Kim Salmon and the Surrealists
I Am a Scientist
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Since forming the Cheap Nasties, considered Perth’s first punk band, in 1976, Kim Salmon has blazed a trail that began in Australia, but has extended much further. With the Scientists, he formulated a concoction of proto-punk and other base elements that was every bit as explosive as the music of contemporaries like Radio Birdman and the Birthday Party. That band’s raw sounds were later to prove to be an impetus for the Pacific Northwest’s grungy eruption in the ’90s, but by that time Salmon had already moved on, forming the Surrealists in 1988 to explore his more avant garde tendencies. That group ceased operations in the late ’90s, with Salmon continuing to explore his creative impulses on his own and with a number of different outlets.

In recent years, though, Salmon has found himself revisiting his past two-fold. Both bands regrouped in 2006, and Salmon and the Surrealists released a new album, Grand Unifying Theory, earlier this year. Both the Scientists and the Surrealists will be coming to the States this September, with the former playing their Blood Red River in its entirety at All Tomorrow’s Parties New York’s Don’t Look Back night. It seemed as good a time as ever to catch up with Salmon via telephone from his home in Melbourne, 14 hours ahead of eastern daylight time.

What’s it like living in the future?

Kim Salmon: Oh, I’ve always done it. Right now, I’m only 14 hours ahead, but usually I’m four or five years ahead of my time, so I’ve come back especially for you.

I’ll start with a sort of obvious question. Is there a grand unifying theory to Grand Unifying Theory?

KS: The theory is that it’s a good title! It sounds big enough for just about anybody to put whatever meaning they intend on it. I like it because it’s grand and has a certain amount of... I don’t know if "pretension" is the right word. I could put myself in the line of fire for saying it. I could be criticized. There was a review that didn’t come right out and say it, but said we could be accused of “Pink Floyd wankery.” That was about the big long track, and not so much the title. I like to think it was a fairly audacious move and I like that sort of thing. You have to take a chance every once in awhile.

Given the way the record was made, though, do you think there is something that ties the songs together?

KS: Oh yeah, there is. It was done in a fairly free and easy way. If it does unify things, it is a lot of ideas that were floating around during the later period of the Scientists. Things like “Blood Red River” and “Human Jukebox,” those were just whacked down onto the tape as they happened and the form that they took was the form that they took at that instance. We didn’t deliberate over the structures of our songs. We just had a rough idea of how it would go and we just went in and played it, and from the beginning to the end of the songs, there was a fair bit of improv as well. Since I felt like I was coming back to that with the Surrealists, I thought it was a nice way of tying things up. I had intended to link what we were doing with things from the past, and I suppose I was asking for it by calling the album that, but it was really just the grandness of the title that attracted me to it. It also made me think of Sun Ra or something like that, but it is just a title, just a name. My name’s Kim, which I think means “glorious leader.” Well, maybe I am or maybe I’m not. Maybe I just lead people down the garden path.

How much shaping of the recordings did you do afterwards? The press sheet made it sound like you spliced them together.

KS: Me and Mike (Stranges), the producer, did. The band whacked it all down really quick and let what happened happen as much as possible and then we saw what we had and saw what we could turn it into. And that’s the way I believe Bitches Brew and On the Corner and a lot of records like that came about. They just left the tape machine on.

But is what ended up on the album much different from what you played in the studio. “Splicing” makes it sound like you were taking bits and pieces from different places.

KS: Really what we did was just pick the good takes. There wasn’t much splicing. There’s a bit of “Grand Unifying Theory” tacked on to the beginning of “Childhood Living.” What I would do is drive around in the car listening to the sessions until ideas came into my head. The songs weren’t actually songs until afterwards. We just had music sessions. It’s like we had a big Jackson Pollack painting, where paint was splashed around like mad, but then we put it into a gallery. But that’s getting away from the quantum physics thing and mixing our metaphors.

Do you think by working in this spontaneous manner you were able to tap into something intangible?

