Regurgitator’s ‘Unit’: ‘It's A Really Weird Dot On The Landscape’
The 1997 album that gave the world 'Polyester Girl' and 'I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff' gets a frank reexamining from Regurgitator's Quan Yeomans via MATT SHEA, just in time for a retrospective tour.
In early August of 1997, Regurgitator arrived back in their hometown of Brisbane to start work on a new album. Fresh from touring their hard-edged debut Tu-Plang in the United States alongside Helmet and Melvins, the three-piece of Quan Yeomans, Ben Ely and Martin Lee – along with producer Magoo and manager Paul Curtis – settled into a grimy, condemned warehouse in Fortitude Valley to nut out something radically different.
November will mark 15 years since Regurgitator released Unit, their schizophrenic, imaginative and electronically-driven sophomore record. Unit would alienate much of Regurgitator’s original fan base, but those lost were more than offset by a brand new audience, attracted by the improved songwriting and dancefloor leanings of singles such as ‘Black Bugs’, ‘Polyester Girl’ and ‘! (The Song Formerly Known As)’.
Regurgitator are now revisiting the album, along with its predecessor, on the Retrotech 2012 national tour. With this in mind, I took some time during a recent visit to Melbourne to catch up with the now southern-based Yeomans and chat about the making of Unit. We perched in the window of a quiet North Melbourne café on a Saturday afternoon, staring down William Street towards Queen Victoria Market.
In the flesh the ageless Yeomans is perhaps a touch shorter than you might imagine, but no less intense. During the course of our half-hour conversation we were twice interrupted by autograph hunters, the second of whom – the youthful, thickly accented café manager – cleverly dodged Yeoman’s question, “Do you even know who I am?” Once settled, though, the co-songwriter and frontman was vivid with his descriptions and honest to a fault in describing the stories behind an album that would eventually go three times platinum.
There’s that creative line about the sophomore blues, but I’m not sure if Tu-Plang felt like a debut nor Unit a second LP, simply due to the success of the Hamburger and New EPs before them. Did you feel much pressure going in to record Unit?
Yeah, but I think the best thing about the way we did it was that the environment was so relaxed and so lo-fi. We’ve kinda always done that. Even when we used to go into studios, they were always lo-fi, crappy places and we never got that intense feeling of pressure. So we certainly knocked that back a bit.
You were with Warner at the time. Were they sticking their noses into the process much?
Not so much. With record companies, if you’re selling records they tend to leave you alone. As soon as you start dropping off sales-wise, then they come in and start telling you how to write songs. [Laughs] That’s the way it is, unfortunately.
You recorded Tu-Plang in a famous studio in Thailand. And then you recorded Unit in a crappy old warehouse in your hometown.
Well the record studio [Center Stage Studios] in Thailand was famous because the people who owned it were famous. But it was held together with toothpicks – the mixing desk and stuff – so it was pretty lo-fi still. The place we were staying at, the hotel had just been finished being built and there were no sheets or towels or pillowcases or anything. We were just lying on bare mattresses, getting up and walking to the studio every day. So it was pretty lo-fi as well.
After Thailand were you always going to record in Brisbane?
I’m not sure. I think the whole impetus for doing it in a more controlled space came from Martin. He was really into getting gear and getting a studio together, which he eventually did. So yeah, that’s why, but I don’t really know why Brisbane. I guess it was just easier at that point.
You recorded in a condemned warehouse in Fortitude Valley. Where was that exactly? What’s there now, do you know?
Yeah, I think it was a Mercedes warehouse for a while. Like a sales room. [Magoo has since clarified that the BMW service centre on Constance Street – one block up from the Mercedes showroom – is what now sits on the old site.] There are a few car houses around there. Literally two weeks after the record had finished we came back and all that was left was a Coke vending machine in the middle of a concrete slab. That was kind of strange.
What was it like in there in terms of sonics and so on? I’m guessing you had to pull in a lot of stuff in to make it work for you?
Martin did a lot of the set up – Magoo as well – and they put in carpet underlay that they’d found somewhere that was just filthy. Ergh! It had this real soporific effect as soon as you walked in and you just wanted to fall asleep. One of the funny stories is [American record producer, A&R rep and now chairman of Warner Bros. Records] Rob Cavallo coming in to have a listen to one of the tracks, and he just fell asleep on this piss-stained mattress we had lying on the ground. [Laughs] He just woke up and said, “Argh, give the track 10 percent more guitars,” and that was it, really. It was a really dingy vibe. We had decent gear for the time, I guess. Because we’d made a bit of money and wanted to spend money on gear from the advances we received.
