Latest release: Yummy! (Citadel)
Thirty years is a long time in rock n’ roll. For any band to last that long is tough. When the band started out as three high schoolers mucking around on instruments they didn’t even know how to play, it’s virtually a miracle. 2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first official live performance by the Hard Ons – after a couple of years terrorising family and friends at parties and school, the trio played their first pub gig on June 20, 1984.
“It’s pretty hard to believe,” says bass player Ray Ahn of the milestone. “It was a high school band that kind of, uh… none of us had any idea how long it was going to go for, that’s for sure.”
More than two dozen releases – including 17 #1 alternative chart hit singles in a row – and a lifetime since that first show at Sydney’s Vulcan Hotel and the Hard Ons are celebrating their longevity with a fifteen-date national tour that kicks off at the end of May. Just like the tour that marked their 25th anniversary, the band – Ahn, singer/guitarist Peter ‘Blackie’ Black and recent recruit Murray Ruse on drums – will be joined by original drummer and vocalist Keish de Silva, who departed the Hard Ons in 2001 but has enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship with them ever since. He won’t be pushing Ruse off the drum stool, however.
“Keish really doesn’t like playing drums at all. And he doesn’t like lugging drums, more to the point,” Ahn says, a fact the bassist played up mercilessly during his spoken word performance at last year’s Dig it Up! festival. “But he likes singing, so he’s gonna come and sing these songs. And it’s only gonna be from the first period, from before we broke up, the first ten years with Keish and Blackie and myself, the original line-up. Just those songs. A lot of songs that people really like and they still want to hear.”
Always proudly and fiercely independent, the Hard Ons have never bowed to the wishes of anyone – not even fans, some of whom have probably longed for the group to do a retro tour.
“They email us and tell us that they want to hear a full set of [early songs]”, Ahn explains. “Normally we’d just say, ‘No, fuck off’. The band’s an ongoing concern. We’ve got new songs, so when we go on the road, we’re gonna play some new songs, otherwise the band becomes a cabaret act. A bit like those punk bands that go around in Europe and America now, playing a golden oldies set. We’ve never done that.”
During a break on their 2012 Australian tour, however, something happened that changed Ray’s outlook. After Blackie was hospitalised following a vicious attack that left him with a badly fractured skull –exactly two years ago – the other members of the band, Keish included, put on some shows to raise money for his care and recovery. In Newcastle, Ahn met a life-long fan of the Hard Ons who gave him a whole new perspective on his band’s work.
“He said, ‘You played the soundtrack to my high school years. Thank you very much. You don’t understand what these songs mean to me’,” he recalls. “I go, ‘They’re just songs, dude’ and he said, Yeah, you don’t understand that when you’re 16, the music you hear when you’re 16 stays with you for the rest of your life. The Hard Ons were my favourite band when I was 16, and when you played them, all of a sudden I was 16 again, and I thought that would never ever happen’. He shook my hand, double-pumped it, and said, ‘These are the best songs ever written’. I have to tell you, I was flattered. I thought to myself, what if we did a whole set of these songs for the 30th anniversary? What would it be like to play a full 45 minutes to an hour set of these songs for these cunts? For the first time, we’re gonna give people what they want. “
Giving the people what they want has meant that, as well as completing a new album that won’t be out until after the tour, the Hard Ons had to go back and re-learn a bunch of songs they haven’t played since before the first time they split up, in 1993.
“We had band practice last week, and it was unbelievable. We did ‘Let There be Rock’, that song we did with Henry Rollins, for just the third time in 20 years or something. It was amazing. We haven’t played those songs in so long. We did a song called ‘Kill Your Mum’ off Love is a Battlefield which is kind of like a metal song. We haven’t played that in 20 years. Some of the songs we haven’t played in a very long time. But it’s what people have asked for, so we gotta go and learn ‘em,” Ray says. “And they’re not that hard! We’re not playing classical music. It’s rock n roll.”
That being said, Ray acknowledges that the Hard Ons of 2014 aren’t the same band that wrote some of those songs two decades ago. The unconventional approach the group took in the beginning meant that their song writing took on a unique aspect that even for them is difficult to reproduce.
