A Conversation with Mr Hugo Race


Hugo Race is gracing our shores once again with a new record in hand and his heart on his sleeve ‘with a veritable smorgasbord of love songs’ on his new album No But It’s True.
Having just completed a successful tour of Europe, and launching his first album as a ‘solo’ artiste on his new label ‘Rough Velvet Records’, Hugo Race is about to embark on his tour of the east coast of Australia, kicking off in Sydney at ‘Notes’ in Newtown, this Friday night June 15th, and returning to Melbourne  by July 1st 2012 to play the Northcote Social Club.
Fortunately, Mr. Race will include a date in Wollongong @ Yours and Owls this Saturday night on June 16th with Special Guests -‘Leek & The War Wick Tragedy.’
I do believe it to be a (long awaited) debut performance in this locale for ‘Hugo Race’.

Hugo Race is largely known for his work with the inimitable ‘Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’, his seminal  post/punk outfit ‘The Wreckery’ and his long-standing collective the ‘True Spirit’ amongst many other collaborations spanning the last 25 years, which is about the same as his output of albums. Today, I spoke to the elusive man himself about love, life and future projects:

How does it feel to be back in Australia, Hugo?
I’ve always kept in touch with and revisited Australia; it’s home. This country keeps on changing. Me, I’ve just kept moving, touring, working on different projects and events. My base is currently in Melbourne, a really stimulating place to be, but I still get away for months every year. I’ve always moved around and explored new territories, new sounds, new collaborations, exotic influences.

Great to see you have finally decided to include the Illawarra or rather ‘da Gong’ on your tour schedule Hugo.  Why haven’t you played here before now? Or hasn’t the opportunity arisen?
The fact that this is a solo tour made it more feasible to come to the Gong, but this whole tour includes cities in Australia where I’ve never actually played before.

It’s a very eclectic array of song choices on your new album, No, But It’s True, albeit with the common thread of ‘the love song’ theme.  Given your prolific body of past work, what motivated this album?
I’m always interested in trying new ideas, and the way I work is very much a randomized approach, letting things evolve with their own energy.
I didn’t decide to make this album, I had the studio booked in Sicily to work with some of the ‘True Spirit’ guys from Berlin, but some crisis came up and that idea vaporized. I’d already started writing songs for this record, so putting that to one side, I started to think about songs in general, and it seemed that the greatest, most universal of songs, were the ‘love’ songs. The studio was waiting, and it all came together very suddenly. It felt right, and it is just kind
of happened.

Is it indicative of a personal narrative or statement, or am I reading too much into the lyrical content and song titles?
The catalyst for Fatalists
was ‘certain dramatic things happen in our lives and change us forever, alter our sense of who we are’. If love is all that’s left that is worth examining in the human condition, it’s because without hope, we have nothing. No But Its True is an album of love songs, but most of these songs address the idea of a powerful force that changes us forever and shifts our perception of what it is to be alive. In this case, the power is love. It’s also true that Fatalists was written at the end of a relationship.

No, But Its True is the beginning of a new story….

Did you feel it was time to pay tribute to certain songwriters that you admire, or do an album of covers that you felt warranted a specific treatment and interpretation vocally from a stylistic perspective, as a performer?
The performance aspect was important because the songs actually are live studio takes: there is no digital editing, and very little overdubbing. I wanted this album to be made in the old-school, classic, analog style, like the albums of the 60s and 70s, by classic songwriters whose approach influenced me greatly: Nick Drake, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Rodriguez and all that stuff. Compared to most of my other albums, this is a very intimate, minimal record, very much about just capturing the moment

There is an interesting line through both the lyrics and the order of songs chosen.
How important do you feel that is in adding to the cohesiveness of the finished product from a producer’s point of view?

As long as people keep listening to albums as ‘albums’ then the track sequence will be important because it can achieve a movie-like form. On certain albums, some songs only really make sense because they follow other specific songs. It would have been interesting to print the lyrics for No But It’s True
as a continual stream, because they’re all talking about the same thing, but from different angles. To me, the record makes sense-like a movie-but everything stands up on its own. It’s very human, very raw, the love song. Everybody has to deal with it, it can’t be escaped. You can run, but you can’t hide from love. Maybe the Supremes said that somewhere.

I think you’re right!! That’s a great song, lol.

Are there deliberate couplings or juxtapositions with songs such as ‘Cry Me a River’ & I’m on Fire’,  ‘Never Ever Going to Give You Up’ & ‘Wait and See’,  ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ & ‘Song for You’?
‘I’m on Fire’ and’ High Temperature’: from random elements patterns emerge, and you just follow it down.

Is working in a ‘solo’ format a new terrain and new challenge?
When I first moved to Europe in 1989, I survived by playing solo concerts, sometimes by car, or with a friend, but more often than not, alone by train. The songs from my first albums, after the Wreckery, were either covers or mutations of old delta blues relics and were developed so I could play them alone ‘live’. Gradually, a band built up around that, ‘the True Spirit’.
I’ve continued to play solo. I dig the rawness, and the discipline of it, and the flexibility.   You can work more closely with the audience, chop and change, transform the material depending on the situation. Doing this enabled me to travel everywhere. The difference with No, But It’s True
are the songs. I’ve applied what I learnt doing my own thing to different kinds of covers, usually songs justly famous for their incredible arrangements and production! I stripped all that away.

