An Interview with Chris Bailey of The Saints by Tony Adolescent: New intro by Kurt Morris, originally ran in Flipside

Artwork by Laura Collins

 

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While The Saints may not be as well known as many of their 1970s punk contemporaries, Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats (and later of the Live Aid concert series) is quoted as saying, “Rock music in the seventies was changed by three bands—the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and The Saints.” Nick Cave described the influence of The Saints by saying, “They were kind of god-like to me and my colleagues. They were just always so much better than everybody else. It was extraordinary to go and see a band that was so anarchic and violent.” There was certainly no bigger punk band from Australia at that time than The Saints. The lineup of Chris Bailey on vocals, Kym Bradshaw on bass, Ivor Hay on drums, and Ed Kuepper on guitar, showcased a sound that not only predated many of the other ‘70s punk bands, but displayed a legitimacy to Australian punk that hadn’t been sensed up to that point.

While The Saints have released over a dozen studio albums in their career, it was their first two albums that gained them the most notoriety in the punk community. Formed in Brisbane in the early part of the ‘70s, The Saints released their debut, (I’m) Stranded, in 1977. The sound was influenced by groups such as The Stooges, New York Dolls, and even Elvis Presley, but by no means was a facsimile of any of those acts. The upbeat drumming and buzzsaw guitars, mixed with a rough-sounding mix, showed a band that knew how to craft a good tune but still keep a coarse edge. Their tenacious sound signaled that while they may not have been as well known as the Ramones or The Clash, The Saints were a force worth reckoning.

Their second album, Eternally Yours, was released in 1978. It was recorded in London and produced by Bailey and Kuepper. While the album retained a punk edge, it also saw the band seeking to make their identity within the punk community. So, for Eternally Yours they included horns, keyboards, harmonica, and some R&B influence throughout the album. Alasdair Ward replaced Bradshaw on bass, but all the other members remained the same.

Since their releases in the ‘70s, The Saints’ music hasn’t treaded in what most would consider punk territory. And since Eternally Yours, literally dozens of people have played in the band. The one constant has been vocalist Chris Bailey. Regardless of the sound and member changes, The Saints’ place in Australian music has been secure. In May 2001, the Australasian Performing Rights Association celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary and named “(I’m) Stranded” in its Top 30 Australian songs of all time. In September of that year, the original lineup of The Saints came together for a one-off reunion when they were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association Hall of Fame. “(I’m) Stranded” was one of the first twenty songs stored on the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry in 2005.

In January 2009, as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties touring festival—curated by Mick Harvey of The Birthday Party—The Saints, with Bailey, Arturo LaRizza, and original members Hay and Kuepper, played shows in Brisbane, Sydney, and Mount Buller, Victoria, Australia. This was followed by a Melbourne show where they performed (I’m) Stranded in its entirety. In October of 2010, (I’m) Stranded was listed at number twenty in the book, 100 Best Australian Albums. Their third album, Prehistoric Sounds, also appeared on the list at number forty-one.

Since 2010, The Saints have remained silent.

–Kurt Morris, 2012

It’s not often that I find myself in a position of awe. Most of that kind of feeling, especially when talking to a musician, left long ago—I thought. When Chris Bailey called my house to do an interview that was arranged by Triple X Records in November of 1997 though, I found myself fumbling for words. Go figure. Chris was patient with my stammers, my tendency to interrupt, and my repetition. Nice guy. Anyway, here it is…

Chris Bailey of The Saints was interviewed by Tony Adolescent on November 16, 1997. This interview originally ran in Flipside.

Bailey: Hello. Is Tony there? This is Chris Bailey calling.

Reflex: Yeah, this is Tony. Hi Chris. Wow… uh… you sure are punctual!

Bailey: This is me being very out of character. Mr. Punctuality I usually am not. So, this goes to prove there is a first for everything!

Reflex: [laughing] Great… let me grab my stuff. I’m really glad you called. I have some things I want to ask you and I put it around here somewhere, now I’m shaking in my boots trying to find it… here we go. Bruce (Duff, ADZ, Triple X) told me you were a swell guy. I was really excited when he called me up and asked if I’d like to interview you.

