Collapse Board | Interview: Ed Kuepper

Ed Kuepper 1

Ed Kuepper epitomises many great elements of punk in Australian music, The fact that he’s gone through so many musical stages (from The Saints to Laughing Clowns to solo endeavours) over a long time span isn’t necessarily the impressive part, nor that his releases are never sub-par. Instead I think of a past review of Ed Kuepper where I wrote:

Whatever Ed Kuepper keeps doing people will keep being there, keep buying and watching, out of respect for The Icon, for the importance and weight the name now confers in Australian music.

It still seems true. Here’s my interview with Ed Kuepper.

In your new album The Return of the Mail-Order Bridegroom you cover other artist’s songs and some of your own songs from The Saints and Laughing Clowns. Are there any particular reasons you choose to revisit certain songs?

It came out of doing a solo completely ‘by request’ tour I did last year. I decided to do that by request tour because I’d been touring in Australia and overseas in bands and in fairly formal situations. So I wanted to take it somewhere completely different and do things differently to the way I’d been working. So the way I decided to do that was to go solo and go out and not assume, or presume, what people would want to hear. So I said, “What would you like to hear?” And I did it. It wasn’t a nostalgic thing.

You wouldn’t say you have nostalgia for your own past work?

It’s not that. I just don’t think there’s anything to be gained. If you go out and do a by request show there’s the danger that you could think “Oh, this is something you can go down and see at your local RSL on a Sunday afternoon”. I like that aspect of it, but I also wanted it to be something completely different. I wanted it to open something new up, which it did. I was taking requests but I did have the stipulation that I wouldn’t be playing songs the way they were initially recorded. So people might request a song and hopefully wouldn’t hear a version they were familiar with. It would be new, and they would be a part of that process.

As someone who lives in Brisbane, I’m interested to know why you choose now to release a re-recorded version of Brisbane (Security City).

It got requested. The reason I did the album was that I did the tour and I had a couple of archives of live recordings. The amount of time that was required to go through and make those recordings coherent was more than I was prepared to do – I just didn’t have that much time for it. So I thought, why don’t I just book some time for a studio and go in and play some of the songs that were requested. So I did the exact same thing in the studio. I had a list of songs that had been requested a lot and did versions of them that were different to the versions of how they were originally recorded. And Brisbane got requested a few times. So the album reflects, I think, some of the diversity of what was requested. There’s some well-known songs and some relatively not-so-well-known songs. The only song on the album that wasn’t requested on the tour was No Regrets by Tom Rush.

What is your view on being an artist who lives in the present and continually goes back to their past work, not simply to cover or remaster your older songs, but to renew them?

EK: I think it’s just really important. There’s two ways of approaching this work and one is staying really true to what you did and it has its validity to some extent. But I kind of just loose interest in that. Playing the same songs the same way night after night – I’ve never been that crazy about it. I have done it. I’ve done it for periods of time. But as I move on I’ve found that it’s better to shift the songs. If the songs are strong enough they withstand that treatment and they kind of shift into something that is almost a new song. And I really like that I can hear something in a song that I haven’t previously been aware of, or that I’ve forgotten. You could ask me “What’s the line, the second verse, of song ‘x’ off an album” and I’d say I haven’t got a clue. But once I start going through an album stuff suddenly starts coming back to you. Sometimes it has quite a strong effect. It’s not just some back-patting exercise or something. It’s just about seeing what works and what doesn’t and hopefully get something new out of the process.

I read an interview you did a few years ago and you said, “Weird for the sake of it is doable. It’s too easy. Melody is always the thing I was aiming for”. What are you aiming for now in your music?

Melody and rhythm. By weird I mean it’s easy enough to do something jarring. I find that sort of stuff really easy and I find it often annoying when I hear things, that to me, seem to be taking the very easy route to achieve something. There’s certain things you can do as a musician that make a sound that’s distracting. And some people will like that because they think it’s edgy and doing something different. I often find that it’s kind of irritating – and you know I’m reasonably open-minded in the way I look at this stuff – but if it seems to me it’s just being done as an affectation or something, then I just filter it out. I was probably talking about Laughing Clowns when I was making that statement.

You were talking about Laughing Clowns.

Yeah, well people always misinterpreted what we were doing [in Laughing Clowns]. There were too many references to jazz. We weren’t a jazz band. I think people got fixated on some of the dissonant and atonal stuff more then ever was my intention. That stuff was easy. I know how to make something sound atonal really easily. What I want is for something really beautiful to come out of it.

