the MILESAGO interviews
Todd Hunter, co-founder and bass-player of Dragon,, reminisces with Jeremy Lee on "Sundays", broadcast on 30 July 2000 on ABC Radio 2CN-666.
Editors' note: Although Dragon's career flourished well beyond the years that MILESAGO concentrates on, we thought you might nonetheless find Todd's account of his band's formative stages interesting -- not to mention his candid revelations about the fame years. The b-side to April Sun In Cuba was credited to "Dr Agony" (think about it). It was released at that punk/new wave transitional time, a typically unsung Hunter-brothers' eccentricity that worked! Todd Hunter alludes to those times and considerably more, in this very frank conversation ... also, Todd possesses the most endearing and infectious laugh; we wish that happy and warm vibe could be adequately translated here in print ...
[Note: As this was a telephone interview, some of Todd's talk was muffled and indiscernible. This trancript attempts accuracy, but any glitches or non sequiturs are regretted but unavoidable. Comments in square brackets were added by the transcriber.]
Jeremy Lee (JL): Today's special guest who we come to now has been a part of one of Australia's most popular bands, and possibly one of our most tragedy-prone bands as well, with three members no longer with us. During the time they were together though, Dragon managed to come up with the goods on several occasions. Let's re-live some of those now, as we welcome Todd Hunter. Todd, good afternoon
Todd Hunter (TH): Hi, how are ya?
JL: Not too bad. Now, we might try and go back to your beginnings if we can, with Dragon, and indeed New Zealand. You actually were born and grew up in New Zealand?
TH: That's right
JL: In Auckland was it, or?
TH: No, in the middle of the North Island, Taumaramui. Down by the mountains and a lake -- it was a scenic wonderland!
JL: [laughs] So what kinda youth did you have, can you remember?
TH: It was pretty idyllic -- very, y'know, country sorta stuff. But it was frustrating too in that we; both Marc and I were both very interested in music and there was nothing there, whereas elsewhere it was all happening so we had to go somewhere else
JL: Yeah, and this was Auckland in the first case then, was it?
TH: Um, yeah, to Auckland and then we travelled around New Zealand and then moved over here [Australia]
JL: Right, but when you first put Dragon together, Marc wasn't a part of it right from the start, was he?
TH: No, he was more into the whole cabaret sorta thing and was doing different stuff. And then we got him in about a year later I think
JL: Oh really? What sort of cabaret things was he doing?
TH: Oh, he was fabulous! He was playing in cabaret lounges and entertaining all sorts of people, driving a pink Mercedes, all that sort of stuff, straight out of school! [laughs]
JL: So Auckland then, what was going on in Auckland? Was that a good place to be?
TH: Ahh, let me see ... er, New Zealand was so small musically that in order to actually play for people, once we travelled around to all the major cities -- we had a little circuit going -- there was nothing else to do, that's why we just had to move. Not enough people
JL: So, the initial stages of Dragon then, can you remember much about that and putting it together and who was around at the time?
TH: Well yes, it's all very clear but a lot I've all blocked out 'cos it's too far away and it's too tacky. But yeah, we sorta got together for a concert, a big rock concert that was happening one summer, and it just stayed together from that
JL: What sort of music was it about at that time?
TH: It was, ummm, it was called progressive rock. At that stage it was like 20-minute meandering songs, quite complicated, sorta like early King Crimson, that sorta stuff. And this record company we signed with [Vertigo] had a deal where we weren't allowed to do any singles -- they just wanted progressive rawk!
JL: Oh dear! And how were those first records received then?
TH: Oh, they were ... who knows what they sold, but they did well in their own right. But they were that thing with big long compositions. It wasn't until we moved over here and got Paul Hewson to come over that we then had anything approaching a pop song. He had a great pop sensibility
JL: Now you mentioned that Marc was doing his cabaret, with his pink Mercedes; so at what point did you decide to get him into the band, what prompted that?
