GATESY Tripod star on song with Paul McDermott

Paul McDermott (left) and Steven Gates (right)

While you may not be familiar with the name Steven Gates, if you know your comedy you may be more familiar with him as Gatesy—one third of the legendary Aussie comedy band Tripod. What you may not also know is that Gatesy and Paul McDermott will be hitting the road together to perform a new show Paul McDermott and Gatesy Go Solo, hitting the Astor Theatre on Saturday, June 30. KAREN LOWE spoke to Gatesy about the show, being a serious songwriter and never dying on stage—maybe on radio… but never on stage.

You and Paul McDermott are doing some solo shows around Australia. How did that come about? And how have the shows been going so far?

It really started when Paul and I met at the Arias in 2009—actually no! It was 1999. That’s fucking crazy! There are ten years of my life missing there. He hosted the Arias and we (Tripod) were asked to perform. It still goes down as one of the worst gigs ever. We were asked to be entertainers for the entire music industry in between the commercial breaks. This was at a time when the Arias wasn’t live to air and over like five hours long, so essentially we were just making up time and putting something on stage while Frenzal Rhomb were sound-checking their drums.

It was about nine different segments that we did and even on the last segment, because we were dying so much, Merrick and Rosso saluted us on our way up the stairs at the last post but we got them back as we did break-dancing at the end. Paul came back and introduced himself and we have been working with him on and off ever since with Tripod. We did The Sideshow with him from 2006 to 2008. That was a weekly TV show on ABC and from that point on, Paul and I would dare each other to sing with each other because we both know that we are the middle men of two different trios and we thought it was fun.

We ended up doing this comedy gig at this Melbourne weekly comedy club called The Shelf. Paul had written a song about this friend of ours who had recently passed. It’s a beautiful song and is still in the set now.

Our friend Fiona Scott-Norman was curating the Ballarat Cabaret Festival and we thought we would put our money where our mouths are and try and do this on stage. We had to be in the same room really when we were arranging the songs, but not knowing what the show was going to be and being a cabaret festival, there was the expectation that it was not necessarily going to be comedy. We wanted the musicianship and the singing to take centre stage.

It turns out that no matter what kind of songs we are going to be singing, Paul and I really enjoy the in-between banter. We like digging into each other and as much as I like to be taken seriously as an artist; I really relish in the role of being a dickhead. So after the festival, we got an opportunity to fill in for someone who had pulled out of the Adelaide Fringe Festival and sold out which was really great.

We also played to about 3,000 people at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and that’s when I went “Let’s do as many shows as we can”. Not in comedy theatres or comedy rooms—we are not really interested in that. I mean, the comedy part is unavoidable and maybe we will write a comedy-centric show together, but right now we are really enjoying the open-endedness of this show. We can sing anything and a lot of songs that Paul has been writing lately have been quite nostalgic.

So basically, to start, we are doing a couple of small shows in Melbourne and thought we would go west. I love the Astor so much, I love the people that run it; it’s just fantastic.

Yeah it’s a beautiful venue.

Yeah and it’s the perfect venue for what we want to be doing, which are big songs with big voices and entertainment. We were at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, and kudos to all the beautiful musicians, but I was quite proud that we spent quite a lot of our time engaging with the audience.

We never take their presence for granted and I know it sounds like blowing our own trumpet—you know what? I AM! (laughs). I just think it’s so important to clock the fact that people have left their houses so let’s have a conversation, a two-way thing.

As a singer/songwriter, what made you gravitate towards comedic songs? And have you written any ‘serious’ songs before?

Well, I started writing serious songs. I wanted to be taken seriously as a singer-songwriter and performer. I wanted to be a rock star and I have been in many different kinds of bands trying to chase that dream.

A strange thing happened around 1997 when I joined up with Yon and Scott with Tripod and I actually arrogantly thought that it would be a good singing exercise, because when Tripod was doing shows back then, they were doing three 45 minute sets in the corner of a pub. It was a really big thing. In a lot of ways, we did a comedy festival not because we thought we were funny but because Stomp was in the comedy festival. They were banging lids together in a comedy festival and we thought, “well if they could be in a comedy festival then we can.” Sure, we shake our butts and do silly versions of songs but we never really called ourselves comedy.

