The Hutchence/Farriss songwriting partnership was unusual and very effective. Farriss can play just about any instrument and knows music theory inside and out; Hutchence wasn't formally trained and couldn't read music, but was a natural-born rock star who could summon lyrics that cut to the heart. Witness the Kick track "Mystify":
All veils and misty Streets of blue
Almond looks That chill divine
Some silken moment goes on forever
And we're leaving broken hearts behind
INXS was an arena act in their native Australia when the album was issued in 1987, but in America the "Kick-off" tour started at places like Ithaca College and Bloomsburg University. When they returned a few months later in March 1988, they were stars on MTV and all over the radio with a steady string of hits: "Devil Inside," "New Sensation," "Never Tear Us Apart."
The band released four more albums before losing Hutchence to suicide in 1997. They re-grouped in 2005 with lead singer J.D. Fortune, winner of the CBS competition show Rock Star: INXS. After two more albums, they called it quits in 2012.
Farriss has been writing and producing for other artists since 1987, when he worked with Jenny Morris on her ARIA-winning debut album. He's in the Australian Songwriter's Hall Of Fame and is also a Member of the Order of Australia. These days, he lives in Australia but spends a lot of time in Nashville, where he recorded his first solo album, set for release this summer. The first two singles - "Come Midnight" and "Good Momma Bad" - reveal a modern country flavor. The videos are cinema-quality, with a frontier-times storyline.
From his home on the range, Farriss talked about his new look and sound, and explained what made his songwriting partnership with Hutchence so special. He's discussed the Kick songs in the past, so we focused on some of their other gems from the INXS catalog, including "The One Thing" and "By My Side."
Andrew Farriss: I shot the videos on the cattle ranch where I live and my family. I've been there for 28 years.
I bought that in the height of INXS' career for a lot of reasons, but also because I spent so many years of my life in things that move - buses, plains, trains, cars, bikes - and I just liked the idea of being in the outdoors as opposed to hotels or wherever, and I didn't really want to be in a big city. Besides that, I like the countryside. I like the laid-back nature of the people who live out in regional, slow-poke areas.
I raise cattle on the farm and it's a professional thing, but it's also a way for me to live outside of the entertainment business. It's a way for me to stay grounded and to work with people who are in a different headspace, and that's good for me.
Farriss: I know what you mean. There is some Americana in the setup, but there's also some Australiana, and in that respect, the Old West and Australian history are similar: We're both young countries compared to Europe or parts of Asia. The United States is a bit further down the track and a lot more powerful than Australia, but our histories are quite a bit similar in that back end.
But I wasn't planning on making anything like that kind of video at first. My wife, Marlena, whose family are from Ohio, she and I a few years back went to the Mexican border and we went horse riding right on the corner of New Mexico, Arizona and basically Mexico, near the Chiricahua Mountains.
I was already songwriting because I'm a songwriter - that's my main thing I've done in my music career. I'm the co-founder of INXS, but I was already writing songs with other writers, always have, always will. But I had been to Nashville because it is about five hours from Dayton, Ohio, where Marlena's family are from. It's not that far in Australian terms to drive because Australia's a big country.
So I was driving to Nashville to write with some guys and girls, some famous, some not known, just because I like these people and hopefully they like me. But when we went horse riding down there, I saw a whole history. Most people think of the Old West or cowboy movies as something that Hollywood dreamt up, but when I started riding around these national monument areas, I got an education from a wrangler called Craig Lawson and his wife Tam - lovely people, Craig sadly passed away a little while back - but he explained to me what the area was like in the Old West, and the more I rode around and looked at these wilderness areas, I began to have a completely different three- or four-dimensional sense of what the Old West must have really been like, and the conflicts and the trials and tribulations these people went through with the settlers, the US Cavalry, the Apache Indians, the Mexicans, cowboys, the people up in Tombstone.
I began to look at it as not just a Hollywood thing but something much, much more gritty, and I began to really feel it. We think about ourselves as incredibly modern here in 2020. Well, the fact of the matter is, 100 years from now, they'll look back and look at us - if we're all still here - as quaint and nostalgic. Whatever you think is modern is always changing. Technology is always changing. But some things don't change. These people still had to survive, to put food on the table. That landscape, and I mean not just physically but life and politics for where they all were, it just intrigued me.
