Hugo Race: ‘I Never Wanted To Be In That Expat Diaspora’
After 20 odd years overseas, Hugo Race tells SHAUN PRESCOTT he’s back in Melbourne and loving it. Photos by CORRADO VASQUEZ LOPEZ.
Best known for his work with The Wreckery, the True Spirit and The Bad Seeds, Hugo Race has spent most of his busy career living in Europe. Settled back in Melbourne now, Race has just released a new solo record with his group, Fatalists.
Race’s return to songwriting follows 2010’s Between Hemispheres, an instrumental solo record based on his travels in Africa, as well as myriad other works including the Merola Matrix multimedia project, collaborations with Italy’s Sepiatone as well as numerous other groups scattered all over the world including Dirtmusic in the US and the Moses Complex in Brazil, to name just a few. I spoke to Race the morning after his Melbourne launch of Fatalists.
Are you feeling alright this morning?
I'm feeling a little bit tired, but I'm not hungover because I'm not much of a drinker. It was just quite an exciting night. It was the premiere of Fatalists in Australia – a new project, new band, new songs. We had quite a busy week getting everything rehearsed and promoting, so it's been quite a full on week and last night went really well and everyone stayed up late and had a really great time.
What have you been listening to, or reading lately?
I've been reading recently the Christos Tsiolkas novel Dead Europe. That's a very full-on book.
Have you read the part set in Prague yet?
Yeah, I've read the Prague sequence. It's quite dark isn't it? The interesting thing ... the reason I'm reading it is a friend gave it to me because they'd been reading my own writing, because I do write and I've published several things, and most of what I write about is my travels and music around the world, and I have in fact written a piece about Prague, and it's nothing like the Prague depicted in Dead Europe. It's a fairly dark vision, my own vision of Prague, but for different reasons. I've recently been finishing a piece on South America. I toured South America late last year. It's quite a long one for me, and the Tsiolkas book has been in the background of that, and I've been thinking about things like how much should a writer or artist reveal of themselves in their own work and how much should they keep private, and where the boundary is between artistic practice and everyday life. Those kind of issues are quite intriguing.
Just tentatively, where do you stand on that issue at the moment?
I think that you should try to reveal as much of the truth of things - as you see the truth to be - as possible. [But] I think that if that impacts negatively on other people who perhaps are depicted in an account of your life or depicted in the lyrics of a song, then it's something you may need to reconsider. I like the truth of things as they come out, that's what we're here to do when we write songs, or any other creative endeavour, we're here to talk about the way we feel about things. I think people should be honest and the best art is raw and passionate and comes from a place of great conviction, and you can't really be convinced about anything unless you really do feel it to be true.
It's interesting that you're reading to Dead Europe, because you migrated to Eastern Europe in the ’80s, and one of the themes of that novel is the falling from grace of Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall; the westernisation of Europe. What have been your observations of the growth of Europe since you moved there?
I first started living in Berlin in 1989, about six months before the wall came down. I'd been there a few times before with The Bad Seeds in '84 and '85. I had been living in London at the time and nothing exciting was happening there for me at the time, and Berlin was a cheaper and very attractive alternative to being in the UK. I moved over there in the summer and it was very idyllic and we spent a lot of time on the lakes in West Berlin with a circle of friends. Then in autumn/November [there were] revolutions across Eastern Europe – at that time I wouldn't say I was very politically aware. I was not politically unaware, but I hadn't really developed a very deep interest in politics in different senses of what that means.
“I think people should be honest and the best art is raw and passionate and comes from a place of great conviction.”
When the revolutions happened across Eastern Europe it was impossible not to be swept up into the atmosphere of it. Soon I started to play shows in East Berlin, only several weeks after the wall came down. By then we'd already met people from the east side and the squats were opening up, and then I started meeting people from Poland, Czech Republic and Yugoslavia. Very quickly this small network developed because there was a genuine frustration for kids in the East, they really did want to hear the music. They were kind of aware of it but had no access to it. So very quickly I found myself playing in Prague, in 1990 I guess, and in various other places. All of the sudden I was dropped into the midst of how the totalitarian reality had been and it was mind blowing: it was utterly incredible, I had no idea. I'd never really informed myself on these things on a serious level, and it was incredibly confronting, exciting and very inspirational for all the things I was doing.
