Icons: Charles Jenkins
From The Mad Turks of Istanbul to Icecream Hands and an acclaimed solo career, Charles Jenkins’ 20-odd years in the biz have been marked by constant evolution. He talks to PATRICK EMERY about the lessons learned along the way.
The 1980s was a fertile time for the Adelaide independent music scene. Bands such as The Dagoes, Lizard Train, Contrapunctus, Twenty Second Sect, Dust Collection, Iron Sheiks, Exploding White Mice, The Garden Path and The Screaming Believers provided the foundation for a rich, tight-knit and talented music community centred around The Old Queens Arms in Wright Street, The Tivoli in Pirie Street, The New Century in Hindley Street and The Exeter in Rundle Street. Dagoes guitarist Doug Thomas’s Greasy Pop records became the independent label de rigueur, while American writer Steve Gardner was so compelled by the Adelaide scene, he devoted a series of articles to it in his Noise for Heroes fanzine.
Charles Jenkins had moved from Mildura to Adelaide with his family in the 1970s, and eventually formed his first “real” band, The Mad Turks From Istanbul in the early 1980s. They played rock’n’roll through a paisley and amphetamine filter. With the support of then SA-FM music director Bill Page (now with Mushroom Publishing), The Mad Turks’ audience pushed at the margins of the independent scene. In another era, and with greater industry nous, their star would likely have been seen well beyond the City of Churches.
The Mad Turks’ decision to move to Melbourne in the late 1980s was the catalyst for the band’s break-up; it also provided the opportunity for Jenkins to evolve as a songwriter. He formed The Icecream Hands to explore different aspects of the songwriting craft. A series of Icecream Hands records in the 1990s drew critical acclaim, and by the end of the decade Jenkins had also plucked up the courage to pursue a solo career.
With the Icecream Hands put on hold after 2006’s The Good China, Jenkins formed Charles Jenkins and The Swedish Cowboys, which subsequently morphed into Charles Jenkins and The Zhivagos. With the Zhivagos, Jenkins has released two records: 2008’s Blue Atlas (which gave rise to the “Blue Atlas Winter Ball”, an annual fixture on Melbourne’s musical calendar); and Walk This Ocean, which was released through Dust Devil Music in October 2010. Over a couple beers at The Retreat in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, he discussed his early years in Adelaide and his ever-evolving career.
‘No one could spell Istanbul’
You were born in Mildura, but grew up in Adelaide. What brought you to Adelaide originally?
My father was a carpenter in Mildura. There were jobs going in Adelaide as a work supervisor. He travelled the state building hospitals for the South Australian government. He would disappear every Wednesday and come back every Friday, or something like that. So it was job security that brought us to Adelaide – there were four children to support.
When did you first pick up a guitar and start playing music?
I was about 15, I think. My elder brother and elder sister both played guitar, so there were always guitars lying around. I would write poetry for some fucking reason – I’m not sure why – and I’d re-write songs to give them an Adelaide bent. Pretty nerdish behaviour, I suppose. I do remember my elder sister showing a particular lyric that I’d written to my brother and both of them cursing my smart-arsedness, which was a good thing to note when you’re five to six years younger.
Eventually I started writing my own songs, which were terrible of course. It took me a while to figure out how the songs went. My ear took a while to develop, and in the meantime I’d write my own songs because they’d be easier than working out other people’s songs. The first band I played in, we just played rockabilly songs sped up because they were three chords. We had a great guitar player, but three chords was about all I could manage. That was the beginning of The Mad Turks. Unfortunately for The Mad Turks I started learning more chords. In hindsight maybe we would have done better if we had stayed in our “Eddie Cochran on speed” description we were given; that Cramps-influenced stuff we were doing. I can see these days that people like a particular bent on a band, whereas I just want to be a songwriter, and write every different type of song that I can.
What was the genesis of the Mad Turks from Istanbul?
I was with a friend from school and I put up an ad in the local music store, as you would do. It may have mentioned Eddie Cochran, but I’m sure it mentioned plenty of other popular bands, maybe The Cure [laughs]. This hotshot guitar player came along looking like Gene Vincent. He heard me singing a song and said I was a better singer than the other guy. Eventually, the other guy left and I tried my hardest not to sing – it wasn’t my idea of playing in a band, my idea of being in a band was just to write the songs and play the guitar. He was living in a block of flats in North Adelaide, there was a bass player living upstairs, so he was in. And the bass player’s sister was going out with the drummer, so he was in. That was pretty well it, and off we went. It was pretty easy to get gigs.
