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KIM SALMON: A CAREER

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Michael Witheford looks back on the 35 five year career of Australian independent guitarist, singer, songwriter Kim Salmon

The perpetually restless Kim Salmon has been, along with Nick Cave and Dave Graney perhaps, the most ever-present (35 years) and eclectically productive Australian artist you could name. And he’s still working at full velocity too. Almost every year there is a new band or a reconfiguring of an old one. He hates to repeat himself and it has made for a dazzling discography and live shows in half the towns on earth.

Jolted into action in the mid-70s by articles he was reading about artists like Johnny Thunders, (before he’d even heard Johnny Thunders), Salmon has been a wildly experimental and unpredictable figure in Australian rock. But whether it’s punk, mutant power pop, swamp country, or techno fusion, that familiar somewhat threatening voice is instantly recognizable. Love is always dangerous. Desire difficult to control. Shady characters lurk in the shadows. A lot of people presume Kim to be as intimidating as the often unhinged characters in his songs but he’s actually a jester, a far cry from the sometimes black-hearted persona you see wringing the neck of his guitar on stage. Sheepishly he suggests “I’ve been described as brutal. Let’s say roughly hewn.”

Kim has influenced hundreds of bands and journalist Everett True claimed the Perth native invented grunge; an accusation Salmon responds to with the word “pfft” and a shrug of the shoulders. But when your stuff is covered by Mudhoney … well there might be some truth in it.

So let’s recap on an extraordinary career project by project. There’s much overlapping and you’d need some sort of venn diagram or spreadsheet to clearly delineate his career trajectory and the bewildering array of side characters, co-stars and collaborators along the way. But let’s give it a shot

kimsalmon1Troubled Waters
This was my first gig. The band had a policy: No ‘Smoke On The Water’, no ‘Black Magic Woman’, because that was de rigeur at the time. We played at a club six nights a week. It was the sort of place where underworld connections were made. Three nights a week it was a strip club. We played covers but I had attempted to write things and was just putting bits of music together; chord changes; major, minor modulations to see how they’d fit together. But basically I had too many bits.

The Cheap Nasties
I played a sort of raunch guitar, a bit like Alice Cooper. Power chords but not thrash – distorted, more of a crunchy sound and hooky like Creedence Clearwater Revival. Bowie’s production of The Stooges’ Raw Power drew me in. I was kind of getting rid of the blues. All the hipsters went to WA university, they went to see authentic Chicago stuff, but it was all the same. I was gravitating towards stuff like Brian Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets. That interested me a lot more. Can, Miles Davis. One day I found an article in the NME which I’d been drawn to because it said disparaging things about artists. I’d buy that publication religiously just to see what was going on. This was the end of ‘75. I was waiting for the next thing and Charles Shaar Murray wrote an article about Johnny Thunders. There was a line there which said “He’s no longer with the Dolls. They combine minimum ability with mark 10 posturing.” I said “Wow that sounds like SOMETHING!” That mentioned the word punk rock so I went searching for it. I met Dave Faulkner then too. He was into the America thing. CSNY etc.

The Scientists
I wasn’t aiming for anything in the first line-up. Roddy Radalj was playing guitar. He took pity on me and let me join the band, but he thought if I played guitar I’d make him look bad cos everyone had just taken up their instruments. We came out of the punk scene in Perth with bands like The Victims, but we were dandys, no spiky hair or bondage gear. ‘Frantic Romantic’ was our first record. (Early figures in Kim’s bands included his high school mates Mark Betts on drums; Dan Dare on bass guitar; Neil Fernandez on guitar; and Robert Porritt on vocals. The band went through several name and line-up changes. Salmon left in December 1977. The Scientists line up then was Salmon, James Baker, Dennis Byrne who’d replaced Boris Sudkovic on bass and Roddy Radalj. It changed. Too often to enumerate here. They recorded ‘Frantic Romantic’) That was our first record in 1979.

When a band believes they’ve got something and start working on it, things can get a bit nasty. We had a few line-up changes. We broke up at the end of the ‘70s then I floundered around in Perth. We got back together and decided it’d be a good thing to go to Sydney cos all the bands like the Riptides and Sunnyboys were doing what we did but we’d done it before. I couldn’t get James Baker (ex Perth) because he was in the Hoodoo Gurus. But we pretty much conquered the scene in the inner city over the next two years. We did a residency in Ultimo and were able to build on that and got a public radio broadcast and put out a cassette, and that had ‘Swampland’ on it. It made its way down to Melbourne and people like Ron Peno were checking us out. This was between 1981 and 1984, and by the end of that agents were bashing down the door. The reason we went overseas rather than building on that, which was considerable, was that Brett Rixon (drums) didn’t really know what he wanted and we wanted to keep him in the band. We thought we’d make something happen. We didn’t conquer the place but achieved a considerable amount. We toured the UK three times, with The Gun Club, Sisters Of Mercy and Siouxsie And the Banshees which was massive. We played the Royal Albert Hall and met the Sonic Youth guys and started a friendship.

