I’ve seen Ronnie perform many times over the years, and he’s always been a top class performer. Doesn’t matter if he’s playing with Died Pretty at the Forum or in a tiny pub with just him and Cam Butler, the man always gives the exact same balls out performance every time, and what a show he puts on. Ron’s latest LP with the Superstitions, Do you Understand, is one of the year’s best. Seven tracks in under 30 minutes, it’s an LP of life, and all the things that make it, good and bad, accompanied by that beautiful voice of Ron’s, one of the best vocals to come out of Australia.
Munster: Do you Understand, the new Superstitions LP dropped yesterday, tell us something about the process for this recording that was different to the other releases?
Ron: not much, probably the only difference was I recorded all the vocals in Cam’s apartment, just him and I worked on the vocals. I did all the vocals, including the backing, I had lots of ideas, I was far more comfortable doing it at Cams apartment rather than the studio, which is great for the rhythm tracks and instrumentals but vocals I like to do privately. And I did the vocals one on one with Cam, he and I worked on it for quite a while, backwards and forwards getting everything right, different lyrics and words, just hitting them right. I was satisfied with the level of vocal work, I had a better attitude and worked harder then I ever had before. I had a stronger attitude this time rather than going “oh that will do, I don’t need to do that again”, this time I thought no I can do better, so I was doing a few things over and over getting it right.
Munster: I take recording at Cam’s meant you could take your time and it was no rush.
Ron: exactly. Yeah it was wonderful. I would go to his place, have a coffee and do some vocal work, have a break have some more coffee have a chat, and whatever, talk about the LP ideas and stuff then get back to it. It was very casual and very loving. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The process was the same as the previous three LPs, I would wait for Cam to come up with the musical side of things, a collection of music I could put melodies to. Construct it then get down to it. We demoed songs a few times and Cam would come to the table with things full produced. So he’ll have a back track and a rhythm track and some rough keyboard and guitar parts, so it would be up to me to go “where do you want the verse the chorus, what if I sing this here.” Then I put a second vocal to put behind it, then a third. It was all good very creative. We started this in 2018, then 2019 was my cancer year, so I was in and out of hospital so that put an end to that. Towards the end of 2019 I was able to work on ideas, and I thought all steam ahead and 2020 will be our year, but of course we all know the rest. I thought ok it’s not our time. And all these new words entered out vocabulary like lockdown and isolation. So we played when we could I think we played one show at Memo, without a crowd they just filmed it for Channel 31. It was kind of weird, so we played when we could, and IT was weird with the limited numbers, the music industry has taken a kicking in the last couple of years. Hate to use a cliché but hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel. So we played little bits here and there just working on the LP, mainly getting the vocals and keyboards right. They were the last two things we worked on, we worked on Tim’s keyboard line which he wanted to work on, and then finding the time, when we could visit each other when we were out of lockdown. This LP was released yesterday on my birthday, so it was my birthday gift to everyone. We were very pleased with everything, it’s a short LP, only 30 minutes, but its seven beautiful songs, I think, and I’m very proud of it and it’s a lovely package I think beautifully presented from the cover to the songs.
Munster: as someone who love punk and garage that’s great to hear, I think all LPs should be 30 minutes long.
Ron: the Ramones first LP was the same length there one of my all-time favourite bands so maybe I modelled it on that.
Munster: in terms of the band structure, does Cam do the music and you do the words?
Ron: yeah basically I get to hear it first, so he’ll ring me up out the blue and say I got a batch of songs I’d like you to hear. Why don’t you come over? I’ll listen to them and take it from there. Whether I come up with some melodies, 9 times out of 10 that’s what I come up with. their wasn’t too much toeing and throwing. Then we get a basic structure verse chorus and all that, a middle 8 here and there, then we send it to the band, and the songs slowly form over insuring months.
Munster: so you’re not a jam it out in the rehearsal room kind of band?
