Maintaining the Rage -Tim Freedman on pokies, politics and piano players.
-By Nigel Bowen, Sydney City Hub, 10-16 August 2000, Vol 5, Issue 52.

The first two acts of the Tim Freedman life story are unexceptional to the point of cliché. Middle class, private schoolboy leaves stultifying suburbia for hipster inner-city locale and plunges headfirst into the bohemian lifestyle. Aforementioned boy drinks lots of wine, takes lots of drugs, chases lots of women and puts childhood music lessons to good use playing in a variety of ephemeral, bizarrely named bands. Unlike most however, Freedman did not give up the dream his twenties to settle down to a conventional, nine to five existence basking in happy memories of a misspent youth. Dropping out of his law degree in final year to concentrate full time on music, Freedman pursued his goal with single-minded determination through disappointing sales, small crowds and personal tragedy until the main chance finally came his way. When No Aphrodisiac went ballistic in 1997 it was if (at least for those not part of the Sando scene) Freedman had come out of nowhere. However like most 'overnight successes' Freedman had a decade long dues-paying apprenticeship behind him including stints in the Hummingbirds and the Sunnyboys, not to mention Itchy Feet - 1988 second prize winners of Greg Evans Star Search.

Freedman has asked we meet at St Stephens Church, Newtown. His great friend and Whitlams co-founder, Stevie Plunder, had his memorial service inside this church. Nearby lie Freedman's house of ten years, the street in which a female friend was murdered and the sacred sites which provide so much inspiration for the Whitlams songs, especially on the latest release Love this City. We spend the next hour talking Pokies, Politics and Piano Players.

CH The Whitlams was conceived outside the Nirvana performance at the Big Day Out. Why did you go for upbeat pop at a time when grunge was so dominant?

TF Stevie and I had been trying to be exponents of the heavier music for years. Stevie had been in the New Christs and I'd just quit the it was a change for us. It became this little rootsy acoustic act and it was fresh for us cause we'd been in electric bands for too long.

CH Is Newtown a type of muse?

TF No. I don't think Newtown is the most romantic setting for a song - it is just that I happen to be here. It becomes the background to the songs. I don't think it is the reason for the songs. I think I am going to step away from the Newtown thing, cause Newtown has changed so much.....we don't inhabit Newtown like we used is becoming a little untrue to say Newtown affects our ever pore.

CH Did you deliberately try and make Love this City the antithesis of Eternal Nightcap?

TF I certainly started with a conscious decision not to be unnecessarily melancholy ... I wanted to be more outgoing certainly. As it developed it painted a much broader canvas than Eternal Nightcap which was a small and personal record. This one I was trying to be more grandiose.

CH I interpreted Eternal Nightcap as being about the two great universal themes - Sex and Death whilst Love this City is very local and particular.

TF There is still Sex and Death in this one. 'High Ground' is about the terrible murder of the girl at the end of Hordern Street. 'Time' and 'There's No one' are about sex, or the lack of it. When you say Eternal Nightcap was about Sex and Death it was still microcosmic. I was still trying to write anecdotes well, that became universal. I didn't approach it from the universe in; it is always from the particular out. I think this one similarly talks about the particular, maybe it just fails to become universal because the background to the songs is social issues rather than the great themes of the Romantic poets.

CH Are you a Keating fan?

TF Yes I was. I enjoyed his swagger. He certainly had the best swagger since Gough. He talked the big talk. I enjoyed the co-existence of ideals with the bulldog. Personally I was sorry to see him defeated.

CH You launched the ALP's Contemporary Music Policy. Do you have any policy influence? I hear Cheryl is a big fan.

TF I think she just likes the flippant love songs. She doesn't ring me up for policy. I'm not involved in the Party in any way shape or form. I've never joined anything in my life except a band. I got involved because I thought Beazley really needed help against Howard and I knew about the contemporary music scene. I enjoyed, with my manager and Michael McMartin, organising the Howard's End concerts. That was the last time I got involved. I'm no Bob Ellis. I am not an ALP groupie, and I'm no Peter Garrett. I appreciate what Peter Garrett does, but I try not to get on soapboxes. I like to talk about personal issues in my songs. I'm not the political animal I'm sometimes perceived as.

CH Is it a disappointment to you that it has been a State Labor Government that has let the pokie menace loose?

TF Yeah, definitely a disappointment. I think it is an extra sad take on the whole issue that the background to it has been a Labor government taking money from its own constituency. You don't see successful poker machine parlours in Vaucluse. I think Bob Carr is a good politician but I sometimes think he has his head in the sand. I don't think he goes to pubs. I don't think he has seen what these mechanical tax gatherers at the end of every street have actually done.

CH You have been quoted as saying pokies are now what Heroin was in the 80s.

