SydneyMusic needs your help!
Help keep us running for as low as $5 per month.
Support us today! »

"We drove up the street handing it to people out the window": The Cannanes on how their joke band took them everywhere

$The Cannanes Promo Photo
Image: The Cannanes Promo Photo L-R: Stephen O'Neil, Nick Ketley, Penny McBride, James Dutton, Frances Gibson, Bon King

The Cannanes are a band that were initially formed in Chippendale, Sydney in 1984. Over the years they've grown a devoted fanbase — including a significant following overseas — and have released 9 LPs and a dizzying number of cassettes, 7"s and EPs. They've had a fiercely DIY ethos, self-recording and releasing most of their music, but have also had labels of the likes of Chapter Music (Melbourne), 555 Recordings (Arizona), and Ajax Records (Chicago) championing their work.

I was excited to chat to core members Fran Gibson and Stephen O'Neil about the history of The Cannanes, as well as their reflections on being an indie band that has eschewed most of the music industry's ways of working while watching Sydney and Australia change over the decades, as well as how it compares to their experiences overseas.

The Cannanes are playing the Chapter Music 30th Birthday Celebration with Thibault at The Vic on the Park this Saturday the 30th of July.

To get going I'd love to chat about your last gig at the Golden Barley. Which if I understand correctly, was the first show in a fair while — like five or six years or something?

Fran Gibson: In Sydney, yeah. Two or three years since we'd played. We'd played in the US, done some other shows here and there. But Sydney, it had been a while.

SO: After we moved to Victoria, we did more gigs at places like the Warren View Hotel [in Enmore] and the like. But I think it was harder and harder to get up and it just got longer and longer between shows.

FG: Yeah, but even in Sydney... I think we played probably more overseas because we weren't a band that appealed to the masses in Sydney. Certainly at all at the beginning! But the Warren View shows would go well, and people would turn up.

SO: The first 10 years or so we did sort of treat it as a joke. Wouldn't advertise shows very much.

The first 10 years of the band?

SO: Anything that happened really, occasionally someone would come along... In 1991 I think, when we toured the States, there was a guy over there — John Henderson — who was running a label and put a record out and organised shows for us. We were never going to do that ourselves. It was hard. We have organised overseas shows, and even a couple of tours, but it's a lot of work. Mainly by mail and standing in a phone box making international calls just to make sure everything was go before you booked tickets and everything. It was hard, slow, lot of work.

FG: So my take on the Golden Barley is there was a lot of people who have maybe seen us once or twice in the past and who were rather surprised that we were quite good! That'd be my take on it. Most of those people that were there, they knew who we were, sort of, but hadn't thought about us for a long time, I guess. It was nerve-wracking, but it was fun!

You mentioned that for the first 10 years, in your words, Stephen, you weren't necessarily taking it seriously. What what was happening at that time? Like, what were you guys up to in the 80s and early 90s?

FG: The whole idea of the band was a sort of joke that [co-founder] Annabelle [Bleach] created, with [co-founder and namesake] Michelle Cannane, and they just had had posters for the band before they could play instruments or do anything...

SO: Inspired by Cream I think — the band Cream. And so they'd make these posters saying "The Cannanes at..." What was it?

FG: The Budokan! and whatever, you know — all these famous big venues. We lived across the road from them [David Nichols and Annabelle Bleach] on Abercrombie St in Chippendale, and the connection was that David used to run a couple of band things.

FG: So we're there, it's sort of a joke, and then it sort of became a reality... and then we put out [the Bored, Angry & Jealous EP], and NME — which was like the Bible in those days — called it “Single of the Year”. David had sent a copy to this guy called The Legend [Everett True, one of the earliest journalists documenting the Seattle grunge scene]... so he had the one copy in the whole of the UK and he made it Single Of The Year! It was almost like... you know, NME like to be so precious. No one else can get this record or buy it anywhere or anything!

So that sort of made us go "Oh shit? I guess it's... sort of real?" and then we had funny letters from EMI saying "We're interested" and we were like "They're not gonna get it for free!" So then we wrote to them and said "You can have a copy if you send us $3.25"... and then they never sent us the $3.25! Then I think we caved in and sent them anyway.

Were you gigging a lot in Sydney at that time? Or was it mostly just recording stuff as songs came up?

SO: I wouldn't say "a lot", because we weren't promoting things and stuff — we'd play and there'd be no-one there. We'd play the Jellyheads Warehouse or some obscure location, right? Sometimes there'd be people there...

FG: We were very anti — we probably still are a bit — the industry, just like the whole problem of — the industry was creepy and...