We learned how to do the comedy thing and that was quite difficult at the beginning with all three of us—we have the same background though, we grew up in the suburbs and we like Star Wars but trying to work out the comedy game was quite hard and pretty interesting for us. Of course I had a band that I was in at the same time, but early on your approach is to take down popular music, or rip through it, or satirise it in some way. We never parodied it but certainly satirised it and in doing that, you start to doubt your own sincerity when it comes to writing serious songs.

I started moving towards, or being fascinated by, the comedy song because it’s actually trying to get a response or a reaction out of the audience. It asks nothing of the audience except to enjoy the music and if you like it, you like it and if you don’t, you don’t. With comedy, what I like and what I find challenging about it is asking an audience to actually get—well, kind of—a violent reaction by laughing. Laughing is a big response to something.

Having said that, with the Paul project, these are just really beautiful, pretty songs and some of them rock haaaaard. I enjoy that too. I enjoy subverting people’s expectations. Once Tripod did a cover, a straight-up cover, of Paranoid Android (Radiohead) and people were on the edge of their seats waiting for us to do the joke or the twist. They were even giggling through some of Thom Yorke’s original lyrics (“All the unborn chicken voices in my head”) and thought that was kind of funny and I really enjoy that as well; where they are waiting for something to happen. Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t but that moment is really interesting to me.

Have you ever written a song when someone has just turned around and said “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard”.

(laughs) Well this is the thing too and this is probably worth talking about at length. That happens all the time in the comedy room—in Tripod. You might bring an idea or a song to the table and the other two will turn around and just say no or say “No, that’s not really funny. I don’t quite get it”. When you are talking about a successful song or a comedy song, if the joke doesn’t land, it’s not anyone’s fault but the joke teller’s really.

For the three of us, we just have to leave our egos at the door and just try to make each other laugh and after 22 years of doing it, it’s getting harder because you know each other so well. When you’ve got that idea that doesn’t fly, well, you just move on but for a much more serious song, I can’t really go “I think this lyric could be better”—you can’t do that when someone is singing about their mother. You know what I mean?

My biggest problem is that I am the ‘no’ guy in my own writing. I’ll be sitting down to write a song one night and think it’s great and then wake up the next day and think “What the fuck were you thinking? And this line here? That melody is like something from a Destiny’s Child song…”

As a comedian, one of the greatest fears would have to be walking out on stage and no one laughing. Have you ever had moments on stage like that? And if so, how do you deal with it?

With Tripod, again, up until recently, I’d only ever performed in a group situation. When you are in a group like Tripod, it rarely happens now but it could happen now with corporate gigs where someone high up knows Tripod and gets us to perform to a room full of people who have no idea and would rather network and crack on than listen to 20 minutes of us.

But, whenever you are in a bad situation, the three of us take solace in the fact that we have two other friends on stage with us so we are all in it together. I recently did a support tour with Arj Barker out in Western Australia; it was a new experience and I just needed to have 12-15 minutes of material. We just spent the rest of the time touring and having a great time.

I took on that job with relish. I loved it so much and because you are also playing to like, 1,000 people in a huge theatre. If 20 people find you hilarious, it’s enough to make the other people kind of enjoy it too.

The idea of actually dying, that’s never happened to me because I think people genuinely, nowadays at least, are just happy that you are giving it a shot but when I started, it was far more combative – the audience was wanting you to fail and it was just a harsher climate. I’m not a working stand-up so I don’t have to do gigs before the strippers at a trucking company out at Bayswater. I’m lucky enough to have the audience onside before I walk out.

That would make things easier as well.

Oh mate, I just don’t know how comedians start now. I just don’t know how they do it.

At every single show, there is always one person in the audience that feels like they need to contribute. What are some of the worst heckles that you have heard? And what are some of the best?

One of the weirdest ones was when we were starting and Michael Hutchence had just died and we did, what WE thought was a loving tribute to INXS and Michael. We did a three-song medley but because our stance at the time was to attack contemporary music, some of the audience thought it was just a bit too soon and one heckle was “too irreverent”. That still stands as one of the best because well, it was a review and critiqued and probably right as well, so I think that’s one of my favourites.

Oh, and when we went to Edinburgh, we did what was called ‘The Bear Pit’ or ‘Late and Live’ and it was the only late show in Edinburgh at that time. You’d just walk out to a chorus of “Fook off!”, “You’re not funny!” and all that. That’s what it was actually billed as —“come and kill your favourite comedian”.

