Peter Fenton Opens His Lovers Arms

This is an older interview of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word.

Originally published September 2004.

I’m walking into a small, backstreet hotel bar in Sydney on a Friday afternoon. Office-workers are beginning to fill the streets. A mirror-ball hangs from the roof of the front bar, while the best in Rat Pack tunes float through the cigarette smoke. It seems a fitting place to speak to singer and actor Peter Fenton, about his debut solo disc In The Lovers Arms (Inertia), given that it takes place in a mythical hotel – and given the fact that he’s previously starred in a TV series set in such a locale (the ABC’s Love Is A Four Letter Word.). There’s something slightly seedy – yet charming – about the setting that just seems right.

Fenton is sitting at a table in the back as I arrive. Over drinks, we begin to discuss his career, weighted towards his latest release. The first question is simple: though he’s been playing occasional gigs for years since the demise of Crow, how come it’s taken until now for him to release something under his own moniker? What’s he been up to?

“I made the last Crow record in, I think, ‘98, then made Praise. Then, I had some time off and made a drama series for the ABC: Love Is A Four Letter Word, and for the first time in my life felt free enough to do nothing. I guess in that time, you become a bit of a sponge. You collect things on the way. I was collecting nothing of musical value.

“I had some piano tunes I’d done and was toying with the idea of doing a straight piano record. But I started hanging out with David Lane and started playing some shows. He had a regular night at the Beach Road [Hotel] in Bondi. So we’d get up there – Jim Elliott played drums – so it became that I was back into music again. Back in the brethren of song ideas and song structure. And when you get to that point, when you start writing again, it takes on its own path anyway. To sit here talking to you, releasing the record, back to that time back in 2001 or something when I started writing it, is a bit of a leap of faith, really. And, to a degree, a tentative step back into music. I sort of worried that, you know, would anyone be interested, and was I being indulgent in wanting to make a record.”

Was Fenton’s ongoing sojourn in the world of stage and screen perhaps a reaction to the fact that Crow – though critically championed – failed to reap large-scale success? Could it be that he was disenchanted with music because of the fickleness, perhaps, of its audience?

“Well, maybe that was my fault,” he concedes. “I never wrote that kind of breakout song. I never wrote ‘I’m A Loser, Baby’, something that took the world by storm. But to the same degree, I’m really happy to look back on that time in Crow and think that we got a whole bunch of great life experience, and we made a few records that I’ll treasure for ever.

It seems, though, that this change of life – from bandleader to solo artist – hasn’t changed the writing process.

“I still write songs pretty much the same. I guess I’ve enjoyed a lot the experience of writing under my own steam, and with no outsiders, without the gang mentality of playing in a band, which gets to be like wearing a uniform. You pull on your Crow uniform and it’s like a job that you do, a character that you inhabit. This record was good in the way that it was more me in that the songs seemed to come from a more contented angle. And that’s a word I really worry about using, because it could be perceived as being boring or staid.”

Contentment is something that’s layered all over Fenton’s solo debut. There’s a feeling – though a certain pissed-offedness still lurks about – that things are happier in his life than they were before. Given the artist’s recent move out of Sydney to a more rural surrounding – with family in tow – has this contentedness changed the songs he produces?

“The songs are less cryptic, I suppose. Less dysfunctional puzzle. I felt that I could write with honesty and talk of things of happiness and solitude and love. I could come from there, rather than being the paradigm of dysfunctional Australian rock.”

Could it be that Peter Fenton has finally escaped the “angular” tag?

He smiles.

“Mm. And I don’t think anybody is going to say that this is a dark record. Which lagged along like an albatross for a long time.”

Because Crow was a dark, brooding band?

“That’s right. And I’ve got many a page, many a paragraph in print to prove it. I guess it’s the evolution of yourself. I wonder, if I was here talking to you about another kind of song where I’m digging into my childhood…” He trails off. “I don’t want to go there again.”

“You know, left to your own devices, there are several paths you can go [down]. But really, the reality is that you’re dictated by the songs and your own mood – your own place and your own history. It seems a little highbrow. But I just found real joy in writing really simple, simply-structured songs. I know that I’m not writing straight-ahead, four-on-the-floor rock songs, so elements that are idiosyncratic to me will still be there. But maybe if I endeavour to make it really simple, it’ll be different, you know? I don’t really aim for a connection, but you know, I suppose that in writing a song then you write a song that connects with you. It sounds like something you’d self-administer, that stabs you somewhere. And out of that comes the suck of the song.”

