by Gerard Elson
Read part one here.
Have you tried your hand at prose fiction? Would you ever be interested?
I’d prefer to write fiction than something like 1001 Australian Nights. I’m having the heebs a bit with this book coming out and people reading it!
You don’t mince your words – well, except when you talk in riddles. It’s equal parts abstraction and you callin’ it like you see it.
It’s rooted in real life and there are some very real things in it – things to do with family. I don’t want to be upsetting people and I don’t want to have conflict in my life. The book isn’t out to settle any scores. So I would like to write a fictional book. I’m working on a couple of things. Then I could talk about writing a bit more, rather than my life and other personal things.
How difficult was it when writing 1001 Australian Nights to find the balance between things you felt were important to include, but then not wanting to upset anyone? There are a lot of passages in the book where I found myself thinking, ‘I’m not really sure what he’s talking about here, but I like what I’m reading!’ Which I think is great. It’s much more interesting than reading straight self-canonisation, an accountant’s account of someone’s life.
I think I obscured enough real things. I changed names…
But then when it comes to music and especially the Australian music scene, you’re not afraid to have your say. You’re pretty forthright in saying who you think is maybe a bit sh*t and who’s very underrated. Though not via personal attacks, of course.
I have a real interest in music, so I know things. I might as well have an opinion. I don’t want to waste it just talking about things that are naturally generational. When I was younger, I liked a lot of music by people well older than me. I was never interested, when I was a 14-year-old, in listening to other teenagers. That was the furthest thing from my f*ckin’ mind – who would want to?! That’s become a construct of that Triple J world: adults having a meeting to decide what kids want. Kids want to hear other kids? I think that’s a nutty idea! But in Australia, I don’t want to be attacking people like that. So few people get their music out to the public. As much as I mightn’t like some people, I applaud the fact that they’ve worked somehow to get out to people. I know how hard it is.
But in Australian culture there is the ABC of course. Through the John Howard years, its attitude toward the arts has been fearful: ‘Don’t scare people. The arts are elitist!’ That’s still going on in a way because the ABC has been reduced to news and sports. As a musician, I would like them to lift their game and approach music with the same sophistication they bring to sports. Turn on local ABC and it’s just idiots talking about music as a dead, nostalgic thing. That is, frankly, silly. Then there’s Triple J, which has had to shoulder the load of presenting music nationally in the absence of commercial stations doing anything. So any criticism I would have of Triple J would be balanced by the knowledge that they do a lot nationally with their incredibly strong signal. I go out driving in Australia a lot and the strongest signal is always the horse racing! People love to bet. It’s a reassuring noise.
I grew up on the south coast of NSW in a town called Mollymook, right near Ulladulla—
I love those places. Elderly, retirement areas.
Very much. Picturesque. Becalming. But when you’re a kid, there’s not a whole lot going on for anyone who doesn’t happen to be a surfer.
I don’t think there should be much going on in country Australia. It should be boring!
Well, maybe! A lot of my closest friends hail from similar regions, so there’s certainly something to the idea. It forces you to be inventive – as you talk about in the book – to make your own fun or show a little initiative when it comes to eyeing out interests. So in that sense, Triple J was invaluable for me in those formative years. It was a window to a wider world.
What it gave to country Australia it took away from Sydney, which is oxygen. The Sydney music scene has suffered. What Melbourne has is stations that reflect Melbourne back to itself. Has since the mid- to late-’70s. Sydney hasn’t until recently, with FBI radio et cetera. I’ve learnt it’s a question of geography. Melbourne’s so flat the radio signals go uninterrupted for a long way. In Sydney, it takes so much power to get the signal through the hills.
I’ve just realised that I’ve taken up a great deal more of your time than I’d intended to! I hope we haven’t left any stones unturned.
I just hope people realise [the book] isn’t a nostalgic exercise.
No, that’s what I like about it. It’s very alive and up-to-the-moment.
I quite like the writing in it. It’s loaded with allusions to things. Also, I’m just going out on the campaign trail now. I’ve got an albumcoming out where I’ve re-recorded a lot of my songs from the ’90s.
What inspired that? It’s interesting to note how that’s been birthed concurrent to your writing a memoir.
Basically, a lot of your petty income as a musician is through publishing. Owning the rights to your songs. So I wanted to make my songs live again. Rework and recast them. A lot of my favourite artists did that. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings would always rerecord their old songs. Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. Songs when they get older become different. These ones… the original recordings I quite liked, but my singing was quite uptight. I was uptight because I felt the pressure of people being interested in what I was doing. Before then I was free, doing whatever the f*ck I wanted. But when people became interested, I clammed up. I lost my ability to sing out.
How do you move through that?
You learn not to be so precious. That people like certain things in your songs, so they’re just as much theirs as they are yours. The album is a collection of songs that I’ve always played in my live set. In a way, they’re the songs that I live in for people and the public. I really like them. They live for me and they’ve kind of changed. My current band, the players are so great and I love playing with them. I’ve also grown to love playing the electric guitar. When I started out I was just a wiseguy standing there singing – like a comedian, in a way. I became interested in coming back to the music and playing the guitar as a performer. And electric guitar, because when you play the electric guitar you’re a liar and when you play the acoustic guitar you’re telling the truth! [Laughs] It’s a real rock ‘n’ roll album. I’m very happy with it.
I like that idea very much. I wish more artists would do that. It’s always one of the greatest pleasures of a good live performance: when someone dredges something distant back up from out of the cobwebs and really owns it as the performer they are now.
I’ve done that in small clubs. Taken more of a jazz approach. Take The Living End. If their only experience is playing their songs in the overplayed, vaudeville style of the rock festival, there’s nowhere else for it to go. A lot of my experience of music is the dimensions of it. I’ve played at big festivals and it’s very exciting, but you have to play pretty big. The Rolling Stones have learnt to live within that, with incredible gimmicks and enormous screens. U2 tried to do it. In general, the music is just blown up too big. It’s lost almost everything by that stage. It’s quite small, the experience of being compressed into recordings. But their effect on the listener is enormous. When it’s made bigger like that, the effect is smaller – in my humble opinion!
Gerard Elson is the negligent keeper of the film blog celluloid tongue. Lately, things have seemed pretty sad there. It’s okay though: he’s been busy returning to uni to undertake an Honours degree in Film and Television Studies part-time, as well as working as the DVD buyer at Readings St Kilda. His writing has appeared here and there, and continues to do so.