Let's face it, they're never gonna be Midnight Oil, but everyone knows Powderfinger get political on their latest album, Internationalist. Powderfinger's kind of politics however, are more in the tradition of Wales' Manic Street Preachers - an earnest, sometimes cynical, social and personal conscience displayed in the lyrics, whilst underneath, the band still attempt to construct the perfect pop/rock tune.
Suggest this to vocalist Bernard Fanning, and after talking it through, he'll finally agree. "That's a fairly good interpretation I suppose, because although we don't try to do anything in particular, we have an idea of how we want to the song to come across. But lyrically I s'ppose, 'cos I've written most of the lyrics for us in the past, and they're things that I'm interested in, and I suppose I'm...semi-qualified to talk about them, in that sense. So yeah, I'd tend to agree with you."
Bernard's musings on the quality of Manic's vocalist James Dean Bradfield's voice - "that guy's voice is amazing, it's so high it sounds really bizarre" - leads me to inquire whether he ever doubts the capability of his own voice to carry off his lyrics. "Yeah, course! All the time," he answers, amazed I'd even ask. Hearing the vocal range on Powderfinger's three albums, may wouldn't believe you could ever worry! Bernard laughs, "yeah but that's just an opinion isn't it? I don't think I have the perfect voice or anything. I know that I can sing, but I don't look at it that way anyway, it's really totally about the song for me, and tryna make the song as good as it can be by singing in an appropriate way, not by showing off my chops because...we'll leave that to Mariah and Celine and all those gymnasts," he laughs. "I'm not into singing for singing' sake in that sense. I just... I like songs."
First single The Day You Come made it bleedingly clear that Powderfinger are not very happy with the political and cultural climate in Australia at the moment and they're not afraid to tackle issues. But is there a danger of over-intellectualising such issues when placing them in the usually simple confines of a rock song? "Oh definately," answers Bernard. "But that's why we would never try and preach, we would only ever try and suggest things to people as possibilities. I don't think that's a good idea if you can't back it up. I think a band like Midnight Oil for example, can do it. Because they've got the brains and the information to put that idea across and then back it up. Peter Garrett against any thinker in the country, you know what I mean? Whereas me against any thinker in the country? No thanks. So that's why I would never say: think like this, do this, act now. Because I don't think that it's fair if you encourage people to do something, unless you're gonna do it yourself. But there's definately a danger of sounding condescending. But we have really tried to avoid that. If you only have the chance to say things every so often, then you might as well say something different, that's the way I approach it."
Powderfinger are rolling into town with Englishmen Swervedriver, a band renowned for their capability to reproduce thei album sound perfectly in the live setting. Is that something Powderfinger have ever wanted to do, let alone tried? "No, not at all. I don't really see the point, because then you could just hire a PA and put the record on. I think it's better if you fuck things up a little bit, and change sounds and have little pieces that aren't neccessarily there on the record. It makes things more interesting." Bernard continues, "live we're a rock band, you know. There's room to experiment and spread your wings a bit more on record, because that's also a lasting testament that goes on forever now, that recording, whereas our next show in Melbourne doesn't," he concludes emphatically before adding with a chuckle, "unless some-one bootlegs it! I think it is more important to get things right on record but I'm not tryna undervalue live shows, because I think they're more powerful, more emotinally powerful. If you're right there, and you've got a massive PA in front of you that's blasting out this big sound...You can't put you're finger on it but there's something about really loud, well-played music that does something to humans."
As a cricket fan, Bernard thinks this summer should be a great one, where "we should piss all over England" in the Ashes. So, to close with the most tenuous of links, does Bernard believe he could ever write a cricketing homage like Paul Kelly's Bradman? "Nah, nah. Don't have that narrative style down at all. I've tried to move towards that because I admire it so much, but I don't really have those skills in that sense, of writing a story from go to wo. That's what I tried to do on Hindley Street, but it doesn't come out really that way. That's my attempt to go in that direction anyway, just trying different things."
(Beat Magazine - December 1998. By Neala Johnson)