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STEVE LUCAS: THE BIGGER THAN JESUS ESPY GIG INTERVIEW

As guitarist in legendary Australian punk band X, Steve Lucas and his bass playing mate Ian Rilen, along with a succession of other passionate musicians who served with the band, including Ian Krahe, Steve Cafiero, and Cathy Green, pioneered a sound and attitude in the late 70s and into the 80s which would reverberate through the ensuing years of Australian rock ’n’ roll history. The band’s DNA is still evident in many of today’s crop of alt-rockers. Then at a time in the late 80s when tensions were high in the X family, the band came to a halt and Lucas accepted Hank Oudendyk’s offer to join his band Bigger Than Jesus as lead singer. BTJ then went on to create their own brand of controversy and establish new rock ’n’ roll folklore thanks to their epic live shows, often featuring indoor pyrotechnics and the burning of crosses. Steve’s musical tentacles have spread far and wide to many other memorable musical projects over the years but on Saturday December 15th, he’ll be back on stage with Bigger Than Jesus, promoting a new record and christening a new Esplanade Hotel, a gig which controversially almost didn’t happen. Ahead of this week’s gig Steve Lucas spoke to Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips in a Bigger Than Jesus phone interview.

When you left X and were brought into Bigger Than Jesus, what was Hank’s brief to you? What was his vision for the band?
I won’t quote him verbatim because it would be unprintable. Basically for whatever reason there was a falling out with the original singer. He said here’s how the songs go, do whatever you want with them. He gave me a bunch of rehearsal tapes and I remember sitting down for a couple of days trying to decipher the lyrics but with rehearsal tapes all you ever usually hear are guitars and drums and someone trying to sing over the top of it. I tried to keep what I could of the lyrics but also I have a policy of never singing anything that I can’t believe in. It’s kinda like Jurassic Park, there were missing strands of DNA where I had to use bits of my own to bridge the gaps, to make it into a narrative that I could personally relate to but still keep the integrity of the original intent.

The band members in Bigger Than Jesus all come from varied musical backgrounds. What makes you all click when you get together?
I don’t know. I don’t know why it works any more than why it got to the point where it drove us apart. We are all very strong minded, strong willed people. I think without blowing smoke up anyone’s arse, we just all appreciate each other’s abilities. Hank wanted me to sing with the band because… well he used to come to X gigs all the time, he was after me for a while. When I joined, Craig (Whitelock, their recently passed drummer) was such a happy fellow that you were drawn to him and he was brilliant behind the kit. I used to sing off his rhythm patterns as much as the chords of the guitars or riffs. Kevin is great on the bass. At that stage Brett (Kingman) wasn’t in the band, it was a guy called Gary playing keys. For whatever reason he couldn’t come to a rehearsal and suddenly Brett was there and it sounded fantastic. He was doing stuff off the cuff and we’d all be standing there with our jaws on the floor. Things changed when he impacted with the band and set us on a totally different course. But we worked really hard. When we first realised we were working well as a unit, we’d be rehearsing 2 or 3 times a week with 8 hour sessions and really nailing the stuff, the changes, solidifying the different parts. It’s very frenetic music. There are three songs in the one song, in some songs. Sometimes I’d be presented with a song at rehearsal and I’d go, this is actually three different songs. We all listened to each other, we played off each other. At the end of the day we all had the same fun sense of humour. If you can’t laugh together, then you can’t hang out together. If you can’t hang out together, then there is no band. The old fashioned chemistry word!

The story of this Espy gig coming together is bigger than Jesus itself. It was on, then cancelled, now back on. What’s your version of events?
Classic miscommunication. The management of the Esplanade Hotel were very cautious about reopening and having a band like us on. They’ve just spent millions of dollars on the place and we used to use pyrotechnics and burn crosses and stuff. I think there was a certain amount of concern that we might burn down the pub before it had the chance to open. There was a controversy that surrounded us that didn’t really exist but it’s the Chinese whispers kind of thing. We were misreading each other. Basically we were approached by a third party who said I’ve got this date December 15 do you want to do it? We said yes because we wanted to launch a record and have a reunion gig and it was locked in. Then that person was removed from the equation and no one bothered to tell us that he was gone and the gig had been cancelled. We’d been labouring under this assumption and then it was, no you are not playing here and we’re going yes, the fuck we are. They were saying it’s our pub and we’re saying well we have a contract. And they said well he doesn’t work here anymore. They were thinking well, if it doesn’t suit you go somewhere else but we had to have that date because it was the only date that for this year we all could be at the same place at the same time to do the gig. But we weren’t explaining it like that, we were just saying no you can’t get rid of us because that’s not how it is done and a contract is a contract.

