A Conversation With Dave Faulkner (Hoodoo Gurus)

Many bands have used 1960s garage punk as a jumping off point for their sound, but few have done so as imaginatively and with as much verve as Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus. Equally adept at delivering delicate, feedback-tinged ballads like “Shadow Me” and pounding rave-ups like “(Let’s All) Turn On,” the group has, over the course of nine albums, shown a willingness to take risks and push genre boundaries while writing thoughtful and clever tunes.

MAGNET spoke with head Guru Dave Faulkner about the band’s new singles and upcoming album, baseball and whether Lost In Space is better than Green Acres.

“Get Out Of Dodge,” your latest single, is a banger of a tune. You guys are amazingly consistent; you could’ve slipped this song onto (1984 debut) Stoneage Romeos, and it would have fit right in. How did you get your old touring companion Vicki Peterson (Bangles) and her husband John Cowsill (Cowsills) to sing on it? And does it has a deeper meaning beyond the “cowboy being run out of a frontier town” theme? I hear a plea for tolerance. The video is fun, too, with its horror-movie vibe, and is quite the production. Was that the band’s idea?
Thanks. Vicki has appeared on quite a few of our songs over the years. I am absolutely floored by her voice and her sense of harmony, which is so steeped in classic ’60s folk rock. She sprang to mind almost immediately once we started thinking about recording “Dodge.” We knew that John had been singing with Vicki on Bill Mumy’s Action Skulls recordings a lot recently, and as huge fans of the Cowsills, it was a no-brainer to ask if he would be a part of our record as well. It turned out exactly as I imagined: brilliantly. Come on! Vicki Peterson? John Cowsill? What other result was possible?! I love my job sometimes. A dream come true.

“Get Out Of Dodge” was inspired by the way political debate has become so polarized these days. Scientific evidence and considerations of ethics have largely been discarded, replaced by fundamentalism, both religious and political. This “us and them” attitude has allowed scoundrels and charlatans to get away with murder. The song is not so much a plea for tolerance as a lament for the lack of it that is so pervasive throughout society. 

So, you find yourself surrounded by intolerant people who don’t respect you—what do you do? One approach would be to push back against overwhelming odds and make yourself a martyr. That is really admirable; many of the most important, profound changes in society have been instigated by people who have taken incredible risks or have even lost their lives for a cause. However, not every person is cut out to be a martyr and not every cause is one worth dying for. Sometimes people are just too far gone to be reachable or teachable, and the best thing you can do is remove yourself to a place of sanity or, even, physical safety. As the song says, “We can’t change their fate, we’ve got enough on our plate.” I used that old Western trope get-out-of-town-by-sundown as a metaphor for this predicament. The video was my idea, adding another layer of metaphor with the townspeople being part of some bizarre cult. Basically this was a town that was cursed to live in the past and its inhabitants were enraged by the appearance of two innocent backpackers who wandered in from the real world. The video was a bit of an epic production for us, but I was really thrilled it turned out so well. I think the video is a bit of an artwork in itself.

Your single from earlier this summer, “Hung Out To Dry,” has a brave political message. The Hoodoo Gurus have never been shy about their influences, but I was surprised you used the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue-card routine in the video, as I don’t think of Dylan as an obvious influence. Maybe that’s naïve since your songs also delight in wordplay.
I love Dylan. I’d be a poor songwriter indeed if I didn’t recognize his importance as an artist. That said, “borrowing” the concept of his “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was mostly a matter of convenience. It gave us a cheap way to animate the lyrics for our song, plus we got to tip our hat to Dylan as a bonus. 

I’d written the song as an attack on Donald Trump—nearly everything about him offends me—but I wanted to make it personal rather than just doing it from a safe distance. Saying “I hate you” is so much more specific and dramatic than “I hate him.” I wanted listeners to feel me engaging with this monster directly rather than throwing stones from the sideline. The song was written as if I was personally telling DJT to take a hike.

The danger of that approach was that, because I never specifically name Trump in the lyrics, people might not realize that was who I was actually talking about—or to. They might have mistakenly thought that I was bitching about a friendship or relationship that had turned sour, so I thought it was important to spell out the message of the lyrics with this down-and-dirty, guerilla-style video. My first thought was to do a simple “lyric video”—lines of moving text while the song played—but wearing a Trump mask and using flash cards was much more dramatic visually and wicked fun as well. It added an extra layer of parody and was a chance to make Trump look ridiculous, though I could never make him as ridiculous as he actually is. The idea of bringing Putin in as a character at the finale was icing on the cake. Of course, Putin—a loathsome monster himself—makes a fool of the pompous egomaniac Trump. Is that parody or simply sad reality?

