Ben Gillies. Life after Silverchair.

Daniel Johns, Chris Joannou and Ben Gillies were just kids doing work experience at a Newcastle radio station when I first met them nearly 20 years ago. Those three boys have gone on to become strong and confident men and wonderful musicians – collectively and individually. I suspect the whole town is pretty proud of them.

Ben GilliesIn 2012, the band have celebrated 20 years of Australian and international success, 21 ARIA awards from 49 nominations, 6 APRA awards, and all five of their studio albums have reached number one of the Australian album charts.

Over the last few years the three members of the band have also gone out to do their own musical projects and drummer, Ben Gillies, came into the studios to talk about life, music, growing up in public, and taking the leap into solo performance.

What was it like, being a kid, being thrust into that level of media interest and intrusion? “We were pretty unaware. Blissfully unaware. We were too worried about playing our music and running around and going to diners and just being teenage boys. We had good people around us, so we were fairly sheltered.”

The members of Silverchair studied at Newcastle High School when Peter McNair was principal. “He was a really good school principal. I remember a few times, the three of us would rock up to his office – in a good way, we weren’t in trouble – but we had these grand ideas of putting concerts on at the school and we’d sell him on why we had to do it and how we could make it happen. He was really accommodating. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to do some things he let us get away with. He let us put on concerts, we’d rehearse in the music room and do all kinds of stuff.”

It’s often suggested that parents are the biggest obstacle to their children pursuing their dreams. Parents want their children to be secure, to ‘have a good job’, so convincing your parents you want to be a rock star, and then actually pulling it off, must be quite a coup! “We were young enough to just go with it. We were still just teenages running around so we were living in the moment. But we were setting ourselves up for a long-term career, we weren’t thinking ‘let’s just go out and milk this for all its worth and then it’s all over’. We were conscious of making long term things. And our parents were as well, all the people around us. We were very lucky.”

Ben Gillies late 2012 released his first Bento album, launched with the single Diamond Days and a fabulous video featuring a very interesting young actor. “He’s a family friend of the producer. We did a bit of casting to have an l a few different possibilities but, the producer just said I know the young boy to do it. He gets right into character. His whole family really helped out, they were really accommodating. He’s just seven.”

“It was a two day shoot, we did his stuff first then we did the performance stuff with me. He rocked out, there were a few moments he was on the performance stage and Holly, the producer, came up and said he’d been asking, “Why is it all about Ben today, it feel like this music video is all about Ben today. Why isn’t it about me as much today!”

Bento isn’t Ben’s first solo effort outside Silverchair, he’s previously released music with Tambalane, “Tambalane was a stepping stone really. Kind of like a summer fling. I think I really wanted to write with another person, because I hadn’t had that responsibility of writing on my own.”

” Outside Silverchair there isn’t the infrastructure and the big budgets and all that. Doing stuff independently, it’s almost a lot more pressure on the songwriter. Everything is you, there’s no one else to take the load a bit. For me to do something outside of that with Tambalane was that step to get to Bento, to give me the confidence to do my own thing.”

“It’s scary as hell but I think it’s one of those things where I don’t want to be a old man, sitting in a pub somewhere drinking a beer thinking, ‘Why didn’t I give that a crack back when I had the chance.”

“The thing with Silverchair as well is because it is such a big beast, and it’s great, I love that side of what I do, but it does take up a lot of energy and time. So I’ve never really had enough drive to do my own thing. Silverchair going into indefinite hibernation has just given me the time and the freedom to be able to do it. Now I have that confidence to think, ‘Bugger it, I’m going to do my own thing’. The confidence, the motivation, the time, the effort, it was the right time.”

“You do have to have that understanding that people are subjective. Everyone in the world isn’t going to love your music. But you still want it to be received positively. The reaction has been amazing. It is you putting your neck out there. It’s almost like you’re standing in front of people, the full monty saying, ‘Here I am, check it out. Here it is, I can’t change it, and it is what it is.”

So. Silverchair’s ‘indefinite hibernation’. What gives?

“Even if you do work with someone for 20 years, and you go to work from 9-5, you still have some time to yourself, and can do other things. It kind of feels like a business relationship with a marriage on top of it. You spend so much time with those people, not just the guys in the band, but management and crew. All these other things can come into it.”

