Can you remember the broad yearning of your teenage years?
Now there’s an app to share your disaffection but in the 90s isolation was shared publically and locally by sub-urban youth hooked on volume, sweat and the happy hour chase to get gone. Here’s to a time when rock was savage and primitive.
Earlier this year I was spending time doing what has become something of an archivist’s hobby; trawling through Youtube videos for footage of obscure 90s bands. Without remorse this is cultural tourism of a time before the internet made everything instantly available, when production values were low but enthusiasm was high.
Inevitably, the ‘do you remember when’ big summer hits give way to the low-fi more obscure finds at the darker end of the unpopular spectrum. These bands packed audiences at local venues of 4-500 people, travelled on a shoestring with a sports bag full of songs, rail thin and mostly likely self medicated, their place in rock’s classifieds was fleeting, but as the ink fades they refuse to dry up.
The antipodes of 90s musical Australia, far more isolated before the internet, developed in a unique way. We listened to the same records, but they were channelled through a particular experience rooted in sun, suburban boredom, and peripheral imagination. Source material was interpreted and appropriated actively rather than directly copied by local bands whose first-name small-time audiences trucked no air. Global recognition no matter how niche wasn’t a cloud on the horizon, everyone was too visible at midday for midnight masks to feel real.
The undercurrent of the underground was local, admittedly with international pretensions, but naïve enough that it rang truer than the hegemony of Britpop or the pan-hedonic blitzkrieg of dance music. The cash beat of the latter excluded many live bands as venue owners opted for the female friendly cost efficiency of House DJs. However there was for a time, a proper circuit that sustained bands in pasties and petrol as they toured continent spanning distances for audiences willing to pay for local produce. This is the unsanitiary oral history of one of those bands.
Many of the bands that succeeded in the mid 90s had their roots in late 80s, in the rough and regularly violent pub rock scene dotted on road maps around the country. These bands had a short words writ big macho bravado, carving a savage sound hewn from rock; pliable drugs, visceral ennui, and a working class devotion to the endless Friday night. They lacked the introspection of grunge, the bashful cardigans of post-rock, or the cultural pretensions of alt-folk. Worldly readers might note they’re closest cousins in bands like The Butthole Surfers from the US or The Cardiacs from the UK. It was weird, scary and thoroughly Australian.
short words writ big
Making a playlist of these strange and largely extinct bands I’d listen to these bands as I wrote about art shows, bar openings, or cultural events. Some beat out copy to electronica but it’s canon that if you want to write prose with a pulse savage Rock and Roll is essential. As time went on, articles were filed, drafts subbed, and review requests sent and the playlist shortened. It became obvious that I needed to know what happened to these bands, where did they go, what happened to them, and perhaps most relevantly, now that the live circuit has become relevant again, what can we learn from those pivotal bands? And what happened to the disaster promised by Fish Biscuit by Splatterheads?
Musically the Splatterheads were not an entirely unique band, visually they pushed the envelope but where they stood over the rest was in their energy. They were certainly one of the wildest hard rock bands that never settled into the clichés of ‘punk’ or ‘metal’. That they never quite sounded like anyone else was a plus but the main thing was that they sounded the end of an era of Australian music which included bands like Radio Birdman, The Saints, The Hard Ons and Tumbleweed. They became the embodiment of what the following musical generation would refuse to portray; confidence, outright dumbness, danger, fun and being male.
So, more or less on a whim, I sent a bunch of questions to Sly, vocalist and guitarist for The Splatterheads, about their history and tentatively, the future of the parochial Australian rock labourer.
Can you tell me about the where you came from musically?
I have vivid a memory of the rising excitement I felt when I first played an old 45 of Jerry Lee Lewis doing Great Balls of Fire, the B-side was Mean Woman Blues. My parents had these old records stashed away, finding them was incredible.
I was little, maybe 5 yrs. old, it felt like I was doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, even at that age I understood that I’d never felt anything quite like it, distinct, palpable. It was like the feeling you get after an electric shock when you realise you’re not hurt, or the way you feel after nearly having a scary accident. A post adrenaline thing, I’d play these records over and over, Jerry Lee, Ray Charles, an Elvis album.
what the following musical generation
would refuse to portray;
confidence, outright dumbness,
and being male.