TH: I think it was all sorta pulling together and we knew that whatever we were doing was not going anywhere, or it was too convoluted or something. And Marc was a great showman in those days. But I think we played in the next room to him one night, and he came through and did some songs ... I think we were playing for a really tough crowd of dock-workers, it was really tough and he just swanned in and was excrutiatingly funny and completely irreverent. We just thought this guy's great -- he's even madder than us, we must get him!
JL: Were you surprised though, even though he was your own brother, that this is what he was like?
TH: Nah, he's always been like that. He always was. And I think at that point he got interested and we did too
JL: What were your live shows like at this point; were they similarly long sort of noodly rock things?
TH: Ah, at that stage we got up to a point where we had to survive, we had to do anything [laughs]. It was difficult -- we sort of went through a whole bunch of different things where it was, with different people joining, different influences came in so we got out of the whole prog rock thing into more Lou Reed sort of stuff. And Robert Taylor joined and he had a big Little Feat influence so it was all ... you know, everyone brought different things to it so it ended up as what it did over here
JL: So the move to Sydney, which I think was about May 1975, was that just the next step for a band like this?
TH: Um, yeah. We just threw everything into a couple of tea-chests and got on the plane and came over
JL: And was it easy?
TH: No! It was incredibly tough, we were just going into something we had no idea [about]. We had no work, it was wildly, er, wild! [laughs]. And after a year or two of really just scraping around, basically we were just so mad we didn't give up!
JL: What sort of stuff did you do when you got here?
TH: We were writing songs, it was sorta Lou Reed-ish I guess, we were casting around looking for some sort of thing that we could settle on and actually, y'know, fitted. We went through a lot of different songs and with Paul, we actually wrote some great pop structures -- it all clicked!
JL: Did people here know about you though, had they heard the two records you released in New Zealand?
TH: I don't know that that mattered. No, we were just playing anywhere we could. It was just down the road from the Bondi Lifesaver which was a venue way back then, and whenever the band wouldn't turn up, they sent a bouncer down who said c'mon guys, and they'd carry our gear down and set up and play. It was that sort of deal, y'know?
JL: Okay, I understand that not long after you got here that most of your gear was actually stolen, or wrecked in a car accident?
TH: Oh, wild stuff; like a lot of band stuff was at that time -- it was a very wild and woolly scene
JL: Oh really, so a lotta stuff went missing -- all part of the gig? [laughs]
TH: Yep! [laughs] Got the train out to Parramatta and got a whole bunch of hire purchase stuff; it was all very random, y'know. And you had to expect it, I mean everyone was ... y'know bands would come through and they would turn up in Sydney and the gear hadn't made it so everyone would borrow everyone else's stuff, so, it's not like it is now at all
JL: So how quickly did you fall on your feet then? It sounds like it was a pretty haphazard time, that first year or so in Australia
TH: It was. Mike Rudd, who used to be in a band called Ariel, brought some CBS guys down to see us. We were playing in a wine bar in Camperdown. We got to the point where our wages for playing I think were a plate of mince each! [chuckles heartily] And the CBS guys from the States really liked the band, said fine, and we just went from there. Being a really scummy, sorta weirdo band, we got signed into a pop deal, and Countdown was happening, all that sorta stuff. So it was quite schizophrenic -- we were being marketed as a pop band but we were really a bunch of scaggy weirdo musos from New Zealand
JL: [laughs] Okay, look, we might hear a bit of a sparkling pop moment at this point, which was possibly from a tad later, which was Rain. Just before we play it though -- 'cos you co-wrote this I think -- can you remember what was going on at this time?
TH: Well at the end of the seventies we broke up for a year or two, and then in the early eighties we got back together again, 'cos everyone started playing on the same sorta records. And Rain was a song that Joanna [Piggott] and I wrote, and Marc helped with lyrics that sort of defined a new direction for the band in that post-punk thing, 'cos a lot of things had happened after we'd broken up, and so it gave us a new lease of life
Rain plays ...
JL: That's Rain from Dragon, from 1983. We're talking to Todd Hunter, who's our special guest on "Sundays" today. Now, Todd, we did skip forward in time a bit there, and one thing I did want to ask you about, 'cos I did mention in the introduction that Dragon must have been one of the most tragedy-prone bands. I think not long after you got here, [drummer] Neil Storey died from a drug overdose. Was that a bit of a shock?