I've kept going there ever since – it's been pretty much 20 years – but the Americanisation of the East was already quite evident after even two years, by 1992, 1993. By 1994, ’95, there was this malaise that had set in amongst all my friends, particularly in the Czech Republic, where there'd been this great expectation of – to put it in simple terms – a better life, a better world, a better system there, and none of it had come to pass and people were already very disillusioned. That swing across the gamut of reactions only took five years. A lot of the people I knew, particularly in Prague in the early ’90s, have either moved on or they've disappeared. That really fascinating group of people doesn't even really exist anymore.
It's interesting how quickly things change.
The landscape of Eastern Europe in ’91 was very different to what it is now. I don't mean the fields and the small towns, I mean the general picture. It did change very quickly in the first few years and hasn't moved much beyond that. Although at the same time basically the whole of inner-east Berlin has been repainted, gentrified and yuppified. I won't go too far into that.
Why weren't the songs on Fatalists suitable for The True Spirit?
When I look at my songwriting I see four or five streams of songs that I seem to write. Some of the things that I write are a little too ... melodic perhaps, or a little too delicate. The True Spirit is essentially a psychedelic rock band and they're really at home when there's a drone going on, and some kind of hypno-beat and the trance kicks in. If the songs have got more changes in them, and they're a little more ambitious in terms of melodic structure and arrangement structures, then two things happen: the True Spirit gets a little uncomfortable with the material and/or they basically level the song, they remove a lot of the subtlety from it so that it's more playable. And that's all good, none of that's a problem, but particularly when I started working with Sepiatone [band from Italy] it allowed me to develop other kinds of songwriting, to be played by musicians with a different approach.
I think when we did Taoist Priests and 53rd State – the last two True Spirit albums – both those records contain quite a wide range of material. On those albums there are some melodic ballads and some musically unusual tracks, but the band could never really deliver those songs live, so the live shows were always about the grind and the drone and the trance. On tour we'd never play songs like 'Sorcery', or 'Before the Flood' or 'Into the Void', or any of the songs in the ballad style. With Fatalists I wanted to get a band of really crack musicians together who could deal with that material and deal with it live. At the same time I didn't want to go back to an electric rock band, and that was partly because of Dirtmusic, Tama Crest and the kind of organic – that's such a dumb word – the very primitive sound we were using, like shitty old guitar amps, and five guitar players all playing through shitty guitar amps. I really loved all that stuff and it influenced me quite a lot, so when I did Between Hemispheres I went even further into those nitty gritty sounds. With Fatalists I wanted to put the two things together: the nitty gritty earthy sounds with songs that are musically complex. I had to find a team that could do that.
We started the Fatalists project in 2007. Antonio [Gramentieri, guitarist for Fatalists] had a gig as creative director of a festival in Italy and he was inviting all these musicians in, and I was there. We were getting together with all kinds of people, mainly from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, that kind of area. The desert rock scene I guess, Calexico etc. One of the key people I started working with was Bill Elm, from a band called the Friends of Dean Martinez who were on Glitterhouse [the German label that releases The True Spirit records]. He came over and we had two years just playing live at festivals in Italy, not releasing anything or recording anything, just getting together to play live. He didn't end up on the record, Vicki Brown did instead, who's from Tucson, Arizona. They have a lot of the same references musically. It took from 2007 to 2009, with a shifting line-up of musicians, for the whole idea of the Fatalists to come together. It gave me a chance to play with a wide range of musicians who brought different feelings and different colours into the whole situation.
There's a sense of overcoming or reining in something overwhelming throughout Fatalists, such as taking control of insomnia during 'Slow Fry', or coming to terms with technology on 'Too Many Zeros'. The title suggests an album about death but it seems to be about surviving it, or overcoming it. Does that ring true?
