The fight to save the Golden-shouldered Parrot

In 1922, Cyril Jerrard captured the first and only photographs of the Paradise Parrot, the only Australian bird to be officially declared extinct since European colonisation. Jerrard was well aware he was looking at one of the last of its kind: “The one undisguisable fact [is] that the advent of the white man has spelled destruction to one of the loveliest of the native birds of this country,” he wrote in 1924.

The last accepted sighting of a Paradise Parrot – also by Jerrard – was in 1927, near Gayndah in the Burnett River district of southern Queensland.

Nearly a century later, in the fading light of dusk, I’m standing 20 metres from a bird feeder, clicking away in vain as a pair of Golden-shouldered Parrots, the Paradise Parrot’s closest surviving relative, accept a handout at Artemis Station, a cattle property on Cape York Peninsula in the state’s far north. My images are rubbish, but while I’m watching, I have an eerie sense of how Jerrard might have felt.

Male Golden-shouldered Parrot, Artemis Station, 13 July 2021

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I watched a flock of 50 Golden-shouldered Parrots beside the Cape Developmental Road at Windmill Creek, near the northern boundary of Artemis. For decades, the 125,000-hectare station has been the species’ stronghold. Today it holds maybe 50 birds in total. There are scattered groups on neighbouring stations, and an unknown number in the remote Staaten River National Park to the south.

Once, Golden-shouldered Parrots were common from Coen, 120 kilometres north of Artemis, to Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the first specimen was collected in the 1850s. They were trapped for aviculture (in the 1970s, a pair could fetch $10,000 on the black market; their value has decreased as the birds are now common in captivity). Over decades, their range has shrunk, as a combination of pressures took their toll.

Now station owners Sue and Tom Shephard, in collaboration with a team led by applied ecologist Steve Murphy, are taking radical, counter-intuitive action to save the species. Using a mixture of brush-cutting and herbicide, the aim is to declutter the landscape to the parrot’s benefit. It took nearly two years to gain the relevant approvals from the state Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

The project is a jointly funded venture between the federal government’s Landcare and Threatened Species Recovery Hub programs, and the Queensland government. Donations from the public are also being actively solicited. “People feel very invested in Golden-shouldered Parrots,” Murphy says. “A lot of people have been to Artemis. They know the station, they’ve met Tom and Sue.”

Land clearance is one of the most politically vexatious issues in Queensland. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening here. “We are clearing native vegetation, and the last thing the department wanted was a roughshod approach to giving their approval, which could have had all sorts of unforeseen consequences elsewhere,” Murphy says. The paperwork, finally signed off in late June, is an inch thick.

Once, the savannah country of Cape York consisted of open grasslands, studded with tall, mature eucalypts and the conical, witch’s hat-like termite mounds in which Golden-shouldered Parrots excavated their nests. Grazing and altered burning practices have transformed their habitat, which is now choked by an understorey of tea-trees and other low shrubs, as well as introduced grasses.

“It’s a long history of grass suppression through grazing – and I’m not having a go at farmers here – combined with low-intensity fire,” Murphy explains. “The very thing that keeps these plants in check in a normal grassland is intermittent high-intensity fire, early in the wet season. Without the grass layer to allow that higher-intensity fire, we’ve lost the very thing that’s kept all these plants in check.”

In the old country, the parrots had clear sightlines that helped them avoid predators. Small aerial birds called woodswallows would circle overhead, sounding the alarm at the first sign of danger. But the infestation of the landscape saw the woodswallows move on, and the parrots – having lost their early warning sentinels – were ambushed by hawks, butcherbirds, goannas and cats hiding in the scrub.

Stephen Garnett, professor of conservation and sustainable livelihoods at Charles Darwin University and co-author of The Action Plan For Australian Birds, identified the problem in the early 1990s. “The Shephards have held the situation around Artemis by providing supplementary food. But all around there, areas that I found [the parrots] commonly in the 1990s are now empty of nests,” he says. He estimates the total population at around 900 birds.