When I went back to Nashville and I started songwriting, I was writing with a lot of country artists, and they said, "What do you want to write about?" I said, "Actually, I want to write about the Old West," and they kind of stared at me like, "Boy, where have you been? You're kind of behind the times ain't ya?" And I was like, "Well, no, really."
The more I think about it, what went on in history back then determines a lot of what is modern now. It had a lot more impact culturally than people really understand. In so many ways, it's incredible - so many inventions were invented to cope with those frontier days, and some of them have come into what modern technology is now. But the music people were playing back then was played on what we call folk instruments. A violin became a fiddle and guitars became more sophisticated, a bit better made, but basically the same sort of thing just played in different styles.
Country artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and later Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson used to say, "I really want to be a cowboy." It's a cultural thing, it's not really a pop thing, and to me, it determines a lot of what is going on in both country music and in music in general. A lot of those things find themselves into our modern music culture.
But that's why I started making videos. I was just having fun with it, trying to give something entertaining to people. After all, that's what you do when you're a musician or a songwriter: You're in the business of entertaining people.
Songfacts: Is this the first time that you've written something for you to sing yourself?
Farriss: Yeah. That's a pretty good observation. I've always written songs and demoed them, but within INXS for example, Michael was such a good singer, as were some of the other members of the band - my brother Jon and Kirk Pengilly - so I didn't want to have some kind of weird ego competition.
Michael Hutchence was one of the greatest frontmen of all time. We still laugh about it: He used to say to me, "You know, we're very different people," and I'd say, "Yeah, I agree. We don't necessarily want the same things." But in a strange way, I think that was one of the reasons that we got on: because we didn't compete. And I got him, and he got me, and we had different lives like that.
But in this sense, over the years, I've always been a songwriter. When I was in Nashville some years back I was writing with James Dean Hicks and Buck Johnson. Both those guys are amazing singers, and when we came to track the vocal recording, I said, "Who is going to sing it?" It was kind of funny because they looked at me and they said, "You are!" I'm like, "You want me to sing it?" They were like, "Yeah, damn right."
I was kind of nervous because these guys are really good singers, so I'm singing away and looking at them for approval, and they helped make me sound reasonably good. But after that, something happened to me where I was like, "You know what, I'm not in a band anymore, I don't have to live under those dynamics."
I'm not disrespecting anything I've done before, but when you're in a band, you live within the dynamics of that group of people, and I don't need to live in that same area anymore. So I started thinking about what I'm good at and what I'm bad at as a singer - what's ugly, and what might be attractive about my voice. I got more at ease with that idea, then I started to do some live shows on my own, and boy that is a tricky area because being an entertainer on stage is a very different thing than being a songwriter.
I think of myself as kind of a space cowboy: I ride horses and I have cattle, but by the same token, I am a man of present times. I live in the now, I don't live in the past. I may have some fun shooting videos and dressing up or whatever, but I'm living in 2020 with the rest of the world.
Songfacts: One of the INXS songs we've heard you sing before is "By My Side." Can you talk about what that song means to you?
Songfacts: Can you talk about the lyric, "Here comes the clown, his face is a wall"?
Farriss: When you do a lot of touring, if you get to that point in your career where you end up doing meet and greets or you're doing large tours, you're lucky to be there in the first place, but there is something else that comes with it where everybody around you is a stranger and everyone starts to take on a kind of a persona. Most people you've never met before mean well, but they might be feeling a bit nervous, so they might be acting like a clown to make you laugh. You begin to look at it like you're almost in a theater play when you're looking at everybody because everyone's got some persona because they're strangers - you don't know them. It's a different thing if you go to a party where there are friends and family and you know everybody. But that was what that lyric was about.
Songfacts: Where did the title "Listen Like Thieves" come from?
Farriss: It's kind of interesting isn't it? Michael put that string of words together. Someone said to me recently that it sounds like a British poet from back in the 19th century. But that particular string of words is not a modern vernacular is it?
