(The director's cut of the interview, and bonus extras)
TIM FREEDMAN IS HAPPY, MAYBE EVEN BUOYANT: “I’ve been enjoying writing and playing and singing more than I have in 15 years,” he says over a bowl of (amazingly overpriced) pasta as he begins the rounds for the first Whitlams album in 16 years.
He will admit though that his catalogue, mostly with The Whitlams but also one solo album in 2011, is replete with “sad songs about blokes”. Usually sad songs about sad blokes: those who died, those who were left behind, those who wished they’d done more, and occasionally those who haven’t quite worked out how to be acceptable blokes for the women in their lives.
A full history of The Whitlams, one of the most successful genuinely independent bands in Australia for nigh-on 30 years, can’t be told without reference to the deaths, possibly at their own hands, of two original members, Anthony Hayes (a.k.a. Stevie Plunder) and Andy Lewis, and the troubled circumstances each man suffered through before his death.
Blow Up The Pokies, written by Freedman and Greta Gertler, addressed Lewis’ gambling addiction, while The Curse Stops Here saw the singer determined to survive the loss of those friends and collaborators and do something meaningful. Both songs became defining Whitlams tracks and fan favourites, if not necessarily always understood.
“It’s not about trying to express sadness, it’s really about trying to express friendship, and how much we mean to each other,” Freedman says of these signature songs. “So I’m not trying to be sad, I’m trying to create a depth of friendship.”
Even so, Freedman will not accept that it’s his default setting, arguing “I think the fellow in I Make Hamburgers and You Sound Like Louis Burdett, and Thank You For Loving Me At My Worse, three of my most successful songs, are about being jocular and having a ball.”
However, if any record might justify a set of sad songs about blokes it would be this new Whitlams album, Sancho, which is named after and features two songs about longtime tour manager and live sound mixer, Greg Weaver, who died suddenly of a heart attack in May 2019.
A constant in the Whitlams camp since 1997’s breakthrough album, Eternal Nightcap, even as the band itself went through numerous lineups, Weaver was dubbed by Freedman the Sancho to his “impractical, impetuous, disorderly” Don Quixote.
Quixotically, Sancho is anything but glum: the title track and Sancho In Love, filled with in-jokes, character assessments and a list of Weaver’s favourite things, come with unalloyed joy and a sense of the world of a touring band and crew who live in each other’s pockets for weeks or months or years on end.
“I’m not letting someone that wonderful go without putting down what we loved about him and the good times that we had. I was very conscious of not saying, ‘and now I’m sitting here feeling very sad’,” says Freedman.
“It was also a very different kind of death: it was random. He was a fellow who didn’t drink or smoke and it made no sense to anyone. It made no sense to Paul Kelly or Boy And Bear, or Ball Park Music [for whom Weaver also worked]; it was a bowling ball from the left of centre. Also, it wasn’t just me dealing with that, it was the whole band. He was everyone’s friend [and] I allowed myself to be self-indulgent: I’m just gonna write this for the fellas, so we can all get together when it’s recorded and feel Greg in the room, dancing behind the desk. Which is a really fond memory.”
Joy is not a stranger on Sancho with The Whitlams – guitarist Jak Housden, drummer Terepai Richomnd, and bass player Warwick Hornby alongside keyboardist Freedman – often punching through like a classic ‘70s pop/rock band, and even songs about a low rent criminal just missing the big score or an old man hopelessly falling in love finding reasons to smile.
Nor is joy a stranger in the life of this slightly grizzled 57-year-old with a teenage daughter and a steady relationship, who sports the lean, tanned, occasionally shaved look of the relaxed, middle-aged surfer/philosopher, and the conversation to match.
“The easiest way to find meaning in life is to keep doing what you are actually quite good at and take a little bit of pleasure in occasionally being excellent. Everyone from Socrates onward would say virtue is basically just trying to be good at something and applying your talents to it,” Freedman says, explaining why he has dived back into music full-time.
