Beyond the Breadline

In depth interview/article about Hunters & Collectors from Rolling Stone in 1990.

Author: Ed St John

Date: 1990.

Original URL: (unknown).

 

Article Text

I’M NEVER. EVER SATISFIED.”- DECLARES Mark Seymour over a Saturday afternoon St Kilda coffee. “At the moment, as a matter of fact, I’m going through a particularly negative phase. But all the time people keep reminding me that things are going really well at the moment’ ”

Seymour’s face – a daunting visage of intense, bulging eyes, fiercely knotted brow and in-your-face yabbering jaw – shows no signs of concern over his own self-diagnosed manic depression. On the contrary, he seems a little amused by the savage mood swings that have tagged him one of Australia’s most volatile rock performers.

“I was at Neil Finn’s party the other night,” he adds, laughing, “and maybe seven people in a row came up to me and said ‘You must be incredibly happy at the moment ”And eventually, when the seventh person asked, I just turned around and said, “Well actually no. As a matter of fact I’m incredibly depressed”‘

The people at Finn’s party were right, of course. After eight years’ of extremely hard work, of near-constant touring and a prodigious recorded output of six studio albums, two EPs and a live album, Hunters & Collectors are finally striking paydirt. At a career point where many bands are losing creative focus and shedding fans, Hunters and Collectors are truly hitting their stride.

The band’s recently released album, Ghost Nation – perhaps their finest recording to date – has already spawned two hits in “When the River Runs Dry” and “Blind Eye,” and broken the platinum threshold (75,000 units) for the first time in their career. The Hunters confidently expect it to sell many more copies, and with the ink barely dry on a new worldwide recording deal with Atlantic Records (the band was formerly on the troubled IRS label in America) this seems highly likely.

And that’s not all. Hunters & Collectors have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take Ghost Nation to the world, having scored the coveted support slot on Midnight Oil’s 1990  international tour. With the Oils at the focus of unprecedented audience interest and media attention, it’s clearly in the band’s interests – as perhaps the most distinctively Australian band this side of the Oils – to come along for the ride. With Atlantic promising the band major league tour support and promotion, an international profile and substantial sales should be a foregone conclusion. And to top it all off, Hunters & Collectors have just been named Band of the Year in Australian Rolling Stones readers’ poll.

But during this brief hometown sojourn in the Hunters’ barnstorming Australian summer tour to promote Ghost Nation, Seymour certainly isn’t resting on his laurels. As always there’s a lot on his mind; he’s concerned that Ghost Nationgets the attention it deserves; he’s anxious to get the band’s live shows functioning smoothly prior to their departure for the States; and perhaps most importantly for this most thoughtful of rock singers, he’s keen to ‘nail’ the band’s current position, to ensure that when Hunters & Collectors do walk out into the international arena they are capable of presenting and explaining themselves to the largest possible audience.

“I want to use this experience to clarify the nature of Hunters & Collectors music and the kind of message we put out” he says. “This is the first major international tour we’ve done, certainly at this level, and it’s the first time I’ve had to define, in five words or less, what is fundamentally different about our music. It forces us to answer questions like ‘Are you a green band?’ ‘No.’ So what are we?

“We’ve made a lot of demands on our audience in Australia because on the one hand we’re this band that does gentle love songs on record, and then on the other hand there’s this muscular, energetic live band. Getting people to relate to these two things is probably the biggest problem we’ve had in terms of our commerciality.

“In the long run, though, I’d like to think that people can look beyond the superficial stylistic thing to the actual psychological truth of the songs. “That truth is our essence, and if I can explain that to people, if I can explain what makes our music so emotional and compelling, then we’ll be on our way. There’s something in our music that connects with people regardless of cultural background, but if you start talking about spirituality people immediately draw you into a debate about whether or not you believe in God. There’s this strange thing happening in popular music at the moment where bands have to be about absolutes. And yet the whole tradition of rock & roll is not about that at all. It’s about irony and humour and… spirituality of course, but it’s about opening doors and asking questions. It’s not necessarily about stating a point of view blankly.”

If it’s the challenge of every rock & roll band to grow and change, the Hunters & Collectors have certainly grown more than most. From their beginnings as an early-Eighties cult phenomenon – the Birthday Party’s road crew transformed into a hip, hard-edged funk outfit with a penchant for powerful live performances – the band survived recording sessions fraught with internal dissent to produce three albums (the first, self-titled,  was recorded in Melbourne; The Fireman’s Curse and The Jaws of Life were recorded in Germany with Connie Plank) that showed a marked development from slavish derivation to the beginnings of a distinctly original sound.

