The Screaming Tribesmen by Steve Gardner
Specially done for Divine Rites.
The Screaming Tribesmen have been planning their conquest of America for a long time now, but it appears that they are finally on the doorstep, and for lead singer Mick Medew it's about time. He's been putting everything into rock and roll since he, Ron Peno and Chris Welsh (now both in Died Pretty), Tony Robertson (Naked Lunch), and Brad Shephard (Hoodoo Gurus) started the 31st in 1980. But the fact that most Americans who hear "I've Got A Feeling" on the radio will think that this is another "new" Australian band that just popped out of the woodwork doesn't bother him a bit. "We're just happy to be here at all", he says in his pleasant, soft-spoken Australian accent.
Pressed a little more, he does admit that there has been a little frustration that it has taken this long to break through, because he always thought the Tribesmen were well suited to American tastes. "We're a lot more excessive...a lot of American bands are excessive and that applies to us".
The Screaming Tribesmen are getting plenty of opportunity to show off their brand of excessiveness on their first foray into the United States. The first part of their tour had them as opening act for British bleached reggae act UB40 in halls seating 5,000 to 15,000. It's an odd pairing, but Mick, who seems to be very quiet and introspective for a guy who screams out songs about dating vampyres (on two occasions), cutting up his girlfriend and dancing in her blood, and other similarly macabre pasttimes, says the audiences have been really receptive. The second half, beginning with their show in San Diego November 17, consists of shows with them as headliners. As we spoke, the band was preparing for their San Diego gig, trying to get familiar with all their rental equipment. All they brought with them from Australia was their guitars and a snare drum.
The band are signed to the US with Rykodisc, not a label known for its success breaking Australian bands, but they seem to be pushing all the right buttons with the Tribesmen. Their "I've Got A Feeling" video is on MTV on a consistent basis, and the song itself is getting airplay on over 200 radio stations. The connection with the label was apparently made through a fan of Australian music in Minneapolis, and the band, after talking to a few other candidates, signed up fairly quickly.
The Screaming Tribesmen have undergone a significant evolution since their early days. Mick Medew's roots go back to a band called the 31st, which formed in Brisbane in November 1979 with future Died Pretty members Ron Peno and Chris Welsh singing and drumming, respectively, and Tony Robertson (future New Christs and Hitmen, among others) on bass. The 31st lasted until July of 1981 with only one significant change...the brief addition of former Fun Things guitarist Brad Shepherd. Their 60s garage punk sound was a fixture on the Brisbane scene for quite a while, and they played a lot of gigs with Brett Myers' band, the End. The group played covers of songs like Roky's "You're Gonna Miss Me" and songs by the Haunted or the Chocolate Watchband.
In August of 1981, Robertson left to join the Hitmen, and was replaced by Michael O'Connor. The 31st began playing gigs under the name Died Pretty at this point, but after two months Chris and Michael left and were replaced by former Fun Things rhythm section John Hartley and Murray Shepherd. This was the first line-up of the Screaming Tribesmen...Ron Peno handling vocals and Mick Medew on guitar.
By January 1982 Peno had left and the band was down to a 3 piece with Mick singing. In the spring they recorded the first Screaming Tribesmen 45, a four track do-it-yourself ep with a photocopied black and white sleeve that now fetches over $200 a copy. It had four songs, and they pressed 500 copies. The production has a rough and ready punk style and the songs vary from the 60's R&B of "Turn On Your Love Light" to the fairly straight punk of "Trans 43". Mick says there's not much chance they'll ever reissue this record because, as he puts it himself, "the sound isn't very good". He wasn't aware that "Trans 43" had been bootlegged (on a compilation of Aussie rarities), but he's not displeased by it: "you can't do anything to stop them from bootlegging, anyway".
In December of 1982 they recorded their second single, and this time the production was first rate. "Igloo"/"My True Love's Blood" was produced by former Radio Birdman guitarist Chris Masuak...his first try as a producer, but a good one. The band circulated tapes of the recording to major labels and were shot down by all, and Sydney indie Phantom Records rejected it, too, but Citadel finally picked it up and it ended up being a strong seller for them later in 1983. It turned out to be an excellent single for both the band and the label, as it was one of a handful of releases that helped create the Citadel legend.
In March 1983 things came to a halt as Murray Shepherd moved to another Brisbane band called the Myth. Mick formed a new band called Wolfgang with former Lipstick Killer drummer Michael Charles and his girlfriend, Janine Hall, who had played bass briefly with the Saints. This band never was very well received, though Mick felt they were quite good. For a while, both Wolfgang and the Screaming Tribesmen were dribbling along simultaneously, and in May 1983 the Tribesmen recorded their second Citadel single "A Stand Alone"/"Move A Little Closer"; the first song being an old 31st number. This one was also produced by Masuak, but it's nowhere near as good as the "Igloo" single.
