Episode 18: Ed Kuepper

Ed Kuepper is a songwriter and musician.

Penmanship podcast episode 18: Ed Kuepper, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016If you’re a regular listener of Penmanship, you’ll already be familiar with at least one of his many songs, as the podcast’s theme music is ‘Eternally Yours’ by his band Laughing Clowns, which he formed in Sydney in 1979. But if you’re a fan of Australian music, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a few others, too: perhaps the title track to the 1977 album (I’m) Stranded by Brisbane punk rock band The Saints, or a single named ‘The Way I Made You Feel’ from his 1991 solo album Honey Steel’s Gold. He has been writing, recording and performing music in Australia and around the world for more than 40 years, and to my ears he is one of this country’s most distinctive and memorable guitarists, too.

December 2015 marked the release of Ed Kuepper’s 50th album, Lost Cities, though depending on how you count his prolific solo catalogue, that number might be as high as 100. After exploding out of the gates with the incendiary, distorted guitar tone in The Saints, it’s been fascinating to watch him shift across several genres and playing styles to end up with the sparse arrangements heard here. When reviewing the album for The Australian, I wrote that “there’s nobody quite like him operating in Australian music today, and that he continues to invest in this work is a gift.” In a sense, the album was a gift to himself, too: its release coincided with Ed’s 60th birthday.

I first interviewed Ed at his home in the south-west Brisbane suburb of Sherwood for Mess+Noise in 2010, where we spoke about the song ‘Eternally Yours’ at some length. I return to the same house on a quiet Sherwood street in late February 2016 to interview Ed on his back deck, with his dog Oscar lying on the ground between us.

You’ll hear cicadas, planes and garbage trucks in the distance as we discuss why Ed thinks fuzz-box guitar distortion sounds “pissweak”; how he avoids retreading the same ground when writing songs; how his writing has progressed between The Saints, Laughing Clowns and his solo career; his experiences with touring as a member of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds a few years ago, and whether songwriting gets easier with age.

Ed Kuepper is an Australian musician. He is a highly regarded and prolific songwriter and a distinctive and unique guitarist and vocalist. He was the founding member of The Saints, Laughing Clowns and The Aints. He has led an active solo career since the mid 1980s and won numerous ARIA awards. He has toured extensively in Australia and internationally. He has worked on film soundtracks, toured as back-up guitarist for Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and recently released Lost Cities, his 50th album.

Ed Kuepper on Twitter: @EdKuepper

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3.30 Ed has “pretty erratic hours” as a songwriter, and doesn’t hold himself to a particular schedule, though he likes “the period of time before dawn in particular”

5.00 Writing songs at a similar time each day “enables you to actually get something finished, which is really important”

6.00 “Lyrical writing is a slightly different process for me, and [lyrics and music] don’t always go together; sometimes they have to be forcibly hammered and bolted together to work”

7.00 Ed’s “principle form” of songwriting is with a guitar, though he occasionally writes with a keyboard

8.00 “There isn’t a set format, but part of what I find is some of my strongest writing is the stuff that comes out of the performance”

10.00 How Ed stops himself from retreading the same ground and old habits as a guitarist: “I’ve always tried to avoid what other people are doing”

12.00 “It’s only relatively recently that I’ve discovered that I’ve never played barre chords [on the guitar] on any of my recordings”

14.00 Ed learned to play guitar in two stages: he first took lessons during primary school, then picked it up a few years later

15.00 “I hated [learning] jazz guitar; it made no sense to me whatsoever, and I quit”

16.00 “When I was going to high school, other people would know how to play Deep Purple songs […] I could never do that”

18.00 What drew Ed to the high-distortion guitar tone and technique of the early Saints material

20.30 When he was a toddler, Ed recalls his mother listened to Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Cliff Richard and The Shadows

21.30 Fun House by The Stooges and the first Velvet Underground album were both influential on Ed’s guitar playing

23.00 “I always think fuzz-box distortion sounds a bit pissweak; that’s ‘press a button and you’re powerful’. I just used to hit incredibly hard. I’d break strings all the time. You can hear it on the early Saints records; there’s a degree of intensity there that’s bordering on the psychotic sometimes”

24.00 “We couldn’t have done more than one or two takes on anything, because of the speed at which it was recorded […] ‘Nights In Venice’ just always worked. It never failed”

25.00 Ed was obsessed with music as a teenager, “to the point of probably being an irritating companion”

26.00 His parents were supportive of his obsession, though they weren’t “that rapt in what I liked”; The Saints rehearsed in his parents’ garage

27.00 Ed’s goal at that age was not to master songwriting and guitar playing, but “to form the best rock and roll band ever”

28.00 “I think I was just after sound; something that elevated me, and took the whole thing off onto a transcendental level, almost. Because I wanted to be lifted above the ordinary – of which we were surrounded by much. And still are!”