My brother was 5 yrs. my senior and was always listening to cool stuff, I followed him around. I got a lot of Beach Boys and Beatles, later on, when I was 11, I bought my first album, Suzi Quatro’s ‘Can the Can’, Holy shit, I was redlining through some kind of musical puberty. I got the first X-Ray Spex album (R.I.P. Polly), the Rezillos. Then my brother’s band, the Lemmings, got to support the Ramones in 1980, my buddy and I got freebies in. I was 14 and things changed profoundly and forever.
What were the first bands you played with?
I used to skateboard around this hall as the Lemmings would rehearse, watching a band play was the best.
I would play on the drums when they would break, just trying to mimic what I was seeing, If you have a good ear, it works. Anyway, a few like minds and I got a group together called ‘Doomed Youth’, we played Sex Pistols and Ramones and even had one or two originals.
We knew these rich kids who had all this trick gear. They would have a party, play Cure covers and be really serious in their pointy shoes, they used to let us use their gear, thinking that we would make them look really slick. We would go totally apeshit, must of been funny, but kids liked it, it felt too good to ever want to stop.
Couple of years later I drummed in ‘Reality damage’. Hard core thrash stuff. We did real gigs at real pubs, next was Psycho Circus, I sang in that. We actually had a following, rocking punk rock. I remember making bloody latex bullet holes for my head and trying to look dead. This was Brisbane 84, harsh place to be back then, a bonafide police state. There was only one place to play in town when I split to Melbourne in 85.
bloody latex bullet holes
for my head
and trying to look dead
After a few years in Melbourne I met some guys from Perth, The Greenhouse Effect’, they had a cool Sydney tour booked but their singer ran off, so they asked me. It was great, harbour cruise gig with the Hard Ons, very cool scene indeed, plus I was chasing a girl.
Sydney became home, a year later, The Lompoc County Splatterheads did their first gig. We had all lived together over the years in Brizneyland (Brisbane), old mates, they were playing as the Unknowns when I asked if they wanted a second guitarist, they said yes and I had to learn how to play guitar.
I’d been playing bass in Melbourne, The Sidewinders, I figured, ‘How hard could it be?’, so played it like a bass which kinda worked. It was loud fast outa control rock’n’roll. We all had similar tastes in music, all hailing from the punk and Detroit rock side of the tracks. It sounded pretty bad but it felt fucking goooood, all we wanted was to get a gig, tap into the great rock scene that was Sydney circa 87-95.
We couldn’t play well enough to sound like the cats we loved so we just had to let it roll. Like taking your hands off the handle bars flying down a huge hill. It feels risky, like anything can happen. It wasn’t long before the music we played was kinda becoming its own thing; it wasn’t really like anything I was hearing. It wasn’t intentional, it was just how it came out as we learnt more, loud, hard and fast, the holy trinity that guided us. We never really discussed the splatter thing, it just kinda happened. A bit of intense theatre that got a bit left behind as we got better at playing and writing. It also started becoming a gimmick when we weren’t a gimmick band. We were touring all the time, doing everything we could on a tiny budget, honest chaos, and true heartfelt pandemonium.
We didn’t act like rock stars. The connection we had with our crowd was very cool, we only sounded like us. It’s so hard to be original that you should never try; contrived originality has to be the greatest soulless wank in town. Splatterheads never had a big picture plan, or a small picture plan for that matter, I think we benefitted and suffered from that in equal measure; how the fuck do you plan rock’n’roll? The very idea feels like baaaad juju.
You said in an interview that the ’95 Europe tour was a great experience for the band did you manage another tour?
Yeah, Europe in early ‘95 was a total blast. We put a lot of time into it though, making contact and doing interviews with cool little ‘zines all over the place. It paid off really well, not so much money-wise but we played to full houses everywhere we went.
