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INTERVIEW – John ‘Swanee’ Swan, August 2014

| 10 September 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – John ‘Swanee’ Swan, August 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

John Swan has walked a crooked mile since arriving in Australia in 1961, aged 9, with his younger brothers Jimmy & Alan Barnes (Swan was the only sibling to keep their father’s surname when their mother remarried), rightfully earning a place up there amongst the pantheon of Australian rock legends.

John Swan 01

He followed brother Jimmy’s short tenure as Bon Scott’s replacement singer in Fraternity when the latter joined AC/DC, joined a late line-up of Blackfeather, by then rechristened Feather, and regularly got up for a blow with Jimmy’s band Cold Chisel but it was his successful solo career from 1978 through the late ‘80s that really made his name. He hit the charts over and again in his adopted country with his cover of If I Was A Carpenter, Lady What’s Your Name, Temporary Heartache and more.

In 1986 he teamed up with Mondo Rock bassist Paul Christie in a new incarnation of The Party Boys, alongside Status Quo bassist Alan Lancaster, Angels guitarist John Brewster and Kevin Borich, to record their top 20 self-titled album, which included the #1 hit single He’s Gonna Step On You Again and the Top Ten Hold Your Head Up.

There’s only been a couple of albums from Swan since the early nineties (Heart And Soul in ’97 and Have A Little Faith ten years later) until this year’s balltearing One Day At A Time, but he’s never stopped playing live (especially around his Adelaide home), and works tirelessly for charity and the underprivileged, especially sick children.

Swanee - One Day At A Time cover

Reviewing One Day At A Time, I declared it to be “a record out of time, a work of self-assurance by a rare talent who may be perceived by those who only listen to commercial radio (rather than keeping an ear to what’s actually exciting out there) as having ‘peaked’ in the 80s, but who is writing and singing right now as well or better than he’s ever done.” Take any of the eleven soulful rock n’ roll tracks off the record and drop them into an album from the ‘70s, ‘80’s, ‘90s or now, and they would fit perfectly.

“Well that’s a pretty good sort of thing,” he says with a little pride, “because I didn’t sit down to do anything [other than] to make a good album. I didn’t sit down to try and get hits or to try and be anything that I wasn’t right now, you know?

“I’m just trying to do a representation as to where I’m at right now and I think it’s the first album I’ve recorded that I like every track on and I’m still happy listening to it now. Usually after about a month of recording something that’s in the pile and I’m busy doing something else. I don’t mean that disrespectfully – I mean that this is a new thing for me!

“There’s a little bit of soul, a little bit of pop, little bit of rock in there,” Swan says, referring to the timelessness of the record. I like that… another person who does that is Diesel: he writes that type of tune where you go, ‘okay, I can dig that. I know exactly where it’s coming from.’ It’s just him not being anything else but Diesel, which isn’t a bad thing! I don’t mind comparing myself to him because he’s a freaking great artist and he’s a relative you know?

One standout on the record, Heart Run Dry, is practically a gospel song, a toe in the water of Swan’s long-held desire to explore the genre.

“Absolutely. One of the big things in my life I’ve always wanted to do,” he explains, “was to do like a gospel album but with people like Jim [Barnes], Jon Stevens, Diesel, Mahalia [Barnes] – a whole bunch of us. We’d pick our favourite track and we’d put it on the album and we’d do it and do a tour… with a big gospel choir, you know! I’ll get that [happening] at some stage before I leave this mortal coil. I really fancy that big time.

“I will actually do it. I will do it,” he says with great resolve, “It’s not something I want to do, it’s something I will do at some stage. When you get into actually sitting down and thinking, unless your head is in [the right place and focussed on it] and you’ve got other people to collaborate with on it, it’s hard for me because I’m not a strictly gospel person.

“I really love listening to it but I’ve got such diverse taste. I can listen to classical one day and I can be listening to heavy metal the next, you know? In my car, when people jump in they say, ‘what are you listening to?’ And I go well, you know, whatever. I’m not really fussed – as long as it’s played well, I really enjoy it.”

