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The Age, Melbourne, 11 Sep 2005
No Laughing Matter
by Guy Blackman

With his post-Saints work dismissed in the "official" history of Oz rock, Ed Kuepper was prompted to revisit his work with the Laughing Clowns - and what he found surprised him.

Twenty-one years ago, Australian musician Ed Kuepper left his second band, the dark, challenging but creatively inspired Laughing Clowns, and vowed never to look back.

After struggling for five years to find an audience for the band's often abrasive music amid unstable line-ups, disintegrating inter-band relationships and messy drug dependencies, Kuepper wanted to forget that the whole thing had ever happened.

In his own blunt way he says: "I had feelings of phenomenal animosity towards the band, and so I severed the art as well. I thought, 'Well, I really hate these people, so I'm not going to have anything to do with the music either'."

Two decades later, however, the dour, imposing Kuepper is sitting alongside drummer Jeffrey Wegener, the only other constant in the Laughing Clowns' many incarnations, in the dim, beer-soaked surrounds of the Northcote Social Club.

Tonight the two will play one of a series of gigs that have reunited the estranged bandmates for the first time since 1984.

"We try to be civil to each other," says Wegener, with a crooked smile.

"He tries not to provoke me too much," Kuepper adds darkly, before brightening. "No, actually, it's been fine."

The rapprochement is only partial, but evidence nonetheless of a considerable turnaround in Kuepper's attitude. The release of Cruel But Fair, a three-CD set compiling the complete Laughing Clowns recordings, further confirms that, after 21 years, Kuepper is ready to reassess the legacy of his contentious early history.

He never had any such qualms about his previous band, seminal Brisbane punk group the Saints, whose snarling 1976 single, (I'm) Stranded, was one of the world's first instances of true punk rock.

Although Kuepper quit the band two years later, frustrated with record label lack of interest and an increasingly fractious relationship with singer Chris Bailey, he never doubted the worth of their achievements. In fact, it was his satisfaction that saw the steady progression over the Saints' three original albums away from the raw, primal assault of (I'm) Stranded.

"The first album was nailed to such an extent that it was hard to do again, or want to do again," he says. "Not saying that it's 100 per cent perfect, but it almost is."

By 1978's Prehistoric Sounds, the Saints were playing a kind of incendiary R&B that fused the swagger and attitude of punk with sophisticated arrangements and a red-hot horn section.

So, on Kuepper's return from Europe, the band he was to form would be an extrapolation of ideas he had already begun pursuing. "What I was looking for was a band where the guitar would sit more subtly, as opposed to being the entire orchestra," Kuepper says.

His growing taste for the powerful, if at times atonal, work of 1960s free-jazz legends such as Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane soon led him to Jeffrey Wegener's door.

Wegener had been at high school with Kuepper and even drummed in an early incarnation of the Saints, but his scattershot drumming style was something rarely heard in rock'n'roll.

The addition of saxophone, trumpet, piano and double bass at various points in the band's career contributed to the popular impression that the Laughing Clowns were some kind of jazz-rock hybrid.

This is a classification that Kuepper vehemently rejects. "The Clowns weren't a jazz band," he states categorically. "We certainly weren't a jazz-rock band . . . We were looking to stake out our own turf."

Whatever they were, the Laughing Clowns were certainly not as immediately approachable as the Saints, and the popular wisdom is that Australian audiences were put off by their prickly, avant-garde tendencies.

Wegener, however, believes this has more to do with lazy journalism and the fact that the Clowns recorded solely for independent labels than with the truth. Both he and Kuepper feel the Laughing Clowns have been unjustly written out of the Australian musical canon.

"It's almost like we're talking about the Clowns' lack of success, but we were actually quite a successful, dynamic group," says Wegener. "The history written by rock journos is an out-and-out quantitative lie . . . I think journalists just put us in the too-hard basket."

"OK sure, we weren't as big as INXS, but we did reasonably well," adds Kuepper. His own pet peeve is the selective way his past was presented on ABC Oz rock series Long Way to the Top, where it seems Kuepper somehow evaporated after the Saints' third album.

"I don't know what happened to me, I did these Saints things and then nothing," he says. "I think people just think, 'It doesn't matter, they were just an indie-label thing, there's no record company making sure we get our lines of coke'."

Kuepper disbanded the original Sydney-based Clowns in 1982, but took a new line-up to London the following year to try again. There he found his ambitions hamstrung by the growing drug habits of several band members, including Wegener.

"I don't know what the price of stuff is these days, but in those days it was relatively expensive," Kuepper says. "And it's not just the money that it absorbs, it's also the time. There are certain things that need to be done for the band, and if you're hitting up somewhere, that's work you're not doing for the band."

"I think it was really a secondary kind of thing," Wegener contends. "I don't think I ever turned up for a show really out of it and f---ed it up. But on a secondary level, when you get obsessed with anything, it gets problematic. It doesn't lend itself to being organised. At least it didn't for me."

The situation became so untenable that at the end of a tour in 1984 Kuepper announced that the band was over.

Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott promptly joined Chris Bailey's new incarnation of the Saints, a betrayal that must surely have rankled, as Kuepper has always been infuriated that Bailey retained the name of the band they had formed together.

He maintains he was unaffected, however. "I was actually amused when Jeffrey and Louise joined the Saints," he says.

"I heard that you told someone the Saints were good with me and Louise in the band," offers Wegener.

"I didn't say that, that wasn't me. I thought it was a load of shit."

At any rate, Kuepper tried to write off the whole Clowns experience as a dead loss, and in 1985 started afresh with a solo career that has seen him become one of Australia's most cherished song-writers.

Prodigious in his output, Kuepper has remained fiercely independent, releasing many of his recent albums only via mail order after his popularity began to decline in the mid-'90s. He describes the past 20 years of his musical career with typically trenchant understatement: "I've kind of survived."

Wegener, however, headed into the wilderness after the end of the Clowns, struggling with addiction and finally spending some time in jail in the 1990s, about which all he chooses to say is, "It's good to be playing again".

Both seem battle-scarred in different ways. "I felt burned after the Clowns, which came on the heels of feeling burned about the Saints," Kuepper admits.

Inevitably, however, time has healed many of their wounds, and the two are now determined to see the Laughing Clowns receive some belated recognition.

Kuepper began revisiting the band's original master tapes around the time of Long Way to the Top's dismissal of his post-Saints career, and found that, despite the bad memories, there was much to be proud of.

"It is an important thing, and I say that totally without any vanity," he says. "There are certain things about it that really struck me, 'These are really good. Any kind of criteria that you could use, this meets.' And in a way I found that inspiring."

It was this process that saw Kuepper approach Wegener with the idea of playing live together again, although a full Laughing Clowns reunion seems unlikely.

"With the Saints there were certain people that were involved, and if they're not involved then it's not the Saints,'' Kuepper says, unable to resist a little dig at his former bandmate Bailey.

"With the Clowns it's slightly more complex because of the line-up changes, but it has to be myself and Jeffrey. The Saints is a different thing. If I'm not in it, it's not the Saints."

The Laughing Clowns box set, Cruel But Fair, is released by Hot Records on October 3

Ed Kuepper will perform live at the ACMI, Federation Square. [But when?!]

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