A conversation with Glenn Richards
While researching the film Thomas Hyland & Sean Fennessy spoke with Glenn Richards on September 18, 2010. Edited by David Campbell.
Thomas: Starting from when you first began playing music - when you started touring and releasing - can you remember a specific point at which you had to quit a job in order to pursue music professionally?
Glenn: Because I grew up in time when everybody was all 'rock and roll on the dole' it was a bit easier to kind of scam your way and make a bit of cash. But the point when I started thinking this is what I have to do, and that I started taking it a bit seriously, was probably when I realised that - [despite] any opportunities university afforded me or any kind of inclinations I had toward any other kind of profession - I had passed the point where anybody would even entertain the idea of employing me.
If you are doing something long enough, you ignore other possibilities and that's when you become unemployable. You have to realise you will either do this full time or... I guess I'd probably have had to get a bar job or something, which is what I did when I was first starting out.
Thomas: How old were you at this point?
Glenn: Well, I started pretty late. My brother was a musician well before I was. I didn't really start writing songs until the last year of uni. Twenty-one, I guess - 20 or 21.
Thomas: Did it worry you that your artistic interests were so intertwined with your ability to eat?
Glenn: I used to live here in Carlton, just down Faraday St. And rent was nothing back then, so it was much easier to live hand to mouth - a bit of gig money here and there. It wasn't really a question. Also being young... as long as you've got enough to buy a cask of wine it's all fun.
It kind of shocked me when I met people who were in bands, who were so career-driven at such a young age. I guess that's how you get places, but it seemed to me like they were missing the point. That [being career-focused] is something you have to be once you get to a certain point but back then it should have been about fun.
Thomas: Did you have in your head that, with something like Augie March, “we'll do this for the next 20 years”?
Glenn: No. It was very much that great process whereby you get your first gigs and maybe you get a residency in a shitty bar. And you've always got your eye on [somewhere like] the Empress - a small pub but a good venue. From there you go to the Punters or something like that. If you could just get that Tuesday night and maybe bring a few people, do a good show, then you might get the Thursday night and keep on going from there, get a few big supports...
Basically it was about playing as many of the venues as possible, because it's such an unreal thought but you might end up on stage at the Palace Theatre or something. So for us it was very much an accidental progress, but with that kind of naive intent.
Thomas: You weren't planning for the future?
Glenn: No. [laughs]
Thomas: [laughs]. Do you think in Australia's music climate it's possible to? Whilst sticking to 'credible music'?
Glenn: Yeah, well there is a ceiling and there are people who can [plan for the future]. A good example is Powderfinger: they can find the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling. But once you get to that point you realise [that although] it's a great career, only 10-15 bands can really do it. We certainly never made a decent living.
There were times, good years, where we would tour a bit and it was enough to maybe pay our rent. But the idea of buying a house and that sort of thing... We've always been in that sort of weird bracket where it's perceived that we're doing well but... not really.
Thomas: Tell me about the difference between a good year and a bad year. What's the difference in the way you live and what the band can do in terms of touring or recording?
Glenn: It comes down to what part of the cycle of a release you're in. If it's the year of the release then you can get away with maybe three tours in a year and sporadic shows - and that's the best part of it [the job]. But then also you can get a little creative, maybe seek out and occasionally be offered unique shows like [the ones with] the symphony orchestra in Western Australia. Stuff like that keeps you interested.
But probably the most difficult thing is, because another perception of the band is that we're a little bit difficult and wordy, it was always risky to try regional shows. It's the kind of thing that Grinspoon can do year in, year out, and kill it in just about any town they want to do. We could just never do that.
And of course we don't have airplay. But that's another aspect of the Australian scene: even though we're basically pub rock here [in Melbourne], we're not pub rock in Bendigo or somewhere.
Thomas: Has it ever been suggested that you should be doing something different, in terms of the way you create music, in order to benefit yourself financially and open up other doors? Would you ever do that?
Glenn: No. [laughs] Not really. I don't know how people can work like that. I think people are brazen about it in this industry. It's supposedly why talent shows are doing so well - because they've turned creating music into some kind of private enterprise and all that nonsense.
As soon as anybody in any kind of artistic field starts doing something for that reason, they constipate themselves. It's inevitable. They release crap. Or they... wait... that's kind of a contradiction but, you know... [laughs]
It stops you up though, any kind of thinking, even if it's just on a minimum level. You start thinking, ohh maybe I should cut a verse in the middle of the songwriting process. You start thinking, ohh this is going to go for seven minutes, this is nonsense, I'll cut this verse out. What kind of thing is that? That's the beginning of it.
