THE GUY IN THE BLACK HAT: Robert Vickers

The erstwhile bassist for the Go-Betweens talks about a life in music, from early days growing up in Brisbane, Australia, to his eventual career as a much-respected independent publicist.(This interview originally appears in the most excellent Dagger ‘zine.)

BY TIM HINELY

To most people Robert Vickers is known as the bass player for Australia’s late, great Go-Betweens, but as you’ll read below he’s done a lot more. The first Go-Betweens record I bought was Tallulah when it came out in 1987, and from that point I worked my way backwards and got their earlier stuff. The cover showed an arty looking bunch of folks in what looked like an old living room—guy sitting on the couch with the black hat is Robert Vickers, almost as if he’s saying “You gonna take the picture or what, dude?”

As you’ll read below, Vickers had gained some notoriety prior to the Go-Betweens when he was playing music as a resident of NYC for the first time. After leaving the Go-Betweens, following the release of Tallulah, he played with a handful of people, including the Hamish Kilgour/Lisa Siegel band The Mad Scene. I first met Rob, in fact, after booking one of that group’s shows in California in 1995. He was a great chap and happily answered all of my gushing questions that night. Since then, he’s worked in the music industry as a publicist for close to two decades, currently running independent PR firm Proxy Media.  He’s a low-key guy—I’m really glad I reached out to him for this interview—who has some great stories, but you’ve got to read the interview to find them out. Take it away, sir.

 BLURT: What part of Brisbane did you grow up in?
VICKERS: I grew up in the Brisbane suburb of Oxley. It was unfashionably working class but not without charm as it still retained a bit of its rural past in late ‘60s early ‘70s. Ed Keupper of The Saints grew up a few streets away. A number of other bands and musicians from that period also come from the general area.

Was your family supportive of your music? Any musical siblings?
My mother played the piano but that was about all the musical activity at our house. The family was very supportive but they would probably have been supportive of any path I took. I was lucky to have fairly open minded parents. My father once welded the tuning peg of my bass back on after it broke off. You can’t get much more supportive than that.

Was Brisbane an interesting place to grow up? Could you compare it to any American cities?
At the time I didn’t think it was interesting. It seemed like the ends of the earth. I couldn’t wait to get out. Provincial didn’t begin to describe it. The N.M.E. took a month to arrive by sea mail. There were no restaurants. Well, maybe one or two in the center of the city but that’s it.  It was a cultural desert. It’s a different place now of course. It’s become a very livable city. I’d compare it to Houston in the US; hot and humid, a cattle town. There are similarities to LA as well in that they are both hilly and car dominated with water close by.

What was the first instrument that you picked up? What bands did you listern to during your teenage years?
The first band I listened to was The Beatles. Our next door neighbors had a wind up record player with steel needles and we played those early singles till they fell apart. I listened mostly to the radio, 60s and 70s top 40, everything from Johnny Horton to David Bowie. When we got a stereo I started buying Bob Dylan’s back catalog second hand. That led to wanting to play the guitar so I got an old nylon string acoustic and strummed away.

Were The Riptdes your first band? How/when did they begin?
Yes, but we were called The Numbers at that time. After I finished High School I spent all of 1976 working at Woolworths and saved enough money to get out of Brisbane. I went to London and travelled around Europe and North Africa in the beginning of 77. When I got back to London I realized this musical revolution was happening and the fact that The Saints, someone from my own neighborhood was at the forefront of it was really exciting. I wanted to get in a band and be part of it but I had to decide whether to stay in London where so much was happening but I knew no-one and had no job or place to live, or go back to Brisbane where I had heard that a good friend of mine from school was in a band. I felt I had a better chance of getting something started with him so I got on a plane. The band he was in was The Numbers and I soon joined playing bass which of course I had no idea how to do. We recorded a single right away and played around Brisbane. This is where I met Robert (Forster) and Grant (McLennan) from the Go-Betweens. The Numbers single ’77 Sunset Strip’ came out around the same time as The Go-Betweens ‘Lee Remick’ and I actually took both singles around the southern states of Australia to distribute them to record stores on my vacation.

Is it true that you moved to NYC when you were 19? Were you terrified? Did you have any friends there? What was your first apartment like?
I had actually turned 20 when I arrived in New York in early 1979. The Numbers had kicked me out because they didn’t think I was up to their level of musicianship. This wasn’t so bad because I was sick of Brisbane again and wanted to travel in America on my way back to London. After some interesting adventures in Guatemala and on Greyhounds across the US I ended up in New York. I wasn’t terrified; I had been in Morocco so I had some experience with dangerous places. I had a place to stay short term and planned to see something of the CBGB’s/Max’s music scene I had been reading about in the NME, then head off to London. The second night I was there I went by myself to CB’s to see the band DNA and by the end of a very long night I was in a band called The Colors and had a place to live. The apartment was a $30 a month storefront without a shower or bathtub on Rivington St just off The Bowery. This was before it was a bad drug block but still a place you had to have your guard up at all times.

Tell me about The Colors? How did they form? Did they have big fan base?
I don’t think The Colors had played live before I joined them, just practiced. The guitarist Paul was technically way ahead of anyone I had even seen play before but ate nothing but Aspirin and Coke-a-Cola and listened to Eno and Kraftwerk. The singer Tommy was from the projects downtown and worshipped The Bay City Rollers. It was a strange mixture. We got a drummer from the storefront across the street and started playing. Paul and I wrote the songs and what came out was pop punk; fast, short and melodic. We developed a fan base of mostly teenage Manhattan girls. They were an interesting bunch coming from families of actors, artists, film directors, diplomats and real estate tycoons.

