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A Quietus Interview

Misfits & Mongrels: Smudge's Tom Morgan Interviewed
Ben Hewitt , August 25th, 2010 11:56

Ben Hewitt and Smudge singer Tom Morgan discuss Evan Dando, dangerous career arcs and keeping testosterone in check

We're all familiar with the old cliché: You spend ages waiting for a bus, and three turn up at the same time. In some parallel universe, Australian slack-poppers Smudge are used to provide the inverse analogy. Between 1994 and 1998 they released three studio albums, starting with the hazy, mellow sludge of their debut LP Manilow and culminating with the rawer aesthetic of Real McCoy, Wrong Sinatra - that's three albums in barely five years, not to mention the B-sided compilation Mo' Poontang sandwiched in between records in 1997. And then, after a flurry of activity, they were gone - no new material for over a decade, with an enforced hiatus between 1999 and 2002 when drummer Alison Galloway took a break to travel the world.

For over the last 10 years, then, there's been scant activity from Smudge - a handful of live shows in their native Australia notwithstanding - while frontman Tom Morgan focused on other projects including Sneeze, his group with Lemonheads bassist Nic Dalton, and Bambino Koresh, formed with his wife Leticia Nischang. This year, however, will witness a series of live shows (including dates in the UK), reissues of Manilow and Real McCoy, Wrong Sinatra, and a mooted Best Of... compilation on Fire Records. The Quietus caught up with Tom to discuss reunions, the prospect of new material and his relationship with Evan Dando.

Since 2002, Smudge have been playing a handful of shows each year. How does it feel to be playing again, and is it true what they say - does absence make the heart grow fonder (on both sides)?

Tom Morgan: There were never any problems between the 3 of us. We've always been fond of each other - playing the songs from our past is joyful. The knowledge never goes away. We can run through a song once at a soundcheck, and play it that night; it's amazing how it all comes back. It's not like we were one of those 'always on the road' type bands that play hundreds of gigs a year. I guess it helps that we actually LIKE the songs.

As for the fans, I don't know. At this age everybody's younger than you are.

There are plans for a 30 track 'Best Of Smudge' compilation to be released this year. When you started Smudge, did you ever think you'd be releasing a behemoth of a compilation such as this?

TM: No. Our plan was to release one album and then break up - in our heads, that was the story behind evey great pop band. So that was how it was going to be. Then, as time went by, Duncs [Paul Duncan, bassist] quit, Adam [Yee, his replacement] joined; things happened, and we kind of forgot about 'the plan'. It's not the sort of idea you can really return to either - not after this long.

So now we have a 'best of' on our hands. We chose the songs, along with Nic Dalton [Lemonheads bassist]. We decided to go for the first released versions of most songs - the single or early EP versions, not the album versions.

Often, the 'Best Of' CD marks the end of a band's recording life - and Smudge haven't released any new material since the late 90's. Is this a farewell kind of album, or have you been working on new material?

TM: No, we prefer to think of this compilation as an end-of-an-era - specifically, the 90s. We have a bunch of new songs and we play them sporadically, and we should be in the studio to record them in November. Pehaps March or April next year should see the release of new stuff. It sounds like Smudge to me. I think 'the Smudge sound' is less in the songwriting, and more in the three of us playing songs together.

There have been a few line-up changes over the years with Smudge. What's the current line-up, and will there be any familiar faces returning in the future, even if just for one off events? How do you think that turnover of members affected both the band's sound and career arc?

TM: The only faces are the same ones that recorded Manilow through to McCoy, Wrong Sinatra. Our original bass player, Duncs, quit long long ago after the first three EPs to pursue a career in making money. We still love him ,but to Alison and I Adam is our bass player, and has been since the first album. With the exception of Pete Kelly, who played guitar on Real McCoy... and live with us, it's pretty much been just the three of us. And that's how it is. We have had a lot of guests on records. We like a good guest. So who know...

'Career arc'? Never put too much thought into that. Sounds dangerous Ben...

The clamour for your reformed live shows suggests you still wield a lot of influence. Why do you think that is, and is it a challenge to continue pulling fans in when you're not releasing new material?

TM: We've really just started again after a long break. We're just going to play and hope whatever happens will be interesting to other folks. I can't really say we remain influential.

It's a pretty hard past to live up to, or measure yourself by. When we were putting together the booklets for the compilation and the re-issues, we were astounded by the amount of press we received during the 90s. Mountains of newspaper clippings hidden away in the Half A Cow storage facility, all from the pre-internet age. Looking back, I can see we had a lot of attention, but at the time we were totally blind to it. We always felt like misfits in Sydney, and perceived as mongrels in the UK.

I think there's an argument that Manilow is one of the most overlooked alternative pop albums from the 90s - it boasts that same combination of pop harmonies and grazing guitars as The Lemonheads and, to a lesser extent, Nirvana used. Do you think it doesn't get the credit it deserves and, if so, why?

TM: Hard to say. Perhaps. I guess there were a lot of really good records released around that time. I never felt we were overlooked; a little of the opposite, actually. Australia was a lot more isolated back then. Maybe today, a band from Sydney can plot a career, but back then you just weren't really connected to the US or UK in the way people are now. We just played locally and got lucky.

