The Whitlams Years

Herald Sun
by James Wigney

TIM Freedman is proud of his work, but admits not all the songs have come up trumps, James Wigney writes.

Tim Freedman’s appraisal of his career when compiling The Best of the Whitlams collection was much like the man – frank and unsentimental.

As the sole surviving founding member of one of the country’s most successful and reliable bands, Freedman has good reason to bask in the glory of six albums and a string of hits such as No Aphrodisiac, Blow Up the Pokies and Fall For You.

But proud as he is of the 20 tracks on the compilation, and plenty that didn’t make it, the singer/songwriter/pianist admits there are a good few stinkers in the back catalogue as well.

“There are always one or two songs on an album that are misfires,” he says.

“The third track on Eternal Nightcap is a shocker. It’s called Love is Everywhere and I can’t believe that album did so well when it had such a stinking piece of failed pop on it.

“I’m not a huge fan of my stuff – I think I have had my moments – I think I have had some great phrases, but I haven’t reinvented the wheel musically.”

The Whitlams formed in 1992 when Freedman met guitarist Stevie Plunder, both stalwarts of the Sydney music scene, at the Big Day Out.

After recruiting bass player Andy Lewis, the trio started out playing for drinks at an inner-city hotel.

Back then Freedman’s ambitions were modest – to be a working musician and make records. Even before releasing the breakout album, 1997’s Eternal Nightcap, his expectations were low.

“I remember when I released Eternal Nightcap, I wanted to sell 10,000 records and be able to do two nights at the Annandale Hotel, which was about the equivalent of the Evelyn,” Freedman recalls.

The album, driven by the success of the dark and compelling single No Aphrodisiac, sold more than 10 times that number, scoring three ARIA awards.

But trouble has never been too far from the Whitlams. After touring relentlessly in the early years, neither Plunder nor Lewis shared the band’s glory days.

Long having struggled with drugs and alcohol, Plunder was found dead in 1996 at the bottom of a cliff in the Blue Mountains – whether he fell by accident was never established.

Lewis left the band in 1995 and hanged himself in 2000 after battling a gambling problem.

Freedman, who included two of Plunder’s songs on the collection, speaks fondly of his fallen comrades, emphasising how unusual the piano/guitar/bass format was at the time and that their different songwriting approach and love of the likes of Bob Dylan were perfect foils for his poppier instincts and penchant for Randy Newman.

“I don’t get too sad because much time has passed and I just remember the good times. I acknowledge how lucky I was to meet them.”

Freedman was in the US, coincidentally recording the song devoted to Lewis, Blow Up the Pokies, when he heard of the bass player’s death.

Though Freedman’s songs are often autobiographical, he says they are rarely cathartic to write.

The Curse Stops Here, a lush orchestral version of which is included on the best-of, was an exception and was written in a few hours after hearing the tragic news.

“I think when you write something in the month or two after losing someone or when you are in the grieving process it is like going to a therapist really, you just have to get it out,” Freedman says.

“I don’t think one necessarily needs to get it out with a song, you just need to talk to friends, share stories, lie in fetal position for four weeks or sing a song.”

Freedman gives the impression that he has stared down the precipice and taken a few steps back.

Always fond of a tipple, now – at the age of 43 – he has realised his body can’t take what it once did and that if he wants to be around for a long time, he needs to slow down, work less and drink less.

‘These days I am consciously trying to pedal a bit slower,” he says. “I still love what I am doing and I intend to do it for a long time, but I intend to do it a bit less.

“Having to do 150 shows a year where as soon as you walk into the job there are 24 beers, two bottles of wine and a bottle of vodka – your job is to artificially create adrenalin in yourself so you are in the same state as the audience, who are having their one night out in three weeks. It wears you out.

“Luckily I decided to be a little bit careful before it got too late.”

FREEDMAN has a better reason to take care of himself now, a three-year-old daughter. Still a confirmed bachelor who lives alone, Freedman nevertheless says his daughter has given him a new “joie de vivre” and is surprised by how much she makes him laugh.

“If you wait until you are around 40 until you have a kid, you have laughed at everything in the world by then and suddenly this thing arrives that makes you laugh in very different ways,” he says.

He adds that he will accompany her in her first public performance at her kindergarten this week. Not that he has gone completely domestic.

“I have a good balance,” he says. “I still live on my own and still have fun and still like getting with the gang and going around the country – and we don’t drink cups of tea backstage.

“But as in anything, it’s all about balance and you just have to treat everything with moderation and still be able to get up at 7am midweek when the daughter is staying.”

The Whitlams have been an established unit for some time now, with Jak Housden on guitar, Warwick Hornby on bass guitar and Terepai Richmond on drums.

As well as touring extensively as a quartet, they have teamed with various symphony orchestras to play classical arrangements of their songs.

Freedman is also friends with Richard Tognetti, violinist and leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Australian composer Richard Sculthorpe, both of whom contributed to the 2002 song Out the Back.

The pop pianist made a brief foray into the classical world, struggling through a tricky Avro Part piece with the ACO and declaring at the end “thank God that’s over”.

ONE newspaper critic agreed and Freedman has no desire to go back. That misstep aside, he feels comfortable in that world.

“They are musicians after all and generally pretty relaxed people and they like a drink,” Freedman says.

“They are in showbiz – we are all carnie folk, so I am not as uncomfortable in an orchestra’s presence as I imagined I would be.

But I haven’t worked with the MSO yet – apparently they are the real deal, so I may just have to doff my hat, keep to myself and try not to make any mistakes.”