Steve Miller continues to cultivate his boozy nirvana in Abbotsford Convent
"It's official folks. Thanks for the laffs, but Handsome Steve is leaving the building. The Convent building that is. Resurfacing in a new locale at some near future date, but until then, it's last drinks at the House this Saturday from 5pm."
Envisaged as a “parallel universe” where reality stops and squares are too afraid to roam, former Moodists guitarist (and tour manager for the Triffids and the Go-Betweens) Steve Miller continues to cultivate his boozy nirvana in Abbotsford Convent.
What’s with the little salon you’ve got set up?
That’s the vanity unit for Brownlow night so people can freshen up. Just tidy their eyebrows, just give each other a bit of a tan. We’re here for our people. We’re not here to make money; we are here to make friends.
Are there any larger-than-life pub landlords you’ve loved in your time?
Yeah sure, there are stacks of them. There was a couple in Brunswick Street; an elderly Italian couple. They were rather large people and they moved really slowly. It was fantastic because the squares had just moved into Fitzroy and they couldn’t take it because they moved so slowly, but it was just beautiful watching them.
They taught the art of patience.
Yeah, well the problem with people these days is they know what things cost but they have no idea what they are worth. There is an epidemic of the Dunning-Kruger effect going around. That’s the idea that stupid people have no idea how stupid they are because they have never been wrong in their lives. Whereas before intelligent people make a decision they often doubt their ability to do things until they have collected all of the information – then they will do something. We have got a bit of Dunning-Kruger at Qantas at the moment: “Let’s shut down the airline; I’ve never been wrong in my life.”
But landlords, yes. I like the way the guys at Pellegrini’s say hello to people. It's all very well to put some chopsticks in your hair but you haven’t got anything to say... The squares are just everywhere. They haven’t got an original thought between them.
Who would you categorise as a square?
A square is anyone who is obsessed with finding the best coffee mill. Why? When there is so much bad coffee. The whole food thing is just a joke. It’s just ridiculous. You wouldn’t find it anywhere else except for a very insecure place like Melbourne.
What was this space like when you first came here?
It was just two rooms and the doorway was a window. I had the tables and everything made. I found a bar at Preston demolition yard. Through a friend I was introduced to a company that builds sets for film and television and theatre, and they put everything in.
You do food in an unofficial way don’t you?
Yeah, we have got an extensive menu. There is the triangle. All the food groups are here: fat, sugar, alcohol… what else do you need?
You don’t operate within set hours… so do people just have to try their luck?
I actually noticed a few of those pathetic guides to eating and drinking in Melbourne – I always check to see that I’m not in them; I had a row with The Age a couple of years ago because they put me in – I saw one and I was listed and I thought, I better go see what they said. They said, “The House of Refreshment does exist, but we promised Steve we wouldn’t tell where it was so you have to find it yourself.” And that’s just great. If you go to London or New York there aren’t signs to this and that – you have to get out and figure your shit out. But Australians are different, so lazy, and we aspire to be mediocre.
Do you ever take in the local surrounds of Abbotsford? Do you take advantage of the New Age activities going on at the convent?
Nothing goes on at the convent; it’s just a myth. Nothing happens here, nothing at all. There was a great instance at a vegan festival where a hippy with dreadlocks and high fisherman pants headbutted another bloke and broke his nose. Not enough protein. The hippy was abusing his girlfriend and the guy said, “Leave her alone, mate,” so he headbutted him, it was fantastic.
What suburb do you live in?
Unfortunately in Fitzroy. It’s full of squares; it’s full of silver Audis and bald-headed blokes in baseball caps, and men wearing girls’ tennis socks.
You ran The Standard there between 1989 and 1997.
We were the first pub to turn off the fluoros, first pub to chuck out the pool table, the first pub to play records.
No, no. People understood what we were doing. Now, unfortunately, it’s the template for every city pub. It’s the great Australian thing of: if someone opens something, let’s copy it.
So have you got the House of Refreshment exactly how you want it?
