Posted April 18, 2001
John Spittles: Reading Between the Lines

Asteroid B612 have been a mainstay on the Australian music vista since 1993, playing a brand of Detrtoit-derived rock and roll that takes that (admittedly loosely-framed) genre further. Sure, there are traces of all the usual suspects in there, but there's just as strong streaks of the Flamin' Groovies (the original Roy Loney-fronted Groovies with BALLS, not the Beatlesque ones, or the latter-day heavy metaloids) and the Rolling Stones, just to scratch the surface.

It's been an up-and-down ride for the Roids. A deal with AuGoGo supposedly opened the door to wider world interest but ended with the band unhappy with the label's reach. A US tour with a twin-guitar line-up ended with a much-publicised angry split between guitarist Stewart Cunningham and the rest of the band, and it's a substantially changed, four-piece Asteroid B612 that treads the boards these days. Guitarist, songwriter and band leader John Spittles (pictured at the left of the band shot) is still onboard, but it's brother Grahame behind the mic instead of Grant McIver.

John himself has spent a bit of time in the US in recent years, applying ink to lots of people (he's a tattooist) and collaborating with Philadelphia musicians in the powerhouse trans-Pacific combo that is Johnny Casino's Easy Action (check out their hard-to-find mini-album via Head Miles.) So after after being a scarce local commodity for a while, the 'Roids returned to live work in 2000, releasing a new album in early 2001.

And the overwhelming evidence is that they have produced their best record to date with "Reading Between the Lines". Our Italian-based correspondent ROBERTO CALABRO certainly thinks highly of the Roids' newie and the legacy that went before, and spoke at length with Johnny Casino in this straight-shooting interview.

R: First of all, I'd like to know why did you part with Stewart "Leadfinger" Cunningham first and Grant McIver then. And what did these events change in the musical approach of the band ?

J: OK, so your're gonna throw this question up to the plate straight off the bat, alright. I've often wondered why it was such a big fuckin' deal, but I guess someone has made it that way.

Stewart is a wonderful guitar player and a great songwriter, but he is also more worried about proving that or making sure everybody knows how great he is than just letting it go and playing. I learnt a lot from Stewart, a lot of good things and a lot of bad things.I think he would be a great person to have as a friend, but at the time when he was in the band it was like we all had a relationship with each other...something more than friendship.

Me and Stewart were in a position where we loved and respected each so much that all the little things hurt and the big things just became a fuckin' nightmare, and I personally never want to be in that position with him again.

In the end it was like we were all Stewart's fuckin baby sitter. It had nothing to do the tour of the USA. We should have went there without him anyway. He didn't want to go. He missed the plane on the day because he didn't have a passport or a visa, he was late to the airport because he had to hand in his dole form. He didn't want to go.

He had done enough a long time before this to warrant either getting kicked out of the band or getting punched in the mouth; I mean throwing Ben's drumkit down two flights of concrete stairs because he didn't think he should have to carry it is just the tip of the iceberg. His behaviour at times was so fuckin childish it was a joke.

We never used Stewart as a scapegoat on that tour and if we were smart we would have thrown him out before we went. Any situation that he was in over there, he put himself in anyway - and you don't have to take my word for it ,there were five other people on that tour who might have the same thing to say, they just might not be as nice as me.

In saying all this, I was hurt by the way he acted, but I'm sure I'm no angel either and I do like Stewart. Me and Stewart have a lot in common. I'm guessing that a lot of the crap that was said and done when all this came to a head was just friends upset with each other, because in the end it sounded like a fuckin' soap opera and it was really silly, because it's just a rock'n'roll band. It was a shame we were so close to each other, and the little things hurt.

You know we have never really sat down and talked about all this , and some day I'd like to do that , because we really did have some great times and played and made some great music together. [Stewart gets his say at the Bar here. As far as we're concerned, the book's closed, from both sides.]

