Between 1985 and 1994, a trio of young abrasive men would change the face of Australian comedy, combining savage satire, fascist fashion, virtual violence and music to mutilate by – at it’s best, all of the above simultaneously. Together, they were the Doug Anthony All Stars; individually they were Tim Ferguson, Richard Fidler and the man who would be despot, Paul McDermott. The current tour follows a reunion show they did in April 2013 for the DVD release of their ’90s ABC television show DAAS Kapital. Paul McDermott speaks to SABIAN WILDE about getting the band back together.
The reformation automatically prompts two questions, the first of which is: Why now?
Richard got a job, so we finally get to do a tour in peace, without Rich being around. It’s been glorious so far.
Umm… ‘What’s Richard doing?’ was going to be my second question. The first question is, ‘why now’?
[laughs] No really, because Richard got a job.
He’s been annoying us for years to get back together because really, he wasn’t doing a lot. He’s always wanted to get the group back together, but Tim and I weren’t that interested. Now Richard has secured a job at the ABC, so that’s been our opportunity.
We just look at the benefits. Finally we can get a real quasi-guitarist in the group with Flacco, Mr Paul Livingston, and that brings up a whole new level of hilarity and bizarreness.
So much of DAAS was built around the power dynamics between the three of you… what is it like working with Paul instead of Richard?
The Allstars was always a moveable feast that could work with anyone. I’m finding the shows we’re doing now a lot looser and more bizarre than anything we did back in the day. But Paul is just extraordinary onstage and a great guitarist, so the energy he gives us and the bits he throws in are fantastic.
It puts a different take on it for us. We’re doing many of the songs, but we were around for years and we have over one hundred songs to from that period to choose from, so we’ve picked the ones we considered the first round of classics, dusted them off and taken them on the road. But there are just so many songs; people come up after the gigs and ask if we’ve considered doing Kylie & Jason or Skinhead Skippy. Luckily we’ve got YouTube, so we can go back and work out what we did.
Of all the members of DAAS, you’re the one who has maintained the most public profile – I think Richard’s next big gig was Race Around The World…
Pffft.. well, if you can call that a big gig.
I quite enjoyed it, actually.
You enjoyed it? Well, it’s always nice to meet a minority.
It gave birth to John Safran, I guess, so it wasn’t worthless. Safran continues to be a surprising force for satire in this country.
Anyway… you’ve managed to do quite a lot in the public sphere since the end of DAAS…
Well, let’s be honest… I was, and am, the best and most talented.
They’d just be a couple of mediocre guitarists if not for the influence of me, the innovator. They have their japes at me occasionally, those boys… but they know the truth…. they always reject the Caesar, don’t they?
After having done so many other things, what’s it like to come back to your original fanbase; to have people once again hanging off everything you said almost 20 years ago?
The strange thing in that regard is that we’ve forgotten a lot of what we said 20 years ago — we didn’t put a lot of stock in it at the time. A lot of it was ad-libbing or riffing, so it’s weird sometimes when people come up and chant lines at you like mantras, or as if it were a Monty Python sketch, but I can speak for the three of us…
Don’t you always?
Well, yes. But something that has changed for us, and I quite like this, is that I’ve become accepting of the fans — in the past I was the enemy of the fan. I found that blind acceptance and obedience quite upsetting and it was something we tried to rail against in the things we talked about. You should always examine everything with the mind of a cynic, yet somehow, we fostered in people this cultish and slavish behaviour, which was strange.
Is it true that you once convinced an audience to burn their credit cards?
Oh yes. In the end we were standing there going, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ But it was just a wild celebration of life at the end of the Edinburgh festival. It came form absurdity and stupidity; mocking the idea of ‘fire as the cleanser’. And it turned out a lot of people didn’t like their credit cards.
It did seem that the more popular you became, the more you hated the audience…
Look, some people can seize success and enjoy it, but there’s some for whom it’s confusion and concern, like that Groucho Marx line, ‘I won’t join any club that’ll have me’. It got quite weird toward the end: Tim was getting stalked quite regularly and we were getting weird things sent to us — kid’s clothes, a hand-made stuffed cat… you certainly foster responses from people, but some of them can catch you off guard.
