Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Suze DeMarchi (Baby Animals) interview. 2009


In the lead up to talking to Suze DeMarchi, I hurriedly scoured the net searching for archive interviews with the Baby Animals singer looking for an indicator of what I was expecting to be a ‘difficult’ discussion. While preparing for the worst, it occurred to me I had absolutely no founding for this preconception. Did the direct and confident delivery in her singing voice somehow translate to me as aggression? Its true Baby Animals had that fuck ‘em if they don’t like it attitude with Suze as our very own Joan Jett who didn’t need to remind us how much she loved rock n’ roll. The feisty singer of such hits as Rush You, Ain’t Gonna Get My Love and Lights Out at Eleven immediately dissolves my irrational fear over the phone from Perth where she’s visiting family, “You’re my first interview today, so I’m not completely jaded yet!” She begins with a big laugh.

“I’m so excited about these symphony shows, this is definitely going to be one of those ‘I’m so glad I said yes’ moments.” Suze jumps right in before I even bring up the four planned shows where Baby Animals along with Diesel and Divinyls will be multi-headlining a rock and symphony extravaganza much like Kiss and Metallica before them. “I’m even gonna wear a tux n’ tie for the occasion!” DeMarchi enthuses. The project, set to take place in January, is in the capable hands of musical director Tim Count. His work includes TV and film scores as well as tickling the ivories for The Angels and Angry Anderson. It was noted events organiser John Zaccaria, however who called Suze out of the blue asking for her band’s involvement. “He called like, five or six times before I was sure I wanted to do it.” She tells me, sounding a little amused, “What convinced me was for one is Chrissy Amphlett (Divinyls) is on board and she’s just… wow! Plus Diesel and I go way back; I’ve known him since I was 17.” She continues, “Secondly, in the beginning this whole thing was going to be a one-day-only concert on Rottnest Island. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to ‘Rotti’ but it’s just one big party.” Rottnest presented a few strategy problems, so instead a short tour was announced. “Well because of how the place is laid out it basically would’ve been impossible to sell tickets.” Suze explains, “There was just nowhere to set up a stage area that could be fenced off and made into an arena separate from where everyone goes to drink and party.” Taking the show on the road has resulted in one or two small problems. Despite the extra performances, there’s still only two days are scheduled for rehearsal. “That does make me a little nervous,” Suze laughs, “We have to get in there and nail it and make totally sure that everyone is on the same page. That should be interesting!”

When choosing songs to be accompanied by the orchestra, Suze made a list with a ‘no changes option’ which will be handed to Tim Count, but was it a simply a task of deciding what would and wouldn’t work? “Well basically, there’s no reason why any of the songs wouldn’t work.” She states “A song like Painless backed with strings I think is going to be exciting, and even Early Warning which is a fairly standard rock song, I can hear a lot of potential for that too. The list I made came more from the songs I wanted to hear in a completely new way.” Suze confesses she’s in total awe of orchestra people; “When I lived in England I worked at a theatre making sandwiches for the London Symphony and I would see people coming in all day to record various things with them, I remember Billy Connelly even did a session one day, and the band would just walk in and sit down with the sheet music – no warming up – and off they’d go. After it was all over, they would just sit around laughing and chatting until the next person came in the use their services.” This story makes me think of a pair of shoes left by the door waiting for a foot to go in them and take them on an adventure. “It’s just that these musicians were so disciplined.” Suze continues, “If they were bored it didn’t show, but it did make me realise how much patience I was lacking.”

With all the discussion of the orchestral arrangements, I’m reminded of the contrast between Baby Animals debut self-titled album (1991) - which followed a fairly tried and true rock formula - and the second album, Shaved & Dangerous (1993) which took a huge leap forward in terms of consciously avoiding any traditional rock song structure. Suze admits now that perhaps things got a little over ambitious during the writing of their sophomore album. “I don’t know if I would call the second album a leap forward, probably more a trying-to-hard-to-be-clever experiment.” She reflects, “It wasn’t fun for me to make as a writer, because the guys were competing to make all these deconstructed arrangements and ignoring time signatures, all that sort of thing and it was really hard for me to write lyrics that fitted.” These less traditional arrangements must be an exciting prospect for a symphony orchestra; “I hope so, I mean they don’t really get to perform with rock bands very often just like we don’t get to play with orchestras, so hopefully we’ll all get something interesting out of the experience.”

