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Interview with Stuart Grant of Primitive Calculators

On the sixth of July I interviewed Stuart Grant of Primitive Calculators.

Ez: Good afternoon. So, Primitive Calculators weren’t active for a while. What was the impetus for starting it up again?

Stuart: 2008, I came back to Melbourne after not living here since 1983, so twenty-five years, and The Primitive Calculators was always me and my songs and the other guys doing what I wrote for them to play. And so, we weren’t in the same city, there was no Primitive Calculators. I was off doing other things and having a life. I thought it was in the past. I had never even considered it. I was aware that all the records had been re-released and I was aware – sort of – that there might have been some effect on younger people who were playing music by the band, but I never really thought about it.

Then it was the first time that we were all in a room. The record label that had re-released all our stuff from the seventies – Chapter Music – It was a combination of interest from Chapter Music and the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, where were asked to play at that.

I didn’t want to do it but then they gave us all this money and I thought “Oh well it would be a joke, it would be a laugh to try and dig up these things and spend a bit of time in this room with these all people that I had a band with when we were in high school”. So we did it and did that festival and a lot of people came out of the woodwork. A lot of old people, a lot of people in their thirties, in their twenties and I thought “Oh wow, that’s interesting”. And it became more and more apparent that this thing that we’d done in the 1970’s had had this effect.

Even though we were a complete failure in the seventies and everyone hated us and we were really shit, it had had this later effect.

So the opportunity to keep playing existed and I thought “Well is there any point to doing that?”, and I thought “Well, just in the little bit I’ve done since I’ve put it back together, what’s really apparent is the technology exists to do the compositional things, the impossible compositional things that I was trying to do in the 1970’s, could now be done.” So I thought “Alright, I’ll try and do that”.

And that lead to the

. Then a different set of problems, compositional problems emerged as a result of that record. All the people who were in the band decided to leave and that presented new possibilities and it just became a living thing.

Ez: So the personnel change, does that explain why The World is Fucked sounds kind of chaotic and really loose, freewheeling versus ON DRUGS which sounds a lot more composed, a lot tighter, a lot more melodic in a sense?

Stuart: No, because most of the people on – apart from all the extra singers and guests and stuff – ON DRUGS, the core band is still the same people.

But The Primitive Calculators was always, like I said, about trying to write pop songs, but trying to combine that with musical challenge and musical chaos and destruction in a way in which – and this is me as an eighteen year old naive idealist – if you could take these pop structures that people really understood and had in their bodies and in their beings, and fill them with these ruptures and splits and breakdowns and noise that was so horrible to listen to, that you would be able to get them and challenge them and it would set everyone free from the [structures] and bonds from their everyday life and the world would be better.

So but what that set up compositionally was a tension between a really strict, tight ordering. At various different times the chaos and the order exist in various ways. So strict repetition ordering, but the sound itself might have this really uncontrolled sonic element that is really unpredictable, and so you’d be doing this strict repeat of this out of control stuff.

That tension between the order and the chaos had always existed and always did exist. It took a particular form and manifestation in The World is Fucked.

By the time of ON DRUGS, that particular compositional challenge, the order versus the chaos, was still there but it had ceased to be more prominent. The aim of ON DRUGS was to keep the intensity, but to emphasize the funk aspect, because in the twenty years between… twenty-five years… actually twenty-eight years between breaking up The Primitive Calculators and putting it back together again, I’d worked with big funk bands and done a James Brown thing, and worked as a jazz singer.

James Brown has always been kind of the lynchpin of everything. Even in the original Calculators James Brown was the lynchpin. We were James Brown fans. If you listen to those records that we put out in the seventies, it’s like really primitive, clumsy versions of “Cold Sweat”. But we’ve got these primitive things of blocks of that stuff.

So, I wanted to emphasize the funk stuff more on ON DRUGS but still keep the intensity and the ferocity of the sounds and the tempos and stuff. So, it’s just a shift in compositional priorities of working with the same elements and inputs.

Ez: Do you think that shift also comes from just having more experience and possibly becoming better since being a teenager?

Stuart: Yeah yeah, definitely. And what’s interesting now, is because the new people in the band are all musicians – the old people were never musicians. They were just my friends from high school, and we all loved music and they were more art-oriented than they were music-oriented. Now everybody is a musician, and so the challenge shifts again.

