The Burning is a (relatively) new play by Australian playwright Duncan Ley, inspired by 17th Century witch hunts in Germany. I will write more extensively about this later; for now, here’s a downloadable interview with director Ray Frankel. It features very graphic descriptions of the torture process; don’t say I didn’t warn you! The play opens tonight (June 18th) and runs until July 2nd at the Zenith Theatre in Chatswood. And it’s only twenty bucks. There is a $17 concession but I don’t think anyone who’s young enough to qualify for it should be allowed in the theatre, judging by the excerpts that accompany the interview.
I never was a big Def FX fan, despite having a friend who was obsessed with them, mainly because I had repeated run-ins with one of their members on the 138 bus home from school most afternoons. That wasn’t the stunning Fiona Horne, of course, but a different bandmember. If Fiona wanted to terrorise me as part of her pre-fame daily high school routine, I would have let her!
Having an obsessive friend into Def FX and having been firmly entrenched in student media at a time when Def FX were recording and releasing popular music meant that I have had a bit to do with them interview-wise; I published a couple of interviews that I didn’t conduct in 1994, and one that I did conduct in 1995. This latest opportunity to interview Fiona comes couresy of FilmInk, hence the run of film- and television-related questions at the end. I hope to have another chat with Fiona when she’s out here, for radio, when I can bung in a few Def FX recordings as well.
Demetrius Romeo: When you were a musician, had you discovered ‘wicca’ as yet?
FIONA HORNE: I’d had an interest in it since I was seventeen years old. I never talked about it openly while I was in the band, but the song lyrics I wrote definitely reflected my esoteric interests.
Demetrius Romeo: Can you give me an example of a song?
FIONA HORNE: ‘Spiral Dance’ was one of the songs on the very first EP, the Water EP. ‘Spiral Dance’ – “The wise witch wove her dream, spinning cold ropes of silver that wound round the trees” – that song was about a dream that I had after doing a very long mediation to do with my witchcraft. The lyrics, if you read them – and I actually published them in my first book in Australia, Witch — A Personal Journey – went “in the room at the back of the house, the walls are soft and pulsing, wet and cool, magic wells up inside of me until it overflows, cascading down my cheeks. Starry-eyed, I’m spinning slowly a spiral dance.”
At the time when I wrote that song, I didn’t know that the term ‘spiral dance’ was a very magical term that’s used by initiated witches to describe the dance of spirits through the heavens and the energy that conjured during spell-casting when we create a cone of power to fuel our spells. It’s like an energy vortex, I guess, which we’d create using our mind’s eye, our will and our intent to fuel our goals into fruition magically. It’s called the ‘spiral dance’, and I didn’t realise that. So I was tapping into some kind of universal collective consciousness – or unconscious – to be able to write that song.
If you look through the lyrics of Def FX you’ll see that often there are esoteric references to tehm and there’s also a profound love and appreciation for nature expressed through the lyrics that I wrote, like ‘Under the Blue’, many others. But really, the most overt that I ever was about it in my songwriting was when Def FX did the Majick album which was our last one, where I was very open with songs like ‘Spell On You’, ‘I’ll Be Your Majick’ and so on.
Demetrius Romeo: From what you’re saying, it sounds as if the power was reaching out to you before you reached out for it.
FIONA HORNE: I was open to it, but I was tapping into some kind of resonance, I guess.
Demetrius Romeo: To the uninitiated — like me, for example, because I had a very religious up-bringing — my response would be, ‘don’t mess with what you don’t understand’. There might be something out there, but it’s got to be evil. Apart from that sort response, there’d be people who didn’t want to know about it, or could only relate to fictional accounts as presented by popular culture. So what’s it like for you, working with witchcraft?
FIONA HORNE: Well, I was brought up Catholic, and I think that one of the greatest fictional works ever written is The Bible, so I’m very used to being brought up to find great meaning and profound truths in fiction, or in other people’s interpretations of events, which is what The Bible is; it’s been re-edited and re-constructed so many times over the thousand or so years it’s existed.
I always think that what appealed to me in witchcraft are some of the most profoundly spiritual experiences I had as a young child being brought up Catholic, were when I was alone growing up in the Australian bush. I live in Illawong, which was a suburb of Sydney. Now it’s full of houses and shopping centres and things, but in my day there were two houses on the whole peninsula of land and it was a very remote suburb and very beautiful, and I used to go out and play in the bush. We didn’t have Nintendo then, and we weren’t allowed to watch television, and it was really in the bush that I found a great sense of ‘magic’ in the world, so to speak. And so when I looked into witchcraft in my teens and realised that at its core it was pagan – ‘pagan’ meaning ‘to honour nature is sacred’ – and also that it places great reverence and respect for the goddess, the feminine principle of divinity, that was something that appealed to me a lot, because I’d been interested in Eastern religions like the Hindu religion which has a lot of goddess figures in it. And so for me, embarking upon this path of learning of my spirituality was very much a spiritual pursuit as much as it was researching spiritualities and expressions of spirituality from other cultures, as much as the practical experience of being outside and realizing that heaven is right here on this beautiful earth. It’s not up in the sky, out of our reach, and it’s not ruled by a man on a throne, or whatever, which is what my image of God was as a child.
I think one of the most profound privileges that people so often overlook in life is life itself, and that really is what my witchcraft is for me – it’s a way of exploring, through ritual and mythology and practical experience, the profound privilege it is to be alive.
Demetrius Romeo: Now when you put it that way, it just sounds like a commonsense philosophy.
FIONA HORNE: It is! It is very ‘common sense’; it makes a lot more sense than my Catholic upbringing! A lot!
Demetrius Romeo: What I mean is there are those overtones of… you know, casting spells, having control over people, being able to change things…
- FIONA HORNE: Well there are three laws of witchcraft, which are:
- Do what you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else;
- Do what you want, as long as you don’t interfere with another’s free will;
- As you send out, so returns threefold.
– so, as you can see, you don’t control people – and
So you have to be aware, as Jesus said, that as you sow, so shall you reap.
Demetrius Romeo: How does it make itself apparent in your everyday life?
