HOODOO YOU LOVE The Hoodoo Gurus

With new album Purity
of Essence just out, it’s back to bedrock
for the original stoneage romeos.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

In the January 2007 issue of Harp magazine (BLURT’s predecessor), we published a profile of
Australian rockers the Hoodoo Gurus. The occasion of my interview with founder
and frontman Dave Faulkner was the overhaul of their extensive back catalog and
a DVD career retrospective, Tunnel
Vision;
in addition, with an impending
March trip to Austin
for SXSW, expectations in their camp were high for a newly elevated American
profile.

 

Forming in 1981, the Gurus had enjoyed a lengthy and
successful career well into the late nineties until Faulkner decided to pull
the plug (“I was all written out,” he confessed), only to resume operations in
2004. A new studio album subsequently appeared later that year, and during our conversation
Faulkner noted that he’d been writing material for another one and predicted they’d
have it out sometime later in 2007. Yet the record failed to materialize –
twice, as a projected 2009 release date also came and went when the band
reportedly grew unhappy with both the studio they’d worked in and the mixes
they’d gotten.

 

Luckily, their old friend and noted producer Ed Stasium
stepped in and agreed to perform some of his mixing wizardry on the tapes. The
resulting Purity of Essence, released
in March in Australia and in
the U.S.
this week via the Virtual Label, yields a sparkling set of tunes bearing all
the hallmarks of classic Gurus: sleek, hook-filled melodies; propulsive
rhythms; heart on sleeve lyrics; terrific singing.

 

It kicks off with “Crackin’ Up,” not the Nick Lowe tune of
the same name but a new Faulkner original boasting an instantly memorable riff
and chorus; hear just the first 30 seconds and there’s no mistaking who’s
performing, and it’s worth noting for all you old-school Gurus fans that the
tune could’ve appeared on the group’s 1984 long-playing debut, Stoneage Romeos. From there the nuggets
come fast and furious: the swagger-strut of “A Few Home Truths”; the jangly,
slow-burn anthem “Are You Sleeping?”; the deceptively cynical good-time pop of
“I Hope You’re Happy” which sounds so ebulliently mid-eighties (in a good way) you’d swear it was a Katrina
& the Waves cover; churning Flamin’ Groovies-meets-Ramones raveup “What’s
In It For Me?”; the horns/wah-wah-powered funk-rock of “Only In America”; the Nuggets-worthy garageadelica of “1968.” Purity of Essence is, in short, a
rousingly diverse set, and with a running time of over an hour, it’s safe to
say that there’s plenty here for the band to draw upon when it comes to
devising concert setlists.

 

Having seen the Gurus at SXSW in 2007, I can attest to their
enduring prowess as a live act. On Purity,
though, the band members – Faulkner, guitarist Brad Shepherd, drummer Mark
Kingsmill, bassist Rick Grossman – genuinely sound like they’ve got a new lease
on life, given the strength of the songwriting and performances. I reckon that
whatever delays transpired in the making of it ultimately served to make
everyone stronger. Welcome back guys – and with all this in mind, let’s revisit
my conversation with Faulkner from a few years ago (considerably expanded from
what originally appeared in the magazine) as he recounts the band’s origins and
trajectory…

 

***

 

Thanksgiving eve,
1984:
Your future Harp correspondent is front and center at a packed
Charlotte, NC, punk club, literally hanging on to the
monitor of Hoodoo Gurus vocalist/guitarist Dave Faulkner. Amid an incessant,
hypnotic tribal thud, searing psychedelic guitar riffs and football
stadium-worthy chorus chants, Faulkner regales us with quirky lyric narratives
about kamikaze pilots, zombie love and south-sea island sacrificial rites. No
turkeys, though these Gurus: they rock like rabid wombats. And every last
person in the venue is singing along and dancing so hard the room could pass
for an MTV video shoot.

 

Afterwards, as punters clutching copies of the Australian
group’s debut album Stoneage Romeos cluster around the band, a girl standing
too close to Faulkner’s massive coif of teased-out hair almost sets him on fire
when she lights a cigarette. Ah, the perils of the road….

