King Of Smooth
by Bob J Homez
27 December 1990 - OTS
Australia's King Of Smooth, Stephen Cummings, has returned to the fray with a
funky new album, Good Humour, set for release early next year. After the
acoustic serenity and cool beauty of his last few records, A New Kind Of
Blue, This Wonderful Life and the masterpiece, Lovetown, Cummings
has roped in I'm Talking's former songwriter, Robert Goodge, for this new
Cummings spoke with OtS's Bob J Homez.
You've been burnt pretty badly by mainstream radio in the past. Do you feel
that if they didn't see Lovetown as being up to scratch, then they'd
never play your stuff?
Well that's the case in Sydney, not so much in Melbourne or South Australia. I
get played on the radio quite a bit, but never in Sydney. The last record
actually sold quite well, but not incredibly.
I'm sort of very confident of a couple of songs that I did with Robert are much
more - well they're still very me - but they're quite tough and guitary. It's
sort of funky but with my personality stamped heavily on it.
How frustrating is it when you know you're writing good material, but still
not really managing to break through?
I don't really think about it that much, but when I do get, um, I get quite i
annoyed, heh hahe heh. I only get annoyed when I've got some bill to pay and I
haven't got enough money and I think 'Oh fuck, this is fucked', heh heh.
In the studio, what can you do with more money? What has a bigger budget
allowed you to do with Good Humour?
You know, "What do I have to do?" But um you know, I just think 'Oh fuck you'.
Sorry to swear so much. I love what I do.
Once you get caught up thinking like that...actually, it's interesting,
because this time I had a bigger budget, and as soon as you start getting
more money you've got to sell more. People start saying - record companies
and everyone - start saying 'Oh wow, single, single, single, single, single'.
About half way through this record, I think I was getting really, um, thinking
'What the fuck am I doing? I'm just getting back on the treadmill again'. And
then I sort of stopped, because it's really unproductive thinking about that.
If people knew what could make a hit they'd do it more regularly.
The only interesting thing about pop music is that it's sometimes
unpredictable, that is the only thing it's really got going for it.
That is why the music has changed on this record. I got to do a few more
things, had a little bit more time in the studio, so I could open up and
you know try a few more things and make a bigger sound, a few pop experiments.
Do you ever feel it will be hard to top Lovetown? Surely that was
an insurmountable peak, including Sports and other solo albums?
I don't think it will be hard to top the songs. I think I was a late developer
anyway and I don't think I realised at the time, but it's a very special
record, it'll last a long time and it sounds really good.
Are you still writing about others, or have you started writing about
It is a mixture of both. For this record I think I recorded about 15 or 16
songs, and I had about 35 songs. The reason I didn't record some of them wasn't
because they were worse or anything, but a lot of them were very personal, and
I think: 'Oh, this is getting a little like therapy or something, no-one else
could possibly be interested in this'.
Why are you wary of opening up? When Lovetown came out you told me
just about all the songs were made up?
It can get too obtuse, so I just try and get, you know, you have to work on
things, usually things that are any good happen fairly quickly and easily.
Um...ah...oh...no, not ...ah, maybe a little bit, more like, you know...I
think it'd be pretty boring for people. I don't think I'm any different from
Are you a dictator on stage? You seem to be totally serious and very pissed
off if someone played a bum chord or if it is out of tune.
I'm not really an expert communicator in that way, usually I'll let it go
until I can't stand it any longer and I'll throw a minor wobbly, then we get
back. I'm not really, I'm sort of ashamed of the way I communicate.
What did you say to the players before you recorded the album?
Well it was pretty much worked out beforehand, Shane (O'Mara) and I did
extensive demos of all the songs, we knew what we wanted. It's a really tight
unit, just him and me. He writes some of the songs, but not all of them, and a
lot of them he doesn't have that much to do with, but he has to do with the
two of us working out what to do.
So what's the story with advertising?
He likes things really simple too, we sort of work it all out, and with Lloyd
(Swanton), he's really good. It helps working with people that are really good,
because by the nature of it they don't wank on, they just get in there and it
suits me. I can't work on things too long, because I just don't have the
I don't seek the work, it's just a few times people have rung up and asked me
if I'd do it, and as it's happened each time they've rung up I've had a huge
phone bill and I've said "Yes, I'll do it, I'll do it."
Did you have a trade or anything before Sports?
Heh heh. You're just a slave to these people. They just ring me up, it doesn't
happen that often, but it's come to that...it's just sad. I don't play that much
that often. How I think about it is, if I do that once a year, it lets me do
what I want to do with my own music for the rest of the year, so I don't have
to go begging to the record company people or agencies or anything.
I only ever do one a year (Medibank Private "I Feel Better" ad this year and
Hooly Doolys before that). It's like basically each time I've done something
like, it's been the dole or that. "What am I going to do?" If it was something
horrible then I wouldn't do it. I would never use my own music but I don't
mind doing something new for someone.
No I did the worst thing, I went to art school, ha ha ha. I did that for a few
years, and a couple of years ago I went back to university and did a film sort
of course at La Trobe university, a film criticism course.
Do you worry about five or ten years down the line?
Well, I have my own house which has been a bad thing and a good thing, because
it hasn't made me very ambitious, because I really don't want anything else
anyway. I sort of worry about it in one way, but I'm always thinking there must
be something else I can do, but I really like music and it's what I do. I know
what I do is good, and I think "Oh well, eventually it'll pay off."
Has time made it any easier for you performing on stage? You still close
your eyes a lot of the time.
Yeah, I feel really quite, um, happy about it now, because I don't do it that
much, and I really enjoy it when I do. I'm trying to work on being a bit better,
a bit more relaxed, but I feel quite good about it. I get a bit embarrassed
about it, but anyway, when I do it a bit in a row I get into it again...it's
from all those years with playing with Sports, it sort of comes back to me.
Do you ever get pressured to be not just a singer and a guitarist, but an
entertainer as well?
I don't feel pressure. Sometimes I just can't think of a thing to say, I've got
nothing to say. I went to see Paul Kelly play acoustically a while back, and he
played about 20 songs and he didn't say anything. I think it would be better if
I did make a bit more communication, and I try and open my eyes a bit more now
because I always shut them in sort of embarrassment really. I'm also getting
better at that.
Has your son Curtis seen you play?
He's come along and seen me, he just thinks it's what I do. He just sort of
accepts it, this is what everyone does for a job.
Is he at an age (4) where he can decide whether he likes certain records?
Oh yeah, he says he does. He'll sing along if a single is out. He likes it. He's
keen to come to Sydney, too.
the Stephen Cummings site - email: feedback AT lovetown.net