Bob Murphy of The Western Bulldogs

Bob Murphy of The Western Bulldogs talks to Van Walker about Art & Athletics (Part 1)

And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker. There you have something – the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little footsteps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight, and then he sang “Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat.” And the circle sang softly with him. And he sang “Why Do You Cut Your Hair Girls?” And the circle sang. He wailed the song, “I’m Leaving Old Texas,” that eerie song that was sung before the Spaniards came, only the words were Indian then.

And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep. He sang the “McAlester Blues” and then, to make up for it to the older people, he sang “Jesus Calls Me To His Side.” The children drowsed with the music and went into the tents to sleep, and the singing came into their dreams.

And after a while the man with the guitar stood up and yawned. Good night, folks, he said.

And they murmured, Good night to you.

And each wished he could pick a guitar, because it is a gracious thing.
- J. Steinbeck

B.M: What turns you on when it comes to music?
V.W: Well, it’ soul-food, isn’t it. It’s in the blood. It rattles the cage & seeps into every corner of your body.  It speaks the unutterable. I also like the idea of how it can come from one person. You get this idiosyncratic take on life from this character you probably wouldn’t even let inside your house in person! But in song, one soul to another, it’s the arena where spirits gather. And they can be summoned by this one individual, doing it, telling the story. The German Poet Novalis said it best, ‘The story is an old one, yet it remains forever new. And when it falls to someone, it breaks his heart in two’. And I love the idea of the bard, or the troubadour, traveling & taking these strange stories to strange new places. Storytelling is an ancient form of psychoanalysis. The music provides the story with a special key. Like a magic spell. Jung said ‘Psychic is just another word for Magic’. The ‘spell’ slips the deeper story past the gatekeeper of consciousness.

BM: Do you remember the moment when music really took a hold of you?

V.W: I remember the first time I heard Brown Sugar by The Stones I thought it was boring, then the next time I heard it I thought it was magic. Something clicked & I suddenly understood rock’n'roll, whereas before it seemed dull & too obvious. But it’s not ‘understanding’ as such, it’s the spell, the magic, the swing & the beat. Either you get it or you don’t.
When I was a kid I’d often watch these old video tapes of my Dad’s – Rock Arena, etc – which had a lot of 80′s English stuff, like Madness & Bob Marley & Ian Dury, etc – & this video that had heaps of singles film clips of The Beatles members solo stuff from the 70′s & 80′s. So I was soaking it all up but I don’t think I really understood what I was experiencing. The kitchen radio was always playing the pop stuff of the time & I obviously unconsciously learned a lot, but I don’t think as a kid I even realised people made music. Maybe I thought it was made in a factory along with cars! My mother was a huge Van Morrison fan, my sister was obsessed with Prince, & my Dad loved The Animals & had a lot of records from his youth. He had Jimmy Reed’s Rockin’ with Reed on vinyl that I just adored (& still do). My Dad used to show me these old blues singers. He’d say ‘Look at this guy, he’s got no teeth, he’s blind, his hairs fallin’ out … Now there’s a musician! Not these pretty boys!’ He was pretty much telling me you can judge a musicians worth basically by how ugly they are! Which is still a rule I follow to this day.

BM: Anyone else? Dylan seems a strong influence…

VW: Oh, absolutely. Bob Dylan’s finger picking & vocal intimacy I was immediately hypnotized by & still am to this day.
Also a major turning point was, I was a big fan of the National Lampoons movies & when I was 13 re-watching the Wally World one probably for the 100 time I realised the song Rusty listens to on his Walkman in the car was THE greatest song ever. I fast-forwarded to the end of movie & looked in the credits: Blitzkrieg Bop by some band called Ramones.

B.M: For those of us who can’t do it, writing songs is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Would you agree? Tell me about retrieving your first rabbit/song?
V.W: You mean THE Rabbit Song? Dave Graney always gets requests for the Chicken Song (Rock’n'Roll is Where I Hide). I always get asked for the Rabbit Song (Wildgrass). Yeah, I suppose it is a bit like pulling a rabbit from of a hat. Or maybe it’s more like fishing. You gotta know how to do it, be skillful at it & practice, but you can’t force it. And you never really know what you’re gonna dredge up. You definitely gotta chuck a lot back in! I been writing tunes since I could play a couple of chords on guitar, probably to make up for the fact I couldn’t really work out other peoples songs. But I always wrote stories & poems & stuff, so it’s just an extension of that. You’ve gotta have a bit of a chip on your shoulder to write songs. You gotta have something to say. They’re a bit of a soap box, bit of self psychoanalyzing. Basically it’s just a madness, like anything else that’s enjoyable & addictive.

B.M: I asked a good friend of mine what he would ask you and he said, “What does it mean to be a Tasmanian”?

V.W: I don’t know. I am Tasmanian so I don’t know. It’s like if I asked you what’s it like to be you: You’ve not been anyone else so you can’t have any point of reference! So I guess it’s pretty normal! But in the sense of ‘the isolation’ cliche, being Tasmanian can feel like – for me at least – that you never feel part of the ‘real’ world; tucked away at the end of the earth. But I love that! All the stereotypes are just that: Stereotypes. People certainly can be backward but also others can be just as sophisticated as anyone anywhere. I mean, who’s more sophisticated: a Tasmanian or a ‘main lander’ who goes on & on about the scar on your neck like he just made up the joke? But Tassie’s remote wilderness is also something in my blood that I kind of long for. It inspires contemplation & creativity. And it just suits my character. My father was a very quiet man, but built like a brick shit-house & a fantastic footy player & he was drafted to the VFL when he was a teenager but he didn’t want all that attention, pressure, etc. So he came back to Tassie. He wasn’t interested in the bright lights, so to speak. He just wanted to play footy. And I’m similar in regards to music. In a world where everybody’s dying for attention, some people are the very opposite. All that other shit just gets in the way.

B.M: Writing , Recording or Live… Which of these gives you the most enjoyment?

V.W: They all have there advantages & disadvantages, but I’m always writing. That’s my reality & I don’t need to rely on anyone else to do it. It’s the constant. Yet I can’t always record, & I can’t always play live. And often the sound is shit live, etc, etc, all kinds of variables, but writing I can do 24/7 & I can do it my way & I love that control. Some call it discipline, but when your work is a labor of love it’s more like a vocation, & the respect you have for the craft, how hard you have to work to get lucky, and it’s an ongoing process and there’s a stability where you don’t have to worry about other people, you can just sit down & get on with it. When someone buys a record to them it’s a bunch of new songs, but that’s not necessarily the case for the songwriter. In my reality the new song is the one I wrote yesterday, or today – may not get recorded for years. Or performed. So my reality is the writing.

B.M: I always thought that people who said they cried when they heard certain songs were, for want of a better word, posers. Then I heard your song ‘Beyond Where the Last Buses Run’ from The Celestial Railroad. Which songs or artists move you in such a way?
V.W: I actually blubbed a bit myself when I wrote that song! I think I needed a good purge. It was one of those days! I strummed it real slow & was thinking about this homeless kid who used to sleep in this park across the road from a place I used to live. He was in this park for at least 6 months & I never did anything about it, although it disturbed me & filled me with pain. I was thinking about outsiders, & the loneliness of any outsider is desolate, but homelessness is just plain wrong. Society – Democracy – Hypocrisy – whatever term you wanna use, is just shameful. So I guess I was crying because I was ashamed.

B.M: How important is it for a man to have a decent beard?
V.W: Well, I’m a big fan of the sparse beard. You know, all them Dylan album sleeves from the 70′s he’s always rockin’ a sparse scraggly beard. Luckily my Dad warned me as a kid, ‘As much as you want to shave now, you’ll be doing it for the rest of your life & it will become a daily pain in the arse, so hold off as long as you can.’ So while my classmate were shaving their hairless chests & the girls where probably copying their older sisters & shaving their legs, I resisted the urge! And then when I absolutely had to shave I never used a razor. I always used hair clippers so the hair doesn’t grow back too rough. Feel my beard, it’s like a little bird! I don’t really have a beard, so to speak, I just don’t shave. Does that make sense? It’s not a beard it’s just long stubble!

