Hunters & Collectors (1983 Interview)

Interesting early interview with Hunters & Collectors.

Author: Joy Williams.

Date: 1983.

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They were first formed in Melbourne in May of ’81, and came together in a rather haphazard manner to do the one thing that all of them agree on, make their music. The band comprises varying numbers of players; when I saw them perform at the I-Beam in San Francisco, there were nine players in all, including a French horn player not listed on their bio. The core of the group, though, appears to be Mark Seymour (vocals), Doug Falconer (drums), John Archer (bass), Geoff Crosby (keyboards), Greg Perano (percussion) and Martin Lubran (guitar).

I first met Doug and John with their road manager, Michael Roberts, when they staggered bleary eyed from several days of too little sleep into the KQAK studio for an on-air interview. The next day, I met some of the band at the hotel. Out viewing the city, we journalist picked them up one by one — I drew Doug first, and started asking my questions.

Q: I’ve read that you’re from an art school background.

A: A few of them are. We’ve got very diverse backgrounds. You couldn’t say that we’re all from one area or one lifestyle. Most of us met through the university, but well after we’d finished what we were doing. We had a circle of friends that vaguely knew one another or knew of each other. No one’s actually been to art school. Mark did art at university, but that’s not art school. He has a BA and he eventually became a teacher until he got the bug.

Q: Got bored?

A: Yeah, basically. Well, he didn’t get bored, I don’t think, because he was teaching at a Western Suburbs school, a very rough Western Suburbs school. He didn’t quite get bored, but he wanted to do something else, so he got himself fired. He had to go to a doctor and get a certificate saying he was psychologically unfit to be a teacher. He had to put on all these symptoms and say he actually hated children and every time he taught a class he had visions of them all lying on the floor bleeding. ‘Cause that’s the only way he could get out of the bond. The Department of Education puts you through university, in return for which you have to promise to be a teacher for four years. The only way you can get out is to be fired, and they don’t fire you unless you’re really something horrendous.

Q: So what did you do before?

A: Well, I went to university for quite a long time and I eventually qualified as a doctor, of all things. And I worked as one for awhile, but I got sick of it, so I gave that up. A couple of the other guys were architects. One guy’s a qualified engineer; and the others are all sort of friends of friends or got caught up along the way.

Q: Is there any difficulty getting nine people together to play? I know bands that have trouble with three people….

A: Well, it’s funny, because the only time we make sense or get on as a bunch of people is when we’re on stage. Off stage we’re not a very cohesive group at all. As people, we’re so different from one another — we don’t like the same social circles, we don’t like the same movies or the same art or the same music or anything else. It’s only when we’re actually on stage that the whole thing makes any sense at all.

Q: Doesn’t that make it lonely when you’re touring?

A: Oh, no. Touring is such an absurd situation anyway, another layer of absurdity doesn’t make much difference. It’s pretty weird, especially when you’re driving into a town for at least one day and at the most two or three, and trying to get a feel from the place that you’re in, but at the same time being fully aware that you’ve got to do a job, and the job is the same. The venue changes, but the actual physics of setting it up, playing, breaking down, moving around, going to a hotel is all the same. It’s very difficult to regard each place the way that people who live there do.

Q: It’s not the same as going into the office every day and seeing the same people…

A: No, no. I couldn’t imagine doing that. I used to do it, but… What I really love about touring is that you get a sort of introduction… I’ve discovered quite a number of places I want to come back to and spend some time, this (San Francisco) being one of them. It’s a lovely city. New York is fascinating. I’m not sure that I like it, but it’s the first city in the world, really. It’s funny, coming from a place like Melbourne, which is not small – it’s just short of 3 million – but it’s small-minded. There’s just over 3 million in Sydney and 3 million in Melbourne and each of our other capitol cities has about a million. Eighty per cent of Australia lives in a major city because there’s just nothing else. The interior is very sparse.

Q: Christine Amphlett from the Divinyls said when she first came here it was terrifying because there were people everywhere.

