Greg Quill (Country Radio, Southern Cross)

Interviewed by John Broughton, December 1999

[For more information on Greg Quill, Country Radio and Southern Cross, please go to our Artist index]

We'll cover a bit of history first before we talk about what you're up to now. Growing up, when did music start to become a major interest for you?

Oh God, I guess in late high school ... you know 14, 15, 16, I guess was when I started learning guitar. The first time I performed in public was at some sort of sixth form High School rally of some kind, and I remember writing some kind of silly song about the teachers and the kids all loving it, so -- yeah in high school.

After that, all through university, of course it was the singer songwriter boom period. I just followed folk music -- it was what everyone listened to -- and I ended up establishing with some friends a little folk club way out on the north shore of Sydney, called The Shack, which lasted about four of five years years, and became one of the pre-eminent folk haunts of Sydney during the late 60s and very early 70s. I played there and I managed the place. ...It was a sort of folk co-operative, and everybody who performed on a particular evening got to share in the door takings -- it was never more than a couple of bucks, but we had some great performances there.

Who would have been some of your earliest musical acquaintances there on that scene?
Marion Henderson used to play there, Gary Greenwood, Mike McClelland, all the stars of the folk period played there over four or five years.
Do you recall being terribly ambitious in those days?
No, I never was ambitious. I never was ambitious in anything actually. I really never did make up my mind what I was going to be. I always seemed to land in a position where choices were already made for me. I wasn't particularly ambitious, no. Certainly not to be a musician, because I saw so many musicians around me who were infinitely better in terms of technical skills and their command of their instruments. I never seemed to have the gift to be a musician, more than to be an accompanist...
Things just sort of happened. It was while I was playing at The Shack that this guy came down, and he was a music publisher, and he came back a few times and he approached me about signing a publishing contract -- which I knew nothing about, so I thought I might as well. He said he could maybe get some of my songs recorded by other people -- I had absolutely nothing to lose.
The result was that I ended up doing a demo, which became an album for EMI, on the Harvest label, which was the Fleetwood Plain album. I had a sort of regional radio hit with that song Fleetwood Plain, and other people were recording it, and a couple of guys that I used
You've been working as a journalist for a number of years over there, but your journalism experience goes back even further - you worked on the old Go-Set magazine, didn't you?
I did, yes, I guess for about a year, year and a half. Straight after I came out of university, I applied for a job. I had heard there was something going at Go-Set. I was not familiar at all with the magazine, but I imagined that if I had a career anywhere, it was in writing somewhere, because the only real skills I had were as a writer. And this seemed to to provide a link between my writing ability and my interest in music - although it was pop music, and I had really no time for pop music. But anyway, I ended up getting the job as NSW features writer, and I met David Elfick; he was the managing editor there at the time, of the NSW edition, and got in the Go-Set fold and ... quickly [laughs] learned how to deal with celebrities.
Actually that was a very important element of training for what I do now. Because for the 15 or 16 years I've been working at the [Toronto] Star, I've been working in the Arts area -- first as a music critic, then as a television critic, now as Senior Features Writer. I think I have an edge that other people don't that, and that harks back to the Go-Set years, where at a very young age I was thrown into situations were I had to get real and affecting stories out of celebrities, and to make contact with them on a real and human level. And I think that served me well.
Did it work the other way as well? Having that background at Go-Set, did that help you in later years as a recording and performing musician in dealing with the music press?
Oh god, not really! I didn't really have much to do with the music press, or the music press never had much to do with me during the Country Radio years. Go-Set was a help initially. When the Fleetwood Plain album came out, I remember David Elfick wrote a little story about me in the paper and put a picture in Go-Set. I know at the time it was ... [laughs] ... more promotion for Go-Set than launching a career in music!

Go-Set was entirely pop-oriented and what we were doing was very much on the fringes of pop music. They didn't deal with folk music or fringe music in any way. When Go-Set folded later on ... I think I only did one or two interviews with a any of the Australian music press, as I remember; one was with the Daily Planet, and I think there was one with Go-Set, much later on. But that was about it.

So it didn't really help in terms of my belonging to a particular journalistic fold. It was not that much of a community, actually. It was quite insular and parochial and even in Go-Set, the Sydney and Melbourne offices had an amazing degree of autonomy. Often the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing!

How did Country Radio eventually evolve, because you had started recording solo beforehand?
Yeah. From those sessions I started out with Chris Blanchflower, who was from the folk scene as well. He played harmonica -- he came from Britain -- and he was an incredible harp player. There are two kinds of harp players -- I don't want to get too arcane -- but there's the straight harp, which is mostly blowing, and you play in the key in which the song is set, and there's the cross harp player, which is mostly sucking, which is in a related tuning, and that's mostly the blues-style harmonica.

