Phil Jamieson On The Enduring Legacy Of Grinspoon (And Which Songs He Can’t Stand)
"I do want it on record, though, that I'm not part of any kind of cat-murdering cult."
By no right should we be talking about Grinspoon in 2019.
That’s not a slight against their music, but more marvelling at just how much they’ve survived. After scoring a triple j Unearthed win back in 1995 — when the initiative was considerably different to what it is now — the Lismore natives turned out two albums of thrashy, downtuned alt-rock that saw them quickly turn into festival favourites.
Rather than clutching to their past, the band entered the 21st century by delivering two of their most acclaimed and successful LPs, 2002’s New Detention and 2004’s Thrills, Kills and Sunday Pills. Both expanded upon and accentuated the band’s rock credentials, mixing in the band’s archetypal wild-side (‘1000 Miles,’ ‘Lost Control’) with a newfound sense of maturity (‘Chemical Heart,’ ‘Better Off Alone’).
When Grinspoon first split back in 2013, one safely assumed that they had done everything that they set out to achieve and promptly closed the book on what was still an entirely successful career. Through tabloid drama, drug addiction, in-fighting and a commercial decline, Grinspoon still ended up at the end of it all with enough clout and peer adulation to walk away with their heads held high.
Like the case with so many broken-up bands in the 2010s, however, the story didn’t end there. A one-off reunion opening for Cold Chisel in 2015 eventually lead to a full-scale tour in 2017 to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of their debut LP, Guide to Better Living. Despite frontman Phil Jamieson reportedly battling bronchitis throughout parts of the tour, the shows received some of the best reviews of the band’s entire career.
A run with Groovin’ the Moo in 2018 followed, and now the band are about to head out on the road yet again. They come bearing gifts — a brand-new compilation, Chemical Hearts, and an impressive local line-up of The Hard Aches, The Gooch Palms and Bugs.
Ahead of the tour and the release of Chemical Hearts, we caught up with Jamieson to have some real talk regarding the band’s biggest hits, their forgotten era and their cross-generational appeal.
So, here we are. What are we calling Chemical Hearts, exactly? A compilation? A greatest-hits?
I mean, “greatest hits” is such a subjective term, isn’t it? I’m calling it a collection of favourites. Hell, let’s call it a box of Favourites — it’s a very Australian box of chocolates, in a way. It’s a collection of tunes where a lot of them are not currently available on vinyl, so we wanted to put something together to give collectors the access to them. That’s the long answer. Short answer is yes, it’s a greatest-hits. [laughs]
So why not put Best in Show from 2005 on vinyl?
That’s a great question. If I’m perfectly honest with you, I think maybe there might have been too many songs on Best in Show. I think I thought that we had more hits than we actually did! [laughs] I liked the idea of presenting something that was a little more truncated.
As a record, I think Chemical Hearts is a lot more in-and-out; to the point. With Best in Show, there’s stuff on there like ‘Sweet as Sugar’ and other tracks that we just don’t think are necessary when putting together a Grinspoon best-of in 2019. Is that fair, do you reckon?
You don’t fuck with ‘Sweet as Sugar’? It’s not too bad for being an obligatory “new song tacked onto the end of a greatest-hits” song.
Nah, I’m not saying it’s bad! Maybe that’s not a good example. All I’m saying is that Best in Show had a lot of songs on there. When this idea came up to put together Chemical Hearts, I was kind of in two minds about it. Then, when I started working with Lee McConnell — who designed all the art — it became really fun. It was a really collaborative process. It’s a really fun bit of packaging, and it’s a great bit of art. I think it’s pretty cute in its own way, too.
Best in Show was very much of its time, and I’m sure it worked at the time. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know if you can still buy it. That’s how little I know about our catalogue [laughs]. All I’ll say is that Chemical Hearts is pure hits. Can we call it that instead of a greatest-hits? Pure-hits?
I’m sure we can work with that.
I still like the idea of calling them favourites — because, really, that’s what they are.
The other interesting thing is that this comes nearly 15 years after Best in Show, and there are no songs on Chemical Hearts from after that time period.
