All-round great guy Rick Munro once allowed me to interrogate him in the pokie's room at Sydney's Excelsior Hotel for a short-lived zine I did at the time. That was 2005 when his band H-Block 101 were touring as reggae aficionados Jimmy Spliff & The Weedkillers. Unfortunately for us all, their last ever show was at the Arthouse Hotel in Melbourne on NYE that same year.
Now to signal the closure of that very same (and much loved) pub, this amazing institution of Australian punk rock history are playing another last ever show! Hallmarking this renaissance, the original interview is now available with an -authorised- download of their excellent swan song EP, Brain On Automatic. Check that out by clicking here.
I’ve noticed H-Block 101 have been touring a lot lately. I thought you guys were dropping off a little over the last couple of years, but I think since about this time last year you’ve toured up here (Sydney) maybe three or four times. Is there any reason for this?
We don’t play Melbourne a lot. I suppose the main reason is trying to write songs and get an album together. We’re back to very much a DIY operation, so that means we’ve got more thought and time to put into songs – and most of the band members have computers and things now, so we can do home recording and try stuff out more. In a nutshell, we’ve been to Sydney more than we ever have before, but that’s only because that’s the only other thing we do. So if you don’t want to be playing Melbourne too much, like if someone goes “Look do you want to play Sydney?” you go “Oh yeah, we’ll do that.” See that’s the difference to playing Melbourne. We’re perfectly happy to play Melbourne when we get it, but at the moment we’re not actively searching for gigs in Melbourne.
Okay, standard question here, but is there any kind of story or meaning behind the band name?
As far as the band name goes, well originally Karl started the band in 1995 under title “High Energy Plan” and at the end of that he kind of went “Mmm, nah” – didn’t like it and changed the name it H-Block after seeing it on Joe Strummer’s t-shirt, I think it was in the ‘Tommy Gun’ clip. And then, we were just basically H-Block from then on. We didn’t really think we’d have much impact with the band, so we didn’t really think about it, I mean it does have connotations to the Irish Political...the IRA, and the British prison systems – that’s originally why Strummer wore it. Then after that, there was this German band called H-Block X and so we had to add the ‘101’ to alleviate the confusion with that.
You guys have been playing around for quite a while now, and you got to a point there where you were playing quite large shows. How do you feel about going back to playing the pub circuit, as you’re doing now? I guess this would apply to being on a major label as opposed to independent.
Popularity is fleeting, and there is a lack of bands that can’t go backwards in Australia. There’s a lack of people who kind of think – “Well we were playing The Metro a couple of weeks ago, we can’t go back to playing the Vic on the Park now, we’re bigger than that now” – that’s ridiculous! Audiences are fickle, things change, and they probably gain some popularity for a bit of time, but really, most of H-Block’s opportunities into the pop forum were the extent of Universal Records, not the extent of H-Block. Personally, I always thought it was ill-fated – the signing to Universal was always a bit of a weird thing. We wanted to do it to see if it would work. In all honesty – what was their agenda? I mean, if you ask me, ‘poor man’s Living End’ – better get us one of those bands. And that’s wonderful, and fine, and they had a crack at it, and the guy who signed us really liked the band, he was a true believer. But then your working within an organization, and look: They can manufacture opportunities, they can put you on major tours, you know – that’s what they do. That’s how they make acts popular and make money. I always felt a bit weird doing it, but I also think it’s very easy to stay safe. So we had to give it a go, and y’know, you come face to face with kids at all ages shows who say “You’re Shit!” and you go “We’re not shit, we’re just different.”
I actually heard a lot about this – on The Offspring tour?
Yeah. Oh, not so much The Offspring, the Grinspoon one more than the others. But that’s okay – what’s good and bad is subjective to be honest with you. I can appreciate metal bands, very talented at their craft – motherfucker players who play really well, but not really what I want to listen to.
I was wondering with the whole major/independent thing as well, if you have any preference?
