Mark Seymour happy to be caught in The Undertow

An interview with Mark Seymour at the time of the release of his live Roll Back The Stone album.

Author:  Nui Te Koha, Herald Sun.

Date: 24 March 2017.

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His rehearsal room has an air of experience. Vintage amps, foldback speakers and cords here, well-travelled instruments, road cases and sheet music there, but all in place. Tidy. Orderly.

As Mark Seymour, frontman of a four-piece called The Undertow, poses beside various musical bits and pieces, I spy a set list taped to the ground beside a microphone stand. It has 1, 2, 3, 4 … uh, 20 songs from his former band, Hunters & Collectors.

“Oh, this isn’t The Undertow rehearsal room,” Seymour says, sensing my surprise, laughing. “This is Hunters’.”

The band regrouped to play at the Clipsal 500 earlier this month. And while its legacy — timeless songs and powerful live performances — is undeniable, Seymour says he gets
anxious coming back to one of Australia’s most revered acts.

“I think, ‘Am I gonna cut it?’ ” Seymour says. “The songs are so definitive and played in a particular way. It’s also very loud and I’m standing in front of it. I have to control my output, otherwise I lose air and my voice starts to go.”

Hunters & Collectors regrouped for the Clipsal 500 earlier this month. Picture: David Crosling

Was it always this way?

“It did get to a point towards the end where I was getting very stressed and drinking too much alcohol,” he says. “You never know with singers and the undercurrent of anxiety because you’re dealing with a very fragile instrument. The songwriting part became an issue for me, too — writing songs I wanted to play. There was more and more questioning and, eventually, the questioning took over.”

Hunters & Collectors, with hits including Throw Your Arms Around Me, Holy Grail and Say Goodbye, split in 1998. The band has since reconvened for special occasions like the Sound Relief benefit concert at the MCG, and a support slot alongside Bruce Springsteen.

Meanwhile, Seymour has released six solo albums and, in 2011, formed The Undertow with friends and acquaintances Cameron McKenzie (guitars), Peter Maslen (ex-Boom Crash Opera, drums) and John Favaro (ex-The Badloves, bass) as a “songwriting vehicle”.

“There’s a very fine line between friendship and music chemistry, and we’re all a bunch of sensitive men,” he says. “We have a similar outlook on life.”

Indeed, Seymour says that combination, and The Undertow’s preference to interpret and expand on songs, not just play them, suits his storytelling style.

“Songwriting is very much an unconscious process. Things just rise to the surface,” he says.

The beginnings of the creative process are no different now than it was with Hunters  & Collectors. I still have the same strange little brain that goes around latching on to things people say, or relationships, or my attitude to the world. I’m just looking for stories, really.”

A new album, Roll Back The Stone 1985-2016, revisits some of Seymour’s greatest yarns, retold by The Undertow, from the Hunters period, solo years and, of course, the new band.

“I’ve embraced the older songs, the stuff that has real strong narrative quality — somebody in a room, somebody else arrives, the story happens,” Seymour says.

“Opening lines are a big deal for me.”

Newer songs, like Football Train, with its familiar, yet complex characters waiting on a platform, shows Seymour hasn’t lost his edge or eye for detail.

That song came from regular drop-offs and pick-ups at the train station when his kids Eva, now an actor, and Hannah, a singer, were younger. Seymour, his wife Jo Vautier, an artist, live on the Mornington Peninsula.

Asked if his children’s career choices were inspired by dinner table chats about the biz, Seymour says, “I didn’t encourage it. Well, not actively. Most of it, I didn’t see coming.”

He has the same philosophy about his own distinguished career: “Everything that’s come to me in terms of recognition and success has always seemed like, ‘Oh, that’s happening
now …’ I mean, look at Holy Grail, It’s 25 years old and it’s turned into a teen boy anthem.
I could never have imagined that would happen.

“But that’s what happens with good yarns.”

Roll Back The Stone is out now through Liberation Music.

Mark Seymour and The Undertow play the Athenaeum Theatre on July 22.