First, the birds’ range began to contract from the north-east. The situation is little better south of Artemis, at Mary Valley. “When there are parrots in an area, they do a test scratch on a lot of mounds, and you can see the bits of dirt that they scratch out. We did not find any evidence of any recent breeding,” Murphy says.

“The termite mounds just sit there like gravestones. You feel like you’re walking through a cemetery.”

Conical termite mound with hollow excavated by Golden-shouldered Parrot

There are three types of termite mounds on Artemis, made by different species: magnetic, bulbous and conical. For reasons not fully understood, Golden-shouldered Parrots are fussy, nesting almost exclusively in conical mounds early in the dry season. They are almost never reused: after being bored into by the parrots, it’s thought the termites reseal and reinforce hollows more solidly, making them harder to burrow into.

Now, Murphy’s team is staging an intervention, getting to work with a circular saw. Standing close to a mound where five chicks had just fledged, the team’s first objective is to clear the immediate area around the nests. “What we’re trying to do is reduce predator density across the landscape, and provide the maximum amount of visual distance for the parrots to see predators coming,” Murphy says.

Timber and debris piles up on the ground. While the threat of aerial ambush predation is being reduced, in the short term, there’s more cover for cats. “We’ll put a fire through later in the year and remove most of this, and anything that’s left we’ll physically drag away,” he says. “We’ve got to be constantly vigilant about the impacts we’re having, and make sure we don’t have any perverse outcomes.”

There’s a chirruping call behind us, and Murphy cocks his head and grins. “Parrots,” he murmurs.

For now, they should be relatively safe. The breeding season is over, and the birds have stopped visiting the mounds. These have their own complex ecology: a species of moth lives exclusively in the nesting hollows and is entirely dependent on the parrot for its existence: the moth’s larvae eat the parrot’s faeces in the nest chamber, performing a hygiene role for the chicks (the moth’s specific name is scatophaga: literally dung-eater).

Artemis has been owned by the Shephard family since 1911. Sue and Tom have borne witness to the changes in the landscape, particularly since the property was fully fenced. The fence helped with mustering, but confining the cattle put pressure on the impoverished, sandy soils. “I can see we’re at fault, just as much as everyone else,” Sue admits. “But you’ve got to make money, prices go up and down, and when they’re down it’s really hard.”

She is being harsh blaming herself. Other than perhaps the traditional owners, the Thaypan and Olkola people of Cape York, who are assisting with re-establishing old burning practices, she knows as much about the parrots as anyone. For decades, she has helped lead banding programs to track individual birds’ movements. The parrots are also a tourist attraction, and the station charges a nominal ($10) camping fee.

In the old days, the Shephards had to see off poachers, who would set up traps for the birds at Windmill Creek. “We’d go to the races at Laura or somewhere and sometimes we’d come home early and find them,” Tom remembers. Once, he freed dozens of birds – not just parrots but finches and other species – from a mist net, which he then burnt, before confronting the trespasser. “I don’t think he liked me too much.”

If the grasslands can be restored, with appropriate fire management, the land should ultimately be better for both cattle and parrots. Murphy sees himself as an enabler. “The thing that makes this project unique at Artemis is that this is not an external, top-down, greenie conservation cause imposing itself on a grazing enterprise,” he says. “This is 100 percent coming from within.”

There is another driver. “The thing that motivates me a lot in this story is the Paradise Parrot, and it’s gone, we can’t get it back. This species is heading the same way.” Murphy puts himself in Cyril Jerrard’s shoes. “I often think, if I was transported back in time, what would you do? In some ways, I feel like a reverse time traveller. I’ve come back and I’ve gone, ‘Guys, if we don’t get in and solve this, we are going to lose these birds’.”

First published in the Guardian, 8 August 2021

Who’s your Daddy? Daddy Cool

If you are of a certain age, as I am, you might owe your entire existence to Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock. Your parents probably had sex to it. No one wants to think about that, do they? It makes it literally Dad rock. Or Mum-and-Dad rock, if you prefer.

