- Bernard Fanning
- Published in Rolling Stone Magazine
Powderfinger returned late 2004 with a best-of, live album, DVD and a new song all over the radio. But the band have had a hell of a year behind the scenes. Bernard Fanning recaps the year that was, in his own words.
The Forum Theatre in Melbourne was packed to capacity, an odd collection of inner-city wannabes, Toorak professionals, industry knobs, poncy rock stars, guitar nerds, a highly disproportionate number of balding middle aged men and Christian-y family types made up the audience for Gillian Welch's final show in Australia. The tour was only a couple of weeks old, but the buzz around it had become enormous, evidenced by the fact the additional Forum show sold out with minimal advertising and only a week's notice. I was lucky enough to witness the fist and last shows of the duo's first Australian tour, and these two performances were certainly, for me, the musical highlight of 2004. The audience response was akin to a religious experience and at times a little unnerving, with a high number of self-righteous "shooshers" embedded in the crowd. But the performances were flawless and well worth the four-album wait for their anxious Australian fans, who witnessed a couple of masters at work. Welch has a compelling voice and a relaxed but serious stage manner, which is perfectly complemented y her partner David Rawling's spontaneous and beautify dynamic guitar playing.
In November 2003, over a couple of quiet beers, Ti Rogers and I hatched a plan to form a band that would support Gillian on her debut tour of Australia. We approached our friend and merchandiser/promoter/renaissance man Brian Taranto and told him our idea. So when, mid 2004, the dates were were announced, I was obviously very disappointed that prior commitments would prevent me from joining in. Needless to say, Tim and Tex Perkins amongst others were able to take care of the support slots with great aplomb. Bastards!!
When taken into context with the ever increasing popularity of Australian Idol, the success of a tour life Welch's shows just how diverse the public's musical palette really is. Here songs are simple and mostly sad tales, which rely on the seemingly effortless communication of the ideas with just two guitars and vocals. When balanced against the often historic delivery of R&B and pop songs by the contestants on Australian Idol, which is effectively a nationally televised prime-time karaoke competition, it makes my heart sink. The inevitability of the eventual winners' success in the charts is a disappointment and discouragement to songwriters all over the country. What a shame that it isn't a competition which encourages creative originality and risk-taking. Instead, the judges prefer to reinforce the already well-established factors that lead to chart success. why sing two syllables when you can easy fit five or more into the word "angel" (which will undoubtedly make its way into the chorus of the winners first single)?
So in a period that has seen the re-election of conservatives, the death of middle Eastern icon Yassar Arafat and blues supremo Ray Charles, the elevation of Pauline Hanson as a national television dancing star, Jet and Delta Goodrem side by side at the top of the charts, more obscene acts of terrorism, and an Australian cricket series win in India, Rolling Stone has asked me to reflect on the year gone by.
I think the most significant events have been the re-elections of John Howard and George W. Bush in the second half of the year. To me, they are an apparent endorsement of the aggressive foreign policies that have been implemented by these two and their governments in preceding couple of years. The electorate's reluctance to gamble on Mark Latham-led Labor government is at odds with the total domination that party enjoys in the state area, and demonstrates the siege mentality that Australians have been paralysed with following the advent of the "War on Terror".
This war, and the resulting "War on Iraq", has signalled a significant shift in what, as a nation, Australians are prepared to swallow from their leaders. Even though we were mislead about the reasons for entry into the war in the first place, along with a whole host of other situations in which the government's capacity to convey the truth of the matters to the public was called into question, this did not prompt the Australian electret to opt for a change, as it did in Spain following the Madrid train bombings.
Earlier in the year, Powderfinger embarked on a hectic northern hemisphere touring schedule, which was us visit the UK, Ireland, Holland, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, France, Canada, the US and for the first time, Spain. "Bless My Soul", the new song we added to our best-of album, Fingerprints, is a tribute to the fun we had in Spain on our first visit. The warmth of the people there was quite overwhelming for us - as was the food, the beer, the architecture, the nightlife and the amazing history.