SO: So we put the record and cassettes and things out ourselves, including the first album – even the second album we put out ourselves at that time – but that's when the interest came from the US and it was released over there. But we did it all ourselves up to that point.

FG: But it was not done to try and be popular or something — we were doing it for the pure reason of fun, not trying to bullshit anyone, and never trying to make a career out of it.

SO: No delusions of grandeur!

I was really interested in the history of your releases, and it seems like a lot of the stuff that's been put out as being people being enthused about your stuff like Ajax Records and 555 and Chapter and all the rest. They got behind your work, and then sought to amplify it, as opposed to your band getting the three-album deal or the five-album deal. Was there a defined ethos, do you think, in terms of not playing The Game? You already talked about EMI reaching out and you not taking it seriously, but were there conversations about what you did and didn't want to be as a band? Or was it more just playing by ear?

SO: I think we really did all treat it as a joke!

FG: Well... a joke, but not ... y'know ...

SO: When we got the first pressing and that record, we drove up the street handing it to people out the window...

FG: It was just because we were so excited, though ...

SO: Yeah, wasn't really promotional effort. I don't think they even had labels stuck on them yet.

FG: But all that SXSW stuff, and all that crap. We just always kind of thought that was all creepy. But you know, I understand...

SO: I guess none of us relied on it for income ...

FG: Yeah. We didn't expect [to be paid].

SO: ... I can kind of understand that if you did have to rely on it for income you might have to ...

FG: And also, you know... Australia. In those days anyway, and probably now... it's a small place.

SO: And we just did it all ourselves. Silk-screened the posters, go and put 'em up at night.

FG: People say with the Cannanes there's like, one person that likes the Cannanes in every city in the world. Sometimes, I think that's kind of true. The other day we had an order from Puerto Rico to get a T-shirt, like he must be the only person in Puerto Rico that wants a Cannanes T-shirt, but that's the level we were always at. We were really lucky to have that in a pre-Internet world. People would write us letters and then ...

SO: They sort of found us. And then some people wanted to put our stuff out, and get us to Japan and Mexico... yeah, it was really lucky.

I mean, what a privilege to kind of just have your legacy dotted all over the planet!

FG: It's pretty weird people like it sometimes, but to be honest when I go back to that stuff... it's always got something about it... that stereotype of Australians being able to laugh at themselves. Hopefully, people liked that. Pretentiousness was the big evil. You know, like Nick Cave... [Fran grins slyly.]

SO: We did always laugh a bit at that. But at the same time, I liked him! You know... the Birthday Party stuff...

FG: Even... performing, you know? Actually it's quite fun to see a band "perform"... but for us really performing was kind of the bogeyman, you know? Carrying on and such. But, you know, obviously, people love that. And it is funny to watch.

I remember Fran, at the Barley show, you were reflecting on the election that had just been and how it had some sense of relief to it or something along those lines. And it didn't feel like using the stage as a grandstanding platform or anything like that. We were all just in the room sharing a moment. And I think live music can be a really beautiful amplifier of that.

FG: You kind of assume that you're on the same wavelength as the audience, I guess. None of that's really planned. Lots of bands are like that really.

There's a feeling that I have — in Australian music especially — that these days there's a real struggle to kind of get above that ledge of "livability" as a musician in today's modern generation, and you've got more and more people that are sort of playing The Game as it were: courting A&R, and, you know...

FG: I guess in our day people knew that they'd never make it. Like, I mean, even The Triffids and The Go-Betweens... they were trying, but nobody expected them to make anything out of it. I mean, not really, did they? I mean, even though The Triffids were on the cover of NME they never "made it" really...

Do you think that creates a sort of humility, of sorts?

FG: Maybe not with the Go-Betweens! I mean, he [Robert Forster] seems more humble now, the age is working in his favour. Don't quote me on that. No do, I don't care, it's just the truth!

SO: Great music.

FG: I guess what it does is it — I don't want to sound pretentious — but your music should sound like you're concentrating more on what you're doing rather than... like, you don't have to double guess what people will like or whatever. The saddest thing is when you have a band, and then the record company likes one person and takes them out of it. But for us none of that was ever gonna happen, so all of that was fine. It wasn't like we had all these offers, and we were saying no to them. We didn't have any offers, but we also didn't care. We had lovely jobs and houses.

So having looked at the decades and reflecting on the conditions that allow you to have time to enjoy creating music and other things you love, do you feel like the climate's shifted? Sydney talks a lot about cost of living concerns. Time for imagination and creativity. Do you feel like there's a change in terms of what people are afforded there?

