By Lyndon Kidma
Formidable Vegetable Sound System is the brainchild of permaculture enthusiast and ukelele swinging, songwriting extraordinaire Charlie McGee. Somewhere between a busy schedule of performances at the annual Fairbridge Folk Festival and an overseas flight to another unsuspecting far-flung corner of the globe, Charlie was located by Colosoul. In his garden unsurprisingly, where he offered me a banana, ginger tea and some enlightening conversation.
Tell us about how this project came about?
It started about a year ago. We kind of branched off from Ensemble Formidable, as a fill-in band actually, when there was a programming error at the Eclipse Festival in Cairns at the end of 2012. Ensemble Formidable had been booked to play, and they told us a week before the festival that we were on the night before they had originally told us. The band had already booked flights to be there on time for the original slot. So I was the only one there, and they said who’s going to fill in for the original slot? I told them I can do something, I play songs on my ukelele about permaculture. Miraculously they said ‘yeah, okay, go for it’. I thought shit, I’ve got to learn how to make electronic music now, because the ukelele stuff was my side project as an educational tool for kids or people wanting to learn sustainability. So all of a sudden I had four days to try and turn it in to something a doof crowd would dig.
How did you go with the task?
I just learnt “Ableton” as quick as I possibly could and put down some ‘poxy’ beats that I could play the ukelele over and then recruited as many musicians as I could, that I knew were going to be at the festival to just get up and jam. So we made this instant band. As we were getting up on stage they asked us what we were called and I said “ahh…Formidable…Vegetable…Sound System.” So the guy said “great” and announced us to the crowd. I thought, “well that’s not the most ideal name,” but it stuck.
It all seems to have worked out fine in the end. So how did you get interested in permaculture initially?
I grew up down in Pemberton and we always had heaps of food growing at our house, used rainwater, a composting toilet, the whole works. So then when I came and lived in the city for uni and started eating all this stuff from supermarkets wrapped in plastic and seeing all this wastage around, after a while I realised it just made more sense to live the other way.
Has the message gone down well do you think? As far as making music with a purpose, do you have any success stories thus far?
I didn’t really have a clear vision when I started, I just wanted to teach people about permaculture. I started teaching it when I got back from doing a course over east, just around Fremantle and stuff, and then when the musical element came back in I thought “great, this is an awesome way to get it out there to even more people.” It really just evolved on it’s own which is cool, especially at this point in time in the existence of our crazy species, it’s probably more important than ever for people to start waking up to this stuff. We’re at the brink of catastrophe of fifty thousand different varieties it seems, and just being able to get the word out there, so people are prepared or at least able to take control of their own lives is super important. But yeah I’ve had a few surprising bits of feedback and awesome stories of people who’ve come to a gig or bought the CD and then gone to their local community garden and bought a plot. They’ve sent me photo’s of their gardening journey, where they’ve started out with this bit of soil and said “Hey check it out we’ve put some broccoli in!” Then a few months later they’ve sent me photo’s of this cranking garden saying, “yeah we were playing the music the whole time it was awesome!” Some friends of mine from Cairns who are producers and DJ’s really like the musical element of it and are getting out in to their soil and saying they’re doing all the things the music is talking about. Hearing that stuff is where it’s at for me.
Sounds like it’s had an excellent effect. Where to do you hope it will lead in the future?
Well, I dunno, it’s great listening to music and having a dance, but if we don’t take the action it’s just pointless. It’s about taking it to that next level and evolving music from being that sensationalised form of entertainment, into a practical tool for teaching us stuff, for passing on culture and ideas. Ancient people like the aborigines used music to teach the next generation about life. For forty thousand years this country ran on music. It seems contemporary Western music has been diluted in to this commercialised, soulless, pointless sensation. And you know, it’s not like all music is like that, but particularly commercial music, the only message it’s got is ‘consume’. So yeah, getting the meaning back into music and into the arts in general, is where it’s at. That’s what’s inspired me to play music. I mean I’m not the best songwriter, I read a book about permaculture and pretty much wrote a song from each chapter. But if what I’m doing can inspire other people who are better than I am to do this and spread the word in a better way than I can, then that’s the point.
I see, hint hint to all the musicians out there. What’s next for you musically? Do you have new work in the pipeline?
I’m about to put out an electro-swing remix, featuring collaborations with Spoonbill and another guy called Griff and JPOD from Canada. That’s going to be a lot more like what the show is now, because I made the first CD before the band existed. So before I did the gigs I had this CD and then the sound changed because of the live shows and the Eclipse thing. So the next album’s going to be the same thing but with more of the electro stuff. The first CD was mainly reggae, roots, dub kind of stuff, with a little bit of samples and electronic stuff, but I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time so it’s mainly acoustic instruments.
So in this next release we can expect more bass-heavy tunes?
Yeah more bass and more samples too. Like samples of old swing stuff from the 1940’s and that kind of thing. Something to keep the punters who see the live show happy. I want to do a kids album after that. An electro-swing-dub kids album. I actually find my music’s been fitting in to a lot of niche’s. I’ve got the folk niche, the electro-swing niche, the ukelele niche. I think it’s the biggest combination of niches I’ve ever encountered.
You’ve got yourself a niche smoothie here.
A ‘niche lorraine’ if you will.
Permaculture tips, tricks, songs and beets (pun intended, and irresistible) of the Formidable Vegetable Sound System variety can be found at formidablevegetable.com.au