By Dan Jones and Nathan Hull
At what stage do you start making music and begin writing?
I started very young but I didn’t ever really set out to be a writer. I didn’t realize what I was doing would later be called an “artform”. I remember having my uncle’s upright piano as a kid. Aside from playing around on it I really enjoyed taking it apart because I liked the sounds inside it. Even back then with a little tape recorder I experimented recording all these odd sounds with piano parts. That was my first dabble with an instrument and then I later taught myself to play the acoustic guitar.
The hook-up with Michael Hutchence seemed fortuitous. How did this long time friendship develop into such a powerful and successful working relationship?
I can still remember the day Michael stepped off the school bus at Calarney heights. He’d just arrived back from Hong Kong and was still wearing his Hong Kong uniform and stood out like a sore thumb. He was getting bullied and was about to get into a huge fight when I stepped in with my 6ft mate to rescue him. I’ve always hated bullies. But after that first meeting, we really didn’t see much of each other and Michael moved to LA.
But when he moved back to Sydney he invited me ’round to look at his bike. We had both developed hugely and I had already started playing in bands. Michael had changed enormously; he was more worldly and interested in poetry – you know, Herman Hesse and stuff. I enjoyed that side of him; his intelligence – all the way through our careers actually. Like everyone else we were interested in music and girls and Michael came down to watch a band I was in and started showing an interest. It was at that point that I suggested Michael put some of his poetry down to music I was writing. This material went under the name “Merlin’s Circle” and the set up also featured two New Zealand brothers.
But it was when we formed “Doctor Dolphin” – another early band which featured “Kent Karney and Neil Sanders” – and found “Garry Beers” that we really started enjoying things. Garry had a car and a bass – that was him, so cool, a car and a bass! We got gigs and really started figuring things out.
With the formation of our final line-up as the “Farriss Brothers” – and later “INXS” – it was all about playing live and not the recordings. Comments around the time were “They’re too good” or “They play too well”. What the hell does that mean!
When did you first realise that you and Michael had the potential to become great collaborative writers?
As the years progressed, the partnership that Michael and I had forged was becoming stronger and we were obviously putting the most efforts into the songwriting side, so one day we literally put our hands up and said we were being recognised enough. That’s when the Farriss/Hutchence credits started appearing above simple full band credits.
The sabbatical to Hong Kong with Michael in 1987 to compose more material for Kick yielded really great things. What do you attribute that to?
I don’t know really. Michael had decided to leave Australia again and, in retrospect, it was kinda like he was rolling up his sleeves and ready to take on the world again. But the making of Kick was full of some very odd moments. I wrote the music to Need You Tonight waiting for a cab to take me to the airport to fly out to Hong Kong. I arrived, played Michael the piece of music and within 2 hours we had the finished track!
Michael was much more at ease socially than I in Hong Kong because he knew his way around. My trip was littered with bizarre moments and language problems – very funny stuff where I was getting out of cabs stranded in the middle of nowhere but the Hong Kong session produced “Mediate,” “Guns In The Sky,” “Calling All Nations”…
Actually making the whole album was odd when I look back. We were in New Zealand and the rest of the band were out playing tennis with an A&R guy called Jimmy Hendrix (!) when I first wrote the music for “Never Tear Us Apart”. Odd moments threw up odd things and somehow they all fell into place.
Most collaborators share that there is a mutual respect of abilities where one’s weaknesses are another ones strengths. How did you help fashion Michael’s ideas into songs? How did Michael help your musical ideas?
We didn’t have a set formula – and that was the key. Sometimes he’d add some lyrics he’d already written to a piece of music I had, sometimes we’d write together from scratch and other times I’d add music to lyric and melody ideas he’d come to me with.
We were just solid and very arrogant. We never second guessed each other or ourselves and went with our instincts. It was all very natural and organic.
“After Welcome To Wherever You Are” Michael did begin to analyze our relationship a little which hadn’t happened before. And I may not have been comfortable with that at the time, but ultimately it was good and a healthy process to go through.
Looking back over the 10+ INXS albums, you and Michael were very prolific – to say the least. How quickly cold your songs come together?
As with the “Need You Tonight” example, if things fall into place it could take a couple of hours. Other songs a couple days and sometimes you may get what you were after 15 days later.
What You Need is another example of a huge hit that essentially took no time at all. We’d already finished the “Listen Like Thieves” album but “Chris Thomas” (the producer) told us there was still no “hit”. We left the studio that night knowing we had one day left and we had to deliver “a hit”. Talk about pressure. The band’s performance on that track is amazing. We absolutely nailed it.
But it is amazing that often the simplest songs – unbelievably simple songs – that take you the shortest time and just happen, are the ones that become the huge hits. But you can spend weeks writing a masterpiece and everyone can think it’s crap!
Aside from Michael Hutchence, you’ve written with a wide range of artists from Sir Tim Rice to Yothu Yindi. Contrast the differences.
Writing with other people can be easy or hard – it simply depends on the individuals and how things click into place. But Michael just had this great intellect – a real intellectual spark. He had vision and urgency and excitement. There was an enthusiasm borne of the right place rather than something forced.
For purposes of this interview, and the featured track “Deliver Me”, the demo shows a lot of passion through the verses, with the choruses and exact rhythms yet to be completely resolved. “Deliver Me” is a loose soul number with some big chops and swaggering attitude even in this early take (with the finished Chris Thomas production a huge musical creation), but when songs are in this uncertain stage, such as this demo, is it clear to you whether it’s going to emerge as fully-formed music piece with everything in place?
This demo was the first recording that Michael and I laid down. We were on tour in North America in ’94 and it was literally born out of me fooling around with some synth sounds and Michael just started laying down this very gritty vocal. It’s one chord all the way through and doesn’t change at all.
The second recording of the track was done with “Sir George Martin’s son Giles”, and is really out there. It takes things on another step and the song really started to develop but it wasn’t until the final version recorded with the full band and Chris Thomas at the helm that the song really came together.
Your future INXS songs obviously won’t be co-written with Michael anymore. How has your songwriting method changed since his passing?
I guess I have learned that I need to be a lot more open on what the band and anyone new can make together. I know the onus is on me and my ideas to retain the INXS identity in our sound but on the flipside I don’t want to impinge on anyone else’s input.