MILESAGO - Interviews

MIC CONWAY
Interviewed by John Broughton

JB: The musical inspirations for The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band go back decades and decades, growing up was it these sounds that were attracting you more so than rock and roll which I guess would have been there at that time for you growing up?

MC: Yeah I grew up loving the 20ís and 30ís and collecting old 78í records including believe it or not My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes but it wasnít really until I was sixteen or seventeen that I discovered blues and jug band music when I was given a tape of the stuff. With my brother Jim at school weíd already done a kind of a send-up of a play an avant-garde play which was a complete disaster because everyone took it seriously so we decided to do music instead and take the micky out of the rock'n'roll business. We thought it was funny, all these poncing-around rock stars, but we ended up being on the rock scene ourselves, so the joke was on us!

JB: How accessible were those old 78ís to you growing up were they hard to track down?

MC: Well my grandparents were in vaudeville and my parents had a love of this comic old music from that time, in particular Fats Waller -- the early recordings of Matchbox were really into Fats Waller in a lot of ways -- but also Jim and I used to go to fetes in the early days when we were six or seven years old until early adulthood we were going to school fetes and op shops and buying old 78ís that had funny titles on the label -- we didnít even know what was on then until we played them. It was easy to get that kind of stuff† in the late 60ís in the Melbourne there were a lot of shops that had lots of blues and popular music like that reissued on vinyl which made it a lot easier.

JB: Just prior to Captain Matchbox, what was your band involvement?

MC: Well Captain Matchbox was really the first one. At school we formed as the Jelly Bean Jug Band at Camberwell High School in the gymnasium just as a piss-take of the rock scene and thatís about it. That was basically the band except that we kind of changed personnel as some people were just mucking about with it. Nobody was really seriously into it -- even Jim and I werenít all that serious about it -- but it just kept on growing on us. We changed the name of the band when we went on New Faces where weíd already won one heat and we went on to the finals and decided to call ourselves something else, so we went for The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band instead of The Jelly Bean Jug Band because we thought with jug band people would think it was going to be hillbilly music with straws coming out of our mouths and floppy hats and we didnít want to give that impression because thatís not what we were about, so we changed the name to The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band.

JB: Many of the bios Iíve read of the band over the years cite The Bonzo Dog Band as a major influence, were they?

MC: Oh well, yeah we loved them but we didnít even know they existed until about 1975. I was in Perth and somebody played them to me, I thought they were fantastic and they going down the same path as us in lots of ways. Theyíd rehashed a whole lot of Twenties and Thirties dance band numbers and made them into their own as well as write their own material so they mixed it up just like we were doing and with a very satirical edge which was also what we were doing. It was an absolute revelation when we heard this band and Iíve loved them ever since, but actually they werenít an influence at all in the early days even though they couldíve been, because weíd actually never heard of them.

JB: So the comparisons sit OK with you then?

MC: Oh yeah, I love them Iím honored to be in the same area and in fact in my kids career later on Jollity Farm which is an old Leslie Sarony musical number anyway was one of Bonzoís tracks and was also a major number for me on one of my kids albums so I have a great affinity for the Bonzos, I love them.

JB: There were a lot of lineup changes in the band over the years -- was it difficult for you at times to find musicians that were sympathetic to the kind of music you wanted to make?

MC: Kind of. We did have changes all the time because we never made any money so people got kind of frustrated with it; they loved the band and the music though. The band was successful even though it wasnít financially successful, it got lots of coverage and people were into it for all kinds of oddball reasons. Acoustic musicians got into it too who were very good and they found themselves in the Matchbox band, but it was hard keeping members and Jim and I ended up being the only real core there. People would leave and then theyíd want to come back again so they would come back later on. It was kind of constantly coming and going. In the early days for the first two albums we were Arts students. We couldnít survive off the money we were making being art teachers or film students or whatever, so people were coming and going all the time. When they were playing -- for instance when Wangaratta Wahine got high rotation on 3XY which broke the record and made it a big hit all around >Australia -- I was actually listening to it while I was cleaning a factory in Hawthorn, trying to make a quid!! It was really bizarre.

JB: You were a very popular attraction on the Melbourne live music scene and it was a great time for live music in Melbourne. Any standout memories?

MC: There are so many things from those days that were so very exciting. The Melbourne Artists Workshop which was a collective of visual artists as well as musicians and circus performers, writers and things like that opposed the commercial rock scene in so far as artists taking responsibility for themselves which for me was a real highlight. We hoped it would make a change even though it had no funding whatsoever and it lasted for about two years, which isnít a long time, but with no funding put on these massive concerts, and then was copied after that with things like A-Reefer Cabarets who followed on doing the same kind of thing weíd been doing. So that was a highlight for me, doing that kind of stuff. I really enjoyed that and playing some of the big concerts that we did was fantastic.

JB: Was there ever much in the way of overseas interest in the band?