Grant just didn't want to do it any more. He wanted to live overseas and travel around and do his thing. Since he has been out of the band, it's about four years now he's lived overseas for about three of them, so yeah, he's doin his own thing and he knew he couldn't remain in the band and do that.

Me and Grant are schoolyard friends. We are like brothers and allways will be. The musical approach of the band was allways to write and play songs that meant something to us, and that hasn't changed and never will.

I might have not been in the right frame of mind to answer that question as I would have liked cause I've got loads goin through my head at the moment, but if you're gunna serve that question up to me then there really isn't a simple short answer.

R: Was re-starting the band difficult ?

J: Well, we never had to re-start the band because it never stopped. When we got home from the US, we got Ken "Killer" Watt to play second guitar and we were playing shows and touring for about six months. Ken was a great burst of energy for us when he joined we really pulled our fingers out and played some classic shows. It was fun again because at times the year before had been a chore.

Ken was from Perth (the other side of Australia) and he was going home for a little while and that's when Grant dicided that he'd had enough. By this time i'd had enough of the whole twin guitar thing and hated the last record ("Not Meant for This World") we made , so much so that I tried to get the record company to scrap it. I thought that there was some good songs on there and some bad ones, but most of all I think the sound of that record is fuckin' crap...really bad.

So, yeah, I'd had enough of writing a half decent riff built around two good guitar players and wanted to go back to one guitar and work on writing better songs with more space, so you could hear the melody in the bass and hear the rhythm of the drums and the fire and delivery of the vocals. I was tired of the two guitars choking every thing. I mean, if you listen to not meant for this world there is no bass at all on that record. You actually can't even hear the bass, and thats fuckin' stupid.

R: Tell me something about the "Different Licks For Different Chicks" EP that was the first issue after the break-up and that showed the new line-up to the world.

J: Well it wasn't the first, actually. AuGoGo records released the single "September Crush" in '97 and we toured with the Hoodoo Gurus behind that single, which strangely enough received high rotation on national radio for about four months solid. It was being played three and four times a day. The EP "Different Licks..." came out about eight months after that.

The fact that the band was on tour with a major act for this country and we were getting all this air play still wasn't enough to get "AuGoSlow" records to get the discs into the record stores . So you couldn't buy the record unless you went to AuGoGo's shop. It was fucking ridiculous, but it's all the price of an education, as Keith Richards would say.

So the EP was the first two singles that this line up of the band recorded, compiled with the track we recorded for the "Storming the Citadel" Divine Rites compilation, "Mirror Blues". We put this together because we thought it was a fucking joke that AuGoGo had released "September Crush'" and you couldn't buy it anywhere. The other single it contains is "So Long Goodbye'".

At the risk of offending a lot of friends the fact is we are the only band on that fuckin' record ["Storming the Citadel"] that took the idea and did something original with it was Asteroid B612, and maybe Louis Tillett. The track ["Mirror Blues"] was recorded in one take as a monster! Twelve-and-a-half minutes of fire and brimestone nothing else comes close to it on that record.

R: Your new album "Readin' Between The Lines" shows a different, more varied approach. There are slow and acoustic numbers as well as hi-energy r'n'r ones. Why did you decide to make this kind of record ? Are you atisfied about the final result ?

J: I don't think you actually make a decision to make a certain kind of record, unless you're making a concept album (though you could call this a concept album because 90 percent of the songs are writen about one particular girl.) I wrote the entire album, and on the last album there were three people writing songs and coming up with ideas. The main thing I had in my mind when writing these songs was that I was writing an album, and not just a bunch of songs thrown together on a CD. So I wanted a certain connection and flow between the songs and ideas.

It was made easy because the feelings, tears, uncertainty, denial, self-doubt and confusion were only in my head and directed at one person in particular, so at times I think it reads like a conversation between two people.

At times, though, I think maybe those two people were in my head... jeez, I hope the record don't sound as confusing as what I just said...fuck, maybe, i don't know anymore.

Yes, this is the most satisfied i've ever been with this band and this record is the best thing we've ever done.

