Raconteur, troubadour, balladeer... and pub landlord. Mick Thomas adds another string to his bow
Mick Thomas orders a black coffee and leans casually across the table. His work clothes and hands are flecked with paint courtesy of another day's renovation work up the road at the Yarra Hotel, Abbotsford, in Melbourne's inner north, of which he is part-owner.
With four decades as one of Australia's most respected singer/songwriters, Mick's usual existence has been one of slow airport queues and late nights in smoky, sweaty pubs, followed by long drives home in the early hours. He has copped all the good and bad a life given to music can. Now he's looking foward to having this focus closer to home.
A conversation originally planned for 30 minutes stretches past the hour as coffee gives way to a beer. Mick ponders every question, personable and patient throughout. He's less commanding than his onstage persona, where he assumes the role of charismatic raconteur and balladeer, delivering his mixture of folk, roots and country.
"What I've always said about the music business is that it never lets you feel too good for too long. It's like surfing," he allows. "You get up on the board for a while, but more time is spent paddling out. For all the highs, there's a lot of lows and mind-numbing boring bits. Charlie Watts says rock'n'roll is 70 percent waiting in the van."
Mick's had plenty of experience of the industry's ability to pat you on the back with one hand while slapping you in the face with the other. He recalls back-to-back gigs some years ago with Weddings, Parties, Anything – the band he has led for half his career. A triumphant show in front of 1,800 fans in a Brisbane pub car park (the band room was too small) left band members feeling they had finally conquered a city previously feared beyond their reach. The next day, on a high, they headed down the road for a gig on the Gold Coast where less than 150 showed up. Reality was restored.
Or the show infamously referred since to as The Duck's Gig. After a rollicking performance at Dublin's Olympic Ballroom and boozy after party at Blooms Hotel, the Weddos made a crazed and hungover dash across England and ferry ride to Holland to an outdoor festival they were led to believe included Iggy Pop and Violent Femmes. As it turned out, the Weddos were the headline as no other act had been booked – and they played in front of a handful of festival goers lounging on blankets and assorted birdlife on a nearby pond.
In recent years, with the coming of middle age, Mick has grown to appreciate playing to small gatherings on his annual swing through Europe. "In a little cafe, in front of 15 people, sometimes it's the most pure form of playing you can do."
His knockabout image partly explains his close relationship with his audience. They see him as one of them. A small, but loyal mob who have followed him from the Weddos through his solo career, Mick's fans relate to his wistful, sentimental and nostalgic lyrics. Themes such as Australian history ('Dancing Man', 'Gallipoli Rosemary'); fleeting or lost love ('For a Short Time', 'Disrepair'); the bittersweet realities of life's merry-go-round ('Away, Away', 'Ticket in Tatts'); alienation ('The Lonely Goth'); and football ('Tom Wills', 'Monday's Experts'); are wrapped in a positive, triumph over adversity message. The characters in Mick's songs are everyday battlers, as are he and his fans.
Mark Wallace – affectionately known as Squeezebox Wally for his piano accordion – says of Mick, "As a performer he has that rare ability to capture an audience and get them onside. He's able to engage the crowd with his stories, which no matter how many times he's told them before, it always comes across as the first time. People are always telling me it feels like he's talking directly to them."
Mark has accompanied Mick on his musical journey from the start. They're good mates, like two itinerant workers, swags on their backs, heading down a bush track or jumping a goods train as depicted in the ballad 'Hungry Years'.
"Mick has a sense of casualness about him that endears him to an audience. He comes across as a very real, honest bloke and doesn’t separate himself from his audience," says Jen Anderson, formerly of Black Sorrows and another Weddos mainstay who plays violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar and tinwhistle, as well as regularly partnering Mick in 'Step in, Step out' – a sad tale about a relationship lost to the pressures of working lives.
"He writes such good lyrics, ones that every one of those fans can relate to – somehow he can make it seem personal and written just for them... He captures the small, everyday things in our lives and makes them sound special."
A constant in Mick's songs is Melbourne as backdrop. Whether it's Northcote Plaza, a party in Fitzroy, footy at the MCG, or the Flinders Street Station clocks, Mick believes not being originally from Melbourne gives him a valuable, clearer perspective. "All cultural patriots come from down the road, don't they?"
"He’s great at capturing geographical references which somehow resonate with you if you live there or have been/seen what he’s singing about," Jen adds.
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, who knew his calling the moment he first saw the King of Rock 'n Roll perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, Mick never had an 'Elvis moment'. "I don't think I was ever conscious of choosing music as a career. I was more conscious of what I didn't want to do. I just couldn't think of doing a job I didn't want to do."
