Died Pretty by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #18 in the winter of 1990
At night when the bowling balls swing down once again...
If you've been reading NFH for a while, you'll already be aware that Died Pretty rank near the top of the crop of Australian independent bands. NFH #14 had them on the cover and told their story up through the release of the Lost lp, but that article was based totally on second hand information. But this fall the band came to the US for a quick tour and a recording session for a new lp that took place in Los Angeles, giving the band a good long stay close by enough so that they were unable to escape my constant pestering requests for an interview.
Since the Lost lp it has been really hard to trace the band's activity. They've done a lot of their work in Europe, where there really isn't any good source available to US readers to find out what's going on. They did make forays into the UK, but you'd have to be a masochist to read the British rock press on a regular basis in the off hope that you'd see something about a good band. Australia's B-Side, which for the past couple years has been my main source for news, seems to be publishing on a schedule of little more than once a year lately, so for me it has been like a total black out.
The release of Lost in Australia was in late 1988. But the band didn't have a deal to release it either in the UK or the US (although it was released in Germany), so the band went overseas partly in the hope of getting a serious label deal. They began in the spring playing festivals in Europe...Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany. They've become a fairly successful band in Europe, having toured there four times now, and they can sell out shows with capacities between a thousand and 1500. Ron Peno felt that their popularity was especially good in Italy at this point.
After three and a half months of playing in Europe, they returned to Australia for a mere six weeks, slipped out the single "Everybody Moves"/"In Love's Prison", and then headed off again in the summer for more European dates. They returned home again for a few weeks and then came back for a US tour that ended in Long Beach in late September.
In between they made a stop to Britain, which Ron Peno says is a place that he wouldn't be heartbroken to never visit again. But the stop was significant because this is where the arrangement with Beggar's Banquet took place which in turn lead to a US release for Lost in the summer. But the circumstances weren't the best as Ron explains:
"There's just something about the place. I tried really hard to like it. They don't like us much. Critically...we're not that great shakes with the critics in England. Unfortunately, we played the Fulham Greyhound the second to the last time we were in England, just before we were signing with Beggar's Banquet, and it wasn't a very good show. It was packed to capacity; there were like seven or eight hundred people jammed in there, and unfortunately I was very nervous and I took to the alcohol before the show and ruined it for everyone. Little things like I wasn't getting enough fold back so I thought I'd do a prima donna act and throw the microphone around and just generally swear the lyrics and stuff, and it didn't go down too well. It was really silly on my part, but I'd sort of built this big show up...you know the critics in England and stuff...and I let it get to me. So it wasn't real good, but we redeemed ourselves a little bit because our last show we played there was very good. Thankfully Beggar's didn't want to not sign us up after that show; they still loved us. It was a powerful show despite the kind of negativity of it...it was still quite a powerful show, all things considered and namely on my part, going on like a goof. But the last time we played in England it was a good show, about three or four hundred people there at the Town and Country Too Club, but as I said, if we never went back to England, I don't think we'd be heartbroken."Thankfully the band did sign, and it seems likely to be a pretty good arrangement, since Beggar's Banquet has a good setup with RCA for US distribution and thus can give the band a really good push by comparison to What Goes On, which despite doing a fairly good job for a number of Aussie bands a couple years ago, never had the sort of resources that RCA can put behind a band. The arrangement is for several records, so with luck it means that Died Pretty get handled with some degree of patience, and although Beggars has worked more with British indie bands, they are at least used to the concept that a band can be considered successful without charting in Billboard. But the signing did have its downside, particularly that Lost ended up being released in the US and UK at about the time the band would normally have been starting to work on a follow up record.
"We would have liked for it to come out a lot earlier", says Ron, "because we wanted to come back to the States like ages ago, but financially it was impossible until we signed with a label like Beggars to tour across America. We would have come out at a loss all the time, but being signed to Beggar's has made it that much easier."Their US tour started on the east coast with several dates in the New York area, and went as far afield as Washington DC's 9:30 Club. From there they hopped across to Los Angeles for a show at Club Lingerie opening for Band of Susans and then a headline spot at Bogarts in Long Beach. It was this latter show that I was fortunate enough to catch, and the band showed me that although I hadn't been knocked out by their last few singles, the live show hasn't suffered a bit since I first saw them in Sydney in 1987. The band powered with a much wilder sound than their records, and they tended to stick to the rockers. It was obvious the band was having a lot of fun, even though the crowd thinned quite a bit after they came on...it seemed more people knew about the previous act, The Hollowmen. I thought they might have been upset about this, but Peno seemed happy with the results.
