Stu Thomas is one of the great heroes of Oz rock. Weather he’s playing with Kim Salmon, Dave Graney, with his own band the Stu Thomas Paradox, or doing a set of Lee Hazelwood covers, Stu is an amazing player and an asset to any band he joins. Never one to repeat himself, Stu’s latest release Counting To Infinity features some brilliant Noir rock, as well as some classic movie tracks, including Thunderball and Johnny Guitar. Stu is a true original and all round bloke you can trust.
Munster: How many instruments do you play and do you have a preference between guitar or bass?
Stu:Well yeah, I play a few instruments. I started at school on cornet trumpet and was in one of the school big bands. When the teacher used to go out of the room, and we were meant to be practicing, we would swap instruments. I used to grab the bass, or jump on the drums, sometimes piano. That’s when I first got into playing bass. My Mum then bought me a small steel-string guitar, which I played a lot at home, working out songs from AM radio. I didn’t know about tuning then, but it turns out I had it tuned to an open chord, which I still like doing now. Then I ended up getting a Fender style bass, and after that a fretless bass - a very 80’s thing to do. Then I got an electric guitar, an echo machine and a distortion pedal, and the madness really began! I was hooked on music, and consequently to the bits and pieces you need to make it.
About 10 years after leaving school, I bought a cheapo Czech trumpet for myself, just to keep that up too. Then, a friend in Switzerland gave me a flugelhorn. And I bought a valve trombone, Much later I bought a Burns baritone guitar on a whim from a shop in Williamstown, which closed long ago.
I don’t have a preference for guitar or bass. I like them both equally. It’s not a huge deal for me to switch between them. When I look at the frets I see different patterns is all. The thing I like about playing bass is settling into a sort of mechanical groove, and adding variations as you go. It’s really the glue in a band, between the guitar and drums, being a guitar itself, and at the same time a sort of percussive instrument. With guitar, I like laying off playing when I sing, then come in busy later.
I do like the baritone guitar a lot though, cos it’s both a bass and a guitar. Maybe that’s my favourite one after all?
Munster: You were born in Canberra and raised in Perth, when did you make the move to Melbourne and what made you wanna make this your Homebase?
Stu: As I was growing up, I always thought of Melbourne as the music capital of Australia, so it made perfect sense to aim for there when I left home in 1990. It was always a struggle in Perth to get your music across. For a start, at that time, they preferred you to play covers of current songs. And even if you did, you’d still get criticized for not doing them right. So you can imagine that playing your own weirdo music was pretty hard going. Only a few people actually wanted to hear original bands, and within that lot there were cliques, divisions and sub-groups, so getting any sort of crowd was near impossible. There just wasn’t the population there to sustain a vibrant original scene. Also, venues would pop up then close the next fortnight. So. That’s why I left. I was stuck in a public service job and dying inside, so me and two friends decided to pack our jobs in, pack our stuff, jump in a big old Falcon Futura, drive on out of Perth, and take our shot at a music career, before we got too old, dead or married. The band was called Organism. Melbourne took to us, but we only lasted a year. I have pig-headedly just kept going with music. 30 years in Melbourne now.
Munster: What was the first band you formed and in which state was that in?
Stu: I formed my first band 1979 in Perth, WA. It was me and a few friends from music class. See, I took Music almost by accident. I had signed up for Media, but turned up in the wrong classroom. So I swapped subjects. We’d muck around in breaks, and soon had a 3-piece band going, plus a tenor sax player, briefly – he didn’t last long. We’d jam in our drummer’s room after school, and try and learn songs, and even try to write one. Never did finish it. Got us a gig at the local church fete. We were called FEEDBACK. A very common first band name apparently. We played a party or two. I have a cassette somewhere of us playing in a backyard in the ‘burbs. None of our own stuff - just hits from the radio. It sounds very raw. As I recall some of it is not total shit! I haven’t heard it for a while. I played bass 90% of the time and sang almost all the songs. We’d swap guitars for a few. Mostly we just practised at different houses. One of our early discarded band names was BENVIC JAMCAR, which was made up from each suburb we lived in. I actually think that’s a cool name!