I don’t know why we did it but we did and we played music and the sound guy was Australian so we just got him to turn it up really loud and we just sang over the hecklers. That’s where comedians like Ross Noble were born, in that sort of environment where he’d just juggle a whole lot of different images to drunk people at three in the morning and keep the ball in the air and I would go in and watch him every night because every night was different. It was exciting stuff.

Thinking about it, I think the real enemy of the live show is just chatter. People think that you are in their lounge room and they can just have conversations. That’s probably more annoying than a heckler. More often than not, certainly back in the day, a heckler who gives you a real hard time is the first person to come up after the show and go “Oh that was great guys! That was so much fun” and yeah you had a really good time. I’m not sure that the audience around you did but you know, whatever.

As Tripod, you guys had a long-running segment on Triple J where you had one hour to write a song based on viewer suggestions. Did you ever get suggestions so bad that you just could not write a song? Or did you manage to work every suggestion into each song?

I reckon, just like there are three in Tripod, a song in an hour went one of three ways. It was either brilliant and we’d go “OH MY GOD!” The second one was it would just be “Ok, we just got away with it. If we had just a little bit more time, it could have…” and the third one was just a failure and it was a really quiet ride in the elevator after.

We’d turn up around 6-6.30am at the ABC and get our words from Adam and Wil on air at something like 7? Then we had an hour to do it. So they chose the words and one that comes to memory that just really, really bombed was a song that Wil and Adam thought we would be so good at, as it was Star Wars–related. But because we were such big fans (well, kind of are still), we got stuck on the minutiae of the song, the topic and the subject matter. We were just talking about obscure Star Wars characters and sort of forgot to write the song. It was just this ordinary, half-put-together piece of shit. We put together our favourites and put out a couple of albums but that was definitely NOT on it.

The more disparate the five or six words or ideas are, the more fun it is to cobble together a story and a song and we really enjoyed that. It was a really great master class in writing songs and certainly arranging together.

I used to live for that segment.

Oh that’s really lovely. Thank you! It used to ruin our whole week. We spent a loooooong time together in those early years (laughs), which can really bust up a group. Thankfully, we got through it.

Do you go out and check out your competition? And are there any new comedians that have just blown you away?

We’ve always kind of been in our own bubble. That’s because in the beginning we worked really hard, but secondly, we were just ignorant of everything going on around us which is kind of good in a way. I mean, a lot of comedians don’t see how other comedians work . They don’t even watch comedy on television. They remain in this kind of bubble because then they’re not thinking about the competition; not being distracted by other people’s jokes which is quite strange to me because I adore comedy and I love comedians.

One of my favourites recently is Luke Heggie. I love his stuff. When I see a Luke Heggie show, it’s like this cathartic “ahhhh”. It’s someone being that clever, snarky bastard that you have in your head. Aunty Donna are a sensation so in terms of groups, they would certainly be the most popular. There is a duo called Double Denim—two girls who are really, really funny and talented. I’ll go between wanting tight, really clever narrative jokes and the next week, I will want something really, really silly.

What’s one of the craziest things that you have done—things that you look back at now and think “What the hell was I thinking?”

I want some kind of story where I am nude or something, but I’m a prude. But I think the entire series of Skithouse there is essentially an interesting time stamp about a man who was starting to get into his 30s and the terrible hat thing that happened over the course with the change over of centuries to the early 2000s to male fashion.

I wear these soul beads in the show and I also have this kind of chin patch – the weird soul patch. I don’t know what that is and I don’t know why people didn’t stop me but it’s definitely there. It’s kind of like an upside down vagina on the bottom of my chin and I had the spiky beeswaxy hair. There’s a young man there somewhere. That’s nice. But I look at some of the clips and I’m like “Awww ca’rn!” Never, ever do anything… never take any real strong fashion stances because that just dates so quickly.

In terms of Tripod, any chance of a tour any time soon once you and McDermott have finished this particular tour?

Hopefully, this will be the start of more touring with Paul. Tripod are yet to write a new show. We did our 20th year anniversary and went around the country with 101 hits and that was really great. But, in order to do some more touring, we need an idea that’s as good, if not better, than that. We might be doing some shows in Sydney in September and October but in terms of a full tour, I don’t know.