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Halogen Dreams - the journey of a song

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Every songwriter has their ‘white whale’ songs that hang around for years but never quite make it to land. I’ve had a few of these, but Halogen Dreams is definitely the most venerable – I originally wrote it when I was 15, which means I’ve spent more of my life with this song kicking around than without it!

I wrote Halogen Dreams after a night out in the Brisbane CBD, where I saw the wonderful sights (of trash on the ground), sounds (of drunk racists yelling), and smells (vomit at the bus stop). This appealed to my angsty misanthropy, so I thought I would write an ironic song about how pretty the city looked. I had only just started playing guitar, so it’s really just the one chord shape (with lots of open strings) moving up and down, with some simple chords in the chorus to break things up. I remember playing it to my friend Kiran, who I used to play in a jazz band with, one afternoon after school. He loved it and insisted that we make a rock band to play it and the other songs I was writing. I enlisted Michael Whittred from school, who I had seen sing for the big band, to be the front-man. He had a great voice and used to bring his guitar to school so I figured he would be a kindred spirit. Kiran found a bassist, who was a bit older and therefore seemed to be infinitely worldly and wise from my 15-year old perspective (hi Lukey J!). The band was called Two Dollars in Peru (TDIP).

TDIP set about recording a demo of Halogen Dreams – Michael’s mum had a beautiful old Gibson acoustic guitar and we made that the anchor of the song. We recorded the drums and bass in Michael’s parents’ library. It’s interesting listening back to it now – I think we were all good musicians individually (I was probably the least qualified on guitar), especially for our age, and Michael did a good job recording and mixing, but we didn’t have a rock band feel. Too much jazz training! At this point Halogen Dreams didn’t have a chorus, but it did have a melancholy intro and a spooky ending. It’s funny how long it takes you to realise you need to write choruses.

The next time I recorded Halogen Dreams was when I made a collection of acoustic songs for my mum in 2009. Apparently I thought the song was important enough to name the whole CD ‘Halogen Demos’. By now it actually had a chorus, although this was just ‘hey, the city looks pretty tonight’. It also had a piano part with an arpeggio in the chorus and big descending octaves in the bridge. Halogen Dreams stayed a piano song for the next few years, which meant it sounded good solo but was hard to fit into a band context. Piano parts take up too much space! I think this was one reason why the song never worked for my next band Papperbok. We played it live a number of times over the years, as a full band and as a duet between Annie and I, but it never really gelled with the rest of the set. It was too midtempo and strummy, when a lot of the other Papperbok songs were angular and psychedelic. I had written my dad-rock song way too early!

I have so many memories associated with this song. I remember playing it with Michael at my cousin Sam’s 18th birthday, and accidentally breaking the strings of the brand new guitar Sam had been given as a present. Sorry Sam! I remember playing it at an acoustic set at Grill’d in Southbank, just as Ali Richardson (Zefereli) randomly walked in – I didn’t really know him at the time but I was a big fan of his band The Cairos, so it was a bit nerve wracking. As an aside, I had the pleasure of showing Ali the final version of the song recently in his studio – it was nice to come full circle on that. Anyway, many years after Grill’d, I was showing Halogen Dreams to Jay Bovino from Sheppard and he suggested repeating the chorus and changing up the chords and melody the second time round, which I did. Thanks Jay! I also pitched it to Hey Geronimo at one point, and I remember Pete saying ‘this is cool!’ followed shortly afterwards by ‘it isn’t really a good song though’. Thanks Pete!

The version of the song I pitched to HG was one I had spent a while rearranging so that it was a bit more psych-rock. Slower tempo, softer singing, and more groovy. Piano was out, phaser was in. I was convinced that this was the right direction for the song, but didn’t have the right vehicle for it yet – it didn’t work with any of my bands, and I wasn’t doing solo stuff at the time. So Halogen Dreams went back on the shelf for a few more years.

After I moved to Melbourne in 2021, I started planning a proper ‘full band’ solo album. The first song I thought of was Halogen Dreams, so I did up an arrangement and recorded some lead vocals. But then lockdown struck, and I lost my enthusiasm for the project. Instead, I recorded my acoustic album Healing Street, which was more of a lockdown vibe. Halogen Dreams was back on the shelf – but not for long! When I was next in Brisbane, I took the chance to get Tony Garrett from HG in to Alchemix in West End to do some drums for a couple of songs. One of them was Halogen Dreams, which he of course knocked out of the park.

This is the end of the story – I finally finished a version that I’m happy with and makes sense to release. It’s still the same song as the TDIP version, but over the years it’s picked up a chorus (which is the start of the song in this version), and also lost an intro, outro, and piano part, as well as a host of instrumental bits and pieces. My main references for this version were classic 90’s Radiohead songs like ‘Airbag’ (the cut up drums) and ‘Planet Telex’ (the tremolo guitar in the choruses). James Seymour (Feelds) helped me out with doing some extra guitars – we used a battery amp for the guitar solo to give it a broken up sound. I’m rarely happy with my own mixes (it’s the land of overthinking), but I’m content with the mix of Halogen Dreams. I took some risks to make it more exciting – lots of wacky stereo panning and distortion on the drum bus inspired by the Flaming Lips – and I think the sense of chaos gets it out of the safe adult contemporary land it used to live in. I mixed the drums in mono, inspired by the song ‘Flying’ by The Telescopes. My thinking was that if the drums were in mono, there would be more room for hard-panned elements left and right, making the mix feel wider and more psychedelic.

A few people have told me that Halogen Dreams is their favourite song of mine, while others haven’t really gotten it or thought it was a bit dull. Either way, I’ve been dragging it along the ground behind me like a kite since well before I was an adult, and releasing it into the world feels like a little bit of growing up that I never did.

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