Say Goodbye (The Australian Magazine)

A solid article on the finishing up of Hunters and Collectors in 1998.

Author:  Story-Angus Fontaine, Portrait-Sean Izzard, The Australian Magazine.

Date: 21-22 March 1998.

Original URL: N/A.

 

Article Text

Hunters & Collectors, last of the Oz rock juggernauts, will launch into their signature tune one final time tomorrow night.

The crowd is hot, wet bodies in a barrel the size of a barn. The walls are slick with sweat and there’s a mushroom cloud of steam rising from about 1200 people panting before a stage holding the seven members of Hunters & Collectors.

The bass starts tolling, ominous and insistent, and the crowd whoops, screams and howls. The brass section rears up, blasting as one – two skips and a note that kicks and holds. The bodies start to thrash. The horns soar upwards and front man Mark Seymour uncoils. Head back, lost in the surge, the microphone cord wound tightly around his fits, his body is a conductor of the music erupting around him. As the guitar’s scream fades to a moan Seymour leans in:

Just the other night I came home
After three months of constant grind and travel
And I went snivelling, I went crawling
Around to my girlfriend’s house
And she came down hard upon me
And ground her finger into my breastbone
And she said…she said…

The band stops and the air jolts. The crowd rocks back on its heels. I watch grown men put their arms around each other and press their faces close together. Together they bray: “You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore!”

The surreal quality of this moment has not diminished for being re-enacted at every show they’ve played since Say Goodbye was written in 1985. Tomorrow at Melbourne’s Hi Fi Bar, the Hunters will play it just one more time and then, after 17 years and 13 albums, they will be no more. There won’t be a dry brow in the house.

Midnight Oil’s Rob Hirst says, “We’re suddenly starting to feel very lonely.” Understandably, because when the Hunters go the Oils will be all that’s left of that generation of Australian pub rock bands. Since the seventies, these platoons of musicians have travelled the land, playing the country towns, suburbs, beer barns and city clubs. In the past few months, The Hoodoo Gurus and INXS have folded, their habitats changed forever. Today the pubs must have polished floorboards and be loaded with pokies and cappuccino machines to turn a dollar. Sweat and noise are not welcome.

Pub rock is no longer currency, but Hunters & Collectors still prowl the stage like a sophisticated piece of engineering: sparks, triggers, heat and combustion. They were a funk band before disco became hip again and now a cranking rock band, using trumpet, trombone, and french horn for most of their melodies. Truckies bearing grudges, drunks incapable of finding keyholes in the dark, Pauline Hanson as tyrannosaurus, saints as sinners, Holy Grails and dry creeks, lovers drowning in bliss. This is their lyrical terrain.

Although they had all hit middle age, the decision to disband wasn’t unanimous. Longtime observers will tell you the strength (and weakness) of the band has always been their bloody-minded democracy. Every band decision is an eight-way split. But the burden of having to accommodate everyone else’s opinion wore too thin.

And so, tomorrow they’ll scatter. Seymour will continue a solo career. Guitarist Barry Palmer will reconvene his other band Deadstar. Keyboardist and french-horn player Jeremy Smith and trumpeter Jack Howard will write music for television and film. Trombonist Michael Waters will return to chartered accountancy. Bassist John Archer will program computers. Drumming Doug Falconer will find time for his desktop publishing (when not practising medicine).

Hunters & Collectors began with Seymour. With perpetually furrowed brow, jutting jaw and sculpted features he is somewhat daunting. Less amiable than his cohorts he is nonetheless capable of flexing a peculiar black humour at odd times. Knotted with the muscles of the long distance runner that he is, Seymour clearly knows the loneliness of the breed. He’s even confessed to sessions of psychoanalysis over the years. His magnetism as a frontman is undeniable.

As the eldest son of two school teachers (brother Nick was part of the hugely successful Crowded House), he was dutifully studying away at university in Melbourne in the late seventies having somehow drifted into succeeding his parents in their profession. “They tried to encourage the idea at college that teaching was a creative pursuit,” Seymour says. “But I knew from my parents that was impossible within the system.” He lasted 10 weeks before taking a job with the tax department. He saved money for guitars and a drum machine, playing covers in a band formed with uni mates Falconer and Archer.

