Heart/Noise: The Ballad of Bluebottle Kiss
Jamie Hutchings looks back on 12 years of blood, sweat and fears in the studio
“I think that between your heart and your mouth there’s a weird passage, but music is a melding, a marriage between noise and words that makes sense, in a nonsensical kind of way. It’s a contradiction, but that’s why it’s a unique language.” – Jamie Hutchings
The album fades up on a dispute between two voices; a rapid-fire exchange in flat Australian accents.
“It’s too close to the mic,” says the first.
“It sounds good, though,” comes the argumentative response.
“Yeah, I know,” is the placation, “but not too close …”
“Starting again,” comes the command, straight over the top.
With that abrupt cue, the second voice begins a song without further pause, launching off along a finger-plucked acoustic melody with steady momentum but slightly uneven execution, like a trip along an old, bitumen highway. The singer tells us that he’s driving south, and that, “Neil Young’s on the radio/singing something tragic”, which suits because the song is drawn from a similar writerly tradition – one in which a lone traveller pits themselves against a landscape that is both a solace and a menace. We learn that “the summer sky is a well-done charcoal black”, a detail that in other blunter hands could sound rudely apocalyptic, but here conveys exactly nothing more or less than the relentless, baking heat of a shadeless road at midday.
He is close to the mic, the singer, which means that long after the fact the recording still conveys a particular immediacy, as if the song were unfolding just over to the left of your shoulder. Despite the closeness of the basic elements – voice and guitar – there is an expansiveness to the sound, a spacious melancholy built from the hiss of half-inch reel tape; the mid-distant swish of passing traffic; the clatter of drumsticks and, of course, the twisting emotional geography of the lyrics, where a dark sky mirrors a dark road and a dark heart. The further the song travels out the more emphatic it becomes, as if loss and becoming lost are the only places where stories might actually be found. “Drove past some rusted burnt-out shack/There’s beauty in the madness” runs the last verse, like an inside-out affirmation, before ending with a chorus that gives the song its title: ‘Beautifully Tragic’. And then the singer breaks off with an insouciant sniff into the microphone, withdrawing from the song, as if to say, “What’s next?”
What was next was a long, as yet unfinished journey for the Sydney band known as Bluebottle Kiss. They remain one of this country’s strangest, loveliest, most enigmatic bands; a stubborn presence on the local radar for more than twelve years, unswayed by fast-changing fashions or by the vicious, crash-and-burn career cycles that characterise the music industry. With the recent release of Doubt Seeds, the Bluebottle Kiss discography stands at six albums, six EPs and nine singles stuffed with B-sides, a testament to the band’s restless sense of exploration.
“There’s nothing worse than a band who produce a really stellar first album and then everything else they do pales in comparison,” says Jamie Hutchings, singer, songwriter, and consistent musical force behind Bluebottle Kiss.
Hutchings sits opposite me on a winter’s afternoon in the harbourside offices of his current record label, Nonzero, with a face as remarkably unchanged over the years as his singing voice. With his floppy haircut and penchant for onstage outfits in variations on brown – chocolate velvet jackets, paired with neatly pressed teal shirts – he could still pass for twentysomething, and that singing voice remains the kind of sound that some might refer to as a ‘deal breaker’: throaty, sometimes rasping, pitting emotion over accuracy. But it’s a unique voice, one that never lacks in courage or reach, and that’s the kind of thing that is important to Hutchings.
“For me, there’s no space for caution in music,” he says emphatically. The next record is always “something different, taking a new direction, whether that’s sideways or forward or wherever.”
Bluebottle Kiss have always worked at their own pace, but by no means has it been a tardy one. Hutchings is a genuinely prolific songwriter who is often writing two albums in advance of what’s being recorded, and though many of their records are deleted or otherwise difficult to find, this only makes the process of discovering them all the more intriguing. “I think it’s nice to discover a band for the first time and realise that they’ve got a whole bunch of material you can go back and forage through,” says Hutchings of his voluminous back catalogue.
"John [O’Donnell] really thought, ‘OK, I’ve gotta try and make this band sell some records.’ He got me to play solo at a lot of different record company dos … They were like toothpaste conventions"
So let’s go back.