The indie labels in Australia have been that corrupted that they pretty much are like mini majors anyway. I mean there are still plenty of DIY operators who are doing it all for the music and the concept of just playing music. They’re wonderful people, but to claim that we went backwards now and signed with Shock, well Shock are just as big as anyone else. Um, well what is a label? A label is just a bank – they’ll give you money to take up opportunities, they’ll provide you with the opportunities. I dunno, what was worse? The only frustrating thing about Universal was their marketing strategies and their release strategies. I mean, for a DIY band it would piss you off that they would say “No the album won’t come out this month, it’ll come out next month. No, not that month – now the month after cos the new Jimmy Barnes is coming out. No now the new U2’s coming out, you guys have been pushed back to September.” That’s the reason why ‘Burning With The Times’ took 18 months to get released. And getting out of them – they’re very legal. Whereas, you know, if you have a handshake deal with a DIY bloke, you can say “Look, this isn’t working out” and they’ll say “Yeah fair enough” and you can go and do what you want, no worries. It’s a lot easier to get in and out of. But they’re a business, it’s what they do.
Did you find many of your fans upset by your decision to sign with Universal?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There was plenty of perceivable backlash... I think there was a lot of people who were fans of the band who just went “Well, let’s just wait and see what they do anyway.” I think we did have a couple of people who kind of went “DIY...sure guys!” We had plenty of that stuff, but no worries – we took it on the chin. But you know, you had plenty of people who just went “Well, what’s the difference? They’re gonna write music, they’re still gonna play music.” I think if the band had all of a sudden written far more poppier tunes with no social comment whatsoever, people would have been justified in going “What the hell is this?” But I think the fact that the tiger didn’t change it’s stripes helped in this case.
With the recent ‘Burning With The Times’ EP, as opposed to the album of the same name, were many people confused with this concept, with 5 songs of all the same name?
Yeah, yeah it was deliberately done to confuse. Originally it started out as demos for an EP that Universal were going to release. We signed to Universal for two albums, and we completed one with them, and then a whole new change of management came in, the guy who signed us resigned, all sorts of things happened, and from that time it was ill-fated. No one on the label really wanted to keep the band because we were stupid to market as we weren’t going to do the things that pop bands were going to do. We deliberately shot ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways, like they would say – “Y’know, you really should get endorsed,” and we’d go “Fuck off! We’re not doing that” and they’d say “You really should do this” and we’d say “Nah we’re not gonna do that.” We just weren’t easy to market, so therefore they kind of got pissed off with it, but initially they did say “Look. Get out the demos for the new EP and we’ll hear them.” So we did them, just as demos, and then began the 18 month saga of ‘let us go, no we still want you, no we don’t want you but we’ll hang onto you etc etc” and it just took forever. But in the end, that was the concept behind doing that. It was deliberately to piss them off, in some ways. Major labels apply to ARIA’s agreements that constitute what an EP and what a CD are, and basically they hate EP’s. They like albums and they like singles, because that’s all that charts and makes them money. So they had all these regulations that was like “You couldn’t have more than two songs of the same title, and you couldn’t have more than three remixes” so we went “Fuck it, we’ll make a whole album where every single songs the same.” Originally it didn’t start out that way – Karl wrote a song called ‘Burning With The Times’ and Brent did one as well, and then brought them both to the studio. So then when we found out about this ARIA legislation, we kinda went “Well, let’s have a red hot go at that” so we wrote another three of the same name. Has it worked? I suppose it’s a stance in some ways, but you know, it was fun to do. I suppose it does piss people off at the same time – we promise not to do another one!
I’ve noticed a bit of a shift in the songwriting and general sound of H-Block 101, particularly in the newer material – more of a rock influence rather than punk, to draw a comparison possibly Midnight Oil? Was that a focused change and do you think this is the way the band is heading?
