AUSTRALIAN singer/songwriter has been part of the Australian music industry for over a decade, through thick, thin and fluctuating music tastes. Here he talks to GEORGE KATRALIS about the musical ride from Gympie, Queensland to “citizen of the world”.
Let’s go right back to the start — a childhood in Gympie QLD during which you’ve been quoted as only listening to Kenny Rodgers and Slim Dusty with your folks, until a chance meeting with a rival school’s music teacher expanded your musical horizon.
My folks actually had other albums but it was those two I remember playing them most. My sister and I have since encouraged them to diversify. As for the music teacher, every afternoon would be a revelation. In his living room I heard for the first time REM, The Clash, The Triffids, The Go-Betweens, Sex Pistols and many other key acts. But just as important to me at the time were the lesser known bands he put on the stereo. I loved the Honeys, the Skolars, the Particles, Wild Pumpkins at Midnight, lots of Australian Ska bands…so much stuff. From there I’d get the train to Brisbane to scour the record stores to start my own collection.
I wasn’t drawn to music, it was drawn to me. I couldn’t escape it. Before all of this, from as early as I could remember I had older cousins making me tapes…Duran Duran, Madonna and all that. We had Aboriginal neighbours – still do – who would have live bands play in their shed. One great one was called ‘Mop and the Dropouts.’
My parents got me signed up as a guitarist in a country dance band called ‘Western Express’ at around age 14 and we’d play Waltzes and Gypsy Taps in the halls and barns around Gympie every weekend. Music was everywhere.
You initially started off playing backing guitar for the Simpletons, under the direction of Shane Gelagin. How was that experience?
Shane and the band had a real buzz about them, they were called ‘Playground’ at the time and they had a female lead singer.
For me the songs related to a lot of the stuff I’d been listening to since high school. When I got to know Shane I discovered we had a lot of the same influences: Billy Bragg and the Smiths, and that’s why it really caught my attention. I was at a music college at the time and 90% of the people were deeply into the Chilli Peppers and Mr Bungle, so you could image Shane and Co really stood out from the crowd. I went to all their shows. I’d bug Brad the bass player and say, “Man, you play like Andy Rourke!”
As for mine and Shane’s musical relationship, it worked well. He felt technically limited, it was all instinct for him. Sometimes I could translate what he was trying to do, help him mould his ideas or teach him a new chord. Mostly he was pretty competent though, and I’d try to tell him “you don’t need to theorize what you’re doing, just do it.”
I learned that training can sometimes kill the creative spark. But as with a lot of purely creative people they need some outside direction, some editing. And it didn’t just come from me… the other band mates too, and our manager Chris Crouch was a good constructive critic. And yes, of course I was in awe of Shane’s words, but was happy to be his guitarist.
Did your admiration and connection with Shane ultimately inspire you to go down the songwriting path?
I think I got addicted to travel and adventure and I soon realised I’d need to start writing them myself if I wanted to continue.
Without Shane I had to learn quickly. And it was harder for me, we’re so different. He had an uncanny understanding of the world around him for someone so young. He burned brightly, astounding energy, all instinctual. As he got older it got harder for him to continue to harness that. He told me once out of the blue, “What the hell am I supposed to write about?”
We’d been traveling solidly for about 5 years and so that became his frame of reference, the songs started concerning the band itself, the traveling and music industry. As for me, I started late, I felt I needed some life experience to be able to do it. I didn’t have the natural insight into things. And I’m still learning.
2000 and 2002 saw you release the EP’s Early Days and Hello Stranger. The first with the single ‘Falling Aeroplanes’ dealt with the idea of chasing someone. The second with songs such as ‘He misses you too you know’ and ‘Last night of not knowing you’ seem to deal in contrast with moving on. Was this a conscious effort to have the albums back to back with contrasting themes?
I like that you’ve built a narrative around these albums but am sorry to say, as a set of songs, nothing was really conscious. And to tell the truth I was pretty damn happy through that whole time. It felt good to be making the first tentative steps towards autonomy. I’d not know what to expect nor had any expectations. But when ‘Falling Aeroplanes’ did well on radio I thought this might be something I’d be able to do full time. In hindsight both those albums feel naively hopeful. ‘The Last Night of Not Knowing You’ is a song about the birth of a new relationship; it’s meant to be optimistic. Hello Stranger itself is the beginning of something, or as the title suggests, reincarnation.
