In Conversation with Ron S. Peno

He has made one of his best albums in his long career, but getting exposure for it has been difficult. A man full of inspired energy meshed with intelligence, humour, self-deprecation and wit. There is a new Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions album due in 2019, and maybe some new Died Pretty shows.

Put your hands together for the iconic and well-dressed Mr Ron S. Peno…

Overlooked

Guiding Light, the latest album by Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions is a creation of beauty and represents a band at the peak of its powers. Accomplished players like Cam Butler, providing a sumptuous soundscape to a strong set of songs that have the ability to pull you under emotionally with the subtlety of being hit by a Melbourne tram.

This is an important release not only for the career of the band (with two exceptional prior releases namely Future Universe (2011) and Anywhere and Everything Is Bright (2013)), but an important release in Australian music. So why has this album passed by with nothing but a slight ripple and seemingly ignored and stifled by record labels, the music press and public alike?

This rightfully puzzles and appals Peno.

I love Guiding Light. When it was released I was running around and putting it up there against Doughboy Hollow (the award winning 1991 album from Ron’s band Died Pretty) . As far as strong songs, performances, vocals, lyrics – everything. I was putting it up there and said it was the best thing I have done since Doughboy Hollow. And it probably is. I love it – it’s a very complete album. But no one is interested really. It’s frustrating for Cam and I.

The album was self-released in October 2017, with the title of the album being inspired by the band Television’s track  ‘Guiding Light’ (from their 1977 debut album, Marquee Moon). Peno indicated that the band tried to garner interest for Guiding Light from record companies, but the response was cold.

We tried a few labels. We even tried things like the ABC, and the guy just said, “not interested”. Nobody is interested. And the younger labels – we are old guys, so they want the happening artists. We have never been approached by the hip labels around Melbourne. It’s not as if we are flogging some tragic album, you know, “Oh my God, you poor bastards. Poor old bugger, what are you doing?”!

As with some other artists of his generation – with potentially Paul Kelly being the anomaly – I ask whether he feels that the music industry is a young person’s game and biased against older artists?

It is. And even though people say “No, it’s not”, it is an ageist thing. Cam and I have written some great music. We can’t even get a bottom of a bill at a festival. There are thousands of festivals, because that’s what I thought what we would do with The Superstitions, be a festivals band. Just play festivals every now and then. We are playing a show on the 22nd of September, and it will be our second show this year as a band. Cam and I do the duo things, as Ron S. Peno and Cam Butler. But on the 22nd of September, we are hoping some people will come along at Memo Hall to see us perform as a band.

The puzzlement continues. When Died Pretty did some shows with Radio Birdman recently it sold out across Australia. Not bad for a band that released their last album eighteen years ago.

Yes, isn’t it funny? That’s what perplexes Cam and I. I don’t get those Died Pretty people at The Superstition gigs. Last July, as you know, we played with the Died Pretty/Radio Birdman show, we were packing out places around Australia. All sold out. All loving and whatever. But with The Superstitions I have played to twenty people! Weird!

The Self-Depreciating “Lazy” Songwriter

Lyrically the songs in Guiding Light tackle death, passion, love and uncertainty, with Peno’s soaring vocals never sounding so strong. Lyrically the songs come from a personal place and are tackled with emotional gusto and innate vulnerability. The song ‘Almost There’ is a highlight which builds to an emotional crescendo, which deals with the death of one of Peno’s ex-girlfriends, with Peno reflecting on loss and the finality of death “We’ll never sing again/Or dance to that song/So let’s hold each other close/Oh God, it’s been so long”. As the crescendo builds, Butler’s guitar almost becomes euphoric and almost human like, with the screeching sounds of the guitar channelling the euphoria of travelling to nirvana or maybe to the nothingness of death, it sounds scary, manic and brilliant, but makes you feel as if you are ‘almost there’. An emotional power fuck indeed.

