I recently had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Peter Cupples, the man with the golden voice whose band, Stylus, delighted our musical senses with songs like ‘Summer Breeze’ and ‘World of Make Believe’ in the 70s. Since the band split in 1980, Peter has made a name for himself as a successful solo artist, recording a number of albums over the last three decades.
Last November, Cupples released an album called ‘The Golden Mile’, the second in a series of albums where the singer has done his own arrangements of Aussie classics. The first of the series, ‘Home Grown’, was recorded seven years ago. Peter is unsure if there will be a third. “Who knows?” he shrugs. But he does have a few other projects on the go these days. “Prior to that was a jazz album. I’ve been going to Japan to do jazz festivals so I’ll probably need some new product to take over there.”
I have to admit that I have never really associated Japan with jazz but Peter assures me that it is quite big there. “They love it. They love all sorts of music over there. The only thing they don’t get is probably country music. Country music’s not that big but jazz, soul and pop are extremely big. This one particular jazz festival I do is in a place called Okazaki – that’s just out of Nagoya – and they have a lot of the top Japanese jazz bands come from Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo. Most of them actually sing in English when they’re performing and there I was going over there last year and I’d learnt to sing ‘Autumn Leaves’ in Japanese.” Now, there’s something I’d like to hear! “You might think it’s all right,” he laughs “but I’m sure the Japanese didn’t. But they really appreciated the fact that I’d learnt to speak the language.”
It seems that Peter has been spending quite a bit of time in Japan in recent years and he says that the country has been good to him in many ways. “About twelve years ago, a company in Japan called ‘Vivid Sound Corporation’, got hold of a Stylus album,” he explains. “Vivid is a kind of ‘boutique’ label that likes obscure sorts of things and they released our old albums and then, a couple of years ago when I was in Okazaki, the head of Vivid came down to see me perform and he said that they would like Stylus to do a new studio album and they would finance it.” As it happens, this was just what the band had been hoping for. “We’d actually been talking about it for years but we couldn’t afford to do it ourselves and we couldn’t really get anybody to finance it. The market for us here was never really large, even in our heyday, so we didn’t expect it to have grown much. When this opportunity came up and I came back and told the boys about it, they were all rather keen so we recorded the album off and on over the last year. We finished it off in January and we got Louie Shelton, who is a legendary guitar player from America, and who actually came to Australia initially to produce an album for me called ‘Half the Effort, Twice the Effect’ back in 1983. That’s when I first met Louie. Louie was inducted into America’s Musician’s Hall of Fame last year. He played on all The Monkees’ stuff. He has also played with The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Boz Scaggs, Lionel Ritchie, Barbra Streisand. So, we got Louie to work on the album and that’s just been sent to Japan. The due release date is the 23rd June. We hope we can find somebody to release it here too. We have got a couple of people in America shopping it around over there as well. I don’t expect major labels to take it on but if we could find a nice boutique label that’s kind of hip and aggressive….”
I saw Stylus perform several times in the 70’s and I was always impressed by their unique sound. They were always such a tight and musically refined band. “Well, the band’s actually even better now I think,” he says “because everybody kept playing and improving and refining their craft.”
But, he agrees that it is harder these days, not only to find a record company who is prepared to back you, but to actually get the product out there to the public.
“It’s pretty much all pop orientated now, unless you’re a well established baby boomer artist. Stylus was fairly hot in its time but has not continued to produce material like Mental as Anything have, for instance. They’ve just kept going. Having said that, Stylus music is probably more hip today than it was back in the 70s. As everybody used to say to us back then, you’re ahead of your time!” So much so that Stylus holds the honourable distinction of being the first all white band to be signed by the U.S. company, TamalaMotown and now, it would seem, time has finally caught up. The singer agrees. “There’s a certain sort of rawness coming back. We recorded the album like we did in the old days. It’s definitely not overproduced in any way. It’s basically the band going into the studio and playing and doing overdubs so it sounds like a band playing. There’s no flashy production tricks and things, just good songs, good playing and I think that’s always in fashion. It might not be a popular type of thing. In the 80s, it wasn’t popular because it was all about techno. You know, you had all those techno bands creating all this stuff and, as with all fads, it kind of passes. At the moment, it’s just kind of ‘back to music’. It’s fabulous. We’ve got some terrific bands here in Australia, even some of the younger ones. You know, Powderfinger has been together for about twenty years but, to me, they’re a young band!” he laughs. “I’m really showing my age, aren’t I?”
And what have the other Stylus members been up to? “Well, Sam McNally keeps himself busy. He spends a bit of time in Asia himself. He does a little bit in piano bars and putting together bands for various things. He was spending a bit of time in Kuala Lumpur as a teacher or lecturer in one of the universities in music over there. He works with a very well known singer in Sydney, Doug Williams, who was with The Rockmelons. Ronnie Peers has got his own studio in Melbourne. He produces. Unbelievable guitar player, a ‘gun for hire’ as well and he does specialty work with Billy Hyde, organises their ‘Weekend Warrior’ things and does all their guitar setups and things like that because he just loves tinkering. Ashley Henderson doesn’t do a lot musically. Basically, the only musical work he does is with Mike Brady and Mike doesn’t do much anymore so he’s very keen to get back out on the road and do some work. And our new drummer, Gerry Pantazis, played on my last couple of albums and he also has worked with Ronnie on a regular basis and worked with Sam on a fairly regular basis. He’s a drummer who could play with Bachelor Girl one day and James Morrison the next. He plays jazz, pop. Very, very good player.We’re very happy to have him on board. Things happen, of course. We’re always happy to put some of all this other stuff aside. We go out on the road to promote the product because we believe the product is very, very good. Given half the chance, it could turn into something.”
