Tuesday 23 December 2014

All Lit Up Down Under – a chat about words with Dave Graney

With Australia taking a third Man-Booker Prize this year, writer-musician Dave Graney talks to Remy Dean about creative culture, writers' festivals and the mythic quality often found in word-wielding of an Australian origin...


The Great Southern Land...

Australia, to me, has long been a place existing only in imagination... a British Romantic idyll of vast empty wild spaces, dwarfed only by the human soul.

From the early films of Peter Weir, I expect ancient bewildering magic or prophetic apocalyptic visions of awesome natural forces. Through films like Encounter at Ravensgate and Razorback, I get the poetically lit isolation and strange, sudden brutality. Dust and close-cropped hair. In Man of Flowers, and other films of Paul Cox - aching poignancy and poeticism spilling out from the sensitive hearts of wise fools across the fountained parklands or shifting sandscapes. The loss, wide open roads and estuary beds of 'The Triffids', the long-gone childhoods, cattle and cane fields of the 'Go-Betweens'... 'Hunters and Collectors' loading their long wide loads with deals and memories that thunder from ghost town to run-down suburbs. Bone-pointing, the shout that kills, kangaroo meat, road warriors, lake monsters, autistic organists, ghost ships sailing on empty seas to the land of the dreaming… Kylie Minogue in denim dungarees with a ‘designer’ smudge of sump oil across her cheek... or was it Vegemite?

Dave Graney drives us through his mythic landscape, whistling
I first interviewed Dave Graney more than twenty years ago, when he had recently finished with the hugely influential combo, ‘The Moodists’, and was exploring new musical territories with his bands, ‘The White Buffalos’ and ‘The Coral Snakes’. And, being the nicest guy in rock’n’roll, he has kept in touch and I have interviewed him several times since, most recently for the Brought to Book section of The Scrawl. Over those two decades, he established himself as a prime-time celebrity, was crowned ‘king of pop’, became the housewives’ favourite and now, with two books brimming with his own distinctive writer’s voice, is fast establishing himself as a leading light of the antipodean literary scene, a song-writer and author who has inhabited and helped to build that grand mythic landscape that is so far away, yet has touched me so often.

I have never been to Australia, but at times I have lived there. I know the real Australia is a different place. So, where does all this rich, myth-building imagery come from? What inspired these writers to create such uniquely rich and ‘cinematic’ visions? What marks the Asutralian literary scene apart from others? Who better to ask than Dave Graney?

“I love to collect small print run books of Australian poetry. Especially from the 1970s which was a great period of cultural awakening here. Some great poetic heroes from that time, lived out heroic, doomed junkie lives. One called Michael Dransfield, from Canberra - his poems about being a junkie are full of drama and poise. A woman called Vicki Viidikas also wrote wonderful poems of bohemian travels as a young woman through Melbourne and India. A young guy in Melbourne in the early 1970s called Charles Buckmaster - he apparently appeared on the scene, talking of the place he came from, Gruyere… We used to go for drives outside Melbourne looking for it and that is how we ended up where we live now!

“To me, his poetry is interesting for its self-mythologising. My favourite poet would be Robert Grey, an amazing writer from Northern New South Wales. He published a memoir called The Country I Came Through Last. In a way, it earthed all his writing for me. Before that, it was all hovering and suspended. When he fleshed it out with dates and times and his parents’ lives, it was exciting to follow it with flashes from his poetry I'd known, but it kind of took some of the power away.”

Richard Flannegan won this year’s Booker Prize (as Dave correctly predicted) and is the third Australian to do so. This indicates that there really is something special about, at least some writers, who emerge from the scene there. Is there anything apparent in the Australian culture that may be blamed for the abundance of creative talent and the distinctive poetic voices of its writers?

“Australia’s a pretty brutal country and artists are either cossetted by each other in their little scenes or ridiculed in the wider community.

“There was a famous incident just after the second world war called ‘the Ern Malley Affair’. A modernist magazine was launched called The Angry Penguins. Taken from a line in a Max Harris poem referring to men in tuxedos looking like, ‘angry penguins of the night’. Max was born in the same town I grew up in and was a very interesting character. To see his picture from the time, he looks like something from the early 1980s music scene.”

Max Harris, he was angry with penguins.
…the ‘Ern Malley Affair’?

“Two young poets, both in the army, played a prank where they faked a letter from a woman in the country, saying she'd discovered these poems written by her late brother, an itinerant farm labourer. Max Harris and the painter Sidney Nolan, who ran the magazine, announced the arrival of this poetic voice all over the next issue of Angry Penguins. The two hoaxers stood up and basked in the infamy their outrageous trick. They were James McCauley and Harold Stewart, both staunchly anti-modernist. The story reached the front pages of the daily papers, the only time poetry has ever done so. Instead of retreating, Max and Sidney taunted the hoaxers that, in putting on the mask of 'Ern Malley', they had created a true surrealist Australian poetic voice!

“The hoax knocked all the stuffing out of Max Harris, though he continued to publish some books - of which I have a few. McCauley was a great poet too, more in a pre-modernist style. His epic Captain Quiros's Journey is amazing. He ran a conservative journal called Quadrant, financed by the CIA, which still publishes… Stewart lived in Japan from 1966 to 1995, writing a single long poem!

[ There is an official Ern Malley website. ]

"I refer to a Max Harris poem called, Upon Throwing A Copy Of The New Satesman From The Window Whilst Driving Along The Coorong, in a song from my 2014 record, 'Fearful Wiggings' called Country Roads, Unwinding.

"Personally, I find Australian writers, hit me harder than any others. When they're good. Of course, there's a strain of international cafe bite sized bullshit that probably hogs more of the scene. Easy to ignore!

