Thirty-two years after posting a few dozen dodgy-looking 7” singles to the music press -- which led to the international success of the proto-punk anthem (I’m) Stranded and a three-record deal with EMI in the UK -- Saints’ guitarist and songwriter Ed Kuepper is still pressing his own music. Nowadays though, he hawks CDs to fans for ten bucks a pop.
Like folkies around the world -- from the grizzled Richard Thompson to “righteous babe” Ani DiFranco -- Kuepper is a bootlegger. He sells his own live recordings, made direct from the mixing desk. The seventh in the so-called Prince Melon bootleg series is a recording of the reformed Laughing Clowns made at Brisbane’s GoMA in January. You’ll be able to pick it up tonight, at the door, when Kuepper and the Clowns play the Melbourne International Jazz Festival
(yes, the Jazz
Festival) or at the Basement
, in Sydney, on Saturday or Sunday night.
The Laughing Clowns were formed by Kuepper (and drummer Jeffrey Wegener) in the wake of the break-up of The Saints. The Saints, of course, were the dazzling harbingers of punk in the mid 1970s. They even beat the Sex Pistols to the draw. It’s taken the music world considerably longer to catch up with the Laughing Clowns...
Nowadays, Clowns music might be labelled free jazz, neo-jazz, avant-garde, experimental, post-rock, math rock or even post-metal. Hell, make up your own moniker for it! It’s brassy, dark and still scarily fresh. [Check out ‘Collapse Board’ or ‘I Don’t Know What I Want’ on iTunes.]
I last saw The Laughing Clowns early in 1982, sandwiched between The Go-Betweens (Kuepper’s singing voice is not unlike Robert Forster’s, I guess) and Nick Cave’s pre-Bad Seeds band, The Birthday Party. It comes as a bit of a shock to me to discover that I was enjoying jazz, however ‘free’ or ‘neo’ it might have been.
B.Y.O. (No Glass)?! What a concept!
Kuepper (I’ve since discovered) vehemently disputed claims by critics at the time that The Laughing Clowns were playing and recording jazz. Today, he’s rather mellower and happily lists Coleman and Coltrane -- that’s Ornette and John, incidentally -- among the band’s influences.
And speaking of mellowing, there was enough of a rapprochement between Kuepper and Saints singer Chris Bailey for that band to regroup for a couple of concerts on the east coast, starting at Pig City and culminating with the All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) gigs early this year.
Given that Laughing Clowns vinyl and CDs are next-to-impossible to find, my first question to Kuepper was how -- and why -- did that particular reformation happen?
“It’s kind of a surprise to me in some ways. It wasn’t something that we actively pursued. The Clowns, as a band, are in an odd situation in as much as we don’t have any current material to promote, we don’t have any affiliation with a label [or] anything. And everybody also has a number of other things with which they’re occupied.”
The invitation, in fact, came from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who curated this year’s ATP. Kuepper had toured with the Bad Seeds on their last European round as support act. And, indeed, he’s been invited to join the Bad Seeds on the 2009 Summer tour of Europe... as a member of the band. He will be replacing guitarist Mick Harvey, one of Cave’s oldest collaborators and a founding member of the Bad Seeds... not to mention The Birthday Party and Cave’s first major band, The Boys Next Door, before that.
Kuepper stresses that the arrangement with the Bad Seeds is flexible and not necessarily long-term.
“There’s not an aesthetic problem from my perspective at all... I like what they do. I like what they do a lot. And I’ve liked what they’ve done for a long time... Whether it washes with their long-term fans or not is another question!”
Stylistically, what Kuepper does is very different from Harvey. Still, he says, he’s sure it will work out well. “I feel quite optimistic about it,” he adds with an unexpectedly hearty laugh.
Kuepper is so used to being outside of the musical mainstream that success and fame cause much the same bemusement as failure and obscurity. He accepts both with slightly puzzled grace. Still, he admits to being “pleasantly surprised” by the reception of the Clowns this year and the mixed of old and young in the crowds.
“I always searched out older music, myself, so I can identify with that... It’s a different thing to nostalgia, you know?”
“There’s nothing wrong with feeling a glimmer of nostalgia when you’re listening to something, but I think if it’s something that’s new to you, it works both in your current life and also opens up a -- this is what used to happen to me -- it opened up this mysterious world which was really fascinating. I used to listen to a lot of old blues and rock ’n’ roll stuff. And just the sound of it -- the difference between it and things that were on radio at the time -- there was something magical about it.”
Joining Kuepper for these three concerts are Jeffery Wegener, "long-time saxophonist" Louise Elliott, bassist Biff Miller and keyboardist Alister Spence. Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, playing solo, is supporting act at the Forum, tonight. The Lighthouse Keepers' Juliet Ward and and Greg Appel are the supporting act at both Basement performances.
link: Melbourne International Jazz Festival
link: The Basement
Labels: Ed Kuepper, interview, Laughing Clowns, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Saints