Paul Greene has been ‘around the traps’, as the saying goes, for several years – releasing albums (his latest is Behind the Stars), touring all over the country, consistently pleasing fans of all types. Paul isn’t strictly a country music artist, but as he’s played at Tamworth a few times, I thought he qualified for inclusion on this blog, especially as he’s embarked on a new tour that sees him travelling through Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
Just before the start of this tour – which sees Paul playing with his band, the Other Colours – Paul’s drummer, Matt Sykes, died in a diving accident at the age of 27. Paul wanted to talk about Matt, so that forms part of this interview.
I’m pretty sure you’ve played at Tamworth quite a bit in the past.
Yeah, I have done Tamworth a few times.
I was there last year and I thought I didn’t see your name on the program and now I know why, because you took a break.
]Well, I did it last year but I’m not a big fan of the festival, I have to say. I’m probably going to get in big trouble for saying it because it’s politically incorrect. The festival itself is great, the musos are great, but all the people in the town always seem really annoyed because there’s so many people there spending money and, like, buying beer and things and it just – I don’t know, it’s a funny way to do things. But, this year, I had Australia Day off and I went and swam in a river and went to a barbecue, and I haven’t done that for about 15 years, so it was really nice.
And you’re about to embark on a tour but the circumstances have changed so I’ll let you talk about Matt Sykes but obviously this is, on one level, a very straight-up thing of your band dramatically changing quickly as you’re about to go on a tour but, on another level, it’s you losing someone that you know really well, young. So how do you manage this now as you go into your tour?
Well, it’s hard. It’s a really hard thing to find a positive in when someone that you’re that close to and someone that is amazing as well, but, reflecting on his life over the last couple of weeks has been a pretty amazing process in itself. You condense someone down and you think – yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot just about how he was and learnt a lot. I guess I’ve learnt a lot, you know, in the process of just trying to figure that out. The gigs are going to be – well, I didn’t know how to quite go about it, and we’re going to miss him a lot, obviously, but I was trying to figure out a way to make work. And my drummer that played on my last record, Ellie, Ellie is coming on tour for a couple of shows and I’ve also got – it was actually at his funeral, I met one of his students, a guy who’s only 19. And he plays just like him. And I think I’m going ask [Matt’s] parents if I can take his drum kit on tour with us, so I’ll have one of his students playing his kit and he plays just like Matt. He looks like he’s about 14. He’s 19 but he looks really young. So I want to sort of celebrate it and want to just let people know what an amazing bloke he was and tell his story, I guess. He was really someone that lived for what he loved doing and was a great leader in his community and brought a lot of people together. Just reflecting on those sort of things, I think, is going to be a good way to remember him. And, personally, yeah, I know that there’s going to be times when it’s going to be a bit hard, as much just not having him on the bus or just not – you know? Because the gig is, like, three hours of the day or four hours of the day but you’ve then got the other twenty hours. And our being together, sleeping – not sleeping together – you know what I mean, like on the bus. [Laughs] Sleeping in close proximity’s probably a better way to put it. And his presence is going to be there, which kind of makes you miss him a bit more, but I’m just trying to take on the lessons I learnt from him and to supply them to my every day. So I guess I’ll be doing that with the shows as well and just making sure that each one counts, because you just never know when it’s going to be your last.
For you, as well, because it’s a small band and obviously you didn’t just choose Matt or Neil Beaver, the other musician, randomly, so I would think, on many levels which you may not know until you get out on the road, it’s challenging.
Yeah. I have worked with Neil as a duo a lot but the element of having a new one, having someone come on board is … well, the thing is the music had sort of grown as his input kept building, and he got to know the songs more and he was growing. The way that we played the songs had changed quite a bit through his [playing] – he was very influenced by African drumming and a lot of his African drumming was kind of coming into the music and just adding another colour to it. But I guess it’ll just keep evolving and become something new, that’s how each person brings their own inflection and their own thing. And that’s what’s great about playing with other musicians. So it’ll be interesting to see what it turns into. You never really know, when you start playing with someone, what effect they’re going to have on the music and how it’s going to permeate their playing or permeate through the music, but it’s all an interesting process and you kind of figure out pretty quickly if it doesn’t work. And it’s a really great thing when you find someone where it does work perfectly. But someone that’s just prepared to get in the bus and travel up and down the east coast and do gigs for nothing [laughs] and just leave their homes and girlfriends and things. And it’s a lot to ask someone to be in your band and be there for you and go and eat two-minute noodles on the bus for weeks on end.
While you’re talking, it’s making me think, yeah, the fact that musicians, particularly those of you who have been playing for a long time, are essentially doing something in service of something greater than yourselves. Even though there can be ego involved and everything like that, there’s something bigger than you that obviously keeps you in it and keeps you going.
