Posted November 1, 2007

The Hitmen 2007: Tony "Juke" Jukic, Chris "Klondike" Masuak, Johnny "Zeus" Kannis, Tony "The Kid" Robertson
and Murray "Muzza" Shepherd. Tony Motto photo

In the Australian rock and roll world of the 1980s, there was no harder working band than the Hitmen. Arising from the ashes of Radio Birdman, they courted inner-city hipster contempt by deliberately setting a course for overground suburban success, becoming a major live draw in a highly competitive and crowded pub scene. Playing the music they loved - a mix of their own highly-charged, hard rocking originals and covers of unlikely bedfellows like the Dictators, Elvis Presley, The Seeds, Blue Oyster Cult and the Flamin' Groovies (among others) - they attacked the exploding 'burb-and-bush circuit with boundless energy, a truly missionary zeal and an overpowering sense of fun like few bands before or since. Their crusade really was a War Against The Jive and there's counting the number of young Aussie pub-goers they wised up to music that was a cut above their standard fare of boogie and rote blues rock.

The Hitmen's strong live drawing power never translated to record sales, however, with major labels seemingly unable or unwilling to market them properly. A searing debut, "Hitmen",and the strong but sonically-flawed follow-up "It Is What It Is" marked the first life of the band, as a road accident almost killed singer Johnny Kannis. But arise he did and the fine live "farewell" disc "Tora Tora Tora" brought down the curtain for a while, before a further EP ("UELA") and a run of different line-ups. The band burst back with the powerpop-inflected "Moronic Inferno" (reviving the career of Radio Birdman's Deniz Tek, who guested on that diosc and the subsequent Australian tour.) With rock and roll in retreat by then, however, a 15-year hiatus ensured.

All things sometimes come to those who wait. Now Shock/Savage Beat Records have provided the impetus for new life with lavish, bonus-studded double-CD re-issues of their first two albums. A long-mooted reformation tour with a new line-up (with the core of Kannis and guitarist Chris "Klondike" Masuak intact) happens in Australia in December 2007, with plans to go further afield and record a new studio album in '08.

THE BARMAN comandeered the Internet to conduct a wide-ranging interview with vocalist JOHNNY KANNIS, guitarist CHRIS MASUAK (on the road in Europe with Birdman), bassist TONY "THE KID" ROBERTSON and new members MURRAY SHEPHERD (ex-Screaming Tribesmen, Lime Spiders - drums) and TONY "JUKE" JUKIC (ex-Johnny Kannis Explosion, Oblivian - guitars.) This time They Did Tell The Man...

Welcome back! Why so long away? 

JK: Thank you! We've been playing around with the idea since 1996!!! As soon as Birdman made their reunion comeback, Chris and I started talking about it again.

TR: Why so long away? We musta took a wrong turn at Albukoykee.

CM: We swore that when Lenny Flotski was committed that we'd never play again. Then Kannis disappeared.

JK: So, we threw David Laing from Shock Records into the mix immediately and 10 years later this amazing deluxe reissue package is born from all his hard work. As soon as David gave us a tentative release date, it all started happening very quickly from there...working around Chris's Birdman and solo schedule, it took a couple of weeks to organize the team; you know - promoters, crews, rehearsals, members, artwork, photographers, publicists etc.

You’ve been running a poll on the band’s Myspace, asking people what songs they want you to play. Any real left-field suggestions yet? 

CM: The Hitmen were renowned for playing any and everything, whether you wanted to hear it or not. Why should anything be different now?

JK: I'm actually quite surprised that most of the requests are from the real early days…the first two albums and some of the obscure covers we use to play. People that have only seen the band once or twice, just out of high school are writing in! The Dry Retch from the UK have even suggested “Death By The Gun” (recorded by Birdman during the "Living Eye" sessions) and “You're Gonna Miss Me”.

