In the two decades of Tim Freedman’s distinguished musical career, two naming concepts have arrived in his brain, fully formed and ready to fire.
They were names which will not be extinguished, no matter how savage the passage of time.
The first was back in 1991, when he was lying awake in the middle of the night; “‘The Whitlams’ just lobbed into my head and I knew I had the band name that would work for us.”
The other time more recently was walking down the street to get a newspaper, smelling the roses, so to speak; “The name ‘Australian Idle’ just came to me. It was the perfect description of what I’d been doing.
“And with making the record for Sony Music, the label which works with the TV series, it kept getting better every second. The joke is of course that I thought they only did ‘Idle’, and I’m a real company boy”.
Tim is moving on from a productive ten year stretch with Warner Music in which he made four of the seven Whitlams albums (‘Love This City’, ‘Torch the Moon’, ‘Little Cloud’ and the obligatory anthology, ‘Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You’) to a new relationship with Sony Music. The first effort is his debut solo album, which is underpinned with playful and loving nods to the pop framework of the ’70s.
“Aside from some orchestral gigs performing the ‘Eternal Nightcap’ album (voted No 17 all-time Australian album on JJJ recently), Tim Freedman has been maintaining what some might call a low profile, standing back from the front line, for reasons which will be outlined within.
“The ‘Best of’ felt like the end of an era, so I was looking around for a new move. Sony Chairman Denis Handlin had expressed an appreciation of my work, so I thought to myself that I wouldn’t mind putting out a record with Sony to see how it went” Tim freely admits.
“So I sat eyeball-to-eyeball across from Denis at his long boardroom table and I explained that I wanted to make this fun ’70s thing. I said that if Wolfmother could do Zeppelin then I could do Gilbert O’Sullivan! Whereupon Denis and I burst into a spontaneous version of ‘Clair’. Daggy is the new cool, right?
“Then I reminded Denis of that fabulous Billy Fields hit, ‘You Weren’t in Love With Me’, and we attempted a duet of that together too. I told him no-one had covered it and that I couldn’t even get it on iTunes. ‘Aw mate,’ he said, ‘if you could do that one, it would be great’.
“Obviously we went down byways and highways from then, but that’s where it started.”
There is no denying that Tim Freedman had been off the recording wagon for a season or two. In addition to the birth of his daughter Alice (in 2005) and his devotion to hands-on parenthood, there were other obstacles to creativity. “When people ask what I have been up to for the past six years, I can truthfully say that for three years, I didn’t even think about writing. I was idle. I’d done enough emoting about myself. With social media we are bombarded by private admissions in real time now and I didn’t feel like adding to the tsunami.”
There were the drugs too. “This is obviously a drug album. I’m on 15mg of Mobic a day for my bad knee, a small dose of statins for the cheese, and a bit of Valium some nights”.
But creating the new material proved to be a bit of a challenge. Tim wanted to write about other characters. Writer’s block is not a term one would toss around loosely, but for a time, Tim was on the search for an appropriate source of inspiration. There was a trip to Paris which promised much but delivered little.
“I went to Paris for four weeks with the intention of writing some new songs,” Tim admits, “but I ended up sitting in the bath reading about Sartre and eating cheese. I’d have my three courses at night, and walk back to my apartment. It was so cold that I’d run the bath to heat up. What else to do but reach for a book?
“Anyway, I came back to Sydney with one chorus, which I forgot.
“So I headed up to the North Coast for a two-week period to try again. I wrote one bad verse and read half of ‘War and Peace’. It was all getting a bit ridiculous really!
“The trouble is when you take a three year break, you know when you come back you’re going to have to write the bad songs before you can get to any good ones, and that’s a real turn off when the piano is admonishing you from the corner. For a year my daughter played the piano more than me.
“I had to go through the unpleasant process of battling with the songs – and the bits just not fitting together. That went on for six months. Then it finally clicked.
“As you get back into the process, you learn how to live with new songs again… not just add a few brushstrokes every few weeks when the piano yells at you. You spend every single spare minute of the day thinking about where the song is at, where the chorus can go, and sorting through the five different versions of the song that you’re working on by then. You’ve got all these little jigsaw puzzles flipping around in your head. And suddenly you’re a writer again”
Tim approached the creation of this album differently than he had undertaken past long players. “I wrote the last one (Little Cloud) in New York. ‘Australian Idle’ was mainly written near a surfing break called Broken Head in northern NSW. I bought a house up there a few years back and I spend quite a bit of time there.
“Broken Head is known for its beautiful right hand wave. It’s the sort of place that slows you down – in a good way!”
All the better preparation for a long touring season which is high on Freedman’s priorities for the new project. “Another reason I like the ‘Australian Idle’ title was that around 1998-2002, we (the Whitlams) were known as the hardest working band in the country. I was quite proud of that. But then I needed to be the lazy guy, who listens instead of plays, who reads instead of writes. It had to be done.”
Tim put the new touring outfit together – his first to include two females – through a recruiting method, tried and true (at least so far). “Basically I ask around among friends ‘who is good, who wants a gig?’ Then I ask them out for a cup of coffee and a chat.
“As long as there are no obvious signs of psychosis I generally hire them. Occasionally I’ve had to change course midstream, but my friends (usually my producers) have been right 90-per cent of the time.
“When I put the third version of The Whitlams together in 1999 – none of them had even met each other. And that line-up stayed together for 11 years. It’s good luck. We’ll play again one day.
“So it’s been exciting to be putting the new Idle band together over recent months. Heath and Amy both lead their own bands (Heath Cullen & the 45, Amy Vee & the Virtues). Dave Hibbard has played drums with me on and off for years, and Zoe Hauptmann is a brilliant and very busy bass player around Sydney. Everyone sings so the harmonies are going to be a blast.”
Choosing the right producer was likely even more crucial than selecting the band members for this new Tim Freedman project, with Matt Fell the chosen collaborator. “He’s a very, very inventive producer,” glows Freedman, evidently pleased with the collaboration. “My producers over each album have played more and more of the music. I’ve learnt to trust who I’ve hired and let them run towards the light.”
‘Little Cloud’ (2006) was produced by J. Walker who created the top layers with his psychedelic folk. This time Freedman relaxed even more and Matt Fell played the bass, most of the guitars and the top layers as well.
Matt had the distinct advantage of running a recording facility, Love Hz Studios in Leichhardt, just 12 minutes from Tim’s Newtown home base. “I could do some pianos and vocals and nip off for the school pick up. It wasn’t right to work on the oil rig this time.”
Matt won a Golden Guitar in Tamworth last year for producing the country album of the year, ‘Still Walking’ by Graeme Connors. “But that country albatross apart, I could tell from his sampler that we had some of the same vinyl in our childhood collections, and that his instrumentation was seriously ingenious.
“He usually did full albums in ten days. I went in there and made him work slower than he was used to, and he made me work quicker than I was used to. We met in the middle and enjoyed the difference. Around 40 days and 40 nights it took.
“We’d worked hard on one of the first songs we recorded, and it was sounding like Snow Patrol. On the last day of recording I ventured that it was from the wrong decade for this album and he admitted that deep down he thought the same, so he put the ego outside the door and wiped all the hard work he’d done. I suggested the drums should be more like John Lennon’s ‘Mother’.
“I had that album (John Lennon ‘Plastic Ono Band’) on vinyl at a very influential age, 14 or 15. I loved it so much that I got the sheet music and I performed it at a local pub, the Newport Arms Hotel, when I was 15. So when those drums kick in on ‘Are You a Dreamer?’ I get a buzz. A buzz that goes all the way back to 1978.”