INTERVIEW: DAVE WARNER’S FROM THE SUBURBS – March 2017
By Shane Pinnegar
Western Australian legend Dave Warner – The Boy From Bicton – releases When, his first album in 25 years this week – and the first in 35 years as Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs – with two special home-coming shows alongside Mental As Anything: on Friday, 17th March at The Charles Hotel, and Saturday, 18th March at The Fly By Night. SHANE PINNEGAR called the former punk, inventor of Suburban Rock, singer, novelist, screenwriter, playwright and leader of the Suburban Army, to find out why now was the right time to release When.
Warner presaged punk rock with his band Pus, formed in 1973. By the time Sex Pistols and The Damned were shocking Britain he was already over there developing his next direction: Suburban Rock. A UK record deal proved elusive, and Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs was formed back here in Perth, proving an instant hit with his songs about Australian identity and suburban life. Once dubbed Bob Dylan’s favourite Australian songwriter, Warner’s new album covers much of his forty-year music career.
100% ROCK: You said you didn’t record for many years because you felt like you didn’t have much to say. What changed to inspire recording a whole album?
Dave: Well, one of the things was, I had time. When I was doing other stuff – especially when the kids were younger – I was doing a lot of television and I didn’t have the time to do [new music]. You have to work out what your time is and then the television stuff started to drop off, the kids got older so they needed me less than what they had done, in a sense. It coincided with a couple of the other guys having some time to do things too.
The other thing was just the songs just came to me. I’d got five songs and I had those songs in my head and just wanted to record them. I suppose that was the biggest difference. I don’t know where that comes from, it just happens – I’m walking around or sitting down somewhere and an idea for a song comes. I think, ‘oh, that’s a good idea, I should do [that song].” They were about things that I thought were important, [like] where we are in life at the moment, or where I am in life and where lots of people are, the world is changing very rapidly and so all that kind of stuff is I guess the fodder for what started it.
It sounds like all the pieces of the puzzle came together at the right time which is really cool.
Yeah I think that. At the same time, I suppose it’s a little hard to tell isn’t it, what is the egg and what’s the chicken? I found myself in a position with time, inspiration came to me at that time, and it gave me an opportunity to actually sit down and go a bit further into those songs and go, ‘yeah, okay, this is what I want to do.’ Once I’d started to work on the new songs I then started to think, ‘well what are the other songs that I’ve got that I feel have something to contribute, but I never recorded, or that could fit in contextually and thematically with the album that I want to do. That’s how it all came about in the end.
Of the album’s twelve tracks, a handful are brand new, whilst the rest were written between 1972 and the late ‘90s, but never recorded or released. Guests on the record include former From The Suburbs alumni Tony Durant and John Dennison, as well as former Skyhooks bassist Greg Macainsh, Martin Cilia from The Atlantics, Greedy Smith of Mental As Anything, legendary guitarist Kevin Borich, Midnight Oil’s Jim Moginie, and local Loaded Dice member Dick Haynes and Fingerprints fella Bill Breare. Warner couldn’t be happier with the end result.
Oh, really, really rapt. It’s a very joyful experience to tell you the truth Shane, to get a chance to actually do something like that and play with all those people. Really, really positive, and to get my songs out – and some of them are 40 years old – to feel that you’ve got to a point where you can promulgate them, it’s really good. Yeah, I’m pleased with it.
The album is titled When. No question mark, just the word. It conjures up multiple meanings. What was your insight into coming up with that name?
Very perspicacious there, Shane – that is exactly the point of the album. Originally I was thinking of calling it something like Where Am I… I had this idea of taking a shot of me in a crowded electronic store somewhere in Western Sydney with lots of different faces and surrounded by electronic technology that I didn’t understand. The more that I worked on the songs, it became much more about the idea of being surrounded by a fast-evolving world and what’s my role in this as a guy who’s now hit 60? That started to expand then and as you say, I thought, ‘no it’s not where am I, it’s kind of like this is a story about where I am in my life. Everything that’s passed up to this point and here I am at this point, all the ideas that I had in the past for the future, all the ideas that I have in the future of the past.
