Powderfinger Interview

By theajaysharma

A guitarist and a bassist sit in a hotel suite in the middle of Hollywood. They represent the most popular band in Australia - multi-platinum albums, sold-out stadium shows, the whole bit - yet no one on this continent knows who they are. It really proves just how far Australia is from America when a band that's topped charts for years in Oz comes to the States opening for Coldplay. Proven too is how different the mentality is of "rock stars" down under.

Interview by Lisa Y. Garibay

Upon my arrival, Ian Haug (the guitarist) and John Collins (called "JC" by his mates to distinguish from the other Jon in the band, whose initials are also "JC" - oh, that wacky Aussie humor) fetch me drinks, ice, and comfy chairs, and give open, honest answers to whatever I ask. Not to mention their latest album Odyssey Number 5 - number four in the 'Finger catalog - is an incredible piece of musicianship with adept, heartfelt lyrics. If there's anyone deserving musical success and critical acclaim in the U.S., it's the guys in Powderfinger.

FYI, Vital Powderfinger Stats: name comes from a Neil Young song; band members are Bernard Fanning (vocals, guitar), Darren Middleton (keyboards, guitar), Ian Haug (guitar), John Collins (bass), Jon Coghill (drums); formed in Brisbane (their hometown) in 1992; previous albums include Parables for Wooden Ears, Double Allergic, and Internationalist; have won handfuls (and been nominated for even more) Australian Grammys (ARIA Awards).


Have you guys gleaned any advice from Australian bands that have been successful in America about making it in the States?

Ian: Not advice - inspiration, I guess. Crowded House is a prime example.

JC: And Midnight Oil.

Ian: Yeah, those are the two, because we're kind of a blend between them in a way. (Laughs) I mean, not what we sound like, but in our mentality, I think.

JC: Where we sit.

Ian: Yeah, 'cause Crowded House is a melodic band and Midnight Oil is a political rock band.

JC: We're neither or. (Grins)

So nobody's sat you down and said, "Okay, this is what's going to happen when you get to America..."?

JC: No, I mean, no one really discusses it. We know the Silverchair boys and they said, "Oh, that sounds like great fun!" (Laughs) That's all - "Oh, you're going? Great! Cool!"

What's your favorite city that you've been in here in the States so far?

JC: I really like San Francisco.

Ian: Same here.

JC: Actually, I shouldn't say this, but.... I really like this place - LA is fun! It just feels very comfortable.

Ian: And Austin was really cool. I mean, I don't know what it's like normally, since we were there when that whole kerfluffle was going on -

Right - you guys played South by Southwest a couple of years ago.

Ian: That's it.

How does it feel to now be 10 years old as a band and have just released your fourth album, yet have to start things from scratch in a place like the States?

Ian: Well, it's been a really gradual thing in Australia, so.... I don't think we're going to have to start at the very bottom here.

JC: Even if we did, we never get too concerned about it, because we learned early on not to get your hopes up and pretend everything's going to be great.

Ian: You court disappointment.

JC: Yeah, you get disappointed and that's not really the objective of what we do. The objective is to write good albums and to produce music we all like, and if the other stuff happens, that's great - it's a bonus. Like with Universal [Records] - for the last record we put out in Australia, the Internationalist, that was a pretty dodgy time for all bands.

Ian: It was going to get released here and everywhere else, and then everyone lost their jobs.

JC: That was just one of those things that happen with a take-over and you can't do anything about that, you know? You can't stop writing songs and hold the record because you're worried about the politics of the record company. For us, it's bloody awesome that we're getting released now. It's better than not ever being released! And, as I think the record company sort of explains, they think that it's a really good opportunity for us because we have been going for a few years now and doing some of the things that need to be done are not so new to us. (Laughing) We'd still be crap at photo shoots and stuff like that.

Ian: That'll never change.

There is some infamy about Powderfinger photo shoots - what's up with that? Do you feel they're something facetious that isn't about the music?

Ian: Not even that. It's just that we always seem to do them and it's a vicious circle: we do a shoot and then there are no photos that we can use out of them. (Laughs) That sort of thing - wasting our time.

JC: We do have fun; we try to make it as fun as we can. But those photos end up on the floor or never getting printed. But it's up to us to select, too, so it's not like we're pissed off about it. It's just I just don't think we like looking at ourselves. Plus being a five-piece, it's so hard.... Two or three people would probably be a lot easier.

Ian: Five people is hard, yeah.

