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INTERVIEW: Russell Morris, April 2014

| 9 April 2014 | 1 Reply

INTERVIEW: Russell Morris, April 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

After the runaway success of 2012’s Aussie blues record Sharkmouth, which he independently recorded and released after being knocked back by just about every record label in the country, Russell Morris is back with Van Diemen’s Land – Part 2 of his intended trilogy of purely Australian historical stories, and he’s loving it.

Russell Morris 01

“We’re having a lot of fun; its great fun, particularly playing these new songs too now,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s so funny, in the past, say forty years ago, if I played two new songs in a row, people would start yelling out, ‘Play Rachael. Play The Real Thing!’ We just did some gigs on the weekend and we played eleven songs from the blues, and not one person yelled out anything, it was fantastic. Then we played a couple of the old ones – it’s just great fun to be doing it.”

Whilst Van Diemen’s Land isn’t released until this Friday, 11th April 2014, Morris is already thinking ahead to the third part of the trilogy.

“I’ll probably give it another month,” he says, “because I’m going to be pretty well busy, and then I’ll start writing and probably be ready to record next year, around February, maybe. I’ve got to try and finish by end of February, beginning of March, next year.

“Musically I have [thought about the album’s direction]. I think I’ve just got to find some interesting stories that will suit the musical approach that I want to take. Yeah, I’m looking at where I’m going to go. It will be blues. I’m just trying to find the right songs and the right stories that will sit in that – it will be quite different to this album.”

The singer and guitarist had his earliest pop hits with The Real Thing, Rachel and Sweet, Sweet Love 1969 through 1971, and had his shares of ups and downs playing the popularity game of rock and roll ever since, but he’s most enjoying having had his most recent successes simply because they were achieved independently.

“Yeah, it is really nice. It’s a lovely feeling, particularly as a songwriter, and I know all my friends within the business are the same; you always want to explore new realms. It’s almost like you’re going into Africa as an explorer way back in the early 1800s, and you’re always hoping to find something that you can hang your hat on. Heaven knows, I’ve recorded for a long time and a lot of those things sunk without a trace, but you never give up because you just enjoy doing it; that’s what you do.

“To do something that people actually really, really like is a really lovely feeling. People say to me ‘oh, you must be feeling great, you must have wanted to speak about all those record companies that turned down,’ and the answer is no, because they’ve all been wonderful actually. All the record companies that did turn Sharkmouth down have contacted me and been really sincere, and said, ‘Listen, congratulations, we really are [happy for you]’… and I know they mean it; it’s been great.

“The amount of love that people have given me has been just sensational. I couldn’t complain.”

Financial success is always nice, but the way Morris tells it, the creative success means even more to him at this stage in a career that has stretched through six different decades.

“Well, the creative side is very, very fulfilling for me,” he asserts. “It’s something I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to do a blues and roots rhythm and blues album, and I wanted to go back to that, because I started with that when I was really young. That’s what we started playing because the Rolling Stones, that first album that they brought out, that transfixed me – I thought ‘this is unbelievable’ and I was just hooked on that. They were the songs we would play and we would listen to Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, and learn all those songs and play them hard.

“Then I moved into the pop genre, but I always thought, ‘gee, I’d like to go back and do a roots blues album,’ but I couldn’t work out how to do it. Then, I thought, well, I do know how to do it: I’m Australian, I’m not American and so, if I’m, going to do roots and blues, it’s going to be about my and our roots. I’m going to sing about our roots in Australia, and that’s how it came about.”

Most of the songs on Sharkmouth revolve around criminal characters who lived in the same inner city Melbourne suburbs as Morris’s Grandmother. She would tell him those stories, as well as talking about legendary boxer Les Darcy and champion racehorse Phar Lap. Those stories stayed with Morris all his life until they wound up in song on Sharkmouth.

Van Diemen’s Land seems to have even grander scope. It’s about stories and characters that revolved around pivotal events for the country – the Eureka Stockade. The sugar cane industry up in Queensland. Breaker Morant and The Boer War. The Sandakan forced march of WWII. The Bendigo gold rush of the 1850’s and 1860’s.

“Yes, I did reflect on that,” he explains. “Once I had Sharkmouth, I thought, gee, a fair bit of it is personal there, and I thought a fair bit of it is Melbourne and Sydney. There was also quite a bit of Sydney in there with the bridge, and also The Drifter. I thought, this is Australia; it’s not Melbourne and Sydney, it’s Australia. I really have to have a broader outline, if I’m going to sketch the history, because it’s only a thumbnail sketch on most of these things. I really need to look at all our history and things that went on.

“The rich tapestry of the stories in our history is just phenomenal; it’s just unbelievably fantastic. What I’ve learnt, is if I was talking to you 100 years ago, and I said, ‘Shane, wasn’t your grandfather a convict?’ you would have died. You would have gone, ‘No, no, no – no convicts in our family. No, no, we’re settlers,’ and you probably would have had your name changed anyway, because the stigma was horrendous and people were really, really, really embarrassed about it. We were always called Colonials by the British, and the settlers always looked down upon the convicts – it was really horrifying, so that’s why we never really celebrated our past for a long time because we were so used to burying things.

Russell Morris 02

“What was the eye opener for me,” he continues, “was I went to Tasmania with a guitar player from Melbourne, a guy called Tony Naylor, and he was a Taswegian, as was all of his ancestors. We’re in a bookshop, because I always trawl bookshops and look around. It was a historical one. Next thing he’s getting really excited. He said, ‘Look at this, look at this,’ and he had a really thick book and there was a whole page and he said, ‘That is my great, great, great, great grandmother. Look at this – she’s got a whole page here!’. He showed me the cover of the book and the book called, Whores, Strumpets And Bad Women Of Tasmania!’