Close The Doors is another very touching track on the album, about a soldier returning home after serving away. Did Swan draw on his own experiences as a youth in the army for that one?

“I did, but I was too young [to have those sort of experiences],” he says. “I was only seventeen so it was pretty young. I did want to go overseas, because in those days you got a war service loan to be able to buy a house and I could never foresee the future I would have at seventeen.

“By seventeen I was an alcoholic and off the tracks so I joined the army to try and straighten myself up. Unfortunately, that didn’t work… they threw me out.”

John Swan 02

Swan readily admits that his hard living kept going for some years after that.

“Yeah, well I was 48 when I stopped. I’m 14 years sober now so it’s a long time,” he admits with voice full of the weight of too many regrets and experiences missed. “But, you know what, you’re a collective series of all your mistakes and your good parts. I couldn’t have done [so much, or] do the things I do now [if I hadn’t sobered up]. I do a lot of charity work. I work with palliative care. I go and play music to people and hold their hand when they’re ready to [pass on].

“I don’t find it hard because all you’re doing is making yourself available to do something that they can’t do with their family,” he explains, seemingly happier to be talking about what he can give to people, rather than the days when he lived more selfishly. “When I first went there, I sat and watched and the family is all there and as soon as the family leaves that person changes. They stop trying to be brave and be strong, and they break down.

“I go across and take their hand and say, ‘is there something I can do?’ All you can do is just sit and listen to them. They’re fucking worried about actually… they don’t want to die. Nobody wants to die! Having that little bit of, I guess it’s compassion, to be able to say, ‘well tell me about it. What are you worried about?’… it gets it off their chest. You notice they sort of calm down once they can verbalize it, it’s an incredibly powerful thing.

“I try to take all of this stuff and put it on my words. Rescue Me and Fallen Angel and stuff like that. Those are words that I take from those hospitals. I work in the hospitals three or four days a week and I just go and play music to them.

“Kids with brain injuries,” Swan continues without a hint of showboating, just a humble man articulating that he’s trying to help others. “They’re stuck in a hospital for four years to go to rehab. For all intents and purposes it’s just a place where they can put them and try to keep them occupied for four years while they get back on track. That’s freaking sad. Now, what I do, is I take other players out there, introduce them to it, and then they realise you play for those people and it’s the greatest gift you can do. It’s the best audience I’ve ever had because they really appreciate the fact that you’ve taken your time to come out there and play.

“They’re not looking at how good you are or what you’ve got to gain from it. It’s not something you do for anybody else. It just does something to the soul that you think that was great. I love this. It’s giving something of me away.”

Swan’s reputation for generosity with his time and talents is well known, and he is talked about in glowing terms as one of the nicest guys in the Australian music industry…

“Don’t believe it, son! My wife calls me the smiling assassin,” he laughs heartily. “I’m a good friend but I’m a terrible enemy. I’ve been around too long to be messed about by fools. I just sort of I try to be as true to myself as I can. That’s why the album has the title One Day At A Time. I just take everything one day at a time.

“I don’t go into the future worrying about ‘what if I had this,’ or ‘what if I was that,’ and ‘wouldn’t it be nice to be on this tour,’ ‘it would be nice to be on that,’… I am what I am today. That’s the best that I can do and I really try to keep that. Staying in the moment is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because I do suffer from anxiety and panic attacks which makes it really hard for a singer.

“The way I get through it is, I go out and do things that help other people. It’s just a thing that happens when you give to people. I’m an Ambassador for the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Ovarian Cancer South Australia, Orana [Working with Disabled people, South Australia], so I really put my time in and I put my time where my mouth is instead of just giving it lip service.

“I take other people – Diesel and guys like Jon Stevens, they just come in. They get off the plane, we pick them up in a car., take them out there with an acoustic guitar. We sit there and play and that night, Diesel or Ross Wilson or whoever it is, they’ve got those kids out there, on a bus to the sound check playing songs and those kids are the audience.

