Frontman Back in the Hunt

Open Undertow era article about Mark Seymour.

Author: Craig Methieson, Sydney Morning Herald.

Date: 28 May 2011.

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Article Text

Last year, Mark Seymour did something unexpected: he stopped. Movement has always helped define Seymour, from the vast sweep of Hunters & Collectors in full flow to the distance covered in an eclectic solo career, but in 2010 the vocalist and guitarist realised that the album he was making was flawed to the point of failure. The songs didn’t work, and he was burying himself in their creation as a way of not addressing other issues, including having moved his elderly, ailing mother into a nursing home.

He was an artist bereft of traction and for the first time in a career entering its fifth decade Seymour found himself contemplating unwelcome questions: Why was he constantly making the wrong creative choices? Was he even operating in a creative manner? It was a sobering situation for a man who readily admits to a sizeable ego.

”I felt very isolated artistically,” recalls the 54-year-old. ”I felt like I was really holding on to life issues about getting older and where my career had taken me. I felt like I had a negative view of what I had achieved, and possibly you could call it a midlife crisis. I was thinking too much about the past.”

Seymour, who looks as if he’s added nothing more than a few facial furrows since Hunters & Collectors ended their iconic run in 1998, is too driven to accept that he was becalmed; he can lose a battle, but never the war. He looked for ways to improve his songwriting process, finding help by returning to what he’d left behind when his solo stint began.

He asked his backing musicians – guitarist and producer Cameron McKenzie, bassist John Favaro and drummer Peter Maslen – what they thought of his compositions, and they gave him not only their opinions, but their input at soundchecks.

”I’d been in this huge band for so many years and there was a process I’d shut down when I went solo thinking that’s what I had to do, and I’ve realised I didn’t have to do that,” Seymour says. ”If musicians don’t think the door is open, they won’t proffer opinions. They’ll do the gig, they’ll do it well, but there’s a dialogue that doesn’t occur.”

The result is his new album, The Undertow. Credited to Mark Seymour and the Undertow, it renders him once more the frontman, rather than the lone singer-songwriter. It’s diverse in style – Seymour stopped worrying about having an identifiable sound when he realised commercial radio had no time for him – and it’s marked by subtle changes. The social commentary is now couched as tragedy as opposed to conflict, while domestic details dot many of the songs. There are few grand gestures.

”I’ve gotten interested in the idea of having a sense of detachment – you’re having this emotional moment, but the world continues to function independently of how you feel,” he says. ”There’s bewilderment in a lot of them, asking questions that I don’t know the answers to.”

That’s not readily apparent from meeting Seymour in person. His sense of energy is appreciable, whether focused and intense when discussing his work or jovial when the conversation wanders. The married father of two can, in short order, ponder life with two teenage girls, divide Melbourne’s football teams into forces of good and evil (his Western Bulldogs are definitely the former), and suggest where the city’s best Greek food can be found.

Part of Seymour’s directness stems from having to maintain a busy touring schedule, divided between solo shows and band gigs. He’s a working dad with a house in the [southern] suburbs and a mortgage to meet, despite Hunnas’ considerable success.

”People probably think I’m loaded and it’s not true,” Seymour says. ”I shared the [Hunters & Collectors] royalties with eight other people on a very generous split.”

But even if that wasn’t the case, the concept of being idle is anathema to him. Touring and recording is the only life he knows and now that it’s clear to him that he’s closer to the end than the start of it all, he’s keen to forge ahead once more.

”I really want to keep documenting things – I don’t want to stop. My wife has said to me on occasion that I don’t have to make records … but the thought of not documenting the story of where I am is death to me. This record is the beginning of something.”

Mark Seymour and the Undertow play Northcote Social Club on June 2, Trak Lounge on June 3 and Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh, on June 4.