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Dan Kelly: A Storyteller's Life

CRAIG MATHIESON talks to Dan Kelly, with photography by BEN BUTCHER.

Dan Kelly has a storyteller’s life. Stray moments of minor farce and sweet improbability orbit his everyday existence – to walk the avenues with him is to get a guided tour of previous incidents. Strolling down Brunswick St. on recent afternoon he spies the turning lane channeling out of the westward bound Johnston St and a flicker of recognition stirs itself.

“My friend’s car broke down there last Friday,” he notes. As with his songs, he sets the scene economically: 3pm, the snarl of rush hour starting to build, Kelly in the passenger seat (his spiritual home) and the car engine is kaput. Horns blare, but all they can do is hoist the bonnet and retreat to the nearest dispenser of coffee. It’s a denouement worthy of the man himself: a bother checked by a minor pleasure, safe in the knowledge that the greater scheme of things remains untouched.

He’s good company is Dan Kelly. Curious but not inquisitive, he is given to comments that can be read for both their lucid observation and droll despair. He is a man who values the sense of humour and loyalty in his friends and rarely makes a mistake when sizing up interlopers. “My judgment is pretty good,” he says. “I like real people.”

By rights Kelly should be hard up against the dread sweat of a songwriter with a looming deadline. He is but a few weeks away from recording his second album – a process that will begin with rhythm tracks being laid down in a studio before he and his bandmates, The Alpha Males, retreat to a country residence – and he has not finished demoing the songs. This is because he has not written them.

“I know what it’s going to sound like,” he calmly asserts, settled into a chair at Babka, a restaurant a block away from his recent vehicular indiscretion, “I just have to come up with another seven songs in the next three weeks. That will be interesting because it’s taken me two years to write the first four.”

Panic is not the Dan Kelly way. He is currently working on two-dozen potential tunes, adding fragments to them in a piecemeal manner, confident that they will culminate in a timely manner. “All of a sudden I’ll have 20 songs finished in the one day,” he declares, laughing at both his faith in himself and the notion that he is actually going to achieve this.

Shouldn’t he be watching people, accreting detail and so on? “I’m not the silent, watchful type,” he replies, menu in hand. “I’m the noisy, watchful type. I watch people while I’m talking their head off.” Kelly’s gaze skims the specials board and he recommends the dumplings.

Dan Kelly resides in a crumbling, ornate share house in Richmond. On the front step, behind faded palm fronds, sits debris seemingly arranged like the beginnings of a Rosalie Gascoigne tableau: a single ragged Converse sneaker and a balled-up brown shirt. Through the front door and in the first bedroom on the left, Gareth Liddiard of The Drones (and a former Alpha Male) sits on his bed, reading a newspaper.

The residence is sprawling. Six people live there; a further half dozen, including Kelly’s girlfriend, live in a similar house next door. After a spate of bedrooms, hallways splinter off the main corridor. To the west fairy lights hang across the loungeroom, with one corner of the room literally ankle-deep in stacks of vinyl, piles of CDs and sundry videotapes. Cat Power, Pink Floyd and Einsturzende Neubauten posters watch over proceedings. Beyond that there’s a kitchen where Kelly, a former employee of a seafood restaurant, likes to cook for his housemates.

Head east and you pick your way through a storage space and into a cramped home recording set-up. A copy of Guitarist magazine lies disconsolately on a keyboard, a glossy reading item of last resort for depressed Alpha Male Dan Luscombe the previous evening. Across the hall is a vocal booth, which could also be described as a cupboard and, on this day, doubles as a place to dry laundry.

In these rooms the follow-up to Kelly’s debut album, 2004’s Sing The Tabloid Blues, has been haphazardly taking shape. Technology, however, has not been kind to him. A computer rig that housed many of his rough demos and song fragments crashed and digitally burned. A fancy mobile phone that Kelly used to capture ideas whenever they came to him also imploded, taking approximately 120 one-minute audio files with it.

Nonetheless, he remains sanguine. “What can I say? I was seduced by technology,” Kelly says, shrugging his shoulders. Wearing blue suit trousers and a black t-shirt that has been washed so many times the logo has long since disappeared, Kelly is sitting in his backyard, weighing up what comes next.

“The new album follows the theme of a tropical escape and how pointless that is,” he explains, adjusting a pair of glasses which only have one arm attached to the frame because he doesn’t have the money to get them repaired. “Everything you’re trying to escape will either follow you or already be there.”

This is, in part, a reaction to Tabloid Blues. A dry, evocative disc, it was a first album about going somewhere, anywhere. “I can’t keep going somewhere,” Kelly states firmly. The stories it told were ones he’d heard or imagined, the sense of wanderlust was his own.

“Personal revelation doesn’t interest me and it rarely interests me when other people do it,” he adds. “It interests me when John Lennon does it on Plastic Ono Band, but if I tried to do that it would be useless. I try to put emotion into songs, but in terms of spelling it out I react badly. I don’t think I’m good at that.”

When it comes to his own work, Kelly is measured in his appraisal but never averse to self-deprecation. “The best gut-wrenching rock & roll is where you go to a dangerous place and you combine it with intelligence and melody,” he concedes, “but it’s really difficult to go there with what I do.”

