ANYONE WHO KNOWS ME WELL enough and who also possesses the remarkable ability to find it within themselves to not attempt to ignore my incessant ramblings by tuning into a sheltered utopia of white noise and a mock lobotomy of vacuum-sealed bliss each time I try to strike up a conversation with them, will know these three things about me:
a) My hearing is about as useful as a vagina colouring book to a Catholic priest…
b) I’m only ever truly happy when experiencing at least a mid-level pang of discomfort, be it physically or mentally…
Let it be said, that these three traits are not mutually exclusive. They each coexist in symbiotic harmony. Take one away, and the other two shall cease to exist. Here’s proof:
To be afforded the luxury, and of course the carte blanche privilege, of spewing forth bile-laden chunks of excrement that may or may not contain traces of nutritional music matter for such an esteemed indy music publication as 50THIRDAND3RD, means that to a certain extent I can follow a particular thread of pointless dreams. If I wanna write about Serge Gainsbourg, then goddammit, Ima gonna write about Serge Gainsbourg. If I wanna attempt to continue pushing my barrow that Bob Mould and Black Francis shared the same womb from three different mothers and are therefore the same non-identical twin three times reincarnated, then screw it, that’s what I’m gonna do! Equally, ultimately, if I wanna fulfil a lifelong dream of interviewing an out-and-out legend who I firmly believe to be one of the most influential indy rock musicians in not only Australian music history, but the world’s, then by god, I’m going to stalk his Facebook profile and hassle the living hell out of him until he finally succumbs to a chinwag just so he can finally be done with me once and for all.
Luckily for me, Rick Johnson aka Rick Feedtime, is all class. He said yes to my badgering right off the bat.
At a time when the frenetic Stooges-influenced Sydney punk movement of the late 1970s was becoming crustier than a sunbaked prison sandwich ten minutes after a particularly gooey circle jerk, the responsibility to create something new and revolutionary was left precariously placed in the greasy palms of the next wave. And it was indeed a cluster of highly original, incendiary acts like Tex Deadly and the Dum-Dums, X, and our very own Feedtime that artfully provided the much-needed impetus and originality to prove to the world stage that Australian music wasn’t just a one-trick blues-based pony. Rip-roaring onto the scene with a series of raw and nasty live shows, Feedtime – Rick Johnson (guitar/vocals) Allen Larkin (bass/vocals) and Tom Sturm (drums) -blasted their way through a series of live, gut-wrenching treacle rock sets before eventually releasing their more pre-cum than seminal self-titled debut in 1985. But that was then…
…this is now.
So let’s talk about… then.
BENNY TWO-SHOES: Mr. Rick, first of all, a very warm welcome from all of us here at 50THIRDAND3RD. Being charged with the honour of chinwagging with you on all things Feedtime for this site, a site where many Feedtime fans congregate no less, is to me at least, an absolute honour and privilege.
Now that I’ve buttered you up somewhat, I gotta know more about your early schoolfriend Doug and why he wanted to kill his father.
RICK FEEDTIME: I can’t tell you too much about Doug, but he was maybe around 13 and me about 11. I don’t know why he was so intent on doing it but it seemed that he’d obviously had enough of something. He may or may not have got the job done later, so better to just leave it at that I think.
BENNY: Wow, I was merely expecting a snake oil political 101 “no comment”, so thank you so much for being even this forthcoming!
So what compelled a young Rick Johnson to pick up the guitar? A slide, no less!
RICK: I used to enjoy playing simple, strum stuff and always wanted to learn fingerpicking, so I had a buddy show me some tricks. I used to be a folk music habitué and despised electronic music. As far as the slide goes, I once heard some acoustic slide being played by a guy called Gypsy Dave Smith and asked for some lessons. That really got me going and before long I had a stack of old 33 1/3 rpm acoustic slide albums.
BENNY: A pretty broad question, I know, but how did the Johnson, Larkin and Sturm lineup come to fruition?
