Do We Deserve Much Else? An Interview With Ned Collette

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Singer-songwriter and experimentalist Ned Collette is a restless one, although you wouldn’t know it from most of his songs, drifting towards their destinations on the starkest and slowest of currents. The Australian ex-pat first emerged from within the Melbourne improv scene in the early aughts as the leader of City City City, a multiheaded musical beast that never quite figured out what it wanted to be. After two albums, Collette decided the group was “too unwieldy to move,” and so he forged ahead without it. On his first solo album Jokes & Trials (2006), which arrived not long after the group disbanded, Collette could almost be mistaken for Bert Jansch. That is until the whimsical swells of strings, keyboards, handclaps, and “the 3am Chinatown choir,” seep in from the background and he rides their waves to shores more frequently associated with Robert Wyatt and Jim O’Rourke. 

Since relocating to Germany more than a decade ago, Collette has reconvened with a couple of his old bandmates, Joe Talia and Ben Bourke (Wirewalker) for a few albums. He’s also continued finding new outlets for his more avant-garde leanings, like 2019’s Afternoon–Dusk, which featured side-long collaborations with Talia and James Rushford, respectively. And perhaps most notably, in 2018 he released Old Chestnut – the solo record that he always wanted to make – at a point when he was considering hanging the song thing up for good. A critical and fan favorite, the epic double album found him carving even more space than usual out of the songs themselves, padding them heavily in between with abstraction, and staring down the ominous clouds of the past and the future more unblinkingly than ever.

In a multi-part email interview ahead of the 16th anniversary — and first time on vinyl — release of Jokes & Trials (Feeding Tube/Sophomore Lounge), we discussed why the Australia that Collette loves doesn’t really exist anymore, why it’s not about putting the weird little bits into his songs but leaving them in, and the “shorter, sharper jolt” that his next solo LP promises.

Thanks for turning me on to the new Low Life record, I’ve been playing it a lot. They really took it to the next level on that one, didn’t they? What are some of your other recent favorite Australian records? Is it difficult keeping up with the scene over there since you’ve been living in Germany?

Oh, no worries. Yeah, it’s great. I sort of keep an eye on the Australian stuff but, in truth, I don’t follow anything very diligently these days. I tend to rely on a few good personal sources to turn me onto things and of course, sometimes they’re Australian things, and sometimes contemporary, but mostly not. That Low Life record is a cracker though. Great lyrics if you can get down to them. Of course, there’s my close circle of people from there whose records I’m always interested in… Francis Plagne, Judith Hamann, James Rushford, Brett Thompson from Rand & Holland when he gets around to new things. Laura Jean. I mean there’s all sorts of great new scuzzy rock bands from there all the time. I lose track. The It Records stuff. Nice Music puts out cool things. I’ve played a few times with Leah Senior over the last few years and really like her songs. Basically, I’m a dope who just likes his friends. Mark Harwood’s Penultimate Press label. Michael Beach is a fave, though he’s a fraud really… dude’s got a funny accent. 

Do you still have family in Australia? When was the last time you went back? What do you miss the most about living there, or what’s the first thing you head for when you do go back?

Yep, I have family and friends there and was going back fairly regularly before covid. I like playing there and I miss people and the landscape and I miss Australian rules football, so I do all that. But there’s a massive conflict inherent in answering this question so here comes the tirade… The honest if somewhat long explanation is that the Australia I miss doesn’t really exist anymore if it ever did. It’s a myth. The political situation is at such an embarrassing nadir, and there is so little to admire about Australia as a culture as it presents at the moment, that even the things I love and miss have become pale and distant to me, as if someone has greyed out the option on a computer. And in a practical sense, it has been greyed out—in the last two years only the wealthiest were able to come and go, as the country closed the borders to its own citizens overseas and locked everyone else in. This was unprecedented really, outside a totalitarian regime, to actually lock out your own citizens and stop anyone from leaving (though the New Zealanders are giving it a solid crack now). It’s classic head in the sand stuff. No plan for afterward, no vaccines ordered, the usual “not our job” whinge and moan from the federal government. And while it didn’t affect me practically as someone who lives overseas, only a very basic level of compassion is required to understand that there were thousands of people who say, went on a holiday sometime in 2019 and couldn’t afford to get back in for the best part of two years. No home, no job, no way back. But no, most of the electorate inside were for it. It’s a variation of a mentality that I think is deeply ugly and unfortunately endemic in Australia: “Fuck off we’re full”. 

