by Simon Wooldridge
Tim Freedman is The Whitlams. And The Whitlams are the band of the year.
Juice wouldn’t talk to me for four years, now I’m in every issue,” Tim Freedman admonishes as we walk together in Sydney’s Neutral Bay to a Gourmet Pizza restaurant to begin our interview. He’s right.
However, Freedman’s world has been changed irrevocably. With three ARIA’s (Australian Record Industry Awards) this year (Best Group, Best Song, Best Independent Release), an album that’s touted as the highest selling Australian indie record since the Skyhooks’ Living in the 70s, sell-out tours, all-night parties, Tim Freedman is certainly on an up.
So all of a sudden inquiring minds want to know: about Freedman’s personal background; about his hitherto buried musical past; about his connections – at least the lack. Or about his chances of being declared Bachelor of the Year thanks to his new status as disheveled pin-up. Freedman’s already a little uncomfortable under the microscope. But here, aside from the occasional sneer about “Who Weekly questions” he’s far from squirming, as we track his career from his upbringing on Sydney’s Northern Peninsula through early days as inner-city arts archetype to what must have been the year of his life, 1998.
Your father was a radio announcer in the ’60s. Did this draw you to showbiz?
Legend has it that Dad wasn’t at the hospital when I was born. He was actually at Sydney airport interviewing Louis Armstrong. He was a big fan, and he never thought he’d get another opportunity. So there’s a great photo up at home of Dad at the age of 28 with a microphone stuck in Louis Armstrong’s face. That was late November 1966. There weren’t always showbiz aristocrats around or anything, but when there are stories about those sort of things around, then it seeps into you by osmosis that this mightn’t be too bad a thing to do. So my Dad was very influential, even though I didn’t realise it at the time.
Every Saturday morning, my Dad had three boxes of albums, one and a half foot deep, arrive on the doorstep. Dad had his own show on 2BL called “My Kind of Music,” so there were boxes everywhere.
And what was his kind of music?
His kind of music, however�[Laughs]. He’s the sort of guy that owns every Barbra Streisand record, ol’ Blue Eyes, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, the swing era, quite conservative tastes, but there were always lots of records around. Sometimes a taxi would drive up, six boxes of records would go in there and a driver would give him 40 bucks, because there wasn’t enough space for all the records. So I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle and Barbra Streisand and all that. Then when I started getting my own tastes it was probably the Stones and early Elton John, ’69 -’73, like Madmen across the Water, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I could play all that stuff when I was 14. That’s why I still play too many 9th chords. I can’t expunge it out of my mind.
How did your Dad get so interested and involved in music?
He did the 2GB Top 60 in the ’60s. He was one of the young guys with Ward Pally Austen. He wasn’t a musician but he fell into it like we all fall into a lot of things, I think, like you fell into journalism, like I fell into music. You fall.
You’ve had a long fall, though.
In the nicest possible way. You’ve landed in the right spot.
I’m glad too. Most people are seeing me for the first time now, and I’ve had time to get OK at it. As opposed to when often you’re lifted up for your one little chance, you mightn’t even be at your peak. It’d be horrible to peak after everyone was sick of you, wouldn’t it� like um� all of the great musicians you don’t hear of anymore. They’re probably getting better.
Having a Dad as a DJ would have been at least a few steps closer to that pop world than most kids.
Yeah, well, people often talk about how kids don’t see their fathers work anymore, and they lack a male role model because he just leaves and doesn’t come home. In the old days you’d go to work with your Dad when you were six and learn what he did and eventually you’d start being what he did. But I used to get taken into work a bit and sit in the DJ’s booth at a radio station. So I’m really glad I got to get into the media. It would have been this side of the camera or the other I think, because it was always a world I saw through rose coloured glasses, having seen Daddy do it, I s’pose.
Where did you grow up?
Collaroy. Same suburb as Sara O’Hare, I read in the paper yesterday. She would have been in first grade when I was in sixth class. I used to play hopscotch with Sara. Collaroy is up near Palm Beach. It’s a middle class suburb, but it hasn’t got the cultural baggage of the North Shore. There’s lots of tradesmen, everyone has their own home and swimming pool. It was pretty down-to-earth. Mum and Dad built the first house in our street. There were lots of bushwalks and secret club houses and surfing in summer. It was a perfect outdoor Australian childhood.