KS: Yeah, that’s what you hope for always. Having things under control can be good, but when things are done this way, it’s unpredictable and you don’t know what’s going to happen. That was my intention. I just set up some framework because these guys in the band are really good at that and I wanted to showcase it.

You’ve worked on other things in interim, but why was it so long between Surrealists records?

KS: What happened with the Surrealists was sort of strange. We played through the ’90s and kind of became just like every other alternative band. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it wasn’t what our intentions were and we just morphed into it. I eventually changed the name of the band to the Business and we actually got some radio play over here, though it didn’t turn into record sales. That eventually became a big juggernaut—with horns—that I couldn’t keep on the road, and I got tired of it and decided to do something that was fun and not worry about trying to sell records so much. I’d just do things because I liked it. I ended up making some interesting records. I made a record that was half taking the piss out of the stuff that’s happened subsequently, the kind of acoustic folkie stuff that’s come into vogue. I called it “sharehouse” folk music, because every student was a songwriter putting their diaries over A-major seventh. So I did an album of that stuff, gently mocking that idea. It was called E(a)rnest.

But to get back to your question, people kept asking me to bring back things like the Scientists, which I had done, and some people in Spain actually asked me to get the Surrealists back together to do a festival. So I got the band back together, but it was really a line-up of the Business, but without the horns. It had Stu Thomas from the last line-up of the Surrealists, but Phil Collings was the drummer in the Business. He’s a jazz player and he lapped up the Surrealists material, particularly the early stuff. We played this festival and I thought that we sounded better than we had ever sounded. I thought then and there that I had to record this band. That was in 2006 that that happened and we did some shows here (in Australia) in 2007, but there weren’t that many and we all had lives to live so it made it a protracted process. The record was done over three sessions, but that’s why it took so long.

Mark E. Smith once said that it could be him and your grandma playing bongos and it would still be the Fall. As long as it’s you, is it the Surrealists?

KS: It actually initially was a floating line-up when I started the band up at the end of the Scientists. The drummer had up and left and the other guys couldn’t handle it. That’s why it’s great playing with Stu and Phil, because they’re adaptable and can actually evolve. I could see the end coming so I thought I’d get my own band together in London, and since my name meant nothing there, I put it there at the front of the band’s name to add some value so in the future if I did things my name would be there. In this day and age that tactic doesn’t work so well; people are suspicious of it and you get tired of seeing it at the beginning of every permutation. So there have been a few line-ups, but it’s more about the idea of what it is than the particular personnel.

After the Scientists, you’ve done quite a few different things. Do you have a need to always be doing something different?

KS: Ah thinking of all those years! I’m not Francis Rossi (of the Status Quo)! I never had a hit record, and since I didn’t have my bread buttered on one particular side, there was no reason to stick with it. The reason for me being involved with music have never been fiscal, so really it’s just being adaptable that’s enabled me to do it. Finding ways of playing has involved lots of different things. It’s made it hard for people to follow. The artful thing would have been to make lots of little two-degree shifts and have people say, “My god! He’s a genius!” I do appreciate people that have followed my career, though.

The Scientists reunion at All Tomorrow’s Parties is big news over here. And this is the first time the Scientists have played the States, right?

KS: Yeah, but not the Surrealists, funnily enough. We came to New York in ’96 and played with Congo Norvell. We did a whole U.S. tour and got ourselves six grand in debt. We played LA, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, went through the Midwest, came to New York, went down south and came back across again. One of my great enduring memories is of that road trip. But yeah, the Scientists never mad it over there.

With the Scientists, did you ever think of coming to the States? Was that a desire?

KS: Well sure, we had quite a few pipe dreams, but the band didn’t last long enough. We made use of what opportunities were handed to us, but most of them involved touring around Europe.

And are you playing the longer Sympathy version of Blood Red River or just the EP?

