From the J Files (2017) – The Whitlams
Amongst the dozens of killer guitar-centric indie bands emerging from the Australian underground in the mid-‘90s, one Sydney band emerged with a distinctly different sound.
The Whitlams were a piano-driven pop band. They were literate, tongue-in-cheek and unafraid to explore the complexity of the many facets of human emotion in their music. They were a counterpoint to much of what was happening in their scene, which some found refreshing.
Chapter 1 - Introducing The Whitlams
For many Australians, Sydney’s The Whitlams just appeared out of nowhere. But this band was no overnight success story. “The Whitlams kicked off in around ’92, so I was about 28. I’d already been in about 25 bands,” frontman Tim Freedman tells Double J. “I was in another band called Penguins On Safari…. I got used to booking gigs, going to pubs asking if they’d put a band on. And just trying to corral drummers, trying to keep a band together. When there’s no money, you’ve gotta do it with hope. You’ve gotta convince people they’re going somewhere, which is all just snake oil. I became a sideman for a while. I did seven weeks playing piano in the Sunnyboys, I played piano in The Hummingbirds for about 18 months, just after they released loveBUZZ.”
A fortuitous, drunken meeting – which Freedman has previously stated happened at the Big Day Out, even though the men already knew each other from the scene – gave the artist a different musical avenue to explore. “I met these two guys at the pub, Andy Lewis and Stevie Plunder, who were originally from Canberra,” Freedman recalls. “They were really good folk musicians. We just started jamming and playing each other’s songs. It had a bit of chemistry. When we started playing on Saturday afternoons at the local pub, people started coming along. So it got its own momentum.”
Everything would fit in the Kingswood. The piano in the back, the double bass next to it, one person lying on the piano and two guys sit in the front bucket seats. “We worked really hard,” he says. “I had never really got out of Sydney with music, and I was ambitious. So as soon as I was in an act that seemed to draw crowds, I’d be on the phone booking shows in Coffs Harbour and Byron Bay and Brisbane and Newcastle. We’d go up and down the coast every seven weeks. We’d go down to Melbourne overnight and play the Espy on Thursday night after the 11-hour drive – that was always a tough gig. It was scrappy, but we were young and full of the devil.”
These early tours were vital for the earliest incarnation of the band. While it surely didn’t hurt their songwriting skills, more importantly, it taught them how to entertain. “We learnt how to play and talk to the audience. We had a lot of laughs. We were all drinkers, which of course has its ups and downs. But during the show and after the show it was always a lot of laughs. We’d do 150 -160 shows a year.”
Thanks to the band’s first record deal and some minor radio success, the crowds continued to grow. “We got a little deal with Phantom Records, got some money to record an album. We did that pretty quickly, four studio tracks and the rest was live. That started getting played on triple j in 1993 – especially the song ‘Gough’ – and then we could start playing and 200 people would come along to the Annandale Hotel or The Espy.”
Chapter 2 - Up Against The Wall
This first incarnation of The Whitlams ended almost 20 years ago. Sadly, Freedman is now the last living member. “We put out two albums. Andy left the band in around ’95, so Stevie and I put out ‘Undeniably The Whitlams’ and then he [Stevie] died in January ’96.”
The tight trio of road-hardened buddies had been obliterated. Freedman was alone. But still, he felt compelled to plough on with The Whitlams. “After Stevie died I was down the coast, sitting by the pool and I heard ‘I Make Hamburgers’ on the radio,” he recalls. “They used to play triple j over the speakers at Thirroul pool. So I decided to put another line up together and just keep writing. “There was nothing else I wanted to do. I was always gonna take it as far as I could. I loved performing. I loved getting in the van and playing to different towns. It was just in my blood. Stevie died, but that didn’t mean I had to give up.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Freedman wrote and played his way through his grief, but he also had to get a band together at the same time. “I had maybe nine or ten people through the band, drummers and bass players,” he recalls. “It was a really tough time and I was deciding whether to keep going. Andy was nice enough to come back for three or four months to play with me in 1996 and help me through that period.”
Freedman made 1997’s Eternal Nightcap in the wake of Plunder’s passing and dedicated the album to his departed bandmate. But, contrary to what most people think, its songs weren’t written about Stevie. “Everyone assumes they’re about Stevie, but they were songs I’d been writing for ten years. One specifically, Charlie No. 3 was about Stevie.”
Of the songs Charlie 1, 2 and 3 he says: “They were about [three] different friends. I, as a songwriter, decided to shape them into a narrative. And it worked. People saw it as [one] story, even though I’d had three sources for the story.”
