Saint Necessarily So! Martin Jones’ 2005 Interview with Chris Bailey.

Don’t try to tell Chris Bailey that The Saints ended in 1978. Two new records prove that Bailey’s Saints are alive and well. 

By Martin Jones 

With all the recent attention that the brief ‘golden era’ of The Saints has been attracting, singer Chris Bailey’s vast post-Prehistoric Sounds output has been overshadowed. Whilst original Saints guitarist Ed Kuepper never fought Bailey for the name, he maintains that everything after the Kuepper/Bailey/Ivor Hay line-up is something other than The Saints.

Bailey, who was allegedly assembling a new band without Kuepper and Hay even as The Saints were recording Prehistoric Sounds, doesn’t share the distinction. With an ever-evolving line-up of cohorts, Bailey kept The Saints ball rolling through a dozen releases through the ‘80s and ‘90s and right up to present day, a brand new Saints record Nothing Is Straight In My House ready for release.

“I mean given the fact that I’ve been in The Saints all my adult life, if you’re referring to the early stuff, it hasn’t had that much impact.”

2004’s Saints box set, All Times Through Paradise, saw EMI and Kuepper teaming up to release virtually every recorded document of The Saints from 1976 to 1978. It would have us believe The Saints ended there and then. Bailey, on the other hand, doesn’t even credit those EMI years as seminal. When asked how those intense 18 months that produced (I’m) Stranded, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds have shaped his life, Bailey responds, “I mean given the fact that I’ve been in The Saints all my adult life, if you’re referring to the early stuff, it hasn’t had that much impact.”

Though Kuepper, Bailey and Hay did reunite to perform one song for their ARIA Hall Of Fame induction on – can you believe it? – September 11, 2001, you can bet Kuepper and Hay will be nowhere to be seen when The Saints perform at Sydney’s Homebake Festival this December. In fact, The Church’s Marty Willson-Piper, who played guitar on the brand new album, has just been confirmed as a permanent touring member of The Saints. 

As Kuepper asserted in August Rhythms, a reunion of the original line-up hasn’t taken off because “It needs Chris to think it’s a good idea, basically, and he doesn’t.” Bailey just isn’t interested. He’s thoroughly enjoying his current incarnation of The Saints and his own band The General Dog with whom he’s just recorded a fantastic addition to the Liberation Blue Acoustic Series, Bone Box. He’s in such good spirits about his current musical achievements, it’s easy to understand why he wouldn’t want to interfere with them. And he seems genuinely disinterested in reliving those ‘glory days’. Perhaps they weren’t his glory days, anyway. 

“I don’t really think about the public side of The Saints or the tradition or the history or whatever. I’m very much Zen about the whole thing,” Bailey sighs in his theatrical British accent, having just arrived in The Saints’ birthplace of Brisbane at the invitation of the Queensland Poetry Festival. 

Did Bailey ever share Kuepper’s once-expressed wish that “the band was just forgotten in the mists of time”? 

“Well obviously not,” he scoffs. “You’ve got to remember that Ed tinges stuff with a bit of whinging and bitterness from time to time. And from his perspective, The Saints are just a couple of years. But to me it’s been all my adult life. And there are people who aren’t even aware of those early records. It’s quite funny, this year, because we’ve had such a live year, I’ve been banging some old stuff back into the set. It’s been fun, but there’s a whole audience out there who doesn’t have a clue about that stuff. So I find that kind of amusing. I mean if Stranded is meant to be our swansong, it’s quite bizarre that in some performances it just goes down like a led balloon. So that’s kind of funny to me ‘cause I know that Eddie and his minions tend to over glorify the glory days… And that kind of All Fool’s Day period, in the US that’s what people recognise most. And… oh well who cares, it’s all fucking rock and roll.”

Bailey lives overseas and, touring the UK and Europe, finds it interesting how different audiences appreciate different eras and styles of The Saints’ work. He agrees that the stigma of the original line-up is strongest in Australia. 