In September of 1983 there was a series of benefit gigs in Sydney for Hitmen lead singer Johnny Kannis, who had been injured in a serious auto wreck and had huge hospital bills to pay. The Screaming Tribesmen reformed to play at some of these gigs, and the timing coincided well with the "Igloo" single hitting the indie charts. Wolfgang broke up, and Mick began to focus on the Tribesmen again. But the situation was pretty difficult; Mick was now based in Sydney, and that's where all the gigs were, but Murray Shepherd was still in Brisbane. On the strength of the single, the Screaming Tribesmen were pulling good enough money to afford to fly Murray down for gigs, but practices were a problem. They struggled on for a while in this fashion, but in June of 1984 Medew finally decided that the situation with Murray and John was untenable. When he began to rebuild the band, it was natural for him to ask Chris Masuak to join up after the friendship they had developed through recording together. Despite the fact that many people felt when Chris joined that he would eventually take over the band, he seems to be content to play a lower key role, contributing heavily to song writing but leaving the spotlight to Mick, who has nothing but good things to say about the way they work together. For a rhythm section they got the New Christs' Mark Kingsmill (drums) and Tony Robertson again. In October, Kingsmill left to join the Hoodoo Gurus for the first US tour, and Chris Welsh sat in. This only held up until December, when Welsh and Robertson left and were replaced by Michael Charles (once again) and Bob Wackley (formerly of Brisbane punk group, Razar) on bass. With this line up the Screaming Tribesmen finally stabilized and subsquently created their best recordings.
The finest of these was their classic Citadel 4 track mini-lp A Date With A Vampyre. The title track of this record features a crunching riff that hooks hard over the top of a stuttering drumbeat and is one of the great songs of the mid 80s. The other 3 tracks aren't quite as strong, but the overall effect is good enough to make this record one of the indisposable classics of the period along with things like the Eastern Dark's Long Live The New Flesh, Died Pretty's Next To Nothing, or the Lime Spider's Slave Girl. A Date With A Vampyre was licensed overseas as well, and in France the band was popular enough for the Sonics label to release the first two Citadel 7" singles (with different sleeves), although I have heard it alleged that these are not legitimate licences, but are instead high quality bootlegs.
In 1986 the band broke from Citadel and released the 6 track Top Of The Town mini-lp, which moved them strongly toward a mainstream pop-rock sound. The production of this record took some amount of heat in Australia for being too soft, but Medew stands by the record and says he wouldn't change anything about it.
The band is now touring on the strength of their current lp, Bones and Flowers, which at this writing has been out in Australia for almost exactly a year. If you've heard the single "I Got A Feeling", you are likely to have been put off by the arena-rock treatment they give the song, but if you listen closely, you can hear the usual brilliant guitar line basis that the Tribesmen use for most of their best songs. Medew insists that this is not done by design; he doesn't try to work out a great riff and build a song around it. "The songs just happen". Much the same explanation he has for the development of the band's sound. The way they sound today is not a sound they've been trying to achieve for years, it just happened to turn out this way, and they like it.
Medew is very keen on spending more time in the US. The present tour runs into December, and then they're back to Sydney for a short tour and maybe some recording, and then they hope to return to the US in March. They're planning a new lp, and have actually been playing a lot of the material for it in their shows this fall. Medew would like to be based in the US; he feels that the people here are friendly and he claims to be blown away by how well treated they've been: "we've had more alcohol than we could ever drink, more food than we could every eat, they really take care of us...". He's also been real happy with the venues they've played so far, although I await hearing his tune after they play small clubs as headliners. In Sydney, he says "the club owners treat you like dirt. You're lucky if you get a soundcheck at all." Personally, I think he has a case of rose-colored glasses to get over with regard to the US, but I hope for his sake that things continue to go so well.
It's interesting how so many of the small core of people at the center of indie rock in Australia in the early 80s are starting to make international names for themselves now. I asked if there's some rivalry among people in bands like the Hoodoo Gurus, Died Pretty, Lime Spiders or New Christs who've been at it for years. "Oh, yeah, but it's friendly, and it's healthy". So you can go back and give old friend Ron Peno a hard time because your record is on MTV: "Right, yeah, especially Ron. That'll be good."
So now that the world is their oyster, what level of success is Mick looking for? No mincing words on his part about artistic integrity or anything: "Platinum albums, yeah, double, triple platinum." And he laughs.