You’ve released several singles as a prelude to a new album in 2021. Can you give us some details on the upcoming LP? No doubt, the pandemic made recording a challenge.
After recording “Answered Prayers” last November and rush-releasing it in December, we had the bug to work on more new songs. “Answered Prayers” felt really fresh to us, and as a songwriter, I was really energized by it. The lyrics almost wrote themselves—I hardly changed a word after that initial burst—and I was a bit taken aback by how powerful it was. It expressed some very personal feelings about the mechanics of an emotionally abusive relationship, and I’m still a bit scared by the ugly reality that the song captures. Although I’m singing “I” in the lyrics, the song is definitely not telling my story. Just as with “Hung Out To Dry,” I didn’t want the listener to have the safety of being removed from the conflict. I wanted them to be confronted by the narcissistic attitude of the perpetrator—the “I” in this song. In some ways, the protagonist of this song and Trump are peas in a pod.

We started rehearsing in February, and we straight away came up with “Get Out Of Dodge” and also our next single, which we will release in early 2021. The new songs were flowing thick and fast, but then March came around and COVID-19 bit hard. Australia went into total lockdown—which we were and still are very happy about—and we had to cancel the recording session we had booked. After a few months of keeping a low profile, we started to feel more confident that as a nation we had good control over the pandemic. So we made arrangements to rehearse and record again, though we adhered to very stringent health safeguards, such as booking a rehearsal room that only we could use, etc. At that point we hadn’t even been in a room together for months. That next set of rehearsals was when “Hung Out To Dry” came together. Originally planned as a flipside for “Dodge,” it became obvious that it deserved a bit more attention. Also, given there had been no Gurus gigs since January, we felt it was important to showcase our ugly rock side as well as our catchy pop one. 

Right now we are just working on singles and will finish the album sometime early next year. We have one single in the bag already, finished and ready to go, and I will literally be booking our next recording session for another single session later today. We will be recording three songs this time, of which I can safely say that two songs are potential a-sides. Of course, we think every song we do is an a-side, just that the rest of the world doesn’t understand. That’s led us to release some unlikely songs as singles in years gone by—“Big Deal” from (1996’s) In Blue Cave being the most obvious one. Hell, we even made that one the opening track! Talk about throwing people in at the deep end.

Talk a bit about your songwriting process. Your songs all have such strong choruses and clever, interesting lyrics; they seem built less from guitar riffs and more from chord and melodic progressions. True?
Sorry—false! I usually start with a riff or some kind of melodic phrase. That opening guitar phrase on “Get Out Of Dodge” was what got my creative juices flowing, and that’s true of so many more I could name. Most, really. The thing is, the riff doesn’t usually carry the song; it’s just a trigger for me to write melodies. I have a huge collection of little musical phrases—riffs, if you like—going back years, as iPhone memos and even old cassettes. I’ve dubbed them onto a hard drive now, thank goodness. 

I’m not the sort of songwriter who writes a song until it’s done, maintaining a constant output. I just accumulate scraps of ideas, and before I know it, suddenly I have this huge trove of stuff to pick through and, hopefully, inspire me to write a complete song. That last part only happens once I have an overall vision for how an album can be done and what it might sound like. Of course, those things might change during the process of actually making the album, but I have to have a goal to aim for before I knuckle down to write finished songs. I don’t just write them to put them aside for some time in the future. All my songs are written because it’s something I want to say now and to delve into the musical terrain I want to explore now. I trust my gut a lot, but I also need to know that what I’m doing has a purpose, that the songs won’t just get filed away and metaphorically gather dust.

Feel free to tell me I’m way off here, but I’ve always wondered if “Where’s That Hit?” from (1989’s) Magnum Cum Louder was about more than just baseball. Were you feeling pressure from the record company at the time? You had just changed labels, and that album has a markedly more straightforward style as opposed to (1987’s) Blow Your Cool!’s ’80s radio-friendly production sheen.
You are way off base there, to use the appropriate term. The song is purely about baseball, though obviously the title was a music-industry pun, and the subtext of the song is about facing up to a challenge. The truth is I was a huge baseball nut at the time, and the song is my homage to my team, which any baseball fan should be able to identify from the lyrics. Hint: I’m batting bottom of the ninth at Shea Stadium. 

“Where’s That Hit?” was partly inspired by Thayer’s 1888 poem, “Casey At The Bat.” I really liked the idea of capturing the drama and tension of a baseball game in a song. I also liked the challenge of showing U.S. baseball nuts that this Australian “got” the game well enough to do that convincingly. By the way, Australia has a long, distinguished baseball history going back more than a century. We have produced many major-league players over the years, and it was incredibly popular in Australia in the 1930s as a winter sport—our weather is balmy enough for that—often played by cricketers in the off-season. Its popularity dropped after the interruption of WWII but there is still a vibrant Australian Baseball League (ABL), and one of my closest friends is its chairman.

