Mark Seymour has been entertaining us for many years, both as the lead singer of classic Australian rock band Hunters and Collectors and in recent years as Mark Seymour and the Undertow. Ahead of a performance at Taronga Zoo and in the middle of a regional tour, he sat down with AU Review reporter John Goodridge to chat about what drives him musically.
Hey Mark, how’s the Red Hot Summer Tour been going so far?
It’s actually quite enjoyable really. We’re well down the bill, in the middle of the afternoon, so I wasn’t sure if we’d be playing to anyone, but it’s actually turned out to be really good fun. I’m reaching a much different audience to what I normally play to, and I’m getting a fair bit of my new material away and we’re getting into some isolated regional gigs which I normally wouldn’t get to, so it’s pretty good all round.
I get the feeling that people appreciate when bands go out and play regional areas.
I think a few promoters have realised that there’s an audience out there that doesn’t go away, but the whole way that gigs and touring have changed over the last few years and the costs have changed; it’s just harder for bands to get into regional centres. There was a time twenty or thirty years ago when bands went out and just played everywhere really, but just doesn’t seem to happen as much anymore.
So how else has the musical landscape changed over that time?
Broadly speaking I think audiences have changed the way that they consume music in almost every respect and that’s affected the choices they make on the weekend. People’s entertainment choices are much more diverse and eclectic than they were in the 1970s. Back then you got access to the latest pop music through Countdown, the record went out into record stores and you had to physically walk down the road and buy it. There was a lot less variety in the product and record companies had more control over directing people to specific things, whereas now audiences are much more entrepreneurial, if you like, and you can buy anything you like at any time of the day.
There’s an upside and a downside to that, but to someone my age, I’ve been in the game so long that I’ve always had an audience of one kind or another. Obviously I’ve had my ups and downs; I’ve gone through periods where I’ve really struggled, but I’ve always been able to put my name up on an awning somewhere and know that people are going to turn up and see me play. That’s still what its about for me. I still tour pretty constantly. Although that said, I don’t rely on selling records anymore. I still make records but it’s a very small part of what I do.
What got you into music in the first place? Did you always want to be a musician?
Actually I didn’t really. I trained to be a schoolteacher. I got to a point in my early twenties when I realised that I didn’t have a passion for that. My family did it, it was a tradition in my family that everyone became schoolteachers and I remember thinking at some point that my heart really wasn’t in it at all. I finished my degree and I had always loved singing. Singing was part of our family history and everyone in our family sings or plays musical instruments. I was playing in a covers band toward the end of my uni years, and I was singing some Beatles song and I remember thinking I really enjoy doing this. I had this moment where I though fuck this is great fun and I really like it.
One thing led to another and I just walked away from my career and started getting jobs, bought an amp and a microphone. It was baby steps and I didn’t really think that far ahead to be honest, which is probably a good thing. When you’re that young that’s what you’re meant to do. I encourage my kids not to think too far ahead and just be creative and the mind finds a way, rather than taking instructions. When you get to the end of school, kids so often fall into the trap of thinking that they have to do a degree that will get a job and that whole mantra is such a false God, seriously. People end up changing jobs two or three times in their lives anyway.
One thing that strikes me about your music is the way that you celebrate the Australian spirit. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
It’s difficult to say really. I think the last couple of albums have become more and more about story telling. I’ve become more interested in that way of writing, but that’s more a combination of reasons. I’ve grown up as an artist moving from one town to another. My career is definitely connected with the ground that I travel over, there’s no doubt about that, but the way I write a song idea lyrically is a combination of story telling and how a song translates with a room in front of it.
It’s a theatrical exercise and I try to build intensity and emotional truth and all of those ideas and urgings that you have in music but it has to translate in those kinds of rooms and they’re all in Australia. So somehow those things all tie together in my psyche I suppose, but I have become interested in story telling as a song form, there’s no question about that.
I mean a song like “Castlemaine” is obviously about Castlemaine, but I think Australians can relate to it even though they may not have been there.
Castlemaine has a fair story there for sure. I won’t unpack it too much, but I like to write in character. That’s all part of this idea where you manoeuvre and it’s a very traditional American idea where you park your point of view in the mind’s eye of the character and you place the character in the landscape or a room or something and displace your own emotion into the mind of the character. It puts the audience in another place and the opening line is always critical. It’s like oratory, you bring in the story then it’s a slow reveal and draw the audience into this place.
But Castlemaine is an interesting place and has all this fantastic gold mining history and has this incredible prison. It’s a really, really old place, it’s a tiny little town and it’s always shrouded in fog and it’s got this prison, this nineteenth century prison, incredibly sinister and it’s right on the hill overlooking this town and everybody’s built their houses around it. It makes the hairs rise up on the back of your neck because it elicits the mood of the era that it was created in.
How did your band Undertow come about?
Well they were all guys I played with. Massy, Peter Maslen, I’ve been playing with him f or years and he was kind of like the drummer of choice. When Hunters was sort of on its last legs, I was striking up friendships with people and he was a really good mate really and I used to go and have coffee with him. He played in Boom Crash Opera and a couple of other bands and I just liked him. I didn’t have any musical reason, I just enjoyed his company. He’s very gentle, but he’s also very strong and tough. There are two sides to him and I trust him. Trust is a big deal with me and building relationships with people. I played with him on and off in all sorts of different contexts, and then I met Cameron the guitarist in similar circumstances. I just connected with him; there was no definite musical reason.
