Hunters And Collectors

 Hunters And Collectors

 Mark Seymour – circa 1997

 “Memories twisted around somebody’s finger / Behind me now / But I still remember” – ‘Do You See What I See’ (Mark Seymour, Hunters And Collectors)

The crowd heaves.  A dense pack of young people, mostly male, jostle one another in the hot and sweaty cramped confines of an Australian pub.  The testosterone in the atmosphere is almost perceptible amidst the smell of booze and cigarettes.  It is 1986 and Australian band Hunters And Collectors are on stage.  Their lead vocalist, Mark Seymour, is a study in sinewy, sculpted muscularity.  The crowd roars along with him.  And what are these macho men bellowing?  “You don’t make me feel like I’m a woman any more…”

It’s an ironic moment.  The career of Hunters And Collectors is marked by a handful of ironic turning points.  It’s not irony in the sense of self-conscious smarty-pants remarks; it’s irony as apparent perversity of fate or circumstances.

Mark Seymour is the central figure in the story of Hunters And Collectors.  He is born in 1956 in Benalla, a city in the northern part of the Australian State of Victoria, a city that retains a fairly rural character.  Mark is the third of four children.  Mark is the family’s first son.  Younger brother Nick Seymour (born 9 December 1958) goes on to play bass in another rock band, Crowded House.  As a child, Mark Seymour takes life very seriously and does well at school…in most areas.  “I used to be absolutely lousy at sports at school.  I was a real runt,” Mark admits.  While still at primary school, Mark Seymour is introduced to music.  “Mum [Paula Seymour] was really into singing,” he says.  “She wrangled us all [i.e. the Seymour kids].  Dad bought us little nylon string guitars.”  It is this instrument towards which Mark gravitates.  “The thing about guitars was you could sing and play at the same time,” he suggests, attempting to define their appeal.  The Seymour family are Catholics and deeply religious.

The Seymour family moves to Melbourne, the capital city of Victoria, in 1972.  Mark Seymour excels at university.  Towards the end of his studies he begins attending rock gigs around Melbourne.  Mark briefly becomes an English teacher, but quickly realises he is on the wrong path.  For a little while, Mark works as an on-stage roadie for The Birthday Party, Nick Cave’s gang of subversive post-punk noise merchants.  In 1981 The Birthday Party leaves Australia and base themselves in England.  Around the same time, Mark Seymour joins up with some fellow aspiring musicians to put together their own band.

Hunters And Collectors are formed in 1981.  At the suggestion of percussionist Greg Perano, the band take their name from the song ‘Hunters And Collectors’ on the album ‘Landed’ (1975) by German avant-garde rock outfit Can.  The new group is quite large.  With thirteen members, they seem closer to a cricket team than a rock band.  The starting line-up of Hunters And Collectors consists of: Mark Seymour (vocals, guitar), Ray Tosti-Gueira (guitar), Geoff Crosby (keyboards, artwork), John Archer (bass), Doug Falconer (drums), Greg Perano (percussion), Jack Howard (trumpet), Jeremy Smith (French horn), Michael Waters (trombone), Nigel Crocker (trombone), Andy Lynn (trumpet), Chris Malherbe (trumpet) and Robert Miles (mixing / art / design).  At a glance, it can be seen that Hunters And Collectors are not the average rock band.  The six-piece brass section is known as The Horns Of Contempt.  Not many bands count their soundman / graphic designer as an actual member, but Robert Miles maintains this status throughout the group’s career, usually appearing with the rest of the troupe in any publicity photographs.  Hunters And Collectors are ‘a collective rather than a band.’  The internal politics of the group verge on communism.  It’s not always a worker’s paradise though.  As Mark Seymour puts it, “We were all equal, but sometimes the band could be led by whoever shouted the loudest.”

With The Birthday Party out of town, Hunters And Collectors are swiftly anointed ‘The Next Big Thing’.  They are the critics’ darlings, the coolest of the cool.  The cognoscenti lap it up when the band’s gigs turn ‘chaotic, with audience members encouraged to join in on the banging of rubbish-bin lids or fire extinguishers.’  Hunters And Collectors disregard the standard meat-and-potatoes rock of most Australian bands on the pub circuit, favouring funk mixed with experimental noises…and topping it off with a bizarre six-part horn section.  “When we first started out, our main influences came from overseas,” confirms Mark Seymour.

