The Rumjacks, Sound as a Pound, Shite’n’Onions interviews (Nov 5, 2009)
With The Rumjacks’ second EP ‘Sound As A Pound’ available this month, we’re talking here with Will Swan from the band.
S’n’O: Like your debut EP ‘Hung, Drawn and Portered’, this one has a well-known traditional song on it. With ‘Marie’s Wedding’, you’ve chosen to record a real standard, a very popular song that has been covered by several bands. Did you hope to bring any particular Rumjacks quality to it?
Will: ‘Marie’s’ was an offhand suggestion made by Johnny, just a good energetic song to throw into the set, we never thought we’d bother recording it. But, you know, Frankie was more than happy to lay on the ’20 Golden Scottish Favourites’ treatment, but with the volume right up. And we gathered whoever was around that day and got some gang vocals happening. Isolated within the mix, some of them are truly dreadful – wonderfully bad singing – but all in there together they make for a good ol’ hooley!
S’n’O: Tell us about Katoomba, of the song’s title.
Will: Katoomba is a big mountain town about two hours train ride from the centre of Sydney city. Although I lived in various places around the state – city and country – I had cousins there so I’ve always been familiar with it. Katoomba is a distinctive place in that it is a sort of nexus for drunken hillbillies AND New Age types AND artists, etc, etc. It is very cold in winter and often shrouded in mist and fog. There’s a lot of 1920s architecture up there and the whole place is set amongst lookouts and cliffs.
S’n’O: What’s the story within the song ‘Katoomba’?
Will: I was walking around the steep streets on the fringes of Katoomba and I came across these 1950s houses that were perfectly preserved. I think I actually said to my companion “it could be 1963, it might as well be”. From there I found a character, a melancholy barfly, and by the time I’d got to the train station I’d written the song in my head. I made it a distant love-gone-wrong story, as viewed through the bottom of a beer glass. You find all these postcards in the antique shops up there, really personal stuff, and you wonder what happened to the people who wrote and received them. So I fused a few ideas together and set it where I found those ideas.
S’n’O: ‘Katoomba’ and especially ‘My Time Again’ are more ‘serious’ songs than most Rumjacks songs so far …
Will: ‘My Time Again’ is one of Frankie’s, we put it together very quickly. Like ‘The Bold Rumjacker’ before it, ‘My Time Again’ is an acapella but it is the opposite of the swaggering and fanciful ‘Rumjacker’. ‘Time Again’ is somehow both dreary and epic and I think it achieves a very stark sentiment. It blurs the lines between three generations of characters who are locked in the cycle of working the pits and drinking on Friday nights, etc., and the narrator and his father both carry the terrible burden of wondering if they could have been more than what they are.
S’n’O: ‘My Time Again’ has a different sound to the other songs. Was this deliberate?
Will: We were going to make it pretty reggae but that wasn’t really in keeping with the sentiment of the song, so I threw in a vaguely European minor-key accordion loop and Johnny put a lot of mood in with the guitars and bass (Gabriel joined the band after we’d recorded it). We like to consider it an ‘original folk song’ because we didn’t derive it from any one particular folk idiom.
S’n’O: ‘Kirkintilloch’ also seems to be about working in the pits and drinking!
Will: Exactly! And also the hereditary tradition therein. ‘Time Again’ is another take on the same world. ‘Kirk’ is a Scottish song, Frankie attributes its survival to one Geordie Hamilton.
S’n’O: So, you’ve got an overt Scottish influence happening on ‘Sound As A Pound’, and yet you are an Australian band. Other than ‘Katoomba’, is there anything particularly Australian in any of the songs on the EP?
Will: ‘Shadrach Hannigan’ is about riding the rails around Australia. The protagonist is one of those arseholes who bangs on about settling down with a wife and clothesline but nobody is buying it, least of all himself. By the end of the first verse, he’s already ‘jumped the rattler’ and taken off to the sunny north with a bottle of rum in his hand. The ‘Boxcar Willie’ side of things is romatic and sepia-toned but Shadrach is a timeless figure. I wrote ‘Shadrach’ before Brisbane became our regular port of call but I’m pleased to say it does pay tribute to the area of Brisbane where we usually play.