It became an album whose central theme was time and how time manifests with us, and how we evolve with time. When then became the perfect word, because I thought, ‘you know the great thing about When is it’s totally dependent on the context so you can have when I did this or when I will do this.’
Something can be future or past and if you look at the songs on the album I’ve got two songs that were written – I think Vignettes maybe as early as 1973, and Lonely Sailor 1976, around then – which I haven’t altered anything with them but they were kind of like a time capsule. They’re recorded now and performed with all the experience and whatever I’ve picked up over that time. Then you have another song like Wimbledon, which I had recorded in 1980 but not exactly how I wanted to, [and here it is] slightly updated, a couple of lyric changes but it’s updated musically because of how I always wanted it to sound.
A song like Running Through Brixton, which is set in 1976 but was actually written in a contemporary time. It’s me in the present thinking about me in the past and what my ideas were for me in the future. All those complexities of time I find really interesting – and in Jim Morrison Came Through My Window, the idea of afterlife in the present and ever-present idea of death… at my age of course you’re going to think about death. That’s why When, I reckon, was the title that summed up everything thematically about the album.
It’s interesting because the title, like some of the songs on the album, the more you listen to them and think about them, the more they make sense.
You’re good – I hope so. People don’t do it much these days, I suppose maybe it seems a bit wanky or whatever, but the old idea of the concept album, people don’t tend to do that. It’s usually a bunch of songs or people are going for a real musical idea rather than any kind of conceptual idea. My music has always been conceptual first and then I try and put the lyrics and the music into reaching that conceptual goal. That’s exactly what it is.
I’ll talk about the songs in a moment, but first: what is the significance of Bleddyn Butcher’s cover photo for the album?
People should ask that question! Once I came up with the idea of When as the title, I then thought, ‘well what should the cover be?’ As I said originally, I had this idea of technology and an old man walking around with technology in a completely different Australia to what he’d started out in, but then to me that was too narrow and would have been the wrong focus on it. [The cover], really, is, what is that person waiting for? What is their expectation? It really is open to however you want to interpret that, but I think it works for the title of the album, and for the whole theme of time, and I’m glad that it raises that question – which is really what it’s meant to do. Just to say, ‘what’s going on here?’ If it does that then it’s served its purpose for me.
How enigmatic, Dave.
Yes, it is – and I had an idea that I should hold this sprig (of foliage), and why I should hold the sprig… I don’t know. I think they were the exact words that Bleddyn said: we were doing the shot and I said, ‘oh you know, I kind of imagined I might be holding this sprig.’ He said, ‘oh, how enigmatic.’
It kind of works. The only thing we couldn’t do, but we can do on the poster better, is that it should be kind of further out to sea, where you’ve got a little bit of water down the bottom and then me from the top. Because of the nature of a CD having to be square, it doesn’t work so well – on the poster there’s a little bit more depth to the vision and it’s apparent it’s a little bit further out in the water than what you actually see. The idea is, again, it’s the perspective of who is looking at me is the important thing in that shot. Yeah, just another little bit of artistic touch there Shaney.
‘Artistic touch’ being exactly what you’ve always been about. It’s never just been, ‘let’s make an album of party songs’. There’s always meaning in there and I think that’s one of the reasons why the Suburban Army have been so into your music over the years.
Look, I hope so. I like the idea of partying too, and hopefully that’s lots of fun for people, but yeah – other people can do the party stuff and I just stick to my strengths. That’s working on trying to do something musical with lyrics. All the people that I was ever inspired by or liked, that was a combination of music and lyrics – people like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Fhe Fugs and Frank Zappa and all those people.
You’ve always been a student of Australian identity. Could it be that with adopting more and more international culture our own identity is being diluted?
