Revisiting the Darkness
by Andrew Murfett
In their 17 years the Whitlams have endured high and lows of an operatic scale. So bring on the orchestra. Andrew Murfett reports.
FOUR years ago, Tim Freedman did something as surreptitious as it was unexpected: he became a father.
The 43-year-old nonchalantly let the details slip last month in Sydney while promoting the Whitlams’ new greatest-hits album,Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You.
One recent Wednesday morning, having dropped off three-and-a-half-year-old Alice at kindy, Freedman is in his cluttered kitchen in Sydney’s Newtown, fixing himself a cup of tea, talking giddily about kindergarten appointments and parental duties.
How did he keep being a dad secret for so long? “I don’t think people really care, as long as I put an album out every two years.”
When I suggest that perhaps most music journalists were too timid to ask, owing to his prickly reputation, he smirks.
“That’s good, too. It’s good to put out a grumpy interview now and then, it makes people more careful.”
The Whitlams, a band celebrated as one of Australia’s most enduring for its funny-sweet, booze-soaked lyrics and dreamy melodies, has a dark history that to this day often overshadows Freedman, the sole surviving member of the original line-up.
Freedman was conscious that by releasing a “best of”‘, he was ostensibly agreeing to revisit the darkness and triumph of the past 17 years. And enough years had passed, he reasoned, for him to identify to EG the mystery muses of his most popular songs.
To mark the release, Freedman and his three current bandmates – Terepai Richmond, Jak Housden and Warwick Hornby – are making their way around the country for a tour in which they will play refined theatres, accompanied by each city’s most accomplished classical musicians.
Next week, the band begins rehearsals with 65 members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in preparation for a three-night stand at Hamer Hall later this month.
However, this is no novelty for Freedman. His dalliances with classical musicians began in 2004, when he was approached by the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra to perform a set of shows with them. Since then, the Whitlams have played a range of gigs with orchestras including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony.
The MSO’s director of artistic planning, Huw Humphreys, says the orchestra always looks forward to collaborating with non-classical acts, having performed with performers ranging from Kiss to John Farnham.
“The (Whitlams’) songs have been superbly orchestrated by some of the best compositional talent in Australia,” says Humphreys. “To work with an iconic Australian band, after working with Elton John, Stevie Nicks and Ben Folds, was really important to us.”
Freedman says he invited the MSO to “throw the whole orchestra” at the music. “This show works because the orchestra is not token,” says Freedman. “The strings have a beautiful movement within the song. It becomes a bit of an education for people who aren’t used to seeing orchestras.”
The cavernous spaces of concert halls are a far cry from Freedman’s usual stomping grounds and musical roots. He has spent the past two decades living on a narrow inner-west street in Sydney, a stone’s throw from Newtown’s King Street strip. He used to live in the smaller house next to the two-storey terrace he purchased last year. It was there he and his mates would drink all night, play poker, sit out the back telling stories to the stars and spotting planes.
Those days earned Freedman a reputation as a tomcat, a label he believes was undeserved.
“It’s something one journalist wrote once, with no evidence, that’s been constantly repeated,” he says.
“I haven’t always been single, but no woman has ever said I’m running around two-timing people. I’ve never been photographed with famous girls or on red carpets. I’ve kept my nose completely clean. This thing’s got a life of its own.”
Pictures and mementoes of daughter Alice are scattered throughout his cosy living room, which boasts a pump organ and fireplace. Freedman and Alice’s mother are not together; the blonde preschooler divides her time between Newtown and mum’s place in Sydney’s north.
Along with Alice, the glory days are well represented throughout Freedman’s home. One living room shot has his brother Nick, three years his junior, pictured with Sunnyboys frontman Jeremy Oxley.
Oxley was key to Freedman’s development as a band leader. The two were close; both Freedmans played with Oxley in the Sunnyboys, with Tim spending six weeks on a national tour in 1986. Standing at the back of the stage in the Sunnyboys, he watched Oxley surrender his prodigious talent to alcohol (and later, schizophrenia).
“In rehearsals, Jeremy was a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughan and Roy Orbison,” Freedman says, examining a picture of Oxley and Nick on a bookshelf. “But with three drinks in him, he was capable of ruining a gig.”