Ez: So, then with that being said, cause you said that they’ve always played the parts that you’ve written for them, do you write with specific things in mind from your perspective, or do you try to write things that they would play they play?

Stuart: In the original band, I just used to write everything and drill it in. From when we got back together in 2009 up until the new band, it was still doing that, but looking for ways to open it a bit more, but then it would always come down to, Denise would say “Just tell me what to play”.

But now, working with Chris, working with Emah and working with Mo, who are really bringing their musical vision to things… I still write quite complex and finished things in Ableton, and I give it to Chris and I say “Okay, what can we do with this?” and we work on what I’ve written, and then Emah comes in with the synths and adds bits of stuff and works from that, and there’s a lot more vocal emphasis as the ON DRUGS album shows.

Emah, myself and Mo have started to use vocal processors and we work a lot with the vocal sounds. Mo is a real genius on the vocal processor. She brings in all these ideas to the vocals as well.

So, it’s still basically that same process. I bring in a pretty finished thing, but there’s more input from the others into that.

Ez: So it does shift it around a bit.

Stuart: Yeah yeah, definitely.

Ez: There’s a sense of dark humour – Obviously I’m not too sure how prominent it is on previous works, but ON DRUGS there seems to be very prominent, ironic situations, dark humour and whatnot. How important do you think humour is to the intensity of the music?

Stuart: I wonder. I worry, actually whether the humorous aspect takes away from the intensity of the music.

When we were the original Calculators, there was no humour. We were dark, serious, negative, nihilistic young people who wanted to destroy the world and remake it anew.

Being older, all of that naivety is gone, but the challenge on The World is Fucked was to make an album as utterly nihilistic as possible. Without value. ON DRUGS has a more explicit, humorous thing in it, but it’s kind of umm… it’s just as nihilistic… Well it’s not just as nihilistic, ON DRUGS. It’s got a very strong political thing going on in there as well, but I guess it’s just about growing old and it’s just about the imminence of death. That’s what it is.

The ultimate joke is [that] you’re born, you get all this investment in you from all these people who teach you all these things and you learn all these values and you try really hard and you strive and you try and make stuff happen, and you have your beliefs and your principles and your values and you build this stuff and that’s it and then you die.

(Both of us laughed).

Ha ha ha. It’s like God is the ultimate stand-up comedian. And so, the older you get and the more imminent the encroach of death, the more ridiculous everything seems.

Ez: So, if you find everything absolutely and utterly ridiculous, is that to say you’re pretty close to death then?

Stuart: Yeah yeah.

Ez: Okay. Alright. That’s good to know. Maybe I should stop thinking so much about it.

Well, not to blow smoke up your ass or anything but I think the humour aspect is actually pretty good. [I think that] humour should always be something that does challenge and make people think about things, should make people laugh and whatnot, but then again that raises another question:

I don’t know if this is stupid or not, but does humour have to be funny to work?

Stuart: No. Look at Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., nothing funny about that. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm. But there was something that I was watching recently.

There’s a whole spate of new Netflix comedies, post-Ricky Gervais, Post-Louis C.K., but before it’s funny and in order to be funny, comedy is about everything that is low and base and hypocritical and disgusting in the human. It puts us in front of ourselves and says “Look at what we fucking are. Look at this stupid monkey that thinks it’s not a monkey. How fucking deluded is it?”.

That’s the essence of comedy. One of the essences of comedy. There’s nothing funny about that.

Because comedy is about everything that’s base and low, it always tilts in that direction. If you look at Lenny Bruce, at the end of Lenny Bruce’s career, there was nothing funny at all. It was just diatribes, just going “America, what the fuck do you think you are?”, and it was a stand-up comedy as just this diatribe of bitter social commentary, and I think that that’s a really important element of comedy.

Ez: Is that then part of the reason why humour was used in ON DRUGS? ‘Cause it works well as a commentary more so than the aspect of…

Stuart: Perhaps. Yeah, that’s a good thought. I’ve never had that thought and I wasn’t aware that that’s what I was doing, but in ON DRUGS, there is a definite aim towards making something that has some meaning in the sense of it’s a critique of Chicago school of economics thinking.

And so perhaps that’s where the comedy comes in ’cause it’s got more meaning. Trying to say more other than “Death, lack of meaning, void, nothingness”, which is what every other Primitive Calculators song has tried to say in the past.

