Glenn Richards: Life On The Inside
Glenn Richards has a new album out called ‘Glimjack’ – a freewheeling, 15-track disc that brings to mind Augie March’s difficult second album ‘Strange Bird’ – just don’t call it a solo record, as DARREN LEVIN discovered.
Glenn Richards is as softly spoken as you’d expect from a guy who’s spent the better part of 13 years fronting Augie March; a band who’ve made a career from hushed, poignant moments. Sitting in the courtyard of Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar – a historic, white tablecloth establishment in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton — he’s barely audible amid the chatter of the area’s chardonnay set.
He looks comparatively frumpy, wearing a frayed jumper and sporting a three-day growth, and while the patrons remain blissfully unaware they’re in the presence of the singer of ‘One Crowded Hour’ – it’d surely be an iPhone moment if they found out – there’s no doubt he’s a musician: he’s decided to bring along a keyboard. “It’s a bit corny isn’t it?” he says, sheepishly. “I should’ve brought a guitar.”
Richards is en route to the nearby Music Swop Shop, where he’s buying a second-hand case to take his prized new possession out on the road. His new album Glimjack is not as skeletal and plaintive as you’d expect from a debut solo outing – I later discover he takes offence to this term – and he’s eager to recreate all its bells and whistles in a live setting with a new band that includes his older brother Chris, Ben Bourke from Ned Collette + Wirewalker, and Dan Luscombe and Mike Noga from The Drones. “I’m setting something up for Dan to play,” he explains. He’s got a piano, we need some synth action.”
Are you touring with the same line-up that recorded the album?
Yeah. Early on I was thinking, it might be easier to have two or three combinations, but it’s a real pain in the arse for people to have to learn that many tunes. The easiest option we had is if Mike Noga couldn’t do it, Pete Luscombe could step in – he’s already got the record. But I’ll try keep this line-up for everything.
Then you’ll have two set of brothers to deal with in a band.
Well, there’s about eight Luscombe brothers, but there’s a big gap between those two [Dan and Pete]. They get on fine.
So the video for ‘Torpor and Spleen’, is that how the album was pieced together?
Pretty much … We set up in that space, it was a lot messier than what you see in the video, but we hammered it out that way: play live, get the best take and stop.
You did a song a day for 19 days?
Yeah, pretty much. A few days in between here and there to get things fixed. It was an ongoing operation. Got a few good sounds, but there were some difficulties because every song required something different. Not being a pro set-up, there was a lot of improvisation.
Is that the same Fairfield warehouse [in Melbourne’s inner north-east] that a few bands have recorded recently?
Yeah, Nick [Treweek] who runs it is my brother-in-law. Since he got it started up – and it wasn’t that long ago, maybe a year tops – I think Cut Copy did their recent record there; Aleks & The Ramps have a permanent room there; and there’s been a number of Speakeasy gigs there. Heaps of lesser-known acts have been in there to do three- or four-day recordings. It’s great, it’s exactly what he envisaged, and it’s coming to fruition.
Did the space influence the recording?
Space is always going to determine how the thing turns out. Physically, it’s impossible not to have some of the room in your recording. It’s a big room, but there’s a fortunate acoustic in there. You’re never really battling with anything, and you do have nice, natural, open air … The fact that it was mid-winter and it was freezing cold had more of an impact in terms of getting things done as quickly as we could. [Laughs] So the brevity was partly philosophical, but also due to conditions.
And I guess the warehouse environment allows you to be a live band, to face each other and not be segmented.
Yeah, it was pretty easy. We all knew what we were doing. You never really knew whether it was going to work or not for various reason. It gave an edge to it.
Did the players shape the sound?
As with any record I’ve made, because I’ve done demos, structurally it was there, let’s say 70 percent of it. And then 30 percent would’ve been off very much off-the-cuff: “How are we going to do this? Should we start with a snare drum?” While it wasn’t easy – it was a very difficult month – actually getting the songs together was pretty easy and intuitive. Everybody guessed everybody, rather than second-guessed. It happened quickly.
Were you apprehensive about the process before you went into it?
Not so much that. I trusted these guys pretty absolutely; the fact that we were all friends, and I know what their styles are. They all know my work pretty intimately, so they knew what to expect from me. The thing I was apprehensive about was the fact that I wasn’t making an easy record. To go out on the road was going to be a hard thing. Getting these guys together was going to be hard. I was pretty exhausted after the last one [Augie March’s Watch Me Disappear, 2008], so perhaps I could’ve done something that treated me a lot more kindly. But that remains to be seen.