Yeah it does. Also, a song like 'Will You Wake Up' raises the question: will you take action before disaster overwhelms you? will you rise above the threat, whatever that might be: loss of life, loss of income, loss of love, loss of mind ... who knows? I knew with the songs on Fatalists that they were all deep songs and not everyday songs about the everyday world. They're all a little metaphysical, they're all a little dreamlike.
Fatalists is about ... what you might call a watershed, a time in your life when what you've been doing for the past 10 years suddenly disappears, or is taken away from you, or is rejected. There's a grief factor when you lose all those things but there's also the sense of clearing the decks for the next thing. So Fatalists was a bit of a clearing of the decks and settling of old scores. On another level, when the record was finished and I looked back on it, I saw that it was about a relationship: two lovers, and the story starts and finishes over the space of a couple of years. That wasn't my intention, but when I thought about the songs like 'Coming Over' and 'Call Her Name' I saw that pattern emerging, and that did reflect the story in my own life.
And that sort of comes back [to what we were discussing before] – we [Fatalists] use the basic grist of our psychic, emotional states and we throw that into our art rather than compartmentalising it and saying, “Right this is my private life, this is of no interest or use to nobody, I'm going to write an album of songs with characters in them, I'm going to invent people and put them in fictitious situations”. None of those things have ever interested me to be honest. I've always used songwriting as a kind of diary of my life and times, but using a big dose of magical realism to make them slightly different, to make them bigger and broader and more technicolour. But pretty much everything I've ever written has been based on stuff that's happened to me, or people close to me.
When you say magical realism it puts me in mind of 'The Serpent's Egg'. It's got a very mystical atmosphere that's suddenly punctured by your mention of a “mobile home”. The song is based on a dream, how did that materialise in the dream?
It was a question of how to put things: on one level it's a cosmic song, and it's like talking to god, to put it in really basic terms. One of the things that comes out of the song is a certain antagonism towards the creator entity. The mobile home thing was kind of a little joke in a way, because I was thinking about those crazy old bible stories, and the mad Christian prophets of recent times, how they're always talking about pompous concepts like golden thrones. So I thought instead of a golden throne, I'd put this particular entity in a caravan. I'd make it a squalid, lowlife entity. To me that kind of connected to the idea of always feeling as if god can see everything you do, knows what you're thinking, he or she knows all your sins and knows all your thoughts and lets you commit them anyway. In the song I thought, well no actually, here's a human being looking straight through that entity and seeing how the motivations aren't as noble or as magical as you might have imagined at first: how they're a little base, a little carnal, a little derogatory, a little arrogant. All those things were flying around in the background of the song.
The actual dream that I had was about a friend of mine in Germany, and it was such a powerful dream. She was standing on top of this mountain in central Germany and she was dressed in glass clothes that didn't really blow in the wind, they kind of morphed in the wind. I woke up with that vision of her in my mind and wrote the song pretty quickly, and it all came from that. But I'm not sure why. The thing that triggers writing a song is something quite intangible, something you can't put your finger on, you don't really know what it is and that's why you examine it by writing the song.
“I hardly ever remember my dreams, so if I do remember something it's quite a valuable thing, it's like you've brought back submerged treasure from some Atlantic trench several kilometres under the ocean.”
To bring it to life.
To understand it better. To work with it. Often you wake up with a fragment of a dream and it impacts you very much, and you think it must have some significance but you don't know what it is. So if you start writing that into some lyrics, or talking about it with a friend, then all this other stuff starts tumbling out that you weren't aware of, but it's all instigated by this dream. It doesn't even have to be a dream, it can be something dumb that happens to you in everyday life, and suddenly all this other stuff comes tumbling out. Unless you start the process of having a conversation about something you don't understand, or writing about it, you can't really get to grips with it at all – it submerges itself back in your subconscious and writhes with all the other monsters. I hardly ever remember my dreams, so if I do remember something it's quite a valuable thing, it's like you've brought back submerged treasure from some Atlantic trench several kilometres under the ocean.