Something in Eternal Nightcap connected with Australia, both quickly and profoundly. “From the wreck, I’d managed to put an album together that captured people’s imagination,” he says. “It was a bit of a fairy-tale, but there was this huge sadness behind it that gave it depth. “Then, two years from when Stevie died, we had the number one on the Hottest 100.”
Chapter 3 - No Aphrodisiac Like Success
“We put the album out in September ’97 and didn’t even have the money for a film clip,” Freedman recalls of Eternal Nightcap. “I got 50 cassettes and dubbed ‘No Aphrodisiac’ on them and on the front, in texta, I wrote ‘A Letter To You’. I put it in every pigeonhole in triple j and 2BL and 2FC. That was a very effective $40 marketing campaign. No one knew who it was from. I don’t know if anyone played it.”
“A few weeks later the album went to everyone and [triple j] started to play ‘No Aphrodisiac’ and it just went mad. It was a song that worked just because it was pretty, it was about loneliness, but then it got funny. It had a real development. It just got a life of its own. Then, suddenly, the album started flying out of the stores. We had no marketing budget. It was our own label, we were broke. It was one of those moments where the song did all the work.”
The success of the song was even more unlikely given the musical landscape of the time. The alternative rock and dance scenes were booming, with big beats and noisy guitars the omnipresent sound of the time. “I’m forever thankful that triple j were flexible enough to put a ballad in the middle of a playlist that was pretty dominated by guitars and grunge by that stage. It stood out like a sore thumb. It was always this slow four minutes in the middle of everything else, which was a bit more brash and abrasive. The album went gold and platinum in a couple of months. I suppose people voted for [‘No Aphrodisiac’] in December and it went to number one on Australia Day.
It was a special moment in Hottest 100 history. Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – after whom the band was named – gave an introduction. Freedman was in an ABC studio in Adelaide (the band were touring with Hunters and Collectors at the time) to react to the news. But, 20 years on, he reveals that he already knew they’d won. “I got a little whisper a little bit before, because record companies in those days used to get whispers about it,” he says. “Of course we were very excited. I went down to the co-writers’ house in Camperdown – Chit Chat and Pinky Beecroft from Machine Gun Fellatio – and we had a drink and celebrated.”
Yes, those two anarchic songwriters from the Australian underground (at that stage, anyway) were partly responsible for one of the most heartbreaking and poignant songs of the ‘90s. Of course, their contribution was the wonderfully twisted end to the song.
‘Forty, shaved, sexy, wants to do it all day
With a gun-toting trigger-happy tranny named Kinky Renée
Tired teacher, twenty-eight, seeks regular meetings
For masculine, muscular, nappy-clad, brutal breeding
While his wife rough wrestles with a puppy all aquiver
On a wine-soaked, strobe-lit Asiatic hall of mirrors’
“They’d written that at a house I rented and I always thought it was hilarious. I thought ‘Well, if I’m gonna make this guy start losing his mind completely, I’ll use Machine Gun’s lyrics at the end.’” The Australian public soon realised that this single was just the tip of the iceberg. They discovered that this Freedman guy knew how to write songs. “People heard this song called ‘No Aphrodisiac’ out of the blue by a band called The Whitlams. They got the album and it had emotional depth.”
“Stevie had died 18 months before. So, to fill an album, I just went back to the songs I’d been working on for ten years. Every couplet had been laboured over for a long time. It wasn’t something that was written in four or five months. It was jigsaw puzzles from the last ten years. Lyrically it was quite full and tight.”
Eternal Nightcap’s success quickly changed Freedman’s life. Thankfully, he was ready. “You don’t play 150 shows a year for half a decade and not have your next move all set out for when success beckons.”
“We were in a position where we were so well organised, because we had a good manager and were ambitious and hardworking. As soon as ‘No Aphrodisiac’ took off, we were out on a 140 date tour. We didn’t take three minutes to go ‘what do we do now?’. We knew exactly what to do. We knew how the live scene worked. We went out and really laid into it.”
After years of toil, Freedman didn’t want to take his big opportunity for granted. “We’d see older bands in the airport and they’d say ‘there’s the hardest working band in Australia’,” he recalls. “I never said ‘no’ to a show. I loved it. I’d been struggling for long enough to really appreciate it. When ‘No Aphrodisiac’ hit, I was 33 and broke. I’d been at it for ten years. I really didn’t take anything for granted. I knew we had to put on good shows, I knew we had to be professional, I knew we had to keep writing, I knew the next album had to be good. I wasn’t gonna let this opportunity go.
“And I knew how lucky I’d been. Because if ‘No Aphrodisiac’ hadn’t clicked, it would have sold 8,000 [copies] and I would’ve been struggling again. I just respected the chance I’d been given. I worked me and the band’s butt off.”
