Bob Evans has just released Full Circle, not so much a best of, more an opportunity to get reacquainted with his songbook and to (re)discover some of its hidden gems. He’s just about to go on tour to support the release and, at the time of speaking to Around The Sound, Evans is grappling with the reality of an outlandish promise he’s made to the punters.
There’s a bit over 80 songs in the current Bob Evans song book. Likely some train spotter type will be able to tell us exactly how many, and right now Evans himself doesn’t even seem to know. But that didn’t stop him from making the rash promise to play any of his songs on request for whoever wins the song raffle that’s going to be part of his upcoming shows. It works like this: everyone who comes through the door gets a raffle ticket and, at the appointed moment, the punter whose ticket is drawn gets to choose any Bob Evans song, which Evans will then play solo.
Other artists do similar things, but there’s a bit more sleight of hand in the way that the audience is involved in selecting songs. Not with Bob Evans. He’s committed to rehearse and learn all 80 plus songs in his back catalogue.
“That was my plan (laughs). I’m half way through it, with the first show not too far away now (19 October). It was one of those things that, when I came up with it, I thought, ‘This is a great idea,’ because I was thinking about it mainly from the punters’ perspective. But then when I actually had to look at the reality of how this was going to work, I had to sit down and make a list, and there are songs that have never been played live and that I’d forgotten about. There’s so many songs and rehearsing them all, learning them, before the first show is going to be very difficult.”
For the first time during our conversation, Evans is looking a bit worried. There’s a tiny bit of fear in his pale blue eyes.
“I’m still going to go ahead with it, obviously, I’ve promised. It is what’s going to happen, but, yeah, I’ve got no idea how it’s all going to turn out. I’ll give anything a crack that’s put out there and, if I’m not able to do it, you get a free stubby holder.”
A couple of things, then. Here’s a man who’s not one to break his promises, no matter how misguided they might be. But Evans is also willing to take a risk and, if it fails, well, there’s always the stubby holder. Can’t say fairer than that.
Those two things may just be at the heart of what makes Kevin Mitchell (aka Bob Evans) such an enduringly loved icon of the Australian pop/rock canon. He’s a man of his word, but he’s never been afraid of taking a risk. Listening to Mitchell speak about the inevitable twists and turns of his career, it’s a tiny bit difficult not to wonder whether there’s someone a bit more, not nasty, but maybe self-involved? self-centred? selfish? living inside his persona. I found myself almost hoping for a sign of some blackness of heart, controversy, because what’s a good story without a villain?
So, I’m writing this and thinking about the angles presented in what Mitchell has said. Here’s the headlines.
Mitchell survived a difficult childhood, revealing that, “As I was growing up, I was never made to feel like I was special.” The main thing his parents left him with was, “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
This then explains Mitchell’s approach to working with people, which he sums up with the words, “I don’t put any effort into people.” And, on his feelings about his Jebediah bandmates’ personal successes, “I reckon there would have been a bit of envy.”
Finally, on his reasons for making Full Circle now, Mitchell simply says, “Now is the time to do this and have complete control over the process.”
Bad parenting leaves the man damaged, difficult to work with, envious of his bandmates’ success and a control freak. That’s about it. Great story. Except none of it, not one single word, is true. Yes, they’re some of Mitchell’s words, but the selection is the writer’s fancy. Maybe I was the one who had the difficult upbringing? Is there a couch anywhere nearby?
Here’s the real story, and it’s even better than the tabloid fantasy that seems to dog many genuine rock stars, of which Mitchell very definitely is one.
Before sitting down to speak with Mitchell I’ve just heard him on the radio where he drops the F-bomb with shy glee and is referred to by his interviewer as an Australian music legend. Seems to be as good a place as any to start things off.
“I feel like I’m very realistic about that kind of stuff. I know that I can also be self-deprecating as well, and, sometimes when people think that I’m being self-deprecating, I honestly feel like I’m being very realistic. The idea of being a household name … in my life, that’s not my reality. Only on rare occasions do people make a big deal of me. I think that Jebediah and myself and what I’ve done outside of Jebediah, it means a lot to a certain group of people who are really invested in music, and our music, and my career, but it’s a big world out there. It’s flattering. It’s lovely to hear somebody say that, because it’s very positive, but I guess it’s also an awkward thing to fully accept.”
