1001 Australian Nights: Gerard Elson interviews Dave Graney, part one
by Gerard Elson
Dave Graney likes his coffee weak and his public spaces swarming. So we meet at Starbucks. It’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but then that’s Graney: never one to play the scummy, hard-worn rock pariah (thank god). He arrives early and I’m embarrassed to be pattering away on my laptop. Gent that he is, Graney doesn’t hold this against me. Once he’s fixed with an oversize cardboard cup of his favourite brew, we take a seat to discuss his new memoir, 1001 Australian Nights. Therein, Graney recounts his small town beginnings in Mt Gambier, SA, and the strange, numinous path he’s charted to arrive as one of the country’s most singular rock performers.
Let’s start with the obvious: what moved you to do this now?
I’ve always been a fan of books written by musicians. Not so much by people writing about music, unless they’re from an earlier period in rock music when writers had more empathy with the players. Now, music magazines have almost disappeared as cultural things, and music writing is in daily papers, which always assume that the audience is not interested or doesn’t know anything. So they’ll write, for instance, ‘Keith Richards, guitarist of the Rolling Stones, a band from outer London formed with Brian Jones in 1962.’ In a rock magazine they’d just say ‘Keith.’ Keith or ‘Keef’ – ‘k,’ double ‘e,’ ‘f.’ It’s a more sophisticated, occult world.
I’ve been getting into reading more online. AV Club has great articles on TV shows and music. It’s just reading online… I haven’t got into the habit of it. I guess that’s where the best stuff is. There are some music things online too, but I think they’ve lost that empathy with the players. Since the punk rock period, it’s all been obsessed with the audience. So I’ve sought out books by people like Wreckless Eric, Eric Goulden. He’s a British musician. Had a magnificent debut single and he’s been a working musician ever since. He wrote a book. It’s very good. Mezz Mezzrow is a white Jewish jazz player. He was Louis Armstrong’s marijuana dealer. He wrote a great book called Really the Blues. Charles Mingus wrote a magnificent book called Beneath the Underdog. And Miles Davis wrote one called Miles. Everything Miles Davis has done is incredibly full of drama and historic interest. So I wanted to write a book just ’cause I like reading things like that and I thought someone else might.
It’s funny doing interviews for the book – and I’m putting out an album too – when I rarely do interviews for my music. Because I’m treated as such an oddity or [an] exotic geezer, a dodgy guy who’s stuck around too long. I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview about music in Australia where it wasn’t almost like I’m on trial, defending myself! I always just want to talk about my songs, playing with my band, what it’s like to play. So I guess the book’s a bit driven by that: just things I’ve never been asked!
I’ve all my life written songs about being a musician and playing. And that’s a post-punk thing, lots of people did it – The Fall, Suicide. Suicide had a song called ‘Fast Money Music.’ The Fall had one called ‘How I Wrote Elastic Man.’ As the years went by, the discussion of music has been reduced to the winners: AC/DC and The Beatles. Anything else is elitist losers! Rap music has a lot of singing about the business and the business of performing. My favourite is Dr Dooom. He’s [an alter-ego of] a fellow called Dr Octagon who’s always hilariously writing about ‘the business’ through his many personas. I f*cking love that! But in rock music it’s really slow. It’s like walking through sludge being in rock music. They go on about Bob Dylan – who’s a very admirable artist – but he’s been repackaged so many times. All they can do is dig up new f*cking recordings of Bob Dylan! So that’s why I wanted to do it. I thought I had things to say. I [think] I come from an interesting background – I come from a blue-collar South Australian world. Most rock music is very middle/upper-class, confident types who always have money from home. I have nothing else to fall back on!
You’ve spent so much of your career writing about life as a performer and exploring the various guises you adopt as a musician, which got me thinking: who wrote the memoir? Was it the performer façade, or Dave Graney when he’s at home? I’m inclined to think it was co-authored: written largely by the showman, but peppered with a few quips and asides, a few instances of piercing insight, from the man behind the leather pants and the pencil moustache.
Thank you for saying that! Sometimes I say when I’m writing I’m performing, when I’m performing I’m writing. Some of my songs I just kind of make up really quickly when I’m on stage gasbagging. So generally music is a constant search for authenticity. In an Australian context, any Australian performer in rock music is wearing a mask: American accent, American music. And wearing a mask is f*cking great ’cause it allows you to say things you can’t normally. But [the downside of that is] people are always saying ‘You’re a fake!’ They’re looking for that. That’s how low the discourse is in rock music generally!
Who was it who said of authenticity – or was it sincerity? – that it’s unarguably the bedrock which all art must be built upon… and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made?