So let's talk about that dynamic. You guys seem really tight as a five-piece and more importantly, each of you seems equally represented on the albums and in the media. It's not like Bernard's the only one out there and the rest of you are sitting at home.

Ian: It's the way we've always been.

How does it work? Do you argue a lot?

JC: That happens.

Ian: We tend to argue more during, say, the songwriting stage. We're not arguing about personal things.

JC: Yeah, we're not saying, "You're a dickhead!" (Laughs)

Ian: It's just like, "No, I don't like what you're doing", and then it's over. It tends to be that because we've known each other for so long and we're tight, as you say - we know each other's boundaries and we try not to piss each other off too much.

JC: The worse it gets is you get home and think, "I was really bad today...I'll give that person a call and say sorry for being a prick." That's the good thing about us, I think - we always sort of get back to where it should be instead of letting stuff.... I've never walked on stage hating anyone or being pissed off.

Ian: (Laughs) Self-hatred's all right, though.

JC: Yeah, self-hatred, we've had plenty of that. (Laughs) But we always try to get everything out in the open and keep it something we can always discuss.

So you guys haven't been afflicted by the typical rock star stuff, cheating with somebody else's girlfriend and drug abuse and all that?

JC: (Laughs) Nah, we're still waiting for all that to happen. I think being Australian really makes a difference there.

How so?

JC: It's not really that important to be a rock musician in Australia because no one really cares. If you go down to the pub on Saturday evening or whatever, no one gives a shit what you do - you're just the same as everybody else. I think it's a great thing. It's a great environment for us to live in and it also really keeps you grounded on what is important - your friends, your family, your partners, and ultimately your music and your friends in the band.

Because if it all failed, you'd need that to come back to.

JC: Yeah! And we really don't give a shit about all that other stuff.

Ian: Australians just don't celebrate fame as much.

So how are you guys expecting it to be if you take off here in the States? We're crazy about bands - you'll have screaming, obsessive fans and intrusive reporters and the whole bit.

Ian: (Laughs) It's good we live a long way away then!

Have you encountered many American fans yet, and if so, what's the difference between them and your fans back home?

Ian: I think people are generally the same everywhere.

JC: It doesn't worry us to have fanatical fans here because we have them in Australia, you know, and that's a good thing because they're the ones who are selling your records and talking about you and promoting you on the 'net. They're doing all the work for you, basically! (Laughs) They really feel passionate about what we do so it's not an issue; it doesn't change the make-up of everything. If there's tons of 'Finger fans here in the States in a year or two, it wouldn't change us.

What about the reporters you've been talking to here - how do they differ from the ones back home?

Ian: Everyone in Australia knows more of our history. Here, it's people asking us how we got our name and all that sort of stuff, whereas we went over that five years ago in Australia. But it doesn't matter.

JC: In Australia, they're probably trying to get a little bit further because there've been a lot of articles on the band, and now they're after all the real dirt, you can feel that.

Ian: "At home with Powderfinger!"

JC: You can see the journalists going for it, and everyone just shuts up. We say, "You're not really talking about the music here, mate! You're go-ing too far!"

I know that a couple of you guys have side projects; how do those figure in to all of the time that you have to dedicate to Powderfinger, especially now that you're getting more attention worldwide?

Ian: No one's done anything for over a year and a half, really, because there hasn't been time.

JC: [To Ian] Since the recording or writing of Odyssey, you guys haven't done anything, have you?

Ian: Months before that, even. At some stage I'd like to; it doesn't really take up extra time apart from when we have a jam - that's where all our songs are created. I don't see the harm writing songs for that band since they just come flying out at the time.

What's the songwriting process like for Powderfinger? Is it just Bernard writing lyrics or do the rest of you contribute when he's stuck?

JC: I'd say ninety-eight percent would be Bernard's lyrics. Some of the melodies might come from Ian or Darren and then Bernard will say "Yeah!" take it home and work with it because ultimately he's got to sing it, you know?

Ian: He's got to believe it, yeah.

JC: The music is a combination of jams and things - like one song was a complete jam with Haugy [Ian] making stuff up and "Like A Dog" happened. Other songs might come in when someone has a fresh idea and then we'll rip it apart. And then Bernard might bring one and it's pretty damn good as it is and we just sort of arrange it and give it a feel. It's varying and I think that's a good thing, so it's not one format.