Yeah, that’s right – Alibis & Other Lies, Six to Midnight and Black Rabbits don’t get a look in.
How do you feel about those three records now, in the back-end of the Grinspoon canon?
I have different feelings about all seven, to be honest. I like at least half of all of them, but I hate parts of all of them as well. That’s to be expected, I think. I haven’t listened to either Six to Midnight or Black Rabbits in quite a long time. I’ll occasionally swing through Alibis here and there. I think there’s some lovely little pockets of tunes on that record. I think the main thing, though, is that I have not listened to my own material even nearly enough to be some kind of authority on it — even though I wrote it. [laughs]
It’s hard to gauge how I feel about them specifically. I know what I like, though. ‘Run,’ from Six to Midnight, comes to mind. ‘Passerby,’ off Black Rabbits, is a good track. I really like ‘Beaujolais’ from that album, too. I think, across the seven albums, that Easy is probably my favourite — just because it was so fucked up. [laughs] Alibis is kinda fucked up too, now I think about it. I like that about it. They’ve all got their own personalities, that’s for sure.
As someone who has demonstrably written a lot of them, do you know when you’ve written a hit? Do you remember writing something like ‘Chemical Heart’ or ‘Hard Act to Follow’ and knowing you were onto something?
I never came to songwriting with that motivation. I know that sounds weird, and I know that Rai Thistlethwayte had a whole thing about wanting to write a hit not too long ago. I don’t want it to come off sounding like I’m being mean to Rai, but I really felt like I was the kind of songwriter he was talking about. When he was calling bullshit on people who’ve written popular songs and are like, “It just came to me”… that’s me in a nutshell! [laughs]
‘Chemical Heart’ did just come to you, then?
We tracked it at Megaphon Studios with Phil McKellar. I finished the vocals, and I thought nothing of it. I mean, I thought it was alright — I was probably more like, “Whatever.” [laughs] Everyone else was enthusiastic, though. There was a sense that they all thought it was a great track. With something like ‘Hard Act to Follow,’ all I had going in was the opening line. I just thought it was a bit cheeky; something a bit fun. Even after we finished it, the commerce of it all was truly never in the back of my mind. It never has been.
“I do want it on record, though, that I’m not part of any kind of cat-murdering cult.”
It’s always been about having fun. Or coming up with cute, cheeky lyrics. Whatever the fuck, really. That’s honest — I’m not making any of that up. Whether it was ‘Just Ace,’ or ‘More Than You Are,’ or ‘Chemical Heart,’ or whatever else, I wasn’t even thinking about them getting as far as being played on the radio. I didn’t have a vision for pumping out ball-tearing hits. The closest it ever got was thinking about where a song might end up in a set — with ‘Hard Act to Follow,’ for instance, I envisioned it as an opener. As it turns out, it’s a really good one. [laughs]
Of course, all of this is from my perspective. Someone like Pat [Davern, Grinspoon guitarist] could have a completely different way of looking at it. This is just how I put what we do into perspective.
Let’s look at it from a different angle. Of the band’s best-known songs, are there any that you couldn’t have ever foreseen being as popular as they are? Songs that people absolutely love, and it truly surprises you?
I think ‘Champion’ and ‘DCX3’ immediately come to mind. Anything off Guide to Better Living, really. Looking back on it, it’s such a random collection of songs.
‘Champion’ was written from such a sarcastic point of view, but people took it so literally! It was like, “Okay, go with that then! Ripper!” [laughs] It wasn’t that we thought they weren’t good songs, or they weren’t worthy of being popular, but it was just the interpretations that surprised us. I do want it on record, though, that I’m not part of any kind of cat-murdering cult. And I’m not a world champion of anything!
Grinspoon head out on an extensive tour this October and November. For all dates and details, head here.
David James Young is a writer and podcaster. The video for ‘Black Friday’ freaked him out as a kid, and set him on a path that lead to the evils of rock & roll. Visit him on the World Wide Web: www.davidjamesyoung.com