Interview: Regurgitator – Nostalgia Ultra

Arts Editor and Senior Writer (many years until 2012)

Regurgitator have never struck anyone as a particularly sentimental or nostalgic band. So how did these iconoclasts end up on a national RetroTech tour, playing their first two albums – the classic Tu Plang and Unit – in full?

We talked to bassist, vocalist and renaissance man Ben Ely about fans who like their old stuff better than their new stuff; the awful truth about major labels; and why society isn't shocking enough.

SCENESTR: You guys have never struck me as a particularly nostalgic band. How did the RetroTech tour come together?
BEN: It was quite weird, actually. Last year the Falls [Festival] people asked us to play the Unit album from start to finish. They asked us, and then a month later that album got voted in the top 10 of Triple J's [Hottest 100 Australian Albums of All Time]. There were a lot of people interviewing us about that record after that. Then we did the show on New Year's Eve, and a lot of our fans and friends were like, 'oh, I really want to get to the show but I can't; can you come do the show in our town?'

So that's how it started, but... it is a little bit funny. I feel like it's funny because our new album [SuperHappyFunTimesFriends] was better than those two records, but people are nostalgic. I can only speak for myself, but when I listen to those records, it does transport me back in time to where I was when we made that record, and also to how I felt as a younger man... it's a bittersweet thing, I guess.

It's funny that you mention the last record, because as a fan, Superhappyfuntimesfriends was one of my favourite Regurgitator albums. Do you think it got the reception it deserved?
Look, I mean, it's really hard putting out a record these days. I'm really proud of it, and it was a really fun album to take on tour, but obviously it would have been better to get a little bit more publicity for it. It's hard when you're an older band like us, I guess, with the way music is geared these days. It's a lot tougher for bands to get out there and get noticed when there are so many musicians out there, and there are a lot of distractions.

When we did Tu Plang and Unit, we were on a major record label, and at the time, there was only really cassette tape and CDs. When we started, there weren't even computers, there were just black screens with green writing! There was no mobile phone technology. It was a very different world back then, when you remember it. It's a strange thing.

Do you think life is easier or tougher for the band now that you're not on a major?
I imagine there are pros and cons.
Yeah, well, I mean, I think it's better because we have complete freedom and we own our music. Because we were on a major, they owned us. We've got complete control now. We probably don't sell as many records, but we probably make about the same amount of money, because the record company were such pirates. They took such a large percentage of the money we made.

I think our band has always flourished in smaller clusters, with smaller crowds. I don't think we're really a big stadium band or a big festival circuit band. I think our music transposes better to smaller numbers anyway, so... look, Quan and I still pinch each other every day because we can still play music and make enough to pay the rent.

There's stuff on those first two albums the label would have given you a hard time about, like 'I Sucked A Lot Of Cock To Get Where I Am'. Now that you're not on a major, do you miss having something to push back against?
That song actually worked out to our benefit, because there was that right wing Christian group in Queensland that got us banned from supermarkets, and it was a big media story.

But I don't miss the major label at all, actually. I think that was a good trajectory, being on a major label at the start and going through that whole process and using their publicity machine. They helped us get established, and now we can use that momentum to keep going on as we are now, even if it is on a smaller level. I guess when it comes to things like more people being able to hear Superhappyfuntimesfriends, I sometimes think it'd be good to be on a major, but most of the time it's better being independent and having that freedom.

You mentioned the Christian groups you offended early on – do you think it's become harder or easier to offend people now? Do you think society's become more conservative or more progressive since the '90s?

I think society in general has become a lot more conservative. Especially musicians and artists. They don't seem to speak out and be as political and offensive, they don't seem to go out of their way to poke fun at our leaders or at our government. I sound like an old man, but in the '80s and '90s, people were a lot more aggressively anarchistic than they are now. There's a lot of complacency within musicians; you don't see that many people that are overtly offensive or politically aggressive.

I don't know. Maybe that's not true. Maybe there's a lot of stuff out there I just don't know about.

No, I think you're right, but do you think that's because people don't care and don't want to have that sort of impact or because it's just harder to shock people now?
That's a good point! Maybe it's a little bit of both, man. There probably isn't as much point in going for shock value now. I can't really speak for anyone else but myself; I can't really predict what anyone else is going to think or feel. All I can say is how it is for me and how I feel about it, and I guess we still get off on being juveniles and swearing and writing shock pop or whatever. We still like that kind of thing, because it's a playful way of expressing ourselves. Everyone's different, you know?

Yeah. When you played Unit in full at Falls, Quan said something at the time about the experience being really fun but also kind of constrictive. Is there anything you can do to overcome those constrictions, or is that just part of the package?

Yeah, well, it's kind of more like a performance; like if you were to go and do a play, you'd have to recreate all the dialogue that was in the script of the play. It's more like that than a loose rock show. Normally, you're on stage at a rock show and you can say, 'oh, let's not do that one, this one will feel better'. It's a bit more free. It does feel a little more like a performance where you should be in a theatre this way, with people sitting down in chairs and that kind of thing. It's not a chaotic punk rock show.