Ian: Cogsy [drummer Jon Coghill] is a particularly good arranger because he can listen to it all, just sort of sit back and go, "Okay, that's a really good bit."

When does an album become "old" to you? You've been doing press on Odyssey Number 5 for months and now you've got to do it all over again here.

Ian: It's not that long ago - when did it come out, October or something like that?

JC: Yeah, late last year. The writing of the album was only done this time last year, so it's not even a year old.

Ian: It's different from any other way we've ever written records. Normally we'd write songs as we were touring and sort of squeeze it in, but this time -

JC: We were pretty busy, so when we had a gap -

Ian: We had six weeks or something like that. We just went for it.

JC: And, I mean, some of the songs on previous albums could've been two years old -

Ian: By the time we've recorded them!

JC: But because the process was so close to the recording, this doesn't feel too old for us.

Would you prefer to do that for all of your next albums?

Ian: Well, we're not going to make any rules, but yeah. It's better if you can get it straight out.

JC: It's better because it's fresh and because you do feel more enthusiastic about it. But the enthusiasm changes. Like playing "Pick You Up" [off Double Allergic] - playing that today would have a whole awesome feel about it because -

Ian: We've known it for six years and we haven't played it for a while.

JC: But even if we were playing it every night, it's still feels really good because it's a new audience. I think when things get old is when you're playing the same shit to the same crowd. That's when you start to feel it. You go, "Okay, we're going to stop touring." Would you agree, Haugy?

Ian: Yeah!

I was wondering about the cover of "Love My Way" on the "Like A Dog" single that's just come out. How did you guys decide to do that? Have you released many other covers?

Ian: We did "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" a long time ago, and "Blackfella/Whitefella", a Warumpi Band song. We all chose one song for this record - five different covers - and "Love My Way" was my choice. JC chose a Joy Division song.

Which one?

JC: (Laughing) "Transmission". Such a great tune!

Ian: We've done a couple of other ones, which we should keep secret because they're going to be funny when they come out.

With "Love My Way" I was expecting a pretty reverent, straightforward cover - but you guys have totally given it your own translation. Not that I'd expect Bernard to try and mimic Richard Butler....

Ian: Yeah, there's no point in making it sound exactly like the original.

JC: It's a great song - I mean, it's hard to stuff it up!

When will you be back for a proper headlining tour of the States?

JC: Yeah, end of May. I think we start in Atlanta; I don't know how it goes from there yet.

Ian: May twenty-fourth, I think. It's about a four or five week tour.

JC: It's our first real tour of the States. This last time, when we were out with Coldplay, was the first real tour bus experience we've ever had! I mean, we don't have buses in Australia. It's illegal to sleep on buses and to travel in buses.

I didn't know that - don't people rent caravans and drive all over the place?

Ian: Yeah, yeah - you're just not meant to sleep in them when you're driving.

JC: So touring in a bus is not available in Australia. It was a whole new experience last time with Coldplay - it was like, "What's this about?"

Ian: You don't have a hotel room - you're just kipping in the bus!

JC: We loved it!

Ian: Yeah, it was great.

Well, if it's new, sure - but just wait until you've had weeks on the bus.

JC: (Laughs) I'm sure it gets bad!

But it's got to be better than however it was when you started out...

JC: Two vans with no windows and no air conditioning, no radio, no tape deck -

Ian: Just us to talk to each other.

God forbid you have to talk to each other!


Ian: And all the cities in Australia are about 1,000 km - however that works out in miles - apart.

JC: Like 600 miles. Going across to Adelaide from Brisbane, across the High Plains -

Ian: It's just...nothing!

JC: You can actually see the curvature of the planet. (Laughs) It's cool but after about four hours it gets a little bit same-y.

Ian: (Laughing) We were driving in the middle of nowhere once - I was driving one car, he was driving the other car - and I sort of went over a hill and waited for a little while, and he didn't come. So I went back, and he was hiding behind a bush in the van. So I drove back for like -

JC: We saw him drive back; we were racing to the hotel -

Ian: I drove back for like a half an hour and couldn't find him! So I drove to the hotel and he was there. Bastard! (Laughs) They were hiding behind a tree.

The only tree for hundreds of miles....

JC: Yeah, yeah! (Laughs)

Do all of you guys still live in Brisbane?

Ian: Yeah.

And you would never move.

Ian: If I ever move, it's just going to be to a beach somewhere.

JC: Close to Brisbane.

Ian: (Laughing) Yeah, close to Brisbane, exactly.