The Essence of Mystery
Early UK interview with Mark Seymour and Greg Perano.
Author: The Virgin Press.
Date: December 1982.
Original URL: N/A.
If there is a popular conception of Hunters & Collectors, it is of a band that know only too well how good they are. With their first album now sitting high in the AM radio charts with a smirk on its face, the band are finally established as the most popular, ambitious and headstrong new Melbourne group for years. Success has not only been relatively trauma-free for them, it has largely been achieved on their own terms – terms by which record company standards are positively subversive.
Yet for all this (ostensibly admirable) achievement, Hunters & Collectors are the most begrudged success in Melbourne. Their notoriety has brought its own peculiar pressures and confusions, causing the democratic structure of the band to become, at least for a while, almost paranoically tight-knit. This attitude of close-ranks-and-guard-the-flanks is most noticeably manifested in Mark Seymour, who one suspects was the main creative drive behind the ‘collective’ facade of Hunters & Collectors in its original form. Here is a man not prone to wisecracking or bursts of hysterical laughter. He could sing Sex Machine and make it sound like a treatise on the Sexual Conundrum of Western Man.
Lack of humour is something Seymour concedes, although he feels that he and the rest of the band have loosened considerably since the military-drill style of performance they became stuck into last year. The instant acclaim status of the band has obviously caused a major re-evaluation this year, and in the process they’ve shed a guitarist and a number of pretentions, as well as acquiring more moderation and melody.
In some ways, however, Hunters & Collectors are still in a bind of trying to live down (or live up to) their early success. Listen to the bootleg cassette of their performance at the Jump Club in July last year and you can recall the sense of purpose and the sweep of their music in its embryonic stage – a landscape of sound in which the body was compelled by a trance-like funk motion while the mind tried to filter through the maze of images and influences at work. Nothing that the band have recorded so far has lived up to this, despite their effort to record as live as possible in the studio. The first EP was a flat shadow of Hunters & Collectors at full stride, and at least half the new album suffers the same syndrome.
While the elements are all intact – the grossly-distorted lyrical symbols, the contrast between primitive chant/rhythm and the clang and whir of industrial noise – the effect of these elements in totality is not there.
As this interview demonstrates, this is a problem that both Seymour and Greg Perano are very much aware of. Although Hunters & Collectors have a reputation for intellectual and stylistic posturing, the reality is a lot less simplistic. In one breath they can intellectualise about their music at length, and in the next prove to be surprisingly objective about its shortcomings and past failures. Just as in one performance (such as their recent record launch) they can be wound-up, tense, and unconvincing, and at the next be completely engrossing. (And anyone who missed the Bang/Hunters Big Band at the Virgin Press benefit – more fool you).
At the time of this interview the band were recording in AAV studios with Mike Howlett, and English producer who has worked with Gang of Four, Original Mirrors and Penetration among many others. Both Perano and Seymour seemed very hopeful of the different approach Howlett might provoke in the band’s music. We talked in a vocal booth off the main studio, beginning with a discussion of their past recordings with Tony Cohen as opposed to their current attitude in the studio.
MARK: I think we were getting into a little obscurantism for a while there in terms of recording techniques. Doing things like using all sorts of wanky ideas, getting whacky sounds, and then finding it didn’t actually work or didn’t make much difference to the overall sound.
GREG: We were a bit out of our depth. We had this idealistic idea of doing it virtually live, because we’d never been in the studio before and we didn’t know how to approach it.
I have to admit that a couple of the things you’ve done sound flat to me. I think Talking To A Stranger is one, compared to what it’s like live. Would you agree with that or not?
M: I reckon you can criticise everything we’ve recorded in that regard. It’s bound to sound flat.
G: It’s probably for that reason…that we were used to playing it live and often when we recorded it was late at night, we’ve played it five times and it just doesn’t have the same feeling.
What are you doing to overcome those things?
G: Recording in the afternoon.
M: Well, we’re not as ambitious, in terms of how we arrange songs. We tend to keep the basic idea more simple and I think we’re more discreet in terms of how a song builds dynamically. But I still think anyone who has seen us live is going to feel there is some basic element lacking in the recorded thing because that element of the relationship between the audience and us is a perceptual thing; it works both ways. A 7Â½ minute song on a record doesn’t work as well as a 7Â½ minute song live.
Did writing become a problem after that initial burst of popularity?
M: We went through a period of about two months where nothing substantial was happening. I think our whole approach to playing to people has changed…we were a lot more strained and anal. We’d just stand there and play and make sure we did as well as we possibly could. There’s a lot more humour in our act now than there used to be.
Do you think humour was something you might have lacked early on?
M: Yeah. I think from my point of view it was, for sure. In a lot of ways it’s a result of becoming aware that…I mean, there’s a certain element of futility in doing an endless circuit of pubs in Melbourne, or in Australia for that matter. And then you realise there’s an element of futility in doing it right across the globe, anyway. So you have to try to detect other levels of relationships with audiences. A performance works in a whole range of ways – you can say things that can be completely misconstrued and misunderstood and more things like that happen, the more vibrant your performance can become. We never intended anyone to look on us as an exercise of an artistic idea which they could stand back and make some intellectual decision about. We never intended that at all.