“Well there’s elements of that here and maybe also because, I mean all that old shit is owned by EMI and they occasionally bang it out and publicise it. The ABC only have that stuff in their archives. There’s all the kind of bollocks of ‘exporting Australian music to the world’ and we’re ‘champions and sportsmen’ and, you know, I’ve never been quite able to get my head around the notion of music being a competitive sport. And all that kind of jingoistic ‘gee the Saints are fabulous ‘cause they went to England and kicked butt’, it’s just bollocks. It’s that kind of jingoistic aspect to pop music that is just stupid and it’s not relevant to me as a person, it’s not relevant to The Saints as an entity. It’s just what DJs on VH1 say because they’re very thick. And publicists write this kind of crap because it’s easier to churn it out.”

Romantic nostalgia certainly seems to be more popular than ever amongst Australian rock fans, whether it’s based on fact or not. 

“Well it’s funny,” says Bailey, “somebody showed me an article yesterday, and I’m not famous for reading notices, but I was looking at this piece and thinking ‘no, that didn’t happen. No, that’s not right.’ And that’s just funny. If you’re dumb enough to go into any performance kind of work, you’ve just got to accept that your public persona is going to be 95 percent bullshit. And there’s nothing one can do to stop that. So what I’ve done as a defence mechanism is develop a sense of humour about it – you know ‘yeah, whatever. Okay, that may be the truth’. ‘Cause realistically, you’re only as good as your last performance or last record and I think people, with all due respect, can spot bullshit in a performer. So, no need to panic.”

Which brings us nicely to Bailey’s current work. He is proud to stand by his two new releases, Bone Box and Nothing Is Straight In My House and rightly so. Each record is brimming with its own vitality, born of Bailey’s spirited attitude. Whilst the latter was the result of Bailey returning to his electric guitar in the garage to bash out his frustrations at the deplorable recent deeds of the Western World, the former saw him carry a similarly reckless, punk rock approach to acoustically reinterpreting some of his best-known songs. 

With the assistance of The General Dog (Caspar Wijnberg, Peter Wilkinson and Adam Bar-Pereg), Bailey succeeds in breathing new life into some Saints classics on Bone Box, highlights including a John Lee Hooker style ‘Know Your Product’ and a dark, unravelling ‘Nights In Venice’. 

“Making Bone Box was a treat, actually,” Bailey recalls. “I mean it’s really weird, I should be banging on about the new Saints album, which is concurrent, but going into the basement with Pete and Caspar was just great. We decided that, the brief was acoustic, fair enough, but okay this is the 21st century, we’re all kind of into computers and synthesizers and all that kind of bollocks, but what we did is I just kind of went in, sat down in the middle of the room, I didn’t even use headphones, put a mic up, and I just banged out the base of the songs and we then set up a little drum and we started playing without even, we didn’t rehearse or anything and that was great. And I think, and it’s a terrible thing to say in the press, but I think I actually sing better on Bone Box than I do on Nothing Is Straight… Which is odd, because it’s a great album. But every now and then you do something, and I think maybe it was because there was no pressure and it was all very left of centre. We just relaxed and did a very organic recording…. In fact, it’s really interesting, I think I put it in the liner notes, when Liberation suggested that I do this thing, I went ‘why bother?’ And then I thought, ‘oh, why not?’ And I don’t want to sound like I’m a young pop star being overenthusiastic, but I’m very glad I did it.”

Paired consecutively, the Bone Box versions of ‘Nights in Venice’ and ‘Know Your Product’ are fascinating in their variation from the original versions. Ironically, and neither Kuepper nor Bailey would probably admit it, the acoustic/Eastern/psychedelic version of ‘Nights in Venice’ sounds strikingly like something Kuepper might have done post-Saints. Its conclusion features Bailey going all Jim Morrison, chanting ‘oh show me the way to the next whisky bar’ and doing such a good job, you wonder whether The Doors should have approached him for their new incarnation. 

