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| 12 March 2016 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 25: Jimmy Barnes performs live ahead of The Rolling Stones at Adelaide Oval on October 25, 2014 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

SHANE PINNEGAR has a chat to the undisputed king of Australian classic rock n’ roll frontmen Jimmy Barnes in advance of his show on Rottnest Island on Sunday, 13 March, and finds that instead of sliding slowly into retirement as many of his age do (he turns sixty in April), he is busier than ever.

Speaking down the line from Bangkok, where he performed for the Hands Across The Water Charity Fundraiser after a family holiday in Japan, Barnesy reveals he knows Rottnest well.

“Yeah, I have visited – I’ve never played there,” he says. “I’ve been there fishing and swimming and hanging out in trees, running around chasing quokkas and all that sort of stuff. It’s very beautiful. I haven’t played there, so I’m really looking forward to doing the show there… a few of my mates in bands have played it, said it’s fantastic. Great setting.”

Any artist with such a wealth of material and so many fan favourites under their belt is going to have a hard time picking a set list. Barnes seems to have a bit of a science to the process.

“Well you know, coming off the back of Cold Chisel[‘s tour], I look at what songs do I feel like playing, what songs – you know, a lot of the time I’ll be out there and people will talk to me after Cold Chisel shows and say, ‘you didn’t play Working Class Man’, and I go, ‘sorry, it’s not a Cold Chisel song.’

“[So] I look at the songs,” he explains, “there’s a bunch of songs that obviously people really love and they really want, whether it’s Working Class Man, Lay Down Your Guns, Driving Wheels, I’d Die To Be With You, I’m Still On Your Side, My Little Darling, all those ones. I pick the eyes out of the songs that I sort of feel if I didn’t do them, the audience would crucify me. People want to see them – they sort of select themselves.

“Then I look at the Chisel stuff, and I think, ‘oh you know, this band helped me get my start. I learned how to sing with this band. People know the connection with the band.’ It’s really good to put a couple of these songs in the set just so that it’s part of the journey. I throw in a few Chisel songs, and once again they sort of select themselves, whether it’s Flame Trees or Khe Sanh. I don’t do a lot of Chisel stuff, just the ones that people really, really want to hear. Then I just look at the rest of the catalogue and think, ‘okay, what could be good to put in the rest of this set?’

“Normally by that point it’s [only] one or two songs left. You know, what could be good to put in the set just to make it different or interesting or challenging or whatever, you know? You don’t want it to be too sort of 1 – 2 – 3 – the end, and everybody just knows what’s coming. It’s good to challenge people a bit and challenge the band, and challenge yourself a bit. But it’s essentially the greatest hits tour, and the songs choose themselves.”

Jimmy Barnes 02

Barnes is no stranger to challenging himself and his audience. Never content to settle on doing the same thing over and over ad infinitum, he has explored soul music over a handful of albums and tours, gone acoustic, and for his 2014 album 30-30 hindsight he reinterpreted many of his older hits as duets with fellow musos the likes of The Living End and Baby Animals, Steven Van Zandt, Joe Bonamassa, John Farnham and Tina Turner. It seems he is constantly looking for new ways to present himself and his music.

“Well, you know, it’s not boredom,” he says with a chuckle. “The thing is I know there are a lot of acts out there who get out, and they sort of begrudgingly play their hits and they rearrange them. I’ve went and seen Bob Dylan one night and I didn’t even know what song he was playing! It’s like, if I’m going to play the songs, I want them to sound as good and as like the record as possible. I don’t try to change them around too much. I don’t try and reinvent myself in that way as much.

“The soul music and the acoustic music, they’re parts of what makes up the rock show. [When] I was in Cold Chisel, we listened to mostly black music, really. We listened to some blues and some of that, but a lot of the stuff we were listening was Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Little Richard and stuff. When Cold Chisel makes a rock and roll record nowadays, we want to sound more like Little Richard than Foo Fighters. That’s nothing against the Foo Fighters, it’s just that’s sort of where we draw our influences from.

