Monday, April 26, 2010

Interview with Rick Dempster

Rick Dempster is the steel-guitar and harp player for The Brunswick Blues Shooters. He regularly plays with the Baylor brothers and a host of other Melbourne bands. Melbourne Roots would like to thank Rick for his articulate and generous responses and for adding to the conversation around Melbourne's music history, its future, and the political and cultural challenges our musicians are faced with . H

MR: How did you come to play gigs and work as a roots musician in Melbourne?

RD: I started playing gigs in 1977 with a band called the Autodrifters, which consisted of songwriter-guitarist Peter Lillie and Johnnie Topper, who had previously established the Pelaco Brothers, which was fronted by Steven Cummings. Warren Rough was also in the Autodrifters. We played a mixture of Rockabilly, country, and Lillies original songs. This all took place in the inner city rock scene at a time when just about every pub was running bands.
There was no such thing as a ‘roots’ scene back then; everyone was attempting to play what they saw as progressive rock or punk. There was nobody playing interested in studying the conventions and disciplines of traditional American music forms (despite the fact that those traditions were the driving force in rock music) unless you include a few people in the folk scene playing some bluegrass, or some of the bands, mainly in the northern suburbs doing country, and who were not considered part of the ‘hip’ inner city rock scene.

The traditional jazz players were probably the only crowd who were interested in closely studying the conventions of American popular music forms, but they were certainly not, and are still not considered part of the ‘roots’ music scene, probably because they are considered, by people with a rock background, too sophisticated, and because they distanced themselves from the rock’n’roll scene, which most of them looked down on as too crude, and, no doubt because it had knocked out a lot of their gigs.

The rock scene at that time, and for a good many years after, considered sticking with traditional forms to be decadent, or ‘purist’.

Daddy Cool, although very much a part of the rock mainstream, were the band that impressed me the most at that time as being able conversant with a particular discipline of American music; even so, they made something of their own of it.

Other than that, there were plenty of bands that drew on American traditions, but absorbed them into the rock ethos; blues guitar licks, a bit of harp, maybe, but basically rock-blues.

Sydney had a small blues scene back in the seventies, with bands like the Don Hopkins R’nB four, the Hawaiian Houswreckers, Junior and the Goldtops, the Foreday Riders, and Continental Robert (who then styled himself as ‘Fat Robert’) had just got going with the Rugcutters. I remember going to Sydney with Warren Rough back in ‘75 and seeing all those bands. There was nothing like that in Melbourne.

Andy Baylor started turning up to see the Autodrfiters early on, and of course, playing the same gigs, we saw him in bands like the Belair Bandits, the Blue Rockets and the Honeydrippers. These bands were playing Rhythm & Blues, including some originals, but drawing on the work of people like Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown, Wynonie Harris etc. In addition to that, Baylor would occasionally pull out the fiddle, which he had just started to play, or a Fender steel he had, and do add a jazzy, western swing flavour to the music.

We asked him to sit in with us, and later he joined the band for the rest of its short career, playing fiddle and steel.

Andrew and I, along with a few others, were interested in the connections between the various styles of blues, country and jazz, and wanted to get further into that aspect of the music. Hound Dogs Bop Shop had opened in 1974, and for the first time it was possible to get original recordings of all kinds of older American music styles, like western swing, Cajun, honky-tonk country, rockabilly, down home blues and R’n’B.

I’d been taking lessons in Hawaiian guitar from some older Australian players like Les Adams and Jim Jensen, and so it was almost inevitable that we came together again in 1981 to form the western-swing styled Dancehall Racketeers, in which we could indulge all of our interests at the same time, playing jazz tunes, R’n’B, fiddle tunes, Hillbilly, Hawaiian and Boogie Woogie. I’d spent a year with the Rockabilly Rebels, who were based at the Prince Mark in Doveton, and double-bass player Graeme Thomas from that band joined us too.
I’d been playing harp since I was seventeen, so I had a grounding in Chicago blues, and used that instrument in country settings as well, so I had a pretty broad background of American styles to refer to.

