Posted October 16, 2007


If you’re holding your breath for another “authentic” Saints reunion, let it go. It’s not going to happen in a hurry, guitarist Ed Kuepper revealed this week.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty to keep him, and anyone else with a scintilla of musical taste, occupied (the latter would be you if you’re reading this.) For one, there’s the release of a new Kuepper album, “Jean Lee and The Yellow Dog”, his first in seven years.

There’s also a national tour with his core band, drummer Jeffrey Wegener (himself a prehistoric Saint and onetime Laughing Clown) and bassist Peter Oxley (master pizza chef and ex-Sunnyboy), augmented on various dates by extra players.     

There isn’t a definitive Ed Kuepper solo work – there are many – but “Jean Lee and The Yellow Dog” rates with any of them.

It’s a sweeping, cinematic work that takes in the wide spectrum from harsh Aints guitar fireworks to lush, sometimes freestyle soundscapes. Stunning, multi-layered and satisfying, it continues to stamp Ed Kuepper as one of Australia’s most innovative rock and roll explorers. 

More on Jean Lee in a minute. Let’s clear the decks on the Saints and a re-convening of Kuepper, singer Chris Bailey and drummer Ivor Hay, along with bassist Casper Weinberg from the Bailey-led contemporary Saints, for the Pig City festival in Brisbane in July.

“On the day I was happy with it. I thought we played pretty well,” Ed says. “The response was really quite moving.

“We played to around 7500 people. The last time we played it was probably to 70 people, tops.

Kuepper and Bailey at Pig City

“It was a broad range of people from what I could see down the front. From high school kids who'd snuck in (because they didn't make it all-ages) to older people. I'd hazard a guess there were probably 99.9 percent of people had never seen the band before.

“It was never strictly nostalgic whatsoever. I didn't want to approach it as a nostalgia thing. I didn't want to stick to playing the first album - which is probably the best-known.

“In a way it was sort of like - I'll use the word again - speculation as to what we would have been like if we'd toured after 'Prehistoric Sounds'. Even that isn't perfectly accurate because we're all a lot older.”

So what prospect of it parlaying into something more?

“There were all manner of issues. Once it was confirmed - contracts were only signed a few days before the show - we kinda got a number of other offers to go around Australia. We got interest from the States and Europe.

“I was personally keen on at least doing some Australian shows. I don't like travelling so much and if anything, the significance of the band is greatest in Australia these days and it would have been a really good thing to go out and do 2000-33000 seat capacity rooms.

“But that didn't happen. Chris declined and that's kind of where we left it.

“Whether there'll be any kind of reunion in the future, at the moment there is no intention to do so.”

There is, however, the possibility of the gig coming out on film or DVD.

“I haven't seen the footage yet but I've been told by the filmmakers that it was very good. The live recording is pretty good, I think.  And the filmmakers have interest from all over the place to put it out.

“As far as having it released as a stand alone album, the band hasn't discussed that at any length. There was a funny sort of silence after the performance. I didn't hear from anyone for ages.

“But I have the tapes, I paid for them so I suppose they'll come out (laughter)”.  

So who’s this Jean Lee and what’s her caper?

In 1951 she became the last woman to be hanged in Australia for her part in the grisly murder of an old man that involved her abusive boyfriend and his criminal associate.

Ms Lee initially ‘fessed up - only to recant and have the death penalty revoked. But after what may have been a politically-tinged appeal process, she and her co-offenders were to swing for the crime. For some she’s become a metaphor for women who should have stayed repressed and in the kitchen.       

The Kowalski Collective: Jeffrey Wegener, Peter Oxley and Ed Kuepper. Judi DransfieldKuepper photo

“I'd never heard of Jean Lee,” Ed says. “It came from reading a biography years and years ago, when we first moved (from Sydney, back) to Brisbane, that I found in a remainder store. It caught my eye.

“I thought it was the sort of stuff that I would have known about. I was surprised that they hanged women in Australia in the 20th century. She was the only one in the 20th century.

“I was taken with the story. Originally, the idea was to do a full-blown opera with it, I read the book at a time when I wasn't doing any writing. I just didn't get around to it, so the idea sat on a shelf for a long time.”

When it started moving, a key driver was Mrs Judi Kuepper-Dransfield, who you may know as the artist responsible for Ed’s solo album cover art, a talented photographer and a poet, to boot.

“Judi did most of the lyrics. I got Jude involved because she writes poetry and over the years I thought she should branch out in lyric writing. She does some very lyrical poems.

“I wanted to delve into the characters and speculate a little more rather than just re-write what was in the biography.”

Ironically, the recording of “Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog” probably played an indirect role in clearing a path for the Saints reformation. Kuepper’s solo band was playing the UK version of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival series in London – which, of course, is a short hop from Chris Bailey’s Amsterdam home.  

“We did a London show and some around Europe but I wanted to get back and finish this album.

“I asked him (Bailey), basically. We met up when he came over to London.

“He came to a show we did at Dingwalls. I asked him to come up and sing a song. He agreed and I thought it went pretty well. He agreed.

Nick Cave, Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper enjoy a bevvy in London in '07

“I came back to Australia. At the time there were these protracted and difficult negotiations for the Saints reunion at Pig City. That was starting to get bogged down. It was intended as a circuit breaker - or to kill it entirely.

“Surprisingly, in a way - because the negotiations weren't going well - he did agree.”

Bailey’s vocal on "That Depends" was probably on a song that most fans would not have picked as a vehicle for his talents. Yet another surprise on an album full of them.

