For the Melbourne music underground to stand as strong as it does, it requires people like Carsten Bruhn at the foot of its foundations. Founder of the beloved Roolette Records, his involvement in the community has helped contemporary class acts like Pinch Points, The Vovos and Hannah Kate come to the fore. Personally, however, Bruhn’s selfless work has come with the sacrifice of putting others before his own exceptional scope as a song writer, as seen in CB Radio. We took up a chair at Lulie Tavern to learn about the practical and personal costs and accomplishments of both his artistic and managerial career thus far.
For someone so entrenched in the Melbourne underground, it’s hard to imagine Bruhn ever existing on the outer in his early days; “I was always busy with my old band Dead End but we were sort of on the outside looking in. We were playing heaps of shows but not really with a real crowd”. Not until his involvement with the Bush Music Festival crew did Bruhn really find his people and place, utilising his newly minted Roolette Record label as a means of contributing; “A huge turning point would be the inaugural Bush Music Festival where we did a compilation tape of all the artists. I wasn’t gonna go to the actual festival up until midnight the night before because I was feeling nervous and I didn’t know anyone there. I messaged Jordan Oakley (Pinch Points) who was helping run the festival to tell him I wasn't going to make it and he just made me feel like the work I’d done on the tape had been really appreciated by that crew. So I just went and had the time of my life and it led to me immersing myself in a more diverse part of the Melbourne music community”.
Gaining both traction and his first signing in Wasterr from that event, Bruhn’s subsequent tape for a serendipitous customer would prove just as instrumental; “The first person to ever order anything from the website was Chris Penny, the front man from Private Function. I reached out to say thanks and he replied, ‘Kangaroos and gambling, my two favourite things”. Running off the momentum of these early moments, Roolette has since gone on to amass a coloured catalogue of some of Melbourne’s most important bands; “There’s been no release that hasn’t moved me. I’m very inspired by all of it. I can tell the story of each fuckin’ release, each 25. How they came to be, any hiccups, the tracks, because I feel so grateful and happy and privileged to be a part of all of that music”.
Simultaneously, Bruhn went about etching out his own artform. Since learning guitar at the age of 13 he would incessantly amass a stylistically diverse collection of demos. CB Radio became Bruhn’s “means of getting those songs off my hard drive and out there into the world in some way. I felt it was important to finally have a way of getting rid of them”. Driven by a voracity for a variety of genres, Bruhn’s music oscillates between garage, post-punk, synthwave and skewed-pop, proving an organisational hurdle early on; “There was so many different musical ideas I wanted to explore but none of those fit into a conventional band or anything I could imagine playing live. An idea was to split the different genres into “ghost bands”, but that just seemed like an insane waste of time”.
Finding solace in a concept derived from a Sesame Street segment, Bruhn arrived upon Growing Numbers as the perfect vessel for his kaleidoscope of songs; “I started releasing single tracks and using screenshots from the Sesame Street bit, but they only went up to 26, so when I got to that number I thought of capping it as an album. Then I got addicted to this idea and become more impulsive, thinking I’ll never stop doing this project and get up to whatever number I can before I die”. Fulfilling his penchant for the unconventional, Growing Numbers permitted Bruhn to explore his own freeform compositional style; “It allowed me to not feel pressure to write choruses, pre-choruses, hooks and stuff. While I love that stuff and it’s what you should do to make it entertaining, it’s allowed me to break away from any pressure of having to do that. I’ve always admired the unconventional but had never actually been able to do that myself. If you listen to the first album where I was guided by convention, you wouldn’t think on album 6 there’s gonna be a 30-second song about my undies falling down my butt. This bizarre freedom to release tracks like that has been transformative and what I needed to do as a musician”.
Having developed his own song writing style over the lifespan of recording Growing Numbers’ 8 albums, there exists an irony in Bruhn’s deconstruction of musical principles to get there; “To be honest, I feel like as a musician I just dead set haven’t grown at all. In a weird, dark way, there’s almost been the opposite of growth. I’ve been able to see my music from the outside and ask what the fuck is the point of this. Sometimes I don’t understand what’s going on and because there’s so much music that I throw out pretty quickly, questioning what is good has become irrelevant”. Similarly, Bruhn’s instinctive selflessness to place other bands before his own through habits developed working for his label reveals a self-consciousness that’s perhaps stymied performing; “I love playing live. I love it it’s just that it feels uncomfortable doing something for myself musically after working with the label and supporting great bands and sorting their shows and records. It automatically feels self-indulgent”.
Not one to squander the lessons learned from self-reflection, Bruhn’s next project appears to correct prior qualms; “CB Radio has allowed me to be a bit more experimental and get that out of my system. I’ve come full circle and want to do the traditional things again but in a more refined way and play live again”. Headed by his partner Kahlia Parker (formerly Girl Germs), Licklash sees the pair who met via the free exchange of a tape unite after Parker’s unconditional support for CB Radio; “Kahlia has contributed so much to each record. She’s featured on every album, she’s listening to my fucking rants about ‘what do I do with this song’ and ‘nobody’s listening to my music’ and ‘what is the point of this’. Without her it probably would’ve stopped at one or two albums”.
In a world where bands, venues and punters are operating on a shoestring budget, Bruhn’s running of Roolette evokes a punk ethos befitting that of the music he enlists, rather than one that strives for financial gain; “I’ve never been good at finances and shit but if I had to do the numbers the label would be thousands of dollars under at this point and I just, I’ve never given a fuck about that. I feel that’s almost besides the point. If there’s anything music’s taught us about humanity, especially punk music, it’s that you really, REALLY don’t need to have any money. People that were watching me grow the label when I was giving free shit out were like, ‘oh you probably shouldn’t do that’ or ‘you should make a business plan’ but I’ve been slightly angered by that because the label represents something different.” This “something” refers to the magic in cultivating an artistic community and making it accessible, whatever the costs, as reflected in Roolette’s Surfbort release; “That was in collab with Cult Records which was founded and run by Julian Casablancas. That whole scenario was a dream come true and I was going along with it acting as if I had money, but I literally had none. I don’t have any savings or rich parents, but I’ve done everything I can, even ask to borrow money from my fuckin’ family to make things happen”.
Placing others before himself and art above all else, Bruhn has found success not grounded in business models but his own cultural ethos; “Obviously it comes down to the amazing and incredible music of the artists, but one thing that also contribute is possibly my own world view that the world sucks and it needs more positivity. The label is a way to combat all the fucked things that are going on in the world”. Having created what is a cornerstone of our local scene and creatively contributed too, Bruhn lives and breathes what lies at the heart of our music community; “Putting cool shit out is both a personal and collaborative way of attacking the shit things about life. The mission was to put cool shit out into maybe not the best world with a focus on love, music, friendship and community”.