It’s easy to sound hot headed and easy to sound arrogant and easy to be unsympathetic when you are reading emails. Having your own fears and paranoias, you read stuff into it and you create a subtext which is not necessarily representative of the whole truth. Anyway it was all over and we were talking about legal proceedings and all sorts of things and it was pretty much going viral on Facebook. I just sent off a very simple email one day saying I really don’t understand how it got to this … it’s a shame this is the way it has played out. I wish we could talk about it. Then I got an email back saying, yeah we feel the same. It was like an argument between a girlfriend and boyfriend or husband and wife, once someone gives an inch and slightly admits that they could have handled things a bit better then the other one goes yeah, it wasn’t all you, we were pretty this and that. They were like the damage has been done and we can’t fix it and I was like we can fix it. Then we had a meeting… me and one of the owners of the Espy and we just sat down and had a beer and just yacked. He was like how do we fix this? I said well just say the gig is back on and he said it’s not that simple because there are a few people with interests in the Espy, it’s not just one owner. I don’t mean it’s a conglomerate either, it’s basically two brothers. They had their staff and bookers and things, so they had to have a meeting.

I said don’t just ask us. You’ve just taken over the Esplanade, it’s a huge gig, everyone’s going to want a piece of it. Everyone is going to have an opinion on what you should and shouldn’t be doing. I said go to some of the old promoters who have been around for 20, 30 years and ask them what they would do if they were in your position… and pretty much everyone said I’d put the band back on, so they finally agreed to. Then it was everyone lives happily ever after. It was a crazy time … kind of exciting! Tickets are selling, the clip is on TV and we’re just getting positive feedback.

What are your earliest memories of St Kilda and in particular the Espy?
I was thinking about that the other day as I was walking up Fitzroy Street after being down to the Espy to have a look at it. I mean it has changed a lot, you can’t deny it. The first time I was down that neck of the woods would have been 82, 83 and I just loved it. It was like Kinds Cross in Sydney except it was by the bay. You hang out at The Espy and you’d see everyone who was in town. If you’d come down from Sydney or across from Perth or Adelaide, you’d always end up at the front bar of the Espy. People just gravitated toward the place … and The Prince of Wales too, that was great. St Kilda was so alive … The Prince, The Venue, The Espy, The Palace, The Palais, there were just gigs everywhere and people out every night of the week. You could do a gig on a Monday night and go on stage at 2 or 3 in the morning and the place would be packed. You’d finish a gig, go up to Topolinos and whoever else was in town who had finished a gig would be there too. It was a very, very strong community, not only just as far as the person on the street but the musical community was very, very close to each other. It made for wonderful times. It’s not like that so much anymore. I mean to some degree it is but not to that extent.

Fenn and George Wilson are supporting on the night. I’ve seen them perform several times this year. It never ceases to amaze me that while dad Chris is incredibly sick, they are carrying on with such dignity not only on a personal level but musically too. You’ve had a bit to do with them this year haven’t you?
Fenn sat in on the blues thing I do and I had a bit of interaction with them on the night of the benefit (Corner Hotel). Yeah they are a credit to Chris and Sarah. You’re right, they are behaving with extreme dignity. When I go and visit Chris, they are looking after him as much as Sarah is. It’s a beautiful thing. Chris was going to be one of the opening acts at the Espy, so I think it is fitting that his boys represent. Bigger Than Jesus is not myopic in our views and we think it is important to have different genres, etc … When I started music, it was like doing an apprenticeship, there were older people in the band who would take care of the younger people. As X went on through the years, we used to look for good young bands and support them and Bigger Than Jesus has the same mentality.

You have a couple of great guitarists in this band and you are basically the vocalist but I wanted to chat about your guitars throughout the years …
It’s funny, a lot of people still don’t think of me as a guitarist, they think of me as a lead singer. I played the guitar in X for 38 years so I am definitely a guitarist. The first guitar I had was inherited from Ian Krahe when he passed and that’s an old Broadcaster or Telecaster, which has been dated back to 1953. That was my one and only electric for many years. I picked up a couple of acoustic guitars. I think the first decent acoustic guitar I bought from one of the guys in White Cross, it was a Yiari 12 string and when I got that, I was in love with that guitar. I played it all the time. It was set to open G and it’s such a beautiful sound, so full. I also got a Rickenbacker thing. You just start picking up things. When I was in America and started playing the blues, I bought a 1965 Gibson because it instantly created the sound, that authentic blues guitar. I loved it so much that I was worried I was going to smash it to pieces at a gig so I bought a new one that I didn’t have to be precious about. Then I did a bit of country blues and took a fancy to a Grestch, a Chet Atkins style Gretsch. I have a beautiful 1957 Danelectro. I love guitars! The thing is, you get a new guitar and it’s like a new lease on life because every guitar reacts differently depending on how you hold it, finger it and stuff. Songs just run off the fretboard before you have a chance to think about it. You find yourself doing things that maybe didn’t feel comfortable doing before but suddenly now they make sense. Now I find it very hard not to keep buying guitars. If I ever buy another guitar it will probably be a bass because I am starting to get really into playing bass guitar.

