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‘I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes’: Tim Freedman Talks The Whitlams, Black Stump Band

21 April 2022 | 5:48 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

"I’ve been running around the country for seven weeks watching people sing together around the piano and, I can tell you, it beats Netflix every time.”

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Described by Tim Freedman as “an underground classic”, The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw – the latest single by The Whitlams, Black Stump Band – was written by Perry Keyes, who has previously been described as “Redfern's answer to Bruce Springsteen". “It’s a very clever song,” Freedman commends. “There’s a lot of details that Perry Keyes has distilled into a real time-capsule. It paints a very vivid picture of the working class suburbs on Grand Final Day, but then it has a broad sweep of history: you know, it goes all the way through to the drug problems and the people shifted out to the western suburbs, and even the Sydney Swans being admitted and changing Sydney’s culture.”

If you don’t know who John Sattler is, he was a rugby league player who had his jaw broken in the third minute of the 1970 Grand Final, before famously instructing a teammate, “Hold me up, so they don’t know I’m hurt,” and playing out the rest of the game, leading Souths – under his captaincy – to victory over Manly. Don’t worry, I didn’t know any of that, either, but I still love the song.

So Freedman is obviously a long-time fan of Keyes’ songwriting, then. “He’s a real talent, he does something no one else does – he captures that whole culture wonderfully – and hopefully a few more people might discover him through The Whitlams, Black Stump Band releasing his most popular song – I think – over the years.”

It was in fact Keyes that found the footage of Freedman’s dad, radio DJ/newsreader Barrie Freedman, which bookends the single’s accompanying music video created by acclaimed Sydney photojournalist and director Johnny Barker. “He’s pretty serious about his [South Sydney] Rabbitohs, ‘cause he lurks in Souths fan forums,” Freedman divulges of Keyes. “I really couldn’t believe my eyes when he sent [the footage] of Dad actually tipping Souths in that year, 1970, and he must be 33 years old [laughs] – that’s a lot younger than me now! So the stars aligned. And I hadn’t seen Dad read the news for 35 years. And then we found that someone had uploaded it in hi-res and we could actually use it in the film clip! So I was pretty ebullient when I found that a few weeks ago.

“We recorded [The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw] in May last year and Perry only sent [the footage] to me four weeks ago and said, ‘You won’t believe this! It’s your dad tipping Souths!’ And I looked at it and thought, ‘What year?’ And then suddenly realised it was actually the year – it was two weeks before the semis. And you can hear him say, ‘Oh, all these other teams are gonna have to do well to beat Rabbitohs this year,’ so you couldn’t dream-up a top and tail for a clip any better than that. And then it says ‘Barrie Freedman’ at the end and people will sort of go, ‘Oh, I wonder if he’s related?’ Well he is! I would’ve been at home at the age of six watching Dad on the Channel 7 weekend news.”

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Although Freedman didn’t attend the actual Grand Final match, which Keyes immortalised in his song The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw, with his dad, he recalls, “I would’ve seen a few matches that year – I remember going to a Manly [versus] St George match at the [Sydney] Cricket Ground – but we didn’t go to that [Grand Final] match. I went to some subsequent ‘70s Grand Finals with my dad, because the Manly coach, Frank Stanton, lived three doors away from us. Then I moved into Newtown and of course was surrounded by Rabbitohs fans, including Perry, and so I would class myself as someone who barracks for both teams.

“I find Rugby League simultaneously exciting and stupid, you know, like Roy and HG I get excited by its stupidity. But if there’s a good game, it’s in my bones because I watched it with Dad from the age of five, as you can imagine. 

“Even when I used to get him out of the old people’s home, the dementia ward, I’d take him to the footy – in 2011, just before he died – so it was something that we did all my life until he passed away.”

While the majority of musicians felt hamstrung by Australia’s various Covid lockdown restrictions, Freedman “used all that downtime to write and record two albums and do 70 solo shows”. “So I really used it to my advantage and got really healthy and surfed and rode my bike and wrote and recorded and earned money,” he continues. “It was a strange thing, because I’d decided in December, 2019 that I was going to start being a full-time creative musician again – after having had a quiet decade – and our [Whitlams] tour went on sale early-February, 2020. So we were in a lucky position in a way that we had already sold 12 or 13,000 tickets when the lockdown happened, so we could have that to look forward to, and most people held onto their tickets. 