In the process Hunters & Collectors realigned themselves from a nine-piece funk orchestra to an altogether leaner, meaner six-piece rock band. Their live shows struck a distinct chord with Australia’s suburban pub audiences in the face of very little commercial airplay and only two minor hits in “Talking To A Stranger” and “The Slab”. With the release of a live album that signaled their new beginnings, their alignment with Australia’s pub culture. (The Way to Go Out), Hunters & Collectors very nearly called it a day. But as they would do again in their tumultuous career, they pledged a new commitment to creative development and carried on.

It’s now possible, with the benefit of hindsight, to see the intervening years between The Way to Go Out and Ghost Nation as Hunters & Collectors’, crucial and second phase. During this period the band shed its pretentions and gotdown to the business of becoming a truly accessible, street-credible rock & roll band. They delivered two albums, Human Frailty and What’s A Few Men?,  laden with substantial, memorable songs – “Say Goodbye,” “Everything’s On Fire”, “Do You See What 1 See?” and one of Australian music’s true classics, “Throw Your Arms Around Me”. In the record stores, they established a loyal market of buyers – enough to turn every release into instant gold, which is more than many bands achieve – whilst their live shows became legendary for their ferocious power. Equipped with the filthiest PA in the land, owned and operated by bass player John Archer, they were like a vast, unstoppable juggernaut. A lack of Top Ten hits notwithstanding, Hunters & Collectors became icons of Australian rock, the blue-singlet heroes of the pubs.

With the addition of guitarist Barry Palmer in late 1988 – thus enabling Seymour to shed his guitar to become a different kind of frontman – and galvanised by the disappointment of seeing What’s A Few Men? sell below expectations (in fact, it clocked a respectable 60,000 units), Hunters & Collectors laid the foundations for the artistic and commercial break-through that is Ghost Nation.

“From about 1984,” says Seymour, “we had really felt a need to make a point about playing pubs in Australia. We had something to prove to the audience – and ourselves as well – that  we actually were a rock & roll band who could play in that environment, and I think a certain image rubbed off from that. Coming from being an art band we had something to prove by way of credibility, but probably by 1989, if not earlier, we felt we’d achieved that.

We were definitely connecting with audiences and it was time to move on once again and look at whether we were doing new things musically. I’d say Ghost Nation is a direct result of all that.

“The question of why we hadn’t been more successful in selling records had been a big mystery to all of us but ultimately it was something that was resolved internally. I’d been browbeating the band about how if each and every one of us wasn’t happy with what we were doing then there was no way we’d be able to convince everyone else we should be a popular band. We were a little inclined to blame external forces rather than looking at ourselves, and ultimately that’s what it came down to: co-ordinating everyone’s creative energy and focusing it”

In laying the groundwork for Hunters & Collectors’ crucial third phase, the addition of 30-year-old guitarist Barry Palmer – himself the veteran of several independent bands, notably Harem Scarem – was pivotal. An emotive, expressive guitarist with a finely tuned understanding of Hunters & Collectors music and a well-defined stage presence, he contributed a new edge to the band’s recorded work (Ghost Nation being his first album with the Hunters) whilst freeing Mark Seymour to roam the stage.

“It would be wrong to credit me with the changes you hear in the band onGhost Nation” cautions Palmer. “From what I know, the band had been changing direction, or wanting to, for some time. Adding me to the lineup was certainly part of that process, and I’ve made my contribution, but it was happening anyway”.

Backstage at the St. Kilda Palace before the first of three sellout shows, the friendly, understated Palmer is still clearly awestruck by his inclusion in Hunters & Collectors a full eighteen months since joining up. “My first gig with the band was at the Festival Hall in front of four-and-a half-thousand people and when I walked onstage I just died”, he now laughs. “When you’ve spent ten years playing to 300 people or whatever it’s pretty scary to walk onto a stage where you can’t even see the back of the room.”

As a musician who has spent most of his career in the independent underground, Palmer adds a new perspective to the Hunters & Collectors attitude. Where the other band members are a little prone to complain about their ‘lack of success’ – always measuring their progress against the giants of Australian rock – Palmer sees things a little more realistically. “The other guys are always saying that I joined the band at the right time because I missed the first eight years of shit, but I think compared with most bands they’ve had it pretty good,” he says. “They’ve had a fantastic live following for years that allowed them to go out and make money touring, they’ve had good record company support and a loyal record-buying market and they’ve had a stable lineup for quite some time. And that’s more than most bands ever have.”