I think it’s just maturity...songs come to bite you on the arse. I mean, you may have wrote something when you were 16, and you meant it when you were 16, you fuckin’ lived and breathed that sentiment, otherwise you wouldn’t have put pen to paper. And then it’s not that doesn’t have any more credentials for you, it’s just that you’ve grown to see a wider view of the world. Anyone whose in a band, anyone whose been in a band, knows that you push yourself. We were always lovers of I suppose ’77 based punk, so that was always very divergent anyway. There’s a bit of a misconception that it was all Mohawks and leather jackets and one particular styling, like all three chord and fast - that's not necessarily true. And we came to the band with lots of different backgrounds anyway. So I suppose we've constantly been trying to put the reggae and ska stuff in, most people would say it's a typical thing for punks to do, but in some senses we always had those backgrounds. I suppose we've just kind of gone "Shit, I think we might be able to pull this off now!" I guess it's just how it's evolving...
So how does H-Block 101 fare overseas, compared to Australia?
Out of Australia we're currently trying to get the German tour off the ground. We've sold more EPs in Germany than we have in Australia, and that's been our only avenue into the outside world. One of the major reasons why we actually signed with Universal was there was this bullshit scenario where they said "We'll actually get you overseas" and major labels do have that ability. But what we've since discovered is that the major label has its subsidiaries in Australia, so if you're signed to Universal Music Australia, that don't mean shit. Like even if you did as well as the Living End, even if you were to go three times platinum, they would ring up and go "Wow, we've just had this great band here in Australia, just sold three times platinum" they'll say "Well how many CDs is that?" "150 000," They'll say "Pfft fuck off!" Y'know, for them it's nothing, most of their indie acts sell that much, so they wouldn't really care. So we've had a great reaction from Germany, from the underground supportive DIY scene, so we're definitely trying to get over there.
H-Block 101 have been around for quite a while now, more than most bands from the whole 90s punk wave of whom have come and gone. How do you feel the scenes and crowds are now, compared to back then?
I don't think it's any worse the ware for it, it's circular anyway. Pop music regularly requires something else to distract it - so OK, we've got new rock now, but that'll probably give way to metal, and metal will give way to country, who bloody well knows? But they'll do that because it can't exist on it's own. Anything that's popular, as in pop music, can't exist in a vacuum by itself so it needs some kind of temporary distraction, y'know? Umm, the scene... there are still people that believe in the ethics, there are still people that believe things are possible, still people prepared to put on their own shows... it hasn't done any damage. So yeah, bands will come and go, and that's in some cases really sad. There's been bands that have dropped off and you've thought "Fuck those guys were under-rated." All you can hope for is that later on, and I've noticed this in Melbourne actually as we've been doing some all ages shows lately, and now we have a whole bunch of underage kids coming up to us... hah this sounds a bit self indulgent... but we've had guys coming up to us with setlists and you think "Fuck, these songs were written when you were ten!" But that's healthy that kids will look back to their own local music... and they might never have been into H-Block or No Idea or whatever... but they'll look back and go "Aw yeah, those guys are still playing!" and that's brilliant, it's pretty amazing that still happens...
You've always had the reggae and ska influence, do you think this will always be a part of the band's sound?
Yeah it always will be. I mean, with the Jimmy Spliff thing, you get to explore it even deeper. Like we're hopefully going to be adding a horn section and a few other things which would be unreal - and you can just do that, and it gives you a bit more scope, and your songs start to get more depth. I mean you can go into rocksteady, you can go into dub, ska, bluebeat, you can go into reggae or even... ragamuffin! I'd go calypso or mento! I'd go everywhere, if I could! But that's good because it only gets further depth as you go along.
*At this point Rick has to go set up for his set with Jimmy Spliff...*
With 'Jimmy Spliff and the Weedkillers', is it just a side project for you guys, or can you see it continuing for quite a while?
