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Shane rockpit INTERVIEWs GRAHAM GREENE
He has enjoyed a long career playing with both cover and original bands, recording several solo albums, has a series of custom made guitars named after him, a song in the Australian National Screen & Sound Archives, and has been lauded as "Australia's Steve Vai".
He is Graham Greene, and he was generous enough to talk to us about his entire career.
G’day Graham – thanks for talking to The Rockpit!
My pleasure – thanks for having me.
How is Graham Greene 2010 style?
Very busy at the moment. A new album I collaborated on last year is about to be released, and there’s always something in the works that requires attention. Life is full, but good.
After you left school you messed around with a couple of bands and did some sound engineer work, so you obviously knew even at that young age that you fancied a career in the music industry?
When I discovered the guitar, it was like a religious experience for me. I had played piano and clarinet at school, and could pretty much wring a tune out of any instrument you gave me, given a few minutes, but with the guitar, I was besotted. It led me into rock music, and I didn’t really contemplate doing anything else after that. I became a guitar nerd, and within three years I was playing in bands and doing anything I could in the industry, which included doing sound, lights, and even stage roadie work. I just had to be around the music.
You were born in Perth, and went on to spend years living in the far north outback town of Derby from the age of 4, which you returned to after you broke your neck in a car accident in your late teens. How did this accident affect your playing and ambitions?
The Kimberley region of Western Australia was a pretty tough place back then – before we got a house in Derby, we lived in a little place called Camballin, which had a population of about thirty, and the electricity got turned off at 10pm. When the wet season came, the whole place went under water, and my first school was a one-room demountable that sat in a gravel pit over the road from our house.
Derby was a bit bigger – about two thousand people – and at least there were shops and amenities like a hospital and school. It was hard on my Mum, but for a kid it was paradise. I had the biggest back yard in the world. It was there that I learned about music – Mum had an old iron frame upright piano and a tenor ukulele, and so parties were always a singalong affair, with Mum at the ivories and someone – sometimes me - strumming the uke. Very fond and treasured memories.
After the car accident, I couldn’t play the guitar for a while, and my life was kind of lacking in direction. I went back to Derby and worked for a while, not intending to worry about music until I could give it everything again. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Within a few days of arriving back in town, I found myself in the local band, and wound up getting my Dad to send my gear up so I could do gigs without borrowing local equipment, which was dodgy at best. As far as the ambitions went, all I really wanted to do was play – I hadn’t really developed any dreams of or plan for stardom – it was just a huge buzz to get up and rock out whenever and wherever I got the chance.
Do you have any ongoing trouble from this injury?
I had some trouble with my left hand back in 2003 which took a bit of time to sort out, but everything’s working properly now. I am very fortunate.
What was it about the guitar which first turned you on?
Oh, God… The look, the sound, where it sat in the music, the way it made me feel… I couldn’t pin it down to one thing. I remember the actual night that the Rock ’n’ Roll Fairy came down and blessed me. I was in the garage messing around with the pool table, and saw the record player on a bench. There were three records sitting next to it – Slade Alive, Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality, and Deep Purple In Rock. Being a bit bored, I decided to put a record on, and all of a sudden the garage was filled with the opening riff of ‘Flight Of The Rat’. Man, that was it for me. I pretty much lost interest in everything else at that moment.
Your first break was with Perth cover band Flash Harry. What sort of music were you playing with them?
Strictly top 40. In the early 80s in Perth, there were cover bands that were making over a million dollars a year. It was what the market wanted, so it was what we played. We wrote and performed a few original songs, but the covers were where the money was at. I got a lot of exposure through Flash Harry, because I was averaging three hundred shows a year, and did a bit of TV work, appearing on the annual telethons and appealathons staged by the two major TV stations. It was great fun, and I have never got into the “covers versus originals” argument - I found that whole thing a bit lame. I loved playing music, and that’s what I did.
What are your memories of your first big support gigs, such as Meatloaf at the Perth Entertainment Centre in front of 8,500?
The thing I remember the most clearly about the Meat Loaf gig was the walk from our dressing room to the stage. I was fine up to that point. When the house lights went down, you could hear the crowd go off even from the bowels of the building. Heading up to the stage, it was pitch black, with road crew pointing torches at the strips of white gaffa tape on the floor that made a trail to the stage.
