Martin Gambie and Claudine Lhost interviewed by David concerning the Smerk (1992) and Waffle (1993) CDs, with additional questions from Sarah Nicholson.
When did the Stolen Picassos finally grind to a halt? You spent a year or more doing so ...
Martin: “May of 1989 or so. We went from five to four to three and played one gig as a three-piece, then Graham left as well. (See PF#13, Rickenbacker’s Revenge family tree.) Then me and Sandra (Morgan) did the Picasso Twins because we had a bunch of new songs we hadn’t recorded, so we played some gigs, gathered a small amount of money and went into Cavan’s lounge room with a microphone and recorded the Some Mardi Sandwich cassette. Went to Sydney for fame and fortune, and I went and Sandra stayed. She’s on one track on Smerk.”
Whatever happened to the long-lost Stolen Picassos single? (“Girl, You’re A Good-Looking Boy/Her Beside My Phone-Book”, the two tracks that appeared on the Out Of The Woodwork compilation tape (1988) and were basically the only reason to own it)
Martin: “I think it got lost! I think Bus Stop Records ran out of money or something like that. I wrote and said, ‘if you can’t put it out, send me back the tape and I’ll try to put it out;’ so he did and, of course, nothing more happened. It’s still sitting on my mantelpiece, actually.”
So what did you do after the Picasso Twins?
Martin: “I was living in the country for a year — getting my head together, maan — then had a couple of holidays in Sydney, then came back and slowly started recording Smerk. We finished the first version early in 1991 but put a couple more tracks on it, so the final version was finished that September.”
What’s your record deal? (Green Balloon, yet another subsidiary label of Shock)
Martin: “I have a verbal agreement which isn’t worth the paper it isn’t printed on — he said, ‘do you want it released?’ and I said, ‘yeah, yeah, I want you to release it.’ That’s about what happened. Didn’t sign anything. Didn’t sign anything with Kim Williams either (the Stolen Picassos 12”EP on Easter). So they’re probably going to become very rich men and I’m going to languish in poverty somewhere. Someone will have to buy me chocolate fudge and things, I won’t be able to afford my own.”
How did you get onto the Shock guy?
Martin: “We sent him a tape.”
You mean it was an unsolicited demo that got a response?
Martin: “It was an unsolicited finished recording that got a response. We recorded Smerk and spent all the money and sent tapes all around, and two people replied and one of them released it. He’s a music lover. He’s got faith in us.”
He hasn’t paid you, though.
Martin: “I don’t think he’s made a profit! You’d have to be a music lover to put out our stuff. I think it’s good, but it wouldn’t appeal to the zillions of people; it’s for the refined taste.”
Claudine: “We’ve been played on Belgian radio. I’ve got a friend there.”
Why Mardi Picasso?
Martin: “I thought Picasso was a pretty good surname, I’ve used it before, and I wanted to have something different on the beginning; ‘mardi’ is French for ‘Tuesday’, which is basically very irrelevant.”
Why and where Smerk?
Martin: “As you can see (cover), there’s a smiley face on it. We decided we needed a really short one word title; we were talking about Smile by the Beach Boys, Cavan came up with Smirk and I decided that ‘smirk’ had an E in it. We wanted something cheerful and positive and short; something you could remember, not like My People Were Fair And Wore Stars In Their Hair or whatever it was.”
Graham Hope was really dubious about that credit saying “Deep Throat.”
Martin: “Dubious? Graham’s supposed to have a sense of humour. He’s got a very deep voice, and it’s even deeper on that recording because we slowed it down. I thought he would have quite liked that.”
I guess he was just born under a wand’rin’ star. I think I can actually identify most of these names ... who’s Suzie Meny?
Martin: “Suzie Meny is the well-known typing error. Her name’s Suzie Merry — M-E-R-R-Y — and she’s actually a pre-school teacher in South Fremantle. We thought she’d go on there really well, so we got her to do a bit of singing. I suppose the graphic designer couldn’t read my handwriting.”
Martin: “Cathi’s ex-boyfriend. ‘We need a trumpet on this song, do you know a trumpet player?’ ‘Well, it just so happens ...’
What is the thing on the cover?
Martin: “I think it’s a cross between a pig and a bear. Don’t you think that’s an individual sort of item on the cover? I’ve never seen one of those roaming the streets before.”
I’ve never seen one of those in my life before. There’s something about that particular shade of purple.
Martin: “It’s a children’s toy that Claudine’s son was whizzing around the house on, and I thought, ‘that’d be good for the album cover,’ so we stuck it in the fireplace and took a photo of it. He calls it a pig; we don’t know what it is, but it looks interesting. Furry stuff on it as well.”
Where’s the square happy-face inside from?
Martin: “The porch in Beaufort Road in Albany. That’s an Albanian face.”
