Interview and photos by Greg Phillips. Video footage and edit by James Phillips & Lydia Springhall
Their gig at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre in April was to be Hunters & Collectors’ final show of their 2014 Australian tour and at the time, maybe even their last show ever (until a NZ Rolling Stones support show was announced a few days later). AM’s Greg Phillips sat down with bassist John Archer, monitor mixer Rod Matheson and live mixer/art director Rob Miles at sound check to talk about the band’s career and that unique bass sound. Note: Singer Mark Seymour wasn’t present at the soundcheck while AM was there, hence his absence from the video and this report.
Like Chisel and the Oils, Hunters & Collectors helped to pioneer an incredibly vibrant pub rock culture in Australia throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Those distinctive, primal Hunters’ beats powered by John Archer’s dominant bass licks and Doug Falconer’s pounding drums, became a beer-swilling staple of hotels around the country. As they turned to a more commercial sound, mainstream radio latched onto anthems such as Say Goodbye, Throw Your Arms Around Me, When The River Runs Dry and Do You See What I See. Once the footy folk adopted Holy Grail as their own, the Hunters & Collectors legend had been set in stone. In 1998, after countless gigs and nine albums, it all came to an emotional end. Post the 1998 break-up, the band had played a few special gigs; the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005, Sound Relief at the MCG in 2009, an after-race gig at the V8’s in Sydney in 2011, and the 2013 AFL Grand Final. In early 2014, the band re-grouped for a headlining series of A Day On The Green shows as well as the support slot for the Australian Bruce Springsteen tour.
Witnessing the band live in the beautiful setting of the Rochford winery in Victoria in March this year, it quickly became apparent that the young guys who had possessed such a chaotic, raw, primal sound in the early 80s, had now developed into a world-class headline act. Clearly the band was capable of presenting a major ‘show’ through a crisp, clear PA and featuring a spectacular video presentation. While Archer and Falconer still locked in tight and delivered a brutal rhythm base, lead guitarist Barry Palmer and singer, guitarist Mark Seymour were swapping intricate guitar lines. To their left, trumpet player Jack Howard, Jeremy Smith on french horn and Michael Waters on trombone and keys, were blending equally sublime notes into the mix. Talking to a Stranger, the opening tune was a revelation, as they created an impossibly irresistible groove.
Fast forward to the 17th and final gig of the tour and I’m witnessing the band sound check … for all intents and purposes … for the final time (until I find out just a few days later they had snared a Rolling Stones support in New Zealand later in the year). Singer Mark Seymour now has a solid solo career to nurture, trumpet player Jack Howard has a band (and teaches) and the other guys all have established day jobs. A permanent resurrection of the band is no longer feasible.
Australian Musician wanted to be here to document proceedings and sat down with founding member and bass player John Archer, live sound engineer and band’s artist Rob Miles, and monitor mixer Rod Cameron to discuss the band’s sound and career.
John Archer: As the first break up? I cried at that one. Hope I don’t do that again.
GP: The pressure is off this time around though isn’t it?
J: It is. It’s great because we haven’t had to think about selling any product, haven’t had to even prove anything other than we can still do it. So far that seems to be happening.
Rob Miles: There’s been remarkably less pressure than we anticipated. It’s been a lot of fun and gone really well. We’ll be sad tonight though.
GP: From gig one, was it like jumping on the bike again?
J: Aw no! The first one was … I think it required a little practice, a little memory jogging.
Rob: Yes and no. We got our sounds together pretty quickly because they were so well resolved. We had to get used to doing a show again, which obviously everyone had to get up to speed on doing, but I reckon it came together pretty quickly.
GP: In early days was there ever discussion about the bass’s role in the band or was that sound just the sum of the parts?
J: I think I just played that way. It wasn’t really discussed.
Rob: There was no point in discussing it. Once that bass sound was established, it set the line for everything else to be made around it and that’s the truth. It’s still the truth. Everything revolves around the bass sound.
J: I liked The Cure but I liked a bunch of bands and a bunch of bass players. In the early days I used to listen to Yes, Chris Squire people like that … people I can’t possibly play like. I don’t think there is anyone who has quite the same sound.
