Previous month:
April 2004
Next month:
June 2004

Finally A Use For Spam!

Andrew at has made a cultural breakthrough worthy of a Nobel Prize or at least an award of some sort. In his entry “Spam and the modern novel” he suggests that the names of characters in “your bad first novel” could be derived from “the names the spam mail people use to trick you into signing up for a porn site or buying Viagra online”. He offers some great examples.

Jesse Younan: Making the Soul Audible and Expressing Pain and the Dirtiness of Life
(Or: ‘I used to be a postmodernist, but now I’m not Saussure!’)

Someone I used to work with told me that he was starting a label called ‘Bone Daddy Records’, and handed me a couple of EPs. One of them contained elaborate finger-picking accompanying soulful singing in a rich, deep voice. The artist was someone called Jesse Younan, and his EP was entitled Palimpsest. I figured I wanted to interview Jesse, and when I did, the funny thing was that despite his rich, deep voice, Jesse was extremely soft-spoken. He played his cards pretty close to his chest, preferring to let his music speak for itself rather than give anything away. Which is fine – unless you go and call your EP something like ‘Palimpsest’; then you’ve got a little bit of explaining to do.

Not to me, of course. Having been part of the great academic con of the early 90s, I’m well versed in ‘PoMo’ (postmodern) theory, whose lexicon of jargon includes the term ‘palimpsest’. Literally, a palimpsest is a manuscript, usually written on parchment or papyrus, that contains several writings on it – not just the most recent, but remnants of past writings that haven’t quite been erased, bleeding through. In PoMo theory, a ‘text’ (ie writing) is made up of many ‘signs and signifiers’ (ie words) which contain several meanings, not just the one that the author thinks he or she has written, but also those others that the author inadvertently also presents unconsciously, and the additional ones that readers give rise to by bringing whatever baggage they have with them when they sit down to read it. The multitude of meanings bleeding through may be metaphorically termed a ‘palimpsest’. If I haven’t got this explanation quite right, do me a favour, don’t tell me about it; life’s too short.

According to Jesse, who by now is sick and tired of having to talk about what he meant by ‘Palimpsest’, he hadn’t put much thought into the relevance of the title. “It was just a word that I liked, and I really didn’t think that I was going to be asked so much about it,” he says. “I still don’t think that there’s much relevance other than the idea that most of the songs on the CD are old.” The fact that the EP contains, in some instances, ten year-old songs that Jesse is still playing and trying to make relevant to himself once again is, he says, the reason why he chose the title Palimpsest.

Greater than his reluctance to talk about the title of the EP is Jesse’s reluctance to talk about the meaning behind the songs contained therein, or to talk about himself to any great degree. For example, he doesn’t wish to be more specific regarding his cultural and racial origins than to say that his parents were from ‘the Middle East’. In fact, he is a bit uneasy about admitting even that.

“I just prefer what I do to be seen as what it is rather than where it comes from and what it means,” he says, acknowledging that he has ‘issues’ – what with “being called a wog at school” all his life. “I guess what I’ve noticed, especially with this sort of music where there’s no evidence of my background in it, because of how I look or whatever, there’s a question of ‘where are you from?’ If I was blonde and blue-eyed, there wouldn’t be a question of that.”

Where a thing comes from and what it means is implicitly bound in what it is, I would have thought. And how it is interpreted by listeners, as opposed to how Jesse meant it in the first place, is prime PoMo theory at work. By this stage, calling the first EP Palimpsest is making more and more sense – particularly when Jesse’s ‘Middle Eastern’ background is taken into account. The fact that I can ascribe a meaning to the title that Jesse can’t or won’t, once again, is an example of that loathsome postmodernism. His Palimpsest has itself become a palimpsest – a site of multiple overlapping texts within which more can be read than Jesse actually wrote, or intended to write, or is willing to acknowledge that he is ‘writing’, not just by the information he presents, but also that which he witholds. However, knowing all of this won’t necessarily enable you to enjoy Jesse’s music to any greater degree. Nor should it cause you to enjoy it any less. Only, as life is far too short, you should spend more time listening to great music than theorising about it in a completely self-indulgent way – particularly when someone else is willing to do the self-indulgent theorising for you.

Although I undertook an interview with Jesse some weeks ago, I publish it here now in order to let you know that Jesse Younan is supporting Josh Rouse at the Annandale Hotel, Tuesday 25 May. There is a ‘narrative’ version of essentially the same interview that follows the transcript of the broadcast version. Don’t read both unless, when you come to the second one, your only other choice is a textbook on functional grammar or some other loathesome compendium of PoMo theory.

Music:Walkin’ off the Blues’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Jesse, at what point in your life did you realize that you needed to be a singer/songwriter?

JESSE YOUNAN: I’ve never really reached a point where I decided I needed to be, I just have always done it, basically. I started when I was six, playing guitar, and it just seemed natural to progress to writing my own once I felt I was at a certain point where I could compose my own music rather than play other peoples’.

Demetrius Romeo: At what point did you start composing your own songs?

JESSE YOUNAN: I guess we’re talking early teenage years. And the way I learnt to play was to improvise, so in a sense I was always composing, because I was basically making it up as I went along anyway. So I guess it was really the late teens when I actually started putting it down on paper or tape.

Music:Walkin’ off the Blues’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: I hear shades of Nick Drake in your music. Who or what were you listening to that influenced you early on?

JESSE YOUNAN: Nick Drake isn’t an influence. I’ve only recently came across him, maybe five or maybe eight years ago. The first song I learnt to play was ‘Annie’s Song’ by John Denver. A lot of the melodies maybe come from that kind of stuff. I’ve always found it hard to talk about influences because I really don’t know.

Music: ‘Annie’s Song’ – Jesse Younan, as yet unreleased

Demetrius Romeo: Did your parents play a lot of music in the house when you were young?

JESSE YOUNAN: No. Not what I do. Cultural stuff. More in the ‘middle eastern’ kind of tones. It does relate, more in the way I may vocalize. The way I approach music has to do with my background and maybe the blues, and so the music from the culture, to me, is closely related to the blues because it’s basically blues, just worlds apart as far as styles and subject matter.

Music: ‘Annie’s Song’ – Jesse Younan, as yet unreleased

Demetrius Romeo: If it’s worlds apart in style and worlds apart in subject matter, how is it close to the blues? I would have thought that the thing that marks the blues is its style and subject matter.

JESSE YOUNAN: I guess I’m talking more on the technical side, where it’s worlds apart. Where it’s similar is the root of it. I guess it’s just basically the honesty and rawness; everything being stripped back to that. And the idea of making the soul audible and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life and stuff like that, that I like. Any kid who picks up the guitar, the first riff they learn tends to be a blues riff that’s been played over and over again. It was always going to happen for me. I just like it and it speaks to me.

Music:Forever’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Tell me about the song ‘Forever’.

JESSE YOUNAN: I guess it’s just a basic break-up song, really. I guess you could call it ‘blues-based’. I don’t know. I don’t necessarily like to come out and say ‘blues’, that I ‘play the blues’ because I don’t feel that I do play the blues as well as someone who has been playing blues. I just play the way I play and that’s just how I go about it. I don’t pay too much attention to what is going on around me. It’s all just coming out of me.

Music:Black Dog’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: I’d also like to know about the song ‘Black Dog’.

JESSE YOUNAN: All the songs that I write come about in the same way: at low points in one’s life. To me, every song I’ve written could basically be one body of work, one song. That’s how the songs are to me. They’re not individual songs. I guess Black Dog has been used as a reference to depression.

Music:Black Dog’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Is your music about taking the low points in your life and creating something more out of it?

JESSE YOUNAN: Not necessarily. I don’t really have any say in it. It’s become just a habit. I might be feeling low and that’s basically what will inspire a song. I’ve got a large body of work, which may suggest that I feel low often. Like I say, there’s no motive behind it; it just comes out that way, and I don’t have much say in it.

Music: ‘Always a Glasgow Boy’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

Demetrius Romeo: Always a Glasgow Boy. What’s that song about?