I was just wondering whether you thought hotels were an appropriate place for a band like yours to be playing. Like you played the Bienalle, I was wondering if those kind of things were….
M: The Bienalle! I think the whole thing was just a farce.
G: It was quite good to play there, but I mean there was a bit too much made of the fact that it was ‘performance art’. There was a fine line between what was performance and what was crap.
About two weeks ago Mark and I and John and Martin and a couple of horn players played to about 150 mentally retarded people in South Melbourne, and I got a lot more satisfaction out of that than playing the Bienalle.
M: The instant we started playing there was like this sudden reaction that went right through them. They suddenly went BANG and there was this interaction between them. Because people can transcend….If you’re going to get into the philosophical issues of it, if you approach something with a completely open mind you’re more likely to receive the pure elements of the information than you would if you go along with an educated viewpoint. I think if we were going to play to an audience we though was discerning, then we would miss out on a whole range of ways of playing. Our style has changed because we’ve played to a lot of people. I really look forward to playing now, but there was a time I was dreading it, because I knew there was that really critical element.
G: It’s probably good that we got a lot of acclaim at the start because I think it matured us a lot. You can either say “Yes, we’re fantastic” or you can keep working and just try to ignore what’s going on. And try to prove to people that you’re a group that believe in what you’re doing and are going to survive. And I think we’ve survived pretty well.
Yeah, there was a time there when it threatened to swap you, I thought.
M: We went to Sydney once and people were coming up and saying they’d heard we’d broken up and weren’t coming. People actually thought the whole thing was going to fall apart.
G: You can only get a certain amount of critical acclaim and people think you’re sitting on top of the heap and you’re going to fall. So everyone sits around waiting for it to fall apart so they can say “I told you so”. And it’s just not going to happen with us because we believe in what we’re doing.
M: The other thing is that so many of my peers couldn’t accept that we were serious about it – that a group of people they all knew, and had known for years, would actually get together and try and do something serious. And for a brief instant give the impression that they were going to pull it off. They were surprised to the point of disbelief that we were actually going to pursue this thing.
Has a product of that been that you’ve tended to become isolated from a lot of people that you used to know?
M: Yeah, I have for sure.
What kind of effect has that had on you?
G: You work out fairly quickly who your friends are.
When you started it seemed you had a really strong strong desire to do something with a large degree of innovation – the line-up of the band, the use of percussion, the use of primitive sounds. I was wondering if you’ve found it hard to keep innovating or whether you’ve been using the same devices to some extent.
M: The whole notion about us being primitive is directed towards the idea that you get an audience as involved as possible. Which means that you have to work at a rhythmic -oriented thing. You pound out a rhythm until it starts to penetrate someone’s consciousness. The idea of that is based on really early ideas of what rock’n’roll was meant to have in the beginning. It seems to me a fairly obvious thing, but there are very few bands who orientate their music in that direction, using rhythm to penetrate people’s consciousness.
And repetition too.
M: Repetition is a really old device and I think we overused it. But we overused it because we were experimenting with something that hadn’t been refined. I mean we had things on the album that just haven’t worked because they were overstated and they were impossible to handle in the studio. Things like Run Run Run to me would have been better recorded in a fairly primitive environment.
I actually like the recorded version of Run Run Run.
M: That’s really surprising, because we’ve all decided we’ve just written that off. I mean when that song really gets going it just surrounds you completely. And quite obviously you can’t do that on a record.
Is that thing about repetition something you’ve got….not really an academic interest in, but something you’ve gone into rather than simply having a gut feeling about?
M: We stumbled on it actually, because I think we were really unsure about what we were doing when we first began. It was basically a gut feeling, and the idea was that we’d extrapolate that and we spent a lot of time discussing it as a performance idea. When you talk about pubs, the relevance of what we’re doing in terms of innovation still works in terms of that environment. We’re a pub-rock band. And the degree to which we intellectualise about it takes place within the caucus.
But I think that’s the way people perceive you, as being fairly intellectual about what you do. Do you think it’s a mistake?
M: No, I don’t think that’s wrong – I think we are fairly intellectual. It’s like a very closed group of people, a caucus.
How hard is it to maintain that collective thing with all these different elements coming in?
M: Well it changes from moment to moment, but I think now it’s a lot more satisfying than it used to be. Because we’ve realised the reality of the restrictions placed on us, the modus operandi, the nature of the characters, what one person is actually capable of playing and what one is not. We’ve got songs now that have got huge clumsy holes in them, where there isn’t much cohesion. The traditional funk motif we don’t use anymore because we’ve developed a lot more, learnt to incorporate more elements. It’s a lot more sophisticated.
I wouldn’t have said that. I would have said that live it tends to sound less sharp.
M: Well that’s true, but I’d call that sophistication. Because if music prescribes an idea but doesn’t define it, then there’s more chance of an audience perceiving a broader range of ideas or feeling a broader range of things than if the song is focussed on particular sound that they can catch on to and pursue. We were called the riffkillers – we’d play a riff until it was dead. I mean it was interesting for a while but you couldn’t keep going like that. It was too much of a signature.
