All round power pop Guru Dom Mariani talks to Hi-Fi Way about the impending tour by seminal garage pop outfit The Stems.
Right! Before we start, take three minutes and nineteen seconds and listen to one of the greatest songs any band has ever recorded, ever, anywhere in the history of recorded music. EVER! Go ahead, we’ll wait for you.
See? Didn’t I tell you? Ever. There may well be other interjections as we surf through this conversation with Dom Mariani, a man I consider to be one of the very best, and criminally under rated writers, singers and guitar players ever produced by this great Southern Land. Not that he hasn’t had his successes. The brilliant jangle pop of The Someloves, the surf-tastic sounds of Stonefish, the insanely good power pop combo DM3, the 70’s boogie rock of Datura and his terrific solo records. He’s never sitting around twiddling his thumbs. And of course today we are talking about the mighty garage rock / power pop outfit called The Stems.
Formed in Perth in 1983, The Stems arrived at a time when people were looking back to the tough sixties sounds that were being gathered together in the 1980’s on compilation records like the excellent Pebbles and Nuggets series. By the mid eighties Australian bands like Hoodoo Gurus had embraced those sounds and found an audience of teenage Romeos, keen to don their paisley print shirts, pointy boots and leather pants and get down to some crazy prehistoric sounds. The Screaming Tribesmen, Lime Spiders, and a slew of others were finding they striking a (power) chord with cool kids in the inner cities, who were not interested in the latest thing from England (i.e. the synth pop chart toppers on Countdown, not the rather excellent cover band featuring members of The Young Homebuyers!). Independent record labels were popping up all over the country and knocking out brilliant 7″ singles like The Lime Spiders Slave Girl and…actually just take another two minutes and fifty seconds and take in this…
So…Slave Girl, Screaming Tribesmen Igloo and Date With a Vampire. You had The Bam Boos and the Bam Balams, Exploding White Mice, Scientists, Died Pretty, Hitmen, The Moffs, The Trilobites, Olympic Sideburns – hot damn it was a good time to love music and have a pulse. And into the middle of all this came The Stems. Their debut single Make You Mine is a beautiful slab of Nuggets style perfection. Right from the get go it is a blitz of urgent echoey guitars, glorious harmonies, relentless beat, howling vocals. A Huge chunk of the song is actually a breakdown with the vocals just riding the bass and drums, making the impact of the other instruments kicking in throughout all the more over powering. Great use of a whammy bar and one of the great tail ends of any song. I suppose you’ll be wanted to hear that one too? As well you should…
They quickly gained a reputation as a fierce live act and built a huge audience that saw their Citadel singles being repressed over and over to meet demand. Eventually they moved over to Mushroom Records and released their first album At First Sight, Violets Are Blue and became regulars on mainstream radio, Countdown and ever bigger crowds. In 1987,with their audience and reputation growing, and on the eve of a trip to the USA to break into the market over there, the band buckled under the pressure and broke up. They all went on to do other things. Ten years later (in 1997) the reformed for a gig in Perth. In 2002 there was a Stems tribute album released (The Great Stems Hoax – A Tribute to The Stems). In 2003 they resurfaced touring sporadically both in Australia, but also Europe and the USA were they had become cult favourites. In 2007 they released their second album Heads Up before splitting again in 2009. In 2013 they were again resurrected, to appear at the Hoodoo Gurus Dig It Up festival but this time without keyboard player, Richard Lane.
It was divisive move for fans as many considered his keyboard sound and the songs he had sung lead vocals on (notably Tears Me In Two), quintessential part of the band. However his spot has been filled by multi-talented Ashley Naylor from Even, and on this tour they are joined by the equally talented Davey Lane (You Am I, The Pictures) who himself has released one of the best records of 2017 in the shape of his album I’m Gonna Burn Out Bright.
It’s the 30th Anniversary of At First Sight, Violets Are Blue and they are playing the whole thing live, plus other favourites on a tour that hits The Gov on Saturday November the 11th. Dom Mariani is on the phone from his home in Perth and keen to talk about the band and this tour.
It’s been a long time between drinks for The Stems and Adelaide hasn’t it?
Yeah, I think it’s been about ten years since we last came to Adelaide.
That was the show with Birdman and The Gurus?
Yes. That was a great tour, great line-up.
