Since founding Cold Chisel in 1973, Don Walker has written many of Australia’s best known and well-loved songs. His current album Hully Gully has been hailed as his best solo release to date and he’s set to embark on a nine date Perfect Crime Tour in October. Les Thomas spoke to him about his band The Suave Fucks, writing for legends like Slim Dusty and his unique perspective on Australia.
What was the difference in your approach to Hully Gully compared to previous albums?
On the recording side, I do like to record to tape and then somebody pointed out that the rest of the world hasn’t been using tape for maybe a decade or two. We were having difficulty finding studios that had tape. So it wasn’t a conscious decision to remain pure or anything else. We just didn’t realize that the rest of the world had moved on.
When we investigated things in recording Hully Gully, I was mixing it with Joe Henry and his engineer Ryan Freeland, who, like everyone else in America, works in the digital domain. So it meant putting the magnifying glass on what is the difference and how it actually sounds and the difference is extraordinary. Tape sounds so much better. And if you’re going to start on tape and finish up digital in your production, it’s also extremely important how you make that conversion. We used a Radar conversion system (which is handled by Phil Punch, but I think is ultimately owned by Joy Kirkpatrick and Slim Dusty’s family). The difference in sound, if you run your tapes through Pro Tools compared to this Radar System, is extraordinary.
Analog is often described as having a warmer more natural sound.
A lot more power, too, which is important to a band like ours. I first noticed it when the ABC digitally recorded a gig we did in 2006 and they did a great job. I sat down to mix it six months later and because we use an upright bass which has a lot of pump in it, same with the bass drum, we found the digital just doesn’t record that kind of compression, that hit in the chest that you can get on tape.
How did the Suave Fucks take shape as a band?
Like all truly advanced multi-cell organisms, the Fucks evolved, rather than being formed in one lightning strike. I’ve had bands from Catfish onwards and it’s been more of a case of one person goes off and does other stuff, so you have to bring someone else in. So the band evolved like a rolling moor. Garret Costigan the pedal steel player has been an important part of the sound. Before that David Blight was in Catfish and he’s actually coming over to Melbourne at the end of October to play the gigs with us. He’s not normally part of the band, but if he’s in the same town, he often gets up and plays. For the Melbourne run at the end of October, we’re going to make sure he’s in the same town because we’re going to fly him over and accommodate him.
Red Rivers was the guitar player for a long time. He moved to Melbourne about six years ago and through happy accident, I did a gig with Felicity Urquhart in Tamworth and her husband and producer and guitar player was Glen Hannah and I noticed he had everything I love about guitar playing: he played a Gretsch, played it clean. So I asked him if he’d replace Red and he’s been doing it ever since. So there are similar stories through the other members of the band also.
Another interesting aspect of your life is that you’ve had a good chance to see and spend large amounts of time in different parts of Australia. I guess as a songwriter that would give you insight that a lot of others just don’t have.
I think songwriting is personal rather than geographical, for me. If there’s a setting or a horizon that is behind those stories, it’s going to turn out to look a lot like various parts of Australia just because that’s where I’ve spent most of my time. There have been short periods of time when I’ve been in other environments in the mid-80s: Eastern Europe and other places like that and, looking back, I find the flavours of those landscapes come into the songs too, but it’s not a conscious thing. It’s not by design or even by wish, but for 98 percent of my life I’ve been here.
Given your connections to the city and country, do you feel tensions between the two? At the political level, you hear about this “divide” and you’re probably better placed than most to talk about it.
Well, yes. You’re getting into an area that, yes, I definitely see. I try and keep that out of my songwriting. I have flirted with the idea of being a political songwriter and then pulled back, because, for me, songwriting is personal.
What you’re talking about is often characterized in the press as a divide. I would see it more as a continuous range. And it’s not a Left-Right range; it’s just a perspective on things. If you talk to somebody from inner city Melbourne their view of the of the world and the country is going to be quite different (and I’m very much generalizing) than if you talk to somebody from Western Queensland.