On a rare day off, we arrived in Madrid about lunchtime, so we headed to a local bar that was recommended by our hotel and began steady consumption of local brew Mahou and various plates of tapas. Needless to say, the afternoon session extended well into the evening, during which we met a few locals, talked a lot of crap and managed to invent a new touring pastime called "brawling". We have been touring in Australia and internationally with pretty much the same crew since 1997, so we have well-established relationships and there's not much that we haven't done together over the years. The glaring exception is the perpetration of physical violence against each other - which is why brawling was so enthusiastically embraced. It was a completely new concept. Basically, it entails drinking more than a fair share of beer and hen carefully punching one of your friends in the face. No intentional hits to the eyes, nose, or teeth, and with only enough force to make a significant "whack" sound. It's not designed to inflict any damage, but to extract an "ooooh", "ahhh" and "yeah, that was a nice one" from the others at the table. under no circumstances were any strangers to be involved, although Lufthansa pilot name Luis, who was a fellow patron, was pretty intrigued and pretty keen to be in on the action. but he was only allowed to watch, it is pretty hard to imagine what the rest of the people in the bar were thinking, but there wasn't even a sideways glance from the staff and other customers in the bar. Ah, Espana... so open-minded!
Anyway, we arrived back at the hotel at about 2am, and realised that we were expected at a television station early the next morning t record a 30-minute live set. Somehow we managed to pull ourselves together and give a pretty convincing performance, minus out front-of-house engineer Mark, who was prostrate in the bus, too ill to participate.
The following week we hooked up with our old touring companions, something for Kate, to play a couple of shows through Ireland and the UK, and introduce them to the concept of brawling. Unsurprisingly, their resident idiot, drummer Clint, wanted to take brawling to a whole new level. After he successfully WWF-style-body-slammed out hefty stage tech, Matrix, onto a hotel room bed, also with every other member of both touring parties, including waif-life SFK bassist Steph, we realised we had a contender on our hands. Clint also added later that he thought that brawling should be light Fight Club. Nobody talks about it!!!! Obviously I am breaking the code and as the whistleblower, expect to be severely brawled sometime down the track.
After the TV performance, we took off in the bus for Barcelona. We only had one show to play there, and a couple of hours to look around in the afternoon before sound check. we headed off to the Gaui Cathedral, La Sangrada Failia, to see what we could find. It was a truly gob smacking (not in the sense of brawling) experience. The fact that it is still only partly built after more than 100 years of construction is an indication of the scale of the ideas ad the audacity of the architecture's design. The story goes that when the design was finalised, the architect was quizzed as to why there was so much detail added to the tops of the spires - which because of their great height, nobody would see. He countered that "the angels will see them" It's a great lesson that, in this age of commercially driven music and art in general, when beauty for its own sake is often overlooked, common sense and pragmatism do not always have t rule the day, if in the end, the whole idea is realised.
So after a lightning visit there we raced back to the show, that despite two power losses and a reluctant cappella version of "Beth" by Kiss, was a great success. we headed back to Madrid overnight and were transfixed the following morning by the seemingly endless procession of small villages and medieval castles that were nestled high o the hills. That evening we played another full house of 300 and headed off with out record company friends to sample more of the city's nightlife.
Somehow, I managed to get separated from the rest of the touring party and was left with an Australian friend and his Spanish girlfriend, who subsequently decided not to join us for the rest of the night. Fortunately they put me in a cab and explained to the driver that I was a non-Spanish speaking Australian musician, who was trygin to find his friends in the busy nightclub district of Madrid on a Friday night! I was fairly shabby and nervous, sitting in the back of a cab on the other side of the world and hoping my middle-aged, beared Basque driver would reconnect me with m friends.
So I introduced myself to my cabbie, Ramon. He turned to me and said in his heavy northern Spanish accent, "Australian, huh?"
"Si," I replied
"Rock&Roll?" asked Ramon.
"Si," I said again
"Si," I told him, assuming he was a Stones fan, and asking if that was the proximate style of my band.
"Lets go," he yelled enthusiastically. He leant over, turned up the stereo and put his foot down.
As we sped through th unbelieveably busy 2a, adrid traffic, I called the frantic girls from our new European record company V2, to find out where I was supposed to be going. I gave Ramon the phone, and, in a flurry of Espanol, he determined our eventual destination and navigated up us to the nightclub area. He pulled over and parked. I asked what I owed him. "We are not here yet," he says, 'we will have to walk for a bit."