Farriss: And it definitely isn't to me, because part of my family is British, part of my family is Australian, and now part of my family is American, but I definitely can see some earlier language in that phrase, and I think it's a very clever phrase to use for a song because through the generations there has been a constant struggle within most cultures to feel like you're controlling your own destiny within the government. I think that was part of what Michael's lyric was: The idea that the media haven't been great watchdogs, and that it is important that there are people who champion the truth. I think that's really what he was getting at.
Songfacts: In the "Mystify" video there is a great open where we see you actually writing a song with Michael, and it's fascinating to watch. I'd love for you to talk about how that song came together and what you did for that video.
As far as the songwriting goes, Michael and I, I think we had just been in Chicago. That video was shot in LA but we had already started working on "Mystify" in Chicago. I don't know that we had entirely finished it, so we had probably picked up from where we left off.
But it was around that period that we were writing for Kick. It was our sixth studio album for INXS, and even though we knew that we had some good songs, I don't think any of us really realized how big that album was really going to be.
Songfacts: That song, you really honor the vocal by having it come in cold like that and then framing it with the piano. Was that something you were thinking about?
Farriss: Yes. And on a lighter note, literally, it's always funny starting that song live because when you start it, you don't know what key you are in.
What we were trying to do with that song was just keep it feeling immediate. It doesn't have that normal pop song structure, and it's very unusual actually. The way Michael and I worked as songwriters, I like to think that we did things quite often that weren't natural or normal pop structures in our songs.
We both liked the creative exploration of messing around with arrangements, but Michael was never trained as a musician. What an amazing thing: One of the greatest lead vocalists of all time, great stage performer, amazing lyricist, but he was never formally taught how to play an instrument. I was classically, formally taught piano and then later on taught myself to play guitar because of my understanding of music theory. I understood on the guitar the theoretical idea of music. But when Michael and I would sit and write together, he had no preconceptions of what music theory was really supposed to be or not supposed to be, so he would suggest ideas and sometimes I'd sit there while he was saying something to me and I'd sort of smile to myself knowing that what he was saying is really unusual and not normal to suggest, but I would never try to iron out those things because I recognized that as a creative person, what he was suggesting was brilliant because he had no preconceptions about what was wrong or right.
Songfacts: Did he obsess over his lyrics, or did they tend to come quickly?
Farriss: Well that's interesting. It depends on what period of time you're talking about. In the early years he really struggled with his lyrics. In fact, I threw out [meaning he wrote] a lot of the band's lyrics in the early years. Especially the first couple of singles and the very early recordings we made. Then later on, Michael became more emotional and more passionate about his lyrics. It was not so much, "Oh, I have to write these lyrics to write a song." It was more like, "I really, really, really want to say something."
So, I think that's where he got more and more inspired and yes, he got much more deliberate about his lyrics and what he was trying to say and not say, and I recognized that. As we went along, he became more... I suppose "serious" is the word. For example, some of our albums had very different lyric themes. Some artists or acts, their lyrics are always compassionate, or they're always trying to save the world, or they're always trying to party all night long or whatever it is they are trying to say. But one of the things with INXS' lyrics, mostly Michael's, but same with my own lyrics, was that we were singing about things that affected us at the time, which is why some of our albums don't reflect the other albums lyrically. Some of it was very, very much about what we were experiencing at the time.
You mentioned the Kick album before and "Mystify." I felt that a lot of the lyrics on the Kick album were very positive lyrics. When I listen to that album, a lot of the lyrics are about celebrating life, and I find them particularly positive.
Songfacts: What's one of the INXS lyrics you really connect with?
Farriss: You know, there are lots of lyrics that I think were particularly poignant and still relevant today. "Never Tear Us Apart," I wrote the music, Michael wrote the lyric, and what an amazing lyric. That song has been covered around the world by so many artists it's mind-boggling. It still gets requested all the time for use with reality TV shows and product placement. You name it - deaths, births, marriages - it's just one of those lyrics.
Then there's "The Stairs" from our X album, and I think "What You Need" from the Listen Like Thieves album has a really good lyric as well. "Original Sin" was a great lyric. That's a track we cut in 1983 with Nile Rodgers at the Power Station in New York. He came to see us in Canada and he said, "I really want to record with you guys." We were really surprised. I was 23, this young guy from Australia. Like, "What do you want to be working with us for?"
