James Reyne is the quintessential Aussie rock star. With a career spanning four decades and an ever-growing fan base that transcends typical generational boundaries, Reyne is still laid-back and unassuming with just a bit of mystique.
In the midst of a national All Crawl tour, bringing beloved Australian Crawl hits to stages around the country, Reyne caught up with Music Feeds to chat his band’s legacy, the real economic cost of being a working muso in Australia and why some songs just seem to take on a life of their own.
Music Feeds: It’s been 30 years since Australian Crawl disbanded, what do you think has made the songs so timeless?
James Reyne: Well it’s the same as my solo stuff you know, they keep playing it on the radio! If they didn’t play it on the radio no one would talk about it, but they play it on the radio and I don’t know, if people hear it they keep listening to it, so it’s in their consciousness, you know?
MF: So you don’t think it’s got anything to do with the music itself? The lyrics or the vibe of the songs?
JR: Oh yeah I mean some of them are good songs, good lyrically and they’re just good songs, but I think that’s true of a lot of my solo stuff. A lot of it is to do with… if the general public hears things and it’s in the general consciousness, it’ll just become part of the psyche and cultural background. I mean, there’s a lot of crap that gets played and gets stuck in the cultural psyche, it doesn’t mean it’s any good; it’s just there all the time. There’s also a lot of great stuff that gets played a lot and it does get lodged in the collective psyche, and it probably should!
MF: You said back in 2014 your performances would be as close as fans would get to an Australian Crawl reunion, is that still the case?
JR: I think so, I mean you’re never going to see Australian Crawl reform. Unfortunately, two of them aren’t with us anymore. But I think, you know, we’re much better players than Australian Crawl, just because we’ve been doing it for longer; nothing against anyone in the band it’s just that we’ve been doing it longer. So, it’s actually probably better (laughs) as far as I’m concerned. It’s just better playing, you know? I’ve been doing this for a very long time, it’s a craft and I’ve practiced this craft for a long time so I think you tend to learn your craft the more you do it.
MF: Well that’s definitely true. Do you look back at old recordings or old footage and cringe sometimes?
JR: No, I never cringe because I never look at them or listen to them, ever.
MF: Really? Never?
JR: Never. Why? I live in the present and look forward to the future, I would never ever look at any old footage of mine. I don’t know anyone that would. I mean, I would find that really odd if someone’s sitting around in their house looking at old footage of themselves I would have thought they had a problem (laughs).
MF: How’s life on the road different at 60 than it was at 20?
JR: Well life on the road is much the same, it’s a lot of driving, it’s a very big country and there are some big distances between places so you spend a lot of time in the car. You spend a lot of time in venues, you spend a lot of time in pubs and RSLs and theatres and a lot of the places have been around for a long time, we’ve played a lot of them many times, so you get to know some of the staff (laughs). A lot of that part is exactly the same, really, I think the physicality of it is much more streamlined because we have mobile phones and sat navs, which we never had. That just streamlines the whole process without us even thinking about it. We look after ourselves better, when you’re young it doesn’t matter, you’re pretty much bulletproof, but generally, it hasn’t changed.
There’s a great Charlie Watts quote when the Rolling Stones were 25 years old, they’re not now but a long time ago when they turned 25 Charlie’s quote was, “25 years. That’s five years playing and 20 hanging around waiting.” You do a lot of hurry up and wait, as we call it. You tend to do a lot of that, and not in a bad way, that’s just the nature of the beast, you know, on a gig day it’s built around that hour and a half to two hours on stage so everything else is built around it.
MF: So the Australian distances and the ‘slog’ between venues, has that always been a bit of a hindrance?
JR: Not at all. I mean, I wouldn’t really call it a slog; a lot of it’s fantastic. I’m in an incredibly fortunate position where I’ve seen a lot of the country that a lot of people never get to see, and I’ve seen all parts of it. I’ve seen the cities, I’ve seen the regional, I’ve seen the countryside, I’ve seen the outback, I’ve seen northern Western Australia, I’ve seen the Nullarbor, I’ve seen Kakadu, I’ve been to the top end, I’ve been to the bottom end, I’ve been everywhere, and I’ve been very, very lucky to see that, you know?
