Kim Salmon interview
by Aaron GoldbergWith a career that started at practically year zero of punk, few artists have followed a career trajectory as interesting, prolific and wildly unique as Australia's Kim Salmon. Starting in the late '70's with possibly one of the most influential and innovative Australian guitar bands ever, the Scientists, Salmons career has evolved and mutated into more shapes and forms than the T2000 from Terminator 2. From punky garage pop, to psycho blues and demented primal electro-scratch noise, the Scientists have left a sonic legacy that is unsurpassed in Australian rock, paving the way for noise makers and white-blues howlers all the way from Melbourne booze-barns to Lower East Side cool-zones. But it doesn't stop there, his stint with the Beasts of Burbon was dynamic, injecting their junkie/alcho/benzo blues-rock with a fresh dose of funk and crunch that hasn't been matched in Australian rock, since the almighty AC/DC. The Beasts have never recovered from his departure in the mid '90's. It was soon after the demise of the Scientists in the late 80's however, that Salmon followed his own creative vision, forming the Surrealists, who to this day continue to confound and enlighten audiences the world over with their unique blend of Stones/Sly Stone big-band swinging rock. Their last release You Gotta let me do my thing (Half a cow records) is a true masterpiece of modern Australian rock, neatly blending funkyass blues with Beach Boys/Spector melodic arrangements and 50's sci-fi movie soundtrack for good measure. Sounds complex on paper? Uh-uh, the fucker rocks!
And like the T2000, Salmon just doesn't stop. From doing hoity-toity soundtrack work for high-brow theatre troupes, to the techno-pop project Antenna, Salmon is out there painting a canvass that becomes more essential and interesting with age. On the eve of yet another European tour, me and Kim sat at a café, ate some food and looked at people while talking about stuff.
PSF: So what inspired you 'to do your thing'?
I didn't really have much interest in music when I grew up. I was more into science. I know that sounds weird, but I had aspirations to be a nuclear physicist as a kid. I was pretty brainy, into math and things like that, and I'd figured that would be the path I'd take in life... About the age of 13 I noticed some sounds on the radio that did something to my hormones I think! (laughs)
PSF: So you went beyond science?
Yep (laughs) I guess looking back there was heavy rock stuff like Deep Purple... I dunno, things like T-Rex I really remember hearing them and going 'Wow! What's that sound?' And I started out liking really bad heavy metal, Sabbath, Zeppelin...
PSF: That stuff wasn't that bad.
Well, I think the music's really great with those bands but you can forget about the lyrics! That's pretty much how I work anyway. If you look at the Scientists you can forget about the lyrics in most of those songs, but I think the music's pretty amazing!
PSF: Are you a self-taught musician?
Ah, yeah. There's a bit of a kind of story here. It kind of links with the first question. I went to a pretty rough high-school, it was sort of part of a high-rise housing complex thing, I think we had the first skinheads in Australia there! I remember I had an appointment with the toughest kid in school to get my head beat-in because apparently I called him a fuckin' wanker, which was the worst thing you could say. What actually happened was this guy actually said somebody else was a fuckin' wanker, who was this Begby from Trainspotting type of character, the sort of character that's such a psycho that everybody wants to be his friend because they're too scared to otherwise! Anyway this psycho guy went and told the toughest kid in school, but I said he (the psycho) was a fuckin' wanker! And the toughest kid in school, this skinhead guy, came to me and said 'So you called me a fuckin' wanker?', and I couldn't think of what to do, so I ran to the principal's office. Probably a really cowardly thing to do but he left me alone, because I think he knew in a way he was kind of beaten, because he kind of left me alone after that, and in fact was quite friendly, so maybe he thought that was a kind of brave thing to do. I don't know. But anyway that afternoon I thought 'fuck hanging out with these toughs, fuck them' - fuck honour amongst thieves, and any of that bullshit. I don't want any part of this at all. I went down to K-Mart and bought this guitar for 14 bucks.
PSF: One of those Taiwanese?
It was called an 'Audition.' It was an acoustic steel string thing. I took it home and taught myself how to play "Black Knight" on it pretty much straight away. And "Tobacco Road" and a few sort of songs like that. It had a pretty heavy sound. I persuaded my mum to send me to a guitar teacher, and the first thing he did when he got it is tune it up, like about five notes or something. All along I didn't realise you had to tune it! I thought the pegs were part of changing the notes! I though that's what you do to get a crazy sound. So I had lessons for about six months, and after that I taught myself everything I know.
