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INTERVIEW – Joe Camilleri, The Black Sorrows, September 2013

| 4 October 2013 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Joe Camilleri 01
Usually even the most minor rock stars possess an ego the size of Christmas and are more interested in reminding an interviewer of the glory that is them than they are in answering probing questions.

Not so Joe Camilleri, who despite a quite incredible career which started in the late Sixties, took hold in the mid 70’s with Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons, and blossomed through the 80’s and 90’s with chart toppers The Black Sorrows, as well as less well known acts Bakelite Radio and The Revelators, amongst others.

Camilleri, who emigrated to Australia in 1950, aged 2, with his Maltese parents and nine siblings, is disarmingly self-deprecating when I call his mobile on a windy Tasmanian September day, opening with an apology right off the bat.

“Sorry,” he starts, “I have to have you on speakerphone – my daughter’s dropped the phone in a glass of water. So I’m walking the streets of Tasmania and everyone can listen to our conversation! I’ll drum up a bit of business!”

Joe Camilleri 02

On the man dubbed The Maltese Falcon’s last trip to Perth he and The Falcons supported Elvis Costello at Kings Park.

“What did I do wrong?” he quips, though it’s hard to ascertain if he is fully or only half joking, so I reassure him quickly that it was a thoroughly enjoyable gig,

“It was a good gig, wasn’t it,” he says, relaxing into the conversation. “I thought they had us on too early though, I thought we could’ve been on a little later.

“It was fun playing with Elvis,” he continues, “’cos we go back, right back to the early days. He loves me… and I love to hate him!”

That insecurity returns later on, but for now I want to know if last years triple CD and book package Crooked Little Thoughts, was a reaction to today’s disposable consumption of music. The 72 page hard-cover book features lyrics, photos and 26 original paintings by artist Victor Rubin – one for each song on the album.

“Well, I love vinyl,” he says, “and I wanted to do something like that. But I couldn’t have done that with a vinyl record – it would have been far too heavy. But it’s something that you could look at like a record: you could read it, you could look at the paintings. You know, it’s just something a little more interesting.

Black Sorrows 01

“It’s beautiful. What I really liked about doing it was, it’s about art. Music’s an art form. Music and painters, I think we’re bedfellows. And when I saw [Rubin’s] work – I know how it is for me, there’s a song inside a song inside a song – and it’s certainly like that with [his] paintings.

“So it was just a labour of love, really. And I wanted people to get into the paintings. When I asked him to do the job, he just kind’ve [did them]… I didn’t sort of stand over him and say ‘Oh I don’t like that painting.’ I just figured, he’s going for whatever he’s going for, and that’s how he sees it – and other people might see exactly the same thing. So it was an interesting concept.”

One interview I read had Camilleri quoted as saying “he might not have liked a couple of my songs, and I might not necessarily have liked a couple of his paintings.”

“Well that’s right – there was plenty of those!” Camilleri jokes down the windy line from the doorway he has taken shelter in. “Nah I’m kidding, but there was a couple where I just didn’t get it. Why…? Why have you got that nude gal there? But I think that that’s okay – that’s what’s great about art, and that’s what’s great about music. You can only tell a joke once… most of the time, when you tell a joke for the second time, everybody knows it. Whereas with paintings and songs, you can sing the songs forever, I mean, I’ve got a few hits that, well you can always call them – what’s after antique?

“Ancient…? Fossils?” he continues with a laugh, “People just love it and they can keep coming back to it. The same goes for paintings.”

As if a triple album last year wasn’t enough, the band – currently made up of Camilleri on guitar and vocals, John MacCall on piano, Claude Carranza playing electric guitar, Mark Gray handling bass duties and Angus Burchall playing drums – have another double album just about finished at the time of speaking.

“It’s called Certified Blue,” explains Camilleri, “That’s got 22 songs – some of my favourite dead people’s songs, and 15 new songs from me. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done in 25 years! But I always say exactly the same thing – I should have a tape just of me saying that! Nah, I think this record is a pretty special record. You just keep going – you’ve gotta keep going. People say to me, ‘why are you making another record? One came out 15 months ago!’ I say, ‘Because I have to!’ I’ve just gotta do it. That’s what I do – the money I save on not smoking and not drinking, that’s what I spend it on.”

Camilleri is resigned to the new face of the record industry, even if he doesn’t like it so much.

“You have to be your own record shop nowadays, so my theory is, if you look me in the eye, I’m gonna pin you down and sell you a record – so don’t look at me as you walk past when you’re leaving the building!” he laughs. “But I think my job – if you call it a job – is that I only signed up to make [the music], I never signed up to sell it! But that’s part of the landscape now. I’m not blaming anything for anyone – there was a time when radio was king, there were lots of music shows, and lots of stuff, and now it’s kind of finite.

