Posted August 14, 2004

Respectfully Yours: Celibate Rifle Kent Steedman
and an uncertain world

Live pictures: JOHN McPHARLIN

You can count the number of certainties in Australian life today on the fingers of one hand - just reserve one of the digits for the Celibate Rifles doing a Boxing Day show that reprises one of their albums in its entirety.

Now another disc, the self-deprecatingly titled "Beyond Respect", has entered the catalogue. Hopefully it's going to be another certainty that the band will still be around to go over its tracks on a Boxing Day, a few years down the track.

"Beyond Respect" is a classic piece of Rifles Rawk, punctuated by quieter moments of introspection. It's typically chockfull of incisive wordplay and those trademark maelstrom guitars, and arguably marks a return to the mid-period albums of the late '80s that most fans of the band seem to cherish the most.

The album title's title comes from a punter who laid the compliment on Rifles guitarists Kent Steedman and Dave Morris after a show. "It was in Brisbane. Dave remembered it - I tend to forget a lot of shit," Kent admits down the phone line.

As he tends to do, Kent's been thinking about the uncertainties of life a fair bit of late, and the lack of compassion in society generally. When we spoke, he'd just come from the screening of a documentary on the recent history of Afghanistan, and was obviously moved. Movies like this, and extensive overseas travel, have underlined how good Australians have it at home "and how royally we're fucking it up", Kent says.

It's anger with the general world state of play that's fed into the making of "Beyond Respect"

The album seems a distinct, if unplanned, move back to rock and away from the folk and acoustic-based songs that flavoured the last disc, "Midstream of Consciousness". Is that a fair call?

"Yeah, I guess. It (an album's direction) is never really contemplated," Kent says.

"I don't recall sitting down, except for the acoustic album ("On the Quiet"), and planning. We'll sit down and have a song and say: 'Let's try it acoustically'. It's a fairly organic process."

Lyrics apart - they remain the preserve of Damien Lovelock - Rifles tunes are a collective effort.

"Michael and I might sit around and play a bit of a riff one of the other has. I rarely, with any band, take into a studio a finished song....having other people contributing thing is great because it can lead to more interesting things."

Speaking of lyrics, the Rifles reprise one of their most powerful political songs in "Salute". The title comes from a poem by anti-war beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and it was the central lyric on 1984's "Thank You America" from the "Five Languages" album. Nearly 20 years down the track and it's delivered in withering style.

One of Kent's fears was that the extended gestation period for "Beyond Respect" would render some of the songs out-of-date. With elections looming both here and in the USA, the timing will be perfect for political aficionados with a hankering for change. No prizes, either, for guessing who's being touched up in "Return of the Creature With the Atom Brain" (his middle name starts with W and he ain't a figment of the imagination of Roky Erickson).

The guy who seems to master every second guitar record in Sydney that sounds great, Rick O'Neill of Turtlerock Studios, handled production. "Beyond Respect" has a wonderfully punchy sound, with the biggest bottom end to grace a Rifles album since, well, forever. Bass player Michael Couvret laments the lack of bass, much to Kent's amusement.

To these ears, there are a few production niggles, but it's fair to say the band has rarely, if ever, sounded better.

"The rhythm tracks were done in four days. Then the rest of the fucking thing took 18 months," Kent offers.

"We would have done the whole thing on analogue if we had budget. We went into a big room with good mics and recorded, to tape, the drums, bass and rhythm guitar sounds. With the budget we had, we had four whole days to finish the rest of the record - or stretch it out, as we did."

Some of the guests may surprise. Love Shark's the guitarist from Machine Gun Fellatio, while Jim Moginie from Midnight Oil also contributes. Coming right out of left field is ex-soapie star and pop chanteuse Melissa Tkautz, who gives low-key backing to Damien on Destroy All Monsters' "Nobody Knows".

Turns out Ms Tkautz is a longtime Rifles fan and almost appeared on an earlier record. A take of the same tune, with her vocals in the lead, remains in the can.

So where does Kent think "Beyond Respect" fits in the Rifles' lengthy oeuvre?

"I dunno, I think it's in the vein of 'Roman Beach Party'. I like that record. It's probably my favourite - if I had to have a favourite. It's hard to tell, being that close to things.

"I like 'Roman Beach Party' a lot. It was fun to do and it sounds good. This one's in that spirit.

"It's reasonably political at points, which i like. Damien's ramblings are on it as well. That's not a criticism, they're his stories. It's my understanding that Damo likes to sit back and observe the politics of things."

The title of "musical/political satirists" sits well with Kent: "I think that's OK. I don't write the words, so I can't say this for the Rifles, but when I write words for my own stuff, generally it's very political, although tongue in cheek.