A few years back, the presence of Jeffrey Wegener on a Kuepper album might also have qualified as a shock. Was there a plan to work extensively live before committing to recording together? 

“When I first started working with Jeffrey again we didn't have any of these songs.

“What that was about early on was basically seeing if we could actually work together again.

Jeffrey back behind the traps in Ed's band in London in 2007

 “Jeffrey and I have had our differences over the years. In fact, it's pretty safe to say we didn't speak for 15 years or so, for one reason or another.”

Kuepper’s live pairing with the masterful drummer sent a ripple around live audiences around Australia after years of under-the-radar activity on soundtracks and the like.

What really set the critical raves running was the way Kuepper and Wegener re-cast old Saints, Ed solo and Laughing Clowns songs in a way that gave them a stunning new life.   

Then again, re-birthing songs is valid part of the Kuepper oeuvre.

 “Just playing with people - and I suppose I have a particular style that I play and write - it (the back catalogue) can be re-worked in some ways.

“It's an approach I've been using ever since the days of the Yard Goes on Forever. The funny thing listening to recordings of the Yard - and even going back to the Clowns days - is how closely the live versions mirror the studio versions.

“Even with the Clowns - who are falsely, in a way, seen as this great fusion of jazz and punk - it was incredibly arranged, to an extent that I'd forgotten until I heard a bunch of live recordings.

“Now, I might play something fairly close to the studio version, but for the most time no song will be played the same. Some people like it, some people hate it and complain they can't recognise the songs. Everyone has their problems.”

The Laughing Clowns’ belated recognition as a truly innovative band probably peaked with the release of all their studio recorded material from 1979-84 on the 3CD set, “Cruel But Fair” in 2005. Which poses the question, given the tumultuous and ever-changing state of that band’s existence in the ‘80s, what were the emotions when it came time to revisit the back catalogue in the compilation process?  

“Mixed, I think. The Clowns certainly didn't have it easy. It was always a struggle and once thing started to get bad with the drugs with some people in the band, that made it a lot worse.

The last Laughing Clwons touring line-up, 1984. Judi Dransfield Kupper photo

“There were a couple of recording sessions that were really enjoyable and a couple that were verging on a Lynchian nightmare, I think.

“The thing that struck me, when I put that stuff aside, was how well the best of the stuff had aged. Everything dates because of the recording approach, but I thought a lot of the songs hadn't dated at all. I hadn’t listened to the Clowns for yonks before I put that together and I really enjoyed it.”

Reunions to one side, the other event that recently re-focused attention on the (original) Saints was the national screening of an episode of a brief series, “Great Australian Albums”, centred entirely on the band’s debut LP, “(I’m) Stranded”.

It’s since been parlayed into a retail DVD release (with a goodly chunk of previously unseen live footage) but mixed fan reaction surrounded the non-licensing of some music from the often-seen, but wonderful, Paddington Town Hall footage and the curious crediting of interviewee Jeffrey Wegener as “band associate” when he was an early member.     

Kuepper also clearly found some aspects of the documentary surreal.

“I got to see it before it was broadcast but only in a distracted way, otherwise I would have got them to change Jeffrey's designation. That was a bit weird.

“One of the big differences between the Saints and all the other bands - and I'm sure all the other bands had their problems and things - but the Saints are probably unique in the degree of ambivalence that some people in the band feel about what the band was.

“So I think you probably get a much harder barrier for anybody to break through before there can be a proper communication.

“In most cases, people that have played in a band tend to be critical of stuff they've done, but I think in the case of the Saints often there's almost an outright hostility to any attention paid to the original band. That's the impression I had from it (the documentary).”

On the subject of mis-communication, does Mr K want to clear 30 years of fan misperceptions about the state of relations between the Saints and Australian underground music’s other pioneers, Radio Birdman?

The Kuepper-Hay-Bailey-Kym Bradshaw Saints, circa '75

To cut a long story short, media reporting and some biographical impressions of contact between the bands in Sydney in 1976 has led to speculation that’s only mushroomed down the years. Central to this was Chris Bailey’s stage banter at the legendary May ’76 Paddington Town Hall gig, supporting Radio Birdman and in the shadow of their red-and-black flag, where he “thanked the local members of the Hitler Youth for the stage decorations”. Over to Ed:

“I don’t know….we were only in Australia for a couple of months after we left Brisbane. So I wasn't 100 percent sure what happened after we left (for England) with media coverage.

“The first time we went to Sydney, I came down with Bailey for some EMI thing. Staying at a hotel near the EMI office, and Rob Younger came around with his then girlfriend Angie and sat around for hours, talking about records. Everything was pretty chummy, I think.

“Then we did a show at their Funhouse venue and that was pretty fine. Then we did the Paddington Town Hall show with them and Chris made his funny joke. I don't know if that actually offended anybody.

“Obviously we were all competitive. Radio Birdman had a nice set up that they'd done in Sydney, with a number of bands under their wing. We weren't really part of it.

“As far as hostility between the bands, I've always been pretty friendly with Rob, Warwick, Ron, and Deniz on the odd occasion that I see him.

“Radio Birdman had very serious fans. The Saints had slightly psychotic fans. I just think of them as different cultures and that stuff probably did us some good, publicity-wise.

“But as far as it being a real 'I'll knife you if I see you thing', I don't think it existed.

“There's been far more serious hostility between the Saints (laughs) than with any other band over the years.”