase.

“It’s a very Australian approach I think. The way that we deal with madness and tragedy,” Mitch explains. “I think it’s authentically how we respond to situations, to try and look for the absurdist angle. Maybe it’s a way of processing stuff. It’s a fine line.”

Mitch is cautious when it comes to telling other people’s stories, wary of crossing the line of voyeurism and appropriating another’s pain. “Sometimes I’m really uncomfortable with that, but at the same time they are your stories too, you’ve lived through it with them as well.”

Though, he’s adamant that the truth is the only way he knows how to write. “It’s difficult to emotionally go to those places you’re not familiar with,” he adds.

“I put a lot of effort into lyrics. Some of them can take a long time. Some of them are fast and some of them take ages. Sometimes I think it’s just really hard to wrap your head around what you’re actually trying to say. If it’s authentic, you’re telling the story authentically. 

“It’s very strange, the head of a writer is a weird place to be sometimes.”

“It’s very strange, the head of a writer is a weird place to be sometimes.”

“It’s a process of ambiguity, confusion, and self-doubt. Then there’s those moments when you get it,  and it’s huge. It’s like, ‘Thank fuck’, it’s such a relief. I always just feel relieved,” he muses.

“We call it a curse. It’s like we torture ourselves. We just spend, put our heart and soul into a record. Spend a year, sometimes two years, and then it’s done and you get the record and it’s just like, ‘Get it out of my sight. I don’t want to look at it, don’t want to listen to it’.

“It’s just the insanity of that and going what’s next? You know, moving onto the next record. It’s madness really. But obviously if we hated it that much we wouldn’t do it.

“Without that expression, I don’t really know what we would do. I don’t know. I can’t, it’s almost such a stretch. I can’t even think about that because it’s so foreign to me.”

“Without that expression, I don’t really know what we would do. I don’t know. I can’t, it’s almost such a stretch. I can’t even think about that because it’s so foreign to me.”

Sydney Bass is a uniquely Sydney record. There are area-specific touchstones name-checked over the course of the album: the liminality of train lines, Wayside Chapel, Silverwater and Parklea Prison.

When asked about his desire to explore this city, Mitch explains: “I have such a fondness for Sydney. It’s the place where I sort of found, I don’t know, built a life maybe.” 

His upbringing was suburban, with family scattered across Campbelltown, Bankstown, Miranda, St. Mary’s, and the Southern Highlands. His music permeates with the awe of somebody who spent much of their life in the insular, suffocating confines of suburbia, there’s a hunger to be swept away in the bedlam of the big smoke.

Image of 3NDLES5

Photo by Ellen Virgona

He tells me he’s been working on a poetry book about the suburbs, but he’s yet to get to the crux of the city. “I’ve been writing about the city for 13, 14 years now and I still can’t put my finger on it, what the vibe is here and I think that’s maybe why I’m fascinated with it. Because I can’t work it out.”

When asked about his relationship to the city, Mitch muses, “It’s gone through a lot of changes.”

He goes on to lay out his theory of Sydney. “WRX, the guitarist for Low Life, has always talked about seeing the city differently. It’s a city that doesn’t really care what you do creatively, or care about you in general. I thought that was always interesting.”

“I think it’s a city of extremes. It’s hard, it’s not easy. I think you have to be quite tough to live here. You have to have thick skin.

“I think it’s a city of extremes. It’s hard, it’s not easy. I think you have to be quite tough to live here. You have to have thick skin.”

“I always think of it as a mirror city. Whatever you’ve got going on for you, whether that be good or bad, it’ll reflect that back at you with such intensity. So if you have a shit time, this is a shit place to live. But if you have a great time, it’s an amazing place to live.”

Mitch adds that the meshing and intersection of subcultures is a unique facet of Sydney. “Here you’ll have artists, people in fashion, skateboarders, all hanging out together.” 

Days prior to our interview, cult skate store Pass~Port Store & Gallery unveiled their latest exhibition, ‘The Agony & The Ecstasy’, a collaboration with Low Life.

The launch was a celebration of Pass~Port’s latest skate clip, soundtracked by unreleased music from the forthcoming Low Life LP and backed by an exhibition showcasing work from Sydney multidisciplinary artists Sam Stephenson and Thomas Robinson.

The Pass~Port collaboration is a shining example of this cultural melange that Mitch talks about. The art, skateboarding, fashion, and music scenes all colliding, achieving something beautiful and exciting. Something that escapes the trappings of the procedural, sterile nature of the music industry. Kids congregating on Oxford St, armed with slabs of cheap piss. The beating heart of DIY.

This crossover of cultures served as a profound influence in developing the sound of 3NDLES5.  When asked about his transition from making punk music to exploring a drum and bass sound, Mitch explains: “That’s another thing to do with Sydney, it’s in the cross-overs. Within the punk world, we’d always go to raves.”

There’s a kind of hauntology in the way Mitch talks about his comeuppance as an adult in the city. The Sydney he describes feels like a ghost of the past. A city where the worlds of graffiti, punk, and raves were enmeshed — so far removed from the Merivale homogenisation of the now.

