Sunday, 8 September 2013

What Happens on Tour - Stays on Tour

I wish I could say I've had a lot of requests to write about my years as part of the Brisbane music scene in the 90s and 00s - but I haven't had a single one. This is probably lucky, because I really don't remember much. It used to surprise me how much someone like Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones remembered about his career when he seemed to spend most of it in a drug-addled coma - but then I realised that journalists and the public did a lot of the work for him, when they carefully documented the rise and continued success of one of the most important bands of the twentieth century - Keith just had to fill in the blanks!

Most bands I've been in have been almost completely unheralded, so it's a lot harder for me to remember the details, even though I have remained a lot more sentient than Keith for most of my career. Whenever a book comes out about the Brisbane music scene, I always go to the index to see if I rate a mention. Alas, to this date, I have discovered nothing. I don't feel too bad about this, because briefly skimming these tomes in the bookshop has revealed a lot of the stories are basically historical revisionism dressed up as fact. To the victors go the spoils, I guess.

I sometimes wonder why bands I was a part of were never as successful as some of our contemporaries. Then I remember the answer is pretty clear. Brisbane in the late 80s and early 90s really did have something of an inferiority complex after years of being mocked by the rest of the country for being a 'banana republic' under the conservative reign of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. No bands really expected to be successful without moving to Sydney or Melbourne and even those that did often found it difficult to get attention outside of the Brisbane 'goldfish bowl'. Those that succeeded managed to either rise above their inferiority complex or use it to their advantage.

The good news is this marginalisation left Brisbane musicians free to do whatever they liked and not adhere to any pre-conceived template for success. To my mind, Brisbane, to the rest of Australia was like Canada is to the US. There is a self-knowingness and maybe a self-consciousness that could not be manufactured in any of the 'major' music centres. The Saints and Go-Betweens could only have come from Brisbane in the same way that Neil Young and Leonard Cohen could only have come from Canada.

I was in a band called Biro in about 1995 that had enough of a local following to warrant recording an EP which caught the attention of the Mushroom indie-offshoot MDS. In our typical suspicious and self-destructive manner we greeted their offer to press and distribute our EP with shrugs and puzzled inquiries as to why they would want to do that.

I think MDS were still riding the popularity of the 'grunge' movement at the time and we loosely fitted into their definition of what an 'indie' band should be. In our minds (and especially lead-singer John's mind) we were trying to create classic AM radio rock, but our musical inability and cheap lo-fi recordings were misinterpreted by MDS as an artistic statement rather than sheer incompetence.

To give us a bit of credit, though, The A&R guy from MDS, whose name was Karl, was not particularly encouraging. It felt like he considered us something of a long shot and whenever we would meet, he would always tell us how good Gold Coast band Pollen were. We were not familiar with Pollen at the time and were much more eager for Karl to start kissing our asses rather than theirs. I even remember going to a Mushroom A&R night where we saw all our mates who worked at Rockinghorse Records being plied with fine ales and free CDs, while Karl begrudgingly gave us a six-pack to drink in the corner. Surely we were supposed to be the artists making the product that these people were going to sell?

Anyway, eventually we got offered a tour of Melbourne and an opportunity to play the MDS Christmas Party. We grudgingly decided to do it, but by this time we were on the verge of breaking up, mainly because lead-singer John was disappointed that the rest of the band couldn't play his bubblegum pop as well as the 1910 Fruit Gum Company. John never did find those musicians to work with and the lesson I took from this, friends, is to learn to appreciate what you've got rather than what you don't have.

We hired a van for the journey to Melbourne. We had never travelled interstate before. Instead of hiring the standard 'rock' van of the day - a Toyota Tarago, we opted for a cheaper option which I think might have been an old Toyota HiAce. We wanted to give the impression of a cool rock band on our first interstate tour, but instead we evoked the spirit of a bus full of special education children heading out on a day trip. It didn't help our pride to have the name of the rental company spelled out in large red letters on the back of the van.

Only myself and John were capable of driving and the fact that John was severely myopic meant that we had to ask a friend Kristy to come along and help with driving duties. I believe Kristy was something of a fan of the band before heading out on tour with us, but I bet afterwards, if her fandom had not waned, then at least her respect for us as functioning human beings would have certainly diminished.

We travelled the inland route along the Newell Highway which is apparently the shortest way. John Drove until dusk until the constant squinting and adjusting of his glasses caused us to unanimously decide that someone else should take over driving duties. Kristy took over the next section of the trip and I managed to get some sleep until my shift.

I groggily awoke in the kind of sick and disoriented haze you feel after napping in the middle of the day. By this time it was about midnight and I took over driving duties with all the enthusiasm of a trucker who has been awake for days, realises he is out of meth-amphetamines and still has 500 miles left to go.

It was a couple of hours into my shift before we realised we had made a wrong turn. I still don't know how it happened, but in the pre-GPS era and with a dodgy service station map in a dimly-lit van, I suppose it could happen easily enough. We realised we were heading through the town of Hay in rural Victoria. This certainly was off the beaten track, but it was a mistake that was correctable. What was more concerning were the thousands  of eyes staring at us from the darkness and no sign of any civilisation in sight.

To this day I still have not seen that many kangaroos - and they were absolutely entranced by the headlights of our van. I learned another lesson that night - even if the road signs suggest that you travel at 80 kilometres an hour, it is probably not advisable to do this in what amounts to a large juggernaut travelling through a herd of some of the largest and fastest kangaroos I have ever seen.

