His black jeans are tight, his white t-shirt is tight and – who knows? – his brown boots are probably tight too. Mark Seymour looks as compact, sinewy and intense as he did in the 1986 Hunters & Collectors video for “Say Goodbye”, when he wore much the same outfit while tinkering with an HD Holden and bellowing “You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman anymore!” But some things have changed – for starters, his backstage rider with new band the Undertow. They’ve just released a live album called Roll Back the Stone that gives a gig’s-eye view of over three decades of Seymour’s songwriting.
For the latest in our Living Legend interview series, Rolling Stone chats to the former Hunters & Collectors frontman about his alternate life as a teacher, connecting with fans and growing old-er.
First of all, you’re 60, but you look about 45. What’s your secret? Are you still running?
Not any more. I did my Achilles when I was 23 and I’ve got accumulated scar tissue on both knees. So I ride the bike. I go away quietly to some discreet areas and ride alone. Don’t ride with anyone else. I go really hard.
Is it more than just physical exercise for you?
It is. It levels me. I have these moments of clarity and it gives me relief.
Relief from what, exactly?
I think I might be mildly depressive.
Have you done therapy?
Fuck yeah [laughs]. I swear by that. I’ve got someone I go to and he’s a very kind, intelligent, extremely well-read guy, about my age. With songwriting you’re constantly grappling with language, and that process of talking to him has enabled me to kind of really distil why certain ideas and lyrical imagery are really attractive to me and what’s the line that connects these songs together, you know? Even though I might go there to see him because I’m anxious, what happens is that I actually unearth narratives that I’ve got going on.
You’re the son of school teachers, your two sisters became teachers and you became a teacher for a very short time too, right?
About 10 weeks. Then I just had this crisis of “What the fuck am I doing? I don’t want to do this.” There was this mad scramble after that of going, “Fuck, I’ve got to find something to do.” So I decided I was going to write songs and be a singer. From that point on there was no question.
In your memoir Thirteen Tonne Theory you outlined the Hunters’ backstage rider: 96 cans of beer, two large bottles of Absolut, four bottles of Chardonnay, four bottles of Cab Sav and one Sambucca. Did you get through that every night?
Yeah, but we were a big band and we had a big crew. And I’m not sure that was unique. I think most bands that were constantly working in those pubs in that era did that. You would start drinking at soundcheck at about four o’clock in the afternoon. I also look back at the overcrowding in those places and think about the risk-taking. Really good friends of mine would say, “Look, I love your band, I love your music, but I can’t go to your gigs anymore. I just don’t feel safe.”
What’s your rider like these days with the Undertow?
I drink two or three beers after a show. I never drink before a show or during a show. We work a lot and we’re middle-aged men with kids and we keep things orderly. I’m very careful about my health now.
Hunters & Collectors were big in Australia, but why do you think you didn’t break through internationally?
In retrospect, I think the only way we could have broken through in the United States was to go there and stay there and just tour and really grind it out until people started getting it. I remember at the end of the Ghost Nation tour I thought, “Why are we leaving? We shouldn’t be going home now. We probably should stay here.” But also, when you look at Australian bands of that era, like Australian Crawl, INXS, Crowded House or Cold Chisel, they had a charge on radio almost immediately. They had a period of time when two or three of their songs were really big on radio and their audience recognition and profile grew with that exposure. We didn’t have that. Even though you could argue that at some point we were big, our band was driven by that time on stage and stringing gigs together.
You mentioned Crowded House. Your brother Nick played bass in the band. Was there a fair bit of competition between you two?
I did feel a certain jealousy at the time. I was envious. But, you know, good luck to ’em. They were incredible. They’re one of the most successful bands in the world.
These days with the Undertow you towel off at the end of a show and then head out to the merch stand to sell CDs. Do you prefer that world to your experience in Hunters in the Eighties?
Absolutely. It’s really direct. I’m a lot more relaxed as a performer now and I feel like I’ve got a better connection with my audience. There’s more personal engagement. After shows I just sell a few hats and chat with these people. It’s kind of cool, you know? Every so often someone comes along and they’ve really engaged with what you’re doing and I just think that’s really critical for me to know that. I need to know.
Let’s say you were only able to perform one song from Hunters’ back catalogue. What would it be?
It would have to be “Throw Your Arms Around Me”. It’s just so completely out of character for Hunters & Collectors. It’s an outlier in my own work. What’s incredible is it worked in that really masculine environment. There’s a huge amount of Celtic styling in that song. I’d been listening to a lot of Van Morrison at the time. That song’s so important to me. It’s so special. It’s really a part of me.