Adam Ford interviews Ron Hitler Barassi

{Originally appeared in expurgated form in FRISBEE magazine, 1998. Full version first appeard in DUCK FAT #2, 1999.]

Ron Hitler Barassi: Ron Hitler Barassi here, how are you Adam?

Adam Ford: Good thanks.

RHB: Where are you from, Adam?

AF: Um, Iím calling from North Fitzroy.

RHB: (laughs) Oh, right. I thought you were going to say New York or... North Fitzroy, eh? Iíll have to talk to my record company.

AF: Good lord. Where are you calling from?

RHB: Well, you called me, mate. North Fitzroy to St. Kilda, itís a fuckiní long way, isnít it? Letís talk international rock scene here.

AF: We could get two tin cans and a very long piece of string and achieve the same thing, couldnít we?

RHB: I tell you what, mate, I thought North Fitzroy was a pooncey, lattť-drinking, inner-city pencil-necked black polo-necked intellectual type place. What the fuck are you doing interviewing TISM? What are you slumming it with TISM for?

AF: Well, you know, we all like to bring that cutting-edge irony into the whole thing...

RHB: (groans) Right.

AF: And we like to disprove the myths every now and then.

RHB: You mean slum it with the proletariat just to show that youíre in with the guy who works for your father.

AF: Yeah, well there has to be some reason that the commission flats have never been razed. We like to have that aesthetic ďghettoĒ element happening.

RHB: Thatís a fuckiní good point, you know. Did anyone whoís ever moved to North Fitzroy not fuckiní go to a private school? Thatís what shits me - the fuckiní Big Issue and that shit. Itís the best writing in magazines because all the kids are private-school fuckiní educated! I reckon they should put out a state-school only journo mag... Oh, they do already. Thatís the Herald Sun.

AF: Can I jump into some questions here?

RHB: Yeah, go for it.

AF: I wanted to ask what your experience with interviews has been, because it was only with the release of Machiavelli and the Four Seasons that you started doing interviews. Have you found that the interviews have been an attempt by the interviewer to either out-funny or out-clever you?

RHB: Look, I tell you what, thatís an excellent point. Itís weariní off now, but initially... Itís all so yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk, you know? We find when interviewers or journalists donít like us, they fuckiní donít like us with a passion. When we get a bad record review, and weíre getting a disturbing... no, not a disturbing amount, a gratifying amount of good reviews, but when we get a bad one, you can tell that the person whoís writing the bad review is really loving writing it. Theyíre not writing it out of a sense of pity or disappointment, itís not a fan who gets your record and thinks ďI really wanted this to be a good record, but itís badĒ, its a real sense of malicious glee. I suppose you give what you get. Weíre smartarses, weíre wordy smartarses, thatís part of our schtick to be the wordy smartarse satirists, but quite often thatís steppiní all over a journalistís territory. A rock journalist, well some rock journalists, especially some reviewers, thatís their whole thing, itís ďIím the sort of wordy smartarse journalist who can take the sound of any band and pigeonhole them. Iíve worked it out.Ē Their whole thing is ďIíve worked this one out.Ē With us, they really, really... I reckon they should just write, ďLook, we donít really care about the music much, but I just want to tell the members of TISM that weíve worked you out and youíre not smarter than us.Ē You know? ďI got a bigger VCE score than youĒ, thatís what they should write. ďI got 100% in English, and you only got a B+. Suck on that one!Ē

AF: Are you finding any sycophancy in reviews?

RHB: What the fuck? Have you actually been doing some research here, Adam? Yes, there are some... I gotta tell you that I would be a liar to say that I donít like - thatís a double negative there, youíre going to have to read that back. I like sycophantic reviews. Iím a slut. I like good reviews and I donít like bad reviews, there you go. I mean, reviews donít change my opinion. At all. About what we do, about my band. Itís very rare that I read a review, either sycophantic or overly critical, and think, ďOh thatís something new. Thatís something I havenít thought of. Thatís a new insight that helps me to do what I do as a person in a band.Ē

AF: Is that what you want in a review?

RHB: Itís very rare that you get an insight from a reviewer. Good point, you should probably never expect that from a review. But given that a review is never going to change my opinion, I would prefer sycophantic and slavishly adoring to critical. Just like when I park in the city, I prefer not to get a parking ticket at the end of the day, compared to getting a parking ticket. A bad review is like a parking ticket. Everyone knows youíve gotta drive a car, sometimes you get a parking ticket - thatís part of driving a car, and you just shrug it off. But itís better the days you donít get a ticket. But youíre right, thereís been a little bit of sycophantic reviewing, but we get so many reviews that say, ďWell this is a fair album,† but I really liked Truckiní Songs betterĒ and you think, ďThatís all very well, pal, but back in the Trucking Songs days nobody was saying that, they were all slagginí us off.Ē With Truckiní Songs, everyoneís saying, ďOh, itís nearly as good as Truckiní SongsĒ and I suppose thatís right, but nobody said that when Truckiní Songs was out.