Drummer Elio Mancini, now plays in The Surf Mist in Perth. And guitarist Denis Fable was playing with the late Richard Lane (Stems) up until recently.
Munster: What process went into making the new STP Lp Counting to Infinity?
Stu: Well, years of live gigs beforehand was the build-up to it. We knew these songs so well. When I decided to record I wanted the band to play together in the studio, for a live feel. So I booked some time at Soundpark Studios in late 2018. It was done very quickly, in 2 hours, as all these guys are crazy busy, with other gigs, jobs, family etc. So, we got 5 down that day. Then in early 2019 we did the same thing. 4 songs, 2 hours - BANG! Hardly any second takes.. I then did my lead vocals in a few sessions at Soundpark. I was lucky enough to have been able to sing into some of the microphones that used to belong to Trident Studios where Bowie, The Kinks and the Stones recorded!
Additional parts like backing vocals, extra guitars, baritone guitar, synth and some bass were done at my house then added at Soundpark. I did a bit carpentry work for Idge at the studio in return for some of the studio time. Idge was very kind in this way. He plays with me in Julitha Ryan’s band, on drums, and Mick Harvey is also in the band.
Munster: How did the Paradox come about, how did you meet Eddie and Billy?
Stu: I started playing with Billy Miller in The Royal Dave Graney Show in 2004. Billy had been in that band a while, but left soon after I joined. Then he asked me to play in his new band, so I learnt a couple of sets of his songs. Eddie Miller was playing guitar & keys, and we had drummer Cal. Later on John Annas was on drums. I did gigs and a few recordings with Billy. Then we started up a band with Billy, me, Horse and Wes that did mainly Beatles, some Beach Boys and Kinks. Just loads of 4-part harmonies. We had a Sunday residency at the Snake Pit, down below the George Hotel in St Kilda. Eventually, Horse & Wes moved on and Eddie and John came in and Billy kept that going for 10 years or so, just playing Beatles every week. Plus a bit Stones and Kinks. After 5 years I left, to focus on my own music, and I suggested Billy & Ed & John join my band, because we already had all the harmonies and had played together so often, it was a ready-made unit. Instead of doing Beatles, we did my stuff. So that was the start of The Stu Thomas Paradox. Our first gig was in 2005 at The Rob Roy. After that gig Phil Collings played drums. I played with him in Kim Salmon & The Surrealists, and previously in The Business. So that’s the line-up we have kept with for the last 15 years.
Munster: How did the idea of doing a bunch of covers from films come about for this LP?
Stu: I wanted us to stand out from the crowd, basically. Every band does a cover or two of things that influence or move them. For years I’d been keeping a mental tally of cool film songs and gradually introduced them into the band. We’ve been doing some of these from Gig One. It’s just another side of our music, and seems to complete the picture with my songs. I mean, we don’t do them exactly like the originals, but twist them our own way. People have said we are like the house-band in a Tarantino film. I don’t mind that description at all. So we’ve been doing them for years, and I thought it was time to get them on tape before the apocalypse destroys us all. Or we forget them.
Munster: On the new LP you do a cover of Thunderball, is that your favourite Bond theme song?
Stu: Not really. I like a few of them: that one, From Russia With Love, Diamonds Are Forever, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice. I like the 60’s ones the best, they have the best singers. That was the golden age of Bond songs for me. They seem to get worse as the decades progress. Adele?...forget that shit!
With Thunderball I liked the chords - they lend themselves to a small rock band arrangement. We could give it our voodoo-surf feel. Some of the others are just too complex to pull off or too hard to sing. Although I have sung Diamonds Are Forever quite a few times solo. Doing these kind of torch songs really pushes my singing ability. You need to push yourself, otherwise you might never see what you’re capable of.