Bluebottle Kiss began recording their first album, 1995’s Higher Up The Firetrails – of which ‘Beautifully Tragic’ is the opening track – in late 1994, on the day that Jamie Hutchings turned 23. Producer Wayne Connolly recorded it in four days at Bondi Pavilion theatre, “because I was determined not to use a recording studio”, Hutchings says. ‘Beautifully Tragic’ survived in the Bluebottle Kiss setlist as late as 2005, but today Hutchings sums up his band’s debut as “pretty funny”, and laughs good-humouredly when I describe it to him as naïve. Even back then, he wasn’t entirely happy with it. “By the time we recorded it, I was already over the songs and I was already writing better songs … When I listened to it back the first time I thought: ‘This sounds like Tumbleweed’.”
More than any other Bluebottle Kiss recording, Higher Up The Firetrails sounds of its time, caught indelibly in that mid-90s moment when distorted, down-tuned guitars ruled the airwaves. Not that Bluebottle Kiss were getting much radio play: even compared to their grunge peers, their sound was dense and wilfully difficult. A long-time admirer of rock experimentalists such as Sonic Youth and The Church, Hutchings was determined that his band would not be an easy sell.
“I really wanted people to be for us or against us,” he says, “I really liked the idea of having some sort of legacy. I liked the idea that even if we didn’t make any money, people would hear the music and it would remind them of something. I wanted to be part of people’s lives rather than just entertainment.”
Silverchair, Something For Kate and, er, Ammonia became the labelmates of Bluebottle Kiss when the band were signed to Murmur, the boutique ‘alternative’ imprint of Sony, during the post-Seattle A&R gold rush. Their colleagues went on to platinum records and massive tours. Bluebottle Kiss did not. “We were lucky to make as many records as we did [on Murmur],” Hutchings laughs. “John O’Donnell [then head of Murmur, now head of EMI] had a real soft spot for the band,” he says. “When he signed silverchair and they did so well, the label were like: ‘You’re fantastic! You can do whatever you want!’ So he said, ‘I’m gonna sign Bluebottle Kiss’.”
Cue the noise of Sony executives clearing their throats in disbelief. Higher Up The Firetrails swung from the delicate ‘Beautifully Tragic’ to the rifftastic ‘Paean For Sandpaper Mouth’, although Hutchings declares his favourite track to be ‘Requiem For The Holden’, a squealing, surf-rock echo chamber. “That was the first song I ever wrote that I felt really good about,” he adds, “and I still think that it was the first time where we found our sound.”
But the variety-hour dabblings of Higher Up The Firetrails were to be nothing compared to the fierce eclecticism of its hasty follow-up, the 1995 EP Double Yellow Tarred. Compared to their debut, “it’s twenty times better,” says Hutchings, who remains justifiably proud of the release. “We never play any songs from it live [now], because I think it’s of a certain time, but it’s one of my favourites. I think it’s one of the best things we ever did.”
Those looking for a way through the wide sonic terrain recently covered by Doubt Seeds could do worse than seek out a copy of Double Yellow Tarred, which is motivated by a similar desire to explore several different, self-contained musical universes. The EP initially pushes a listener down the rabbit hole with ‘Raymond’, a fable about “a mid-life crisis at 21” rent in half by the revving of feedback and jump-cut television samples; a lullaby which steps off into sonic freefall and creates a rather convincing impression of a troubled mind imploding.
“We had huge fights over ‘Raymond’, over that middle section,” remembers Hutchings. “Everyone was like, ‘This is ridiculous! What are you doing? You’re wrecking a perfectly good song!’”
In a way, the chaos of its opening track reflected the band’s internal relationships during the making of Double Yellow Tarred: Hutchings and his fellow band members Ben Fletcher (bass) and Peter Noble (drums) were barely talking. “The communication within the band was terrible,” Hutchings comments, “but I took advantage of that. They’d storm off and I did exactly everything that I wanted to do.”
But sometimes the “shambles” of recording coalesced into something truly special, where the strengths of each Bluebottle Kiss member were judiciously highlighted. ‘Elmer’s Gone’ is one such moment, a languorous, country-tinged reverie which, like a distant cousin to Underground Lovers’ ‘Las Vegas’, has a vastness that, “feels like you’ve suddenly parked in the desert,” as Hutchings describes it.
There are two geographical leitmotifs in the Bluebottle Kiss catalogue: roads and oceans, the former of which will always be particularly resonant for any band that spends countless hours driving up and down Australia’s highways. “I remember when Double Yellow Tarred came out that someone described it as ‘very Australian sounding’,” Hutchings says. “We were doing lots of overnight drives and you’re in that headspace, especially at that age, where you haven’t got any real responsibilities, and you feel like you could just stumble out of the van and never be seen again. You’ve got nothing else to live for but the band … You’d be in Hay or somewhere and there’d be so many stars and it would be so quiet, and it always struck me as so powerful. I just loved it.”
