Mick Thomas

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Album recollection #6 The Big Don’t Argue

As I write, the thought we might actually get back to Memphis to record once again after all this time grows daily as a reality – and so I think it’s time I try to gather my thoughts about the experience of recording The Big Don’t Argue there all those years ago.

When I think of the forces that actually lead to us making that trip it’s no wonder it proved a difficult record to promote and one the record company were never sure about (one that would ultimately see us part ways with WEA Records). I think there was a thought that sending Weddings, Parties, Anything to America to record would tone the band down a bit and make us broader (more international?) in our outlook and appeal. But it did pretty much the opposite of that and in producer Jim Dickinson we found a kindred spirit who only served to exacerbate our sense of being a rag tag bunch of misfits from a far flung country. We were happy with Jim referring to us in an interview as being ‘ the most primitive bunch of white men he’d ever met’. We could use that.

Suddenly we were hanging out with Mojo Nixon and Alex Chilton (well, Pete and I stood in the queue with him for some barbecue at an Ardent studio function). We were partying with the Georgia Satellites and being regaled with stories of The Replacements, Ry Cooder, of Tav Falco and a young Elvis Presley. And every night after recording we would go and hang in Beale St inevitably ending up lying on the grass and watching an old blues guy called Uncle Ben play his gnarly one chord Shopping Trolly Blues. All these things only made us want to turn our idiosyncratic-volume-bone up to eleven. Our buddies from Toronto turned up with cases of beer and one of them ended up being thrown in gaol for the entire weekend. Yes, things were going exactly to plan.

And so three months later when I was back in Sydney and I turned on Triple J to hear Streets of Forbes blaring out of the speaker and the obvious discomfort and lack of enthusiasm of the back announcement I thought to myself ‘oh hell, what in the fuck have we done’. Then a few months later once we were up to our third (unsuccessful) single from the album I had the onerous task of phoning Jim in Memphis to ask if he could perform some sort of edit/remix to the track Darlin’ Please. I could hear the bemused reluctance in his voice. It was painfully obvious that on a commercial level the whole project was a debacle.

But on a creative personal level perhaps it was a lot more positive. It was the experience of being in a place where recording music is regarded as an art form and an industry – an industry with a proud and justified history – that made us feel strongly that we had a lot more to give and that we could run our own race from there on in. We had recorded in the same place a lot of seriously successful and iconic music had been created. I think the fact Jim and John Hampton (the engineer for the sessions) took us so seriously counted for a lot. There was no sense of our inexperience in the studio being in any way a problem. Our opinions seemed to count in a way they hadn’t for a lot of people in Australia.

I still remember the first phone call from Jim that came totally unexpectedly at a house where I was living in Sydney in the late eighties. Suddenly there was this southern American drawl coming down the line, seemingly casual but enthused at the same time. He and his wife Mary Lindsay had been listening to the first two WPA albums as he was on a list of producers the record company had been approaching for expressions of interest. The Infanticide of Marie Farrar was the song that had piqued his interest. He loved the gravity of it, the poetry and the audacity of us using a Brecht poem in this way. Recently when I approached Mary Lindsay about the possibility of taking the current line-up of the Roving Commission over to record it was as if the years fell away and she exclaimed that the Weddings had been one of hers and Jim’s favourite bands. And then Kevin Houston, the engineer who currently works in the studio Jim bequeathed to his sons commented that he still remembers Jim coming into studios in Memphis after we had finished The Big Don’t Argue and telling people how proud he was of the album he had done with the strange band from Australia.

And so beyond that it’s all a bit of a blur. There was the initial introductory trip made by myself and my partner at the time. We stayed at the grand Peabody Hotel (the one where Malcolm Fraser lost his trousers) and got stung a fortune for room service. We got driven around town by Herbie O’Mell, Jim’s manager and went to dinner at Jim’s house. I played Jim a bunch of songs on the acoustic guitar and he made some notes. We met Jim and Mary Lindsay’s sons Cody and Luther. It was a long time ago.

And then when the band came in there was a function on a riverboat for all the artists recording at Ardent Studios. We did a few demos at the Sam Phillips studio with Roland Janes (Jerry Lee Lewis’ guitarist) before we hit Ardent Studios and began work in earnest. We stayed in a house across the parking lot from the studio and we walked to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket for our groceries. There was cyclone warnings on television every day between the seemingly interminable series of basketball. The rest of the band went to Graceland while I stayed at the studio to do vocals. We got to see Alex Chilton play with a three piece combo in a tiny venue. We saw Mojo Nixon play with a band called the Dick Nixons. We went to a barbecue festival and ate a mountain of pork ribs and drank generic American beer. We recorded onto a weird digital format I’ve never seen since but Jim felt it worked for bands like us. They could dump various takes into the machine and edit things together which was a really new concept in 1989. It had worked for The Replacements so we were all for it. Everyone at Ardent said after The Replacements we were the nicest and best behaved band Jim had bought in for some time. I think that was a compliment. We got involved in an argument about AFL from a newspaper article someone had sent and someone dismissed a player’s action as a ‘big don’t argue’ at which Jim turned around casually and said ‘I think you’ve got your album title right there’. My brother Steve turned up with the photo that would eventually become the album’s cover. He did the artwork in a hotel room in Toronto a week later. We got the record done in under a month which, in those days was considered really quick.

