Let’s just get this said right up front.
The Sunnyboys are one of the greatest band that have ever walked the planet Earth.
They made some of the most important records in my life. They were the epitome of an ultra cool, inner city, alternative, underground band smashing into the mainstream charts by the sheer magnificence of their music.
Essentially a power pop band, their sound was tough as nails but rolled in sugar. Front man Jeremy Oxley sang songs of pain and loneliness, alienation, love and confusion and longing. At a time when the Aussie charts were full of the mellow sounds of the Billy Joel and Linda Ronstadt, new wave and the tail end of disco, The Sunnyboys were a shining beacon of hope for a great many young people in this country.
Their story has everything. Ambition, struggle, joy, success, excess, tragedy, hardship, struggle, conflict, hope, pain, redemption and a lot of love. The descent of Jeremy’s slide into the dark world of schizophrenia is now well known, and powerfully told in the documentary The Sunnyboy, (which I believe is crucial viewing). Nobody believed they would ever return, including the band members themselves. But after a euphoric resurrection at the Hoodoo Gurus crated festival Dig It Up in 2012, the full original line-up have returned to touring on an annual(ish) basis. This means that the reconstituted band have been playing longer than the original band existed back in the day. I can report that they are absolutely brilliant live. Ferocious, loud and glorious.
They are about to do a bunch of shows, which sadly does not include Adelaide this time round (more about that shortly), so we had a chat to guitar player Richard Burgman, who has become the bands spokesperson. Before The Sunnyboys Burgman was in the Kamikaze Kids, and afterwards he toured with The Saints and Weddings, Parties Anything. Richard has been living in Kingston Ontario Canada for almost thirty years now, but when we chat he is in sunny(boy) Queensland.
One of the striking things about The Sunnyboys originally and it certainly true now, is the unusually strong bond between the band and the audience. It’s a rare thing indeed. A lot of bands that get back together don’t manage to find that verve or spark that made them so special in the first place. But you guys have it in spades, how does that manifest for you?
We had a really strong connection with our audience back in the eighties from ’81 to ’84 when we were first around. We worked really hard at getting our audiences in, especially in the early days. Not every audience wants to see you. The Western suburbs of Sydney just wanted to see The Radiators and Rose Tattoo, they didn’t want to see us! So we worked hard to get those guys and we worked out how to do that by playing suburban pubs in Sydney over and over and over. Same in Melbourne. We worked hard. So when we started putting out records and doing our own tours, we had learned a few things about it. I became really important to us, how we felt about it too. To get something going, to create some sort of spark with the crowd, some sort of interest, some sort of response. There is nothing worse than people just sitting there just looking at you or turning around and talking to each other. Or the dance floor empties when you start playing and when you finish the DJ plays The Angels and the dance floor is packed. Every musician, every band goes through that. But we worked hard to flip that around and make people need a rest in the breaks!
Then when started playing again in 2012 that carried through. The very first show we did back was at the Hoodoo Gurus Dig it Up Festival at Enmore Theatre. So the Gurus, The Fleshtones, Died Pretty were playing, it was a great line-up. It was really good fun. We got to play in the middle of the afternoon and it was the first time we had played together since 1992. Jeremy had been on his journey and back and none of us knew what was going to happen. He was in a good enough place that he could sing and play guitar. But we had no idea if we could play the songs properly. We had no idea if he was going to walk off the stage in the middle of the set. You just don’t know. You are dealing with somebody who suffers from schizophrenia. Nobody knew we were playing, there was a rumour it was us, because we called ourselves Kids in Dust which we played a couple of secret gigs under waaaay back in the 80’s. We got out there the place went NUTS. And there were 2,000 people watching. We knew a lot of the faces because they were all Hoodoo Gurus and Died Pretty fans there. We came out played for 45 minutes. It was bloody amazing. The audience went crazy. People were crying. people were laughing, singing along to every song. They couldn’t stop grinning their heads off and WE couldn’t stop grinning our heads off. It was the best, most amazing, wonderful glorious feeling that I have ever experienced being on stage being part of this band. By any measure it was a high point of my life. And ever since that day we have tried to maintain that atmosphere with the audience when we play. We want to make it an inclusive thing. It’s our job to make sure everybody has a good time.