We always looked up to him and still do. He's a guru and a musical genius, and a really, really good person. So, when we started working with him, he said, "What song have you got in mind." I already had the guitar riffs, chord movements and pretty much the structure of "Original Sin" on a little demo I had made before we left Australia to tour in the United States. It was funky, and at the time, 1983, '70s funk had kind of gone out the window and it was replaced by dance music, but it had yet to become more sophisticated, like what it became by about the mid-'80s... talking about music is a weird thing right? It's really weird, but I'm trying to think of language that people will understand. [Elvis Costello calls it "dancing about architecture."]
But all I'm saying is that Michael realized how important it was that we had the right kind of lyrics for that song, and he came up with the idea when we were sitting on the tour bus and we were looking at kids playing in a schoolyard from different cultural backgrounds and maybe different nationalities. He was looking at them all and he said, "We should all just be like kids."
Songfacts: I'm going to ask you to talk about music some more. One of the great INXS songs, I don't think it was a huge hit in America, but I've always been intrigued by "Kiss The Dirt." Can you talk about the meaning of that song?
Farriss: Yeah. "Kiss The Dirt" was one of the songs from Listen Like Thieves, and I demoed it for the album. The way that Michael and I used to work as a songwriting team was not what people probably think we did - we didn't sit around both playing acoustic guitars trying to make up something together, because Michael didn't play an instrument. So, it didn't really matter to him whether I was sitting in a room playing a piano or a guitar or if I already had the backing of a musical idea and grooves or riffs already on a piece of tape - it didn't make any difference. In fact, he sometimes preferred that I had the music on a tape because he didn't have to spend so much time sitting in a room with me. He'd listen to some of my recordings and he'd say, "Hey, I really like this. Can I take it home and work on it?" I'd say, "Sure man, do it." And that was the way we often worked.
When I say "work together," sometimes we didn't work together at all - we'd work separately. I think that's another thing that made some of that writing a little different too, is that I gave him complete freedom to do whatever he wanted to do vocally, and he gave me complete freedom musically to think of what could benefit the band. So I think that was where our songwriting partnership worked to its strength.
But the lyric of "Kiss The Dirt" is about how it doesn't matter how big you get as an actor or an artist or whatever field or endeavor you are involved in. Eventually, whether it's age or the tyranny of time, there's a myriad of things that can happen to you, and none of us really knows where we're really going in the end. It's not supposed to be a depressing lyric. The idea is, everybody falls off the mountain eventually, doesn't matter how high you get.
What Michael wrote is really beautiful poetically. When you're a little kid, you play in the dirt. If you've got some dirt to play on, a bit of earth, you might build a sandcastle or you might just dig a hole in your backyard, just messing around. But, you're always going to kiss the dirt in the end. Everything reverts back to the earth in the end. Everything.
Songfacts: I was happy to see that on your essentials playlist you included "The One Thing." That's a really intriguing song in part because the chorus is just eight words. Why does it hold up so well?
Farriss: Well, first of all, I appreciate you saying that, and secondly, I have no idea.
I'd like to hand that one back across to Michael as the co-writer. He was very, very comfortable to sing those kinds of phrases, and he had the conviction to sing a phrase like that and repeat it, no problem. It wasn't because he was short of dialogue or creativity or because he couldn't think of extra words. In fact, one of the things I always noted with Michael as a lyricist was when he felt he had nothing more to say, he wouldn't say anything more than that, and I always appreciated that. He wouldn't try to justify his lyric, and I think there's a strength in that. Once he had a phrase or something that he felt was poignant or important to say, that was enough.
Songfacts: On "Elegantly Wasted," are you guys singing "we're better than Oasis" in the background?
Farriss: I'm not sure about that. All I know is that when Michael and I were working together in Dublin, Ireland, Michael went out to a pub that night and I stayed on to work in the studio and record some ideas when we were songwriting there for Elegantly Wasted, the last album we made together. We went out to a pub and then I got tired and went home, and he must have gone back in the studio. I think he deliberately chose that time to go back in the studio because I wasn't there. So I don't know.
But I don't have an axe to grind with other people about anything. Whatever he may or may not have said is between him and whoever.
