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Powderfinger Interview
By Alexander Laurence

Powderfinger hail from Brisbane, Australia which is a musical melting pot, spurred on by its sub-tropical climate. They started off as a power-trio in 1990, along the way adding two more members. Named after a song by Neil Young, Powderfinger embraced the D.I.Y. ethic by doing their own leg work and promoting their own gigs. The band is highlighted by the lead singer Bernard Fanning's incredible voice. Major record labels pricked up their ears and headed to Australia's north to check it out for themselves. Powderfinger toured with the likes of The Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Urge Overkill and ran the festival circuit. The fanbase began to build.

They had hit records "Double Allergic" and "The Internationalist." For a few years they were rumored to be releasing their fourth record in the United States. "Odyssey Number Five" finally came out last year in 2001. A year after it was released in their home country. They spent two years touring it, including a full year in North America. I met up with Bernard Fanning in Los Angeles on the last show of the American tour. The band also includes Darren Middleton (guitar/vocals), John Collins (bass guitar), Ian Haug (guitar), and Jon Goghill (percussion). This is a band who are exciting and have a worldwide following.


AL: When did you record "Odyssey Number Five?"

Bernard:: May 2000. We released it in September. It came out here in March last year. It was different all over the world. We worked with Nick DiDia on the last two records. We recorded it all sorts of ways. Sometimes it was the whole band playing together. We did some overdubs of the vocals. Some songs were fully tracked. We just did it on a song by song basis with him. Everyday was dedicated to making a new song. Because we had worked with Nick before we were really comfortable doing it any way.

AL: For people who haven't heard the previous records, is this album a good representation or should we all go back and listen to the early albums.

Bernard:: I definitely encourage people to go back. The first record is probably not very representative of most of the stuff we have done. But the second and third "Double Allergic" and "The Internationalist" lead up to this style of record. All those albums were very popular in Australia.

AL: Your band is named after a Neil Young song. And on this recent album only the song "Whatever Makes You Happy" sounds like something in the Neil Young style. Your voice sounds more like James Taylor actually.

Bernard:: Yeah, right. I really like that West Coast country stuff. I like James Taylor in particular but The Eagles don't do much for me. I love James Taylor because his music comes from soul music. I really love Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. James Taylor comes from a place that is more genuine. I don't know if it is but it appeals to me more. Really I listened to Kiss and Led Zeppelin than I did James Taylor. When I was fifteen I started to listen to soul music and Stax records. I like that really mongrel and raw stuff.

AL: Are your parents musicians?

Bernard:: My mother taught me how to play piano for a year when I was five. Then I got formal lessons until I was twelve. And then I stopped completely. Then I taught myself guitar. But no one else in my family is a musician or a singer. My eldest brother was ten years older than me. He really influenced my taste in music. He was 17 when I was 7 and he was listening to David Bowie. That was in the 1970s. So my other brother and I were getting into Bowie and The Beatles when we were in primary school. We were both really young.

AL: When did you start writing songs?

Bernard:: When I was in seventeen. None of that ever was included in Powderfinger. I was just learning. Many of those songs were really simple like "Whatever Makes You Happy." I write songs like that all the time. I like gentle music that appeals to your heart. Darren and I write the majority of the songs. We write the beginning ideas and the band works on them together. I write all the lyrics. It's a collective process and we share all the songwriting credits.

AL: You have three guitar players. How do you restrain yourself by everyone going at once?

Bernard:: The key to songwriting is space. For our type of music this so because we are melodic and dynamic. We were very conscience on this record of having a lot of space. We made sure that the only things on there were completely necessary. In the studio there is a temptation to overproduce and put to much stuff on songs. Like we had a chamber orchestra on "The Metre" and "Up & Down & Back Again." We have used strings and brass in the past.

AL: We haven't heard too many bands from Australia in a while here. But in the last year or so we have Powderfinger and The Vines.

Bernard:: We have been coming here since 1997. The Vines are a new band in Australia. They haven't played many shows there. I have heard a few of their songs and it's great. I hope they do well. But they are a bit of unknown entity live. In Australia, that is a proving ground for a band. In the past, the country is all about going to pubs and seeing a live show. You probably only hear and see about 2% of what is happening in Australian scene if you have never been there. You would only see the bands who are the most successful. Australia has a healthy and thriving music scene. It's very expensive to export the music because it is a far way from every other continent.

AL: If you are a band in Australia where would you go next? England or Japan?

Bernard:: You go wherever anyone will take you. You can go to Auckland. Maybe New Zealand. We came to the United States first. We played a South By Southwest festival in 1997. And we played in Canada.

AL: Many of your songs are positive though? It's an "up" feeling?

Bernard:: It's hopeful. It only depends on how the listener wants to look at it. I don't want to determine how anyone feels about the songs and what they hear. That's the beauty of music: what you may think is "up" and hopeful, and someone else will want to kill themselves.

