Two of the state’s musical icons — Ed Kuepper and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra — are getting together for one night only.
Brisbane musicians don’t get any more legendary than Ed Kuepper.
The man basically invented punk rock with The Saints in the ‘70s, before continuing to make his mark with post-punk group The Laughing Clowns and a long, long list of solo albums — some more successful than others, but all of them essential to his devoted fans.
Staunchly independent, Kuepper has always followed his own muse. He could never be accused of taking the conventional approach, even when it comes to performing his own songs, which often go in wildly different directions to the studio recordings when he plays them live (or, as is sometimes the case, re-records them for subsequent releases).
In a way, then, his latest project is very much in the Kuepper tradition, even if it represents a career first for him. He’ll be teaming up with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra to perform new orchestrations of the tracks from his latest LP, Lost Cities, as well as a few old favourites, in a one-off show at The Tivoli.
Somehow, Kuepper found time for a wide-ranging chat with us about his creative process in the lead-up to the show.
This show you’re doing with QSO is really interesting. How did this come about?
Yeah, it goes back a little while. To cut a long story short, they approached me and I jumped at the opportunity. It was as simple as that, really.
It’s not an opportunity you can really say no to, given the logistics of paying for an orchestra. It’s not something you can do that often. I had done some work at the Sydney Festival in 2015 with the Sydney Chamber Orchestra, so I had to take this opportunity to work with an even larger ensemble.
Is it fair to say that when you wrote Lost Cities, you didn’t envision these songs being performed by an orchestra?
The process of doing Lost Cities came out of playing solo and stripping things back to be as minimal as you could possibly get. But on the actual recording, there’s quite a lot of very subtle ambient stuff happening in the background. So, on the one hand, you’re right, but on the other hand, this is the next logical step. I’ve stripped everything back, I’ve seen what they are as basic songs, and then from there they can be arranged into anything.
It’s something I’ve been trying to do for quite a long time, anyway, is find that core to the song, and then from there on, do whatever you like with it. The songs work when they’re played by somebody sitting in a corner with an acoustic guitar, but they’ll also work in a completely different way with an orchestra.
I guess, in that sense, you’re the perfect person to take on this kind of challenge.
Yeah, I don’t know if they’ll agree once I start throwing tantrums. But this is the kind of thing I’m completely open to. I’m a completely independent working musician, so an orchestra is… if I had to pay for them, I couldn’t do it. But artistically, it’s something that I aspire to.
It’s going to be an education for me, as well, because the orchestra has to be scored for this, and that makes it a very formal arrangement on stage, which, in a lot of ways, is something that I’ve moved away from increasingly since Laughing Clowns, my band in the 1980s. They were thought to be a very improvisational band, but we weren’t. A lot of that stuff was really strictly arranged, it just sounded like it was improvised. But I haven’t done that in a long, long time, so that’s going to be interesting.
Is a song ever finished, in your mind? Obviously, for this show, you’ll be reworking a lot of the songs from Lost Cities, which is something you’ve done a lot throughout your career. Take ‘Eternally Yours’ as an example — that song shows up in one format with The Laughing Clowns, and then there’s a different version of it altogether on your solo record, Today Wonder. When you release a song, are you thinking, ‘Well, it’s not really finished, I’ll come back to it later’?
A lot of this stuff comes out of playing live, because… sometimes a song that is popular is not feasible to do in a way that I’m playing at a particular point in time. The Laughing Clowns song, ‘Eternally Yours’, is a really good example of that. Once the Clowns split, that was dropped from my set for quite a while because I didn’t know what to do with it. It didn’t suit any other arrangement, or so I thought.
To me, ‘Eternally Yours’ was essentially that saxophone line, that melody the saxophone played. Everything else was secondary to that. I was doing all of these shows where I didn’t have a saxophone, so I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do that song’. I didn’t like the way it sounded when I played it on anything else, even though it was, admittedly, originally written for an organ because that’s what I had at my house. But then I thought, ‘Just remove it, just take the saxophone line out of the picture entirely’. And that’s how the Today Wonder version came about.
Today Wonder was a very important album for me, in terms of starting this process of deconstruction and blurring the line between covers and non-covers, and making originals sound like covers and covers sound like originals. It was what I thought I should be doing as a musician and as a guitarist and as a composer. I’m not saying it achieved everything I wanted it to, but it was the start of that process, even if I wasn’t fully aware of the importance of that record at the time.
Some songs lend themselves to be played in different ways, others don’t. One of the things that kind of happens with rock music is that people think a song is a recording. I don’t. A recording is a recording. Sometimes that recording is hard to duplicate, so you have to see whether there’s a song in there that transcends that.
One of the hardest songs for me to do live these days is the first record I put out with The Saints, ‘I’m Stranded’. That is so difficult to do convincingly, because of the unique interaction that existed between myself and Ivor Hay and Kym Bradshaw, the rhythm section. If you don’t have that, then, to me, the song is diminished. It doesn’t lend itself to some sort of mock country-and-western approach, the way some other people might have approached it. So it comes down to the lyric and the melody, all of which can be changed, of course.
