Sonics – Human Frailty
A thorough article and interview with Mark Seymour about the Human Frailty album from Sonics magazine.
Author: Lesley Sly.
Date: July/August 1986.
They have built their reputation as a live band but have been slow to inflame the record-buying public. But with their new album, Human Frailty, the Hunters and Collectors say they have bridged the gap at last, encasing the raw emotional power of performance in the sweet shell of multitrack production. Vocalist/guitarist/lyricist, Mark Seymour explains to Lesley Sly.
The Hunters have been streamlining the detail of their music for a year now. Everything has been condensed from line-up to lyrics.
Two years ago they were nine piece now they are six. Last year they were firm advocates of live-to-digital recording; now they’ve turned out a studio album. Previous records were described by lyrics abstract and metaphysical; now they are more graphic and fundamental.
Q. Gavin McKillop seems to have played an important role in mapping out this new direction. Why did you choose him as producer?
A. We were lucky to get him. We didn’t want to work with anyone local. We’d given Deborah Conway (Do Re Mi, also produced by McKillop) a copy of Jaws of Life and she gave us a big pitch with him. So he came over, basically as a tourist, and did the album at the same time.
Q. How much influence did he have on the shape of the album?
A. He did have strong ideas but they were all really musical ones, not related specifically to technology. He made it very clear from the start that he wanted to make an organic album, a record based on how we play – both drummers’ bands, with music based on rhythm.
His role became more apparent near the end when we were doing the vocals and guitars. We’d sit in the studio and work out extra guitar arrangements, and I spent a lot more time on the vocals than I have on previous records.
Q. Would it have been very different if you (the band) had produced it?
A. We’ve toyed with the idea but… it takes time for musicians to learn how to operate a multitrack studio. You have to use someone who understands the technology.
Q. In 1985 (Sonics interview with John Archer) you were committed to the live-to-digital recording method. Why did you go over to multitrack for this?
A. We wanted to capture this live ambience of the band, but we also wanted to make a studio record that would work on commercial radio stations. The power of the drum sound, the vocals, these were all logical reasons for using multitrack.
Q. What’s the recording process?
A. Usually John and Doug and I just play – that’s the basic core of our songs. We record like that as a guide and then do all the guitars again. John did a lot more with his bass this time post-rhythm-track too, a lot of overdubbing.
Q. Are the songs heavily structured when you go it?
A. They went down pretty much the same as we had planned. About half of the stuff had been played live and that’s where the songs grow and change radically.
Q. You’ve been quoted as saying, “Our gigs are so intense, we haven’t always had enough detachment to produce vinyl that sells.” Do you mean the live intensity doesn’t transmit, that those dynamics become confusing on vinyl?
A. I meant more than our emotional involvement in our music is so tied to performance. Sometimes we haven’t been able to stand back and see what we were going to get out of the studio and what the limitations are. We’ve been too wide-eyed about it (recording). It’s possible to take too many risks in a studio and a lot of good live bands have trouble getting their sound there. This time we said, ‘Right, we’re not going to get the live sound so we just have to make a record that highlights the emotional intensity.’
We wanted then to make a well produced record and not worry about being faithful to our live sound.
Q. You’ve said that record sales don’t reflect your popularity in Australia. Why?
A. In order to have a profile in this country you do a lot of live work. The perception the punter has of a live band isn’t the same as seeing one on Countdown and going out and getting the record. We’ve had a strong live following and that hasn’t translated into record sales. But that’s changing now.
Q. You use the word ‘prosaic’ frequently to describe the band’s new direction. Are you aiming to be more accessible?
A. The band has reached a musical peak and I thought it was important to strip the lyrics back, make them more skeletal, more communicative. I’ve never written lyrics before on our musical level… I’ve been off on Cloud Nine, you know, writing metaphysical poetry.
I’ve tried to sculpture the lyrics on this album – to be as direct and commonplace as possible – so that they blend with the music.
Q. There’s certainly a sense of harsh reality on this album. I like the way you mix images like the downtrodden mother at the sink and the “white flag of peace limp and useless” (in the song Relief).
A. Yeah… they’re all domestic because politics begins and ends in the home. I was also… well, someone in my position can write about world peace with a certain detachment. But what about someone so embroiled in domestic tasks that they haven’t got time to intellectualise about these things? So, I was bringing my perception of the world back to that level – the kitchen sink.
Q. You say Human Frailty is the point at which you finally recorded the emotional and physical power of your music. Why has it taken so long?
