Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Kirk Pengilly (INXS) interview: 2010


The sensitive issue of INXS's post-Michael Hutchence years has certainly divided a lot of fans. It seemed as if everyone had an opinion on whether the surviving members should even have carried on at all, and when semi-permanent replacement singers continued to come and go, things didn't look good for the band's future or its legacy. Now that a new album of INXS hits re-arranged and re-sung by seemingly unrelated artists has arrived, the debating is set to continue. The project, titled Original Sin, sees the group teamed up with James Ash of Rogue Traders in the producer's chair, and a cast of widely known guest vocalists from all across the music landscape, with a common thread - each one an INXS fan.

To discuss the handing over of his band's songbook to some of contemporary music's finest singers, is Kirk Pengilly. The official band spokesman, guitarist, saxophonist and sometime leather trouser enthusiast, speaks proudly on the results of an idea that actually pays the greatest respect to their late singer, as well as reminding would-be detractors the undeniable power of some truly great songs. "We knew in doing it, we could receive mixed reactions but all the new arrangements were done by us - the original band - and each singer recorded their parts over the pre-recorded track." Kirk begins. "We didn't have a definite plan, we just knew we wanted to do something along the lines of re-imagined versions of a few songs." He explains, "We started off enlisting James Ash, who comes from a DJ background. You might remember Rogue Traders had a hit with a great remix of Need You Tonight, which is actually what prompted us to do this in the first place. We wanted him to have a go at remixing To Look At You - which was the first thing we recorded for this album - then we mulled it over for about six months and finally got him back in to work with us on the remaining tracks and expand on the remix idea by adding entirely new vocals."

The remainder of the album's re-workings are much less remixed, but rather covered by the band that wrote them, and sung by a few accomplished fans. You get some familiar voices singing in decidedly unfamiliar ways to songs you will know, even if you'd forgotten you did. Surprisingly, they haven't opted for the 'obvious rock hits' from the INXS back catalogue here, but choosing to go with The Stairs as opposed to Suicide Blonde from 1990 album, X for example is hardly an oversight. It's the career-spanning cross section of quality over commerce that ups this projects' interesting stakes dramatically, as does the unusual range of vocalists. Kirk says on how the careful selection process took place.

"We drew up a list of singers we really admire, and who we thought would suit a particular song. Once we started putting each one together it became apparent who would be the ideal vocalist, and in some cases that's actually how it worked out. Some of the singers we approached said they really wanted to do a particular song, but in a couple of cases we already had them in mind for something else and had to twist their arm!" 14 versions of INXS tracks were recorded for the project with 12 making the cut. Present is Pat Monahan (Train) on Beautiful Girl, but there's already a buzz about an unreleased version of this song by Brandon Flowers, which was dropped at the last minute. Kirk discusses.
"As it panned out, his manager I guess felt that it was a bit of a conflict because his solo album was released just before Original Sin. They didn't like the idea of him having a separate, unrelated track clashing with it, and it was most likely going to be the lead single." He says, "It was a remarkable version though, it sounded unlike anything he'd done before with The Killers." While we're in dream guest list mode, Kirk reveals a couple of names that for whatever reason, stayed on the drawing board. "I'd love to have worked with Chaka Khan, to be honest." He smiles, "Also I'd have liked John Mayer to sing on something, but he ended up only playing guitar (on Mystify) because he didn't have the time. The interesting thing we found was the most of the people we did end up working with where huge fans of INXS. Rob Thomas, who I'd known for years, was so humble and nervous about being in the studio with us and you kind of forget that some of these people grew up listening to us and they do see us in a certain way." When re-interpreting the tracks on Original Sin, Kirk explains the band's guests where allowed free reign to make what they would of the task.
"They were obviously restricted by the way we'd re-arranged the songs, but there were no rules really. If you listen to Ben Harper's version of Never Tear Us Apart, he doesn't follow the track, but does his freestyle soul thing, and it still works beautifully. Then there's Nikka Costa's version of Kick which is probably the most distant sounding track from the original in a way. What we found was that some singers were much more comfortable playing around with variations of their track and taking the chance to do something completely unlike what they're known for." Kirk adds that there weren't any 'difficult' artist interpretations that couldn't be used in the end. "No well Jon Farris, being the executive producer, was present at all the vocal sessions in London and Paris and he talked to the artists about what they wanted to do and made sure both parties were on the same page."
Pengilly recalls a surprisingly affable session with one Mr Thaws in London. "Probably the easiest session was with Tricky (on Mediate) actually. How he operates, is you get a couple of takes and if you don't like it, too bad!" He laughs, "He knows exactly what he wants the track sound like, and he gets it done so he can go off and have a joint!" Kirk adds of Tricky's selection, "Having him (Tricky) on the album was a no brainer - Michael was always a big fan of Massive Attack and the first Tricky album (Maxinquaye)." He adds, "Another person we wanted for similar reasons was Nick Cave. He was one of Michael's idols, but Nick unfortunately declined and I can understand why. He was good mates with Michael and maybe he felt a little nervous about being compared with him."

