The Way To Go… West

An extensive interview with Mark and Rob following a US ‘Human Frailty’ era gig.

Author: Nick Hobson, RAM Magazine.

Date: 3 December 1986.


Article Text

Expatriate Australian Nick Hobson meets Hunters and Collectors in San Francisco, where they kicked off their North American tour last month. After witnessing a killer performance, he slips backstage to question Mark Seymour and soundman/seventh member Robert Miles on the way to out Stateside…

When Hunters and Collectors first toured the US about three years ago, there was an air of unresolved tension about them. They’d just come from England, where an unforgiving wall of indifference greeted the band. After initial enthusiasm from Virgin Records, they’d met with the heads of that company – only to blow it over lunch with their characteristic collective lack of protocol. In other words, they refused to be dictated to and insisted on every career decision being made en masse.

This somewhat naive notion of group democracy was bound to falter. How do you get nine people to agree to anything unanimously? Impossible. Tempers flared, record company hackles were raised as the band argued amongst themselves across the table (Virigin were paying) and ultimately, Hunters lost out. Virgin passed on the deal, and the band passed on through to America with a bitter taste in their mouths.

The tension was greatest between Mark Seymour and percussionist Greg Perano, and it appeared the band would actually split asunder whilst on the road in America. That wasn’t to happen until Hunters returned to Melbourne, whereupon guitarist Martin Lubran and Perano abruptly left. Since then, a much streamlined Hunters and Collectors have at least won the commercial acclaim they always deserved – and this time round in America, they are determined to build on their Australian success.

Having signed with Miles Copeland’s prestigious I.R.S. label, the band began their assault on the West Coast last month. When I caught up with them, they were about ten days unto a three-month tour of the US and Canada. They’d already played a handful of dates in LA and the Bay Area before taking the stages at Wolfgang’s in San Francisco on a damp Thursday evening…

They opened confidently with Relief, Way To Go Out and Throw Your Arms Around Me and were met with slow enthusiasm, although the hip crowd at the back were still more interested in their drinks. By Red Leather Belt, Mark Seymour’s hips were swinging more than usual – much to the delight of those up front. Tonight the verses featured even greater rhythmic emphasis, with challenging keyboard counter melody, but it was left to the next song – Is There Anybody In There? – to kick the brass sound into overdrive.

The pace eased, but the power didn’t wane with a well-received new song, What’s A Few Men? – a story about World Was One soldiers. Before the applause died came the old Ray Charles favourite I Believe, very slow and just as powerful. By this time the Hunters were moving a lot of fair and a lot of feet.

Another new number – Inside A Fireball, about industrial conflict in Broken Hill – was chased in rapid succession by The Slab and Stuck On You, before the band shrank to a three piece for Dog and 99th Home Position. The full complement returned for Say Goodbye, and it was over… bar a couple of sweaty encores: Everything’s On Fire, and a new song extolling New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy, Breakneck Road. Still they yelled for more – and the final encore was This Morning and Carry Me.

Backstage, Mark Seymour – resplendent in a KUSF-FM (college station) T-shirt – was a font of wisecracks and quotable quotes. He plugged the virtues of other Australian band (“the Australian X shits on the American X”), but was more reserved on Neil Finn’s Crowded House (“It’s a great album, but they’re lazy. They won’y go out on the road; they won’t go out and play. They keep doing benefits for EON-FM”). He gave his thumbnail impression of the United States so far before settling down to an interview, later to be joined by the band’s sound engineer and seventh member, Robert Miles…

“Crowds like what we do, but it’s early days. Americans have a really weird sense of humour. They don’t understand sarcasm. You have to backtrack when you crack a joke. They don’t understand Australian humour.

“Los Angeles is really fucked. How anyone can live in Los Angeles, I don’t understand. San Francisco is a really good city. It’s a bit like Sydney.

“Americans are basically pretty naive. It’s quite surprising, actually.”

Q. With regards to what?

M. International affairs… art… they’re not as cynical. Except tonight’s audience were a little bit arty. You can pick it when we try to get them to clap in the middle of The Slab. Every gig we’ve done up till now they’ve clapped, but they wouldn’t do it tonight. Almost going to, but not quite – like a Melbourne audience. Fortunately, we haven’t come across that pure sort of art attitude here at all, which we’ve been trying to get away from for years, anyway. So that’s pretty good.