Being back in Australia for family and business matters has reinforced Suze’s seemingly long held desire to get away from the wacky world of Los Angeles; “I’ve served my time in LA, man so that’s why I’m planning on dragging my husband back to Australia.” Suze moved to the US over ten years ago to be with her husband Nuno Bettencourt of the recently re-formed, Extreme. “My plan is to get him to move to Sydney first, let him get used to that!” She laughs, “Then eventually over to Perth so we can be near my family. He doesn’t know yet though!” DeMarchi admits the bond to her birthplace has only strengthened during her time in the US. “I think about my daughter, whose 13, growing up in LA and how she’s really bought into the whole instant fame thing and it’s really despairing. She wants to be an actor but she doesn’t seem aware of what work is even involved with doing that.” It’s clear that Suze is concerned for her daughter and looks to her former home as a salvation from her vapid adopted town. “There are a lot of good things about LA, but there’s also the endless stream of Paris Hilton clones and yeah, I just don’t want my daughter to end up like that. I want her to appreciate things and work for what she wants.”

With the cut throat world of instant fame in mind, Suze reveals how close she came to being the next singer of INXS before they decided instead to pick a reality show winner - the recently dismissed JD Fortune. “I was pretty disgusted by that whole thing,” Suze confides, “I was like, well I don't want to compete because if I lose, I'm just gonna look ridiculous." She claims, "Anyway, the producers of that show actually told me they would rig it for me to win if I agreed to all these terms and conditions, so that was it for me, I refused and so I was out." Suze continues, “I feel so bad for Andrew though, he and Michael (Hutchence) were so close from the very start and always wrote together, so when Michael died Andrew lost his bro. We’re talking a great musical partnership that was equal parts Andrew and Michael, and sadly Andrew just hasn’t been able to find anyone who he has that spark with since.”

After the INXS fiasco, Suze, far from defeated by the experience, finally began writing the next Baby Animals record. Il Grande Silenzio was released in 2008, 15 years after their previous effort (equaling the wait for Chinese Democracy) but most importantly, time had been good to the relationships between the four original band members: “We didn’t really grow apart or anything.” Suze explains, “We used to meet up every couple of years or whenever we were all in the same place and there would always be talk about doing something again but because we all had kids, we knew it would have to just wait. It was really only a matter of time, though.” Despite the years off - with the exception of a solo release in 1999 – DeMarchi assures me she never lost her urge to rock. “Oh, I always kept that dream in the back of my mind. I’ve always said since I was a teenager playing in pub bands around Perth, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and that has never changed.”


Link to Baby Animals performing "Painless" at the Rock Symphony show in Melbourne: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78G6WFZ1tps

Monday, October 19, 2009

G Love & Special Sauce interview

Garret Dutton - better known to the world as G Love, together with his band Special Sauce burst out of Philadelphia in the mid-90s with a cocky new twist on the cities celebrated blues and roots history. They fused a jagged edge blues sound with hip hop lyrics at the time when a new wave of acid jazz bands was in fashion. Their 1994 debut album was a summer smash in Australia - thanks to the swinging Cold Beverage single – and since that time, Special Sauce have never once overlooked Australia come tour time. With a new Oz only album to promote, Long Way Down, G Love is getting ready to open up his special sauce all over the country as we talk of his exclusive new disc.
“You know we always have a great time in Australia, so putting out this album for you guys meant that we’d have an excuse to come and play soon. We just confirmed the dates and venues, so it’s all locked in now.” Given his love of rhyme and that sense of fun in his music, I’m not surprised to hear G Love talk almost in rhythm as though he’s half consciously composing songs in his head; “I am actually working out some new songs at the moment. When we get back from Australia we’re going into the studio to record what I’m thinking is going to be our dopest stuff yet. I can’t wait to get these tunes down, man I feel like I’m having a creative peak right now.”

