Legendary underground music icon, Ron S Peno is best known as the front man of Died Pretty, but he has just released a third album with his crackin’ band The Superstitions can’t work out why so few people seem to care.
In July last year Aussie punk legends Radio Birdman played at The Gov with Died Pretty. Birdman were terrific as usual, but it was Died Pretty that blew people’s mind at that gig. Incredible band, astounding songs and, in the immaculately turned out front man, Ron S Peno one of the best singers and performers this country has ever produced.
One of his earliest bands The Hellcats (a New York Dolls inspired cover band) only lasted a few months in Sydney, but supported Birdman and played their legendary Funhouse. It was the start of a long friendship for Peno and Rob Younger and Deniz Tek. Relocating to Brisbane his next band was The 31st (with Brad Shepherd later of the Hoodoo Gurus) playing ‘hard rock’ which didn’t really get anywhere, but did produce two songs that would become two iconic two singles for his next band, The Screaming Tribesmen. Igloo and A Stand Alone were both released on the Citadel label, a hub for like minded bands inspired by sixties garage rock sounds like Lime Spiders, The Stems, The Trilobites and various Birdman off shoots. After a few singles Ron left The Tribesmen and in 1983, formed a new band. Initially called Final Solution (with Younger on drums), but they soon changed their named to Died Pretty. The bands sound was informed by music like The Velvet Underground, Dylan, and Suicide. They were often grouped with the Go-Betweens and Triffids, (although there is a case to be made for them neing close to a less murdery Bad Seeds) but right from the first single (Out of the Unknown, 1984) they were something unique and quite unlike anything else happening in Australian music at the time.
They quickly struck a chord not only in Australia, but found audiences in Europe and the USA and for almost two decades they produced a staggering amount of outstanding music and a ferociously loyal following. Their fourth record Doughboy Hollow from 1991 is about as perfect a record as anybody has ever made in this country and gave us D.C, Sweetheart, and Stop Myself.
In 2002 Died Pretty disbanded after a farewell tour and Ron hooked up with Ex-Scientists Kim Salmon for the country tinged Darling Downs for a couple of albums and an album with his Died Pretty band mate Brett Myers called Noises & Other Voices in 2006. Died Pretty have regrouped a number of times for one off shows and always welcome tours.
Since 2011 Ron has been making new music with the remarkable Ron S Peno and The Superstitions. Very much in the tradition of DP, the music is driving, emotional, surging, urgent. The lyrics are full of remorse and doubt, and a sort of beautiful anguish. Late last year they released their third album, the fantastic Guiding Light which is one of the best releases of 2017. On stage Ron S Peno is a formidable and ferocious entity, but when we chat over the phone about the latest record, he is cordial and very funny.
How are you Ron?
I’m very well Ian how are you? Well I am sick as a dog actually but you are far enough away to be safe Who cares? It’s all about me Ian. Ron S Peno! End of superstition. Where are you calling from Ian? Adelaide! Died Pretty did a great show with Radio Birdman in Adelaide recently. It was our best show on the whole tour, it was just fantastic. I loved it. Radio Birdman were okay too, I wouldn’t rave…” he laughs.
More than a few people that night were saying ‘Damn I forgot how good Died Pretty were’.
Well thank goodness for old age. A lot of people going ‘why couldn’t they have been this good thirty years ago.
Is there kind of muscle memory that happens when you play those songs with those guys? Does everything come back quite quickly?
It is a bit like that, like riding a bike, you never forget. The songs are imbedded in your brain, rehearsals are a dream. Because we’ve gotten older they are more of a pleasure. Not that they weren’t before, but there were a lot of……other things around, ego and alcohol and, well, lots of things around back then. As we’ve gotten older we have gone completely opposite and we are playing really well – I mean what the hell? We have all seen those bands that have reformed and they just don’t cut it. And you sit there thinking ‘Oh well this is embarrassing.’. A lot of the Aussie bands do seem to be able to pull that off. Yeah. A lot of the overseas bands not so much, but a lot of the Australian ones seem to get away with it. I’ve seen a few who haven’t pulled it off, who should have left their songs back in 1984.
What are your memories of that period in Australian music, when Died Pretty, The Stems, etc were on the Citadel label and it seemed to be such a golden age for ‘underground’ music in this country? There was a lot of great bands but they had a platform that in many ways doesn’t exist anymore. There were exciting new labels and independent records stores and vibrant alternative radio stations all over the country.
They have all disappeared now haven’t they? Where did they go? What’s happened? Look, I don’t really remember much from those days if I am being honest. It was thirty years ago. Of course I do. I remember there was lots of struggle and lots of alcohol. They were very fun erratic times I think, with lot’s of rocking.. Things have changed over the years, I wouldn’t like being like that now. It would be embarrassing. You can’t keep that lifestyle up forever and once you start losing hair, that’s it. Once I started losing my beautiful locks, I was devastated but you can either go one way or the other. You can go yes I’ve gotten older I’m losing my hair, thanks dad for the hereditary. Or you do the Homer Simpson thing ‘there’s plenty more where that came from’. And just don’t wear it long any more!