At our second gig a guy from a record company, Greasy Pop, came along and said, “You guys are just fine, do you want to put a song out?”, and off we went into the studio. We won a couple of competitions, started playing around, and made an album. I should have just kept playing 12-bar kind of songs. But I didn’t. Each new chord would lead to a new song, which was a common thing for songwriters.
In the 1980s, Greasy Pop was the epicentre of the Adelaide independent music scene. Was there a sense of camaraderie in the Greasy Pop community?
It was great. We played lots of gigs with those guys, we became firm friends and I’d go and see bands just about every night of the week – just stand in the front row and watch and listen and learn. There were some incredible bands: Screaming Believers were an incredible band, and Ken Sykes as a songwriter was one of the greatest that I’ve ever come across; The Garden Path; Vic Conrad, who I’m still good friends with and runs a record store in Adelaide; The Exploding White Mice; The Plague; and The Iron Sheiks. Then there was the whole psychedelic side of Adelaide, like the Dust Collection and Dandelion Wine. I suppose there were a few good records made, but the recordings around that time didn’t really do it. A lot of things fell into place, but maybe not the recording side of it.
Back in the mid 1980s the Mad Turks, along with other Adelaide bands such as the Screaming Believers and the Exploding White Mice, were fortunate enough to be played on SA-FM, which became the progenitor of the Austereo radio network. These days an independent band couldn’t get arrested on commercial radio. Looking back on those days, does it seem incongruous that you had commercial radio support?
No, because it’s not what you know, it’s who. Bill Page was the musical director there, and he was right into supporting that stuff. He had a competition – there were six bands, and The Mad Turks were chosen and The Garden Path were chosen. That got me in touch with Bill Page, with whom I’m still good friends with, and the reason why I’m still with Mushroom Publishing. To be honest, I didn’t realise it at the time – I didn’t have any notion of it. In Adelaide at the time there was 5MMM [now 3D Radio] and they had that schools program that you could go on, which was how we got played on that station. That was our big thing – just being played on the radio. It was the same as growing up here [Melbourne] and the desire to be played on Triple R and PBS – that’s still my desire, nothing’s has changed. [Laughs]
When did you drop “from Istanbul” from the band’s name?
Fucking Festival Records! No one could spell Istanbul to begin with. They were constantly after us to change our name. It never happened, although I do remember the odd night when we’d just sit around and try and think up new names.
So when did the Mad Turks decide to move to Melbourne?
For the second record [Toast], we started touring through Sydney a lot, and Melbourne not so much. Eventually Mark Burchett, who was managing The Huxton Creepers in Melbourne, put us on a tour with them up and down the east coast, so we got to see all that kind of stuff. He said if you want to come to Melbourne I’d like to manage you. I didn’t even know what a manager was. So we thought we’d go to Melbourne, and see what that nonsense was. With that move, we moved from Greasy Pop to Festival Records proper and made the second record, and the second record kind of died. But throughout the making of that second record I learnt an awful lot about making records through Arch Larizza, who was the drummer [Dominic Larizza’s] brother – but by that time the drummer had moved to the guitar, just to confuse things.
“We just wanted a piece of burnt toast – that’s where we were coming from, not champagne!”
We moved across in about 1989. We came over to make the new record [Toast], they did the video, but we struggled with everything. It was pre-Nevermind, so it was a completely different kettle of fish. We wanted a piece of toast on the front cover, that’s where we were coming from. But they insisted on champagne flutes and all that kind of bullshit, just so they could have those gimmicks when people bought the record they could have the accompanying Mad Turks champagne flutes. We just wanted a piece of burnt toast – that’s where we were coming from, not champagne!
Why did the Mad Turks break-up?
I distinctly remember a phone call from Festival Records telling me, “We’re not taking you up on the option”, and I had no idea what that meant – he was sacking us, but I was unaware. So I said, “OK, but can I have some money for some demos?”, and he said, “Yeah, OK.” So we had this weird thing where he was firing us, but giving us money. [Laughs] That money he gave us became the beginnings of the first Icecream Hands EP [Icecream Hands].
