Interview
 

Tarantula, brella.org (AUS) 5 May, 2004

 

Ed Kuepper

Interview by Chris Hollow
 

Ed Kuepper has been quiet, too quiet. For the past two years nothing much has been heard from him. Not that two years is a long time in the modern world but, this is a guy who since 1985 had released something like 25 solo albums, at an average rate of close to two a year, including mail order records, instrumental outings and compilations. It's little wonder people have been wondering what the hell has happened? Baking bread in domestic bliss? Jail? Getting back to nature? A good book? Kuepper is reticent to talk about the reasons for his lay off but, suffice to say, the hiatus is over - he’s now back touring with his band dubbed the ‘Royal Sound Syndicate’ while he’s also presiding over a new 4cd Saints box set All Times Through Paradise (that includes a previously unreleased live set from London, 1977) due in July and a 3cd Laughing Clowns anthology Cruel, But Fair that contains everything the band ever recorded, slated for later in the year. I've always viewed Kuepper as an outsider in Australia's music industry and I was interested to find out how much of a factor growing up with a German accent in post war Australia was ...read on...

You've dubbed your touring band the Royal Sound Syndicate. Are you a royalist?
No, I'm not. I'm totally, totally opposed to the concept of the monarchy.

Why the prefix?
Because I think it's an evocative word to use - it signifies a sumptuousness, grace and elegance even though in reality it's not the case. In this case it is.

How do this band differ sound-wise to the Oxley Creek Playboys, the Exploding Universe or, say, the Institute of Nude Wrestling?
If you were able to discern a difference in the sound of those line-ups then you will be able to discern a different sound with this line-up. Some people don't. To some people it's all stuff that I do and it sounds the same. But this is being done in a way that is distinctly different from those bands. In some ways it's a more electronic, hi-tech version of what I was doing with (drummer) Mark Dawson with 'Today Wonder'. Not that it's very acoustic sounding necessarily but, essentially, its two people on stage with a third person out front to contribute some bits and pieces.

Despite the fact you've experimented heavily over the past 15 years with electronica - acoustic guitar has stayed a constant in a lot of your work.
It's a good instrument to play when you're sitting around the house. It's a really responsive instrument. I think I got into acoustic guitar pretty early on with the second LP that I recorded. Some of the more well known songs that the Saints did in the original line-up were written on acoustic guitar. So, you're right, it's always been there. The acoustic guitar is a good, easy to access instrument that doesn't require tons of technology. They're good to write on, like pianos except a lot easier to carry around.

Now you were born in Bremen, Germany. How do you feel being a musician from Bremen?
(laughing) I feel quite comfortable with it. I haven't given it a lot of thought.

Was there any other choice of occupation for you? Did you ever have a back-up?
No, never. I don't think I considered anything else. At some points in your life you go through a re-appraisal and think 'what a waste of time this is' but, essentially, I don't recall ever wanting to do anything else. My parents got into me about having a back up but obviously they didn't succeed in influencing me that much.

What was it like growing up as a German kid in Australia in the wake of the war?
You know, I think you confront the issues that any group of migrants do at various points in time. In those days the fact you were from a non-English sounding background was enough to encourage people who still had hostility towards outsiders to express that. But obviously you're not as easy a target as someone with different colour skin or something like that. I couldn't speak English when I first went to school and that caused a lot of problems for a long while but you sort of get over it with two fists of iron.

Were you taunted?
Yeah, it's all a long time ago now but it does make you empathetic to people who are copping it now.

Was it strange that when evil was represented...
It was me (laughing).

Yeah, evil always had a German accent.
Maybe they were right I don't know. You feel sort of defensive about it as a child. It's kind of a confusing thing to be confronted with and you can be a bit quick to lay it on someone who's doing it I guess.

Were you encouraged to lose or deny your heritage?
Not at all. My parents spoke German at home. It's a bit different these days but they still sort of do.

What about peer pressure?
I had to learn English pretty quickly. (Laughing) They weren't going to learn German. I guess the environment was pretty much Anglo. Actually I made friends with a Russian kid. My response to people having a crack at me in those days was just one of anger. You lash out out of anger. I remember instances of it happening but I don't remember it as being the over-riding aspect of my childhood. I can't remember it being some kind of constant persecution.

