The Whitlams won ‘Best Group’ at the 1998 ARIA Awards, as well as ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Best Independent Release’ for their third album “Eternal Nightcap”. In 2011 this album was placed 27th on the ABC’s “My Favourite Album” poll, and more recently was voted no. 17 in “JJJ’s Hottest Australian Albums of All Time”.
The Whitlams recorded output spans seven albums since 1993, and includes the double platinum “Love This City”, the No. 1 “Torch the Moon” and their “Truth, Beauty & A Picture of You – Best of the Whitlams” which sat in the Top 10 for six weeks running. More recently Tim released a solo album on Sony titled “Australian Idle”.
Tim’s solo performances are a treat for music lovers, as his intimate banter, caustic wit, honest vocals and stripped-back piano style have captivated audiences around the world, the highlights being his solo Sunday night residencies at London’s Ronnie Scotts in 2003 and 2005, and his nine year stretch of annual Christmas shows at The Basement in Sydney.
The Whitlams formed in late 1992 in Newtown, Australia. As a three piece with no drummer, Tim Freedman, Stevie Plunder and Andy Lewis developed their songs acoustically on Saturday afternoons at the Sandringham Hotel in King Street.
So followed the usual formative months of beer, bonding and bad shows. In early 1993 they discovered that with their gear, they could all fit into a Kingswood station wagon. Taking turns lying on the piano in the back, they headed off every six weeks to Byron Bay and Brisbane and became a real band.
Introducing The Whitlams
August 1993 saw the release of their first album “Introducing The Whitlams”. Its 10 tracks were a mixture of 3 produced tracks, 5 live takes and 2 songs from their first demo. Its jaunty acoustic spirit worked well with radio, and live they started to be known for their rather comic abuse of each other, which sat strangely with sweet 3-part harmonies one minute later. Stevie was usually drunk in those days and no-one could work out what Tim was on.
Andy didn’t speak. Piano and double bass were not the hip thing in the inner-city, but the rough edge and energy with which they utilised them got The Whitlams good crowds from the start. Over 1993 and 1994 they played over 300 shows, most with drummer Stu Eadie. This line-up was remarkable for its brutal dynamics and infectious snappy vigour. For six months they toured and lived in a pink greyhound bus, later made famous in the movie” Priscilla Queen of the Desert”. It was a mad-house on wheels.
Undeniably The Whitlams
Late 1994 they went into the studio with fabulous Rob Taylor producing again and had a month to create a full-length document. This became “Undeniably The Whitlams”. It was more richly textured and stylistically varied than its predecessor, retaining the humour and developing their artfully sensitive side. Just after the album was released Andy got married and moved to Melbourne. He was replaced by an friend of Tim’s, Michael Vidale, whose favourite food is fetta cheese with a bit of olive oil, cut thin and eaten on a knife.
The band toured the album nationally in November 1995 and its profile over summer increased enormously as the single “I Make Hamburgers” gained broad community and commercial airplay across the country. They were about to take advantage of this upturn in fortunes when Stevie Plunder was found dead at the bottom of a cliff on Australia Day, 1996.
After a four month break Tim decided to keep the band going. He experimented with line-ups over a couple of tours to Melbourne and Brisbane, and 12 months after that recorded an album, “Eternal Nightcap”, which went on to sell over 280,000 units.
In 1998 The Whitlams were nominated for 8 ARIA awards:
-Song of the Year
-Best Independent Release
-Best Album Best Single
-Best Pop Release
-Engineer of the Year
and won 3 ARIAs
-SONG OF THE YEAR ( for No Aphrodisiac)
-BEST INDEPENDENT RELEASE (for Eternal Nightcap)
The ARIA Awards were held at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney on Tuesday 20th October 1998. Gough Whitlam (a former Australian Prime Minister whom Tim named the band after), presented the award for BEST GROUP.
The band line-up has changed numerous times.
Love This City
We all know the Whitlams as one of the great outside chance success stories of the ’90s. A band that’s been toiling for 7 years, releasing independent albums and playing up and down the East Coast of Australia surprises unwary pundits when the single from 1997’s Eternal Nightcap album strikes a chord so strong it makes Number One in Triple Js the Hottest 100, a listener poll so comprehensive it makes the recent Sydney elections look like American democracy. Accolades, ARIA’s, 280,000 album sales and major record label record deals follow.
So finally, it seems, Tim Freedman has a chance to make the album he’s always dreamed, with the budget and the push to match it. You’d expect him to be feeling the pressure.
