When 80s indie-rock sound merchants Died Pretty succumbed to the inevitable revival on the festival circuit, singer Ron Peno was pretty laconic about it.
They are a band that refused to play on Hey Hey it’s Saturday ‘that horrible show…’ when every other band and their dog was playing on it and then walked away from their label at the peak of success. There’s no doubting their work ethic after an eighteen year career, nine albums and induction into the AIG Hall of Fame.
With an attitude like that Music Feeds jumped at the chance to catch up with Peno before playing Big Day Out to chat about the festival scene and also to find out what really caused the band to split from Sony after the release of top-selling album Sold.
Having long dealt with rumours about the label dumping them due to insufficient sales, Peno’s keen to set the record straight: “I have nothing but good things to day about my time with Sony. We could have stayed on the label.”
“They were going to release a second single off the Sold album; they were really keen on that album – and we said ‘No, we’ll leave the label’. So it was actually up to us to leave. I think the second single would have done something.”
What made the band say no? “We just did. I won’t go into it; somebody said no, and that was it. And they said fine, we’ll let you go. They didn’t say ‘leave’; we decided to go.” It’s all very mysterious and rock and roll, not to mention characteristic of Peno’s approach to music, an approach made evident during the recording of their debut Free Dirt.
“I don’t like to dwell too much in the past… it was our first album, back in the halcyon days of 1986 or something. I actually burnt the lyrics to all the songs in an alleyway after recording and finishing the album,” he tells me with a laugh. “I made Brett stand there and I ceremoniously burnt all the lyrics and of course, two weeks later when we were playing I was going ‘Oh god what are the words to that song?'”
“I know it wasn’t the best idea to burn the lyrics, but I did it because I wasn’t ever going to record again. Brett was sort of standing there going ‘ahh, OK…’ And then of course it snowballed into something else, before I knew it there was another album to be recorded.”
His low-key manner reflects an attitude of bucking commercial trends, and the idea of a ‘Died Pretty Reunion Tour’ seems to fit someone more geared to rock cliche.
“There’s nothing worse than bands getting back together every six months or something,” he explains in a tone of disgust. “That’s really boring; that can be very dull. But for us it felt different because Tim Pittman, the promoter for the Don’t Look Back shows here in Australia, approached Brett. The Don’t Look Back shows were big in England: Patti Smith did Horses; The Stooges did Funhouse; and I think Television did Marquee Moon… and Tim brought the idea here and we were asked to do Doughboy Hollow from start to finish. Brett rang me and said: ‘What do you think?’ and I just really liked the concept.”
“It really appealed to Brett and I; it seemed like a classy way to come back together again. So we just agreed to do that. Then a few months later Brett rang me again and said the promoter from Homebake was at the Enmore show in Sydney and asked would we like to go on the bill for Homebake? and I said ‘Oh God this is getting a bit silly, we’re kind of supposed to be split up.’ You’ve got to be really careful with these things!”
“Then we were approached to do Big Day Out and I said ‘Oh… god, why not’ – but it’s festivals, it’s not like somebody said “I’d like you to do a pub tour around Australia” which we would have said ‘No’ to immediately… but I think after the Big Day Out we’re going to have to think long and hard about doing anything else… We’re supposed to be split up… unless we get invited to Glastonbury or something.”
The conversation drifts to Festivals Of Ancient Legend – when Died Pretty played the first ever Big Day Out (in 1992) alongside iconic Aussie bands like The Falling Joys, Ratcat, The Clouds and The Hard-Ons. “The Clouds sort of kicked up a bit of a stink because they didn’t want to play before us… and we sort of went ‘whatever, we’ll play before you then’… we were grateful to play a festival!
“It was an amazing audience because I think Doughboy had just been released, so our following was quite huge at that time, we had about ten thousand or so on the outdoor stage – it was wonderful; we had a great time. And when The Clouds came on – across at the Hordern Pavilion, lo and behold this band called Nirvana had just started to play. So everyone squeezed into the Hordern, I don’t know how many people got to see The Clouds…”
Peno’s laid back demeanour seems to translate across many areas of his life, and particularly reflects the approach he’s taken when making music with long-time friend and collaborator Brett Myers.
“In a rehearsal Brett will have a bunch of songs; he’ll start playing them and I’ll start singing them or I’ll have a melody and he’ll take that and transfer it to guitar; it’s a combination of things… and nine times out of ten it works. We’re pals you know, we’re best friends. And that’s another thing you don’t find a lot in bands – I mean they split up and that’s it, they split up in really horrible circumstances. But we never did. When Died Pretty split we just figured our time had come; and we’d had close to twenty years; and you get older and want to make way for newer bands.”
“We still write together, we’re writing for a side project we have called Noises & Other Voices … I really love that album. With that, Brett would have a lot of songs and I’d come to Sydney and do the melodies over them in the studio… we just did it all ourselves and got distribution by MGM and we’re getting ready to do another round of Noises after the Big Day Out show.”
“A lot of the stuff was going to be the next Died Pretty album, and nobody seemed really interested in those songs so we just shelved it, and five or six years later we decided to release it; put a few samples and electronica in the background… I really want to keep my hands in the creative stream, so I’m getting into a lot of collaboration.”
With collaborators including Black Pony Express, Penny Aiken, Melbourne band Black Cab and Kim Salmon – not to mention a documentary in progress and the band’s recent induction into the AIG Hall of Fame, it’s fair to say that Don’t Look Back is an appropriately Dylanesque motif for the Died Pretty legend to open it’s close with – if anything Peno’s looking square into the future, and likes the sound of what’s on the horizon.
Died Pretty’s Free Dirt has been remastered and re-issued by Aztec Music and is available now.
Photo by Iain Clacher