A. We’ve tried to develop out music out of the idiosyncrasies of the musicians rather than relying on technical ability. We’ve relied on our character and it’s been a gradual growth. We’ve been honing those idiosyncrasies down knowing that we would reach a point where we were making music that didn’t sound like anything else.
It meant that recording was a mysterious process – we weren’t sure what was going to happen. It still is, but we’ve learned to translate it (the idiosyncratic sound) better.
Q. What about your Aboriginal funk; reviewers seem constantly to describe you this way?
A. Americans really wanted to believe that there was some special purity about Australian bands because ‘we’re in touch with the earth’. We kept on saying, ‘We’re just middle-class boys from the suburbs’. I’ve never had contact with Aborigines. But, I think there is a strong sense of landscape in our music.
We’ve never pursued this… I can’t stand jingoistic Australian pop bands.
Q. A lot of Australian bands have to live overseas to further their careers…
A. And they end up sounding like English bands… they get that whinge in their music. The bands that survive here have a different approach, they’re more celebratory and outward-looking. I’ve been to a lot of countries and I’ve never seen anything like the degree of commitment from band or audience as a Midnight Oil gig.
It’s important for us to be recognised as an Australian group.
Q. How do you write songs?
A. I’m always writing lyrics which I take along when they gell into something. Jack and I are working more closely on arrangements. John and Doug tend to work out their dynamics separately.
All our songs are based on feel of bass and drums and we just work that out together. There are some orientated around me (for example, Throw Your Arms Around Me) but they’re not the majority.
Q. Are you a one-take vocalist?
A. No, not on this album. Gavin convinced me I was a singer and we spent a lot of time on vocals In some songs I put down half a dozen vocal takes and we took bits out of each.
Robert puts so much stuff on my voice live, it’s unbelievable – Aural Exciter, compression, several forms of reverb and some delay.
Q. And the guitar sound is the same throughout, which gives the album continuity?
A. I’ve always thought the best way to survive musically is to go for what is definitive at the time. The most definitive thing I can do is not put effects on my guitar because everyone else does. My guitar has a natural, warm sound that I really like. But if everyone had a sound like that I’d use effects!
Q. What was the big lesson in making this album?
A. The biggest thing I learned was hoe to song. But the biggest effect overall was on my perception of the other people in the band; it’s drawn us in really close.
We’ve crossed that line where bands break up.
Q. How does it most succeed?
A. It’s got gestalt; it succeeds in every way. It’s all held together with one strong idea
Q. You said you say it as a document of a time in history, not just of the band but of the place where the band lives. Would you feel it has failed if it ends up in mint condition in a secondhand rack?
A. The first album was in secondhand racks six weeks after we released it. That’s a natural part of this business. But I still believe it is an artefact in cultural terms. I’m acutely aware of the effect records have years and years down the track.
I had a loose chord progression and lyric – the song was inspired by the conversation of a guy and girl I heard through a wall. They’d just come back from overseas and she said that (“You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman any more”) to him. I found that particularly perverse because of the state of my own relationship at the time, so I wanted to structure a pop song around it.
I said to Doug, “Let’s get a very up, aggressive tom-tom rhythm’, then we worked out the bassline, with John putting in those little clicks to give the rhythm tension.
We played on that for a while, tried going up to the D, and then we got that gap in the song. Jack worked out the brass intro, then the really aggressive percussive brass in the middle. It all came together very quickly, in about two days.
Q. It maintains the big sound well on radio…
Gavin mixes through the transistor radio – a normal AM radio which is hooked up to the monitors and the music goes right through the radio circuitry and speaker. So the mix sounds like it would being broadcast. This was the final test for each round mix.
John overdubbed the bass, as I said, to accentuate the percussive aspects; I whispered by own vocal lines again beneath the main vocal to give it that sibilance.
Verdict: It’s great, a really good song. The thing about Hunters’ songs is that they never come out the way I want them to. And that’s great. The only part of this that turned out as I expected was the opening rave.
Is There Anybody In There?
This is a pretty simple lyric. The music began with John doing a wacking E-G riff – where he bends the string almost off the neck – and a really solid backbeat. We wanted the backbeat to sound interesting because Doug doesn’t like doing them otherwise. Then Jack introduced one of this unusual chord progressions – semitone key chances, which we’ve never used before. The instrumentation of this is basically Jack’s.
Q. That ascending vocal section (“better cover it over”) sounds like a 60’s thing…
Yeah, there’s a Roy Orbison song that uses that ascending harmony, it’s a bit like Twist and Shout too.
