Posted September 27, 2002

CHARLIE OWEN'S MUSICAL HEART FULL OF SOUL

Around this Bar, mere mention of Charlie Owen's name would be enough to terminate any casual conversations immediately and have patrons' heads snapping around in keen anticipation. As one of the quintessential rawk guitarists, he is instantly recognized and embraced by Bar regulars through his work in the classic late eighties line up of the New Christs, his many and varied collaborations with Louis Tillett and his long association with Tex Perkins, just for starters. However his interest in music, much like his resume, extends well beyond that, as JOHN McPHARLIN found out recently when he got together with Charlie over a few drinks.


JM: Charlie, I guess the first thing that's going to knock most people out of their chairs when they start reading this interview is your interest in techno music. Can you tell us how you got into that and what you've been doing with it?

CO: I don't have an interest in techno music; I have an interest in all music. My reason for playing it recently is the same reason for any other music I've played. I hear it and hear what I'd like to do with it, not liking what I've heard... it's not because I like what I hear, it's what I'd like to do with the medium. When it's been called techno, it's very loosely techno, what I do. I've been doing it for a long time. Everybody's always sat around, back when I was a kid, with any keyboard that could repeat something and played along to it on your guitar. It's as simple as that, that's about the size of it. So yeah, I've got a couple of synthesizers and I've got my guitar and I use some recordings of some solos and mix them together. I don't beat mix; it's not based on the beat ethic, it's more based on the mixing ethic of DJing, which I love and the joining on. It's not the songs, it's the joining, the cross matching of different ideas, which is kind of a jazz concept in itself anyway, so that's how I explain it and that's my interest in it too.

JM: So originally when you started doing it, it was just something you were doing for your own interest, not planning to perform it publicly?

CO: No, the original idea was I was trying to get away from music being only based around a pub and being based around a forty five minute set, or an hour set, or even a three minute song, like what the fuck is that about? Even though I can also appreciate that side of it, it's just to delve into things and so I was set up in this room I'd moved to in this house - any toys I could find and all this equipment and I was just going to play there for fun, it wasn't really designed to leave the room, it was just more designed, not as a bedroom thing, but to try and write music, not trying to be a song writer, but trying to write music on that level. I must say that that is another side of the loose term "techno" which is a great thing that that has, like jazz music, where composition is not based on the three minute song, except for the pop techno you hear on the radio, so it's interesting on that level. It's like African music in that sense - things that change and go from here to there; it's not a specified time or anything like that.

That's how it led me there, basically I just wanted to play at home and just be mucking around and then we had a few parties and people jammed on real instruments in the lounge room. My room's next to the lounge room and I would play along with them with electronics and then joined them all together. Then we sort of had a semi band called "The Dancing Assassins" for a while, which was all the people that used to play there (and which still occasionally rears its head) but it slowly came out of the house basically, until I just do it by myself now which is fun, but the other thing is I broke my arm about three months ago and I couldn't play my guitar and I thought, "Here's a handy time to be doing this, you only use one hand to push a button". I thought, "I can do this with my hand tied behind my back", so to speak, but it's pretty hard with my cast, trying to turn the synthesizer down with my nose [gesticulates with his nose].

Performing that music, or performing on the dobro or playing electric guitar has no difference inside me when I'm playing. It's not of an interest... I'm not a fan of the music in that sense, I don't play music for that reason. I do become a fan of things, there's things you can do...

JM: Okay, but for want of a better a word I'm going to keep calling it techno. The difference between that and what you're doing with Maurice Frawley and the Working Class Ringos (where it seems like you're playing every stringed instrument except the guitar)...


CO: And this one I'm doing every sort of keyboard instrument except the guitar! Well, the funny thing is that one of the tracks, which was the first track I put together with my so called techno act, uses a loop from Des [Hefner], the drummer from the Ringos, off the Ringos' album, which is quite funny because obviously it's a folk band, but I really don't see the difference. In fact that's one of the fascinations I have for it. All music is so closely related. Like shit music is the same as other shit music and great music is the same as other great music on this level that I appreciate music on and I think that most people kind of do, except you get caught up in fashion - it's impossible not to in this world. Still, inside, there are people who secretly think, "Yeah, I love that song", but they wouldn't admit to it.