Some people from the record company in New York and then Sydney turned up and Jim charmed them masterfully. Diplomacy aside, I don’t think anyone was fooled. The process hadn’t turned us into the band some people were hoping it would and maybe we all knew that the money that had been spent wasn’t going to render much in the way of hits just yet. It was the end of the eighties and the purse strings would start to tighten right across the music industry and so perhaps we made that trip just in time.  In retrospect I feel really grateful to the record company people involved for supporting the project. It was a risk that possibly didn’t stand a great chance of paying off in the short term commercial sense but was really crucial to our development. By the end of that album’s release period we were touring with U2 and we felt invigorated enough to be planning our next album already. This time a little closer to home.

  

Album recollection #5 Difficult Loves

Album recollection #5 Difficult Loves

Thinking back  to this album it becomes all about the money I’m afraid. We sat in a cafe in Brunswick Street and floated ideas of how we would pay for the record. We did a budget and reasoned we could sell shares in the album as a business project which seemed simple enough. But even though there were people keen to invest the more we thought on it the more this suggested a nightmare scenario of accounting and acquittal. I think it was wise of us to forego this business model. And anyway we were really confident of our supporter base and their loyalty. If only there was a way to get them to buy the record before it was made? But there you have it – crowd funding didn’t exist in 1991 and we felt way too proud to be shopping demos to record companies now Warners had seen fit to show us the door. In the end we decided we would just have to scrape together the money to get the album rolling and trust someone with a big enough cheque book would get involved before we went bankrupt.

And so it seems extravagant that faced with such financial constraints we didn’t look for a way to make a cheap record but we had come up in the eighties and our budgeting was very much conditioned by this. In our estimation anything under $80,000 was a cheap record and so the idea of packing the entire band and producer off to the big house my brother owned in northern Tasmania – not even to actually record but to do a full week of pre-production – seemed justifiable. Looking back now that type of pre-production is just such a luxury. That amount of time to prepare without actually recording anything seems like something from another era. Hey – it was another era.

So before you knew it there we were down there bashing away in the little town where we were ultimately to record Riveresque two albums later. We had Alan Thorn back in control of the project as we felt he was definitely the right person to steady the once again shaky ship. It was Alan that actually sowed the seeds of us becoming much more in control of our own recording destiny when on the last night of the trip he lamented the fact we weren’t actually recording down there. What, we said, how would we record anything in this place to the standard required for a commercial release? And he replied we would need to buy a two inch tape machine and some decent pre-amps and a desk to monitor on -which would have been the budget of a full blown album. The difference would have been we would have ended owning the gear. Nice idea we thought, but bands owning their own studios? That was never going to happen.

But we were there to work and by the time we returned to the expensive pro studios of Melbourne we had practised the set of twelve tunes to within an inch of their lives and we were ready to go. It was Paul Thomas’ first album with the Weddings and we had done a requisite amount of live shows at this point to know the band was playing well. And sure enough by the end of the first week in the studio the RooArt record company were more than interested in taking us on. From memory the negotiation was reasonably simple and quick although at the time RooArt had just moved their distribution and while they waited for their deal to be done and financed they didn’t have much in the way of an operational cheque book. Fortunately the studios and producers seemed happy enough to wait for their payment. We were good for it. They would get their money.

But money didn’t even seem to be a consideration when we were looking at getting the album actually finished as RooArt decided we should get the first couple of singles remixed in London by Hugh Jones. Ultimately it was our money they were spending but it was all a proposition put to us in the most logical way. Spend money to make money I think pretty much sums it up. The mixes sounded fine and then the next problem became the construction of some elaborate film clips (again our money being spent on these).

Thinking back now it was strange that so much money got spent on that actual record when the really strong point of the whole release was the record company’s simple pragmatic approach to marketing the band. All we had to do they said was find a way to get our punters to all buy the first single at the same time and we would have a hit on our hands. We had enough material left over from the Big Don’t Argue to shore up the release of Father’s Day into a five track EP and by virtue of some nice limited edition packaging they did indeed cause a minor run on at the record stores meaning the single actually charted right away and consequently for the first time since Away Away was released years before we had strong airplay. As predicted it was a hit.

When I asked producer Alan Thorne what he thought of Hugh Jones’ remix of the track Father’s Day he replied simply that it was fine – it sounded like Father’s Day he said. It sounded like that when we recorded it in Melbourne, it sounded like that when we rehearsed it down in Tasmania, it sounded like that when he first heard us play it live and it sounded like that when I first wrote it. And so all that money, time and energy that went into that album and release in hindsight could possibly be seen as misdirected and even irrelevant to its ultimate success. Funnily enough every time I get a financial statement relating to the contract that spawned that release and see that twenty five years later we are still a mile from recouping what was spent (in spite of it being the most commercially successful period of my life) then the money becomes all too real.