I think it can creep in but I've certainly never thought, I need to make a lot of money, so I'm going to write this kind of song. I couldn't do it anyway.
Thomas: Any idea what will happen if your ability to pay the rent [from playing music] ceases?
Glenn: It's always a possibility. It's in the back of my mind. As I get older and get less excited about every aspect of it [playing music], it probably grows: the thought that not only do you not have the enthusiasm to continue with what you have been doing, but that perhaps you're also out of that youthful or naive period where material comes that's of interest to other people. Now you're starting to write songs or just ape music that you find easy to listen to. Easy listening.
I don't know what I'll do then, but I don't think I'm the type of person that that's going to happen too readily to. I'm too much of a self-flagellator. I don't think I'll ever let myself feel content or at ease with anything I'm doing... I'm very proud of the record that I just made but I'm already thinking, bugger this, I'm going to go and do something else. In a way it's kind of a damaging approach but it keeps me on my toes.
Thomas: There was a great point when you had solid backing from Triple J - through the Moo, You Bloody Choir period. Did much change in the way you guys operated or viewed the art that you were making?
Glenn: It's kind of difficult to remember. I could probably chart us a pretty steady progress to that point. We would always just sort of creep up a level. So when we had that one song that did well it was like, of course, we've done all the work to actually get here.
Even though there were a few awards and there was a lot of attention on the band, it didn't really feel like we'd actually done that much or been elevated that much. There was no commercial interest or anything like that.
Triple R and Triple J and all the community stations have always been behind us so it probably just elevated us on those terms. It was nice. It was good. It's probably the comfortable area that you want to be in if you are a particular kind of band.
I think it's probably why the record after was a bit of a flop, because there was a kind of insistence that the rough edges should be sanded off, and we were probably a bit too tired to resist that push. So we made a record that by our standards would be regarded as a polished record. We didn't like it and nobody else did.
Thomas: So you weren't happy with 'Watch Me Disappear'?
Glenn: No... I mean, we've said heaps about it. Nearly every interview we did at the time was a textbook 'how to slag your own record'. It's not that bad but it's just not up to our standard.
Thomas: Do you mean in terms of writing? Or in terms of the way it was recorded?
Glenn: I think from every angle. I still think there are some good songs and good performances. It's just... well, what I'm doing now is probably what I should have done at that point rather than going with another Augie record.
We went to America, we toured our arses off and we just got so fatigued. And you kind of forget what an enormous project it is to make a record, what an immense thing it is and how much energy it requires. You have to be really into every aspect of it. And I think we were all in a state of thinking, if it works, it works. If it doesn't, I couldn't give a shit. Which is pretty negative.
Thomas: So is this something that worries you? I mean if you have to put in intense touring to push this, to make things work - especially as you're getting older?
Glenn: Yeah, because I've done it for the better part of my 20s and 30s. You miss out on a hell of a lot of normal life, but it's really just a day-to-day thing. I can think about how next month I'm going to be in Cairns - and that's exciting - and if that keeps going I'll be pretty happy. But on another day I can think: why the fuck would I want to go to Cairns?
I'd like to get the balance right. Nobody is really happy unless they're working on something that they're into. I'd like to be here [at home] working on the next album.
And touring... touring has become a job, I guess. It'd sound pretty churlish if I said it was a shit job; it's a good job but it's still a job.
Thomas: Do you view music as your job?
Glenn: Yeah, pretty much. If making something that resembles a living and [doing something that] occupies a whole lot of your time - if that's what constitutes a job, then yeah, absolutely.
And now with doing some solo work I'm doing a lot more of the organising stuff, which makes it even more like a job. Administration, that sort of stuff. But when you're in a band - and a lot of people know what I'm talking about - it does allow you to regress a lot or maintain a kind of infantile condition in a lot of ways. [laughs] I mean, I've got a hangover... [laughs] I shouldn't have a hangover.
Thomas: [laughs] Have you had to spend much time on the dole in order to pursue a music career?
Glenn: Not for a long time, no. That's something we're all pretty happy about. I think it had to be around that time of Moo, You Bloody Choir; there was just a bunch more seats and more shows. And all of that meant that at the end of year, when the venues were finally paid up, we were all able to maybe pay a year's rent and not worry anymore about anything.
At the same time, because the other guys [in Augie March] aren't the songwriters, they don't get the same income. We would always split the royalties, but then I signed [for the] publishing [rights] and that changed quite a bit so that the splits were obviously not even.
The other guys - well a couple of them, anyway - had to keep working. But they have kids as well. So yeah, I think we're probably a good example of a band that, while we did well, were still at that pretty common mid-level status in Australia.