Eagle Rock is 50 years old this year. It is a cultural touchstone, voted the second greatest Australian song of all time, behind only the Easybeats’ Friday On My Mind, in a 2001 Australasian Performing Right Association poll.

Yet there is a younger generation that semi-ironically loses its mind over Daryl Braithwaite’s Horses – a naff cover of a Rickie Lee Jones song – but spurns Eagle Rock. Why?

It could be Mondo Rock, the new wave band that Daddy Cool leader Ross Wilson fronted from 1976 to 1991. More specifically, it could be their creepy 1983 hit Come Said The Boy. But you can’t totally blame Wilson for that one. It was written by guitarist Eric McCusker.

More likely, it’s the ubiquity. Overexposure can do terrible things to a tune, and Eagle Rock is inescapable. In Australia, it has charted twice in my lifetime: 17 weeks at No. 1 in 1971 (the year of my birth, if not conception), and it reached No. 17 when reissued in 1982. It remains an FM radio classic rock staple.

New Zealanders were just as fixated with Eagle Rock. Across the Tasman, the song peaked in the charts 19 years after release, finally going to No. 1 for a month in 1990, when it stayed in the charts for 15 weeks.

It’s a football anthem. The West Coast Eagles play it to celebrate wins after home games, after their club song, and it was also played after their win in the 2018 grand final. It’s also the unofficial theme song of the NRL’s Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.

More dubiously, it was students at the University of Queensland who started the strange tradition of lowering their pants and strutting around to it, albeit more like chickens than eagles. (I can personally attest to this.)

Cultural cringe may also play a part – the belief that Eagle Rock is a hand-me-down of an American tradition. The name derives from the ragtime standard Ballin’ The Jack, which features the lyric: “Spread your lovin’ arms right out in space / Then you do the eagle rock with style and grace” – the eagle rock, of course, being a sexual metaphor.

Which brings us back to what makes Eagle Rock work. It is true that Daddy Cool had more of the 1950s than the ’60s about them when they appeared in the early ’70s: musically, they were a throwback to the spirit of early rock & roll and doo-wop that may have seemed at odds with the time. And on the other, Daddy Cool’s music itself moved with a style and grace that was timeless.

When you get right down in the groove, Eagle Rock remains infectious, from the first, seductive notes of the late Ross Hannaford’s guitar, to Wilson’s cry: “Now listen!” His delivery is sly and horny. Of course it is: what else should a song called Eagle Rock be? The joy in the ensemble playing is palpable.

And if a good cultural cringe demands validation from beyond our shores, then Daddy Cool had it in spades. Most famously, Elton John’s Crocodile Rock was directly inspired by Eagle Rock. Which is also cool. But did you know Marc Bolan’s first request, after touching down in Australia with T. Rex in 1973, was to meet the song’s author? Or that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were entranced by Daddy Cool’s first album, Daddy Who? How cool is that?

Daddy Cool were also one of the first Australian bands to hit American shores, in 1971, when Eagle Rock was still flying atop the charts in their home country. Signing a deal with Reprise, they opened shows for the likes of Deep Purple, Captain Beefheart and Fleetwood Mac (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s arrival).

So, what is it about this song? I asked Wilson if there was anything left to be said about Eagle Rock after 50 years.

Wilson replied that the four members of Daddy Cool, between them, had that intangible chemistry that great bands have. “Give that song to other bands and it just doesn’t sound right,” he said.

“When I listen to the original recording today, I still get amazed by the voodoo in that track. There are harmonic overtones that I can hear that provide the magic, as if there are extra players, even though I know there aren’t.

“One of my greatest post-Daddy Cool moments was at Port Fairy folk festival maybe 10 years ago when some Nigerian musicians heard I was playing, insisted on seeing me, dropped in side of stage – we finished with Eagle Rock and as I came off stage they gave me a big hug. Such is the reach of Eagle Rock. It’s funky.”

