Hugo Races into Bangalow

Hugo Race headed to Bangalow.
Hugo Race headed to Bangalow.

You've been living in Europe and the US for the best part of 25 years now - are you enjoying time being back in Australia?

I've always kept in touch with and revisited Australia during all these years.

Most of the time I've just kept moving, touring, working on different projects and events around the world.

Yes, I do enjoy working and living in Australia, and at the same time I'm always restless and looking forward to what happens next.

My base is currently in Melbourne, a really stimulating place to be, but I still get away for months every year. I've always loved to move around and explore new territories, new sounds, initiating new collaborations and exposing myself to exotic influences.

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 What are your plans while you're here? How long are you staying and do you have any projects lined up while you're here?

We're launching our new label, Rough Velvet Records, with this album, No But Its 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 - we cut another album there in Bamako, called BKO, in 2009 - followed by a European tour for my next release with Fatalists, a band based in Italy.

We released our debut, Fatalists, last year 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.

Fatalists was all about death - now with No But It's True it's all about love - has something changed in your life to warrant the change in theme? 

To me, Fatalists was about rising above the flatline event horizon of death into a broader kind of philosophy that embraces life - it isn't a depressing deathtrip of an album, I see it as being more beautiful and hopeful than that.

The catalyst for Fatalists was more that certain catastrophic things happen in our lives that change us forever - its an album about irrevocable changes, deep issues that alter our sense of who we are.

No But Its True is an album of love songs, but here again, 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, and in this case, the power is love.

Its also true that Fatalists was written at the end of a relationship, and No But Its True was recorded at the beginning of a new love story.

When I said that  love is all that's left worth examining in the human condition, I meant it - because without hope, we have nothing.

 How did you narrow down the list of love songs you wanted to include?

I started with about forty songs, most of them songs I'd known for years, some of them suggested to me by friends. The first criteria was can I play this song?

Some songs that I attempted didn't really suit my style, or my personality, so they lacked real authenticity.

Others worked out okay, but I didn't feel that I could add anything to them through my performance.

That left about twenty songs, and I tried them out with my close friends Alannah Hill and Cesare Basile - Cesare actually produced the album with me, and Alannah dreamt up the cover idea, so they are both intimately connected with the final album. In the end, I recorded seventeen songs, and released twelve of them across the vinyl and CD versions.

All the songs are actually a complete live studio take - 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 greatly the way No But Its True has turned out to be.

Are there any you have a personal connection with?

All the songs are personal to me, thats why I chose them. Some of them, like Cry Me a River or Never Say Never, remind me of specific times in my life, things that happened years ago.

None of these songs were chosen on the basis that they were simply a great love song - all of them are part of the warp and weave of my life, in the same way that my own songs are accounts of my life and times.

I'm only interested in works that come directly from my immediate reality.

Because of your vocal style - there is still a lot of sadness/ or a dark side that comes with these love songs - is that something you're always aware of?

I wanted to make these versions of these songs very much my own, so I shifted the original keys of the songs to a point where I could deliver them in the deep-voice style that characterizes a lot of my own songs, but beyond that, all of these love songs have a shadow side, because there is no love without pain, and I feel all these songs illustrate that idea.

There are many kinds of love, but the kind of love that I'm driving at here has a flipside of seductive darkness.

These are not bright, chirpy two-dimensional love songs - rather they oscillate on the edge between joy and abandonment.

Why did you decide to do an album of covers at this point in your career?

Actually, the way I work is very much a randomized, synchronistic approach to let 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 was cancelled - and at the time I was travelling with Alannah in Italy, and we came up with the concept to record a covers album of love songs instead.

We'd buy greatest hits CDs from gas stations on the highway and trawl them for forgotten classics, or think of songs from long ago and hunt them down online.

I called Cesare with the idea, and he thought it was hilarious, because both he and I are known for making dark, challenging kinds of records.

So it all came together very suddenly, and it felt right, and it is just kind of happened.

You're releasing a follow-up album to Fatalists - (We Never Had Control) what do you think you left unsaid with the last?

Fatalists was actually an almost random collection of songs that I'd written for other people or other projects - Coming Over was written for Sepiatone, Call Her Name for Dirtmusic, The Serpent Egg for True Spirit.

Nightvision and Slow Fry were written in the studio, Will You Wake Up was written by the Mysteries and In The Pines is old Leadbelly.

Too Many Zeroes was an unfinished song that I had stashed in my suitcase.

But as an album it all makes sense because those songs are like a snapshot of a moment in my life, and thats all the album was intended to be - a despatch from my life and times in old Italy.

We Never Had Control takes on similar themes of life, death, transcendence but in a more focused way, because I wrote the whole album in the space of a few weeks, and by now Antonio Gramentieri, Diego Sapignoli and myself know each other very well - so We Never Had Control catches this band, Fatalists, in full flight.

It's deeper, darker and stranger than the Fatalists album, less acoustic, more driven, a little harder in both word and sound. I don't want to comment on the lyrics, because they're extremely personal, straight from the heart, but coded.

Most people use the Bad Seeds as a point of reference for you because that's where you became known - you've said it wasn't your creative outlet and that's why you went off to do your own thing and have ever since. How has that time in your life shaped the rest of what you've done as an artist?

I was very lucky in a way to start my life as a musician with the Bad Seeds because they, and Nick, and the Birthday Party, were on the cutting edge of the 80s; so thats my background and my roots, and I think everything I've done since makes sense in that light.

When I was in the Seeds it was in their most punk incarnation, unlike the more mainstream entity that they later became, and at the time I loved that - the danger, the absurdity, the extremism of the whole deal.

I've always been drawn to the experimental, the exotic, the unexplored, and I got what I needed from working with them, and moved on to try and discover what my trip was going to be.

And thats the trip I'm still on.

What can we expect from your upcoming shows? You finish off in Byron Bay - do you plan on spending some time in the region?

I'm touring the same solo show I just took around Europe - many of the No But Its True songs, but also new tracks from Fatalists - played in a semi-electric way that involves sampling and electronic pulses.

The concert is very dynamic - the quiet and the beautiful is contrasted with the loud and the brutal.

I cover a lot of ground and get to express a whole range of feeling.

Leek and the War Wick Tragedy are supporting, an amazing young band from near Melbourne, playing a psyched-out kind of pop with a dark undertow and a lot of passion.

Some of them will join me onstage during my set to add some touches here and there.

After that show in Bangalow, I'm heading down the beach for a few days to recover in one of the most beautiful landscapes I know. Looking forward to it.

Hugo Race is on at the Bangalow Bowling Club June 22.

Topics:  bangalow, northern star pulse

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