The Early Life Of A Saint – An Interview with Ed Kuepper

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[published 2012]

A year ago this month, Ed Kuepper came to town.

To say it was a rare visit is to understate it by several magnitudes. The Saints never toured the West Coast of the United States, nor did the Laughing Clowns, and Kuepper solo has also never made an appearance. Nonetheless, it comes to pass that Ed Kuepper is to appear at the Sometimes A Great Notion festival in Portland Oregon on July 28, 2012. An advance request is made via facebook to sit down for an interview while he was in town and he is gracious enough to say ‘Sure.’ We make arrangements on Friday night before Dennis Coffey’s set (Kuepper’s a big fan, and he’s personally requested to the festival’s organizer that Coffey perform), agreeing to meet Sunday afternoon, a day after his own set. Come the appointed hour, Kuepper appears in attire indistinguishable from that of a native Portlander, cargo shorts and a plain brown T-shirt, glasses hanging from the neckline. He seems tired and perhaps dragged here by obligation more than enthusiasm but, once we start talking, whatever layer of funk there is lifts off and he becomes more animated with every passing minute.

Every now and again I remind myself I’m sitting across from the founder of a band commonly mentioned in the same breath as The Ramones and the Sex Pistols, having a lengthy, wide-ranging, and eventually rather free-form conversation, touching on politics, family, personal histories and of course music from a dozen different angles. Kuepper’s level of recall is quite bracing, and when the subject of a biography comes up later in the conversation (we talk over two hours beyond the recorded interview), I can’t help but throw my support behind the idea. Just based on what I hear this afternoon there’s plenty of material for Volume One.

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Drinks in front of us – Kuepper a pint of IPA, an Oregon pinot noir for me – I fish out my recently purchased digital recorder and off we go. Ostensibly here to talk about the recording of Electrical Storm, his first solo album from 1985 that I am soon to begin writing a ‘Desert Island Disc’ piece about for SEM, the more recently issued ‘re-imagining’ of Electrical Storm called Second Winter and released on Ed’s own label (Prince Melon Records) is also brought into the discussion along with anything else the guy felt was relevant.

(Interview has been edited for clarity and a big SEM ‘thank you’ to the Doug Fir Lounge for letting us sit at one of their tables – and serving us – before opening time)

SEM – There’s a quote from an interview you did in online magazine Digging A Hole about how Prehistoric Sounds pointed the way forward for you in many ways. I just listened to that again today and where I don’t think anyone could have seen Laughing Clowns coming out of that, I was able to see the outline of your solo career. 

Ed Kuepper – One of the things I think was happening was – I felt I was moving really quickly – as soon as we left Brisbane things started to change artistically. I mean, I’d never traveled very much, hadn’t really experienced any kind of music scene apart from the really odd scene that was the Brisbane scene, where one or two agencies ran the venues and they had a run of cover bands, basically, and in fact Brisbane might have been the birthplace of the concert tribute band. It wasn’t a music scene. The Saints couldn’t get into that. We didn’t try very hard, but it was the only way you could play in an established venue. We were pretty much blacklisted from everywhere so we put on our own shows. So our experience was kind of very self-sufficient, and I personally didn’t have a profound knowledge of the workings of the business. So by the time I got over to England, the punk thing, which had possibly six months earlier been fairly vibrant, for me had become really negative, kind of petty and vicious and by that point really just a fashion thing.

SEM – It was pretty dogmatic.

EK – Yeah, yeah, and I’d been doing what I was doing with The Saints since 1973 and I kind of said ‘Well fuck, y’know, we’ve been doing this for yonks [a long time – ed.] and doing it better and without the affectation.’ The one thing that did strike me, though – and this is what I guess happens when you’re young and you travel – suddenly there’s all this stuff – I mean, I didn’t like the music scene that we were associated with over there, but suddenly I got to hear a whole range of other things.

SEM – What year was this?