"We've been playing pretty good shows in America, which is great. I think the first time we were over here it was a pretty dodgey sort of set we were playing, being our first time away and stuff, but this time it's been very good, and we hope to spend more time here. I think we're coming back in May of next year."He says the response tends to be better on the east coast,
"because we've been there twice now, just playing around New York. We played CBGBs for the second time and we also played Maxwells in Hoboken for the second time, and people have known us on the east coast since we were here in the end of 1986 when we were first here, but this is only our first time on the west coast playing so a lot of people have never seen us here. But hopefully that'll change when we come back in May."Both shows I've seen have been fiercely energetic sets featuring lots of rockers, so I wondered if the difference between the records and the shows was intentional or the result of recording difficulties. Not that the records are bad; on the contrary they're generally great; it's just that they are quite obviously different. But Peno says my perception is the luck of the draw:
"It's just whatever sort of mood we're in as a band before we play, or whatever. A lot contributes to a show; we can get there and want to play a wild show or we can play quite introspective shows. We're enjoying ourselves as a band much more these days and the lineup as is these days...we're all pretty compatible now, so we're enjoying it a lot more and it's a lot tighter as a unit playing-wise, so we're obviously having a lot more fun."One difference between now and the earlier days is that the band has replaced bass player Mark Locke with Steve Clark (previously in a Sydney group called The Glass) and keyboard player Frank Brunetti with former Thought Criminal John Hoey. Brunetti was a founding member of the band with guitar player Brett Myers and Peno, but apparently the touring grind was beginning to wear him down. His departure led to a rough patch for a while, as Myers was particularly depressed at having to replace such a close friend.
"They liked the same sort of movies and books and art and music and stuff like that", says Ron, "and they had a very good rapport with each other and had a very close friendship. It hit Brett pretty hard when Frank decided to leave, and he was almost going to dissolve the band, but he was talked around into staying and keeping it together. So we've weathered that, but we've weathered quite a few things, and we've still sort of come out relatively unscathed by it all. So we can take on anything these days, I think and survive."Despite Hoey's past experience, he has basically been out of bands for a long while. Peno puts the date as 1976, but things I've read date the Thought Criminals at closer to 1978-80.
Speaking of bands like the Thought Criminals got us to talking about some of Ron's past history, much of which is outlined in the Died Pretty - Screaming Tribesmen family tree in NFH #14. As you can see from that, Peno is not new to playing in rock and roll bands. But some of those other bands were really different compared to what Died Pretty are up to.
"Yeah, well the bands that I was previously with were all sort of hard rocking combos", says Ron, "like the Hellcats back in 1976, where we never had one original. We did covers of the New York Dolls and Flaming Groovies, most of Raw Power. But we had fun, and we only lasted for about three or four months or something. But it was good, and that's when I first met Rob Younger and the rest of Radio Birdman, and struck up good friendships with them."Drummer Chris Welsh has been through a similar transition; he used to play with Ron in an early 80s Brisbane band called the 31st, and after a span of several years when he gave up drumming played with the Screaming Tribesmen. He recalls those days and compares them to the present:
"It was very much just basic, straight rock and roll. I mean, it was good; I hadn't played drums for a while so it was good for me just to build myself up a little bit and just get back into playing straight rock and roll if you know what I mean, but once the opportunity to join Died Pretty came along I jumped at it because there wasn't and there still isn't a band doing the kind of music that Died Pretty does. I don't think there is anyway. I couldn't compare us to anybody in Australia really. And I used to go and see the band; they were going for about 12 months before I joined, and I used to go and see them all the time. I thought they were really good for that reason; they were doing different things, doing all these slow songs. It was like: "Wow, nobody's doing songs like this!". I thought it was great. And it was good for me; it was a change of style for me, something I hadn't done before. I had to learn to lay back a bit. The type of music is that you lay back a bit and then you give your all, and then you lay back again...well I'm sure you know the music anyway, but you kind of slow down and speed up, and it can be really intense and then they go right back down again."The amount of time that Chris and Ron and the other three band members have put into playing in rock and roll bands over the years with little in the way of financial or critical appreciation to show for it is sobering, and when you see Died Pretty play, with the amount of enthusiasm they still seem to have for what they are doing, you can't help but be impressed. It's clearly a different sort of set of values these fellows have compared to the average 9-5 workaholic. One thing I wondered going in was, are these guys at the point of desperation now? They've reached the point of no return, basically...if they can't make a living in music, they really can't make a living because it's too late to start something else. But as the following conversation shows, there really isn't much sense of that on Ron's part. We started talking about the show in Britain where everything went wrong:
Ron: "Instead of actually singing the lyrics I was saying "fuck!" a lot and just being a little asshole, really. I just went around handling that show the wrong way. Everyone around me was sort of building this show up...NME will be there, and Melody Maker, and they'll all have pens poised and it's a really important show, and we've got to break it in England. I just got myself up into a really nervous state where I just drank half a bottle of vodka just before we went on, and that was a very silly thing to do."NFH: "Maybe what you just told me sort of answered this, but are you at the point where you feel really confident that you are a good band and that it's just a matter of people listening to the music and that if they have any kind of a brain they're going to figure out that it's good, or do you still feel like you have a lot to prove?"