AF: Maybe you should re-release Trucking Songs. With a different cover.

RHB: Yeah, re-release Trucking Songs and just put a little bit of trip-hop in the background.

AF: For the kids.

RHB: Mind you, Trickyís done that.

AF: Tricky did a remix of a TISM song?

RHB: Oh, I reckon Trickyís just a... Actually I was on the phone to Cairns before and Telecom fucked up and all you could hear was your own voice echoing back to you five minutes later, and I thought, ďFar out, Telecom could release this.Ē My favourite bandís suddenly become Telecom. Great bunch of guys - a lot of guys in the band, but they make a lot of money.

AF: And they have to split the door two million ways.

RHB: Thatís right, yeah.

AF: Speaking of the backlash, so to speak, you always said in press releases that TISM would get crappier and crappier with time, and that you would hit a point where you were so crappy that you could become popular. Once you brought the trip-hop† and the techno into it, with Machiavelli, you† had a chart breakthrough. Were you surprised that your prediction was accurate?

RHB: Oh, I dunno. It becomes a bit wearying for us all, for critic and fan and person in the band, this whole ďTISM are a bunch of mischievous cynical ultra-intelligent scammers who are just playing the industry like a fiddleĒ thing. Weíre just blokes in a rock band. Weíre out there in a rock band, making a pop record that, whether you agree or disagree, has got some sort of 1998 sensibility about it, and to construct out of our identity some sort of mischievous endlessly-reflecting mirror-upon-mirror-back-to-infinity scamming media-manipulation - I think thatíd be wrong.

AF: But you do posit yourselves as a fairly socially aware band. Contemporary culture is often reflected in TISMís music.

RHB: Youíre damn right there, Adam. Our position, both to the industry and the audience, is a position of satire. Our position to ourselves is a position of satire. It does get tiresome when youíre not granted that as a legitimate position. It annoys me. I donít mind if you donít like TISM. I donít mind if you donít like the music. I do mind if the position that we take, which is one of satire, is seen as the equivalent of a joke band. Suddenly youíre Weird Al Yankovic. You give what you get, we crap on all the time and claim Peter Reithís in the band. We are a band of premature ejaculators, but nonetheless, satire is as legitimate, I reckon itís more legitimate than your rarefied aesthetic of Portishead, myself. I think satire is a legitimate stance to take vis-a-vis your audience and your art as any other. If thereís a fuckiní industry crying out for fuckiní satire, I tell you itís the rock Ďní roll industry. Someoneís gotta lay the boot in, and weíre the sort of cowardly pricks whoíll do that for you.

AF: With masks on.

RHB: Thereís nothing wrong with that, Adam. Youíre obviously perceptive enough to realise that the masks arenít like some huge Krusty the Clown mysterioso cartoon character scam. The whole point of the masks is that the masks are bullshit. The masks immediately give you a position which is one of being in this situation, this theatre, this industry, and out of it. When youíve got a band with a mask on, you canít treat Ďem like you do the guy from Radiohead. Thereís a difference between weariní a mask, where itís all boom-boom funny Sideshow Bob and weariní a mask because you donít want... Thereís a sycophantic TISM fan, granted, but thereís also a sycophantic Radiohead fan, and Iíd rather have the TISM fans for all their illiteracy.

AF: The interesting thing about the masks is - the few times Iíve seen you guys live, the one that springs to mind more than any is the 1992 Push Over.

RHB: Oh, yeah.

AF: I think you guys came on before..

RHB: Oh, yeah. John... John, er..

AF: John whatsisname from Noiseworks

RHB: Yeah, John Whatsisname was probably his name. What was his name...?

AF: I think it was you and possibly two others from the band got down into the mosh pit and you immediately had your masks ripped off, but as soon as the masks come off, they give them back to you. Once theyíve got it in their hands itís just a†mask.

RHB: I know! Big fuckiní whoopee! Itís like the same question you get asked, ďWho are you?Ē and you think, alright, Iíll tell you my name. My name is John Cavanagh, I live at Lot 46, Smith Street, Templestowe. I could tell you anything. Who gives a ratís arse who we are? Big deal. The whole gig with TISM is, take one step to the side or drive fifteen twenty k east or west of North Fitzroy or St. Kilda, and thatís where TISM are. Itís fuckiní irrelevant who we are. Itís our stance thatís important.

