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Perry Keyes - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 21 / 10 / 2007

Perry Keyes - Interview


Malcolm Carter speaks to Australian singer-songwriter Perry Keyes whose songs tell with downbeat reality of his native Sydney and his much acclaimed second album, 'Meter'

The last couple of months of 2005 were turned upside down, not just for this writer, but for many others too by the arrival of a double CD which went under the title of ‘Meter’. At the time it seemed a bold move by Australian indie Laughing Outlaw Records to release a debut by an artist virtually unknown outside of his home country but looking back now it all makes sense. The label obviously knew back then what we all know now; that Perry Keyes, the artist in question, is an exceptional talent. The 18 songs that comprised ‘Meter’ evoked the best of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello but Keyes has a gift for putting just that little bit extra detail into each and every one of his story/songs. Writing about the people and surroundings of inner city Sydney with such acute detail Keyes not only transported us (no pun intended…at the time of ‘Meter’ Keyes was driving a cab part-time) into the neighbourhoods of Redfern and Waterloo but also brought home the fact that no matter where we come from we all have the same feelings and fears. Keyes wraps these acute observations up mostly in the sweetest of melodies but occasionally throws in a razor-sharp, edgy rock tune. Last month saw the release of ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’ and thankfully there haven’t been any major changes musically from ‘Meter’. Recorded again by Grant Shanahan with the nicest guy in rock Michael Carpenter helping out, Keyes is backed again by the same musicians who featured on his debut. That, of course, means that apart from sterling work from Edmond Kairouz on guitars and Earl Pinkerton making a return on bass we are also treated to not only the percussion talents of Bek-Jean Stewart again but also that drummer’s stunning vocals. Hear Bek-Jean and Keyes singing “I wanna lay in the arms of the ones that I love forever and ever” in the song ‘Double On The Main Game’ and feel your heart melt. It’s one of those moments where everything is right; the words, the melody, the emotion in those vocals, but unlike most albums this new collection of eleven Keyes originals is littered with such moments. They happen in every song, not just in one. What is noticeable between his debut and this follow-up is that Keyes has found a voice of his own. On ‘Meter’ we could hear the odd Costello-ism here and there especially on the opening songs ‘Sweaty Sneakers’ and ‘ 2nd Time I Saw You’ but on ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’ those vocals are 100% Keyes. Two years ago Keyes made the album of the year. In 2007 he has done it again; with less than two months to go until those end of year lists start appearing there is little chance that anything is going to better ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’. Pennyblackmusic took the opportunity to ask the busy Australian a few questions about his musical past and his plans for the future. PB : Prior to 2005 you were unknown, at least in Europe, then ‘Meter’, your debut, seemed to come out of the blue with no warning and gained excellent reviews. Can you please fill us in a little on what your musical background was before ‘Meter’? Did you play in other bands? PK : I started out in a band in the early 90’s called the Stolen Holdens – a Holden being the stock standard Australian car - at the time we thought we were a bit like Lou Reed backed by The Clash – hehe... But I think it was a bit closer to Billy Bragg backed by Squeeze - which isn’t a bad thing, of course. We stopped playing regularly around 1994. PB : It was a brave move for Laughing Outlaw Records, the label that releases your albums, to release a debut that was a double album. While it shows faith in your songs was there ever any talk about releasing it as two separate albums? You would have had a ready made second album! P .: The first disc on ‘Meter’ was going to be the album, pretty much. You might notice that the characters on disc one are a little ‘younger’ than the people that populate the second disc. What happened was, we had that first disc just about settled and worked out and it was going to end with 'N.Y.E'. There were a couple of weeks off between doing minor stuff with the recordings and in that time I wrote a lot of what became the second disc. I wrote ‘Bonfires of June’ in an attempt to update the story in 'N.Y.E'. and then started thinking about moving other characters in the other songs ahead a little in time. ‘Meter’ is, essentially, an album about people trying to have and maintain relationships within an environment that constantly undermines their capacity to have that sort of a thing - at least, in any archetypal or conventional way. But it’s still about one person trying to be with another person – even if it’s in a fucked up way – like the two people in ‘Wide Streets’ or ‘When Things Wear Out’. It’s my ‘Album of Love Songs’!! Anyhow, we recorded the other batch of songs and it all seemed to fit. I would’ve been happy enough to release the first disc as the album but the label was really keen to put the whole thing out as a double. In a funny way, a similar thing has happened with the new record. There’s another album there that updates the stuff from ‘LGTH’ – but I think it’s a good thing not to try and bring out a double album every time!! PB : It’s understandable that Bruce Springsteen is mentioned in most of the reviews for your albums. Certainly in his earlier work he also had that talent of describing people and places and drawing the listener into his songs. But who would you say influences your work? PK : I think it’s all pretty obvious. It’s American rock music. All that story song stuff that stretches from Chuck Berry to the Drive By Truckers. When I was a little kid I really loved the English pop stuff like Bowie, T-Rex, Elton John – Stuff like Suzy Quatro’s ‘Devil Gate Drive’!! The Clash, though, was where it all first hit home. They were such a huge