The world is full of grand airports. Airports where you can shop duty free for hours on end, where you can recline in lounges with a glass of wine in hand and indulge in massages charged by the minute. Airports where you could easily wile away the better part of a day.
Merimbula Airport is not one of those places. The 59th busiest airport in Australia comprises one not-oversized room filled with a car hire stall, two vending machines, a small check in counter and some seats. The security detail is a one-woman affair. And if you ask nicely enough, they’ll even let you pose for photos on the runway.
I’m here with local dance music success story Flight Facilities, who – unbeknown to most of their six-figure fan base, spread everywhere from Sydney to Paris – wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this small town on NSW’s Sapphire Coast. Or, at least, not by this name. We’re also here because last week, Jimmy and Hugo released their debut album Down to Earth, one song from which (one of the best ones, at that) they named ‘Merimbula’.
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AS interview questions go, “Where did you get your band name from?” is laughably rudimentary. Jimmy Lyell and Hugo Gruzman – the two guys who make up Flight Facilities – are one of the few acts around who could actually give you a loaded answer to it. Before it was associated with the duo’s pop-leaning take on house music, Flight Facilities was an airline operating out of Merimbula Airport, and it was run by Hugo’s grandfather, Laurie.
The airport might not be all glitz and glamour, but it certainly has swathes of charm. It’s also the kind of place where the guy in charge doubles as a pilot who also refuels planes, mans the phones and drives the field trucks. And, when some producers from Sydney fly in for the day, issues visitor cards and offers an impromptu tour. That guy is Ian. As it turns out, he’s the same guy who scattered Hugo’s grandfathers ashes from a plane at his funeral service, which was held beside the airport runway 15 years ago.
“So, are you the Jack of All Trades around here, Ian?” Jimmy asks.
“I’m the airport manager,” he says. “When you run a small business you have to do a few things to make it work, haven’t ya?”
Ian is also a man of few words. When I ask whether he’s heard Jimmy and Hugo’s music, I get a succinct answer: “No.”
He’s a little more talkative when the topic of conversation is Hugo’s grandfather, who Ian worked alongside for years. In the 1960s, Laurie Gruzman – an aviation enthusiast who would accumulate over 15,000 flying hours before his death – founded Flight Facilities Australia, a small airline that initially offered joy flights around the Merimbula region. Flight Facilities later acquired a base at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport, offering commercial flights between Sydney and Merimbula.
So, as casually as if he was picking the kids up from school, Laurie would often fly Hugo and his cousins to Merimbula for visits.
As the years rolled on, Laurie and Flight Facilities focused more on search-and-rescue operations, as well as running shark patrols and bushfire spotting services. After one pilot was stranded in the Bass Strait while an aircraft circled overhead without any way to drop rescue supplies to him, Laurie and a team of volunteers developed the Precision Aerial Delivery System – PADS, for short – a small pack that could safely drop life rafts and other valuable survival supplies to pilots in distress. It worked: the Australian Government purchased and used the PADS system around Australia after Laurie and co. were profiled on the ABC’s 4 Corners.
And, in 1998, when the Sydney to Hobart disaster sunk five boats off the coast of Eden, which isn’t far from Merimbula, Flight Facilities (which by then had been sold on its next owner) was at the forefront of the rescue mission. “We had 14 helicopters operating here,” Ian tells us. “About 28 twin-engine aircrafts on the search. Two huge navy ones.”
“Laurie tried to get up there too, didn’t he?” Hugo asks. “I remember he was in a wheelchair at that stage.”
“He was in a wheelchair, but he wouldn’t have let that stop him.”
By all accounts, Laurie was larger than life. Ian describes him as a ”wild man”. Hugo has his own memories. “The two craziest things he let me do before I was ten were a) fly that plane and b) drive home from the airport. He thought it was hilarious!” He’s not joking.
With a legacy like that, it’s little wonder Hugo was so keen to use the name his grandfather coined as he and Jimmy’s own. But “mostly it was just a really good logo,” Hugo concedes. “And the name was just kinda catchy as well. I was like – if we’re going to call it something to do with flying, let’s just dress like pilots and go the whole nine yards with it.”
