Give Em' the Finger
- By Craig Tangsley
- Published in MTV Scene
Jet may have the ARIAs and the Vines mat the the attitude, but Powderfinger don't give a rat's ass. Australia's favourite rock group prefer to drink a beer and watch cricket then live up to the expectations of the world's music media.
If it happened to be any other band, this could be a Spinal-Tap style overblown rock star moment.
I am, at present, doing aquatic doughnuts around Darling Harbour on MTV's Total Request Live cruiser, killing time before Powderfinger's big arrival. Lucky competition winners desperate for a glimpse of the boys are throwing themselves around upstairs in the sunshine. On sue, they shout and scream for the cameras.
Downstairs in the shade, the usual list of VIPs and hangers-on mill around the makeshift bar. People o the popular tourist harbour foreshore crane their necks to see what all the fuss is about. A Japanese couple peer through their digital camera. What they see knext will no doubt arouse their sense of anticipation.
An expensive-looking speedboat leaves the warf on its way to the MTV mothership. The boar circles once, the kids scream. Then it docks and fve good-looking men make their way to the gangplank. And now for that mentioned Spinal Tap moment... drum roll please... "intoducing Austrlia's greatest band, P-O-W-D-E-R-F-I-N-G-E-R!!!"
Grand entrances aside, tonight, like every other life in the Messrs Fanning Middleton, Collins, Haug and Coghill, there will be no sneering, menacing stories or bedding groupies. Instead, Powderfinger make their way quickly onto the mothership, eyes cast down. Bernard Fanning and guitarist Ian Haug head to the stage, ready to talk to MTV, while the other three disappear. A respectful science falls over the crowd, with all eyes n Fanning, the front man. He sences it, and shifts weight on his stool. "Nothing to look at here," he says, looking away, studying his nails.
Sometimes you can't help but think Fanning, and Powderfinger- a band that has sold more albums in Australia over the oast decade than any other - actually believe this.
THE DAY YOU COME
There's probably one story that best sums up Powderfinger, Austrlia's biggest 'anti-rock star' rock stars. When a major record label wants to sign a band, a pretty big fuss is usually made, as one of Australia's biggest labels, Song knows how to impress. Over the years it has signed everyone from Silvercahir to Tina Arena. But, so the story goes, when they came gunning for Powderfinger at a small Brisbane gig in 1993, the boys weren't interested. Fanning and co were, allegedly scared off when Sony A&R manager turned up in a limousine and, thus, opted to sign with rival label, Polydor. That a young Brisbane band with two indifferent EPs to their name at the time would dare reject one of Australia's biggest labels speaks volumes about their no-bullshit approach to music.
Beginning as a three-piece outfit in high school in 1989 with present members Ian Haug and John Collins, Powderfinger grew into five in 1992 with the addition of charasmatic front man Bernard Fanning, Guitarist Darren Middleton and replacement drummer Jon Coghill. Although signed in 1993, it wasn't until 1996's Double Allergic with breakthrough single "Pick You Up", that Australia actually noticed this 'new' band from Brisbane.
After the release of 1998's Internationalist, it became very clear that Powderfinger were something special. The album debuted at #1 on the ARIA charts and picked up 4 ARIA awards. It seemed Powderfinger were destined to greatness, especially as overseas success appeared likely too, what with Tom Cruise asking the band to contribute a track, "My Kind Of Scene", to the Mission Impossible II OST.
More local success followed in 2000 wit the half-million selling masterpiece, Odyssey Number Five. Not content to cash-in on their wining formula though, the band changed musical direction for 2002's Vulture St. To their credit, the band's new 'big rock' sound was a massive triumph, furthering increasing both their popularity, and ARIA count. But just as they were with the Sony A&R guy all those years ago, Powderfinger never seemed quite comfortable with the trappings of fame. If they conquered the world and became genuine Oasis-type rock stars, could they still play back yard cricket when they wanted to? And what on earth were they supposed to do if they had to play Wembley when the snapper were biting in Moreton bay?
WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY
It's two weeks prior to Powderfinger's appearance on TRL and Sydney is sweltering on its hottest spring day on record. At nine this morning the mercury had already hit 36. By two its 38 degrees and no respite is in store. Mercifully, Powderfinger have agreed to meet us in one of Sydney's oldest pubs - an old English establishment called The Lord nelson beneath the Harbour Bridge.
On the stroke of three vocalist Bernard Fanning and drummer Jon Coghill enter the air-conditioned front bar, check the cricket score, order pints of beer and join me. Fanning looks somehow smaller in real life than he appears on screen, or even live on stage. Maybe it's something about commanding a crowd that gives someone presence, but here, in the flesh, he looks bone-thin. Coghill introduces Fanning as "Bernie" but somehow the name doesn't fit. As if on cue, Powderfinger's "my Happiness" comes on the radio. Neither Fanning nor Coghill make mention of it at all. Considering "My Happiness" was on the radio over 17,000 times in 2000, it's no great surprise to them.
