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