Add to that all the rest of the shameful Australian crap that the world is finally waking up to: complete disregard for the climate situation because the whole political establishment is answerable to coal and Murdoch; deeply embedded racism and worse the mass denial of racism (for a taste just google Adam Goodes)—basically also Murdoch; the abandonment of the actual working class by the left, which means the charlatanry of the flat-screen-TV anti-immigration protecting-your-freedoms bullshit made up by the right to mop up their old votes—Murdoch; the cricket team… well they’re just dickheads. But it’s endless. It’s just shitty, greedy contempt for the disenfranchised in society, but led by a sort of macerated worm instead of an evil messiah. And this is the direction people have chosen there for almost 30 years. I dunno. It’s perplexing. Neither of my parents was born in Australia and my mother has never become a citizen. I’ve been living abroad now for over half my adult life, I don’t use an Australian passport anymore, increasingly I question whether I am even Australian. Many there would take my attitude and say, no mate, you definitely are not. Even in more progressive and artistic circles, some people harbor a softer but still parochial kind of “if you don’t like it here, fuck off” mentality. So I did, I fucked off. But yes of course I miss it, sometimes intensely. I mean almost every single person on any of my records is Australian, whether over here or there, so that speaks to… I dunno…. something in the culture. An ability to be good but not care? A pathological love of authority we make a myth out of pretending to defy? Maybe that’s why we make the best rock bands. I mean it’s full of wonderful people too. Well not full, obviously. The aforementioned Michael Beach chose to move there, so fuck knows. It’s a weird place.

You mentioned your parents. Your father was an opera singer and is connected to that world, and your mother is an English professor. Is that right? What do they think about your music? And what are their favorite projects or songs of yours?

When I was little my dad sang in suburban coffee lounges for cash. That was still a thing back then. He was still in his early 20s. The opera thing bit him a bit later on and he went pretty deep into it until he sorta had to make the decision whether to be away from his family a lot to really pursue it, and the precariousness of that, and he pulled back. He had a good voice but always said he was a dime a dozen baritone. He couldn’t read music, I think he just wanted to see if it was possible. But I was already pretty much out on my own when he did all that, doing my own thing, and now he has nothing to do with that world. He’s lived a few lives, my old man. There was always his steel string guitar around though it was almost impossible for little fingers to play. He gave me my first guitar on my 11th birthday, which is the one on Jokes & Trials. At that point, his job was in publishing, and he ended up running a company because he knows his stuff and loves books—that was the connection between him and my mum when they were together (which was much earlier). Books. Her whole life has been literature, reading it, teaching it, writing it, teaching people how to write it. She’s very deep on the big works and the small ones. I remember always looking at the spine of a book called Minor Poets Of The 17th Century on our shelf, and thinking, that is fairly niche. She got herself out of 50s New Zealand on a scholarship and had a classical education. Arrived in England at the dawn of the 60s. I mean, J.R.R. Tolkien was her lecturer… She’s biggest on the Russians, really, though she doesn’t like Dostoyevsky much. It’d be cool if she had a fight with George Saunders about it. If I was anybody maybe that’s the sort of thing I could make happen. She likes a fight. And Blake, she never stops about Blake. She likes my music when she thinks it’s like Blake.

Your first solo album, Jokes and Trials, is about to be reissued. Can you bring me back to what was going on in your life when you were making it? What motivated you to move away from what City City City were doing and make a singer-songwriter style record? Had you been sitting on the songs for long? 

I was living with Joe Talia in a barely converted office above a bad Chinese restaurant. It was basically a studio with a couple of beds behind partitions. City City City was too unwieldy to move, and my writing for it was too unfocused. I had no idea really where it should go. I wanted to do a million things with it but couldn’t do one, properly. By the end, I wanted it to be Deerhoof, or Broadcast but with more jamming or Fairport Convention or something. I couldn’t find it. That said it was occasionally great and I love all those fellas. It was just pulling in different directions and it became too heavy for me to lift. The alternative was these songs I’d been writing for a couple of years that were given a bit of life when I got my first loop pedal, which were the fashion at the time. That gave me a way of not being some guy on stage with an acoustic guitar whining about his girlfriend, ie. there was still enough sonic interest to engage me. And with the songs, it all felt much more natural and direct, lighter, and that’s probably why my first label got behind it more than another Cities record.

