- GUEST AUSTRALIAN
Today, I interview a musician from Australia. Sadly, though I've tried hard, finding Musicians to interview is not easy.
Alan fyfe was born in South Perth and studied literature and philosophy at the University of Western Australia. He writes poetry, prose fiction, and journalism and his work has been featured in a diverse range of publications, including Westerly, The Fremantle Herald Newspaper Group, and The Cottonmouth Journal. He was an inaugural editor of the UWA creative writing journal, Trove, and a prose editor for the American Web Journal, Unlikely Stories. In 2009, he won the Karl Popper Philosophy Award. Alan has been writing songs since he was fifteen and recorded the Ukulele-Punk E.P, Messy Brunettes, at tweed studios in the Northern Rivers in 2015. His first novel, Floaters, was shortlisted for the Fremantle Press T.A.G Hungerford Award and is currently under development as a multi-media project, including a music E.P and stage show. He lives in Maylands, Western Australia, with his son.
Welcome, Alan ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR MUSIC JOURNEY.
My name is Alan. I’ve mostly lived near water. I’ve busked a lot. I took my Luna ukulele up the east coast and busked at the railway underpass in Katoomba. I made sixty bucks in forty-five minutes. It was a good day. A guy stopped and saw the Plato book in my uke bag and gave me a weird nod. Got a bit too close then dropped four bucks and ran off. That ukulele’s broken now. I fixed it up as a resonator with an old silver plate from the Salvation army, but it got broken again.
2. WERE YOU INTERESTED IN MUSIC AS A KID? WHAT TYPES OF MUSIC?
Well, yes. Who isn’t? I used to be embarrassed to say I liked Billy Joel when I was a kid. I’m not embarrassed now. I god damn loved Billy Joel. My brother took me to see him at the Perth Entertainment centre. Would have been twelve.
I liked Iron Maiden – Number of the Beast. All the early Queen albums, but All That Jazz in particular. I couldn’t get enough of that Black Sabbath song, War Pigs, and probably convinced myself I could worship the devil for about six months. My mum was interested in Bob Dylan, AC/DC, and Stravinsky. My brother played Rodríguez all the time. It’s a little known fact that Rodriguez was actually very popular in Australia while he was obscure everywhere else but South Africa. I’ve got his poetry stuck in my head forever… Were you tortured by your own thirst, in those pleasures that you seek, that makes you Tom the curious, that makes you James the weak.
3. WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A MUSICIAN?
My brother taught me two chords on the guitar when I was fifteen. They were E minor and G major. You can play You Can’t Always Get What You Want with those two chords, which, ironically, is exactly what you want. I immediately bought a blue nylon string guitar from the hock shop for fifteen bucks. The machine heads were missing, so I caught a bus to Perth then walked five miles to a music shop that had the right parts. Got the bits home, fixed them in, strung the heavy, messy plank, and tuned it. Played You Can’t Always Get What You Want then immediately wrote an original song. The song was called Pig Boy. It sounds metal, but Pig Boy was really very gentle and nostalgic. It had five chords and neither of them were the two I knew. I just made them up by moving shapes up and down the fretboard until something sounded like music. It’s odd that a fifteen-year old would write a nostalgic song. You know, Bob Dylan wrote Bob Dylan’s Dream when he was twenty-two and it sounds like the fond recollections of a sixty-year old itinerant leather worker.
4. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?
There’s nothing to not enjoy, but right now it’s good for company. I’m primarily a writer, which is quite a lonely trade. Making some music with others has been a good relief from being locked in a room with a laptop. I caught up with my friend the other day, who had acted as empresario on the last thing put down as a recording. We want for a walk by the river and talked for a couple of hours. So, that’s something I enjoy a lot. Talking about music with friends. Talking about art and how it’s put together.
5. WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A MUSICIAN?
For me, it’s playing. Because my first medium is words and I concentrated on poetics as my main form of expression, if my practice on instruments drops off it takes a lot to get me back to playing well. I have to try to keep up twenty minutes a day practice and learn or write a new song every two weeks.
