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Interview: ROSS WILSON

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Ross Wilson. The name is synonymous with Australian music. His illustrious career has spanned five decades, and the singer’s current series of concerts is aptly named ‘5 Decades of Cool.’  We spoke to Ross recently about the concerts and other projects he is working on these days.


“Well, there’s a few things on the boil.”  He tells us from the Melbourne recording studio where he is currently busy working. “What I’m doing in the studio at the moment is mixing the recordings that we made at the ‘5 Decades of Cool’ concert at The Palais Theatre (in Melbourne) on 14th August. I don’t know if you knew about that concert but it was a big night and it was filmed for a DVD so now we’re doing the sound for a CD and a DVD. It will come out in November, just before we do a similar show, still called ‘5 Decades of Cool’, at The State Theatre in the middle of Sydney. So that’s the big thing that I’m working on at the moment. And the rest of the time, I’ve got the usual gigs around the country.”


According to Ross, the concept for ‘5 Decades of Cool’ came from promoter, Marc Christowski. “He saw what he perceived to be a bit of a gap in that there were people who liked acts of my generation and that they weren’t being served properly. He felt that they probably wouldn’t want to go to a pub or a club. They probably wouldn’t want to even go out to ‘A Day On The Green’ but they like to go to theatres and have a concert so he did an experiment. He put on Richard Clapton at The State Theatre last year and, lo and behold, it sold out so then he did Joe Camilleri down here at The Palais and the same thing happened, you know. So he said, ‘OK Ross, I want you to be the next one! You’re from Melbourne so we’ll do it at The Palais and we’ll see how it goes.’ and it’s all been very good.”


Early ticket sales for the upcoming Sydney concert have been very promising and, if the Melbourne show is anything to go by, it looks set to be a huge success.  “The first one that we did at The Palais in St. Kilda was close to a sell out night. It holds about 2800 people and we got about 2500, I think, which was pretty good.  It was a big night. We had about 3 hours of music and we had special guests, like Jimmy Barnes, and I had people I’d played with over the years: Ross Hannaford, Daddy Cool, Mike Rudd and guys from Mondo Rock, you know, Eric Mc Cusker, James Black… so we covered all eras of the Ross Wilson life, as well as some new stuff and, like I said, we recorded it and filmed it so that’s made the momentum for the second show in Sydney.”


Ross is quick to point out that the concerts are not about the bands reforming. “We’re not having Daddy Cool reforming or Mondo Rock performing in entirety but I’ve had Ross Hannaford come along and we played with some of my regular, very good, band. We played a lot of songs and later in the evening I got Eric McCusker, James Black from Mondo Rock joined us on stage and we did a whole lot of Mondo Rock stuff and so, in between, there was quite a few early things from early bands I had that people might have forgotten about before the pre-fame days and so I was testing the audience a bit there. Some of the less known things as well. There was a bunch of songs I hadn’t sung for quite a while like Daddy Cool songs. There was a song called ‘Teenage Blues’ which I hadn’t sung for 30 years live. And it was just incredible to do it. It was a really powerful song and so it was as much fun for me as it was for everybody else, I think.”


Forty five years of music must provide a wealth of material to choose from. Was it difficult to come up with a suitable set list for this live anthology? “Yeah, you’ve got to play the well known ones, the hits.” he concedes, “But I do that all the time anyway so, then, just pepper them with some of the other ones that I like personally and that I enjoy playing. For instance, we got Jimmy Barnes. He was on tour here in Victoria. He had a night off and so he was able to be our ‘super special guest’ and I’ve worked with him in the past, writing songs, so we had a bunch of songs we could sing together and we did 3 songs together and it sounded great and the audience went nuts! And here we were together and harmonizing together. It was just great.”


It seems that Barnesy won’t be available for the upcoming Sydney show because he’s on tour but Ross is working on lining up another special guest for the night, although he isn’t mentioning any names. “It’s not confirmed yet so I can’t say.”


While he says that the show is a lot of fun, it is also very demanding. “It’s a long night, you know. On the other hand, because it’s got a budget, it’s quite an extravagant ‘live’ show and the sound’s great. I’ve got lady backup singers and all that stuff that I normally wouldn’t have with my regular five piece band. But I have seven, eight, nine, ten people.”


It almost seems as though there was never a time when we hadn’t heard of Ross Wilson, the man or his music. Before the rise to fame, was there a defining moment when he ‘knew’ that he had made it?   “I had to think about this recently when someone asked me a similar question and I think it would be when, having been in bands while I was at school, and mucking around, I left school and, we had jobs and, Ross Hannaford and I, particularly,  had bands together and we learnt a lot together and we started writing songs and making the odd record. I went overseas for about a year and I came back and had a much better idea of what I wanted to do and that’s when Daddy Cool came together but even when Daddy Cool were playing around Melbourne, we hadn’t made the record but were getting famous very fast. But, we still had day jobs or were going to uni or something, and then we made the album and they released ‘Eagle Rock’ as a single. Well, we were still working at these jobs, you know.  I was working in a book warehouse with (drummer) Gary Young. And, we were packing these books one day and everyone knew the record was coming out but, just like tradies everywhere, there’s always a radio going, you know, while you were packing your books and stuff and all of a sudden, ‘Eagle Rock’ came on the radio and all of our friends at the book warehouse, they all let out this great cheer. And two weeks later,  we resigned and that was the point from which I never looked back so I would say that, while packing books at the book warehouse, with Gary Young, hearing ‘Eagle Rock’ on the radio for the first time, was the moment from which there was no turning back! Rather than being on the stage in front of 20,000 people or something. Because I knew we were ‘in’ then. Because, we were already at a pretty good level in Melbourne and we’d made the record but, just to actually hear it on the radio was a defining moment. It was incredible to hear it coming out of that speaker on a little transistor radio.” he laughs.


