Interviews

“He was the fifth member of the band”: Tim Freedman on ‘Sancho’ and the return of The Whitlams

The Whitlams
The Whitlams (from left to right: Terepai Richmond, Jak Housden, Tim Freedman, and Warwick Hornby). All photos: Scott Gelston.

After a 15 year hiatus, The Whitlams are back. Tim Freedman – the band’s inimitable frontman – has many tales to tell. But chiefest among them is the one about Sancho.

It’s been a long time between drinks for The Whitlams. Fuelled by the real and imagined biographical vignettes of Tim Freedman, the band has an indefinable, roguish appeal — one that catapulted them to critical and commercial acclaim.

And despite the fact that new material was put on the back burner for more than a decade, the charm of this unique band hasn’t dissipated. Freedman’s singular observational qualities, his ability to weave poetry out of hard-luck stories (or even crime capers gone wrong) hasn’t eluded him.

But key to the creation of the band’s new record, Sancho, was the memory of a pivotal figure in the success of The Whitlams touring machine for two decades. Greg Weaver “was a rock” according to Freedman — a tireless paragon of professionalism; a tour manager and sound engineer for several of Australia’s leading live acts. Weaver died suddenly in 2019 and spawned a wave of tributes across the industry, with countless artists singing his praises.

Though tremendously missed, Freedman took a celebratory tone to the recounting of Weaver’s adventures, paying homage to him specifically in two rousing pieces. But across the record are nods to career criminals, lashings of prog rock, mid-century American minimalism, as well as raucous rockers. In other words, The Whitlams — with trademark brio and eclecticism — are back. Read on for our conversation with Tim Freedman.

The Whitlams

HAPPY: I was lucky enough to hear you play Ballad of Bertie Kidd in the studio a while ago. It was a solo rendition, so all you had were the basic musical elements and this ripping yarn. How did you feel when you first heard that tale? Were you thinking “this has to be a song” straight away?

TIM: Well, Charles Waterstreet and I sat down to discuss what quirky criminal happenings would suit songs. He’s a bon vivant, raconteur, and disbarred barrister. So Charles has a co-writing credit on that track because we were chatting about him collecting some of the Rabelaisian tales from his criminal career.

HAPPY: I imagine they would be pretty colourful.

TIM: Yes, he’s defended some characters in his time. It was always the intention to turn it into a song. The surprise was that we actually got permission from Bertie Kidd to confirm that it was him and to use his name in the title. Luckily, he was planning to release his autobiography, so he was looking forward to some increased notoriety.

Then, it became more surreal. When I did my tour, I booked a gig in Launceston for the sole purpose of having dinner with Bertie. I really enjoyed that. He had a lot of gravitas. We loosened up in each other’s company and I got a good feel for criminal life in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. It was an interesting period for crime because without the prying eyes of video cameras and smartphones they really could use their imagination.

HAPPY: As for the musical elements in that song, it’s fascinating straight off the bat. There are some quite thorny dissonances in the piano, before unexpectedly landing in a bright, major chord. It’s such a curious mix of emotions that somehow fits the tale so well. Can you shed a bit of light on that process of crafting music to complement a story?

TIM: It’s something that I hope comes across if you listen to the whole album. I like to use surprising chord changes. If I’m interested from each four-bar section to four-bar section, then the listener will be as well. When I write songs I have a bit of a prog influence really. I find the chords in that piano intro to Bertie quite surprising and I hope that there are lots of other moments like that on the album. It’s like writing a short story: if you can keep people interested enough to read the next sentence, then they might get to the end of the story. So even though we have quite a conventional pallet, I like to surprise with key and chord changes.

I also like the meandering key changes on Nobody Knows I Love You. It was just a piece of piano music for 18 months. It had its own raison d’être without the words, which is why I put simple, almost Brechtian lyrics on top. It didn’t need too many flowery phrases as the musical material is pretty fruity already. Whether you’re a painter, photographer, or storyteller, you have to be careful that you don’t overegg it. When to stop, I suppose.

HAPPY: The album is dedicated to Greg Weaver – the Sancho Panza to your Don Quixote – and the title track is an ode to the life that you’ve shared together. In many ways, it’s a secret life where the rest of the world disappears and all you have are the people around you on tour. Can you tell us a bit about that partnership and how some of that colourful and unique language developed over all those years on the road?

TIM: I first met Greg in 1987. He was mixing a show my band did in Bondi. I was impressed immediately with his attention to detail and with the cassette “desk” tape that he gave me of the performance. I hired him 10 years later when I decided to get serious with Eternal Nightcap and just before we had some success. He was at a stage where he was ready to leave home and get out on the road again.