You can’t be abstract with songs when you want to touch people’s emotions. I want to make people cry! And to hear this and go, “Fuck!” – ‘Almost There’ was written about a friend’s death. She was an ex-girlfriend and she passed away a couple of years ago – and it was just the worse death – brain tumour – it was just – I didn’t get to see her, I didn’t get to travel to Sydney to see her – she hung in there for months and months and months, and people were going “do you think she is waiting for you”….don’t put that on me, she is not hanging out to see me I don’t think. So, I wrote ‘Almost There’ for her, because it took her so long to die. Fuck! So, the tumour was hitting on the optic nerve so she went blind, it was like, “Oh fuck – can this get any worse with this poor woman”?

The song is touching and exemplifies Peno’s skill in songwriting. However, Peno takes great pains to indicate that he does not see himself as a songwriter. Indicating that he is not disciplined, but rather lackadaisical when it comes to the songwriting craft.

I am not a lyricist, people think that I am this great lyricist, but I am not. I am lazy! I write when I want to write.

You know people like Tim Rogers, Nick Cave and Paul Kelly they are craftsmen. They sit there, and they concentrate. You know they really focus. I would rather curl up and watch a DVD! And you know, I go “Ugh, I got to write lyrics to that song”. And I am kind of ashamed of it though!

Of course not all the songs on the album are heavy – there is also some great adult pop and rock songs, like ‘Just Like Diamonds’  and ‘Kid Gloves’. The former being an exuberant start to the album, with pulsating drums and piano, sounding a bit like Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds but with definitely more soul. The song has a great melody with Peno singing , “You’re just like diamonds falling from the sky/I wanna kiss you and I don’t know why” – it could even double as a great pick-up line!

‘Just Like Diamonds’ we love. It was funny titling that song – because I was just calling it ‘Diamonds’, and then Cam rang up and said that Rhianna has a really popular song called ‘Diamonds’! And I said what about ‘Like Diamonds’? Sounds like a race horse! <Doing a racing commentators voice> Round the outside, Like Diamonds! On the rails! And I said ‘Just Like Diamonds’ – and he said that will do! And that’s a nice song. There are some lovely moments on Guiding Light. So hey people, listen to it!

Peno tries to explain his writing style.

I am a writer in two hands. One minute I am talking about passion and love and death and sadness – there is a lot of sadness in my songs – right back to Died Pretty. There is a lot of sadness. Just getting off the track again, my darling sister just passed away a week ago – the funeral was last Thursday and I was doing the REM tribute thing, but I held her hand when she passed – I had to travel to Wagga with my son, and so it’s been a bit wild the last week or two – so I had to concentrate on REM cause I signed for that. So I said to my family I need to go and do this but I can’t go to the funeral  – but they played ‘A State of Graceful Mourning’ (a Died Pretty song on the 1993 album Trace). They played ‘A State of Graceful Mourning’ at my darling sister’s funeral and it was very lovely and everyone sort of lost it. And, I can write these songs – yeah, I know they are beautiful – I want to get people here (motions to his heart) – but on the other hand, you listen to ‘Kid Gloves’, it’s like, it’s like my ‘Telegram Sam’ song! And the chorus goes “I have cried my heart out/I have gone and lost control/I am busy switching daydreams down into my very soul”.

Even though Peno writes some songs that are filled with sadness, they are never self-pitying or depressing. There is also a feeling of optimism, no matter how bad it gets.

I would like to think that some of my sadder ones are uplifting. At the end of the song there is a resolve. There is a hope. You know, this tragedy has happened but at the end of the song we go on and we get strength from it – you know what I mean? There is always got to be hope at the end of those sort of songs that I do write. There’s got to be some sort of light there.

Guiding Light was recorded at Soundpark Studios in Northcote, the same place where Paul Kelly recently recorded two albums concurrently.

What he has another one coming out? Oh, knock it off Paul! Jesus Christ, who do you think you are? Paul Kelly?