In retrospect, I can see that Jokes & Trials was basically my tribute and farewell to Melbourne, though I never could have been conscious of that at the time. Melbourne was a wonderful place to grow up musically. It still has an astounding quantity of music going on, statistically more per person than in any other city in the world, by a long way. Look it up, it’s a true fact. 5 million people, gig and sport crazy. So everything from the mid-90s, when I started doing gigs to that album coming out, is wrapped up in it. I mean you don’t hear that in the album, but it was the end of that process and that first stage in my life. And it took me out of there. It did kind of ok in Australia and it got me on tour in Europe with various people and after that, I was always looking elsewhere. 

On “Song for Louis” you sing “I take you often on the tram with me these days / Put the same song on repeat.” Who is Louis, and what song is your character listening to? 

Louis is Louis Richter, who had/has a band called Mid-State Orange that Ben Bourke played synths in. I don’t know what song it is. Maybe one called “Sad Is Fine” which is one of the few songs I’ve ever covered. They were kind of jangly and psych-y live, good to drink and hang out with, but Louis is also a beautiful human and songwriter who could go on stage with an acoustic guitar and stop the room. He just told quiet stories really. It was all very far from where I’d come from. He encouraged me just to book some gigs and start doing the solo song thing, basically by saying who gives a fuck anyway, go for it. See I was really hung up about it because I’d never really sung and came out of the experimental and improvised kind of scenes in Melbourne. I was convinced I’d lose all my pals, and Louis just sort of said, of course you won’t, no one cares, just do it. So I wrote a song for him. Later he said thanks for the song but that it was the least interesting one on the album, which I kind of agreed with, but going back to it as I had to for this reissue it struck me as rather sweet. The bluestone line gets me a bit because that speaks directly to the part of town I grew up in, and that part of town as it was is gone.

I appreciate the attention that you put into your lyrics and especially love some of the surrealistic imagery that seems to pop up and then duck back out of the song. The soup made from cannonballs in “Thanks Richard” is the first example that comes to mind. I’m curious which modern songwriters you really admire as lyricists, and what it is about them that you like?

Well I don’t know about the idea of modern songwriters really, because to me songwriting seems to be a fairly perpetual thing. Like I think despite the vagaries of style and production it doesn’t really change that much. And that’s how I justify always going back to it and spending most of my life at it. Because also it’s a very silly and juvenile way to spend one’s time, really. So I try to see it as being part of a lineage, and try and treat it with respect. It keeps me interested mostly and I’ve never quite gone broke on it since Jokes & Trials. Also, attempts to modernize or meaningfully experiment with the form of it too much seem to quickly strip it of its essence. Which is what’s nice about it. Not that there aren’t interesting examples but really they’re just deconstructions of the same thing. So throwing in weird little bits and pieces like that – well for me it’s really more like leaving them in, because often for me the thing starts out all like that and slowly I find threads to pull away at, and it starts drifting back towards reality. I don’t think you could ever have a song done and then say, “this needs to be weirded up a little, um… cannonball soup”. Maybe you can, I don’t know. Anyway, I don’t know what soup made of cannonballs is, but you kind of do know, somehow, don’t you? I don’t think it’s very nice soup. 

I did love going on tour in the States last time with Ryan Davis in his State Champion guise—he is one of the people behind this Jokes & Trials reissue actually—because his songs are very different from mine. He does a very good line in direct commentary and direct satire on things as they are in the world – he can drop public figures into a song and it’s funny/sad, which is a skill I wish I had, or which came more naturally. Sometimes I think if you look at y’know, the three pillars—Bob, Leonard, Joni—you kind of see the whole picture. Dylan could do that very irreverent, literal stuff that still cuts to the heart of an issue, like “Ballad Of A Thin Man” or the thing about Goldwater or something, Cohen could take you away in some haunted antique fantasy that still rings true to something you do-but-don’t-quite understand, and Joni could just fucking dump you right on the front lawn, watching the people fighting through their living room window. She’s the one. Oh man, Joni. I mean that’s what you mean by modern, right? Because definitely not much has changed, or at least developed, since then really. I mean that was the change, that’s why we’re not singing about bonnie sweethearts and fishing boats anymore. Fucking “Willie o Winsbury”…. I love “Willie o Winsbury.”