“It wasn’t pressure because we’re now on a major label,” he explains. “It’s just the first time I’d ever made a record where people knew I was making a record, or people even gave a stuff!”
So was there are grand plan, for an album which in the end has been created on a grand scale? “Aw, I had no idea!” he laughs. “The record’s pretty schizophrenic because of that… hopefully it’s an album that takes you on a journey, rather than throws you around the cabin.”
So what do you do in this situation, stick to your roots and work on an album which has an easy familiarity that can only be created through collaborations with eccentric mates and associates in your local neighbourhood (inner western Sydney)? Or go for a full blown internationally produced opus of stadium proportions?
Freedman has decided to do both.
Looking over the extensive credit list for Love This City, you’ll see many familiar names. Bernie Hayes, brother to ex-Whitlam Stevie Plunder, appeared on Eternal Nightcap. Here he contributes not only backing vocals but a song of his own, “You Made Me Hard.”
Louis Burdett, a man Freedman made infamous with the line “Stop bagging out the band…” on Whitlams single “You Sound Like Louis Burdett,” plays raggedy drums as only he can (“I wanted to prove he’s a real person,” Freedman explains. “People seem to think he’s some French philosopher.”)
Freedman wrote “No Aphrodisiac” on Chris Abrahams’ piano (he had to make it up quickly, as Chris was asleep on the second floor). And now he’s using one of Abrahams’ songs from the same timeframe, and including the noted Sydney musician as an additional pianist.
“I said to the band, this record’s gonna be done like Eternal Nightcap was, where I’m going to use the people who are best for each distinct song,” says Freedman. “I just use a collective, just drawing on them and getting them to do what they do well. People re-appear all the time. Louis is on the first and the fourth, Bernie played guitar on the last one, and is singing on this one, Chris has been on the last three…”
Perhaps most surprisingly you’ll find the same songwriting team behind “No Aphrodisiac” also wrote new airplay fave “Chunky Chunky Air Guitar.” The fact that he wandered down the road to the home of Machine Gun Fellatio (an eclectic electronic collective which has just scored a deal of its own — look out world) to get help from mates Glenn Dormond, Matt Ford and Ross Johnston isn’t what’s surprising. It’s the song, which has about as much to do with No Aphrodisiac as the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. It’s a frivolous, layered two chord funk rock workout.
“It’s my first ever throwaway pop chorus,” says Freedman. “It means nothing. There’s a strange surreal fairly tale story in the lyrics,” he adds, muttering something about a woman sold into slavery, a dream and a jailbreak. “There’s a story in there but you gotta look real deep.”
“Chunky Chunky Air Guitar” is so aggressively funky and upbeat that it’s almost unrecognisable as the Whitlams. But it’s a good indicator of the mood of the album.
As the name suggests, Eternal Nightcap was an introspective album for late-eve listening. Freedman makes no secret of the fact that he’s had a ball since he wrote that record, and that sense of exuberance is all over Love This City, from the playful doo-wop break down and cute pizzicato outro of “Make the World Safe” through to the rollicking, joyful feel of opener “Thankyou” (which must be the strollin’-est summer party song since the theme to Welcome Back Kotter).
The sheer groove of it all must in part be put down to the rhythmic work of bassists Alex Heweston (a legend in Sydney’s funk scene through his work with Swoop and the outrageously funky Professor Groove & the Booty Affair) and Terepai Richmond (ditto as low slung drummer for proto acid jazz outfit DIG). But the joy behind the writing is down to Freedman.
The constantly changing yet still cohesive melodic thread, and the Wilson-esque harmonic detail behind waltz time epic “Make the World Safe” is a good example of what’s on offer here. For all Freedman’s claims that he entered the album without a clue, there’s a load of musical ambition somewhere behind this.
If Freedman has stuck to his roots in terms of the musical family he’s involved here, he’s created a truly international sound as well. Freedman talks about the anti-gambling anthem “Blow up the Pokies” as a local issue wrought large. But listening to the huge production, with an uplifting string section to the chorus’s call to arms and timpani thrown in for good measure, you can’t help thinking ‘wrought widescreen’ is more like it.
With the help of ex-pat Brit producer Rob Taylor, and a stint recording in the US with silky smooth session pros Greg Morrow and Michael Rhodes and Yankee producer Joe Hardy, the Whitlams have a fine combination of polish and feel here.
Much of the album works this balance — intimacy delivered with the full force of the musical cannon available to todays recording artist. Love This City uses samples and rhythm loops up against vintage instrumentation, classic songwriting arrangements and genuine southern downhome feels.
