In The Firing Line: Simon Berkfinger
As part of a new series, DAVID SWAN grills former Philadelphia Grand Jury frontman turned solo artist Simon Berkfinger about bullying, bogans and breaking up other bands.
It’s nearly midnight when FL contacts Simon Berckelman aka Berkfinger in his Berlin studio. “I’ve got my undies on, it’s 11.41pm and I’ve just rolled out of bed into four interviews in a row.” Ever outspoken, the ex-Philadelphia Grand Jury singer and former Sydney-sider certainly didn’t hold anything back in his lengthy chat with FL, especially when it came to Thirsty Merc, high school bullies, Little Red, former bandmates and living the cliche in Berlin. He even called us back after the interview to fire off a few barbs at Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who he calls a “disgrace”.
Berkfinger will return to Australia this month for shows under his new solo guise Feelings (dates below). New single ‘One In A Million’ is out now through iTunes.
That’s easy. When I was a teenager I got obsessed with this guy called “Snakefinger” from San Francisco, who the Red Hot Chili Peppers are actually a really big fan of, and I was listening only to Snakefinger and I was really obsessed with the idea of recording like him. I later found out he was an amphetamine junkie and he used to just make a record in three or four days straight, and not sleep, just record. And that’s kind of the approach that I wanted to take, cause I had a little studio when I was a teenager, and the Berk bit is from my surname, Berckelman.
And you’ve gone with another moniker [Feelings] this time around? Why the mask again?
Because I’m insecure, I guess. I prefer a professional pseudonym.
Have you got something you’re hiding?
Yeah, I guess it’s just a fear of being boring. Of being a regular person that is neither rich nor poor, and grew up in a pretty normal situation, but I had some maybe not normal creative ideas, and so you end up going, “I’d better change my name and sound more interesting.”
Are you embarrassed about your own name?
I was teased a lot in high school only based on my name. They didn’t have anything else on me except the name Berckelman. The other thing that happened was that my name was changed when I started high school, in Year 7. I had my mother’s maiden name and then I ended up switching to my step-dad’s name, Berckelman. I’d been enrolled in the entire school, on all of the rolls, under my old name, Simon Jennings. And in every class, at that scary time when you’re starting high school, every class I’d have to say, “Ah, excuse me. Sorry, no. My name’s been changed to Berckelman.” They made songs, like [to the tune of ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’], “My name’s been changed to Berckelman, Berckelman, Berckelman”, and someone did a personalised rendition of Pearl Jam’s ‘Daughter’. It went, “Don’t call me Jennings/My name’s been changed/My name’s been changed to Berckelman.” It was actually pretty good.
That’s not bad, you know.
I guess I’m scared of my name, and it’s hard to spell, and I just wanted to be cool and interesting, you know. And now I’m stuck with it.
Your new single is sung completely in falsetto. Are you trying to separate this project from the Philly Jays as much as possible?
When I came up with that one I was listening to lots of Tiny Tim, and it was just that one song—fuck, what’s it called?—I’ll tell you in a minute when I remember. Anyway, he had like a one hit wonder song [‘Tip-Toe Through The Tulips’] and he’s playing the ukulele, and he sings really high. I was going for something like that. It wasn’t really a conscious, “Oh I want to get away from the way I used to sing”, and there’s definitely my normal singing voice on this record.
Do you feel like Feelings can be successful?
It has to be successful, because I’ve poured all of money in the world into it, so that has to make it successful somehow. That said, I’ve always looked at the “worst case scenario” with everything I’ve done creatively. As long as I’ve got a roof over my head and some food to eat and people don’t hate me, then that’s success. I also think I’ll try a lot of things, and we’ll see what works out. Some things will fail majorly, and some things will go really well I hope.
Are you a success at the moment?
I guess it’s all relative, isn’t it? Whenever you think you’re the shit, you always realise there’s someone out there who’s better than you, and has more in their life that makes them happy. I think I’m a success in that I’m here, I’ve never had to compromise anything I’ve been doing.
You’ve been living in Berlin. That’s a pretty cliched place for an Australian artist to go.
Totally. And it’s a really scary thing for us here, there’s a cafe now down the road from us called “Melbourne Cafe”. And it’s traditional type stuff you’d get in a cafe in Melbourne, which is actually really rare in Berlin, and so lots of Australians go there. But it was funny. The first time I went there, I’d said in German, “I’d like a hot chocolate”, and the girl looked at me and was like, “What?”, and she didn’t know German for hot chocolate. The menu was in English, and they had VBs there. Then you sit and there’s all these Aussies sitting there chatting. Even in venues and stuff now you start to think, “Oh, am I a cliche? Am I just doing what everyone else does?” But I wouldn’t be a cliche if I lived in Sydney, would I? And there are lots of Australians in Sydney, so … We also had a party an our house and lots of friends of friends of friends came, and we ended up with quite a few of the people from Australia that I wanted to get away from, you know; the people that frustrated me. They’re now in Berlin and not really making an effort to become a part of this neighbourhood or culture or city. They’re just trying to continue their party from Bondi onto Berlin, and I’m so against that shit.
