A Tribute To Mike Noga, A Musician Who Only Ever Told The Truth

Mike Noga, who passed away this week at the age of 43, was a titan of Australian music.

Mike Noga

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The first time I saw Mike Noga play live, he was dressed in a crisp white suit, guitar slung over his shoulders, tasked with the unenviable job of supporting indie rock titans Low.

The room wasn’t exactly against him. But Noga, who passed away this week at the age of 43, stared down the barrel of a crowd who were waiting to see a very different type of act, slow-motion crescendos instead of Noga’s sweaty, deranged blend of rock and roll and singer-songwriter hard truths. When he took to the stage, the place was very still; maybe even tense.

And yet if the enormity of the set daunted him, he didn’t show it at all. He swung the mic stand around like a stick, winking at the audience, and telling long stories about his run-in Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood at an airport. The crowd might know him from his time in The Drones, he said, where he played percussion. His solo career was an attempt to get even closer to people, he explained — physically, moving from behind the drums to the very front of the stage. One day, he said, he hoped to be standing in the crowd itself.

Then there was the music. Crunching a tamborine under one of his heels like dry bracken, he powered through vicious stories of hate and desperation, all of them elevated by his singular, winking sense of humour. The highlight, which came right at the end, was a cover of Father John Misty’s ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’. He stripped that song of its kitsch, and its irony, and made it scary — “Jesus Christ girl,” he howled. “What are people gonna think?

If there had been any non-believers in the crowd at the beginning, there weren’t any by the end — he wandered off stage, throwing up his hands, to the sound of thunderous applause. It was no mystery what won us all over. It was his honesty, a commitment to truth-telling that could be heard in every note he sang, and every dripping bit of banter that slipped from between his lips.

This was Noga’s skill in a nutshell. There are few careers in Australian music as free from bullshit as Noga’s, from both his time with The Drones, to the work he released under his own name. King, his third album, is shockingly ambitious, a quasi-concept record about pain and destruction that is littered with narration from a drawling and desperate Noah Taylor.

The three best singles from King demonstrate the depth of the man’s talents — ‘All My Friends Are Alcoholics’ is a shivering paean to comradeship; ‘Nobody Leads Me To Flames’ a gasped bit of swagger; and ‘Don’t Fall To The Ground’ a crunching love song. He never once sat still, churning through styles and tones, and then abandoning them when they stopped interesting him.

In interviews, Noga came across as strikingly humble. Once, responding to a question about his relationship with the music of Nick Cave — an artist he often talked about as a constant source of inspiration — Noga revealed the dressing down he had once gotten from the legend.

“I had dinner with The Bad Seeds once and Nick leant over and asked me what band I was in,” Noga said. “‘The Drones’, I replied. He turned to Warren Ellis and looked puzzled and a bit disgusted and said, ‘Hmmmm, Warren… do we like The Drones?’”

There was a thrill in waiting to see what he would do next. His follow-up to King, recorded with Alan Sparhawk, was teased to come out some time early next year. Guessing what it might sound like seemed like a futile game — Noga, with his limitless skill and intellectual curiosity, seemed capable of anything.

Back in 2015, on tour in Hamburg, Noga performed a set with Benjamin Hayes. A video of the pair playing ‘All My Friends are Alcoholics’ is up on YouTube. Suited, harmonica around his neck, Noga expertly handles the song’s tone, walking the line between tragedy and salvation; fun and pain; destruction and unity.

It is one of the best Australian songs, played by one of the best Australian musicians, and carried off with heart and love. And then, with a violent strum of the guitar and a howl of the harmonica, it is done.