28.30 How Ed first earned money from music as a 13 year-old by playing guitar in a band with a bunch of guys who were in their early 20s

29.30 “I don’t think that when The Saints were in Brisbane we ever turned a profit; we always lost money on shows, which we put on ourselves”

30.00 To support his fledgling music career, Ed worked in an abattoir during school holidays: “Jesus, it was like an insane asylum in some ways. I became a vegetarian”

33.00 After leaving school, his first “proper job” was at an Astor Records warehouse in Brisbane, where he worked for almost two years

35.00 After quitting Astor Records, Ed took some casual labouring jobs, before getting a job in the Queensland public service

36.30 Ed filled several hundred mail-order requests for the first Saints record, with cash envelopes arriving from around the world at his parents’ house in Oxley

39.00 In 1976, ‘(I’m) Stranded’ was famously described in British magazine Sounds as “the single of this and every other week” three weeks in a row; on the fourth week, they awarded it ‘single of the year’”

40.00 How Ed’s attitude toward reading criticism of his music has changed during his career

41.30 “You’re better off obsessing over music than correcting peoples’ assumptions or opinions”

42.00 How Ed has navigated the tension between pursuing his passion for creativity and earning money from the music business

43.00 Ed has a booking agent who looks after his career as a musician, but he hasn’t had a manager “for yonks”

44.00 “I’d rather have someone doing the business under my instruction, because I find it really tedious”

45.00 Lost Cities is still “completely new” to Ed, who hasn’t listened to the album since it was finished and released in December 2015

46.30 “If ‘Nights In Venice’ was the beginning, this is kind of the beginning of the end, I suppose. It’s moving in an opposite direction; it has a nice arc to it”

49.00 Ed doesn’t exactly feel pride toward his past work; sometimes he’ll listen to it and decide it’s “actually quite good”

50.30 Discussing the Laughing Clowns period of Ed’s career, including ‘Eternally Yours’, which features as Penmanship’s theme song

51.30 “I was originally thinking of the melody of ‘Eternally Yours’ as an organ line. The Clowns didn’t have an organist, so it became a sax line”

53.30 “I think once a band is formed, you take into consideration the people that are involved, and you incorporate that within the concept [of the sound]”

54.30 Ed chose Australia as the place for Laughing Clowns to develop, rather than England, where The Saints had split up in 1978

58.00 Ed used to hate the Laughing Clowns song ‘Ghost Beat’ up until recently, when he heard it again and thought it was “fucking great”

59.30 For Ed, the Clowns reunion shows in 2009 had “such different ambiance” in terms of the way the bandmates got along with each other

60.00 Those reunion shows helped to sooth the bad memories that Ed had accumulated following the band’s acrimonious end in 1985

62.00 How Ed reconciles the fact that, in order to make a living, he is required to play songs he’s written over and over again, live

63.00 “The idea of doing carbon-copy performances night after night… there’s something brain-numbing about it”

63.30 Ed did two international tours with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds several years ago, the latter of which was the Push The Sky Away promotional tour, which allowed for less improvisation in the performances than Ed would have preferred

64.30 After that second Bad Seeds tour, Ed went out and did a “by request” solo tour, where the audience could request whichever songs of his they wanted to hear liked

65.00 “I’m not that much of a session musician; I’m not someone you call in to do that kind of work. [The ‘by request’ tour] was partly to reassure myself that I can still wing it on the night”

67.30 Nick Cave didn’t give “any strong instructions” on how to play the songs beforehand; it was worked out during rehearsals

70.30 The origins of Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog, a concept album about the last woman hanged in Australia, which Ed released in 2007

72.00 Ed first discussed the idea of writing an opera on the topic with Australian journalist and author Linda Jaivin, but it didn’t eventuate

74.00 Ed’s wife, Judi Dransfield-Kuepper, saw that he was stuck with the writing, and offered to write lyrics for the project

75.30 “We got the record done, but nobody threw money at us to take it further – which is a shame as I think it could’ve been developed into something”

76.30 “The Saints reforming was a time-consuming activity. One show; many months of detoxing”

78.00 Ed generally likes writing at the kitchen table, with a guitar and a tape recorder “or the modern equivalent”

79.00 Ed’s thoughts on whether songwriting gets easier with age

80.30 “I don’t listen to very much music these days, beyond a quick flick through what’s popular, or if somebody recommends something”

81.30 “I think in a lot of ways, I haven’t changed particularly. That either means I was right on the money when I was younger, or I’m too thick to learn from my mistakes”

84.00 “I often buy records because I like the look of the cover. I buy books because I like the cover, too. I’m the most shallow consumer of the arts you can imagine”

85.00 Ed reluctantly joined Facebook as he’s “not that sociable a person”; it doesn’t help his creative process, and “sometimes it’s incredibly depressing”

86.30 “I used to be much more hardline [about unwanted fans] during The Saints and Clowns days. If you didn’t like us for the right reasons: ‘Fuck off. Don’t even come to the show. Here, take your fucking money back’”

88.00 “Some people will dismiss [social media] outright as if they’re above it, but as an independent operator, it can be quite a significant aid”

89.00 “Imagine if I had this kind of thing when The Saints started, when I was posting out records”

90.00 When he listens back to Lost Cities ahead of the tour, his ears will be taking in the mood of the songs, rather than attempting to recreate how they sound on the album

93.30 “I’ve never been into meeting my musical heroes. I hate the idea of meeting musicians, unless I’m working with them. I hate musicians; they’re the worst people on the planet”

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