The Juggernaut Rolls To A Stop
Large interesting article on the end of Hunters and Collectors. With Mark Seymour and Barry Palmer.
Author: Jeff Jenkins, Addicted To Noise.
After sixteen years Hunters & Collectors have decided to call it a day. Not only one of the most exciting and adventurous bands to emerge on the local scene, The Hunnas (as we came to affectionately know them) have become renowned for their live shows and have also able to turn their musical innovation into considerable chart success.
As he band winds down with a farewell tour and new album, Juggernaut, ATN’s Jeff Jenkins caught up with two of the key members : singer Mark Seymour and guitarist Barry Palmer.
Part 1 – Mark Seymour
Everyone is sweating. It is as if, as one writer once suggested, the crowd is expurgating demons. A Hunters & Collectors gig is an enormous tribal experience.
But tonight, the leader of the tribe, singer Mark Seymour, is not happy. Standing on stage, he starts to lecture the crowd about the perils of beer drinking. It’s a strange scene. The ‘Hunnas’ have probably encouraged more beer drinking than any other Australian band since the start of the ’80s. But for Seymour, the middle distance runner and fitness fanatic, it’s a side of the business he doesn’t like.
Two years later, he pauses to reflect on his preaching. “I started realising that they weren’t getting the joke,” he says, sitting in a cafe in Albert Park, around the corner from Mushroom Records, the Hunnas home for more than 15 years.
“Things like fights, guys punching each other up in the crowd. That really started to worry me. It would happen two or three times on every tour. I felt awful. It would make me so angry. It had a real destructive effect on me.”
Such scenes were the beginning of the end for Mark Seymour. Sixteen years after releasing the classic debut single, “Talking To A Stranger”, Hunters & Collectors are calling it quits. They are releasing a farewell album, Juggernaut, on Australia Day, and doing a 12-week “Say Goodbye” tour, which winds up with three shows at Melbourne’s Hi Fi Bar on March 20, 21 and 22.
“I think for a long time in Hunters & Collectors, I’d been deluding myself,” Seymour says. “Relationships are really important to me, they are critical to my creative energy. And I put everything into my relationships with other musicians. But I think for a long time I was kidding myself that I was getting things back individually from people in the band. I had this illusion that people were responding to me.
“Because of my ego and vanity, it took me a long time to realise that. I’d see things coming back from other people that weren’t really there.”
Five years ago, Seymour said: “I can’t say enough for the collaborative energy of Hunters & Collectors. On an idealistic level, that’s a really profound thing to hold on to musically. In the long-term, it’s far more gratifying than sitting at home with a multi-track machine and penning little songs on an acoustic guitar. I do that occasionally, but it’s nowhere near as rewarding as working off other people.”
Now he says: “I had to realise that I couldn’t just assume that being the singer in Hunters & Collectors was going to be enough in the long run. I needed to get out and do other things.”
The Hunnas always operated as a democracy. Mushroom boss Michael Gudinski says dealing with the band was like confronting the communist party. But towards the end, Seymour thinks the committee approach broke down.
Seymour has moved on to a solo career, releasing the album, King Without A Clue.
“I would be accused of making bad decisions,” he says. “But, fuck it, what do you do? Other band members would, for example, criticise why a certain single was selected – but after the event. Unless individual band members are prepared to actually speak their mind, state their case, the committee process won’t work. People have to say what’s on their minds. I can’t read people’s minds!”
Even before the Hunters’ swansong, Seymour has moved on to a solo career, releasing the album, King Without A Clue. On one track, “Home Again”, he sings: “Change is in the wind, ready or not …”And on the liner notes, Seymour included a quote from Walter Mikac, whose family was killed in the Port Arthur massacre: “Never take the future for granted”.
“Yeah, this was a big thing for me to do,” Seymour says reflectively. “I’d thrown all my eggs into the Hunters & Collectors basket for so long. I’d been fiercely desiring the band to be the biggest thing since sliced bread. We put everything into it, we were very passionate.”
The Hunnas gave it a real shot overseas. In 1983, they relocated to London where they had a disastrous, short-lived deal with Virgin Records. At the end of the ’80s, they toured the U.S. with Midnight Oil, where they had a deal with Atlantic Records. But the overseas punters never quite understood the Hunnas. A review in Billboard compared them to Duran Duran.