Were you reacting to that by moving into Surry Hills?
You can’t live in paradise if there’s nothing to do at night.
Does your Dad like your records? I suppose he would, considering the bunch of tastes you’ve mentioned.
I don’t think my record sounds like Barbra Streisand. I don’t know whether he likes it or not. He enjoys that it’s successful. I don’t think he plays it every week, no. It’s not quite up his alley.
Parents get disappointed if you’re not rebellious enough�
Nah. I was in loud guitar bands for five years when I was younger.
Where did those experimental angles come from?
Just moving into the city and living in share houses. You get all sorts of crap, you start listening to the Birthday Party and Pere Ubu and Captain Beefhart and Whirlywirld, Ollie Olsen’s early electronic stuff from Melbourne. As soon as I moved in with Colin Ink, who was the reviewer at On the Street [now defunct Sydney street publication]. So once again there were just thousands of records around. He liked to consider himself the journo from the left side so he was always the one championing Thug and Lubricated Goat and the whole Gracelands thing down in Cleveland Street [the home of the gutbucket punk roots scene which spawned Tex Perkins, the Beasts of Bourbon, and added edge to the Hoodoo Gurus and Kim Salmon]. I got emersed in that, which was good because it really put an edge on the pop thing, hopefully got me more used to cacophonous sounds. At home I got the pop and the orchestration, and living in the inner city for five years rubbed the shine off. Which is lucky. Otherwise I’d be too sweet. Or even more sweet.
What was your first band like?
I had a band at school, we’d just play the Rolling Stones and stuff. It was quite funny, they loved the first Sunnyboys album, and I didn’t have it. So they’d learnt almost the whole thing , and I ask, ‘Who’s this song by?’ and they’d go ‘Aw, Dexy’s Midnight Runners.’ They’d tell me every song was by a different band so I wouldn’t cotton on to the fact that we were just playing the one record at parties� Eventually I got to play the songs with Jeremy Oxley [Freedman joined the Sunnyboys circa 87-88], which was a real thrill, because I’d known it so well when I was a kid. So before it was just the classic band at school, then I moved into the inner city and was in a ska band that played Dexy’s covers and stuff, then there was Penguins on Safari which was a bit more extreme, and then a few aborted acts, and The Whitlams.
Did you move from Collaroy direct to Uni?
Yeah, when I was 17. I lived in college for two years and then I moved into Surry Hills when I was 19-20. I lived between the Hopetoun and the Trade Union Club aged 20 for a couple of years. They were probably the wildest, happiest, craziest time. The 20’s are great. You’ve got so much stamina.
What did the cabaret involve?
They were generally your parallel to the D-Generation thing at Melbourne Uni. I noticed a few of the faces popping up later on those comedy shows on Channel 7, but I wasn’t in the inner circle, so I don’t know them that well. They were clever. It was Penguins on Safari’s first gig. They were great times because we all lived pretty close by, and you don’t really have to go to lectures at Sydney Uni because all the exams were 100% at the end of the year. So it was a real old fashioned Oxbridge – cheap wine and no structure. Basically it’s the perfect education, I would have thought.
You also met a future collaborator there.
Pinkie was my best friend at uni. He co-wrote “Aphrodisiac.” He was actually a Cooper Scholar, like a classics scholar at St Josephs College. We managed to drink his scholarship money in two weeks, and he became the first Cooper Scholar in the history of St Josephs to fail first year Latin. I’ve been great friends with Pinkie ever since. He’s now a scriptwriter, and member of Machine Gun Fellatio, and he’s the greatest sexual technician of this or any other century.
What was a night out in Surry Hills like?
We had this great share house around near the Clock Hotel, and it made Dogs in Space look like a Boy Scouts camp. Everyone would go out their own separate ways, you’d get home at 6:30 with the sun coming up, and without fail everyone would be in the loungeroom debriefing. It was anything goes really, wild and crazy, and everone got home at 7am three or four nights a week. To give you a list of what we imbibed would be impossible and unwise.
You don’t travel in a pack?
No, I’ve always gone out alone a lot. It’s like travelling overseas when you’re young, it’s often better to do it by yourself, because anything can happen. One of my loves is to go to a restaurant by myself with a book. There are some people who’ve never eaten alone in a restaurant, I’ve noticed over the years. I was always a fan of letting anything happen. The conversation’s usually better with a great novelist as well. You look over at those sad couples having trouble keeping up a conversation after the first course, and you always feel lucky that you’re the one with the book.
