‘I don’t know how to stop making music,’ Hugo Race confides in a young Ligurian songwriter late in his memoir, Road Series. ‘After a long while it’s second nature, it becomes life, the illusion of life.’
Coming from Race, the declaration rings truer than if it were made by, say, Bruce Springsteen, or Bill Callahan, or even that great obsessive, Patti Smith. The facts of Race’s life substantiate a claim that, if issued by almost anyone else, could reek of self-romanticising cliché. Since co-founding the jazz- and no-wave-inflected Plays With Marionettes in 1979 – a hot ticket during Melbourne’s early post-punk explosion – Race has pursued an unusually worldly and egalitarian groove, seemingly without pausing for breath.
An original member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Race lent guitars and backing vocals to the group’s 1984 debut LP, From Her to Eternity), he would soon peel off to act as frontman for The Wreckery, one of the best Melbourne bands of their day.
Almost four decades later, Race remains not only active, but prolific as the driving force behind Hugo Race and the True Spirit (1987-present), and Hugo Race Fatalists (a recent collaboration with the Italian instrumental band Sacri Cuori). Lending further weight to his claimed compulsion to make music are a handful of solo recordings, released sporadically since 1994. This small but distinguished discography includes the disquieting, electronics-infused instrumental collection Between Hemispheres (2011), and No But it’s True (2012), an album of covers of some of Race’s favourite love songs, including late night, backroad versions of Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’.
None of this, it must be said, is atypical for a musician of Race’s background: by and large, the Australian exponents of post-punk had one eye on the apparent alt-cultural hotbed of Europe, and another on deconstructing punk and rock ‘n’ roll to their roots in the blues, with many – Plays With Marionettes, The Laughing Clowns and The Birthday Party included – further seeking to interpolate their sounds with the careening metres of free jazz.
Many great careers developed from this template. The discographies of Cave, Mick Harvey, Anita Lane and Rowland S. Howard each hopscotch between musical genres, and are similarly studded by collaborations with European artists.
So why does Race hold a special claim to music as the essence of a life, or its illusion? Add to the sheer volume and consistency of his output – I’m tempted to say ‘outpouring’ – the near-endless touring and performing that underpin Road Series, and an uncommonly broad artistic horizon. Who among his contemporaries has spearheaded a project as unlikely as Race’s Merola Matrix (2000), an epic film montage and accompanying soundtrack which, hypnogogically, hallucinogenically, reconstitutes Sicilian culture into a post-modern fantasia, all eddying outwards from the nostalgic figure of the popular singer Mario Merola? The 1970s–80s heyday of the Neapolitan bellower of swelling melodramas was long over by the time Race first heard his music, let alone doctored it to his own ends; the chapter in Road Series detailing the project’s chance inception is a high point of the book.
And then there’s Dirtmusic (2007-present). If anything places Race apart as a thrall of music, it’s this democratically-minded band of Western musicians (Americans Chris Eckman and Chris Brokaw, along with Race) who have recorded five albums of coasting desert jams, scorched blues and impassioned cris de cœur, in collaboration with a who’s who drawn from the deep pool of West African musical talent. Other standout sections in Road Series detail these collaborations, as well as the entrenched political tensions Race and co. encountered during trips to Mali, Bamako and Timbuktu.
When not on the road, Race divides his time between Australia and Italy. Road Series is his first book. We meet on a sunny afternoon at Dog’s Bar, a local institution in Race’s part-time hometown, the bayside Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.
The following transcript has been edited and condensed.
KYD: I want to say Road Series is surprisingly good—
HR: Do you mean within the genre of musicians writing about their lives?
KYD: That’s right.
HR: There’s been a lot of it in recent years.
I was doing an interview the other day and was asked, ‘How do you feel about the fact that your generation is on the way out?’ It was respectfully posed. To boil it down, they were asking how I felt that there’s been nothing to replace the music that was being produced by my peers in the ’70s and ’80s, even into the ’90s. How do you feel looking back and seeing this void behind you? I don’t quite see it like that.
Though perhaps that point of view explains why there are so many autobiographies and memoirs from musicians nowadays: there’s a whole generation looking back and taking stock. Some really straight people have been doing it, too. Not just figures from the underground. And the more high-profile they are, the more unreadable the books are. They’re very…
HR: Very much so. A bit like those dreadful political memoirs that clog up the shelves in airport bookshops.
KYD: One of the most impressive things about Road Series is the amount of socio-political observation you bring to bear on the life of a touring musician. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a ‘rock memoir’, for want of a better term, that’s quite as outward-looking as yours is.
HR: That’s always been one of the reasons why I travel: I find the differences even between cities in the same country incredibly interesting, along with the ways these differences affect the people who live there.
I didn’t start thinking like that until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was precisely at that moment – when momentum was gathering in that part of the world to have a revolution – that I suddenly became aware of just how important these events are. How you can transform a place and a culture in a relatively short period of time. That really changed my mentality. Up until then, I hadn’t been terribly interested in looking at things politically.
KYD: Was that indifference symptomatic of your involvement in Melbourne’s punk and post-punk scene? The bands produced by that scene distinguished themselves for many reasons, but their political engagement wasn’t one of them.