"I'm usually trying to make a point through humour.

"Even then, I can't ever be precious about lyrics. What someone hears, what someone doesn't hear. I'm the same about music.

"Musical satire? It's pretty much on the money. I think we've never tried to ram anything down peoples' throats - except, perhaps, volume, and even there we're trying to get better on that."

Members might have come and gone over the years, but the one thing the Rifles have never lost is their sense of irony. Kent's lament is that many of the younger bands around in Australia don't share the same attitude.

"It's my observation - and I even have some sympathy for some of the younger bands coming through - I'm not saying it's wrong or it's bad. I just don't get it. These poor bastards, they're so serious...

"I'll phrase it like this...they've been playing for long enough to maybe warrant being the second band at the Annandale. And they're playing the Big Day Out.

"Their level of experience and knowledge of what's going on - these guys can;t know what's happening. And all of a sudden they've got all this money poured into them and all this pressure. And the guys would be fucking raging, having a party life and all this kinda stuff.

"But it seems to have taken its toll on bands like the Vines. Some of these bands have written good songs over the course of an album. I know hard it is to do over a whole album. We've been doing it for 20-something years and I still think we've barely made an album where we've got it right.

"These guys have been coming from nowhere, trying to pull this shit off. I have compassion for these guys. They should be putting in two or three years, getting it together, playing with each other, learning to play live.

"That might be why. They might be lighthearted guys themselves. They really seem to take themselves and their music so fucking seriously. It's entertainment!

"On a spiritual level, I love playing music. It's a communion with spirit. I love the fact that we play noisy rock and roll. I hope that every time we play a gig, someone comes along and they give whatever anger or frustration they have to the sound, so at the end of the night they don;t have to go and punch someone, they don't have to beat their kids or get into a fight with someone.

"As far as me being a serious person inside music and changing shit, we're a dumb arse rock and roll band. Reasonably witty, intelligent, dumb blokes.

"I take the fact that people are paying money to see us and the sound quality very seriously, but none of the Rifles take ourselves seriously."

Politics, up-and-coming bands and movies about Afghanistan to one side, the other attraction that's caught Kent's attention of late was the much feted DKT-MC5 run of Australian shows.

"Yeah, they were cool," says of the Detroiters. 'I missed a bit of the second night Yeah, they were good. Spirited. They meant it. That's what I liked.

"It was interesting. The Thursday night, they took quite a few songs to warm up. By the time they played "Over and Over" they were right. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Some songs were good, some songs weren't.

"A lot of people thought they were better the second night. Maybe I didn't go up close enough. I wandered around, listening from various places. I enjoyed the first night far more than the second, but I was in a minority. I thought they played better the first night."

What does he think about all these old guys reuniting, given that the Rifles are now in the veteran category?

"I dunno. People can do whatever they like. As long as there's a bit of integrity to it, I don't care. It gives them hope, in one sense, and I dunno, 30-40 years later, those guys are making money."

The irony of these reunions isn't lost on him either, given that a few people might regard sporadic re-appearances by his own band as something of a reunification, given that the Rifles are less than a full-time concern these days.

"I take your point. We never considered we'd stopped," Ken says.

Does he think that the fact that everybody in the band has separate lives has contributed to the Rifles' longevity?

"Ummm, I don't know. On one hand it has. But we'd probably be more focused - and I have a hunch that we'd be better, in some regards - if it wasn't that way. Not necessarily in Australia, but trying to get the band overseas.

"That's the one thing the Rifles have always had: People constantly tell us we're loved, don't ever stop, blah blah blah, but bugger all people buy our records and no-one wants to pay for us to tour overseas. "

The band wouldn't knock back a solid offer to do Europe or other far-flung parts, provided guarantees are solid. Whether that transpires - and there have been small carrots offered in recent years - is anyone's guess.

But home town punters won't be so deprived. A fairly wide-ranging Australian tour finds them playing the eastern seaboard and Adelaide in September-October. If you're not there, it'll be your loss. As terribly serious as it sounds, the Rifles remain one of Australia's last Real Rock and Roll Bands.

Celibate Rifles "Beyond Respect" Tour: Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle - Sept 3; Sydney Foot Show - Sept 9; Mona Vale Hotel - Sept 10; Annandale Hotel - Sept 11; Woonona-Bulli RSL - Sept 17; Caringbah Bizzos - Sept 18; Bondi Hotel - Sept 19; Fowlers Live, Adelaide - Sept 24; The Rev, Brisbane - Oct 1; Great Northern, Byron Bay - Oct 2; Gershwin Room Espy Hotel, St Kilda - Oct 9