TH: A bit of a shock? Yeah!!
JL: What'd that do to the band?
TH: Ah, mmm, we were quite resolute in that we just kept going, you know. You have to see it in the historical context where you could talk to someone from Aussie Crawl, and two or three of their members died; there was a lot of misfortune happening and the seventies were a wild time. And so, there were a lot of deaths but it wasn't just people in the band. There were people everywhere, through the whole scene ... so you have to see it in context. And basically when these things would happen, we would go well, this is what has happened -- we'll just keep going, you know? What can you do?
JL: Alright, did it change ... I dunno, it sounds like you were, for want of a better word, almost like that sorta clichÈ Rock & Roll Band in a lot of ways, and the way you were p'raps behaving and so on. Did it make you want to change any of that?
TH: Well, I dunno, you'd have to ask the dead guys, really. They obviously didn't change
JL: I mean, the rest of the band, were you all kinda, you know? ...
TH: No, no. You can generalise, but not everyone was into the whole debauchery and all the rest of it. Basically the guys who survived weren't! So yeah, the whole thing was very ... that was the seventies -- in the eighties it was much more of a business proposition. We just went out and played and had a really good time for a decade or so
JL: So was that a general reflection of the whole pop industry then? The difference between the seventies and the eighties?
TH: Couldn't be wild, y'know? Yeah, absolutely!
JL: So the eighties was much more of a business case for everybody then, was it?
TH: Yeah, I think so. Well, for us anyway. I think we got really good players, and people would come along -- rather than to see this horror show, they'd just come along to sing all the songs, and it was great!
JL: What do you mean by horror show?
TH: Oh, it used to be pretty wild. In the old days you didn't know what would happen [laughs]
JL: I understand there was one American tour where, I think, Marc sorta got the audience to smash up the tables and stuff. Was that true?
TH: Oh, no, that was more or less they were doing that anyway. Because he was just insulting them so incredibly, horribly!
JL: This was, I think you were supporting Johnny Winter?
TH: Yeah. Er, but I mean, what can you say? I suppose it all happened ... and more! [laughs] Oh, well, not in the history book
JL: Is this stuff though that you look back on, you know, and think, oh my god, what was going on?
TH: Nah, I knew what was going on. It was screamingly funny and also terrible at the same time. But yeah, for a lot of that whole decade I was the guy that was actually -- I wasn't doing it all but I actually [chuckles] got to remember it all!
JL: Well, how important was the music through all of this?
TH: Ahh, it was never one of those serious bands that earnestly plodded its way through its career. It was a mad, y'know, stupid band. I mean, the music was important as well, we did it!
JL: How did Dragon think of themselves then, in that Australian rock scene I s'pose?
TH: As outsiders
JL: As outsiders?
TH: Yeah! We still ... in any retrospect the band is hardly mentioned y'know? It was always an outside sort of thing. Even though it was mainstream pop, it was never included in the pantheon of greats. Which is good, I like that
JL: Really, why's that?
TH: Yeah! Oh, because well to me, speaking personally, it was something that happened -- how many? Y'know, three decades ago. It was just like some terrible and funny airport novel that I read once [chuckling]. Since then I've been doing a whole bunch of different stuff and really enjoying it, and over the last ten years -- the people that I've worked with -- no-one hardly knew I was in a band and it doesn't matter
JL: Really? I mean, it must be an experience though that you've been able to ... it's been helpful for you?
TH: Oh yeah! Oh, well ... errr ... no. If anything it works against you. I do film and TV music; it's more of a thing against you rather than for you, that you were once in a pop band
JL: Okay, well you mentioned just after we were talking about Rain, that that was just after you'd re-formed, so we skipped over a break-up there, end of the seventies I think it was. What happened to break things up?
