Holy Grail in Wonthaggi
Mostly all you hear about rock bands are anecdotes of random sex and drug- taking, writes Mark Seymour
IT was a slow death. Killing Hunters and Collectors was a long, drawn- out exercise that took meticulous planning. We were hooked on the income and some of us hadn’t saved any money. As the manager was fond of putting it, we needed a big earner to give everyone ‘‘ something to fall back on’’. So that’s what we did: 13 weeks of gigs back to back, every house full, 3000 to 10,000 a night.
They came from everywhere. Word got around fast: it was the last time we’d be coming round. Numbers were through the roof. The first run was booked solid three months in advance. Regional promoters were overjoyed.
After 18 years of pubs and clubs full of riotous celebration, there was nothing . . . except radio.
Eight years later I was looking for the frozen peas in a Wonthaggi supermarket. A tradie came up to me. It was a Friday. He had his kids with him. Dad smiled.
Are you the man who sings Holy Grail ? Yes, I said. Did you sing it today? No. Did you sing it yesterday?
Yes. Where? In the shower. Dad laughed and then they started playing the bloody thing over the supermarket PA. The Holy Grail had become a supermarket song. A song about Napoleon Bonaparte you could sing along to as you collected provisions in a coal town in South Gippsland.
That’s what’s left. Radio, elevator tunes, a little girl with a runny nose and a Nathan Buckley badge on her trackie top, and a dad who was only too happy to make the introductions. It was Dad’s music.
Most stories about life in a rock band are just a succession of cute anecdotes of random sex and profligate drug- taking, leaving out the long periods when nothing actually happened and nobody broke anything. People love a good yarn. If you’re trying to sell a story, it pays to exaggerate. And flat- out lying is a big temptation in the music industry. Everybody does it, especially about record sales.
The awful truth is that, for long stretches, life in Hunters and Collectors was really boring.
Just like its music, the story of Hunters and Collectors is a hard sell. It’s about a rock band with no image. Hunters and Collectors was the great misfit outfit of the 1980s; it became the most successful pub band in Australian music history virtually by stealth, through mindnumbing repetition. Despite an almost terminal inability to exploit media attention, the band survived 18 years of wildly fluctuating chart success, poor to middling record sales, reviews that were everything from absurdly sycophantic to downright savage, and crowd sizes that ranged from two to 70,000.
The band’s obscurity was entirely selfinflicted. We had a Calvinistic contempt for flashy display. We aimed for substance over style. Hyperbole was considered vain and corrupt. Consequently, promotion was difficult. It drove the manager mad. Loudly professing our egalitarianism was probably the closest we ever got to anything like a message: hardly a quality likely to galvanise teenage hysteria. But we meant it. The sound engineer shared in the songwriting royalties. Years later we would famously be called a bunch of communists. It was pretty much on the money. Everything was shared equally, sometimes even the beer, which took a prodigious degree of self- discipline. We weren’t sexy, we didn’t behave badly ( at least not in public), we never won any awards, and none of us had famous girlfriends ( except me, for three weeks and no one ever found out, and you won’t read about it in here, either). We were a promotional non- event: except onstage, the one place where things mattered.
Hunters and Collectors was a live force that almost defied description. Audiences took it very seriously. The band was loud. Very loud, in fact: a mob of dorky- looking blokes on stage roaring long choruses that were hurled back at them with fierce devotion. Underpinning this howling singalong was a rhythm section that nailed the groove to the floor. The music was driven by a grinding bass sound that was as mechanical as it was musical. Audiences were laid to waste. Songs became journeys into mass hysteria. People didn’t mosh — there simply wasn’t room — so they swayed uncontrollably.