Yeah, definitely. Well, there’s the music itself. For me, it’s kind of a gift, I guess, and I just live it all the time and I love what music has done for me and the journey that it’s taken me on. But there’s an element to it as well, that it’s important to keep Australian music going. You know, it’s part of our culture, there’s these stories to tell and if it was just about me and my ego, it just wouldn’t – there’s not enough in that for me. It’s definitely not about the money. There’s a bit more and, I guess, it’s with the way I write, it’s quite personal or it comes from direct experience but that’s the whole point of it being the Paul Greene project, you know? I play in other bands where it’s not my heart and soul on the line. But I just make music for the music’s sake, and with the Paul Greene project, it’s being myself and being open. And the people I meet on the way and the people that kind of get the music, they always seem like really nice people, you know? It might sound a bit like hippy bullshit but it’s true. It’s brought some amazing people into my life. They’re all at different levels, a lot of different reasons for doing it other than ego and rent.
Given that you did have a bit of a break and you released a new album last year and you’re going out on the tour, is there a sense that this is almost like a new beginning, this phase you’re going into now?
Definitely, yeah, just the way my life has been turned upside down. A lot of it around music. I’ve separated from my wife and that’s been a massive change. I’ve still got two young daughters – that’s been a massive change, just being a part-time dad week on, week off. But that’s definitely going to represent itself musically. But, at the same time, it’s like I’m always looking for the positive in things – I just guess I feel like I’ve grown a lot in the last while, been through a lot of shit but I guess you either fight it or you kind of accept it and learn from it and grow. That’s kind of what it’s about.
Yes. And it is if you plan to be doing it for a while, because if you stay stagnant, then your audience tends to tail off and if you’re still doing it after all this time, you still have an audience.
Yeah. I’ve got people that have been coming to gigs ever since the start, and [they’ve] really been a part of the journey. But I was solo for a very long time and having the Other Colours, it definitely changed. Also because I do a lot of producing and I’ve worked with other bands, and even that’s sort of becoming a great part of the proper development of the project as well. It keeps changing and little offshoots appear. A lot of things that I see, that I get exposed to through mainstream media, it’s very much passion based. But I guess there is a lot of musicians in Australia that maybe don’t get the recognition in the mainstream but there’s people out there that love what they do and support and get out and go and see the gigs and buy the albums, and that still exists, you know? And it’s almost like having a little community as you travel round, people that have seen you. And most people that know me have seen me play and then come back to a gig and brought friends with them because they liked it the first time. That’s awesome. That’s just a phenomenon in itself. It’s just a nice reward for the effort I’ve put into doing it.
What I tend to find about country music and related genres, in Australia we’ve developed a really good storytelling culture around song and it’s related to that country music scene and any other genres that can be tacked on to it. And I think that’s what you’re describing is you’re telling stories over the course of time and people are coming back to see your stories and they’re buying your albums with the stories on. So I guess what interests me, therefore, about you as a songwriter is how you feel about that storytelling role.
Well, it’s funny how the journey and the travelling around Australia in my bus and the people I meet and the places I go – I go pretty off the beaten track – it’s like the muse for the music. It becomes where I find the inspiration. But I try not to be too literal in the way that I write about it – you know, ‘This is a song about going for a swim at the beach and it’s called “Going for a Swim at the Beach”, and the first line is, “I’m going for a swim at the beach”.’ I try to put in a bit more metaphor [to describe] the experience of driving 1000 kilometres without seeing a town, the way that affects your mind. You know, that comes out of my soul, really. It’s that experience more than the actual kind of events. I figured out pretty early on that a lot of the best songwriters were in country, it’s where the art of songwriting is the thing that is respected, and that’s what’s important. That’s what’s really important about country music. And I think people often mistake country music as a style of production, where you have to sing in a certain voice and have a lap steel guitar on this bit here and a fiddle on that bit there. And I’ve always tried to be non-derivative. So not take too much of anything but borrow parts from things. And so I know it’s a really amazing response from country audiences. I was touring with Adam Brand a few years ago and the audiences got it because it was storytelling and the lyrics aren’t just there to be catchy, they’re not just there because I think that, you know, Triple J are going play it. The lyrics are there because I’m telling a story about a situation or a place or an experience. And that really translates well to country, which is why I’ve kind of made so many friends there. And, yes, I do feel very at home with country even though, if you listen to it, I guess it doesn’t have that country production thing about it.
And that’s a really good way to put it. I’ve actually not heard anyone put it in those terms before, but that’s what it is. You’re right, it’s people thinking it’s production not style and soul or story.
Yeah. An experience. Like, if the song is about experiences rather than songs about how great you are – yeah, there’s a style to it. I’ve listened to a lot of country, actually. Come to think of it, my iPod’s got a lot of country. I’d love to make a country record one day. I think I will do it like a traditional country record.
I think if you’re touring with Adam Brand and the audiences are responding to you, you already have made a country record.
Yeah, that’s true. Thank you. Thank you for reminding me of that.
I’m looking at your tour schedule and thinking there are a lot of dates here that are really back-to-back-to-back. Like, you’ve got four nights in a row often at different places. Do you like doing that because you get a bit of momentum, or is that just the way you have to schedule it?