Album recollection #4 Riveresque

And here’s anothery: Album recollection #4 Riveresque

It’s somehow fitting this album opens with the song Houses. Because it was recorded in a house where we were all staying together. A house where we’d done pre-production for an earlier record and decided that we should perhaps be making our own records in a place like that. And because at the time we were all getting on well enough to be in a confined place for a couple of weeks without throttling each other. Strange.

As we pulled up to the house I whispered to Jen Anderson to run up the stairs before anyone else and turn left at the top meaning she would claim the primo renovated bedroom looking out across the valley. Instead she turned left after the first flight of stairs at the mezzanine and ended up in one of the dusty under-reconstruction dog boxes (former servant’s quarters most likely) and Stephen O’Prey managed to claim the palatial suite. But somehow this was all right and such was the humour of the band as it was back then everyone seemed to see the funny side. Even though Stephen got the good room.

That big old sandstone house in northern Tasmania had been such an important place for me, and inadvertently the Weddings. Looking back to 1984 after a fledgling WPA had done a few shows around Melbourne and then fallen flat, it was in that very kitchen I sat with my brother, his wife, and her father and a couple of other friends, and played and played and dissected, discussed and deconstructed just what a repertoire a band like the Weddings might have and what it could sound like. I recall it was Christmas and to date the only one I have ever spent out of Victoria actually. Also strange.

And so it was significant to be back there 20 years later recording with the band. Even though Pete Lawler had departed the previous year I think the line up felt strong and invigorated at the time. There was a sense of unity and purpose that was served well by being sequestered in a small town in the Fingal Valley. We were here to make a record. A statement. The last band in town. The only band in town. Ever.

A lot of the album was tracked with people in various rooms of the sprawling old former country Inn but that song Houses was recorded in the big kitchen with everyone in together. Six people sitting facing each other with a slow combustion stove crackling away to heat the water for our showers and our evening meal. And I think you can hear it all. It was a few days into the session and we had set up ‘in the round’ to grab a few informal B-side type tracks but something about the informality and the sensitivity of this song just seemed to lend itself to this format.

To his credit, our engineer Cameron Craig was all too happy to go for it. Even though it was well into the nineties it should be remembered those draconian studio principles of keeping the instruments separate (‘separation – so we have control when we mix them all together’) and making sure everything was 100% on the beat (‘not moving around too much’) were still really dominant and compulsive elements in the way people judged their recordings. And so it was good we were in a position to really say how we wanted it to sound. We wanted it to sound like us sitting around a kitchen. Even more strange.

So often you read about bands ‘making the record they always wanted to make’. And here we were doing it. Sadly, like so many of those records, it turned out to be a valedictory address.

I think we were there in the town of Avoca for about two weeks. In that time Stephen O’Prey managed to get barred from the pub and we had to play an actual gig there to get him allowed back in. The phone booth down the street was given a fair working over as everyone made their daily three minute connection to loved ones back on the mainland (Oh, how heavenly the time before mobiles). We received one request for a booking for a 40th birthday party on the strength of being called Weddings, Parties, Anything (little did I think that 40th birthday parties would become a staple later on in my performing career). We worked hard. We made a record. And although at times personal hygiene was  compromised it was an invigorating exercise.

Surreal that six months later we found ourselves sitting together not in a half renovated nineteenth century rural Tasmanian kitchen but around the table at an Albert Park restaurant. And it was here the people from Mushroom Records told us that the album was finished as a commercial proposition and that a ‘Best Of’ compilation was to be our next release. It suddenly felt a long way from a sandstone kitchen in Tasmania.

….and these are the tour dates.

Some of these are not quite 100% firm but here’s how it’s looking:  

Mick Thomas & The Roving Commission  March – June 2017.

Friday 3 March | Nannup Music Festival, Nannup WA
Saturday 4 March | The Oxford Hotel, Leederville WA (Book Event)
Sunday 5 March | The Oxford Hotel, Leederville WA
Friday 10 March |  Port Fairy Folk Festival VIC
Saturday 11 March | Port Fairy Folk Festival VIC
Sunday 12 March | Port Fairy Folk Festival VIC (Book Event)
Friday 17 March | Costa Hall GPAC, Geelong VIC (supporting Violent Femmes)

Wednesday 22 March | Sun Theatre, Yarraville, VIC (Book Event)
Wednesday 29 March | Hamer Hall, Melb. VIC (supporting The Waifs)

Sunday 9 April | Rock n’ Roll Writers Festival, Abbotsford Convent VIC.

