One for the Road
Excellent, thorough, researched Mark Seymour article.
Author: Susan Skelly.
Date: July/August 1997.
For 16 years, passion, politics and the forces of darkness have fuelled the Hunters and Collectors main main. But – just for a moment, mind – Mark Seymour is lightening up and swapping his pub-rock singlet for hot threads and cool songs.
His reputation precedes him. Mark Seymour is intense. Everybody says so – his manager, his mother, his brother, his friends, his fellow musicians. One rock journalist has said that interviewing him is like going three rounds with Jeff Fenech.
As lyricist for the enduring Australian pub rock band Hunters and Collectors, his passionate sensibility has found expression in songs about social injustice and political sham, white-shoe development and working-class disillusionment. Among the many causes Hunters and Collectors gigs have helped are the East Timorese and Sydney’s homeless. And away from the band, Seymour has campaigned against domestic violence and industrial law reform, youth wages policy and even the relocation of the Grand Prix to Melbourne.
What you expect, then, is someone honest, earnest, dead serious.
And then, over a long black on a pristine autumnal morning in Sydney’s Kings Cross, Seymour – in town to promote his first solo album – brightly states that one of the good things about going it alone is that you get to dress up.
Behind the trademark singlet, it emerges, is a man in suit trying to get out. He says, “I like wearing suits, definitely, but good ones. I like a particular cut. I’ve got a couple at home that have been made for me – one made by Martin Grant before he became famous.” (“Australian. Paris-based,” explains the pitying fashion buff on Mode.)
All the signs were there. On the phone from London at two in the morning, Mark’s brother Nick – late of Crowded House and now touring with Deadstar – says: “There’s the story of the Hunters and Collectors gig where Mark turned up in a red suit he’s had made, John Archer was wearing board shorts and thongs and said something along the lines of, ‘Gees, if I’d known you’d be wearing that, I’d have worn my clown suit.’
“By the time they went on stage, Mark was back in his singlet.
“I guess there was always pressure to tow the group line. Now it’s an adventure, and he’s probably got enough confidence to try again.”
And it’s not just the suit. Next morning, Seymour turns up on a breakfast radio good-naturedly making a complete dork of himself with a very unstable version of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”.
The incongruities – suit fetish, sense of humour, social conscience – perhaps help explain why Hunters and Collectors have, over the past 16 years, appealed so consistently to both the schooner and the macchiato crowds.
Maybe U2’s Bono had Mark Seymour’s measure when he said: “I like people who wrote both seriously and with a wink. I’m only developing a wink myself, but I think he’s got a great one.”
Mushroom Records boss Michael Gudinski, whose White label was conceived especially for the band during a dynamic period in Oz rock history, locates Seymour in the upper echelons of Australian songwriters, on par with, say, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker. Nick Seymour says his brother should be a household name by now.
Not that he lacks recognition. Crowded House, Paul Kelly, Kate Ceberano and Weddings Parties Anything have either performed or recorded his dewy, sensual number “Throw Your Arms Around Me”.
And how many men, dressed in their going-out shirts, pressed jeans and polished R. M. Williams boots, have belted out in beery solidarity in pubs all around the country, the girlfriend’s line from the song, “Say Goodbye”: You don’t make my feel like I’m a woman any more? Or sung along with “Holy Grail”, “When The River Runs Dry” or “True Tears Of Joy”.
Nick Seymour numbers “What’s A Few Men” among his favourites. “It still sends chills down my spine – it encapsulated the gentle Australian male.”
Now Mark Seymour is about to release a new batch of lighter, softer songs on a CD called King Without A Clue, produced by H&C guitarist Barry Palmer, but quote unlike anything Hunters and Collectors would do. It’s a heady moment of reinvention: new songs, new video clips, new clothes.
The CD title provides a clue to the internal tensions in a band whose members probably know each other too well. It echoes “The Emporer’s New Clothes”, a tale Seymour found parallels with in his own life. Sometimes, he says, he feels he is surrounded by people telling him what they think he wants to hear and not what the truth is. While democracy and the spirit of collaboration are what has sustained and defined the band, he clearly feels a little consumed by the process.
“There was all this communication going on between other people that I wasn’t participating in and at the eleventh hour I’d have to turn up and do my bit with a lyric,” he says. He’s convinced some band members no longer respect him. How could they? he reasons. “I’d feel shut out and find myself getting extremely angry and being ugly at points on the road. That was happening more and more often, and I realised there was obviously something else I had to get out and do.”
