FROM THE OUTSIDE it may have looked like Truckload Of Sky, an album of unrecorded/unreleased David McComb songs written in the last years of his life in the 1990s, was a tribute to him by friends who called themselves Friends of David McComb.
Maybe it grew over time into something between a celebration and a civic duty to those who knew him in The Triffids, or The Blackeyed Susans, or his solo recordings, or at the very least were aware of his status as one of the best Australian songwriters of his or any generation. Or to those who should have known.
All of which would be a lovely story, not untrue, and probably enough to attract attention to a live performance such as the one on Thursday in Sydney and next month in Melbourne. But it was a bit more complicated than that.
“I’m not sure it started as a tribute; it started as a sort of self-indulgent thing where we said it’s going to a studio and make a semi-decent effort of recording some of these songs. We weren’t even committed to releasing it,” says former Triffid and McComb’s brother, Rob, one of the founding Friends Of. “But then, quickly, it became all of those things you mentioned. I was thinking today that it’s almost now like Dave’s second solo album, just sung by different singers and [he chuckles] taken out of his hands.”
Along with early Triffid/later Blackeyed Susan, Phil Kakulas, long-time Triffid and unofficial keeper of the McComb songwriting legacy, “Evil” Graham Lee, and regular collaborators with David, JP Shilo and Mark Dawson, Rob McComb came to the conclusion that these songs that they heard on home demo tapes or occasionally a live recording with David’s final project, Costar, needed putting down on tape in some properly finished fashion.
“As soon as we heard the songs that Dave had just sung into his cassette recorder in his lounge room, they came across as clear, strong songs. Like any great singer songwriter, the song is evident with just the voice and guitar or whatever instrument is going on,” Rob says. “We started the project as let’s just have fun in the studio but with a bit of discipline of old age or whatever, it became let’s make as good as we can versions with artists who are available and enthusiastic for the project.”
How to do that when sometimes there was only the bones of the song, and sometimes an open-ended possibility for the song? How to respect the circumstances of some of that writing, as David succumbed to a congenital heart disease in a body that had been battered by a peripatetic lifestyle and no small quantity of drugs – circumstances reflected in some stark imagery and almost blunt recognition of failing health? How to find voices to do justice?
Take time (the recording was spread out over two years). Be bold.
“This is very much a tribute to his songwriting and his musicality,” says Rob of the album and shows. “The heaviest song that he’s written is on the record [Kiss Him (He’s History)]. That song, we did have a recording of him playing it live with his band Costar, straight out of the mixing desk, so we had some idea as to what could happen with it. But we didn’t necessarily feel that restricted by that; we knew Dave well enough that he would be open to suggestions and to follow the clues that are within the song itself.
“A good example of that would be Make Believe We’re Not Here In Hell, where we knew how to play the songs and the chords but it needed to be thought of differently, so we stripped back completely to piano and a little bit of other things. That’s something where we have no idea whether Dave would have done that or not, but I think he would have approved of the end result.”
We could probably reckon that David, who had experimented with styles and sounds from the earliest rough recordings of The Triffids in late 1970s Western Australia to his songwriting in London and, New York in the 1990s, would have approved of the fact that the songs were being approach respectfully but not reverentially. Not just by his old friends and vocal contemporaries such as Angie Hart, Shilo and Rob Snarski, but younger singers like Romy Vager of RVG, Simon Breed, and Alexander Gow of Oh Mercy.
“We were keen to experiment with in his writing. People like Phil Kakulas who had worked so closely with Dave for decades, and to some extent Rob Snarski as a singer [in The Blackeyed Susans, alongside David McComb], had the confidence to take Dave’s song and take it to a place where we could feel we were honouring the song without paying homage,” says Rob.
“[David] would have been appalled at that idea [of homage]. It was more than once the song is written it can create worlds of its own, like all great songs. That’s why I say it’s the second solo album he never made, done as cover versions.”
Not that the elder McComb had too many worries about the songs’ capacity for interpretation and change. After all, he says, “when I first joined the Triffids I thought these are such great songs that no matter what crude attempts we had at arrangements and performance, the songs would stand up to all the battering and chaos in between”. And he was proved right.
Something else that was proved right was the value of taking time, even if more recently that’s been forced on the project which was meant to be unveiled on stage in 2020 when the album was released.
While not all the singers on the album could be part of this week’s show, the Covid-induced delay has seen the album and show become part of a wider exposure of David McComb alongside Jonathan Alley’s bio-doc, Love In Bright Landscapes which screened in cinemas in May and June, and is due out on DVD later this year.
For Rob, “the album and the film are both documents of [David’s] art” and living proof of Graham Lee’s oft-expressed hope that through these revivals and rediscoveries “the audience will get to know David just a little bit better”. To which Rob adds, “the other corollary is when we started recording the songs, not to say a spooky presence was there, but we felt we got to know him a bit better through these songs.”
With just a touch of the proselytiser, a serving of admiring brother, a familiar portion of outright fan (and a bit of the spruiker for this show), Rob offers this recommendation for album, show and more of the tao of David McComb: “It’s the best way to remember him to become lost in his world.”
The Friends Of David McComb play the Factory Theatre, Marrickville, on Friday, September 16, and Brunswick Ballroom on October 8.