You’ve said that Old Chestnut is the record that you’ve always wanted to make. How so? How has your approach to songwriting changed since Jokes & Trials

It kind of comes out of the last question. I guess in retrospect it’s been a process of abstracting the music but sharpening the lyrics. Which has always been my bag. There have been some diversions along the way, but the overall shape of it is that, I think. I think part of me said that because at the time I finished it I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go, and maybe that it was even the last one. The last song record I mean. We were about to have our first kid, didn’t know what that would hold, and I’d already decided to take a year off under the paternity leave system here before even trying to put that record out. But it’s still true, to an extent. It feels very whole to me as a piece of work, and yet open-ended, as if it keeps going after you’ve listened to it and exists before you start again. I have a lovely sense of that record as its own entity, containing a lot of its own life. To be honest I’ve struggled not to make another double album since, because I think that format gives you the room to create a space and a pace that’s more lifelike, to me. But I’ve managed it recently I think, with a new (single) album I’ve just finished. In terms strictly of songwriting though—sitting down and writing and playing and refining and throwing most of it out, etc—I don’t think much of what I do has really changed, what’s changed is probably more a reflection of what I do in the studio and hopefully having a larger sense of concept for what the end product is going to be.

Tell me about the studio process on Old Chestnut. Is there a particular track or moment that you’re especially fond of, and how did it come to be as a result of this process?

Old Chestnut was pulled from all over the place. I guess it began as a single album made up of the kind of main songs on there… “Grant’s Farm,” “Thanks Richard,” “June,” etc. They were recorded at my studio, which I think back then was still basically our bedroom with some decent gear in it. When it was all put together though, it felt a bit claustrophobic, like the songs were all piled on top of each other, didn’t have enough space to breathe. So I started finding all this stuff to put in between them, to give you a little rest or take you away from the weight and length of those numbers. Actually, I guess “Oh Man” was kind of an older one-off thing that I’d finished and mixed that we were fond of (ie. Joe, James Rushford, whoever was around, people had somehow heard it) but it hadn’t yet found a home on any release. Once that became the intro it acted as a template for how I wanted the whole album to work, songs appearing out of, and disappearing into, abstraction. I’m still really fond of that one actually. I think the strings on it are sampled from a quartet I wrote in 2002, the single terrible performance of which I recorded on minidisc. So yeah, mining the archive. I like doing that. Putting some artifacts in. And in the end, I always like those little moments the best… “Carriage Six,” which was recorded in Seattle into a laptop microphone, “Shinobazu,” which I did alone on perhaps my second or third day after moving to Germany in a tiny room with a mattress and a giant stuffed white tiger in it. “The Optimist” came out of a day I did with Alex Garsden just recording duo versions of a few songs on two guitars. That was written in 2008 and I played it live a lot but in that way I think Neil Young talks about, some live songs just don’t wanna be recorded. But then when I got it on tape with Alex it finally got the vibe. So yeah, a lot of different scenarios. Once it was roughly all in order I was back in the studio just getting it into shape. Carving bits out of it, mostly. Then it was done—it was actually quite quick, like a year and a half after Networking In Purgatory came out, but then some French label guy dicked us around with the release for the best part of two years which meant it didn’t come out until 2018.

What can you tell me about your next solo record? Who is playing on it, and how it will differ from Old Chestnut aside from being a single album?