PSF: Could you give us brief description of the 'Perth punk scene' circa 1979. (Perth is the most geographically isolated city on the Australian continent)
Before that (1979) Perth had a really bad scene, sort of that bad English blues thing that happened in the '60's. To pull a crowd you had to play twelve bar and be into this kind of Muddy Waters trip. It was a pretty closed shop, and every band in town was doing that, and I thought that sucked. And it was really impossible to get a gig, unless you were part of that. That's what was pre punk-rock. I has this band called the Cheap Nasties, and I managed to get a gig at this place called Steve's, which was sort of like the bastion of the 'blues', which we hated. I don't hate the blues, I love the blues. But all I can really remember about that was that there was a whole pile of broken glass around my microphone stand at the end of the gig! (laughs) I also met a lot of people that I got to be really great friends with afterwards like Boris Sudjovic and Roddy Radar. The Cheap Nasties weren't very good, but we were kind of like the first punk band in town. They were like a magnet for a bit of a scene to start..
PSF: In the early days what were the Scientists trying to do?
I had a thing that I wanted to do which was very much influenced by American punk rather British punk, bands like Television, the Stooges and Velvet Underground. I wanted it to be like really primitive and have these kind of white-noise drones and lots of feedback. But I didn't write any lyrics, and James Baker used to write lyrics, he was the lyricist even though he was the drummer. I mean its a bizarre situation where your drummer's writing lyrics, and he's tone deaf! He tended to write lots of songs that had the word 'girl' in it. He had about eight songs like there was 'Girl like you', 'Kind of girl', 'Pretty girl,' you know they just went on, so it tended to be a kind of 'pop' sort of thing, where I would use his lyrics, and he would try a put a tune to the lyrics and I would make up my own tune, and he would say 'yeah! Like that!' (laughs) It usually came out sounding like the Kinks or the Easybeats, but because we were a punk band it was like at 90,000 decibels and really distorted.
Yeah! (laughs) But because he was the lyric writer, we didn't get away from that sort of cutesy-girly thing, which wasn't really what I wanted to do, but it was what we did. So we went into this sort of Flamin' Groovies trip back there in Perth. It wasn't until we got to Sydney, and James went and joined the Hoodoo Gurus, and we split and reformed, that the task of writing lyrics was left up to me. And then the music kind of changed.
PSF: After you moved away from Perth to Sydeny how did that affect the band,
Well the Scientists got a good reputation in Sydney really quickly. We started to draw bigger crowds, where in Perth we struggled the whole time, we were basically treated like lepers there (laughs). That was the difference!
PSF: At what point did you decide to take off overseas?
In our case it was the fact that our drummer, he had some problem, he was frustrated and wanted to be a singer or something. I don't know looking back what his problem was, but he kept on threatening to leave, and it was sort of like a case of, it could be good and get a drum machine and do like I wanted to do (!), or have the band together and keep things interesting, so if we go to England, at least this will keep this guy interested, and it did for a while! And it wasn't just him, it was the other guys, like the non-writing part of the band. But ultimately it was a band decision to relocate overseas. When we got there, we actually had more pressure to stay there, as things were looking pretty good for us. But even back in Australia, things were pretty good, this booking agency called Dirty Pool, who at the time were booking big Aussie pub-rock acts like the Angles and INXS, wanted us on their books, and had this idea of hooking us up with the Angels and touring around to the suburbs of Sydney, just to demonstrate what they could do. We got canned offstage at one gig at Parramatta for our efforts! We didn't go with them after that! We thought we could venture out into the suburbs and go the way of bands like the Hoodoo Gurus and Died Pretty -I personally wish we had done that - or we could have gone to England and started afresh, which was what we ending up doing!
PSF: Do think that the departure of Australian bands like the Birthday Party, the Go-Betweens, the Moodists, influenced the Scientist to do the same?
