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by David Graney

from The Royal Dave Graney Show website, 2003 - re-published with permission

Stephen Cummings is a dude and a real fellow traveller. There are a select few pals I can really call up for a chat and know that we don't have to spend a while tuning into each others co ordinates. We kind of have a sense of where we are on the cosmic board game. If I was to search for a word to describe Stephen I would go for "beat" in the true sense first. He is a beat kind of guy. Fatalistic but in the thick of it all at the same time. Generations in music are measured by the space of a few years. I come from the generation just a whisker after him. I definitely saw him and heard him long before I met him. Neither of us belong to the scenes we came from though. We're both still moving on the smell of an abstractly scented rag.

He is also a survivor and a lone operator.

His new CD is on WMinc again and is quite a sharp left turn for him. Almost a 360 degree turn in that he has drawn on the music he made a great study of in his early days. A heavily rockabilly style of musique . His album, is called "Firecracker" and it is a real fizzing, sparking, singing bang up of a disc. A complete genre busting masterpiece in my opinion. It ain't reverent and is made by people with great empathy for the music and the moment in which they have had the luck to find themselves in . The moment of makin' and playin' it. It couldn't've ever happened before and would be hard to do again.

Can you tell me about the recording. Was it a long session?

The initial session was recorded at Woodstock over two days - seven songs a day, played live with two drummers. They weren't long days - we started at 10 AM and finished at 6 PM each day. I gave the guys my demos and we had one rehearsal before we recorded. Mark Ferrie has described the songs as "playing themselves" and that's true. The basic track band consisted of the "Peters", Luscombe and Jones. Peter Jones played the kit and Lucky played toms and shakers etc, Bill McDonald on bass and Shane O'Mara on some old hollow body Fifties guitar that was lying round the studio. We then took the tapes to Shane's studio and added stuff, Ross Hannaford and Chris Cheney and Ross Maclennan etc.

I remember talking to you when you had the idea of a Rockabilly album. All of a sudden you had a whole album of songs written. How did you do this? I know you did some demos, did you demo every song? Were some songs kept in that raw form?

When I got the idea of what I wanted to do I arranged for Lucky to come over and I recorded him playing six rockabilly drum feels that I liked. I only have one ADAT, but some good mikes and a boss 60's Rickenbaker. I have also been listening to Fifties music since well . . . the early 70's. I then wrote 30 songs over four weeks. I played acoustic guitar on these. I then roped in Dan Luscombe and Jeff Burstin to play some electric stuff, as well as Bill on bass. Both Dan & Jeff didn't play on record, though I've done heaps of gigs and recording with both of them. When Dan was just 18, I dragged him round Oz with me. One track from the demos is pretty intact on "Firecracker" and that is "I Want You To Want Me". Steve Miller at W.Minc loved the demo of that particular song and continued to hassle me that the new recording wasn't as good. I was reluctant, but what can I say? Steve was right and we used the demo version, which in some ways was a revelation, as I'd engineered it myself.

The Sports did a lot of rockabilly stylings. Did you find that you were tapping into stuff that you'd immersed yourself in so many years ago? I mean, were you surprised by all the vocal licks you still had?

Our roadie in the Sports, Kieran Sell, had the best record collection I have ever seen. As well as an extensive rockabilly collection that would rival The Cramps, he also had all the Dictators records, The Blue Oyster Cult, Nick Drake, Incredible String Band and Parliament. This was in the early to mid 70's. (pre punk - a much misunderstood time David!) I used to share a house with him and I loved all this music. There was one singer Ronnie Self and possibly six of his songs are as powerful as early Elvis or Iggy Pop. Rocking Gunther, an artist on Sun was another house favourite, as were the Burnettte brothers and the Collins Kids.

In the band on the session, it must have been pretty varied as to who else was hip to people like Billy Lee Riley and Ricky Nelson. Did you have to really produce the general approach?