Rob: No, there is no bass sound like that. We know that!
J: Part of that is because the set up isn’t really a bass amp and I don’t play it like a bass player should. It’s more of a percussive thing for me.
J: Plectrum. I always use a one ml plectrum. Anything that can get some attack on the bass.
Rob: Lead bass guitar! More front than any bass sound in the history of bass!
J: More attack. No retreat!
Rod: There is no retreat!
GP: Is there much going on Front Of House with John’s bass sound?
Rob: I don’t effect it as such. It’s just di. Amp and di which is basically the same way we’ve done it forever. It’s a balance of those two inputs for particular songs.
J: di is obviously for the root notes so you can actually tell what note I am playing
Rob: But there’s a lot of amp sound in it. Way more than anyone else
J: Rod, on stage you only just use the mic …
Rod Matheson: I only use the mic on stage because I attempt to at least reproduce what John is doing up there, everywhere on stage. Basically it’s pretty well all over the stage. We have side fills which cover the whole stage and it’s devastating down here where our guitarist stands. You don’t want to stand there.
J: I don’t go there.
Rod: No, not many people go over there. It’s pretty well straight off the amp, exactly as it’s produced.
GP: What sort of adjustments do you have to make for John’s bass sound in different venues?
J: We’ve just done a bunch of outdoors … coming back into rooms has been a bit of a novelty for us and we have suddenly remembered that the walls, the roof, the floor … everything about the space, causes effects. If I am standing right in the middle there and it happens to be the same height to the roof and to the back and the side walls, you are going to get a massive bass coupling right in that spot. It’s like six feet wide, where it just goes off and Rod has to do things like tricks with phasing or whatever to smooth it out.
Rod: When you come into a venue like this you have to tune the system to make it suit the room. The room causes so many anomalies. Then you add the compounding issue of a bass resonating around the room …
Rod: Monitor-wise it is probably one of the louder bands in the country. To actually achieve really good level with really good qualities, it’s not that easy to do. You have to spend a lot of time tuning. It’s slightly different this band. This band tends to work as one whole with front of house and monitors and everything together, as opposed to a lot of bands whose front of house is very separate and you never hear what’s going on out there and vice versa.
Rob: We talk to each other in other words … which is not always the case. We tune the systems together to make everything work as one. It’s a good way to do stuff.
J: One revelation for me with the tour has been the in-ear monitoring. I don’t know if that has made your job any easier? Because you don’t have drum fill on stage, you don’t have bass in my wedge but …
Rod: It’s not a great deal different. It’s only just one less mix but … which didn’t interfere too much with anything else up the back. Doug, our drummer is on in-ear monitors and a special shaker-seat, which acts like a sub… resonator. The in-ear monitors … it’s the first time (for the band). Everyone else is still on wedges and old school standard microphones and speakers but John and Doug are on in-ear monitors.
J: It really helps the two of us to isolate just what we are doing. If we can get it right, I think we are more reliable and everybody else can just trust us a bit more.
GP: Doug and you have pretty much always been side by side on stage …
J: Pretty much… or right in front of him or beside him. I like just watching him. I need to know when he is going to hit, ahead of time. Just by listening, I might be too late.
GP: In the early days the sound was pretty primal. When the band started to write more mainstream material, did you find that you were changing the way you played bass at all?
J: Not really. I mean we put some melodies in but …
Rob: John’s bass sound hasn’t changed
J: The style and the sound hasn’t changed but the nature of the songs were different, more melodic and less repetitive.
J: For a while there, that’s how the band was. After the first few years when we reformed in 84, Mark was the guitarist and singer. There was too much for him to do… to do both at the same time, so often, it was just bass, drums, vocals. Then optionally, some guitar would be brought in, some brass, some keyboards.
GP: Did that give you more creativity, to come up with those bass licks?
J: No. It was a much more visceral thing. Especially in the pubs of the day, it was about creating an environment in a small, smoke-filled room that physically effected people. So it’s down to more than just melodies or riffs.
GP: I saw you guys in the early days and again recently at Rochford winery. The band that you’ve become is this world class act ..
J: Well thank you.
