Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ed Kuepper and the Brisbane Sound

This piece is an excerpt from an as yet unpublished interview which is due to appear in the forthcoming Brisbane Sound catalog by the Institute of Modern Art.

Ed Kuepper’s ties to the Brisbane Sound dates back to when he formed his first band, Kid Galahad and The Eternals towards his final years of high school in 1972. Shortly after, this band became The Saints – who are widely credited as one of the first punk bands of the 1970s, and the first to independently release a single.

The band’s sound was against the grain of what was going on in Brisbane’s musical wasteland at the time, which was primarily a cavalcade of cabaret-styled bands with one-word names, who couldn’t break away from emulating the million-selling heavy rock bands who filled the large halls and tennis centres of Brisbane in the early Seventies.

This strong-willed do-it-yourself aesthetic that gave made the band its own booking agent and record label encouraged many other Brisbane bands playing original music to do the same. While Brisbane was coming to terms with The Saints, they’d broken up due to creative differences by the time their third album, Prehistoric Sounds, was released in October 1978.

Upon Ed Kuepper’s return to Brisbane shortly after, he assembled the Laughing Clowns with fellow school mates Jeffrey Wegener and Bob Farrell and relocated to Sydney. After six months of rehearsal, the band with the addition of Ben Wallace-Crabbe and shortly after his cousin Dan, Laughing Clowns were ready to make their debut in mid-1979. The band’s sound connected Kuepper’s future vision of The Saints, and an ever-growing interest in the more avant garde style of jazz music; known as either Free-Jazz or the New Music.

The influence of Laughing Clowns on the Brisbane Sound can be heard in the rhythmic guitar playing of Robert Forster, to Out Of Nowhere’s epic and complex song-structures, and the likes of Lindy Morrison — whose drumming style in both Zero and the Go-Betweens became a huge influence upon Clare McKenna and Keryn Henry’s common disregard for the simple 4/4, ‘meat and potatoes’ approach in time-keeping.

Since the split of the Laughing Clowns in December 1984, Ed Kuepper has gone on to a successful solo career which has spawned countless albums and in more recent years, a reunion with fellow Clowns founder, Jeffrey Wegener.

This interview was conducted at Kuepper’s Brisbane home by Donat Tahiraj in November 2007.

DT: After being on the major label EMI during The Saints and then going from that to an independent like Missing Link for the Laughing Clowns self-titled EP, what was the impetus behind starting the Prince Melon label?

EK: It was most likely because our relationship with Missing Link wasn’t all that brilliant. I just wasn’t particularly happy with what that relationship was, and I thought it was highly unlikely that any major label would touch the Clowns with a bargepole. And seeing that I’d released a record myself before with the Fatal record of The Saints, I thought I’d try that again.

DT: Was it a conscious decision to use an illustration by Melbourne artist Robin Wallace-Crabbe on the cover of the self-titled Laughing Clowns record?

EK: It was definitely something band-motivated. He was the father of our piano player Dan Wallace-Crabbe. The illustration and the text type was then presented to Missing Link and it was changed without consultation. We didn’t see the finished cover until it came out. It had been ‘modernised’ by Philip Brophy. The original artwork didn’t have all those lines. I thought it was an attempt to make the band seem slightly more contemporary, fix us in a certain point in time. Whereas I always thought the Clowns were outside that whole thing. We certainly had no ties to that electronic, avant garde-ish pop sound at that time.

DT: So did you feel that the Clowns didn’t fit into any musical scene that existed among the eastern capital cities in the late 70s and early 80s?

EK: Not directly in a musical way, no. We were obviously friendly with a couple of bands like the Birthday Party and The Go-Betweens ... and to some extent Scattered Order. But musically I thought everything was fairly different at that time.

DT: Did you see Peter Milton Walsh’s group, Out of Nowhere, as being allies to the Clowns, seeing that aside from Laughing Clowns and Hugo Klang, they too were a part of the Prince Melon label?

EK: Allies might be too strong a word. I liked them, I thought they were doing something musically that I didn’t have a problem with on the Prince Melon label. It wasn’t a master plan to have a have a hit record or anything like that. Prince Melon was set up and really operated as a non-profit label for the clowns . Both bands approached me ,not vice versa.
DT: What type of role did the Prince Melon label play for Out of Nowhere ?

EK: By that stage i was essentially the label, so i booked the session which i also attended in some kind of executive producer capacity.
I did think both of the songs were too long to fit on a 7 inch single so I suggested they should distill them down to their melodic essence. They decided not to do this however. Overall i remember the session being a bit strained,with a lot of tension between Milt and the studio engineer. Afterwards I had the records manufactured and gave copies to some media people that i thought would be interested, and sold as many as possible to independent stores. I also got them some support spots for the Clowns in Sydney.

DT: What was your impression of the Brisbane music scene of the early Eighties when the Clowns first played in

EK: I didn’t have much of an impression because I wasn’t up here all that much. It kind of seemed very small and very underground.

DT: Did you notice a shift from when the Saints left Brisbane in early 1977 to when you returned after the break-up of the Saints in 1978?