Are they bogans? How would you describe them?
No. Wealthy kids, wealthy people who think they know lots about the world when they really don’t know much. A lot of people on holidays, or people who work maybe in a creative field who can then take three months off and live cheaply in Germany. But they kind of aren’t part of it, they’re just in and out. Also, there are people who are just lost, like I was when I came here. It’s a bit like, “I need to change and think about what I’m doing, and learn some stuff.” It is a cliched thing, and that’s why I haven’t said, “I’m based in Berlin”, I’ve just said “Germany” for that reason. I know a lot of people who are like, “Let’s do a film clip, it’ll be in Berlin, and then we’ll write a song and it’ll be about Berlin, and then we’ll do interviews and we’ll talk about Berlin.”
Do you hate Australia?
No, I just got in a bit of a crossroads where I couldn’t creatively do what I wanted to do in Sydney, because Sydney shut down. It’s become really expensive and it’s just waiting for a new wave of people with the right energy to make things happen again, the way it did at the end of the ‘90s, into early Noughties. So I just thought I’d take time to start some other shit.
Why could the Philly Jays never hold down a drummer?
Yeah, I think with drummers you have to stick with the same drummer you met in grade three, or you’re never gonna have a drummer. That was Dan, who’s now playing in my new band, and that was bad luck. I was an idiot. I’d produced his band at the time, Art vs Science, they’d been together for about a week, and I came down to the studio and produced their song, and then it went straight to Triple J, and within a few months they were playing Splendour in the Grass. And within about six months they were way bigger than our band. And so I really screwed myself. I’d talked myself out of a drummer there, and that was very hard for Dan because he really liked both bands and wanted to play in both bands, but Art vs Science, they were his school buddies, they were all mates already. So we lost Dan, and we were screwed.
Why did the band split?
It’s very simple. Joel [Beeson], the other member of the band, was sick of being on the road, and in that situation, playing those songs. I think he wanted to take a big break, and what I wanted to do, I’d felt like we’d been on a break for years, because we hadn’t made any records for quite a while. So I really wanted to get back into the studio and make more stuff and get right into it. And we were just in very different places as people with our home lives. So he tried to cool it, and I went along with it because I was getting frustrated, because I had all these ideas in my head that I wanted to get out there, and I felt quite tied to another person, in terms of my fate, you know? I couldn’t do something unless the other person wanted to do it, and I think he felt quite tired of the smelly socks and being drunk.
Will there be a reunion tour in a year?
I don’t think so. I doubt it. We’ve never discussed it, it’s definitely not on the agenda. I’ve thought about it sometimes, because we got the band to a point where we could get a pretty good live performance fee, and I could definitely use that money to buy some furnitures here in Germany. But I don’t think so. I think it’s lame and cheesy. Unless we had something new to say musically, if we improved our band and improved our songs, and stretched ourselves creatively, and wanted to show that off live, then yes. But I definitely wouldn’t get back to play those songs, because let’s face it. It’s not like anyone’s dying to hear us play our incredible, seminal, life-changing songs again. I think the songs were cool, interesting for the time, and I personally wanna do something way better.
Do you and Joel still talk?
From time to time. There’s stuff we have to do business-wise, like at the moment we’ve got to dissolve our partnership. But he’s working full time in a job now, for the Red Cross, helping refugees, and it’s really intense and I think he really enjoys it and it means a lot to him. He doesn’t have much time for the “old band stuff”, which is driving me nuts at the moment. But, yeah, we only really talk very occasionally, about things that need to get done, and just niceties at the moment. We’re definitely not in each others way any more.
I read The Vine interview. It sounded like Joel’s wife was a bit of a Yoko.
I just finished reading a book about John Lennon and Yoko … It’s very mean to John and Yoko, and I’ve realised that Joel’s wife is in no way like Yoko. She was totally cool. But being married, and being in a fledgling indie band that’s just breaking even, that can be like Yoko. It’s just very hard, and I’m actually engaged now, and I’ve been thinking about it. I’m a producer, I’m a musician, and I’ve had to think about this tour that I’m doing and what it’s costing, and what position that puts us in as a couple, and it’s very complicated and very difficult. I was free as a bird when I was in Philly Jays. Happy to go anywhere and open to any experience. Joel, at the same time, I feel bad for him, because he was thinking for two people always. I wouldn’t blame Joel’s wife at all, but I would blame the situation that included a married couple, and a single guy.
Did it ever piss you off that bogans co-opted ‘Going To The Casino’?
