photos and words by Byron Smith
13 February 1988 - p12, Juke, issue 668
I can hear Stephen Cummings singing as I approach his front door. I tap the shiny brass door knocker and wait. He keeps singing.
It's a quaint little cottage in bayside Elwood. The fence has been freshly painted. There's a bike propped against the front of the house - one of those 10 speed racing jobs like you see in the back of sportstore catalogues. I look back at the door and admire the leadlight work, then knock again - this time harder.
He keeps singing. It's the chorus of "Everybody Wants To Get To Heaven" and it sounds like he's struggling with a few of the guitar chords.
This time I bang the knocker like I really mean it. The singing stops and moments later he's ushering me in, full of apologies, asking how long I've been knocking...
"I've just been trying to learn this song on guitar, but I'm not very good... still learning," he says smiling.
I nestle into a large lounge chair while he scurries to the fridge to fetch us an orange juice, cricket players meander across a television screen and an antique radio (one of eight in the house - he collects them you see) sits above the fireplace.
He returns and hands me the glass.
It's been over a year since the last time I interviewed Cummings. Last time it was at a record company office and he seemed a little uncomfortable. Today he's relaxed. I think to myself that it was a good idea to meet him on his own ground.
Last time it was 1986 and he'd just released his second solo album This Wonderful Life. He told me how a pop artist grows old gracefully. "Just be yourself," he said.
Taking his own advice, Cummings recently released Lovetown, an honest and simple LP which sees Cummings moving closer than ever to his offstage personal projection. It's an album full of heartfelt emotion and one which shows him simply "being himself".
Lovetown has been released on Melbourne's independent Rampant label. It appears the days of major record company backing have gone and Cummings is the first to admit it. He knows his records no longer appeal to a teenage market in the way they did during the heyday of his romer band The Sports, in the late seventies. He also recognises the compromises which have to be made when the money's tight: recording quality may be sacrificed by varying degrees and there's less cash to inject into large national promotions. At the same time however, making records independently means he's in charge, the only pressures are the ones he places on himself and he can work at his own pace.
Lovetown was recorded in a tiny eight-track studio run by ex-Men At Work bassist John Rees and producer Mark Woods. Woods worked with Cummings to produce the LP, capturing the essence and honesty of Cummings' songs effectively, despite a small - but inevitable - drop in production values which always goes hand-in-hand with smaller studios.
I place my orange juice on the coffee table and get down to business...
Lovetown has been received very favourably on a critical level, what's your opinion? Are you happy with it?
"Oh yeah, I was glad to do it 'cos there was no pressure. We just went in and whacked the songs down as we did them and it was very open and simple - so it was good. It was much more suited to me, 'cos I haven't got the incredible concentration needed to sit around and do things really meticulously. I'm not that sort of person."
Was it difficult adapting to the really small studio?
"No, no. The basic thing was I had to look at it like 'this is the hand that has been dealt out to me - so OK - I will work within these limitations' and that's what I did. I didn't have to do it, but I knew that if I wanted to record this album there were certain set limitations. Actually I quite like the idea of things being set for me to do, because otherwise I'm a really lazy person - so it's a good idea if I have a defined idea of what I have to do. So I just figured, given the circumstances, that I'd have to make a certain type of record and I knew it had to be something that was really open sounding. I just accepted the limitations and did it."
Were those limitations a product of having no major record company backing?
"Yeah. That was one of the things that said 'ok, if you want to make a record at the moment - this is what's gonna be set: you can either just not do one and just wait and wait... or you can do it! So I just thought 'oh f--k it, I don't care, I'll do it!' I was also impressed by the way Andrew (Pendlebury) had made his record (in the same studio with the same producer - Ed) really quickly. With Andrew I just literally turned up there and in half-an-hour we wrote the song ('She Set Fire To The House') and I sang it and that was it, then I went home. I was actually only there half-an-hour.
"And in a lot of ways this is what I'd rather be doing anyway, it's more what I'm interested in and where I've ended up or whatever. It was fine. It doesn't worry me at all... (pause) you know, it only worries me in the way that it would have been nice to makethe same record with that bit better fidelity and everything else, 'cos then it would sound really powerful. I mean the arrangements on the record are very minimal and even if someone gave me backing to go into a large studio to record, I wouldn't make a record in a really long time now. I'd make a record of that style (depicted on Lovetown) and with that sort of instrumentation - but the production values would be better and as a result the thing would sound more powerful and it would just be better. I wouldn't actually change the arrangements or make it different, but it would be of a better quality, recorded in a bigger studio... a better sound. That's the only thing I find just a bit annoying."
Australian artists like yourself and Joe Camileri make music, which by its very nature seems to appeal to your peer group, whilst a majority of contemporary pop music is aimed at a teenage audience. Is there a viable market for your music?
