When I was a young idiot without much idea what I wanted to do in life, I saw Sean Whelan’s show with the Mime Set in the old Spanish Club on Johnson Street. It was 2006, and my tiny mind was blown. They took everyone on this long dreamlike journey through stories and epically layered tunes, and I was mostly sober but I felt high as the hills. That was the night I fell for the power of performance to dance all over an audience’s face. It changed most things.
The band broke up the following year after releasing one ad-hoc live EP. Seven years later Going Down Swinging has got them back together for one show, and we’ll be recording it to make a high-fidelity live album. – Geoff Lemon
Here we spoke to Sean ahead of the show about the how and why of the gig and poetry in general:
To steal from Cameron Crowe: Do you have to be in love to write a love poem, do you have to be sad to write a sad poem?
Not at all. I mean it helps, god knows it helps. But the purpose of the writer is to create. To create things that didn’t exist before. That means using your imagination. I find a lot of people seem to assume that all my poems are based on things that actually happened. Even the really crazy poems!
There is something about the confessional nature of poetry that allows people to believe it’s all based on real life. Belief in poetry is important, it’s the ticket to ride. And of course a lot of the material in my poetry is based on my relationships. But often it’s a bit of a mish-mash, a kind of patchwork quilt of experiences. One part taken from there, another part taken from somewhere else and joined together. And this might come as a shock to people but sometimes, I just make shit up!
Maybe if you’ve never been in love or you’ve never been sad then it might be quite difficult to write a poem. But I wouldn’t wish a life without love and sadness upon anybody. Sadness is a gift. Melancholy is the deepest well that I draw my writing from. Depression is black but melancholy is different, melancholy is golden. All my favourite music is written in the key of melancholy. I think what separates it from depression is that there is hope in melancholy, things might be seriously messed up now, but they won’t always be. And there’s comfort in that.
How did you come to work with The Mime Set in the first place?
At the time I was running a poetry gig called Babble at Bar Open in Fitzroy. I had booked The Mime Set a couple of times to play there. In return they booked me to support them at a residency they held at the Builders Arms. We formed a kind of mutual admiration society and decided we should join forces. It was pretty much all my rock and roll dreams coming true at once. I have always been a frustrated rock star but I can’t sing (at least I don’t think I can) and I can’t play an instrument (this I know for certain), but here I was stepping out front of a rock band doing what I’ve always done, poetry. Our first show was for the 2005 Melbourne Fringe Festival called Death To Your Dreams. We went on to create two more shows together, LCUK: Falling In and Out of Luck and Sweet Cowboy, featuring special guest Emilie Zoey Baker.
Poetry performance is usually a solitary thing, how is it different when you work with a band?
That’s one of the reasons I started collaborating with musicians, to counteract that solitariness. I find a lot of my best work, the work I keep returning to, is that created in collaboration. I love the way you can spin off into different directions when you work with other people. The Mime Set also love the act of working with a poet. It’s very different to writing a song because it’s not the traditional verse/chorus structure. They look at it more like scoring a film. It’s important that the words float on top, the music creates the mood and is the bed for the poetry for lie in. It’s a two-way street too. Sometimes I will bring poetry to the band and they’ll arrange the music around it. At other times they’ll give me a musical arrangement that I will write a poem to. Structurally sometimes it’s very sparse and sometimes we’ll create moments when the band can wig out for a while and I’ll step back and then come back into a space where the poetry can breathe again.
When did you write your first poem and do you remember any of it?
It was sometime in the eighties and featured in my high school newsletter. It was about rap dancing, which my friends and I were pretty into at the time. We got an instructional record from somewhere with a chart in it and we used to practice at our parent’s houses. The poem was pretty damn awful, or amazing if you want to define it on a so-bad-it’s-good scale. Unfortunately I don’t remember it all but I think the last couple of lines were “jump up, jump down, we’re going to rap this city to the ground.” Genius, huh?
What’s the difference between poetry and lyrics?
I don’t know. Nothing? Maybe lyrics have to rhyme ideally? I don’t rhyme that often although I do enjoy doing it sometimes. They are so much easier to remember! What I love about poetry is the lack of constraint. I guess there can be constraint if you’re writing more formal poetry with defined structure. But I don’t know anything about that. I know pretty much nothing about the formal rules of poetry. I never studied it. Ironically I did do a creative writing course at RMIT, the Professional Writing and Editing course, which I thoroughly recommend, but I didn’t take the poetry class. Rather I studied shorty story and novel. Which is probably why most of my poems are like miniature stories but in a poetic form. I do like the idea of writing songs and a few of musician friends have asked me to give it a crack. Which is definitely on my list of things to do. My very, very, long list.
What poets should we be listening to?
The good ones? All my friends are poets or live poetic lives. You should be listening to all of them. I do a lot of work with Emilie Zoey Baker and Alicia Sometimes and obviously I adore them. We’ve been working together for over ten years now. This year we were jointly awarded a Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria to write a poetic history of the Dome Reading Room. The show is called Capital: The Beginning of the Word and will be presented at the State Library in 2015 sometime. So keep an eye out for that. I’m also a big fan of Nathan Curnow’s work and we’re planning on doing some shows together next year too, a kind of Rat Pack format storytelling gig where we’ll bounce poems and stories between each other, while drinking whiskey and possibly wearing tuxedo t-shirts.
What is the best way you know to get people interested in poetry in general?
I’ve always been interested in bringing new audiences to poetry. Melbourne is such a vibrant scene and undeniably the epicentre in Australia for live poetry. There’s a gig on nearly every night of the week.
I’m not that interested in presenting poetry gigs that only have an audience of other poets waiting to get up and have their turn. When you go to a music gig you don’t find only musicians in the audience. I think poetry is succeeding as a live performance when people are just coming along to be entertained, just as they would if they went to the theatre or a movie.
That was one of the reasons that myself, Michael Nolan and Emilie Zoey Baker created Liner Notes. Liner Notes is a literary cabaret that are tributes to classic iconic albums. We choose an album, like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust for instance and then we allocate each track to a different performer and ask them to respond to the track anyway they see fit. So it’s like a tribute night but all this original work comes out of it.
It started off at Bar Open when I was running Babble there and was originally created as a way of bringing new audiences to poetry. I knew that the fans of these particular albums would come along just to see what we would do and then they would be exposed to work they might not normally have seen before. Liner Notes has gone from an audience of 40/50 people at Bar Open to over 400 people when we did the David Bowie show at the Regal Ballroom.
See Sean perform with The Mime Set for the first time in years and perhaps the last time ever this Friday night.