Interview: Hat Fitz and Cara

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Recently I raved about Wiley Ways, the new album from Hat Fitz and Cara. Then I saw them play live and was even more convinced of their amazing talent. Before they embarked on the tour I interviewed first Hat Fitz and then Cara, and found them both fascinating and knowledgeable. There’s still time to catch them on tour – check out their upcoming gigs here. In the meantime, here’s the first part of the interview with Hat Fitz.

When I was trying to think of how to describe your album for my review I was thinking that it sounds a bit like constrained wildness, except that ‘constrained’ sounds a bit boring and it’s not at all boring. Gut there are these wild rhythms in it. Then I was reading what you and Cara had written, just a little bit of biography on you both, and you mentioned something about when you started getting into acoustic, blues and folk – you loved the trance-like motions of the guitar riffs, and I can kind of feel that in your music.  It’s almost like a whirling dervish quality to some of the songs. Could you tell me a bit about the musical influences you’ve had leading up to this album?
Right from the start or just this album?

I think from the start.  I’m interested in the start.
Well, basically, I started off because the old man, he was a travelling musician, just travels around Western Queensland and that, and I grew up with Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson, Chad Morgan, all the famous country artists at that time when country music – to me – was proper Australian country music, you know. And just grew up with all that and sort of toured around, when I was about 15, with his band, and then when I was out just doing the mining towns and sheep-shearing towns, playing all that sort of stuff, mixed in with a bit of Johnny Cash and that, and then I stumbled across a – I think it was a Beau Carter record, 1920s blues, and I just bought it because the cover looked cool, and I listened to it and I just went, what is this music? And then you slowed the record player down back in them days and tried to pick what they were doing and then just sort of got into blues that way and playing a few bluesy bands. Then in about the late ‘80s I became a front man because I just wanted to play my own stuff and have a crack at singing, and then I discovered jug music, which was when I started playing banjo, when I got into bluegrass banjo to a certain level, and that sort of got my finger-picking things adapted to the guitar. And then I just – it’s just like an evolution roll when you’re playing music, and then I stumbled into RL Burnside, who’s like a hill country blues player. And I got to play with him which was incredible – open up for him, I should say. And he’s the king of trance sort of music and just, yeah, just the old blues and just old-timey music, [with] old bands you feel the tunes and stuff like that and it gets the hair up on me neck, you know? When you listen to it enough, it becomes a part of your playing.

Just when you mentioned slowing down the record player and working out what they were doing, were you trying to work out what they were doing from a playing point of view or a songwriting point of view?
No. No. Definitely guitar playing. So it’s just like you slow it down and that a way you could learn, you could either learn off watching someone and because I didn’t have many guitar players around that was into the stuff I was into, I just had to learn it off record players.

And a jug band – because there’s the odd jug band that turns up at Tamworth and I’ve actually always been a little confused about what the jug part is but it sounds like these are bands with banjos in and –
Oh you didn’t run into Uncle Bob’s jug band?

Yeah, at the Courthouse Hotel.
Yeah, well, this is the story.  I was the original member of that band – Uncle Bob’s, they’re from up here – and back when we became a jug band we played proper 1920s jug music, and now all they’re doing they’re just bloody playing bloody covers and stuff with a bush bass and so they’re not really a jug band anymore. But yeah, we were playing proper jug. Jug band music I first – I think I ran into a guy called Gus Cannon, he’s a 1920s guy – didn’t run into him but discovered his music.  And he used to just strap on a jug and banjo, and I saw a cover and just loved his music, and then started my own band and I was doing banjo and jug, and then you get a bush bass in, washboard player, harmonica and kazoos and stuff. Jug music’s poor man’s music, because basically they couldn’t afford – like, the tuba is a jug, the saxophone is a kazoo, washtub bass is a double bass – it’s poor man’s music, basically.

And you were talking about the old time kind of country music and I’m actually hearing a bit more of it coming out of Australian artists in the past – I think in the past year or so there’s kind of a resurgence of interest in the roots of country music and the roots of blues, I guess as well.  Are you finding that as you play around?
I don’t know. To me, I love country music but I’m not – I hate what they’re doing, the way that we’ve become Americanised. It’s one thing because Australia had – apart from the Aboriginal music – our stamp on music was our Australian country music, like I was talking about Smokey Dawson, Slim Dusty, Chad Morgan and the rest of them. They had our own stamp on Australian country music and it was very unique and I think we’ve gone very Americanised, just from all the video clips and all that crap that’s around today, you know? And when I see country players, they even talk with an American accent in between the songs. And I’m like, what are you blokes doing? Whereas when I get into blues, I’m actually an Australian fellow taking off American blues, you know what I mean, and making it into our own.

I think Australian – and when I say country music, I’m actually talking more about the singer-songwriter vein of musicians who I come across, who I think are telling Australian stories – a lot of them are not strict country as a lot of people would define it. They are coming from blues or other influences, but these are definitely Australian stories and it’s the only genre of music I think that tells Australian stories, so from a cultural point of view this music is incredibly important – but I guess you already know that [laughs].
Yeah, definitely. 