“They get a concert for nothing and those guys are just so generous with their time,” Swan says with obvious admiration. “Please don’t think that I’m [anything other than] just the catalyst to try to bring it together.”

Living one days at a time is certainly an admirable goal in terms of not wanting what one does not have, and it’s also informed by Swans experience getting sober.

“Yeah, it’s a 12 step program concept, that ‘one day at a time,’” he explains. “Alcoholics Anonymous is the original 12 step program. If you hear things in there that sound like that, that’s because I’ve gotten so close to it… it saved my sorry arse. I say that on the album – it really did save my arse.

“I was dying. There’s no ifs, buts or maybes. I was dying… and I was prepared to die. I couldn’t give up the drink but when I went to AA I heard other people talking who were the same as me. They were all desperate. You don’t go to AA like a yacht club and get a t-shirt… it’s the last resort.

“In amongst that, I found so many people with character and strength,” he admits, as usual talking up others. “I didn’t find the homeless, the bums and all that in there, but I found judges and coppers and doctors and musicians. Christ… there’s so many but they just don’t say it. I’ve got no shame, I just say it straight out: This is what I am. I’m an alcoholic and I’m sober. I’m doing the best I can today.”

John Swan 03

Getting back to the album, Swan didn’t just sing, but also played guitar and drums in the studio.

“Yeah, I play piano and bass too, but I don’t play [them] on the album,” he explains. “The guitar player I’ve got there, James Muller, he’s number 4 in the world as a jazz player. I’m finding out more and more about him. He teaches in Sydney, and [then] he flies out and does David Letterman and he’s got an Aria for his guitar playing!

“I’d never heard of him and he walks up to the studio when I’m recording and I said ‘nice to meet you.’ I hated him already because he was tall, good looking, young, you know, everything I’m not,” Swan laughs. “Here’s this wee Scotsman trying to give him shit! Anyway, he sort of just said, ‘let me hear the track,’ and I played him the track. He just sort of started warming up and getting his act together and I gave the piano player a kick and I said, ‘let’s record everything this boy does, he’s brilliant!’

“It was like the first or second take, [and we] were all done. It was nothing [to him]. He flies by the seat of his pants. I said to him later on, ‘could you redo that solo for me for a film clip?’ and he said, ‘yeah, no problems,” and he starts playing over the top of it note for note. Guys like Tommy [Emmanuel] have got that, that recall where you know exactly what you played, where you played it, how the vibrato was, how you hung onto it. Hammer on, pull ups, whatever it is. He’s got the business. That’s the type of musicians those guys are.

“The bass player [on One Day At A Time] is Damien Spears Scott who is in Nashville and Memphis and all of that all the time,” continues Swan. “He’s one of those Australian guys who spends a lot of his time over there. Incredible musician, great piano player. They’re all great – now they’re going to be my live band and I’m very proud to say that because it’s nearly impossible to get them.

We haven’t seen Swan in Perth for many years apart from an isolated gig a couple of years back with Graham & Donna Greene, a fact Swan hates but is smart enough to know it’s neither cheap nor easy to make it all the way here on a whim.

“[Those] few years I was really sick, don’t forget. I was actually, I meant what I said when I was dying: I was very, very close to the end of it. [But] the reality is it’s so far to go… In the old days, I used to go over all the time and play. Now if we could get across there and play in the pubs like [we used to], unfortunately [that scene] is not supporting its local acts the way it should. It’s so far away that you think [Perth crowds would] be getting behind its local acts, but the scene is dying slowly.

“I say that with great respect,” he says, his voiced obviously pained by the sad state of live rock music not only in Perth but around the country, “but things like The Voice… you know? [These kids] get a 10 week apprenticeship and they’ve got a number one album, number one single, and they’re on a tour that’s just sponsored by Channel 9.

