Posted December 19, 2008

Cartoon by Rick Chesshire of

Dave Graney is Living
In His Own Big World
(so step inside)


Here's a tale that itself tells a story: I mentioned Dave Graney to two female workmates in their 30's and 20's on a car trip recently. Played them the latest album, "We Wuz Curious". If they'd been male, the puzzled looks and bemused comments would have translated to: "Who the fuck...?" but they were far too polite.

So I tell them that this is The Golden Wolverine...The Son of the Morning Star...The King of Pop...The Savage Sportsman...The Australian Stallion...Sir David Graney, for Chrissakes...

"People don't know what they like," I sniff, "They like what they know" ('cos I really like that saying), but also because it's just too true.

Was it only 1994 when Dave Graney and his band The Coral Snakes were in the upper reaches of the Australian mainstream charts with "You Want To Be There But You Don't Want To Travel"? Was it '95 when Aussie youth network Triple Jay's listeners voted "Rock and Roll Is Where I Hide" into the Hottest 100? Wasn't it '96 when the Australian Recording Industry Association named Graney Best Male Artist?

Of course I wouldn't expect my road-trip companions would have known Graney was the leader of The Moodists, a late '80s lurching, leather-clad punk rock monster of a band that spent most of its productive life living in London.

See, all that was B.D. (Before Downloads) and as good as a century away for today's NOVA-FM-listening, Idol-devouring Ordinary Joes (and Jills.) Dave Graney is now doing it on his own terms, on an indie label, running well clear of the pack.

So I get on the line to the Ponderosa, home (and home studio) outside of Melbourne for The Man Himself and his wife, drummer pa excellence Ms Clare Moore, for a quiet midweek chat and specifically to talk about the new-ish album.

It seems my two passengers (who weren't even dead or in a stolen second-hand Ford) aren't the only people on earth to have been blind to the passage of the quirky musical comet that is "We Wuz Curious"...

"We were in London just before it came out in July and there's this writer there who's very supportive of us," Dave explains. "And he was laughing saying: 'What the hell are you doing with this music?' I said: 'This is like a pop record' and he laughed more.

"He really liked it but he said 'I can't see anywhere for this music'. I thought he was mad and thought the same of me. But he was proved to be right.

"I really like the album and the music. And playing with my band, The Lurid Yellow Mist....let me tell you what I think."

Go for it.

"I think this album is great, I think the band is the best in Australia. I don't think there's anybody else as good. And I think I am fucking great...I am one of the greatest songwriters and performers ever.

"But I also think we're operating in a time that's a wasteland. It's completely retrospective and obsessed with characters from The Golden Age - which was up until about '74 - and those guys back then had it easy.

"Most of those guys were undeniably great but that period until '74, before rock music became hopelessly self conscious, everything was released to a mass, monolithic audience. There were hardly any sad stories.

"There were some like the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, perhaps, who were out of synch with the mass of things. But in some ways they were anachronisms.

"But in general everything was given a go, then. There were people who had great interest in music and gave everything a go. I mean radio and large records companies. It was a free-for-all that was easy."

There's a truth to much of the above that isn't so hard to fathom. The Golden Age of Rock (and rock criticism) is deader than Mr Mojo Not Risin'. Global warming aside, we're into The Bronze Age of Re-Cycling.

Dave's schtick may weigh a ton but isn't the rock frontman supposed to carry it off with a mix of self-confidence and bravado amplified so as to drown out the fear of failure?

The circus is always more thrilling when the trapeze guy operates without a net. The Graney Show eschews a crutch and Dave is more or less a straight-edge performer.

"I like a bit of pot. I haven't had a drink in eight years. I think music is much better if you play without alcohol. You have the fear and you're aware of the audience being a bit scared too."

The questioning of what makes a rock singer - or performer of any kind - tick is a recurring theme for Dave Graney, and interacting with (challenging) his audiences is an extension of that.

"I find that as you get older you get closer to the Grim Reaper, I want to do more faster and up-beat music. I know that time is kinda precious. I don't know why people fuck around doing music that's half-arsed.

"We were opening recently for someone else. It was a ritzy bourgeois joint. It was like playing in a mortuary. It was a very rootsy audience, rich older people who want everything in a cabaret way.