thing for me. The best school around!! With Bruce Springsteen I really love ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and ‘Nebraska’. Great, emotional song writing. Elvis Costello’s ‘Armed Forces’ and ‘Blood and Chocolate’ was a big deal, too. PB : You worked for a while driving a taxi. Did any of the colourful characters you met on your shifts provide inspiration for your songs? PK : It’s like anything you do – you soak things up. With the cab driving, it’s less of who gets in the cab than what you see going on outside on the streets while you’re driving around. By 2 in the morning, all that Sydney picture post card bullshit disappears and you’re left with the other side of the story. That’s the stuff that makes up a lot of the new album. PB : If we take one of your songs as an example, the harrowing ‘Some Aches’ from ‘Meter’ where you describe so perfectly not only the loss of innocence of a young couple addicted to drugs but the hurt that her parents feel losing a child to a world they can’t understand, how long does it take you to write a song as detailed as that? PK : I write a song pretty quickly. ‘Some Aches’ was written in the car while I was waiting to do some recording. This would probably have been about 40 minutes - which is about average. Of course, the process doesn’t end there but as far as the meat of it all – the words and music and the basic arrangement, it pretty much comes all at once. ‘Some Aches’ is my attempt at ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, hehe... PB : You stand apart from other singer/songwriters as you write little stories rather than songs. Your work is not the usual love lost / found theme so many use time and again. Is it important to you to get across your views on things that concern you in your songs? PK : I really love the movies of Ken Loach. ‘Raining Stones’, ‘Ladybird Ladybird’.. Just beautiful heart breaking and heart warming stuff. I want to write songs like those movies. Just showing how people are living, especially in the kind of environment that I’m very familiar with – which, these days is one that seems to have less and less of a voice, yet I think the stories that exist there are compelling and universal. PB : The detail in your writing is outstanding. Your songs are an education in fact. I’m not the only one who feels he now knows the neighbourhood you grew up in although I have never been there! I guess that we all go through the same experiences and feel the same pain growing up so can identify with your stories no matter where we live. When did you realise that you had this talent for articulating universal feelings into song? PK : Again, you see stuff like Ken Loach or hear songs like Squeeze’s ‘Up The Junction’ or Springsteen’s ‘Used Cars’ and you realise that you’re not alone in experiencing these things that are happening to you. It’s happening in places half a world away. I just always thought that you could use details that were particular to your surroundings and that people could find it interesting – if you do it properly – and that they could be drawn past the detail and then into the real heart of what the song is getting at. And it’s at the heart of the song that the most important connection is made. I didn’t have to grow up in North Alabama to get Pattison Hood’s ‘Ronnie and Neil’ or go dancing in Streatham on the bus to get what Mick Jones was on about. PB : You are working with some of the best musical talent in Australia, if not the world. Michael Carpenter, Grant Shanahan and the talented Bek-Jean Stewart are on both your albums and it’s a winning combination. How did you hook up with them? PK : I stopped playing for a few years and then I started doing some acoustic gigs around 2002. Bek-Jean started coming along to these shows – I’d known her and Grant from before, when I’d done the Stolen Holdens, although we’d not seen each other for years. BJ poked me in the chest and said she wanted to play drums in my band and that I better start putting the songs out!! Grant was with her and suggested I do some demos up at his place. It took awhile to get the band sorted but when we did we got up to Grant’s and started on what became the first album. I hadn’t met Michael until he took on the job of mixing ‘Meter’. He also mixed the new album. PB : Your new album, ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’ is your reaction to the loss of communities, something you feel has happened to your hometown. Again it is something we can all relate to and again you articulate it so much better than most. Some people might think that you are just looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses but with the loss of whole neighbourhoods and the jobs that go with them it’s obvious that certain things have been lost forever. I feel that by highlighting this loss in songs it keeps people aware of the changes going on around them. Was that your intention when you made an album with this theme? PK : I was born into a community that had a strong working class culture. A lot of that stuff was based around the idea of maintaining a sense of community. It was just they way we lived. We did things together. We went to the football, the speedway, the boxing, the carnivals, the local market.. Gradually, during my life it began to disappear. People moved or were moved out by the government because they couldn’t afford the rising rents. The new people moving in made no attempt to embrace the existing culture. For the most part, they looked down on it. They couldn’t see the value of it or didn’t care. They put bars on their windows and called the cops at the first sign of a black kid standing near a parked car… All I’m trying to point out is that the culture that I was born into was a rich, robust and a totally engaging thing. It had tremendous worth. It was something that got people out of their houses and into places where they could have a shared experience and avoid the kind of isolation and disconnection that is now rampant in the high rise towers and government housing areas that now exist in Sydney. These aren’t songs about the good old days. Far from it. But there is the idea that once you let these things that bind us as a community slide and disappear