So because you’re a songwriter as well – it’s not just about the music you’re playing but it’s about the stories you’re telling —do you draw those lyrics, the songs you’re writing, from your own life or from what you see as you go around and travel around.
Probably my own life. A lot of my songs are about my exes. I’ve come home and the missus has taken off with the kids, going through that sort of thing, being overseas for months on end and missing your kids – that’s where I come from. But Cara is a much more accomplished writer than I am. She can sit down – I’ll pluck a really cool riff and then she’ll just jot down some words and I’ll say, ‘What have you got there?’ And she’ll be just writing about someone she met, like, 20 years ago, you know? So she’s right into that where I just get – when I’m hurting or something, I’ll write down a song and I’ll write it in half an hour.

It sounds like you have a very good co-writing partnership then, if you can – somewhat seamlessly almost – you’re playing music and she’s –
There’s quite a few arguments in the middle of it, don’t you worry.

 [Laughs] Arguments over who’s right about which direction the song will go?
Yeah. She’s a Northern Irish bloody staunch woman and I’m an Aussie mongrel. It gets heated up at times, don’t you worry.

And you guys are in Queensland aren’t you?
Yes.

Whereabouts are you?
We’re up out at a little town called – near Kin Kin, which is K-i-n K-i-n, it’s Aboriginal for ‘land of the black ants’, and just got a little farm up here.

So I guess that makes touring interesting, because you’ve got to get yourself to a major city and get out on the road, so it’s logistically probably a little bit trickier than for people living in cities?
Yeah, I don’t mind it. When I know I can come back to something like this and not live in the city, I’m quite happy.

You have some gigs coming up to support this record – will you be travelling around the country?
We’re just going from here down to Melbourne and back for that one, like, you’re doing all the gigs in between Sydney, then we’ll do Sydney and Blue Mountains and that.  Then we’ll do gigs in between on the way to Melbourne.  Then we’ll do a run back up, so it’s about a four-week run.

Do you ever get out into remote communities?
Not as much any more. We do a little bit. We just go, like, the back way. You might do something Dorrigo and Armidale on the way down that route. We do the coastal road but no, nothing like I used to. I want to take Cara out one day to real Australia – as I call it – think it’d just blow her brains out because they’ll take to her out there like – they’re a bit scarce on Irish women.

[Laughs] Particularly very pretty Irish women, going off the CD cover.
She’s a bloody diamond.

[Laughs] That’s beautiful. The main reason I asked about the remote communities is you mentioned the Aboriginal music of Australia and a lot of indigenous people love country – I’d say more traditional country music.
They do. Yeah.

Have you ever had an opportunity to play with anyone in those communities?-
Not in the communities itself. I’ve had an Aboriginal didgeridoo player trying to shoot in on gigs. I was over in Wales in the UK just probably only six weeks ago and there was – it was called the Black Arm Band, and they were playing over there for the Olympics, and they were playing down the road the night after us so they came to our gig and there was a big guy called Will and he was one of Australia’s best didgi players, and he got up and played with us, so it happens.

Listening to your music and reading your story, you’re almost like a musical historian or if we were at a university we’d call it a musical ethnologist, I guess, but it just seems like you draw in a lot of different influences and put them all together and it comes up with your sound.
I’m sort of stuck in old times, like I’m very narrow minded with my openness on modern music which I shouldn’t be. Cara has actually opened my eyes up a bit more, but if it wasn’t late 1800s to 1950s I wouldn’t listen to it and she’s gotten me into Motown and Soul and stuff – that’s her background, she used to front 15-piece bands in England, doing all that sort of thing, and I never would have listened to that, but it’s basically whatever gets the hair up on your neck musically, is for you, it doesn’t matter what sort of music it is. And for me, old-timey stuff – whether it’s old-timey Appalachian music or bluegrass – good bluegrass – or old blues, old country, when it gets the hair up on my neck it just my hair up on my neck, you know?

And how do you find that? Because you said late 1800s to 1950s – apart from music you heard when you were growing up, how do you actually research music from those eras?
It was very hard in the day because like I said, I stumbled on a record, you know, that Beau Carter, and then I was like, man where did this come from? And when you are living around where I was playing there wasn’t much – there’s no big record shops or anything like that – but we’re going back in the days of vinyl, you know, and I just basically brought every album with a black fellow on the front and that’s fair dinkum, and a lot of it was just shit that I wouldn’t listen to. You get home – because there was no record players where you could listen to it before you bought it. It was like you were buying it in front of milk bars and stuff, they used to sell them out the front of pubs and stuff out in the middle of Queensland and then you’d jag something like Hound Dog Taylor or Elmore James and I’ve just gone, ‘Yes’. And because you only got one record every blue moon you’d play that record to death and really get a soaking of it, you wouldn’t just have five records and one song here, one song there, so you’re forced to – not forced to – but you’d listen to that one record over and over and over and over and it was just in your head, you know? That’s basically how I went and then I got a bit more knowhow by reading the backs of the records. They’d have a record label that had a series of them artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Patton and Son House and dudes like that, so then I’d specifically go looking for these guys. I used to write them down. And then, yeah, it just went from there basically but in this day and age you just Google anything you want to know.

Well, that’s true, but I think the experience you have doing that research and really listening to those albums probably meant that it was a lot more embedded in you than it would have been for someone who was just Googling.
Look, absolutely. I mean, the fact that you’ve slowed the records down for starters, you get your own style because you’re not picking exactly what you’re playing, you’re just loving this song and you form your own style out of it. And then when you form your style, obviously you start writing songs and it sort of stems from there.

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