JESSE YOUNAN: That’s the easiest one to explain and the only one I will explain. That was basically written for a father of a friend who is from Glasgow. He made a joke one night and said that he was going to commission me to write a song, and he left it at that. But he had no idea that I would end up writing a song based on that line and a slight insight into who he is and where he’s from. I didn’t have an intention to write the song, but that’s just how it happens, for some reason: he’s mentioned it and a song came out a few weeks later and he was really surprised and chuffed.

Music: ‘Always a Glasgow Boy’ – Jesse Younan, from the EP Palimpsest

And now, the ‘alternative’ version (ie the alternative to reading PoMo theory).

Jesse Younan: Making the soul audible, and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life

Jesse Younan has a great big singing voice, so it takes you by surprise to discover how soft-spoken he is when you meet him face-to-face. In addition to his quiet nature, Jesse is reluctant to talk about his art – he’d rather that his music spoke for itself. Yet, when pressed, he does offer some insight into how the self-taught musician got to be so proficient a singer/songwriter.

“I started playing guitar when I was six,” Jesse explains. “If I was a bricklayer for the same amount of time, I’d be a pretty good bricklayer.”

Since Jesse basically learnt to play the guitar by improvising, he was pretty much always composing – making it up as he went along. However, he says, it seemed like a natural progression to start writing his own songs once he’d reached the point where he could compose his own music rather than playing other people’s songs. “It was in my late teens, really, that I started putting it down on paper or tape”.

Jesse never jammed with mates at school – music wasn’t even offered as a subject at the school he attended. Apart from playing music with his brothers, Jesse never jammed with anyone until he was in his early 20s, and even though playing music with anyone is always “a good idea” – he likens it to “having a conversation” – Jesse found that the level of playing was rarely balanced. “I’ve been playing since I was six, and I would be playing with people who may have only been playing for a couple of years, so I always ended up in the position where I was the one who knew what he was doing. It was never a nice balance.”

At times, Jesse’s deep, booming voice, distinctive finger picking style and lyrical candour is reminiscent of Nick Drake. But Jesse insists that Drake, whom he’d only encountered about five years ago, isn’t an influence. “I’ve always found it hard to talk about influences, because I don’t know,” he’ll admit, before declaring that the first song he ever learnt to play was John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’. “A lot of the melodies maybe come from that kind of stuff,” he says – although Denver’s influence is harder to spot in Jesse’s original compositions.

Another influence is the music Jesse’s parents would play in the house when he was young and, although there is once again a reluctance to talk about it, Jesse describes their music as “Middle Eastern sort of tones”. He suggests that the Middle Eastern music he was hearing as a child influences the way he sings. That music, and the blues of the legendary Robert Johnson, are his key influences.

“Where we can always say ‘the blues’ starts and ends is Robert Johnson,” Jesse explains. “I don’t sound like Robert Johnson, but the way I approach music has to do with my background and the blues. The music from my culture, to me, is basically the blues, only it’s worlds apart as far as styles and subject matter.”

On the surface this sounds like a contradiction, that indigenous Middle Eastern music is essentially ‘the blues’ except for its style and subject matter; for most people the blues is defined by style and subject matter. But Jesse has it sussed: “where it’s similar is at the root of it: the honesty and rawness. Making the soul audible and expressing pain and the dirtiness of life… I’m not exactly an authority on the blues, but any kid who picks up the guitar, the first thing he learns is a blues riff that’s been played over and over again.”

As a songwriter, Jesse admits that all of the songs he writes come to him at the low points of his life. “I don’t really have any say in it. It’s become just a habit. I might be feeling low and that’s basically what will inspire a song.” As a result, Jesse feels that every song he has written basically constitutes one body of work, one song. That he can take a low feeling and write a jaunty, rollicking song is not contrived. “There’s no motive behind it,” he maintains. “It just comes out that way, and I don’t have much say in it. I just play the way I play and that’s just how I go about it. I don’t pay too much attention to what is going on around me, it’s all just coming out of me.”

© Demetrius Romeo 2004

Scared Weird Little Guys

The Scared Weird Little Guys have a special position in the pantheon of musical comedy outfits. Tripod have garnered a popular following through their presence initially on Triple J (with their ‘song in an hour’ challenge and subsequent CD releases) and then on SkitHOUSE. Yet they have to contend with comparisons to other pre-existing trio-and-guitar combos – the Three Canadians, Corky and the Juice Pigs and the Doug Anthony Allstars to name but several. Then there’s the Dodge, who began as Freefall but had to change their name for copyright reasons. I recall accosting members of the Dodge, while they were still Freefall, at a Melbourne Comedy Festival some years back. “I know you must get this all the time, but you know who you guys remind me of?” I began. “Yeah, yeah, we know,” they said. “Tripod.” Which was cute. They reminded me of early Allstars. But it was nice that everyone else who would have once been comparing Tripod to the Allstars was now comparing Freefall to Tripod. Then, of course, there’s Gud – the band that are most like the Allstars, having, like the Allstars, Paul McDermott as their central character.

The Scared Weird Little Guys are the ones who get compared to others least of all, mostly because they are a duo (and partly because I can’t be bothered bringing Lano & Woodley into this introduction, even though they began as a trio, became a duo, and also dabble in music).

Beginning as half of a barbershop quartet, the Scaredies have made much of being able to utilise many musical genres. Of late, they have taken to doing their own version of a musical challenge. Whereas Tripod are given a topic and an hour to turn it into a song, the Scared Weird Little Guys take a leaf out of Andrew Denton’s book – since the ‘musical challenge’ dates back not to Denton’s Channel Seven tonight show of 1994, for which musical guests would have to render standards in their own style, but to an earlier show, The Money or the Gun, which featured ‘Stairway to Heaven’ performed in various ways by a multitude of artists. The Scared Weird Little Guys invite musical challenges of that nature: in addition writing satirical songs, sometimes to the tune of familiar songs, the Scaredies like to perform familiar songs in vary unusual genres, and invite fans to submit suggestions for such songs in a prcess referred to as ‘Stump the Scaredies’.

Thus, the Scared Weird Little Guys' new album Bits and Pieces – the excuse upon which this interview is hung – contains a bunch of satirical ditties and a sampling of Scaredy-stumpings.

Having previously interviewed the Scared Weird Little Guys, I already knew the answers to a few of the questions. But they were worth hearing again in the context of the story, rather than trying to bung ’em into an introduction – look how cumbersome this one is without them! Besides which, the answers sound even better when illustrated with soundbites.

The Scaredies have a clutch of shows coming up over the next little while, and they’re a lot of fun live. Check ’em out.

The interview went to air Saturday 15 May, an MP3 of which may be heard here.

Music: ‘Rock n Roll All Night’ in the style of a barbershop quartet – The Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Demetrius Romeo: Before you became the Scared Weird Little Guys, you were both in a number of a cappella quartets. What led you both to comedy and to being in a duo? Rusty?

RUSTY BERTHER: We did start out, when we first met, in a barbershop quartet. In fact I was in this barbershop quartet for a year. It was called Four Chairs No Waiting and I was in that group for a year in Melbourne and then John auditioned and joined that group. That’s how we met. It was a bit of a ‘wacky, zany’ kind of a group, which was a lot of fun and a good thing to be doing at that time. Then we were in another five-part a cappella group called the Phones, which was a little more serious on the music side, with heavy doses of comedy, but we’d decided when we started the Scared Weird Little Guys, ‘let’s write original comedy songs’. So we kind of fell into it that way.

JOHN FLEMING: When Rusty and I met each other there was a bit of a bond that happened there, I guess. It was a business relationship but we were both into similar sort of stuff, so by the time three years had gone past, it seemed logical that we might go on to write some songs and I was playing guitar, we were both singing so we went for it.

Music: ’30 Seconds’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

There’s only thirty seconds left in this song.
If you got a stopwatch and tried to work it out
Then you’d find around now that the time remaining
Would equal twenty seconds, yeah.

Now it’s down to eighteen.

Seventeen seconds: no time to rest.
If this was an ad you’d be impressed.
If you’re in a hurry you won’t be late,
’Cause if for the end of this song you wait

There’s only four seconds left.
How long?
There’s only one second le…

Demetrius Romeo: Rusty, the name ‘The Scared Weird Little Guys’ was indirectly bestowed upon you by Al Pacino; is that correct?