What is your ‘cultural heritage’ and what were your main musical influences in your formative years?
My mother plays piano, but when I was growing up there was no piano in the house! She has one now, which is good. My dad was interested in the theatre and liked show tunes:Camelot, Anthony Newley, those kinds of things. I was impressed by the volume at which he blasted out classical music. I had to yell over it just to ask him to turn it down. He also liked crystal radio sets. Later, I’d sample classical music distorted by shortwave radio and use it for raw electronica. We were an Anglo-Irish  family. My brothers and sister all listened to rock and folk, and this was back in the 1960s. I was very young then, but I was taking it all in: Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Neil Young.

Having lived and worked overseas for such long periods and in different countries and  locales, how does the ‘live music industry’ in Australia measure up or compare with Europe presently?
Europe is changing, but touring there can keep you busy for months of a year. Situations vary greatly. Some countries subsidize venues and festivals, particularly in the north. Whereas,in southern Europe it gets more difficult for independent promoters to survive. Yet, these are my favorite countries in which to play: Italy, Spain, Greece. In Australia and the UK the clubs and the scene is somewhat similar. The Euro continent is definitely much weirder, and it’s vast.

How has the global economic crisis impacted working musicians in Europe?
They used to say when times get hard, entertainment gets soft. I’m not so sure about that anymore. A lot of clubs shut down, but new ones open up and the music continues.

How do you see the role of the artist in terms of participating in and/or making social commentary in the global arena?
In a lot of ways, commentary on global events exists as an online stream with sites like Wikileaks and Avaaz. All of that can be material, raw footage. I used to read literature, but now I just read non-fiction as the depth of analysis of the world in general grows more incredible all the time. It’s unbelievable what goes on. No way can you take it all in. The protest song is a curious thing, an anachronism in many ways. With records like ‘Goldstreet
Sessions’, ‘Taoist Priests’ and ‘53rd State’, the ‘True Spirit’ mixed the political and the psychedelic.

No But It’s True’ ventures into a more ‘intimate and personal landscape’… so do you see this as a shift in your focus creatively, or is it just a reflection of your life and where you find yourself at this point in time ? Or maybe the record you needed or wanted to make?
No, But Its True is very stripped back, acoustic, kind of gritty. Sonically, the previous albums I worked on are the same: Fatalists, Dirtmusic BKO, Between Hemispheres. I’m drawn to the sound and presence of the physical. Going to Mali influenced me a lot in this direction. There’s a kind of honesty in it, something real. The covers record is meant to be played live, looking into someone’s eyes.

Do you believe in ‘true love?’
In principle, yes, but I’m not convinced we all agree on what exactly it is

What is your favourite song on the album?
1000 Kisses

Are you a ‘fatalist’ at heart?
Absolutely.  Things happen for a reason. We are the engines of our own destiny-”Que Sera, Sera”.

Are you back in Australia for a lengthy stay this time?
We’re launching our new label, ‘Rough Velvet Records’
, with this album No, But It’s True and with a national tour that takes in many Australian cities. I’m here until September, and then I’m going out to Mali, Africa, to record a new album with ‘Dirtmusic’, followed by a European tour for my next release with Fatalists.
We released our self titled debut album ‘Fatalists
’ last year, here in Australia, and this next record, called ‘We Never Had Control’, is the next part of the story. I just finished producing the debut album for a young Melbourne band called ‘Celery’, and for the last few weeks, I’ve been part of David Chesworth’s Richter-Meinhof Opera, performing at the Art Gallery of NSW.”

Can you elaborate a touch on that project, and what’s next on your agenda?
Richter-Meinhof Opera is a multimedia piece by composer David Chesworth.  It’s a kind of installation with human presences within it: ‘Ulricke Meinhof’ and ‘Gerhard Richter’. I play Richter.  The connection is that Richter painted the photo of Meinhof’s suicide in jail, after
her arrest for terrorism in West Germany in the ‘70s. Way down the rabbit hole is this one: an exploration of art and politics and how they both manipulate our perception of history.

Can we expect to see ‘Hugo Race and the True Spirit’ touring again in the near future?
We started making a new album over the last year, but everybody’s so scattered in three continents, and we want this album to be real
sessions, not ideas exchanged over distance. There are a few songs already taped that sound great and if the situation doesn’t accelerate we’ll release them as a single. Maybe a vinyl twelve-inch. Touring is unlikely, but occasional special shows.

Since you have already delved into various creative forms, including the realms of film and theatre both as a performer and writer, what other avenues do you still wish to explore as an artist?
I’m writing non-fiction; stories about my life and times in different places, different eras, strange politics, phenomena, real life as I experience it. Some pieces have been published by Overland. Slowly, I’m putting together a volume. Musically, there are constantly evolving collaborations with other artists, most recently Pantaleimon, Catherine Graindorge and Jacaszek.

Are you happy, or should I say content, with the body of work you have achieved thus far, and what should your audiences expect to see from you in the near future, Hugo?
I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing, trying to get better at it all the time, continuing to experiment. There is a new Fatalists
album coming out later in the year: We Never Had Control. Also a new Sepiatone album, my third with this Italian band, a CD called Echoes On.
Hopefully, ‘Rough Velvet’ can bring these sounds to Australian audiences and to the radio. In the immediate future, I’m looking forward to this tour, and seeing you in ‘da Gong.’

Well I do hope you enjoy your experience of Wollongong audiences, and don’t be a stranger and leave it too long between drinks. Come & visit us again soon.
We’re all looking forward to your performance at Yours and Owls this Saturday, and to hearing No, But It’s True in its entirety.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak to me, Hugo.
Welcome back to Australia!

HUGO RACE performs @ Yours and Owls Saturday June 16 2012 with special guests Leek and the War Wick Tragedy from 8pm – Buy Tickets

An interview by Blindbaby Bluez  (aka Mira Babic), June 11, 2012

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