Welcome to the world of The Southern River Band, where everything isn’t quite as it seems, but satisfaction is guaranteed.
Talking to Callum Kramer on the eve of the Southern River Band’s upcoming national tour, he finishes up by saying they’ll be leaving for the east coast on Valentine’s Day, to which I say something like I bet you’ll break at least a hundred hearts leaving town on that day. “Yeah, 100 per cent,” is his ironic response. It’s just about the least serious he’s been all day, and this is a man well known for his thousand-quips-a-minute motor mouth. He’s not picking up what I’m putting down at all. But, as we walk out of the Highgate bar where we’ve been bunkered down for the afternoon, it takes us at least 20 minutes to get back onto the street. There are greetings at every table we pass, handshakes, kisses, hugs, chats with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. All eyes are on Kramer. It’s definitely not me they’re looking at.
That doesn’t really happen in Perth. This is a city where you can be 20 plus years into an internationally acclaimed music career and still be anonymous while out in public. Maybe it's the shirt open to the waist, the mirror aviator sunnies, the hair. Who the fuck knows? But, if you’re out in public with Callum Kramer, front man of The Southern River band, don’t expect to go unnoticed.
Contradictions are part of the Kramer method. They’re also part of his charm.
Welcome to the world of The Southern River Band, where everything isn’t quite as it seems, but satisfaction is guaranteed.
Somehow, at some point during an afternoon of imbibing, it may have been my fault, we got onto politics. Kramer took to it like coconut oil to a mullet.
“If people are going to listen to anybody, I feel like I’ve got something to say. Because people are already listening, and I’ve got to use it (the platform) for change, you know. Change what? I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out when I get there. I’d love to do a political run. Are you kidding me, it’d be great! At the grass roots, local government level, because you can really do something, your voice is louder. If you come in with the right ideas, the right people around you, who knows what you could do? If you go out into the suburbs, you see a lot of shit that’s pretty fucked up all of the time, that’s pretty easily fixed.”
But, because he is here to promo the tour, he manages to bring it back to the band.
“That’s the whole thing with getting the band to a certain point. Obviously, global domination’s the goal, because then you won’t have to take the money from doing the [political] job, and then you can actually do things that will benefit change. There are people out there in the world that are trying to do things like that. And that’s very ‘Callasophical’, but you’ve gotta dream big.”
We’ve already mentioned hair a couple of times now, so I deftly throw in his upcoming gig judging a mullet competition.
“I had people telling me to enter and I go, ‘Mine’s not a fucking mullet, it’s a mane’. King of the jungle sort of shit.”
I take a closer look and he’s right. Is there nothing about this man that hasn’t been thought through down to the ‘n’th degree? I don’t think so. Kramer continues for a bit about the mullet competition.
“I’m shitting myself, a little bit. There’s people coming from all over the state. If I leave out the wrong person... You think about the kind of person who’s going to be coming out for a fucking mullet comp in Thornlie. Think about that!”
It’s hard to imagine Kramer being afraid of anything much. There’s a brash confidence about him that, coupled with his intelligence and fast mouth should be guaranteed to get him out of pretty much any scrape. Or, into them, who really knows? I contemplate this as Kramer pivots on the hair and other rock star clichés theme that we’ve somehow found ourselves delving into.
“The thing with the clichés is, and I’ve thought about it a lot, the uninformed will say shit and come up to me and say things like, ‘rock star,’ or whatever and I’ll be, ‘Nah!’ That’s not what it is. My earliest memory is watching Stevie Ray Vaughan And Double Trouble Live At [The] El Mocambo. I’ve watched that tape, the VHS, more times than I can count, with the hat and the shirt and whatever. I grew my hair when I was 10 years old and then I had 10 years of people coming up to me going, ‘Hello, what’s your name little girl?’ And I think that’s why the clichés haven’t stuck. That’s the easy out. People throw it at us and I go, ‘Yeah? Well, fuck you, cunt. Watch this!’ This is real. These lyrics are real, this song is real. I’ve spent my whole life playing this. It’s one of those things in life where you can’t explain it, it’s just part of you. I know that sounds kind of wankery, but it really is. I’ve tried to do other shit and it’s just not right, it’s not me. That’s just what comes out when we’re on stage. I want to do that sort of shit. I naturally just do it.”
