What you didn’t know about Mark Seymour
Excellent interview with Mark Seymour at the time of the release of the Mayday album.
Author: Hamish McLachlan, Herald Sun.
Date: 7 June 2015.
Hamish McLachlan: What you didn’t know about Hunters and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour
Mark Seymour decided music not teaching was for him.
The Hunters and Collectors were a significant part of my adolescence, and played on high rotation in the rusted purple Sigma I used to drive with pride. I spoke to Mark Seymour about his rock ’n’ roll odyssey, his religious upbringing, Lou Richards, Eddie Vedder, his new career with The Undertow, and asylum seekers.
HM: Did your mother introduce you to music?
MS: I think she probably did, yeah. I have very early recollections of singing in front of adults in the loungeroom after Sunday lunch. Singing was just part of the family culture.
HM: You were born into a very religious family that moved around a lot. One constant was the Seymour Family Choir?
MS: Yeah, we did the country talent quests.
MS: One year we were in Beaufort, in 1964, I think it was. They hadn’t been running it long and the contestants had to get up in front of the community. My first big gig. We sang religious songs. It was all based on singing hymns. We came second to this father-daughter duet who was doing Elvis Presley, so there was no way we were going to beat that.
HM: Your old man didn’t speak to you for a while after you told him you were going to become a muso?
MS: No, he didn’t. I don’t think he was disappointed, as much as he just didn’t understand it. I think he was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to feed myself, which is fair enough. I have the same concerns about my own kids. I have one daughter who got into uni and stopped, and another training to be an actor.
HM: You were studying to be a teacher. When was the point where you just went, “Nah, teaching can wait”?
MS: I’d been singing in a couple of cover bands and I knew that I really didn’t want to be a teacher, but I felt a responsibility to grind it out. I started in Braybrook for a while and realised teaching was so full on. Either I was going to really embrace teaching, and give up singing, or do the opposite. I taught for 10 weeks, and then resigned.
HM: And Hunters were born. Remember your first gig?
MS: Yep, a benefit gig for an indie singer from the States called Snake Finger. He was this really hip sort of guy from LA who had just had a heart attack on stage. Our drummer Douglas Fawkner, who also happened to be a doctor, had been crewing for this dude, and he had to give him CPR on the side of the stage the week before. The guy had no money, so someone came up with the idea of running a benefit concert to help pay his medical expenses. We were asked to be involved, so that was our first show.
HM: Your second gig was at a party for Lindsay Fox’s daughter? Who was first on the dance floor?
Mark Seymour performing at the 2013 AFL Grand Final. Picture: Alex Coppel.
MS: Ummm … that’s testing me … Molly?
HM: What about Lou Richards and his wife, Edna?
MS: Wow, that’s right. How did you know that? There was a huge amount of culture shock from our end to do a show like that, in that compound. I remember sitting around in some little bolthole in St Kilda, with some mates telling them what gig I was doing that night, and I realised from their reaction there was going to be this invasion of body-snatching punks into this very different world. It was a good gig. A lot of people tried to gatecrash. Even a dog went missing.
HM: Did the band steal it?
MS: We didn’t, but I remember everyone going into damage control, and then the rescue mission to find the missing dog.
HM: What’s the most you’ve enjoyed being on stage?
MS: It would have to be that Sound Relief concert (in 2009). Hands down actually. Hunters and Collectors had been long retired so there was a certain trepidation among us about reuniting, and whether or not we would still sound OK. We’d rehearsed in a studio nearby the previous day, and then we just took a breath, stepped out and played. Everything just worked, a whole lot of things came together. It was awesome. I was on a cloud when I came off stage after that for a long time.
HM: There must be something gratifying when you hear Eddie Vedder singing one of your songs?
MS: There is … it was a really surreal moment when we played together. At the time I was in WA doing a council community gig on the river, just me and the boys. It was a very homespun thing. I was at a radio station in North Perth and one of the crew said, “Did you know Eddie Vedder is playing at the Globe?” My manager was there, and this little light bulb went off in his head. He made a bunch of calls and I ended up turning up there to play with him. It was special.
