Andrew Farriss: How 'Youthful Exuberance' & Being The 'Utility Guy' Informed His Country Turn

28 June 2024 | 10:27 am | Bryget Chrisfield

"Some people may have thought, ‘Oh, Andrew Farriss tried his hand at country, and it got too hard, so he ran away’... No, no, no, no, no…"

Andrew Farriss

Andrew Farriss (Credit: Chris Banks)

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Last week, Countrytown exclusively premiered the brilliant music video for Something Stronger, Andrew Farriss’ barnstorming latest single: a self-described “party song” and the first taste of his upcoming second solo album, The Prospector (due next year). 

“I was just talking to a radio plugger that we work with in the United States before,” Farriss shares excitedly, “and he was saying how much he and his wife love the song and the video and all that stuff. I’m really happy with it. It's getting a really good response, so I’m pleased with it.” 

Much of this film clip’s action was shot at Moonshiners Honky Tonk Bar in Tamworth, which Farriss points out is “set up more like what I would think of as a US honky tonk bar”.

“It’s all about the bar and the simple stage, and it’s cool! It’s got the right combination of an Aussie pub and a kind of Nashville bar vibe, and it’s a good little gig. And they’ve got a real dressing room upstairs! There’s actually a table and chairs – you don’t have to sit on your partner’s lap – there’s a piano there, and it’s very, very comfortable. 

“I have performed at Moonshiners before. I’ve played my own shows there two or three times, I think… Come to think of it, I’ve also done – at Moonshiners – ‘songwriters in the round’ stuff where you’ll have three or four songwriters and you all sit in a line across the stage, and you each sing a song and it goes ‘round and ‘round and ‘round. I’ve done it in Nashville as well – at The Bluebird Cafe, three times – but it’s good to do it at Moonshiners, you know? I’ve done it there with Americans, but I’ve also done it there with Australian artists – girls and guys – so it’s a good venue. I like it, yeah.”

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Farriss has phoned in from his home for our chat and enlightens, “I live on a working cattle and grain property I’ve owned for 32 years. It’s about 100 kilometres northwest of Tamworth. I’ve had a studio here for over 30 years. I don’t have artists pouring in and out of it – I probably should – but I don’t; I use it when I need to use it. And then when I don’t need to use it, I kinda lock it up. 

“It’s a good studio, though. It’s got very, very high-quality recording on the front end of what I do here. Technologically speaking, I had the head engineer from Studios 301 in Sydney, who’s a brilliant guy – he came up here, and we set it up.

“But it’s deceptive, because when we’re recording here – I’ll give you some idea of what it looks like in the room: it’s never been painted – it's just the original boards that were put up in about 1860 – and it’s got a fireplace in the corner of my studio, and it’s just got a real vibe to it. I put tie lines across what used to be the old kitchen in the homestead, and if I’m tracking or recording here, it’s deceptive because it doesn’t look like it would be very good quality, but it is very high quality. And then I don’t pretend to be a mixing studio space.

“I’ll mix stuff up that I’m happy to play to people, but if I really wanna get something super-fancy I’ll go to a bigger studio.”

So was Something Stronger recorded at Farriss’ home studio? “Actually, Lawrie [Minson, the song’s co-writer] demoed it in his studio and we worked on it together down in his house, which I have never done before,” Farriss reveals.

“Lawrie and I had worked together – not so much in a songwriting capacity, but, you know, he’s a fantastic, multi-talented musician and he does lots of different things; a bit like me, we’re similar like that: we’re both what they call ‘utility guys’. And I had never really heard that expression before. I thought a utility guy was someone who repaired your plumbing, and it wasn’t until I got to work with country musicians that I knew what a utility guy was – yeah! I thought it was a sparky, but that’s cool,” he admits, laughing.

“And so Lawrie, Loz, he’s a utility guy. And I have been over the years, too. I was with INXS: I played lots of different instruments and my main role with INXS, really, was as a songwriter. And as a performing musician, but mainly as a songwriter – the main songwriter – and so I would play whatever instrument it was that was kinda necessary to play, you know what I mean?

Something Stronger actually started with a riff that came from Lawrie. He played it to me and I instantly liked it, and we worked together on the lyrics as well. I changed some of the chords round, and he had it in the first person, as in he was talking about, ‘I’m always wanting something stronger’. I said, ‘You know what? Talking about Something Stronger, I think it would be much more open if we talked in terms of WE are searching for something stronger.’ And so it was that kind of give-and-take thing. 

“Lawrie’s that Australian country music royalty kinda guy. I dunno if you know, but his dad, John Minson, actually designed the Golden Guitar they hand out. Did you know that?