One of the contradictions that defines Kramer is that he talks a lot, the words spray from his mouth with machine-gun speed, and that makes them sound throw away a lot of the time. But, if you can freeze frame him and then do the forensics on what he’s saying, Kramer’s words often mean a whole lot more than he’s letting on. He hides in plain sight behind torrents of speech, the deliberately cultivated rock-star clichés, but the real Callum Kramer is always there right before your eyes. He is a master illusionist.
Take what he’s just said. It’s all swagger and bravado, swearing and chicanery. Careful, though or you’ll miss the bits about how long he’s been studying the craft of guitarist/songwriter/performers like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not just watching, but studying. Blink and you’ll miss the significance of the reference to VHS, yesteryear technology, but an indication of how well Kramer knows his stuff and how much of a debt he owes to those who’ve come before him. Be beguiled by his smile as he speaks and you probably won’t register how hard it would have been growing up on the mean streets of the south eastern suburbs of Perth as a somewhat androgynous wannabe rock star. Buy into his brash, ‘fuck you!’s and you’ll overlook the cut he’d feel each time someone ripped into the heart of his existence by writing off his life’s work as just one more rock and roll cliché.
Not that we should feel at all sorry for Kramer. That’s not the point. He’s doing just fine, thank you very much. No, the point is that, he’s not just playing a game, taking on a role. People might want to call him a rock star, but Kramer’s having none of that. This is as real as life gets in Kramer’s world, and that’s one of the multitude of reasons why he’s so good at being the rock star he wants to deny that he is.
Confused? You ought to be. This shit is complex, because it’s real life, not just an act.
“As dumb as it sounds, I truly believe that [this is what I was born to do]. I’ve tried other things. I was a furniture removalist, a ceiling fixer. I worked in a music store, I worked at Coles. Every time I knew that this wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. It really does go back to the art of showbiz, which is entertainment. Know what I mean? I love doing it. I love being able to be the person that’s doing what we’re doing. When you look out and know that you’re the reason that people are smiling, it doesn’t matter how many... Intercourse is very high on the good feelings list, but when you’re looking out and you see people smiling and when you have people come up to you after you’ve played and thank you for doing something that you love to do, and you’ve hit their emotions in a positive way, that shit’s just second to none.”
So, there, boom! Kramer does enjoy being a rock star! And, let’s face it, who wouldn’t want that? But he hasn’t made himself into one, it’s his birthright. Every social group has a bard in it, the one who chronicles the stories of the society that they’re usually only just subsisting on the margins of. They see what others don’t, can weave magic through their words and with their voice, and they’re usually adored and reviled in fairly equal measures. Often, they end up dying tragically, in modern days it’s usually drugs or helicopters, and their fame brings them both joy and sorrow in plentiful supply. There’s not much level ground between the peaks and troughs. Life as a bard is an all or nothing kind of existence. It must get quite wearing emotionally.
So, who the fuck does Callum Kramer think he is?
“He’s a cunt! (Laughs long and loud.)
“I spend the majority of my time thinking through things and thinking about ... everything, really! Thinking about what I think we need to do, Plan A, B, C. With the music that we play, we are in a tough spot, because we’re not exactly going to be media darlings. My whole thing is, we will [become media darlings], but we will lead that charge. A lot of it’s just chilling out and making sure I’m ready to go at all times. Playing guitar, practising as much as I can. Really getting stuck into that. Talking with our manager, Alex (Miller) about our next moves, trying to really stay one step ahead. Making sure that all our foundations are concrete and ready to build a skyscraper on.
“Other than that, if I’m on my own, I’m on my own. I’m 100 per cent the same person I am anywhere else. When I started this band, the only reason I started it was because I started writing songs and I always hated singing. I sang in the school choir as a kid and I fucking hated it. Absolutely despised it. Then, four or five years ago now, I started writing songs, and I realised that I was going to be the one who was going to have to sing them and people were telling me, Blue Shaddy (Kramer’s first band) and those guys were telling me, ‘You need to go and do your own thing now.’ And they fucked me off in the best throw-me-in-the-deep-end kind of way.