Munster: You’ve played in many other bands, such as Kim Salmon and the Surrealists and Dave Graney, and you’ve also done guest appearances on many other LPs, what is it about you that makes you so in demand?
Stu: I dunno really. I am guessing here, but maybe people have heard or seen what I’ve done and like it. Simple as that. I keep getting calls to do stuff, so something’s working. I am pretty flexible with styles and learning new stuff. I can pick up shit quick. But it’s not just learning parts - you have to bring something extra to the music as a player. I make myself available, which helps. I want to play as much as possible.
Munster: The latest Kim Salmon LP is all improvised and it came from the livestream the band did, what was that recording like, were you calm and going with the flow or were you nervous about what would happen?
Stu:The potential was there for it to be a really nerve-wracking experience. It could have been a disaster, but we didn’t let it be. For a start we hadn’t played since Nov 2019, and this was done in June 2020. We all had the most absolutely vague sketches of ideas for parts, and virtually zero rehearsal. Having done so many live gigs I don’t really get nervous, but this was a way different situation. There were eight cameras capturing our every move, blinding lights, all this equipment surrounding us. Plus, it was going out to a live audience across the globe, and was being recorded as our next release. No pressure! Then, there were other last-minute outside stress factors which I won’t go into.
We just had to hunker down and get into the music. We listened really well to each other. Looking at the footage, we weren’t performing at all – we’re just really focussed on the moment. I thought we pulled out some ground-breaking stuff actually - not perfect but what’s been captured is pretty special. It’s very live, very brave, pure improvisation, and very uniquely us. Each individual shines. It’s an amazing document, really.
Munster: How did you come to join Dave and Clare’s band the Yellow Mistly?
Stu:I joined them in 2004, after a few calls, emails, and a random meeting with Dave in front of a guitar shop in Brunswick Street. Initially Dave contacted me about forming a biker boogie band with him and Matt Walker, but that didn’t get off the ground. I’d asked Clare to sing on my first album on the song Real Big Spender. I’d seen them play, they’d seen The Surrealists / The Business. We supported each other, etc, etc. I played with both of them in SALMON as well. So we were in each other’s orbit. When Adele Pickvance left their band they called me. The band was known as The Royal Dave Graney Show at that point. Then It changed to The Lurid Yellow Mist, now it’s The MistLY.
Munster: Over the lockdown period you’ve been doing several livestream shows, I liked how you did the occasional one now and then, making it an event like a proper gig. How did you go with the zoom gigs? Did you feel comfortable without a crowd right there in front of you?
Stu: I did these gigs thru a platform called Stageit. Basically you charge a ticket price, and it’s a one-off show which is not repeated on the internet thereafter. So yeh, like a live show. It’s good that this outlet has appeared for us musos, but I didn’t want to overdo them and have endless shows.
For a start, I wanted to frame each show in a unique way: sometimes I performed my albums, sometimes I would focus on other people’s stuff. I think it just makes it more interesting for the viewer as it’s a completely different set of music each time. And it’s a worldwide audience!
I quite liked doing them. But I mean, it’s a bit stressful setting up everything yourself - y’know, the lights, camera, sound, computer, instruments, background, props etc etc.. In the end the simpler the better is the best rule.
Once I’m playing though all stress is gone – I just get on with it. Of course, you get no aural feedback, which feels like: “Is anyone listening?!?”. There is that sorta constant comments / chat feed, but I had to ignore that in the end as it’s too distracting when you’re talking about attempting to get through a set of music, and the clock’s constantly counting down before your eyes.
The best one was the first one, both in terms of numbers and how and what I played. It was all Iggy Pop songs. Pretty great, diverse stuff. I’ve never seen anyone do it, besides Iggy. Also, all this streaming biz was new then in May 2020. I think that after a while people started to get a bit jaded with the whole watching-gigs-online thing, and definitely got sick of Zoom calls. I know I have. I never want to do a Zoom call again! But I will still pull out a few Stageit shows here and there. Luckily, we can play in pubs again, so I’m all for doing those instead. The Stu Thomas Paradox has their first live gig for 8 months on Dec 13th, at Misery Guts Bar, St Kilda. Can’t wait to play.