So I’d been playing with those guys for at least fifteen years, then when Favaro the bass player joined, we consolidated into a band; the sound emerged – very simple, lots of space, an acoustic rock sound and there was just chemistry. That idea is very difficult to define, that random combination of personalities and we’ve been playing together now six years or something like that.
Tell me a little about the Twilight at the Taronga that you’ve got coming up. That sounds like an interesting gig to play.
I’ve done it once before, I’ve done it in Melbourne a few times. There’s two, one in Melbourne and one in Sydney. In Sydney there’s a natural amphitheatre – it’s just an incredible location with the view of the harbour behind you and the bridge. I think there’s something about putting a show on in the zoo; I mean the first time I heard about it I thought how could this possibly work. It actually has this strange ambience, something very soulful and gentle about it. It’s quite strange because you’re surrounded by all these beasts but it’s still loud, we get loud, it’s a typical show, but it’s got a very concert like atmosphere, in a really fantastic environment. I’ve been looking forward to it.
With such a huge career behind you including the Hunters and Collectors days, do you find it frustrating people wanting the classic songs or do you find people accepting the new material?
The only time I find it frustrating is when someone randomly walks up to me in the street and asks, “what do you do now?” That’s a bit annoying, I must say. But as far as going through the whole routine: “Well I still play music.” “Oh where do you play?” “Oh around the place.” I could quote it chapter and verse. Even that’s kind of mild irritating, I don’t care that much but I think the thing is with me, when the band ended we kind of thought we’ll just knock this solo career together and see what happens.
It was so difficult, there was something about Hunters and Collectors that is so monolithic that people just didn’t know who the fuck Mark Seymour was. I was completely new and I remember the first couple of shows I did I played to 25 to 30 people in an acoustic bar in North Melbourne or you’d play a gig in Newtown somewhere and get a scattering of people. That was kind of difficult for a while and then I didn’t have any choice and it made me own up to what I really wanted to get out of music. Once I recognised that there was no turning back from this, I’d committed to this for life, it became easier over the years.
It’s been a long time and I’ve gradually built up a following. People that decided to take an interest in me were by definition, interested in new songs. I’m getting into an interesting phase now where people are coming along to see Mark Seymour and that tour with Hunters and Collectors last year kind of bought the compass around again in my direction, because people started to go “oh fuck it’s that guy”. What I do is cherry pick the best material that Hunters did and I just rotate it through the set. I’ve completely reworked it all and it just sounds like the band. They basically put their stamp on it and I just ride along. I don’t have a problem playing and people just accept the new songs and it’s been going on for a while.
I have to admit “Say Goodbye” is one of my all time favorite songs.
It’s mine as well and we’ve just done a total number on it. It’s great fun to play. We do a version of “Throw Your Arms” and we do a version of “Hanging Around” which we just reinvented and it’s great fun to play.
I saw the video where you played with Eddie Vedder, which must have been a bit of a thrill for you?
It was good, yeah it was good. It was really off the cuff. For some reason people think it happened in America because of the label copy, but actually it happened in Perth. We were over there doing a North Perth City council event on a lawn somewhere and I went to a radio station to promote the show that afternoon and the presenter said did you know that Pearl Jam were playing at the Globe? I didn’t know that. Then he said did you know that Eddie Vedder does a version of “Throw Your Arms Around Me” and I’d kind of vaguely heard that. “He’s been playing it all around Australia, are you going to get up?” “Well I hadn’t really considered it.”
My manager was standing in the room and he rang up Frontier and said is there any way we can make this happen? But he didn’t tell me. Five o’clock the next night I get a call that I’ve got to go to the stage door and I’ve just turned up; I’ve never met the guy before in my life. We got let in and I had to stand side stage for 30 or 40 minutes. No dialogue, literally the only time I got to speak to Eddie Vedder was when I was on stage with him. Then we left and that was it. It was great, just completely surreal.
You could see a lot of magic in the video clip.
It was very special. I think the fact that it was so unrehearsed helped a lot, really spontaneous.
It must be validating having someone like that appreciates your music.
Absolutely. An interesting story about him; when Hunters and Collectors were in the States about ’82 or ’83 and we’d finished the American tour and we were in a club in San Diego and the band was on the cusp of breaking up and shortly after that a couple of the guys left the band, it was a cast of thousands in those days so they kind of just left, but there was this whole thing going on in the band room with some guys in one part of the room and a whole lot of guys on the other side of this door, and the security guy knocks on the door and says there’s this bloke outside that wants you sign a record. I was not really interested, but I went out, it was a student gig so there were a lot of kids there. So a kid was there holding a record and said he was a big fan and asked if I could sign a record, pre Jaws of Life, I think it was the first album, and it was Eddie Vedder, but he was just a kid. The album goes right around, everyone in the band signs it, I pass it back to him not knowing who it was and years later the rest is history. He was just a fan. He told me that story. He worked in some oil refinery and he was a budding musician just working part time.
2016 marks the 30 year anniversary of Hunters & Collectors’ 2x Platinum album Human Frailty, which spawned the seminal single ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me.’
Mark Seymour and the Undertow play Twilight at Taronga on February 19th. Head HERE for more details.