Q. Americans seem to be really enthusiastic once they get into something.

M. Yeah, that’s what I mean – the naivete. They’re really who hearted. They respect anything that’s professional, accomplished, tight and original. Like Sydney – Sydney audiences are the best in Australia; they’re really over the top. That’s why there are so many bands there, probably. Melbourne audiences always make me tense.”

Q. Have you seen Greg Perano’s new band, the Deadly Hume?

M. Yeah, they’re good. Ever since Greg and I parted company, we’ve both become a lot more stable. I think we were bad for each other, musically.

Q. There’s one song they do that ends with the line, ‘All hail Marcus Brutus/yeah, Marcus Brutus is an honourable man.’ Is that you?

M. Yeah, except when I used to drop my end of the plastic pipes at the pipe factory in North Fitzroy.

Greg got me this job welding plastic pipes. Whenever we picked them up to transport them I’d always drop my end, and he’d scream (laughs). I’d get really upset. I was a wimp in those days.

Q. Tension makes for good records. Is that true?

M. Not necessarily. We made some really bad records together (laughs).

There’s positive tension in this group but we know how to take each other’s tantrums. Neil Finn’s theory on rock ‘n’ roll is that it’s all run on the middle-class tantrum, which I wholeheartedly agree with. As long as you can direct that energy in a constructive way, it works. We went to England and all that energy imploded; we turned in on ourselves.

Q. H&C seem to have a very stable lineup.

M. This is it… this is the lineup we’re going to use for the next two thousand years.

Q. Do you intend for the next record pursuing the same powerful rhythm with a brass section? At the risk of becoming cliched, is this the formula you intend to stay with?

M. Yeah. That’s what we do, and we do it well. It’s an institution. The only way bands survive is creating a musical signature that’s their own. We searched for a long time until we found it. That’s the basic problem with most contemporary pop groups – they don’t have their own sound. Bands don’t last that long. That’s why I like bands like AC/DC because they don’t sound like anybody else. Whatever your style, if it’s got its own basic character then it’s good. I think most pop bands alter their style according to market forces. They change with the wind.

We’ve arrived at a point that we’ve been aiming for emotionally and musically for a long, long time. We’ve got to the point where it’s a very powerful, emotional and dynamic sound, and on the next album we will put the whole style thing behind us. We’ve got that well and truly established and we’re going to start dealing with a range of subject and themes, thinking more of the content of the music rather than it’s form. Form’s going to be less important to us.

Q. Talking To A Stranger was the first single. Seems that you had the form together from the first one.

M. What set that song apart was that it had strong pop elements in it that we smothered with a whole lot of arty bullshit. It’s the basic melodic and rhythmic power in that song that came to the fore – we’re more like that original idea now than we were two years ago. Stripped down the excess…

Q. Back to the roots?

M. Yeah… Talking To A stranger was a good idea in its inception, but it became lost. We lost direction very soon after that. What was good about it we ignored, which was the melody in the bass line, the melody in the voice and the power in the rhythm.

Q. When did you write Breakneck Road?

A. We wrote that in New Zealand on our last tour there. We were trying to break our land speed record between Picton and Christchurch. It’s an incredibly dangerous road. The Kiwi’s build these bizarre roads that are cambered down into a hill, and they don’t have crash barriers because no one drives over 30 miles an hour. Because we’re from Australia we have a tendency to get a bit carried away…

So we started it out as a road song. While we were there we had an acute sense of their sense of pride at having told the Yankees where to go as far as the ANZUS nuclear suicide pact, and we were very aware of the fact that they feel a lot of pride in their culture and heritage. We felt particularly negative about out own, because of Bob Hawke’s incredibly insipid approach to foreign affairs. So we decided to turn Breakneck Road into a torch song about demanded that the South Pacific be a nuclear-free area and that we get out of ANZUS. It’s become a political song. The more we played it, the more the lyrics developed around that idea as time went on.

Q. Do you find that American audiences accept the idea?

M. Yeah, very much so. That’s the thing that’s amazed us. We’ve got a political edge in a lot more of our material than there was, just because we’ve become more aware of the world as we’ve travelled. We’ve been flaunting that over here. They accept it – most of the people who come to see us aren’t Republicans.