KS: That would be good if we could just play the EP, eh? No, we’re going to do the Sympathy version. The audience is going to have endure the whole thing! In a way, I think because we were on indie labels back then, rather than majors, we had a string of EPs and singles. Had we managed to get on Atlantic or Elektra, or whatever in our wildest fantasies, and had some A&R person looking after us, they would have told us to just put out one single out and then do an album. But because we were on a little indie label of tight asses they just kept telling us to put something out. There’s no shortage of material if you look what we put out in subsequent years, but they kept wanting us to put something out every few months. We spread ourselves a bit thin, so my fantasy is we would have done an album with 10 tracks and stuff like “Clear Spot” and “Demolition Derby” would have been B-sides to singles. Actually “Clear Spot” was a B-side! What am I talking about?

Is it odd playing the old material? Do you feel like you’ve moved on?

KS: Yes and no. There’s some quaint stuff and some naivety. I wouldn’t write lyrics like that in this day and age, but I don’t think they’re bad lyrics. They were my first attempts at writing lyrics! In that line-up of the band, I had a musical vision more than anything. When it came to putting it all together back in 1981, I realized I had to sing something. Prior to that, in the earlier line-up, James Baker was the lyric writer, so I was used to having lyrics written for me. But then I was left with the chore. I’ve gotten to like doing it, but those were my first attempts. There was probably more of my life in then them, whereas subsequently I’ve learned to look around me and make observations. In those days, all I had was what I knew, which was being a teenager and getting wasted and hooning around in fast cars. In a naive way, I was sort of chronicling Australian suburbia, at least through the filter of my beer goggles.

Did you ever imagine you’d be sharing the same stage as the Stooges? I know they were a big influence.

KS: I actually did share a stage with Iggy half by mistake. The Beasts of Bourbon toured Australia with Iggy in ’93. He asked if I’d get up and play an encore. I was meant to play “Louie Louie.” It looked like somebody was motioning me up, but they weren’t, and I got up three songs too early. The roadie was scurrying around panicking, throwing leads and wheeling an amp onstage. I realized I didn’t know what the fuck the song was. I had them shout out the chords to me. It was fun, even though I was freaked out, and I did three songs ending with “Louie Louie.”

But no, I’d never imagine it. I’d never imagine that I’d even see the Stooges. The Scientists were definitely inspired by the Stooges. A lot of our songs were like particular songs, but changed. We’d do things like the Stooges, but with completely different time signatures. I like to think we took some of their jazzier ideas, more free form things, and took them off on a tangent in that direction. The Stooges really had a strong jazz groove, especially on Funhouse and the first album. In a lot of ways that was the primitive rock thing. What the Scientists did was to make the songs harmonically and chordally more simple and primitive. In order to make that sustainable, we had to do a whole lot of things behind the scenes with the rhythm. So you have things like “Solid Gold Hell,” which shifts from 6/8 timing into 3/4 timing for the bridges and then for the choruses goes into to 5/8, which is like prog or something, though no one thought we were a prog band. But in order to keep doing the same two chords, that’s what we had to do. It’s not that people don’t do that, but for a primal rock band like us it’s pretty jazzy. And the Stooges were the inspiration for that, particularly the first two albums. Having said that, I love Raw Power and to see James Williamson play guitar is a dream of mine. As a guitar player, he’s one of my top three influences.

Besides the people involved, if you had to pinpoint it, what do you think separates the Scientists from the Surrealists?

KS: The Scientists was a band that we did when we were kids. You form a band because it seems like a cool thing to do and it’s expedient with the people around you. With the Surrealists, we’ve made music our lives. Not to say the other guys haven’t, but as my friend Dave Graney would say, we’re lifers. In the last 10 years I’ve had a day job, but I’ve made music my life for a long time. And the playing abilities are much different. The Scientists were strictly rock ’n’ roll. One of the Scientists guitarists, there are things he won’t touch. He hates jazz. So there’s limitations. Why play five notes when you can play one? That said it’s amazing that the band did what it did and in a lot of ways was unlimited.