AF: So leading on from that, do you think that TISM is a parochial band?

RHB: Yeah. Parochial in the sense of... Thereís no problem with being parochial.† Thereís a certain universality about it. You know, deep... deep... This is turning into an extremely serious interview, Adam. I was ready to crack some one-liners about Pauline Hanson, but who gives a shit? (laughs) I think there are universal themes to be found in parochialism. I guess thereís universal themes to be found drinking lattes in St. Kilda, but fuck me if there arenít universal themes to be found doing a right-hand turn into Heatherton road in Nunawading. I donít mind being parochial if that means talking in the language that most people talk.

AF: More people live out there than they do in the inner city, anyway.

RHB: More people live out there, me fuckiní included! I live and work out there, I was born out there and Iíll fuckiní die out there. Some people are lucky enough to be born in Oxford and they join a band called Radiohead, but other people are born out in the suburbs, and they join a band called TISM because theyíre not pencil-necked geeks like Radiohead. Iíd be disappointed if... Oh fuck, theyíre telling me Iíve gotta end this interview! (aside) A few more minutes? Yeah, thatíd be good. (back) Nah, I told Ďem to call back, fucking cunts, who cares? Itís probably NME or something, pommy bastards.

I donít know, Iíd be disappointed if I Might Be a Cunt, But Iím Not A Fucking Cunt, if those swear words were seen as naughty schoolboy TISM saying naughty words in class. I would like to see it as TISM using words and phrases and concepts that everybody fuckiní uses. Iíve got no problem if Iím in an Australian rock band in 1998 using the Australian idiom. I fuckiní canít see why thatís fuckiní seen as all of a sudden youíre a poo band. We could all go around and sing about rarefied pencil-necked Oxford aesthetes, but Iím not a pencil-necked Oxford-educated aesthete, so fuck that. They havenít won the Ashes since about fuckiní 1985, so fuck Ďem. When it comes to Tricky and Mezzanine and Portishead, my answer is fuck Ďem.

AF: Whatís your response to the claims that you released Cunt and the pornographic videoclip that went with it in order to get off commercial playlists and restore some indie cred to the band?

RHB: Nah, thatís crap. If thereís a downside to releasing I Might Be A Cunt But Iím Not A Fucking Cunt, itís that we were trying a touch hard to have a cause celebre there. But we liked releasing it, one, because itís a shit stir. We just sat around and thought wouldnít it be great to be in a band that release a single called I Might Be A Cunt But Iím Not A Fucking Cunt? I mean, thereís worse things to do than that. At least itís not a twenty-minute trip-hop single. First of all, we thought it was quite funny, and secondly, I quite like the music and I quite like the lyric. Itís one of the songs I quite like from the album, but you canít have your cake and eat it too. You canít release a song called I Might Be A Cunt, But Iím Not A Fucking Cunt and then start complaining that JJJ donít play it. Iím a bit with JJJ there, if you canít play it then thatís fine. It sorts the men from the boys, really, the word cunt.

Iíve got no problem with commercial success. This ďTISM are a masked bunch of guys who disdain commercial successĒ is bullshit. I couldnít give a ratís arse about artistic purity. Commercial success equals, to me, a big audience, and I love big audiences. Our job as a band is to talk directly to audiences so that they understand what weíre saying. Iím not into this shit where you hear people saying ďour lyrics of course could mean anything, people can take them as they like.Ē I fuckiní mean exactly the opposite. I would hope as a lyricist that you take from our songs exactly what we deliver. We hope to hit you right between the eyes, or whatever part of your anatomy weíre aiming for. Iíve got no problem with big audiences. The problem of course is how to do that without dumbiní down. If youíve gotta connect with a mainstream audience and to do that youíve gotta sound like the Screaming Jets, well, there is a bottom line. Like Billy Hughes said, ďYou can join every party but the Country Party.Ē There are some things we will not put up with, and that is dumbiní down to the extent that you have to sound like the Screaming Jets. That can go fuck itself.

We find that the trick of it all is to have a large audience and not dumb down too much. Itís very easy to have your nice little exclusive Rhumbarallaís audience if youíre releasing your jazz-based violin-influenced rock Ďní roll, but for me thatís playing tennis without the net, thatís preaching to the converted. My job... no, not my job. My job is a boring outer suburban job. The thing, the challenge, the hard thing, is saying ďI want to speak to as many people as possible, I want to say to them something that is meaningful to them without dumbing down.Ē And if weíve done that with, more strength to our arm. And even if we donít do it, I personally think itís a worthwhile thing to try and do.

