Searchin' for their mainline
We Mainline Dreamers - Garry Gray and Edward Clayton-Jones (Spooky Records)
Top-drawer stuff from the Sacred Cowboys frontman Garry Gray and the wicked guitar sidemagician best-known for his work with The Wreckery and The Bad Seeds, Edward Clayton-Jones.
Hasten thou to the magic credit card...
In the next few weeks I shall be taking a sabbatical from reviewing for most of a year. However, I must unzip myself first. "Full disclosure" as The Barman says.
First, I've eaten salt, broken bread and shared a jug of wine with both culprits (and I've written songs with Garry).
Second, while I have a tendency to get very excited over new music, when it's closer to home, when reviewing I am if anything more restrained. Also, there's always that slight anxiety before I start listening: will this be crap?
Garry Gray. Emmy Etie
And musicians mostly figure this: if I can't stand it I won't review it. The Barman knows there have been things which have landed on my desk which I have simply said, 'can't do this one.' Doesn't matter if it's a chum or not. Hell, don't get me wrong. I'd love to hear a Midnight Oil LP that I could fall in love with and gush like a puppy seeing butterflies for the first time.
As you may have gathered, while I count myself extremely fortunate to know so very many talented folks, talent doesn't always mean that the music will turn out to be my cuppa char. Never mind that, it also might not be my chip butty filled with crisps and mushy peas, either...
I mean, I am pleased that the likes of Parkway Drive (who I've never heard) are successful overseas. And Midnight Oil ditto (who I try not to hear because I really dislike etc etc). The Hoodoo Gurus, The Mark of Cain ... well, they are what they are. These outfits are all successful for specific reasons, partly style and partly - especially these days - familiarity and predictability. I admire the members of the bands - it must be enormously difficult to maintain the glue and the sense of purpose, and the quality required to maintain their audience, especially so over the decades.
Okay. Back to "We Mainline Dreamers". I had no idea Garry was working with Ed until he dropped the bombshell as the record was being lined up to be pressed. So I asked Garry and Ed a few questions via email ...
Garry Gray: Ed and I aren't 'a new act' ... we are the sum total of our musical experiences and cultural background ... we were extremely pleasantly surprised at how working together panned out but given the shared history and world view stuff we wonder why we were surprised ... if that makes sense. We think it's a great album to the point where we think it's in 'our finest hour' territory by a good margin.
Ed and I go back to the mid '70s. Ed was at the first gig I played. I was in an outfit called the Reals (which later became Negatives) with Chris Walsh and Ollie Olsen. Also in the audience, our friends back in the day, Tracey Pew, Nick Cave, Mick Harvey (Boys Next Door/Birthday Party). The rest of the audience were rockers and hippies and I think the headline band was a prog rock outfit. We played Stooges songs and our own gnarly originals like 'Nothing To Say', 'Hot Shot' and 'Dumbworld'. Ed and I became friends. We'd grown up in the same amorphous suburban incubator, listening to the same music, inspired by cinema, art, pop culture, and Cold War television.
We got in touch after many years during the height of the pandemic. Ed lives in Sydney, I live in Melbourne ... many years and a lot of time traversed ... we have lived lives, travelled and made albums (I think this is my 8th) so one left of each, at least ... The things which inspired when we met way back continue to do so. A friendship rekindled during lockdown provided an opportunity to work together. We're here now partly because it didn't happen back in the day.
So given these unifying elements (our ancestral memories, if you like) it is through this looking-glass that our work takes its form.
Ed later describes how he sees this from the music department and the cinematic sound track dynamics in his work and I'm more or less doing the same, but from the story department. In my department, you find not just the written words but the forms, shades of meaning the moods they take with my voice. Then, when you play the album, Side One takes you on the first part of the ride with Side Two kicking the journey into overdrive. So with Ed's finely woven gold thread tapestries, I had a pallet loaded with colour to draw from and enable me to work with great freedom.
RB: "We Mainline Dreamers" is certainly different from your early Sacred Cowboys work, though I think there's a certain continuity with the LPs 'Trouble from Providence' and 'Diamond in the Forehead'?
