Posted April 25, 2007
By PATRICK EMERY
Live photos by RICHARD SHARMAN
About 25 years ago a lanky Queensland teenager by the name of Greg Perkins – nicknamed ‘Tex’ on account of his interest in country music – found himself with a gig booked for his band Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums. For reasons that are probably lost in a haze of inebriated memories, most of Tex’s band mates failed to make the journey south. Tex called up on the services of Spencer P Jones, at that time guitarist in cowpunk band The Johnnys, Scientists bassist Boris Sudjovic and the Dum Dums’ drummer Fruitcake to ensure he could still meet his gig commitment. The resulting outfit was christened the Beasts of Bourbon, and a legend of Australian pub rock was born.
There’s been a few stumbles during the Beasts’ lifespan – in 1993 the Beast crawled back into its cave (to use Tex’s metaphor) while drummer Tony Pola was interned at the pleasure of the state. A reformation in 2003 was cut short when bass player Brian Hooper fell off a balcony and broke his back (it’s been said in other interviews that Hooper’s miraculous recovery was the catalyst for the Beasts’ most recent reformation). Stories of the band and its vibrant rock’n’roll lifestyle have long crossed line from fact into mythology – but when the you’ve got a choice between fact and myth, you choose the latter anytime. And so it is with the Beasts.
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning and I’m talking to Spencer P Jones and Tex Perkins – the only constant members of the Beasts – in one of those dark underground bars in St Kilda that’s presumably a funky and happening place in a more nocturnal timeframe. Spencer is tired, having flown back from the States the previous Friday (and fronted up that night to play a gig with the Escape Committee). Even seated in a booth Tex is imposing, one of those intense entertainment types who look at your with a piercing stare to determine if you’re up to the job of speaking to him. The Beasts is Tex and Spencer’s rock child and they’re still very fond of it – and judging by the intensity of their most recent round of shows, the Beasts fire is still burning within.
In its early incarnation the Beasts was something of a party band, with a revolving door of members. At that time did you ever think for a moment that the Beasts would still be playing 25 years later?
Tex: At that point? No.
Spencer: And we weren’t a party band – we were an "inner city super group".
Tex: We’ve never played a party, have we?
Tex: We were more an exploitive unit, a mercenary unit. The reasons for getting together has always been money. Admittedly at that stage it was $50 each. That was all lolly money back then because we were all on the dole. For the first two years of the band’s existence it was all about that – even the recording of the first album took no artistic effort. I had a bunch of songs, had a bunch of covers, Spencer chucked in a bit – but there wasn’t a lot of effort. It was amazing how well that record turned out with such little effort, ambition and vision. But pretty much the band was mercenary. I think we got it to the stage where we could get a grand for coming down to Melbourne.
Spencer: And then someone would lose their grand so we’d get $800 instead.
What was the reason you decided to reform the Beasts as a more permanent band in the late 1980s?
Tex: From a personal perspective I’d been in a bit of songwriting wilderness in the mid 1980s; I’d been in a lot of bands that made a lot of mess and had a lot of fun and hadn’t written a song for a long, long time. And then in about 1988 I wrote a few songs – can’t remember why. And I thought ‘it’d be good to have a rock band to play these songs’. And I thought ‘hang on, I’ve got a rock band somewhere? Oh, that’s right, the Beasts of bloody Bourbon’. So I rang Salmon, and he was into it. Rang him [points at Spencer], but he needed far more convincing.
Spencer: It was 1987 because the Scientists had just come back from the UK.
Tex: The Sour Mash period of the Beasts was very much about writing songs and recording. Even in our own minds we were upgrading the reputation of the band – making it a legitimate artistic endeavour rather than something we could squeeze a bit of cash out of every now and again.
Do you think in the 20 years since the Beasts coalesced into a ‘real’ band the Beasts’ sound has evolved or devolved?
Tex: A bit of both.
Spencer: I think it’s refined. We know what we’re capable of.
Tex: We’re capable of anything.
Spencer: Well, that’s right. In our individual writing role we know what material is material the Beasts could potentially deal with, and material that I wouldn’t even bother taking along to the Beasts.
Tex: I’ll be the judge of that!
Spencer: So I know what you’re gonna say no to.
Tex: No, you don’t! Run it all up the flag pole Jones!
Does it take longer these days for the Beast to recover from its last outing and to emerge from hibernation?
Tex: It’s been out of hibernation for few years really. And I think it’ll be up and feeding for the rest of the year. Beyond this year it might need a rest back in the cave. What’s your question based on – do we need more time in hibernation?
Yes, do you need more time to recover?
Tex: It depends on what happens. Generally what happens when the band stops playing something terrible has happened. So it generally depends on what that thing was. The last thing was Brian breaking his back, which meant there was 18 months when we couldn’t do anything. It really depends on the extent of the tragedy.
Do you think the Beasts could’ve continue playing without recording a new album?
Tex: No. We’d woken the band and we’d got it going and we’d been through the back catalogue and thought ‘play that, don’t want to play that’ and pretty much exploited the songs we thought were relevant to us now, done two trips overseas and a couple of festivals and we’d reached a point where we couldn’t go on any further without having new songs. And that was really the reason to record rather than putting out a record and getting the whole industry thing happening again. It was really about having new songs to play so that playing live wasn’t such a ...
