ODD MAN OUT
POPsided magazine's exclusive interview with STEPHEN CUMMINGS
Although they didn't find mega-stardom outside their homeland, Australia's
The Sports certainly did cause a stir with their radio anthem, "Who Listens To
The Radio?" (from their second album, Don't Throw Stones), way back in the
glory days of '79. After four impressive albums and a farewell EP, The Sports
disbanded in '81, allowing each member to carve out their own niche in the music
world. The most prolific has been vocalist Stephen Cummings, an artist who has
refused to make the same album twice and who has musically travelled great
distances from the 'sound' that brought him to our attention in the first place.
Outside of Australia, little is known of this enigmatic vocalist, The Sports or
the Australian music scene in general. In order to get the facts, the fiction
and the memories, Spaz sat down with Stephen (who is finishing up his second
novel) to discuss his musical life: past, present and future.
When you first put together The Sports, did you think that in 20 years time
that you'd still be involved in the music business, trying to remember exactly
what went on?
Not at all. It's continued despite my interest. I put together the Sports
because I was a fan and an art student and, as such, had plenty of free time. Of
course, I hoped it might lead to something but my ambitions/expectations were
How did The Sports first come together and sign to Mushroom?
I think I put the group together in '76/'77 and our roadie at the time, Kieran
(huge Blue Oyster Cult/Rockabilly fan), who I was sharing a house with, picked
most of our repertoire. I immediately began writing songs and the group
developed from there. We were very roots orientated and felt we were pretty
fabulous at the time if we performed a cover up to scratch.
The Sports' first album, '78's Reckless ($$$), introduced a band that was
hard to pigeonhole. There were hints of rockabilly and R&B mixed with pop and
rock all dolled up in a pub rock rumble. Was this the sound you had envisioned
when forming the band?
I'm embarrassed to say yes. Well, first groups are tricky things. I was just the
singer and it's hard to get those musicians to do what you'd like them to do.
Later, I learnt the guitar myself and could get a bit more bossy.
Guitarist Andrew Pendlebury co-wrote a good portion of the songs with you.
How did that songwriting relationship work?
The original guitarist was Ed Bates, I forget where I met him, but he was a
huge Captain Beefheart/Link Wray fan and I got Andrew into the line-up because
he was just an awesome guitar player and had hair down to his arse, etc. Also,
he was interested in more English music (ie: King Crimson, etc.) which I had a
minor interest in. We wrote songs together, because we had more in common.
What are your personal feelings about this rough but impressive debut?
AAAH...everything's too fast! Actually we were pretty fucking good live. We
toured with Blondie, Elvis Costello, etc., and really we were much better live
than on record.
The following year, the band released the album Don't Throw Stones ($$$$),
which introduced the Sports to an international audience. Were you aware during
the recording of the album that this was gonna be THE album?
Well, see we never lacked confidence. At this stage, Martin Armiger had replaced
Ed Bates on guitar. This was my idea because I was a big fan of Martin, who had
a druggy kind of group called the Bleeding Hearts. Martin had a great harmony
voice, was a very 'pop' songwriter, and was a very good rhythm guitarist in the
Keith Richards mold. Martin was also the member of the group that I had most in
common with on a personal level. (ie: we could have lengthy conversations about
We were very slack people, and this was just something else to do.
Mushroom/Stiff Records arranged for Peter Solley to produce, he'd done Wreckless
Eric and I think the Romantics, and we didn't think of it as a big deal. We were
just hitting our stride and, in fact, had heaps more songs we could have
recorded. The new producer was good because our ideas outstripped what anyone
here could have done for us at the time.
Did the addition of Martin Armiger as guitarist and co-songwriter have any
effect on the band's chemistry?
Martin was great and increased the originality of the group by an immense
amount. He and Andrew got on really well. Which is not to say that, at times, I
wasn't jealous of him.
What was your reaction to the critics comparing The Sports to Graham Parker,
Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson?
