Emerging on the West Coast in the mid-’90s, Jebediah was embraced as a dynamic Aussie (post-) grunge pub rock band. They triumphed in the charts with 1997’s debut, Slightly Odway – certified double-platinum. But Mitchell soon grew restless. He discreetly introduced that now-infamous “reverse alter-ego”, Bob Evans, as a way to indulge his love of alt-country-folk. Mitchell’s Americana-style handle was nabbed from a T-shirt.
After airing 2003’s rootsy Suburban Kid, Mitchell cut what would represent Bob Evans’ commercial breakthrough, Suburban Songbook, in Nashville with producer Brad Jones. It scored him his first ARIA – for ‘Best Adult Contemporary Album’. Mitchell reunited with Jones for Goodnight, Bull Creek!, fulfilling his so-called “suburban trilogy”.
Tiring of acoustic strains, Mitchell then conspicuously changed direction for Familiar Stranger – touted as emitting “a progressive pop sound”. He’d been quietly absorbing… electro-pop. Now, in 2016, Mitchell has rediscovered his folksy roots for a fifth Bob Evans album – Car Boot Sale. The title references this legend’s humble Welcome Stranger tour of three years ago, when he drove himself to gigs and actually flogged his own tour merch.
Mitchell – who currently resides with his young family on Victoria’s picturesque Bellarine Peninsula – recorded the album in Sydney alongside producer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Buchen (The Church, The Preatures, Montaigne). Buchen had variously assisted on Familiar Stranger. However, while acoustic, Car Boot Sale carries a HOLY HOLY-esque sweep that is new to the Bob Evans canon, complementing its broad lyrical themes about family and society. Mitchell has previewed two songs, Matterfact and Happy Tears (written for youngest daughter, Ivy), as a double A-side.
It’s been a busy time for Mitchell. Last year Jebediah celebrated their 20th anniversary with a ‘best of’ compilation, Twenty, and tour – inadvertently tapping into a surging ’90s nostalgia. And, just as he’s again switched focus to Bob Evans, Mitchell has begun hosting a free fortnightly podcast series, Good Evans, It’s A Bobcast! – for which he chats to pals like Buchen and… comedian Tom Ballard. The good-humoured Mitchell may have an unexpected hit on his hands. Even the teaser blew up on iTunes’ Podcast Charts.
Music Feeds: 9.30 am Monday is such an un-rock ‘n’ roll time for an interview! Are you a morning person?
Kevin Mitchell: I sure am now. You’re right – it is an unrock ‘n’ roll time, but fortunately for both of us I live a pretty unrock ‘n’ roll life these days. I just dropped both my girls off at kindy and daycare at 8.15, so I’ve been up for a good two-and-a-half hours – already.
You live down on the coast. How has that impacted on you, being away from the rat race?
It just has made me feel a little bit like I’ve gone into semi-retirement, you know? I’ve had to almost remind myself at times that I’ve still got to do some work, because it’s very easy just to slow down with the pace of the [local] town until you’re cruising a little bit too slowly (laughs).
You are back with a new album in Car Boot Sale. The conceptual inspiration came partly from selling your own merch on your last Bob Evans tour. It seems a random thing to do. What can you say about your experience as the “travelling salesman”?
Yeah, well, basically in 2013 I just did a lot of regional touring where I was driving myself from town to town, playing completely solo and doing everything completely by myself. It was probably the first time I’d done it in about 10 years. It was hard work, but it was also deeply satisfying because I was doing everything for myself. I got a lot of contentment at the end of the night when I fell into bed in my cheap motel, half drunk.
I felt a great deal of contentment for the fact that I’d got through to the end of the day and everything worked – and I did it all myself (laughs). The ‘travelling salesman’ thing just comes from the fact that every night I was the artist, I was the tour manager, I was the merch-seller and literally shaking everybody’s hand as they walked out the door at the end of the night.
Were your fans surprised?
I think people seemed to love it! Some people are just there for the music and they don’t really have any interest in anything more than that. But I find that, for the majority of people, they seem to like the idea of being able to say ‘hello’. I do, too, because it gives me just a different perspective on the people that come and see me.
Sometimes you can become a little bit removed if you don’t interact with your audience, other than being on stage. You can become a bit removed and not really understand who your audience is.
You’re the antithesis of Justin Bieber, who sells those fan ‘experiences’ – and then complains about them!
Well, I’m also the antithesis of Justin Bieber because he’s a multimillionaire that sells shitloads of albums and I am just a fucking dude that sells a small number of albums and has to work very hard (laughs). Not to say that Justin Bieber doesn’t work hard, either – that’s not my point.
But I’m operating what is essentially a cottage industry. It’s a very small business and I have to work pretty hard to make it work for me.
Onto the music… After the “suburban trilogy”, you explored a new musical direction with Familiar Stranger. But this record, while it’s been pitched as a return to your roots, it’s quite opulent and epic. What direction do you feel you took on this record – and how does it fit into the Bob Evans arc?
In many ways it does feel like a kind of coming-full-circle album, because there are moments on the album that feel like they could have almost fitted on my very first album [Suburban Kid] or my second album [Suburban Songbook] as well – going back 10 or more years. Obviously, I think the lyrics are better than what I was doing 13 years ago (laughs). But I fell in love with the acoustic guitar again, to a large degree.
When I was making Familiar Stranger I really had just completely lost interest in the idea of ‘the solo singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar’ kinda thing. It just felt dead. It had turned into a ‘thing’ and, as soon as you feel like you’re part of a fucking ‘thing’, you wanna get as far away from it as possible – and that’s what it felt like. But, with this record, I came back to it. I started listening to a lot of the singer/songwriter-type people that I hadn’t listened to for a while.