“I’m a signpost on a highway/I’m so switched off/I’m a flatline/I’m double yellow tarred,” sings Hutchings on ‘Elmer’s Gone’, harmonising with Fletcher against the slow beat of a tambourine, in a two-vocal approach that was soon to become a trademark of the Bluebottle Kiss sound. “Ben was always such a great singer, a very natural singer straight away,” comments Hutchings. Their vocal harmonies evolved partly because “I wanted him to be more involved. He was a very good performer and really loved being on stage, more than I did, so it made sense to work to his strengths.”
Alongside Crow’s Halcyon Days and Gaslight Radio’s Torchin’ Towns, Hankerin’ Homes, Double Yellow Tarred remains one of the great, ‘lost’ Australian EPs of the 1990s, a record brimming with a confidence that belies its tumultuous origins. “What I like about that record is that it’s so uncompromising,” Hutchings says today. “It almost feels like it wasn’t made by us – it has its own identity.”
When Tim Rogers asked in his plaintive tenor, “Now what kind of mess have you gone and got yourself into?” on the title track to You Am I’s 1996 album Hourly Daily, the answer could have been Fear Of Girls. Released in the same year, Fear Of Girls is the nightmarish underside to Hourly Daily’s sun-warmed Sydney lives. Where Hourly Daily is an afternoon of blue sky and telegraph wires, Fear Of Girls is a freezing, rainy night spent waiting for a train that never arrives. An exploration of “suburban surrealism”, the songs are set in darkened rooms besieged by rising tides, ticking clocks and chattering insects that prevent sleep. “It is quite claustrophobic,” concedes Hutchings of this second Bluebottle Kiss album.
Yet beginning with its cover image of a ghost child perched on the seawall of Coogee Beach, Fear Of Girls is also the band’s most epic, oceanic record, in many ways an attempt to capture the “ferocious” nature of the band’s hometown. “I do think of us as having a sense of place in what we do,” Hutchings says. “Sydney is a coastal, harbour town: there’s a lot of isolated spots to escape to, like the northern or southern heads of the harbour which are kind of forbidding, and where the ocean’s really ferocious. I used to spend a lot of time wandering around those spots when we started, just wasting time or thinking of ideas for songs. I think some of that is in our music.”
A true cult album, Fear Of Girls is, in the very best sense, a spectacular failure. At fifteen tracks and 65 minutes it is “a sprawl” which in some ways went against Hutchings’ better instincts. “I don’t like long records,” he comments. “I find it hard to listen to a record for more than 45 minutes.” However, Fear Of Girls represented the first, and, in many ways, the only chance that Bluebottle Kiss had to “make a proper studio record with a proper big budget,” and they took it, working with American producer Jack Endino, who had endeared himself to the band through his work with eccentric American indie band Afghan Wigs.
Despite its lack of overall cohesion – a weakness that would spur Hutchings on to make the next few Bluebottle Kiss records “very tight, exploring one idea” – Fear Of Girls contains some of the band’s best and (for their long-term fans) most beloved songs, most of them gut-wrenching in their raw, emotional vulnerability. ‘Barbed Wire Star’ is an unadorned acoustic ballad that sounds like it was taped in the world’s loneliest bedroom, while the whiplash terror of ‘Outside Are The Dogs’ underlined the album’s atmosphere of encroaching darkness with the bitterest irony: “I’m not as scared as I once was,” runs the opening line.
“As a life experience it was very memorable,” he says, choosing his words slowly, “cause there wasn’t much difference between us and the bum on the street"
The best and the most ferocious moment on Fear Of Girls is to be found on the album’s penultimate track, ‘Ice On the Road’, the origins of which lay in a sleepy instrumental on Double Yellow Tarred.
“Once, I was dozing and dreamt that I was kind of levitating through all these icy townships, and the ‘Ice On the Road’ motif was playing through it, kind of creepy and disjointed,” Hutchings explains. “As soon as I woke, I recorded it on my 4-track; it was raining so I recorded that too and then it thundered, synchronicity … All that is on the version on Double Yellow Tarred which is that 4-track version.”
