Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Interview with Warren Rough

Warren Rough (pictured on far left) is the guitar player for old-timey/country-blues duo Woodward and Rough with Craig Woodward (The Flying Engine String Band). He has been playing guitar for over thirty years in various line-ups including: the Autodrifters, the Crakajacks, Paramount trio, Everlovin' O'Sheas, among others. On Saturday, July 3rd 2010, I met up with Warren before the old-timey session at the Lomond Hotel to drink beer, talk about the secret thrill of mystery/suspense fiction and the value of local libraries ... Oh, and while we were there we recorded this interview about Warrren's diverse (and highly entertaining!) music background ...

HT: Warren, how did you start out playing music?

WR: I started playing guitar when I was about eleven or twelve. I was brought up by mother and grandfather and my grandfather played harmonica and trombone and he taught my older brother Greg how to play harmonica. And, yeah, when I was about eleven or twelve my mother sent myself and my younger brother to a local music school that was on a Saturday morning and all they taught was piano, accordion or guitar (laughs). So I took the guitar; I was always the Indian, they were the cowboys. And yeah, that’s when I started playing guitar. And I took to it straight away; I really liked it. Ah but I didn’t have many lessons and what I did -- I was listening to the families, the records: Peter Paul and Mary at the time and I was really intrigued by the guitar playing on Peter, Paul and Mary records. Peter and Paul played this lovely acoustic guitar style which is called ‘pattern picking’ and it’s using your thumb and your first two fingers on your right hand rather than a flat pick, which most guitarists use. So it’s actually based on piano playing more than um -- you know most guitar you hear is based on saxophone playing; single string playing on guitar is based on jazz sax playing whereas finger-picking’s based on piano playing. The whole style is quite unique. And so I got myself a book or two explaining how to do that kind of thing and from there I got interested in the really early blues playing, the kind of stuff that was recorded in the 1920s and 30s and such.

HT: Any particular players you liked or were inspired by?

WR: Mississippi John Hurt.

HT: Love Mississippi John Hurt.

WR: Yeah. Because I played without finger picks at first. But later I took them up. Um, and that’s what I did for years and years and years. You know, I never thought of myself as someone who would join a band or anything like that. You know, I was strictly a bedroom guitar player.

HT: What was the first band you joined and how did that come about?

WR: Ah, I was in my early twenties when some friends of mine started a band called the Autodrifters and again I didn’t think that I, you know, would fit with my style of playing so I what I did --

HT: They were a rockabilly outfit?

WR: Um, they played rockabilly songs but they weren’t authentic sounding rockabilly. We played lots of rockabilly and kind of truck-driving songs. So the overall sound was what you’d probably call country-rock and the guys in the band were writing their own songs. Nobody was really professional, everybody were beginners really.

HT: Who was in the Autodrifters?

WR: Well Rick Dempster was the singer and played harmonica. We had Peter Lillie, who was the leader of the band, on guitar and vocals; Johnny Topper was on bass; um, we had Des Hewitt who was Pauline Hewitt’s brother on drums and later on Andy Baylor joined, playing steel and fiddle.

HT: Great line-up.

WR: Yeah. It didn’t last that long though. We recorded one mini-album and a few other tracks on a compilation but that was it; it only lasted about a year. And, after that I was playing in a little country band.

HT: The Gully Jumpers?

WR: Yeah, that’s right. Um, I’m not sure how that came about but we used to play at the Napier Hotel in Fitzroy. It was a long time ago; there was still sawdust on the floor. (both laugh)

HT: Is this the 70s you’re talking about?

WR: Yeah, later 70s. And while I was playing with them I met up with a guy named Rick O’Shea and he was interested in rockabilly and I thought that since the Autodrifters had broken up -- there was nobody in the inner suburbs really playing that kind of music. There were rockabilly bands in the outer suburbs and stuff but, you know, to go and see them you had to kind of pack a, kind of, lunch and a water bag to get out there and see them (laughing). They were way out in woop-woop. But um, so yeah I was talking to Rick O’Shea and he suggested we get a band together to play rockabilly. And so we did that. Initially I didn’t think that I would be playing lead guitar because I was still -- I had an electric guitar by then as well as the acoustic -- but I still thought of myself more as a rhythm player in a band setting. Cause I wasn’t sure how to get that style, that finger-picking style, to work in a band setting.

HT: How did you -- with the Crackajacks for example?

