Always a big fan of the official Michael Hutchence Memorial site, INXS band member Kirk Pengilly recently took time out of his busy world tour schedule to talk with us.
Jodie Patterson: In January 2005, when we last spoke with you at the Australia Week Gala Dinner in Los Angeles, you said the band was wading into unchartered territory. You were about to embark on the search for a new lead singer with the CBS TV show, “Rock Star”. There were a lot of high hopes, but it was also high risk. Since then, “Rock Star” turned out to be a huge success. It seems you’ve got a good “fit” with JD (Fortune), and INXS is now in the middle of its first world tour in eight years. It’s been a remarkable journey for the band over the past 12 months. What’s the feeling from where you guys are standing right now?
Kirk Pengilly: We’re very honored that we’ve been granted a second chance as a band – that’s probably pretty rare. The only other band that I can think of that has really pulled it off is AC/DC. We’re very elated that we’re out playing again. I mean, that’s what we love doing and we missed it so much. Being in a position where we have a new record, and going out and playing to sold-out houses and enthusiastic fans – it’s just amazing. I think all of us probably feel at our most prominent comfort zone when we are on stage together. The rest of the time we are kind of pacing around waiting for the show. It’s been a stressful but exciting year in what we’ve been through, and we’re not about to let go of it. We are happy to be working really hard and doing lots of shows in a row… and JD is coping really well with it, so it’s really good
What’s it been like touring with JD now as your front-man?
It’s been great. He’s a handful, but at the end of the day he clearly had all the goods we were looking for. He’s young – younger than us – and it’s all new to him, certainly at this level. He’s settled down now, but at first he was lapping up the lifestyle… partying, and he – as we all did – had to learn to pace himself on the first leg, but it’s all good now.
What has been the most challenging aspect of this world tour for INXS?
Learning how to pace ourselves again, and work out what we are capable of doing as a band at this stage in our lives. On the first leg we worked really hard. We had one particular leg where we had eight shows in a row, and it was just too much for us and JD, so it was very stressful. We were all so tired, JD was starting to lose his voice, and it kind of freaked us out. We were able to realize that for the next leg, we don’t do anymore than three or four shows in a row before having a day off. That was kind of a learning process. We’d obviously seen JD perform on “Rock Star”, and we did a couple of TV performances once he was our sixth member, but we still hadn’t done a whole gig… so with the first couple of shows, we didn’t really know how it was going to go, so that was a good learning process, too.
How is JD handling the pressures of fronting INXS and any comparisons to Michael?
Overall, he’s handled everything amazingly, considering where he was a year ago and what he went through on the TV show. In some ways it’s probably been a total mind f— for him, but he’s come through it fine. What happens on the road is that you do have moments where it’s overwhelming. There’s the occasional tantrum, not just from him, but from any one of us. That’s just part of being on the road. It’s not a “normal” lifestyle – it’s unnatural – so you are bound to have ups and downs, and that’s just life.
What has JD brought to the band that’s been different perhaps to others that have taken the microphone since the loss of Michael?
He’s brought a renewed energy for the band. It’s been great to see the world through his unjaded eyes. Not to say that we are jaded, but we (INXS) have certainly done a lot. But for him it’s all new, so it’s really inspiring. It wakes us all up to not being complacent or blasé about what we are doing.
I’ve heard it said somewhere: “Rock and Roll was made for Michael (Hutchence), and Michael was made for Rock and Roll.” Do you think the same could be said of JD, or has he had to grow into this new role?
Well, Michael had to grow into it, too. When we started as a band with the Farriss Brothers, Michael predominantly was a shy person. When we first started as a band, we were all pretty crap and we learnt as we went along. We learnt the tools of our trade, what worked and what didn’t, as did Michael. In the beginning with the Farriss brothers, Michael and I shared lead vocals because he was still learning to be a vocalist. So I think you do grow into it, but JD’s had enough experience prior to joining us to be able to step up to the plate straight away – but you are forever learning.