We put glockenspiel in the brass break and the guitars are quite artificial, very studio. I used a super-clean Sheik sort of sound, which I don’t use live. I regret it a bit, but it has a better sound through small speakers when it is clean like that.
Q. Guitar takes up so much space on records…
Yeah. Gavin was really good at rationalising that.
Verdict: I was disturbed by that clinical guitar, but I don’t think I would change it. This is one of our big songs live. No, there’s nothing I would change.
Throw Your Arms Around Me
We’ve recorded this song three times. First was the two-track single, and the production wasn’t good enough; next time we got a better feel. But it’s such a strong melody and strong optimistic sentiment that we thought it was worth recording again.
Q. This song sounds different to the others, from another time?
It inspired a lot of the other lyrics, and it was like a touchstone for a new direction of the band. It sounds difference because I basically wrote it on an acoustic guitar. I don’t often take such a complete song to the band. It’s a definitive, folky love song.
We double-tracked acoustic guitars, put acoustic harmonies on the electric guitar parts. We really went to town on this – real strings. At the end we just invented all these vocal harmonies in the studiol the whole band is singing there.
Verdict: It’s great, one of the best things we’ve ever done. I just wish we’d recorded it like this the first time.
Everything’s on Fire
Q. My criticism of this is that, at the end where it really opens out with the brass, the drums are too pedestrian.
Yeah. I think the main problem is that it is too long at the end; if we had shortened it, that wouldn’t have been so prominent. We really did sit on that groove, longer, I think, than the interest level can be sustained.
It came about with me, John and Doug playing a Stones sort of feel. We wanted to write a soul sort of song. It’s had a mercurial life; we’ve played with it and dropped it at various times.
I re-did all the guitars to get a crisper rhythm, keeping them cleaner and back in the mix. It will be edited for a single.
We wrote this about a year ago. It had a turgid backbeat rhythm – grungy, and I had this meandering guitar line under the vocal. It wasn’t working for me and we dropped it.
When we came to recording we were able to stand back from it; the bass and drums went down as they are live, and we were able to give it more colour. Then I worked out with Gavin, a three-chord melody under the voice for guitar and organ, and clean slide guitar and organ, and clean slide guitar sound. This lifted the song out.
We put piano at the end with guitar and brass.
Verdict: The recording of this has taught us how to play it live. It’s been a surprise, this song. I really like playing it now and it’s probably one of the strongest songs on the record.
Q. An odd song, very claustrophobic…
That’s good, because that’s what it’s about. This and Throw Your Arms are the oldest songs on the record. Here I was trying to describe coming in from the landscape to a tiny little room. It’s the closest to our old style.
We started with a slow rhythm and just two notes and I wanted an elegant melody, which came from trumpet and guitar. It’s a real jam song.
We didn’t do that much to it, we tried other riffs on piano and guitar and they didn’t work.
Verdict: I’m not that curious about this song; it’s not quite as fresh as the others. It’s the least successful in translation.
The 99th Home Position
We wrote this in the studio. It started with the drums. I’d been harping on about having an up-tempo song and John started playing this tom-tom rhythm and a few songs later we had the bassline. We wrote the whole thing in about three hours.
I’d found a book on square dancing, published in the 50’s, and one of the terms they use is ‘Home Position’, the position the couple always comes back to. It said the man must bring the woman back to his home position because if the woman goes to hers there will be a heap of trouble. That’s actually what the book said – a very ’50’s way of looking at relationships. The whole thing was a metaphor for courtship, so I thought I would write a lyric about Home Position, such that no matter what happens in life the man and the woman always have to come back together again.
To keep it simple we kept this song as a three-piece – John, Doug and me. I used my straight Fender sound and treated it.
Verdict: The guitar could be a bit louder. It’s my second favourite track.
At soundchecks John had been playing a riff on the E string – it sounded like a 3/4 rhythm but it resolved. I had a lyric and when we went into the studio I asked him to play that riff. Then Doug added the soul rhythm with that anticipated kick beat at the beginning of every second bar, and I played like an ACDC guitar – a straight chord over a root note, which is a traditional rock ‘n’ roll device, but because of the tug in the rhythm, it sounded like Hunters underneath.
We were listening to ACDC a lot at this time – liking the really simple tension between guitars and drums in their music. And, the fact that their songs are so skeletal.
We were going to bring the bass in but decided to keep it as a three-piece which was a good idea.
Lyrics-wise, I tried to get tuned into being an animal, really subservient to someone.