 

“Oh god …” Dave Faulkner, speaking from his home in Sydney, has vivid
memories of the Gurus’ initial American trek. “We had so much Aqua-Net in our
hair on that tour! It just got ridiculous. We were doing shows every night and
couldn’t un-tease our hair and wash out all the goo, so it was just a
succession of teasing upon teasing. By the time we got to Los Angeles, I think it was [L.A. Times critic]
Robert Hilburn, in a review, who said something like, ‘Dave Faulkner looks like
a tumbleweed landed on his head.’ [laughs] And that’s how it did look! I got to
the point at the end of the tour when I said, ‘What the hell am I going to do
with it now?’ I thought I was going to have to shave it all off because it was
like one huge dreadlock underneath, you know? It was kind of scary.

 

“But it really was a wonderful period. A lot was happening.
People really were into us, and we had some great times even though we were
living, er, low to the ground. We had this tour manager who didn’t think he was
going to be paid so he stole all our gear in New York! We were playing with the Long
Ryders the next night in Boston
and had to use their gear.”

 

Within a year the Hoodoo Gurus’ star was in full ascent, the
group a mainstay at college radio and on MTV. With the release of 1985’s Mars
Needs Guitars
the Gurus found themselves touring America once again, this time
playing arenas as the Bangles’ opening act. And the band would continue to
record and tour successfully for more than a decade, going on hiatus in January
1998 and then reuniting in 2004.

 

Before all that, however, there was just Faulkner and a
long-simmering scheme to bring back “the dumbness of rock,” as he puts it now  –  the
innocence, the naïveté, the joy of early rock ‘n’ roll.

 

***

 

Faulkner got his
start in the late ‘70s
playing in punk band The Victims (inevitably, he had
a punk nickname: “Flick”) in his home town of Perth,
located on the remote western edge of Australia. A ’79 pilgrimage to New York City, however,
opened his eyes. He was already a fan of the bands dotting the lower Manhattan
scene; through a mutual friend he hooked up with dB’s drummer Will Rigby, and the
pair made the rounds of clubs, seeing everyone from the Fleshtones, Ramones,
Talking Heads and Rigby’s own combo, to such recent Big Apple transplants as
the B-52’s and the Cramps.

 

“I’d say the Cramps and the Fleshtones were the ones that
really gave me the desire to do the Hoodoo Gurus,” says Faulkner. “Not that I
knew it at the time of course. But when I was in Sydney
a year later, I was seeing the legacy of Radio Birdman and all that Detroit music and all the
offshoots. Then there was this sort of art scene, I called them the “suitcase
synthesizer bands,” sort of homemade art-rock. But there wasn’t much in between
and I just wanted to have something a bit more brash, more pop I guess – even
though ‘pop’ is kind of a maligned word – and a bit more color.

 

“And in the case of the Hoodoo Gurus, in the early days, in
songs there were a lot of jokey themes and titles. The ‘dumbness’ of rock –
trying to bring that back. Not just dumbness, but the innocence and naiveté and
the fun. You know, songs like ‘Splish Splash’ or whatever. Things that were
kind of corny but still, in a way, kind of above the trappings of supposedly
intelligent music – stuff that had an internal intelligence, which was a bit
more rarified to me. I mean, ‘a wop bop a lu bop, a wop bam boom!’ and early
rock ‘n’ roll just has this exuberance, and it didn’t have to necessarily make
sense. And that music is still just as exiting and direct today, whereas a lot
in between has become sort of stale. That stuff still has an energy you just
can’t deny.”

 

Upon his return from the States, Faulkner briefly joined
another Perth punk
group, the Manikins. (“The band I’d been in before, the Cheap Nasties,
eventually became virtually the Manikins. Three of the members from that first
lineup of the Cheap Nasties were in the Manikins.”) Restless to tap the energy
level of a larger metropolitan area, however, in October of 1980 he relocated
to Sydney
where, in his words, “It felt like a band was forming every week. I did the
whole thing of putting things up on record shop walls, ‘Singers Wanted,’ whatever.
I auditioned with different bands and that was a nightmare, but I did get to
rub shoulders with ‘the scene’ and years later I’d catch up with a lot of the
same people. It was a pretty amazing time! It was during that post-punk period
and every one was playing whether they had talent or nor or ability or not.
You’d see people with the talent but didn’t have the actual chops.”

