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Day of the Tripods

In the lead-up to a radio interview with Tripod, I publish a couple of print interviews I did with them for Revolver all those years ago. The more recent one was with Yon, in honour of the re-packaging of their album Open Slather which was being tarted up with new artwork and the inclusion of a Christmas song, for Festive Season re-release. For some reason, Yon didn’t trust me, despite my having been for some years a ‘dedicated comedy journalist’ – the description with which Wil Anderson used to like to introduce me to other comics, relieved that I wasn’t yet another incarnation of the ‘fishing editor’ sent by most publications that a) didn’t have anyone who really knew about comedy on the staff and b) thought that anybody could handle banging out an article about comedy. Yon wanted to look at the article before it went to print, and I think it was because I had admitted that I would do my best to place Tripod and their album into the bigger context (after all, I was a ‘dedicated comedy journalist’). I think he thought that by ‘bigger context’, I meant that I’d merely compare Tripod to the Doug Anthony Allstars – something that used to happen a lot when Tripod were starting out, and happens a lot less now that every man and his musical mutt is compared to Tripod. All I meant was that I’d be comedy train-spotter when I came across familiar names like Craig Harnath (friend to the D-Generation who wrote music for things like Funky Squad and Ross Cockle (who had, admittedly, worked with the Allstars on their album DAAS Ikon, but had also worked with many Melbourne musical acts, both comedic and serious).
I can’t quite remember what year this came out originally, but when I find out I’ll change this last line of introduction (and may even add a title!) I should also add that since
Revolver was a Sydney-based publication, I was writing from a Sydney-centric (and, at the time, Tripod-deprived) position.

Open Slather on Tripod and their Open Slather

Yon, Scod and Gatesy – the trio of jovial jongleurs known collectively as ‘Tripod’ – have been doing the three-part vocal harmony-and-a-guitar comedy thing for a few years now. However, ignorance of this fact, though unforgivable, would be understandable: the odd special appearance on Good News Week notwithstanding, Tripod just haven’t spent much stage time Sydney-side. In more recent times, the band has been brought forward in our comedic consciousness through their almost live album, Open Slather and their regular Tuesday arvo ‘musical challenges’ for Merrick & Rosso.

“Merrick & Rosso used to get Peter Helliar to do challenges,” Yon explains. “He’d have to run around South Bank in his undies, things like that.” It’s fair to say that Tripod does the musical equivalent of running around in their undies for Merrick & Rosso: given a contentious topic, they come up with a song about it in an hour. How difficult is it to do? “There’s been a couple of shit ones,” Yon admits. “I guess that’s the best way to describe the hardest ones.”

It isn’t the music that proves so challenging: the difficulty for Tripod lies in the subject matter. “We’re pretty crap at the topical stuff,” Yon explains. “We have a lot of material that basically reinforces how little we know about the world.” By the end of Tripod’s stint on Triple J this year, Merrick & Rosso realised that they needed to explain the context of the topical references within the challenges set in order for the songs to eventuate. To illustrate his point, Yon references Tripod’s last appearance on the show. Their challenge was to sing about “Ping Ping the panda… or polar bear… or something…”

While Triple J has been great for giving Tripod a profile above and beyond their regular stomping ground, it has also proved to be a bit of an unfair tease for interstate fans. Thus, the new-ish album, Open Slather, comes as a treat, since the next best thing to seeing Tripod live is listening to recordings of the same. According to Yon, Open Slather came about purely because it had been so long since Tripod had ‘released’ their one and only previous CD. Recorded “years and years ago”, prior to Tripod evolving into a comedy act, this first disc had a limited pressing of five hundred copies that eventually sold out, purely through flogging at gigs. “It had some serious songs and some wacky songs on it,” Yon explains, “but not songs that were trying to be ‘comedy’, necessarily.” It will not see re-release because, according to Yon, it is “so unrepresentative” of what Tripod are about. Despite containing the “cute” song about the Ponds Institute, Yon reckons that anyone hearing the disc now would think, “what the f***?!”

When it was decided, earlier this year, that it was high time for the band to commit some of its material to posterity, the initial idea was to “do justice” to the songs by recording them in a studio. Additional instrumentation would be used to parody whichever genres the songs happened to be taking off. However, faced with “far too big an undertaking” that such a project would entail, and also with the realisation that the songs “almost stop being funny when they sound too good,” it was instead decided to tape four performances over a series of Saturdays in April. The result: “heaps and heaps” of material, the selection of which was made easier by limiting choice to only the songs that were performed “well enough”. “If you listen to it with musical ears,” Yon confesses, “you’ll find it pretty imperfect.” Because ‘Open Slather’ represents a ‘greatest hits live’, the recordings are very ‘balls-and-all’. “Even if we did a really crap version of some songs, they had to go on.”

