Augie March singer-songwriter Glenn Richards’ passion renewed
Glenn Richards considers the sketched design for a carved naval figurehead. Perched atop a ship’s bow, a soldier grips his sword in readiness but stares placidly out over the sea. Richards pretends to appraise the draft sketch: “I like the aggression,” he says, “but he’s just kind of daydreaming.” Together, we assess the rest of the collection of British naval figureheads – a lion with a cascading mane, kings and queens wearing ornate crowns, more soldiers – but both decide that our favourite is the smiling greyhound that leaps happily towards the ocean. As the shy, softly spoken frontman of one of the country’s most acclaimed bands, Richards knows a thing or two about unlikely figureheads.
“I think I probably transformed early on from somebody who was as introverted as can be, and craved society, and probably achieved what I thought was society,” he later tells me. “Which was essentially just bellowing at people and occasionally having conversation. And fun,” Richards adds after a pause. “But in order to get anything more than just pop music done, that process needs to undergo a reversal. However embarrassing it may be to admit to yourself and other people, you’re never as smart as you think you are, and you’re never as contained as you think you are. If there’s an argument inside you that’s constant, then one day it’s going to start erupting and you’ll inflict that argument on other people. I found that I’ve probably been doing that a hell of a lot more than I used to.”
For the past three years, the singer-songwriter has found himself with far fewer people to inflict his argument on. In 2009, a year after after the release of their portentously titled fourth album Watch Me Disappear and a 13-year career that was as rare a beast as the band itself, Augie March announced “the last show for a long, long time”. The band’s five members – Richards, Adam Donovan, Dave Williams, Edmondo Ammendola and Kiernan Box – had, according to press releases, “ceased enjoying being Augie March”, and went their separate ways. Richards, who is widely regarded as the finest lyricist in the country, released a well-received solo album in 2010 and then moved from Melbourne to Hobart where he spent a few years raising a pair of stray cats, building a backyard studio in a cave cut into the side of a hill and writing songs. We meet in his newly adopted city, and as Richards sinks into one of the Museum of Old and New Art’s riot pink beanbags under a clear Hobart sky, he grimaces. “My 40-year-old hips,” he says.
Richards apologises that he isn’t much in the habit of conversation these days. This is the first media interview he is giving ahead of the release of Augie March’s new album, Havens Dumb, and this time, he says, the band won’t do much press. “We’ll try and be a little strategic for our own mental health,” he says. Richards is a thoughtful, generous interview subject, although an anxious one. He circles back in conversation, better articulating points that he attempted to make earlier. A dry wit crackles underneath it all. When I ask at what point he regretted making an Augie March film clip where the entire band roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, Richards feigns ignorance of the neat Sisyphean metaphor for his famously volatile band and instead launches into a long description of the day of the shoot. “The rock was heavy, reinforced fibreglass and we didn’t do a section and then stop and get a crane or something. You can see us spitting, and those real looks of discomfort were genuine. It was Herzog-style filmmaking; if somebody had died, that would have been good. Actually, Dave threw up at the end of it, when we got to the top of the mountain. You can see him bent over and spitting…”
“And… What about the metaphor?”
Richards grins. “Sorry. That was intentional,” he laughs, before relaxing and explaining. “The clip was prophetic, I think. Easy to see coming. The nature of the clip is that I’m pushing the boulder from the very start, and then I pick people up along the way, who are inexplicably there to help, but I’ve been pushing it for a lot longer than the others. It’s really unfair but symbolic. Singer-songwriter bands are like that. You do a hell of a lot of the early work, and by the time everyone joins in you’re exhausted and angry.”
‘Exhaustion and madness’
Since forming in Melbourne in 1995, Augie March have regularly been heralded as one of Australia’s “greatest” or “finest” outfits, although one that has forever eluded categorisation. Richards’ breathtaking prose collides with labyrinthine arrangements, songs that expertly sweep the listener up in a rollicking cacophony then drop them back down into fragile moments of sweet pop bliss. Their quirky, melancholic ballads still get airings at weddings and funerals. “Art rock,” the critics have generally agreed. The 2006 release of Moo, You Bloody Choir and the runaway hit “One Crowded Hour” went gold, then platinum, awards and accolades piled up, and Augie March undertook a US tour that, Richards says, was characterised by “exhaustion and madness”.
While acknowledging the importance of capitalising on the band’s momentum, Richards regrets rushing into recording a follow-up album. “Anything we did meant that in order to live and pay rent, we had to go out again and tour, and do all of the things that were driving us apart in the first place and making us mental. It was just a mess,” he says. Watch Me Disappear was released to mixed reviews in 2008, and the band fell apart. Richards returned to his home in Carlton, Melbourne, and says that for two weeks at least, life continued much as it had on tour. “I was drinking heavily to combat the tedium,” he says. “Then I would have tried to wake up to myself, fully in the knowledge that if I didn’t make another record, and quickly, I’d just wind up bankrupt and without much to look forward to. It all sounds dire, but that’s exactly how it is in the music game, when you’re coming off disappointment.”
In the lull that follows, a brown duck with an emerald green face and a singular, gobsmackingly blue feather tucked into its wing wanders across the lawn to where we’re seated. Richards addresses the duck solemnly. “I’ve got nothing, I’m sorry.” Then, neatly underscoring the modesty of one of the country’s most original and literary songwriters, he apologises again. “It’s just words here.”