Maurice Frawley and the Working Class Ringos
with Charlie pictured centre.

JM: So how did you meet up with Maurice Frawley?

CO: I'd moved down to Melbourne from Sydney because my girlfriend was doing a course here and I'd come back from a tour or something and an old school friend of mine was playing saxophone with him at the time. I'd gone out to see him and I was sitting there one day; he was in another band, it was sort of an electric old school rock'n'roll band...

JM: Was that the Olympic Sideburns?

CO: No, it was after that, it just another band he had. I didn't know he was from the Olympic Sideburns or anything like that and I was just there and I got to know him. I couldn't stand that band to be honest, but within that I thought jeez this guy writes fantastic songs. That's how I got to know him and then one day I said, "I've got this lap steel guitar, maybe we should..." and he goes, "I know this double bass player we play with sometimes" and that's how it started. He and the bass player were doing a gig, totally just acoustic guitar and double bass, no P.A. or anything like that, in this little bar on Saturday mornings and I said, "I'll come along and play my slide". I hadn't bought the dobro by then, it was just the lap steel that I'd had since I played with Louis Tillett. So it happened like that and I thought, "I'm sick of playing a lead break in every song you know... so I'll do a lead break in every song on a dobro now". Dobromania! Hence now I'm sick of that one (no, that's not true).

JM: What Maurice Frawley and the Working Class Ringos are doing is like one kind of "country". People used to talk about "country rock", which was briefly trendy and is now much despised, but I find what he's doing reminds of the countrified Rolling Stones, say around the time of "Beggars Banquet", particularly songs like "No Expectations" and "Dear Doctor".

CO: It's closer to that than it is to country rock, but it's also close to country more in an Australian sense. It's a funny thing to say that; not Australian country music or not Australiana or anything. Maurice isn't a fan of any style of music, or that style of music, he just sort of... basically he is a country boy, you really kind of notice it sometimes in his music, but when we say we're a country band, we're not really talking about country music; it's not like we have a pedal steel and play like donka dinka donka dinka...

JM: ...or that you're dying to play at the Ole Opry in Nashville...

CO: Yeah, it's not that sort of thing and it is musically close to that Stones thing or a Dylan thing, I suppose, that's natural for any singer songwriter on acoustic guitar, but it's also closer to sort of hillbilly or jug music... a jug/folk sort sound which we've tried to incorporate, even when we're playing the slowest beautiful songs that he writes, in some way we're trying to think how can we imagine, like a jug band, but playing slowly... singing like bubbles coming up through water, if you know what I mean. It's hard to explain, but that's the way we sort of approach it.

JM: You've also been doing a lot of work with Tex Perkins, whose music is also a kind of "country", but isn't traditional country or anything like the Maurice Frawley type country.


CO: No, well leading up to the first record I did with him, the "Tex, Don, Charlie" record... I think I might have done something with him before, but that record - no, that was the first record with him! - the Ringos had already established that sound and in a way the Ringos influenced that record a real lot too. Apart from anything else, Shane played the bass and he plays bass in the Ringos and every time he plays in a band he's instrumental in the sound of it, because he's such a potent appeal. I don't know if that's the best way I can put it. He doesn't play a lot, but it's really strong...


Charlie with Tex (foreground left) and Don Walker.

JM: He seems to have a pretty strong presence on stage, just from what I've seen when I've seen the band play.

CO: Yes and when he's playing on recordings you can always hear the way Shane plays, but it is another style of country. Since that, Tex and I have moved away from country and I use some of my electronic concepts in it, even when we're still using acoustic instruments, or in the recording process with Tex. We've done two records and at the moment I'm in the middle of a third one with him, we're about to start recording. The first one was more or less like "Tex, Don, Charlie" in a way, but looser, a bit more rock, Dirty Three-esque, because it had Jim and Warren in there and the second one was where we started getting away from the country. It had that loose sort of thing, but not going reggae or anything; not all rock, but we found a little path to follow and that's what the new one's doing, following that path. We're both quite happy, well I am. It was great last week, we were up there for a week at his place squashing the songs into... a rolled up piece of paper.

