From auspicious beginnings – they played their first show with the Triffids and The Saints in their native Perth – The Stems burnt out just as their star began to rise. On the eve of a national farewell tour, PATRICK EMERY speaks to singer/guitarist Dom Mariani about their triumphant 2003 reunion, their early years and why they’ve decided to pull up stumps for real this time.
The history of garage rock is littered with stories of ephemeral success and transitory existence, of bands walking a fuzzed-out line between artistic integrity and commercial manipulation.
As fans of legendary ’60s bands such as The Chocolate Watch Band and the Electric Prunes, Perth’s The Stems knew the script. Formed in the early 1980s by Dom Mariani and Richard Lane (subsequently augmented with Gary Chambers on drums and Julian Matthews on bass), The Stems’ debut a-side ‘Make You Mine’, released on John Needham’s Citadel Records, remains one of the great Australian garage rock singles. A second single, ‘Tears Me in Two’, cemented interest in the band, while the Love Will Grow EP confirmed them as a force to be reckoned with.
Within a short time The Stems had stepped out of the independent frame and signed with Mushroom Records. Unbeknown to the band, it was to be the beginning of the end. Cajoled into a relentless touring schedule to promote their debut album At First Sight, Violets Are Blue, The Stems’ professional and personal stability was under serious attack. The recording sessions proved difficult, with the band unhappy with producer Alan Thorne’s interventionist approach. By 1987, and on the cusp of a European tour, Mariani announced he was leaving the band. Unwilling to continue, the rest of the band decided to cease making music as The Stems.
Mariani went on to release some of the 1980s and 1990s finest power pop records with The Someloves (alongside former Lime Spider Daryl Mather) and the DM3. But interest in The Stems refused to die. The band’s reputation spilled over into the rabidly obsessive American and European garage rock communities. In the late 1990s, The Stems agreed to a one-off reunion show in Perth. One show became two, and the seeds of a fully fledged reunion were sown. The re-release of At First Sight provided the catalyst for an east coast tour in 2003, followed by more shows in 2004, including an appearance at Little Stevie’s Garage Festival in New York.
In 2007 The Stems threw caution to the wind and released the band’s first new album in more than 20 years Heads Up. In the wake of The Stooges’ painful reformation effort, The Weirdness (2007), The Stems were on a hiding to nothing. But Heads Up proved that there was plenty of garage rock beauty left in the tank. Shows in Europe and Japan followed. The Stems were also the highlight of the largely anti-climactic Clash of the Titans three way rock bout (also featuring the Hoodoo Gurus and Radio Birdman).
But now The Stems have decided to pull up stumps completely, with a forthcoming national tour heralding the band’s permanent hiatus.
How did the band form?
I hadn’t been long out of another band that had been playing around Perth called the Go Starts. I’d met Richard [Lane] at those gigs. He came to meet the band at a later stage, and I became friendly with him. He came over to my place cause he wanted me to teach him a few things about guitar. So that’s how we met. I could see he could play a fair bit, and that he could play keyboards as well, and harp and stuff. That’s how it pretty much started. Then we got in Gary Chambers on drums – this was late 1983 – and we were looking for a bass player. This guy I knew, John Shuttleworth, came to mind, and we asked him if he’d like to jam, and that’s pretty well how the band started.
Do you remember your first ever gig?
Yes. The first ever gig we did was at the Premier One. It used to be an old skating rink. It was the Saints and the Triffids and we were first on the bill. It was a pretty cool gig to get first up.
When you started out were you trying to create that Nuggets-garage sound that you became associated with?
Yeah, pretty much. We started off doing covers: Blues Magoos, Easybeats, stuff like that. And I’d also written a swag of originals that we threw in with the covers. The only band were doing quite a bit of garage, but we also had some late ’70s power pop tunes. We did a Plimsouls tune, we did a song by Kimberley Rew, ‘Stomping All Over the World’. Then we phased those tunes out and got more garage.
One of your classic garage tracks, and your first single is ‘Make You Mine’. Can you tell me when you wrote that song?
I’ll try [laughs]. I remember bringing it to rehearsal, but I don’t remember writing it. We were rehearsing at a high school. The song is only about two chords pretty much. We were trying to get that R&B sound. I can’t remember when I wrote it. it might’ve been that I came to rehearsal with the basic idea and it grew from there. A lot of the songs started that way. it’d be like a riff or an idea that I’d bring to rehearsal and then I’d start singing words and a song would come out of it that way.