“I did the 70 solo dates, ‘cause I got to be so nimble I could just announce something three weeks out and put it on Facebook, and run around the country – that was a real kick up my bum, I loved it... I was just lucky I was so flexible that I could play solo, you know. Like, I went to Alice Springs and played for 380 people. And I felt like I was really fulfilling a social purpose when I rode into town with dust on my boots and people came out and heard someone from outta town for the first time in 12 months.

“I found it really sort of ennobling. It was really hard work. I’d drive three hours then I’d set up the piano, set up the merch, do the soundcheck, do the show, sign the Gough Whitlam tea towels, pack up the piano; you know, they were good 12-hour days – half the day. And I had to stay really healthy and just enjoy the fruits of a strong, necessary work ethic.”

“That was a bit of a revelation to us, ‘cause that’s not one that we recorded."

An image from Tim Minchin’s magnificent Foxtel drama series Upright – during which Minchin’s character, Lucky, attempts to transport a precious upright piano across the desert, from one side of Australia to the other – springs to mind. “Oh, yeah, they’ve got the upright on the back, haven’t they?” Freedman acknowledges, chuckling. “Mine was just a little digital piano in the back of the Subaru, so not quite as romantic. Often places like Orange and Lismore and Tamworth – they’ve got real grand pianos in these theatres, so I played about 25 different grand pianos over the year. And then when I didn’t have a piano, I’d just load in my digital.”

We can’t help but wonder how often these old grand pianos in regional theatres are tuned. “Well a lot of them are getting tuned for the first time in 12 months,” Freedman says, confirming our suspicions, “so that’s one of the reasons I’d set up the digital piano – as well as playing the grand – because sometimes they’d start howling a little bit like bagpipes after about an hour of me bashing them. And then I’d always have the option of moving over to the other side to play on the digital piano and, yeah! Some of them had been neglected, let’s say, but I got to meet a lot of fine piano tuners all around the country.”

It was actually during Freedman’s solo tour that The Whitlams, Black Stump Band was first conceptualised. After moving “to the country”, Freedman tells, “I drove through the hills when a drought had broken and I was surprised to hear a song I wrote called Man About A Dog on Triple A Murri Country, a great Indigenous station in Brisbane, and on Kix FM, which is a national country network, and my mind just started ticking. I was playing gigs in Gunnedah and Mudgee, and enjoying the crowds and how much those towns have changed: there’s a real music crowd in those towns, because of the tree change that’s happened.

“And I rang Matt Fell who, since I worked with him last [on Freedman’s solo album, 2011’s Australian Idle] has won 12 Golden Guitars or something and said, ‘Put together your dream band,’ and he said, ‘Oh, fun!’ So he got Rod McCormack and Ollie Thorpe and his drummer of choice, Josh Shuberth, into the studio. And I said, ‘Hire a piano player as well, I just wanna concentrate on singing’… And they were a real gun team. And we moved into Sony Studios for four days and had a good old-fashioned live recording – you know, we’d listen to a song and discuss it, go into the room and record it together for a few hours, get the best take and then move on. And they enjoyed it so much that they said, ‘Oh, we’ll play in the live band as well and so I said, ‘I’m a lucky bugger!’ We’ve got 35 Golden Guitars and 12 ARIAs in the live band playing in Rockhampton and Mackay and Tamworth and Orange, so we’re doing it! We’re gonna go out in July and August and do a 12-date run from Cairns down to Queenscliff. And it should be a really interesting, polished act by then. It’s alt country, but it veers all the way from campfire stuff – because Rod’s such a beautiful banjo and papoose player – all the way to more sort of Neil Young country-rock, so I’m having a ball!”

Reimagined versions of The Whitlams songs will also find their way into the setlist, augmented by Black Stump Band. Freedman promises “a campfire version” of No Aphrodisiac (“you can almost hear the fire crackling”) and Blow Up The Pokies with pedal steel and a different time signature (“that’s very poignant”). “We’ve done You Sound Like Louis Burdett as a crazy, country, filthy sort of Tom Waits groove,” he adds excitedly. “That was a bit of a revelation to us, ‘cause that’s not one that we recorded; we just worked it up in rehearsal last week before our debut at Camelot [Lounge, Marrickville]. And there’s a few others from The Whitlams’ catalogue that suit this setting: There’s No One, which is the final track on [The Whitlams’ fourth album] Love This City, which is about watching the other guys fight with their girlfriends from a country town when you’re on the road…” he trails off laughing as if suddenly hijacked by a specific tour memory. 