TH: Well, Marc was so wild that we had to fire him, because he was just killing himself. And then we got a few other guys, and it didn't work so then we broke up which was good. That should have happened when Marc left actually. And everyone did different things, and we slowly found ourselves playing on the same records and having a good time. And then I think we played on Marc's solo record or something, and also there was debt from the first time around. So we got ourselves a good lawyer and made him an offer, a certain amount of cents in the dollar, and paid it all off. Then [we] just kept going, 'cos it was great fun
JL: So were you surprised when the band re-formed, that it became a band again, instead of just a way to pay off some money?
TH: No, ohh, it was ... The first time we rehearsed after that time we just got [back] together, we just started playing as if we'd never stopped. So it just seemed like it was still all intact. And then the line-up changed after a year or so and we got Alan Mansfield to play keyboards, a great piano player. And then it slowly started changing from there. Doan Perry, who was a great drummer who plays with Jethro Tull came and played drums, and Tommy Emmanuel played with us for a good five years or so. From the mid-eighties it was a really good playing band. We did a lot of stuff and toured around the world and stuff -- it was great fun!
JL: Was it a bit more -- I dunno -- relaxed perhaps?
TH: Yeah, it was always pretty intense as bands are. Ask anyone from the Oils or any band that's around, it is an intense thing to be in a band, y'know
JL: Now also, I think in that middle bit there, between the break-up and the reformation, you went off to join XL Capris?
TH: Oh, I produced some of their records and in the end their line-up changed around and I played guitar with them for a little while
JL: Yeah, and that was also when you met Joanna Piggott, was it?
TH: Yeah! And we wrote a whole bunch of stuff for different people
JL: How different was that, because I mean Scribble I think is pretty much, would you say, the other end of the spectrum from Dragon?
TH: Yeah well, I was really attracted to punk and all that sorta stuff, and anything that went up against all the people that I knew in the music industry. 'Cos I thought it was really pompous and horrible at the end of the seventies. So I produced a whole bunch of little bands, and really scratchy, itchy things. Yeah, I've always liked; always had a thing for music as it evolved, y'know. I've just loved this thing that's happening now
JL: I suppose one of your best-known songs that you wrote with Joanna would be The Age Of Reason which was of course a massive hit for John Farnham. Did you write many other songs like that though, which have been recorded by other people, which we may not have heard about?
TH: No, we didn't set up as songwriters; it was just one that we just wrote for him, and I guess over the last five years the majority of stuff that we've written has gone into Heartbreak High. I'd been doing the music for that for six years, and we'd need songs all the time so I'd haul Joanna in and we'd write, and then it would get recorded and it would be off around Europe and stuff the next week. So that's what we've been doing, on TV!
JL: Okay. Dragon though, didn't sort of end there did it? You had another break-up and then another ...
TH: Another iteration [laughs]
JL: Yes, another getting back together
TH: Yeah, let me see, what happened? That was sorta the eighties; [mock sobbing] Where did we go in the eighties? In the nineties, we sorta re-formed a bit and did an album of different versions of old songs and things like that, and Marc wanted to tour again. But at that stage I was doing Heartbreak High every week and it was just too hard for me to do.
JL: So you weren't involved in the new Dragon at all?
TH: I did some stuff with them, recording and all the rest of it, and I toured for a month or two, and then I just basically quit. I said okay, I've gone too far down this other road, and I'm really interested in doing it forever, y'know? And I left the band that I started, and that was a terrible thing to do, but it seemed to me, the seventies was something and the eighties, it was like we were playing to the next generation of people, and the nineties, it seemed like -- instead of playing to people who could have been our children, we were actually playing to people who could have been our grandchildren! [chuckles]. I spoke to the guys and said, I don't think we're old enough for this yet, hee hee! But Marc and Al [Mansfield] kept going and they were so great. I mean, I went and saw them, and there was some sort of revival happening where they had sellout crowds and it was great. It was really good
JL: Were you sorry you weren't on board at that point?
