Who chose ‘Hell Hoping’ as a lead single? Was it a record company decision, or Leo’s turn to front his own A-side? It seems like a peculiar choice of single, in light of your previous releases.
Messenger: I remember it as a record company decision. Slade and Kolderie were big fans of the song, so they may have even passed along their enthusiasm to Regular, as producers do. Martin Fabinyi, the head of Regular, and some of the staff seemed to be pretty set on it. We all really liked the song, but I don’t think anyone in the band was thinking of it as a single, so we were a bit surprised. My feeling was, well they’ve been doing this for a while, and they’ve spent $80,000 on the album, so they must know what they’re doing.
We never thought about whose “turn” it was, but Wayne and I had been big Leo fans ever since he surprised us with ‘Landspeed’. I usually preferred his songs to my own anyway.
The songs that went over best live were those that had gotten radio airplay, so people might have associated us “10,000 People” and “Landspeed”, but no more so than slower things like “Cake” and “Side of Me.”
There was always, however, this paranoia in the band about being “too obvious” or “too commercial”, to not let the pop side win out too much over the indie rock side. I think “Play Me” fell into the “too obvious” category because we were already a little bit embarrassed about being on a major label. It’s almost comical to think of it now, because “Play Me” is nobody’s idea of a sure-fire hit record. You can get away with that kind of attitude in the US or the UK, but consciously marginalising yourself in a tiny market like Australia is making a statement that music will never be more than your unpaid hobby.
Do you think in hindsight that “Play Me” should’ve been pushed first? or perhaps “All or Nothing”? The former having the catchy chorus, the latter being the “Landspeed”-esque rocker.
Messenger: I’m not convinced the choice of song mattered that much; they’re really not that dissimilar as records-mid-to-slow paced guitar pop songs. “Play Me” didn’t do any better when it was released as the second single (it probably even sold less), and “Hell Hoping” didn’t do that badly that it alone could have halted any momentum. I think it even got to about number 89 on the proper charts, which was the only time that ever happened. Some of my journalist friends seemed to think “Play Me” should have been the single, but it never seemed to be a question of “Is radio going to play this song?”, but more “Is radio going to play this band?” And if you’re record wasn’t on the radio in those pre-internet days, no one but hardcore fans knew it even existed.
For some at Regular the real problem was marketing a band with three different front persons; the different voice on each record supposedly scared and confused radio programmers, as well as the record-buying public. I used to make ridiculous arguments like, “But the Beatles had three singers,” forgetting that they were the Beatles and we were just the lousy fucking Welcome Mat. If we were smart, we would have made Leo sing everything.
There was meant to be a third single, but we couldn’t agree on what it should be, and when Regular found out Wayne was going to America for the You Am I album (so we wouldn’t be able to promote it), they got quite shirty and dropped the idea.
Connolly: When you have just signed to a label and they have given you the money to fulfil your music dreams, you are very flattered and you want to give them a lot of say in the decision making. Also you don’t want to deflate their enthusiasm right off the bat so I am pretty sure we just let them pick the single without much input from us. “Play Me” came out as the second single. We all thought “All Or Nothing” was one of the best songs hence our desire to see it come out as a single (which Summershine eventually did on vinyl, such was their surprise at seeing it unreleased).
Can you tell us about the recording of Gram? Did you take time off between touring/gigs to write the album, or was it basically your live set at the moment?
Messenger: I personally just wrote when I wrote: on tour, off tour, during my day job, whenever. Some of the songs may have already been in the live set; I guess they must have been. We went straight into the studio after coming off our first “proper” tour, six weeks spent supporting Hunters and Collectors. So we probably played a lot of the songs then, because none of the Hunters and Collectors fans would have known or cared if we were playing new stuff or our “hits.” They just waited at the bar until we were finished. The H&C roadies liked us, though.
I kind of remember we sent a demo tape of maybe 20 songs to Slade and Kolderie, and when they arrived they had their own ideas about which we should record. I loved working with them, but obviously I can’t speak for Wayne. Of course we picked them because they’d worked on a lot of our favourite records. We’d say, do that thing that you did with the snare on Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Yeah We Know’, but to their credit they weren’t really interested in repeating themselves.
Connolly: It was great to work with Slade and Kolderie as they had done virtually every great sounding record that we loved at the time – Dinosaur, Buffalo Tom, Lemonheads – and their input was really valuable. And more than anything it was the validation since we always had a somewhat flippant attitude towards ourselves. You may be right though, in that we moved a little too close to the US college sound – though that would never have occurred to us at the time. We really didn’t have much of a focus on trying to be original as we were too busy being ironic!
Recording Gram was a great experience – we truly loved being in the studio, especially places like Paradise Studios that were steeped in the tradition of oz rock (Cold Chisel’s East was recorded there). There were many laughs and Kolderie had a great collection of stuff such as the Jerky Boys and Buddy Rich tapes that pre-internet weren’t easy to come by. Kolderie was reading the Gram Parsons book and so we called our album that. Once again it was references to pop culture history that dominated things. The songs were all demoed at Smash studios in Camperdown and S&K had the main say in picking songs.
