Posts Tagged ‘David McComb’

David McComb

When the music world lost David McComb in February 1999, Triffids fans felt they’d lost their torch-bearer.

For many, McComb’s lyrics represented a small measure of comfort for the heartbroken, or guidance for those lost in isolated spaces.

McComb’s songwriting was sophisticated and poetic. Buoyed by the love of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan but twisting his own post-punk and pop influences, the music he made with The Triffids some thirty years ago continues to inspire, influence and remain relevant, even in the digital age of streaming.

The Triffids steadily built a cult following through the 1980s, with the adored Born Sandy Devotional, a timeless album heavy with nature, remoteness, and foreboding. It contains their classic ‘Wide Open Road’, which reached the UK Top 30 in 1986 and has become even more cherished in the years since. It perennially appears in polls and tastemakers’ lists whenever the Australian sound or significant songs of our era are mentioned.

In England, where they spent much of their time, the band was critically acclaimed by the British music press and they earned a loyal following across Europe.

Triffids guitarist Robert McComb describes his brother’s passing as ‘everyone’s tragedy’, such was the reverberation that shook him and all who loved David.

‘You can grieve but you never get over it,’ he says softly.

Over the past couple of years Robert and a number of close friends have been bringing to life a treasure trove of superb unreleased material. The songs were recorded over a couple of summers by an assemblage of musicians including members of The Triffids, The Blackeyed Susans and people who had shared a stage and other delights with the man himself, along with musicians who knew him and loved him through his music.

Most of the songs were demo’d in the 1990s by David and had been left lying around on cassettes. Trusted long-time friends ‘Evil’ Graham Lee (Triffids) and Phil Kakulus (Blackeyed Susans/Triffids) were also involved.

There is something seductive about the humble audio cassette. The clunk and rattle as it settles into the player; the hiss as the tape winds its way around the heads. For Graham Lee, listening to the captivating audio was a way back to David – back to a snapshot or a moment time.

‘Many of the tapes were rough, with Dave strumming away on the electric guitar and pressing record,’ says Lee. ‘Then, there’d be things like just the strum of a bass line or him just saying random words.’

Sometimes, the din of the late night television could be heard in the background or the occasional dog barking. Many of the tapes had David’s familiar scrawl emblazoned on the outside, indicating ‘new songs’. For Lee, it was clear that the versions David left behind were the ones he was happiest with. He’d recorded over any previous takes.

Truckload of Sky was never intended to be an album. Initially the idea was to garner a keepsake of David’s lost songs. However, it was soon apparent they were too good to keep for a selected few.

Lee assembled a core band of luminaries including Mark Dawson on drums, Phil Kakulus on bass, JP Shilo on guitar as well as David’s older brother Robert on rhythm guitar – their closest collaborators and friends.

‘Most of us have played together for more than thirty years,’ Lee says of his fellow band mates, ‘and we found the songs came together quickly.’

An array of talented vocalists were then chosen to sing. Chosen mainly on the criteria that they were enthusiastic and available, including Rob Snarski, Angie Hart, Romy Vega and Alex Gow. It is clear on first listening to Truckload of Sky, that every singer brings their own elucidation of the late David McComb. The songs are brought to life with passion, emotion and the prose McComb was renowned for; almost reinvigorating his post-Triffid’s career.

Opening track ‘Kneel So Low’ highlights McComb’s way with words through Romy Vega’s haunting vocals.

Childhood friend and former Triffid, Phil Kakulus was a co-producer. It was a task he found both daunting and joyful.

‘I did feel pressure and responsibility to not f**k the songs up,’ he says matter-of-factly of his time in the studio. ‘I know there were occasions when people would say, “What would Dave do?” and I always appreciated that, but we had to adhere to Dave’s own rule that the song always comes first. I’d like to think if we did that, it would have made Dave happy.’

When talking about the work of The Triffids, McComb’s lyrics are generally grounded in the landscape of Western Australia, whilst being universal in their reach.

However, in 1996, three years before his death, McComb underwent a heart transplant after developing cardiomyopathy. Truckload of Sky features a number of songs written after the operation, which head off into a more personal direction and contain a deeper sense of gravitas than his previous work.

Songs like ‘Lucky For Some’ paint a picture of the late McComb helpless in a hospital bed, (I heard your steps on the hospital tiles and the thought of your arms around me kept me warm for a while’) whilst in ‘Look Out for Yourself’, McComb asks “Tell me do you see someone else, and if there’s someone you can turn to now, in your sickness and your health.’

