By Mark Guarino
There’s a natural suspicion among rock fans when Hollywood types strap on a guitar and get the requisite record deal. A long list of film actors — Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy and Keanu Reeves, to name a few — have only made it harder for celebrity musical projects to shed the vanity.
Oscar winner Russell Crowe is changing that. His band with the famously clunky name — 30 Odd Foot of Grunts — separates him from his acting peers, mostly due to the fact Crowe was seriously invested in playing music long before become a celebrity. The songwriter, guitarist and vocalist first started playing and recording with his bandmates in the mid-‘80s and it’s clear from talking with him that it was music that informed his creative life from an early age.
Of course, once Crowe became a global film star, booking gigs proved a lot easier. The band became a priority in-between film shoots and the group has diligently toured the world and released albums with steady pace. Their newest album, “Other Ways of Speaking” (Artemis), features pub rock anthems, writerly ballads, a duet with Chrissie Hynde and austere American roots rock with fiery undertones.
Crowe’s fans are known for jetting across the globe to catch gigs. Sunday, he begins a five-night residency at the House of Blues to what is expected to be an international audience. In conversation from his home in Australia, Crowe talked about his life-long passion for music.
Q: For this album you decided to skip playing an entire U.S. tour and just play Chicago for five dates. Why here?
A: It came down to a combination of things with Chicago being central, being accessible from all other major cities, the venue is fantastic, the people are really cool and also because of timing. We really didn’t get to see any of the town. Last time we came in, we did our first show and we basically slept in the next day. Then we did the next show and we were gone again. This time around we are coming into town for about two weeks total and the one show we were going to do is now stretched out to five.
Q: Does playing a residency opposed to moving on every night affect your playing?
A: Oh, sometimes it heightens it. Sometimes get a little road weary. That’s all we’re doing at the moment. We’ve gone from Ellis Springs to Darwin to Palm Island to Townsville to Gladston. Now if you’ve got a map and try to find some of those places we just did 2800 kilometers to get to one place and back again. That’s a substantial distance, that’s probably coming up to 1,500 miles. We love touring but … we wanted to do more shows in Australia this time around rather than in America. It was as simple as that. It was a long time since we played a serious tour. In 98-99, we played here but we hadn’t gone out to the sticks, the regional areas, to thank people for buying CDs.
Q: Before you played music, was there one record or one person who turned you onto music?
A: My grandfather had a house in a place called Church Point which is now definitely part of the city. But back in late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was a long way away from town. And a fellow named Reg Livermore, who was quite a famous theatre actor, lived next door. And Reg continuously had a troupe of people who were always singing songs and playing instruments around. And I also had Mowry background, which is the indigenous culture of New Zealand. So social occasions are all about the guitar, all about singing. So you have that sort of influence when you grow up in an environment where there’s music continuously and it’s self-generated and it’s not all about having a record player on.
Q: Which is so different now because usually it’s the stereo that drowns everyone in the family out. When you got older and started listening to records, how did it affect who you became?
A: You know, I was just thinking about that last night: how could I turn away from music when music saved my life? When you say that sort of phrase it’s (describing my) twenties, when music was seriously life changing. But (it goes) all the way back to when I was a kid. Songs with a narrative, something as eclectic or as left field as “Rat Trap” by the Boomtown Rats, exploded in my imagination. I could see the whole picture of what was being talked about in the narrative of songs. I used to have 20 or 30 7-inch singles when I was ten. That was a lot. Now … I have an iPod with 3,500 songs on it. Times have changed, haven’t they? (laughs) To me, music is not a throwaway thing. It’s not a thing you can go somewhere and grab. I still have a memory of when I was saving money and doing odd jobs because I want to get that album (laughs) and you couldn’t steal it off the internet.
Q: You were at an age when your record collection was suddenly a shrine in your bedroom.
A: Yeah, yeah, I used to get wooden wine boxes to haul albums in, you know? We’re talking about crates, boxes with slide lids and all that sort of stuff, so they were protected and with rope handles so I could move them around if I had to.
Q: In what way did music save your life when you were in your twenties?