I know that scenario, though I’m sure I’ve heard a line in a song about eating alone being even sadder than sleeping alone. Oh, I disagree with that completely. Eating alone is one of the great joys of my life. I don’t cook at home because I live off King Street. I would have cooked at home once in two years. So at 8 o’clock I just wander up King Street, sit in a corner for half an hour and grab a quick feed. Just as there is a Western fear of silence, so too people rely on each other’s company a little bit too much for my liking.
Why were you on the outer? Were you always solitary?
I was always loath to join anything formally. I never liked formal groups. When I did jury service, I couldn’t handle having to all walk into the courtroom as a big group, so I ducked around the corner to get something to eat and I lost about 200 people. I had to knock on every door in the district court trying to find my jury service. I just can’t handle being in a queue, or a group. I think that’s the only phobia that I have, that of a queue. If I don’t have a book in a queue, I’ll leave it and come back the next day.
How did you behave as a frontman?
Just thrash around wildly like a whirling dervish, and sing overblown lyrics and stories. It all seemed very important. And you’d treat your body as a scientific experiment, see if you could manage to do three sets in a row when tripping, look down at your hands amazed that they could touch each other when you clapped. I’m sure there’s young men in their early 20’s doing that as well. I hope they get out of it with their minds intact.
Is your mind intact?
I’m sure I’m different than I would have been if I’d got a job. But I quite enjoy being different. The synapses are never the same after a few years like that. But I can still function and I’ve got a bank account. So, bring on the world!
You’ve said that you’ve accumulated some crazy friends. Have you seen people fall by the wayside?
We’ve all got our proportion of friends from University who had a trip and didn’t come back, and end up in institutions. I was lucky that I stayed rational and got out before it ate me alive� I never really became sensible because someone slapped me around the face. My body just said, ‘You’re not enjoying this anymore’. When you start taking acid and there’s no difference, that’s when you know there’s a small problem.
What do you do for fun these days if you have chilled out a bit?
I haven’t chilled out� Basically I’m living an extended childhood. I’ll go out with a girl, go see a band, go over to Chit Chat and Pinkie’s house and yahoo ’til four in the morning. I think there’s a clock ticking, but I’ll put it off as long as possible. You’ve just got to drink lots of water and sleep in, Simon.
How about swimming, are you getting any of that in?
I’ve been slack for the last year. Who rang up and wanted to put me in the 25 sexiest people or something issue, and I said, “Don’t be stupid. You haven’t seen me with my clothes off, I’d just get teased.” Like a lot of people, I imagine, I’m just about to embark on a fitness regimen.
So was it always music for you? What else were you interested in?
For a little while I had mild thoughts of some form of academic life. But I could never get my essays in on time, obviously I wasn’t suited to it. I considered being a writer or a features journo, or a university teacher. But I’m really bad at deadlines. When I was really young I wanted to be a cricket commentator, because I liked watching cricket. You can sit on your arse all day, watch cricket and talk. Everyone else wanted to be a fireman and stuff, I couldn’t figure it out because you’d have to fucking work if you did that. When I was at uni I used to do night jobs where I didn’t have to do anything, night watchman at the Salvation Army, or taking money at the service station from 1am til 7am. I used to have jobs like that, like cricket commentating without the cricket. I followed my dream to do as little as possible for as much money as possible. I never had a day gig.
Who are you favourite writers?
I like modern realists mainly. Saul Bellow, John Updike, the more challenging guys like Pynchon. It’s not so much in the story, it’s more the incisive modern mores. That’s what I’m attracted to. I’m more into going ‘Whoa, look at that sentence!’
I’d guess you were probably influenced by Charles Bukowski.
Funnily enough, no. Not at all. But there are substitutes for a young man dealing with testosterone. I was into Henry Miller for awhile. That does the trick.
If people have a perception of an artist, a lot of the time the artist ends up somehow fulfilling that. The temperamental artist, the drug fiend. Do you have to take steps to avoid that?
You’re looking at the quotable dishevelled raconteur? All I have to do is fire out a good bon mot once a month and not comb my hair. Shouldn’t be too difficult.
How do you deal with the assumptions people make about you from your songs?