Reproducing David’s work in the studio with the cream of the country’s best and accomplished musicians, (Dan Luscombe, Mark Dawson, Bruce Haymes et al) was fairly organic. ‘Dave was definitely the dedicated songwriter,’ says Graham Lee. ‘He’d fill endless notebooks with words and rhymes and various lyric ideas and spend a long time refining things. Lucky for us, even on the cassettes, most of the forms are good and workable and intact. There’s very little work we had to do in that respect. We just had to dress them really.

Meanwhile, Phil Kakulus felt working on Truckload of Sky brought about a closeness to his childhood friend he’d not experienced before. ‘It wasn’t like he was in the room, but it did feel like we were making music with Dave again through his words and cassettes, which is something I thought was never going to happen.

‘Just being able to work on those songs…it kinda brought him closer to me in a way that I hadn’t felt for quite a while. It was a real honour to be able to do that.’

Kakulus recounts personal stories of mucking about with David when they were kids of 10 or 11 in Perth. Of Sunday afternoon’s eating Mrs McComb’s fantastic roast beef around the kitchen table and of sneaking into clubs with Dave as teenagers to watch Kim Salmon perform in his band the Cheap Nasties. His friend’s death at just 36, had an impact on him.

‘I remember writing the obituary for The Age newspaper with Graham and Rob (Snarski) and thinking it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.’ Triffids steel pedal player ‘Evil’ Graham Lee, remembers the 17th of February 1999 very clearly. His mate Steve Miller from The Moodists came knocking on his door.

‘Steve had been trying to reach me all day, but I was on my computer. It was back in the days when we had dial-up modems so he couldn’t get through to me.’ When Lee saw Miller on his doorstep holding a six pack of beer, he knew why he was there. ‘He just said, “Dave’s gone.”

Truckload of Sky is an amazing chronicle – a collection of songs with the unmistakable intelligence, literary clout and atmospheric arrangements that fans associate with The Triffids. ‘This is how we remember David,’ says Rob McComb, proud to help preserve his late brother’s legacy. It’s a fitting body of work to add to David McComb’s cannon – and a serendipitous find for those still seeking solace from a talent lost too soon.

david mccomb solo album love of will

The long lost solo album “Love of Will” by the late David McComb, singer-songwriter for much loved West Australian band The Triffids, has finally received a release. Originally released at the end of 1993, nearly half a decade after the dissolution of the band with which he made his name,  Love of Will was McComb’s final major release before his unexpected passing at the age of 36 in February 1999.

The album, which the NME later described as “a full-blown foray into country rock and reconciled his dark, almost Leonard Cohen-like songwriting with the Velvets-like psychedelia” was the only album that McComb recorded and released following the Triffids final album, 1989’s The Black Swan. The album originally appeared without much fanfare;  remember The Triffids only received limited commercial success in their time, and their 2008 induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame would have seemed unimaginable in McComb’s lifetime. And it has disappointingly remained out of print for nearly two and a half decades, despite continued generational rediscoveries – and upgraded reissues – of McComb’s work with the Triffids.

Of course, that work with The Triffids includes classic albums like 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional and the now iconic minor hit “Wide Open Wide.” Hard works to live up to perhaps, but many of McComb’s fans believe Love of Will found McComb still at the peak of his writing and performing powers.

Although it was recorded from June to August 1993, and it was a return to something akin to The Triffids style after a couple of single releases that flirted with hip-hop, McComb reckoned the album was four and a half years in the making. His chosen band of musicians for the recording included some ex-Triffids, and members of the Black Eyed Susans, a group that McComb had formed and worked with part-time after The Triffids demise with a couple of old friends from Perth, Phil Kakulas (who had played in the original line-up of The Triffids) and Rob Snarski.

That band of musicians included amongst both Kakulas and Snarski as well as former Triffids Martyn Casey and “Evil” Graham Lee, and, on violin, Warren Ellis (who McComb described to Juice’s Toby Creswell as “the best musician in Australia”) who was then on the cusp of coming to prominence with the Dirty 3. Not long after the release of Love of Will, McComb and Ellis both appeared on Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Let Love In, and Ellis became a full-time Bad Seed alongside Martyn Casey.