Chris was probably the best cross harp player I'd ever heard. He used to hang around in England with some incredible people, including Rod Stewart I believe, when he was in his early folkie years. Anyway I had Chris, and Chris provided colour and all the sort of accompaniment that I needed in the folk setting, but within a very short time we were thrown into situations where we had to compete with other bands, because we were on bills with bands with electric instruments -- you know, drums and bass guitars and stuff - and just to be heard ... We went through a period of trying bass players and drummers and we ended up with Tony Bolton, who was an incredible drummer.

We still had Chris, and a couple of guitars, but around that time I'd been listening to a bit of American and British folk-rock, which was making its presence felt. There were elements in there -- steel guitar and mandolin -- which I really wanted, and unfortunately at that time I couldn't find anybody how could play either one, let alone both. Until somebody told me about this guy in Melbourne called Kerryn Tolhurst, who everybody knew played lap steel, and I talked to Kerryn on the phone and he said "Oh, I play a bit of mandolin too". So he came up to Sydney for an audition, and sure enough he played dynamite steel, and strummed convincingly on mandolin.

Little did I know until actually about three weeks ago -- when he told me the story for the first time -- that he'd never picked up a mandolin in his life! When I told him I wanted a mandolin player he borrowed a mandolin from a friend, and he got a lift up to Sydney from Melbourne with our roadie, and taught himself two chords on the mandolin -- which were the two chords he played for me on a jam session with the band, and they were also the two chords that are the signature intro to Gypsy Queen! So the following week he taught himself to play mandolin and by the time our first gig came up he'd learned to play it!

And Kerryn brought in John Bois on bass, and John was a Melbourne bass player whom Kerryn had admired. And because I really admired Kerryn's musical taste and ability I trusted him, and with John and Kerryn and Tony Bolton and myself and Chris Blanchflower, and the pianist - we picked up a pianist in Sydney, John Bird, from the Sydney blues scene - and that was it. That had all the colour and drive; it had every colour of the rainbow. That was the band that was 'IT' - it was heaven on a stick for me.

It sounds like you knew in advance the sound you were chasing there?
I didn't. If you'd asked me back then what I was after I would not have been able to articulate it. I wanted a band that has lots of strings and strumming in it, but that also had the colour and versatility that the piano added. And the harmonica had been so associated with my voice that it was .. there all the time. It was a bit of a luxury because that was all that Chris did was play harmonica [laughs].

But it was a defining sound -- the mandolin, the steel and the harmonica were the defining sound of Country Radio. By the time we'd done a bit of recording and a lot of touring, I knew that that was a very special combination, and that nobody could duplicate it.

When Kerryn left the band in '73/'74 to form The Dingoes, I was heartbroken, because he took two of the three instruments that really defined the quality of the band, and I knew we'd never get it back again, because that combination was just ... too special.

Do you have a strong memory of any particular things from the Australian music scene of the Seventies, particularly around the time when Gypsy Queen was successful?
I remember the Sunbury festival ... it was that big one that blew everyone's expectations out of the water, and there was 80,000 people there or something. I'll never forget that, because everybody in the Australian rock business, anybody who had a touring band at that time was on the bill. It was a fairly chaotic sort of assembly, but it was the first chance that everybody got a chance to hang out together and listen to each other play at close range - but in such incredible circumstances, in this huge kind of ... paddock-valley ...

I remember when we went on everything was running late that day and we didn't get on 'til sundown which was hours later than we were supposed to ... and I think it was just a special moment. It was because we were playing this very gentle, acoustic, ringy mandolin music, with lots of romance in the lyrics ... it happened right at sundown, with a rather spectacular sunset, as I remember. But I remember, after a couple of songs, looking out and seeing 80,000 people standing up and screaming and waving and clapping. I thought the stage was on fire or something. I remember turning round to Kerryn and saying "What the hell's going on? -- but it was for us! It was just a moment, you know ... one of those moments that ... that just happen, and you can never plan it. That was certainly memorable.

