BET THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN TO BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. Now coping with a wonky internet connection causing a sound delay like the glorious days of “live via satellite” TV interviews, Lachlan Rose is at one of his dayjobs, the ones that help keep Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird old-school rock ‘n’ roll band on the go when those increasingly sold-out tours aren’t happening.
Today he’s been running workshops at a Catholic primary school in Elsternwick and we’re talking during recess, with the kids just on the other side of the wall. So I guess swearing is right out.
“I had a child in the last workshop who was talking about swear words but he was referring to them as square words, which I just thought was the most adorable thing I’ve ever heard.”
Imagine that in a song though: square words not swear words. Fuck it, maybe there is a lesson in that for all of us eh?
“I don’t think I’ve ever sworn in a Cousin Tony song,” says the singer and songwriter who formed the band in 2015 and remains its (usually bearded but always clean-mouthed) heartbeat as they release their third album, Smiles Of Earth, this week. “I haven’t felt compelled to use one yet.”
Unlike one of his heroes. Which compels me to ask: is he still happy to identify, as he did in his teens, as Limp Bizkit positive?
Rose laughs, sounding only slightly embarrassed at the mention of what some of us might call, without resorting to swearing, the most egregiously dumb/angry/painful run-off of the ‘90s alternative rock-meets-hip-hop scene.
“There are certain artists that come in maybe once a year, they are annual waves for me, Eminem would be in that category, and The Bizkit,” he says. “Maybe in the depths of winter when I need to reconnect with some more childish part of myself, Limp Bizkit still comes out, I’m not ashamed to say.”
Definitely time for him to watch the documentary about Woodstock 99, Train Wreck, where “The Bizkit” and in particular its angry little turd singer, Fred Durst, play a starring, if not necessarily shining, role in one of the biggest and ugliest debacles in contemporary music.
“It’s high on the list,” he confesses. “I’m almost scared to watch it: it’s so painful.”
There’s something else Rose might appreciate, albeit essentially in its absence, in that film: the wielding or manipulation of almost mythological aspects of rock ‘n’ roll, from the supposedly pure idealism behind the original Woodstock, and the ability of a live show to change lives, to the wonky concept of artistic and ordinary freedom, without consequences.
You see, the romantic-despite-everything roots, of Cousin Tony’s music, and on the new album the building of drama on top of drama, those big swings from flamboyant highs to the poetically intimate, suggest a love of both grand gestures and gut-level emotion that has had a place in Australian music at least since Moving Pictures right up to the likes of Gang Of Youths.
It’s a difficult thing to pull off without going too far and sounding try-hard or badly undershooting and feeling limp. Get it wrong and at one end you are Bryan Adams, at the other you’re Jack Johnson. Either of which, let’s face it, is as bad as it gets.
So, choosing to wear your songs, like your heart, on your sleeve as Cousin Tony’s do on the regular, is a big call. Is this where he fits naturally or do the songs compel him to go there?
“I think it’s always been both for me. On one simple level, even before I started writing songs, I’ve always been overtly emotional with people,” says Rose. “Part of that had to do was going to an all-boys private school. Something about the way I was raised was really incongruous with a lot of that close-to-the-chest masculinity. And so I think I always served that role for a lot of my immediate friends: just like hey, it’s okay to talk about this stuff even if it cost me some social credit.”
(Cousin Tony's Brand New Firebird trying on the enigmatic look)
As he remembers, while others may have gravitated to football or woodwork or beating up the new Year 7s, he found himself activities like musical theatre and playing songs, things that demanded a bit more emotion on the surface.
“So it was something that started naturally, but the more I began clashing against that kind of masculinity, the more I realised it was an obligation that I had,” says Rose. “It was an ability that I had that became an obligation, and that just lent so naturally to songwriting. There’s obviously an infinite amount of ways you can approach a song, but for me, wearing that raw emotion on its surface – as well as the enigmatic, poetic side of things – having an overtness to that emotion, has always been completely at the forefront of what I want to do.”
Lyrically that works for him, but he approaches music with the same attitude. Whether leaning into synths and his baritone, as they have in the past, or cranking up the guitars as they do on Smiles Of Earth, Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird songs are unashamedly punching at those emotions with big swelling moments, classic 70s saxophone, as on the new Gabriel’s Horn (alongside almost Bacharach-like stylish horns they’ve had before), and songs going from nothing to grabbing you by the lapels and healing into your face “feel this” in four or five minutes.
Is that also who he is?
“Yeah, for sure. I think that’s just something that came naturally and I was writing songs initially quite unconsciously and just enjoying the process, until we had a bit of body of work and I looked back and noticed that myself. And also that was the overwhelming feedback, that these were really tugging at the heartstrings in a very overt way,” says Rose. “That’s when I took ownership of it I guess: if this is what I’m doing, I’m not going to be apologetic about it.”
Unlike being an American heartland band that grew up on Friday night lights, Saturday night live and Sunday morning coming down, doing that in Australia takes a bit of guts or skin thick enough to take the mockery.
“I’m really late to reading the Game Of Thrones books and it’s something that the character of Tyrion Lannister says, this beautiful character trait that he says to Jon Snow,” Rose explains. “Jon Snow is worried about being a bastard or being seen as lordly amidst these characters that are nothing like him, and Tyrion says to multiple characters, take that thing that makes you unique and possibly weak, and make it your strength, and no one will ever be able to take that away from you.
“And again that harks back to the schoolyard for me: I wasn’t necessarily the most popular person for trying to emote all the time, there was nothing really cool about musical theatre or writing songs, or playing in the orchestra and stuff, but slowly I started realising that this is more or less my value. And this is what makes me unique. And even once we turned that into something cool, into a rock band, within the world of rock bands it still uncool sometimes. But for me, a song has to have this immense level of heart to it.”
Cool or not, if you go this route you have to commit, completely. As completely as Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird do. Anything else will smell of irony and falseness, or lack of courage. Ask any primary school teacher. Or even a Limp Bizkit fan.
Smiles Of Earth is out now. Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird play:
Wanderers Festival, September 23-25; Mo’s Desert Clubhouse, Gold Coast, September 30; Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane, October 1; The Cambridge, Newcastle, October 6; Oxford Art Factory, October 7; La La La’s, Wollongong, October 8; The Eastern, Ballarat, October 14; The Lab, Adelaide, October 15; The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, October 21; Euroa Music Festival, November 5; Backyard Festival, November 12.