"I come out and do 'My Schtick Weighs a Ton' and I'm singing about entertaining people and the audience has got their pants around their ankles and hard-ons in their hands, and I'm acting it all out. I'm like Rufus Thomas or something.

"It was like playing to a roomful of corpses, but we were having a good time. We don't let people upset us like that."

So how hard is it in the current file-sharing, stay-at-home-and-play-with-your-Wii environment?

Dave with Stu Peeiera on guitar and Mark Fitzgibbon on keys, succumbing to the lure of the tropics, somewhere in Cairns.

"I operate in a wasteland where nothing is of much value. I don't want to seem like I'm being negative. That's just the way it is.

"I'm a musician. I have to read about people interpreting music all the time in newspaper and that with rubbish about iTunes and how intelligent the audience is. I think the audience is stupid. More stupid than ever. And it's the musicians who are ahead of the audience.

"I do a two-hour show on (Melbourne public radio station) RRR each week with a friend, Elizabeth. I feel it is my duty to play contemporary Australian music. I feel it's a privilege. I do play some old stuff sometimes but I try and play new stuff.

"One day a week I spend a day listening to lots of CDs I receive, fighting my prejudices. Anything in 3/4 time, I can't listen to. My prejudices usually win.

"And the press releases...anything that says Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, I can't listen to. It means they're useless. If they're young it means they're stupid - they're just playing shit their parents liked.

"I don't know what it would be like to be a kid. There's too much to listen to. Young kids aren't interested in music much. They're into getting pissed."

And it's not being unkind to say that "We Wuz Curious" is so far outside the known musical experience of today's youth to be in a foreign language. Not that Graney's being willingly obscure in putting across his own thing, but he knew exactly what he wanted it to sound like.

"I wanted to do an R & B record - by that I mean black '70s R & B. Modern R & B is my favourite music to listen to but I don't have the skills to cook up something like that in a studio.

"When we mastered it, I gave the guy a Bobby Womack album and said: 'I want it to sound like that'."

It does - and more. "Curious" runs from the cool funk groove of "I Had To Be Drunk" to the jazzy "Bring Me My Liar" to the cool rock stylings of "I'm In The Future Now", all with the quicksilver fluid backing of The Lurid Yellow Mist and the colourful lyrical narratives that typify Graney's solo band work.

Then there's the radio-promoted track "Let's Kill God Again", a huge-sounding, shimmering falsetto work-out that Prince should cover.

The stripped-back band - Dave, Clare and bass player Stu Thomas - undertook a mid-year European tour playing support to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, opening in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Holland and London in 5000-10,000 seat theatres. So were there any problems in some of those Catholic countries with a song that slays the Lord?

"Oh they loved it. That was the best part about it. We were going to have the album released on a Limey label but they went bust so we just did the gigs for the hell of it.

"'Let's Kill God Again' killed it. People loved it. Ireland especially. It was like being Hank Williams. Hank had a whole set of songs that shocked.

"Getting out in front of Nick's audiences and annoying them was great. His audience is very devoted so it wouldn't matter what you did. We did the vibes (vibraphone) trio which was good because it was different."

"We Wuz Curious" was a long time in the gestation and a day in the recording, with the band going into Melbourne's Sing Sing Studio and running through the songs live.

Dave explains: "We rehearsed a lot for this album. We rehearsed in this funny little hall in West was a mouth organ band hall.

"It's been going since the '20s. Our bass player Stu rents it. It's not like being in a rock and roll rehearsal room. We were in our own place and workshopped the music for a month or so."

And even if the music is in its own place, how can Dave Graney and the Lurid Yellow Mist sell-out a (smallish) theatre at the Sydney Opera House (as they did on one recent visit) yet struggle to draw their own breath in a rock and roll heartland like the Hopetoun Hotel?

"I can do gigs in those kinds of places (small theatres) but they seem to have promotion that reaches that sort of audience.

"I love to play music for younger people but they never hear it because I haven't been on Triple Jay for a decade and have never been on commercial radio.

"Triple Jay won't touch my music because I'm from Melbourne or I'm older or whatever. I always invite them to play it but it's like communicating with David Koresh. It's like a cult.

"My music is local ABC radio but I'm not a family favourite kind of roots act. My music is abstract in many ways.

"There is an audience for what I do but it's not rock and roll people. It bugs me a bit that rock and roll people think I'm a dill. In general, I have about that much respect for most rock music too."

