In Search of Perpetual Motion
An interesting early interview with Mark Seymour and Greg Perano for the book “The Next Thing – Contemporary Australian Rock”.
Author: Richard Guilliat.
Date: Late 1983.
For a group of such distinctly underground origins, Hunters and Collectors had ‘success’ stamped all over them right from the outset. No doubt this was due in part to the professionalism of their approach – in terms of management and production – but there’s more to Hunters and Collectors than that.
They certainly arrived on the scene with the right sound at the right time. When the Birthday Party left Melbourne early in 1980 they left a gaping hole, which was filled initially by two groups, the Jetsonnes and Equal Local. Equal local went on the make some fine music, while the Jetsonnes mutated into Hunters and Collectors (taking their name from a Can song), in the process toughening up a lot. The Hunters were a hard edged steel-funk outfit who, on stage, were capable of a huge momentum. The perennial criticism, however, was that Hunters and Collectors only knew one song – I.e. they were repetitious – but at least that song was good. Hunters and Collectors’ greatest assets (I wrote) lay in “their strengths in arrangement and ensemble performance, their ability to coolly illustrate an atmosphere and generate a soaring momentum”.
Propelled by a high fashion profile, Hunters and Collectors were snapped up by the fledgling White Label, and have since gone on to join Split Enz as the only group in the Mushroom empire in the black. At the beginning of 1983, the Hunters made the inevitable move overseas, to link up with Virgin Records in London, yet while Britain was largely unreceptive, the group went to Germany to record an album under the aegis of Conny Plank. The Fireman’s Curse found Hunters and Collectors’ visions of the apocalypse and Australiana floundering somewhat – searching for the right new groove – and by the end of the year their future was uncertain, despite an imminent American tour. – Clinton Walker.
DISCOGRAPHY: Hunters & Collectors (album, White, ’82); Talking To A Stranger (single, White ’82); Payload (EP, White ’82); The Fireman’s Curse (album, White, ’82).
This interview with Mark Seymour (vocals/guitar) and Greg Perano (percussion) was conducted just after Hunters and Collectors had completed their Australian tour late in 1983.
Q: Is there anything you learned from the tour of England that you could apply to the U.S.?
Mark: We’re much happier here than anywhere else. I just feel we’re very closely related to this particular place. And because we were so successful so quickly, our ideas developed quickly, which meant that the ties we have with this particular environment are much stronger than anywhere else. What we’re doing now instead of going overseas and trying to become part of ‘That Scene’ – which didn’t work in England because we were so alienated all the time – what we’re doing in order to keep the band happy, we just go overseas, play a few gigs with a bit of advance publicity and then leave again.
The thing it proved is that the whole process we have of songwriting is basically instinctive, and it’s a question of a musical compromise that accommodated a range of temperaments. We’re not the sort of people who live and work together. It’s an ensemble, it’s like an orchestra. We’ve learnt that the best things we can do are in simplicity and strength and power. It’s an exercise in the ability to co-ordinate, and I think that’s what people found so intriguing about us in the first place.
What we’ve realised from being there is that that’s the thing we’re good at, and that’s what we’re going to pursue until we break up. Because it’s like an example: people see Hunters and Collectors because they want to try and get into that idea. And although it’s not a particularly outrageously world beating idea, it is something that impresses people and inspires them. The whole social mechanism that exists in our band depends on constantly moving and playing to people and being in London was like watching a muscle-atrophy. We really depend on feeling in touch with everyone around us when we play.
We just really fucked up, organisational-wise. We were playing places where there was no rational reason, no necessity to do it; places where people just didn’t understand and had no concept of what we were on about.
Q:What expectations did you have about Virgin Records? What arrangements had you made before you left?
Mark: Well, I think the basic thing was that Virgin wanted us to come over and record a commercial album, based on the fact that Michael Gudinski had told them we were a big band here, and that everything had happened quite naturally. Therefore they assumed – blind to the fact that the culture is totally different – that it would happen there as well. I mean, they had no idea; and when they finally met us it just went downhill.
We had to know enough about The Biz to know how to market ourselves, how to give them a complete sales pitch. And we just don’t know how to do that. They were under the understanding, which was quite reasonable, that we would tell them. We’d got to the stage of traveling constantly and having that level of popularity that we’ve got here, based purely on live performances, and it just didn’t occur to us that we’d have to do anything like that. They just got bewildered.
Greg: Our relationship with them was like one of an embarrassing relative. They’d acknowledge you because they were related to you in some way. I mean, it’s all based on popularity. If we were popular we could have gone in there covered in shit and they’d have said ‘Fantastic!’.
The funny thing is that Virgin have this incredibly fashionable, trendy image, but I’d rather talk to Michael Gudinski than any of those people. The relationship with Virgin was that they were just incredibly arrogant. It’s just like big, high-finance companies with the lowly shareholder that they don’t have much to do with.
