Is it true you were a skinhead in your early Perth days?
That’s what Kim Salmon likes people to believe. But I was never a skinhead, although I might have had short hair. I was never a signed-up skinhead. There was a big skinhead population in Perth in the late 1970s and if you went to a punk gig there were always skinheads there. Invariably you get to know some of these people, but that doesn’t make you a skinhead. I was definitely more into the punk side of things.
When did you first meet Kim Salmon and Tony Pola?
I used to see the very first line-up of The Scientists in the late 1970s, and sometimes you meet people after gigs, so that’s how I met Kim Salmon. Tony Pola I met after I advertised in a weekend paper: “Drummer wanted for punk rock band. Must be absolute moron.” And he was the only guy who answered the ad. I think he got the code! We met at his mother’s house where he was living and I brought around some gear and we bashed around and became friends after that.
Is it correct that you spent some time living in the UK in the 1980s?
What were you doing over there at that time?
Auditioning for bands. I grew up liking the music from England at that time and before that time. I wanted to see Gang of Four, PiL, 999, The Clash, Jah Wobble, and I got to see all those bands. I really just went as a music fan to see a lot of the bands I liked.
Did you fall in with the Australian expat music community over there?
The only ones I fell in with were The Scientists, who were in their long-haired phase at the time, trying to bust it over there. I got to see them play with The Gun Club a few times, travelled a couple of times to see them in out-of-the-way places.
Was the scene as vibrant as it’s often represented these days?
Vibrant, violent, expensive, cold, a lot of rain. I ended up getting a job in a factory so I didn’t see the daylight!
After you came back from England you joined the Surrealists in about 1987. The Salmon-Hooper-Pola line-up of the Surrealists is often described as the “classic” line-up of the band. What are your memories of that line-up?
Well, it really was my musical education. I’d never been offered an opportunity to not only play in a band, but to travel the world. It taught me a lot in a very short space of time, especially playing with someone who had a reputation and was regarded very highly by a lot of people around the world. I guess you could say [Salmon] plucked me from obscurity to some degree.
I think the band attitude in those days was that it was us against the world, and it kind of had to be in those ways to keep going through all the difficulties you faced to stay alive as a band.In the context of that us-against-them attitude, do you think you succeeded in winning over people who might have otherwise not understood what you were doing?
I think a lot of people came along expecting to see something like The Scientists and a lot of people didn’t think it was like The Scientists, because it wasn’t. I guess it was more like the version of The Scientists that did ‘Human Jukebox’. But over time I think people realised we were our own entity and we had something to say.
When Tony Pola left the band in 1993, was it hard playing with a new drummer?
It was a completely different feel. I understood the reasons why Tony had to go. But Tony and I used to feed off each other a lot as friends and in the band. Personally I missed him, but professionally I didn’t. Musically, I did. His replacement, Greg Bainbridge, although a fine drummer … it wasn’t as “punk” as it used to be, if I can use a dumb term like that. Tony’s a very belligerent human being and that can be very funny, and it can be very annoying and frustrating too. You have to love someone like that to get along with them. Up until the last year or two, I had the same scrapes with him I had 20 years ago. It’s a bit like a brother thing – those relationships never change.
I remember seeing you play with the Surrealists when you’d stumble across the stage and narrowly miss hitting something or someone on the way through, but you’d never miss a beat.
I think in those days I used to see how drunk I could get and not stuff up completely – it was a bit of a challenge!
Were you still playing in the Surrealists when they supported U2 and Big Audio Dynamite on their Australian tour?
Yeah I was. I distinctly remember seeing things like at the MCG, a crane hoisting a large plywood crate out of the U2 compound into the outer area of the MCG and then they opened up the crate and two Harley Davidsons were rolled out by the security guards. The drummer [Larry Mullen Jnr] and one of his mates got on them and went for a ride around Melbourne! It was on a scale I’d never seen before. The audience, I’m not sure whether they liked us or not, but obviously they were there for U2.