The live show is set to include some of G’s brand new work, as well as all the fan favourites; “We like to mix it up, you know, I always try and let the mood judge what we play or how even we play, but then there’s a bunch of songs we always keep in the set like, Hot Cookin’, Booty Call, Cold Beverage and Baby’s Got Sauce because they’re fun and we always get asked to play ‘em, but I’ll also drop in some hot, hot new songs.”

The new Australian album, Long Way Down is fairly old news to G Love, being as it’s a composite of the ‘best bits’ of his last two US releases, (Lemonade and Superhero Brother) and some never-before-released tracks to boot. “The thing with Long Way Down is it’s actually a pretty cohesive album despite how it came together. You kind of go on a little journey with this one, starting with Peace Love & Happiness and ending with Superhero Brother.” You get the vibe that G Love is a fun lovin’ man of simple pleasures – he likes the custom made songs to soundtrack the good times - even his more serious jam, Peace Love & Happiness (actually about the US military’s occupation of Iraq) is perfect sunny afternoon playlist material. Is it OK to call it a protest song, though? “I’m worried about the shit that my country is involved with for sure, so I definitely don’t mind if people think of it as a protest song. Superhero Brother on the other hand is a bit more chilled, it’s a song that came about after one of those silly conversations about what would you do if you had all these amazing super powers and that, so the album ends on a more optimistic note, I guess.” That track on first listen immediately makes me think of people like Bono and Bob Geldof elevating themselves to saviors of the third world, is there a subtle swipe at giant pop star egos going on there? “I’m aware of how kinda pissy it looks when these mega-rich dudes use causes to raise their profile, so my song has a kind of tongue in cheek look at that but also, I feel that people who have a certain amount of privilege in life maybe should be thinking about how they can make a difference.”

Recently G Love joined the roster at Brushfire records, which he shares with Donovan Frankenreiter and Jack Johnson. The latter of who recorded some of his strongest material with G Love on Philadelphonic (2004), Does Jack still feature in G’s creative life? “We toured together along with Donovan quite a bit, and we’re more like good buddies than collaborators, you know. Jack and I both love surfing, so we would always take our boards out together on tour and just spend the day at the beach before a show, so it never felt like just a music thing.”

Naturally, Garrett is packing his board for his upcoming shows in Oz – you might even catch him down at St Kilda beach checking the conditions. “Oh yeah, I’ve definitely planned get some surfing in on this tour.” He says, excited at the thought. “We’re gonna be hanging around for quite a while this time ‘cause Australia’s just awesome for surfing.”


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) live in Melbourne 2009 - venue: Corner Hotel

The contrast between Angie Hart - who's warming up the room for Johnette tonight – and the main act is pretty striking. The former Frente singer seems so vulnerable on stage and is even apologetic for us having to 'sit through' her set in anticipation of the headliner. Angie remains completely motionless as she runs through a short set of brand new songs and Frente classics and from where I'm standing, no apologies were needed. Perhaps Angie was nervous about opening for an act who hasn't played for her Australian fans in over a decade. Really, the anticipation for Johnette Napolitano tonight is so intense that Elvis could walk on stage and get booed off if it meant having to wait longer. The big question on everyone's lips is after nearly 30 years of making music, what will she play?