Lost Cities has got a particular kind of ambience about it that won’t be diminished by an orchestra. It’ll just take you into another zone, another experience, hopefully.
When you rework a song, do you usually find that you’re getting closer to the purest version of the song that you originally heard in your head, or are you getting further away from that and letting it mutate?
I think what I do is look at a song, and if enough of a song grabs me after years of not having looked at it, if I think, ‘Oh, man, that lyric is really good’ or ‘There’s something really interesting about the way that melody works’ or something like that, I’ll try it out.
Usually I just try it out with an acoustic guitar or something, and if I can make something that seems pertinent to where I am now, at the time… I think that’s one of the important things. If it still rings out to me… because I’ve been doing this for years and years now, there are records I’ve done that I really love, and I feel really proud of them, but I wouldn’t endeavour to play them now the way that I did at the time, because it just doesn’t work. That was a long time ago, and I’ve changed in certain ways, and stayed the same in certain other ways. So the song has to retain the relevancy to myself, first and foremost, for me to do it convincingly for other people.
It’s not just some sort of totally self-indulgent thing, because sometimes that can go really horribly wrong. For example, Frank Zappa redid a whole lot of his ‘70s albums sometime in the ‘80s, and I don’t know why. He wanted them to sound up to date, sonically, but that wasn’t a good idea because the sound of the originals was really good. So changing things just for the sake of changing things can come across as, ‘Oh, why the fuck would you bother?’ On the other hand, doing them the same way, night after night, is a bit weird.
Look, if it’s your stuff, and you want to redo it, why not? But I think the key to it, for me, is that it’s got to fit in with what I’m feeling at a particular point in time. Lost Cities, as I was saying, has a very distinct ambience that in some ways harkens back to something like Today Wonder. It’s a very distilled, pure kind of thing. It’s a small concept, in a lot of ways, that once you start looking at it, becomes bigger and bigger.
There are a lot of older bands – bands who are the same kind of vintage as The Saints, or even quite a bit younger than The Saints, who do that thing where they get back together and they go on tour and they’ll play one of their early albums in full, and then that kind of becomes… that’s their thing now. Whereas it sounds like if you had to go out there every night and play I’m Stranded exactly the way it was on the record, you’d go insane.
Well, yeah. I’ve never done it. Even back in those days, I didn’t do it. It would be a weird idea for me. I have had offers to do things along those lines, and because this year is the 25th anniversary of Black Ticket Day, and last year was the 25th anniversary of Honey Steel’s Gold, I did wonder if maybe I should just do a few shows to commemorate those albums because they were important for me at a particular time. It’d be interesting to do half a dozen shows around the country based on that.
But to make it a life’s endeavour would be weird. It wouldn’t last very long, because I’d get restless. This is something that really started for me with Today Wonder – as soon as that album was done, we started doing all those songs differently live. It was put together in a format that enabled a more improvised approach to playing live, in the way that a blues singer-guitarist like John Lee Hooker might do. I was always really impressed by the way that a lot of that stuff sounded like they were making it up on the spot. Maybe they were, in some cases.
But as far as people going out and just playing the record as it is, there’s a market there for it. That’s why people do it. There’s an audience that just lives to hear, live, what they can hear on their record player or CD player. I’m not sure how I feel about, to be honest. They’re probably making a s**tload more money than I am, so who am I to knock it?
You’ve said before that your fame vastly outstrips your wealth and your sales. If you had the choice, what would you rather have at the end of the day — the money or the notoriety?
Both, probably. I really don’t know. It’s a kind of speculation that there’s not much point doing, really. I’ve probably left it too late to take the more commercial road. I do what I do. I yam what I yam, to quote Popeye. It has its ups and downs.
The funny thing is, when I say something like that in the press or on the radio, people hear it and they say, ‘Oh, he’s another whinging musician’. There’s no element of that about it at all when I make those kinds of statements. I’m just stating actual facts. You kind of expect the journalist or the DJ or the person listening to be intelligent enough to understand that this stuff isn’t black and white.
There have been some really great things about the path that I’ve taken, and there have been some really f**king difficult things. One thing that would be great about selling a squillion records is that you don’t have to scrounge around for the next record. Every record I do is kind of like I’m starting again, in a way. Whereas obviously someone who has sold a hell of a lot of records, and been paid for it – the emphasis on the latter – doesn’t have that issue. So there are a few things that go on behind the scenes that, to be honest, I would actually rather do without. But apart from those things, it’s quite nice doing what I like to do.
You’ve always done what you wanted to do. One of the things that’s really interesting about The Saints is when you look back at it now… everything’s easy to put in context after the fact. You can look at The Saints and say, ‘Well, they were a pioneering punk band and they had a DIY ethos’.
