BEACH TO THEIR OWN (Part 2/2)
Its taken a while, but the soon come TRIFFIDS album (The Black Swan) will finally force the unwashed masses to recognise them as an Australian export to match Fosters, XXXX and Dame Edna Everidge! Back in their native Perth sun-trap DAVID McCOMB and company are involved in an amazingly complex web of extra-Triff activities. GAVIN MARTIN packs the industrial fly-spray and attempts to make sense of it all.
ON a night off, McComb drives me out to the Burswood Casino gambling complex, open 24 hours, free in, all night license and the only legal gambling place in the area.
The purpose of the visit is to view Rita Mendenez, the Mexican opera singer who left her homeland in mysterious circumstances. In Perth she met up with Phil Kakulas and soon joined him in England to add some demented and seriously spine chilling backing vocals to the Triffids album. While Rita does her delicate high wire act, a charlatan hypnotist who has fled to Perth to escape tax evasion charges in the East waits in the wings.
Unimpressed with the top-of-the bill act and unable to get plucked from the audience and the chance to make an exhibition of ourselves, we leave early. Tonight the real show is outside as the moon is bathed in a red eclipse.
On the way out we pass Rob Snarski. Despite the guys tender years and baby face features, he is reputedly a reformed gambler (perhaps in recognition of this fact Snarski will later sing a revamped version of Presleys Viva Las Vegas for one of tour tracks recorded for a Black Eyed Susans EP.) And he has found a novel and lucrative way of rehabilitating himself. Dressed up to the nines in a shiny tux and dicky bow he is manning the tables as a croupier.
Evidently besotted by Mendenez performance McComb is explaining how his original plan for the Triffids was to have a lead female singer. He was a substitute who never got replaced. Doesnt his outside interests, the wild diversification of the material on The Black Swan and the augmented line-up on the LP not suggest that The Triffids now contain several bands trying to escape?
"There was a point when I said maybe all these songs shouldnt be on a Triffids album, maybe it should be three EPs or something. I came to the conclusion that the group has to grow or die by having things introduced to them. People in the band are quite able to cope with a rapid rate of change."
"Its not a premeditated plan for a solo career. But things like that make me think about what will happen to the band and hopefully make the others think about what will happen to the band as well."
"Its a band of friends and a touring band, not everyone plays on all the songs on the record because the song is the optimum thing, getting the right atmosphere for a piece of music. People have to make sacrifices and naturally that sometimes creates tension."
"This might seem like a corny thing to say but the Triffids isnt just about six people, what band could be. Other people are involved whether or not they appear in the publicity shots. As it happen I think that the six people who are in the Triffids are the best people to represent them when they go around the world."
I am flabbergasted to learn that although shes been back in Perth for four months, Jill Birt has yet to make it down to the beach. When we first meet shes in her garden, watering the petunias and the eucalyptus tree, tending the flowers that grow glorious and easy - bottlrebrush, kangaroo paw, the spider orchard and even a Black Eyed Susan or two. Shes enjoying the chance to get domestic.
quite good to come back here from London and get involved in the minor community issues. But after a while you have to get out again or you lose contact with reality which is how Im feeling right now."
As if to underline this sense of being distracted and disconnected , the first thing Jill dies is to pour me a nice cuppa, which turns out to be hot water (she forgot to put in teabags or leaves).
Later her and Alsy will fill me in on modern yuppie interests in isolated Western Australia. Outside dunnies or toilets which stopped being made in the 19th century, are now something of a status symbol. Get yourself a little place with an outdoor dunny, do it up and it could be the talk of your first barbecue.
Acquaintances say the pair have strange ways of passing the time themselves; their house is right on the flight path to Perth International Airport and they take advantage of their location to engage in plane spotting. Indeed when I casually remark that Ive ventured into Perths rather good public train system during the day Jill showers me with the sort of congratulations usually reserved for someone whos successfully completed the London marathon.
But they are good and informative company. they give a quick rundown of the countrys social history and ecological problems (the woodchippings left to cover the soil by the previous occupant are an ideologically unsound embarrassment to the happy couple. Other conversational topics are the effect of long term pharmaceutical ingestion o the size of Elvis Presleys penis and speculation as to when divers trawling Sydney harbour will find the jewellery flung there by Little Richard when he gave up rocknroll for God Almighty in the early 60s.
