Hunters & Collectors (X-PressMag.com.au Feature)
Detailed interview with Mark Seymour on the 2014 Hunters and Collectors tour.
Author: Bob Gordon, X-PressMag.com.au.
Date: 10 December 2013.
Original URL: http://xpressmag.com.au/hunters-collectors/
Classic Australian band Hunters & Collectors are back for a national tour that will bring them to Perth for two A Day On The Green shows at Kings Park & Botanic Garden on Saturday, March 29, (sold out) and Sunday, March 30, 2014. Bob Gordon checks in with singer/guitarist, Mark Seymour.
A level of balance in life can be a very important thing.
As word spreads around the country – helped along by a half-time appearance at the AFL Grand Final – that seminal Australian ‘80s art-rock/’90s pub-rock outfit Hunters & Collectors have reformed for a short national tour (not to mention a highly desired support slot for Bruce Springsteen in Melbourne), singer/songwriter Mark Seymour picks up the phone, fresh back from a promotional tour of Toronto, where he’ll return with his ‘solo’ band next May.
It’s important, it seems, to preserve the contemporary alongside what many would deem as nostalgia.
“Oh Hunters is definitely nostalgia,” he says, “there’s no other word for it, really. That’s the way I frame it. My career’s ongoing. They’re interconnected, obviously, because the songs are part of my history as a writer.
“I don’t draw a line in the sand, really, and I haven’t for a long time. Although I probably did try and frame it that way when I first went solo, but I’ve long put that behind me. Hunters & Collectors’ reputation has kind of reached a level of myth, really. It’s just part of my history.”
Hunters & Collectors began in 1981 as an art-rock-funk outfit that grew to nine members and lived for a time in London. They split for a short time in 1983 before regrouping and with angular, off-kilter songs like Talking To A Stranger and Betty’s Worry (The Slab) were very ‘inner city’ for the first half of the ‘80s – or considered to be – before hits such as Throw Your Arms Around Me (released no less than three times as a single), Say Goodbye, Everything’s On Fire, Do You See What I See?, When The River Runs Dry, Where Do You Go? and Holy Grail penetrated radio and took them into the larger pub rock wonderland.
By 1998, the wheels were falling off, however, and the band did the requisite farewell tour. Seymour has been a constantly working solo artist ever since, though his past is somewhat more than his shadow, as he recounted in his 2008 book, 13 Tonne Theory .
“I think the book helped me just accept the fact I was inextricably linked with the band and that’s just the way history has unfolded for me as an artist,” he says. “I’m pretty reactive; the process of writing songs is just an ongoing thing and I pull the rabbit out of the hat every so often (laughs). I just don’t see the two as distinct entities. It’s just an unfolding story, really. Things evolve slowly.
“I think when the band was going into its decline there was a very gradual realisation. I was just getting more and more frustrated and I couldn’t really put my finger on why. I mean, there were lots of little issues and the clarity has only really merged with time.”
Seymour has long toured and made music within a far leaner structure than the bulky Hunters & Collectors tribe.
“The processes I use to write songs haven’t really changed at all, but the musical environment I’m in now is a lot more relaxed, put it that way (laughs). It’s a great little four-piece band.
“Hunters is great; it’s a really interesting thing to get back into, but as I say it’s definitely nostalgia, there’s no question about that.”
It’s interesting how the long game plays out. Artists will not feel at all nostalgic about their previous career whilst carving out a newer one on their own. Though he has played Hunters songs in his solo sets, Seymour – aside from a 2009 appearance with the band – has opened the door to some nostalgia, yet it seems he and his Hunters brethren are the last ones to want to revel in it.
That said, he knows that if not for the past, the present would be… unknown.
“I would not be talking to you now if I hadn’t had those songs get onto radio in the early ‘90s,” he says. “You get across-the-board airplay two or three times and it’s a game-changer. And peoples’ perception of you changes with it.”
The wallpaper airplay in the early ‘90s certainly propelled Hunters & Collectors into a higher ground of popularity, though mainly because it drew a broader demographic to their intense live shows. It was always a good laugh to watch VB-swilling bogan blokes with shirts off and arms around shoulders singing, ‘you don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore’ any time ‘Hunnas’ launched into Say Goodbye.
“Those songs – there’s about half a dozen of them – they’re the ones I still play,” Seymour says. “And they’re the ones that everybody remembers.
“There’s a whole lot of other material that we played in the early ‘80s that we revived at the end of the band’s career that people didn’t know. Like Talking To A Stranger, The Slab and all those – they weren’t played on the radio so people didn’t know them.
“It will be interesting with this tour… you know, Michael Gudinski came up to me the other night and said, ‘when you do the Springsteen show you’ve got to make sure you play the hits’. And I said, ‘well we don’t have an hour worth of hits. We’ve got less than half an hour’s worth of hits. But we’ll play all of them and then we’ll play everything else that we learned’.
“There’s this mythology surrounding Hunters & Collectors that they were this massive commercial band and it’s not actually how it unfolded.”
Such airplay – which also eluded Hunters & Collectors on their final two albums (1994’s Demon Flower and 1998’s Juggernaut) – didn’t follow Seymour into his solo career. Much like the band had, however, he dug his heels in and hit the road, hard and often. He teamed frequently with an unlikely ally in James Reyne, the ex-Australian Crawl frontman who’d had two platinum solo albums before he also stopped getting airplay and became a different kind of celebrity. Though once at polar opposite ends of the Australian music scene the pair had both become journeyman rock’n’roll singers and toured together often. They actually had plenty in common.
“There’s a certain benefit in just continuing to work,” Seymour notes. “You play in clubs, you just endure as a performer and people’s perception of you just gradually changes. You just become a different creative animal.
