Raoul Graf is a talented Australian singer-songwriter and frontman with a growing reputation. The owner also of a Sydney-based record label and booking agency Um and Ah, Graf first came to public attention in the late eighties as the vocalist in Bell Jar, a group which he founded with friends while still at school. When Bell Jar split up in 1990 shortly after releasing their debut album ‘Glass’, Graf formed his current band, renowned live act The Infidels, with whom he sings and plays acoustic guitar. The Infidels have released three albums to date, two studio recordings ‘3am in the Morning’ (1994) and ‘Road to Hanna’ (1996) and also a concert record ‘Here Comes Johnny’ (1999). Now Graf has got together with Brisbane cult hero Ed Kuepper, and in what is both a unique collaboration and his first outing as a solo artist, has put out the most popular and acclaimed album of his career so far, ‘Splinters’.

Kuepper, who produced and arranged and also played guitars on ‘Splinters’, was the guitarist in The Saints, whose 1976 single ‘I’m Stranded’ was one of the classics of the punk era. Since leaving The Saints early in 1978, he has released over twenty albums both as a solo artist and with his groups Laughing Clowns and The Aints, and, one of Australia’s most versatile and eclectic musicians, has recorded music in a wide variety of styles, including, as well as punk, jazz, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and rhythm and blues. Much in demand as a producer as well, Kuepper has been friends with Graf since the time of Bell Jar, and had worked with him briefly before, producing one of the tracks off the ‘Glass’ album, ‘Bitter Taste’.

Essentially a rock album, ‘Splinters’ also has elements of blues, country and folk, and was recorded in a fortnight at the studio Kuepper has in recent years regularly used for recording, Electric Avenue, in Sydney, It was co-released in Australia in October by Um and Ah and another Sydney label Phantom Records, and was released in Britain as an import in March . Merging together Kuepper’s electric guitarwork with Graf’s acoustics, ‘Splinters’ also features Infidels keyboardist, Johnny Gauci ; backing vocalist, Rachel Holmshaw, and the two other members of Kuepper’s latest band The Oxley Creek Playboys, bassist Alex Compton and drummer Simon Cox.

“ ‘Splinters’ has got some incredible reviews over here in Australia” Graf enthuses in a Pennyblackmusic interview . “More than any album I have ever done. It got four and a half out of five stars in Rolling Stone, and every other review has also been glowing. There have been lots of articles about it and in itself it has sold double the last Infidels record.”

“The whole thing was based around Ed trying to find my right voicing” he says. “He had always thought there was something in my voice which hadn’t been caught on record previously.”

As a result, the production on ‘Splinters’ has more potency and force than on any of Graf’s other previous recordings and his voice, fluctuating often in the same song between world weariness and innocence , has more conviction and depth than ever before.

“It is not the kind of record that I would perhaps have gone out and made” Graf admits. “If it had been me that was turning the dials I would have gone for something very different. That’s the great thing about it. I can listen to it and think “Oh well ! I can see what Ed brought to it”.”

“Ed just focused in on something that I wouldn’t have normally focused on” he adds. “He was able to bring to it a harshness and brutality that was needed. Otherwise it would have been too soft and nice.”

Kuepper, who is listed as co-writer with Graf on eight of the eleven songs on ‘Splinters’, was also involved in the lyric writing, taking Graf’s original compositions and editing them and suggesting changes.

“Ed’s pretty full on about what he does and he didn’t want anything less than the perfect to represent him and his involvement. He went through and toothpicked all the lyrics and I changed a fair few of them for him because he thought that they were too colloquiaL or whatever.”

The resulting album, while describing places and situations often principal to Australia, has a timeless quality and, melancholic in style and tone, a sadness to it that is universal in its outlook.

The pivotal track on the recording, ‘Californian Switch’, is about the building of the Snowy Mountains hydroelectrics system two hundred and fifty odd miles South West of Sydney by teams of largely immigrant workers in the fifties and sixties. The Switch of the title was a device used by the workers to bring explosives by rail to blast rock so that the system and its dams could be built. In the course of the scheme’s construction, many workers were killed or badly injured in accidents, and Graf took his inspiration for this song from a friend of his Austrian immigrant father who lost friends and part of his foot whilst working on the project.

“My Dad was ill in hospital, and his friend, this German guy, came to visit him” Graf recalls “ He began to talk about his life and working on the scheme , and he just captivated me. He started telling me about all the accidents that happened and going into detail about the Californian Switch and all the equipment and the scaffolding and how they did it and what it was like to work with the Norwegians and the Americans. It was fascinating. I went home straight after the hospital and wrote the song. I ended up going out to interview him at his house another time and taping it, and while it didn’t in the end fit right, Ed and I worked also with trying to put it to a backing track.”

‘Californian Switch’ acts on the album as “a metaphor in general for relationships and loss”. While it has the broadest perspective of all the tracks on the album doing this by depicting lives in the balance ; the inevitability of change and the often failed promise that beginning a new life in a new country can bring , many of the other songs on ‘Splinters’ on a smaller scale also tackle these twin themes.

One song “Fly North” is about the bitter collapse of a love affair, and ,with one of its characters preparing to run away from the city into the country and the North, Graf says that it reminds him too of “touring, playing in bars with ducks on the wall, all those awful times in county towns.”

‘Postcards from Melbourne’, which is about another romance at an end and “the most personal song” on the album, “is about a relationship with someone that hurt me”, while the final song “Everything I’ve Got”, a reappraisal of an old Ed Kuepper song, meanwhile depicts the start of a sexual liaison with the woman as the aggressive partner. It is “ a great turnaround idea about relationships, a really different way of looking at things. It is brutal, but it is also clever.”

Graf several months on from Splinter’s recording and Australian release remains appreciative of Kuepper’s help and support.

“It is a real compliment to me’ he says with modest pride about his friend “That someone like Ed Kuepper whose own songs are so fantastic and clever was enjoying playing my songs to the extent that he got totally into them and more involved than he initially thought he would with them.”

The two have continued to collaborate together. and with Johnny Gauci providing back-up on keyboards, the pair spent much of May playing dates and touring Australia together under the name of The Splintermen.

“We’ve been playing a mixture of stuff really” Graf reflects. “A couple more of my songs plus all the songs from the record, some of which we have stretched out.”

Graf has also played a string of solo dates to promote ‘Splinters’ , and has also toured recently with The Infidels, who continue to remain a passion and a concern.

“We are very folk-based now, and have been using mandolins, violins and accordions.” he says, describing the group’s current status. “ We have been listening to stuff like Sweethearts of the Rodeo and acts like Richard Buckner and The Jayhawks, all who are influences.”

His next step will be another album with Kuepper. What form this album will take, and whether it will be a Raoul Graf, a Splintermen or even an Infidels record is still to be decided, but work will begin on it in Brisbane in the early Autumn. With next year planned for its release, Graf and Kuepper’s collaboration seems set to run for a long time yet to come.











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