Hunters & Collectors All Come Out At Night

Hunters & Collectors have popped back out of relative obscurity in the past month with the news of the tribute album Crucible, as well as the announcement of ad hoc reunion stints as the half-time entertainment at the 2013 AFL Grand Final as well as a one-off support gig on Bruce Springsteen’s tour in early 2014 – not a completely jarring combination to be honest. Mark Seymour also made a certain comment about his political allegiance, which was remarkable as someone who used the term True Believer in earnest.

I’m not aware of any plans to turn this into a full-blown reunion*, seeing as since the formal break-up in 1998, the other members of that final line-up have settled into various niches without too much drama, although the band have reformed for other one-offs such as the Sound Relief benefit in 2009. It would seem most band break-ups are never definitive as long as the core members are still upright and open to the idea of getting back together for one more whirl, even if the main purpose is top up depleted retirement funds, as much as pleasing fans or playing with their old mates again.

* UPDATE: They’re doing a full blown tour on the A Day On The Green circuit during early 2014 as well as two other concerts in Melbourne and Sydney. Supports include You Am I and Something For Kate. Damn, looks like another ride on the hellbus.

Sometimes such reunions are less satisfying than others with, witness Black Sabbath without Bill Ward, or the idea of The Pixies without Kim Deal. (At least that has the upside of the Breeders rolling around again.) It doesn’t sound like the Hunnas are going to drag out the John Archer’s legendary bespoke sound system and do another lap of the country to play to a bunch of forty-somethings around the country. You know, just a couple of intimate gigs in football stadiums as supports to the main act.

I was amused to read that, according to Mark Seymour in his 2008 band memoir Thirteen Tonne Theory, he himself is at best ambivalent about footy, having gotten off the Carlton bandwagon in the ’80s about the time John Elliott got on board. “Holy Grail” was certainly not written as a footy anthem, though the subsequent appropriation of it for that purpose has probably yielded a decent sum in royalty payments – and as the band was organised as a collective, they were shared more or less equally.

(I recommend Thirteen Tonne Theory, and it seems the easiest way to find it now is as an e-book. Mark wrote about his experiences with a lack of bullshit and a great deal of self-awareness, particularly with events such as the split with Greg Perano.)

I got into the band around the cusp of the 1990s in my final years of high school, as part of a growing passion for music in general and Australian rock music in particular. Ghost Nation and a best-of were their most recent releases at the time, so “Holy Grail” wasn’t even a thing. The motherlode for me was a box set of their first four albums that had been released at that time, encompassing the “weird” Perano era stuff. In the country, you get bored by the chart pop music that the handful of radio stations churned at you – Triple J had only gone “national” in the capital cities by that stage and taping Rage overnight and watching it the next day was about as good an education – so it was a thrill to latch onto anything that sounded even just a bit different.

Part of the reason I hold The Jaws Of Life and the attached EP Payload so close to my chest is that the music sounded exotic and strange but also utterly familiar, with the truck noises and distant bird calls (recorded in Germany with the legendary Conny Plank), and the delivery of the words that spoke of frustration with one’s lot. It was a sound of the Australian bush that was a million miles from Slim Dusty, articulate yet visceral with all that stranded-far-from-home desperation, with a hefty krautrock influence along with a little Chic. Hell, I even have a soft spot for The Fireman’s Curse which preceded, the result of a head-on collision of egos with Virgin Records’ consigliere Simon Draper.

Despite the glorious noise that came out of those first early albums, it seemed that the chaos had to come to a head, and after casting Greg Perano out, Seymour reformed the band to trim back the artifice (and in my opinion some of the charm), the muscular dimension to the band’s sound was refined but made more accessible, the otherness remained in the arrangement, underpinned by the drum and bass of Falconer and Archer, and of course the horn section that at times sounded like it was accompanying a football club song gone feral, other times, the arrangements added a peculiar majesty not usually associated with pub rock.

Once refocused, the band brought forth Human Frailty – a serious contender as one of the best Australian rock albums ever. They continued in that vein on What’s A Few Men/Fate (the latter a futile repackaging for the US market) with “Do You See What I See” and the evocative closing-time blues of “Still Hangin’ Round”, and Ghost Nation, which included “When The River Runs Dry” which bears an apocalyptic tone that still retains its resonance through decades of political torpor. Finally, they wrapped up their work of their 80s and presented their first compilation, Collected Works.

My enthusiasm engaged by all this, I managed to talk my brother into taking me to see them play at a beer barn on the edge of town while I was still underage – it wasn’t that hard as he was into them himself. I may or may not have been supplied a couple of bevvies myself. I wasn’t so far gone that I didn’t carry away some strong impressions of the gig though – the huge steam-powered keyboard setup that seemed to eat half the modest stage and made noises to fit, the packed crowd pogoing through all their songs (moshing wasn’t a thing at that time), trying out a couple of new songs called “True Tears of Joy” and “Where Do You Go”, which appeared on later releases.