Saturday 22 April | The Gum Ball, Belford, NSW

Friday 19 May | Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne VIC
Saturday 20 May | Suttons House Of Music, Ballarat VIC
Saturday 27 May | Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide SA
Sunday 28 May | Wheatsheaf Hotel, Adelaide SA
Wednesday 31 May | Methodist Church, Adelong NSW
Thursday 1 June | Smiths Alternative, Canberra ACT (early and late show)
Friday 2 June | LeadBelly, Sydney NSW
Saturday 3 June | Lizottes Restaurant, Newcastle NSW
Sunday 4 June | Hotel Gearin, Katoomba NSW
Saturday 10 June | Milk Factory, Brisbane QLD (matinee & evening show)

Sunday 11 June | Bison Bar, Nambour, QLD

Friday 16 June | Moysten Hall, Ararat VIC
Saturday 17 June | Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh VIC

Album retrospective #3 Anythings, Sure Things, Other Things

The album recollections continue – this week it’s Anythings, Sure Things, Other Things I’m putting under the microscope….

I hadn’t heard from Stephen Cummings for some time but one day, out of the blue he rang to say he had been doing an acoustic album for Liberation Records and that it had been a really rewarding experience. He’d even gone as far as to suggest they should contact me about a similar release. Or I should  contact them he said and see if they were up for it. And so I did and his advice proved to be spot on. After six releases under my own steam I was now back with a properly funded label. Back with the Mushroom Records/Publishing group where the Weddings had finished up. And where I couldn’t help but feel I had unfinished business.

It was to be a retrospective collection of tunes – but as with all these things, it’s easy enough to find your own angle and your own interpretation to make it an interesting proposition. I discussed the track listing at length with the people at Liberation. They were pretty open about the fact they wanted it to be a good spread of WPA tunes and I was as keen as possible to get some of the newer catalogue in there. It seemed a tough call at the time although now I think it was a generous enough gesture on their part to allow me three songs from the post WPA repertoire. Coupled with the two covers (Australian Crawl’s Man Crazy and The Kink’s I’ll Remember) meant a third of the songs were not directly from the WPA era. The title of the record was important as it had to reflect the Weddings, Parties, Anything association with actually calling it that. But really once all that was decided and we had a budget worked out it was smooth sailing.

My last album as an independent was The Horse’s Prayer which was done out east of Melbourne at Doug Roberts’ studio. At that point I felt The Sure Thing had consolidated as a line up and even though I had worked with Craig Pilkington on various projects at his studio I felt he should be simply a guitarist. But with Anythings, Sure Things, Other Things I was putting together a group of musicians specifically for that release and so was happy for Craig to be the one to engineer and produce the album. Consequently, Audrey Studios in Richmond would be the venue and the core acoustic band would be Stu Speed on upright bass, Jen Anderson on violin and Jeff Lang on any variety of things. As it transpired, my thinking the Sure Thing was a solid outfit was mistaken and by then Michael Barclay had actually left the band so the idea of doing an acoustic record – sans drums – was actually rather convenient.

I can still recall Jeff Lang rolling up to the studio his car absolutely crammed with all manner of crazy unorthodox stringed things. He was literally squashed against the driver’s door in order to fit them all in. I really couldn’t tell you what half of them were even called but he had strong ideas about where any or all of them might fit and he had really done his homework on the tracks and had some fantastic thoughts on new arrangements for songs that were pretty much set in stone as far as Jen Anderson and myself were concerned. With any given ensemble of players people find their own roles and levels pretty quickly. Jeff had really made an effort to ensure this record would have a personality of it’s own and as such ended up being a sort of third producer to myself and Craig.

And so the sessions were pretty enjoyable as we began to pull apart and then put back together some old favourites. Monitoring in a totally live acoustic environment can be trickier than it seems. Some instruments are naturally louder than others but without drums there is the scope to place people in convenient locations around the studio to overcome these difficulties. Initially Jen Anderson found it hard to work out her place in the process and toyed with the idea of overdubbing her parts once Jeff had constructed (or deconstructed) the bed tracks with myself and Stu Speed. After some experimentation she quickly adapted to the general tone of the album and I’m glad to say the majority of it went down as full band takes which you would hope would be the case with musicians of that calibre.

Getting the final touches on the tracks proved tricker than usual in that this was a band of musicians I had chosen as instrumentalists without a lot of thought to on-going performance. The Weddings and Sure Thing had always had really strong second and third vocalists in the actual band to help construct the harmonies – Dave Steel, Michael Barclay, Mark Wallace and Darren Hanlon had always been the ones I had looked to when records were being finished. And so it was only natural Barclay and Wally would come in to help in this department but I think I was pretty happy that Kavisha Mazzella was around to sing some bits as well as the Git women who had been pretty prominent with the Sure Thing in a touring capacity.

Anythings, Sure Things, Other Things was a significant record for me in that it involved me working with Craig Pilkington in a production capacity and that it reignited my relationship with Liberation Records – both associations that have continued to this day. Also significantly, it was the first record where I had to confront the legacy of the WPA catalogue head on, again a conundrum that continues in my life. As I prepare to release a retrospective album (and book) the blurred line that sees my work classified as ‘before’ and ‘after’ has never seemed more prominent – or irrelevant. The songs all come from somewhere, they were all written with the same hope, intent and inspiration, but I am fully aware there is a history and an industry that claims them for it’s own. The important thing is to be finding people new and old who want to come to the tunes with a sense of creative ownership and responsibility and I think this was an album that helped me cement that ideal.