"I think there can be. Joe's last record actually sold really well. I think it sold about 20,000 copies or something, but you know, they had a really good push and it came out at the right time and CBS spent a lot of money and you have to do that I s'pose. So there is an audience, because people Van Morrison sell a lot of albums and a lot of CDs. So there is a market, but actually reaching it, or tapping it, is what I personally find difficult and I don't think even the major record companies know how to do it either. I think the case with a lot of the Australia branches of big companies is that they wouldn't release a lot of the records they do, but they have to; they're to contractually, because they're coming from their parent company overseas. Someone like Ry Cooder probably doesn't sell more than a few thousand records in Australia and I don't think a local branch of a major company would even give him a deal in Australia, if they had a choice.
"The companies in Australia - probably because of the population and high recording costs - have limited thinking... they can make the most money on the pop market, so they don't stray from that. They're a business and I don't begrudge them that. I don't think that they're bastards or anything. I don't feel like that at all about them. They're running a business and 'cos it's a small population, they cater for the market that seems most popular and I imagine that they think the other market is catered for by the other artists they release from overseas and they haven't got the impetus to put out local versions of that. That's how it seems to me anyway.
"It'd be really nice to have a CD, because a lot of the kind of people who would buy my record, buy CDs and they don't have record players now. So they aren't gonna buy it, because there's no CD. So I'm sort of more frustrated on that level. I'm fairly realistic. I know what I'm doing is not teenage music, it's something else again, but the occasional song might cross over into what they like.
"Record companies also seemed to be locked into thinking that things have to cost a certain amount of money. I mean, I could go and make this sort of record and it wouldn't cost much money and it would be immaculate sounding... I'm talking sound-quality wise. It wouldn't cost a lot of money. But they'd probably say 'yeah, it wouldn't cost a lot of money, we'd get the money back and we'd make a little profit', but they don't want to make a little profit, they want to make a big profit. So they're not really interested in making small amounts of money, because they're so big, they're only geared up to making big amounts of money... that's the reality of it. They want really huge sales. They don't care if they pay a lot for some act - pay a really large amount of money - and the record stiffs completely, because if they do that for three or four local pop acts and only one of them works, they can say it's justified. That's they way they operate. Like the big companies around the world operate like that too, but they also operate other things as well, because it's good to have that balance roster. So I've just been trying to figure out where I stand and how realistically I fit in, or if there's any sort of future for doing it."
Have your music tastes changed a lot since you were with the Sports? Do you think you've mellowed out a bit?
"Yeah, it's just natural I think. Actually I heard this long interview with Bryan Ferry on the ABC and that was quite interesting 'cos he said as you get older you have different body rhythms and things change and I've noticed that. You do change. When you're younger everyone bases their thinking more around excitement and noise and everything going a million-miles-an-hour. So it has changed in that way. When I listen to Sports records these days they always sound too fast to me. But that was also a thing of the times.
"The records at that time were really very fast kind of reels. Even if you listen to a group like the Angels, they've slowed down. They're not that much different in their sound, but their records are a lot slower. It's still rock and raucous, but the rhythms are slower and that's the major difference between '77/'78 and ten years later."
Do you think with the prominence of mega-expensive production techniques and emphasis on arrangement these days that artists like yourself are helping to bring emphasis back onto THE SONG?
"It's brought back the song, yeah, because hit records now have become less like songs and more like a certain, three minute slab of music... a groove or a rhythm, more than an actual song. They're just a whole lot of bits just shoved together over a continuous, relentless beat - it doesn't stop, because everyone will leave the dance floor and the record's gonna stiff. So most of the new stuff that's coming out has been sequenced and just put to a beat and so the emphasis does fall away from the 'song'. Yeah, my things are more like 'songs' I guess."
Do you think there'll eventually be a reaction against a lot of the non-melodic dance music and a general reversion among more artists back to songs and melodies?
"Oh yeah, it's bound to happen at some stage or another, but at the same time I can't see dance clubs and things stopping, 'cos if I was 18 and wanting to go out, I'd rather go to a dance club in some ways, than go to a rock venue, because even though I might like rock music, usually clubs are more fun and they have better facilities for the public and also it just doesn't seem to be a really exciting time for groups."
Has it always been that way?
"No, I don't think so. I think groups and live venues and things have fallen into a real lull. Like there's not many places in Melbourne comparatively and it's just not a really exciting time I don't think."
Of course in the Sports' heyday it would have been different...
"Yeah, 'cos like then you'd play five-nights-a-week or something like that... all groups did that. These days you couldn't. Like I'm gonna do some dates - I'm gonna play for about three weeks, but I'm only playing about two major pub shows and the rest'll be like colleges and things that aren't really advertised. You just can't play as much now. Even a big group can really only do one show in the central region and then they have to go out into the suburbs and just sort of disappear. You can't do more than that, because people won't go to it."
The music industry can be a really closely knit family, but sometimes it can also become very insular and tedious. Do you have a lot of friends outside the industry?
"Oh yeah, yeah. And lots of them never even come and see me play!" (Laughs)
That wouldn't worry you though, would it?