That's good, in a way, because it is different, and it is a bit unusual. Because you're recreating it like that, it's almost like creating a time machine, in some ways. When you play it in that order, you do have that sense of feeling about where you were when you made the record. It has that connection to the past, which is kind of cool, in some ways, because it's like looking at a photo album. I don't know, it's really hard to describe, but it is an unusual experience for sure.

Sure. But, you know, if you're putting on a play every night, occasionally an actor might put the emphasis on a different line. Is that something you try to do, or do you want it to sound as close to the record as possible?
We're going to mix it up a little bit. There's bits in the show where we're going to have free sections and have a little bit of freedom and not be so rigid. I guess we'll reinterpret some of the songs a little bit differently as well. We're going to have visuals, as well. We're making short films for each song; we're making some new costumes. We're trying to make a bit of an effort!

Awesome. Obviously you've played some of these tracks a lot, but there are some you haven't played that often, if ever. Has it been fun to relearn them?

Oh, exactly! There's a lot of songs we've had to relearn, and some songs we've never played. Songs like 'Just Another Beautiful Story', the last song on the Unit record; it's orchestral and there's funny little things we've had to spend quite a bit of time teaching ourselves how to play. So that's been interesting!

Have there been any tracks that have been particularly challenging?
Yeah, 'Just Another Beautiful Story' has probably been the most challenging because of the orchestral stuff. We've had fun with that, because it's not what we usually do. It's not a basic rock or pop track, it's a bit of a mutated monster.

Can you still relate to the songs? Do you feel like you're still the same guy who wrote or played on them?
Sometimes yeah, but a lot of times? No. A lot of times it's just like, 'oh wow, we were really angry back then'. It's funny to have to recreate that sort of angst and put yourself back into the shoes of a 22-year-old boy. We were angry at the world, bro! We're not really like that any more.

You were deliberately trying to lose a particular kind of fan with Unit. Are you surprised by how popular it continues to be, given what the mission statement was?
Yeah, completely! Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's funny. We had fun with that one. I don't know why, but that was a pretty carefree time, and we were a little bit cocky and a little bit excited. But when we went to record it... I don't know, we started to write songs like the ones on Tu Plang, doing the heavy guitar thing, but it just didn't feel genuine to us. It didn't feel like it was coming from a genuine place. What we did was a little more genuine, a little more true, because we were trying to challenge ourselves and do something different, even if it was naff '80s music.

It's still such a popular record, and the Retrotech tour has been selling like crazy. Do you put the success of the tour down to fans literally saying, 'I like your old stuff better than your new stuff', or do you think it's more because of the album last year and th renewed interest in the band?

I don't know, maybe it's a little bit of both. I'm not really sure. I don't know why people come to the shows, and if I tried to guess, I'd just be making it up. I think humans are very nostalgic, and they do like high school reunions. It's a little bit like that, in some ways. I don't know. I don't know why! I can't really speak for those people.

Sure. But given that you guys have been doing this for nearly 20 years now, do you put time limits on it? Do you ever think about how much longer you can keep doing it?

Look, we talk about it sometimes. Quan and I were talking about it the other day. Quan was like, 'do you think we should be doing this when we're 50?' And I said, you know, 'oh, I don't know, it's up to how we feel at the time'. There's this punk band, No Means No, and the bass player in that band looks like he's about 65. He plays like a motherfucker! He puts in so much energy and so much conviction and the riffs are blistering and it's really fast!

I think it's awesome if old guys can play furious punk rock music. If you still feel really passionate about it, and you're still really dedicated and really into it, I think you should just play forever. There's no reason to stop. But if you're just going to do it for the money, or because you want to pay the bills or something but you're not genuine about it, I think there's probably not much point in doing it. I think you have to be really committed and really into it. If you're not genuinely into it, it's going to show, and people aren't going to like you anyway.

It seems like a waste, doesn't it, if you're still into it and you've spent your whole life learning how to play, to stop doing it because of an arbitrary number?
Yeah! I don't see why you have to stop. You have to be committed, you have to be into it, but if that's ringing true, then I don't see why you'd stop. We'll see what happens. If we're not committed, and we're not genuine, I think we should stop.

Regurgitator play the following dates on their Retrotech tour with special guests Senyawa (Indonesia) and Hedgehog (China (not appearing in Hobart))

Wed Sep 26 - The Great Northern (Byron Bay)
Thu Sep 27 - The Hi-Fi (Brisbane)
Fri Sep 28 - The Hi-Fi (Brisbane)
Sat Sep 29 - The Hi-Fi (Sydney)
Mon Oct 1 - The Hi-Fi (Sydney)
Sun Sep 30 - Cambridge Hotel (Newcastle)
Thu Oct 4 - Uni of Canberra Zierhol
Fri Oct 5 - Wollongong Unibar
Sat Oct 6 - The Gov (Adelaide)
Sun Oct 7 - The Astor (Perth)
Thu Oct 11 - The Hi-Fi (Mel)
Fri Oct 12 - The Hi-Fi (Mel)
Sat Oct 13 - Brisbane Hotel (Hobart)
Sun Oct 14 - Brisbane Hotel (Hobart)


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