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Interview: Bleddyn Butcher

Interview: Bleddyn Butcher

Nick Cave once wrote of David McComb’s music that “his own songs call from the strangest places and at the oddest hours. Whether calling from the baking salt pans of the West Australian desert or the darks of a broken heart, whether praying or pretending to pray, their gist is hopeful and brave: ‘We are your friends’, say the songs. Interplanetary, ultra-emissary and quite extraordinary friends.” High praise, certainly, but also entirely accurate: the Triffids’ frontman could simply flat out write. In his expansive Save What You Can: The Day of the Triffids, author Bleddyn Butcher covers both the history of the band as well as the unique nature of McComb’s songs. It is – excuse the overused phrase – essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the band or the history of Australian music. Butcher was kind enough to answer a variety of questions about his book, the band and McComb via email, in great detail and with an endearing amount of enthusiasm. I am proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Bleddyn Butcher.

I actually wanted to start with a question about the cover photograph used for the book. How’d you get that shot, specifically the sinking ship?

Much as I would like to pretend that the wreck was arranged specifically for the photo shoot, there’s no good reason to put you so atrociously on. The vessel – didn’t swim out to find out its name – was a crayfishing boat whose (whose? well, if ships are feminine I guess we can say “whose”) captain, rather like the unlamented Francesco Schettino of Costa Concordia fame, had foolishly sailed too close to shore, forgetting that West Australian beaches, despite their idyllic appearance, are criss-crossed by occasional reefs. The captain was, rumor had it, drunk at the time. Dave and I were stone cold sober but we both recognized that the wreck was a godsend, thematically.

How about the photo that appears in Chapter Six, taken a couple weeks after the recording sessions for Born Sandy Devotional were completed. It’s a disarming shot of David McComb. What do you remember from that session?

That photo was taken after a Moodists’ photo session at my house. Dave was a great fan of the Moodists, of their music and their sarcastic élan. He was, on this occasion, not precisely sober – none of us were: photo sessions can be fun – but by no means as wasted as he looks. I saw something in that instant that struck me as starry-eyed and clairvoyant: I thought that apt.

I’ve read that the book took around 10 years to complete. Can you walk us through how the project originated and changed over that time?

It began, I think it’s fair to say, when the late Sean Body, the proprietor of Helter Skelter, a publishing house and music bookshop in London, asked me, shortly after Dave’s death, whether I’d be interested in writing up my friend. “Yes”, I said straightaway. In that case, Sean said, he had the perfect title. He told me. I agreed. That was the easy bit.

Getting people to talk was harder, even though I knew most already: at first, it was too soon. People were still grieving, still confused. Then, as they began to understand what might have happened, they didn’t want to talk anymore: no one wants to be the klutz who spilt the beans. Didn’t matter that I already knew the gist. I got sick of explaining that my intentions were good – we’ve all heard about the pavements on the road to hell – and ploughed on alone. Luckily, Joanne Alach, Dave’s girlfriend from 1989 until a couple of months before his death, believed in me. She gave me access to much of Dave’s correspondence and, once I’d read that, I didn’t really need anyone else: I had the story I wanted to tell. I’d known from the outset that the songs would be my focus.

Dave’s letters showed that the songs were autobiographical, more so, even, than I’d supposed. My task was clear.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about how you went about analyzing these songs, since that is a large part of the book. How did you go about analyzing these songs and their various possible interpretations? How much of it was based on McComb’s biography and how much was attributable to your interpretation?

I listened a lot. I heard the songs first as songs, as motes of emotion in contagious capsule form. They soon took hold. I first heard “Farmers Never Visit Nightclubs” on a mix tape, for instance: I thought it funny and clever but didn’t register the name of the band. Then I heard Treeless Plain and was struck by the anger and humiliation in “Rosevel” and the helpless wonder of “My Baby Thinks She’s a Train”. Realising that the songwriter was the same droll fellow who’d written “Farmers” was, of course, intriguing but I didn’t chase autobiographical threads until much, much later. In the meantime, the songs kept pouring out. Once I’d got to know David, the biographical dimension of his writing was hard to ignore – it’s sign-posted in the title of “Jerdacuttup Man”, for instance – but it was never a necessary prerequisite to enjoying or understanding his work. Songs about prehistoric human sacrifice are few and far between: the imaginative choice of subject matter is both amusing and remarkable in itself.

I’m curious as to how reliable you found the band members’ recollections and if there were cases of the band members remembering the same events differently?

