The Collapse Board Interview: Ron S Peno
A born performer, Ron S. Peno is an expressive force. Amplified from a distance he’s just as compelling, if a little manic, up close. His dynamic stage presence is a sight to behold.
Peno is something of a fixture within Australian music. It’s a reputation well-earned. But this notoriety isn’t something stemming from the industry handshake of a lucrative label deal or million-selling hit – although he’s had some shots. Instead it’s cemented by the enduring presence of Died Pretty and a restless creativity which stretches well beyond.
After transplanting from Brisbane to Sydney in the early ‘80s, Peno joined a handful of peers bucking the decade’s polished modernity for the true calling of a hard-rocking sound. Yet despite a fondness for his contemporaries, he’s quick point out that Died Pretty were always standing a little outside of the prevailing norms.
Looking back on the constellation of groups which inspired early Died Pretty albums Pre Diety and Free Dirt it’s easy to find truth in the contention. In weaving a cerebral and atmospheric sound, Ron and his co-conspirators were ushering the pioneering and iconoclast spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s’ outliers into a new decade. That said, he’s averse to the idea that Died Pretty were revivalists of any kind. To him they were simply making the kind of music they had always loved.
But to linger too long on this bygone decade could be cutting Peno a little short. In recent years focus has shifted to his work with The Superstitions. Talking about the group’s third record Guiding Light, Ron dismisses ideas of a grand narrative or unifying thematic. The closest thing to a common thread as he’ll admit is a smattering of lyrical allusions to pain and loss. Less the heartache of bubblegum cliché, Guiding Light’s downbeats tap into a lingering hollowness left by a spate of recent passings within his tight knit musical community.
He lights up when talking about this new album, but also contends that performance is his true medium. Despite a knack for turning out potent lyrics, the way Ron sees himself is as a performer first and foremost. Offstage, Peno freely admits to being somewhat of a lethargic writer and continuing this moment of good humoured self-deprecation, also confesses to being a little technophobic too. This leads to reminiscing fondly on dodging his fair share of stage-bound projectiles. But why put words into the man’s mouth any longer? Here’s exactly what he had to say.
Collapse Board: 2017 has been a big year, you’ve performed as part of The Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane 30th anniversary concert, toured Died Pretty alongside Radio Birdman and now you’ve released a new LP, Guiding Light…
Ron S. Peno: And the ‘Bowie in Berlin’ shows!
CB: …the Bowie in Berlin shows too! And now you’re about to embark on a tour as Ron S. Peno and The Superstitions…
RSP: It’s a little mini-thing that’s happening. The album’s been out a couple of weeks now, so we’ve got to play a couple of shows!
CB: How are you feeling about it all at this point in time?
RSP: I’m feeling fine, good. All great.
CB: Take me back a little bit, you cut your teeth in the punk scene but by the ‘80s you had pulled together Died Pretty…
RSP: I was in a Brisbane band called the 31st and I think for one show they were called The Screaming Tribesmen. I didn’t like that name, so I left. I’d preferred the 31st– which was my name. Then I found my way to Sydney eventually formed Died Pretty at the end of ’83. Our first single was in 1984 and then we were together for about twenty years I think!
CB: Now what was interesting here was that on these early albums like Free Dirt and Pre Deity you were flirting with influences like Bob Dylan, The Doors, garage rock and the perhaps some of the psychedelic sounds of the ‘60s as much as the music of the present.
CB: What was bringing you back to these earlier sounds at that point in time?
RSP: Well I’ve always liked those sounds. I loved The Doors, I loved all that sort of ‘60s sound. All of that was an influence in Died Pretty, all those genres of music, but I was never brought back to it. I’d always loved it!
CB: Were you feeling a disconnected with other things that were going on in music at the time?
RSP: Are we talking about the ‘80s?
CB: That’s right! We’re in the 1980s.
RSP: If we’re talking about the ‘80s when I formed Died Pretty with Brett Myers, we were influenced by the whole CBGB’s thing from the ‘70s. We were influenced by Roxy Music, by The Velvet Underground. A lot of ‘70s stuff – and obviously David Bowie! A lot of things, the ‘60s garage thing was only very minute and there was just a touch of Doors maybe. It was a lot of ‘70s stuff like, as I’ve said, Roxy Music and that whole glam thing. Then through the late ‘70s too, that whole punk thing: Television and Patti Smith. All of that.