Love of Will inadvertently caused the demise of The Triffids, who had initially stopped playing just to take a breather. Their final gigs in New York in 1989 weren’t meant to be the end (although Casey did join the Bad Seeds the following year.) According to Graham Lee: “We didn’t know they were final performances. Dave wanted to do a solo album, and we were due to get back together after that. Much to his chagrin, his solo album took longer than expected, and he kept writing songs that sounded like Triffids songs. Domesticity snuck up on most of us, poor health snuck up on Dave, a planned ’94 reunion tour was put on hold, and The Triffids faded into the mist.”

Let’s remember David McComb with a video made for “Setting You Free” from his solo album’s original release, and a 1994 live performance by David and his band the Red Ponies (Warren Ellis, Graham Lee,  Peter Luscombe on drums, Bruce Haymes on keys and Michael Vidale on bass) from Later… with Jools Holland in the UK.

Thirty years ago this month, Perth band The Triffids released their fifth single, ‘Wide Open Road’. It remains not only The Triffids’ best-known composition but also one of the most beloved of all Australian popular songs. It is a driving song, a dreaming song, a weeping song, a song that shimmers with summer light even as it traces out a winter of the heart, a song vast enough to fill the horizon yet intimate enough to feel as if it were being played right beside you. I would wager that there are few pop songs so beautiful as ‘Wide Open Road’, though perhaps its magic is only wholly palpable to a listener who holds within them a sense of what this country feels like: its heat, its distances, its fraught and haunted spirit. For that reason, among others, it is a perfect song to play should you find yourself leaving Australia, or homesick for it in a way you can’t explain and maybe didn’t anticipate.

The Triffids recorded ‘Wide Open Road’ in London. They had relocated there during the northern summer of 1984, after several frustrating years of driving back and forth across the Nullarbor, and a stint in Sydney, trying to interest east coast audiences in their music. In London they would make up one part of a ragged trio of Australian post-punk bands in exile, alongside The Go-Betweens and the earliest iteration of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The Triffids shared something of The Go-Betweens’ flair for unhurried, deceptively simple songs, but also borrowed a little from the Bad Seeds’ torrid melodrama. Their first album, Treeless Plain (1983), was folkish and unfussy, but a subsequent run of shorter recordings was to culminate in the Field of Glass EP (1985), a humid, roiling trio of songs recorded live at the Maida Vale studios of BBC Radio.

By 1985 The Triffids were a sextet, augmenting the usual rock combo of guitar (played by lead singer and primary songwriter David McComb and his older brother, Robert), drums (Alsy MacDonald) and bass (Martyn Casey, later to join the Bad Seeds) with keyboards (Jill Birt), violin (also played by Robert McComb) and pedal steel guitar (“Evil” Graham Lee). Of all the elements that make ‘Wide Open Road’ so remarkable it is the keening, ghostly sound of Lee’s pedal steel that is most distinctive.

Early that same year, The Triffids became the first Australian band to grace the cover of the NME, Britain’s most influential music paper, though even this unprecedented notice was not enough to secure them the major label deal they were hoping for. On a limited budget, funded largely by their own savings, The Triffids set about recording their second studio album. Their English producer, Gil Norton, had previously worked with Echo & the Bunnymen. Because tape was expensive, the band recorded only ten songs, all of which were included on the finished album. That album – of which ‘Wide Open Road’ is the centrepiece – would be Born Sandy Devotional, released in March 1986.

“All torch songs, all good luck charms, all winters,” wrote David McComb in his preparatory notes for the album. (Facsimiles of McComb’s handwritten notebooks and lyrics were included, along with additional tracks, in the 2006 reissue through Liberation and Domino.) McComb was 23 years old at the time, and the songs he wrote for Born Sandy Devotional are infused with the grand and doomed romanticism of the very young. “Songs written for an LP record with a theme,” he wrote. “The theme will be unrequited love.”

Born Sandy Devotional opens with ‘The Seabirds’, a species of torch song, though one in which a cushiony bed of strings is offset by hard-edged drumming. “No foreign pair of dark sunglasses / will ever shield you from / The light that pierces your eyelids / The screaming of the gulls,” sings McComb, combining homesickness and heartbreak in a way that would define the record. The birds of the song’s title scorn to peck at the body of a man who wants to die, or perhaps is already dead. This is an album full of wraiths and visions, conjured equally by guilt, erotic longing and violence.