Seymour once said he’s made a career of expressing frustration and self-doubt and fear. He confesses to being paranoid and distrustful. Often, it’s reflected in his music – the schizophrenic tug of the brash and the despairing.
“We’ve twisted and turned stylistically … we’ve written a lot of very negative music, and that has a lot to do with my nature, unfortunately.
“I know some of the guys in the band are probably wishing we’d made just positive-sounding rock albums from Day One, but that was never within my [scope] … there are always going to be lyrics I want to bring out that are dark.
“In some ways I just have a very negative view of human nature…”
But ask him if this solo incarnation spells the end of Hunters and Collectors and he replies: “I’m not really big on those cathartic media statements .. The band’s just working less and less and less, we still do one-off gigs and have a loyal following.”
A week or so later, word gets out that the band is about to start recording material for a new H&C album later this year. Says the band’s manager Michael Roberts, “Quite honestly, from record to record, I’ve never known if they were making another.”
But while Seymour might sometimes appear to be all doom and gloom, Barry Palmer says that Mark is the one who had the biggest smile and jumps the highest when things work out. “I don’t know what happens in Mark’s head half the time, it’s all a mystery to me. He’s an achiever; he’s incredibly driven – he’s probably told you how much he runs – and anybody who strives that had is going to give themselves a hard time.”
As a child, he took life seriously, says his mother Paula. “He hated sham and he hated stupidity. He’s almost sulk and go into a black mood when he saw it happening in his own world or outside it. He’s still very much like that.”
In early 1993, on the eve of the federal election that was to give Paul Keating his finest hour, Mark Seymour joined ACTU president Martin Ferguson at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to bucked the Coalition’s proposed $3-an-hour youth wages plan.
Seymour attacked both John Hewson and Keating for their “unending polemic of economic theory”, and failure to simplify their policies. He said he doubted most Australian knew what economic rationalism was. Seymour told students that to vote for the Coalition was to vote for a return to industrial slavery.
Today he says: “The amazing thing about the economic rationalists is that they’re all into John Stuart Mill – you know, the greatest good for the greatest number, the mainstream. And it’s such a scam, it’s one of the big scams in political history, because it’s an ever-shrinking number. As long as it’s more than half, you can have this other lot that, potentially, just gets marginalised. They’re no longer existing within the culture.”
Seymour’s political leanings are to the left. His dislike for Jeff Kennett is no secret – the Victorian premier was instantly recognisable as “Mr Bigmouth” on the Hunters and Collectors’ Demon Flower CD – and the song “Back In The Hole” was a poignant look at the ramifications of state funding cuts in the prison system. Seymour is critical of the way Melbourne’s new Crown Casino has swamped a city’s culture.
Yet Seymour doesn’t seek the political profile of, say, Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett. Says Roberts “He’ll think very carefully before putting himself in a position where he might be perceived as a Peter Garrett. He thinks highly of him – both bands have done a lot of work together – but it’s not his style.”
Their political views aren’t the same, for a start. “The green movement is his cause, but it’s not my sole concern,” says Seymour, who doesn’t see the environment as being the overriding problem that society has to deal with. “They are myriad problems – all connected with social injustice – that aren’t about the environment.”
Seymour says there’s a limit to how far he’s prepared to compromise his career as a songwriter for the sake of his political values.
“The left side of politics in Australia is a jungle – extremely confused – there are a lot of people out there whose left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. It would be very easy for someone like me to slip into the role of a spokesperson for a lot of people who are tearing each other apart .. I tend to keep my distance.” But he maintains, “the voice of protest has to exist.”
Born in Benalla, in rural Victoria, the third of four children, and the first son, Seymour as the classic swot. He did well at school, excelled at university and briefly became an English teacher. It was a shock for his parents, both schoolteachers themselved, when Mark announced he was forming a band. “We thought he was going to starve, and what a waste of talent!” recalls Paula Seymour.
Yet it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Music was in the genes and central to family life.
The Seymour Family Singers sang at weddings and in church and performed at CWA events, where they were given cordial and scones as thanks. Folk songs, rounds, bits and pieces from The Sound Of Music and Irish ditties were the order of the day. The children could carry parts from a very young age.
