The Hoodoo Gurus’ “bogan Sgt Pepper”

There’s a moment at the beginning of the Hoodoo Gurus’ new album, Chariot Of The Gods, where Dave Faulkner sounds like he’s stuck in the corner of a bar. You can hear clinking glasses and the hum of a crowd, chattering over Faulkner as he strums one of the Gurus’ classic hits, Come Anytime.

At first, it sounds like a throwback to (Let’s All) Turn On, the first track on the band’s 1984 debut Stoneage Romeos. That, too, opened with a snippet of cocktail-bar sounds, before the band tore into a rock & roll manifesto: “Shake Some ActionPsychotic ReactionNo SatisfactionSky PilotSky Saxon, that’s what I like!”

But no, Faulkner says: he was thinking of the Beatles. “What I was thinking of was the beginning of Sgt Pepper’s, when the orchestra’s warming up and you hear the crowd settling in their seats. It’s obviously meant to be a theatre – it’s a slightly dampened sound, carpeted, with plush seats. This is my bogan Sgt Pepper!”

He hadn’t even made the link to (Let’s All) Turn On. Perhaps it was subconscious. His real intention, he says, was to take the piss out of the idea that he’s now washed up: singing oldies to an indifferent audience, more than 40 years after the band’s rough beginnings as the exotically named Le Hoodoo Gurus in Sydney.

Success and acclaim came early for the band, whose roots were in garage rock, psychedelia, pop culture and paisley. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Faulkner wrote one of the great Australian songbooks, with hits including Bittersweet, Like Wow – Wipeout!, What’s My Scene and Miss Freelove ’69.

They broke up for a while in 1998, got back together and made 2004’s Mach Schau. Although the Gurus kept playing, new recordings became rare. Purity Of Essence was the band’s last full album, in 2010, with an EP, Gravy Train, following in 2014, after which drummer Mark Kingsmill left the band.

Faulkner says Kingsmill having one foot in and the other out of the band for years had put a handbrake on recording, and after his departure the band was unsure whether to continue. “It had been the same four people since Rick [Grossman, bass player] joined in 1988. I’d thought if one of us leaves, we’d break the band up.”

For five years, Faulkner reviewed albums in The Saturday Paper, following a trail blazed by the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, who had done the same for The Monthly. But Faulkner found that criticism was not conducive to songwriting. “You know that phrase, dance like no one’s watching? You have to write songs like no one’s listening,” he says.

Making a solo album didn’t appeal, either: indeed, Faulkner remains one of the very few major Australian songwriters of his generation that has never done so. “There’s no burning need. I’ve never really been comfortable with the idea of being a frontperson, I just see myself as the singer in the band. It’s like a safe space for me.”

He doesn’t rule it out, if only because, he says, he’s more comfortable with himself than he’s ever been, aged 64. But two things push him back to the Gurus. The first: why work with hired hands when you’ve already got a phenomenal band behind you? “I think of the band as like a sports car; the songs are just the fuel,” he says.

The second reason, he admits, is that he’s “a bit of a procrastinator”. There was no stockpile of songs to fall back on while the band lay fallow. “What I do accumulate are ideas,” he says. “I’ll get my iPhone when I’m out and about on a morning walk and a riff will occur to me, or a melody, and I’ll sing it into the phone and store it on a file somewhere.”

Eventually, the band found their feet again with a new drummer, Nik Rieth, who had played with the Celibate Rifles and, later, Australian punk originals Radio Birdman. Rieth’s addition spurred Faulkner to flesh the songs out, gave the band a new soul and “brought out qualities in my songs that were unusual to me”.

Four singles have preceded Chariot Of The Gods: Answered Prayers, released late in 2019, followed by Get Out Of Dodge, World Of Pain and Carry On, with the rest of the 14-track album (17 tracks on the vinyl edition) recorded later. Only one song is old: Settle Down, which was written in the early aughts, around the time of Mach Schau.

Ironically, Faulkner says, “It was a song about being old and irrelevant, and I wrote it 20 years ago! I probably was already old and irrelevant then, in some people’s minds. I always said to myself that I would never write songs about growing old, because I kind of hate that.”

And now he’s too old to care what anyone else thinks. “You do get the very strong hint – it’s not even a hint – that you’re old hat and surplus to requirements. Like, what are you doing still playing and making records?” he says. “It was only after breaking up and all those things that I realised, of course, that’s a load of shit.”

First published in the Guardian, 11 March 2022

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