There was another time ... [laughs] ... much later, and we were between gigs on the road from somewhere to somewhere, I think it was in northern NSW or somewhere. We had the night off and we'd heard that the local television station was putting on a telethon to raise funds for some local charity, and we wanted to play anyway so we offered our services, and they were all too willing to accept. They put us in a makeup room and their gratitude was such that they provided us with a couple of crates of beer and a couple of bottles of wine... [laughs]. Anyway, by the time they came to get us to go on stage for this live telethon, the band had got into the makeup and everyone was made up in harlequin makeup and, oh, all kinds of bizarre makeup ... and some of the guys had gotten into ladies dresses and tutus and everybody was roaring drunk. And I remember the producer put his head round the door, took one look and said "I don't think we'll be needing your services today." That was the day Kerryn refers to as the day the turned into "The Gypsy Queens"! [laughs]

There were a million times. Country Radio was such an unusual band, the characters were so strong. I don't remember many fights, nothing out of the usual, a very close band. We just loved to play, we just lived to play in those days. And of course you didn't have much time for anything, it was just -- you know, you had to work to play alive. Just a lot of work ... I mean there were too many, too many things to single out. Somebody no doubt will remind me. [laughs]

Was it your choice in the end to fold up the band and go back to a solo career?
Yeah ... yeah it was. I'd really run out of options. After Kerryn left John Bois stayed on with me for a while, and we went through a period of trying other guitar players to see if we could change. We got rid of the piano and the harmonica after all those years, and we thought we could add a couple of guitars and do a three guitar thing. But we couldn't -- we just couldn't get the right chemistry. We tried, and we recorded -- we did one with Les Stacpool, who was a legendary guitar player. But he was one of those guys who, unless all the stars were lined up right it just wasn't magic for him, and it was the same whoever we tried -- it was so inconsistent. I had a bunch of songs, and didn't want to blow them unless I had a dream band.

Well, the dream band actually happened for the Outlaw's Reply album -- by then the band was kaput, and I'd virtually stopped playing, but Kerryn and John Bois came up from Melbourne, and said if you get a record deal we'll put the dream band together for you, and we'll do the album, and it'll be the best album you can do. And it was. It was basically Country Radio with some handpicked session players -- and an incredible producer, John Sayers -- and I think that album was certainly the high point for me. It was an artistic epiphany, and it was all because of Kerryn and John and Tony and Chris, they just put they're hearts into it and made it happen. If I could have had taken that band on the road, we'd have conquered the world. But by then The Dingoes were in full swing, and it was time to turn the page, start somewhere else.

What was the initial attraction in taking your music to Canada?
Well ... The Flying Circus, with whom I had been friends, and whom I'd known years before, had gone to Canada in about 1971 or '72, as the result of winning the Battle of the Sounds contest in Australia. They'd settled here and they'd done a couple of albums for a major label -- for EMI actually -- and they had done well. I'd kept in touch with their manager John Sinclair and their bass player Terry Wilkins, and it seemed like a good place to base yourself in North America, particularly because it was very difficult to get green cards in the states, but Canada in those days was a good base. That's where I had my eyes set. Now I could have stayed in Australia and worked at the Outlaw's Reply album but I'd received a grant from the Australian Council for the Arts to travel overseas, and basically I had to use it or lose it, so Tony, my drummer, and I came here and started up again. And we tried through 'til 78 and by '78 we had Sammy See in the band who was in Flying Circus and Chris Stockley had joined us from The Dingoes, who had split up in the meantime, and Tony and myself, and we had an Australian bass player, Bruce Worrall, who had been in Sherbet with Sammy many many years ago, and that was the band that toured Australia in '78. We were supposed to come back here [to Canada] because we had a record deal with Warner Brothers. pending, but once the guys got back to Australia they decided they wanted to stay there. And my adventure over here hadn't really even started, let alone concluded, so I came back here alone.
Was it a tough decision, to eventually decide to leave Australia?
Yeah it was, it was -- it was very tough. Artistically, I'm sure I made the wrong decision, because until 1983, when I finally put my guitars away, I could not put together anything that made me happy. And the reason was because I had so far distanced myself from my roots and my cultural origins, and the kinds of yarns and myths and stories and styles and ideas and sensations that make Australian music unique, and which I'd taken for granted in my entire musical career up to that point. I distanced myself so far that I lost all focus, and all I was trying to do was write songs for the radio, and that's a loser's game, so I turned my back on it, and went back to journalism. and by then I had a wife and a baby girl, so it was a matter of practical necessity.
Can you give us a run-through of your work over there since you put your guitar away?
Actually in '82 while I was still playing I was editor of a national music magazine which no longer exists, called Music Express, and it was a very good magazine. For a few months after its demise I was editor of another national lifestyle magazine called Graffiti, which didn't last long either -- but that's got nothing to do with me [laughs]. Around the same time, I was writing freelance music reviews for the Toronto Star, and ended up coming to meetings and suggesting and writing features, about not just music, but about the music culture, and culture in general, until finally they offered me a full-time job and that was in the end of 1983. And I came on as a music critic, and I did that for about five years, until my interest in music, and the music of the time -- this would have been late '80s -- began to wane. In 1989 when the job as television critic came up, I opted for it, because I thought, and still do, that television is probably he most powerful cultural influence we have.

