Mark Seymour (Toronto Now Interview)

An interview with Mark Seymour for his late 2013 brief Canadian tour.

Author:  Joshua Kloke, Toronto Now.

Date: 9 November 2013.

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Hunters & Collectors frontman embraces the challenge of stepping out on his own and playing to a uninitiated crowd.

When I meet Mark Seymour, the 57-year-old frontman of legendary Australian rock giants Hunters & Collectors, in one of the in-house restaurants at the Sheraton, he appears rested and energetic, especially given his recent mammoth flight from Melbourne. He’s genuinely excited about the Leafs-Devils game he’ll be taking in that Friday night.

Seymour, who is in Toronto to perform two solo dates after the release of Seventh Heaven Club – including a 3 pm Saturday (November 9) show at the Mod Club – and in advance of a full tour next year, is no stranger to the intersection of music and sport. In September, as part of Hunters & Collectors, Seymour performed during half-time at the Australian Football League Grand Final, the Down Under equivalent of the Super Bowl.
After revealing that I spent a year and a half in Australia and had taken in two Grand Finals, including Meatloaf’s atrocious half-time performance in 2011, Seymour spoke at length, sipping from a cup of black coffee, eager to draw parallels between Canadian and Australian musicians.

Q. Tell me about performing Holy Grail at the Grand Final a few weeks back.

It was exciting, but out of my normal operation. We were approached to do that a long time ago and the record company thought it would be good, given that there’s an album out now in Australia full of Australian artists doing Hunters & Collectors songs. We really had nothing to do with it.

Q. That song has been associated with the Grand Final for a long time. A lot of my favourite performers have had their songs featured on montages during Hockey Night in Canada, the Saturday night hockey program. What do you think is the connection between sports and music?

With a song like Holy Grail, or any song that has been exposed to a mass audience over a long period of time within the sphere or what we did – which was play a big sound, regardless of how big the venue was – it’s going to have a resonance because live music, like sport, is a very public event and eventually, you’re going to connect to people.

Q. How did you feel, having your song constantly being used during footy games, especially in the Grand Final?

I was cool with it. When I play, I don’t have any preconceptions about how a song will be understood. Even when I’m just playing in a club it might take a long time for people to understand the underlying sensibilities and meanings anyway, without me having to explain it. I’m not in the business of explaining the meanings of songs anymore, though I do sometimes. It’s just critical mass, sometimes songs get picked up, sometimes not.

Q. You wrote recently that “If it sounds good in the shower, it’ll fly anywhere.”

Yeah. [Laughs] In the week leading up to the Grand Final, I kept getting asked the same questions. The media was nuts. We were doing talk shows, television, all at the last minute. They were milking it for all its worth. I was being driven, flown around everywhere, it was crazy. And a lot of the questions were about … Meatloaf. I got to the point where I was talking to these people like they were 12 years old. “Look,” I’d say, “Everything’s going to be alright.” It’s not going to go pear-shaped, it’s like singing in the shower.

Q. It strikes me as an incredibly intimate approach to songwriting. Is that your intention, to make the process as personal and as intimate as possible?

I love a fight. If it’s a challenge to engage a crowd, it’s worth the effort. If we started playing stadiums early in our career, I would’ve gotten bored. In some ways I think things turned out because people got bored and [Hunters & Collectors] kept playing the same way over and over. We’re going to get together and rehearse in September and I know what to expect.

Q. Has that challenge become necessary?

I look for it. You ultimately have to find a voice and know you’re emotionally engaged. It’s a completely internal process. It might take two, three songs but I find it, because it is like singing in the shower. It’s a psychological process. If you know how to access that sound, you can do it anywhere.

Q. You also wrote about how much you loved playing Canada.

It’s a physical place, but it’s civilized. There’s a sense of threat. The landscape is edgy.

Q. I’ve always called it a rugged obedience.

It’s interesting, all the Western democracies we’ve played often in have had a climate-related challenge. We’re always geared to play these tiny rooms and endure these long drives from one town to the next. I’m always absorbing the landscape and feeling a sense of accomplishment by arriving somewhere.

Q. Ronnie Hawkins said “Canadians have to work ten times as hard to get a tenth of the way.”

I definitely think that’s true.

Q. You likened Canada to Australia in its primal nature. It struck me that a lot of your music is very primal, bare-bones and to the point. Have you realized that 32 years into playing music that that is the most efficient way of performing?

When I went solo, I didn’t think I could cut it. My perception of what I was doing was defined by the scale of what I’d done before. [With Hunters & Collectors] everyone had their shit together and the audiences arrived with a level of expectation that was satisfied. Once I couldn’t do that anymore, as a performer, I had a huge crisis. “What the fuck am I doing?” I asked myself. Everything shifted and people didn’t know the material. They still don’t know a lot of it. But in order for me to overcome that, I had to engage in the difficulty. The difficulty became the focal point of the whole exercise. Once I realized that there were fundamental challenges that young musicians faced, I was reminded of what it felt like to be a young musician. The last two albums, it took a while to figure out.

Q. Do you find yourself empathizing with young musicians more these days? That was one thing that really struck me about my time in Australia – how important it was for young musicians to find success abroad instead of at home.

Yeah, it disappoints me. But you can’t tell kids that. I only learnt about that through making mistakes. It’s become a bigger problem in Australia than it was. There’s a fear of your own kind that’s developed. I call it a suburban identity crisis. You move into the middle of the city and discover the creative arts and you make a statement that says, “I’ve escaped.” The idea then for a lot of young musicians is that to go back and play music in the suburbs is wrong and that you’ve forsaken your creative identity. And we made the decision to play these people. We went to England and made records, but when we came back, we said “No, we’re going to speak to [Australians] and flog our asses around [the country].” And that was a fundamental, philosophical decision to make about our own identity.

Q. Right.

Because we’re a relatively young country, we still experience a crisis of identity. You’d think we’d matured beyond that.

Q. I was struck by how there were two types of bands in Australia: those that played Sydney and Melbourne and then focused on touring abroad, and those that played [smaller cities such as] Bendigo and Geelong.

Well it’s not about pre-empting who you want to speak to, it’s location. You go to these rooms and you see who turns up. As a musician, it’s important for me not to always know who I’m playing to. When you start, you play to your peer group, but then eventually they fall away.

Q. Have you ever found yourself disappointed, by walking onstage and thinking, “Oh, OK, this is who showed up?”

Definitely. And that’s more character building than anything else.

Q. How do you build from it?

It’s a free and open exchange of ideas. The fact that people have showed up on spec is a sign of respect. If there are only 20 people in the room, those 20 people have punted on the idea that you’re going to tell them something important. If we’re struggling to get play on radio or get magazines to talk about us because, “Oh, he’s an old fuck, he’s not doing anything interesting,” it doesn’t matter. People have come to these rooms and I have to respect that because it’s hard for them to get there. They haven’t necessarily had it laid out easily enough. I just don’t take it for granted. I’ve been told that I don’t have to write any more songs. But then, where’s the fun in that?