You also have to remember that we’d started off by playing festivals, which by and large is an older, more sophisticated and worldly kind of audience. When television happened to us, the age group of our audiences dropped dramatically, and these new fans would always be at the front of our live shows, creating a block between us and anyone who was a bit older and wiser, which changed things for us. We reacted to that with ferocity toward the audience, playing very silly games with them which now would probably get us jailed for obscenity.
There was one incident when Tim found this really hardcore European porn magazine that had some of the most grotesque images of female subjugation I’ve ever seen in my life.
Tim would rip out pages of this magazine and use gold pen to write something like, “Please help me, the others are holding me captive,” across this grotesque image, then fold it up into a tiny, little square that would fit into the palm of his hand — he’d have twenty or thirty of these little ’emotion bombs’ on him. As he’d go into the audience, he’d pick young people and hand them these little bits of paper, look deep and earnestly into their eyes and say, “Whatever you do, don’t open this until after the show.”
Of course, everyone, would open them before the end of the show, and you’d know when they’d been opened, because you could hear these screams of absolute horror. Now, with Twitter and the way the world is, we’d probably have been put up on charges.
I was in the audience [at the Floreat Forum] when you turned the firehose on the audience because people were shouting out the punchlines at you.
It’s something we’ve always had to deal with, when people come on more than one night. With the songs and the patter, obviously you work up the material so it’s the best you can do, and you’re their to do your best.
I do understand why sometimes people feel the need to shout out stuff, and that’s something a certain part of our audience did, but we always thought of it as a game and we responded playfully.
Well… we thought it was playfully.
But it was very rarely that someone actually unsettled us by doing our stuff at us — to the point where we’re at that ‘Just shut the fuck up’ stage. We had a massive arsenal at our disposal to tear people apart if they persisted.
So what’s it like now that you’re feeling kindlier toward the audience?
[laughs] Oh! Not when I’m on stage! When we did the Melbourne shows to launch the DVD, the ABC wanted us to do something, so we reformed to do a few songs. But the response, even for an old curmudgeon like myself, it was a bit overwhelming. I hate to say it out loud, but I was moved.
The other thing is that we never really got a chance to say goodbye, because of the way the break-up happened. Rich and I weren’t aware at the time that Tim had MS and that was part of why he was calling it a day… we were a little naive and confused. We did a brief tour of Australia that wasn’t well advertised, and we were all a little emotional at the time, so we never really took the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans as a group. I suppose it’s almost like twenty years of waiting to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.
I attended a workshop with Tim Ferguson earlier this year and I was amazed at his energy. At the end of two days, he was doing better than I was.
I’m amazed by Tim. He’s a hero, now, in my book – an unstoppable force.
But clearly, there are physical aspects of the old material you won’t be able to do anymore. I was always a big fan of your Joan Of Arc piece.
I keep thinking of Joan Of Arc, I’d love to work out how we could do that again. Don’t worry about the bit with Richard talking about Tin Tin, we put those words in his mouth anyway… He never wrote his own material. But Joan Of Arc is one of my favourites, and it’s sad that we can’t do it in this formation.
What we’ve done with a few songs is reconstruct them for a – ahem – contemporary audience, so Stimulate My Penis has been reshaped and reworked. Maria has been reworked.
Will you be doing I Fuck Dogs?
[disgusted] Of course we’re doing I Fuck Dogs. It sits at the apex of the canon. It’s still the most requested song.
That’s a shame.
Well, of course, all your songs are works of unparalleled genius that I am not worthy to contemplate…
I like you more and more, Sabian.
But it’s been great. The shows have been great so far and Mr Livingston is an absolute firebrand on stage. It’s been a real joy just travelling with him in the van. If you think Tim has it bad with the MS, wait til you hear about the problems Livvo has just getting up in the morning. He has a lot of ailments. It’s a funny cavalcade of bizarreness.
Does it make you feel virile?
I don’t know about that, but I am finally the tallest member of the group.
Doug Anthony All Stars perform at The Regal Theatre from Tuesday, September 9, until Thursday, September 11.