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Image for Chris Bailey In The Firing Line: “It’s all just fucking show business”

Chris Bailey In The FiringLine: “It’s all justfucking show business”

ANDREW P STREET puts Chris Bailey from legendary Brisbane punk act The Saints in the firing line to talk Lara Bingle rock operas, Thirsty Merc bandmates and being the sole custodian of the band’s name.

The measured tones of Chris Bailey come down the line from his longtime home in Amsterdam, half a world away from the Brisbane suburbs where he formed The Saints with Ed Kuepper and Ivor Hay in 1974. It’s a place where discussions about the weather have a certain degree of practical urgency, especially as NYC recovers from Hurricane Sandy. “Because I live in a swamp below sea level, it touches some sort of innate fear of that sort of thing,” he admits. “It does give one cause to become a little bit less cynical and a little bit more of an environmentally friendly hippie type. But then, the world’s always been a strange place, according to most books I’ve ever read.”

The gentler moments on the new Saints album, King of the Sun, sound more akin to some of your solo material than the trademark rock’n’roll of the Saints. Since you tend to record with different people every time, what determines that something is a Saints record?
I think it was in the early ’90s I made this lovely record with a bunch of Bolivian street buskers and someone asked me the same question: What’s the difference between a Saints and a Bailey record, and quite frankly I was a bit flummoxed as to explain. I’ve made some records that I’ve done pretty much by myself, so that I consider to be a solo effort because I was pretty much the only one there.

Sure, but many of your other “solo” records have involved other people.
All my life I’ve gone through the mock-dilemma – it’s not a real one – which is when the very early band imploded I was faced with what I thought was an option: That I would either always be the bloke that sang in that band or I would become a solo artist. I really didn’t fancy – and I still don’t really fancy – the solo thing that much. So I thought whenever I had a band or whenever I fancied it I’ll just keep the Saints name. I mean, who gives a shit? It’s all just fucking show business. It doesn’t really matter. So to answer your question: I suppose it’s just the mood that I take to a session. And going back to that Bolivian record [54 Days . . . at Sea], that would have been really odd for me to call that the Saints because it was me just being very exploratory. Now, strangely enough, other than that the record’s got charangos and pan flutes on it, the songs are pretty much in the style of … I mean, the new album for all of its mock-orchestrations is still pretty much a rock’n’roll record, kinda-sorta.

“Our early years were our corporate puppet years.”

Do you feel that there’s a line drawn under the “original” Saints when Ed [Kuepper] and Ivor [Hay] were in the band, compared with the subsequent Bailey-and-others years?
[Long pause] Look. Ed left the band a very long time ago, and in my view of the history our early years were our corporate puppet years. Despite all of the myths that have grown up, we were signed to EMI, we did have bucketloads of money thrown at us, and we imploded just because we weren’t ready. Now, for many many years it seemed to be quite fine for me to struggle on with the Saints, no one seemed to give a shit, and I suppose it’s nothing new and it happens to everyone, but the early years become over-mythologised. And I’m not in control of musical fashion, I make the records I feel are appropriate and they get judged by other people.

Well, things like the All Times Through Paradise box set [of the first three albums plus contemporaneous bonus material] does bolster that impression of that period as the “classic” line-up.
Well, I’ve noticed in Aus there seem to be about 12 people who hate my guts and think Ed’s a genius, and I can’t control that either. So I tend not to have an opinion on the various incarnations of the band. To me it’s always interesting. I’ve always been pretty upfront about the fact that it’s not the 1960s, it’s not the four guys from Liverpool trying to play Madison Square Garden. Rock music is a very different animal. And the only thing I strive to do with every different incarnation is to continue what I consider to be the fundamental creative thread and stay true to that. And, of course, surviving in showbusiness is no mean feat. Those are the horns of the dilemma under which all of us operate, I guess.

Plenty of artists feel a little hamstrung by their past: Dave Faulker from the Hoodoo Gurus has said that he feels when people praise [1984 debut album] Stoneage Romeos there’s almost an implied. “…since it’s better than everything you’ve done since.”
Well, I can certainly sympathise with his opinion. I’m not quite so threatened by my past because contrary to, well, to the opinion of the 12 people who like Ed, I don’t hate that stuff [laughs]. I’m quite proud of my youth. In the last couple of years I’ve done a few of those nostalgia things with Ed and Ivor and it’s been really good – I think that’s all fine. The only drawback for me is that some of the [old] tunes aren’t appropriate and it’s stuck in a timewarp.

