IN A CRISP WHITE SHIRT, against a blurred background familiar to anyone who has done online meetings in recent years, Reg Mombassa is the first member of Dog Trumpet to arrive.
The man who has written a new diatribe on modern leadership, Fucking Idiots (“Wake up humans/You fucking idiots”), who has another new song unsure about our capacity for doing what needs to be done, Invisible Things (“Invisible things can’t really hurt you/But sometimes they do … Things like the future or maybe the weather/Things that crawl under your skin”), and a third rather sceptical about where we’ve landed, in the album title track, Shadowland (“It is not ok computer”), seems nonetheless clearly on top of this technology malarkey. Except …
“I’m completely useless. I’m surprised I even managed to get on, because my wife normally helps and she’s not here,” he says amiably. “I’ve managed to go this far, so this is a miracle.”
Let’s be honest, did any of us really think Mombassa, painter, illustrator, iconoclast and bendy-guitar-player supreme, would be plugged in? A social media hound? He certainly didn’t.
“No, I hate it actually. Obviously I am on social media: I’m on Instagram, the band’s on, um, all the different platforms, but I don’t particularly like it.”
Peter O’Doherty, the younger brother some might (wrongly) assume less hostile to technology, or maybe even au fait with it, joins us at this point. Tilted dramatically.
“You’re sideways Peter,” says Mombassa, to which O’Doherty replies “You are too.”
Back in the day, you know, during lockdowns, which arrived just as Dog Trumpet released another slice of pop/folk/blues/country pleasure album in April 2020, Great South Road, they did quite a few Facebook live performances, left to watch the comments come in from around the world as they performed.
Perhaps surprisingly for two of Australia’s most loved visual artists, who each in their own way tap into the ordinary and the very odd of the landscape, streetscape, fauna and psyche of Australia and New Zealand (singing, as they do on the new album, “The sheep of the long white cloud/Are gifted sculptors/They carve their land with hoof and mouth”), playing to screens, huddling in their homes, didn’t shut them off from stimuli.
“I get most of my stimulation from television,” says Mombassa, with a wry grin as his brother quietly smiles. “So I don’t have to go outside.”
Although there’s a wistful song of his called No More Travelling on the record (“There’s no more travelling/No more festivals too … I don’t have a meaning/I don’t need a name”) O’Doherty declares that “for me, I enjoyed it” when the world shut down and “I didn’t feel like I had to be anywhere but home”.
Indeed, they got a lot of work done, writing a pack of songs – some of which have appeared on this new album, Shadowland – doing live shows, making art, and digging into the back catalogue of both Dog Trumpet (about 30 years old now) and its predecessor, Mental As Anything (begun more than 40 years ago, half of which featured the brothers).
“It gave us the opportunity in some ways to just expand our musical palette within our own catalogue,” O’Doherty says. And start planning not just a new album but its release on that on-trend old-fashioned format, vinyl, as well as CD, fully expecting people to still buy music. A brave call.
“I don’t think there was any bravery involved,” says Mombassa. “We’re just doing what we normally do.”
Which is what Dog Trumpet do: paint, write, exhibit, perform. Not putting out their album out in 2020, or holding on in 2022 to see if the music industry genuinely has turned around before releasing its successor, would have made no intrinsic sense, irrespective of any practical or commercial sense.
Not that the brothers are impervious to the 21st century of course. Fucking Idiots sums up the way many of us have felt over the past few years watching our so-called leaders and betters royally foul their nests and fuck up the world. Has Mombassa been sitting at home quietly compiling a list of these fucking idiots? Or would that be like knitting an endless scarf?
“I did write it relatively recently,” he points out, before reminding us that it’s not his first political rodeo, though this is the first time he has “put that word” into a song. “I wrote a song called Troop Movements In The Ukraine about 40 years ago, on a Mental’s album, and that was an anti-war song, anti-nuclear war song. Fucking Idiots is another anti-war song.
“But you’re right about the last three or four years: with climate change accelerating alarmingly and rapidly, you’ve got all these horrible right wing, conservative, populist leaders throughout the world. But I’ve always hated militarism and patriotism and nationalism, they are really poisonous concepts and they seem to be ramping up again.”
O’Doherty points out that the song could have gone on for quite a few more verses, the world not lacking in business, political, media and sporting fucking idiots after all. And people who will cheer them on their preferred social media platforms, buy their overpriced goods, attend their churches or vote for them.
But anyway … alongside the topical fuckery, the record also dives headlong into reminiscence. O’Doherty begins side two of the album with an ode to nonconforming, The Ballad Of Clayton Looby (“The first job I ever had/Was pumping petrol afternoons and nights”) and in the song Nina Simone (“It’s been a long time/Since Eunice Kathleen Waymon’s patience/Was put to the test”) he explains the role of the great singer, songwriter and pianist, whose real name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, in a pivotal moment in the young O’Doherty’s life.
“It’s also the story, my personal story of going to London,” he says. “I had a friend from Sydney living there, she was on a working holiday for a year, so I rang her up when I was in London and we went out to the markets, and I bought her a Nina Simone record, the first record she released in 1958 [Little Girl Blue]. It was such a great record and a time that I will never forget, because I’m still married to that girl.”
I reckon Eunice Kathleen Waymon, her patience tested by audiences and the industry, her early ambitions as a classical pianist thwarted, her tolerance of the music business and its inbuilt racism and sexism barely there to start with and long gone by the latter stages of her career, would have well understood some of the righteous anger behind Fucking Idiots.
“Righteous anger can also be completely wrong,” says Mombassa, happily self-critical, maybe even typically so. For 40-odd years, while skating across moments of righteous anger and maybe occasional bursts of bitterness, the brothers could be said to have maintained a pretty impressive equilibrium. In their art and in their music. Maybe because of their art and their music.
“That’s part of what art is, isn’t it?” says Mombassa. “It’s expressing your own anxieties and fears in your own joys and positive feelings to other people and reflecting what other people are feeling. And maybe the art and the music makes it better.”
Doherty says: “We come at it from different angles, though we have a lot of common ground, but making work is good therapy. Just doing it keeps me much more balanced, and if I’m not touring either art or music, I can very quickly fall into a big hole.
"And perhaps we don’t really ever understand ourselves: that’s why in a way you keep doing it, to try and find something else, to dig something out of yourself.”
Shadowland is out now.