“I do want to give joy with my music. There is no greater joy, and I forgot all about that for seven or eight years because I was a bit frazzled and I needed to find my enthusiasm.”
He never closed the book on music, playing occasional shows, solo and with The Whitlams, without actually committing more than the moment – “I didn’t intend taking that long off; I stepped out of the room, and just didn’t step back in”. But in a twist of perversity, he found that enthusiasm while writing the song Sancho, just before Covid hit and wiped out much of the entertainment industry for two years.
“I wasn’t ambitious. But I’m actually ambitious now: I want to start doing more shows, bigger shows, better shows. I’ve got my energy back, my neck isn’t hurting after I had the operation: I can play the piano again without being in pain,” Freedman says. “When you have to take painkillers and champagne just to get onstage … it’s no way to meet your grandchildren.”
Instead of champagne and painkillers there was something that filled the void while music took a step back. Something hinted at on Sancho, which is dotted with small time crooks, gambling references and the language of the track.
“In the time that I was having time off [from music] I was on the periphery of the horseracing culture and to be honest, I was a full-time gambler for four years,” says Freedman. “I really enjoyed it because I could live at home and there was still this real adrenaline shot: 70 minutes into a set at the Enmore Theatre is very similar adrenaline to yelling ‘GO’ at the television when you are white-knuckling a favourite. I’m not doing it any more but I did it for a few years and enjoyed it.”
At the same time as picking up the kind of yarns that used to be attached to what the newspapers called “colourful racing identities”, the whispers and innuendo that have long fuelled Sydney conversations, wasn’t Freedman risking more than adrenalin?
“I had a good time with the horses. I think one afternoon I won 300 grand, one Saturday afternoon. That took pressure off that year,” he says, adding almost defensively. “Yeah, I was serious. But when you betting that much, it means you’re losing some Saturdays.”
Still, he won often enough for several of the major betting agencies to refuse to take his bets anymore, he claims, preferring money from people more likely to lose consistently. “If you go close to making 3% on turnover, they don’t need you, because you’re not a loser. It’s just a high-tech version of the pokies, it’s no different. You are allowed to win, it’s just not that common.”
Come on though, with his past he must get the dark irony.
“I’ve never talked about it because I’m the guy who wrote Blow Up The Pokies, why would I be a gambler? Except I wasn’t losing,” he says, seriously. “I had to stop in the end because you always stop when the quality of your data diminishes, and I’m not a gambler. It’s like being in music for 20 years and not becoming an alcoholic: you should be able to bet professionally for three or four years and not become a gambler.
“It’s all about pushing your glass up against danger, then turning around and walking away.”
Sancho is out now. The Whitlams will be touring through February, March and April. Dates and tickets at www.thewhitlams.com/tour
A version of this story was originally published by theguardian.com/au
And now ... three bonus cuts from the Tim Freedman interview.
1. FROM BOTH SIDES NOW
WE’RE ALL THINKING IT: nothing says 2022 like a song about Anthony Blunt, the central character in The Whitlams’ Cambridge Three (“The great leap from ennui to action, an historical expectation/In the shade of the illuminati”).
Like songwriter Tim Freedman, you of course know Blunt as a member of, and principal recruiter for, the ring of Cambridge University-educated Soviet spies working within British Intelligence during and after World War II.
The ring’s most famous members were Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean, the Cambridge Three, who each escaped to Russia (where they were treated as heroes, though drunken dissolution became their common fate) before they could be nabbed by MI5 or grass up other spies.
Or maybe you know Blunt as the Keeper Of The Queen’s Pictures, an art historian and writer (everyone who’s anyone, darling, knows his monograph on Nicolas Poussin is the best of its kind) who despite being discovered as a spy in the early ‘60s was allowed to keep his job at Buckingham Palace, and his knighthood, until Margaret Thatcher outed him in 1979.
Naturally it’s a tale that ends up on the new album, Sancho.