There was a bit of an exodus of Australian bands at that time (early '80's ) anyway. The Birthday Party had gone, and had got some success. And the Moodists had just left for England. But by the time we got there (England) I think the NME had reached their quota of 'Antipodean' noise merchants. We got lumped into the thing of either being flatout Birthday Party plagiarists, which we weren't, but they couldn't see it - or else we were kinda like dumb Stooges rock, which was sort of what we were (laughs) - but we weren't either, really. We were our own thing, you know? So we kind of got this mixed-up press depending on who reviewed us in NME. It was like a lucky dip really. One week we would get a really good review, and the next it would be really nasty. Some of the other magazines were a bit kinder.
PSF: What influenced the constant re-invention of the Scientists sound?
A few things. In the first place I was the one who had the idea of what the band would really be, and the other guys idea was 'we like all this cool stuff, lets be in a band', and it didn't really go beyond that. I mean everybody in bands comes up with riffs and stuff, and there was all the riffs and ideas and jangly things, and I didn't want to know about it anymore. So I'd be pushing for my material, but it was a politically hard thing to do, you know, how could I be that much of a dictator? When I was clearly the only one who knew how we would stand out, and it worked! But the other guys thought 'let's just be a band', and we'd be like a million other bands in Sydney if I left it up to them. So it was a gradual evolution from 'just being a band' to getting it to what I wanted it to be! (laughs) And along the way I got more aware of different bands, like Suicide, I kept my ears open for influences which were in the direction that I wanted to be - I wanted to go for this kind of minimalist thing. I was really in love with the idea of the stupidity of rock n' roll (laughs). I wanted us to be kind of dumb. That's what was great about the Ramones and the Stooges. It wasn't supposed to be smart. You weren't supposed to have intelligent lyrics! And I think we succeeded in that! (laughs)
PSF: Why the Scientists disband?
Relocating didn't really fix things up for our drummer at the time. Eventually he got pissed off again, and we attempted to keep the band going, and we did for about 3 years, but... I think the struggle of living in London. When we first got there we got a lot of interest, and by the time we did Human Jukebox, which was something quite different to "Swampland" and "We had Love" (both from Heading For a Trauma), and I think because of the pigeon hole we'd been put in..I don't think we were moving that far out of it... but, it was not exactly what people, writers, could recognize.
PSF: Its interesting in retrospect because Human Jukebox sits up there with that seminal late '80's noise-guitar sound, like Sonic Youth for instance..
I think all of it does to be honest. The whole thing the Scientists were doing with the guitars, and some of it was intentional, and some of it unintentional, I think it predates Sonic Youth, like you said. I mean even in "Swampland" you can hear a lot of dissonance going on in the solo. Just sonically where we were coming from wasn't the way other bands were sounding. It had a real guitar thing, like what you can do with an electric guitar. We did that all along. And we also had this rhythmic thing going underpinning the music the whole time, which nobody recognised. They just thought because it was dumb rock, they just thought OK, they ignored what was going on rhythmically, but we were like changing rhythms in songs and having two rhythms going on at the same time, and have this polyrhythmic thing going on. Only because the beat's where it's at! (laughs)
You know it makes it more hypnotic and interesting. Because the music was evolving/devolving one way, like getting simpler and simpler, from having like four chords on average to songs that didn't have a chord change, and that would be a dis-chord anyway, that the rhythms got more overt and important. I guess to keep things on course of where we were going, we had to keep things that way.
PSF: How did the whole Beasts of Bourbon thing eventuate?
That was Tex Perkins' thing really. He had this band called Tex Deadly and the Dum-Dums, and they mutinied on him. He had some gigs lined up and he didn't want to lose them, so he formed another band with friends like Spencer Jones, Boris Sudjovic from the Scientists, his drummer at the time, Fruitcake (!?) I think that's what his name was. He told me about the name - Beasts of Bourbon - and I thought 'yes, thats a funny name', very ironic!
PSF: Were they a joke band?
I thought so! I think originally the Beasts had a good sense of irony. Like the Scientists, that the thing about them, there was a lot of irony in it. I mean - like when I say we were 'dumb', we were knowingly writing dumb lyrics. But I think that's an important part of rock n' roll, or art, or anything in front of people. You don't have to be that thing you create. It is an artifice. I mean the Cramps are bloody non-smoking vegans!! It's kind of interesting. Those sort of things make it interesting in a way. In a way the Beasts were a joke, but it was a serious joke.