“I mean, we’re talking decades. I’ve been playing music for over 30 years and the issues just aren’t the same anymore, but the one thing that continues is the songwriting. That’s the one thing that’s consistent, really.”
Strangely, it’s a fact proven by the release of a tribute album to Hunters & Collectors earlier this year. Crucible – The Songs of Hunters & Collectors features versions of the band’s songs by the likes of The Living End, Birds Of Tokyo, Something For Kate, The Rubens, The Panics, Cloud Control et al, with the original versions on a second disc. It was a huge force in making the Hunters & Collectors reunion tour happen, but was a project that, initially in the hand of H&C themselves, almost never saw the light of day.
“Hunters & Collectors just doesn’t seem to be able to make a decision without everybody making the decision,” Seymour says wryly. “You can’t just make decisions. A lot of things have emerged in the last few months because, for me, I’ve become reacquainted with the politics of the group. There was a system we invented that is just iron clad; it’s the way that everybody communicates a certain way and that’s just the way it is and you can’t fight it.
“It just affects everything, including trying to choose artists for this tribute record. There were just lists that went on forever. We had so many artists; eight guys writing down their wishlists and somebody in the record company said, ‘guys, this just isn’t gonna work. You’ll never make it’. So we went, ‘okay’ and just walked away from it.
“Nobody did anything. The whole thing got made and we’d hear these updates or hear that so-and-so was doing something. It was taken completely out of our hands and if it hadn’t been I doubt it would ever have been made.”
From a completely objective point of view, Seymour says he finds the album to be an interesting analysis of Hunters & Collectors and is somewhat surprised by who has claimed influence from the band.
That said, the intensity and an individuality of Hunters & Collectors’ music is something that once seemed at odds with the notion of a tribute album. Sometimes it’s hard to remove the music from the artist (triple j’s Nick Cave Tribute anyone?). Some songs seemed too entrenched with Mark Seymour and this band and that context. However there are some moments on the album that transcend any context and that’s when it works best.
“That’s a pretty accurate read, I reckon. I mean, I definitely have my favourites, and that’s putting it politely (laughs).
“But the ones that are really good are really good. It’s like, ‘wow, that’s a really interesting interpretation of that song’. I like Emma Donovan singing True Tears Of Joy with Paul Kelly, they’ve done such a good job of that. That was the first thing I heard, actually. I quite like The Slab, that’s pretty interesting
“I really like Alpine – who I’d never heard of before – doing Hear No Evil. I reckon that’s just really brooding and it snares the mood and intent of that song but it just puts it in a different landscape. But that feeling is the same. That’s a difficult thing to pull off. With the singles, the famous, anthemic ones, I think it would have been a lot harder to do that.”
Prior to and beyond Crucible, the greatest reappropriation of a Hunters & Collectors song is the AFL’s grasp of Holy Grail, most often, it seems, for Grand Final use. It represents a whole ‘other’ ownership and a different yet incredibly specific ‘other’ life for the song.
“I’m pretty philosophical about it,” Seymour reflects. “Even if that hadn’t happened – and it’s a huge, hypothetical argument – people would have understood it to mean something that it isn’t. There’s a very subtle conflict inside of that story. It’s got that line about a cup in it, which means you can access a meaning on that level, but there’s this whole other dark conflict going on in this song that little boys relate to because it’s all ‘about’ dungeons and dragons. It just works on so many levels.
“I was definitely trying to defy ambiguity when I wrote the lyric because the band was in a state of internal conflict as it often was. We were in the studio and I was trying to get the sense of how you can have a whole lot of people who have this goal in mind but everybody is arguing about how to achieve it. I was listening to all this conflicting dialogue going on around me and wondering, ‘is there any point to this? Why are we doing this? What’s the actual reason for this?’ On a really basic level I was actually asking this really basic question to myself. I didn’t ask them, I just asked this question. And the lyric just emerged out of that question.
“So the idea that it could become a footy anthem is no more or less absurd than the context in which I wrote the lyric in the first place. I don’t really care. People who interpret songs have wildly disparate views on what songs are about. Not just Holy Grail, it’s always been like that. People just appropriate a song; it becomes incredibly meaningful to them at a particular point in their lives and they’ll just never change their minds about what it’s about. It’s just human nature.
“So the idea that the song would be picked up by a sporting code and just appropriated like that, I just think, ‘well, bring it on’. I don’t have a problem with it at all. I mean some people do; I understand that people would see that there’s some basic artistic conflict in that idea, but I just don’t believe you write in a vacuum, anyway. The idea of this glorious poetic isolation and wanting the absolute meaning to come shining through, you’re kidding yourself. I just don’t believe in that idea.”
It’s not surprising then, that Seymour and his fellow Hunters & Collectors are pragmatic about their reunion in the face of all this eminently positive nostalgia. The future is now.
And now only.
“I think it’s really important to get all that stuff sorted out,” he laughs. “You don’t want to leave any doors half open. There are some guys in that group you just would not get out of their houses unless they had a very clear argument presented to them about why it was worthwhile.
“The idea of just reforming the band for fun… is bullshit. You watch it happen, middle-aged men getting out on the road and it just becomes this scrounge-fest. ‘Oh someone’s offered us a show for this much money, do you want to do it? I’ll let you know’. Then people are looking at their watches… and three weeks later you’re doing a gig at a festival somewhere and it just becomes this random, unfolding story.
“I’m just not interested in that at all. It’s gotta be absolutely clear as to why we’re doing it and then get to the end and it’s finished. And I’m heading off and doing my thing, you know? It’s as simple as that.
“And the guys all are as well. There’s a couple of them that are seriously into business. They can’t walk away from that. Actually getting the calendar right is the biggest battle of all.”