Freed of Constraints?

The Drum Media
by Ross Clelland

The scene is a very suits-and-ties Chinese restaurant on the northern side of the Harbour Bridge. “Just the place for a couple of Newtown boys made good,” claims Tim Freedman, “and I can’t stand doing interviews in a record company board-room.”

I’m not sure I fit the ‘Made Good’ category, but someone’s offering me the legendary free lunch, so I’ll ignore the stares of the button-downed brigade and try not to drop too much Lobster sauce on my going out sneakers.

In the ‘made good’ department, Mr Freedman probably has some claims. Fronts a little band called The Whitlams, they had that song that everyone now seems to know that starts with ‘letter to you on a cassette’. Seems there’s No Aphrodisiac like radio airplay, particularly when achieved on your own terms.

It didn’t take the major record companies long to notice, and while some of the terminally anti-success musical crowd scream ‘sell-out!’, the new Whitlams album, Love This City, comes with the Warners logo on it.

“Yeah, Bugs Bunny is paying for most of it,” and Tim is unapologetic, for he doesn’t have to be. “This is part of the pay-off. I’m confident with what I’ve done, cause I’ve had the budget to do it. It’s a new kind of pressure, but a pleasant one.”

“For about seven years, all I could do was sit on a barstool at The Sandringham Hotel until I had a good musical idea, get pissed and tell people about it – but then all I could do was sit on that barstool until the next great idea. Nothing actually ever got done.”

But isn’t there a trade-off, isn’t big brother of the corporation looking over your shoulder?

He is a little triumphant: “Surprisingly no. Because Eternal Nightcap (the album with well known said little ditty on it) went so well. I had a ‘get out of A&R free’ card,” Tim jokes in reference to the Artist & Repertoire people, who can make life Heaven or Hell for artists. “We ended up just handing Warners the record, and they came back a couple of days later going ‘Yeah, we like it’. They almost sounded surprised.”

“It’s more silly things. They wanted to send a limo to get me for something the other day. I mean f**k that, I’ll catch a cab. A limo probably wouldn’t get up my street anyway.”

So, how did The Whitlams, of all people, end up with a ‘priority’ album? You might know bits of the long strange trip it’s been, but for those of you who came in late: The boy Freedman was, to steal someone else’s lyric ‘a truly gifted kid’, full scholarships to one of the top schools – “my brother and I only sat for the exam because we found the school had cricket nets you could use at lunchtime”. On to study law at Sydney Uni, moving into Newtown, the place that now provides so much of the colour and character of his songs.

And one drunken afternoon, linking with Stevie Plunder / Hayes, and deciding that Gough was the right man to name a band after. Of walking away from a possibly glittering career at the legal bar, to spending a lot of time at the Sando bar: “Am I too smart to be a pop star? Nah. Maybe not smart enough. Or probably too dumb not to be”.

Various other Whitlams came and went. Of some of them, Tim can be scathing: of one “he just lost faith in me, and wouldn’t make the effort”, and another “just f**cked off to Europe to become a star, and came back with his tail between his legs”. But Plunder’s stupid, wasteful suicide was a turning point.

“And just as I Make Hamburgers is making the leap up, Stevie’s gone. A month later I’m at a pool on the South Coast, and it comes over the loudspeakers on the radio. Went on high rotation a week after he died. Death is a f**ucking good career move”, Tim sneers. “Except for the poor bastard who’s dead”. But that at least made me think that some people might still be interested. Did I despair at any point? Yes, many points.

But 200,000 sales and a song that seemingly everybody knows gives you fame – and a downside. There are cameras just waiting for you to turn up at a coroner’s inquest, over the death of a fan you once knew. There’s an old Uni acquaintance who’s a journalist with a Murdoch newspaper, who offers you the chance to ‘tell your side of the story’, and comprehensively stitches you up, many believing Freedman a prime suspect.

“It got very unpleasant”, he understates, “But it was nothing I could avoid. I just went and bought as new pair of sunglasses and went up the stairs into court like a rugby league player going to face the judiciary. It’s really just reinforced my hatred of the tabloid press. I have learned a lot.”

And what you probably didn’t read was that Freedman has been completely cleared of any involvement. Though there’s still some almost Courtney-like conspiracy theories still being propagated. Even Stevie’s death has been brought into it. A couple of nights after this interview / chat, after The Whitlams’ gig at Goldmans, all have adjourned to The Town Hall Hotel (as you do). I’m fairly maggoted drunk and trying to avoid being one of the backslappers surrounding the golden boy. I thank him for lunch, and end up shaking hands with ABC comedy stars and police drama actresses (well, one of each), and I get assailed by more than one set of other acquaintances, with terms like ‘so, what are you talking to that c**t for?’. Congratulations, Tim, you’re officially a Tall Poppy and a target.

The new album reflects some of the darkness and light, that seems to have got even brighter or gloomier with the recent success. Even the ‘potential Olympic anthem’ title track has some twists, as the character eventually takes fright at the five ring hysteria and drowns himself in the harbour. “Just like Waltzing Matilda”, Tim says, “Now there’s a national anthem. We want a real song about a sheep thief.”

“I know some people just listen to the choruses. Like the Republican Party wanting to use Springsteen’s Born In The USA, or even better, Randy Newman’s I love LA – in the clip he’s even in a tank going down the freeway. And the Mayor ended up giving him the keys to the city.”

The rest of the record sprawls all over the place. The gentler Make The World Safe (now there’s a single), and a take on Bernie Hayes’ You Made Me Hard (also on the latter’s own album) are love and mixed emotions. Chunky Chunky Air Guitar has the beeps and buzzes of Machine Gun Fellatio running through it. Now cult figure Louis Burdett drums in places. There’s Chris Abrahams (Necks, etc) tinkling about. The photo on the front of a lone Freedman in a shopping crowd rush makes you think The Whitlams might now be a one-man band. This he quickly dismisses.

“More like a 50 man band. It’s the usual suspects, the people I know. And people who are big enough to know their limitations. I can say to (live guitarist) Ben Fink, ‘I think we could use someone else for a certain part’, and he can take that.

According to Love This City’s songs, God still drinks down at the Sandringham Hotel – annoying the bar staff coz his glass never seems to empty – so all might be close to well with the world. Or, as Freedman explains it: “Warners wanted a record with a global view, but I gave them a bit of a Hordern Street Newtown view as well.”