The version that appears on Fear Of Girls is a much grander affair: it’s the sound of a band overreaching themselves, and succeeding. The spidery guitar motif has strengthened into something metallic, yet abrasive, like ancient rust. A piano helps pick out the central melody, and, at first, the arrangement circles around a foreboding quiet, truly like a back road in the winter’s dawn. “This is the season of confession,” Hutchings sings, tying the exterior and interior landscape together.
Although the subject matter may be chilly, the music itself is warm-blooded, as the band extend themselves to a full-tilt epic, replete with horn section provided by Hutchings’ father Lee, a professional jazz player. The lyrics snatch desperately at something disappearing over the horizon, a friendship gone wrong: “You’re gonna smoulder til someone loves you,” sings Hutchings, and then the music catches fire: “And I’ll be your true friend, but that just won’t do”.
“I’d been listening a lot to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and really admiring his freewheeling, soulful singing style,” says Hutchings of the impassioned, cracking vocal performance that would make the song, “so I started rambling over the instrumental. It was the first time I really let loose and sung; it was very un-indie rock at the time, which made me feel good.”
‘Indie rock’ is not a mentality that Hutchings has ever had much time for. “When we started we were very ‘cool’ and all the indie people were getting into us,” Hutchings recalls, “and we got offered a few indie deals but they were always really … watery. And then we had a major label deal come along … but the vibe from the whole scene was just like ‘sell-out’. I really felt like we fell out with all those people.”
In a perverse way, the distinct absence of a stellar Bluebottle Kiss sales record actually bought the band a degree of freedom during their days on Murmur, at a time when the band rarely had a manager, booking agent, or any other major label accoutrements. “We didn’t really have any help from anybody else at the time,” explains Hutchings, “so we just made the records that we wanted to and then got kicked off the label.”
“There were horrible aspects to being on a major,” Hutchings concedes. “Around Fear Of Girls, that’s when John [O’Donnell] really thought, ‘OK, I’ve gotta try and make this band sell some records.’ He got me to play solo at a lot of different record company dos … They were like toothpaste conventions. I went to one on Hayman Island and it was really upsetting. I really found that hard.”
Despite the frosty critical and commercial reception which greeted Fear Of Girls upon its release, Bluebottle Kiss were given one last chance on Murmur with the 1997 EP Somnambulist Homesick Blues. It didn’t save them. The sweetener of lead track ‘Generic Teen’ aside – a spiky, tongue-in-cheek pop song that earned the band their first significant Triple J airplay – the EP soon dovetailed into a perplexing array of sounds, including the screaming ‘Familiar’ and the twelve-minute dub ‘Immune To Love’.
The band was duly despatched, but at least they had a new drummer, the suitably hard-hitting Richard Coneliano. His joining brought a new sense of stability to a working atmosphere that had been, in Hutchings’ words, “very dysfunctional. Richard actually came to the rescue: he brought a sense of organization to the band. Before that it was impossible. We’d do tours where no one was talking to each other. When Richard came in it became more of a partnership.”
It was at this time that Bluebottle Kiss began garnering a reputation as an impressive live act, one that made the sonic limitations of a trio work to their advantage. “Being a three-piece you have to economise,” comments Hutchings, “The fittest ideas survive.” Their shows during 1998 and 1999 were something to behold: suited up like Peter Fenton’s little brothers, Bluebottle Kiss were tight enough to turn on a dime, with Coneliano and Fletcher providing a pounding, galloping rhythm section that underpinned Hutchings’ scrawling guitar work. The gap between top and bottom ends was wide enough to drive a truck through, but both parts moved in parallel via the perfectly synchronised vocals of Hutchings and Fletcher, who also took to mirroring each other with exaggerated rock moves: star jumps, pirouettes and mock-triumphant dives into the drumkit.
The band was having fun, and their third album, 1999’s Patient, was a snapshot of that time. “Patient is the one record that really embodies that three-piece sound,” Hutchings says. “It’s essentially a live record – we recorded it in four days. We had to work really fast because we’d saved up our own money [to do it].”
Released on the stalwart independent label Citadel, Patient rolls back the swirling tides of Fear Of Girls to reveal a landscape parched and rough under foot, like a front lawn without water. “I saw it once – a summer abstraction … far off over the tar,” reads a liner note.
Hutchings describes his songwriting style on Patient as “semi-autobiographical, but also landscape-orientated,” with a sense of evocation that he’d been aiming for a long time. “It’s like you’re getting an image and putting it underwater,” he elaborates. “You’re kind of blurring it so that, rather than an explanation, you’re transcribing it in a way that might appeal to you in a dream.”
