Life on the Breakneck Road
Magazine article from What’s A Few Men? era featuring interviews with Mark Seymour and John Archer, on album themes, group dynamics, and challenges on tour.
Author: Toby Creswell, Rolling Stone.
Date: December 1987.
Original URL: N/A.
Hunters and Collectors have recorded their best album to date, with all the power of their live performances and an analysis of suburban Australia. Mark Seymour and John Archer talk about sex and suburbia…
Somewhere in the mid-Western American night the Hunters & Collectors were playing one of the forty shows on their second American tour. They were being supported on this night by a zydeco band – the real swamp guys who spoke in a Creole patois so thick it was almost undecipherable. But they could really swing that mixture of R&B and gumbo played with washboard and dobra. The Hunters took stage and powered out their two hours of stripped down post-punk rock & roll and as usual on this tour they had the club audience on its feet. The Cajun musicians from Louisiana and the Hunters & Collectors from Melbourne formed a mutual admiration society.
After the set one of the guys came up to the Hunters and asked, in his thick Louisiana accent, what the Australian boys called their music. The Hunters shrugged, not quite knowing what the question meant and believing that rock & roll was pretty much universal. “There must be a name for that type of music,” insisted the Southerner. For once the erudite Hunters were lost for words. “Dunno,” they said, “Oz-pub-rock I guess.”
Only Hunters & Collectors could come up with a line like that. Not because they are the only pub rock band in Australia but because they have set out to become quintessentially that in both theory and practice. One only has to look at their chequered shirts, short, austere hair cuts, the bulging biceps and pectorals – they look like they stepped out of a suburban barbecue. And the songs are about the social rituals of suburban Australia in a way that is both passionately sympathetic with and slightly removed from everyday Australia.
Most groups in this country spend a great deal of their time performing in clubs and pubs; the simple economic fact is that their income depends on live performance. Hunters & Collectors have not only resigned themselves to the touring, they have turned it into a badge of courage. Paradoxically, as they have simplified their music for the pubs they have become more sophisticated.
Just a couple of classic examples of the Hunters dual personality are singer Mark Seymour and bass player John Archer. Seymour, the son of schoolteachers grew up in the outer Melbourne suburb of Templestowe, graduated from high school and studied Fine Art at university intending to become a schoolteacher himself. Seymour remembers a bookish childhood and a certain intellectual bent. Archer on the other hand grew up across Melbourne, his mother is a doctor and his father a test pilot. Archer enrolled in engineering after school and found himself a job working on jets before taking up bass guitar. Both claim to be the soul of consistency in the band. They met at university along with drummer Doug Falconer and began messing around in bands including one combo called the Jetsonnes whose line-up included ABC reporter Margo O’Neill, and they attained some cult status in the late-Seventies.
Their cult status was such that by the time Hunters & Collectors played their first show the ‘house full’ signs were going up. In those days the band featured eight to ten musicians on stage; the songs were long and obtuse. They were a phenomenon but a lot of people didn’t quite know what to make of them.
“That’s because a lot of people saw us as the Birthday Party’s road crew,” quips Archer, “which we had been. We did quite a few shows around Melbourne and a tour of Adelaide with them. I did front-of-house, Mark did stage and Geoff (Crosby, ex-keyboard player) did lights. We were the best road crew they ever had. They were very relaxed, great to work for. They were so relaxed in fact they didn’t know what was happening.”
“On paper it read pretty well; what our group’s intent was and what the group’s principles were. It all sounded pretty fair and reasonable but it was self-defeating. We had eight songs when we started so we played all of them and then we had to start repeating songs. They were long songs. There were a lot of people on stage hitting things but it wasn’t very organised.”
The early Hunters & Collectors filled an art-rock void in Melbourne and then made the obligatory pilgrimage to Europe to live, record, tour and appear on the cover of magazines. They managed all but the last and found the whole thing thoroughly dispiriting.