At this point, I was unsure whether my adventure with Ramon would lead to a night of revelry with my friends, or, alternatively, being knifed outside one of the many Hum Museums in Madrid. Maybe Ramon was not such a fan of Mick Jagger after all. he grabbed his jacket and we began to walk through the mass of people milling outside nightclubs, flamenco joints and tapas bars. he reached into his pocket and pulled out a hip flask, took a swig and offered it to me. I asked him what he was going to do about driving his cab later, and he said he was tired and needed a break. So I took a swig and we walked on together for another 10 minutes. Finally, we rounded a corner and I was rushed by three relieved record company senoritas, and showered with hugs and kisses. Such is the mature of the friends we made in Spain.
Again I asked Ramon what I owed him
"Maybe just a drink!" he said.
We went inside and Ramon promptly removed his jacket, scarf, and long-sleeved shirt to revel his "groovy" tie-dyed clubbing outfit! I paid the fare in several rums and cokes, and eventually we waved him off at 6.30am when he was heading to another bar with some others he had met in the club. Ramon, the world's greatest cabbie.
Next we travelled though Paris and onto Manchester, and on our arrival there we heard the horrible news that there had been a terrorist attach on the train network in Madrid. Having only left two days before, it really hit home to us how volatile the world was.
We completed our tour in Canada and headed home for a couple of weeks rest before returning to Denmark. We had been invited to play at a charity concert to celebrate the wedding of Aussie girl Mary Donaldson to Danish Prince Frederick. Apparently over the years Mary had been to a few of our shows in Sydney and had turned her fiancÚ onto our music, and they wanted us to be the Australian representatives at the concert. Having never been to Denmark, and having never been on the receiving end of a royal invitation, we thought that having 45,000 Danes at our first gig there would be quite an interesting experience.
Before the concert, we were shown upstairs to to an informal meet-and-greet with the happy couple. I presented Mary, (Who despite constant media attention seemed to be a down-to-earth and normal Australian woman), with a couple of Vulture Street badges for her and Fredrick, and suggested they should wear them during the show. I was quite surprised to find that she had taken my advice - I now consider myself something of a royal fashion accessories advisor.
Our set was only 20 minutes long, but when we began, the royal family were n their feet clapping and dancing. Convention dictates that when the royals stand up, everybody else is expected to do so as well - so we were pretty happy that, despite the fact that we were virtually unknown there, we had a football stadium full of people going nuts! The whole situation was quite bizarre for us Republican Queenslanders, but it was refreshingly free of pomp.
Next, we completed a more extensive tour of Canada, and returned home in June, anticipating the birth of J.C's win daughters, Rosie and Grace. For the next coupe of months we prepared the released of our first DVD, live album and best-of set. After spending most of the last six months away, we were relieved to be home.
Our only definite plan was that we didn't wan to present the These Days DVD as just straight-up live concert footage, so we called our friend and director Gregor Jordan and asked if he'd like to get involved. we'd worked with him on his movies Two Hands and Ned Kelly, so we were sure that he'd come up with something different from the norm. Being from Sydney, Gregor though that the relative success of a band like ours from Brisbane, was an interesting angle. With help of another friend and filmmaker, Paul Butler, they put together something that we are all very proud of.
Our final project was to cobble together a best-of collection from our first four albums, and included two unreleased songs, "Process This" from the Vulture Street sessions and "Bless my Soul". In July, out producer/svengali Nick DiDia made the rip from the US to squeeze in some recording time between rounds of golf. It is quite unusual for us to head into the studio to record one off songs, so the session was very relaxed and stress-free.
It has been an unusual and sometimes unnerving 12 months. My hope is that Australia would soften its domestically and internationally aggressive stance was cleanly bowled in the election in October. Obviously I misread the grip tat economic imperatives have on the nation's political consciousness. The seesawing bidding war that comprised the campaign typically dumbed it all down to interest rates, border security and a Presidential-style race between Howard and Latham. I can tell you that on election night I was as disappointed as the ABC's Kerry O'Brien; I never expected an increased majority for both Howard and Bush in 2004. I also never expected to be body-slammed in a brawl in a Glasgow hotel room either.
Now we have the Big Day out and then a break from Powderfinger duties for a few months. we hope to give you, dear reader, and the rest of the Australian public a well-earned res from our incessant market-flooding release schedule over the last 18 moths. we have started writing again and are keen to continue after a bit of a break and some side-project self-indulgence in 2005. See you then.