Another thing that interested me was your talking about the level of humour in your work because I’ve found the effect lyrically and musically to be quite extreme and sometimes almost harrowing.
G: It depends how you interpret things, especially lyrically. I mean maybe it’s not blatant. It’s probably a bit more absurd.
One of the recurring themes I think is primitive images.
M: Well we try to deal in terms of symbols. If you have a particular expression that conjures up a visual image or an emotional idea, then that particular symbol can be a very powerful one to build a song around. The symbols that we find good in that regard are the ones that have something to do with the soul, or what people have in their subconscious. I don’t really think primitive is a very appropriate word. I think it’s a bit of an anachronism.
Talking something like sexuality, instead of talking about sexuality in terms of the relationship between two individuals, we would more tend to look at sexuality in terms of a particular thing or a feeling, regardless of the individual. So it would appear to be abstract, but the actual power of the symbol you use to identify that thing is not abstract at all, it’s really strong and simple. So to approach a theme like sexuality you can go through an incredible amount of guff, which a lot of intellectuals do, and never really stumble on the real essence of it.
G: I see in popular music that there’s two levels. There’s a level where the whole thing seems really contrived, and I think Duran Duran are a fairly good example of that. It gets to the stage where the only people you can fool are people who are too young to know any better. But I think most of the people we play to have been through fairly similar situations to us, even out in the suburbs. They’re too perceptive to be fooled by something that’s obviously contrived. If they come along and see you, and you’re obviously faking, then they’re going to let you know about it fairly quickly.
I’m not sure about that. I don’t find audiences are all that discerning in that respect.
M: I reckon they are on a gut level. People who go to pubs aren’t stupid.
G: One annoying thing is that once you get to a certain level, people interpret anything you do, connected with the group, as a marketing device. So like with the film clip, someone said to me the other day: “Oh, that’s a really good marketing devise”, I mean it’s a pretty cruel thing to say without thinking about it. It’s like saying: “Oh yeah that’s really contrived. You’ve made a good clip so you can sell your record”. I mean the reason we made that is because we wanted to do something that is an extension of what we already do.
I guess it’s unavoidable that people are going to interpret things as a marketing device because….it’s like the people in record companies. A lot of the people who’ve seen our clip say how much it’s disturbed them, and that’s because they constantly surround themselves with bullshit. They don’t really have much to do with reality – they’re not interested in politics and they’re not really interested in literature. All they’re interested in is marketing music as a product. So if something they see makes them realise there’s a world out there, that it really disturbs them, because their life’s not sugary sweet.
M: That’s the thing I find overbearing when I go down to Mushroom – not to slag off Mushroom or anything, there wouldn’t be much point anyway – but it’s like an incredible narrow little world.
Do you feel you have to constantly check yourself to make sure it’s not…..
M: Rubbing off on us? I don’t think so, not really?
G: The other night I was thinking how we’re coming into the studio to work with this guy from England. A couple of years ago I would have thought “My God, what an incredible thing to work with an English producer in a studio”. We’re been fairly lucky, and this might sound arrogant, but we look on things like this as a fairly natural progression. Things have actually seemed to happen to us all along. Like showing the clip on Countdown when we refused to go there live.
That’s one thing – these people make and break all their own rules. They’re constantly in a state of flux. The point is that they have to start somewhere.
M: But it might not have opened it up that much, because the point is that if other bands don’t come up with clips that are interesting, then Countdown aren’t going to be forced to show them. I reckon if you’re going to make any headway with the industry, and the industry being as conservative as it is, then you have to make the point quite obvious.
G: The thing is that groups become part of the industry and part of company, and it’s automatically A Record and A Clip. And because they’re so heavily involved in this machinery, usually the person they work with is someone who’s done a hundred film clips before, so he just uses every hack technique in the book and treats the band as a product. Because he probably makes ads when he’s not doing videos and works in a studio with a really standard idea. I think we were lucky to get someone who actually makes films and looked on us as a totally different project. He said he’d try and approach the clip in the same ways as we approach our music, by working on a layering technique. Obviously from someone who makes 150 videos a year, there’s going to be no feeling about it whatsoever. Because originally everyone was saying video was this really exciting new development, and now it’s just like anything, it’s become another part of the industry, treated the same way as an album cover or poster.
How costly is it for you to maintain your independence?
G: We survive on minimum wage and I think you’ll probably find we’re in a much better situation than most groups, because we have a clear sight of exactly what we’re doing.
M: Even if we’re not actually making a lot of money, we’re not in debt to the record company – it doesn’t have any bargaining power with us. It may be costly but the fact is we can still make decisions for ourselves because the record company can’t hold the fact that they’re paying for it over our heads.
Do you have the rights to tapes for overseas release?
G: We’ll we own them. It’s the same with the film clip. Whatever we do, it’s ours.
Are you surprised you’ve been able to maintain that?
G: No we’re not really surprised, because we tried to work it that way from the start, where you don’t let things get out of hand. I mean, we’re fairly frugal but we’re used to living like that anyway. You just make sure you’re don’t get out of your depth.
Thankyou to Stephen for typing out this truly massive article for us to enjoy.