With Grinspoon coming out of retirement to support Cold Chisel on their upcoming tour, vocalist Phil Jamieson sits down with Jimmy Barnes and Don Walker for our cover story, discussing Chisel’s new album and the history of one of Australia’s greatest bands.
Interview by Phil Jamieson. Introduction by Dan Lander. Top Photo: Daniel Boud.
Tucked away in the one corner of Sydney you’d least expect to find it, the Barnes family enclave is a rambling, brilliantly converted warehouse, humble and spectacular at the same time. Two ramshackle tables – each of which could comfortably seat 10 – line the front-room-cum-kitchen, testament to the fact that, while this may principally be home to one of Australia’s best-selling singers and his wife Jane, it is also a much-loved refuge for the family and friends the couple have so warmly welcomed into their world over many decades.
On this sunny early-spring afternoon, the house is a hive of activity. Inside, Jane is offering drinks and preparing a gorgeous, homely lunch. Outside, in a courtyard littered with potted citrus and succulents, Barnes is playing host to an odd couple: old friend and Cold Chisel keyboardist Don Walker is posing – a little awkwardly – for photos with Grinspoon frontman Phil Jamieson. But, as you watch, it becomes apparent that Barnes isn’t actually playing host at all; in fact, he’s just trying to decide which jacket to wear – suede, or some sort of shiny thing.
“Oh fuck it,” he says eventually, returning to the photographic fray (in suede, to start with at least). As he does, something becomes apparent – Barnes and Jamieson are two peas in a pod. Like a couple of Jerry Lewis’s to Walker’s Dean Martin, the two swap poses and punchlines, somehow hamming it up and keeping it honest simultaneously. Walker is there between them, the wise man who knows that as lucky as we are to have personalities like Barnes and Jamieson, well… they probably need him as much as he needs them.
Half an hour later, the three have settled over that lunch Jane was laying out earlier to talk about their music. Cold Chisel are about to release their 12th album – The Perfect Crime – and, then, head out on tour; Grinspoon are set to reform after two years apart to support.
It seems like a “big moment”. But, then, Jamieson’s first comment has Walker and Barnes laughing like schoolboys: “Why did you guys decide to do a new record? That’s the last thing I would want to do!”
After the hysterics die down, a classic discussion about being in a band in Australia begins, with Jamieson playing de facto interviewer to a couple of the country’s favourites…
Jamieson: No, but seriously, you didn’t have to make a new album, and we all know it can be tough. So, why go through that again?
Barnes: We want to play live, and we don’t want to just be a retro act. Back in the day we were a live band, we toured everywhere, and once we started making records, all the pressure was about making records. And that was why we broke up, we didn’t have time to sit and enjoy what we were doing anymore. Going back now, we can enjoy it – we can tour when we want, we can make records when we want. We’re back to the reason we wanted to make music in the first place. So to do that we want to make new songs, we want to challenge ourselves and each other, and to challenge the audience a bit too.
I find that sometimes the more records you make, the more difficult it can become.
Walker: I think this one was easier, because everyone involved knew how it works. The last record [2012’s No Plans] was the first time working with [producer] Kevin Shirley and the first time working with [drummer] Charley [Drayton] and we were feeling our way. But this time, everybody knows how it works, everybody knows what everyone has to do and we know that it’s going to work, so you can just concentrate on the music.
There are four songwriters in the band, so how does that get handled? Are you [to Don] always telling everyone, “My song’s better?” Because I know that’s what I do. [Much laughter]
Barnes: I tell everybody [Don’s] songs are better! I was in there going, “What do we have to write fucking songs for? I just want to sing his songs.”
So even back in the day, that’s never how it worked?
Barnes: No. We were lazy bastards, and Don wrote the songs, and we liked those songs. But Don was always encouraging us to write, almost like pulling teeth.
Walker: Until the money came in.
Barnes: [Laughs] Yeah, and then we all went, “Fuck, I’ve got a song! I’ve got four!” But seriously, Don was encouraging us to write all the time, and for me, every one of the writers has been a big part of the band, but there’s something about having the bulk of the songs Don’s songs that makes that Cold Chisel sound. His songs are what defines Cold Chisel as a band.
So the dynamic in 2015 is pretty much the same as it was in 1980?
Walker: Yeah. For me personally, with this album I wanted two things. I wanted it to be a lot more bluesy with no country on it – for some reason, I can’t tell you why.
Barnes: That’s a country song right there. [Laughs]
Walker: And I wanted it to be a much more diverse album with the writing and where the writing was coming from. And I think to a certain extent we got both of those. Probably still could have been a bit more diverse in sourcing the songs, but that’s the way it’s ended up. But where the five of us come from musically is so wide – the idea that you could get where I come from musically, and where Jim comes from musically and where Ian [Moss, guitar] comes from musically and Phil [Small, bass] and Charley, into the one recording is something only Kevin could figure out.