EK – ’77 we moved over there. We recorded the first album in ’76 and Australia was pretty ambivalent about the early Saints, at best. It was kind of a dead end to stay there. I had a kind of idealistic anticipation/expectation of what I was going to find in England and in some ways I didn’t find it all that different to the Australian music scene except that maybe they were setting the trends more. The Saints were so out of step with what was going on there. It’s funny, though, a couple years later I went back to Australia and punk – well, if The Saints would have been around then we would have been fucking massive. Y’know, the band was a legend after we split up, after the third album came out (laughs). But anyway, I just started hearing different music that I had a sort of vague knowledge of and I just explored that more. The stuff that I really got into when I was in London was bluegrass and country music and I guess what you’d call avant-garde jazz.

SEM – Well, that makes sense (laughs)

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EK – I know, I know. Well the bluegrass/country thing because I liked 50’s rock ‘n’ roll and blues, so there was a connection there. The jazz thing, well I like blues, and rhythm & blues, in the old sense of R&B, and I liked things like the Stooges and the MC5 and so there was kind of this connection like when I first heard Pharaoh Sanders or Archie Shepp – I had kind of been warmed to that sound by Steve Mackay on Funhouse by the Stooges, they were incorporating a little bit of that – so it wasn’t like it was a complete blowout but it was like seeing it fresh and I felt I had an affinity. So I started listening to a lot of that and then basically just started to incorporate it, without trying to be it. I wanted to use these things that inspired me, I wanted to use more horns..

SEM – Which is what I hear on Prehistoric Sounds.

EK – Yeah, well, The Saints did it with “No Product,” that was the first time we used a horn section and that was probably the strongest horn piece we ever did, and that was off of Eternally Yours but on Prehistoric Sounds what I wanted to do was pull back the guitar, pull myself back from it in a lot of ways and try and develop a more subtle kind of sound. It would have been easy for me to just drive it with guitar but I didn’t want to do that. There’s a lot more acoustic, the electric is often just played clean through an amp as opposed to any kind of overdrive. It’s quite a different approach. It would have been far more commercial had I ramped it up a bit but that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

SEM – To your credit, I’d say. So, since this interview is meant to center around Electrical Storm – 

EK – Sure. So we jump ahead, I don’t know what, about seven years there, but..

SEM – (laughs) We’ll get back to Laughing Clowns, I promise. Were the songs on Electrical Storm ones that already existed that wouldn’t have fit so well with Laughing Clowns?

EK – I think, in every situation I’ve ever been in, I’ve always written ahead to some degree. I don’t necessarily finish them at that point, but for example the song “Electrical Storm,” the basic idea was already there before the Clowns but it didn’t make any sense in the context of the Clowns.

SEM – Electrical Storm has a single-take feel to it, a song like “..Sweet Turns Sour” especially. How’d these sessions go, overall? 

EK – The whole thing was done so quickly. I think we had a budget of $2000. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot these days but it wasn’t then, not when you had to actually go into a studio and pay $50/hr. We would work during off-peak times, the kind of midnight-to-dawn sessions when the studio wasn’t being used, which I hated because I had a young son and it was hard to work around that situation. Anyway, we didn’t have very much time. Even with the immensely low budget, the record label I was with [Hot Records – ed.] was on the verge of going bust, and we’d done half the record, and the condition we had the studio on was that the label would pay by the day, and they didn’t. So one morning at home I hear this hammering on the door. I’d only been asleep for about two hours or something and it was the fucking engineer from the studio saying “I’m not going to do any more work unless I get paid” (laughs) and I thought ‘Oh fuck, this is just what I need to launch my solo career’ (laughs). So it wasn’t great circumstances to record under but yeah, a lot of the stuff was done fairly quickly. It was almost like a demo, inasmuch as I went in and did my parts and then overdubbed the other instruments afterwards. The drums were done last.

SEM – So the other two would come in after. And they were?