I can tell you that it has a song on it that was not only written in 2008, but recorded in 2008, with Ben and Joe in a studio in Melbourne. I think the only time I’ve ever recorded in a proper studio, whatever that is… I think it means you pay more. The engineer Neil Thomason was waiting for us, and probably considering my first two records thinking, here’s a folk band, and we come in and say we want to make a record like The Stooges. Haha, so ridiculous. Idiots. Anyway, I’ve always liked this one track but the lyrics had dated and the mix was too boofheaded. So it’s been doctored a bit. But yeah, it’s a heavier kind of thing. The album in general is very guitar-y, much more electric, more jammy. It basically started with a session we did at the end of the last tour of 2019, in Europe, so it’s Steve Heather on drums and Fredrik Kinbom on bass for roughly half of it. It gets much closer to the live thing, which has always been heavier than people might expect from the records. Chris Abrahams has another starring role on one track which we did remotely during various lockdowns. There’s still lots of weird shit on there, some free-jazz bursts, but it’s a shorter, sharper jolt I guess. Anyway, it’s done, but this time it’s a pandemic and a bunch of mediocre ballad-belters dicking everyone around with releasing albums and manufacturing LPs so who knows what’s going to happen to it. 

Earlier you mentioned the lifelike sense of space and pace of Old Chestnut. Your music videos are great at capturing this feeling as well, especially “Come Clean” and “Grant’s Farm.” Where does your love of this style come from? Any specific artists or films that inspire you in this regard?

The Italians. The Italians! de Sica, Antonioni, then Pasolini… Pasolini! Fuck. Nah, not all of it, but heaps of it. I don’t know if you can recall the two guys walking into that kind of ring of fire on the cover of Old Chestnut—that’s a scene taken directly from Teorema… it’s Terence Stamp! The artist Maria Torres asked me for a bunch of images and things I liked when we started working on that, and I guess she liked that one too. I love those films. I LOVE them. Sometimes I just put them on in the background silently when I’m hanging out or cleaning the house or whatever. It’s like having a constantly changing gallery of masterpieces in your living room. Every shot. When I was maybe 19 I used to sit in the living room of the house I shared with the great saxophonist Tim Pledger, who plays on the next album actually—he’s about 20 years older than me and turned me onto all that stuff. We’d sit there endlessly watching these films in rotten Melbourne winter—the houses there all have two-inch gaps under the doors—so in what was essentially a windswept shack heated only by one open fireplace. Always burning the carpet. We’d scavenge wood from building sites and watch this stuff, and whenever a scene or frame was particularly breathtaking Tim would yell “SHOT!” at it like he was watching a football match. Anyway, of course I can’t really say where it all comes from. I’d like to say slowness. In opposition to all the nonsense we have to deal with these days. But also, with music videos, it’s just my own cheapness. I don’t really like music videos that much. They’re expensive and they take up too much time. When I was young I liked all The Cure ones and all the R.E.M. ones. I had them taped off the telly on VHS. But you know, they cost a lot so I’ve always tended just to make them on the fly when I’m on tour or something. One-take is the way to go. My friend Max who makes them and organizes shows in Freiburg gets it—I do a show, we get drunk, come up with a stupid idea and shoot it the next day. Then I make him color grade it so it looks like Antonioni’s Red Desert. Because clearly my music videos are in the same league as the masters of Italian cinema. That was “Grant’s Farm,” hungover, it was 37 degrees outside (so like 100 in Fahrenheit?), and we had half an hour to shoot it before I had to go to another soundcheck. The first take I almost got taken out by a truck, so the second we chose a different route and got lucky. The whole thing happened because his girlfriend thought the suit I’d shown up in on the train looked good with her friend’s bike, which we’d borrowed to get to a really limp techno-rave in the Black Forest. By the way, there’s a good joke about Antonioni, something like “I know how to spell Antonioni but I never know when to stop”. My dad told me that one.

You’ve taken on some pretty unique gigs over the years, like doing the string arrangements for Cat Power’s 20th anniversary Moon Pix show at the Sydney Opera House (in 2018), and some of the supporting slots you’ve had for folks like Joanna Newsom and Camera Obscura. You’re always busy with your more experimental projects as well, of course, like the Afternoon—Dusk album that you did with Joe Talia and James Rushford in 2019. What do you consider to be the biggest risk you’ve taken musically? 