Walking out on to the Entertainment Centre stage, the roar of the crowd washed over me – it was like standing on a beach on a big surf day with your hands over your ears, then taking your hands away. The sound was awesome, and my knees were having a hard time holding me up at that point. The set was huge fun, although it seemed to be over in an instant, and my memory of any details is a bit fuzzy, probably due to the terror and adrenaline of the night.
New Year’s Eve 87/88 – Ice Tiger’s first gig. Do you recall the highlights from the set?
Nope. Haha! Again, I’d say that it was the adrenaline factor. The gig was in the southern town of Manjimup, and was basically a dry run to get the kinks out of the show before we hit Perth. It was a reasonably low-key event, but the nerves were still there. Doing a first gig with a new band is a bit like the first time you have sex – exciting and terrifying all at once. The set ran well, the band played well, and the gig served its purpose. We returned to Perth and kicked ass.
How did Ice Tiger come about?
I was bored. I had worked with Flash Harry for five years, and then played in a nightclub band for nine months before finding myself out of a gig. I picked the repertoire out of my record collection, rang some mates, and organized a rehearsal. At that time, there were no bands of any note in Perth that were playing the LA rock stuff that was starting to get on the airwaves – Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, et al – and I thought it would be fun to play. Tiger was originally intended to be a way to get out on the weekend, play some tunes and make a few dollars. It took us 24 hours – the time between our first Perth gig and the second Perth gig – to become one of the biggest names on the local scene. It was a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one.
I saw many Ice Tiger shows at the Charles Hotel and other venues back in the late 80s/early 90s. Did you ever consider moving to London or L.A. and trying your luck in the “big time”, either as a band or you personally?
This might sound dumb in hindsight, but not really. A few international artists had seen the band and praised us for our songs, sound and talent and Gregg Bissonnette (David Lee Roth’s drummer at the time) even got up with us one night and played a few DLR/Van Halen tunes with us. The thing was, we were comfortable in Perth, playing big rooms to big crowds and making a reasonable living.
The east coast didn’t have the sort of rooms that we had in the west, and some of us were in the process of starting families, so the pull wasn’t strong enough to get us to leave home. As I said before, I didn’t really have a huge desire for the Hollywood lifestyle, being at the end of the day still a boy from the bush. I guess if I’d had more drive and ambition in that direction, I wouldn’t be here today. That being said, I have no regrets.
I always remember we wanted the local scene – and Ice Tiger pretty much WERE the local scene – to be our own little Sunset Strip, but Perth was still so backwards that even though the band would all wear “tastefully torn” denim with bandanas etc (the same as our idols of the time like Poison, Bon Jovi, Motley Crue and so forth), we were never allowed in the door with our customised clothes! So we’d always bring our nice new jeans in the car, try to get in every week in our torn ones, then go back and change in the carpark! :oP
Hehe. I knew we were making an impression when fans started showing up at gigs dressed like us. It was great fun to dress up and play rockstars, and we did it well. It was a kind of ritual to don the garb and walk out on stage, just as I’m sure it was a ritual for the fans to get dressed up and come to see us. Eventually, gigs let the fans in as they were, because they were putting so many dollars across the bar. Good days.
The Ice Tiger album “Love ‘n’ Crime” came out in 91, being released in Europe, Scandinavia, UK and Japan as well as Australia. What are your memories of the recording?
The recording of the album was a long, drawn-out process, mainly due to the expense we went to. We’d go out and gig our tails off, then hit the studio. Planet Studios was state-of-the-art, and so was the price, but I was going to do it properly or not at all. We recorded a few tracks, then decided to change the way we were recording, so we started again. The shortest day I spent in Planet was about 26 hours, as I was also co-producing the album with our sound engineer, Ben Glatzer, and had to be there for everything. Exhausting, but ultimately fulfilling. Ben was an excellent guy to work with, and we got what we wanted from the band and the studio.
How did the album sell?
