The Human Factor

A positive ‘Human Frailty’ era article, including Mark Seymour interview material.

Author: Sharon O’Connell, On The Street.

Date: Wednesday, 2nd April 1986.


Article Text

Sharon O’Connell speaks to Mark Seymour, throbbing heart that beats to the center of the Hunters and Collectors.

“(Soul) exists wherever a man or woman mature in a hostile environment. It is the frictional heat generated, the water used to douse the flame, the scar tissue formed by the burn, the buried memory of the vent… It is a plasma in a vacuum, and will force its way through any container presented to it… It’s relationship with the forces that sustain it can be rationalised intellectually, but never anticipated, for such is not the way…”
(from ‘Plumbum’, a novel by David Foster)

Mark Seymour thinks the world is nervous.

A man who admits to being “a fairly paranoid person”, he has a quickness and intensity about him that has him breaking sequence in speech, often leaving sentences unfinished or trains of thought dumped. He travels fast, so needs to concentrate – when a smile darts out, its broadness is a surprise.

As vocalist/songwriter with Hunters and Collectors, he is chiefly responsible for the raw emotional power that is the band’s very being. In live performance they have an intensely physical presence, catharsis as entertainment, where the truth they have wrenched from themselves is thrust under the nose of the audiences, and will not be denied. It may smell of diesel oil and death, causing noses to wrinkle in disgust, or its freshness may take your breath away, but it is always there, issuing a challenge. It is this emotional integrity that causes Seymour to loosely describe Hunters music as “soul”.

When he cries, “my heart is beating too big, it’s beating too big for the space that’s meant to hold it”, (“Say Goodbye”), you know this is not some chocolate-box valentine he is talking about, but a bloody, living organ pumping to keep him alive.

Hunters on stage have the same visceral effect, with a brass sound that throbs relentlessly against the breastbone, and brass which can bleat in pain or trumpet in triumph. This is blood and guts music, borne out of Seymour’s very personal experience in a hostile environment. Yet the high anxiety that was dominant in the first album has levelled out over the years. Hunters’ songs are as edgy as ever, but they have moved a fair way from the lives of the paranoid “Scream Who”, to the mellowness of “Throw Your Arms Around Me”. Does this mean Seymour is now more at ease with himself?

“I’ve definitely made a decision over a long period of time to show less of that side of myself. I am still a fairly paranoid person, but I just think people don’t want to know about that. It gets boring, hearing people talk about personal angst. I tend to be more detached lyrically.”

He would have little time for the likes of The Birthday Party, then, whose departure from Melbourne left a hole Hunters are often seen as filling, and who are sometimes accused of being similarly histrionic.

“That’s something that is really prevalent nowadays – that personal expressionalist lyric. That side of things in this day and age is just a wank, because everyone knows what the world is life. Practically everyone on the planet is walking around with a high level of anxiety. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Throw Your Arms Around Me”. It’s an optimistic song about falling in love which has no element of anxiety in it at all. This is a lot of anxiety on the new record, but it’s not delivered in the same surrealistic way – it’s anxiety you can understand.”

A common criticism of Hunters and Collectors is that they only have one song, albeit a damn good one. Pretty shortsighted, considering distance travelled from the first self-titled album to “Jaws of Life”, and then to their latest single from their new L.P., “Human Frailty”. Tracks such as the unforgettable “Run Run Run”, at nearly nine minutes long, have a trace-like hypnotism, a power that comes from the insistence of a rhythm which verges on the tribal. Still, what is mesmeric is probably monotonous to another.

“We realised on the first album in a lot of ways we didn’t get away with it because it was something that worked live, and didn’t really translate to a record, but this time round we’ve been a little bit more judicious. We had one or two songs that are like that live now, that are fairly decent compositions, and they do work on vinyl, because we’ve now had enough experience recording-wise to know how to make them sound powerful enough on vinyl.

“There are some really long emotional songs on “Human Frailty” which are similar to earlier stuff, but there are also songs in the other direction of “Jaws Of Life” – more blunt.”

That Hunters express the emotion of their songs in a very physical manner is undeniable. This band really sweats and the work they do it male – it speaks of the masculine. Up until now, that is. “Throw Your Arms Around Me” heralded a new softness, both in melody and lyric, for the band. It was the first love song they ever recorded, exposing a different ‘female’ side to the hard-edged outfit.