What did the war mean to your family?
My parents were both were in their teens when it finished. My father, because he was evacuated from Hamburg, didn't end up doing military service. If he'd been a bit further east he might've, I think he was turning 15 when it finished. As with a lot of people of that generation that went through it, they don't really derive a lot of pleasure from talking about it. The things I've learnt about the war I've got from other sources rather than my parents.

How European do you feel now?
I
've lived most of my life here. I have ties to Europe and I really like going back to Germany occasionally. But I like going to other European countries too. I think, having lived here most of my life, I probably feel most comfortable living in Australia.

Are you greeted in Germany as a native?
Yeah, kind of. But not by the passport control guards. I don't have a German passport. It depends. Once I'm there for a while my language skills come back. I remember how to speak properly, basically. I get by pretty easily.

People talk about you as having a very droll, Germanic sense of humour. Is that a joke in itself?
I'm not sure. When you say people, like who? (Laughing) I don't know, I don't know. I don't really think of myself as having a sense of humour to talk about.

It sounds very German in itself to deny you've got a sense of humour.
It does. It does. It's not a funny place, the old world.

For someone who's been notoriously prolific over the past 20 years - you've been noticeably quiet of late?
I've been doing some other things outside of what I normally do but I won't go into that. The musical stuff that I've been doing has been focused on working with film. I started doing some music for these films by a filmmaker called Len Lye who was a experimental filmmaker of the 20th Century. He did this amazing stuff with film in the 20s and 30s. I think he died in the late 70s. He painted directly onto film and is credited with being quite an influential person. In fact there are claims that Disney and co. plagiarized bits of Lye's stuff for Fantasia. I can't verify that. Anyway, he did some remarkable stuff painting onto film, scratching and doing this very nice, abstract sort of narrative. Anyway, we did some music for those and played it live with the films, not improvised although there is an organic element to the music. It worked well but we only got limited permission from the Lye Foundation to continue with it so what we've decided to do is to go on and engage a number of contemporary video artists from Australia and Europe to do films kind of … I was doing music to Lye's films which he, in turn, had made to a chopped up soundtrack - usually old Dixieland jazz so I decided to scrap those old soundtracks and do new music to it. And these video artists were asked to do films to this music that I did for his films. So it's this ongoing process. We're doing the Sydney Opera House and other venues around Australia and, hopefully, at the arts fest in Vienna in September.

Has that stuff been recorded?
Only for my own reference. The obvious thing is to do a DVD but there are a lot of filmmakers involved and everybody has to be in agreement.

What kind of music is it? Similar to the soundtrack style things you've done on The Blue House, Starstruck or Cloudland?
I guess parts of it would have similarities. It's instrumental. I would also say it's different from that - we haven't actually applied any of the music from those albums to these films. It's all new scores. No doubt I've probably ripped myself off somewhere along the line.

How do you approach writing for film? Is it like the picture of Neil Young on his Dead Man LP where he's staring at the screen and playing along with the action?
It can be. That's one way of doing it. I think I've heard that Dead Man thing and from memory it does sound like something that you'd play if you sat and watched the TV without the sound on. This stuff is different in that it's not just improvised. We're trying to work out the pacings, movements and images and what that presents to you with intentionally written parts.

Have you watched TV with the sound down, listened to a record or played and found the music strangely syncing up with the images.
I reckon it often does. One thing I did years ago when I did the first instrumental album Starstruck was get out Baraka and I was watching that, actually I was just watching it on TV, and I didn't really like the soundtrack . I think it might've been Phillip Glass, anyway I decided I'd put that record on and watch it with my own soundtrack and I often found these moments where the music and the visuals would just be in perfect sync. It is an area where happy accidents happen.

Is it a new for you to play music that is so heavily arranged?
I've done it from time to time. There have been records like Frontierland which are quite heavily arranged. I don't tend to play songs the same way every night when I'm playing live. I just kind of find that a bit dull. Some people enjoy doing it, can do it. I suppose classical musicians have to live with that kind of thing.

