Friends of The Iguana (Part 1)

Three chords and a thesaurus. Two guitars and a cello. The cops stop a video shoot. Come into My Garden.

I started writing songs that were OK in the early 1990’s. Sincere, though not without humour. Domestic interiors. Interior domestics.I had a band at uni called Lick Me Baby. It hadn’t inspired me to start another. I was busy. I thought I wanted to be an actor when I grew up, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

Brown river original lyrics

Brown River: original lyrics

But songs kept filling my little book.  One about the Brisbane river. A musical Leunig cartoon. Connected two cassette decks  to demo them at home. Overdubbing guitar riffs. Vocal harmonies. Experimenting with fingers-crossed melodies. Superimposing myself against myself, listening through the tape hiss for something bigger (or maybe better) than me.

Anthony Mullins and I were introduced by his partner Kris Kneen, who I’d been to university with. Studying film, he wrote songs too.  He came over and we played together in my cassette room. Started with covers: ‘Bring it on Home to Me’; The Church’s ‘Almost with You’dave at glen street

Then our own songs. A tender exchange. Love songs clearly bound for acoustic settings. We learned how to play each other’s tunes and demoed them on my cassette set-up. We met again. We wrote more. Our guitars conversed.

Around that time a writer (Valerie Foley) and director (Sean Mee) I was working with wanted to do a late night musical cabaret, and they needed a band for it. I asked Anthony if he wanted to be involved and he was game. Other musicians were suggested to us. Valerie knew a cellist. Her name was Madelaine Hale.

We did the cabaret gigs February 1993, playing whatever covers were needed. Shortly afterwards Anthony and I played for the first time in public as a duo, doing our own material at a dodgy venue in the valley among many other acts called ‘Boulder Lodge’. Needing a name for the poster, and knowing I was performing a novelty act with an iguana, on the same bill, Anthony suggested ‘Friends of the Iguana’.

Madelaine joined the group. For some reason she decided to stay with Anthony and I as we pushed forward with writing and performing our own material. Two guitars and a cello. Not a lineup we’d planned at all, but it sounded good enough to us. We returned to La Boite (this time with our own songs) and played more late night gigs. ‘The Theatre’  framed our music differently. Audiences still drank, talked, and occasionally vomited, but they were there to listen in a different way than in a cafe or rock venue.

We worked up a set of mostly originals and played at a hotel on a Saturday afternoon. We took our songs out to cafes. Café Lunar in New Farm. The Sitting Duck in West End. An outdoor concert run by the local alternative radio station Triple Z. There was Steve Kilbey from The Church, performing solo on the same stage we’d warmed earlier, but perhaps beaming in from a different planet.

FOTI consider the river 1994

Anthony and I would come up with songs independently. We’d arrange them for two guitars: motivated by our cautious connection with eachother, the need to fill the sets for upcoming gigs, and the mysterious intrinsic workings that make young men write and share songs. Madelaine would work hard, writing cello parts for the tunes that wove in and around the guitars and voices.

The cello lent gravity to what we were doing, even the quirkier stuff. I was entranced by the sound.  The images and sounds in Anthony’s song Refrigerator very much capture where we were at.  As the material blossomed, Madelaine functioned as an editor, pursuing some songs and not others. Without cello, the ‘also-rans’ would drop off the setlist or never enter it.

1994. We played. The Story Bridge Hotel. Some weddings. A new venue called ‘The Zoo’ in the valley. Ric’s Café. Babble On. I put us up for some reasonably well-paid gigs playing at university campuses at lunchtime. I’d returned to uni to do a teaching degree, so entered us in the National Campus Band Competition. We reached the state finals. Part of the prize for winning that heat was studio time, so we used it to record our first demo. Regurgitator made their ‘New’ EP in the same studio. We released ours on cassette. We drove up to Townsville in a Greyhound Bus with the rest of the bands to play the finals of the NCBC.

foti rehearse 1995

We played to a full house at the refectory of JamesCookUniversity, a venue where I’d seen Hunters and Collectors, and various other touring bands when I was still at school. We were dwarfed by that university crowd, and crowded out by the bigness of the other bands. We tried to push our quiet songs out to the crowd, when we should probably have been inviting them to lean towards us and listen.

One of the judges was a member of the Simpletons, national winners of the last year’s competition. When they toured to Brisbane a couple of months later, we supported them at The Zoo. All sorts of gigs came our way, or succumbed to our chasing. Some were great, some were a complete waste of time. One night we played on terrible equipment in a venue that was normally a strip club to three people who seemed extremely interested in what we were doing. Record company execs? Fans?

It turned out they were the next band.

FOTIBWI sent our recordings to record companies and publishers, and met with several.  I was both ambitious and naive. The idea of getting signed was hopelessly remote for FOTI even when record companies were a going concern. Nevertheless, we were saving up our gig money to go into the recording studio.

In increments of cheap and late night studio time we recorded an album which we launched at the end of 1995. It was recorded onto magnetic tape and released on cassette. I could claim we were retro before our time, but the truth was we didn’t have the money to release it on CD. It was called Fall. We launched it at The Zoo, in an over-long show with lots of guest musicians. We finished the night with a cover of The Smiths ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ with drummer and string section. People bought our album at gigs and by mail order.

Anthony and I  made this rough little clip for Come into My Garden which people told me got played on Rage, a late night music video show. The police came to the West End roundabout and stopped the shoot of the last scene. Clutching his camera,  Randall Wood was hanging out the window of a moving Commodore which circled us while we played for the traffic. Very rock and roll.

We worked hard, and seemed to enjoy each other’s company alongside the pleasures of the work. Thee was no money in it, really. Playing live, I was happy enough just being myself. I tried to keep the between-song patter matter-of-fact (though the band may dispute this), and developed a stage persona that was strikingly similar to me after two or three beers. I was getting dressed up in silly costumes elsewhere in my life and saw no need to ‘put on a show’. Why ‘perform’  when surely the music should speak for itself ? (I thought.)

1996 saw us getting bigger gigs, better supports. We played with the Lucksmiths. I loved that band. They were on Melbourne’s Candle Records, and I wanted us to be too. It seemed like we might belong there.  I’d fallen in love with My Friend the Chocolate Cake, a chamber-pop band who also had a string section. I relentlessly chased a support gig with them, which we got, playing to our biggest crowd yet at a great venue called Van Gogh’s Earlobe.

By then, though, Madelaine had decided to move to the UK and Anthony and I weren’t sure what to do. The three of us had been through more than we knew. It was rather sad. The original lineup  recorded one last melancholy, spacious  song. And we weren’t sure what to do next… Read Part 2


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