What's the story with 'Will You Wake Up'? Who's “Mysteries”?
David Creese had a band called The Dumb Earth in Melbourne, originally from Adelaide, I think they did three albums. We used to double bill a lot with them, The True Spirit, back in the ’90s. Eventually they broke up and David started another group The Mysteries, and they recorded an absolutely amazing record, which has 'Will You Wake Up' on it. The label [1am Records] went belly-up around the time of the release of the record – another of those hard luck rock music stories. They got this record together, they put it out, the company folded literally as it was coming out, nobody got to hear it and it vanished without a trace. I was a very big fan of that album and that was my favourite track on it. I was seeing my friend Miss Kenichi in Berlin a couple of years ago and she's a fantastic singer-songwriter and she said to me I'd really like to do a duet, and as soon as she said that 'Will You Wake Up' leapt into my mind. I sent her a copy and she loved it and wanted to do it. Once again it's a dream story, something David brought back from his subterranean world.
What's it like coming home to Melbourne?
Well it's my city, my family's here, and all my old friends. These days I'm living in Melbourne and I'm making trips overseas to work over there on tours and studio work. It's a pretty regular conversation that you have with people: why live in Australia? It always comes back to the quality of life that people experience here and how that compares to the States or Europe. Or as my friend Dougal put it yesterday: I lived in Europe for 21 years but I've had enough and now I'm back here. He's been the live mixer and tour manager for the True Spirit for 12 years, and synchronously he's moved back to Melbourne last year like me, and we're both of the same opinion that we loved our years in Europe, but you come to the point that the kind of experiences that living in Europe offer you become less exciting than they used to be: you care about it less and you start to wonder more and more about old friends. Things change. I'm back in Melbourne at the moment and I'm really loving it, it's great.
Do you think Melbourne is more accommodating musically and culturally than it was when you left?
I don't know about that, what I'd say is that Melbourne is a lot closer to the world than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Because of the net, and because so many of us have gone overseas and made contacts and made friends and developed ongoing creative and business relationships. We're part of the global network in Melbourne, but we weren't really in the ’80s and ’90s, we were very much outsiders in terms of the movement of ideas and business support for new creative ideas, that was going on in Europe. But I think all that's changed. In the ’80s we had very limited access to underground music that was happening overseas, you'd import records, there'd only be a couple of copies, you'd make a cassette dub of it. We had a very small music archives and that was quite good in a lot of ways, often extreme limitations are good for creativity. And now no matter where you are in the world you have access to the global archive, and that's such a huge change.
One of the reasons for going to London in the ’80s was to get exposure to what was happening in the heart of things. But you don't need to do that anymore, you can do that right here. And there's a lot of really talented artists in Australia doing that. They don't need to leave and a lot of them don't. In my 20s it was an impossibility, and the expense and the difficulty of it all meant that once you left you were very unlikely to come back, at least not for a long time. Some of my travelling partners in the True Spirit are still living in the States or Europe, and I don't think they'll ever come back. I never wanted to be in that expatriate diaspora, I've always kept coming and going to Australia. I don't really know why, that's just what I did.
What does the immediate future hold, are you working on new stuff?
Yeah, there's a new True Spirit record that's under way, and we're going to hold off releasing that until August next year. There's a Sepiatone album – the Italian band that I do – and we're finishing the mixes on that album right now, so it might be coming out in September. I'm writing a new Fatalists record and I'm meeting them on tour in May and we're going into the studio to track some stuff for a future record. So there's a number of albums in the pipeline and then some film ideas and a lot of stuff.
Basically my approach is: I'm prolific because I can't think of anything better to do with myself. And there it all is. I try to find portals to release it through, and to talk to people and communicate with people. What I do is about a dialogue with an audience, so for that reason I love live performance and I'll keep doing that indefinitely.