What Brian Henry Hooper knew
What Would I Know? - Brian Henry Hooper (Bang! Records)
Brian Henry Hooper was a remarkable man. I first encountered him when he was part of Kim Salmon's band, The Surrealists. I had no idea what to expect, and the huge shattering sound, the big horror-show songs, and Kim's howls backed by two droogies from an abbattoir ... my mouth was flat on the floor. Magnificent.
It was many years later that I met Brian for the first time, more or less by accident at a different gig, when I used a rather unpleasant local term which Brian immediately picked up on - "That's a real Adelaide term, isn't it?" Brian was always interested in the world around him - I recall him also relating how beautiful Adelaide was as the aircraft came in to land ... come in the right way to land, I suppose, and even ...no, that's not right. I knew what he meant, the place can be damned pretty.
No, really. Brian liked Adelaide.
When I got talking with Brian, I realised there was a lot more to him than "just a bass player"; for one thing, he played both piano and guitar, and for another he thought of himself as a guitarist first, and a bass player second.
So it was no surprise that Bang! released his LPs; the first being a double set called "Lemon Lime and Bitter" followed by the "Again and Again" EP, and the LPs "The Thing About Women", and "Trouble". If the world were a more ideal place, Brian's LPs would be staples in the FM world. As it is, I think Bang! still have a few copies, so if you don't have them, stock up.
Why? Well, not just because Brian was Brian, obviously. The records are all damn good. Strong songs, well-structured and sometimes quite earwormy - you'll find yourself singing snatches at odd, possibly inappropriate, moments. No, they're not the kind of songs you bounce round the room to, but more the kind of song you listen and react to.
Sometimes you'll laugh, sometimes you'll need a hanky.
Brian's voice has a similar timbre to Bowie's - so even though Brian's work doesn't remind us of Bowie, it seems his voice does. Personally I find Bowie's voice to be too perfect, and rather cold; Brian's is rich with a variety of emotion (often quite raw). Call me biased if you must, but despite Bowie's many achievements and influences, I've listened to more Brian over the last 15 years than Bowie.
Live, Brian didn't seem to believe in rehearsal, but in the purity of spur of the moment. Which lead to some extraordinarily memorable performances. I recall him knocking his mic stand over during one gig, and as I replaced it, he gave me a hefty boot. Fast forwarding a few years, I discovered that that stick of his hurt a lot, too - even in fun.
"What Would I Know?" is different from Brian's earlier releases for several reasons, not least because he knew what was coming, and that the music had to be constructed posthumously. Themes of mortality, perseverance, reflection, along with a beautifully bleak, mischievous sense of humour always twisted through Brian's music and vocals, usually taken from his rather eventful life.
"Oh Brother", on 'Lemon Lime and Bitter' (and re-recorded for 'The Thing About Women'), for example, tells how Brian found his brother dead. The guilt and pain pours out of the speakers; Brian kept the song in his solo set for years. "What shall I tell our mother and our father?/You were always meant to be the smarter one'. But then there's "Motherfucking Motherfucker", worth the price of admission to "LLB" alone. So manybands should cover this one, a piss-take of the idiotic aggro in men - and Brian, incidentally; see "Do You Remember?"
Brian commanded strong allegiances; musicians who played on his LPs included Steve Boyle, Mick Harvey, Spencer P. Jones, Gareth Liddiard, and Tony Pola. It's taken me a bloody year to finally listen to "What Would I Know?", and how these musicians managed to do this LP I cannot imagine. And of course, there's Loki Lockwood, the master producer and masterer of Spooky Records (which, incidentally, also put out Brian's "Trouble" here in Australia).
So. Brian's songs are often understatedly simple; guitar, piano, drums. His voice brings a starkness, a cleansing clarity. Each LP is a step forward in one way or another, and also a prismatic perspective somewhat removed from the thuggish underbelly Brian's bass contributed to in the Surrealists and the Beasts of Bourbon.
The opener, 'Shut Up" sets the pace, really. "What Would I Know?" begins with doubt and confusion, and a complex series of rhythms which force us to pay attention to Brian's under-stated voice. I'll take this moment to tip the hat to Steve Boyle, who plays several instruments here, and to great and powerful effect; drums, electric guitar, piano and Wurlitzer, Hammond organ and harmonia organ. The other musicians Jason Bunn on viola, and Gareth Liddiard on guitar, but Boyle enables Brian the most; his presence here is simply beautiful.
Brian's voice is finely cadenced, riddled with suppressed emotion, utterly compelling. One friend compared "What Would I Know?" to Nick Cave - frankly, no. There may be surface similarities - but Brian's songs move me far more than anything Nick's done in years. And yeah, I s'pose I really should listen to Nick's new one, but Nick's ... not raw. "What Would I Know?" is raw, but somehow in control. Check Liddiard's guitar on "Oxygen" or "Do You Want Me", for example; or the glorious, heart-heaving love song "Inside of You".
Have you ever heard a vocal so wrenching as that on "Show Me The Way"? Not by much, I'm sure. And take 'Act Your Age'; Hooper seems to specialise in revealing something we don't see very often in art, that no matter how confident and assured we men appear, we're not. Our self-reliance is as chimerical as reflections in a tram window. Brian and his wife, Ninevah were a close couple and hopelessly in love. She helped him navigate through the challenging times and consider different choices. She is a patient woman who understood him - as he often told close friends. He had twin daughters, Ava and Charlize (who playfully enjoyed thumping him – a reminder of himself). And he had a raft of close friends.
