Interview: Guy Pearce overcomes his fear
Guy Pearce recently released his debut longplayer and, as he tells Bobby Townsend, it required him to overcome a longstanding fear of putting his music out there:
“I always knew that I would eventually release music, when I was ready.”
We are sitting in a hotel room in Sydney’s Surry Hills and, at the end of a long day of interviews, the English-born Australian is relaxed and in good spirits. He sits barefoot on the couch, a beaming, handsome face behind round glasses and beneath hair flecked with grey. A few days prior, Pearce had launched his debut album, Broken Bones, to a sold-out crowd in Melbourne. The day after our conversation, he would do the same in Sydney.
Album? Guy Pearce? Yep, keep up. While it may seem like a surprising direction change, the celebrated actor and star of such incredible films as Memento and LA Confidential is – and has always been – something of a musician. “At the moment I’m travelling with three guitars but I always travel with at least one…. not to be playing live anywhere but just to write, ” he says, nodding to the guitar cases piled neatly in the corner of the room.
However, while the actor has been making music since his teenage years and has his own studio, actually putting his songs into the public realm has always been a huge stumbling block. Indeed, some of the tunes that make up his record were penned a quarter-of-a-century ago, when he was a young Neighbours heartthrob.
It took a conversation with drummer and percussion player Michael Barker in 2009, while Pearce was singing in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Poor Boy, to convince him that it was time to get his work out there.
“Funnily enough I was actually going to do this a lot more quietly,” he recalls. “I was just going to put it on a website and not tell anyone. Michael prompted me to realise the value of just getting it out of my system. He asked me what I did musically and wanted to hear some stuff. When he heard it, he said to me ‘yeah it’s great, when do you want me to come over and play some drums?’. As far as he was concerned there wasn’t even a conversation to be had. It was just like, ‘you make music, let’s just get it out’. And it was the way that he put it that fast-tracked everything for me.”
That was how things began to snowball for Pearce. The decision to put it out as an actual physical release, rather than uploading it to a website with zero fanfare – and potentially zero listeners – came after advice from his friend, Andrew Henderson, who was responsible for the artwork for the record. “He persuaded me to release it properly. In three years time, I didn’t want to think of it as a wasted opportunity.”
And so, with everything going incredibly well in terms of the record’s creation – he was teaming up with fantastic musicians and everything was coming together organically – Pearce knew it was time to finally combat the fear of sharing his music, which had been nagging him for over half his life. “All these hangovers of this original fear still existed. I kept saying that I just needed to get it finished and pop it on a website and walk away, but I think that I was still perpetuating the fear by saying that. I was repressing something that I had repressed 25 years ago and I kept that story going. I suppose it was convenient to be fearful of the spotlight, musically, back in 1986, because it allowed me to then just keep it buried and not to face the music, so to speak. But I knew it would come out eventually.”
I ask him whether his original decision not to release any music back in the late 1980s was purely down to fear or whether it was equally about not wanting to be another Neighbours actor-turned-popstar. During Pearce’s time on the show, Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Craig Mclahlan and even good old Stefan Dennis dipped their toes in the music biz with varying levels of success. “Absolutely,” he affirms without a second’s hesitation. “I was obsessed with Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush. The music I was writing was really obscure… ten-minute weird pieces that I would wail over. There was a big mismatch between what was popular and what I was writing. And with the disdain that people have for actors making music… I decided to just go back into my studio and work away and improve the songs.” And release them 25 years later? He laughs. “Yeah. I love the longevity of things.”
And so, years and years on, Broken Bones marks Guy Pearce’s self-produced debut album. I wonder how he felt, finally sending it off into the world after such a long time. Nervous? Anxious? Excited? “I was all of those things. Funnily enough I was no more nervous, anxious and excited than I had been throughout the whole process. It was a massive sense of relief.”
A relief perhaps, but surely there was also a heavy weight of pressure on his shoulders? After all, this is not a normal debut album. Many musicians release their first record from beneath a veil of relative anonymity. Guy Pearce did so as one of the world’s most well-known actors. “I’ve been thinking about that for a long time,” he says. “So, in a way, having already gone through the process of thinking about it and talking to my therapist about it, I realised it was about getting it to sound how I wanted, feeling good about it and saying, ‘alright, here we go.'” In keeping with how consistently he gesticulates during the interview, he waves both arms forward as he talks about unleashing his album. “I still have moments of occasionally going ‘what will people think of these couple of songs?’ but it only takes me to listen back to them again to go ‘that sounds good.'” He pauses, then adds, “I really needed to get to that place.”
The reviews for Broken Bones have been enthusiastic. I ask Pearce if he is the kind of person who actively hunts down critiques of his work. He says that he does so less than he used to, but that it has certainly been an interesting experience to read reviews of his music. “People want to say something nice, but they are reluctant about it,” he says with a wry smile. Presumably this is because of the aforementioned disdain people have for actors making music? “Absolutely,” he nods. “The weird thing about reading reviews… and I realised this years ago… is that it’s a murky area. You can’t really be objective. I think you are looking for the things that either back-up or solidify what you think about your own work anyway. I know I have weaknesses. If I look at a performance of mine on film and think ‘that doesn’t work,’ sure enough, someone will pick up on it.”
So now that Guy Pearce the private musician is, finally, Guy Pearce the musician with a readily available debut album, the question is, what happens now? Will there be tours? Another album? Will he take a break from his acting work to facilitate this? “I’m not really taking any time off. There is a bit of juggling going on. We’re talking about doing a tour but there is some film work being offered, so I’ll have to juggle that (since we spoke, a co-headline tour with Powderfinger’s Darren Middleton has been announced, dates below). I don’t feel like I want to change things too much. To me, playing music and writing music is a great counter to what I do anyway.”
We talk further, about this and that, such as a chance encounter with Peter Gabriel (“I met him back in 1990. I’d gone to Kylie’s film premiere for The Delinquents in London. He walked in and I just flipped out. I said, ‘Oh my God, there’s Peter Gabriel,’ and the publicity woman that I was with said she could hook us up. She called me a few days later and said Peter would like to invite me to lunch one day. I went, ‘Oh my God, really?’ I was 19. Holy shit. So I had the day with him. He was with Rosanna Arquette at the time, which was another flip-out,”). The majority of our half-hour together though, is spent talking about his passion for making music.
Indeed, the constantly engaging Pearce is never more animated than when discussing the production of his album. He talks about recording overdubs and mixing songs with such wide-eyed excitement and joy that it is utterly infectious. This is clearly an artist who cares deeply about the music he makes. He is certainly not just another actor-turned-musician to add to the growing list of mediocrity. His well-crafted and intelligent debut record is testament to that, as is that fact that it took 25 years of hard work and soul-searching to finally put it out there. Let’s just hope he doesn’t wait so long to release the follow-up.
Broken Bones is out now as a physical release and via iTunes.
Guy and Powderfinger’s Darren Middleton will kick off their highly-anticipated ‘Broken / Translations’ double headline tour soon. Here are the dates:
Sat 31 Jan, The Capital | Bendigo
Sat 7 Feb, Thornbury Theatre | Melbourne
Sun 8 Feb, Caravan Music Club | Oakleigh – SOLD OUT
Thu 12 Feb, QPAC | Brisbane
Fri 13 Feb, Nambour Civic Centre | Sunshine Coast
Tue 17 Feb , The Garden of Unearthly Delights | Adelaide
Thu 19 Feb, Lizotte’s Restaurant | Newcastle
Fri 20 Feb, Factory Theatre | Sydney
Sat 28 Feb, GPAC | Geelong
Interview by Bobby Townsend.