Destiny & Fate
Decent American article on Hunters and Collectors, with Mark Seymour.
Author: Carle VP Groome.
Date: November 1989.
It’s sort of strange how destiny and fate seem tied up in a cyclical effect with the life of Hunters & Collectors. As a prime case for a commodious vicus of recursion, the singer/songwriter of this Australian band, Mark Seymour, cites the strange coincidence that his present and past life can be almost mystically linked to a game of chance and a movie.
The cinema in question is a mid-70’s film based on a novel by Kenneth Cooke. The film was called Wake in Fright in Australia, but was released in the United States under the title of Outback. It portrays the story of a school teacher in the country who’s living a life of near indentured servitude because the state financed his education. The repayment of this kindness is a near-ironclad contract to spend three years in the bush-a prospect he finds mordantly oppressive. On a short vacation/furlough, he gets to see a freer life and becomes determined to escape his drudgery by buying his way out of the debt…by playing a gambling game called Two Up.
“They play it on ANZAC Day”, explains Seymour, “the day we commemorate our landing in the First World War and all our diggers get together and play it in the streets. It’s the only day of the year when it’s legal to play in public. The rest of the time it has to take place in the hallowed precincts of the gambling house. It’s incredibly cutthroat- you can only win or lose, double your money or lose it all. There’s no odds or anything. The longer you leave your money in, the bigger the pot gets; but when you lose, you lose it all. It’s quite emotional. It’s like drinking hard liquor… very addicting.”
Seymour, in particular, identifies with Wake in Fright/Outback. “It’s funny how the inspirations I got from that movie have come first circle. The imagery on the very first album we recorded was inspired by the school teacher who was trying to escape – which was exactly what happened to me. When I left college, I was educated-and paid for-to teach. The only way out of that contract was by buying my way free or getting some kind of certificate that said I was psychologically incapable of teaching – which is what I eventually did. I really identified with the guy in that film ’cause he and I were in similar positions. Now, on our most recent album, Fate, I’m again dealing with inspirations from that movie.
“The album’s title comes from an incident that I had with our drummer – who’s a consummate gambler. He’s careful and usually wins, but I’m a loser. The fact that he’s good and I’m not is based purely on the way we each perceive the role of money in our lives. I have the attitude that the money will come from somewhere, whereas Doug, who’s very rational, perceives money as a resource that he holds in his hands.
“It was a game of Two Up that inspired our song, “Wishing Well”. We played a show on the Gold Coast and it was such a great show that we all thought we’d go out and get drunk and the only place that was open was this casino. So we went along there and played Two Up and I got stung. I went back to the hotel room thinking, ‘This is absurd, how could this happen to me?’ and started writing the lyric. But instead of writing it like ‘I’m so down, man’, I started from a metaphysical, Van Morrison-y sort of thing about this fundamental attitude towards life that a person has.”
In the span of eight years, Hunters & Collectors (a name derived from a cut on the final album of the German band, Can, an early major influence) have come from being a band described as “sonic catharsis…Talking Heads meets Birthday Party…highly experimental, based on funk and heavy percussion,” through three studio LP’s, and an EP, to their present line-up echoing nothing so much as Blood Sweat & Tears.
It began when bassist John Archer and Seymour, after playing in a group called the Jetsons (“a superpop B-52’s-’60’s riffs group”), got jobs as roadies on the first Birthday Party tour of Australia. “We were blown away by this violent rock group that I thought was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen”, says Seymour. “That was when they were doing Prayers on Fire and they were formidable. I’d always wanted to have a band that had that kind of power.” It was about that time when drummer Doug Falconer entered the picture and the open party atmosphere of their early gigs was established. To hear Seymour tell it, it sounded more like performance art than a concert. They’d pass out hubcaps, pots and pans to the frenzied mobs to bang along on the jams. Determinedly avant, Hunters & Collectors maintained this loose group dynamic (consequently losing some members in the process) through their recording ofJaws of Life. “But it was around the time of Human Frailty that we discovered three-piece garage rock.”
That album, featuring the sound of the full brass section, went gold in six weeks down under and firmly established the band, and Seymour, as contenders on that continent. With other bands like Crowded House, Midnight Oil, and INXS coming to the fore, the question comes to mind, ‘Is there something about the coast/desert extremes that make them particularly trenchant for our times?’
“I think those bands represent a maturity of energy that’s been there for a long time. Australians are beginning to realize that there’s a profile that wasn’t there ten years ago.” As for Midnight Oil’s use of Hunters’ french horn player Jeremy Smith and Crowded House’s cover of “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, does that represent a sort of basic camaraderie that other nations’ bands seem to lack? “There’s a certain amount, I suppose. A similar kind of work ethic. But basically it’s that the attitude that Australian bands have towards each other is just as competitive as they are in that States. It’s a small club and everyone is acutely aware of the business everyone else is doing.” To the point where you wouldn’t play the same town on the same night? “You wouldn’t do it. That’s what agents are for… and how they do it is an endless source of fascination for me. The bigger you get the more careful they are to put you were no one else is. It’s really cynical.
