On stage with Rob Younger in the New Christs in the late-80s.
JM: So what made you pick up a guitar and start playing at the very beginning
and when was the beginning?
CO: I was very young. My Dad played the piano and my Mum was a painter. We had music and art around us our whole lives. I was the youngest at that stage and the girls were painting and singing. They're both painters. Dad had shown me a couple of things on the piano, just mucking around... this is how you play a "C" chord; if you can work that out, then you can work out what a "D" chord is. Basically really early he said the right thing to me. He's not a teacher or anything, he's a captain in the navy, but he said the right thing to me to make me work out the basic maths of the piano, so I played piano first.
Then my sister bought one of those guitars with a book saying "Three Easy Lessons". I think she did the first lesson, then she chucked the guitar downstairs and I found it down there one day and I just started mucking around. I was really, really young, like eight or nine, pretty young, and I started learning it straight away. Dad showed me a few chords and then next day I think I said, "No, you play it this way...". It was just like straight away. Then we had our first band called the Hot Dogs. Me and this mate from down the road did a concert for our parents. We played "Walk, Don't Run", but I could only play the derm de de derm de de derm de de derm derm, that's all. We did that bit round and round, a bit like a loop (see I've always been into this loop business).
I didn't pick up the guitar or start playing rock music or anything for any reason. It was just that I was brought up that way. It was sort of weird. You'd go down to the beach on the weekend with Mum and she'd bring out the things and we'd have to paint pictures down there. Jesus how embarrassing, when all my friends were off trying to find cigarette butts to smoke and that... painting bloody pictures, but that was just what we did. Then I moved to Canberra and there was an older friend at school who was kinda good at guitar and he used to help me play and then we used to go to the folk clubs and play there when we were about twelve or thirteen. There was a place in Canberra called the Griffin Centre, it's still there now. I think they still have little youth club things going on. We'd go there and drink green ginger wine outside. They were right, what they said about music - it leads to no good. Thankfully!
JM: Did you have any particular influences along the way? Did you hear other guitarists and think, "I'd like to be able to play like that"?
CO: No, the influences have been generally bits of people's music. Probably the most major influence is the way John Coltrane plays a ballad. You could pick any of them, as long as there isn't a singer with him. That and Django Rhienhardt's irreverence, whereas John Coltrane's reverence... those two things have probably been the biggest influence. In rock music there hasn't really been much, except "Oh, I like that song", "I like that bit". I don't have a favourite record. Sometimes I'll like records, but those are the two things that have always stuck with me. There are no guitarists that I would say, "Ah, I love every minute of it!". It would be easier for me to name a piano player that I like every minute of than a guitarist, mainly because I've played piano just as long as I've played guitar.
I became a guitarist by default really, because when I moved to Brisbane from Canberra I got there and didn't know anybody and just sat around in my room playing guitar. I was a bit lonely really and then one day in the music class they said, "Everyone bring in your instrument, whatever you can play", so I took my guitar in and on the way to school... I didn't like anyone there and no one really liked me; I thought it was straight and fucked... and down the back of the school bus (because I had to get on the fucking school bus right at the beginning of the bus route; it was horrible and I hated it) I was sitting there playing my guitar and I met this guy who was the saxophone player in the Ringos when I moved to Melbourne (who since doesn't really like me any more because he claims I sacked him from the Ringos, which I kinda did; he kept singing in Maurice's ear and playing saxophone solos too much, but he was a naturally talented guy and a great friend... but everything changes...).
JM: Sounds like music very much comes first with you.
CO: Yeah and it's a shame that some things get fucked up. I didn't even realise at the time that that was what was happening. Later I realised and oh yeah, oops... So anyway, I met him and no one else at school could play guitar at all and they're trying to put this band together and "Yeah, I'll do it, I can play". I sort of ended up being a guitar player. I think I'm basically adept at music, I don't see myself as a particularly good guitar player. If I have to learn things, sometimes it takes me a long time. Maybe it's just that what I see as to be a good guitar player is different to what others see. It's not technical proficiency I'm after, it's being able to go straight from my ears to be able to express it without pause, which is I guess the Coltrane thing. Spontaneous improvisation; it can be so deep and emotional, yet say on Django's side so hysterically funny and disrespectful and fuck you at the same time.
JM: So what was your first actual rock'n'roll band?
CO: Well, the Hot Dogs.
JM: [sound of gentle rustling of papers] I'm going to cheat a little, I downloaded a couple of bibliographies off the internet.