[Laughs] That’s very good! And a lot of great performers like Bob Dylan are fakes. They’re really good at…
Yeah! Just making things up!
Particularly when, like Dylan did, they emerge out of nowhere and you’re left to go, ‘Well, I don’t know that they’re bullsh*tting…’
I love it! There are actual people like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison – who I love – and Hank Williams that are too good to be true but they are f*cking true! And 2Pac – the incredible life of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G…
How long have you kept tour diaries? They comprise a large part of the latter half of the book.
I only do it specifically for those kind of things. I don’t do it that much. It’s not that interesting. There’s a tour I did with Henry Wagons and that was quite interesting. I was putting [the diary entries] online and taking them off. I kind of worked on them. It was quite good, because Henry and I are different ages but we got on very well. There’s something about us – we probably see a bit of ourselves in each other. So I thought [we were] an interesting couple of characters to write about!
You’ve travelled around a lot, but since moving to Melbourne, you’ve always come back here.
I lived in London from about ’83 to the end of ’88. A year or so between now and then I’ve lived there as well. I really like being in London. It was quite inspiring for me in that time. I’ve got a few friends there. I love the big urban ambience – the filth and the fear and the big crowds of people.
What do you love about that? Is it something which inspires ideas, or do you genuinely love the seed and the scale of it?
I do love that! I’ve walked down Oxford Street around Christmas – they have so many people that they ask people to walk on the left side in order to keep a stream going. It’s just an endless sea of faces. Just being on public transport, on the tube and buses… The intimacy with strangers, and the anonymity, was quite exciting.
The amount of English culture we see [over here] – fashion, films and music… They’re up close in each other’s faces all the time, so they notice little things. Californian culture is much more distant: cars driving past each other; they’re not thrown together so much. In New York things are the same [as in London] I guess. I’ve experienced New York in different eras as well: when it was terrifying in the early ’80s and now it’s kind of a theme park for the rich. Still, it’s quite a beautiful place.
And I’m sure you can still find trouble if you look for it! What about Melbourne though – do you still enjoy it as much as you used to?
I probably like it more. I love the Melbourne music scene. Over the years it’s been shown to me how sophisticated it is compared to Sydney.
Who do you like in the current Melbourne scene?
I love those weirdos like Kes Band and The Ancients. Strange dilettante types like The Sand Pebbles. I love a singer called Jane Dust and the Giant Hoopoes. Lots of things. The jazz players like Mark Fitzgibbon and Henry Manetta and the Trip. There’s lots of older musicians in Melbourne too, which is good. That doesn’t exist in many other cities.
I’ve more-or-less been living in St Kilda since mid last year. I work at Readings on Acland St and the people who come into that shop… Nick Cave was in there over Christmas. Conway Savage shops there regularly. Same with Paul Kelly. Tim Rogers lives up the road.
Oh yeah. There’s still remnants of that kind of bohemian culture around St Kilda.
But obviously it’s changed a lot? Not having grown up in Melbourne, I’m familiar with St Kilda’s reputation as having been an alt-cultural hotbed back in the ’80s. It seems a hell of a lot more gentrified today than what it must have been back when you lot were all kicking about.
In the old days there was no bohemian business [there]. There were two adult bookshops and a normal bookshop and two or three old Jewish places, which were very cheap. Nothing else worked. People kept trying to open businesses but people were so poor, they had no money to spend on anything. This was all through the ’80s. It was very run-down and quite liveable. Lots of people lived there. Where there used to be ten single older men living in rooms in the old mansions there’s now probably one person!
There are a couple of great passages in the book where you recount, in quite vivid detail, some ‘dreams’ that you’ve had. Are you the kind of person who typically remembers your dreams? Or are these really just things which you cooked up in order to address—
I did cook those up! I’m trying to have a go at some characters on the scene and not mention their names.
I did have an inkling. The dream stuff dovetails into the idea of Lovecraft’s Leviathan which you also toy around with. I went back and reread much of the second half of the book last night, and the Leviathan makes a few appearances there. Then this morning, I woke from this weirdly terrifying dream: I was alone out at sea in this rickety skiff with this huge humpback whale powering behind me, surging me further out towards the horizon. Which got me to wondering: does your personal Leviathan have a shape?
Oh, no! I’m referring to death. It’s a Lovecraftian image I’ve subsumed there – the Leviathan walking beside us always.
So it never manifests itself in a discernible shape? I feel like my Leviathan takes shapes.
Mine’s just a big full stop of nothingness! [Laughs] I try not to dwell on it too much. But I’m always reminded that it’s there!