Yet there were times he was still alone. Like all men are, really.
Also, comparing Brian to anyone, really, ends in a wall of contradictions. Brian was his own man, very much a unique character; "What Would I Know?" is revelatory ... in the literary sense, we discover ourselves in a fragmentary mirror.
I tried really hard not to cry as I listened to this.
With no success.
Here's an interview with Nineveh Hooper, Brian's wife.
I-94 Bar: How did you both meet, and how you developed a relationship with this man, with his profound spirituality, but also rough life and humour?
Nineveh Hooper: I met Brian on February 26th, 2006 at Tolarno's bar/restaurant in St Kilda, known as Mirka’s. It was mid-afternoon and I was having lunch with friends. I still remember it was a beautiful sunny day. He walked in with another friend of his, Paul.
They sat at the bar. Brian continued to stare in my direction and then approached me. He had that boyish smile with a cheeky grin. I vaguely knew who he was and but was not that familiar with all the bands he was in. Brian thought that was funny. When he approached me he said he hadn't seen me in the area before as he was a local. We spoke for a while and then he asked for my number. I said that I didn't give my number out but would consider his. He frantically wrote down his number and handed it on tissue paper with his wide smile. He confessed years later that when he first looked at me, he mentioned to his friend Paul that he “had plans to marry that woman”.
He said to Paul; "You'll see".
I didn't call him for weeks. I still remember the day he answered, when I called. He was excited and keen to make arrangements for a drink. We went out closer to my neck of the woods, near Prahran/ Hawksburn. He was the fine gentlemen. He walked me home and even wrote a song about it. On our second date he asked if I could see myself as Mrs Hooper. I laughed and asked him if that's what he says to all the girls. He looked firmly at me and said: "No, just the one that stirs up a mystery".
The rest was history. A Social Worker and Musician. We laughed about this for years. He often said he liked the fact that we were from different worlds. I wasn't in the entertainment industry but we connected through our beliefs, particularly Social Justice. I loved him even more when he reflected on his experience as an incomplete paraplegic. I thought his story of hope and resilience was profound. We had more in common than we thought. It was easy from the start. We could sit for hours talking about the meaning of life and equally sit in silence without saturating the air with our egos. Brian and I would have seen the rest of our days together. We understood each other. We also argued over silly things, including how much marmalade was on the toast. Brian was a decade older than me. I saw this as an opportunity rather than a threat. He was intelligent, kind and witty.
The birth of Ava and Charlize was a key point in our life. He was excited about being a dad and excelled in so many ways.
He read to the girls when they were three months old and it continued every night.
He was patient and playful. He was a great dad. They were his reason to keep fighting this battle against lung cancer and often pronounced it to the world. The day he was diagnosed it was November 11th, 2017 (Brian’s birthday). I sat by his side at the GP Clinic and he said to me "Nin, I'm the man for the job. I can do this". Brave and courageous.
I-94 Bar: What did you think of the music he'd made, with the Surrealists, the Voyeurs, the Beasts of Bourbon and his own ..?
Nineveh Hooper: I loved all his music, particularly his part in the Surrealists, Beasts of Bourbon and works with Rowland S. Howard. Such powerful bands that continue to engage the audience 30 years on.
Brian taught me a lot about different genres of music, including classical. "Clair de Lunne" by Debussy is our favourite. He came from a family that was classically trained. His older brother, David, was part of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I supported him with the music he had made and encouraged him to keep producing records, particularly his solo works.
Just before diagnosis he was about to go part-time at the bank and do more music. It was going to be a nice balance of being a stay at home dad and also do what he loved. We were at a happy stage in our life and then cancer struck.
I-94 Bar: Could you tell us a little of how 'What Would I Know?' came about, and how it was completed?
Nineveh Hooper: Brian decided to go over to Andrew McGee's place in Nagambie to produce something. What initially occurred was some rough pieces and he wasn't very impressed with it. Andrew took it on and reassured Brian to give it a go. To leave it with Andrew, who would try to craft something sharp. Well he did... Brian went up a few more times until the finished product of "WWIK" occurred. Sadly he was then diagnosed with lung cancer.
By this stage he had gathered the artwork and asked that I follow through to a release. I knew little about music but made it my mission to learn everything about record productions. I took it through to a release and also managed a launch, prepared all the campaigns leading up to the launch and engaged in active promotional work.
It had a cast of many professional and well-respected musicians. All have been incredible in their support to Brian and I. They loved Brian and were honoured to be part of that special night. Sadly, Spencer P. Jones didn’t get a chance to be part of this but I know he is sitting right beside Brian. Spencer was a dear friend and his last words to me were “Nini, go on follow through your man’s wishes and get those records released.”
We miss Spencer. I recently attended Kim Salmon’s book launch at Memo. A fabulous night that captured the many talents of Kim, including his close collaborators such as Brian. Kim and Brian reconnected over the last few years and it was wonderful observing their friendship. Doug Galbraith is a fantastic writer. He recently mentioned that the publishers in Kim’s book were fascinated with this character known as Brian. Who wouldn’t be?
I'm currently working on the next album with a potential release date in mid- to late 2020. Mick Harvey is producing and helping me finalise this last album. I’ll always thank Mick for believing in Brian over the years and producing most of his solo work. Stay tuned. It will be brilliant. As Brian would say, “Just be great”.
Brian with some Beasts.