Has the last three years been your John Lennon domestic period - home baking bread?
Well, it has been a bit like that actually. There's been some family stuff going on which I don't really want to talk about. But there have been some kind of issues which have meant that I haven't been able to tour or record in the manner which people were, maybe, starting to take for granted. On the other hand it's been a beneficial time as well.

What has a typical Ed Kuepper day consisted of recently?
I do actually do a fair bit of cooking. I haven't been doing too much bread baking though. But, there's a Saints 4cd box set called All Times Through Paradise due out in July and a Laughing Clowns 3cd Anthology due to come out. So it's not like I've exactly been idle.

In the 90s you were making an art out of mail order albums - is there anything of that nature to surface?
No. That wasn't my decision so much. That was a thing Hot encouraged. When we first started doing the mail order album thing I thought those records were good but I think the one thing that got them a lot of attention and sales was they were fairly unique - not totally unique of course. But it was an unusual thing to be doing. Nowadays it's a pretty standard to order over the internet and get things in the post isn't so strange.

Tell us about the Laughing Clowns anthology. You actually flagged its release a few years ago. What's been the hold up?
Its three cds; everything the band ever recorded. The delays? Well, there were some scheduling problems initially so we had to put it back. Also, at the beginning, there were no liner notes and then we decided we should do the liner notes and then once we had the liner notes I thought it would be good to try and track down some of the other band members because I was the only one making any kind of comment on the stuff. That was immensely difficult and I eventually tracked down (Clowns drummer) Jeffrey Wegener who I thought would be the most important other commentator. But he's way overdue and has kind of got to get it together pretty soon otherwise we're going to miss out putting it out this year. It's there, it's been mastered, the artwork is essentially there and we're just waiting on Jeffrey. Still, I'd be amazed if we can't get it out before Christmas.

How do you feel the Laughing Clowns would fare if they were being launched on the world as a new band today?
I think the band would do extremely well. One thing that struck me going through the tapes - I mean when you're doing things it can be a real pain in the arse. We were a band that had a very difficult, internal relationship. And for a long time I think the main recollections were veering a bit on the negative side. But listening to the tapes I was impressed by the power and, if I do say so myself, it was a pretty unique, original sounding band. One of the things that always undermined us was a total lack funds and a lot of times the recordings suffered because of that. But going through the tapes often times the remastered version sounded much better than the original records so the problem might've been the mastering of the records in the first place. We would often be doing things on the cheap. But it sounds better than I remember it sounding and I've got a reasonably good sounding turntable set up so records generally sound pretty good. Well, these cds sound heaps better than the original vinyl.

The reason I ask about the Laughing Clowns in the context of today is there aren't any bands that sound like that anymore. Or influenced by it even.
Yeah. I think if a band like the Clowns came out now they'd stick out like a sore thumb. Or maybe a glowing beacon or something. The concept of some kind of Clowns reunion has been floated over the years but it never gets anywhere because it's kind of hard to go back that far. But when I was doing the remastering it was starting to look like an attractive option but there are no plans to actually do so.

Are you a particularly nostalgic person?
To some extent, yeah. I don't think I get lost in nostalgia. I tend to keep moving on. Occasionally you can be really pleasantly surprised by something you did or happened a long time ago that you can get excited about.

Do you find it interesting that people are nostalgic for 70s punk rock?
Look, having just done the Saints box set and the Laughing Clowns thing, in a way - no. I think there was something that was happening at that time which had a phenomenal energy and a newness to everything. I think people tend to get nostalgic for something that happened to them at a certain point in their lives when you are probably more impressionable. As you get older you tend to get more thick skinned about stuff. I don't know - I can't speak for punk rock in general but I was really happy with the Saints and the Clowns stuff.

Nostalgia and punk rock appear to be an oxy moron.
Sure, sure. But punk in its most ideological, pure way is a bit of a joke anyway. I never subscribed to that. Punk to me was, essentially, rock n roll. It wasn't a political art movement the way it was presented by some people in the English press. It might've been to some people but not generally. The worst aspects of it were just mindless conformity. So, no I don't have any nostalgia for those attitudes. I actually found when we went through England the first time it was kind of quite good. It was new, it was exciting and people seemed very open minded. The next time around everything had to be punk and you were either punk or you weren't. And I found that to be moronic in the extreme. Things just aren't that black and white. We didn't really align ourselves with punk anyway. We were around before that I suppose and the punk stuff seemed to me to be very much an English fashion. There were some things that came out of it that I quite liked, there are other things that are very bad.

