Storytellers: Ed Kuepper
ANDREW MCMILLEN revisits the [?Storytellers?](/search/?q=storytellers) series, whose premise is simple: one song by one artist, discussed at length. This week it’s Ed Kuepper on Laughing Clowns? 1983 classic ?Eternally Yours?. The song will be reprised acoustically with backing from drummer Mark Dawson at a trio of shows in NSW this week. Dates below.
If you were forced to summarise Laughing Clowns in a single song, it’d be hard to pass up ?Eternally Yours?. The Sydney-based band – formed in the wake of guitarist Ed Kuepper’s departure from The Saints in 1979 – played a distinctive style of jazz-influenced post-punk that remains peerless to this day.
?Eternally Yours? was recorded in late 1983, released as a single in March 1984, and appeared on the Clowns? second LP, Law Of Nature*. The band recorded a promotional video for the song, too; a rarity among their short-lived career, which came to a halt by the end of the year. (The band reformed in 2009 for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals, and earlier in 2010, they supported Dirty Three’s Ocean Songs tour by performing the compilation album *History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll Volume One.)
Characterised by Kuepper’s waves of open chords and Jeffrey Wegener’s proud drumbeat, the focal point of ?Eternally Yours? is a towering, timeless saxophone melody performed by Louise Elliott. The song remains a staple of Kuepper’s live set: during last year’s spate of reformed Clowns shows, it frequently appeared as the set closer.
Late last year, I visited Kuepper’s southwest Brisbane home to discuss the song. We drank tap water and sat in the shade underneath his house, while his dog Oscar noisily dug at the rocks underfoot in an effort to reach the cool dirt underneath (?I’m finding this very distracting,? he admitted halfway through our conversation). Kuepper smoked three cigarettes over the course of our 33-minute conversation, speaking haltingly at times; long pauses, and many knowing, ironic glances. Ultimately, though, he spoke freely about a song of which he’s clearly proud.
Ed Kuepper on ?Eternally Yours?
Were you surprised when I asked to talk about this song?
No. It’s kind of a standard song for me. It’s survived in a lot of different versions over the years – It’s more interesting than talking about ?(I’m) Stranded?. Which I’m not knocking, but that has been – covered.
To say the least.
I’ve seen you play several times in the last few years, and ?Eternally Yours? still crops up in the set quite frequently. I could be wrong, but you seem to get some kind of pleasure out of it. You seem to go somewhere else when you play that song.
Most of the time, yeah. When it works, it still has the capacity to [become] something new, which is more than I can say for some songs that I do. Not that I expected that at the time. For a long time I didn’t play it at all. I think when the Clowns split, I didn’t touch it again for about five years or so. It made its first reappearance in a radically different way on Today Wonder, where it was just acoustic. I think because of doing that record – going off ?Eternally Yours? specifically here, a little bit – doing that record basically made me reappraise a whole lot of things, and luckily, that [song] was one of them.
It says a lot about the strength of the song if it can withstand an acoustic version, as well as the full-blown band treatment.
And also, really different full-blown band treatments. I haven’t really played the Clowns version live; maybe once, on one of the Clowns tours that we did recently. Generally each version has developed. Where it goes from here, I have no idea.
I was reading the liner notes to [the 2005-released, 3CD Laughing Clowns compilation] Cruel, But Fair earlier, where you said you wrote it pretty quickly one afternoon, with the headstock of your guitar shoved up against the wall in your flat.
That was something about the sound that I was getting. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but if you play a guitar, rest the guitar with some force – not heavily, but just so that you start to actually get the wall resonating. Assuming you live in a timber house. I think where we were living in England we had a plaster wall or something, but it had a timber frame. I just found a spot, which was a sweet spot, as they say. I can’t remember if the melody line came first or if I was just so taken by this guitar sound, which I’ve never been able to duplicate in any other way, unfortunately.
You sort of have to put your ear onto the body of the guitar, and ?become as one?. If you could capture that, it’d be really great. I’d love to get a recording that close. I think it was written fairly quickly, and it’s a fairly simple melody line, a fairly simple chord progression, and fairly simple lyrics. It all happened easily, from memory; maybe I agonised over it, and I’ve put that out of my mind.
What does the song represent for you now, when you perform it?
Anything that I want it to, really. It’s got a great uplifting power about it. It also lends itself to a degree of on-stage improvisation if you’re playing with a band, or by yourself. Not everything does, so it’s great for that sort of stuff. If the night’s going really well, it’s a fantastic song to finish with. I don’t really ask for more out of a song, really.
There’s three versions on Cruel, But Fair. There’s the original, then the acoustic version, and then there’s ?Times Not Hit But Missed?. Why the different versions?
I suppose it’s an indication that even that early on, I had an idea that it could work in different ways. The acoustic version I think was released originally; the first version was on Law Of Nature. And then for some bizarre reason I decided to change that. I don’t recall why.