WR: Well we were -- at least at the beginning -- we had a very authentic rockabilly sound, you know a 50s rockabilly sound: we had a slap bass player and stuff. And what happened was, during rehearsals, we’d have a number of guitar players coming along to play lead guitar but sometimes they wouldn’t turn up and so just to make use of the time, you know, I’d try to do the lead guitar. And after awhile the other guys just said: well Warren, why don’t you do it? So I sat down and I studied people like: a guitar player called Scotty Moore who played on Elvis’ first recordings for Sun Records. And he had a style that was based on finger picking. And, ah, I was able to get ideas from that as far as adapting my style of playing was concerned. In fact, I’ve done that with all the bands I’ve been in; I haven’t gone to them with a particular style of playing, I’ve had to learn the style and adapt my way of playing to that style.

HT: Yeah -- a time-heavy process. You must have spent a lot of time rehearsing, studying quietly …

WR: Well, I’ve always -- playing guitar’s just my life; all I’ve really wanted to do. (laughs)

HT: The Crackajacks had some success with the single Long Blond Hair and Stranger than Fiction on the flip side in the early 80s. Can you talk a bit about the Crackajacks heyday? You must have been touring a lot -- you were with AuGoGo records, yes?

WR: That’s right. We started the same way that the Autodrifters would do it; and that’s very much: do it yourself. Um, what we’d do was, we’d get a repertoire together and to get a gig we’d just go to the local pub. In those days there were a lot of pubs, lot of, you know, you’re local corner pubs that, you know, had a lounge that wasn’t being used at all. So we’d just approach the publican and say: how would you like to have some live music here? And we’d do it all ourselves: we’d hire the P.A., we’d put somebody on the door and charge a few bucks and do it that way.

HT: Whereabouts in Melbourne were you playing?

WR: Well, for the Crackajacks, our first residency was at a little pub in Collingwood called the Laird O’Cockpin (Laird Hotel). That’s right near the Collingwood Town Hall. And we didn’t realise when we got it but it’s, it’s a gay establishment. So that was interesting to have all these rockabilly fans mixing with the gays (both laugh). But it worked!

HT: What did the gay community think of the Crackajacks?

WR: They loved it. They’d come in from the bar and have a dance. That’s another thing: all the bands I’ve been in have basically been dance bands. And, yeah, after some time we recorded a single and that was put out on AuGoGo, as you said, and it was quite successful on a local level -- it topped the alternative charts. And eventually Astor Records contacted us and we did a deal with them and they actually released it but it didn’t get on commercial radio.

HT: Why do you think that is?

WR: We were told because it wasn’t up to scratch in the recorded sound. Um, yeah -- it was a bit disappointing.

HT: The single has such great energy – I was surprised that it was held back. What was the music culture in Melbourne like back then? Was it conservative?

WR: Um, well it was mainstream rock, basically. You know, there were just inklings of the punk movement starting to happen; but we thought of ourselves playing a pure form of rockabilly, we thought of ourselves as truly alternative. Actually that term wasn’t used -- it hadn’t been invented back then! (laughs)

HT: Did the Crackajacks form at Hound Dogs Bop Shop in West Melbourne? Can you talk a bit about the record store –there was a real hub of activity going on there at the time, for rockabilly, wasn’t there?

WR: Yeah, that’s right. It was a real centre for that whole scene. And, ah, I’d gone in there -- when I was still with the Autodrifters I’d gone in there and I’d become a regular and it did help when we were forming the Crackajacks, finding people to do it. Like, slap-bass players were very few and far between; you might find somebody who played older style jazz would play slap-bass but apart from that it was really hard to find anybody. In fact, when our first bass player left we couldn’t replace him with slap-bass so we ended up getting an electric bass player. And our sound became less authentic rockabilly, we tried to write our own songs and mix in different influences. I’ve always been interested in lots of different music: mainly vintage music but all kinds, you know, I love Latin-American music, Caribbean music, country and its various offshoots.

HT: How important do you think Hound Dogs Bop Shop was to Melbourne’s roots music culture back then?

WR: Well, I know it was important for that scene in those days. It really was the centre for getting the information out about bands. And Denys Williams, who runs the show, um, he was great at getting that information out to everybody.

HT: It grew out of the Australian Rock n’ Roll Appreciation Society in the mid 70s, yeah?

WR: That’s right, yeah.

HT: Were you a member?

WR: I was, yes. And I wrote for the magazine: Big Beat of the Fifties.