Paradoxically, the sound of Hunters And Collectors, this huge band, actually boils down to three people, a terribly small band.  The trio of Mark Seymour (vocals, guitar), John Archer (bass) and Doug Falconer (drums) are the heart of the group.  John Archer is a remarkable bassist.  In many bands, bass is virtually an ‘invisible’ instrument; it’s important, but hard to notice.  That’s not the case here.  Archer’s bass lines feel like they weigh tons, yet snap and bounce like rubber.  This is the legacy of the band’s interest in funk, a bass-heavy sort of dance music.  Doug Falconer’s steady hand at the drum-kit and Mark Seymour’s scratchy, wiry guitar melodies form the other two points of the musical triangle that has Archer’s bass at the apex.  In the early days of Hunters And Collectors, keyboardist Geoff Crosby and percussionist Greg Perano are the band’s leading theorists.  They encourage avant-garde experimental tendencies.

In line with the collectivisation of Hunters And Collectors, their songwriting is credited to the whole band.  Mark Seymour is given a separate credit for the lyrics, but the music is said to be the product of the whole line-up.  Throughout their career this will remain the official line.  Yet there is a sneaking suspicion that Mark Seymour is also crafting most of the melodies.  The arrangements may be communal, but the basic music is probably Seymour’s.  This suspicion only grows stronger in the latter part of the band’s history.

Hunters And Collectors are snapped up by Australia’s Mushroom Records.  Acknowledging the special quality of their new signing, Mushroom creates a discrete label for them.  Hunters And Collectors are the first act on White Records, Mushroom’s new home for ‘alternative’ rock acts.  White’s artists are given greater autonomy than the mainstream Mushroom signings.

The first release from Hunters And Collectors is the EP ‘World Of Stone’ (AUS no. 50) in January 1982.  This contains three tracks: ‘Watcher’, ‘World Of Stone’ and ‘Loinclothing’.

The debut album, ‘Hunters And Collectors’ (1982) (AUS no. 21), follows in July.  This album is produced by Tony Cohen, who has previously worked with The Birthday Party.  It takes ten days for the band to lay down the tracks in the studio, but seven months to process the work.  This gives some idea of how much effort is involved in the band’s aspirations towards some sort of post-industrial noise art.  The album is best remembered for ‘Talking To A Stranger’ (AUS no. 59).  “The lyrics were loosely based on ‘The Albatross’ by Charles Baudelaire,” confides Mark Seymour.  “You tasted mustard when she painted your face,” they say in part.  Other shard-like images include “Oh Miss Jesus where are your black eyes?” and “Remember the panic in its delectable face, when I touched it / It was like talking to a stranger.”  Through it all, John Archer’s bass leads an expedition through a jungle of effects, stalking Mark Seymour’s feral guitar.  Trumpet player Jack Howard writes the horn arrangement for the latter part of the song.  When released as a single, a shorter, edited version of ‘Talking To A Stranger’ is one side while the superior full 7.29 original is present in all its glory on the flipside.  Richard Lowenstein contributes the deeply unsettling video for the song with images of missing teeth, scrawled writing etched across the screen and ghostly scenes of Mark Seymour, his nose flattened by an elastic band, singing in a shower spray.  Lowenstein later directs the movie ‘Dogs in Space’ (1988), starring INXS frontman Michael Hutchence.

Another EP, ‘Payload’, comes out in December 1982.  The ominous ‘Lumps Of Lead’ comes from this disc.

The horn section is slimmed down to a three-piece unit with the departure of Nigel Crocker, Andy Lynn and Chris Malherbe in 1982.  Ray Tosti-Gueira also departs, but he is replaced by a new guitarist, Martin Lubran.

Hunters And Collectors decamp to Germany to record their second album, ‘The Fireman’s Curse’ (1983) (AUS no. 77), with Conny Plank.  Mark Seymour comments that, “’Fireman’s Curse’, in retrospect, was self-conscious and overly artistic.  It sounds like a compromise regarding the weighing off of one interest in the group against the other.”  The band goes on to a ‘reasonably successful’ U.S.A. visit, a ‘less-than-successful’ foray into the U.K. and a ‘disappointing’ Australian tour.  Their failure to emulate The Birthday Party’s British breakthrough is particularly galling.