FIONA HORNE: Different witches practice differently. Having now practiced consciously with a degree of discipline for at least the last thirteen or fourteen years – or, at least being out of the broom closet for the last seven or eight years since I published my book – in my own personal time, the ritual and work that I do could be as simple as lighting a candle and meditating in the morning; taking the time as I did last night to watch the full moon rise; saying a prayer of gratitude and thanks to the goddess, to life itself, to this amazing wonderful world; to reading Tarot cards for a girlfriend who’s maybe having trouble making decisions regarding a guy she’s dating, whether she should date him or not — I’ll do a reading for her. After a while the craft permeates every facet of your life. It becomes who you are, not what you do. That’s what’s so lovely about it as well, because it really affects the individual. The individual expression of the craft is essential. There’s no one book written; there are basic laws as I described earlier and there is some structure, but you’re really encouraged to express your craft yourself, so it becomes really meaningful to the individual or to the coven or group that works together. I think it’s quite lovely, because I know, when I was growing up, that I felt quite powerless, in a sense, or very cut off and shut off from spirituality a lot in that you were told when to sit, when to stand, when to kneel, what to say. Somebody else made it all up. Whereas, in witchcraft, you’re encouraged to put your own stamp on it.
Demetrius Romeo: Where in the US are you at the moment?
FIONA HORNE: I live in Los Angeles.
Demetrius Romeo: Is it hard to stay in touch with nature when you’re in LA?
FIONA HORNE: No, nature’s everywhere. In my garden I have five birds; they’re all friends of mine. I have my two doves, my two mocking birds, my two blue jays. That’s six! Gosh, that’s right. And there was one squirrel, but now there’s five running around the house like crazy. There’s nature everywhere here. I mean, honestly, my other apartment, I was up above the Hollywood Bowl area; there was a deer in my street! The funny thing about LA is that everyone who hasn’t lived here thinks that it’s this sprawling mass of cement, but there is a lot of beauty and nature here. Sometimes it’s even more lovely and beautiful for the fact that it’s in the middle of this big city.
Demetrius Romeo: That’s amazing, because I always read that you can’t get around LA without a car, so in my head it was just a series of concrete overpasses… but then, when I think about it, the big ‘Hollywood’ sign is on the side of a mountain with woods.
FIONA HORNE: You know, you can drive for five minutes at the top of Beechwood Canyon and just disappear into the wilderness and you can’t even hear the city below, and there are signs saying ‘watch out for rattlesnakes and mountain lions’. I think that LA, because it’s the home of Hollywood, it has this great kind of myth around it. And it is a tough city – gosh, it makes you pay your dues when you first come here; it tests you over and over and over again! But if you just stay focused… You know, you do have to take that time. I think the great thing about Los Angeleans is that they go hiking; they go to the beach; they search out nature and they search out ways to commune with it. We’re very spoilt in Australia because we’re kind of just surrounded by it. Here, you do have to hunt it out a bit. But there’s some of the loveliest land and energy that I’ve experienced anywhere in the world here.
Demetrius Romeo: What took you to LA in the first place?
FIONA HORNE: Well, my first two books that were released in Australia, Witch – A Personal Journey and Witch – A Magical Year were edited together and published by Harper Collins in 2001 and that book did very well for me here. I was able to do quite an elaborate tour with book signings and guest appearances on television and radio. My band Def FX had toured here in the mid-90s and I’d always wanted to come back to America, so I decided to move over here and try my luck and test my skills as a television presenter and actor in this town and things are going well. Really well. And my books are still doing very well. I just did a huge new book deal with Simon & Schuster out of New York, which I’m really excited about because the publishing industry’s really tough at the moment. But I’ve just done a brand new deal – probably the best deal I’ve ever done, eight years into my publishing career, which is very exciting. We’re just signing the contracts now. It’ll be published next year.
I’m coming to Australia just to be there. I get so many e-mails and so many hits on my website from Australia and I still consider Australia as a very important part of my life, even though I’m a full-time resident of America now. It was just a wonderful opportunity to come back for a lecture tour.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you still do any music at all?
FIONA HORNE: Not really. Just for fun, not for work.
Demetrius Romeo: And you have a couple of films in post-production.
FIONA HORNE: I completed a film this year, and a film last year. Last year’s film is called Unbeatable Harold, and I had a featured cameo, I guess, playing Henry Winkler’s girlfriend. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s kind of fantasy love story. The main character is a guy, Harold played by the actor Gordon Michaels and it’s adapted from a stage play that he did in New York. Henry has a kind of featured cameo in it as his boss, and I’m one of his floozies. It’s all a kind of fantastical, exaggerated love story/romantic comedy. My first day on set, I was doing a dance routine with the Fonze! That totally spun me out.
Demetrius Romeo: Did you have a crush on the Fonze when you were a kid?
FIONA HORNE: Well, I think every girl did, yeah! Obviously, he’s older now, but Henry’s so charming and loving. His wife made cake and he brought it on the set. He put out cake, he brought lollies, for everyone. He’s very lovely and really accommodating for inexperienced actors like myself. He’s really encouraging and lovely. It was a wonderful experience.
We wrapped that in September/October of last year and it’s coming out later this year, quite possibly early next year.
And then I did, at the start of this year, I was asked to play pretty much a lead role in the film Cult. I play Professor Dianne Estabrook. It’s a horror film, and horror films are huge at the moment. It’s a massive genre. They’re rushing that for release this year. It also stars Taryn Manning and Rachel Miner.
Demetrius Romeo: What was it like, having a major role in a big film?
FIONA HORNE: It’s a bit unnerving, actually, because on the second day of filming, I get attacked. I had to be stabbed in the back and then in the eye. I had the special effects and stunt guy showing me how to collapse after an attack. It was really quite confronting because the blood looked really real and you’re in character, and you’re supposed to be on the verge of dying. You really internalise that.
There were other funny moments, like when I was lying wounded on the floor, and it’s three in the morning and I’d been lying there for a while, and there are other dead bodies around me and this and that, and I’m incredibly tired because there’s been some really long nights of shooting, and I hear off in the distance, “FIONA! FIONA!” And I open my eyes and… I’d actually fallen asleep! They all thought I was acting really well, lying there as if I was dead, and I was fast asleep. That was really funny: three o’clock in the morning on the floor of a Chinese restaurant, asleep.