“He presented a very good case,” Jimmy agrees. The only act that might have rivalled them for the flying schtick was French duo Aeroplane, who Flight Facilities once shared the bill with at New Year’s festival Field Day. “We saw them at airport one year and Vito [de Luca, one half of the duo] was like, ‘You guys can run with the whole pilot thing,’ because apparently people had been trying to make him do it and he wasn’t having a bar of it.” Five years on, Jimmy and Hugo are keeping “the whole pilot thing” – they even wear the original Flight Facilities Airline ties on stage.
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WHILE Jimmy and Hugo both have big family ties to Merimbula – even holidaying here at the same time as children – they didn’t meet until years later in Sydney. Jimmy was DJing around the city’s clubs regularly and Hugo was, by his own description, a “pizza boy” who also made mixtapes and sometimes got behind the decks.
There’s only so far two guys running in the same circles in Sydney can go before fate or coincidence brings them together and sure enough their paths eventually crossed. “It’s like when you hear a new word or recognise a particular song and you start to hear it everywhere. It was like that – once I knew of Jimmy’s presence, he was suddenly everywhere,” Hugo explains. “I reckon we had been at the same venue for at least two years constantly. And then we finally started to recognise each other.”
Eventually, Hugo approached Jimmy with a sample – “He was really good at working with samples” – and they spent a day in the studio together. The product of that first studio date was a bootleg of a Bumblebeez track called ‘Rio’, a track that holds up as well today as it did when the pair released it. “You can find it on the internet under U-Go-B and Jimmy2sox,” Jimmy says. “It’s the first combined thing that we ever did.”
They kept making remixes together and early in 2010, Hugo’s cousin Gus – who also spent much of his childhood in Merimbula – asked the pair to make an original track to feature on a compilation he was putting together for his label Bang Gang. Hugo had met a vocalist called Giselle at a bar around they same time and they’d kept in touch via MySpace. Together, the three of them made ‘Crave You’, the track that kept Jimmy from his grandmother Colma’s 70th birthday party.
COLMA, now 74, is a feisty and strong-willed woman, who lives at Tura Beach, just 10 minutes from Merimbula Airport. Jimmy phoned her yesterday to tell her they were coming and she’s there, ready to hug her famous grandson when they land. She’s also alerted the local press.
Standing with Colma and Jimmy’s grandad Max is a middle-aged reporter from the Merimbula Weekly. They’re trying to wrap their head around how two guys who’ve made a career out of pushing buttons relate to their small town.
“Can I ask you about the song called ‘Merimbula’?”
“We just decided to call it that because it’s a real centralised place for family for both of us,” Jimmy tells her, while Colma goads him about being photographed for Merimbula’s leading news service while wearing a t-shirt with holes in it. “We should have brought you a decent shirt!” she exclaims, poking her fingers through one of the tears.
“And you’ve got a big tour coming up, haven’t you?” the reporter presses on. “Yeah, it starts on Thursday,” Jimmy begins, before Colma interrupts to list all the international locations the tour is taking them to: Berlin, Paris, London, Dublin, New York and Los Angeles, for a gig they’ve sold out weeks in advance. Later, when the Merimbula Weekly asks what year the band started, Colma helpfully interjects once more: “And their first hit [‘Crave You’] went to #19 in triple j’s Hottest 100!”
“Yeah, you’re all over it,” Jimmy nods.
“Well it was the year of my 70th you see, so that’s why you couldn’t come down to my party.”
“Yeah, it was a good reason.”
“It was a good reason, James.”
A few days later, the Merimbula Weekly puts Flight Facilities’ arrival at Merimbula Airport on the front page of the paper. The local weekly isn’t the only media Colma is peddling Flight Facilities to. “When you give me your CD, I’m going to take it into the ABC and 2EC and tell them to play it,” she very seriously tells Jimmy after the reporter leaves.