Spencer: ... drag.
Tex: [Laughs] Yeah.
Spencer: Going over that ground hog day thing over and over again.
Do you think that fatigue would’ve started to show up in your live shows, and you might’ve started to resemble a cliched RSL band?
Tex: Cliched RSL band? Is that an option for us [laughs]?
Spencer: I really hate those bands that rest on their laurels and don’t try and improve their body of work.
Tex: Generally we are a live band. That’s the place where we excel and it’s the only place where we have any currency. We sell enough records for the word to get around and for people to know our songs, but pretty much where we do our business is on the live circuit. So recording a new record is basically a means to an end, so we have a reason to get on stage again.
The biographical material accompanying the new album says that Spencer playing ‘Thanks’ while you wre on tour was the catalyst for the decision to write and record a new album. What was it about that song that was so significant?
Tex: Personally I could picture the album. I thought we had a last song – we just needed to find nine more. Because Beasts records always have a thank you, good night, might see you again, might not kind of concluding song. There’s "Rest In Peace", "Goodbye Friends", "This Day Is Over". Thank you, out, sort of songs, and Thanks fits into that category. So the vision and structure of the album started to become apparent to me.
Not long after that Spencer, when I spoke to you last year about your most satisfying achievement you said it was the fact that the Beasts were going to record another album. Were you surprised how easily you slipped back into the groove to write new material?
Spencer: Yeah, I was glad the Beasts were making a new album.
Tex: After it was all done – two days of rehearsing, three days of recording – I was pretty impressed that we had done that. But it had to be done that way. It was inevitable, or necessary to do it that way. Everyone showed up.
Spencer: There was no slide on the record. That was very important – and it became policy to not have slide on the record. We managed to get through the whole American tour without having slide, except for maybe Charlie and microphone in Brooklyn.
Do you think there’s still a country aspect to the Beasts’ sound?
Tex: Not really. We see ourselves as a rock band – the bigger, the uglier and the simpler the better. The only two country tracks on the album are really “Thanks and maybe New Day of the Dead, in a Crazy Horse sort of a way. I don’t think it’s important.
Spencer: We were both Johnny Cash fans when we met, and probably still are. An interesting thing about me and Spencer ...
Tex: The great secret ...
Spencer: The great secret that we’ve decided to start talking about ...
Tex: ... is that we shared a teacher, about ten years apart, in different countries, and we had the same teacher.
Spencer: Barry Gray.
Tex: He was like Barry Humphries – wasn’t quite Les Patterson, but sort of a roley poley red nose, not rat bag, but a bit irreverent. He’d call you a ‘little bastard’ ...
Spencer: And he was also a cross dresser.
In the classroom?
Spencer: No, off duty. He got sacked from my school for getting some kids high on liquor on a field trip. And I was one of the kids – there was about seven of us with Barry. One of them dobbed him in and he got the sack. I quite enjoyed drinking whisky and playing cards with this guy. He was groping me or anything. He told me that "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Creedence Clearwater Revival was the greatest fucking song that there was.
Tex: We realised that fact many years ago but I’d completely forgotten about it until recently. It’s strangely significant that in a strange sort of a way we both went through the influence of Barry Gray.
Would you call it serendipitous?
Tex: I don’t know what it is. But if you can use it, do – make it sound like destiny.
The Beasts have a very strong reputation in Europe but the band’s following in the United States isn’t as significant. Had you toured the US before the recent brief tour?
Spencer: Yeah, about 16 years ago.
What’s your reputation like in the States?
Spencer: We didn’t really know until this trip. It was good to play in places like Brooklyn at the Empire Pool, and the Crash Mansions in the Bowery where I thought there’s a few Australians here. But there were people turning up at these gigs and clearly we were all that they’d come to see. We filled a few rooms and people’d be coming up and saying ‘I’ve been waiting to see you guys for 20 years’. I’m pretty sure we could tour there at any stage and play pretty small clubs and places that hold between 100 and 200 people and fill them up. Some places would be bigger than others. The word was getting out while we were there – people were getting on-line after shows and telling their friends ‘you won’t believe what I’ve just seen’. And then people would turn up at the next town having heard about us.
An example was that Henry Rollins at the Troubadour gig. By the time we did the first show in Austin, Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks was there. A lot of people came out of the woodwork – and not just people our age either. A lot of younger people. A lot of people had our stuff on cassettes because it’s so hard to find. If someone gets hold of a copy then their friends will ask them to make them a copy and piece together a collection of our recordings.
Do you think you’ll go back to the States?
Spencer: We need to go back to the States and make a lot of money out of merchandise.
Tex, do you there could be a Beasts without Spencer?
Tex: It would be possible but it would be short lived because he’d beg to get back in it. No-one’s ever quit the band more often than Spencer, and came crawling back a couple of weeks later, every time.
Spencer: A couple of days later.
Tex: Essentially it’s mine and Spencer’s band. I turned to him initially when we needed to do the gigs that the Dum Dums couldn’t do.
Is there another album lurking within the Beasts?
Spencer: Yeah. I want to go another album, pretty soon too.
Tex: Whether it’s another album, I dunno. But while the wheels are greased. This record was made from a standing start. It’d be nice to record an album when we’re up and running for a while and see the difference there.
The new album "Little Animals" is out now on Sony/BMG through Alberts.
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