An aspect of the recording that is different to previous albums Fenton has worked on is that he played a larger role on the producer’s side of the desk – he and Wayne Connolly are responsible for how it sounds – as well as footing the bill for the enterprise. It also saw digital technology play a larger part in the process.

“I was in the situation of paying for this record myself, so we worked out that I could go down and record in a nice little studio in town, Velvet, and record the drums, piano, bass and a bit of guitar straight onto 24-track tape to get that nice sound that you get out of that medium. I booked out a rehearsal room in the Bondi Pavilion and I did the guitars there. Then, I went over to a friend, Dean Manning’s house, and he had all these strange archaic keyboards, so I did a night there. We just rolled it off onto ProTools – this software that almost every musician has – and my record then sat in an external hard drive, which was pretty scary.”

Were there any technophobe heart-stopper moments as a result of that?

“I remember trying to plug it in at home and it said it couldn’t read the device. So we had this freak-out night. But you always have these anxieties when you record. You become this different person.You look a dozen times before you cross the street because you don’t want to go underneath a bus just yet – there’s one final thing to do, and then you can die happy! But it’s so untrue, because it just keeps on going.”

He smiles at the thought, before continuing.

Amanda Brown did some strings on a song. I did a film with her. And Amanda just dropped in this disc , because she’s got ProTools too. She just said ‘Hi, I’ve got that string arrangement for ‘Where Does The City Sleep’. I’ll drop it in. She literally just dropped a CD off, threw it on, did a quick mix and we had it. I hadn’t heard what she’d done.

“Wayne has been restoring – for the last five or ten years or so – this beautiful old Neve desk. Because we’d recorded to digital we ran it out, through the Neve, then back in again which gives it an elusive sort of quality to the sounds. it was one of those great moments where old world and new world worked and came up with a really nice sounding record. Through Wayne recording things and being interested in the old microphones. You know, he’d put a mic over here, then he’d listen, then run over and move it 2cm over and say ‘Yeah, I think that’s good now!’ [It’s an] amazing ear that he has. He’s a really nice, funny, insightful person to work with. He’s incredibly calming, too, for someone who’s rolling the dice, so to speak, in making records. Wayne was really lovely to work with, and recorded things beautifully.”

In The Lovers Arms sounds like a record made amongst mates. Was that the way it was?

“Totally,” says Fenton. “One of the great things was, telling people I admire – Ben Fletcher, Richard Andrew, David Lane – that I was going to make a record. And the reply was simple: where? When? It’s a record made of some semblance of friendship. It’s a good place to work from – probably an ideal.”

The sense of a cresting wave, musically-speaking – something that’s a holdover from Fenton’s Crow days – makes an appearance on his new disc, too. There’s a spaciousness to the record that seems intentional.

“The record was heavily influenced by me, me and the ocean. If I could call it The Ocean Songs or something – I think Polly Harvey or maybe Warren Ellis might say something – I would. But you know, I did have to go a bit further and construct some fictitious device called The Lovers Arms so that I could put myself in an urban environment. Because Li-Lo-Ing, especially, I find a very pastoral record. [Warren] Ellis played on it and Peter Archer – my songwriting buddy in Crow – was writing beautiful campfire stuff. So that’s the kind of leap that I’ve made; to me, a record that shifts like an ocean would, but has the sheer kind of humbling majesty of such influences in it.”

The idea of a fictional pub – online, Fenton suggests that it’s a place where those who’ve passed on can gather, in a John Edwards meets Edward Hopper kind of way. Was it always intended as such? And is it a concept album? Certainly, the cover – all soft-focus and dreamlike visual, riddled with a sense of nostalgia or melancholy – would indicate something of the kind…

“When I started writing ‘In The Lovers Arms’ on the piano – it was one of the first songs that I’d written from a piano perspective – the thing that came into my mind was that Edward Hopper [tribute] Boulevard Of Broken Dreams with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart in it. I am, to a degree, a sentimental bloke. I’m interested in my ancestry and in elements of nostalgia. But by the same token, these are things you fight against when you’re writing. It’s a concept album, but it’s not like a cinema soundtrack. It’s not a record for a movie that hasn’t been made yet.