So, there you have it. Who’s your Daddy? Daddy Cool. You should thank them. Spread your lovin’ arms right out in space.

First published in the Guardian, 7 August 2021

My ticker was a time bomb

The scar on my chest is seven inches long. At the top of my sternum, the incision site, it’s white and waxy, slowly fading on its journey south. But the last inch is a raised, red, rubbery knob of keloid tissue – a constant reminder, not that I need it.

It will be a year on Tuesday since I underwent open-heart surgery. I have not been quite the same person since; something for which I am mostly profoundly thankful, as much as I am to still be alive.

Mostly, I’m calmer. I had been warned of possible depression in the wake of the surgery. For years, especially in the last decade, I lived in a constant fritz of anxiety, having at least one very public meltdown. I have written openly about my mental health over the years.

These days, by comparison, I feel like a Zen master. Not that I’d recommend heart surgery as a solution to psychological trauma, but if nothing else it gave me a radical sense of perspective and gratitude, an attitude I wasn’t previously on familiar terms with.

Which means I can’t help but ask the question: to what degree was my psychological wellbeing affected by my literally broken heart? I will never know the answer to that question. Only that I didn’t know how sick I was until science and surgery saved me.

It was in late January last year that I was diagnosed with advanced valvular heart disease. Stressed and fretting over a deadline, I had a severe run of palpitations. I waited for it to pass. It didn’t: for half an hour, an hour, then 90 minutes, until I had pins and needles in my arms.

It wasn’t until paramedics wired me up, measuring my heart rate at 173 beats per minute, that it finally and inexplicably self-reverted. I pleaded to be allowed to return to my deadline. They held up the receipt spat out by the electrocardiograph and shook their heads.

Sometimes your real problems aren’t what you think they are.

Me, four days after surgery, 7 August 2020

I’ll spare you the story of the surgery and the aftermath, other than to say I’m now walking around with a bovine aortic valve and a repaired mitral valve. The problems were congenital; I didn’t know of the defects until they tried to kill me. Basically, my ticker was a time bomb.

The other changes are more interesting. This was a very different kind of existential crisis than the more ruminative type I was used to. I began to re-evaluate my life. I was 49 at the time of the surgery; I turned 50 in April: comparatively young, but time is no longer a luxury, either.

It would be remiss not to mention the small matter of a relationship that collapsed three weeks after coming home from hospital. Once, this would have been shattering. This time my reaction was a comparative shrug of acceptance – which is not to say it didn’t hurt, of course it did – but it was 2020, after all. It wasn’t personal.

It’s a cliche but true that you find out who your friends are in these situations. Those who were already close to me rallied. I was overwhelmed by support from strangers, too, and forged new, unexpected alliances. Those people have my love and thanks forever.

Those who were less present, again, only reminded me of my own past failures; the times when I had let others down, because I was too distracted or self-absorbed or just unable to give of myself as I wanted, because my own life was in enough of a mess.

So I found forgiveness. I had always been harsh on myself. Now I realise how hard I had been on others, too. It was all just sweet life, and humans being human: magnificently multidimensional, maddeningly inconsistent. I was no different.

Slowly, I returned to work. The surgeon told me I would feel like Superman within a month and he was right. I felt ecstatic, as though I was on an oxygen high after years of deprivation. That probably cushioned me to some degree from the blow of the breakup, too.

By November, though, I was struggling with what was probably post-perfusion syndrome, or pumphead. I felt cloudy and vague, and was having difficulty processing complex information. The fog still hasn’t quite cleared. Writing this is hard; everything takes longer than it used to.

But as much as we are running out of time – all of us – I don’t mind taking mine. Every second is a second chance. The future still fills me with existential dread but, without children of my own to protect, I try to shield myself as best I can. I find fleeting moments of joy everywhere.

Once I was drawn to extremes, particularly musical (my aesthetic could be encapsulated by a quote from Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan, later adapted by Motörhead: everything louder than everything else). Now, with everyone shouting, I dig quiet time.