But nobody in Hunters & Collectors is speaking of hardships at the moment. As Palmer says, “everyone’s having a bloody good time” and notwithstanding the mood swings of their frontman the Hunters are indeed cooking. Spurred on by the success of Ghost Nation the band is selling out bigger and bigger venues and playing with a confidence and professionalism (aided by a new, and highly impressive lighting show) only glimpsed in the past. Onstage at the Palace, the band kicks through a set of memorable, well-loved songs whilst Seymour prowls the stage singing with a new found sense of dynamics. Where once he bellowed through the set,  he now performs with restrained intensity, his between songs patter displaying a genuine understanding of true showmanship. In a show that contained Seymour homilies on everything from self-control, Kylie Minogue (his girlfriend was at her concert instead of his), cocaine (he disapproves) and the truckies dispute (he supports them), he never once loses touch with this boisterous Melbourne crowd.

“We’re becoming very aware of just how big our task is” says Hunters drummer Doug Falconer over a band lunch with Jack Howard (trumpet), Jeremy Smith (keyboards, horns) and John Archer (bass). “We have a certain level of popularity in Australia but to take it from there to another level – both here and around the world – you have to acknowledge that you’re taking on some pretty slick operators. We know what’s good about our music, but we also know that there’s a bottom line, in terms of stagecraft and show business, that we have to deliver to be taken seriously.”

Falconer, who Seymour recently described as the “Upper House of Hunters & Collectors”, is a distinctly different human being to his frontman. A thoughtful, articulate character – and, coincidentally, a qualified doctor – he’s a sensible and rational thinker who helps ground the Hunters in some kind of reality.

With the rest of the band’s original members, the only one of whom still unaccounted for being trombonist/keyboardist, Michael Waters- he forms a counterweight to Seymour’s crazier impulses- a classical Greek chorus to Seymour’s impassioned, egocentric outpourings. As this chorus of four munches its way through a relaxed pub lunch, it’s perfectly clear that they share every ounce of Seymour’s commitment to the band. It’s just that well, they see things slightly differently.

“Quite often you can characterise the band’s discussions as Mark out on a limb acting on a particular impulse and the rest of us attempting to exert a moderating influence”, he continues. “To that I would add that Mark’s impulses are often correct and he has more of them than anyone else. The rest of us put our ideas together in a more organized way. We mull things over and gauge everyone else’s support before we put it to the group. We also do our best work when we discuss things but most of the time we argue. We argue a lot.”

Barry Palmer again brings his calm outsider’s perspective to bear on such internal dynamics. “Doug and Mark are very different people who complement each other very well,” he observes. “Doug tends to take a breath before he opens his mouth, whereas with Mark it’s open, it’s flapping and it’s coming at you. The thing to remember about Mark is that he might give various people in the band a hard time sometimes, but it’s nothing like the hard time he gives himself.”

Such honesty is a hallmark of Hunters & Collectors. A band that’s governed by an intense, ongoing internal dialectic, they are renowned – second only to Midnight Oil, in fact – for long and heated debate on just about every facet of their work. Yet ultimately, they are able to create art from anarchy. Not least because they have evolved into a tightly-knit, functionally efficient outfit. Each member takes an active role in the band organisation, and a number of members – notably Smith, Howard, Falconer and Archer – make a strong contribution to the band’s ensemble songwriting.

Like any well-established band, Hunters & Collectors are subject to various factional divisions. On the road, for instance, there’s golf and non-golf; Falconer. Smith, Waters,  and Howard are obsessive golfers who attempt to fit in a round or two on most stops of a tour. They travel together in the “golf car” and share the “golf rooms”, and form the butt of numerous jokes from the non-golf faction of Seymour, Archer, Palmer and the band’s ‘silent’ eighth member, sound mixer and art director Robert Miles. For the record Jeremy Smith is currently the best golfer, but as Howard calmly asserts over lunch. “that’ll change”.

Perhaps more pronounced is the gap that lies between Seymour – not only a singer, but a very vocal media spokesman as well- and the rest of the band. Partly because Seymour’s personality isolates him from the easy camaraderie of the group, and partly because the band harbours a simmering resentment that they are not properly credited with their contribution as song writers, there is a marked – albeit quite friendly – gap between Seymour and the band.