Bailey: Well god bless young Bruce Duff. What a gentleman and a scholar he is as well.

Reflex: Yeah, he’s a great guy. I know from what I’ve read about you that you don’t like to delve too far back into the past history of The Saints, but to give you a bit of background on Flipside and its readers; it’s one of the oldest of the American fanzines. It started in the Los Angeles area about twenty years ago and has a readership of varied ages, many of whom may not be familiar with your band.

Bailey: Certainly.

Reflex: The band started way back in Australia. Where is the band located right now?

Bailey: Um…well, let’s see. Malcolm, the drummer, lives in Copenhagen. Michael and Andy live in London. And I, for the last couple of months, have lived in Amsterdam and pretty much plan to be based out of here for a while.

Reflex: So you plan to stay in Holland for a while?

Bailey: Well, yes, for the last couple of years I haven’t really been based out of anywhere. I’ve been kind of vagabonding my way around mainly, though I do go to Australia once a year—once every other year. Middle Europe is where I figure I’ll be “rooted,” as they say.

Reflex: Do you have a stronger fan base or is it just that living is better for you there?

Bailey: I must admit that Europe is the place where I feel most comfortable. I mean… ah… oh god, it’s not like I feel I’m ready to “settle down.” I’ve been spending a lot of time in Northern Europe and Scandinavia and while they are very beautiful, they’re also as boring as bat shit. Viva la difference, shall I say?

Reflex: Well, yeah, when you compare it to Amsterdam!

Bailey: Uh…yeah. Amsterdam is centrally located and makes lots of places accessible. And it’s very beautiful. I like the ambiance and the contradictions. It’s very pleasant. The funny thing is I’m the only person I know who doesn’t smoke pot. I think that’s quite ironic. In Amsterdam, all of my friends, well most of them anyway, are quite mad pot heads. That’s very humorous.

Reflex: Yeah, I know what you mean. People ask me about the pot in Amsterdam and I have to say, “I don’t know” because I don’t smoke. [laughter] It wasn’t one of the highlights of Amsterdam for me at all.

Bailey: I find it very amusing for me as well, because I don’t smoke and that’s the last thing I think about. I mean, Rembrandt comes to mind, the architecture. It’s a very artistic place. Anyway, for The Saints, I don’t think it really matters where they are that much—it’s very nice living in different countries—than you do with your work mates.

Reflex: Certainly makes quarreling less frequent!

Bailey: Absence does make the heart grow fonder, as the cliché goes. It makes it nice for us whenever we meet up.

Reflex: Yeah, makes it more like getting together with old friends. Now, the current line up is different from the one on the Howling album, is that right?

Bailey: That is correct. Howling was a test for myself to see if I really wanted to get back into a rock band. I’ve been thinking about doing it for a while. I have been making rustic, rather folky music. I was spending time with a friend of mine back in Los Angeles and we were writing some songs together and she banned me from playing an acoustic guitar (he is most likely referring to Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde who co-wrote one of the songs on Howling) and that one little catalyst got me interested in noisy rock music again. I did Howling and found it a very liberating experience. Compared to a lot of my recent work, it’s very un-orchestrated and it’s basically just guitar, bass, and drums. I’m finding that that is… refreshing. I’ve always loved fast, jungle-beat rock music. There’s a freshness in it for me.

Reflex: Oh yeah, turning it up can be a lot of fun.

Bailey: It certainly can. Piss off the neighbors but c’est la vie.

Reflex: When I look back on The Saints’ stuff from the ‘70s until now, I notice your style and approach may not always be in step with what is going on with other forms of popular rock or in the larger rock market. It’s refreshing for me because I can always count on your songwriting to be good and your material to be interesting. Even when it’s folky—and that’s not a genre that I’m crazy about—it’s always consistent.

Bailey: One thing that’s always appealed to me about The Saints, and as a solo artist—I have nothing against commerciality. I love fine wines and whatnot, but when it comes to making music—I found at a very early age that there were a lot of people who would be very happy to make formula music. Everything was very choreographed and they’ve treated it as a career, whereas I’ve always been a little  mad and I just… I hate to use the word “passion,” but I seem to have a passion for this stuff. It’s a cliché, I know, but I like rock music to be real. My timing with fads and trends has always been lousy. It also occurred to me as a young man that trends come and go rather quickly and I think if you’re lucky enough to find the core of what you do, well then it’s a lot of fun refining that.