RICK: Allen and I were at school for a while together and working at the same place for a bit too. Eventually, we decided to get a band happening but knew nothing about how to do it! So we’d practice by bashing on old acoustic guitars or empty bean cans for percussion and we’d even yell into the handle end of a mop that we’d carefully place in a bucket just so we’d know what it would be like once we finally stood up in front of a mic. Soon enough, we got some pretty good gear and would try to play Stones covers and we also saw Rose Tattoo around that time which was very good. After a few months, we walked into a local bar and watched a crew called Ward 13 and asked who we should be seeing to hear some more harder stuff. The guy we spoke to, Irish John, told us to go and see some band called Axe, I mean, he was Irish, right? Anyway, we eventually worked out that he was saying X, saw their name on a flyer and duly went along to see them. That show changed our perceptions of everything.
BENNY: Once you found yourselves with a foot in the door of this new, more avant-noise based Sydney scene and mingling with such savages like Charlie Tolnay, Tex Perkins et al, did you ever feel aware that there was even at least a zephyr of an inkling that you were part of something extraordinary? And as an extension, how much of the fuck shit up mentality from guys like Grong Grong and Thug rub off on Feedtime?
RICK: I have absolutely no idea about the Sydney music scene. We didn’t mingle with anyone nor did we want to see anyone play other than X and Rose Tattoo. I probably saw Grong Grong and Thug once each, and a few others once. They just mingled amongst themselves. I have no idea about the pertinence of the music that was being made.
*It was at this point where I threw reams of notes and threads into the ceiling fan in a mutual fit of angst and despair. My next six questions were all about the Sydney music scene and its effect on Feedtime’s sound and attitude. So, just like Sun Tzu, let’s improvise. Umm… let’s play a song to stall for time.
BENNY: I once read that Ray Ahn of The Hard-Ons remembers seeing Feedtime for the first time and recalling that there was blood everywhere. Were the crowds back then particularly savage or just comically clumsy?
RICK: Some of the crowds were very blood-hungry, especially the New Zealand skinheads who were being very difficult for a while. Sometimes, yeah, there was a hell of a lot of blood. Part of the reason, as you suggest, is making the clumsy decision to leave the safety of your abode after sundown.
Listening to Feedtime for the first time, one can’t help but feel a tad squeamish and, to a larger extent, petrified. That initial cherry-busting initiation to the utter contempt for anything structured and oblique -1985’s self-titled debut- makes even the most sickly of nauseous symptoms seem like the perfect companion to perhaps spend the rest of your life with. The album is tantric torture. A slow, burning tease. Painful, yet rousingly scintillating. This notion is made all too apparent from track one; the caged-underwater-gurgling-mental patient refrain of ‘Ha Ha’. Here, the poor sap that is the virginal Feedtime listener is rapidly rendered acutely aware of one thing, that for the next thirty minutes, life’s gonna be a bit of a challenge.
Ultimately though, by album’s end, that slow-burning tease has become so unnervingly uncomfortable and wreaking of venerial itch, that an enthusiastic spring into action to grind your crotch against the bass-plundered vibration of the speakers’ woofers seems at this point to be the only rational course of action.
BENNY: That first album to me is still one of the more phenomenal, raw and menacing recordings I’ve ever heard. I’ve always been intrigued as to how something so savage and so primeval as that debut can be reduced to a formulaic barebone and still have the ability to undertake the somewhat synthetic process of recording. On that note, how did the writing and recording process for ‘Feedtime’ go down? Was it simply a matter of closing your eyes and hoping for the best or were things more organised than that?
RICK: It’s interesting that you should mention your feelings about the first record. Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll reviewed it as “the greatest hand-smash-face record of all time rock history”. As far as writing the album, we basically just adapted the songs as we played around, and once in the studio we just played non-stop until finally it was recorded. The engineer was in another room around the corner and it was all live-to-mic singing and playing at the same time. The only dub was when I rolled the motorcycle outfit down the ramp and played with the throttle while ‘I Wanna Ride’ was playing in the headphones. Then I got rid of the headphones and rode it back up the ramp.
BENNY: Were you guys already signed up to Bruce Griffith’s Aberrant Records by this stage?
RICK: We had already met Bruce by this stage and he was the one who organised for us to record at the Mary Street studios. I think Tom once asked Bruce for some advice and that’s how we got to know him. We weren’t looking for a label at the time and honestly had no idea if the sound would have been any different or not if we had one. We never really gave it any thought. We didn’t know how to approach such things.
BENNY: At what stage did Feedtime begin to gain enough of a following to be able to branch out from Sydney and tour to places like Melbourne and Adelaide?
RICK: There was never any sufficient audience to bother touring. Our first visit to Melbourne we had an audience of two!