Claudine: “That was from the front of my house.”
Martin: “Claudine’s son drew that. Very smirky, don’t you think?”
Not smirky, just happy. Very square, though.
Martin: “Oh well, we can’t all be cool, can we? Oh, what a quote.”
Were all the songs quite recent?
Martin: “They were all written post-Stolen Picassos. About four of them I did with the Picasso Twins, just on acoustic guitar.”
Martin: “I actually wrote the rhythm track about ten years ago, so I had this old rhythm track and this new imitation Charles Bukowski story which Graham read over the top of it, then Claudine had a bit in French ...”
Claudine: “A really old song.”
Martin: “... and a piano piece taken off one of my songs on the Picasso Twins tape. Work out which song it is, it’s exactly the same notes.”
What’s the little story you read out in the live version of “Spoke”?
Claudine: “Martin writes kids’ stories as well. I used to read them at schools. That’s one of them that he wrote for my kids — Jellybelly The Cake Man.”
Martin: “I wrote that in this fallen-down old house we were living in in Albany. That’s a Claudine song I wrote when she had a perm; it looked really funny, so I put that into the lyrics.” (says all this with Claudine within hitting range)
Claudine: (laughs) “I walked in and he just burst into laughter ... I went out and did the shopping and came back and he said, ‘here, I wrote a song.’”
Martin: “It’s not a work of fiction, it’s fact.”
“Through The Holes”:
Martin: “I wrote that when I was living in a unit in Maylands with Graham, just before the Picasso Twins went to Sydney. I was walking down the main road to get myself a vege-burger and it was raining and I remember getting some words.”
Martin: “Jacques Brel was a famous Belgian songwriter who is Claudine’s favourite songwriter. I know a couple of his songs in English and she’s played me a lot in French which I couldn’t understand. So it goes, ‘I couldn’t make out a word/ He’s your favourite singer’ and I can’t remember how the next bit goes.”
“What’s That On?”:
Martin: “That’s a critique of people who can’t write songs, being really cool artists and taking it seriously instead of doing it for a joke. You can be a cool artist, but you don’t go around acting like one — you just do cool art. People that act it usually aren’t very good.”
Martin: “Maybe I didn’t know how to spell properly. That one really is about nothing.”
Martin: “That’s another true story. That’s the first song I wrote for Claudine. She used to be my next-door neighbour in Albany, which is how I met her. All the lines are true — ‘You bought an accordion/ You said you were going to take lessons.’ And she did plant vegetables in the garden. And I was making a pizza once and complaining ’cos my hands were dirty, and she said, ‘Artists get their hands dirty!’”
Smerk came out and sold at least a few copies, then you went straight back into the studio to record Waffle.
Martin: “And, even though it’s very short, Waffle took a very long time to record for various reasons. Mainly incompetence on our part. We just couldn’t get our shit together. But we got seven songs out of it.”
Claudine: “It was money as well.”
Martin: “It’s always money. Me and Claudine manage to spend lots of money on these things.”
Claudine: “We had more than seven songs originally, but some of them didn’t fit.”
Martin: “Some of those ones didn’t seem to fit in retrospect, but we made ’em! It’s like there’s seven bands on there with the same vocalist.”
Tell us about the cover.
Martin: “I had the title even before Smerk came out. I think the song ‘Jaffle’ had waffles in the lyrics, and it waffled on a bit. A jaffle iron’s one of those things you squash sandwiches in. Whatever’s in the lyric is a real conversation.”
Claudine: “There’s a waffle recipe in ‘F In Raga’. It’s on one of the posters for gigs as well. It comes from my grandmother’s recipe book.”
Other people have love songs or sex songs, but you have waffle recipes.
Claudine: “There’s waffles on ‘Sunny Side Up’ as well.”
Martin: “I was sitting up at Stammer’s Tearooms, having a cup of tea, and I saw this sign right next to my head saying, ‘Belgian Waffles.’ It said Belgian waffles, I didn’t make it say that!”
Why the bee and the honeycomb?
Claudine: “We were thinking of writing ‘waffle’ the Flemish way, ’cos waffles are Belgian, and it’s spelt W-A-F-E-L, which literally means ‘the rays of the beehive,’ because a waffle iron looks like a beehive. That’s why the picture on the back. That’s a photocopy and we put the wash on it. That’s actually an electronic bee.”
Martin: “Those are real bees around it, but that’s an electronic one. I don’t know why, I didn’t read the article. Don’t tell National Geographic we stole their picture. You look at the lettering on Smerk and it’s the same as the colours here.”
The record originally had a different track order, didn’t it?