MC: Yes there was. Thereís a few things that happened, the band actually broke up in 75í when it had actually been booked to work the west coast of America and also the east coast both in nightclubs and with John Lee Hooker. We had nine weeks work booked and six of those were with John Lee Hooker and he had a stroke just a week before we left and without that work we couldnít do it once he had the stroke we couldnít tour there all those dates were cancelled and it wasnít economical so we just couldnít go. Basically the band just dissolved then and I went and joined The Pram Factory / APG Theatre, which became another highlight for me and that went on to become Circus Oz, and we had Soapbox Circus, and that was forming the first political theatre circus in Australia and probably the world. At that stage there wasnít a lot going on in that area and we probably forged a lot of new frontiers which was all very exciting, very exciting times wild as hell, we were smoking lots of pot and having great times living the high life but not making any money basically.

JB:†Did the commercial notoriety the band eventually received surprise you considering the non commercial nature of the music?

MC: I only had one ambition when I first started thinking seriously about the band and that was to record an album and I think we ended up doing about six or seven, although I canít remember exactly how many, plus compilations. The success we got in getting airplay on rock stations when we werenít even vaguely a rock band really surprised me -- I didnít think people would go with it. My Canary was just a shot out of the blue -- we didnít expect people to go with it but they did. And Wangaratta Wahine was a shock too, we didnít expect that -- in fact we released two other singles off the album and it wasnít a single at all, but it ended up getting played like a single. It was quite a surprise to us that people even liked this stuff. I loved it and had a great time playing it and we were surprised that other people did because we werenít part of any particular movement we were really working against the trend and taking the micky out of the fashion in the music industry.

JB: What about incorporating original material into the recordings there wasnít really an over abundance of that, did you not feel the need to do that?

MC: Thatís a hard one, because we do a lot more of that now but in those days we were very much locked into the 20ís and 30ís. I did write some songs like Wangaratta Wahine but the bulk of the material was oldie mouldy 20ís and 30ís novelty songs so no it wasnít a driving force, it became much stronger later on but I always thought it was a bit pretentious to assume my songs were better than or vaguely as good as these great old pop songs from the 20ís and 30ís. I just thought that was the golden age of music so we didnít have that push as we were expressing ourselves very much through these songs although we were saying lots and making up the shows actually took a particular bent of our own and we wrote our material in that way but in the early days it was very much a revival band in our own particular way of 20ís and 30ís material. There wasnít much pressure for us to write. I kind of regret that now that we didnít do more of that, but we were more than happy to revive these songs that we thought nobody had ever heard.

JB: Looking back now which of the albums do you feel shows more than others what the band was really about?

MC: I guess itís particular tracks rather than particular albums. I thought all our albums were very uneven in retrospect, I canít listen to them now. The only album Iíve ever been able to listen to is the National Junk Band which is what Iím doing now. I was never able to listen even at the time to Captain Matchbox records. I love Nagasaki, what we did with that. The second album Wangaratta Wahinewas indicative of some of the things we wanted to do although my brother threatened to leave the band when I wrote it.

JB: He hated it didnít he?

MC: Yeah he hated it but he learned to adjust to it and it fact featured his harmonica parts which were significant in making it a success so itís ironical in that regard that something like that was successful. Hernandoís Hideaway, I had a great love of Spike Jones and thatís also from my parents as well as my grandparents, so Hernandoís Hideaway was really a tribute to Spike Jones. From all that, the band that I always wanted and what I always wanted Captain Matchbox to be, I never got and I only really got in recent years with the National Junk Band when I got to go down that junk band path. I wanted to take the jug band idiom with the jugs and washboards and things, tea chest basses and kazoos and things and put them into a modern context thatís what I really wanted to do at the time but I got frustrated along the way. There was always a few closet rock gods in the band which wanted to go down the rock path. It never got into the direction that I wanted it to go. Now Iíve got a band thatís more than happy to go in that direction and people enjoy it but it hasnít got the notoriety that Matchbox got.

JB: When Matchbox eventually folded did you have an idea already of the next career direction you wanted to take or was there a settling period there you had to go through?

MC: That was 79í after a truck accident where one guy was killed and two others were injured, it was a pretty horrific time and it just took the whole micky out of it. We werenít slick business people, we werenít insured, and we spent the next six months paying off the P.A to the hire companies and for the lighting and the truck. I have to say I never really had a game plan through the whole ten years of it we were just riding with it and having fun with it; we never really set out goals apart from the plan to go to America. We got fairly good reviews and the albums got released in America on obscure labels and I think we actually got reviewed as the most obscure band in the world at one stage. I never really had any major ambitions but things fell into place it was almost like an incredible ride. In the early days what kept it going was the political edge which we werenít really aware of that much and then going into Soapbox Circus and doing all that work with The Pram Factory and all that theatre stuff and APG and Circus Oz, it all had those twists and turns along the way and end up like a quasi rock band, which never suited me I have to say. So we didnít have a game plan or direction that was firm in any way. The band was very democratic too and often something I thought was a very good idea was regarded as eccentric or stupid and I usually got out voted in the long run.