The songs on this album are all new in that they have never been recorded before but some, Peter tells me, have been ‘loitering around for years’, just waiting to see the light of day. “We thought about doing a new Stylus album back in the 90s,” he explains “so that’s when I thought ‘Well, this could happen’. I started writing then so some songs are actually ten or fifteen years old. I suppose, musically, it’s just a progression from where Stylus left off. Probably what you would expect from Stylus. We’ve been playing it to a few select people to get feedback and the reaction has just been ‘Wow! That was fantastic!’ from musicians and people in the industry,” he shrugs and laughs. “But we’ve made good records before that have done nothing!” The singer admits, though, that there is still a lot of joy in having made something that you can be proud of and at least your peers can appreciate.
The band will follow up the release of the album with a special appearance at Brisbane’s annual Ambiwerra Festival in August, in an impressive line up that also includes Daryl Braithwaite and Mental as Anything. “A bit of nostalgia!” he smiles, obviously looking forward to the event.
Of course, Cupples has his own career, quite aside from Stylus, and has a number of projects in the works. “There’s a musical that I’ve sort of been working on for the last ten years and I kind of got sick of myself putting it off so I set myself a time frame to have it finished by the end of this year, at least to a workshop stage, so I pulled that out and started listening to all the stuff that I’ve recorded, the script that I’ve written and the things that I need to do plus I’ve decided to do an album of carols this year. I did fifteen years at the Myer Music Bowl. Every year, people say ‘Why don’t you do an album of carols?’ so I started recording last week. When I’ve got a day here or there, I’ll work on that, as long as I’ve finished it by September. It’s just one of those things… once you’ve done it, you don’t necessarily have to do another one. You just put that out each year. I love singing carols. I love singing them straight. A lot of people try and do clever things with them but what I want to do is do them, obviously, in my style but I don’t want to mess around with them, particularly the more traditional ones. People like tradition. They want to be able to sing along and if you’ve got somebody doing some vocal gymnastics and doing some sort of off-beat groove thing that you just can’t tap your foot to, what’s the point? Each year, I go out and buy a new carols album by old artists. The best was probably Chicago and it was absolutely fantastic! I love it. And the other one I really like is Michael McDonald. I think he actually wrote a couple of them because they weren’t familiar to me and I just think they are great. But Destiny’s Child had an album out and I got that and it was horrible… absolutely horrible! They did these songs and they changed them. In fact, I think I threw it in the bin. That’s what I thought of it!”
“And the other project I’m working on is with my sixteen year old daughter, Georgia. I had promised her that, later on this year, she would have an EP out. She’s going to record four songs. She’s a good songwriter and a terrific singer. My other daughter, Taylor, is younger and is a nice little guitar player and a good song writer and she wrote a song the other day to put on the EP for Georgia. She loves pop so it’s pop stuff. I like to just keep my hand in with the young stuff these days.”
So, does music run in the family? “Sure does.” he responds, proudly. “My grandfather had a family band where he played violin, fiddle. My grandmother played the piano. My dad played mandolin and my uncle played accordion and they had a family band, playing Irish jigs and whatever they used to do. My grandfather was long gone by the time I came along because I was the last in the litter. Mum had inherited my grandmother’s piano so we’re all self taught. I’ve got five children and they’re all musical.”
Cupples is also a highly respected song writer. “I’m still writing songs, although nowhere near as prolifically as I used to but I did start at Christmas time, I went to Moreton (Island) for a week and in the first four days, I wrote four songs and I don’t think I’ve been that prolific since 1978. When Farnham was up here, I went to see John and he asked me to write some things for him because he’s going to record a new album this year.”
Peter has drawn his musical inspiration from a variety of artists. “James Taylor, for one. I met James Taylor in Melbourne many years ago. We got to have a beer together and a bit of a chit chat for half an hour. I’d been to see his concert actually and, after his concert, his manager brought him to the night club owned by my manager and I was there and we just sat down and had a few beers. The two managers went off and James and I were sitting at the bar, having a beer and talking about growing up in the country. He was very affable, very quiet in a way and very humble. It was one of the great thrills for me. I was a massive Taylor fan. I also admire Stevie Wonder as a complete package… as a musician, as a writer and as a singer – just awesome! I’ve always loved soul singers. The real soul singers like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Levi Stubbs from the original ‘Four Tops’, ‘Earth, Wind and Fire’ – I’m a big fan of ‘Earth, Wind and Fire.’ That’s from a singer’s point of view. From a musician’s point of view, I love guitar players like Larry Cahill. Love Sting as a poet, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan… as writers. And I really admire Neil Finn.”
I point out that there are probably a lot of people who draw inspiration from Peter Cupples as well. “Actually,” he admits, rather reluctantly, “I had an email the other day from a bass player who is playing with Billy Joel and has played with Madonna and he grew up in Melbourne, following my band, and he drew inspiration from there and he said ‘If it wasn’t for you, I probably wouldn’t have pursued music.’ So he’s making a fortune out of it,” Peter laughs “and I’m making nothing! Seriously, though, it certainly is wonderful when someone takes the time out to let you know about it. It gives you a certain amount of satisfaction, I suppose. We all like to think that we’re doing something good.”
I ask if he has any specific career goals for the future. “I’ve set goals many years ago that I’d like to achieve,” he tells me. “and one was to write a musical. The other one was actually to write music for a movie. I think that would be really interesting. You’re not confined to the boundaries of song writing or storyline. It’s just music.”
He ponders on his wish list for a moment. “And that’s it!” he declares with a smile. “I don’t think I need to do anything after that. I can just retire. I can go fishing… and play golf.”
Somehow, I don’t think that will happen any time soon.
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2010. All rights reserved