I was a total baseball nut back then—I even taught myself to keep box scores. I’ve seen games at innumerable ball parks in the U.S. over the years, including double-A game at Nashville—seeing the Nashville Tunes—and a World Series Game at Fenway—Red Sox vs. Florida Marlins in 1998. Seeing a World Series game at Fenway was everything I hoped it would be. Amazing. My ardour for the sport has slightly cooled over the years, partly because I am a bit of a traditionalist—for example, I prefer the National League because of its no-DH rule—and I was upset when inter-league play came into the game as part of the regular season. Yep, I’m a purist all right. Nevertheless, one of the things on my bucket list is to see a game at Wrigley Field. One of these days!

Magnum Cum Louder was definitely a return to basics for us as a band, so I can see how you might have thought “Where’s That Hit?” was signaling something about that change of direction. Blow Your Cool! was a huge success in Australia, and it also did very well for us in the U.S. and elsewhere, but we didn’t like the way it sounded. And we definitely didn’t enjoy the process of making it. We hated the album’s producer, who was foisted upon us by our record label at the time, and we successfully sued to get to out of that recording contract after that album. 

When we started recording what became Magnum Cum Louder, we were still in the middle of that lawsuit and had no record company. The sessions began purely as demos for us, but they were being recorded properly. We were at Trafalgar Studios, where we had recorded all of our first album, Stoneage Romeos, and a lot of our second, (1985’s) Mars Needs Guitars. Eventually the sessions morphed into an album without us even thinking about it. I was the de facto producer, though we had Alan Thorne—who produced Stoneage Romeos—as an engineer, which was crucial. At the time we signed our next record contract, our new label (BMG) hadn’t heard a note of anything we’d done although the album was almost finished. That became our modus operandi from that point on, producing or co-producing ourselves with zero record company input. Since 1986, no one from any record company has ever heard a Hoodoo Gurus demo; they just get the final album when we’re good and ready.

There was a live review in MAGNET of one of your 2010 shows where you announced a song as from, “our much-neglected Mach Schau album.“ I like that 2004 LP a lot, but it doesn’t seem to get rated as high as your others by fans. That was the first you released after taking a six-year break as a group. Do you think people brought different expectations to the record?
It was a very uncompromising record, which is what I love about it. We thought of it as our Presence (Led Zeppelin): super hard and aggressive. We broke up in early ’98—we thought forever—but by late 2003, we realized that the band itself had other ideas about that, regardless of what any of us might think individually. We had to accept that the Hoodoo Gurus beast was still alive, and we felt duty-bound to release it from its cage. We also had a point to prove, to show we had lost none of our edge. “Cop that!” was sort of our attitude at the time. Mach Schau probably was a bit too in your face for some people but then, we’re all big fans of Presence. To me, Mach Schau doesn’t sound out of character for us at all; it’s still very melodic and diverse stylistically, just a little more aggressive and intense across the board. I’d describe it as a nine on the Richter Scale compared to some of our other records. Nothing was destroyed, but we sure gave things a really good shake. After almost six years apart, we were rarin’ to kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!

As often happens with us, a couple of songs that we left off the final tracklist probably should have been included instead of some others. That happened with Magnum Cum Louder as well. One song, “Use-By Date,” was even released as a stand-alone single afterward; yes, the actual Mach Schau recording! We never quite nailed the right tracklist at the time, releasing a substantially altered version for the U.S. That’s why I was happy we could expand the digital version of Mach Schau recently into a deluxe edition, getting to include a few b-sides and those alternate tracks. We even have another unreleased song from that album—a great one—that is going on the b-side of our next seven-inch single. There will also be one other unreleased Mach Schau track—this will be the final one—coming out soon as part of a charity album. We were really productive during those sessions.

OK, here’s an unserious question. Growing up, I was introduced to some ’60s bands from their appearances on U.S. TV shows like the Beau Brummels on The Flintstones and the Seeds on The Mothers-In-Law. Imagine the Hoodoo Gurus had been around back then and you had your choice of one of two guest slots: Gilligan’s Island or Batman. Which do you pick? Or nominate your own.
Gilligan’s Island or Batman?! That’s a very tough question. A bit like Beatles versus Stones—can’t we have both? An even tougher choice would have been Green Acres or Lost In Space? We are well-known for our love of television junk food, but there are different nuances of taste between all of us. For example, I would definitely want the Hoodoo Gurus to appear on The Addams Family but (guitarist) Brad (Shepherd) would prefer to be on The Brady Bunch. Believe me, I wouldn’t say no to that either. But, really, a band appearance on Lost In Space would beat all other options. We’d be in total agreement on that one.

—Bruce Fagerstrom