Australian music legends The Whitlams are returning to Perth as they celebrate their 25th Anniversary with a national orchestral tour. The Whitlams perform for one night only in a special performance at the Perth Concert Hall on May 3 with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. It’s a rare chance to catch the Aria Award winners perform hits from across their acclaimed career as part of captivating live experience. BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with frontman Tim Freedman about the journey from humble beginnings as a folk-roots trio from Newtown to prestigious venues like the Sydney Opera House.
You’re just about to embark on a 25th Anniversary tour beginning next month playing with some Australia’s most acclaimed orchestras in the nation’s most iconic venues. I know you’ve done it all before but do ever stop and think how did we go from where we started to do something on such a grand scale?
It’s certainly the musical peak for us with the symphony orchestra. It’s great playing in Perth because it was actually WASO’s idea in the first place back in 2004. So the first one we ever did was in Kings Park. And then we’ve developed the show quite extensively over the last 13 years and commissioned new arrangements and I’d say probably seven or eight of those arrangements are still in the show. But we’ve updated as we’ve gone along and played it with different orchestras around the country. It’s exciting because the arrangers have improved the songs so much. I gave them all carte blanche and they’ve added melodies and textures and crescendos and so we just sit in the middle of this beautiful big machine and listen to our songs polished and gorgeous and bombastic in places.
A lot of your early stuff your music was a bit of dig at the establishment and the ‘grown ups’ of the world. I’d say Louis Burdett summed that up as good as any. But the transition of the Whitlams going from that to say playing at the Sydney Opera House seemed like an quite organic process. How do you think you managed that when so many other artists struggle to redefine themselves in the same way?
When we started off we were basically a folky roots band, a three-piece with a double bass and when Steve and Andy who were wonderful roots musicians passed on or left the band I suppose it became more my project and I was more into lavish pop so I was allowed free reign. And the song that happens in is actually No Aphrodisiac. If you listen in it’s Andy playing double-bass in the verses and then he switches to electric bass in the second half of the song. And that’s sort of what happened with the band as well we went from a double-bass folk act in 1997 to a bigger textured pop band. So more of the orchestral works are in the second half of our career because they’re the songs that it suits.
Now it seems in Perth you come over every year or so more often than not with an orchestra nowadays. But what are you getting up to in the rest of your time? I’m sure you’re still a songwriter by habit, even though you might not be releasing Whitlams albums right now.
Well I started getting interested in theatre so I wrote and performed the one man Harry Nilsson show. I used to just come over and do the musical component of that the Ellington so that was my main focus the last two or three years. I also co-wrote a musical that was on over here which didn’t quite take off, I might say euphemistically. I still like to play solo which is more a cabaret type affair. And as for the band we tend to just go around the country and play our first six albums we haven’t had our foot on the pedal with new material but I’m hoping to come back to some of that next year.
Those songs that have been revised and developed with an orchestra – I’m interested to know how that came about? Did you have a melody line in your head that you hummed to a composer and let them run with it? Or did you just palm off that task completely to people you felt were capable of making your vision come to life?
It’s the latter actually. I’ll find an arranger who’s work l like. Whether it be Jamie Messenger who did Hilltop Hoods or Ben Northey who’s better known as a conductor now. I’d give them four or five songs to chose from. And when they’ve chosen their style I just let them go for it. The best time for me is when we first hear it in the rehearsals cause they’re allowed to add melodies and counter-melodies and textures and I tell them to utilise the whole orchestra because there’s nothing worse than having these crossover gigs where the orchestra’s not used in parts of the show for long periods of time. I generally just say go for it. Throw the kitchen sink at it.
What song surprised you the most, when you heard it back and thought – that’s something that I never would have come up with?
Peter Sculthorpe’s song Out the Back really exists as it’s own piece of music. He mostly used our song as a launchpad. It’s a difficult piece of music for strings but I’m hoping to be able to do it on this tour it really depends on how much time we’ve got left. Ben Northey did a beautiful, quite simple version of Charlie No. 1 and he added some beautiful counter-melodies and really improved the song enormously.
Are there any that just don’t work, that you had to leave out of the set?
Yeah that has happened we probably had about 30 songs arranged but the show is more like 16 or 18. Leaving Home I thought, was a quirky little jig, a waltz one off Little Cloud (hums the song) it just didn’t work. There was quite a lavish production of track one of Love This City called Make The World Safe, which proved a bit difficult to play as an orchestral arrangement so that went down to the bottom of the box.
What are you looking forward to most on this tour? A place you hadn’t been in a while or a certain moment in song you can’t wait to experience again?
This is so concentrated we’re doing all capital cities in eight days so it’s going to be a real challenge physically actually. It’s not like you just rock up and do the show you have to do a three hour rehearsal in the afternoon as well. I’m looking forward to the physical challenge really. I think if we manage to put on a polished performance each night after pretty intense rehearsals then we will have done really well.