It’s not a Barry Adamson record, then?

“No. But I’d love to make a record with that guy. You know, I wanted the cover of the album to look like a still in a film. I guess things aren’t on the surface. Things are subconscious. They come up when you write… maybe I’m a character playing this role. But I think that just ties into the idea of yourself and the fictional facade that we are to a degree.”

As in the masks we put up when we go into the world?

“Exactly. That shirt’s me. Those shoes are me.”

Given that there’s a concept behind the disc, is Fenton keen to ascribe a categorical meaning to the collection of songs? Is he, like other artists, keen to say exactly what his songs mean?

“No, I find that I don’t want to be some kinda song cop: ‘Please recognise my work for the lucid genius that it is’…”

But you are a champion of the word ‘curmudgeon’, I point out. (Taken from a description of Patrick White, it appears on the album’s title track.) The singer says that someone had to work it into a tune; for the next album, he might work on my suggestion of ‘lugubrious’.

The besuited troubadour that the cover of In The Lovers Arms portrays isn’t exactly something new for Fenton. He has a reputation for being a dapper kind of gent, even in full-rock mode. But, more fittingly, it’s something he explored a little more fully with his post-Crow ensemble, The Slinky Moonlight Revue, a bunch of musicians who played semi-regularly around Sydney, backing the singer as he performed a mix of covers and originals. It’s a persona that seems to crop up a little on this record, too – particularly in the song ‘Love Makes Everything Swell’. Is he cultivating another musical uniform?

“No. But you’ve picked up on a stepping stone in what I’ve been up to in that once I finished with Crow. I wasn’t writing, but I still liked playing, getting people together and playing. And sometimes other people’s songs just say what you’re feeling and thinking than you could say or write yourself, so The Slinky Moonlight Revue was just me kinda sinking into other people’s tunes, just having fun with music. It’s like this other outfit, called The Bruised Ecstatic Collective. For an encore we said ‘How about ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ by Elvis?’ I was fascinated by it, because it’s one of the rare songs that Presley wrote himself. But to play it, the actual music is like a circle, then back again, then like a different circle, then back again… it’s an enigmatically-written song. I was really fascinated with it, so we jumped up on stage, played it, and said ‘Here’s a sing-along song’ and for once in my life, everyone in the room sang along with the song.”

I point out that at one of Crow’s farewell gigs, one of the last tunes the band played was ‘Old Blue Rockpile’, with the whole of the Annandale Hotel singing along. Is that kind of reaction weird?

“No. Quite unweird! If you write songs and are playing in public, there’s no greater feeling than engaging everyone in the room. I’m not Neil Finn, and when I jump onstage, people don’t automatically sing along word-for-word. It’s really nice for someone who works from a point as music being some kind of throwback to Irish ancestry, where people get around and sing in pubs. For example, last year I did this Irish documentary of Ned Kelly – I played Ned, and did the music for it as well, with, Amanda Brown from The Go-Betweens. But when we were filming in northwest Victoria with the Irish director and his wife from Dublin, we’d knock off and go to the pub and have dinner. People would go up to bed and we’d stay up. And [the director’s wife] was one of those great Irishwomen who’d say ‘Oh, Peter, sing me a song!’ And so I’d stand up and I’d sing. I think I did one of my own, like ‘Mirrors Trouble’ or something off Play With Love. And once you do it, it’s quite addictive. I imagine it’s the thrill of karaoke, that it’s terrifying, but once you do it, the power of self-expression becomes some opiate. Maybe that’s…”

Why he keeps doing it?

“Yeah. Maybe I’m just a guy with a bad habit.”

Another compulsive habit of Fenton’s is political critique. There’s references to Australia’s current climes on the record – see ‘Z-Grader’’s searing indictment of self-satisfaction, or ‘Sway’’s plaintive wondering about the origin of prevalent attitudes for an example – so I wonder; how important the political world, the world of current events is to the singer.

His answer is immediate.

“I’m really stuck on politics, to be honest with you. I’m really angry about politics and the way the world seems to run. I’m concerned about it to an almost obsessive sort of level. But I really fight against that. I’m not Midnight Oil. I can’t sit down and write some sort of damning, scathing indictment. I really struggle when I write. I write lyrics straight off the bat just to get the structure in, and they’re usually quite slanderous and defamatory. So I take that and I rework it.”