In the sense of making a record on your own?
Yeah, maybe just getting a simple and gentle line-up. I think there was an exception, if there was any expectation, that it might’ve ended up that way … It’s determined by what you’re writing more than anything, and if that’s what’s coming out, I can’t really argue with it.
Was the new line-up invigorating?
Yeah, sure. It was fun, those guys are fun. At Augie we always had fun, but you run out of that quickly when you haven’t been away from each other for a while. I image we get back together in a room – and that’s a positive thing to do, not a forced thing – and that fun will be back. Every time I’ve seen the guys since, it’s been pleasant. This line-up of guys … we were friends before we were in a band together, and that’s not going to change. It makes it easier.
Once you decided to put Augie on ice, did you always intend to write a solo record?
Yeah, solo record coming from a guy who’s been in a band – that’s why it’s called a solo record. If I’d just called it “Glenn Richards” instead of “Augie March”, it wouldn’t be mentioned as a solo record. I find that very, very odd … Josh Pyke doesn’t make solo records, he makes Josh Pyke records. Josh has been in bands before, but that doesn’t get talked about. Sarah Blasko doesn’t make solo records, but she does play with the same band, or the band changes a little, and that doesn’t get talked about. So the fuss is not really required. Maybe in the case of Bernard Fanning, because they [Powderfinger] are such a big band. And he really did make an acoustic, jaunty, light record on purpose. That’s not really the case with this record. The only reason I’m using the name is because it’s too much of a pain in the arse to try and promote another band. At this point, you haven’t got the time or the energy to say to people: “It’s The Dickheads featuring Glenn Richards, who’s in Augie March.” And then people say, “Well, why didn’t you just do a solo record?” [Laughs]
In an interview around the time that Augie disbanded, you said you wanted to make a record that speaks more in your “musical language”. What did you mean by that?
I mean, you don’t know what your ambitions are when you have no ambitions. Probably because it was getting impossible to do anything in a natural manner within that band frame work. Nobody was capable of being musically naive, thinking, “This is what we are, so this is what we do”, and there’s not a lot of joy left in it. And that worked fine for a full albums because there was joy in it. I think half the songs on this record wouldn’t have been on an Augie record, because they would’ve been tidied up too much. It’s looser and I don’t have that concern about them: they are what they are. I won’t say I don’t care, but I’m not concerned whether people who like ‘One Crowded Hour’ like anything off this record. That was never intended to be something that would determine the quality of Glenn Richards’ songwriting by. It will be for some people.
Was that song a turning point for the wrong reasons too?
It got more people into shows for a period of time, but some would leave when they’d heard it. But that happens to bands. You go see a band you worship when you’re a kid, and see people leaving after the hit. Some people use music as a shitty soundtrack to half-an-hour on a treadmill or a night out. I just don’t regard it as purely entertainment. I regard it as an art form, and you need to take one area of it at least seriously, you can’t take anything else seriously.
It seems like the album has gone back to the freewheeling, experimental edge of [2002’s] Strange Bird, especially with the amount of tracks you have on the album.
[Laughs] That was just because nobody could agree on what to cut. I could’ve cut two or three, but the guys loved some of those tracks, and I just reasoned that people aren’t going to get it and complain about how many tracks if they buy it. It’s value for money, it’s a double album, it’s unique. If they download it – whether they pay for it or not – they’ll whack it in their iPods and listen to different songs at different points. People do that now. Unless I’m doing something along the lines of Kram – it’s still a beautiful thing to have 10 tracks that just blast out, one after the other – I don’t think it’s really an issue.
It does fit in with the whole idea of wanting to challenge listeners with a record with depth and purpose.
Yeah, and I’d like to think anyway, that maybe people who tuned out of Augie for the last couple records, would want to reacquaint themselves with this, and really have the full album experience. I think it’s a fluid record, but it’s got enough to suggest that people who like Strange Bird may like this one. I like the fact that – even though there’s a fair bit going on – it’s a lean-sounding record and it’s a little bit angry. It covers some territory that might reawaken a bit of interest in what happens next with Augie.
A song like ‘Barfly Prometheus’ sounds like one of the more optimistic things you’ve written in a while.
[Nearly spits out wine] Not while I’ve got a mouthful of wine.
Am I totally misreading it?
