“We walked into this place that was a 10,000 seat arena. I just thought ‘this guy is going to lose his shirt, this is going to be frightening!'” Over 30 years since forming GANGgajang, drummer Graham ‘Buzz’ Bidstrup has been through the highs and lows of the live circuit, but he still loves performing as much as ever.
BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with ‘Buzz’ ahead of the legendary Australian rock outfit’s show at Astor Theatre on Sunday, August 6. It’s going to be a special one night only performance for GANGgajang as they reunite with some old friends from the ‘heady days’, and play their massive self-titled debut album in full, along with a selection of other favourites spanning their career. The group, featuring members of The Riptides and The Angels, have sold over 130,000 copies of the classic album which was spearheaded by the massive hit single Sounds of Then (This is Australia).
Buzz reveals some of the unexpected influences that made up their unique sound. There are also tales of their ‘surreal’ fanfare in South America, ‘filling in’ for Yothu Yindi and why this event is going to be as special for the band as it is for the audience.
It’s great to be having you back in WA for the first time in a while…
It’s great to be back too. Something I like a lot about WA is that it still has such a vibrant music scene and it always did have. Way back in the seventies I remember coming over here when I was with The Angels and I remember the music scene being great even back then.
It’s horrible to say though it’s so far away that unless you’ve got a show that’s really worthwhile you just don’t seem to find your way over all that often. We are still playing all the time though, One of the things most people don’t understand about GANGgajang is that we never really stopped playing. We’ve been playing continuously for 32 years. We don’t really do the long tours these days though it’s more about doing weekends or three or four gigs in a row but we probably average 20 or 30 gigs a year easy.
What are the other things going on with the guys in your the band both inside and outside music?
Well I’m the CEO of a charity organisation called Uncle Jimmy Thumbs Up. We work with indigenous kids and we do nutrition education and awareness about the eye disease glaucoma. Mark ‘Cal’ Callaghan works for the Australian Performing Rights Association while Geoffrey Stapleton is an artist and paints all the time and sells a lot of his work while Robbie James plays gigs and works with a group supporting refugees encouraging them to get engaged with society. So everyone is busy all the time. I used to manage Jimmy Little and have been managing and touring bands as well. I took a band called the Jerry Cans to Perth earlier this year who are from arctic Canada. But despite all of this it’s great for all of us to come together as GANGgajang whenever we can.
I also heard your recent video Circles in the Sand was the first to be filmed at Uluru with the permission of its traditional land owners. There definitely seems to be a passion within the group for indigenous culture and issues and I was wondering where you felt that came from?
For me it was born out of working with Jimmy Little in 1999 which obviously gave me an entry into a lot more of the indigenous world and travelling with him to lots of different places. But prior to that I had spend a bit of time with Yothu Yindi with ‘old man’ Yunupingu and other guys like the Wurumpi band and a number of other groups as well. So I’ve been on the fringes of the indigenous music scene for quite some time but it wasn’t until I worked with Jimmy that I got to travel to a lot of remote communities and really see for myself what some of the problems were that needed to be addressed.
A lot of people would know you best for your track Sounds of Then (This is Australia). There is definitely this almost ineffable ‘Australian’ sound to what you do. Where do you feel the influences for your style and the group came from? It’s hard to think of many bands that came before you with that same kind of vibe…
When we first put the band together people would ask us what our ‘sound’ was. I used to call it pre-world-beat, post-heavy-metal folk-punk. It’s a bit of a laugh, but the thing about GANGgajang was that you essentially had the rhythm section from The Angels. Not only were Chris and I rock people but we were also very heavily into funk music as well. We loved Stevie Wonder and Motown and all of that kind of stuff but then it never really surfaced in the music we did with The Angels.
Cal was more into sixties pop and surf-punk while Geoffrey was into David Bowie and Robbie was more of a jazz head and loved playing a million chords so all of that got thrown into together. But another influence on GANGgajang was Talking Heads as well. I was a massive fan in particular and loved the way they went about stuff. So if you combine a bit of Talking Heads, a bit of sixties pop, a bit of motown, funk and acoustic guitar you get that sound.
The name GANGgajang itself was inspired by the acoustic guitar and describing that sound phonetically. On Sounds of Then alone I think I’m playing about seven acoustic guitar tracks. You might not hear them all that clearly but they are part of the rhythm that goes with my high hat. I also play the guitar upside-down which is another thing making it so different in the way it’s strummed as well. Being left-handed, it’s like I’m constantly doing upstrokes so it doesn’t sound like everyone else. It’s a lot of top-string action that has a distinctive sound.
Although we’ve talked about your unique sound and how it seems to characterise Australia. But you actually had a massive following in South America in the late eighties as well. Can you tell me a little bit about how featuring on the Mad Wax surfing video propelled you to stardom in Brazil in particular? What was that experience like going to the other side of the world and finding out you were so popular there?
It was surreal. This guy used to play our music at his surf contests and he had a radio show as well as a few other Australian bands like Hoodoo Gurus and Midnight Oil as well. He got this idea to do a tour and bring our band over to Brazil. We drove into our first gig in Rio De Janeiro and walked into this place that was a 10,000 seat arena. I just thought ‘this guy is going to lose his shirt, this is going to be frightening, there will be nobody here.’ I asked him how the tickets were selling and he said they hadn’t sold well and we all thought it was going to be awful. But then we came back at night and I walked up onstage and peeked through the curtain expecting to see a few hundred people and the place was absolutely packed out.
It was insane! We went from there down to Sao Paulo and played to 15,000 people. We travelled all around Brazil playing to thousands of people and went on Brazilian television and radio. It was just really surreal and so much fun but then we came back to Australia and played for a few hundred people again at a Campbelltown Club (laughs).
We did three tours to Brazil and the third was with Yothu Yindi which was awesome. Our guitar player Robby ended up filling in on guitar because their guitar player couldn’t make it for some reason and then he went on to keep playing with them for the next three or four years.
For this show at the Astor you’re playing your first album in full. How is that different from the live shows you normally do?
Yes we’re going to play our debut album in full and then make up the rest of the set with some of our other favourite songs. We could probably stretch a set out to a good three hours but it will probably be more like two. It’s going to be something really special. We’re reuniting with Tim Bradsmith who was our lighting director in the heady days when we were touring a lot. There’s going to be other people coming along that we haven’t seen for years and years so it’s going to be a really cool night. Also on the night there’s going to be Kayellen Bee who was in the band right from the start and she also happens to be my wife. She’s coming over with me and she’s going to get onstage as well. And so you’ll have the original band except for the dear departed Chris Bailey who we sadly lost four years ago. The rest of us will be there so it’s going to be a special and amazing night for everyone.