Through the time the Dancehall Racketeers was a full time road band (1981-1988) there was no festival circuit as there is now, with the exception Port Fairy, which was very much a Celtic affair at that time, along with Tamworth and the Gympie muster. We played all these gigs, as well as the inner urban rock scene in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide, country pubs, sporting clubs and whatever else we could book.

We played the National Jazz convention in Geelong in 1982. I don’t believe there was any other band with this kind of versatility.

Invariably we were too country or rocky for the jazzers, too jazzy for the country crowd, and to the rock scene gatekeepers, a bunch of conservative ‘purists’.

Still, we managed to regularly play five nights a week, something which is impossible to do today.
In addition to all this, I had an acoustic outfit with Andy and Ian Hayes, three nights a week in a city restaurant playing Hawaiian and old tin-pan alley tunes, and around ’86 and ’87 had an Hawaiian act with Paul Pyle and a Kiwi who called himself Tex Nobody, and used to be the booker for the Esplanade Hotel. We did a cabaret act in RSL clubs and such with a floor show using Tahitian or Cook Island dancers.
Is that enough??

MR: How importantly do you view live music for you as a person and why?

RD: Playing live is the way I connect with the world, and how I create, or attempt to create, a world I feel comfortable in.

MR: In your view, how important is the community around the live roots music scene?

RD: The community is what gives the music meaning and life. Without it, the music has no identity and no purpose. I talk about playing ‘American’ music, but I can always tell an Australian band, whether they are playing blues, jazz, country, rock or whatever. I think it’s a big mistake to be thinking about whether your music has a national identity, and self consciously trying to create that. It’s the audience, or community if you like, that defines that, if you are playing to them, responding to them, and they to you.

MR: How do you see the future of roots music in Melbourne?

RD: I’d say the next thirty years will be the hardest part; but if I can quote from George Orwell’s character Benjamin, the Donkey, in ‘Animal Farm’: “Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey.”

MR: Can you shed some light on your involvement in the campaign against the new legislation regarding liquor licensing and how you see it impacting the roots community?

RD: Quite simply, I lost my gig with the Brunswick Blues Shooters, at the Railway, in North Fitzroy, which we’d held for four and a half years; the nicest residency I’ve ever had, so I was not happy. At the same time, I saw a lot of other musos losing gigs, and a few of us got together to try to do something about it. We teamed up with other groups that had got together, such as SLAM and The Push, and it’s a work in progress. We really haven’t come very far at all, despite the wonderfully inspiring rally.

The government really doesn’t want to have to come to terms with the real problem, which is the social and cultural black hole that is Australian society, which seems not to be able to socialise without getting blind drunk. It certainly doesn’t want to lock antlers with liquor industry, which must bear at least half the responsibility.

The music ‘industry’ (I use the term ironically) is an easy target, largely thanks to the way the rock scene has always liked to style itself as dangerous and revolutionary, and its practitioners forever threatening, smashed and drunk, or at least, likely to vomit on the carpet.

In reality it’s all about image, dress-ups, and giving the punters the idea that they are indulging in something illicit; “buy the tee-shirt, overthrow the government”.

That is why, I think, the government can sell the idea that popular music is linked to violence. Perhaps they need to go and see that wild rebel, Tex Perkins, re-born as a cabaret artist in ‘The man in black’, or Barnsey, taking the same route, suited up as a James Brown for the suburbs.

As for the campaigners, they consist mainly of club operators, publicists and bookers, the people who actually have the most to gain, financially, from live music. There are very few musicians involved. While the campaign needs these people for their experience in licensing and planning laws, they do not represent the interests of career musicians; their stock in trade is the endlessly renewable cheap energy resource of young bands, most of whom will not last more than a few years in the game. For the few who find they have an ongoing interest in continuing to play and improve, there is nowhere to go once the bitter reality of the dearth of venues or any kind of opportunity becomes apparent. This realisation may follow years of relative obscurity, or a few years of fame, followed by consignment by the ‘industry’ to the scrap heap, in favour of younger bands.

