“I think one of the prerequisites to becoming a musician is having no sense of responsibility at all,” says Don Walker. The primary songwriter for Australia’s rock darlings Cold Chisel has referred to the “massive leap of faith” he made when the band first headed out on tour in the early ’70s. Seven million album sales, record-breaking tour attendance, and an ARIA Hall Of Fame induction later, as the guys’ ninth studio album Blood Moon arrives in a dust-cloud of glory, the clip for its first single shows that unity is the keystone to the potion. Case in point: the five of them standing around a mic together, singing the song’s refrain: “Getting the band back together.”
“It probably would sound better if a few of us weren’t there at the mic,” Walker says drily, “but it’s more fun. There’s a range of singing skills across the band, from ‘sublime’ to ‘groan.’ But if you get everybody together singing the chorus, then it sounds like, well, a bunch of humans.”
These particular humans are captured in the clip by Robert Hambling, who has followed and filmed the band for the last 25 years. “When we go and record, Robert’s there with GoPros all over the place,” says Walker. “Even when we get together in demo sessions, he’s there, in case there’s something that happens that we go looking for later. ‘Gee, I wish we had that on film!’ Robert’s part of the gang.”
Aside from its thumping lead single, Blood Moon’s tracks are given a lot of room to breathe: drums, piano, and guitar line melodies are all allowed to come through in their own time, rather than rolling out in chunks of thick bass and walls of guitar. But that’s the Chisel way. “We always try to leave a bit of air around things,” says Walker. “We’re a band of early traditions, where people play and people leave space. Rock became clogged-up a few decades later.” The outstanding I Hit The Wall – with the piano hitting bone-tinkling piano triads up top and a simple, slinking bass crawl down low, and Ian Moss’s guitar notes coiling around vocalist Jimmy Barnes’ jagged angles as he sings of hitting the wall, “and the wall won” – is one of the most evocative on an album full of atmosphere. Another, Land Of Hope, is a searing indictment of a warped world: “No style, no sass, no feel, no class, I lose hope, I lose steam, a lost mind, and a lost dream,” Barnes spits.
“Those are lyrics of Jim’s… and I’m guessing it might be about America. Or it might be about Australia. Or it might be about the modern world,” says Walker. He seems surprised to be asked why he didn’t flat-out request Barnes to explain the song’s themes. “I never think to ask him,” Walker says simply. “Killing Time, I always assumed was a drought song – Jim’s doing drought benefits, and I think looking at the lyrics it’s pretty clear. Then I was talking to some other people after we’d demo’ed it, who said “What? It’s clearly a relationship breakup song.’ But I’ve never got around to asking Jim: ‘Is it either of those two things? Or is it something else that I haven’t thought of?’”
Those lyrics were given to Walker as he was passing through the village of Berrima in New South Wales, where he called in to Barnes’ and wife Jane’s house, to spend the night. “There was nobody else there,” Walker recalls. “We went into the piano room and [Barnes] gave me a set of lyrics. I started mucking around with some chords.” What he came up with was the mesmerising swing between first and fourth chords, which contrast the often terrifying nature of the song’s lyrics with their outward beauty. He kept working on it over the next two or three months, and then realised time was running out. “We were going into a demo session in June, and I suddenly realised: if this song is going to be a goer, I have to knuckle down and finish it.”
Conversely, Blood Moon‘s creation also presented moments of utter spontaneity in the studio. Take the wonderful Boundary Street, which slides lustily across a lounge atmosphere with Barnes’ vibrato coming through at the ends of phrases, Charley Drayton’s drumming all thick floor tom and sauntering hi-hat, Walker’s piano reaching Westworld levels of sultry drama, and Moss’ guitar duelling helix-fashion with a fat, sliding saxophone.
“That’s Andy Bickers, who plays with us live,” says Walker says of the jugman. “We just stick a mic in front of him and play him the song – throw him off a cliff. ‘What’re you going to do, Andy?’ And we give him instructions, like, ‘Andy, you’re in Las Vegas. It’s 3am, you’ve got no money, and you’re in a pole dancing place, the kind that people with no money go to. Play that on the saxophone.’”
This is how the magic of Blood Moon – and the entire craft of this enduring family of musicians – is eked out. “That’s the way that you talk to each other,” says Walker. “Otherwise, if you’re talking to each other in terms of, ‘Well, we need a Mixolydian scale here… well, it’s going to have a lot more soul if you’re broke in Las Vegas.”
Blood Moon by Cold Chisel is out December 6 via Cold Chisel/Universal.
Cold Chisel head out on the Blood Moon tour at the end of this month; go to the band’s tour site for all the details.
Keep up with the latest Australian release dates for music.