He became close to every artist that he worked with: from Paul Kelly, to Tim Minchin, to Boy & Bear, and Ball Park Music, because he was a rock. He did two or three people’s jobs at once. I can remember the first gig we did together at the Hoey Moey in Coffs Harbour, I was still used to putting my own gear away. He just shooed me off! He didn’t even want my assistance because the punters were watching and the lead singer doesn’t help with his gear. He would work 18 hours a day to make everything feel seamless, which was why he was in such demand.

He was also incredibly technically savvy. He could answer everyone’s questions about every single handset, or every single operating system on every single laptop. He was a professional IT guy, but he just got bored going to people’s houses and fixing up their networks. As I describe in the song Sancho in Love, he got bitten by the bug of rock ‘n’ roll. He loved gadgets, so he’d have a CB radio on his bike and talk to the truck drivers when he was 16.

He was really straight. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke. But he was very quirky. He was gruff — the opening acts would be frightened of him, but that was just because he was very business-like. He had to be.

He had lots of operational phrases. If someone had two drinks, the command was “do not approach the ground staff.” Or if we’d been driving for five hours and we had 90 km to the gig, he’d say, “might as well get out and walk!” A lot of those references are in the song, Sancho. 

It had been so long since I’d written a song, that if I was going to get back into it, I really wanted to be completely self-indulgent. That was the first song I wrote after my big break. I took my notebook out and walked up and down King Street, had a beer in each pub, and just started writing that song.

It was completely self-indulgent, but when I look back at my early songs and think of the ones that really connected with people, they often were. I never thought that anyone else would relate to Buy Now Pay Later, because it was so specifically about my friend who was using heroin. And then I realised that everyone had a friend who was misusing drugs. Not everyone is going to have a friend who’s a “gear queer” who’s their tour manager but they’ll still hopefully relate to the intricacies of a friendship, and fond, rosy-tinted nostalgia.

HAPPY: He’s kind of a superhero: he has his props, weapons, and war stories.

TIM: One of the few gigs we did together last year was the Caloundra Music Festival — Ball Park Music was headlining. I went to meet the night before because I knew how fond Greg was of them. He was very impressed with their interpersonal communications and the way they handled themselves. They told me this hilarious story: the only time I’ve ever heard that Greg was late.

They were in a hotel in Germany or something, and he must’ve not set his alarm properly. He woke up and realised that he had to have the van packed in 10 minutes. Apparently, he rushed into the bathroom and pretended nothing was wrong. He had to get his “tour iron” out and iron his cargo shorts.

HAPPY: (Laughs).

TIM: There was a whole process. So I had to get the “tour iron” into a song, his business shorts, and his favourite torch. Ball Park Music was very fond of him. As were the Hart brothers of Boy & Bear, they miss him enormously. They toured North America together on the smell of an oily rag for years.

His funeral was an amazing lineup. There were only 150 people there, but Paul Kelly, Tim Minchin, The Whitlams of course, and more — we all got up and did one song. It was a lovely afternoon down in The Factory in Marrickville. There are only two songs on the album about Greg but the whole process was shadowed by his loss. He really was the fifth member of the band.

HAPPY: And then, there’s the sister track, Sancho in Love, which I interpreted as an ode Greg himself and his personality. But beyond Greg, there are many unique characters spread throughout the record. As a songwriter, how do begin to paint a picture of a specific person in your life? I’d imagine that it’s quite a challenge to reduce the essence of someone that you know well into a single piece of music.

TIM: Definitely a challenge. In Sancho, for example, there are three verses that I loved but had to kill, because it was already six minutes long. It was a matter of distillation. Leonard Cohen said a song is a short story that’s been evaporated off until it’s a concentrated broth, or something along those lines. I wrote a lot and put it in chronological order, so hopefully, it makes some kind of sense. It starts with him pushing a hungover singer onto the stage and then at some point in the gig, a couple of the band members are bloody socialising, so he has to drag them into the van.

One of the verses that I culled detailed his midnight conversation with another tour manager about the idiosyncrasies of the artists they’ve worked for. Sometimes I used to overhear these unfiltered opinions on other artists — which I can’t repeat, of course. They were a tough audience, put it that way. But Sancho in Love was one of the last songs I recorded for the album and that’s more of an expressionistic splash. I asked everyone: “What did Greg love?” “He loved sitting in laundromats.” Well, I thought, “that’s weird, I gotta put that in the song.” Just recording the idiosyncrasies of a cherished friend. I just hope other people get some joy out of it too.

