Hey Hey My My Review
Positive Undertow era interview with Mark Seymour about life and music.
Author: Andrew Watt, Hey Hey My My.
Date: 5 June 2011.
Original URL: http://www.heyheymymy.com.au/2011/06/05/mark-seymour-interview/
Mark Seymour has just released his new album Mark Seymour and the Undertow, and it’s an important addition to his highly impressive catalogue of work. To mark the event he talked to me about knowing his place in the world and other related topics – actually isn’t everything related that that?
HHMM: Congratulations on the new album. In my review I called it music made for adults created by someone who understands what it means to be one, or something like that. I know it’s kind of a redundant statement but do you know what I meant by that?
MS: I think so. I have tried to come to grips with things as they seem to me now. I’m not looking backwards at all and I could have easily done that.
HHMM: Do you think about, or have a sense of, who your audience is and your relationship with them and how their life experience probably parallels your own?
MS: I think it’s important for me to have a pretty good feel of who my audience is. And I’m committed to playing new material and that’s something they come to expect from me when they come and see me play, and that’s an important part of the relationship. That’s something that’s been very slow to get established because when I first started going solo it was a completely new experience for both the audience and myself. People really didn’t know what to expect from me, but I think in the past few years the notion that I write new songs about what I’m interested in now, has got through, and people accept and expect that I’m going to do that. I still do play Hunters and Collectors songs, but in the current shows, this album is featured heavily. People are receptive.
HHMM: You’ve had an interest in documenting the path of life – birth, school, work death – have you got your head around the fact that to document that is, in fact, your job?
MS: I can’t honestly say that I was aware of what my songwriting was about till this record. There were specific events that transpired in the last couple of years like putting my mother in a nursing home, that were really new experiences. I didn’t really think that having got to where I am now, having been in the business for 30 years, that there would be new experiences for my songwriting to grapple with. I wasn’t expecting it. So when things started to shift for me, I didn’t think there would be material coming from those places. In a way I was trying to write Westgate again I’d find myself actually playing those chords which was quite weird really, and I was constructing grooves and rhythms with my hands that felt like territory I had already covered. That had been going on for months and I really had to stop and say, ‘hang on you’ve just got to start looking in your own backyard again’. Things were actually happening to me and if I addressed those things in a way that was fresh, then I could actually move forward. I don’t know when that occurred but somewhere in the last year and a half, that’s what I did. They came from odd places. I had a really intelligent conversation with somebody and it turned out to be Angie Hart and we wrote a song together. They all came from different scenarios but now that I’ve talked about it enough I think it’s a very personal record and quite a psychological record.
HHMM: It’s funny that when we get to a certain age there’s things that we all have in common, that we don’t talk about when we are younger – things like the realization that our parents all get old.
MS: That’s right, but you don’t necessarily talk about it when you get older either. I’ve realized, hey, I can write about that. Why not? There’s nothing constraining me, there’s no-one breathing down my neck telling me that there are certain things that are legitimate topics and some that aren’t. I think the experience that I had with Donna Jackson, the theatre director, who steered me towards Westgate was important. There are things that happened professionally for me that helped a lot. I’ve got an on-going working relationship with her now and we’ve had that very conversation, that you can write about pretty much anything. You do get to a point where you think there are certain things that just don’t get talked about – they are too personal, but it is a kind of personal advocacy. It’s like the thing with my mother, I felt that if I could grapple with that theme I could really help convey something emotionally with people, I could share something with people. That’s an important thing to try and do.
HHMM: Then there’s other songs like Sylvia’s In Black and The Patsy which sound like they are fictional characters and to the listener that’s what they are, but they are still good stories that people will connect with.
MS: Castlemaine, Patsy and Sylvia are all characters that are all composites of people I know and also fictional. You see people doing certain things and behaving in a particular way… When I moved down the coast a few years ago I met a whole lot of new people, a completely different social milieu from being in Elwood! They don’t necessarily vote for the party I vote for and I was having different conversations and I noticed people doing things that I found odd, but I also understood where they were coming from. We were all similar age and sit around a barbeque talking. And you see some peoples live unraveling and others succeeding. And you notice when people get to their mid forties and fifties that some people have accumulated a lot of money and others don’t. Some people are on the bones of their arse and others are really wealthy and it amazes me how people’s life paths can diverge that dramatically. When you are young, everybody’s kind of in the same boat. That’s interesting and I don’t know why that is, but Sylvia someone who just decides “I’ve had enough of where I am and I’m gonna leave and I don’t really know where I am going, but life’s gotta be better somewhere else”. That’s sort of mythology in a way, but people relate to that because its something they think about doing. It hits at a core issue in people’s lives. They have the urge to question whether they want to keep going on the path they are on or do they want to break the circuit. The idea of it being a woman who does it, not necessarily a man, is interesting, because people probably associate that with male behavior.