If someone has chosen to ‘stick with it’, they have often reached their musical maturity in the years following their decline in patronage from the industry.

Meanwhile, the government throws money at the ‘arts’, young hopefuls attend the VCA, to emerge with few prospects, to wind up teaching another generation of teachers and playing in reception bands.

I would like to see the campaign for live music concentrate on the proliferation of venues of the widest possible spectrum; to help publicize in particular the diversity of lesser known music, rather than simply promoting the fatuous, dead-end of the rock’n’roll lottery. It needs to promote the cultural value of live music; local venues that make a practice of running regular gigs in an hospitable atmosphere designed to put people at their ease, and promote camaraderie and social harmony. This is the true function of music, as far as I see it, and one that is at direct odds with the government’s idea of live music as public assembly embodying the threat of affray.
Below is footage of Rick Demspter's speech at the SLAM Rally Feb 23rd 2010


  1. Honeytree - I just want to let you know I am disappointed and angry to read Rick's comments about "the campaigners", and I think he has got it quite wrong. Makes me wonder why I am bothering to do anything.

  2. Hi Robin, thank you for your comments. This blog is set up, in part, as a forum for the Melbourne roots community to share ideas and voice their opinions and is open to all subsequent discussion. Cheers, H

  3. I thought Rick's article was very informative. I found the last paragraph to be very eloquent and more importantly, true.

    I agree with Robin that Rick's comments about the campaigners, is counterproductive. Having spoken to Rick myself, I suspect that his comments are borne out of an increasing frustration at the apparent lack of action or moreso, results. 3 venues have won a reprieve, as I understand it: The George, The Lomond and The Tote.

    Although I do not know Rick, per say, he is clearly not only a career Musician but an intellectual. It is very hard for ppl such as Rick, who can see the big CULTURAL picture so clearly, to not be incensed by the myopic vision of a reactive Govt. This isn't about grants from Music Victoria for up-and-coming Pop bands. It's about our responsibility to preserve the music culture of this town, which promotes harmony, friendship, diversity and pride. This is an opportunity for the Labor Govt to be proactive and do our State proud - for Labor to win back the hearts and votes of its Heartland, which has abandoned it for The Greens or would rather offer up a null-vote than vote for it.

    Mr. Brumby for the sake of Live Music and its remarkable contribution to our Culture, remove the link between Alcohol-related violence and Live Music. Don't presume "guilt" over "innocence". You can cover known "offenders" with historical data, police-consultation, crowd size and other metrication. It's not hard!

  4. Thanks Martin for your insightful comments. It's great to see this discussion taking place. Let's hope all the hard work in supporting and promoting live music culture, from all entities involved, pays off. H

  5. I appreciate a forum where people can freely express opinions about music in Melbourne
    and it's refreshing and inspiring to read an interview with my colleague Rick Dempster.

    His insights,knowledge,and analysis of the broader cultural contexts of music-making in Melbourne are invaluable and well considered.

    His criticisms of the Slam/Fair Go For Live Music campaigns obviously surprise some observers.Why would he make these remarks?After all, he has been involved from the start and has intimate knowledge of the people and the proceedings...I would be interested to know how "he has got it wrong" as Robin states.

    Also why focus on a little criticism...Rick's not being negative or counter-productive. Far from it.As Martin points out, Rick offers us a way to go in his last paragraph. He speaks of cultural diversity,promotion of lesser-known music,a belief in the real cultural value of live music in Melbourne,a hospitality industry that is actually hospitable and the hope for a link between music -making and social harmony rather than violence.All that sounds good to me.

    thanks Andy Baylor

    thanks Andy Baylor