“It’s funny, ‘cause I’ve played with Loz for five years, and we’d never written a song together, and the first song that we write together, everyone’s going, ‘What’s this!?’ So life’s pretty strange that way, isn’t it?

“As a single and as a song, Something Stronger is not incredibly deep. But, again, it goes back to – I know when I first started working as a professional musician around Australia – and I was pretty young! – I played with The Farriss Brothers, my brothers. And we hadn’t called ourselves INXS [yet], but we played pubs where people would smoke cigarettes indoors and outdoors, and in your face when you’re eating [laughs], and there were fistfights and pub brawls – it was pretty crazy, it was just nuts!

“But at the same time, there was sort of a youthful exuberance to it all. And you were entertaining people in those environments. It wasn't like you went along to some of these venues – although I did, with my mates and friends or girlfriend at the time or whatever – as a punter, just to enjoy yourself. 

“But when you’re working in [pubs] – I’m trying to remember what the song is called, one of the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, where John Fogerty sings something like, ‘If I just have to sit there one more night and play my songs to people who are drunk…’ – it’s like, exactly! ‘Cause, as an entertainer, you’re entertaining people who are there to relax. They’re not working, they’re there for you to entertain them.” 

If I only had a dollar/ For ev'ry song I've sung/ Ev'ry time I've had to play/

While people sat there drunk…” – Lodi by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

“I think that’s where Something Stronger – you know, I really clicked with that song and I got it, and I really liked where Lawrie and I took it. It talks about that period, especially back in the day the environments – well, he was performing as a country artist, I was doing the same thing but in a different kind of music genre: more rock and funk, and my old band even used to play a bit of jazz in the early years – fusion stuff. There’s a lotta similarities, that was just culture in the years we were growing up. So that’s what people did, you know?” 

So, did INXS ever have disagreements over what was played on the tour bus? Farriss chuckles, before considering, “No, luckily – when I say that, I haven’t really thought about that much. Sometimes we’d squabble over videos – you know, the old VHS before it went to DVDs – and then we’d squabble occasionally over DVDs. But not so much with audio.

“This sounds like a funny thing to say, but with music, if you’ve just performed on stage – especially in those years, ‘cause just in the ‘80s alone, INXS played 13 three-month tours of the United States by road. That’s a different town every night, okay? And then after you perform, a lot of the time you have to get back on a tour bus and sometimes drive for quite a long time to the next town… It’s just so glamorous, isn’t it? [laughs].”

We can just imagine how gruesome the snack selection would’ve been at American truck stops in the wee hours of the morning back then, as well. “At 2 or 3 am in 1983, wandering around in – I think it was a Texas truck stop. It was hot that night, too, and, you know, there’s some Good Old Boys walking around in cowboy hats and a white Ford F100 with gun racks on the back – we saw it all!” 

The Davidson Brothers were part of Farriss’ touring band when he launched his solo career in 2019. “Hamish and Lachie, yeah. Love ‘em,” Farriss recalls. “When I first saw them and heard them, and met them as people, I instantly liked the Brothers, and I got them; we clicked immediately. In fact, Hamish was making fun of me about a month later, saying, ‘Why does Andrew Farriss keep contacting me?’ I said, ‘I like you, you silly bugger!’ Hahaha.

“Anyway, I like them, I like their music. I think they’re really special and they’re passionate about it. I remember when I played the Gympie Music Muster back in 2019, they were playing there, too, and when they weren’t on stage they were actually just jamming bluegrass music with younger people who were wandering around at the gig. And that’s something I really love about them. 

“But one of the things I love about the country, Americana kind of fusion of music is that they’re people who genuinely love playing music. They’re not necessarily pop stars, you know what I mean? And that part of the community – I get it, you know?

“Because I have worked professionally and internationally for quite a few years at that ‘bigger is better’ philosophy, and you’re gonna get more famous and more this and more, more, more, more – that’s all very well, but at the end of the day you will have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Am I doing this ‘cause I love music?’ And if that’s the reason that you’re doing it, great! But if you’ve changed course, you better be aware of it. 

“And [The Davidson Brothers] have been doing it since they were little kids. I mean, I think also with my brothers, my older brother Tim and my younger brother Jon – great musicians, great people… 

“Even though my elder brother Tim – mum was driving around in Perth when we were little kids, and there were no seatbelts in those days. We were wrestling in the back of the car, and he pushed me over, I think, and I leaned on the door handle.