Martin: “We originally tacked ‘As Far As I Can Tell’ on the end and it seemed rather incongruous there, so we shuffled it all around. The original version went ‘Turkish Delight’, ‘Jaffle’, ‘F In Raga’, ‘Weeds’, ‘Colour Of My Bird’, ‘Sunny Side Up’ and ‘As Far As I Can Tell’, if your readers want to reconstruct it. Ian Freeman actually likes the old order better.”
Martin: “A philosophical lyric, the music was ripped off some Turkish folk music album I’ve got, it originally had three different sections and it ended up with only one. Then it got a spy theme guitar bit on the end.”
“As Far As I Can Tell”:
Martin: “Another philosophical lyric in that it states ‘life’s no bowl of cherries, that’s the trouble with it.’ I keep forgetting that this song has good lyrics. I like the way we do this one live. That’s the bouncy pop song.”
Martin: “That started as a sort of Tom Waits-y instrumental. I said to Cavan, ‘I have absolutely no idea for words,’ and he was weeding his garden at the time and came back with the title and some words and, as is my wont, I picked out the words I liked and wrote some other ones. The Louis Armstrong ending came much later.”
I love the way that ending sounds nothing like the song but still fits it.
Martin: “The ending was conceived about ten months after the original song was recorded! I was inspired a year afterwards to put another part on it. The trombone player was very good. I hummed the part to him and he just played it back straight away, and I haven’t seen him since.”
Martin: “Claudine and I were jamming on the accordion — one on each end — and she started playing this chord pattern and I started playing a melody on top. I had the English lyrics are at the end and Claudine did some French lyrics which I think are supposed to be relevant. That’s a funny song, that one, in more ways than one.”
“F In Raga”:
Martin: “I had all these aural visions for this song, and we’ve had about three different versions of this song, and the original backing track was six minutes long, folks! My original idea was to have a Steve Marriott/Small Faces rap over this Indian music and then have an Bo Diddley freakout over it, but I couldn’t do a good Cockney rap. I come from London originally, six miles from where Steve Marriott was from.
“It’s only got one chord in it. The simplest song I’ve ever recorded, and the hardest to record. It’s a drug song. On the first version, all the bits of backing music are chopping in and out of the vocal and it’s really disturbed. It’s too hard to do live — can you get loads of drug addicts to come up and play with us? Let’s spike the waffles, man — the Electric Kool-Aid Waffle Test!
“That song took longer to record than the first five Stolen Picassos tracks. It took about sixteen hours. We did about three versions. I wouldn’t leave when everyone else wanted to go home because I was possessed by art and wanted to finish the mix, then we went and recorded it a second time and I stayed back again to mix it, then we did it a third time and Claudine told me to come home or she’d leave me behind at the studio. And I got home and listened to the final version and was very depressed because it hadn’t come out as I’d intended.”
Claudine: “I had fun doing it. One day I came home and there was a tamboura sitting in my loungeroom and I asked, ‘What’s that?’ and I was really freaked out. It belonged to a friend who left it there to look good ’cos there were so many instruments there.”
Martin: “And I picked it up and put it into some sort of tuning and made up a tune on it. That song was written on the tamboura.”
Claudine: “That was the same night a crow came to the house in the middle of the night.”
Martin: “It wasn’t a crow, it was a magpie. A magpie was flying around the loungeroom.”
“The Colour Of My Bird”:
Martin: “Ah, this is a great mediaeval folk-song throwback. Claudine wrote the melody because she was wandering around the house humming a modal tune. Modal is a scale with some bits missing.”
Claudine: “It’s because I hear voices.”
Martin: “I hear jazz bands, she hears voices. I said, ‘What is that tune you’re humming?’, thinking it was some ancient Belgian folk tune, and she said, ‘I don’t know,’ and I said, ‘Inspiration — QUICK!’ and made her hum it into a tape recorder. Then I played the guitar in a modal tuning, four or five Bs, and stuck a harmony on it. We eventually got a set of lyrics that were relevant to something or other and Cathi stuck a third harmony on it.”
“Sunny Side Up”:
Martin: “My favourite song on the CD. A personal song, a very positive and optimistic song. I was, as I said, looking at Belgian waffles and I think we’d had another argument or something, and I wrote a very positive little song. My début on mandolin was the day before we recorded it.”
How do you do your dandy little pop songs?
Martin: “Most of them I came up with by strumming away on an acoustic guitar. On some of them, you pretend you’re playing another song and change it around slightly. I won’t tell you which songs, it’s too much of a giveaway. It’s like, where does Liam Coffey steal half his melodies from? He’s a good thief. I think he’s a better thief than Dom Mariani. Liam rewrites songs as good as I do, y’know? Probably better.
“I’m the principal songwriter, but I’ve written a few with Claudine; she came up with the tune for ‘The Colour Of My Bird’ and the original chord sequence for ‘Jaffle’ and wrote some lyrics. Cavan added some bits as well.”