You have nicely avoided the pitfalls of the comb over Ron, and you remain one of one of the most eloquently dressed men in music.
Well thank you, you should see me at the moment I’m off to do my volunteer job at the Red Cross and I look mighty fine. You have to do this the right way I think. It’s not that I don’t have a Vodka and Soda occasionally, it’s not like I don’t imbibe, just not as much. And as you get older you can end up wearing shorts and thongs with a tie dyed t-shirt, but with The Superstitions, I have always said ‘let’s do this stylishly’. I’ve chosen to go the GQ way. Sometimes you see these guys from the 80’s and their hair is going and they have disguised it with a bandana or something and they are wearing acid wash jeans and I always think ‘Well you look really groovy since 1985’.
You have done indie labels and major labels and with the Superstitions records you are back to releasing them independently.
We are less than independent Ian. We release them ourselves. We don’t even have a label. Nobody seems to be interested in releasing our stuff. We’ve approached some labels in Melbourne but we had no takers. We have a fabulous album here…..idiots! There is just no interest from any section of the industry. I don’t know if it’s a ageist thing. But I feel like this is a really strong album and as for playing live, we can’t go to Adelaide or Perth. We have maybe enough funds to get to Brisbane and Sydney, but so far people aren’t that interested in seeing us play. And I think hang on, this band is up there with Died Pretty, they are an amazing band and they are no slouches, we are not messing around. But convincing people of that is really exhausting.
Is it harder that it has ever been?
It is for me personally. I have would’ve thought that transition from being in a well known band, bit of a rock star, Died Pretty front man to a new band with The Superstitions would have been more natural, but it’s like starting over again. I feel like I have gone back 25 years or something and I’m playing to fifteen people at The Corner Hotel. I have close friends who love the band and just can’t believe this. You are playing to twenty people for free and it should be $35 a ticket. We have all this great music, very spirited music form the heart and we build this great band and put on the show and it falls on deaf ears. Maybe I wanted to call the album that Fallsondeafears, but I was talked out of it.
You are absolutely right, it is a glorious record.
Thank you. It is some of the best work I have ever done. Vocally, lyrically and the band are brilliant. They were fantastic in the studio and when we play live they just do it. They are on it. They’ve had to prop me up a couple of times (laughs). Sometimes I am swirling around and getting lost in the music and end up looking for a sign of where we are! But the beauty of playing live with a really spirited band, is even if I get lost occasionally they don’t and just climb back on board.
One of the things I love about this record, and it is true of all the bands you’ve had, is that there is a tenderness in these songs, but it’s wrapped in a toughness. It’s a quality all the great soul singers have, passion and vulnerability.
I’d like to think there is always a little bit of hope there. With my songs, they might be sad, but there is a little bit of hope. There is some sadness on this album. Some of us have lost very close friends this year and last year. We are all getting to an age now where we can’t plan too far ahead…(laughs). So there are a couple of songs on the album referencing those situations. But it’s not a downer album at all, it’s pretty rockin’. I am very proud of it.
“I want to kiss you and I don’t know why” is possibly my favourite lyrics of the year.
Oh I thought you were saying that to me there Ian! But I’m here in Melbourne and you are there in Adelaide so that is kind of impossible, maybe when we meet. That was a spur of the moment lyric. That is a really great song Just Like Diamonds, really nice spirited song (singing) Your just like diamonds falling from the sky, I wanna kiss you and I don’t know why, And I get down on my Knees, and I prey’.
I think the Bobby Darin cover (Not For Me) works for us. I came across that a couple of years ago when a friend gave me a compilation of stuff produced by Jack Nitzsche…yeah that’s right The Lonely Surfer…but there was this Bobby Darin track I’d never heard of. I only knew stuff like Mack The Knife, but as soon as I heard it I knew it was tailor made for The Superstitions. They loved it and we have made it our own really!
There are some Bowie references on there. But as I say it is so sad to poor your heart and soul into something and have it fall on deaf ears, because you are too old or whatever it is. I think I proved I was alright after that gig at The Gov. We really thought Adelaide was going to be pretty ordinary and it was the best gig on the whole tour. Fuck me the audience was gorgeous, we played brilliantly, it was a night where everything clicked and you wish it could be that perfect every time you play, so thank you Adelaide you have made an old man cry. I think Adelaide would like The Superstitions, great songs with this old tart out the front doing his thing, it’s not that different to Died Pretty, although these guys are a lot younger Haha.
I can’t recommend Guiding Light highly enough, it a cracker. But why listen to me, head over to their Bandcamp page where you can listen to the album or buy a CD, download or limited edition vinyl LP. https://ronspenoandthesuperstitions.bandcamp.com/
Time for you to get Superstitious.
Interview by Ian Bell