Reflex: I think one of the keys, and certainly one that I see with (I’m) Stranded and definitely with Eternally Yours—which I think is one of the greatest rock records ever made—is that a great record has to be able to withstand the test of time. With those early records being released on Amsterdamned/Triple X, they’re still great records that sound as incredible now as they did in the seventies. Kids can pick them up and not realize how old the records are.

Bailey: They sent me a copy of the records, which I haven’t listened to. In the light of what you’ve said, I’m going to give them a listen. I actually haven’t listened to Eternally Yours in a very long time.

Reflex: Oh yeah, it’s a wonderful record. Really.

Bailey: I’m going to listen to it. It’s kind of nice. I just finished another interview and it strikes me as unusual that a label would be interested in material that is that old. It may not have been even released in the States before. I can’t remember if Sire actually ever released it or not.

Reflex: They did, but I’d say it was rather hodge-podged. When I bought it in the late seventies, I found it at a discount store as a cut-out for about half a dollar. I don’t ever recall seeing it in the stores like Talking Heads, Ramones, Dead Boys and the other Sire stuff.

Bailey: That was the impression I had got. The Saints hadn’t really gone over until the middle of the ‘80s with All Fool’s Day. That was what I considered the first true American release. We toured that album. People would say, “Is this your first one?”

Reflex: And it was like the sixth or seventh, right?

Bailey: Right. I think that because of the long gap that the same thing will apply to Howling. In a lot of respects, I really feel like Howling is almost like the first album. The attitude I had when recording it and the touring band—it’s almost like the first band I’ve been in, though I’ve been in numerous bands over the past twenty years. It has that—almost like in some twisted way—the decades have been put away and I’m kind of an over-enthusiastic, middle-aged teenager. Quite bizarre.

Reflex: [laughs, relates] I love Howling and got it as soon as I knew it was available here. I hadn’t known that Amsterdamned/ Triple X had acquired your stuff. I gave them a hard time for not telling me sooner because I talk to them a lot and they know how much I love the stuff. And they were like, “Oh, didn’t you know we are putting that stuff out?” I’ve listened to Howling since then and really like it a lot. I’m bubbling over, I’m sure, but this record is so full of texture and great songs.

Bailey: It has a certain ragged charm.

Reflex: It sure does.

Bailey: On behalf of all the girls involved, I thank you for liking it.

Reflex: Running through some of the press you got on Howling, I noted there were some squabbles with the engineer on the drum sound, which I find interesting because the snare has a great thud to it and I thought the guitar tones were sharp, too. I was wondering about a couple of things, particularly in regards to the song “Howling.” What kind of guitar and amp did you use and what did you do to get that nasty distortion on the vocals—that really “in the red” sound?

Bailey: You hit it in one, actually. It’s funny, the last set of records I’ve done have been very, very lush and very acoustic and sonically very well done. My raison d’etre behind the production of Howling was that I didn’t rehearse with the musicians. I had given everyone the basis of the tunes. I very rarely use vocal distortion because I feel I’m becoming a good singer and don’t bury the vocals as much as I did in the old days. It turned out that the microphone I used had a higher gain and recorded the vocals up in the red. The sound was perfect. I said, “Let’s not bother whining about the gain because it suits the song well.” And so, the distortion is not as predominant on the bass but it’s the vocal texture that sets up the stage for that deranged sound on that particular track. I think it has a definite ambiance.

Reflex: It’s appropriately titled.

Bailey: Every full moon…

Reflex: It’ll end up on Halloween compilations until the end of time. It has that… it’s truly a howl. It’s rock and roll the way it should be played.

Bailey: It’s been very refreshing talking to people the last few days because I was starting to feel a little odd. People are still making rock records and kids are out there making noise, but everything is sounding so tame to me. I don’t recall that being what rock music is about. I mean, it’s kinda like this scream. I’m not particularly fond of intellectual music. I don’t think it needs to be dumb but it needs to have a feel, a passion feel thing. For a record to be so neatly done… I don’t understand. Something’s gone wrong between the jungle and the recording studio.