“I guess maybe we weren’t easy to understand,” Seymour reflects. “There were different energies within the group, pulling us in lots of different directions. And we probably thought we were a lot better than we really were. In the end, I think why we appeared to be so exciting to Australians was that the P.A. was always huge and we always had the production down. But as soon as we transplanted ourselves to another part of the world, we had to rely on an intellectual exchange. It was nothing to do with performance.” But until the mid-9Os, the Hunnas remained very ambitious.
“Yeah, for a long time I wanted it,” Seymour says. “But gradually I accepted that that wasn’t going to happen. “Our record sales dropped, so change was inevitable. I knew I was capable of making a record on my own, so I had to do it.”
King Without A Clue finds Seymour in an introspective, contemplative mood. As he sings on the album’s second single, “The Ghost Of Vainglory”: “Let’s keep it simple”.
“Initially it was very daunting,” he says. “The potential range of choices I had were huge. There were so many different directions I could have gone in. I could have made a funk record or a grungey guitar record or whatever. But for me to feel emotionally connected to the songs, I had to come up with music that felt right to me. It’s a very simple record.”
Whereas the Hunnas are a band who would poke you in the chest, Seymour is more laid back and thoughtful. “From time to time, yes, the Hunnas did have the tendency to be a bit pompous. I didn’t want to make an album like that.”
Produced by Hunters & Collectors’ guitarist Barry Palmer, the sound is largely acoustic and downbeat. Seymour is joined by his brother Nick on bass, Peter Jones on drums, and Palmer on guitar. Lyrically, King Without A Clue is a very Melbourne album. Some say the title refers to Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.
“I could be accused of being parochial,” Seymour says, “but I believe that unless you have a sense of time and place, you won’t make a record that will transcend time and place.”
Melbourne’s casino culture creeps into a couple of tracks. On “Home Again”, Seymour twists the Crown motto, singing, “Sudden death is soon to be the biggest game in town.” And on “Can’t Crawl That Way”, he sings, “into the parking lot the game gets rough”, alluding to the number of children left in the casino car park as their parents gamble.
But Seymour has appeared at the Casino’s Mercury Lounge, the venue belonging to Michael Gudinski and the Hunnas’ booking agent, Premier Artists’ Frank Stivala. What gives?
“Let me explain where I stand politically: I am against Jeff Kennett, without question. I’m against everything he stands for – the cronyism, the doubledealing, the environment of self-love and aggrandisement. It’s all completely bogus. I’m concerned about unemployment, and heroin on the streets. I would never in my entire life ever vote for the Liberal Party. But the Mercury Lounge is a different issue. It’s Michael Gudinski trying to get a rock gig into a mausoleum. I just basically feel sorry for Michael and Frank. Their venue is in a shopping mall.”
Seymour has enjoyed doing his low-key solo shows, accompanied only by his brother. “The crowds have been enthusiastic. A lot of people have said, ‘It’s not Hunters & Collector’, and it isn’t. It’s me.”
Rewind to last year’s ARIA Awards, and Seymour is standing on stage with Richard Wilkins, who jokes about Seymour’s “Last Ditch Cabaret” being up for Best Debut Single. Seymour thinks it’s strange, but he’s also pleased. It is a new beginning.
Interviewing Mark Seymour is like going a few rounds with a tough middleweight. He’s a feisty character, ready for any blows the interviewer might attempt to land. When quizzed about the cliches that have dominated his songwriting over the years, he says:
“Let’s talk about cliches for a minute. Songwriting is about the vernacular, especially if it’s pop. You have to be in your face, up to a point, otherwise you’re not going to get people’s attention. So if I’m guilty of having written cliches, so be it. You’ve gotta flirt with that. If you don’t, you disappear up your own arse.”
Seymour remains very ambitious. “I want to be commercially successful. I’m not Tina Arena or Johnny Farnham, I’m writing my own words. But I really admire where they are and I would like to get close to that. I’m not interested in being alternative by any means. I just think it’s bogus. The whole concept of credibility in this industry is deliberately manipulated by everybody. The notion of whether I’m credible or not is of no interest to me at all.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? Musicians get sucked into it. I’m not bogged down in this inner-city alternative fear mentality of being resentful and angry about other people’s success. I’m not interested in that any more. I know what it’s like, I’ve been there. Ultimately, it’s really self-destructive. It eats away at you, your basic creativity – and that’s the only thing that’s going to keep you afloat.” So what does Mark Seymour want when he writes a song?
