Interview: Kim Salmon Writes The Script
With a career spanning almost four decades, Kim Salmon howls through the halls of Australian music legend. Courtney Dabb sits down to trace the trajectory:
Are you often humbled by your contribution to Australian music scene, having played in seminal bands such as The Scientists, Beasts of Bourbon and as an influential solo artist?
When you do things for a need to express yourself creatively, your place in the historical hierarchy/canon doesn’t really ever come into it. So, no, I never think “oh wow I got to play in all these cool bands”. Nor do I think “wow I did such and such, how awesome”, I just think “that was something that needed to be said and I’m glad I’m the one who said it”. My work in those bands was something I was driven to do by a need. I guess I’m saying it’s more of a need thing than a privilege thing for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t thank my lucky stars for whatever luck and recognition I’ve had for doing it.
Meeting so many different musicians and interesting characters throughout the years. Were there any words of wisdom spoken to you that really resonated or altered the way you approach your music?
Ha Ha! Mark Arm from Mudhoney once said “Never play sports”. Mudhoney and the Beasts of Bourbon were both scheduled on some festival in Europe and I couldn’t play, due to spraining my finger in a drunken impromptu soccer match the previous night in some godforsaken car park after a show. I think Mark was suggesting that a ‘jock’ and a rock ‘n’ roll musician are two very different things and that I should content myself with belonging in the latter category.
Producer and mentor Jim Dickinson (he produced the Surrealists ‘Ya Gotta Let Me Do My Thing’) was incapable of uttering a sentence that wasn’t some incredibly quotable piece of wisdom. The saying that’s stuck with me most is “I believe that misery sticks to the tape”. What he meant was that a recording session should be a joyous thing and not a chore.
I see artists like yourself, people who’ve been in the industry for a long time and have evolved through the early days of making music – making a name for yourself, sustaining a career, diversifying musical genres/bands – and come out the other end alive, intact and still producing original music. How has your artisanship and world view changed through three decades of playing, writing and performing?
I’ve definitely become more adaptive. My ideas about myself, my work and what I want to do are more fluid. Surviving in my field over a long period of time, as opposed to becoming massive early on, has forced me to hone my adaptive skills and to view things in a very fluid way as opposed to seeing things as being ‘set’. If I hadn’t learned to take advantage of opportunities my career would have been consigned to the ‘just add water reformation band’ syndrome long ago. I know for a contingent in my fan base that is actually the case for me, and I’ve adapted to that, but there are a host of different audiences who have ‘come in’ at different points and sustained the variation. I actually view every performance by anyone as an act of salvage. A performer, be they an actor, a conductor with a meticulous score, a comic, has to grab what is thrown at them by the circumstances and fashion that into the thing that the audience witnesses. This view of things is something that has developed with my need to evolve to survive.
Stepping back for a minute, what artists did you see as an early music goer that really inspired you with their stage presence?
This is a hard question for me… Back in my formative days, I didn’t really look old enough to get into pubs and clubs so my exposure to artists was at the bigger ticketed concerts like CCR, Elton John, Santana, Queen. When I was a little older and going out to clubs in the mid to late seventies, the scene had stagnated as far as I could tell. All the ‘groovy’ local artists in town were boring ‘hipster’ ‘authentic’ blues bands and they certainly didn’t inspire me. The artists that first really inspired me with their performances were artists that I read about from far off places like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and in London during the early days of punk. People like the Ramones, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Television, Richard Hell, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Jonathon Richman, you’ve heard all the names, but back then over in Perth no one knew about them. All I ever knew of the performances that these exotic types were putting on was what I read in the pages of NME Melody Maker, Sounds, Creem and Rock Scene (Rolling Stone was too old guard and hippie for me back then). Maybe it was the people writing about the music that were really inspiring me. I’ll never know.
Personally, how would you describe your creative process? Is it one that floods you with sudden bursts of inspiration, or is it a piecemeal process that slowly fleshes itself out over time?
A lot of both and everything in between. I have songs that I’ve had handed to me by the gods in an instant and things I’ve chipped away at for literally years. As a listener, I can’t tell the difference. I would challenge anybody to be able to discern. I’ve got one song on my Kim and Leanne album True West that I’ve had the musical concept for since 1988. It was to have a bed of a single note but to have the notes of the melody create, or at least to imply, a plethora of chords and harmony. I finally got around to actually composing the piece in 2012. As soon as I did I had to think of some words to give form to the melody that I constructed using the harmonic theory that I now knew (that I hadn’t a clue about when I was younger). The first words that came into my head became the first line of the song – ‘Science Test’. It’s hard to know if this song took me 25 years or a couple of minutes to write.