[Laughs] It’s one of the prettier songs on the record, but the gist of that tune is Prometheus would be reborn every morning chained to the rock, and the eagle would come down and eat his liver. For an alcoholic, it’s the same kind of experience; being changed to addiction. The eagle is kind of eating away at its liver … It’s certainly not a song about myself. [Laughs] It’s about the dangers and the horrors of it [alcoholism], and I know people [inflicted with it]. So it’s not terribly optimistic in terms of the subject matter, but as a piece of music, it’s a lovely piece.
It is a really interesting juxtaposition, and I guess superficially you can listen to it and think it’s about being reborn.
Maybe chances, too? Every day is new, but you’ve gotta have about 1000 of them in a row where you’re not opening the bottle. I always forget about what I’m thinking when I’m writing a song, especially well after the event. There’s gotta be some reason why it’s such a pretty and seemingly luminous hook. There’s gotta be something going on that makes me feel like, “This song needs to be pretty.” You make a good point, actually.
Are you the sort of writer that has notebooks full of material that you later match to music?
Not with this one. I do look back at stuff that I haven’t used that I’m really happy with just on its on. Every couple of months I’ll do that and think, “Some of that needs to be used”, but I very rarely get around to it. Every so often a verse will serve as the beginning of a new song. It’s really hard to revisit stuff and get the right continuity. You might’ve written something a year ago, but you can’t reclaim that ground anymore … I tend to write new, otherwise it’s just tricking yourself.
It’s never really thematic though – you go from addiction to politics to a song about Black Saturday [‘South of Heaven’].
I like that one. From a musical point of view, I just wanted to do a Sunday afternoon beer-drinking song, and the sounds that we tried to get were very much along those lines. But you remember that period, where Melbourne was covered in smoke. I usually don’t write about recent tragedies. I try not to contemporise where I’m at, or locate the song in a particular period, but I tried to explore the horror of it, and also the question around, even if nobody deliberately started the first fires, people certainly contributed. Fire attracts firebugs. These people are so peculiarly mixed up that they do this kind of thing. How can you explain that, because what you’re doing is essentially mass murder … I’ve spent a lot of time out that way, and the idea that Marysville is totally eradicated is enormous to me. That happens elsewhere not here.
Who sings back-up vocals on that song?
Sara Retallick. Jimmy Tait is her band. She’s a beautiful singer. All I could think was a little bit of Emmylou Harris would be nice for this track.
I was just about to say that.
She’s worth going to have a look at. She sings with Plague Doctor quite a bit as well. Nick, who runs the warehouse, drums in the band.
Would you say it’s an album full of juxtapositions?
Yeah, there’s nothing keeping those songs together other than momentum. It’s one without a thread. I don’t mind that so much, to have a variety of pre-occupations and to make something out of it. I’d say if there’s anything, there’s anxiety that runs through it. Anxiety, doubt – all the big sellers. [Laughs]
So it’s fair to say you’re not going to be writing a concept album anytime soon?
[Laughs] No, I just don’t have the kind of intellect that can keep stuff together like that. I grew up in a time where it was a prized thing to not have absolutes, which could be construed as a way of saying I don’t have the rigour to maintain something, or the desire for responsibility. They’re all things that run through a lot of the stuff I’ve done in the past. That kind of doubting where you’re actually at when you’re someone who puts music out there; whether you have any real right to do it – not that anybody does. It comes back to the Glimjack title. There’s no guarantee that this is going to be an illuminating journey, or you won’t end up regretting listening to something on this record. At the same time I hope that it’s rewarding.
I almost feel like Glimjack is an alter-ego in a way.
Yeah … but only that song, ‘Glimjack Muttering’, is the one that directly states it. And I don’t mind that. It’s kind of saying, here I am, but apart from this song, I’m going to be a fairly judicious presence, if not invisible.
I usually ask bands what they were listening to when recording the album, but with you I feel like I need to ask you what you were reading.
Ah, reading. [Pauses] I was looking for a lot of J.G Ballard. I joined the library at the university, and they’ve got a good range of his stuff. I read a lot of his stuff at the time, actually I think I stopped reading while I was making the record. I just read DBC Pierre’s latest book, Lights Out in Wonderland. I enjoyed that. I think if there was any kind of voice, it’d be J.G Ballard.
So the [lyrical] triggers were experiences and events?
Yeah, and internal matters; life on the inside more than anything else. The rest of it being touring and making records is full of its own intrigue and shit, but it’s comparatively bland. For me, it’s about making sense of where I’m at.