The Band

The Superstitions consist of accomplished musicians including  Cam Butler who plays guitar (if you get a chance, you have to hear some of his soundtrack/instrumental work especially his latest piece Find Your Love (2017) – this man is a genius and I am hooked), Mark Dawson on drums and percussion, Tim Deane on keyboards (including acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ and Solina strings)  and Andy Papadopoulos on electric bass guitar. Their sound has been described as chamber pop – what is stark about this band is the emotionality you can hear in their performances, from the organ, drums and guitars – it never feels safe, and always reaches the peak of an emotion.

Ron is rightfully proud of his band, and bemoans the fact that not only has he produced the best album of his career, has a wonderful band, but he can’t even foot the bottom rungs of a festival billing. The feeling of seemingly being ignored has hurt Peno and Butler.

We are appalled, puzzled. We are going, you know, Jesus put us down on the bill or somewhere – not first on – we realise we are not going to headline or be at the top – we are not going on in the evening that’s for sure! You know, we would be probably be going on before noon or something!!

But at least give us a shot. We will go on a small stage! Anyhow,  we can’t just be doing little bars and pubs – Mark our drummer lives in Geelong, so for him to come up, it has to be fairly worthwhile – he won’t come up for a jug of beer or fifty bucks – and you know, he is a brilliant drummer. That’s what I can’t understand – I have this brilliant band – it’s just not me – I am just some old bloody hoofer that jumps around and squeals into a microphone – you known an old fucking hoofer from the 70’s – I am a lead singer, in every sense of the word! I’m not a singer, I’m not a singer, I am a performer. I go up there and I perform. And make people look at me strangely! And they go what the hell are you doing! And it’s a throwback from the 70’s – all those great lead singers from the 70’s like Rod Stewart and Jagger and that 60’s/70’s thing – but people that see the band say the band is just fucking amazing – like regardless of me – I do my thing. I am the visual side of the band – and people know that – we all know that, and I flounce around and stuff – but the band is actually…I am not playing with fucking amateurs here! I am not playing with a bunch of fucking losers from some corner pub or something that’s talking about the 70’s and 80’s and what a grand old time they had. I’m playing with brilliant musicians and it frustrates me and upsets me.

Touring

I first saw Ron S. Peno play live in the noughts. It was with Died Pretty, but I have since seen him play with Darling Downs (his partnership with Kim Salmon) and of course with The Superstitions. Seeing him is an experience. A real performer. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny, but always, always engaging. Sometimes it seems that he is possessed or in a trance state. A friend of mine once yelled out “You’ve still got it, Ron” at a concert – I swear Ron heard it and lapped it up in his own idiosyncratic style.

I ask Ron whether he still gets a buzz from touring?

I still have a fairly healthy ego – it’s the old spotlight, crowd love me – I am ready for my close up now Mr DeMille! It’s like that sort of thing. Yeah, I am that sort of Gloria Swanson! Love me, love me, love me!

Does he get into a trance-like state on stage?

Yeah, I do. It’s no great recipe – no secret herbs and spices or anything! My friend said that the other night – he has seen me billions of times with Died Pretty and the Darling Downs and the Superstitions – he said “you really do go to another place don’t you” – don’t get too trippy about it – it’s a simple thing of just being involved in the music, the sounds, and the stuff that Cam’s doing, and knowing that there is an audience there, you know…

Peno shares a funny story, how both Cam and himself were booked to do a gig in Italy. During the late eighties, Died Pretty would fill venues – take a look at some of the footage on YouTube. The Italians loved Died Pretty!

When I was over there with Cam, doing some Superstitions songs a few years ago, we played in Rome and the promoters booked a 500 capacity venue. We brought in two French guys, Dimi and Vinz, who played bass and drums, and who are lovely people and they were fantastic, and so we were Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions of sorts. We did Rome and Bologna – it wasn’t like 1986 those days had long gone, they took us  to the 500 capacity venue, took us out for dinner and did all the right things and we arrived to the venue. I was like “Yeah!” Died Pretty were like huge in Italy, this is going to be great…they had 25 people in the venue! Fuck! It was like a shaking wake up thing – there was like 25 people standing in the middle of this room with a 500 capacity!

