“I didn’t have any grand plans for a solo career, as such – I’ve really just kind of developed slowly and organically,” offers Kevin Mitchell, the artist occasionally known as Bob Evans, before confessing that the reason he “wanted to do stuff as ‘Bob Evans’” was so he could draw his own specific audience to the distinctly different songs he was writing for himself, rather than for Jebediah, the indie band he’s fronted as singer and guitarist since 1994. “People could find me without having that ‘Jebediah’ thing in their heads,” he says. But I suppose I’d really ought to backtrack…
Spector of Christmases Past
There’s a rather spiffy sounding Christmas show playing the Sydney Opera House Tue 22and Wed 23 December called Happy Xmas (War Is Over), based on Phil Spector’s legendary Christmas album A Christmas Gift For You. Well, that’s the point of departure: the classic album the genius producer put together featuring his most successful artists at the time – Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans and The Crystals. That was around about when Spector was, as Tom Wolfe dubbed him, ‘the first tycoon of teen’, rather than, as a jury more recently found him, guilty of second-degree murder. His Christmas album, released 22 November 1963 – the day of President Kennedy’s assassination – was and remains a classic release that, like so much of his work, inspired many peers. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson was in thrall to Spector’s studio work – the so-called ‘wall of sound’ created by massed musicians and vocalists. He borrowed from the Spector blueprint for many of the Beach Boys’ hits – and they released their own Christmas album Christmas Harmonies.
The Beatles also found Spector’s work inspirational. It was unto Spector that John Lennon entrusted the dispiriting Get Back tapes. After much studio editing and the overdubbing of choirs and orchestras, they were issued as the Beatles’ swansong, Let It Be. While the Beatles’ label, Apple Records, would reissue A Christmas Gift For You (with a different cover – and title: Phil Spector’s Christmas Album ), both John Lennon and George Harrison would work with Phil Spector during their initial post-Beatle years. Harrison even wrote the song ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ for Spector’s wife, Veronica (or ‘Ronnie’ – hence the band name The Ronettes). Of course, John & Yoko’s Phil Spector-produced Christmas single of 1972 was ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ – from which these Sydney Opera House concerts take their name.
So, back to the show. Following a great tradition of an Aussie all-star cast recreating entire albums on stage, the line-up for Happy Xmas (War Is Over) includes the likes of Tim Rogers, Bob Evans, Paul Dempsey, Jade MacRae, Mahalia Barnes and Gin Wigmore delivering the Spector Christmas album – plus a bunch of other Christmas songs. So of course, the obvious course of action is to try and interview someone. Tim Rogers, my first choice – as a You Am I fan from my student days, when most of the band lived in Newtown and they’d play Sydney Uni regularly – is unavailable, but Bob Evans is up for a chat.
First thing’s first: time for some close listening to his most recent album, Goodnight, Bull Creek! I pay a visit to an old mate Nigel, who still owns and runs Sandy’s Records in Dee Why to discover he still has a copy of the limited edition two-disc version which includes the eight-track Morning’ Richmond! Live at the Corner Hotel. As I hand it to Nigel at the counter, a very chatty lady who happens to be Christmas shopping asks, “so what’s Bob Evans like?” Before I start explaining, Nigel – an example of a fast disappearing type of music shop owner worth his weight in rare, valuable, pink label pressings of early Island releases who can provide the sort of info off the top of his head for which a newer breed of surly, sullen shop assistant has to google or consult an iPhone app. – steps in: “He’s a fine songwriter from Western Australia who was in Jebediah…” Lady Chatterly, not so down with the peeps, quips, “They must be a bit before my time!” (Shellac 78s were not quite before her time – but close! – god bless!)
“‘Kev’,” he says, laughing. “You can call me ‘Kev’.”
In the late-’90s, Kev found himself writing songs on his acoustic guitar. “They weren’t Jebediah songs,” he says, “but I wanted to perform them. So I decided I’d start doing some gigs. I didn’t want to do it as ‘Kevin Mitchell from Jebediah’. I wanted to give myself a name so that people wouldn’t come expecting to hear Jebediah songs.”
