Undertow – Afternoon Tea With Mark Seymour
A casual interview with Mark Seymour
Author: Lachlan Bryan, Let’s Keep It Between Us blog.
Date: 12 May 2011.
Original URL: http://letskeepitbetweenus.com/2011/05/12/undertow-afternoon-tea-with-mark-seymour/
I met Mark Seymour recently at an inner-city bar in his (and my) hometown of Melbourne, to chat about his new record Undertow. My research told me to expect a man as proud as he is complex. Given it was after four, I was anticipating a beer, but he ordered a pot of tea, which turned out to be the appropriate drink for the conversation that followed. The Seymour I encountered was generous with his time and happy to drift off-topic (ideal for a blog such as this one). He seemed genuine, thoughtful, a little troubled and above all hungry – clearly a man with no intention of resting on his laurels.
Seymour is something of an enigma. On the one hand, he’s the voice that launched a thousand solo bar-room covers acts. You know the type – there’s one at your local pub every Sunday afternoon – dressed ‘smart casual’, sporting a tuft of under-lip-facial-hair, belting a Maton acoustic guitar and occasionally commenting on the footy, the cricket or the two-for-one-basic spirits deal coming up at 5pm. Not only does this guy play Seymour’s songs (it’s hard to imagine a Sunday Chill Session without a rendition of Holy Grail, Throw your Arms around Me or When the River Runs Dry) but he’ll often make every other song sound like Seymour wrote it. Who among us hasn’t heard Ray Davies’ Lola, Steve Miller’s The Joker or even Leonard Skynyrd’s geographically specific Sweet Home Alabama made to resemble Aussie pub-rock classics?
On the other hand, he’s the closet intellectual. The well-read tradie. The sports-jock that loves the theatre. The common Aussie bloke with a manuscript in his top draw and Greek Tragedy on his bedside table.
Undertow is his ninth solo outing (eighth if you don’t count Daytime and the Dark, which was made up of acoustic versions of tracks he’d previously recorded as frontman of Hunters and Collectors). He’s been described by compatriot Stephen Cummings as a ‘ folk singer’ and this label is particularly applicable to his recent work. Whilst the songs on Undertow are less likely to become part of Aussie folklore than their “Hunters” relatives, they are very much ‘folk tales’. Seymour has noticed this shift in his writing – and puts it down to the natural career path of the rock musician.
“I’ve always been completely obsessed with songwriting” he begins. “There was a point I hit at about age 21 when I realised I just wanted to write songs…and when you first start out, no-one knows you, and it’s just about the song and the lyric. You’d like to think that it’s always like that but it’s not – everyone gets influenced by commercial priorities – anyone that says that they’re not is a liar”.
“Every band has it’s curve – it’s arc of success” he continues “and it’s interesting to watch the curve a career takes – at our peak there were a cluster of songs that garnered a lot of attention and coming down the other side you move to the next part of the career and you realise that, without questioning the material, a lot of the success happened mostly because you were the next cab on the rank – coming off that curve you have to think ‘why am I doing this?”
For Seymour, the answer to that question comes down to the need to communicate the songs in a live setting. “In a way” he says “I’ve got the mixed fortune of still operating in an era where it’s almost impossible to sell records – and so I have to play”.
I suggest that, as a writer, this could be liberating; that freedom from the pressure of making a ‘hit record’ might render provide fertile soil for creativity. Seymour suggests it wasn’t necessarily so easy.
“A year and a half ago I tried making this record but…I was pressing all the wrong buttons in my own brain and…and in a way a whole lot of things came into focus. I heard ‘you’re not going to sell records, it’s not going to get played on the radio’ – a whole lot of negative information was coming at me from people in the business. So I thought ok, what do I need to focus on to make a record that works? Self doubt is a horrible thing and it took a lot to get over that”.
Self doubt is a common enemy for many musicians, and Seymour is all too aware of its significance to rockers of his generation as they continue careers into their 50s and beyond. In the battle to stay relevant, it is his American counterparts, guys like Steve Earle for example, to whom Seymour looks; songwriters and performers who are able to maintain and in fact grow their audiences as they get older.
“This is the thing the Americans have got” he suggests, “their guys and their women can keep going, because the audience they’re playing to respects the traditions they’re drawing on – and there’s a big question mark for us guys here. If you go back to the generation (of Australian rock musicians) before me, a lot of those guys just got out of the business and thought ‘well, I don’t want to outstay my welcome’ or whatever…when you look at the Americans, they just don’t do that”.
Not that Seymour is looking to bite the hand that feeds him. Australian audiences have been particularly good to him, even if he does recognise the absurdity in the fact that he can lead 100,000 screaming fans in song at an AFL Grand Final, yet worry about the prospect of trying to fill intimate venues in regional centres the next week. Thankfully, events such as the A Day on the Green series are improving the lot of our rock n roll vets, and will hopefully help provide a comforting answer at the end of the above-mentioned question mark.
“We’re…promoters here…are just starting to catch on to this and market it properly…and I’m just embracing it. You get up on stage and there’s a lot of people. So you play a few old songs and then some new ones and people start going ok, he’s got new songs…they’re good, we like this”.
In the past it seems that Seymour needs more than just new songs to challenge his audience, and himself. His memoirs, published in 2008, received high praise for its bravery and attention to detail, and he has blogged furiously in recent years on topics from international politics to local football dramas. He himself admits that he is “constantly writing – and reading” and that another substantial book is something he “definite intend(s) on doing…but it’s a long way off”. At present he’s particularly interested in the idea of a “journalistic biography” – perhaps something influenced by the style of mid twentieth century authors “such as Truman Capote”.
“There’s no shortage of things to write about, particularly as you get older” he adds “but at the minute I don’t have the six, seven, ten hours a day available to me that you need to do it properly”. Songs, it seems, are a little easier.
“You can leave the listener with a sense of detachment (in song)” he says. “They know that something’s going on, but their not quite sure what. Although the great authors do that in a way as well, despite having to flesh out the ideas more and give more detail”.
Of course there is also Seymour’s dabbling with the theatre to consider – notably his 2009 appearance as anti-hero Jim Ryan in Malthouse Theatre’s production of One Night the Moon. “It’s not something that I’ve ever seen as a career (acting)…but then again I think that’s true for a lot of actors too – it’s just a tough, tough world to be in…I admire actors for putting themselves through that”. For now, it seems “the job” is all consuming. Seymour knows he has to get out on the road and take this new record to the fans.
So what of the record itself? Well, I have an advance copy and I’ve given it a good listen. There are nods to Earle and other alt-country artists, and these sit comfortably alongside the Australian aesthetic of the disc. In a way I’m probably of the wrong generation to really ‘get’ these pub rock elements, but I can relate to the desperate, urban, almost Springsteen-esque approach that Seymour takes on. These songs are stories, some subtle and some more obvious. All are told with the assurance and wisdom of an experienced songwriter and performer who has continued to stretch and challenge himself in order to master his craft.
“In a way my approach (to songwriting) has never changed” he reflects “but the world has changed around me and therefore my place within it has changed”. With his frenzied work ethic and unique talent for transmitting ideas from a literary brain to the beer barns of our nation, it’s hard to imagine Seymour slipping too far from public view, at least in this part of the world.
e ended our interview along with our second cups of tea. Seymour wished me well in my own career and I was able to honestly tell him that I’m enjoying his record. “I’m pretty relaxed about it” he replies “I like listening to it, and we’ll play all of it on this tour”.
In my experience that’s a pretty good sign.
Undertow will be available May 27 through Liberation.
A deluxe edition is available for preorder now through iTunes.