One thing I enjoy about acting is that you get to live vicariously through your characters – there are things that Diane would do that I would never do, and I got to do them as her. I really like that about acting. You have this excuse to do whatever your character would do, whatever the script tells you to do, and I really enjoy that a lot. I enjoy acting very much.
And I also did a SCUBA movie. I work a lot for PADI, the Professional Academy of Diving Instructors. I’ve been a SCUBA diver for fourteen years now and I make a lot of appearances in their instructional videos for teaching SCUBA around the world, as well as voice-overs for those videos and radio ads for them, and I’ve just done an ‘introduction to SCUBA diving’ film which is just being edited. So I’ve been acting topside and below the water.
Demetrius Romeo: And so you’re experiencing your witchcraft – your appreciation of nature – on land and in the sea.
FIONA HORNE: It’s a big part of my spirituality, my SCUBA diving. Some of my most spiritual and magical moments are definitely underwater.
Demetrius Romeo: When you sit down to enjoy television or film, what do you sit down to?
FIONA HORNE: I recently got Vera Drake; that was amazing. I like things that are either nature documentaries or things that are intellectually stimulating. I’d sooner get those than fantasy or sci-fi, funnily enough. I don’t draw the line too much… for me, if I’m having a night at home and I want to get a couple of movies just for myself to watch, I’ll get ones that no one else will sit with me and watch, like Vera Drake, or maybe something about the great whites off the coast of Africa – a National Geographic documentary or something.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you go out to the movies much?
FIONA HORNE: I do sometimes. It’s fun to go out to the movies here, everyone makes such a big deal about it. And I tend to see… well I went and saw Saw the horror film my friend Leigh [Whannell] – whom I knew years ago when he did movie reports on ‘Recovery’ – and his friend James [Wan] made last year, that created a huge splash here. I was one of the first people to go and see it, that was very exciting. I was on a book tour in New York and I went to a cinema on Forty-Third Street because I had spoken to Leigh during the day and he’d said, “it’s premiering today and I’m really nervous,” and I said, “I’ll go and see it”. Forty-Third Street was around the corner from the hotel I was at. But even though I’d bought a ticket at four o’clock in the afternoon for the nine o’clock session, I still had to sit on the stairs to watch the bloody movie — they were turning people away. It just exploded here. It was so cool that James and Leigh, two blokes from Melbourne, had this massive hit on their hands
I really like taking myself off to the movies. I take myself out on dates. I’ll take myself to dinner and a movie and then shopping at Borders Books afterwards.
Demetrius Romeo: I find it hard to believe there wouldn’t be any number of people willing to do that for you.
FIONA HORNE: Oh, no, LA’s really bad for stuff like that. My girlfriends and I are all resolutely single and guys are really sleazy and awful over here, pretty much. I’m so busy and my work involves dealing with so many people whether it’s here or in Australia or wherever, that I like to spend some time on my own. There’s a great area here called The Grove and it has a great cinema complex and it has great boutique shops, a great Borders Books and really nice restaurants. It’s hard in LA to find somewhere where you can just walk around, and at this place you can just walk around so it’s a great afternoon where you can just relax.
Demetrius Romeo: It sounds like a little King Street, Newtown in LA.
FIONA HORNE: It’s more like an Italian Piazza – there’s even a singing fountain in there.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you buy many DVDs?
Demetrius Romeo: When you watch them are you just into the film or do you get into all the bonus features?
FIONA HORNE: I watch the ‘process’ as well as the film. I watch all the extra stuff and the interviews. I got the Reservoir Dogs special edition with interviews with Quentin Tarantino and everything because, as I’ve been acting more, I like learning about the process. I also did a two-day guerilla filmmaking course just to get an insight into the process of filmmaking so that as an actor, I can understand everyone’s roles better. I think that it’s really worthwhile doing that because you realise how worthwhile the grips are, how the director of cinematography is probably more important, in some regards, than the director himself. You just understand the roles and how everyone pitches in. There are so many unsung heroes in the process of filmmaking; there are people whose roles are so essential but the audience doesn’t even know.
Demetrius Romeo: Television doesn’t seem to play a big role in your life at the moment.
FIONA HORNE: I’ve had more work on television than anything else. I hosted a show here last year and I was on billboards all over the country. Work-wise, I do a lot of TV. But I’m not the kind of person who comes home and switches on the telly unless there’s a particular show or movie I want to watch.
Demetrius Romeo: Is there no series that you’re addicted to?
FIONA HORNE: Well, Lost is one that I like. But often, my schedule is so hectic so I don’t watch those things because I don’t want to be tied to the TV screen. But if there’s a good special on National Geographic or Discovery, I’ll watch it. I’ve enjoyed watching Medium over here, that’s been pretty big. I enjoy watching Charmed sometimes.
Demetrius Romeo: How do you feel about shows like Charmed and Buffy?
FIONA HORNE: I’ve never watched either of them that much, but particularly with Charmed, people say, “what do you think of it? Do you find it offensive?” or something silly, and I say, “well, it’s not a documentary on witchcraft, it’s entertainment!” So it’s great. The girls look hot, the story lines are hilarious and it’s a great piece of TV. It’s a Spelling television show, you know. It’s great mindless entertainment.
This is about the millionth interview I’ve done with Wil Anderson over the years, but the first I’ve ever done for radio, so, to be honest, I asked him questions to which I pretty much knew the answers, for the benefit of the listening audience who may not be familiar with him as a stand-up comic.
Wil is arguably the best stand-up comic on the Aussie circuit, although he’d tell you that Dave Hughes deserves that title. That Ross Noble currently spends much of his year Downunder may be cause for re-appraisal, and it would be folly not to acknowledge the likes of Tommy Dean, Tom Gleeson, Adam Hills, Subby Valentine and any number of other contenders who will curse me for not receiving a mention here when they read this.