And they’ve managed to keep it local, as the album title suggests.
Which brings us to the most obvious question. A slinky, jaded jazz number (featuring backing vox from first lady of Australian pop Marcia Hines) which questions the integrity of our fair Olympic city? As its protagonist counterpoints the mythology of Sy-de-ney 2000 with details of his own, less glamorous urban reality, this city looks like an over eager debutante tarting itself up in unnecessary chiffon for its coming out, perfect for the sanguine Dr John feel and ill voodoo sheen.
Is the title track a case of guts or gall?
“I started trying to write that when the Whitlams performed at the Alternative Olympics event on a Thursday night at the Lansdowne Hotel,” Freedman explains. “We got onstage at 3am, and at the end of it, the TV came on and they announced Sydney had won… There was the crowd going crazy and thought ‘What’s going on here? I just didn’t like the way everyone as joined behind the government and held hands. That’s something that always frightens me. It reminds me of frightening social movements of the 20th Cenutry, where everyone thinks the same thing. So I just wrote a song which had a different opinion, just for the sake of plurality, really.”
“I mean I’m gonna go to the Olympics,” he concludes. “I’ve got tickets to the boxing down at Darling Harbour, and I’m also going to the ping pong final. And I’m gonna enjoy them! I can’t stop the Olympics now!”
Torch The Moon
One thing we know about The Whitlams is that when they are played on the radio they sell albums. There’s no other explanation for a band that sells over 350 000 albums from a non-hyped, lyric-driven, melodic dreamworld. And after 1999′s double platinum “Love This City”, Tim Freedman, The Whitlams’ singer-storyteller-piano man had a dream himself. He wanted to record the band’s fifth album at home, with the regular live band, and without some of the widescreen trappings of Love This City, an album that Tim now admits “got a little out of control”. So the band spent two months in a house on the south coast of NSW arranging the songs together from scratch. “This is the first ‘band’ record I’ve made since [1995’s] Undeniably the Whitlams “, Tim says looking back over that year. “It’s recorded by the one band and sounds like the one band”. But the lure of Sydney studios became too much. “We missed all the toys” he grins. 10 months later, “Torch the Moon” was released.
Sophie Michalitsianos, an Australian from New York, shares the singing on the first single “Fall for You”. She was most recently heard on Sparklehorse’s “Good Morning Spider”. Richard Tognetti adds violin to the gothic folk of “Kate Kelly”. One of the 2 surf tracks boasts a string quintet composed by Australia’s father of modern classical music, Peter Sculthorpe. And a 30-piece school choir lifts the last half-minute of the Phil Spector-ish “Best Work”. “We thought it’s a big lovelorn ballad, let’s go to town and add a choir over the trombone section” says Tim.
The band managed to record a double album’s length of material over the year. “We’ve erred on the side of discretion and picked a 13 song record”, admits Tim. But some of the “more ambitious” material will appear on a “premium release” of the album as a bonus disc: “Side 4″. This will contain work recorded with ex-Whitlams Chris Abrahams (The Necks) and Ben Fink, material destined to become the chill-out room for long term fans.
There’s also some history on “Torch the Moon”. The instrumental beds of 4 songs were the last things ever to be recorded at the legendary Festival Studio A (soon to be a carpark). “That was a sad night because we were putting a magical studio to sleep”. For the trainspotters, the piano on “Royal in the Afternoon” was the last instrument put to tape in that historic space.
The title Torch the Moon has a duality that appeals to Tim. “It’s the first phrase of the first song, and though quite a dark image, it can be misconstrued romantically. A bit like the ‘eternal nightcap’ – hopeful and melancholy”.
The first single from the album is “Fall for You”. It starts with the drums-bass-guitar of the writing sessions last year. Tim’s Wurlitzer piano pokes in slowly and then the track lushes out as those months in the studio pile on. The song is re-mixed on track 2 by Rob Taylor (producer of the first 4 Whitlams’ albums) and his new group “Atomica”. Tracks 3 and 4 are versions of the JJJ favourite “I Will Not Go Quietly” (Duffy’s Song), an early incarnation of which appeared on the ABC show “Love is a Four Letter Word”, and though not released, was voted number 42 in last year’s JJJ Top 100. Track 5 is an out-take from the Memphis sessions of “Love This City”. Track 6 is “Atomica” going to town with “Fall for You”.