JM: Is he going to record them before you play them live, or is he going to take them out and try them live?

CO: We already did. We played a couple of gigs up there. We've played four of them live. I don't know about the rest. We're starting recording next week so some of them obviously... some we may make up in the studio. It's a process making a record, we're not some band who's been playing songs for a year and then "Let's go and record 'em". The idea is to make music, it's not a... it's just another way of doing it. Not that any way's better than any other, it's just that there are different ways of doing it; they're all equally as valid. I'm just saying it's terrible to record a song after you've squashed all the life out of it by playing it in pubs for six months on a tour. Sure you get it right and make it really pleasing, but it'll be down to the lowest common denominator; no little fun bits, no good bits, nothing to make you prick your ears up. Probably have a big hit! But it's not very interesting.

JM: Sometimes though music goes the other way. You'll hear a band's record and then you'll catch up with them after they've been playing the songs live for a year and all the songs have changed and blossomed and the band are wishing they'd played the songs longer before they recorded them.

CO: Yeah, but that's what I'm saying; it works both ways though. It can be the other way round. It's probably happened to lots of music that we know, that maybe originally was fabulous, but we know it now as this blech... and it happens a bit when you know of a band and "I used to love this song, I used to go see 'em..." and then you hear the song again on the radio and you think "This doesn't sound any good, maybe it's because it's on vinyl and not on CD, maybe it's because of this...". No, maybe it's because you used to see them live and there's something about the live music, early on before they recorded it. There was one band in particular that I used to think of like that and that was the Sunnyboys. I used to love them early on live, but once the album came out it was all so tamed up and slicked down. Sure it was the biggest hit and showed the songwriting craft and all that crap, but you listen to it now and where is the spirit? Even though it is fantastic and you know I'm not criticising it, I'm just saying that from my memory before it was recorded, I loved it like that.

So anyway, it depends what music you make too and the music that we make, at the moment we're doing like this process where we get the songs, we rehearse them up like a band and go and play them or play them together and then go and record them and pull them apart, put them back together and hopefully, like the last album, they just end up sounding really quite simple and plain, but I don't know, you just... make the song fast for a while, then you make it... feast for a while, then you starve again it for a while; it's all different.

It's very good working at the moment with Tex, it's good fun, we're using all these different elements without actually trying to do any particular style, we've just found a style that we know we're trying to do; it's not morbid and slow, it's not fast and happy, you can't really call it anything like that, it's just that it's the thing we're doing. Yeah, it's acoustic based, but what's that got to do with anything? There's electric guitars just as much, synthesizers... that's why it's fun.

JM: I noticed that when you're playing, the last couple of times I've seen you play with Tex, everyone in the band seems to be swapping instruments... you might move over to the keyboard and some else plays your guitar...

CO: Well that's got, in a way, a concept behind it. When we first started to do this, I didn't want to get this sound like... For instance we don't record with a bass player per se. Not anything against bass players, but we didn't want to have a bass player, or a drummer. In fact, I did the first tracks on the drums and some drums got put on after and sometimes we did get bass players in, but the idea was to not get this sound where that's this, that's that... So the band has the whole sound we wanted to create, not like... it's hard to explain it, but anybody who plays music has a way of playing music and rather than showing it [just] on their instrument, it would be more in their style on any instrument. None of the music we play is any too hard for anyone to play, I mean one fingered piano playing... we all play at different moments anyway, so plunk plink plunk plunk plunk and we're just trying to put it all together, but I think that's good for the sound of the group, so then when it changes you can change the whole flavour and the whole taste, but it doesn't actually change. Murray's playing the bass now instead of his guitar and he has a certain way that he pulls the time or whatever and no one has to notice this, but as an audience hopefully just at some point say, "Ah, I like this" or whatever. So it's about the live musical experience. In the studio it may not be happening like that. I mean I do a lot of the recording in the studio, or whoever happens to be there at the time. You want to do that bit... but live it's not like that; it's, "Hmm, who'd be good on this song?", or (laughing) "He doesn't like this song, so make him play that one!".


With Joel (left).