Songfacts: Many different pieces of technology have come on the market throughout your career. What has been the most important piece of new technology for you?
Farriss: Well, I look back at my songwriting books and I know it's not electronic. One of the books I really like is the one that just has a black cover on it and has more of a recycled paper - there's no lines on it. And the greatest piece of technology I used with that was a rubber [eraser] and a pencil.
The technology I was using 30 years ago is very different from what's available now. I was using an 8-track tape recorder and primitive drum machines back then, but some things are still the same: guitars, amps, cables. And some of the synthesizers I was using back then are highly collectible and costs ridiculous amounts of money compared to what they cost in the day.
But what I'm trying to get at is that sometimes new technology isn't necessarily better. In some ways it's more convenient, and it may be smaller, but I don't know if it necessarily sounds any better, and some technologies actually get in the way.
Let's say it's 50, 60, 70 years ago. People were using magnetic tape to make recordings, and then roundabout the late '80s, early '90s, they had digital tape. Well, as those digital tapes disintegrate, they're virtually useless, even though at the time they were cutting-edge technology. Whereas ironically, the analog tapes that preceded them have a far bigger shelf life, and then what's followed since is everything with modern technology is in file format. I just hope that in 50, 60, 70, 80 years' time that these file formats are recognizable.
Songfacts: Who is Jan in "Jan's Song"?
Farriss: I wrote that lyric. We were still in the Cold War era, and there was a girl in Eastern Europe I'd seen on a news clip, or it could have been a newspaper - a clipping of a woman wanting freedom from the Eastern Bloc communist countries. I looked at that and felt some empathy for her wanting to be heard and seen and having an opinion about things, and that's where I got the idea. I suppose she's a fictitious character - I don't know her personally.
As for Live Aid, INXS didn't play it - no Australian bands did. The Aussie relief effort was called Oz For Africa and was headlined by INXS, which by this time had overtaken Men At Work as the biggest band Down Under.
Farriss: Throughout INXS' career, our fanbase grew bigger and bigger around the world. It went from when we were lucky if anybody knew any of our songs to playing stadiums where people go nuts over certain songs. And there was one song that the band played through its entire career, and that was "Don't Change."
We shot a film in Wembley Stadium called Live Baby Live in 1991. It was shot on 35mm film and recently released in cinemas around the world. Well, what was kind of bizarre to me was that we didn't play "Don't Change," and I still don't know why. We played it at virtually every other show, and Bruce Springsteen covered it when he came out to Australia. Yet we didn't even play our own song - very strange.
Songfacts: It's such a great lyric. Simple and so effective.
Farriss: Yeah, it's a good pub band song - you don't have to know too many chords to play it.
Songfacts: What song by another songwriter had the most influence on you?
Farriss: There's probably a plethora of them. I suppose it depends on what period of my life we're talking about, but early years of my life, it would have to have been The Beatles, because that's the first band I ever saw. I was just 5 years old when I saw them [on TV]. I liked "Hey Jude." I remember pleading with my mother to buy it for me as a single when it came out, and she did. I was just beside myself for Christmas, opening that gift and there was the single of "Hey Jude," so that was a big one for me. But I also liked "Revolution," which was the B-side.
As I began to get into my early teenage years, I really liked The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, all kinds of acts actually. I always liked Simon & Garfunkel. Also early Ray Charles recordings - my father was in the Royal Navy and he used to collect a lot of American, sort of unusual vinyl, and we grew up with Ray Charles albums lying around.
Songfacts: What about the song you tried to deconstruct, and thought, "How the heck did they do that?"
Farriss: That's exactly what I used to try and do as a kid was reverse engineer how these things were written in the first place.
I always liked the Rolling Stone interview with Bob Dylan. They asked him about the 1960s, and he said, "I never thought I was in the 1960s, I thought I was in the 1950s," because that was the era that influenced him when he was young. And the reason I'm saying that is because even though a lot of people talk about how I influenced other people with my work or our work as a band in the '80s and '90s, I was heavily influenced by things from the late '60s and the '70s. The things that you're writing about and the things that you're saying or feeling have often been a long time coming.
July 12, 2020
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