I became a Dave Graney listener in the 90’s. Wearing polyester, $2 shop bling and with an offbeat yet fabulously intelligent song writing style, he fit the scene of mis-fits who created their own niche between grunge and alternative rock. He gave the impression that anything goes and don’t take yourself too seriously. His eccentricity was welcomed with wide open arms, by a Triple J audience and then the general public after winning an ARIA for Best Australian Male Artist in 1996.
Although at first listen you hear catchy pop chord progressions, closer attention to the lyrics reveal layers of images and themes giving insight and humour to rock celebrity and other cultural challenges. By the 90’s Dave had been around in many bands for many years, experimenting with different styles, line ups and influences including The Moodists, The White Buffaloes and The Coral Snakes.
Recent 2017 album ‘Let’s Get Tight’ with partner and collaborator Clare Moore, Dave says began from ‘Starting (a) project of writing, recording and releasing a song every month, for a year or more.’ He describes the album as ‘the most varied collection of songs I’ve ever done’.
With a vast body of work to reference, my questions bounced all over the place, eager to get a glimpse into his song writing process.
I’ll begin with ‘Rock n Roll is Where I Hide’, as it was the first song of yours I heard, which I totally loved. Did that song begin with the guitar riff, and build from there?
We started The Soft N Sexy Sounds sessions in the same rehearsal room as the previous years album, ‘You Wanna Be There But You Don’t Wanna Travel’. That album had debuted in the top 10 in Victoria and top 30 national and we had made it after a lot of touring nationally (for the first time). It was a product of that touring and was a great rock n roll album, quite sprawling with 14 tracks and initially came with an extra 7 tracks we chucked down after the album sessions. We were bursting with music and I wrote pretty much all the material. Also, it was a new thing to be recording music for an audience that was waiting for it, and also a business that was interested.
During that touring through 1994, Clare Moore had started to buy exotic, weird vinyl in junk shops when we travelled. It was all so cheap and we got into Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny, Perrey and Kingsley and a lot of jazz and soundtrack stuff. At the time we felt a lot of kinship with the Beastie Boys and their instrumental album ‘The In Sound From Way Out’ was great (named after a Perrey and Kingsley album and the same cover design). We also loved ‘PULP’ and through our label Universal Music we used to get all these Island record comps with lots of trip hop on it. We loved ‘Tricky’ and ‘Portishead’ and ‘Tupac’ and a lot of the ‘Wu Tang’ solo stuff.
BUT we were a rock band in Australia. We played the Big Day Out in 93/94 and 95. 94 was a horrible rock BDO year with Primal Scream and the Cult. I hated Grunge rock in general but those acts were really lame too. We (Clare and I) started to think of making a more textured kind of recording, like the stuff we were listening to. We’d done two albums with Tony Cohen and wanted a change. Victor Van Vugt was an old friend who’d left Australia with our band The Moodists when he was 17 and stayed in Europe. He’d just done an amazing album with Beth Orton which we loved. He was back in Australia so we planned on doing it with him and did just that. We wanted to do a “studio” album with emphasis on production as distinct from just putting it down on tape which is what the previous two albums ‘Night of The Wolverine’ and ‘You Wanna Be There’ had been like.
We had all the songs for it and just went ahead. There was a lot of tension in the studio as the process kind of sidelined the band in some ways. We wanted to do songs and not represent a band.
At the last day of rehearsal I played everybody ‘Rock n Roll is Where I Hide’ and I had all the licks and the arrangements thought out and that was it.
When the album came to be released it had a song called ‘I’m Not Afraid To Be Heavy’ as the first single. It was given to Triple J who thought it was some sort of ironic joke, like ‘TISM’. At some point ‘Rock n Roll Is Where I Hide’ was chosen as a lead song. It had the most overt guitar on it. It was 6 minutes long and had no chorus, just a groove and a bluesy story half spoken and half sung. It was edited to 4 minutes and got thrashed on Triple J. I still play it at most shows. It has such power and the guitar lick is primal. It builds and surges. Sometimes I do it solo (after many years trying to do that) and it also gets powered up.
I wrote about where the lyric came from in my book ‘Workshy’. Like a lot of my songs it begins with one idea in one pace and then wanders and fly’s off.
I felt very out of place in the Triple J “youth music” world and grunge rock as well. I felt like a visitor from another scene. We had been playing music for years in the underworld and had that kind of perspective.
I also remembered sitting in a dressing room in Hamburg in a club on the Reeperbahn in 1984, sharing it with East Germany’s premier rock band, who looked like POISON. I wondered what would happen to a band of spies in a rock band who were on tour, perverting western culture, when their whole communist system fell over and they were stranded.
Over the years have you found your song writing process change, or do the same techniques still work?
I have no techniques, I have a voice and with that, a flow. That’s all you need. Some sort of trick to trick yourself into flaming on.