Even though our audiences loved getting trashed, we truly believed they were responding to something deeper. We thought that because of our apparent ordinariness they recognised us as their equals, that we were no different to them, that we weren’t stars entitled to a greater share of life’s riches than they were. We believed that all humans are created equal and proceeded to demonstrate this fact musically. It’s a stretch, I know, but that was the intention.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to grasp what this concept had to do with entertainment, but despite our almost stultifying intellectualism, Hunters and Collectors kicked arse. There was something in the attitude that worked. Whether the band’s live chemistry was a product of the egalitarianism or the other way round was the subject of interminable debate. There was no simple answer, but the band’s chemistry saved us from ourselves. How we struggled to sustain our intellectual pretensions within the largely mindless hedonism of pub rock was a form of entertainment in itself. It made much of what the band did not only interesting but downright hilarious. We refused to admit we were eccentric, but we also delighted in the way it made us pop misfits. Whatever cool was — a moveable feast in itself — we simply weren’t it and we never were over the entire 18 years, despite every effort made to tart us up by legions of publicists, stylists and other miscellaneous meddling priests. Perhaps it was sheer bloody- mindedness that we resisted to the very end.
Maybe the physical intensity of Hunters and Collectors performances came from that same bloody- mindedness: a collective belligerence that overrode all other sensitivities, even musical ability, which was also an issue. Most of the band members weren’t technically very good. In fact, we delighted in the idea that in direct contrast to our apparent sophistication, we were musically brutal . . . almost primitive. Songs had to be constructed around the most basic skeletal component, usually the bass line, and kept as simple as possible. We never attempted anything too clever and constantly reminded each other how dumb we were.
But it was in this simplicity that the character of the Hunters and Collectors sound was formed. There was a kind of lurching tension that gave the band its scale and its edge. We were all in it together, making it happen, and at any moment it could all go badly wrong. Constructing songs was a cautious process of listening and negotiating parts, moving forward in incremental blasts, stopping and starting until the whole thing hung together in the room. We were always mindful of the broad effect, each musician contributing rationally, each sound discussed and analysed.
The physical effect on us was as paramount as it was for whoever was listening. But the band was only the starting point, the spark: there was also the collective experience. Every individual in the room had to be fully engaged. There was an unspoken assumption between all the players that the chemistry they shared had to set the room on fire. Nothing less than total commitment was enough. Everything had to go off — band, crowd, sound — as well as any random sequence of events that would send the collective adrenalin pumping.
It was rare that that happen.
But as well as all this visceral excitement on stage, there were times when life in the band was really depressing. There was always a fierce streak of competitiveness just below the surface of civility. But even the competitiveness was so over the top that it, too, was hilarious. It extended to virtually every dimension of touring life: eating, driving and, of course, drinking. There was little room for the emotionally vulnerable. Feelings were not on the agenda.
This, of course, made Hunters and Collectors the ideal touring machine. Like an order of Trappist monks, we could go for days without speaking to each other ( especially when crossing Canada). A school of humour emerged. Band culture was so witheringly dry it left band room hangers- on utterly exhausted. ( The Oils ran away very quickly, like deer in the forest.)
Decisions were brutally democratic. Often a majority vote was barely that. Sometimes we found ourselves participating in events that were artistically offensive but professionally useful, but as long as the decision that got us there had been made according to protocol, then all was as it should be. We had our very own Orwellian rock dream. Ultimately, life in Hunters and Collectors was less about art or style and more about some kind of work ethic, so much so that most of us were hugely relieved once we’d agreed ( democratically, of course, and despite the wishes of a minority) to retire.
Hunters and Collectors was not that much different to a trade union: useful while the work was around, but a straitjacket once people lost faith in the notion of collective bargaining.
This book isn’t meant to be a complete chronology of events. It is a series of snapshots that describe the extraordinary interrupting the mundane, the defining moments that happened by accident, the human frailty inside the presidium of the most democratic rock band that ever went off.
make Edited extract from Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors, by Mark Seymour ( Viking, $ 32.95), out now.
Bunch of communists: Misfit rock band Hunters and Collectors, with Mark Seymour centre, in the mid- 1990s. The band shared everything equally, sometimes even the beer, which took a prodigious degree of self- discipline