B.M: I’m assuming you’re a competitive bugger?  In football we have a scoreboard , a ladder and numerous other bits and pieces to measure success. How is success measured for an artist such as yourself?
V.W: Yeah, I’m not sure! With sport it’s a little easier to gauge. But then, some of the best athletes who play team sports but don’t win premierships may seem like failures. I wrote the song Pistol Pete about the basketballer Pete Marovich, who was one of the greatest, most innovative players ever. He invented round the back passing, through the legs dribbling & was one of the greatest scorers of all-time but his teams were always unsuccessful, so he was kind of remembered as a loser. I know when I used to play basketball myself I was quite successful & my team used to dominate, we won consecutively, every game & finals, for season after season until it got to the point I wasn’t happy when we won, I was just relieved when we didn’t lose! That’s when you have to realise you’ve burnt out & you gotta do something else. Follow your heart. That’s the only true success.

B.M: I’ve often been told that footballers want to be rock n rollers & vice versa. True?
V.W: Well, that might be partly true. I guess most people fantasize about being both a rock star or a champion athlete without having any idea of the reality both entail. And the reality aint much to fantasize about! I guess that’s pretty obvious! Most people wouldn’t fantasize about ANYTHING if they had to fantasize the reality! Duh! But yeah, the reality is often far different from the cushy fantasy. The work that goes in, the waiting, the isolation, the inanity, the insanity that becomes reality. A friend once asked me how the groupie action was being a musician, & I said, “I reckon if that’s your main motivation you should put down the guitar & pick up a football cause you’d probably triple your chances.” Grogboglers, don’t they call them? The women who wanna walk down the red carpet at the Brownlow. But at least there’s support for athletes, clubs & trainers & schools & scholarships, elite programs, etc. Not for musicians. You set yourself adrift & work out how to swim or sink.

B.M: I’m an amateur music listener – at best. But from listening to your first two albums ad nauseum I heard a similar theme through a lot of the songs. A sense that you were waiting , perhaps for someone? I’m a real super sleuth! One of your songs is called Waiting… Is there someone you’re waiting for?
V.W: All lovers wait, Bob. For the Muse, for the White Goddess. Who knows? As Mick Jagger said, ‘I’m just waiting on a friend’ Do-do-do-do-do!

Van Walker with The Doggies Bob Murphy (Part 2)

BM: It’s my understanding that you were a sportsman of some note. Has sport shaped you as an artist in any way?
VW: I did play a lot of basketball in my adolescence. And I could play. I had game! But I had to be angry to really turn it on! I had to have a reason to fire up. Otherwise I was happy to go with the flow. I was a State Rep more than once, & the youngest male A.I.S b’baller at the time I gave it all away, due to overkill. But I learned a lot. You learn a lot about yourself & your character on any of these journeys. You push yourself & surprise yourself & realise the mind can either be your enemy or your friend. You also learn to learn the hard way. The best thing, the right thing, in my experience, is usually the hardest option. But you get more out of anything that takes effort because it draws on your soul & forces you to dig deeper. The more you want something, the more you have to try to understand it, & the only way to understand anything is to respect it. Respect, Patience & Vigilance. These are the big three bad-ass lessons! It’s all about paying your dues – which I don’t believe ever ends – & attempting to be worthy of the goal that requires so many concessions to achieve. Takes a lot of heart, but that brings with it a lot of love & leads to some kind of understanding. It also encourages positive thinking, just as one can shape & form strong bonds through habit, not unlike the synapses in the brain becoming stronger & limber & more well-oiled through repetition. Therefor if you enjoy what you do & respect the spiritual nature of the endeavor, practice becomes more like prayer, and one exercises it more out of the love of being in that state, rather than trying to conquer it or beat it into submission. Eventually you realise that there is some part of you that desperately needs to exist in that state, perhaps more than other people around you. So there has to be heart, a tenacious heart, but there also needs to be a loving heart to stand by it through the extremely tough nature of the journey. But I think that is why sincere motivation is of the utmost importance to finding your groove: doing things for the right reasons – for potential spiritual union & personal understanding, not show-boating & popularity – because sincere motivation leads to confidence, & that’s what you need, because confidence unleashes your true nature.

BM: What is your take on AFL footy  in Melbourne?
VW: Frankly, in my opinion, it’s gone downhill. Without a doubt. The game, not the players. It’s the only classic sport which they’ve let the yahoos change & modify to it’s absolute detriment. Too many cooks in the kitchen. Too many hungry mouths to feed & people involved who can’t kick or catch a ball. Big money, big business. Media getting their evil idiotic fingers in the actual mechanics. Players harassed, turned into media fodder, too young to deal with the heightened profiles, too much money, & probably too much time in the off-season to hit the gym! I’m serious! The players are so top heavy these days. The sad irony is that modern conservatism has poo-pooed any kind of old school biffo, but in actual fact the players suffer far worse injuries nowadays than they ever did – sickening career ending injuries – even though the game is, if not slower, more ‘stilted’, & far less exciting. I find it hard to watch, frankly. And don’t get me started on the commentary.

BM: I get pretty anxious before a game of football,  how are you feeling before a gig? Can similarities be drawn between our two professions when it comes to the actual performance?
VW: I think so. Yeah, for sure. Recognising potential, talent, training, understanding the game, understanding the self, belief, preparation, performance. It’s the subtle balance of practice & improvisation. Thinking on your feet. Creativity, and having done the work to pull it off. The difference as far as nerves are concerned is, in regards to sport, you soon learn the pre-game nerves are just reserves of precious energy you can let burst out as soon as the first whistle sounds. But with musical performance, you need to attempt to distribute that energy evenly throughout the show & try not to get too carried away. But that’s true of sport too. Also, I never used to drink a bottle of whiskey before playing sport. It doesn’t help, believe me! But it helps me sing. It unleashes the true inner me I keep caged up normally day to day for the safety & well-being of others! I guess the other distinction, obviously, in regards to sport, is that each individual is applying their ability & training as a team to try to defeat an opposition. Whereas in the case of a musician or an artist, one requires all that same raw talent, training perhaps, & prep, etc, but the idea is to use it to not worry about anybody else, but rather free your mind from comparisons & competitiveness & just try to entertain. It’s all about entertainment, at the end of the day, though tell that to an athlete or artist in the midst of their play & it’s the last thing on their mind. Cal & I were joking once that music should be more like sport, with two bands set up on stage trying to ‘outplay’ each other. With a referee! But… ahem, in all seriousness, one of the main similarities & one of the most important factors to artistic or athletic endeavor, in my opinion, is recognising your own limitations, & the more you understand your limitations the more you can transcend them by other means.

BM: What drew you into the Arts?
VW: Not the money, that’s for sure! Ever since I can remember I drew & wrote & tried to express my inner .. whatever it is. That wordless, imageless echo of the ancients. That connection to your spiritual tribe. What Blake called The Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness. I never shied away from it. I always saw it as a warm & inviting place, of refuge & release. I mean, I desire art because I desire to rouse my soul from it’s slumber, anytime I can, while most people seem to want to keep theirs knocked out cold! Let sleeping dogs lie! But I always want to wake the puppy up & run around the yard with it. You know? It’s a companion! And once you get the relationship going, you learn to trust it & understand it & then it can, in turn, be a very enlightening & powerful comrade. I mean, the wonderful thing about, say, the plays of William Shakespeare, is it’s all very intimidating, at first, but when you get into it, you find you rise to the occasion & understand it & grow & feel exhilarating fulfillment, like a V8 engine that’s only been up to the shops once a week for years that suddenly gets to open up on a highway & fly. I mean, it’s only the mind that gets intimidated by the poetry, not the soul. Poetry is the souls natural language! That’s its home ground! Everyone can understand it but they balk at it because their mind talks them out of it. The mind in this way is like society as a whole, Utilitarian, the Greater Good for the Greater number: which basically encourages the old adage: Ignorance Is Bliss. The mind wants to let, as it were, ‘sleeping dogs lie’, so it watches Reality TV, & gossips about how fat the person on the screen is or how bad their haircut is & all this mundane shit that mirrors their own mundane existence. They don’t want to grow, because they’re scared they’ll fail, which they wont, but the media & all that crap has brainwashed them into thinking they’ll fail.