Ez: Now, with… I started listening to Primitive Calculators, I think about a year after The World is Fucked came out, and I think it was about a year, two years after that where you started talking about wanting to make a record about being on drugs and stuff, and then it was about five year later that ON DRUGS came out?

Stuart: Five years between the two albums, yeah.

Ez: For lack of a better phrasing, what took so long?

Stuart: (laughter) Well, the album was recorded and finished two years before it got released. It was a combination of lots of things. The changing of personnel, the changing of record companies, the changing of management that we had at the time all conspired to put it back and put it back and put it back and put it back, and so it just took that long to sort through. Six months to eight months trying to sort out new management, six months to eight months trying to work with that new management to see what we were going to do. Then the old record company going “Umm, uhh, umm, uhh”, for about six months and us going “Well, make a decision”, and then sorting it out with the new record company and then having to fit in with the new record company’s schedule. All of that, just the years went by. But it won’t be this long between the next one. We’ve started working on it already.

Ez: I was actually going to ask about that because when I asked about the interview, you said you were in the studio on Monday and Tuesday. Is that for –

Stuart: No, that’s a new thing.

Ez: Completely separate.

Stuart: Yeah, that’s me, Claire E. Brown and Evelyn Morris making a pop record. Hip hop and pop. I’ve written the songs and come in with basic tracks. Evelyn has put on a lot of instrumentation and then having a big production role. Claire E is working a lot on the vocal arrangements with me. We’ve got a shitload of other singers, a cellist, synth players, pianists, a choir. It’s a big pop group.

Ez: Is it going to be a short pop record then, or a long one?

Stuart: It’s an eight track album.

Ez: is that progressing fairly quickly?

Stuart: Yeah, it’s nearly done. But I’ve started on the next Calculators record as well. As soon as I’ve finished this other one we’ll go intensively into The Calculators one and hopefully have that recorded by the middle of next year or something.

Ez: With this pop record, is it going to be a complete 180°? Just lovey-dovey songs about loving everyone?

Stuart: Well contemporary pop isn’t about that, is it? Contemporary pop’s pretty cynical. Particularly hip hop, which is where we’re coming from. So it’s a break up record. It’s called BB, which is the name of the girl which it’s about, and it’s about an obsessive, deluded love affair between two people who are emotionally broken. (laughter)

Ez: Fair enough. It’s funny that you actually mention that. I was having a conversation with my partner as I was thinking about this recently. Lily Allen recently released an album. I don’t think she’s neither here nor there. She does write some good songs, in my opinion of course. But I was listening to [No Shame] to review it and I’m going “Holy fuck, this is actually depressing”. And then I thought a lot of pop is actually pretty depressing when you listen to the lyrics, ’cause a lot of it’s very masked by having these very fun, sometimes throwaway, quite often not but really fun, optimistic-sounding tracks, but when you really dig down and listen to the lyrics, they’re just really said and miserable [in a lot of ways].

Stuart: Yeah, pop music always has been. Listen to doo-wop. Listen to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”. It’s really sad to be in love. Love is really sad and the main job of pop music is the love song and the broken heart song. The broken heart song is THE song.

Ez: Well, there is “My Heart Will go on” as well.

Stuart: In the face of these massively crushing problems and troubles.

Ez: Now as I understand it, based on some very tertiary and very minor research about six months ago, you [have] a PhD.

Stuart: Yeah, I work in a university, yeah.

Ez: And is it that you work in psychology in music?

Stuart: No, I work in performance studies in music. Theatre performance in music.

Ez: Do you think that has a massive influence in your working?

Stuart: Oh, always. Yeah, ‘course. The original Primitive Calculators, as I said before, we were as much an art happening kind of concept as a band. We were late seventies, which places us historically in the era of late Fluxus. We were really influenced by Yoko Ono. We used to have these big events in our backyard. We always read philosophy. We were always very much an intellectual, conceptual enterprise as much as we were a musical group.

Still, today I am a performance philosopher as my job and the music is part of that exploration.

Ez: Quickly jumping back to the humour. Again, strictly my opinion: I do think the humour on ON DRUGS works really well ’cause it does make you think quite a bit. This is a bit of a leading question, so I do apologise, but why do you think that a lot of comedic musical acts aren’t considered funny?

Stuart: Like who?