Most of all, I am grateful that I live in a country where, in the middle of a global pandemic, I was admitted to one of the best cardiac hospitals in the country, under the care of a brilliant surgeon and medical team, and walked away with a bill for $74 in medications.

I am outrageously lucky. The randomness of my good fortune is never lost on me. And yet I nearly threw away my own life more than once. I had to have it nearly taken away to rediscover my lust for it.

Sometimes I think I should get the keloid part of my scar removed. It often itches, particularly under restrictive clothing, and is still growing. But it’s also a badge of honour, a part of me that would feel wrong to cut or burn away. Maybe I need to be reminded after all.

First published in the Guardian, 1 August 2021

Questions Raised by Quolls

All Harry Saddler really wanted to do was to see a quoll in the wild.

It was November 2019, and the Melbourne-based author was enjoying a surprise publishing success: his small book, The Eastern Curlew, a telling of the extraordinary migration of Australia’s largest shorebird, had sold through its hardcover print run, opening a new niche in Australia for natural history writing.

This was when Australia’s Black Summer bushfires were beginning to choke the eastern states, and before the pandemic that would force Saddler to write from home. It changed his focus. “It became impossible to write about the state of the environment in Australia and not confront those things head on,” he says.

Saddler’s new book, Questions Raised By Quolls, became more a work of moral philosophy than natural history. Written quickly, it became part-treatise on the legacy of colonialism, part-family history: Saddler’s ancestor Michael Farrell was transported as a convict to Sydney from Ireland in 1816.

“I think that aspect of the family story in the book was a way to write about the human effects of colonialism without co-opting other people’s stories,” Saddler says. “I touch on the damage done to Indigenous societies in the book too, but I was conscious that those are not my stories to tell.”

Another consequence of colonisation has been a wave of mammalian extinctions: 34 Australian species have been officially extirpated since European settlement. Eastern Quolls disappeared from the forests of the mainland decades ago and are now confined to Tasmania; Western, Northern and Spotted-tailed Quolls are all threatened.

It helps that these predatory marsupials are charismatic animals. Saddler wonders briefly if he should have written about rodents instead: “They’re the unsung heroes of the Australian mammal fauna, and they’ve really copped the brunt in terms of mammal extinctions,” he muses. “But it might not have been as appealing.”

So, instead of paying tribute to rodents, Saddler writes about those doing the work on the ground to save them – quolls and much else besides – in sanctuaries like Mulligans Flat in Canberra and Arid Recovery Reserve in northern South Australia, where long-gone species are being reintroduced in fenced-off environments.

“All these places run on the smell of an oily rag, because there’s no money in conservation at all, and yet people are nonetheless doing incredible work to restore ecosystems as best they can to bring the animals back, and you can see tangible results in some places,” Saddler says.

Unfortunately, the pandemic confined Saddler to writing about these places from his desk. Somehow, it increased the urgency. “Being someone who’s prone to introspection at the best of times, I think it helped me look beyond the four walls of my house, because I was thinking about larger things, looking back into the past, and potentially into the future.”

Writing Questions Raised By Quolls enabled him to focus on hope, instead of submitting to grief. “There is an understandable urge to despair in terms of the environment [but] there is still an enormous amount in the world to be saved. Yes, we’ve lost an extraordinary amount, but we haven’t lost everything, and we have to fight for everything that we have left,” he says.

It also raises ethical questions not often touched on by men. Saddler’s father instilled in him a love of bushwalking. Now in his early 40s, Saddler wishes he could pass on the knowledge he inherited to children of his own: “I get clucky when I see baby magpies begging for food,” he admits. (Saddler is currently single.)

But he worries about the world he would be bringing a child into. This is not, he says, a question of overpopulation: “I really strongly reject that argument, primarily because it presupposes that our systems and ways of living and organising society and our economy are just fixed and immutable and are never going to change.”

