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INTERVIEW – Richie Lewis, Tumbleweed – September, 2015

| 16 September 2015 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Richie Lewis, Tumbleweed – September, 2015
By Shane Pinnegar

Wollongong’s finest purveyors of tripped out psych rock, Tumbleweed, make their way through space around Australia this month, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of their revered Galactaphonic album, now released with a bonus disc of rarities and re-labelled SuperGalactaphonic. SHANE PINNEGAR takes a trip through history with frontman Richie Lewis.
FRIDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER – Tumbleweed + Datura4 + Secret Buttons
Rosemount Hotel, North Perth

SATURDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER – Tumbleweed + Batpiss + The Dunes
Fowlers Live, Adelaide

SATURDAY 26TH SEPTEMBER – Tumbleweed + The Unheard + The Pinheads + Kaleidoscope + The Dark Clouds
Towradgi Beach Hotel, Towradgi

In the mid-nineties Triple J ruled the indie airwaves and Tumbleweed’s psyched-out, turbocharged garagey hard rock was on high rotation, with singles Sundial (Mary Jane), Daddy Long Legs and Gyroscope all shaking heads across the country. Galactaphonic, the band’s third album, dropped with lead single Hang Around, and they put in many miles touring the album from coast to coast.

“In some ways it seems like yesterday,” Lewis, who these days is a video producer (“I come from a history of television production, but these days I’m working for Wollongong University, creating video resources”), reminisces. “But in other ways it seems like there has been a lot of water under the bridge but… 20 years, shit yeah. I remember in the ‘90s when Sgt. Pepper [by The Beatles] was 20 years old and I thought, ‘wow – that’s a record that my Mum and Dad used to listen to, it’s like an olden-days record for the oldies!’ So, instead of being there, you could say, ‘wow, the ‘90s is like my ‘60s or ‘70s.’ That is kind of bizarre.

Tumbleweed 04

“That is the great thing about music. When playing music, everything is sort of timeless. It just disappears and you just get up on stage. I don’t feel any different when I am up on stage doing our thing as I did when I was 21 years old. There is that weird space-time continuum shift. It’s like the flux capacitor is there and you sort of think 20 years has passed now. There’s no way that has happened because I still feel exactly the same.

“There are other moments where you listen back to it nostalgic wise,” he continues, “and you go, ‘ah, I remember those days.’ That’s weird that memory is like that. There’s also that sort of thing, like, I can get metaphysical about it and go, ‘this whole time happened within a single moment and it is spaced out and it is all in there.’

“20 years has passed and we are [reissuing the album]. It is a big milestone. We are still together and we are still playing and rolling on. We are still friends. Not many people can say that they have enjoyed that [much] time as a band. With the ups and downs [of the band], [having] broken up and gotten back together and worked through all of our shit – we sort of understand each other and actually enjoy what we are doing now.

“You get these things about growing older and wiser or whatever but it is more of an acceptance. An acceptance of what happened and acceptance that you are not in control of everything. You have to move and flow with things. We are looking forward to getting out [on the road] because we love Galactaphonic. We didn’t really listen to it very much in the past 20 years but now after sort of having the idea to do this, we have been listening to it a lot and doing our homework and practicing a bit. Getting songs up to scratch.
“One thing that we thought is, ‘geez, what a great record.’ We forgot how good it was. It is short, sweet and it is like punchy and it has all this imagery. There are a lot of songs on the record that we never did live for some reason or other and now it is like, ‘why didn’t we do that?’ You look back at it and you go, ‘that song didn’t really seem to appeal to me back then but now it does.’

“These songs we had been doing all the time and you sort of get used to them but listening to them in context of the album, they seem fresh again. Everything seems fresh but we are looking forward to this tour because it is that direct thing. It is a focused show. It’s Galactaphonic from beginning to end and we have never done that before, so it feels new and it feels fresh.”

The first thing 100% ROCK noticed when revisiting Galactaphonic after a few years not hearing it, was how well it holds up after twenty years. It really is a really solid album

“Yeah, I like it,” Lewis agrees. “There is a lot of distortion on it. At the time, it was a real reaction to our first album, [which was] kind of over-produced by an American producer and I think when it came time to [do] Galactaphonic, we wanted to do something that sort of resembled our lifestyle a little bit more and represented what we were really like. We wanted to make a rock record and wanted to do it with Paul McKercher because he did [their single] Daddy Long Legs and he sort of understood our sound and whatever. He’d already achieved that before, so after a lot of trial and error, we got in there and punched it out pretty much straight away in two weeks.

“It managed to capture this energy of the time that was really probably the peak of our career. We were so busy and trying to find new direction as well because we had had a really productive first three years. That release of that difficult second album [was when] it all sort of came together for us.

“I suppose at the end of the Galactaphonic tour is when we sort of broke up with the original line-up for a while too, though,” Lewis reflects. “Things were really tense at the time. There was a lot of swirling energy which was a bit hard, a little confusing… just madness, crazy times – and so it has taken us twenty years to really have a look back at it. You tend to look at things through rose-coloured glasses I suppose and in hindsight, you’ve got the sound there and that record is sort of all the good stuff. It is the real positive memory [of that time] and it’s something that was just captured at the right time.”