CO: Well you won't get much off the internet about me. It's all wrong. I went through it the other day, all that stuff, I've got to update it all... What does that say?
JM: Ninja Skill.
CO: That was a rock band up in Brisbane I joined. The singer was like an Elvis Costello kind of character. They were friends of mine. I was mainly working in theatre up there and jazz; I had my jazz groups and improvisation groups. One was even called Om, that's how into Coltrane I was ("Om" being a Coltrane album), but it stood for Original Music Ensemble actually. That was my little play on words because I was a really clever teenager... Those are my first formative groups, those improvised groups, with Mark Symonds who was living in Sydney. He was a legendary Sydney saxophonist, the most incredible jazz musician this country will ever produce. He's an incredible musician, really great; don't know where he is now. I lost track of him.
Those were my first groups. Up there, there was also this other thing called the Fabulous Dingo Family. That was just after Azaria got taken and we supported Norman Gunston at his concert... We did all sorts of things. In those days we weren't really considered rock. It was after the rock period of Brisbane, in this sort of dip area, where a lot of people had left and moved to Sydney and a lot of jazz was going on and theatre and stuff, but no one considered... there wasn't that much the idea of going to the studio and making records or anything, it was more like just doing stuff and being more proactive rather than... in some ways we never really considered it, which is always a shame now in retrospect, but it was the environment my group was in. I wasn't involved with the rock crowd up there at all really, rather the theatre crowd and the jazz scene.
Then I moved to Sydney and the first album proper I did, apart from little things up in Brisbane, was a compilation album for this girl called Meera Atkinson, who was a poet, which was produced by Rob Younger and it had like Ron Peno, me, Louis, Brett Myers...
JM: Just about everyone who was on Citadel at the time.
CO: Yeah and that's when I met Rob and Rob said, "Do you want to join this band?" and I said, "What band?" and he said, "It's called the New Christs". I'd barely even heard of Radio Birdman. I still don't remember even the band I saw last night, the name of it, I almost purposely never really take them in, but I've since realised that I had seen New Race on their tour up there. So that's how I met them. In a way, really the New Christs was my first rock band.
JM: Where does Paris Green fit in?
CO: I was in Paris Green before that, yeah I suppose Paris... but then if I go back to Brisbane, Ninja Skill, but before Ninja Skill there was the Truck Driving Gurus and before the Truck Driving Gurus there was Dave and the Spectators, which was another group. Actually we nearly won the Queensland rock awards. We were doing this really obscure, fabulous song and we were rocking on and it was all going great. We got in the finals doing this song and this guy's gone, "Let's sign 'em up, sign 'em up" and then he goes, "Oh, it's a cover? Aw fuck 'em". Somebody heard this conversation and it was like, "Oh damn, we missed our big break". God, thank goodness! It was a fun band though. I've been playing music my whole life. I had bands in high school, junior school, primary school. There was a school band and I convinced the teacher to let me have this little room for band rehearsals. I've just always done it. I was putting on concerts for my folks as a kid. I've just always done it.
JM: So where does Tango Bravo fit into all of this?
CO: Never heard of them.
JM: [after what is termed in the classics a "pregnant pause", during which we stared eye to eye at each other and the temperature in the room seemed to go down a couple of degrees] Someone has assured me that he's got a picture sleeve featuring your name and youthful visage on it (and you're the only band member who doesn't look like a new romantic).
CO: I was tripping that day. It was my birthday. I was playing a lot with Tony Buck in those days, when I'd just moved to Sydney and I was very poor. He was in this commercial pop thing. He used to like all sorts of funny music that guy. He said, "Do you want to do this stuff or not?" and I said, "Yeah, I'll do it" and I was just doing it, this horrible pop music. We'd do supports for the Venetians. Tony and I were friends and I didn't think about it, I didn't even care really and then it got to this point where there was going to be an appearance on Countdown and this five grand we'd all been promised had never shown up and I think we only did a couple of gigs, but we'd gotten some deal to make a single and I just went, "No, this shit's too much". I suddenly realised "no way, I'm outta here" and I left 'em in the lurch. It was pretty funny really.
JM: So how did you find working in the Paris Green environment? I guess that must have been right up your street, with people continually dropping in and improvising.