Given all the personalities in the band, did you guys ever have mad fights?
Barnes: Not about songs. But we fought about everything else. Normally drunk after gigs. We’ve had a few good fights. The five of us are so different, personality and musically, that eventually you butt heads occasionally. There was a point where Ian wanted to play [jazz guitarist] Larry Carlton and I wanted to play Lemmy. And they just weren’t going to meet, so it was like musically, there was this tension all the time. But those differences, those natural tensions, are what made the band.
Yeah, that’s part of the beauty of it.
Barnes: Yeah, it really is. [Pause]
Walker: Yeah, I could do without it myself. [Much laughter]
Barnes: Yeah, true. It worked for us, but it was a pain in the arse sometimes. We all fought with each other at different points. And some people had regular fights with regular members – like me with everyone!
There was a real push for you to go into America in the early Eighties. How did that work out?
Walker: That was a disaster.
Walker: [Long pause] Why… how long have we got?
Was it his fault [points to Barnes]? [Much laughter]
Walker: No, no it wasn’t Jim’s fault. You’re trying to start a fight, aren’t you?
Barnes: [Laughing] But it was a bad time for America when we went there. Music was in a really weird place. I remember years before we actually went to the U.S., before we got signed [in Australia] and thinking, “Ah fuck, these people just don’t get us, we’re going everywhere, playing everywhere and record companies won’t even look at us, so we’ll go to America. They’ll get us. They get rock & roll, we’ll go there.” Eventually, when we did go there, they didn’t get rock & roll at all. They didn’t know what was going on with it. It was the Eagles and shit like that everywhere, and we just came at the wrong time.
Walker: We only went over there for five weeks, but I remember someone from a record company, in Miami Vice-vibrant-pastels, said to me, “You know, you guys, we had another Australian punk band through here a few years ago called the Dingoes.” So that sentence summed it up. We were completely the opposite of punk.
Barnes: And we liked the Dingoes.
Walker: And for somebody to be coming from an environment where us and the Dingoes were punk, well…
That doesn’t make any sense.
Walker: Doesn’t make any sense at all. But that’s where they were from.
Barnes: When we arrived in America the first time, we walked into Elektra Records, and found out they’d released “My Baby” as the first single, which we knew they were going to do, but they’d sent it to radio stations wrapped in diapers.
Barnes: Yeah. So it was all really just down hill from there. Just to think that someone thought, “We’ll send it in diapers, that’ll be amazing!”
What about Europe?
Walker: Yeah, we tried a few times in Europe and that was going much better. The tour that we effectively broke up on was a tour of Germany, where it was all open, it was all waiting for us, we’d done our support acts, and we were doing a 50-date headline tour, and-
Barnes: Don fucked it up! [Laughing] No it wasn’t him, but even then Europe was a bit of a weird thing. Because they would keep asking, “How are you going in America?”
Ah, right, so it was “versus”.
Barnes: Yeah, they were playing us off against each other, and we’re thinking, well, it doesn’t matter, it’s a different market. And of course, the meathead rockers, the ones who really like rock & roll, like Germany, Sweden and pockets in Britain liked us a lot, and the rest really didn’t get it.
So why was that the last tour?
[Long pause, punctuated by sighs, laughs and groans]
Barnes: We were fighting a lot. And we were getting frustrated with each other. We were getting frustrated with the lack of progress that we were making overseas, I think, a bit of that.
Walker: At the time, the way it seemed to us was that [drummer] Steve [Prestwich] lost the plot, in Germany, just when we were on the verge of a breakthrough. But people outside the band were telling us, “The shows aren’t that bad, you shouldn’t worry.” But we were convinced that they were.
Barnes: Steve would do things like not look at us on stage. And we’d be trying to communicate, like, “Speed it up”, and he wouldn’t notice, and so there was just no communication in the band.
I know those kinds of shows. I know it.
Walker: And there’d always been that, but somehow, that tour of Germany, he just-
Barnes: -he dug his heels in, didn’t he?
Walker: Yeah. So we came home. Sacked him. Did a tour to try to raise some money with another drummer. That was the end really.
Who was that drummer?
Barnes: Ray Arnott. From the Dingoes!
Given that sort of ending the first time, how’s the relationship now between the four original members?
Walker: Pretty good. It’s a lot easier, because we’re not doing this all the time. Mostly we make music elsewhere, where as then, we were just all in the bottle together.
Barnes: Well, we still have our moments. [Much laughter] But we can play when we want now. But being in a band is difficult. I mean, me doing my own thing, and Don doing his own thing, we know that being the dictator has its own benefits.