Well, it’s a big country to get around and I used to just tour non-stop but I could just mosey my way from town to town. But these days I try to make it a bit more concise and try to rest a bit more because the way I was touring was killing me. I don’t have the luxury of having a whole week to just hang around somewhere and wait for the next weekend and do some more shows. I’ve got to keep it pretty concise and pretty tight, and then I like to come home and do a bit of fishing and do a bit of gardening and try to – well, I’m doing a lot of writing and recording and things at the moment as well. So I try not to spend as much time on the road but, still, I like to get out there. I think once a year, I’ll probably do a trip where I just go bush for months on end and I just go and do little towns and play in pubs and that sort of thing. But the venues are kind of few and far between. Even on the east coast – the west coast even more so –there’s only so many places to play and I’m partial to the odd drunken pub gig, you know? But I also like to play in nice places that have good sound and where I know that my audience is going to come and have a good experience and not have to deal with topless barmaids and stuff like that.
The country audience, in particular, is used to going to RSLs, they kind of like that nice, more sedate environment. So I guess the trick for you guys is obviously finding places where you want to play but also where your audience expects to come.
Yeah, that’s true. I’m quite mindful of that, I like to ensure the audience is going to have a good experience with it. I’m just trying to make it somewhere accessible, too. And there’s a lot of places to play but I don’t have the luxury of having as many supporters and some of the mainstream country guys, though … Hopefully people find out about [the gigs] and leave their iPhones at home and come out and support live music and hopefully, they have a great night and want to come back again.
In Victoria, at one of your gigs, you’re being supported by Jed Rowe, who I’m a fan of – he’s great.
I’ve got some fantastic supports on this tour. I just went and saw Hussy Hicks [one of the support acts], who were doing a lot of the north coast and they’re playing in Sydney and they are one of the best bands I’ve seen in so long. And the other bands, I’ve had a look on YouTube and seen some of the other stuff and I’m really looking forward to seeing some of these bands. The quality of the support acts that we’ve got is phenomenal. It’s going to keep me on my toes.
You mentioned earlier that you’re doing some producing and I know you also songwrite with and for other people. So, in terms of organising your time between touring, writing for yourself, recording, producing, are you one of those people who likes to structure your time or do you tend to go in a flow?
No, I’ve kind of planned roughly what I’m going to be doing for the next 18 months. I think things pop up randomly and I have times where I’m going to work on my new record. At the moment, I’ve just started – well, I’ve got Karl Broadie here, he’s actually in the room just next door. I’ve started working on an album with him, so that’s a project I’m going to really sink my teeth into when I get back from tour this time and I’m really looking forward to that because I’m a huge fan of his songwriting and of his music. And, you know, we’ve been good mates for a long time so I’m really excited to be working on that project. Yeah, and things come up and I’ve got a rough plan but it tends to change [laughs].
Karl’s a wonderful performer and a great songwriter. So I’m really interested in the idea of you two working together.
We’ve just tracked the first song this morning. We were just about to track our second one when you called, just doing guides at the moment. It’s great, you know? He co-wrote a song of mine last week as well and we’ve always worked well together as writers. So he’s promised me to work on this record, too. It’s always been easy for us, you know? We’re just both – we have a lot of respect for the songs themselves and so we’re hoping that, with that combined, we’re going to do something that we both really enjoy and feel is going to be doing something good and worthwhile and, yeah, enjoyable.
Your first gig on this tour is on Thursday so you’re obviously trying to get a quite a bit done before you head off on the road?
Yeah, you know, never a dull moment [laughs]. I’ve still got to get the car serviced. I haven’t done that yet.
Are you in northern New South Wales?
No, I’m down the south coast, I’m at Nowra.
Ah, I thought you were in northern New South Wales and I looked at your tour schedule and thought, ‘How is he going to get from northern New South Wales to the ACT for Thursday?’
No, the ACT’s only two and a half hours from – three hours, maybe, from where I am. Just up over the mountain really. So I’m about three hours south of Sydney and about three hours east of Canberra.
Well, I think that’s well situated to be just far enough away to have a bit of peace and quiet but close enough to get where you need to go.
That’s exactly right. And you can still get a decent coffee.
Paul Greene & The Other Colours play:
Friday 15 February – The Greenwell Point Hotel, Greenwell Point NSW
Saturday 16 February – The Heritage, Bulli NSW
Sunday 17 February – Lizottes, Newcastle NSW
Thursday 21 February – The Camelot Lounge, Marrickville NSW
Friday 22 February – Kelt’s Bar, Leonay NSW
Saturday 23 February – The Beachcomber, Toukley NSW
Sunday 24 February – The Brass Monkey, Cronulla NSW
Thursday 28 February – The Beach Hotel, Byron Bay NSW
Friday 1 March – The Queen Street Mall, Brisbane Qld
Saturday 2 March – The Royal Mail Hotel, Goodna Qld (lunchtime)
– Joe’s Waterhole, Eumundi Qld
Sunday 3 March – The Hoey Moey Cafe, Coffs Harbour NSW
For full details, please visit www.paul-greene.com