[To celebrate their 15th studio album Push The Sky Away, we invited Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. The band nominated Ed Kuepper for interview: Kuepper is an icon of Australian rock and also currently touring guitarist with the Bad Seeds. Warren Ellis told us, "Ed is so prolific. He has had a really long, significant career, but he just keeps moving and creating." We caught up with Kuepper mid-rehearsals to talk about his influential catalog.
Ed Kuepper might very well be the most famous Australian musician you’ve never heard of. The singer-songwriter and guitarist — who’s notched up nearly 40 years of almost constant creativity — played a huge part in kick-starting punk outside the USA. Kuepper was the co-founder, in 1974, of Brisbane trio The Saints, whose iconoclastic first single, “(I’m) Stranded” from 1976 predated both the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” and The Clash’s “White Riot”, announcing via its thrillingly furious and full-tilt, buzzsaw squall and raw vocals the arrival of what was to become an enormously influential talent.
The Saints burned brightly but broke up in 1979, at which point Kuepper formed cultish jazz/art-rock outfit Laughing Clowns. Gnarly, feedback-favouring alt-rock trio The Aints followed and then began a staggeringly fertile and wide-ranging solo period, in which Kuepper has delivered around 18 albums (he himself has lost count) plus countless compilations and live volumes, and various intriguing, full-length reworkings. Workshy, Ed Kuepper is not. This year sees him taking time out from his solo career to tour as guitarist with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, as they promote their new album, Push The Sky Away.
Sharon O’Connell chatted with Ed Kuepper about being an honorary Bad Seed and his own long career.
If your career can be characterized by one thing, it’s constant change. Do you feel you still have something to prove, or do you simply have a low boredom threshold?
If you look back at the earliest recordings I’ve done, it’s true that things tend to change fairly rapidly from album to album. Once I’ve recorded something, I like to move on from it. In that respect, I’ve always been the kind of artist that record companies get frustrated by, because by the time an album is recorded and the tour is organised, I’m not actually playing those songs the way they are on the record. I guess I believe a recording is just that; it’s not necessarily the definitive way any one song should be presented. And there are a number of songs in my repertoire that have gone through some quite extreme reworkings.
Do you see your records as a continuum, or as individual expressions of a number of different Ed Kueppers?
It always moves around. The only thing I’m really conscious of when I’m recording is that I do my best work if I don’t get too bogged down in the detail initially. It’s something that always occurs to writers when they’re writing — “Have I done this before? Should I be doing more of this?” Or, “Should I make a point of doing something very different?” I’m not talking about this from a commercial point of view, because I don’t operate in that arena. Basically, just doing things is a good way into it. Whether I go forwards or sideways or backwards from record to record is something I can really only appraise after the event.
Do you have a single favourite album, or one creative period that you regard most fondly?
All the albums that have any real significance for me are the ones that are different from what I did before. They become important to you, but whether you really like them becomes difficult; because you put a lot of work into the writing and recording and mixing and so on, you do get to a point where you’re pretty sick of them. But when I listen back, there are good bits on quite a few of them, really! I formed The Saints when I was at high school, so those records are very important to me. And when I left the UK and went back to Australia to form Laughing Clowns, that was a big move for me as well. Then going solo…all those shifts were important.
Do you never consider resting on your laurels, or at least just goofing off for a while?
I’ve had periods where I haven’t goofed off, but I have been stuck in various kinds of ruts where I haven’t been able to do anything creatively, and I don’t enjoy that. I get quite depressed in that situation. I have this reputation as being an incredibly prolific person, but I tend to do things in fairly concentrated bursts. But no, I’ve never felt like I’m finished, like I can just sit back and say, “Oh, I invented punk rock in 1974.” I’ve never thought like that.
How is it playing in someone else’s band now, after so many years of steering your own ship?
I did play with the Bad Seeds following Mick Harvey’s departure in 2009, and we did a fairly extensive festival tour that year. But it’s completely different for me. It’s a much bigger band than I usually tour with — I tend to play in a three-piece format — and I have to work on a whole bunch of other people’s songs, so I have to think. Which I don’t have to do in my own band! But it’s great. It’s a fairly creative environment in which to work and the Bad Seeds are open-minded, so I like that.
Four Essential Ed Kuepper Albums
This is an anthology collected from various CDs I put out and it's a mixture of solo and band recordings. All of them were recorded live, most of them for Australian radio. It gives a nice sense of the difference between recorded versions of songs, studio versions and what I do live. I've presented them in a modest way as bootlegs, with everything that that implies, but they're actually very well recorded. And, of course, beautifully performed.
The Clowns were invited to play All Tomorrow's Parties in 2009, when Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were curating. When they asked me if I'd consider putting the Clowns back together, I got in touch with the people who were still around and they were keen. The shows were very good, so it was a fantastic experience. This recording is of one show we did at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
A couple of years ago I was approached to do a tour around the albums Electrical Storm (1985) and Today Wonder (1990) and it went really well. It went so well that I thought we had to go into the studio and record the set properly, and it developed more as the tour progressed. During that time, things start to change and initially, the most extreme change was the orchestrations, and the ambient sounds we were introducing into the shows. We did some field recording out in the desert, and of the noises electrical wires made…that sort of thing. But it's all used discreetly; it's a very musical album.
This is a really concise group of songs that were all done on acoustic guitar, drums and acoustic bass; it sounds intentionally small. I was quite chuffed to get an ARIA [Australian Record Industry Association] award for this album, and it was kind of humorous, too. At that stage I was putting out records so quickly, I was never sure if the judges thought they were voting for the one that they knew, or for the one that was actually in the running. I think my biggest album at the time of my second ARIA was Honey Steals Gold, but the follow-up, Black Ticket Day actually won the prize, because it came out just four months later.