FG: In Sydney, housing costs have an impact. I don't know. People I know who are musicians now... some are even going to law school, young people... I guess... it's harder to live in the inner city, I suppose.

SO: I did it on the dole for three or four years, before The Cannanes. Played in a few different bands at the same time, sort of thing. Cheap night out! There wasn't much money in it.

FG: With The Cannanes, basically, we all had jobs. We'd save the money we needed and pay for a trip to America where we could all play... I suppose it must be harder now. But then, so many other things are so much easier in terms of recording. Like, we had to go to a studio and pay, I don't know, $50 an hour so you had to be really quick, and then you had to pay to put it out... and then, you know, records are painful things to cart around! I don't know how many bands record companies sign these days compared to then, whether that's any different.

Yeah, the nature of the deals change and the structure of what they'll invest in bands and those sorts of things. But you know, certainly at the level that you guys were operating you were doing it off your own back anyway.

SO: We never signed anything! [laughs]

No contracts, you mean?

FG: No.

SO: There are a couple of things that were used in films that we had to have someone look over the details and help us make the agreement, but apart from that no.

FG: We were always working with people who we trusted... people who might be slightly mad in some cases. But also, there was no money at stake. It's like, if there's no money at stake, then there's no problems.

I think the main problem I reckon now with younger bands is ... there is so much stuff. Because anyone can record it, do it in your bathroom tonight and make an album and put it up. How do you sift through 7 billion songs?

Because it was so much harder [to record and release] before, there was less stuff. And you'd hear about it, because you'd know who all the Sydney bands were. And now there must be millions. Don't you reckon?

SO: Oh, I guess. I don't know. When I was young I'd go out seeing 30 bands a week... and if I didn't like 'em I'd stay for two or three songs and go to the next pub until I found the ones I liked. And then I'd go to see them again and again and again.

FG: But then a lot of the bands that play places you've got to pay ten or fifteen bucks to get in and... there were many more free places to see things. You know, more pubs that had things on.

Yeah, it's really interesting looking at the changing trend of, you know... you've got bands that are just starting out, asking for twenty bucks on the door.

FG: I mean, I'm surprised that their friends pay it! They must have money? I don't get it, actually? Even the little venues. You pay a cover charge and then pay ten or fifteen dollars for a drink.

SO: We used to go into Melbourne like 20 years ago, people would complain bitterly to have to pay $5 to get in for a big bill, you know, four or five bands.

FG: There's no reason why you shouldn't pay money to get in, of course. It's just... the things you used to pay for were the interstate or overseas gigs. Locally you didn't used to pay to see bands so much. The Sando was free. The Hopetoun was always free. The Alexandria was pretty much always free. The Annandale, maybe sometimes would charge... you know, all those places had bands all the time and they were always free.

The economics have changed. Even to put out a record — to recoup your costs — you know, it was relatively balanced in how you might get that money back. Whereas now increasingly it feels like young bands are being encouraged to use their record as a promotional vehicle for the brand, as it were, and it get it on some playlists. Maybe someone will come and see your show or buy a T-shirt.

I wanted to go back to what you guys were saying about Europe and the US, your experience with them embracing The Cannanes. Do you think that's just a byproduct of there being more cross-sections of musical interests and the like in those areas?

SO: I can remember in relation to letters when we first we did our first tour there, I think a lot of people thought we were from New Zealand. There was this like small percentage of indie music lovers over there back then who really adored The Clean and The Chills, all those sorts of bands, who I love too!

FG: Of course, with all due respect they didn't have any clue that it was a different country... there was a bit of a lack of knowledge of geography. They didn't know that it was a tiny separate country.

SO: It was good for us in a way! We possibly wouldn't have had that interest otherwise.

FG: I think I saw a tweet or something last week saying something like "I wish I'd been around then. I would have seen all those New Zealand bands like The Clean, The blah blah and The Cannanes" and I was like oh! Still! It still lingers on. It doesn't matter, they're wonderful bands.

But I think you're right. I think basically it was there were 220 million people there so one in every 100,000 people was likely to be able to cope with The Cannanes when there's a lot more people. Plus there was a huge difference going there to play to playing here, like, here was all about pubs making money: how much beer did you sell, how many people did you get to your gigs. Whereas there, y'know, there were venues that people cared about their music.

SO: And there were good PAs. Good rooms. Good atmosphere. Good beer. Good house engineer. It was a treat! Similar size, smaller bars. But still...