“Yeah that would be awfully embarrassing if that ever happened ‘cause I’d have to politely decline,” Bailey chuckles. “In fact, I was going for Brecht, not The Doors. I don’t know what put it into my head that I could do an acoustic version of ‘Nights in Venice’. I remember we were sitting around having a coffee before starting work and I thought ‘I’ve always liked that tune’ and it’s never really been done live, well for years, even though we’ve just put it back into the set this year, mainly because of Bone Box, strangely enough. And in a weird way, that’s the song I’m almost happiest with ‘cause I think it kind of captures the teen angst of the original, but it’s off in some LSD, Led Zeppelin territory or something… we really lucked out with Saheb [Sahand Sahebdivani] being around with his fucking weird tar, ‘cause we actually did it together in the room and it was actually quite chilling.”

Well what about the bare blues boogie version of The Saints’ second most famous stomper ‘Know Your Product’? Where did the idea for the Bone Box version come from? 

“It was probably… well it was a bottle of whisky and it was three ‘o’ clock in the morning and it just seemed like a really good idea at the time. ‘Cause I guess the freedom of the session and the fact that we were actually, and I hate to use the expression in such a dark time, but we were having fun. And it is quite a moody rendition. I hope it works and someone gets a kick out of it.”

One would be tempted to propose that performing such songs in such stripped-down acoustic fashion would have brought Bailey back to the form in which they were originally conceived. But, as Bailey affirms, The Saints did not write songs on acoustic guitars (did they even own any?), most of their creations born from jamming as a band. So then, perhaps reinterpreting these songs in this fashion has revealed new things about them to Bailey.  

“Well it kind of proved a cliché which is there are a thousand ways to sing a song,” he responds. “And I’ve always kind of felt that and that’s why I’ve always enjoyed live stuff, because you can push the barriers and you can twist things around. And I mean any rock musician will tell you, sometimes your greatest work is done: a. when you’re not thinking and; b. when you make mistakes. I’ve often thought as a songwriter, my worst songs are the ones I really agonise over and sit down and write in a Tin Pan Alley way. And songs that I think have some kind of resonance are the ones that just come out of the ether and you don’t know how or why you do it. And I suppose the rationale for that is that you’re less self-conscious. When you try to shape something that is going to be a work of genius, your ego gets in the way and you usually fuck it up. And I’ve done that on several thousand occasions.”

If Bone Box proves that Bailey’s attitude to making music is healthier than ever, the new Saints album Nothing Is Straight In My House proves that neither is he short of inspiration. Sure it’s easy to conjure vitriol and opinion and emotion with which to stuff your songs when you’re young – you can’t help it, so driven are you by ignorance and/or arrogance. But what about 30 years into your career? 

“I don’t think that changes dramatically,” says Bailey. “No, it’s funny because the album [Nothing is Straight… ] turned out a little differently to the album I thought I was going to make. I started writing some time last year, and I think I was planning on something quite rustic and orchestrated. And then, I don’t know, maybe it was because I had the telly on in the background too much, because I was just beginning to think ‘I hate the world at the moment. It’s so fucking conservative. We’re all suffering this false sense of fear and loathing’ and I just pulled the old electric guitar out and banged out some tunes in the garage and thought ‘hang on, this is much more the record that I actually feel like making’. ‘Cause I don’t want to go on about world politics, but the whole swing to conservativism, what America’s getting away with, all the governments in Europe are going to the fucking right, John Howard’s a twat, and yet he got re-elected… I mean, fffuuuuck! So I just thought ‘bugger it. Just make noise Chris. And if it’s not the popular thing to do, don’t care. You’ll enjoy it’. And once again this goes back to The Saints, I think it’s the payoff you have for not being famous; you can actually get away with always making the kind of records you want to make. ‘Cause I think there are probably lots of folks in the world who are sharing my disillusionment at the moment. The world needs… in fact if The Saints didn’t exist I think I’d have to invent them.”

Perhaps the band’s name has turned out to be quite prophetic then. 

“Yeah maybe,” Bailey chuckles quietly. “But let’s not get too egocentric here. It’s just rock’n’roll remember.” 

But Bailey well knows what a difference a good bit of rock’n’roll can make. 

“It’s, ah, worked for me.”

From Rhythms 2005. The interview coincided with the release of Bone Box and Nothing is Straight in My House and The Saints appearance at Homebake 200 and The Domain, Sydney on December 3.