Martin Lubran, Greg Perano and Geoff Crosby all exit as Hunters And Collectors reassess their direction.  They started out as ‘The Next Big Thing’, but the self-appointed taste-meisters who bestow such titles are notoriously fickle.  They are always looking for ‘The Next Big Thing’ of tomorrow and Hunters And Collectors are looking like yesterday’s news to them.

“We got out of that cult, inner-city scene quite early.  It was a conscious decision on our part because we felt that if we couldn’t convey something to normal people who work nine to five or whatever, then we might as well forget it,” asserts Mark Seymour.  “And really, we never wanted to play to trendies anyway.  We’ve always considered ourselves to be a fairly accessible band.”

Hunters And Collectors now address themselves ‘to the suburban hordes’ of Australia.  Part of this shift sees the horn section taking on additional duties.  All that brass was an eccentricity of the band’s more experimental early days.  Their communal structure perhaps makes it impossible to just dismiss them all together, but they are encouraged to diversify.  Trumpeter Jack Howard plays some keyboards.  French horn player Jeremy Smith contributes some guitar and keyboards.  Michael Waters, the trombonist, also plays some keyboards as well as taking charge of the band’s finances.  The horns still appear on Hunters And Collectors songs, but not always and are more strategically used.

‘The Jaws Of Life’ (1984) (AUS no. 89) is again cut in Germany with Conny Plank.  ‘Carry Me’ is a song about drunkenness.  On this track, John Archer’s bass is so forceful it threatens to burst out of the speakers.  ‘The Slab (a.k.a. Betty’s Worry)’ is what Mark Seymour describes as an “oral sex fantasy”: “Oh yeah / Better get my head down there / Oh where? / Down there in that cavern where heaven grows.”  Seymour’s growling vocal continues “I’m beginning to see daylight yawning down there / And I’m just sitting here waiting for things to come.”  This album is also home to ‘Show Me The Way To Go Out’.

As Hunters And Collectors make the rounds of Australia’s pub circuit, Mark Seymour, the one-time ‘runt’, grows increasingly buffed and muscular.  He takes to wearing only a singlet over his rippling torso.  He is mainly channelling his athleticism into running.  At the height of his powers he is said to run five kilometres in 14.37.

‘Human Frailty’ (1986) (AUS no. 10) is Hunters And Collectors’ finest album.  It is co-produced by the band and Gavin McKillop.  The lead single is ‘Say Goodbye’ (AUS no. 24).  This is the track with the refrain of “You don’t make me feel like a woman anymore.”  Mark Seymour claims this is “based on a real conversation heard through a wall.  A woman telling her lover that he wasn’t doing her justice.”  Over an insistent combo of bass, drums and horns, Mark Seymour half-sings, half-speaks the words: “Well, just the other night I come home / After three months of constant grind and travel / And I went snivelling, I went grovelling around to my girlfriend’s house / And she came down hard upon me / And she ground her finger into my breastbone.”  Mark Seymour says in a contemporary interview, “The sexual politics debate is something that interests me…It’s that irony which I wanted to present on that song.”  Also present is the greatest song by Hunters And Collectors, the incandescent ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ (AUS no. 49): “You will make me call your name / And I’ll shout it to the blue summer sky.”  Seymour claims, “The strength of ‘Arms’ is in its honesty, and a very simple hooky chorus.  Other than that, there isn’t much else to say.”  This is acclaimed as ‘one of the undisputed classics of Australian rock.’  ‘Is There Anybody In There?’ is an anti-television rant set to a queasy bass line.  “Television is evil,” Mark Seymour bluntly states.  The song’s lyrics reflect this stance: “I got the box in my hands and I shook it all around / I got Judgment Day on longform / But there wasn’t any sound.” [‘Longform’ was a term for a full-length video, rather than an individual film clip.]  ‘Everything’s On Fire’ (AUS no. 78) is a cautious slice of funk, equating sexual desire with flames: “To all of you feelers and fumblers / Waiting for the fireworks to start / [in a whisper] Do it yourself / Unbutton the butcher in your heart.”  The breadth of this album embraces ‘Dog’, a song written from a canine perspective, and the grunting ‘99th Home Position’.  Most of all though, on ‘Human Frailty’, ‘Seymour’s deep songs about alienation and sexual politics come to the fore.’  The title, ‘Human Frailty’, is contributed by the band’s graphic designer, Robert Miles, in response to the group’s attempt to find a word or phrase to describe fear.