It'll probably go on for quite a while. The idea is that the band's just expanded, and we've just pinched a sax player and a trumpet player and keyboard player from a band called 99% Fat - so Tom and Cam are gonna help us out, and hopefully we'll expand it to have more people. We always saw it as a band bigger than just H-Block. We wanted it to be a proper band that could do all the styles of music that everyone loves - so yeah, that is its plan.
What is your opinion on the Australian music scene right now? Any bands you like? Trends? Anything to digress about?
I kinda think it's a bit weird, and I suppose we're just about as guilty as the next band - I just wonder whether or not we're getting an Australian sound anymore. We have plenty of good Australian music; the Australian music industry is actually probably quite healthy - we have bands that are doing well and all that sort of stuff, but I worry about whether we have an Australian sound, we tend to have bands that imitate other sounds from overseas that people go 'yay' and I suppose you could look at it as we're hitting probably a little more of a Midnight Oil-ish direction. We're trying to stay eclectic because we think that it might perhaps be the only way you can get some sort of Australian sound. I think if you stay too generic and just be, y'know, a rock n roll band, or a punk band, or just a reggae band, people will go "well that's nothing new" and... it might not work. Yeah.
OK, some more standard questions... what would be your five favourite all time bands/artists?
Ooh that's a real tough question... I'll actually go with what I've seen. I think sometimes to say a band's great on record and then they're shit live... so it's almost like a top five gigs... Um, Toots and the Maytals without a doubt, that was more of a soulful reggae experience, just pretty unreal. Also, Dr John... positively brilliant to see that guy from New Orleans, that was very mindbending. Locally, Ground Components... Blueline Medic... they're some of the better bands in the country at the moment, and there's a lot more, but from where we are they're really bands that are doing something that we hope don't get overlooked. Hmmm... I think I'll have to pass on the last one... it's too hard!
Alright, now five favourite/most influential albums?
Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps - the first Bluecaps record. It's an oldier and a goldie in my opinion. The first Specials album, of course, just because it is what it is, a brilliant piece of work. Um, Tom Robinson band - Power and the Darkness. A brilliant record that everyone should give a bit of a listen to. Anything by The Ruts, and I suppose Generation X, their first record... just a fantastic record.
So what do you hope to achieve through H-Block 101 in the near future?
I think the plan is to make a really good record - and to tour more internationally, and interstate occasionally, and... not less Melbourne, but just kind of saying "Well, let's diversify." I think Australian bands, they reach a point where if they continue just to plug along in Australia they self destruct. They say "Well we're not gonna get any further because the pop up opportunities are more limited" and once you've had a shot it's rare that you get the second bite at the apple - a lot of people say "Look, you had your time in 1996, and that's it, that's where you stay..." OK, so we'd like to write a really really good record, tour internationally but still in Australia - to keep things fresh - and I guess to mature as a band.
For your next record, do you plan to release it on vinyl?
Yes - we'd love to. I mean, there's been criticism of vinyl done in Australia, some sound pretty atrocious, and the expense of doing it in Australia is phenomenal. Personally, there's opportunities to get it made overseas a lot cheaper, and we're definitely going to be looking into that - it's something the band has wished to have all along. So that's definitely a big plan - to have a 10" vinyl, I love the 10" vinyl.
Having spent time on a major label, I would still however consider H-Block 101 very much an underground band. I sort of see you guys as out on your own to an extent... how do you feel you fit in with the rest of the Australian music scene?
I'd probably say within the Australian music scene, we know plenty of people. I think within the music industry, most of those bands like us - we're probably liked by the musicians... so you meet plenty of people... I hate the concept of name dropping but maybe Rusty from You Am I goes "Oh yeah, they're a good band. Played with them once and they reminded me of what I was like when I was younger, great find!" That doesn't mean you'll be on the next You Am I tour, but it's nice to know that musicians still like each other as musicians, so that's what's good. Industry wise, we can't help but follow in many ways at the moment, so we might always be on the outer, but you never know, you could write a song that lot of people identify with and all of a sudden things can change overnight. So really... you don't have a crystal ball.