BLURTING WITH… Kim Salmon & Darling Downs

The Australian
guitarist on his collaboration with Ron Peno, his musical influences, his old
band the Scientists and more.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Longtime Oz-rock aficionados surely know the name Kim
Salmon, who since the late ‘70s has been a mainstay of the Australian musical
scene, first as frontman for the legendary Scientists and then later with the
Surrealists, the Beasts of Bourbon, Antenna, Salmon and other outfits. A few years
ago he teamed up with vocalist Ron Peno – another fellow Aussie whose group the
Died Pretty blazed a memorable alt-rock path from 1984 onward until finally
disbanding in 2002 – and as the Darling Downs, the all-acoustic, country-folk
duo has recorded two albums, 2005’s How
Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine
and this year’s From One to Another (both available on the Carrot Top label, www.carrottoprecords.com; the
latter came out in America just a couple of weeks ago).

 

Folks expecting vestigial strands of either the Scientists
or the Died Pretty in the Darling Downs, however, may be in for a surprise. As suggested in my review of the album (read it HERE), the pair marries
Salmon’s sometimes spare, sometimes intricate picking (on both guitar and
banjo) to Peno’s croons, whoops and footstomps, and the results are a pretty
far cry from the D.P.’s cinematic pop-psychedelia and the Scientists’ swampy
thug-punk. But it’s a mesmerizing, at times deeply emotional musical summit,
the product of two men clearly at ease with one another and having a whale of a
good time just getting together informally – initially, at least; they’ve since
become a viable touring act – and channeling some of the acoustic sounds and
styles that they love, any expectations brought along from previous bands be
damned.

 

Having followed the Australian scene closely since the early
‘80s, over the years I’ve written frequently about Salmon and his myriad projects,
just as I have about the Died Pretty. (I used to pen a column in the
now-defunct magazine The Bob titled
“The Wizards Of Oz” in which I zeroed in on Australian and New Zealand acts, and the
Scientists and the D.P. were in there from the get-go.) And two of my fondest
memories are of seeing Salmon and his Surrealists play at Club Congress in Tucson in the mid ‘90s, and catching the Died Pretty once
during the ‘80s at Raleigh,
NC, venue The Brewery. So it’s
doubly nice to be able to be inspired by the men, via their music, once again.

 

Check out From One to
Another
(samples can be heard at the Darling Downs MySpace page), and
meanwhile, enjoy the following interview that BLURT recently conducted with
Salmon.

 

***

 

BLURT: Kim, how long
have you known Ron?

 

KIM SALMON: I live in Melbourne
now but have known Ron since 1982 when Brett Myers from The End introduced him
to me one Friday night. [Ed. note: Myers
played guitar alongside Peno in the Died Pretty; The End was Myers previous
band, and after Peno’s group The 31st split in 1984 Myers recruited
the vocalist for a new project they dubbed the Died Pretty.
] This was at the Scientists’ early
residency at the Vulcan Hotel in Ultimo, a suburb of Sydney, the city that both of us had chosen
to make our homes back then.

 

 

How did the idea of doing
a country/folk/blues project together arise? How did you get the Darling Downs up and running?

 

Well, it used to be, over the interim years that Ron and I
would bump into each other at gigs. Ron got into the habit of saying to me in
those late intoxicated hours, “Kim, you and I have gotta record a country album
together.” It was just the sort of talk musos came out with for something to
say to each other and I thought nothing more of it… Until one day, awhile after
he had moved down to Melbourne,
where I had finally settled. I thought, “Why not take Ron up on his idea?”

 

I had recently recorded my [2002] E(a)rnest album which was entirely acoustic so I remained in that
mode and recorded some acoustic guitar ideas onto my Dictaphone tape recorder
and took them to Ron’s flat over in South Yarra.
It turned out he had just as many vocal ideas on his Dictaphone. If that wasn’t enough of a coincidence, the fact
that our music gelled immediately was!
I’d go over to his flat on Fridays (he can’t drive) and go home with three new
songs on my recorder each time.  One
Friday a year or so later – we weren’t that diligent about keeping up our
sessions – he played all of the songs we’d put down and we counted some 20 of
them.

 

We were really just doing it for fun, and if something more
came of it then that was a bonus. It seemed like it was time to make that bonus
happen, so I set about getting us some shows and began to learn the best of the
material we’d amassed – we were in the habit of just making them up, taping
them, and leaving them the way they were. None of them have been changed since
they first appeared either, by the way.

 

Anyway, I felt that the magic was in the sound that just the
two of us made together and persuaded Ron that at least for the time being
there was no need for a band to back us up. Ron had written on his tape “K&R
Darling Downs,” which was the name of a small goods company, the K & R
being for Kim and Ron. It was just a private joke and not a serious band name.
When our booker informed us of our first show, supporting Ed Kuepper at the Corner
Hotel in Richmond
on May 22, 2004, he needed a name to call us by and I gave him that. Given that
we didn’t really want to be named after an abattoir we dropped the K&R
part. We thought that the name darling downs had a nice connotation, e.g.
something like “beautiful melancholy” or “bitter sweet.”

 

 

What are some of the
artists and records that influenced you personally over the years, as well as
some that you feel can be heard echoed in the Darling Downs?
Did you come to some of the latter late in life, or had you always been a fan?

 

Me personally, fuck!  Some of it’s well-known to people acquainted
with my music – Stooges, Suicide, Beefheart, Creedence always come up,
especially for the Scientists, but I liked most of the U.S. punk/CBGB stuff –
Ramones, Television, Blondie. Before that I liked British rock like Zeppelin, the
Stones, Bowie
and King Crimson… and when it was okay after the initial punk purges, I liked
them again, ha-ha!

