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.
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.
“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,
The Beatles broke up and Elvis died.
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.