How is it possible that the At First Sight album came out thirty years ago?
Well time flies I guess. It sounds like a really long time.
The Stems emerged at a really exciting time for underground music in Australia. There were a lot of great bands, a lot of great record labels like Citadel, Greasy Pop, Red Eye. And a lot of bands doffing their cap to that 60’s garage rock sound but really making it their own. Tell me about that time for you, how was it putting the band together in that sort of environment.
I think there were a lot of like minded people around at the time, putting bands together and so on. In some ways it was a reaction to the kind of music that was in the mainstream at the time, even the sort of stuff that was covered in the NME. It was more synth and drum machine driven. We’d come out of the late seventies with punk, but that turned into New Wave and that turned into something else. There were various new movements like Gothic rock or New Romantics, everything was new or whatever, mostly coming out of the UK. In a place like Perth, it was very much influenced by that, especially the music scene. I was more into guitar driven music, The Beatles and The Stones if we are going to simplify things. But I was also a big fan of underground garage music from the 1960’s that was finding a new audience through compilation albums like Nuggets and Pebbles. And then there was the Australian bands like The Easybeats and Masters Apprentices and bands like that which I was digging, so I decided to put a band together.
There were already some bands around like the Hoodoo Gurus and some of the spin-off bands from Radio Birdman that were starting to put things out. The Saints were still going with different line-ups. So they were the things that appealed to me. And I wanted to play that sort of music, we played some early gigs and it seemed to go down quite well. And we pretty quickly founds an audience that were into those sounds as well, people who wanted those kind of sounds rather than New Order or something like that. So that is how it eventuated, but it also occurred to me there were other bands doing similar things in other cities and around the world, so the timing was right.
Labels like Citadel, Waterfront, Greasy Pop were starting to put out singles from bands in their respective cities. We were from Perth but we signed with Citadel who were based in Sydney. It was a good move because we were in good company with like minded bands like The Lime Spiders, Screaming Tribesmen and what have you. Also the inner city record shops at the time were promoting those singles and it became quite a movement and there was a real excitement in the air and it became a really fertile time in Australian rock’n’roll.. At the end of the day a lot of the influences from the sixties and seventies were resurfacing.
I remember getting Make You Mine when it came out and just going ‘fucking hell, this is incredible’. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t off Nuggets or something. It sounded so real, so legit. When Tears Me In Two came out I lost my mind. I was DJing in a club in Adelaide at the time called The Tou-Can-Tou and it became one of the defining songs of that time, such a ferocious sounding record and there would be hundreds of people going apeshit for it.
That’s great to hear and is partially thanks to my Ibanez fuzz peddle which I still have.
When you were making those singles did you realise you were doing something really special? Did you have enough separation to be hearing the playback in the studio and go ‘bloody hell!’.
I dunno know if it was that kind of feeling. When we were writing and putting the songs together, you get a certain buzz out of it. You think ‘oh, this is good’ or this is great. I’m getting a buzz out of this. When you write songs you feel something, excitement or euphoria, it is hard to explain. When you are playing music, you are in a kind of zone of feeling and emotion and it’s hard to describe that good feeling, when the endorphins are buzzing.
For me the song is always much better before you record it. Because the possibilities are endless, you are thinking this is amazing, I’m really digging this and you are hearing the influence of all the bands you’ve listened to. But once you have recorded it that becomes the definitive version, the version that it will always be. It is really hard to get distance from that because you are so close to it. So you can always be going ‘oh I could have done that a little bit better, or I’d do that differently now, and it takes some time to get some distance. You can look back a few years later and go we did a good thing or that’s a great song. You have to have a degree of confidence that what you have written is decent, but you are not sure til it goes out there and then it becomes up to other people if they love it or think it’s a load of rubbish.
The great thing about The Stems was that the most important thing was always the melody. I still believe that melody is the key. It can always get you over the line. But then you get some great words and you have an amazing song. Melody is everything wether it’s a simple song like Make You Mine or At For Sight, which is a bit more melodic. There is something about them wether it’s a R’nB feel or a more straight ahead pop feel, it was all about song writing. You definitely need a certain amount of attitude and confidence, because that what gives that music the swagger that makes it work and pulls people in. You have to have a hook.