He notes that, “being young in Oxford Street. Being around gay culture, being in clubs, playing in a punk band and playing at 77,” influenced the 3NDLES5 sound. Through these lived experiences, he discovered a common thread between those from all walks of life. 

“There was always a mix and a crossover and I think all of us were always open and recognised that. And I think there’s a point where I think a lot of us saw the parallels. That it’s all the same. 

“Their ideology is the same; the anti-authoritarian sort of element with underground raves and stuff and dealing with police.

“And also just the expression. It was just people don’t give a fuck, they’re doing or being as outrageous as they want to be.”

The seed of 3NDLES5 goes back further. Mitch recalls his childhood, spent driving around with his aunt in her V8 Kingswood. “She’d just be pumping like, Skitzmix.”

“I remember loving it,” he says. “I remember when I was ten, I entered a Ministry of Sound competition to win a turntable so I could learn how to DJ.

“It’s always been there, from that age — arguably before I discovered punk, it was there first.”

The road to Sydney Bass was arduous and riddled with false starts. “It went back as far as ten years ago,” Mitch explains of 3NDLES5. “I was trying to do something and it didn’t work out. And it was like ‘whatever’.” The project was shelved.

“I think around 2014 or 15 I started thinking about it again and did a single with WRX (2017’s “Polyester”). Then I met the other part of the project, Michael Hasset, Crazymike.” The crossing of paths between Crazymike and Mitch exemplifies the DIY and community spirit of his music journey.

“I met him and this guy Paris (Grant) who mixed the album. I met them through another punk connection. Michael played in Den, and the singer from Den was the Low Life producer. It’s all very interchangeable.”

Mitch thanks his friend Isabelle Hellyer, founder of the clothing label ‘all is a gentle spring’, for inspiring him to give 3NDLES5 another crack. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have kept doing it,” he admits.

The pair were cruising around a Melbourne driving range when she put on an unreleased 3NDLES5 song. “I was like, ‘How did you get this?’,” Mitch recalls. 

Image of 3NDLES5

Photo by Ellen Virgona

“I was mortified and was like. ‘Can you turn this off? I don’t want to listen to this.’ And she was like, ‘You should keep doing it’.”

Mitch and Crazymike, Sydney natives, were both doing a concurrent stint living in Melbourne when the pair linked up and began working on the project. “The winter of 2019 we just spent in our bedrooms, 12-hours a day pretty much just doing Sydney Bass.” 

“He’s got an insane work ethic, more than me,” Mitch says of Crazymike. Recalling one of the first occasions they hit the studio together with Paris:

“I come in and they’re both insane. They are so eccentric. I was immediately obsessed with both of them. They were both rocking back and forth in these business chairs and they had this whiteboard with this diagram with dollar signs, of how to get cash.”

“I was like, ‘These guys are from a Safdie Brothers film or something’,” he quips. “And Michael was just eating this huge, industrial tub of Haribo lollies. I was like, ‘Geez you’re really going to town with those bears you know’.”

Mitch, who has spent the past few years living in Melbourne, admits it’s a much more forgiving city for creatives. “I think maybe there’s more in Melbourne for me doing that stuff. There’s a shit load of music that’s for sure.

“People were really enthusiastic when I went down there. It took a while to get used to that feeling.” When asked if he thinks that it’s because Melbourne is more liveable, he says, Yeah. People are just less stressed in general, because it’s easier.”

When you have to work a 40-hour week to make ends meet in Sydney, juggling any creative pursuit is a one-way ticket to burnout.

“If you’re doing something like music in particular, it takes so much work. And the rewards are very, very small,” he adds.

“I always had this theory of the city, it’s a pressure cooker situation. If you can actually just do music here, it’s probably going to be good just because of the dedication it takes and how difficult it is.

“There’s this sort of filtering system. There might not be 100 bands, but there might be 20 that are really good, or really interesting. And there’s a lot of professionals in Melbourne too, don’t get me wrong. But for me personally, they don’t have the desperation.”

“There’s a lot of professionals in Melbourne too, don’t get me wrong. But for me personally, they don’t have the desperation.”

He continues, “It’s kind of interesting. If I walked into a venue and I saw a Sydney band playing, there’s a vibe about it. It’s all they’ve got. There’s nothing else really going. They just work at a warehouse or a factory, or whatever. And this moment is it.

“It’s shit that that’s the case, but you can see that it means a lot. I think it’s wonderful to resonate with. You can tell it’s 100% genuine. There’s no pissing about. It’s like, ‘Yeah, this is it, this is everything’.”

At the core of Mitch’s artistic practice is an unrelenting dedication to community, and a commitment to DIY ethos. At the interview’s close, Mitch asks if I can include a shoutout to those who have played a part in the journey to 3NDLES5. 

“Shoutout to AR53, China Heights, Edward Woodley & Nina Teffkon, HTRK, Lust For Youth, Alter, Tarquin Manek, YL Hooi, Aeden (PilPress Lee, Samoh, WRX, Ellen Virgona, Gabriella Lo Presti, Isabelle Hellyer, Charlotte Agnew, Kate Curtis, Oily Boys, Pass~Port, LLFC, DX, Mahmood Fazal, Spider Death, Crazymike, Hearteyes, Trackwork, Rory McPike, Mall Grab and Frank Brunetti.”