IRONY & DISTANCE: Triffids interview, from The Next Thing, 1984
The Triffids fairly well defy convention; their seeming contradictions only make them stronger.
They come from Perth, capital of raunch'n'roll and birthplace of the Scientists and the Hoodoo Gurus (sort of), but they are a very different kind of group — the Triffids are song-orientated; their sound is light, delicate and melodic at the top end, anchored by a tough, sinewy rhythm section at the bottom. Their muse is modest yet insidious, ironic but optimistic. Triffids songs are vignettes, stories of life and love, detached but by no means objective, rendered both sensitively and stridently. There is a contained passion to the Triffids. Like the Go-Betweens, they are more an extension of folk-rock than punk-rock; the Triffids, however, are unafraid to dredge up covers of Eddie Cochrane and Sixties' ravers when they need to flesh out a set. Pragmatists more than romantics in every respect, the Triffids are a totally self-contained, self-sufficient organisation that belongs to no school or clique. And although they're still a very young group — mostly around 21 — they possess the maturity and wisdom of an older outfit because they’ve been together for so long.
David McComb and Alsy MacDonald joined forces initially in 1976, in a naive 'experimental' duo called Dalsy. They made tapes, did paintings, wrote poetry and a book called Lunch. By 1978 they had become Blok Musik, then, for a day, Logic, and then the Triffids. With a core consisting of McComb, MacDonald and McComb's brother Robert (on guitar and violin), the Triffids played around the traps in Perth for a number of years. Their prolific output of cassette releases has documented every phase of their career, while in Perth the group also made a single (“Stand Up”) and an EP (Reverie). When the inevitable move east occurred, the Triffids were snared by the White Label in Melbourne, and although the relationship was not a particularly fruitful one it did produce another single and EP (“Spanish Blue”/”Twisted Brain” and Bad Timing and Other Stories).
The Triffids are now wellestablished in Sydney. At the end of 1983, their first album, Treeless Plain, was released, and if it hasn't rocketed the Triffids to stardom it's certainly another involving chapter in the Triffids' continuing saga — and a minor masterpiece in its own right.
The following interview with David McComb and Alsy MacDonald was held at the Triffids' residence in Surry Hills, Sydney, in autumn 1983, as the group were recording Treeless Plain.
What does it mean to be a group from Perth?
David: It's a bit like being in an incubator, being bottled somewhere. And there's some factors, like — what is it? — 20 per cent English population, immigrants, and there's a very large, aggressive skinhead scene, like pre-punk skinheads, boot boys. At the time of punk in Perth it was all typical middle-class punks like the Victims, y'know, from Catholic schools. And they were the first bands that I saw live. The first band I saw in a pub was the Victims, and anything after that was an anti-climax.
The outside influences were more from, like, going to record stores after school. The cliché about formative periods, when all those first records from New York bands were coming out, not that I look back on those days sort of wistfully or anything, but I found out what sort of music I thought was important.
Yeah, the influence of all that classic early New York stuff — Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads was always pretty obvious to me.
It's really funny, because the Scientists, all those guys who were now also the Hoodoo Gurus, they were all part of this heavy New York Dolls-influenced thing. Those guys were like our big brothers, those were the bands we used to see and really like. But because they're five years older than us they have the idea of rock'n'roll closer to their hearts, which I sorta like, but then I started liking . . . more sort of funny groups.
You started playing when you were only 15 . . .
We started off, the really early stuff was hilarious. We had a group called Dalsy, which was just the two of us. I just played one-string guitar and Alsy played drums, and we made tapes. I guess the main influence was punk/Velvet Underground stuff, but it was just totally humorous.
You've got a number of songs — like 'Too Hot to Move' and 'Spanish Blue' — that are obviously about Perth.
All those songs were just really logical. It's a real insult to think that to reflect anything about Australia you have to be like Dave Warner or Austen Tayshus or something like that. I thought just to cut it back to the most basic things about Australia . . . the weather in Perth is just so debilitating in the summer, it's just so hot.
Yeah, apart from just the title 'Spanish Blue' they often seem to have a sort of Spanish feel, in the way, say, Love occasionally did.
Well, it was pushed down your throat in geography classes, the place is Mediterranean.