Well it’s certainly changing. ‘What is Australian identity’ is always up for grabs and it reminds me of that line from my own song, Suburban Rock, where Australian identity was supposed to be people in the outback and stuff, and I was trying to torpedo that myth with Suburban Rock and other songs because I felt that, no, our identity was much more about laminex tables and football and American TV shows.
I think that what you’re saying in a sense – which is right – is that it’s a lot harder to find something that is particularly Australian compared to anywhere else. Should it be of a concern? Most people don’t seem to think so. I find it a little bit sad that in a way that stuff is slipping away, [but] that might just be my age, that it was a particularly identifiable time. When I was growing up as a young person, 95% of Australians shared the same experiences and same culture, and I could do a song like Mug’s Game and everyone kind of got it.
95% of the people got Suburban Boy. That’s not possible now, but I think it would be wrong to say there’s an Australian identity that exists outside of whatever is happening with all sorts of other cultural influences and TV influences and media influences and stuff like that. It’s just like anything, it’s like language. It just evolves and gets changed, but it would be nice to think that there’s still a place for music that’s fun, but is thinking, is satirical, makes a comment on where we are in our lives whether you’re 17 or 7 or 77.
Absolutely. I think the celebration of our culture is great – the evolution of it is also essential for growth, obviously – but with so many elements out there in society who want to keep our society and culture somewhat traditional – these groups are manifesting in some very ugly ways [around the world] and I was wondering if anyone has attempted to use your music in a negative way that you’re not comfortable with?
Not yet. I just think I’m not well enough known for that. The nature of the world at the moment is that it’s extremely… there’s a lot of division in all sorts of areas, a lot of political division and… so far I’m not aware of [my music] being used negatively – but look, who knows? You can’t prescribe things for other people. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you think, or whatever, people will take their own stuff from it and you’re fairly powerless about that. Unless you want to be incredibly didactic and very much down the line, and you can do Billy Bragg-like stuff and everyone knows exactly where you’re coming from – but if you’re trying to do anything more subtle, things from different personas, different perspectives that tell multiple stories in an existing world, it becomes a lot more difficult for people to go along that ride with you.
People just latch onto whatever appeals to them, whatever the first thing is, or whatever the touchstone is, that’s what they’ll grab hold of. So far, so good, Shane!
That’s good. Let’s talk about the songs on the album, because there’s some fantastic stuff on there. Lead single I’m On Facebook But Where’s My Friends? is classic Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs – it comes on like the son of Suburban Boy.
Yeah, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t set out saying, ‘oh, I need a Suburban Boy, so therefore I’m going to do this song.’ The song occurred to me: every day I tend to take a walk for about an hour or so. That’s when my brain relaxes and I start to think about things. A couple of years ago I was walking around and that catch line came to me with a melody and everything just evolved from there. I was hearing the song and I thought, ‘what’s the musical attitude of the song?’ I thought, ‘I want to do something that is like a contemporary Who. I want to hear that rock pop song that I grew up with as a kid,’ it’s pop, it’s catchy, but it’s got some real balls to it. That was the start of it and then at the end, as you say, I looked back on it and went, ‘well yeah, it’s the Suburban Boy track of the album.’ Suburban Boy makes a statement about where I [was] at that time, and Facebook does the same thing. I reckon that that’s a really good comment, and that’s exactly the space that it occupies.
Snapchat is another one which skewers the facile world of the internet, very much in the vein of something like Girls Wank or Mugs Game, I thought. Did you hesitate about making the lyrics so in your face, or does skewering a vulgar subject deserve a few vulgar words?
Look, I shouldn’t really say anything because that is the perfect answer to it! You’ve actually analysed it and said it in one. Here’s the thing: I did the song, it’s obviously coming from the point of view of a [character], [some] people won’t get that but when I was doing it I thought, ‘this song needs to be vulgar, in your face, because that’s the person who’s singing it. That’s the character – this character can’t be pretty.’ A couple of my fellow musos who actually played or sang on the tracks said to me, ‘do you think this is going too far? It could be more clever.’ I won’t name names or anything because everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and it’s not like this hadn’t occurred to me, but in the end I had to stick with my veracity: this character is the sort of person who sits down in his bedroom or wherever, surrounded by these pizza boxes and takes photos of his dick and sends them off to the stratosphere. They’re not going to be particularly witty or clever – [but] I can be witty or clever by parodying what they’re doing. That was, in the end, the decision that I had to make – that sometimes you’ve got to be bold and sometimes you’ve got to lead with your head and be prepared for anybody who wants to knock it off.
