So Honest, Tim Hurts

Courier Mail – Friday 28th August 2009 , Noel Mengel

Expect no holding back when The Whitlams play their entire Eternal Nightcap album in Brisbane next week, writes Noel Mengel

A letter to you on a cassette, cause we don’t write anymore . . . TAKES you back, doesn’t it? It’s the opening line from one of the biggest Australian albums of 1998, The Whitlams’ Eternal Nightcap. In love, out of love, it didn’t seem to matter. That opening song, No Aphrodisiac, was speaking straight to the listener, as Tim Freedman leaned into the microphone and sang There’s no aphrodisiac like loneliness/Truth, beauty and a picture of you. No Aphrodisiac was the song that changed everything for Freedman – the one that took his band from hard-working pub favourites to the top of the charts. But it came out of a period of turmoil that drove Freedman deep into his personal well. For those who came in late, The Whitlams were formed in Sydney’s inner-city muso central Newtown in 1992 by Freedman, guitarist Stevie Plunder and bassist Andy Lewis. Plunder fell to his death in the Blue Mountains in 1996 and Lewis committed suicide in 2000, which led Freedman to write another intensely personal song, The Curse Stops Here.

Freedman carried on the band name but now as the sole writer he had to deliver 12 songs to make an album, rather than the five or six he wrote for the band’s first two albums. He started writing honest, confessional lyrics such as No Aphrodisiac. The album’s Charlie trio of songs was clearly addressed to Stevie in particular and absent friends in general. There was no holding back. Charlie, you’re not my Charlie any more, Freedman sang on Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No 2), You’re killing your soul with an audience looking on.

“Before those songs were released I was known more for writing flippant pop songs, songs of mine that had been on the radio like Gough and I Make Hamburgers,” Freedman says, as The Whitlams prepare to perform the Eternal Nightcap album in its entirety in Brisbane next week.

“There was a bootleg going around of our song Come On Pauline to the tune of Come On Eileen.” Freedman wasn’t prepared for the reaction to these new songs. “About two months after the album came out we were playing in a suburb on the NSW central coast, quite a rough place, and the whole crowd started singing along with Buy Now Pay Later. Triple J had been playing it and I was really taken aback that people were singing along with such a personal song.

“I think people reacted to the Charlie songs, they related them to their struggles with their own friends and they used those songs to reclaim a bit of hope that they could change their friends, even though in my song cycle it’s not a happy ending.”

Eternal Nightcap was a different kind of record, an out-of-left-field triple platinum success story, released on the band’s own Black Yak label. It won them three ARIA Awards including best group, the first band not on a major label to win that category.

“When we started playing around Sydney I was the only guy playing a piano,” Freedman recalls.

“It was all Detroit rock and Seattle grunge.

“We turned up with a piano and double bass and people immediately thought we must have been from Melbourne.

“People hadn’t heard an Australian band doing that singer-songwriter stuff for a long time. A few years later you couldn’t move for them but when we started it was: A piano?

“I was saying, the piano has been there on the best pop music ever. It’s on (David Bowie’s) Hunky Dory, it’s all over The Beatle’s White Album.”

Freedman was on a mission as he set out to make Eternal Nightcap. The previous Whitlam’s album, Undeniably, had sold about 8000 copies. Freedman thought if he could crack 10,000 this time he would get to make another album.

And he knew the band had done the miles, thousands and thousands of them.

“We weren’t known in the mainstream but we already had a big live following,” he says.

“Before the album had any airplay we did four nights in Sydney at the Harbourside Brasserie to 400 people a night to launch it.” Freedman had another bright idea. He put No Aphrodisiac on cassettes – people still had tape players then – and dropped them into the pigeon-holes at Triple J in envelopes marked A cassette letter to you. It worked.

“We had the live following and that was ignited by a bit of airplay. It set the template for what was to follow with artists such as John Butler and The Waifs cracking mainstream success from independent labels.”

Many of the songs from the album have remained favourites in the band’s live set, although Freedman has some mixed feelings about listening to the album now.

“I think it’s the album that has dated the most. The way I sang – I was so careful to enunciate everything because I wanted everyone to understand the words. Sometimes I cringe a bit because I sound like I’m singing in a musical,” he says.

“I’m not always comfortable listening to the record but I do like singing them live. With a lot of the songs I had been chipping away at them for five or six years. They weren’t just written in two months.”

And Eternal Nightcap showed there was an audience that really cared about the lyrics.

“People used to read poetry and they don’t any more.

“There is still a need for songs and phrases that make people feel that they are not alone.”

The Whitlams play Eternal Nightcap and other favourites, The Tivoli, August 14, and Mackay Entertainment Centre, August 15