Did you spend a lot of time at CBGB’s and/or or Max’s Kansas City during those days?
We first played at club called Tier 3 in Soho. We got a couple of shows at CBs and Max’s but then the owner of CBs, Hilly Kristal, took an interest in us. Also the drummer from Blondie, Clem Burke saw us and wanted to produce a record. So with Hilly managing us and Clem producing we soon had an indie label winning to put out a single. We then played CBs a lot and as we got free drinks there it became our second home. I went there almost every night for years and saw literally thousands of bands. As we were one of Hilly’s bands Max’s stopped booking us much but we still went there a lot. It was within walking distance so it was possible to go back and forth on the same night. CBs was a friendlier and more down home, Max’s was the remnants of the New York Dolls scene with a dash of Warhol still wafting around.

What do you remember most about NYC in those days?
Downtown was pretty deserted. Not just Tribeca and Soho but even the East Village was very quiet. Not a lot of people on the streets day or night.

Had you known Grant and Robert before you joined the Go-Betweens?  If so how?
I was there the first night they played in public. They asked if they could play a few songs and a drummer from another band sat in with them. I think they played Lee Remick and 8 Pictures. It was pretty stunning so I had to talk to them. I saw a lot of them around that time and later Grant visited me for a wild month when I was living in New York.

How did you come to be in the Go-Betweens? They were in London at the time, right?
I was playing with the Colors in New York and had brought a friend from Brisbane, Peter Milton Walsh over to play guitar in that band. The Colors were coming to an end and one day Peter said he was going to move to London to play bass with The Laughing Clowns and suggested I should contact The Go-Betweens because they might be looking for a bass player too. So I did.

I’ve seen in interviews where Robert described those years in London as being very difficult. Was it the same for you?
London was tough. We were always short of money and the bleak weather didn’t help. It was a hard life living out of a suitcase for years at a time. We got away to Australia on tour which kept us going and the proximity of Europe was a plus but the living conditions in London were basic at best.

Why/when did you leave the Go-Betweens?
At the end of 1987 we finished the US tour in New York and I stayed. I was worn out by five years of touring and wanted a permanent address for a while. I knew The Go-Betweens was always going to be Robert and Grant’s band, I was happy with my contribution but felt it was time to move on. It was a tough decision.

Was it after you left the Go-Betweens that you decided to move back to NYC? If so when was that?
In my last year in the Go-Betweens I was essentially commuting between London and New York. Whenever we had downtime I would fly one of those cheap ‘80s airlines back to New York. The feeling in the band in 1987 was that we should move from London to Sydney for the next record. I could see the sense in that but my girlfriend was in New York and I couldn’t commute between Sydney and New York

I met you when you were with the Mad Scene. How did you join that band?
I met Hamish Kilgour, the drummer of New Zealand band The Clean and he had a band in New York called The Mad Scene and it just seemed like a good fit so I joined them. We got a deal with Merge and made a couple of what I think are very good albums. It was a good experience with both the band and Merge.

In between leaving the Go-Betweens and joining Mad Scene were you still playing music?
Yes, I had toured with Lloyd Cole and Yo La Tengo and done some recording with various people like Spike Priggen (Dumptruck) and Malcolm Ross (Josef K, Orange Juice). Nothing had been quite right though.  The Mad Scene was more what I was looking for especially as I was getting some of my own songs done. However I may have been spoiled by having been in The Go-Betweens. Robert and Grant were extraordinary songwriters who allowed me a lot freedom in what I played. As a musician to get that kind of freedom to work on songs of that quality was unusual and unlikely to happen again. The other thing was that my songwriting output which had been quite high prior to The Go-Betweens had dropped away to very little. That was a creative problem I wasn’t sure how to solve.

How did you begin doing publicity? Did you think you’d still be doing it all these years?
When I left The Go-Betweens I found that New York had become more expensive and I would have to get an actual job. The only other thing I’d done besides play in a band was travel so started to work in travel part time while still playing with various bands as I have mentioned. After about ten years of this I realized I wasn’t really interested in being a full time musician for hire and I wasn’t going to be able to support myself in an indie rock band so I decided I should work in the music industry where I had more interest and connections than I had in the travel industry. Lloyd Cole had a friend who had a label in New York called Jetset Records and he introduced us. I went to work there and just fell into doing publicity. I liked doing it so eventually I left the label and started my own company. I’ve got to help out with so many great releases over the years I’m glad I have been able to keep doing it even as the money has gradually leaked out of the music industry.

Are you playing in any bands these days?
No, I haven’t for a long time. I did play with Lindy (Morrison) and Amanda (Brown) from the Go-Betweens at an awards show in Brisbane a couple of years ago so I keep my hand in, but nothing regular. I think bands are only great when everybody is fully committed and I can’t do that anymore. I was never very good at the ‘playing in five bands at once’ thing that some people do.

Do you get recognized on the streets of NYC on occasion?
Only by the few friends I have left who still live in the East Village!

What are your top 10 desert island discs?
The Saints – I’m Stranded
Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis
Blondie – Blondie
Sarah Vaughan – Sassy
Bob Dylan – Bringing it All Back Home
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – The Good Son
Roxy Music – For Your Pleasure
The Ramones – The Ramones
The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go

Any closing words/ Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
N
o, I think you covered it! I do want to mention that a feature length Go-Betweens documentary, Right Here, directed by Kriv Stenders [premiered] at the Sydney Film Festival in June.

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