Ron: "No, I think we're almost there as a band, I think. I think we're pretty good. I'm pretty confident in us at the moment, especially with this new album. Whatever this album will do, I don't know. We're all hoping...we're sort of quietly confident that it's going to be quite good and that around the world we'll be accepted. But if not, maybe the next one. If people just go "Oh. no, it's the same thing, it sounds exactly like the Lost album, the same sort of songs and stuff", well, maybe the next album. But we'll just keep on producing songs and just recording, and we'll just sort of plod along, really. Not necessarily plod along, but just as long as we're progressing like within ourselves...obviously we're not going to be like INXS or anything like that; that sort of success. Or even probably the Hoodoo Gurus, maybe. But you never know. If we could break into the college charts I'd be quite happy. Go "top ten" in the college charts; that would be a start. I mean we've never figured in the college charts at all...I guess because our records were never available here before; they were only available on import. And we haven't played enough in this country, really. I think we need to play more here. I would like to play a hell of a lot more in America and get really well known here and then take it from there. But we've spent the last four years mainly playing around Europe, places like Greece and stuff, playing in Athens."NFH: "Do the other band members like touring, too?"
Ron: "Yeah, we have our moments, but we're pretty good. We all get on pretty well together. There's no major dramas or anything that we can't sit down and talk about. We're pretty together in that respect. A lot of the bands that you see...how they behave towards each other is quite astounding. But even if we've been in other bands we've known each other for over ten years as just friends."NFH: "That's a pretty positive attitude after the number of years you've been at this."
Ron: "Yeah, well, I'm a very contradictory sort of person. I mean, I do want to see something out of Died Pretty financially. I don't want to be forced into being a pen pusher at the public service or something. Of course, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want Died Pretty to be successful, really. Not in a big way, but just enough to be able to earn a wage each week from the band and just live comfortably. Buy my own house and something like that."NFH: "I guess the key is to find a way that you can make some money on your own terms..."
Ron: "Yeah, which we have done, I mean we've just been sort of coasting along making music, really, and it's been great. If we can just do this and we can reach more people I guess."NFH: "A lot of people who have played seriously in bands into their thirties and haven't yet made it get sort of desperate since they have nothing to fall back on..."
Ron: "Or they see other people who are in their twenties who are sort of making the grade musically. I've seen a few people like that in Europe. Like Sky Saxon; we played with him...in Germany I think it was, at the beginning of the year. He was pretty wild, a bit of a character. I was quite depressed when I first saw him because he'd just sort of lost it. I felt like 'What the hell are you doing, why don't you go get a day job?'."NFH: "But you sound like you feel pretty far from that sort of thing and you're still looking up."
Ron: "Well yeah! Plus I haven't taken acid (laughs) so that's another good plus on my side; none of that sort of shit. Unfortunately he did, and it's pretty obvious that it screwed him up. It's pretty sad."Died Pretty have in their favor the fact that their sound is fairly different. It's not the Detroit-metal sort of sound that so many Aussie bands go for, and although there are a lot of slower songs, they aren't the sort of hokey gothic type thing that often is associated with slow material. And even in the slow material there seems to be a sense of tension and dynamics that comes in large part from the contradiction between Welsh's drumming style (he's a Keith Moon fan from way back) and the rest of the music.
"It's an interesting thought. I think what it is is the way the songs seem to be structured is that whole thing where you go through the verse and then the chorus starts to pick up a bit and then there might be some middle-eight or some other section or whatever where everybody kicks some ass, and then you take it back down again. It's something I've always liked in music; I don't know whether it's necessarily just because of the drumming...I think it's the combination."The only still functioning Australian band I could think of to compare Died Pretty to is the Lizard Train (I also thought the Primevils were comparable, but they're gone now). But Chris hadn't heard them,
"I know of the name, but I don't know a great deal of their material, so I can't really comment. If you've got a spare cassette, by all means you can send me one because I've been collecting quite a few cassettes of various bands. A guy I met up with a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta works for BMG, the new RCA distribution and he sent me a box of tapes the other day, and it was like "this is great!", because I get a chance to listen to bands that I probably wouldn't get a chance to hear in Australia. There's just so many bands in America..."NFH: "Yeah, there's so many shitty bands in America!"