Tracks such as ‘Homeless Blueless’ and ‘Maps To Help You Lose Your Way’ marry a desolate lyrical surrealism to a sparse, muscular sound that is tempered by occasional moments of sweetness. ‘Girl Genius’ is a prime example of the latter, a hauntingly melodic, magic-realist fable that represents one of Hutchings’ first successful forays into character study: “Your town in full of goblins, crooks and murder/your mother thinks you love the next door neighbour/your record player speaks to you all evening …” Part love song, part cautionary tale, and embellished with piano, cello and the vocal harmonies of Liz Payne (SPDFGH), ‘Girl Genius’ had its impetus partly in Hutchings’ experience of the regional Victorian city of Geelong, where he was to meet his future wife.
“The songs [on Patient] weren’t necessarily about that specifically, but inspired by that idea of people like her: a really bright, interesting person being brought up in a place that you’re so at odds with.”
Though the sound of Patient was more immediately local than any previous Bluebottle Kiss record, its release also presented them with their first overseas touring opportunity, via the American record label Spin. Travelling from August to October 2000, it was a trip that has gone down in Bluebottle Kiss legend as something very close to an unmitigated disaster. Shortly after the band’s arrival, Spin went bust, leaving them with no tour support; their equipment was held back by Customs; their passports were stolen on the Mexican border, and band members were in a mutinous mood. “Fletcher was wanting to leave for about the fourth time,” recollects Hutchings.
But despite all the trouble, was it a worthwhile trip? Hutchings smiles ruefully. “As a life experience it was very memorable,” he says, choosing his words slowly, “cause there wasn’t much difference between us and the bum on the street. We’d gone over thinking that there was something at the end of the tunnel, and there was nothing at the end of the tunnel. It was such a tough time. I’d just gotten married too, and my wife came with me.” How romantic. A kind of anti-honeymoon, then? “It was horrible,” declares Hutchings, laughing now with the benefit of six years’ hindsight. “It was very trying on our relationship.”
If nothing else, this ill-fated overseas adventure gave Hutchings a song, born of a visit to his mother’s hometown in Scotland after the “turmoil” of the US tour. Written on an uncle’s borrowed acoustic guitar, the song was ‘Father’s Hands’ and was, according to Hutchings, “one of those songs that wrote itself.”
Simple but enticing, the gentle arrangement of ‘Father’s Hands’ spotlighted Hutchings’ lyrical abilities and, in particular, his growing fascination with, “simple characters; simple people in strange situations and places that are isolated. For some reason that’s often to me an exciting idea to write about.”
Having reassessed and reorganised themselves after their US tour “destroyed a lot of our hopes”, the 2002 Bluebottle Kiss album Revenge Is Slow was very much a record given its impetus by the travel narrative that ‘Father’s Hands’ encapsulated. Although some of the songs had been kicking around since the days of Patient, Revenge Is Slow was a conscious move away from the at-times confronting starkness of that album and is, as Hutchings describes it, “atmospheric, widescreen, very pretty.” It’s also – whether deliberately or not – their most American-sounding record, imbued with a sense of Big Sky-drama best captured on the rollicking, faux-spaghetti western of ‘Gangsterland’.
Revenge Is Slow marked several new developments for Bluebottle Kiss. It was their first album recorded as a four-piece, after Ben Fletcher moved to guitar and Ben Grounds took over on bass; and their first album released on Nonzero, a label set up by their long-term fan, friend and supporter Nick Carr. Shorn of the usual cranky forays into feedback-laden doomscapes, it was also the first Bluebottle Kiss record to garner the band significant radio play and press attention: they even showed up in Rolling Stone as a ‘hot new band to watch’, an entry that surely stretched the definition of the word ‘new’.
“I wanted to move away from the indie rock guitar-bass-drums thing,” explains Hutchings of the lush, layered arrangements on Revenge Is Slow that incorporated snatches from old opera and jazz records – records that Hutchings’ musician father had introduced him to as a child. “I was looking at the music which you grow up hating, but that you remember and start to appreciate: Frank Sinatra records and big band records, music from old films … It was taking those things out of context and putting them in an alien environment.”
The track ‘Peewee’s Dream’, full of crackling vinyl and ghostly piano, was similar to the low-key interludes with which Augie March peppered their own debut album, 2000’s Sunset Studies, and was for Hutchings “the closest [in sound] to what I was aiming at in my head: to use found sounds that were beautiful and strange at the same time.”
