To celebrate a stunning 45 years in the industry, the legendary songwriter and guitarist Ed Kuepper has announced the release of three LPs that celebrate his post The Saints years as a solo artist and with the Laughing Clowns and The Aints, as well as news of an Australia wide tour in June and July. Details of the new collection of vinyl – ‘The Exploding World of Ed Kuepper’ – can be found here and the albums will be released on Friday, 28 May 2021 and can be ordered here from that date.
We got a chance to chat with Kuepper on the eve of all the celebrations.
Ed, in your 45 years in the music industry, you released the first ever punk rock single, became one of the first Australian bands to make it in the northern hemisphere, one of the first indie bands to chart in Australia, released over 37 records, scored music for a film, and played thousands of live gigs. Do you ever wish you had achieved more?
That kind of depends on when you ask me! I’m in a fairly philosophical mood at the moment and in a lot of ways I’m sort of happy continuing doing what I do. Achievements…I wish in some ways I would have done more good deeds – less self-orientated kind of deeds – been more of a useful person to the human race! But apart from that…(laughs).
There are times when I’ve done a lot and there are other times when I’ve done very little, so I guess the times when I’ve done very little are the only blackspots in my life looking back and there were reasons for those, but it would have been nice if I was able to get out of that and maintained the flow, but that happens to everyone.
I’m amused that you think creatives such as yourself aren’t doing good to the human race through your art by making people happy…
(Laughs) Thanks! And sometimes I’m made happy by doing it! (Laughs). I guess one of the things is that I’ve never had any kind of pretence that I was changing the world or doing anything – I’m doing things that I want to be doing which is a fairly selfish endeavour. But I love to think that people love it – that’s great and I hope they know that!
Turning first to the beginning of your career, as I alluded, there are many in the industry who see The Saints ‘(I’m) Stranded’ as the first ever punk single. First of all, what are your thoughts on this claim, and secondly, can you recall writing this song and what your influences were at the time and the circumstances in which it was written?
I can remember writing it over – I can’t remember- it was a couple of years before the song was recorded. I was seriously just looking at putting together a repertoire for my band, which was the Saints at the time, I was writing as much as I could and that was one of them.
I don’t remember it striking me as being particularly better than much of the other stuff we were doing and oddly enough we picked it as being a song to record by doing a loose poll of our fans – which luckily enough there weren’t many of them at the time – and just about everybody picked ‘(I’m) Stranded’, which I thought, well, ok and that’s why we did it. As simple as that!
Whether or not it was the first punk single, those kind of claims – it wasn’t really a term that we were using and we saw ourselves as being a rock’n’roll band. Punk was something that was just coming out of the UK and we weren’t connected to that sort of thing. ‘(I’m) Stranded’ was out before a lot of that UK stuff, sure, and we did it ourselves, so it has that sort of pedigree, I guess. It still sounds strong to me – I hear it occasionally on the radio or on the television or in a movie it immediately catches my ear but not so much in a way ‘Here I am, isn’t this great’ but more like ‘Fuck what’s that?’. It still grabs you and it grabs me in a way that – I feel quite detached from it to an extent. It works as a piece of music and I don’t think of myself initially when I hear it.
What was Brisbane like in the seventies, for those unfamiliar with Queensland at the time?
It was early seventies when I wrote ‘(I’m Stranded)’ so it was fairly well documented – Brisbane was sort of a mixture of things. It was a fairly big country town, and it has the pros and cons that you get in a place that is a big country town, there was some really good things about it and there some small-minded things. The Saints left Queensland before the overbearing police state stuff started happening – I mean Bjelke-Petersen (later the Premier) was there, but he wasn’t as powerful – that happened more in the late seventies going into the early eighties.
We weren’t involved in any of of the political scenes – we were working and had a band that would rehearse at night. We had remarkably little trouble with the cops in terms of noise complaints. We used to rehearse at my parent’s place, in Dad’s workshop at the back of the yard. The neighbours were absolutely marvellous, they never called the police once, which astounds me because these days I’m pretty sure they would! (Laughs) So there was good and bad. I think sometimes that the negatives get a little romanticised.
Overall, we were a group of musicians and artists who were pretty much in our own territory artistically, I don’t think there was anything remotely like us in Brisbane or Australia, really. I think we were distinct from the Radio Birdman scene in Sydney. I think we got to know them later, but it was unique here and it would have been unique if we had of been in London. Maybe if we had been in London, we would have got a lot more famous, but we were not, we were in Brisbane and there was no music industry to speak of. It was very much a learn as you go kind of thing.