Chris: "Oh, of course, I mean sure, I'm not saying there isn't. I'm sure there's bands that we equally despise. But there's so many other bands that you don't get to hear of, or even a lot of American people get to hear, like a small band from Atlanta, for example...do you know of a band called Driving And Crying? There really, really a good band, good pop band. Kind of REM-ish, and I'm not holding that against them because I really like REM, but they're really a good band. And there's another good band called the Primitons, they're from Georgia as well. Driving And Crying are kind of in the same vein, a cross between the Primitons and REM; they like to slow down, and they like to speed up as well, fast material and slow material."Ever desperate for more news about what's going on in Australia, I asked Chris how he perceived the scene in Sydney to be going.
"It kind of comes in waves. Yeah, there are quite a few good bands around at the moment, but a lot of them seem to be more established bands, like the bands that I like, but I know that there are smaller bands that are on their way up now. But the thing is, in Sydney they seem to come and go all the time. You'll see a band and you'll think "these guys are really good, and I hope they keep going", and twelve months later they split up and then one goes off and does this and one goes off and does that, and they get another band together and it's not as good or it's not the same as what they used to be doing, and that seems to happen a lot in Sydney. The music scene is pretty healthy. The club scene's a little bit different because they keep closing them down all the time. But sure enough, they close a couple down and a few weeks later another one opens up. it seems to balance itself out eventually."Some of Chris' favorite Australian groups include Hunters and Collectors, Paul Kelley and The Messengers and the Church, all bands that are sort of borderline commercial groups there. He then makes and effort to think of some smaller bands:
"Lime Spiders are pretty good. A band called the Celibate Rifles...do you know them?" Now he's talking, is my response. "They're really good; they're a very entertaining band to see live. They're a very powerful band to see live. The Tribesmen...uh...(and he takes on a tone like he'd like to say he likes them but doesn't really...) they've got an entirely new lineup now, Michael's the only original band member now and the other guys are just from various bands or friends of his or whatever. But they're just getting it together again, if you know what I mean. It's a big shakeup for Michael...there's nobody else left, so it's a big shakeup for him. New rhythm section, second guitarist."NFH: "They were sounding like an arena rock sort of thing, and I didn't like too much what they did on their last record."
Chris: "They changed a lot I've found. They have an ep out now with the new lineup, and they do a couple of covers and a couple of original songs. It's not bad, but it's not like it used to be. Michael writes good songs, I'm not going to say he doesn't now...he still does. But it just seems to be the way that they come across. Even in the older era there were certain songs that were really great, but there were others that were kind of so so. But there's other bands like the Porcelain Bus, they're a pretty good band. A band like the Hummingbirds, they're OK and they're getting quite popular in the AM top 40 charts in Australia now. Other bands...I could name quite a few but they're all broken up. There's a band called the Wreckery which were like remnants of the Birthday Party and The Bad Seed and stuff like that, but they've broken up. They've got a few records out. And I like Nick Cave."Since he played with and around members of the New Christs at various times, I had to see whether he liked them:
"Yeah, I do. They're a little bit too full on rock and roll for me, maybe I'm getting too old, I don't know (laughs). But yeah, I do. I do like them."So we've wandered a bit far away from talking about what it is that makes Died Pretty sound so special; the drumming against the guitar and keyboards was one aspect, but another thing that you can't help but notice listening to Died Pretty records is that you can't tell what the hell Peno is singing...he delivers some of the most indecipherable lines in rock today. I will swear that the opening line to their great "Winterland" single go "Tonight when the bowling balls swing down once again". What's going on here?
"Well, that is sort of intentional on my part", says Ron. "I guess it's a thing with my being sort of insecure about my lyrics, not wanting to read that "his lyrics are shitty" or "the band would be great if it wasn't for his lyrics". I guess I try to hide the lyrics and disguise them as much as I can, so people are unable to see through them. I guess it's a defensive thing or a security thing for me. Plus I like people wondering what the hell I'm singing about anyway. It's just a novelty thing of mine. It is intentional on my part only, that I like to string words together where people are going "What is he saying?", and I could be saying something quite simple, but it's just the way I've arranged them in a line for a song is a little different. I'll string words together in a way that when I sing them to a melody they sound quite strange, but in actual fact they're not really."It's an approach that makes the records that much more listenable over the long haul...even after fifty plays you continue to discover more new things in the lyrics. With Free Dirt, a record that has spent huge amounts of time on my stereo, I still can't follow more than bits and pieces of the lyrics. But the surprise is when Ron admits
"Neither do I! Even I can't decipher what I'm saying on some of that record. Some of that record was like spur of the moment studio things that were never written down that were just sung in the studio, and god knows what I was singing some of the time on some of the songs in various places. There were just spur of the moment things in the studio where I didn't have the lyric ready and I just had to ad lib or whatever."According to Ron the new record is looking like more of the same sort of thing that fans have appreciated up to now.