Well, it was annoying because we had been working in the same area as those acts
before or at the same time, and the more we went on the more we changed
direction to both those acts. It was frustrating because when we played in US &
England we went over very well, but critically, it didn't work. I well remember
on tour with Graham Parker, Elvis Costello came to the studio we were recording
at in Chiswick(?) and asked the engineer to tape all these Don Covey & other
southern soul records I'd brought from Australia . . . . Get Happy was perhaps
Like your countrymates Mental As Anything, you were a rock band being branded
as 'new wave' and 'punk'. Was this annoying?
What was the Australian music scene like back in these days? Did the bands
generally get along or was their alot of jealousy towards the bands who actually
had success outside of Australia?
Well, we were pretty separate from everyone else. We come from Melbourne, the
best groups came from Melbourne. It was a busy scene, I guess. The only other
big group is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who mainly come from Melbourne. Their
predecessors, the Birthday Party, often supported us.
Was the success of Don't Throw Stones a hardship when it came to following it
Not really. We were getting rather tired by now and all those gigs were tiring
me out. I was a little freaked out about it all and we did take a few drugs
along the way. The main problem, as I recall, was that we were having trouble
with our drummer and piano player. Both Martin and Andrew fancied themselves as
drummmers and would go into the studio late at night and redo the drum parts.
Basically, we were spoilt in the group and all the touring, etc., we all found
rather boring. OR that might have just been me! I think I was beginning to want
to move on to a different area of music.
1980's Suddenly ($$$) was another fine album but you had lost a few members
by the time of it's US release. Did the band's success cause friction amongst
Well, replacing the drum parts caused a few legal problems (Ha Ha), but really,
we were always a bit delicate and we were just getting tired. For a lot of this
time we didn't really have a manager or anything.
Were you happy with the album or would you have preferred a bit more time in
preparing the songs?
We had plenty of songs but, because we had a bit of success, we began to worry
about the money and who was writing what, etc. I'm ashamed to say I was one of
the worst offenders. We probably had some better songs but I threw a mental.
The others (Martin & Andrew) really had a lot more to do with how this record
sounded than I did. I think I was depressed around here and spent hours in my
room listening to Big Star's Third.
By the time Sondra ($$$) was released in '81, the band seemed to be going
through musical changes. At the time, this fourth album seemed very eclectic but
has actually stood the test of time. What was your frame of mind while recording
this often jarring musical experience?
We were in good spirits again. Martin & I had gotten to be pals again. The
producer was a friend of Martin's from Sydney, Cameron Allen, but really, we
were pretty together by then and knew more than our producer, basically.
After this album and the Sports Play Dylan EP, the Sports disbanded. Was the
Yeah, though the drummers, bassist, etc. might not agree. We were pretty tired
from heaps of gigs.
In '84, your first solo album, Senso ($$$$), was released. This album was
keyboard-dominated and embraced a more commercial sound than any Sports album.
Did you purposely try to make an album that was different enough without
alienating Sports fans?
Well, at this time, I was operating under the strange idea that the less
involved I was in something, the more successful it would be. Don't ask me why!
I left all the recording basically to Martin, who lived in Sydney. I still lived
in Melbourne. At the 99th hour, I got re-involved cause I hated the mixes. In
Melbourne, I was pals with an engineer, Jim Barton, and I took everything back
to Melbourne and did remixes and added crap. Jim Barton left Australia after
this record and went and worked with Trevor Horn and Rush and a lot of other
more famous things. But I don't like any of them, but he was very nice to me.
Why did it take so long to put out your first solo release?
I went back to university, a degree in arts/film.
This Wonderful Life ($$$) came out in '86, followed by A New Kind Of Blue
($$$) in '88. Both of these albums mixed pop and R&B successfully but your music
was becoming progressively darker. Were you conscious of this change?
Yes. This was much closer to my sensibility.
On A New Kind of Blue and '89's Lovetown ($$$), you were writing with Andrew
Pendlebury again. How did you two hook up for the second time?