"I love the poet Les Murray, the historian Henry Reynolds, who was the first to begin writing the history of Australia from the indigenous perspective. He began by asking people to consider aboriginal people seeing ships coming into Sydney cove rather than through the eyes of the sailors cruising in. Simple but very powerful."

Recently, Dave has been appearing regularly on discussion panels at literary conventions. What were his observations at these literary festivals and what did he talk about at them?

“I put out a memoir in 2011, 1001 Australian Nights, through a small publishing house called Affirm Press and it was a very enjoyable experience. Each city is Australia has a Writers Festival and I did most of them over a two year period.

“I felt like an outsider - like a character doing a  cameo scene. I didn't feel encumbered with any notion of ‘career’ type networking or anything. Perth is the most isolated place in the world, let alone Australia - the festival there was lovely. All the writers stayed at the same hotel and travelled to and from a distant university in an old bus. It was like being back at school, but sharing the bus with the brains of the country.

“The Brisbane one was great, I met an Indian writer called Jeet Thayil, who was up for the Booker Prize that same year. He had a great novel about the dope scene in 1970s Bombay. Byron Bay was lovely, of course. It’s a beautiful place. In general, there was a depressing feeling that all writers had to be more like performers so you saw people having to ‘flick the switch to vaudeville’. I craved something serious, mostly.

“In Melbourne I had to do a session chaired by an Australian writer-musician with two other musicians. One was a Canadian who'd written a book about homeless world soccer, called Home and Away. In Australia there is a famous soap opera of the same name. Nobody told him. He read fictional letters he had written to Canada’s biggest musical icon, Gordon Lightfoot. It would have had a great impact - in Canada.

“The American was skinny and young and had his shirt open to his waist and wore a bandana. His name was Simone Felice. I enjoyed his book more than his music. I asked him where he was from. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I come from a place called Woodstock - they had a festival there once...’ I said, ‘oh yeah.... what sort of music do you like?’ He looked at me and said , ‘I really like a guy called Neil Young...’

“The audience ate up everything he said and read from his book. He was totally authentic to them. The other three - myself included - paddled as hard as we could but failed to get off the ground, really. Australian audiences are toughest to their own. Always have been and always will be. We don't really believe in ourselves much.

“In general, I like the festivals. It doesn't seem like any kind of work to me.”

I have enjoyed the way many Australian singer-songwriters use landscape as a metaphor for emotions and memory - they externalise the internal - and this is something I find really effective. It can be very evocative and poignant. I am probably thinking of a lot of the bands I was listening to in my formative years, yourself included, 'Triffids', 'Go-Betweens', 'Apartments', Nick Cave, etc.,. This seemed to be a characteristic of many Australian creatives - why do you think this is?

"I find that stuff a bit corny. 'The Triffids' had great impact with that geographical colouring. A great unit as a band. Lovely people. Peter Milton Walsh from the 'Apartments' is a great songwriter. He's probably much more literary than me. I get emails from him that are amazing! Nick created his own world and is a fantastic performer.

“My records over the last decade have been more personal. I was just very influenced by the language in the post punk scene. Bands like 'Wire', 'Public Image Limeted' and 'The Fal'l and 'Pere Ubu'. It was a brief and very interesting period.  I've also recently been much more into the musical side of it. I love to play guitar. Shoot me! I play bass with 'Harry Howard and the N D E' too. Also in a hip hop duo, 'Wam and Daz'.”

For some of your EPKs, you ventured into little films - not to mention your brief cameos for Neighbours and some imdb surprises - is this an area you would like to get more into?

“Film is tough! We did a soundtrack for a comedy called Bad Eggs, in 2003, and absolutely loved doing that. I loved being a part of a big machine. More please!”

In terms of prose on a page, what books can we expect from you in the near future? Will you venture into pure fiction, or keep it, at least loosely, 'biographical'?

“I am trying a longer piece. It's painful. I like the thrill of steering very close between fiction and not so much...”

'The MistLY' … 'Fearful Wiggings' - you change the name of your band projects almost with each album - please tell us a bit about your recent releases and how they differ whilst remaining indelibly stamped with your personality?

Dave Graney and Clare Moore
“I've played with Clare Moore all the way from 'The Moodists'. We had some success here in Australia with 'The Coral Snakes' in the 1990s. Since then, have had very little support or contact with what thinks it is ‘the industry’.

“Everything we do is very self-generated. We put out an album pretty much every year. We have been such a constant we have NO nostalgic power at all. Our activities having stretched across decades. All the albums we have done, since 'The Moodists', have been of a very high quality. So we have also never ‘returned to form’!

“The 2014 album is 'Fearful Wiggings' and is the second to be credited a s a ‘solo’ album - Clare is on it a lot on vibes. I did most of it, and recorded the vocals at Lisa Gerard’s studio (Dead Can Dance). The 2013 CD was Clare’s band 'The Dames' which was mixed by Barry Adamson in the UK
“The 2012 album was the best pop-rock recording of my band called, You’ve Been In My Mind. Previous to that we'd done Knock Yourself Out, which was the first ‘solo’ album, a lyrical explosion and filthy R’n’B pealer. Before that - apart from a couple of remix/re-recordings albums - was one called We Wuz Curious in 2007. It was an R’n’B masterpiece! In my humble opinion. Probably twenty albums before that....”

…and we’re looking forward to the next twenty! Yet again, thank you Dave Graney!

You can read an archive Scrawl interview with Dave Graney here... 
(PDF from newsstand edition)...

Info on all things Dave and Clare related can be found at The Dave Graney Show official website.

- Dave Graney was talking with Remy Dean

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