TF To the circle of friends I have, it seemed for a few months that poker machines were destroying or ruining the lives of as many of them as Heroin did to my circle of friends in the late 80s. They are more dangerous than their comforting flashing lights make them appear, they are a real danger. I don't blame the Pub owners.... it is the Government that is letting these licenses proliferate that is at fault.

CH The LIberals have captured the youth vote in recent years. Does it ever strike you as odd having your audiences sing along to songs like Gough knowing that a significant proportion of them voted for the anti-Gough-John Howard?

TF I haven't met anyone who voted LIberal (laughing) I'm sorry I've been living in sweet denial. I assume everyone who comes to our concerts votes Labor. And I'm going to continue to live in sweet denial ... Stop alarming me ... They've probably just been brainwashed by their parents, the ones who are voting Liberal.

CH Do you have any thoughts on why Australian bands typically seem less politically engaged than say their UK counterparts?

TF I'd challenge your assumption. When we were organising the Howard's End concert, 70% f the bands we approached to play under the banner. So I think they probably are political, they just need to be organised.

CH I was thinking more about the actual material.

TF You'd have to ask the guys who don't talk about political things. I don't shy away from it but I generally use the political situation as a background to a song. On the latest album the song about East Timor was really about going to see Schindler's List and about why we were crying in the movies but not doing anything about the nearest example of political persecution. I don't even think the Whitlams are that political - it is just part of the tapestry that is the background of the songs. Fellows that aren't writing political songs ... well maybe they tried and it just didn't sound any good.

CH Which piano players do you look to for inspiration?

TF My hero is Theolonius Monk because he plays with economy and such strange voicings. Unfortunately he has not influenced me enough. I haven't been fertile enough ground for his genius. I'm just not good enough to take it on, just not jazz enough. In the end the people who have influenced me have been people like Randy Newman and Tom Waits.

CH What do you make of Ben Folds?

TF His first album was a breath of fresh air to me because it was such unabashed pop. I loved it. I think he is lighter and poppier than us but I certainly appreciate his work. He is a much better piano player than me.

CH Why did the piano seem to die out as a common rock 'n' roll instrument after the late 50's?

TF No I don't think it died out till the late 70s. You can't say it died out in the 60s - it is all over the Rolling Stones, the later Beatles albums are piano driven. In the early 70s David Bowie's Hunky Dory is piano driven and then you had the singer-songwriters in the 70s - Randy Newman, Billy Joel, Elton John. It was everywhere. Then it went away in the 80s . People jumped onto the synthesiser bandwagon because it was new and for a while the piano became old fashioned. After the synthesisers, Grunge saw it take a back seat for awhile but it's never less than a very beautiful bridesmaid and it is always about step up to the altar.

CH Is being part Jewish an important part of your identity?

TF I can't really claim any great inspiration from the Jewish faith. I certainly like the fact my blood is half Jewish because it probably gives me a bit of a spark but it wasn't a cultural thing. It was more a racial thing with me.

CH Is something in the Jewish storytelling tradition that encourages the development of great lyricists?

TF There is certainly something going on. There are a disproportionate number of Jews in the arts, always has been. I don't have great big Jewish theory. I found it statistically strange tthat so many of them were great inspirations lyrically. That's why I set up the Moody Jews in 97. We were just going to play songs by Jewish songwriters, but we got slack and started adding Protestants (laughs). It only lasted 3 months. You know you're in trouble when you go from Randy Newman and Bob Dylan to Kate Bush.

CH Do you feel that your misinterpreted as a sensitive artistic soul?

TF Lately I've been doing interrviews and people have been saying I have a reputation as being cold, calculating and heartless. I think the truth probably sits somewhere in between. People who just listen to the music might think that but people who have seen a gig know we are a lot crasser and jauntier than the albums might suggest.

CH There is quite a heartfelt song about the plight of the East Timorese on Love this City. How do you judge Gough's role in what unfolded in 1975?

TF There has been a lot written on that recently. I haven't read it all.

CH Do you think Gough has been unfairly blamed?

TF I certainly think he's been an easy target because he was in power for the thirty days and there was an element of complicity at the time. I think it is hard for us to go back to 1972 and imagine how we felt about Indonesia. But I am certainly no apologist ... It has just been a horrible tragedy and I think we are all a bit guilty. I feel guilty that I didn't march more times and I think the Hawke Government is guilty for not winding it back when it was obvious the horror that was happening ... they're all guilty. And we've all got a bit of the guilt as well because we didn't make them accountable for it. Gough can get blamed disproportionately I suspect.

CH At the ARIA awards Gough presented you with your award and hugged you backstage - do you have any ongoing friendship with him?

TF No. I've been lucky enough to spend some time with him on a couple of occasions. (Laughing) But I think it is only fair that a man in his position should be ringing me, rather than me ringing him. And I'm still sitting by that phone waiting for it to ring.