The Failure of Significant Success
interview by C.F. Henry, from X-Press magazine, 21 July 1994
If anyone knows about critical acclaim, and just how much it means, it's
Stephen Cummings, the lead singer of the Sports and solo artist for past decade.
Cummings' inventive and often groundbreaking work has led many a critic to gush
to the point of embarrassment, but when it comes to album sales, the figures do
not match the so-called experts enthusiasm.
Paradoxically, his status among the critics, and their perception that he was
the prince of cool, basically forced him to a most 'unhip' thing: a voice over
on the Medibank Private advertisement which he admits he had to do to pay the
That's the failure of significant success.
Stephen Cummings' new album, Falling Swinger, marks the first time he has
made an album with a producer, The Church's Steve Kilbey, himself no stranger to
being lauded by the media.
On Falling Swinger, Cummings, 40-years-old, has again changed musical
position and reverted to a more subdued and plaintive style, using acoustic
guitar as an overriding influence and not a keyboard as has been the case with
releases such as Senso.
According to Cummings, the album "covers the blurred incidents; the fuzzy,
grimly ironic character of everyday life".
It's quite evident on Falling Swinger that Steve Kilbey's influence
was felt. But I believe prior to you recording the album, you'd never met?
That's right, I don't really know him at all. We met because a friend of mine,
a sound engineer called Simon Polinski, had worked with Steve on a couple of
projects, one that Steve's coming out called Fake and another Jack Frost
album. Anyway, he was telling me that I would get on really well with Steve
Kilbey and suggested I should get together to make this album. I heard all about
his great studio.
The new album is quite radically different from other material you've
released over the last 10 years. It was surprising in a way. Where did the
inspiration come from?
So I simply rang him up and he said he was pretty keen to do it, I sent him up
some songs that I had written which he said he really liked and just went from
Well, I think because I've worked with the same little group of people for so
long I just felt I had exhausted what I kind of do; I wanted to modify what I
do and send it off in another way. That was another reason I thought it would be
good to work with Steve; you know, just to change it around.
But so radically, that was what I found surprising. I mean, at times you
have to ask yourself: 'Is this really a Stephen Cummings record I'm listening
I think one reason might be that this album is more 'me'. I've had less input
from other people, that might be another reason.
Do you think it's a natural musical progression, or did you make a conscious
decision to change tack?
See, if you work with the same people all the time, it's just like being in a
band: You still have to fit in with everybody's likes and dislikes. In the past,
I haven't been able to do some of the things that I wanted to do because there
were other influences to consider, even though they were solo records. Getting
a producer, as well, allowed me to be more forceful about what I wanted.
Well, I think it still sounds like me, I think it really is a progression. It
wasn't an overnight decision or anything.
Apparently you were rather shocked when Kilbey admitted his favourite rock
album was All Things Must Pass by George Harrison. Is this right?
Steve and I were on a similar wavelength in the sense that he's a real music fan
and we had similar reference points.
Yeah, I think Steve had taken me out for tea at one of his favourite Krishna
Did you and Steve get on well together?
I was a bit taken aback that it was his favourite, or one of his favourites, and
it made me go back and listen to it: and it really is a great record, apart from
the jam, which is shocking (laughs). In fact, I went and bought it on CD
George was the most important element of The Beatles that made it all work, I
reckon. He was the most musical member; you can tell that easily.
Yeah, we did. Funnily enough we've got the same birthday, September the 13th.
Yeah, I'm a couple of years earlier.
How old are you?
(his voice drops to a whisper) The big 40!
How do you find working in Sydney, as opposed to your beloved Melbourne?
Well, I kind of am a Melbourne person, but less so now...perhaps it was just
that I was brought up and I couldn't be bothered moving.
I've always thought of you as quintessentially Melbourne...
Well, yeah, but now I like getting out of it and being a bit transient. I'm
basically game for anything...at this stage in my life. (he pauses) I was
just thinking of something. There was this personality in Melbourne and his wife
had just died, and when asked if he would do something was: 'I'm 45,
my wife's just died, I've got children and frankly, I'm game for fucking
anything'. And basically that's how I feel; I think Steve's a bit like that
If you accept that the music industry is a 'young person's game', do you ever
get to the stage where you think: 'Oh to hell with it, I'm going to do
Sydney was good, a bit of an adventure.
Yeah, I'm always thinking that, but I still really like music and I also really
like singing - it's a really good thing to do.
Standards of behaviour, standards of business...?
It (the music caper) does get frustrating because you are swamped by so
much of the crap that goes with the territory. There doesn't seem to be any
No standards of valuation. It's very confusing.
Do you mean you need a few bucks?
No, not at all. What I mean is the question of what is a good record is a very
variable thing. A good record to one person is shit to another.
Which leads on to critical acclaim...something you've had a lot of. I
noticed that Juice Magazine gave Falling Swinger four and a half
stars out of a possible five. You must have gotten to the stage where you see a
glowing review and say: 'Oh no, a good review...that means we won't sell
any.' Is that fair to say?
Not really, I like good reviews, but even more than that I like it when people
walk up to you in the street and say that a particular song of mine made them
happy, or whatever.
Does the opposite equally apply?
Oh yeah, people come up to you and say nasty things.
What? They really come up to you and say 'hey mate, I hate that record, I
reckon it's crap', or words to that effect?
Look, you know, nothing people do would surprise me. People have a great
capacity for being really like great and really like unbelievably rude and
shocking. You only have to look at the news to see that.
What would be some examples of this behaviour?
(Cummings laughs with scorn) I'm not going to give you an example...
Well, it was worth a try...
I'm not going to promote this behaviour. It's a complex thing...
Yeah, life. You know, it's a complex thing doing anything where you're shoving
bits of yourself out into the public. It's an odd way to make a living. Most
jobs aren't so personally on the line, but then, there's good things...and bad
Some artists are getting very self deprecating in their titles, or tongue
in cheek. Why the title Falling Swinger?
Well, it's funny, funnier still because you mentioned All Things Must
Pass earlier. One of the songs on that album that I've always really liked
was Beware of Darkness and one of the lines was 'beware of falling
Turning to the news - I've always wanted to say that - we have reports that
both Skyhooks and Daddy Cool have reformed. Is this true?
I really like the word swinger, it's a sort of Sammy Davis Junior kind of
swinging kind of Californian word. And then falling swinger, to me, is to do
with getting through life, how you develop, how you get by and all that stuff.
Falling Swinger? Someone getting older, a burnt out singer...(laughs).
I just liked the image.
I know this for a fact, because I just ran into Tony Cohen and he's produced the
Daddy Cool album.
Crikey. What do you think of these reformations?
I just don't have any interest in it at all. I never liked Skyhooks anyway. I
especially don't have any interest in them. Umm, I don't have a feeling about
it. Generally, it's just for money, isn't it? (he laughs)
What are your touring plans?
I'm starting in Perth and then going throughout Australia for about five weeks.
Then I'll save some money and go for a holiday in India in October, if I can
scrounge the money together.
You might have to do another ad?
(Long pause) Wouldn't mind... (loud laughter)
Any on offer?
the Stephen Cummings site - email: feedback AT lovetown.net