From the Underground to the Opera House Steps: 15 Years of Repressed

As Repressed Records celebrates 15 years with a special show at the Opera House, we look at what has made the store a Sydney musical icon.
May 29, 2017, 3:00am

Repressed Records is a shopfront on King Street in Sydney's inner-west that sells new and used vinyl, tapes, shirts and books. The shelving is hand-made, the floor is exposed concrete, and there's not much room to shuffle around when it's busy.

I first walked into Repressed after moving to the area from Sydney's South-West as a naive, 21-year-old. I remember the running commentary from now co-owners Chris Sammut and Nic Warnock as I dug through the used records. At first discussing the relative merits of bargain bin finds like Neil Young's Re-ac-tor, or Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind," it soon became about the oddities that adorned the shop's more prominently placed racks. Eventually, I picked out a copy of Kitchens Floor's Loneliness is a Dirty Mattress on the relevance of the title alone. I've never stopped going back.

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Repressed brought me into the fold and developed my interest in outsider music. I remember specific moments when I bought records by locals like Whores, Low Life or Royal Headache, and internationals like Watery Love, Good Throb and Crazy Spirit. So I guess the store has been a bad influence; I'd probably be more stable if I was still listening to Nick Lowe.

Despite many of the bands, venues and institutions around them succumbing to Sydney's flux, Repressed have laid roots and become a mainstay of the city's music scene. As part of 2017's VIVID festival, they will celebrate their 15th anniversary at the Sydney Opera House with a bill co-headlined by 80s electronic pioneers Severed Heads and Melbourne post-punk heroes Total Control. With this announcement, I went back to the store to interview Chris and Nic about the story of Repressed's evolution from a small storefront in Penrith, to one briefly associated with the country's most esteemed arts venue.

Repressed's longevity is something that Nic credits as vital to the city's underground community. "Every individual runs out of steam in their DIY music tank, so it helps to have an entity that's bigger than the individual," he says. "I think that's why this shop is important for Sydney, literally because it still exists. If you were to run out of gas and check out for a little while, and then check back in to see what happened – we'd still be here."

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Repressed's approach to niche retail was essentially forced upon them with the rise of a neighbouring JB Hi-Fi at their former Penrith location. While JB ate up the bulk of their patronage, it drove them to an independent model that befitted many of the bands they began to represent.

"I think we realised it was going to be purely independent retail early on, so we had the opportunity to grow our own way," says Repressed's founder Chris Sammut. "We've never had a lot of money, so we did everything on the cheap. We didn't spend thousands of dollars on flash shelving, the music was the point of the business. We couldn't rely on other people to do things like set up a window display or tell us which album to push, but I never felt comfortable doing that anyway. We do things our way and always have."

"There was a culture of independent music that we saw in labels like Siltbreeze and Goner Records that became an international connection to underground bands in Australia."

"When we decided to move to Newtown [in 2009], record stores were said to be dying," Nic continues. "The music industry was reflecting on what it was doing, and the traditional avenues of getting stock into a shop through local distributors were gone. Our point of difference became to get independent music from overseas straight from the labels. There was a culture of independent music that we saw in labels like Siltbreeze and Goner Records that became an international connection to underground bands in Australia, with Naked on the Vague and Eddy Current Suppression Ring releasing records through them. So there were these two parts of the world that had some kind of kinship, and it made sense to represent them both because no one else was."

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Running a finger over the line-up for their 15th anniversary show is like tracing over my own memories of the shop, and that experience will be common to many of Repressed's customers over the years. Names like Lucy Phelan (Lucy Cliché), Angela Garrick (Angie), David Ackerman and Del Lumanta (Skyline) all played in bands that I'd watch alone in warehouses while trying to find my way around Sydney in the early 2010s, and on June 1 they'll be hoisted from those DIY venues onto the same stage that Thin Lizzy once played.

"That's what I like about a lot the records that we sell. They're made by ordinary or sub-ordinary people who might have a very interesting story."

The members of the bands who will play on the night are leading examples for ways in which extraordinary, unusual sounds can be torn out of ordinary people if given the right opportunity. But this goes too for Chris and Nic at Repressed, who chose to distribute and support a brand of music that is bound less by fashion or trends, and more by an ideology. They would never refer to themselves as curators, but I like to think of them at least as enablers.

"That's what I like about a lot the records that we sell," Nic says. "They're made by ordinary or sub-ordinary people who might have a very interesting story, but it's not one of those grandiose tragedies, they're not larger than life figures. I like the idea of the person walking down the street having a great record in them. All of the bands on the line-up are unassuming; none of them think they deserve this. Someone like Total Control was basically a dick-around side project that morphed into something else. It's the same with Kitchen's Floor: how was someone with the album title Look Forward to Nothing ever going to play the Opera House?"

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"It's not a winning attitude," Chris laughs. "What's exciting about the show isn't the validation aspect or anything like that. I'm just happy for these bands who, like the shop, have come from nothing and grown just by doing their own thing in their own way. They have the same perspective as us and have grown in the same way. It's exciting that we can celebrate that, and can use something like the Opera House and the VIVID festival who have such a big reach, and open it up to a new audience for the bands."

The anniversary show at VIVID is less about celebrating the shop's status as a Sydney institution, and more about shining a light on the ideology of Repressed, its customers, and the bands whose names appear on the record covers stacked on the shopfront's melamine racks. It takes the characters who make up bands used to playing basements, warehouses, bowling clubs and declining pubs, and places them in extraordinary surrounds. But even if the bands on the bill are filled with every-people, few could write a song as gut-wrenching as Kitchen's Floor's Matt Kennedy, as celebratory as Miss Destiny's Harriet Hudson, or delivered with the venom of Total Control's Dan Stewart – it's fitting then, that these people are given a venue that meets what they mean to their community.

Repressed Records 15th Anniversary June 1 Sydney Opera House - Total Control, Severed Heads, Miss Destiny, Lucy Cliché, Kitchen's Floor, Fake (Cassius Select/bv), Angie, Francis Plagne, Skyline and Horse Macgyver (Live Visuals).
Buy tickets.

Max Easton is a Sydney writer and musician. Follow him @max___e