I found a new way to enjoy playing an acoustic guitar – and writing songs on an acoustic guitar. And then I just started getting into the idea of writing a really lyrical and ornate kind of acoustic album – which is essentially what it is. It’s an acoustic record, and there are elements that are similar to those old records, but it still holds its own place in the grand scheme of things. It has enough kinda elements going on that probably Tony Buchen is responsible for to make it stand alone as well.
The lyrics on this record are intriguing. The one that really jumps out is Some People, about kids and trolling. It’s an unusual thing to write about. What specifically prompted that – because your kids are too young to be on Twitter?
I don’t wanna be absolutely specific about it because it’s kind of a story that’s not really mine to tell, in a way. But I did experience [it] for the first time through somebody else – not my own Twitter feed or whatever, but through somebody else, who was experiencing an awful amount of abuse. Curiosity got the better of me and I looked at some of the things that they were being sent – and it was awful, to put it very mildly.
It shocked me to the point where I felt a bit disturbed by it, actually… I’d just recently become a father at that point in time. I thought to myself, fucking hell, how am I gonna protect my kids from this kinda stuff when they get to an age where they’re engaging in the world of social media and things are probably gonna be even worse? It’s hard to imagine things getting that much worse.
But that spurred the concept of the song, which really is at its core just a song about telling somebody that it doesn’t matter what other people say – you and me are in this together and I’m not gonna let you down.
The other buzz thing you’ve got going on is the podcast – or Bobcast. Are you surprised by the initial response?
Well, I’d be surprised by any response because I’ve never done it before! So whatever happens was gonna surprise me. But I’m figuring it out as I go along – and I’m hoping that that will become part of its charm (laughs). But it’s basically a music podcast that doesn’t play any music and that doesn’t even really always talk about music. The thing is I didn’t know what category to put it in [on iTunes].
We ended up deciding that we’d put it in the music category because I’m not a comedian, so it’s not comedy, and all the other categories just didn’t seem to fit – music was the only one that fitted, because I’m a musician and I’m gonna be talking to people who are also musicians or people who may not necessarily be musicians but have some kind of connection to music. I intend to talk about music a bit, but I also intend to talk about whatever the hell my guests and I feel like talking about.
And that subject matter could go anywhere – it could be anything. So it’s just an opportunity for me to have adult conversations with people (laughs). I can sometimes go weeks where the only adult conversation I have is with my wife. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy my conversations with my wife very much, but sometimes it’s nice to have adult conversations with other people. So much of my time is spent talking with my kids that you kinda crave the adult conversations. I’m just basically a lonely guy and I need to start a podcast so I can talk to people!
You’ve very cleverly struck a balance between Jebediah and Bob Evans over the years. Jebediah had an active 2015 with the 20th anniversary. But what does the future hold for the band?
Yeah, look – it’s a really good question. I think all of us still have the idea in our heads that we wanna have a crack at making another record. But, having said that, I’ve got no idea when or how it’s gonna happen. But, at the moment, I think we’re just really enjoying playing together. We’re just really enjoying where we’re at now.
I feel like with our last record, Kosciuszko, which came out a few years ago now [in 2011], there was a lot of validation with that record for us. If we never made another record, I would be really, really proud of how we went out with that record. I think it’s as good as anything we’ve done. But, as long as we’re still really enjoying each other’s company, and love playing the songs that we’ve written together, we’re just gonna keep on playing, you know?
A lot of the pressure that used to surround the band many years ago has completely gone now. We feel like we’re in control of our destiny and can just do whatever the hell we want and concentrate on pleasing ourselves, first and foremost.
You never really seemed to be fixated on the international market – conquering America. Australian acts once struggled to achieve that, but the Internet has made it easier, with even a relatively parochial artist such as Courtney Barnett having success. Are you just not concerned or have you simply not had the time because you’re so busy here?
I think there’s a bunch of reasons. I don’t think there’s one particular reason. I think, yes – definitely the band haven’t, and I haven’t, given up everything for overseas success. To have success overseas, regardless of what generation you come from, you do have to sacrifice a lot. You’ve gotta devote yourself to it – and I don’t think Jebediah have ever been willing to do that. And now myself, as I’ve gotten older, I’m not willing to do that, either.
Having said that, though, Jebediah did have a go at it many years ago. On our second album [1999’s Of Someday Shambles] we did a lot of touring, we had a release over there, [and] we spent a good three months touring all around America. We had a go. I feel like, both with Jebediah and as a solo artist, I’ve never been lucky enough to just have one influential person overseas that really championed me.
There’s a lot of bands and artists from Australia that I look at who have had overseas careers and many of them have had that. They’ve had at least one person, and maybe more, that has just gone, ‘Oh, this is fantastic – I’m gonna make it my personal mission to make something happen for these guys in my country.’ I’ve never had that happen. Maybe what I do with Jebediah, and as a solo artist, just doesn’t crossover? Maybe it’s just as a simple as that.
I know that with Jebediah my vocals were always a point of contention (laughs). I think Jebediah are very much a band that people either loved or hated. Maybe we just didn’t have that kinda broad appeal that crossed over to places like America.
There’s a myriad of factors that contribute to the lack of success overseas. To be honest, I guess a few years ago I kinda stopped caring so much about it. It’s like the one unticked box, but it’s becoming less and less of something that I care about anymore. It’s something that I could probably talk about for hours!
Save it for the podcast!
Exactly! Save it for the podcast, yeah.
What are your tour plans from here on?
I will do a tour. Nothing’s been announced yet, but I will be getting around. Every time I make a record I play it often and to as many different places as I can, so it’ll be no different with this record. I’m putting a band together – a really awesome band. So we’re gonna launch the record all around the place – and then I’ll see how I go. I’ll do as many band shows as I can afford.