Your first singles were released on Citadel records before you signed to Mushroom for the At First Sight album. How did you end up on Mushroom?
We’d been touring a bit and we’d got a pretty good profile from those early releases. Coming from Perth it made it pretty special to tour on the east coast, so when we toured on the east coast we’d get pretty good crowds. The first releases did pretty well on the charts, and a lot of people were buying those early singles in the record shops in Sydney and Melbourne. So [Mushroom] must’ve become aware that we were becoming quite popular. We had a couple of labels approach us at the time, so we thought maybe this was the way to go if we thought the band was going to get bigger.
In hindsight do you think it would’ve been better if the band stayed with a smaller independent label?
It’s hard to say. I guess from a longevity point of view, maybe it would’ve been. When we signed to a major label we started playing a lot more because we were under pressure to tour a lot to promote the album, and that may – well, I’d say it definitely did – contribute to the band breaking up. We burnt up from doing too many shows. We were pretty happy sitting on the west coast doing the odd tour, once or twice a year.
But then this album [At First Sight] comes out and we’re doing eight tours in six months and everything else that comes with that. The band was quite popular and became more popular in a way. There were certain things that we were under pressure to do which I didn’t agree with, and that led to the demise of the band in the end.
“It’s what you always hope you’ll achieve when you form a band – even if you don’t make any money out of it, at least the music is good enough to be appreciated.”
Did anyone warn you at the time of the danger of becoming exhausted and burnt out?
Not really, we were just young and going along with things at the time. We’d taken on management to coincide with the step up to a major label. But that was a poor decision because the management wasn’t the right management. In hindsight if we’d had the right management maybe they could’ve advised us on things like that; taken a person involvement in the band and said, “Maybe you shouldn’t do this. Take a bit of a break”, but we didn’t have that. It was just booking gigs and booking more gigs. In the end we all started getting disillusioned. Well I got disillusioned anyway.
What do you remember of the recording sessions for At First Sight?
We had Alan Thorne coming in to produce that album and halfway through we sacked him because the session wasn’t going too well. He was starting to dictate stuff that was starting to freak the band out a little bit. We had to make a decision: Richard was feeling a bit left out of the process in a way and we had to make a decision whether we wanted to carry on with [Thorne] because the vibe wasn’t too good. So we ended up getting rid of him and producing it ourselves. We brought in Guy Gray and he finished off the album.
What did you think of the finished product?
At the time I thought it was OK. The songs were great, but maybe the production was a bit ’80s sounding. Compared to some of the early recordings maybe we’d lost a bit of the rawness that was still there when we were playing live. I remember recording it and thinking, “Yeah, this is great”, and then at the end when they mixed it they polished it up a bit. So I look back on it and think it could’ve been a better result – but, hey, it is what it is. It did well and some songs benefited from that production and some didn’t.
Is it true that ‘Mr Misery’ was written about [Citadel boss] John Needham?
[Laughs] I’ve been asked that question many times. He was the inspiration, I suppose. We used to call him “Mr Misery”, and I guess that name inspired me to write a tune not about him, but about a character who was inspired by him and his quirks.
What was the highlight of that first period of The Stems for you?
A big thing for us was to release that first single, and to go over east and play shows was a ground breaking thing for us, and me personally. And to make a bit of an impact over there. For the first incarnation of The Stems that was very exciting at the time.
Did you ever contemplate moving across to Sydney?
We did think about it, but in the end we decided to stay in Perth. Everyone was pretty comfortable in Perth, and we thought we could do it from Perth. In a way it worked against us because we had to outlay a fair bit of money to get over there. But I think the fact that we were basing ourselves in Perth to tour the east coast, if we could have made that work for us it was better for us. In Perth we didn’t play much. We’d play the odd gig just to keep the name out there. I think it wasn’t a bad move staying in Perth.
How did your first reunion shows come about in the late 1990s?
When the band broke up we hadn’t been in touch with each other for a long time. We’d been asked to get back together by the odd promoter, and I’d said, “Nah, I’m not interested.” I guess at that point in time I thought, “Well, it’s been 10 years. We might as well give it a go.” I was a bit more relaxed about it at the time. We were a little apprehensive about it to start with. Obviously we didn’t know how we’d feel playing with each other again, and if the gig was going to be any good. But it ended up being a great success and we thought maybe we should’ve embarked on a tour as well. We did one show at the Metropolis in Perth and then we added on another down south the following night, but that was pretty well it. It wasn’t until six years later that we actually embarked on a proper tour and got the band back together.