CO: There was a core band. There was Louis Tillett singing, the late but wonderful Jaime Fielding playing piano/keyboards (he'd just gotten the DX7 in those days and it was very flash - you could run your finger along the change of setting while he was playing a solo), Raoul Hawking playing the bass and Louis Burdett, another brilliant musician, playing the drums. That was kind of the band. It had started before, with Greg Jordan playing guitar and Diane [Spence] playing sax and then there was this big period where I joined. It was a band; there are a couple of recordings around of a few things, there's two I know of, maybe one on Louis [Tillett's] retrospective ["To Ride A Dead Pony"], one on "A Minute To Midnight" [a long out of print compilation on Adrenalin Records].
JM: A band played as Paris Green a couple of years ago...
CO: Well Paris Green was always a collective, anyone could do it, but there was this period when that was the core line up, but yeah, we'd take pride in it if we could go through a whole gig without actually playing when everybody would sit in. We could get drunk for the whole night. Also, it generated some great music on Monday nights there at the Sandringham. It'd be packed with people out on the street. That's another one where the stage is right up next to the bar.
JM: Everybody gets misty eyed about the Sandringham, but I
always thought it was a terrible place to see music, especially if you were
stuck right up the back, as I always seemed to be.
CO: Yeah, a real misery.
JM: There was that bar right in the middle and the bar staff were always in the way and other punters were always in the way...
CO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was horrible, but we played some great music there. Mainly between Louis and Louis and I, we just had some great nights. Just the highest energy, but coolest drumming. He can play like... We had this one band, Louis [Burdett] and I once, called Impropop (he comes up with the worst names). It was kind of trying to do techno I guess and he used to play these beats, no changes and so hard and the kick drum changing like when they're mixing a record where it's out of time like bup pa bup pa, that sort of sound and he'd be hammering it so hard... fuck, no one can do that; it was just fabulous! No one liked us of course and we were all tripping the whole time; we never got any gigs and got booted out of places, but it was fun for about three or four gigs. That was a great time in Sydney when you could do those things at those different little venues here and there and it was really good.
JM: People look back on that period now and just seem to see "pub rock" and "Aus rock" (or "Oz rock"), but it was so much broader.
CO: Oh yeah, this was far away from the pub rock scene. I'm talking about the upstairs place on the corner of Taylor Square, down in Whitlam Square, the Black Cat or something, which was really just a little room. Those sorts of places or some disco at the Cross that decided "Hmm, let's put on bands" and we'd get a gig there and no one would show up and it'd be dodgy and weird and we'd play this great music and the few people that would be there would be a part of this whole scene; later they'd be in bands themselves. It's all good productive stuff that and it's a shame that people don't want to have empty gigs.
JM: Surely some people find it disheartening if they're only playing to a handful of people, like their girlfriends and a couple of workmates.
CO: We were more on a "we're pioneers" attitude. I remember Diane Spence going through this period where she decided to give up saxophone and play electric violin. We had violin, guitar, Tony Buck playing the drums and somebody else playing percussion. I don't think we had a bass player. Looking back on it now, God that must have been fabulous music; maybe it was terrible, but the idea of going out and doing it was really good. No pop songs, not even an idea that maybe it would get played on Triple J. Fuck that. If I was in a rock band I'd go "Fuck Triple J, I'll play for my own enjoyment", because that's the way I used to feel in those days about things.
JM: Isn't part of the trouble today that people hear Triple J and think that's what music is, that's what you're meant to be playing if you want to be a musician?
CO: They're just part of the system, everybody is, but let's not get into that...
JM: So, none of those gigs was ever recorded? No one ever thought of plugging a cassette into the mixing desk and taking a copy for reference; just to see how it sounded?
CO: Nope, nope. Lenny Bastiaans is the only one who used to do stuff like that, like record gigs, but Lenny and Louis [Burdett] had an on and off relationship, so half the time one wouldn't show up or it'd end up with Louis trying to punch him with his cymbal so to speak, like hitting the cymbal right next to his ear, so it'd just deteriorate into just crap, but that was also part of the flavour of that time too.
Louis Tillett publicity shot.
JM: About that last Paris Green gig I mentioned a while ago,
that was Louis Tillett, Louis Burdett, Dianne Spence, Floyd Vincent on guitar
and I think Raoul was the bass player. The reason I mentioned it was that they
were also flogging off a CD EP that consisted of five songs done in a studio
in about 1986 I think, including a couple that were re-recorded for Louis's
later solo albums.