“Keish does a lot of things [on early records] on the drums that kind of make no musical sense,” he admits. “And Blackie, some of the songs that he writes, some of the timings are a little bit wonky. When you listen to the old Hard Ons records, they all sound like three people racing each other on their instruments to see who could finish the song first. There’s this rushed element to it. So when you listen to the Hard Ons on record, they’re kind of like this haphazard affair. The albums all sound raw and rough and they don’t sound supremely tight or anything like that. The production is quite vulgar and the timing is quite weird, so when you listen back and go ‘Fuck, we’ve got to try and play this now, I don’t know what the drums are doing there. I don’t know what the bass is doing there!’ Little nuances that we’ve forgotten about. If you got band like The Meanies, the Ramones or someone like that to play them, they wouldn’t sound like the Hard Ons because we’ve got this weird timing thing going on in our songs.”
That sort of accidental complexity has meant that on each occasion the Hard Ons have had to replace their drummer, their task has been that much more difficult. Their strange combination of pop, punk, metal and surf rock requires a special kind of player. When Peter Kostic departed in 2011, they found their man in the shape of Murray Ruse, who also mans the skins with Adelaide-based grindcore band Captain Cleanoff.
“We thought if we got a pretty strict pop drummer, it would be hard to ask him to play some rampaging thrash metal,” the bass player explains. “So it was better to go get a thrash metal drummer and teach him pop. So we knew that Murray had no qualms playing really hard, brutal stuff with double-kick and a lot of speed. Then we had to say, slow down and play pop now, and he had no problems. Like, if we got Clem Burke from Blondie for example, he’d play half a set really well and then we’d say, ‘We got speeded-up Celtic Frost stuff now’, [and] he’d just throw his kit away and walk off. Having that artillery, having that brilliant grindcore drummer really helps. People don’t understand what brilliant musicians extreme metal players are. You go listen to the drummer from Mayhem, or that guy from Psycroptic – they are just fantastic drummers.”
The Hard Ons’ newest album won’t be ready for release until later this year, but the band rarely hits the road without something to promote. This time, it’s the reissue of their major-label debut Yummy!, from 1990, and a split 7” release with experimental jazz combo The Necks. The tour will see them play at Astor Rocks, a mini-festival in Perth that also features Brant Bjork and the Meat Puppets, among others, and for the Sydney show they reunite with long-time partners in crime, Melbourne’s Cosmic Psychos.
“It’s gonna be amazing,” Ray Ahn says. “We’re just really good friends with them. So it’s only fitting that we play with them because we’ve known those guys since 1985 or something. We played with those guys when they only had one record out. I can’t speak highly enough of those guys. We kind of relate to them a lot because they’re pretty unassuming guys. They’re the other side of the Australian music coin, and we can relate to them in that way.”
The Hard Ons 30th Anniversary tour kicks off this month:
29/5: Enigma Bar, Adelaide SA (+ The Lizards + Pro Tool)
30/5: Prince of Wales Hotel, Bunbury WA (+ Leeches + The Buddy Hollys + Kettle Fingers)
31/5: Augusta Margaret River Football Club, Margaret River WA (+ Beer Fridge + Leeches + more)
1/6: Railway Hotel, Fremantle WA (+ Leeches + Reptilians + Agitated)
2/6: Astor Rocks – Astor Theatre, Perth WA (+ Meat Puppets + Brant Bjork + more)
5/6: Small Ballroom, Newcastle NSW (+ The Instant + Hazards)
6/6: Tattersalls Hotel, Penrith NSW (+ Flying Fists of Fury + All for Jesse + Speedball + Daggers)
7/6: Manning Bar, Sydney NSW (+ Cosmic Psychos + Chinese Burns Unit + All for Jesse)
12/6: Karova Lounge, Ballarat VIC (+ Clowns + Dead)
13/6: Wool Exchange, Geelong VIC (+ Clowns + Wicked City)
14/6: Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC (+ Clowns + Wicked City)
15/6: Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine VIC (+ Dead)
19/6: Northern Hotel, Byron Bay NSW (+ Thundergod of the Multiverse + Twin City Riot)
20/6: Coolangatta Hotel, Gold Coast QLD (+ HITS + Raygun Mortlock + Loud Goes Bang)
21/6: Prince of Wales Hotel, Brisbane QLD (+ Spike City + Antichrists Anonymous + Le Murd)