For a while I think they were quite adventurous, but now I think they’ve just become a really safe company. I think they’ve had groups with credibility and stuck with them, but they’re not going to pretend they want that any more.
Q. Well what sort of effect did that have on the band? Did you take them to take over it or…
Mark: Well there was nothing you could do. It was basically really depressing. We made a big mistake signing to Virgin, but that’s just water under the bridge.
Q.The Fireman’s Curse didn’t strike me as being a very cohesive record. There’s a lot of differentiations in style which make it quite…
Mark:….disturbing. Yeah, that’s true.
Greg: Some of those songs we’ve had quite a long time, so they come from different periods in our history.
Q: It’s just that it’s not the Hunters and Collectors record.
Q: When you were recording it did you think it might be?
Mark: We thought it might. But we’d been through a lot of shit before we got there. We were confused. It’s such a disparate group of people that it’s hard to keep the cohesion so that it happens then and there at one particular point. But I reckon there is a Hunters and Collectors record, and that it’s about something very Australian. And every record we’ve done has touched on it in some way.
Q: Is that one of the intentions of the band, to make music that is very evocative of Australia?
Greg: What can you make music evocative of? I just think we reflect our environment; that’s what you draw from. People say there’s no culture here, but I think Australia is developing its culture now.
Q: I was just wondering if you have a philosophy on that – whether you decided from the start that that’s what the music would be like.
Greg: I reckon that’s contrived. That’s what always annoyed me, that people used to think we were so contrived. The first song we did just came out of playing. It’s just something that we fairly naturally, and I’ll always say that about this bad – that’s the way it’s come out.
Mark: Any kind of collective effort to create something and have it performed in front of people is a contrivance anyway. People are automatically going to say it’s contrived, but they’re not able to say why, to put it down to a particular reason. That’s just the whole thing about a performer and an audience – as soon as you expose yourself to the general public, you’re up for taking a bit of shit.
Greg: With us, no matter how much you talk about what you’re doing, anything could happen. It’s still very spontaneous. You can’t sit back and say. “This is going to be evocative of Australia”.
Mark: Musically I think one of the strongest essences our music has is its flawed character: that what we’re trying to play, we’re not doing as well as we could. For example, I reckon a lot of our songs really plod, have got this walking pace. And when we’re playing well our whole set’s this walk, it invites people to move but doesn’t quite. Just tempts them.
On this record there are a few songs that are just technical exercises, and they came about because we were confused. We would write songs from a technical premise rather than from a collective feeling. What we’re trying to do now is to think, when we compose songs, about how they feel dynamically. We have a set, the set creates a particular feeling, and we write songs in relation to the overall dynamic. So it’s like a complete experience – you start at one end and finish at the other. That’s basically the only way we’re going to make a record that is an expression of Hunters and Collectors.
Q: But isn’t it incredibly difficult to have that unified sound if everyone contributes? It seems like your aims are really contradictory.
Mark: Well it’s been said about our music that we’ve got one song and we play it extremely well. And our whole set’s like a song. Now if everyone’s in the groove there’s no problems, because that’s the one thing we do instinctively. At certain times we play gigs that are totally cathartic and there’s this certain element, something quite mysterious that you can’t put your finger on, that lies between all the people. That’s an essence that you desire and want, but you can’t actually know when it’s going to happen.
Q: Often When I’m listening to your music, particularly this new record, I get the feeling that you’ve created this structure of music and you’re trying to fight your way out of it. A lot of the songs sound frustrated, like they don’t quite work.
Mark: No, it’s not trying to be democratic at all. I think that’s really spurious. Our idea of democracy is a real, emotional thing. It’s a real… soul thing.
Q: Have you moved away from the idea of Hunters and Collectors as dance music? Because that seemed such a strong part of what you were doing early on, but the music seems to have become more destructed as you go on.
Greg: I don’t think you move away from it, I think you just evolve. For us to carry one being a straight dance band would be totally dishonest. That’s why you get so much awful music; because even if a band starts well they can just become a shadow of their former selves. They just carry on writing the songs other people say they’re good at.
I reckon a lot of records nowadays are like ads – something to put on when people come around, that’s not too distracting, that people can tap their foot to. And I think the most music that’s ever been made had some disturbing, emotive effect. There was something on Nightmoves last night that looked like an ad for a car; it had that amount of feeling in it.
Mark: Yeah. It’s a real corporate sound that everyone’s buying into.
Greg: Before rock’n’roll was on television, there was always that element of mystery. Often you’d see a group that really looked bad because they didn’t know anything about video. Nowadays they can make anyone look great. And they are the same people that make advertisements. It’s got nothing to do with actual, real rock’n’roll like Elvis or Gene Vincent. It’s totally removed from them.