Most musicians seem to struggle with the part I find easy though, which is the lyrics. I suppose they’re trained in instruments pretty intensively, but rarely have any hard training in verse. I often hear quite successful bands with truly awful lyrics. I listened to the last JJJ hottest 100. I was borrowing someone’s car who had the radio tuned to JJJ. You know, you don’t change someone’s station when you borrow a car. It’s extremely rude. Anyway, half of the songs sounded as though the lyrics were written by ten-year old kids who never got as far as Dr Seuss… One in the top ten had a chorus that went – Baby, you’re driving me crazy. What the hell? The guitar on the song was pretty good, but you can do both. Jimi Hendrix lyrics are light handed, imagistic, and excellent. If you don’t know poetry, it can be learned. If you can’t learn it, get someone who knows it to help with the lyrics. Don’t write cat hat mat rhymes and repeat the same hokey story about a relationship that’s sexy / romantic / difficult / broken up. It sounds like I’m being grumpy and elitist. I am. The reason is that I hear lyrics on the community station from little known local bands that are like cut gems five times a day – interesting, well edited, good poetry – those cat hat mat bands are taking up mental space that could be occupied by musicians who’ve actually worked hard on having an integrity of expression. Get the hell off the stage if you’re going to go at it like a tourist and not do the work on every part, or if you think you can learn poetry by just trying to write it. I can’t remember the name of the Baby, You’re Driving Me Crazy band, but they don’t deserve to exist. They offer nothing to the world. End of story.
6. DO YOU WORK FOR YOURSELF, OTHERS OR BOTH?
I work with others, never under them, so we work for each other.
7. WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME INVOLVED IN MAKING MUSIC?
I’ve had twenty-three different careers, but I never had a job before I wrote Pig Boy at fifteen, so there was no past life. If anything, I started seriously trying to write prose fiction when I was thirteen, but the two things mesh up. So, nothing before this. All other work has been a sideline and, to be honest, mostly a counter productive distraction. I worked as a home help for Silver Chain for a while. Cleaning houses for the aged, some disabled folk. That was nice. I liked that job. Working as a barista was cool too. You can drink as much coffee as you like.
8. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT?
Getting a short story published in a Mandurah computer club magazine when I was thirteen. The circulation was around thirty people. It was 1986. People were still impressed they could make their own newspapers on printers hooked up to a Commodore 64. I’ve done things that seem bigger since. Things that seem bigger to other people anyway. That was the biggest thing that ever happened though. I knew I’d made it. Just had to keep doing the same thing.
9. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I wrote a novel called Floaters and it got shortlisted for a major prize. I didn’t win but the publisher was interested. I’d quoted some song lyrics and they thought it would work out too expensive with copyright, so they asked me to write my own songs.
I wrote in a fictional band called Meat Lunch as an excuse for the original songs to appear in the book. I’d finished my edits and was waiting for the publisher to come back from Christmas break. I was bored so I called a musician friend and floated the idea of recording some of the songs. He came over and read the scene Meat Lunch appear in. Within half an hour we were in a professional studio with some very talented folk putting down a track.
Currently, I’m working to make Floaters into a multi-media project in this way. We’re doing an E.P of songs from the book. Bringing the fictional band to life. I give the songs to the musicians and they get into the character like actors. I don’t play or sing. It’s very cool, seeing what they make it into and we become co-creators. It becomes their song as much as mine. The crew were Ben Newton of Blue Child Collective acting as empresario, Chris Parkinson of roving harmonica fame and the Freo Trio, Trevor Bentley who was lately a bass lord from various bands but formed the Freo Trio with Chris, and it was recorded by the nuggety Blake Carnaby of Nuglife studios. I didn’t choose the nug life, the nug life chose me. I like that Blake has the same name as a black-cockatoo.
Most of the songs are for female voice. The fictional lead singer is called Irma Denial. I needed someone to play that part. When I saw Chris and Trevor’s band play, well, it’s called the Freo ‘Trio’ – the third member is a lady called Catrin Enderlien and she’s agreed to come on board as Irma in the future recordings. She had a fantastic voice and style of playing, so it’s all looking pretty nifty.
That’s the stage I’m at now. I’m thinking the E.P will make an interesting cross promotion when the book comes out. A kind of soundtrack for the book. Beyond that, it could make a good stage show. Who knows where the potential ends?
10. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE TYPE OF MUSIC?
Something with honesty behind it. Something that looks effortless because the maker worked like a dog to make it look that way. Something that is only cool because it ignores being cool in order to do something interesting.
11. WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
People inspire me. Some say they’re inspired by nature. I guess that’s fine, being grateful for the way the world feels. I’m more worried about nature these days. People get me. What they can do. How kind they can be. How they can surprise you. I mean people close to me mostly. It’s hard to have distant heroes. You can’t really know that much about them. You can admire their work, but the closer you get the more the cracks start to show. I’m inspired by the people I know intimately but who still come out shiny. My love, Jasmina. My son, Yitzhak.
12. DO YOU PLAY ANY INSTRUMENTS?
Guitar; ukulele; harmonica. I can play the first bit of Moonlight Sonata on piano. Also kazoo. I’m the world’s foremost kazoo player. The world’s foremost kazoo player is a closely guarded secret held by the Nobel Academy in Sweden. I can reveal, here, that it’s me. I’m tired of those damn Swedes holding me back and I’m giving myself permission to shine. There’s an award given out to the kazoo laureate. Unlike the peace prize or the literature prize, the Nobel Prize for kazoo is held in a private room and the press aren’t invited. They told me it was a safety measure because my kazoo playing was so good it could potentially destroy the universe if too many people played a recording of me at once, so I’ll never put down a track with kazoo. I just wanted people to know.
13. DO YOU HAVE A COLLECTION OF MUSIC? WHAT?
Like a true middle-age wanker. I have an old record player and buy vinyl a lot. I’m gunna say The Mountain Goats, and just leave that there. There’s a certain section of people who know exactly what I’m talking about and know that I can’t explain it in any better way than listening to The Mountain Goats.
Fairground Attraction; Wu Tang Clan; Bus Driver; Digital Underground; Velvet Underground (big black boots of shiny shiny leather…); Archer; Buffy St Marie; Regina Spektor; Mickey Avalon; The Drones; Howlin Wolf; The Triffids; Sonny Boy Williamson II; The Pogues; Bruce Springstein; Leonard Cohen (the high priest); The Venga Boys; Courtney Barnett; Stone Temple Pilots; Jane’s Addiction; Pearl Jam; Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
I don’t have any Billy Joel these days. Maybe I should get some.
14. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR EMERGING MUSICIANS?
Sure, don’t write any lyrics with bourgeois foodstuffs in there. Things like cronuts, kale, don’t bring them up. It’s fine if you like to eat these things, I won’t judge you. I like a fifteen-dollar wedge of cheese as much as the next man. They just don’t belong in poetry.
Next, accept that you’ve failed. By taking up art, you have already failed. I mean failure in the most literal sense. There is a tiny, atomic chance that you will even have a moderate level of success. Even for that midway, satisfactory life of gigging round and making some art people like, or getting some poems published, you’ll fail in crushing and tragic ways along the path. If you’re still reading this and still interested in going on, you’re no less of a failure but you should definitely go on. There’s nothing in being good but the work and the struggle with that work. And if you get good you can never have failed.
Another thing is never miss a chance to pick up a skill or a bit of knowing. All sorts of people can teach you all sorts of things. Be humble and listen more than you pontificate.
Seriously, though, don’t write songs about kale. I did some work for a friend and she gave me produce from her garden. Spinach, garlic, and kale. I didn’t eat the kale, I threw it in the bin. Kale tastes like disappointment.
15. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED SCHEDULE?
I like to work from six to twelve hours a day. Half an hour for lunch when I watch the news. Sometimes I work up to sixteen hours, but with a good hour for an evening meal. I can be working on one thing or another. It could be study and research. It could be writing. It could be a song. I have weekends off. Good praxis comes with application.
16. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PLACE OR TIME TO WORK?
I like to practice guitar or ukulele on the outside couch on a nice afternoon, or even when it’s raining. It’s a sheltered spot. I usually think of lyrics in the morning and they either come out complete and I can work on the music during the day, or the lyrics brew through the day and come out at night. The songs that come out completely in the morning are the best songs usually, when I’m closer to a dream state, but I don’t get much say about when they come out exactly. Most of the time I write at the kitchen table.
17. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN YOUR WORK?
In terms of music, just that sound. The sound when you hit it the right way. It never gets old. In terms of writing, the constant work and editing. Making things that weren’t in the world the day before. But the writing has a sound too. It’s hard to explain. It has a music, and a tune you sort of know. You know when it’s sweet and you know when you hit a bad note.
18. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
I can see your nipples through that shirt.