RUSTY BERTHER: That is correct. It’s a line from Al Pacino’s movie called Cruisin’. He’s an undercover cop in the serious, gay world of New York at the time, and there’s murders going on. Anyway, regardless of what the film’s about, the line ‘scared, weird, little guys’ was in it, and we thought, “scared, weird, little guys; that’s a weird grouping of adjectives – with ‘guys’ at the end – let’s call our group that!” We were searching for a name at that point.

JOHN FLEMING: Yeah, that’s right. And we have a fear that maybe in New York ‘scared, weird, little guys’ means something different, so we haven’t played in New York ever.

Music: ‘Staying Alive’ in the style of a Welsh Male Choir – the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces.

Demetrius Romeo: Your new album Bits and Pieces is album number three. John, tell me where the title comes from.

JOHN FLEMING: Well it’s pretty simple, really. It’s a whole collection of things from different places, all chopped up and not really contiguous, so Rusty suggested that we might call it Bits and Pieces because that’s the kind of thing that it is, so that’s what we did.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the highpoints of your live routine is where you’d do a version of Prince’s song ‘Kiss’…

Music: ‘Kiss’ done in reggae style – the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

Demetrius Romeo: …You did it even more distinctively by inviting various different genres…

Music: ‘Kiss’ done in Indian style– the Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent

RUSTY BERTHER: We don’t really do the ‘Kiss’ routine anymore, but we’ve kind of morphed that idea into a thing called ‘Stump the Scaredies’: people write in and ask for a certain song to be performed in a very different style than it’s originally performed in, or even in the style of another song.

Music: ‘Born in the USA’ in the style of Austrian Tyroler music – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Demetrius Romeo: I notice one of the tracks on the CD, ‘Cleaning Out My Tucker Bag’, seems to tip its backward cap at Eminem. Tell me a bit about that song.

JOHN FLEMING: Well that was a kind of ‘Stump the Scaredies’ thing again – the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, what can we do with it? We said, “let’s do it in an ‘Eminem’ style”.

Music: ‘Cleaning Out My Tucker Bag’– Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

Waltzing Matilda:
She came from St Kilda,
Her middle name was Hilda
And her dad was a builder.

When he could see the steam on his tea
He said, “You’ll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me!”

Waltzing Matilda

Yo, come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me!

Down came a jumbuck (baaa!)
And he was dumbstruck
He jumped up…

Demetrius Romeo: There are a number of musical comedy acts on the scene at the moment. Do you see a reason for the rise of the musical comedy act?

JOHN FLEMING: Well I guess, in the most narcissistic way it’s because we’ve been around for so long, we’ve spawned a lot of acts. But seriously, we’ve observed a rise of variety act over the stand-up comic for a while, and while there’s always going to be more stand-ups than variety acts that are successful and successfully performing, there seem to be more variety acts coming up now.

Music: ‘World Leaders’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

I beg your pardon, have you forgotten
One Osama Bin Laden?
Oh behave! He didn’t shave –
He’s been hiding in a cave

The US Army couldn’t find that man
So they bombed the crap out of Afghanistan,
That crazy al-Keida Kookball
Called ‘Osama’!

Demetrius Romeo: What’s the secret of being a musical comedy act, and successful?

RUSTY BERTHER: I think, don’t take yourself too serious, number one; enjoy what you do; and I think, personally, we just try and be really good at what we’re doing.

Music: ‘Whistle Pops’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

John: Tonight we’re going to use some of the most rare and difficult of the hand-crafted instruments: ladies and gentlemen…
John & Rusty [in unison]: The whistle-pop!

Demetrius Romeo: Scared Weird Little Guys, that you very much!


RUSTY BERTHER: Thank you Dom.

Music: ‘Whistle Pops’ – Scared Weird Little Guys, from the album Bits and Pieces

I played out on the street.
From far around they came.
The crowd, they clapped and cheered.
I won fortune and fame.



When I first met the enchanting Johanna Featherstone I was amused to discover that she was responsible for the ‘Spit or Swallow’ advice column in that esteemed satirical publication The Chaser. I’d known that she was a writer and had worked in book shops, but was most impressed to discover that she is also the Artistic Director of The Red Room Company, an entity devised, she says, in order to “create, produce and distribute” all manner of projects inspired by poetry, utilising the talents of “the most unusual, talented people” that she can find in the process. The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition, mounted as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, is one of those projects. It seemed a worthy topic of conversation, and and so an interview ensued. During the course of it, I discovered that I was responsible – somehow – for introducing Johanna to her partner, composer Elliott Wheeler. But that’s a whole other story. He figures in this story, however, as providing the sonic landscape of songs that will feature at the launch, as does Timothy Brunero, who collaborated on the satirical room notes with Johanna. The interview that follows was broadcast Saturday 15 May.

Soundbite: ‘Bicycle’ – David Malouf, from the album David Malouf reads from Poems 1959-89

Demetrius Romeo: Johanna, tell me a bit about this ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition which is part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition is a collection of ten hand-written poems by Australian poets – a variety of very new poets who haven’t published anything before, such as a ten year-old poet who is coming down from Tamworth, who has written a fantastic bush ballad about a wolf, and then, from esteemed poets we all know about, such as Dimitris Tsaloumas and David Malouf.

They were asked to submit me on an A4 sheet of paper a hand-written poem. I gave them a few ideas of my favourite poems which they had written, and then they turned up to me – the most amazing experience and one of the most beautiful was Dimitris Tsaloumas’s submission, which is this divine calligraphy with a little note attached, saying,

You asked me to submit something on an A4 piece of paper, but I have no idea what an A4 piece of paper is, so I have just taken the closest piece of paper at hand and hope that fits.

And of course, it did.

Demetrius Romeo: In addition to the exhibition of the hand-written poems, you have an exhibition of art, as well as readings on the day.

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: That’s right. Tonee Messiah is a student at Sydney College of the Arts and she was asked to create ‘a civilization of poets’, in terms of the visual interpretation of poets’ heads. This has luckily been supported by NAVA, which is the National Association of Visual Arts, and there are nine separate little heads that hang in between the poems to emphasise the idea of the poet as a person – just like the handwriting – rather than the poet being something only on a computer screen now.

Demetrius Romeo: Have we lost touch with poets in the modern age?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I don’t think we’ve lost touch with them, but I think perhaps we forget how powerful and exciting poetry can be, in that a poem doesn’t just have to be something that you can read, although a great poem gives you everything in just that experience. Poems can bring about an entire cultural community; they can take people from the school halls into professional careers.

Demetrius Romeo: Who are the poets represented in the ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: Well, there are ten all up, but to give you an example of a few, there’s a girl called Lucy Holt from Melbourne and another girl called Mia Dyson who’s an Australian blues singer who recently won an ARIA award. She’s submitted a blues lyric for us to decide whether it’s a poem or not.

Soundbite: ‘Roll On’ – Mia Dyson, from the album Cold Water

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: John Clarke contributed a fabulous satirical poem called ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’, that’s a satire on one of Lewis Carroll’s poems. John Clarke is really appropriate for another aspect of the exhibition – a series of room notes that I have written, that talk about, in a fun way, the idea of how poetry is valued and financed in our society. On the back of these room notes are some absurdist price tags which actually stand, because if someone can produce the price that we say on these absurdist price tags, they can take away the poem. But I do warn the listeners that they range from a vial of imagination, to a cornfield of Cypriot corn.

Demetrius Romeo: So if I wanted the John Clarke poem, for example, what would that cost me?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I think something like John Howard’s fiscal policy on a plate.

Soundbite: ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’ – John Clarke, listed as the track ‘Carol Lewis’ on the album The CD of The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse

Alex Lloyd’s Beautiful Music

Sometimes, when you do an interview, the best part of the interview takes place after the actual interview is over.

I met Alex Lloyd in a busy restaurant where he happened to be conducting all of the press regarding his new single Beautiful. Although we were able to overcome most of the ambient diner noise by huddling in the far corner, this happened to be the corner closest to gum trees that a flock of cockatoos decided to approach in a screeching frenzy somewhere towards the end of our chat. Despite them, we had a pretty good natter, after which we continued an informal discussion mostly off mic.

