Mark Seymour on going it alone, why he’s getting more political and writing a novel

A great and varied interview with Mark Seymour over a feed in Melbourne.

Author:  Kylie Northover, Brisbane Times.

Date: 24 July 2015.

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He’ll always eat a steak: Hunters & Collectors frontman and solo artist Mark Seymour at Vlado’s in Richmond. Photo: Darrian Traynor
61 Bridge Rd, Richmond; 9428 5833
Mon-Sun Lunch 12pm-3pm (except Saturday); Dinner seven days 6pm to 11pm

Former Hunters and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour has something of a reputation as a gruff bloke, so it made sense when his record label said he’d meet me for lunch at Vlado’s, Richmond’s legendary steakhouse. An institution since 1964, Vlado’s is famous for its essentially all-meat menu: big, bloody steaks. Man’s food.

But it transpires that Seymour hasn’t chosen the venue himself (“whoever decided on this is having fun …I didn’t!”), and is as shocked as I am by its retro interior and hardcore menu.

It also transpires that the legendary singer-songwriter is nowhere near as gruff as he might sometimes appear. While he likes his food, Seymour concedes he’s not much of a “foodie” and would likely have chosen a little takeaway place in Elsternwick, where he keeps a flat (he lives on the Mornington Peninsula these days).

“If I lived in Melbourne and didn’t have the job I do, I’d be more tuned into it … then I might have known this place existed! But I spend a lot of time on tour and eating when you’re on the road becomes really perfunctory. I have to extremely malleable when it comes to food.”

But he’ll “always eat a steak”.

Which is good, given there’s literally nothing else on the set lunch menu – we go for the “classic set menu” of four courses (although we’re both defeated before dessert), which consists of a first course of homemade beef and pork sausages, a second “tasting plate” of eye fillet medallions, young calves’ liver, hamburger patties and slices of pork neck. The main is a choice of eye fillet up to 320 grams or porterhouse or rump steak up to 420 grams (!) from a selection brought to us raw on a tray.

We’re allowed to order grilled capsicum for an extra $6, but no, there are no chips or salad. This is serious carnivore business.

We’ve met as Seymour, 59, releases his ninth post-Hunters album, and the third with his current band The Undertow. Mayday – the title’s a reference to both the emergency signal and to Australia’s Labour Day – is a departure from the Undertow’s last album, Seventh Heaven Club, an album of covers of love songs by the likes of Tom Petty, Neil Young and Otis Redding.

The original compositions on Mayday reflect Seymour’s evolution in songwriting; they’re more “narrative driven” than much of his past work.

I’d always considered him something of a storyteller, but Seymour says his style has become “a lot more didactic”.

“It’s quite structured storytelling now. The way I frame the lyrics is more … declaiming, and I tend to sing as I’m slightly distanced. Even though I deal with quite personal things – although there’s only one love song on the album -– there’s a lot of descriptions of the physical world around me. I wanted to document a feeling and how it materialises and the observations of things and people around me.”

The album is also something of a musing on where Australia stands and Seymour’s personal dismay with the direction in which he sees us heading. It’s both a political and emotional record.

“But I don’t think it’s strident. I feel really connected with the songs; it’s a very complete record,” he says. “But it’s definitely the most political record I’ve made. I’ve touched on stuff before but in terms of the percentage of songs dealing with contemporary issues.”

Love songs, he reckons, are only so interesting. “GIven my experience over a number of years making music, just a flatline documentation of my personal life – it’s interesting up to a point, but I’m telling stories.”

These stories are about bushfires and Aussie summer holidays, the kind of characters that inhabit dodgy outback pubs (and dodgy city pubs), homeless kids, leathery-faced old miners, human fragility and childhood milestones.

And in more than one track, Seymour addresses the hairy topic of asylum seekers – Two Dollar Punter is “dedicated to all who came here by boat”, then there’s Asylum and Lucky Land.

He’d like to think that as “guy who gets up in rooms and sings songs”, people take notice of what he says “at a really basic level”.

“I think it’s … part of the national conversation and people are interested. I know I’m interested in public life in Australia. I’m deeply attached to this country and I want the best for it,” he says. “But I can’t say I’m proud of it.”

Which might well make him unpopular with certain members of his audience.
“That’s right; it’s difficult to even say that now. The conversation that is taking place in public life about where we’re going is becoming narrower and narrower and that worries me – you know, dissent and critical discourse is not being heard. And I’m entitled to my opinion,” he says.

As we chew through our steaks (accompanied by Crown Lagers), Seymour talks about politics, foreign policy, his daughters, who are also singers, and his writing. After his well-received 2008 “memoir”, Thirteen Tonne Theory, he’s now quietly working on a novel.

“It’s completely different to writing your own story,” he says. “With a memoir, there’s an excuse for writing it, people expect it. But fiction … you’re telling a story that’s imagination, a product of your creative mind. I’m hell bent but it’s hard work! It might take a couple of years.” He won’t reveal much except to say it’s a crime novel “but dark and funny”.

We talk books and writing, changes in the music industry and the people he’s been meeting touring Australia, some of whom inform his songwriting. He finds engaging directly with his audiences – chatting after the gig, selling CDs directly – an important part of his job, even it does seem somewhat old-school.

His label pondered whether or not it was worth making a “physical release” of Mayday.

“But if we have hard copy, I can go out and sell them at my gigs and that’s actually a thing a lot of artists are doing now. If you can get your merch​ working at gigs, you’re directly meeting people – and it works,” he says. “You get to engage with people directly, they hear you talking in a normal way – if you play for few hundred people and then you go out afterwards and chat, it’s great for the artists and it’s great for them as well.”

It’s all very grass-roots for someone as legendary as Seymour, even though he plays down his status (he’s very friendly when a fellow diner approaches to thank him “for this music”, and equally gracious when the maitre d’ mistakes him for James Reyne), despite the huge fame he enjoyed with Hunters before they disbanded in 1998.

They might have begun as an art-rock outfit in the late ’70s, but by the mid-’80s Hunters and Collectors were enjoying mainstream fame, with several top 10 albums, ARIA awards and an induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame. Their 1986 hit Throw Your Arms Around Me has been covered by artists as diverse as Pearl Jam and Luka Bloom, and in 2009 was listed at number 23 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of All Time.

Hunters were massive. When they reformed in 2013 they supported The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen and played at the AFL Grand Final. Last year they even won a Helpmann Award for “best Australian contemporary concert”. But it was a brief sojourn and Seymour was soon back to his solo life, one he’s accustomed to now. At first it was a rude awakening.

“As soon as I went solo I was like, uh-oh,” he says.

His mainstream fame didn’t – at all – translate to Seymour the songwriter alone on stage, even in the immediate post-Hunters years. Did that surprise him? “That’s putting it mildly! In that first decade I realised that people who are into Hunters and Collectors have quite a specific perception of that band – it’s quite unique. It has a very distinct sound and I think that’s what it all comes down to – a sound that unique and that’s why people loved it.”

Even though his voice was such an integral part of the band? “I don’t know what the perception of me was but early on if I got 50 people to a gig, I was lucky.”

Given he’s released nine solo albums since then, he clearly wasn’t disheartened by the experience. “I don’t feel I’ve got a choice; it’s what I do, you know? I’m not going to back off from what do – I can’t put myself in the frame of mind to look for some kind of entrepreneurial alternative – ‘I’m not making the kind of money I was before so I’d better do something else …’ I’m living the creative life … I just adapted really.”

And he seems pretty happy.

“I’m just bloody-minded!”

Mayday by Mark Seymour and The Undertow is out now. They play the National Theatre in St Kilda on August 7.