PSF: But they evolved...
They evolved into this kind of like really - I don't think some of the members of the Beasts had a sense of this irony, that's for sure! For them you had to go out and BE that person. You had to be the baddest guy on the block. You couldn't just pretend to be, you couldn't just be sophisticated about it, you actually had to go out there and take all the drugs and sacrifice yourself for your art. But the thing was, they were being sacrificed for Tex's art really! I mean you think about it - he (Tex) used to talk about the Beasts being this beast that would come out every now and again and run amok, and then retreat to its cave to lick its wounds, and it's all very poetic. But then there was a very bad mishap with the band. Spencer OD'd, and I think it was like - that was when Tex decided to finish. I mean I was out there long before that - I was certainly - I thought 'this was dangerous, I'm outta here!' (laughs) I totally wussed out! I mean its like what Iggy Pop said in this book I read 'there seems to be this discrepancy between playing badass music and actually being a badass!' (laughs) Mind you if you read that book PLEASE KILL ME he certainly did a lot of badass stuff early on...which we all did once! (laughs)
PSF: It's 'cool'!
Yeah its cool, its really cool, but you get a bit savvy after a while and you realize, well you don't have to, you can back off a little bit. You can actually be more skilled and entertain more people, you know? You can do your work better! It can be a better joke, it can be a better... whatever! (laughs)
PSF: You started the Surrealists in the late '80's soon after the demise of the Scientists, what were you aiming for sonically with this new band?
I was aiming to have a band that had my name at the start of it! (laughs) Some of the initial stuff with the Surrealists was pretty much the same as what I was doing with the Scientists. The same kind of cheesy trash aesthetic creeping in there. But I guess you know I was becoming older and wiser and had been listening to a lot more music, and wanted to experiment a lot more with this band.
PSF: Do you think the Surrealists are more like a 'soul' band?
A soul group? Well I've actually re-invented the band and they're now called 'The Business,' and that is sort of a soul group! Its not the same line-up, but its got the horn section and funky riffs, and I sing in falsetto (laughs) for some of it. Its all that kind of stuff.
PSF: How did you juggle your commitments between the Surrealists and the Beasts?
It was very difficult, because I was kind of like a 'hired gun' in the Beasts... I mean I was into it... well a 'hired gun' isn't the right word, I certainly put a lot of effort into the songwriting for that band and a lot of time, but the record label I was with definitely was more concerned with the Beasts of Bourbon, so really the Surrealists didn't really get a look in, so we (the Surrealists) were always doing everything on a low budget, until we got to Sin Factory which got a decent budget, and sounds like it!
PSF: Tony Cohen produced that?
Yeah. He produced 2 Beasts of Bourbon albums and 2 Surrealists albums. Another 'gent,' a very good guy as well, a wonderful producer.
PSF: What prompted your departure from the Beasts?
It was getting too dangerous for me! The irony had gone and I didn't want to sacrifice myself for that! I was never really that much into that side of it anyway, being 'bad.' I wasn't very good at it! (laughs)
PSF: Do you treat each album as a unique concept, or is it like some sort of on-going saga, like say what Nick Cave does?
I'm not like that. I like music where you can tune in anywhere and you can get it. You don't have to have the history. You know I'm trying to do something. I don't want to say 're-invent' because it sound ponsy, but yeah re-invent myself, just to broaden what I do, to beat peoples' perception of what I do. I do it for the long haul, this is what I've chose to do with my life -is to make music. I can't afford to be a dumb punk rocker (laughs) and put all my eggs into that basket. I need to explore as many different avenues as possible, that's probably one of the things... I mean everything I do is probably an exploration of some avenue.
PSF: Your lyrics seem to have a lot of hidden and explicit literary references. Would you agree with that? Does literature and cinema influence your music or is it all just personal observation?
I try to keep out of it as much as possible! If it influences me, I absorb those influences by osmosis, rather than consciously try to go in the direction of Morricone or something like that.
PSF: A lot of your songs are about characters 'The cockroach,' 'The connoisseur,' 'Insurance man.'