Why did we do it? ?Times Not Hit But Missed? was fairly obviously just an attempt at doing a much looser version of it. The one that was released as a 12-inch single was our ?pop? version of it; it was fairly concise, with a fairly straightforward drum track. We probably had a bit of spare time in the studio so we tried another version. No overly profound motive behind it at all, that I can remember.
Again in the Cruel, But Fair liner notes, you said the sax melody was originally going to be an organ.
Is that what I said? I guess it may have been, though there wasn’t an organist in the Clowns. It’s the sort of line that could easily be played by an organ. I really can’t remember why I made that statement, because I don’t have notes from those days anymore. It’s possible, but if that were the case then that would have been an attempt to diversify the sound of the Clowns, which maybe I was thinking about.
That song was written after the Clowns had split in the UK and there was a period of a few months, so maybe I had some diary or something that I referred to. Possibly, it wasn’t meant to be a Clowns song. I really don’t recall. I’m trying to think how long ago I wrote those liner notes. They were written quite a long time before that compilation came out. That took years to get released, and so I’m slightly vague. I haven’t re-read the liner notes since it came out.
It’s possible that because it was written at a time when the Clowns didn’t exist. Law Of Nature was almost not a Clowns record, so I had some change of mind somewhere along the lines and put the band back together again.
The song title is also the name of a Saints album. Why did you return to that title?
That’s a really good question. I don’t know if I have a really good answer for it. I suppose there was some sense of tying things together, because The Saints, when they split originally, things were a bit vaguely hostile for a while, and I guess to some extent it was me basically coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to deny that material, and draw it into whatever I was doing. In a lot of ways I think the whole album Law Of Nature* is probably the most Saints-like sounding. In some ways, if it had come out after *Prehistoric Sounds or something, it wouldn’t have been quite the shock the first Clowns record was, which was a much more determined move away from that sort of sound. The guitar features more prominently.
It could have also just been out-and-out me being mischievous, just to confuse the issue. I still read from time to time that people call it a Saints song, which is really, unbelievably ill-informed, but it does happen. It’s all part of the fun, I guess.
There’s a promo video that goes with the song. Do you remember recording that? Have you watched it recently?
I haven’t watched it recently, but I remember vaguely the filming process. I remember thinking when I saw the finished thing that John Hughes – who did the film – did something really good with what he recorded. I don’t remember it looking like that in the studio. It’s got a nice look about it. No, film clips – I’ve never been particularly wrapped in the idea of doing them, but I think that’s a good one.
There’s a certain mood to it. Half the band’s wrapped in darkness; it begins as a wide shot and then the last couple of minutes interplay between Jeff and Louise. It’s powerful.
Yeah, well like I say, that’s due to the filmmaker, John Hughes. I had very little to do with the directing of it. We discussed some things, but it’s his visual interpretation of the music.
To me, the song’s lyrics indicate indecision.
It’s a state of mind that I’m often in. I’m not sure if it does, if they do. I think it’s more observational rather than – there’s something a little bit melancholic about them, but I’m not sure if I’d agree that there’s any sense of indecision about it. Maybe absence of ambivalence, but the lyrics were written really quickly and were done – I mean, I don’t have any recollection of struggling with them at all. I don’t also have a particularly strong sense of having any particular message I wanted to impart. It was atmospheric in the whole way the song was written. They’re lyrics that could be open to interpretation, which is fine by me, but I wouldn’t really go out of my way to say ?this is exactly what I’m saying in that song?.
I’m always struck by the line about ?seeing the legend?, because that seems to be the most vague lyric in the song.
You think? [Laughs, long pause*] I’m sorry, I can’t really extrapolate. I don’t do this with lyrics. You really have to work for a long period of time to extract meaning. [*Laughs]
?I still read from time to time that people call it a Saints song, which is really, unbelievably ill-informed.?
How do you rate ?Eternally Yours? among the songs that you’ve written? Do you do that kind of thing, do you play favourites?
No, not really. There are songs – don’t ask me what they are – but there are songs, when I revisit a series of recordings, that strike me as being something that I really like. There are some things that I find clearly frustrating because they don’t quite do what I think they could’ve done, and then on the other hand there are songs I think don’t work all that well. ?Eternally Yours? obviously I like it because I play it, and I probably play it because I like it. But I also play it because it’s playable, and some things aren’t as playable as others.
When you do this for a period of time – I’ve done songs in a number of different ways, meaning that I’ve written things I think are really straightforward, with fairly traditional song structures. They either work in an ongoing way, or they just fall by the way because I don’t think they’re that good. ?Eternally Yours? was a bit of an outburst in a way, even though it could be fairly restrained to some extent. Whether it’s better than other songs or not, I don’t know.
