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Suze DeMarchi’s Way Back

“I needed to get off the medicine I was on.I needed to face shit and go through the pain of it all. I needed to be sad and be broken.”

The only indication that a musician lives in this cute, white-walled house in Sydney’s eastern suburbs is the two guitar cases sitting by the front door. There are no platinum albums hanging on the walls – “They’re all in the shed,” smiles the home’s owner, Baby Animals frontwoman Suze DeMarchi – nor are there photos from her more than three decades in the music industry, save for one of her current bandmates (longtime guitarist Dave Leslie, drummer Mick Skelton and bassist Dario Bortolin) that sits beneath the flatscreen TV.

Dressed in a green and blue checked flannel shirt, jeans and black Cons, thick rimmed glasses perched atop her head, the years have been kind to DeMarchi – she looks older than the woman who dominated the nation’s airwaves in the early Nineties with the Baby Animals, but only just. At 50 there are some natural aches and pains – “My neck is fucked,” she grimaces, “bones rubbing against bones, it’s shithouse” – and the glasses became a necessity not long after she hit 40. But, save for those complaints, DeMarchi has weathered the ravages of time exceptionally well.

Last night she returned from Perth, where she was visiting her family. The youngest of four children, her father worked as a panel beater (“he’s the hardest working man I know”) and her mother was an “incredible singer” who used to sing for the ABC. Now 88, her mum is suffering from Alzheimer’s – not, says her daughter, that she’d admit it. “She’s a very obstinate woman,” smiles DeMarchi, “which I guess is why she’s getting through this whole thing.”

It’s a quality DeMarchi seems to have inherited – at 16 she quit school and, at 17, left home and joined her first band, Photoplay, which haunted Perth’s pubs and nightclubs playing a mix of originals and covers. She still remembers her debut gig with the band, at the Cat and Fiddle in Mount Lawley, Perth, not least because it was the first time she’d been clapped by an audience. She left the stage that night knowing she’d found her calling.

There were glimmers of early success – as a peroxide-blonde pop starlet she earned a million pound record deal with EMI in the UK in the mid-Eighties that, ultimately, only yielded three singles – but the real success came upon her return to Australia in 1989 when she formed the Baby Animals alongside drummer Frank Celenza, bassist Eddie Parise and guitarist Leslie. Within 18 months the band’s 1991 debut self-titled album was on its way to selling more than half a million copies in Australia alone, and world tours with the likes of Van Halen and Bryan Adams ensued. The follow-up, 1993’s Shaved and Dangerous, was a less assured outing that suffered from time constraints and inner-band turmoil, but still debuted at Number 2 in Australia and saw the group embark on yet another world tour, including a run of U.S. dates with Robert Plant.

In 1994 the band’s fortunes changed when DeMarchi suffered vocal issues that forced them off the road, and in 1996 their label, Imago, lost its distribution, setting in motion a six-year legal battle through which the band tried to extricate themselves from the deal. By the time they were released the quartet had split, driven apart by professional and personal issues. 

A 1999 solo album, Telelove, kept DeMarchi in the public conscience but, save for the odd appearance with INXS, she was largely missing in action for a good deal of the 2000s, having relocated to the U.S. with husband Nuno Bettencourt and started a family. It was a period, says DeMarchi, where she “lost the sense of who I was pretty dramatically”, and concluded with her return to Australia in 2009 and the dissolution of her marriage in 2010.

These personal upheavals are chronicled on the Baby Animals’ third full-length, last year’s Top 20 comeback This Is Not The End, reissued this month with bonus material. A confessional album, the writing of which served as a crutch as DeMarchi re-settled in Australia with her children – daughter Bebe, 18, and son Lorenzo, 11 – the reason for the reissue is simple: “I don’t think enough people know [about it], and I want a lot of people to have this record in their homes,” she smiles. Over two interviews totalling more than three hours, overseen occasionally by DeMarchi’s hugely inquisitive Beagle, Rocco, the singer lays bare the brilliant highs and crushing lows of a life less ordinary.

