Early last year I got an email from Mick Thomas saying he was unsure of which direction to take with his new album. He said he’d liked the sound of my last one and asked if I had any ideas. My reply suggested that if it was that sound he was after he might as well come with me to Portland, Oregon – where mine was made – direct to the source, and record it in the very spot. The journey over there was half the battle as far as I could see. The rest would hopefully take care of itself, just as it had done for me a year before. This is how it should work: The studio, all warm and wooden and capacious, bedecked with various musical instruments; its taciturn and purposeful engineer Adam Selzer who knows its dimensions and workings with his eyes closed; the coterie of musicians and friends who drift in and out of the studio, all happily willing with hands, plectrums and bows at the ready. And Portland itself, the river town, in all its industrial hazed, steel bridged glory, its gutters flowing with fresh coffee and micro brewed ale. Geography always has a sound.
Mick flew in from Canada carrying a hangover. He had the usual trouble at US immigration from him sharing a name with an FBI-listed convicted murderer who happens to be African American. The border official eyed him suspiciously and said, “you’re not black are you Mr Thomas?” and he shook his head and went to say, “wait till you hear my music,” but wisely thought better of it. He just wanted in.
Along with him for the sessions was his long-time accordion-playing collaborator Squeezebox Wally. I picked them both up from the airport and took them straight to a basement bar in the downtown area for hairs of dogs. It was dark and pretty empty being early week, though the barmaid was amiable and a Wilco record purred low over the PA. I could see Mick and Wally had that wide-eyed buzz at being on uncharted ground.
“This is more like it,” Mick exclaimed after a while, “It’s not bloody rocket science.”
“Which bit?” I asked him.
“This place, the music,” he clarified, “I just don’t understand why more places in Melbourne can’t play stuff that doesn’t alienate people. Even just to hear whole albums! It’s sad but I don’t go into my local much anymore. Used to be there all the time. It’s supposed to be a music venue and the shit they play in the front bar is so…obnoxious!”
“So you can’t bring yourself to drink there?” I said.
“No, I’m literally not allowed in. I have a few drinks and ark up a bit and tell em what I think and they say ‘Mick maybe you shouldn’t come back for a while.’”
We sat there for a couple more full albums (The Kinks, Iron and Wine) and glasses before I dropped them slurring and fatigued to their lodgings with tentative plans for meeting at the studio in the morning. It was quiet and drizzly over the city and the road shone like seal skin. As I drove off with their hotel’s giant florescent neon palm tree colouring my mirrors I wondered to myself for the first time, what the hell do producers actually do?
Mick Thomas first happened on the scene as the front man and principal songwriter in the powerhouse Australian folk-rock band Weddings Parties Anything, formed in the early 80s, touring the world and releasing much great recorded music for over a decade. I first heard them when a school friend had just seen them support U2 and had been impressed enough to order a double cassette through Hoopers Music Centre in Gympie (Scorn of the Women/Roaring Days) and loaned me that to listen to. It connected dots between some of the Australian country music that I’d been reared on and energetic punk stuff I was growing into now. I went to Hoopers and ordered more tapes.
Years later when I was playing in my first band The Simpletons we were granted a support tour with Weddings. This led to a kind of mentoring friendship with Mick and the others and more shows followed in different cities. I felt it was always better to not hang around backstage eating their chips but go out the front and watch them, to morph with the feverish crowd that’d jump and yelp and sing like a single beast fit to consume the band out of religious zeal rather than hunger. I learnt the cues: the chorus to peg coins at them, the fists in the air, the shouting of the lyric “some people pray for holidays,” all of the backing vocals. Ritual, tribal.
Amid all the rollicking adrenalin there were moments of sweet reprieve, gentler songs that touched nerves we all shared as humans and Australians. Men who looked like Rugby full-forwards would hold each other around the shoulders and croon along, swaying gently. Hearing it only once, I’d ever after wait the whole show to hear the devastatingly arresting For A Short Time and would look around at the crowd to see real tears on stern faces and could feel myself misting up too at the upward souring chorus. It always baffles me that it’s not an easy selection on classic Australian song lists.
