The Whitlams

Who Weekly
by Craig Henderson

“There’s a band called The Whitlams, yes,” acknowledged Nicholas Whitlam, son of famed former PM Gough, in an interview last year. “I guess it’s better than being called the Dead Kennedys. I think they may be more talented than The Whitlams, I regret.” A year on, this dismissive appraisal draws a smile from Tim Freedman, singer-songwriter and founder of the Sydney band that boldly borrowed Australia’s most recognisable political name. Reclining on a chair in the backyard of his rented terrace in Sydney’s Newtown, the gangly pianist sips a bloody mary and considers a fitting rebuttal. “Nick Whitlam,” Freedman finally offers, “wouldn’t know a Dead Kennedys album if it got up and bit him on the arse. He probably wouldn’t know a Whitlams album either…I should send him one so he can actually get educated.”

If Freedman, 31, were to choose one album for Nick Whitlam to hear, it would probably be his band’s latest, Eternal Nightcap. Spearheaded by the elegant, semi-comical ballad ‘No Aphrodisiac’, the piano-pop album is number 14 on the ARIA chart. “It just goes to show that once people get the chance to hear a band through a good single, things really start happening,” says Rolling Stone editor Andrew Humphreys. “I think it’s a testament to Tim’s songwriting ability and also to his perseverance.”

“We’ve never charted, ever, until now,” Freedman explains. “Our records have always sold really slowly….they’ve never really sold 15,000 in a month like this one.” Nor, until Eternal Nightcap, had The Whitlams consistently played to sell-out crowds around the country. “It has brought with it the trappings of fame,” Freedman deadpans. “We were given Reschs [beer] onstage in Canberra, which was very exciting. We walk into a band room now and there’s manufactured meat, on a plate. So, with the nice meats and Reschs, we’re thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

For all that plently, there’s an emptiness, too: The Whitlams’ co-founder Stevie Plunder is not around to enjoy it. The Canberra guitarist, who played rock-dog foil to Freedman’s tidy jazz influences, committed suicide in 1996. Plunder’s death shattered the band and left fans wondering if it had a future, but Freedman says he never considered folding The Whitlams. “I realised a couple of months after Stevie died that it was a new challenge and it was really exciting. Besides, I’ve been at it too long.”

Tim was raised on Sydney’s northern beaches. His parents made him practise piano for 30 minutes a day from the age of 6; from there, he says, he “fell into music”. At Collaroy Plateau Public School, Freedman divided his time between piano and surfing but managed to win an academic scholarship to the prestigious Shore school, where he soon formed a garage band. “The usual,” he says. “Lots of Stones covers.”

Later, during his first year studying arts/law at Sydney University, Freedman took on the singing duties for a burgeoning band called Itchy Feet. The eight-piece outfit appeared on TV’s Star Search in 1988 (“Greggy Evans and the whole bit”) and won $8,000 over the course of the series, in which they placed second. The money went towards making a single, ‘Lonely Dreamer’, that made the Top 20 on Sydney’s radio 2SM.

Three years later, the band folded when Freedman left to join Penguins on Safari. “I wanted to join an angrier band,” he explains. And “angrier” bands wanted his keyboard skills – established rockers The Sunnyboys and the Hummingbirds hired him for national tours. “Being a sideman at those big gigs and seeing big crowds and nice organisation, my ambition was to have my own band,” says Freedman, who then set up two bands, the Olive Branch and the Whitlams, hoping one would take.

It was The Whitlams – Plunder, Freedman and bass player Andy Lewis – that clicked. They secured a Saturday afternoon residency at Newtown’s Sandringham Hotel in late 1992 and filled the pub every time. “They used to pay us with alcohol and we’d just yahoo with the usual beer-bonding and bad shows,” says Freedman.

Bad shows or not, The Whitlams’ chemistry kept the crowds coming in. For the next three years, the band continued to do well in Sydney but tasted scant wider success. (The Freedman-penned number ‘I Make Hamburgers’ being a notable exception). But while the action onstage was always special – characterised by Plunder and Freedman “abusing each other comically” – there was discord behind the scenes. Freedman had quit law after almost seven years part-time study, having developed a clear vision of a career in music. But, he says, “Stevie preferred to think of music as something which happened organically and if you happen to be drunk then you play drunk. Life was messy and so was music.”

But Freedman had no idea that Plunder was reaching breaking point. In January 1996, just after the band had toured with Hunters & Collectors, Plunder’s body was found at the base of a cliff in the NSW Blue Mountains. “I hadn’t been that close to his heart for the last year, so when it happened, I was really, really shocked,” says Freedman. “It came out of the blue.”

And quickly went into the black.

“When Stevie died, things were getting alcoholically ridiculous,” says Freedman. “It was non-stop drinking – the eternal wake, the eternal nightcap.” To salvage his health, Freedman escaped to his home away from home – a house near the beach at Thirroul, south of Sydney – and began writing Eternal Nightcap. The album deals in part with his relationship with Plunder and is dedicated to the guitarist’s memory. Freedman also set about building a new line-up, which now includes ex-Peril bassman Cottco Lovett, former Warumpi Band drummer Bill Heckenberg and Sydney guitarist and singer Ben Fink.

Joining The Whitlams was “quite a strange feeling”, says Heckenberg. “There had been a death in the family and it was a little dark and sombre, but I didn’t let that worry me. I thought Tim was a great bloke….I needed a job and luckily Tim came along.”

“He’s a benevolent employer,” agrees Fink, 26, who joined just after the October release of Eternal Nightcap. “It’s been sort of like falling into a river.

The people are great and the people in the band like the quiet life, which is nice.” Freedman, too, is happy. “The band I’ve got at the moment is the best line-up I’ve had,” he says. “I’m enjoying playing to full houses and actually putting money in the bank.”

And does he wonder if his departed comrade would approve of the new album? “Stevie would probably like half of it,” Freedman smiles into his empty glass, “and think the rest was shit.”