Your mum was a gifted singer – is music in your blood?

Yeah. I remember mum always singing around the house. My dad wasn’t very musical, but all of the kids were – my sister Denise especially, she was the one who’d get lessons. Mum always pushed her because she was talented [laughs]. And I would just pick her brains for everything she learned. We couldn’t afford for everyone to get lessons.

Was there a lot of music reverberating around the house?

That was more my brother. He used to buy all the records because he had a job. He was into metal – Budgie and Hawkwind, Deep Purple and all the Zeppelin stuff. But then he had ABBA. Which is a little bit what I’m like – I love heavy guitar based music but I’m really a pop writer.

You left school at 16 – how did that conversation with your parents go?

It went something like, ‘I’m not going back’, and they went, ‘OK, you’ve gotta get a job.’ I worked in a bank for a year, the R&I Bank in Western Australia. I was the worst at math and I was a teller – how did that happen? I left just before they were able to fire me, and then I joined a band.

Which was Photoplay. Playing Perth’s pubs and nightclubs as a 17-year-old, you must have seen a few things the average teen doesn’t . . .

I dated a guy in a Perth band I used to go and see, and all of them were heroin addicts. I think most of them are dead. And I saw that whole lifestyle, and it was the best thing for me to see at that point because it opened my eyes to that world. And I never wanted to go there, so I never went into that area of drug taking. It was terrible, a really ugly scene. You’re always exposed to that stuff in the music world, it’s everywhere. It was all really cheap drugs back then, bad stuff like speed.

Were there a lot of drugs around the Baby Animals?

Yeah, but we weren’t a big drug taking band, we really weren’t. We would drink more than anything.

You quit Photoplay when you were 19, and via a series of demos got a million pound record deal in the UK and left Australia to pursue it. What’s it like having that kind of money in London at that age?

I didn’t see any of that [money]. That was the money they were offering me to be signed to them, which would include all the recording, promo and living expenses. But I thought, “Wow, I’ve really made it now, hit the big time.” Then I realised, oh, you actually have to work at this – I’ve got to stop partying so much and get into the studio. It was a challenging time because I was a bit lost. I was just partying the whole time, I wasn’t working enough, and I wasn’t really doing the music I loved – they wanted me to do the pop thing, they suggested the Stock Aitken Waterman thing, and I just went, ‘No’. I did work in some amazing studios [like] Abbey Road, I worked with Steve Lillywhite and Simon Climie. But I was looking at all these other people having careers and thinking, “I’ve got a record deal and I’m not doing anything. Why is this not happening?”

At which point you met manager John Woodruff [the Angels], with whose support you moved back to Australia to put together the Baby Animals. Your first call was to your old friend, drummer Frank Celenza – do you remember your pitch?

“I’ve got a great new manager, I’m going to start this rock band, it’s going to be huge.” [Laughs] And he went, “Oh, I dunno. Do I have to move to Sydney?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, maybe if Eddie [Parise, bass] does it.” I didn’t know Eddie, so I met him when I got to Sydney and said, “Join my band and come see the world.” And he said “OK”. Cos he knew Woodruff was involved. Dave was in [Cold Chisel tribute band] Swingshift, and we auditioned for guitar players and he walked in. I thought, “You can play great but you need to grow your hair.” [Laughs] From that point on we played every day, working on songs. And in the meantime I was doing dodgy covers in RSL clubs with Eddie’s band to make money. We did bikie shows. We’d play and then pack up to leave and they’d say, “Don’t leave! Have a line of speed! Have a woman!” We’d say, “It’s all right, see you later!”

Less than 12 months after your first gig you were in New York recording your debut with Mike Chapman, who’d worked with Blondie and written songs like “Ballroom Blitz”. He’s been quoted as saying you turned into “total lunatics” within 24 hours of arriving in New York . . .

