Steve Tallis On Where Many Rivers Meet

By Max Crawdaddy.

The latest album from Steve Tallis is appropriately titled Where Many Rivers Meet. It sums up the diverse musical influences of the 69-year-old musician: Leadbelly, John Coltrane, Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, Howling Wolf, Tom Waits, Jack Bruce, JB Lenoir and Bob Dylan. 

According to his biography African, Indian, Haitian and Islamic music have all had a spiritual and rhythmic influence on Tallis’s work and his love of blues, gospel and a cappella field hollers shows both in his live shows and recordings.

Tallis started playing music in 1962 but from birth he had been surrounded by the music of his Macedonian ancestors and music from the Balkans. He started listening to the radio – Rolling Stones, Them, Animals, Manfred Mann, Jimi Hendrix, Yardbirds, Kinks – and then searched back further to the roots of the music he loved and then back even further to the source – Africa.

Tallis has lived and performed in the USA, Europe, Mexico and Asia – supporting some of the biggest names in music – Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, BB King, Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, Buddy Guy, Eric Burdon. He toured India in 1997 and Pakistan in 2003 and he appears in the books Who’s Who of Australian Rock and BluesWorking MusiciansWay Out West and Further Down the Road.

Tallis’s awards include Songwriter of The Year, Most Original Work (The West), and Album of The Year (Rhythms Magazine Readers Poll – Zozo – 1999) and was one of the original inductees into Western Australia Music Industry’s Hall of Fame. His 8 CD Box Set – Anthology Volume One: The Sacred Path of The Fried Egg: Maylands To The Gates of Hell (1962-2001) marked the first time in Australian music history that an independent solo artist released a box set.

Steve Tallis was in Paris when Max Crawdaddy recently caught up with him by phone.

Very nice to talk to you again, Steve. I think the last time we chatted would have been, I think, you were on a bill with Chris Wilson playing at the Caravan Club a few years back.

Yeah, coming back from Wangaratta.

Usually I probably would have been talking to you on the phone, over in Western Australia, your home base, but you kind of get around the world a bit don’t you?

Well, I’ve been touring internationally for a long time, so many years, basically, since ’74 really. I’ve been coming back. I came to Paris in ’74, that’s the first international city that I ever visited after Australia and I’ve been coming back since really. I just like the city and I like the people, I like France.

Of course, you mentioned that you’ve toured around the world, America and India, Pakistan, Mexico. 

Africa too.

Actually, I want to ask you about that. I think the first time you toured India in 1997 was for a festival. Was that right?

Yeah. That was for the 50th anniversary of independence, in Bangalore. I took my band with me.

That would have been quite an experience.

Oh, yeah, it was an experience all right. It was incredible. Pakistan was really good too. And Africa was incredible too. Obviously, it’s not a good time to say you like traveling, but, look, you know, I love traveling.

You’ve had riots and demonstrations in Paris about, I think it’s called, the French Card or something that they’re using.

Basically, it’s a pass which means you’ve been vaccinated. At the moment, they’re just in transit time but you won’t be able to go to a cafe, restaurant, cinema, travel by train, long-term that is not metro, play in a bar, go to a bar, go to a concert, go to a festival. You have to be vaccinated.

Well, that kind of makes sense I think, doesn’t it?

Well, because, I mean, they’re getting a lot of cases, but I think there’s a lot of negative thing about it and I don’t like being told to have to do that, but the reality is that if you want to work and you want to go anywhere, you got to have this pass. I mean, it’s pretty full on.

But I think it’s probably the only way they’re going to get on top of it really. I think Italy’s doing the same and I think Germany is moving that way and a few other European countries. You can travel within the EU easily with the pass, but obviously Australia’s very problematic for me. I mean, I’d love to come back and see my kids and my granddaughter and do some shows and stuff but at the moment it’s very difficult.

Well, you recorded the album we’re talking about tonight, Where Many Rivers Meet, that was recorded in Western Australia, Poons Head [Studios], back in 2019.