After Concrete Blonde disbanded in 2004, Johnette moved out of LA into the California desert where she began writing for the self-funded self-produced Sketchbook album series. Highlights from these CDs are scattered in amongst Concrete Blonde's most loved songs tonight - and some pretty surprising covers - making for a 'fan's greatest hits' live experience. Johnette is already on stage and playing before the the curtain finally parts, revealing a pale and expressive face peering out from a mop of untamed black hair. The welcoming cheers are brief so as to not miss any of opening number, The Real Thing - a new song which is sadly very hard to find, but has all the potential to be massive - Johnette is in warm up mode, testing her voice which cracks a little here and there. The song loses nothing in this process and by the end of tonight's show, it becomes very clear why Johnette is still gradually smoothing out the creases in her astounding voice long after soundcheck. Gradually using more range, Johnette launches into Amazing - this tense, mid-tempo song are perfect bait to hook us all in and very soon the room is hushed and still.

The stage is now bathed in red light as Joey kicks off with restrained amusement. Being Concrete Blonde's only big hit in Australia, I sense there is a feeling of obligation to play it rather than want. The much faster and shorter re-working is quite nice for it's familiarity but soon becomes hilarious as Johnette, feeling her concentration going, widely pops open her eyes and stares madly at someone filming her, then in tune with the song's chorus informs him "I'm going to shove that camera up your ass". The laughter and applause brings the song to a quick finish, and Johnette makes a hurried apology to the camera wielding dude, reinforcing what we already knew - that she simply saw the chance for a spontaneous rhyming gag. Making sure that the concert never flat lines is Johnette's driving purpose here. She's making it fun for herself and for us. Still, I would be willing to bet anybody in her line of sight got the goose bumps in that moment her eyes fixed on the unwelcome camera.

The short acoustic intro is now over and Johnette welcome's to the stage her drummer Gabriel Ramirez (can you get a more Mexican name?) to spice things up. He's one of those dark brooding types with expressionless eyes who would look quite comfortable screwing a silencer onto a pistol. He's greeted enthusiastically and gives a characteristic faint smile and slight wave to the audience. Comfortable behind the kit, Ramirez slips into his zone and stays there for the entire show. Meanwhile Johnette is playing her matt-black painted acoustic guitar just like a low slung bass, making me hang for when she inevitably swaps the instrument and we get to hear one of the best ever lead bassists live and unleashed.

As a performer, Johnette has equal measures of sombre and completely feral - at times she's like watching Patti Smith or Janis Joplin whooping it up. She can be sweet and girlish one minute and scary as hell the next. The Italian-American looks as though she's not simply singing, but exorcising the music from herself. It's an almost frightening display of primal channeling as Johnette seems to be at the mercy of her songs as they leap from her throat. She looks disoriented and detached, sometimes even violent as though she's in a struggle for ownership of her soul. Her lips curl back and her teeth chatter like she's freezing before every line sung, giving the appearance mini seizures taking place. It's as if Napolitano's jaw is being operated against her will. Adding to the wild, unpredictability her and Ramirez frequently start the songs out of time with each other. It's barely a distraction though, as the raw energy being produced kills any need for standard structure.

In their live set, Concrete Blonde always chose interesting covers, tonight Coldplay's The Scientist is the first of four, and not even close to being the most bizarre. The song's gentle plodding pace is scrapped as Johnette, preferring to make it her own, pays little honours to the original and gives a gritty, unpolished performance. The raw edge given to Coldplay is all smoothed out for the next cover - Johnny Cash's Ghost Riders In The Sky. Johnette shares with us that this was the last song she played for her father who died two months ago, before singing her heart out. It's impossible not to be moved.

Encores are always nice little sweeteners to send everyone home with, but Johnette tears up and re-writes the book on them. Not only do we get two encores, but the first one involves filling out the stage with a surprise guitarist named James - from Johnette's extended touring party - and a guest second vocalist named Fiona. Best of all, Johnette's plugging in that bass and after a few plucks on the strings, she yells; "Okay, it's pretty close to halloween and because I know you love it Melbourne....!" It's Bloodletting. Oh Yes! The place is going absolutely bananas. Johnette is pulling out the thickest, blackest bass chords ever and completely drowning out the band while getting everyone to sing along in the chorus. How do they top that, I wonder. The answer it turns out is play a Midnight Oil song. Beds Are Burning to be exact, and Johnette's even doing the Peter Garrett Darlek voice. It's an amazing version, and we forgive Johnette for not remembering all the words in fact that just adds to the comedy of the whole thing. As the band exit the stage they treated to a response that can only be described as outright hysteria. After a few uncertain minutes, Johnette reappears to deafening screams and under a single spotlight, recites in perfect pitch Tomorrow Wendy - acapella with accompaniment from the whole audience. Goosebumps time again, and then her final exit but still nobody wants to leave. Instead Johnette Napolitano earns the longest post-encore applause I have ever seen.