You were at the recent Surrealists gig at the Northcote Social Club. What did you think of the Surrealists that night?
I just thought it didn’t have the danger it used to have. I thought it was perfunctory renditions of the songs. That’s not to dismiss it as not good, and of course I’ve got personal feelings about it, but it wasn’t the Surrealists I remember. Kim’s a great performer, a great songwriter and I’ll always admire him for that. Good luck to him.
Some years after you left the Surrealists you formed the Voyeurs. How did that come about?
That was about six or seven years ago. I conceptualised the band after listening to a lot of soul music – Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, that type of stuff. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be really good to get a bunch of white trash guys together to replicate the same sort of sexy feel, but do it in a nastier way?” So I handpicked everyone for it. I tried to take myself out of the comfort zone by playing the six-string guitar instead of the four string. Got someone to play bass [Conrad Standish from The Devastations] who might possibly have been nervous because I was a bass player, and who possibly might have looked up to me. And I think it worked out very well.
Was The Voyeurs, the first record you released overseas?
It was picked up by [Spanish label] Bang! I couldn’t find a release for it in Australia. After my balcony fall, I put all the songs on my website at the time. When Juan from Bang! heard I’d had this accident, he emailed me and said, “Brian, sorry to hear about your accident and what are all these great songs on your website? Can you please take them down, because I’d like to put them out for you.” When you’re lying in bed paralysed and someone overseas offers to put something out that you can’t get released in Australia, you just do it. So that’s how that relationship started.
Your spectacular decline into drug addiction and associated problems has been described before. Was your fall off the balcony the lowest ebb you reached?
It came after a series of events, which in total added up to a pretty shit time. I had a raging amphetamines habit. My wife had left me. I had a computer services business at the time which went broke because all the money went up my arm. Sometime after that I found my eldest brother dead in a house and then a couple of months later I broke my back in half. So it wasn’t my greatest two or three years!
When you were lying on your back recuperating, did you ever think you wouldn’t walk again?
I was told not to expect too much. I was never told I wasn’t going to walk again. The lucky thing was that I didn’t sever my spinal cord, I just mangled it up. It was four months before I could feel anything from the waist down, and four-and-a-half months before I could wiggle my little toe. But from that day forward I knew it was going to be alright.
One of the most important things about those kinds of situations is to have a sense of humour and trying not to let it get you down, try and stay positive. I know they’re cliches, but they really do apply. You really do need to laugh to get better. I watch a lot of people around me who are worse off than me, people who are broken from the neck down and see how they cope with it – you can only admire them. And there’s the other ones who blubber all day about it and there’s nothing you can do for them – I know which one I’d rather be.
Mentally do you think you came out of the accident a better person?
Absolutely. I decided that I’d been wasting my time taking drugs and fucking up my life. So I haven’t been an injecting drug user since then, I’ve re-established my relationship with my ex-wife, I get to see my kids a few times a week at home and that’s all happened since I cleaned up my act a bit. I still have issues with alcohol, but I got to the point where I could have gone either way and you have to make a conscious decision about what you’re going to do and whether you’re going to live with some level of enjoyment – or not much at all.
Having been a bass player for so many years, how difficult was it move to the front of the stage and front your own band?
Just as difficult as learning to walk again! I hadn’t ever really sung, or tried to sing until the age 40 something, so for me to think that I could do it without ever having tried it before was a pretty big ask. And it’s taken my years to get to the point where I’m not embarrassed to hear my own voice on record. Just learning to sing a little bit takes years to get confidence, and to know where your voice lies. Because I had that soul education I kept trying to sing falsetto but I just belong there. Now, I just sing where my voice feels comfortable.
Do you think being a bit older and wiser is a better time to start fronting a band?
No, it’s a crazy thing to do. But it was just something I felt I had to do. I’d been playing with a bunch of people who were very well-known performers and songwriters like Tex [Perkins], Kim [Salmon] and Spencer [P. Jones], and I’d think, “Who do I think that I am trying to compete with these guys, and who am I trying to compete with them?”
