Image Courtesy of Rough Red
Queensland/NSW-based folk-rock band Rough Red have been enjoying success with their album Not Here For A Haircut, and they’re making a very welcome return this weekend to the Illawarra Folk Festival.
Bill Quinn spoke with John Fegan from the band this week ahead of their trip south.
Bill Quinn: John, just for the uninitiated, give us a potted history of Rough Red.
John Fegan: There are five of us and we all used to play together in different bands. Well, they did. I joined these guys in my mid-thirties when I was working in an ad agency and bumped into them. And we ended up playing in this big blues and soul band together.
We got a bit bored with that and decided we wanted to do our own thing, and so we got all my poetry out of wardrobes, and Steve Tyson had some good stuff. And we started playing together once a week – it really started to come together well.
We got ourselves a manager who got us a few gigs, very uninspiring gigs in Brisbane. But the manager had had overseas experience and he knew some contacts and said, “Hey, I can take you guys to Europe!”
We said, “Wow! Really?!”
So he sorted that out and we did a little four/five track album which we took over to the Cannes Music Festival, and we were accepted. Then some people said, “We’d like to see those guys in Ireland”, etc etc.
And next thing you know, we’re heading off for Europe.
It was the early days of the internet – not everyone had it then – and Steve Tyson had gotten on the phone and internet and had been ringing people in Europe. These people in Skagen in the north of Denmark were pretty adept at that sort of thing, and they said to Steve, “Look, if you guys are crazy enough to come all the way from Australia, we’d love to have you play here.”
So we ended up in Skagen – the first Aussie band to play in Skagen – and we had to put together some other gigs, which we did from contacts here and there. We played in a football stadium in England, and all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
Out first tour was an economically dismal failure! But we learned a lot, so we started going back and each time we went back, it got better and better because we got a bit of a reputation. And now we’re old hands at it!
BQ: That’s a bit of a coup, because many bands and artists are knocking on the door of Europe and England for a long time before they establish themselves enough for a tour or repeat tours.
JF: The lucky thing for us was that when we were doing it, we were one of the first Aussie bands. We were the first Aussie band to play at Skagen, we were the first Aussie band to play in Vikedal in Norway, first one in Estonia at Paide. We just lucked in early and made the most of it.
We opened the doors for a lot of other Aussie bands to follow us.
The last time we were in Skagen (July 2013), there was about five Aussie bands there.
BQ: The composition of the band: you’ve got a lot of strong song-writing talent there…
JF: Really good.
BQ: What’s that like when you’ve got five people coming together? How does it influence the make-up of what you perform and record?
JF: In the early days, it was pretty much Steve Tyson, Peter Harvey and me – those two guys are fabulous songwriters. And then Johnny Barr started to put stuff in now Dave Parnell (or ‘Mashie’) our drummer – he’s a brilliant little bloke who can do everything – he’s now coming up with some great stuff too.
So it works really well. Five disparate souls have gotten together and it just works. It’s just amazing how it just works.
BQ: As well as disparate in talent you’re now geographically spread. How does that influence the collaboration?
JF: The latest album was a classic example because we recorded it in three separate studios. One in ByronBay and two down on MoretonBay. So we were sending stuff from one studio to another and I’d go and do vocals here, and someone would go and do guitar there.
So it was very different – I’d never done it before – but it seemed to work and we ended up with a really nice product.
BQ: Touring is your strong suit and the crowds really do love you, don’t they?
JF: Yeah, I think it’s the five-part harmonies and that kind of kick-arse Irish-y Australian thing, and the stories about bushrangers and haunted trains and bad women.
I think it’s just a combination of everything and it just works.
And they’re brilliant musicians these guys, and it’s just such a pleasure playing with them. Nothing ever goes wrong and it really is such a joy.
BQ: In the time that you’ve been around and touring and recording, have you noticed a discernible shift in what we loosely call ‘folk’? Are you finding different sorts of bands as you’re going around?
JF: Oh man, ‘folk’ is such a… I find it difficult to describe it as ‘folk’ because so much of it’s not folk. ‘Folk’ is just an easy thing for people to use. You couldn’t really say that what we play is folk.
I remember when we were playing in Ireland we played with Arlo Guthrie in a festival there, and the guy who ran the festival, he said to us: “Well, we t’ought you was an Oirish band. But you’re not an Oirish band. You’re a f—— rock ‘n roll band wid’ a bit of diddly doo!”
Folk is such a broad thing. I think the beauty of it is that when you go to a festival overseas like Skagen, you see dead-set, full-blown folk. And then you see all these other hybrid things that have come from it, and that’s what makes it such a fabulous sort of genre.
You can’t really pin it down to anything. That’s what I love about it. I’m quite happy to be called a folk band, but when they hear us, they go, “Whoa….. ok. A bit different.”
BQ: Speaking of touring, you’re heading to Illawarra Folk Festival, a favourite of yours.
JF: Yeah, mate, yeah, we love it down there. This is our third time and we enjoy it. It’s a lovely place to be. Good venues, nice people running it. It’s always good.
BQ: I remember vividly you being there when Brisbane was flooding and you couldn’t do much but get reports about your house going under.
JF: It was 2011 when we were there last. I was there when my house had been flooded. I was driving out to the airport and my wife rang and said, “Guess where I am? I’m on the steps of the house and it’s gone down.”
We were told it would take at least three days and she said, “Well, you might as well go and have some fun because you won’t be having much fun for the next three months!”
So anyway, I went down to Illawarra and we had a concert there on the Sunday where we raised money for the Queensland Flood Appeal, which was lovely. And I wrote a verse to one of our current songs, and I added it in about the flood. And when I did my latest solo album which I did last June, I wrote the song which was ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ about that horrible thing.
BQ: And finally, the story: the adventures of Rough Red which you’ve been meticulously chronicling over the years.
JF: Ever since we started, I kept a chronicle. I’ve written everywhere we went, every adventure. I’ve made my name on radio over the years as a funny guy and so I wrote it in my style, and everyone who’s read it just loves it and says it’s full of life and textures.
It’s the quintessential ‘Baby boomer living the rock and roll dream’ story, warts and all. I would love to get it published. People say, “Why don’t you put it on a blog?” but I want to see it in a book form. I’m an old fellow, I’m old school – I want to see a book!
BQ: Maybe there’s an opening for a publisher who’s reading to step forward and put it into print!
JF: Well, I don’t think he’d do himself any harm because it’s a fabulous story! I hope so, mate. I hope you’re right.
BQ: John, thanks for your time and see you at Illawarra.
Rough Red’s gigs at the 2014 Illawarra Folk Festival:
Friday 17th January – Grandstand Restaurant, 1045pm
Saturday 18th January – Slacky Flat Bar, 4.45pm
Sunday 19th January – Show Pavilion, 5.30pm