Then we had an unfortunate situation with a record label and that relationship just sort of fell apart which meant every time we put out a record, they put one out too. The consequence was we were selling 6000 copies on our own. Then Brett decided to leave. We went through a plethora of drummers but none were right. I said we should get my friend Leanne … so we gave her a go and it sounded like the Scientists again. She wasn’t great. She was pretty crap actually but over the course of the Banshees tour she got some chops. First gig was playing at Barrowlands. The roughest place in Glasgow.

The Beasts Of Bourbon
This is the story of the Beasts Of Bourbon and I swear it is accurate. Tex Deadly And The Dums were a band who supported us, and I became good friends with Tex. He told me one night he had some gigs with a new band called The Dum Dums. He had Boris, Spencer Jones and a drummer called Fruitcake. They played at the Southern Cross Hotel. One day Spencer couldn’t do a gig and asked if I’d fill in for him, and I got an idea of what was required. James Baker said “why not me?” so we got him in on drums and that was The Beasts. Roger Grierson paid for us to go to Paradise Studios. We got Tony Cohen to record us and it was done to two track over the course of 8-10 beer-sodden mood- altering hours. The Beasts were mainly the touring band for me between 1987 and 1990, and in 1993. We went to Seattle LA, around Europe. (Kim was on the first four Beasts albums and left after ‘The Low Road’.)

The Surrealists
The Surrealists started in 1986 with me playing a Dr Rhythm drum machine I wrote ‘Melt’, ‘Shine’, played ‘Blue Velvet’; that whole thing. I got a drummer from the last line up of The Scientists. We were into Tav Falco and that whole deconstructionist philosophy to music. I went to Perth with a bit of a windfall from real estate and bought a house but I was very depressed in Perth. I got together with Brian Hooper. He was interested in playing beats together that didn’t quite fit. I got Tony Pola in. I thought it sounded really cool and that was the Surrealists. It seems to be the one project I’ve returned to, to contextualize it. And I will return to it. But it doesn’t need to be driven by my ethos. People seem to think it’s a drawcard. If I offer my services to a venue they say what about The Surrealists. So I don’t have to think about it.

(Currently Kim plays with Stu (Thomas) on bass, and drummer Phil (Collings)) … with that line-up you just add water. Brian Hooper actually came back and fitted in with Phil really well. He had immense knowledge and they worked brilliantly. But since Phil and Stu have been in the band it’s taken it to another galaxy. You start following Phil and you just hang on for dear life. We did this version of ‘Melt’ and it was fantastic, in danger of falling to pieces but it somehow hung together beautifully. I haven’t recorded with them since 2007. Phil’s got ideas of getting together and making it up on the spot so we’ll return, call it The Surrealists, take my name off it and see what happens. Just a nebulous idea of these players who just stick together and make this sound, fashion it into something.

STM
What used to happen with The Surrealists, by the time we had several albums under our belt everything changed. Brian and Tony being the punk rockers they are would systematically stomp all over songs and sometimes it would be a pile of shit. I really got sick of fighting with Tony. It just got to be an unpleasant experience. If I could bring something in that gelled, great, but there was ‘too much rock and roll’ like that Rabbit LP from the 70s with the broken Stratocaster on the front covered in tomato sauce. It was great to play gigs but I found it frustrating. I had some particularly lush jazz chords but I just wouldn’t bring them along.

I’d kept them though and I got a Monday night residency at the Great Britain in Richmond. It was a very important gig for me. The proprietor said I should get in some guest stars. People weren’t playing solo in those days, particularly with an electric guitar. One day I met Warren Ellis. We just hit it off.  The flute and violin were not instruments I would have picked but we got a guy called Andrew Entsh on double bass, then then Jim White. It just built up over the course of a year. It was great to hang out with a guy like Warren. Over the course of a year we did a lot of shows together. He was into Miles Davis and stuff and nurtured that in me. I was always driven to play ‘what happens if I put this note with this note?’ They were either riffs that he had that I put lyrics to, or jazzy r&b things I’d written like ‘You Know Me Better’ and that’s essentially what the Hey Believer album was. It was definitely its own thing.