“It’s gotta be right for me. When I write a song, I’ve got to constantly bring it back home. “What do I want from this business? Do I want to buy an expensive computer? Do I want to eat out at fancy restaurants? Yeah, fucking oath I do. And I think I deserve it and I’ve got enough talent to be able to pull it off.”
Part 2 – Barry Palmer
Scenes from a final show: Beer, lots of it. Guys, lots of them. Sweat, lots of it. Major male bonding as the crowd sings, “You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman any more”. Major emotional outpouring as the band plays “Throw Your Arms Around Me” as guys in the crowd try to find a girl each. Looks of bewilderment as the band plays “Talking To A Stranger” …
This is it – Hunters & Collectors Say Goodbye.
And they exit the scene in the same way they have spent the last 16 years, with triumphant, sweaty pub shows.
Guitarist Barry Palmer is standing backstage at the Port Macquarie RSL. His hands are wrapped around a VB. He’s not alone. The Hunnas all enjoy a good time on the road. Always did, but maybe even more so now. Aside from French horn player and guitarist Jeremy Smith (“the lone ranger”) all of the band members now have children. Being on the road is a release, a throwback to their younger, less responsible years.
Barry is having a good time. “Before this tour, I thought that it was going to be really difficult emotionally,” he says. “I thought that every night would feel like the last night, and it is the last night for that particular crowd. But it’s just like a normal show. It’s funny, when we play an old track like (1982’s) “Talking To A Stranger”, a lot of people in the crowd haven’t got a clue what it is, but they are so into it. It’s a beautiful, warm, gushy feeling.”
The Hunnas are also playing three or four songs a night off their new album, Juggernaut , usually “Wasted In The Sun”, “Good Man Down”, and “Higher Plane”, which is already a live favourite.
Unlike other bands who call it quits with a greatest hits album or live album or boxed set, the Hunnas have issued a new album, their 10th. “When we decided that the band was breaking up, we thought it would be a great idea to do an original album. It’s kinda cocky, but it’s really good. It had to be the easiest album we’ve ever made. We didn’t have the spectre of having a big overseas producer and it wasn’t an album that was gonna make or break our career. It was just a record of songs that we wanted to record. And we knew that we weren’t going to follow it with months and months of touring. We all felt really good about that.”
Juggernaut is an excellent way to go out. Tight punchy rock with some melodic, almost Crowded House-like moments. It’s trademark Hunnas, especially ’90s Hunnas, though the horn section (Jeremy, Michael Waters and Jack Howard) are rarely heard.
Lyrically, Mark Seymour could be making several references to the band’s passing. On “Wasted In The Sun” he sings: “I watch the dinosaurs, they manicure their claws … they’ve lived and lost the wishful wicked years … killing time has come”.
“There’s been a few references to dinosaurs lately,” Barry says. Did the band want to get out before they became rock dinosaurs? “Well, I think people might have been saying that about us already. It’s difficult for me to talk about Mark’s lyrics, but I think he is throwing those lines back at the critics.”
Sitting at Melbourne’s Sing Sing studios, the Hunnas had agreed on a title for their final album. It was going to be called Titanic.
A month later, their plans were sunk. Even the Hunnas can’t compete with the most expensive movie of all time and Celine Dion. They decide to call the album “Juggernaut “. The dictionary definitions seem appropriate: 1. anything to which a person blindly devotes himself, or is cruelly sacrificed. 2. any large, relentless, destructive force. 3. to proceed relentlessly. A track called “Titanic” remains on the album. It could be the story of the band. Lyrically, it contains Seymour’s trademark – cliches. The song starts: “We’re cutting it fine, we’re cutting it clean/The green, green grass, we’re living the dream/Bringing the bacon home to be cooked …”
As Seymour’s urgent vocal becomes more world weary above the hypnotic, chiming guitars, it becomes a song about Seymour’s realisation that his band wasn’t going to become one of the world’s biggest. And then there’s the loss of ambition. “And all the houses in every street where live the millions we will not meet/As we stumble from day to day, searching for glory on feet of clay”.