What happened was that I had noticed that all of the songs on Alex Lloyd’s albums were credited to ‘A Wasiliev’. I put it to the singer-songwriter that ‘Alex Wasiliev’ was in fact his real name. (More effective – in a kind of ‘cold war operative’ kind of way – would have been the name ‘Alexis Wasiliev’.) Turns out that ‘Wasiliev’ is the surname of Alex’s dad, a writer, and ‘Lloyd’ was the surname of his mother, an artist. Sadly, Alex’s mother passed away when Alex was a teenager. But his adoption of her surname is not merely a tribute: there is more to it than that. In Alex’s words, “as a writer, I have my father’s surname, ‘Wasiliev’, and as an artist, I have my mother’s surname, ‘Lloyd’.” A great anecdote. Adding to it was the comment that Alex and his dad didn’t always see eye-to-eye, that they are in contact more frequently now than they were earlier on, and the birth of Alex’s son Jake has brought Alex and his dad closer together.

Had I been on the ball, I would have ensured all of this was ‘on mic’; it would have brought not just a greater depth to the story, but more polish and style to its execution – developing the theme of songwriting and artistry, and ending, as it began, with talk of Alex’s son, Jake. However, as it stands, the conversation that was captured despite diners and cockatoos is still informative, and although it was broadcast a few weeks ago now, I present it here in honour of the national tour Alex Lloyd will commence on Friday 28 May.

Before I let you read the transcript, I’d like to point out the frequent presence in Alex’s music of what sounds like backwards guitar and percussion (you can spot them because, forwards, guitar notes and drum beats begin suddently and fade out gradually; backwards, they fade in gradually and stop suddenly). Lloyd is a self-confessed Beatles fan, particularly of their later, studio-based work (backwards guitars started appearing with songs like ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, from Revolver, and backwards percussion, onStrawberry Fields Forever). When I talk to him again, I will bring this up.

Music: ‘Beautiful’ – Alex Lloyd, from the album Distant Light and the ‘Beautiful’ single.

Demetrius Romeo: Alex, when your son was born recently you said that you wouldn’t be writing songs specifically from the ‘new dad’ point of view, but your new single ‘Beautiful’ seems to fit the bill perfectly. Was the presence of young Jake something that influenced that song as the choice for the new single?

ALEX LLOYD: No, not really. I’d always fancied ‘Beautiful’s chances of being a single. I kind of leave the decision of what’s going to be a single up to the record company, or at least, I have up to this point, but yes, it is very apt. You’re correct on that, that it just so happens that my little boy was born.

Music: ‘Beautiful’ – Alex Lloyd, from the album Distant Light and the ‘Beautiful’ single.

Demetrius Romeo: I notice with all your singles that there’s always a wealth of bonus tracks. Do you have a mammoth backlog of songs, or do you just write them all the time?

ALEX LLOYD: Well, with this particular single I really wanted to… I mean, they are sort of ‘throw together’ tunes, but I wanted to give something more than just a version of a song I did on radio or something like that, because, with Watching Angels Mend I did a lot of that – using those sort of songs as B-sides – because I didn’t have enough time. But I recently took a few months off and I just got creative and I had a few surplus songs so I thought, it’s about time I did a good singles package. I mean, they’re not cheap, are they? And you want to give people value for money.

Music: ‘What’s Wrong?’ – Alex Lloyd, from the album Distant Light

Demetrius Romeo: When you perform a show, is it hard to chose what songs will make up an Alex Lloyd set?

ALEX LLOYD: I can sort of play it by ear. I try to put as much variety into it as I can and just try to create a set that flows really nicely, and I thought it would be easier having three albums under my belt, but it’s actually making it harder because it’s like, ‘which ones do I leave out?’ or ‘which ones do I leave in?’ and there are people who come to the shows because you have three albums who are bigger fans of a specific album rather than another album, and if you don’t play their song, you kind of feel as though you’ve ripped them off.

Demetrius Romeo: That must be a bit of an issue at the moment, considering that Watching Angels Mend went double platinum and the new album, Distant Light is just getting to platinum now, even though it went gold in its first week of release. Does that pose a problem when playing to an audience?

ALEX LLOYD: When I tour a new album, I try not to just do the new album. I probably put half of a new album into a set. I don’t think sets should be too long, either. I think they should be a certain length that you expect people to stand around and watch a show. So I guess I just try to rotate it – if I didn’t get to play it the first night, maybe I’ll play it the second night. It’s luck of the draw, really.

Music: ‘Coming Home’ – Alex Lloyd, from the album Distant Light.

Demetrius Romeo: As an artist, how does it feel knowing that the last work has done so well and that you’ve got to come to the block again and start anew with the new one?

ALEX LLOYD: I try not to take that kind of stuff into the studio. You can’t help but some days think, ‘oh, is this any good?’ and go through moments of self-doubt. I think every artist would do that. I really try to make every album a new experience, if you know what I mean, and try to challenge myself as well, so I have plenty to think about; I don’t have to dwell on whether it’s gonna be as successful as the last one.

Music: ‘America’ – Alex Lloyd, from the album Distant Light.

Demetrius Romeo: I notice that all of your album titles have a ‘heavenly’ or ‘etherial’ angle to them: Black The Sun, Watching Angels Mend and Distant Light. Where are you coming from with your albums?

ALEX LLOYD: To be honest with you, all of them have been song titles from my albums. They’re kind of the songs that I feel sum up the albums best. In fact, one of the new b-sides on the ‘Beautiful’ single is a song called ‘Travelogue’ and I almost wish that I got it on the album because I know that it’s not the kind of song that I’m gonna do for my next record because I’ve already started writing that, so I had to use it. I think it sums up the record best, ‘Travelogue’, because essentially that’s what it is: it’s a travel diary. So, Distant Light, for better or worse, is a kind of a journey.

Music: ‘Travelogue’ – Alex Lloyd, from the ‘Beautiful’ single.

Demetrius Romeo: Alex Lloyd, thank you.

ALEX LLOYD: Thank you.

Music: ‘Travelogue’ – Alex Lloyd, from the ‘Beautiful’ single.

Jimmie Walker is actually quite funny

I can remember the time when two new television shows first hit the screens in Australia. They had similar names, so I wasn’t sure which was which, and they were both on at the same time, on different stations. One was called Happy Days and the other was called Good Times. After a while, one of them must have been moved to a different timeslot, because I know we watched both: one was a nostalgic look at 50s middle class America in Milwaukee, the other, a gritty look at contemporary working class American life in Chicago’s black ‘projects’. Both offered the comic relief of a main character with a catch-phrase: Fonzie’s ‘Aaaaaaeeeeeeeeeeh’, compared to JJ’s ‘DYNE-O-MITE’.

Both shows changed their focus after a few seasons, when the comic relief and the associated catch-phrase became more popular than the family that was originally central to the show. Fonzie was essentially adopted by the Cunningham family, moving into their attic, while JJ’s father James Evans Snr died in an accident when John Amos decided to leave the show (to star in the miniseries Roots ). His departure allowed for about the best screen reaction to death ever depicted: Florida Evans (played by Esther Rolle) smashes a serving dish, uttering the words “DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!”. (Actually, more like “Day-um! Day-um! Day-um!”) Esther Rolle later left the series also, allowing JJ to become the central character. By this stage, a very young, very adorable Janet Jackson started appearing on the show as the adopted daughter of another character. Jimmie Walker assured me that this was not her first role; she had been ‘discovered’ doing a Mae West impression on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. (As Sonny would have said, since it was his catch-phrase before Donny Osmond pinched it for The Donny & Marie Show, “Cute. Real cute.”)

Although you wouldn’t expect it from his sitcom background, and none of the local Australian press which dutifully filed stories on him came close to betraying this fact, Jimmie Walker is actually a great stand-up comic. Sure, the flyers and his website all tell you that he’s been on Letterman twenty-five times, and Time Magazine named him ‘Comedian of the Decade’ (back in in the 70s, when Good Times was at its height. But the fact is Walker is a funny dude. He was an established stand-up comic before he won the role of JJ, training at the Improvisation, a comedy venue on West 44th Street in New York. The one line I take away with me from his performance is his dismissal fo Britney Spears’s proposed autobiography; after all, being so young, what sort of events can she write about? “I was born, I had my period. The end.”