Locally, very well. Internationally, I have no idea. The person who brokered the overseas deal ripped us off, laundering the money and leaving us with nothing, which meant of course that we got no sales figures either. When we did the 2004 reunion shows, we found out about a lot of international fan clubs and that sort of thing, but no real facts or figures. That one’s been put down to experience.
Were the band asked to tour the album nationally or internationally?
We had a lot of people telling us that we should tour, but no solid offers that were backed up with logistics and cash.
Do you think things might have been different for Ice Tiger if we’d had the internet and all that back in those days?
I really don’t know. We did a lot of advertising in the press and on TV, so we got the message out there pretty well. The overseas thing might have been different if people over there had been able to download videos or recordings of our live shows, which were almost always exceptional in terms of presentation and vibe. We were as good musically as anything out there, so you never know.
What effect did the grunge wave which hit in late 91 have on you personally, Ice Tiger, and the hard rock music you so obviously love?
Personally, I ignored it, apart from the odd thing here or there that caught my ear. The Ice Tiger fan base was well established by that time, so it didn’t affect us. If we had stayed together longer it may have had an effect, but grunge was still on the rise when we called it quits in 1992.
What do you remember about the big Ice Tiger farewell gig in 1992?
How huge it was. Two hours before the doors opened, there were two lines of people stretching around the block. We packed the room to twice its legal limit and still had to turn away almost 900 people. I’ve seen nothing like it, then or since. It really drove home to me how much we meant to so many people. It was at once gratifying and humbling that so many thought so highly of us.
How did you all feel afterwards?
Elated, and sad. It was the end of an era for us and the whole Ice Tiger community that had grown up around us. To this day I have people tell me how much they enjoyed the “Tiger days”.
Donna Andrews came along and offered you a gig with her cover band Rusty Cage – who later morphed into original band Judgement Day. How was the chemistry between you and Donna when you first met?
Donna and I were friends before she asked me to join Rusty Cage. She used to come to see Ice Tiger and was part of our circle of friends. We got along famously, with similar senses of humour and love of Rock and Roll, although she hadn’t decided to start singing back then. Once she did, though, I knew right away that she had a voice and was a great showperson. By the time we started playing in a band together, it was comfortable and natural. Rusty Cage and Judgement Day were great bands.
In 1994 you assembled the first version of Graham Greene & The Happy Sinners to headline the West Australian Music Awards at the His Majesty’s Theatre. Was the name of the band a reflection on your lifestyle at the time?
Haha! No, it was actually taken from one of my instrumentals from the Club Voodoo album, called The Happy Sinner. When I was asked to do the His Majesty’s gig, I had to put a band together, which was no big deal, but the thing was this time it had to put out a more involved sound, and I was the centrepiece of the band, which was a bit alien for me at the time. Rather than just perform under my name, I wanted to retain a bit of a band identity. I was originally just going to name the backing singers The Happy Sinners but my guitarist, Errol H. Tout very politely lodged an objection and said that he wanted to be a Happy Sinner too. Since Errol is one of the most charming people you could hope to meet, I had no choice – Graham Greene & The Happy Sinners it was.
I believe that first version of the band was a ten piece ensemble – how would you define the sound?
Inspiring. I knew that the band had to reproduce the sound that I heard in my head and had recorded on the demos. I wasn’t sure if the people that I wanted were going to do the gig for the little money the gig offered, and some of them I didn’t actually know that well, but I got on the phone and took a chance. To a person, they all agreed enthusiastically to do the show, and I was humbled by their personal and professional generosity. They were all great players and real pros, and after a couple of casual run-throughs and one full rehearsal, it was together. We closed the awards show with three of my tunes – the first time I’d played my instrumentals live fronting my own band – and it was a truly awesome experience. The band sounded hot, and I’m bummed that the set wasn’t recorded. It certainly made up my mind for me that I was going to do it again.
Judgement Day moved to Sydney in ’95 and eventually fizzled out. You’d performed an average of almost 300 gigs per year for a decade, so you decided to take a break from playing live, married Donna in ’96, managed a music store and played or produced the occasional session. Did you miss playing live during this period?