So the way things are going in Australia – in relation to our place in the world – are of concern?

“Yeah, I really wonder how we got to this point of sort of inventing this idea that people would throw their children into the water. I wonder what’s beneath that as a society. I’m fascinated with the whole idea of people like Peter Reith or Tony Abbott. They seem to sit around, concocting things to hurt people who’re vulnerable and seeking something good. It’s done with much passion. It’s my life’s path to draw some income out of my life’s passion, but I can’t compete with those people. They’re too fierce. I just find it hard to penetrate people like that. And then Peter Reith goes off, retires from politics and and joins Tenix, a major military industrial company in Australia… I just think it’s sicko-world.

“But see, I think all these things and the best thing I can come up with is a line in, say ‘Z-Graders’ where I say ‘A crowded boat comes towards you but you keep on sailing by’ and I’ll leave it at that. There’s people crying out for help, and we’re on this kind of luxury yacht called Australia, and we’re like ‘Hey, Daddy! Those people didn’t wave back!’ ‘But it’s all right, they had their hands full chucking their kids overboard.’ You want to reference these things but you don’t want to hit people over the head with it. You don’t want to become a whinger. There’s a big thing in this country about being a whinger. Piers Ackerman’s articles in the Daily Telegraph talk about hand-wringing lefties – it’s really insulting. But that’s what you come across as someone who expresses themselves.

“I wish that we were enquiring enough to work out what’s going on beneath the surface. I don’t think the thing to do is to go bomb a place with this idea of pre-emptive strikes. And then the media follows on and says we’re doing the right thing. It’s really hard to find enquiring journalism. There’s a guy in Iraq at the moment, I think he writes for The Bulletin or something, and I think he’s kinda done some vox pops or something. He looks like some kind of bush guy and is like [adopts Steve Irwin voice] ‘Yeah, all right, I’m livin’ here amongst ‘em! They’ve taken me in! And I’m just tryin’ to work out what’s goin’ on!’ It’s really beautiful to see guys like that sort of working it out. You know, not salivating over some press release from The White House or Parliament House.”

Or, I suggest, broadcasting from a local TV station’s studio, clad in a Kevlar vest.

“Yeah, in a flak jacket. I’d hope you’re getting danger money – you better go see your union about that.”

(Which is true: after all, in such a setting, you could be steamrolled by an elder political commentator or newsreader, right?)

“Exactly. As he dives for cover.”

Those terrorists are everywhere, after all.

“They are, you know. They could be working in the kitchen. You won’t see him [the nameless elder political commentator] in the kitchen. He takes his own sandwiches. It’s all very processed ham, and these funny eggs. Mulched egg. A civilisation of disturbed eggs.”

Dining habits of network icons aside, I ask Fenton if he’s keen to work with the same band of musicians again, given that the working process of In The Lovers Arms was so easy.

“No. The next record, that I’m writing at the moment, I’m thinking that someone like Jay Walker of Machine Translations would be good, I’ve always wanted to make a record with my friend John Wilsteed up in Brisbane. I’d like to make a record with Richard Andrew, who owns his own recording company. Australia has a phenomenal amount of interesting musicians.”
Are those musicians, in his view, given enough recognition by the nation?

“Well, no. Because it turns us into gamblers. We’re gamblers. The Tax Office and accountants perceive us as people who’re taking a gamble with their lives; why can’t we get a regular job? I crave being on a drip, being in a company and getting a regular wage. At the moment I’m scratching around. I did a television commercial for Toyota the year before last and one last year – a commercial in Nepal – which was a lot of fun and is how I have enough money to make the record. In some sort of way I saw that I was laundering money – turning it from corporate work, and taking a risk of being perceived as being seen as some sort of corporate prostitute, and making a record that had some humanity about it. Is there a shame in taking cynicism and imbuing it with a romantic edge? I think that’s kind of what I’m doing.”

“We’re displaced people, Australians. I guess it takes a trip overseas to give you some objectivity about what the Australian psyche is. But I’ve done limited travel overseas – I travelled with Crow two times to America, and went to Spain and Germany on film festival junkets. That’s all I’ve done. I’m interested but can’t articulate it because I lack that objectivity. I don’t know what is that unique thing that I’m bringing to the world of music, to put in an undeserving, highbrow kind of way.”