Yeah, 2019. In-between tours of France because I was touring back and forth all the time, so I cut the album then I went on tour and I came back and mixed the album. Then went on another tour and then came back and mastered it. So, there was a lot of delays and then the virus hit so sort of threw everything quite up in the air but we cut 39 songs and I put it back to 25 in just 10 hours.

In the old language, it’s really a double album or maybe even a triple album at 25 tracks.

Well, I was going to release a double CD. Normally I release everything I record no matter what, warts and all, but I decided to cut it back, but would make it long. So, I basically made it the longest you could do it technically-wise, technologically-wise, because I like to give a lot of songs. On reflection, there’s a couple of songs I didn’t put on there that I probably would have now, I think. More original ones actually that I didn’t think my vocals were quite good enough, but, on reflection, they probably were

Most of my work is solo. My thing is to work so I like to play solo that’s why I put some of the hollers on there that I’ve put on other albums previously. It’s really to present like a business card, I guess, but to present the show because it’s live and it’s solo and it’s live, one take, and I know I’ve played better. I can play better than that live and the show’s good and it’s strong. It was really just to sort of reflect my live show.

Well, it’s interesting that you say it’s like a calling card or your business card because if someone was to say, ‘I’ve heard about this bloke, Steve Tallis, what’s his story?’ I would put this album, the new album, in their hand and say, ‘Well, this is pretty well much what he does’ because the bulk of it’s your own material but the covers and the traditional songs you’ve picked pretty well match your biggest influences as well, like Blind Lemon and Leadbelly, et cetera.

Yeah, well that’s another reason why I put them on there because they are part of my live show. If I’m doing a concert like where it’s probably an hour or something like that, I’d probably do all originals. But if I’m doing a few hours or my own show three or four hours, sometimes I did longer that year in Paris, I always play a lot of interpretations of those blues because that’s my influences. I always do a lot of acapella field hollers and gospel because it’s all part of me. I think Rob [Grant, producer/engineer] did a really great job. I think he really captured me, live, one take, basically, and he was really great to work with.

Well, you must be very happy with the album. I’m pretty sure it’s my favorite recording of yours. Previously you’ve done some beauties, but this one, like I said, kind of encapsulates all of your [influences].

I think because it’s so raw, I mean, it really is. That’s what I was after. I was after a really raw, solo album. Some of the tracks were only written either just before or a couple, actually, I only just did in the studio. I just basically tried them and they worked. I was really after a raw sound but I was after a really contemporary, world-class sound. The original idea was that I was going to do it just in my lounge room and have it really rough but I thought that’s not really what I wanted. I wanted something raw and that’s another reason why I did it in mono because I like mono. So, I always listen to my music in mono. So, I just wanted it to be really reflective of, like I said, basically, my live show really.

It’s got a huge sound as well.

Well, there’s no overdubs or anything, it’s just me. I mean, with the electric. I think he probably had three mics on the Vox 15. My Vox 15 was in another hallway so I had everything on full and about three mics from that and he had a microphone just picking up ambience and all this, and the same with the 12-string, he had about five microphones on that as well. I really love the sound he got on the 12-string, really good. I took my 6-string, my Martin, intending to use it, but we just got into a groove. 

I mean, most of the things I didn’t even listen to really, if I thought I was happy with it I just went on to the next song, that’s how I work anyway. Then we did the 12-string and then we did the acapella stuff at the end. Yeah, it was a great session and I really liked the mastering, you know, the mixing and the mastering. I really enjoy that. I find that very interesting.

We thought about putting tambourine [on]. A lot of the stuff would have been good with tambourine or some backing vocals, female backing vocals, because I’ve got friends and that who would have been perfect for that, people that I’ve played with live but I decided to keep it exactly solo, it’s truly solo. So there’s no overdubs, there’s a few mistakes here and there but I don’t care about that.

I was going to say the album’s been very well received, you must be extremely happy about that.