That gothic quality – both musical and lyrical – was something that The Triffids shared with the Bad Seeds, but unlike Nick Cave, whose fevered songs were almost always set in the American South, McComb chose to write about a distinctly Australian environment. ‘Estuary Bed’, which follows ‘The Seabirds’, is a gorgeous calypso that evokes the hot sand and prickling salt of a coastal Australian childhood, but it takes place in the shadow of an adult disenchantment that sees McComb alluding to Macbeth: “Sleep no more / Sleep is dead / Sleep no more on the estuary bed”.

You could bracket the ten-song sequence of Born Sandy Devotional into five pairs, with one song baleful and its twin, if not sunny, at least less heavily downcast. ‘Chicken Killer’ and ‘Tarrilup Bridge’ are tales of peculiar loners. The latter is sung by Jill Birt in her light voice – a marked contrast with McComb’s sonorous tones – and is again suggestive of a narrator speaking from beyond the grave. The music lurches like a carnival ghost train, in a welcome touch of dark humour. As the album plays out, the songs move further away from the ocean, towards the country’s interior.

If ‘Wide Open Road’ is the vulnerable heart of Born Sandy Devotional, a song at once desolate and resolute, then its shadow is ‘Lonely Stretch’. In 1985, before recording Born Sandy Devotional, The Triffids laid down a version of ‘Lonely Stretch’ for British radio DJ John Peel, as guests on his famous Peel Sessions. That live version highlights the rhythm section that gives ‘Lonely Stretch’ its potency: Martyn Casey’s pounding bassline, Alsy MacDonald’s thunderous cymbal rolls. The studio version, though, adds the kind of embellishments that make the song into a hallucinatory, murderous dream, the musical equivalent of Ted Kotcheff’s cinematic vision in Wake in Fright (1971) or the literary power of Patrick White’s Voss (1957).

“I took a wrong turn off of an unmarked track,” sings McComb. “I did seven miles, I couldn’t find my way back.” ‘Lonely Stretch’, like ‘Wide Open Road’, is a driving song, but one in which neither the driver nor car survive the journey. The land is desiccated and brutalised, but so is the narrator’s emotional terrain. “Baby, I was wrong / I was wrong from the start / You could die out here / From a broken heart.” The song gathers momentum as MacDonald ploughs into his kick drum; at the climax McComb channels a preacher-cum-bluesman as the rest of the band screeches to a halt. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds indulged in this kind of dire balladry too – McComb noted their 1984 song ‘From Her to Eternity’ as a model for ‘Lonely Stretch’ – but The Triffids did it better. If I could choose only one song as a showcase of what Australian musicians have been able to do with the American roots of popular music, remoulding its constituent parts into something that speaks of, and to, the colonial weirdness of this country, it would be ‘Lonely Stretch’.

Wide Open Road’ aside, The Triffids were never widely loved by local audiences when they existed, and even now, though Born Sandy Devotional is routinely named as one of the great Australian albums, their listenership is not large. They can be a difficult band to make sense of, especially because their recorded catalogue shifts between unadorned (In the Pines, for instance, which they recorded in early 1986 in a Western Australian woolshed) and sumptuous (Calenture, released in 1987, is nearly the equal of Born Sandy Devotional in craft and atmosphere). Uniting both parts of their musical temperament is McComb’s persona, which at moments can feel overwrought. You have to be in the mood to submit to the tidal pull of The Triffids’ sound.

The last voice on Born Sandy Devotional belongs not to McComb but to Birt, though it is McComb’s words she sings. ‘Tender Is the Night (The Long Fidelity)’ is a kind of coda to the rest of the album – a moment where the songs’ author steps back a little, to survey the consequences of his lonely and self-destructive temperament. “I knew him as a gentle young man,” sings Birt, over a gentle, lilting arrangement. “I cannot say for sure the reasons for his decline.” The words are fatalistic, but also prescient – McComb would die in 1999 at the age of 36, a decade after The Triffids’ disbandment. For years he battled with heroin and alcohol addiction.

But the song is also generous, and kind – a gesture towards loved ones, like a wave of the hand. “Let’s go out tonight,” sings Birt, with McComb quietly harmonising on the final chorus. “It’s getting dark earlier now / But where you are it’s just getting light.” Anyone who has found themselves on the other side of the world from Australia, measuring the hours and the distance between themselves and those most dear to them, can grasp the heartache, and the image. Even more than absent lovers, it is the Australian light that you yearn for. Until you leave, you never know just how much you’ll miss it.