When you were given money for the demos did you have a different musical concept – that would become the Icecream Hands – in mind already?
No, what I think happened was that I took the money, not knowing what the “non-renewable option on your option” was. Then some phone calls came through from the head of the record company’s secretary explaining things to us – I just thought we were making some Mad Turks demos. Eventually we decided to give it away, which was kind of cool. It wasn’t too acrimonious – there were a few of us who were keen to leave it behind. At the time I had toyed long and hard with doing a solo record then and there, but I got cold feet – I needed other people around me. I still love having other people around me, but back then I really needed them. So we went and made the first ever Icecream Hands EP, funded by Festival – not that they ever knew that. Then the Icecream Hands just evolved out of that. I grabbed Dom, who’d been in the Mad Turks, to play guitar. The manager of the Mad Turks in their closing years [Derek Smiley] became the drummer. And the bass player, Dougie Lee Robertson, I knew from Adelaide.
We ran into [Rubber Records boss] David Vodicka, who lived in the neighbourhood – we knew him from the Mad Turks days. He said if we wanted to do something, he’d like to help us out. So that led to us being on Rubber Records. Again, I had no idea how these things actually worked. I had no idea that it was good to create a particular angle for the band. I was just writing songs.
‘The kids turned up’
By that time (the early 1990s) what had changed in your approach to songwriting?
I don’t think anything had changed at that point. It was still a lot of sitting on the couch and trying to learn new chords, and coming up with chord progressions that sounded good to my ear, put some words over the top and trying to make some sense out of it. It wasn’t until the kids turned up, which was about 1993, that I had no time to sit around on the couch anymore, so I therefore started to approach songwriting pretty well as I do now, where I would get an idea before I got to the guitar. I suppose by that time having played guitar for 10 years, and having written songs for 10 years, I had enough of the craft behind me if I had an idea I could release it. So the seismic shift was when the kids turned up.
You’ve described the period beginning around 1992 as the “hard years”. Is that description melodramatic, or was it genuinely difficult?
It was genuinely difficult. We were struggling. It wasn’t until 1999 with Sweeter Than The Radio that people started to give a shit. It didn’t coincide with any great upheaval in the band’s talent – we were always just as good five years before. It had to do with better distribution and the record being recorded better. Then [1997’s] Memory Lane Traffic Jam might well be the best record we ever made. But a lot of things went down in that time – I have mentioned it fairly flippantly, but various injuries befell various members of the band, which kept putting us back.
The first record [1993’s Travelling … Made Easy] came out and did nothing, and so for the next record [Memory Lane Traffic Jam] we had to record it ourselves. We’d play some gigs, then go into the studio for the weekend and blow all our money and then go and play another three months’ worth of gigs. Studios were really expensive back then, and gigs were paying just as appalling as they are now. It was a struggle, but out of all that struggle came probably the best record we could have made, because we were desperate to make a decent record.
And you consider [2002’s] Broken UFO to be the Icecream Hands’ “ultimate record”?
I think I was a bit more aware of the band’s talents by then, and I was fine-tuning my songwriting to incorporating what they could do. I realised by that time, that I didn’t need to make all the moves. I could sit on the guitar and the bass player could do his thing, or the harmonies could come in – all that sort of thing. A smarter, wiser approach. With Broken UFO, we were trying to incorporate songs with some of the punch of Sweeter Than the Radio with the time we took on Memory Lane Traffic Jam. Memory Lane Traffic Jam has some memorable performances on it, but Sweeter Than the Radio is really blasted out. With Broken UFO we tried to blend the two. But that record lost out because the record company relationship changed and BMG were no longer releasing the record, they were just distributing it.
“I can see these days that people like a particular bent on a band, whereas I just want to be a songwriter, and write every different type of song that I can.”
The Icecream Hands got strong critical reaction, but not necessarily major popular attention. Did that frustrate you?