MF: And to get paid to do it?
JR: Well yeah, I mean some people get paid. But again we run our own business, and like any business sometimes you have good years and sometimes you don’t have good years. The thing that we do is you have to constantly take a punt on yourself. No one pays us to do this, we front up the money, you know, it’s my money and we have to back ourselves and you have to work that out.
You’re traveling anywhere from 10 to 12 people around the country, you have to fly them or drive them, you have to accommodate them, you need to pay wages or salaries, you’ve got to make sure everyone’s looked after, there’s all that stuff. It defies logic when people see you on television once and they go, “well he must be a millionaire!” It’s not like that, musicians work very, very hard and no one’s absolutely rolling in it. I mean, there might be a couple, but we all work hard and we run it like a business.
MF: That’s a discussion I’ve had with a lot of people. I’ve grown up in Townsville, which is fairly regional, and a lot of people don’t seem to understand why tours don’t tend to include Townsville very often, without understanding the costs of transport and production here.
JR: I have to say, John Watson who plays drums for us comes from Townsville, we’re very connected to Townsville. I love Townsville, I think it’s much more than just a regional place; it’s come ahead in leaps and bounds. But you’re absolutely right, a lot of people say, “why don’t you come to Darwin more often?” or, “why don’t you come to Alice Springs?” And you try to get there as much as you can. It’s not that we don’t want to go there, it’s just the economy of scale to get everybody there and to get all the gear, it costs a lot of money, and you have to make sure that your bottom line is such that at least everything is going to get paid for. You don’t want to lose a fortune. You might not make any money but you don’t want to lose any money, you know?
You’ll get like five people on social media going, “why don’t you ever come to – name a town,” and you go, well last time we went to that town only 10 of you turned up. Now, that might be 10 wonderful people that are big, big fans but your bottom line might need 400 to turn up to cover your costs.
MF: You’re playing this weekend at Metropolis Fremantle for their 25th anniversary; do you have any memories of playing there before?
JR: I’ve certainly played there plenty of times but I can’t think of anything specific (laughs). It’s great it’s 25 years old, not a lot of venues last that long. That’s another thing, it’s very hard to keep venues running, so my respect goes out to them. It’s a good rock’n’roll venue, they run it really well and to keep something going for that long and to run it that well is very, very difficult and good on them for doing it.
MF: It has been well documented that you recorded and then performed ‘Beautiful People’ on television many years ago with both your arms in plaster – do you think that made your Countdown debut a little more memorable?
JR: I know it happened because I had to deal with it for three months. You can’t-do anything because you can’t use your hands. Everybody has to do everything for you; dress you, feed you, everything. But I have no memory of the first time we went on Countdown (laughs).
We went on that show so many times. I think it’s interesting that suddenly everyone is going, ‘Oh wow Countdown.’ See, the thing that Countdown was good for was that it was on the ABC and because it was on the ABC it was shown everywhere, even towns that only had one station had the ABC. So everywhere watched Countdown, that’s what was good about it. It had an incredible reach.
MF: There’s been a massive resurgence in popularity for one of your peers, Daryl Braithwaite, in the last year or so, thanks mainly to the internet. What’s your take on that?
JR: I think the song ‘Horses’ has certainly taken on a life of its own. You’d have to ask Daryl (laughs). I learned long ago not to speak for other people. Yes, he’s a very good friend of mine and he’s a lovely bloke, and yes I’ve done things with him in the past and will probably do things with him in the future and we talk on the phone a lot, I see him a lot… but for that, I honestly don’t know.
I think it’s quite interesting because it wasn’t that long ago Daryl was going, “oh bloody Howzat,” you know (laughs) he was known for ‘Howzat’ and now he’s known for ‘Horses’.