I comment that it’s funny that Australians tend to eat their young – to demolish the things we create.

“Yeah, that kind of self-deprecation that Tim Rogers wheels out – that shrug of the shoulders. I really identify with it, but it perhaps becomes some kind of shtick to hide behind. Perhaps from just wanting to belong? It’s difficult. I’m living outside of Sydney now, in amongst people who you know drive Volvos and horse floats. I just wanted to get out and rent a little farmhouse. I go to dinner with people and it’s ironic, that kind of self-consciousness bordering on embarrassment from ordinary Australians about being an artist. It’s great, to a degree – you’re the guy that did the movie, a celebrity. That’s exciting. But you play music… I guess I don’t want to make too much of it, but it can be quite damaging to your ego to be a songwriter as opposed to a champion footy player.

“It’s perplexing to be in a situation where, [according to] the pillars of society, you’re scratching around in the wrong area. It’s all a bit of an inconvenience, and if you’re starting to criticise or ask questions – getting back to Piers Ackerman – you’re branded an unAustralian handwringer. And you know, I guess there’s enough of a community out there of people who are culturally active and who have enough of a love of their country and some sort of sense of nationalism that they’re prepared to put their heads on the chopping block for it and say ‘Hey, guys, it works like this – there’s a pulley system…’”

Is that the sort of role that Fenton sees artists involved with politics being thrown into? Do musos who dare enter the world of politics get a tougher time? Is that what the people in the Rock Against Howard campaign are up against? It seems the singer has experience in this realm.

“At the last election, there was a campaign called Howard’s End. There’s a really stellar man called Michael McMartin, a Canadian national who has lived in Australia for many years and manages the Hoodoo Gurus. Michael and I went to Triple J to talk about Howard’s End, and I have to say that in my whole experience of dealing with media, I have never been subjected to such an intense interview-grilling as I experienced there. And then to walk out of the studio and have everyone say ‘Yeah, me too – but we’ve really got to watch our jobs around here… I’m the first one to go’, repeatedly… it was the ugly side to democracy.”

Like an enforced complicity?

“Totally. We are expected to be complicit animals. We’re supposed to be a herd, a herd of Australians. That’s why you relish people like Tim Winton or Don Walker or Neil Murray or Kev Carmody, guys who are just doing what they do, but are shaped by things that are far more provocative than the leader of the Liberal coalition. We pride ourselves on being a nation of characters, but we’re only a nation of characters because we shoot fuckers down if they’re different. So they become wily in the way of social intercourse, and able to protect themselves by being witty or by being a good guitar player. It’s ironic. It’s an irony which is fascinating. Australian sociology and all the great Western powers have a paradigm of ironic individualism.”

These are not topics lightly discussed, usually, in a media appointment to plug an artist’s latest album. But the passion with which the singer discusses them is indicative of the fire with which he approaches everything; acting, and now, once more, music. The passion for communication shines through, and it’d be churlish to stop it in mid-flow.

We’ve now run way overtime with the interview, but Fenton is still particularly generous – a big call when a filmmaking mate of his has been spotted walking into the other bar. I decide to let him get on with his evening, but not without wondering what’s next on the agenda. More acting? Or has the album-making itch set in in earnest again?

“Acting’s such an ephemera. Having a conservative government might be great for revolution and ideas – good rock music comes out of the kicking against the pricks mentality – but I’m like every other actor. I’m waiting around for the phone to ring. But I can wait with a guitar in my hand and please my soul that way. As I said before, about wondering and saying that I don’t want to get hit by a bus while I’m recording a record, well it’s started again, because I’ve started writing the next record, so I’m very careful about what I do and what I say.”

So he’s intent on avoiding those buses both figurative and literal, eh?

He laughs.

“It reminds me of Gaudí, this great Spanish architect, who, as an elderly man, got knocked over by a tram and buried in a pauper’s grave because nobody recognised him. Actually, it was on the street of the cathedral – the Sagrada Familia – that he built. It can happen! I wonder what the Freudians amongst us would say about that…”

Christ, this was a long interview. Interesting but my god, how many words? I guess when you’re talking to one of your favourite songwriters, the concept of reeling it in a bit is a bit difficult.

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