JM: Would you say then that the Tendrils shows and records that you've done are maybe tending towards the ultimate extension of that approach? It seems to me that when it's just you and Joel [Silbersher] and even when you add a drummer, there's a lot more experimentation and bouncing of musical ideas off each other and reflecting back off each other?

CO: Tendrils sounds like that, but in fact all that bouncing off each other is not in the playing. We've got that music to such a great place that it sounds like yeah we're bouncing off each other and reflecting, but really we're kind of playing the same thing all the time. I've never really been in a band that plays that much exactly the same, but the emotion between each other changes dramatically. Some songs will be "whoo...er" and others'll be "er...ah", but it'll be the same physical notes we're playing. That's why it's really entertaining to play in that group because I know that sometimes when we add drums we go, "look we're doing it this way or that way, but no that bit's gotta be exactly the same". It's a bit like being in some daggy eighties pop band. Fuck, how did we get to this point, dammit? That's why we stopped playing... it got too far... (smiling) No, we do still do a few a gigs. It's good actually, but Joel's been working on his solo album, which he just finished last week and you know, I went techno, ruined everything...

JM: (chuckling) Well, I wouldn't say that.

CO: I don't know if you've seen any of the gigs I've done to date, but most of them have been really good fun. They weren't "gigs", because I started doing them on a Monday afternoon, starting at four o'clock and going to eight o'clock at the Duke of Windsor [Hotel].

JM: Was that the "Start Your Week Off On A Bad Note"?


CO: Yes and it was good, because I didn't do any "sets", I just started playing and sometimes I'd mix in a record, so I could have a break while the record was going and then "Oh, I like that bit of the song", so I'd go and join in with it and then mix it out and I'd play basically non stop until about eight. Generally there was poetry after me, but a few times the poetry reading wasn't on. A couple of times I played until 10.30 or 11 o'clock, seven hours and just keeping it going with no sets or songs and that's why it was rewarding, because what I'd set out to do was to get rid of this idea... It's all a bit of a wank, the rock performance and everything, even though it's a necessary wank I suppose, because it's what it is. Music also exists for everybody on another level, like this stuff in the background [referring to the light techno muzak being played over barroom P.A.], it doesn't all have to be shit too.

JM: So how do you feel generally about playing with other guitarists? In the New Christs you were on your own, but in most other situations where I've seen you play, there's often been another guitarist. Do you find it's good and/or interesting to trade ideas?



"Midnight Rain" with Louis
Tillett.

CO: In the New Christs, that was my decision. I said, "Look, yeah I'd like to do this, but I don't want the two guitarist thing". I have never really liked playing with another guitarist. That's why with Louis [Tillett] it's generally just me and him, sometimes with Penny [Ikinger], but Penny was more involved with the Wet Taxis side of Louis. With acoustic guitarists it's different... in acoustic based music I don't approach it that way. I don't really like playing the dual lead and bouncing ideas across that much. I prefer just to be the only guitar player, unless it's an acoustic guitar strum thing where that's involved... Most of the times that's why the instruments change around in the Tex thing too, to keep it so it doesn't ever get to that point. Even though that point's fine.

I do actually do this gig with the Large Number Twelves, which is with three guitars, but in that band I just stand around until the lead break, which is lots of fun. They play right next to this bar, so I lean up next to the bar and then "here it comes", do bida do bida do do do [Charlie launches into some covert air guitar].

They exist in this world before punk rock existed. Wonderful, two brothers from up in Bendigo and they write these fantastic songs that are like a band would play if punk rock never happened. I guess it's like John Lennony, but not Beatlesy, Dylany, Stones. All that flavour, but they've got this sort of special thing, I don't know... they're hillbillies, but it's great because I just stand there next to the bar. After I'd played dobro for ages I had to start playing electric guitar again. I think it was for the Beasts Of Bourbon and I hadn't played guitar for ages. I lived down the road from them and I said "Can I come up on Sundays and just play some lead for a while, because I've got to get some practice?" and they said, "Yeah, no worries mate, that'll be fun" and suddenly, "Ooh, this is really good fun!", so I kept doing it and it's really good. We play at the same place on Sunday afternoons; when we go and play other places it doesn't seem to work as well, so we just stick there.