The only drawback of the night was the lack of audience – comedy always plays better to fuller rooms and bigger audiences. However, the people who were there were for the most part, fans, and Jimmie Walker happily fielded questions at the end – he hadn’d visited Australia before, so he was happy to answer any queries long-term fans had been cultivating since the 70s. But he would not give us a ‘DYN-O-MITE’ claiming that that sort of material had to be paid for: he just might do it at Vegas, but certainly not at the Harbord Diggers.

In addition to being genuinely funny, Jimmie Walker is also a dude; I first interviewed him on Thursday 29 April, before attending a Gud gig. I didn’t discover until midday the following day, when I was about to head in to edit the interview, that my minidisc recorder had somehow malfunctioned, and I’d failed to record the interview. At the last gig of his Australian tour, Jimmie was happy to let me interview him again.

The interview was broadcast Saturday 8 May. Here’s an MP3 version if you want to listen.

Music: Theme from Good Times

Good times –
Any time you meet a payment.
Good times –
Any time you need a friend.
Good times –
Any time you’re out from under.

Not getting hassled,
Not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can…

Demetrius Romeo: Jimmie, I understand you were a stand-up comic before you landed the role in Good Times.

JIMMIE WALKER: Yeah, I was a stand-up for about ten years before that, working in New York and part of the Improvisation graduating class that was there in the early 70s and late 60s which included Bette Midler, Al Jarreau, David Brenner, Liza Minelli and many, many others that were around at the time.

Demetrius Romeo: Was it common for stand-up comics to land roles in sitcoms at the time?

JIMMIE WALKER: At the time, no. It was a whole different thing. The first three, besides Bill Cosby of course on I Spy, were me, Gabe Kaplan and Freddie Prinze Senior. Now a lot of people obviously know Freddie Prinze Junior but Freddie Prinze’s dad was on a show called Chico and the Man, Gabe Kaplan was in Welcome Back, Kotter and I was in Good Times.

Demetrius Romeo: Did you use much of your pre-existing stand-up persona in the role of JJ on Good Times?

JIMMIE WALKER: No, not really. I made a character out of the whole thing, a combination of all the people I’d known who did that. My comic timing, from being a comedian, obviously was involved on the show, but not from the ‘JJ’ character; that was a hole bunch of characters that I put together.

Soundbite: ‘Autographs’ - Jimmie Walker, from the album Dyn-O-Mite

You know, people get carried away. People say ridiculous things. Like, I'm flying on the airplane, little stewardess – caucasian lady – walks up to me and says, “excuse me, Sir, may I have your autograph? It’s not for me, it’s for my friend. She’s black.” I said, “all right then, I’ll print.”

Demetrius Romeo: How about after you did the show – did the role of ‘JJ’ effect the way you did stand-up comedy?

JIMMIE WALKER: It never effected the way I did stand-up comedy, but it effected the way people perceived me. Because, when you work clubs, not everybody sees you but when you’re on national TV, a lot of people see you. So a lot of people thought, “Gee, this is JJ, he’s gonna come out…” They didn’t know that I was a stand-up, so definitely, it effected the way they looked at me in terms of my comedic presence, because I was dealing with more mature subjects, and they didn’t plan on getting that from JJ. So, it definitely changed a lot of stuff in terms of acting, not to say that I’m an actor, but people don’t see you; you get typecast. Those sort of things do happen.

Soundbite: ‘S-Cool Daze’ - Jimmie Walker, from the album Dyn-O-Mite

Dig this:

“If Farmer Jones had a fifty acre farm that he had to mow, it would take Farmer Jones Twelve hours with a team of horses, but it would only take him six with a tractor.

“One day while mowing the lawn the tractor broke down, so Farmer Jones had to go to the horses. But he decided to use his son who, by hisself could mow a lawn in fourteen hours.

“Now, although his son, mowing a fifty acre lawn in Colorado on a sunny day with Farmer Brown passing by and a team of mules, taking all the rationals into rationalisation, using only [unintelligible mathematics examination jargon] and showing all work on a separate piece of paper, how long did it take them to mow the lawn? Give your answer in feet.”

Demetrius Romeo: Before you made it in showbusiness, you educated yourself. Did any of that effect the show in which you were the son of a family struggling in the projects?

JIMMIE WALKER: I think it did, because I actually came from that kind of family, except that we didn’t have a dad. We had a dad in our show, but we didn’t have a dad in real life. So I think it does affect you in that you have a lot of characters that you have in the projects, and like I said before, it was the kind of thing where a lot of the project characters were incorporated in what I did on the show, because obviously there’s a malaise, a whole bunch of people that you see that you just put all those characters together.

Soundbite: ‘The Black Prince Has Arrived’ - Jimmie Walker, from the album Dyn-O-Mite

So I went into the record store and I saw this album sitting there, and I saw this sharp looking dude on the cover and I say,

Is that him? The black prince?
Could I be right?
Could that be kid

Demetrius Romeo: Part of your persona on Good Times involved a catchphrase ‘dynamite’, which became part of everyday parlance and lived beyond the show. How does that effect you when part of your television shtick becomes part of everyday life?

JIMMIE WALKER: Well, definitely, here we are thirty, thirty-five years later, and people are still screaming it, yelling it, the whole deal. It is part of the fabric, literally, of the world, I would imagine. And as my late friend Steve Krantz – a writer – said, he said, “when you die, the obit’s going to say, ‘today, the dynamite fizzled’”. So that’s definitely going to happen. I’m very aware of that, I’m very aware that that’s what people know, that’s what they’re aware of, and you have to be very honest about that.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you still give a bit of a ‘Dyn-o-mite’ in your performance?

JIMMIE WALKER: [Lauging] Never! See, I’ve never done it in my show, ever, ever really done it in my show. But I know there is a percentage of the crowd who come to see that, they enjoy that, they’re into that, and I’m very aware of that.

Demetrius Romeo: But your website is called, you’ve got CDs that are called Dyn-O-Mite. How do you justify that?

JIMMIE WALKER: Purely marketing and mercenary conception. You know, it’s worked out well because people do look for me under that label – you’ve got to be honest about that.

Demetrius Romeo: So what about the people who come to the show expecting to thinking that they’re seeing JJ and not Jimmie Walker?

JIMMIE WALKER: You try to win them over, you try to prove to them that you are funny, kind of stuff like that. You know, you’re not going to get everybody but you hopefully can get a large percentage.

Demetrius Romeo: Is it working?

JIMMIE WALKER: I think we’re doing okay. I think it’s fine. I think people are enjoying what they see. Maybe, maybe not; but I hope they are.

Demetrius Romeo: Fantastic. Jimmie, it’s been a pleasure.

JIMMIE WALKER: Thank you. As usual, always sensational being on a big show, love it!

Music: Theme from Good Times

Easy credit rip-offs –
Good times!
Scratchin’ and survivin’
Good times!
Hangin’ in a chow line –
Good times!
Ain’t we lucky we got ’em?
Good times.


Chad Wackerman Decides To Beat It

Last Sunday I was leafing through the music pages of one of the entertainment industry gossip compendiums that masquerades as a newspaper – (this is not a criticism; I read them for their entertainment gossip and I’d have no scruples to overcome were I ever given the opportunity to help them compile entertainment gossip in an on-going, professional capacity) – when I came across a little piece on Chad Wackerman.

I was first aware of Chad Wackerman’s presence in Australia back in the mid-90s, when he was serving as the drummer for the house band on Roy & HG’s show Club Buggery on the ABC. As it happens, Chad had married an Australian, and after the pair had lived in Los Angeles for eight years, they decided to move to Australia. At the time, I was working weekends in a music shop and one of my duties was to field inquiries from hard-core Frank Zappa fans. The process of remastering and re-issuing Zappa’s back-catelogue (and a wonderful smattering of new releases) was continuing posthumously, but no local label had bought into the deal yet in Australia; everything had to be imported. Thus, as titles would come up for release, the hard-core fans who would come in wanting to place orders would be stonewalled by shop assistants who of course would not be able to find any mention of Zappa product in the local release schedules. At that time, Shock was the distribution company that would bring in European pressings on the Music For Nations imprint, right up until Festival in Australia struck a deal with Rykodisc in the late 90s. My job was to allay the fears of the hard-core fans: of course I knew what they were talking about; of course our shop would be getting copies of the album; of course we’d call them when the stock arrived. I got to know a lot of Zappa fans at that time, and naturally expected that they’d be as excited as I was to discover that Chad Wackerman, who had been Zappa’s longest-serving drummer, was now living in Australia. “Oh yeah, I know,” most of them would reply when I’d tell them. “He gave a drum clinic the weekend before last. He’s been here for a while.” They were clearly more hard-core than me.