I honestly don’t know why it happens; there are certain songs that just take on another life of their own. ‘Khe Sanh’ is another one, I mean Cold Chisel have a million brilliant songs but for some reason, ‘Khe Sanh’ is the one. I mean you look at my song ‘Boys Light Up’. When that first came out it only got to about number 50 on the charts, but it’s taken on a life of its own and now people go, “oh Boys Light Up, that’s an amazing song.” I don’t know if ‘Horses’ did really well in the charts, I mean it probably did, but there are certain songs that just seem to take on this thing, and I think it’s good for Daryl. I mean certainly around Melbourne Cup time he gets a lot of gigs (laughs). I think it’s hilarious because people get excited about this song called ‘Horses’ but it’s got nothing really to do with horses, but all these people are going, “oh I’ll put Daryl on because he’s got a song called Horses.’”
MF: If you could choose one track to be the definitive James Reyne anthem, what would it be and why?
JR: Oh that’s really hard. I don’t know, that’s really hard… I’d choose something really obscure really just to annoy people (laughs). I have a song called ‘Day In The Sun’ that I think is a great sing-along song. I think that would be good. And it’s got a good positive message, so I think ‘Day In The Sun’.
MF: You’ve enjoyed a hugely successful career over a very long time, mostly without the help or hindrance of the internet. How do you think that’s changed the scope and I guess attitude of Australian music?
JR: That’s a really good question because I think you’ve said it all in your question, in the sense that it’s a great help and it’s a great hindrance. I think it’s a great help in a lot of ways because it can help you get whatever promotion or message out there to lots and lots of people that you might not normally get to, but the hindrance is it gives a lot of people an opinion who I reckon don’t deserve an opinion.
Suddenly these people have these really definite opinions about things they don’t really know about and they’ve probably never read a book in their life, and suddenly they’re going, “I firmly believe x…”, and you think, “you don’t even know what you’re talking about you idiot.” Suddenly everyone’s got a very strong opinion about everything and I think as soon as you have a very strong opinion about something and you close your mind off to other possibilities that might be you’ve shot yourself in the foot really. It’s a great help, and it helps open things up, but it also gives a platform for a lot of close-minded people and I think the minute you close your mind you’re in a lot of trouble.
MF: Yeah, I mean it’s not music-related but I think the same-sex marriage debate has epitomised that recently.
JR: Well yeah, it shouldn’t even be a thing you know, we shouldn’t even be talking about it, it’s silly you know. Just do it. I reckon in 10 or 20 years we’ll look back and go, why was that even a thing? It’s like when they used to make African-Americans sit at the back of the bus, I mean if that happened now we’d go why was that even a thing? It’s just ridiculous. It’s not a thing we should even be talking about, let alone having postal votes (laughs). And people have an opinion, “oh I really believe that…” you know, just shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
MF: If you could change any one thing about your career thus far, what would it be?
JR: I think the honest answer would be that every single person was listening to my new records all over the radio all the time and buying them (laughs) and we didn’t have this kind of cultural cringe that we seem to have. We’ve still got a cultural cringe, like if it’s from America or overseas it’s somehow better. We do not support our local industry. A lot of the record companies and radio stations do not support the local industry at all, really. If it was any other industry everyone would be out on strike. If we were killing the building industry or any other industry by not supporting it, geez there would be trouble, but no one cares about the music industry (laughs). But hey, it’s been ever thus, and I’m so used to it I don’t really care, I just continue doing what I do and run my own race and try to make the best of it.
MF: What’s next for you, after this tour?
JR: We do this up until October, then we’ve got some bits and pieces just odd gigs here and there over Christmas, and then next year I’m going to do an acoustic run, just an acoustic tour. We’re going to go out to all the regional areas, we’ll go out to all the country towns and the places where people say, “you never come here.” So if you’re in a country town and complaining that we never come there, we’re coming! Come and see us!
James Reyne’s All Crawl national tour concludes this Saturday at Metropolis Fremantle in WA. Grab tickets here.