GP: The way you guys interact musically …. is there a sense of pride within the band at what you have become as musicians?
J: Yeah I think. As craftsman too.
Rob: I think that is definitely true, especially on this tour. We didn’t ever actually do that many big stages before. We kept it, fairly deliberately, to playing in rooms. This tour has proven to the band as a whole that we can do these sort of shows really well. Which everyone has been really pleased to find out.
GP: Being in a band for so long, you have your ups and downs, highs and lows. If I asked what the lows were, what comes to mind?
J: Oh, no, should we go there?
Rob: Nah. There are particular gigs which are touchstones within the band. You just have to say the name of that gig and everyone is like … So there are a few of those.
J: The high point I reckon has been this tour.
GP: For what reasons?
J: A lot of what Rob just said, of how affirming it was for us to be considered as musicians that can actually play on a big stage and reach people half a kilometre away.
Rob: We’ve enjoyed the ability on this tour to utilise the other things like the vision and the light show. If you’re in smaller rooms, we could never do that. We were limited by the amount of stuff we were able to carry. Most people know, we used to carry all our own gear and had a whole philosophy built around that. So, this particular light show, we had been working on for about two years really. A lot of development went into it and I am really proud of it. It’s a really impressive show.
J: It’s communism… or at least socialism. It’s funny, John Howard (former PM) talked about incentivisation!
Rob: Not that you have to reprise that word.
J: No and it’s a very clumsy word that I am having trouble say it but.. basically by making everyone part of the band, gives everyone a reason to persist and to try and to make the most out of it as they can. That’s I think why we have lasted as long as we did. If we didn’t organise it any other way, we would have folded way earlier.
Rob: A team approach, clearly in most forms of endeavour, are where you get the best results. On the technical side when we were talking about it before, what would appear to be an incredibly obvious thing.. tuning monitors and front of house together, is something that people still don’t do that much. Or the idea that I would work in with the lighting director … we basically put this show together.. me and Cam McKaige. People would say well hang on, you are the sound guy and he is the lighting guy… what’s that about? It seems incredibly logical to me that everybody works together and you can just do a lot more.
J: And the more we know about what you are doing, the more we can leverage it and make appropriate use of it.
GP: I’ll just throw a few gigs at you and tell me what you recall of them. The Hall of Fame gig in 2005?
J: What was that, two songs?
Rob: Four I think.
J: It was very brief and we did not do a lot of rehearsal for it
Rob: That sort of thing from my perspective is pretty unsatisfying. Anything to do with an event like that, at the end of the day … you get on and you get off. It’s all too short and you come off and go, that was that. Doing a tour like this doing 2 hour shows will beat that anytime.
J: Yeah cos it gives us time to take ownership of the room and space.
J: That was a way lot better.
Rob: That was an amazing event and the fact that the whole thing was put together in two weeks, as a logistic exercise it was absolutely mind-blowing. Plus the fact that there were 86,000 people there. It was the biggest show we’ve ever done. Probably the biggest show that has ever been held in the country. It was amazing. Also because we didn’t have time to think about it when we were asked. There was a ring around and people said, yeah why not? Obviously we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time for that either but that out the seed in the band’s mind that … you know what? That was really good and maybe we should do this again. Everybody had a good time.
GP: And the MCG sound wise?
Rob: It’s hard.
J: When we were sound checking it. I am standing right in the middle. Doug would hit the kick drum and because the MCG is oval, the sound would travel to the fences out wide first. You could literally hear the echo coming back from both sides, moving to the centre, then coming back WHACK! For every single beat of the drum. That’s pretty overwhelming and I wish I’d had in ear monitors but we didn’t. In here, you don’t get that. It has straight walls so it is not the same thing. You could get a little backslap but is not like the ‘G’.
GP: And the Grand Final, again at the MCG, was that pre-recorded?
J: That was different because we were in the middle.
GP: But it wasn’t live?
J: No it was half and half. The after show was all live. It was the same problem the Chili Peppers had in the American football final a couple of months ago, you simply do not have the time get the stage out, plug everything in, do the two songs and get it off again. You can’t do it. The vocals were live. That’s what we could do. It was that or not do it. With the sound, we recorded all of that about a week or so before the show. That was the other thing we could do to make it as close as we could to a live show. It wasn’t just the old recording, it was done especially for the day.
