(The Fat Rubber Band - photo by Martin Philbey)
EVEN READING THIS IT’S POSSIBLE, no matter your sex, that your shoulders may broaden, your voice deepen and a sudden desire to slap your best friend on the back heartily will rise up.
It’s fair to say that a fair degree of amiable testosterone fills this Surry Hills hotel room occupied by Tex Perkins and Matt Walker, two men with great hair, varying styles of facial fur and faces that say I’ve been a few places, seen a few things, done a few more. There may be chest hair involved.
Perkins is in denim, Walker in a pearl-coloured Western shirt, and it’s Perkins name up front of their latest venture, the second album for the slow-groove blues/laidback roots rock Tex Perkins And The Fat Rubber Band. But for all intents and purposes, the pair is some singular unit, as songwriters, band-leaders and vibe-merchants.
They met in the mid-‘90s when Melbourne long-termer, Walker (a multifunction polis of a guitarist, capable of anything and described by Perkins as “a surprise package: you never know what he is up to really”) was a new solo artist and Perkins was in his peak Cruel Sea years. By then Perkins, who can feel like he’s looming over you even when he’s sitting and is built like a stockman who will be having that second steak for breakfast, thanks love, was a literal and figurative giant on the Sydney independent scene.
He’d come down more than a decade earlier from Brisbane as a 17-year-old who’d had “this stunted existence growing up in Brisbane, where everything was kind of horrible really” – from Bjelke-Petersen’s brute force police and roving bogan thugs, to questionable school days – and found an inner-city community all in (long-legged) walking distance, “and people didn’t treat me like shit”.
What took them from a couple of musicians playing together to a collaboration where they would write and work, and sometimes even think, as one?
“I’ve tried to work with other people and I don’t know, the environment, settings, timing, it just hasn’t been conducive to a natural [arrangement],” says Perkins. “But Matt and I had already been spending quite a bit of time together through the Man In Black [the semi-stage show, telling the Johnny Cash story through tales and songs, with Perkins, naturally, playing Cash] and knew each other well.”
Walker says “I reckon we both knew, even though we hadn’t really spoken about it, that we had a lot of crossover influences that informed both our music. We had been circling around, crossing paths every now and then, back to the 90s when I would support Cruel Sea”.
The timing, the Cash magic even, was right and inevitably “I started getting song ideas and thinking, shit, it would be cool if Tex sang this one, it suits him more than me,” remembers Walker. Perkins was amenable. And the appeal of the not-quite-opposites is clear.
“Matt’s just a really great player who can make really simple things sound really effective,” says Perkins. “He’s a seasoned player and you can sense the effortlessness in his playing, but also the economy: he is very direct when he needs to be. He can be anything that [the song] needs to be. That’s why our bread-and-butter gigs are duos.”
For Walker, “I reckon, stylistically, you’re not often in a situation where it feels completely right, and that’s what it’s like to me. I never think, oh I don’t want to play that song, it’s always, fuck yeah.”
He says he sees in the music and artists that they might bring to each other’s attention a commonality in “the feeling within the music, the important parts. It’s got to have an earthiness, it’s gotta have a bit of toughness, then other songs are really beautiful”.
Other World, the new album, but will be defined by the notes not played and the space not filled, even the presence not imposed. Tracks like This Monin’ (sic), and The Devil Ain’t Buyin’, are examples of songs that deliberately don’t push just when you think they might, just when you are sure they must. And that is by no means suggesting it’s a soft record; it’s a band showing restraint, the playing of Walker, drummer Roger Bergodaz, bassplayer Steve Hadley and percussionist Evan Richards sliding up almost slyly.
“I think that’s more the case with this record than the other [self-titled] record,” says Perkins. “There’s a lot more subtleties on this record; we’re not striking the hammer as hard, and it’s not as necessary to do so.”
Walker describes Other World as “sonically different to the first one”, and can pinpoint even further. “Maybe the rhythm section has a different role in this then it had on the first. Maybe the first album was a bit more guitar based – a lot of songs were written on the 12-string and that was spearheading it – but with this we were often bring in new songs fresh into the studio and the guys in the band would just set up such a solid foundation.”
Perkins backs this impression, saying “we knew each other as a unit a lot better when we came to record their second record. We were putting the band together, literally, on the first record. Everyone now knows their roles and their strengths so songs could feel almost complete very quickly.”
There is a cover of a Lucie Thorne song, a very rare gift from one of Australian songwriting’s quiet achievers, with Perkins description of her songs not a million miles from the Rubber Band at their best: “it’s an amazing combination of directness and subtlety”.
Speaking of directness, in Pretty Damn Close he sings that “My dinner is beans on dry toast/This ain’t the blues, but it’s pretty damn close”. When was the last time Tex Perkins had beans on dry toast? Really?
