"Over The Horizon I Can't See"
Kim Salmon on 30 years of bands, albums and most things in between.
Kim Salmon might wonder whether his contribution to Australian music is properly appreciated, but the weight of empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Salmon first dipped his toe into the nascent waters of Australian punk at a time when the charts were ruled by an unholy alliance of satin pop and post-Thorpie pub rock. In the 30 years since forming the Cheap Nasties in Perth, Salmon’s presence as a Scientist, Beast, Surrealist and Business leader has left a mark on Australian music that’s as indelible as it is eclectic.
In more recent times, The Darling Downs, Salmon’s country-tinged collaboration with former Died Pretty lead singer Ron Peno, has touched a nerve with aficionados, with the first run of the band’s debut album, How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine?, selling out as a result of voluminous post-show sales. At the other end of the musical spectrum sits the seven- (or eight-, if logistics permit) headed rock & roll monolith, SALMON. And his brutal solo punk set at Melbourne’s Tote supporting Teengenerate very nearly upstaged the legendary Japanese band’s reunion show, so much so that the headliners dragged Salmon back on stage for a spirited rendition of the Scientists’ ‘Last Night’.
As he himself noted wryly as he cast his eye across the condensed crowd at the beginning of the concluding set to the 1996 Meredith Musical Festival, Kim Salmon fans are a dedicated bunch, ever keen to see what his next artistic move will be
It’s been noted on many occasions that your earliest musical experiences were playing in Troubled Waters, a cabaret band in Perth. Without dredging up too many disturbing memories, what are your recollections of those early performances?
It was six nights a week playing this seedy flea pit of a strip club bar in Fremantle, three sets a night of covers from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. I was propositioned by a transvestite on my very first night there: “God help me, I was only 19.” The band had a policy of doing any song that was requested, so it was a good way for me to get some musical chops, horrendous as it was.
What was your original inspiration to play punk music?
I read an article by Charles Shaar Murray in a 1975 New Musical Express called ‘Are You Alive to the Jive of ’75?’ It was about this New York club called CBGBs and all of the denizens that populated it. It was all leather jackets, sneakers, torn jeans, pseudonyms, three chords and attitude – it was so different to the world that I knew that I was immediately attracted to it! The term punk rock was mentioned. I had to find out what punk rock was.
At the time you were starting out there were a number of other local Perth musicians who went on to have a significant impact on Australian independent music, including Dave Faulkner and James Baker.
"People still think I’m in the Beasts of Bourbon you know! It doesn’t bother me at all. It looks good on my CV."
There was no punk community when I started. I had to draft my friends into my punk band. I had to try to indoctrinate my friends. Some were suspicious of something that I didn’t even know exactly what it was. I had blind faith (not the band, I’d sold that record by then). My band the Cheap Nasties’ crowning achievement really was to provide a focus for like-minded people out of which Perth’s punk scene formed. We played all kinds of stuff, originals included. We did Stooges, Modern Lovers, New York Dolls songs, a couple of sixties things like ‘Girl Like You’ from The Troggs. We ended up with about an LP’s worth of tunes of our own. The SALMON tune ‘Cheap and Nasty’ was in fact a Cheap Nasties song.
You’ve said that your primary inspiration for the first line-up of the Scientists was The Troggs. Do you think that the garage-pop style of that incarnation of the Scientists necessarily had a limited life span?
At some point hearing The Cramps reminded me of what I liked about punk rock originally, ie. its minimalist, primitive qualities. The pop aspect of the early Scientists, with its melodies, hooks and harmonies was a bit too musically sophisticated and conceptually naïve to keep my interest once I’d made that original connection again.
You fulfilled a childhood dream when you played ‘Last Night’ on Countdown in the late 1970s. Did your appearance have any impact on your following?
It made absolutely no difference whatsoever! We even went to a booker in Perth to drum up some work by telling him about Countdown and he just said, “Pull the other one!”
Why did the Scientists break up originally? Was it because drummer James Baker moved to Sydney to be with the Hoodoo Gurus, or was his departure subsequent to the Scientists breaking-up?
No, it was before that. We just grew tired of the town’s indifference to us.
Did you and James agree with what you were trying to do with The Scientists at that time, or did you feel you wanted to go in different directions with the band?
