He Blinded Me With Science
Leanne Cowie (nee Chock), Boris Sudjovic, Kim Salmon and Tony Thewlis. Collectively known as The Scientists.
Ever have an attack of the stupids?
No? Must be me then.
See, The Barman asked me to do this interview with Kim Salmon to mark an Australian Scientists tour with the classic "experimental" line-up. A phoner. I wrote back saying, I couldn't, I'd be in Melbourne.
Kim Salmon on his lonesome. Barry C Douglas photo.
I should've called, really. Stupid. But there I was, shlepping along Swanston Street carrying some (more) books when I realised I hadn't heard back from the man with the disgusting dishcloth, The Barman.
So I texted. Talk to the man's publicist, he says.
So I talk to the publicity chap. Explain I can't really do a phoner. I thought the singer/songwriter might be in town so I'd meet him at the publicist's office.
But I didn’t expect this.
Not an invitation to the man's home. There aren't that many Australian musicians whose music means quite so much to me. So. I take a big breath, pull my pants up, scribble some questions and head off to discover the mysteries of the Melbourne public transport system. Along the way I manage to acquire another handful of books.
I arrive in the area early, and of course (of course) it starts to piss down. The local 7-11 has no seats so I can't mooch about there. Discovering a bus shelter, I am accosted by a chap heading to the library. He's studying music. Elvis. The Stones. The Pretenders. He has a ticket to Paul McCartney. He appears to be retired. And determined to have a conversation whether I want it or not.
I do not rise to the bait. The accoster seems quite amiable. Time passes and I head off, intending to be prompt - as I know he has a phoner immediately after me.
Kim Salmon lives with his partner, two children and a motorcycle in a pleasant suburb. The street is normal. It is quiet suburbia. You'd enjoy bringing your kids up here. The house has the best garden in the street - it's leafy and protective to the extent that I actually walked past the house thinking it was some sort of park.
Ambling up the walk, you could be anywhere in Australia (except the hot dusty bits). While I feel a little like "a gentleman caller", in truth it's Kim who is the gentleman; he must be a weary of people treating him like "Kim Salmon" and not the man he is.
The front room looks out on this peaceful scene; passersby aren't really noticed from inside the house. You may as well be out in the bush.
However... that front room is the engine room of Kim Salmon's many and varied creative projects. An assortment of stringed instruments (is that a fucking banjo?), a few practice amps, an electronic drum kit... it's rather wonderful.
We sit down on one of the two couches and start…
Scientists in Europe back in the '80s. Gorka Larruzea photo
RB: Why reunite this Scientists line-up, why now?
KS: Well, Tony (Thewlis) was going to be coming out here for a snorkelling holiday, so he asked me if we could chuck in a few gigs, and with the box set coming out last year it seemed opportune. We're going to try and do some more gigs overseas. We'd like to go back and do more shows in Europe, England, the USA. There are a lot of overheads. We do have contacts in Europe; our agency can set up some in France, maybe Spain, the UK ... it's about making opportunities, I guess. Making things happen.
RB: Can't help but notice Adelaide hasn't made the grade for the Australian tour...
KS: No, well, you'll have to talk to Tony Thewlis about that. He does want a holiday ...
RB: Adelaide's a lovely place...
(We eye one other, each trying not to laugh, although the reason Adelaide doesn’t get a look in has more to do with lack of time.)
RB: How's the box set doing?
KS: Really well! I'm even getting royalties! Whenever I get copies sent to me I can't sell them quick enough!
RB: This line-up seems to be the one which everyone fixates on...
KS: This line-up, Mark 2, has always been my favourite, the most special to me. It really kick-started my career...
RB: .. in a broader way, too...
RB: Look, I know that people look back on these days with sort of rose-tinted glasses, but I also know the circumstances for the band weren't the best, that it was quite a struggle. [I think fleetingly of stories of other bands, one bass player sleeping in the hall, another in the bath; of bands keeping a hammer handy in the toilet to break the ice in the toilet bowl in the mornings]
KS: Well, I remember it was hard, but mostly I remember all the high points.I mean, we had a hard time financially, especially in London, but I just remember lots of touring, and being unique, and making lots of good friends, like the Gun Club, and Sonic Youth, and Mudhoney. Maybe I've got a good filter, that's why I'm still doing it...