A: I get the impression there must be the same kind of stretches of nothing in the interior here that there are in Australia. I really love traveling around in Australia. The deserts here seem to be a little dead to me, there’s no color in them. The shades in the Australian desert are just fantastic. We don’t see all that much of the actual desert when we travel, we tend to stick to the coast because that’s where all the people are. We can’t go to Alice Springs and expect to do a concert. It’s just the distances and the kind of character of the land that has a definite influence on what we do. So we like to go back and get a dose of it every now and again. This year we’ve spent a lot of time out of Australia, and I think that was badly planned — six months in London, just sitting around.

Q: Yes, last night you were saying you hated it there — it was miserable, cold and damp and depressing. But then you were saying you met Connie Plank, the German producer, there…

A: We went to Germany for about 3½ weeks. We did the new album in 18 days with him producing. That was fantastic. It was the best thing we did the whole time we were there.

Q: I didn’t realize he was one of those producers who works very rapidly.

A: He works very fast, but some of his projects take a hell of a long time. Someone like Ultravox, each album takes three or four months because they just putt around, and each day they come and they fiddle with the synthesizer or they sit in front of the TV and pinch lyrics. And they just take their time; they can do that because they’ve got so much bloody money. We have to work fast because of the financial aspect. But we just like working fast. We record “live,” which means you just spend a few days setting up for sound and getting the feel of the place, and then it only takes a few days.

Q: You mean, you go into the studio and the whole band plays and is recorded at once, no overdubs?

A: Yes, all of us. Well, I think there are two or three overdubs on that particular album.

Q: That’s very unusual.

A: Oh, it makes it very difficult and very easy at the same time, because most of our music is texture oriented and its difficult to create texture if you haven’t actually got everything working at the same time. It would be impossible for me as a drummer to create a texture without the other instruments there. I feed from what everyone else in the band is doing as much as they feed from what I’m doing. So the basic drum/synth track with the others layered on top wouldn’t work for us. We used a basic 24-tracks, though a couple of times we synched in another 24 tracks.

Q: Well, the way you’re doing it, not only do you save money, but you really don’t have to worry about being able to play live what you’ve put down on tape.

A: That’s what we try to do. We try to recreate what we do live on the records, rather than the other way around. We’re primarily a live band, that’s why most of our records have been vaguely disappointing to us.

Q: And you also said last night that audience response is important to you.

A: Well, you find ways to generate the kind of power and the kind of excitement in a studio that replaces the fact that an audience is not there. It’s a knack you develop after several recordings. You get better at sort of psyching yourself up. Plan recording the tracks around the same time of day as you would if you were playing a gig — play a few tracks, ones you’re not going to record — and we also record with our monitors going, all the same equipment we use on stage. We actually generate noise in the studio which producers tend to hate because they get spill in their microphones. And they jump up and down about it, but it really doesn’t make that much difference in the final analysis. Mike Howlitt didn’t want to do it it at all, said we were crazy, but towards the end he said it was a great idea for a band like us because it means you don’t have to add artificial ambiance. We like to make the sound mesh, and it’s easy to do that if things are spilling. The style we create is strong enough to survive quite a bit of manipulation by producers.

Q: So where is this band coming from; where do you see yourselves going; what are you after?

A: I don’t know. We don’t define to ourselves any reason for existence, apart from the fact that we want to make this music. We don’t exist to right any wrongs or crusade or make money or be famous or whatever. We came together more or less by accident, and everything that’s happened to us is more accident than anything else. We like to get across to people that light, vacuous pop music is not all there is. But we want people to enjoy us, not be threatened by us or overwhelmed by us.

Q: Your sound is one that is rather difficult to classify. Is there somebody who does the writing, or do you get together and just start jamming?

A: Yes, that’s exactly what we do. All the songs are written from a very, very minor germ of an idea — it might be a rhythmic idea, it might be a sound picture. Quite often, we work from sound pictures, which means someone comes in and says, “I’d really like to write a song that gives the impression of…” rather than saying. “I want to write a song that’s in this tempo and this key.” then it’s just mucking around, people coming in and out of the room, different people playing different instruments, until we feel we’ve got the kind of texture that we’re looking for.

Q: Until you’ve got the mood.

A: Yes, that’s it.

Q; What about the lyrics?