Ron: no not one of those bands I thought we would be. When we formed ten years ago I thought we would be doing a lot of creating in the studio, but we’re not that band, its kind of odd. Its kind of Cams domain brining music to the table and we work with that. Unlike Died Pretty which formed songs in rehearsal rooms, we don’t do that with the Superstitions.
Munster: how did you first meet Cam?
Ron: just a social thing basically, we were at a bar here in Melbourne, and Penny Ikinger was playing that night, and she was a material friend and introduced us, I had a few red wines and feeling very friendly, she introduced us and I said I loved Silver Ray, his old instrumental band, I said I’m Ron Peno, and he said yeah I know who you are. (Laughs) so I said we should, and again I had a few red wines so I was very friendly, I said wow we should get together and write some songs, he said yeah sure. The next day you wake up with a hangover and say what happened? And I got a call from Cam saying you still want to get together and I said what? (Laughs). I said sure and that’s how it happened. He came to my place, and I had a lot of song ideas that we used on our first LP Future Universe. I had several Dictaphone that I threw down some melodies, I’d just walk around when an idea came to me. I had about three of them, and that’s how we do it, the other three LPs we would get together whenever Cam has a bunch of songs. Our keyboard player Tim is also a songwriter I’d like to investigate that more.
Munster: I interviewed you many years ago, pre Superstitions, and you said you wanted to make a solo LP, was it one of those cases you always kept writing and were waiting on the right people to come along?
Ron: yeah, you know, typical singer crap talk, “I want to do a solo LP man”, its one of those lead singer things. There a bit different to the rest of the band let’s put it that way. Its one of those clichéd things but I’ve always wanted to do a solo thing. I don’t play an instrument so I’ll never really do a true solo project, so I’ll always need to work with other people. And I did really try to call it just the Superstations, I was out voted for some bizarre reason, they thought putting my name up front would help, I said guys I’m not really that great, I thought that could go against us why don’t we just call ourselves the Superstitions. It stayed so it’s been good and bad, just go with what you got.
Munster: your voice still sounds amazing after all these years, how have you kept it in good nick?
Ron: just looking after it. I drank and smoked a lot over the years, I was 66 yesterday, I gave it a good canning, so when I was diagnosed I had to make some changes, i didn’t want to be one of those rock n roll casualties, I love creating and performing, so I had to make some changes. I still have more writing and creating and performing to do. And collaborating, which I love. So when I was diagnosed I gave up cigarettes and alcohol, I gave up the smokes a few months before that which helped, and gave up the booze. So I’ve been not smoking or drinking for the last 2 and a half-3 years. I feel more clear headed and clear eyed, as I said doing things like concentrating on vocals putting my heart and soul into it and with lyrics and just working and creating, and not being an old drunk. We do our music with a lot of passion and emotion and I think we’re special in that way, the band Cam, Andy, Tim and Mark, there amazing guys and I’m very fortunate and I don’t like to take that lightly, and I’m very lucky to not be some old drunk in a bar saying “remember Died Pretty” (laughs). I don’t want to be that, I want to keep playing with the Superstitions or with anyone else that wants to make music with me.
Munster: I’ve seen you live with Died Pretty, the Superstitions and with Cam as a duo, and I love no matter the gig, or the venue, you always bring the same passion and intensity when performing.
Ron: well yup that’s what we do, I have a duo with Cam doing Superstition songs, it allows us to be even more out there as it’s just us. There’s no rhythm section or keyboard or that luxury, just Cam on guitar and pedals and me with vocals, and it gives us freedom to be even more out there with the songs. If we want to stretch the songs out to 10-15 minutes we can. Mind you I realize that can be very boring if you were listening to that. It’s a fine line between being self-indulgent and being creative. You don’t want people saying “oh god when’s this song going to end”. I always tell the guys don’t make them overly long, otherwise they’ll be bored. You take them to a certain point, that’s it. I don’t want people saying when does it end. If you reach a point you don’t go anywhere else, you’re in the atmosphere you can’t go any higher, just level out. That’s how we operate anyhow. We like to bring it from the heart and take the audience on a journey, cliché as it sounds. Just take an audience on an emotional and wild journey full of sounds and emotions.