Reflex: Somebody’s putting too many compressors on everything when they should be keeping their hands off the buttons.

Bailey: There will always be mad dogs like me that have peculiar tastes.

Reflex: It’s interesting to find a track like “Howling” which is such a howl and go in four tracks to “Something Wicked,” which is a beautiful song, and “Last Laughing Mile,” which is just gorgeous. It’s an interesting batch of texture that differs from your past stuff, which would stay in one genre record to record. Straight R&B rock or acoustic-driven rock or straight, kinda noisy rock. This is more textured than your last few albums.

Bailey: It’s funny you mentioned “Something Wicked” because I have set this sort of mock ban on myself that I would not use any acoustic guitar on Howling. So in the studio there was this sort of twenty-five string Spanish guitar called an Adamineum or something. I don’t know how we got that guitar tone.

Reflex: Really? It sounds so good!

Bailey: I just had the tune and I started showing one of the guys the tune and we recorded it straight and live with a toy drum machine. (The drum machine was pulled out of the mix dyour own.) But the actual guitar tone, while not beautiful, is quite metallic.

Reflex: It’s really bright. It sounds great.

Bailey: Hmm. You should see what it was recorded on.

Reflex: I would think you were lying to me! I’d say, “No way. It wasn’t recorded on that toy!”

Bailey: It’s strange. There are amazing things you can do with a good microphone and crummy tape recorder. I’m not anti-technology, in fact, I love computer stuff, but modern studios are like great big fun factories. I do sort of think that technology can get in the way. Funny thing; we just finished up the follow-up to Howling and even though it’s a much more hi-fi record, it was done with the same attitude. There’s a lot to be said for just throwing a microphone in a room and using the sound with a minimum of processing. If you use the right players it works, goddamnit!

Reflex: Any plans for the release of the new album in the States? Have you been negotiating with Triple X on this one?

Bailey: Well, so far, the relationship with Triple X has been mutually pleasing. They seem to be pleased with the albums and I think they’ll be deciding on the new one in the next month, actually.

Reflex: I’ll be bugging them. I want to hear it. Every day I’ll be bugging them. “So, have you decided yet?”

Bailey: They really quite liked Howling. When I first started thinking about Howling, I had three albums in mind with the same sort of approach that logically follow each other.

Reflex: And the next one is called? Do you have a working title?

Bailey: Only for myself because everyone else I know hates it. I want to call it Llama because I have this photograph of a llama that I like.

Reflex: [laughing]

Bailey: Somehow I don’t think that’s going to make it through the system. I told everyone in the band and gave them each two pages to work with—as well as for titles—and I’m still waiting for submissions. Who knows? I may actually get to use this snapshot I took of a llama in The Memphis Zoo, strangely enough.

Reflex: [laughing] Well, Llama sure sounds like a good working title to me.

Bailey: Actually, I think The Llama is better as it gets closer to completion. What’s a good ole boy gonna do with a llama? (The album was released in 1998 as Everybody Knows the Monkey.)

Reflex: A Tennessee llama.

Bailey: Anyway. It’s not a comedy record.

Reflex: I notice a big hole in the release of recordings by The Saints here in the U.S. You did All Fool’s Day (1986) and then followed up with Prodigal Son (1988) on TVT and they were like your first records over here in almost ten years. (“(I’m) Stranded” and Eternally Yours had been released in 1977 and 1978 by Sire.) I remember turning the channels on TV one day and seeing a video for “Temple of the Lord” years ago (from “All Fool’s Day”) and it seemed like you were on the move here. I was shocked and surprised and happy to see it because you had been pretty much ignored in the States. Then, bam! You disappear for ten more years. What happened?

Bailey: Well, TVT were very famous about litigating at this time and we certainly weren’t getting as much press as Nine Inch Nails. But there was some major litigation that began in 1990 and went on for four years. It was a pretty nasty little argument and we got sued for a massive amount of money.

Reflex: Regarding?

Bailey: As part of the settlement I’m not allowed to speak about it, but basically two labels were having a tussle over the group. It really had nothing to do with me. Machismo bullshit.