“It took me a long time to find a form of expression that no-one else was doing,” says Seymour. “We went to England and we were living in the shadow of the Birthday Party like a whole lot of other bands were at that time. We really had to keep gigging to come out from under that shadow. Also we wanted to write something that was an expression of feeling that had something to do with this environment.”
The result of this process has been a series of LPs – The Jaws of Life, Human Frailty and now What’s A Few Men? Which have focused on the Australian landscape with Australian customs – beer and trucks – and Australian characters. The band has taken their music back to its most elemental form and relied strongly on conventions of rock & roll.
“I used to intellectualise about it in public,” says Seymour, “but there’s no point. Personally, I like concepts but they bore people. If people want to know what my favourite colour is I’m quite prepared to talk about that and I’ll go away and conceptualise by myself. There was a time when the first and possibly only thing we were prepared to discuss were intellectual things. That’s just a skill like learning to ride a bicycle and you either have a penchant for it or you don’t.”
“I think art magazines like Art & Text are irrelevant. You can read Art & Text and it’s just the tyranny of language – certain writers who aren’t very lucid thinkers themselves, using language to retain the reins of power in a fairly obscure form of intellectual activity. Art & Text is incredibly difficult to understand so it will always remain the property of an elite. I’m much more interested in communicating ideas to as many people as possible and you can’t use that sort of language to do that.”
Hunters have always tended to hand their recent albums around fairly loose themes. The Jaws of Life represented the Australian landscape and its mythology of alcohol and violence – the title track referred to the case of the truckdriver who levelled a Territory pub in anger at a wayward girlfriend. Human Frailty dealt with sexual politics – in a very candid fashion – and the new album has a strong theme of the male ego running through the lyrics.
“Male behaviour is something that intrigues me,” says Seymour. The singer is in Sydney, staying as usual at the Bondi Cosmopolitan. The balcony has his swimming costume and running shorts drying on a chair, beside his bed is a copy of Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore, a history of convict settlement in Australia. His writing desk has a very full notebook and on the other table sits a photograph of Sylvester Stallone dressed as Rambo.
“There’s a lot of things about it that intrigues me. Particularly with the guys in the band, watching how their behaviour changes on the road away from their wives and girlfriends. Everybody has to cope in their own way with being in close proximity to each other in professional situations. We don’t empathise with each other on a personal level. There’s a certain amount of personal contact but it’s like a middle-aged marriage – you spend most of your time bumping into each other and you keep your mind on the long term. The thing is, everyone has to deal with the trauma of being deprived of sex for so long.”
“Most groupies are really dumb and its usually a really tacky situation,” he continues. “It’s usually pretty depressing, spiritually empty. Girls come up to you offering themselves saying you can do anything to them and you think where the fuck am I? I can’t handle casual sex. I always get involved, and if I don’t I feel guilty.”
“The title of the album is based on the book A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey. What I was trying to get across was that men can feel commitment and pride, and that men can be quite suicidal in numbers and committed to something that is totally absurd. Men tend to be more self-destructive than women.”
The notion of pursuing super-stardom in America may possibly fall into the category of commitment to absurdity. Not because Hunters & Collectors haven’t the talent, but the logistics and the effort required to make an impact on the conservative American market are back-breaking.
The Hunters, in the face of nil radio airplay, established themselves in Australia by simply playing live to as many people as possible and winning over audiences by the sheer power of their performances. To some extent they have adopted the same policy in the U.S.A. where their tours have won them fans and much critical acclaim. But there’s a long way to go.
Their last US tour was undertaken in a small bus with the band taking their own PA system from Australia. The PA was built and maintained by Archer who took personal responsibility for it on that tour.
“I enjoyed that tour because it was a challenge,” he explains. “Thirteen thousand miles playing forty dates in a very short space of time. For me it was entertaining because I had to adapt the PA to every venue that we played in and the power for every venue is completely different. All our stuff runs in 240 volts and their stuff is roughly 110. There are no plugs so you can’t just plug it in you have to open boxes in the wall and take them apart and measure voltages and try and find something you can use.”
“I’m right into driving and you’d do three hundred miles to get there and find out how to put the thing together. It’s a challenge. If you can’t find a challenge for yourself on a tour like that then you get bored and go crazy. A lot of people in the band did that.”
