Pig City author ANDREW STAFFORD speaks to former Screaming Tribesman and I-94 Bar Records signing MICK MEDEW about all the old, all the new, and "All Your Love". Cartoon by Rick Chesshire.
The big three are money, drugs and women – the three things that invariably fuck male bands up. For the Screaming Tribesmen, it was women, or a woman, though the whole thing was probably the bass player’s fault, really. It’s the best story of its type I’ve ever heard.
Here’s the scene. It’s 1988, and the Tribesmen have just released Bones And Flowers, a dynamic, melodic, radio-friendly album. Unusually for the time, the band has been picked up by an American label, Rykodisc, and is touring there, rather than the more usual Oz-rock friendly European haunts. Things are going well, despite a bizarre series of support dates playing basketball arenas with UB40. The single, I’ve Got A Feeling, is taking off, hitting the top 10 on the mainstream Billboard “Modern Rock” charts; the album goes also goes top 10 in Boston and Seattle.
Then things go awry. The bass player has met an American girl, who he wants to marry, so he can get his Green Card. The problem is he already has a partner back home, and he can’t bring himself to ditch her. So he writes her, telling her all the dastardly things the band has been getting up to on the road, in the hope that she’ll dump him instead. It works – all too well. She blabs to all the other girlfriends. Thus, when the band gets home, already shaky after a long and arduous tour, they all found themselves single.
And that, according to guitarist Chris “Klondike” Masuak, was that for the most successful lineup of the Screaming Tribesmen, who limped on for another five years, recording their final album Formaldehyde in 1993, before grunge finally pulled the rug from under them completely. It would be the last the world would hear from one of Australian music’s most enigmatic, charismatic yet unheralded performers – singer, songwriter, guitarist and Tribesmen founder Mick Medew – for over a decade.
Until now. Mick is back at last, with a new band, The Rumours, that aren’t too far from the Tribesmen (guitarist Ash Geary and drummer Chris Dixon both played on Formaldehyde), and a new recording, All Your Love, released on this here website’s own I-94 Bar Records.
I catch up with Mick – who I first interviewed for my book, Pig City, in 2002, when he was driving cabs in Sydney – over a coffee in the gentrified Brisbane suburb of New Farm, not far from the one-time abode of the late Go-Between, Grant McLennan.
How long since you’ve been in the studio before All Your Love? It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?
Yeah, that’s right. I just did a lot of home recordings, and a bit of recording at a friend’s studio, Adrian Wilson. He’s got a thing up here called 2012, it’s got that kind of clubby music, but he plays a [Fender] Rhodes keyboard, so I did a bit of work with him. Did the Applewood thing in 2007...
What was Applewood?
Applewood was a thing run by Tylea Goold, which is Lachlan’s [Brisbane uber-producer Magoo’s] wife, and it was up at their place at Fernvale. They’ve done it for two years now, and I did the first year of that, which was 2007. What they did, they invited around 21 songwriters for a three-day period, and you get there and they pair you up with somebody and you go and write a song and record the song that day.
Had you been writing much stuff before that? You’d been fairly quiet for a while.
Oh no, I’ve been writing music, not so much big-city type rock & roll all the time though. I write a lot of those sorts of songs, but we wanted to have lots to choose from when we did our album. So yeah, I’ve just sort of been writing away, you know. It’s not something I do on a day to day basis, but I have bursts of it where I’m doing it all the time.
Did you write these songs in a batch, or have they germinated over a long period?
About half of them I’ve had for ages. I had some of this stuff written in about ’97, and about half of them are pretty new. Spinning Wheel, When The Wood Is Brown, All Your Love is pretty old – they’re the ones I had really early. Ready To Fall was just done a year ago or something, and the same with Overdo Everything. Start The Show’s the most recent one, and Way Down Low’s fairly recent. Mary Jane, again, is pretty old. So it’s about half and half.
Before the Tribesmen, Mick was a member of Brisbane’s premium late '70s high-energy outfit, the 31st, which paired him with future Died Pretty alumnus Ron Peno and Chris Welsh, as well as future Hitmen Tony Robertson and, briefly, Brad Shepherd, fresh from the Fun Things. One song, Ready To Fall, renewed an old association.
How was it writing with Ron again (Ready To Fall)? He’s probably your earliest writing partner.