BM: A vicious circle.
VW: Indeed. Someone once said ‘Gossip is the death of the soul’. And that’s Reality TV. Plain & simple. No longer do we want a script & a plot & something that involves thinking & emotion & compassion & something that rouses the soul. What we want is anesthetic. Somnambulism! People don’t want to read the works of Shakespeare, but they shit-sure want to know what he ate for breakfast! And whether he was short or tall or had a mistress or coveted little boys. You know, rubbish! Absolute rubbish. And the reason they want to know that is because it is rubbish. It’s completely meaningless & safe. Whereas all the meaning is in the work, therefor they shy away in fear of rocking the boat; their safe world; their happiness. That’s the weird thing about happiness. Happiness is not greatness. Greatness is about effort & struggle, insight & reward. Happiness is about effortless ignorance, torpor & stasis. Ha! Society does not really encourage true individual greatness, though we pretend that we do. Society actually encourages & rewards mediocrity, & thus the ‘promise of happiness’. Fuck happiness! That is why we always put second rate artists on a pedestal, pretending we encourage individual greatness. Bullshit! We put the Eric Clapton’s on a pedestal, not the Hendrix. We always get it wrong. But we do it on purpose. We ignore the true geniuses, people like Blake & Rimbaud, Nietzsche & Van Gogh & even Jesus I suppose. Because society does not want anyone rocking the boat. Society’s lifeblood is bovine mediocrity with the potential reward of elusive happiness. Whatever that is! When I see the Aussie cultural cringe & the brown nosing to American artists, it leaves me very cold. People seem to get their knickers in a twist for the second rate artists because I guess it doesn’t intimidate them & they can understand them , &, I don’t know, they don’t negate their own mediocrity. People are always taking about geniuses, but assuming they themselves are not geniuses, who are they to judge! Haha! You know? How can mediocrity understand true greatness? A friend said to me, as an intended compliment, that Liz Stringer could hold her own on a stage with Lucinda Williams & Gillian Welsh. Now, I really love those two artists & I accepted the compliment on Liz’s behalf & agreed, but in my head I’m thinking “The only difference between those two female American artists & Australia’s Liz Stringer is Liz is a better guitar player than both of them, she can sing circles around both of them, & in my opinion writes better songs. Now that last point is only my opinion, but the first two points are facts. Cold hard facts! Ha!

B.M: OK!  I’m not arguing! Your preaching to the choir!

VW: Well, you get my meaning. Society does not encourage greatness or anything rebelling or deviating from the norm. Because that’s it’s enemy. It only encourages mediocrity & placid slavery. Because that’s it’s food. And it eats it’s young. I mean, people complain about how we mistreat chickens & battery hens, but don’t we do the very same to ourselves?  Boxed in our little offices & flats, uniform in our white shirts & black suits, pecking away in obscurity.

BM: That’s a depressing take on modern life.
VW: Yeah, but that’s the world we live in. There’s no two ways about it. And those who create art & those who support it or buy it or dabble in it on the weekend are not the same breed of person. That’s why the public often fall for a hack’s hokum. These paper-mache pirates. People will often carry on about some apparently amazing musician who to me is so lame & self-conscious & trendy & vacuous, but everyone just laps it up. It makes me kind of have to leave the room & sit outside in the gutter like a loser & smoke a cigarette! It’s like: Am I from another planet? Am I the only person who see’s through this shit? Maybe it’s jealousy & I just can’t admit it, but it feels like acute alienation. I mean, seems to me people trip over themselves to shake the devil’s hand. They want to be fooled. Some singer puts on an old grizzled voice & people think that makes the lyrics wise. But the verse is empty! The voice is wizened, but there’s no actual wisdom there, behind the facade. But that  doesn’t stop these pretenders getting all kinds of acclaim & success.  I guess people just want to be fooled. I don’t know. I don’t understand it.

BM: So I’m guessing your not a big fan of Australia’s Got Talent?
VW: Australia’s Got Gullibility? No, not a big fan. The only people who prosper from that show is the judges. These fucking hacks luring these idiots into embarrassment with the false promise of fame &, that word again: ‘Happiness’, & making a mint out of ‘em. There used to be a joke in the music industry where the suits & managers, etc, would say, ‘The music industry would be so much better if we could just get rid of the musicians’. And they’ve effectively done that. That wry, depressing joke has come true & we lap it up. Satan is truly in the building. And he’s sitting next to Danni Minouge & Kyle Fuckface. And the kids, they don’t know any better. They think if only they had the chance & could walk through the right doors & onto the right stage, the world would recognise their truly amazing one-off talents & they could go straight to the top, without all the inconvenient  years of struggle & obscurity. No one wants to pay their dues. But the due paying informs your art with life & soul. Because when you fight for something you earn it & understand it & respect it. There’s no quick fix. And even if there was it still wouldn’t mean a thing.

BM: The Low Road is long…?
VW: Exactly. ‘The Low Road is long, & those high roads are quick but they’re wrong.’

BM: ‘For they’ll chew you up & spit you out…
VW: ‘& then when you’re gone your gone!’

BM: OK. Summer, Autumn, Winter or Spring?  Why?
VW: Winter, as any of my friends could tell you, as I cry like a little bitch all through summer! I find the heat extremely oppressive & distracting. That arid, dry, life-less humidity. Moisture is life, Bob! Autumn I love too because it’s that beautiful end-game in the cycle of life. Without the morbidity we impose on our own mortality.

BM: Let’s talk about your brother Cal. A fine singer in his own right and a stunning beard. Were you typical brothers growing up?
VW: Fairly typical I guess. Hard for me to say. Our main difference is we got closer as we got older & we remain closer than most brothers at our age, I imagine. So there’s many amplified pro’s & cons to such a close & sustained relationship. And of course, with so much water under the bridge, when the balance tips the floods & storms can be pretty full on!

BM: When I drive to my games these days I often listen to your records, & it’s the harmonies between you and Cal that make me want to fly. I’m not sure if i have a question here but I’d be fascinated to hear you talk about harmony .
VW: Well, we’re proof that you don’t have to necessarily live in harmony to sing in harmony! Though you’d probably be surprised how often that is the case. I remember when we were young, before we were even interested in music, sharing a bedroom, having been sent to bed, laying awake in the dark, each in our beds, singing harmonies, purely out of boredom! Not even singing, just making one continuous drone note, then the other shifting the pitch to create harmony & just digging the wondrous nature of that phenomenon. It wasn’t until many years later that we brought that back to the music & remembered it. But having said that, it’s really not my forte. I write the songs & sing them, harmony is more Cal’s skill. As it is Zane’s. And it comes simply from necessity, thus why I’ve never really had to learn to do it. We’re all singing in harmony, but really I’m just singing the main vocal line & Cal and/or Zane find the harmony through their considerable talents.

BM: We are all after it, write about it, sing about it – What gives you a satisfied mind?
VW: A satisfied mind? (lights a cigarette) Well, maybe being broke, if you were to believe the song! I don’t know. Thinking about my sweetheart. My arm around her. Slowly making my way through this bottle of whisky! Watching a cat swagger through the room, alert but nonchalant. I don’t know! Being on the right track, on you’re own trip. You know it’s that idea of happiness again. It does not concern me. Happiness is a joke, really. It’s a passing cloud. It’s the cheese in the mousetrap. Satisfaction is impossible. It’s fleeting & it has to be, otherwise the whole game would grind to a halt. Happiness is a chimera sold to us by the media to make us feel un-happy & un-fulfilled so we’ll buy their poxy over-priced product! But it’s all relative, these emotions, just like the size of an object on the horizon. It’s perspective. But that’s why we need the state to be in flux, so we can understand the duel nature of things. I guess satisfaction might be defined from accepting that very balance, and remembering the bad in past good fortune & the blessings innate in bad luck. Reminds you that you’re just chasing your tail most the time.

BM: In our brief chats we’ve spoken a little about the fact that people are not one-dimensional beings. Take you and I for example -  You as a songwriter and me as a male model  – we have other strings to our bows. What else apart from literature and music excites you? Do you for example struggle with the drop punt as much as I struggle with bar chords on my geetar?
VW: Yeah, I been meaning to ask how the modeling is coming along. I model planes myself. And my drop punt is deadly. By that I mean it could take your head off! (laughter) Even if your standing behind me!  I can’t walk after booting the footy around more than half an hour. My legs just wont allow that kind of effort anymore. And kicking a football with a cig hanging from your lip is just dangerous. But I think the multi-faceted nature of any individual will always disrupt an others one-dimensional image of them. And with public figures this illusion is multiplied by as many people who have an opinion. Then things get quite bizarre & it becomes almost impossible to communicate sincerely. But most people, I imagine, would not survive long putting all their eggs in one basket. The human spirit & imagination finds creative outlet in all types of things, & a persons character always asserts itself in anything the person does. But we tend to simplify things to get a handle on it, even if by simplifying something, we distort it into falsehood. Some people have on occasion seemed to be surprised that someone of my robust stature would write or sing with such sensitivity! Which I find… bizarre! And even the fact that I like to write lots of different styles of music can sometimes cause concern to people who think they have me pegged, in regards to style. But my main interests are not that diverse. I spend most of my time toying with artistic endeavors. My main interests concern the arts, be it film, fine-art. Or being a bullshit artist! It takes all forms! I see art within athletics as far as it being creative expression. But most people can’t bear to draw the bow quite that far. I also have a strange obsession with lighthouses, which are works of art – absolutely – composed in the harshest of mediums.