It was like we were let out of a cage. There we are, recording our first album in New York City with a legend, and we were just let loose. The world was opening up, it was almost that feeling of no limits. We had a massive purpose – we wanted to make the best record we could, so we were really focused. But we partied.

So did Mike apparently . . .

He started drinking at midday himself! In fact he was on the beer at 11 and vodka at 12.

You famously toured the States with Van Halen during that album run. You must have seen some things . . .

I saw things on that tour I couldn’t tell you, stuff I never thought was real about touring [laughs].

Such as?

Like girls who would just do anything to get backstage to meet the band. In the middle of every show Eddie [Van Halen] would do his 20 minute solo, and [bassist] Michael Anthony’s bar would open underneath the stage. There was a proper bar with lights, a barman and a stripper pole. And every night the crew would go out and pick girls from the audience that would come back and strip, and they’d get a backstage pass to do it. I stopped going after a while cos I felt a little sick at one point, there were all sorts of things going on with flashlights and stuff [laughs].

[Famed groupie] Connie Hamzy ended up on the tour at some point. I remember walking to the venue past all the tour busses, and there were all these guys lined up outside this bus one day and I was like, “What’s going on there? Is lunch being served on the bus today?” And someone said, “No, Connie’s on the bus.” They were all lining up for Connie! There must have been 20 guys. I remember she came up to me one day and said, “Suze, y’all don’t mind if I blow your boys do you?” I said, “Go right ahead!” They were all too nervous. My boys were like, “I don’t think so!”

As your debut continued to sell more and more copies, what were you thinking?

The cocky side of me went, “Yeah, of course. I knew this was going to happen.” But then there was the wide-eyed kid in me that was completely blown away. I couldn’t even comprehend people were buying the record or coming to the shows. It was a great feeling. And we really went for it, we didn’t stop, we took every opportunity that came along.

After playing 500 shows in support of the album, you were back writing for LP number two within months. Should you have had a longer break?

I wanted some time off, and I wanted to spend a lot of time writing. But pressure was coming from everywhere, from managers, labels: “You have to put out a record soon, cos people will forget.” I really didn’t want to. I had a battle with the band [over producer Ed Stasium] – I loved what Ed had done, but I didn’t necessarily know that he was the right sound for us. But the band loved Living Colour [which Stasium produced] and wanted to sound like that. I kind of dropped the ball in that area. Had I stuck to my guns more we probably wouldn’t have gone into record at that point, we would have worked on the songs more.

‘Shaved and Dangerous’ is a more complicated album than your debut . . .

It was like, “Let’s try and be really clever.” I would spend hours trying to figure out, how am I going to fit a vocal around this piece of music? I did my best and I really wanted to keep the band together, but it’s a bad idea doing that. You’ve just got to do stuff that you love. It’s got to be simple.

Still, at least you got to record in the Bahamas . . .

You can be in the Bahamas and still have a shithouse time. It was a difficult record to make, and the band wasn’t getting on. Although it was a beautiful place. And I was in love. Nuno came to visit and it was a great time, so I didn’t really care. It was the beginning of our relationship. I was a bit like, “It will all be fine.” But it really wasn’t.

The Nuno in question is Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt (now playing with Rihanna), whom DeMarchi met over the phone in 1992 – he’d seen one of the Baby Animals’ videos on MTV and, via his manager, got hold of her number. He invited her to see Extreme play at Wembley in December that year, a memorable event for more reasons than one. 

“[Queen guitarist] Brian May was a guest of theirs and he was walking around and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Brian May!’” recalls DeMarchi. “He came up to me and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to come and say hello! He knows who I am!’ And he held up a shirt and said, ‘Would you mind terribly ironing my shirt for me?’” DeMarchi cackles with laughter. “I just went, ‘Sure! I’m not the wardrobe lady but I’m happy to iron your shirt.’ He goes, ‘Oh no, so sorry! Who are you?’ I told him and he’s like, ‘Oh, I love your album! That was the only album I bought this year!’”