That’s right. Well, Ready To Fall was a 31st song that I just did a bit of a rework of. We didn’t get much of a chance to put it together in that band, we really didn’t play it live, which was a shame. But yeah, I just reworked that and started singing his lyric and I thought, I’ll see if I can get this going, and see what he thinks of it.
Did he add anything to it, when you told him that you were working on it again?
Yeah, he was really happy. He said that he hadn’t finished the lyrics, but most of the lyrics in it are his.
So did he finish them, or did you add them for him?
Oh, I just added a couple of little things, that’s all. They’re mostly his lyrics.
Mick Medew & The Rumours: Chris Dixon, Paul Hawker, Mick and Ashley Geary.
Just about every band from this era has reformed over the last few years. What have you made of all of that?
Well, it’s a healthy thing. I’m glad. I’ve got some other bands to play with! Yeah, it’s good. It just goes to show what a mark the music from that time has made; it’s left a lasting impression. We certainly didn’t think we’d really be remembered at the time, when all of that was happening. It just goes to show, because a lot of those acts, like the Visitors and the Hitmen and the Screaming Tribesmen, they were out-pulling a lot of the acts that were getting the commercial airplay. So yeah, there was something going on then, and it’s left a lasting impression.
Let’s go back to the start. I think you said you were too young to see the Saints, but you did see the Fun Things, didn’t you?
That’s right. I was just a bit too young to see the original Saints; I saw a lot of lineups of the Saints, and actually the Screaming Tribesmen played with the Saints – Chris Bailey’s Saints – a lot. I did see some early incarnations of them, but not the original.
Were you inspired by them?
Oh, definitely. I’ve always loved Chris Bailey. I liked him anyhow, I liked the original Saints and I still like Chris Bailey’s Saints as well, I thought they were great too. He’s certainly got some quality going on there. But the Fun Things I saw quite a few times.
And they wouldn’t have played too often. They only played around a dozen shows!
Yes, I’m quite privileged, really! I saw them play at the Silver Dollar...
That was in Fortitude Valley?
It was in Fortitude Valley, yeah. And I also saw them when they were the Aliens, with Graeme Beavis, at the Silver Dollar as well.
My understanding is Ron Peno came up from Gosford to join the Credits, but that didn’t pan out. Bruce Anthon didn’t take to him but Tony Robertson did, and steered him towards you.
That’s right, yeah. I met Ron first, and then met Brad after that. That’s right, I met Ron through Tony.
What were your impressions of those guys? They’re both fairly flamboyant characters.
Yeah, Brad certainly was, at the time. He looked like Elvis Presley from hell or something. Sort of punk, but not really, you know. Ronnie had the same kind of thing going on.
How did he strike you?
Yeah, pretty different, pretty passionate sort of guy. Very driven, as far as making music goes. He’s very creative and very passionate.
Was he writing lyrics already?
Yeah, he was, and yeah, always wrote a great lyric, always thought he was a true lyricist, in the sort of league of Nick Cave or Tex Perkins. They’ve written some good lyrics, so has Ronnie. And his voice just developed over time. He was very self-conscious about his voice in the 31st.
You’ve said that the 31st weren’t very well liked around town.
Yeah, that’s right. It was still very much punk, circa ’77 type of thing in Brisbane, and people didn’t really know what to make of us, because we weren’t really punks. I certainly wasn’t, although I liked punk music. But yeah, I didn’t have the punk look. We had some sort of rock, Lou Reed–Velvet Underground sort of look, or something, it had a bit of an arty look, but it was hard music.
Ron Peno in The Hellcats at the Oxfordf Funhouse, prior to moving to Brisbane.
Was it the look or the sound of the band that put people off? There were all those ’60s influences, as well...
Yeah, that’s right. It might have been Ronnie that put them off, I don’t know! No, I’m just joking, they were just a bit confused, you know. And also, another thing was we could play our instruments, particularly Tony and Chris Welsh.
Yeah, they’re a great rhythm section, they’re amazing players.
Yeah, that’s right. We could actually play, and a lot of the bands that were playing at the time couldn’t really play, you know, and I think they sort of held it against us a bit, at that point.
How about you at that point, how developed were you as a guitar player?