In what sense?
Well, whatever dynamic tension in whatever point in time has an effect on the noise that you make. But if you try to fake that, or recreate that … I know this is a really fucking airy-fairy point, but the veracity of the stuff gets diminished. And I’m not that pompous, and nor do I think rock’n’roll is that fucking important, but it has to be true. Otherwise it’s cabaret, and that’s uninteresting as a performer and for the audience. It’s a really weird thing. And as much as the popular imagination thinks that stuff’s the best, I can assure you that without play acting, it’s impossible to capture those characters. People change, time has passed. And you’ve got to remember the early band, we didn’t actually do that much. All the myths – like the underdogs of Aussie rock, the most misunderstood band in the world – all that bullshit happened later. [Chuckles] Funny old world.

But isn’t that the Australian experience? Total indifference at the time followed by insane over-the-the-top lionisation? The Saints, the Go-Betweens, Nick Cave, the Triffids…
True, but it doesn’t keep you very warm and cozy at night. Especially if you live in a cold country like I do [laughs]. But I guess if you go into showbusiness you have to accept that bullshit. Nobody’s twisting my arm to do this. It goes with the territory.

Back to playing the old stuff: do you feel uncomfortable because it’s almost like you’re covering yourself?
It’s not quite that pathetic! I think we lucked out and did some quite interesting a variations of the tunes, because there are a thousand ways to play a song, but the only drawback is that the same personality influences that created the shit in the first place sometimes those frictions don’t age well, and then the music suffers. I know that years ago I refused to play [debut single] ‘(I’m) Stranded’ because I thought it was the most boring song I’d ever heard – well, that’s not strictly true, it’s actually an OK tune – but people even had t-shirts printed up that said “Play Stranded, You Bastard” [laughs]. But I remember there was one tour and there were all these Hitler Youth looking kids going “play ‘Stranded’! Play ‘Stranded’!” so we did, and nobody noticed.

So how to you reconcile that feeling with audience expectations when it comes to writing a setlist for a show?
My road manager has told me to write a fucking setlist before I get anywhere near backstage – which of course I won’t. We have a huge catalogue of stuff and it’s never an easy task picking the tunes. I rely partially on instinct and partially on asking people what they fancy, and then there’s the current stuff. You just do a combination of all of the above. And we will have a bit of a rehearsal and actually try something things out, but out of so large a catalogue it’s pretty hard to play everything.

Are there periods of the band that get short shrift?
In fairness to the process I do ask other folk. If it was up to me I’d probably choose songs that nobody would like because that’s the type of bastard I am. And while the band is not entirely democratic, I do actually listen to people. So I don’t know is that answer to that question.

Well, on paper the current line up of the band appears to be a pretty odd mix of personalities…
Yeah, I like that.

“I’m not in control of musical fashion, I make the records I feel are appropriate and they get judged by other people.”

How do you recruit people for the Saints?
Very organically. I’ve never ever auditioned or put an ad for anybody – it’s usually circumstances thrown up and I’ve bumped into someone, and I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to players. I’ve worked with a lot of people and I get on with most of them, and the criterion is that you just kind of hit it off and it works. I mean, for me personally there are many drawbacks to being the lead singer in the Saints, but one of the plus aspects of it is that I get to work with a lot of good folk. I read something negative about Sean [Carey, ex-Thirsty Merc]. Sean is a fantastic guitar player: He’s sensitive, he’s gifted, and OK he may well have been in a duff pop band, but I would be crazy to hold that against him because he’s super-talented. He’s also an incredibly gifted and intuitive engineer. I consider myself lucky that I can meet someone like that and that he’d love to join my merry throng.

Well, while I freely admit the Merc were never to my taste…
[Laughs] That’s a very diplomatic way to put it!

…they’re all extraordinarily accomplished musicians.
And that was the sort of record I wanted to make. The last couple of Saints records were very definitely and defiantly very noisy, sloppy guitar rock, which was just the mood I was in at the time. And I like quite like that, but that’s not what I wanted to make for King of the Sun. I wanted to make a different album.

