Posted September 4, 2002

JUST TO SAY GOODBYE:
RON PENO ON
DIED PRETTY'S FINAL TWIST

In 19 years, Sydney band Died Pretty have carved out a unique niche on the Australian music scene. Starting as an unpredictable pub combo with long, slow songs that had a touch of the Velvets about them, they were in contrast to the rest of the Detroit and '60s garage-fixated scene around them. Moody, almost operatic in their majestic, psychedelia-tinged work-outs, they debuted on the mighty Citadel label with a single ("Out of the Unknown" b/w "World Without") that was like nothing else around. It was the amazing "Next to Nothing" EP that really hinted at the greatness to follow. Guitarist Brett Myers played soaring counterpoint to Frank Brunetti's simplistic keyboards while singer Ron Peno - his voice a fifth instrument - sounded possessed.

Died Pretty became Citadel's most successful export, blazing a trail through Europe for a host of Australian bands to follow. Line-up changes and a string of albums followed, with Peno and Myers the constant core members. A flirtation with a major label (Sony) ensued before the band came "home" to manager John Needham's Citadel label. Died Pretty branched out into electronic music ("Using My Gills as a Roadmap" and "Everydaydream") before ultimately running out of steam. Their four-gig, three-city farewell tour starts this week.

Ron Peno remains an incandescent figure, live and on record, and he's long been a potential guest in the I-94 Bar. A former singer for Radio Birdman supports the Hellcats, back in the days of the Oxford Funhouse, he moved to Brisbane to front The 31st, one of the earliest bands in that city's early'80s underground scene. In short, he has a lot of stories to tell. THE BARMAN, assisted with some questions from JOHN McPHARLIN, caught up with Ronnie on the eve of the final Died Pretty tour (and just after he'd had dinner).

 

Q So what was for dinner?

I just had a piece of steak and vegetables and salad.

Q I suppose you're interviewed out by now?

Yeah. I just got back from Melbourne, all of a sudden (manager John) Needham's going: 'Interview here, interview there'. I thought they were going to be done by the time I came back for these shows.

Q I'll get straight into it...Died Pretty was to the stage where you were playing one or two shows a year, but everyone seemed to be enjoying it. Why pull the pin now?

Brett and I got together at the end of last year, start of this year, at our home studio. We did something like 23 songs and we were going to shop around for another album (deal) actually. Damn good songs in there too. And we just sort of...the whole rigmarole of getting a publishing deal...would we be able to get the money?...with each album we'd released over the last few years, sales had been declining (laughs). 'Is any publishing company going to be interested..like, here's $50,000 or whatever and go and do another album?'

We're only playing twice a year. We're all a little older now and have other things that are more important in our lives. To tour and stuff like that, we're not doing that these days. Brett said: 'Well, why not wrap it up then?' There are songs there, about 20 or so.

Q Are we ever going to hear them?

Umm, no. Brett and I got together and said: 'Let's wrap it up. It's been 19 years and it's been fine. We've had a really good run'. I said: 'Yep, fine, let;s just do it and make it closure for ourselves and the fans that are still out there following us'. Make it a way of saying goodbye. Most people probably thought we'd split up five years ago because we've played so infrequently. It's not the case. We did have another album in the pipeline.

Then Brett said: 'What about a solo thing for you' And I entertained the idea for about five seconds. Age being a dominant factor and, I just don't know if anyone would be really interested. It could be there...

Q You're living in Melbourne now aren't you?

I'm relocating to Melbourne after the shows. I have a son down there who's turning five at the end of the year. He'll be starting school next year so I just want to be there and it's much more important to me at the moment than anything musical. Just to be closer to him and be with him. Guide him through as best I can.

Q I know Brett had talked about doing some sort of duo thing with you, when you promoted the last album.
Yeah. It's down to Brett and I. people say Died Pretty is down to him and I. When we had the home studio, the last two albums, done in our studio. Just Brett and I and the groovebox and we'd give it to the rest of the band. We sort of steered into the electronica territory for the last two albums.