EK: The main thing that had changed was there did seem to be a scene, albeit fairly small. There wasn’t a scene when the Saints left. But there was a small scene based around The Go-Betweens and Zero. I don’t have a profound knowledge of how much of an impact that scene made on the culture of the town at the time. I got the impression that everyone still basically had to leave to achieve anything, and if you didn’t, you’d get ground down eventually.

DT: With the release of the Laughing Clowns self-titled mini-album in early 1980, the band did a seldom-seen video for the opening track, Holy Joe. What sparked your interest in making a video for this song?

EK: Ken West organised most of the putting together of that film. There were a few people involved who’d had ties with the film school in Sydney. As for the set, Ken may have painted that, but I’m not entirely sure. George Craglietto and Jeff Perrin – who were sort of involved with doing lights for the Clowns — also had a strong involvement. German expressionistic films of the early 20th century were kind of an influence on the way we were presenting the band at the time. As far as the costumes go, the band wore what they felt like wearing.

DT: Did you as a songwriter make any conscious decision to write hit singles during the Clowns days?

EK: I don't know about hit singles ,but the type of song that was released on 45 was definately shorter. I think anything we released as a single wasn’t designed to be totally obscure. There was some attempt made at having a pop structure in a melody or lyric.

DT: Obviously from the very start of the Clowns conception, there was a conscious decision as to what the band wore, like the suit and tie, and how they placed themselves on stage was noticeably different to anything else going on in the Australian music scene at the time. Placing the band in a straight line is but one example seen in one of Graham Aisthorpe’s photos of one of the group’s early shows in Sydney.

EK: It was very much contrived in the sense that it was well thought-out. There was always this intent to move into a darker theatrical presentation than a flashy, rock presentation. I think Ken and George’s lights, . were an important part of the way the band was presented. The way things were set up on stage – putting the drums up front, or as you said – putting the band in a straight line with everything else. That was all experimenting with things. We were constantly playing around with how things could be presented in a physical sense.

DT: A lot of Laughing Clowns listeners are either more interested in the Mr Uddich-Schmuddich Goes To Town era of the band where the sound owed a lot to the more to free-jazz or the more song-based material that was introduced with Law Of Nature. What are your impressions of the various line-ups and sounds which the band had during its five year existence?

EK: Every time there was a major shift in the line-ups – I guess there were three different forms which had line-up shifts. I’d say the first line-up which included the band going from a four-piece to a six-piece and back to a three piece at one stage. Then the five piece, which did the Mr Uddich-Schmuddich and Everything That Flies sort of stuff. And then the four-piece with the Law Of Nature sort of stuff, with either Peter Walsh as a bass player or with Paul Smith who replaced Peter after he left. Each of those three line-ups had their own sort of audience and not all of them made the transition. As to which one was more successful? That depends how you interpret these things. The second line-up was the most overt in terms of expressing a jazz influence, which I tr
ied to stop. Where I thought the band was most successful was in terms of the band’s performance with songs like ‘Everything That Flies’ – that was powerful. It was the most successful realization of what I was after. Live, sometimes the more sort of exploratory stuff would work, other times it became too much of a formula in itself. I guess after that, I wanted to move back to a more structured form of performance, hence the Law Of Nature and Ghosts Of An Ideal Wife period. Law Of Nature was almost something in some ways that wouldn’t have been out of place if it came out directly after Prehistoric Sounds. I think there’s quite a close sonic link between those records.

DT: Given the fact that the majority of the artwork in way of posters and album sleeves are designed by your wife Judi Dransfield-Kuepper or yourself personally, just how significant is having a strong visual aspect tie in with what you’ve done musically since the Clowns started?

EK: It’s not something that I go into great pains to extrapolate upon, but there’s always been a connection. I’ve always had an interest in melding sound and images outside of the standard promo clip. The unfortunate thing is that I have done little of it. On the other hand too, having made that claim, I’ve never had that great a need to do that a lot live. In the Nineties and through the Nineties, the promotional clip sort of became almost more important than the song. And to some extent that had a strange effect on me. It made me move away from it entirely. That sort of pushed me away from developing that side of what I really like to be doing. If the video clip hadn’t of become such a prime way in which music was presented, then quite possibly I would’ve made a greater effort to make that connection.

DT: In recent years, you’ve started to think away from promotional clips and playing live to large-scale video projections, such as with the MFLL shows. Has this shift away from promotional video clip making allowed you to freely use more imagery in both live performance or otherwise?

EK: Because of the notion of the promotional clip has gone now – it doesn’t seem to mean anything and it all seems quite liberating. It’s opened that area again. All of the technologies that have made people more accessible to things has made drawing attention to people a lot harder. When the Saints did their first single independently, at the time it was a talking point, but now when everyone’s doing home recording, it’s like who isn’t? But I’m very pleased with these technological advancements, I think it’s great.


bob nebe said...

Donat please tell me you know where I can get a copy of this catolog,
fantastic interview.
ciao bob

mr.kenneth said...

hiya Donat ... yes, interesting interview/points raised by EK. I look forward to trolling along to the IMA (p'raps?) for a copy of the catalogue.

Also look forward to more great reading in The Licorice Lounge!


Meltingpod said...

very interesting to read Ed's approach about the possibilty/desire or not to melt the images and the sound.
well done Donat !
Annie from Meltingpod