When Richards graduated from high school in Shepparton, Victoria, he was presented with a poetry prize “out of the blue”. It isn’t modesty that prompts him to characterise his win as an unlikely one; there had never been a poetry prize before but his English literature teacher felt the almost entirely unknown department could do with some promotion. Richards was presented with a paperback edition of the selected works of Dylan Thomas, along with a handwritten print of “I See the Boys of Summer”, and says he has written more than one song informed by that poem and the events, “as banal and small town as they are”, that worked the poem into his hands.
At his publicist’s behest, Richards wrote some 4000 words of “song blurbs” to accompany Havens Dumb; the novella, he jokes, that his fans have been crying out for. The blurbs never made it into the album’s promotional material, but Richards promises to send them to me. As well as Thomas, the influences Richards cites range from the literary figures he admires (“Hemingway would’ve given Fitzgerald an uppercut if he wrote this song,” he says of the album’s first single “After the Crack Up”; of another he writes, “David Malouf would re-issue with some serious amendments”) to Danger Mouse, Monkey, Kenny Everett, Doctor Who, The Goodies and, he concedes, “maybe even Count Duckula”. The nod to Fitzgerald is more obvious than others. The Crack-Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of later-life confessionals is, according to Richards, “itself equal parts pitiful capitulation to life, and heroic confrontation of failure and addiction”.
The 14 songs that comprise Havens Dumb were selected from a batch of more than 30 songs that Richards wrote before he reached out to his old bandmates. Themes of settlement myths, murder, isolation and stinging critiques of the Australian way of life are delivered sometimes with sadness, other times with anger, but always with conviction. “No amount of play-acting or sonic manipulation can erase a chronic earnestness from this voice,” Richards wryly observes. There are sly allusions to Richards’ drinking problem – “St. Helena” opens with the lyrics, “So, there are things I know/ Cos I get blind/ But it’s not for show”. Later, in the song’s chrous, he implores: “Take this wine, take this wine away.”
The same troubles that dogged Richards in Melbourne reliably followed him to Hobart, he says, but were amplified because of his isolation. “I’ve gotten in a fair bit of trouble here,” he tells me. “I’m not talking about holding up banks or anything, but the remnant of that way of living is still very appealing. It’s having… It’s like a battle for Glenn’s soul. The only way that I can describe it is by referring to Robert Dessaix’s description of it,” he says. “He calls it a ‘tea consciousness’ as opposed to a ‘wine consciousness’, which makes heaps of sense.” In the essay collection As I Was Saying, Dessaix posits that, “Tea-consciousness is a refreshed reflection, rather than excitement or inebriation … Tea-consciousness draws its strength from the browns and greens deep inside you, wine-consciousness more from the outside from celebration, friendship and neighbourly feelings. Drifting into tea-consciousness you cohere into something. Drifting into wine-consciousness, you revel in incoherence and the thrill of flux.” It is, Dessaix says, a simple matter of “colouring of your consciousness”.
It is Dessaix’s influence more than any other that colours this record. “Definitive History” is the album’s centrepiece, a haunting damnation of antipodean aggression and deeply entrenched racism, based at least in part on the true story of the abduction, rape and murder of a foreign exchange student that happened not long before Richards moved to Hobart. “They weren’t especially awful ex-cons or anything,” Richards says of the perpetrators. “It all just went a bit far and they treated her like she wasn’t a human, which must have been something that was deeply ingrained as well. I’m sure it is deeply ingrained in a lot of Australian people – that sense that she’s not really one of us.” The song has its more personal and trivial origins, as well. “It will seem trivial when I explain it,” Richards assures me. He recounts an incident where he walked into a country pub to get directions, and found himself the object of intense scrutiny from the other patrons. “There’s kind of a bonhomie about it, and not even close to real malice,” he says, “but it reminded me of when I was a fat kid, going to a barbecue at my mate’s house, sitting at the table with five or six older men and his father said, ‘Oh, welcome stranger.’ I realised even at that young age that maybe I’d taken somebody’s seat or something. Something as simple as that, and of course it ruined the entire night for me because I was a sensitive kid. There’s something about the Australian character; we pass instances like that off as friendliness, but it’s always laced with a bit of challenge and exceptionalism.”
Again, Richards defers to Dessaix. “He describes it as another kind of conservatism dressed up as rebellion, for a laugh.” If there’s any theme or concept to the song, Richards says, it’s his anger and disappointment in the Australian character and the direction the country is headed in, “but very much starting with the finger pointing inwards”. The anger, he readily admits, is self-defeating.
For now though, there’s an album to tour, which Richards says he is, despite everything, looking forward to. He’s learnt to temper his frustrations and anxiety to the extent that he hopes this tour won’t be marred by his infamous hissy fits and moments of “near-insanity and anger”.
“It’s a long, reflective examination,” he says, “which has been enabled by this three years in Tasmania. I’m probably winning the battle against the wine consciousness. It doesn’t necessarily mean literal drunkenness, it’s just that not everything has to vibrate now for me to enjoy moments.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "The long March". Subscribe here.