JM: Are you doing much "for hire" studio work at the moment, or is it mainly just with people you know?

CO: It's only ever with people I know. I've never done it otherwise. I suppose the only period was that early Melbourne period in the early to middle of the nineties, when all the solo albums got made. Spencer started his and I did mine, blah, blah, blah, I did a few, but that was all just with friends, that circle of friends that became known as the "Melbourne Music Mafia".

JM: I have heard that term.

CO: That scene around Atlantis Studios that all those people [were in] and everyone playing on each other's records... and it was great, fabulous, a fabulous time.

JM: I really liked your solo album ["Vertigo and Other Phobias"]. Is there any possibility that you'd go back and do something like that again?

CO: Well, when I play live I play a couple of those songs. "Cry" I still play exactly the same as on the album and "Wilt". I alter them a little just as anyone will with songs that are old. I don't think anything I do, even though I change forms and genres and all that, I don't think it is ever that different to the other thing, so when you ask me that question I go, "Yeah I'm playing that music all the time". In my head, even when I'm sitting there playing with the Ringos, it might be the same as a New Christs solo in Spain where I threw my guitar into the audience. If it's coming from the same place, the style, the environment, the place is all secondary to me.

JM: Unfortunately, from my perspective of living in Sydney, you haven't been coming up and playing all that often recently. I guess breaking your arm has been a large part of the problem.

CO: Yeah, we had quite a few things. The Ringos had a few things going, I was coming up to play this electronic thing. I was going to be there for the Big Day Out, not doing the Big Day Out, but doing something at this little pub in Surry Hills, by myself, playing all day. I thought that was a good idea, because none of my friends could afford to go to the Big Day Out. But then I broke my arm and all this stuff started happening, so it's only really been recently, like the one I played last week and that was the first time I'd done a full gig with my arm out of its cast, on the dobro with the Ringos, which is the one which is hard to play with that broken arm and the piano's been a bit tricky... it was a bit of a shock.

JM: So is there a chance we'll see you up in Sydney later in the year?


CO: Oh yeah, we're planning some Ringos trips. Tex'll probably play there, but I'd like to go up there with this other thing that I've been doing.

JM: I'm certainly keen to hear what it's actually like.


CO: The other thing is trying to find a place to play. Playing from four to eight on a Monday afternoon was perfect for it. It's not like an hour's set type thing, but it's not a dance party gig either, so it's a matter of working out... That's why the Big Day Out thing was a good idea and hopefully it would have been pissing with rain! I'm trying to plan a rainy day, when everybody's out of town and some idiot wants to put on a gig. That's what I'm waiting for in Sydney. (laughing) Sounds like quite a common night in Sydney! I don't want to be a part of a "rock" night. I want to just put on one thing. I might bring up this other band with me from Melbourne...

JM: I'm more and more intrigued. I hope that works out.

CO: Yeah, I'll get it together.

JM: So what sort of gear do you use? Before you answer, I've got to warn you that I'm not that technically minded.

CO: Neither am I!

JM: Oh c'mon, now you're being too modest by far. Ken Shimamoto, the Bar's frontline reporter in the US (and the only competent musician on the fulltime staff) is very keen to learn what you use.

CO: I use all sorts of gear, for every different reason. My main electric guitar that I use is a Telecaster Deluxe, a black one; the brown ones are really awful. That might sound like a joke, but these guitars that I play, they're generally pretty unpopular. Hardly anyone used them. I think they were made for like three years, from '69 to '71 or something like that and all the brown ones I've touched are crap. They've got that old stumpy, fat neck that's really horrible and I've never played another black one, but my black one is fantastic. So I've just come to this conclusion that all brown ones with the two humbuckers suck and all the black ones are good. I bought that guitar when I was in the New Christs in about '85 or '86, really early on. We'd gone up to Brisbane and I was talking to some mates and I said, "I really want to buy a guitar" and he's gone, "I know this guy, he's got a guitar, an old telecaster I think" and I've gone, "That's what I want. Ring him up and ask him if it's black". This was before I knew about the black and brown thing and he goes, "Yeah it's black". "Ask him how much!", "$450", "Shit. Okay, I'll buy it" and I went over there and bought it. I didn't really know much about... I don't know much about gear. What I'm saying is that I found that for that reason and it's turned out to be a great guitar.