I’d kept in touch with my old tape-lending school friend and he was tickled that my Weddings journey had come full circle and I was thankful to him for starting it.
“So what’s Mick like?” he asked me over a few drinks at the Royal Hotel in Gympie.
I wondered where to start.
“He’s an interesting character,” was an understatement.
“I remember at the U2 show when they played that song about the Tasmanian convicts eating each other how he held his guitar above his head like an axe. He looked like a mean bugger. I mean he even looks like an escaped convict!”
“Yeah, I was pretty intimidated meeting him,” I admitted, “but he actually seems like a sensitive guy. He reads a lot. Knows a lot about history. He loves a good story…when you get him started. But other times he can be quite blunt… which can be offensive or refreshing, whichever way you look at it. On my first conversation with him I was feeling a bit self conscious about an accordion solo I’d played on one of the Simpletons albums and I asked him what he thought…”
My friend sipped his rum and coke, listening.
“…He said it was ‘pedestrian at best.’”
One day I heard that Weddings Parties Anything were breaking up, and around the same time my band looked like imploding too and Mick had hinted he might need a guitarist for a new project he was putting together. I was excited at the prospect and then one night after the last Sydney show on their farewell tour as he rushed out the door to an idling van Mick thrust a demo CD of new songs at me and said “Learn it.” I guessed this meant I had the job.
It was another demo that started the ball rolling in 2011. Mick sent me rough recordings of all the songs he could possibly dig out of his archives; the misfits, the discards from previous recordings, the newly penned. He said he wanted me to choose 10 songs, out of about 50 or so, I thought would make a good cohesive collection and he would do the same. I felt I could do this not only as a fan, but as a spokesman for all his fans. I had an idea of what his public might want to hear. Since his days with the Weddings he hadn’t put out anything that showed the bare-bones storyteller that lay beneath thundering folk-rock layers, the captivating troubadour I’d witnessed at some of his solo shows. When we compared our lists only one song crossed over, and to his credit he went with mine.
We surprised ourselves by getting in to the studio early and found Adam spooling the tape while coffee brewed. It made sense to start with the one song we’d both chosen, Gallipoli Rosemary, a sentimental ballad about a herb in Mick’s garden whats horticultural heritage can be traced back to the great battle, smuggled to Australia in a diggers knapsack. All this song needed was a simple good performance, the story and lyrical poetry did all the work. He sang it twice and that was that. As Adam rewound the tape for a listen Wally piped up, “Bugger me! I just realized that back home it’s Anzac Day!”
But then most of the songs took only a couple of run-throughs. Mostly Adam would set the sounds and sprint through to the live room to play drums while I held down the bass at the control panel. It was fast and easy. Wally being a master of the accordion had duties on only a couple of the tracks so for a lot of the others he cautiously felt his way around pianos, pump organs and a Chromaharp. This fragility with his inherent strong melodicism was the perfect aesthetic I was after. Anything that sounded premeditated or hinted of ‘production’ stood out as inappropriate, I wanted Mick’s songs to sound fresh and not be weighed down with studio trickery.
I assumed that wearing the producer hat meant I could just suggest things I’d do if it were my own recording. But the strangest thing was they actually listened to me! I became drunk with power.
“Maybe we should put the bridge riff as the intro and drop back for the verse,” I’d gingerly offer.
“Yeah, perfect,” Mick would say after not too much contemplation.
“Really?” I’d check, “…..Ok, swap the riff!”
Fast and Easy. At one stage I felt the minor-key toe tapper The Last of the Tourists was starting to head into Jonathan Richman dance-track territory but still needed another verse to balance it out. Mick, in true Jo Jo style, improvised one almost on the spot.
Two local singers Shelley Short and Alia Farah had only met when Adam called them both in for a session on my album, and their voices had blended so neatly that they’d been singing together in various projects ever since and had become fast friends. They came in and teamed up again on a 70s styled track, Goodbye Slowly and brought the whole thing to life, if life meant a 70s AM radio early Rod Stewart existence.