The journalist working for the gossip compendium had really outdone himself (or herself) since, in addition to announcing that Wackerman would be launching his new album at the Basement the following evening and that the legendary drummer would soon be quitting his adopted home of Australia, the item also discussed the piece of music known as ‘The Black Page’ at some length. Clearly, this was more than the mere re-writing of a press release. (It turns out that ‘The Black Page’ was a reference to a difficult piece of music one of Zappa’s bandmembers had to play at a session. Not shown the music prior to turning up, he was handed sheet music so difficult, staves so dense with musical notation, that the page looked more black than white. Zappa responded by composing his own version, a piece of music so deliberately difficult that it deserved the epithet ‘black page’ as an official title.) I thought I’d be a good little journalist and attempt to get my own interview out of Mr Wackerman, particularly since he would soon be leaving the country.

When I rang the Basement in order to find a contact for Wackerman, I was encouraged to come down in person and try my luck. I am indebted to people at the venue, Wackerman’s management and Chad Wackerman himself for allowing me to stick around in order to stick a microphone in Wackerman’s face backstage before the gig. Now I regret that I didn’t ask a few more questions – like how Chad felt about augmenting his drumkit with synthesiser drums when he was in Zappa’s band, seeing as how he eschews the use of drum loops and the dated feel they automatically give to music. (Try listening to live Zappa recordings from 1984 – on albums like You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Volume 3, for example – to hear state-of-the-art technology of the time sounding painfully out-of-date.) I also would have liked to ask what inspired some of the titles, let alone the tracks, on the new album. ‘Legs Eleven’, descriptively referring to the hindu-arabic numeral for eleven, is a turn of phrase I suspect native if not to Australia, then at least to countries of the Commonwealth that set great store in bingo. The track ‘Tangara’ seems to refer to the train of the same name, a model introduced to Sydney’s CityRail network in the early 90s during Liberal Premier Nick Greiner’s time in office. (This tangent is proof, if you needed any, that hard-core Frank Zappa fans are trainspotters!) ‘Tangara’ supposedly translates (from the language of indigenous Australians?) as ‘let’s go’, so it is quite apt as a title for a Chad Wackerman composition at this point in his career. The track ‘Newtown’ is of course named after the colourful inner-city Sydney suburb favoured by students, bohemians and beggars.

The interview was broadcast Saturday 8 May.

Music: ‘No Time Like The Future’ (drum intro) by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: Chad, I won’t be the first person to make this observation; you have the perfect name – ‘Wackerman’ – to be a drummer. How did you come to the drums?

CHAD WACKERMAN: My father is a drummer and a music teacher. He teaches at a high school, has taught at a high school for thirty-five years now, in California. When I was a little kid, my dad would be practicing on the drums, and I just naturally gravitated towards the drums, towards what my father was doing.

Music: ‘No Time Like The Future’ (drum intro) by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

CHAD WACKERMAN: I played violin for a while in school as well, and a little bit of marimba, but that didn’t last too long; I was must further along with drumming.

Music: ‘St Etienne’ by Frank Zappa, from the album Jazz From Hell

Demetrius Romeo: A lot of people know of you through your work with Frank Zappa. What was it like playing with him?

CHAD WACKERMAN: Playing with Frank was amazing. It was an amazing learning experience. It encompassed so many different styles. It was like being in a rock ’n’ roll band, it was like being in a great jazz ensemble, it was like being in a chamber orchestra as well. He wrote a lot of music, to say the very least, and a lot of it was difficult, very detailed and complicated music, and I think a lot of it was very beautiful as well. He really knew what he wanted. His music was difficult, but if you were playing it, there was no problem. He spent a lot of time working on that music and he wanted to hear it played right. It was a great experience. It was a great, growing experience and it affected me in a huge way.

Music: ‘Tangara’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: You’ve just released a new album called Legs Eleven. Tell me a bit about it.

CHAD WACKERMAN: It features this great band that I have here, which is Leon Gaer on bass, James Muller on guitar and Daryl Pratt on vibraphone and electronics. I’m really, really proud of this record. It’s the second record that we’ve put out with this band, the first was called Scream, and it’s been five or six years since we’d done Scream, so the band has done a lot together; we’ve toured in Europe together.

Music: ‘Tangara’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

CHAD WACKERMAN: There’s just a tighter chemistry within the group now, and I think Legs Eleven really proves that. I’m really proud of their performances and proud of the compositions. It’s a mixture of band compositions and some short drum and percussion pieces mixed inbetween the band tunes, so it has quite a lot of contrast to it.

Music: ‘Field Of Mars’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: What’s it like leading a band from the drum stool?

CHAD WACKERMAN: Well, I find it a very natural thing. I don’t know if a lot of people don’t really this, but the drummer has a lot of control over the music, I think more than anyone else on the stage. If the drummer, for example, decides to give more energy to the last chorus that you’re playing, or to make a verse quieter, typically the band will follow you very directly. So you’re always kind of leading them anyway. You’re in the back, normally, you’re the sideman normally, but you have the most power over the band anyway, so it’s really a natural thing. It’s not unusual.

Music: ‘Tonight’ by Rachel Gaudry, from the (Chad Wackerman-produced) album Leaving Traces

Demetrius Romeo: You also produce other people, for example, you produced Rachel Gaudry’s first album. When push comes to shove, do you prefer playing someone’s band, playing in your own band, or producing someone else?

CHAD WACKERMAN: I enjoy all aspects of music, and producing can be really fun, if you get someone like Rachel who is really enjoyable. I produced Rachel, and Rachel is a really wonderful singer/songwriter. My approach to production is very organic, I guess… I’m always aware of not over-producing people, because I think you should find people with lots of talent and really let them do what they do and just surround them with the best kind of atmosphere that they need to really shine and show-off what they can do, and I’ve been lucky to have done that a few times.

Music: ‘Tonight’ by Rachel Gaudry, from the (Chad Wackerman-produced) album Leaving Traces

CHAD WACKERMAN: I don’t go for too much gimmickry, I don’t use too many loops or things like that because I think it really puts a date-stamp on it. If you hear a loop in ten years, you’re going to go, ‘oh, we know when this record was recorded’, but if you go back and even hear some of the great singer-songwriters from the 70s like James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, they’re still pretty much making records in the same way: live band, it’s all played by live musicians and it doesn’t sound dated. So I have more of that approach when I produce people.

Music: ‘Balancing Acts’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: Now you’re about to leave our country. What’s taking you away from us?

CHAD WACKERMAN: We’ve been here ten years, actually, and throughout the ten years, I’ve been having to travel quite a bit, usually doing three or four trips, out of the country, usually to Los Angeles, but sometimes on tours to Europe or Japan, tours of the US, or just for album work, and it’s getting to the point where it’s a bit crazy. We’ll be back here – we’re planning on a trip at least once a year, and I’m hoping to get the band together and do a tour at that time.

Music: ‘Balancing Acts’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

Demetrius Romeo: Chad Wackerman, thank you very much for your time.

CHAD WACKERMAN: Thank you very much, Dom.

Music: ‘Balancing Acts’ by Chad Wackerman, from the album Legs Eleven

A couple of old interviews with the Scared Weird Little Guys

What with the Scared Weird Little Guys having just released a new CD called Bits and Pieces, my interview with them in the can and awaiting editing and broadcast, and numerous people who have googled the Scaredies reaching this website to discover that until now they only appeared in passing in my interview with Adam Hills, I thought it was high time to raid the comedy archive for these old pieces. The up-to-date interview promoting the new CD will appear here soon.

The following interview appeared in Revolver shortly after the Scared Weird Little Guys released their album Live at 42 Walnut Crescent in early 2000.