Garry Gray: I've never enjoyed joining the dots with my work because as a fan I like to figure all that out with artists I listen to - maybe with a little help from Nick Kent or Charles Shaar Murray from 'NME' ... I see a deconstruction of the rock band singer and the exuberance of working in a different way and delving deeper into singing performance and lyric writing. I think a lot of that is due to the work ethic and methodology.
So, to describe 'We Mainline Dreamers' and what it is doing - it's a series of observations arranged to produce a range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. The stories have not been inhabited by us per se, no personal exorcisms reside here. The songs shift in and out of different realities ... or unrealities. More precisely, it is psychological realism which delves into the 'inner person' of a character's mind and motivation rather than focusing on external actions or motivators.
RB: 'We Mainline Dreamers' is a hell of a provocative title. Seems you wanted to confront an aspect of your past, present and futures all at once?
Edward Clayton-Jones: Nothing provocative about the title. It's the title of one of the tracks and seemed to capture the zeitgeist of what we were doing within the collaboration. Garry wrote all the lyrics and I composed the music and we did all this remotely.
Garry Gray: Well, no, far from being provocative, it's very 1950s Beat Generation lingo, that's all that is going on here - in the context of our psychological realism - I mean, it's inspired by my old man's Holden Monaro Luxury Sport, a Kafkaesque youthful right of passage with the scary surreal Dali dream sequence from 'Spellbound', a little in the way of Jungian archetypes and escape into the far reaches of space. I wouldn't call that provocative, but rather thought provoking - symbols and imagery ... and with those 1970s guitar hooks ... that's what the song is doing ...
RB: There's a lot of Bowie in here ... but it's a very different slant to Bowie... his starting point was always different, but your starting points...
Edward Clayton-Jones: Bowie has always been a major influence for me particularly the songs from 'Station to Station' through 'Low' and the Bowie/ Iggy albums from the same period. Garry and I have a similar background in music and we love Martin Rev and Alan Vega’s Suicide. Our conversations prior to starting on 'We Mainline Dreamers' was around doing an album that came from an electronica base. I’d composed a lot of instrumental stuff throughout The Lockdown Years and shared some of those ideas with Garry. Our original idea was to do an album of cover versions. In the tradition of Bowie’s 'Pin-Ups'. We didn’t get far with that idea before it gave way to Garry doing the first lyrics and I believe that was the title track.
Garry Gray: I assume that point is for Ed ...though the space created singing with piano saw at least one 'Hunky Dory' inflection from me - Pepsi challenge, RB - which line, which song? Hint. On Side 2...
RB: Fuck's sake, Garry, I've not listened to early Bowie in decades. It was you older blokes who thrashed those records... [Confession: I'd heard Bowie before the Stooges, but while Bowie was interesting ... it was the Stooges and the Velvets and the Pistols and the Pirates and Kraftwerk and Faust ... who swept me up and away] Now, how did those lyrics come about?
Garry Gray: Do you mean how do I work? In a spontaneous manner; sometimes I'd have a finished idea, sometimes not. I often finished writing lyrics while I was putting down vocals and working out the arrangements. All of the factors I have mentioned above drive this process for me. I used the technique John Lennon showed George Harrison so he could finish the lyric for 'Something' ... This was an album "made entirely in the studio". Everyone has gone the overly-trodden rehearsal room path over the years with a dedicated team hammering a riff for an hour or so interspersed with edifying bonding discussions about herbal tea and guitar strings and sealing wax and kings ...
[At this point, RB starts cackling as he's reading and spills his morning cuppa ... several minutes of mopping up and swearing ensue. Now read on...]
Garry Gray [continued]: In our case, for this record, Ed would send me cinematic soundscapes in varying stages of completion ... and when I felt I had something ready for scrutiny, I'd return the track. I was able to work with great freedom. I think we were open to making changes and reworking ideas and arrangements and Donald Baldie had some great ideas to that end.
RB: What on earth were you channelling with your guitar lines?
Edward Clayton-Jones: I’m a very visceral guitar player, I let the song dictate what I play. It’s about creating a sonic picture or emotion rather than channeling, anyone in particular. I do tend to be spontaneous, I’ll react quickly to what the rhythm tells me and record off-the-cuff. I’m not much for nursing and rehearsing. It’s either there or it’s not. If I had to name influences I’d say Mick Ronson, Nile Rodgers, Keith Levene, Earl Slick and of course Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner from Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. My friend Rowland S. Howard certainly influenced my playing too.
