The Australian Music Prize-winning band whose new album namechecks a Roman emperor – top that Guy Sebastian! – have had more than one crowded hour in their 22 years. As they launch into a month-long tour, I ask their glass-half-empty singer and songwriter what’s pushing them on still?
IF YOU’RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT CLAP YOUR BAND
Glenn Richards is feeling bright and cheery and bouncing about the studio.
Ok, sure, his answer to my introductory ‘how are you?’ was “pretty good, pretty good, getting there”, which doesn’t sound like someone peaking. But we’re talking a man who is pretty sure he has never written a really good song in his life, who would probably be able to list every fault in every show he’s ever performed, who takes any compliments about his band, Augie March, with more salt than a lifetime of McDonald’s fries.
Jeez mate, your Melbourne five piece remain one of the great Australian rock bands (who aren’t exactly rock, maybe art pop, maybe literary folk rock, but they’re too complex and dense and diverse to fit one category) and you’ve survived fame and being forgotten to release your sixth album this year. What are you some kind of self-lacerating pessimist? On his happier days.
So, yeah, for Richards that is practically euphoric.
A laughing – yes, it’s true - Richards acknowledges the standard fault lines I’ve just catalogued but explains that he genuinely has reasons to be cheerful. Part 1: “I’m mixing a very loud rock song”, a potential “b-side” (kids, ask your parents) for a future Augie March release, drawn from the pile of material recorded during the past two album sessions.
“I’m just trying to get them together and give them their due,” he says. Though wait, it’s not all Ardmona peaches and Goulburn Valley cream; we are talking Shepparton’s finest Eeyore after all.
“It’s a little bit of a bittersweet journey when you listen to a few of the rejects and they are probably better complete songs, entities, than a few that ended up on [2014’s Havens Dumb].”
Setting aside the quality argument – see earlier reference to not really believing critical praise for their work - maybe the songs could have been celebrated back then on some Spotify playlist or Apple Music share. But Richards concedes that social media was not – frankly, will never be – his playground.
“Like everything else digital, it’s all pretty much …. throwaway,” he chuckles. “I have been giving Instagram a bit of a bash. Mainly because I’ve got my studio up and running in a good way, in a commercial way, and I’m trying to draw attention to myself as a worker in the industry, not a songwriter as such.”
How’s that going?
“It’s ended up being ridiculous drunk photographs,” he says. “And then apologies.”
Actually, now that you mention it, Richards really is in very good humour. And it’s appropriate to note that the incongruity of Richards on social media is not just because he can be something of a curmudgeon, but that he and his band have long had a dogged adherence to some traditional values, whether it is in language, or songwriting, or sound.
That attitude is still visible, still audible, on this year’s album, Bootikins. A record titled (after re-reading Camus’s play named after him) from one of the nicknames of the Roman emperor Caligula. A man incidentally who would have been a riot on social media - #yesthatsmysister #consulhorse - and a literary reference point to reinforce that this is a band which has rarely been buffeted by contemporary winds.
“That’s something I admire about us, one of the few things I admire about us, and dogged is a good word. I think we were described early on as tragically unhip - and that was when we were about as hip as we would ever get,” Richards says.
“I was thinking about this only couple of days ago, when thinking about production in general, at how slick just about everything is now. And that used to be a dirty word. The last thing I want to do is sound modern, and it doesn’t matter what period of the cycle we are in. I don’t want to sound like what I hear on mainstream or to a certain extent community radio. If that means mixing my own tracks or insisting on going to tape – anything that keeps it in a flawed human realm – that’s something I’m very keen on doing with this band.”
While he may take that attitude into the Augie March sessions, Richards is the opposite when working on his soundtrack projects and production for other artists. “But when you have a band, why reduce it to something that sounds like it’s all on a midi grid?” he asks. And this flawed human has no argument with that.
Interestingly, while on the Camus jag, Richards is about to read again a collection of his short stories which includes one on the myth of Sisyphus. For those who were dozing up the back of the class back in the day, Sisyphus is the Greek king who was condemned to push a rock up a hill endlessly. Music career metaphor alert!
Given this, I feel it beholden on me to get a little existential with Richards. More than 20 years into a career begun when Richards, his school friends Adam Donovan (guitar) and David Williams (drums), and Edmonda Ammendola (bass) named their band after Saul Bellow’s The Adventures Of Augie March, a period during which they released several critically acclaimed (as in, genius) albums, in particular 2002’s Strange Bird, scored an unlikely hit with One Crowded Hour, won the Australian Music Prize for 2006’s Moo, You Bloody Choir, and survived – just - their moment of major label fame (by splitting up for six years), what is the purpose of Augie March in 2018?
“We’ve been around for quite a long time, both in and out of favour, and for me I think I need the, I wouldn’t say drama; it’s relatively small drama, of the entire process. Butting heads, trying to make something and disagreeing - I’m very prone to that sort of thing, that sort of punishment,” he says.
“But also I keep writing, keep wanting to express whatever it is that’s left in me that I think is worth expressing. And you need to remain passionate otherwise you are pointless.”
Passion? Not a very digital word. Not a very controllable word.
“If that passion takes a wrong turn I suppose you’re in trouble but if it is moving between good and damaging, then that’s probably not the worst place to be as an artist. And I’m still there in various ways,” Richards says. “Essentially, Augie are a vehicle for one style of writing that I tend to do and they are very capable band when it comes to interpreting many, many moods that make up an album that I might be writing.
“There’s not really that much point – I would say for a hell of a lot of people it’s Katy Perry – but there’s a lot of people here and abroad that still hang for the kind of odd, opaque kind of honesty that we represent.”
Reasons to be cheerful, part two.
Augie March begin their tour today, May 4, at Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, then will be playing: Workers Club, Geelong, May 5; Night Cat, Melbourne May 11-12; Mojos, Perth, May 18-19; Imperial Hotel, Eumundi, May 24; The Zoo, Brisbane, May 25; Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney, May 26-27