We did some good supports too, Weezer who were getting huge, toured Italy with NoFX, who were even bigger at the time, one of the shows rioted, crazy stuff; sadly those guys didn’t get us at all. We were kinda rude to them because they really acted like wankers. You don’t do that to drunken Aussies without being told to fuck off. We told them too, in no uncertain terms as I remember, it didn’t matter, we were flying, and it was like 35 shows in 40 days. Totally stupid, still, it was our first time there. It was how it had to happen, BOT the album was getting really cool reviews on a local German label Subway. We ploughed through 12 countries I think. We ended up in Serbia, there was still shit going on around the Bosnian war, the place was really a mess, of course the cats we were meeting were just rock fans who hated war.
First night we were 6 hours late and there was 800 people waiting outside this gig. It was Splattermania, they were rocking the van as we tried driving in, nuts. We each had a big minder dude that followed us around, it was kinda unnerving. It went nuts, some really intense memories from that point of the tour. like driving down this country back road and suddenly spotlights explode from the bushes and this squad of black clad paramilitary goons with big moustaches and armed to the fucking teeth, come out across the road in front of us, guns raised.
It was scary stuff because western hostages had recently been snatched, in the road, we had to unload the van and take off the backs off our speaker boxes. Finally, our guide got it through to the boss man that we play Rock’n’Roll, we gave they some CDs and they were our best mates. It took everyone we met a while to comprehend that we had come all the way from Australia. I said on this interview on the 6 o’clock news, we didn’t come to do politics or religion, no message at all, just a really cool time and some insane Rock’n’Roll.
with big moustaches
and armed to the fucking teeth
They dug it, a respite from war and embargos, the friendships we formed were INTENSE, I have a thousand incredible stories of that stuff. Anyway, at the end we recorded an album, ‘Joined at the Head’, it was great but there was lots of shit with labels and it never got a local release here on Dogmeat records as it should have.
It was tough. It played a part in the bands collapse, we went back over to Europe in ‘96 to promote that album, so much went wrong despite some amazing cool cool times. I ended the tour in a Spanish hospital unconscious for 5 days and near death, the camel’s back was about to go CRAAAACK.
One source says you broke up in 1996, what happened?
We got back to Sydney separately, I realised I didn’t want to live there anymore. The cost of living was huge, I didn’t have a pad, the live music scene was waning a bit, so I split to Melbourne.
To this day. The band never ‘broke up’ though. There were no fireworks, we just kinda didn’t do it anymore, that’s not to say there wasn’t weirdness going on because there was a bit. I just think the band was always SO intense, it’s how we were on and off the stage, we burnt holes in ourselves and each other. I got back from the 2nd tour of Europe and a month later I had a baby girl to look after. See, it was all EXTREMES, I needed to get a lid on things, try at least. I kinda stepped away from music to save a little girl’s dad.
You guys seem to be doing a few gigs recently does this mean that you’re back on as a band?
Well yeah, September 2010, we played one show in Sydney, one in Melbourne and one in Geelong, three places we always felt at home, it was fucking nuts. The most intense and cool thing I had done in a while, it was like each gig was full of friends we hadn’t seen for years, we are doing the Melbourne Monster Session at the espy, big benefit for MS research, 16 bands, the Splatterheads aren’t really an on-going concern, we can’t think that far ahead. If it’s fun and it doesn’t cost us , then yeah we’ll do a show, living in three separate states makes it hard with kids and jobs and all the rest of the stuff that keeps people nailed down, maybe there’s something happening with our friends the Meanies in November. We’ll see.
I always felt that despite being a good band, for whatever reason you seemed to be out of step with the musical fashion at the time with the result that you never got as much press as the other guys on the scene?
As far as us getting stiffed by press and stuff at the time, we had a pretty strange relationship with media of the day, we had Today Tonight come to a rehearsal and interview us about self-mutilation. A nutso pictorial in People mag, always weird stuff. The street press always did cool interviews and mentions, we didn’t have a good thing with a lot of promoters at the time though. We didn’t play the game you had to play to get big back then.
We were independent in the actual sense of the word, every manager we had burned out pretty badly, we were hard to keep up with. Lasting management would have changed everything I think. Even still, we did more than we ever set out to do, more often than not the bands that make good livings off their music are ones that have the canny interface dudes… between them and the world, they let the band be a band and they do all the stuff that musos aren’t usually cut out to do, i.e. business.
