Part 2 of our Secret History of Australian Music retrospective on Helvelln and interview with guitarist/vocalist and songwriter Jeremy Gronow. For part 1 and a more considered introduction, go here.
Bedroom critic that I am, I’d be amiss not to suggest that only thing that lets Side 1 down is the lugubrious “Temptation”. If I had my way, I would’ve swapped it for “Subway” and barn-stormed Side 2 with “Cigarettes And Beer”. Though Side 2 seems to be weighed down by the less up-front rock-y numbers. It’s hard to believe that the critical response would’ve been anything less than positive, but was this the case?
Yes, I think you’re right there. “Temptation”, yeah, I reckon it went down better live but we didn’t have the chops to pull it off on record.
The other one that makes me cringe is the pseudo funk of “Crown of Thorns”. One of the problems we had with that record was because of the limited time and money we didn’t have any spare songs we could use – so everything we did went on the record. A few other options would have been good.
As far as critics go, I can’t remember how it was received but we were getting strong airplay on JJJ and the program director there Mark (forgotten his surname) really liked us as well. So the record reviews weren’t really important to us.
You released one single from the album with “Cruelest Plague”, which didn’t seem to do you many favours. It wasn’t the strongest track on the album, nor did it have an inviting title (but hey, it got played on Neighbours!). Was this your idea/their idea?
God, I can’t remember, it was probably the record company’s idea. I guess we were young and not in a position to stand up to the record company – they were the experts and we were the dumb arse musicians. Also it took a long time to get the contract finally signed after they first offered it to us and I think we were grateful to have anything come out.
It did get hammered on Neighbours which meant great publishing royalties since at the time they were showing Neighbours twice a day in England (revenge for On the Busses, I reckon!).
Record companies can be prety literal in their approach. I remember meeting one of Mushroom’s (or maybe their distributor Festival) sales reps in Brisbane and this guy had been wracking his brain for a gimmick to push Cruelest along. Bless him for being enthusiastic but he came up with the idea of sending test tubes filled with green slime labelled ‘Cruelest Plague’ around to radio and so forth like it was dose of anthrax – probably not the best way to have the band remembered.
Many of the tracks on that album still stand up today, and you can’t get any more “Oz Rock” than “Cigarettes & Beer” and that great opening line — “I don’t know what you see in her/she’s always taking about nothing”. Why on earth wasn’t this released as a single? Or “T-Shirt” or “Crystal”? I’m amazed that (again, if my memory is playing tricks, excuse me) no other singles were released from the album when all three seemed to capture the raw pub-rock/pop vibe of the band perfectly.
What a nice thing to say. I reckon what happened was that the A and R guy who signed us to Mushroom left a few months after the record was released and we didn’t have anyone there championing our cause or pushing for more singles. I always thought we really were much more of a rock band than Cruelest or Subway suggested. Mind you, at the time we were also doing a spoof version of Wake me Up Before You Go Go (as a waltz) so you can draw your own conclusions……
My last recollection of the band was your national tour with Frente and Archie Roach (late 1992?). During the Sydney show at the Annandale Hotel, word went round Archie was unable to perform so Helvelln had to play an extended set which was heavily weighted in new material. Presumingly this would’ve appeared on your second album….. which never happened. Was the album recorded? Did Mushroom pull the plug? Is there a complicated story here or a rather simple one?
Oh yeah, this is where the Helvelln story starts going a bit tragic. We got 75% of the way through recording our second album when Mushroom shelved it.
What happened was that the guy who signed us, Bill Page, left the company. The guys that took over from him in A &R didn’t have a stake in the band and didn’t get what we were about. I remember one of them giving me a copy of KD Lang’s Ingenue and telling me this was how our record should sound. It remains one of my favourite records but Hevelln were never going to sound or be like KD, when i think about it now it just seems absurd. I think a lot of bands have been through this situation when they lose their champion at their label.
I remember these two guys came to the studio to listen to what we had done and seemed to like it at the time but the next morning word came through that we were to stop recording. They didn’t like the feel of the songs (particularly the drums) and they didn’t hear a hit song. I was totally devasted, I had put an enormous amount of work into the record. I lost all confidence in myself and I felt lost.
We had also spent a lot of the recording budget already ($30K). Part of the problem I think was that our manager was also the manager of the studio we were using as well as producing the record. To us at the time it seemed like a really convenient way to go but there is an obvious conflict of interests although there was no malice intended. If you think about the roles a band manager, studio manager and producer are supposed to play then you can see how it would be impossible to serve all three masters well.
But it didn’t end there. We picked ourselves up and began intensive rehearsals to work on new material and ‘fix’ the problem with the feel of our songs.
Some good stuff happened during this period, Mushroom organised for me to do some writing with Paul Kelly. He was incredibly generous with his time and taught me a lot about how a craftsman goes about writing a song*. After a while it became apparent that Mushroom had a problem with our drummer Nick. Interestingly, one of the A & R guys who shelved us was making moves on Nick’s girlfriend at the time but I don’t know if that was a part of their opinions, seems like a pretty mean thing to do if it was.
This was a big problem for me. We were under pressure to sack a band member and for a three piece that can be pretty difficult. We were friends and it was an incredibly difficult decision to make. Also I was tired of having to be the main songwrtier and front man, I was feeling pretty isolated both on and off stage. So my solution to both problems was to turn Helvelln into a seven piece band with Nick playing percussion and a new drummer installed.
