Hunters and Collectors (Rolling Stone; Cut Era)

Interesting interview/article with Hunters & Collectors from Rolling Stone in October 1992.

Author: Lisa Anthony.

Date: October 1992.

Original URL: (unknown).

 

Article Text

Talking to Hunters & Collectors individually is like talking to someone separated from his family unit. They argue, sometimes fiercely, hold varying opinions about – and affections for – one another. They constantly analyse each detail of everything they do. Each move is an eight-way decision: aside from Seymour and Archer there’s drummer Doug Falconer, guitarist Barry Palmer, trumpeter Jack Howard, Michael Waters trombone and keyboards, Jeremy Smith and soundman/graphic artist Robert Miles who constitute the band, while manager Michael Roberts has a major input. They started out fairly radical. Nowadays they are among Australia’s most popular groups. Their song “Throw Your Arms Around Me” whilst never being a chart hit, has become a bona fide Australian classic. Their early single “Talking To A Stranger” is also a classic of its type and a staple of the airwaves. Their single “Say Goodbye,” with its legendary chorus “You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore!” from the classic Human Frailty has become an anthem for the relationship between the Australian sexes.

So, the band has had a major impact on its audience but they have not transformed that status into record sales, despite their massive popularity as a live act, filling venues wherever and whenever they play. A solid fan base was extended with the platinum selling Human Frailty followed by What’s a Few Men? However, their last studio record, Ghost Nation – released in 1990 – was a quantum leap, not only a critical success but selling 130,000 – a tad off double platinum.

Part of the reason for the band’s lack of commercial success is their peculiar strength – their unconventionality. They were a funk band before disco became fashionable and now they are a rock band who use trumpet, trombone and french horn for most of their melody lines.

They are one of the few ensembles to address issues like social alienation, sexual politics, labour relations and the dignity of work. When they tackle subjects like the environment or peace it’s with a broader and more imaginative perspective than the usual rock star homilies and platitudes.

This is a critical time. All in their thirties, they’re not getting any younger. With the success of Ghost Nation and the follow up, a greatest hits called Collected Works, which also nearly went double platinum, they have almost cracked it commercially. Cut, their seventh studio album, is vital, if not a little tricky to think about.

They called in American producer Don Gehman whose credits include Diesel, R.E.M., Jimmy Barnes, and John Mellencamp. He brought over electronic percussion and drum loops as part of a new broom for a band that was set in its ways.

“They wanted change but when it came to it there was a lot of mumbling in the ranks, there was resistance, but I just stuck to my guns,” explains the producer, concluding that the change was ultimately beneficial. The group vote, though erring on the side of positive, is still out.

“Did I have a better time than when I was making Ghost Nation? I couldn’t honestly say that,” muses Archer.

“Well not a better time but certainly a different time, John. There was both more and less freedom,” adds Falconer. “There wasn’t always the opportunity to anything like the input that we have had in the past – but that was the point of the exercise – to see what would happen if we had someone else in.”

“I saw it in much more personal terms,” says Palmer. “The idea of going into the studio and doing what we did on the last records, there was just no challenge. The idea of getting someone else in killed two birds with one stone.

“You could relinquish the sense of responsibilities of getting things to tape to that person so you didn’t have your sensible hat on all the time. You could go a little bit crazy and rely on someone else to tell you when you were overdoing it.”

“I really wanted to wrap the song around Mark – to make the lyrics shine through,” explains Gehman, ignoring that in doing so, he went straight for one of the things that causes what he calls “mumbling in the ranks.”

The main stumbling blocks to the Hunters’ contentment are threefold. There’s the lack of overseas success. After a disastrous six-month attempt at making it in London in 1983, which sent them broke and nearly tore them apart, they have watched their contemporaries, INXS, Midnight Oil, and, closer to home, Crowded House, go from strength to strength overseas. Hunters & Collectors are “big in Sweden” and are touring in Canada this year where they are between record contracts right now. The States is getting a miss altogether.

The rest of Hunters & Collectors explain that while they’re doing well by having simply financially supported themselves for more than a decade, sometimes it’s just not enough. They would love one of their records to be a huge commercial success. Like most things in this group, depending on who you talk to it changes:

“Our manager really worries about hits a lot,” says Michael Waters. “He said this just hasn’t got a hit single – we gotta record four more songs. I have this thought sometimes that when this band finishes we’ll walk away with an attitude that we did really badly. Which is a shame because we’ve had an absolute hoot of a time for eleven years.”

“I’m not happy with it,” disagrees Falconer.

“Neither am I,” chimes in the guitarist.