I just rang him up, we had never fallen out. He'd just become very attracted to
Lovetown was another change, musically. You seemed to have gone back to a
more basic sound, getting reacquainted with your roots again. Guitars were more
dominant and elements of folk and blues were more apparent. Had you become
disenchanted with the limitations of keyboards?
Yes, and I was more interested in being actively involved in music: playing
guitar etc. We had no money. The record was recorded in the house of the bass
player from Men At Work, John.
You also seemed to be more relaxed and emotionally attached to the material.
Were you more comfortable taking this 'laid back' approach to the music?
Yes, because I'd grown up listening to Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zant and all
'90's Good Humour ($$$) added a few dance-oriented tracks, but the best
moments lay hidden in the darker tracks. Do you think you confused the listeners
by putting these dancey numbers upfront on the album and then hitting them with
the softer emotional tracks?
I've got very eclectic tastes and on this record, I worked with a Sydney jazz
band called 'the Necks'. I liked that a lot. Yes, doing different stuff always
confuses people but I've been stupid enough to just follow my instincts.
Unguided Tour ($$$), from '92, was more consistent musically and packed an
emotional punch. Did you still feel the need to stretch yourself or were you
finally feeling comfortable with the material that you were recording?
Well. I'd been working with the same band for a couple of years and it sounded
just how I liked it. The guitarist's called Shane O'Mara and the girl singer is
Rebecca Barnard. We had a lot of fun. Both contributed lots to the previous two
records, but I wanted to make a more unified record and this is the result. I
had the whole record mixed originally by Tony Cohen, an engineer/wild guy from
Melbourne who has done five or six Nick Cave records, but he made us sound too
swampy (like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), so I remixed it all again. I do
really like Tony Cohen, he's very amusing, but I'm fussy, I guess.
The compilation Rollercoaster ($$$$) from '93 wrapped up your career nicely
at this point. Did you feel it necessary to close a certain chapter on what was
and what was to come?
No. The record company wouldn't pay for me to make a new one.
The next phase in your career came with the two most consistent albums you've
ever recorded, '94's Falling Swinger ($$$$) and '96's Escapist ($$$$), both
produced by Steve Kilbey. How did you hook up with him?
I always liked the Church a lot. I knew an engineer that recorded the Jack Frost
albums and one Church album, and he suggested that we'd get on well together and
it happened from that. We both share the same birthday and got on quite well. As
we were about the same age and from similar backgrounds, I trusted him. We
aren't close pals, though I think I understand him very well.
Both of these albums are classic solo Stephen Cummings yet Kilbey tends to
leave his fingerprints over everything he touches. Did you have a lot of input
on what was happening musically on these two albums?
Yeah, I had a lot of input. The first album, Steve really contributed more than
the second record: he wasn't in the greatest health and the record, in some ways
proceeded despite him. Which may sound unusual considering I recorded three of
his songs, but that is really a sad reflection of my and his laziness and state
of mental health. I was tired, I'd just written a novel and was prettty worded
out. He was having some kinda crisis. I really like Steve, though, and think
he's very talented.
Do you intend to work with Kilbey again?
He's moved to Sweden to live. I've learned lots from him. I've also regained my
energy now. I'm definitely keen to record myself again.
In '97, there were two compilations released of your material. This Is Really
Something ($$$$) was a 2CD Sports anthology and Puppet Pauper Pirate Poet Pawn &
King ($$$$) was a comp of your later solo work. Were these released to coincide
with your 20 year anniversary in the business?
No. It's quite by accident. I'm not joking.
How does it feel looking back (and listening in) on two decades of
A year ago, I would have said it's not so good, but now I think it's rather
What can we expect from Stephen Cummings in '98? A Sports reunion
No! Another record from me, I've set up my own studio. And a new Four Hours
Sleep project, involving members from Frente, the Triffids, myself and some
young people. I also have a new novel out on Random House. I ain't stopping.
Thanks to Spaz at POPsided magazine for this!
the Stephen Cummings site - email: feedback AT lovetown.net