Open Heart(land) Surgery
Great What’s A Few Men? era interview with Mark Seymour.
Author: Phil Strafford, RAM.
Date: 6 May 1987.
Original URL: N/A
Hunters & Collectors plan to take on America the same way they conquered Australia…Through the slow but sure attrition of constant touring. Phil Stafford spoke to Mark Seymour about the new EP, the upcoming album and the band’s switch of focus to the vast American heartland.
‘They say everything that rises will be brought down / And anyone who’s anybody is getting out of town…’
(January Rain – Mark Seymour)
Last week, Hunters & Collectors left town for America. Having reached a self-admitted saturation point in Australia, they make no apologies for deserting us on their quest for the Holy Grail. After five long years of unholy struggle, they owe it to themselves.
That’s not to suggest the struggle is over. Hunters have barely chipped the rock-hard face of American acceptance, and the next few months will be devoted to heavy roadwork in support of a just-released EP, Living Daylight.
You may have heard the title track (and new single), a taut rocker in the pulsing vein of Say Goodbye or Is There Anybody In There?, from last year’s breakthrough album, Human Frailty. But nothing prepares you for Inside a Fireball, kickstarting the EP with a ferocious boogie backbeat that’s tailormade for the US heartland – even if the subject matter’s still intrinsically Australian. (Fireball’s lyric centres on the troubled city of Broken Hill and its associated history of union violence, and the songs musical setting could not be more appropriate.) Rounding off the EP is a contrasting ballad, lilting January Rain (quoted from above) – itself an evocation of the local landscape, this time Melbourne’s seedy St.Kilda.
Included on the EP’s American pressing are two older tracks – The Slab and Carry Me, both from 1984’s Jaws Of Life mini-album, the record that revived a depleted and demoralised Hunters & Collectors and set them on their present course…
“The Americans aren’t that well acquainted with our earlier material,” reasons Mark Seymour. “We’re playing to a much wider audience now, and it makes sense to acquaint them with the earlier stuff – so it’s on there.”
There’s a lean and hungry quality to the new material, due partly to a change of producer. Whereas Human Frailty was a painstakingly meticulous studio creation overseen by Englishman Gavin McKillop, Living Daylight saw the reins handed over to young American producer Greg Edward – responsible for REM’s last album, Life’s Rich Pageant and Jogn Cougar Mellencamp’s Scarecrow. He’d been recommended by the Hunters’ US label (IRS) for his direct, almost spartan approach.
“What he did was go for the idea for immediate spontaneous energy,” Seymour elaborates. “He encourages you, tries to keep the mood as spontaneous as possible, keeps time to a minimum so you don’t get too fastidious or tighten up too much – whereas the last record, we tended to be a little more clinical. The other thing that John (Archer, bass) and Doug (Falconer, drums) are playing a lot more aggressively, and we’re a lot more confident generally. The beat is a lot more upfront, and they’re both playing forward of the bear a lot more.”
Are you perhaps unconsciously preparing for the US heartland?
“(Laughs) Perhaps, yeah. Actually, we’ve just written a few new songs for the next LP, and they’re quite solid too – solid upfront rock’n’roll. Except there’s no lead breaks! (laughs).”
There is more guitar. However….
“Yeah, I’ve always played quite solid guitar, or I have been for a couple of years now, but we’ve never actually produced it as upfront as this. It’s the first time we’ve really fone for an authentic rock’n’roll guitar sound. It’s always been there, but we’ve never really brought it out in the mix as far as recording goes.”
How much did Greg Edward have to do with that?
“Oh, a lot. I just went in there and played, and that was the sound he got. He’s pretty relaxed about guitar sounds as well and just picks what’s strongest, but I think he took that approach across the board really – especially also with the drum sounds…drums, bass and guitar. The basic core of the band sounds a lot stronger on this recording.”
The last sentence could well be an overstatement when one considers the basic core of Hunters & Collectors – Seymour, Archer and Falconer – have been playing together for the best part of a decade. If anything, Seymour himself is gaining strength as a writer and performer. His lyrical orbit is opening up to embrace a wider range of issues – where Human Frailty concerned itself largely with personal politics, the new material addresses such subjects as the drug culture, global poverty, industrial strife, the arms race and human conflict in general. In fact the title track of the new album, What’s A Few Men? Examines the consequences of war through the eyes of WW1 survivors, inspired as it was by Albert Facey’s book on the subject, A Fortunate Life…Might this suggest that the album will be loosely thematic?
“Interesting you should ask that,” replies Seymour, “we were aiming that way, but over the last few weeks since I’ve been tightening up my lyrics, I’ve come round to the idea that it’s better to try and relax with whatever language I’m coming up with from one day to the next on a personal level. If what I write relates on a broader level to any theme, like an anti-war theme or whatever, then that’s good – but I’m not gonna try and force the issue. When you start dealing with social issues, you can run the risk of being a little too rhetorical or heavy-handed. ..What’s A Few Men? works well as an anti-war song ‘cos it’s so mellow and soft, it doesn’t bash people over the head with the idea.
“On the other hand, if you try to write an anti-war song that’s aggressive, it tends to…depends on the band of course, but I find myself that I tend not to be as comfortable with the lyrics. If you’re gonna write about a social issue, then you have to couch it in personal terms. With Men, the actual viewpoint was taken from statements made by somebody else, but they were personal statements. With the newer songs – like there’s a couple of love songs and a couple that deal with contemporary life from my own point of view – I try to address things that are relevant to a lot of people. They’re still basically personal…it’s close to home, but not quite as domestic as Human Frailty. I don’t think you can be forever airing dirty laundry (laughs) – you just can’t write like that all the time. Angst is OK up to a point, but it can become a bit wearing after a while.”
How are IRS handling you in the States?
“We’re constantly in contact with them, and we get a lot of attention. They’re into the idea of promoting the band as a touring act, out on the road doing the club circuit, developing the band’s profile on that level over time – rather than investing heaps of money and then getting paranoid that we won’t come up with a hit. Under those circumstances, we’d be more likely to dish up a record that’s about as commercial as a brick through a plate-glass window (laughs).”
Do the American press have a handle on the Hunters yet?
“We’ve made a conscious point of emphasising the fact that we’re an Australian band in the press. That’s the other thing about IRS, they’re into that as well… instead of trying to assimilate, which other Australian bands have done. Whenever we do press, we explain where the music comes from, how it developed, what it has to do with the social environment, what the pub circuits like here, how Australians perceive bands, Australians’ attitude to drinking…Really fundamental things like that are different over there – they don’t have the same attitudes to booze, and it creates a different sort of psychology of entertainment.”
What about public perceptions of the band?
“In a lot of places, people are still trying to work out what kind of a band we are – we’ve realised they’re right into categorisations. We can play quite hard-core in some respects, then turn around and play very soft, open ballads.
“I think the psychology of how we get across to American audiences is gonna develop over time. We just get up and play, basically.”
Are you conscious of avoiding a saturation level in Australia?
“I think we’ve just about reached that point now.”
Do you think it’s built up to the point of a backlash?
“We’ve had more backlashes in Melbourne than anywhere,” laughs Seymour. “When we first came back from England, we got really bad press with the old line-up. After that, I decided the only way to proceed creatively was to ignore what’s said about you. If you take it too seriously, you end up incredibly depressed. Nothin’ against the press, but I don’t pay it much attention. What counts is how the punters react, and they keep comin’ back….
“When they don’t, that’s the crunch.”
Thankyou to Stephen for typing out this article for us all to enjoy!