Munster: I read an interview where you said the Superstitions and Died Pretty have two different audiences. Does that surprise you?
Ron: a little bit, strange as I think there not that different. I think the Superstitions are a bit darker and a bit more passionate and intense, then Died Pretty, Died Pretty had more a pop edge. That’s not really present in the Superstations, although we have rocked out a few times, we have a few pop moments.
Munster: In the same interview you described yourself as a lazy lyrists. What’s that about?
Ron: yeah exactly (laughs). I’ll just blame alcohol on previous interviews. It’s just a personal thing, I worked on those lyrics in 2020 and one thing 2020 enabled me to write lyrics, as there was nothing to do other than read, do crosswords or write lyrics. So I’d write lyrics and I had all the songs on an I Pod, and occasionally there would be a nice line and I’d keep that, and I would say what was that last word? What rhymes with that? Takes me a long time. People like Nick Cave are disciplined writers. It’s their craft. I’m still getting there. Its their job their craft there into it. Where’s I’m like if there’s something good on TV I’ll watch that. I’ll write later it will be fine. But I come to the plate at the end of the day.
Munster: would you say you’re a personal songwriter?
Ron: it depends on the music, what the music is saying to me. Again that sounds cornball. What we do with the music tells me what I dictate, what I write lyrically. A song like Love Light, it’s a short song, like 2 minutes, it had this air of desolation. So I modelled it on two lovers, passing in the night or looking at each other from across the room. “The little bridges loneliness will drown us here”. That was a song about loneliness, and what we were going through. We had gone through this terrible pandemic that affected us all. They where lyrics about change, there was this disease that came into our world and we didn’t know what to do, so I changed it to fit that feeling. But I write about anything and anything really. See where the music takes me. Strangest Feeling is one of my favourite songs on the LP. Was an old song me and Cam had, it had the cornball title of Forgive Me (laughs). We actually played it a few times in the early days of the band. We had this song and I never liked the way I sang it, I thought “god I could come up with a better melody”, and we played it a few times and I said I’m really not liking this, I can’t do it. So he put it on the backburner, and Cam said you remember that song, and he played me the music, and said see if you come up with anything. And I came up with the Strangest Feeling. He just played it and I loved it, came up with this melody, and it took us 10 minutes to compose. I’ve always wanted to write a sci fi, space Oddity vocal, so that was my bad attempt at doing a Bowie vocal. I based it on a story from the mid 1970s, about Frederick Valentch, a pilot that travelled from Melbourne to King Island across the Bass Straight. He was doing a delivery and he said there was lights in the sky next to the plane. He was radioing back saying do you have any more planes? And they said no. he said lights where following him, and he lost transition and was never heard of again. So we don’t know what happened to Frederick. It captured my imagination in the 70s and stayed with me, so I based it on a sci fi alien thing. A bit of silliness.
Munster: I’ve seen you a few times perform with Jack Howards Epic Brass, great hearing you sing a few tunes with a big band and a brass section.
Ron: fun, just basically fun. And the band is always fun. And Jack asking me if I wanted to join him on the journey of doing Hunters Midnight Oil and other songs. I did Do You see what I see, which is a cool song. I ended up doing DC with brass, which was Jacks idea, so that was cool. I think I even did God Bless with brass.
Munster: Died Pretty has a big following in Europe, does that fanbase get into the Superstitions in Europe? Have you been over there?
Ron: only Cam and I. toured and we’ve done three tours. We first went in 2013, Cam was going over, he said lets go as a duo and work with some musicians over there, we had some French musicians as the rhythm section. We had very degrees of success. I was expecting more. You know Died Pretty was really big over there. I thought we would capitalise on that, but that was 20 years ago. One venue in Italy we played was 500 capacity, and we got 100 people. Second and third time we played a few festivals, which was fun but nothing like the success of Died Pretty. But we still get enquires for the Superstitions LP from Europe. We had fun, go for a few weeks have fun