Tex Perkins: ‘My Sensitive Side Could Crop Up Anywhere’
PATRICK EMERY speaks to Tex Perkins about the latest Dark Horses record, how he classes himself as a singer and the modern day tragedy that is the St Kilda football club.
With the Beasts of Bourbon having imploded under the weight of personality clashes and the band’s culture of excess, the Cruel Sea retreating back to obscurity after a brief indulgence of the summer festival circuit, and the Ladyboyz having met Perkins’ remaining contractual obligation, Tex Perkins took time out to celebrate the life and work of Johnny Cash in the Man in Black travelling stage show.
It was while touring the Man In Black that Perkins decided to re-invigorate his occasional solo guise, Tex Perkins and the Dark Horses. Teaming up again with songwriting partner and art history academic Murray Paterson – the pair had previously worked together on the soundtrack to Rachel Ward’s Beautiful Kate – he knuckled down and knocked out a bunch of songs that would eventually find release on the outfit’s eponymous fourth album.
For Tex Perkins and the Dark Horses, Perkins called upon long-time musical collaborators Charlie Owen and Joel Silbersher (GOD, Hoss, Tendrils), as well as new members drummer Gus Agars (The Vandas, Mike Noga) and bassist Steve Hadley.
Is your work with the Dark Horses intended to illustrate a more sensitive side to your nature?
Not particularly. I wouldn’t say that’s the essential purpose of it. But I guess inadvertently it may. his collection of songs is more about what happens when I write songs with Murray Paterson. Murray has a certain style that leads me into certain areas that I wouldn’t go to with other bands, or other people.
We have written songs together that have ended up with other projects, like the Tex, Don and Charlie album – that’s not a million miles away from the Dark Horses material anyway. We’d never write a Cruel Sea song or a Beasts of Bourbon song together. But my sensitive side could crop up anywhere, Patrick!
So when did you first meet Murray, and how did you songwriting partnership come about originally?
I originally met Murray when he was the new boyfriend of a girl who was the friend of my partner. We started writing songs together about 12 years ago, and they ended up on my second solo album, which is called Dark Horses. If he were to describe himself, he’d say he was an ex-surfer, a Parramatta supporter and he’s a Bob Dylan fan – oh, and he’s an art lecturer as well. So he’s a professor of philosophy as well. He’s a colourful character. I sometimes refer to him as “my learned friend”. He’s my favourite person to work with because of the temperament he has. Some people can be a little guarded when they’re in a songwriting partnership, but that’s not the case with Murray and I ... I was going to say we expose ourselves to each other, but that doesn’t sound too good. [Laughs]
Was there any difference in the songwriting partnership for this album, and did you have any songs already sketched out in your mind before you sat down with Murray?
One or two of the songs had been sitting around for many years, just waiting for a chance to be properly recorded. Two of the songs were left over from the Beautiful Kate soundtrack after all – ‘So Much Older’ and ‘Things Don’t Seem So Bad … After All’ were both written as possible songs. Rachel Ward wanted a song to end the film that was a bit reflective, but not as tragic or down as the rest of the film. I took her literally when I wrote a song called ‘Things Don’t Seem So Bad … After All’. [Laughs] But they didn’t make the cut, so we said, “OK, we’ve got a couple of songs, let’s just keep going.” He [Paterson] kept throwing riffs and chords at me, and we kept going back and forth with things.
As for differences, I’m probably the most hi-tech I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’ve got a laptop with GarageBand’ on it, and that’s been great for song construction. These songs would have to be the most prepared, most demoed songs I’ve ever had. All the arranging and all the fiddling about – wondering whether this works or that works – had already been done. When we took it to the band it was the last 10 percent they had to worry about, not the song construction or anything like that – not that that they were excluded from songwriting, it was just that no-one said anything to us. Then again, if there are any regrets, I would like next time to get Joel or Charlie’s input at the songwriting stage.
You said before that Murray is able to lead you into particular areas when you’re writing songs. Many of the songs do seem to have an emotional aspect to them – ‘What Do You Want’, ‘Easier Without You’, ‘You Haunt Me’, for example. Do you use personal experience for the songs you write?
I guess I do, but I write from the subconscious – I don’t think I’ve ever started out thinking, “I want to write a song about this, or that.” I either start playing chords on a guitar, or listening to someone else’s chord progressions or riffs and words start appearing, phrases start appearing. Once you have the central phrase – which is usually the chorus – you’ve got to work back from that. I think it all comes from my subconscious – the way I hear words or phrases appearing.