Not completely absent from Original Sin, but hardly prominent either is INXS's current official singer, JD Fortune. He adds his vocal to album closer, The Stairs, and it's perhaps the first indication of a more certain future with the band following the bizarre mud-slinging he engaged in after his first world tour with INXS. But long before Fortune's launch pad, the reality show Rock Star INXS, and various stand-in vocalists for tours, Kirk himself was the pre-Hutchence lead singer of the iconic band. He happily recalls of those simpler times. "When I met the Farris brothers, I had already been fronting my own band in Sydney and so I did slip into the roll of singer/songwriter with them." He divulges, "When Michael came along he didn't play an instrument and so it was very conspicuous him being on stage, although he was developing his confidence as the tambourine player in the early days of the band," Kirk laughs, "but he was also obviously coming into his own as a singer, so what happened was we decided he should take the lead me step into the roll of guitarist and occasional sax player." Kirk claims he never even considered reprising his roll as lead singer following Hutchence's death in 1997, "I would never want to front INXS that would be crazy. Besides I wouldn't have the confidence now to take the knocks from Michael's fans that JD has."

As the band's official archivist who's been keeping daily diaries since their very beginning, Kirk had a major roll in compiling recent biography, Story To Story. On his word, some more embarrassing tales were cut out – "Don't want the kids reading that!" - and on occasion, he had to make the tough call on what Michael's fans might want to read or not read about his life. "The original draft had a much larger portion devoted to Michael and Paula Yates' relationship and that definitely needed to be cut down a little." Kirk says, referring to the late couple's ultimately destructive pairing. "That was a whole other story outside of the band and we had to make a decision on whether fans wanted to read about the demise of these two people, or about stuff that was directly related to the band, and I think it was the right thing to do in Michael's memory."

Considering the memory of their much adored singer, INXS have very likely made their greatest post-Hutchence move yet by recording Original Sin. Its part tribute album and part greatest hits, but it offers more to fans than either of those two things. The care taken in the re-arrangements and matching of voices to songs is undeniable, but putting it in long-time fan's terms, Original Sin is actually good enough to make up for Rock Star INXS... Almost.


Click to watch:  
INXS "Devil Inside" with commentary by Beavis & Butthead!

Michael Hutchence, 1988


  1. Love JD Fortune's version of The Stairs, he puts so much passion into every note. Think it's the best song on this album! Also like Mediate and Just Keep Walking.

    1. No Michael Hutchence means No INXS!! It is completely disrespectful to replace him.

  2. Michael was an artist, he had a whimsical streak to him doesnt anyone remember stories of him sleeping on a park bench in Cannes or recording Max Q on the fly, he would love these arrangement and would have gotten a thrill collaborating with other talents in the industry. Good on you my boys!

  3. I really love JD Fortune's version of The Stairs. He has an amazing voice that makes the song really soar. His bonus track on the album, "Love Is", is my favorite of all the songs on Original Sin. Beautifully re-imagined...

  4. JD's version fo The stairs is really nice, but his version of Love is (what I say), en the same album, is even better. And listening to it live, just gave me goose bumps!

  5. There is no reason to "hate" JD or the "new" INXS. I have been a fan for 27 years, and I am never not going to be a fan! Why can't people just embrace all of INXS? Its so much easier. I love Michael and I thank them for continuing on, its what they love and its what Michael would have wanted. I saw them a week ago and the show was awesome! They sound even better live if that's even possible. I also appreciated the book.It gave a truthful look at INXS and Michael. I never knew Michael had a serious head injury! The media conveniently leaves that out and only focuses on things that cannot be proven. Michael had a very rough time and so has the rest of the guys. I have nothing but respect for all of them. Rock on forever guys :)

  6. Yeah, Michael had a serious motorcycle crash in 1993 and wrote much of 'Full Moon Dirty Hearts' while he was recovering in hospital. It's actually my favourite album by them. I love the darker, more poetic lyrics in songs like 'Viking Juice' and 'Days Of Rust', but I think the album was considered a low point for them which is sad!

  7. JD Fortune SUCKS

  8. JD would be good in porn movies or something similar.