19. DESCRIBE THE FUNNIEST MOMENT YOU EXPERIENCED IN YOUR WORK?
I stopped where this little kid was busking outside the art gallery. He had a harmonica, couldn’t play at all, just blowing the thing. But it was so cute. Mum was watching, real proud, wrapped up in a shawl on a winter night. I was very charmed and took my harp out to jam with him. I showed it to his mum and got the nod. Then I started to play a little Good Morning Blues in time with his all over the place blow and draw. He looked up at me, absolutely furious, and said in this rich kid private school voice – excuse me, you’re ruining my performance. Haha. Egotistical little bastard.
20. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED?
Trying to busk in Adelaide after a night of heavy drinking and smoking. Out in the Rundle Street Mall. I sparked up Masters of War, which is one of my best ukulele numbers. Some dude walked past and just said – Really? It was crushing, but he was right. I sounded awful and could hardly talk, let alone sing.
21. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU AS A CREATIVE MUSICIAN?
Yes, entirely. All this stuff, it’s autobiography. Novels, poems, songs. None of it has to have literally happened. But you can’t write to make people feel something if you haven’t felt something. All of it’s based on a true story of feeling someway about something.
22. HOW MANY SEPARATE PIECES OF MUSIC HAVE YOU PRODUCED?
Ummm, I dunno. Lots properly recorded. Probably a hundred home recorded. Used to send them to friends in the middle of the night when they couldn’t sleep. Someone got on the phone to me who I didn’t know who’d got one of my songs from a friend. He was super excited, like he was talking to Freddie Mercury. It was his favourite song and he played it every day at work. He did qualify that half the people at work hated it. That’s what I want to do with music. I want it to be polarizing and cause arguments. You need to be upsetting someone or you’re not really trying.
23. HAVE YOU WON ANY PRIZES OR AWARDS?
Yes, there was the T.A.G Hungerford book award shortlisting I mentioned above. I won the Karl Popper Award for my philosophy writing in 2009.
24. WHAT DID THEY MEAN TO YOU?
Stepping stones. Few more miles to go yet. It’s good validation for people to like your work.
25. OTHER THAN MAKING MUSIC, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Food; music festivals; my nearest; fire twirling; drinking the water that runs over the rocks at the bottom of a waterfall.
26. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
It’s hard to pick one. My life isn’t perfect, but I have so many perfect days at this point of my life. I’ve been waiting a long time for days like this. I believed they would come and had my faith justified. There’s that silly question – what would you do if you knew the end of the world was tomorrow? Everyone has some wild answer. For myself, I’d be able to pick maybe eight days from the last month that I’d have for my last day alive. I reckon that’s a pretty good strike rate. I could be making a bit of art, playing some music, having a pun battle with my son, eating dinner with my love, speaking to a friend, grappling with some particular bit of philosophy, and reading a good poem. A lot of my days involve all of these things now. Those are perfect days.
27. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
Much more of the same. More books, more songs, more chats with friends about art. More time with the people I love. More perfect days.
28. IF YOU CREATED MUSIC FOR THE LEADERS OF THEWORLD, WHAT WOULD IT BE ABOUT?
Nothing. They don’t get one damn song until they fix things. They should be locked in a room together with no music, no light, and no human touch until they agree to take serious measures about the planet burning up and people in the third world being exploited like slaves. If they get to all that, I dunno, whatever they like best. Probably a pirate song compilation. Pirates are very popular. I like sea shanties. There’s a sea shanty done by Captain Beefheart, Orange Claw Hammer, that’s like half spoken word and gorgeously weird. If I did sea shanties for world leaders, Orange Claw Hammer would be on there. But I’d be happy to do maybe a two-hour album of sea shanties if they meet my demands. I feel as though they’d get big-headed if they solved all those problems, a bit messianic, which is crap because they should be working on those problems as a matter of urgency all the time. Their job is guiding us safely through this rubbish. No one should feel messianic for just doing their job. Sea shanties are nicely working class and it’s hard to mistake them for messiah music, so that’s what I’d do. Shea shanties are also about ships and everyone likes to think about travel. Anyway, they’re not doing their jobs, so no sea shanties right now.
Clancy's comment: Go, Alan! Thanks for joining us. Being a muso in this country is similar to being an author. Maybe we should all 'band' together and shake a few trees.