photos by me & indolentdandy

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Damien Leith interview

The imbalanced power game of starry-eyed upcoming singer versus staunch cynical industry old hats is something that used to only happen out of the public eye. Since the reality TV boom dragged into our lounge rooms, Australian Idol has only really proved to highlight how quaint the whole system is compared to greater options of self-publicity available for artists through mySpace, youtube etc…Yet on it goes, producing the next future ‘whatever happened to…?’ subjects whose blank checks all bounced around the second album mark.

Emerging as the winner from the 2006 crop of Australian Idol contestants, my interview subject today Damien Leith bit the hand that refused to feed him when he went public over a small print clause that kept him broke while his album earned over three million for the shows creators. Three years on from taking out a win over Jessica Mauboy, he’s excited to be releasing a new album, Remember June – a mostly self-penned effort completely free of Idol sausage factory meddling. “I’m probably more excited about it at the moment because I just got a finished copy of the CD the other day, so it’s like a real thing now you can hold.” Leith begins his rise-crash-rise again story in a charming Irish brogue.

The album’s producer was Stuart Crichton famous for his work with Kylie and The Pet Shop Boys so is it a disco album? “Well, no, he took me piano based acoustic songs and just made this big summery tracks around them, so he kind of just used what I had already and gave the songs a more anthemy feel with lot’s of big moments.” Damien feels that he’s taken a few risks with this album in that he took a year to make it and was writing a novel – his second - at the same time, which forced his songwriting into a different direction. “I was focused more on narrative and story telling in songs because really I was writing the book more than I was focused on writing songs. I just let the ideas for the book flow into the songs so the two projects were always going to be indirectly linked.”

Damien’s post Idol career hasn’t always been as rosey as it is now, in fact his experiences shed a lot of unwanted light on the dark reality of reality TV. His first album The Winner’s Journey, despite being the highest selling album of 2006, failed to earn Leith a single cent and left him feeling more than a little shafted; “I gotta say I don’t feel good about the Winner’s Journey album at all. It meant that I had done that work only to make somebody else rich.” Contractually, it is in the fine print that artists don’t make royalties from the first Idol album, it is meant to be a cash-in for the show while the singer goes off and writes a new one and hopes for the best. “There was a knock on effect of that experience because it was such a big seller, it almost determined everything I did next so I was narrowed down to doing covers sets and touring just to pay the bills.”
The story goes that Damien even had to sell his car while his first album was number one in he charts, making him probably the poorest man ever to have shifted 70,000 units. “I have to say though I have no problem with the show (Idol).” He continues, “People say the judges on the show go too far and with me they once said, oh you dress like a clown, or whatever but being in that environment you do get instant feedback for better or worse and it does give you a sense of were you’re going or what could be.” Damien was 30 years old when he auditioned for Idol, but did his age and experience give him any real advantage? “I was more able to hide my anger or deal with taking a few knocks from the judges a little better, but I still think it’s kind of ridiculous the way they make comments about peoples personal appearances, it doesn’t seem to me to be all that important.” He continues, “They seem to have this idea that everyone has to be super pretty and that to me is really misjudging why people like music or buy music. You should be judged on your songs if by anything at all.”
Damien’s a father of two young boys, Jagger and Jarvis - named after two of his own Idols – so would Dad encourage a music career if one were to blossom, given his experience in the industry? “Honestly, no I wouldn’t. Not since I discovered how tough it really can be. You can try and prepare yourself for hardship, but then something will always come along and just wind you. You really need something to fall back on in this game because of how fast the business moves. One day you’re fine, and then you can be out the door just like that.”