Q. It sounds like it’s played live but lacks the ambience you would get in that situation…
Yeah… I could have used some high bell-type guitar sounds to get that. But we didn’t think of it at the time, so…
Verdict: It’s the most successful lyrically, from my point of view.
Stuck on You
Music and lyrics by Ian and Stephanie Rilen (ex-Sardine, Ian still plays with X). We wanted to do a cover version; it keeps us on our toes. It allows us to define what our approach to music is, and puts our interpretive power to the test because we can look at our version relative to the original.
It doesn’t sound like our kind of melody but it gives a different perspective to the band.
We wrote the middle section. Their version is not as heavy in the bottom-end, and our vocals are harsher (though if we recorded it again I might do them softer). We cut it up and made it more of a pop arrangement with lots of guitar parts, and we used a raw viola to get a similar effect to the Farfisa organ sound Stephanie had used on the original.
Verdict: I’d like to do a softer vocal.
Epic, the big one. This is an old song, written about a year ago. I had a melody idea and John put a simple blues progression bass under that, and we jammed for a while and realised we didn’t want it to be a straight ballad.
So we disrupted the whole thing, going into a totally different mood with that semi-shuffle on the snare. We didn’t try to write it too quickly, left it for a while because when we got into that feel we had to figure out how to climax the song.
After a few rehearsals it settled, but live it took a while to shift gear, make the changes positive.
Q. You seem to have an easy control of it; having so many changes it still flows…
We’ve shortened it a lot from the live version and I organised my guitar more clearly in the buildups. It was hard to get the backing track down; we really had to concentrate.
Q. I like the part where Doug’s doing that tom rhythm and then goes down to doing that same rhythm on the sticks. It randomises it a lot…
Yeah, that’s fantastic live. I think in this song we’ve galvanised the new Hunters.
Verdict: It’s a really powerful recording – an overstatement of a simple idea. The strings helped to do that.
With this whole record we’ve tried to bring everything down to its skeletal elements. It’s a very rational album.
Q. Your cover symbol, what’s that about?
It’s the symbol of healing – the surgeon’s knife and the snake in Greek mythology is the link between the physical and spiritual worlds. It’s a spiritual symbol really. Good music connects the listened with his or her own soul. That’s what this album is attempting to do. And also, I want to get a tattoo like that one day…
Hunters: John Archer bass; Doug Falconer drums; Jack Howard, trumpet, string arrangements; Robert Miles, sound-mixing, artwork; Mark Seymour, lead vocals, guitar, lyrics; Jeremy Smith, french horn, keyboards; Michael Waters, trombone, keyboards. All – backing vocals.
Outboard players: Gavin McKillop, Shellie Conway – backing vocals. The Como Quartet – Adam Duncan, viola, ‘psychedelic credibility’; Alex Black, violin; George Vi, violin; Peter O’Reilly, Sue Hadlee, cello; Dianne Howard, piano; Debbie Waugh, marimba/xylophone.
The Album: Human Frailty, recorded in three-week block at Allan Eaton’s Studio, St Kilda; mixed (two and a half weeks) at AAV South Melbourne; cut at Town House Studios. Produced by Gavin MacKillop and Hunters and Collectors, engineered and mixed by Gavin MacKillop, assisted by Robert Miles; assistant engineers, Michael Streefkerk, Doug Brady.
Backtrack: Former 1980, started playing Melbourne, 1981, released self-produced EP’s World of Stone and Payload, followed by debut album Talking to a Stranger in 1982. Video for the album picked up by MTV and band builds up a hard-core audience through dance club and college radio exposure of the album. 1983 – tour of England, North America and New Zealand; second album, Fireman’s Curse, and EP, Judas Sheep are released. 1984 – album Jaws of Life released and band sheds three members to arrive at present six-piece line-up. Band now negotiating with several labels for UK/European releases, Japanese release for the new album settled via CBS Sony.
Hardware: Mark – Fender Twin Fender Telecaster (1971) with Seymour Duncan pick-up; no effects. John – Marshall bass head, JBL J bin, Aural Exciter, Boss graphic, Fernandez bass with EMG pick-up. Doug – Singerland kit, Paiste and Zidjian cymbals. Jack – trumpet; Jeremy – french form; Michael – trombone. Brass players – use a Korg ordan, with lots of EQ too. Studio hardware: six-string Fender Coranado bass used to overdub basslines to reinforce percussive aspect; ancient Hammond organ Ibanez acoustic, glockenspiel, marimba strings.
Songwriting Tools: A Walkman-style recorder and acoustic guitar occasionally a drum machine. Band works out all arrangements live with Robert (sound-mixer) building songs with effects.