“With “Throw Your Arms Around Me”, I was thinking a fair way ahead when I wrote it, because I wanted people to know that we weren’t just a bunch of yobbo brutes.

“We tend to play physically really hard because it’s natural for us to play like that, but there’s no reason why that form of music can’t be used to put something else across, why you can’t distill intimacy and vulnerability out of that way of playing too.

“I wanted to try and show this female side of the band. I think the whole idea of masculinity is a really maligned quality in artistic expression. Masculine images, the male voice, is something that has been very unfashionable for a long time. I wanted to reassert the idea that men are capable of being straight and being sensitive.”

It does indeed come as a surprise to hear Mark Seymour, who has sung about semi-trailers, masturbation and beer, crying out, “you don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore”, (“Say Goodbye”) Seymour laughs as he called the song “very vulgar”, it is for him the first time he has spoken as someone else.

“There an ironic twist to it because the thing I’m describing is the girl pinning the guy to the floor and making sexual demands. What I’m trying to do is show the side of women that tends to get ignored, that is, the way a woman can be quite aggressive and demanding, and that is not solely a male domain. It’s something everybody knows about, but it never gets talked about, and I think it’s good to try and get pop music to do that.

” ‘Say Goodbye’ is based on three different things. One was a conversation where a woman said that to a man, and me finding that outrageously ironic, given what I was going through at the time, and also having something happen to me, which was basically being pinned to the floor. And I put those two things together, because I thought there was some sort of irony there. The other aspect was the thing of light fading on someone’s face when they are lying there next to you, gradually drifting off to sleep. You suddenly realise how completely separate you are – you are really thousands and thousands of miles away as people. It’s those moments when someone is drifting off into a dream that and you are watching their eyelids gradually flicker and close – the idea of a relationship seems tenuous then.”

An album title such as “Human Frailty” suggests that our grip on life is very slim, that we hold on by the skin of our teeth. Existence is a mere contingency – we wobble around in our ordinariness, united by our common weakness. For Seymour, the batch of lyrics speaks about the universality of basic experiences such as love.

“The main thing about “Human Frailty” is that I tried to tackle the most prosaic themes possible in lyrics, i.e. love. Initially, the reason I wanted to do it was because we’ve never done it before, but also I wanted to see how much intimacy we could get through, to take it as far as we could rather than treating it flippantly, which is the way love is dealt with in most modern pop music. I basically tried to strip all the lyric elements you associate with that theme down to the bare bones, to say the most skeletal aspects of what can be written around that theme. It’s not so much trying to say something different about it, it’s more trying to say it as simply as possible, to give people the impression that they are hearing something they can believe in, that has something personal to say to them.”

“Human Frailty” is to be released this week, but already Seymour, with typical volatility, is planning the next album. He even has a title for it – “What’s A Few Men?”. It was to be an E.P. but as Seymour writes almost constantly, he has enough material for an L.P. It will see the band shifting ground slightly again.

“What tends to happen is that for any number of reasons I’ll decide I want to change the direction the band is going in lyrically, because that is what I’m responsible for. Every so often I’ll take a particular path just for the sake of getting all backup on our toes again, so that we’re doing something we haven’t done before.

“The next batch of songs is going to be much more social commentary, because we’ve moved through a period where we’ve dealt with things in terms of themes and blocks.

“What sparked me off on this new batch was a book by A. B. Facey, called “A Fortunate Life”, and a particular scene where he describes the behaviour of a British colonel at Gallipoli which he found appalling. The guy asks the Australian soldiers, “what’s a few men?”, when they refuse to go over the trenches to clean up their dead. So I wrote a little ditty about that. And also I went up to Queensland, and watched how Brisbane is deteriorating more and more… and what was happening in South Africa and the Philippines… I saw this process of social decay that’s going on without our borders, so I wrote a lyric about that. I thought I’d build up a bunch of lyrics and have that degree of journalistic detachment about them.”

When Mark Seymour sings “I Believe”, you can put your trust in that. Hunters and Collectors’ music stands as a personal testimony, the product of an individual in a certain place at a certain time. It has a strong sometimes strident voice that cannot be refused. This is music from the jaws of life. It bears the teeth marks to prove it.