Posted October 4, 2007

Interview by THE BARMAN
Live Photos by KARENA HOYER

It's less than a week after the Clash of the Titans tour pitted the Hoodoo Gurus, Radio Birdman and The Stems against each other on a national tour around Australia. Stems singer-guitarist Dom Mariani is on the line from his Fremantle home, expressing quiet disbelief.

"Really? Is that what they said?" questions a stunned Stem to news of consensus among punters in various online forums that his band matched - andat times scored a TKO - over their bigger name headliners.

"That's great but it was just really fun to be on tour with those guys, to share a stage and to see them play.

"We just wanted to show we're a rock and roll band," he adds almost as an after-thought. It's a comment that pops up a couple of times - notably, regarding the band's new album "Heads Up".

If there were any doubts that The Stems could be a viable concern two decades on from their original split, "Heads Up" proves their place in today's musical scheme of things.

It's a return to the band's original early '80s rock roots and a deliberate move away from the classy but radio-sanitised pop of their only album. "At First Sight Violets Are Blue".

Richard Lane cooks up a storm on harp.

"The hooks are there but it's more a rock record," Mariani says.

"We started recording songs for a proposed new album a few years ago at Off the Hip in Melbourne.

"We put down five songs, which included some covers, and went back to Perth to do some more work on it. The original idea was to release an album and tour Europe in 2005.

"As we working on these tunes it became apparent that we hadn't spent a lot of time on really nailing the arrangements and sounds. The songs seemed underdeveloped.

"We knew that we could do a way better record if we put our minds to it, so the decision was made to scrap these recordings and use them as demos. Recording for the new album proper started in January this year and completed in Cincinatti in May.

"We recorded the album in Perth in an analogue studio using old equipment...small vintage amps , a '60s kit and the original fuzz box I've always used. I think it's fair to say that it's more like the band was when it first started out."

Make no mistake: "At First Sight Violets Are Blue" is still a great album - mostly because the songwriting of Mariani and keyboardist/guitar sparring partner Richard Lane shines through. Production-wise, it was a sharply different proposition to the preceding run of two singles "Make You Mine" and Tears Me In Two") and an EP ("Love Will Grow - Rosebud") on Citadel.

Citadel boss John Needham once described The Stems as "my Music Machine" and their tough cross of Pretty Things/Yardbirds/Chocolate Watch Band rock-pop set a benchmark in the 1980s that waves of succeeding bands could only hope to match.

"At First Sight Violets Are Blue" marked The Stems moving to a major label - and the beginning of their end, at least in their original lifespan.

"I think the pressure of being on the road all the time just built up. I quit and the band fell apart," Dom recalls. "I got ill - got depression - and it took a while to come out of it."

It's the first time to my knowledge that Dom's spoken on the record about that period and it provides a basis for at least two songs on the new album.

" 'Surround Me' is a Dave Shaw tune and possibly my fave on the album,"he says.

"I really enjoyed putting this song together with Dave (but) the lyrics are close to bone as I spent five years fighting depression and 'Leave You Way Behind' " deals with the same thing.

"It does make 'Mr Misery' (from the first album) cruelly ironic. The dark humour behind that song was written as a response to Richard Lane's 'Rosebud'."

Post The Stems break-up, Mariani's dipping a toe back in the water with the studio-only Someloves started him on a part-time powerpop path that continued with DM3, the Stoneage Hearts and (more lately) The Majestic Kelp, but the demands of the business of music - and whatever shadows they brought with them - were kept at bay.

Julian Matthews on bass.

The other Stems dabbled in music - bassist Julian Matthews was briefly in DM3 and the Shivers, while drummer Dave Shaw played in The Neptunes and Richard Lane with the The Chevelles - but the band never convened in full until 1997 with a spate of two shows.

"We only played the West Coast and the shows went so well that we wished we'd done more and gone over East," Dom says.

"It wasn't until 2003 that we actually toured the east coast and were amazed at how well we were received."

Things grew from there into a second East Coast tour with the likes of the Crusaders and Even, a run through Spain and an appearance at Little Steven's Underground Garage Festival in New York City, on a bill that included Iggy and the Stooges, the Dictators, the Pretty Things, the Chocolate Watch Band and the Electric Prunes.

"That was so great, especially to be able to see the Electric Prunes. They're one of my favourite bands of all time.

"And also, to see the Pretty Things and to hang out and have a beer with Phil May."

It's a little-known fact that Little Steven - late of The Boss' band but genuinely also a fanatic for '60s garage rock - has been a long-time booster of The Stems and Dom Mariani, pushing their music via his massively syndicated digital radio show.

That connection, and similar championing by Bomp Records (and its late owner, Greg Shaw), has maintained a profile in the US that should lead to more Stateside shows in 2008.

"The plan is to get over there and maybe do something like SXSW, depending on the album being picked up and being well received," Dom says.

But first there's a run of headlining Australian dates in small rooms in November, and a two show tour of Japan. The latter's a place Mariani played once with DM3 and the Land of the Rising Sun holds a fascination for him and his bandmates, who will be first-time tourists.

"We plan to get over to Europe next year. We've pushed that back to get solid distribution for the album so we'll have it out and in the shops well before going."

With all four Stems now living back in Perth (Richard Lane was a Sydneysider for a stretch) their ability to rehearse, write and get out on the road is greatly enhanced.

Fans take special note: You can procure a contemporary re-recording of "Move Me" on Off The Hip's fantastic "Antipodean Screams Volume 2" (it's from the pre-album demo session) and for the Japanese tour, Freshwater Records will issue a 7" single ("Leave You Way Behind" b/w "Take Me To Your Honeypot"), the fuzzy but soulful non-album B-side said to be especially desirable.

Pressed on what's different for The Stems these days, Dom highlights a few factors.

"I really think it's a bit easier in some ways these days. The Internet, for one, gives you a lot of reach.

"In the 80's, you had to get out there and prove yourself live just to make a go of things and build a following.

"Ten years ago, as a band we all had other demands like work and family. Now we're all older and our kids are more grown up.

"The other thing is that we're all really behind this record. We're doing what we really like - which is playing the music we really like - and we're all on the same page."

THE STEMS “Heads-Up” Tour Dates

02 November Settlers Tavern, Margaret River, WA 
Tix through

03 November Fly By Night Musicians' Club, Fremantle, WA 
Tix through

08 November Hopetoun Hotel, Surry Hills, NSW 
09 November Hopetoun Hotel, Surry Hills, NSW
Tix through

10 November East Brunswick Club, VIC 
11 November East Brunswick Club, VIC 
Tix from the venue