From a Parramatta scout hall to Kurt Cobain’s playlist, it’s been a strange 30-year trip for primal rockers feedtime. Ahead of a reunion show this weekend, AARON CURRAN talks to bassist Al Larkin about chemistry, feedtime’s violent reputation and the mighty X.
Sydney three-piece feedtime released four albums and a swag of singles before calling time on a decade’s work and hanging up their lowercase “f” in 1989 (they regrouped in 1996 for one more album). Comprised of Rick Johnson (guitar, vocals), Allen Larkin (bass, vocals) and Tom Sturm (drums), the band used pummeling bass, distorted slide-guitar, and percussion at its most fundamental to produce an intoxicating, relentless density of noise. There’s a lot of early blues music in feedtime’s sound, but it’s the dirty drone-like blues of Junior Kimbrough or Hound Dog Taylor, not the thin vanilla kind perpetuated by so many in the genre’s name.
Much like X, a band they were inspired by and often compared to, feedtime’s records struggled to capture the sheer intensity of their live performances, yet listening to them at a few years’ remove suggests that tracks like ‘I Wanna Ride’, ‘Ha Ha’ and albums like Shovel are much stronger recordings than perhaps they have been remembered.
Earlier this year, feedtime received an invitation from US label S.S to perform a one-off reunion show in San Francisco (S.S will soon be releasing a feedtime rarities set on vinyl only). The success of this concert led to an invitation to perform in the band’s hometown for the 2011 Sydney Fringe Festival, as well as a gig at Sydney’s Sandringham Hotel this Saturday (September 16) as part of the “On The Street” concert series.
Can you tell us about how feedtime first got together?
Rick and I met at school in Parramatta a shitload of time ago. Met in fourth form, as it was called in those days. Went off on our different paths, different studies, but years later we were still in contact, eight or nine years later, still friends and we just started playing, in 1979 I think.
What was your local inspiration musically?
We were both attracted to noisy rock’n’roll. Rose Tattoo I saw a bit, but Rick must have seen every show they played. During the time that we started going to see Rose Tattoo, we also started to rehearse, just the two of us out in the suburbs, making noise in a borrowed scout hall. It was pretty simplistic, writing songs for six or eight months before we got our first drummer, it might have even been twelve months. Then it was the year after that that we first started doing some scattered gigs around the inner city of Sydney.
One of the most distinctive things I hear when listening to feedtime is the sheer physicality of your bass, this deep rattling propulsion you get going. I wonder if, given you didn’t have a drummer for quite a while, that sound is because for a long time you depended on the bass to keep the rhythm going in your playing together?
Look, that may indeed be a factor, though I've never thought of it that way. But from my perspective, I'm more of a performer, a creative artist, than I am a musician. More of a percussionist than a bass-playing musician, if you know what I mean. What I'm trying to do is to create a hypnotic, drone-like rhythm. In its sameness, there's a power, an intensity ... the smallest change, a new harmonic will happen and that creates a new and powerful effect. My job has always been to take a simple riff and keep doing it, allowing Rick's guitar to come and go around the rhythm as he felt.
When we got a drummer it was the same thing, but now the drummer was able to accentuate the beat even more. We had two drummers before Tom but I think something special happened when Tom joined us ... his style, enthusiasm, and feel was a total complement. That's what's so fantastic about getting back together to play some shows this year, with Tom joining; the three of us are the definitive feedtime, I think. While we did get together with a different drummer in the '90s and the music was good, with the three of us it's different: something meshes together and it's the best we can be.
Which is the line-up we'll get to hear this weekend at the Sandringham?
Yeah, and it's very exciting to be back together and playing. Really exciting.
How did the band hook up with Bruce Griffiths and start releasing records on the Aberrant label?
I think we met at the Harold Park Hotel one time and got chatting. He was aware of us and we were aware of him and some of the compilations he was putting out [Flowers from the Dustbin, Not So Humdrum]. The first feedtime LP with the Cameron drawing on the front, we ended up putting out the first pressing ourselves. Bruce helped us do that and then we gave him a couple of tracks for his next compilation Why March When You Can Riot? But then Bruce re-pressed the first album and released everything else in the '80s for us from then on, becoming our contact to the world for [international labels like] Rough Trade, Amphetamine Reptile, Megadisc and those kinds of people overseas.
So Bruce and Aberrant must have really helped then, because it seems like feedtime records did get fairly wide distribution at the time, considering you were on an independent label on the other side of the world, far from where many of the people who ended up buying your records actually lived?
Yes, that's right. We were pretty dysfunctional at the time so I don't think anything would have happened like that for feedtime if it had been up to us to sort it all out ourselves.
You mentioned the compilation LP Why March When You Can Riot? When you look back on Australian punk compilations like that one, it seems there were literally hundreds of small bands starting out that broke up almost as quickly as they got together, then reformed with different musicians and a new name practically every month. But you stuck together with Rick as feedtime. So what was different about your band?