We didn’t do musical trends, we just did us, if we had continued at the same rate we were going we would have done some pretty interesting things, I guess. Like die maybe haha. A year after we stopped playing, ‘punk rock’ became mainstream music that was frustrating, but we were always far too interesting to be mainstream. Really.
As you say the music you guys played has become the norm though without the rough edge you guys had nor the originality. Do you think you influenced the young guys that are doing it today?
Y’know, in September when I was looking for some cats to play at our shows, I would check out a band’s music on MySpace etc. I don’t do ‘out’ very often, when I contacted the bands who played with us they were all really stoked to have the gig. They were either too young to have seen us or just 18 or so when they did. We stayed large in people’s memories, some shows used to get so frantic that they kinda became folklore; sometimes an atmosphere would generate like that feeling when major violence breaks out in a crowd, a scary kinda tension that’s exhilarating in a forbidden way. All the more potent when everyone just goes home safe having had a cool, mad time.
We didn’t make lots of records so they’ve end up being kinda collectable, or so I’ve heard. There are a few guys around playing in cool bands today who have said we moved them to form a band. I won’t name and shame them but that was heartfelt and sweet for me, you know? It’s really very cool to have inspired people to get into music. It’s better than any recognition from an industry that’s inherently untrustable.
get so frantic that
they kinda became folklore
Y’know, I see some young guys doing thrashy songs that get them kinda famous and I can tell where the songs going. I can actually predict with certainty what the next note is, that’s what happens when punk rock becomes a formula. It’s not me having the brain the size of a planet, I think it’s better for us (and music) to have been bit broken but still kicking…
You had a distinct look, where did the idea for that come from?
As far as how we looked, we were all splatter movie fans, I used to watch frame by frame how effects happened. Used to buy Fangoria magazine and read about dudes like Sam Peckinpah and effects guys like Tom Savini. The list goes on and on, we were all art heads from the outset.
I was really young when I first toyed with simulated injuries, I used to scribble black pencil onto paper, then rub the paper on my arm to make a hideous bruise. I loved it. I did bloody latex bullet holes in my head and slashed throat stuff in bands before Splatterheads. I probably pushed the idea but the guys were always more than happy to roll with it.
Early on I made a hard plastic stomach recess that Christo would wear. There would be a modified wine bladder underneath with loads of guts and blood, during the set I would grab a kitchen knife and disembowel him. Looked great and totally freaked out a few people, one time we made this huge prosthetic cock, blue veins bulging and a blood pump in Christo’s back pocket, he pulls out his cock and puts it on this alter thing we had on stage and I swing this cleaver and SLAM, off with the cock, he hit the blood and it sprayed over the punters, the illusion never lasted long but there was always a few seconds where some of the crowd were like, “What the fuck?!”
It was always a gas, it gets hard to keep on doing those sorts of things when you’re broke, busy touring and what not, so we ended up actually cutting ourselves on stage.
I’ve got a few good scars from that stuff, again, things used to get so intense that there was nowhere else to go but open up and bleed, the make-up is more about war paint than anything else, masks are great to help move you to another place. To be someone else, it’s theatre baby.
cutting ourselves on stage.
Art imitating life imitating madness imitating life’s weirdness, we never did that stuff at every show though. It wasn’t a gimmick, it was just something fun to do, we had to be pretty riled up to do it, if we did it for anyone other than ourselves it would be pathetic, or prosthetic…
There isn’t a lot about you guys on the net? What were some of the Splatterhead highlights for you?
We came and went at a time when the internet wasn’t available like it is today, in fact it wasn’t around at all unless you were in that computer scene. Now, it’s allowed bands to get out there without spending your life in a van. It’s a piece of instant marketing cake these days, we had so much stuff on vid tapes that we would film; on tour, at shows and on massive mind benders. Sadly, it’s largely been lost to mould from sitting in cardboard boxes in people’s garages, really sad.