I’ve always had a reputation for being brash, I just can’t handle platitudes or conversations and social events that go along some ritualised path. So I’ll always be a bit irreverent. In that respect it’s good to be even more irreverent when people have got even bigger assumptions of what you’re like. I mean some of these fans think I’m this sensitive [with a grimace], romantic [with a swoon] warlord of the emotions. I’m actually brash, loud, rude and insensitive over half the time. I just haven’t written that in yet.
How attached are you to the politics and history associated with the band name? Are you a Labor affiliate?
Well, I’m not a member of the Labor party because I don’t like joining anything. I remember being uncomfortable with “Ring A Ring A Rosie” at primary school, just because you had to join in a circle. I can actually remember the ’72 election. We were in infant school, and when we got there on Monday there was still election paraphernalia around, these big posters that were bigger than us saying , ‘It’s Time.’ So we were five or six something, and at lunchtime we were all going, “My Mummy and Daddy voted for Gough Whitlam” and someone would say, “My Mummy and Daddy voted for Gough Whitlam too.” Then we found someone whose parents didn’t vote for him, and we attacked them with ‘It’s Time’ posters. You know, gently. So I remember him getting in, and how there was a wave amongst the half-intelligent groups of society to give Labor a chance after so many years of the Liberals. And I always watched This Day Tonight and the current affairs shows. But I named the band after him not for party political reasons, but because he was an Australian icon at that stage. We were so far past 1975 that I wasn’t making political comment. He must have 89% approval, by this stage. There’s only certain pockets in rural Australia or the North Shore of Sydney that would still say he was an unattractive individual.
What was it like at the time?
He completely divided society. Pretty tumultuous interesting times they were. A lot more interesting than now. I was too young to have a real perception of it though. I think I started reading about it later. The whole idealism, having a two-man cabinet, going into this frenzy of reform because it had been 23 years since the Labor Party had been in. There were a very heady few months there. I supposed we borrowed the goodwill attached to his name. It was beautiful of him to come to the ARIAs. He said, “Well I’ve just come to help you out.” When we started we never imagined meeting him, and we thought that he mightn’t like the fact that we named the band after him. Then it turned full circle. Five years later he’s presenting us with Best Group. I’ve never been in a fairytale before, so I find it all a little bit hard to take. But it’s wonderful the way we just got closer and closer and suddenly I was hugging him backstage. That was the nicest moment of the ARIAs.
And what was the nicest moment of your political year?
The high point for me was playing the song at the Arts policy launch at the Seymour Centre, where there was everyone from Geoffrey Rush to Lisa McClune, the actress form Blue Heelers, to Bangara Dance. It was great to be involved and really good fun when they invited us down to the pub in Paddington. It was an interesting afternoon. Five actors, ten musicians and the Labor front bench. The grog was on the house, so we got to know Cheryl (Kernot) and also got to talk to Paul Keating.
What did Cheryl have to say for herself?
Cheryl was a Whitlams fan. She’s saying that she wasn’t going to come until she heard she might be able to meet the Whitlams. It’s extremely surreal to have someone famous who you look up to saying they’re glad to meet you. They’re all cultured people, the Labor front bench. So I wandered from a chat with Cheryl to another corner where Bob Ellis was downing a few.
What were your feelings about “No Aphrodisiac” when you wrote it? Did you think it might be a hit?
No. I liked it, I loved the way it developed, and I liked the fact that it was real, I actually sent the cassette to the girl. When I finished recording it I was proud of it, and I thought the mix was great. I thought it was too slow to fit on the radio, but because I was proud of it I put it first on the album. I thought “Louis” or strangely enough “Love is Everywhere” would be the single. I can’t even play “Love is Everywhere” live now. It sucks. It was an attempt at writing a single, rather than just writing the music first. It’s the only song on the album that’s not from real life. But no, I had no idea, I was just really glad when Triple J played something so stately and slow. And that became the reason why it stood out. Everything around it was quicker or not as leisured. It really takes it’s time you know. I remember my brother was overseas, he came back asking, “What’s this song that’s doing well for you?” I played it to him and he says, “You couldn’t have left it much longer for it to kick in! Another ten seconds and I would have been asleep.” Just in time it goes somewhere else.
You’re three years older than your brother Nick (the Freedman brothers shared bands in the early ’90s, including The Olive Branch and spots in the Sunnyboys). Does that mean you started out with a relationship based on you bashing him because you were bigger?