Died Pretty

Even though the focus of our conversation was on Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions, it is hard not to speak with Ron and not mention Died Pretty. After Doughboy Hollow was released in 1991, there was an optimism that the band was growing to reach the big time. The band was gathering a following in places like Italy and in some parts of the USA. After Died Pretty’s Trace album was released in 1993, a three-week tour of the US was planned, and also a potential spot on the high rating Late Night with David Letterman, as Ron says:

Do you know what getting the fucking rug pulled from under you feels like?

We did the Sony conference in Glasgow at Gleneagles – it was in ’93 I think – and we did three songs and we were representing Australasia. An executive from Sony Australia came out and introduced us on stage, you know, there were bands from all over the world on Sony and stuff. There was this one band from England that was supposed to come – they missed the ferry! And I was saying, “What a bunch of losers!” I said what was their name – what was this band from England? They were supposedly too drunk or something! And they said, it was a band called Oasis! And I said what a bunch of losers, we will never here from that stupid band again! (laughs). I am glad that I don’t work in A&R! They are called Oasis, and I said what a bunch of losers! And the rest is history!

But a guy from New York was there from Columbia – and apparently we did our thing and the next day – cause we were supposed to do a three week tour of America – at the time we even had an American manager, there was talk of a Letterman appearance, and the record ‘Harness Up’ was number one in Phoenix. The  album was doing well. Brett and I were like “Oh my God, we are actually going to get to 99 on the Billboard Charts”– it was 100 and going up! And the next day, an executive came into our room and said that the American tour was off , and the guy that was one under the head honcho from Columbia, thought  that I was a “fag” or the band were “fags”. So he knicked the tour of America from us. We had to go back to Australia three weeks early. And  we laid low! God!

The band seemingly remain friends, and even though Peno doesn’t think that there will be a new Died Pretty album, he has indicated that in the new year that there is some talk of shows.

There could be a Died Pretty thing next year. Getting together and playing a couple of shows, because we can. We love playing, cause we are playing better than ever these days. A bunch of old codgers! We love catching up with each other, because we live all over the place. So, it’s a great chance for all of us to hang out for a week, and it’s good for the guys to get away from their wives and families for a couple of weeks! It could be festival or festivals,  and slip in a few side shows, just here in Melbourne I guess.

I ask whether Died Pretty is due for an ARIA Hall of Fame gong?

Rubbish! No, there will be all these bands like Silverchair that will go before us! We are right, right, right on the bottom of the ladder, I think. No ARIA Hall of Fame for this little black duck! You filthy fuckers! Maybe the ARIA Hall of Infamy! I would be in that!

Son of Peno

Peno is obviously proud of his son, who like his father in venturing into “this filthy thing called the music industry”.

My son Zeb has a band. My beautiful son is playing, and the band is called Greyjacks, a punk/ska band. He is a vocalist and he writes the songs. He is 6ft1 and the light of my life. He always has been and always will be. They went into the studio the other day, bless them, and I heard the results. It was very fast , and sort of shouty, my son sings and plays guitar, and there is another guitarist – it’s all very good. I said, this is really good son. Not my genre style of music – he is into Sucicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, all the really early LA punk stuff.

Did he encourage his son to get into the industry?

I said  don’t do it, son! Get yourself a proper job! Don’t go into this filthy thing called the music industry! I said, look at me! I am still struggling to pay rent! Not really, but I painted him a real dark, cold picture of the music industry. So there, fuck youse! I said surround yourself with good people, good friends, to stay on the right track. I am fortunate to have such dear friends. I have such beautiful friends and keep instilling that into my son. Have friends that love you for you. Not what you can do for them. Have loving beautiful friends. He will listen to me, but son I said, you have to have a real yearning if you want to be in music. It has to come from your heart.

When I was 13 no one could dissuade me from getting a broomstick and using it as a mic stand in front of a mirror. And my family going “For God’s sake, you are not going to be a singer, you can’t even sing!” – I said, “I am – I am going to be a rock’n’roll star”!