And we made a hell of a lot of mistakes – some really stupid business decisions we made through absolute ignorance which cost us lots of money over the years. Some of that stuff I’m not that crazy about bringing up in interviews because I might address this at some later stage myself in a book (laughs). It’s the kind of stuff that has destroyed people. We mostly got through that, so that’s not too bad…
There’s a lot of negative stuff that happened that came out of bad business deals – they are things that have impacted on our lives. It’s both serious but you also have to get on your day and focus on stuff.
I recently read Tracey Thorn’s biography of Lindy Morrison from The Go-Betweens in which she describes all the Australian bands – The Go-Betweens, The Birthday Party – there in the eighties living together in damp apartments and squalor. You were one of the pioneers of this rite of passage if not the pioneer – preceding this era by a few years. How was it arriving in London at the time and in the middle of the punk explosion?
I found aspects of London to be incredibly exciting and aspects of it to be a bit disappointing too. I was disappointed in the fact that the punk thing seemed to be so regimented so quickly. But you know the thing that was really exciting was that once we went over there and had been signed to Harvest/EMI, we were all on wages that were higher than what we were getting doing actual real work back in Australia. (Laughs)
Bailey and I both had nice flats, we were living in Hampstead, Ivor was living down the road in Chalk Farm – it wasn’t like we were living in anything like what those bands were. You know, I was there in the eighties with the Laughing Clowns, my second group, and I remember all of that scene but I was about to become a father at that stage so my wife and I were living in Crouch Hill. We weren’t hanging around with the Australian ex-pats that were living in the squats (Laughs) – not because I wasn’t friends with them but once you start having kids, you start to distance yourself a little bit from that stuff.
To shift the focus a little – I’ve seen you play live on a number of occasions and I don’t feel you get enough acknowledgment for your skills as a musician and a guitarist in particular…
I agree with that mate (Laughs). What can you do though? I guess I have an unusual way of playing that may not appeal to people that make that sort of judgment – I mean I am self-taught – I do things wrong. I remember doing a show I had just come back to Australia after The Saints had split up and Laughing Clowns were playing somewhere in Sydney in one of the suburbs – I don’t remember where it was – there were these guys standing in front of the stage and they were just bamboozled as to how I was even holding the guitar and they were being critical…so I had to pour a beer over their heads and say ‘f@uck off’ (laughs)…who knows what sort of judgement goes into these things.
I don’t really mind. I remember once reading somewhere – I wish I had kept the quote – it was on the internet some years ago – it had a scanned image of an article or a letter written to a guitar magazine which made the point of saying that I was personally responsible for giving Australian guitarists and bad reputation throughout the world. I’d have that up on my wall if I could.
I’ve developed my own style. When I start at playing properly my aim was to carve out my own turf and to sound as much like myself and not like too many other people as I possibly could, given that there a billion guitar players. Despite all the guitarists that have influenced me, and I am still in awe of, I didn’t want to be any of them. All of the ones that I like have something about them relatively unique to themselves and so I wanted to achieve that and over the years of playing which I have been I’ve changed the way that I’ve played – I’ve broadened it in a way – I can still sort of do what I did when I started but I don’t want to keep just doing that. It has to reflect where you are as a person as well. I don’t play ‘(I’m) Stranded’ – although I did with the Aints on tour where we did it very well. I can still play all the early Saints stuff – I have recordings to prove it and it is what it is but it’s not all that I do.
As you get older you change certain things about yourself. I’ve kept true to the aesthetic and the drive motivation but it’s different. I don’t have any – I don’t want to sound incredibly up myself or anything (laughs) – I’m quite happy with what I do, and I continue to try to develop and find new little things to maintain my interest to push it a little.
I’m still learning as a guitarist and a singer and a songwriter. I don’t think you stop once you become so certain of yourself and everything is right – I mean maybe that’s a great way to be but I’ve never found that spot. I keep looking but I keep think oh shit there’s a new chord or note combination that plays a chord in a different way and I still actually get excited about that sort of thing…
I’m reminded of that famous quote by Lou Reed that anything more than three chords is jazz…which leads me to the jazz influences of Laughing Clowns – where you dumbing down in The Saints?