You’ve always written songs that are very character-based and very often have had a theatrical element to them live. Have you never considered jumping in front of the camera rather than staying behind it and writing for others?
I’ve done a little bit of work, but unfortunately I have to say, to be a good actor you need to have a lot of skill and training. I can get by on some of the things, I’m just not good enough to do justice to it. It’s best in life to know our limitations.
Fair enough. You mentioned the people who play on the record – they’re an incredible bunch. In setting about making this album did you consciously want to create what is effectively a suburban super group, or did the high profile names just attach themselves to the project as it went on?
It was the latter. I was really conscious that I wanted to have a band feel for the album, and the most important element to that were the people who played with me a lot over the last 20 years. When I say a lot, I don’t mean a lot of gigs over the last 20 years, but they’re the ones over the last 20 or 30 years when I’ve been doing gigs who’ve been alongside me. That’s Martin Cilia, Greg Macainsh, Lloyd Gyi the drummer, my wife Nicole doing backing vocals and Tony Durant who I’ve known and played with for 40 years. That’s the core of the group but within that, once the song’s evolved it was a matter of – particularly in discussion with Martin Cilia, who I’ve worked with really closely for years – of saying, ‘oh, do you think we could get so-and-so to do something or…’ Martin’s been working with Mental As Anything, so for example he said, ‘oh, I think I can get Greedy [Smith] down to do some vocals,’ to which I thought, ‘that’d be great.’
I love Greedy, I’ve always loved Mental As Anything. What happened was Greedy came down and then James Gillard said he’d come down and then Greedy came down to the recording session and Greedy said, ‘I’ve got a harmonica. I think this could do with some harmonica.’ He played on Wimbledon and Lonely Sailor and it fitted really well. In a couple of the other tracks there were similar sorts of things that evolved. For example, we recorded at Jim Moginie’s studio and Jim came down and was checking us out. Martin, I think at some point, had spoken to him and said, ‘have a listen and see if you might want to play some keyboard or something.’ He wanted in and did some fabulous keyboard for us on Jim Morrison… and Woman Who Drowned In Her Own Apartment which was really much better than I could play. John Dennison didn’t have the time to play on all the tracks. so it just did evolve like that.
I think the only times I got specific about it was we had the track Old Guitars that I wrote years ago with Greg Macainsh. I had Martin playing on it and he’s a beautiful guitarist and I said, ‘you know it would be nice to get another older guitarist to play along.’ Kevin Borich has been a longtime friend and we sent some tracks up, Kevin said he’d give it a go, he did a great spot and David Briggs was actually mixing and producing a couple of the tracks of it. I said, ‘ask David if he would do something.’ He played on it too, and I just thought thematically again that was right to have three wonderful guitarists – two absolute icons of Australian rock and Martin who undoubtedly will be an icon of Australian rock – to have them all on that one track.
Excellent. You mentioned Nicole’s backing vocals and they’re particularly effective throughout the album. Did you have a specific vision of the sound you wanted from all these songs before recording?
Yeah I did on most of them, almost all of them I did. Some of them evolved but things like Facebook…, one of my regrets a bit with The Suburbs was as great as my fun was with the band, the only thing that I felt sometimes I really wanted some backing vocals. Because I love bands like the Beach Boys and early bands that had lots of backing harmonies or different sorts of backing vocals on them. The people there who really deserve a lot of credit for me, Tony Durant has been working a lot with Bill Beare and Dick Haines. Bill was in Fingerprints – a lot of Perth people will know them. Dick Haines was in Loaded Dice, a seminal figure of Perth’s pub scene. Both brilliant vocalists and they had been working with Tony who, lazy bugger that he is, in all his time at The Suburbs had rarely sung, sung reluctantly or sung out of tune. Then I get along to a recording session after these guys had been working in Tony’s band for two years and find that they’ve got this brilliant mix of vocals.