The post release promotion for the album saw me reshuffling personel a further time with Marcel Borrack coming into the live touring band to help with the slide guitar parts and the harmony department. Liberation Records were instrumental getting Jen Anderson and myself on a national Day on the Green tour with Joe Camilleri, Steve Cummings and Elvis Costello. Their promotional influence extended as far as managing to wrangle Jen and myself onto the live music component of the NRL Grand Final that year to play the song I’ll Remember in honour of a whole swathe of rugby league players who were retiring – which is an entire other story for the telling.

As I write this record has just been declared officially deleted (as a physical entity) by Universal, who now manufacture and distribute Liberation’s product. It is a sad fact of life in the year 2017 that more and more of these titles will be disappearing in some regard so it is a good exercise for me to be considering the effort and the expectation that went into them in the first place. Anythings, Sure Things, Other Things was definitely a turning point for me. But maybe all good records are.

Tracklisting:

Father’s Day

Houses

Away Away

Step In StepOut

The Lonely Goth

The Rain in My Heart

Hard Currency

For a Short Time

Tilting at Windmills

Our Sunshine

Monday’s Experts

Hungry Years

Man Crazy

A Tale They Won’t Believe

I’ll Remember

Album retrospective #2: Donkey Serenade

As the new compilation These Are the Songs approaches I will continue with a series of album recollections, this week it’s Donkey Serenade I’m thinking about….

Last week I discussed the making of Dead Set Certainty – my first studio album post Weddings, Parties, Anything. In the article I compared that record to one of the later Weddings albums Donkey Serenade. I think it’s a fair comparison. Both were records constructed entirely under independent resources. Both were records that had a lot of cover songs interspersed with some choice originals. Both were records where a sense of gentle experimentation was coupled with a feeling of apprehension at being such unsupported releases. I’m probably not going to cover the making of every WPA album in these stories but I think this album is a particularly significant one for the body of work that would be created over the next twenty years.

Donkey Serenade definitely crept up on the actual band itself as an actual concept. We had been signed to RooArt records for some time and without wanting to get into how that relationship broke down or how we were able to free ourselves from the deal, suddenly, surprisingly, we found ourselves able to walk. It was all a little surreal, and as liberating as it was scary. We could make our own music as we saw fit. But who the hell was going to pay for it?

It was the mid nineties and records were still reasonably expensive to make for a band like the Weddings – by that I mean, for a band accustomed to having budgets and all the excesses that entails and encourages. But the home recording DIY concept had certainly begun in earnest by then even if the Weddings were a little slow on the uptake. Myself, Jen Anderson and Paul Thomas had all bought ourselves some sort of home rudimentary recording gear. The problem was we’d all purchased vastly different formats that wouldn’t really talk to each other. And none of us really had the right sort of set up in our houses physically to suit a full band. But we had some songs, some ideas and we were confident our live support base were keen to see what our new found freedom and rejuvenated line-up could produce. As much as it might have looked precarious from an external perspective, the band had consolidated into a really keen and effective unit. We were ready to make a statement. But as I’ve already said – how were we going to pay for it?

I’m not sure at what stage studio engineer Cameron Craig became involved in the project but he was certainly the person I remember being responsible for pulling a lot of the loose ends together. I think Stephen O’Prey had worked with him previously in The Badloves and Jen had been regularly using him for various studio projects. Most importantly he seemed confident of the various disparate recording formats and equipment we had purchased and while he was dubious of the idea of us doing the whole thing ourselves he was helpful and ever ready with advice.

First stop was the Public Bar in North Melbourne which we used to patronise fairly heavily at the time. We organised to use the back bar for a couple of days and while it was a reasonably inefficient set up in terms of what we would later be able to access in our own various abodes at least we were up and running. Our live sound person Dylan Hughes came down and was tireless as usual – setting up, patching, re-patching, nothing too much trouble. We ended with three full band tracks (bass, drums, guitars) which we were able to take away and work on in our own home set-ups at mine and Jen’s house. I think we began another couple of songs in our various home environments and ultimately as Cameron became more involved we bit the bullet and booked a few days at a small studio in Carlton. Then we decided to mix the whole thing at another studio and before too long the album had taken some sort of shape. I am not even sure how much money we had saved doing the whole thing in this way but I think it was important for us to feel we had control and we were doing things for ourselves.

The cover art was easy enough as I had found an old packaging graphic that depicted a couple of donkeys working against each other before eventually deciding cooperation was the best policy (a thinly veiled comment on our experience the previous few releases in record company land). And if that gave us the name of the album, for the back cover photos I think the overriding feeling was the band members were so thoroughly sick of turning up to photo shoots it was easier for me to get the band’s stage person Stan Armstrong to put on a donkey’s head and imitate the various characters. Looking back I think the cover in a way gives you the key to the record. It’s patchy – intentionally home made in it’s overall appearance but kind of referential and endearing for all that.