Well The Stems had so many hooks you could land a fish. When the At First Sight album came out you’d moved from Citadel over to Mushroom Records and you were turning up on Countdown and getting played on more mainstream radio. Did that change your audience dramatically?
Well there were a lot of new faces. When we started it was kind of an inner city cool scene. People were coming to see you all the time and all the other bands were emerging. As we got more popular we probably lost some of those people and we gained some more mainstream fans. More average punters that wouldn’t necessarily delve into music in the same way we would. But they saw it, they heard it and they liked it. It was different though. Going from being a little independent band to being signed to a major label, it did change things. It became a rollercoaster. We were a lot busier, we were touring a lot more, which I don’t think really agreed with us at the time. Ultimately we broke up because it was all a bit too much. All these things came into play that we had to consider. We either had to go with it or…
Get off the rollercoaster?
Yeah. I was a little at odds with it and that was in part what cut the bands lifespan down. We could have kept going, but other things came into it and some people couldn’t handle it.
How is it revisiting this album as a whole thing? Are there songs that you never used to play live back then?
Yes there are. We are basically going to do all of it. All the songs off that record. When it came out we didn’t play all the songs. We probably played most of them at some point when we were putting those songs together, but when the album came out we went out with a set list and leaned towards our faster tempo numbers and some of the songs we never played. It’s going to be fun and interesting to revisit those songs. I Can’t Forget That Girl comes to mind, it’s a really poppy tune and we are going to have some fun with that. We were writing more pop songs, but live it was always more about the tough sounding music.
The Stems always had fantastic b-sides to the singles like My Beach and Grooviest Girl In Town, are you likely to dust off any of those songs on this run?
My Beach definitely. Grooviest Girl in Town I hadn’t even thought of that one. (laughs), we haven’t started rehearsals yet so it could be a goer!
It’s gets my vote I love that song.
It was always great fun to play. We used to always open up with it in the early days, great song for us to warm up to and the sound guy to get his levels right.
Essentially The Stems were a power pop band. It’s a genre of music I still feel is under appreciated and marginalized. The people who love power pop really love it but it just never seems able to be embraced by the wider general public, not since the sixties and seventies. Does that drive you as insane as it drives me?
Not so much. I spent most of eighties and nineties pursuing it with The Someloves and The DM3. We always joke about it Julian and Ash Naylor too, power Pop bands are the kiss of death. We all really love that music. It is really appealing music if you are a musician, because it has the melody and crunchy guitars and handclaps. But again, it’s all about the melody. I don’t like to put people down, but I think there is a lot of brown music, which sort of has all the things you need for power pop, y’know jangling guitars and has harmonies and all that, but it lacks some of the swagger of those great bands that we love.
The Flaming Groovies or The Plimsouls…You Am I are a great power pop band, Hoodoo Gurus too. They are still addicted to rock and roll, which is the edge you need to play that music well. But the other side of it is the pure power pop jangle of that sound. Some of the more janglier bands have been great. What helped me was that I connected with a European audience and an American audience. And I believe over there it is seen differently. In Australia it is not big at all. Like you say the people who are into are very enthusiastic, but over there in Europe and Japan I have discovered having played there a few times, they just love it.
There is no stigma connected to it. It comes down to what a mainstream audience will go for. In a perfect world if somebody does a great song, no matter what style or genre it is, it should be heard by people. The general public is how you get exposure, but if they aren’t hearing it, you only have the hard core fans who will seek you out.
People can say what they will about Countdown, but it gave a lot of bands a platform to be heard. The Stems might have been sandwiched between Human League and Christie Allen, but it still meant people got to hear you.
Totally. Somebody like Christie Allen might have had a bigger audience, but bands like us connected with a percentage of that audience and it meant there was music for everybody.
The line-up is pretty impressive with Ash Naylor and Davey Lane along for the ride.
The band is the best it’s ever been. Ash has been playing with us since 2010. The band got back together in 2003 and we did another album and were around for a few years. But we went our separate ways again. The band the way it was just couldn’t carry on, it wasn’t working. When we were asked to back together again a few years later I didn’t want to do it with the old line up, so we either had to change it or it wasn’t worth doing. That’s how Ash came into the fold and it’s been great ever since. Ash and Davey are both great musos.
Interview by Ian Bell
The Stems play The Gov on Saturday November 11…