Monday, October 5, 2009

Metric live in Melbourne 2009 - venue: Billboard Club

There's no doubt the exposure of having your songs in the latest ultra-trendy HBO drama series works well for bands. Looking around at the ecstatic crowd gathered to see Metric tonight, I'd say (making one of many broad sweeping judgments to come) most their fans were watching Grey's Anatomy or CSI when they first heard them. This is their first ever Australian visit, but it has been preceded by half a dozen of the Toronto band’s songs playing over the credits of all the credible US dramas. This is the modern equivalent of three top 20 singles and a saucy photo scandal, probably.

In reality, Metric have gained much of their notoriety overseas through connections with fellow Canadians, the much loved Stars, sharing flats with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and good old fashioned touring. In their early days Metric also worked briefly with legendary UK dance producer Stephen Hague whose influence comes through on Twilight Galaxy, which opens the set at Billboard tonight. As far as beginnings go, it's a perfect start to the high energy performance. Singer Emily Haines rocks back and fourth as she pounds the keyboard, creating a thick pulsing layer of techno-noise almost drowning out the band. The last show I saw at the Billboard was Primal Scream who completely slayed my senses (including the all important sense of balance) so to avoid a repeat of that, I stayed close to the back of the room. There's something strange about the way the Billboard is designed - it seems to trap the energy of the bands and the punters which gradually builds into an oppressive, heavy atmosphere. I'm thinking about ventilation but can't take my eyes off these frantic pogo-ing figures getting off to all that sweet noise.

Metric were no wilting flowers themselves, leaping and darting around the stage. Haines especially is fun to watch as she throws her tall thin frame about like a woman possessed. Guitarist Jimmy Shaw and bassist Josh Winstead are all smiles, throwing action poses in between bouts of jumping on the spot. Behind the band there are four equal sized rectangle screens constantly changing colour and pattern - I think we're being hypnotised. There are also two live feed screens of the stage for the people at the back of them room, which actually offer a relief from the visual overload happening at the front. Four static cameras lazily switch between views of each member, reminding me of dodgy bootleg concert videos you used to get at record fairs.

During the stadium-sized Gimme Sympathy, one of the cameras catches the fans close to the stage half bathed in light, all grinning and singing along to every word of this song. I’m not totally clear on the meaning of Gimme Sympathy but it seems to be about knocking bands whose sound rips off the Beatles and the Stones. In 2005 Metric supported The Rolling Stones on tour which makes me think there could be a mutual appreciation thing going on between the two groups.

One thing that is clear even from the back of the venue is the mutual appreciation between Metric and their audience. Everyone up front seems determined to make the band feel welcome and greatly anticipated, while Metric are gunning to win over everyone not already into it. That vibe rules the night and it’s almost an exhaustive feeling of love between band and fans, to the point where I feel like I’m intruding on two young lovers in the honeymoon period.

There isn’t a great deal of talk in between shags, sorry, songs, but rather it’s a call and response during the more well known numbers. Haines barks a line and holds her mic over the heads of front row, they respond enthusiastically and apparently correctly to each ‘command’. Despite all of the exuberance and pace of the show, I feel as though Metric have left their best ‘til last; Help I’m Alive comes along and kicks up a massive storm of noise and feedback while the stage is drenched in blue light. This ‘My Bloody Valentine moment’ comes as a welcome shock, but only makes me wish more of their songs tonight had the same thrill factor. After a brief exodus, there’s just a single encore of Stadium Love which is the band’s only softy.

Metric have four albums in the bag and have been playing together for ten years, so they have a comfortable confidence as a live band. I don’t know if tonight is them playing at their best or taking a bit of a walk through the routine, but something didn’t fully translate to me as a punter. I wouldn’t say I’m a convert to what for some fans here tonight is “the church of Metric”, but I’ll gladly drop into the confessional and admit to having a damn good time.