Surprisingly for me, not really. Life was quite hectic in Sydney, and the live scene wasn’t what I was used to in Perth – I guess I’d been spoiled by the big rooms, big equipment and big crowds. I turned my musical focus inward and started writing more tunes, both vocal (with Donna) and instrumental, and kept happy that way.
Your first solo EP – Blue Feathers – was released in ’98, and showed a mellower side to your music. What are your strongest influences musically and personally?
I’ve soaked up a lot of influences in my life, some even before I took up music as a career. My first big influence was Beethoven – I got his 5th Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic when I was about ten – and I also enjoyed the music of Scott Joplin and the other Ragtime greats. You have to remember that when I was a kid in the bush, we had no TV or commercial radio, and that dictated what I was exposed to. Once I had picked up the guitar, I crammed everything that had a guitar in it.
My first guitar hero was Ritchie Blackmore, but my influences since then have been an eclectic mix, including Larry Carlton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson… the list goes on.
Personally, my biggest influence is by far my parents. They taught me everything about working hard and being a decent human being, and did so with patience and love. I was blessed with my Mum and Dad.
In 1999 you both returned to Perth, you taught guitar lessons, released your second EP “Voodoo Babies”, and assembled a new line-up of The Happy Sinners. How did you feel about the music scene at this time?
By the time we got back to Perth, I was fairly out of touch with the music scene on both coasts. When I reconvened the band, I had no clue what I was getting into, so I just went for what I knew, got out there and did my best. Things were definitely a lot tougher, but it’s important not to get discouraged or jaded by difficulty. General reaction to the band and the music was very positive, which was all the encouragement I need to keep going.
After the 2002 release of “Club Voodoo” you had nerve problems with 2 of the fingers on your left hand as a direct result of your 20 year ago accident. Were you worried at the time that you may not be able to play again?
Worried? I was terrified. After about eighteen months of chronic pain, my fingers simply stopped working - the messages from my brain just stopped getting through to my fingers. After months of (sometimes extremely painful) tests, I was told by the doctors that there wasn’t much they could do. They suggested exploratory surgery on my spine, but that didn’t sound too convincing, so I searched for my own answers. Those answers came in the form of a scruffy little naturopath by the name of Laurie Shortland, who found where there were nerves caught between two vertebrae in my neck. After about six months of preparatory therapy, he freed the nerves, stopped the pain, and allowed the dialogue between my brain and fingers to resume. I will never forget that day. After that, I had to teach my fingers to understand what was being said to them – a lesson in frustration, to say the least.
Your bio said you basically “learnt how to play again” after you recovered use of your fingers. You must have worried how you’d make a living in the midst of this professional uncertainty?
While we were searching for a treatment and cure, Donna and I both started getting interested in computers. We bought a cheap PC and started to learn about the internet, and taught ourselves about web design and using programs to create graphic art. It was around this time that our web design and graphic art business – Greenehouse Productions – came into being. Donna was also still performing in the corporate entertainment scene, so we got by. Once I got the use of my fingers back, I knew I would play again – I just didn’t know how well.
In 2004 your song ‘Rainmaker’ was placed in the Australian National Screen & Sound Archives. That must have been a wonderful feeling for a composer?
It came as a complete surprise, albeit a very pleasant one. I received an email with a Government header on it, and thought, “Shit – what have I done?” However, it was from the National Archive, requesting my permission to include Rainmaker in their files. I was pretty chuffed. The song is in a country/blues vein, with a semi-political statement in the lyric, and they thought that it was a good representation of contemporary Australian culture, which made me feel quite proud. I had a lot of fun showing off to Mum and Dad about that one.
Also in 2004, Ice Tiger reformed for a couple of shows. I was there at one, and was struck by the memories it evoked. How did it feel for you and the band?
It was an exercise in nostalgia, to say the least. To stand on stage and see so many familiar faces was amazing – especially since some of them had their teenage kids in tow. I think a lot of kids had their opinions of their folks adjusted on those nights. At one stage during the first show, I looked out over the sea of heads on the dance floor to see a little baby’s romper suit with Ice Tiger printed on the front being held up above the bobbing heads. For some reason, that really touched me.
Were those reunion shows a tentative foray to see if a full reunion might be possible? If so, why did that not happen?