Claudine: “I feel funny putting my name on songs because, as I said to Martin, I don’t feel I’ve written anything; how we work is that Martin comes out with something and he throws it at me and I respond, but it’s still his idea ...”
Martin: “It’s pretty hard to delegate songwriting credits. Once it’s a finished piece and it’s irrelevant what goes on it afterwards, then it’s written by whoever was there when it was created.”
It’s more a financial matter than an artistic one.
Martin: “Oh, I get my APRA cheque, that runs to hundreds! I never get the money anyway, it goes back in. I don’t think I’ll make lots of money. I’ll be the Van Gogh of Perth.”
Claudine: “With the band rehearsing regularly, we start jamming, so we come up with something written by everyone.”
Have you ever considered including lyric sheets with your records?
Martin: “No, I want people to listen hard. It’s too easy to give the lyrics and say ‘Ain’t I a great poet’ when most of them aren’t great poets but pretentious twits. Oh, what a harsh thing to say. I quite like the idea of people listening. I don’t think my lyrics are unintelligible; I think you can make them out pretty easily.”
Have you figured out how to write a song longer than two minutes?
Martin: “The secret is to put only one chord in it, then you can stretch it out into a groove thang like Prince does. If you’re going to make a long song, make it simple, then it doesn’t get boring. That sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. When I’m writing all these wanky songs with a hundred chords in them, it gets very compact. Is that a good explanation? The songs are fatter than they are longer. I firmly believe in quality versus quantity. I’d rather leave people wanting more than going, ‘I wish this’d hurry up and finish.’ We’ve got a long three-chord song coming up.
“We’re just following our own musical notions and I’m only vaguely aware of what’s in fashion and what’s not in fashion. When I actually stop to listen to it, a lot of it doesn’t impress me.”
Most of your new music listening would be bands you play with.
Martin: “Yeah, that’s true! And every now and then someone’ll play me a record and I might like it. So I maintain a high-quality input and it doesn’t depress me.”
One of the things I like about Mardi Picasso is that you do go from A to Z musically. (“Except when I’m drunk and weepy-eyed, or at someone else’s house, all I listen to anymore is jazz. Rock, when it’s totally, gloriously on, can go from A to Z — no sweat — instantaneously ... Most of whatever I hear has trouble doing a credible A. Jazz can at least always be counted on for a good solid A, and usually B, C, D as well.” — Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics Of Rock)
Martin: “Simon from the Harvey said that we’ve given ourselves such a broad vista that we can do anything — if we get an audience, we’re not going to lose them for doing something different.”
In the music industry, you’re rewarded for doing the same trick over and over and over.
Martin: “And it’s usually not a very good trick in the first place. Anyone who likes us will stick with us.”
Claudine: “The next album will be richer because Falil, his background in music, he’s from Singapore, and he plays heaps of stuff from Malaysia; and Vivienne and Cathi are trained classically. I really like playing with Cathi, because sometimes I couldn’t hear things and she would draw me something to see it and then I could visualise and understand it; she can feel what I can’t see. ‘Just play them ... longer.’ And I could feel what she meant.”
Martin: “There’s an excellent chemistry in this band because everyone actually gets on well with everyone, which is most surprising. It’s the first time I’ve ever been completely happy with a band I’ve been in.
“I’ve lost my phobia about playing live. We played three times in 1992 as a three-piece and I was completely freaked out and nervous and was trying to get out of doing any live performances again ever. And we’ve played this year (last year — ed) and I’ve been completely relaxed and I like playing live now. It’s because I cut my beard off. I was hiding behind my long beard and long hair. But I’m back now.”
Claudine: “Cathi and me decided we wanted to go live, because we were bored with studio, so we said, ‘if you don’t want to play live, we won’t do anything for you any more.’”
Martin: “And I didn’t want to miss out on having anything done for me, so I decided to play live.”
Claudine: “So we asked Vivienne and Graham if they were interested ...”
Martin: “And I’ve got my old bass-player back again, and he loves it as well ...”
Tell us the story of the found acoustic!
Claudine: “We were picking up Cathi for rehearsal and it was dark, and I said to Martin, ‘There’s a guitar in the middle of the highway!’ so we stopped the car and picked it up. It was just lying there.”
Martin: “It’s a wonderful guitar. It had a pickup in it as well that’s worth about two hundred dollars. We thought, ‘oh, we need an acoustic guitar for on stage,’ and God threw one into the middle of Canning Highway and God made all the other cars not drive over it.”
Claudine: “I advertised for its owner. I was going to go to the police station with it, but I didn’t trust them. I had this idea that someone had a bad gig and walked from the Trade Winds to throw their guitar into the river.”
2012 note: Looks like I didn't tell you about the publican at the Railway Hotel after all. I have no idea what that was about.