But I think I’m a person who can write a song and sing and I’ve got just as much right to try it myself. It’s one thing to supply cracking rock riffs for a band, having them write and sing the words and make them sound a lot better than you could yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try yourself.
The album that’s being released now in Australia [The Thing About Women] has been out for a couple of years overseas. What’s the story behind that?
It was simply the fact that I’ve never had an album released in Australia and Amphead was good enough to release it locally. I simply wanted, in my lifetime, to have a record released in Australia, so that’s what’s happened.
But in the meantime I’ve done a completely new record, which is untitled and unreleased, but the whole recording process is finished. I’ve just got to master it up and find a label for it. And that’s the one I want to focus on for the rest of the year.
The latest album is titled The Thing About Women. What’s “the thing about women”?
I should’ve put a question mark after that. It’s more a question than a statement.
Your first album [Lemon Lime & Bitter], has a very acerbic edge to it. Was that record a very cathartic record to make?
I had a lot of anger and frustration I had to get off my chest before I could even think what I was going to do as a songwriter and musician, so I just blurted it all out. For better or worse, that’s what it was.
For your latest (unreleased) record, has the anger tempered?
Certainly. I think there’s a lot more repose in the delivery and the production values are way in advance of what I’ve done before. And I’ve got to thank Mick Harvey for all that. He’s been a great supporter, he’s all over the record, he plays acoustic guitar, he plays drums, bass, even does backing vocals. I worked him really hard. But if you’ve got someone like that supporting you why not use them to their fullest potential?
What was it like supporting Nick Cave on his recent Australian tour?
It was great. It was the first time I’d put my hand in front of a large audience. Obviously most of the audience had never seen me, though I imagine a few had heard of me. It was just so good to get in front of a big audience, and I think it went over pretty well. And it was pretty funny to have Mick Harvey in a disguise – he was wearing a false moustache and a hat.
What do you have planned in the future?
I want to start the wheels in motion to get this new record I’ve recorded released – that’s what I’m concentrating on.
Is there any chance the Beasts will play again?
Oooh. I know that the first three Beasts albums are being re-released as a triple pack, so it’s more likely it would be the original line-up promoting those first releases than the latter line-up doing the same old thing again.
Did you find with the last lot of Beasts shows that it had got to the point that there was an expectation about how the Beasts would behave which was hard to live down?
Sometimes it’s hard to live down, and sometimes it’s true, and sometimes it’s not. When it gets down to it you just get up on stage and play and all the other stuff is bullshit. So what if someone gets drunk one night, or someone stuffs up? If you get up and play good Beasts of Bourbon music, that’s what it’s all about. All the other folklore stuff is just that – some of it’s true and some of it’s not. Some of it’s dumb things not to be mentioned again, but I don’t think that’s any different to any other band that’s been around for a while.
I’m re-posting on my blog this interview which was first published on long gone Mess + Noise website in April 2009 by Patrick Emery under the title M+N’s Icons. Which was a great set of interviews of all kinds of Aussie indie music types but I’m only re-posting Brian Henry Hooper‘s one on my little blog. Brian passed away earlier this year so when I found this one was thinking it’s a nice little tribute to him in his own words and everything!
On Friday 16 November at Prince Bandroom, St Kilda a stellar cast of Hooper’s musical allies which does included Tex Perkins, Mick Harvey, Kim Salmon, Gareth Liddiard, JP Shilo, Steve Boyle, Michael Halloran, Daniel Tucceri and Jules Sheldon will come together at the Prince of Wales Hotel to launch the posthumous What Would I Know? album, as well as playing songs from Hooper’s previous three solo records. Come along and celebrate the brilliance and perennial style of Brian Henry Hooper. With support from Tendrils (Joel Silbersher& Charlie Owen) so get your tickets here!