CB: With the Easybeat’s George Young just passing away, I’m also wondering too if you felt a connection with any of the Australian acts of the 1960s?
RSP: No connection. I liked them a lot! I loved The Easybeats. The Loved Ones and The Easybeats were some of my favourite bands. Obviously as a kid growing up in the ‘60s and loving music you’re influenced by those classic Australian bands. Vanda and Young were just classic songwriters y’know? Brilliant!
CB: Other Australian groups like fellow Citadel compatriots The Moffs, The Stems and The Lime Spiders, as well as big independent acts The Hoodoo Gurus were, more so than Died Pretty, drawing on a lot of ‘60s elements. Did you see yourselves as part of a bigger revival or something like that?
RSP: Not really. We always separated ourselves form any other bands. We’re friends with all of those bands and that, but we were never part of any sort of group or movement or anything like that. We didn’t consider ourselves part of that, we were always a little bit different to everybody else or other bands that were around at the time.
CB: A force unto yourselves!
RSP: We were yes, and we’d been like that since very early on. I think a lot of those bands you mentioned were perhaps influenced by us in some of the ways they performed, but they’re all great bands!
CB: Jumping back to the present. Tell me a little about this third LP you’ve recorded as Ron S. Peno and The Superstitions.
RSP: The Superstions! Well it’s the third release, behind the first release Future Universe and Anything and Everything is Bright. It’s been about three or four years between the second and this one, so it’s been a little while coming but it’s finally here. It’s called Guiding Light and it’s a corker. We’re very proud of it and it’s a very strong album.
CB: It seems to be exploring this big thematic of love, is there a theme or unifying narrative?
RSP: Throughout the album? Not really, but there are moments there – I’ve had a few friends who have passed away in the last year or so, very close friends. It’s been very sad, it’s been one of those years where there’s been triumphs but also sadness in my own and other friends lives. We’re all getting older and this sort of thing happens. You can’t help but be touched by that. It comes through in various lyrics that are peppered throughout this album. We’ve seen a lot of people go, not only great performers but also close friends. There’s moments of sadness of the album, here and there, but not overly. It’s a rockin’ album!
CB: It’s very much a rock ‘n’ roll album!
RSP: There’s lots of rock but occasionally we have to have moments where we stop and think about loved ones and just try to remember them in song. There are moments on this album that are quite Died Pretty actually. Died Pretty were a dramatic band, after you’ve been with a band like that for so long you’re going to drag some of those influences across to whatever new project you’ve started.
CB: I’m interested in how you approach your songs. Do you see yourself as a songwriter?
RSP: I’m a performer! And that’s about it. I’m a performer that can sing. I’m an incredibly, incredibly lazy lyricist. I don’t focus. I need to be prodded constantly to write lyrics. A great vocalist (not a bad vocalist), superb performer but a really lazy lyricist. I always leave things to the last minute and write in the studio. But not as far as writing lyrics, once I focus and start writing I’m not too bad, it’s just the getting there. I’d rather watch TV than write lyrics!
CB: So you’re happy with them when they come out, but teasing them out can be a bit of problem?
RSP: Well I’m very happy with this whole album because it’s got lyrics. Yes, you can even sing along to them!
CB: When did you come to this realisation that you were more of a born performer than a singer-songwriter or lyricist?
RSP: I’ve been telling people for years! Nobody seems to be listening. “Oh Ron, you’re such a great songwriter!” No, I’m not! I have a way with a melody, I’m not too bad with a melody. A vocal melody and stuff, I can compose not a bad tune. But lyrics, when I finally do them they’re not too bad, but it takes a lot. People like Nick Cave, Paul Kelly, Tim Rodgers and all that, I’m sure they’re all focused. It’s a craft to them. It’s their craft. To me it’s more like a pastime. I’m just lazy, it’s a simple thing of laziness that’s all.
CB: Do your lyrics usually chase the melody then?
RSP: I’ll come up with the melody first. I’ll get together with Cam [Butler] or Brett if its Died Pretty. It’s just a two-person thing, a duo thing. We get together and Cam will have the music ready to go. He’ll go, “Look these are some melodies I’ve got and here are some instrumental songs. Can you put anything to these?” Nine and half times out of ten I can, and I’ll warble some vocal melodies. Then we’ll compose the song, rearrange it and structure it. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus, middle eight whatever. We’ll construct it and then set aside for the rest of the band to listen to and they’ll put in their two pence worth – their ideas, sounds and stuff. They’re given free rein to come up with whatever they want, but there’ll be guidelines there if they need them. Then right at the very end it’ll be like, “Well okay, better get some lyrics together.”