CO: Jeez I wish I had that. That's actually a pretty good recording I reckon. I know that one. Yeah, that's right, there is that around. It's got "I'm Down" on it. It's probably got that Allen Toussaint song we do, "On Your Way Down". It's all pretty down, I'm down, on your way down... "Parchman Farm", is probably on there.
JM: "Persephone's Dance" is on there. [the actual track listing is: I'm Down, Parchman Farm, Buzzard Luck, Shotgun Blues, Persephone's Dance]
CO: "Persephone's Dance"... yeah, that's a good studio [recording], Diane's really howling on that one; that's a ripper. I've been listening to Alice Coltrane a bit lately. I can't help thinking about Yoko and John and Alice and John and how successful Alice was with holding the flame and how awkward it's been with Yoko. Nothing against Yoko, it's just been awkward for her and both of these men seen as spiritual kind of figures... But anyway, I thought about that because Diane Spence is the only person I know who can capture that Pharaoh Sanders sound. Most of the time, if you can't play like Pharaoh Sanders, it sounds like blech, but somehow he can make it fluid and beautiful and she can do this too.
JM: Yeah, it's a pity she's been keeping a low profile lately. She hasn't been playing around town for a coupe of years.
JM: So you'd moved down to Sydney, you'd met up with Rob Younger, been invited to join the New Christs...
CO: They said, "All we're doing is making this record and going over and doing a tour of Europe. It'll only take six or seven months" and I said, "Yeah, I'll do that".
JM: So was that a full album they were talking about at that time?
CO: No, that's when we did the first singles. We did "The Black Hole" and "Addiction", then the double single with "Dropping Like Flies", "I Swear", all that stuff... It was those recordings; on the strength of that. But Louis [Burdett] quit before we went, which was a shame, but then Nick Fisher joined which was fabulous because he was really good, but the first recording we did with him wasn't very successful. That was the song that Rob and I ended up... it wasn't because of him, it was just that we hadn't settled in as a group. So he came with us overseas, then we did the "Distemper" album, went overseas again, and again and again, then went to Spain...
JM: You toured almost every year.
CO: Yeah, yeah and at the same time I was recording with Louis [Tillett] and going over there with Louis as well and at the same time touring with the Divinyls, to support this music habit. The Divinyls were great actually. Of all the Oz Rock bands, they were great. She [Christina Amphlett] was fabulous, some gigs we did were unreal.
JM: But after that first album it was really just Christina and Mark McEntee.
CO: Even before that it was really Mark's, though I guess Bjarn [Ohlin, keyboards and guitar] at the beginning also had a lot to do with it.
JM: So how did you end up playing with them?
CO: By accident. They were doing a couple of gigs in Sydney and they couldn't afford to fly this guy Dwayne out from L.A. So Chrissie goes to the manager, "I want a guitar player. All I care is that he's short and blonde". They rang up Floyd Vincent and Floyd couldn't do it for some reason and Floyd goes, "Aw, tell Charlie to go, he'll be alright", so they sent me along. I'd been up all night the night before and I go over in this Mercedes Benz to this big house over there and meet these two. They're eying me over and I don't know what's goin' on here so I said to their manager, "Gimme a tape and I'll go out and sit in your car out the front". So I go out the front, put the tape in and promptly fall fast asleep. I told this to Chrissie and they go, "Oh yeah, he'll do for these gigs and then we'll get rid of him", but they liked me and I got on famously with Chrissie straight away and Mark is a very good guitar player and musician, so we hit it off on that level and I played with them all the way through then, except for a couple of times when I couldn't do a few gigs and they'd have to get someone else as sort of their live M.D. It was great fun.
JM: They haven't played for a few years now, although I don't remember ever seeing a formal announcement that they were breaking up.
CO: No, their last tour was when I was on tour with the Beasts [Of Bourbon]. I'd left them because the Beasts had done a record and then we were on tour. I recorded their last album.
JM: So that was 1996?
CO: Earlier than that I think, '95. No '96, maybe you're right. That album ["Underworld"] wasn't very successful and it was a pretty crappy album. I played on it. It wasn't crappy, but it didn't... I dunno, but I'm still in touch with Chrissie, I see her quite regularly.
JM: Are they still thinking of doing music or have they gone onto other things completely?
CO: Aw no, Chrissie works on music over in the States with Charlie [Drayton] and recording and toying with this and that. She's not doing the theatre thing anymore. I reckon it would be great if the Divinyls did a tour. I don't see any problem with it, it's not like we ever broke up anyway.
JM: It's funny, a lot of groups are like that. They never officially break up, they just stop doing stuff together in public.