Not really. A few things had come together at that time that made it feasible for us to get together for some shows, and the timing felt right. Our drummer had flown over from Sydney to do the gigs and flew home a couple of days afterwards, so it was always going to be a one-off thing.
Do you think Ice Tiger might reform for another show here and there, or even another recording?
Nope. We have all moved on into different phases of our lives, and although I still get the odd request from a diehard fan, it ain’t gonna happen. I have used a couple of things I had written for a projected second Tiger album back in the early nineties for the project I’m collaborating on now, so nothing has been lost. I’ve moved on, and am happy with it.
2005 saw you sign an endorsement deal with West Aussie guitar craftsmen Ormsby Guitars, and at the end of that year they released 2 signature series of Graham Greene guitars. How much input did you have into the design of these two guitars – the GG6 and GG7?
I first met Perry Ormsby when he volunteered to be my guitar tech at the Tiger reunion shows, and our friendship grew from there. As payment for his services, I had agreed to record some short demos using a couple of his guitars, and was immediately impressed with his instruments. When we started talking about him building me some guitars, I showed him what I was playing at the time and asked if he could duplicate them. His reply was, “Mate – I can improve on them”. And he did. We discussed my requirements and preferences in a guitar, and what you see me playing now is the result. There were no prototypes – he nailed it first time, right off the bat. The guy’s a genius, and I love what he’s done for me.
How unusual is a 7-string guitar, and can you explain to a layman what the appeal is of a 7-string guitar to a master guitarist such as yourself?
Nowadays, the seven is not such an unusual thing – there are eight string guitars out there, and more. When I first picked up a seven string guitar in a music shop (about 1993), the sonic and melodic possibilities just jumped out at me, and I had to put it down before I got hooked, because I knew I couldn’t afford one. The main appeal to me is the extended range (the extra string is a low B) and the added tones that it affords, which makes for interesting compositions. My GG7 feels as natural to play as my sixes, and is well and truly part of my musical zen.
I remember you played some gigs at this time with Donna as Fallen Angel. Were there any plans to take that further, as I remember seeing one of those shows and it being awesome!
We had plenty of plans, but the scene was pretty subdued at the time. Gigs and support were hard to come by, and things just eventually ground to a halt, with the band members going their separate ways, while staying in touch. It was a shame, because the band was terrific, with great players and Donna had developed into one of the best rock voices in the country.
Leap Of Face was quite a journey for me. As I was getting right into the recording process, I found out that my mother had cancer and had a couple of weeks to live. As it turned out, she had thirteen days, and it was very hard to find the motivation to carry on after she died. The thing that got me going again was the fact that Mum was the one who had given me the gift of music, and I felt I owed it to her to keep making people happy with that gift as a tribute to her and all she had given me. I used eight different Ormsby guitars for the tracking, which involved getting a guitar from Perry, getting to know the instrument, writing and recording a tune using the guitar, then giving it back. It was a lot of fun, and an inspiring experience. Just after the album was released locally and online, my father passed away on his 94th birthday. I had spend about three years looking after him and making sure he was cared for, and it was kind of a double whammy when he went, being so soon after Mum’s passing. So you see, the Leap Of Face album will always have a special significance to me. The album was well received, and is still being discovered overseas to this day, so in a way, it is still current.
Mesa/Boogie – US makers of rather excellent amps – signed up to endorse you in 2006, including you in their artist gallery in 2007, which made you the first Aussie to be featured. How important is industry praise and acknowledgement like this to you?
I can take or leave the praise, but it is nice to be acknowledged by one’s peers and the industry. I have just been told that I am in the new 2010 Mesa/Boogie catalogue, so I feel very fortunate indeed. I am happy to have a good working relationship with the Artist Relations guys in the US, and hope to get over there at some stage to say g’day.
2007 was a pretty amazing year for you – Wegen Picks endorsed you, 2 songs from “Leap of Face” were used on the International Humanitarian Campaign ‘Stop Child Executions’, and Australian Guitar Magazine called you “Perth’s answer to Steve Vai”, which is high praise indeed. As if all this wasn’t enough, you appeared as a guest at the Guitar Heroes Guitar Fest in Sydney, and you released Donna’s first solo album “Resonance”, on which you co-wrote, played and programmed. How do you keep up with it all?