Reflex: Muscle flexing across the ocean?

Bailey: Exactly. That sort of thing. It’s quite funny. I recorded an album for TVT called Demons that never got released in the United States and I lived there for about nine months. It was that court case that made me wander off to do esoteric sort of solo things. We were cruising along quite well at that point. Well, who knows? I’ve always sort of been philosophical about it. If All Fool’s Day could be the first Saints album before, Howling can be the first album by the new band The Saints, too. I have survived in a business that can be quite fickle and I consider myself quite lucky to have the same attitude towards making records all these years down the track. I have a band that is absolutely marvelous, so I’m not complaining.

Reflex: Any talk of a tour?

Bailey: I got mind-numbingly drunk with the band’s agent last night and apparently he has a half dozen shows booked. We will be tied up until the end of January or February over here, so we hope to make the U.S. around the beginning of March.

Reflex: I’ll keep my eyes open and continue nagging Triple X to facilitate a tour.

Bailey: That’s wonderfully reassuring. Once again, The Saints have never been these pop stars but there is a pleasant sort of network behind the band, so you never know. Too much water has passed under this bridge. We could actually soon be in a neighborhood near you.

Reflex: The United States is so big. I don’t know why anyone would want to tackle it. It is so big—so much work.

Bailey: Tell me about it! It’s actually a very interesting place to travel as a foreigner. The USA is like fourteen little countries. You have one President, but that’s about the only thing that is unified. I’ve driven from San Diego to New York and there are places in the West that are not like the earth. They’re like another planet. When you’re not an American, I think you get a very different perspective. I think it’s because Hollywood is so influential, everyone who is not American has a very cinematic view of the U.S. For me, it is very strange whenever I’m in the U.S. I think I’m in someone else’s film. The real thing is more Hollywood than Hollywood. It’s quite, quite bizarre. It’s hard to explain.

Reflex: That’s interesting. I have some friends from Holland in the band NRA who said the same thing when they came here. They got off the plane and they said they felt like they were in a film. They kept expecting to see a film crew.

Bailey: That is quite amazing. It is so true. I mean, I have American friends and I have stayed in American homes and I’ve eaten American food, goddamnit! It makes no difference. It’s still a very cinematic thing. I’ve rationalized this stuff too—when I was a small boy, this stuff was put into my head. I’ve stayed in America for up to eleven months and at the end of eleven months found myself in the same movie.

Reflex: Like one of those Warhol movies that goes on forever?

Bailey: Yeah. [in a southern drawl] Tennessee. It’s a very interesting place, goddamnit. I got to admit it. Anyway.

Reflex: So, music is the center of your life? I mean, you don’t have to do anything else, right? It’s comfortable enough that you haven’t spent the last twenty years eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, right?

Bailey: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, god! What an abomination! I’ve managed to keep my head above water and indulge in my obsessions, of which making records is one. I’ve been lucky enough to do that for quite a number of years. I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I get by. I can indulge. I actually produced a young band and I got occasionally perturbed by some of the attitude. I have always considered it a privilege to record because they are not cheap and lots of people with greater talent than mine have never made a record while I have made thousands of things. I just kind of figure we’re all cut for different things and whenever I can indulge in the fantasies that I should be some designer living in Paris, I kind of think, whether I like it or not, my humble talent is to make noise. Not that I’m content with life, because I certainly am not, but I am happy with the way things have panned out. I know people who are more successful than I who feel trapped in pop stardom.

Reflex: Yeah, people so happy with it they kill themselves.

Bailey: There’s a lot to say for being a rat bag on the outskirts of show business because show business has always sucked and always will. I’m kind of happy being in the prairie on the outside, goddamnit.

Reflex: So, who is the band you recorded?

Bailey: Larryland. An interesting band, actually. One of the singers is from West Virginia and the other is from Dublin, a good old boy with the Irish wit. In fact, there’s a fairly good chance this record will see the light of day in the U.S.

Reflex: Do you record many bands?

Bailey: It’s something I’m becoming interested in. I have a friend who is an engineer. We’re setting up a little company. It’s actually quite fun. I’ve actually got a flair for the studio.