There was another song on my mind that night. I imagined The People You Meet Along the Way as a plaintive showtune but felt it needed another voice. I wasn’t sure if Mick was hurt by this suggestion but he scratched his chin and looked off into the corner of the room and said, “well I guess we could at least hear it.” I scrawled out a basic chord chart and Alia sat at the piano and gave it a shot while Shelley grappled singing with an Australian accent. I didn’t want to push it too much but a simple vowel sound can change everything.
“Shelley, the line is ‘until meet someone with whom you can yarn half the night.’ It sounds like you’re saying yawn, and that could be offensive to this person you’re spending the night with,” I said into the talkback mic.
“What’s yarn?” she asked, “Oh, you mean like you knit together!?”
One of the last songs we recorded was Star-O a tribute to Mick’s recently departed mother. After quick rehearsal we pushed record and just started playing it once and it felt right, wistful and loose in a good way. Sometimes after a single run it’s habit, or maybe suspicion that anything of worth can be achieved with such ease, that makes you say, “ok, lets just keep playing it,” but this time Mick said, “Nah, I reckon we got it.”
We listened back and without meaning to I forgot about form and science and I just felt the song. Sure there were edges we could smooth off but this sounded like a moment in time that could not be replicated; rehearsal would be uncouth. Right at the end of the vocal, if you listen carefully, you can hear Mick’s voice curl up like a burning gum leaf and break with emotion.
“Yeah, we got it,” I agreed and the tape machine clunked stop as Adam hit the button.
For two years I became a member of Mick Thomas’ new roving family ‘The Sure Thing.’ We worked hard, crisscrossing the great Australian tour circuit a few times a year.
We traveled to England as a duo for what was my first visit there. Without the constraints of the full band it was a chance for me to request older songs from the Weddings back catalogue and I could wing it without rehearsal cause I knew them so well. We’d turn up at these weird folk clubs and Mick would say, “Where do we plug in?” and they’d look bemused and echo, “plug in?” having never heard of a PA system and Mick would have to project his vocals above the seated audience and in song breaks old ladies would just stand up unprompted and eerily sing Scarborough Fair and Barbara Allen and sit back down again to no applause.
Back in Australia I played as a guitarist on the first proper album post Weddings called Dust Off My Shoes. Mick had imported veteran British producer Jerry Boys, famous at the time for his work recording the Buena Vista Social Club and the Billy Bragg/Wilco album of Woody Guthrie songs. Neatly dressed and twinkly-eyed with trim white Santa beard, he remained heavily jet-lagged for his entire visit and would often fall asleep at the mixing desk between takes. He’d recorded so many bands he was through dealing with fussy ego-driven guitarists wanting to redo solos until they sounded suitably thrilling and spontaneous. He’d ensure this wouldn’t happen by putting me in the room with the drummer so that if I made a mistake, we’d have to redo the whole song again.
Early in the week we took Jerry out for dinner and Mick casually asked him about other projects he’d worked on.
We were all floored when he came casually out with, “When I was 16 I did work experience at Abbey Road recording the Beatles. I did a lot with them. I didn’t end up enjoying it that much so went on to work with the Rolling Stones.”
Mick was trying to sound composed and pressed him further.
“Yeah, I’m not really credited but I was there for a session on Paperback Writer. You know all those overlaid vocals? We only had a certain amount of tracks available so we had to sync two machines up together. The technique for getting all those vocals together was called ‘spinning in’, you had to manually spin the reel of tape at exactly the right time….”
He was miming the action with his hand as we sat around the table like avid students.
With money Mick paid me for touring, plus a little on the side from operating a few pinball machines around Sydney, I was able to pool enough cash to make my first record. I really didn’t have big aspirations for it, I never considered having my own band or having to write songs for anything other than a pastime.
But then one night at a soundcheck in a dodgy pub Mick pulled me off an electrified microphone connected to an unearthed 750 volt power supply and literally saved my life. My fingers and shoulder had already started to burn. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital the nurse said that if I’d been stuck to that mic 8 more seconds I’d have been toast, well and truly. So it wasn’t just financially that Mick Thomas helped kickstart my music career. I remember thinking clearly in that ambulance if I was going to die for rock and roll then it might as well be playing my own songs.