"We're quite happy with what we've put out. There's nothing that we're embarrassed by or that we cringe at the thought of. It's not going to be any great departure in sound; I guess it will be sort of a combination of Free Dirt and Lost. It'll be probably a lot tougher in parts and in some places a lot prettier, more melancholic than the other two maybe. I'd like to leave it as a combination of the two records. Maybe the fourth one we'll be a departure, I don't know. We'll keep churning them out I guess!"At the time we spoke, the band had just completed a stretch of a week in rehearsal studios and had put down the basic rhythm tracks for the record. They were due to finish off guitars and keyboards in another couple of days and then do vocals...sort of a medium scale production effort. Although the band had most of the material ready going in, Ron was still fine tuning the lyrics, the feeling being that until you've put the song on record you can do whatever you want, but once you reach that point they're frozen, so they've got to be as good as they can be. Ron and Brett and Steve planned to stay for the mix down, but Chris was due to head out right after doing his last drum bits, since he has a wife and a young boy awaiting him at home.
"I've got to see if I can get home before my little boy starts to walk", he says. "One of the things you should really be around for, you know. Yeah, I just want to get back; I miss them."Keith Moon would never understand.
But they've enjoyed their time in the US quite a bit. They've stayed in Hollywood, where Ron has been content to go out looking in the shops during the days when he isn't need for recording, and he talked about looking for a leather jacket, which he said were much cheaper than in Australia. He says he's been dying to get one all his life, and since the record company has them on salary he now has the money to do it. He also confessed to being quite starry eyed about Hollywood in general and seemed particularly impressed by the availability of some 50 channels worth of cable TV in his hotel. As we spoke he and Chris were gearing up to watch sequel number 150 or whatever of "Friday the 13th". Ron even said that despite being away from Sydney for so long, he was going to miss Los Angeles, a shocking lapse of taste in this writer's view. However, he did allow that his fondness for the place might be credited to the novelty of the situation coming from overseas, as I had felt that Sydney was the greatest city I'd ever seen, whereas he was unimpressed by it. So I guess he can be forgiven and it is still OK for you to buy their records.
The one thing he did note about Los Angeles is that it tends to be very cut-throat, with everybody wanting to make it in one way or another, while in Sydney the bands and the atmosphere tend to be much more relaxed. There is a whole group of people in Sydney who have played in various bands together for years, and they get along for the most part very well. br>
"We're all in the same boat", says Ron. "We're all just producing music. We're just all friends and we all play in bands, and we see each other. If we're not touring we'll socialize in Sydney and we'll compare tours or records or recording sessions or whatever, and we'll talk about the people we made overseas, and the friendships we made, and the friendships we didn't make, and stuff like that. It's all very chummy. It's great."NFH: "You don't see that with bands in the US very much; like I was surprised when I was in Sydney to see Brett hanging out at the Celibate Rifles show the day after Died Pretty played...that sort of thing would be pretty rare here."
Ron: "That's strange to us, because when we were starting up the Celibate Rifles were a big help to us. They gave us as many supports as they could while we they were playing in Sydney, so that was very good for us; it was just what we needed. And so did a lot of other Sydney bands, some of whom are still around, and others have sort of bitten the dust. But whenever I see those guys we just hang out and socialize. It's great."The release date for the record is currently planned for February or March, and until then the band will stick to Australia, where they have a few shows set for December in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, and then a somewhat larger tour for after the lp comes out. Says Chris,
"We'll probably stick to the east coast, where we usually stick to. We don't seem to venture anywhere kind of west anymore. We still go to Adelaide sometimes, but that's it. We kind of stick to the east coast. (Going to Perth) is like another part of the world. But these shows are going to keep us busy in December and early January and I suppose we'll just wait on the release of the record in February and then we'll do a small scale tour...a tour for us in Australia is like three weeks max, and then we'll be heading off to Europe in April."After the European tour they plan to be back to the US in late May or so, and then the hope is for a full scale tour with lots of stops so there'll be no excuses for missing them this time around. Be ready.