“Every radio station has got them in the charts so there’s no room for anything else. You can’t nurture a young band. I try to mentor as many young bands as I can. I get them in and say, ‘okay, let’s get you to do this. Let’s get you to do some gigs.’ I work on their stage presence, get their guitar player some decent chops, send them to a good teacher and just try to mentor them more than anything else.

“You get [a band] to a certain level,” Swan says, laying the bare bones truth of the Australian music industry open for all to see, “and there’s no room for them at the record companies because they’re [signing] someone that’s really freaking good looking. What’s that got to do with talent? I call them the disposable generation because next year, it’ll be hard to remember what they looked like, and there’s so many of those kids that have got so much talent but they’re not being nurtured. They also fall by the wayside.

“I see it in AA and NA [Narcotics anonymous] where these kids turn up with bad problems because of rejection. They’re not used to it, they haven’t done their homework, their apprenticeship and gone around all the traps. You think about Perth bands: they go all the way up from the bottom to the top [Albany] to Broome, Geraldton, all of that. That’s what we do when we go to Perth. You don’t get that when you’re doing The Voice and you’re in a radio station the next morning. The top radio station in the country has got you sitting in there, waiting with bated breath for you to go to Channel 9. I say, ‘okay, that’s all very good, but what about the future for them?’ There’s no fucking future. They’re just chewed up and spat out.

“It’s so sad because there’s a real lot of talent there. Klarisse [De Guzman, from The Voice Philippines], that young girl, I try and just go onto her Facebook every now and then and give her a big smile and a kiss and a cuddle because she’s a talent. If she had been grabbed by a record company from the old days when they had an A&R person, you would have gotten an artist who would have been a Renee Geyer or somebody like that.

“[Geyer] was Australia’s Janis Joplin for all intents and purposes. [De Guzman] would have, eventually, gone into her own and brought that influence into her song writing and singing as opposed to just doing a Janis Joplin cover…” Swan catches himself abruptly. “I’m sorry, I’m really passionate about this shit, you know.”

Obviously, but for rock n’ roll fans it is something to get very passionate about. The state of the music industry at the moment is ridiculous – ruinous, even.

“I really want… I’m [from the] older generation,” Swan says, “But I really do care about what happens to the music scene here. We used to have a great music scene because when you roll up and play for an Australian audience, they give you shit if you’re rubbish. If you’re not good, they let you know. If you are good, they also let you know and they’re as loyal as the day is long, but first of all you have to get before them. Being in Perth it’s really hard to get across there because number one, you’ve got to pay for all your band, all your gear and everything else if you want to take a show across.

“You’ve got people over there who I just love seeing – The Greenes, John Meyer – these people are wonderful players. John used to play with me, he was just a beautiful guitar player. They’re all from Perth. All of these people, but yet they struggle getting gigs. They can’t come across here because it’s the same thing. It costs them a fucking fortune to travel over to here so we’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

John Swan 04

Since interviewing John, he’s been announced to perform on the bill of the Evening On The Green’s Classic Hits All Day concert at Perth’s Kings Park & Botanic Garden on Saturday November 8, alongside other acts including John Paul Young, Wendy Matthews, Paul Gray (Wa Wa Nee), Mark Gable (The Choirboys), Moving pictures, 1927, Pseudo Echo, Rose Tattoo, Gangajang, The Machinations and Mi-Sex!

Swanee released a single in 2013 called Legends Of The Southern Land, a collaborative effort with John St Peeters, Marty Rhone, Ray Burgess and Tommy Emmanuel, and it’s a cracking number with a great, rousing lyric… which was resolutely ignored by the media and radio. It’s a really sad state of affairs.

“Because we’re not pretty looking young kids that they can exploit over a very short period of time!” Swan says with no little disgust, before digressing somewhat. “I’m saying that the future of it is going to be the internet radio, all of that sort of stuff. We get Americanised so quickly, even the freaking dances and everything they do. You turn up to a gig and it’s like an American club. You get young kids here, [trying to be] gangsters. What the fuck’s a gangster? You’re just a noisy kid turning up and doing what you do. They think there’s something different [in emulating them] because they’re cocky Americans. That’s not such a good road to travel on!”