Walker: It’s hard not being in charge.
Barnes: Yeah, it’s hard. [Big laugh]
Yeah, I see.
Barnes: But you have to relinquish that when you walk into the room. The beauty of the band is all these different things coming into it, and eventually it sorts itself out – he’s in charge of certain things, I’m in charge of certain things, Ian’s in charge of certain things. You all bring your own things to the band.
Did you guys pay a lot of attention to what everyone else in the band was doing during the years you weren’t together?
Barnes: We always knew what everyone else was doing. And once we’d had a bit of space after we first broke up, we’ve always been pretty close. We’ve always stayed in touch, we’ve always liked each other’s company. We socialise, you know.
Don, you helped Ian write songs for his first solo album, but not for Jim. Jim, did that make you angry?
Barnes: [Laughs] No, not at all. I wish he had though! [Laughs again] It took me years to get him to write one. Heat was the first time Don wrote one for me, “Stone Cold”.
Walker: Just so you understand, Jim’s a bit of a passive-aggressive, so, “I’m not angry” means…
Barnes: [Nods at the cutlery] Just move the knife away…
Did you want [Moss’s hit single] “Telephone Booth”?
Barnes: I wouldn’t take it if you paid me! [Laughing] But look, I finished in December of ’83 with Chisel, and then I was in the studio in April. I had a bunch of songs that, actually, I had written that didn’t suit Cold Chisel, we’d demoed them and didn’t use them, and I went in and recorded them. Whereas Ian, he’s always taken a bit more encouragement to get moving, so Don sort of helped him getting his solo career going.
Walker: By the time Ian and I started working on songs for his first album, four years had gone by and Jim had put out four albums and had hits and everything.
I remember, I was in grade seven! [Laughs] So, why did you pick Grinspoon to tour with you on this coming Chisel tour?
Barnes: Because you’re a good band.
Not because we’re cheaper than Silverchair?
Barnes: [Laughing] No, because you’re a good band. And I thought that last tour, on the Sunshine Coast, that gig we did with you was one of the great gigs and your band just murdered it. It was great.
We had the best time. Your crowd enjoyed us, and we had so much fun watching you guys. And there was catering!
Barnes: So why did you guys break up – was it all of you just sick of each other?
I don’t know. It was seven albums in, and 18 years, and we just thought we needed a break. We love each other, we’re great friends, but maybe we were getting a little tired – creatively and also emotionally.
Barnes: Will you make a record?
I don’t know. Everyone’s had different things to do in their life. I’ve got a proper job for the first time ever, which is weird. It’s a change from like, well, what age were you when you started your band?
Barnes: I was 17.
Walker: And I was 22.
And how did you meet each other?
Barnes: They had the band together. Ian, Don, Les [Kaczmarek] the original bass player and another drummer. And they wanted a singer – they wanted my brother. They were going to try John [Swan] first.
Walker: I knew John. But there was no way John was going to sing with us.
Was he a big deal?
Walker: Yeah, he was making money and doing things. He did a couple of nights with the band I was in before, just filling in, and he was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.
So you got the little brother instead. Do you remember meeting Jim?
Barnes: Women’s liberation hall.
Walker: Women’s Electoral Lobby Hall.
Okay!? Of course it was…
Walker: That was our initial rehearsal hall. We actually used to have a good relationship with the, what’s the acronym these days, LGBT, whatever it is. There was a couple I knew and somehow that hall came up, and they were hiring it to us and they were really lovely.
Barnes: Yeah, so I went to a rehearsal with them, and that was so early in it all that I can’t even remember the drummer’s name.
Walker: No, me neither. But I remember what he did when Ian and I went around and saw him to tell him he was sacked.
Barnes: [Laughing] Do you!
What did he do?
Walker: After finding a way out to his place – a bus and a train to suburban Adelaide – we knock on the door to tell him he’s sacked, and he pokes his head out the door. And Ian and I, typically sheepish, were like, “Man, really sorry, but, well, you’re sacked”, and the screen door just went “bam”! And so there’s Ian and I in deep suburban Adelaide, looking at each other like, “Huh, I don’t think he’s going to come out again.”
So was that at the stage when you were getting gigs around town?
Barnes: Nah, we hadn’t even worked yet. We were just rehearsing covers.
At what point did the originals seep their way into the set?