“Our parents encouraged us to use our imaginations and to think, and in a quite poetic way, but then they had this other agenda which was staunchly Catholic,” recalls Seymour, “You had to lead a life of chastity and purity. So you had this energy of imagination that wanted to lead you into areas of life they wouldn’t have approved of.
“I became really rebellious. There was a lot of confusion in my life and I wanted to jump off.”
Mark’s band was not the passing phase his parents had hoped; indeed, they ended up with two sons in bands when their youngest, Nicholas, joined Crowded House as bass player.
As a child, Nick was always off playing, says Mark. “Being the last child, he escaped the gaze of my father to some extent. I remember Dad saying to him, ‘All you ever want to do is entertain yourself.’ ”
Nick says, “I always felt there was some kind of mollycoddling of Mark by the family, which allowed me more license creatively. I guess the older child syndrome meant there were pressures on Mark I never got to feel.”
Jacqui Dennis, creative manager of Mushroom’s music publishing arm and a friend of both brothers, says: “Mark was a schoolteacher, and he made a definite decision to stop doing that and just pursue music. Nick sort of mucked around in music – no question about it – and he ended up in Crowded House.”
“When they took off, it was meteoric,” recalled Mark. “I remember seeing them when they came back to Melbourne after ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ had gone Top 10 in America, and being really resentful. But they weren’t around that much and I’d go back to what I was doing.”
Until now, fierce rivalry has prevented the two from collaborating. But between winding up Crowded House and joining Deadstar, Nick found time to play bass and sing on his brother’s new album. “It’s preciousness that has kept us apart,” he admits. “But during the recording of the album, there have been moments of personal breakthrough in the relationship that have reminded us how we grew up, rather than how we ended up. We were reminded of the things that influenced us when we were first putting our musical feelers out, before we separated and became adults.”
He adds, somewhat grandly: “We’ve both been somewhat mellowed by the realisation that there’s so much in the world, and we are but one speck in the giant musical ether.”
Says Mark: “There’s so much glory attached to being an international success, many musicians think they can’t justify their existence if the spotlight’s not on.” For Hunters and Collectors, being “just a pub band” is more culturally valid, he believes, than living in the limelight.
“We’ve always been so close to the road in Australia and a lot of the imagery in out music has been associated with that with that kind of experience, so we’ve never really wanted to be too far away from that. We’ve placed a great deal of value on getting into the suburban wilderness and trying to connect with ordinary Australians.”
Have spent years trying to convince himself that tension is essential to the creative process, Seymour says he has now started to recognise that the things he wants in life are simple things.
Three years ago he married Jo Vautier, a graphic arts student, and they now have two children, Eva, 3, and Hannah, six months. Friends describe it as the perfect match. Says Barry Palmer, “They’re cut from the same cloth. Jo seems to understand Mark really well. She knows when things are getting a but out of focus, and she has the line he desperately needs to bring him back. She sees his foibles, and doesn’t take things as personally as some might.”
In a magazine interview five years ago, Seymour said he didn’t believe in true love. “What it gets down to is whether you can survive the hard times,” he said. But then he hadn’t found true love, had he?
He skirts this. “I’m really fascinated by romance and the relations between men and women – the way romance is idealised and exploited. Within it there is this grain of longing that people have. But it is constantly being frustrated and thwarted. People’s longing is such a profound thing, I think – they never quite remove the element of desperation that is always lurking around the corner.”
He says he things a lot of people enter into marriage with a kind of siege mentality. “They think they can make good together, they don’t really know how long it’s going to last, but they think that together they’re going to be stronger than if they’re alone.”
Suddenly, briefly, the defences come down: “I just wasn’t prepared to take second best. Whoever I ended up with was someone I could imagine myself spending the rest of my life with. Women would accuse me of being arrogant, pedantic… I suppose I was fussy, but, well, fuck – you know what you like.” There’s a pause and he adds “I still think that whole thing about survival is true, though.”
Today Seymour is pysching himself up for his first Sydney performance of songs from King Without A Clue. He says it’s like standing, ready to dive, on the edge of a deep pool, not knowing the temperature of the water, but knowing you have to do it.
Later, on stage in an inner-city pub, perched on a stool with a guitar, framed by a plush red velvet curtain, spotlight, he takes that dive. There’s one loud, wisecracking heckler, but the buzz is courteous and the reception is enthusiastic. The water is warm.