CO: Well, it was a full on few years for that group really and it was great. I reckon it would be great to do it again anyway. I'd have no problems about that. If I was doing a tour with Tex I would have to do that tour. Not that there's a hierarchy or anything, but some things are more important than others. I mean, with Divinyls I never wrote any of their music or anything like that; I was part of their live world.
Charlie (right) onstage ith Tex Perkins.
JM: So the Beasts Of Bourbon thing that you went on with, did that come
about because you already knew Tex?
CO: Yeah, basically. He wanted to do something and Kim [Salmon] didn't want to do it; they said, "Do you want to do it?" and I said, "Sure, it'll be fun" and I did and it was great.
JM: Pretty much everyone in the Beasts has ended up in Melbourne, although most of them first made their mark in Sydney... Or had people started moving to Melbourne already by then?
CO: Well, it was a Sydney thing at the beginning because Spencer [P. Jones] was living there and Kim had come over from Perth.
JM: And Tex had come down from Brisbane.
CO: Yeah and there were other people involved early on that were Sydney people, so it was more a Sydney thing at first. It was only a Melbourne thing later because everyone ended up down here. I didn't know Tex in Brisbane or Sydney. We met and became friends later. The first time I met Tex properly was when I was on tour with the New Christs, in Stockholm I believe, and the Beasts Of Bourbon and the New Christs played this gig together. That was a good night, a fabulous night! Spencer's still got a bottle of "Black Death" from that night. That was all good, but it all ended in tears. You know... as all great rock bands should.
JM: At least you got a fair number of overseas trips out of it!
CO: Out of music? Sure.
JM: What was the best band to tour with?
CO: Every tour is fraught with danger. It doesn't matter who you go with or what happens, all sorts of adventures happen. It doesn't matter whether you're going to Sydney for the weekend. So it's impossible to say. I've been on tours where it's all been laid on and other tours where there's been nothing laid on. They're not better for any reason. Some of the best tours we do, generally most years, the Ringos pack all our stuff into a van and we go up to Hervey Bay [in Queensland] and play a couple of nights up there and that's fantastic and then we just slowly dribble back down the coast. The second Tex, Don, Charlie tour was great fun. It's all part of a life really. Otherwise you'd start complaining about things when things aren't good. I'm not really into that whole complaining about... You're right, I got a lot of trips overseas and that was great. There's good and bad that goes with being in music for a long time. You can't always expect to be successful. If you're striving to be a star and that's what you're going for then fuck, go for it, but music's what I chose to do. It's not like, "Oh well, it's not working very well now, I'll go and get a job". I couldn't anyway; I've never had one.
JM: Outside of music?
CO: Nope, so I'd be sort of fucked really.
JM: I was thinking more in terms of taking your music overseas to different audiences. Which ones gave the best reactions or connected with the music the most?
CO: Aw, it's impossible to say. I'd say "Louis & Charlie" have done some particularly special gigs. There's a couple in particular I can remember, one of them being the show we did at the Metro a long time ago, where we had a whole line up of people with us. I don't know if you remember this gig. It started off with, I think, Noah Taylor solo, Conway Savage and Suzie Higgie [ex-Falling Joys], the Cruel Sea instrumental... it was all put together in the last week before. It was our record launch and I got Chrissie and Mark to do this song from the Divinyls and it was a whole bunch of different songs and a friend of mine, Bronstantine Karlarka from the Wet Taxis, played a classical piece, you know that Sam and Dave, no not Sam and Dave, (sings) "She was a rich cunt...", anyway a very vulgar piece of music that was excellent. That was a particularly special night. I don't have a cultural cringe at all!
Then there was another one I remember particularly of Louis and I in Berlin, but not because it was Berlin or anything, it was just a particularly special performance. There's other ones which have been like say the Greyhound here, which was just as good as Tex, Don, Charlie's biggest shows. I don't have a favourite, it's so different from night to night in any band. One night you might be thinking, "This is the greatest!"; next night, "Fuck what happened, how come this is all so distant?". So I couldn't say, because they are all so different that it's a different reaction that you're getting or trying to get. I've had horrible tours though. It's easier to say which were the real shit ones, but I'm not going to say that. None of them really are, there's good things in most; if you choose to do it, otherwise don't do it.
JM: Do you find though that there is generally a difference or not a difference? When you play here then over a period you must end up playing to the same people, so they know you and they know your music, whereas overseas it can be night after night of fresh audiences.
