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“Sunnyholt” Deep In The Heart Of Nowhere
ARTICLE 12 Feb 2015
CLIPPING (live video links below)
Perry Keyes is “backstage” at Melbourne’s Basement Discs (it’s actually just a tiny space behind a curtain). The store’s Pat Monaghan asks how he’d like to be introduced. “Feel free to talk me up,” Keyes jokes. “But don’t call me ‘Sydney’s Bruce Springsteen’ – everyone will expect me to go on stage and jump from amps and slide on my knees.”
Perry Keyes is not your typical rock star. There’s no swagger. Indeed, he walks with a limp – the result of being the last laboratory-confirmed case of polio in Australia.
Keyes spent most of his early life in hospital. Music was his way of feeling connected to the world.
At the Basement gig, Keyes does the “world premiere” of a song called ‘A Drug Hit Sally With A Live Sister Ray’. It’s a reference to The Velvet Underground, one of Keyes’ favourite bands. He explains that Wednesday was sports day at school, “but because I had a f#cked-up leg, I didn’t have to go”. Instead, Keyes would save his lunch money – $1 a day – and catch the bus to Circular Quay to explore record stores. If he didn’t have enough money to buy what he wanted, he would hide the record at the back of the rack and check to see that it was still there when he returned the following week.
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Keyes formed his first band with three mates, including two Lebanese guys (including guitarist Eddie Kairouz, who’s still a member of his band). They rehearsed in a suburb called Zetland, so Keyes suggested the name “Leb Zetland”.
“We thought it was a great name,” he says. “Until we went out there and everyone laughed.”
That band evolved into the Stolen Holdens, though Keyes was unknown outside of inner-city Sydney until he released his double album debut in 2005. He jokes that he wanted to call the record “Love Songs For The Welfare-Driven Underclass”. The boss of Laughing Outlaw Records, Stuart Coupe, convinced him to call it Meter, a reference to the fact that Keyes was driving taxis to supplement his music income.
Keyes is familiar with the Sydney streets. His new album, Sunnyholt, is named after a road heading out west. He plans to release a sequel later this year called The Great Western Highway.
“I’m almost turning into the Sydway’s songwriter,” he smiles.
Keyes drove to Melbourne to promote Sunnyholt, 2015’s first great record.
It’s Keyes’ fourth album, but the Basement gig is his first in-store appearance. He also catches up for a chat with his friend Neil Rogers, the host of Triple R’s The Australian Mood.
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This record has been a long time coming [Keyes’ third album, Johnny Ray’s Downtown, was released in 2010].
I know. I keep saying to people that it didn’t feel like that. It wasn’t because it was a hard record to make or we spent a lot of time. It was just circumstance that conspired – some things came up and then I busted my leg and had to have nine months off. It wasn’t like we were making Sgt. Pepper’s or something esoteric, it was still drums and bass and knocking out songs.
The album starts with the sound of a car kicking over. Did you actually record a real car starting?
No, Grant Shanahan, who records all the records, found it somewhere. We’ve had little sound effects on every album. With the car, I thought it was appropriate because it’s a song about people leaving one place and going to another.
Sunnyholt is a concept record.
Without sounding like Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, I write thematic records. The second album we did, The Last Ghost Train Home, was all about growing up in the old working class inner-city of Sydney, where I grew up, but at that time a lot of my family were moving out to the western suburbs of Sydney.
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So The Last Ghost Train Home was a forerunner to this album?
One of the songs on that album, ‘The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw’, was in two halves. The first half is in the past, and the second half is in the here and now. People picked up on the football analogy but missed out on the western suburbs bit at the end. I just thought, “Well, what happened to those people? What became of them? What happened to their lives?” I drew on the experience of my family. I wanted to sing about what happened to them, what it was like when they first went out there. I wrote a lot of songs.
South Sydney won their first premiership in 43 years in 2014.