RB: So what can we expect?
KS: Scientists Mark 2. We're going to do some of the songs we did in the UK that Australia didn't see, like "Travis", and "Atom Bomb Baby". And some covers which we didn't do but perhaps should have. The transitional era, you know? We're not going to bastardise it.
RB: A natural follow-on from the reunion of the pink LP Scientists the other year?
KS: Yes! I mean, with that line-up we did it all on our own, we got to Sydney with Mark 1 in late 1979, and nobody wanted to know, the booking agencies didn't want us. So we fell apart a bit, and then we were persuaded to come back, and we returned to Sydney. By mid-1982, we had a residency at the Vulcan, we were getting a rep, Au Go Go Records were interested and started to put out our records, and we were becoming a good draw. By the end of '82 booking agencies were beating a path to our door and we told them to get fucked.
[It's worth mentioning that when the Scientists made the decision to head to the UK in mid-83, it wasn't necessarily what everyone in the band wanted. ]
RB: This outfit was a two-guitarist band - was it the battle of guitarists?
KS: No. I've never thought of it that way. I've always felt myself to be a songwriter, or an arranger, much more so than a guitarist, but as I arrange the material, I end up a bit to the fore, instead of what I feel I am as an arranger, which is in the background. I mean, I'm not really a great guitarist, but people think I am. I mean, I teach people with better chops, who, y'know, can do those arpeggios and so on much better than I can. I mean I can, but ... (wiggles fingers) ... and they think I'm this great guitarist...
RB: Maybe that's more to do with your imagination, heading away from the train-tracks and off into the donga...
KS: I mean, if you talk to Tony Thewlis, he's a great guitar player. He has a totally different way of playing, of approaching things. It's not just one person, The Scientists. I may do the interviews but again, Tony might for example remember things very differently from me. So there are many different stories.
Tony, Boris, Kim and Leanne on their last Australian jaunt. Vanessa Sexton photo.
RB: Boris, for another example.
KS: Yes! I mean, someone asked him about the G-string, 'Oh, you don't use that string'.
RB: When I used to see The Scientists, every time I saw you you were at a particular point, it was a stage in the band's development. When I saw the reunion in 2002 I was thrown a little because the songs were chosen out of that chronological framework.
KS: Sure. That 1987 line-up was like we were teenagers. You know, people naturally put you in a box, and we decided we didn't want to be boxed in.... these adolescents in their thirties!
RB: "A Pox on You"... Do you still feel like that adolescent...?
KS: I don't feel any different. I'm not any smarter but I am wiser. I've learned a lot more. Not just musically. Back then I couldn't do what I do now, you know, two combos rehearsing in the one house, and the other things as well... I sometimes think as we get older we're each like a big old tree, with all these branches, all these different branches to investigate... certainly the Scientists have enough family trees...
RB: Do you get nervous before a gig?
KS: Not now. I mean, I've done it so often. Back then, I could never tell jokes and stories on stage like I do with the Labcoat gigs for "My Script" - I mean, I had the stories, but I could not have told them! The Scientists were a different phase, and I was nervous then.
RB: I expect you've been asked already, but will there be any new Scientists recordings? Apart from a live disc, of course.
KS: No. Reunion records like that, they're always shit, aren't they? No-one wants to know.
So strange, the past. I recall hearing that Nick Cave had seen the Scientists open for The Birthday Party in May 1983, and said kind things to the band, that he’d really enjoyed them. And hearing tapes of the band playing in the UK in 1984 and 1985, and 1986…
We talked a little more, but it was about families (not cooking shows), music but not nostalgia, life and stuff like that. Kim Salmon is one of the few Australian musicians/ songwriters whose new work I still look forward to hearing. But I got to that point because of this band.
You can’t bring the past back, and certainly you don’t want to, and this is probably your last chance to see this line-up.
Anyone who saw the 2002 gigs by The Scientists know. Anyone who's seen Kim in recent years knows, too. These gigs are simply unmissable.