Well the Cat Power thing is up there, to be honest. It was pretty nerve-wracking, not really because it was Cat Power—because Chan was just so lovely and generous the whole time—but because I don’t really do a whole lot of arranging usually, at least not for other people, for money, for a festival at the Opera House and with an album that is so beloved by so many people. But Mick and Jim from Dirty Three were part of it—it was Mick who asked me if I wanted to do it—and it was fun pulling it together. Two days rehearsal and half of us had flown in the day before from the northern hemisphere. I don’t think we got all the way through a single song once. Not once. Then we were on stage and what she did, the way she held that huge audience, it was truly moving. It was wonderful. People loved it. So yeah it pulled together on the night but I don’t know if what I provided was really that interesting. I’d worked on it for months but the whole thing was so fly by the seat of your pants, y’know? Then we all flew away again.

The other stuff is just stuff I do. I mean supporting someone big is no different from supporting someone small. It’s just playing a show. You always try and do it well. The recording side of things too—I’m really fortunate to work with all the people I work with, a lot of whom are mainly active in new and avant-garde music or whatever, stuff that’s more demanding. I have a joke with James Rushford that he’s like a computer whose CPU I can never even begin to push. I try, but nothing ever touches the sides. Can you play this line? Yes. And add this separate line at the same time on this other keyboard… yes. And can you sing all the words with me for the whole song….. umm, yes. Learn them now. Ok. And actually, can we do it in this key instead and in the middle you’ll have to switch to viola…. yes. And yet he’s not an automaton but a deeply feeling, soulful, hilarious human being. Judith Hamann is like that too. The three of us made a trio record a couple of years ago that no one will put out. It’s like broken early music for guitar, cello, and portative organ.

Afternoon—Dusk is a very beautiful and soothing album at times, and kind of unsettling at others. How did that one come to be? What were you aiming to capture?

It came out of two separate improvisations – one with Joe, and one with James, which I then worked on, on and off, for a while. It was asleep for a long time because I thought it needed a lot more work. Then I came back to it and realized it was actually kind of all there, it just needed a bit of paring down here and there. I think the Joe side was us just doing our usual thing which we’ve been doing for years, just having a play, guitar, and drums, see what happens. That comes out of the jazz thing which we kind of went through together at university, just having a play. We always just have a play at some point. Then of course we added some things and he did an edit and I did an edit and we pulled it together from those. James likes to work more with little structures and signposts in place before the play, so I suspect we probably did that. I can’t really remember. I don’t think I set out to capture anything really. I suppose I hoped to make something that was engaging over two longer pieces, and that made sense to me formally and I guess emotionally without the structures I usually work in. It was just one of those things I work on when I’m not so interested in writing songs, which is often.

How are you feeling about the future these days? And how has becoming a parent affected how you’re feeling?

Oh man, good question. I mean as someone who makes their living and derives a lot of their happiness from playing shows and making albums which are predominantly sold on vinyl, haha… on paper things are “VERY BLEAK.” It couldn’t look much worse? But you know there’s this day I always think of where I woke up in my bed in 2008—I think it might have been the first day of 2008—and I’d spent a couple of years really chasing this idea that things could be “successful”, and getting frustrated and all sorts of nonsense. And I woke up that day and just thought fuck it, if I can somehow just keep working at this for as long as I have the desire, that is enough. I mean that’s an amazing privilege! Perhaps it’s laziness or lack of ambition, but I just want the work to be good, so in that sense it’s ok, you just find a way to keep working. And definitely, having kids took the edge off that sort of personal ambition that makes you desperate to work at all times. You get used to doing it as much as you possibly can and if it can’t be done, it can’t be done. So I don’t know what any of us are going to do really, just get on with it and write about it in ten years or whatever. Throw some more art into the void. I’m still very inspired by a lot, both past and present. I’m planning to get back to the US this spring actually, in case anyone is organizing shows again… send word. And to a pretty big extent, my work deals with what is not inspirational in the human situation—so of course there’s also the big bad future. The one that’s becoming less and less abstract. The existential one. The one where we all burn or drown and wage war or get liquified by bacteria… that’s negatively inspirational too. Until you’re suffering at the hands of it, of course, which is terrible. But we are terrible. And we are deeply, deeply ridiculous. And we’ve had a successfully terrifying run. Do we deserve much else?

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