Barry Palmer joined the Hunters & Collectors in 1988, just before the band made Ghost Nation, which became their biggest selling album to that point (double platinum for sales of more than 140,000), containing their biggest selling single ever, “When The River Runs Dry.”
“They call me Ronnie Wood, I’m still the new boy,” he laughs.
Barry believes the Hunnas were already battle-scarred by the time he joined and they never gave it a real shot overseas, despite having releases through Virgin, Epic, IRS and Atlantic.
“I think the band had such a bad experience in London early on (when they had a short-lived deal with Virgin) that they never wanted to go back again. The Hunnas made sure they were not going to make it internationally, I really believe that. The band had what it takes, they just had to go back there two, three or four times, like INXS did. If they’d really wanted it, they could have done it.”
Would Barry have been up for trying to crack overseas?
“No way! That’s no bloody life at all.”
Barry believes that the band was on the verge of big things in Europe with Ghost Nation, but then “Cut  went nowhere everywhere, except Australia, where it went platinum.”
“The irony was that was the album that was meant to be it. Don Gehman [John Mellencamp, Tracy Chapman, Jimmy Barnes] produced it. But it was the only record that didn’t get a proper release in America.”
The Hunnas had one final overseas fling with 1994’s Demon Flower, which had a simultaneous release in the UK and Europe through Mushroom UK. They toured there for seven weeks, but Barry recalls that the critics just didn’t get it.
“There’s been a few references to dinosaurs lately. I think people might have been saying that about us already.”
“I remember one review which said, ‘Because of the angst-ridden singer, this band is just miserable.’ Don’t they understand irony? “Easy” (Demon Flower’s first single) is really funny.”
But it’s clear that the Hunnas are not going to rue lost chances. Mark Seymour has already released his solo debut, King Without A Clue, which Barry produced and played on.
“I reckon it’s a bloody good record, I wish more people bought the bloody thing! But I think a lot of people still see Mark as being tied up with the Hunnas. It’s hard to change people’s perceptions. They see you as one thing. But I think the Hunnas breakup will help Mark and his next record will be the one. I reckon Mark’ll be huge – he has too much determination not to be.”
Barry confirms that Mark’s solo venture may have accelerated the Hunnas breakup, but it didn’t cause it. “When a lead singer makes a solo album it’s usually the writing on the wall, but this was not like that,” Barry says. “But as generous as Mark was, that was not reciprocated by a lot of people. Some people in the press and in the band resented Mark for doing that. There was a bit of heat, but then it all died down.”
“The thing about the Hunnas is it used to be all inward, nothing would distract us. But then people’s personal circumstances changed. All of us have kids, apart from Jeremy, and, for a start, that really fucks up touring. There are 14 Hunters & Collectors kids. So, you know, it was obvious that everyone’s energies were being directed into other areas.”
Barry has already released two albums with his other band, Deadstar. “I had played in other bands before I joined the Hunnas, so I never thought that I was going to be just a Hunters & Collectors person. I’m surprised it took me so long to get Deadstar going.”
Though he says the release of Deadstar’s second album, Milk, was “a low point in my life” (due to record company dramas and Mushroom’s change in distributor from Festival to Sony, it came out two years after it was recorded), Barry is itching to make the next Deadstar album.
“After the Hunnas tour finishes (at Melbourne’s Hi Fi Bar on March 22), I’ll take a couple of weeks off and then get into the next album. The thing about Caroline (Kennedy, singer) and I is that you only have to give us a week and we can do an album. And then I want it to come out straight away.”
Barry is also looking forward to working with other acts. He wrote “Cry”, the new single from Melbourne band The Mavis’s, with that band’s Matt Thomas.
Despite their own projects, the Hunnas are probably most excited by the new venture by trumpet player Jack Howard. “He is going to be doing the new AFL song. He’s singing it and it’s going to be the most played song that any of the Hunnas have ever done. The tragic thing will be if he gets to play at a Grand Final and he doesn’t invite us along. We’re massive footy fans and we always wanted to play “Holy Grail” at a Grand Final.”
The Hunters & Collectors are yet to work out whether the Say Goodbye tour will lead to a live album and/or video. But as Mark Seymour reflects on one of the new songs, “Those Days Are Gone”, the band will live on.
Barry says: “I hope I will never ever got over the thrill of hearing the Hunnas on the radio. “I love it.”
“Those days are gone/But the radio still plays the song/One for all and all for one …”