CO: It doesn't take long to realise that it's the same people over there too. It's a small place this world, but the other thing is I play with my eyes closed so I can't tell. I'm saying that as a joke, but in a way my eyes are closed. I don't always play here to the same people, I'm constantly moving around and playing other places. I don't really find that a problem, in fact I'd like it if we played the same place every week and the same people came along. Paris Green was a bit like that, the music could be so different that we could be a million miles away next week from the week before. Even though we were doing the same songs for like ten years. It's not like we were "jazzing" them, it was just different, whatever we felt like without being "jazzy" about it. Jazz has got a bad name, a bit like techno.
JM: Yeah, but even people who don't like jazz will say that it's cool, whereas techno... if you don't like it there's no qualms about saying it's crap.
CO: It's funny now as you walk past shops it's coming out [the door] and it's like, "Are you guys still playing techno?". It'll get like that soon and then they'll be on a similar level with old school rock'n'roll! Old school rock'n'roll, jazz and techno!
JM: Are you still doing "Start Your Week Off On A Bad Note"?
CO: Not at the moment, because I'm working on Tex's record. That'll take up about the next month I guess and within that time I won't be doing anything else, but when I've finished that and come back, I'll do some more of those in Melbourne and hopefully Sydney and completing the album I'm going to do, which should be fun. It's going to be a mixture album, but that's yet to be done. I've got half of it recorded, that's what I've used live, these tracks I've recorded; and mix them and break them up. The other elements will be just guitar - a music record.
JM: You were also doing something at one stage with "Feldon's Music Club".
CO: That's a club me and my girlfriend put on and it's based along these lines we've been talking about. It's a bit like when you're sitting around with your friends and going, "I wish there was a place where we could go and see that". It's a bar that's generally not open, it's not like a hang for anybody, there aren't regulars there or anything. It's normally a sort of disco, a suburban disco, but it's a great little room and the guy who runs it is good and it's got this little DJ booth and a little stage with lights. It's a mixture. We put on bands who haven't played yet, but it's not a forum for new bands.
I did my first live techno there, my first proper electronica one I should say, and Shane Walsh's new band and Kylie [Greer], my girlfriend who runs the club, she played solo; she'd never played piano live before. We have a DJ, Kylie's sister Lani, who normally does sort of techno/house DJing at house parties, rent raves and all that. She's got into this whole idea too, so she got into this trying to play slow without being "chill", so it's got this sort of flavour and Brian Hooper, he did his first gigs there and he did like the same song three times: once by himself, once with a backing track and once with someone else playing guitar. You know, it's experimental but it's an interesting night out and the other night we had a launch of three independent videos. People don't play long sets, there's no demand to play forty five minutes. It's a night to go and see stuff. It's interesting, but not loud, although it can be sometimes. It's just an anti-rock gig, but without it being a lounge bar. It's not comfy or anything, it's cold and it's got a concrete floor! It's got this good light that flashes around randomly. Sometimes we put on movies, if the band's a bit boring. It's really good fun. We've done about five or six of those and they've all been interesting.
JM: Do you also still play regularly, or semi-regularly, on Sunday nights?
CO: That's the Large Number Twelves, the band that exists before punk rock.
JM: It sounds like you're going out and making lots of opportunities for you (and everyone else) to try different things.
CO: I'm not trying to, I'm just "do". When nothing's happening I just go, "Fuck, I'm bored. I better go and do something", because I need to do something, not because I'm trying to raise my profile or anything. I'd rather go and play on Sunday with the Large Number Twelves than sit at home and watch "Big Brother" (not that I'd ever watch "Big Brother"), although the National Geographic channel can be pretty good on a Sunday...
JM: Aside from the next Tex Perkins album, what else do you see on the horizon
CO: After Tex's album, there's my album and then the Ringos will be making a new album. Before the end of the year, all those three should be completed.
JM: Are the Ringos actually signed with anyone at the moment?
CO: Not currently, no.
JM: Pity. The last time they came though Sydney I didn't buy any of their albums at the gigs and I'm regretting it now, because they don't seem to be in any of the indie shops either.