By August, Tripod was selling the CD at gigs and via their website. However, desiring a suitable single for Festive Season release, it was decided to re-package the album with a specially recorded studio version of ‘I Hate Your Family’, a song that suitably laments spending Christmas with your partner’s family. “It’s a full, Meatloaf-sounding production,” Yon reports, listing an all-star cast of collaborators that includes Ross Cockle (responsible for, amongst many other things, the Doug Anthony Allstars’ DAAS Icon – nuff said!), and Craig Harnath (friend of the D-Gen and hence soundtrack provider for Bargearse and Funky Squad). Session musicians also included “the drummer from Boom Crash Opera” and “the keyboardist from… it escapes me, but someone famous from the 80s.”

Poking fun at the CD format, the refurbished Open Slather album (now subtitled Special Christmas Edition and bearing a reindeer on the cover) opens with ‘I Hate Your Family’. The original Open Slather material follows as ‘secret bonus tracks’. After the ‘live album’, which easily contains the funniest material on the disc – songs like ‘Cuckold’ , ‘Stalk’, ‘2nd Drawer Down’ and ‘Apparently’ – the disc closes with ‘extra-secret bonus bonus tracks’: a DVD-style ‘composers’ commentary’ audio track of the studio-recorded song, as well as a censored version of the same. “It’s good to be in shops around the country,” Yon says, “because when we tour people ask us if we have a CD. So next time we tour, we’ll have it with us as well.”

Excellent. Got the CD. Now just tour here, dammit!

This earlier piece was written for the 1998 Sydney Comedy Festival (yep, there was a time when Sydney actually had comedy festivals – twice.) 1998 was a time when you could still talk to Tripod about the Doug Anthony Allstars and their appearance on Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, two topics now not so much forbidden but just terminally uncool. Which is ironic, not because of the obviousness of the three-part-harmony-and-guitar comparison, but the fact that SkitHouse is produced by Rove McManus, whom, for want of a genuine media patsy, is the person most often dubbed today’s Daryl Somers because Rove [Live] most resembles Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Sigh. There’s just no pleasing some critics. In my defence I would like to point out that I brought up both topics in a way that took the mickey out of trainspotters like myself, and that dreaded Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Because at that time, Hey Hey It’s Saturday was a lumbering behemoth of an out-dated show, taking up valuable broadcasting space that could have been dedicated to fresher, more vital talent. Little did we know that Australian broadcasting was soon to be overtaken by the scourge of taste and talent, ‘reality’ television. Mark my words, the time will come when Hey Hey It’s Saturday will be looked back upon fondly and favourably, exonerated as ground-breaking, filling a void, providing a valuable service and, at the very least, much less crap than any ‘reality’ program you care to mention. Just wait and see.

Standing on their own Three Feet

“Basically, Tripod is the three of us taken out of our showers, clothed and put on stage, if that makes any sense at all,” explains Scod, the guitar-playing third of this musical comedy act that, two weeks ago, I’d never heard of. One telephone interview and a Hey Hey It’s Saturday Gonged But Not Forgotten special later and I’m prepared to tip them as the ‘find’ of the Sydney Comedy Festival. Although Hey Hey It’s Saturday would probably claim that they discovered Tripod. Perhaps that line in the film The Castle is true: perhaps the only thing better than Hey Hey It’s Saturday is The Best Of Hey Hey It’s Saturday. Although I doubt it. One thing’s for sure, it probably won’t be very long before everyone who ever impinged upon Tripod, even only slightly, will want to be known for playing a part in their success. So consider this my contribution because I know I’ll be referring back to it in the not-too-distant future.

Scod, Yon and Gatesy. Their names say it all. Melbourne’s piss-take equivalent of a hard-rockin’ inner-city punk band, is what I’m thinking: the Hard-Ons inverted. Which would make them the Soft-Ons. Fair comment, too, considering Tripod’s origins. According to Scod, Tripod came together some three years ago through “– oh, what’s the best way to put it? ‘A mutual love of music’ would be a really dodgy way.”

Before they became Tripod, indeed, before all three of them had met, they all managed, in Scod’s words, to “not pass degrees together”. Scod failed to pass his Graphic Design course at Monash Caulfield (a newly-amalgamated campus which, according to Scod, “was just getting over being called ‘Chisholm Tech’”), Yon went the way of many an Arts Undergraduate, at Monash, and Gatesy, likewise, at La Trobe. Gatesy, “a local pop star, at least within his own loungeroom”, played in a band with Yon. Scod and Yon encountered one another thereafter in a Theatre Production course at the Victorian College of Arts (which they both went on to successfully complete).

“Yonnie and I were in Man of La Mancha together,” Scod says, “which was pretty exiting at the time: I had one line and kept forgetting what it was. And Yonnie played an old innkeeper, a role which he is very famous for among certain circles.”