BENNY: Those stupid Melbournites! What about Seattle, then? At what stage did you become aware that some heavy-hitters in the Seattle grunge scene had gone ga-ga over Feedtime?
RICK: We only really found out about our Seattle thing when Sub Pop offered to put together the box set –Feedtime: The Aberrant Years – we’d heard vague rumours in the past that certain bands collected Feedtime records but that info never really meant anything to us.
By the mid 1980s, a new, more experimental music scene was forming along Australia’s east and southern coasts, and by the late-eighties, that scene was well and truly entrenched in the counter culture. Feedtime from Sydney, Adelaide’s Bloodloss and Melbourne’s Venom P. Stinger took their respective cities by storm, introducing elements of jazz, art rock, heavy metal and the avant-garde into the punk world, and pissing off a whole lotta hardcore loving jocks in the process. Thanks to the now defunct, but truly legendary Aussie record labels Aberrant and Black Eye Records (a subsidiary of Sydney label Red Eye) the scuzz scene grew to include ex-Scientists and Beasts of Bourbon member Kim Salmon’s new band the Surrealists, Australia’s answer to Texas’ Butthole Surfers, Lubricated Goat, and incredible punk-jazzsters King Snake Roost. It truly was a nationwide effort, but a closer-knit and more incestuous scene you’d be hard-pressed to find. Although Feedtime had wound down their cycle of live shows by this period, they most certainly hadn’t slowed down their creative output, releasing album number two, 1986’s thumping masterpiece Shovel, as well as an album made up entirely of covers entitled Cooper S.
BENNY: The decision to record an album entirely of covers for that “difficult third album”, was that purely due to a distinct lack of material, or was it something that you guys had always wanted to do. Either way, it’s a damn ballsy move that completely paid off for us listeners at least.
RICK: We had always performed covers to pad out the 3 x 45 minute sets that we played. Most of it was filled with the Stones, X (U.S.), X (Sydney), Ramones, Slade, old bluesmen etc. Recording Cooper S just seemed like a natural progression. I never really listened to so-called rock music… hated electric guitar. I much preferred the folk styles of Peter, Paul & Mary, The Seekers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell et al. Mitchell taught me a lot. I listened to loads of acoustic blues too; guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, Huddie Ledbetter… also listened to plenty of cajun too (not zydeco!) About thirty years ago I also branched into acapella and it’s all just gone on from there. Leo Kottke, Tom Waits, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Paco Pena, Ellen MacIlwaine, Sweet Honey in the Rock…
Although problematic and potentially disastrous, the notion of recording a covers album during a period of Australian underground music riding waves of influence and success, particularly in the fledgeling Seattle grunge scene, didn’t faze Feedtime in the slightest. Instead, a timeless piece of recorded history was compiled, with oh- so-perverse Feedtime-esque versions of Beach Boy’s ‘Fun Fun Fun’, Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Lightning’s Girl’ as well as a rousing rendition of Aussie icons The Easybeats ‘Sad, Lonely and Blue’. No prisoners were taken on the recording of Cooper S, and if anything it all but cemented feedtime’s legendary icon status stateside even further.
With the release of the previous year’s Shovel and the recording of Cooper S, this unwittingly honed period only seemed to strengthen the band’s musicianship, pop sensibilities and growing expertise in off-the-wall ballideering, just in time for the 1989 release of Kurt Cobain favourite, the iconic Suction album.
BENNY: Whether by design or not, there seemed to be a real maturing of the band on the Suction album, especially with elements such as melody and vocal delivery. Did you feel within yourselves that you had taken another step?
RICK: It seems that out of the two, Shovel was the preferred album. How would I really know anyway? As far as Suction goes, I wouldn’t say that it’s another step up, but we definitely did try some new things. I wanted to meld the old blues (Piedmont et al) with the modern feeling of the city heat of asphalt and concrete without actually resorting to a pre-existing style like Chicago, Philly or any other 12-barred stuff. At the time, I asked a buddy –Dom Turner of The Backsliders– who had learned a bit from the same slide master as me to help out on a song. So he came in with Peter -their percussion guy/washboard etc.- and laid down a few electric tracks for ‘I’ll Be Rested’. We even got him to sing the words too! Then I organised a holy roller gospel choir, a buddy who used to front a blues crew in Chicago and a friend called Scuzzalita who came in and yelled! I wanted to demonstrate a certain degree of relentlessness so we had Allen train himself to do a full-power all-down pump on the bass e string, and we even went as far as to organise an acquaintance who had trained at the conservatorium to advise on how to tune the bass so that all the sympathetic notes would eventually smash into each other and no primary note would be able to be played no matter how hard Allen hit it. Of course he said that it couldn’t be done except with electronic interference. So it was a resounding get fucked to that idea, right?