The Laughing Clowns never got, and still don't get, the same attention or kudos as the Saints have received.
No. The Laughing Clowns were never in a situation where we got the immediate press the Saints got when a record came out. But the Saints were signed to a major label, EMI, so the support we received was substantially greater. But also it was unusual for an Australian band to be in London at the very front of what was happening as opposed to coming along a couple of years later which was happening in those days. With the Clowns it was an independent outfit from the very outset at a time when doing your own record was pretty much commonplace. You know, I can't emphasise enough that we didn't have a great deal of money. The band did pretty well live most of the time but we were funding and distributing our own records. At the same time also we were coping with some pretty hefty narcotic problems within the band. That aspect of the band really held us back and I still have a lot of resentment towards certain people because of a lack of perspective that was damaging at the time.

What do you feel were the most immediate songs the Laughing Clowns did?
Well, to me, a song like 'Holy Joe' is an extremely immediate song. I mean I have spoken to people who thought it was the strangest thing they'd ever heard when they first heard it on the radio. It doesn't strike me as that. It strikes me as a song that has a very 50s sound. I think the Laughing Clowns theme song off that record was pretty catchy - that was almost going to be the last Saints single. It would've been a bit different if it had been played in the context of the Saints. A lot of songs that were released as singles 'Sometimes' had that degree of impact. But a band can work in more ways than one. The Saints were in a position where they drew attention to themselves essentially because of the first single ('Stranded'). The Clowns weren't so much of a singles band. But what was starting to happen with the Saints on Prehistoric Sounds was where the Laughing Clowns were launched from.

Phrases like 'avant jazz' and 'progressive' are always thrown up when the Laughing Clowns are mentioned. Did you see it as a progressive band?
The funny thing with the Laughing Clowns was we had three major line-up changes where everybody bar myself and Jeffrey were replaced. There was a lot of talk at the time of 'gee, I like the old line-up'. But when I was doing the remastering I was struck by how it was essentially the same at the end as it was at the start which makes it about as progressive as the Doors or the Ramones. It's a funny idea - the concept of progress. I've never believed that complexity equals progression.

Is there a danger in being eclectic?
I guess it makes it harder for the marketing people. My feeling was always, like with the first Saints album, once we'd done that I didn't really feel the need to do it again. It kind of distilled what we'd been doing for the three years or so leading up to that recording. It's not a particularly brilliant recording but it captures a real energy. But how many times do you want to keep doing it. I have no doubt the Saints would've had a lot more success if we'd stuck with what we'd started out doing. But that didn't particularly interest me. I guess a lot of the bands I really liked growing up didn't stick with one sound or idea or whatever either. On the other hand there are people I really like who did, essentially, the same thing from start to finish - Johnny Cash for instance. But I always thought it would be fun to try to do something different.

Can you tell us about the live set in London, 1977 that has been unearthed and included on the Saints box set?
It's recorded just shortly before the second album. In fact we might've just started recording the second album but it's a mix of first and second album material. It was recorded on multi-track with a mobile recording studio and it's not without its technical flaws but it sounds really good. The tapes have just been sitting there and no one's really looked after them but it was our only opportunity to access multi-track live recordings of the band. Some of it is fantastic, at least as good if not better than the studio versions.

Is the re-mastering of the Saints material the same as was used for the Raven compilation - Wild About You?
No. I did these new ones with Don Bartley. I didn't have anything to do with the Raven one. It was kind of a point of contention between us because I'd been talking to them for a while and actually alerted them to a couple of outtakes on the basis that they'd master it properly but they kind of chickened out.

Have you talked about doing a re-union with the Saints to herald the release?
Chris and I have talked about doing stuff together over the years and it never seems to get very far. There's always some kind of reason for it not happening. I mean we've talked about it almost from the time the band originally split up. Maybe it's just something to pass the time. I suppose I'd doubt if there would be a Saints reunion.