No, I think I was just happy to get the critical attention. [The Age’s] Shaun Carney wrote the first really positive review for the band, and that was at the time a Green Guide review was a significant review. It was hard to get, and it kind of mattered. There’d be the jazz review, the classical review and the rock/pop review. I loved it – it was my favourite part of the Green Guide. Shaun Carney was the first one who came out and said Memory Lane Traffic Jam was a great record. It was something you could wave at the record company. We weren’t a band that was taking its clothes off, or breathing fire. We were just playing songs.
There was a substantial length of time before you released The Good China. What was the reason for the long delay between records?
The way I look at it, The Good China was the band’s reformation. The band had stopped as far I was concerned. I’d made two solo records by that time, I’d travelled a lot, had toured overseas as a solo guy, and toured Australia as a solo artist. It was Steve Horvat at Dust Devil Music who wanted us to make another record. He was a friend of Smiley, our drummer. So we agreed to do it. The plan was that we’d all contribute to the songwriting. I had a few sitting around – maybe if I had a few sitting around we’d do another record? But I don’t. I do love the guys still.
What had changed to make you ready to undertake a solo career?
Kids. They wisen you up, as you know. The big kick up the backside I got was that I was in England and it had “Icecream Hands” on the poster. I thought, “That’s not right.” But why was I able to do it? I was older, and I suppose I was improving.
‘Leaning on a song’
So how did the Zhivagos come about?
Matty Vehl was playing keyboards in the Icecream Hands. He and I started playing gigs together. Dave Milne had been playing keyboards in The Icecream Hands. I think we had a gig offered to us at the Brunswick Green. So the three of us would play, because Matty could do the bass line on the keyboard and the melodies on his right hand [and Dave played the drums]. They weren’t financially lucrative, but musically for me that period was incredible. I really learnt a lot – maybe more than that second Mad Turks record – about leaning on a song, about how to write a song that was good for a band to play. The Icecream Hands would perform a song the same way every single time and it just naturally gave you the shits after a while, but there was no other way. I was just a bit weary with that after a while, and that’s nothing against the band. So with these gigs at the Brunswick Green we’d play sometimes in the front bar, with Matty on the piano, Dave on the drums and me on the acoustic guitar. Matty’s such an incredible musician that I would play this song, and Matty would pick it up and when I got to the new bit in the song I’d say, “Look out”, and he’d cock his ear a little bit and go with the flow.
That was significant for me in many ways. That, and around that time I had been playing lots of solo gigs, and I’d learnt a lot about songs: that the first line to the song had to be incredible; that it pays to introduce the song; it pays to have little firecrackers going off in each and every part of the song, each and every single line, otherwise you’re going to lose them. You don’t have them in a darkened theatre. They’re there and they’re drinking and they’re chatting. So I’d learnt that, and I’d realise I’d need a particular song at a particular stage of the set. Learning that side of songwriting, and learning how to lean on a song, that to me has been the Zhivagos ethic (although we were called the Swedish Cowboys at that stage).
Then Arthur [Stabolidis] joined the band – he’d been my go-to computer guy, until he let it be known that he could play bass, so we got together and realised he was a great guitar player. He fell into the role really well. So the four of us were settle for a while, but I was desperate for a second guitar player … I approached Davey Lane to help out, and during the rehearsals he said if we were doing any further recording he’d love to help out, and I said yes before he’d finished the question.
Did you write the Blue Atlas songs that feature a string accompaniment with strings in mind?
No, that’s all Matty Vehl’s greatness. It was originally just me and a guitar. I was going to do it with Mick Thomas’s label [Croxton Records]. Mick had been really supportive, and wanted to put the record out. But then I had second thoughts – I do really one day want to do a one voice, one mic, one guitar record, but with that one I felt there were a couple of things [I needed]. And Matty suggested we do some strings. I thought that was cool, but how were we going to do that? And then it turned out that a friend, Rick Morgan, helped out financially to get that to happen. Then Steve Horvat at Dust Devil Music helped out as well. That’s why I love that record, because there’s so much that hasn’t come from me that augments the whole notion of the song.
What’s your take on the demise of [Melbourne record store] Gaslight Records [Jenkins worked there from 1997 until its closure in 2005]?
