Mark Seymour’s Red Hot Summer & Zoo Too!
Mayday era interview with Mark Seymour coinciding with the Red Hot Summer Tour.
Author: Greg Phillips, Australian Musician.
Date: 7 February 2016.
As the frontman of Hunters & Collectors, Mark Seymour delivered rock classics that immediately etched their way into our national consciousness, including ‘Holy Grail’, ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’, ‘When The River Runs Dry’, ‘Do You See What I See’, ‘Say Goodbye’, and many more. As an ARIA Award-winning solo artist, Mark earned even further praise from fans and critics across eight albums, including King Without A Clue, One Eyed Man, and Westgate. With a powerful new rock band behind him, he then delivered Undertow, followed up by a winning collection of covers on Seventh Heaven Club. More recently Mark Seymour and the Undertow released another quality album, 2015’s Mayday. You’ll be able to hear tracks from Mayday along with a selection of Seymour classics at his Sydney and Melbourne Zoo gigs, as well as dates on the Red Hot Summer tour with Jimmy Barnes, Noiseworks, The Angels and more. AM’s Greg Phillips spoke to Mark about his the upcoming gigs and his songwriting methods.
You’re playing the Zoo gigs at Taronga in Sydney of February 19 and Melbourne Zoo on February 20 with your band The Undertow. You must have played some pretty exotic and strange venues in your time. Any particularly different ones come to mind?
I’ve played on a barge, backs of trucks. I remember we did a gig in Oodnadatta once in a vacant block of land. That was hard core. We had to drive in with an all-terrain vehicle and it was raining, it was pretty strange
Have you done many corporate gigs overseas?
We’ve done a couple of shows in Dubai that were extremely dubious. There was one on an Australia Day in Dubai and it was really strange … shabby! There were a few Australians there but there was stuff going on around us that we weren’t very impressed by. I just hope that on a general level … if the production is OK and we know we are going to put on a show, then I’m not that squeamish about it. We do get to some strange places but I’d rather have it that way than not. It’s just the nature of the job. Sometimes you don’t know what is going to happen and you roll with it.
Having played so many gigs over the years, how do you keep things fresh and interesting for yourself?
Well, I’ve got that monolithic shadow hanging over my head which is Hunters and Collectors. That said, in the last 3 or 4 years things have really consolidated for me. I have a really good band and we haven’t stopped touring. I think partly it has to do with getting older and my kids are all independent young adults and I can travel more. With my songwriting, I haven’t really backed off. The last 3 albums feature heavily in my set. That’s not always the case, it depends on the show I am doing as well.
At what point before a gig do you prepare your set list?
I’m doing it right now actually. I’m not quite sure what to do with the Zoo. There are always the dynamics to consider and what the mood might be like. I am sure it is common for many others who do what I do … you have last minute changes to the set or drop songs or add in the middle of a show. But with the Zoo, it is a very concert-like atmosphere. It’s a beautiful environment. We’re going to have a pretty sophisticated light show and once you get into that terrain, you have to tell the guys what the songs are going to be and you have to stick to them.
Has the way you write songs changed much since your first recordings?
Oddly enough the process is probably no different but the stylistic quality of the material is massively different. The language too has changed. I use a different approach to word play and it is changing all the time. The last few years I have really shifted my style a lot in the way I put songs together. I started experimenting with cyclical verse play with short tagged choruses like The Holy Grail. That’s very folk and I listen to a lot of American and Irish folk music and that effected the way I knock songs up but there’s a story telling technique that I use a lot now. Most of the albums are full of songs that have that framework. That said, the way I enter into the process is not that different emotionally. I make the decision, you know … I am writing songs … and just start. It’s like a roller coaster. I grab lines and chord play and throw things around until something clicks. The one thing I do insist on now more that I never used to when I was younger, is it that it takes as long as it takes. You don’t record until you have the best material. Whereas I think with Hunters, we suffered a little bit from being .. I mean it may well have been self-imposed, that may well happen with bands once they become big, there is a certain invisible pressure that you produce and I think that can be a bit of a trap creatively.
There’s a song on the current album Mayday called Football Train, inspired the Frankston train line. Apart from a few notable writers, Australian songwriters don’t generally name-check local places in the way American writers do. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know actually. You could write a PHD on that. I don’t really know why they don’t. I have become more and more comfortable with the idea of referencing my environment. I use my physical environment. It is very much a part of my conscious life. Just the notion of where you are. The thing is, your creative energy is effected by place. The rooms you are in, the subtle things. I have allowed myself to become more spontaneous. I don’t have anyone breathing down my neck particularly so I have reconciled myself with place, where I physically am. We’re talking about the song Football Train, that’s a really intense part of the world, Young Street, Frankston. There’s stuff going on in that street that is really poignant and sad and full of human drama. With songs, I always find a way in. I have some kind of emotional connection. In that case it was that I used to drop my kids off at the railway station. They’d trot across the road and they’d be like these little girls in their mid teens completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. I’d park the car and look around go, for fuck’s sake but they wouldn’t even notice anything. To me, the displacement of that … for me from an older generation allowing his children to wander off into the urban wilderness, you feel something, you have an emotional connection with something you are observing and I find lyrics start to emerge. But you have to be open to it and I think that is the one thing that is consistent the right way through. Since I have been very young, once I open my heart to something .. and I have to decide to do it.,here is a specific point where I say OK, I am now looking around for material.
Let’s talk about your gear a little bit. I notice you have been using smaller bodied Maton acoustics lately …
Yes I love those 808s. They just have a real punch to them and they don’t leak, so when you are playing in a rock band and it’s loud and the production is big, there is a lot of sound being pushed out to the room. I’m not talking about feedback so much as just EQ, you just get a much more, full warm sound out of an 808 than a big guitar. I find that the dreadnoughts, as beautiful as they sound acoustically, when you turn them up they tend to have these odd little resonant frequencies that aren’t that appealing. But I love those 808s, they’re really great. I have three of them.
Do they have the Maton pickups in them, the AP5s?
Yes, but the old ones. I find them a bit cleaner and louder.
Have you struggled to get a good acoustic sound over the years?
It’s always been a bit of a battle but I think there is a lot of mythology surrounding that. It depends on what your needs are. There’s a natural warmth that guitars have. You don’t have to fiddle with them too much. If the neck feels good you are almost there. You’ll find a way of making the guitar play well because your hands feel good around it. I have a very pragmatic view about all that. I do tend to find with the 808s that the good ones have a real simple warm sound and plenty of mid range. They don’t have any kind of holes in them, whereas with the dreadnoughts, it’s a bit of a turkey shoot. I have a couple of big ones as well but I tend not to take them on the road.
With the electrics you have always preferred a Telecaster to a Strat or Les Paul. What is it about the Tele that you like?
Probably the same thing. I mean I am a rhythm player and I like to get a sound that can just sit in the middle of an amp, right in the guts of it provide meat to the mix, and really have a close relationship with the drummer. I am trying to find a transparent position in the sound, so that our guitarist Cameron can really wail over on the other side. He has a selection of different guitars. His sound is much more finessed than mine. I use the Tele with a Boss EQ pedal to attenuate the AC30. I always use an AC30, a really good one and that’s it. Even when it is just a line check I will go out and make sure I get the sound I want. I’ll do it in a funny hat or something so people don’t know it’s me and it’s usually a pretty clean sound with a bit of mid range distortion. The thing about Teles too, is that you can hit them and they just have a huge tonal range. You can hit a Tele really hard but also play it gently and it will always ring clean.
Click here for Mark Seymour Zoo and Red Hot Summer dates