I’ve read that you had nothing written before you headed into the studio. Is that right?
Very little. I think we had ‘Everyday Formula’ that we’d jammed on in rehearsals. But apart from that, not much, I don’t think.
Was that normal for you guys?
Normal. [Laughs] I mean, we started off as a jamming band because we used to practice quite a bit. We shared a rehearsal space with Powderfinger and someone else in the Valley – in the old Target building. And then afterwards in either Adelaide Street or Ann Street – there was a rehearsal space there also. So we used to rehearse quite a lot; we’d rehearse a riff live and then just bash it out. But Unit was the beginning of us going away and doing our secretive songwriting and having that competitive thing going on between Ben and I. And I think that helps: you want to produce the best song you possibly can.
Both you and Ben feed off that?
Definitely. And I think as our relationship has gotten stronger as friends we’ve become less competitive, and so you lose that edge, unfortunately. That’s the way it goes, the more satisfied you are. The more anxiety there is in the band unit … there was a hell of a lot between Martin and me, and Ben and me, and Paul and Martin. It was dreadful.
That’s interesting, because I think both you and Magoo have talked about trying to have fun in the studio. How different was it to Tu-Plang in that sense? Because there was a fair amount of tension there, right?
Yeah, possibly more tension. Because it felt like we were on a deadline. We were in foreign place and stuck together there. And also the first record, everybody wants to get their opinion out. You kind of get that out of your system by the second one. You can let things be a little bit and let the producer guide you a bit more, that sort of thing.
The massive change in sound was a big talking point at the time. Does it still feel like a big change to you, listening back?
Definitely. It’s very strange. I mean, they’re a strange couple of albums. [Laughs] We’re a weird band, there’s no denying it. Recently I found this mouldy old one-inch tape in my mother’s basement. It wasn’t marked or anything and there were a few lyric sheets from that era, and I was like, “What the fuck is this?!” So I gave it to this friend of ours and got it transferred to ProTools. And it was the first demo that we did that I recorded at SAE [Institute] for us – in ’94 – and God it was fucking awful. I could not see the potential there at all. Kudos to Michael [Parisi, Warner Music A&R], who signed us; there must have been some terrible shit on the label at the time. [Laughs] Because listening to that stuff I just cannot understand. And it’s weird listening back to it, because you do feel like a different person.
You used a lot of odd equipment for the record. How much did it dictate the sonic direction of the LP? Did it dictate or facilitate, so to speak?
I think we were pretty guided by gear for that record, strangely enough. Now it’s a little bit harder because I don’t own that much hardware and I don’t use gear in that way. I know what sound that I want and I go for it. So it’s different, definitely. The Groovebox [303 drum and keyboard machine] that we had: we basically created the biggest single we’ve ever had on it [‘Polyester Girl’]. And then I got a Nord keyboard because I liked the colour of it. [Laughs] And that was really influential.
Was there some benefit in that naivety about equipment?
There’s always benefit in naivety. That’s one thing about being an artist and the one bad thing about having any level of success and experience: you struggle to get it back or find it again, because that’s the thing that gives records their edge, in a weird way – the thrill of it, the innocence of it.
You toured with Helmet and the Melvins in the States just before you came home to record, and yet you recorded something far removed from that sound. That really fascinates me. Did that tour have much of a bearing on the final record?
Maybe it did, because I remember being completely frightened the whole time. [Laughs] They were real hard-arses. Helmet were a little army unit, and their fans were fucking really intense, really aggressive guys. Yeah, really full-on. So maybe it did have an effect.
Nineties rock was often about that homosocial thing: guys hanging out with guys. Was that something you were trying to get away from?
Yeah. I think so. And we’d developed that audience with Tu-Plang as well. We were quite a heavy band. And the other guys had fairly established lives with their other bands, and they were similar, heavy, kinda fusion rock bands. I had a weird-ass punk fusion band called Zooerastia, which was pretty intense as well. But it was good to break that cycle. I think we were really sick of the violence and the aggression of the shows. As soon as that ‘Polyester Girl’ thing broke on triple j, the crowds just altered dramatically. It was all just girls. The difference was so bizarre.
You talked before about rebelling a bit, and you can see it from the very start of the LP with ‘I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff’. Most bands stick their middle finger up like that on their third or fourth records, not their second. Does it strike you that you made such a statement so early in your career?