When he was young, yeah. That’s probably why he’s now a Buddhist. He lives in Caulfield, Melbourne, in a community. He just sent me his new song on CD. It’s really good. He’s still working at it, work away at the angles. But I think it’s hard to be doggedly ambitious if you’re kneeling cross-legged a metre off the ground five hours a day. I think he’s in the process of reconciling those two tendencies. But he’s still working with his music and it sounds good. It’s gone from Buddhist cock-rock to a more gentle delivery that suits his subject a lot better, because he writes about spiritual sorts of things.
We never played that much music together when we were kids. We were in a band together for awhile, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for brothers to be in a band together. It’s just the fact that you’re so used to being able to fight and still get on the next day. It looks a bit ugly to everyone else hanging around. So it can be quite raw and volatile. And when other people take sides you don’t necessarily forgive them the next day. ‘Cause you’re not brothers.
Were you into the same stuff?
No, when you were growing up�
Yeah, you know, cricket, surfing. Because I was on the piano, he had to play the guitar. He was a much better sportsman than me, so he was right into it. He could beat me at table tennis when he was six and I was nine, and I’m quite good at it. He had good eye-hand co-ordination. I was working on my dick-hand co-ordination. I’ve started insulting myself now, to save anyone else doing it. Get in first.
What are your spiritual beliefs?
Spirituality in a sentence? It depends on what fucking hour of the day it is. I often think we’re the product of a large book we finished. I believe there is a force greater than us in the universe, but I’m not sure that we have the ability to know what that is. I have great trouble with people who codify spirituality.
So what do you think of Nick’s belief in Buddhism?
I don’t think any religion is completely true. However I enjoy talking with him about it, it’s a great way of looking at the work, and I’d like to take on a bit of it. It’s useful in terms of being able to cope without confusion in this world. And the aspects of it in realisation to living in the now, and that everything around at the moment is a complete chimera has a lot going for it.
What else has Nick done apart from Home & Away?
Nick studied BA at Sydney Uni, same as me. Then he fell into acting. I sent him along to audition for one of those Impulse ads where you give the girl flowers. I was auditioning to be one of the musicians in the background and he came along trying to get the part of the guitarist and they gave him the main role. From then on he started making easy money doing ads and stuff. That’s how he fell into acting. Then he quit Home & Away and went to England to do a pantomime. He stayed there in a Buddhist community and he’s been heavily into that for the last four, five years. So he tries to do a bit of acting, a bit of music and a bit of Buddhism. Which is good because he’s quite highly strung, and so it calms him down.
Being a piano player has been through phases of being in and out. Was it in when you started?
I just loved playing it. It wasn’t until I saw John Cale at the Trade Union Club in about ’86, playing a Fender Rhodes at a solo show, I went and cashed in my life insurance and bought the big piano I still have.
Was there a period of transition before finding the Whitlams’ style?
The main thing that influenced me was joining up with Stevie and Andy, learning to play more the Tom Waitsy, bluesy, Jonathan Richman rootsy stuff. It made my playing a lot more laid back. I probably sounded like I was trying too hard, which is very dangerous. What they taught me over three years in the back of a Kingswood, helped.
How did you end up linking with Stevie and Andy?
I met Stevie when the Plunderers supported Penguins on Safari. They were a great rockin’ little three piece. I always thought of them as a rich man’s Ratcat. Then I moved into Newtown and ran into him at a card game or chopping up in the dunnies at the Trade. When we were both in between bands he formed a duo with Louis Tillett, because he wanted to play quiet songs, just piano and guitar. Louis didn’t turn up a couple of times, so we got together with Stevie’s mate Andy, who’d just left the Gadflys. It fizzled into existence. There was no grand plan at all.
That was when you were kicking around with the now infamous ‘fuck-up’ Louis Burdett as featured in the song “(You Sound Like) Louis Burdett.” I interviewed him and his only response was “Tim’s like that, he loves bad poetry and sentimental music.” Is that a fair cop?
You’ve got to remember Louis and I have lived together for years and known each other for years, you would have seen us having dinner the night after the ARIAs. Apart from Louis’ unreleased techno masterpiece, “Young Dumb and Full of Cum,” all of Louis’ poetry is much worse than mine. And his music is just from another world. But I’m really looking forward to his next release, “You Look Like Christopher Skase.”