Reflex: I know you’ve referred to yourself in the past as a troubadour and a balladeer. Do you still see yourself that way?

Bailey: It wasn’t that I saw myself that way. In the ‘80s I thought, as a hoot and as a change, I would just grab a guitar and travel around and every couple of years I’d go back to it because it scares the shit out of me. It’s quite frightening to just be there by yourself. I kind of like the romantic notion, yeah.

Reflex: It’s funny, but as I prepared the stuff I’d talk to you about, I kept thinking of Jonathan Richman. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him but he seems to do exactly the opposite of what’s expected of him. In the old days, where you went in with these horns and R&B flavored stuff, he went in with a band doing goofy child-like songs.

Bailey: “Ice Cream Man.”

Reflex: Right. I see your approach as similar because you’ll always go back to the single guitar approach, and maybe a drummer, but always relying on the songs to carry on. I think it’s charming.

Bailey: I’ve always been fond of his eccentricity. For me personally, when I started off, I never really thought much whether I could sing or not. I was just the guy who could scream the loudest. I do think I can do a fairly all right job of singing now and I attribute most of that to the decision I made years ago to actually do the guitar and voice thing. I’m an okay guitar player, but the voice is really the only thing I’ve got.

Reflex: When did you switch from straight vocal to vocal and guitar? I remember that you did vocal only on the first couple of records and then added guitar on the third, fourth album.

Bailey: The fourth album. Primarily, I see myself as a songsmith. That’s what I do best. But in the ‘80s, out of necessity and because of the technology, I began demoting a lot and trying synthesizers and dinking with all the modern things. I just like playing the guitar and I have a rather unique approach to it. If I’m in the company of someone who is a better guitar player, I am more than happy to be the singer.

Reflex: What do you watch on TV?

Bailey: In Holland, I watch things so I can know the language because Dutch is such a difficult language. I’ve become fairly comfortable with Swedish. I can prattle through. I watch the most incredibly dull things on television. We get The Jerry Springer Show, which I find amusing. Sometimes I don’t like television. Sometimes I think I’m a television junkie because I’ll watch anything on it. I really don’t care because I am not a creature of habit. I’m quite erratic.

Reflex: Are there particular writers you like?

Bailey: Yes, I think the world would be a very dull place without literature. I’m very fond of an Indo-Caribbean writer named V.S. Naipaul and I think Anne Rice writes great cartoons. For years people told me to read them and I’d say, “Oh, this is crap. I’m not going to read this.” I’ve subsequently read them all. They’re quite charming, really. I also like Raymond Chandler. He’s one of my favorites.

Reflex: I’m reading an amazing book by James Ellroy. He wrote L.A. Confidential, which is a popular move right now. Anyway, this book, My Dark Places is about his returning to a Los Angeles suburb to investigate the murder of his mother which took place in the late ‘50s.

Bailey: I might actually go to the bookstore here and look for it.

Reflex: It’s a good read. So, what’s a typical Monday like in the life of a songsmith?

Bailey: Well, let’s see. I go on a lengthy bike ride. Holland’s good for that. It’s actually quite a suicidal thing. I’m going to meet up with a singer. I’m not under any deadlines. I have a solo project I’m working on. It’s sort of a dark, minor chords kinda thing so who knows? Typical Monday things.

Reflex: I learned fast to dodge bikes and dog crap.

Bailey: You’re talking about the city I love. A very important skill here is to keep out of the way of the trams because the new ones are so quiet. Especially when you’re bicycling along, which I often do absentmindedly.

Reflex: Are they fast?

Bailey: They’re fucking outrageous.

Reflex: Do you have any children?

Bailey: Nope, the old paternal instinct has never come across me.

Reflex: I noticed a child on the Howling album.

Bailey: That’s the daughter of the guy who did the graphics. We built the stuff on the cover of the CD. We were all playing around like a bunch of children and she put the green wig on. I thought she looked cute. She’s not the fruit of my loins, no. I’m much too young still. I have to grow up before I can take on that responsibility.

Reflex: That’s about it. I’ve heard a couple American bands covering some of your songs and others who have named The Saints as an influence.

Bailey: That’s quite reassuring for me. It means I have potential drinking buddies.

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