GP: As front of house, what are some of the little quirks with band members’s sound. Are there specific requirements for some of the players, maybe certain things with Barry’s guitar that he has to have?
Rob: Not like that. Everybody’s sounds are incredibly well worked over. It’s been 30 years of working on something and constantly working on it. That’s been one of the things on this tour that … from our first rehearsal to now, you don’t even have to talk to people … although we’ve been saying we’re good at talking to people (laughs). Doug can tell me in a couple of words (what he wants) and it will be absolutely perfect. If you work with other drummers, because you haven’t worked with them for the same period of time, their idea of what they want or you want, it’s really hard. Everything here is just really resolved. There are certain sounds which work with certain arrangements and ones that don’t and we gone through a process of elimination over decades to know if something will work. Someone like Barry… his control over the amount of distortion he uses, the amount of overdrive he uses .. he gets it to within 99.9 per cent perfect in terms of getting just the right amount of distortion. People don’t know how to do that. It’s the classic thing, some bloke cranks his amp in his bedroom and it’s all wash and chop and nothing. Obviously there’s every grade (of player) but he is an absolute master of it.
J: He’s very good at things that require subtlety, like the feedback at the start of ‘Tears of Joy’, that sort of thing. Night after night he will get the same thing in different environments, the same amount of feedback. That’s does require something to get that consistency.
Rob: Because Mark has been doing a lot more guitar playing with his own band, his sounds are much better then they used to be. So when we have two guitarists playing off each other, we can do that better than we used to be able to
Rod: I’ve got other tours coming up. I’m busy for the next two months then another month off then pretty well flat out after that until December.
J: Back to software engineering, that’s my day job.
R: I continue to run my architecture practice and do Mark’s sound in its various combinations.
… and of course the Rolling Stones’ New Zealand support they didn’t tell Australian Musician about at the time!
JOHN ARCHER’S GEAR
Let’s talk about your bass.
J: Firstly, I stuffed my shoulder from playing bass too long, so I built this (Strap) out of seat belts to spread the weight of the bass across both shoulders. It has the sort of advantage of being able to do that (spins the bass around like a propellor), which is not really much of an advantage. The bass is a Fender copy. Fernandes started making guitars in I think 1986., something like that. (it was actually established in 1969 but didn’t open a US office until 1992). The first year that they made them, I was actually going to get a Fender but I tried this and it just seemed better than every Fender I tried, so I have gone with that. The Marshall is one I bought in England in about ’82. It is actually a bass Marshall, a Marshall Superbass but it has been modified, the tone controls don’t work at the regular frequencies. They have been shifted slightly to suit the sound, the sort of frequencies that I am interested in removing and adding. The bass has quite a bit of EQ on it. It’s got some low end boosts and low mid cut and a general high end boost.
The speaker cabinet is a 215 JBL but they are not bass speakers. They are JBL 2220’s, which is really a mid-range speaker. I can get a little bottom end out of it , the box is quite deep so it has quite a bit of volume, even though it is a mid-range speaker more than a bass speaker.
What are the strings you’re using?
J: Usually Rotosounds if I can get them.
J: Standard tunings, long scale, yeah.
Have you modified the bass at all?
J: Only to put an XLR on it because it has active pickups. What I’ve got is a 9 volt supply in the head and that powers all of the pedals and it also powers the pickups in the bass, so batteries are generally not an issue. There is still a battery in there and the jack is still there as well but I don’t generally use it.
What’s in your effects board?
J: Just a noise gate, so that I can tune it without making any noise, the graphic and a tuner, that’s it … and a light, so that I can see it. It’s old school, it’s not LED.
Once Hunters is done, how are you going to get your bass kicks?
J: There’s always the Christmas band at work. We usually do some James Bond themes, something like that
At this stage of the afternoon how you feeling about tonight’s gig?
J: I’ve been really excited by all of it. This is the 17th show. The tour has been a hoot. I’ll be sad that it has ended but just so glad it happened