Image: Alistair back in the Roaring Jack days, University of Adelaide, February 1989. Original photo © Justine Thomas.
Interview with Alistair Hulett conducted via email by Andy Carr, early March 2002.
I conducted this interview as Alistair, now based in Glasgow, prepared for his March-April 2002 solo tour of Australia.
1) Ally, this is your third Australian tour since leaving these shores in 1996. What prompted you to leave Australia, and what compels you to return?
Going home to Scotland was something I'd meant to do for ages but never managed to get together. My partner, Fatima, was the one who really made it happen. I was reading a book aloud to her back in Oz by a wonderful Glaswegian writer called James Kelman. The book's called How Late It Was, How Late and it’s written completely in stream of consciousness in the Glasgow dialect. I began reading it to Fatima because it made it easier for her to follow when she heard it spoken. We both fell in love with the writing and I told her I would like to reconnect with my old hometown. A few weeks later we were packing to leave! She's a right whirlwind like that.
From a musical point of view, it was the logical next step. Australia is a great place to live but you can't survive on gigs alone if you play the kind of music I do. Being here in Scotland means I can tour all over Britain and Europe. A week after I get back from Australia this time I'm off to Germany for two weeks. It's my second tour there. Trying to set that up from Australia isn't feasible. But the nice thing about having spent so long in Oz is that I get to pop over every so often and do a wee tour there, and catch up with all my friends as well.
2) What are your fondest memories of the Roaring Jack experience?
Most of the memories are fond, really. We had our rough patches, like all bands do, but all those guys were great fun to be with, and all really fine musicians. For a long time we were kind of like a family, A very big, and sometimes very drunk, family. A whole bunch of other people joined the family too. All our girlfriends were pals with each other too so we ended up living in a series of houses that seemed to be constantly filled with kindred souls, usually in a fairly advanced state of intoxication. It was a good time.
The Thursday night gigs at the Sandringham were mostly memorable, give or take the odd blackout. That was probably the family at its most extended. I've always liked the idea of a residency - building a gig that people can feel is theirs. Anyone who remembers my nights at the Lord Nelson and the Governor's Pleasure with the Jacks' first accordion and mandolin player, Hunter Owens, will tell you it didn't just start with Roaring Jack. The Jacks managed to get the same thing happening, on a much more irregular basis, at the Exeter Hotel in Adelaide. We used to stay there everytime we were in Adelaide, and we kept up a full-on party on the balcony between our gigs around South Australia. There's a fair few of the family in Adelaide!
Politically, my fondest memory is the night we celebrated the release from prison of Tim Anderson, at the Sando. It couldn't have been more perfect. They actually released him on a Thursday night, our night at the Sando, and everyone knew to go there, even Tim. I think a lot of people thought the police frame-up of Tim Anderson was too big to overturn, and it still warms my heart to know we played some small part in making it happen. I could go on for ages on the subject of fond memories but I won't.
3) Do any Roaring Jack songs crop up in your solo sets, or in your shows with Dave Swarbrick these days?
Yeah, quite a few. I've done acoustic versions of ‘Destitution Road’, ‘Yuppie Town’, ‘The Old Divide And Rule’, ‘The Day That The Boys Came Down’ and lots of others. I like the way an acoustic version brings out a different angle on a song. It’s a strange thing, but when a song is stripped back to the bare bones it's often even more in your face than when its revved up and belted out by an electric band. I also do some of the quieter RJ songs that didn't often get played in the live set, ‘Shot Down In Flames’, for instance, which I currently do with Gavin Livingstone. Gavin is a great guitar player who lives in Glasgow. We've been mates for ages and we've recently started working together. We plan to record a CD soon and ‘Shot Down’ is definitely on the short list. The current version is different enough from the original to warrant a second airing I think. I certainly expect to be doing a few Jacks' numbers when I'm over in Australia this time.
4) Have your songwriting techniques and influences changed since the days of Roaring Jack?
Well, hopefully I've got better at what I do, but the technique of writing hasn't changed because I don't exactly have a technique. For me, songwriting is a fairly haphazard kind of thing, a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Songs get cobbled more than written. Usually I have an idea what I want to write about, then its a question of finding the hook, which also ends up being the title as well, and then its over to the muse. The best songs for me are the ones that come quickly. The ones that seem to write themselves, I suppose.