Sean: What does it take to get to the next level and what is the next level?
Glenn: I think, in really crude terms, it's getting a song on a Triple M or something like that. So that it's not just the street press readers and Triple R listening communities; it's the ugly real world.
Sean: Was there a little bit of commercial play after “One Crowded Hour”? Did something happen with “Thin Captain Crackers”?
Glenn: No, I don't think so unless you know more than I do. But I think the closest we got was maybe Nova. They played “One Crowded Hour” a couple of times.
But I think even just sound-wise we don't fit that kind of hi-fi radio world. I couldn't figure it out. People were saying, 'Of course this will work. You can make this cross over,' and - just from my point of view - I couldn't see or hear songs like what we were writing on radio stations like that. So it was just too much of a leap.
Thomas: Do you see commercial radio, or being played on it, as a dirty thing?
Glenn: No, not really. You gotta take what you can. If you're not directly writing for that market then it's all pretty much a fluke if it doesn't happen. If it does happen then you're not going to call them up and say, 'Can you stop playing that song?' Anything that enables you to keep going in this country is a good thing. It doesn't mean you have to like the actual outlet.
Thomas: Did it make touring less enjoyable? I remember seeing you in Hobart after the Hottest 100 and it seemed like a fair percentage of the crowd was just waiting around to hear “One Crowded Hour.”
Glenn: Yeah, that definitely happened. That would have been at the Republic or something. Christ, that was a really late show and everyone was so drunk. I'm not sure I've ever played to a drunker audience. It's insane.
Thomas: [laughs]. Did it make playing less enjoyable?
Glenn: Definitely. We've always had a good audience that would always come regardless, and it was that audience who would end up hating that song.
But yeah, you say it happens with other bands as well. Fair-weather friends: they're not worth having. But I'm glad you paid to come in. [laughs]
Sean: [laughs] Well, yeah I was glad you played “Sunstroke House” off Sunset Studies.
Glenn: Yeah, well that's it. You just gotta remember that whether you're really sick of it or not, the best part of the audience is more in interested in everything [as opposed to just one song].
Thomas: You mentioned that the other guys in the band have kids and commitments like that. Given that music is the job, how does planning for a future, a family and a house change the way you go about your job?
Glenn: Definitely when David, our drummer, had a kid, then Kiernan, our keyboard player - he's got a couple now - it made me think I was probably going to say yes to a lot more shows than we used to.
At the same time, those guys have made the choice to do that. They know that music is probably not going to provide for their kids and they're wise enough to be doing other stuff. As far as I'm concerned it's probably a bit too personal to talk about that side of it. But in general, you'd be taking a real risk if you decided to have children and you weren't in that range of performers that can demand money. You'd have to get a decent job.
I think that's why a lot of people, people who have been in it for a long time and never really cracked it, end up going into production or recording - setting up studios and that sort of thing. They still struggle but at least they get to keep a hand in it - enough to feel like they haven't gone to the desk, they haven't really given in - which is nice. Melbourne is one of the few towns where you can do it.
Thomas: Have you had to do call centre work or temp jobs?
Glenn: No, just dishwashing and bar work... and that's a long time ago now. I'm fortunate in that outside of the band there were always offers to do little things like collaborations and playing on other people's records, doing one-off shows that would pay well. As long as you've got rent taken care of it's reasonably easy to be in my position.
Thomas: Would you ever do a wedding? Have you ever been asked to do a wedding or something like that?
Glenn: We have actually, yeah. Being amongst the profession where, 'We conceived our child to this song,' or, 'We buried our father to this one,' there's offers to do it. You know, 'We'll pay you ridiculous fees if you come play at our wedding.' And if you say yes to one, you have to say yes to everyone. So we never said yes to anything. It's like playing corporate gigs or something: 'National Australia Bank's having a Christmas do.' [laughs]
Thomas: So that's where you would draw the line? Weddings or corporate kind of stuff?
Glenn: Yeah. It's just a bit weird. Although, there were interesting ones ... I think we were going to be flying to Vietnam for something. It was a reasonably decent cause but it didn't end up panning out. If it's curious stuff to do, then we'd be foolish to say no.
But being a band for hire is not really one of the things you want to remember. Effectively you're always for hire but not on a personal level. It was never for us.
Thomas: Do you see young bands now - bands interested in being full-time artists and making a career of it - and wonder if they're going about things the right way or the wrong way? Is it possible to see it like this?
Glenn: Ahh, that's a pretty deep question because I've been around long enough now. I've done years of pole postering and delivering cassette demos right to the point where things are at now, from something that was pretty cut and dried a few years ago to thinking, will I put a song to an ad for clothes detergent?