We just did what came naturally to us. We both wanted our band to be primitive and ‘caveman’-like, hence the ironic name, The Scientists. The songs we came up with always seemed to have a pop feel, though, so we just went with that. James wrote the words and I filled the music around that.
After the Scientists broke up you formed Louie Louie with Kim Williams – did Louie, Louie ever record anything? What material did you play in that band?
It was a strange mix. The two most played records in my collection at the time were Songs The Lord Taught Us by The Cramps and that first EP from Gang of Four with ‘Love Like Anthrax’ on it. It’s also worth mentioning that ‘Swampland’ was written and performed by Louie Louie. I wrote the music and the line, “In my heart is a place called swampland” and Kim Williams wrote all the rest of the (fantastic) lyrics. People think that song is swamp rock because of the name and the Elvisy guitar hook (stolen pretty much from ‘Little Sister’). To me it’s actually an urban punk rock song from the perspective of some kid romanticising about being on the Mississippi Delta or something.
The second incarnation of the Scientists was formed in 1981. Was that at bassist Boris Sudjovic’s suggestion, or were you already thinking of putting together a new line-up of the Scientists?
No one really knew where I was heading musically round this time except for me, and maybe Kim Williams and Brett Rixon. Anyway, Boris had seen me in the three-piece line-up of the Scientists and the idea was we’d just get James Baker on drums and be a three piece. Unfortunately James was unavailable as he’d just joined Le Hoodoo Gurus. That left an opening for Brett Rixon. On a whim one day I asked [guitarist] Tony Thewlis to join. Little did he know that the material I was going to spring on him had nothing to do with the original Scientists that he was so fond of.
Given how different the Scientists of the early 80s were to the Scientists of the 1970s, why did you choose to use the Scientists title again?
I couldn’t think of another name and we were probably actually closer to the idea James and I had in the first place.
When you moved to Sydney in the early 1980s, was it hard selling the Scientists’ garage-swamp style, given the dominance of the Birdman-Detroit aesthetic in the local independent scene?
We had a residency at the Vulcan Hotel in Ultimo and people got to know our songs. ‘Swampland’ and ‘We Had Love’ are very catchy and soon we saw folk singing and grooving to those two songs especially. We used to wait for the bit in ‘We Had Love’ where the chorus kicks in and watch people going nuts. At that point half the audience would be doing this combination of pogoing and the twist. It looked very funny. But it was great that they did it!
The first line-up of the Beasts of Bourbon was formed in 1983. Whose idea was it originally to form the Beasts?
The actual story is that Tex’s band Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums, who were from Brisbane, had a show booked at the Southern Cross Hotel in Surry Hills but on one of their trips to Melbourne some of the band stayed behind. Tex, aka Greg, still wanted to keep the gig and got a slap together outfit with Boris Sujdovic, Spencer Jones and the Dum Dums’ drummer ‘Fruitcake’. I think they played for drinks and called themselves Beasts of Bourbon as a joke. Soon after, Spencer asked me to fill in for him, but then was free to do the show with both of us on guitar. We got Richard Ploog [The Church] to play drums for a couple of shows but then James Baker took over that role. Spencer and Tex had knocked together a couple of tunes before I came along. Baker and I brought ‘Dropout’, an unrecorded early Scientists’ tune, and Tex got me to do a knockoff of Captain Beefheart’s ‘I’m Gonna Booglarize You’ that became ‘Save Me a Place’. I have to confess to some pride that these two tunes have remained in their set till the present day.
Like many of its contemporaries, The Scientists decided to try its hand in London in the mid 1980s. Was your decision to move overseas part of the Antipodean thing, where it was assumed that aspiring Australians had to ‘make it’ overseas in order to be successful – or did you think The Scientists had exhausted whatever they could achieve in Australia?
That was what we said to the press. The reality was [Brett Rixon] chucked a wobbly and said he’d leave if we didn’t go overseas. He was bored here. The drums were so unique and intrinsic that we were scared of losing him. The whole approach to rhythm was developed with the two of us from Louie Louie’s days and that was the foundation of our sound.
By the time the Scientists finished the line-up had changed significantly, and the sound was edging closer to the style you used with the first couple of Surrealists’ albums. Did you think the Scientists as a concept had effectively run its course by 1987?
