Before grunge even had a name, five guys from Woollongong calling themselves Tumbleweed were about to become Australia’s most obvious link to the global fad Cobain’s boys spearheaded. In 1990 Nevermind was still a whole year away, but Tumbleweed, a throw-back in many ways, would dominate everything for the next four or so years.
Early success in the form of Sundial (Mary Jane) and Daddy Long-Legs reinforced Australia’s love of this new under-produced, underdog rock known as grunge. However by their own admission, Tumbleweed couldn’t beat that first buzz, and as the decade wore on, along with their friendships, the end was in clear sight. Ten years on though, and with a zen-like new approach to life/music/art, singer Richie Lewis has reunited with his old band mates for a second go at the elusive joy of a musicians lifestyle.
Lewis’s slightly grumbling voice rattles down the phone, mock-begrudgingly, “I draw the short straw usually and get relegated to doing the interviews for the band, mostly because when I start talking it’s hard to shut me up, so they make me do ‘em. Anyway it’s better than hauling gear I suppose,” he laughs.
The band’s reunion is rumoured to have been slowed by Lewis’s objection, so he reveals a few truths for the record. “What happened was I was the most reluctant, but then I didn’t really know the others were so keen to do it. I was saying no for a long time, but I was also one of the first in actually doing anything about it. I held out for a while, then my arm was twisted just far enough and I decided to get it together for the 15 year anniversary.”
A chance meeting with an old band mate began the process, he explains; “It started with me running into Paul [Hausmeister] for the first time in years and having a conversation with him. I’m a big believer in that if a few events happen simultaneously in your life, then you really should listen to what they’re telling you.”
Lewis continues, “I remember I went out to a restaurant one night and there was only one seat left and it was right next to Paul, and we just looked at each all night and finally when he got up to go to the toilet I started talking to his girlfriend and I said to her ‘you know how it mentioned in the paper that I’m the one that’s stopping the reunion, well that’s not exactly true.’ She then said when Paul gets back I should tell him so, we ended up back at his place drinking wine and talking about it, and finally we just agreed to plug in and see how we sound and if it’s any good…”
Lewis pauses, “We organised a practice and bang it just sounded right,” he states, “I mean we could have had that conversation a couple of years before but it was just the timing was right. There was enough water under the bridge, it was time to let go and sort of bury the hatchet.”
As the light went back on in Lewis’ mind regarding his band’s future, he also faced up to his part in its demise. “Form me it was a realisation of the fact that it’s okay to be wrong sometimes and just admit it and what I had with those people was great, and it wasn’t really worth holding onto this pride any longer. I mean playing and being friends with these guys again has been just awesome man, it’s been an incredible journey.”
During 1996, at the band’s peak, they split into two parties – Lewis and the Curley brothers, feeling they had a greater say in matters due to them starting the band, clashed with Paul Hausmeister and Steve O’Brien over growing trivialities, before finally asking them to leave. Tumbleweed continued on, but with declining success.
“When this original line-up broke up it was acrimonious and we held onto our grudges for a long time,” Lewis recalls, “We didn’t do the right thing and it was a decision we had to live with for ten years. We were all, in the later years of Tumbleweed always trying to make up for this loss of energy that had come naturally to us before, and although we had great people and some new musicians in the band, it was a struggle to reach that peak again. When we got back together last year, first of all I had to realise to myself, I was in the wrong. I had done the wrong thing by Steve [O’Brien] and Paul and therefore by the band, and so once we able to confront that we were right back at the start and we could allow ourselves to enjoy making music together again.”
Speaking on the reunion, which is already heading towards its first 12 months, Lewis’s love of his band’s music has only strengthened now that his friendships within the band have rekindled. “It’s a great thing you know, when you hear that sound again, our sound, all this stuff we had kept bottled up for ten years is just gone,” he shrugs, “It’s also more fun now, in that we’re older and wiser and we can enjoy the music more without all the other crap you go through when you’re in your 20s. This used to be my reality, but now it’s more my escape from reality which is why I think I appreciate it more.”
Tumbleweed’s first official reunion show was at the 2009 Homebake festival, which was quickly followed by the decision to carry on, prompting the question of a new album.
“It’s all a bit of a mystery to me at the moment,” Lewis sighs, “I mean we have been writing and there are new songs but there’s still a lot of work to go yet. As for how that’s going to progress we haven’t really decided. We’re not going to release something just for the sake of releasing it, unless it ends up being better than we’ve done before we probably won’t go through with it.”
Tumbleweed’s final album was 2000’s Mumbo Jumbo, but as Lewis is quick to point out, is nowhere near an indication of where he wants to pick up from. “We’re totally going back to the early days and trying to write from the place we first started at.” Richie confirms, making reference to his state of mind as a young musician. “I don’t wanna say too much really, I mean…” He stops himself, “It’s early days I can’t really talk about it at all actually.”
Before I can move on, he jumps in again, determined to give an answer; “I want it to be really long and psychedelic and I want it to encapsulate what I thought early Tumbleweed EPs could have been but with a bit more musical knowledge. I also want it to be free, I want it to be dirty, I want it to be organic, loud, heavy… I want big endings and layered guitar and melody and moments of beauty but, I don’t think I’ll write anything that would be a potential hit.”
The band clocked up several decent sized hit songs, such as Sundial, Hang Around and Planet Of The Weeds, but the fall-out from success, Lewis explains, was the death of his art. “In the early days there was focus, and something that was really unique to us, and that’s what I want to get back to on any new music we make. Back then we thought, ‘oh well such-and-such a song sold quite a few, we better try and write more songs like that’ and what ends up happening is things become more contrived as you go on and you end up honing your art to suit what people want.”
“It’s like when you go and see year 12 artwork and there’s all this freedom and ideas but sometimes the craftsmanship hasn’t quite caught up with the idea, but the catch is as soon as the artist hones the craft, the idea automatically becomes contrived. I’m more about the rough and ready, the impetus, the moment of creation and that’s what all good art is to me. So that’s what we’ve got to get back to and if we can’t capture that spirit of uniqueness, then I don’t think there’s much point. I’d hate to put anything out anything that kills what we’ve done in the past, but right now it’s still at a pretty natural stage, we’re just writing new songs because it’s a fun way to start and end our practice sessions.”
The future plans for a new Tumbleweed release is uncertain, but in the meantime fans can look forward to a tidy repackaging of some old favourites; “What we’re gonna do is put out a reissue through Aztec records which is the early Waterfront years, so basically the two EPs Weedseed and Theatre Of Gnomes on one CD plus extra songs and the first album with a couple of B-sides from the singles and a few live tracks thrown in as well.”
” When we get a release date for that we’ll sort out a national tour to coincide with it,” Lewis adds tantalisingly. “We’re also trying to get a documentary together about the story of band because, let’s face it, it’s a good family story you know.” He jokes, “A story of brotherly love.”
Tumbleweed play at The Hi-Fi in Melbourne on Friday 25 June.