It was at the height of Revenge Is Slow’s well deserved and, for the band, long overdue success (rarely was an album more aptly titled) that drummer Richard Coneliano decided to leave Bluebottle Kiss. He had been not only the rhythmic but also the organisational lynchpin of the band. “He kind of co-managed us,” says Hutchings. “Richard really put his heart and soul into it,” and he was given a rousing send-off gig at Sydney’s Annandale Hotel.
With a Hutchings solo album, The Golden Coach, in 2002, and Ben Fletcher’s band The Devoted Few also on the rise; with new drummer Simon Fuhrer joining and quickly leaving, the period between Revenge Is Slow and their next release was a transitional time for Bluebottle Kiss. Eight songs spanning this period were documented on The Cutting Floor, a bonus mini-album included with initial copies of the fifth Bluebottle Kiss album, 2003’s Come Across. Including lost gems such as the shimmering ‘Farewell the Sleeping Trucks’, The Cutting Floor was at points more compelling than the album proper.
Although, in subtle ways, Come Across is a different, much darker record than Revenge Is Slow – “I think the fans we gained with Revenge Is Slow we immediately lost again,” muses Hutchings – it was also the first Bluebottle Kiss record to not be a dramatic musical turn-about from its immediate predecessor. ‘Scout Hall’ and ‘So Slow’ were further refinements of the poised melodicism that had won the band such critical praise for their previous record, and even the artwork was similar: smooth, abstract greenery.
Where Come Across was different was in the “epic, narrative-driven” focus of the lyrics. Many songs unfold as stories of impending disaster – car crashes, incarceration, murder.
Hutchings explains: “There was a concept behind that record which was of each person [in the songs] being thrust into a totally alien terrain, and how they cope with it. It’s a theme that runs through the whole record … people who are suddenly thinking: ‘How did I get here?’ ‘Cross Purpose’ is a good example: ‘How did I get to the point where I’m so desensitised that I’ve killed someone that I knew without even recognising them?’ To me that’s a very strong metaphor for what modern life can be like.”
The song in question is one of the album’s clear highlights: a fratricidal murder ballad that rumbles and thunders along like an approaching storm. If ‘Ice On the Road’ is the Bluebottle Kiss epic-as-confessional, ‘Cross Purpose’ marks the decisive arrival of Hutchings the lyrical storyteller, with an ensemble of characters and atmosphere-setting detail. The music is as blunt as the lyrics are deft, built around tumbling floor toms, fiery guitar and the vocal hollering of the whole band. It’s a sound that clearly echoes not only Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but also the sadly defunct Sydney trio Browning (featuring vocalist Matt Toohey, now of The Woods Themselves), a group who would often play support to Bluebottle Kiss, and whose 2002 album And the Ghosts They Howled From the Eye of the Wind Jamie Hutchings would help produce.
The drama of ‘Cross Purpose’ unfolds “under fascist skies”, and it was no accident that, for a songwriter so concerned with the psychological impact of the Australian landscape, many of the songs on Come Across were infused with a subtle political commentary. In the wake of the 2001 Federal election, during which asylum seekers and terrorist attacks were unpleasantly and unscrupulously (con)fused by a vote-hungry government, the idea of Australia as an isolated and defenceless island gained new currency. The country’s landscape became its vulnerability, and the only protection was containment: redrawn borders, harsh new laws, crowded detention centres. Hutchings introduced ‘Slow Train To A Comfy Jail’ from the stage several times during the Come Across tour as being “about Woomera”, while closing track ‘Ministry of Fear’ was a dystopic vision which, at the last minute, cast off its shackles: “And for once in his life somebody said/Fuck the ministry of fear/Thought they had us licked …”
Partly inspired by his reading of Albert Camus’ anti-fascist allegory The Plague, Hutchings says that his newfound political focus on Come Across was an attempt to capture “the feeling amongst people and amongst the media in general. In a way it was a non-judgemental take on how people were seeing themselves and their place in the world, in a different socio-political landscape.”
“If people think it’s bombastic or over the top, so be it,” Hutchings shrugs. “It’s our sixth album, and I think it was the time to make a really courageous statement, musically.”