Yep. Jonathan Richman’s on the stereo, Grand Final on the TV, Kate’s behind the bar, what else is there? We play The Stooges at night. Yeah, it's great.
This place has such a personal feel, it seems almost like you’re not supposed to be in here – if you don’t know what to expect.
Yeah, that’s right – that’s what I like about it. You stumble in and you go, “Oh sorry, sorry.” People often come in and freak out because they can’t think beyond a bain marie and an all-you-can-eat buffet. People like to be comfortable, as John Howard says, so they sit in the bakery with overpriced coffee and flavourless food… but they think that’s what’s right because everyone looks the same. Baseball caps, Lycra... I’ve never liked that sort of stuff.
You’ve toured a great deal in Europe, both with the Moodists and as a tour manager. Did you take inspiration from the bars there?
Yeah, yeah. In fact, I lived on Brixton Road and down there was a Jamaican place that was so different to ye olde pub. It just had couches in it, a huge sound system, and it was just great. But this place is my tribute to the wogs who came to Melbourne and changed it for the better. I’d love to be a wog but I’m just a skip.
Your dad had a bakery back in Mount Gambier…?
Yeah my dad had a commercial bakery and I always liked him for treating the people he worked with very freely. I can’t stand going places where you can tell the staff are in fear. What does it achieve? It’s not for me. That’s why I like wog shops, because they are very casual about things. They are whatever they are called in France, whatever they are called in Spain, whatever they are called in Greece. Wherever there are middle-aged guys in sports jackets drinking beer at quarter past eight in the morning. What are they doing there?
Dave Graney said in a recent interview that growing up in Mount Gambier would prepare you for any kind of biffo that you might encounter on the road.
Yeah, that really is quite true. It was really boring. You had to be quite drunk in order to survive. It’s a bit like the hipsters you see around – you go, “I wonder how long you would survive in Mount Gambier?” You had to watch your ps and qs a little bit.
What did you make of Dave’s memoir, 1001 Australian Nights?
I thought there should have been a bit more about me in there and bigger pictures of me as well. I thought it was good; very good. I loved the way it ended. He’s a very clever man. Not quite as clever as Clare [Moore; Graney’s wife and musical partner], who is great.
What do you love and hate about hospitality?
I don’t consider it a job. To me this is just my retirement; this is what I do. I suppose the thing I like the most is meeting people who can’t understand what I do.
Do you enjoy seeing people walk in and get confused and walk out again?
Yeah, I love it. What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? To me this is normal. People come in and say, “What’s all this memorabilia?” It’s not memorabilia, it’s just stuff I like. Why doesn’t your house look like this, you know? I love going to a bar called the Z bar in Paris. I don’t think it’s there anymore. It’s the home of a football club, so it’s like this – covered in football players. It’s also a restaurant where you can get beautiful food, whereas in Australia everything is generic, everything is hidden. You know: “You must have…” Why? Why must you have? There are all these sort of rules that have been put down in stone, that tell you how you are going to go about things. It goes for the hipsters in Fitzroy, too. The op shop pubs, the op shops cafes. Why don’t you find something yourself?
Do mean the cafes with battered old couches and 70s lamps?
Yeah. Op shops. That’s why I like Pellegrini’s because you know they like Essendon. It’s really fresh, no pretence.
There’s a lot of footy-inspired art in here, but not much music memorabilia.
I’m not a musician. My main role in the Moodists was to drive the car. I’ve got a guitar and a really good amplifier but I’m not going to show that off, you know? I’m not a musician and as a tour manager I used to just make sure the talent was happy and that was it.
Who did you tour manage?
The Go Betweens, the Triffids.
Do you still play guitar?
I’ve started to play again and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve been playing with our bass player Chris (Walsh, the Moodists) and a friend Bruce playing the drums. I saw an interview with Jerry Lewis once where he talks about if you’re playing rock’n’roll then you should immerse yourself in it, and at the end of the rehearsal I found that I was losing myself in the music. That was fantastic. I hadn’t experienced that for 20 years. It was so great I think I’ll keep doing it. I like music. It got me out of small town and got me out of a bigger town and got me out of Australia.