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INTERVIEW – Chris Bailey – The Saints, October 2012

| 12 November 2012 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar


The Saints burst out of Brisbane and onto the International punk scene in 1976 with the classic I’m Stranded (from the album of the same name), and that seminal line-up (Chris Bailey, Ed Kuepper, Ivor Hay and a revolving door policy of bassists) produced three must-have albums.

Since then, Chris Bailey has helmed the band through multiple line-ups, parallel with a solo career and regular collaborations with other artists.  His is an individual talent – a true wild spirit he steadfastly and resolutely marches to the beat of his own drum, often to the exclusion of fame or fortune.

Born in Kenya to Irish parents, the Bailey family came to Australia from Ireland when Chris was 7, settling in Brisbane, where he formed The Saints aged 15.  Highly intelligent and with a reputed “difficult” streak and a scathing tongue, he proved to be nothing less than forthcoming and genial over the course of our interview, despite my having been given some incorrect information about the album’s background…

Hi Chris, thanks for your time today, it’s much appreciated. The new album “Kings of the Sun”, I believe it’s a concept album, so what can you tell us about the storyline?

“Well Shane, I don’t want to depress you, but that’s news to me. The only concept I had in mind was that I was making an album. There isn’t a particular storyline, it’s not a rock opera or anything like that. What I hope it is, is a cohesive collection of tunes that have a certain ambiance, and to that end I feel happy with the end result and it’s a contrast to the last couple of Saints albums, I think.  The last couple of albums I made were a little bit kind of noisy, live rock, and so I wanted one that was a bit more studio, a bit more songwriter-y. For me that was the only kind of concept in recording.”

The press release I was reading this morning said the storyline was based around a young conscript coming back after a hundred year war, heading back home sort of thing.

[Amused] “Wow. I wish I had read that!”


Maybe before you wrote the songs that would have helped.


“Absolutely. One of the great things about being in a rock band is that sometimes you make up your own myths, but more often myths are made up about you and the things you do, and I often think that its actually more exciting to listen to other people’s interpretation of what you do, than your own.


“The ‘Being in a rock band’ experience is very camaraderie and exciting and very social, but the song writing process is actually very solitary. I tend to write on my own and it’s kind of dull and boring, but to me it’s the most exciting aspect of this whole stupid job. “


When the first Saints album came out many, many years ago, everyone lauded it as a punk masterpiece and all that sort of thing, but certainly, even by the 80’s you were focusing much more on your song writing and much more on delivering an atmosphere rather than any kind of vitriol or ranting or anything.


“Strangely enough I still find it a personal anomaly; I don’t know why I’m a rock and roll singer. Very early on I actually worked out that I love the process of waking up, walking into a room and there’s an empty page and you get to fill it up with stuff. So as an imagination sluice I suppose, that’s actually a very therapeutic process. I think I’ve said this many times; I doubt I would still be in showbiz if it wasn’t for song writing. It’s the thing that actually drives me. I’ve never wanted to be a girly pop star particularly, and it took me years and years, and I still haven’t totally relaxed about live performance and all that kind of public malarkey that goes with the job. I have to admit, I don’t really enjoy it that much, but just from time to time, writing songs is just what I do. My raison d’être, so to speak. “


Musical poetry…


“Well, I don’t want it to sound too pompous, because pomposity and rock and roll seem to be mutually exclusive, but yeah. There is a certain artisanal property that you can bring to rock and roll – and I don’t mind going down that road! “


Having listened through quickly today, the diversity of the new record is really impressive. There are elements of R&B, rock and pop, and even a little country twang in there; do you go into a project being wilfully diverse like that?


“Yeah, I mean, I’ve been making records all my adult life, but there is one part of me that is still a boyish enthusiast. I love music and my tastes are very eclectic so when I’m dreaming up tunes I often… in real life I can speak a few languages but not that many. I’d love to be fluent in thousands of languages, and I take that same attitude to music. I’ll never be a gay Canadian cowboy, but I quite like some of that kind of music. So it just mix and matches, just throw everything into the mix. I’ve been lucky, I’ve made records with Bolivians, with Irish people, with Australians, with English people, and that’s what I really enjoy, just mixing things up. “


And you and drummer Peter Wilkinson recently, was it the last year or so you spent on the road with members of the French band H-Burns, acting as their rhythm section?


“Absolument, monsieur.  Bailey Burns [the project was named BAILEY-BURNS, featuring Bailey and Wilkinson producing an album called “Stranger” with Renaud Brustlein and Antoine Pinnet of the band H-Burns], and the background story is that several years ago this guy opened up for The Saints during a French tour and our stage manager hails me to come and see him, because he thought he was brilliant. Then we got talking, we drove them in our bus and the idea came that we must record something one day. So after a little bit of rambling I got his people to talk to my people and we made an album, and instead of it being about two singer-song writers, which we thought was a bit dull, we thought we’d just invent this little band. Then I became the bass player and Pete was the drummer and we made a not bad album. Sadly it was never released in Australia, but it was a good project and it kept Peter and I very happy, and very well fed for a few years. The difference being in a French band is that all the guys are excellent cooks and we were eating really well!”


I mentioned earlier that it was obvious very early on, within a few albums by The Saints, that you certainly weren’t going to wallow in that one dimensional punk scene, and you developed as a song writer very quickly. Do you think your fan base has evolved to the point where they know that you’re an artist as such, and each release is likely to sound different from previous releases?


