The Brag – Mark Seymour And The Undertow

Extensive Mayday era interview with Mark Seymour prior to his gig at the Taronga Zoo.

Author:  Adam Norris, The Brag.

Date: 17 February 2016.

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In 1998, after 18 years and nine albums, Hunters & Collectors closed the door on one of the most successful rock band careers in Australian history.

Certain songs have become generational mainstays, with ‘Holy Grail’ embraced by the AFL and the iconic ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ now recognised as a classic across the globe. Yet frontman Mark Seymour has never been shackled by the band’s success, and since then has released nine albums of his own showcasing his ever-evolving songwriting prowess. Ahead of his Twilight At Taronga appearance, Seymour takes the time to muse on then and now.

“Hunters & Collectors retired back in ’98, and there were a bunch of songs amongst the records that became very popular,” he says. “Looking back, and broadly speaking, I think the [reason] for our reputation is that we really toured relentlessly. But that said, of those songs, maybe half a dozen have become a part of my history as a writer. I still play them at gigs, though I’ll rotate them so I’m not just up there playing the same thing every time. But over that 33 years of writing and singing I distil the best out of that band’s work and continue on with that into my own albums. Even though I’ve been doing it a long time, it still feels fresh to me.”

Part of this must surely stem from the fact that unlike a great many charting artists today, Seymour is still a man obsessed by story. From a song like ‘Holy Grail’, an epic quest narrative inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, to his more recent everyman tale of ‘Two Dollar Punter’, finding a way to create a story and keep listeners engaged is at the core of his craft. However, while it may be the familiar figure of Seymour standing there onstage, these days his songs are more likely to feature observation rather than revelation.

“There’s quite a few songs on the new album that are constructed in character. They occupy the mind’s eye of a person who’s going through some fairly profound experience, and I’m observing that at third hand. I’m trying to describe how that would feel, to elicit the emotion of a person being challenged by the circumstances they’re in. That’s something that I’ve become more and more interested in as a way into a song. But it’s also really firmly grounded in the notion of walking out onto a stage in front of a whole lot of people I don’t know and telling stories about life as I understand it. As I become more interested in the world around me, I’ve found my songwriting has become broader. It’s less directly connected with me now. When I go out, I tend not to give them the impression that I’m singing about my own shit. I’m singing about this other guy’s stuff.”

Seymour’s concerns as a songwriter prove to be an interesting insight into what compels him to keep touring, to remain excited about the shape and potential of each performance (he talks enthusiastically about his upcoming show at Taronga, hoping to use the environment there to create a special and intimate space). While the bedrock of writing strikes him as something quite simple, finding the spark of creativity is much more elusive.

“In songwriting you’re grappling with some very basic principles. Three to four minutes of music, you’re throwing words into chords, and it’s a turkey shoot. When you’re finding stuff to write about, you’re trying to distil some kind of psychological twist that you’re carrying around. With my writing now, I don’t pin things down too quickly. I let ideas fester. The idea of getting bogged down in front of a computer with a multi-track device just kills it. I did that for a long time when I left Hunters, because I thought, ‘How in the hell am I going to do this? I don’t have a band anymore!’ But I think songwriting is a completely spontaneous experience. The raw material is so basic, it’s so easy to get lost in it. Songwriting deals with very little stuff, but the strange and interesting ways into it can happen really randomly.”

An interesting example might be found in the recent update to fan favourite ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’. A new second verse begins with the line, “Whatever worlds you come from, whatever tongue you speak”. Written in response to racist tirades captured on camera on public transport, and in earnest support of asylum seekers, it very simply celebrates the idea of unity and support without driving its message down people’s throats.

“I try to keep my mind open,” says Seymour. “‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’, there’s an exchange of emotion, and there’s an act of generosity on the audience’s part as much as mine. So for me to walk out and sing a song that has a really strong political narrative, for example, is an entirely legitimate exercise. These are stories I can share with [audiences] because I want them to own them like they did with ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’. That verse, I just thought, ‘It’s time to change up this song. It’s not going to go away.’ A lot of people don’t seem to know the words have gone by them. You see them mouthing them a lot. People want you to know that they know what the words are. It’s just beautiful.”

Mark Seymour and The Undertow play Twilight At Taronga 2016 at Taronga Zoo on Friday February 19.