‘The Living Daylight’ EP (AUS no. 41) released in April 1987 contains three tracks: ‘Living Daylight’, ‘Inside A Fireball’ (AUS no. 41), and ‘January Rain’.  They sketch out the climactic extremes of Australia, a continent with large expanses of desert.

The full-length album, ‘What’s A Few Men?’ (1987) (AUS no. 16), follows in November.  The highlight of this album is ‘Do You See What I See’ (AUS no. 33), a song in which waves of rhythm guitar break across Mark Seymour’s demanding vocal.

In search of an American breakthrough, ‘What’s A Few Men?’ is scheduled to be Hunters And Collectors’ second U.S. album on I.R.S. Records.  However, “they couldn’t hear a single” amongst the album’s tracks, according to Mark Seymour.  “We were gagging to break it over there, and to be honest, we truly believed that all that polishing and manipulation would truly make a difference.”  So a new song, ‘Back On The Breadline’ (AUS no. 41), is crafted for the overseas release.  This bleak sketch of unemployment is married to a nagging, funky guitar figure and a churchy organ.  Yet the managing director of the record company says to Mark, ‘Hey young fella, can you tell me exactly what is ‘the breadline’?’  In case you are also in the dark, during the great depression of the 1930s, the destitute would queue up for a hand-out of basic sustenance in a ‘breadline’.  The U.S. record company also want to re-title the album, so the modified ‘What’s A Few Men?’ becomes ‘Fate’.

Since the departure of Martin Lubran in 1983, Mark Seymour has been handling nearly all the guitar work in Hunters And Collectors.  Barry Palmer is added as lead guitarist in 1988, easing that burden and allowing Seymour to concentrate more on his vocals – though he remains quite active as rhythm guitarist.

Barry Palmer debuts on disc with ‘Ghost Nation’ (1989) (AUS no. 10).  ‘When The River Runs Dry’ (AUS no. 23) has a staggering, stiff-legged gait. Mark Seymour’s harsh, hectoring vocals scold “Now you’ve bitten off the hand that feeds you.”  ‘Blind Eye’ (AUS no. 42) has a similarly cynical tone as it agonises “You know the gods have lied / But you’re still smitten.”  Musically, it’s a different story.  It sports a click-clack rhythm and a pulsing bass as though it was the soundtrack to a private eye story – as opposed to a ‘Blind Eye’.

‘Cut’ (1992) (AUS no. 6) is home to ‘Holy Grail’ (AUS no. 20).  Mark Seymour: “This song was originally conceived while reading ‘Art and Lies’ by Jeanette Winterson…[The song] is a parable about an army whose beliefs led to its own destruction.  It also alludes to the endless search for the ‘rock ‘n’ roll carrot’,” that is, the ephemeral thing called commercial success.  “It’s a short song / But it’s a helluva story,” he sings, “When you spend your life tryin’ to get your hands on the Holy Grail.”  The song’s atmospherics have been cheapened a bit by it being repeatedly used to advertise sporting events.  ‘True Tears Of Joy’ (AUS no. 14) has a percussive, vaguely Middle Eastern feel with some strong lyrical observations: “Passion is your weakness / But you feed it every day / Like a moth to the naked flame / You can’t keep away.”  ‘Where Do You Go?’ (AUS no. 33) starts with a simple piano.  The melody then busts into widescreen grandeur with horns blasting.  When Seymour sings “I’d like to say ‘no’ to the cold hard cash / But it just wouldn’t make sense,” it is the more practical cousin of ‘Holy Grail’.  ‘Cut’ is one of the most accomplished efforts in the Hunters And Collectors catalogue.

‘Demon Flower’ (1994) (AUS no. 2) is best known for the prison drama ‘Back In The Hole’.  Narrated in the voice of a prison guard, the lyrics promise “You don’t take it out on your children / Honey, I won’t bring my work home tonight.”  Barry Palmer’s guitar solo quivers like an exposed flame.