The nascent Hunters & Collectors played rarely, but the resonance of just a handful of gigs pricked the ears of both punters and critics. The strange band with the heavy bass sound and industrial percussion became a must-see. “It was all long-winded jamming really.” says Seymour. “No song under seven minutes, just power and motion.”

Songwriter Paul Kelly got his jaw broken as he walked home from a Hunters gig. But he had this positive memory: “I’ll always remember the incredible group sound they had in those days. The big drums with compression on the snare and [Greg] Perano banging on the gas cylinder. Visually it was interesting and sonically it was easy to see they were unique. That tribal sound they had was miles away from what anyone else was doing.“

Mushroom Records’ Michael Gudinski duly signed them. With typical bravado their self-titled debut record was a double album. The first single, Talking To A Stranger, was a radio hit. When an offer came from Virgin Records to play the UK, they jumped at it.

Within weeks they were broke, holed up four and five to a room in a fetid Kensington hostel with “maybe a half-a-star rating”, not a gig on the horizon and only a clutch of hollow promises from their UK distributors to sustain them. To stave off starvation, they took turns to raid the corner grocer. Seymour says they should never have gone so early.” It really  f***ed us up,” is his appraisal. “Only time I’ve ever lost weight,” is the burly Falconer’s. This squalid chapter ended in “the curried chicken incident”.

“The first night we signed with Virgin, Richard Branson’s No.2 took us out to an Indian Restaurant,” says Smith. “There’d been very little money up until then, and this advance meant the difference between living like a human again and starving. None of us had eaten in days so when we arrived we went the whole hog, ordering three curries each and tagging waiters every other minute for a bottle of their finest red.”

“Soon enough, we were all very drunk. From there it gets hazy, everyone blames each other for it, but the truth is no-one really remembers. What I recall is an enormous argument breaking out with this guy from Virgin and then it was on for young and old. The restaurant emptied in seconds and it all hit the fan. I only remember looking up from the floor and seeing this guy from Virgin with his hands on his head and his eyes closed, thinking, Oh my God, what have I done? I’ve signed this Australian band and they’re completely out of control”.

They got their advance, but any hope of a promotional blitz form Virgin died with the vindaloo. “We ended up being stuck in London, counting the days till the air fares dropped from peak to off-peak so we could get home,” says Smith. “When we finally got back to Melbourne we were all two stone lighter and looking very waifish. I know that’s a fairly chic look today but back then everyone instantly assumed we were on heroin.”

They limped to America on money thrown by A&M records, but percussionist Perano, keyboardist Geoff Crosby and guitarist Martin Lubran quit. The survivors recorded The Fireman’s Curse in Germany, fuelled by the crates of ale from the brewery next door. Seymour dismisses it as “atrocious”.

The tribal-funk period ended and the wiry rock years began. It would be another four years before he joined the band, but Barry Palmer picked up the next record, The Jaws of Life, and pegged it as the turning point. “In terms of releasing a commercially successful album in Australia, that was a pretty dumb choice,” he says.” “But artistically it was a brilliant record”.

The next studio album, Human Frailty, was arguably their best. “Up until Human Frailty we were still considered an alternative, inner-city band,” explained Seymour earnestly. “We’d gone out with such an overtly trendy posture that people had embraced us because we weren’t rock. So when it happened, it was obvious we were adopting a more commercial posture.”

Seymour’s songwriting carried a new intimacy. “I wanted to be a performer and I wanted to be a star,” he says. “I knew these qualities were inside me but I didn’t know how to unlock the door. Until I discovered pop it was all word-play and ambiguity. On Human Frailty I realised I didn’t have it in me to be a perverse character. I’m very straight forward. With me it’s all about intensity and emotion.” Nestled within the album was their finest moment, the anthemic ballad Throw Your Arms Around Me.

Gudinski maintains that this was the song that, if given the buff and polish treatment, could have “catapulted Hunters & Collectors around the world. But when they first recorded it they were very stubborn about capturing a very live sound. That was how they felt. Done right I still think it could have been the song that cracked it for them.”

The decision came to haunt the band. Neil Finn cut a version and reckoned it the best-ever Australian song. Paul Kelly regularly covered it. Even Tina Turner was rumoured to be recording it. In all they released six different versions, a stark statistic that highlighted their increasing desperation for success.