or be fucked up by greed then there’s a good chance that the people will slide right along with it. PB : Apart from the obvious ( the song called ‘Joe Strummer’ ) you introduce a variety of characters on ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’ which are unknown for the most part outside of Australia. There’s John Sattler, Ronald Ryan and Dale Buggins all of whom were unknown to me and many others until we heard your latest batch of songs. It must be quite satisfying to know that you’ve introduced these people through your songs to those of us who wouldn’t have heard of them otherwise? PK : Yeah, I think all those guys are interesting characters. Certainly worth a song or two… I think a lot of folks over your way, up and around Leeds and Warrington may have heard of John Sattler already..! PB: Did you plan for the album to be linked in this way or did it just happen that the songs, once written, all had this common thread? PK : I set out to do it as a concept. As a bunch of songs that hung together to tell a bigger story. I like the idea of doing records like that. The concept album is back! And we’ve got Mike Skinner to thank for it – Thanks Mike! PB: I didn’t like to use the words concept album! There was a time that was a dirty word! You mention Mike Skinner. The Streets guy? If so, that’s a good point. He also has the talent to write story/songs that we all can relate to. I am a little surprised you were familiar with his work as musically you are worlds apart. What music do you listen to when you are not working on your own songs? PK : I’m a sucker for anybody that can tell a story…’A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ is one of the great English song writing albums. Musically he’s a bit removed, but in spirit, Mike Skinner is doing the same thing that somebody like Ray Davies or Difford and Tilbrook did. Billy Bragg, too. There’s a humor in that kind of stuff that’s uniquely English. The records that I’m listening to most of all at the moment are Marah’s ’20,000 Streets Under The Sky’, the Drive By Truckers ‘The Dirty South’ and Amiee Mann’s ‘The Forgotten Arm’. They’re a few years old, I know, but I’m one of those "a couple of years behind" kind of guys! Been listening to lots of Tom Waits, too. PB : Apart from the obvious attraction to your music (melodic, acute observations) it’s the little touches that make it so special for me. That guitar melee at the end of ‘Some Aches’… the way Bek-Jean sings “eye on her sister” on ‘Joe Strummer’…Are those ideas worked out before you enter the studio or is it the input of the producer? PK : The writing of the songs tends to come together pretty quickly and I try to get as much of the arrangement sorted as possible before I bother the band with it. It just makes the recording process a little less laborious if there’s a clear idea from the start of where the song’s headed. Of course, there’s always some level of input from the people that you play with on every thing that you do. Bek-Jean is a great instinctive singer. She gets into the moment and its best not to get in the way of that! She’ll do most of her stuff in one take –she’s really something to behold! I’m really into feedback and distortion and there’s stuff on both albums where that’s happening. I basically lock myself in the drum room surrounded by a bunch of amps turned way up. We’ll play the track and I’ll follow the song with as much ‘noise’ as I can. There’s a little Jesus and The Mary Chain on both albums – although it’s probably not that noticeable!! PBn: ‘In Ancient Rome’ from the latest album seems to be attracting a lot of attention and has now been chosen to be featured in an episode of the U.S. television show 'Californication'. That is going to get a lot of exposure! How did that come about? PK : The label sent the album over to a guy in the States that pitches songs to TV shows and movies and the people involved with that show liked the song. It was a bit of a surprise, to say the least, because I didn’t even know that the label was doing stuff like that. They showed the episode the other night but I was working…I’ll probably see it years from now in some nursing home on a Sunday afternoon! PB : The eleven songs on ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’ are split into four groups on the CD inlay. I’m curious…any special reason why? PK : It’s just meant to mirror the football program that’s on the inside of the booklet… PB : The new batch of songs that updates the theme of ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’; is that likely to form the basis of the next album? Maybe it’s far too early to start thinking about that yet?! PK : I’m going out west of Sydney with Johnny Barker – who did most of the photography for the album – and we’re going to take a lot of photos that will, hopefully, complement those songs that I’ve got in mind for another album. The label’s interested in doing some sort of photo book / cd package for the next album. I don’t know if that’ll happen but it’s worth thinking about. Of course, I already had another album in mind that I put aside when I started writing the songs that became 'The Last Ghost Train Home' stuff – maybe we’ll go back to that.. PB : Any tours of Europe planned to promote ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’? PK : The label is telling me that we’re going to the U.K in Feb/March – It would be just great to do something like that. I really hope it happens. I want to go to Streatham on the bus - just like the guy in ‘Stay Free’!! PB : Finally, how long are we going to have to wait until we get that dream album? That one of Perry Keyes and Bek-Jean Stewart singing a dozen or so duets? PK : That’d be great. I’d have to work on my dancing, though!! PB : Thank you.

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Perry Keyes - Interview

Perry Keyes - Interview

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The Last Ghost Train Home (2007)
Compelling second collection of tales of urban heartbreak and loss from Sydney-based taxi driver and singer-songwriter Perry Keyes, which proves to match up to 'Meter', his masterly 2005 debut album
Meter (2005)

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