Portrait

A blabbering chat with singer-songwriter Ron Peno. By Jennifer Down.

Musician Ron Peno

Ron S. Peno is an apologetic interview subject. “I’m blabbing,” he says, again and again, cutting himself off midstream of conversation. “Sorry.” At one point I gesture to the table, where my harmless Olympus Note Corder – scarcely bigger than a matchbox, and so outmoded that it often makes people laugh when I produce it – sits between us. I tell him I feel it is really offputting for him, and pretend to cover it up with a paper napkin. “No, I’m just hoping you’ll be able to decipher all of this,” he says. “I’m not very good at interviews. I tend to get carried away. You just ask me things, and I’ll blabber.”

Peno’s name evokes a particular cultural moment in Australian rock’n’roll history: Clairol Blue Black hair dye, scummy carpets in inner-suburban pubs, a ragged onstage intensity. Sydney venues such as the Lansdowne, the Trade Union Club, the Piccadilly Hotel. He’s arguably best known as the former frontman of Died Pretty, a band whose erratic but brilliant live performances cemented their place in the Australian indie canon. In the early 2000s, as one half of The Darling Downs, he continued to charm crowds. Since 2011, he’s been making music as Ron S. Peno and the Superstitions. They’ve just released their third album, Guiding Light.

When I arrive at the bar where I proposed we meet on a stinking hot afternoon, Peno is standing like a sentinel in the doorway. His expression is wary, but he’s instantly warm and charming; a rapid, rambling speaker. I don’t know why I’m surprised. Between his onstage persona and the stories I’ve heard about Died Pretty, I’d expected someone spikier; meaner, maybe.

He confesses to not being a fan of interviews and publicity. He vacillates between easy conversation, with quips and anecdotes served as conspiratorial asides, and apparent self-consciousness. Several times, he glances uneasily at the Note Corder between us, though when I offer to switch it off he demurs. He makes self-deprecating remarks about how I might sketch him, and apologises for the way he talks so much. But that’s why we’re here, I tell him. His job is to talk, and mine is to listen. “I’ll give you a whole bunch of babble, and you can just cut it up,” he says, like we’re two coaches discussing a game plan.

Guiding Light feels an expansive record, given it comprises only eight tracks. It’s equal parts tender and wise, tragic and hopeful. Peno speaks often of “heart and soul”. The first time he says it, I dismiss it as a cliché; the second and third, I note it. Later, I watch a grainy video of Peno performing with Died Pretty, and I listen again to this new record, and I realise that “heart and soul”, as hackneyed as the phrase may be, applies in a true and precise way to Peno’s music.

“I write either abstract lyrics or really personal stuff,” he says. “It’s quite emotional, some of the stuff on there.” He’s talking mostly about “Almost There”, one of the album’s standout tracks, which he wrote for “a very dear friend” who died in November 2016. He’s proud of the song, although he believes its subject would have thought it sentimental. Aside from in the recording studio, which he describes as “a very sterile environment”, he’s never played it live with the band. “I don’t know how I’m going to perform that. It’s going to be a tough one. We haven’t rehearsed it yet. But the guy who mixed it” – Andy Stewart, who also worked on the Superstitions’ first two albums – “he got quite teary when he mixed it.”

Peno is pragmatic as he speaks about the Superstitions, who, despite critical acclaim and first-rate musicianship, mostly play to small crowds on the Melbourne pub circuit. Earlier this year, Died Pretty re-formed for a tour with Radio Birdman, another pillar of the local post-punk era, and played to crowds who sang along with raucous nostalgia. “We sold out the Enmore. All the shows were sold out around Australia. Then we come home…” He trails off with a laugh. He sees a certain irony in the fact that the Superstitions are – at least compared with Died Pretty – relatively unknown. “It can be depressing,” he says. “The Superstitions will play this amazing set to 20 lovely people at a corner pub.” But he doesn’t seem bitter, only slightly bemused. “I’m incredibly lucky to be surrounded by these amazing musicians. We want to make something that’s spirited and emotional and hopeful. And I think the passion does show when you see us live.”

As an interview subject, he’s far from guarded or cagey. But he has a periphrastic manner of speech that makes him hard to pin down. I ask if he’s passed down any advice or wisdom to his 19-year-old son, Zebediah – “the light of my life” – who is studying music. Peno’s response begins with his moving from Sydney to Melbourne 14 years ago, where Zebediah lived with his mother. He talks about the various places he’s lived since. His current apartment, “like an old boatshed”, is soon to be demolished and presumably replaced by apartments, and he dreads moving. “I’ll just take the TV and two bags of clothing, and leave. Those bulldozers can get the grout out.” He describes his cherished weekly ritual with his son. “He comes over every Thursday night, which is the highlight of my week. We go out or have takeaway or something and watch DVDs.” Recently they rewatched The Big Lebowski, one of Zeb’s favourites. Peno, despite being a staunch Coen brothers fan, isn’t enamoured. “The characters shitted me,” he says. “Every second word was ‘fuck’, and the Dude character was such an idiot loser.” He pauses. “What were we talking about? The Superstitions? I was here in Melbourne for my son?”

Advice, I say. Is there anything you’ve tried to instil in him? “I’ve said, ‘Look at me, Son, my fortune’s still up and down.’ I’ve tried to say, ‘Get a fuckin’ job.’ But when I was 14 or 15, nobody could dissuade me from pursuing music. It was the ’60s, and I lived in a country town. I was flouncing around with hair down past my shoulders, and everyone was going, ‘Who is this little freak? Get a haircut.’ ”

Recently Peno was at a favourite haunt, the Clocks hotel at Flinders Street Station, when one of the bar staff handed him her iPhone. On its screen was a younger Peno, fronting Died Pretty. The bartender was incredulous – “That’s you?” Now, sitting across from me, the self-confessed technophobe jabs at his phone until he finds the image in question. In the black-and-white picture, Peno is snake-hipped and skinny, holding a microphone to lips, head thrown back in the ecstasy of the entertainer. His hair is long and dark. He looks wild.

It must seem like another lifetime. “It does,” he admits, before turning camp: “But I’m a simple country boy from the ’60s who loves writing music and songs and performing, still. Let’s see how far I can travel along before my bojanglin’ stops.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Hits and Ron". Subscribe here.

Jennifer Down
is the author of Our Magic Hour and the forthcoming Pulse Points.

Continue reading your one free article for the week