Artist On Artist: Kim Salmon Vs Waleed Aly
News posted Thursday, October 18 2012 at 03:00 PM.
Related: Kim Salmon, The Key Of Sea, Waleed Aly.
Collaborators on the standout track ‘Client JGT683’ from ‘The Key of Sea Vol. 2’, Scientists legend KIM SALMON and broadcaster/author WALEED ALY swap opinions on Australian identity, politics, grunge and ... banjos.
Kim: I’ve discovered from working with you that you’re a highly accomplished muso. Was that ever something you’d entertained as a career?
Waleed: Thanks! Music was definitely a career I considered. In fact, I nearly studied music at tertiary level instead of law, and lots of my teachers were really encouraging me. But in the end I was scared off by a warning it might ruin my enjoyment of music. I still haven’t discovered a feeling quite like a great moment on stage with a guitar in my hand. I still haven’t discovered anything like the excitement of stumbling upon a new musical idea that will grow into a song. And I’ll never get past the mystery of songwriting. That’s what it’s about for me: writing and performing. I’ve never been into the cover band thing. My band, Robot Child, has just recorded its first album, which is nearly ready for release. It’s one of the most thrilling, terrifying things I’ve ever done. I just can’t wait.
Kim: I found the process of writing and recording our song for this project quite different to what I’ve done in the past. To me it was a bit like tennis – I’d come up with an idea, whack it over to you to make something of it, you’d do that and send it back and so on. How do you normally write?
Waleed: Yeah, it was new to me too, and it was a brilliant experience. Usually I write in a pretty solitary way up to a point, and then I’ll hand it over for collaboration with my band. I’ve tended to find collaboration too early just leads to people trading non-ideas forever. I like to come with something pretty well formed, but improvable, and then get input. Radical changes can still happen, but they have something to work with.
Writing with you from the beginning was fulfilling in a whole new way. There’s nothing like seeing another compositional mind in action, especially one as experienced and accomplished as yours. I took a lot from seeing you solve problems in ways I never would have thought to, and I really have to thank you for it. I’ll have to try this more often.
Kim: The broad concept of The Key of Sea is that they pair up an Australian muso with some kind of profile with a person who can bring some kind of migrant perspective to the collaboration. From what I can tell, you are every bit, if not more, Aussie than I am. What’s your take on [our] pairing?
Waleed: I think that observation applies to lots of people on the record, to be honest. That’s the nature of this country, and of the migrant experience. It’s part of the Australian story and those of us from migrant backgrounds will always shape as well as reflect being “Aussie.” That’s partly why I believe so much in the project, and was just delighted to be asked to contribute musically. This isn’t an international record. It’s an Australian record. It’s just that sometimes we don’t know what that really means.
Our specific pairing made sense, I think, because of our rock sensibilities. We both like guitars. We both like them loud, and although there’s a generation gap there, we can still talk the same sort of musical language. So we’re actually meeting in the middle, which is exactly what the record’s about. It’s not like some manufactured feel-good attempt to bring a refugee together with a pop diva. That sort of thing is fine, but not as the concept for an entire compilation. If you’re going to reflect Australia’s diversity, then that includes people like you and me whose backgrounds vary, but whose worlds are not galaxies apart.
Kim: Did you get your prog needs met by this collaborative work? I’m a closet progster from my pre-punk days, but maybe some of that punk came more to the fore in the mix.
Waleed: Yeah, I think this song definitely came out more as a punk song – loud, aggressive and loose – but I love that and there’s something about the track I can’t identify that just makes it work. You won’t hear my Queen or Pink Floyd obsessions so obviously on the track, but I grew up on AC/DC too, and I have a great respect for what punk music’s about, both as politics and as music. Maybe because I wasn’t around in the early ’70s and have the distance of time, I don’t really buy into prog vs punk warfare. I think they were making opposite but entirely valid and necessary statements. The punk thing works really well on our track because there’s an inherent violence in the music that the lyric is trying to hide by being bureaucratic. It’s like the music is telling the truth about the way we approach asylum seekers as a country, and the lyric is a lie. I think that’s brilliantly cheeky. And besides, you let me have a guitar solo!
Kim: That’s some scorching guitar work you did on our track, particularly the lead break. Kinda makes me think of J Mascis. Am I projecting here?
Waleed: Wow, what a compliment! I’ll take it! Don’t really know who I was channeling there, and there’s certainly no conscious Mascis connection there, because I didn’t grow up on Dinosaur Jr. But I do like guitars to be out and proud, and I can’t stand a lead guitar without character. Mascis certainly has that and now that you point it out, I can see the similarities you’re talking about – although I would never put myself his league. Whatever the case, glad you liked it. That’s the most important thing.
Kim: I notice that most of the tracks on this album are a lot less raucous and heavy than our track, not that that’s a bad or good thing. Does that surprise you?
Waleed: It doesn’t, actually. Ours is probably the only collaboration that brings together two rock-inclined musicians. So, given the collection of artists, clearly there was a big rock-shaped hole there for us to fill. It’s probably the nature of our current age where rock doesn’t dominate the way it did and guitars aren’t as central as they used to be. A lot of modern music, especially Australian music, is very restrained. Of course that has its virtues too, but I think it’s great to let loose and break the shackles and more people should be doing that. I was certainly happy to oblige this time, and I got the very strong impression you were too!
PART TWO: WALEED ASKING KIM
Waleed: Congratulations! You're named as one of the 50 greatest Australian guitarists of all time. How do you see yourself fitting into the story of Australian guitar playing?