DeMarchi and Bettencourt married a year later in Portugal, hiring a DC10 in New York to fly both sets of families and bands to São Miguel Island in the Azores. “It cost us 80 grand to hire this plane,” guffaws DeMarchi. “My dress was like $50, it was off the shelf. The actual wedding was cheap, we spent all our money on flying everyone in.” 

In 1996 DeMarchi relocated to Boston and the couple had their first baby, daughter Bebe. With the Baby Animals in limbo due to their issues with Imago, DeMarchi adjusted to life as a new mother in a new country while writing for her solo album, Telelove, and trying to extricate the band from the deal. 

Released in 1999, Telelove was a moderate success, but failed to match the commercial heights the Baby Animals enjoyed. “I was a bit upset, I wanted that solo record to do better than it did,” says DeMarchi, “and I thought, ‘Where do I go from here? My band’s in disarray, I’m living so far away from everything.’ Things weren’t going well in my personal life. I think that sort of began my feeling of being displaced.”

Those feelings intensified when, in October 2001, DeMarchi and Bettencourt moved from Boston to LA. The next year their son, Lorenzo, was born.

In previous interviews you’ve spoken of walking along the street in LA and being struck by the feeling that you didn’t belong. What does that mean?

I didn’t belong on the pathway. That was the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had.  Chemically there was something wrong. 

With you?

I got really depressed in LA. The last five years I was there were really tough. I don’t know if it was depression . . . I was just really sad. I was a bit broken hearted. I went and saw people, did lots of therapy and took medication. My marriage wasn’t going well, and that was torture living in a lonely marriage. I blocked that out for a long time, because I wasn’t prepared to let my marriage end or give up. I’m not a person that gives up ever. I wouldn’t have left, it took him to leave, and whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know. I think it saved my life in the end. Not that I was suicidal, but I’m slowly becoming me again.

And who is that?

I didn’t know as a kid that I needed to be a musician, but I knew I needed to have a voice. I had a real direction, I had a good compass for my purpose. I lost that when I moved to America. I spent a lot of years wondering who that person was. I went to this therapist in LA for four years, every week I’d be sitting on his couch thinking, “Yeah, right, I must be getting somewhere.” But I was so medicated it’s like, you can’t get anywhere. I wasn’t me. I was clouded. The two things I needed to do were get home, and I needed to get off the medicine I was on. I needed to face shit and go through the pain of it all. I needed to be sad and be broken. 

Then when you came home, your marriage ended. 

That was a whole other ton of bricks coming down, thinking you were coming back as a unit and then that just blew up. I was like, “OK, I’m in Australia but it doesn’t feel like home, it just feels like everything’s fallen down again.” That first six months was terrible.

How did you cope?

I did sit in the corner for a good three months there, I think [laughs]. There was a bit of that craziness. That kind of disbelief and that pain at not really having any control over your family. Cos my family is everything to me. But I had my band. I’ve always had Dave [Leslie] and my band, and thank God I had that every day to wake up to and go, “I’m going to go and work with Dave”, or “I’m going to go and write something.” I wrote a lot of stuff at that point.

You address your split on ‘This Is Not The End’, particularly on the song “Email”, which references the method by which Nuno informed you the marriage was over. What were the circumstances around that?

I moved the kids out [to Australia from LA] on my own cos Nuno was on tour. He got to Sydney about three weeks later, and the day he got back I had to go to LA for a weekend for one of my best friend’s weddings. On the Sunday night I was meant to fly back to Sydney, I got this really long e-mail [from Bettencourt] and had to sit on the plane and contemplate what was going to happen when I landed. Obviously we talked a lot after that, but I was pissed because of the way it went down. Plus I was hoping for a bit of support – I’m going to get my band back together and we’re going to do an album, it’s going to be great, we’ll work hard and he can take a back seat for a while. But it’s cool, he couldn’t do it, he has his reasons. We had a lot of great years, we’ve got two great kids, our kids come first. We’re friendly, we can laugh about stuff now. We’re not enemies, we would never let it get to that point.