Bigger Than Jesus has a new recording ‘One For The Road’ and you’re doing a launch for it with this gig at The Espy …
Well we released it online and through the label a couple of months ago because we wanted it out there to get get some airplay and reviewed before the gig. It’s a six track mini album and on vinyl and you get a digital version of it when you purchase the vinyl. I think it’s a great collection of songs but you’d hardly put out a record if you didn’t think it was any good. We were all very involved in the process of making that record. I’m my own worst critic, so if I like it then I think it must be good. I’ve done stuff in the past and thought, that’s not how I thought it would sound. I mean Ian and I were never happy with any of the X albums. We could never get in the studio, what we did live on stage. It didn’t mean they were bad records, it was just frustrating for us because we didn’t think we sounded like that. X-Asperations became a classic album. The Bigger Than Jesus Killer Vision album is considered by many to be one of the most underrated in Australia. Brett was rated like the tenth best guitar player in the world or something like that (it was actually Brett’s YouTube channel which was listed in the top ten guitar demo/tutorial channels in the world) and Hank can give Brett a run for his money. Kevin, our bass player has a great sense of timing and is a solid bass player. We sadly lost Craig this year and even though he wasn’t well, he thought he’d still be able to get up and do at least 2 or 3 songs but we got his number one student instead (Paul Foenander). At rehearsal last week, he said I’ve been to every one of your gigs and I have them all written in my diary… what time you played, who was in the band. He’s like the ultimate fan and then to be in the band … he was really nervous. At the last rehearsal I had to turn around look, he sounds so much like Craig. Paul is playing with Craig’s kit, he bought it off him years ago. It’s sad to lose someone but it is a relief to find someone who can do justice to his body of work and Paul can. He wouldn’t be in the band otherwise.

I spoke to Exene Cervenka from the American punk band X earlier this year and she said that she was well aware of the Australian X and that you guys were friends. How much did you know about the LA band x back in the day?
We’d heard a rumour that there was a band in LA called X and for a long time we were trying to find out who actually came up with X first but we were both blissfully ignorant of each other for many years. I think we actually did the first gig. I was actually hoping that we could do a gig together one day, it would have been fun but unfortunately that’s never been allowed to happen. It would have been interesting but they were probably smart to avoid it.

She spoke fondly of you guys …
Yeah, I can’t remember if it was MySpace days or early Facebook days that I tracked her down and we started communicating and yeah she’s nice, a really nice person. It’s funny people banging on about parallel universes and worlds but there are plenty of parallels right here right now. Everyone thinks they have come up with something new but the odds are that they haven’t. I don’t know why they called themselves X but I do know why we called ourselves X. It was because all of the good names wiht X in it had been taken and we thought it looked more like a symbol than a name and we thought that a symbol was much more interesting. It had a touch of anarchy about it, you could put a red X on a newspaper and glue it to a wall and everybody knew what it meant. It was like a secret society. The early fans were very dedicated.

You have the Espy gig this week on Saturday the 15th and then what is on for you in 2019?
Well 2019 is an unknown quantity. Doing the Bigger Than Jesus reunion … we’ve done that and released a record because we’ve all decided we want to pick up the thread again. We’ll do the Espy gig. We are filming it, recording it, chopping it up and sending it around and trying to get some other things happening. If we get some more gigs, we will use those to get more gigs and probably put out another record maybe mid year. We’ll make ourselves heard and hopefully everyone will go away happy and talking it up. If that is the case, then we will definitely do some more gigs and maybe even go overseas and do some shows there. We are all very serious about it again.

BIGGER THEN JESUS
POLLYMAN
Plus THE INVICTUS QUARTET
Saturday, December 15
The Gershwin Room, Hotel Esplanade, St Kilda
TICKETS:
https://www.moshtix.com.au/v2/event/bigger-than-jesus/107714

www.biggerthanjesus.com.au

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