I think it was my way of dodging the issue. I was only 22 at the time and not really equipped to understand the situation, not to mention having had my confidence totally shattered when they shelved the record.
Turning into a 7 piece was totally the wrong thing to do. We stopped being what we were and became a new thing. What we needed at the time was some good advice to stick to our guns but none was forthcoming – our manager had gone off to tour America with Archie Roach and we were young and inexperienced.
Helvelln continued to stagger on as a seven piece and Mushroom set us up with Michael Spiby from the Badloves as a producer. We did some demos with him and he was great but his own career was taking off and didn’t have the time to deal with a broken emotionally needy songwriter and band.
To their credit Mushroom did support us financially during this time paying for rehearsals and a demo but there was no-one who actually cared about the band that much. We were really lost and eventually they cut us loose. I don’t feel bitter towards them as a company at all, they took a punt on us (and many local bands at the time) and it was a great ride while it lasted.
If I could go back and talk to myself about it I would say – stay as a three piece, make the hard decisions and keep doing what you do, have faith in yourself. We really needed someone to protect and help us, we were just kids.
*Paul Kelly doesn’t piss around with songwriting. He would start with and idea and then the first line and then methodically work his way through the song in one sitting. At the time I would have an idea and then put it down and then come back to it later and generally procrastinate with the song until the original intention was long gone. Its only recently that I have realised the importance of just focussing on a song and working on it until its finished, only took 20 years to learn that lesson :)
Given that you had a lot of new songs written, were you disappointed that you never got to release a follow-up? Considering my cassette of that show is in a box on the other side of the world, can you recall much about those songs and the direction the album would’ve taken?
Yes, I was disappointed. I think it would have been a much truer representation of the band. A lot more guitars and a harder sound. I remember a fair number of the songs – some of them I kept playing in other bands. One, called “Adverse”, got recorded two of my subsequent bands. Recently, as a result of your interest and kind words in fact, I have been thinking about resurrecting a couple of others. My latest band (with Andy Pap from Helvelln) just recorded a demo of one of those old songs (“Drama Queens”) and it came out really well.
What did you do after the band broke up?
Well, I had a bit of a hard time immediately afterwards. I got glandular fever, I think largely due to the stress of the whole thing and splitting up with the girl I was seeing at the time. After that I formed a new band called Colourbomb with Andy Pap from Helvelln on bass and Carl Panuzzo from a legendary Melbourne band called the Chequerboard Blues Band on drums. We were together for about 18 months and then ran out of steam. After that I formed another band called Idiot Son that were together for about three years and made a couple of records.
Around 2002 – 03 I got totally jack of playing in bands and stopped.
I was sick of how much time (and money) you had to spend on managing a band and organising people as opposed to actually playing music. I had forgotten why I enjoyed doing it. So I quit for a while and didn’t touch a guitar for a couple of years. I went back to Uni and did a masters degree and had two kids. After a while (2007 maybe) I started playing guitar again and doing occasional gigs in weird locations. I played at a fish farm one night where the fish were actually leaping out of their pools – I’m not sure if it was to escape me or a sign of how much they were enjoying it.
From the look of things you’re back recording and playing shows as a solo artist after a considerable absence. Have you found a renewed interest in making music and performing again?
Yeah, I’m really glad to have got back into it, music is such a big part of my life and I don’t think I would have been happy without it. As I mentioned above I started off playing solo shows but recently have started another band with Andy from Helvelln and Miles who played drums in Idiot Son. Its been great just to make some noise and communicate with other people by playing music with them. When things are going well in a band you forget about what you are playing and focus on what everyone else is doing which is very zen and relaxing. I’ve been enjoying putting some work into new songs as well.
My approach these days is a lot more craftsman like- not the bolt of inspiration you have when you’re young but these days its not nearly so nerve wracking either. When I was young i used to feel like every song I wrote was my last and get quite worked up about it. With the benefit of experience you learn to relax and work through things knowing you’ll get there in the end.
What are your thoughts about Helvelln 20-odd years down the track? Are you surprised that people still remember the band?
I was really surprised that people still remember the band. Andy Pap was saying the other day that he was coming home from a gig about 1am one night when he heard “T-Shirt” on 3RRR and was blown away by how big it sounded. We were always really self deprecating about what we did at the time (I think as a bit of a defence mechanism) so its been good to think, actually we weren’t so bad. I wish we’d been more sure of ourselves back then but, as they say, the past is another country.
What’s the likely outcome of Helvelln songs appearing at one of your shows? You wouldn’t want to disappoint the old crowd, right?
There a pretty good chance I’d say but I’ll have to listen to the record to remember the songs, its been a while. I reckon “T-Shirt” would be fun to play again.
Thanks again to Jeremy Gronow for this exhaustive and informative (like holy shit, dude!) insight into the life and times of Helvelln. We were touched by the admission that our extended conversations have re-ignited a fresh creative spark and have noticed some heavy activity on Jeremy’s reverbnation page of late. If you like what you heard, or you’re an old fan of Helvelln and have been directed here instead of the top of a mountain, we insist you check out http://www.reverbnation.com/jgronow