Yeah, I mean they were always going to. The casino is a bogan place. It’s horrible. The song is about how horrible it is and what kind of people go there, so it’s interesting when someone’s singing along to it like, “Fuck yeah, I’m going to the casino!” The casino is a depraved place. And if you’re there, it’s either because you’re trying to do it in some ironic way, which I was the two times I’ve been there in my life, or because you’re really sad and you’ve got problems, and that’s really not funny. It didn’t piss me off. I found it kind of amusing.
In The Vine interview you said the Australian music scene was a “bit of a mafia”. How so, and were you complicit in that scene?
Definitely complicit. Definitely. And it still is, and I still am complicit. I haven’t copped any flak about it, but a lot of people have commented on the fact I said that. All I meant to say was that how it’s often unfair, and the sad thing is, if it comes down to the crunch, and I want to make my cool songs accessible to people, then I have to play the game a little bit. It’s sad and frustrating. To get on the radio, you often have to pay a publicist. And what does a publicist do? I mean they organised this interview, which is a good thing for me, and I think my publicist is awesome and really cool and a really straight shooter, but I just wish the whole music business was completely open to everybody, and I know it’s a Utopian idea, but I just wish it was about what you could do and what you have, not all the other bullshit.
Do you see that future becoming a reality now, with labels going under and everything?
Well, the thing that all the labels have done now – even EMI just announced it I’m pretty sure – is open up label services to people. And what that is, is EMI saying, “OK, so we’re EMI. We’ve got clout, but we don’t have any money at the moment, we can’t spend money on people, but we want to make money. What’s a way we can make money? We can sell our services.” And that actually levels the playing field, because that’s the way it was: To get your music out, if you needed someone to act in this way or that way, and there was a simple fee for that and than, and you were prepared to front that fee and have faith in your music, I think that whole model would work a lot better. So I think labels, doing that, could stick around quite a while. But, yeah, it’s all a mafia. There’s always someone who can figure out how to make money from the music business. It just changes shape all the time.
“It’s not like anyone’s dying to hear us play our incredible, seminal, life-changing songs again.”
I quite like that ‘Rock It’ song, and I went and hung out with them once in London, and they were very nice and cool. And I actually really like Taka [Honda] the drummer. It was just a bad experience for us when we were just starting out, to be treated like fuckwits by these guys who thought they were hot shit, because at the time they really weren’t. So that’s why I called them jerks, but I’m sad when any band breaks up. I was sad Paper Scissors broke up the other day, and I know those guys really well. Ivan [Lisyak] from that band drummed for us many a time. It makes me sad because of what it symbolises for me when a band breaks up these days. It could well be the end of at least some of those members ever making music again. That might be it for them.
If you could break up one other band who would it be?
There’s so many bands that I’d break up … fuck. Thirsty Merc? Can I say that?
Look, I agree, so it’s fine.
Now someone’s gonna say, “You dissed Thirsty Merc in an interview!” Hmm… am I only allowed one?
We can do a top three or a top five.
Look, I can’t. I know this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and hardhitting, but people are going to be upset with me. OK, Thirsty Merc, I hate their music, but I’m sure they’re really nice guys. I see Rai [Thistlethwayte] walking down the street sometimes. He seems really nice. That’s the problem. You can’t be critical, you can’t be objective, because you know everybody.
After the official interview ends, I get a text message from Berkfinger: “David, it’s Simon. I’d break up Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl is a disgrace!”
You’re going to have to explain yourself.
I really realised that’s exactly who I’d break up, because it’s just gone on too long. I think that the first Foo Fighters album, I wouldn’t listen to it now, but I enjoyed that when I was quite young, and I felt like he put out something a bit heartfelt, and he was in a bad place, and he did something pretty and cool and unique. And the whole thing grew into this most disgusting band of all time. He always tries to get cred by being involved with people like Motörhead or whatever. And feeling cool and working on cool projects.
But it is cool, isn’t it?
He likes chewing gum, and talking about stuff like he knows what he’s talking about, and I don’t think he does. He gets cred from being in Scream. Scream were terrible. They’re not The Cramps, you know?
But what would you do if you were in his position?
Imagine you’re a millionaire, and you can do anything you want in the world. Why would you do horrible naff shit? Why wouldn’t you do something interesting and cool, especially if you’re really talented? He lacks taste.
You’ve redeemed yourself, Thirsty Merc won’t hate you as much now.
I just feel like if I was Dave Grohl, I would give all the money to people who were better, so they could make interesting records.
Feelings east-coast tour
Wednesday, September 19 – Beach Road Hotel, Bondi
Thursday, September 20 – Lamda Lamda Lamda @ Alhambra Lounge, Brisbane
Friday, September 21 – Goodgod, Sydney
Saturday, September 22 – The Workers Club, Melbourne