I thought, ‘oh, fantastic. I’ve finally got a chance to have the vocals that I want.’ Not for all the songs but for certain songs and so with those three, and then bringing Nicole in too, and then on occasion we were lucky enough that Greedy and James Gillard popped down for a session. The core work was done by the three guys and they did great stuff. I had some specific ideas on things like I’m On Facebook, I wanted to do a song that was like The Who in 2017 – the ‘la la la’s’ I got straight out of Happy Jack. I love that track and I thought, ‘that would be brilliant to have on the song.’
As I’ve said at the very beginning, I’m really blessed to have been able to do this project but with people who had their own skill sets and were just able to contribute so much more than what I ever could have done by myself.
Your new version of Wimbledon – you’ve mentioned that of course. Having also sung about Music Shit in the past, you must admit that the sentiment of both songs is still as important and relevant as ever.
[Laughs] Well yeah, look there is a few [songs] – there’s a lot of me winging about me not getting my proper place in rock, or about the general demise of music. You can add in Old Guitars as well, but they are written over different times and with slightly different emphasis. But yes, I think it’s a fair point and thematically yeah, what can I say? I think Wimbledon’s a little bit more personal than the other two. The other two are much more kind of a general comment. Wimbledon when I originally wrote it in 1979 it was much more about me not getting any airplay and stuff – and I figured I should and [if it was fair] I reckon I would have got as much airplay as a lot of other acts were getting on FM radio. I don’t know that any of my stuff has ever been played on FM radio to be honest – I think Suburban Boy has probably been played, but yeah yeah, no album support ever. Only the AM radio and Double J before Triple J and places like that, whereas the other ones were just a much more general comment.
Old Guitars was written in the late ‘80s, which I think was a particularly desert-like place for Australian music or music in general. I just think it was completely moribund at that time. But having said that there is great music out there, it’s just can be hard to find amongst the dross.
Having revisited some of these old tracks that date back over the last 40 years do you have more material that you never recorded that you’d like to one day sing? Have you been writing more new songs since this recording?
In relation to the first question, there’s a few tracks that I would like to record that we never recorded. Whether that happens or not I don’t know, I’d have to find the right vehicle for it and I’d have to see whether I’ve got the finance, energy, stamina after this one to be able to do it again – but I wouldn’t rule it out.
New songs, no I haven’t done any yet simply because this has been so demanding of my time. I’m also working on other novels and stuff but I’ve been so totally into this album that I haven’t even thought about [another]. I reckon I’m in a space where I would want to come up with more songs. I won’t make the kind of mistake of the late ‘70s where you’re playing and trying to write and do stuff. It’s slower-paced now so I’ll find if things evolve and the time works out and more songs come to me, I’ll do it. But who knows. That’s question mark. This may be the only thing that I record from now on, I just don’t know.
It’s great to see that you’re doing shows for the very first time in a long time in Adelaide and Sydney and other places. Maybe finally people are understanding that we need The Suburbs more than ever.
It’s one of those things where you can’t go to the well too often – you can keep playing the same material and the same songs, to me that’s just boring. I don’t want to do that. Life is too short and I’ve got too much other stuff that I want to do. I do enjoy playing but it’s a big commitment. You don’t make any money out of it in the end but because of this, because I’ve got a new album to play, and songs and I can still play the old stuff and I’ll still get a kick out of those, it works really well. I haven’t played Adelaide in ages, Melbourne I play reasonably regularly but not a lot. Queensland I’m working on at the moment and maybe even Tassie. It’d be nice to get around the country and do these songs. As you say, hopefully people might decide that I could be the suburban saviour! [laughs]
An edited version of this interview was published with X-Press Magazine
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