I was disappointed, but we could see it coming for such a long time. There was the dot-com boom. All of a sudden you had Chaos Music upstairs with 30 or 40 people running around, and then eventually those 30 or 40 people started losing their jobs. It breaks my heart when I go past and see it’s a fucking Nando’s. I loved it. Prior to that I had no money and I’d buy three records and I’d take them apart, note by note, under a microscope and learn them. When I got to Gaslight, I was able to put on a record and watch people. It’s like putting on a record and watching the kids. They don’t dance to just anything – it was that kind of response. It helped me understand that sense of rhythm, and how it felt. I learnt so much because there were so many music nuts there, so much more accomplished than I. And then I had the good fortune to go onto Basement Discs, which was a similar kettle of fish. Beautiful people, and so steeped in music. It’s been a good arc, that journey.
‘A hard record’
Where did you record the latest Zhivagos record Walk This Ocean?
After Blue Atlas, Dave and Arthur and our friend Rick Morgan went out to a friend’s house in the western district of Victoria, where there’s this beautiful old rambling house with many rooms. The owner of the house suggested we make a record there. That was the plan to get everyone back together. We did about 30 demos. Late last year I was talking to Davey Lane and he said March was looking pretty free, so I had to pounce. So off we went in March. We didn’t really have a lot of time to rehearse, we just had to pick a song and smack it around.
Our producer, Justin Rudge, who I can’t give enough credit to, had arranged all the logistics for the session. We worked like dogs, but the smart thing I did was to send money down there for the guy to do the catering, so we had three square meals a day, with a different theme for each day. We’d play in the morning, and play in the evening. There was no one around, so we could play all night long. At the end of the session we could go for a walk down to the lake and bullshit on. It was beautiful.
That was the glorious side to the record. When we got back I had to sing it. We did the harmonies at a friend’s house, and other bits and pieces around the place. We probably only had 14 days in total mixing, but Justin and I had been working on it for about six months from March to September. Then the people at Hot House were really generous, and they wouldn’t let us go until we were happy with the record.
Tell me about the story featuring Van and Cal Walker in ‘Save!’
It was at Pure Pop Records in St Kilda. I’d gone outside to get something to eat and when I came back in everyone was on the street. And this guy was out the back trying to get over the back fence because it was a sell out. And all these people were underneath him telling him not to jump, but he did, and bam! – that was the end of him. They had to get an ambulance, and get everyone out.
There are a couple of false-isms. We weren’t thrown out into the street, and Van and Cal were there, and said, “Do you want to come with us?” And I said, “Nah, taxis will take such a long time”, and he said, “You’ll be with us, it’ll be OK.” It was said in such a warm way. I didn’t end up going with them, but I was thinking about that comment later on, and it was such a cool comment. “There’s a raging flood coming, but don’t worry, you’re with us, and it’ll be OK.” So that’s why that bit ended up in the song.
What about the track you stole from your son [‘Swing Bridge’]?
He’s a really great piano player, and I’m keen to steal more of his chord progressions! He sits out the back and plays these great medleys with David Bowie songs, that morph into Nina Simone songs that morph into Paul McCartney songs and Brian Wilson songs. I recorded him, and got him to play along with this click track. Full credit to him – all I had to do was sit on it for long enough so I could work out what to sing over the top.
Walk this Ocean seems to be more of a “rocking” album – was that a conscious decision?
It was intentional to make it punchier. We’d played the Winter Ball and a few other gigs, and I’d realised the potential for the band to be sonically huge, so I was just trying to write accordingly – not that it would determine the idea for the song, but it would help in bring the song to fruition. And Arthur was telling me to write choruses, so I agreed to that, knowing that Matty and Dave could come up with some riffs that would help out the choruses. It just seemed like a natural thing to do. So I was really trying to write a “harder” record – it was a concerted effort. I like looking at people’s records and thinking, “That’s his hard record, that’s his fast record, that’s his Sunday morning record, that’s his Saturday night record.” I like that in an artist, and I like to do that.
What are the seven habits of highly effective songwriters?
They would have great record collections. They would read a lot. They would know that the opening line of the song has to be the best line, and every other line has to be the best. They would understand that there’s a balance between craft and inspiration. They would have to own about seven spectacular shirts to have on stage. Is that seven? That’ll have to do. [Laughs]
Finally, how many school fetes have you played?
I’ve done my time. I’ve done my share. Brunswick East Primary School doesn’t need me anymore! [Laughs]