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, it sounds really flippant to say our music has a Mediterranean feel, but it is true, we're quite aware of it, and there's about four songs like that, one called 'Hell Of A Summer', which is less sweet. I guess it's up to people what they want to see in it, but it does go deeper into things than just the climate.
Yeah, the songs are permeated by a sense of suffocation/desperation/ennui.
Yeah, exactly. 'Hell Of A Summer' is an extension of that. And it was written in Melbourne. We felt more suffocated in Melbourne than we ever had in Perth. In Perth I never felt, I never felt like busting out of it, I really quite liked living there. [But] it’s just not practical.
How did leaving Perth affect you?
It was an eye-opener for us to come east. We caught the bus over here last year, and I got here the day Hunters and Collectors, the Birthday Party and Pel Mel played at Sydney University. And seeing bands like that, and bands like the Laughing Clowns, made me respond to Australian music for the first time.
The thing is though, bands here tend to follow precedents. We haven't chosen to go against that, like, there's been lots of good independent bands in Australia, but we don't feel we have to follow them.
Why not? Do you think those precedents aren't so good?
It's not that they're not so good, just that they're not us. Like, you can see the logic of bands like the Birthday Party, going overseas, and it makes sense. We could do that, but we'd never really rush into anything. We don't feel a part of that, and we don't feel a part of anything like the Riptides either, anything supposedly more mainstream.
Are you in a position now, in Sydney, you're happy with?
Financially, we've come to a strange but efficient sort of thing. Like, most of us aren't on the dole, so we do have to survive by playing live, selling tapes. We've got this system down where we depend on almost no one. We keep overheads to a minimum, keep everything streamlined, otherwise we wouldn't survive.
Is this approach reflected in your music at all?
The other thing that independent bands get into is that because they're independent they feel there's certain things they can't do, like, you can't attempt a big production. By big production I mean like bringing in a string section on the recording of 'Red Pony'. A lot of independent bands would feel that's beyond their means. It only takes a lot of pugnaciousness, and if you have an idea . . . we knew that song was special, so we wanted it to be really special, have something different about it, and once you have an idea like that it's a trick to be persuaded against it because you're a 'small' band.
That's why we stopped using producers; we've got a much clearer, more purposeful sound by ourselves than we ever did with a producer.
Alsy: I think there's a long way we can go, within the framework of the band, just being very streamlined and just surviving, and not being so outwardly ambitious, and channelling everything into the idea of going overseas straight away or something like that. We can be here and do all the things we feel are important. It would be presumptuous to expect to be somewhere else in six months.
David: The other trap you can get into is wanting to be at a certain stage by a certain time. Not that we don't want success or anything, but we think more in terms of, y'know, getting records out, and we've said this before, once we've made a record we think is a perfect Triffids record, that would be a good time to end the band. Because we consider all our records are not quite getting there. That's what we're always aiming for, making a record that's a bit better than the last one.
You're obviously a very prolific songwriter. How many have you actually got?
At last count, a hundred and something. A lot of them are really early ones, and I used to write an average of one song every two weeks, and lately it's only been one every two months or so.
How do you gauge a good song?
That's why it's only one every two months, because we were rejecting lots of songs. Writing a song's really easy, arranging it is what makes it special. We'd try them at rehearsal and they were either repeating something another song had done, or they were just . . .
You said that at one stage earlier on you found a lot of your songs “annoyingly delicate” and now they're a lot tougher. How did that change occur?
The songs just came out like that. They're much more satisfying to play now. I sort of see them as complicated, they take longer to write, the lyrics are more intentional than they used to be, but it is more simple music really. As they say, it's what you leave out rather than what you put in.
There is a lot of light and space in your music.
Wide spaces, yeah. Someone once told us that they never really understood us until they played one of our tapes in the country. Because I never thought of our music as being inner-city music at all, but we couldn't be dishonest and say we're really down-home either.
Still, sometimes you do have a slightly country feel.
What I like is when Bob Dylan went country and everyone said he'd sold out, and I reckon those records are just great. Then I started listening to Hank Williams.
But how does that apply in an Australian context?
When you've been across Australia six times by road, you just look at it very unromantically when you're crossing the Nullarbor.
How does all that travelling affect you?