“Hard Time Coming”, “Don't Fear The Reaper”, “Didn't Tell the Man”, “Have Love Will Travel” by The Sonics. “Strychnine” gets a few mentions and "Night Is Over" blew me away – that’s a Warwick Gilbert song that was never recorded (just demo’d.) It was suggested by Jaime from Spanish band The Harry Sons! Must be on some bootleg somewhere..

So, yeah.. the set will be a good mix of some of the covers being suggested, the first and second album and some "must do's" from “Tora Tora”.

How many tunes do you expect to work up for the tour and do you expect to cycle through them? 

JK: I think we'll pick and rehearse 30. The set list will be 18 or so plus encores... so yep, we'll work through them all. Seven shows aren't enough, we'd love to do more... like 50 maybe!!!  But that's not the consensus from the Promoters. Which is cool with us, we'll gauge the "fun meter" at the end of all this and hopefully, there'll be more gigs in 2008 some time.

What’s the one song you each think is indispensable on a Hitmen tour? 


TR: After numerous deliberations and permutations: “ I Don’t Mind”

JK: For me, is has to be "I Don't Mind"... wild & crazy attitude with that song, it honestly reflects our fun and zany ways!

What will the band do to get match-fit for the tour? Most importantly, what will be the spirit of choice and your hang-out, now the Manzil Room is gone?

TR: I’ve upped my drinking quota.

CM: I'm honing my playing to a shit sharp edge on tour in Europe with Birdman, where my choice of drink is water.

JK: Rehearsals start 8th December in Sydney for four days.

OK....well, Klondike hasn't stopped playing, he's always doing something! I saw him for the first time in 15 years at the Enmore Theatre gig with Birdman and he just blew me away!! He and Rob were on fire! His sound, his energy, his playing was amazing.

I'm on the beach every day, surfing and keeping fit. I haven't sung in a band in 15 years but I'm really looking forward to meeting up with Mick Blood and the Lime Spiders at the Miami Tavern on the Gold Coast 9th November, Mick's invited me up to sing a song, probably “Strychnine”.

No Manzil room means that one of the other bars up at Kings Cross will cop a hammering! I went to the Old Kardomah Cafe the other week and it's now run by Tal, who use to manage The Trilobites in their day. So, I might give him a call... he's very generous and a lovely fellow, so I'm sure he'll find some corner for us.

Give us an honest assessment of the state of the War Against The Jive right now. Can you tell us Who Will Save Rock and Roll?

CM: You know the answer to that.

Klondike on the Tora tour.

JK: I can't bag Australian Idol too much because my nephew was on there and made it to top six but I will anyway.... they should create a band version of that show and have us as judges!! TV shows like that don't really help in the War Against The Jive. Kids get brainwashed into watching that crap, it steals potential Rock ‘n’ Roll Soldiers from us.

And what the fuck are radio playing these days?? Even Triple J have lost the plot!

Steve Lorkin runs the only true rock n roll show on Thursdays on 2SER Sydney. As long as there are bands like the Lazys, The Unheard, Jet, The Harry Sons, The Styles, The Pink Fits, Hailer and The Dragstrippers coming through, the War will never be lost.  

The re-issues of the first two albums are here, and look and sound magnificent. What’s the reaction been from people who’ve heard them? What about the rest of the back catalogue?

JK: Thanks Barman! Hey, I'm really surprised and thrilled at the reaction they're getting. Even songs like “American Ruse” and “Dirty Robber” that were just taken from a fan’s Walkman sound incredibly supersonic.

The mastering and compiling is flawless - I take my hat off to David Laing from Savage Beat/Shock, we should build a statue of him and take it on tour as a stage prop because it feels like he's as much a part of the band as what I am. David's also planning to release "Tora Tora DTK", "U.E.L.A." and  “Moronic Inferno” with bonus CD's made of of rarities and demo sessions. There's an amazing, drunken jam at Sugar Hill studios with Deniz Tek that will probably get a look in.

We're all just blown away about it all. We're also thinking of releasing all our videos on DVD next year.