According to Kev, “the ‘Bob Evans’ thing” comes from a T-shirt he used to own – possibly, according to some sources, endorsing a chain of American ‘homestyle cooking’ restaurants that also bear that name. Whether or not said shirt is connected to the Bob Evans restaurant chain, Kev was wearing it the day he needed to add his gig to the gig listings in the local street press. “It was literally the first name that I saw. I said, ‘I’ll be Bob Evans’. When I chose the name for that first gig, I didn’t know if I’d even do another one.”
But that was a decade ago now – three albums later, Bob Evans is alive and gigging. The question is how does a song writer who leads a band as well as a solo career delineate between ‘solo’ songs and ‘band’ songs?
“I write a song on an acoustic guitar and as I develop the song I decide where I’m going to put it,” Kev explains; “whether I’m gonna present it to the band or whether it sounds like a Bob Evans song.” Of course, he points out, a lot of Jebediah’s material is written by the band when they’re “all in a room together”. Only occasionally will he write a song at home that “feels like a Jebediah song, not a Bob Evans song”. Also worth noting, according to Kev, is that Jebediah and Bob Evans have both evolved and developed so much that the sort of music they now produce can and does have “moments that overlap… probably”.
“When Bob started out, it had to be acoustic-based. It fitted into a narrow kind of world. It was the same with Jebediah. But these days, both Jeb and Bob are capable of doing virtually any kind of song and making any kind of sound. They’re getting close – certainly a hell of a lot closer than when it started – and that could continue to happen.”
If the musical concerns of ‘Jeb’ and ‘Bob’ overlap, it’s because Bob Evans really developed during Jebediah’s hiatus following the 2004 album Braxton Hicks. Bob may have come into being in the late ’90s, but his first album, Suburban Kid – a collection of songs embodying “youthful instrospection, love and loss” – was released in 2003. In 2006 a bunch of Bob Evans demos, discovered by record label Capitol, were considered so good as to warrant a new album. Kev sent the demos to some of his favourite producers around the world and was contacted almost immediately by Nashville producer Brad Jones – (his previously clients include Josh Rouse, Yo La Tengo and Sheryl Crow) – who went on to produce the ARIA Award-, Australian Music Prize- and J Award-winning Suburban Songbook. Goodbye, Bull Creek!, name-checking the Perth suburb in which Kevin Mitchell lived as a kid and ending the so-called ‘suburban trilogy’, was also produced by Brad Jones. It’s a heavier, rockier album and the best Bob Evans offering yet. Kev says that with this rock album, he’s “saying goodbye to the suburbs”:
“I feel like I’m not so much putting the book away, as closing a chapter, so to speak. I’m closing a chapter and moving onto the next one. Bull Creek’s always going to be the place that I came from and grew up as a kid and all that stuff, but with this album, I’m feeling a little bit like it was time to move on and let go of things. You’re probably going to ask me for specifics…”
Ha! If I was – and the temptation was there – I’m not now. Kev clearly doesn’t want to give specifics. He does, however, reveal that he is in the process of recording the next Jebediah album with the band. So of course, by now, Jeb and Bob have influenced each other, and may just have more in common now, than they had, different, to begin with.
Indeed, rather than the specifics of ‘putting away youthful things’, so to speak, I’m more interested in what it was like to be recording in Nashville. Did Kevin Mitchell ever, as that 13-year-old kid taking guitar lessons long enough to learn the chords to Nirvana and Ratcat songs ever in his wild dreams imagine he’d be in Nashville recording some day?
“No,” Kev admits. “God no. Not at all. I couldn’t even tell you for sure if I’d heard of Nashville back then. I’d like to think I was aware that there was a place called Nashville… But yeah, it’s unfathomable. Being able to go to Nashville twice to make records, it’s a pretty magical experience. It rates right up there with some of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Of the series of events that led to Brad Jones producing Suburban Songbook and, more recently, Goodbye, Bull Creek! Kev considers it “one of those freaky times in life where everything falls into place”. Perhaps it’s a result of hindsight but, he says, it felt like “it was the right thing to do” – as though that initial album was “destined to be successful in some way”. Admiring Jones’s work, Mitchell was prepared to record “anywhere in the world” Brad was placed – it just so happened he was based in Nashville, which is the perfect place to go and make this kind of record.”