AF: How much dumbing down do you think thereís been of late?

RHB: With TISM? None at all. Some people say ďyouíre disdaining mainstream successĒ and then others say ďwith Machiavelli and the Four Seasons TISM got all this mainstream successĒ. I think if thereís been a challenge for us since that album, itís that we now have a wider audience and we want to connect to that audience, not pander to them. Part of the trick is not to worry about it, to switch it all off. If I sit down and write a lyric, if Iím thinking of a large audience, Iíd clam up. The trick with writing the lyric is to forget everything for a while, and if it works, it works, and if it doesnít, it doesnít. I think itís the same with the band. When Iím sitting there and Eugene de la Hotcroix Bun is sitting there and J. Cheese is sitting there and someoneís gotta come up with a bassline, if you start thinking of anyone outside that room, youíve fucked up.

AF: Speaking of gaining a wider audience, what is your response to those who have turned away from the band for selling out?

RHB: Look, Adam, I donít know if there was a backlash. I personally didnít feel that. It wasnít like we were the critical darlings of the avant garde and suddenly we sold out. TISM have never been a cool and groovy band. I have never felt that thereís a whole lot of TISM fans disgusted with our success, like the Mavisís fans seem to be. God knows why youíd be a Mavisís fan and how you could be disgusted with anything they do is beyond me, but I havenít felt - neither from the people I meet or the press - that thereís a sense that TISM have modified their art to play along corporate rock lines.

Sure, there might be some people to think that because itís absolutely de rigeur for them that as soon as any album gets in the charts itís gotta be bad. But Iíve got to say that I donít feel a critical backlash because TISM are suddenly impure, because TISM have never really got a great critical response. The only response we get is that ten years after an albumís released everybody tells us that they love it.

AF: What was your opinion of the two comics that were released by Aaargh! Graphics?

RHB: Oh, well, the blokes from Aaargh! were nice, but thereís a certain kitsch cuteness about comics... The second one, I gotta say I liked it better, it was based on a coupla diatribes that I wrote. TISM and comics, itís a sort of cutey kitsch clownishness that Iíd think twice about before doing again. How can I sit here and whinge that people donít take us seriously as artists and then we release a coupla fucking comics? I think it was a nice idea at the time, but itís like the website or what costumes you wear on stage. For the band, itís all nice and cute and stuff, but it ainít the main game. The cake is the songs. The cream is the shtick. If the cakeís no good it doesnít matter how much cream you ladle on it, itís still shithouse.

AF: Very wise...

RHB: (laughs) ďVery wise,Ē says Adam. Well, Iíve gotta go now, Iíve got another guy waiting.

AF: Okay, thanks. If itís NME tell them fuck off from me.

RHB: Yeah, Iíll tell them and theyíll say ďthose arseholes from Frisbee magazine...Ē But donít worry, if youíre a small unsuccessful struggling Aussie rag, theyíll say... Oh, actually they hate Australians. British people hate us. You go over there, Nick Cave said it too, you go over there and all of a sudden youíre this larrikin yobbo joke act.

AF: Jesus Christ. Whatíll happen to you? Youíll turn into Radiohead or something. Itíll have the opposite effect.

RHB: Now thatíd put the wind up your inner-city critics if TISM became the darlings of NME. Some peopleíd have to shoot themselves, theyíd have no idea what to do. Youíve gotta like NME and suddenly youíve gotta like TISM. My god, thatíd be like Bruce Ruxton suddenly admitting heís gay!

AF: Hey, how did you feel about Bruceís letter decrying the use of language in I Might Be A Cunt But Iím Not A Fucking Cunt?

RHB: Well, you know, heís gay and he gives great head. Nah, itís all too easy to slag off your Bruce Ruxtons. That letter was very politely written. I donít mind. He looks like a fun guy. Heís totally wrong in everything he says, but that doesnít stop me liking him. Heís out there working for charity to some extent. The thing that shits me is I donít like it when he co-opts Australian patriotism and the diggers into his own fascist view of the world.

I donít wanna beat my own drum, but if you got a set of eighteen-year-old Australian boys charging up a hill in Turkey in 1914, the last people theyíd be thinking of would be people like Bruce Ruxton. They were just being a bunch of larrikin Aussie yobbo blokes who wouldíve belted you at the drop of a hat. Weíre not talking conservative right-wing fascists, they wouldíve just been out to screw a girl, get some stinkfinger and kill some Turks.

AF: And thatís why the British hate us.

RHB: Fuckiní Oath.

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