John – take us through the selection criteria for this line-up. Everyone either played in a previous Hitmen line-up or had a connection, but please elaborate.

JK: Klondike picked himself, he's on fire at the top form with Birdman and looks so incredibly fit. He's already written our next album!

The Kid on fire.

Tony Robertson hasn't lost his touch, he's been in Melbourne raising a family. He actually got married a few weeks ago to Samantha, great to have The Kid back, it wouldn't be the same without him. I'm surprised his fingers don't bleed when he plays, that's how hard he hits that thing!

Tony “Juke” Jukic was my comrade in the Johnny Kannis Band and Johnny Kannis Explosion. Chris was contemplating doing this tour with just one guitar but in the end, we went with Tony because he's done the miles and nobody knows Chris's playing better than Tony. He's a humble kind of guy and it's good to have him around, he digs it so much! At last, Klondike will have a partner in crime who compliments him 100%.

Muzz is the bro’ of Guru Brad and I just realised the other day that he has a similar sense of humour as Brad. They both just crack me up! Now that Murray's taken over the "More Fun" Crown,  I'm sure he'll keep everyone entertained.

He was with Birdman at the ARIA awards so when we saw him pound those skins on the night, I said to Chris, we gotta have him!! I used to manage Murray when he was in the Screaming Tribesmen.

That's it...A SupaHuman piece of DNA...

It’s very early days, but is there a prospect of this band turning its hand to studio recordings?

: Yes, it will happen. Chris has already written a whole album’s worth of material and Juke has emailed me some amazing tracks as well. I've been writing a few…so I think this next one will take over from where we left off in 1983...

But this time, Klondike won't let anybody near the production controls except us! We've all learned so much from our BAD experiences.

CM: The songs are already written but the band has to be subjected to the indignity, cruelty, and humiliation of a crippling touring schedule before I will allow them to set foot in the studio.

I know there have been rumblings about a possible European tour. Is there any progress on that front?

JK: As we speak, Klondike's on the road with Birdman through Europe and messages are coming  through from all over the place from people willing to help us get it going. Teenage Head Agency and Tony Slug want to help out as well....some of the overseas Birdman crew have been making themselves available just recently.

Europe will be April/May or September/October 2008. There are also discussions taking place for an album release with TKO in LA to coincide with a tour, so you never know!! It's all looking positive.

The Shock re-issues are absolutely chockfull of bonus material like demo’s and live rarities. So a question for the old-timers in the Hitmen ranks: What song do you each most regret NOT recording or demo-ing from back in the day?

JK: I think we did them all! Let me think.... umm is there a version of "Death By The Gun" somewhere? That's an amazing song. Chris and I use to play that one in The Jackals, our High School band.

We could have done a great job on "Suspicious Minds" at the- one worldwide. I remember we were all so pissed off.

CM: “Cold December” and “Nearly Night”.

Another one: The Hitmen out-toured almost every other band on the Australian circuit in the 1980s. Is there any show or venue that stands out as the most bizarre you played?

CM: One of our last gigs in Perth. The crowd wouldn’t let us get off stage; we played literally every song in our very extensive repertoire, the stage was littered with fans, gypsies, fire-breathing circus performers, and strippers - and the police had to be called to escort us off the premises once and for all.

TR: Broadford Bikie Festival with Zeus off his nut and climbing 30 feet of PA and swinging like a monkey on the lighting trusts springs to mind...

JK: I remember playing a New years Eve show at Caringbah Inn and in the middle of the set, this huge brawl broke out at the back of the room and chairs went flying, bodies tossed in the air, pool queues being smashed over peoples heads but the show had to go on and we ended up with bodies strewn all over the stage (people trying to escape the riot)... it felt like the Blues Brothers on Tour. We tried to stop it but nobody was listening, the front 20 rows just wanted to rock.

Murray – how was your Hall of Fame appearance with Radio Birdman?