TH: No [laughs]. You know, bands should be around for a couple of years and have that whole fire and all the rest of it, and then it gets hard as you get older and older, to do it. And also, I had a great time doing it, but I've been doing film and TV music and being really engrossed in it. I find with this stuff you actually can do music all day instead of just for an hour, you know what I mean? It's actually much more music than you ever did in a band. Plus, the obvious things -- you wanna hang round with your family and your kids, see your kids grow up while they're young and all that stuff, other than be off somewhere in some meaningless venue, y'know? So no, I have no regrets, not at all, it's great
JL: So when you look back over that whole Dragon period which I s'pose was on and off, the best part of twenty years or so, or more -- even thirty years almost -- are there parts of that that you're really proud of and happy about and, y'know, remember fondly?
TH: No, it's all like one big mushy sorta panorama of incredibly terrible things happening -- excrutiatingly funny things! So, no, there's no big highlights. It's all ... it assumed its rightful place, which is some sort of, like I said before: airport novel, ha ha!!
JL: Do you ever go back and listen to any of it?
TH: Um, no! Every now and again you hear stuff on the radio and you're struck by how tinny it sounds. But you can see why it actually still gets played. It's got some sort of spark or something. No, I've been too busy to be ... also the Dragon thing to me is one small part of a whole bunch of stuff that I've done
JL: Right. Do you think the band would've -- I mean, if Marc hadn't developed the throat cancer -- would the band have just continued do you think?
TH: Yes, I think they would've. I think it was one of those things where they just could have done it forever. Because there was a huge affection for them and everyone sang all the songs, and Marc didn't have to be a pop star or anything, he had grown into the whole thing of it. I think, like in America where there are bands like The Bellamy Brothers or whoever, they just keep going forever. I think that could have happened
JL: What did you make of the reaction and things like the Good Vibrations concert which was held? [farewell tribute concert to the late, great Marc Hunter]
TH: Which was wild, wasn't it? Actually, for me, because I was that close to it, and the whole thing was, at the same time incredibly horrific, and people's kindness and how much ... Y'know, Marc had to have really insulted and confronted so many people all through his career [said with obvious grief, but at the same time, glee]. But also, he was one of those guys that if you met him you'd just never forget it. Y'know, he was ... his whole approach was [chuckles] larger than life!
JL: Heh heh, yes, I was going to say -- for somebody who were a band who didn't seem to take themselves seriously and did!? Insult people -- it's almost like everybody in the entire rock industry in Australia got behind this project when it happened!
TH: Well it was more than that going on with Marc. It was the thing where when he was sick and dying, it was like -- stop to get petrol in some gas station somewhere, and they'd go "You're that guy's brother!" and start weeping. An eighteen-year-old girl who knew nothing about it and he actually had some sort of relationship with the Australian public. It just went beyond this band thing. I get this thing about going on TV and talking honestly about it, a lot of stuff that affected people. It actually meant a lot more: I dunno what it was, but he was a wild guy!
JL: Yeah, look, we'll finish then with a Dragon track which I know you're not a part of, but it was from the end of that concert which was, Be Alright
TH: Yes, I think it was a single that Marc and the band recorded -- the last single they recorded, yeah, and I think it's a Marc song, yeah!
JL: And Todd, you mentioned Heartbreak High of course. What else do you work on these days? Where else can we hear your soundtrack work?
TH: [gleeful chuckle] Well, after Heartbreak I've just had a year off ... to cope with the whole thing of Marc dying, and everything else has just been the greatest year, it was fabulous! I haven't been performing any formal music -- I've been performing African [rhythms] and drums and stuff, and learning for a whole new rhythm thing called Head Start, which is starting up at the end tof the year
JL: As an ABC production?
TH: An ABC co-production, yeah! It's going into Europe as well but its producers are from Heartbreak High, so they think, great!
JL: Right, so Todd, we wish you well for that, and thanks very much for all your time today
TH: Thank you!
Be Alright plays ...
JL: That's Be Alright from Dragon. And Todd Hunter was our special guest this Sunday on 666 2CN
Transcribed for MILESAGO by Paul Culnane. Many thanks to Todd Hunter and Jeremy Lee. Interview
Interview © 2000 ABC, Jeremy Lee