He moved his first band, the Saints, from the buzz-saw punk of their 1976 single "(I'm) Stranded" to a moodier, horn-driven sound in less than two years before the original lineup split up. Kuepper delved more deeply into a twisted, free-jazz-infused pop sound with Laughing Clowns, a group he fronted until 1985. Since then, Kuepper has leaned on more plainspoken pop music with a hint of melancholy and fuzziness around the edges, amassing a vast body of work along the way.
A household name in his native Australia, the 56-year-old musician is a cult figure in these parts and hasn't performed in the U.S. in at least a decade. The announcement of his appearance as part of the strange and wonderful Sometimes a Great Notion festival was a delightful surprise. He'll be playing with longtime drummer Mark Dawson and dipping into his vast archive of songs for what promises to be an energetic and wily performance. We talked with Kuepper from his home in Melbourne.
WW: When did you first want to make music?
Ed Kuepper: There was never a time when I didn't want to be a musician. I grew up in Brisbane—in those days, a fairly isolated, sort of country town. When I could afford to, I would buy albums, things that had a strange influence on me: Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5. Those are kind of the ordinary influences these days, but in the '70s they weren't referenced as much. I feel like they've been taken away from me, in a way.
What broke up the Saints back in 1978?
We wanted to do things that were significantly different from each other, artistically. Chris [Bailey, the band's vocalist] wanted to do a much more straightforward pop-rock kind of thing, which I was not very keen on. I wanted to move it into a fairly intense, darker, more experimental direction. Prehistoric Sounds is a key album in some ways to explaining why we split because Chris hated that record. I had to do a combination of pleading and threatening to get him to finish it.
You took Laughing Clowns to London soon after it formed. Why?
It made sense to me because what the Clowns were doing was fairly radical in the Australian environment. Plus, I think I wanted to be closer to Europe, and it struck me that we'd have access to 10 times as many people. We made that move; it was the right thing to do. It just kind of went belly up for the band because drug problems came into it. Then my wife and I had a new baby, which put me right outside of the rest of that scene.
Both of those bands have re-formed in recent years. Are there calls to keep them going?
All the time. But with the Saints, Chris didn't want to do it. He runs a new lineup of the Saints, so he feels it's a conflict of his interest because people are more interested in the original lineup rather than the new band.
You played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on a recent tour. Is that a permanent gig?
I think so. It started off as one-off thing. At the end of the tour, I was asked if I wanted to do more. But Nick operates on his own time. The tour ended two years ago, but nothing has happened since.
What do you have planned for Portland?
What we're mostly going to be doing is reworking songs, doing sometimes radical reworkings of older material. There's always an element of that in my live sets. I never can let songs sit.
Is it frustrating that people here know you mostly from your earliest work?
It's something that I kind of resigned myself to.