If there was to be another album - which there's not going to be at this point of time - I wanted to get more into the original Died Pretty sound which is less electronic. We're sort of, been there, done that now, with varying degrees of success. I just wanted to get back to the original Died Pretty sound.

Q The single certainly reflects that.

Do you like the single?

Q Yeah, it's great.

I just sort of came up with the title "My Generation Landslide" and I ripped off two of my favourite songs by two of my favourite bands, "My Generation" by the Who and "generation Landslide" by Alice Cooper. I just put the two of them together and thought it was very clever of me to do that, but that's sort of worn off now (laughs)It was going to be a single, if there was another album. I just turned it around lyrically when Brett and I said let's pull the plug. I turned it around lyrically: "I know what it's like to feel old/I know what it's like to be told". Let's call it quits.

Q You know that idea of a solo album by you has been around since 1983. You floated it in B Side magazine.

Oh yeah...I had a solo album I wanted to call "Doughboy Hollow" many years ago. It never eventuated. I had people like Charlie Owen who was very interested in playing on it. I'd like to keep writing and collaborating with people, once I settle into Melbourne.

Q It's a pretty vibrant scene down there.

It's fantastic. I love Melbourne. It's my favourite city in Australia. Ever since Died pretty went there in, what, 1985, I've always loved it. Nineteen years later, I'm going to relocate there! The music scene seems a lot more brighter.

Q More cohesive with more venues.

Yeah, there seems to be lots and lots and lots happening down there musically. Once I get the personal scene going - bond with my son - maybe I'll do something musically.

Q Brett's moving to Italy, isn't he?

For a month. Something to do with university, an exchange thing. I'm not too sure about it. That's happening in October. He was one of the five selected, I think.

Q Italy was a happening place for Died Pretty, wasn't it?

Ha, we had major success there.

Q Was that your favourite spot for touring?

I liked France. Italy and France, yeah.

Q You hear some bizarre stories about touring in Italy. Some of the venues...

I remember in Sicily we played in a fish market...BY DAY it was a fish market. It was a rock and roll venue when we played there at night. About 1985-86, or '87. It was quite bizarre in Italy. I had to have bodyguards, it was amazing.

We played in an open air park, some park in the middle of Rome. Thousands of people. It was like: 'DY-ED PRETTY! RON-NIE! ' I had to get an escort to get through the crowd. 'Wow! Now I know what it's like to be the Beatles!'

 

Q I'm sure it'll be like that at The Metro in Sydney on September 21!

Oh, I don't know. I guess people are still interested. We still have fans out there. For these shows it's just to say goodbye and thank you for so much. We released the single "My Generation Landslide" as a gift to the fans. We know it's not going to sell. That's a moot point. No big deal to us. It's a a parting gift to the people, as closure. For ourselves and them, just to say: 'You won't see us again'.

Q What sort of set are you going to tour with?

It's - ahhhh, Christ! I've been rehearsing for the last two weeks since I've come back from Melbourne. Last Sunday was the last rehearsal before the tour. Just doing a set list was sort of nightmarish. A lot of songs, we had like 30, then we had to whittle it down!

We're just going to do really old stuff. We're doing nothing off the last two albums so you won't be getting any electronica at all!

I think we're starting off with "Doused". "Stoneage Cinderella". A track off "Free Dirt" that I haven't done since about 1987 called "Round and Round". Just a bunch of stuff. "Ambergris", which was great to do in rehearsals. Just old stuff, up until "Doughboy Hollow". There's "Crawlsaway" off "Lost".

Q Will you involve any former members? There are a few...

No, it's not really necessary, It's just for us to say goodbye to the people, as cornball as it sounds.
But, (original keyboard player) Frank Brunetti is going to be DJ'ing at the Prince of Wales! That's a bit bizarre. Apparently Needham's lined up Frank to DJ.