Anyway, watching Wil Anderson live, and certainly reading his weekly column in whichever colour supplement of a Sunday paper it appears, I’m taken back to my misspent youth as a Doug Anthony Allstars fan, when to see them live or on telly usually meant that, whatever the (often contentious) topic of humour, we were likely to hear the entire gamut of gag about it — from intellectual humour to cheap and nasty vulgarity — all the while keeping it hilarious.
This interview went to air prior to Sydney dates about a month ago (the tour continues) and opened with some live stand-up taped at Sydney’s Comedy Store by Jesse Perez of RadioWise; I am grateful to Jesse, Radiowise and Wil Anderson for allowing me to use it as part of the broadcast.
WIL ANDERSON (stand-up):
I accidentally stepped on our cat’s tail. Accidentally, okay? To which my girlfriend has said to me,
“Right, that’s it! We are never getting married or having babies! What if that had been our baby? You would be the worst father in the world.”
And that's when I snapped. I went, “No, you would be the worst mother in the world, because you left out baby on the floor!”
Demetrius Romeo: Now Wil, why did you give up breakfast radio?
WIL ANDERSON: Because I’m a stand-up comedian, and I think that breakfast radio is the enemy of stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy is night time work. It’s very hard to walk of stage at eleven-thirty or twelve o’clock at night, then try to chill out for a while so that you can actually sleep and then get up at four o’clock in the morning.
I mean, stand-up comedy is what I do. I’ve always said that stand-up’s my one true love and I just see TV and radio behind its back, but I looked around the world and I just couldn’t see one world-class comedian who had a five-day-a-week radio job so I thought that if I am genuine about wanting to be a world-class comedian, then I obviously have to do that more fulltime.
Demetrius Romeo: During all that time that you were hosting breakfast radio and hosting The Glass House on television, you were doing a major one-man stand-up tour a year and you were touring it to all the festivals. They all had distinctive names like Wilennium, Wil By Mouth, Who Want’s To Be A Wilionaire, View To A Wil… Why do all the titles of your shows turn on puns that involve your name?
WIL ANDERSON: It’s a long story. Look, there’s two reasons to it. One is that originally when I started doing one-man shows, they were for the Melbourne Comedy Festival. They ask you to put a blurb in and the name of your show in December, and the Comedy Festival is in April. Now comedians are essentially those kids at school who didn’t do their assignments until the night before it was due, so no comedian in the world really knows what his show is going to be about in December for April. To be honest, nobody knows halfway through the comedy festival what their show is supposed to be about. I see comedians write shows to fit their blurb rather than write what they actually want to write about. The title of the show just meant, ‘look, it’s a new show’.
Why the puns? I was talking to an American comedian called Will Durst who’s an amazing American political satirist, and he was doing a show called The Durst Amendment. I came up to him afterwards and I said, “I love the show and I’ve just started doing comedy; do you have any advice for me?” And he said,
“Yeah; always do a show that has your name in the title and has a pun or a play on words and people will remember that.”
And I thought, “that’s great advice!”
So I went off and did I Am The Wilrus the next year. And then I was in Edinburgh in ’99 doing Wilennium and Will Durst was there, and I went up to him in the bar and said, “you gave me this great bit of advice and I’m here doing Wilennium” and he said,
“Yeah? Yeah, about that: I was just trying to get rid of you so that I could go to the bar.”
So pretty much the whole thing is predicated on a lie – a man trying to blow me off!
Demetrius Romeo: But it’s worked for you!
WIL ANDERSON: Well, people always ask about it. But I think it shouldn’t matter what your show is called or what it’s about, because if people are going to come and see my show based on what it’s about then I’m not doing my job properly. When Billy Connolly comes out, nobody goes, “oh, Billy Connolly’s out; what’s he talking about this year? I’ll decide whether I want to go based on that”. You’re going because you think that Billy Connolly is really funny and you think he’ll be really funny, whatever he talks about. So that’s what I want to get to. I want to get to the point where nobody cares what my show’s about. “Oh, Wil Anderson has a new show; that’s what I want to go and see.”
Demetrius Romeo: Okay, but there has been a time when the clever, punning title has been absolutely relevant to the material therein. Who Wants To Be A Wilionnaire? dealt with jobs and money. Wilennium dealt with what if it really is the last day on earth, what if the world does end with the changing of the millennium?
WIL ANDERSON: I think more so when I was newer at it because back then, again, you need to sell your show on something. There are a million young comedians who no one’s heard of doing shows, so the way you have to sell your show is if your idea is interesting. Then hopefully you get to a point where you outgrow that.
And also, it’s easier to do a show about something when you’re doing it for about a month because in a month, you can deal with how much the world changes. I tour this current show for nearly six months, so the world changes a lot and the things you talk about change a lot. If you write a show that is specifically about one thing and you don’t have any room in it for growth and to change it, a) you’re going to get bored senseless, but b) your show is going to seem incredibly dated; the show you wrote in November or December is going to be really dated when you’re doing it in June.
Demetrius Romeo: Sure. The show could change from night to night. You don’t want to set it in stone before you set off on your tour.
WIL ANDERSON: Oh, well the show does change from night to night. There wouldn’t be a night on the tour, and I’ve done this show probably — I don’t know; at a guess — sixty or seventy times already and there wouldn’t be one night that was the same. There wouldn’t be one night that was ninety-five percent the same as another night. I mean there are built-in improvisational parts of the show in that there is a bit that every night is an improvised bit along a formula, but there are just genuinely improvised parts of the show as well, so it is different every night.
Demetrius Romeo: At this stage of the tour, Wil Anderson, what is the show about?
WIL ANDERSON: Dom, I think it is a really interesting question. The best way to explain it, for me, is that I find people boring if they just have one area of interest. I find someone who only knows about Lord of the Rings boring. I find somebody who is only interested in sport boring. I find somebody who is only interested in politics boring. I’m attracted to people who have well-rounded interests and who could have a conversation about anything. I like those people who could have a conversation about the AFL ladder and then switch to Australia’s refugee policy without it feeling like you’re missing a beat. So I guess my shows are probably reflective of that as well. I talk about everything from the war to abortion to politics to sport and Shannon Noll and some stupid things that have happened in my life and that couple in Perth who advertised their baby’s name for sale on the internet and celebrities naming their kids stupid things and… It’s really one of those things where I would think it’s stuff you would discuss at a dinner party: everything from sex through to politics through to sport through to friendship. That, also, is what my show’s like.