RB: Were you responsible for the SFX, radio, orchestras and so on ...?
Edward Clayton-Jones: I’m responsible for the SFX, loops etc. I have a great love for cinema and soundtracks. Using non-musical or atypical sounds works to take the listener further down the rabbit hole and away from reality. The goal is immersion. To take the listener away from their environment and into another place. Good music should have the same effect as a video game or a good book. It should transcend the moment you’re in.
In decades to come, hip young crate-diggers will be scouring op shops for the later recordings of Garry and Ed; we all know that brilliance is no guarantee of career success - it was luck that Bowie was fascinated by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed; without Bowie's influence and contribution, one wonders what the face of modern music would be like today. The Velvets and the Stooges were being (re)discovered by 1976, but even by 1981 they were pretty obscure.
There's a bit of an art to a press release:
"Across the oceans of time they set sail, in a ragged ship all torn and faded. A skeleton crew attached and a destination unknown ..." it begins, continuing, "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul ... then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."
Yes, ma'm, that's a quote from Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", and I'm fairly confident in saying that may well be a first for any music press release (short of "Moby Dick On Ice" but that's as may be). I can't recall the last time I saw an LP cover by the Russian Romantic artist Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), either (but there should be more, many more).
However, there's definitely a dark lineage here; Garry cites Lou Reed's "Heroin".
'I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I'd sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
In a sailor's suit and cap.
So by now you should've guessed, "We Mainline Dreamers" is about the past and the future, using undercurrents of heroin as a metaphor for a life-voyage. After all, as Garry sings elsewhere;
Can’t go back to the '70s/ Got no cryogenic freeze /Significant Other left out to dry /Waiting for a burial in the sky
If you were plugged into the underground/ culture in the 1970s through to the 1990s, heroin wafted in clouds around us like cigarette smoke in a pub. There were so many famous rock hero examples of junk users, from Iggy and Lou to Clapton. Ordinary people would become addicted, sometimes their personalities would alter dramatically. The gossip mill would pounce with poisonous glee.
Many would die. That underground was truly a creative wonderland, but nostalgia often hides the reality of what was a threshing machine.
If you need a (very mild) refresher - or an introduction if you had no idea - I suggest the second series in the "Underbelly" TV franchise, "A Tale of Two Cities". It's very simplified, and doesn't really begin to hint at the vast interconnected networks of supply and users, and where that fuel took them. But hey, "the real world struggle is the new entertainment".
Put another way, almost everyone involved in that subculture who survived has been extremely fortunate, never mind live past 60. "Immortality ain’t a breeze/ eternity don’t aim to please".
The title track, like its title, is awash with double-meaning, instantly propelling you forwards and backwards ... This isn't a 'take it or leave it' scenario. Take "luxury sport is a mean machine/ Left my daddy’s car inside a ravine", which made me choke trying to laugh and swallow a bit of Chocolate Hobnob at the same time.
Then there's lines like the simple, yet deeply sardonic, "So little to say. So much time ... "
Think, maybe, an older Major Tom who never really figured things out... there's so much confusion and regret ... Ian Hunter's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" springs to mind as Ed's striding, jousting guitar provokes shivers of memories (I'm thinking "Top of the Pops" circa 1974), the swirling imagery, sailing ships and rockets to the stars. Majestic themes of 'to sea in ships', travel, of vulnerability, of mortality rise through the LP like bubbles in a ship's wake.
I love the starting place of this LP: there's aspects of Suicide's second LP, also the electronic aspects which are decidedly un-"electronic" (this ain't Depeche Mode, ok?), and Ed's guitars seethe with precision.
"The Canonization of Junk" gently but firmly curls up beside you with a classic Bowie-esque vocal, and the groove continues. For those who kinda gave up on Bowie years ago, this glistens in the sun. In fact, Garry's vocal throughout the LP harnesses an evocative style which, while folks will point fingers, is still unique. There's a butter-whisky richness to Garry's voice, driven by his unorthodox lyrics (don't look for precise rhymes, but for refractive similarities and connections).