The first time I saw you back was the Day on the Green show with Elvis Costello, and there was more than a few people who had gone to a Sunnyboys gig, that Costello just happened to be on as well (No disrespect to EC, who remains main #1 hero in music). But the euphoria I experienced see you guys back on the stage was a rare thing indeed. Part of it was the love I have for that music, part of it was seeing the four original guys up there playing really well. And part of it was knowing about Jeremy’s journey and willing him on, took it all to a level you rarely experience.
Yeah yeah. I totally agree with you Ian. If you take into account Jeremy’s, and the fact we managed to get it all back together, then we manage to be able to play the songs well, the way those songs used to be played, the way they should sound. Because it is the four original guys, the reason we sound the way we do, is because we sound the way we do! Because we all play the songs individually the way we do, that means collectively we have that sound. It’s a function of the four of us and we are very lucky to have that. Lot’s of bands try for that but we have got it.
When you are at home in Canada are you playing in bands over there?
Oh yeah I play all the time, but it’s very small stuff. I played in a little blues band for five years, playing funk, soul and R’n’B. I play in a three piece punk cover band playing punk songs from the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. Which is a lot of fun. And I play in a country band too, which is also a lot of fun. It’s really instructive to play different styles of music. You learn a lot when you have to come up with a guitar solo that sounds right in the correct context. Playing country is very different to playing punk I can tell you.
So the question must be asked why no Adelaide this time round?
Well, Adelaide is a funny town. I have very good friends in Adelaide who I have known for years and years and who are huge music fans and love to see bands. And they all, scratch their heads and wonder too. For us the first time we came back after getting back together for our own show, we played The Gov and it was packed. It was a brilliant show, lot’s of people turned up and they were a wonderful crowd. We had a great night. It’s not the biggest room in the world but it works very well for us, and for Adelaide I think. But the next time we turned up a year or two later, we had half the crowd. So the fear is if we came again this tour, we’d get half of that half. Our manager (Tim Pittman) does tours of all kinds of bands all the time and he finds that that is a pretty consistent thing with Adelaide shows. they are very good the first time you come out, but the second or third time, people seem to scratch their heads and say ‘Nah I’ve seen them before’.
It can be an incredibly frustrating place to live sometimes.
It must be. It must drive you guys crazy, especially the guys who care even a little bit, not to mention those who care a lot.
It can be really tough here.
Really tough. It’s a great place and I love going there and I have a lot of close friends there. But if there is no real reason to go…y’know. Money is part of it, but just having enough people to play to but we need to at least break even.
Hopefully we are not off The Sunnyboys schedule permanently.
No no. I’m sure we’ll be back at some stage at some stage.
However for the rest of the country this run of shows looks like a mess of fun.
It’s looking great, I tell ya. Three shows in Sydney are sold out, Twin Towers in Brissie is sold out and nudging up some very good numbers at the show at the Melbourne Zoo with Painters & Dockers and us, what a great line-up. I’d go! Celibate Rifles are on the other shows too. And there are shows just added in Canberra, Thirroul and Cairns.
Interview by Ian Bell
Catch The Sunnyboys on the remaining tour dates…
Sunday 11 February 2018
Special guests The Celibate Rifles
Tickets via factorytheatre.com.au
Thursday 22 February 2018
special guests Ups and Downs
Tickets on sale now via canberratheatrecentre.com.au
Friday 23 February 2018
special guests Ups and Downs + Mick Medew & The Mesmerisers
Tickets on-sale now via anitastheatrethirroul.com
Tanks Arts Centre
Saturday 24 February 2018
Tickets on-sale now via ticketlink.com.au or phone 1300 855 835
[Photo Credit: Bob King]