 

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HAPPY: Nobody Knows I Love You, In the Last Life, Cambridge Three, and Get a Hotel Room, are all adventurous productions that emerged from your Byron Bay sessions with Wayne Connolly. Can you tell me a bit about the atmosphere of those few days?

TIM: There had been a bit of a break and I did lose a bit of momentum on this album. I just couldn’t get everyone in the same town. But by the same token, it kind of worked for us. I think the last five songs that we did were better than the first five. That’s why the singles, Bertie and Man About a Dog are towards the tail end of the album. I was getting more confident in my writing because I’d had a break and I was getting back into it.

Terepai [Richmond — drummer] lives in the Northern Rivers and I grabbed Jak [Housden — guitarist] from the Tim Minchin tour up in Brisbane so he didn’t get stuck in the Sydney lockdown. We borrowed Ian Peres, who’s a wonderful bass player to fill in for Warwick [Hornby] who was stuck in Sydney. We just loved the vibe of the Music Farm. I loved the Midnight Oil EP Bird Noises when I was at school and it’s always cool to walk into a room and realise some cultural touchstone of your past was recorded there.

It’s a studio that’s in really good shape. Wayne has put in a lot of beautiful gear, which funnily enough was from the old Albert’s Studio — which is where I recorded Eternal Nightcap — so I was probably going through the same outboard gear that I did on No Aphrodisiac. It’s always great when it’s efficient. When you get four songs down in two days, you’re always really happy. You don’t wanna be Steely Dan and spending 12 months on everything! I’d never worked with Wayne before and he’s made a lot of brilliant records. We’re the same age and share the same general levels of cynicism. The energy worked. I look back really fondly on those few days. We were just making art. We were under no pressure to come up with a hit. We were just trying to please ourselves.

HAPPY: You had some unexpected country crossover success with Man About a Dog. It speaks to the broad range of influences that seep into the tracks. The album is steeped in rock and pop structures – I’m thinking of songs like 50 Again – but there are also nods to minimalism, like the cover of Megan Washington’s Catherine Wheel.  When you approach the recording of the songs, do you have a vision for partnering songs with specific genres, or does it happen when you’re jamming with the band?

TIM: With Catherine Wheel, I listened to Megan’s album from a couple of years ago and just thought that it was a gem of a song. It’s a great torch song that could fit on a Barbra Streisand album. She’d underproduced it on her record, so I thought, here’s a chance for me to overproduce it. When I first recorded it, it was too similar to her version. And then, when I went into the studio one day, Daniel [Denholm — producer] — he’s a big Steve Reich and Philip Glass fan — turned me onto Reich’s The Desert Music. And I’d always loved the way Peter Sculthorpe used the ostinato — those repeated phrases on the violin that change very slowly. It can become very trance-like.

So we asked ourselves if we could mix the torch song with that Reich/Glass/Sculthorpe-style minimalism. So I tried to get hypnotic on the piano and see where it went. So we really knew what we wanted to do with that one from the start and we gave Jonathan Zwartz [string arranger] strong direction: we just wanted the strings to pulse. I’m glad it turned out to be completely different from Megan’s original version.

With some of the other songs, they tended to emerge from conversations. The boys in the band would sit with the producer in the control room and I’d just go out to the piano and play the song for them. Then, the conversation is really pleasurable. Like in Cambridge Three, Wayne said “I’m thinking of that Bryan Ferry and Eno track.” So we’ll listen to that and I’ll go play the piano in that style, then Terepai might latch onto something. You just go with the first idea that’s expressed that not everyone shoots down.

Whereas In The Last Life, it started out as a singer-songwriter style track, but I wanted it to pulse a bit, almost like Gang Of Youths. The lead singer from that band has a lovely way of dashing off these stories while the music stays propulsive. When you’ve worked with guys for 20 years, you listen to them. They would play with me if I didn’t listen to them (laughs).

HAPPY: And finally, your relationship with Sancho is all about hitting the stage, riding to “another glorious victory of song” as you say in the title track. But it is hard to escape the fact that touring has changed dramatically in recent years. What’s the feeling in The Whitlams camp leading up to the upcoming shows?

TIM: Well, I told the guys that this is going to happen, but it’s going to be a bit three-legged. For example, our show at the Enmore Theatre went on sale two years ago. So there’s going to be some full houses, some half-filled houses, but we’re still gonna get around the country and do the best we can. We’re professional enough to know that as long as we have pride in our standards, we’ll have some great moments. The whole scene will bounce back.

Sancho is out now. Head over to The Whitlams website for more details.

Interview by Dan Shaw.