Scod will maintain the Tripod was purely a covers band to begin with. They went busking with a clutch of pop songs by the likes of Queen, David Bowie, Beach Boys, Joe Jackson and Michael Jackson, as well as James Bond themes, and delivered them in three-part harmony with Scod on guitar and Yon “getting out the trumpet every now and again – but you’d always see it on the front page of the papers the next day so now we kind of try and avoid it”. Naturally, Scod reports, “people laughed at us more than danced to us, just because we had a certain sort fun way of doing those songs. People weren’t really used to hearing pop done as three-part vocal harmony.”

Tripod’s philosophy, from the beginning, has been to “just have fun playing music”. It is as a result of that fun, according to Scod, that has led to this covers band being considered a comedy act. That, and the fact that they’re funny.

When developing material for the show, Scod claims that the “hard bit” is being able to “come up with something funny”. The arranging of the harmonies, something Tripod has been doing for ages, is in comparison, a piece of piss. I take issue with this. I mean, consider a Beach Boys classic, for example. A wall of sound that took a room full of musicians about a million edits over a month in order to arrive at a decent few minutes of musical masterpiece. The harmonies have been overdubbed several hundred times. Converting this into a vehicle for three voices, a guitar and an occasional trumpet is a mere doddle? Surely not! But Scod has the answer:

“Imagine if you were singing, say, ‘Good Vibrations’ in the shower. You would manage to translate it into a way of singing that was fun for you and kind of worked for the song. It’s a matter of ‘what’s the first bit? What’s the thing you most remember about the song? What’s the thing that strikes you about it that you’d want to translate and get across?’ That’s the starting point. You can sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to yourself cooking your dinner; you hear the wall of sound in that final produced single but you are able to translate it vocally. That’s the thing that we humans can do because that’s how we relate to music. Or something.”

I can see what he’s getting at: when you sing along to a song, you sing along to the bits that stand out for you, like that scene in Wayne’s World, where they sing along to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the car. Sometimes you may even choose to sing along with the lead guitar riff.

“Which is something we often do in our show,” Scod concurs. “We love singing a good air guitar part.”

Apart from the actual songs, humour is present in the between-song banter. These sketches – “well, not quite ‘sketches’; it’s just the way we relate to each other when we’re not singing” – have developed over the last two years to now be a big part of the show and of the group. “We are really developing a rapport with each other and the audience. People sort of get to see our relationships with each other and so forth. Sounds a bit Sons and Daughters doesn’t it? That’s not the right way to put it. Yeah, we certainly ‘play’ in ways other than playing music. For sure.”

The word ‘inspirations’, while not exactly being offensive, does have the potential of causing discomfort. I look at a three-piece comedy act with three-part harmonies and a guitar and my mind runs through the entire gamut of comparisons, from A to B. While Tripod should be allowed to stand alone, or at least on their own – ahem – three legs, comparisons to the Doug Anthony Allstars (who similarly, began as purely a musical group, the punk band Forbidden Mule), the Three Canadians and Corky and the Juicepigs are all too easy to make.

However, because Tripod began as a band, Scod claims that they were never really “driven” by seeing comedy acts. “For inspirations,” he admits, “I’d have to say Chris DeBurgh, Freddy Mercury, Brian May, Brian Wilson. Those are the main inspirations, Prince being another huge one. And people who come and see us will of course realise that the sexual energy is from any Prince live show. It’s stunning!”

Talk of the Prince song, ‘Sexy MF’, ensues, with Scod concluding that, in his opinion, Prince is not only one of the greatest musicians but also “one of the greatest comedy writers” of all time.

There are of course comedy acts that Tripod “absolutely love”, and the list does include Lano and Woodley as well as “the obvious one”, the Doug Anthony Allstars. But Scod maintains that Tripod were never “directly inspired” by the Allstars. However, he does add that “if the Allstars and the Wiggles had an illicit tryst, Tripod would be their offspring.”

“Oh, what a revolting thought,” I offer.

“Isn’t it though,” Scod agrees.

As well as heavenly harmonies of pure pop and the creative comedy of between-song banter, Tripod offer a vein of nostalgia within their material: “A lot of stuff about when we were growing up, our childhood and our school experiences and the fun we used to have”. Scod notes that people “really relate” to that kind of thing, although he’s not sure why. “I guess we’re all just children of the 80s and missing those knickerbockers and hairdos,” he suggests.

“And the lycra,” I offer.

“And the lycra,” Scod concurs. “Yeah well, you know, when the Duran Duran world tour comes back I think we’re gonna go for a support slot on that one.”

“And if Prince comes back?”

“We thought we’d be his dancers, if Prince comes back. He doesn’t need that ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ business, he can just get Tripod.”

Tripod dancing for Prince begs the important question, “can you guys dance?”

Scod’s answer: “We do dance. A big part of our show is the ‘movement’ dimension of it. But ‘dancing’ is a very generous term; some people call it ‘choreography’ but a better word for it is… ‘actions’.”

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