So what led you to take the next step and do a “proper” reunion?
Once again, we were approached because we had an anthology that we were releasing and we also had the re-issue of At First Sight with a bonus live CD and we thought we should do a tour around those releases. At the time there was a bit of interest in bands of our ilk. There was the Shock release, Do the Pop, and there were a few bands coming out that were predominantly rock-garage based. So that’s how it all happened. We thought we’d see it how it went – and it kept the band going, I guess.
The next thing we know we’re releasing an album, touring overseas. One thing led to another. We had no real plans to keep the band going after that tour. It was always a one-off thing. But we enjoyed it so much and the band played so well and there was still interest, so why not see what happens, and if there’s still people who want us to play?
What was it like playing Little Steven’s Garage Festival in New York in 2005?
It was great. The actual performance went by in the blink of an eye, but the whole thing was just surreal to be there with all these fantastic great bands. It was like a dream: I’m not sure it actually happened! I’d love to do another one. Bands that I was a big fan of, and didn’t even know were still around like the Electric Prunes and the Chocolate Watch Band – I never thought in a million years I’d be seeing those bands, let alone playing on the same bill as them.
Despite breaking up relatively early into your career, The Stems still managed to enjoy a healthy, albeit cult following in the US and Europe. Did the depth of that reputation surprise you?
I never would have thought we’d have that impact when we first started. I guess it’s nice to be thought of like that, and still being seen in people’s eyes that did something that they liked. I suppose I’m surprised, but I’m also thankful for it. It’s what you always hope you’ll achieve when you form a band – even if you don’t make any money out of it, at least the music is good enough to be appreciated.
Having broken up on the eve of your planned European tour in the late 1980s, what reaction did you get when you finally got to Europe a couple of years ago?
We played some great gigs in Spain and Italy. The last tour we did we got to Norway, we did the UK as well. It was just great to see that there were people there who were interested, and there were some definite fans there. It was just a great experience to play gigs other than in Australia.
And what about Japan?
Same thing – small fanatical following. The gigs there were tiny. I think the biggest gig we played there was about 250 people. When we played there we were expecting pretty big venues, but when we got there, there were these tiny places that were jam packed. But that seems to be scene there.
Your 2007 album, Heads Up, is one of the few “reunion albums” that stacks up against a band’s original material. Were you nervous at all in releasing an album that would be judged critically against your classic material?
Yeah, I guess so. We wanted to make sure it sounded good. I wasn’t nervous about the songs – I knew we’d come up with a good batch of songs. We wanted to make sure that sonically it was going to stand up. It was going to be out there and … compared with [other] bands that were doing that sort of thing. That’s how I was hoping it would be perceived.
So why has the band decided to break up now?
I think it’s time to finish up. All along when we got back together in 2003, that was going to be pretty well it. Because it went so well we just left it open. And we kept getting offers and we kept enjoying it. So we thought, “Let’s do an album.” But it always had a limited lifespan. We’ve gone on for six years this time, and the first time it was four, so 10 years all up. I think that’s pretty good going.
So what do you expect to do now that The Stems is no longer a going concern?
Personally, I’ve got a few other projects going. I think that’s the other reason: it can get in the way of other things we’re doing. As much as we love the band, it’s not as flexible as we’d like it to be. We just can’t keep touring all the time, and we can’t do gigs all the time. I’ve got other things going on – I’ve got a solo project, and I play in a local band here called the Domnicks, which has just finished recording. There’s also the Majestic Kelp thing, which I’ve got the third album under way in the studio. So I’ll keep writing songs and releasing things.
What about the DM3?
That’s come back – we did a one-off gig in May. This guy put on a show and he wanted The Stems to play, but we weren’t available, so he asked if I’d put the DM3 back together. Everyone seemed to be keen, so we ended up doing this one show and it went really well. So the next thing we know we’re getting an offer to do a show in Spain, so we’re off in December to do this event called the Purple Weekend. I hear the Blues Magoos are playing, which will be a bit of a thrill. Last year The Knack were there.
Will you be bringing the DM3 across to the east coast?
It’s hard to say. Maybe. I haven’t really thought about it.
Your son plays in The Flairz. What advice have you given him?
Get a proper job! [Laughs] I’ve just pointed him to the rock’n’roll records and blues records. He’s really into his music, so hopefully he’ll do something with it.
Stems farewell dates here.