And they won it how they should have won it – broken cheekbones, tears on the field … it was very dramatic. It was beautiful.
Any plans to do a ‘John Sattler’ sequel called ‘The Day Sammy Burgess Broke His Cheekbone’?
I think I’ll leave it to someone younger than me who wants to document Sammy Burgess and his fractured cheekbone!
The night after the Basement in-store, Perry Keyes plays to a packed house at The Flying Saucer Club. “Put the lights down a bit,” he requests when the show starts. “I’m looking pale.”
He tells stories about his primary school days – he was expelled from St Benedict’s when he eight. “Do they call it primary school in Melbourne?” The crowd laughs. “I don’t get around much,” Keyes explains.
Sunnyholt is very local, but the themes are universal.
For me, it’s very important that the songs aren’t parochial to the exclusion of anyone else who doesn’t come from the geography that I’m referencing. In the end, they’re stories about the way people are living. It’s sort of degenerated in parts of outer Sydney into a welfare-driven underclass, where people are locked in a cycle of social exclusion and not really being able to be a part of anything more [“All the pension does is keep her broke,” Keyes sings in the title track]. Not everyone is like that, but certain members of my family are like that and I wanted to tell their stories.
This album ends with an “intermission”. Is there a sequel coming?
I wanted a 24-song record! Everyone advised against it, so we decided to do two parts. The first part covers the going out there and the slow change that happens to people’s lives. The second album [The Great Western Highway] is all done, it just needs to be mixed and mastered. On this album [Sunnyholt], the last song [‘The Abattoir Sky’] deals with a woman who we leave on the highway [the ironically named Wonderland Highway]. It basically says, “That’s where we are now.” The next record really doesn’t reference the inner-city or any of the origins of the people, it’s more, “This is where we are and this is how we live.”
You recently said the songs “run the gamut from rampant nostalgia to abject dismay”.
It was very hard – people moved out there and there was no infrastructure. I remember we visited my aunty and uncle when I was seven or eight. They lived in a suburb called Mount Druitt, and there was nothing out there. Twice a day, this beat-up old Mr Whippy ice-cream van would come around. It didn’t sell ice-cream, it sold groceries – bread, milk and eggs and Tooheys New. That was the only connection they had. And these people had come from a place where the shop had been on the corner, the pub was on the other corner, the school was just around the corner, and the railway yards, where all the men worked, was at the top of the street. And now they were in a place that looked like the Moon.
At the Flying Saucer show, the band exits the stage after playing the final Sunnyholt song, ‘’The Abattoir Sky’. “We’ve only been able to afford the band for that long,” Keyes informs the crowd, smiling. “We’re at the lower middle-echelon of the middle-echelon.”
The band returns for a celebratory version of Meter’s ‘NYE’, which was recently recorded by Missy Higgins. After the song – the night’s 19th – Keyes stays perched atop his stool. “I could walk off and come back on, but we’d have to ditch a whole lot of songs.”
Keyes ends up playing a Springsteenesque 22 songs
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Sunnyholt has another great cover shot, a wonderfully evocative picture, which captures the bleakness of suburban existence. The dream that everyone was sold.
All my artwork is done by a friend named Johnny Barker, who’s a photographer, filmmaker and archivist. I don’t know where he got that shot; it’s a suburb of Sydney called Claymore, taken in the early ’70s.
You launched the album with a gig at the Sydney Festival, and your mum was in the audience.
Yeah, my mum and my brother and extended family. They basically never come to see me, so I was a little bit surprised. I think the last time my mum saw me play was in a pub in Newtown in Sydney on a Saturday afternoon, playing to mostly homeless people. That would have been the Stolen Holdens.
At her recent Sydney show, Missy Higgins chatted to the Enmore crowd about Perry Keyes: “I’m a huge fan of his music. He has these incredible descriptions of the chaos of youth, that moment in your teenage years where everything is a little bit volatile and new and a bit scary and a bit exciting.”