(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Doing The Understanding?
It should be no surprise that Ron S Peno and The Superstitions have delivered their most fully realised album yet in “Do The Understanding”.
With 12 years and three previous long players behind them, they’re a crack outfit of experienced Melbourne players, fronted by a vocalist who made an indelible mark with Died Pretty.
Everyone has a COVID-19 story, and musicians are doing it harder than most.
But Ron Peno’s own experience was preceded by a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, followed by chemo and radiotherapy, and then remission. A much-delayed Died Pretty national tour in April this year was sandwiched between lockdowns.
“Do The Understanding” has a prolonged and disrupted gestation stretching back to its formative writing in 2018, but it’s a contender for best Australian album of the year.
It’s a record full of drama and delicacy; a superb collection of songs underpinned by soulful playing and (arguably) the best vocals of Ron Peno’s career.
“I really pleased with it. It's taken a while to surface but we're really pleased with the seven songs,” a dapper Peno says over a Saturday afternoon Zoom connection.
“I think it's seven wonderful songs. Nice, strong, rather than putting too many tunes on there.
“It's just an hour. It's seven songs. Nobody says you have to have 10 songs. It's a little journey…start here, you finish there, drift off into the distance, you know, and if it's too short…play it again. Take the take the journey again.
“We started this record in 2018. We started talking about maybe we should do some more songs for another album. We were going to take as much time as we wanted, really.
“So by the middle of 2018 we’d started working on it, and we hit 2019 and it all went pear-shaped in 2019 with health reasons and stuff.
“So we had to sort of knock that on the head for a few months ‘till I got the cancer removed. But then 2020 happened and then the world changed again with COVID.”
Peno and guitarist Cam Butler are the creative heart of the Superstitions but contributions come from all band members.
“It’s the same as I work with Brett (Myers) in Died Pretty or Kim Salmon in the Darling Downs. It's a collaborative thing. Cam calls me up and says he's got some songs and he's ready to go. We’re not overly prolific as a song-writing team. We don't churn out lots and lots of songs.
“Cam labours over the songs and constructs them his way, and puts little loops and samples and stuff in them. He forms them and then gives them to me. I add my vocal melodies.…and then it’s chorus, verse, chorus.
“We would do two or three songs a day. I think ‘The Strangest Feeling’ came together in about 10 minutes.”
Ron has never learned guitar so puts his own melody ideas onto tape, or simply turns up and hums them.
“Cam will just play the song and I'll just wander around and we'll have a mic set up. I did the vocals at his place on the computer in his lounge room.
“I’d much rather work like that rather than in a smelly studio. I don't find them very conducive to working, with people in and out all the time.
“The bass and drums were all done in the studio. And a little bit of keyboards and maybe some guitar. I was going through an early Roxy Music thing - I wanted lots of synthesiser things like on the first three Roxy Music albums - weird little noises and pianos coming in and out.”
Not every song is new.
“‘The Strangest Feeling’ was a song called ‘Forgive Me’ which we did when we first formed. And I never liked the melody. But that's why it took so quick to come to form - because it was already there on the back burner.
“Cam said: ‘What if we take this song out again?’ And I had a listen to it with what Cam came up and I said, ‘Wow, that's fantastic. Let's keep that’. We love that.”
The Peno-Butler partnership came together via mutual friend Penny Ikinger who introduced them at a gig one Saturday night. By Monday, they were talking on the phone about collaborating. Melbourne’s musical melting pot is like that.
“Cam does soundtrack work, and sort of atmospheric, symphonic instrumentals. He's released, I think, four solo albums under his own name,” Ron explains.
“Lots of atmospheric, symphonic and very beautiful stuff that I'd like to get in and compose there with him, but I can't. That's his thing so I can't infiltrate that.
“And he comes from a band that I first heard in the late ‘90s, called Silver Ray, right here in Melbourne. An instrumental band. And I remember him telling me that I'm the first vocalist he's ever worked with. So, yeah, he's off to a good start.”
It will be a different Ron Peno who fronts the Superstitions at album launch shows – whenever they may be. Cancer has forced him to give up smoking and drinking and he did the Died Pretty tour, vice-free.
“It was a little strange but not difficult or traumatic or anything. It was just because my whole music career had been revolving around riders and free drinks and free beer. People would slap you on the back and say, ‘You're wonderful’ and you’d stagger around in an alcoholic fog.
“By then (the time of diagnosis) I was conscious that if I wanted to get through this and continue creating and doing what I love, there had to be some changes. Sadly, I couldn't do it 30 years ago so I have to do it now. So that meant that no more drinking. I turned 66 the other day. So no more drinking, no more smoking.
“I tell you what: It's great to be clear-headed, clear-minded and clear eyed. You walk out there with confidence in yourself and take it (performing) on as a profession.
“After years you finally realise, ‘Hey, this is what I do. This is my job. This is what I do. I can't stagger out there anymore. And I’m not in the Hellcats and it's not 1976’. You know what I mean?
“Of course. I'm an old man - we're all middle-aged men – and that’s lovely. I have quite a nice legacy of music. I've done the hard yards with Died Pretty. That was lovely. And you know, I think we got that (Died Pretty tour) in, just in time.”
COVID restrictions caused a couple of the dates to be split into seated affairs over two sessions. That creates pacing issues for a vocalist.
“I was not really keen on it. When you're doing one show, you want to put your all into that one show, to be cliched about it. And we did have to go on at 7.30 and do a show for an early crowd. And I guess they did it like that back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“There was talk of maybe doing the Died Pretty tour in October. Thank God we didn't and we stuck to it and said,, ‘No, we must do it in April’. Even knowing that (drummer) Chris Welsh wasn't going to be able to come out to Australia (from his home in Cambodia).
Back on the boards with Died Pretty in 2021.
“So we had a chat with him, you know, doing Zoom calls…he was lovely about it and accepted it. So it was it was Joeys Coops’ drummer, Lloyd Gyi, who filled in for us and he did a sterling job.”
Brett Myers has found a recording of Died Pretty playing a Don’t Look Back tour show in 2008.
“It sounds fabulous. It was recorded at the Forum here in Melbourne and in 2008. And so we're looking release that, maybe early next year, and tour it with Died Pretty live. That would be nice.”
More immediately, there’s a current album to discuss. The Superstitions make it all sound so easy.
“They're just wonderful musicians. I'm incredibly lucky that they just love their craft, with heart and soul and spirit. And they're very talented - Mark Dawson and Tim (Deane) and Andy (Papadopoulos) and Cam. Playing with them is a breeze. It's wonderful. I'm so grateful.”
Where did the album title come from?
“I was just here in the lounge room and. you know, contemplating cancer and all things that go with it. The consequences and how I got to this position, and I just said: ‘You do the understanding’. You know, something silly like that entered my head, and I said to my partner, ‘You know, I think I've got the album title’.
“I'm always looked to for coming up with titles and lyrics and stuff - nobody else touches that. So sometimes it takes time. I think ‘Guiding Light’ (the previous album title), for God's sake, that took months and months. So ‘Do The Understanding’ was just perfect.”