Importantly, Donkey Serenade was the record that saw us finally wipe the crippling debt the band had accumulated over the first ten years of our existence. It really marked the advent of us making strong decisions at management, marketing and merchandising levels and significantly it was a really fun record to play and one we were really proud of. In retrospect, it may have represented a false dawn for the band but without a doubt it’s the reason I could charge into a solo career a few years later with a bit of confidence.

It’s here folks!!!

Finally, the new book has lobbed and it is looking pretty spiffy to my eyes.

These Are the Days is published by Melbourne Books and tells the story of how and why the songs got made, who made them, who they loved, the cars they drove, the planes they caught, the meals they ate, the floors they slept on and the shirts they wore. It is the low down and the high life of Mick’s last 25 years of bumping up and down the highway and staying put at home. It’s got the songs and the chords, it’s got the pictures and the posters, it’s got the art and the graft.

Advance copies for mailing should be here in a matter of weeks. Pre-order yourself a copy here: https://mickthomas.bandcamp.com/merch/these-are-the-days-stories-and-songs-by-mick-thomas

The companion compilation CD ‘These Are the Songs’ will be out in March.

Album retrospective #1: Dead Set Certainty

Dead Set Certainty

I received an online order today for the album Dead Set Certainty and upon going out to where the merchandise is stored realised it was one of the last copies we had – and so that means it is officially deleted. Ad this to the last couple of times I have approached Universal Music (who distribute Liberation’s catalogue) for stock and they tell me there’s no more physical copies of my last two titles and so it’s pretty easy to wonder about the shelf life of albums in general these days – mine or anybody else’s. I know they will all survive and be available in digital download format, or by streaming, but it’s hard not to feel some nostalgia for the tiny bit of plastic I pulled out of the first box and danced around the lounge room to all those years ago.

And so I thought with the compilation album These Are the Songs set to go into production any tick of the clock it’s timely to start a series of recollections of the various albums of my life. I’ll start with Dead Set Certainty seeing as that is the one that got me thinking in the first place.

Track listing:

Sunday Too Far Away

Comb and Cutter

In the Dead Letter Office

When You Go

Brandy…You’re a Fine Girl

Island of Dreams

American Sailors/ Ship in The Harbour

Jim Jones at Botany Bay

Billy Boy

Big Geographical

Moreton Bay

This was the first studio album I made post Weddings, Parties, Anything and as low key as I tried to play it expectations were always bound to get the better of me. Initially it was going to be a song by song re-creation of another extant album called ‘Moreton Bay and Other Songs, Mainly of Convict Origin’ (catchy title, I know!) This was a record made by folk troubadours Brian Mooney, Martin Wyndham Read and David Lumsden released in 1963 and one that had an enormous effect on the Thomas kids at the time. It was inspired and uncompromising – very raw and folky.

But when it came down to it in 1999 I just didn’t quite have the courage to go the whole way with the idea and so I settled for appropriating the album cover print and two songs from that original cache of traditional tunes and set about finding bunch of others to put in there. There was so much I felt I had to say about the situation I had found myself in at that time this seemed a lot more credible than an entire record about shearing, mining, droving and convicts. Perhaps I should have gone the whole way. As it stood the first two tracks on my album Sunday Too Far Away and Comb and Cutter were both shearing songs anyway. But looking at the spread of covers and the couple of originals on there I think it holds together well enough.

When You Go is the song of mine I feel most attached to from that record and I still have a memory of Peter Hayes (manager of the Weddings, and myself for a time) turning up to the studio where we were mixing out in Warrandyte and saying he thought my voice was sounding particularly good – I think he meant comparatively speaking to the guttural croak the large tours with the Weddings had often reduced me to. It was one of the things I was really conscious of with the first few records and tours after the band had split. I wanted to pull the backing down a bit, drop the keys to a few of the songs and see if I could actually sing rather than just use all my available vocal power to get above the good natured raucous din. As part of my new found desire to have my voice not overshadowed we toured that album as a three piece – sans drums. I think it was a couple of rowdy nights that convinced me the band was going to need to be able to play at volume (with drums) and that for me there will always be a trade off between keeping things pumping and having a pristine set of vocal chords. I don’t lose my voice quite as much these days (baring a recent trip to Queensland) but seventeen years later it’s still an issue.

So when we began work on that record in my tiny backyard bungalow I think I was in a quandary of not wanting to give too much away, but still prone, as ever, to being expansive about my personal situation. When You Go was written on the back of so many recent tragic deaths in and around the music industry and I guess Brandy was included out of total respect to Steve Connelly ( from The Messengers ) who had spoken so eloquently and fondly to me of that particular song. Sunday Too Far Away was for Darren Hanlon who was playing in the band at the time who was a big fan (and later, friend ) of Bob Ellis. Comb and Cutter was from The T-Bones who were pretty active around that time recording a few albums with me out in the same backyard bungalow. American Sailors/Ship in the Harbour made sure the Weddings (and therefore Triffids) connection wasn’t lost totally as was Big Geographical which was written about a particular relationship that had occurred with an actual band member. Billy Boy was from a film (Left Luggage) I was working on with my brother and Jen Anderson. And Island of Dreams was just how I was feeling at the time. Was it ever.