But they refuse to be interviewed formally. Theyve regretted things that have been said in the past and prefer to let McComb do the talking. But isnt he, I chide, a bit crazy?
"No, not really."
Cmon he must be. Everybody else Ive ever met was, especially in this place.
"Well sure everybodys fucked up to a certain degree but theres people who are fucked up and try to do something about it. Dave at least has a sense of humour."
One of the many possible outfits suggested by The Black Swan is the Jill Birt Band. The former Methodist school boarder takes the lead vocal on the McComb composition Goodbye Little Boy (born, I suspect, out of his most recent fascination with the production line girl groups of the 60s.)
Its a modern girlie pop classic - breathy charm with a sting in the tale, a sure fire hit whenever the necessary radio edit has been made of the line "Im so fucking tired".
And there is Good Fortune Rose, her own composition, a delicately blossoming thing etching a young girls aspirations on the cusp of womanhood - a heady mix of innocence and sophistication. An attempt to get her to talk about the song in closer detail immediately puts her back up.
"Personal experience? Of course its personal experience, isnt everything? Thats the stupidest question Ive ever heard. Do you ask everyone that? "Personal experience "
"The great thing about Jills songs is that theyre the first shes ever written and the first 10 songs that anyone writes are usually the best, theyre so fresh and alive." Says David McComb, comparing her attitude to work and interviews to Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser.
"She probably think that youre going to print everything that she says; shes not ready for that. When Jill was going to join the band I interviewed a techno keyboard player who was a brilliant musician but he wasnt right. Jill joined for fun, friendship and adventure. Those are far better reasons."
But isnt she a bit scatty, a bit too lazy for her own good, Dave?
"What, you mean shes not as sick as I am? I wouldnt like to be a yardstick that everyone elses work rate gets judged against."
It transpires that Birts ambition is a not so simple. She wants to be a pop star, but a pop star like Michael Jackson or Prince, unmanipulated, private and immune to the petty bitchery of the press. Perhaps she should put through a phone call to Paisley Park - "Well he does seem to like his women. All I can say is that he must be kept very busy."
Last time she was mentioned in the NME, Jill was referred to as a cube-shaped monstrosity, a description that left her understandably puzzled and concerned. She recounts this detail on a photo shoot in the blistering midday heat in the shadow of the blackened towering trees of Kings Park (bored, someone recently incinerated a sizeable part of the forest). In her red dress and black monkey boots she looks anything but monstrous, anything but cube-shaped.
From the farming town of Tambellup, Jill is the product of a deeply religious family who have gone through several revivals since her great-great-grandmother was shipped out as a convict (crime - stealing a pouch of tobacco). She attributes the family interest in religion to the women-folk-farmers wives dont get much outlet, the church provides it. This background seem to have served her elder brothers well - one, having spent 10 years in Indonesia, is preparing to go to the Philippines for a similar period. Another has realised the lucrative possibilities in new age religion and has set up a college in the north administering costly five year awareness courses.
For Jill, however, escape and travel as the key to her future. She attended the female half of the religious school where McComb studied. Like him, she complains that its left her with a tendency to compose in a grandiose hymnal style. When the opportunity came to leave she made it to Perth to study fine art and soon formed an all-girl punk band, What Are Little Boys Made Of, a sister outfit to male art comedy group Fill Up My Love Pump.
The chants of "spread em" and "get yer gear off" that greeted WALBMO performances were, suggest Alsy, partially explained by the drummers love of playing the "180 degree shift" and a demo tape doing the rounds at the time on which it was possible to "hear the bass players boyfriend fingering her notes from behind."
The rest of the band are still in Perth, still friends, maybe theyll do something along the lines of The Black Eyed Susans one day.
"I have got the ideas for some of the most fantastic schemes but I have trouble putting them into operation. I can sing opera but its just something that I do around the house. Cant you just have a private side that you keep to yourself? Wouldnt it be good if you could turn yourself inside out sometimes," says Jill at the end of the shoot.
Some years ago, before she went off and did the deed herself, our own Cath Carroll asked, where is the Jill Birt solo record? The worlds still waiting and sos Jill for "the time, the money and the songs." In the meantime Good Fortune Rose and Goodbye Little Boy will do just fine.
Reproduced from the NME 15th April 1989
Part 1 of this Interview