“You have to blame John Banville for that, one of my favourites,” says Freedman of the Irish author and winner of both the Booker and Franz Kafka prizes. “I’ve probably only read three books in my life twice – I prefer to read a new one – and one of them is The Untouchable [a fictional account of Blunt’s life] by John Banville. I gave it to my Mum for Christmas, and she loved it, I’ve gifted it to people: it’s just the most beautiful book.
“I was rereading it because Mum had said how much she enjoyed it and then Jak [Housden, Whitlams guitarist] had this chorus ‘London burns again’, and I said ‘Jak I’d like to work on that, I love your melody, I can hear Anthony Blunt’. So I just went for it.”
What about Blunt and the others appealed to this avowed political leftist and republican who grew up in Sydney’s northern suburbs and attended one of the city’s major private schools?
“I love the fact that those fellows were so at the heart of the establishment but hated the pudgy boys from Eton, and got so close to the centre, working at Buckingham Palace, being gay, believing in communism.”
Incidentally, it’s not the only art-and-crime connection on Sancho, with another song, Ballad Of Bertie Kidd, mentioning Pro Hart, Norman Lindsay and a mispronounced Ken Done.
“Just name-checking some cultural references,” Freedman grins.
2. HELP ME, I THINK I’M FALLING
(The Whitlams: Warwick Hornby, Jak Housden, Tim Freedman, Terapai Richmond. Photo by Scott Gelston.)
THE LIVE MUSIC LIFE described in the title track, Sancho, and Sancho In Love on this new The Whitlams album, reflects a world that hasn’t existed for two years now, and who knows when we’ll see it back in full. As a senior figure in an industry without the political clout to match its presence in the economy, what does Tim Freedman make of the support for arts and artists by federal and state governments?
“I’ve heard that if you run festivals, it’s easier to get money, and then they are trusting that the money filters down to musicians. Do I want to be upset about that? Maybe that’s the only way to really do it, otherwise you turn into the Australia Council pitting musicians against musician,” he says after a long pause.
“Then you get a band like mine, that fits between genres and never plays a lot of festivals because we’ve always paddled our own canoe and done our own tours. On this tour, I’m the promoter; I haven’t got money from anyone else to do it, I’ve re-mortgaged the house so I can pay the bills for the first five weeks. I don’t get any of that festival money.
“I reckon I deserve some of that money because I know that last week there was little Covid scare in our camp and I cancelled a gig in Mudgee, and 26 people lost work that night. That’s how good a medium-sized business like me is for the ecology of the arts sector.”
Is enough being done to keep his business, and the arts generally, alive?
“I don’t want to generalise so I want to talk particularly about me. I’m gonna be fine as long as the venues still exist in a year. I’m interested in Century Events, who run [Sydney venues] The Factory, The Enmore and The Metro, having a valid business model. I’m interested in The Corner Hotel [in Melbourne] still being able to have gigs in 12 months.
"Personally, I’m going to be fine, as long as the infrastructure is there when the dust blows off. I never argue with the government giving money to a venue.”
3. COME IN FROM THE COLD
(John Laws and his golden microphone.)
HOW VERY Sydney.
Tim Freedman’s choice for lunch is the restaurant strip at Woolloomooloo Wharf, the place where old school radio hosts and media personalities such as John Laws, Bob Rogers and John Singleton drink, dine, drink and publicly feud – sometimes physically – before appearing in the weekend gossip pages.
Indeed, while a few tables away the oft-controversial surgeon Charlie Teo is with a small party, the waiter approaches us at our outside table and offers to move us to “Mr Laws’ table”, as the former golden voice of AM radio isn’t riding the golf cart from his apartment at the end of the wharf for lunch today.
Freedman, who has had his own radio show on a local station for some years but has yet to acquire a Lawsian gold microphone, gleefully accepts. We don’t know what Mr Laws usually has so make do with oysters to start, then just wait for some of that glitter to rub off on us through the lunch. Or some of that tabloid notoriety to follow us.
We’re still waiting. Should we have thrown some punches?