Human Frailty sold 150,000 and went double platinum – their biggest seller yet – but it failed to vault the band to the next level. Instead they watched Midnight Oil and Crowded House reap the mother lode in the US. “I used to sit side of stage for those guys and drool,” says Rob Hirst. “The lack of radio support almost used to have me in tears.”

The arrival of new guitarist, bloodnut scamp Barry Palmer, roused the band to action. Ghost Nation (1990) put them back in the top 10. “When I first joined, the band would record the show and listen to it afterwards on the bus. That used to shit me no end. I always found it an act of humiliation. I just couldn’t face hearing ‘Uh, I dunno about that E7 chord there Baz’, so I grabbed some beer and went missing.”

More importantly, Palmer’s arrival liberated the hitherto guitar-throttling singer. With the six-string work in other hands, Seymour could transform himself into the front man he’d always wanted to be. ”Over the years I’ve watched Mark learn to embrace the audience in a much more direct manner,” says Palmer. “In the past his talking to the audience was a little disconnected. Now if things aren’t working he’ll just look them in the eye and grab their attention.”

When the offer came to join Midnight Oil on a five-month US tour, the Hunters had their best shot yet. But short sets played in broad daylight while people file into their seats makes for tough touring and, despite the camaraderie between the two camps, the tour did little to bolster the Hunters’ fortunes.

Back home, American producer Don Gehman, who had worked with REM and John Mellencamp, was recruited by Gudinski for the Cut album. In a headstrong outfit, an outside party taking the reins was always going to cause grumblings, but he disc sold well. In Australia at least. When the next album flopped everywhere, the scrawl began to appear on the wall. Demon Flower was the first Hunters record in 10 years not to go platinum. It was a mortal blow.

“We blew a lot of money overseas,” says Falconer. ”And that’s a regret because the last couple of tours were, in retrospect, hopeless efforts. In financial terms we’d certainly be better off if we hadn’t allowed ourselves to think we still had a chance. It was very important to us to have our music resonate for people other than Australians. Then again, we were all in our thirties by then. What were we going to do? Start touring the world?”

As it was Seymour broke off and recorded a solo album, King Without A Clue, and Palmer hit the road with his raucous quartet Deadstar. Smith recorded the theme for ABC Television’s The 7:30 Report. Meanwhile, the rest of the band just cooled their heels and waited for the inevitable.

When the decision to end it came, they all vowed to record a last album rather than put out a greatest hits with a couple of bonus tracks, as is the custom. And a three-month tour taking in over 60 dates (which went without saying). Dignity to the end.

A few years ago Seymour said, “I really need Hunters & Collectors. I’m so personally connected with the band, the thought of breaking up…I don’t want to face it.” Today he can afford to hypothesise.

“I think in the end it came down to the records,” he says. “There was some good stuff and there was shit stuff, and being a good live band covered up for both and kept us going. We’ll be remembered as a band with very strange professional values. I’m still not sure what they were about but they weren’t about getting to the top of the charts. I think that’s been a source of constant frustration for our manager. He could see the potential of the band commercially but there would always be some reason why we’d f**k it up internally.”

The night before these final interviews were conducted, a member of the crowd was moved to call out at the conclusion of Wasted In The Sun, from the final Juggernaut album, “How can you call it quits when you’re still writing songs as good as that?”

Palmer admits he’s tended to get a little choked up when the affection form the crowd borders on hysteria. “Every night has been a last night for someone and they’re getting everything they can out of the show. That’s why they’re singing so loudly and cheering so wildly and that’s why we’re playing so hard and doing eight songs in the encore.”

Drumming Dr Doug looks into his coffee mug and growls out his version of the Hunters epitaph:” We didn’t look down on people, we treated every one as an equal. I think we’re just a bunch of up-front, honest blokes and that’s always been bankable in this country.”

Smith chimes in, “Sometimes you’ll see people crying down the front and you’ll have to look away to keep from crying yourself. The memories really do come flooding back and you realise that all of it was achieved as a unit. None of us are stars. It’s the way we’ve worked together that’s defined Hunters & Collectors.”

 

Comments

Thanks to Mark H. for typing this one out for us all!