No – that was totally intentional. The Saints changed very rapidly over the three albums that we recorded. They were three albums recorded over the space of about 18 months. If you were to say they were recorded over 5 years no-one would be surprised but these were done over 18 months – every six months.
The first album was the culmination of what we were when we were in Brisbane and then things started developing. I think it’s important in reference to the dumbing down – it wasn’t a dumbing down; it was setting parameters to work within to establish a band sound that I wanted. There were things that were excluded but we were playing what I wanted to play, there was no doubt about that.
Once I moved to London, it was suddenly like – shit there’s this entire other world and I was exposed there to jazz in a way I wasn’t when I was in Brisbane, even though a very good friend of mine in school who played saxophone was always quite keen to get me on to jazz and fusion, so I wasn’t unaware of it, it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I moved to London, that I started to draw more heavily on that kind of influence, but at the same time having had a little bit of an earlier background, some of it felt relatively natural.
I think you have to remember that Lou’s comment about jazz – he was a major jazz buff (laughs). He worked within strict parameters for a lot of his solo stuff and there are other times where he didn’t. I do that too – I think it works well sometimes to have to go into an album where you’re not trying to do everything. I think some of my most successful records artistically work like that because I’m not trying to do everything, I’m actually developing a theme.
Your solo work following on from Laughing Clowns seemed to be a mixing of the jazz styles of Laughing Clowns with a more pop sensibility of The Saints…
Some of it, yes – once the Clowns split, I think I want to just open things up in a way I should be able to as a solo musician. When you are working with a band you write for the band – I don’t know if everyone else does this, but I do – once I went solo I wrote for myself.
Turning now to your announcement of a series of vinyl releases – the Exploding Universe of Ed Kuepper. I will confess that The Butterfly Net is one of my most favourite CDs in my collection – but it came as quite a surprise to realise this, and the works of The Laughing Clowns, never came out on vinyl. Is this behind the desire to revisit a best of collection of your solo work and Laughing Clowns given the rise in interest in vinyl?
Yes – some albums were released on vinyl but there never has been a compete collection. The solo collection is even better than The Butterfly Net – it encompasses all the singles ever released.
You are about to embark on an Australia wide tour with Jim White on drums – I note with gratitude that Hobart has been added to the list – White is probably one of the most brilliant drummers around right now – his work with The Dirt Three is phenomenal; how did this collaboration come about?
I just asked him – I knew his performance style well and I knew that his interpretative drumming would be a perfect fit. There will be just the two of us on stage.
We are approaching the material freshly – reconstructing the material in a way and there will be an element of improvisation. Every show will be different – and this is how I have always worked.
Ed Kuepper is on tour later this year with The Dirty Three drummer Jim White (see announcement here) including a just-announced additional gig in Hobart at the monumental MONA museum on 26 June 2021, following an immediate sell out. Tickets for the added MONA gig available here. Full details below and tickets available here:
Tuesday, May 25 @ 8:00PM
Castlemaine, Bridge Hotel – SOLD OUT!
Wednesday, May 26
Melbourne, Comedy Theatre
Friday, May 28 @ 8:00PM
Meeniyan, Town Hall
Saturday, May 29 @ 7:00PM
Macedon, Railway Hotel
Friday, June 4 @ 9:00PM
Cairns, Tanks Art Centre
Saturday, June 5 @ 8:00PM
Sunshine Coast, Imperial Hotel
Sunday, June 6 @ 5:00PM
Gold Coast, Miami Marketta
Thursday, June 10 @ 7:30PM
Friday, June 11 @ 8:00PM
Wyong, The Arthouse
Saturday, June 12 @ 8:00PM
Blue Mountains, Theatre
Sunday, June 13 @ 3:30PM
Sydney, SOH Studio – Matinee
Sunday, June 13 @ 7:30PM
Sydney, SOH Studio – Evening
Wednesday, June 16 @ 7:30PM
Eltham, Eltham Hotel – SOLD OUT!
Thursday, June 17 @ 8:00PM
Brisbane, The Triffid
Thursday, June 24 @ 8:00PM
Canberra, The Street
Friday, June 25 @ 7:30PM
Hobart, Nolan Gallery
Saturday, June 26 @7:30 Hobert, Nolan Gallery
Sunday, June 27 @ 6:00PM
Adelaide, The Gov
Saturday, July 3 @ 8:00PM