HT: You must have been busy. This was at the same time as the Crackajacks?

WR: Um, well the heyday of the Crackajacks was I think about 1979 to 1983/4. It changed quite a bit: in the end we had quite a different line-up, there was only three original members by that time: myself, Rick O’Shea on vocals and rhythm guitar and Mick Black on drums, who was an old friend of mine from my old neighbourhood.

HT: You’re from Heidelberg aren’t you?

WR: West Heidelberg! Actually, I was born in Preston but we moved out to West Heidelberg and that’s where I met people like Bill Martin and Mick and so on.

HT: Great. So, moving on from the Crackajacks, you started the electric blues outfit the Paramount Trio in the late 80s -- were there other band between?

WR: Ah, okay, I’ll just have to try and think for a moment here. Oh yes, there was the Corpse Grinders. I got into that band, which was a psychobilly band --

HT: How would you describe psychobilly?

WR: It’s rockabilly with a punk sensibility. The best known psychobilly band is the American band ‘The Cramps’ and we certainly were influenced by them a lot. And that band got together because some of the guys in that band used to come and see the Crackajacks quite a bit and so when the Crackajacks finished they asked me to be in that band so I joined them.

HT: How long did that last?

WR: A few years … I’m not quite sure. It was a pretty hectic time. We did some touring; not as much as I did in the Crackajacks. In the later part of the Crackajacks career there was a lot of touring, especially Sydney. In fact at one stage we were more popular in Sydney than we were in Melbourne so we were going there a lot. The Corpse Grinders were based around a venue in St Kilda called the Seaview Ballroom and we played there a lot.

HT: How many people used to go along to those gigs, do you remember?

WR: I remember packed houses all the time. We were quite popular locally and again we -- the first recording we did topped the alternative charts. The song was called (laughs) ‘I Eat Babies’

HT: (laughing) I Eat Babies by ‘The Corpse Grinders’. Charming! So you were pretty wild then?

WR: We were. We drank a lot. Once we became popular I remember the drink rider for the band was a slab of beer before we went on and a slab of beer when we got off (chuckles). Yeah, so it’s kind of hard to remember much about that band; it was pretty wild.

HT: It must have been pretty exciting, being a young man in your twenties, gigging, drinking, touring etc. Did you have much down time or were you always on the go?

WR: It was mostly on the go because at that time I was living from playing music and that wasn’t the only band I was playing in. I played for awhile with a band called the Pete Best Beatles; um, I was doing solo work just playing guitar in a cafĂ© in St Kilda. Ah, I was also in a trio with Rick O’Shea and Lisa Miller called the Everlovin’ O’Sheas.

HT: What sort of music was that?

WR: Mostly country songs. Mostly classic kind of George Jones, Tammy Wynette …

HT: So you were playing psychobilly and then country songs at the same time?! How did you manage that? Was it hard to switch?

WR: Yeah. It was okay, until -- I remember we did one gig where I had to do both bands – ah, this wasn’t the Everlovin’ O’Sheas it was the Pete Best Beatles who were a send-up Cabaret band. So you really had to know you’re stuff in that band. It was mostly humour but the playing had to be quite exact and we got booked for one gig supporting the Corpse Grinders so I had to go from (laughs) playing with one band, being very strictly spot-on, to then playing with the Corpse grinders who were really loose. I should point out too though that the Corpse Grinders were all about humour as well; we didn’t take ourselves seriously. It was kind of, well at least our appearances were as much a send up of that whole scene -- you know, we played really hard.

HT: What did you used to wear and do on stage?! I’m intrigued.

WR: Well, anything we wanted! (chuckles) We were usually drunk so we’d usually, you know, do whatever we wanted to and invariably arguments would start between the guys in the band and that was kind of like part of the show, you know? And the audience would get involved. You know there were these huge gaps between songs but then we’d get it together and we’d play something really hard and fast and really powerful. And then we’d go back to drinking and arguing again (both laugh) and mucking around. But, you know, it worked.

HT: Did people used to throw things at you on stage? Was it that good?

WR: If they were brave enough!

HT: So you all had reputations?

WR: Well, the bass player in particular was a rather large chap (laughs). But yeah, who was it? Jello Biafra, American guy, singer with the Dead Kennedys: we did a job with them; he later described us, in print, as the most entertaining band he’d ever seen in Australia.

HT: Wow. That’s quite an accolade. So can you talk about the transition from the Corpse Grinders to the Paramount Trio. How did that come about?