I think it was indicative of our personalities and our attitude toward the industry, maybe. It was really weird that a band like us was signed so early as well. We'd only been together for six months or something. There was a lot of um-ing and ah-ing on my part about doing it. I think we were always going to be a bit precocious and do what we wanted to do. That's part of why we do what we do, as well. It's kind of difficult to stay the same, I think, for every single record for us.
Watching that change – the album bringing out fewer guys and more girls – it must have been satisfying to be on stage and see your plan come together, so to speak.
It was satisfying that we didn't have to deal with stopping every five minutes and breaking up fights. [Laughs] The girls hadn't started fighting that much by that stage. [Laughs] That's more of a now thing to do: girls that beat the shit out of each other … It was a much more mainstream crowd. I can't say it was just girls, but it was definitely fuelled by radio and fuelled by a different kind of crossover.
The album ended up taking out five ARIAs. Did you think it was deserving of that at the time?
I don’t know. As far as I'm concerned, awards are basically set up for industry people to slap each other on the back. You get roped into it because you're part of the industry somehow. It's nice to be able to say that, and my mother has all the awards somewhere; they're really dangerous things. She keeps them fairly high I think. I never got awards at school. I never won any kind of sports medals. I didn't get in the habit of being feeling rewarded when I got some success.
I think Tu-Plang was the only album of yours to be released in the States. Is that right?
Possibly. I don't know.
Unit not getting released there: was that disappointing given that it crossed over so effectively in Australia?
I don't know. I can't really remember what we felt about it. There was always pressure to go to the States and tour, and I think my relationship with [Spiderbait’s] Janet [English] at the time stopped us from leaving here. I've seen a lot of bands come and go and spend a lot of money touring in the States, and all the money they'd make in Australia they'd lose while trying to break it in the States. I didn't want to be part of that, particularly. That was a conscious decision on my part, and I didn't want to be away from my relationship for any longer than three weeks. That was it. I think the fact that we couldn't get touring going that well in the States was maybe the reason why they didn't bother with [the album]. I don't know. That's really strange that the record wasn't released in the States. I wasn't really aware of it.
Do you regret that decision not to tour?
Not at all. I’ve been to the States enough to know that it's not a place I want to spend more than six weeks in. [Laughs]
‘The World of Sleaze’ – the hoo-ha surrounding that – did that really surprise you? You got targeted by [broadcaster] Alan Jones, didn't you?
I heard about something like that. [Laughs] Like I said, I don't really pay attention to that sort of stuff.
He’d targeted ‘Sucked a Lot of Cock’ from Tu-Plang. You were obviously in his sights all of a sudden.
It's ironic, though, because all our songs are basically the most puritan part of me saying really puritanical stuff in a way that seems really vulgar and really crass and offensive, but in actual fact I'm saying what these people are talking about themselves. That's the weirdest thing. I don't understand the conservative factions who can't see past the metaphor. It's really weird.
As far as I'm concerned I have the same ethical values and same moral values. I just have a dirty mouth. That's all; that's the only difference. I remember the one particular line in the ‘G7 [Dick Electro Boogie]’ song [from Tu-Plang] – the gang-raping cripples line, which is obviously about how fucked I feel at the exploitation by multinationals of the third world, yet it was completely taken out of context and taken on literal face value. They seem to have a habit of doing that. It doesn't look cool for them. They're just not thinking. It's really strange. It always surprised me.
So, the tour: are you guys looking forward to playing these albums again?
Yeah, I always like playing live. It's always a fun thing for us to do. We're such a tight unit now. We kind of know what we have to do. We tour with only one sound guy. We pack up our own shit. We put it up on stage and pack it down. It's very focussed and everyone gets along. We're like family. We’re touring with Seja [Vogel] as well, which is nice to have a female companion on tour. We're good friends, so I'm really looking forward to it.
You talked about barely being able to play these songs at the time. Is there a sense at all of coming back and doing them justice?
I don't know. Since The Whitlams covered ‘Just Another Beautiful Story’, I kind of felt like I couldn’t touch that song ever again. It’s like it’s raped or tainted or something. [Laughs] But no, we have played them through a couple of times because we've done a couple of festivals doing Unit. It’s nice to know that they can be done live. The bad thing about it is it's a bit like a Vegas show; you don't really have the chaos that I like in a live show. You can’t just throw in a bunch of weird shit in the middle of it. It's very structured, and that takes a little bit of the fun out of it for me.