Munster: You’ve done Tribute shows to Lee Hazelwood, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, how do your tribute shows differ from others and what is it about an artist that would want to make you do a show on them?
Stu: I prefer to call them “homage events”. The word tribute has bad connotations. Tribute bands are a bit on the nose, really. Why do they have try to pretend to be the person whose music they’re playing? Bit sad.
I only choose artists that have made a long-term impression on me, and have been a major influence.
When Lee Hazlewood died in 2007 I wanted to get an “all-star” show organised to play his songs. I asked Rowland S Howard, Ned Collette, and some others, but it didn’t come together. And I thought: “oh, someone else will jump on that idea”, but they never did. So in 2014 I decided my band could do a pretty great job, and we’d get to promote my band at the same time. When I was in Darwin by myself for a week in 2013, I worked out all the songs – about 40-odd – and started learning them. I wanted it to sound like I’d written them, and knew them backwards. It was me, Phil, Eddy, and Clare Moore came onboard for keyboards. She did a top job playing all the string and brass parts, and sang too.
Anyway, I knew of Lee from some of my Mum’s records, especially Nancy Sinatra’s, and over time I found more of his stuff, and it was great music and suited my voice, so I got it all going. I did a bunch of paintings of Lee for the show as well, which were strewn around the stage. That got me into painting on larger canvasses from there on. We had some footage of Lee in the breaks, and intros with his voice saying funny things. I wanted to be informative as well entertaining.
The Bowie and Iggy shows came about because The Drunken Poet had a regular Tuesday night gig, where someone picks an artist and covers their stuff. First I did a Bowie night. Then was booked to do an Iggy night in May, then everything shutdown! I’d learnt about 40 Iggy songs, that’s why I did that as my first livestream.
I like to learn new songs. It’s fun for me to learn an entirely new set, and I find it challenges my abilities. The Bowie show really improved my voice, and the Iggy songs kicked my guitar playing up a notch.
Munster:Do you prefer being the frontman or being on the side of stage?
Stu: I don’t mind really. The main difference is you don’t have to say as much to the audience if you’re a sideman. To tell you the truth, I’ve played so many gigs that those kind of roles or titles are not important to me. I feel every single person on the stage with me is an equal, regardless of what they are doing, and we’ve all got to work together to make something happen.
Munster: You also are a talented artist, what kind of art do you do?
Stu: I’ve been doing a lot of drawing for years and years, and only since 2015 did I get really into painting in acrylic on larger canvasses. I had my first solo exhibition of paintings in 2017 at Brunswick Street Gallery. I do other types of art too: assemblages of found objects, digital graphic art, t-shirts, collage, photography, and I’m working on a sorta neon artwork next.
Munster: Whats coming up next?
Stu: Well, I want my band to play heaps more live shows.
In 2021, Counting To Infinity will be available digitally. And a t-shirt will be out soon. I want to release a couple of live albums by my old band The Brass Bed.
I want to finish off all these half songs that I have, and record them. There’s a possible art exhibition coming up too. Got some bookings but not many, so I hope this situation improves. I have a lot of creative plans so I just have make time to do them all, in between everything else.
Munster: Do you ave a favourite Fall LP to end on?
Stu: I think Extricate. I bought this CD in a bargain bin at Brashes the year I arrived in Melbourne.1990. It’s a pretty slick album, especially compared to earlier Fall. The playing is pretty good, and they use some high-flyer producers of the time, like Flood. But despite the great production, there are still elements of lo-fi random stuff, like Mark E Smith’s distorted snarling prose coming at you in different ears. He really sounds like he does not give a shit what or how he sings, of course. That’s what makes it unique. And hilarious. Great observations just chucked in.
Arms Control Poseur is one of my all-time favourite songs. And for some reason they do a couple of songs by The Monks - a cult 60’s garage group. Great album.