In 1987 I saw the Screaming Tribesmen play a gig with the Huxton Creepers in Revesby, a suburb of Sydney. Revesby is about twenty miles from downtown Sydney; the sort of trip Californians think is reasonable to go out for a quick bite to eat, but when I told a guy in a record store we were going there he sounded like we were departing on an intergalactic expedition. At any rate, the Roundhouse, where the show was, is similar to the Tivoli in character; a real slick, sharp looking club with great visibility and few chairs and tables to clutter things up. The patrons were a totally different matter; where the Tivoli had a crowd that would fit in at punk shows in the US, the Roundhouse has a dress code (no boots or shirts without collars) and bouncers dressed in tuxedos (including one imported from Woodland Hills, Ca., presumably because it is much more difficult to find Australians with IQs lower than their age). The crowd seemed to be mostly 18-22 years old, decked out in the latest new wave styles and heavily into dancing to the records before and between bands. And of course, heavily into drinking. One guy we talked to bought us each 4 beers just because we were Americans!
At the time of this show I had only heard the Screaming Tribesmen's Citadel releases and their newer mini-lp, and I had high expectations for them based on their great songs "Igloo" and "Date With A Vampyre", but also some worries due to the "Top Of The Town" mini-lp, which despite the presence of some excellent material does not pack the punch it could due to smotheringly smooth production. The first appearance of the band does little to ease these fears, since they look like Van Halen clones, and before long it is obvious that this is a band that is spending a little too much time on the wrong side of the line that divides punk from metal. Chris Masuak in particular should be ashamed of himself for his cliche-ridden poses, grimaces and screechy soloing. With his Radio Birdman roots, one would think he would know better.
Despite the negatives, the overall effect of the show is positive. The Tribesmen don't slip into the plodding thud rock of most metal bands and never go for ballads, maintaining a good fast pace throughout. Mick Medew's vocals live tend to have less of the whining quality that has messed up a few of their recorded tracks (such as side two of the "Vampyre" 12"). Outside of excessive solos, the guitar sound is powerful with all the great Tribesmen riffs (especially on "No Second Chance") really connecting. The drumming is solid and non-spectacular.
The set list covered most of the band's recent history stretching back to "A Stand Alone" and "My True Loves Blood" but sadly ignoring "Igloo". It would've been nice to hear "Trans 43" but only Medew is still in the band from those days and the new members probably are uninterested in stuff that old. Much of the material was from their new lp "Bones and Flowers", which I hadn't heard at the time, but enjoyed despite its unfamiliarity. The new record has no obvious classics such as those from the band's past, but is still a decent slab of uptempo guitar rock.
A year later and the night after our telephone conversation, the Screaming Tribesmen take the stage in San Diego in front of a reasonably enthusiastic crowd (for this town, remember), albeit a somewhat schizophrenic one. The make-up seems to consist of a few people into independent music, a few mainstream metal types, and a few of the normal there-for-the-drinks types. Most of the tables were filled, but there was lots of prime viewing room.
We missed the first couple songs (having completed our own set across town about 15 minutes earlier), but still got our money's worth and then some. The band seemed to be enjoying themselves incredibly; much more so then when I saw them in Sydney, despite the fact that the crowd in Sydney was probably three times what they had this night. The live set has lots more punch than the record, and for the most part the feeling is much closer to the "Date With A Vampyre" sound than the arena rock feel of the lp; a combination of heavy guitars and pop vocals.
My favorites, as might be expected, were mostly the earlier songs. "Ice" was the song that seemed to kick the crowd into gear early on, and the opening chords to "Igloo" a few songs later led into an electrifying version of the song that Medew and Died Pretty's Ron Peno wrote together more than six years ago now. This was followed by a rousing take of "I Got A Feeling", which as might be expected was most popular with the crowd. Closing the main set was a fabulous go of "Date With A Vampyre".
After the show, Medew complained that he was really hurting from pulled rib muscles suffered while trying to help load equipment. The poor guy is so small (looks like he weighs about 110 lbs), it seems like the roadies ought to just chase him away anyway. I didn't think it showed in his singing, though, as he let off some great yells (certainly woke up the FM radio crowd, who aren't used to that sort of thing.) Chris Masuak hammed it up throughout the set with his usual metal-star posing (much of which I can do without) but the rhythm section of Warwick Fraser and Bob Wackley were rock solid.
At the end of the night, I found myself feeling a lot better about the Tribesmen than I have in quite a while. There are certainly bands that put on wilder and more inventive shows, but still, this group has an opportunity to reach out and shake some people who are never going to hear any really adventurous music unless bands like the Tribesmen provide them a few stepping stones to get there. It was clear that they haven't done anything to temper their sound as a result of their commercial successes lately; if anything, this show was much more spirited than the one I saw nearly a year ago when any level of overseas mainstream success would have been total imagination on their part.
On the way out, I mentioned to Mick that my band covers "Date With A Vampyre", which seemed to give him a kick, and when I said that we wanted to try to fall in the niche where the aggressiveness of punk meets the tunefulness of pop, his face lit up and he said "Yeah, that's the way to be". No matter what success they have, if thinking of songs like that continue to bring a smile to their faces, the Screaming Tribesmen will be OK by me.