“I made a commitment to myself at the first gig we played at the Thornlie Tavern that I’m going to be like I’m talking to you right now, like I talk to anybody, on stage. I’m going to talk the exact same shit, live and die by my sword. Yeah, it’s going to get me in the shit every now and then if I piss the wrong person off, but, again, go fuck yourself. I know my heart’s in the right place and I know that I’m not a malicious person. What I’m learning to deal with now is that, apart from the moments in life where everyone wants to go into solitude for a bit, everything is exactly the same as if I’m sitting down with my mates hanging out. The biggest thing is dealing with that. A lot of people have been telling me I need to try to find that off switch, where you can take yourself away, to be able to separate it and not have it all one constant thing. I understand that, but at the same time, it goes back to authenticity. Being authentic is, I think, one of my biggest strengths. When I’m up there [on stage] talking shit, I’ve got no fucking idea what I’m going to say next, and that’s half the fun.”
Again, a lot of words. If you haven’t seen The Southern River Band yet, you need to know that they’re worth the price of entry just for Kramer’s on-stage repartee. Tune in, you’ll learn something every time and it’s total entertainment of the shock and awe type.
But, enough about Kramer, what about the band? Unsurprisingly, he’s got plenty to say about that, too.
“We’re forever taking forward steps, however small they may be, and I think that’s the best thing we can possibly be doing. The music that we play isn’t exactly lapped up by the mainstream culture now. Within youth culture, there’s all these streaming things or whatever, but unless you’re told about us ... I look at it this way, we’re a band that, without radio airplay, has stepped out of Perth, the most isolated city in the world, playing music that a lot of people say is dated. But they can go and fuck themselves, because music is never dated, it’s just music, you know. It’s real, and we want people to come see us and make up their own minds. Even though we’re not getting that radio airplay, the word of mouth is exponential. The fact that we’re able to now go out, next month, starting a month-long national tour, hitting all the major cities and then some, and the fact that Melbourne’s almost sold out already, I think that looking purely at the data, as they say in 2019, we’re taking steps forward. And we will continue to take those steps forward.
“You’ll see bands come through and be flavour of the month, or whatever, have their two minutes in the sun. My whole life has been, you go the long way, and you learn every pitfall along the way, rather than taking the shortcut. Because, if you’ve taken the shortcut, when you get to the first hurdle, you don’t know what to do. By doing it like that, we’re just being straight up. The hard thing is the music culture of ‘what’s on the radio’. If we do make it, it’ll be completely off our own bat. And I back us 100 per cent.
“I see the way that people react to our songs. If we had a bigger platform, you show me someone who’d say, ‘There’s no way people would be into that,’ and, again, I’d say, ‘Go fuck yourself!’.
“We’ve got Dan Carroll playing guitar now, because Jules left the band after the last tour. Other than that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’re going in with the same mentality. It’s a rock and roll dance party. It’s a fucking good time. Hopefully you fall in love. It’s a night when everything changes for ever.
“We go out there with our music and put smiles on faces. That’s what it’s all about and that’s what I can fucking guarantee. If you’re into music and you want to see a live rock and roll show then, why wouldn’t you? That’s why we do it and will continue to do it. We’ve got some fucking fire in our bellies, because our last gig was New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day is our next gig. We haven’t not played for six weeks in a fucking long time.”
He’s right, you know, if it ain’t broke, don't fix it. And, for all of Kramer’s outsider, we’re out of fashion, never get played on the radio schtick, he knows full well that The Southern River Band have the goods and that they bring it every time they get on stage. They’re the sort of band that people keep coming back to see and every time they play, everywhere they go, their audience grows through word of mouth. Every Southern River Band tour is a reprise of the last one, but each time they hit the road their aim is to take their audience higher, move them more and make them smile until it hurts.
Kramer won’t contemplate it just yet, but their template has The Southern River Band headed for stadiums with the sort of highly produced sight and sound spectaculars that the likes of Van Halen and AC/DC are known for. That’s not overreach, that’s just telling it like it is. It’s only a matter of time. If you’ve seen them before, you know you’re going to see The Southern River Band again during February and March. If you haven’t been yet, what the fuck are you waiting for?
Photo credits: Greg Lewis
The Southern River Band ‘Gather No Moss’ Tour
03/03 - Nannup Music Festival, Nannup
08/03 - Jack Rabbit Slim's, Perth
16/03 - Nukara Music Festival, Geraldton
23/03 - The River Hotel, Margaret River
30/03 - A Day On The Cans Festival, Adelaide