BM: Tell me, who are your heroes and have you met any of them?
VW: Not a good idea, meeting heroes. But not much chance of it either either. Like I said, one has too many opinions of them. My heroes are people like Dylan, & Nietzsche & Blake: People who did their own thing & had a love of humanity bigger than just trying to ‘fit in’ & conform. I find that kind of true love – rather than sycophantic survival instinct – extremely inspiring; devastatingly so. But yeah, I don’t know it’s a good idea to meet your heroes. Everything that inspires you about them you obviously already have access to. You wont get anymore by meeting them. In fact, the mundane will only disappoint. I guess your friends & family are your real heroes. Some of my friends I regard quite highly & draw a lot of inspiration from. Will Hindmarsh, John Fox, Tim Scanlan, Linda J Dacios, Chris Altmann, Brodrick Smith, Duncan Graham, Paul Yore, Matt Walker, Liz Stringer, Chelsea Stewart. All these people I drink with & socialise with & I look up to them as remarkable people. Of course it’s not for me to try to understand them. I just enjoy the experience of being in their presence!

BM: Finally, I have a mate who does actually play a bit of guitar and we’ve talked about starting a Van Walker tribute act. How does that sit with you?
VW: Frankly, that chills me to the bone, Murph. Haha! No, they say imitation is the greatest compliment, so, go for your life! You have my blessing! It could only be hilarious, if nothing else! It really is quite moving to hear your own music from another musician. It’s happened to me a couple of times. Duncan Graham playing The Low Road, & Ned Wellyn doing If Lovin You Aint Crazy I Am. I was stunned. They’d taken the time to learn the tune, all the lyrics, etc. Very humbling, believe me. Though I’ve never heard you sing, Bob, so stunned I might be, though maybe not in the same sense!


BM: ‘The Celestial Railroad’ is where it all started. The songs are very dear to a lot of people, but which one of those songs is your favorite today? Do your personal favorites change?

VW: I was thinking just the other day about the song High Street Bridge, because I rarely play it live, tho it is a very special song to me. I’d just moved into this big old house on Rucker’s Hill with a magnificent view of the Melbourne CBD skyline, which anyone who’s stood on that bridge can testify to. Tho’ some locals never fail to remind me it’s more a ramp than a bridge, but I wasn’t going to call the song High Street Ramp! Anyway, one night not long after I’d moved in, I was writing the song, just the music, waiting for my flatmates to get a wriggle on & hit the town with me, & I’m looking at this tremendous view of the big bad city I’m about to get amongst, following that ‘call of the wild’ that some people have! And that’s what the song is about: the random need some people have to hit the tiles, whatever time of day it is. So we eventually jumped on a tram & went to the Tote to see my then girlfriend’s band, The Dacios. And then when I got back home early the next morning I wrote the song about this little scenario that starts out quietly in a room with the rain outside & the trucks roaring past & the big sparkling city as a backdrop, steps out into the night & into the din of a small pub with a fantastic local band cranking & the liquor flowing & the bullshit flying, & then ends up back to where it started, alone in a quiet room, thinking, ‘Wha’ happened??!!’
So that song has been adrift in the landscape a bit lately… but as far as favorites, I don’t really think in those terms. I don’t ‘recommend’ anything! I mean, a lot of the Celestial Railroad songs I wrote just to entertain my girlfriend! When Linda (Linda J Dacios) & I were living together & she was working up the road at Shock (Shock Records) everyday I’d always try to have a new song to play her when she got home, because she would listen, basically – Wildgrass, The Celestial Railroad, If Lovin You Aint Crazy I Am – they were all songs that had little to zero drafting; they were just written quickly & subsequently very naturally.

BM: Do songs usually just appear like that?

VW: No. Not usually. But sometimes. And it’s quite confusing when they do. You wonder where they’ve been hiding! It’s what artists term The Muse. Or rather what I call the Muse. Most think of a Muse being an artist’s lover or inspiration, but I see it as much more than that. It’s more like divine intervention. The Art or Muse that one honors can repay ones worship every so often with gifts beyond ones ability. That’s the arty way of putting it. But less romantically, I suppose you could argue that to knock out fully formed songs like that you’re just drawing on past experience & having many years of writing under your belt so they can seemingly be composed off the cuff. But it’s still more mysterious than that.

BM: Paul Kelly simply calls it ‘a knack’…

VW: Well, he can afford to be coy about it, with such critical acclaim, & deservedly so. And I suppose it is, just a knack. Just like Doctors have a knack for repairing the body…

BM: Ha! Can songwriting be compared to medicine?

VW: Well, why not? Nothing’s more important than mental health. And there’s millions of doctors in the world. There’s only one Paul Kelly.

BM: Drunk Boat off your new album sounds instantly recognisable. Did you find that when you wrote it? It sounds as If it came very easily to you…

VW: Yeah, I remember I wrote it instantly, so that makes sense! I was at Linda’s new house, after we were no longer living together, & I said to her, ‘I’ve written all these songs about heartbreak while you’ve looked after me but I’ve never written a song about you’. So I composed it right there on the spot while she stood looking at me. Maybe that’s why it came so easily & is instantly recognisable, because it came straight from the heart.
But back to the High Street Bridge song, that’s also very special to me because it was with that song that I first met Liz Stringer, as she played banjo on it on The Celestial Railroad album, which came out a few years later. And then a couple of years later again, when we had our first date, we rode our bikes – me from Richmond, her from Coburg – & met on the High Street Bridge. So it’s a funky little rarely played urban bluegrass tune, but it’s special to me.

BM: Urban Bluegrass! Is that a genre? What genre would you describe your music?

VW: Again, it’s not something I really think about. It’s just really not important. In fact, it’s probably more important not to think about it because genre is basically only limiting & rarely accurate. I mean, recording Greetings from Penguin Tasmania was such a fun experience & I’m really happy with the album because we just did it; almost unconsciously. And that was only partly to do with booze! (Laughter) We just felt like having fun & were relaxed & we approached the recording simply digging the tunes & the experience but without thinking too much of the outcome, especially about what anybody else would think, or call what we were doing. We certainly didn’t know! Nor care! I mean, what are we ever really doing but expressing ourselves in a moment, either sincerely or insincerely? And with the idea of genre comes an expectation. So the (Greetings…) album has this weird naff 80′s FM country rock vibe to it – you know, the most unfashionable sound – but it’s great! It’s got some great surprises on it & it sounds like itself, not like anything else. It’s a Rummin’, as my Dad always called me. So really, it’s true to my nature. Even the daggy plaid cover sums it up, and that was just a photo of the carpet we were standing on. So it’s all as natural as possible. It’s a ‘record’ of a time, not an idea. If I wasn’t happy with the outcome I would have shelved the sessions, as I did with a few other sessions that year. But no one in their right mind would think of that genre & decide it’d be a fertile market in 2009!

BM: From your already extensive reservoir of songs, which is the one you are asked about the most?

VW: (Pause) Well…. People sometimes inquire as to the identity of the Girl From the Tote (from The Swedish Magazines’ 2005 LP Eat More Baby). And I tell them to go to the Tote & she’ll be at the bar. Well, actually, probably not any more, but a few years ago she would have been. I also warn them to stay right away from her!

BM: Who are your biggest musical influences?  I mean, as far as songwriters, composers…

VW: Well, obviously Bob Dylan… Townes Van Zandt, Ray Davies… Ronnie Lane… Lou Reed (Long Pause) Robbie Robertson. But also guys like Greg Sage, John Fahey, Bill Callahan, Tim Rogers, Paul Westerberg, Greg Cartwright, Dee Dee Ramone, Paul Caporino, Shane McGowen…(Long Pause) Prince… he must have been the most prolific & consistent songwriters during that run in the 80′s. Um, who else? Kim Salmon, I love…  Spencer P Jones is hugely underrated… Tim Hemensley, John Onya… great songwriters. Colin Hay still writes a great tune. Young local cats like Will Hindmarsh, James McCann, Chris Altmann… killer writers who are relatively unknown, but have proved they can write consistent quality. Sometimes that’s perhaps a curse in disguise, because one decent song on a dud album stands out better that it might perhaps be, whereas the work of consistent writers can sometimes obscure themselves among the quality of their other songs. But most writers wish they had them kind of problems! And of course, people like Willie Dixon… how many monster tunes did he write! And hardly anyone knows he did! Lightening Hopkins… he used to make up his songs on the spot! Jackie Leven, Ivor Culter, Chuck Jenkins, Hank Williams, (Pause) Steven Forster…. Back when Forster wrote songs, the composers were paid for the sale of sheet music, without ongoing royalties. So he was rich for a few years, then died penniless! Not much different than downloads today. And, you know, songwriting partnerships like Mick Jagger & Keith Richards… so much killer material over such a long period of time. Absolutely mind-boggling, the stuff they’ve produced. And Jagger is a highly underrated lyricist. Only someone with such iconic heft could get away with such fantastic un-PC stuff in hit songs.