JB:†Just before we talk about the National Junk Band letís just touch on a couple of other projects you were involved with in the 80ís, firstly the Hiccups Orchestra and the Hotsie Totsie Band

MC: Well, after Matchbox folded after the truck accident, I went and did a year residency at the Last Laugh which I believe is no longer there in Melbourne, and did a show called "Fairground Snaps" which was a big cast, and that was terrific for me and during that time I had a little sideline band called The Hotsie Totsies, it was a sideline we used to do at Le Joke and also some odd jobs but it wasnít a main thing because we were all working every night with Fairground Snaps anyway. After that I went and moved to Sydney because I had family in Sydney and Jim had moved up there already and I also thought I wanted to follow up a theatre and film career in Sydney as I felt type cast as Captain Matchbox in Melbourne I really felt like I needed to get away from that and into the theatre and be Mic Conway or whatever. That was part of the reason although there were all kinds of reasons why I moved, so I went to Sydney and did all kinds of film work and theatre work and it was great for me but the cabaret and theatre work didnít turn out to be as great for me as I thought it would. So Jim and I put together the Conway Brothers Hiccups Orchestra and that was really great, it went into a kind of jazz direction which didnít quite suit me but it suited everyone else so I went with it. It toured overseas we went to both Britain and America with that and it got fabulous reviews we got lots of work and people loved it, we just didnít have the follow up, the product there with us, which was the disappointing thing about that. We had some incredible adventures with the Hiccups and that went on for a few years.

JB: Letís go to the present day and The National Junk Band you mentioned that youíd been sitting on the concept for awhile, any particular reason why you held off putting it into practice?

MC: Well at the end of the 80ís I really didnít want to have a band, whenever anybody wanted a band with me in it I used another little band but it wasnít a thing I wanted to do and I was actually doing solo work and a lot of stuff for ABC Kids and a lot of solo shows and kids shows, I worked in schools a lot and Iím still doing that now and some work in theatre. All of that stuff was really exciting and I learned a lot of skills doing that and I didnít have any plans to have a band but a guy up here called Phil Donnison suggested to me that I get a band together for a bit of fun, Iíd been doing some gigs with Damon Davies doing kind of semi jug band stuff, so he said why not get a band together and we did and it sort of grew. We actually started recording before we put a band together and next thing we knew people were loving all this stuff, we couldnít believe it. It was like a big gap of many years between bands and this time I decided to go down the path of what I really wanted to do and Phil was all for that and everybody else was for it too. Iíd already been working with Jeremy Cook, who's on the kids albums and heíd already done a junk percussion thing with garbage bins and sinks and stuff on Play School (laughs) so we decided to make a kit out of all that and weíve added since then and developed a sound. Phil was really keen on using the National guitar and things like that so we called it the National Junk Band. We havenít got sponsorship yet though (laughs) and weíre not patriotic even though itís called the National Junk Band. So thatís been a hoot, although we canít live off it and Iím too old to be pushing bands and all that stuff but itís great fun; weíve done lots of festivals with it and itís gone down a storm, so weíre really pleased. Weíre writing heaps and people are responding to the stuff weíve written and responded to the vaudeville kind of edge to it all so itís kind of like a modern version of Matchbox in a way, itís got similar kinds of ideals but itís easier to deal with because people are more in harmony with what we are doing, with Matchbox we were students originally just putting together something that was a little wacky, we didnít know quite what.

JB: Do you think it may have prolonged the existence of Matchbox had you gone down this path then?

MC: I think it would have made it a whole lot better although itís hard to say in retrospect but the thing about it was I actually pushing for this direction very early in the piece and people felt that it needed more of a rock influence and things like that but I felt like our strength was that we werenít rock. The Junk Band has still got kind of a drive I mean people can dance to it and do and thatís what Matchbox got scared of that people couldnít dance to it even though they could if they tried, it wasnít a rock beat and people thought if there wasnít a rock beat you couldnít dance to it. We all know now that is complete rubbish and people are dancing not to rock'n'roll but techno dance club (laughs). Itís a funny thing, anything that has any sort of vague beat you can dance to but weíre not worrying about it now nobody is concerned whether weíre going to be considered cool or uncool. So for Matchbox it would have been an interesting path for it to go down at the time -- with the coverage and the success it had already had it might have made a real difference to it, but itís hard to say. Itís been fun, itís a real fun band to work with. I canít see it taking over the world on anything or being the next big thing but itís lotís of fun and we really enjoy it -- itís a hoot!

JB:†And just finally, Mic -- having been involved in a form of music which is primarily 'good-time' music, has that helped you maintain your enthusiasm for as long as you have? Is a sense of fun important to you?

MC:†Oh yeah if Iím not having fun I may as well give up because thereís not much money in it. Itís a great artistic outlet for me, I make a living out of the solo work that I do and thatís been great and I thoroughly enjoy that but the band is a real passion. It wasnít a passion when I started with it but itís sort of grown to where everyoneís really into it and weíre all good friends thereís no clash of egos as nobodyís ego gets too big. Itís been good fun and thatís what keeps me going, if it was all hard work and nothing else I wouldnít be doing it.

Our thanks to John Broughton for permission to feature this interview on MILESAGO, and many thanks to Mic Conway!

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