Also in 1994 Mark Seymour marries Jo Vautier, a graphic arts student.  The couple go on to have two daughters: Eva (born 1994) and Hannah (born 1997).

Hunters And Collectors quietly announce their dissolution, with the album ‘Juggernaut’ (1998) (AUS no. 36) closing the book.  There are multiple factors behind the decision In 1998 to call it a day: family commitments; frustration at their inability to crack the overseas market; and intra-band friction.  Interestingly, one pundit takes the view that, in the end, Hunters And Collectors were ‘strangled by their own legend.’

Hunters And Collectors reunite for a charity gig, the all-star Sound Relief concert on 14 March 2009 to assist victims of bushfires in Victoria.  Another one-off show takes place in 2011 at a V8 Supercars race in Sydney.  A performance by the band at the Australian Football League Grand Final match in Melbourne on 28 September 2013 is followed by a number of shows by Hunters And Collectors, winding up in April 2014.

The ironies of Hunters And Collectors’ career were many: (i) Mark Seymour, someone who claimed to have been ‘lousy’ at sports as a schoolboy, gained notoriety for his adult athleticism; (ii) a band that was feted by the hippest, ‘cooler-than-thou’ crowd turned into warriors of the suburban beer barns where they fostered a devoted following; (iii) a group with so many members really revolved around the tiny musical trio of Mark Seymour, John Archer and Doug Falconer; (iv) a high-minded socialist approach to the band’s fortunes may have proved to be a possible source of their demise; (v) a feminist viewpoint frequently adopted by a relentlessly masculine act that turned “You don’t make me feel like a I’m a woman anymore” into a catch-cry; and (vi) an overseas release that, ultimately, failed them is known as ‘Fate’.  Sometimes those ‘perversions of fate’ handed bad luck to Hunters And Collectors (e.g. their problems with breaking through internationally), but they also experienced good fortune (e.g. success in Australia).  Given his Catholic upbringing, Mark Seymour may have viewed it all as the result of a more deliberate architect than some anonymous ‘fate’.  It seems equally possible that, like his adult athletic prowess, he would have considered the achievements of Hunters And Collectors to be the result of sheer hard work.  That’s not a bad epitaph.  ‘Hunters And Collectors carved a unique path and place for themselves in Australian rock culture.’  ‘..The boys were a shy, unglamorous lot, a fact they knew only too well.  Ultimately, little was revealed.’

Sources:

  1. ‘The Little Oxford Dictionary’ – compiled by George Ostler (Oxford University Press, 1969) p. 283
  2. humanfrailty.com – The Official Hunters And Collectors website (as at 8 August 2013)
  3. wikipedia.org as at 1 July 2013
  4. Mark Seymour interview conducted by Susan Skelly – published on (2) above (July/August 1997)
  5. ‘Juke’ (Australian music newspaper) – Mark Seymour interview conducted by Christie Eliezer (2 April 1986)
  6. Max Music TV – ‘My First Gig’: Mark Seymour interview conducted by Australian rock star Jimmy Barnes (22 May 2009)
  7. markseymour.com.au as at 8 August 2013
  8. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 130, 136
  9. allmusic.com, ‘Hunters And Collectors’ by Ed Nimmervoll as at 8 August 2013
  10. ABC Local (Australian radio program) – Mark Seymour interview conducted by Richard Fidler (7 March 2008)
  11. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Hunters And Collectors’ by Ed St. John (Megabooks, 1985) p 110
  12. ‘Natural Selection’ – Sleeve notes by Mark Seymour (Liberation Blue, 2003) p. 6, 7, 9
  13. lyricsfreak.com as at 7 August 2013
  14. You Tube – ‘Talking To A Stranger’ video
  15. ‘The DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 312
  16. coolrunning.com – Post by Kevin Cassidy (23 January 2008)
  17. Mark Seymour video interview at Bondi, New South Wales (1986)
  18. ‘Natural Selection’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Liberation Blue, 2003) p. 3
  19. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – ‘Collected Works’ by Cameron Adams (26 September 2013) p. 42

Song lyrics copyright Human Frailty / Mushroom Music Publishing

Last revised 4 May 2014

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