EK – There’s Nick Fisher playing drums and Louis Tillett doing some keyboards. It was all done afterwards. We couldn’t coordinate the times. Nick, I think, was working at the time and he could only come in at certain hours, and nobody was getting paid for it. It was sort of an interesting experiment. Plus I think I’d also read an article that said that Elton John recorded his albums doing his piano and vocals first and everything else was added after and I thought ‘Well, this is a novel idea.’ I’m not even a fan of Elton John but I thought the approach was interesting so I thought I’d try something along those lines. And I did revisit that approach later, on Character Assassination, and I think that worked quite well. Electrical Storm was a difficult album just because of problems with the studio, problems with the label, it was a bit rushed, so yeah, it’s got a first take feel to it which gives it a weird sort of energy which I think is good.

(at which point another round is orderd)

SEM – Bit of a typical question but did you bring any particular influences to the album?

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EK – It was an album where I had to exclude a lot of things. I purposefully didn’t want to do anything that involved horns after five years of the Clowns, it was important to make a really strong break from that. I wanted it to be incredibly stark. But in terms of actual influences, I was listening to a mixture of things like I always do and they all seemed to be fairly stark records in a way. I had the Frank Sinatra record called Watertown which, in some ways, I don’t think is the masterpiece that some people say it is but there’s something about it that’s sort of insidious, it keeps coming back at you. I don’t think it’s an album that you immediately think of as one of his greatest performance, those are probably somewhere else, but there’s something about the whole package, from the cover to the concept to the –

SEM – I’ve got that, I’ll have to listen to it again. 

EK – It’s a very good record, with, y’know, qualifications. It’s not a well-known Sinatra record.

SEM – It’s not swinging at 3 a.m. 

EK – No, it’s quite a sparse record. So I went toward that, and was discovering a slightly more contemporary country music. I liked “Big City” by Merle Haggard. I didn’t like the album but for some reason I really liked that song. Tom T. Hall, I can’t recall the name of the album, “Five And Dimers” or something like that [“Rhymer And Other Five And Dimers” – ed.], and the other album, oddly enough, was Ornette Coleman’s Skies Of America, which is an incredibly intense and bleak record. So I was listening to that as well. How those fit into Electrical Storm is really hard to pinpoint but they were what I was listening to then and I think there was something of the bleakness of those records in it. Certainly Electrical Storm has a sort of..well, it’s not a party record, even though there are a couple of light-hearted things in there, like “Sweet Turns Sour.”

SEM – And “Rainy Night,” dark as it is, still has that great line “I sold my sacred cow/for money.”

EK – I like the way that finishes the record, and if you flip it over and play it again, all the songs are kind of connected. I think it’s a fairly cohesive record.

SEM – There’s no doubt about that, really. I’ve never thought of this before but if someone were to describe its sound to me as ‘country dragged through the prism of a bleak jazz soundscape’ I’d say that’s pretty close.

EK – I don’t think it’s obvious but once you know what I was listening to, what was influencing me generally, it becomes pretty clear. Generally, with questions of influence, it’s not something I make a secret of, but at the same time, I’ve never gone into the studio, ever – even when I was young enough to not really have a clue – I always aimed to make my own records, I didn’t want to be somebody else. A lot of bands, especially when they’re younger, aim to emulate something. I never did that. I mean, I’m influenced by all sorts of things, but.

SEM – Sure, it’s unavoidable.

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EK – Yeah, and, y’know, I try to absorb it. I mean, there’s great stuff around, things to learn from all over the place.

SEM – There certainly is. The key to any successful artist is to not shut down that reflex – the drive – to learn. I get so disheartened by friends of mine, music fans and musicians alike, who are just sort of done with new music. It seems calcifying to me.

EK – Well it’s a funny thing. We’re swamped with things at the moment. I know a lot of people, both professional musicians and friends, who are pretty much like that as well. It’s a bit depressing, you have to distance yourself from them to not be infected by their attitude.

SEM – I can’t help but be rabidly curious. It’s what started me on this whole thing in the first place.

EK – Yeah, yeah.