Demetrius Romeo: Wil Anderson, thank you very much.
WIL ANDERSON: Thanks Dom!
- 1. The person (or persons) who passed the baton to you:
- Rory, whose work I stumbled onto while trying to locate a suitable Andrew Denton bio for a piece I wrote about an episode of Denton’s ‘conversation’ show (it goes much deeper than the traditionally superficial ‘chat show’ format) entitled Enough Rope.
I was reading one of his posts thinking ‘what a good idea; must do my version of that’ only to discover, when I’d read all the way to the bottom, that I was being challenged to do just that.
- 2. Total volume of music files on your computer:
- Let me start by saying that I don’t own an iPod, and as a rule, I don’t download song files. Coming from a rich tradition of music retail, and being a bit of a collector, I like having covers to pore over, artwork to fetish and sleevenotes to ingest. However, I seem to have 69.2 GB of stuff between my hard drive and my external hard drive. This will include all the interviews I’ve ever kept, and all of my music news segments that I’ve archived, as well as free downloads from fave band sites and the like. (Oh, all right, and stuff I’m ‘sampling’ in order to decide whether or not I want to actually buy it.) It’s actually not as impressive as it might sound. Certainly, if I ever did buy an iPod, very little of this stuff would find its way onto it.
- 3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought:
- This is so embarrassing. I do stuff on the radio, which includes a lot of interviewing musicians and comedians (and other arty-types) and I also present a weekly music news segment.
Okay so far.
In an ideal world, music labels would go, “you do a music news segment? Have a pile of free shit”. Some of them actually do this. However, most of them go, “you’re not a priority to us” and follow through with either shit-all or just shit. Mostly, I don’t mind. During good employment periods as a freelancer, I buy everything I want. It’s just during the lean period, when there seems to be much more ‘free’ than ‘lancing’, that I start getting a bit annoyed. When I worked in a ‘High Fidelity’-type secondhand and collectibles gorgeous young women called Annabelle from ‘promotions’ departments of magazines, television shows and music labels would off-load multiple copies of big, current release items for ready cash with which to buy social lubricants before the weekend, while I had to haggle for every little tax write-offable freebie from those same companies whose limited promotions budget ensure that I ‘was not a priority’. So I stopped haggling. If I’m not sent it, I grab it from the ABC Library.
Still with me?
The exception for the rule has to be charting singles. Since the music news segment I present ends with a quick top five singles and album chart run-down from the week’s ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Assocation) charts, if a new-release CD single has debuted in the top five, more often than not it won’t be in the library, so if I have enough shrapnel banging around in coin pockets I’ll whip out and buy a copy.
So. The last bunch of CDs I’ve bought have all been charting CD singles. They are:
- the Foo Fighters’ ‘Best Of You’ which debuted at number five this week (not too embarrassing);
- Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’, a kind of cheerleader chant that owes most of its existence to the opening bit of Toni Basil’s ‘Mickey’ and Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’, which debuted at number one last week;
- ‘Don’t Phunk With My Heart’ by The Black Eyed Peas, who debuted at number one with the single the week before Stefani, and who returned to number one this week after having spent a week at number two;
- the week before that I bought Will Smith’s single ‘Switch’ (debuting at number one that week — can you see the pattern that’s developing?); and
- the week before that I bought Snoop Dogg’s CD single ‘Signs’ (another big number one single).
- Now. Had I been presented with the baton more than five weeks ago, I was briefly cashed up enough to go suitably crazy after the bills had been paid. In one foolishly self-indulgent day I bought:
- From Us To You, a bootleg collection of live BBC recordings by the Beatles that contains enough (by my reckoning) songs not officially available on the Live at the BBC collection to be added to my collection;
- Elsewhere by Frank Zappa and the Mothers, a bootleg roughly from the Roxy and Elsewhere period band line-up, augmented with a couple of additional original Mothers, brought in for what was the rockin’ teen combo’s tenth anniversary (and featuring the same tracklisting as this with extra stuff bunged on; and
- Live ’n’ Rare, an official compilation of live recordings by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, from various performances that took place in England during the 70s.
- 4. Song playing at the moment of writing:
- ‘Have You Got A Biro I Can Borrow?’ by Pete Atkin, from the album Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, coupled on CD with Driving Through Mythical America by excellent reissue company See for Miles. The lyrics are written by my favourite ex-pat Aussie, Clive James, who first teamed up with Pete Atkin during their Footlights days at Cambridge University. On the CD cover the song is erroneously listed as ‘Have You Got A Bird I Can Borrow?’ which I reckon would make for a more interesting lyric.
- 5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all time favourites, particularly personally meaningful songs):
- Well, I'm gonna stick to five of a bigger bunch of ‘songs I've been listening to of late’ purely because I’m always finding new favourites.
- A song I guess might be called ‘Without You’ – it’s a duet between Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton, from the first episode of variety show In Melbourne Tonight to be shot at the Nine Network’s then-new Studio Nine (a converted Heinz food factory). Bert is brought on as a surprise guest and the polite Melbourne audience go about as apeshit as a polite Melbourne audience could go in 1957. I used it to end my music news segment as a tribute to Kennedy, who passed away this week. That episode of In Melbourne Tonight is one of the ‘special features’ on a DVD called Graham Kennedy – King of Television.
- Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take You Out’ – which won the Ivor Novello award for ‘Best Contemporary Song’ during the week. Pete Doherty, formerly of The Libertines and now of Baby Shambles dismissed it as essentially being the same riff as Ringo Starr’s ‘Back Off Boogaloo’ and I can’t believe I didn’t spot that myself.
- The Major Orchestral Works of Eugene Goossens. A review copy of the three-CD anthology of the composer’s work, sent by one of the labels for whom my music news segment actually is a priority!