HM: How long did it take for Eddie to get the lyrics sorted and for you to gel?
MS: There is a weird side story to this. When we met, he told me he came backstage to get my autograph in 1983 when Hunters were on an American tour when we were signed to A&M Records. How weird is that? This was the first incarnation of the band, when it was a really big thing, but we were about to break up. We’d done a stint in London and were scraping the bottom of the barrel. We hadn’t hit any highs in the UK. We were really battling. In the middle of the tour, we were backstage in some little club in San Diego, and the band was fighting. There was some meltdown going on. I think we thought it was the last gig we were going to play, and we would go back to Australia and call it quits. Anyway, in the middle of this barney, we get told that there was a young guy outside wanting us to sign our record. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with any wankers — being a big-time rocker you know — how pretentious were we. I stuck my head out the door and there was this young kid who had got back stage wanting an autograph. Eddie Vedder told me at the Globe show, he was that kid!
HM: That’s unbelievable — he would have been 19.
MS: He told me he’d always been a huge fan of the band and knew Throw Your Arms Around Me before that day. It was called the “college circuit” in America. It’s just the small little bars that you could play in, and the college kids would come in and listen, and it turns out he was one of those kids. Years later he decided to slip that song into his shows, and we played it together.
Hamish McLachlan and Mark Seymour. Picture: Rob Leeson.
HM: 1983 sounds like an ugly year. The year of the “curried chicken incident” in a London restaurant. You had just signed a three-year deal with Virgin Music, but in a seemingly churlish moment, you called one of their senior global executives of Virgin a “poncy little blue blood”.
MS: Yeah, well, I didn’t, but someone else in the group did. Fair to say it all unravelled pretty quickly from there. We were incredibly conceited. There were all these accolades being thrown around in Australia. We were this great band, had this great sound, we were going to be huge and we believed it. We thought we were going to become massive. We’d just go overseas and be this huge group. As soon as we got to Virgin, we were told they were not interested in having us go out and play the set as it was, and they wanted us to go into the studio and make a new record. We felt they wanted us to dramatically change our sound, in order to make sure the BBC would pick up a single. The kind of material that was surfacing in England at that time was a whole new wave arthouse punk culture. The record companies were changing their strategy because there was no money in the economy, and all the “old music” that was essentially driven by middle-class cash being spent in clubs was gone. The record companies were looking for acts like Boy George and Wham. We’d only been there a couple of weeks, but by the time we got to that dinner, it was pretty obvious things weren’t going to go the way we had planned. All of that had been discussed, and unfortunately somebody in the group decided to tell the head of Virgin that they were a pack of wankers. It was highly unprofessional, and typical of a group of young guys who thought they were the greatest thing since sliced bread.
HM: So effectively that was the end of the Virgin deal, and your international inspirations?
MS: He said, “These guys will never work in this town again!” He was pretty right. We still had a publishing deal in America. If our strategy had been straight from the outset to go to America, the whole thing would have been completely different. America had diversity and a complex culture. Rock ’n’ roll come out of America, and we should have gone there. London was a mistake.
HM: Given your success here — with the iconic anthems and full shows, it must have been disappointing not to be able to crack it internationally?
MS: When I think of the fate that rock musicians have, the chances of them having any form of commercial success is millions to one against. If you happen to hit the mother lode, and have a top 10 hit in the States, you can nearly retire on that. But the chances of having that happen are just so remote and ridiculous. You can see why people chase the rock carrot all their lives. It’s not that unusual what happened to us (the band), but yeah … it was still disappointing.
HM: Your rider back in the day was 96 cans of full-strength beer, two large bottles of Absolut, four bottles of chardonnay, four cabernet and one Sambuca. Did you ever get through all that?
MS: Yep. There were eight guys in the band and a crew of five. Then you’d have others who would just show up. I sort of collated that list just to find out where we had gotten to as a band, and that is what we were doing.