When it comes to music, it doesn’t feel like work. A holiday for me would be to go on tour and just have one thing to focus on and enjoy. When you’re in the thick of things, there is no time to think about how hard you’re working – you’re too busy doing it. After wards, of course, there are times of, “whew! Did we just do all that?” Taking the time to recharge body and soul is important; otherwise you can’t give your best. I try to keep that in mind when we are flat out on more than one project.
You and Donna played in Vietnam to 15,000 – and a TV audience of millions – in 2008 as Resonance Project. What sort of a buzz do you get from a gig of that size?
A rather large one. The whole trip was an amazing experience, being the first time I had travelled outside Oz to play. The Vietnamese are a beautiful people, and we were treated like rock stars from the moment we got off the plane in Hanoi. The concert was well organized, and went off without a hitch. The day after the show, there were people popping out from behind the shrubbery to snap our picture. All of a sudden, we were famous in Vietnam, as everybody had seen us on VTV1 the night before. Coming back home after the tour was like waking up from a very pleasant dream.
Is playing in front of 15,000 people or to a TV camera remarkably different from playing to an audience of a few hundred?
Yes and no. You are still performing to the best of your ability, and the mechanics are the same, but there is a different energy when there is a huge crowd reflecting the vibes back at you. A smaller audience in a smaller venue is more intimate and immediate, whereas things can feel a bit more separated in an arena show. With television, the energy is similar, but more focussed, as you are conscious of the fact that you are being seen from the narrow point of view of the camera eye. All are different facets of the greater thing, and I enjoy them all.
Ormsby Guitars released a third Graham Greene signature guitar in 2008 – what can you tell us about the GG6FG?
The FG came about because I needed a second six string guitar for gigs, as I use two six string tunings – standard and drop D. I thought a rougher, workhorse sort of look would be cool, so while we were discussing the new guitar, I was referring to it as the “Frankengoober”. FG is also my father’s initials, so it was kind of like a tribute to Dad. The guitar is different from the other GG’s in that it has a natural finish, no veneer on the body, and is made of different woods. It also has a single coil pickup in the neck position, giving me some different sounds. The dimensions and shape is the same, so it’s still obviously an Ormsby GG Series. It feels organic to play, and I love the feel and sound of the naked wood.
What have you been listening to recently?
I’ve been going through a bit of a Jeff Beck phase lately, as a friend introduced me to a live DVD of Jeff playing at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. The band is brilliant, and Jeff is on fire. The last CD I bought was a classical one, by Karin Schaupp and Genevieve Lacey. Those ladies can play.
What is next for Graham Greene?
We have just finished an album with a very talented guy called Jac Dalton. Jac is originally from North Carolina, but has lived in Adelaide for the last ten years. I collaborated on most of the album, either as a writer or arranger, and played most of the electric guitar parts. Donna and I also sang backing vocals on the album. It was mixed at Ardent Studios in Memphis by Grammy winning engineer John Hampton, and we are at present negotiating Australian distribution while the guys in the US are formulating their plans for the American market. We are putting a live band together, and hope to be getting out on the road before too long. The album, by the way, is called Icarus. Look out for it. We are also looking at remixing and mastering some Resonance Project tracks with a view to a CD release, and I’m starting to think about my next solo CD. 2010 is shaping up to be an interesting year.
And finally, the question we ask all our interviewees – what is the meaning of life?
To live, love, laugh and work to the best of your ability, and to try to leave the world a better place than when you came into it. After all, the same sun rises on us all, and life is too short to waste. Apart from that – 42. Douglas Adams knew his stuff
Thanks so much for talking to us Graham – best wishes for the future and please do stay in touch!
It has been my pleasure, and thank you. I’m sure we will speak again. Peace.
www.grahamgreene.com.au – Official Graham Greene website
www.myspace.com/GrahamGreene - Graham's MySpace Page
www.leapofface.com – Leap Of Face CD website
http://cdbaby.com/all/grahamgreene - CD Baby page
www.ormsbyguitars.com – Ormsby Guitars website