Chapter 4 - You Gotta Love This City
That hard work paid off. Freedman wrote another sterling record in 1999’s ‘Love This City’, an album that showed the songwriter was confident to tackle more specific societal issues as well as the emotional terrain he was applauded for on Eternal Nightcap.
“I thought, ‘I have an audience now’. So on Love This City I didn’t shy away from social matters. There was a song about East Timor (‘400 Miles From Darwin’). I wrote about how the pubs were closing and how poker machines had destroyed the culture in the pubs (‘Blow Up The Pokies’). And I finished a song I’d started many years before about how having the Olympics was not necessarily a great thing (‘You Gotta Love This City’).
A lot of us who didn’t have a voice didn’t give a stuff about the Olympics. So I came out with the one and only anti-Olympics song, not knowing that they were to be the greatest Olympics ever. And I must say I did enjoy the two weeks…”
While people are constantly looking for specific details about Freedman’s private life within his lyrics, the singer believes that the songs only connect when the audience can relate them to their own lives. “One thing about the songs on ‘Eternal Nightcap’ and’ Love This City’ is they’re about how much we mean to each other. Those are the type of songs I’ve written that have touched people the most,” he says. “The ones that celebrate friendship and how much we care. It’s not necessarily about a boy and a girl. It can be about male friendships, a lot of them.”
Chapter 5 - Been Away Too Long
With his newfound fame, Freedman wanted to ensure he had the best band money could buy. Literally. “I wanted to get the best band I could,” he says. “Terepai had just finished touring with D.I.G. and he was the best. So I bribed him to come join the band. ‘Come and play with me, I’ll pay you this much’. Same with Jak [Housden – guitar]. I’d always loved his work. He’d been in The Badloves and I’d seen him play solo and he just has a beautiful feel and a great stage presence. Warwick [Hornby – bass] was recommended to me, he’d been in a band called The Lab with Paul Mac and he was really solid. I got them all together in a rehearsal room in ’99. They’d never even met each other, even though Terepai and Jak both lived in Cronulla and had eyed off each other’s vintage cars”.
It was his idea of a supergroup, with Freedman as the puppet master. “As Dave McCormack once said, ‘If You’re Famous and You Know It Sack Your Band’,” Freedman laughs. “So in ’99, when I was recording ‘Love This City’, I decided to get this great band together. At the start you’re saying ‘I’ve got some good work. Come along. Then, over the years, you stop signing contracts, you just become friends. People turn up if they want, they do 90 percent of the time. Now it’s a thing I can’t replicate with other people, really. It’s in our bones.”
Freedman has no delusions about why people come to see The Whitlams these days. It’s a time to reminisce, a time to feel nostalgic, and he loves it. “It takes [the audience] back to a time when they were young and feeling passionate about music. It’s lovely to play to people when a room becomes this orgy of nostalgia, singing and memories. If we do our job well, they feel unselfconscious and we’re smiling and they’re smiling – it’s a big feedback loop and it can be a very joyous affair. Lately we’ve been going around every September, we play one or two shows in our favourite rooms and I really look forward to those.”
One thing that’s different about The Whitlams now is that, every now and then, they’ll play with orchestras. It’s a long way from the beer gardens the band played in the early-‘90s, and it’s not something Freedman ever strived to achieve. But the band are comfortable in this more refined setting. “I never imagined we’d do it,” Freedman says. “Like most things it was a mistake and it evolved. I became friends with Peter Sculthorpe at an APRA Awards, then I ended up at a party at Richard Tognetti’s and made an arse of myself. Then he asked ‘who was that arse?’ and asked me to work with the ACO. Then the West Australian Symphony found out we were open to that kind of collaboration and they commissioned some songs, so we went over and played the Perth Botanical Gardens and it worked.”
“I started commissioning arrangements of more recent songs and we got to do it in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House probably ten times over the years with the Sydney Symphony. I’ve got wonderful composers to develop the arrangements, so it’s a really solid show now, we know it works with orchestras. It’s exciting to be at such a big event and be in the middle of an orchestra. It really works because I let the arrangers go to town, add melodies, add textures, use the whole orchestra. It’s not like a rock band with some padded strings in the background. It’s a really tempestuous, grandiose and sometimes poignant version of The Whitlams’ repertoire.”
The Whitlams most recent album was Little Cloud, released in March of 2006. That’s 11 years ago now; will there be a new one soon? “Not soon, no,” Freedman deadpans. “I’m not entirely sure there’ll be a Whitlams album as such. Jak wants to get in the studio – he loves it – I’ve got to write a few songs for him.”
“These days it’s a bit different. You can release three songs and go on tour, so I certainly wouldn’t count that out. But I don’t think there’ll be a whole album.”