Antenna
The Surrealists were still playing and I’d been hanging out with Dave Faulkner. We’d lost touch around the time the Hoodoo Gurus were splitting but became good friends again, and he said he’d like to do a record with these young guys, and at some point he said there’s this guy who does sound remixes, techno dance music and I said ‘YES! I’d love to get into something like that’. I was really into drum machines but had never really explored it so thought this’ll be great.  So I got to Sydney to spend a week with Dave and Justin and basically pushed squares around on a computer screen with Cubase (computer music program) all day long. It evolved as a song-writing process over a few months that the band recorded. It was a very laborious day to day thing … let’s try this… a lot of discussion about where things should fall into place. It took it out of me … You think it’s more pop music than my other stuff but I think pop music is just a term popular with young people. I think it’s more to do with hooks which aren’t necessarily melodic. I’ve got nothing against it; part of me wants to experiment or rock, part of me wants to just get people’s attention.

SALMON PR shot

Salmon
I grew up with Led Zep and T Rex and MC5, this hook driven rock which was invariably comprised of four guitars overlaid pretending to be one guitar, so I just constructed things I heard on all those records. I played different triads on guitar chords, and I’d play things on different parts of the beat. It was very easy to have a symphonic approach to it, more conceptual. Having two drummers was about overkill; it looks great and I wanted them to play the same thing. A sensory onslaught. I’d seen a picture of Blue Oyster Cult in NME and I didn’t know you could have more guitars than two … this is like three! It never even occurred to me there was no limit. So it was just an idea, and then I met Michael Stranges.

Michael was this bloke who worked at Stomp when I did, and I saw him at a Casanovas gig one night, and he introduced himself. And over a course of time we had this idea for a band, the Stomp All Stars. Mike wore unusual hats. He had quite a big personality. And he was a very funny guy. He’d say what was on his mind. I got to appreciate that. I found Mike fun to work with and he played drums and bass and guitar and a bit of everything. And he seemed to know what was what and I was just thinking he’d be a good guy to get in a band with. I had this multi-guitar idea still filed away. One day he heard me talking about all these guitars and he said ‘We’re gonna do this’. I drafted him on the spot on drums then Ash Naylor, Anton Ruddock, and Penny Ikinger on guitar. It sounded bloody horrible. I thought I can’t leave anybody to their own devices It just sounded like Sonic Youth all over again I programmed the drums and they sound nothing like what a drummer would play. Salmon started sounding good when everyone just let me tell them exactly what to do i.e. compose all the parts. This included composing every bar with every drum fill and lead lick!

Precious Jules
A Japanese punk band called ‘Teengenerate ‘ asked me to support them solo and I asked if I could bring a drummer along who was Mike and it rocked. It happened another time supporting Perth band Kill Devil Hills. Andrew McGee (former Shock Music owner) saw us and invited us down to his recording studio in Nagambie. We ended up with an albums worth of stuff that we co-wrote. I didn’t want to have another band with my name at the start because everyone just thinks it’s The Surrealists. Precious Jules is the name we came up with because it’s the opposite of my first punk band’s name – ‘Cheap Nasties’. We found we wrote and recorded really well together. We were aiming at a cross between British Punk Rock and 70’s Glam.

The thing with Michael is we have similar interests so we can talk about things, certain 10CC albums he’d know about certain sounds. We’ve grown a bit together. By trial and error it’s good to have someone almost from a different generation in the same place. I kind of view him now as being my band. (Precious Jules released an album in 2011.)

Kim and Leanne
This was a result of me being offered a solo supporting international acts and being up in Sydney. Leanne (Cowie) had played with me long before and was asking about the band, and I said ‘Can I bring a drummer along?’ She hadn’t played since The Scientists, and we played as a duo. People said ‘You should do your own album.’ I thought I could put a bit of energy into something like that, and so Mike and I began writing for this purpose. He’d call me up and say ‘riff emergency!” or ‘what words can go into kitchen’. He came up with riffs. It was definitely a 50/50 split. Very methodical song-writing. It was a lot of fun. We demoed it all, sent it up to Leanne to play, and that’s the record. We put it to bed for a while. (The record is available now on CD, cassette or vinyl.)

n.b: Kim and I didn’t have an opportunity to talk about a few of his other projects. There are only so many hours in the day. So we missed his collaboration with Ron S Peno, the sepia-toned, acoustic, deep-south country band Darling Downs for one. And The Business too. A comprehensive discography of Kim’s career can be found at kimsalmon.com.au.

Michael Witheford’s new book ‘The Very Worst Of The Beatles’ will be released next month

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