SEM- So OK, back to Electrical Storm. In the interview with Digging A Hole, it’s mentioned how you hadn’t thought of the album in a while. The quote is “I’d forgotten quite a lot of those songs.” But then, with the Second Winter project, I would imagine you had to regain some familiarity.

EK – No, no, I didn’t. I didn’t even listen to the record. Everything was just done from memory.

SEM – So you weren’t kidding when you said that to me on Friday night.

EK – No, no. I had no intention of..the only time..I’ve done a couple of reunion things in the past however many years. 2007 The Saints did a reunion tour in Brisbane, I had to listen to one or two songs because I just could not remember what a couple of chord progressions were. With the Clowns I had to listen to one song for the lyrics, but with the Clowns reunion practically everything we played was different to how we played it back in the 80’s, and so with Second Winter it wasn’t that I was feeling anxious about preparing myself..I know that it’s a relatively eccentric kind of concept to almost exactly re-record an album but we don’t do every song on it, we include songs from the album that came after. There was no conceptual purity about it at all. But the last thing I wanted to do was go back and make sure I’d actually duplicated it. But I also wasn’t worried if, by chance, we did it exactly the same, but as it turned out I don’t think we did, but I still haven’t listened to Electrical Storm to compare them, but I do know they sound different.

SEM – Does Electrical Storm feel in any way like a foundation for what was to follow?

EK – It was, for a while. After the Clowns I felt I had to move away from how the Clowns were fairly baroque, and were becoming more and more intricate up until the last record when I was already starting to move away from that. Electrical Storm in some ways was a kind of year zero situation again. I’ve been through a couple of those and that was one. And it was the first record I did under my own name so it’s got that significance to me and it’s something that might, without referencing it, keep drawing me, and I think it’s probably going to have some kind of subconscious influence on other things I do for a while.

SEM – In that same interview, in reference to what at the time was the upcoming Second Winter project, you said you “felt there was a story being written and somewhere you lost the thread of that.” I was wondering whether you feel you succeeded in regaining that thread. It sounds as if you have.

EK – I think so, in a general, hard-to-be-specific way. Artistically, I’m focusing on something which is [pause] After the rather complex Laughing Clowns, well, from The Saints onwards really, things became increasingly complex in terms of the arrangements, rhythms, the tonalities of things and then suddenly Electrical Storm kind of took it all back down to something that was much, much more basic. Over the years, especially during the 90’s, I did a lot of experimentation, yet I feel that in some ways there’s this advantage to the simpler approach which I come back to and think ‘Well, I haven’t really explored this all that much.’ I’ve always moved on to something that’s a bit different, so it is good to come back to it because it’s totally fresh and you learn a lot from having to do less. I have a tendency sometimes to add a lot of things and if I have to take a lot away it makes me work completely differently. It’s a bit challenging, in the way that having six people on stage is less work than having one or two people on stage.

 

SEM – What was the media response like to Electrical Storm, in Australia, the UK, the US?

EK – It was reasonably good. I don’t know what I was expecting – I don’t know that I expected anything, particularly – but I was surprised it was as good as it was. It didn’t get released in the US, it got released in Europe, the UK, and Australia and I’m not 100% sure but I don’t think it got any bad reviews.

SEM – No surprise from my perspective but anyway, sales-wise, was there any promotion behind it?

EK – No, no, you’re talking about a record company that was trying to string two bands together (laughs)

SEM – This was Hot?

EK – Yeah, that was Hot.

SEM – So, they seemed to recover eventually.

EK – Well, with a lot of help from me, didn’t they? (laughter) Which wasn’t reciprocated when they hit the jackpot with Eva Cassidy. I’m no longer involved with them, except insofar as trying to make sense of a lot of my back catalog, as to who actually owns it, that sort of thing. But yeah, they were really in a kind of jam when we did Electrical Storm, and it suddenly started to pick up after that album. Then we did the next one, Rooms of the Magnificent, and we had something like a $10K budget, and of course I wasted the money on a horn section (laughter).