“Not so much with ‘Head Above Water,’ because for the first single we wanted something that would turn people’s heads and make them wonder what Hunters & Collectors were about,” says Gehman. “But a hit single was something that we talked about from the very beginning. It’s what we were trying for, what we were working towards.”

And thirdly… They are fed up with being seen as fairly nice blokes who play golf.

The problem with Hunters & Collectors is that, unlike most bands, they are far from a bunch of aimless yobs. This pervades most things they do. It creates a swirling whirlpool of of frustrations for the articulate collection of musicians. Sometimes, for reasons obscure to them, despite the fact that they are each an equally valid part of the group, they are not perceived at all, beyond shadowy figures hovering behind Mark Seymour.

They hate, says Falconer, being seen as “nice and amiable.” There is no getting away from it however, that’s what they are. And yes, they do play golf, (but so do Midnight Oil – and ping pong and they get away with it for some reason). And they are very, very nice.

So what keeps them going? Falconer, the drummer with a medical degree – who every so often makes sure everyone knows that, yes, he could be making much more money as a doctor replies: “The question should be how do handle the influences that pull you apart? Everyone’s got their own idea of how the thing should be working – I mean you’re a musician and you love it – you want to play honestly so you’re keen to get your point across. Actually why we stay together is an easy question. Because it’s fun, because we make a living out of it and it’s artistically challenging and satisfying. You get to travel, it’s glamourous, some people think. You go out and get to be a fool and act half your age. What other jobs can you look at that have got that combination?”

Inevitably, the focus of the group falls on singer Mark Seymour who is little less amiable than the rest of the band but as the group’s lyricist, is more often the spokesman.

You’ve once again been called an Australian woman’s sex symbol. Does this go against the grain with your ambition of being regarded as intelligent and articulate?

May main concern is to be seen as eloquent, intellectually together. I don’t want to be a dumb pop star. I want people to see that we are lucid.

However, well, I’m very acutely aware of female attention and I like as much of it as I can get, basically [laughs], while I’m up on stage. I kind of have a few red wines before I go on stage and really indulge in it. It’s a form of power.

Of course it’s part of the game. I think the girls are intrigued by the fact that it is a game. I think probably more so than the guys, the guys are more into the singing and chanting side of it. Women can see this guy is half flaunting it – being pretty provocative in some ways – because I am pretty intense on stage. There’s a sort of voyeurism that they bring along which is part of the nature of being entertained. That’s part of why they’ve the spent money they have to witness those things. They go home hopefully like they’ve got value for money. And I like it – these last few weeks we’ve been touring I’ve been really enjoying the performance side of it.

And off stage?

Sometimes I can’t deal with it at all and I withdraw. It’s not so much them it’s more connecting with something in myself. It’s just being aware of that side of my personality and bringing it out.

I have a fairly strong narcissistic streak and um… I suppose I just settle into that vein. Um.. usually a few drinks help along the way. Over the years it’s become a lot easier to do that. It’s something I can turn on when I’m on stage and then outside of that I withdraw and calm down.

I suppose you’re inevitably going to receive that kind of attention because, well, performing is a very narcissistic behaviour.

You enjoy the games that men and women play yet there’s a change of direction on “Cut” – you seem to have left personal politics behind for the politics of struggling to live.

What we write about is alienation.

We write about having the blues. But there are love songs on Cut. “True Tears Of Joy” and “Edge Of Nowhere.” That’s an interesting one. An athlete that I ran with died – he was run over by a truck. It was a Thursday night – competition night. Like me, the guys I run with were really upset.

That song is about appealing to someone, trying to bridge an impossible gap – the gap in possible communication that is between you and someone who isn’t there. It’s about alienation – being disconnected from the environment you live in, which is so basic I don’t understand why more musicians don’t write about it more.

They do if they write about love. Especially if it goes wrong, it’s just alienation on more personal terms than the politics that fill much of “Cut.” More like, say, “Human Frailty.” And maybe it hits home more to people because they can directly relate to it.

I’ve decided, as a lyricist, to move away from The Personal Angst of Mark Seymour. I’ve got a lot of mileage out of it, believe me. There are much bigger things at stake now than my relationship with women.

Now I just think we are on the brink of a political decade and to me as a lyricist I need to address it. A lot of the songs on Cut are about survival – which is of course part of the general vibe in Victoria. We are socially and economically depressed, the grip of the recession is very strong. People can relate to that. A year, year and a half ago we’d whinge about not having overseas success – now I think it’s amazing, and I do feel guilty about it in a way – that we can just go out and spin a dollar.

So you’re saying that after all this time and effort success outside of Australia now doesn’t concern you?