Saddler is more concerned with the question of raising a child on a planet that is literally burning up. But he prefers to imagine a more equitable world, where sustainability is possible – in which case the question of the Earth’s ultimate human-carrying capacity is less urgent.

It was with his own father that he saw his first Eastern Quoll, hiking in Tasmania nearly 20 years ago. Soon, he hopes, he may be able to see one again. “If you’re going to write a book about an animal, you should be able to see the animal, that’s half the fun of it,” he says. “At least I saw some Eastern Curlews writing The Eastern Curlew.”

First published in the Guardian, 28 July 2021

Crowded House: Dreamers Are Waiting

It’s not easy to connect the four albums Crowded House made in their first life (from their formation in 1985 to their dissolution in 1996) to the three released since the traumatic passing of drummer Paul Hester in 2005. Although still the main and most popular vehicle for Neil Finn and original bass player Nick Seymour, there’s a clear musical divide that makes them feel like the works of very different bands.

Which is true, at least up to a point. A crucial part of Crowded House’s identity was lost with Hester besides his deft percussive touch, and that is throwing no shade on drummer Elroy Finn (Neil’s youngest son) or his predecessor Matt Sherrod. Crowded House was never going to be the same after that tragedy, and some of the band’s natural joie de vivre – along with the tightly wound pop hooks and effortless anthems – went with him.

Dreamers Are Waiting is the first Crowded House album since 2010, and the band has expanded to a full-blown family affair. Alongside Elroy, older brother Liam is now a full-time multi-instrumental member, while Tim Finn (whose name last appeared on a Crowded House album on Together Alone, in 1993) gets a co-writing credit on Too Good For This World. Mitchell Froom, who produced the band’s first three albums, replaces Mark Hart on keyboards.

A further scan of the songwriting credits shows Liam has two songs here, Show Me The Way and Goodnight Everyone, which sit squarely in the middle of the album. Love Isn’t Hard At All is a co-write between Elroy and Neil, with Sharon Finn (married to Neil since 1982) on backing vocals. The first two songs, Bad Times Good and lead single Playing With Fire, are group compositions.

Somehow all of it feels seamless, but be warned: as with Time On Earth (2007) and Intriguer (2010), you won’t find anything approaching Don’t Dream It’s Over here, or anything that sounds much like the Crowded House Generation X grew up with. Like Neil Finn’s sometimes esoteric solo work, these songs – a dozen, all less than four minutes – are more detailed, more subtle, and take more time to reveal themselves.

But it’s worth making the effort, because the beauty of this record is in the detail and deceptive tonal shifts, like the way Bad Times Good begins with an understated three-line chorus before quietly blending into its first verse. There’s no instant gratification, but like much of Dreamers Are Waiting, the song gets under your skin like an itch you just have to scratch, almost subliminally addictive.

Much of the album is about trying to hold on to hope amid squalor and discord. To The Island could be a paean to the safety of a long-term relationship, or to the Finns’ native New Zealand: “The world is beyond us (shit just got real) / It’s too enormous (fell under the wheel) / But the island is just right / It’s the perfect size,” Neil sings, before the coda pushes the song from a bedtime lullaby into gentle paisley psychedelia.

Playing With Fire is more direct, with Neil excoriating his own age bracket: “The next generation’s talking / We’re behind the wheel / We’re driving straight into the wall,” before concluding “some may say we’ll turn it round / If you believe such a thing, I’ll believe such a thing.” He sounds more fatalistic than optimistic, but it’s a good choice as single, with just a hint of the old snap, crackle and pop of Split Enz, parping horns in the chorus.

And when the next generation is allowed behind the wheel – Liam’s Show Me The Way and Goodnight Everyone – the results are the equal of anything else here, not just in quality but in their hypnotic, edge-of-delirium feel. At these moments, it feels like Crowded House is now less Neil’s vehicle than a multi-headed hydra for this extraordinary musical family. Again, check those credits: you’ll be hard-pressed guessing who’s doing what.