CO: Well, we're in a difficult situation because we're signed with a label that's just been very unhelpful, to put it politely. I'd like to get all the records and put them out in a little indie box set, make it cheap and find a label that would like to put out our music. People love us all over the place, we can go and play in the smallest towns in Australia and people come up and go, "Oh the Ringos, fabulous". When you talk about some of the great gigs, the Ringos have done these gigs where people come up to you and say, "God, I was going to kill myself last week...", you always hear those sort of stories, but when they come to you, it's beautiful. The Ringos will always have a little place to play, even though we have internal problems like a family. We have our struggles, but between Shane and Maurice and Des [Hefner] and I it's pretty good, we all love it for the same reasons, but it would be good to have a label. I can't understand why all the labels baulked at us last time, so then we're on this little label which can only get rid of about ten records anyway and then other labels are approaching us now going, "Well, you didn't sell many last time", but that's not because... it's very difficult.
JM: So the number you've sold isn't any measure of the how many people might have bought them if they'd had the chance.
CO: Yeah, that was our problem. It was the worst example of independent record company dealings I've ever... and I've been on independent record labels my whole life, except for one or two, but God, it was outrageous.
JM: I won't make the mistake of letting 'em go past the next time around.
CO: There's a few still around. Empire was the label and you can still find a few. I don't know where. I can't even face the people there, I'm so pissed off about what they did, they way they dealt with it and everything, but I don't want to badmouth them... we were probably ready for a different sort of deal from what they were able to offer.
JM: On a lighter note then, Paul Kelly's got a song called "Charlie Owen's Slide Guitar".
CO: [muttering under his breath] Aw, Jesus...
JM: What do you think about being immortalized in that way?
CO: The first time I got asked that question, I must have been a bit pissed I guess. I said, "I don't need a fuckin' song to get immortalized!", but I was only joking when I said that. Maurice and I were doing a gig supporting Paul and Spencer at the Bendigo Town Hall, quite a long time ago. Maurie and I drove up in the back of some friend's car and we did our gig, then they were going up to do their gig; it was just those two and us two, no band or anything. Just one of those gigs at the town hall, very funny gigs those gigs. We were downstairs backstage and waiting through their set. We started drinking and all that and then they came down after their set and they started drinking too because it was one of those cold nights, audience wise and everything.
So we all settled down dreading the drive back to Melbourne, all sitting downstairs getting pissed. Then the guitars came out and we all started playing songs. Spencer goes, "Paul, play the new song". Paul goes, "Nah, nah". "Paul, play the new song". "Nah, nah, nah". "Paul, play the new song". "Alright". Then they start playing this song, so I run out and get my guitar, thinking, "Paul's playing a new song, I'll get my dobro" and I run back in and he's singing this song about me going and getting my guitar and you know... I was only half listening and I thought, "Ah, they're taking the piss out of me, the pricks. Fuck you, I'll sit here and play my slide guitar", so I start playing this big lead break over the top of it. Then we moved on and he played the song and I basically took very little notice and just thought they were taking the piss out of me; it's not the first time someone's taken the piss out of me.
It wasn't until a couple of days later that someone said to me, "Do you know what was going on there the other night, Charlie?" and I said, "When we were getting pissed and they were taking the piss out of me, the bastards?". "No, Paul's written this song about you". I said, "No, no, no, no. We were just sitting around making up lyrics and stuff". "No, he has written this song about you". "Really?" Then he rang me up and said Charlie, blah, blah, blah and I said, "Well you have to live with it, not me!".
I am very flattered. I'm very fond of Paul; he's a wonderful, wonderful guy. I admire him in many ways as well. He's wonderful, a wonderful human and yeah, I was flattered and touched, too. Anyway, people have songs written about them all the time, but it's generally about how much drugs they do and how fucked up they are, so on that level I thought it was good, although Spencer told me that they were over in America playing on tour and someone came up and said, "My God, has Charlie Owen died?". "No". "Well, why'd you write a song about him then?".
JM: I guess people might take it more than one way.
CO: But there's a story in there. It's more about him than anything else; he just happens to use my name. [with mock indignation] Using my name to get famous, that's all he's doing!
JM: There's one band on this list I dragged off the internet that I see we haven't covered yet and that's Catfish.
CO: That's Don Walker. I've known Don since back playing with Wet Taxis or Paris Green. I know, I sat in with Wet Taxis at the Piccadilly Hotel one day. Don had always been a friend of Louis [Tillett], because he lived down the road from where Paris Green played before I was in it [before the move to the Sandringham]. Paris Green used to play from 12 [midnight] to 5 [am] Friday, Saturday nights in the Cross. So I always used to go along and see Louis and like Louis, being a piano player himself, and then he asked me if I wanted to do some playing and I've been friends with him ever since and I've played on quite a few of his records here and there and on live tours. I don't play with him as his guitarist, I just do things occasionally with him. He's a good friend and another person who's a good guy. He comes from a different approach to music, like Paul. Most of my friends who I admire in that sense do. I don't seek out like minded beings, you're sure to be disappointed. Anyway, Catfish was the name of his band, but then he changed it to "Don Walker", which is much better. I did a recording with him not so long ago, a couple of songs for his new album. I only do sessions now for people I know basically.