BM: OK, imagine it’s 2013, Van Walker is headlining the Forum Theatre, & Michael Gudinski has requested you cover 1 song – What do you pick?

VW: Bloody hell. (Pause) A cover of one of my songs? Or one of his? I’m not sure Michael Gudinski writes songs. He’s too busy making money off Kylie Minogue’s backside. He wouldn’t get diddly from me, frankly. The Swedish Magazines once played a show with – speaking of ‘covers bands’ – Airbourne, & we were made to curtail our set so Gudinski, who was running late, could catch Airbourne. Which was so pathetic & typical, so I walked out in front of this packed rock crowd & played Blue Moon solo as a protest! And then when Airbourne played I was in the crowd up the back of the room, & in front of me was Michael Gudinski – in a quite artificially exited state – & the man couldn’t even clap in time. To bloody Airbourne, mind you.

BM: Do you know if any of your songs have been used for weddings or funerals? And how do you feel about that?

VW: Yeah, it’s an honour, for sure. In fact, when we cut the song All the Leaves are Shaking, someone in the studio during the playback quipped, ‘Man, people are gonna play this song at weddings!’ And sure enough, many people have told me they’ve had it played while they’ve tied the knot! And I’ve even played it at a few mate’s weddings.

BM: From each of your 4 released albums to this point, & the 5th about to be released, which individual songs best represent those albums for you?

VW: Um… I don’t think I could honestly answer that question. I think because… songs exist on their own merit, & should stand on their own two legs, but my central idea regards the importance & power of albums is that the songs work together, like a team. And great teams never have dispensable members. So as far as individual songs that represent whole albums… another way of looking at it could be, hopefully, that any song should represent the album it’s included on, as a strong individual, but indispensable, fixture.

BM: Your new album BUSH LEAGUE BARD – your 5th release, & 4th since 2009′s LAST RECORD STORE! – has a strange title. Can you explain it?

VW: Well, I got the belly of a bard, not a pop star! The title comes from the Neil Young line ‘All the Bush League Batters…are now in Granite Lake’ from the song For the Turnstiles from the One the Beach album. I always loved the idea that Americans or Canadians called their 2nds The Bush League. So that’s where it comes from. Plus the fact of course that a performer of written verse, what we now call a singer-songwriter, was once called a Bard. See, my Dad was a country footballer, ie a bush league baller. So I joined the two ideas.

BM: Tell me about the album.

VW: Well, it’s a mixture of new songs & unrecorded live favorites, recorded with many of the same musicians who played on The Celestial Railroad album. It was also recorded in the same studio, in Mick Thomas’ backyard. So there’s a few superficial similarities, but I wouldn’t imagine it sounds anything the same. It’s just the same people, a little older, a little wider. I mean, wiser! At the helm again was the one & only Chris Altmann, which is always a pleasure. Very easy to work with, & fun, & a crack multi-instrumentalist. And the whole thing was mixed & mastered again by Craig Pilkington, who is just awesome; again, fun & easy. No hassle. So there are similarities to The Celestial Railroad, as far as place & personnel, but really it’s just a bunch of new songs & new sounds.

BM: The song Forever Aint So Long is quite different on the album than it’s usually performed live.

VW: Well, that song was always like that (as on the album) in my head, we just perform it as we do usually due to the instrumental limitations of live performance. Both work, but I needed to get that song down as I first envisioned it. That song is actually a proxy! It came about due to the failure of another song! I wrote this tune called Two Rounds in the Chamber, about two lovers on the run from the law left with the awfully romantic last recourse of suicide! It was a good tune but a little over-the-top for my liking, so eventually I came back to the idea a little less dramatically. And in the studio I could finally re-create the original sound in my head.

BM: The studio is a mysterious place to those of us who are not professional musicians. What’s been your most unorthodox recording method to date?

VW: I’m not sure what consists of orthodox or unorthodox these days. Mainly we’re just trying to capture the life & soul of the song no matter how ‘professional’ or ‘unprofessional’ it may sound, as apposed to trying to edit & perfect it into oblivion.  But recording studios swing form being very fertile, fun places.. to extremely boring, lifeless, claustrophobic tombs! You gotta work hard not to get trapped in the dullness of repetition, & try to squeeze as much juice out of the location as possible. They potentially can be extremely fertile environments, & God knows, you spend so much of your youth dreaming of being able to get in one to record, you can’t forget that. So you gotta work hard. Make it a Womb or else it’ll quickly become a Tomb!


BM: On the inside cover of BUSH LEAGUE BARD there’s a strange piece of writing….

VW: Oh, that’s just… It was either that or another photo of my ugly mug. That’s just a fragment from a larger poem I wrote. Or almost wrote. Spent seven years trying to write this 600+ page poem but never did get it under control. That piece on the inside cover was actually composed with fridge magnets! They where just the magnets on a friends fridge that I organized while waiting for them one day & it’s remained there ever since!

BM: Tell me, what song of yours is the most challenging for you to perform live?

VW: It’s always a challenge to play the songs Cal knows! (Laughter) You know? I’ve written probably ten times the amount of songs than he’s ever bothered to work out, which is limiting live, no end, & possibly artistically insulting & stunting in other ways, but, you know, he’s my big brother. What can I do? There’s no telling him. And there certainly isn’t anything I can do to impress him! (Laughter) But a song only has to be performed live once & then you feel confident it can be performed adequately again & again. But before it’s debut, it’s always touch & go as to whether anyone can remember it! There’s a great deal of faith involved. Honestly. Because performing music, for me, at least, is always a leap of faith. I can’t remember anything, much less the hundreds of songs & thousands of rhyming couplets I’ve written over the years. I never know what’s coming next! I only remember the next line by the line preceding it! And that’s the truth! It could all fall down at any moment. It’s a tight-rope walk but that’s how it seems to have to work.

VW: Tell me about the song Wake In Fright from the Greetings from Penguin Tasmania album.

BM: That came about many years ago, when Cal & I first moved to Melbourne, around 2001. We lived in St Kilda & used to stay up getting endlessly drunk in this tiny flat & there used to be this ridiculous late night Advanced Hair commercial on T.V every five minutes after midnight, with Greg Mathews springing up behind a couch saying: ‘Sometimes hair loss can make you wake in fight!”  It must have been on the telly as the song was being written. Originally the tune was a slow acoustic number, much like Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, but sometimes we’d rock it up into a Slade-like Stomp, which is how we eventually recorded it. Actually an old girlfriend rang me the other day to tell me that was her favorite song on the album. Same girl lot of the old love songs where writen about years ago, but she likes the heavy boogie!

BM: The song Born Posthumously from the album The Last Record Store sounds quite ominous, but in a very gentle way. What can you tell me about that song?

VW: Well, a Melbourne musician, a friend of mine, once told me I’d be famous once I was dead, which was nice, like, “Gee, thanks.” But it got me thinking about Nietzsche’s line ‘Some men are born posthumously’ & the song just kind of appeared one night. The last verse is very Blakian: another artist such as Nietzsche that had a posthumous re-birth, as far as becoming much more well known posthumously… if not anymore generally comprehensible! (Laughter) He’s still the ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ as far as I’m concerned. But that’s the very point: it’s not important that everyone is understood, nor should they be. You know? Nor should that even be a laudable ambition. ‘Never was the truth spoken as to believed & understood’ is a very famous line of William Blake’s from The Marriage of Heaven & Hell. And what was that other line Nietzsche said? ‘Another generation of readers? The spirit itself will stink.’ So it’s about the idea of fame being a curse disguised as a blessing; as the cheese in the mousetrap; appealing to fools but being more a form of emptiness willfully wanting to be kidnapped & turned into something it is not, ie: Something. Anything! (Laughter). I mean, I suppose some people encourage a wider misconception of their own truth because, maybe they don’t have any truth! Well, of course they have a ‘truth’ but maybe they don’t know what it is. Or they don’t respect it. So they actively want someone else to impose a superficial truth on them. Very sad, that kind of thing, but it’s almost universal. The big dream. But perhaps not a very ideal situation at all, or even very important in the first place. But it’s not my burden to bear. Nor will it be, I hope. But who’s to say. To be famous, you kind of have to want to be famous. But popularity is created by others, not an individual. George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Kings are the product of mass hallucination’. But it’s the desire for fame that seems to be the trouble. The desire for fame that makes us encourage others to be famous. I’ve experience popularity before & it always made me uncomfortable, & felt more like a burden than a blessing, as if I was being voted to the front line of a war so those who voted for me could stand safely behind me! (Laughter) Didn’t make me feel loved! Made me feel duped! (Laughter) But the song is not really about me, it’s more about the nature of success or fame, being only a ‘cup’ trying to catch the ‘river’ of your truth, or work, & the idea of ‘popularity’ & ‘celebrity’ being so empty that a ‘drop’ of the real heart of your work would ‘dose the sun’ of any amount of hype.