Even if rock and roll often disappoints, Graney makes a point of going out regularly in Melbourne and checking out live music.

"I probably see more music than any friends of my own age. As you know, people over 30 don't leave the house.

"I really love to go and see people playing around in Melbourne...mainly younger acts. With a lot of older performers, the music's too slow for me, too melancholy. It hasn't got enough energy for me."

"I like a lot of rock music like Snowman from Perth and The Silents from Perth. I fucking love it when people get that kind of great guitar rock happening. But more often than not it's pretty bogus."

The Golden Wolverine morphs into Leather Boy

If rock and roll (in its mainstream form) is bogus, surely punk (or whatever passes for it) is in similar straits? "Punk Dies" is a song on "Curious" that touches on that.

"People used to say Punk Lives but it became modern punk like Green Day and Living End, this sort of puppy-dog-eager-to-please, healthy 'Leave it To Beaver' style of thing. I prefer the 90-pound weaklings.

"I was into punk rock - and punk rock has proven to be a of a bit of an aberration. Now people just talk about AC/DC all the time. That's what it's boiled down to. I'm not into that - it's pretty dopey.

"I used to like all the hopeless kind of nihilism of punk rock. James Chance and the Contortions. Richard Hell. I love the fact that Richard Hell couldn't be fucked going outside of New York. His music is great and he's so fucking cool. Vic Goddard, too. I love the Subway Sect."

Graney professes to finding it hard to dwell on the days after the Moodists' 1987 relocation to a post-punk London but says the band had little choice but to relocate as it didn't fit in with the Australian scene.

"The alternative wasn't much. We were snobby inner-city types. We were more tuned into the UK and American music.

"In Australia, we played the last gigs with the Birthday Party. We opened with them. We were kinda friends of Tracey (Pew) and Mick (Harvey). We'd open for them. We played at the going away gigs by the Laughing Clowns and the Go-Betweens.

"When we got to London the Go-Betweens were back in Australia and let us move into their squat. Everyone had their own flavour, I guess. We weren't into drugs. We were into beer.

"TV and pubs shut at 10 o'clock. Why would you want to take speed? We used to drink beer and we enjoyed being slobs.

"The Scientists came to town. I remember Stu Spasm and the Clowns being there.

Clare takes the pauses that refreshes while Dave stares wistfully into space

"We did a few gigs with the Fall in Melbourne and then in the UK. We played the Hacienda. When that movie came out, "24 Hour Party People", we knew all those people.

"We were really into American music. Flipper. A bit of Black Flag. Alex Chilton and the Cramps. Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr Atlantic R & B. We were dogmatic about music. A lot of country stuff. Our music had a slow menacing edge because we were into the Doors and Funhouse era Stooges.

"It was antagonistic and that's how we liked it. My music still has a bit of that attitude."

Despite their liking for American music, the Moodists (and Graney's subsequent band, the country-flavoured White Buffaloes) never got their shot at the Land of the Free, with multi-national record company reporting lines restricting cross-border cultural flows.

Europe still seems like the logical next step - and would have been in synch with the Cave supports but for the financial demise of a UK label.

"I'm trying to get a release in Europe for 'We Wuz Curious'. I'd love to go to work more in Europe.

"I feel at home in the UK. I love the way people are serious about their music, unlike here where music is to be mocked."

There are enough songs down for a new release, after a mid-tour writing stint with friend Henry Wagons of Melbourne country band The Wagons.

"We had to stay in a hotel in Maitland for three days and we got all these songs together.

"I like to sit and think what sort of a world it's going to go out into. I have to think why this one was so hard to get out. I make my music to get heard on radio for instance. I make power-charged songs and have a fantasy of them being played on radio."

It's been a long phone call to the Ponderosa and we've both got a lot of work to do. The conversation's run through music collections and Graney's fascination for rap music and the Grateful Dead. (You can read his Top Ten for 2008 here to get a flavour of where his listening tastes lie.) But above all, Dave's keen not to come across as bitter and twisted - more pragmatic. The young players he sees give him hope and the prevailing winds at least carry a sniff of change.

"This financial meltdown might be good for musicians. It usually is. It might get people fucking snapping away from their iPods and their pathetic re-organising of their music. They might go out and do something social.

"Young people put a lot into music. I get really weird young kids coming to my kids. It feels great. Otherwise you're chasing your own tail really. It's always been like that."