Is ‘The Drive’ a song about the road?
It began on the road in America, and it was a sick kind of fever dream, but it was finished here recently. If anybody asked me what that’s about, I really couldn’t say. I know that it makes sense to listen to, but the feel is more important to me than anything.
I think the line, “For a tourist, life is a tour”, really sticks out, especially for someone who’s spent most of their adult life on the road.
It’s fairly simply. If you’re not able to, for one reason or another, plant roots and really engage in community or family, then you are just a tourist. You’ll eventually feel accordingly, and you’ll be treated accordingly.
Are you starting to feel the need to settle?
[Sighs] I don’t know. I still don’t know … I’m a very non-committal kind of person, it’s impossible to say what you want in terms of career and musical ambition, if you don’t know what you want personally. That’s where I’m at. I think there are many people in the same boat. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing; a generation raised on those ideas in a way. It might just be a really sick generation.
Is ‘Torpor And Spleen’ a reference to [ice-skaters] Torvill and Dean?
[Laughs] The mind, when it’s engaging in writing and music, will throw stupid things like that up. I don’t know whether that was chicken or the egg. It was like, “What does that remind me of?” [Laughs] And I had to make that decision to continue with it from that point on. It’s just a joke. I could’ve said “boredom and anger”. Torpor and spleen is much catchier and it’s a much better thing to sing…
[For this song] I spent a lot of time thinking about a young generation of aggressors, where this shit’s coming from, where this Clockwork Orange activity is coming from. On the other hand, I was just considering the lull between records, and the purposeful activity I was experiencing. I found myself writing letters to The Age online, and you find yourself asking, “How did I get to this?” [Laughs] … It’s a special kind of tedium reserved for people who perhaps have bursts of activity throughout the year, and then it stops dead. It’s a dangerous flipside to what is quite a decent way to live.
That’s the other thing about getting older, you mistrust the generation below you.
Yeah, I am aware of that, but it’s something that’s very difficult to understand: the thrill-seeking aspect of it. The bloodlust is in us, but I’m worried about it become accepted. “This is what happens”, rather than society at large tackling it.
Do you think it’s ingrained in Australian society?
Not to this degree. You find the worse kind of pricks – guys who will drop you for looking at them wrong – wouldn’t regard glassing or pulling a knife on somebody as cowardice. You bring a knife to a party now. It’s insane. It’s not nearly as bad in America, so something mad is happening.
“I’m not concerned whether people who like ‘One Crowded Hour’ like anything off this record. That was never intended to be something that would determine the quality of Glenn Richards’ songwriting by.”
I’d like to move away from the lyrics for a second. Did you always intend to make a record with your brother [Chris]?
Yeah, with Chris, Dan and Mike. There were a few other people. If circumstances allowed it, I’d have worked with three or four different drummers. That’s the fantasy, but it’s always a lot harder to organise. But it was always the plan. I was sorta hoping we’d all write four or five songs and bring them in, but that’s a pretty big ask for people who are busy in other ways.
There’s a lot of Hobart on this record too.
I spend a lot of time there. That’s where my parents are now, and my dogs are over there. Chris lives there, obviously, and my niece and nephew. More than anything I just like being in Hobart, in that town … It’s a beautiful town and it triggers something in me.
What’s keeping you here in Melbourne?
It’s where the bulk of my friends are, and the city works really well. I’m too scared to move anywhere else. [Laughs] It’s a hard thing to decide where I could be. I could live in Hobart, but you have bleak days there as well, and I’d think, “Shit. What would I be doing now in Melbourne?” There’d be [more] options than a small town. And then I consider the idea of living overseas somewhere. There’s plenty going on for this record in the US. I’d probably get over there in May. At least going there three or four times a year is a good idea. Living there is an even better idea, and I haven’t completely ruled that out – even though I can’t stand 95 percent of the country [laughs], I’ve been to good places as well. Adam [Donovan] from Augie is over in Berlin at the moment, so I might even have a look there. Did you read the Weekend Australian?
There was a big, big feature on Australian musicians and artists over there. Ned Collette’s on the cover. And, of course, Hugo Race pops up with [puts on a pretentious accent], “All the best shit happened way back when we were there. Young Australians coming here expecting something are in fantasy land.” Fuck off, man. Give us a break. It’s still a good place. Ned and Adam went over there together, and we basically traded Ben for Adam.
It’s a pretty good swap, with all due respect to Adam.
[Laughs] Yeah, but he’s not a bass player.