As the world shifted around them, so Bluebottle Kiss faced more upheaval of their own, with Ben Fletcher – the band’s longest-serving member aside from Hutchings – leaving in mid 2004, not long after the two had toured Britain as a duo. Having joined Bluebottle Kiss in 1993 at the startlingly young age of fifteen, Fletcher left eleven years later to concentrate on The Devoted Few, which Richard Coneliano had also joined as drummer.
With a band that has been around for so long, Hutchings now finds himself in the odd – some would say enviable – position of having members in the current Bluebottle Kiss line-up who began as fans of the band. He says that it makes it easier, working out material with musicians who have, “some faith in my ability. When the band first started and I was even less [sic] of a nobody than I am now, people would say ‘Well, who are you to say that it should be done like this?’”
With Ben Grounds now on guitar, Jared Harrison on drums and Ross Dickie playing bass, Hutchings describes the band as having “a really good natural chemistry” that has allowed him to reintroduce songs – Doubt Seeds standout ‘The Black Birds’ is one – that previous incarnations of Bluebottle Kiss have struggled with.
“It takes a lot of humility to play somebody else’s songs,” says Hutchings of Bluebottle Kiss as a working structure. “I’ve always been able to rely on my own ideas, but it’s also very much about having the right people to articulate those ideas. Those two things make the band good at any given moment.”
For this year’s Doubt Seeds, Hutchings has surrounded himself with many players. There’s the core Bluebottle Kiss members, of course, and then there’s the Hutchings family: father Lee (trumpet), brother Scott (drums) and sister Sophie (piano). There’s a further assortment of horn players and a female choir to provide backing vocals: “It’s a way to be atmospheric without adding a string section … and a lot cheaper too,” grins Hutchings, referencing the bolstered group singing that has emerged as the band’s lateral solution to replacing the Hutchings/Fletcher harmonies, which were for years a key to the Bluebottle Kiss sound.
Much has been made of the fact that Doubt Seeds is in part a ‘musical autobiography’; a way for Hutchings to map out his many influences from John Coltrane to Joy Division, but the album is in no way the crazy-quilt homage that such a description might suggest. It’s actually the sound of a band extremely confident with its own musical vocabulary, which in this case is rough and blazing as the logs of a bonfire. Doubt Seeds sounds like a Bluebottle Kiss record ¬– huge drums, surf guitar, feedback-as-melody – given a continent-sized boost, assured enough to spread itself over two separate CDs.
“If people think it’s bombastic or over the top, so be it,” Hutchings shrugs. “It’s our sixth album, and I think it was the time to make a really courageous statement, musically.” For the first time since Fear Of Girls, Bluebottle Kiss have, to use Hutchings’ phrase, “done a sprawl”, but the band do not falter.
“Double albums are foolish at the best of times, and when they indulge the band’s long-hidden passion for free jazz, only more so,” remarked American webzine Stylus, “But [Doubt Seeds] is that rarest of beasts – an ambitious record that lives up to its claims.”
On stage at Sydney University’s Manning Bar at the end of August, free jazz is meeting guitar rock in a head-on collision, as Bluebottle Kiss launch Doubt Seeds with true fanfare: a thirteen-piece revolving band playing the album in sequence, from start to finish.
When I speak with Hutchings almost two months earlier, this one-off gig is still in the planning stages, but the singer is envisioning something like Spiritualized’s Live At the Royal Albert Hall, “quite symphonic, but also quite noisy and free.” I find it harder to imagine: what Australian band – The Sleepy Jackson are a possible exception – have enough hubris to pull off something like that? And what kind of self-respecting local audience – we’ve always liked our rock bands straight up and no frills – will want to witness it?
Seven years of watching this band play live should have given me more faith. It might be smaller in scale – Manning Bar is hardly Albert Hall, no matter how drunk you are – but the Doubt Seeds launch does not lack for Spiritualized-size ambition. And Bluebottle Kiss pull it off: the horn section, the choir, the two drum kits, even a spot of crowd-surfing for Hutchings during the finale, borne aloft on the hands of the crowd. ‘Dream Audit’ – the free jazz moment – is astonishing: a dark, glistening sound thick as oil paint, with one saxophonist playing off against the rest of the band’s harsh, guitar-driven dissonance. ‘Judas Hands’, an “amateurish approximation of 70s soul, which turns into something else,” as Hutchings described it to me, sees all thirteen players on stage at once, having their James Brown moment.