Were you tempted at all to re-record 10,000 People/Landspeed etc, or were conscious to not repeat yourselves?
Messenger: With three songwriters it was always a case of “How many of my 10 new songs will make it into the live set, and which three or four might get onto an album?”, so there was never any thought of re-recording old stuff.
Connolly: There was also no thought of rerecording previous tracks – nobody did that then (except maybe Ratcat). It seems that concept has come more into vogue in the last few years.
I can’t remember the reception that the album got when it was released. I can’t imagine it was negative as there are a good half-dozen classic-Welcome Mat tracks present (Flying End/Everyone’s Gone/All or Nothing/Play Me) but it didn’t seem to take you to the ‘next level’ as expected. Can you recall what happened and want to expand on the feeling in the band at the time?
Messenger: We always got surprisingly good reviews (with a few glaring exceptions: my friend Barry Divola, the Who Weekly critic, felt it was a conflict of interest to review it, so he passed it on to a subordinate who ended up trashing it). Overall it got the standard 3½ star reviews that every Australian band except You Am I always got.
It did actually take us to the next level, but the problem was that the level wasn’t high enough for the record company. Up to the Spare E.P., everything had sold 1000 copies more than the previous release. Spare sold around 3000 copies (which would probably get us into the charts today), but Martin Fabinyi was convinced that Gram was going to sell well over 30,000 copies. When it topped out at 6000 we were thrilled that we’d doubled our audience, but Regular was naturally mightily disappointed.
Connolly: The launch was really exciting but I think I remember feeling slightly deserted by the indie press. John Tingwell said to me “well it’s kind of like you don’t need our help now”. There was a perception that we were in a different realm all of a sudden. Maybe the turning point was when we shot a disastrous EPK including a staged press conference – everyone started to see more problems than easy money!
Do you think the focus of the music scene in Australia changed during the time of Gram‘s release? It seemed like many of the old guard from the Sydney scene (Hummingbirds/Falling Joys/Clouds etc) were breaking up/releasing second albums to dwindling audiences and getting frustrated.
Messenger: I don’t think I saw it that way at the time. Ratcat and grunge were still fresh enough in the minds of record companies that they were prepared to at least keep signing bands and trying to market them. But the Hummingbirds were having serious record company troubles at rooArt, we got bogged down in about 18 months of record company “difficulties,” and I think The Clouds never recovered from having their big Elektra deal in the US fall apart. In the early 1990s,Tim Freedman once said “The Sydney scene is full of 27 year-olds desperately trying to give it one last shot.” We all know how that turned out.
But if you’re looking for some sort of overarching cause, how about JJJ going national? For years Sydney bands had benefited from having a strong local radio station supporting us, but when they began the national roll-out, we not only all found ourselves with more competition from interstate bands for airplay, but JJJ became very wary of being seen to show any Sydney bias. Gram couldn’t even get a lousy ‘Album of the Week’ slot because we couldn’t afford to tour to all the country towns that triple J now required you to. I remember that part clearly: if you wanted Album of the Week, you had to show them a tour schedule that covered enough of their new markets.
Connolly: The dwindling Sydney scene was really just because of the frustration of all of us bands log-jammed at the nexus between indie and mainstream in the pre-BDO days. It was really the BDO that changed everything and made it easier for bands to quickly reach a large young audience without any commercial radio play. We were first band on at the first BDO and we played to a large crowd early the second year but this was before it went national.
You toured the album fairly extensively, but appeared to drop out of view for quite a long time. The follow-up album took a further three years to come out. Is there any story behind the band’s demise or is it just another case of ‘pushed it as far as it would go’?
Here’s where it gets complicated. First off, this idea that we disappeared (or even broke up, according to that useless Australian Encyclopedia of Rock) is wrong. We were playing just as much, and released the Headset EP the following year on Summershine, but some big changes had taken place after Gram. First, we came off a horrible Died Pretty tour pretty disheartened: we’d done a previous Died Pretty tour which was great, but with this one they decided that they needed to pad out the line-up and added Kim Salmon at the last minute. All our slots then got put forward an hour and shortened; we had to play as soon as the doors opened, and of course no one was there yet.
The day after that debacle finished, our manager Brett Oaten quit. Brett was the crucial fifth member of the band, and quite frankly all the heart immediately went out of it for me. I felt, if Brett doesn’t see any future in this, then there mustn’t be any. I decided to quit too, but Wayne was already on his way to the US, and I didn’t want to quit over the phone. After a few weeks, Wayne called to say he’d been in contact with Michael McMarten, the Hoodoo Guru’s manager, who was interested in managing us. So rather than quit, I thought, oh, maybe it’s not as hopeless as I thought. If it’s not going to be a “gang of best friends” REM-type thing, then maybe I should just see it as my cool job and get on with it.