As a songwriter, I guess if you’re writing songs that can be interpreted in endless ways, part of what you’re doing is interacting with people’s perspectives and notions and you must, as you travel around, get quite different responses.
I would say that when I get up on stage in Melbourne and sing, that my personal and political views would not be shared by one person in front of me. But I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that they wouldn’t be able to tell that. (Laughs)
And another thing that people wouldn’t necessarily expect of a songwriter is a background in physics and mathematics . . . though you could say there’s overlap between maths and music.
Like most things, it’s all accidental. I set off from a small country town to try and figure out a way to train myself, so that I could, not so much earn money, but feed and shelter myself, and ultimately feed and shelter those who were going to be depending on me, so that meant going to a university and studying something that’s not arts, because I didn’t want to be a teacher.
As years went by and I found myself working in that area, I was quite dissatisfied with where I was and what I was doing and quite fascinated by what I was doing at night and took the leap to follow that. And it didn’t hurt anybody but me, because I didn’t have dependents at the time.
What you’re talking about in the crossover between disciplines, I was always pretty good at maths and science. As far as the literary side of things, it was clear in high school that I could bang out an entertaining story and I could make stuff rhyme but you wouldn’t say there was anything at that stage that indicated that I had any skills beyond mid high school level. It was just a case of finding yourself in a band, which we were doing often for less than artistic purposes and trying to write songs because that’s what the band needed.
Throughout your career, one of the things that separated you from so many others is the quality of the words you put together. When people think of Australian music, they don’t necessarily think of the lyrics first. Over your career, would you say the music has mature along with you? How would you say it’s changed?
I’m not that knowledgeable about what other people do. If I come across something that I like that somebody else is doing, I usually blunder into it and I’m usually the last person to discover it. This happens often enough that there must be a lot of good stuff out there that I’m not aware of just because I haven’t blundered into it yet. So I’d definitely be the wrong person to make general comments on the state of music or anything like that.
In any generation there’s always people who are exploring and in any generation there are people who are quite special. Then there’s the broad music scene, which in my era or now, is always going to be pretty stupid and mediocre. But that’s just the way it is. I mean in 1969, very few people were listening to Jimi Hendrix. Most people were listening to The Monkees.
And your experience of working with Slim Dusty, who recorded 107 albums in his lifetime, being in that kind of creative relationship must give you confidence.
Most definitely. You hit the nail on the head when you talked about giving confidence. I wouldn’t say that Slim and I were in a creative relationship. There were very few people who were in a creative relationship with Slim. I used to write songs that Slim occasionally liked. He was pretty fussy about what he sang, he had a pretty high bar. So by the time he sang a song of mine, I had a catalogue and I had hits. I think I surprised myself by how good it felt to have somebody of his generation, knowing how song-orientated they were, to give me a seal of approval by doing something of mine. And I actually sat down and wrote a letter to him to tell him that, and that was our first communication.
DON WALKER – THE PERFECT CRIME TOUR DATES
Don Walker will perform all dates with The Suave Fucks except where noted
FRI 24 OCT | KIDGEERIDGE MUSIC FESTIVAL, ULLADULLA NSW
SAT 25 OCT | CAMELOT LOUNGE, SYDNEY NSW
SUN 26 OCT | LIZOTTES, NEWCASTLE NSW
WED 29 OCT | MELBOURNE FOLK CLUB @ BELLA UNION, MELBOURNE VIC
Don Walker Solo with Roy Payne & special guests
THU 30 OCT | SPIRIT BAR, TRARALGON VIC
FRI 31 OCT | THEATRE ROYAL, CASTLEMAINE VIC
SAT 01 NOV | THE CARAVAN CLUB, OAKLEIGH VIC
THU 06 NOV | THE SOUNDLOUNGE, GOLD COAST QLD
FRI 07 NOV | THE SPOTTED COW, TOOWOOMBA QLD