I think things like that have more to do with me discovering my 'voice' (laughs) Maybe said with a very strong ironic accent (laughs). I think I was discovering my voice towards the end of the Scientists and the early Surrealists stuff. I was learning about what I was most comfortable with in songwriting, I was not really putting myself personally into it in the way of like diary entries. I learnt how to see something that I like and explore that and think 'well if I was that sort of person, what would my character be doing?' I sound like a thespian here, you know, on a journey! (laughs) Something like 'the Cockroach,' when I discovered writing in that way, it was like a watershed!
PSF: You've done some musical projects that are not specifically within rock n' roll. Could you tell me about them?
I did some live music for a theatrical production called 'Features of Blown Youth.' It had a run here in the Melbourne festival, a season in Sydney, and now most recently it went to Berlin for the 'Theatre Der Welt' festival. I was there for each production. I'm also going to Perth to do a production of it there, with a different director and actors. The main thing about it, is that it's just pure music, and it's pure music for a reason, other than itself. It's there to underpin something else, it's there like lights. It's effects almost.
PSF: Have you done any film soundtracks?
No. It's certainly something I'd like to do. I personally think I could do it better than a lot of people that are doing it. Just putting word out there! (smiles)
PSF: Tell me a bit about Antenna.
Well... there's a few things about it. It was a chance to tie up some loose ends with Dave Faulkner, because we go back so far it's not funny! You know from starting punk-rock in Perth! You know we never really had anything to do together, except for this band before that (in Perth). He named it Moulin Rouge and we specialized in bad prog-rock (laughs). We never did a gig though! Actually we did do one around a swimming pool (!), at somebody's party. (laughs)
I sort of lost touch with Dave over the years, and we caught up a few years back and just every time we'd talk about collaborating on a project, and that essentially was what it was. He was talking about artists like Tricky and Portishead or something, and wanted to explore going down that path. He had some guys that had remixed for him for the Hoodoo Gurus, and we hooked up with them and that's what the result was - Antenna. But Antenna the name was something I had lying around for some theme music for a TV show!
PSF: Your most recent album You gotta let me do my thing was mixed by the legendary Jim Dickinson (Rolling Stones, Big Star, JSBX), what was it like working with the man?
It was really educational for me. He was full of these wisdom's that seemed to have kind of what could be seen as superstitious origins, that would ultimately boil down to being common sense. For instance, he'd be mixing something, and then he'd light these weird incense things, these kind of burning rope things - you'd think he was going to come out with some voodoo incantation! But his explanation of that was well, if you smell it suddenly, it sort of distracts you and when you get distracted, when you're doing a job like this, it's good because then you come at what you're doing from a different angle. Which is really something that I've noticed mixing subsequently, and I've employed it to great effect! On the project I'm doing now, for instance, which I've produced, having an idea what you want and letting a mixer mix for you can be very frustrating, because you're not actually mixing it hands on or being occupied, so you need to find something to distract you away from that process. So I'd be reading a book, keeping myself in a constant state of distractedness, and that would enable me to occasionally tune in and hear the music with as fresh ears as I possibly could. So that's what Jim was getting at there. But there were so many other instances that looked like voodoo, but turned out to be common sense really, when you think about it. To meet him, he's a cross between some kind of hell-bent redneck and a professor! That's probably what he's like. But he's a great guy, he really a good sort, very genuine.
PSF: Do you find that much has changed in the Australian punk/indie scene from when you started till today?
The change probably mirrors what's gone on in the rest of the world. The bands that are the main exponents of the genre are just big corporate acts (laughs). 'Indie' - I despise the word 'indie' myself. It means a particular formula to me.
PSF: And lo-fi as well?
Well, no I guess everything gets stigmatized after a while. I hadn't even thought about lo-fi. I probably had a lot to do with lo-fi (laughs) I'm probably to blame, partially, for lo-fi! (laughs more)
PSF: Who are some of your favorite local/international bands/performers today?
Today? I very much like David Holmes. You know David Holmes? Of course you do! Dave Graney, but he's a mate of mine! I very much like the music he's doing. Mississippi Barry. There's a lot of things I like. It's a difficult one though. There's a lot of crap to! But anyway...
PSF: Where do you see the Australian scene going?
I try to avoid looking at that one too much (laughs). I don't know that one.
PSF: What about technology? MP3 for instance?