AL: You had a subtitle to this record "Suburban Fables." What does that mean?

Bernard:: It was like Sergeant Peppers. We used that idea where they welcome you to the album. That song was going to open up the record. It turned into a segue to fill space and link a couple of songs. It wasn't written to be a full song and then it ended up being the title.

AL: What about the audiences in America? Are there many girls who are blinded by the frontman? Are there girls begging for attention in the front row?

Bernard:: I don't know. We have never gone in for that kind of thing. We all have girlfriends and wives. There's really no point in anything like that. We do this because we like writing music. It's not because we love fucking girls. To each their own. There, I have said it. It finally depends on how you want to respond to that. If you want to be sucked into that sort of life it would be easy to live like that. I have had a girlfriend for nine years and the band has been together for eleven years.

AL: What about these new bands that get caught up in that?

Bernard:: That's the interesting thing about America right now. We have always written songs as a band, a group of people standing in a room playing a song together. Now that bands like The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Hives and others are doing really well in America.... Everybody thinks like it's this new thing and whole new way of doing things. It's not. In Australia, it's the basis on which you are judged. If you can play in front of people and deliver a song, then people will start to get behind you. If you can't and you are shit live, they are not going to bother with you. I am glad that bands like The Strokes are doing well, because maybe bands like Limp Biscuit will die off. There's all this aggressive shit that has been going on in America for far too long. It's like "Man, I have had the worst childhood ever and I am going to scream about it."

AL: Hopefully those bands like The Strokes bring back people to guitar based music.

Bernard:: Hopefully. I love The White Stripes. They are awesome. Music should be like a revolving door and move in cycles. I like music that does something to you. Not the music that you have to take a pill to get into it. I mean the stuff that appeals to your heart and your soul, and your mind. Not in a quasi-religious sense. It's that thing in music and songs that you have never heard before and it drives you wild. You don't know what it is. You know what I am talking about? There is music that gives you the sense of "There is hope."

AL: Do you have any hobbies?

Bernard:: I do exercise. I do yoga. Everyone in the band does surfing except me. I watch a lot of cricket.

AL: I am really tired right now because I watched the England vs. Argentina match. I have been up until six in the morning watching the World Cup all this week.

Bernard:: Who won?

AL: England, 1-0.

Bernard:: Did they really? I like football as well.

AL: Michael Own hit the post and it bounced out a few times.

Bernard:: England actually beat Argentina? I don't believe it.

AL: So what is the next album going to be like?

Bernard:: Of the songs we have written so far I would guess that this album will be more rock than the previous one. When we finished the last album we thought okay that is the last atmospheric album we are going to do. We got close to what we wanted with that record. We want to get back to straight groovy rock. Not punk rock, you know, but more traditional rock like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Our aim is to make an album that is a cross between Sticky Fingers and Physical Graffiti. If we pulled it off it would be the biggest album of all time.

AL: What do you love music? What qualities?

Bernard:: I think it's the things that you can't describe in music that I love. Obviously I love someone who sings well and sings with soul or whatever. You don't even have to sing well. Because oversinging is the thing that has taken over in the last ten years. Stuff like Celine Dion. They are people who are technically great but who have the soul of a fucking vampire. Like I said before it's the thing that gets a hold on you that you can't describe. It might be a hiphop song or a song by Beethoven. You can't explain why songs get to you. I love the sound of Jimmy Page's guitar. I love the sound of John Paul Jones' bass. I love George Harrison and Ringo's drum sound. I love the Stray Gators when they played with Neil Young. All those things. You can't put your finger on what it is.

AL: Are there any other bands that you like?

Bernard:: There are heaps. I am 33 and I have been listening to music since I was seven. I liked Bowie, The Beatles, Zeppelin, Kiss, and Black Sabbath. All those things when I was growing up. I also was into bad hair metal bands in the 1980s. I have also loved songwriters like Neil Young and Tom Waits. My favorite record of the last few years is Fiona Apple. That is an album based on soul. She's a technically good singer and piano player but she makes albums based on feeling. That was an amazing album. She's one of the most soulful people around for a white girl.

AL: Have you any advice for people who want to do music, whether they live in Australia or here in America?

Bernard:: Yeah. Try to temper technique with soul and feeling because you can be the fastest guitar shredder in he world but it doesn't mean shit if you can't write a song. People have to learn to write songs. You have to listen to music not only to enjoy it but to see how people put songs together. You have to realize that it is a complicated art. Listen to the best. Listen to The Beatles and see how they did it. Start there and go from there.

AL: Have you read any books lately?

Bernard:: I just read An Equal Music by Virkram Seth. It's an amazing book. I am reading the latest book by Noam Chomsky.


-- Alexander Laurence


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