Not very, not many, in short. The band members, Alsy MacDonald excepted, were not very forthcoming with their own recollections – nor much inclined to depart from the official line which, we all knew, Dave had etched marmoreal. I was, initially, astounded by this reticence but gradually came to accept that their memories were not up to snuff – or, at least, not up to providing the degree of detail I required.

I’m wondering about this reticence from the band members. Why do you think this was the case?

David invariably said it better – and he was in a position to know. He was the principal architect of the band’s fortunes, its mastermind. His partners-in-crime don’t seem much inclined to dispute his vision – or his version of the band’s history. I was initially surprised that they displayed so little interest in interpretation but analysis is, perhaps, a specialist bent. Or perhaps, horrified by my appetite for the biographical fallacy, they simply abstained.

Can you describe how you first met McComb and what your initial impressions were? Did those impressions change in subsequent years?

Although we come from the same city and went to the same school, I didn’t meet David until he first came to London (I am older by far than he ever was). I was working for the NME as a photographer and he sought me out, seeking, no doubt, a foot in the door.

Once we met, none of that mattered. We were, I think, instantly friends. We shared the same likings and dislikings. We had similar tastes. He challenged me, I know it – maybe I challenged him.

As the years rolled by, that friendship deepened. I came to understand not only his humor but, I guess, his despair – not that he ever whined. He was happy with Joanne but, try as he might in the 1990s, his career just wouldn’t take flight. Then his health failed.

The book is pretty unflinching in detailing McComb’s drinking and what I’d guess could politely be called his emotional/personal issues. How would you characterize him? And as someone who traveled with the band and corresponded with McComb, was it difficult in offering an objective view of the Triffids?

You would, I think, be surprised. David was a lovely, lovely person, sweet, loyal and kind, sharp-tongued and hilarious. He was hard-working and sociable. In the 1980s, at least, his drinking didn’t seem – and probably wasn’t – unusual. My book is by no means objective – I don’t think it pretends to be. While I do try to present a critical perspective on his work, that critique is intensely partisan.

I’m surprised that you wouldn’t necessarily consider the book entirely “objective”. I actually thought the depiction of McComb was very honest and never tried to whitewash whatever personal faults he may have had.

I am a great fan of David McComb and a passionate advocate of his songwriting. I’d like to think that the book shows some critical rigor and typically calls a spade a spade but, inevitably, there will be shovels and trowels and other stray digging implements that I have, in my enthusiasm, overlooked.

One aspect of the book that I found fascinating was McComb’s disciplined approach to the craft of songwriting. One gets the impression that he was constantly writing and constantly revising.

That’s an accurate impression – it remains a source of amazement to me. McComb’s various journals and letters are quoted throughout the biography and are sometimes very personal; his 1989 tour journal in particular is pretty dark.

You mention the 1989 tour journal, and you’re right, it’s pretty bleak. What do you remember about McComb around 1989?

David was happier then than he had been in some time. 1987 and 1988 had been hard, professionally and personally. He’d been through the wringer and didn’t try to disguise it. He had some miles on him now but he was no longer morose. Meeting Joanne, I think, gave him hope. He spent the second half of the year preparing the solo album Island told him they wanted, embracing change gladly. It wasn’t until the end of the next year or early 1991, when a new regime at Island occasioned delay after delay, that his confidence faltered again. Even then, he persisted, returning once again to Australia, reforming the Blackeyed Susans and signing a new contract with White Records.

Did you have concerns about the book coming across as too voyeuristic?

Not really, no. A biography is, by definition, an account of someone’s life. Any biography which restricts itself to the recitation of officially acknowledged events is unlikely to tell much of a story and will doubtless read like a glorified curriculum vitae. Conflict, ambition, elation, pain and other unruly emotions make us who we are: denying their role is pointless. And dull.

What role did Perth play in the band’s development? At various points in the book, Perth is described as an “exceedingly small pond” and a “cultural prison.”

A crucial one. Because of its profound isolation, Perth is a kind of hothouse, an exotic laboratory, where new forms may prosper – or not. Perth is also a bastion of sun-baked complacency and thus a fierce testing ground: anyone who dares to be different will be trialed by fire. Unless they have an extreme attachment to water sports, David used to say, exotics will be inclined to leave.

It was amusing to read period reviews that attempted to define the Triffids’ style; I think the review that described them as the “Jackson Five of Perth” was the most humorous. How would you characterize the band’s style, at least once they settled into their “core” lineup?