“The song “Give Me A Reason” on this album is about that,” he continues. “I wrote the music for that right at the end of the sessions because we needed more songs with a bit of levity in them. I was trying to describe to Mark what kept me going on the American tour and I said I needed to give myself a reason to get up in the morning and go out and do what we were doing. I needed to structure my life around something and work as hard as possible on it.”
“Mark surprised me a hell of a lot when he wrote the lyric for that song from something I’d said. That had never happened before. He listens to what I say but I don’t think he reckons it makes much sense.”
“He’s really eccentric,” says Seymour describing his bass player. “His approach to what we do is totally opposite to mine, he’s on a different wavelength. He’s totally focussed in what he does and he just goes from A to B. A lot of the energy in the band comes from the tension between us.”
“Doug and Michael Waters are both incredibly sardonic and dry,” says Seymour explaining the interaction within the group. “Doug is like the Upper House in the band. John and Jeremy and I tend to develop a lot of ideas and put them up to the band and Doug and Michael Waters decide whether they will turn them into a rhythm or not. That’s what makes them into Hunters & Collectors songs. I write in a fairly traditional way along the lines of a singer songwriter and the ideas gestate through Doug.”
“Jack is the straight man. He’s really straightforward and direct and he’s not into subtlety or ambiguity at all. He arranges most of the brass lines. Jack was very important in changing the attitude of the band a couple years ago when we were losing our way. He was always making a big for the melodic aspects of the band, he always saw melody in the music which was an aspect we hadn’t looked at.”
The band have always included their front-of-house mixer, Robert Miles in the group as a full-time member which fits in with their aesthetic of a live band. Miles also contributes to the band’s art work. “Apart from the fact that he’s a really good mixer,” says Seymour, “he can always be relied on to throw in the odd oblique comment. When members of the band start getting too paranoid, and this industry runs on paranoia, Robert seems to give an outside perspective, he’s able to say this is a distortion of how things are.”
Seymour makes few claims to being focused. What he is is enthusiastic and he embraces his enthusiasms with passion. One of his long standing obsessions concern energy and its equation with intensity. Seymour runs. He took up the sport at eighteen and started competing a twenty and he’s kept it up ever since, partly to keep fit and partly to keep his adrenalin level at a point where he can easily pump up his hormones with a quick shot of vodka and a bit of psyching before a show. “I put out a lot of energy on stage,” he explains, “on the idea that if you put out the energy then people will get involved. What I’ve done is get to the stage where I connect with my emotions fairly easily through music. Our shows have always been pretty intense and I think that’s what kept the punters coming back. It’s only recently that there has been a deliberate focus on my personal drama.”
His lyrics over recent years have been trying to convey narratives about Australia along with his own personal problems. The Human Frailty album was inspired by domestic disasters. The issue of male/female politics arose and Seymour threw himself into it, coming up with songs that were almost embarrassingly candid and quite brutal in their imagery. When asked how he would stand up to a feminist critique he replies, “Probably disastrously. The great part of feminist criticism is unreasonable. It doesn’t give men the benefit of the doubt. My sympathies often go out to men. I think the days are well and truly gone when women are expected to fall into stereotypical roles. These days it’s dog eat dog. But that was an issue we dealt with on Human Frailty, I’m not really interested in it anymore. I’m interested in the spirit of adventure that goes with travelling around Australia and getting up in front of people and building a following in the pubs. The spirit of community that creates.”
Seymour is by nature a very honest and open person. He doesn’t mind discussing any topics from his AIDS test (result negative) or that he is in favour of wearing condoms to favourite drugs. At present he has a fascination with ecstacy.
“I especially like the word itself. It’s such a great double entendre. Acid is probably my favourite drug – it’s demanding and it takes you somewhere. The thing about ecstacy is that it’s so superficial. It’s not all embracing like alcohol is. With alcohol you can become really absorbed. I hate heroin, I’ve never taken it but I’ve watched what other people are like.”