The Star is the biggest urban daily in Canada; its circulation is about 700,000 a day and a million on weekends -- it's a very big paper. So as I say, I was television critic until about two years ago, and then I was promoted to senior Arts writer. Now I write features about whatever takes my fancy in the culture at large, whether it's music or television or literature; it's probably the most rewarding job in the paper -- in any paper.

Having worked in both fields, and with people in both fields, have you found that journalists have a better appreciation of musicians, or vice versa?
Well, going backwards, I don't think musicians have any kind of understanding of journalists! [laughs] I think journalists are weasels if they don't like them, or star makers if they do. Generally journalists don't have much understanding of musicians either, and that was an edge for me too.

Having been a musician, I could relate on a very personal and artistic level, and I could tell stories ... First of all they would trust me --it was almost an instinctual thing. Most musicians sense that I know what I'm talking about, so there's an element of trust, and when there's trust they're more forthcoming than they would be with a journalist who was just off the city desk. But also I was able to frame stories in a way that led readers into an insight that illuminated the musician's life for readers, which I still think is an edge ... I mean it was just fortunate. Again that was something hat I just fell into -- it was not something that I planned. You go where your skills take you. I think some famous psychologist said once that What you're ding when you're forty was probably what you were meant to do all along.

Do you still pull the old records out from time to time?
Yeah, actually. Well, you know I didn't for the longest time. I didn't for about 15 years -- it was too painful. To listen to those records was a very intense thing for me, and when I wanted to listen to them I would have to set aside time in advance so I knew that I could lock myself away, because whenever I listen to the records they transport to times and places and to the actual origins of the feelings in which they were born. I hope that's not too "high-falutin" -- but those songs were born out of personal process, and sometime it's very intense to go back there, and I could never listen to my own music lightly. I know that I didn't listen to anything at all for about twelve or fifteen years.

But you know what? I went back to Melbourne this September [1999] for the first time in 21 years ... since October 1978. And I met up with Chris Stockley and Joe Camilleri, and people I hadn't seen ... people I knew way back then. And they were so welcoming and so ... to them I'm always Greg Quill from Country Radio. They don't know what I do in Canada, nor do they care, so when I came back here after 21 years, to them it was just like I'd been away on a tour for along time. [laughs]. It was only 24 hours before the guitars were out, and the mandolins, and we were singing the old songs, and the vitality and strength that comes from that was just amazing.

So ever since that trip, which was just over a month ago I've been listening. I picked up a set of my old records, I didn't even have a complete set of my old records, so I picked up everything I could find, and I've been playing it constantly, and it's been a source of incredible pride and energy and emotional satisfaction. It's like the two halves of myself have come together. It's just a very satisfying space I'm in right now. It's wonderful.

That's a lovely story. Do you still pull the guitar out at home from time to time?
At the moment ... as I said, I locked my guitars away for the longest time, until about ... really until this trip. I just couldn't play them. I'd lost my chops. In April a friend of mine called me up from Australia and suggested I come out there and do a couple of concerts, because he felt there'd be enough people to remember, and I could get around the country and have a good time ... you know all of that. And I refused, because honestly I just didn't think that my chops were there, and it would take me the best part of a year to get them back. And to what end? Just to be the musical memory of the month for aging baby boomers? I didn't want to do that. It was musically dishonest, professionally dishonest, artistically dishonest. But since this trip to Melbourne, I've got all my guitars out and I've been playing them every day, and my chops have come back. Absolutely amazing -- it's all there. It's been quite a trip. The last couple of months have been a turning point for me. And I may well be writing some songs again.
So it's not totally out of the question that we might see you back on our stages?
I don't know about the stages, but I may put something on record, just for fun. Just because I can, you know? It's not something I have to do. There are certain things you can only express in song, and I just rediscovered that.

If you had the whole time over again, what one thing would you do differently?

Oh geez ... I would have been more earnest in the early days of the band to consolidate our relationship. I probably would have listened to Kerryn more than I did. Kerryn Tolhurst, I've learned in the intervening years, had an incredible amount of good taste and prescience and instinct for music that, because I was musically naïve ... I just didn't have the patience to deal with it, and I wish I had.

© 2000 John Broughton

Many thanks to John and Greg