- ‘Leave My Kitten Alone’ – A great song that the Beatles covered with John Lennon on lead vocals that finally saw the light of day courtesy of the Anthology series of CDs. But Elvis Costello and the Attractions also covered it during the Blood and Chocolate sessions (and Elvis had another go for his later covers album, Kojak Variety). That version with the Attractions finally saw the light of day with the re-re-issue of Blood & Chocolate, where it opens disc two, which I have been listening to a lot of late.
- ‘There I Was’, an ABBA pastiche that my brother Joe composed the music for, from a religious musical called Grunt (or, if he had taken my advice, Grunt If You Love Jesus; I still think they should have sold t-shirts — particularly tight-fitting little girlie t-shirts — with that emblazoned on the front!).
- 6. Five people to whom you will ‘pass the musical baton’:
- Gonna cheat a little bit again.
- My brother Joe, who will no doubt be deconstructing the musical signs of some other musician’s oeuvre in order to rebuild them around a new song of praise.
- Fritter, who is forever recommending yet another hitherto overlooked artist with enough background info to provide a suitable context.
- Nick O’Sullivan, to ensure he’s listening to a little more than just his baby daughter’s crying in the middle of the night.
- Emma Driver, who when not making fantastic music of her own, makes interesting discoveries of both musicians and comics, and enthusiastically shares her findings.
- Foe, who really ought to call, write or e-mail a little more frequently. Or at all, really.
- I know that’s my five, but I mention Suzanne as well, to whom I will not pass the baton; she will grab it and run with it unprompted.
I was pretty excited that Rove McManus was planning to do stand-up again. It’s been about five years since the last time, I’m guessing; Rove was about twenty-six then. Is the return to stand-up a reality-check brought about by the big three-oh? Well, I’m not likely to find out first hand, because I’m not likely to get an interview with Rove this time round. Not that he needs to do press to guarantee bums on seats.
So instead I’ve dug out this old interview, conducted for Revolver a few years back when Rove took the cast of Rove [Live] on the road for a show they called Rove [Live] Live.
At the time, Rove was the antidote for the sorry state of Australian television, at least as far as comedy was concerned. Little did we know that before long, without having a Daryl Somers to compare him to, people would start referring to Rove as the new Daryl Somers. Bastards. It’s just not true. Although, truth be told, Somers himself provided an important show. For a while. It’s just that Channel Nine never knows when to let go of a show (only when it’s doing good, evidently.) Anyway, when Graham Kennedy died, Rove went on the record proclaiming the King of Television’s greatness. I have no trouble putting my reputation (such as it is; and you can stop laughing) on the line and stating that subsequent to Kennedy, Rove is the one of this current television generation that comes close to being able to lay a claim to that crown. I said as much four years ago — much to Rove’s evident disdain — and I’m saying it again now.
And just for the record — whatever Rove’s show in its current prime time slot is perceived to lack that it may have had in its earlier incarnation in a later timeslot on another channel — like sketches and other silly shenanigans — is made up for by the fact that Roving Enterprises makes the show skitHouse. The sketches and other silly shenanigans have merely been bundled together in a stronger, separate package. Anyway, enough ranting. Read an old interview.
Oh, I guess I’d better link to some tour dates.
Everything’s Coming Up Rove
First published in Revolver December 4, 2000, according to this bastard website that has posted it without crediting me or linking to my blog.
Bert Newton, Daryl Somers and Andrew Denton now have something in common that goes beyond the fact that each has, at one time, been the funniest television personality ever to entertain Australian prime time audiences. It is this: they have all bantered with Rove McManus on his show, Rove [Live]. Of all the comics taken for a test-run by Channel Nine last year, McManus was the one able to go the distance. He was also part of the team that took Good News Week around for a final victory lap. Thus, it would appear that these people who once were the funniest television personalities are happily accepting Rove as their rightful heir and successor. When Andrew Denton was on the show, you could practically see the torch change hands. It was as though the former were ‘anointing’ the latter. “Is that a fact?” Rove asks when I put the theory to him. “Was he ‘anointing’?” It happened when Rove asked Denton if he’d consider hosting the Logies ceremony again. Denton thought that twice was quite sufficient, but suggested that Rove might well want a go instead. He was very much ‘anointing’.
That Rove is where he is and is only twenty-six may be impressive, but McManus himself acknowledges that he had an early start, even if he couldn’t quite accept it at the time. Growing up in Western Australia, friends and relatives of the adolescent Rove would insist that he “should be a comedian”. Rove, however, was “definitely afraid” of even the thought of “having to get up on stage and try to be funny in front of a group of strangers”. However, he didn’t mind acting. “If someone else had written the lines and they weren’t funny,” he explains, “you could always just go, ‘blame the playwright, don’t blame me.’” By the time he’d left school, Rove himself was writing the lines with his mates. When they had trouble getting other people to perform their material, they decided, “stuff it, we’ll just do it ourselves!” and got themselves onto the local community radio station. Before long, Rove built up the confidence to be funny on stage in front of strangers as he began to work the “not very big but certainly healthy and thriving” Perth stand-up scene. “It was a great place to start because it was so small,” Rove says. “You were doing a gig every three weeks, as opposed to one every three months in Melbourne or Sydney”
Soon getting to a point where he felt he “couldn’t go any further”, Rove decided to move to Melbourne. He likens his arrival on the Melbourne scene to a ‘fireworks display’ that “exploded very quickly”. As the new kid in town, McManus was usually lumped with other equally unfamiliar comics, but the difference between them was that whereas the others had never performed before Rove had two years experience and two years of material to his advantage. Therefore, he was noticed from the start. Despite this, however, it wasn’t long before he found himself in the same boat as his peers: “I soon hit a brick wall; I was fighting for gigs at all the regular comedy clubs, like everyone else.” Rove recalls that period of his life and career as “enjoyable times” but admits that he certainly was not living comfortably: “I soon saw how far a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter can actually stretch,” he says. The lesson this experience taught him: “Never get too complacent; you’re never one hundred percent safe” – as he was reminded again last year, he says, when his season at Channel Nine came to an end.
