Mark Seymour recognised his difficulty with song writing, after Hunters and Collectors disbanded in 1998. Suddenly faced with writing alone, and having a family to support, he says “The criteria were pretty strong, so gradually I figured it out. The problem wasn’t so much I was looking for a style, I didn’t really understand how to relax with my own dialogue. It took a couple of records and asking – who do I like, who do I admire? and referencing the long tradition of music written in isolation – artists who work with bands, but you can hear there’s a singular storyteller behind it all.”
Initially known to the public as the passionate and driven performer of Hunters and Collectors, he has in more recent times been seen anywhere from reforming with the Hunters at the AFL Grand Final, as a guest panelist on ABC TV’s Q and A, playing numerous pub gigs with his band The Undertow, to penning an auto biography, Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors. Now, 2017 sees the release of ‘ROLL BACK THE STONE: 1985 – 2016‘ a live collection of 24 songs handpicked from the last 30 years.
Mark is clearly a thinker, and during our conversation he’s down to earth, focused and open – often willing to delve into the more curious aspects of successful songwriting and the creative process.
It would’ve been a trip down memory lane, choosing which songs to record from the last 30 years. What was the process like?
Well the songs are all part of our live repertoire, so I didn’t have to kind of go back and listen to things I hadn’t for a long time. The touring has definitely escalated with this band (The Undertow). We do a lot of regional and interstate, just generally travelling around Australia, so i’ve become interested in developing an attitude about songs that i’ve written over a long period of time, and incorporated that into the experience. But it’s been a very gradual ‘ah let’s try that song out’ you know, so in the end it was just a matter of picking. There’s about 36, and I had to pick 24 for a double album.
I notice there’s quite a few songs from Mayday. Is that because they’ve become a part of the live set more recently?
I think the material is better. I’ve had periods of time when my song writing hasn’t been particularly good. I just think my strike rate in the last few years has definitely improved. Especially having developed the relationship with this band, we don’t go into the studio unless the songs are actually cooking. I write very simply now, and let words and phrasing carry the day. So there’s more of an emphasis on storytelling, which makes it much easier to just bed the songs down, the instrumentation can afford to be a lot simpler and more transparent, telling a yarn that holds people’s interest.
Essentially the songs start with Human Frailty onward – there’s several Hunters records I didn’t even look at. There’s one song off a previous record I tried to play and it just sounded like shit, just couldn’t play it. A lot of that early Hunters stuff wasn’t really song writing as such, it was feel, groove, kinda big industrial landscape music with some interesting images thrown in. That’s how I used to write.
And more band co-writing going on then?
No, well there’s a bit of a myth surrounding Hunters and Collectors, that fits nicely into some sort of political niche. Pretty much I was driving, I was dragging the thing along. The guys were great players, and really had a way – I mean Hunters and Collectors were an incredibly exciting band to play in – but the song writing was quite a specific thing. Just gradually as time went by I began to realise ‘ok there’s certain types of songs I wanna explore’. I became more and more interested in simple structure and story telling. Once you start to orientate writing around what words reveal, it’s not so much that (the instrumentation) takes a back seat, but there are certain genres that writing just doesn’t fit with. Early Hunters was funk, blues, long jams – songs that would take 9 minutes when there wasn’t any singing going on. So I just didn’t go there.
With your solo records, do you feel like the writing has naturally changed into a folk/country style, or was that a conscious thing?
Probably just natural. There are a lot of genre’s – folk, country, blues, r&b – there’s so many different influences, especially in the last couple of records, that all lend themselves to lyric focused song writing. I remember when I went solo just after Hunters finished. Just the stuff I was thinking about, ‘how can I make this sound…?’. Trying to reveal to yourself what the fundamental tone of the song is gonna be. So that I can pick a guitar up start playing and you can go ‘I didn’t know he was going… oh that’s interesting!’ So there’s an emotional connection being created in that space. In order to be able to anticipate that moment, you’ve gotta know what to go to in your own mind. Finding that is an incredibly societal and communal experience, its why song writing exists. And to be able to find that sweet spot, with the tool kit you’ve got, and suddenly not having this huge band around you and the whole experience of playing in front of tens of thousands of people – suddenly i’m alone (thinking) ‘how do I make that work?’ Well, I just didn’t know where to go.
Straight after the band?
Yeah. I made a couple of records and they’re fine, nothing wrong with them, just not that compelling, and as I got older I had to keep doing it. But in terms of genre, I’ve never really gone ‘i’m gonna play that style of music now’.
When the Hunters have supported Springsteen or similar artists, has that influenced your song writing in any way?
Um, I really like Bruce Springsteen. The odd thing about him is I don’t know if his records sound any good (laughs).
More of a live thing.
Yeah, it’s funny when you listen – cos he’s made so many (and) covered such a huge range of years and production styles – because production changes from one generation to the next, and sounds change.
Yeah the 80’s to now.
That’s right. But there were specific Bruce Springsteen records that I really loved.
Well I really love the Ghost of Tom Joad, and I love Nabraska – I love the acoustic records. I love The Rising, um Born to Run’s ok.
The live thing, I mean seeing him play is a completely different trip. He’s putting on a show. There’s something very American about it like “Yeaaah!” (laughs). It’s totally unique and its great and incredibly positive. He’s had a massive resurgence, he’s much bigger now than he was – a live touring animal.
Yeah he just keeps going.
Yeah. The other thing I do is I just buy as many records of anyone who’s really endured, put them on one playlist on iTunes and put it on shuffle. So you hear songs from different eras pop up.
And a quiet ballad that might be the 11th album track, which you might not’ve paid much attention can stand out.
So, political ideas in songs. You touched on it before – when you’re sitting at home and playing, does the melody come first, or do you go ‘i’m really passionate about this thing that’s happening.’