“I had parents that didn’t ever make me feel like the sun shone out of my arse. They were hard markers. If I was really successful at something, they would always be the ones saying, ‘You did OK, but don’t get ahead of yourself.’ No matter what I was achieving, as I was growing up, I was never made to feel like I was special, and I guess that’s just kind of embedded in there and how I approach things. It’s not trying to be humble for the sake of being humble, it’s just who I am.”
Those last words, ‘It’s just who I am,’ there’s no guile or mask as Mitchell says them, that is just how things are with him. And believe me, I did some fact checking before our sit down and every single member of the focus group I spoke to said exactly the same thing, ‘He’s such a nice guy.’
“I do really believe strongly in trying – not necessarily always achieving one hundred percent success at this, mind you – but always trying as hard as you can to live with respect. And that goes to whether it’s talking to a journalist, or a guitar tech or a sound tech, or whoever it is. At the bare minimum I treat everyone with respect. I try really hard to do that, but I’m not always successful. You know, I do have my bad days, where I don’t put any effort into people, but most days I think I’m able to.”
Don’t think that needs any commentary or interpretation, really. I think he may have referred to me as a journalist, which is pretty cool, if not a little misguided (the age of the real music journalist passed a long time ago, but that’s another article for another time), but then when I give Mitchell the opening, the golden opportunity to be just a little bit special next to my ordinary, he doesn’t even see the pass, much less drop the ball.
I’m trying to get to the Jebediah-Bob Evans dichotomy and rake up some controversy. I’ve checked Wikipedia and I know the band formed in 1994, so that’s where I begin my next line of interrogation.
“No, 1995,” Mitchell replies as if someone had crossed out ‘sarcasm’ in every dictionary he’d ever read. “I think that was in Wikipedia, but we formed Jebediah in February 1995, the year after we finished high school.”
If ever there was a time for eye rolling, clattering of coffee cups, threats to walk out, that was it, but all I could provoke was a gentle correction. He didn’t even make me feel stupid for not having done my research properly. Straight bat all the way, and it’s not even properly cricket season yet.
“I think I started doing Bob Evans gigs around 1998. In the aftermath of the first Jebediah record, I think I started doing little gigs … I remember doing the Grosvenor Hotel front room quite a lot, on Wednesday nights. I was doing that for years and not really wanting to do anything beyond that, just wanting to perform shows without trying to build it into something.”
“That only started happening much later. It was a funny time, because in 2005, we (Jebediah) got together and we all unanimously decided that we wanted to take a break from the band. After 10 years of constant touring and making records, by that stage we were all in our late 20s and feeling like there were parts of our personal lives that were being neglected, because the band was always priority number one. It always came first. And so, things like going travelling with your partner were impossible. You couldn’t plan to do anything. So, I think we’d all got to the point where we needed a bit of time away, and I think we envisaged it being maybe six months.”
“It turned out being a couple of years before we started picking up instruments and stuff again. It was a weird time because Jebediah were very much in no man’s land and then, when that second Bob Evans record (Suburban Songbook) came out, it was successful beyond my wildest expectations. At that time, Jebediah was being talked about in the past tense. There was the assumption that we’d broken up. ‘Former lead singer of Jebediah,’ was often how I was referred to. Which still happens to me now, but rarely. The message people were getting was that he’s solo now and Jebediah were over.”
“I can remember reading this review of Suburban Songbook, and it was glowing. The last sentence was something like, ‘If Kevin can make records this good, it must surely be the final nail in the Jebediah coffin.’ I remember thinking, ‘Fuck!’ And that was when I started getting the fire in my belly to make sure that Jebs came back. And really come back, in the way that we ended up doing, coming back with impact, making a big statement. But it was hard. The other guys in Jebs were always supportive, always really kind and generous with my solo stuff. Which I admire, because if it had been one of them doing it, I reckon there would have been a bit of envy. I’m not sure that I would have handled it as gracefully as those guys did.”
It’s at around this point that I wonder out loud whether, in a strange kind of way, Mitchell’s Bob Evans project was the saving of Jebediah.