“Never,” he laughs.
So it’s lies then?
“It’s … a … song,” he says with a smirk. “Not everything has to be autobiographical.”
Walker comes to his partial defence. “I have had his cooked beans, but there was no toast.”
“Chilli beans. With nut meat,” says chef Perkins. “I stole the recipe from a café in Taylor Square in the 80s that used to serve nut meat chili bowl and a bagel.”
Perkins looks around at Walker, and back at me. “Am I really talking recipes now?,” and guffaws. “You asked me.”
Actually sir, I didn’t. I just wanted verification that you would ever eat beans on dry toast. But it does encourage Walker to suggest in the spirit of next year’s ARIA for best use of an Australian song in an advertisement, maybe there should be one for best recipe. Perkins for the win!
In case you had suspected, or feared, that Perkins might have gone the full hippie when he moved to the north coast of New South Wales, the 1980s nut meat experience shows at least the dabbling in vegetarianism (“we were getting the Hare Krishna stuff for nothing,” he points out. “I had a vejo girlfriend. Though I used to sneak out the hamburgers late at night.”) is long-standing.
Though not quite as long as Walker who is a life-long vegetarian, even if Walker, like me, doesn’t remember Laurie’s Vegetarian near the hospital that used to draw Perkins to Darlinghurst.
He can’t believe neither of us have a memory of the place. I can’t believe that where once a couple of musicians remembering Darlinghurst might have been talking about where they used to score back in the day, here we are talking about restaurant recommendations. Rock ‘n’ roll people, rock ‘n’ roll.
This gentleness, this amiability, even extends to what may sound like straightforward advice, like that in one new song, Nobody Owes You Nothin’, that offers some hard-earned – dare we say, manly – wisdom.
“What I find with advice-based songs, philosophical songs, ethics-based songs, they’re actually pointing back at myself. Me reminding myself of stuff,” says Perkins. “And I think a lot of it’s based on fear: I wouldn’t want this to happen. I almost write a song to prepare myself for this moral or ethical situation I might find myself in.
“A lot of times you write a song in the situation will literally appear a couple of years later, and you go, fuck this is what that song was about. So you write a song that sounds like you are pointing outwards and it’s actually very much inwards.”
Do either of them listen to themselves, take their own advice?
“Eventually,” says Perkins, as Walker chuckles beside him, knowingly. “Eventually. After you’ve fucked up.”
Let’s not forget though that this is Tex Perkins the grandfather, as the first single from the new album highlights: Brand New Man opening with an image of Perkins driving to see his new grandson (he already had a granddaughter). “Heading out to see my kin/With only one arm getting burned … I’m off to meet/A brand new man.”
The drive was accompanied by a tape Walker had made of a song idea – “a pretty well-formed demo that just needed words,” Walker says – the lyrics coming to Perkins as he drove.
“I thought they were maybe throwaway lyrics, just so I can get the ball rolling, but it led me to the phrase, just as the chord changes, ‘brand new man’. Right, that sounds like the fucking chorus, that’s the title and that’s a great concept,” says Perkins, who points out that Walker is also a grandfather. “Sometimes the mundane or obvious can lead you to something meaningful and unexpected, so that first verse was written the first time I was listening to the song.”
The exchange of ideas, the spark of inspiration from one or the other, seems fairly consistent to their evident satisfaction. The construction of the song and arrangements flow just as easily. Sometimes the ideas coming almost too frequently.
“I had this idea about the devil not buying people souls anymore,” says Walker. “I kept saying to Tex, just imagine if the devil just said, nuh, closing shop, you can deal with your own sins and shit, I’m not doing deals anymore. But I couldn’t really get it past that.”
Perkins takes up the story: “That came up when we were working on another song in the studio, and I went into the toilet and then remembered that Matt had sent me a demo that morning. I played it while I was taking a crap and I went, fuck, this is great. And by the time I’d washed up and re-entered the room I was going ‘what you sent me this morning was fucking great, we should do that’.”
More than another good song, have we discovered the Australian version of the French phrase, esprit d’escalier, the riposte that comes to you on the stairs after you’ve left the room? We could call it esprit d’lecrappiere, yes?
“It is in these closed-space environments that I do a lot of my work,” says Perkins, not at all deterred by my attempt at humour. “The car environment is perfect because you are sealed, you put the music in and that’s all you’ve got. Toilets, bathrooms, cars …”
Don’t worry kids, that’s men’s talk.
Tex Perkins and The Fat Rubber Band’s Other World is out February 10. The band will be touring nationally through February and March, beginning with Sydney's Factory Theatre on February 4. For dates and details visit texperkins.com