Mark Seymour And The Undertow recast classics and future classics in an innovative new live record. By Peter Hodgson
What do you do when you have a rock’n’roll legacy within a band – a very respectable one – but you also want to honour your own musical evolution and where you’re at now? If you’re Mark Seymour, you take your band The Undertow into Melbourne’s legendary Bakehouse Studios and record live to a small audience over three nights, pulling together a record that captures your Hunters & Collectors material and later solo tracks, and recasts them in the voice of the current touring unit. And you call it Roll Back The Stone, and you take it on a national tour.
“The notion of doing a best-of collection had been around for a few years, but there wasn’t really any way of bringing it into focus,” Seymour says. “I’ve made so many different records on so many different platforms, it would have been dragging together a whole lot of recordings from different eras that really would have sounded dramatically different. That’s normally what happens with best-ofs. But the happy coincidence is that this band has really come into its own in the last few years, and my exposure around Australia has really picked up – it’s developed a real force of its own. So we decided to combine those two ideas. It’s pretty much my live set, and it just developed out of that. Even my own stuff that’s quite recent has changed radically since we made those records, because we jam a lot onstage during gigs. You develop all of these extensions and sort of get all ‘70s about everything!”
When Seymour initially struck out on his own, he was performing in a solo acoustic format. “I had to learn how to play those songs. I didn’t go out and try to play Hunters & Collectors. The majority of people who were into H&C didn’t seem to want to accept the idea of that guy not being in front of Hunters & Collectors. So I had to go, ‘Right, what have I got here?’ I just started playing songs pretty much as I’d written them. I didn’t try to do anything from the Hunters catalog that hadn’t had that acoustic gestation. So for The Undertow to come in around that material has been a great evolution. And the more solo records I’ve made, the more active we’ve become on tour and the better that old material has ended up sounding. It’s worked out so well in so many ways.”
The decision to record at Bakehouse with an audience present was as much a practical as a creative one. It wasn’t just about the extra layer of energy projected onto a band when you involve a crowd. “I think the main reason for doing that was that it stops the band from wandering off to get a cup of tea,” Seymour laughs. “If they weren’t forced to stay in there and perform, we could have mic’d that room up exactly as we had and still come up with a decent recording, but it would have taken a lot longer because musicians have a tendency to go off to the urn, or to noodle, or to tell jokes. So that was just a way of forcing us to stay on message. We still ended up having little breaks every six songs or so, and it was really hard work. And punters were just coming in and standing around and we were like, ‘Hi. We’re actually gonna play now…’ It was really quite funny! I loved it.”
This being Australian Guitar, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the coolest instrument in the world, and what it means to Mark Seymour. “The guitar is my writing tool. It’s really important. Writing on acoustic guitar is really critical, and I’ve constantly got one near me. I’ve got a few,” he laughs, clearly picturing a house full of instruments. “I’ve flogged a few too! But I mainly write on a Maton 808, because it’s a nice size and I can wrap myself around it and put my ear on the wood to sing. Tone is really important to me. All of that changes when you go onstage, but in terms of accessing emotion, that’s really critical to me. For electrics I’ve got a ’71 Telecaster, which is the first Tele I ever bought. I’ve had numerous guitars stolen, but that one Tele has never left me. There was one time when some kid got onstage and took it and we grabbed it back off him. So I’ve always managed to hang onto that one. But there’s this amazing guitar shop, Sky Music, and I wanted to get a backup for my Tele. I wanted to really spoil myself when Hunters & Collectors did that reunion tour last year, so I got this sunburst Telecaster Custom and I got it set up just like the white one and added some Seymour Duncan pickups.”
“The thing about Teles is, I can hit them,” Seymour continues. “The thing with humbucker guitars is that you have to have a more delicate touch, I think, because they’ve got so much scale. I’ve got a Gibson ES-335, and it just gets very difficult to play a 335 and sing loud because I push so much air that my hands start to clench and there’s no delicacy in it. A Tele is much more robust, whereas with a humbucker, the chord can get really big. That has its place, but because I sing so hard, I need to keep my rhythm like a clock. The funny thing with Teles, too, is they vary in weight so much. Timber is really important and I think people underestimate it. My old white Telecaster is pretty heavy, and trying to find one like that took a long time.
“I remember I discovered the world of guitar collecting after one of my guitars was stolen, and that was the first time I saw the connection between price and originality,” he continues. “Some of the guitars I played were really bad, and they were worth thousands of dollars! I just think that if you can keep guitars in pristine condition, as long as they sound good that’s all that matters. I have tone clear in my mind when I’m writing. Things change so dramatically when you’re onstage, and I treat that as a whole separate set of parameters that I have to grapple with as I’m working. As a performer, the thing you need to focus on is what your body is physically doing: what are the knowables? But the acoustics I’ve got that I really like – even when they’ve got the feedback buster in them, they still sound good.”