HR: No, it wasn’t. Maybe that was because of a certain Cold War complacency. As people born in the 1950s and ’60s, we all grew up during this very long Cold War, which was more a war of the mind. There was an acceptance that the stalemate of nuclear deterrence would never change. Before the Berlin Wall fell, everyone thought it would go on indefinitely. I mention it in the book. There’s this moment where we’re living in Berlin, and there’s a lot of revolutionary ferment in the Eastern Bloc. We’re all talking about it because it’s on the news and it’s so immediate – we’re right in it. There was a sense that the Wall would never come down. And of course, in the matter of a day, it did. The changes that came afterwards were measured in weeks; it was like a tsunami. There was demilitarisation, then remilitarisation. It was happening quickly, one thing after another. It was all so visible.
In Melbourne, it would have been unusual to see troop activity, or the embarkation of ships. Or anything, really, to alert you to the fact that something much bigger than what you were aware of was going on. In Berlin, though, it was present. From that point on, I became very much politicised in my outlook.
Trying to understand Eastern Europe after the Cold War was a real head-fuck. And a lot of the people I was meeting were head-fucked. To see how quickly everything was annexed by Western corporations… It happened within twelve months in a city like Prague. All of a sudden, there were big neon billboards everywhere for General Electric and Coca-Cola. They were starkly contrasted against the rest of the city, which hadn’t been refurbished in any way. After that, of course, I couldn’t go backwards to see things in the way I’d seen them before.
But even so, when I first moved to London there was the miners’ strike going on. So it wasn’t that we were all living in a complete bubble. We were aware of these things, but they didn’t seem as big as something like the shifting of the balance of power in Europe.
KYD: You’ve been present for some momentous social and political events – not only in Berlin, but also in Italy and in West Africa. While writing the book, did you get the sense that you might be naturally drawn to regions that are experiencing conflict, or a undergoing a reorganisation of the status quo?
HR: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But not in the case of West Africa. When we first went there, we were quite naïve about the political history of Mali. We very rapidly got educated. It wasn’t that anyone could explain what was going on to us; you really had to talk to people and piece it together in your own mind. The first time we went to Timbuktu, for instance, the whole area was armed. Up until then, our impression of Mali was that it had always been a peaceful place. Which it sort of had been. If you discounted the separatist movement in the north, the south of the country had been very peaceful. It was similar, in a way, to those photos we’re seeing now of life in Afghanistan after the Taliban: Mali was undergoing a similar shift. We went there for the music, but actually discovered something much bigger and much more resonant.
It’s also true of Italy. I think the first time anyone visits Italy, they’re impressed by the obvious features of life: the incredible architecture, the great food, the outgoingness of the people. It takes a while in a place like that to see that there’s a shadow side to all of those things. The maintenance of the historic beauty of the Italian cities comes at some cost to the people who actually live in those cities. The Florentines, for example, look very differently at the wonders of their city to the way that a tourist does. You need time to immerse yourself in a place in order to pass over that gulf of understanding.
KYD: I’d never heard of the Merola Matrix prior to reading Road Series. Am I right in inferring that the project was an ambitious attempt to puree Italian history and culture so as to serve it back, startlingly transfigured, to the Italian cognoscenti?
HR: There’s several different worlds coexisting in Sicily. Perhaps the largest of those worlds is the world of the popular culture. There, you have people who are by no means wealthy living in a world of their own that’s defined by dialect, and by the popular culture they’ve adopted. This world was very much removed from the world of the people I knew there, who had travelled – they tended to be musicians, or artists of one kind or another. A gulf exits between these two worlds.
The third world that exists in Sicily is the VIP world of the exclusively wealthy, or those people protected by family connections, which are linked to owning property, which are therefore linked to a political movement, which are therefore linked to organised crime. There’s no way anyone can untangle those connections. I don’t think the Sicilians ever will be able to. I sensed these three different worlds, and they didn’t have anything to do with each other. Part of what I wanted to do with the Merola Matrix was to create an interzone between these three realms, of Sicilian culture especially. In a way, it sort of worked out like that. What was perhaps disappointing was that the project wasn’t embraced on a bigger level by the art and musical cultures; the whole concept of it was too out-there, too wayward. There was this real snob factor about Neapolitan music and Mario Merola.
KYD: Was he considered to be too trite a figure for the subject of a serious artwork?
HR: Too cheesy, too retro. The world that he sings about is so specific. It doesn’t have much to do with the rest of Italy. He was – and still is – viewed as a curiosity of the South.
I saw part of a documentary last night on Neanderthal man. Its thesis was that underneath Naples there was a giant volcano which erupted 40,000 years ago, extinguishing the Neanderthals. It was very convincing. The volcano’s epicentre is about 30km outside of the city. This intrigued me, because it kind of explains something about Naples today. It’s this bizarre, electric, incomprehensible place. A little bit like Catania. And both are built on volcanos. So today, I’ve been speculating on some kind of very far-fetched link between geo-thermals or magnetism, and mass mentality! [laughs]
There’s a lot to say about an ordinary life in Naples. There’s no end of details and curiosities for a writer to look into. It’s one of the most remarkable cities that I know, though not everybody who travels through Italy seems to go there. It’s a little bit off the map.