During those difficult years after the loss of Michael Hutchence, the band tried to move on and find it’s feet – and ended up doing a lot of great collaborative work with other artists. But was there this kind of this underlying sense of, “Well, who is INXS now?” would you say?
Not to us there wasn’t, of course, but I think in the year after Michael’s death we all did some soul searching, apart from going through the grieving process as well. What we kind of realized as a band, in fact as a family – which is what we are – is that when you lose a family member you don’t cease being a family. I think it was that sort of thought process eventually that made us come around and realize that well, yes we still are a band, and we still are INXS. With the first couple of performances we did (after Michael’s death), firstly with Jimmy Barnes for Mushroom Records’ 25th anniversary, and then with Terence Trent D’Arby, we realized that yes, we are still a band, we are INXS, and we still sound like INXS. Those two shows specifically were very important, I think, in reinstating to ourselves who we were. From that point, then we spent two or three years with Jon Stevens, which was great. We did shows all around the world… and it just didn’t move forward in the way we all hoped, and that was when we researched and put together the idea of doing the TV show (Rock Star).
Do you feel that you have reached a new milestone for the band now, perhaps a redefining of who you are?
I think that where you redefine is when you record a new album, and with this album it was pretty different for us because it was the first time that we allowed collaborations outside of the band. Secondly, we came off the eve of “Rock Star” and went straight into the studio with our new singer and we had less than five weeks to record, mix, master, come up with the artwork, and deliver the record to Epic records. It was really an amazing, yet high-pressure situation where we had no time to second guess the direction it was going in. So the making of “Switch” was all very organic… and very spontaneous. The weird thing is it’s probably one of our most INXS-sounding albums to date. It’s kind of weird, but that just goes to prove that we are what we are.
So have the creative juices been flowing with JD? Have you guys even had time to write for a new album while on this tour?
We haven’t really – it’s just been so full-on. We’re talking about it, and we’re obviously really excited, because we only had the opportunity for JD to collaborate on three songs on “Switch”, so with the next album, we start from scratch. That’s pretty exciting, and I think what will be apparent and interesting is that it will be more of a JD/INXS album probably than “Switch”.
You have been hailed as one of the best live bands ever; and there continues to be whole new generations of kids who are just now discovering INXS. What is it about the music of INXS that sees it enjoying such a strong following from such a wide age group?
It’s because we’re unreal (laugh)… The important thing we always felt was that it was all about good songs – songs that stood up and stood the test of time. We are just really fortunate that we were born into the world at the time we were – the technology was becoming good, and bands started getting paid money instead of being ripped off. It became a legitimate business. We arrived at the right time, and thankfully we chose some really good producers over the years that weren’t too caught up in the latest technology, but in just making sure that what was put down on tape was real and recorded in the best way possible. What I find now when I hear some of our stuff from the 80s and the 90s, is it still sounds “now”. Some of the earlier stuff perhaps doesn’t, but definitely when we finally found our groove, I think a lot of that stuff really still stands up. I think that at this time, too, a lot of people just want to be entertained; to see a group of musicians that can actually play, and are entertaining. I think the latter part of the 90s and the early “noughties”, with early dance music, and the whole DJ thing is great, but really boring, unless you took disco drugs.
Rick Wakeman from the band YES once said that the band would always be there, and that just like like a football team might change players, the team may change, but will always carry on. Do you have that same vision for INXS as a band?
I don’t know. I’m not really sure that we are the sort of band that would do that, or could do that. We would take a really long, hard look if one of the other band members decided to call it a day… a long, hard look at whether or not we want it to continue.
What about doing something with Tiger Lily (Michael Hutchence’s daughter) one day? Could you see her singing for INXS?
(laughs)… What would be fun would be to do something with Tiger Lily one day, to actually record something with her. That would be great. Since Michael died and it changed the equation, we were carefully thought out, but we have always entertained all sorts of options. At the moment we are just happy that we are a true band again with a new front-man, and we’ll take that as far as it goes.