Q Speaking of collaborators, there was a rumour you were involved with The Moops, now known as the Persian Rugs.

Yeah, yeah. Dave (Faulkner) and Brad (Shepherd) being friends of mine - and I hang out with Dave a bit - he wanted to get some sort of combo going and I think we were going to call it The 13th Power (but I really didn't like that name.) Brad came up with that, a band from some old '60s show. Dave wanted us to get up in Mexican death mask stuff on our faces and black skivvies and wigs and stuff and it was...mmmmm....and Dave and I write some songs together and they're coming out on the Persian Rugs album, if and when it surfaces. A few Peno/Faulkner songs on that album, very '60s garagey stuff.

But The 13th Power never eventuated. It was another idea that flew out the window. I just didn't get into it. I really don;t want to get up in wigs and Mexican death mask make-up and pretend I'm in the Seeds or the 13th Floor Elevators.

Q Fair enough.

I think if I do anything next, it'll be as stately as possible. I'll go the Nick Cave route.

Q Here's one from left field...if you had a choice of one of your songs being covered by someone else, who would it be?

Ummm....I think a huge band so I'd get lots of money from it...U2 or REM...and it would be...I don't know...maybe Dionne Warwick doing "Brighter Ideas". I think she'd be brilliant because I got the idea from Burt Bacharach for that song. I did it in my best Dionne Warwick voice.

Q The move into R & B and electronic music. How did that happen?

It was a bit like the Bee Gees doing Saturday Night Fever and discovering they could sing in these high voices. You know, disco beat behind it. We joust brought the groovebox along to a rehearsal and he started pulling up all these sounds and all of a sudden I (affects high voice) STARTED SINGING LIKE THAT....it's like: 'Ooooh I've never sung like that before'. Usually it's (gravel voice) LIKE THAT!

It was - wow - I've got this other vocal.

Q I thought it may have been helium!

No, it was all very natural and much to the rest of the band members' dismay when we played it to them. I think they liked it but they were like: 'Ooooh - what's happened to your voice? It's c-h-a-n-g-e-d'!

It was just something for us to do, something different.

Q A lot of the newer stuff grew on fans though.

A lot of people liked "Everydaydream". Somebody said it was like Died Pretty doing a Madonna album, or something! (Laughs).

Q I have to touch on lyrics and I'm not going to ask you to explain them all -

We've got them coming out - we have a web site - and I'm going to get involved in that after these shows and have a Peno Page where people can ask questions. If they want to know lyrics, I have a whole bunch of them that they've sent in and have to be corrected.

Q Do you find the fascination with your lyrics funny?

It is. It's very entertaining. When I was given a print out of the lyrics at rehearsals the other day and I went: 'Wow, that's a very good line. That's better than the original!' Basically, a lot of them are quite correct. There's just a word here and there. 'It's how, not cow'. Things like that. I must sing really weird!

Q I know Rob Younger says he likes to preserve the mystery of his lyrics.

Yeah, I'm not going to give too many lyrics away! I'll give some away. When I first heard REM I thought, 'What the hell is he singing?' Just the enunciation and tone of his voice, and having he vocals pulled back in the mix. These days Stipey's vocals are well to the front and his lyrics are fairly deciperhable.

Q Supporting those guys had be a high point for the band?

Oh yeah!

Q What else stands out?

The high points? Oh, lots! Just touring overseas, playing in Italy and the first tour of Europe was just amazing. Supporting REM. Playing with the Fleshtones and the Smithereens. Lots of stuff. Probably REM would be up there. They continue to be one of my all-time favourite bands. And just lovely, lovely, lovely people.

Q I know I wasn't going to ask about lyrics but I just remembered...in "Igloo" [a 31st song, co-written with Mick Medew, later of the Screaming Tribesmen], who were the "Shoeshine Boys"?

An old '50s doo-wop band. From Alabama! (Laughs).

Q It came up on the Divine Rites mailing list. Marko from Finland asked.