That said, some of the stuff was incriminating for a whole bunch of reasons, some footage emerged recently of us in this apartment we had in Melbourne when we recorded BOT the Album. Very very out-there stuff that degenerates into us with saucepans on our heads, doing running head-butts into each other. The impact was loud and hilarious.
As far as highlight goes, it was such a good journey to take with those guys that finding definitive moments is hard, the first European tour was our ‘title fight’ though, 35 shows in 40 days across 12 countries, unreal stuff, we caned it too, better than we could have hoped for.
Your voice was one of the most distinct and vital in the Australian music scene in the 90s, who influenced you to sing the way you did?
It’s strange thinking about who influences me in a vocal sense, my head’s a blender like that. When I was younger and writing songs, cats like Elvis Costello and Bob Mould from Husker Du sang with such emotion, such certainty, it blew me away. Joey Ramone had a massive impact on me, Suzi Quatro, Chrissy Hynde, Joan Jett, Joe strummer, John Lee Hooker, the bloke from Discharge (before he went all warbly and metal). It was listening to all them that made me need to do it. I got blinkered by thrash punk rock for a long time, and hell, anyone can do that, right? It’s the whole point, in the end if you want to sing you have to just go for it, what you got is what you get, it’s more about honing it with emotion.
What I mean is, when you’re pissed off or desperate, sing something. Try and get that energy into a sound, just by trying you will end up with something uniquely you and if it’s combined with a lyric that is true… fuck. You can make people cry, dance or murder each other. It can be powerful stuff. The rhythm of the words and how they come out of and for people. I guess at the end of the day, the way I sing is always changing a bit as my voice changes with time (and abuse). It’s actually been hard to do some the Splatterheads stuff because it tears my throat up these days. I’m trying to sing it differently but with the same emotion.
you have to just go for it,
what you got is what you get
What are you doing now?
These days… hmmmm… for whatever reason I kind of isolate a bit too much. I still write songs all the time and am demoing some with a friend. I play whenever I’m asked to but find it hard self-promoting, music is as important to me now as it has ever been, probably more so as I’m not out and about doing it so much lately. If I had the money I would record and release an album a month for the next year, I’ve got so many songs its stupid. It’s like having musical herpes or something. I’ve got a band that we try and get together each Wednesday night. It’s pretty cool rock’n’roll stuff but we don’t seem to play, like ever, weird. But it’s a nice connection with these guys and there’s no stress.
It was a real blast doing the Splatterheads stuff in 2010, we released ‘The Splatter Platter’, a record of live recordings done in Australia and Europe in the mid-90s. It’s got a heap of cool art and pics in a fantastic booklet done by Glenn smith, illustrator extraordinaire (www.glennoart.com.au). I’m pretty excited about this MS thing too, for me the best things to come out of the whole Splatterheads catastrophe are cool, strong friendships with a couple strange guys and a whole bunch of amazing people that came for the ride. That’s my angle anyway.
As for the future, y’know life throws some pretty weird shit at you sometimes. I’m wading in an ocean of shit that’s of the weirdest order as we speak, a real big company is starving me out of a fight that I don’t even want. I’ll keep writing songs, I’ll find someone to play em with and I’ll do some shows and put something out. When? Whenever, I guess, I’ve become a pretty flexible dude y’know and my life seems to be in the beginning of some sort of a transition, maybe it’s a regression, we’ll see. The only thing that stops me putting music out is money sadly, I could do three albums a year for the next five years just with what hovers in my head now, man, but all I got is question marks really, I mean who really knows anything anyway, right? I mean the world is so full of superficial illusion that comes at us from all angles and we seem to constantly need to trick ourselves in this amazing variety of ways, just so we can keep going and not get bogged down with the weirdness of the human situation, yeah? Maybe that’s just me, anyway, luv-on-ya and thank you. Goodnight Irene.
Turns out the MS gig in Melb was massive and awesome, and I just had a ‘David joyously fucks goliath with sweet relentless savagery’ moment yesterday at a meeting.
Future? Nov. 12th and 13th sees Splatterheads doing the River Rocks fest in Geelong and the tote with the meanies and other cool cats. 2012 will see some new Splatterheads music and the world will turn.