The Saint keeps marching on: an interview with Ed Kuepper

Ed Kuepper will be performing at Sydney's Vivid Festival with Jim White. Photo: supplied.

Richie Black talks to legendary Australian musician Ed Keupper about his musical collaboration with Jim White – and how engaging with his past songs taps into new creative horizons.

“I do what I do, and I do what I want – I don’t think that’s really changed,” says Ed Kuepper.

Sure, it’s a familiar kind of rock ’n’ roll refrain. But Kuepper – the guy whose storied career began with one of the greatest Australian rock bands of all time and didn’t let up from there – has the epic pedigree to pull it off.

Still, he wouldn’t have sustained himself with such aplomb if this was just ‘My Way’ iconoclasm rather than a drive towards new musical terrain. Kuepper is, as always, compelled to discover what is fresh and new.

Ironically, this drive defines what outwardly might resemble a nostalgic retrospective collaboration alongside drummer Jim White.

Performing this Saturday at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid LIVE, the duo’s setlist picks from the formidable Kuepper songbook that has been crafted both in, and out, of legendary acts like the Saints and Laughing Clowns over the last several decades.

The choice of which particular tunes, Kuepper says, was dictated according to elements that could best forge something new.  

Rock legends: Ed Kuepper (left) and Jim White. Photo: supplied.

Revisiting the classics

“We wanted songs that we could make unique to this performance – songs that in some cases were strongly identified with the Saints, Laughing Clowns or my solo stuff – but they needed to be taken out of their original context so that you wouldn’t really pick them as new or old.

“They’d become just become part of the Jim White, Ed Kuepper experience.”

This dynamic collaboration thus far has taken them around the country, albeit with a hefty pandemic-sized disruption. Most recently, they played at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) last Saturday night, taking their place alongside the election result in providing a bit of collective transcendency.

“There was a fair degree of positivity in the room,” Kuepper says, with characteristic dry understatement.

Funnily enough, the positivity of renewal also applies to his collaboration with Jim White, he of the Dirty Three and a wealth of other collaborations. “At the first rehearsal,” Kuepper says, “it was fairly clear within the first five or ten minutes that everything was going to work.”

An understated take, again – but Kuepper obviously leaves the expressiveness to his music.

Besides, in this latest collaboration, the push-pull dynamic between guitar and drums has provided its own ongoing, richly evolving dialogue.

“Jim has a sort of orchestral approach to his drums,” Kuepper explains. “There’s quite a lot of information – even when he’s playing quietly, restrained, there’s a lot of tone, there’s a lot of shifting rhythmic elements. To the extent that I’ve pulled back a little bit and it’s made me play a little bit differently.

“That’s always a great sort of outcome, if I learn something in the process and I think Jim probably feels the same way – it’s not something I’ve really discussed with him.”

Dynamic duo: Jim White (left) and Ed Kuepper. Photo: Anna White/supplied.

Amidst hectic scheduling and the space-time rupture caused by Covid-19, they had little opportunity for rehearsal let alone protracted dialogue.

But then, as we’ve said, the music does most of the talking.

“We don’t do the soundcheck and then say, ‘Oh, we should do this in such-and-such a song.’ Occasionally we might say, ‘Oh, a faster or slower approach might work better or a sparer approach might work.’ But that’s about the extent of it.”

The understanding that exists between them recalls that of his relationship with Saints lead-singer Chris Bailey, whose recent passing will inevitably bring added weight to some songs.

Bailey died last month, aged only 65, to the heartbreak of the Australian music scene.

“We’re doing a couple of sad songs and we dedicate them to Chris,” Kuepper says. “It would be difficult not to be mindful of him.”

“‘Cos not everybody wants to look the same / And not everybody wants to think the same”: The Saints

Around ’73, they were schoolyard buddies turned one of the best singer-guitarist writing partnerships this side of Jagger-Richards. But by 1979, Kuepper had split with the group he had co-founded with Bailey; their combined musical intensity, as per rock tradition, had ultimately provided the wrong sort of combustion – and a troubled aftermath in the years that followed.

“Chris and I had a very complex relationship after the original band broke up – [nevertheless] the time that we spent working together on the material for those first three albums, they’re just bedrock material for me – our relationship at that time was very strong.”

In a way, it’s hard to reconcile the wry, quietly spoken interviewee with the abrasive, incendiary guitar sound that buzz-sawed its way across the world, from Brisbane to the UK, and compelled a fan called Bob Geldof to once say: “Rock music in the seventies was changed by three bands – the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Saints.”

‘(I’m) Stranded’ was one of the first 20 songs in the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sounds of Australia registry. Video: jetsonDos/YouTube.

But it’s clear that what Kuepper’s band fundamentally aligned them, albeit uneasily, with punk – its energy and questing for something new and unique – is still a force in his music today. Whether that will manifest itself in new recordings (at least for this partnership) is not absolutely clear just yet.

“I don’t want to get people’s hopes up,” Kuepper says. “There is some talk about doing something studio-wise. Jim is quite the gallivanting, hard-working type – he’s does even more than I do. So if we can find the time, I’m keen; I think he’s keen.”

But, for now, new perspectives on classic songwriting can be discovered in the live interplay of two master musicians at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday night.

Ed Kuepper with Jim White will play at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, on Saturday, 28 May as part of Vivid LIVE. For tickets and more information, visit: www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/vivid-live/2022/ed-kuepper-with-jim-white.html

Richie Black is the deputy editor of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @NoirRich.

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