This more or less comported with the perceived need to exercise proper disdain for the prevailing norms of unutterable laziness and posturing that was all around us… pretty people looking pretty when they played prettily and then they let the people clapclapclap.
Anyway, I wanted to do something like Tchaikovsky expected from the violin when he arranged the ratbastard ending of his violin concerto opus 35 in D -the one that nobody can actually do except for Tossy Spivakovsky.
BENNY: Never will I listen to Suction in the same manner again. In fact, I just might as well never listen to it at all anymore. No wonder you couldn’t be stuffed with bands like Thug and Grong Grong!
Ultimately, at the conclusion of the recording of Suction, Rick suffered a mental breakdown which in his words was “a long time coming”. This signalled the demise of Feedtime in its original format and by the time Suction was released, the band had all but disappeared from the face of the planet. With Seattle greats such as Mark Arm, Kurt Cobain and Buzz Osbourne championing the release of this incredible album, the potential for the band to finally hit the U.S. and see what all the fuss was about was there for the taking, but with health issues taking their toll and with interest waning on the home front, a Feedtime U.S. onslaught seemed nothing more than a fantastical pipe dream.
RICK: We didn’t tour America. We were due to but we split up instead. I couldn’t face the prospect of more record deals (Rough Trade etc.) or doing Feedtime anymore. It was a tough time. I still knew nothing about Seattle either!
In 1995, the band reformed to play a few shows -this time with Allan Larkin’s younger brother John stomping away behind the kit- and subsequently released a brand new album Billy in 1996 on Minneapolis’ legendary Amphetamine Reptile label, run by the great Tom Hazelmeyer. By then though, in that old cliche, the scene was dead. Sure, the “grey-hairs” went to the shows and bought the album, and yes, once again the old boys of the now hideously stale Seattle scene lapped up the reformation, but things weren’t quite the same and before long, the band called it quits once more.
BENNY: Tom Hazelmeyer seems to have been an ever-present entity around Feedtime and has championed the band relentlessly over the years. Did he play any role in encouraging the band to reform for 1995’s Billy? What was the driving force behind recording another album after six years?
RICK: A friend called Mark Henderson initially got the Billy album rolling, then Jeffrey Hall of Black Hole in Melbourne got on side and so too did Tom Hazelmeyer. I wrote and arranged all but one of the songs because Al had writer’s block at the time. The album wasn’t too bad though.
BENNY: Did Feedtime fans old and new come out to play during the subsequent Billy tour or had they all dropped off by then?
RICK: Feedtime was completely unwanted in Sydney at the time so there really wasn’t that many fans to fall off! Also, we had professional and attitudinal disagreements after Billy and broke up again. Figured we’d just about had enough of each other including ourselves.
BENNY: Any Billy regrets?
RICK: Billy was a failed comeback album, but it was worth trying to do. I think.
BENNY: In the time between Billy and the recording of 2017’s Gas were you and the other guys still playing music or had you had enough by then? What went down in those Feedtime-less years?
RICK: Between Billy and Gas I played washboard for a few years with a couple of old time hard players: one was Jimmy Niven (a keyboard and accordion player par excellence). These guys knew how to play! It was some fun and gave me an education too. Playing to a small audience one night, I saw a guy in the crowd with a tear in his eye. Turns out he was a jazz musician from New Orleans and hadn’t heard the washboard played in a long while. He was happy!
In 2012, Sub Pop released the rather incredible package of those four original Feedtime albums, quite rightly titling the box set, “The Aberrant Years”. With the release came another Feedtime resurgence with those around the band very quickly realising the power of this thing called the internet. Suddenly, fans popped up from all over the world, and finally, some three decades later, the band members realised the indirect, nonetheless huge influence that they had over modern day rock for all these years.
BENNY: In 2012, Sub Pop released The Aberrant Years and as a result you finally hit the U.S. for a tour. You guys must have been rapt! What was the lead up to this amazing series of events going down?