I’m not even sure that the band had a “core” line-up – although I am, of course, aware that you’re referring to the six-piece that made the albums Born Sandy through The Black Swan. David’s tastes were mercurial. He had no allegiance to a single style. He was not hidebound by precedent. Had he lived, I’m sure he would have retained Martyn Casey and Graham Lee wherever possible – they’re versatile musicians and staunch allies. I doubt that he’d’ve felt the need to preserve the six-piece, though – unless hitting the heritage trail. In any case, by the time they came to record The Black Swan, The Triffids were devising bespoke settings for each and every song.

The Triffids’ music is often described as being rooted in Australian iconography and landscapes. Is it possible for non-Australian listeners to get as much out of these songs, or is something “lost in translation?”

David was a profoundly Australian artist as Bob Dylan is an American one. I don’t think that that distinction impairs either’s appeal – at least, not in the English-speaking world. The Triffids’ unexpected popularity in Scandinavia and the Low Countries, the European Lowlands, rather suggests that their appeal does not even depend on having English as a mother tongue. So, no. Music is the lingua franca, the dissolver of prejudice.

Why do you think the Triffids have remained at best a cult band in the United States?

Principally, lack of exposure. It is a commonplace of (English) rock journalism to suggest that to “break” America, you have to go there. You have to tour and tour and tour. There is plenty of empirical evidence to support this theory. The Triffids were unable to find a US promoter who believed in them. If they had, they’d have toured willingly. David loved American music. If he’d had his druthers, he’d have moved the band to New York. Immigration law made London an easier option.

I’m curious if you were present for the concerts where the Triffids opened for Bob Dylan or the Greece concert that devolved into a riot as the band played. If so, what do you recall about them?

I wasn’t present on either occasion but I was treated to prompt and quite fulsome accounts of both events by David and other Triffids. Rob McComb, for instance, lent me the Greek newspapers’ account of the riot on which the New Musical Express based at least part of its subsequent report. Another friend, the Gun Club’s tour manager Richard Thomas, was no less amazed – and informative.

One section of the book offers an interesting comparison between Nebraska and Born Sandy Devotional. I’ll admit I never considered that. What do you find in common between those two albums?

The thing about Nebraska that no one ever seems to remark on is its title. Why did Springsteen name the whole album after that particular song? I don’t know the answer, of course, but I suspect it’s because the whole album deals with a Starkweather state of mind, the “meanness in this world.” The characters Springsteen creates, even those from as far afield as Atlantic City (which is, as even a Perth boy like McComb knows, situated in Springsteen’s own New Jersey), somehow inhabit this state. They form a rootless community. Similarly, Born Sandy Devotional describes a communal malaise. David’s stated intention was to write an album on the theme of unrequited love and, certainly, the characters he creates are unlucky in that department. But it’s not just love that they lack. They lack a sense of purpose as well. They’re despairing and self-destructive.

The book doesn’t cover McComb’s post-Triffids years or his death in 1999. I’ve read previous comments where you’ve stated that the information that circulates on the Internet about his death are not accurate. Are you able to expand on that a bit?

I could probably expand at book length and, one day, I may. It’s a complicated story, a long story, a desperately sad story, and I’m afraid a short answer won’t do. Heroin, the most pernicious of all drugs (at least, until recently: methamphetamine seems to be no less destructive, no less insidious), is involved – but not, I contend, in the usual, the stereotypical, way. Nor was heroin by any means the only factor: to suggest that it was is simply snide. Ignorant and unfeeling, too. For all his faults (we all have them), David was not some feckless sybarite: he was an adamant artist and he worked damn hard for his art.

Last question: you’ve been asked to put together a playlist of your 10 favorite Triffids songs. Which ones do you include?

Let me think about it. I would without one second’s hesitation choose the song which gives the book its title but, in the interests of clarity, I should point out that I’m answering the question and choosing my favorite “Triffids songs”. If I was choosing my favorite McComb songs, the list would be different: I’d be tempted to include “Clear Out My Mind”, “I Want To Conquer You”, “Everything Fixed is Killed” and “Shining Path”.

Okay, here goes: “Save What You Can”, “Fairytale Love”, “(I’m Gonna) Fly To The Moon”, “In The Pines”, “My Baby Thinks She’s A Train”, “Rosevel”, “Trick of the Light”, “The Seabirds”, “Kelly’s Blues” and “Monkey On My Back.”

Available at Treadwater Press.

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