Barnes: After about five or six months of rehearsal, Don went back to university to do his Masters in Armidale. So we followed him up there and we played all around that area for a while, but after about six months of that, we moved back to Adelaide and started playing pubs, doing covers – Free, Deep Purple, shit like that – without Don. Don finished his degree and came back, rejoined the band. In the meantime we’d been lazy bastards, all waiting for Don to write the songs. “Okay Don, you’ve had all that time off, doing a Masters degree, doing fuck all…”
So Don came back with a bunch of songs and by that time we were getting a good name in town for a covers band. We decided to learn this whole set of originals and went and did our first gig with them, and it fucking died in the arse. We emptied the room. You could hear people walking past the stage saying, “What fucking happened!? They used to be really average!”
So, was it that the originals weren’t necessarily bad, they just weren’t what people wanted?
Walker: No, they were bad. [Laughs]
But there must have been a point when the original stuff started to work.
Barnes: Well, in ’75, I left. My brother John continually talks me into doing things, and he talked me into leaving Chisel and joining Fraternity when Bon Scott left and joined AC/DC. And at that point, after I had been away for three or four months, they went to Sydney and did demos at Trafalgar Studios, and they played Sydney and Melbourne…
Without you? Who sung? Mossy?
Barnes: Yeah, Ian. And I saw them when they came back, and it was like Spinal Tap. I was standing there watching them and thinking, “Fuck they’re good.” So I went and jammed with them a couple of nights and then joined again. Made them feel like I was really necessary.
What was it like the first time you went into the studio?
Barnes: The first album we did with Peter Walker, we had no idea what we were doing. We liked Bakery, the band that Peter was a member of, great Perth band. And we spent six weeks or something in the studio – we’d record and then sit and talk for four hours about what compression does to the sound, and I just wanted to stick pins in my eyes. But we were all trying to soak up what we could and learn as much as we could. Second record, we really liked the sound of what was coming out of Alberts, and so for Breakfast At Sweethearts, we decided we wanted to go to Alberts. Nobody told us there were two Alberts! We went to Alberts Two, which was a shit room. And the record company wanted us to get a name producer, they wanted us to get more of a pop sense. And Richard Batchens had produced Goodbye Tiger [by Richard Clapton] and a whole bunch of pop songs, and he was a “producer”.
Ah, yeah, I know the type…
Barnes: So we went into the studio with him, and it was absolutely disastrous – we were in a shit room with this bad tempered cunt. But don’t quote me. Don’t say he was bad tempered. [Much laughter] I can safely say we all had a pretty bad time making that record. But they were good songs.
Walker: Although, [Batchens] made it clear to me that they weren’t quite as good as Richard Clapton’s songs…
Barnes: The next record that Batchens made was with my brother, and Swanee was in the vocal booth, and he’s asked Richard a question, and Richard was a bad drunk, just nasty, and Richard said, “Just shut up and sing and I’ll make you sound good.” So Swanee walked in and knocked him out. [Laughs]
But by the third album, East, you had figured it out?
Walker: With East, Mark Opitz found a way to set us up that worked, so we could record and feel like we were playing live together.
Barnes: And by that time we had done a lot of touring, playing to big crowds, we were a sharp band.
Walker: Confident. And we had done enough in the studio to not be “just a great live band”. Often great live bands just can’t do it in the studio, but we could by then.
Did you know it was good at the time?
Barnes: It felt good. We were all really bouncing off each other. It was good.
At the other end of the spectrum, what was the Last Stand tour like in 1983?
Barnes: It was hard work, because everywhere we went, it was the last time that we were going to be there. So we’d do a gig and then party for 12 hours with all our friends there because it was the last time you’d see them, and then you’d have to do another gig the next night. Every night was the last night that you were going to see that audience. That went on and on, and it was also stressful because we were breaking up, we were going through all sorts of shit at the time.
How was the relationship within the band?
Walker: Not good. It was pretty dysfunctional in every direction.
Barnes: It was a weird feeling – some of the shows it was splintering and falling apart, but some of the shows it was really good, and so there was this mixed feeling of, “Fuck, I’m sick of this band, I want to get out”, and then also, “Fuck this band is good, and this is the last gig.”
Walker: The band was always good on stage.
But in between…
Walker: Yeah. Everything else.
Did you consider not doing a last tour?
Walker: No. We were going to break up, we knew we’d have to do a last tour.
Barnes: And finish with Steve.
Walker: That was what was good about that last tour.
Barnes: It gave some resolution.
Walker: Yeah, because there was never any question that playing with Steve was always fantastic. Apart from that trip in Germany. When he came back he was as good as he’d always been.
Well, hopefully these shows coming up are just as good. These are very important shows for us. Especially for me, because these are the first time my daughters are going to be there to see it in a way they can remember. So thank you for the opportunity, it’s going to be really special.
Barnes: Well, you should jump straight from the stage into a record then. Richard Batchens is available! [Much laughing]
Walker: And I’ve already written the songs…
From issue #768 (November, 2015), available now.