CB: So they really are the last thing to come!
RSP: The very last thing, yes. But it just depends, sometimes songs will come easy and I’ll scratch down different lines. For example, I had ‘Hurt’n’Run’ mostly written down before we recorded it, but something like ‘Almost There’ which was a bit of sad song, that came later. ‘Dreams of Leaving’ was another late lyrical addition, that was all down in the studio and I had one day to do the lyrics.
CB: ‘Dreams of Leaving’ seems to be this big sweeping conclusion to the record. Can you tell me a little about hat one?
RSP: Well I obviously doubled up the vocals on the intros, I wanted something like that. I don’t know what to say, the song is about… just leaving I guess. Getting away from it all, everything becoming too much and just having to walk away.
CB: How much of the album have you performed live?
RSP: Good question. We’ve had most of these songs for a few years actually. As I’ve said it’s been quite a while since the second album and this new one. The only three that we’ve never performed off of the album are the last three that we recorded which were ‘Over Again’, ‘Dreams of Leaving’ and ‘Almost There’. I was over at Cam’s the other day running over them and they were sounding great, just the two of us. With the whole band they’ll sound even better!
CB: What can fans expect from the upcoming ‘mini-tour’ as you’ve put it?
RSP: A lot, a great night! [Chuckling] Expect the unexpected to be clichéd about it. We don’t ever know ourselves so hopefully lots of buying of the CD! I don’t know but, you just don’t know what to expect. We just cross our fingers and hope everybody has a great time, that we perform well and put on such a fantastic show that people walk away going, “That was fucking great!” That’s all you can hope for really.
CB: As an artist it seems like you’ve travelled through almost every major development in modern Australian music….
RSP: I’ve seen various genres come and go! From glam rock to grunge.
CB: What’s changed the most for you as a musician and an artist?
RSP: Hmm. I don’t know. Everything has become very technical these days. It’s all about technology! Everything is online. I’m just so out of that still. I don’t even have a computer! I’ve only just recently gotten a mobile phone. I think I was at one stage one of the only people in Victoria or even Australia without a mobile phone.
CB: It seems that when you were starting out in the ‘70s and ‘80s technology was such a hurdle. It was a big deal for a band just to be getting into a recording studio whereas now every artist can release and record an album without ever really having had to perform live…
RSP: It was a big step whereas these days you could jump on a computer right now and do an album yourself!
CB: People spend less time together playing as a group before they release their first recordings. They may never have had to be in that rough and tumble environment of a bar or pub. Do you think the culture of music has changed because of that?
RSP: Of course, yes. They’ll never know the atmosphere of a pub or…
CB: Getting hit in the face with a beer can!
RSP: Ah precious memories, precious memories! Those were the days, getting slammed in the face with a hamburger. Beautiful!
CB: The whole culture of flinging things at bands seems to have really died out over the last couple of years.
RSP: I don’t think it happens either. There was a yobbo period wasn’t there? There’s plastic cups at venues anyhow, it’s difficult to hurl those.
Speaking of being slapped in the face, one of the very first Died Pretty performance was with a bunch of bands at the old Crystal Ballroom in St. Kilda in about ‘84 or ‘85. It was our first trip to Melbourne and we were very excited. I think the bands were I Spit on Your Gravy, Olympic Sideburns and Grong Grong from Adelaide.
They were quite heavy psychobilly bands, so we were quite effeminate in comparison. I waltzed out on stage and I think we did one song and it was all very atmospheric. The next song I was standing there, and a hamburger came flying through the air and whacked me in the face! How hideous! I vowed I was never playing Melbourne again.
I later found out who I was, somebody quite famous had actually hurled it and they have since apologised. It’s not as bad as half a bottle of VB suppose. I didn’t get knocked out, just tomato and lettuce smeared all over my face! Not a great start. Hopefully that won’t happen on this tour. If it does, I hope it’s gourmet!
Ron S Peno & The Superstitions ‘Guiding Light’ Album Launch Shows:
Friday 1st December 2017 – The Bearded Lady, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 2nd December 2017 – Leadbelly, Sydney NSW
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