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Tarantula/Sandpebbles, brella.org (AUS) 6 July, 2005


Ed Kuepper must have put the wind up someone over the years. He's a man with a formidable reputation - renown for being surly, droll, a perfectionist.

Interview by Chris Hollow

Sitting in the Northcote Social Club, I'm waiting for Kuepper to finish his sound check. Pedantic about his set up for a show - a run through can last for hours. This occasion is no exception. "It's why I don't have support bands playing with us," he tells me later. "I hate fucking them around but they always get fucked around when they play with me."

Kuepper, who celebrates his 50th birthday this year, looks svelte as he lets rips through chestnuts like the Stones' 'Gimme Shelter', Del Shannon's Runaway' and other various bits and pieces from his current live show with former Laughing Clown drummer Jeffrey Wegener.

But it's when Kuepper lets loose on his own material like Sleepy Head, a melted down 'Know Your Product' and 'Eternally Yours', a song he first wrote for the Laughing Clowns and has revisited many times during his solo career, that I really start to take note. These numbers, with their sly melodies, sit very well with the covers repertoire. They are classic tunes.

Indeed, Kuepper is a rarity on the Australian scene. The depth and breadth of his work is phenomenal. Not only does he have the ability to sell records but he's also willing to experiment. As an artist there's a lot to admire.

Later, in the cramped confines of the Northcote band room, Kuepper picks over a hamburger as he talks about the Laughing Clowns, the band he formed in the ashes of the original Saints in 1979. Quietly spoken and showing a wry sense of humour, I find him surprisingly easy to talk to given his repute.

"The Saints were a major label band whereas the Laughing Clowns were always independent," he says. That, for Kuepper, is the biggest difference between the two bands he helped pilot before going solo. "When the Saints moved to London we were on good wages, staying in nice flats but the Clowns never had that luxury."

For most, the biggest difference is the Saints are remembered, and revered, and the Laughing Clowns are all but forgotten.

Indeed, the Laughing Clowns occupy a grey area in the Kuepper canon. Not as succinct as the Saints, not as successful as his solo career. It's been a decade since any Clowns material was available when a 'best of' called Golden Days - When Giants Walked the Earth was released. It didn't make many new fans for the band. But, it also didn't get much press time either. In that same year, 1995, Kuepper also released a Saints collection called The Most Primitive Band in the World, a compilation of the Aints (the side project he did with Celibate Rifle Kent Steedman) and three, count 'em, three full length solo albums. Is it any wonder the Laughing Clowns might've been overlooked?

But now comes a remastered 3cd box set, Cruel, But Fair, that presents the Laughing Clowns for both rediscovery and some much needed re-appraisal.

Cruel, But Fair has taken a very long time to come out - are you a perfectionist?
In a way that acknowledges that perfection often isn't possible to achieve. I think I aim for it but I probably get to a point where I think I can't spend the rest of my life on this. But that's not why it took so long for the Clowns thing to come out. That was technical problems on the record company's part. They lost some stuff so it was nothing to do with me being a perfectionist.

The Laughing Clowns are often tagged as jazzy and experimental.
I don't think I ever called the band experimental. I think people came to that conclusion because what we were doing was very distinctive sounding. Experimental makes us sound like we were some kind of free jazz collective or something and we weren't. To me the Clowns weren't experimental. To me it was a development of what I was doing with the Saints. The funny thing with the Laughing Clowns was we had three major line-up changes where everybody bar myself and Jeffrey Wegener 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.

Do you have to be well drilled to be chaotic?
I reckon it sounds like crap if it's just people playing. I hate hearing bad free jazz. And we weren't that anyway. We had a saxophone in the band and that was equated to jazz because the sax wasn't playing R&B riffs or something. But there were influences. Jeffrey draws a lot on drummers that are associated with jazz but the Clowns weren't jazz. To me it was removed from that. I would've felt like a total dickhead to go out and say we were a jazz band. It's wrong.

If you've got a clear vision of how the music has to be - do you have to be an arsehole to get that vision across?
Well, look at me. I put it across sometimes and a nicer man you would walk many miles to meet. Bands are funny things - as soon as you get a group of people together at some point in time there's a degree of blurring or confusion as to what is actually expected of people. That's kind of been the problem. If they knew their place it would be fine.

Given that you are playing with Jeffrey, what are the chances of a full Laughing Clowns re-union?
I'd say it was pretty unlikely. It's one of those funny things. I think I actually want to move forward. It's taken a long time to come out and if it had come out when it was originally supposed to there might have been a better chance. I want to acknowledge that this was a very good band but that's it, that's what they were. It's the same thing with the Saints - that's what it was. It's not going to happen like it was at that time. When Jeffrey and I play Clowns songs now most of them aren't true to the originals.

Over the last couple of years you've spent a considerable amount of time getting your past affairs in order…did it feel necessary to do so?
Without going into to many personal issues I went through a funny stage for a few years and when I finally came out of it one thing I thought would be good to do is get the past cleaned out of the closet. It's all part of the process of moving on.

There's been two generations of people who haven't actually heard this music. The Saints are getting their due but what about the Laughing Clowns?
One thing I always thought was the Clowns had in the last period of time been written out of rock n roll history by sloppy rock historians and sloppy rock documentary shows on the ABC. You sound like a dickhead saying these type of things but the band was reasonably important at the time. It's not acknowledged by people who should know better just because the band did break up. It wasn't like we were some band that never got out of the garage and maybe recorded one demo. So I wanted to address that with this box set. Whether people respond positively to the box set is another question. At least the opportunity is there now.

Will the Laughing Clowns have the last laugh?
I think it could make some kind of impact. I think the band still sounds as unique as at the time. I don't say that's it's ahead of it's time cos I hate that kind of thing. Music doesn't work that way, nothing works that way unless you're talking about science or something like that. The Clowns were distinct within their time and because of that it ages reasonably well.

©2005 Christopher Hollow

Copyright: the owner.