Even though it’s pretty much a covers album, it still paints a picture of where I was at in 1999. Even though it was a pretty simple pared back recording and destined for a totally independent release I know that at some stage I got to thinking maybe this was the one. And why not? Donkey Serenade was the record that dug the Weddings out of years of financial hardship and that record was constructed in the same ad hoc fashion and released independently. And for a lot of people in and outside the band it is a quintessential album. And so, Dead Set Certainty represented life after the weight of the big career had been lifted and consequently anything seemed possible. People were still buying CDs at my shows in those days and after a good period sitting on my hands I was getting ready for record launches and tours – of Australia, England, Canada and Europe. I was feeling optimistic, bullish even. Dead Set Certainty – I guess the title says it all.

Mick Thomas

Northcote

January 2017

South East Asia (First Night) OUT NOW!!!

South East Asia (First Night) – is the third release in the Sneaky Singles Club series and it is out now. It is released on 7″ vinyl which importantly comes with a super download package – another three tracks including a medley of the Hank Locklin/Lawton Williams songs Geisha Girl/Lost to a Geisha Girl which we have developed into a fine duet between Mick and Ayleen O’Hanlon. After that we have a pretty interesting version of the Shane McGowan tune Sayonara which Ayleen sings and then a thoroughly impressionistic reading of the Noel Coward poem Bali which is recited by Mush Lawler (Pete’s brother). And as well there is a PDF of the first edition of the Roving Commissioner on line newspaper which gives you a nice run down on the people on the record, the tracks on download EP and what is coming up generally. It’s a good deal – the vinyl is $15, the download on its own is $5 and the new tea-towel for $20 gets you the download as well.

Four Albums

Four Albums

It was at the briefest of rehearsals for the 2016 Brown River Spectacular show and we were working through a song called Brunswick Street Girl – sung this year by Jemma Rowlands. When banjo player/singer Ayleen O’Hanlon enquired as to who wrote the song in the first place everyone seemed to jump in with great enthusiasm – as Melbourne musicians, this was a song we all knew. It’s from an album called Talking in Your Sleep – by The Warner Brothers, released in 1990. So, now I am asking, do you know this album? Because I am aware plenty of people don’t.

But as myself and organizer of the Brown River show Jon Von Goes tried to explain how significant and important this song (and that album) was, it occurred to me that quite a few records I hold really dearly were constructed, promoted and purchased outside of what is normally considered legitimate channels. By today’s standards they were simply records that never got a commercial release. Maybe it was because the discovery of them was so personal and memorable these became records I truly love.

As the proponents of music streaming are claiming to give you ‘every song ever made’ I am prepared to argue there will necessarily exist a litany of absolute gems that don’t find their way onto Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music.

Here’s the story of four albums: How I got ‘em and why I like ‘em.

(ex) Cat Heads: Our Frisco:

There seems to be a lot written about this album and this band on the web. It appears they are/were in some way an important part of the San Fransiscan local music scene in the early nineties. But the night we wandered into their gig there weren’t a lot of people there. It didn’t feel like an important show and we were surprised when we spoke to the band and they said it was their last performance.

We were travelling home from about four months in North America and we had a night to kill in San Francisco. The band was fried and I think by this stage of a long tour, particularly insular and troubled. Lawler was fed up and had even gone as far as to physically accost a drunken Paul Thomas as we checked into our hotel so all in all we were not a happy band. After sitting in our respective hotel rooms for a while we decided to head out and see what the town had to offer. We had a meal, saw some bands, drank some beer and contemplated the final leg of the journey home. It ended being a fun night and it was late when we stumbled into one last venue and met the (ex) Catheads. They were a nice bunch of guys and their show was really enjoyable in a very low-key way. As I said the place was hardly packed. We started talking to them and before we knew it we were buying their record – this was still just pre CD so it was vinyl all the way for us. Through the years I have owned it on CD as well and now as a download (with an extra three cracking tracks I might ad).

The record is a weird classic to my mind – strangely-lo-fi and quite unsettled it seems to jump between a fully-fledged concept album about San Fransisco (bookended by two instrumental tracks Fog Rolls In/ Fog Rolls Out) and a collection of demos (three vastly different versions of one song). It’s sprawling and ambitious, as pretentious as it is unassuming and when I hear it I am back in San Fransisco at the end of a tour. Or in the van driving up the Pacific Highway three months later listening to a cassette dub of it.