RICK: We were invited a bit earlier than 2012 to play a party for Scott Sorianos 10-year anniversary of his label SS Records, so we went along and played at the Bottom of the Hill and left. He treated us really well and we are still very grateful to him for what he did to boot us back into existence. Then one day, Jonathon Poneman (SubPop) was being interviewed on JJJ radio back in Australia where he said that Shovel was an album that he would have liked to release. We heard about this, told Bruce Griffiths, he spoke to Mark Arm, who spoke to Poneman and it was agreed to re-release the Aberrant Years box set.
BENNY: 2017 was a huge year for you guys. It saw the release of the relentless Gas LP and a subsequent tour of Australia and the U.S. What brought about the want to record another album and go through the rigmarole of recording and touring etc. again?
RICK: After twenty years or so, we really liked being back together. Allen also had quite a bit of stuff to say, me less so, so off we went on a new adventure. He was writing stuff outta A tuning that suited an A slide and with that I was able to use the tuning style that Joni Mitchell had utilised on her song ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire‘. So that was pretty much the closing for me. I took up a third tuning for Feedtime instead of just two! The beautiful thing about Gas also was that it was recorded live, just like that first album. Mikey Young (engineer) and Zephyr Larkin (assistant engineer) got it down perfectly. The whole lot was recorded in ten hours.
BENNY: And with new adventure comes new partnerships. How did Feedtime end up signing with LA’s In the Red records?
RICK: We initially shopped Gas to Sub Pop as a courtesy; Sub Pop’s Dean Whitmore (A&R) helped us with this. The popsicle big shots turned the album down which was the sensible thing to do. We ended up with some quality recommendations for other labels and it seemed that everyone in the world was recommending In the Red, so we tried there. Larry was all good with it. We got lucky!
BENNY: Finally, Rick. The lead up to last year’s U.S. tour was not only a bit of a joke, but it really became an out-and-out pain in the arse and very nearly ended everything before things even got started. I remember talking to you about this briefly at the time, but would you care to elaborate on the events leading up to flying out to the U.S., how this insane series of events affected the band both physically and mentally and just how amazing the independent music community can be to others in times of need?
RICK: Well, shit happened, that’s for sure! Back in the early 1980s, Tom had got himself busted for possession of two or three joints of weed. Thirty-five years later, when it comes time to tour again, Tom received the usual warning that he would be interviewed once in the States about this indiscretion. There’s never been a problem in the past. So during the consulate issue when we were all applying for our U.S. performance visas, Tom received no indication as to whether or not he would actually be issued with one this time. So, as I was next up to be interviewed, I asked about Tom’s case. The officer kindly explained that all applications that involved a charge of possession for a controlled substance had to be sent for review by a homeland security officer in the United States proper and that consular discretion no longer exists. Eventually, we were told that there was no way to expedite Tom’s visa even if he was made clear to travel, as we were all set to leave pretty soon. Even though there were already performances locked in, nothing could be done. Tom was told that it would be impossible to go on tour so Bruce Griffiths sent out a red alert and a whole bunch of drummers stepped up!
BENNY: Tom seems like a pretty classy guy that would handle this sort of thing better than most. Was he rattled at all?
RICK: Tom rattled? He doesn’t rattle. Sure, he was sad but he sent all the fill-in drummers loads of info and all were really happy to get it. His wife Carmel took on the guide/guard/organiser/merch job as if Tom was there too. She showed more class than anybody in the whole world.
BENNY: And the slew of drummers that readily threw their hands up to volunteer to keep the Feedtime tour kicking… let’s name some of these heroes. I understand that the great Martin Bland was one of them.
RICK: Firstly, I can tell you that ALL the drummers were stone cold killers with the beat credentialed beyond my limited ability to understand their quality. Apart from Martin Bland, we also had Jason Willer (Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine), Travis Kuhlman (Buildings), Ian Piirtola (Den), Tyler Damon (percussionist/improvisation artist), Hunter Crowley (The Groove Divinities) and Anthony Bedard (Icky Boyfriends/Hank IV) who played our set at Memphis’ Gonerfest.
Mr. Rick Johnson, it is such an honour that you have allowed me the time to FINALLY have a chat with a favourite member of one of my all time favourite bands. Thanks so much for your generosity. Fanboy out.