Joe Camilleri 03

“Who would have thought that you’d have to get up at 7 o’clock in the morning to do TV,” he questions, exasperatedly warming to his subject, “the ONLY TV you can get, playing in a rock band. So, all those things have changed, and you just have to go with it. I’m not a Facebook kinda guy. I still believe ‘build it and they will come’, I know it’s dumb, but… I sort of, in some ways just want to play music with a good band. I mean, I’d love to ring the bell – but it’s not about ringing the bell any more.

“There’s a certain amount of frustration – sometimes you feel you oughta be further up the food chain… but that’s okay,” he audibly shrugs down the line, “as long as there’s a place for me to play, you know. It doesn’t bother me if I play to 100 people, 10 people, or ten thousand people, they’re gonna get the same show, good or bad I come to play. And THAT’s what keeps me alive, just in my head – I’m not talking financially, that’s a different story.

“But I’ve just made another record, you know?” he says, brightening up instantly. “No-one’s helped me make it, no-one asked for it – I just made it. I payed for it, I’m working towards it, I’m excited by it!”

I remind Camilleri that he has gone on record in previous interviews saying he doesn’t like the way he sings.

“Well I seem to be enjoying it lately!” he exclaims, “but what I hear in my head is always much nicer than what comes out of my mouth. It’s more about wanting to be better than you are, I think that’s what I was trying to say. I envy anyone who can just open their mouth and it sounds good. Everything for me is a struggle, right. I always feel I’m on the edge of everything – it’s never easy, and if it is easy I’ll fuckin’ make it harder!

“That’s a woggy thing to say isn’t it!” he laughs, “I try not to be, but it seems that’s the way it’s gone. I don’t know what easy is…”

Has he always been insecure about his talent?

“Ummmm…” Camilleri ponders, “yeah, ‘cos I know there’s better saxophone players than me, there’s better guitar players than me, there’s better singers than me, there’s better songwriters than me. You know, why couldn’t I be just FUCKING GOOD at ONE thing?”

This seems incongruous considering the massive Australian chart success he has enjoyed with his different bands, not to mention the fact that he had a documentary about him come out last year, Joe Camilleri: Australia’s Maltese Falcon.

Startlingly, Camilleri says he hasn’t watched the movie, which covers his entire life and career.

“No, I can’t do that,” he says dismissively, before joking, ”maybe when I’ve got dementia and I can say ‘what was that?’”

What, so he can live vicariously through himself?

“Yeah – ‘who is that geezer?’ “, he laughs. “Because… look, I don’t think I give a good interview, ‘cos I just say what comes into my head, I don’t have anything worked out or planned for you. I just wanna be the best I can be, and the only time I can is when I’m playing live, not when I’m dissecting it or [whatever]

“The best time when I’m writing songs,” Camilleri expands, “is when I’m writing with Nic and we’re having a laugh and this is really FUN to do. There’s a thing about the process, and another thing about the aftermath, and I tend not to be interested [in] the aftermath. The looking back, I have a problem with that.

“I appreciate people’s good will,” he says of his fanbase, “I do appreciate that. But you know, I don’t walk around… I think in the early days, probably back in the Jo Jo Zep days – when I was, you know, a shithead – I probably would have believed some of the crap people were saying about me. I have some family who help me keep my feet on the floor – there’s plenty of people saying ‘You’re not that good, you know!’ There’s plenty of those people!”

Camilleri has almost always collaborated rather than just going completely solo. When I suggest this may be a way for him to hide behind a larger ensemble and defeat that insecurity, he his typically frank and self-deprecating.

“I think I’m a great band member – I didn’t even want to be a leader of a band, I just fell into that. I think Australians are really good at that – you talk about film people, and American filmmakers love working with Australian film crews because they do more than one thing. We tend to do that in a musical way too, so I do like being in a group, I do like being with people who I like to play with.

“It’s not really a gang mentality,” he insists, “don’t get me wrong. We don’t live in each others pockets, but there’s just something about being in a group – I’ve been in a group since the Sixties, that’s all I wanted to do. I never wanted to go solo – [that would be] kinda lonely, you look around… ‘gee the bass player’s late, where’s the drummer’ “, he laughs.

Joe Camilleri 04

He’s still the boss though, right? If only due to his ‘elder statesman’-ship, for want of a better word?

“Well, I’m just old, I’m not a statesman.” He says dismissively. “The way I see it, is that the unfortunate thing is musicians are like-minded, which is beautiful, but they’re also light-headed, and someone has to be there to crack the whip. So you just gotta pick it up – you gotta be there and do the gig.

“More so these days it’s briefcase rock a lot more, because the whole thing’s changed. People like old songs which I always find rather frustrating, whereas in the 70’s and 80’s people were interested in the new stuff. But I’m 65 now, so I’m no longer invisible… I don’t really know what else to say about that, except that it’s nice knowing I can still be in a rock band that comes to play and that’s all we do. Even though sometimes it costs us more money to do it – sometimes you pay for your pleasure, you know.”

Despite the role call of bands Camilleri has led over the past few decades, and the rotating line-ups of each, he insists he not that restless musically.