“I think the reason Silverchair has had such good longevity is because we’ve been able to recognise when we all need to take a breather and go and do other things. The funny thing is, we’ve done it three or four times and every single time people say, ‘What’s happening, where you are going?’. We’ve done this before, and it’s nothing new.”

“There’s nothing worse than breaking up and deciding that all we really needed was time, then coming back to it and saying we’re reforming. It’s much better to say we’re taking a breather and you come back and nothing’s changed. We don’t want to do a (John) Farnham ‘final tour’ several times. That’s a genius move though, you’ve gotta admit.”

And on to Bento and selecting musicians to work on his new baby.

“We were in the studio in Sydney and the producer and I would clunk away on different instruments. We’d just get on the phone, if we were working on something and thought it’s needed a nice piano part or whatever it was we’d call friends and it was whoever was close by. Whoever was within 10 minutes of the studio, they would come in. Out of that we actually got three guys who became pretty stable throughout the record. And they helped mesh the whole thing together.”

“It is a new project and I can’t assume that Silverchair fans are automatically going to come to Bento. I just have to get beyond that and make other people aware of it. This is the first step in many, I have to keep making music and getting it out there. They way the music industry is these day, you really have to have that social media stuff in people’s faces. And videos and photos. I love that stuff. It’s so much fun. As long as you make it fun, I think people can connect to that and feel like they can have involvement and see behind the scenes.”

“I’ve always said creativity breeds creativity. The more you do it, the more ideas you get, and the more it snowballs. I’ve already got 20 songs ready for another record and I keep calling my manager and saying ‘I’ve got this whole new concept for another record and it’s going to be great and we can do this…’ and she just laughs and says, ‘OK, just slow down!”

Success on the scale of that enjoyed by Silverchair over the last 20 years should mean that Ben Gillies could choose to live anywhere in the world, yet he remains based in Newcastle (as Daniel Johns often does, too).

” I think Novocastrians all know it’s a pretty special place. I’ve had some Sydney friends who have moved here purely out of necessity and after six months, they’ll be like, ‘I had no idea how good this place is!’ and I say, ‘What do you think I tell all my friends?!’. Its feels like (Newcastle) it’s connected enough to the world, it’s two hours to Sydney but it’s just out of the way enough that it’s quiet and you can relax.”

Will Ben Gillies be delivering another Bento album?

“I think it will go off on a different tangent. It will still Bento, Bento is my baby. It will be a bento box but different, it might not be sushi, it might be a tuna sandwich!”

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Bikers Against Child Abuse

Imagine being a child who has to testify in court, give evidence, against an adult who has abused you, sexually or otherwise. An adult you have trusted. An adult you have loved.

This adult has also abused you, perhaps sexually, they might have threatened you, told you not to talk, told you that terrible things would happen if you did.

The Newcastle chapter of BACA (Bikers Against Child Abuse) started about three years ago, but the Australian group started in South Australia about six years ago, now operating also in Western Australia, NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

Bikers Against Child AbusePatience, child liaison officer of Newcastle BACA, “It’s been going for about 26 years in the US in all states. It was started by Chief (John Paul Lilly) who is a Clinical Social Worker, a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor, and Part-time faculty member at Brigham Young University. After one particular session with a child he was concerned that this child was too frightened to leave his residence. So he and another founding member started going to the child’s house and the rest is history.”

“We empower the children so they get the courage to stand up in court. You have realise that half the time that perpetrator is a family member, so the child is caught between mum and dad, or an uncle, somebody that they did love. Sometimes they’ve been threatened not to say anything.”

“We also have had cases where bullying is happening at school so we take the child on the back of the bike to school a couple of times, and back home again, just to let the other kids know that the child is part of the BACA family. We empower them to become our brothers and sisters.”

Blaze, secretary of Newcastle BACA (and daughter of Patience), describes the organisation, “We’re not a 1% organisation. We will do events with them for charities and so on, but we don’t condone violence or anything like that, but we co-exist. We’re pretty much a biker organisation that is a non-profit charity. We raise money for children that have been abused and need further assistance after DOCS, the psychologists and the counsellors have left. We get them strong again and get them back out into society where they can cope. They can stand up for themselves again.”