In a Nutshell: The Scared Weird Little Guys on Walnuts, Wax and Weight Loss

Rusty Berther and John Fleming – the Scared Weird Little Guys to all and sundry – come bounding towards me in the foyer of the ABC’s Ultimo studios at 4:35 pm on a Friday afternoon. They have just been on Merrick and Rosso’s show to promote their brand-spanking-new album and they are both beaming.

“The new album’s called Live at 42 Walnut Crescent and we just got to see it for the first time,” Rusty tells me.

“We hadn’t seen a finished copy of it yet, but Merrick and Rosso had a copy of it,” John adds.

“You guys don’t even have a copy?” I demand in disbelief.

“No,” Rusty assures me. “No, we don’t have a copy yet, but we’re familiar with most of the material.”

The first thing about the Scared Weird Little Guys that strikes the casual observer, apart from John’s more recently acquired blond hair, is the fact that while they are still (one assumes) scared and weird, and definitely guys, they are both significantly littler. John especially.

“We’ve both been on diets,” John explains. “I’ve shed almost ten kilos.”

Thus, the littlerfication is not due to the rigours of touring, or the demands of releasing and promoting a new album, rather, John says, “it’s me deciding that I’d been carrying enough weight for too long and doing something about it. I’m pretty pleased with being a little slimmer these days.”

While I naturally assume that this must lead to pulling more groupies, I ask Rusty to set the record straight.

“I’m married now, and John’s just gotten engaged. So the answer is ‘yes’…” Rusty says.

“… with the long-term groupies,” John adds, completing his colleague’s comment and no doubt averting a night on the couch in the process.

Rusty and John’s lines always segue smoothly, as though one mind acts through the pair of them. This is probably because they have been working together for some thirteen years now. John, who wanted to be a singer, auditioned for and joined a group that Rusty was in. After “about three years muddling around in different a capella groups” like ‘The Phones’ and ‘Four Chairs, No Waiting’ (a barbershop quartet?) the pair opted for the ‘Scared Weird Little Guys’ partnership in July 1990. John claims to have noticed the difference straight away when the group scaled down to the duo:

“We only had to split the money two ways. We also noticed that there were a lot less arguments and fewer relationships to look after.”

Live at 42 Walnut Crescent was recorded at gigs in Edinburgh, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne “over the years” (the bonus, unlisted ‘McDonalds’ song dates from 1991) and put together through December and January. Released on the eve of the Scaredies’ tenth anniversary, John considers it “an opus of our work to this time”. Rusty agrees that it does constitute a timely retrospective – a ‘greatest hits live’. “If you have heard a Scared Weird Little Guys song before and liked it,” he says, “it’s probably on this album. Because there are twenty-five songs on it.”

Significant absences in the set include the Scardies’ unique cover of ‘Yesterday’ and the song which started it all, the Kennett-inspired ‘Bloody Jeff’. However, this is a pedantic quibble considering that ‘Volvo Man’, ‘Shopping and Parking’, ’30 Seconds’, ‘Macadamia’ and even the generically modified covers of Prince’s ‘Kiss’ are present and accounted for. Further, there are two all-new topical songs, designed to “give a leg up to the rest of the album through airplay”. The first is a cute parody of the early Dylan political ballad, a talking-blues entitled ‘GST’. The second is a stirring anti-anthem called ‘Olympics’, resplendent with strings, harmonies and corrupted lines from ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

The Scaredies’ most recent show ‘Rock’, designed to “explore rock music in its facets”, premiered at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year before playing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Unfortunately, Sydney is not going to get to see ‘Rock’ in the immediate future. After a two-week regional tour of South Australia, the duo will most likely be “dusting off some of the old stuff” for the three weeks they will spend in North America thereafter. The Scaredies have long enjoyed success in the North Americas, having been named Canada’s ‘Best Variety Act’ in 1994 and 1995 as well as the ‘Best Comedy Act’ in the US in ’95. That same year, they were also nominated as ‘Entertainers of the year’ in the States. Thus, they are aware of “certain little pockets” of popularity in that part of the world:

“We’re big in Nova Scotia and in Minnesota…” Rusty begins.

“… and in Alberta” John carries on as smoothly as ever.

When I point out a patterned rhythm in the placenames, the potential for a song, the Scared Weird Little Guys utter an approving “Aaaaaaah” in unison. “Now you’re thinkin’ like we think,” John assures me.

The excellent Live at 42 Walnut Crescent is released on Streetwise Records’ dedicated comedy label ‘Belly Laugh’.

The following article appeared in the 15 June 1998 issue of Revolver.

Scared Weird Little Guys

“We’ve got red pants – long ones!” explains Rusty Berther, the scared, weird, littler of the two men collectively known as the Scared Weird Little Guys. “We’ve gone to long pants now that we’ve grown up.” Rusty is describing the brand-spanking-new stage costumes that he and John Fleming, the other Scared Weird Little Guy, wore in their recent Melbourne Comedy Festival Shows. “We also had black shirts with bones down the sleeves.”

Trivial, you might think, this discussion of apparel. Well, it’s not exactly earth-shattering, but it is significant. See, the sartorial metamorphosis comes with many other developments in the Scared Weird Little Guys’ act. Not only have they progressed to long pants, but the Scaredies have also moved on to varying their song arrangements and modes of performance. The Comedy Festival Shows, for example, featuring “a whole swag of new stuff” that Rusty and John wrote over the summer, was performed with an orchestra. This is a startling new approach for a mainly acoustic duo whose showbiz career began in a cappella groups.

Rusty and partner John have just finished recorded recording an album’s worth of new material which should appear in mid-July. Once again, this work shows a developing sophistication as the duo augmented their usual sound with additional instruments. “We recorded five songs with a drummer, and I played bass,” Rusty reports. “Two of them were done ‘live-in-the-studio’ with guitar and mandolin, and the others are recorded as a three-piece. We’re pretty happy with the results.”

I’m curious as to how the songs will sound; in the past, the Scared Weird Little Guys have derived much humour by being able to make up for the lack of instruments. For example, their various renditions of Prince’s song ‘Kiss’, a favourite of live perfomrances, is performed in various genres despite the fact that the pair are armed only with a guitar and their voices. They begin with one of the finest country and western rootin’, tootin’, high-fallutin’ hoe-down send-ups you could ever imagine. Then they go on to invite the audience to request various musical genres in which they will then attempt to render the song.

“I can only assume that this segment is pre-rehearsed,” I insist. “One time the guy next to me yelled out ‘indie’ and you guys pretended that he said ‘Hindi’ in order to do a Bollywood version, the guitar being plucked like a sitar, the pair of you singing with Indian accents.”

But Rusty is quick with an explanation:

“I must say, to defend ourselves, when we first started doing the bit, which was quite a few years ago, we didn’t rehearse any. But because we’ve done it so many times, we’ve had to do bits like opera, heavy metal, most thing, and we’ve genuinely learnt how to do all those styles.”

“Yeah,” I say, “but that’s not my beef; this is: one time at the Belvoir Street Theatre, I know that I clearly got in first and loudest with the request of ‘mariachi’, because you guys do such good mouth-trumpet work, but you guys ignored me and pretended to pick another genre out of the crowd.”

“Ooh yeah,” Rusty says, contemplating the challenge of the ‘mariachi’ version. He starts to simulate the cheesy Mexican brass section mariachi fanfare: “Bap bap badadp bap bap” (listen to the trumpets in the Dick Dale song which serves as the theme to Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction if you are unfamiliar with the genre).

“I’m sure we would have tried it…” Rusty insists, and then gives up with that avenue of defence. “We’re allowed to take artistic license there,” he says instead. “No matter what the crowd had shouted out, we can selectively hear whatever we need to hear. It’s a skill that develops over the years and many gigs.” Then he returns to his early tack: “But I tell you, mariachi… I reckon we’ve definitely done that before so if you’re lucky enough to call it out again, we’ll definitely give it a shot.”

God bless you, Rusty.

Rusty met John “about ten years ago”, some twelve months after he had left his native Queensland for Melbourne. “I was singing in a four-part a cappella group in 1987 and basically one guy left and John joined.” Rusty suggests that the fact that he and john were not friends or workmates prior to becoming bandmates is one of the reasons why the Scared Weird Little Guys ‘works’ as a partnership, and why they “haven’t killed each other”.