“I’ve never actually considered that before, but it’s entirely possible, because there was a little time between Jebs going on hiatus in 2005 and Suburban Songbook taking off in 2006 … There was six to 12 months there where I was really close to kind of, not quitting music, but maybe just quitting the dream of it being my career. Purely on a financial level, there wasn’t much money coming in and the other guys in Jebs all had to go off and get jobs. So, had that record not taken off and just done nothing, the same as the first one did (Suburban Kid), it would have created a different road, and who knows what the outcome of that would have been. So I’m very lucky and very grateful that that record did what it did. It set off a really positive chain of events, both for me and Jebediah.”
The persistent existence of Mitchell’s alter ego also looks like it will help keep Jebediah in play for as long as all the band’s members want to keep on going.
“With Jebs, there’s still evolution happening, but at the same time, when the four of us make music together, it’s always going to be a certain kind of thing. And with Bob Evans, I was able to … You know what, I turn 41 in October. I’m not interested in making kids’ music any more. The music that I make now, the next Bob Evans record that I’m writing and demoing at the moment, I want it to reflect the 40-year old man, not try to reflect some kid-friendly thing.”
And who wouldn’t want to be 40-something and still able to be believable when channelling their 20-something self? It’s the best of both worlds and there seems to be a certain symbiosis in the Jebediah-Bob Evans dialectic that is healthy for each.
The world is a better place for the existence of both Bob Evans and Jebediah, so we’re lucky that Mitchell did keep making music, was one of the fortunate ones who was able to turn his talent and passion for music into a financially viable career. Mitchell reckons he was lucky to have been able to do that, too, but we’re not so sure fortune has really played the bigger part in the Kevin Mitchell/Bob Evans story.
When he talks about the new Bob Evans record, Full Circle, Mitchell lays out a creative drive and vision that says much more about his success as an artist than any amount of luck.
“It was my idea [to make the compilation]. I felt like, after five records, I would pre-empt something that could possible happen years down the track, without my involvement, which I would hate to happen. I just thought that now is the time to do this and have complete control over the process. The thing about putting out a best of, or a collection of your singles, is that it only paints a really narrow picture. The whole reason that singles exist is for radio airplay and, as we all know, only certain kinds of songs fit. A lot of my singles are on there, but I did leave a few of them off and put album tracks and songs that people may not necessarily know or have heard, because I felt like they were significant for some reason, either to me personally or to the audience. Like, there’s a song on there called Wonderful You which is a moment in the live set that always gets a really good reaction, people really respond to it, so it’s kind of grown a life of its own. It’s songs like that that I’m really proud of, that I wanted to give an opportunity for them to be noticed, shine a light on them.”
As an artist, then, Mitchell likes to do things his own way.
“Yeah, I guess so. In all those years with Jebediah and those early gigs, I can’t believe the freedom we were given. We were teenagers! We didn’t know what we were doing! And we were given complete freedom to just do whatever the hell we wanted. It was quite remarkable, especially when I consider artists, and particularly young artists, from the very beginning, a lot of decisions are made for them. Their careers are heavily cultivated right from the beginning. I’ve just never experienced that, so it just seems completely normal to feel like I make the decisions and have creative control. I can’t really imagine it any other way. And if any other way was suggested to me, I’m sure I would instantly be repelled, because it’s just not what I’ve even been used to. I’ve been lucky. And, I know what I’m doing in so far as I know what I’m trying to achieve. Sometimes its successful, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always what I want to do.”
Back to being lucky again. But record companies don’t give young bands the keys to their own garage without there being something incredibly special about them. The only element of luck in that is that the talent got spotted and nurtured. The rest of it is down to the depth of talent, clarity of creative vision and the drive to see it through to the sort of musical output that connects with an audience. Mitchell’s got all that and more. Which is why it’s so sickening that he’s also such a genuinely nice human being. Ugh!
Full Circle Tour dates
FRI 19 OCT | BLACK BEAR LODGE, BRISBANE QLD | 18+
Tickets | 1300 762 545 | All Oztix Outlets
SAT 20 OCT | LEADBELLY, NEWTOWN NSW | 18+
FRI 26 OCT | THE GOV, ADELAIDE SA | 18+
Tickets | 1300 762 545 | All Oztix Outlets
SAT 27 OCT | THE ROSEMOUNT HOTEL, NORTH PERTH WA | 18+
Tickets | 1300 762 545 | All Oztix Outlets
SAT 3 NOV | NORTHCOTE SOCIAL CLUB, NORTHCOTE VIC | 18+