“Not really. I think sometimes it’s pretty hard to play under the same badge, sometimes you wanna do something a little bit different. I cast a pretty wide net. I guess my interest in jazz music and free jazz, and pop music and all these things – maybe I’m a bit left of centre to a lot of people these days but I always thought it was part and parcel of what you do. Sometimes you’re playing with people who… for instance in Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons, I didn’t realise how good they were until recently. I always liked playing in that band, but they didn’t wanna go anywhere, they just wanted to play R&B music, and the only reason they had a few hits was ‘cos I wrote a few songs that were a bit different, with the reggae stuff and so on.

“But they didn’t really want to go there, I just dragged them there, and you can only drag people for so long before you say ‘look, I’m happy for the hits and all that, but I have to cut myself loose ‘cos it’s not really what I signed up for, you know.’

“And so you move on… I think the thing with The Black Sorrows for me, was I learnt from The Falcon years, you have to be elastic and able to let go and say ‘we’ve got to get some new guys, get some blood, because this is not working any more.’ I think those days are gone – it’s no longer all for one and one for all – unless you’re a boy band…”

Camilleri laughs heartily, before continuing. “I obviously couldn’t do that – I was too ugly for that kind of nonsense! But there was a time with The Falcons that if one person was sick you couldn’t do the job. With The Sorrows, if one person was sick, you just get someone else, and you just brace yourself and the guy has to learn as much as he can in a day. The show must go on!

“So these days are different – things have changed, the way we work, the way we look at things. And I pretty much stay with people I like. With Bakelite Radio and The Revelators, the only reason I formed Bakelite Radio, was The Revelators took so long to make a decision that by the time their record came out, I had [another] record finished [with Bakelite Radio]!

“You know, sometimes you say ‘fuck it, I’ve had a gutfull, I’m doing something else.’ And you feel good – so you end up saying ‘I’m gonna do what I wanna do, because that’s what I wanna do.’

Black Sorrows - Crooked Little Thoughts CD

“When I finish making this record [Certified Blues], I’m gonna say to myself ‘I haven’t got the fucking faintest idea how I’m gonna release it’. Who’s gonna do it? How’re they gonna do it? All I know is, I’m really sad now ‘cos I’ve run out of things to do with myself for the next few weeks apart from playing. And then you have to go through the process of finding someone to release it, or you release it yourself, and you get excited all over again, and you get to talk to people like your good self.

“And you say to yourself, you realise that you have this incredible thirst for it. On many levels you’re not in the game but you feel like you’re still in the game because you’ve got something new to offer – and it’s new to you, whether someone else wants to listen to it or critique it or bag it. You just have to put up with it and brace yourself for the good and the bad, you know.”

Camilleri says it was listening to the radio that first ignited his passion for music.

“For me, the radio was king! I just remember hearing the radio and they’re playing Elvis. They’re playing Ray Charles – this is ’55-’56-’57-’58. They’re playing Bill Haley & The Comets. It was exciting! I was a kid, I got lost in it. I know more about the 40’s and early 50’s songs – Frank Sinatra and all those guys – because I would sing all those songs, I’d know all the words, you know. So when I hear one of those old stations, people are like ‘How come you know that fucking song?!’… I dunno – I just know it! And of course, it wasn’t just Elvis, it was the rock n’ roll movement – it was something else.”

The Black Sorrows play Perth this weekend –

Thursday 3rd October, Friends Restaurant
Friday 4th October, Ravenswood Hotel
Saturday 5th October, The Charles Hotel
Sunday 6th October, Newport Hotel

Camilleri says that a Black Sorrows gig nowadays is “60% hits and memories, and 40% of really trying to turn the 60% of hits and memories into one big night so it all sounds brand new!

“That’s how I like to think of it,” he continues passionately. “I come to play – and I’ll play you a new song, and there’ll be idiots who’re waiting [for the hits]… my gag is if you go on stage and someone says ‘Chained To The Wheel’, I say ‘ Yeah I remember my first beer’. Because sometimes it’s a little bit like that! I used to think hit songs are an albatross around your neck – because everybody’s waiting for it, and if you don’t do it like the record, they get pissed ‘cos they wanna sing [it] with you.

“The first time someone sang your song,” Camilleri continues, “it verified it, it put a stamp on it, you said ‘Fuck!’ y’know? ‘I’m good’ – but of course after a while you’ve got new things to play and you go ‘I’ve got this new song and it’s really good, if you just give it a chance’ – [and they say] ‘Fuck Off!!’.

“And that’s my challenge – that kind’ve makes it interesting for me… I’m a sweet guy, but I look a bit mean, you know, ‘cos I’m bald and I’m fat and I look like I’d eat your parents. So I try to stand them down and let them know there’s fun to be had here, and just have a really good time, and 98% of the time we all walk away and the fat lady’s sung!

“Look, its really one of the best bands I’ve had in a long time,” he says, sincerely and without a hint of his earlier insecurity, before heading back on his pre-gig stroll. “Thankyou for that – I’m gonna start walking up that hill!”


Category: Interviews

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