BM: The new album has an upbeat soul/pop number, Underneath the Radar, smack dab in the middle of an otherwise down home country record. Was this intentional?

VW: Yep!

BM: What’s the story behind the song?

VW: Well, another friend of mine, again a musician, moved to Sydney with his sweetheart & was booking me some shows there so we could catch up & he sent a few emails to different bookers, which he also sent to me, & in one of these emails he mentioned that if they’d never heard of me it was because I flew ‘underneath the radar’, which struck me as, a strange concept but also an interesting idea. I wondered if he thought I did it on purpose! Then I wondered if I do it on purpose! (Laughter) Then I remembered an old acquaintance of mine from Tassie, who came from Czechoslovakia when he was a baby… His father flew a crop-duster for years, right to the border of the country, on which there where armed guards in watchtowers – this was mid to early 70′s – & when my friend was still just a babe in arms, one day his father took his mother & him in the crop duster & as it was turning around over the border he suddenly veered & flew over the border, followed by machine gun fire from the watchtowers, but made it safely away & flew to Australia to begin a new life. So there were verses about this story that didn’t make it to the recorded version. I decided a pop song didn’t need such a heavy topic! Maybe another song.

BM: Tell me, how many coffees had you consumed whilst you were writing ‘If Lovin’ You Ain’t Crazy I Am’?

VW: If Loving You Aint Crazy I Am is a sentence that still kind of twists my melon! I know it makes sense, but trying to explain why it make sense analytically always seems to confound me more. I’ve had discussions with friends about how the phrase works – or doesn’t work – grammatically, but we can never seem to pin it down. I don’t drink coffee, by the way. I’m confused enough without it.

BM: Maybe you should!


VW: Maybe I should!

BM: Imagine how many verses the song would have then!

VW: Someone said to me backstage after the gig last night that he thought my brain was like a fax machine with these reams of Kerouacesque unpunctuated poetry spewing out. (Laughter) So no coffee for me!

BM: I thought I could hear some Bruce Springsteen influences (circa ‘Nebraska’) on your song ‘The Promised Land’ from your album Love Fate. How far off the mark am I?

VW: Yeah, well, Bruce would be lucky to write a song as good as that! Haha! Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. I can see similarities but it certainly was not conscious. I think I remember that song was written at the house atop the High Street bridge, at the same table as High Street Bridge & Beyond Where the Last Buses Run. So it may have made it to The Celestial Railroad album, had that been it’s fate. You know, I’ve never once seen a review of the Love Fate album. Hopefully one day it’s recognised.

BM: Finally, do fans & journalists obsess too much about an artists influences?

VW: I don’t know. It’s all entertainment, at the end of the day. It’s all fun. Serious fun. ‘The seriousness of a child at play’, as Nietzsche said. We all do it. We all want to get to the bottom of the mystery, to see how the magic works, but there’s no bottom to it! It’s amorphous, yet it’s all around us. Within us & without us! So maybe we use up a lot of energy, needlessly, failing to capture something that’s always there anyway. But, I guess that’s part of the effect it excites from us, & that’s the whole point, so bring it on. More to the point, perhaps it is the artist that should be careful to hold their tongue, less they explain away the mystery. I always try to give a little but not too much. But it’s probably better to say nothing. Too late for that! I mean, I could choose to not give voice to my secret thoughts… Or boozy rancor!… But then I would miss the pleasure of our little chats, Bob!

BM: Well, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to ask you some questions. Your music really is important to a lot of people, as I’m sure you’re well aware. But with my young family it really has soundtracked a special time. Thanks again, Van.

VW: Thank you, Bob! It’s a real pleasure to talk & trade ideas. That’s all this little caper is.

(July 2010)

With Jon Von Goes

With Jon Von Goes, JVG METHOD, RRR, on the release of Greetings from Penguin Tasmania

JVG: So, what’s the go with Penguin, Tasmania?
VW: Well, you know they say, Jon, it’s the jewel in the crown of North West Tasmania. My good mate & drummer of The Swedish Magazines Johnny Gibson was born there – twenty minutes round the coast from Burnie, where Cal & I were born – & he still has family there. And his Grandfather & Grandmother-  Edna & Norman Newman (RIP) – their house is still there, awaiting sale. It’s a huge, fantastic property up in the hills, that Norman built himself, & rebuilt after a fire, & that Edna lived in for many years after Norman’s death – drowned along with his crew sailing a boat, which he possible built himself too, around the treacherous East coast. So their house has stood empty, though fully furnished, for years, & Johnny had such great memories of the house from his childhood that he wanted us to experience it. I thought we may as well record an album while we were there.
JVG: Isn’t it a bit cold down there?
VW: It can certainly get cold down there, but there’s open fireplaces. And there are ways & means to keep warm. Usually communal activities! Like making music. We invited some friends down with us, Steve Fraser (Little Gold Studios) Liz Stringer, Luke Sinclair (The Idle Hoes) Jo Brockman (The Dirty Skirt Band) and got a dozen bottles of fortified wine… and kept ourselves busy & warm!
JVG: Were your valve amplifiers able to heat up adequately?
VW: It’s actually not that cold, in August. It’s mild & sunny & just a short ride down the hill to the beach. Tho’ we did get some heavy rainfall, which can be heard on the record. The most obvious is the start of Blackwater, but you can also hear it coming down on I think the second verse of Always Too Soon. I’ll tell you a story. While we we’re down there we played a few gigs & one place we went to was The Tassie Tiger Bar in Mole Creek,  which a friend of ours father was running. Mole Creek is right down the guts of Tassie, right in the wilderness. In fact, if anyone who owns the record wants to know exactly where it is, look on the disc & the song Everybody Loves You Sometimes is placed directly on Mole Creek (*complete graph included at end of interview). Mole Creek is a special place for Tasmanians because  as children it’s a popular visiting place. There’s caves there filled with model communities of moles dressed as yea-olde prospectors. It’s also home to all the Tassie Devils, & it’s THE most common area for supposed sightings of Tasmanian Tigers, the some-say extinct Thylacine. So we drove down there to play a show & it pissed down rain the entire way. Now, there are only two entrances/exits to Mole Creek: it’s basically a road with a pub in the middle of it. So we settled in & played our first set while the rain just hammered down outside. At the end of the set we hear word that one of the bridge entrances/exits has flooded & is uncrossable. We keep playing & the rain keeps bucketing down & soon we hear that the other bridge entrance/exit has also flooded & is uncrossable. So we’re landlocked, & these bus loads of footy players we were hoping would fill out the audience are not gonna make it! (laughter) So we play on regardless, to a small but lively crowd, warm & dry, sheltered from this torrential storm outside, when suddenly, around 11pm, the end of our 3rd set, the power goes: bang! No lights, no power. So here we are in the middle of nowhere, pretty pissed, in the pitch black dark with the sky falling in on us outside. But this is where the magic of the place took hold. It doesn’t matter how old you get, blackouts always arouse some sort of survival excitement in ya. We ended up lighting candles around the pub, sat at the bar with our acoustics & bevies, & continued the show. And it was fantastic. People sang along. We heard the ghost stories – even one about the ghost dog! – we drank  these excellent concoctions called Seamus’s – named after the dog – which was two shots Whisky, two shots Stones, & we had a great night. Got smashed & met the locals.  This old bloke there, Harry – who by 4 in the morning under candlelight looked twenty years younger – mind you, the next day after the storm had cleared, in broad daylight, he looked like Methuselah’s Grandfather! (laughter) We were actually worried he would not make it through the night! And his mate Noel, who was a middle-aged farmer with a sun-ravaged, dirty complexion & a voice like 40 miles of bad Tasmanian road. At some stage in the night, Harry, who was quite a crude storyteller with a filthy imagination, tried to sell Johnny Viagra for $20! (laughter) Johnny was heard to exclaim: ” I hope I’m as lively as you when I’m you’re age. I’m 30 now & you must be at least 1o times that!” (more laughter) Anyway, Harry started trying to off-load this Viagra onto Noel, and Noel was heard to cackle back  dismissively, “I don’t want an erection for 36 hours!” He then promptly finished his drink, waved goodbye & walked out into the pitch black storm, popping his head back in just to reiterate: “36 hours!”  (laughter)   All this went into the song Fighting Windmills.