How did you hook up with Andy Judd [keyboard player with evangelical Christian rock outfit Garage Hymnal]? He seems like someone who would be, to put it politely, from outside of your day-to-day milieu.
[Laughs] That was Sean’s doing. And actually I’m not touring with Andy because he’s got church commitments. But he’s an astonishing player – an astonishing player. And given that he’s studying to be a priest I have to admit that getting him – not even a Catholic! – to come along and play in the Saints appeals to my sense of humour. And he’s a very nice gentleman to boot. And I think as long as I have control over it, I always want the Saints to be a little bit not-what-you’d expect. And I’m an adequate piano player, but to have someone who can physically do all of the things I imagine in my head is quite wonderful. That’s why I like recording: writing songs is quite a solitary experience, but recording is a collaborative activity.

So you don’t just knock things up yourself at home?
Well, these days I’ve got a 24-track recording studio on my fucking laptop, but that still doesn’t compare with going into a professional recording facility and you start off in the morning with a blank tape – well, it’s not tape anymore, but a blank hard disc – and then in the evening you have this thing, this tune, that’s organically grown up in the course of a day. It’s a fucking amazing feeling.

If you had a specific idea for King of the Sun, does this mean that you write songs deliberately with an album in mind?
One thing that I’ve noticed over the years, and I do this consciously for my own amusement – is that I like to link songs together: One song will reference another which will then have some reference to another. So without being too pompous or arty-farty about it, they create their own little world. I mean, I’ve never though about writing a rock opera – although when I was drunk one night I thought I would write one about Lara Bingle.

“Nobody’s twisting my arm to do this. It goes with the territory.”

I beg your pardon?
A friend of mine came up from Aus, and I knew nothing about her – I still know nothing about her – but they were telling me about her and it just seemed like a funny thing so I got the old guitar out and came up with half a dozen really bad songs about this woman who I’d never met. And then when I listened back the next day sober I decided [stage whisper] don’t write a rock opera – it would be very embarrassing. So while I don’t do concepts, I do like the songs to have some kind of relationship where…

Sorry, sorry, I’m still processing the idea of Chris Bailey writing a Lara Bingle rock opera. Everything about that sentence raises further questions.
Put that image out of your head, please. I shall give you a written apology. In triplicate.

Apology? Are you mad? The second this interview finishes I’m getting right onto the Australia Council about getting some funding for this masterpiece! Sydney Festival 2014, you have your centrepiece.
[Laughs] Oh please don’t – I’ve heard it. It’s horrible!

You’ve been doing this for almost four decades now: Do you ever fear that you’ve said all you have to say?
Every January. It’s the time of year that us northerners get very down about lots of things. And yes, of course. Despite pretending to be otherwise I guess I am a human and yes; yes to all of the above. One of the lucky things about being in the Saints is that the Saints have never been that famous for showbusiness to be to much of an intrusion or a problem for me, but we’ve always managed to have a pretty wide reach. And apart from the 12 people who hate me, some people do actually quite like what I do – and I’m grateful for that. I’ve never been very attracted to the idea of being a girly pop star, but sadly I am addicted to making records. For all the trauma they cause me, that’s the thing I’d miss the most. Live performance, yeah, whatever, I can take it or leave it. I’ve kind of gotten used to that – but the making or records I find irresistible.

I find that hard to believe: You seem very comfortable on stage.
Oh, it’s all a fucking sham. [Laughs] It’s an act! When I was a younger man I was terrified, and I still am by and large terrified of the proscenium, but I have sort of got used to it. Just talking to you right now I’m genuinely frightened of performance, but the minute I walk onto a stage it still makes some kind of weird sense to me, and I don’t understand why. Maybe it’s just that if you’re stupid enough to walk onto a stage, you might as well enjoy it.

So if it’s so confronting, what got you on stage the first time?
Alcohol. [laughs] And it’s worked since!

The Saints will wind up a tour with Blondie and The Stranglers at Brisbane Riverstage tomorrow (December 13). They’re also playing a strictly limited (200 tickets) show at Trackdown Studios in Moore Park, Sydney, this Friday. King Of The Sun is out now through Highway125.

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