Which is good. I think we need our Leviathans. Keep us on our toes.
Have you read a lot of Lovecraft?
I’ve read a bit of Lovecraft. I like Lovecraft very much.
Someone made a documentary on Lovecraft. It was on last year. Had lots of interviews. Went through his life. People who really liked him, people who’ve parodied him. Because his style can be parodied.
Like any distinct style or voice. Have you ever seen the Lovecraft comic George Kuchar did?
Really? As in [one of] the Kuchar brothers? I’ve seen some of their films.
Yeah. There’s this great documentary on the pair of them coming soon to ACMI which goes into all of this. He fell in with the underground comix scene which was thriving in New York at the time, and a lot of these guys collaborated on a book called Arcade. The documentary details this Lovecraft comic of his, where [Lovecraft is] on his deathbed, haunted by all of the monstrous visions he’s summoned up from the void over the course of his life as a writer.
When did you find an interest in that sort of thing? With the underground comix, were you going into comic shops…?
When I was younger and doing my undergrad in Canberra, I’d actively seek that stuff out.
Our bass player in The Moodists [Chris Walsh] grew up with Tracy Pew [of The Birthday Party]. They were really into underground comix. Especially this character S. Clay Wilson from San Francisco. He had a character called The Checkered Demon. It was just horrible! [Laughs] You’d write to S. Clay Wilson, care of Dick’s Bar, San Francisco. They just loved that. Anything in a bar they loved. Bukowski – they loved him. But they just loved his picture! And of course [there was] Robert Crumb. What a fascinating character. I always see these women walking down the street and I identify them as ‘Crumbs.’ Robert Crumb would like them! [Laughs] In a way, I’m enjoying their physical form, of course, but I’m mainly putting Robert Crumb’s spin on them!
Like a Crumb filter? Wouldn’t that be a great setting on a video editing suite? Instead of the silent movie filter, the R. Crumb rotoscope effect! Whatever you’ve shot becomes rendered with stink lines and pock marks—
You have some skinny supermodel or actress, whose arse swells and her legs become huge muscles!
Are you planning to catch anything at the Kuchars retrospective? I think it would appeal very much to you.
Their movies are so rough!
They almost exclusively make shorts, but George Kuchar did make one feature, which has what I think is one of the greatest titles ever: The Devil’s Cleavage.
Is that like ‘Who cleft the devil’s foot?’ It’s some ancient question like ‘Who tied the Gordian knot?’ I think it might even be in a poem by Ezra Pound. Sh*t – we’re gettin’ high falutin’ here!
That’s good – this is for a literary blog, after all! And on that note, what are you reading at the moment? The book has a lot of references to the literature you grew up loving and still love.
I find it so hard to concentrate on things. I think it’s because of the internet. So I try to force myself to read every day. I’m envious of people who read two or three books a week. There were periods in my life when I was like that. I’m enjoying Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. I’m finding that very inspiring. Clare got me a nice hardback: Selections from 1001 Arabian Nights, which I’ve always loved as an object. [It’s] translated by the explorer Richard Burton. I’m really enjoying the language. I love anything Burton did. I visited his grave in London in the mid ’90s. I’m also reading a biography of the devil. Fascinatingly, I never knew – and I grew up going to church every week – that the devil did not exist in the Old Testament.
Wait – aren’t there mentions of Beelzebub in the Old Testament? Or has it been ‘ret-conned’ as often happens with serialised comic books, where some writer will go ‘Oh, by the way, because it’s convenient and we’ve never actually said otherwise, Spider-Man’s dad was JFK!’ Is that what this book is saying: that the devil was retroactively inserted into the Old Testament once Christianity realised it needed a scapegoat? Or is it saying they just went back and said, ‘See this word here? That means the devil. This person mentioned here? That’s the devil too. He’s He of a Thousand Names!’
Apparently things were so sh*t they had to invent the devil to blame the bad things on in the New Testament! ‘It wasn’t god – it was this other guy!’ So I have that book. But I like to keep reading fiction. I always have tons of paperback pulp things to read from different cities. There’s one from Detroit, Loren D. Estleman, I’ve been meaning to read. ‘Cause Detroit’s a fascinating place. I try to read French because I’ve been trying to understand it for about a decade – well, a bit less. I always love to dip into some French text. I just pick up French things anywhere. Usually historical things are quite interesting and the language isn’t so testing as [it is] if it’s fiction and full of descriptions. I love French poetry, especially Apollinaire. I’ve always got Apollinaire close by. I f*cking love his poetry – he’s like a rapper to me! I love that writing, before and between the wars, French and English writing. I love it.
Part two can be found here.