Freedman explains his country roots go way back. “I’d liked Willie Nelson as a kid, Dad used to play him.” And early The Whitlams sets also tended to incorporate some country classics.

“In the early days when we travelled up and down the coast we’d have to do three or four sets and Stevie [Plunder, guitar] would pull out some Hank Williams and even Patsy Cline, we used to do Walkin’ After Midnight. I came at it more from Neil Young, and probably Lucinda Williams, and more the country-rock side of things.

“So I sort of started really enjoying folk and roots sounds from American music over the years, led by Stevie Plunder, and then The Whitlams were lucky enough to tour Canada with Blue Rodeo, which is a big Canadian country-rock act, and they toured with us in Sydney around the Olympics, ‘cause they wanted to just rip it up a bit. So I got to listen to them night after night and they are a great country-rock band as well. So it’s been insinuating itself into me. 

“Then when I worked with Matt in 2010, I noticed that even though [Australian Idle] was a pop album, he was always sneaking banjos and pedal steel into it,” Freedman shares with a laugh. “And obviously then when I got to record with Rod and Matt, who sort of have ten ‘Producer Of The Year’s between them. It’s a bit of a learning experience for me. I concentrate on singing, but I let them form the palette behind me.

“I love the second hour [of playing with a band] when you’ve had two glasses of wine and start getting playful with the arrangements and one of the silver linings of Covid actually is that – because we haven’t been able to mix with the general public, I haven’t done merchandise after the show… I’d forgotten how the best ten minutes of the day is the ten minutes after you get off stage and then you have a light-hearted, adrenaline-fuelled rant with the boys in the dressing room. So that’s when the camaraderie is at its highest and I’ve been able to share that on this tour as well.”

“I certainly always tried to engender a sense of community in my songs."

By this stage of our chat, Freedman has me on speakerphone while driving around Newcastle, where he has a gig that night. “I just went to a record bar in Cardiff, because I had to listen to the German test pressing of Eternal Nightcap, which is [The Whitlams’] album from 25 years ago, because we’ve remastered it from the 12 inch. And so the Black Stump Band’s gonna play in the country and The Whitlams are gonna go and do a 25-Year Anniversary Eternal Nightcap tour, just in the capital cities, in September. So everything is running in parallel due to Covid, but hopefully people don’t get too confused.”

When asked whether he can see a parallel between the community spirit he experienced attending football matches with his dad and wanting to be a songwriter/performer, Freedman considers, “I certainly always tried to engender a sense of community in my songs so, I suppose, just seeing everyone together for a sort of sacred moment at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon with the smell of cut grass and Frank Hyde on the radio saying exactly those words in The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw’s chorus: ‘If it’s high enough, if it’s long enough, if it’s straight between the posts,’ was just one of those moments where I realised I like it when everyone comes together and, well, let’s face it, music’s the same thing. I’ve been running around the country for seven weeks watching people sing together around the piano and, I can tell you, it beats Netflix every time.”

The Whitlams, Black Stump Band - Debut Run

Fri 22 Apr - Longyard Hotel, Tamworth - NSW

Sun 24 Apr - Victoria Hotel, Bathurst - NSW

The Whitlams, Black Stump Band - John Sattler’s Jaw Tour 2022

Thu 28 July - The Metropolitan Hotel, Mackay - QLD

Fri 29 Jul - Mansfield Hotel, Townsville - QLD

Sat 30 Jul - Tanks Arts Centre, Cairns - QLD

Wed 03 Aug - Gunnedah Town Hall, Gunnedah - NSW

Thu 04 Aug - Orange Civic Theatre, Orange - NSW

Fri 05 Aug - Royal Hotel, Queanbeyan - ACT

Sat 06 Aug - Bowral Bowling Club, Bowral - NSW

Sun 07 Aug - Tallagandra Hill Winery, Gundaroo - NSW

Fri 12 Aug - Westernport Hotel, San Remo - VIC

Sat 13 Aug – Queenscliff Town Hall, Queenscliff - VIC

Sun 14 Aug - Burrinja Theatre, Upwey - VIC