 

A chance meeting with guitarists Kimble Rendall and Rod
Radalj at an end-of-1980 New Year’s Eve party, though, proved fortuitous for
Faulkner: “We sat there talking about music and things, I was discussing all
the bands I’d seen while I was away in 1979 and how there was nothing like that
around here – and why isn’t there, because that’s what I’d like to go see. We
just all agreed there was nothing like the music we wanted to see, so that was
it: three guitarists just decided to form a band then and there.” Former Victims/Scientists
(and future Beasts of Bourbon) drummer James Baker was drafted to fill out the
roster, and Le Hoodoo Gurus were born.

 

The Gurus were initially conceived as a covers band, but
Faulkner’s songwriting gifts quickly became evident. The band soon had a cache
of catchy originals and notched a minor hit with their debut 45 “Leilani,”
about a grief-stricken young man whose girlfriend gets tossed into an island
volcano as a native offering to the gods, and set to an irresistible tribal
thump one part Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can” and several parts Gary Glitter’s
“Rock and Roll (Part 2).” Meanwhile, following a nine-month woodshedding period
during which the band rehearsed in earnest, the Gurus began playing out around Sydney on a regular
basis.

 

Turmoil then struck when first Rendall then Radalj quit, the
former due to a budding career as a filmmaker, the latter out of frustration
with Faulkner’s perceived dominance in the band as frontman and chief
songwriter. By this point Faulkner was already convinced that a three-guitar
Gurus was too limiting and gimmicky – earlier, they’d landed an actual spot
opening for Gary Glitter when he toured Australia, and the consensus among
Glitter Band members was that the Gurus needed to beef up their bottom end – so
replacing Rendall and Radalj were bassist Clyde Bramley and guitarist Brad Shepherd,
both alumni of Radio Birdman offshoot the Hitmen and of bubblegum tribute combo
Super K. The band dropped the “Le” from the name and the classic Hoodoo Gurus
lineup that would record Stoneage Romeos was in place.

 

Recorded under the watchful eye of veteran producer-engineer
Alan Thorne, Stoneage Romeos, released in the spring of ’84, was an
instant hit in its native Australia.
And with good reason: Happily plundering trash culture, dropping in a
trainspotter’s buffet of classic pop references, and powering along with an
insistent – and danceable – turbine-like precision, the album has a seductive
timelessness that, even two decades on, still connects with rock ‘n’ roll fans
of all stripes. Nowadays, Faulkner’s reluctant to name it among his favorite of
the Gurus albums: reminded how one journalist suggested that Romeos,
draped in reverb and echo, “sounds like it was recorded in a cave” (in the
context of the original review, a positive comment), he complains that the
record “is, for me, very antique sounding – we always wanted to ‘make a din’
and some of the rough edges we had live got softened in the studio. What I am happy about it is that it still sounds fresh and lively. And good on the
hi-fi.”

 

That it does: there’s the aforementioned glitter-glam slam
of “Leilani”; Brit Invasion jangle, Flamin’ Groovies style, in “I Want You Back”;
twisted Cramps psychobilly for “Dig It Up”; and vintage bubblegum pop in the
“Hang On Sloopy”-like “My Girl.” It all bursts from the speakers, aglow with an
analog warmth that not even contemporary digital reconfiguring can obscure.

 

As a wordsmith, Faulkner was, by his own admission, very
specific with his imagery. On subsequent Gurus albums he’d deliberately move
away from tackling quirky lyric topics, but for Romeos his imagination
ran wild. For example “Tojo,” on the surface, concerns a girl named Tracy who
blows in and out of a guy’s life and leaves him in ruins, but as Faulkner
points out, “it’s really a series of very bad puns about a tropical
depression,” e.g. Cyclone Tracy, which had hit northern Australian city Darwin
in 1975 on Christmas Eve. In the case of the heart-on-sleeve sentiments of “My
Girl” (boy takes girl to school prom, girl slips outside to snog with a
different boy), that song, too, has a double meaning: “It was a love song about love songs, a tribute to all the ‘60s boy-girl love songs, and I felt bad that
some people would get quite sad about it  – ‘That poor guy!’ – because it was just a
joke!”

 

If there’s any one track on the record that sums up the
Gurus aesthetic at the time, it’s album opener “(Let’s All) Turn On,” a
boisterous, Fleshtones-worthy frat-party anthem whose lyrics namecheck all of
Faulkner’s musical obsessions in just over three minutes. Sings/speed-raps
Faulkner, “Shake Some Action, Psychotic Reaction, No Satisfaction, Sky Pilot,
Sky Saxon/ That’s what I like, that’s what I like/ Blitzkrieg Bop to the
Jailhouse Rock, Stop Stop Stop At The Hop, do the Bluejean Bop/ That’s what I
like, that’s what I like!”