Mark: I find it really intimidating actually, just the amount of control mass capital has over fucking music. It’s gone so far. It’s such a big powerful thing – like a blanket that’s muting rock music. The real essence of rock music . . . it’s just passion; it’s just really pure. And there’s so few people who can get that. It’s being pushed own, and there’s only a few people doing it.
Greg: There was a time – a time that’s really past now – when pop music was made by people who upset your parents and made people feel nervous. People were really terrified of having to deal with them. But nowadays the real popular people are the sort of people you could have around to dinner. There are very few people nowadays who have hit records who pose any sort of threat or bring about any slight social change at all.
The other thing I find really perverse about that is that, as you say, you have this massive amount of capital being poured into things like videos at a time when economically things are tough and music should be used to say something. And it’s just being used as a total distraction – particularly in a country like England where you’ve got The Face as the magazine.
Mark: I know this probably sounds dumb, but I’ve done full circle and I really think all that stuff is a collective decision made by people with a lot of money. I mean, there’s a certain few people pulling the strings. I don’t know who they are, but to me it’s a conspiracy.
Q: But when you say conspiracy, a lot of those people are simple people who see money and join in. I don’t necessarily call that a conspiracy.
Mark: I reckon there are two sides, and you’re either on this side or on their side. It’s easy – people make the decision to sell out. They may not consciously say “I’m selling out”, but it’s from here. (slaps heart) You either go from here or you don’t. People talk about making subversive money, like McLaren….I don’t believe that. That’s just tripe. You’re basically intellectualising your way out of a corner. What you’re doing is making a lot of money and working out how to do it cleverly. You’re making a lot of money for the sake of making money, but you spend a lot of time reading up on your French intellectuals and how they would argue their way out of it. And you come up with this God Almighty Beautiful Theory.
Greg: Yeah, all these people I know have this admiration for McLaren because they say he’s ripping off corporations. But he’s a corporation himself! He’s like the first guitarist we had, Ray (Tosti). He was a car salesman and he had all these tricks to sell a car.
It’s really funny that McLaren should call his album Duck Rock, because there was a certain group of car salesmen that Ray worked with who approached every customer like a duck. They waddled in and you ripped them off. Like, Ray would take someone out in a car and if the motor was fucked he’d turn the cassette deck on and wind the volume up. And you’d have this “duck” sitting in the front seat of the car.
That’s what McLaren does: he could take anything and sell it.
Mark: That’s a great analogy, because it’s like pouring all this trash down people’s throats. The thing is now that it’s so fucking organised.
Greg: It’s no different from selling people a used car. It’s like conning people into buying fibreglass art. You don’t get the impression there’s any gut feeling. And I think Virgin would look at us that way too. They’d look at us as being some kind of junk and try and sell us in some way.
Q. But you’re not going to escape that in the United States.
Greg: Oh no. But I think in the States there’s a lot more people. So there’s more people prepared to listen. Like in Australia….I think people are far to critical of Australian audiences. There aren’t any European countries where people go out like they do here, and see such diverse forms of entertainment.
Like that fact that the Birthday Party can appeal to such a broad cross-section of people here. In England they appeal to one type of character, so if you go to see them, everyone in the audience looks like the Birthday Party. If you go here, you see people with long hair, people who are accountants and bank-tellers…
Mark: And they’re all genuinely curious.
Q. Were there any record companies you spoke to who gave the impression that they knew what to do with you?
Greg: What you find among companies like Rough Trade is that they now talk about having hit singles, whereas, two years ago they were totally removed from that. It’s just a matter of survival.
Mark: I think it’s got a lot to do with the English class system. A lot of people think there’s no money in England, but it’s an incredibly wealthy city. It’s an old, old, idea, but the wealth in England is in the hands of a small group of people who’ve got a hell of a lot of money. That’s why a company like Virgin will pour $200,000 into the marketing of an album; because it’s nothing to them. They’re up on that level, and there’s a huge dome of poverty underneath.
Greg: We were probably their token eccentric band on the list.
Q. But you’ve always had the view that you can be subversive within an industry like that. Have you given up on that idea?
Mark: No-not at all!
Greg: Although we work in that industry, we still have very little to do with the people in it. I think we will operate purely for that, the fact that we go out and play live and make records.
Mark: In the end, it comes down to a question of Us and Them. I still really believe in that. The fact that we just went to London and had this record company and it didn’t work has just proved the point. That we’re probably too Left to cut it with them.
RICHARD GUILLIAT is a staff journalist for the Melbourne Age. Since 1977 he has written on rock for publications such as “Truth”, “Juke”, “Ram” and “Virgin Press”, and now contributes to “Tension”.
[Typed out by Miriam Norman]