HM: Your old percussionist Greg Perano once told an English customs officer the Hunters sound was “reggae-funk fusion with rock roots and a tinge of New York underground in the guitars”. How would you describe the sound of Mark Seymour and the Undertows?
MS: I’m going to go with “a zoo burning down”. Our stuff is very simple acoustic-driven rock music. It’s very melancholy, it’s got a lot of power. The Undertow has got a lot of chemistry, there is a lot of trust. Stylistically, we are borrowing from so many eras — rock ’n’ roll, blues, funk — but it is all driven by the storytelling. Stylistically we are more subtle than Hunters and Collectors.
HM: One of you songs on your new album Mayday, is called Asylum. In 2013 you played at the Melbourne immigration transit accommodation. You’ve obviously been moved by how asylum seekers are treated?
MS: I don’t want to preach to anyone particularly about how good or bad our attitude is. What really gets me though, is that people who try to seek safety in another country, and who don’t necessarily carry a visa, may have a very good reason for doing so. We are living in a time now where there are more stateless people per capita in the world than any other time in human history. What I’ve endeavoured to do through Asylum is to tell a story about an asylum seeker, a story about somebody who made this decision to just try to save their a—.
HM: There was a moment where someone had put their face up against the glass, that really moved you?
MS: There was. I got asked one night in the middle of winter to play some tunes to the people at Broadmeadows Detention Centre. They were all filed in, from all over the world — Afghanis, Tamils, Iranians, Sri Lankans, and Burmese. Before they were brought in there was this one little kid who was about six or seven years old. He had his eyes up against the glass trying to peer in. I just found it so incredibly moving. I started playing, and they were just so respectful, and I could tell that they really wanted to be Australians. At a certain point for me, this light just went on, I said something like, “there are many thousands of Australians who really want you people to be in Australia,” and the crowd just went nuts. The mood lifted and it was just like being in any pub in Australia.
HM: Football, you’re a fan?
MS: Yes. Western Bulldogs?
HM: Happy with the new skipper — Bob Murphy?
MS: Yes! Love the guy.
HM: Seemingly everyone does. Did you have any inclination that the Holy Grail would become a football anthem?
MS: I had no idea how it would be adopted. I was reading about the Napoleonic Wars, and we were recording an album, and we were struggling to get consensus. We were spending money and not really getting anywhere. Somebody said that I had a Napoleonic complex, which I kind of liked. I had these words I had written, and a very traditional set of pop chords. So I brought it in one day, played it, and said what do you think of this? I went into another room with Jeremy, the French horn player, and we knocked the rest of the arrangement up in the other room. It was hugely controversial, the idea of that happening in that band. It was like breaking the tablets on the mountain. But it was the only way we could get the song written.
HM: When did you think it would become a sporting anthem?
MS: I remember this girl from Queensland Cricket rang up and asked if I could play the song for the team which had just won the Sheffield Shield. They were having this celebration, and the players told me that they loved that song. It had been around for about five years by that stage, so it had obviously gathered some traction. Then Channel 10 used to use it to start their footy broadcasts, and it became linked to football and this permanent sporting “thing”. Sport is like a place of safety. When you deliberately try and write a song about sport, it is fraught with danger. Even just trying to write the theme song for a club. There are some that get that so wrong!
HM: Has the solo career given you as much nourishment as the Hunters?
MS: Yes. I really love what I’m doing. I didn’t really have a clear sense of my own storytelling as I do now, but, that said, there were huge dividends to being part of Hunters.
HM: If you are only allowed to play one more gig and just one song, where are you and what are you singing?
MS: That changes all the time but there is a place called The Tank just outside Cairns, I did a show recently and really want to go back there. My favourite track is When the River Runs Dry. Would probably have to play it at Donald, they have their own water issues there. I’ll send you a photo of a soundcheck we did there.
HM: Thanks for your time Mark — I’ve loved growing up with you in my ears.
MS: Thanks — I’m glad you were a fan.
HM: Still am.
MS: Even better.