Nashville certainly brought the best out of Bob Evans for this record. Or at least, Brad Jones brought the best out of Kevin Mitchell: “What a producer can do is take what you’ve got, understand what you really want to do and point you in the right direction,” Kev explains, using the beautiful ‘Power of Speech’ to illustrate his point. It’s in the style of ‘bossa nova’ (a Portuguese term meaning ‘new trend’, initially used to describe a kind of samba-based musical genre that appeared in Brazil the late-’50s), so its breezy, up-tempo jazz feel makes it stand out.“I wrote the music and it was in the bossa nova time signature. Then I wrote the words and demo’d the song.” As with all the demos given the ‘thumbs-up’ by Brad, it was considered for the album and worked on during the pre-production phase of the recording sessions (Kev: “a fancy way of describing me and Brad playing through the songs, turning ’em inside out”), at which point – Kev adopts an American accent to quote – Brad said, “This song’s great, and the way you’ve recorded it, it’s kind of like how a Hawaiian would play it. But if you were going for a real bossa nova thing, you would kind of play it like this…” and demonstrated on his guitar. “He pretty much played my song back to me, finger picking all these Latin jazz chords,” Kev recalls. “I was like, ‘That is exactly how it’s supposed to sound!’”
As well as helping an artist realise the vision, creating – or literally ‘producing’ – the sound that, up to that point, only really existed in the musician’s head, a good producer challenges a good musician to progress. “I had to re-learn how to play my own song and it took days of just playing constantly, because that style of playing was so foreign to me,” Kev admits. “I’d never played anything like that before. It was a real struggle but it turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the record because of that.”
Although Kev’d “love to do more bossa nova songs”, he suspects that if he attempts to write another, it’ll just end up sounding the same as ‘Power of Speech’. “So,” he concludes, “maybe that’s where my exploration of bossa nova will end”.
Also contributing to the beauty of ‘Power of Speech’ – along with perfect percussion and flutes – are the harmony vocals of Melissa Mathes, originally brought in to contribute to the wistfully beautiful ballad ‘Winter Song’ – which Kev had intended to be “a true duet” after demo-ing. “Brad had two different people he knew with different vocal styles. I picked the one that sounded the best to me.” Meliss proved so “fantastic” on arrival that she contributed to a couple of other tracks. “We weren’t intending on having any female vocals on ‘Someone So Much’,” Kev admits, “but we were working on it when she arrived and ended up singing on the end of that song, as well.”
I do feel as though I hear distinct influences on other parts of the album. Guitar tone, production values and backing vocals on ‘Nuthin’s Gonna Tear Me Away’ suggests the Electric Light Orchestra – or at least Jeff Lynne’s production of the Traveling Wilburys. That feel is also present in ‘Pasha Bulker’, a song that seems to speak of the end of a relationship through the metaphor of the massive ship that ran aground on Newcastle’s Nobbys Beach in 2007. In fact, I would go as far as to say a lot of guitar tones – slide, twangy rhythm, warmly distorted lead – as well as the downright ‘Blue Jay Way’-type backing vocals of ‘Brother, O Brother’, are George Harrisonesque in the extreme. When Kev says towards the end of the album’s sleevenotes that he bought himself a copy of Harrison’s All Things Must Pass – (“a wonderful record that has taken me far too long to finally purchase”) – I suspect he might be a bit of a fan.
“I’ve been a big Beatles fan for ages,” Kev confirms. “There’s probably been a bit of George Harrison stealing on the last two records that I’ve made,” he says, but I’m quick to point out the correct word is ‘homage’. “Yeah, ‘an homage’ – that’s a much better way of putting it. He’s got a pretty distinctive style, so it’s pretty easy to hear it when it’s being copied, I guess.”