I couldn’t give a shit about it. Couldn’t give a damn, couldn’t care less. I don’t even wanna go and play overseas. I don’t wanna go overseas at all. I don’t care. Sure, I used to, but it’s more that I thought that overseas success was the metaphor for Hunters & Collectors staying together.

Michael and Jack said, half joking, they would like to swap places with Crowded House. In fact within Hunters & Collectors they all really want to make a hit record. That’s among their motives for keeping on. John, Barry and Doug have added that it is completely ludicrous that Hunters & Collectors are not as big as they want to be.

If we were as big as we wanted to be then we would probably retire because where would we go from there? The whole idea of continuing to work and to put this effort into writing songs, producing albums and going out on the road, of running the band as an ongoing project. I mean unless you believe that you are actually growing, changing and moving on then there’s no point in doing it.

I don’t want to turn this into a thing where people say of Hunters & Collectors “they aren’t as good as they could have been.” I think we have recognition. We constantly pack out live venues. Constantly. However, as long as we continue to make music the way we make it, hit records are something that we have to deal with as a possibility rather than something that we’re out to try and achieve.

Why?

For a start there’s too much chaos and ad hoc decision making within the ranks of the band, they know that. There is no master plan, believe me. And if there was well, someone might have mentioned it to me but I’ve forgotten what it was.

So, implied in the question “Are we as big as we wanna be?” is this thing of how we’ll now sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labour which is just the antithesis of being in a rock band.

I don’t see it as being tied to the idea of having a hit album. I’ve never had one and, yes, I’m staggered by the fact that we never have hits. I don’t have any notion of what that would feel like, so as long as it’s an experience I’ve never had it’s not the experience itself that I’m pursuing. I’m more connected with the quality of my life at this particular point in time. (Pauses) So we are not as big as we want, should or could be? Um… it’s difficult to say really. (Haltingly) I don’t agree with that one hundred percent. See, my position is slightly different to the others.

How?

I really need Hunters & Collectors. I’m so personally connected with the band, the thought of breaking up… I don’t want to face it. Something that has taken me years to realise is that I am emotionally committed to the group, I’m just emotionally involved so actual success is not a priority at all.

What is it exactly that keeps you there?

I’m forever struggling against something and I’ve realised that’s it’s not really something that’s gonna go away. The poetry of our songs is something where you basically focus and channel the energy. When the band really explodes live we just cover this phenomenally huge range of emotions in a very extreme and intense way.

If I have a good night I just get completely absorbed and lost in it. I just come off stage feeling totally euphoric and it’s that. It’s the same with athletics. If you run extremely well then the sense of euphoria is well.. physical and mental. I mean a combination of Hunters & Collectors songs that deal with this theme and having a live show which is a release on yourself and quite a lot of the time I don’t do it, quite a lot of the time I’m trying to be calm – which is part of the reason I run a lot. I really admire athletes. People that have singlemindedness, that have a dream – they build their lives around something.

I am hard on myself, I thrive on that.

Where does this intensity come from?

Sometimes I’m terrified by the thought that I’m not going to be allowed to express myself. And if I was confronted with that, then I would feel like life didn’t have much meaning at all.

I think regardless of the circumstances that I have at any one time I’m constantly looking for an escape clause and there’s always going to be a need where I can actually go from here to another place, metaphorically speaking, and be able to get release in the process.

You seem pretty much in control of things. You’d always have a creative outlet in one way or another.

I suppose I would but it’s funny, sometimes I have this horrible feeling that I’m gonna lose it – that it’s gonna go. I suppose it’s a desperation it creates.

You’re talking about insecurity – that’s not unique – everyone’s insecure.

Oh shit yeah. Well sometimes I do have these arguments with the other guys in the group that um, that my point of view is not one that other people share. But I think time has proven that sense of frustration and struggle. I just believe that it’s inherent in human behaviour. Post-modernists would argue that the idea of being alienated is no longer valid but to me it’s just so inherent in the human consciousness. It’s why religions exist, it’s why people desperately want to have faith.

Have you been psycho-analysed?

I do. I do. Yeah.

What started you going?

I reached my mid-thirties. I went through a period where I started worrying that unless I gained control, that my desire to write words, to be a songwriter, to be in the relationship that I had with the band would go and I would forever be perpetuating this cycle of breaking up with girls and excessive drinking, blah blah blah blah.

It’s been about a year since I started going. It’s a loose arrangement. I decided to make it a regular thing or a few months then when I went on tour obviously I couldn’t do it. I’ll just pick it up again when things have calmed down.

I reckon the importance of relationships is really over-exaggerated. And in relationships with women I find there has to be a certain casualness and light heartedness about it otherwise people take the thing so seriously it’s ridiculous.