Well, the thing is prior to recording I was writing a new book and every chapter of the book is named after a single on Chess records. So, I was listening to all this stuff and I was asking myself why does this sound so powerful? It's interesting, if you listen to the first four or five Stones albums, there are heaps of space in the recordings. There's also quite a bit of acoustic guitar and lots of basic percussion and it's very powerful. Everyone should go and buy Bo Diddley's twenty greatest hits and they will learn more about music on that one recording than a dozen books. Also , I gave Shane a couple of Ricky Nelson compilations. Once you listen to James Burton blasting away, most guitar players get the picture. Also LA rockabilly was much more sophisticated than the stuff coming from Memphis. There are numerous interviews with people like Carl Perkins etc that talk highly of Ricky Nelson.

How did you talk to the different guitar players like Chris Cheney and Shane O'Mara and Ross Hannaford? Did you suggest certain feel?

I always wanted to record with Hannaford, because he's just great. I've liked everything he's done. He plays guitar like a saxophone player, he honks in other words. Chris Cheney, well... I'd be a liar if I said I knew much about The Living End. Dan Luscombe told me he was really good and he was. We had little time, because he was about to go on holiday to Africa. I gave him my demo and he said he liked them. He rocked in to Shane's house and just played, he knew the songs backwards. I would have loved for him to play on more songs. He was really great. He plays great swing guitar and he was a really lovely person, which is a real bonus.

What was Ross like, did he take many takes or have to go over the parts much?

The thing is, everybody says if Ross doesn't get it immediately, its likely not to happen. For me, Ross Hannaford is really special, and I'm not a person who is very stagestruck, but I am when it comes to him, because I think he's a real good singer and guitarist. I love Curtis Mayfield and I think Ross plays in that area of music. I gave him the demos and he had a good listen and when it came to recording he was right on top of it. The big thrill for me came post the session, when he told me, out beside his bongo van that he really enjoyed it and he wanted a copy of the finished recording and handed me some cash back that I'd given him and told me it was a pleasure. Hannaford and I attended the same school, he was about three years ahead of me. Even then I thought he was great. I've followed all his career paths and I still think he's a great musician.

Shane is so light with his touch . A little bit of flash here and there . I never knew he had all those licks and styles. Did he just do them on the spot?

Well David, to be honest I think Shane got slightly freaked out by how good Chris Cheney is as a guitarist. What can I say? Chris is obviously a big fan of AC/DC - he did all these wild runs and it was like fucking Angus Young was in the house. Chris has really great technical chops, if I can use that vile phrase on your site? The thing is, I think it shook Shane up a little that Chris was so technically proficient. Of course I benefited from this because Shane was really on the ball and played wonderfully. Ross, is totally beyond all this. Ross is Ross, he plays different to everybody else. As does a guy like say, Gary Young, they play way at the back of the beat. It's pretty sexy!

My favourite track is "one Kiss". It sounds so rich and transcends any single feel or time it may have sprung from. Kind of like a grand 60's pop version of a wild rockabilly ballad if you get my drift. Is this what you got from Ricky Nelson?

Yeah, that was the idea. That and the first Roxy music album. Way back in the early 701s I saw Buck Owens and Roxy Music in the same week at Festival Hall. This song is a result of those two gigs.

How was it singing this upbeat , whooping and hollerin' music after your last albums being very much close up, ballad songs? Is it a release going for more of a physical, visceral flight than a literate, remote style?

Yeah, without wishing to sound like a tosser, I feel I can sing rock'n' roll any time I want to I just don't want to be dictated when I have to do it. Of course there's something weird about a mature person doing it, but perhaps I got annoyed by my 17 year old son listening to stuff like The Vines and thinking it was really wild and thinking . . . fuck I can do that - it's easy, or something pathetic like that!

Look . . . music to have any worth has to have some connection to the wider community, or else it's . . . ah well, I honestly thought this will probably be my last recording, so I'll go out as I came in.

You're picking up the electric guitar as well. Are leather pants very far behind?

Just the pointy shoes. That's how I'm expressing my mid-life crisis. Oh and my black telecaster.

What are your other plans for 2003?

I've started writing a new album which I'm calling, "No back-Up Plan" and that's going to be my last recording. It's bluesy, and funky in a Alex Chilton kind of way and it also has some pop elements to it. I'm planning on finishing my book and as you know I'm always thinking of a new career and I'm always open to doing a duet album with Ed Kuepper. Our wives went to art school together. The only other thing is you and I getting our R&B set together for the Wangaratta Jazz festival this year David!

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