SEM – That was no waste. Well, y’know, Hot was one of those labels for those of us over here that paid attention to these things. I mean, if something was on Hot, I was curious.

EK – Look, it’s interesting, because Sean [Sean Hocking, DJ on Dandelion Radio and organizer of the Sometimes A Great Notion festival – ed.] was saying the same thing. And if I wasn’t feeling so, umm, poorly towards my old label, I’d even send them an email and say “Hey, y’know, there are people over here that like you guys. What fools.” (laughter) They must have put acid in the water or something.

SEM – That would be nice, actually, that would help immeasurably if you could arrange it. (laughter) OK, last question: Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog was your last studio album, in 2007. So, anything in the works?

EK – Well, Second Winter is a studio album.

SEM – That’s true, though of course it’s not available anymore. 

EK – It will be again.

SEM – Oh good.

EK – And well, it is, it is available for download. We gotta kind of be realistic about this stuff. My record label [Prince Melon; link below – ed.] is basically me, and my sons. And both my sons are back in university and they’re kind of not as keen to be spending their time packing up CDs. You can’t afford to pay much to have people packing CDs in Australia and I don’t wanna do it, so…

SEM – I think you could find an intern or something.

EK – Yeah, look, I’m sure I probably could, but the problem is, with the way the label works, when there’s a new release, we get a shitload of new orders, so I can put someone on for a week, but in the times in between, sometimes we get quite a few orders, sometimes hardly any. Kind of hard to predict so that’s where my sons came in fantastically, cuz, y’know, if you get a dozen orders one week then two the next then they can just do that. It’s a small label, it’s a family business, so my feeling – and I’m slowly, slowly moving this way, and I realize this is sort of infuriating to people that like the physical object – but, y’know, we looked at things like doing vinyl, CDs, all that, but without secure distribution, by which I mean, every time I’ve had distribution deals in the States it didn’t take long before either myself or Hot got burned. Distributors here, and not just her but in Europe as well, they’re really kind of reluctant to actually pay.

SEM – Yeah, there’s a situation with a friend of mine in the UK with a US distributor. He’s had to do back flips and all kinds of contortions just to get paid what’s owed him and they still haven’t come through.

EK – Foolishly, early on, I sold a hundred copies of The Saints first single on Fatal Records, that we pressed ourselves – we did a limited run, it was one of the first self-pressed singles around – Greg Shaw from Bomp! got in touch and said he wanted a hundred copies  and I thought ‘Shit, I’ve heard of this guy, this is great.’ I think he was in LA or something, I sent a hundred records over there and he’d said “I’ll pay you when they arrive” and we never got paid for them.

SEM – He probably kept them.

EK – Well, I don’t know, but that was our first experience and it just got worse from there. (laughter) So, y’know, we can look at these things but I’d be more inclined to go that way if the distributor would pay for the pressings, bear that cost so at least we’re not out of pocket, as well as not getting paid licensing fees. But no, I think it’s one thing the internet has allowed. It’s sort of early days yet, you’ve gotta kind of work out ‘What can you give people with a download that makes it more than a download?’ I haven’t quite worked it out. Maybe make people eligible for something else, and that’s if they’re interested. Some people aren’t. Some people don’t want anything but a file on their computer. I think Second Winter should be a record, it’s the right length, it’s not overly long. I remember the days of the 35-minute LP, under twenty minutes per side is optimal for cutting the vinyl, all that. Look, give me your address, I’ll send you a copy after I get back.

SEM – I’d be delighted, thank you.

(read the Electrical Storm Desert Island Disc piece here)

(order Ed Kuepper material here: http://princemelonrecords.blogspot.com/)

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  • princemelon

    Great interview, Electrical Storm is a favourite of mine too. One thing though, I’m pretty sure that Sinatra LP Ed mentions is called Watertown not Borderlands. Transcription typo?

    • Dave Cantrell

      You are correct. Thought that sounded off. I’ll change that, cheers…Dave