JVG: And did you see the mythical Tasmanian Tiger?
VW: We were told numerous stories of sightings, and always from reliable sources. You know, “So-&-So’s wife swears she saw one, & she doesn’t even drink!” Always very solemn reports of sightings that came from the most sober & god-fearing of the community. And there are heaps of black & white photo’s everywhere, from back in the day when they did exist, before they were hunted out of existence. But we didn’t see much – you couldn’t see much! It was like black soup. I was too scared to go outside! God knows what lives out there in that wilderness! But we had a great time sheltered in the pub. Dougie, the owner of the pub, said “Van, you’re gonna have to write a song about this!” And I promised him I would, which is the first track off Love Fate, Blackout.

JVG: Did you run any songwriting workshops down there?
VW: Na, there wasn’t much call for it, to be honest.
JVG: Did you do any songwriting in your workshop down there?
VW: Um, I’m not sure I wrote anything while we were down there, Jon. I was putting all my juice into the recordings. I know Liz wrote the title track to her new album Tides of Time down there. We had this huge four-poster bed carved from a single tree & I awoke one day & she was on the end of the bed writing it.
JVG: Do you still feel like a Tasmanian or have you assimilated?
VW: Well, I was born in Tassie so I’m sure I’ll always be Tasmanian. As far as ‘do I feel more sophisticated now I live in Melbourne’: not at all. I was more sophisticated at 13 than most the Melbourne adults I met over here! (laughter) And I wasn’t much of a ‘poster boy’ Tasmanian either. I never even fished! Hate riding horses. Haven’t done a hard days work in my life!  So ‘do I feel as much an outsider here in Melbourne as I did in Tassie’: Yes.
JVG: How’s your relationship with your brother Cal?
VW: None of your business. But thanks for asking.
JVG: Do you fight a lot?
VW: We don’t fight a lot, considering we’re brothers & very close. The irony is we fought more when the relationship was better.
JVG: Is that you playing the screeching lead guitar on the album?
VW: There is a fair bit of my patented dodgy electric guitar riffing going on. Stuff like Only in the Night & Up for Days. Cal tends to do more soloing live so I can concentrate on singing. But yeah, a lot of the time I guess it’s assumed it’s not me playing solos on the records because I don’t do them live. My leads are more bullshit, kind of all emotional bluff, whereas Cal knows his way around the scales better. Cal’s rippin’ out that great solo & outro on Outside World.

JVG: Are there times when you wanna shelve the country folky stuff and turn up diabolically loud?
VW: I always have The Swedish Magazines, when I want volume.  You remember them, dont ya, Jon? That’s my outlet high energy rock’n'roll. Also, I got my two piece junk-punk band Skywest & Crooked. Also, I’m gonna start a project this year with Stevie Hesketh, Dave ‘The Suit’ Watkins & Jeb Cardwell, doing some funky rock’n'roll stuff. It’s always there, & it’s good to play as much music as possible. It’s just you can only release one record at a time!
JVG: Are you gonna churn out more records this year than last year?
VW: I don’t plan to. Last year just so happened I did a lot of recording. Then I decided to use what money I had from sales & gigs to release some of the sessions as albums instead of pissing it away! Just trying to put cash straight back into the process so I could get a bit of recycling effect going. The Last Record Store was recorded in January 2009, but released in August. See, it only takes a couple of days or weeks to record an album, if you’re a primitive like myself, but everything else takes so long. Too long. And obviously the songwriting takes the longest. So we recorded Greetings From Penguin Tasmania in August, about a week before the release of The Last Record Store, then I did a recording in Negambie at Andrew & Kerry McGee’s place in October 2009 called Love Fate. Greetings… was eventually released in December 2009 & Love Fate in March 2010. So the artist’s reality behind the scenes is much different from people’s perceptions on the outer. And really the only relevant question is, are they relevant albums? Are albums in general even relevant anymore? That’s a question I consider everyday. And my response is directly mirrored in my actions.
JVG: So you do plan  to churn out more records this year than last year?
VW: Ah, I don’t plan to do anything!! Well, that’s not exactly true. Next solo record will be released hopefully in August, & the new Swedish Magazines album is almost ready, so hopefully that finds a release this year. Also I want to record an E.P of the Skywest & Crooked stuff. And I’m gonna do a session out in the bush with my mate Johnno Wilson. Just acoustic, fiddle & uke. So they’re my plans. But these are songs I plan to record, not albums I plan to release. I’ll only release em if I think they warrant even the slightest public interest. I can write & record songs that only warrant mine & the musicians interest all the time if that happens to be the case.
JVG: Now on  more serious topic: Are you getting repulsive callouses on your right thumb from all that finger-picking shit?
VW: Ha! I’ve been doing it so long now, my fingers are pretty tough.
JVG: Has your songwriting peaked?
VW:I certainly hope not! Or else I hope it’s peaking all the time. One of the things I love about songwriting, & music in general, is that it’s exciting to imagine what’s coming next. And that feeling never ends. I remember when I was young excitedly telling a friend, “We are never gonna run out of music!! The great bands of today have more records to put out, & we’re never possibly gonna be able to find all the great music recorded in the past, & the unknown artist’s of tomorrow…who knows what they’ll put out next!” Of course, lots of the bands folded, or the songs dried up. But as I said, if that was the case you could always go back. I have at least five or six albums of old songs set roughly in album form, so even if I never wrote another song, I could record them.
One other point I’d like to make is, songwriting, like any art-form, is a process. So you’re never peaking. That opinion can only be judged in hindsight. And often that’s spurious anyway because sometimes you have to catch the bus to get to the plane. You cant always catch planes to planes! So you write em – or catch em in your net as they float by – & I don’t try to judge them too harshly. I just try to let them take shape. And if they turn out ‘good’ I might play them in public, if they turn out ‘not so good’, I might leave them be. But I always try to let them come, good or bad. In this way you’re always practicing the craft & allowing them to take form, & letting others decide what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
JVG: When are you gonna write a book?
VW: I actually spent seven years writing a book, in my early to late 20′s, before I started performing my songs publicly. It’s not a book, it’s more a very long prose-poem. It was around 800 pages, but I’ve drafted it back to about 200. I still plan to work on it until it’s finished, though I’m not sure it’s fit for public consumption.
JVG: What about plays?
VW: I’ve got a few half-baked ideas, & a few half-finished attempts. But again I don’t feel they work very well. In fact, a lot of my songwriting comes from thwarted attempts at writing other longer pieces. All the different crafts have different effects, & thus different disciplines. So when I’m struggling with the form of a longer piece, often it’s easier to pick up the guitar & stick with the 3 minute pop song.
JVG: It’s a proven form.
VW: It is.
JVG: A comic strip perhaps?
VW: Would you believe it, I actually used to draw comics for a zine called The Fall of Because. They’re out there, if you can find them!
JVG: I’m running out of questions. Have you bought any new clothes lately?
VW: You mean this old thing? I don’t buy clothes. I tend just to wear my dad’s old shirts & stuff I find. I once lived in a house & found a heap of clothes from an ex-tenant in the back-shed – great stuff, old 90′s rock tees & work shirts – which I started wearing, & one day I was talking to him somewhere in public, & he was looking at me weird. He’d since changed his style to a very considered ultra-black emo-punk-rock thing, & I was wondering why he was looking at me funny, then later I realised I was wearing his shorts & a shirt from three years back!
JVG: Well, lastly, before we head to the Lomond for a beer & continue this conversation in private: How’s your dad holding up?
VW: None of your business. But thanks for asking.

*Song=Town Map of Greetings From Penguin Tasmania Disc

1. Up for Days = Stanley
(Yellow Greetings… title = Penguin)
2. Blackwater = George Town
3. Outside World = Arther River
4. Living like a Gypsy = Railton
5. Say it’s Alright = Launceston
6. Only in the Night = Savage River
7. Everybody Loves You Sometimes = Mole Creek
8. Fighting Windmills = Zeehan
9. Lovable Larikkin = Cambell Town
10. Wake in Fright = Cape Sorrell
11. Always Too Soon = Strathgordon
12. You Turn Me On = Hobart
13. Lady of the Sea = Cygnet

THE AGE (August, 2009) At The Bar with Van Walker

Tell us something about the place where you grew up.

