Q&A: Jimmy Barnes

Confronting his past has liberated Jimmy Barnes. The Australian rock icon talks to What’s Hot New Zealand about the importance of doing what you love with the people you love. Honestly.

Jimmy Barnes is heading back on the road to do what he does best. After a series of sold-out theatre shows associated with his bestselling memoirs, in which he laid bare a childhood of abuse and violence, it’s time to kick out the jams, a full-bore rock ‘n’ roll band behind him and a new album’s worth of songs to perform.

Your last tours were linked to your memoirs and featured stripped back versions of your songs but this tour sounds like a return to full-throated rock ‘n’ roll? How does that feel? It’s good. I’ve done a couple of tours now, like the book tours, and as much as they were enlightening and fun, it’s really great to be back doing what I do best, which is rock ‘n’ roll.

Any old mates in the band? My band are family. My son plays drums, my daughters and my wife are backing singers, my son in law plays guitar, my bass player has been with me for 35 years, my piano player has been with me for 20-odd years and my other guitar player has been with me for 20 years, so they are all like family.

How have the rehearsals been going? We’ve toured relentlessly with this band for about 20 years so these are like members of my family, when we get into rehearsal we don’t muck about, we know exactly what we are doing. We know we want to hit it hard and we want to hit it fast and we want to give the songs meaning, give the songs strength – that’s what we go for. And because they’re so close, they know exactly what I want, they can tell from my body language when things have got to pick up and when they’ve got to back off, it’s a real pleasure playing with a band like this. [Well oiled machine?] Absolutely. But at the same time there’s the freedom not do the same thing every night, you can riff off at times and pull it back, you can go off and change grooves and pull it back. I love it.

What are some of the classics punters are likely to hear? There’s certain songs that we’ll be playing – ‘Working Class Man’, ‘Lay Down Your Guns’, ‘I’m Dying To Be With You Tonight’, ‘Lies and Alibis’ – and in among all that we’ll have other songs from the back catalogue that I really want to play plus having a new album up our sleeves, we’re looking forward to injecting a whole bunch of new songs, and hopefully by September people will be excited about the new songs as well. I did a tour in summer in Australia and I put in a bunch of these new songs into the set. That’s a bit unheard of that far before the album comes out (this weekend) and people haven’t heard the songs, and they were really well received so that was a good sign. I’m just looking forward to getting out and presenting some new approaches to music and some new lyrics and some new feels but essentially getting up and playing some rock ‘n’ roll.

Do you feel that tension between putting on a greatest hits show or playing your latest songs? Not really because I think we do both. I’m not going to get up there and play 20 new songs, I wouldn’t do that to an audience. I’m first and foremost a music fan, so if I go and see a band and they don’t play their catalogue I’ll think, well, that was a waste of time. It’s great that you can play some new songs but that’s not all the audience want to hear. You have a connection to a history with a band and you want a part of that but part of that whole experience is also knowing where the band is going. It’s finding the balance of old and new. And I’ve done that for years, I’ve got 17 solo albums. [New treatments?] I don’t mix them up so they aren’t recognisable but they certainly get new life breathed into them. You can’t go through the motions with songs so even the old ones feel like they are fresh, they’ve got the same venom and the same sting and the same hope and so on that they had when they were written.

Am I right that your songs are getting more autobiographical? I think they always have been, I just think I know myself better now, that’s all. The more I learn about myself, the more I know about myself, the better I can relate to what I’m like. Even in the early days of Cold Chisel I wrote things that were autobiographical but I just didn’t realise. I’d disguise them because I was afraid to talk about my past or whatever – I think I’ve been liberated, particularly after writing those books, and with laying out my childhood, my life and putting it on the line for everyone to see it’s liberated me and I’ve got a bigger pool now to draw on when I write songs. And the best thing you can do is write about stuff you know about because if you write about stuff you don’t know about you end up waffling. If I write about things I know about I can write honestly. Then I think I’ve got a good chance of being able to tap into something that other people connect with. Because it doesn’t matter what or who you are, whether you’re a rock star or a builder, we all go through the same sh*t, we all deal with the same problems, we all have the same issues, and we all have the same fears and hopes. So if you can write honestly about your own experience of that, I think people can relate to it. [Getting more honest then?] I’ve always been honest but I think they’re more pointed, more to the point. And part of that is honesty and part of it is knowing yourself better. I was as honest as I could be when I didn’t know myself. There was stuff from my past that I had blocked out of my memory and I never wanted to face again, stuff that happened when I was a kid but now that that is out in a book and I’ve looked at it and I’ve spoken to my therapist about it and I’ve analysed it and I’ve done stage shows about it, movies about it, now when I draw on that stuff I can be a lot more to the point about it. And I guess it is a lot more honest because I know what I’m talking about now as opposed to just wondering where did it go wrong.

The press release tells me you are older, smarter and healthier – what do you attribute that to? Getting rid of all that excess baggage that you carry. People carry around baggage from their childhood. There was stuff from my childhood that I never wanted to face – abuse and violence, alcoholism and all that sort of stuff – and as long as you weren’t looking at it it blocks you and it blocks your forward motion. I was always pretty healthy. There were periods where I wasn’t but most of the time I was. I’ve done martial arts and boxing and yoga and all that sort of stuff. Nowadays I just think all that stuff has cleared the path and I can be in contact with myself without it killing me. So life is better for me, I feel stronger, I feel more connected both to myself and to the audience because of clearing the path.

Is it getting harder to tear yourself away from home and hearth to go on the road? NZ has been like a second home to me anyway, I’ve been coming here since 1975. And I come here regularly, I’ve got great friends here, if I’m not working here I’ll come here on holiday so I feel a close connection here, I always enjoy the place.

Any words of wisdom for the new generation of musicians coming through? Just do what you do, do what you love – if you’re doing what you love it doesn’t matter whether people get it or not, you’re going to be OK. If you do it honestly and to the best of your ability then there’s a good chance that other people are going to catch on to it. There’s no point in trying to be formulated and calculated and pick a band or a direction that you think is going to be successful. To be successful you have to be honest to yourself. Then the success is relative – if you don’t sell records and you’re doing what you love, you’re still successful.

Anything you particularly want to do while you are in Christchurch or the South Island? I was in Christchurch not long before the shootings down there and I just want to get there and let people know that we’re there for them. Christchurch over the last few years has had such a horrible time but every time I go back there it’s such a beautiful place and it has this great strength and spirit in the people. So I just want to play great music. Maybe for the couple of hours that we’re on stage people can forget about the problems they’ve had.

What’s something about you your fans probably won’t know? I’m a great cook, I can paint, I write, I’m reasonably quiet. [fave dish to cook?] I cook a lot of Thai food, Japanese food, Italian food – I’m a pretty good cook, I’ve got a fantastic kitchen. And my family all love to eat and we all love to prepare food, it’s part of the family’s ritual with us being on the road so much, getting home and cooking is really important to us all. I’m pretty bloody handy around the kitchen.

Musician, author – what’s left that you really want to do? Open a restaurant? No, I’m doing what I do best, which is singing and communicating with people. It’s not just about singing, there’s something about connecting with people that I love and sharing – we share this life, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a builder or a singer it’s the shared human experience and the common experience that we have and if I can help people look at that and learn from that and bring people a bit of joy then I’m happy to do it, I don’t need to change what I do. I’m not getting bored with it.

Jimmy Barnes: Shutting Down Your Town tour
September 25 – Dunedin Town Hall, Dunedin
September 26 – Christchurch Town Hall, Christchurch
September 28 – Spark Arena, Auckland