Kim: Thanks! It’s a funny thing, that. My guitar playing was first influenced by British rock, then the blues, then early American punk. Nothing particularly Australian about it, except for one thing – in my formative days, due to Perth’s isolation, I never got to see any of my heroes play up close and so I taught myself a lot of stuff without the benefit of seeing how it was done. I got it slightly wrong, which has given me a few stylistic quirks. Also, Australia is seen as one of the great producers of garage rock, and The Scientists are definitely part of that story.
Waleed: You've said before that you were in love with the stupidity of rock 'n' roll, but The Scientists did some pretty sophisticated things with experimental guitar sounds and polyrhythms. You went further with The Surrealists, and you've played around with soul music. Are you talking your sophistication down?
Kim: Yep, you’ve sprung me! I actually think the best rock ‘n’ roll is very sophisticated, even though it works on a primal level. You could actually say that about a lot of art in general. Look at minimalism and Picasso’s interest in primitive African tribal masks. With rock ‘n’ roll, The Stones at their height were highly sophisticated, as have been bands like Iggy and the Stooges or The New York Dolls. It was a very complex process, dumbing my music down in the punk days.
Waleed: How does one of the original Australian punk rockers – the kind who was a punk rocker before there was even a punk rock scene – end up supporting U2?
Kim: I think the story goes: Bono wants to find a band to support U2 in Australia [in 1993] that’s got some kind of cred rather than whatever the record company or touring agency wants to stick them with. He phones up Mick Harvey and asks him what bands down under don’t suck. Mick suggests Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, God bless him. U2’s people contact our stupid record company, who thinks it must be a mistake and presumes they mean the Beasts of Bourbon. We direct them to Mick, who confirms that it is indeed us he was talking about.
Waleed: Given the legend of you inventing the term "grunge" and the influence The Scientists had on the Seattle grunge scene, I'm sure you get put in that box a lot despite the diversity of your work. If you had to be associated with a single genre, what would you choose? No cheating or avoiding the question.
Kim: Well, strictly speaking, the box I get put into most is post-punk, and this kind of annoys me because I was, as you say, a punk before there was punk. So it’d be most appropriate, in my mind, to be associated with punk.
Waleed: I saw a really interesting documentary recently about whether grunge belongs in the punk tradition or the metal tradition. As the Professor of Grunge, what's your view?
Kim: I say it’s “nine parts water, one part sand,” with no metal or punk about it. Ha ha! Actually it really is a blend of both, but I’d say it was more in the tradition of punk, as far as its attitude is concerned.
Waleed: Writing a song with you was a really educational process for me. It seemed to me that, beneath all the straight-up rocking out, you seemed to have a very theatrical sensibility when it came to discussing the concept behind the song. Lots of your stuff centres on characters. Are you at all conscious of theatricality when you're writing?
Kim: To be honest, I’ve always thought conceptually about my music and seen myself like a visual artist that happened to be working in music. It is true, however, that I often write from the viewpoint of characters. This is certainly what you and I did for ‘Client JGT683’, and I actually did feel like the process we went through to get the song was like writing a script for a film. So to answer your question, yes.
“A sense of humour is important in life – it’s what makes things bearable.”
Waleed: I know you've written music for the theatre, too. Did that come easily for you? How different was it to what you'd previously done?
Kim: Coming up with the music was easy enough. Making the director happy was another story. It’s really a matter of producing for someone else’s vision and understanding what they’re trying to do. Finding a common vocab was the trick. Once the director could get past saying stuff like “Can you make it more ‘dreamy’ or ‘suspenseful’?” without me really knowing what words like that actually meant for him specifically, it was quite easy to please him. Once I was able to do that, I was able to be left alone to do pretty much what I liked. It’s very different to writing songs or other pieces. You don’t really need to come up with complex structures, just individual themes. It’s really just like having the initial idea and then not having to sequence, arrange or work it too much.
Waleed: Our track is probably the most overtly political on The Key of Sea 2, and it was pretty much that way from the very start of our collaboration. Do you see yourself as a political person?
Kim: Only in the sense that anyone who makes art is doing something political – because all art is political. However, there have been opportunities that have come my way to do political things and I’ve sometimes taken them. I wrote a story for The Age about the irony of the fact that the music industry in Victoria was found to be one of the state’s biggest earners, while musos were expected to play for the love of it alone. I was offered to do that story by the EG editor because I was always banging on about the subject. With our collaboration I just saw it as an opportunity to say something that happened to be political. Normally I have to say that I’m too caught up in just making a living and – when I get the chance – art, to really have the energy for or even be aware of politics.
Waleed: I think Rock Formations by Salmon is genius. I love the idea of two drummers, as many guitarists as you can fit in a room and nothing else. I love the vocal that has no lyrics but wails occasionally as some kind of parody of rock singing. Your tongue is so firmly in cheek here that it's almost protruding through your skin. How important is a sense of humour in music?
Kim: Well obviously it was important to SALMON (you forgot to say it in all uppercase, btw) and it is often a motivator for writing lyrics. Which Salmon didn’t have, funnily enough. I think a sense of humour is important in life – it’s what makes things bearable. It’s important in doing anything, even if the end result isn’t necessarily comedy or about comedy.
Waleed: What's your most secret, surprising musical influence?
Kim: Bluegrass banjo playing. I never thought about it much at all, but a friend at work told me he’d just got a banjo and offered me loan of it. I just thought, “Why not?” and gave it a go and found I loved it. I’m still no aficionado, but I always pay attention when there’s a banjo playing and always look at them like a nerd when I see one in a shop.
‘The Key of Sea Vol. 2’ is out Friday (Oct 20), with all proceeds going to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival and SAIL (Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning Program). There will be a one-off 'Key of Sea' concert on December 14 at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.