By Bernard Zuel.
THEY’RE PUTTING US ON VINYLl!
Top of the world, Ma, top of the world.
In some ways it’s old news for Peter O’Doherty and Reg “my mother called me Chris O’Doherty” Mombassa, the two ends if you will of Dog Trumpet, who mix lightly trippy surf and folk and pop and country blues and with wry, insightful, often touching lyrics that aren’t afraid of the surreal or the all-too-real.
When their first serious band, Mental As Anything, released their rather sparkling EP, Mental As Anything Plays At Your Party, in something like 1833, no one would have thought anything of how it was released. Indeed, it was probably a more pertinent question to ask, given the drinking canvassed in the bloody marvellous EP track, The Nips Are Getting Bigger, if there’d be a second release.
(Spoiler alert. There was: a debut album called Get Wet, which was pretty damn fine; then a second, even odder album calledEspresso Bongo. After that no one could stop the weirdos.)
A century later, when the Dog Trumpet side project presaged their eventual dual exit from Mental As Anything, technology had evolved incrementally.
“We’ve been around so long that our first album came out in ‘91, and that did come out on vinyl and CD and cassette,” says O’Doherty, omitting the fact that album’s title was the accurate if slightly disturbing, Two Heads One Brain, but adding that in 2013 they released Dog Trumpet’s sixth album, Medicated Spirits, with a small run of vinyl that coincided with “a bit of a splash” including a show at the Sydney Opera House.
But even then, before the vinyl resurgence and demand for never-to-be-played vinyl versions of Lady Gaga and Adele gummed up the works for everybody, there were delays in getting the stock from the American pressing plant, the records arriving after the shows.
(Not a spoiler: did you know that Murray Cook was briefly in Mental As Anything after O’Doherty and Mombassa had left? Sadly, no the Red Wiggle, and current Soul Mover Murray Cook though. Wouldn’t you have loved to see a Wiggles audience singing along to The Nips Are Getting Bigger?)
So, yeah, there are some issues with any excitement about 12” pieces of black plastic.
“The thing with vinyl is that they are big, bulky things, heavy and hard to travel. You got a box of 10 under your arms and it’s like, Christ is like having 15 bricks under your arms or something,” O’Doherty says with a bit dramatic flair. “At the same time, I think they are beautiful things and it’s great that they haven’t gone away … holding onto the concrete world.”
Ah yes, the concrete world. Which brings us to the news that long-standing UK label, Demon (one formed in 1980 by Elvis Costello’s then manager, Jake Riviera, but now owned by a subsidiary of the much better behaved BBC) is releasing internationally remastered versions of all seven Dog Trumpet albums. On vinyl. Which is no insignificant thing in the world where men in their mature years, like Mombasa and O’Doherty, are not exactly smashing down the only door that matters to bloodless accountants, that leading to the godless streaming services.
“I feel lucky that [we’re] able to do that because I think a lot of people get to this stage and they feel like that they’ve done it all, and they feel jaded and it’s a hard world. It can be soul destroying if you get ensnared in the mechanics of it so we’re pretty pleased that Demon have taken the interest and listened to our music,” says O’Doherty.
“We thought initially they might release maybe a compilation, a one-off album, but they said, no we’d like to do the whole seven. I think when you see a body of work too it, it makes a lot of sense as opposed to a one-off album – you can see their arc. We’re still arcing somewhere. [He chuckles] I don’t know if it’s arcing up or down but we’re pretty hard at it.”
(Also not a spoiler. O’Doherty and Mombassa, both specialising in what you might call landscapes of the domestic, are two of Australia’s best-known painters and are probably owned by scores of collectors who have no idea they also play music, let alone this well.)
The arc has been long, if somewhat intermittent. Album number seven, Great South Road, may feel like it was about four years ago, but in fact it came out last year as the world went to shit. “One year can seem like five years right now,” a sanguine O’Doherty says. Prior to that it had been four or five years between albums.
“Each time we made an album we’d say, we’ll get another one out, let’s really get stuck into the next one and we won’t let that big lag happen again. But we’re both artists and that is a big chunk of our time. We work at the music but you can let six months or 12 months go and it seems like you haven’t done much.”
And of course with Covid it meant they couldn’t even physically get together even if they were filled with songs and desperate to work. But they did several shows online during lockdowns and O’Doherty says that sparked them.
“We’ve gone back through our catalogue of songs, just the two of us, through those seven albums and back to the Mentals as well, stuff we’ve written over 45 years,” he explains. “It’s been good fun playing a lot of that stuff, and those Facebook shows were very loose: there was no audience so you had to use your imagination and it was free-form and free-flowing.
“Being brothers, it was almost like a jam band improvising over your own material, while if it’s a band you have to have a certain amount of rehearsal to get up to scratch.”
Wait, they are brothers?
“Yeah, who would have thought? It’s so bizarre, he’s obviously so much older than me,” O’Doherty says, though he will concede that one of the attractions of vinyl over CD is that even someone so much younger than Mombassa as he is, “all things are easier, especially as your eyes start to go”.
The next album is only a few songs short of finished, which means the possibility of a 2022 release is high, a mere two years after its predecessor. “That’s pretty quick,” O’Doherty says. “We’ve got to squeeze it in. That’s another thing about time: as you get older you have less of it and you know you have less of it, so you’ve got to use your time as much is possible.”
If you’re thinking that considering they’ve had a career of nearly 50 years, sustained alongside very successful careers as visual artists, the brothers are entitled to feel a little inner warmth about this Demonic turn of events, you’d be not quite right.
“I suppose so. You really are only ever who you are on the day,” O’Doherty says reluctantly. “You always want people to appreciate what you do, or be aware of what you do, because you are not doing it just for yourself. But that is the principal reason I still get up and make music: because it’s what makes me feel balanced as a human being, and that’s still what motivates me, the joy of doing that.”
What he’s prouder of really is that the brothers have done this independently, often self-managed, self-produced, and without a demanding voice in their collective ear telling them what, when and how to work.
“We get to do what we want and I see making an album as pure art form, and I don’t have to feel I’m compromised at any stage for any reason other than I want to make it sound good. That’s the challenge of it to keep the standard and raise the bar on yourself,” O’Doherty says.
“Every time I make a record I’m still learning, which is why it’s funny that whole thing about being in the business for 45 years. It’s almost like every painting I do, starting again almost even though what you’ve done before has cemented what you are doing, there is still the challenge that every one is a fresh problem to be sold.
“And I love that.”
Digital and vinyl versions of all Dog Trumpet albums are available now, through Demon.