The power in the music
The formidably gifted Jeff Lang headlines These Machines Cut Razor Wire, an Asylum Seeker Resource Centre fundraiser, on Sunday 15 April. Event organiser Les Thomas spoke to him about his development as a musician and his support for the cause of justice for asylum seekers.
How did your musical life get started, and how did you get educated as a player?
I guess the education part’s ongoing. It started for me hearing recordings that my parents were playing in the house. So I was lucky enough that it was stuff like Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, people like that. When you’re a kid you don’t think of it in terms of liking it or disliking it. It’s just music that’s playing; it’s like “Yep, it’s Bob Dylan”. And at a certain point in my late teens it was “I really like that, I think I want to go and steal some of dad’s tapes”. And then you go on your own journey.
There were bands that I was hearing at the time, contemporary stuff, rock’n’roll mostly like Rose Tattoo and ACDC, Cold Chisel, Led Zeppelin. Discovered Jimi Hendrix a little bit later. Neil Young. You read an interview with Ry Cooder and he talks about Blind Willie Johnson’s slide guitar playing, and you go “Well, if he likes that then I wanna hear that!” And it blows your head off. Records are magical like that. Like time travel in a way.
Have there been any key relationships with musicians in your life, mentors?
Definitely. In the earlier part of my career, bumping into people like Phil Manning, and Chris Finnen, an Adelaide guitarist, was really helpful and instructive. You meet people that you’re a lot younger than, but they welcome you into the scene and there’s no feeling of hierarchy to it. That was really nice; it’s just a continuum.
The musical relationships I’ve had with all the players I’ve worked with through all the years have always been really enriching, which is an ongoing thing. What the band brings to the equation expands things way beyond what it would be like if it were just me on my own. They bring their own intuition, instinct and language into the conversation.
In your own playing have you naturally developed a style of your own?
After I’d played for a while it felt like “Oh good, this feels like it’s taking its own shape”. I don’t know how unique it really is. It’s not like you invent things but you can formulate your own approach. Ultimately, you can’t help but sound like yourself. You forget half the things you’re even trying to copy. The other half you get wrong and mangle up and mix together. And that ends up being … you! This mish mash of bastardized memories of other people’s music. Why not embrace the fact that it’s going to be its own mongrel music?
How has your approach to lyrics changed over time?
I’m always interested in telling a story of some kind. It doesn’t have to be linear; it can be more impressionistic. The ones that are the most fun to write (I don’t know if they’re the most successful) just kind of happen, and you feel like a song’s just landed in your lap. You can hear the tune as you’re writing the lyrics down and hear where the chords and the rhythm go. Other ones you have to bash around and work with your toolkit. Sometimes it’s match making. You’ve got lyrics and music just waiting around to meet the right partner. It can be frustrating but ultimately when I finish it feels like a fresh achievement, even if I’ve had a set of lyrics that has sat there for five years. New songs are gold dust. Fool’s gold dust, sometimes.
At about the time when “Go Back to Where You Came From” screened on SBS, our mutual friend Jed Rowe — who is also performing at the fundraiser — mentioned that you were passionate about matters around asylum seekers. What have you made of this ongoing issue in the media and politics in general?
It saddens me that it still has such traction. You hear the opposition leader throw it in everywhere he can, “Gillard can’t stop the boats!” That someone would even care to say that makes me feel sad, because it shouldn’t be that big a deal to gain traction over your opponent with that phrase. People should laugh at it.
It’s a small, small issue as to how it affects you and I. If you’re a refugee on a boat and you’re coming here it’s a big deal, what you’ve undertaken to come here to a place like Australia. The reason they come here is because we’ve signed a treaty to accept them. But it all gets hung up on semantics. They’re not refugees, they’re “boat people”. I hate that term! It’s designed to subtly vilify. “You’re arriving here by boat and that’s bad!” Why? Why is that automatically bad?
Media aside, do you think there’s more compassion to be found at street level?
I’ve got young kids. I feel like I descend into the cave of parenthood and then stick my head up for a gig every now and then. Where I live there’s a lot of Middle Eastern people and just meeting people and saying hello and making sure that people realise that you’re not crossing the street to avoid them, and it seems to be not a big deal.
That show that you mentioned, “Go Back to Where You Came From”, it was very effective. There was a large turn around in the percentages, given that there was only one person at the start who was left wing who happened to be a friend of mine, I was very proud. In the musician community we had Gleny Rae and the voice of reason. And she was fantastic. She did way better than I would have. I would have been so annoyed and angry with some of the people. There were people who were dead set against any of this, and only one person was really holding out at the other end of it. There was plenty of evidence of compassion. And I’ll take those odds.
It’s been heartwarming to see how genuinely committed musicians are to playing in this fundraiser. What do you hope the day to be like?
The cause is there. Hopefully for people who are there they’ll have an enjoyable experience with the music. I think it’s a good thing to help put out the position that people are compassionate about this issue and provide a catalyst for people to come along and feel that sense of community. I would like to think that kind of sense of community, the spirit of compassion at this event is reflective of the nature of what it means to be Australian.
I spent a lot of teenage years listening to Jimi Hendrix playing pieces like Machine Gun, and his deconstruction of The Star Spangled Banner. Now you pick up on it as sound, but if it moves you, then you pick up on the social context of it as well, then it deepens the feeling. And then you listen to it with new ears, you hear what he’s putting in, you hear the napalm, you hear the bombs going off, and it’s all there. Music can be pretty powerful like that.