The experience prompted Freedman to give thought to fronting his own band. In 1987, he met guitarist Stevie Plunder, having hired him to support his then band the Olive Branch, for a gig in Glebe. Freedman and Plunder soon became drinking buddies and, eventually, musical partners in a scrappy acoustic outfit called the Whitlams, which was rounded out to a trio with bassist Andy Lewis.
It is one of several tragedies in the Whitlams’ story that Plunder did not live to see the band become a success. He was found dead in January, 1996. Freedman dedicated Eternal Nightcap, the Whitlams’ classic breakthrough album and multiple ARIA award winner, to Plunder upon its release later that year.
“The truth was, ever since Stevie died in 1996, things have gone really well,” Freedman admits. “When he died we’d sold 6000 records; we’ve sold 500,000 since. It’s like I’d had a guardian angel. Stevie helped form the attitude of the band.”
That year, Lewis left the band. Freedman wrote Blow up the Pokies, about Lewis’ gambling addiction. Perversely, it would become the Whitlams’ biggest radio hit.
It was while overseas working on a record in 2000 that Freedman received the news that Lewis had committed suicide.
“I was really upset, especially since Andy and I hadn’t been getting on,” he says. “I was unsure if he’d heard Blow up the Pokies and been offended by it.”
From that grief, however, came arguably one of Freedman’s best songs, The Curse Stops Here.
My first days back and I was rolling around the town/Saying stay away from edges and from ropes if you can/’Cause I am the last one and the curse stops here.
“It wasn’t a song written dispassionately six months later,” he says. “I was saying Andy was going to go up there and poison my relationship with the guardian angel. I was unsure, guilty and in pain. It’s real.”
Freedman’s ability to encapsulate people, places and situations in his songs is his songwriting strength. His songs are conversational, with a distinct sense of time and place. Yet he was a late bloomer. An epiphany of sorts was writing Buy Now Pay Later in the late 1980s, about a bloke he knew “who was on smack”. It would become Eternal Nightcap’s centrepiece as part of the “Charlie” trilogy.
By age 27, the songs started falling out. The “Charlie” trilogy, previously thought to be about Plunder, was in fact about three separate friends: Charlie No. 1 (former Machine Gun Fellatio frontman Pinky Beecroft), Charlie No. 2 (Melbourne guitarist Charlie Owen) and Charlie No. 3 (Plunder).
“People think it was Stevie, but it came from 10 years of friendships.”
Almost a decade on, many of the subjects of Freedman’s songs from this boozy era are successes in their fields. Life’s a Beachand Fall for You, for instance, were written for Libby Blakey, who now heads ARIA’s copyright board. Alannah Russack, of Sydney indie-pop act the Hummingbirds (Freedman was briefly a touring member), received Where is She as a letter on a cassette when she was on tour in the US.
Author Martine Murray, the girlfriend to whom No Aphrodisiac was a musical love letter, is also the subject of Melbourne and Royal in the Afternoon.
And what of Louis Burdett, he of the eponymous song?
“Louis is a performer I shared a flat with in Tempe,” Freedman says. “He doesn’t like that the song’s better known than him. I’d asked him when it came out if he minded. He’s learned to regret the answer: ‘Any press is good press.’ ”
Freedman knows the power of the media. He has been reluctant to speak of his “private life” since the 1998 murder of Sydney freelance journalist Jennifer Smith, who was a friend of the singer’s and had visited his home on the night of her death (Freedman was swiftly discounted as a suspect by police). The fallout ensured he has since kept his private and work lives separate.
“Ever since then, when the tabloids wanted me to be involved in it, and intimated that I was, even though the cops knew that I had no opportunity or possibility to be involved, I decided I would only do public things when it was involved in music,” he says. “You have to have thick skin. Most people would end up in bed in a foetal position if they had to deal with the things I’ve read about myself. But you move on.”
And move on he has. The band’s current line-up is its most settled yet, unchanged since 2000; a far cry from the old days.
“I was ruthless. I’d learned you had to service the art, not old friendships. It was trial and error early on. But I’ve had no reason to change line-ups since.”
Still, another Whitlams record appears some time off. Freedman is writing from scratch; the song cupboard is bare. Perhaps fatherhood offers some new material?
“I tend to write about the moments that touch me.”