“Really, when I went into a soul record,” he affirms, “it appears to be a huge step to the side, but it’s not really that big of step for me, and I find that well it’s not that big of step for the audience. They connect with it, and I think they have the same sort of roots.”

Barnes plays Rottnest with former Noiseworks singer and old mate Jon Stevens in support, and fans can expect them to get up and have a bash together during the show.

“Yeah, Jon and I are good ole mates,” he says, “I think there’s a good chance of that: we do every time we get together. I love singing with John, he’s fantastic.”

Soul shows, acoustic shows, solo rock shows, Cold Chisel shows: does Jimmy Barnes approach each different style of gig with a different mindset to get his vocals in the right place?

“Well it’s all different,” he says. “The funny thing is, I sort of sing the way I sing. When I sing a ballad, it’s not really that soft – it’s still pretty intense. The same with the soul stuff. I love soul singers like Wilson and Otis who were really intense anyway. I don’t have to adapt myself vocally to fit in with it. If anything, what I do is adapt the music around it. I get my band to adapt and all that. Then I layer myself into it. I guess if anything it’s just about pacing. I’ll come off sometimes [thinking] I’ve got to do a [long] show and I’ll just think, ‘okay, just back off a bit,’ as far as in the power and tempo, you know, but it’s not really changing my voice, it’s just about how you assault the audience, you know?

“With my rock shows, it tends to be like, ‘get out there and smash them in the face.’ Well, that doesn’t work all the time especially if you’re doing acoustic songs, or songs with an orchestra or something. You sort of adjust it, but I don’t really change the way I sing.”

It’s time to address the elephant in the room: Barnes is lauded by many as the pre-eminent modern Aussie Rock Legend. Not bad for a Glaswegian who married a nice Thai girl! The Barnes family totally encapsulates Australian multiculturalism, right there.

“Well, it’s perfect,” he laughs with gusto. “You know I’m an immigrant. In this day and age, with immigration the way it is – it’s such an issue, the immigrants and the refugees being treated that badly – I sort of have a soft spot for this [subject]. So it’s an issue that’s really important, and I think that people, when they look at myself and John Farnham, and – you know, most of the bands that we know, whether it’s The Easybeats or whoever, we all came from immigrant backgrounds.

“This country’s made up of immigrants,” he continues. “I think we just have to really sort of, be a lot more sympathetic and a lot more empathetic with people, and generally just treat people better. I don’t think we’re treating people particularly well. I know it’s a huge, complicated problem, but there’s got to be a better way of doing it than sticking people on an island somewhere.”

Jimmy with wife Jane

Jimmy with wife Jane

After insisting that the Reclaim Australia bigots stop using his music at their rallies last year, Barnes was dragged into the immigration debate when a young lady from an SBS reality TV show called him a “disgrace to Australia,” which seemed, from where we sat, like it must have been hard for him to take in any other way than a huge compliment, considering what she was trying to say.

“Oh yeah, absolutely!” he concurs. “I mean, when I put two cents in, I simply said, ‘don’t use my songs.’ I think that the debate is healthy, and it’s always going to be people having two different opinions. I think that there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that when you try and force those opinions on other people, and to the point of having no respect for them, then that’s where it doesn’t work. I think just the fact that people are talking about it now, it will change, and it will change for the better. I think there’s people out there who are really, really stupid about it, and there’s people out there who are against integration with immigration, and they have good points too. It’s a big, complex, deep argument that this country has to have, and we have to sort of talk it out soul to soul, and think about it from a heart point of view, not just sort of shouting and mouthing off the top of their heads.”

In other news 2014 was also the year Barnes and various family members were almost caught in terror bomb explosions in Bangkok, but it obviously hasn’t put him off travelling and touring.

