Australian Musician


Joe Camilleri


Andrián Pertout speaks with Joe Camilleri about his new label 'Jazzhead' and the Black Sorrows latest release ‘Radio Waves’.  Ian Chaplin is also present to discuss his ‘Tjapangati’ project.

On the spirit of a Melbourne summer morning, I board a tram and head for East St Kilda, to meet up with one of Australia’s living legends of pop music.  Joe Camilleri who migrated to Australia with his family from Malta in the 50s, has managed to carve out a considerable role for himself in this industry, working as songwriter, performer, producer and publisher, with several new additions introduced by the founding of his own studio and record company.  I encounter Joe in a state of recreation, as modest and casual as ever, wandering through his Woodstock studio with a classic ’52 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top strapped to his body.  After introducing his beloved, he continues to tell me that this Gibson series had no serial number assigned to it, because at the time of production the company thought that it would only last a season.  I thought it ironic how his own volatile industry must have likewise underestimated his significant talent two decades ago.  Today, Joe’s songwriting mastery is well respected around the world, with his songs recorded by such highly acclaimed artists as Elvis Costello, Frankie Miller and John Denver.

Tell me about Head Records and its subsidiary label Jazzhead.  How did the company initially come about?

JC: "It came about just out of a want to get a label that introduced other kinds of music.  I felt that music like blues and jazz were not being presented in mainstream.  There was a good opportunity for me to do something that I like to do.  I like the idea of having a label, not from the muscle point of view, but just ‘cause I like the music.  And it introduced me to a lot of different people, so I kind of did it for myself, you know, my own musical needs as well as trying to help other people.”

How will you be marketing the artists differently to other local jazz labels?

JC: "Most jazz records are not in the rock world, and what I thought would be really good is to use the rock idea of promotion, and introduce that kind of media support to alternative music.  When I say alternative music, I mean alternative to rock music.  I thought that would be a really good start, and also to try to have the label represented all over the country, which is pretty hard with a jazz record, unless you’re with the ABC.  This is Ian, by the way.”

IC: "Hi, how are you?”

JC: "I’ve now recorded three CDs, two have just been released, and one will be released in March.”

Jazzhead’s debut releases include the compilation ‘Ear for Civil Engines’ and the Ian Chaplin Quartet’s ‘Tjapangati’.  What is the inherent nature of these albums?

JC: "Well, Ian can speak about the music that he writes himself, but as a listener, the compilation record is really basically an introduction to the people, to hear what’s going on in Melbourne.  So the music within itself is up to the individual, though if you were going to look at it, I would say it has more of a blues base scenario, which means basically nothing because most music is based on the blues.  So the idea behind that, unlike Ian’s record, was to try to get a number of people that were playing, and hadn’t recorded much, or hadn’t recorded at all.  And getting together a label, and also a scene, the scene is, ‘This is a Melbourne scene record, this is what’s happening with those sort of bands at this particular point of time’, when that record was made, early last year.  With Ian’s record, I’ll let him speak about that.”

IC: "Well, I recorded it about eighteen months ago, and I met Joe this time last year, through involvement with one of the producers.  So we’d crossed paths a few times, but I was with someone else then, but we met, and I just mentioned that I had this album.  And Joe was talking about the label, and I had no one really interested, so it was looking like I was gonna have to do the independent release thing.  You know, selling CDs at the gig, and all that kind of crap.  And Joe said, ‘Well, give me a listen to it.’  So I gave him a tape, and he liked it, he said, ‘Yeah, I like this, I’ll release it.’  So from then on we’ve become pretty good friends.”

JC: “No, we haven’t! (chuckles)”

IC: “Well, we’ve pretended to be friends anyway.”

JC: “(Laughs) But we have a good understanding for each other.  Just because you don’t play the same kind of music doesn’t mean you don’t share the same interests.  When I got his CD, I put the first track on, and I said, ‘This is a very serious record, this is very good playing’.  And he was telling me that he couldn’t get a bite on this record, and that made me angry.  As a musician it’s frustrating, because I felt that it’s the same old thing, where you just can’t get out, no one wants to know, people are too scared.  I got back to him straight away and said, ‘This is a pretty good CD, the order of the songs is right’, and that was it, ‘Let’s just do the record!’  And we don’t have a contract, I’m not interested in any of that crap.”

Another project close to the heart must surely be ‘Radio Waves’ with the Black Sorrows.  How did you go about compiling the best of twelve years on the road?

JC: "Well, it was just a lot of listening (laughs), making those kind of records, they’re already made, the history’s already there, you just have to tap into it.  I was fortune and unfortunate in the early days, to not have had enough recordings.  We decided that live content was more valuable than anything else, because it was built around that.  And then had a few songs that did incredibly well, and became very famous in some parts of the world as well as Australia, but the material was there, all I had to do was to go through it, and try not to bastardise it in any way, just appreciate it for what it was.  I always wanted to have a live record out, and it took me twelve years to get around to it.”

Tell me about some of the musicians featured on this triple CD set.

JC: "Everybody that played in the band over a period of time.  In the early days they were ring ins, we’d do a tour, and you’d have to ring in.  Everybody looked at it as a floating scenario, and that was the whole thing.  The frustrating thing about that is that you can’t control anybody, so everybody would say, ‘Well, I’m off now’, OK, you know.  The funny thing about the Sorrows was that everyone had a career (chuckles), everyone wanted to do something else, and a lot of people went off to do pretty good things, and it’s great to deal with, you know, I was part of that in some way.  There was lots of people, I’m not scared to try people who have never played the music, because I’m not looking for the greatest band in the world, or the greatest bunch of players, as long they sit in the band.  It’s like a good team, it doesn’t have to have incredible virtuosos.  I’m more into that whole thing about the long run.”

Where will Joe Camilleri, Head Records and the Black Sorrows go from here?

JC: "Well, with head records, my plan is to do another two discs with Ian, we’re gonna cut another record in March some time.  So Jazzhead is really very important for me on that level, ‘cause I’m committed to trying to make Jazzhead work.  Head Records is part of Jazzhead, but at the moment I’m only working on jazz music.  With my record, I’m just about to release a single with the Black Sorrows, it’s called ‘Moonface’.  And to me the Black Sorrows is just a working name that you work under.  Sometimes people say, ‘Oh’, like you’ve worn it out, or something like that, but I say to myself, ‘Well, it’s just a name’.  It’s got nothing to do with the music that you play today.  The original concept of the thing is so that it always keeps evolving, I don’t wanna be Joe Soap.  The Black Sorrows and Joe Camilleri are one of the same thing, it’s just a musical evolution, a journey that I’m trying to stay on, and get something out of music.  And if I don’t get anything out of it, I won’t do it.  It’s kind of like a simple thing, they all go hand in hand.”


'Australian Musician' ~ Issue 9, Autumn, March 3, 1997


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Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1998 by Andrián Pertout.

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