 

And that’s just the first verse.

 

“Ah-ha!” Even from half-way around the planet, I can tell
Faulkner is grinning on the other end of the telephone line. “There was one
review that actually criticized us for that, saying The Fleshtones’ ‘Hall of
Fame’ was far cooler in its references. And it definitely is! But we weren’t
trying to be the smartest guys on the block. We wrote that song over pizza and
a flagon of wine.”

 

Unlike many of their Australian peers, the Gurus, who were
signed to the Big Time label at home, secured a U.S. deal, with A&M, for their
album, although a foreshadowing that the liaison wouldn’t last came when
A&M insisted on redoing the Romeos cover art. The Australian LP
sported a cartoonish nod to the 1966 caveman flick One Million Years B.C.,
all menacing dinosaurs and Day-Glo colors; in America, consumers got a stylized sleeve
featuring arty renditions of the giant reptiles. “Bad coffeetable art, very
anonymous and boring,” is Faulkner’s assessment. “On the U.S. tour fans are bringing up the
Australian copies for us to sign – they were all getting them on import! Yet at
the end of the tour, A&M says to us, ‘Oh well, we don’t really think the
cover will affect sales it all.’ Like, when they’re right, they’re right, and
when they’re wrong, they’re still right.”

 

***

 

Shortly before the
’84 American tour,
drummer James Baker quit the band, replaced with Mark
Kingsmill, another former member of the Hitmen, and, as previously noted, the
band went down a storm in the U.S.
The following year brought Mars Needs Guitars, released here by Big
Time-America after a dispute with A&M resulted in the band being dropped by
the label. (Faulkner: “The final straw with A&M was for Mars. We gave them that, and they were
like, “Oh yes, ‘Bittersweet,’ we love that song! But it’s completely wrong.
You’ve got to have a chorus that’s fast enough and all that, so we’re gonna
show you how it should be.” The A&R guy took it into a studio in L.A., remixed it and
chopped it up, and did this hideous abomination to the song. Because he thought
he could do better than us, how to write a song. When we said, ‘Get fucked, you
can’t release it like that!’ they dropped us. That was because it was his
thing: he was going to make ‘Bittersweet’ a hit record. Of course, to this day,
people would laugh at the idea of you changing that song at all.”)

 

Like its predecessor, Mars
Needs Guitars
 became a college radio
favorite on the strength of tracks such as the psychedelic ballad “Bittersweet”
and rousing punk-powerpopper “Like Wow – Wipeout.” In 1986 plans were laid for
the Gurus to do a co-headlining tour with another group of up-and-comers, The
Bangles. However, just before the tour, the Bangles’ single “Manic Monday”
started taking off, eventually reaching number two in the U.S. charts.

 

“We were like, ‘Well… I guess we won’t be co-headlining
after all!'” Faulkner laughs good-naturedly. “So it was more of a Bangles tour,
doing larger and larger venues. But it was amazing – we ended up playing the
Greek Theater in L.A.
We were having a great time on that tour. We only had to play 45 minutes so we
could run amuck, have our show over at 9:00, we could drink and just watch the
Bangles. I can’t drink alcohol and perform, so doing a shorter show was
actually, for me, a liberation. I could actually relax and it was an amazing
scene. And both bands loved each other as artists so it wasn’t hard – just
fun.”

 

The Bangles connection extended to the third Gurus LP,
1987’s Blow Your Cool, produced by Mark Opitz, which featured the four ladies singing on two
songs (members of the Dream Syndicate also guested on the album, recorded in L.A.). And while Blow Your Cool also did well,
the strain of promoting it took its toll on bassist Bramley, who quit before
1989’s Magnum Cum Louder and was replaced by Rick Grossman.

 

The Faulkner-Shepherd-Kingsmill-Grossman lineup subsequently
recorded the albums Kinky,
Crank and Blue Cave, although not long after the release of the
latter, Faulkner announced that the Gurus would tour through the end of 1997
then disband, a move he says was prompted by a sense that he was “all written
out – I didn’t want to go in again and do a half-baked album, so hey, it’s been
good, let’s stop it before we become embarrassing.”