You know one you've missed out on?
JM: No, who, which?
CO: I did a period playing with Rene Geyer.
JM: Jeez, Rene Geyer? I didn't know that.
CO: That was the fun-est of all; it was great! We went up to Broome and Port Hedland and Mt Tom Price in a little car. Her and me and Bruce Haymans on keyboard. It was fabulous, a mixture between Tendrils, Louis & Charlie and Rene's soul thing. We did some great gigs. It's weird, the first one we did she had an acoustic gig booked and decided, "Charlie, would you like to play with me?". "Yeah, sure Rene, that would be an experience", and we were meant to have some other person play with us and then he ended up not being able to play and I said, "Rene, I'll be right, I can play by myself, I'll just rock out", and I took my electric guitar along and a little amp and she just had her vocals and she goes, "Are you sure this is going to be alright?", "Yeah, let's go!" and I just played like I was playing full on with a big rock band and she was soul funkin' her way out like she does and it was a marriage made in heaven, it was a wonderful gig. We'll do one of those again one day, just guitar and her singing. Reminded me of Louis and I when we'd do gigs occasionally, with just guitar and just him singing; I played heavy guitar, not "lite" guitar; using the jazz idea of playing the bass, but still playing like the left hand is a rock guitar, the right hand is a noise guitar.
JM: I don't think I've actually seen you and him [Louis] playing without him playing the keyboards.
CO: Mainly at Paris Green gigs we'd do that and down at the Pismo Bar we used to do it a bit, when that was running, more because he'd be "I don't feel like playing piano"...
JM: It's a funny thing, but it seems to me that if there's ever another piano player in the room then he's very happy for him/her to play and he just sing. He's got a great voice as well.
CO: It's also hard in that style of music, with big solos all the time, and he's not really a soloist, he plays his feel and sings. It was good when we did a few Paris Green gigs where he'd have piano and Jamie would have a keyboard, that was a good way to do it. Then after the guitar solo, he wouldn't have to go into a piano solo; not that he can't play, he'd just been singing and it's meant to go around, so another soloist was always good. He's in Greece at the moment, touring with the Dirty Three, like a double bill.
JM: I knew he'd gone overseas, but I thought he was going to Germany to promote his new album first, or perhaps he's doing that later.
CO: Germany and Greece are his main areas, but he's living in Greece. It's just a flight there [to Germany], but at the moment he's traveling around regional Greece with the Dirty Three, which would be wonderful. They've done quite a few. On their first trip over there, we gave them a few gigs with "Louis & Charlie" and it was just great. They did another one with us there, with the Bad Seeds, in Athens and Thessalonica. That'd be great round there, I reckon the Greek people would really love that, because a lot of people there really love Louis and the Dirty Three. They've latched onto them quite quickly, relative to say Germany.
JM: So I guess that brings us pretty much up to date then?
CO: It's funny, it's been the quietest six months of my whole career, mainly because of my broken arm, but also because I went into this electronic thing. It was a bit like doing a solo project again, I didn't outwardly go and try to do any other sort of music. The Ringos haven't been playing much, or Tendrills, which are the ones that generally I keep bubbling along.
You missed a couple of good records though, like the Conway Savage album. Have you heard the last Conway Savage album, "Nothing Broken"? It's fabulous. We were going to go on a tour around Europe. We were about to leave on September the 19th or something and then that silly shit happened...
And that unfortunately is where the tape ran out. Like some degenerate boy scout, I had come well prepared with plenty of extra blank tapes (not to mention spare batteries, a back up microphone, a screwdriver, a clean hankie and a combined bottle opener and corkscrew), but Charlie decided that he'd done enough talking on the record for one day and wouldn't let me slip a new tape into the machine.
Normally we end a Bar interview by asking what the interviewee prefers to drink, but since Charlie had been drinking Guinness when I arrived and had stuck to it throughout the interview, his preference was obvious. So I bought him another one and we chatted for a while longer, but off the record; posterity's loss was definitely my gain.
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