by Georgia Curry
Tim Freedman’s put about $10 in the pokies over the past five years, little wonder given the song. But don’t get him wrong, Freedman doesn’t mind gambling “as long as the odds are even fair, pokies are just a form of legislated losing”.
Publicists are madly plugging the single, Blow Up the Pokies, as the most poignant Australian song since Redgum’s I was Only Nineteen and Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning. I wondered if the comparison to such politically outspoken groups was an accurate one. Afterall, The Whitlams did come up with Chunky Chunky Air Guitar. “This song has a certain political angle but I don’t think our band does in general,” Freedman says, “this is the first album that we’ve had songs which tackle social issues. I just surrendered to the fact that privately we’re quite political so I just let it sink in a little bit – although I don’t think it’s particularly like sloganeering. I think what we do, discuss social issues, is clothed in a story.”
Amazingly, in an era where froth and bubble dominates the music scene, The Whitlams’ “thinking” single entered the charts at number 21.
“It was good to see – or certainly from my perspective – a song which had some meaning up there and getting some airplay on commercial stations,” he says, “it probably doesn’t happen enough but I’m glad that it happened this time.”
However, Freedman readily admits that the Whitlams are essentially a pop group – “more of a literate pop group”. He explainsChunky Chunky Air Guitar as “a bit of perverted froth.” “So there’s a bit of frothiness, we’re not against it completely, we’re quite flippant and light-hearted quite often. We’re not serious young insects.”
As with all new releases, Freedman has been diligently pushing the new single through all media, including The (very very live) Panel. Yes, Freedman still gets nervous.
“Playing live, is like doing several Wembleys, in terms of numbers, and it’s important when you’re playing several Wembleys to um, kick a goal,” he says. “It’s funny those things, you get adrenaline and you can’t remember what actually happened. The you watch it later and go, ahem.”
I assured him that he came across cool, calm and collected (although I did see him squirm when Rob Sitch brought up the uncanny similarity with Christopher Skase). But he’s fully recovered from that ordeal, the band’s well-rested having just had a month off. Freedman spent a month in his hometown, Newtown, at the local swimming pool.
he’s now trying to imagine the next record in his mind, “and I haven’t got there yet so I don’t know where I’m going”. Sounds like the beginnings of something great. So far, he’s put four songs to paper, that have yet to be arranged, but this time Freedman wants to get as far away from Love This City as possible. He describes the last effort as “very painstaking and very pedantic”. But, with the album going platinum and Blow Up the Pokies becoming a standout commercial track, it paid off.
“I’m happy with the way this single sounds, it’s the biggest-sounding song we’ve released and we needed it. Everyone needs a hit songle, I’m sure you do as well, I especially did. It keeps you in people’s ears on the radio because otherwise they forget so easily. It’s a jungle out there.”
Nonetheless, next time The Whitlams record (sometime early next year) Freedman wants to make “more of a band album rather than a cast of 100, just because it’s exhausting that way.”
“Love This City was quite an exhausting project, three producers there must’ve been four different bands on it. Setting up all the time rather than setting up just the once and getting into it, was a bit tiring. I intend to not spend six months on the next record, I’d rather just spend three and sit on the beach for the other three months – it’s best if it’s done quickly.
“I’d like a record that’s more cohesive, the last one was a collection of songs done in lots of different ways because I didn’t have one vision, so I approached it song by song. I’ve written some of the 4 songs while I was on tour in Canada, but they’re all over the shop, just like my diary really, no great departure there. I’m going to stick to the anecdotal. I imagine if I record it with the present band it’s going to be a bit groovier because the rhythm section we ave at the moment comes from Dig and the dance side of things, so I think their personalities will shine through, more modern groove.”
Coming home, and it is a sort of home-coming for the band (the original line-up included the late Stevie Plunder and Andy Lewis from Narrabundah) is always a pleasure, Freedman says. Canberra watched the band grow up when they were “just a scrappy little three-piece playing at the ANU Bar.” An indication of how strong the band’s following is here can be seen in the number ofEternal Nightcap albums sold at Impact Records. It was the biggest-selling album ever, with 1600 albums sold from the one store.
“I suppose our roots are quite deep in Canberra even though the Canberra connection is no longer what it was, because the crowd is familiar with us and you can always tell a crowd that knows you, when they know more than the last two songs on the radio.”
In the past two years, The Whitlams have played the ANU Bar twice and Canberra Uni Refectory twice. Tonight and tomorrow they descend upon Tilley’s – “it’s just good to do something different.”
“It’s good to go to town and do all the rooms, each show’s got a different feel and I felt like it was time to do some little shows in Canberra. You can play a lot of quieter music, it’s more of a listening crowd, Tilley’s is a perfect venue for that sort of thing. I’ve got fond memories of there, we did it a few times in our early days. I think we opened for the Gadflys once in about ’94 and we did our own show there in about 1995. We haven’t been there for five years so I’m looking forward to going back.”
I guess tonight’s concert will attract the usual “Whitlams crowd” with an age group of 12 to 55 – The Whitlams are probably one of the few bands where people can come with their grandparents.
“We just write pretty classic lyric-driven tunes with traditional instruments so there’s no reason why people who were into music in the ’60s wouldn’t listen to us and when you get played on Triple J you’re obviously going to get young kids involved as well. Our biggest strength is that our audience is really strong around Australia and it helps to not be a style-based band, we’re more a song-based band so no-one’s really turned off by any one style. So I’m looking forward to seeing the three generations in one family at Tilley’s.”
One face in the crowd that Freedman would love to see is that of the band’s namesake, Gough. It was a memorable night at the ARIAs two years ago when Gough presented the group with the Best Band award, “that was the high point of my career so far, it was surreal, a fairy tale. I haven’t been able to top that yet.”
So does the band maintain any contact with Gough – other than in name?
“I’d like to think that he appreciates our presence on the scene, I don’t use up his valuable time with petty requests from the popular side of culture.”