“I fell out of the car and rolled along the road, and I stood up and – just by coincidence – we were near [where] my best friend when I was a little kid, Tony, [lived]. So I knocked on the door, and his mum answered – Barbara, I think her name was – and she said, ‘Andrew, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Oh, I fell outta the car, and I just thought I’d come and see Tony,’ and she said, ‘Oh, that’s really funny.’ And I walked in, and then when Mum had actually got the truth out of my elder brother, she said, ‘What was that story you were first telling me?’ [laughs] We helicopter everybody in this era, as parents. But I can remember, as kids, we pretty much ran around until it got dark.”     

The last time we saw Farriss perform live was at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre last year, supporting the legendary Don McLean on the Australian leg of his extensive American Pie 50th anniversary tour.

Of this experience, Farriss enthuses, “It was really good. I had no idea what to expect. We had played with Don as far north as Northern Queensland and then went right down to Tasmania, and I hadn’t been to Tasmania in years, you know? Literally decades. 

“But the whole thing with Don was really interesting. First of all, I really related to him and his backing band, and as a songsmith. When I was a teenager in the ‘70s, his songs were all over the radio – he was a massive artist, huge – and I couldn’t believe it. I was pinching myself – ‘I’m actually performing alongside this man!’ – and he was great. He treated me and my little outfit with a lot of respect, and I appreciated that.

“I decided not to take drums and bass with me. I decided to deliberately do that out of respect for him... I think people really enjoyed it because I wasn’t being competitive with Don and trying to blow him off the stage or something stupid.”   

When asked whether he was raised on a steady diet of country music, Farriss offers: “Yeah, well when we were little kids in Perth, my mum Jill and my dad Dennis – Mum gave me a cheap little transistor radio. And I don’t even think there were FM stations in the early ‘60s, but all I remember was the AM stations like 6PR and 6 PM – those call signs – and I remember listening to those radio stations. I used to turn that [transistor radio] on softly and put it under my pillow, listening to the radio when I’d go to sleep at night. 

“And what I do remember is that they would play all kinds of music on the radio, they would have instrumentals – there was no singer, it wasn’t about the singer’s ego or a lyric or anything; it was just instrumental music – and then they’d play a Slim Dusty song, or it could be Johnny Cash Ring Of Fire, or another one I remember hearing in dad’s workshop was North To Alaska, which always used to make me smile ‘cause in the 40-degree heat in Western Australia, you couldn’t be further south from Alaska if you possibly tried… And then they played The Beatles, they’d have early British Invasion rock, they’d have Elvis – all kinds of music. The diversity of music that was on early AM radio was mind-boggling.

“I didn’t really understand segregated radio, professionally, until I went to the United States… I didn’t realise that even existed. I thought people played everything on the radio, including country music. They have segregated radio in Australia now, too.”   

When asked whether a release date has been locked in yet for his forthcoming record, Farriss chuckles and ‘fesses up, “Oh, I’ve gotta get my shit together!

“A year ago, I could’ve just rushed out a whole lot of songs, but I’m really glad that I’ve done what I’ve done, which is just take my time, set it all up properly – you know, creatively – and make sure that it’s good; a bit like it’s got the right foundations if you’re gonna build something. 

“As things are unfolding and I’m working on songs, one of the problems I’ve always had – my whole career – is I tend to be fairly prolific when it comes to songwriting. I’ve written more than I really need to and what happens then is I suddenly realise that the one that I might’ve just recorded – or the three or four I just wrote and demoed – are actually better than the ones I already had, right?

“And so then I started thinking, ‘[adopts freaking-out voice] What am I doing? Where am I trying to go with this?’ Which has led me to a good place, I can say, where The Prospector is beginning to take shape as a concept. When I say concept, I mean the lyrics I’m choosing – particularly on this record – relate to searching for things, you know? There’s even that line in the single, Something Stronger, ‘We’re always searching…’ – that’s very much what my theme is on The Prospector album.

“It could be searching for truth, you know? There’s one of the song’s that’s gonna be on The Prospector called I Got Eyes On It, you know the military term? It’s good that we’re all aware of what is going on around us, as people… it's good that we pay attention to things.” 

Farriss then teases another The Prospector track: Gold Rush To Ghost Town (“a retrospective song”), which draws comparisons “between being a prospector from an earlier period and yet, ironically, here we are in 2024 and many of the things that were going on 100 or 200 years ago are still going on”.

“Not even so much musically, but lyrically I’m making sure that I try and stay pretty close to that theme [the search for gold in life] on the album and, yeah! I’m excited, though, ‘cause I’ve been working on this for quite a long time, and I think some people may have thought, ‘Oh, Andrew Farriss tried his hand at country, and it got too hard, so he ran away’,”  he trails off, laughing.

“It’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, I’m just taking my time and figuring out exactly what I wanna try and say – and the best music I’ve got – and writing it and recording it on that philosophy.”

Something Stronger is out now.