What's the major stumbling point?
I'd like to answer that but I'm in the middle of some negotiations for my publishing so I won't go into details. It's not an impossibility. It needs Chris to think it's a good idea, basically, and he doesn't so unless he changes his mind I'm not going to try and pressure him or anything.

Have you tried that in the past?
I wouldn't say that I've knocked myself out but I've suggested there might be worse ideas around. But, as I say he doesn't think it's a very good idea and I respect that. I don't really care that much - it's a long time that's past. But, once again, having gone through the re-mastering you get a reminder of, 'maybe we should try and do something'. But it's something that's got to happen fairly naturally with all parties expressing a similar degree of enthusiasm.

Does it amuse you that even if you and Chris Bailey never said another word to each other you'll be linked to the end of your life?
Um, I don't find it hilarious (laughing). We were pretty close at the time and things fell out over a number of different issues. I'm quite happy for it to never raise its head again but on the other hand it is there, it is something we could look at. It's just not something I want to push.

It seems one of those things were there's been a rupture and no resolution as such.
I think at one point last year when I was finishing up the re-masters it kind of occurred to me it would be good to resolve everything because, in a lot of ways, both Chris and I were the two people who were pretty close when the band was going and it would be kind of nice to fix everything up. Whether it's possible or not, I don't know. It's the same with the Clowns. I would kinda like to have it all resolved and move on. And if part of the process is a re-union then so be it.

What's Ivor Hay up to at the moment?
The last time I saw Ivor was when we did our performance at the ARIA awards on that fateful day of September 11, 2001 where we lost the front page of 'The Australian' because of the World Trade Center thing. That's when I saw Ivor. I kept in contact with him for a while after that and sort of lost touch with him. He's in Adelaide I believe and does some kind of government work there. I think it's secret, ASIO or something.

Interesting that it took 9-11 to overshadow the Saints reunion.
Yeah, it's funny because I remember the one time before that Chris and I seriously talked about getting the Saints together, and this is humour in a gallows way, was when the first Gulf War started. This time around we actually got up on stage and played a song and hours later it all happened. It almost seems like it's not good for world peace when the Saints get together. If we had've done a whole set who knows what might've happened? I don't know, it's a weird thing - the actual performance was fine. There were a number of tensions that I don't feel it's necessary to go into at this point. But given that we hadn't played together for 20 years or something it was pretty good.

How many songs did you actually rehearse?
None. We didn't rehearse. We barely had a sound check and it was a total fuck up as far as organisation. I sent down a list of things that we needed, that was supposed to be provided, but there was nothing. So we were just standing around the stage for ages while they got the stage gear and P.A. together. So, no, we didn't do any rehearsal and given that, it sounded pretty good.

What songs were thrown up as ones you wanted to do?
We were supposed to do a set but there were disagreements between Chris and myself over a couple of things. It ended up being just the one song ('(I'm) Stranded'). But I would have liked to have done a set, I would've been quite happy.

When was the last time you played '(I'm) Stranded' before that?
Probably on that show that's being released. I don't think we played it on our 1978 tour.

Despite the fact you're renown for re-doing songs from your back catalogue you've never touched '(I'm) Stranded'. It's frozen in 1977. Why's that?
It's a hard song to re-do. It's not that I don't like it. Having listened to it recently I thought it was really good. It was picked to be the single from a poll taken amongst our fan club as the most popular song - it wasn't like the band said 'this is the thing that's going to rocket us to fame'. But I think it's really good and I can hear why it works. But it's a difficult song to re-arrange. What do you do with it? You do a country version and it makes it sound like you're sending it up. The song is how it's recorded and I can't envisage another way of doing it.

I've always thought that 'Know Your Product' is like a distant cousin to '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'.
Oh, yeah. I can't say that was particularly intentional or anything. I kind of saw it more as a way of applying a groovy, soul horn line into a song but I guess I can see a slight link with the lyrics. I didn't have another to do with the lyrics.

The lyrics do alert you to it but the horn line is kind of related too - The riff of 'Satisfaction' being written, or envisaged, as a horn line.
Yeah, it is. In fact they even went as far as having Otis Redding do a version. I guess 'Know Your Product' has a few more chords in it. Much better (laughing).

©2004 Christopher Hollow

 
 
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