Someone asked me...this came up the other night in an interview with (journalist) Andrew Stafford, who's writing a book on the Brisbane music scene. Lovely guy. He asked me too: 'Like in "Igloo", who are the Shoeshine Boys?' "Igloo" or "A Stand Alone"? "Igloo", I think. The song actually came from me reading Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis". It was me talking about an igloo being all white and positive, the Shoeshine Boys being negative. The black-and-white, positive-negative thing, you know. Optimism and pessimism. I dunno, one of those silly things I was going through when I was very young.

Q How did you end up in Brisbane anyway [where "Igloo" first surfaced]?

A friend was going to form a band. I went up there. He didn't actually like my singing style. The other guys in the band did and said 'we'll stick with you'. Funny how influential I can be like that! I formed The 31st. That was about it. Met Michael Medew. We wrote our first song "Igloo" together.

Q Are you ever going to put those demos out?

What? The 31st ones? I gave them to Needham actually. He said they were really raw sounding. He didn't say yes or no. They're the only ones I know that are around. [Discussion continues about their origin, Ron having last heard them in 1979 prior to them surfacing last year.] Dave Faulkner gave them to me. We were just over at his place having a vino. He said he had a present for me and put it on his stereo and I was 'Oh my god!' This is The 31st! Oh no!' It didn't sound TOOO bad, not for 1979. I wasn't squeamish about it.

I was obviously still carrying the Radio Birdman thing. I was heavily fixated! You can tell it was Radio Birdman running through there, and me trying to be one of my heroes Rob Younger.

Q So how did you happen to become involved in the Oxford Tavern-Radio Birdman scene?

I was just a little scatterbrain living in Gosford and answered an ad in RAM magazine. A guitarist [Charlie Georgees] wanted to form/join a band and he name-dropped the MC5, the Stooges and Blue Oyster Cult. I was going: 'Wow! There is somebody else out there like me!' (Laughs)

Q How did you hear of those guys?

I first heard of the MC5 when I was watching this [Australian '70s music TV] show called GTK and this wonderful journalist Lillian Roxon -

Q Part of the Sydney Push [group of '60s intellectuals.]

- was on GTK, she'd been living in America, and she was asked what bands really exited her, and she said: 'The MC5'. I was like: 'The MC5, huh?' They may have had a snippet of them. 'Oh, my god'. That was about 1970 or so. I was just living in the country. Lillian Roxon. What an amazing person.

The NY Dolls, I just read about in "Rock Scene" magazine, which was one of my favourites because it had lots of pictures and not too many words (laughs)..."The Ramones go shopping...the Ramones go to rehearsal on the subway". It was great stuff. I just read about Iggy and the Stooges in "Circus" and "Rock Scene", "Creem".

I think someone had given my brother-in-law this album in 1973 and I thought: 'What a weird cover'...black and white...he put it on and I thought 'This is fantastic'...it was "Tyranny and Mutation" by the Blue Oyster Cult.

So I was right into all of them right from the start. Once I answered this ad in 1976, I came down to Five Dock [Sydney suburb] and we got the Hellcats together. We sort of palled up, used to go into [Sydney record store] White Light. [Psychosurgeons/Lipstick Killers guitarist and owner] Mark Taylor would get all the latest stuff, English punk was huge then. I always thought the English punk thing was very comical. Slaughter and the Dogs, Eater and the Sex Pistols. I always thought that was really comical. Vaudevillian. I was more into American stuff.


Fronting the Hellcats in 1976.

Q If you don't mind me delving into the back pages a bit more...where do the bands you were involved with fit in like Frozen Stiffs, Virgin Frogs and Uncle Mils?

The Frozen Stiffs were more or less Mark Taylor's band. Before the Hellcats, Charlie and I joined them. They wanted to do something and we were like, 'No, let's form our own band'.

Q That's right, a precursor to the Psychosurgeons.