“And that wouldn’t have happened fifty years earlier. But he was so delighted that he’d found some of his convict past there, which is great.”

Morris says there were a few songs left from the sessions which may come out on an Ep later in the year – including one about WA’s most infamous bushranger, Moondyne Joe.

“There was a Perth song that didn’t make it on there, which will go onto a bonus EP at some stage – it’s about Moondyne Joe. I was looking for really interesting stories and we kept five songs off, and that was one of the songs that didn’t go on that will come out later on in the year as probably a bonus EP or something.”
Keeping these stories, these characters, alive is a real gift and certainly taps into the age-old tradition of passing oral history down through generations in song and poem.

“Maybe, yeah. It wasn’t a plan,” says Morris. “It was almost like … if you look at the cover of Sharkmouth, that photograph of him on the front there, being arrested, I saw that in the paper and I swear, it almost spoke to me. I was writing the blues album at that stage, but I’d written three songs and one was called Red Hot Chilli Pepper or something like that, and I had all these funny bluesy type songs.

Russell Morris - Sharkmouth CD

“I looked at that photo and I thought ‘wow’, and I almost transported myself into it – I almost felt that I was there, and it was almost like it communicated to me and said, ‘Hey, tell people that I lived. Tell people about my life in a blues history. You’re Australian – write about Australia.’ It was almost like it spoke to me, and I thought ‘wow, that’s right – I really need to find out, and tell these people’s stories.’

“When I wrote the song about Sharkmouth, Thomas Archer, it was almost like he said, ‘Here’s a gift. Here’s a key, go and open up that door’, because it did, it opened up my mind. Inside that door was Squizzy Taylor, Les Darcy, Phar Lap – all those characters, and it just all gelled for me and I thought ‘I’ve got to tell their stories in a blues and roots sense, and in a way, teach younger people who may want to Google the stories and find out more about our history.’”

Morris doesn’t think the stories were in danger of being lost forever, though.

“I don’t think so. Sometimes history gets buried for a while then it’s dug up and people re-examine it and look it in a different light, and they celebrate it. I think, Australians, we’re doing that a lot these days. If you notice on TV there’s all those ads – follow your ancestry. How often do you see them? That is becoming a trend. People want to know about their past and these things that happened and I don’t think the power of this will be lost, because if I don’t tell their story, I’m sure someone else will tell their story. There will be books, there will be movies, and I think it’s being celebrated more and more and more every day.”

Van Diemen’s Land featured guest appearances from the likes of Ross Hanniford (Daddy Cool), Rob Hirst (Midnight Oil), Vika & Linda Bull (Black Sorrows), Scott Owen (The Living End), Phil Manning (Chain) and Rick Springfield. Having had such resounding success with Sharkmouth, people must have been knocking Morris’s door down asking to play on the follow-up.

Russell Morris - Van Diemen's Land cover

“Yeah, a few people,” Morris smiles. “But I kept it down to people that I thought would suit what I was doing. Rob Hirst has always been a good mate, and I love his drumming, but the problem is once he drummed on those two songs (Van Diemen’s Land and Eureka), it’s almost like you have to follow him. You have to go where Rob goes because he takes ownership of the song, and he’s quite phenomenal. The songs turned out probably a little bit heavier than they should’ve but because of Rob’s drumming and his aggressive approach. He’s just so powerful as a character, and he just took over those songs and took them in a different direction.

“That was great, and I loved working with Phil Manning from Chain again. Not many people know this but Chain were my original band that I used on every recording I did way back in the ‘60s. It was Barry Harvey, Barry Sullivan, and Phil Manning; they played on Sweet, Sweet Love and all those hits.

“So it was great. As Phil was sitting in the studio, he looked at me, he said, ‘Mate, we’ve come the full circle!’ Yeah, we just started to laugh, so it was great to have Phil, because I adore him. He’s a great talent and Rick Springfield, who’s been a great mate of mine for years, and he understood the genre because he loved Sharkmouth. He asked me, ‘Listen, is there any chance of me playing?’ and I said, ‘Rick, it’s blues’. He said, ‘Mate, give me a chance. I’ve been working with Dave Grohl – I love blues!” and he said, ‘I’m playing a fair bit of it’. So, he came up with a lovely solo.”

Springfield and Morris, along with Billy Thorpe, Brian Cadd, Darryl Cotton, Ray Burgess and more, were part of the Happy Hour Brigade group of Australian expats working in Los Angeles in the mid 70’s, and by all reports, a wild time was enjoyed by them all.

“That’s right, yeah,” confirms Morris. “It was a very wild time, very crazy days, yes, but all of them were all great individuals. Unfortunately two of them have passed away now; Billy and Darryl Cotton – that’s terrible. But the others are all right. They’re all pretty healthy and still going. Rick looks exactly like he bloody well did [back then]. I feel like hitting him in the head with a brick – it’s horrifying!

“He turned up for dinner,” he continues, “he came out here at Christmas and we had dinner. He walked in and I just went, ‘Oh, go away’. He looks incredible and I asked him if he had a painting under his house that was aging. There’s a story that Oscar Wilde wrote – The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

“He’s been talking about [touring Australia], so, [that] will be great, yeah.”

Reminisces over, it’s time for Morris to keep pushing the publicity train forwards, and get back to work, which includes a performance at The West Coast Blues & Roots Festival this Sunday, 13 April 2014 at Fremantle Park, Fremantle. Morris plays at midday on the main stage.


Category: Interviews

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