Well, Chris had picked up the drums a lot earlier than I picked up the guitar, I think, he’d been playing the drums since he was, I don’t know, 10 or something; whereas I’d only got a guitar when I was 14, so I’d only been playing for two, three years before the 31st got started. Yeah, so the punk movement kind of helped me sort of find my feet, I think, on the guitar. It helped me get away from [the] progressive rock that I was listening to in high school, which was probably a good thing.
What was the sea change for you – was it seeing the Pistols on TV, or even Birdman?
Yeah, Saints and Pistols; Birdman. I wasn’t aware of Birdman until I met up with Ronnie ... well, I was aware of them, but I hadn’t heard their album. I hadn’t heard the New York Dolls or MC5 or Dictators.
So how and why did Brad come to join the 31st? The Fun Things had broken up by then?
Yeah, he sort of started flirting with the idea of moving to Sydney, Brad, and I think he’d sort of half moved down there by that time. The 31st were working a fair bit, and Ron was keen to try the two-guitar thing for a while, but it didn’t last very long – he only played with us for a few months, and then moved to Sydney, and then joined the Hitmen.
Did it gel musically, having him in the band?
I thought we were better as a one-guitar band, although I did like playing with Brad. It was good fun. But yeah, we were playing some pretty small places, and it’s hard to get a sound when you’ve got two Marshalls cranked sometimes, and back in those days, the places we were playing were pretty small. We were pretty bloody loud when Brad was playing with us!
Fronting the Tribesmen at the Sydney Trade Union Club - Steve Lorkin photo
I can see it being more effective with one guitar though; your songs need a bit more space to breathe. Chris Masuak showed that on those first two Citadel singles.
Yeah, that’s right. It just depends how you want to go, you know, how the songs are going to go. I was kind of fortunate that Brad joined the Hitmen, because it helped me keep developing as a guitar player, really, so in a way I was kind of grateful for that.
What sort of impact did the political environment of Brisbane at the time have on you? Was that something you were constantly aware of?
Yeah, I was aware of it to a certain extent, yeah. Ronnie was certainly aware of it; the cops seemed to bail him up a bit. Yeah, it caused a bit of interruption in a lot of people’s lives, I think. I used to get bailed up a bit too, probably cause of my car, more than anything – probably because of the 186S Monaro! I think it was the only one that didn’t have mags. You sort of had to watch out. It’s funny who gets mistaken for a criminal.
I can’t imagine you driving a Monaro.
Yeah. I wish I still had it. It’d be worth a fortune now!
So, Brad left for Sydney, but the 31st was still going at that stage, but then Ron would have gone down to Sydney too, didn’t he?
Oh ... I think he was probably a bit kind of lonely up here, you know. We weren’t really getting all that many shows, and unless we were going to move to Sydney we weren’t really going to be working very much. We [weren’t] being as active as what we could be, and he wanted to play more. Tony was the same, they were both pretty driven. Whereas Chris and I sort of had our own lives at the time – we didn’t really think that we were going to make history or anything.
Sydney was becoming the centre of the universe, in terms of what was going on musically.
Yeah, it’s true.
So why did it take you so long to follow Brad and Ron to Sydney? You were here for two or three years before you eventually made the move.
Yeah. I guess playing in the Tribesmen gave me a lot of confidence, because I was writing the songs and singing the songs, and yeah, just playing with John [Hartley] and Murray as well, I just felt we gelled a lot more than what the 31st did, for a lot of different reasons. And yeah, I was much more inspired once I started playing with John and Murray, to tell you the truth.
I believe Murray roped you into doing something after Ron and Tony had left, is that right?
That’s right, yeah.
That was also the original rhythm section for the Fun Things. Did the Tribesmen go down any better than the 31st did?
Yes, we did. We did.
What do you think the change was there? Had the audience grown up a bit?
Yeah, we sort of pinched a fair bit of the Fun Things’ crowd. It’s funny how it started.
But you were taking mainly 31st songs, weren’t you?
Yeah, well a couple of them, yeah. Igloo, and A Stand Alone.
Igloo and A Stand Alone were recorded in Sydney, weren’t they?
How did Chris Masuak become involved as producer?
I met him through Brad, and yeah, John Needham from Citadel I think introduced me to Chris as well, and he was keen for Chris to produce it, because he’d already produced a couple of good things. I think he sort of had to get into production, Chris, because their second album It Is What It Is, the Hitmen’s album, they were very mistreated by the production team, Dunlop and Brown.