R: Why did you choose the Celibate Rifles' Kent Steedman as a producer and how was working with him?

J: Kent had been doing our live sound for the best part of a year before we recorded the record and he said that he'd like to have something to do with the making of the record. He was really enthusiastic about the songs and the band. We had never really worked with anyone [as a producer] before so we were a little worried about letting someone in that domain , but from the moment he listened to some rehearsal tapes of all the songs and we worked out which ones were a better choice for the record to being in the studio with him, he was a dream to work with . He worked real hard, got better performances out of us, had lots of laughs and the reason the record sounds and feels as good as I think it does has a lot to do with the work he put into it .

R: Tell me something about the lyrics of this album ? It's written in the booklet that you "borrowed" some lines from here and there. Also I'd like to know something about songs like "I Just Don't Know About Girls", "The Song Didn't Get the Girl" and "Am I the Problem?".

J: The lyrics on this record are very, very personal to me , and I don't expect people to understand exactly were my head is at, but I'm guessing they might be able to relate to some of it in one way or another. I guess I've really hung myself out in the open on this record, but that's the way I do it.

Lyrics are very important to me and it's usaully a big factor in whether i like something or not. Yeah, I did borrow some phrasing from here and there. I just lifted a couple of lines from songs that I can relate to and replied to a couple of lines from people's songs that affected me. There is a little bit of camouflage, lyrically, on this record - but not much. The girl in particular reads me like a book and she knows what the deal is. It would be understandable if she couldn't deal with the songs on this record and couldn't listen to or hated this album, but she seems to think it's the best thing we have done, so i must be doing something right..........

"I Just Don't Know About Girls": Well that's just an age-old question, isn't it? Not understanding them, not understanding yourself, trying to take advice off people and basically getting nowhere.

"The Song Didn't Get the Girl"... that song is on the album after the song "Still Waiting". I sent the lyrics of "Still Waiting" to this particular girl in an attempt to tell her how i feel and didn't get the reply i was after, hence the song didn't get the girl. Some people that know me may think that it's written in relation to "September Crush". Well, it ain't and now might be the time to confess: "September Crush" was originaly titled "This Kinda Love" and was written over four years ago, and in a lame arsed attempt to get this particular girl out of my mind I changed the title to "September Crush" and tried to palm it of to someone else in a selfish attempt to hide how I really felt. I said before that there's a little bit of camouflage on the record, well, that's about it .

"Am I the problem?" There's a hint of sarcasm in that one. The line "Am I the problem?/This time" definitely is laced with sarcasm, but I'm also looking at myself in this song referring to a lot of my own shit .

R: Which are your fave songs on this album and why?

J: No i don't have any favourites. I think they all work well together and complement each other. And that's why this record makes a lot of sense to me.

R: Why did you title your album this way and what should we "read between the lines" listening to the record?

J: I was really only asking one person to read between the lines. But in hindsight if I had have read between the lines then maybe things might have made more sense to me.

My Dad gave me some advice when I was about 19 or 20. He said: "Son, never let them know how you feel cause if you do, that's when they'll hurt you ". I love my dear old Dad and would never curse him for giving me that or any advice, I just grabbed on to that advice and held it so tightly at times that it really got in my way. "Stubborn" and "Pride" are two words that spring to mind at the moment, and they always seem to get in my way. Does that answer the question? You can listen to the record and read between what ever lines you want there's plenty of them there .

R: Asteroids are one of the best contemporary Aussie bands. I see the Oz-rock scene as being in very good shape these times with bands such as Brother Brick, Yes-Men, Challenger 7, Powder Monkeys, the 'old' Celibate Rifles and so on. What do you think about this new Aussie rock explosion? Can we talk of a "scene" again?