‘Sometimes I feel that if I can’t adequately tell the whole story, I don’t want to get started with a partial version of it.’
KYD: Road Series itself is rich with detail, much of it journalistic in nature. I’m curious to learn about how you compiled the book. The sections which detail your youth in the early 1980s are observed just as finely as those covering the past few years.
HR: I don’t keep diaries, but like most songwriters, I keep notebooks. Sometimes I keep press clippings of stories that interest me, and some of those became really valuable during the process of writing the book. I didn’t start taking notes on my travels until the first time I went to Mali, in 2007.
The book grew out of a few things. Friends of mine would often ask me: What happened there? You did what? You’ve been where? How did this come about? I was always very resistant to having to explain things. Because once you start to give an answer to a question like that, it just goes on and on and on. There’s no simple catalyst which leads to a simple resolution. Sometimes I feel that if I can’t adequately tell the whole story, I don’t want to get started with a partial version of it.
People I knew were very intrigued by the prospect of that first trip to Mali, and told me I had to keep notes. So I did. And when I came back from that trip, I was inspired enough to write it up as an article.
KYD: Which Overland published?
HR: Yeah. So the book started there – though I didn’t have any intention of writing a book. You see, I’d attempted two novels over the past twenty years, and had gotten a really long way into them. But then I abandoned them: because I couldn’t stand them anymore, because I got side-tracked…
I finished a draft of one, which I submitted for publication to a few places, and was knocked back. Like a lot of unpublished writers, I took that as a sign and didn’t pursue it any further.
When I wrote that first article for Overland, it was really just to share how remarkable these experiences were, and to also cross-promote the music – Dirtmusic, in that case. And it kind of worked.
What was really challenging about writing Road Series was going way back into the past and remembering things. I dug up old journals, lyric books, press clippings that I’d kept… I looked at things on the internet, particularly for the chapters about the 1980s, because for me, the 1980s are so blurry. I had these memories, but I couldn’t date-stamp them. I had to find cross-references. It was just ridiculous. I could punch in ‘The Wreckery’ or ‘The Bad Seeds’ and ‘1986 concerts’ and somebody, somewhere had gone to the trouble of putting up a list of all the tour dates and setlists! I could reference these, and thereby begin to make sense of my own memories.
But I wasn’t really sure if a lot of these things were real, or if I was just imagining them. So I got in touch with some of the people who had been there. I found that their memories of things were often very different from my own. It was difficult to square off over when we met for the first time, or when a band broke up, or even why it woke up. It got me thinking about how subjective our experiences of our own lives are, and how the way that we imagine the past doesn’t always tally up with what other people who were also there remember. That made me very cautious of drawing other people into the narrative. If I was going to put real people into the narrative – which obviously I’ve done – I had to be sure that I wasn’t misrepresenting them.
KYD: That’s the big ethical question which hangs over any memoir or autobiography, isn’t it? How does an author justly represent the ways in which the lives of others intersect with their own?
HR: There’s something not entirely ethical about a memoir. Though I’m not sure it’s even a question of ethics: it’s more profound than that. I think it’s that the way that we experience our own lives doesn’t really correspond with the observations of other people. That’s where family is really important. They might be the one back up you have, if you’re lucky.
KYD: How so?
HR: I tend to take more seriously the recollections of my brothers about what happened in the 1980s than I do those of the people who were my friends then. Your family members have less to win or lose; they’re slightly more impartial. Though that only served me to a very limited extent, because my siblings were not present at a lot of these events.
In writing on the 1980s, I would also just riff in my own mind. I wouldn’t walk away from the page, though I’d stare into space for a while, and things would start to come back. It was quite traumatic in some ways; it was almost like putting yourself through a therapeutic recollection of things that you didn’t necessarily want to remember. But once you embrace them, as I did, I found them fascinating material to write with. Once I’d finished the chapters, though, I could never read them again. I had to get other people to edit them, because I just couldn’t stand to go back through some of these experiences.
KYD: What was your editing process like?
HR: My editor Penelope Goodes at Transit Lounge was really great. She didn’t alter the structure of the book, but she was fantastic on detail. The main two people who edited the book, though, were my mother and my girlfriend. They would read stuff that I couldn’t look at any more and then come back to me with suggested edits. We all fought tooth-and-nail about a number of things in Road Series that were contentious. There was a lot of conversation about what’s worth revealing and what’s worth concealing in our lives.
The first edit was much less personal than the final book. It was focused, as you mentioned before, on the outward vision of things: on politics, on geography, on music and history. The response was that there wasn’t enough real blood in there; that I was shying away from talking about what I was going through at a given point in my life. My response was, Who cares? The counter-argument came that if I didn’t have that in the book, it wasn’t going to move people. It took me some months of reflection to take that on board, but then I went back and rewrote the book. That draft was what was ultimately published, more or less.
I’m a very private person, so it’s weird that I wrote Road Series. I think it had a good effect on me, in the sense that I’m now much more at peace with my own life, and the things that I’ve done in the past.
Road Series is out now through Transit Lounge.