Living in song

Ernie Buck can be heard out front in the Uncomfortably White Brothers and the Cham Ticks, sometimes behind the drums and sometimes solo with a guitar or ukulele. Most often when solo he is performing songs from his own catalogue, and this week he launched his first single, Takes No Time To Forget, on Bandcamp. On Saturday night he’s playing with the big boys, Clay George and Joe Wrigley, in a night of songwriters in the round at Garage Bar. He spoke to Leng Pleng about, well, songwriting.

How did it all begin? When I was about 10 or 11 I got my first guitar. I’d been a drummer from the age of four. In primary school we started a band in an oppressive Catholic state school, we called ourselves the Dark Angels, just to ruffle some feathers. And it was basically me and the singer, we wrote songs that were almost entirely rip offs of Guns’n’Roses songs, we just changed the lyrics and added a few more swear words where we thought there weren’t quite enough. When I got my guitar I just started writing songs in E minor and A major, the two chords that I knew. And then gradually added a third and a fourth and then wrote prolifically. Initially just trying to write terrible Jimi Hendrix licks and stuff – as any 10 or 11 year old who’s just picked up a guitar will know, it’s not really possible.

I guess I started writing stuff that was fit for human consumption at around 14, 15. I started a high school band, and we played anywhere and everywhere – pubs, clubs, school discos, all sorts. They even invited us to play in an assembly once, and immediately regretted that idea; we played loud thrashy grungy stuff that they weren’t really expecting.

What makes a song good? To use a term in the broadest sense: hooks. It might have a really simple chord progression or riff, but a hook – a vocal hook, or an instrumental hook. I’m a huge fan of pop music in the most reverent sense of the word. I’ve got nothing against any other form of music, jazz, whatever, but for me the pinnacle of what I try to achieve when writing is to write a pop song, whatever style it’s in. Pop as in it can appeal to as many people as who would be open to it. To me, the first line that could stop you in your tracks, and you wonder what’s he going to be singing about in this song? The first line for me sets up the story that you’re going to tell.

In playing original songs, do you feel a need to educate the audience a little bit? With the greatest respect to the general public at large, sometimes they don’t know what they want until they hear it. And they think they want to hear Hotel California again, but when they hear something that maybe they can enjoy for a different reason, they are, like, that’s okay. I’ve had people come up to me after shows and say, “Blah-blah-blah, that song, was that yours? That was my favourite.” They’re usually the same sort of people that will be very supportive but also intermittently asking for requests during the show. But I always say to people, with the greatest will in the world, I’d like to play what you want me to play, but I think I’ll give you a better show if I can play you something I know well and I believe in.

If I play to one man and his dog – which I literally have done before – it’s with the same bluster and passion as I would to a huge festival crowd. I’m just fortunate that people will employ me to do pretty much the only thing I’m good at.

Do you write songs quickly or slowly? I’d normally write a song within an hour, maybe two. They’re not that complicated. Less is more. If it’s not done within 24 hours, more than likely it will get shelved, and later cannibalised. The abandoned ones are always worth keeping, because if I need a better bridge for a song – wait a minute, that’s in the same key, the rest of that song sucked but the bridge was good, let’s have that.

I realise now, after 25 years or more of writing songs, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and you can’t wait for just those little moments of, oh, wow, where did that come from? Sometimes you have to initiate the first move.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, ukulele player, drummer – which comes first? I’m always hesitant to call myself a musician. I’d say more I’m a songwriter, because that’s the timeless thing, that’s the career-long thing. You can do that until the day you drop dead. And some people are absolutely fantastic virtuosos but can’t even work out where to start writing a song.

The music is not mine, the music just comes through my prism, and then back through someone else’s and it’s going to come out different again. But every song that we write as songwriters is just a gradual osmosis magpie sort of thing where we just take it all in, consciously and subconsciously, and then spew out something slightly different.

A quick list of songwriting heroes? Harry Nilsson is my favourite singer-songwriter of all time. Black Francis from The Pixies. I’ve always loved Jim Morrison’s lyrics – he didn’t write the music for the band [The Doors], but the lyrics were very much the making of the songs. Michael Jackson was a huge influence on me as a kid. Kurt Cobain, Ray Davies, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake – I have a penchant for miserable music.

What’s next in Ernie Buck songwriting land? Whenever I write a new song, I think, bloody hell, that’s the best song I’ve written in a long time, and I think now I’m going to have to write something better. I never think: is that it, am I done now? I didn’t know where that last song came from, so how do I know what’s around the corner, what experiences I might have in life, what new songs I might hear, what new musicians I might meet? The day that you stop doing that is the day you cark it. Maybe some people are a bit more cynical about that – there’s the tug of war between playing music for a living and doing anything it takes to make that living out of music, or being true to the music you want to make, and let the chips fall where they may.



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