“There’s a fairly big misconception amongst the media that Mark writes all the Hunters songs when in fact he only writes the lyrics”, explains Jeremy Smith, the band’s most creatively active member. “We all make a very strong contribution to the music, in fact we often devise the music long before the lyrics are written.

“‘We have a blanket deal that says lyrics by Mark Seymour, music by Hunters & Collectors” explains Falconer, “because we don’t like the idea of having to dissect a song and figure out who owns the ideas. In a sense every idea makes a contribution whether it’s kept or dropped. This is a subject of constant discussion for us, actually. I’d like to think that eventually other members of the band could contribute entire songs to Hunters & Collectors but at the moment Mark is a little reticent to allow that to happen. We’ll often suggest things to him but he’s still very definitely the lyricist”.

The extent of Seymour’s sensitivity to this issue may be characterized by a recent nightmare he experienced in which he was listening to all the tracks onGhost Nation. They were all there in order, but at the end he found a strange, ethereal song in which Doug Falconer could be heard serenading his baby daughter, Lily. Relating the dream to the rest of the band, Seymour was mock horrified. “You bastards snuck one past me!”

The day after the first Palace show, Seymour is at pains to put the band’s comments in perspective. “The band’s a democracy in practical terms; we always discuss what we’re doing and everyone has very firm opinions about how things should be done. But creatively it’s simply not a democracy. There are key individuals who have the majority of the ideas, so while I’m very keen for everyone to feel emotionally involved, and while I’m very happy for everyone to contribute their ideas, it’s just not true to say that we all make an equal creative contribution.

“There is a related problem, which is that although everybody does make a contribution and everyone does have an opinion, I get pushed to the fore in the public eye because I do most of the media work, and with that a certain amount of credit. That’s something the band is quite happy 6r me to do, but it does create a situation where there’s some resentment in certain quarters. I think a lot of it got sorted our before the Ghost Nation project.

“Some people reckon I’m a manic depressive,” he says with a smile, “and that’s probably another story, but what it boils down to is that when I’m feeling positive and I’m working then I’m unstoppable. But equally there are times where I’m pretty negative and hard to handle.

“I enjoy working with a large group of people who are basically a lot saner than I am, but because it’s a big band sometimes things can take a little longer to happen and that can be frustrating. But yes, they are a restraining influence and if I didn’t have that anchor I wouldn’t – we wouldn’t – be as successful as we are.”

As Hunters and Collectors will candidly admit, the band has nearly split up – more than once. Even in the preproduction of Ghost Nation there were rumblings of discontent within the ranks, but thankfully these were resolved internally and the band now presents what is, for them, a united front. As the band sets its sights on the international arena, there is a palpable clarity of vision to all aspects of their work.

“There has always been this unstated attitude right from the start of the band,” says Falconer, “that things would have to improve steadily, if not exponentially, to keep us all together. And yes, over the years there have been several points where we’ve had to assess whether it was worth continuing on.”

“What’s A Few Men?  was no step forward as far as we’re concerned” chimes in John Archer. “If anything, we regarded it as a step backwards. We came straight off a long tour with very few finished songs and wound up working with a producer we didn’t relate to. So there was a feeling that we had to achieve something tangible with Ghost Nation. And of course we have, and we’re very happy about it.”

With the next eighteen months well and truly mapped out for Hunters and Collectors – their world tour with Midnight Oil will be followed by their own national tour and then by rehearsal and recording sessions for their next album – the band is not just busy, they’re about as close as any band comes to that contentment of knowing that everything is running as it should be. Falconer is even inspired to wax lyrical about the advantages of being in this most volatile of rock bands. “I think you get three things out of being in Hunters & Collectors. You get a decent wage, which is enough to live on; you get creative satisfaction and personal freedom – despite the obvious drawbacks of being on the road; plus we’re giving ourselves a shot at the big one.”

Mark Seymour, for his part – the man who is never, ever happy – is already looking beyond the Midnight Oil tour. “Where my head is at the moment I’d like to write a set of love songs again. We sort of tackled that on Human Frailty, and of course there have been love songs on the last two albums, but … when I look back at our career it’s the love songs that have been the most memorable. We write songs about interpersonal relationships and the politics of emotion that people really relate to.

“If I can come up with a package that focuses on that again in a more accessible way than Human Frailty then… I don’t know… I think we might have something quite special.”

 

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