A: The lyrics tend to be written by Mark. Occasionally, someone else will submit something. Sometimes they’re written before the music, sometimes after, sometimes during. Lately, Mark’s come along a couple of times with a set of lyrics that are fairly descriptive, almost narrative stuff about Australia. Most of the time in the past, they were just images layered on top of the music.

Well, it’s soundcheck time, and so drummer Doug has to go. Since he has to get started first, we have a few minutes left to talk to lead vocalist, lyricist Mark who is now free from his last interview.

Q: Doug said that you all just get together and it all just sort of happens.

A: That’s true, really. We drifted together, though the basic core of the group is three of us who have been playing together for a long time (Mark, Doug and John), but we created this sort of large ensemble on an experimental basis to see if it would work out or not, and we developed the sort of language we have in our songs over a period of time. A lot of our songs are about touring and the varied experiences that come from it, and about the basic absurdity of being in that position. It’s pretty odd when you’re really detached from the world around you.

Q: Last night, Doug and John were saying that it’s fairly disturbing that what you have on vinyl over here just now is lagging so far behind what you’re currently doing.

A: Well, we have to stop playing live in order to write material, and we’ve been continuously touring for a really long time now. When we get back home, we’re just going to take a break. It’s sort of a Catch-22. In order to make what we’re doing worthwhile, there’s no point in just staying in one place, there’s no point unless we’re touring. In order to play live, we have to tour because we come from a really small country, which has a tiny market. We’d covered our tracks so many times, we needed to go away. I would imagine John and Doug feel a bit concerned about playing old songs because they feel morally obliged to write newer ones, but it doesn’t really bother me much. I mean, I really like playing all the songs we do. I used to agonize over it, but all of that stuff is really guilt-ridden anyway.

Q: Doug said that as a group you look more for mood and “sound pictures,” but that you write most of the lyrics. I can understand how the music comes together that way, but the lyrics — how do you work that out?

A: When I started I had never written for my voice; I had never sung in a band before this one. I was fairly new to the idea of being a singer and I didn’t really know what I wanted to write songs about, so when I started I wrote songs according to how the words sounded to me. And for a long time, I think I wrote lyrics that were arty-farty and fairly adolescent. I think what we write now is much more mature, and it’s a lot tougher. The lyrics in a lot of our songs are quite experimental, and some of them aren’t very good; I’m pretty self-critical. The lyrics have a lot to do with the music in that they are representative of the whole group. The best lyrics we have are lyrics that represent the vernacular of the group, what people are saying around us and what the current joke is.

Q: So you’re reflecting what is around you at the moment, rather than some long-range ideological goal.

A: Exactly. I think there’s more truth in that way, because you end up creating something that is unique because it comes from a particular place and a particular time. I don’t sit down and write a song about a particular thing, I just collect words. I have a notebook full of phrases and words and I’m constantly putting things into it. That way, the language you end up with is going to have much more long-lasting qualities than if you sit down and try to deliver a particular sermon to the world. So someone who sees my lyrics for the first time is not going to understand them immediately. But nobody understands poetry anyway when they read it the first time. It’s a sensual thing, you’ve got to read it out.

Q: When I first hear a song, i don’t hear the lyrics apart from the song; to me, it’s part of the whole music.

A: Right. That’s the way it should be.

The show that night was great. Nine people on stage, nine people who barely communicate at other times, but the sound, the feeling, the “mesh” was there. Live, Hunters & Collectors are all they are cracked up to be, and more. As I watched Mark throw his intense, Mohawked body and soul into his involvement in the music, I remember what he’d said earlier as we sat on the steps backstage. He’d been looking at a copy of a music magazine and had come across an article on Tom Waits: “Oh, he’s great!” Well, Mark’s gruff exterior and piercing presence remind me of Waits. The music is different, the voice is different, but the feeling is the same.

The music is complex, dense, odd yet familiar, experimental and lyrical. It doesn’t “groove”, it throbs, it pulses. Attending a Hunters & Collector’s show is a privilege and a strangely rewarding experience. Standing in the crowd that night, I felt caught up in some cosmic web woven by a band of rogue Aussies playing their hearts out on a Monday night in San Francisco.