Beasts Of Bourbon - Born Free
The Beasts of Bourbon return with a new album and some old tricks.
That’s Tex Perkins over there, leaning back in the booth with arms outstretched, wearing a black shirt unbuttoned to his midriff, blue jeans and thongs. He’s charming the pants off a coy female journalist who blushes as frequently as he runs his fingers through those trademark locks of hair. Only three hours earlier, the band’s publicist had rung to tell me the interview location had changed and that Tex was being “difficult”. “He’ll eat you alive if you don’t know your shit,” were her words. Apparently the Beasts of Bourbon couldn’t be bothered sound checking for their show that night at the Corner Hotel and were content to kill time at a swanky bar in St Kilda.
I arrive 10 minutes late and Tex shoots me a friendly wave from his spot with the journo. In an adjacent booth looking every bit the rock & roll renegades you’d expect, guitarists Spencer P. Jones and Charlie Owen sit talking with bass player Brian Hooper. Rumours that drummer Tony Pola is currently incarcerated in a Perth prison are somewhat confirmed by his absence from the group. I order a drink and I look back at Tex to see him crouched forward in a pensive homage to Rodin’s The Thinker. The reason for this meeting is that the Beasts of Bourbon have recorded their first album in almost a decade. I had assumed that Tex would elaborate on it with me for the 20-minute allocation these things usually get, but we didn’t get that far. Actually, he got up and left without us exchanging a single word. The publicist rushes over to confirm that yes, that is Tex Perkins walking away from the bar, and that no, he won’t be coming back. The self-proclaimed zookeeper has left the building and I’m stuck with what he lovingly refers to as his apes. “It’s OK, I can tell you anything you need to know,” Brian Hooper assures me, lighting up a cigarette.
The Beasts of Bourbon are currently enjoying the most stable and possibly lucrative period of their 23 years. They’ve actually got some management, and in Alberts, a major record company prepared to stick by them, at least for the time being. “If they can deal with Stevie Wright they can deal with Tony Pola,” Hooper jokes. The Beasts are due to fly out the next morning without their colourful drummer for showcase gigs in Los Angeles, New York, and the SXSW music supermarket in Austin, Texas. Pola couldn’t get a visa to enter America due to his 37 previous criminal convictions.
“My only conviction is assaulting a police officer,” Hooper offers. “I don’t know about you Spencer.” Jones ignores the remark and proudly pulls a tattered yellow list of the current live set from his pocket. “We’ve got Skritch playing drums with us, Hooper continues, ignoring Jones’s list. “He produced the [new] record, he does our live mixing, he’s our tour manager; give him some drumsticks, tell him to play and he plays.”
Breaking through the PR gloss surrounding most bands is an ask, but attempting it with the Beasts of Bourbon – a group who trade on their seedy, violent past while rarely elaborating on it – would be impossible without the blunt honesty and openness of Hooper. He confirms that the mixing of five dominant egos still regularly leads to friction.
“It’s an essential ingredient and without it we wouldn’t be the Beasts of Bourbon. I did a gig with Spencer playing a bit of guitar with me and I had a fucken tantrum at the end of the gig and I smashed my walking stick and I smashed glasses and I staggered out – I hobbled out,” Hooper notes. “But here we are. We all forgive each other our trespasses and that’s part of the secret itself, we all know we’re human.”
“We’re very passionate people,” Owen adds, “and these sorts of events are gonna happen amongst passionate people.” In contrast to his two band mates, Owen regards every question and comment carefully before speaking. His answers return in clear straightforward language, never straying too far from what you’d expect.
When Jones mentions the words “side project” and “Beasts of Bourbon” in the same sentence, Owen is quick to make his opinion understood. “I don’t view anything as a side project. I’ve never liked the term ‘side project’. Anytime I pick up a guitar or play any type of music it’s got exactly the same intention and intensity behind it, no matter what it is. Every project has equal place – they’re just horses for courses.”
He’s interrupted by TV chef Iain ‘Huey’ Hewitson, who has wandered onto the balcony and asked no one in particular, “Please, could we have a ‘Happy Birthday’?” Gesturing toward the band he blurts, “we’ve got some very talented people down here.” He drunkenly leads a chorus through ‘Happy Birthday’ before coming over and shaking everyone’s hand. A minder appears and whisks him away.
Owen meanwhile has taken personally my suggestion that the Beasts of Bourbon were overlooked while Perkins rose to national prominence and commercial acclaim with his Cruel Sea outfit. “I think what you’re kind of missing here is most of us are in this to actually just play music – so the achievements of celebrity status for the band is not really our main agenda.” An enquiry into whether his appointment as Kim Salmon’s replacement was universally accepted within the band sends him into a few seconds of muted indignation. Jones is silent, while Hooper begins receiving txt messages at an alarming rate. “I heard Rowland S. Howard was considered,” I quickly add.
“Rowland woulda been great in the band too,” a visibly-peeved Owen replies. “There was a big period of, ‘It’s not the same without Kim’, from the Kim fans. I really have no problem with that whatsoever. When I joined the band it did change it somewhat but I think the band had changed somewhat anyway.” Jones continues, “It’s like all these Rolling Stone fans who think the band sucked after Brian Jones left. Kim provided us with some great material. He really wanted to do his own thing. I don’t know if he regrets that, but I don’t really care ‘cause he’s history now.”
Hooper disengages from his phone and sharply cracks, “The guy quit the fucking band, let’s get realistic about it. He quit, he’s gone. End of story.”
Owen excuses himself and leaves. Hooper’s two young daughters arrive and immediately set about trying to pull the cigarette out of his mouth. They hang from his shoulders and play with his face. Watching them, it’s amazing to recall that only three years ago he fell from a balcony and broke his neck. “It’s given me more compassion,” he says of the experience. “You don’t spend six months paralysed, among all those destroyed lives without seeing the beauty of people’s love and care and affection and also the absolute sadness of seeing someone with no loved ones just lying there as a vegetable – having catheters put in and taken out and having their arse wiped. I realised I was wasting my time sticking needles in my arm. [I wanted to] try and do a little bit better for myself and my kids.” ** **Hooper’s phone rings, and he gets up to take the phone call in the corner. “Don’t you fucking call this number again!” is all I can make out of his seething tone. Jones notices, but it barely seems to register. “To finally do a new album I feel like, ‘Wow we’re really onto something here’. There’s half a dozen songs on the new album that are as good as anything we’ve ever done. There’s probably half a dozen songs on each album that hold up real good.”
To my astonishment Hooper sits back down and acts like nothing happened. “I never listen to it,” he politely says, “but I really love [1984’s The Axeman’s Jazz]. I didn’t play on it of course.” “We’re all on top of our game at the moment,” Jones says. “In the last six months things have happened. We’ve got a manager, we’ve got a new album, we’ve got a record contract, we’ve got a profile internationally which we’ve capitalising on. I’d personally like to be looking at doing another record. If people think, ‘Oh, they’ve managed to come up with a decent record after all these years, they’re gonna be surprised by the next one. This is the great rock & roll band I’ve always wanted to be in,” he says smiling, “and I’m in it.”