We’ve got another new song called Inside A Fireball – about Broken Hill which is slowly strangling itself through industrial conflict between BHP and the Unions – and we’ve got another new song called What’s A Few Men?, which is about the first world war. The next album’s going to be called What’s A Few Men?

Q. Do you enjoy Mental As Anything’s music?

M. Not really.

Q. Why not?

M. Not serious enough for my taste. I’m dour serious. They write great pop songs but they just don’t do anything for me.

There’s not enough enterprise in the Australian rock industry. It’s so fucking limp wristed. There’s a lot of enterprise with bands who work so hard, but the actual support structure of the industry is piss weak. The whole attitude of Australian television to Australian bands is incredibly negative. It’s so hard to get exposure in Australia – the way people like Molly Meldrum fawn over international talent is just obscene.

Q. So you don’t think Milly does much to help people at all?

M. Not really. He says he does, but he doesn’t… doesn’t actually materially do anything. Countdown is only just now changing their attitude to Australian bands. That’s not because of him, that’s because of the guy who organises the programming.

Q. What do you think of Rock Arena?

M. Rock Arena try hard, but it’s not a very popular show. You don’t get that much exposure on Rock Arena – it’s late night ABC. On that level, things don’t seem that much better here. MTV’s pretty conservative. There’s far more video shows in Australia than here.

Q. You’ve got all your same road crew, brought them out from Australia…

M. Well, it’s for the sake of production. The guys we work with, we’ve been working with for years. We can get a really strong sound. Our front-of-house guy, Robert, is part of the band. He goes everywhere we go. And we also brought our own foldback and stage guys. Next time we’ll carry out own front-of-house because we got fucked around tonight. We couldn’t get enough power into the front of house. It wasn’t like we normally sound in Australia… you get that really tight bottom end.

(Enter Robert Miles)

Q. Did you have fun tonight?

R. We had problems tonight, but the show seemed to go quite well. Here at the club level they don’t expect you to put on a full rock ‘n’ roll show, whereas in Australia, that’s the norm. So we have a few problems trying to put on a full rock ‘n’ roll show at the club level.

Q. Is that volume of professionalism?

R. Starts with professionalism. For example, the concept of the house system is a bad one for rock ‘n’ roll bands. The house puts in a cost-effective system which is generally far too small, is difficult to modify and it all ends up taking a lot longer than if you are carrying your own production – which is the way we do it in Australia. House engineers are a bad idea, instead of having a room where the band comes and creates a show and then leaves.

Q. How long have you been mixing Hunters and Collectors?

R. Ever since they started – about six years. We’ve worked as a team for a long time. This is one of the reason why we need to be able to go what we do and that is do everything ourselves, because, for example, Doug, John and I have evolved a uniquely powerful rhythm section sound that is very closely integrated, both on and off stage. It’s not the usual setup where the person out front is picked up with the production who just turns it all on, leaves it alone and doesn’t understand the music.

Q. What’s your involvement with the records?

R. I do the artwork for the band, work with Mark on lyrics and assist in the production of records. I produced the live album we did in 1984. But we’re still finding we ‘um’ and ‘ah’ every time we get to do a new record whether we’ll self-produce it. We self-produced the first record. But we still find that it’s good to find someone who we think is going to push us and extend us, someone to work with – then we work as a team.

Q. Did you like working with Gavin McKillop on Human Frailty?

R. Yeah, Gavin was good. He’s an intelligent guy and he’s very easy to work with. He’s got a lot of good ideas.

Q. Did you use any new techniques for pulling sounds on the latest release?

R. Recording on Human Frailty was a lot more disciplined than we have been in the past. We did a lot more takes than me normally do and we were very meticulous on detail, whereas before we tended to go for a fairly garagey sound. For instance, with vocals we tended to go from the emotion of a one-take vocal when it might be the second or third take… and we did cut up a few this time. We’re less scared that we’re going to lose the power and motion by taking longer at recording than we have in the past… I think that was a natural progression we had to go through.

We’ve got to the stage now where we can be less concerned with deliberately trying to be different or experimental. We’re doing something now we know is quite unique, and when people describe our sound and music in general they find it difficult to compare us with other bands… and we’re secure in that knowledge. I think that’s very positive. We look forward on the next record to keeping a trend we started on Human Frailty.