Rhoda Roberts: Stephen Pigram has found himself a great spot, possibly under a mango tree, to join us and talk about his new album, Wanderer.
Stephen Pigram: Good to be here.
RR: I’m sure everyone knows who you are, but let’s do a bit of a background. The Pigram Brothers first came to our attention with the band Kuckles, and then there were quite a few little bands like Scrap Metal, but it was while working on the musical ‘Bran Nue Dae’ that you got national attention…
SP: As far as musical theatre goes it was definitely a first. Up until then we’d played in bands in hotels and the pub circuit, but that was the first time we got to really showcase our music in 1990.
RR: 1990… what an extraordinary couple of decades it’s been. A lot of people may not know this, but at the Second National Black Playwrights’ Conference in 1989 at Macquarie University [in Sydney], Jimmy Chi travelled from WA and entered the playwriting workshop with 50 songs, which were then developed under the direction of Lydia Miller with the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust. ‘Bran Nue Dae’ was born. It was such an extraordinary musical and went on to become a great feature film.
SP: Yeah, it was definitely a long journey for ‘Bran Nue Dae’. We were in Kuckles in 1981 and Jimmy was there with us and a lot of the songs that ended up in the play and film were written at that really early time. I think it was a great help for Jimmy to actually go to the workshop and develop it a bit more.
RR: It’s so relevant even today. Wanderer is really wandering from father to son.
SP: I feel like I’ve come full circle, musically, and coming back to doing a solo album… It’s how I started when I was 15. I got sent to Perth when I was 12. It was a good experience but towards the end I was starting to miss home, then I found music. The blues was a big revelation when I discovered how to read music. I started to crack the codes of the songs and that sent me on the road to wanting to play music. I’ve come back to that very first time where I enjoyed playing the guitar and writing songs.
RR: It’s really interesting because along with your brothers you’ve almost created a musical genre specific to Broome. I love the names you give your songs like “Sashimi Brain”.
SP: The lyrics of the song came from back in the early Adelaide days. Back then we used to play at a place called the Soup Kitchen and Jimmy had this idea for a song about sashimi. He said if you drink too much grog that’s what your brain turns into.
RR: You mentioned CASM, which is the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music down in Adelaide. Would it be safe to say that was the birthplace of those first bands we were seeing, like Coloured Stone?
SP: It was the only Aboriginal music school at the time. We were playing fairly full-on in Broome at the time. Jimmy was writing great songs back then and using Aboriginal language. We jumped on the train and went to Adelaide and saw some really inspirational bands who were singing original songs about land rights and stuff – pretty ground-breaking stuff.
RR: Amazing stuff, I actually got to see No Fixed Address in London in 1981 or ’82. There was a group called Scrap Metal and this amazing clip came out and I think it was one of the first clips that got some mainstream play. It was “Broken Down Man” – remember that one?
SP: Yeah, certainly, we spent a bit of money on it back in ’87. We hired the video-making crew that Midnight Oil used. They shot it on 35mm and we got a loan and had to pay it back. We just decided to go for it properly. We shot around Broome and it still stands up.
RR: It was so schmick.
SP: Scrap Metal started in ’83 after I came back from Adelaide and that was 30 years ago, we’re talking about having a reunion concert to tie up a few loose ends. Nothing’s concrete yet, we’re just talking about it. Scrap Metal was my start in trying to crack mainstream music. We managed to tour with Midnight Oil in 1987 and that was a great eye opener. In the end, it took its toll, both financially and family-wise.
RR: Talking about family… all the brothers were together, you all arrived at the coast at the time with great fanfare and Scrap Metal had hit the mainstream. You were on the video shows and touring with extraordinary Australian bands. Everyone was asking you, ‘If you wanted to be a band, how could you remain in Broome?’ Yet you did. SP: Technology beat us a couple of times. Back in those days we funded everything we did ourselves. One of our albums we did on LP and this is the story of how technology can beat you: we made 3000 copies and a week later CDs came out!