Nineteen years after their last live appearance, the satirical Melbourne band TISM have announced their comeback, with the masked and anonymous collective set to play a series of shows at the Good Things festival in early December.
TISM – an acronym for This Is Serious Mum – emerged from suburban Melbourne in the early 1980s, releasing their first full-length album Great Trucking Songs Of The Renaissance in 1988. This was followed by a rare self-published book, The TISM Guide To Little Aesthetics, which was eventually released with sections heavily blacked out on legal advice.
The band quickly gained a cult following, with a reputation for wild live shows and increasingly elaborate costumes. Early songs veered between the absurd, the obscene and the erudite, covering everything from the sexual perversions of Adolf Hitler to the All Ordinaries Index. In 1995 their third album, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons – featuring the hits He’ll Never Be An Ol’ Man River and Greg! The Stop Sign!! – won an ARIA award for best independent release.
TISM also became notorious for their interviews and press releases. Early exchanges were done by fax: long, expletive-filled, invariably libellous screeds, usually delivered past deadline. Guardian Australia conducted this interview (of sorts) with singers Humphrey B Flaubert and Ron Hitler-Barassi via Zoom (with the video link turned off). Answers have been heavily edited for length, clarity and defamation risk.
Ron Hitler-Barassi: Andrew! Ron Hitler-Barassi from TISM here, and I’m just wondering, where are Lenore [Taylor, Guardian Australia editor] and [political editor] Katharine Murphy? Weren’t they available?
Sorry, I think they were busy.
Ron H-B: Oh well. Anyway, look – I loved your recent use of the word murmurations. Where did you get that one from?
Er, a dictionary.
Ron H-B: Now, Andrew, I know what you’re going to ask: after 19 years of absence, what are we going to play? We’re going to base our new musical style on murmurations. I know nothing about the Good Things festival, except that they’re paying me $4.7m, but I think the audience might enjoy an hour of bird-like murmurations.
Well, your last album of new material consisted of nearly two hours of silence, and it sold out. What does that tell us about TISM fans?
Ron H-B: Look Andrew, we’re not talking to Bongo and the Monkey on FM radio here, we’re talking to someone from the Guardian. We’re not talking top-notch – we’re not talking Katharine and we’re not talking Lenore here – but we are talking to a man of your acuity, and I think you’ll have picked up that the last 19 years of silence has actually been an art piece. It’s like an installation. It’s a reassessment of our aesthetic, and I think after 19 years, we’ve made our point loud and clear.
Your shows were physically demanding affairs. Can you describe your fitness regime leading up to this event?
Humphrey B-F: Oh, you know, Andrew, how long is a piece of string? Honestly, any time someone answers a question with “how long is a piece of string”, I think they should be fucking strung up. That’s the sort of answer-a-question-with-a-question bullshit that people use in the business world. You know, pieces of string do actually have a fucking length. Just come out and say how long the fucking bit of string is.
Ron H-B: See, Andrew – 19 years! People have been waiting for 19 years, and I think what Humphrey just said has made the wait worth it. And I think you will have noticed, being from the Guardian, that it was right after the demise of the last Liberal cabinet that we re-emerged, and that’s because we noticed there was a gap in the market for grotesque clowns. They’re out; we’re in. We actually tried to get Angus Taylor – we offered him the job of playing triangle – but it was a little bit intellectual for him.
Tony Burke says the war on the arts has ended. What do you think about that?
Humphrey B-F: Well, clearly he wasn’t aware that we were coming back.
After the Good Things festival, will you represent Australia at Eurovision?
Ron H-B: Nineteen years, Andrew, 19 years. I know we haven’t given you much, but that’s what you come up with? From the Guardian? God, we might as well be on Triple M, mate. Fucking hell. What’s next, you going to ask us about the costumes, the balaclavas? Actually, what do you think, Humphrey? Will Eurovision pay us as much money as Good Things?
Humphrey B-F: Well, once the kitchen’s done, I’m looking at the bathroom area; I think the tiles are a little bit rococo.
Ron H-B: Like Midnight Oil and all good left-wing Guardian journalists, we do want to send our kids to private schools. I tell you what, Scotch [College] doesn’t come cheap, mate. Once they’re in senior, that’s about $29,000 a year. For the Good Things festival, that’s about a song and a half.
You listed the poet Sarah Holland-Batt on a T-shirt of geniuses and dickheads. Which is she?
Ron H-B: She certainly knows a lot about birds. She has a marvellous poem about the skull of a cockatoo that she finds on the beach, where she just reflects upon mortality and the nature of corporeality. She’s obviously a genius, mate, she’s a beauty. There might be a war on arts, but we’ll count out Holland-Batt. She’s exempt from our war.
Who has stepped up to fill the shoes of your late guitarist, Tokin’ Blackman?
Ron H-B: We’ve been trying a few people, mate. There’s some well-known guitarists down in Melbourne.
Humphrey B-F: Josh Frydenberg is one.
Ron H-B: There’s a lot of opportunities for old white males, now the government’s fallen.
Do you expect to be cancelled following this performance?
Humphrey B-F: We’re hoping before, actually.
Ron H-B: Well we’ve got paid the money. Mate, we’ll be as [censored] as you like, the money’s in the bank. [Censored] Or was that just the deposit? Oh shit, I think it was just the deposit. Cancel that last bit, Andrew. We can trust you, you’re a journo.
First published in the Guardian, 15 June 2022