So, we met Michael McMarten, and the first thing he says is, “You’ve got to get away from Regular.” We were open to the idea, because it had become obvious that Regular, far from being the autonomous entity they’d first led us to believe, couldn’t actually make a move without the permission of Festival Records, their distributor. There had apparently been a meeting in which Festival had heard the demos for the next record, and their only feedback was, “Let’s get them to record a cover version.”
What we hadn’t realized was that McMarten and Fabinyi hated each other, and there was no way they could work together. McMarten wanted to sign us to Mushroom, and they were very keen until they found out that McMarten had just signed our publishing to EMI; that’s the bit they actually wanted. So then we were forced to take the publishing advance that we were going to live off and use it to make the second album, which we recorded in mid-1995. We shopped it around, and id/Mercury picked it up, but by the time it was released in 1996, no one remembered us.
Lest it seem like I’m blaming others for all the band’s woes, I should add that none of this would have mattered if the band had been unified, motivated, and quite frankly, still friends. This had not been the case for some time, and not-altogether untrue rumours began to fly around that Wayne and I hadn’t spoken to each other in over a year.
I think one thing that has probably been forgotten in the mists of time was that you were one hell of a live band, both funny and amazing to watch, something that I felt didn’t translate well on Gram, which to me sounded like an Australian band making an American college radio record. Did you manage at all to take Gram to the Americans?
Messenger: Thanks for saying that, because the shows are something that I have no perspective on. I know sometimes it felt great, but unfortunately we could also be very moody and perhaps be a bit too honest about it: if a gig was not going the way we liked, we wouldn’t have the sense to be “showbiz” about it; we’d say, “Well, we suck tonight, don’t we folks?” I remember we did a few suburban shows with the Hummingbirds and the Falling Joys, and I was amazed to see that the Falling Joys seemed to have rehearsed their stage patter, that they told the same jokes and introduced the songs exactly the same way every night. I mentioned this to Simon Holmes from The Hummingbirds and he said, “Well, that’s what a professional band has to do.” We were much more hit-and miss, and stupidly felt that kind of thing to be too un-indie rock.
You’re probably spot on about us trying (and obviously failing) to make an American college radio album. In our defense, that wasn’t done as attempt to crack US college radio (although that would have been nice), but simply because first and foremost we were music fans, and probably just wanted to sound like our favourite records; hence the choice of producers. Maybe that was the ultimate problem: we were just playing at being a band, trying to emulate our heroes, rather than actually being a band (although we wouldn’t have been the first, and we certainly weren’t the last).
As for America itself, we accumulated a lovely big folder of rejection letters from many, many fine US labels.
Connolly: The problem with our live shows may have been consistency, particularly in terms of entertainment – some nights we would just be sullen. We were never one of those bands who were “even if there is ten people in the room you give your all” We were more like “if there are only ten people here we will punish them for turning up”. There were some gigs that were highly amusing. After a 5-week tour with Hunters & Collectors we played a show of our own at the Grosvenor in Perth. Cory had everyone in stitches and I distinctly remember being doubled over with laughter for half the show. I have met so many Perth music people who have raved to me about that show – they must have thought we were like that all the time!
Being this series is called ‘The Secret History of Australian Music’ is there anything as yet unknown about the recording of Gram or the band that you’d like to surrender?
Messenger: One thing that sticks out is that Slade and Kolderie (who, quite frankly, only took the job to get a free trip to Australia, so bless ‘em for doing a great job anyway) were constantly on the phone to the UK because they’d just produced the debut album by this new band that we’d never heard of. During one phone call, Slade shouted across to Kolderie, “Jesus! Apparently EMI want to put out “Creep” as the first single! That’s crazy!” I find it morbidly amusing that they squeezed our album in between producing Pablo Honey and Hole’s Live Through This.
Connolly: In terms of secret history, one thing I remember was that S & K had just come from the UK where they had recorded a band from Oxford with like, 5 guitarists. Yes, there was a time when we were head to head with Radiohead. And who could forget the tour where a young band called You Am I supported us – Mark Tunaley leaving the stage with a “top that” became a mainstay of our stage preparation repertoire.
Does a reunion tour beckon for the near future, or a possible reissue of Gram and the Eps?
Messenger: As David St. Hubbins once said, “We shan’t work together again.” Supposedly we were asked to reform at the beginning of this year to support Buffalo Tom, but I’m still not convinced it wasn’t a practical joke. I personally haven’t played since our final show in January 1997, so I’m not sure I would even know what to do. Pete doesn’t play anymore either, apparently. As far as I know Wayne and Leo are still at it, which means they might have reputations they wouldn’t want to sully.
Connolly: We had an offer of a show this year but Cory was busy – someday we will, when some corporation offers us 6 figures to play at their motivational retreat. You couldn’t get anything that would motivate people in their jobs more than seeing us play I wouldn’t think.
I have thought we should do a ‘best of’ since all our CD’s are out of print and it would make a really good record.