“When you do a national tour of Australia, you play Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. Five major capitals and that’s it. Then you go off in the country and play your ass off and nobody knows you’re there.”
But that is where the band finds its main supporters, typified by the circumstances surrounding the single “Back on the Breadline.” Seymour recalls, “We wrote that one at a sound check at the Rooty Hill R.S.L. Club [Returned Soldier’s Leagues, like the V.F.W. halls of the U.S.A.] in the Western suburbs of Sydney. These one-to-two thousand seat rooms are scattered all about the country and they’re the staple of our existence. They’re community centres financed by one-arm bandits that people in the local area go hang out at on weekends. They usually have some form of entertainment- they’re sort of like suburban Parthenons where three generations meet in the district. Like the oldies will want to play one-arm bandits or bingo. There’ll be a disco, there’ll be a big cafeteria, and there’s lots of room for a PA, and good sight lines.” When it came time to make the video, Seymour and the band returned to similar circumstances, eschewing the traditional storyline approach to music videos in favour of filming at a location very down to earth: a salt mine. Salt mines and bread lines? Is the next album called “Staff of Life“? “You might have something there”, Seymour admits.
As for the anthemic final cut, “Something to Believe In”, there is yet another curious event loop. “That was actually a prediction that the girl I was living with was going to leave me. I could see it coming. She had been going on for three months like, ‘I’m going to be 25 in three months’. Big deal. There I was, 31 at the time, and she was worried about being 25 but she was also worried about still working as a waitress, you know – still hand to mouth. So, after a while, I turned sarcastic, saying. ‘Well love, are you back on the bread line yet?’
“Also I saw her problem as reflecting a kind of period of transition that kids go through in their mid-twenties. They have to strike a balance between heart and head. One of the things they tend to relinquish when striking this balance, is their desire to go see rock groups. They stop going to see bands. That’s usually a big step that kids about 25 make.
“One of the great dilemmas of modern life is the trade-off between your personal emotional survival and your financial survival. The way money affects your temperament. It’s as though every other aspect of people’s consciousness is being stripped back and the need for money is all that’s left.
“I think the thing that ties Human Frailty and Fate together is that they are both philosophical. They deal with things like power, emotion, psyche, you know. I tend to think of things like what human events actually mean. The subtext is the way we relate to each other. I like to think in biblical terms. The Seven Deadly Sins really fascinate me. I like to break down things to their elements.”
As a major source of inspiration, Seymour finds letters and other tools of the diarist’s trade to be the best lodes. “We all know that relationships are based on all the worst compromises you’ve ever had to make. For me, a relationship is like every other aspect of everyday life, it’s based on coming to terms with mediocrity. So, in order to make rock and roll credible you have to make the most banal elements seem larger than life. The only problem with that period for me was that I was writing very voyeuristically, very close to real events. I think it comes kind of naturally for me to think in the you-and-me principle.”
Their songs are where the band’s growth is most clearly represented. The broad, sweeping palette of the brass, the lyrical reach into a personal vision that becomes common by implication, and now- with new guitarist, Barry Palmer – they are ready to try even larger canvases. Expressing admiration for the Doors’ Absolutely Live, Seymour finds, in the extended extempore of Jim Morrison’s stage raps, a direction that he would definitely like to pursue. “I want to do more of that on the next record. I want to really loosen it up. But not for the singles- those little precious jewels the record company has to have- but the rest of it… I really want to toy around with the words. Things like “Say Goodbye”. I have this raving rant… I have certain personas that I adopt. One of them- this very short man throwing a tantrum and not being able to cope with reality at all- is derived from my father. My childhood was fraught with these specific upheavals where my father would drop a bundle and stand there in the lounge with his dressing gown hanging open, saying ‘Where’s my underwear?!’, which I find terribly funny today, but I suppose it frightened the hell out of me at the time.”
As for personal growth, Seymour finds the end of a relationship with another person enhances one’s ability to appreciate a much larger perspective. “I’m not connected with anyone else anymore. I’m on my own. There’s more a sense of being quite content with the idea that I’m alone… Well not so much content as I’m sort of looking outward for the first time in a long time.”
The last paradox, if you will, comes in the nature of finding oneself in the world, and getting closer to one’s roots as you get farther away from them. What with the constant touring Hunters and Collectors have undergone in the past few years, their collective sense – their band profile – is heightened, but not altered by the contrast of cultures.
“I know that in hindsight, touring Australia has had a profound effect on me. I’d sort of started to realize that what we express is quite categorized. It’s in quite a specific area with a specific audience. In a way, popular music has sort of left us behind; we are reflecting our upbringing and our age. Five, six years ago I would never have admitted – or believed – that. We play a particular kind of music that indicates that we know what happened in music in the late ’60’s – early ’70’s. There’s been a tremendous change in the language of pop music – especially in the last two or three years. What with rap and house music and all that stuff, it’s quite alien to me. I mean, I like some of it, but it’s something that I’m too old to get absorbed into. I could never walk into a disco and pull it off by saying ‘This is my new bag.’ Anyone my age who does that is totally laughable. So, one thing I’ve realized about coming to America is that there’s something unique about our music. It has its own character
~ written up by Caelie.