They encore with the stomping ‘Everything Begins And Ends At Exactly The Right Time’, from Come Across, just the four core members, but the crowd are still yelling for more, so after several minutes an exhausted Jamie Hutchings comes back on stage alone, armed with an acoustic guitar and a glass of red wine, promising a song, “that’ll make you all want to go home”. It’s ‘Father’s Hands’, the unadorned ballad that sees Hutchings return to the direct, emotional singer-songwriter mode of ‘Beautifully Tragic’; a song that laments his being “limited to being who I am”.
A quiet murmur of voices joins in with the melody across the floor; people clap to keep time. For a man who began Bluebottle Kiss with no notion of himself as either a singer – “I was shocking when we first started, people used to ask me to stop” – or a front person – “I was surprised to find myself doing it: I was never a performer” – Jamie Hutchings sure knows how to hold a crowd. What’s interesting – touching, even – is that it seems so effortless: there’s no forced banter and no temper tantrums. Jamie Hutchings is not a rock star, although he’d probably make a good one, and Bluebottle Kiss is still a band you’ll catch playing the Hopetoun Hotel (capacity 200) after thirteen years. They’re special – very special, the sound of sunlight on a Sydney afternoon, warm and elusive – but Bluebottle Kiss only ever do what they do best: play music. Nevertheless, Hutchings does have a sense of tonight’s significance in the unfolding, so far unending story of his band. “Thank you all for coming,” he says to the crowd. “It’s a long road. But there’s been some beautiful scenery.”
1993 Bluebottle Kiss formed by Jamie Hutchings, Sydney, with Ben Fletcher (bass) and Peter Noble (drums)
1993 First gig at [venue TBC]
1994 Demo tape Sonic Elevator Music For the Masses circulated
1994 Band signed to Murmur
1995 Higher Up The Firetrails (Murmur) released. Not exactly a false start, just a slightly misguided one
1995 Double Yellow Tarred EP (Murmur) – A quantum leap forward in confidence and quality
1996 Fear Of Girls (Murmur) – includes the singles ‘Rust and the Time’, ‘Helping You Hate Me’ and ‘Autumn Comes Too Soon’. Messy and flawed, but nevertheless beautiful
1997 Drummer Peter Noble leaves, replaced by Richard Coneliano
1997 Somnambulist Homesick Blues EP (Murmur) compiled, an odds n’ sods collection that’s more curious than compelling – ‘Generic Teen’ is playlisted by Triple J
1997 Band dropped by Murmur
1998 ‘Tap Dancing On the Titanic’ EP (Troy Horse) – worthwhile for the eclectic B-sides, in particular
1999 Patient (Citadel) – includes the single ‘Return To the City Of Folded Arms’ and title track from the Girl Genius EP. Precise, poised and perfectly executed; not a note or a minute wasted
2000 Band picked up by US label Spin, tour the US
2001 Gangsterland EP and ‘Ounce Of Your Cruelty’ single (Nonzero)
2001 Ben Grounds joins on bass; Ben Fletcher moves to guitar
2002 Revenge Is Slow (Nonzero) – includes the singles ‘Father’s Hands’, ‘Ounce Of Your Cruelty’ and title track from the Gangsterland EP. It’s a band at their melodic peak: strong tunes, beautiful arrangements
2002 Revenge Is Slow released on Laughing Outlaw (UK) and In Music We Trust (US)
2002 Drummer Richard Coneliano leaves; Hutchings and Fletcher tour the UK as a duo
2003 Drummer Simon Fuhrer joins
2003 Come Across (Nonzero) – includes the single ‘Everything Begins And Ends At Exactly The Right Time’ and title track from the Last Playboy In Town EP; album listed as Triple J Album of the Week. A disc that’s confused as a whole, but redeemed by some stellar tracks
2004 Last Playboy In Town EP (Nonzero)
2004 Drummer Simon Fuhrer leaves, replaced by Jared Harrison; Ben Fletcher leaves
2004 Come Across released in the US; band tour the US and UK with Ben Grounds now on guitar, Ross Dickie on bass
2005 Fear Of Girls reissued by Murmur
2005 ‘A Little Bit Of Light’ single (Nonzero)
2006 Band play South by Southwest in Austin, Texas
2006 Doubt Seeds (Nonzero), includes the single ‘A Little Bit Of Light’ and title track from the EP The Women Are An Army. Quite simply swaggering, loud and ludicrously ambitious. A great success
2006 Bluebottle Kiss play a handful of one-off shows (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) to showcase Doubt Seeds with a thirteen-piece band.