What that your first trip to Sydney, to make that recording?
Yeah ... Oh, I’d been down for a holiday once before, just to have a sort of a look around. I was in the 31st by that stage, but ... Yeah, we went down and played a couple of shows with the Hitmen at the time, Screaming Tribesmen, yeah, when Brad was playing with the Hitmen.
OK. So what gave you the impetus to finally move to Sydney?
Oh, I just wanted to keep playing music, you know. It was my whole world by then; I was pretty wrapped up in things with Screaming Tribesmen, and just wanted to take it further.
And Murray and John – they joined you at first?
Yeah, for a while. It was up and down a bit, you know, like Brad was for a while, and yeah, they didn’t end up staying. Murray’s back [in Sydney] now, has been for a while, John’s up here now.
Why did they not stay? They left after the recording of the third single.
Yeah, John had his apprenticeship at the time; he was a sign-writer. He’s in real estate now.
And what about Murray? Did he want to play with other people?
He had other friends he wanted to play with. I think he worked for his dad for a while; he didn’t really want to stay down in Sydney.
Did that come as a shock to you, when they pulled the pin?
Yeah, I guess so. I thought we would have made a go of it, you know, I always had blind faith.
Murray was disappointed when you kept on going with the name, wasn’t he?
Yeah, I think so. That shouldn’t have really happened. We were meant to be called Rattlesnake Shake. And I thought that’s what we were going to be called – we were booked into this gig at the Sydney Cove Tavern, as Rattlesnake Shake, as far as I was concerned, and found out the week before – we booked it through the Premier/Harbour agency and it had to be the Screaming Tribesmen. So it was already sort of done, you know. And next thing we’d recorded Date With A Vampyre, and the whole thing took legs very quickly!
So how did Chris go from being behind the desk to joining the band?
It was pretty good at first, but it didn’t take us all that long to start fighting!
So how did he join? Did you invite him, or was it Johnny Kannis [then managing the Tribesmen]?
Yeah, well I wouldn’t have minded him joining the group, but John [Hartley] and Murray weren’t that into it. I was happy to have two guitars at that time.
Did that have something to do with them deciding to leave?
I guess so, yeah. They weren’t too keen on John or Chris, I guess, although Murray’s back playing with Johnny and Chris now [in the Hitmen]. And the Rumours are back playing shows with the Hitmen, which is very funny!
Tell me about the Date With A Vampyre EP. As you said, things grew legs after that.
Yeah, we got signed to an English label at the time, What Goes On, and yeah, it just all went from there. We also had a brief flirtation with CBS, at the time, and even got a bit of commercial radio airplay in Sydney, and even up here on things like 2SM and Triple M. It ended up being not just an underground hit, it wasn’t a bad-selling record actually, to be honest, and that’s probably been the kindest song of all to me, I suppose. I’ve Got A Feeling was pretty well played, but Date With A Vampyre was pretty much a hit here. And it helped us get onto college radio in America later.
Did you start fielding offers from major labels in the wake of that?
Oh, not really, not until we hooked up with Rykodisc, yeah.
Then came another change in direction, with the much-criticised mini album Top Of The Town appearing in 1986. The way Mick tells it, however, this might be the most misunderstood record in the Tribesmen’s catalogue. The Tribesmen, as Dave Laing has put it, came on like “a space-age heavy metal Byrds”, and always had a gentler, folk-rock tinge to their sound. On Top Of The Town it was given full vent.
What happened with Top Of The Town? That was a much softer sound.
It was. Although it wasn’t the hit record that Date With A Vampyre was, it was still a significant milestone for the band, because it was a little bit lighter, which appealed to a lot of the Church fans, and we did a national tour with the Church and that really helped Screaming Tribesmen’s career. It didn’t look like it did much, but that period in time was a significant step forward for the band.
It sounds like a bridge between the earlier material and Bones And Flowers.
Yeah, that’s right, Bones And Flowers is a bit similar in a lot of ways. There’s only a couple of heavy songs on it, really; I’ve Got A Feeling and Casualty of Love. The rest of it’s a bit lightweight; there’s a couple of nice things going on, but yeah, a lot of it’s very light, very Churchy sort of pop.
There’s a new version of Igloo on there, too.