When BACA are called in to a case, the balance of power shifts. The abused child is no longer the scared, powerless, small person to the small person who appears to have a lot of power. Big, hairy, scary-looking friends.

Sumo is the president of the Newcastle chapter of BACA and the largest man I have ever met. “One of my favourite stories is from the US where a little girl was in court. She was squirming and carrying on so the BACA brothers asked her what was wrong. She said, ‘I have to go to the toilet but HE’s out there!’. They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll handle it’ and formed a circle around her, walked her out to the toilet, right past him (the perpetrator of her abuse) and a couple of the BACA sisters took her in to the toilet, and on the way back, she was in the middle of the circle again but squirmed her way through, poked her head out, looked at him, gave the bloke the finger and went back into the court.”

One of Patience’s roles as child liaison officer is to organise the intervention ride. “People ring, they contact us. The criteria is that the child has to be in the system, that is DOCS or another community service. It’s good to know if the child has already been involved with the police so we don’t step on any toes. The police are aware of us. We are all police-checked.”

“We arrange an interview with the parent or guardian that is looking after the child before we meet the child. When we do, we describe everything about ourselves and ask them if they want to be in the BACA family. On the intervention ride, we get members from Sydney and the north coast, we meet them, put them on the back of the bike with their own little helmet, gloves, a vest with their road name on it, and they go for a ride.”

“In the US, BACA have even followed school buses to and from school because the child might be distressed by going past someone’s house.”

Blaze says she has her own experience of abuse but that joining BACA with her parents was a great way to turn her experience into a positive, “Nothing is better when they come up to you, after you know what they’ve been through, and give you a hug and say thank you.”

Sumo agrees, “The greatest thing we get out of it is when the little kid you first met who won’t come out of their cocoon, they won’t talk to you, but six months later they run up to you, give you a hug, they’re confident and happy, they’re sleeping well, going well at school.”

Blaze points out that BACA is all about the child, “The parents, the guardian, the carer often struggles with what their child has been through, but we’re strictly for empowering the kids.”

She was anxious about her first intervention, fully aware that the child might just be scared of her with her tattoos and leather. “I was anxious. With these children you have to let them figure it out. You turn up, introduce yourself and let them take their time.”

Sumo has been on about five intervention rides, “Every one is different, but we really can see that we are helping these kids, we’re seeing them get better.”

Patience says that when BACA are out at shopping centres giving information she is often approached by members of her own generation, the baby boomers. “They’ll say, ‘I wish you were around when I was young.”

There’s no denying that even a lady biker like Patience, all neat blonde blow-wave and manicure is still a bit intimidating in her leather vest covered in patches.

“We didn’t know how we’d be received at the courthouse to start with, we didn’t know how they’d receive us, but we go to the court house, we take off our vest, it goes through the x-ray machine. We all have police checks and the working with children checks done, we don’t want the wrong people involved. But we have now been asked by a solicitor to attend a court in Sydney.”

“If the child has only one family member with them, and that person is sitting by themselves, the barrister might ask us to take our vests off but we’ll still have our t-shirts on and we’ll fill up the rest of the seats. We don’t ask or want to know what has happened to the child, but seeing them turn into a butterfly is great.”

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Rob Hirst. Midnight Oil, The Break.

 

Rob Hirst. Photo: abcdigmusic

Midnight Oil have had a stellar career from their beginning as ‘Farm’ in 1972, changing their name in 1976.

With 11 studio albums and 2 EPs worth of musical meanderings, I spoke with the band’s drummer and songwriter, Rob Hirst, on the eve of the launch of Essential Oils.

“We began by thinking we wanted at least one song from each of the albums and EPs, and we wanted it to be chronological so you go on a musical journey with the band from 1978’s ‘Blue Meanie’ as we call it, to 2002’s Capricornia. Then we realised we had 170 songs we had whittle down to 36 and everyone lobbied heavily for their own favourites, emails were exchanged, carrier pigeons sent out and shot down and eventually we managed to get this order which I think now, with some objectivity, runs really well and does give you a good idea about what the band was thinking about at the different ages and stages, the different sounds of the studios, and what the producers brought to bear, also the different locations. We recorded everywhere from Tokyo to New Orleans to London to Sussex to Sydney to Melbourne so those places and the studios brought something different to the band.”