There’s a hazy, tropical quality in the musical ideas Kelly is working on, a contrast to the more pessimistic lyrical tone. Recently he’s been developing a song called “Get Wise to the Ways of the World”, which has become defined, in part, by his distaste for “In The Summertime”, by successful and suited Sydney band, Thirsty Merc.

“When I hear a song like that I just want to kill my family,” he says. “I may make a summery record, but I refuse to be stupidly and optimistically summery. I think I’m open and happy about the way things are, but I’m cynical about the way the world is set up.”

That notion is intrinsic to Kelly’s nature. He can be committed, but not obsessive. He’s as watchful of himself as others. He’s his own overseer. But if he sounds too balanced to give himself over to the balmy dreams lurking in his new music, he is convinced that he belongs there.

“I’m ambitious. I’d have to be because it’s such a ridiculous thing to do, standing up in front of people saying, ‘Look at me! Listen to me!’ I’m driven by something because given all that, I still want to do it,” he asserts. “That’s really narcissistic, but yet I don’t want to be a star or be lauded. I want to be appreciated and I want to come up with something good.”

He pauses, and then carries on. “All my friends are in great bands and this is an experiment to see if I can get anywhere near that and come up with something that I would be embarrassed to put amongst the stuff I listen to.”

Dan Kelly has a small vertical scar that edges into the eyebrow above his left eye. He got it when he was three, playing Ring-A-Ring-A-Rosey with a sister: she threw him into a guitar case. If that suggests a portent of his future occupation, Kelly won’t bite. As much as he loves music, he doesn’t want to suggest he’s anointed. Besides, when he was young it was a cricket bat he wanted to wield.

“I wasn’t that great,” he recalls, “but I was right into it.” Kelly was a cricket obsessive in the era of David Boon and Mike Gatting, rotund players whose success encouraged a skinny kid with a bowl cut and glasses who lived on a rural property 20 kilometres south of Brisbane’s desiccated urban sprawl.

Kelly was the second oldest of six children in an Irish/Italian Catholic family. His parents were part of the exodus of Victorians to Queensland in the 1970s. “I liked growing up there,” he says. “It was solitary, but good.” When he was 13 he discovered the guitar and started to explore the world, starting with Beenleigh on Brisbane’s outer rim. “It was tropical and a bit heavy – a lot of bikers, a lot of 21-year-old guys with goatees riding around on BMX bikes while their girlfriend walked alongside them pushing a pram.”

Kelly arrived in Brisbane, to study environmental science at university, in 1990. He was just 16 (he is reticent about his exact age – “I feel young,” he jokes), a massive U2 and Midnight Oil fan, although proximity to his uncle, Paul Kelly, had already dislodged the stars from his eyes.

Brisbane introduced him to share housing and bands. His first was called Nord – “your classic Stooges/MC5/Mudhoney cross” – and it began with him jamming with the drummer. They had no mics, so Kelly would strap headphones to his face and sing into the can on left, which had a receiver.

“It sounded awesome, but it must have looked silly,” he admits. “Me in my Earth First t-shirt, a big white Stratocaster and sandals, headphones attached to my face, singing “Search and Destroy”.” Later they added a guitarist who looked like a Nazi vulture. “They were obnoxious, I was nice to everyone,” Kelly concedes.

Like the protagonists in his songs, Kelly has lived his life at a sedate pace. He learnt to write songs by paying attention to Jonathan Richman, Pavement and Custard and arrived in Melbourne in 1996. For the first four years here he and a housemate would compose songs about whatever they were doing – “going to the supermarket or eating spaghetti,” he sighs – to amuse themselves.

When he began to play he billed himself as Dank Alley for a while, not wanting to trade on his uncle’s name. Eventually he reverted to Dan Kelly, playing and recording with Paul Kelly along the way, and started to recruit the Alpha Males, although not before Dank Alley was listed alongside Vaginal Carnage in a tabloid newspaper’s round-up of seditious death metal acts.

Kelly is, he points out, the vocalist in a band, not a lone singer-songwriter. “The quicker I can get away from that the better. I’m not interested in being that,” he explains. Having initially recruited friends whose own talents meant they couldn’t commit to him long-term, the current incarnation of the Alpha Males is showing signs of stability.

As for Kelly, he’s scrapping along. After three years off the dole he’s just had to sign back up – being off the road preparing for the next disc has deprived him of his one source of income. Getting ready to head for St Kilda, where his father is visiting his uncle, Kelly picks up coins off the floor of his bedroom and from amidst the clutter of his desk to get $3.10 for the tram fare.

He picks up a grey wool jacket, locates his keys and starts walking down the street. Tall and lean, with his disassembled pair of glasses and a long gait, Kelly looks like he’s just survived a screwball comedy with Katherine Hepburn; if so, he’s about to get an upbeat ending. Rummaging in his jacket pockets he emerges with first one, then another $50 bill. His face lights up.

“I think it is money from a gig that I must have forgotten about,” he reasons. It will be another story to recount; maybe it will eventually be reborn as a song, one of the batch that will seal the breach.

“You know when you wake up at two in the morning?” Kelly asks. “I’ve had a few of them recently. I don’t know why, but I just feel that everything will be fine.”

When he turns the corner, a tram is waiting for him.

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  -   Published on Thursday, July 7 2005 by Craig Mathieson.
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