The point at which Rove was well and truly thrust into our comedic consciousness was when he was one of a bunch of ‘up-and-comers’ profiled in a special comedy issue of Juice a little while back. Also present and accounted for were Merrick & Rosso, Peter Helliar and Adam Spencer, who we all knew from Triple J, as well as the familiar Wil Anderson and the somewhat less so (at that stage in Sydney) Corinne Grant. But this Rove McManus guy who was featured had many a non-Melbournian scratching his noggin. Rove agrees that at that stage of his ascendancy, he was “behind most of the others”. Although he’d been on Good News Week like Wil and Corinne, he was not quite “in the regular loop” yet. However, successful annual appearances at the Melbourne Comedy Festival had brought him to the forefront of that town’s comedy scene and a hosting gig on community television station Channel 31’s The Loft Live kept him there. Live community television was the perfect proving ground for the primetime personality-to-be. When important guests were not turning up late (“one time the guest was so late, it ended up being a brief two-minute interview at the end of the show”) or failing to arrive altogether (“on our very first show, the guest had just forgotten to turn up”) there was always the possibility of equipment malfunction to keep Rove on his toes: “Our audio box blew up. No-one at home could hear us so we had to go off air.”
Such strong grounding in live television coupled with the stand-up experience made McManus a natural for prime time commercial television. It shows, not just in his ability to host so well, to be able to work with such a good team and to make it look so easy, but also in the way he appeals to so wide a demographic. McManus himself likens the job to being a bus driver, who is trusted by all the passengers. “The essence of it is that I’m having fun,” he says. “It reflects to the viewing audience that I’m having fun, and they can’t help but have fun themselves because I don’t look like I’m uncomfortable. I absolutely love it.”
Rove reckons that if, two years ago, you’d asked him where he wanted to be in five or ten years time, his answer would literally be what he is actually doing now. “So I’ve been very blessed in that I’ve been given a lot and achieved it in a relatively short amount of time,” he says. I reckon there’s more to it than that. When shows like Hey Hey It’s Saturday and Good News Week had to call it a day, they left a gaping hole that Rove himself claims he’s only “paved over slightly” or “put a couple of sticks and leaves across” to make it look fixed. Now’s the time, Rove McManus. If visitations from the Three Wise Kings of Comedy is not enough and you need some sort of ‘John the Baptist’ figure as well, then Graham Kennedy must be that man. When he finally returns from the wilderness to give McManus his blessing then we’ll know for sure that Rove is the chosen one, sent to save our miserable television-watching lives from eternal damnation… Meanwhile, thank Christ he still loves to stand-up. For, with all his long-term goals satisfied in the short term, the answer to ‘what do you most look forward to’ is ‘coming to Sydney to do live stand-up in a “back-to-basics” outrageous comedy revue’.
Taking on the music of Frank Zappa is a big ask, and even former members of his various line-ups have, in my humble opinion, fallen short of the mark when setting out to play together without Frank up front — but Frank Zappa did set the mark pretty high in the first place. Anyway, we are talking about Frank’s own sons, Dweezil and Ahmet, heading up the project.
I’ve heard Dweezil Zappa play guitar — not just his own music, but, as true Frank Zappa fans will also have heard him, on his dad’s records as well. Dweezil joined his dad on stage towards the end of Frank’s 1984 world tour. The live recording of ‘Sharleena’ appears on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 and it’s awesome (An equally awesome studio version appears on Them Or Us). If anyone could or should be playing Frank Zappa’s solos, it’s Dweezil. And as for Ahmet, well, according to discussions I’ve read on fan forums, while Dweezil has inherited his dad’s musical chops and the serious, disciplined approach to playing music, Ahmet has inherited his dad’s sense of humour. And of course, they work so well together in their own band, Z. So if they’re leading a band of musicians that include some of the talented people that featured in line-ups of Frank Zappa’s band, it’s gonna be something for a Zappa fan — even a hardcore fanatic — to see.
I became a Zappaholic in late adolescence. It must have been during the summer holidays before my final year of high school, as 1988 was turning into 1989. I was haunting one of my favourite second hand record shops, one of those suburban ‘half back’ book and record exchanges staffed by old ladies. They’d have shelves and shelves of Mills & Boon and other such ‘literature’. As a younger kid I used to go there for comics. By the time I was buying records, the comics shelf had given way to pornography, and nobody who could actually afford those shiny discs of digital sound would have been hawking them for cash just yet. At the time I would have actually been there for Beatles stuff, so it must have been a slow Beatles week; there was nothing Beatle related. What I did find were two Frank Zappa albums. At the time I had never heard a Frank Zappa album, but a canny guy who’d worked in a record shop with me had once advised me that if I ever see anything by Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart in a second hand record shop, I should grab it; that stuff was hard to find. So I figured, what the hey! and I bought both albums.
One was called Joe’s Garage, and had a photo of Zappa on the cover. Even though I’d never listened to him before, I knew what he looked like: he was the weird guy at the back of big, alphabetised, rock anthologies, who had weird facial hair and kids with strange names. On the cover of this record, Zappa was in black face, posing with a mop, like he was the lowly grease monkey who had to clean up after the mechanics at the garage featured in the album’s title. (Although the album ended up having nothing to do with that sort of garage; the garage, “over by the Dodge”, happens to be where Joe and his band rehearse.)
I put the record on and was greeted with a creepy, sinister voice calling itself ‘The Central Scrutinizer’. It was too weird. I had to take it off before anyone else in the house heard it, and try the other record.
The other record was called Studio Tan and featured particularly child-like cover artwork. Side one was one long track that went for twenty minutes. I dropped the needle on the vinyl and was greeted with something even weirder than the opening of Joe’s Garage. I took that off quick smart and returned to Joe’s Garage. Joe’s Garage was a bizarre concept album, like a musical, set around a conspiracy theory about - oh, it’s too involved to get into here. ‘The Adventures of Greggery Peccary’, which is side one of Studio Tan, was a bizarre fairy-tale set to music. But the song that grabbed me most was a throw-away pop ditty on side two called ‘Lemme Take You To The Beach’ which had lyrics like “You are dandy/Eat A Candy/May I kiss you?/Or maybe I’ll just hold your handy". Throughout both albums, Zappa seemed to like to mix between passionate solos with rapid passages of unusual time groupings playing against the beat and sheer silliness. It always threw you, as a listener.