HHMM: A lot of the songs you are best known for, like Throw Your Arms Around Me and Say Goodbye, are relationship songs or sexual politics songs. On this album the relationship songs are Little Bridges, One Last Ride and Sometimes I Wonder If I Know Too Much About You. This time the people are seeking some sort of redemption or a last chance, or something…
MS: The thing is, I’m moving beyond romance. The notion that you can have this euphoric relationship, the idea of relationships bringing euphoria is not an option any more. You either stay in the one you are in or you throw the deck of cards up in the air, which people do, for no rational reason. You are kind of expected, as an adult, if you have lived a successful professional life, to behave in a rational kind of way. If you decide that you are going to continue to do that you have to find something else other than the notion of the euphoria of romance. You have to look elsewhere and forward and in a different way. You have to see the life that you’ve got and gaze at it in a different way than you have in the past. I’m not sure that I have any answers to that, but its definitely a big question that a lot of people ask when they get to a certain age.
HHMM: At what point did you realize that this is what you did for a living and that being a singer or being in a band wasn’t just something you were doing while you were waiting for your real life to begin.
MS: I’ve reached a point where I know its not a hobby, and I’m not playing with it – it’s a real job. I’ve got real responsibilities as a parent and as a husband, so I can’t pretend that it isn’t me anymore. Part of the trick to being a performer is that you get on stage and pretend that you have this other life. The transition of one world to the other is constantly moving in and out of that role. That pace of that has accelerated too because I don’t just work seasonally now like you do when you are in a rock band. So I’ve had to work out how to marry those two things and make it a permanent structure, because I’m going to be doing that until I retire, and I don’t know when that is. The songs had to emerge from that world. I couldn’t step out of that world and go off into another one and write a bunch of songs about ‘whatever’. I tended to do that a year or so ago and it didn’t work. I realized that the songs had to come from the real structure of my life, they had to emerge from the psychology of that life and the people around me. I had to tell stories that connected directly with that, which you always end up doing. I set pretty high standards for myself and I felt that all the songs had to punch as hard as they could on a very basic personal level.
HHMM: There’s a few musical references that people have identified on the album – the Stones, Creedence, Crazy Horse, on different songs. Was that a case of you and the band just having fun?
MS: The attitude “why the hell not?” really defines this band and its really refreshing. I bring the songs to them and ask them, ‘is this legitimate?’ and “doe this work?’ and ‘can this be made to sound meaningful?’ Getting immediate feedback on that was really refreshing and it meant that I could let things go fairly quickly and that opened up all these other doors in my brain. It meant I wasn’t massaging this thing for hours alone and then killing it through the self doubt that went into the process. So I really exploited them for their opinions and they had that glib refreshing attitude and they’d just play it. There was a real dynamism and energy in the simple fact of them sitting in a room and just playing the songs that really simplified things for me. I wasn’t over arranging, it was just about groove and energy, and as you say, fun.
HHMM: It does feel like a band record…
MS: I’ve got this mate who I hang out with at Mornington, who is a Rolling Stones tragic and he’s got all the Rolling Stones DVD’s. And we watched the DVD of the making of Sympathy For The Devil, the John Luc Godard one. In it they are all really young and they are sitting around the floor playing bongos and trying to make the song sit and it goes through so many incarnations. Watching them wrestling with that made me realize that I don’t have to be a loner. You can share it and see what happens. And I told the band that and I kept banging on about that idea and Cameron distilled something out of my raving and we set up this situation where everyone would throw in ideas. I’d start a riff in a soundcheck and they would jump in on a feel and it loosened everything up and the confidence grew out of it.
HHMM: It’s a different mentality to the one you documented in that book a few years ago…
MS: It certainly is. When Hunters was really doing its best work, I just think I was too young to really understand it. But watching the Stones do that in that video really bought home the fact that I’ve always believed in the quality of relationships. The quality of relationships is really paramount and you have to be able to trust your intuitive judgment and rely on that in the creative process. If you try to avoid it, you will eventually disappear up your own arse and start making bad music. No matter how good your chops are and how much craft you learn over the years, if you cant rely on your intuitive judgment then you really cant do good work.