"You serve no earthly purpose. Me, I’m the politician. Pearl necklaces the gift to you. You’re toxic to the people." There's such bitterness here; apart from the obvious, the line 'pearl necklaces for you' recalls the phrase "pearls before swine".
"We Mainline Dreamers" is one of those gripping, slowly building LPs. Each song has its place, perfectly poised, and while the whole has a specific pair of major themes, it's the songs we're here for.
"Significant Other" is a major achievement, with the sound of swishing knives above the crouched and tense rhythm - it might not seem that way to the casual listener (it's a low conversational groove thang) but there are multiple layers piling up now.
"Mercury Retrograde" follows on, mortality and the process of ageing and looking back; "A lot of delusion/ I’ll keep it in a jar/ Chaos and confusion/ yeah, it’s an illusion". I guess you could read a lot into it. But I think that's kind of the point. "Don’t travel, don’t sign up, don’t touch electric things ...". I repeat, this isn't an LP to thrash about to, but a stone groove throb. By this stage of the LP I'm wondering what on earth the songs would sound like on stage.
Side One ends with the rather epic "Life, Death, Infinity".
Here's the thing. All these heavy topics - it ain't an act. It ain't a clever idea or a "concept". This is reality, as seen by a couple of (bloody lucky) blokes who somehow survived. There's nothing glamorous about glamour, you could say. But that's not how it seems when you're young, when you don't have enough reference points.
Yesterday to the cemetery/ to visit my old man/ his words so much clearer/now the suffering had gone/ I gazed across the river/ to the other shore
Let's pause here to reflect. Ed's guitars are so bloody confident, there's this under-stated swagger to them, we're hearing some kind of transcendence. Relaxed yet strong, lines flickering over, under, sideways down. Garry's vocals are extraordinary, and extraordinarily chameleonic. His vocals are frankly magnificent, redolent of shade and light. Most of the time I find myself in wonder at how these magical tones marry so beautifully against Ed's power and majesty.
However, no, you probably won't be dancing to this anytime soon. You might pulse along to it, you might pour another couple of scotches, or you might just jerk out a few unexpected tears. This isn't a series of nostalgic wanna-be-back-then-agin songs, but a poignant, clear-eyed look back ... accompanied with an equally poignant look forward.
That press release again:
As the sun was setting there was a drumming through the jungle ... two old sea dogs met in a bar in Cancun after 30 years out of touch and figured there was nothing for it but to build a new ship and sail it out into the uncertain waters, one more cruise to the Siren's rocks, to a vortex erasing time and space, the place of certain madness and rabid desires, the Atlantis of 1960’s TV horror and perennial loss.
Dare I say it, we've entered a very zen area, without being Zen. After all, reality ain't what we think it is, neither is regret and mortality.
Side Two begins with "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", which is both elegantly simple and marvellously convoluted. It's a bit like one of the old "Twilight Zone" episodes, really. And after this, the LP begins to uncoil like a metal panther.
"Credit Card Christian" is one of the few songs you could imagine the Cowboys doing, or even Iggy Pop, but ... like so much of "We Mainline Dreamers", the music conjures up grand cinema, underground films that take your breath away, impossible vistas from John Ford westerns and ... bad memories. Nothing and no-one specific, just that struggle to cross the heaving ocean, oak a-creaking.
"The Blood and Bone Man" is a masterful appreciation, another gripping groove (listen to that bass!), filled with centrally-controlled vitriol. It's savage, current, and as with many of Garry's lyrics, links the past with the present via a cultural jackdaw's nest of shiny scary things.
The LP's closer, '"nside the Atom'" seems to tie all of this together, the looped organ, the groovegrowl guitar, the themes of fragile human journeys, of our attempts to reposition our importance and validity. Musically, it strikes me as the most 'electronic' of the songs, but it's the groove and the sweeping, emotive ride into the sunset which grips us in the end.
In the black night sea. In the depths unleashed. Cold inside your eyes. Devoured by these things. Bones bleached in the sand. Dying so many times. As the seas rose higher.
But hey. That's my take. There's so much here, you'll surely discover other things - and will perhaps disagree vehemently.