To document my development as a fully-fledged Zappa fanatic would take more space and time than I have, certainly more than you want to dedicate to reading about it. However, for the rest of my schooling and my university degree, I managed to acquire pretty much the entire Zappa oeuvre on vinyl and, as it was being re-released, on CD as well.
Listening through the scurrilous lyrics, beyond the satire and vituperation, the musicianship was awesome, embodying the entire range of musical genre. As Zappa had undertaken a tour in 1988, I was holding out for another Aussie tour - but it was not to be. Frank Zappa passed away just after I completed my Arts degree (in a way he’ll always represent that a time of my youth that I’m virtually tranported back too every time I listen to an album). And so the idea of seeing Frank’s sons, Dweezil and Ahmet, leading a band that includes musicians who played with Frank Zappa, performing Frank Zappa songs, is a special kind of heaven.
In the year following Frank Zappa’s death, I was on the editorial team of Honi Soit, my uni's student paper. To follow is the obituary that I wrote for the first issue. It barely touches the surface; it doesn’t do Frank Zappa the composer justice; I was a far less experienced writer who took himself far too seriously. I have only tweaked it slightly for grammar.
December 21 1940 to December 3 1993
During Orientation Week one year, on the lawn in front of the Main Quad where all of the University of Sydney's Clubs and Societies vie for new members from amongst the student body, I found myself at the ‘Alternative Music Club’  marquee, where a girl with pink hair and a pierced tongue performed her inculcatory spiel about the kind of music that ‘Alternative Music Club’ members listened to. “You know,” she said, “artists who don’t receive much mainstream commercial radio airplay, like Morrissey, R.E.M., Sonic Youth…”
“What about Frank Zappa?” I asked her.
“Who?” she said.
I guess you can’t be much more alternative than that.
Very occasional radio play has meant that few people have heard Zappa’s music. For most, Frank Zappa was that weird American musician residing at the back of rock encyclopaedias; the guy frequently bearing an unkempt mane, and always, the funny facial hair. (Simpsons creator Matt Groening insists that the facial hair is “way cool”, and that “as soon as Bart Simpson is able to shave he’ll have a little moustache and goatee just like Zappa’s.”) However, during a career that lasted almost thirty years, Zappa had officially released over sixty albums , and nearly ten times that number reached the market illegally as ‘bootlegs’. 
While the epithet ‘post modern’ has been used to label all sorts of artistic entities engendering slight obscurity and evading generic pigeon-holing, Frank Zappa was the musician to whom it best applied. His work was (and remains) a universe inhabited by recurring motifs frequently referring back, pre-empting forwards and implying sideways to other elements within that universe. The cross-referencing, Zappa insisted, was fully intentional from his career's inception. In 1974 he stated: “there is, and always has een a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each album, live performance, and interview; the basic blueprints were executed in 1962-1963. Preliminary experimentation took place in early and mid 1964. Construction… began in late 1964. Work is still in progress.”
Musically, Zappa’s work embraced and transcended virtually every genre and form known, usually for the purpose of parody. Listener expectations were constantly thwarted. His tightly-rehearsed ensemble of musicians (known for most of its first decade as ‘The Mothers of Invention’ or merely ‘The Mothers’) was able to execute the complex performances that Zappa conducted. “There are cues used on stage like twirling my fingers as if I’m piddling with a Rasta braid on the right side of my head - that means: ‘Play reggae’… If I wanted something played ‘heavy metal’, I put both hands on my crotch and do ‘Big Balls’… The band understands what the norms and ‘expected mannerisms’ are for these different musical styles, and will instantly ‘translate’ a song into that musical ‘dialect’.” As well as contemporary rock and jazz, Zappa wrote ad conducted orchestral music which similarly subverted and entertained.
Entertainment was Zappa’s main task. This end was achieved through use of subject matter that basically lambasted dominant culture and counter-culture, very often as a form of social anthropology: what people did, how they did it and who they did it to. He insisted that “contemporary history is going to be retained on records more accurately than it is in books”. During the late 60s, hippies bore the brunt of Zappa’s saturnine wit. The 70s saw him pour scorn and derision upon decadent rock-star sexuality, sexuality sublimated into the ‘better, louder, faster’ guitar solo and the constant pursuit of compliant groupies. Censorship, religious fundamentalism and sexual impropriety — or rather, hypocrisy with regard to the particular sexual impropriety of televangelists and Republicans — received Zappa’s attention during the 80s. He pursued his cause to the extent of registering voters at his concerts during his 1988 Broadway the Hard Way tour. Illness precluded his own presidential bid during the 1992 United States elections.
Often criticised was Zappa's vigour and zeal when dealing with topics of a “glandular” nature. His opinion to the end was that ‘sex looks silly’. “Let’s face it,” he said, “even if it feels good, it looks silly”. Yet, as entertainment, he felt that all work could be reduced to this tenet: “Is it possible to laugh while fucking? I think yes.”
Frank Zappa developed prostate cancer, and although detected some time during the early 90s, it was kept secret. The only official public reference made was the insistence that ‘the press’ had diagnosed him as a sufferer. Zappa himself claimed to be quite well most of the time. He continued to work up to sixteen hours a day in his home studio, composing, recording and remixing his music, only taking time off every so often when he felt ‘really bad’. However, an aversion to flying, owing to severe discomfort, and the more frequent press-leaks of the true severity of his condition seemed to make it apparent that the end was night. His latest album, The Yellow Shark, consisting of orchestral pieces performed by the Ensemble Modern, had been out barely a month before news was released that Zappa had died. On December 6 1993 it was announced that he had already been interred, having passed away two days earlier. Zappa is survived by wife and company administrator Gail, and by children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodon and Diva. His stunning oeuvre has been left in good order. Most of his back catalogue has been re-released on CD and new work is ready for imminent, posthumous release.
Human foible may now emit a collective sigh of relief. Its greatest detractor, one of this century’s most original and significant composers and the most alternative of musicians, is no more.