This year I got a guitar and put it into an open tuning and tried a slide and three songs fell out. I also occasionally eat a pot cookie and sit at a keyboard. I get into concentrating on a single chord. Another time I put a lot of compression on a drum track and it “pumped” really hard so I got Clare to drape a string of pearls on and off a cymbal while we recorded it so it had the drums “pumping” down below and then this strange, whispering, soft cymbal sound up high. No “hitting” just swishing around. I put some bass and synth down and had a track called ‘This Is The Deadest Place I’ve Ever Died In’.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I was a little kid and I ran around the back yard singing a song about a St Kilda footballer I loved called “Cowboy” Neale. It was called ‘Up High Goes the Cowboy” and was kind of like a Roger Miller tune.
You also have experience with other forms of writing, notably two novels and regular articles. Is writing in general something you have done from an early age?
No, something I started doing in the 90s, writing for magazines. For money. I wish I’d done two novels but there have been two memoirs and a book of lyrics. The latter was supposed to be all the chords and words but I got distracted. Most of my songs are quite literary inspired in their ways. I’m not usually a confessional type.
Electric guitar features in most of your songs in some form. Even on the new song ‘You’re all Wrong’, although slower, there is still the similar guitar sound to the earlier days. Do you mostly write on guitar?
I wrote on guitar but never performed or recorded with one regularly until after the Coral Snakes period, after 1997. Most people would associate my music from that earlier period with the great piano players we had. Louis Vause and then Conway Savage and then Robin Casinader. I n the Moodists it was Steve Miller and Mick Turner thrashing their guitars.
After the Coral Snakes finished I wanted to perform differently and playing guitar brought me back to being within the music more. There was no piano and less reverb and two clean sounding guitars and a lot more vocals.
Many of your songs seem (to me) to focus in on an idea, a commentary on a cultural observation. Do you begin with the lyric idea or the music first? For example, the songs ‘I’m Never Off’ or ‘Feelin’ Kinda Sporty’
I go off from titles or words. Not some sort of “classic” beatlesque form. I like street language and slang. It’s a country music or rap thing.
Did you feel pressure with writing around the craziness of the 90’s, winning an ARIA, and the expectation which accompanies that?
Yes I did but at the same time I enjoyed all sorts of different doors being opened and different opportunities. I had a policy of saying “yes” to anything.
Aside from your partner, has there been song writing collaboration with other members of your past bands, and how has that experience been?
On ‘The Soft n Sexy Sound’ I asked all members of the Coral Snakes to write music for songs and Robin Casinader wrote and sang one called ‘Salty Girls’. Stu Thomas has written some music for mistLY songs. Clare Moore did most of the music for a great album we did in 2009 called ‘Knock Yourself Out’.
I’ve written a couple of songs with Matt Walker . I think he is a spectacular musician and singer and songwriter.
A young studio guy called Greg Den Hartog called me saying he had a track for me in 2005 and I chucked a vocal on it and we had ‘My SChtick Weighs A Ton’.
I loved working in the studio with Billy Miller and with Greg Walker from Machine Translations. Clare and I recorded two albums in our studio for Kim Salmon and Ron Peno’s band The Darling Downs. I have a rap duo with Will Hindmarsh from Go Go Sapien called WAM AND DAZ.
In those situations I’m there for the spontaneity. I don’t ever sweat it writing songs. I like to get it down really quick. I also escape from the architecture of the chords and get to really come at the song from a different direction. I sing right over it.
The song ‘Night of the Wolverine’ is an example of a heavenly chord progression and feel, with a deeper lyrical story. How was that song written?
Quickly. It was more about the arrangement. I had it for a while in 1991 and we didn’t put it down until the end of ‘92. I played it with the Coral Snakes but I didn’t want to bash it around in pubs too much so I put it away. I arranged it to be like Lou Reed’s STREET HASSLE which had all these “movements” around a simple theme. In his he had a middle part with Bruce Springsteen speaking some words softly and I asked Tex Perkins to do something similar.
The chords, like ‘Rock n Roll is Where I Hide’, come from some 70’s rock direction. The latter is steeped in Southern rock (Allman brothers/ Skynyrd/ Leon Russell) which I loved as a kid and Wolverine is really coming from the kind of 70s rock singer songwriter which I have realized I always wanted to be and have become in many ways. Like Lou Reed or Tim Buckley. Electric guitar songwriter with a hot band. That’s my thing.
Who do you draw inspiration from in 2018?
I’m in a quite creative, sweet spot. We played every Sunday in April and May in a pub in Melbourne and played 70 minutes of my songs each week. A different 70 minutes for 9 weeks. It was intense and made me really appreciate my band so much. the mistLY. Clare and I have been playing together so long, Stuart Perera joined us on guitar in 1998 and Stu Thomas has been with us since 2004. The longest lasting outfit of all. We also do a show every once in a while with the Coral Snakes and I have really loved doing that. Just a power packed show. No guitar duties for me, just singing and bringing the drama.