“Yeah, I’m actually sitting in Bangkok now,” he says with a heavy tone of voice. “We were driving down the street right past where the bomb went off last night and were just saying how it was less than a year ago that [it happened]. It was a very scary thing and once again, it’s the modern times. I’ve been coming to Bangkok for 35 years, and I’ve always found the people beautiful and calm, and they’re great people. I never thought that I’d be in danger – my life in danger – in Bangkok, unless I did it myself.

“That’s just the nature of the way it is,” he continues after a wry laugh. “It can happen anywhere in the world now. I think you just have to keep your wits about you, and you can’t be scared. It happens at home. It happens anywhere: but you can’t be scared. You can’t be afraid to travel. You can’t be afraid to be open to people.”

Jimmy Barnes Cold Chisel

Barnes released the 30-30 Hindsight album in 2014, the Cold Chisel album The Perfect Crime last year, and toured as both a solo act and with Chisel. Does he envisage a time when he’ll slow down or – God forbid – retire?

“I don’t think so,” says Barnes. “In the last twelve months I’ve made two records. I’ve got a soul record that’s coming out this year, in July or something like that, which I made last year. I made the Cold Chisel record. I wrote seven or eight kid’s books that are going to get published. I’ve written a memoir that’s coming out. I’ve done three or four major tours. I don’t see it slowing down – I enjoy work, if the work is good. If I can pick it out and I’ll do interesting things and bring new things to the audience and broaden my horizons, then I’m going to be as busy as ever.”

Fuckin’ hell Barnesy – I’m busy. I make other people tired, with how busy I am. The man just made me tired, hearing all that.

“That’s good, mate, well, I like to be busy!” he laughs. “I’ve got a great family that supports me, and we’re all people who like to keep doing things, and keep doing new things, and trying new things. That’s the sort of family we are.”

It must help, being so busy, having members of his family out on the road with him as well.

“It does a lot,” he affirms. “This tour to Rotto I’m going to have two of my daughters and my wife on backing vocals, and I have my son playing drums. Mahalia, my daughter, is actually singing at King’s Park the same night with Tom Jones, so we’re going to be all over Western Australia!

“It’s great having them all out on the road. It’s great having them being such great and dedicated singers and performers. They don’t come out like pop stars – they don’t want to get out there and be in the limelite taking all the glory. They just like to sing, they like to work, and I think that’s a great job. Your job is to get out there, make people think it’s Saturday night every night of the week, you know, and get out and make people enjoy themselves. It’s a really good job. So happy my kids are doing it.”

It even looks like Barnes is passing that gift and love on to the grandkids as well. Looking at his official Facebook page anyone can see grandson Dylan playing on the drums.

“He likes to sing actually,” Barnes reveals. “We threw the headset [microphone] on for a laugh because he’s always just grabbing it and running around with it. But he likes to sing. He sits in my lap when I’m at the computer and we sing a lot of tracks and yeah, he’s got a nice little voice.”

Jimmy Barnes 03

Talking of that official Facebook page, Barnes has really embraced that social media side of things, sharing some lovely family events as well as work related things with his many fans and follower.

“I don’t get carried away with it,” he explains, “but I think it’s a good thing to let people sort of share what you’re doing. It’s certainly a great tool to use for marketing, for just getting information out there for people who care about the band. I think in doing that, you can actually give people little insights into what you’re doing, whether it’s something like a photo with the family, just to even hint at what’s coming up next, you know?

“I think people enjoy being that one step closer to you. I’m on the road all the time. I don’t get time to walk around and go and sit in cafes and talk to that many people, y’know? This is a sort of way of connecting with people, without having to be there all the time. I think social media is very important. I think it can be a real trap too. I don’t sit on it myself and… like, there’s been times where I’ve looked at some of the posts that people write on there. And really if I do that, I’d go crazy and I’d hunt them down, and I’d kill them…

“It’s good for people who’re just looking,” he continues, “enjoying watching what people are doing. I think that’s what it’s for.”

Category: Interviews

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