Alsy: You can go from Sydney to Melbourne in the space of a week, and it could be the difference between being happy and depressed. And if that's happening at such a rate, especially like last year, when we were moving around a lot, it very directly affects you.
Although you two have remained pretty constant, the Triffids have undergone a lot of line-up changes. Has that altered your approach at all?
David: The main overriding thing we've always had with the band is that technique should always be subservient to feeling, you should never let technique be an end in itself. But then you should never disregard technique, as a tool. We play as well as we possibly can play for the atmosphere and feeling we're trying to create. It's quite a pleasant surprise to find you can play better, it's good. We can use violin, and stuff like that.
There's a great idea, that's stayed with us, to do with music that's so lacking in bombast, so lacking in self-importance, music that can be just very ready-made, anywhere, anytime, by people who just pick up a guitar, just getting up and playing, which to me is as revolutionary as punk was. You just learn that you don't have to have this whole set of obligations and things before you can play.
You've just made your first album. What were your intentions with it?
Alsy: That should be put into context, like, the album comes at the end of a string of EPs and singles, so in some ways just getting the album out provides a much broader insight, there's more variety.
David: We have a thing with variety in our music, which gets us into a bit of bad water — some people see it as a lack of direction. Like, we have really dirgey songs, and we have melody, and people can't see which sort of band you want to be, this or that, so we've always battled against that. We say, "Why can't we be both? We like both.'
I've always liked melody, obviously, the whole band's based on melody. Totally. In the music, and the rhythm, the lyric, the voices. But melody without tension is a waste of time, it just goes nowhere. Something that affects you is not the most pristine, sweet, white-boy melody, it has to connect with tension.
Given the variety in your music, what holds it all together?
That would come down to something more lyrical, I suppose. I'm not sure. I think that's the common denominator, if there's a quality in the lyrics. Which I find even harder to talk about. It's even harder with lyrics. You try to make them as plain as possible, almost unsubtle, so people . . . then it's entirely up to the person. There's no point in trying to explain what they're about, because that seems like another insult to people. It's like it's just really important with our band that the audience does the work.
We used to do a lot of things with really sweet music and have a more dark, sinister lyric. We used to have songs that I thought were the most depressing songs ever. Like 'Close To The Sun', which was a really in-the-pits song, and people used to say, 'What a great surf song! That really reminds me of the beach!' And I thought, 'God, we've really failed there', because I was trying for an irony. Even 'Spanish Blue' is supposed to have a fairly dark underbelly, that will stop the music becoming too innocuous. Obviously, we've failed sometimes in the past. We haven't failed in creating a sense of languidness or ennui.
With your songs you often seem quite detached.
What I see as being a good way to do things is to take something that matters to you, or some part of your personality, and then force it to be more extreme, distort it beyond what it was, almost fictionalise it.
Yeah, well, I do think there's a strong narrative tendency in your songs.
Not so much a story, you try and make it stronger than it originally was, because if you just say, 'Oh, I woke up and felt bad', it's just too weak, so you make it extreme so it's like another character. Like, David Byrne is one person who does that really well. It almost sorta seems more real, with a narrator.
Does the narrator take a stance?
It may be emotional, but never sentimental . . . We feel, obviously, by nature, we must be idealistic, or insane, because you don't go on getting $80 a week, that's not much . . . but generally, I suppose there's a pessimism, but there's humour in it as well. We've never been as extreme as some groups I like, but we've always had irony, all the way. Everything we've always done has always had a strong strand of irony, each song you can look at one way or another, you can laugh at the narrator, or you can get immersed in it.
Does the album capture the group in a way you're pleased with?
Alsy: The album's not meant to be an accurate representation of what we're like live, because we've done some sort of adventurous things with the production.
David: We really hope it comes across as a strong collection of sort of stories. Each one is a little point of view of someone. It's like a whole lot of little confessionals. Not from us, just from people we could be. It's like . . . a turd up an anus, it just had to come out.
What does the future hold, given your youth?
Alsy: We just turned 21, but we don't think of ourselves as young, because we've been doing it for so long.
David: But, like, I always thought it was a terrible thing just to rely on your youth. I'm not sure that it's important for rock music to keep a strong element of the juvenile. There's one band like that, the Sunnyboys, their whole original appeal was based on innocence, and look what happened to them, people didn't want them to get older. That's a fairy story.