Did he consider something another career, especially when things got tough?

Now I am doing it. It’s a bit too late! I am heading towards pension territory now, so once that happens in a couple of years, you can all get fucked! I am on the pension! Who needs rock’n’roll!

Defiance

Despite the disappointment of the response of Guiding Light, Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions  are defiant and are in the process of  recording their fourth, as yet untitled, album. It is anticipated that the album will be released in 2019. Again, Peno the “lazy” songwriter is dragging the chain!

I am lazy. I should have finished these song lyrics months ago. I am just a performer that can scratch out a few lines here and there. I am a performer and a melodist. I am very good with a melody. I find writing lyrics as a struggle. But I can squeeze them out eventually. But there are some nice lyrical things on this album. But they are forming, and one song is called ‘The Strangest Feeling’ – and that’s sounding fairly good lyrically – I won’t tell you what it’s about – it’s about a strangest feeling, it’s about me feeling really strange!

Not a sexual thing?

No.

A love thing?

Don’t know. It’s another world thing!

They will also be playing these new songs at their upcoming gigs.

There is ‘The Strangest Feeling’, an untitled song, and ‘BTFC’ as I have titled it. ‘BTFC’, I don’t know – it’s what it is, it just fits into the melody! ‘BTFC’! ‘BTFC”.

Will there be a theme on the new album?

No, but Cam and I talked about writing an intro and an outro – that segues into the first track – an instrumental intro strings or something that segues into the first track. Then on the last track an outro. So, an intro and an outro.

We end our conversation, and as I turn off the digital recorder, we talk further for another twenty minutes. Peno is engaging, charming and has such energy – it’s almost contagious. The thing is, Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions have produced an amazing album that has a cinematic vibe reminiscent of Cam Butler’s solo work. Not wanting to be too superfluous, but the album encapsulates beauty and passion, and Peno has never sounded better.

I try to work out why Ron’s recent work has been ignored. He has always been uncompromising, and unlike artists of his generation such as Paul Kelly and Nick Cave, he has always been a bit of an outsider. Both Kelly and Cave have been able to tap into the mainstream.  Died Pretty were in essence anti-pop, and for young generations  in the 80’s and 90’s, they represented rebellion and the feeling of excitement and something new. They were indie before indie became accepted as mainstream. They inspired other musicians – including Paul Kelly and Dave Faulkner from the Hoodoo Gurus. Veterans like Peno and other artists like Stephen Cummings are the outsiders – brilliant songwriters and performers, but always a bit out on the fringe. Perhaps their uncompromising traits are their strength.

Music fans get older. They have families, new priorities – music perhaps becomes less important, less vital. They might want to relive their youth through the familiarity of music – hence when bands reunite they will buy the tickets and try to recapture that vibe. This is not a criticism, as music of your youth helps to define who you are, helps you feel, reminds you of your school years, old friends, loves, your first fuck. But new music requires attention, and requires an open mind with the absence of nostalgia.

Ageism is hard to define. It’s probably hard to articulate and to express what it is – but like sexism it can be blatant or subtle. In the first world there seems to be a boundless appetite to look young, look gorgeous, look sexualised. Music and musicians should not be defined by their age – they should be defined on their music, their art, where their life journey is expressed through this art. The sharing of something personal, like an author does their book, and a painter with their paintings. No one judges an author or painter on their age.

In Australia we have wonderful artists, both new and old, artists that are part of every music genre, expressing themselves, and expressing aspects of the land we live in –  both bad and good – our society, our people, our history, our lives, our loves. Music does matter.

I hope that artists like Ron S. Peno & The Superstitions remain defiant, non-compromising  and continue to produce music that is true and wonderful. I understand that this is hard with dwindling financial returns – alas, it’s all up to you Australian music lovers. See them live and just feel.

Guiding Light is available now :https://ronspenoandthesuperstitions.bandcamp.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ronspeno/

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