Yeah. I didn’t like the version of Igloo on Bones and Flowers very much. I would have preferred that we left it off and put a different song on there instead.
Did Ryko insist to give it a bit of extra oomph in the marketplace?
I guess so; they wanted to give it every chance that they could, I suppose, because they were pouring a fair bit of money into us.
It was quite unusual for you to sign with an American label and tour there – the only other Australian band I can think of that went to America before Europe was the Celibate Rifles.
It was very unusual, we felt quite special. We’d left Europe go a long time though, you know, this is the thing, we just hadn’t gone. We should have, really. Normally you went to Europe first. It was unheard of to go and play in America before you even played in Europe.
Was there any pressure to sweeten the sound for an American audience?
Well, that’s what Chris was into anyway; we tried that out with Top Of The Town, and it probably was a bit more effective on Bones And Flowers. We wanted to have a hit record, yeah.
That’s what it sounds like; you weren’t trying to hide your light under a bushel there.
Yeah, I guess so. Some people take that the wrong way. Yeah, the sound on that is very radio-friendly, that’s for sure. It doesn’t sound anything like the Rumours’ album!
What size venues did you find yourself playing over in the States? It was quite unusual for an Australian band to tour America before Europe in those days.
We played the first two weeks with UB40, I don’t know why, and we were playing big concert halls and basketball stadium-type places. And then we did five weeks of headlining little clubs on our own, except for once we played with Jane’s Addiction; we were the support to them at Wisconsin Uni. Nothing’s Shocking had just come out when I’ve Got A Feeling had come out. We also played with Soul Asylum over there as well.
Touring the US with the Tribesmen.
You said you and Chris didn’t take long to start fighting. What sort of disputes were you having?
Yeah, I think it was pretty frustrating, because we weren’t crossing over; we weren’t hitting the mainstream. We weren’t successful financially, which is pretty hard when you’re an Australian band in ... Australia!
So you were nominally doing good business, but living in poverty in reality?
Yeah, we were really, because we didn’t have jobs, the music was our life. Working all the time, but scuffling all the time, you know.
With the Rumours in Sydney 2009
Then there’s the story of how it all started to go pear-shaped...
Chris told me the story of how it all came unstuck – that Bob Wackley had left a girlfriend back home for a new partner in the States.
Oh yeah, that caused a lot of trouble. It was very early on in the piece, too. Grand Rapids, Michigan, with UB40 – it was our third show, you know, and from then on in there was always a lot of tension, because Bob had always sort of gone along with everything, he wasn’t one really to fight or make waves, whereas I was, and Chris was! And yeah, Warwick and Bob were pretty sort of quiet, but Bob decided that he was going to do what he wanted to do virtually from that point on.
So did he stick out the tour?
Oh yeah, he stuck the tour out, and we had a good tour, that was OK. The trouble didn’t really start until we got back to Australia, because by then Bob wanted to be with her and we were actually going to be recording our second album, and we certainly didn’t want to break up because we felt by then that we were about to reap the rewards from all our hard work, you know.
It’s a shame it came unstuck when it did.
Yeah, it was a shame, but that’s life. It was kind of good, anyway, because [we] eventually did get to Europe, because after that I sort of had a bit more control myself, of the band, and just took it on, took it on myself without John or Chris or anyone sort of advising me, so I was able to do a few things that I’d been wanting to do for a while, sort of thing, like tour Europe, you know. Albeit it was too late by then – not the first time around, we had a good tour in ’91, but yeah, ’93, by that time the grunge, Nirvana scene had taken over.
It was all over by then?
Well, we had a good tour of Spain in ’93. But yeah, I was a bit challenged by lineups, too, the lineup that should have gone to Europe the second time should have been with Ash Geary and Chris Dixon, but it wasn’t because it was the Brisbane thing again – they didn’t want to leave Brisbane at the time – and so that sort of didn’t happen. I ended up going with a different lineup, and the writing was on the wall by then. I wanted to try and do something else with my life while I was still young enough to do something with my life.
What did you go and do?
Got married and drove a cab!
I didn’t realise you’d known Ash Geary for that long. I knew he’d been in a lineup of the Tribesmen years ago.
Yeah, Chris and Ash were playing with me in 1992, albeit too briefly.
I said the new album sounds like an updated Tribesmen. It might as well be – it cooks.