The elegantly dapper Ron S. Peno, unable to play with his regular band The Superstitions, has been reading a lot during lockdown: Simon Reynolds and others on the music industry, memoirs of John Cooper Clarke, among them. He’s fascinated and inspired by some of the stories, gleefully recounting some of the tales.
But given he’s a man with a 40-year+ musical history of his own, from glam rock in Narrabri and proto-punk in Sydney to starting the psych rock dramatists Died Pretty in Brisbane and, a quarter of a century later a kind of alt. country with Darling Downs, there must a book in him.
“I can hardly write a lyric,” he says, flamboyantly. “That’s been enough to grapple with for the past 38 years.”
More seriously, he admits that he has given it some thought but for now, no. Instead, he decided at the beginning of lockdown that he would be “doing some art”, inspired by friends such as Kim Salmon (whose own revived group, Scientists, had to watch a new album slide through without much live support). That plan though also hit a hurdle.
“You don’t have that thing that pushes people. I’d design something and go, hmm, and then I’ll come back to it in three months. Or not at all,” Peno says. “There are canvases under the bed that are collecting dust. I have ideas, but putting them into practice, forget it.”
He pauses. “But I can write a not bad song.”
That he can, better than ever actually on the evidence of, Do The Understanding, the fourth album with The Superstitions which refines further the group’s hold on quietly intense, soul-based, adult rock. Though he is a particular kind of lyricist, the kind who shows rather than tells, or has us imagining more than immediately grasping.
If he were to write a book, it would shift something in the Ron Peno persona, which has been physically demonstrative – short, bullet-like, in his prime part Iggy Pop-pliable, part Jim Morrison-compelling, he remains one of the most remarkable frontmen of Australian rock – imaginatively demonstrative too, but pretty reticent to reveal much, if any, of his personal life.
“The book would be the same. It would be another character, and that could be me, I don’t know,” Peno says. “My [songs] are more imagery. I like descriptive: instead of saying I went there blah blah blah, I like interesting words that people might say why did you say that sort of thing, like ‘uncloud the day’ or something like that. I find that – dare I say it, because I’m not – poetic. Interesting.”
He is an immersive writer, a painter of sorts you could say, but he’s also someone with enough plain facts of life – like a serious cancer diagnosis in 2019, a year after he and his co-writer and guitarist, Cam Butler began working on this latest batch of songs – to bring “reality” into the imaginative.
Not that Peno wants to spend much time talking about cancer, two years into it, summing the state of things now as “we are keeping an eye on it”. But he does concede there have been two significant positive outcomes. The first of them, his voice.
“I’m quite proud of these vocals actually. After 38 years I can say that I’m really loving these vocals,” he says of the new songs, adding with a laugh that threatens to turn into a buoyant cackle. “Because of what happened to me personally in 2019, I’ve had to obviously never drink again and never, ever smoke again, and I eat healthy with lots of fruit and vegetables, and you think why didn’t I do this 40 years ago? Why couldn’t I have been this nice 38 years ago?”
The second upside can be found in the natural extension of the philosophy behind the album’s title: a turn to the positive that isn’t about blind optimism, but rather trust and hope.
The album ends on a slow, almost crushed tone with Peno asking “Are we broken still?” and playing out with the thought that “I think it’s gonna rain”, yet it’s not as a gloomy forecast but in his mind the cleansing rain that might bring the fresh and the better.
You could read it as a reaffirmation that Peno didn’t draw a line in 2019, the world didn’t draw a line in 2020, and Ron S Peno and The Superstitions are not playing at the end of time.
“I’m not one of these writers. I don’t like when people jump on and go oh this one is about coronavirus, this one is about my cancer,” Peno says, with a touch of distaste for the idea. “No. I can tell you about it if you want, but I’m not gonna really write about it. I might putth some little hints in here and there, how it’s affecting me, it might just be one of those lines like ‘a river of a lie’.”
Which brings us back to Peno the reluctant memoirist, someone always as careful about what he didn’t say as what he did, but also Peno, the storyteller who conveyed stories. After a couple of years of all of us living literally, of everything genuinely being life or death, lockdown or freedom, there’s a place for imagination and poetry and undefined feeling.
We may not know exactly what he is addressing song-to-song, but we are in no doubt that we are feeling something, and that we are immersed in it.
“It’s not gonna change lives, or anything like that, but I’d like people to listen to it and find comfort in it,” Peno says of this new album. “I don’t know whether it’s because of personal issues, but I’ve changed my attitude on so many things. I’ve said to friends, this is what we do: we create, we are special people in whatever way, shape, or form. I say to Dave [Faulkner, of the Hoodoo Gurus] and Kim and Cam, while we can’t perform, let’s not let go, always keep active creatively: think of song titles, think of lyrics, think of songs, immersing ourselves and creativity.
“We have a gift, no matter how great or small, and getting it out to people and being positive, giving joy, making people go ‘that’s wonderful’, in these challenging, uncertain times I want to be there to go, listen to this, it’s going to be alright. We will get through it.”
Do The Understanding is out now.