 

I’ve also liked jazz since I was a teenager, especially Thelonious
Monk and Miles Davis. In a Silent Way,
Bitches Brew and On the Corner have had as big an influence on my music over the
years as any music. Of the blues artists, Howlin’ Wolf is definitely the one
who I’ve taken the most from by a long shot, although I do like most blues. I
have always felt a greater affinity with jazz and punk than blues, bizarrely,
even though a lot of people think of my stuff as blues – which it is not.

 

But none of this tells anything, really. Julie London’s in there,
along with Nancy Wilson, Leon Russell -fuck, when I was a teenager I was a dog
for Joe Cocker! – Hank Williams, Lee Hazelwood, Can, Blue Oyster Cult… the list
could go on. For the Darling Downs, I was first influenced by the British folk-rock
stuff, like Cat Stevens, Nick Drake and Jimmy Page. If you listen to my playing
on the first album you can see that’s not such a big leap. I let Ron be the
bluegrass aficionado. He liked the Carters, the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley
Brothers.

 

I’m not sure that list really tells as much as people think.
They can be a bit of a red herring if you ask me. Also, I know I’ve left out
countless worthies. 

 

 

Given your respective
backgrounds, was there any discussion about – shades of Dylan – “going
electric” with the Darling Downs instead of
taking the acoustic route?

 

Ron kept on saying things like “I can here strings on this
song” and my response was always, “If you can hear them already then we don’t
need to put them there.” As I mentioned earlier, I really believed that the
magic was in just having my acoustic guitar and Ron’s singing. It was as though
we could evoke more by not having those extra sounds, which would actually
narrow our evocative power. “Going electric” would mean having a band, which
would do a couple of things. It would make us more like other bands; and it
would put me back into the backing part of the band, which I am, quite frankly,
not up for. I didn’t sign up to be someone’s backup musician in this.  

 

 

What the hell is up
with that freaky video for “Circa ‘65” – “a ‘countripolitan’ song filmed in a
neo-cubist style,” as you have put it – and how was it created?
[View the video on the BLURT site HERE.]

 

It was filmed by Tony Mahony, a friend of ours who has done
a lot of work for Dave Graney over the years. He had this idea of doing a
really cheap video by making it mostly still photos with just bits of us
animated. It came from a kind of cartoon that used to be around back in the
sixties and seventies where they’d just have still frames but with real peoples
mouths superimposed in. There was one called Space Angel that I think you’d have gotten in the U.S., or you
might have got Captain Pugwash.
Anyway, Tony works for a production company and had access to cameras and post-production
stuff and really wanted to try out his idea. When he saw us live, he decided
we’d be the ideal guinea pigs.

 

 

In recent years
you’ve fielded a lot of projects: Antenna, Salmon, a solo album, last year’s
Australian and European Scientists tour. Aside from the Darling Downs, what else do you have cooking?  And speaking of the Scientists, will the
monster be reanimated once again, either in the studio or for the concert
trail?

 

It’s always possible, given the right offer and person to negotiate
things, that there could be more Scientists shows. I do think, however, that
the set of conditions that made that band work and evolve have passed on
forever and that it would be an extremely risky thing to attempt to make
another recording of new material with that band. Having reformation shows has
been more a matter of setting things up for just long enough for us to recreate
what we did have without it going anywhere . I don’t believe we’d go anywhere
good if we were allowed to go on for longer than a short time. I haven’t heard
any reformation albums that can convince me otherwise, I hate to say.

 

It has been great revisiting what the Scientists did,
and it has rekindled something that I can pursue with the Surrealists,
who never actually broke up and are, I believe, able to grow and evolve. For me,
Blood Red River [Scientists, 1983], The Human Jukebox [Scientists, 1987] and
Hit Me with the Surreal Feel [Surrealists,
1988] follow a natural path that I got diverted from throughout the nineties. Anyway,
it put me back in touch with what I was trying to do back then, and a lot of
ideas that have been mulling over in my head for a decade and a half have just
fallen into place since doing the Scientists tours. I’d never get any of it
past some of the Scientists members and they’re just not the right people for
it now – and I’m not knocking them either, just saying it like it is.

 

The Surrealists, on the other hand, have just picked up all
the ideas and run with them. It’s amazing. We’re definitely going to do another
album and it’s going to follow on seamlessly from Hit Me With The Surreal Feel, which was so far ahead in time
compared with anything I’ve done subsequently that it won’t be a step back in
time. 

 

 

Who would win in a
no-holds-barred cage match, the Died Pretty circa Free Dirt or the Scientists circa the “Swampland” 45?

 

Come on Fred, It would be a dirty trick just trying to pit
Died Pretty against all the doom and angst of the Scientists. They might be okay
in a stadium but stick them in a cage with us

 

 

Lastly, if I won a
contest and my prize choice was between free tickets to a Darling Downs show,
or airfare and accommodations on a tourist trip to the southern Queensland area
called Darling Downs, what should I pick, and why?

 

I’m probably not the person to ask that. The only time I’ve
been there, I was severely hung over and coming down off a trip – who, me?! – so
I didn’t really come away with the right impression of the region. Also, back
in primary school we had a class project where all the pupils were given
another school somewhere in Australia
to write a letter to their equivalent grade. I wrote mine to Toowoomba primary [Toowoomba is the main town in the Darling Downs region] and I was the only pupil in my class
not to get a reply.

 

Sod the place, come and see the band, man!

 

 

 

 

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