Yeah, like the Psychosurgeons. Virgin Frog was just something I had in the country, I made up a band name. A very left field thing to do. I put it into "Sounds Blasts" (music column.) My friend and I were at school in Narribri and put it in to see if they'd print it.

Uncle Mils, when I was in Gosford. My friend Warwick Fraser - my best friend - I first met in 1973 when I moved there from the country. [Discussion follows about a spirited exchange involving Mr Fraser on the Yesterday's Letters Died Pretty Mailing List in which a kneejerking Barman made a dickhead of himself.] We were going through the glam thing together and they were looking for a lead singer. The classic Stones line-up. I just went out to Ettalong Memorial Hall - - glammed up - and did a few songs from "Get Your Ya Yas Out". 'Do you guys know "Straycat Blues?", do you know "Live With Me"?' So I was in. We did a couple of shows in Gosford and that was it.


On stage with Brett Myers.

Q Do you remember the first time you crossed paths with Brett Myers? He was in The End then?

I was in The 31st. We hadn't actually played with each other. I'd seen The End. They were playing this club in Fortitude Valley. Myself and the 31st bassplayer Tony Robertson walked into this bar, they (The End) started doing this stuff. Me, being a little older than Tony, thought: 'This is cool'. Tony said: 'We can blow these guys off the stage'. I was: 'No, LISTEN, pal...this is cool'. As I said, he was younger than me, still going through his Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers stage -

Q (Laughs)

I love Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, by the way! And after the show - I'd had a few Bundy and Cokes by then - I said: 'You did "Wet My Bed" by Iggy and the Stooges'. He's like: 'Wow, yeah, you knew that song! Incredible!'. Our friendship just went from there. We ended up going to see each others' bands. I used to go to his place. We played the NY Dolls and a band I wasn't heavily into (though I knew "Rock and Roll Animal" and "Transformer") which was the Velvet Underground. I just didn't know much about them. Brett introduced me to that stuff. And Dylan. I wasn't into Dylan, apart from one album called "Desire" and the obvious songs like "Lay Lady Lay" and '60s Dylan.

And we both loved a band called Television. Tom Verlaine.

Q Know 'em well.

We both adored that band. We both loved NY City. 'Wouldn't it be great to go to CBGBs'. Of course, years later we both went to NYC and played at CBGBs. A dream come true for both of us.

Q It's a toilet, isn't it!

Oh god yes, the toilet within a toilet! It was very weird. We were told not to go down to the toilets downstairs. 'Why? I want to do a piss!' [American accent:] 'No, don;t go down there'. I descended those stairs and, god! I took [drummer] Chris Welsh with me. 'Come down with me, mate'. I didn't know what to expect! It was pretty yukky.

But just to be there. We took photos outside of CBGBs. Brett and I used to talk about this years before.

Q I have to ask...is there anything live worth releasing?

I have some cassettes from 1995 that could be worth releasing. I don't know. I think these farewell shows are being taped...JUST IN CASE...

Q The thought occurs, with the web site happening, it could be a good channel to reach fans and something could be out out with minimal overheads.

Yeah, exactly. That's what it boils down to now. We're not going to sell [lots of] records. It's been and gone. I just love writing songs. I get a little tender about performing because I'm getting old and horrible (laughs)...'Where's my hair going? Stop receding, damn you!' I love writing songs and I just have to think of it that way. Like this latest single, no it's not going to sell, you know what I mean? It's just for the people who are interested. If there's a live thing down the track -

Q Well, whatever happens from here is a plus really.

Yeah, yeah. From here on in, of course. No, the dream of being successful is long gone. We're all a bit long in the tooth and I' still happy to have all my faculties and to be able to create songs and to write. That's what I'd love to do, to collaborate with other people.

Died Pretty's final shows are about to happen. Catch them at the Waterloo Hotel, Brisbane, on September 7, the Prince of Wales, Melbourne, on September 13, The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, on September 14 and The Metro, Sydney, on September 21. Tickets are on sale from the venues.

 

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