King Curly is the musical brainchild of Steve Appel, a man who has been lauded as a genius by some of our finest songwriters. The Cat Empire’s Harry Angus says Steve Appel writes songs “so strikingly original, musically and lyrically that they can’t be compared to anything”; while Paul Kelly proclaimed “the name King Curly should be shouted from the rooftops and their records should be played in cafes and on the radio.”
After failing to find success Steve Appel retired the band for some years, but now they’re back and they’re playing the Mullum Music Festival this weekend. Trevor Jackson spoke to Steve Appel ahead of the festival.
You know Steve, it’s not just Paul Kelly and Harry Angus singing your praises. Karma County’s Brendan Gallagher said to me one day “you’ve got to check out this band King Curly – Steve Appel is one of the finest songwriters in the country’. I said: “OK Brendo, that’s a recommendation good enough for me!” So how is it that this band – your band, have remained Australia’s best kept secret for so long?
I’m not entirely sure. I was arrogant enough to think I would be successful on a count of my song writing. I knew I was good at it, so I can only assume that I’m a dreadful performer or there’s something else missing (laughs).
As Harry Angus says, it’s so hard to describe your music. The words that come to my mind are percussive, melodic, whimsical, idiosyncratic – but your description describes it best. Tell me about the concept of “Garage Cabaret”?
It was actually somebody else in the media that called it that, but it was a label that seemed to approximate it in a way, so from that perspective I was happy to embrace it. A lot of my music has a theatrical quality to it. I was always a fan of musicals – everything from Mary Poppins to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Now that I’m older I should give credit to those things more than I have in the past. You think they’re just these funny things you watch as children, but those sorts of influences were very profound for me in the sense that there is always a very visual aspect in my mind when I’m writing and that’s incredibly important to me.
The first album of yours that I heard was the gorgeous Lullaby, a record that sounded like Michael Leunig had discovered music and set up camp in some forgotten South Pacific island from the 1920’s. Having said that your music is tricky to identify – do you think that was your biggest problem in finding your audience?
I like that description! Yeah, maybe. I don’t have the answer to that. I would have loved to have been more successful, but these things either happen or they don’t. There’s plenty of people who’ve loved the music and that makes me feel good. That’s what makes it worthwhile, because one of the main reasons you do it in the first place is to make connections with other people. You really want to share your ideas and your vision, otherwise you’d just stay at home and sing in the shower.
It didn’t stop the Cat Empire or Paul Kelly inviting you out on tour for some support shows. I can see Paul Kelly’s fans getting into you straight away, but what about the Cat Empire’s fans?
I’m not sure (laughs). They certainly tolerated it because we were clearly friends of the Cat Empire. In the end it was a great experience because the Cat Empire really know how to have fun and we had a good time with them. But really when you’re supporting a band like the Cat Empire their fans are only there for one reason – and it’s not to see you!
But you know we did score some other high profile support slots that really worked for us like k.d. Lang for instance. You could tell that her fans were open to the idea of us and the music we played.
So was k.d.Lang a fan of your music?
Definitely. She asked for us – somehow she’d heard of us and insisted that we got that support slot. There’s no way without her interest that we could have scored that slot through the usual channels of power. That was a fantastic tour.
You followed up Lullaby with an album back in 2006 called Doomsday Piano, where you created an infernal machine driven by steam! What in the world were you thinking? Or drinking?
(Laughs). That album was the beginning of a really interesting relationship with a friend of mine Dan Crighton who is a great writer of poetry and prose. When I began writing that album I felt like I’d exhausted a lot of my lyrical ideas and I was looking for something new. So I approached Dan with the idea of writing music to his words and basically it became our version of Bernie Taupin and Elton John.
Besides a possessed piano the album runs the gamut of avenging zombies to ukulele bumblebees and people coming back from the dead for revenge! What a fabulously fertile imagination Dan has! It sounds as though he reinvigorated your creative enthusiasm?
Oh definitely. That was a very exciting album to make, it was just so much fun putting music to Dan’s incredible writing. I really love that record because it was a totally new direction for me.
So Doomsday Piano was released back in 2006 and then King Curly retired for some time – what happened during those years?
I’d just had enough of waiting for the fame to come – it hadn’t arrived quickly enough (laughs). I was just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. To be honest I was exhausted. We’d toured America a couple of times and we had a lot of fun, but it was ultimately a grind and in the end I was looking for something new to do. Also I had a couple if kids and needed some money so I gave music away for about 6 years and took up labouring.
And now you’re back with a new album Night Parrots. What’s the idea behind this record?
Everyone’s calling it the new album, but in reality I made it just before I retired the band about 6 years ago, but I never released it. I decided with this one that I wanted to use guest vocalists with my songs, but until now it hasn’t seen the light of day. It’s a nice feeling to be able to finally get it out there and play the album live. After all these years it’s good to be playing again, I can’t wait to hit the stage at Mullum.
King Curly play Mullum Music Festival this weekend 18 – 20 November.