“The records had been growing in size and there was pressure to do a bigger record after [‘Unit’]. It's the kind of graph businessmen like to see.”
I guess it's fair to say you were pretty negative about the album back in the day, talking about how you fluked it and that sort of thing. I guess hindsight's changed your opinion in that regard?
No, not at all, not at all. We've released some terrible records and I don't know: the fact that those two were quite popular always makes me wonder how many records we could have sold had we done it independently, and how much was just the salesmanship of the record company and the payola and all that shit. I found out recently that people pay for Facebook likes, and pay for YouTube views. I had no idea. That seems ridiculous to me, and it's exactly the same thing with radio payola that the record companies all do – kickbacks and all that shit.
It's a very corrupt system and I don't know if I could really measure the popularity of our records based on any of that industry stuff. So when I look at a record I look at it on face value and when I finish something I always see the worst things about it. I remember being harassed by Ben about being so negative about it in the press, but the best thing about it is if you're your best critic, what else is anyone else going to say? They can't go anywhere because you've already said it. All they can do is agree with you, which is great.
We talked earlier about you dodging the sophomore blues. Did Unit’s success set up pressure for [1999’s] art…?
Definitely. Relationships had deteriorated pretty badly. Martin had had his accident. [He was found unconscious, with no recollection of what had happened.] He was really screwed up about it all, and we were becoming a lot more controlling, I think, as songwriters. I was trying to distance myself from him and also from the whole process as well. We chose to do it in a really serene place that was difficult to focus in … Martin really wanted to do it in his studio, and we said basically no to him at the time. There was that adding to the tension, plus also the fact that the records had been growing in size and there was pressure to do a bigger record after that. It's the kind of graph businessmen like to see.
Where do you see Unit fitting into the Regurgitator discography? Is it your favourite? Do you even allow yourself to think along those sorts of lines?
I think it's still the most interesting, most creatively unique record we have, for sure. I think it's because of all these weird factors, I guess; the relationships between us and the naivety in the game and so forth.
Listening back to the LP now: there are always elements that you want to change about something after the fact, but are there major things you think you would have done differently if you had your time again?
Maybe sonically, but we were pretty limited. We recorded it on ADATs for God's sake – terrible-sounding things. I think that I've always been critical of our earlier work, sonically. I've never really liked the sound of my voice, for example. There's only one track on Tu-Plang that I thought the vocal take was actually bearable. Unit was a little bit better, and I think Magoo was a bit stricter with us in terms of our vocals and other stuff. ‘Polyester Girl’ was one of those throwaway things that was done so quickly and so sillily. Maybe I would do that again, but then that's the most successful track we've ever released.
So maybe you don’t know anything.
Exactly. I think it's a bad thing to look back on art and try to redo it. There was some talk of us actually re-recording some of that music again and releasing it. But then you get going down the George Lucas route. You don’t want to do that. [Laughs]
People talk about you pre-empting the ’80s revival. Whether or not Unit actually did that, it at least helps illustrate that albums exist at a place in time.
Definitely. Unit is unique because it sits in-between – in no-man's land, almost. It's a really weird dot on the landscape and I do appreciate it for that reason. My favourite song on the record is ‘I Piss Alone’ because it's so bizarre. It's the most bizarre song I've ever done before. What is that?! It's so strange. [Laughs] And that's what I appreciate about it, about how weird the record is, how weird a band we are and how appropriate that record is for the band in that position at that time. That's what makes it good for me.
‘RETROTECH 2012 TOUR’:
Wed, Sept 26 – Great Northern, Byron Bay, NSW
Thurs, Sept 27 – Hi Fi, Brisbane, QLD
Fri, Sept 28 – Hi Fi, Brisbane, QLD (sold out)
Sat, Sept 29 – Hi Fi, Sydney, NSW (sold out)
Sun, Sept 30 – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle, NSW
Mon, Oct 1 – Hi Fi, Sydney, NSW
Thurs, Oct 4 – Zierholz @ Uni of Canberra, ACT
Fri, Oct 5 – Uni Bar, Wollongong, NSW
Sat, Oct 6 – The Gov, Adelaide, SA (sold out)
Sun, Oct 7 – Astor, Perth, WA
Thurs, Oct 11 – Hi Fi, Melbourne, VIC
Fri, Oct 12 – Hi Fi, Melbourne, VIC (sold out)
Sat, Oct 13 – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart, TAS
Sun, Oct 14 – Brisbane Hotel, Hobart, TAS