Already a prominent name on their local scene thanks to some early releases, including a single produced by Mark Arm from Mudhoney, in 1992 Wollongong band Tumbleweed toured with Nirvana and scored a minor hit with “Sundial”. That began a near-decade long cycle of constant touring and recording that put them at the top of Australia’s alternative rock scene. Three consecutive Big Days Out and other regular festival showings, two straight Top 10 albums, a string of hits, national jaunts with bands like Hoodoo Gurus and You Am I and overseas tours with the likes of Mudhoney and the Lemonheads: it seemed as if you couldn’t turn around in the 90s without seeing Tumbleweed somewhere.
Inevitably, it all came to an end in 2003. Tales either real or imagined floated around about animosity between vocalist Richie Lewis and guitar/bass team Lenny and Jay Curley and few held out hope of a reunion. So when the classic Tumbleweed line-up – Lewis, the Curleys, drummer Steve O’Brien and guitarist Paul Hausmeister – finally did reconvene in 2009, it came as a surprise even for the band.
“We didn’t think it was gonna happen either,” Lenny Curley admits. “I guess, the answer I’ve been giving is: because we can! We all still live within a couple of kilometres of one another and we’ve been hassled a lot about when we were gonna get the ‘Weed back together. We just felt it was a good time. And I think we were a bit over trying to thrash it out in our own bands. It’s a bit of a slog trying to play cool music these days. And Tumbleweed has the luxury of having some kind of established name that we can pick up.”
Tumbleweed’s return certainly was exciting for many people. The band was even given a slot at Homebake before they had so much as played their first show. Tumbleweed’s upcoming tour takes in just the south-east coast from Wollongong to Byron Bay, as well as an appearance at Phillip Island’s Pyramid Rock festival on December 30. Curley is frankly unsure about how they’ll be received.
“We did the first run of shows and they were very successful. It will be interesting to see what happens from here. Whether the initial buzz dies down or whether it can sustain itself,” he says, but it doesn’t seem like that is really very important. “We’re just enjoying playing, we’re enjoying each other’s company, we’re enjoying the songs. And we’re enjoying the prospect of possibly doing a new record.”
Getting back out on the road with old friends again is what counts for the guitarist. A bunch of older and wiser heads, the lads at last appreciate some of the magic they actually had the first time around.
“It’s great. It’s not so much that they’re great songs, it’s that we get the feeling that there’s great chemistry between us five players,” says Lenny. “We’ve gone off and played with other people over the years but there was an undefinable chemistry between us five guys and the music we liked and the way we play it. We didn’t realise that when we were younger, the combination we had with one another. And now we’re fully aware of it and we enjoy it and feed off it.”
Tumbleweed’s predilection for massively fuzzed-out guitars and enormous rocking grooves won them almost instant popularity at a time when the rock music world was about to be shattered by the completely unpredicted impact of Nirvana. Coming from a punk background, Curley and his bandmates were well aware of Seattle’s grunge scene and had already fallen under the spell of its emerging stars. He credits Nirvana’s Bleach album as the catalyst for Tumbleweed.
“Grunge took metal and punk and [showed] you could do both in the same genre,”he says. “Maybe ten years before that, punk and metal were enemies. It was completely black and white. But grunge started to incorporate the two and I think, I confess, I think we were influenced by that first Nirvana record. I think we were all affected by that first Nirvana record. Not the second one, the first one, and the heaviness of it. Growing up, my big brothers always had the Sabbath and the Deep Purple records and the Led Zeppelin records. Me as a 15-year old was right into the Sex Pistols and the Ramones but as I got older and had my first joint I realised that you could meld these two musics together.”
That meshing of styles became even more apparent as the decade progressed with the rise of the stoner rock movement through the auspices of Kyuss, Sleep and the like. Tumbleweed eventually found themselves being tagged with the ‘stoner’ label too.
Lenny Curley completely rejects the idea.
“It just so happened that stoner rock became this thing that happened a couple of years later that I never felt we had anything to do with!” he says “We liked our old records, from the late 60s. And we liked our punk rock. Not all punk bands, but the Damned, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, just the energy of that.”
But the factor he truly believes set Tumbleweed apart from the stoner rock field was singer Lewis’ incredible grasp on melody and his ability to work an insidious hook into a song, one that couldn’t be shaken.
“That’s why I think we’re not stoner rock. Out of curiosity I had to listen to some bands that were supposedly stoner rock, and they had this heavy metal high pitched vocal which none of us can stand! It’s really horrible! But Richie… his favourite band is the Beatles. Nothing beats a good melody.”
Those Beatles-inspired melodies added a seriously retro flavour to Tumbleweed’s big riffing style, which also helped attract fans. Curley recalls bands like the Stems and the Hoodoo Gurus that were also heavily retro and also very popular at the time.
“But we did it in our own way. I guess all the bands did it in their own way. I didn’t feel as though we were that original. But I thought that in our time we metalled it up a bit, which no one else was doing then. In those years when Tumbleweed was really taking off, those were the years when we all simultaneously discovered Black Sabbath. I think that had a lot to do with it.”
A combination of Sabbath, Nirvana and the Beatles is certainly difficult to argue with, and as mentioned earlier Tumbleweed weren’t just some underground act with a cult following. Punks, metalheads, stoners, surfers, old-school rock dudes, mainstream rock radio listeners: everyone seemed to love the ‘Weed. Says Curley: “We just had a group of people of a similar age-group or a bit younger who were looking for something different.”
Fifteen years on from those heady days of non-stop summer festivals and endless gigging, the band is happy to be back together but neither ready, willing nor entirely able to plunge back headfirst into widespread touring once again.
“We’re taking our time,” Lenny says carefully. “We’ve all got day jobs and we’ve all got kids. We still don’t know… we book all these shows and we think, ‘Is anyone gonna come? Do people know about us anymore? Is it only people who used to come?’ I don’t know if we have 100% confidence in going out to do a big tour and all simultaneously find the holidays in our day jobs. You’ll see us pop up every summer for the next few years.”
That time has moved on certainly isn’t lost on Lenny Curley. He’s well aware that Tumbleweed’s principal fanbase isn’t one that’s likely to drop everything and flock to see them whenever they roll through town anymore.
“We’re playing Waves on New Year’s Eve, and that was our first show back two years ago. For people our age — I’m late 30s — if you’ve seen a band last year, you’ve seen ’em! You can’t expect people to come to your gigs every six months. When I was a teenager I’d go and see the one band every single time I could possibly see them.”
It’s a lesson that the younger breed of both bands and fans will inevitably learn. There’s really only so many years that a group can be on the road for nine months out of every twelve before life finally gets in the way for everyone involved.
“That’s something that they’ll have to go through,” Curley says. “We all went through it.”