Tumbleweed - Galactaphonic cover

It certainly sounds like the band were highly confident and knew what they wanted from the record. Did the band go into the studio really optimistic and heads down, like, ‘we know what we want to do here’?

“Absolutely!” affirms the singer. “We had done a lot of ground work and were at the stage where all we had to do was play it live in the studio and that is what we set out to do. Just get sounds, play it as live as possible. There was a little bit of over-dubbing here and there. Guitar leads and back-up vocals and stuff but other than that, the songs were all pretty much recorded at the same time, and it was a time where there was a lot of expectation.

“There was a lot of focus on us. We had done a lot of groundwork for the first album plus two EPs, gone overseas, toured consistently in Australia and built up quite a bit of a following and there was a lot of eyes on us. I can remember as soon as we rolled up the roller door to load our gear in, first thing Paul McKercher said was, ‘far out, we’re working on a sure thing. I’ve never worked on a sure thing before.’

“There was this expectation that it was going to be a huge record regardless of what we did. We were sort of in-between labels at the time in Australia so we actually paid for it ourselves, but there was this expectation that it was going to be a big, sort of grunge hit album – and all we wanted to do was make an Australian rock album that was us.

“It was a moment when we gained back control of our creative thing that we had started and we sort of grabbed the reins again and it was ours. It could have had a lot more commercial success if we probably had the American producer and gone down that road but we decided not to. We decided just to do our own thing and it was more about getting back control of our own personal creative outlet of our band. That’s what it was about.”

Crammed full of extras such as a Triple J Live At The Wireless performance, some more live tracks from the Brisbane Livid Festival, demos and more, some discovered on long-last cassette tapes. Lewis says the band wanted the reissue to tell a story.

“There was heaps of stuff. Steve O’Brien, our drummer, is an avid collector and he is really good at that. Basically, everything we do, he’s got. Everything that is recorded or every little sticker and stuff like that, he’s got in his garage somewhere in a box. When it came time for getting things together, he rummaged through many, many boxes and suitcases. He digitalised everything and we all had to listen to it and we chose what we thought was pretty good and we just kept on whittling away until we got down to what we got down to: about 35 songs, I think.

“We wanted a bit of a cross-section of live stuff,” continues Lewis. “There is live stuff from Live at the Wireless, Livid Festival in Bridgestone, which was a really important gig for us at the time. It was sort of like when everything came together for us. There are some demos, and we just wanted to show how some songs sort of like, I suppose, change, move, grow from their inception.

“There is a lot of stuff that didn’t end up on the album quite obviously – because it was shit – but what it does is it sort of shows the process, that there is a place where it starts and not everything comes out sounding fantastic [in first draft]. You have to work at it. I like to see that sort of metamorphosis of ideas. We wanted to get a little bit of that happening as well.

“We tried to get a nice cross-section of stuff – things that were unreleased as well as b-sides and covers as well. We just wanted to get a cross-section of everything from the time that really sort of helped to, I suppose, tell the story of Tumbleweed 1995 Galactaphonic, when all eyes were on us and when we were in the eye of the storm. That’s what it is : it was a really crazy time in [our] life. Really loving it. Kind of like riding the crest of a wave. Playing with all our favorite bands. Living our dream and thinking that it would last forever and believing a lot of the hype – but at the same time, we are from Wollongong and we’ve sort of got our feet on the ground and we’ll get knocked down if we get too big heads. It was a strange reality and I think it is really captured there on that release.”

Tumbleweed 03

Lewis effortlessly deflates any suggestion that getting the rights to release all this material might be difficult after twenty years.

“It was just a matter of asking, yeah… maybe Universal did some stuff behind the scenes, but now it seems to be all okay.”

Tumbleweed have enlisted long-time friend, and a protégé of founding bassist Jay Curley, Luke Armstrong to hold down the bottom end for this tour, after losing Jay last year to a sudden heart attack. That time was a shock to everyone, Lewis agrees.

“Yeah, it sure did [come as a shock]. We didn’t see that one coming. Yeah, totally out of the blue and well, what can you say about that?

“The thing is, we played this short weekend tour of Melbourne prior to that last summer and we did a really great show, and I walked back to the hotel with him. He was in fine spirits and it was a great opportunity… I’m so thankful for the time and for the opportunity I was given after 2009 to get the band back together, rekindle friendships and have those years since 2009 with him. It is funny how things work out but it sure came as a surprise. We dropped him off at the end of that tour and expected to be going out and doing more shows in a few more weeks and then it happened.

“Luke Armstrong, he has been playing bass … He came down and played the last batch of shows we did just after Jay died. We didn’t really want to face the whole prospect of making a replacement as such. Luke has been around jamming since he was a kid and he has always been in bands with Lenny and Jay’s younger brother, Nick Curley. Jay taught him some tricks when he was a young whippersnapper. He knows us fairly well and he is already a part of the family so he is the perfect candidate. He is a very solid bass player. Huge sound and all around top bloke, so it couldn’t be better.”