“I would hope so, and I imagine yes is probably the answer to that. But then once again, people approach pop music for a million different reasons, it’s as different as people are. I still occasionally get the punk thing, but you’ve got to remember that we didn’t invent that, that was just a label that was thrown at a young band from Queensland for fuck sake. Whilst we were pretty savvy about music and all that, we weren’t part of that marketing machine and certainly for me, I think it must be dreadful to be in a situation where you make the record and its get popular, and then you have to do that for the rest of your life. That must just be so tedious. I think I’d rather work in a pub actually. “


There are a lot of bands that do it though, a lot of big bands that do it.


“I’m aware of that, but for me personally that would be hell. As I was saying earlier, if I wasn’t a song writer I doubt I would be in a pop group. I mean I quite like singing, I quite like playing, but those things in itself I don’t need to make a career out of. I can sit in my bedroom and strum a guitar. I could go to the living room and play the piano, but the fact that I write songs seems to be the motivation to actually do this professionally. Apart from song writing I also still think it’s a privilege to be allowed to go into a posh studio and make records. That process is annoying, invigorating, almost as good as sex, or drinking fine wine. It’s a fabulous thing to go to the office and there’s a blank tape, or these days a hard disk, and you leave work at the end of the day and there’s a song. It’s quite a good feeling. “


And on that note then, I’ve listened to the record twice now and there are some beautiful melodies in there and there’s some great atmospheric sounds; does it shit you when a certain element of the crowd are always going to be screaming for I’m Stranded or Know Your Product?


“Well I can always choose not to listen. “


Yeah, true.


“I’m not an arrogant bastard, and I’m aware that there’s a certain responsibility that okay, people pay money to come and see you perform for that hour and a half, or that two hours, they kind of own you. I’m pretty lucky, I’ve never been that famous that my life is impinged because I have to live up to a certain image. No, it doesn’t bother me. I have a fair grasp of certain languages and if I can’t verbally sort out with someone why I will or will not play a certain song, then there is something wrong in the communication.”


Absolutely, and with so much material to choose from, I mean I think I counted something like 20 albums you’ve been involved with…


“Doing a set list is a fucking nightmare!”


Yeah, I would imagine! And is there that balance where you’re trying to please certain elements of the audience, but also please yourself as an artist?


“There is. That’s 100% accurate. That’s what you have to balance. And whilst I’ve often been accused of being a bit of an autocrat, I actually, when it comes down to set lists, I do in fact spend inordinately huge amounts of times swapping emails with my fellow workers going well, what shall we play? Shall we play this? Shall we play that? So we have an internal lottery. I can’t remember half the shit that I’ve written over the years and sometimes Pete will come up with a song that I wouldn’t even consider, and that’s a really good idea. So it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s great to have such a large catalogue, but it’s a bugger having to remember it. “


So what’s the difference between a Chris Bailey solo project, and a Saints project nowadays?


“From a live perspective, whenever I go out under my own name it’s usually that, it’s usually just me. I quite often do the Troubadour thing. For example, a couple of months ago I was in New York and I did a duet with Judy Collins at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, for a telly show that she was making. That wasn’t a Saints performance; it was just this bloke from a rock band pretending to be a folk singer. So I guess that’s the kind of difference. I mean, I’ve made no secret of the fact that to me The Saints and all the different incarnations is the central corner of what I do, but I’m also a slut, so I like to go off and do other things as well. I like to glorify it up, but I think the process is always the same. I’ve got limited talent and within that limited talent I try and be as experimental or, you know, try as much as is humanly possible. “


You’ve got to play to your strengths, Chris. I think you’ve been doing that very well for 35 years or whatever it is now.


“Well, practice does make perfect. “



“I’ve a long way to go down that road…”


[Laughs] How do you personally feel when people laud you as a legend, or a punk rock godfather, or things of that ilk?


“It goes back to the whole public recognition thing. I suppose it’s quite flattering, it can also be incredibly tedious. It’s really… I mean, to be perfectly honest when you wake up in the morning, it’s a pretty meaningless thing. When I woke up this morning the last thing in my mind was ‘Good morning, Chris, you’re a fucking legend’ it was more like ‘Oh God, where’s the teapot?’ So it’s… I mean, if I wanted to be a celebrity I’d find all that stuff really interesting, but my best mate’s a plumber. He doesn’t give a shit about rock and roll or show business, and I think that’s a better balance. You should never take your popularity too seriously. I think that’s a very depressing way to live life. “


Totally. You mentioned earlier that you don’t consider yourself an arrogant bastard but you are credited with a certain insouciant arrogance, and you mentioned the word autocracy; do you think you’re difficult to work with?


“Erm… no, I think I’m actually a piece of cake, but then I could be biased. I think in any process… I can’t articulate. In life [you can be] either a socialist or a democrat, I believe in that, but when it comes to work I guess I kind of think that the buck stops with someone and I don’t mind assuming that responsibility. So yeah, if something is a fuck up then it’s my responsibility. If something is great, okay, then I did that. You’d have to ask someone who works with me whether I’m impossible, but from my own inner perspective, I think I’m lovely. “


Very good answer indeed. I think we’re pretty close to our time actually, so I’m going to have to let you go. It’s been wonderful talking to you and good luck with the album and the tour. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing you at the Fly By Night in November.


Okay, don’t be shy, come back and share the rider.


Thank you, I’ll tell the promoter that you said that.


[Laughs] Thanks Shane that was a pleasure.



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