How was the very Australian lyrical content of Midnight Oil’s music received internationally, particularly when working with international producers to whom the angry political intent might have seemed a bit over the top?

“Yeah, the poms never really got us,” said Rob. “I remember we played a series of shows at the Zig Zag club in North London before we made the 10 – 1 album in 1982, we basically had to drag people in off the street because we had this empty hall but then the Aussies found us and they alienated all the locals because they drank too much and were way too tanned and healthy-looking, and they were singing along heartily to all the songs they knew and the Poms at that time were probably more interested in The Clash or Elvis Costello or The Jam would sort of come in and then escape before they were pummelled by our audience, so it was a weird kind of stand-off.”

“It was only a little bit later that we realised we were actually in the wrong country because shortly after we were really embraced by France, and Germany, Sweden … so we realised that the food was better over there, the climate was better, there was a willing audience, the NME and Melody Maker wouldn’t patronise us every week, so why are we here? So we crossed the ditch and everything was happy after that.”

Growing up in the Midnight Oil heartland of Sydney’s Northern Beaches I point out to Rob that the Oils were the band my brothers would go to see, the blokes’ band.

“Yes, it was very blokey back then, it was a very brave woman who would enter the Royal Antler Hotel! There were some women there but they were very brave and had lots of tattoos. Seriously, the pub period was great for bands like ourselves, in spite of the danger to our female audience, it was a great testing ground for us. Not just the Royal Antler at Narrabeen which became a kind of home base, all of those northern beaches venues – Millers Manly Vale, Avalon RSL, and there was The Flicks in Manly which had a sloping stage and was operated at one stage by a fellow called Larry Danielson who we knew just as Larry and then later on people knew later on as the Woolworths Bomber – gives you an idea of the kind of people who were operating venues back then.We were playing 180 shows a year for the first five or six years, you could do it back then and they were big places, beer barns and enormous clubs.”

“We started off in Sydney and moved to the other states and we used to road test the songs at the venues as well so if any of the songs had any weak moments you could easily see people drifting off or start to throw things at us or something, so it was very good for the music as well.”

“We became road-tough in the tradition of bands like AC/DC who were just before us, and even the great Cold Chisel who started about 18 months before us, and the Angels. It was a busy time and that’s all people did then, they went to see their band. Each band had an incredibly loyal audience who would turn up to all of those pubs and clubs around the place, and the occasional festival and that’s all gone now, although the festivals are many more in number.”

“Back then, there was only a few festivals, there was the famous Sunbury which we didn’t go to but we did go to Tanelorn in 1981 (near Stroud) played with Split Enz and a few people. These days there are so many festivals which partly compensates for the fact that that amazing pub scene is no longer. It’s a shame in regard to toughening-up of bands.”

“I always thought that bands that survived that pub circuit of the late-70s and until the mid-80s when fire regulations and noise restrictions and dance music and other distractions came in and killed off the scene. I always that that was the golden age of bands, it was quite gladiatorial to play them, you were fed to the lions every night and you either toughened up and really learned how to play or you got out!”

I pointed out to Rob that being a spectator could be tough at times, too. “It must have been,” Rob laughs, “I used to joke that I only joined the band to get out of the Midnight Oil audience. It was only partly a joke – I wouldn’t have wanted to come and see us!”

I actually did work experience in early high school was at Powderworks Records in Brookvale when Midnight Oil’s Bird Noises EP was being pressed.

“Wow, that’s fantastic!”, said Rob, “Yes, we started out as an independent band on an independent label, which was Powderworks, and ironically our studio now, the studio owned and operated by Jim Moginie, is just around the corner in Brookvale from where we signed our first deal.

“Later on we signed with CBS, which became CBS Sony, which became Sony, which became Sony BMG and now Sony Music so we’ve been very loyal to the one record company ever since but from the first two albums and EP we were on this independent label, and it was that kind of fierce independence and determination not to repeat the mistakes of bands we admired but had ended their careers in tears way too early, it formed the early ethic of the band.”

How do you maintain that independence when you’ve signed to a corporate monster?