But if anybody wants to 're-evaluate' our music today, they are free to. All they have to do is listen to the albums. Albums are forever, that's why they're called records. Like criminal records.

To me, one of the things that strikes me from re-listening to the re-issues is the sense of humour Smudge had, whether it's the self-deprecation of what you'd loosely term 'slacker music' ('Ugly, Just Like Me', for example) or the covers of the Charles In Charge theme tune and the song 'Kelly' from Cheers. What role do you think humour has in music? Is it tough to walk the tightrope between light-heartedness and pastiche/irony?

TM: It'll drive you mad - it's best not to think about it. Humour does free you up during writing, though. To step outside the moment, and see yourself writing a song, and to incorporate that absurdity into the lyrics is a good way [to work]. In Sneeze, my band with Nic Dalton, we allowed ourselves to be as absurd, rough or naive as we wanted and that resulted in some great tunes. You can stretch yourself lyrically into some interesting and challenging situations. The Motown and Stax writers were onto that.

A lot of great pop songs walk that tightrope you're talking about. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' or 'Blank Generation', right through to 'Mamma Mia' and 'Convoy'. Our versions of 'Charles In Charge' and 'Kelly' both have a 're-appropriation' idea which we have always liked... kind of a postmodern-ism-ishhy-ness... PoMo.

There will also be a reissue of your 1998 album Real McCoy, Wrong Sinatra - in fact, this is the first time a physical copy in the UK will be available. So what can fans expect when they finally lay their hands on a copy for the first time?

TM: It's a great album, recorded in a weatherboard mansion in Gerroa on the untamed south coast of NSW. We did it as a four piece, as Pete Kelly had joined by then. He was recruited specifically to help us with the recording. It was done on an eight-track reel to reel. Pete had an intimate knowledge of home recording and DIY. I think it's a clear record... lots of space. Not many overdubs, so in that sense it's raw. It's different, but so is each record we do.

It's interesting you touch upon the raw sound. Have Smudge mellowed now with the maturity that growing gracefully older brings? Because one of your albums, You, Me, Carpark... Now! is apparently a phrase uttered in Australia before an argument is settled with a spot of fisticuffs. I take it that's not a phrase you find yourself saying very often anymore?

TM: No, we're all pacifists. Alison is a mother now; Adam is a vegan. Perhaps it's a unisex band thing - no time for testosterone, there's a lady present. We've always been a mellow bunch, at least in spirit. I can't foresee any change to that.

You've played in a number of other bands and projects, including the aforementioned Sneeze. How does the experience differ in each one? And, if push came to shove, which do you enjoy most working with?

TM: I'm lucky that I don't have to think like that. To me, they're all connected but separate. Sneeze allowed me to write quickly and confidently, and that affects the way I write with Smudge. Similarly, playing bass in Bambino Koresh gives me the opportunity to see a song from another perspective than the one I'm used to, and that affects the way I write as well. I couldn't choose. I wouldn't choose.

You're also known for your collaborations with Evan Dando. For those not familiar with your history, how did you meet and how did you end up working together?

TM: We met in 1991, when The Lemonheads were touring Australia. Nic Dalton, who was playing bass in The Hummingbirds and supporting The Lemonheads, introduced us. Evan came back to Australia for a solo tour later that year, and we hung out. It was really the beginning of a new phase for him. He wasn't sure if his band were still together, and he was trying out the solo/acoustic thing that would end up being his bread and butter. Anyway, he stated with us, sleeping on our floor, just hanging out and we hit it off. One morning he broke out his notebook and showed me what he was working on. He had bits of songs that became 'Confetti' and 'Rockin Stroll' and I helped him piece them together. Then one day we ended up writing 'Bit Part' and 'It's A Shame About Ray'.

You helped pen some of those tunes, but were you never tempted to keep some for Smudge?

TM: No. Mostly, the stuff we wrote together was consciously for The Lemonheads. There are a couple of exceptions but, overall, that's the case. Evan is great to write with. He's really intelligent and has a great artistic mind. His thought process is not middle-of-the-road. It's very left-of-field, and very quick. I often think he's the last real punk left. In those early says he really gave me the confidence to write. I felt if I could keep up with him, then I could do this. When writing we'd only use one guitar between us - passing it back and forth with ideas thrown in. That way the both of us were concentrating on the melody and lyrics, rather than being distracted by playing along.

Do you still keep in touch, and is there any chance for further collaboration between the two of you?

TM: We still see each other. He came out to stay with my wife and I last year for a while; we speak every couple of months on the phone. I'm pretty sure we'll write together again. It's not as if we've grown apart, he's the same now as he ever was. I'm sure it'll happen one day.

What are the future plans for Smudge?

TM: Smudge will tour Australia in October, and start to record an album of new material November. The start of phase two: Bambino Koresh, the band I have with my wife, will record an album in a few months as well. Our drummer Sarah has gone and got herself pregnant and married! But luckily for us, Alison had such a great time playing drums for us in Spain that she's asked if she could join the band. It's that unisex thing again. Keeps the testosterone in check...

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