Yeah, I’m pretty happy. Well, obviously it’s pretty hard out there at the moment so it’s hard to get… I’d like to get more reviews……but it’s always difficult, especially being in another country, but even from Perth it was difficult. I get more airplay on the east coast and in Europe than I do in my hometown, easily. I think I’ve got more fans over east and people that appreciate my music, and here as well. It’s been built up over a long time.

First Degree, [released back in 2014] was produced by Skip McDonald. Is there a chance that you might work with Skip again?

Oh, I’d love to work with him again, yeah. That was an incredible session. I mean, Skip hadn’t met Evan the drummer before, nobody had heard the songs, which is the way I usually work anyway with my other albums, most of them. Usually, I just play it through once and then they pick out what they’re going to do roughly, and then we just cut it. 

So yeah, he’s a pretty interesting guy and he’d never played bass before. He’s very difficult to get but his manager or someone played some of my music to him and he really liked it. We met and we had dinner, and this was a few years before the recording, and we kept in touch. When we finally got down to the thing of doing it, he’s a very interesting guy, the way he works. And the engineer on that album was incredible, just a young guy. We just cut it in a really dirty, old rehearsal studio, it was incredible.

We’re talking about the most recent album and you’ve always got something on the go and working on something, Steve. 

Well, I’ve written about 23 new songs since recording the album. So, I mean, I’m going through a real creative phase, I’m writing a lot of new songs and very mixed stuff, which I’m really happy with. Very, very different, not necessarily different, but a real mix of songs. And another thing: I’ve been talking to a friend of mine in New York, well, I think he lives in Virginia, it’s Kip Hanrahan, I’m sure you know him, you like this music.

We’ve been discussing doing an album together for about 10 years so he’s in the back of my mind as well. I mean, I’m not sure what would happen with him because… but he’s a really big fan so I think he would do something really very unusual with me.

Getting back to First Degree I could have used Skip’s band – Doug Wimbish and all those Living Color guys who he uses – but I said, ‘No, I want my own drummer.’ I wanted Evan because he’s my favourite drummer. I’m just sort of moving along. My plan is for next year, because it will be 60 years I’ve been playing in music, next year, that’ll be 60 years. So, I’m planning to do another album next year and maybe something like limited edition vinyl and stuff like that. That’s my plan and I’ve also been working on a sort of documentary for quite a long time, really, just putting something together rather than a book. Everybody’s always hassling me to write a book but I prefer to write songs and I’ve got this idea maybe for a documentary, really. I’ve got so much stuff.

I don’t rehearse, I never rehearse so everything is always spontaneous. I never rehearse so I just play. I bring new songs in onstage with the band and solo too. I just bring new songs in all the time because that’s the way I am. I could never stick to an arrangement at a rehearsal, I get too bored. I like to change the keys and the words, the guitar. I mean, if I use the 12-string on a guitar where I recorded with the SG it completely changes the feeling of the song, which I like and it challenges me, keeps me fresh.

I got a lot of respect for Dylan and anyone, Tom Waits, those people. I don’t see the point of going to a concert and seeing someone replicate their recordings note for note. But I have people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, you sang the wrong words’ and I go, ‘Yeah, but it’s my song and I can do what I like with them.’ And when I write a song I don’t really think it’s finished. I don’t have that philosophy. I just think, well, sometimes I might even forget the words and some other words come out and I think, ‘Oh, well.’ I think back later, ‘Oh, that’s better than what I put on the album or what I wrote so I think I’ll use that.’

So, I like to be free of that sort of thing. To people that work with me, I never say, ‘I want you to play like Skip McDonald and Evan, or Dave Clarke and Gary, I just want you to interpret my music the way you interpret as a human being’. And it’s my philosophy, it’s been working for a long time now so it’s quite clear. I’ve got good musicians in Paris, too. I’ve got very good musicians in Paris. I’m very lucky, I found some really good ones here.