The gig concluded with the band being seemingly concerned that they’d broken the stage. I went away with a shirt bearing the classic caduceus-with-knife logo. Some bugger stole off my clothesline a couple of years later. I still miss it occasionally – even though it’d probably barely a rag at this stage, just like my beloved Clouds t-shirt that I picked up a few years later.

It is perhaps with some regret that I wasn’t organised enough to see them again before they broke up in 1998. For a while Seymour did the acoustic thing, which didn’t appeal to me, but he eventually put together another electric band called The Undertow to do his new songs justice – “Castlemaine” can sit anywhere in his set with ease – and reconciled the fact that a lot of people just want to hear “the old stuff”. Other members got into production, as Barry Palmer did, or pursued their own musical agendas.

Meanwhile, the band’s legacy? They made multiple contributions to the Australian songbook, some of which have become cliche in their overuse. For instance a while “Throw Your Arms Around Me” seemed to have been reduced to a party piece trotted out by Paul McDermott for cheap pathos, and incongruously adopted as a wedding theme by the sort of people who don’t pay attention to lyrics outside of the chorus. “We may never meet again”, really?

While the band never met their ultimate goal of breaking the US like their fellow travellers Midnight Oil and Crowded House, they managed to become one of the biggest bands in Australasia, as well as establishing pockets of support in Canada and Sweden. It may not have been to last, but at least they didn’t turn into the Dan Reed Network.

At this time, it seems that Hunters & Collectors have been blurred with a lot of those other Australian bands associated with the 80s, but given the tendency to categorise using a crude dichotomy like “hipster”, like the Triffids and the Go-Betweens and “bogan”, a la Australian Crawl and Cold Chisel, H&C seem to fall inconveniently between the two camps. “Holy Grail”? “Say Goodbye”? Bogan, of course. “Talking To A Stranger” and “The Slab”? Hipster.

But a lot of thought – and argument – went into their creative process, and they came out of it with a string of artistic yet accessible albums that examined the human condition and dropped some sonic science along the way. If they came across as being a bit stoic and serious, then so be it. Even in the latter days, they could still drop a massive groove that could agitate that most arrhythmic of beasts, the Australian pub rock punter fueled up on Vic Bitter – the album of their final 1998 gig at the Coogee Bay Hotel is testament to this.

Considering that it’s been about a generation since their halcyon days, the idea of the Crucible tribute album now seems a bit strange. Then again, Eddie Vedder pops up and it suddenly makes complete sense that there’s a line from Hunters & Collectors to Pearl Jam. The Avalanches pop out of seclusion after over a decade to do a lazy reshuffle of “Talking To A Stranger”, which didn’t even take the opportunity to be as ridiculous as the multiple acid attacks on the song by the Filthy Lucre remix crew in 1992.

In my opinion, to take one example, I would’ve liked to have heard how Eddy Current Suppression Ring would’ve tackled a Hunnas song – similar origins and influences, but a bit more shambolic with that and perhaps less reverent of the source material. And an honest-to-Jah dub version of “Talking To A Stranger” – all the ingredients are there for such an approach – the heavy bass line, the horns, and the vocal refrain perfect for fading in and out at will. Well, perhaps we should be grateful the Avalanches didn’t turn it into bro-step.

As a biased source, I will recommend that people go back to the source – the Greatest Hits collection is not a bad place to start for the hits of course, but for those who want to dig deeper, going chronologically isn’t a bad strategy either. Some of the albums are harder work than others, but The Jaws of Life and Human Frailty are considered classics for a reason, meanwhile Cut was their most commercially successful album if raw sales are your criteria for judging how good an album is.

Also, don’t sleep on the video collection (even if you just watch them on Youtube. H&C’s visual aesthetic was as strong as the sonic aspect. Richard Lowenstein kicked things off with freakshow of “Talking To The Stranger”, but I have a soft spot for the “Judas Sheep” one with the guy running around the MCG with a machete interspersed with random shots of budgies and grapefruit.

Hunters & Collectors were a band of their time, as part of a wave of Australian bands that were inspired by punk and post-punk and decided there had to be more to music than playing on Countdown. They did play the game up to a point, but tried to do so on their own terms, organising themselves as a band of equals against the world. The title of their last album, Juggernaut, summed up Hunters & Collectors at their touring peak. They drove a truck around the country and played anywhere that would have them, at a time when festivals were out of vogue and punters were less inclined to travel for gigs. Never mind that, the band would come to them.