The Whitlams Black Stump Band At The Garden Of Unearthly Delights…

The Whitlams Black Stump Band was born in 2021, during the depths of Covid. It’s a surprising country detour for one of Australia’s most loved bands, featuring some of Australia’s finest roots musicians, namely Rod McCormack on banjo and acoustic guitar, Ollie Thorpe on pedal steel and electric guitar, producer Matt Fell on bass, and long-time Whitlams’ drummer Terepai Richmond on drums. To date, they have released two Black Stump Band singles Blow Up The Pokes and The Day John Sattler Broke His Jaw, both of which hit the Top 30 on the Country Hot 50 airplay charts.

The Whitlams Black Stump Band have today also released their re-worked country tinged single titled Kate Kelly – a gothic bush ballad about Ned Kelly’s little sister, Kate – which also features the stunning vocals of Central Coast multi award winning Felicity Urquhart. In August last year, during The Whitlams Black Stump Band first regional run, Felicity Urquhart and Josh Cunningham joined the tour to open on five shows. It was on these nights that they started experimenting with Felicity joining the band on stage to sing and play the part of Kate Kelly. They realised straight away that the addition of Felicity’s voice gives the song an immediate emotional depth, as she becomes the female inheritor brooding over the Kelly legend. The track was originally on The Whitlams 1999 album Love This City, which was placed at No.101 in the Rolling Stone Top 200 albums of all time! Written by Tim Freedman and Northern Rivers identity Jimmy Willing, using a narrative inspired by Jean Bedford’s book, Sister Kate, the single is a fictional retelling of the bushranger family’s legend through Kate’s eyes. Tim Freedman talks about the Black Stump Band and returning to play The Garden Of Unearthly Delights on Saturday.

It must be a really exciting phase for the Black Stump Band gaining momentum?
Yes indeed! It is an enjoyable game that I am playing, the idea came to me during lock down. I got Matt Fell to produce the session, he got the best band he could think of, they enjoyed themselves, agreed to come on the road, we did a regional tour to get our chemistry happening and now the next spot just as our third single hits the radio is to play the big cities. It feels like an orderly and joyous development. It is a blast to be playing with guys and that I could learn so much from to be honest.

Were you ever concerned about what die hard Whitlams fans would think with having these classic songs re-interpreted or played differently?
No, because Americana isn’t their cup of tea and The Whitlams will be touring again in six months. It isn’t like Jak, Terepai and Ian are retired. This is a side project, it is confusing because I decided to put The Whitlams in the name because it helps me pull a crowd in the country, just pure branding and economic reasons even though it only has half The Whitlams in it, Terepai and myself with the guitarist and bassist replaced by roots musicians. As long as I can make them understand what it is, it isn’t replacing the four-piece Whitlams, it just gives them more choice to come and see what I do.

How have the shows been going so far?
We’ve had a blast, we debuted at Tamworth in April 2022, we had done some recording sessions but we were still a scrappy live band. When we did the regional tour it brought it all together, now it really skips along. It’s an act I’m really proud of, there’s a lot of chops on stage and a lot of taste as well.

Hitting Adelaide at Fringe time must be a tour highlight for you?
Yeah, it seemed like the right thing to do. We closed the Adelaide Festival last year, playing two shows at the Summer House, that funny outdoor venue that’s wrapped in paper! It was a funny little joint! It’s funny that you’ve got that view then you wrap it in toilet paper. This one will be a lot of fun, I have fond memories of playing the Spiegeltent at Fringe solo. This is the nice big venue The Boboli, it will be a lot of fun, it will be great to sell the last fifty.

Have you felt rejuvenated with The Black Stump Band?
Indeed, because it is genre based a lot of the decisions in the recording process is much quicker whereas with The Whitlams I’m sometimes trying to create styles and it’s a lot more cerebral. Sometimes it is nice to do something that comes easy. I’m also enjoying the fact that my themes, my lyrics and melodies can suit a different palate. I still get a thrill when I hear a pedal steel bring out the poignancy of a phrase. Different tools in the box.

It seems like you found the perfect match with Felicity Urquhart contributing vocals on Kate Kelly?
Thank you, Felicity started singing with us when Josh Cunningham opened for us on the first regional tour. It gives Kate Kelly a voice. It was a bit strange otherwise, once again it was a man telling a woman’s story. This undercuts that deficiency in the original.

Have you been surprised with the audience reactions at the shows? Has there been a shift in the traditional Whitlams fan base?
I’m not sure who is in the audience, I think they are mostly curious Whitlams fans to be honest, because I think it will take a little bit longer to get the country music fans in to our corner. It is something that won’t happen over night, this is the third single that has got national airplay on the country music stations, I’m hoping they see that we are serious and that we love country music/ alt country music, in time there will be a crossover.

Are you stoked to be getting national airplay as that’s a challenge for most bands?
Radio play has been excellent this year, KIX are a national radio station who have championed our work from the start, ABC Country has been really great, I love nothing more than getting played of Triple A Murri Country, an indigenous country station in Brisbane or the specialist country station on the Central Coast. Matt Fell makes music that is very refined, even though it is a genre and is playful and jumps out of the radio. It is great to be working with him. To have him in the rehearsal room as well as he plays bass in the act is like we have four musical directors on stage. It’s not a matter of too many cooks but a good idea thing thrown up.

Is there an album in the works?
Matt and I are finishing off some tracks and we will be doing a second session at the end of this tour. We have had the benefit of playing with some stuff at sound check at the gig. We are looking at putting it out in late January next year after a couple more singles are dropped.

Was the whole idea of The Black Stump Band something that you have been thinking about for quite some time but never found the right time to do it?
It dawned on me having done a great in Mudgee in 2021, I realised with the whole tree change that country towns have got markets for classy music now. KIX FM had been playing our single Man About A Dog which was never made for the country market. I thought wow, if I skewed it a bit more towards the country I could start travelling these roads a lot more giving myself a fresh project and ambition. I rang Matt that night saying what do you reckon about doing a session and he booked his favourite band and off we went. I never expected to have the same band touring with me, that’s something I am taking advantage of and we’re trying to make it as pleasant and fun as we can. We eat well, drink well and we stay in at least two star hotels!

What were the initial rehearsal sessions like and did it get you excited about music again?
I’ve always been excited with the normal Whitlams, we were still challenging ourselves playing new material at shows. This was different, it is almost like a jazz band. It’s almost like country soul or country jazz, it really moves and I remember walking out of the first rehearsal saying to Matt I love this. It is the first time I was in a jazz band.

Will the transition back to the OG Whitlams be harder? Will there be some influence that might carry over to how you might the original Whitlams songs?
No, no, the original Whitlams four-piece won’t change and that’s its own thing. We always do a muscular version of the albums that have been released. If people are coming to a Whitlams show they want to hear live versions of the Whitlams tunes and the albums that they know. That’s why this was name differently putting the Black Stump on it and not have people turn up and suddenly find out they are watching a country band when they expected to hear No Aphrodisiac. The Whitlams will play again later in the year, we have some plans to do some big announcements after this tour with our annual run around of the big venues around the country.

Interview By Rob Lyon

Catch The Whitlams Black Stump Band at The Garden Of Unearthly Delights on Saturday 18 March, tickets from FringeTix

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