Rai Thistlethwayte of Thirsty Merc talks Summernats and the origin of a crowd favourite

Fresh from a national tour on the back of their new album Shifting Gears, Thirsty Merc are gearing up for a dangerously good time at Summernats 30 in January. In anticipation of this, front man Rai Thistlethwayte took some time out to talk shop with me.

First up, Summernats. Am I right to assume that’s a slight change in scenery for Thirsty Merc?

Well you know, the band does have an automotive themed name and I thought, “Well that ties in”, and we recently released an album with automotive themed title in Shifting Gears. So I don’t know whether that had anything to do with it, but sometimes that’s just how these things happen. You know, synergies that sort of happen. It’s something that the band jumped at. We saw that Airbourne was gonna be on the bill and thought that’ll be great fun – a nice pairing musically and a great night out! I’m not sure I’d describe myself as a rev head, but my Dad was always fixing cars in the summer holidays. Sort of 60s and 70s vintage cars. Me and my younger brother both had Toranas growing up.

That was my first car too…

Yeah, the old Torana. My little brother had an LH and it was a lot more powerful than my LC. What model did you have?

I had a ’71 LJ.

Yeah right, mine was a ’71 LC, so you know the vintage of the car I was driving.

Summernats30 Poster 2017

Hey, that thing served me really well for the first and less decorated years of my driving career!

Yep. You needed to treat those cars with a lot more TLC than the set and drive things we have today. Look, I remember those days very fondly. I’m glad I survived it, but we had a lot of fun in those cars. (Laughs) So it’ll be great to play an event like this, filled with so many people. Often with shows like this we get in, play and then leave but if I’ve got some extra time, I’ll certainly try and stick around for some of this one. My girlfriend certainly wants to go. In fact, she’s the mascot for the Deni Ute Muster this year. I’m overseas now, but I’m certainly going to try and get back for that because it’ll be a great way of easing back into the Aussie block of work I’ve got towards the end of the year.

April and May were chocka block full of tour dates on the back of Shifting Gears. How did it go?

Yeah, it was a really good tour this year. You would have heard about the tragic loss of our crew member Shane and our touring drummer Mick got very badly injured in a road accident at the end of last year. Not to dwell on it, but it was a very real thing for the band and because of that it felt like for a while there, things couldn’t have got any worse. Any tour that was the next one was going to feel like a bright thing. Even speaking to Mick about it, he felt it was very positive thing when we turned into 2016. So from where we were, the only way was up. That was part of why we felt great about the tour, but it was a great tour for other reasons too.

This was an independently organised album and the shows were attended really well and we got to play some classic venues, like the Metro in Sydney and the Triffid in Brisbane. We just made a point to really enjoy ourselves. It was a great chance to let go and pretend we were in our early 20s, trying to get back to that sort of mentality. It was a really fun time and Mick joined us for about 75% of the gigs, so it was great to have him back on track.

On Shifting Gears, that was the first studio album for five years yeah? Any reason for the break or was it just the way things went?

Um, it was kind of a combination of a planned break and circumstance. I did spend quite a bit of time overseas between 2012 and 2014. I’ve been jumping back and forth between Sydney and LA, which is where I am now. I guess I felt like I had a fresh visa with a couple of years on it and I was thinking to myself, “I’d be stupid not to go and spend a bit more time overseas”. I’d worked my whole 20s touring the circuit in Australia because I had a great opportunity to do so. A lot of my mates had been working in London and travelling throughout Asia and that sort of thing, but I’d been busy with the band. I saw that time as my chance to do that travel thing.

Then we circled back toward the end of 2014 and you know, there’s always a lot of preparation for getting a tour together, so it never really feels like as much of a break. But then 2015 was mainly spent recording the album and then we started touring again at the end of it. It’s sorta been flat out since then!

So they say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. True?

Yeah, it’s been great to kind of prove that, in a way. If you want to do what you love, you can make it work out. No matter how crazy the industry you’re in might be, there are ways through. You just have to think logically and laterally, and then have the leap of faith and then, just stick with it. It’s about staying with it and being prepared to not give if something goes belly up. I mean, I’ve been doing it for more than a decade now.

Well it sounds fantastic. People like to call you a straight rock band, but I can hear blues, punk, soul and even folk in all your albums. Do you write with a sound in mind, or does it just sort of happen?

That’s a really good question. I definitely don’t write with an audience or business model in mind. I don’t ever consider the fashion driven aspects of the industry. I don’t think I’ve really ever been up with what’s cool or fashionable enough. I feel like there’s no point trying to chase that, because it’s almost like a way to never find the end. I do know intimately all of the band’s styles of playing. That does help to know what instruments are going to play the songs and how they’ll sound. It does help to know how the producer will make creative decisions, because you’ve worked with them before.

I guess on subsequent albums to the first one, which is usually a crash course in learning all that stuff, sometimes you do have an idea of what has worked in the past, so that is in your head. I find it’s best to say, “Hey, I have this bunch of songs; I didn’t even really necessarily write them for this band. I wrote them because they existed. They just are.” I imagine a lot of songwriters feel the same way. Like a hungry person has to eat, a songwriter has to write. If you don’t write something for a few weeks, you just feel like I have to get this down. I have a riff going around it my head and I need to get it out.

So you end up with a body of work and you sit down and go, “How do we wanna slice it?” Maybe you’ll demo out these 20 things and then re-track some others and then maybe the best 13 or 14 will make a shortlist. Then if we end up with 11 or 12, that’ll be great, but it’s more often than not just ‘suck it and see’ in the studio. It’s just an organic process. It’s great to have that sense of discovery about the process, you know it’s a document of your writing and producing process.

After more than ten years, I think “Tommy and Krista” is still my favourite Merc song. Can you tell me a bit about where that came from?

Well thanks for giving it some spins! That’s a really interesting process, because it was a song I wrote when I was in my late teens with completely different verse lyrics, but the exact same chord progression and the exact same chorus lyrics. I was recording the piano for a completely different song at Sing Sing in Melbourne. We were doing overdubs for other songs and at the end of the session I just said, “Can we roll tape because I just wanna play this one thing through and just see what it is.” That exact performance is the piano part on “Tommy and Krista”.

It was never intended to be on the album. We’d pretty much finished the whole process. We were hanging out that night in Lindsay’s studio and listening to what we’d done at Sing Sing and we heard that riff and went, “Hang on, this has some gold in it.” So that’s how it made it on the album, and now it’s turned into a bit of a crowd favourite. It’s actually a really good example of how you always have to be open to any idea at any point. If one comes along and puts its hand up, you better go and put some flesh on the skeleton, you know?

Do you have a favourite?

Um, that’s another good question. I mean, “Tommy and Krista” is really fun to play. It reminds me of that time in my life when I had my first crush. I’d catch the bus home from school and there was the girl up the back of the bus with the cute smile. I’d never had the guts to actually talk to her, but then I finally plucked up the courage and got to know her a bit and we’d get off at the wrong stop and walk through the park. You know, I had my first pash with this girl; those were the times when I was writing those lyrics. Then I put other people in there for a mix of different experiences. To me, it actually always sounded like a 70s TV theme. I could always see it on a big old school CRT TV with all the colours and what not. But those times in the song were very real to me. I wrote it down as more of a story, but didn’t really realise at the time that other people had their own versions of that exact story. So thanks for digging it!

Thirsty Merc play Summernats 30 in Canberra next January 5th – 8th. For more information, visit www.summernats.com.au.


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