It worries me a bit, but I guess it could be a good thing as well. How does copyright work with it?
PSF: You basically pay to hear it, unless someone pirate copies it...
Well that's my point... But, if that's the way its gonna go, then that's the way its gonna go I suppose. You just gotta adapt. (laughs) What do you do for information? Sleeve notes? Do you download it and have a printer?
PSF: Yeah! Prince did it! (laughs)
OK. (laughs) Well it's like I say about all technology. When it's cheap I can afford it, I'll get some! (laughs) And it'll be better then. I won't mess around with all the crappy stuff in its infant stage at the moment. But I will maybe, depending on if I get a big cheque next week or not...
PSF: What has Mr. Salmon planned for the near future, and the next millennium?
In the near future I'm going to Perth for a production of that play I mentioned before. Straight after that I'm going on a solo tour of Europe. That's just me and a guitar for three weeks throughout October. Then I come home and I'm taking my new band 'Kim Salmon and the Business' on the road. And hopefully we'll have some shows for the new year.
PSF: I thought "Fix me up" was the new INXS single when I first heard it!
You want my response to that!? (laughs) I've been mistaken for Michael Hutchence! (laughs)
NOTE : After the interview, while he was talking about some of his favourite music, Kim had some interesting things to say about certain music forms that PSF readers may find interesting. He was talking about the music of Sly Stone, when this came up.
Kim: I really love their (Sly Stone's) reading of "Que Sera Sera" and "In time," great song, love it. Its just the bass is so solid on the record, I dunno, I love it. It's not constructed around strumming, it's constructed around bass and drum grooves, I like music that's put together that way. Even my own music I try to get away from it being based on a strum, because otherwise it sounds like folk music. One thing I hate is the folk-song workshop... There's too much of it..I hate it! (laughs) Late nights sitting around with beers and joints and passing the guitar around, singing their diaries... It should be outlawed!! (laughs) There's got to be a time of, you know, people have got to say - No! Enough's enough! (laughs)
(I mentioned Alanis Morrisette)
Alanis Morrisette belongs to that category for sure. She doesn't make it on my list (of favorites), no! (laughs)
PSF: What about Cat Power and those indie-folkies?
I don't know - its like a few years ago it was compulsory to have a few dischords and sing like Kim Gordon, and every band sounded like that. Then you had to sing in this kind of whiny voice, where you didn't quite hit the note. You know, like Pavement, and be a bit sort of ironic, you know?
PSF: And now you have to be sort of like post-rock Chicago.
Yeah. Well if you've got to be like anything it tends to get me worried. That's like a pretty cool thing to do these days. Are Cat Power part of that? They're probably a good thing in themselves, but I can't judge that one.
(I talked about a fucked up Cat Power interview I once did, which went on to the indie/folk connection)
(laughing) Getting all 'indie' and getting everyone able to do it, is what you had with 'folk' music. (laughs) And that's the cue about folk music - folk are the 'people'! And the 'people' - what do they know? (laughs) They should leave it up to the professionals. I've turned 180 degrees from the punk thing. You know, it was fine, it was great back then, but I thought 'one too many bar chords'. And I think, one too many Rat pedals. I think being unprofessional is lauded, and I use to laud it myself and think it was great. But it's got to the point of (music) being devalued, which is suddenly like everybody does it. Say you're a guitar player - I mean they should put that on your passport or whatever. (laughs) But you might as well put dole bludger! (laughs) You should put something like 'entertainer' or 'artiste' - try and have something that's a bit noble! (laughs) So I think you should have something like a licence to play guitar (laughs). You should be made to sit for it, and be able to play something like, you know someone should say - give me Jimmy Page, give me Link Wray, give me Steve Cropper, give me Poison Ivy - whatever. You should have this basic guitar set-up, and be able to get all the sounds, and then just make them.
PSF: You're right. You should have an appreciation of the history, or at least aspire to it.
I'll get lynched for this, for saying this as well, but I mean these are opinions that need to be said by somebody - and I say them with a little degree of irony (pause) No I don't! (laughs) But anyway, back to the top 10! (laughs)
PSF: This has gone on a crazy tangent. I don't know how I'm gonna write all this.
Scrap all this (laughs)!
See some of Kim's favorite music
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