Interview: Chris Bailey of The Saints

More than 30 years ago, the Saints, in what was something of a fluke, made their initial mark on rock ‘n’ roll. Disdained in their home of Australia, the band’s brash sound found an audience in the burgeoning punk scene in England when their single, “(I’m) Stranded,” a seminal meshing of alienation and blistering licks, was released in 1976. But truly mavericks, the Saints didn’t fit in among the spiked and safety-pinned, and soon loss favor with that crowd as well as their record company. After three albums, they were dropped by EMI and the original line-up disintegrated.

The Saints may have been just another, albeit bright, flash in the pan, but singer Chris Bailey has continued to soldier on, recruiting new members while following his muse. The band found widespread success in 1987 with All Fools Day (my introduction to the band), but was stymied two years later, when TVT, the label that released the album in the States, instigated legal proceedings with the band’s Australian home, Mushroom. Bailey and the Saints were caught in the middle and weren’t able to release another record until 1997. But the last ten years have shown the band return with renewed vigor. Their latest album, Imperious Delirium, is a riveting blend of the wit and raucous rock ‘n’ roll that has long been Bailey’s stock-and-trade.

The band is hitting American shores this week, playing their first show Thursday at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom, and the second here at Bernie’s on Friday. I caught up with Bailey on the phone in his home in Amsterdam before their departure.

Your new record is out here on Judy Collins’ label (Wildflower). You must find that a little humorous.
On the one hand it could be incongruous, but on the other hand it does make a certain amount of sense. I have to admit that when it was fist mooted to me my reaction was “Why?” But I’m a bit of a Judy Collins fan, strangely enough, and I looked at the roster they have, which is a bit eclectic, and it does make sense. Even though the Saints can be the caricature guys in the bus, hard-living, hard drinking rock ‘n’ roll chappies, there’s a certain girlish sensibility. We’re not just a typical cock-rock band. Over the years I’ve gone off on certain tangents that could be described as quasi-folk so it’s odd that at this particular point in our—is it evolution or de-evolution?—we’ve gone back to a noisier perspective on the music spectrum. It’s a good laugh.

I think people are going to be compelled to compare it to those initial records. Do you see it as being analogous to those first Saints records?
I don’t really know. I didn’t think of it as a return to roots or any crap like that. I think I’ve been contrary at every stage with the Saints and have always wanted the group to not be pigeonholed or repetitive. To keep making the same kind of corporate vocabulary records would be anathema. I guess it’s a mood thing when you come up with a bunch of songs. I don’t know that the songwriting process was any different: I just went into the garage, opened up a notepad and waited for inspiration. So the songwriting ethos was pretty much standard Saints. I did have a production notion in my head. Becoming a three-piece was a bit of an accident so when Caspar and I were talking about what kind of record to make, we decided to just bash it out like three blokes playing live. And that’s pretty much what we did. I thought we’d come up with a heavy metal record. Even though it sounds very rough and ready and is not exactly hi-fi, it still sounds like a pop record to me. I’m a bit confused how that happened, but I guess that’s the beauty of the recording studio.

Do you purposefully try not to repeat yourself?
Yeah… duh! I’ve always been fond of pop trash and I quite like acts that all their songs sound the same, but I’ve never wanted to do that myself for a living. One of the beauties of the Saints is that we’ve never become pop stars. We’ve been very lucky that we have a worldwide audience and we still get to make records and tour. But we’ve always been outside that corporate insistence to have a certain sound and look a certain way. So I guess I’m perfectly suited to be the stupid lead singer of this particular outfit.

But you’ve covered so much territory under the Saints banner. Is there something at the core of it all that you see as the main consistency?
Well given that at last count there’s been something like 32 or 33 Saints—most of whom I’m still good buddies with—and I’ve sent us off on some odd tangents, to my ear no matter how far I go out of my way to try something different there seems to be a thread through all of the Saints albums. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a limited songwriter or that we’ve been really lucky. I’m glad for that. If I wasn’t in the Saints, I’d wish a band like the Saints existed. I have enough experience with people who like the Saints to know we occasionally do something right.

You mentioned a thread in the songwriting. Could you be more specific?
I think I said many years ago that most rock songwriters have about four songs in them, whether it’s Bruce Springsteen or… well I guess the Beatles had a few more. But you tend to write within your limitations, and it’s always good to have in mind to push the boundaries, but you always come back to what your obsessions are. I’m angry with the world; I’m sad with the world or I want to write an unrequited love song, which is really a hard thing to do without being corny. I’ve never wanted the Saints to be an overtly political band, but I do feel alienated from the mainstream. And lots of folk I know over several generations feel the same way. Because the world is going in a scary direction and I guess we need rock bands to whinge about it.

Was that what you were getting at with “Getting Away with Murder?”
Um, yeah. “Yes” is the answer to that question.