Colma’s also an ever-present force on the Flight Facilities Facebook page. Dig through the comments section on just about any Flight Facilities post and you’ll see her there, checking in with Jimmy as if they were communicating via text message and not, say, on a public forum. “I love that she writes personal stuff on our posts, like, “See you at Christmas!” or, “You should come fishing with us!”, Hugo laughs later. “We saved some fish for you, James!” As Jimmy puts it: “She just doesn’t give a s**t.”
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NOT only did ‘Crave You’ hit #19 in the 2010 Hottest 100 – as Colma so astutely noted – it became one of the biggest local tracks of the year, even reaching listeners overseas and propelling Flight Facilities onto their first national tour, which they naturally dubbed the Maiden Voyage.
Over the next four years, they drip-fed five more singles, and each one they put out went large. But six singles over four years isn’t a whole lot of music, and their relaxed work pace became a running joke. “So at this rate we can expect your album in, what, 2015? 2017?” one interviewer prodded Hugo two years ago. “By the time no-one cares and we’re in wheelchairs, I think something like that,’” he joked back. So, for Down to Earth to arrive fully formed in 2014 – only five odd years after starting the band – Hugo and Jimmy were running way ahead of schedule.
Now, Jimmy’s relocated to New York – a decision he “couldn’t be happier with” – while Hugo remains in Bondi. The Flight Facilities Facebook fan count is shooting further past 200,000 every day, they’re fielding Year 12 formal date requests from high schoolers and, already, they’re being nominated for Album of the Year awards. But the folk at Merimbula Airport don’t know all of that.
TODAY, the owner of Flight Facilities – which has since been renamed Merimbula Air Service – is a guy called Andy Campbell. He worked with Laurie closely, and remembers Hugo as a child. “I used to babysit you on a few occasions,” Andy says, reclining behind the service desk of the air service’s bedroom-sized office. “I think I just gave you a couple of whiskies and you went to sleep.”
Hugo laughs. “Doesn’t take much more than that now.”
“I can vouch for that,” Jimmy chimes in.
“Your grandpa used to have an airplane sitting just out there,” Andy says, motioning to the runway. “Me and your grandma used to fly it. He was a fairly wild pilot.” “Wild” is an adjective that comes up a lot when people describe Laurie Gruzman.
Andy also has decades’ worth of stories about Laurie to tell – like the time he almost flew right over Sydney Airport before remembering he was meant to land there, or when he muscled the police and ambulance out of the way to be the first at the scene of an emergency landing at Merimbula. Or there was the time – in his other profession as a QC – when Laurie represented a chef who was being taken to court over a minor food service offence. Laurie flew his plane to Bega to represent his friend, swiftly had the case dismissed and got the defendant, who was facing losing their licence to trade as a restaurateur, $5000 compensation, an apology from the Health Department and an assurance that a case like this would never be brought before the courts again.
These aren’t the kind of stories that surprise Hugo. “It wouldn’t be like him to do it by halves.”
“Like someone I know,” Jimmy adds. “I’m slowly putting the pieces together about this guy. If Hugo starts something … it has to be finished.”
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WHEN Jimmy and Hugo’s label Future Classic sent Down to Earth to reviewers to hear for the first time, they left one song off the stream. When the album dropped a few weeks later, wedged in before final track was new a 73-second ‘Crave You’ reprise, sung by one of the most recognisable voices in Australia. As it turns out, Kylie Minogue is quite the Flight Facilities fan.
The guys noticed that Kylie had included ‘Crave You’ on a playlist she once did for Spotify, so Future Classic got in touch to see whether they could get her involved in the album. She jumped at the chance, and now, both Hugo and Jimmy beam at the mention of Kylie. “She’s amaaaazing,” Jimmy tells me when I ask what Australia’s eternal pop princess is like in real life. “Like, the most incredible energy you’ve ever felt in your life. I have no doubts that’s why she’s so successful.”
“The first time she sang the a capella, I just went around to Hugo and he was like, “Oh god,” and we were just like – Jimmy pauses to comically dropping his jaw to the ground and shake his arms in disbelief. “We were like schoolboys – it was just so good.”