Well, Midnight Oil were so immediately disturbed by passing through it on an early tour, it inspired a famously unflattering song. (Burnie)

Did you experience a childhood musical epiphany?

I suppose when I realised I no longer needed to draw pictures or write stories, I could do it all through songwriting — and get to wail as well!

Dream dinner party for four?

William Blake, Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Reed and Ronnie Barker. Hopefully at least one of ‘em can cook.

Most embarrassing moment on stage?

That very first moment…

Favourite gig?

Bob Dylan, Launceston Silverdome, April 10, 1992. First gig, first toke!

Favourite book?

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey.

Favourite band name?

The Onyas.

Tell us a song lyric you regularly got wrong when younger?

“I can’t wait for you to operate” in Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. I always thought he said “ovulate”.

Which living musician would you most like to collaborate with?

Greg Cartwright (Compulsive Gamblers, Deadly Snakes, Reigning Sound).

Stones or Beatles?

Flamin’ Groovies!

Song you wish you had written?

High Open Hills, Liz Stringer.

At the moment, what’s your favourite record to play on Saturday night?

It Tastes Just Like a Milkshake (Come Take a Sip of my Love) by M.O.T.O.

What song would you want played at your funeral?

Thank You, The Powder Monkeys.

Who would you like to be stuck on a long-haul flight with?

Clive James would be fun. Or Stephan Colbert.

Ok, who in your opinion is the most over-rated musician going?

The notes are the most over-rated things in music.

Patrick Emery Interview

Patrick Emery chats with Van on the release of The Last Record Store

P.E: When and where did you record the new album?

V.W: January 2009, at Little Gold Studios in Brunswick, Melbourne.

P.E: How would you contrast this record with The Celestial Railroad?

V.W: This record is sonically less ornate, and artistically less planned. Though it was intensely planned, it’s just The Celestial Railroad was really intensely planned! But basically it’s just new songs, new stories, some different musicians, and a sparser, starker approach.

P.E: You play regularly with your elder brother Cal. Does Cal ever do the ‘big brother thing’ and tell you that you’re heading in the wrong direction?

V.W: I love Cal. But I’m bigger than him.

P.E: You’ve said that Melbourne musicians are very uncompetitive, generous and supportive. When you first immersed yourself in the Melbourne music scene, were you surprised at how supportive other musos were?

V.W: It took me a couple of years to find some musicians worth working with; people who wanted to work & not just talk about it. Then a couple more years to make a bigger network. Thing is, just because you know a great musician, doesn’t mean they are right for the music you want to make. So it takes a lot time and sustained effort. But it’s truly a gift & a wonderful time to be a musician in this country & state. I’ve got a few friends whom I buy their albums. To buy your best mates album and truly love the music is a wonderful thing! Any night of the week you can go out in Melbourne and hear world class musicians. Being from Tasmania I’m not blasé about that. There are many world class musicians in Tassie too but nowhere near the platform to perform. If you’re inspired rather than intimidated you can learn a lot in any aspect of life.

P.E: You say in the liner notes to the album that you weren’t expecting to necessarily release a solo album. What were your initial ambitions when you started writing the songs that ended up on Celestial Railroad and the new record?

V.W: I’ve got lyric books of hundreds of songs & because I’m neurotic & scared I’ll forget them I write lists of potential albums all the time. New songs & old songs, so they come from all over the place. The only important thing is that the album has its right shape. Ipods are evil in this regard.

P.E: Your record is named after the shop on Smith Street. Do you think the humble record store has a future in the digital age?

V.W: I think they will go & it will be a mistake. Progress over sense. Boredom over patience.

P.E: Do you find a record store a place of solace?

V.W: I find good records a place of solace! But I don’t visit a lot of record stores because I never have any money & it’s like being hungry & watching someone cook a steak! But if you keep your ears open there’s music all around you.

P.E: To what extent are your songs personal? Do you use the vehicle of song to purge thoughts from your mind?

V.W: I guess to write a song you must take something outside yourself & make it your own. You must also take something inside yourself & make it someone else’s.

P.E: Do you expect that people will listen to your songs expecting to learn more about you the person?

V.W: That would be a mistake, I would think, but we all do it, to some degree. But we’re really only trying to learn something about ourselves. Yet we look outward because really we’re scared to learn anything about ourselves. You can only really learn about the artist while experiencing any form of art, but it’s the artist within you that is responding to it. Anyone wanting to learn anything about me should introduce themselves, probably, and buy me a bloody drink! And the first thing they’ll learn is that I’m very grateful! (laughter)

P.E: The track Long Time Hard Time Blues is written about a particularly slow computer you were using. Any chance you’ll license the song as part of a future Dell, Microsoft or Intel marketing campaign?

V.W: Unlikely…

P.E: The Last Record Store sounds like it could have been written in the United States. Do you think you’ll make it to the US to play and tour?

V.W: It was written on a porch in Coburg while a dear friend asked me for a cigarette lighter for the zillionth time. If you mean my twang it’s just the music I listen to. The heart has no accent. I’d have to affect an Oka accent, which would feel fake. Strange thing, sincerity. Takes all forms. Everyone made fun of how I spoke when I was young so I don’t affiliate myself with any so-called natural sound. People who criticise that are totally missing the point & usually betraying a deeper bias on their own part . Just like with C.W Stoneking; sad sooks trying to blacken the whites of his eyes. Travel-wise, I don’t plan to visit the land of the free but I might; given half the chance. People have suggested I should. Everything to learn is right in front of us at any time, so I don’t feel like running off while there’s work to be done here. But I also feel I’m starting to get a bit of a travel bug like I’ve never had before. I’m heading to Europe for a while end of this year. But I’m just interested in building an audience. I’ll go where ever they are!

P.E: Do you consider yourself a professional musician? If so, what – if any – expectations does that bring with it?

V.W: Well, I am a professional musician & this is what I do, and this is what I will do whether I’m rich or poor, loved or hated or just plain ignored. I’ve learned to live off less, so a little is a lot to me. I don’t mind my economic state as long as my creative & spiritual state is ‘rich’. That’s the price I pay for it – quite a lot! But I don’t mind being relatively poor financially. They say money affords freedom, but I believe it can be a trap. It’s a distraction. And I don’t mind being relatively unknown. Do famous people know themselves any better? Or is that not the point? Everyone gets ‘discovered’ sooner or later, all I’m interested in is that what will be discovered is good.

P.E: What was your career aspiration before you started pursuing a life in music?

V.W: I’ve never had any career aspirations. Story-telling is extremely important and always has been throughout humanity, but it’s more of a condition than a career choice. Unless you’re mad.

P.E: So why should people attend the launch of your new album?

V.W: There’s a part in everyone that needs to sing. It’s crying out to sing with others, even when you can’t hear it over the noise of everyday blah.

P.E: What’s happening with The Swedish Magazines?

V.W: Been flat out busy recording other albums myself, and the band respectively all do other projects, but we’re mixing a new Swedes record as we speak. Should be ready by end of the year. And I’ll give you the tip, it’s roaring rocknroll. It’s gonna shock the shit out of those who think The Swedish Magazines came & went with the poxy so-called retro rocknroll revival.

P.E: If you could choose an era and/or artistic scene to be part of, what would it be?

V.W: This one right now in Melbourne.

P.E: Which person – friend, family, artistic icon, bloke sitting on a park bench muttering inanely – do you take most inspiration from?

V.W: Bob Dylan is the beginning & end of music as far as I’m concerned. But of course the history of recorded music is an enormous family of musicians to love & learn from. Artists such as Friedrich Nietzsche & William Blake are constant inspirations. The song Born Posthumously is inspired by them. But really I learned a lot from my family, as we all do, a lot of what not to do, perhaps, but also how to revolt against external & inherent handy-caps.

P.E: What do you have planned for the future? Do you plan your future?

V.W: I guess simply to record more albums & build a bigger audience. I want to earn my audience, not have crowds hear today, deaf tomorrow cause something’s fashionable. I have done this by recording & performing & I’ll keep doing it. Looking a little way ahead is good for accomplishing goals, I suppose, but worrying about the future is like worrying about a breath you’re gonna breathe in a weeks time. Just like hanging on to the past is like worrying about past breaths. The only breath you gotta count on is the one you’re breathing right now. Sort that out & you’re laughing. (july16 2009)