But at the time, there was no framework for any of that. It’s not like you knew you were starting a tradition of punk bands, or starting a new way to manufacture and distribute music. How did you guys see yourselves at the time? Did you realise you were doing something that hadn’t really been done before, that would become a model for people in the future?
No, I didn’t think of us as becoming a model for anybody, actually. I suppose the importance of a few of the things that we did… it wasn’t like I said to the band, ‘We’ve got to press our own record because this will make us incredibly important’.
In actual fact, I got the idea from working at Astor Records. People were doing independent presses, they were just truck drivers recording a country and western song and pressing a few hundred copies, you know? You could do this sort of thing. And I’d read about independent labels in the US. I didn’t understand that those independent labels were often quite large. I just saw that word, ‘independent’, and that was enough.
I asked around at Astor Records what it would cost to press my own records, and the price wasn’t that high. It was $250 or something like that to do 500 records. To me, my musical reality was… I didn’t get to see a lot of bands, where I lived and grew up. All the music I heard came from the radio or from buying records. That was my world. So until I heard my band playing my songs on a record, it wasn’t 100 per cent real. And that was what I wanted. And everybody in the band felt exactly the same way, I’m pretty sure.
I’d like to say that we saw ourselves as great revolutionary fighters for freedom and stuff, but it was really a fairly selfish kind of endeavour. I wanted it for myself. I wanted to hear my music on a record, I wanted to get as excited about it as the other music I was listening to.
A bunch of other people started putting out records after that, but there weren’t that many that were as independent as we were. We actually did it all ourselves. There were bands that were on small labels that were called independent labels, but they had other people doing the s**t work. Whereas I picked up our records and mailed them out, and Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay took them to shops around town. We were doing everything.
I don’t think people quite realised it at the time, but there wasn’t anything in the rock business like it. Every band that was playing around Brisbane in those days, they wouldn’t put out their own record, they would just get record deals. Getting signed to a label was the big thing. I guess, just by not being too involved in that whole scene, it seemed obvious to me that we had to do it all ourselves. Nobody was going to release us anyway, so why not just do it ourselves?
Had the band not taken off at that point, I’m sure we would have done another couple of singles, paid for by ourselves. That was kind of what I was thinking. I thought we might get a few singles done, and I would have been quite happy with that.
It’s funny, because a lot of the punk bands that followed in The Saints’ footsteps have had a political focus. They have seen themselves, to an extent, as ‘revolutionary freedom fighters’, whereas I don’t think your music’s ever been explicitly political. I don’t think you’ve ever been a political songwriter. Is that something you’ve consciously avoided?
It’s a difficult area. I’m not opposed to it or anything. I have political views. I just think sometimes it comes across as a little forced.
It doesn’t bother me these days, but when I first moved to London, I kind of sensed a certain fraudulence, something a bit false about the way all these bands were suddenly ‘enemies of the state’ while they were actually on CBS Records. It didn’t sit that comfortably with me. I didn’t buy into the idea that they were going to change the system from within. If you do, then that’s great, but I suppose my feeling was, just do it quietly, then. Don’t boast about it in the press all the time.
I just remember The Clash on the cover of NME, and they were standing next to these troops on the borders of Northern Ireland, and I thought… you know, it wouldn’t be that hard to fly in, have a few photos taken and fly back without actually addressing any of the issues.
But, you know, some people can do that stuff really well. There are definitely political songs I’ve had a lot of liking for over the years. It’s not something I feel able to do to the standard that I think it needs to be done.
What music excites you at the moment? Do you listen to a lot of new music?
I think you get to a certain point in time where if you’re not drawing on whatever reservoir of ideas you’ve got, then it starts to get a bit desperate. I’d start to feel a bit hopeless after all these years. When I’m working, I don’t listen to very much, because I do actually work fairly long hours sometimes, and so if I’ve been playing guitar for four hours or something like that, the last thing I want to do is listen to music.
I don’t put music on in the background, generally. I don’t put music on when I’m in the car, that kind of thing. I enjoy music the most when I’m not working. I go through an array of stuff. Sometimes I’ll play a bunch of records I got when I was 15, sometimes I’ll listen to something really new. It does vary. There’s no set formula to it, really. If I’m working and I listen to something, it’s usually just to get a quick reference to something. It’s more when I’m recording or engineering and I want a frame of reference. But even that’s kind of disappearing to a large extent. I’m starting to get to a point now where I want to exclude as much external influence as possible.
I’m a bit of a sponge, in a lot of ways. I listened to a lot of music when I was young, and I absorbed a lot of music, and I will often find, if I dig out a record that I haven’t listened to for a few decades, that it actually had a profound influence on me that I’d forgotten. That’s a great thing. I like that. But as far as trying to keep up with things that are happening that I’m not doing, I do it from time to time, but it’s more of an academic thing than a need for inspiration.
We’ll let you go there, but thanks for taking the time.
Thank you very much.
Ed Kuepper Restrung, featuring Ed Kuepper and QSO, plays The Tivoli (52 Costin Street, Fortitude Valley) on Saturday 25 March. For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.