On the Record
“I buy a lot of CDs,” Kev informs me. “I have a relatively small record collection. These days I download a lot of songs off iTunes. I call myself a music fan, not so much a collector.” Though not an avid record buyer, he certainly does “love the aesthetics of vinyl”, and so “nods” to “old school vinyl” in the CD artwork design. “I’d love my records to be released on vinyl, but it’s just so difficult to get a record company to do it these days.”
The sleeve notes, edited from the blog Kev was maintaining while recording the album, were inspired by an album called Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian, whose sleeve contained one of the bandmembers’ diary entries. “I liked the idea of having a bit of text in the booklet, giving something more for people to read or give them a different insight into the record.” Kev says it “also made sense on a purely artistic level” to include pictures containing “an almost ‘children’s storybook’ quality” with the text.
The images are illustrations – given depth with watercolours – showing Kevin Mitchell with various cute animals. They are accompanied by ‘storybook’ captions: “Bob ran into Badger at Melrose Billiards, where they shared a quiet pint”. Turns out, the images began as photographs, inspired by one of Kev’s Perth mates – Andrew Christie, the photographer credited in the sleeve, I assume – who’d “found this taxidermist” with “hundreds of all sorts of animals”:
“It was his idea to get these stuffed animals out and to take photos of me with them, in realistic situations. There’s a camel and there’s a little donkey. But the photos didn’t get the feeling across, so I came up with this idea of getting an illustrator…” – Karenna Zerefos, according to the sleeve – “…to do illustrations of the photos that we’d taken. It worked beautifully.”
It does work beautifully. What with the splashes of watercolour throughout, the captions and the images themselves suggest – and I use the term in inverted commas – ‘psychedelia’. Of the British variety. See, British psychedelia – unlocking the inner visions of the mind and soul – tended so often to reflect childhood toys and memories, vintage clothing and the Victoriana of World War I army uniforms (before moving on to the eastern mysticism of the exotic lands once owned – and then lost – by the British Empire) because LSD and its ensuing ‘acid trip’ tended to encourage its users to mentally revert to a more playful, childhood state. The childhood of a mid- to late-’60s musician was all about ‘rooting around’ nana’s house, where pictures of her favourite poor brother Wilfred – who died before his time in battle at Ypres or The Somme or some other theatre of battle from the ‘Great War’ – sat atop a mantle. One of the seminal records of 1967 was the Beatles single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ with ‘Penny Lane’ on its flip side, one inspired by John Lennon’s childhood reminiscences, the other, by Paul McCartney’s. Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – on which ballads about travelling by ‘Bike’ share grooves with songs about travelling into space – takes its title from the heading of one of the chapters of Kenneth Graham’s seminal none-more-English-kids’-book Wind in the Willows… The artwork of Goodnight, Bull Creek! – particularly with its badger – seems, at least in part, to suggest all this to me. And Kevin doesn’t automatically dismiss this theory.
“Both my parents are English,” he says. “I was probably given quite an English style of up-bringing – all the books that we had were English books. Time and time again, there are things I find myself doing unconsciously that people point out have this British connection, so there must be something to say for it, whether it’s in your blood…”
Quite an in-depth look at Goodnight, Bull Creek! in a relatively short interview. Before I let Kev go, we should at least mention Happy Xmas (War Is Over), the reason I now own a copy of Bob Evans’s latest and – to date – greatest offering.
Happy Xmas (War is Over)
That’s pretty cool – and that Tim Rogers is a clever guy – not only choosing a fine and fellow-talented musician with whom to collaborate, but also one who can give good interview in his own absence. (So we both owe Tim a favour.)
“It’s going to be the Phil Spector record from start to finish in the first set, with different people singing, and the second set is a mixture of different Christmas carols and modern Christmas pop songs. I’ve never stepped inside the Opera House before, so yeah, this is a pretty unique opportunity for me.”
Nice. I’m tempted to ask whether, in addition to the obvious show-closer, John & Yoko’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’, the second half might also include Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ or, at Kev’s insistence, George Harrison’s 1974 festive season single, ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’. But I don't wanna push it.