“So how did you lose the other two members to become the Scared Weird Little Guys’? I demand. “Did you have to kill them?”

“We were in that group for about a year,” Rusty explains, “and then John and I both joined another group called ‘The Phones’.” After The Phones disbanded a couple of years later, the pair decided that they may as well “do something” together because they new each other well and enjoyed working with each other.

I want to know if, like other musical comedy acts such as Billy Connolly (as he once was) and the Doug Anthony Allstars, the comedy began as between-song banter and developed from there. In the case of Billy Connolly, who started out as a folky in the group ‘The Humblebums’ the patter just kept extending and the songs came fewer and far-between. As for the Allstars, who began as the punk group ‘Forbidden Mule’ and went on to be shopping mall buskers, they needed to jump in and out of flaming garbage bins and the like in order to retain the audience’s attention.

“We were mostly musical,” Rusty says, “but there were bits of comedy creeping in, and a few of the songs and the actions we did touched on comedy. But we definitely always considered ourselves musicians before comedians. And we still do. When we started the Scared Weird Little Guys, we definitely said, ‘sure, the main aim here is to write some funny stuff’. But then, because we’ve got the musical background and we love singing harmony and we love writing songs, the music has come through as well. It’s turned out that we feature the music as much as the comedy.”

I can lay claim to being aware of the Scaredies from very early on – at least from the release of their first EP, ‘Bloody Geoff!’ which was inspired by the Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett. Rusty explains that he and John were overseas at the time of Kennett’s election.

“We came home and noticed that everyone was going, ‘Oh, Kennett’s in! Bloody Jeff!’ So we decided, quite innocently at the time, to write a song that blames Jeff for everything.”

I stubbed my toe so hard I cried,
“Bloody Jeff”!
The Beatles broke up and Elvis died.
“Bloody Jeff”!

Rusty claims that while ‘Bloody Geoff!’ has become a bit of an anthem for people who hate Kennett, it’s pretty light-weight from a political point of view. “It’s pretty apolitical,” he says.

In 1995, the Scared Weird Little Guys released a mini-album called Scared, which is not at all bad. My only criticism of it is, as with so many musical/comedy albums, that when you become familiar with a live act, you can sometimes be let down by their studio albums. This is because, unless it is a live recording (which often presents an entirely different set of difficulties) the audio artifact is a different art form entirely to the live performance, therefore making different demands with different issues at stake.

“Absolutely!” Rusty acknowledges. “We realised that we were asking ourselves the wrong question. The question wasn’t ‘how can we best capture what we do live on a record?’ but ‘what is the best that we can do, on a record?’”

The answer, Rusty assures me, is the new Scared Weird Little Guys album, Mousetrap, which boasts amongst its contents, songs about dead food in the fridge, setting the table, and death metal lyrics set to a lounge backing.

“That’s the one we’re happiest with,” Rusty says of the latter, “because we’ve gone totally in the style of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, with a full-on loungey, latin feel.

Before I can call it a day with Rusty, I need to ask two musical questions, having dealt mostly with the comic content of the Scared Weird Little Guys’ work. I apologise for the first one, which is the standard “where did you get your name?”

Rusty takes it in his stride:

“We usually say that when we were looking for a name, ‘The Village People’ was already taken, so we thought, obviously, ‘The Scared Weird Little Guys’. But the truth is, we were watching this Al Pacino movie called Cruisin’, a full-on undercover cop film set in the New York underground gay scene. At one point this guy says, ‘there are a lot of scared, weird, little guys out there who don’t know why they do what they do.’ We stopped the tape and laughed – ‘what was that? ‘Scared, weird, little guys’? That’s it!’ And it sort of stuck.”

And finally, “as vocalists, who are you inspired by?”

“Ah, jeepers,” Rusty balks. Then: “I’m a huge country/bluegrass fan, and I never really trained – I’ve had a few lessons at high school, but otherwise – I’ve just sung along to a lot of country stuff I love, especially the alternative sort of country music coming out of America. And John was a choirboy for ten years at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. So he’s got a different sort of background. But definitely not one singer; I couldn’t say ‘Michael Bolton’, or anything like that.”

Heaven forbid, Rusty, that you would ever say anything like that.

It’s probably worth noting, just so that I don’t confuse the hardcore fan, that the album referred to as Mousetrap in the interview was subsequently released as a five-track EP entitled Death Lounge.

All that glitters…

From Klaus Wunderlich’s online biography:

Klaus released his first recording in 1958.  There followed more than 120 LPs, Cassettes and CDs over 40 years, with sales of more than 20 million copies worldwide.  Klaus received 13 gold discs and 1 gold cassette.

Who, in the history of recorded music, ever heard of anyone anywhere ever receiving a ‘gold cassette’? Is there any tragically 70s band that appeals to long-distance drivers who sold the requisite amount to be awarded a gold 8-track cartridge?

Just quietly, I reckon Klaus spraypainted his gold cassette himself!

Getting the Last Laugh


One day I noticed in the back room of Egg Records a big box full of – I don’t know – maybe a hundred different James Last records. I was impressed because I didn’t think there were a hundred different James Last records. There certainly doesn’t need to be a hundred different ones. Although I’ve never listened to even one James Last record, I’m certain they all are of the same ilk of ‘muzak’, and so are interchangeable. The best thing about seeing so many of them in one place is being able to marvel at the kitsch cover art.

When pressed, my boss Ric admitted that not only had he acquired a hundred-odd James Last records, he had also ended up with an equal amount of James Last CDs. “But I didn’t buy them,” he was at pains to assure me. He had certainly taken possession of them with a big collection that he had recently bought, but, he insisted, throughout the negotiation of the purchase, he was adamant that he didn’t want to buy any James Last records. And why would he buy them? He didn’t want them, they didn’t suit our shop, we surely couldn’t expect customers to buy them from us. But the seller was just as adamant: he wouldn’t sell his collection unless Ric bought the James Last records and CDs as part of it. “I’d already decided the amount I’d offer him for the collection,” Ric explained. “Then, I thought, if he makes me take the James Last stuff, I’d actually offer him less than if he agreed to keep them himself. So in the end, he lost money by making me take it.”

Fantastic. Although he didn’t know it, some guy had effectively paid us a wad of cash to get rid of his James Last collection.

But who has the last laugh here?

Egg Records is a pretty cool shop. Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, like members of Spiritualized when they were in Sydney, shopped at Egg Records and raved about the store. Do we want to be a shop full of James Last records and CDs? Which musicians would rave about us then? Richard Clayderman, maybe. Klaus Wunderlich, if he hadn’t passed away.

I know ‘easy listening’ and ‘muzak’ have a place in society, particularly since ‘cocktail music’ was exonerated and rehabilitated a little while back. Even Albert Einstein argued that the uninitiated should listen to Mantovani’s schmaltzy renditions of classical music in order to prepare for giving the real thing a go. Perhaps one day DJs will flock to op shops to locate James Last, as they do to locate copies of moog albums and field recordings of peoples indigenous to third-world countries, in order to base dance grooves upon them. If so, we should hold on to these records until a time that they’re worth twenty bucks each. However, forgetting for a moment that we have recourse to intellectual discourse and instead taking musical appreciation back to first principles in order to appraise it with the passion and raw emotion that, for most music lovers, hooked us onto it in the first place, the question remains:

What on earth could we do with this shit?

I suggested we put them up on the wall and charge customers a buck for three darts, to chuck at them, maybe with prizes for the best shots.

The problem with this is, obviously, the charging of a buck for what must be every music-lover’s inaliable right: to chuck pointy projectiles at effigies of James Last. Besides which, there’d always be one moron who’d have someone’s eye out, and it would all end in tears.

Ric came up with a better idea: suspending black markers from the ceiling, and mounting a bunch of covers as a wall disply, customers are invited to deface the covers as they see fit. Once the selection has been defaced, they will be replaced with a fresh batch. How cool is that!

For a closer look at the covers that came out slightly less blurred when snapped in a hurry during the dead period shortly before closing on a dull day, click here. (If I can be bothered, I’ll have another go during another lull in the working day. Or not.)