Lowest of the Low: Shakespeare My Butt: I have written about this record a hell of a lot over the years but it continues to be one we play at our house at certain times and it never seems to lose it’s appeal. Although it came into our lives well after we’d become regulars in downtown Toronto it still speaks to me of our time there. It still tells the tales of that city. We were handed the CD (1992 – and the CD format had taken hold) by a great friend and promoter Bruce Eaton one tour and it will always take me to times we spent hanging around his house in Kensington Market. It reminds me of the Grange Hotel and The Cameron House, The Siboney and The Horseshoe, and of the times that were not so good. So broke, so cold and far from home,1990 coming in from a long drive out east drunk and hungry and finding the town pretty well shut up on a Sunday night. And then the Hungarian Goulash Party Tavern was magically open but payday was five days away and then for the first time in my life realising that they would take a credit card and wasn’t that the start of something else totally? The Hungarian Goulash Party Tavern is gone now but my credit card debt seems a constant and Shakespeare My Butt still sounds as good as it did back in 1992. Weddings, Parties, Anything only ever played two shows with the Lowest of the Low. It was nowhere near enough.

In 2012 Wally and I were lucky enough to be able to go and help a reunited Lowest of the Low tour the twentieth anniversary of that record and wasn’t that a mighty time? The first night of the tour in Buffalo, Wally and I kept bumping into each other excitedly running in and out of the band room as those beautiful tunes rolled out one after another. And each time we took another fine North American craft beer with us until we vowed to try and keep one beer per song as our nightly quota. But they’re quick songs and there’s fifteen of them in all and we are old guys and it was bound to end badly. The last night of that tour was at Massey Hall in Toronto and we wrote a song especially for the occasion called The Streets of Toronto. It finished with the verse:

I saw The Replacements in San Diego and that was quite nice

Saw Alex Chilton in Memphis, yeah that will suffice

But we saw ‘The Low’ at Lee’s Palace twice

So the rest can all got to hell

Oh the streets of Toronto we loved you so well

It is not my finest piece of work I will grant you but we meant it with all our hearts. It got a standing ovation and we haven’t touched it since. Still play Shakespeare My Butt regularly though.

The Warner Brothers: Talking in Your Sleep

Here’s the one that got me started on this rave. I first heard it being played at the Musicians Swop Shop in Carlton and in retrospect I figure it was no coincidence it was on loud and proud as they knew I was coming in to return some guitars they had lent to the Weddings one morning when we had a television appearance and hadn’t been able get into the band’s lock up. I guess they knew I would like it as I immediately asked who it was playing on the stereo, they explained who the band was, I bought the CD and it went from there. We did a stack of shows with them through the years – both as the Warner Brothers, then as Overnight Jones and ultimately back to the Warner Brothers again. They made a great record after that one, Dan and Stuey, the two writers made great records under their own names as well but it’s still Talking in My Sleep that means the most to me – and also to a lot of people who were around Melbourne at that particular time. They reformed recently as a thirtieth (!!!) anniversary of their inception and it was pretty much that album that got the majority representation.

Sean McMahon: Welcome to Gippsland

I was walking past the Last Record Store in Smith Street when I noticed this one in the window and I guess being born in Gippsland it got my attention. I went in and quizzed Alex about it and he explained to me that Sean had just turned up one day with the record finished and pressed and asked did he want to put it in the rack for sale. No promotion, no distribution, no live band to support the release – just a single unassuming CD. I’d just become aware of the band Downhills Home at this stage and had no idea that Sean was from there or any other band to be honest. But here was this brilliant concept album with guest character parts sung by Matt Walker, Liz Stringer and Laura Jean and when they finally played it live it was billed as a Downhills Home show and so it was a confused foray in a promotional sense but the record itself is really self-assured and quite timeless. The playing is understated, the singing is evocative, the songs are interlocking and self supporting, the whole thing totally lyrical.

And weirdly I think these albums all have something in common. They’re all sprawling, conceptually ambitious and in a weird endearing way, flawed pieces of work. All four are sonically imperfect as I guess they were all recorded without anything in the way of designated budgets. Anyone coming to them critically for the first time might very probably suggest some editing is in order but it is their unhurried breadth that gives them so much character and appeal. I know both The Lowest of the Low and The Warner Brothers for years were quite disparaging when discussing these records always claiming the next ‘properly recorded’ album would leave them for dead. But I think it is the absence of a commercial release that has let these albums be the idiosyncratic oddities that might resonate with a punter so thoroughly, so permanently. And certainly with three of the four albums I have written about here, they have lead to a lengthy association with the particular artists and a subsequent stack of releases I admire and stand by in every way.

In a general sense I think the point of this essay is to argue that how you discover and experience music is a really important part of why you might choose to like something. It’s not to say that you won’t buy a record from iTunes that you heard on a video hits channel or a commercial radio station and love that as well but I think the saving grace for me in the past couple of decades has been the mail order and the merchandise table – places where people can come to my recorded output in their own particular way, as their budget and ever-decreasing time frame might allow. It’s an experience that leads you to wonder mightn’t it render music a touch impersonal to suddenly want to own every song ever made at the touch of a computer mouse? I am about to finish writing this and head to the post office and then we are off to play a few local shows and see if we can sell some of the new single. So I’ll see you at the merch table folks – it doesn’t get much more personal than that. And anyway, back to the albums I have been writing about: who needs ‘every song ever made’ when you’ve got these four?