I saw you recently when you played at Brisbane’s Powerhouse Theatre for your ‘by request’ set. As I was watching you I was wondering what it felt like to once by the target of the police state and to be met with some hostility, to now playing a sold-out show as a household name?

I wasn’t that much a target of the police state. I skipped school to go to the Springboks demonstration along with some kids. And we left before the big police charge. I was only 14 and I had to get home before my parents went home, otherwise they would know I was not at school (laughing). And it was also starting to get a bit ugly. So I wasn’t that affected. I also left Brisbane at the end of 1976, which was before things started to get really ugly. So in that sense I knew what was going and I had family and friends staying here. A lot of friends moved out of Brisbane at that point. When The Saints moved out of Brisbane a lot of people left with us. So I was aware of what was going on. As far as people sitting politely, for an acoustic show – well I guess a lot of the stuff delves into a fairly quiet and ambient area so I guess it’s better if they’re not making too much of a racket otherwise nobody gets to hear anything. So that doesn’t offend me. I supposed if I was doing a show that was trying to get people physically active and they were all sitting there, I’d feel like that was a failure. But having people actually listen to what I’m doing I quite like.

Many former punk artists have a lot of commercial reasons for continuing and I think you have a lot of integrity in your music and its production, but also a political consciousness. Is this something you would agree with and it is it something you actively think about?

To be honest I would prefer to not think about politics. I find it immensely depressing sometimes and I think it’s always a fine line as an artist and I don’t like haranguing people particularly and that’s what it feels like. I don’t know whether my insights are particularly profound. A lot of people can see a stinking turd the way one can see our present governments, be they state, federal or whatever. To some extent I’ve always tried to stay aloof from that artistically. I think writing a really great political song is a really hard thing to do and I think a lot of people do things that are just going, “oh we must be making this point”.

I found when I first moved to the UK with The Saints I didn’t like a lot of the punk bands and I thought a lot of the political commentary was fake. I also think that a lot of the things people were getting really upset about was quite funny given I’d come from Brisbane. People complaining about the cops in London – that was hilarious. They were incredibly polite compared to Queensland cops. So I had a slightly difficult opinion on that. I’ve always been a little loathe to do the too obvious in my political appraisal. But as far as artistic integrity goes – I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do, for the most part. I don’t think anybody can make any claims to utmost artistic purity. I don’t think any such thing exists. But I, for the most part, like to do what I like to do and I usually think it’s better than what other people want me to do. So that’s why I do it (laughs).

Just to quickly go back to my question about playing in The Saints and playing in Brisbane now. As The Saints mythology goes, Brisbane didn’t have the political or cultural climate for you to have success here.

That’s probably true. Whether anywhere had the right political or cultural climate is another question entirely. The Saints as people, for a bunch of small-town hillbillies, had a remarkably high opinion of ourselves and that didn’t really change wherever we were. There was an immensely strong idea of the self in The Saints and I think it was kind of warranted. I think, I know this may sound horribly egotistical, but we were kind of unique. I would have done it anyway. I don’t know about the others, but I would have done it anyway no matter where I was. I think what possibly might have benefited us is if we had started in a different environment and maybe to give us a slightly more sophisticated world view especially of the music industry of which we had absolutely no idea. And so hence, got ripped off. Which you know happens to a lot of people and doesn’t seem to make much difference if you’re a band from New York or London. I certainly felt that we would have been better served had someone honest been actually looking after our business interests.

So now years later you are an icon of Australian music, does it feel bittersweet?

Nah. I don’t really think about it at all. But look, you’re right – the last time the original Saints played in Brisbane I think there was probably a mini-riot at Petrie Terrace. Compared to me playing in a theatre or something – of course that’s completely different. I would think it would be kind of silly to try and relive what was happening when I was 18 and 19 to now. That would be a bit false. You could kind of stage something like that but it would be staged, whereas it wasn’t back then. I think one of the things that I’ve also tried to communicate over the years is that each of these stages are sort of ‘this is it’. The next time is going to be different and these are live performances – they’re not theatrical things. They’re musical so they change. If you want to see something come along and see it because you probably won’t see it again. I can’t bring the old Saints back. That was then and it was great and it definitely had some fantastic moments and I stand by the music completely.

 The Return of the Mail-Order Bridegroom is available on Valve Records

Photo: Justin Edwards