Not really. It was geography. It could’ve well been the Scientists doing [1988’s] Hit Me With The Surreal Feel. The only difference is the sound you get from having different players. I just ended up living back in Perth and didn’t have access to the old band so I ended up forming one in Perth.
How did you know Tony Pola (drums) and Brian Hooper (bass)?
Perth punk boys! Skin punks actually. That’s a sort of post-punk aberration we had there. Not actually skinheads but they looked more like skinheads than punks to me. The thing was, when I was looking to move to Sydney with Boris, I needed to get some people to share in the petrol expenses and driving. These two were going over so they came with me. They thrashed and wrecked my car and I was kind’ve glad to be rid of them when I got to Sydney, but I kept bumping into them over the years. Brian even went to London around the same time as the Scientists.
The third and fourth Surrealists’ albums – 1991’s Essence and 1993’s Sin Factory – had begun to move away from the original disjointed feel of the first two Surrealists’ albums, yet it’s those two albums which tend to be celebrated (by others) as the ‘classic’ Surrealists’ albums. Do you think people tend to forget what the Surrealists were originally about?
Yes. Hit Me With The Surreal Feel is far and away my favourite. I do actually like Sin Factory. Those two sound the most cohesive and integrated in their sound. Surreal Feel sounds like the soundtrack to a dream to me.
Clinton Walker’s book Stranded notes that SubPop was interested in signing the Surrealists at one stage. Is that true – and if so, why didn’t you take up the offer?
I think Clinton had a fixed idea of me always making uncommercial decisions and seems to be critical of me for it in his book. This is a very odd stance to take in a book championing the underground I have to say, and I’ve never quite understood it.
In the late 1980s the Beasts of Bourbon re-formed. What was the catalyst for the reformation?
I think Tex felt the time was right for it. He was getting into the blues round then and thought that that original line-up was right to explore that. This is my guess only.
The Sour Mash and Black Milk albums in 1988 and 1990, respectively, contain possibly some of your best material written for the Beasts (‘Cool Fire’ and ‘Words From A Woman To Her Man’ particularly). Do you think that subtlety was an unfortunate casualty of the Beasts’ evolution into a hard rock band?
Maybe I should pass on giving public opinions about this band. Last time I said anything in print they practically issued a fatwa on me! It was all quite funny in hindsight. I was really just being cheeky and not bothering to be reverent and some factions within, although not all I believe, didn’t take too kindly to it.
The 1991 Low Road incarnation of the Beasts is frequently referred to as the definitive Beasts, but that line-up also created a mythology that some of the members of the Beasts seemed hell-bent on living up to. Do you think some members of the band became trapped by trying to live up to that rock & roll mythology?
Of course! Actually I became trapped by them living up to it! And it flowed over into The Surrealists.
When you decided to leave the Beasts in 1993, was it simply a case of tensions within the band, or were there genuine artistic differences that you felt couldn’t be reconciled?
It was none of these reasons. It never gets said that I stayed on for 10 years despite some of these things. It was becoming less and less fun for me but I continued on with it. The actual reason for my departure was that I wanted to concentrate on The Surrealists and Beasts’ plans were about to preclude that.
Do you think being a founding member of the Beasts has become a millstone around your neck from which it’s been difficult to escape?
People still think I’m in the Beasts of Bourbon you know! It doesn’t bother me at all. It looks good on my CV.
About this time you were also playing around Melbourne with various musicians, including Warren Ellis, as STM? STM seemed to have a bit more of a country flavour – is that a reasonable observation?
Nup! A funny thing I remember was we were recording ‘Don’t Expect Anything’ for [1994’s] Hey Believer and I stupidly asked Warren if he could play something “a little less honky” – he did seem to be taking what I thought was an R&B number right into the Ozarks. His response was to say, “Okay, I’ll just leave it up to you black guys then!” Fair cop.
By the time bassist Stu Thomas joined the Surrealists, the band’s sound was a radical departure from where you’d started with the Surrealists. But do you think the band was a tighter outfit by then?
Certainly! Stu is also one of those players that can intuitively fill the space left by the original player without much effort at all. And when it comes to doing his own fills, he’s a master. Suddenly [new drummer] Greg Bainbridge was able to take off. The band was absolutely on fire at this point! We ended up in the situation of having no record deal or money but enough material for a double album. We scraped together what we could, I hired some gear and got my manager to operate it and we recorded the band in my kitchen. A lot of this material was just soundcheck jams we’d had touring Europe just after Stu joined. I’d say the name of the town and the band would just go and we’d play it out. All on tape! Then I’d cobble together some lyrics and a melody by the time I was about to track vocals. I’d say about half the material [on 1997’s Ya Gotta Let Me Do My Thing] was done that way.
