Friday, March 30, 2012

Smoke Signals: Tex Perkins' Dark Horses

It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon and Tex Perkins is still in bed. "I've been doing interviews on the phone all day," he says. "Thought I may as well make myself comfortable. It's freezing up here. Absolutely pissing down. About time I got up, I guess."

Somewhere in the heavy green hills above Byron Bay, the 38-year-old singer is alone on his property, "40 acres of scrubby bush backed onto a rainforest. If you don't want to see people, you don't."

This rustic isolation absolutely oozes out of Perkins's third and latest solo release, Sweet Nothing. He has called it a move from "portraiture to landscape" in comparison to past recordings, as well as "smoke signals from the subconscious", a description that especially pleases him.

"I just didn't want to make another record that sounded like there was trouble at home," he says of the moody, love-damaged material for which he is known. "Inevitably, you invite speculation when you write songs of that nature.

"I'm very aware that people are obsessed with that thinking." What Perkins calls "the Woman's Day approach - that songs are windows into your personal life."

"I don't intend to write songs that are advertisements for how I'm feeling. I don't think they're relevant till they're out there in the world being a soundtrack for their listener," he says firmly, before acknowledging, "That said, you do reveal yourself unintentionally to a certain extent."

What's clear from our conversation and an earlier meeting in Sydney is that Perkins has come a long way rom the archetypal bad man of Oz rock who clobbered a guy with a beer bottle for harassing his girlfriend at a post-ARIA party a decade ago. This was the "Tex is sex" rock star of whom Henry Rollins once said, "Mick Jagger wishes he was Tex Perkins."

He had a loutish charisma on and off the stage back then, fiery and leanly brutish with the Beasts of Bourbon, lightened and poised with the Cruel Sea, while the Tex, Don & Charlie venture provided him with enough bar-stool reflectiveness to show what a great storyteller he was. It seemed he could do anything.

And what he did do, unconsciously perhaps, was slowly disappear: to the North Coast, to family life as the father of two girls, to a music immersed in atmosphere. Perkins's modern take on country-and blues-shaped rock has grown across all three of his solo releases - Far Be It From Me (1996), Dark Horses (2000) and now on Sweet Nothing - whatever he might say about the finer points of self versus landscape.

Indeed, he says what he may have done "is finally form a group", ending the idea of a solo career altogether. That this "might be the last release I do contractually under the Tex Perkins name. After that it could just be the Dark Horses [currently his backing band]."

This dissolving or surrendering intensity that dominates Sweet Nothing is hard to pin down. "One thing I did do intentionally was try to take out evidence of domestic artefacts in the lyrics, like cigarettes or cups of coffee, things that humans have. I didn't want to tie it down to talking about the human condition. These songs could be about bees," he says, with a slight smile.

"I was actually toying with calling this record Great Apes (after a track on the CD), with ape theme packaging and everything. But none of my female acquaintances thought that was a great idea," the smile grows. "I'm actually fairly obsessed with anything to do with our closest relatives on the evolutionary chain."

That said, human love still emerges. Midnight Sunshine gives the recording a bright charge of it early on, with cryptic, somewhat cosmic lyrics evocative of the film Betty Blue as Perkins celebrates how "we build a fire beneath the house" and burn off all the "things that rust". It was written quickly, then interpreted by the Dark Horses "just the way I imagined it. It's one of those rare songs you can't imagine being played any other way".

"Apart from the mood, though, I couldn't explain what that song is about," he says. "I usually start with the music first, when I'm writing, and a theme is already inherent in that when it comes to lyrics. Sometimes it's not till much later you know what a song is about. It can be long after it's written. Sometimes years." 

"With Midnight Sunshine there is this idea that a tangible energy is created by or from ..." Perkins hesitates. "I guess you can call it love. But it's not really love on that song. It applies to everything. Again it's not just about human relationships."

The record's physicality is obvious, as is the influence of Perkins's surroundings. "Even though I've been up here for five or six years," he says, "it hasn't been till this record that it's been evident in the music." He's careful to distinguish this local energy from the town itself. 

"I think Byron has a horrible vibe. The town is meaningless to me. It's just a constant procession of backpackers. Where I live is 45 minutes away. I don't think Byron Bay should get any credit."

The last sentence drips with typical Perkins contempt. But the subject is quickly dropped. Writing and recording Sweet Nothing last year, he found himself alone on the property while his partner was away in Melbourne working. Birds, dogs and horses were "my company".

"The isolation does affect you. Up here you are acutely aware of the elements, too. All your activities depend on the weather. You can go mad if you're stuck indoors and it's raining."

It's this curious blend of the elemental and interior that makes Sweet Nothing something of a voyage. "I will say it's a progressive record," Perkins says. "Almost like a day. The first couple of songs are morning time and it's up and bight. Then it gets progressively darker and darker."

A Name on Everyone, which comes towards the end of the record, has an epic weight reminiscent of Neil Young circa On the Beach. Perkins admits he's been listening to "a lot of '70s rock. Neil Young has been one of the cornerstones. And Bob Marley. With everyone else thrown in for variety. I think I returned to my childhood roots with this record. I must be getting old, I guess."

"You were asking me about the title Sweet Nothing when we met in Sydney and at the time I didn't have a great answer," he says on the phone. "But now I've had time, I think it refers to my idea of spirituality. Most religions and spirituality that humans involve themselves with is connected to this whole idea of something beyond life. That this is just a stage before the real deal. I completely reject that. God is here. God is life," he says with surprising passion. 

"That also connects with what I wanted to say about Great Apes. We are great apes. We are creatures of nature. We're not connected to God. We're creatures of the earth. And we are here."

- Mark Mordue

* First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 26, 2003

- Portrait shot by Krystina Higgins