 

Assorted solo projects ensued, then in 2002 a mysterious EP
appeared by a band calling themselves the Persian Rugs – the Gurus in disguise,
essentially pulling a Dukes Of Stratosphear and doing ‘60s-styled garage, pop
and psychedelia. This was followed in ’03 by a Persian Rugs full-length, Turkish
Delight
, and with the old chemistry reestablished, by the following year
the group had officially resumed operations under the Hoodoo Gurus banner,
resulting in 2004’s Mach Schau.

 

“The Persian Rugs was me doing a complete ‘60s revival sort
of thing,” explains Faulkner. “Also, in a funny way, it was my own sort of
version of retaliating at all the critics who always harped on the Gurus’ ‘60s
influences: ‘You want to hear what I do when I do ‘60s? Here it is!’ But I also
had a whole lot of songs after the Gurus broke up, and though I rehearsed them
with different musicians, they just couldn’t seem to get the flavor of what I
was trying to do. It became obvious to me that there was only one band that
could play these songs the way I wanted to hear them. So Mach Schau, far
from us coming back and being ‘middle aged’ and writing for an older fan base,
we just wanted to make a hard rocking record that out-did anything we’d ever
done. We really blew a gasket on that one – it’s our Presence, like Led
Zeppelin.”

 

***

 

Following the release
of Mach Schau,
in 2005 the Australian division of EMI Records
reissued expanded/remastered editions of all the Hoodoo Gurus albums; also
released was Tunnel Vision, a two-DVD set compiling every Gurus
video, a wealth of never-before-seen live material and a smartly-done
retrospective documentary, Be My Guru. The band subsequently struck a
deal with New York label Virtual, which is
distributed through Ryko, to restore their back catalog to print in the U.S.; the
initial brace of releases, Stoneage Romeos and the Tunnel Vision DVD, hit stores in October. Still a significant draw in their home country (in
2005 the Gurus co-headlined the annual Big Day Out festival with Metallica and
the Strokes), they hope to capitalize upon that American profile-boost by
coming to the States in March for South By Southwest. And plans are in place to
make a new Gurus album, but Faulkner says he needs more time to write new songs
so they’ve postponed what would have been January recording sessions until May
or June.

 

Absent from these shores since 1995, in spirit the Gurus
never really went away. You can still catch the occasional video clip on
VH1-Classic, and enlightened deejays at community and college radio stations
are known to cue up a Gurus track from time to time as well. “I Want You Back”
in particular hasn’t lost any of its jangly lustre – and the video for the
song, which features the Gurus in all their teased-hair, Aqua-Netted glory
performing while Claymation dinosaurs frolic around them, still exudes a
quirky, primitive charm.

 

Noting that “I Want You Back” was the track that introduced
the Gurus to America, I can’t resist asking Faulkner if the song, with its
lyrics about a breakup and the messy aftermath (“It’s not that she’s gone away/
It’s the things I hear she has got to say/ About me – and about my friends…”), was
about a particular girl who dumped him?

 

“No, and, ah, I don’t really want to go into it,” says
Faulkner, adding, “but it’s definitely true.” He pauses for a moment, then
emits a self-conscious chuckle, as if he feels foolish for coming across so
cryptic. “Well… okay. I guess I can finally talk about that.

 

“Basically, when [co-founder] Rod Radalj left the Gurus he
was very dismissive of us, trying to move on and kind of burn everything behind
him: ‘Oh, it’s not worth staying in that band. They’re terrible!’ So I
basically turned that emotion around: ‘Here’s this guy who ditched us and he’s acting like the spurned lover!’ It was me saying, ‘You’ll
regret it.'”

 

Yet with its jangly melody, soaring vocal harmonies and
overall yearning vibe, “I Want You Back” has all the earmarks of classic guy-girl
pop.

 

“Well, yeah, I just turned all that stuff into a
relationship song.” Faulkner says. “I don’t know why people don’t
realize that it’s an anger song. You’re right, they think it’s a longing song.
But it’s not a song about ‘I wish you’d come back,’ but – ‘You’ll wish you were back!'”

 

We’re glad they’re back. Visit Le, er, The
Hoodoo Gurus on the web at their official website. You can also find lots of
goodies at their MySpace and Facebook pages. Tell ‘em Blurt sent ya.

 

 

 

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