Certainly in terms of horn lines, it’s got a really catchy horn line. I’ve probably written two or three horn lines that I think are kind of? [where] that’s the song, essentially. ?Know Your Product? would be one, and ?Eternally Yours? would be another. There may be one or two others in there, but they’re the two that spring to mind. Without those horn lines, I don’t think those songs would be what they are. With ?Eternally Yours?, it does actually seem to work. The Today Wonder version, for instance, doesn’t have the horn lines, so you’re extracting the main component from it. The guitar hints at playing [it], but I’m not sure if I actually play the exact melody or not. Maybe I was just assuming that people who’d heard it would put that horn melody in there when they’re listening. I don’t really play favourites. I tend to move on. If something leaps out when I’m putting a set together, from a long time ago, then that’s good that one has. It’s an ancient song.
It’s what, 26 years old?
Twenty-seven. To say that it felt like yesterday would be lying. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but I have on occasion – when we did the Clowns reunion shows, we had to play it, not that that we wanted to play it.
Only at a couple though. You didn’t play it at the Tivoli.
That was the show with Dirty Three. You definitely did it at the Gallery of Modern Art and at Mt Buller [for All Tomorrow’s Parties].
I think we played it in Sydney and Melbourne, the other Melbourne shows as well. We didn’t play it at The Tivoli, hey?
No. But you’re right that it’s such a great song to end on, because it represents something of a peak.
It’s a whole performance in itself. It’s probably one of the few songs I’ve written that you could almost – if the band was incredibly together and incredibly focused – you could almost make it the whole show. In fact, that would’ve been a really great thing for the Clowns to have done – but then again, it might be overly indulgent. You’d really have to be working on it, but I wouldn’t say it would be impossible.
I’ve seen you take a screwdriver to your guitar when playing the song live.
I did, but I broke the guitar in the process. [Laughs] It was a combination of a screwdriver and some fairly distinctive effects, and the guitar tuning that I was using, which basically provided that sound. I can’t remember how I got onto it.
Once again, going back to Today Wonder*, I think [that’s] where I first starting mucking around with that stuff; using metal implements on the guitar. I used to use this fantastic gold pen – which I’ve lost, unfortunately – that was perfectly weighted to strike strings with on the acoustic, to play ?Horse Underwater?, and at some point I think I tried to use a screwdriver but it was too heavy. So the way that I used the screwdriver on the live version of ?Eternally Yours? was more on the body and the neck of the guitar rather than on the strings. I think it’s too hard to control. I don’t think I do that anymore. [*Laughs]
You mentioned guitar tuning. Is the song in standard tuning?
The original recording was in standard tuning, of sorts. I did it at times with a capo on the fifth fret, and at other times I didn’t use the capo, and it changes the sound quite dramatically because they’re not full chords that are ever played on it. If you don’t use the capo, it emphasises the ninth and fifth. If you do use the capo, then it rings in a different way. You extract the ninth for a start, because you’re actually hitting an E instead of an open B, so the guitar rings a little bit differently.
??Eternally Yours? was a bit of an outburst in a way, even though it could be fairly restrained to some extent. Whether it’s better than other songs or not, I don’t know.?
For the live versions that I did with the Clowns recently, I think we did do one version where we did it fairly straight, but all the other versions the guitars tuned to a strange variation of an open B, with some of the strings tuned up quite a bit. It gives it a slightly more eastern sound, or something. That’s not something that I strive for, it’s just a sound I came across and started mucking around with. It’s got lots of sympathetic strings. In fact, there are only two; everything is tuned to either B or F#, which removes a lot of the ability to play a lot of things because everything you’re hitting is almost the same. Because of that, and [that] they’re in different octaves, it makes the guitar sustain in a slightly strange way.
Did you enjoy that process, of looking back on one song and trying to improve it?
Yeah. Going back and finding a new way of playing something that is as strong as – or stronger than – the song was originally, is always gratifying. If you use the standard appraisal of a song, “Well, if it works in tons of different ways then you’ve got a really strong song”, I dispute that. I do sometimes think that some pieces of music don’t necessarily work done in a broad spectrum of ways. That doesn’t make them a lesser song, as far as I’m concerned. It means they are what they are.
From time to time – there are a handful of songs that I’d really like to be able to revive in some format and I haven’t found a way of playing them that’s different enough from the original to make it seem what I want to do with them. I change; everyone changes over a period of time, and it’s great if you can find a piece of music that you did a long time ago and you can make it work in the context of what you’re trying to do now. ?Eternally Yours? did that. There’s probably a handful of others that managed to do that. I’d like to find more, but that one is – I’ll probably have to drop it from the set soon. [Laughs]
As a direct result of this conversation?
####Ed Kuepper and drummer Mark Dawson will re-imagine ?Electrical Storm? and ?Today Wonder?, which features an acoustic version of ?Eternally Yours?, at three shows in NSW this week: March 24 at Lizottes in Kincumber, March 25 at The Basement in Sydney and March 26 at Lizottes in Newcastle.