As for influences, the biggest influence on my writing has always been the folk tradition. I'm constantly in awe of the narrative ballads, the sheer economy of imagery they employ. Nothing is superfluous, there's no unnecessary adjectives cluttering up those songs. They say what they have to say and you can take it or leave it. A lot of blues writers can do that too. People like Robert Johnson. ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ is one of the best pieces of lyric poetry in the English language. One day I'd like to write something as good as that. There's loads of contemporary songwriters I really admire, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, folk based writers like Leon Rosselson and Ewan MacColl, and of course Dylan, always Dylan, but I hope I've matured enough as a writer to be inspired and moved by other people without trying to copy what they do.
5) Two Alistair Hulett albums have appeared since your last visit to Australia. Are you happy with these releases, and how are they different from one another?
The Cold Grey Light Of Dawn was the second album I recorded with Dave Swarbrick. When we did Saturday Johnny we had only just got to know each other. The songs were already written and arranged by me, and Swarb's job was to fit in as best he could. Cold Grey Light was done in Herefordshire, where we lived together in a wee village called Kington. It's much more a joint effort, and better for that. We had a couple of UK tours under our belts by that time, too, so we were able to lock in much better.
In Sleepy Scotland was originally intended to be a companion disc to the new album, Red Clydeside. Swarb's health problems meant we had to postpone the project for a year, so Sleepy Scotland turned into a prelude instead of a postscript. That's fine, actually. It works okay. The last song on the album finishes with the line, 'John Heilan' man tak' up yer pipes and skirl the ballant o' Red Clyde.' Swarb isn't on this album, and it's mostly traditional material, so it sounds very different to the other one. There's only three of my songs on it, everything else is traditional. I don't think any of the albums I've been involved in, either with Roaring Jack, or solo or with Swarb sound like more of the same. Some people think that's good and others feel let down, but that’s how it's got to be.
Am I happy with the albums? I wouldn't put them out if I didn't think they were good, but I've never done anything in a studio that hasn't been played better at home when no-one else is listening.
6) What the other members of Roaring Jack are up to these days? Is there any chance of a Roaring Jack reunion show?
Well I'm not really sure. I haven't spoken to any of them in a while. The sad news is that two of them aren't around anymore. Both of our drummers have died. Rod Gilchrist took his life for whatever reasons. No-one around him saw it coming and I think it's left us all feeling like we let him down, somehow. I was in Australia when it happened, on tour with Swarb in '98. We were all set to fly out when I got the call from our manager, Andy Thomas. Some of the circle are still kind of down on me for not cancelling the next leg of the tour and staying on for his funeral. That would have meant causing a great deal of havoc in the lives of a whole bunch of other people on the other side of the world and I couldn't see a way round it. I ended up going to the wake on my way to the airport.
Our original drummer, Steve Thompson died of a brain tumour a couple of years ago. Both of them were two of the most decent people it's ever been my privilege to know. Life is too short for all of us, but having to say goodbye ahead of time is always going to leave you feeling cheated.
The rest of the guys, so far as I know, are still playing good music. Steph was in a band called Eva Trout last time I checked in, and Rab and Davie were living in the Blue Mountains and gigging round the area in a few different line-ups.
I don't know about re-unions. We did one, and I think we were actually better on the night than we ever were when it was a going thing, That was in '95 and I've got it on tape. I'd have to say we were pretty good on a good night, and that night was one of the better ones. In the absence of Rod and Stevie a reunion gig would feel a bit hollow. All the same, if any of them rang me I certainly wouldn't hang up. But I'd be more interested in seeing what we could do now than rehashing what we did fifteen years ago.
7) Is there anything else you would like to add?
Well I suppose I'd mainly like to say thanks for setting up this website, Andy. It amazes me that there's still interest in Roaring Jack after all these years. Looking back on it every now and then is an indulgence I occasionally allow myself. I'll be over in Oz very soon and hopefully the opportunity to reconnect with some of the walking wounded from the Class War of the 1980s in Australia will present itself. All the best!
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