Meeting a band like Powderfinger who actively chose to avoid the limelight, can be tough for a journalist. It's not that they're deliberately difficult, like avoiding eye contact or scoffing at your best researched question. on the contrary, they're friendly blokes who don't mind sharing a beer. however, to say they're wary is to understate the fact. Perhaps they were burnt a long time ago, but they prefer not to give too much away. In fact, getting them to say anything controversial or quote worthy is nigh-on impossible. Sure, in 2001, Fanning called Grinspoon "Pantera Lite" in a newspaper article, but he just couldn't follow through, n the very next sentence he said how much he loved the band.
With this in mind, it's easy to see how the Vines and Jet conquered America with heir brash, in-your-face approach to celebrity. For the same reasons it's also easy to see why Powderfinger haven't. A point demonstrated by this conversation.
MTV: You've done a lot of youring latley, especially in England and the US. Is your profile overseas getting bigger?
Coghill: We're not very big in those countries at all. I mean we're very small.
MTV: Why is that you think?
Coghill: I don't know
Fanning: I think that in England the nature of the music industry is it's such a publicity machine and we kind of avoided that. We haven't necessarily tried to avoid it when we go overseas - there just hasn't been much interest in us. We haven't got some new radical story to tell. We're a rock band. We were that before the Vines and Jet - came along. hat was the right time, the fashion, when the Vines and Jet came along and it never was for us.
Coghill: We don't have a gimmick. we're just a band that writes music and it appeals to people, I suppose.
MTV: How have you guys managed to retain such a tight hold on your private lives? We know barely nothing about you.
Coghill: Because we have nothing to tell. Why would we want to tell anyone about our private lives? Why do you think people do? I don't understand that.
MTV: Do you ever feel like you missed out on the rock'n'roll lifestyle?
Coghill: In a word: no. We don't even talk about it.
MTV: So whats the most rock star thing Powderfinger have ever done?
Coghill: Had a beer n a bud with a journalist! (laughs). We've always tried to downplay being rock stars.
Hardly Marilyn Manson are they? You won't hear and sorid drug or kiss-and-tell stories about Powderfinger. You wont even hear catch them knocking around with other bands. Indeed, Jet recently swept the pools at ARIAs, temporarily knocking Powderfinger off their perch as Australia's biggest rock band, ter they still don't have any dirt to fling. In fact, on their website (powderfinger.com.au) Ian Haug predicted Jet would "Clean up" at the ceremony and jokingly referred to the fact they'd have to "wrestle with them on the night to see who really is the most hardcore". Incedently, the band recently asked visitors to their website to pray for rain in Queensland because it's "as dry as a bird's arse". somehow you can't imagine Axl Rose doing the same, can you?
LOVE YOUR WAY
Three pints of beer in, we discuss the death of Powderfinger. it's inevitable to talk when someone releases a best of album [they've just released fingerprints which chronicles their work from 1994 to 2000]. I study Fanning closely as he talks. Is he hiding something? The amber nectar might be loosened him up a little. "No no, it was a contractual thing with our record label," he says. "But once that's out and we've done the Big Day Out, we're going away to have a little time off. In Australia anyway... we need to go away. People need us to go away. Just briefly at least."
Go away? What exactly does that mean? We are going to see another album from you guys, aren't we? "Oh f**k yeah," Coghill says quickly. Fanning considers his response. "Two more, at least," he says. "We'll probably start at the end of next year getting back on it."
What might we expect of Powderfinger's next studio album is everyone's guess considering the change of direction they took with their last effort. Interestingly though, the emotion that filled 2002's Vulture Street is still very much there. "The apathy of Australians gets me angry," says Fanning. "How little of a shit people give about anything except their mortgage. It's infuriating."
Can we also expect Fanning to open himself again, like he did on Vulture St? After all, for a man who has been at pains to protect his privacy, songs like "sunsets" and "Since You've Been Gone', which death with the death of his brother, must have been unsettling. "You don't have to do it, you don't have to say it, but that's been our thing I suppose," he says. "We write unashamedly about that emotional attachment [with our fans]... That's what it's all about to us and always will be. That wont ever change."
ON MY MIND
Meanwhile, the sun has gone down slowly on Sydney. The fans on board the MTV's Total Request Live cruiser, however, have lost none of their energy. I hear Fanning deep in conversation with a VJ. His mate Darren Middleton is with him. On the other side of the vessel, Collins, Coghill and Haug are talking lie with MTV (in Powderfinger everything is a democracy, it's hardly "Bernard Fanning and the Rockers".
I heard downstairs for a drink, and get into a conversation with someone at the bar, When I return to the top deck I notice the speedboat that had been circling us has left and is almost all the way back to the dock.. With Powderfinger. Surprisingly no one seems to have noticed they've left.
They may be Australia's favourite band but no one got trampled in the bedlam, and I presume the pretty girls are still wearing their knickers: they didn't feel compelled to whip them off and throw them. Strange, think. Then I hear it: a teenager with a Jet shirt and spiky orange hair is leaning over the railing, he looks genuinely devastated. "Mate, this is just like when you leave home and you know you're not gonna see your mum for a long, long time..."