Sometimes it’s not until many years later perhaps that I can get the perspective to realise what these songs are about, and what I was really talking about. I won’t go into that cliche about songs falling out of the sky. [Adopts cheesy American accent] “Words are like butterflies, you just catch them.”
Do you ever look back on the material you’ve written previously, and realise that a song helped you through a situation, or to make sense of a particular situation?
Um ... um, I guess so, but again I don’t really consciously think that way. Songwriting helps me feel good about myself because I’m a musician, and if you’re not actively doing that then you don’t feel complete. I guess it’s possible that it occurs inadvertently, but I don’t use songwriting as a means of dealing with problems, but inadvertently it can – if songwriting makes me feel better about myself.
What do you think of the label singer-songwriter? Are you a singer- songwriter?
Well, I’m basically a singer. Maybe this is a bit unpretentious of me, and maybe I’m selling myself short a bit, but primarily I see myself as an entertainer and that can take many forms. Secondly, I see myself a singer and singers need stuff to sing, so I’m quite happy to find great stuff that’s already been written to sing. But most of the time the reason I write songs is so I have something to sing. I’m not in the same league as Paul Kelly or Tim Rogers – they are songwriters. I love hearing them sing, but I think of them as songwriters first, and singers second, if you see the difference. I think of myself as a singer first, and songwriter second. Would you agree, Patrick?
I think the Tex Perkins public persona is primarily as a singer first.
Yes, and I think the public are right, Patrick.
The customer is always right.
With the Beasts having burnt out, the Cruel Sea having had a revival of sorts – certainly, that band has played more recently than it had in the years previous – and the Man In Black stage show having been so successful, was it important for you to return to a “more personal project” to maintain balance in your musical life?
It was just important for me to make a record full of songs that I had written. If I’d spent quite a lot of time either just buggerising around, completing record company contracts with the Ladyboyz and then doing the Man In Black for a while, I’d been a while since I’d got my hands dirty making a record. I felt it was important for me, and for the perception of me as an artist – and just for myself really. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
“I’m not in the same league as Paul Kelly or Tim Rogers – they are songwriters.”
Are you someone who plans what they do artistically, or is it a case of “right time, right place”?
It’s a combination of who’s available to me, and who’s in my life at the time … All during the Man In Black I was writing. It afforded me the headspace, and I had plenty of time to prepare. We could have done plenty more Man In Black shows – people wanted us to do more shows – but I felt it was important to draw the line for a while and remind people, and myself, that making music is really what I do.
What’s the picture on the front of the record?
That’s [producer] Magoo’s place [in Queensland]. That’s where we stayed when we were recording the album.
How long did it take you to record and finish the album?
We had a two-week block to do the initial recording, with a couple of days to do some additional bits. We were due to do the mixing the week of the floods. Magoo’s studio is west of Brisbane and it was one of the significantly affected flood areas. So the actual mixing had to be put off for a couple of weeks. The power went off for a bit, and there was some mopping up to be done. But there was nothing actually destroyed at the studio.
I’ve got time for one last question, so I thought I’d ask you about [your AFL team] St Kilda [Saints]. As a St Kilda supporter, what’s your assessment of the team at the present time?
I came on board St Kilda knowing full well that they were a basket-case team, that they were perennial losers. I knew that, and I was happy with that when I got on board. Also I am aware that they are the Saints. And if you think about it, what is a saint? Saints are people that suffer. And \after they die, years later, someone says, “Oh, they were a really nice person, let’s call them a saint.” So there’s really no reward in one’s lifetime in being a saint. So they are really fulfilling the whole idea of being a saint.
But geez it’s character building – it certainly is for me. They seem to be absolutely destroyed, and you can see why. There’s a few good players, but most of them are players who’ve been coached above their abilities for the last few years. They have gone so close – you cannot go closer, having been in a drawn grand final, you can’t go any closer and walk away with absolutely nothing. It must destroy you. And not only that, going there twice with nothing to show for it. Then came the summer. Oh my god. We all know the details [Google “St Kilda schoolgirl”]. If I was one of those guys, I’d never leave the house again! And even if none of that had happened, how could you bring yourself up again after what happened last season? “Hey, we went there twice, and it was so much fun!” When Shaw smothered [Nick] Riewoldt’s kick in the second quarter of the grand final replay that was the most embarrassing thing I’ve even seen. Since that time they’ve been shattered, mentally. Rebuilding? Rebuilding on what? They need their memories wiped. They need hypnosis. They need lobotomies. It has depressed me, it has confounded me, but I’m picking myself up – I’m not enjoying it, but I’m fascinated with it. Does that answer your question?
Yep, I don’t think anything more can be said.