FG: They would give you meals and accommodation. We were like, "Whoa!" They would talk about you being artists and we were like, laughing at that. We didn't see ourselves as "artists". We would never have talked like that. If you went ponce-ing around Sydney like that talking about yourself as an artist... you wouldn't have done that, you just wouldn't think that way. No bar owner would ever have called you an artist. It was all about getting people in, really. So it was quite a different attitude there. I think we're seeing changes these days. There are more people that care about the music.

It's interesting what you say about the different views of where the economics fit into the bigger picture, like just there being less of an emphasis over there. Why is that? Or is it just something that happens and there isn't necessarily any one cause?

FG: Maybe because there's so many people. Because they could have us, and have The Mountain Goats — who weren't that popular at that time — and not get that many people, but the next night they might have three other big bands... but I guess they had a lot of bands just touring America all the time, so many famous bands. So you could always make money in those places.

Most of those smaller venues are run by someone who knows the bands they want to play there, they knew what was going on. I'm not idealising it and saying America's amazing or anything. Of course they still have to make money and all that.

But you had a positive experience due to the environment...

FG: They were always nice to us. We've had some horrible times in Melbourne and stuff, but ... just really excellent people.

SO: It's just exciting to travel. Meeting people, interesting countryside. So much to see and do... not that you do all that much when you're on tour!

FG: It's a big country, but so many places to play. Here, you've got Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra.

And that kind of goes back to a conversation we were having before I started recording this conversation, about touring musicians in Australia favouring planes instead of cars because of the great distances. In the US you can go for three or five hours and have new places to play. But using planes just increases the unlikelihood of there being substantial creative communities in locations between the capital cities...

So I guess today in Melbourne or Sydney what would be the Cannanes' dream space to play a show? What sort of space would you want to play in Australia ideally?

SO: We've lost touch a bit with Sydney. Like I think the last time I played in Sydney before our most recent show was at Goodgod Small Club. It was pretty crazy. The disco came on after, but I still liked the room you know? It was a good room, I like a room like that. There's still a lot of nice rooms in Melbourne, but then a lot of them have gone too.

FG: Stephen loves The Tote. For me, I just don't want everyone sitting down being quiet. Some bands like that...

SO: I think we've sort of gone off doing those record store appearances too, where you're standing right in front of people, it's a bit hard. But I don't know! A comfortable room, good sound, a good engineer that's not drunk. We've had a few of those!

FG: We don't ask for much! Indoors is better than outdoors... I think you just don't want it too big. Reasonably priced drinks.

SO: You don't want it too empty, or too big. Don't want a big stage. It's good to be able to interact with the audience.

Obviously the options here venue-wise are less plentiful...

FG: You know, my ideal place to play was Tokyo in Japan. All the stuff's there! Like, all the equipment's there and it's really high quality and looked after really well. Some of them even have guitars hanging on the wall!

SO: Classic amps. Beautiful drums. Everything in tune.

FG: Just everything was there, beautifully kept. Australia's a different case because everyone would fuck it up. In Japan, people didn't do that. And they looked after everything. And so every place you went to this amazing equipment. We didn't have to carry a guitar or something. They always would have a wonderful keyboard, they've always got everything. The bands would start at 7 or 8pm, finish at 10. And all the bands go out to dinner at some amazing restaurant/karaoke bar. That was really nice. We felt lucky to have been asked there.

Sounds like it's a blessing when it's not just a transactional relationship that you have with people that bring you into their country or their town or whatever.

FG: Yeah, it was so generous. We had the the same in Mexico. We had the same in Germany.

SO: And England. England can be tough, but we've been lucky over there.

FO: It's amazing when people... you know, that kind of approach with backline and all that has never really been tried in Australia, has it?

It helps everyone. But yeah, it requires a collective sense of community responsibility towards the instruments, backline, all of that stuff. Just a different attitude.

FG: Here you have three bands, everyone's gotta figure out who's bringing a drum kit and everyone's gotta bring a bass amp, everyone's gotta... it's just crazy isn't it? It's a lot of stuff to be carrying around. For a venue that has a band on every night and they basically usually have people using a guitar amp and a bass amp and a set of drums ... really, it's insane.

So what's next?

SO: Well, after the COVID stuff and everything it's good to be starting to play again. In fact, we were getting ready at the start of 2020... we were rehearsing. We were meant to go and do a short tour in England, and play the Manchester Pop Festival. We've been asked for about 10 years to play. We were finally booked in. We had a few other shows sort of falling into place, and then we couldn't go. We still haven't been to Manchester — been all over England, but never there. Hopefully we'll get a chance to do it again! It's good to get overseas and see new places.

This interview has been edited and condensed, believe it or not.

Joe Hardy
26 Jul 2022