Back on track, Swan says tackles the question of making more music with those old mates, St Peeters, Rhone, Burgess and Emmanuel.

“Oh, we will do,” he says, before reflecting again. “But seeing what [the industry] do with it… Legends Of The Southern Land, there are things that do happen in Australia that if you hang on long enough and you believe in what you’re doing, there’s always good people like yourself and a lot of other people. Guys like Steve Gordon [radio station 6PR DJ] in Perth who has been a friend for many years, they would do whatever they can but sometimes their hands are tied. If they get into a position where they can, they will [play] that stuff.

“I really believe that they will. It’s sort of in the hands of ‘them that can’. The ones that don’t are busy balancing the books and trying to make money from advertising. It’s very sad – I don’t mean to be negative, but…”

Unfortunately it is exactly as Swanee has laid out – the Australian live music scene is not looking healthy at all, because promoters, radio and record labels are only concerned about a quick buck, which only comes from flash in the pan pop music sold to kids, or from heritage acts touring on the promise of memories of glory days. There’s practically no-one being allowed a shot now who might evolve up to a position where they can replace the Jimmy Barneses and the John Swans and the Jon Stevenses. Who is 20 years old now who are going to be playing wineries or even big clubs in 30 or 40 years?

“They won’t get the opportunity to be playing in FIVE years let alone 20 years!” declares Swan. “This is my 50th year [playing music – Swans first paid gig was aged 14 as a drummer in the band Happiness, who also served as backing group for Lynne Randell] and I’m putting out another album. I’m working. At the moment I’m sitting here just going through some guitar stuff that I’m doing – new stuff.

“It’s my job. It’s what I do. It’s my passion. I practice. When I’m not teaching, I’m practicing. When I’m not doing this, or when I’m not recording, I’m practicing. That’s what it is. You’ve got to be that keen, that possessed by this stuff. Something that you have absolute passion for or you’re a part timer. If you’re a part timer, then there isn’t really a good future in this industry. It’s hard enough for those [of us] who are stalwarts have been around for 50 years are still finding it hard to get airplay. We can’t get fricking airplay!
“I’d give them money if I had it,” Swan says, highlighting the fact that even without payola, there’s always a way to get your music played if the pathway is lubricated with the almighty dollar, “but I just think that, you know, without being a real idiot, fuck them! Why should we have to pay them to play our stuff, you know? I’ll just keep throwing [music] at them. It’s money, unfortunately and politics now.”

Before our time runs out I ask John ‘Swanee’ Swan to reflect on his fifty years in the music business.

“I just got inducted into the Hall Of Fame [in South Australia], so I’m really proud of what I’m achieving. I’m so proud of this album – it’s a good, honest, solid album. It’s not something I’m trying to sell, like ‘oh buy my album.’ It’s fantastic, I like it. I think it’s good, and I really hope they enjoy it as much as what I did making it. That’s my message.

“[And] look, I’ve never been healthier. You must realise that since I started when I was 12 or 13 playing with Lynne Randell – [she] had a hit with Cherie Baby and I was the drummer, so I went from nowhere, nothing, one of those kids dreaming about it, and into a band that had a number one single and from that day on, I’ve always kept that same momentum up just chasing the dream down that road.

“Because I was playing with her, I got to meet other people and play with them who were already doing what I wanted to do. It’s sort of, you know, it’s probably as close to the dream as you can get. If there was a circus, I would have joined it but this was closer.

“Oh, [the rock n’ roll circus of the eighties] was great,” the singer chuckles. “It still is. When you get a chance to play in front of a good Aussie crowd. There’s nothing like getting a pub full of people who are half tanked and having a fricking great time. AC/DC, go to one of their concerts and you’re still going to see the remnants of that era. They still get up there and rock and roll. There’s still a few bands kicking arse.”

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