I think we had that special chord; there was enough energy, strength and commitment in the group to maintain. We didn't have severe drug habits, so that helped. But y'know after about 10 years we did break up. Tom had been with us for seven and we'd been going for three years before that, we just ran out of steam. We had been able to maintain it for ten years but there were all sorts of emotional, relational pressures. Disappointments from seemingly not being able to achieve much. We got virtually no airplay in Australia, very few reviews, we were way under most underground bands. We weren't really part of any scene. None of us was a closet pop star so there was no personality to “hang” feedtime on. Something had to give, otherwise it would have been detrimental to our lives.
But the commitment is there when it's there and playing together at the moment just feels fantastic. Taking that trip to America to play this year, after the first gig we all felt, “Shit, we can still do this.” It felt really good, although with the physicality of our kind of playing, it's draining, so we almost fell apart at the end! The integrity of it is still there, which felt very pleasing. Rick and Tom have done other things musically over the years but I haven't, I've got a graphic design business so I'm still creative, still making things but I never thought I'd make a noise again. Then we got the invitation to go over to America and we were all in a good space so we thought, “Yeah, why not? That'd be fantastic.”
But our old fans were a bit disappointed that we'd played over there but not home in Australia - in fact, I think some of them made their feelings known to Rick on the Mess+Noise forum. The benefit of this show at the Sandringham is that we can play for the fans. We've got our chops back, we've put a strong set-list together.
Do you think you'll do more shows? Will you go on to play other cities?
Honestly, there's no plan. Basically this is all just a bit of an accident. After we got the invitation to play in San Francisco – we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and the Americans seemed to enjoy the show – then Tim (Pittman) gave us a call about doing the Sydney Fringe Festival show. [We’re] looking forward to that, to enjoying the thrill of playing at home, then we'll go away and see what happens.
I heard Sub Pop had plans to release a feedtime anthology. What can you tell us about that, is it still on the cards?
They've showed interest in that for a few years, even though when we first started talking with Sub Pop the band was well and truly over, and there were no plans to ever play live again. But they were still interested in releasing the tracks from the Aberrant years, all the albums and singles from the '80s, they committed to that. We think it's going to happen next year, that'll be fantastic and will give people a chance to hear things that are hard to get hold of now. Well, hard to get legally. [Laughs]
On the subject of Sub Pop, one of their most famous signings was Nirvana and I've read that Kurt Cobain was a big feedtime fan, along with other US musicians like Jon Spencer and Sonic Youth. Did you ever hear from any of them directly?
No, I didn't. I don't know if any of us in the band were aware of this interest at the time. Subsequently we've been made aware of it and that's a bit of a blow away. Like I said, the band were a bit socially dysfunctional, not really tuned into the world. [Laughs] But now, looking back, it's very pleasing knowing you put your heart and soul into creating something and that there's people out there who are inspired by what you've created. I mean, we had our inspirations too.
We went and saw X play, after a few months of Rick and I writing and rehearsing in the scout hall, and that vindicated the path that we were on. Their raw energy, the pumping bass, they were obviously doing what they'd set out to do. So that gave us strength and inspiration in feedtime. Creatively, that's what happens, influences and inspirations ... not necessarily the same genre, but the sound, the aesthetic, the juxtapositions. So it's great to think that feedtime might have had some role to play in the work of those US musicians you mentioned.
Now you mentioned X. Like X, you guys had a reputation for having violent crowds at your shows. What was going on at the time to cause that? Was it purple journalism or was it really happening?
The independent music scene then, the inner-city venues, they had nowhere near as much security then as is around now. The bands were basically left to their own devices, had to look after themselves. But at that time there was a wave of skinhead wars that started up. They used the punk and independent band gigs to channel their own aggression and their arguments with each other. Not that I'm saying it was all them, I'm sure there were other individuals who were violent too, but the majority of it was caused by only a few. So I don't think you could point a finger at either X or feedtime and say musically we were somehow responsible.
“We got virtually no airplay in Australia, very few reviews, we were way under most underground bands.”
I interviewed Steve (Lucas) from X and he felt the same. He also thought it might have been self-perpetuating; that people read about the violence in the streetpress and thought that this how they should act at punk gigs. But X felt they weren't actually a punk band, they were a rock and roll band...
And neither did we. No, feedtime weren't a punk band. But we were noisy, loud, uncompromising, probably offensive to some music fans, so we were shoved aside, in terms of the venues that we were allowed to play in. Most wouldn't have bands like feedtime playing so we gravitated to the punk venues that would.
OK, say it's 1987 and feedtime are playing live at the Palace Hotel in Darlinghurst. Describe the most memorable aspects of what feedtime did at those shows.
Well of half of our shows there, we were the only band on the bill so we did three or four sets a night which was hard physically but also pleasurable, you'd feel totally wasted at the end. Like you'd really given something of yourself. That fed feedtime's way of playing. The nights would change, sometimes the first set was the best, sometimes the last. It was in-the-moment, not just playing the song but the physical performance that mattered, not the intellectual response. Even now, feedtime's music doesn't always come out the same way. That's because we're following the energy, the feel, trying to create a grind of energy ... and if we forget to do some of the trickier bits in some song, then so be it, it didn't happen and it doesn't matter. We get really in the moment and the crowd at the Palace Hotel was, more often than not, right there with us.