WR: Um, I think it was more that I was wanting to get back to what I played for myself, my personal style; to be able to use that more.

HT: Paramount Trio was yourself on guitar, Dave Hogan on harmonica and vocals, and Ken Farmer on drums/percussion. How did you get together?

WR: Again, I think we met through the Bop Shop (Hound Dogs). I’d known of Ken Farmer for some time, just from the general music scene and the same with Dave Hogan and it was in the Bop Shop that I met up with Dave and talked about the idea of the trio together. He was in a band called Southern Lightnin’ who were a blues-influenced rock band and he had the same thoughts that I had, which was forming a small unit that wouldn’t have to worry about big P.A.s and that kind of thing, and to play a more rural type of blues -- what’s generally called country-blues but it’s, you know, nothing to do with country music; the style of blues that was first recorded in the twenties were mainly rural performers, people like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and such … and that music died out as far as recordings were concerned but made a bit of a comeback in the late 40s/early 50s when Muddy Waters -- people like Muddy Waters -- made their first recordings and they were playing in that rural style but it was amplified.

HT: So that’s what Paramount were based on?

WR: That’s exactly what we were trying to do. Ah, for a description of the band we named it electric, country blues.

HT: Did you have a residency at the Rose Hotel in Fitzroy, is that right?

WR: Ah, we started off at the Napier Hotel, where I played with the Gully Jumpers. Again it was just a matter of: they were the closest pub to Dave Hogan’s place. So when we thought we had enough tunes we just walked down there and asked if they’d like to put us on, which they did. And we played there for a number of years and then went on to other places but we tended to stick to the same places. We wouldn’t use a P.A. at all; my idea was to cut the costs; as well as just having three people you wouldn’t have to pay for a P.A. and someone to mix and such. So what we did was: Dave Hogan would sing and play harmonica through an amplifier -- he had a great old Vox amplifier -- and then I’d just have my guitar and amplifier and Ken on the drums and washboard. And it made it quite easy to do. The pub we were longest at was a pub on Smith Street (Collingwood), it’s now called the Punters Paradise and we played there for at least five years on a Friday night. We had a small but dedicated following. It was set up for that reason -- just to be a small-time thing. We didn’t do festivals, we didn’t make any recordings for ages; we weren’t aiming at a wider audience.

HT: Okay, great. Just to finish up with your current band, the old-timey/country blues duo Woodward and Rough -- can you talk a bit about playing with Craig Woodward and the shift to an acoustic, finger-picking style of playing. What inspired that shift?

WR: Well, I’ve always loved old-timey music. I first heard the country-blues stuff when I was thirteen/ fourteen and not long after that I first heard old-timey music and it really fascinated me, it always has. As far as I know, or I knew, nobody played that style of music and it was only when -- I’m also really interested in Cajun music -- and while I was playing with Paramount Trio, I heard this band called the Le Blanc Brothers Cajun Aces; I heard a track being played on the radio -- on 3CR -- and I thought it was a, you know, a Cajun band from Louisiana but it turned out they were a local band. So I went to see them and that’s when I first met Craig ‘cause he was playing fiddle and guitar. And later on he told me he was going to form a band to play old-timey music with Nicola Hayes and so they got together: Headbelly Buzzard. As soon as I went and saw them I was just blown away: I thought they were great and I was just knocked out that somebody would be playing old-time music. And so for a long time I used to go and sit in with the band.

HT: Playing rhythm?

WR: Yep. And from there Craig and I got together as a duo as Woodward and Rough.

HT: You’ve been playing together for about ten years, yeah? You’ve put out two albums: Sweet Milk and Peaches and Hometown Blues (both available from http://www.accrosstheborders.com.au/) Have you got any plans for a third album?

WR: Not at the moment, no.

HT: (laughs) Short answer. If you want to see Woodward and Rough live, they play every Sunday night from 10pm at the Lomond Hotel, East Brunswick. Thanks very much Warren.

WR: It was a pleasure, thanks Honeytree.

For more information on the formation of Woodward and Rough please see the three-part-series Interview with Craig Woodward accessible from the sidebar. Also, please see the post ‘A Visual History: Snapshots from the Big Beat Archives 1980s-90s’ for photos of Warren in various line-ups. Woodward and Rough CDs are available from http://www.accrosstheborders.com.au/ (Photo above taken from the Big Beat of the 50s archives, courtesy of Bill Martin and Peter Scanlon)

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