I think in the end I really thrive off conversation, being able to express myself verbally. Not everybody’s got the time to do it and it just came down to the very pragmatic decision, if I can pay someone to sit there and listen to me and just rave on about myself then that might fill that particular need in me. To some extent it has.

In the first few months I didn’t know what to talk about – go in there and think, “what the fuck am I going to talk about today?” All I did really was bring up any incident which involved my feelings.

I’d go in there initially and think there has to be continuity and flow in all of this. It doesn’t have to be like that at all. In the end the more times you go after a while you start seeing a pattern emerging of what you remember and you pull out. You have to keep going back – being exposed to the situation.

Those are the sorts of things that I’ve being paying attention to. Before I went it was something my girlfriend suggested I do, cause we just spend a lot of time talking about our individual frustrations.

I reached a point where I felt that my relationships were meant to be the thing that were somehow meant to save me and/or be the way in which I was gonna get release. If this person understands me better than myself, then my problems would be solved.

That was a big call. Absolutely a lot of pressure to heap on somebody. I’ve just realised that relationships aren’t meant to do that. Realising this made me go through a period where I tried to turn into a control freak.

When was that?

Over the last two years. I’ve had some great times with my athletics because I’ve behaved myself. It’s only been in the last little while that I started coming out of that and began thinking well that’s not really solving the problem either so I just started seeing somebody and talking to them about what is in my nature, why I have this really strong explosive anger and those sorts of things.

I began recognising alienation for what it is. I mean I don’t think I would have been able to do that in such clear terms if I hadn’t been talking to somebody about it.

What have you gained?

I realise that this whole thing about alienation was a fundamental part of my consciousness. I think a lot of people have known about it in my lyrics for years. It enables me to look at myself and how I’m behaving in other situations, not necessarily connected with women.

There are rules in the workplace, public relations, the politics of addressing a crowd. Those are things you’ve got to learn as an adult. You have to accumulate experience and learn on the job.

I’ve also realised that these impulses may not go away. I think I’m just as self destructive as I’ve always been, perhaps except on an emotional level where I don’t do things impulsively so much any more, I’ve acquired enough experience to know that these impulses are still there but to just recognise them for what they are.

There’s no guarantee that I am going to be the calm, fully realised personality that I might become.

Realising that you’re not going to get peace of mind can make you stop worrying about attaining it.

Exactly right. Exactly right. It’s anxiety that’s the thing. I find the most destructive feeling is anxiety. That’s not going to go away either but when it doesn’t and you know why, it’s easier.

I know people who strive for contentment and never get it. This pursuit of happiness thing is a pretty bogus concept. There’s always something you’ve got to get around. Life’s like that. It’s absurd to think that on a basic level it should be anything other than otherwise.

Where do your feelings of alienation come from?

My father and mother always kept us in a way very much isolated from the towns that we lived in and we like, were very much a nomadic family, we really moved from one town to another. Really the ingredients aren’t particularly spectacular, for some reason I just reacted to them in this particular way.

Did this make you write songs?

The decision to write words came about almost by accident. Even now I have a very trashy approach to art. I sit in front of the television, I channel surf. I have a notebook on the right and surf. I’m absolutely addicted to television. In a way, with television I can disconnect myself. It’s a really good situation to write in because it enables my thoughts to disengage. I don’t try to assess the meaning of what I’m writing while I’m doing it because it instantly stagnates and I can’t do it any more but if I write randomly it’s fine. How much of this are you going to write?

I don’t know, but I am interested in it. I don’t think you’ll sound like a couch potato who is seeing a shrink.

On a general leave I am interested in psycho-analysis. It made me realise two things. That this kind of investigation actually gives you a whole new range. You encounter all these things in the way you relate to people. As I said, I don’t really believe that I am ever gonna be able to avoid anxiety. It means that I can just make more effective decisions just to maximise the odds a bit better from day to day.

It’s more like that than thinking in ten years’ time I want to be living in a house in the country in an instant coffee advertisement.

How’d you like to be remembered?

I suppose if there is one thing I’d like to be remembered for (laughs) artistically, it’s getting all those people who come and see us singing “You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman any more.”

The thing that people don’t understand about the Australian psyche is that girls really like the fact that guys do that. They love it – there’s humour in it. They chastise the boys for being insensitive brutes and boys love the fact that they’re being chastised. It’s a form of courtship. The girl gets on top of you and says do the right thing.

Why is it that courtship has to be portrayed as a sensitive bed of roses? That’s not really what happens between men and women. No, it’s just a real struggle.

 

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