J: I don't really relate to the word "scene", but I will say that rock'n'roll in Australia is always in very good shape. I don't think there is a "new rock explosion" because there is always a bunch of great Australia rock'n'roll bands. You're asking "can we talk of a scene again?" The few bands you mention here have been around in one form or another for eight to 10 years - and as for the Celibate Rifles 20 years - so them and a truckload of other great Australian bands have been there all the time. Whether they come in and out of fashion or focus of overseas rock'n'roll fans is the question, because in my 16 years of seeing bands in this country I have never had a problem finding something good to see or listen to.

As for you labelling the Rifles as 'old', the last few times I've seen them, they have played as good as i've ever seen them play - and I have seen them a lot over the years. Age shall not weary some

R: Which are your fave Australian bands and labels, if any?

J: Of the ones playing around at the moment, Spencer P Jones and the Last Gasp, the Celibate Rifles, the Hands of Time, the Crusaders, Brother Brick, the New Christs, the Onyas, the Thermals, 300 st claire , Hoss, the Powder Monkeys, Maurice Frawley & the Working Class Ringos, You Am I, the Lowdarados, Paul Kelly ,Warped...and there are more than likely others but the list would be too long.

As for labels, there are not many putting out consistently good records except for FULL TOSS RECORDS and maybe Stolen Records. Maybe, there are other that I don't know about.

R: Last year you played in the "Oz Rock Festival". Tell me something about it. What kind of experience was it for you and which are the best bands you saw on that occasion?

J: From what i remember we played like shit as did most of the bands that I saw over the two nights. I thought the name was a bit of a worry. "Oz Rock Fest" sounded a bit scary to me but, hey, what do I know? I remember thinking that Brother Brick played OK but I thought the best band was 300 st claire, but in saying that I did think the rest of the bands (including Asteroid B612) were boring. Maybe I sound like a jaded old cynic but thats what I remember .

R: What are your plans for the year 2001? Are you licensing the album in Europe and have you got plans of touring USA and Europe this year?

J: We would love someone who liked the record to license the record in Europe, then maybe we could tour there. So any smart people out there that want to get on board, talk to Richie at the Full Toss Records empire. Some people at the moment are looking in to touring the band in the USA but i've told them that we really need someone to put the record out over there to, so that's getting sorted out. We would really love to get over to Europe and play, but it seems a little bit silly to do it without the new record being released over there or the USA. I also have a bunch of new songs that we need to work on, so we have a lot we could work on in 2001.

Most of all, I'm really happy playing in this band with Scott, Ben and my brother Grahame, so come what may.

R: Asteroid B612's influences are wide ranging. Tell me about the biggest of them.

J: Yeah our influences are far more wide ranging now then they were four to five years ago. I guess I could mention a bunch of different styles and groups we are into, but if you're asking about the biggest influence, then for me it's the people that I play with in this band and people that I come into contact with in my life. For me as a songwriter my influence is what's going on around me. I write about it and then take it to the rest of the band and they apply their certain style or flavour to it and that again influences the way I then play the song.

One of the reasons I love to play music, either live or at the practice space, is to let how I'm feeling at any given time influence the way I play.That's one of the beauties about music: you can use it to unload emotions. The songs we play all have some sort of arrangement but I always like to leave them a little bit open so that they can be taken some place else on any given night. That also leaves us open to miss as much as we hit, but when we do gel and hit, for me it feels so great and that's what I love about music - those little moments when no one else might know what just went on but you do and the band does, and you just think "FUCK YEAH".

I always loved the Died Pretty or the Charlie, Jim , Rob, Nick or Louis version of the New Christs for that sort of thing. For these ears, they never seemed to have to much of a set formula for a lot of their songs and could just take them anywhere, sometimes for no result , but sometimes for just an outright fuckin' win. I'm not to sure whether I answered that question right but, um, maybe I did ?

R: We're in a Bar, what are you drinking?

J: A product of Australia, Coopers Sparkling Ale, and at the moment I really won't drink any other beer, except maybe Carlton on tap. But a certain princess I know has got me on to drinking good red wine and I'm really getting a taste for it, so the times they might be a changing.