Torch The Moon debuts at # 1 on the ARIA charts & becomes the 3rd consecutive platinum album for The Whitlams.
In the early months of 2004 you might have found Tim Freedman doing a few strange things.
He was in New York City in the freezing months of winter, casting shadows in the steam rising from the subways. He was watching an American eagle hitch a ride on an ice drift down the Hudson River. And more peculiarly, he was walking into bars, touching the back wall and walking back out the front without stopping to order a drink.
“New York is my Mecca. But it was a strange place to try and get healthy again,” he admits, adding that all the touring for The Whitlams’ previous album and DVD had left him a little flat and needing to “recalibrate”.
He rented a loft between the East Village and Chinatown for three months, spending his time seeing bands, reading books and talking with friends.
In New York, he also spent hours listening to music from what he referred to then as “the new acoustic movement” (Iron and Wine etc) and walking into clubs and cafes on speculation to be surprised by great unknowns. And he started to think “I want to write something intimate and heartfelt and uncomplicated.”
The result was The Whitlams’ double album Little Cloud, the band’s sixth studio album – a return to the piano and voice, story-telling style Freedman and The Whitlams fans love.
The album is broken into two discs. The first, “Little Cloud”, is about returning to Sydney with mixed feelings of love and disillusion in an election year. The second, “Apple’s Eye”, is set in New York, and is about slowly getting strong and well “under a tapestry of stone hung from the sky”. It’s short for a double album – each side is approximately 28 minutes long – and that’s how Freedman wanted it.
“ The songs came slowly at first because I was exhausted, but as my mood lifted they poured out. ‘Fondness Makes the Heart Grow Absent’ is a miniature of the New York months in that I start out disconnected and finish the day revived in Balthazar (his favourite restaurant), ripping at a bread roll and making a little private toast.” And then there are songs about fancy lovers. “It wouldn’t be The Whitlams if there wasn’t trouble with girls.”
“The album is about New York, fancy lovers and a rodent.”
The album has been produced by J. Walker of Machine Translations, the Melbourne indie music master who made it his job to put immediacy and intimacy back into the songs, and the piano back up to the front. The result is classic Whitlams. The album debuted at #3 in the ARIA charts.
The Whitlams Years 1992-2004 is a comprehensive visual history of a band who have grown from playing to 35 people at the Sandringham Hotel in Sydney in 1992 to being the highest-selling independent Australian band since the Skyhooks. Their success has been phenomenal. But the personal costs have been high.
The Whitlams were born outside the Hordern Pavilion whilst inside the Pavilion, Nirvana played the first Big Day Out in 1992. The original line up of Tim Freedman on piano, Stevie Plunder on guitar and Andy Lewis on double bass played around Sydney’s inner west, a jaunty acoustic act in the midst of the grunge movement. The band¹s name was chosen out of admiration for former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret.
Over the following two years, The Whitlams performed over 300 shows across Australia and released a mini-album “Introducing The Whitlams” (1993) and their first full-length album “Undeniably The Whitlams” (1995). Both Plunder and Freedman shared the songwriting and singing on these albums with Lewis contributing heavily on a number of songs.
Just after “Undeniably The Whitlams” was released, Andy Lewis left the Whitlams and moved to Melbourne. The following year, on Australia Day 1996, Stevie Plunder was found dead at the bottom of Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, the same day that their single ‘I Make Hamburgers¹ was announced as number 79 on Triple J¹s Hottest 100.
Freedman decided to keep the band going with a group of respected musicians, and after a four month break started work on the band¹s biggest album “Eternal Nightcap”. In 1998, the album went double platinum and The Whitlams won ARIAs for Group of the Year, Best Independent Release (“Eternal Nightcap”) and Song of the Year (“No Aphrodisiac”).
In 1999, the follow-up album “Love This City” was released with “Blow Up The Pokies”, “Made Me Hard” and “Thankyou (For Loving Me At My Worst)” charting well in the ARIA chart, and the album going double platinum. Sadly while The Whitlams were touring “Love This City” in Canada in early 2000, original bass player Andy Lewis took his own life at home in Australia after struggling with a gambling addiction.
In 2002 The Whitlams fifth album, “Torch The Moon” debuted at number one on the ARIA charts. With no hit single it nevertheless became their third platinum album in a row. In 2003, Freedman toured with The Australian Chamber Orchestra after collaborating with violinist Richard Tognetti and composer Peter Sculthorpe on “Torch The Moon”.
In February 2004, the Whitlams performed with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and had 18 of their songs arranged for 70 instruments.