That's my main guitar. I've got a couple of others, that and a beautiful old Vox, but it's not a normal Vox, it's got the old British Bulldog speakers in it and it's really heavy. In the New Christs I used these two old sixty three and sixty four Marshalls, which were just beautiful. That's my main electric set up. My lap steel is a beautiful old Rickenbacker, but it's a "Rickenbacher" R-i-c-k-e-n-b-a-c-h-e-r. His name was Aldo Richenbacher and he had to change his name when the Nazis came to power. I discovered it and that's an old guitar, but another one was given to me for producing a record from a friend and I lucked up on it and it's a beautiful old instrument. My dobro: I had this money to go and pay Atlantis Studios and I walking up the street with Maurice, this was just after I'd met him, and I said to him, "I've got to get a dobro one day" and we walked past this music shop and there was this old dobro! I knew nothing about them, never really even played a dobro and bugger, look at that; looked at this money in my pocket; walked away; walked back; went in and bought the dobro; told the guy at the studio... and it was about a year later in the studio playing the dobro and he goes, "Jesus Charlie, I'm glad you never paid that bill!". That's an old 1932 dobro. Those are my main instruments.

JM: Do you use much in the way of pedals when you're paying electric?


CO: The ones I try to use are purely to boost and the traditional ones like a wah wah, but generally I'll do anything to create a sound if we're recording. Live if we have to get a sound, I'll do anything to get someone to create that sound for me. My passion for playing live is actually for playing the music, but I have no problem with that whatsoever. "That's a great idea, Joel! Plug your guitar through this and that and that and then let's do that!". So we use anything, whatever you need to get a sound. I have no favourites, but I'm not fond of old fuzz pedals, because what happens if you want to get a different sound? If you want to get an old fuzz pedal, you can get an old fuzz pedal, but you've got to appreciate a sound on its own merits, rather than looking for a pedal. That's where it starts to come into fashion in my eyes. Even if it's not, in my eyes it is and I wouldn't want to be swayed.

JM: Sounds like you've got a real knack of attracting good instruments to you.


CO: Yeah, it's been great. I've got quite a few other things, like acoustic guitars and shit like that. There's a little other one, the red one, an all red acoustic that I play. I bought that really early on. That's another one that's a special guitar to me and I love it. Every time I play it in the Studio it sounds fantastic, but other people play it and they break a string or something and they go, "Aw God Charlie this is a piece of shit, what in the hell is this?". Well, horses for courses, each to their own.

JM: That actually reminds me of a story I heard from Didier Georgieff, about when you and Louis did that track for his "Storming the Citadel" tribute to Citadel Records.


CO: Yep, I remember that.

JM: He said there was a shitty looking old amp in the corner of the studio that no one wanted to use. A couple of people had plugged into it, but didn't like the sound they got and everybody else just looked at it and decided it was crap and they weren't going to touch it. When you and Louis arrived, you just walked up to it, plugged in, fiddled with the knobs for a few seconds and got the most marvelous sound out it, better than anyone else could get out of their own regular gear. So it's got more to do with the hands of the player than the instrument in those hands.

CO: Yeah, my "thing" is in my hands, which is why when I broke my wrist it was a bit frightening. I've pursued that my whole life. I'm aware I can get a sound, but it's only the sound that I want and that suits me. It might not be right for somebody else. With the guitar swapping in Tex's band and in other bands, when it gets round to "Which guitar will I use?", it's generally "I'll use Murray's" and it's not out of respect for me or my instrument, it's more like, "It's a bit hard to play that one, it always sounds so crappy". Hopefully it is in my hands; that's good if it works that way.

I remember that session though. It was a lot of fun and what was great about it was having Rob Younger produce it. We were doing a New Christs song ["Headin' South"] that we never really nailed on the [original] recording, so that was very funny with Rob producing it.

JM: At the end of the session, didn't he say something like "Charlie, why didn't you play like that when we tried to record it?"


CO: I don't think that was my fault back then...

ON TO PART TWO