‘Eagle Rock’, of course, soon became an Australian rock classic. It is, without a doubt, a song that has truly stood the test of time. The singer explains how the song was born. “Well, I had really schooled myself in blues music as well as rock and roll and knew that they’d come from the same place, that they were linked. You know, blues and rock and roll have a lot of similarities. And jazz music and all that. I kind of figured that out early in the piece. So ‘Eagle Rock’ is really a song that demonstrates what I’d learnt up to that period. One, it’s got a ‘pop’ sensibility in that there’s a chorus, you know, a catchy chorus. It’s got the ‘rock’ relentlessness of that groove that just won’t give up and the repetitive riff, we grind it into the ground and you don’t get sick of it. It’s great. Together with the blues which is (Ross imitates the riff). That riff came up because I listened to a lot of old ‘blues’ guys. It’s my riff but it’s the kind of finger-picking style from the Mississippi blues era of the pre second world war. In the background, the second guitar’s playing (again, Ross imitates the guitar sound). That’s John Lee Hooker, who I absolutely love. And I was playing that ‘boogie’ kind of riff. And all those things came together in that one song. It was kind of like the essence to what I’d learnt to that point plus where I was going, you know. So it’s quite an interesting song in that regard.”


In many ways, it was different from any other song around at the time. Ross agrees. “It was different because we weren’t trying to follow any fad. We weren’t going ‘Oh gee, progressive rock’s in now. We’d better do that.’ Or ‘There’s this new echo machine. We’d better have that on our record. It was completely away from that. So, even today, when you hear ‘Eagle Rock’, you can’t say ‘That sounds like a 70’s record or that’s a 50’s record. It’s just kind of… it is what it is which I’m really proud of. I think that’s why it’s stood the test of time whereas other songs from that same period, you can go ‘Oh, that’s a real 70’s sound’ or… whatever.”


Talking about the influence that John Lee Hooker had on his music, Ross says: “He’s unique and people have to go back and listen to what he did. He became well known to a wide audience when he did those albums, ‘The Healer’ and ‘Mr Lucky’ and a couple of others in the early 90’s with Bonnie Raitt and Santana and other people who admired him but he hadn’t been really known in a big way. He sold a couple of million albums because of that, because he had all these big stars on his records. But his great recordings come from the late 40’s through to the mid 60’s. That’s where people should go and have a listen, particularly his solo stuff because there’s no one like him… ever! He’s just unique. One of the things I learnt from him was there are no real rules. You can make a song sound great. You don’t have to rhyme the words. You don’t have to follow a super strict pattern. If you’re playing with other guys, you can do wild things. Just listen to some of his records where he’s playing with his band. It’s like anarchy but it all holds together. And that influenced me greatly. You don’t have to follow the rules strictly, have too much melody or the form doesn’t have to always be strict. Particularly when I was first starting to write songs, I took that to heart and I experimented quite a bit. Before Daddy Cool, I had a band called The Party Machine which had Mike Rudd, who went on to have Spectrum and ‘I’ll Be Gone’ and Ross Hannaford was in that too and we did a lot of experimenting, you know, and played a couple of those songs at the ‘5 Decades’ show together, Mike Rudd, me and Hanna. It’s almost like a reformation.”  Almost, but not quite a reformation, as Ross pointed out earlier in our conversation.


“And there was some pretty wild stuff we did back then.” He continues. “Then, when I got Daddy Cool, I wanted to be more strict with making songs shorter and, instead of having five ideas in a song, I’d have, like, two!” he laughs. “And, so, I guess Daddy Cool …. I said this before, it was like going to Rock and Roll High School. We’d be mucking around with four part harmonies and doo-wops with Ross Hannaford’s bass voice, my falsetto and the two guys in the middle and, yet, we played our own instruments as well. And then, when I moved on to Mondo Rock, I’d moved on to ‘tertiary education’. I’d learned a lot about harmony and all the rest of it. I was taking that into adult, more contemporary rock and roll.”


While it is true that his music has changed from band to band and throughout his solo career, there has always been that unique Ross Wilson sound. “You know, you can’t change your voice.” he observes. “So, when you put your voice on top of something, then it becomes ‘Ross Wilson’. That, I think, is the link. My sensibility and the sound of my voice links the duo of the music together. I’ve done a couple of ‘best ofs’. I’m going to do another one soon but, if you choose the right songs, you can have Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock and all that other stuff and you can see how it all links together. I can’t define how it does, but it does.”


by Sharyn Hamey

Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2009. All rights reserved

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