“You get a rottweiler as manager for a start, I don’t think Gary Morris would mind me referring to him in that way, he was fiercely loyal to the band and was much admired/loathed by the industry because his job was to interpret what the band wanted to do to a very staid and often arrogant and unwieldy industry that only saw one way of going about a career. We saw different ways which meant not appearing on Countdown, not playing gigs that we felt were unsafe to the audience or we thought we might be ripped off.

“That actually stood us in good stead because we managed to survive those early years and then go on to play theatres and bigger gigs and eventually head overseas. We haven’t lost any members of the band, which is great.”

Rob Hirst continues making music with a variety of projects and roles, “I’ve got a band called The Break which features Jim (Moginie), Martin (Rotsey) and myself from the Oils, and Brian Ritchie who played bass with the Violent Femmes and now lives in Tasmania and curates the MONA FOMA festival down there every January. We have a new album coming out next March (2013) and features Jac Howard from Hunters and Collectors playing amazing surf mariachi trumpet, which adds a whole other dimension, and I still play with The Backsliders most weekends. Jim’s got a marvellous Irish band called Shameless Seamus, but Midnight Oil was always the main game so who knows, we might do a couple of gigs down the track sometime.”

In 2002, Midnight Oil disbanded after singer Peter Garrett announced that he intended to more fully pursue a political career, but the band have done a few select shows since then including the 2009 Canberra show which was a warm-up for the Victorian bushfire relief concert.

“We needed a couple of warm-ups before going onstage in front of 81,000 people at the MCG in Melbourne, but it was great, it was quite life-affirming to feel that muscle memory come back as you approach different parts of a song and think, ‘what the hell comes next’, and then suddenly your hands and fingers and mind suddenly went to the right place. So we did two really energised shows at the Theatre Royal in Canberra which were recorded, thank heavens.”

Rob Hirst sounds like a contented man who’s been able to make a living out of what he loves.

“I hope I’m contented, but I hope I’m not smug because I haven’t forgotten what it really took to get the men to stay together in all those rehearsals and backstage and buses and planes for 25 years. There were six members of Midnight Oil, including Gary Morris our manager, and there were times that everyone was on their way out the door.

“I think the great thing was that there was something in the back of our minds that the sum of us was always going to be greater than us individually and as long as there were some new songs that Jim and I could write and present to the band, new challenges live and some benefit shows to do, which were greater than just a band going out and playing songs, it needed to become part of a musical fraternity helping people out whether the tsunami benefit or the bushfire one, there was always something to look forward to. But we always took a lot of time off from each other just to defuse. We were kind of like a pressure cooker and eventually if you let enough steam out and get back together you can see the big picture again.”

The pressure at times in Midnight Oil must have been considerable given it has always been a group of outspoken socially and politically minded individuals who made their statements very publicly, like their performance during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Midnight Oil - 2000 Olympic Games“There was debate pretty much until five minutes before we went out in the Sorry suits still figuring out if this was the right thing to do. There was only a couple of other people who knew we were going to make that statement. One was David Atkins who was producing the games, and of course a few close confidantes with Midnight Oil, but as soon as we walked out in front of that massive audience and this huge, thunderous cheer went up, we realised that people got it, understood the statement we were making. We were followed by the great Yothu Yindi playing Treaty which must be one of the greatest songs, not just protest songs, but greatest songs ever to hit the Australian airwaves and certainly by an indigenous band it’s had the greatest impact so far. We felt we were in great company.”

It was a beautifully subversive moment.

“There was, in typical Midnight Oil fashion, a lot of questioning and debate. We actually went out to the desert a few months before the Olympics to talk about it. We went out to Papunya which we’d visited all those years ago on the Black Fella, White Fella tour with the Warumpi Band, and we sat down in a creek bed for about three days and we spoke about the Olympics and the future of the band, lots of things under those amazing stars, to get out of the city and clear our heads.”

“We’ve had amazing experiences collectively, it’s been an incredible life. When I finally sat back and listened to the 36 songs on Essential Oils, all these memories plus others came back, good and bad, and I found myself getting quite tired and emotional hearing it all.

“We’re not really nostalgic as a band, we don’t comb over the past and we’re much more interested in new music and new bands coming up in Australia and overseas, we’re still musically curious and not wedded to the past but having gone back on the journey again I’m always amazed by just how much there is in it. Much more than just a band, a bunch of egos and some songs.”

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