In the late 1990s you dumped the Surrealists’ moniker and christened your backing band the Business. You seemed to be embracing a bigger, less-primitive sound, including giving due prominence to the horn section. Were you happy with what you achieved with the Business?
I was much more interested in the traditional craftsmanship aspect of songwriting in this band. A lot of that came from working with Dave Faulkner in Antenna. The actual soul influences were where the Surrealists were heading anyway. I’d got brass in for a lot of tracks on... Do My Thing and to play live we ended up with a sax player and trumpeter as permanent members. It’s still difficult for me to listen to this band and actually hear it. Sometimes I hear things that I didn’t realise were there and weren’t meant to be, but sometimes it sounds amazing. I’m at so different a place now, I don’t know what to think.
I remember seeing you play a few solo sets around 2000 and 2001, and you were playing a lot more new material. Did you return to the solo aesthetic to try and refine what you wanted to do next?
It did once, but after a while it was just another thing I did. I’m a bit over the solo singer-songwriter trip for the time being. Whenever I’m asked to play solo now I bring Mike Stranges along to play drums and we just rock out.
In 2005 you teamed up with Ron Peno to form the Darling Downs. I understand Ron had wanted to play country music with you for many years. Have you been surprised at the popular success you’ve achieved with the Darling Downs?
Yes, pleasantly! We needed to get out and be known about because one thing I’ve learned is that these things take time despite the two of us having reputations! Now I think people do know about us and we don’t want to cheapen ourselves. We still need to go to Perth and for that matter overseas. But otherwise you won’t see that much of us until our next record for which we have most of the material.
The Darling Downs signed to Carrot Top Records in the US last year. Did you end up touring the United States, as you thought might happen?
No. We were going to go on the back of a Handsome Family tour but that fell through twice. The second time was because they got offered a tour with Wall of Voodoo and had to take that instead of the planned one with us. That seemed fair enough to me. The irony is we just did some dates with the Handsome Family and they told me that in the end the Wall of Voodoo thing fell through as Stan Ridgeway was prevented by his old band from using the name (when really his voice and ‘Mexican Radio’ was that band for me). He said he wished they had taken us! Oh well….
The SALMON concept also seems to have been in your head for a while before you decided to make it a reality. In bringing the concept to fruition, with its attendant players (including Dave Graney, Ash Naylor, Anton Ruddick, Matt Walker and Penny Ikinger all on guitar), has it matched your original vision?
It pretty much is my original vision! Everyone basically plays parts that I invented for them so it hasn’t really had a chance to deviate from the vision.
You’ve said previously that before recording any SALMON material you wanted to be confident you could do justice to the SALMON concept in recorded form. Do you think you’ve achieved that with the recent recording?
Yes. There are two sections to the record. One was done in the studio, although it was live and straight to tape and the other was live at a show. The first section lets you hear in detail all the musical parts but the live section gives an idea of the sheer magnitude of SALMON.
You’ve done some re-union shows with the Scientists (both in Europe and Australia) plus more recently a couple of Surrealists’ gigs. When you go back to your earlier material do you try and re-create the original intent, or try and re-interpret it in a contemporary guise?
Neither. We just played it the way we remembered and knew how to do it. It’s sort of like just adding water.
What’s on the horizon for this year? I understand there’s a live Scientists’ record due for release soon.
Yes, there is a live Scientists’ album scheduled for release at the start of April. We’re reforming for a tour of Europe culminating in a London launch followed by an appearance at this year’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ festival, which is curated by The Dirty Three. Once I get back from that SALMON will be launching Rock Formations, its first album out on Bang! Records. Also Ron and I will then start recording the Darling Downs’ second album. Over the horizon I can’t see!
Do you think you’ve been afforded due credit – commercially and popularity-wise – for the influence you’ve had on the Australian music scene?
Well if I answer no to that question people will just think I’m bitter and up myself but … what the hell! No is the short answer to both those questions. I’ll leave it up to my detractors and supporters to think up their own long answer for me.