It went so well that at the end of the session, the trio put on Hall & Oates’ ‘You Make My Dreams Come True’ and danced around the studio. “We’d been going for six or seven hours and we put that on and danced it off.”
They wanted to record an original with her too, but time didn’t permit. “Between both of our schedules it was just so hectic,” Jimmy says. “Like, the day she came to record with us, she had to do an interview, she had a fitting, she had our thing, then she had to go do live tweeting for The Voice. So she just has to be everywhere at once.”
“But I feel like she’s gotten to the stage of her career where she just wants to do things that are interesting and different to what she’s been doing,” Hugo adds. They’re still hoping to bring her out for a live spot at one of their shows.
She might be the biggest, but Kylie’s not the only collaborator Flight Facilities brought on board for the record. (In fact, the label decided to hold her track back from review copies precisely so Kylie wouldn’t overshadow the others). Jimmy and Hugo almost got De La Soul on the record too, but it didn’t work out in time. In the end, Emma Louise, their tour vocalist Owl Eyes, Bishop Nehru and Stee Downes all leant their vocals to different tracks, as did comedian Reggie Watts. He’s the voice of the single ‘Sunshine’, and the guys think he’s just “a minute away from being a superstar”. To make that collaboration work, Jimmy and Reggie went into the studio in New York while Hugo did his part over Skype, from his bed in Sydney. Later, they all got together to film the video clip.
The ‘Sunshine’ clip is the first Flight Facilities video Jimmy and Hugo have ever actually been in, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. While Reggie strolls down the street talking at a rapid pace on the phone, Jimmy and Hugo walk past carrying a couch. “That’s how we wanted it,” Hugo says.
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Until now, they weren’t interested in being in any videos. Electronic music’s new cult of personality wasn’t something they interested in being part of – as Hugo puts it, he didn’t want to “look like a dick”. That might also explain why the pair spent much of their early career jovially lying to interviewers about their origins and generally avoiding social media, except to reply with thanks to the comments of gushing fans on Facebook. Jimmy and Hugo just wanted to make music, they weren’t particularly interested in being famous.
BACK in Merimbula, Colma is at it again. We’re having lunch at the town’s finest restaurant with her husband, Max, though before anyone can order, Colma wants to make sure the waitress knows exactly who she’s serving. “Have you heard this song?” she asks, hitting play on a Soundcloud upload of the extended version of ‘Crave You’ on her iPhone. “It went to #19 in triple j’s Hottest 100!” The waitress shuffles awkwardly, and Jimmy takes the iPhone, dragging the waveform to where the chorus begins. “If you’ve heard it, you’ll recognise this bit,” he says. She doesn’t.
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But someone else at Wheeler’s Oyster Bar does. Soon after, another waitress comes over to tell Jimmy and Hugo that she’s a big fan. They get a photo together, and talk about the upcoming tour. “All the kids in town are stoked that you called one of the songs ‘Merimbula’,” she tells them. Colma’s thrilled.
THERE’S one other stop Hugo wants to make today, and that’s to the house of John and Barbra McCammon, who were friends of his grandparents and who regularly babysat him when he was young. John and his wife are well into their 80s now, but they remember the Gruzmans. “The last time I saw you, you were this high,” John says to Hugo, motioning at his knees. “And now he’s a beanstalk!” Jimmy cries with laughter.
Their musical career is a little harder for the couple to grasp. While Barbra offers tea and reminds Hugo of the times she used to teach him Mah Jong, John rummages through boxes for old Flight Facilities memorabilia. “So what brings you to these wild and wee parts?” Barbra asks. “We’ve just released an album under the name Flight Facilities,” Hugo explains. The explanation doesn’t quite take. “Yes, but what are you doing with yourselves?”
“Have you got a pilot among you?” John presses on.
“Not yet,” Hugo answers.
“And where do you sleep these days?”
Hugo laughs. “Um, all over the world.”
Flight Facilities helped us launch AWOL, a title that’s all about inspiring young Australians to travel the world, as part of a paid partnership.
(Lead image: Stephane Debove / Shutterstock)
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