The ARIA 'Birdman" experience was literally "a dream come true".  Growing up with Birdman as our in-country leaders of '70s rock, I was one of many that said, "wouldn't it be great to play in Radio Birdman". Well, work hard, eat your veges and dream, and things you never thought possible eventually appear.

What else are you doing musically?

I have been playing in "bourbon-soaked" rock/blues band called The Ride Ons for the past 4 years.

Two E.P's and an album later, we are still rolling.

Lastly, will you be providing professional hair care tips to your band mates on the road?

Yes, I'm working on my Hair Design certificate. I'll only give advice on styling if they ask for it...and Chris WON'T.

The Kid – As Zeus alluded earlier, we hear your girlfriend made an honest man of you recently. How’s wedded bliss and how was the reception? 

TR: Excellent my man, all is wonderful; the wedding went off!!!

Ron Peno was a groomsman, he arranged and sang on a song I wrote and recorded for my beautiful bride, Samantha, to walk down the aisle. Mick Medew came down, lots of family…very cool. Was at the Zoo in the Japanese Gardens,…cocktails after and then onto a BBQ. Much fun had by all. All the boys emailed or called from interstate, which was extra nice.

The Kid, Zeus and Juke in the Johnny Kannis Explosion.

Tony Juke – You did a lot of time in the ranks of the Johnny Kannis Explosion. How will that experience hold you in good stead with this mission?

TJ: Well it certainly won't do any harm!  When I was in the Explosion I was the only guitar player,  so I had to learn all the bits to the Hitmen stuff we did. I had to learn Klondike's parts note for note - which was cool because they were great parts and I enjoyed the challenge of playing them. He is very clever, his parts are always memorable!

Now that we're in the same band, he can play his own parts and I can concern myself with more important things…like keeping what's left of my quiff in check!

Klondike – you’ve just come off another Radio Birdman tour through Europe. How was that and what do you do between now and the Klondike’s North 40 album launches and the Hitmen gigs to decompress?

We have four more gigs to go. Personally, I've been having a great time here. The band's been rocking hard and the people have been fantastic. Lots of new and old friends to make the gruelling schedule more endurable.

I'm gonna take a week or so to tool around the Continent and catch up with some quiet time before I head back to oz where I expect to be hit with a cascade of shit.

You’re touring with The Lazys from the Central Coast of New South Wales, with local supports joining you on various gigs. Who picked up on The Lazys and what’s the skinny on them?

JK: The Lazys remind me of a young Iggy Pop singing Jet. They are pretty wild and exciting live, it's just what we need. They are tight, have a great attitude and most importantly, DELIVER! Stephen Wade our Tour Promoter recommended them and they're like coming everywhere with us which is really cool. We better put a padlock on the Drink Rider!!! HA!!

CM: Zeus is the schmoozer. And, it makes sense to support the younger bands.

A general multiple choice question and please state your reason why...

(a.) Elvis

(b.) Handsome Dick Manitoba -

(c.) Iggy

TR: No brainer…Elvis, The King!!!

Wow Barman, what a fucking tough question!!

 I have to say Handsome Dick Manitoba for me because he's the reason I put that white suit on with Birdman and he's the only one I've met and hung out with. "Go Girl Crazy" best album ever written! Sisto introduced me to the Dictators Music…he kept saying: ‘You gotta be like him!! Listen to him talk!!’ Dick is a funny dude and I love wrestling just as much as he does. I cut the "Go Girl Crazy" cover up and made a badge out of his face in 1974-75. I wore it everywhere. They're all going under the Thunder of MANITOBA!!!!!!!!!!

CM: Elvis…exactly! Why?

Handsome Dick - not only will he help save rock n roll but his bar staff are the coolest!

Iggy - He's lazy and predictible and his crooning makes me puke.

Since we’re in a bar, what’s everyone drinking?

CM: Water. Although that there Mescal looks compelling.

TR: Mescal Tequila (with worm.)

JK: I'm still drinking Zeus Juice. Vodka straight with a lime. You should see the drink rider for this tour Barman, it's HUGE. Can you come and serve a few?