Speaking of things that are a bit different, over here Wildflower issued a little boxset (The Greatest Cowboy Movie Never Made) of three of the records from the ’80s. Were you involved with instigating that?
Pretty much. A few years back, all the old EMI stuff came out in a boxset that wasn’t released in America. I just thought it would be interesting to go back to follow on that boxset. My mate, Chris Carr, pointed out that the ’80s were an interesting phase for the Saints, and so we thought it would be a nice way to make that stuff available.

Do they sit with you differently now?
When you make an album it becomes an oral photograph. So some of the tracks, I think sound good, and some of the tracks are crap. It’s very hard to—how do I say this politely?—always come up with works of rare genius. I’m surprised that a lot of the stuff holds up okay and there’s not too much that I’m embarrassed about.

Obviously, people come to your shows wanting to hear the old material. Are you resistant to that?
I’m not sure if that’s totally true. It’s very hard to gauge what people want when you have a catalog with as many songs as we have. It’s impossible to play every song so we can only come up with a night’s worth of material and hope that it works. There have been various points of my life where I’ve found playing certain period songs dull so we dropped them. But with the kind of record Imperious is and the nature of the three-piece, a lot of older material fits in really well. For example, we play “Nights in Venice” from the very first record. It fits in well with “Drunk in Babylon,” which fits in nice with “Stranded,” etc. etc. We may go back to being a more orchestral outfit on the next record; I’ve started writing it and it’s a bit “the hills are alive with sound of music.” Another thing, though, is that a record is one thing, but a live gig is… a live gig should be noisy and shambolic and not too rehearsed. That’s what I think rock ‘n’ roll is all about: living a little dangerously.

You mentioned becoming a three-piece was an accident. Did you see Marty (Church guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper) as somebody who was going to stick around for awhile.
Marty was a real anomaly. I had known him for quite a time, and he popped up just before we were about to go into the studio. Marty and I had always talked about working together, but I had never thought about him being in the Saints seriously. But then we thought it would be funny given that the Church were so cerebral…

Although live they’re a bit more raucous.
Yeah. Marty’s a bit of rock pig for all his cerebral pretensions. He did drink more beer than anyone. So permanency? No, I don’t think we had entertained the notion because Pete, Casp and I were a close-knit unit. So when Marty decided that he was unavailable the night before we had to do the Monsters of Rock at Donington, which is a pretty big English gig, we could have just blown it off. But that’s really slack. So fuck it, we decided to go do it. After the show, we sat around in the catering tent and we were all laughing because we had so much fun. I don’t know how long we’re going to stay a three-piece. From a singing point of view, it works. I can have my guitar up really loud, which I quite enjoy. And there’s something about the dynamic you get from having such a simple line-up. It’s a real test of a song if it can survive in that environment.

You said in an interview once that you thought the singer’s role was to roll about and act mad. So were you hesitant to take on guitar playing duties? It doesn’t sound like you were.
That’s kind of one of my romantic notions about what a rock band is. It’s funny because Caspar and I played with Eddie Kuepper and Ivor (the Saints’ original guitarist and drummer, respectively) in Oz in July. I did some acoustic because Ed’s like me, he’s a rhythm guitar player, and the two guitars would have been too much. It was funny being the bouncy singer again. But I’ve gotten used to being the guy that plays guitar. I don’t get to dance as much with the audience, but I try.

How was doing that show with Ed?
It was really fluffy. It was really nice. It was funny because Pete, our drummer, came out as well. Pete was just waiting for Ivor to collapse and to take over playing the drums. But no, it was cool. I was worried that it would be a nostalgic fest, but it wasn’t.

From what I’ve read of the reception to the Saints when you first started, they pretty much hated you in Australia and now you’re in their rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame.
It gets even worse actually! Yesterday I was being filmed for this documentary that was being made about that gig. And the woman who was interviewing me asked me if I knew that in Brisbane they’ve put up this walk of fame bollocks with stars, and apparently we’ve got one. I just find that outrageous. When we started, we couldn’t get a gig for love or money. There’s a myth about the support we got in Australia in the old days. We couldn’t get a gig until (the single) “Ghost Ships,” which was like 1984. A lot of this has gone into myth and hyperbole. It’s quite bizarre. When the band played, nobody came. A few people liked us, but the general consensus was that we were a pile of crap. It’s only that we were lucky to get that English breakthrough that it worked. There’s a lot of hype about the early records, but they didn’t sell well. But it’s all part of our legacy so c’est la vie.

Ed has described Stranded as almost perfect. Would you agree?
Oh, I don’t know. It’s a part of my life. It was what it was and it would be insane for me to dwell on it too much. My time is better spent thinking about the next record.

You’ve done this for quite some time. Is there something that would cause you to stop?
Um… the end? I think I’m the oddest guy to be a singer in rock band. If I didn’t write songs, then I wouldn’t be a guy in a rock band. So as long as I continue to write tunes, I guess I’ll stay in a rock band until it either becomes embarrassing or no one is interested.

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