Mark Seymour sends out a Mayday without distress
A great interview with Mark Seymour at the time of the Mayday album release.
Author: Iain Shedden, The Australian.
Date: 29 May 2015.
Mark Seymour today releases Mayday, his third album with his band the Undertow.
What do former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, an Adelaide pub and the fate of asylum-seekers have in common? All of them, in different ways, wind their way into the fabric of Mark Seymour’s new album Mayday.
The former Hunters & Collectors frontman — and it is former, as he explains later — today releases his third album with his band the Undertow. It’s a radical departure from the ensemble’s previous effort, Seventh Heaven Club, a collection of other songwriters’ love songs.
This time the 58-year-old Melbourne performer has gone back to his own pen to deliver a collection of 13 songs that are bound together loosely by the theme of home.
O’Farrell was partly the inspiration for the song Courtroom 32, as the singer explains.
“The song started with the premier having to resign over the bottle of Grange incident. I found the whole thing so laughable. There’s a madness to the Australian political landscape,” he says. The song title comes from a bar opposite the Supreme Court in Adelaide. “It has a plaque with Courtroom 32 on it,” he says. “I thought that was beautiful so I thought I had better put that in a song.”
The Undertow, featuring bassist John Favaro, guitarist Cameron McKenzie and drummer Peter Maslen, is a rock ’n’ roll outfit quite different stylistically to the one in which Seymour became famous, Hunters & Collectors, but that’s just how Seymour likes it.
“What has changed,” he says, “is that the guys I play with now … there’s a real willingness among them to go where the music is taking us on stage. The songs are constantly changing. There’s a sense of an unknown frontier. We’re able to create a lot of drama from just the four of us. We play in a lot of venues with dubious production values, and we can handle big stages as well. There’s a lot of internal energy in the group.”
Seymour has been flying solo since before H&C broke up in 1998. He released his first album, King Without a Clue, a year before that and eight more albums, including the new one, have followed, steadily raising his profile as a singer and songwriter, although not quite to the level of celebrity enjoyed by his former rock collective H&C.
“When I went solo no one knew who I was,” he says. “I was playing little bars with acoustic music and gradually I’ve built it up.”
His upcoming tour with the Undertow in August will be their first performing in theatres rather than in pubs and clubs.
“We’re thinking that people might perceive what we’re doing in a different way in a more formal environment,” he says. “People will listen, hopefully. As a performer I’m quite happy to play wherever I get put, but the theory is there’s an audience that hasn’t come in contact with us before.”
While there may be newcomers to Seymour’s music, it’s a simple fact many of his fans have followed him since his days as the voice of one of Australia’s most revered rock bands.
Hunnahs enjoyed a live renaissance last year supporting Bruce Springsteen and conducting their own small tour. In 2013 they played at the AFL grand final.
So successful were the shows that fans were hopeful they might spark a more long-term revival for the band, the tumultuous story of which Seymour detailed succinctly and self-effacingly in his 2008 memoir, Thirteen Tonne Theory. However, Seymour is quick to put an end to any speculation about Hunters & Collectors having a future.
“I’m just not interested,” he says. “I can’t see the point in re-forming the band unless the band makes an album, as in writes material, and I’m not prepared to write music with Hunters & Collectors. It’s as simple as that.”
He cites also “technical reasons regarding copyright that I can’t accept. At the same time it’s more about not being in that musical environment. I just don’t have any feelings about it.” He says the 2013-14 shows with his H&C colleagues — parading their best-known material including Throw Your Arms Around Me, Holy Grail and Do You See What I See? to adoring audiences — were worthwhile, but he was unhappy about the rigid regularity of the performances. “It was just doing it by the numbers,” he says.
“Everything we did on that tour was meticulously the same. Nothing changed. The set didn’t change. Sections were exactly the same from beginning to end.
“It was always like that. You get on stage and do the same thing over and over again.”
His view is at odds with the one formed by this writer, who witnessed their performance at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, a bit of a love-in for fans that appeared spontaneous and spirited.
“The way the music is constructed in that band makes for a great live spectacle,” he says, “because you’re just looking at it and wondering, ‘How is this working?’
“A lot of stuff came back to me in the middle of that tour, that in the last few years of the band it got difficult to write songs. You’d get together and there would be this dead weight.
“As a writer it just doesn’t do it for me any more.”
What does do it for him as a writer extends beyond his talents as a songwriter.
Buoyed by the success of Thirteen Tonne Theory, Seymour has spent the past few years working on a novel, although there have been a few pauses to concentrate on his music. It’s not finished. In fact he has just started again from the beginning.
“It’s going all right,” he says. “I’ve been working on it for over a year and I started again about six weeks ago. I went back and wrote the first chapter.
“If you don’t give yourself enough time with an idea the structure falls away and that’s what happened. Everything I’ve written is note-taking. I have mountains of notes and out of that will come a structure.”
He’s not revealing the nature of the story, though. “I don’t want to say what it’s about because that will spook it,” he says.
Mayday is released today through Liberation Music. Mark Seymour and the Undertow’s Australian tour begins in Sydney on August 1.