You have songs on your albums with a less serious tone. What is it with a subject like sneaking into a movie that makes you think, ‘Yes, I have my next song!’
I don’t set out to try and be funny. They’re all true things in my life. Most people have different sides to their personality. I’d feel strange if I just wrote songs from one part of mine, especially if it’s all serious and introspective.
2004 saw you release your 3rd solo effort Little Chills. Unlike previous albums, this one seemed to be overly produced. Was this decision based on the songs you had at the time or an effort to maybe broaden your market or crack into the US or UK?
It was just the environment that dictated the sounds. It was the first album where drummer Bree Van Reyk was a full time integral part of the band. I felt I’d finally found a musical soul mate for my solo stuff, someone I could trust and understood what I was trying to do.
In the studio Bree had a huge input, she played a lot of the keyboard parts on that album. We’d traveled to Tucson, AZ to work with Craig Schumacher. The studio was full of instruments so it was just too easy to add things, a chance to really experiment for the first time, so maybe we could be blamed for overdoing it. Certainly no thoughts about any markets, except the one that sold catfish burritos and tamales.
Fingertips and Mountaintops in 2006 seemed a huge step forward both musically and artistically, as the album cover featured an artwork. What brought on this change?
My conscious thoughts back then were to spend more time on the project and do it in Australia. Two of the tracks off the last album had been done with a friend Anthony The, who had his own studio in Sydney and I was really happy with them. So I enlisted him to do the whole thing this time. He’s a quiet achiever and put a lot of care into the finished project. If Hello Stranger is a beginning, then this one is an ending… to me anyway.
And I’d also come around to the idea that every album cover from here on should have original artwork, something created especially for it. I’d seen James’s work around and liked it. I sent him what songs were finished and he designed the cover listening to them. The finished product was actually huge, covered most of his floor. I should find out where it is now… could make for a colourful helipad or something.
Your most recent album I Will Love You At All show a new depth to your songwriting. How did this album come about?
I wanted to make something simpler musically, more folk chords, less instruments, all to let the lyrics come through. Often if I’d come up with a line that was too clever for it’s own good I’d edit it out. The way I’m trying to write now has changed. Instead of sitting with a notebook and playing around with words and phrases I’ve been just singing the songs over and over with a guitar and kind of sculpting them out bit by bit. It feels more pure, organic and truer somehow.
I Will Love You At All leads the listener to a theme of nostalgia. Was this a central theme in your life at the time?
Often I’ll listen back later and realise what it was all about. A light will come on. That’s the magical aspect of it all. People talk about the writer only being the conduit for songs and energies that already exist in the ether. I have to say sometimes I believe it.
So for this last one, it came at a time of elongated homelessness. Not wanting to pay rent as I’d be away touring. I underestimated the effect of having no base or foundation can have on the soul. I thought I could just keep going forever, be a citizen of the planet. I get comfort from all the wonderful friends I’ve made throughout the world and am able to visit year after year, but nothing compares with having a neighborhood, close friends you grow with, family and fruit shop.
You seem to share your time between Australia and the US. Do you feel America and yourself have a good relationship?
It’s such an easy and exciting place to be. As for the US loving me … If we were in a real relationship I’d have to say, “America, sit down we have to talk. I feel like you’re not giving back what I’m putting in. I know you’ve been hurt before but…”
It’s a really tough country for musicians. Australia is blessed by comparison. Mainly because we have national and community radio networks that are extremely supportive of local artists.
In America I keep discovering mind-blowing bands that no one has heard of and wouldn’t stand a chance of getting on the national radio, but that can also be the beauty of it too.
Any star struck moments?
I recently got to spend a day at Chad Morgan’s house.
We had the best day. He’s seriously the original indie musician – at nearly 80 years old he has his own basic recording studio, he does his own art and pressing, he’s rigged up his own computer system (which looks like something from Back to the Future) where he updates his website, he doesn’t have a manager and when I asked him about the state of the music industry he said, “f**k the industry”. He just travels around with his wife in their old car and plays to whoever turns up.
I asked him heaps of questions and he kept the stories coming. He was so funny, cracking great gags. He told me about recently discovering his Aboriginal heritage, and from that he wrote one of the most touching songs of his career. I left there more in love with the guy than ever.
Who plays Darren Hanlon in the movie of your life?
When Justin Beiber turns 50 he might be up for it.
Also read: Darren Hanlon: The Real Deal