"Nah, I prefer 'em not to come, 'cos I'm too embarrassed. But yeah, I've got a real mixture of friends. I've got a few friends who've played with me and people who were in the Black Sorrows and stuff. It's like I get on really well with Andrew (Pendlebury) and we've been friends for a long time, but we never go out anywhere or anything. We get on well together - particularly on a musical level - but it's not like we're best buddies or anything like that. We really like each other, but we don't hang 'round together... we've got really quite different tastes about different other things. Most of the people I hang around with aren't actually in the music business, but they all quite like music... not always mine though!" (Laughs)
Where's (your son) Curtis today?
"Oh he's gone up the country with my girlfriend to stay with her mother... they're coming back today."
Well I know that you stay home and mind Curtis whilst your girlfriend works a day gig, do you think fathers make good mothers?
"Oh, right! Oh, I don't sort of think about it, I just grit my teeth and do it. It's alright now that he's out of nappies and stuff, it's good."
What has he taught you?
(Long pause) "Ummm... ahhh..."
"Oh yeah, yeah I suppose that's the one thing I can think of 'cos I guess you just don't think about yourself as much or something."
What does he do that's funny?
"If I tell him to shut up, or tell him to do something, he turns around and says 'gimme a break!' and he walks around the house singing 'I'M BAD, I'M BAD!' " (Laughs)
Does he sing any of your songs?
"Yeah, he does! He does! He sings one of the songs off the record, but he loves that Michael Jackson song and he loves the Jackson video too. The two songs he's been walking around singing all year are 'I'm Bad' and 'La Bamba'. He really likes them both.
What advice would you give a couple about to become parents?
"What! You're not about to become a parent are you?" (Laughs)
"Ohhh... just to get a lot of rest and go out and enjoy yourself while you can before you have the baby. Do everything that you've always wanted to do. Go and have as much fun as you humanly, possibly can, beforehand."
The battle of a man fighting the bottle seems to be a recurrent theme throughout 'Lovetown'...
"Ah... yeah... (very pregnant pause)... I like a drink. I don't drink that much, just ah... (another long pause)... I don't know what to say about it! (laughs) It's relaxing!"
A lot of people consider drinking to be one of the side-effects of the perceived "Rock and Roll Lifestyle"...
"It kind of is, 'cos you're hanging around hotels and you have to do so much hanging 'round that you can't help but have a drink."
I guess it could also be an escape, in the same way that writing a song might be an escape...
"Yeah... well yeah, of course, yeah. I mean if you have to go to some Godforsaken place and it's a disaster, you have a drink and try to forget about it. Yeah, I can see that. Like at the end of the Sports everyone was getting really tired and I used to drink a lot then and I was glad that it ended in a way, because of that. That's one reason why I hate touring all the time, because you tend to drink a lot on tour. Fortunately I'm a drinker. I've got a drink mentality, rather than a drug mentality. I don't take drugs because I've got more of a drinking, sort of quipster type personality and I don't get morbid when I drink, so that's good too. I'm not an inward-looking sort of guy when I drink - I drink to relax.
"But it's only joking - it's only half serious... I'm not a lush or anything. I like drinking wine too. I don't like drinking beer - I've never been a beer drinker and I never drink spirits 'cos they make you feel sick and you get such a bad hangover."
Can writing a song when you're depressed make you feel better?
"Yeah, yeah definitely, any sort of song. It depends on if I can think of something to write. If some little thing works or comes together, it cheers me up - even if I just do it on the four track (mini home-studio - Ed) and I know it works, I'm quite happy - in some ways when I've done that I don't even have to take it any further. I just get a real kick out of it. So I think that's quite good. Having had a really topsy-turvy career - an up and down sorta thing - has been good for me in a way, in that if, by some miracle, one of the things did work and became incredibly popular, it wouldn't throw me. Because I think at least I've come out of all that with a reasonable set of values about music. Like when I'm doing music now, I'm doing it because I'm interested in the music side of it. That's why I don't mind doing this smaller scale record, because I just thought I'd do it because I want to do it - I want to have a record - a document - of these songs, because I like the songs."
Do you get recognised in the street Stephen?
"Oh yeah. Actually lately - there might be a Sports revival or something - 'cos I've had a lot of people yell out 'Sports' at me from their automobiles or walking along. They act like I just finished in the Sports. It doesn't annoy me though."
I assume that you ruled out the possibility of a Sports' reunion years ago...
"I'm a completely different person now. I like some of the old Sports songs, you know, sometimes I hear songs on the radio and hum along and think 'oh yeah, that's ok'.
"But about the other thing, it's funny when people recognise me in the street and they say things like 'have you put out another record since Gymnasium?' And at the same time lots of people say really good things too, about my recent stuff. It sort of works out about 50/50: some people say they like the record but others actually mention particular songs and they've actually listened to it! And it's gratifying when that happens, because they mean it."
Do you ride your bike everywhere?
"Yeah, I never drive - I never got around to getting a licence. I used to drive a car around paddocks and stuff when I was 15, but people who have seen me ride my bike say it's fortunate I don't drive a car. I just kind of drift into my own little world and just forget where I am and I think I'd be pretty dangerous in a car!"