Born in 1960, in Yallourn, eastern Victoria, Mick is the second of three children. His late father, Brian, was an engineer with the State Electricity Commission which meant a lot of moving around with his job. The family settled in Geelong when Mick was in his early teens. He can recall music always playing in the background and from an early age, he and his siblings were attracted to folk more than mainstream rock.
"Early on it was Bob Dylan and the Byrds. The Kinks were big and then it was Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson and I guess that led me to some locals like the Bushwackers and the Dingoes and later on Dave Warner. As the punk and new wave thing exploded I found plenty in that to satisfy my love of lyrics and classic song form - Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Tom Robinson, the Clash, the Jam."
Mick's teenage years were typical: he got through school, played guitar and footy and went surfing. He pulled petrol and unloaded grain trucks to make a buck. After completing high school, he moved to Melbourne, enrolled in an arts degree – majoring in history, literature and sSociology – drove taxis and became involved in the pub rock scene.
By the time uni finished, Mick realised music was his passion, so he decided to start his own band. But, as is his style, he wanted something left of mainstream combining the styles he had always listened to and played, knowledge gained from his arts degree and the poetry of Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and others.
Over a decade and a half from the mid-'80s, Weddings, Parties, Anything (the name came from a Clash song) produced 11 albums with Mick as lead singer and main songwriter. While never receiving much radio airplay and only one appearance on Countdown due to their rough around the edges look and folky sound, the Weddos were one of the country's best and hardest working live acts, attracting peer acclaim and a handful of ARIA Awards.
Annual Christmas gigs at the Corner Hotel, Richmond, became stuff of legend – and They Were Better Live, recorded there in 1998, is the Weddos' equivalent to Simon and Garfunkel's The Concert in Central Park. The line-up changed, but along with Squeezebox Wally and Jen Anderson, the usuals were Paul Thomas, Michael Barclay, Stephen O'Prey, Peter Lawler and Marcus Schintler.
The Weddos felt the warm glow from being at the edge of stardom, but didn't quite crack the big time – they had only hit with Father's Day reaching the Top 50 – and eventually frustrations set in.
"We weren't going anywhere, commercially or artistically," Mick stresses.
Having a reliable and regular audience was great but a double-edged sword. Although eternally grateful to fans, Mick was tired of the constraints of playing the same songs night after night. "Some nights you don't want to play 'Father's Day' or 'A Tale They Won't Believe'. People want them. I had to apologise for playing something new."
Mick felt he had more to give and since going solo, his renowned work rate hasn't waned. Either alone or with the Sure Thing, he has continued to record and tour regularly. The most recent album, The Last of the Tourists, includes a Song Bingo Request Show CD.
For a while he had his own production company, Croxton Records and has produced albums for many fellow artists, such as Ruby Hunter, the Gadflys and the Waifs (with Jen Anderson). Mick has written numerous soundtracks for television, film and theatre. He and film-maker brother, Steve, created the theatre production, The Tank, which told one family's life story.
Mick thanks his parents for his drive while also believing he owes it to them to follow through on the start they gave he and his siblings. "One thing my parents did instil in me was to participate... So whatever I did I was really into... It comes out of respect. During the '60s when Australia was experiencing unprecedented prosperity, parents could afford to send kids to guitar lessons or my brother to art lessons."
Squeezebox describes Mick as a workaholic. "I've lost count of the times Mick's told me he's going to have a quiet year... I'll believe it when I see it."
Eventually, inevitably, the Weddos reformed for a few special gigs and a 2008 reunion tour. The last three years they have performed AFL Grand Final eve gigs at the Palace, formerly the Metro, in Melbourne. In November of last year, they were inducted into the EG – Hall of Fame and on the night played Scorn of the Women, their first album, in full. Mick insists it was the final Weddos' gig.
"I came to the conclusion I was back where I was... As Ricky Nelson says. 'If memories were all I sing, I'd rather be driving trucks'."
These days, ongoing creative enterprises include involvement with Anna Burley and Liz Stringer in Shackelton3 and converting to music the stories of convicts transported to Tasmania through the project 'Founders and Survivors'. Mick, married to Jen Huntly, is enjoying involvement in the Yarra Hotel and hopes it will become a prominent band venue in Melbourne while providing him the financial security needed to travel and play music.
"I sat down with my accountant recently and he said, 'You've got no Super, no nothing... but I get impression you'd be happy to do a gig the week you die'. I said, 'Well, I fucking hope so. I hope I get a gig that week.”'