Holy Grail in Won­thaggi

Mostly all you hear about rock bands are anec­dotes of ran­dom sex and drug- tak­ing, writes Mark Sey­mour

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

the

band

didn’t

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

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