That said, Neil’s name is still the only one on half the tracks here, and it’s that voice, still one of the most sensitive and alluring instruments in pop, leading the way. He’s a little sadder, and world-wearier, but his craft is as good as ever. Sweet Tooth is the nagging pop nugget its title suggests, the closest thing here to a vintage Crowded House song, while the final track, Deeper Down, indulges one of his favourite lyrical obsessions: a place to hide.

That’s what makes this, in the end, still a Crowded House record. It doesn’t just retain the intimacy that made them so cherished, but makes it their signature sound. They exist on their own island now: a place to take refuge from the rest of the world, when it all becomes too enormous and terrifying to bear thinking about.

First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2021

Swinging with Ed Kuepper and Jim White

Ed Kuepper still remembers the first time he saw Jim White play drums. It was back in the mid-1990s and Kuepper – founder of the Saints, Laughing Clowns and Aints – was headlining the Prince of Wales in Melbourne, supported by a rising instrumental trio called the Dirty Three.

“I know the Dirty Three aren’t strictly speaking a rock band, but they were playing at a rock club – and they were supporting me, the King of Rock & Roll,” Kuepper says, his tone as dry as a desiccated old biscuit. White, joining us on Zoom, hoots with laughter in the background.

“It was an unusually expansive way of playing,” Kuepper says of White’s drumming. “He was playing the rhythm but wasn’t just focused on keeping a strict tempo. That always catches my ear, and you don’t see it happening all that much.”

Forty-five years since the Saints released (I’m) Stranded, Kuepper and White are touring Australia as a duo for the first time, performing songs from Kuepper’s five-decade repertoire.

Kuepper had bookmarked White as a potential collaborator ever since that first encounter at the Prince of Wales, but the Dirty Three relocated overseas soon afterwards. White then became busy with other projects, working with Cat Power and Xylouris White, among others.

It was the pandemic that brought them together: White returned to Melbourne last year and, with no gigs on the horizon, both musicians had time to consider new possibilities. Kuepper got in touch, and White, who had drawn early inspiration from the great Laughing Clowns drummer Jeffrey Wegener, instantly agreed.

The tour was booked before the pair were even able to play together, with rehearsals delayed by snap lockdowns. “Last year I got into a state of mind where I thought everything was very finite, and made no attempts at thinking in the long term,” Kuepper says. “I’m still in that basic state of mind.”

When they finally got into the same room, the pair clicked immediately. “The first take of the first song basically confirmed what I thought from having watched Jim play over the years: that it wouldn’t be a struggle … The overall feel and pulse of the songs, it’s all there.”

White agrees: “It was unusual to book a tour without having played together, but the situation was what it was,” he says. “I thought there was a good chance it would mesh easily, but you never really know.”

He describes the sound the pair make as “lean”, while retaining an ability to stretch the songs into new directions. “With a two-piece you can turn on a dime, so it’s not going to get lost. It’s not minimal, and neither of us are interested in jamming, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do different versions of songs and still have this intention and result.”

Those songs will run the gamut of Kuepper’s career, going back to the Saints. But there is no suggestion at this stage that the pair will enter a studio. Kuepper, who has released more than 50 albums in various forms, describes recording in the streaming age as “a dead format”.

Which is funny, because he is also reissuing three different compilations of his solo years, the Laughing Clowns and the Aints. But new studio recordings have been scarce in recent years. “I’ve got literally shitloads of stuff that I haven’t recorded – who knows if any of it is ever going to see the light of day,” he says.

“In a way, it seems more and more a vanity project these days, in terms of the old imperative of getting music out to your fans – I think people are a little bit more detached from it … I’ve got a lot of songs, but I also feel like I’m changing musically a little bit. When I’m in that state and I’ve got a lot of old material, I tend to put it away.”

Meaning, if everything is finite and impermanent, as Kuepper suggests, this tour with White could well end up being a one-off.

First published in the Guardian, 20 May 2021