A member of the extended Tumbleweed family or not, I guess it must have still been hard to do that first rehearsal and to do that first show live with him.

“Yeah, of course,” Lewis admits. “I couldn’t think of anybody better to be there because he kind of takes the worry out of it being right. He is such a good player and such a fast learner and so solid. He is actually playing without any sort of fear of what it is going to sound like, [so that] was eliminated by having him there. Also, his personality and stuff. There is just no other person that could fill that hole.

“It was definitely weird. Being used to turning around and playing with the same bass player behind you for 20 years and you are used to it but Luke sounds… sometimes you just forget and you turn around and go, ‘wow – there’s Luke!’”

Tumbleweed 02

When the band released Sounds From The Other Side in 2013, Lewis was adamant that they didn’t just want to keep touring as a heritage act, they wanted to have some new songs out there. Is there still an urge to get back out there and make another album?

“Not really at this stage, no. We are going to wait and see I suppose,” he says. “There is an element of creative stimulation involved with this particular tour because it is something that we haven’t done before. We have never played Galactaphonic from beginning to end before so it is something different. We are really enjoying that process of getting in the jam room and working it out and also getting our toes back in the water a little bit too, post-Jay and trying to just sort of ease our way in.

“I think that this has been a good process to do that because it has been a way of remembering Jay through the songs. He is entwined in the bass line of every song on the album so it has been a really nice way of honouring his spirit and coming to terms with it and finding a positive road forward.

“I think, down the track, we’ll cross that bridge because it’s just a part of who we are. I don’t really want to continue on doing nostalgic things. This is a short burst of five shows around the country to support the release that is coming out. We are really, really looking forward to getting out there and playing it and seeing people but down the track, yeah, in order to stay a viable, creative unit, it is all about writing songs. There is no point in pretending it’s not, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Tumbleweed have a certain reputation, obviously, for being a very druggy band. A lot of their lyrics were very, well, Galactaphonic, to coin a term. There was also the ‘stoner rock’ label attached to them. Were Tumbleweed a big drugs band, using drugs a lot to enhance the creativity and the direction of the band?

“There was a time there where I suppose, yeah, we smoked a lot of marijuana,” admits Lewis. “I suppose the reputation was sort of blown out of proportion. There was a psychedelic vibe going on [musically]. At the end of the session of recording Galactaphonic, we took acid. On the last day, we had recorded it all, finished a day early and thought, ‘what do we do?’ So we thought, ‘we’ll take some acid and see what happens.’

“It was a good experience in the sense that nothing happened except for the recording of Interstellar Overdrive, which became our secret track on the album. That sort of happened at the end of the day. Having said that though, Paul never did. He locked up after work and we were just sort of in a different world when he locked up and that was the only song we got out of it, which I think sounds amazing and that was just all improvised on the spot. Certainly you can tell.

“It sort of worked in that sort of capacity, but I don’t know, you sort of go down avenues and it’s the kind of thing where you think you’ve got the greatest idea and then you listen to it the next day and you go, ‘that doesn’t work.’

“There was a period there where we sort of experimented with acid and we did smoke pot but that was the time, you know? It was an interesting time of discovery. A lot of discoveries were made then that influence the way I think about things so I’m not going to discount it but as far as being a druggy band, I don’t know.

“I’m interested in so much, I suppose,” he continues thoughtfully. “What could be, I suppose, the parameters of reality or perception of reality so a lot of the concepts that I explored, lyrically, might be sort of easy to discount them as drug references but they are not really. They are just me asking questions about the perception of reality. A lot of it are esoteric thoughts about the nature of reality and what is life and the thoughts that I have had ever since I was a kid.”

For every positive effect of mind altering chemicals, there are plenty of negative effects, as the likes of Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Guns n’ Roses have discovered the hard way.

“I think what it can do is, it could start off being a really great thing,” Lewis muses, “It can start off taking away any inhibitions or any rules that you might have and it can open up a whole avenue that you haven’t explored and then what happens is you start to rely on it. It stops being a help and it starts being a hindrance. It starts bogging you down and it is not a good thing but it is an interesting experiment for a little while, to try something different [and] think about things a different way. I think I’ve always been too square to go full on into drugs in a big way but I’m certainly interested in seeing how it could be used.

Tumbleweed 01

“I’ve always been a big fan of psychedelic [music] like The Beatles and their period where you can certainly see when they discovered marijuana around Revolver after they met Bob Dylan. Then you can sort of see when they started taking acid for the first time and started going down into what ends up becoming The White Album and Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour.

“It definitely changes the way you write, I suppose. Look at different drugs in society now, even with Ecstasy coming out and stuff that was really sort of lascivious. I suppose the Manchester scene and dance music and stuff like that, that sort of works with the alpha waves. That works with that generated in your brain and the beat and the pulse, it kind of works and certain drugs lend themselves to different sounds and feels of music just because they are better to listen to in that sort of way if you want something fast. If it is something more mellow, you can go down the more psychedelic scene. I like to know what drugs King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are on right now because I’m loving that stuff!”

An edited version of this story was first published in X-Press Magazine’s 9 September, 2015 issue.

Category: Interviews

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