Pulling the Plug on the Kitchen Sink

Sydney Morning Herald
by Bernard Zuel

Keeping it simple … Tim Freedman, left, and J. Walker at work in the studio on the Whitlams’ new, “small and quirky” album.

The new album from the Whitlams won’t come with the works this time but hopes to deliver something more personal, writes Bernard Zuel. 

In the inner-Sydney studio where the sixth Whitlams album is coming together, among the detritus of some rather tasty pizza and, naturally, cups of wine, a tired-looking Tim Freedman is his usual nervy self. His fingers drum on his knees, his eyes dart hither, and even when he sits back to listen more intently, ostensibly relaxed, you can feel the urge in him to move.

A few metres away sits J. Walker, producer and musician – whose real initial is not J but let’s not get into that at the moment – and he couldn’t be more different. His voice is quiet, his manner almost supine and about him is the air of the regular surfer for whom the term relaxed must have been invented.

Step back from their physical differences a moment, though, and something more startling comes to light. How is it that Walker, whose reputation as a producer has been made with boutique (for which, read small-selling) underground acts and his own quiet but wonderful pop group, Machine Translations, is here producing a Whitlams album?

This is the band, after all, whose two previous albums, Love this City (1999) and Torch the Moon (2002), took many, many months to record, featured orchestras, choirs and quite possibly the kitchen sink, and sold about 200,000 copies each. We’re talking one of the bigger groups in the country.

For Freedman, the songwriter/singer and self-declared “chairman” of the Whitlams, the answer is simple. He was a fan of the six Machine Translations records and of Walker’s “whole ethos”. He knew he needed someone like that this time, and “I wanted to do it in a couple of months and go surfing”, he adds with a smirk. “I wanted to make a much simpler record. I wanted to record something small and quirky and there’s no one better in Australia.”

Later, Walker will explain that while “we kind of felt it was important to personalise this record – not have the kitchen sink thrown in, maybe have the backing vocals play the role of strings [for example]” – this is not some takeover.

“We’re making a Whitlams record, not a Machine Translations [record], and my job is to facilitate that,” he says in his quietly insistent way. “My starting point for this record was hearing Tim play the songs on the piano and I’ve kept that in my head. My focus was on making Tim’s vocals and piano playing the dominant personality. He’s a storyteller and when there’s a danger of overproducing him that can get glossed over.”

Unusually perhaps, Walker has been part of the process from well before recording, joining Freedman, guitarist Jak Housden, drummer Terepai Richmond and bass player Warwick Hornby in rehearsals last November and being what Freedman calls “the fifth member”.

After this evening, Freedman and Walker will go to Melbourne, where Walker now lives, to complete the production. The release date is scheduled for September/October. No doubt Walker and Freedman, who rediscovered his childhood love of the surf about five years ago, will take their boards out into the chilly Victorian water.

Some of the fruits of this combination are on display tonight as Walker plays back one of the already recorded tracks, called Second Best, where Freedman croons: “Don’t hesitate to call me/ When only second best will do.” Intimate and subdued, it’s typical Freedman in tone and typical Walker in feel.

“There’s a bit of a theme of humility through this record, which I wholeheartedly endorse,” Freedman says with only a hint of archness, knowing full well his public reputation is not one studded with humility. “There’s blokes getting beaten up all through this record. Half of them are me.”

As the sun-kissed Housden arrives to add some slide guitar to one track, Freedman explains that many of the songs were begun in New York, to which he decamped 18 months before for an extended period of R&R. There on his own, he read, walked about the city and only occasionally drank. As he told the Herald late last year: “I went to New York, rented a loft and basically kicked myself into a lower orbit. I was living too fast and I pretty much put myself into a gentle form of rehab.”

One of the songs that germinated during this time is being played back now – Fondness Makes the Heart Grow Absent. Its central line is: “I should get home to you / When fondness in my heart is absent / I’m in awe of the sabotage within.” It’s another Freedman ballad of weakness threatening to undermine love and may become a Whitlams standard by this time next year.

But lest this new album be seen as Tim Freedman Sings for Only the Lonely, a once-more animated Freedman asks Walker to play I Was Alive. Here, as power chords and bar-room piano duel, one line stands out: “She doesn’t know which one to buy / Australian Shooter or Australian Bride.”

Listening to it, Freedman nods and smiles.

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