Can you describe the personal and artistic disassociation from performing as a solo artist compared to that of being a band member, as with Beasts of Bourbon?
I think there needs to be a certain amount of emotional engagement in all my performing capacities. There also needs to be a certain amount of acting in character. I wouldn’t say there was any disassociation for me. I think people tend to think of solo performance as being more autobiographical but I think with all autobiography there is an element of fiction and with all fiction there is an element of autobiography.
I often ask this question and get answers including; struggle with reward, hope and Instagram followers, but what does music give you that nothing else does?
I could say music has allowed me to see the world, but I could say the same thing if I was a merchant seaman. Ask Ben Watkins from ‘Warped’ about that aspect. He’s a muso and a merchant seaman. The rewards of music for me are intrinsic and therefore can’t be conveyed in any other way. As with anything really….
Technically speaking, what’s the kit? Surely you would have amassed some amazing guitars over the years…
I’m not very acquisitive and the best things I have are things that have grown or evolved with me, like my early seventies Fender Telecaster Thinline. Rob Snarski sold it to me in 1988; I recorded about 5 albums with it. It was stolen in 1993 and I got it back through an elaborate police staged stakeout a year later. I’ve smashed the scratch plate about 5 times and the guitar is a true Frankenstein. I’ve got a Jaw harp in a box with a picture of Snoopy on it calling it one of the world’s oldest instruments. I’ve got a 2000 model Akai S5000 sampler I’d love to get out of mothballs but need to buy a new midi driver for. It’s got a whole bunch of samples I’ve used on various recordings.
Of all your many incarnations and live shows, what has been a career highlight and why?
I potentially love every show as much. I think it’s a highlight that at this point of my life I can get up unprepared, feel comfortable on pretty much any stage and come up with something different that I and my audience enjoys. It certainly wasn’t always like that.
In reflection, what has been one of the key successes in your career and what has been of your greatest lost opportunities?
I think having a career in music that has lasted for 40 years and continues to sustain me is the key success. That is probably really enough for anyone… However, in 1998 I was in a band with Dave Faulkner from the Hoodoo Gurus. We were unlike anything either of us had done to that point – an electro/house/pop band. We received massive airplay on triple j for three separate singles. Songs were synced on TV and in movies and yet no one knew who the band was. No one could find the songs they’d heard on the radio in record shops. We were on Festival Mushroom Records but the distribution had been taken over by the Murdochs. The teething problems associated with that were always cited for the reason for our crap distribution. That doesn’t explain why other FMR records managed to be hits. I think our situation had more to do with the people working in the system perceiving me as an ‘underground’ artist and therefore not believing enough to just do the hard work necessary to get my record ‘out there’. That band was called Antenna and that was definitely a lost opportunity. But what the hell…. As I’ve said, I’m still making a living out of music after 40 years.
As a mainstay in the industry, are you surprised as to which bands have shone brightly over the years and those that have faded? I ask because we have all seen bands either on the verge of making or those that should have made it but for one reason or another it just never materialised.
I’m afraid to say that in this industry, nothing surprises me.
What does your new album, ‘My Script’, say about your current state of mind and musical expression?
To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be able to answer that question properly for a few years. I go through a ‘honeymoon period’ with all my albums, then I reach a point when I’ve had enough and can’t hear them any more… and then at some point, perhaps decades later, I can listen with something a bit like objectivity. I’m learning things about myself in 1989 from my Essence album with the Surrealists form listening again in recent times. I could see a suburban boy transplanted from the suburbs of Perth to the inner city of Sydney by revisiting 1983 with the Scientists’ Blood Red River. I can say that I got My Script to the point where I felt it DID say the things I wanted it to. I listen to it now on vinyl and on its 4 sides I can hear a world. It’s a world that is both familiar and alien and I like that. I think creating art is as much about creating what doesn’t already exist as it is about ‘telling the truth’.
How is the rest of 2016 shaping up for you?
The REST? Ha ha I must be wicked coz there ain’t no rest. I’m touring Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth throughout March and April to promote My Script. I’m using a different musical combo in each city. Some I’ve played with before, some I haven’t. That’ll be exciting for me as different player bring different things to the music. I feel I’ve gotten the songs to the point where they’re indestructible enough to do that with! Ha Ha! In May I have a residency at the Old Bar in Fitzroy also to promote My Script. Each week I’ll have a different band that I have been associated with eg the Surrealists, my new combo, maybe one of the interstate combos if I can make it happen. I’ve got enough material to get through 4 weeks and not repeat too much as well as putting in a healthy does from My Script… and with that pun I think I’ll finish this interview…….
Interview by Courtney Dabb. Photograph by Andrew Watson/Semiconductor Media.