Despite the issues in her personal life, DeMarchi wasn’t completely dormant creatively during the 2000s. On occasion she collaborated with INXS’s Andrew Farris, and the song “U Still Need Me” from the Baby Animals’ 2008 acoustic album, Il Grande Silenzio, is from those sessions. At one point the idea was floated of her fronting INXS, until they decided to search for a singer via the Rock Star: INXS reality show, upon which DeMarchi bowed out. “They did ask me to do the show and I said, ‘What? What do you mean?’” she recalls. “‘Oh yeah, you could win it.’ I don’t know if they said ‘We could rig it’ . . . Maybe they said they could rig it. But why would I want to do that? I would never put myself in that situation, it’s so against everything I believe in.”

DeMarchi would also contribute sporadically with Leslie, swapping song ideas over e-mail or in person when the guitarist visited LA. In 2007 they recorded Il Grande Silenzio with producer Justin Stanley, an experience that, says DeMarchi, gave them hope and planted the seed of reforming the original line-up. The reunited quartet toured Australia in 2008 and, later that year, got together in LA to work on a third Baby Animals album. The reunion didn’t last. 

What’s your take on why things didn’t work with Eddie and Frank?

It just became really difficult to keep the personalities happy. It became a shitfight trying to explain something. Just trying to explain a fucking bass part became this fight. I’m sure Eddie and Frank have a different view on why things didn’t work than I do . . . but I’m right [laughs]. 

It was always my band, I put the band together. All I wanted was a little faith that the decisions I was making were the right ones on everyone’s behalf, cos somebody has to. Someone has to decide which direction we’re going in. So when you’re constantly being questioned or your intentions are being questioned, at a certain point you just go, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m offended now. I can’t keep going on pretending that it’s OK.” And I also didn’t have the energy or the time to go through several people before I could make a decision on something. Everything became a dig – like, “Maybe you can get someone to write the lyrics for you.” “What? Fuck, did you just say that?” I’m not saying who said that. It wasn’t a healthy creative environment. I need people who believe in me.

And you’ve found that in Dario and Mick?

Yeah, they’re unreal. They’re so easy. They’re great players and such fun to be around. I loved working with Eddie and Frank, they were great players, but I think it just became more difficult to work with them than not. 

You’re reissuing ‘This Is Not The End’ only a year after its initial release. Why?

I just think it’s one of the best things I’ve done. I’m proud of it. I think it’s coming from a really honest place, and I think it’s really uplifting. And I feel not as self conscious about saying what I feel. I can say what I want now, I’m older, it doesn’t matter, I don’t really care. I’m honest, I’ve got no skeletons in my closet. The only skeleton I have is blonde Eighties Suze, which is it. [Laughs] Which is not much of a skeleton.

How big a deal was turning 50?

I had a really good 50th birthday. It was fun. I worked that night. We had a launch in Melbourne with a whole bunch of fans for our [Feed the Birds] DVD, it was hilarious. I still feel young. I still feel in my 20s. I hurt more, I do ache after shows. But I’m excited by it, I think it’s going to be a challenge. And I think I really have to start making the most of the next 20 or 30 years. Maybe I’ll be like the Stones at 70 and still playing. Thank God for the Stones! Thank God for Chrissie Hynde and Blondie, still playing and still great. And doing what they love and not listening to anybody. You’ve just got to keep doing stuff that you love. 

So 50 isn’t that bad after all?

I really like the idea of being 50, and having a fucking really shithot band, and no-one can tell you when to stop playing music. I’m really grateful for all that stuff. I’ve got two great kids, and nobody’s going to get in my way with what I love doing. And it’s a really great, empowering feeling.