Young bands don't seem to have too many problems with that at all; it's just one more means to get the music across. And I guess knowing full well that so much of their music is just going to be downloaded for free - in a sense it kind of evens things up ethically.
I've probably softened in my view on that side of things because, for one thing, commercial radio hasn't changed its stripes at all. It won't take any chances with Australian music. So that's an invitation to young bands to say, 'Bugger it. This bank can have my song and all of a sudden we got a career.'
It's probably too easy but I can't blame them. So I think as long as you're not being a wanker - and there are plenty of bands full of wankers and there always have been - the means by which young bands get it done - it's a very open book. I can't be too judgmental.
I wish things had happened a lot quicker for us but at the same time you've gotta live with the 'Did I actually deserve any of it?' and the 'Did I work for it?' - I don't think that side of it ever changes.
Thomas: I like the idea of the record you're doing now (Glimjack). The idea being to strip it back and take complete control of it.
Glenn: Yeah, yeah. It was a direct result of having done it the opposite way with the last Augie record and fooling myself thinking it was going to be easy. Of course it was hard. It was difficult and not always fun, but it was a genuine this-is-how-I-used-to-make-records experience: go rehearse a few times and bang it down.
But it's not without ambition either. It's just that we got those [recordings] done really quickly. There was a real attempt to not stiffen things up, and the result is in the mix but generally it's on the good-sound ledger.
Thomas: Your lyrical content was certainly what first struck me when I discoved Augie March. What interests you about developing -
Glenn: That side of things? It's probably the part of it [songwriting] that is most important to me. That and melody. It needs to be interesting to me before I can see it being interesting to somebody else.
I'm trying not to be too obvious. You know, my view of the world is a pretty confused one. I don't have too many black and whites, and even though I pretend to know a lot about what I'm speaking about, that's just a habit I've fallen into. I don't really know much at all. [laughs]
The lyrical side of things is just an attempt to express my very opaque window on the world. It's as much about feeling as it is about knowing. So I try to do that; I try to evoke places that don't actually exist but that people know are there. I think that's why they affect people, certain kinds of people, because they know what I'm talking about even though I don't...
Thomas: Yeah, did I see you were playing a show in Hobart next weekend?
Glenn: I'm hoping to. Mum and Dad are going away for quite a while and my dogs are over there, so whenever they leave I tend to go over and tend to the dogs.
But it's getting to that point with this record where there's just a little thing to do here, a little thing to do there, and I've gotta be here for that. So maybe I won't get a chance.
Thomas: But aren't you playing ... aren't you playing a show there supporting someone?
Glenn: Oh right, yeah! [laughs]. Clare Bowditch, yeah. [laughs] Oops. Yeah. When is that? [laughs]
Glenn: No, I won't think about that till a couple of days before. It's kind of like handing an exam in. I'll deal with it the night before and I'll do all the practice. But that's just going to be fun. I've known Clare for years and I really don't have to do much - just play for 40 minutes and then get off.
Thomas: Is it solo?
Glenn: Yeah, and that's a good example of where, as a songwriter, you can keep your profile up and keep your bank account reasonably topped up by just doing stuff like that. And it's fun because there's no real pressure on you.
Thomas: Is touring something you have to do in order to be able to make money?
Glenn: I think so, yeah. There's no money in record sales unless you crack a hundred thousand or something in this country. That said, if you're not with a label then you're probably doing a bit better. But then downloads are killing everybody so it's kind of a moot point now. Touring is definitely the bread and butter. I've done a little film work as well. That's been pretty handy.
Thomas: As in soundtracks?
Glenn: Yeah, I did a feature film. And I did it all in here [his house] so... I think they were happy with it?
Glenn: [laughs]. You can kind of think, I'm getting away with murder. But I put thousands and thousands of dollars into this little [recording] setup so it should earn some money.
Thomas: What was the film?
Glenn: Lou. It came out not that long ago. I've just been nominated for a prize in a Russian film festival.
Thomas: Did it get much of a run in Australia?
Glenn: Yeah, it got a run in the arthouse cinemas. It got well reviewed and yeah... Pretty interesting story. Beautifully made. Lots of ukulele. [laughs]
Sean: Is that something that's going to get released as an album?
Glenn: No. Belinda, the Director, wanted it to happen but I was pretty busy making my own record at the time. And it was a real crazy editing job. Last minute changes: 'Can you make this piece of music again but with a different instrument, and can it be precisely this long?' Stuff like that.
By the time I was finished with the [audio] files I couldn't remember what I was doing in the first place. I think it would've been a waste of money from their point of view. People don't tend to buy soundtracks unless they've got hit songs in there.