At the end of the recording, just before Mick was to fly home, I booked a night in a beach house on the Oregon coast. Shelley and her comic illustrator friend Ezra came too and we all drove up through the heavy wooded hills of the State Forest and broke through into the dairy pastures around Tillamook and not far past that you get your first glimpse of the Pacific. Mick and Ezra sat in the back seat. At first I had compatibility worries at bringing two untested people together but they chatted away throughout the whole journey about films and books and the Eightball comic book series. When we got to Oceanside we were all astounded at how close to the water we were staying, the house jutting out over the sand. Monolithic rock formations rose up out of the waves. Mick was taken with the coastal scape saying he’d seen nothing like it.
Shelley explained, “My family and I have been coming out here for years. It’s not like your Australian beaches. It tends to make me contemplative. Think about life and death and stuff.”
“Great, we’re hanging out with Ingmar Bergman,” said Ezra.
In the afternoon we got a coffee from the local hippie cafe ‘Brewin in the Wind’ and took a long walk miles up the beach, fording the fresh water streams on fallen logs and talking easy with that warm sense of accomplishment.
“Remember that time we supported Ian Brown in Cardiff,” Mick asked as we were going over old times.
“Geeze, I hadn’t though about that for ages. We actually played after him… when most people had left and for some reason the audience threw lollies at us,” it was all coming back to me fast.
“Yeah, that crowd had waited for him for hours and then he came on stage and played two songs, did a weird mime thing, and ran off stage and hugged some girl like he’d just run a fucking marathon or something.”
We climbed wooden stairs up the steep bank, past empty beach shacks with salted up windows, in search of fresh fish for tea. On the walk back the wind was in our faces and we had to shield our eyes for sand.
Later that night I BBQed on the deck to the wave sounds off in the darkness. Mick leaned on the railing and looked out to sea with a glass of red wine in his hand and whatever he was thinking of made him rock back and forth on his heels. I broke the ice by explaining to him how this coast was the Hollywood of the North West. Inexplicably he’d never seen the Goonies and lucky for him I’d brought a DVD copy with me and before sleep he even admitted he enjoyed it especially as it was concerned with pirates.
In the morning I got up early and made a list of filming locations so we could visit them on our drive back to Portland. We poked around the old fashioned amusement parlors, the bumper cars and video games, in beach towns along the way north before reaching Astoria where the coastline is cut by the mouth of the Columbia River. By the time we’d driven past the motel featured in Kindergarten Cop I’d played The Goonies Are Good Enough song for the eighth time and Mick finally cracked and said, “For God’s sake, I can’t listen to Cindy Lauper anymore.” I dragged him to the prison and made him pose for a mug shot, past the museum and finally up the hill to where Mikey and Data’s houses were once joined by a flying fox wire. I looked back down on the town where the colourful wooden houses clustered to the contours of the steep hills all the way down to the river where the seals were making a racket. It was a familiar panorama of my youth, learned through a TV set.
Shelley, Ezra and Mick left me to my moment and went back to sit in the car. I approached a guy who was out the front gardening assuming he must live there. He was reluctant and must get badgered all the time but when he heard my accent he softened.
“You know we get about 30,000 people walking up our drive with cameras each year,” he complained, and I thought, what did you expect? If you don’t like the heat don’t buy a house in the kitchen.
It was a bizarre and beautiful way to end a single week of work in our lives. We got back to Portland and I dropped off Shelley and Ezra then picked up Wally waiting at the hotel. The huge metal palm tree looked silent in the daylight. We wolfed down a last meal and then I drove them both to a room at the airport for tomorrow’s early flight. I helped myself to the complimentary instant coffee in the office as they checked in.
“Did you hear the news?” asked the attendant as he handed over the room keys.
“No?” said Mick.
“We finally got Bin Laden. Blew the somobitch away,” he continued ecstatically, “You gotta love that shit!”
Mick just stared at Wally and I popped a tiny cap of creamer (with a hint of vanilla) into my cup and put a biscuit in my pocket for later. No one knew what else what to say.