For all his candour Seymour still has plenty of demons. One of which is ambition. The success of his brother Nick in Crowded House doesn’t sit easily with Mark. Crowded House have cracked the kind of acceptance that the Hunters have been striving for for years and he jokes wbout his one gold album at his parent’s house overshadowed by Nick’s set of platinum awards. “You can’t let that fuck you up,” he says. “I have a band which gives me full creative flight. What’s a few million bucks between friends?”
Family life has had more serious effects on the lyricist. His father for example was also a strict authoritarian and happened to be headmaster at Seymour’s school. “I saw him twenty-four hours a day and it was really weird. It was like schizophrenia seeing this really tender person change his habitat and become this other person. He adopted this persona, he’d even talk to me in a different way. It’s taken me years to realise how much that affected me at the time. If nothing else I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about authority.”
“A lot of my style on stage comes from watching my father lead school assembly, particularly the grand hand gestures. A couple of months ago my father was watching our live video The Way To Go Out and he was sitting there and I said what does that remind you of Dad?”
Archer also came from a very authoritarian background with a severe paternal figure. His career choices seemed pretty straightforward though he gradually started drifting towards music. “Mechanical things always interested me,” he explains. “I have quite an obsession with machinery. I used to work at an aircraft factory for four and a half years working on jet engines that had blown up – Mirage fighters. We were supposed to be working out why they had exploded. While I was doing that I built the PA that we use. It intrigued me.”
Where Seymour is garrulous, Archer is laconic. He down plays most of what he does, especially his outside production work for bands such as Harem Scarem and the Olympic Sideburns. “They’re not necessarily great recordings but they’re good value for money.”
“It has taken us as a band a long time to get to the position where we can produce a consistent record,” says Archer. “We’re not writing songs with anything different in mind than we originally had. We always wanted to write a good song. I don’t think this record we’ve just done sounds watered down or diminished in any way. I think it still sounds strong.”
The album What’s A Few Men? was recorded in Melbourne earlier this year with American producer Greg Edward who had produced the Living Daylight EP for the band. Edward was chosen largely because of his work as an engineer on John Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow album. Archer credits Edwards with the ability to push the band hard in the studio and to draw a cohesive record out of what was apparently chaos. The group had just returned from an American tour and were short of songs so that the writing period was very short and Seymour’s lyrics tended to concentrate on one or two themes.
The first single ‘Do You See What I See?’ is, in Seymour’s words, “An attempt to describe the cycle suburban Australians go through when they leave home. They tend to move into the cities and cut themselves off for a few years and then they start to move back out, re-establish connections with home again. It’s like a fertility thing.”
“‘Breakneck Road’ was written after our second tour of New Zealand. We’d just returned from a disastrous tour overseas and we’d done a terrible tour of Australia playing all these suburban rooms and getting a very bad reaction. People just weren’t interested. Then we went to New Zealand and everything was totally different. They just got it and took it for what it was worth rather than comparing to some idea they had of the band. The title came from one breakneck drive we did from Picton down to Christchurch in a mad race with the feeling of the landscape going by and the whole feeling of the tour.”
“Just after that tour David Lange told the U.S. government they couldn’t dock their warships without informing the government whether they were carrying nuclear weapons. The song changed into a political anthem after that, wondering why our two countries which are so close couldn’t take a common stand on this. Why we don’t stay outside the whole superpower standoff.”
“With this album I’ve tried to look at the landscape – this huge open area that we play in,” says Seymour. “There’s more of a spiritual feel to this record than the previous one and less of me brow-beating the audience with my own personal problems. It’s more a matter of trying to create a sense of a journey through the landscape. There’s more peace of mind on this record and a lot more sense of the unknown.”
“The bomb used to be a big problem with me,” he laughs. “Now I tend to think if they do, they do. I still touch on the subject – apocalypse is something you always have in the back of your mind, you can’t hide from it. I think the thing I realise most about it is that apocalypse is measured individually by each person’s sense of their own mortality.”
Thankyou to Trevor for typing out this article for us all to enjoy.