Posted October 16, 2007

Kim Salmon (left) and a shadowy Ron Peno.


Cast an eye over the prolific back catalogue of bands featuring Ron Peno and the one thing you won't find is a lyric sheet.

Ron's been a colourful, often mysterious and undeniably impossible-to-ignore presence on the Australian music scene since the early 1980s, singing up a storm with a string of bands, Died Pretty most prominent. His lyrics - often plucked out of the air in the studio - have remained an enigmatic (and sometimes indecipherable) element.

But 30-plus years after he started in music (as vocalist for Oxford Funhouse band, The Hellcats, if you must know), the new album by acoustic country duo The Darling Downs will be the first time those lyrics have been laid bare, so to speak.

That's more than can be said for the rest of Ron, who famously posed nude in his bathtub for photographer Tony Mott in a Rolling Stone spread, in the '80s. But that's another story.

So how did the lyrics for "From One To Another" come about?

"There are fixed choruses and structures. Around that I basically ad lib," Mr Peno says up the phone line from his Melbourne abode.

"I'm very precious about lyrics.

"Kim said: 'I love these lyrics and I want them on the album sleeve.' I was like: 'Whatever'."

Kim, of course, is Kim Salmon of The Scientists, ex-Beasts of Bourbon and a string of other bands, current and past, featuring his own name and/or under his musical direction. He and Peno struck up a partnership in late 2003 as The Darling Downs - and released a magnificent long-player, "How Can I Forget This Heart of Mine", that came right out of left field for most listeners.

Hard to categorise, "How Can I Forget..." was a raw but warm-sounding trip with evocative melodies and sparse, intriguing arrangements. It was certainly like nothing either had previously released, save for the fact that Peno continues to use his considerable voice as a musical instrument.

With his famously Catholic tastes - he and Died Pretty collaborator Brett Myers originally bonded over a mutual love for John Cales' "Paris 1919" - Peno dragged Salmon along, musically speaking, as the guitarist had no grounding in country music.

Recorded at the Ponderosa studio of Dave Graney and Clare Moore on Melbourne's outskirts, the big difference this time out being Kim Salmon playing banjo. A few of the songs are harder to get into, but after a few spins it's an album that will move fans of the first and recruit a few new ones.

"There are some nice melodies there. I think Kim was plucking more than strumming on this one, I guess.

"It was just done over a couple of weekends. Nothing too fixed. Kim went in and did the guitars one weekend. A bit of percussion from Clare Moore. I came in the next weekend and did the vocals. Very similar to the first album."

Peno recalls how the Darling Downs came together. A case of the right person being in the right place. And partying was involved.

"It was a Moodists show at the Corner Hotel. I just saw Kim Salon there and I went: (slurs) 'Eh...I've just moved to Melbourne and I want to do a country thing...' And he was like: 'Oh really...OK...'

"I told him to come over to my place and have a jam. He took me up on it. We did a few songs. One song led to two songs and two songs led to six songs. It just snowballed from there.

"We debuted in May of 2004 - with Eddie Kuepper at The Corner Hotel..

"It was a very nervous show. I'd never been so nervous - just playing with an acoustic guitar. You're so exposed."

(There's another naked analogy, right there.)

"I can't hide behind keyboards or a wild guitar feeding back. I can't roll around on the stage. It's just me singing, emoting the best I can."

Which is saying something, as Peno is one of the most engaging Australian front-men of the last three decades.

If the acoustic experience was hard to get used to, there was no sign as The Darling Downs did the circuit of Australian venues and festivals. The guitar-and-vocals-only format was repeated with Ron and guitarist Brett Myers reprising Died Pretty material on their own acoustic tour.

"That was fantastic. To play with my old buddy again.

"You never lose that thing with somebody. Brett and I have been together with Died Pretty for 20 years. It was so easy. A couple of rehearsals in my loungeroom, that was it.

"Brett's such an underrated guitarist. He should be more known as a guitarist."

The pair slipped out a low-key album under the moniker NOISES And Other VOICES in late 2006, comprised mostly of demo'd Died Pretty songs that never made it to an album. Both are keen to repeat the effort, down the track.

"Brett and I have recorded a bunch of songs for another album. I thought it would do incredibly well but it didn't really. But I guess you have to back up these things with a live presence.

"We've done a bunch of songs for the next one - if needs be. A bit more organic, less electronica."

Electronica was certainly the direction Died Pretty had moved in with their final two albums. Peno justifiably views the band as something special and innovative as anyone else around at the time.

"You have to do something new. Otherwise it sounds like 'Lost' or 'Free Dirt'.

'Using My Gills As a Roadmap' is one of my favourite Died Pretty albums, where we got into sampling and so on. A whole lot of interesting things there with Brett playing acoustic over the top.

"At the time, I thought it was ahead of its time. That was 1997 when that came out - and now everybody's doing it."

Standing still is an allegation no-one can level at Ronald S. Peno. He's working with a couple of young Melbourne bands at the moment. Like the Darling Downs, alcohol at Melbourne drinking establishments may have played a part.

"I love a band who don't play that much - and I'm going to work with them on some songs - a band called Black Cab. I really love them and drunkenly approached them. 'I'd really like to do some songs with you guys'. They said: 'Sure, love to have you on board'.

"And there's another young band I really like called Black Pony Express. I had a jam with them a couple of weeks ago."

There are a few more projects in the wind. Watch this space. One we can talk about is a forthcoming airing of demos by Peno's early '80s Brisbane band, the all but unheard The 31st. One of the four tunes will be on "Do The Pop Vol 2" and the rest are slated for another compilation of underground Aussie stuff from the same era.

Speaking of, Ron recently got to hang out with two ex-The 31st members in bassist Tony Robertson (of the soon-to-reconvene Hitmen) and Mick Medwew, who was also leader of the Screaming Tribesmen.

"I was best man at Tony's wedding. It was lovely. Mick Medew came down from Brisbane - so it was like three-quarters of The 31st back together.

"Mick's looking wonderful. It was great to be with him.

"I saw him briefly in Brisbane when we toured the Darling Downs but he hasn't been here (Melbourne) to hang out with Tony and me.

"I took him up to Greville Street in South Prahan and we went shopping and stuff. Mick bought a couple of shirts.

"It was like Betty Rubble and Wilma Flintstone.

"It was fabulous to see him. What a gorgeous man."