IT’S TIM(E) The Whitlams Chart New Waters

The Metro, SMH
by Matt Buchanan

TIM WILL TELL

Can the Whitlams hang on to their pop crown? Tim Freedman opens up to Matt Buchanan about big budgets, big expectations and the fear of failure.

Tim in Sydney HarbourClearly, it’s crunch time for the Whitlams. “My manager said to me, ‘Tim, spend what you want because if this album isn’t better thanEternal Nightcap, we’re dead’,” explains Tim Freedman of the pressure on the just released fourth album, Love This City, to measure up to its platinum-selling predecessor. “So when people close to you say things like that, well �.” (he pauses to adopt the tone of company spruiker) “well, I don’t want to lay off people at the factory! I feel a certain responsibility to the people in our team, and I’ve got to lead from the front and make a half-decent record.”

The expectation weighing on Freedman, the only permanent Whitlam (he employs a fluctuating cast of band members), must have been extraordinary over the past 18 months.

Eternal Nightcap came from nowhere in 1997/98 and sold more than 190,000 copies on the back of the hit song, No Aphrodisiac. An independent release, it won Freedman admiration for doing it on his own. And, significantly, when it came to sign with a major label, as he eventually did with Warners last year, Freedman was placed in a mighty bargaining position. How good was the deal? “It is, I suspect,” Freedman modestly confides, “in the history of Australian recording, a pretty attractive deal for the artist”.

But now that the foam and fuss of 1998 have subsided, it is down to the sprawling, many-flavoured 14-song pick ‘n’ mix of Love This City, an album recorded in Sydney and Memphis, to prove whether Comet Whitlam will return or prove to be another two-bob bunger that made a big noise. Once.

So with so much apparently at stake, did he ever get the feeling there was a nation of Whitlams fans expecting an album of No Aphrodisiacs?

“God help us,” he laughs, almost losing an ice cube. “Nah. The closest I’ve ever got to thinking I should write a hit song,” says Freedman (who, having been awarded one day’s reprieve from his harbour-paddling duties as Metro cover star is positively itching with energy and relief), “is when I sat down to write Thank You (for loving me at my worst). I’d thought everything on the album was a bit mid-tempo, and so I commissioned myself to write an up and happy tune. And later,” he says, with consideration, “about half way through recording, I thought I was over-doing the production.

“In my darker moments, I thought it was getting a bit overblown. I think I pressed my nose up against the glass between well-produced and bombastic. But that’s what the expectations of following Eternal Nightcap did to me over the last eight months. I tried hard. But I was very conscious of it.”

As one might expect of any release following a hit such as Eternal NightcapLove This City has already gone gold in its first two weeks of release and, at the time of writing, is No 3 in the national charts. But the test will be how long it stays there on its own merits, rather than just riding on the coat-tails of Nightcap‘s success. Indeed, it’s as if the question as to whether Love This City will fail in comparison is of more interest to many people than whether it is, in fact, any good. Why? Call it the Freedman factor.

To say Freedman is no stranger to controversy is to mistake the point. These days, Freedman is no stranger to anyone. It’s as if he was dipped in newsprint at birth. There was the 1996 suicide of then guitarist Stevie Plunder – a tragedy Freedman once attributed to a severe case of alcohol and cigarette withdrawal. Then, last year, the murder of a fan and friend, Jennifer Smith, just metres from Freedman’s front door in Newtown, led to a sequence of headlines: “Victim obsessed with Singer”, “Rocker quizzed on fan’s murder”, “My year in hell as the suspect”.

In short: suicide and murder. DIY smash hit success on his own terms. Mega deal. Rich bastard. Always in the papers. Hope he fails. Do people want Freedman to fail?

“When you become more well-known, more people like you and more people don’t like you,” Freedman replies, when asked if he has any sense of tall poppy scythes being oiled and sharpened. “You just take it. I’ll get an e-mail from a girl saying, ‘I really like your record, but my two brothers hate the Whitlams’. So I just think, ‘OK. That’s one friend and two enemies. Nice letter’.

“Other times, we get called, disparagingly, ‘cabaret’. But if that means our songs are about something, and people can hear the words then I’m happy to have it applied to me.”

With so much riding on the album, the choice of first single is necessarily a delicate, even precarious choice. Now, on Love This City, there are, if not an abundance then certainly two or three obvious contenders for first single that would easily satisfy a market still dizzy from No Aphrodisiac, truth, beauty and a picture of Tim. There’s the anthemic Blow Up The Pokies, for example. Of, left of center, with its irresistible key change, there’s the cover of Made Me Hard, by Bernie Hayes. Both songs are catchy, both certain hits. So with all the achievements of his entire past leading up to this point, with the very prow of his career nosing nervously into waters reserved for “hit-meisters only”, Freedman frisbees Chunky Chunky Air Guitar to the gasping hordes. An eccentrically phrased funk rap featuring a girl from the Cocos Islands, it has received, it must be said, an astonished response. So, mad or what?

“Brave?” offers Freedman, before deciding he had better explain. “I wish I’d put the clip out before the single because then people would have realized we were having fun.”

Undeniably, it wins several points for (apparently) being the first single ever to use the words “air guitar” in its title. But surely it risks several million as a single so unrepresentative of the album, and broadly speaking, so un-Whitlamsy. On the other hand, it is very catchy.

“I hope so, but gee, the critics are giving it a f—ing pasting,” Freedman admits. “A typical review is Chunky Air Guitar shouldn’t have even been on the album, let alone the first single.”

Whether or not one likes or loathes Chunky Chunky Air Guitar, it’s undeniably different from anything else on Love This City. But then this album is different from any other recording from the Whitlams. Tim Freedman could, for the first time, do what ever he wanted. And the album, to a large degree, reflects that fact.

For a start, it’s an album of many songs, various in style, theme and expression and many, many musicians – try five drummers, including d.i.g. engine, Terepai Richmond. It has big orchestral flourishes, but strings are not dominant. It’s an album of R&B flavours, monster choruses and touching piano-man ballads – some very strong, some that slip through the cracks. It is an album of exotic instruments: saron, Kapaci zither, the rebana from Timor, along with flute, congas, tabla and marimba. And, for the first time, there’s even politics, as Freedman chews on the big questions of East Timor in 400 Miles From Darwin and state-assisted gambling in Blow Up The Pokies.

“Because the last two years were such a whirlwind, I never had four months to go down to some writing house on a lake. So I said, ‘OK, it’s time to make the album’, and there were 19 songs sitting around from different years, about different things.

“I hadn’t the choice to have a cohesive vision about how it was going to turn out. That’s why I’ve got lots of different rhythm sections and different people in because, um, I didn’t know what I was doing. But,” he stresses, “I didn’t get scared by that. I just surrendered to it. That might become its strength in the end. Or I might have failed to make a cohesive album. A lot of people think this has a certain flow. And I do. At times. So maybe I was lucky. Time,” he says, “will tell.”