Of course, I eventually hit one. An incredibly large specimen bounded from the side of the road and landed squarely on the front of the van on the driver's side. I can still recall his eye mere centimetres away from mine as we hit. It looked startled, apologetic and maybe even a little embarrassed. We ground to a halt, caught our breaths momentarily and went out to assess the damage. Amazingly, the kangaroo got up and bounded away into the darkness. I suspect  he didn't make it very far, but none of us were game to check.

I felt bad that the first thing I considered was the state of the van and the $700 excess we would have to pay, rather than the wellbeing of the kangaroo and it made me wonder if maybe I was some sort of sociopath. The looks on everybody else's faces reassured me I was not the only one more concerned with the van. John, meanwhile pretended to be asleep for the whole incident, which made me consider that maybe he was the sociopath!

The driver's side of the van was pretty beaten up and the headlight was dangling above the road like an eye that had been plucked out of it's socket. We all wondered if we could continue with one working headlight. Luckily, upon inspection I found that the light could easily just be clipped back in to position. This lifted our spirits considerably and we limped along in the darkness towards Melbourne. This time very slowly.

We were all shattered by the time we reached Melbourne from hours of fretful vigilance. Nick, the drummer, had been asleep for several hours stretched along the back seat of the van, snoring intermittently. He stirred as we entered the CBD and immediately exclaimed in an earnest voice 'I'm dying back here!!.' It was as if he had been the only one suffering on the entire journey. We all burst out laughing. Nick, as he is prone to do, had accidentally lightened the mood once again. 'I'm dying back here' is now one of Nick's catch-phrases. One of many, I might add.

Our first stop was Port Melbourne, where I think the MDS offices were at the time. We took great delight in showing Karl the damage we had done to the van. Karl, must have been considering the possibility that we were hopeless cases. This is probably the point where his fears were confirmed.

It's funny, but the thing I remember least from this tour was the shows we played. I think the night we got there was the MDS Christmas Party and as far as I can remember we played well. I remember Mushroom boss Michael Gudinski being there and looking happy enough. Someone said Kylie Minogue's manager bought a copy of our CD, which was impressive, but I would have preferred if Kylie bought one herself. We also saw Pollen play for the first time. They had a slightly better position on the bill and were certainly more professional than us. I remember liking them but being annoyed during their set when Karl leaned over and said something like 'That's my boys!' I felt jilted and wondered 'When are Biro going to be your boys, Karl?'

Later in the evening, after a few beers, someone from Pollen came over to advise that our guitarist Dylan was about to get into a fight with drummer Nick. 'Just let 'em go' I wearily advised him. I thought it might be good to sort out any lingering issues from the trip down. I still don't know who won - if anybody.

Another thing we had failed to organise in our naivety was accommodation. Again, we relied on the increasingly put-upon Karl to sort this out for us. The day after the Christmas party I awoke in what looked like a converted church with sunlight shining through the stained glass window onto my weary, bloodshot and hungover eyes. I had spent the night on the couch and had no idea how I got there. Furthermore, I didn't remember any of the people who were gathered around the breakfast table. They eyed me suspiciously. Hopefully I was polite enough to them, but I fear it may have been the start of my decade-long career as a bad house guest/occasional musician.

I often tell people that we supported The Fauves the next night, but thinking about it now, I don't think we did. I know we definitely went along to the gig which was at The Public bar and was for the launch of their 'Everybody's Getting a Three Piece Together' single. I don't think The Public Bar is a venue anymore, but I went there about a year ago and was shocked at how small the room is. At the time it seemed like The MCG.

That night, our more worldly friend David McCormack from Custard, who was our guitarist Dylan's brother, arranged for us to stay at his friend Mish's house. Someone else had bailed us out once again! I think Mish worked at The Public Bar at the time and I distinctly remember all of us huddled in our broken van outside her house waiting for her to finish her shift. We were so soft back then that we couldn't even stay 'til closing time. The piteous look on her face as she ushered us inside is etched on my brain forever.

We all went to sleep almost straight away. Mish and some of her friends stayed up until dawn partying. I was slightly annoyed by this at the time, but beggars can't be choosers. Luckily, I managed to get Mish back a few years later on a tour with a different band, by dancing in her loungeroom and playing the bongos at 3am whilst continuously slamming the front door in an attempt to fix the broken lock. I told you I was a bad house-guest!

Maybe we only played one show during our entire visit? I certainly remember having a lot of down-time and thinking what a lovely and cosmopolitan city Melbourne was. Now that I actually live in Melbourne, I hardly see as much of it as I did when I was just a tourist. That's what happens when you live somewhere - you take it for granted.

Anyway we headed back to Brisbane without incident. The faces of the rental car people were distorted in anguish as we pulled into the driveway. I've damaged rental cars since then and I don't remember any of them being as mad as these guys were. It was very unprofessional conduct on their part. Apparently, the van had been rolled somewhere near Sydney by the last people who hired it and now it had been trashed again on it's phoenix-like rise from the ashes.

For some reason I actually had $700 to pay the excess, but now the band owed me. We decided the best course of action would be to play a final gig as Biro and pull out all stops. We booked a show at Babble-On which was a popular venue in the city at the time and invited all our close friends and contemporaries to play with us. This included Custard, Cow and Robert Forster from The Go-Betweens who graciously sang a couple of our songs with us. The room was packed and it was an incredibly fun night.

I remember looking into the crowd and wondering 'Why are we breaking up again?'

Then it dawned on me 'Oh yeah - that trip to Melbourne!'

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