A: I was very much sort of still forming as a person. I left New Zealand and I was now living in Australia so I was living by myself, I didn’t have that immediate family influence around me. I was doing a job for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. They wanted to make a movie, a 25-minute thing for young people who were considering becoming pastors. For the grand total of 500 bucks, I was contracted to go do a video production playing the young man considering becoming a pastor. And I had to stay at one of the pastor’s houses. He happened to be this cool guy who set the radio to a station down here called Triple J. It didn’t have any commercial considerations, it was a government-run station and their playlist is eclectic and it really is, it still remains today the greatest source of new music. They never play us on it but I don’t hold that against them. (laughs) So the guy sets the radio so that … I woke up in the morning the first line that I heard is “I’m celebrating my love for you/with a pint of beer and a new tattoo.” And I went: well that’s got to be Billy Bragg (who was singing “Greetings to the New Brunette”), that’s why people talk about him. It was ’87, you know. So I went and got that album. And by the way, I’m singing that line, going back into the record stores and (they’re going) “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I was the customer from hell. But one goes, “that’s Billy Bragg, ‘Talking With the Taxman About Poetry’.”
Within that album, I found that there’s other people with my sense of humor and I also was inspired to inquire who (Motown songwriter-producer giants) Holland and Holland and Lamont Dozier were. And within the brutality of some of the things he talked about, you have that great sense of life and even if things are tough, there is grace still. And politically, he had a different opinion from what I held at the time, but … it inspired me to learn so much. It opened my eyes to have a look at things like the British law that was current at the time where you could be picked up at the time for suspicion of anything and could be jailed for 24 hours without access to a lawyer, things like that. So I formed or began to form a lot of attitudes that I still hold today in terms of human rights and the politics of the community.
Q: At that point, did you think music was going to be your thing or acting? Or did you have an idea what you were going to do?
A: Man, I don’t think there was ever a grand plan. I knew at a very young age, six or whatever, I knew I was a performer. Even though I was a very shy person, I knew. So I got a guitar and started writing songs. I was playing in bands when I was 14, touring when I was 16. But there was always something intrinsically unsatisfying about the music. I thought “all we’re doing is making a space for different genders of the species to get together and mate.” That’s basically what we were living on. And as a young idealistic young man, that was not good enough for me. So … then I took the musical thing into staged musical theatre and theatre led to film. So it was the strangest of journeys in that respect. I don’t think there was ever a grand plan. I think there was a knowledge of self at a very young age and then a journey to find where that was going to lead to.
Q: When you act, you’re reading someone else’s words, and taking direction from other people. When you’re playing music, the expression is completely your own.
A: That’s definitely important to me. People always say, “why don’t do a cover version so can get on the radio.” But that’s not the point. I could easily do straight plays when I want time off from movie sets … but for me, rock and roll is theatre. It’s a more exiting version of it. And as you say, it shifts and changes as the mood of the room. I have a very working class attitude that if you paid for a ticket, I’m going to make sure you have a good time. The bottom line is, we expense a lot of energy and … I’m actually now okay with the mating ritual aspect of it. I understand probably from a more seasoned aspect where it’s a little like, that’s okay if that’s what music does.
Q: You’re also closer to your audience on a stage where on film, there is no connection.
A: Yeah, it’s all of that. It’s like if you say all 12-bar blues is the same. At first look, maybe. But when you delve into it, there are subtleties and nuances. Every night with a rock and roll show, there is no plan. You have a song list but I very regularly change that because you don’t know what energies are out there. Here in Australia, it’s very different for us because you go out and they’re like “prove it.” So we do, we’re like “let’s go to work.” When we say “work,” it’s not like hardship, but “let’s do the thing that we’re passionate about.” In America, it tends to be different. You walk out onstage and there’s a massive rush of “howya doin’!” (laughs) coming back to you from the audience. That tends to be different. I tell more stories onstage in America. I like to take that energy and hold it in anticipation a little bit longer.
Q: The songs you write are all character oriented. I wonder if playing characters makes it easier to create them.
A: I don’t think so. I was always attracted to narratives though songs throughout my life. I like Jim Croce, I like those stories. So for me … I don’t like those “oh yeah, baby” kind of songs. There’s nothing in there for me. If I’m going to dance, I’d rather dance to Moroccan disco than songs going “oh baby yeah, yeah.” So my favorite songs tend to be very clearly etched songs. And that doesn’t mean you know what the song’s about because you’re not privy to the songwriter’s muse. But there is enough within that song to make your imagination expand.
Q: Your song “Charlie’s Song” seems to be about you perhaps 15 years ago. The narrator seems to be saying why songs are important to him but why it’s a painful process as well.
A: I wrote that song about a particular period, ’92 or ’93, when we had quite a heavy duty music producer called Charlie Fisher pursuing us. But at the same time the acting thing was moving ahead and I had already won a couple awards in Australia. We basically had a conversation (where he said) “I don’t (expletive) understand why don’t do this, it’s right here for you. You have your songs, you have your band, let’s do it.” I was like, “there’s other things I’m exploring that I want to explore and it’s like I know this world and I’ve done this thing but there’s this other thing that’s mysterious and I’m going to pursue that.”