It’s a difficult question to answer succinctly. I write words all the time, constantly. I keep a diary (laughs), my book of lies. I’ve got a song called The Book of Lies (laughs again).
Why book of lies? Wouldn’t it be a book of truth?
You lie to yourself. It’s an interesting thing, I write all the time, but I tend to try and distill emotions first. I just have the guitar in my lap and sort of strum it really gently, and just croon over it. You’ll find those moments that emerge in a song, so I know that the emotional dynamics are going to emerge. I try to write the words very quietly, and they just come into the music. They’re already there, sitting on the desk.
Are you a notebook person, or put stuff in your phone?
I’ve got stuff everywhere. So it’s just a really gradual distilling of feeling, really. I’ve written a song (recently) called ‘The Sun will Rise for You’. I’m writing music for this play.
Can you say what the play is?
It’s called LAMB. It’s about this farming family. But the interesting thing about that is there’s all these people in it who.. the mother dies, and people return to the farm to put her in the ground, so there’s all these issues arising between siblings, so that story’s just there. I go, ‘so what happens between siblings? Whats the really elemental, fundamental basic thing that goes on between these people, and like the way a father might talk to his son. How would a father perceive his son late in life?’ or imagine what that might be like.
And what you could relate that to, in your own life?
That’s exactly right. I’ve spent a lot of time with my father in the last few years, and had all of these sort of revelations about him, lots of things i’ve unearthed – by accident! (laughs). I thought ‘I wonder what he thinks of me, wonder what he thinks of me really’ you know. ‘How would he perceive me as a son’. And how can I inhabit that character in a song. I mean, its speculation. Putting all that aside, how could you write a song that could express that feeling – I don’t necessarily own it, but because i’ve been through that process already, it will inevitably have emotional weight because i’ve had all those thoughts. So when I actually come to sit down, (hums a melody) ‘is that working?’
So it still resonates, because you’re feeling as you’re writing it in some way.
That’s right. So you might end up with a story that’s out there somewhere, but it’s still got a kind of shape to it, that someone else could come to it from whatever situation they’re in.
And I guess siblings and father-son dynamics, everyone can relate to in different ways.
I loved Holy Grail as a teen, and I realised you would now have a whole lot of different ages in your audience, particularly with your daughter performing with you. Do they react differently to different songs?
Yeah punters, or just people you know. Any surprises?
Oh yeah, god yeah.
Well that’s a really good question. Look punters as soon as they hear a song they know, they are relieved. Which is nice, you know. But I did a show last Saturday down at Lakes Entrance, it was a Jimmy Barnes support. He’s just got hits coming out of his arse, it’s just wall to wall – every song, everyone knows everything. It’s nuts. I had a 90 minute set which was great, and thought i’d have to play a lot of material i’ve written in the last 4-5 years, which only some of them might know. But the weird thing is, the actual integrity of the song, that it’s structured in a certain way and if it just has an intrinsic mood that works, it goes through. You can see. A lot of the time i’ll do supports like that and only get 45, 50 minutes anyway, and you’re not really testing material. But when you’re in that situation.. that was a bit of a revelation for me.
Was that some of the songs from Mayday?
Last two records. A song like Westgate for example, I mean that got no radio – my solo stuff doesn’t get radio. As soon as Hunters ended, it was over (laughs). But a song like Westgate – you can just see they’re going ‘its a story’ (laughs) ‘its about a bridge in Melbourne..’ ‘Then he climbed up the tower, then he climbed down again, and got his feet dirty’ (laughs). And people love it, and that works.
They’ll think about it when they’re driving over the Westgate too.
Yeah (laughs). But there’s a certain kinda inevitability to it. I have commercial constraints but that’s nothing, compared to the fact that people don’t buy records anymore. They listen to Spotify, so i’ve gotta play. In the last few years i’ve thought ‘live’ is it. That’s how i’m making my money. Um, so i’ve gotta make the songs work in this environment, i’ve gotta write songs and construct them a certain way, that they’re gonna have an inherent dramatic power. And that’s the 60’s! When the stakes were incredibly high. I mean you think about all those iconic groups from that era, they just toured their arses off. And you’ve just gotta remind yourself of that. I had a little light bulb moment.
They would record live too, didn’t they?
That used to be a common thing. Remember that Crosby Stills Nash Album 4 way street?
Bit before my time.
(Laughs) That was a live album, by this folk/rock band from California, the West Coast. And that album sold millions and millions of records, and it was live and really clunky!
But you got the feel of it though.
How do you know when a song is finished?
You don’t, really.
How do you get to that point?
Probably when i’ve completed the lyric. This thing i’m working on at the moment, I keep messing with the tempo and some of the shapes. I might swap it around, either way it works..i dunno. But the lyric is finished. Once the lyric’s done, i’ll go ‘ok well can’t do any more. I know if I pick the guitar up now and play it – this guy over here – he’s not gonna know that that chord works better than that chord.’ He’ll just go ‘oh this blokes father’s talking about his son’. But that said, you get a band to play, something will shift. Once you put bass in and a snare drum, (you) can kinda go ‘oh well maybe we don’t need that bit now, ditch it’.
In the studio?
Or just rehearsal, things just shift. Which is fine.
And hearing it from other people’s ears.
Well just physically playing it. The landscape. Like Ryan Adams recording the Taylor Swift record. Hearing it, I didn’t know it was a Taylor Swift record. The mood is utterly different. And that’s kind of incredible really. It’s her melody and her words, I think it’s great. I mean it’s a very clever gesture to make and he’s making a point about song writing, and I just think there’s a stroke of genius in that.
Mark Seymour Tour:
Hunters live at the 2013 AFL Grand Final