Ez: Well, I’ve heard that a lot of people don’t find Tim Minchin funny. I think he makes you think a lot. I don’t know if he makes you laugh. There’s quite possibly later-era Tripod, but I think that’s because they don’t do improvisation as much anymore. Artists like Axis of Awesome. A lot of musical acts, they might give you a laugh but they’re not considered too funny. They kind of fade really quickly.

Stuart: The job of the comedian is to patrol the boundary of social acceptability and there is nothing funny about comedy. It’s a dirty job. Comedians don’t have a bad night. They die. It’s a really serious fucking business, comedy.

The comedian always has this relationship where they’re putting pressure on the border of social acceptability, and that border can be coming from inside the border and from outside the border. When a comedian breaks that border, it’s no longer funny. They have to put it back together. If they’re not approaching the boundary of social acceptability enough, then they’re not funny. They’re dumb.

Tim Minchin, for instance, in his song about Australia and racism… That was him, wasn’t it? Yeah.

Ez: I have no idea.

Stuart: “I Still Call Australia… Racist”. You know that thing that he did?

Ez: I don’t know, but to be honest it sounds like something he would do.

Stuart: I think that’s what it’s called. “I Still Call Australia Racist”. It’s the Peter Allen song, but a real harsh critique and most Australians find it insulting and not funny. What he does – and I think it’s partly because of his own personal history which has got certain elements in it that are the same as my personal history – you learn to push values to their limits, and you break that social boundary and you have to stomach to leave that rupture unhealed, and he does that a lot.

Ricky Gervais in Extras. You see this person that’s everything that’s loathsome about human beings, and you look at them and you go “No, they’re not going to do that are they? No, they’re not. They’re – Oh fuck, they did it. Fuck”, and that’s the joke.

It affects you internally the same way as “get the joke”. Got the same structure of expectation and payoff, but all it does is remind you [of] how fucked you are.

I think that in something like music, unless it’s like a real joke band, the capacity to break those boundaries, leave them left unhealed is pretty pronounced.

Ez: So that would have a lot to do with it then.

Stuart: Yeah. I think so. Yeah.

Ez: I’m jumping around again a bit. So I think it was roughly around the launch of The World is Fucked, there was a very brief interview with you in a Melbourne newspaper. It had a photo of you standing there and you’re wearing clothes and you had a serious look on your face, and if I remember correctly, it attracted a bit of a minor controversy because of what you were wearing and because you were talking about you’re an academic so you don’t really get a day off but on Sundays you spend a lot of the afternoon preparing for dinner and putting on pu-erh tea and whatnot, but a lot of people got angry about it, and a Victorian parliamentarian which was strange.

Stuart: A Victorian parliamentarian?

Ez: Yeah.

Stuart: Who?

Ez: I don’t know.

Stuart: It was Andrew Bolt, who was the one. I don’t remember a parliamentarian. If there was, it would be great. Maybe there was. I didn’t pay the details of it much attention, but I engaged it pretty seriously.

Ez: Did that affect you adversely?

Stuart: That was the reason that I wanted more political content in ON DRUGS.

What happened was someone who was associated with Andrew Bolt, some other shock jock got wind of it and made a post about it. Andrew Bolt picked it up and Andrew Bolt’s followers spread it all around and I was getting death threats and there were hundreds and hundreds of these things. The real reason was I was an academic and therefore on the public teat, getting paid lots of money and had put out an album called The World is Fucked. That was the crux of the matter.

So, I was a parasite, I was a greeny, I was all of these things and then here I was parading around the press saying I read philosophy and drink tea, and that was really, really offensive to good, decent honest folk that believe that they were somehow more in contact with some Australian ethos than I was. So it all blew up from there.

So people went into my published academic output and all these other things and made a mockery out of it. It was fun. I really liked it and really enjoyed it and at the time I said “I’m really enjoying this because I’m a really big fan of malicious stupidity.”

The essence of what they were saying was everything should have a market value, or it shouldn’t exist. Culture should only exist to the extent that it can turn a profit. That was the underlying impetus. I thought the takeover of neo-liberalism, the rise of calculation and the universities have almost completely capitulated in this; that everything has to be calculable. Everything has to have a monetary value, and so I picked that up from that. Songs like “Competition” and “Power” are specifically about those issues.

Ez: So it just fueled you. It was possibly, maybe a bit stressful, or mostly fun for you?

Stuart: There was no stress at all. It was just fun. The funny thing was the university got wind of it all and the Australasian Drama Studies Association of which I’m a member as an academic wrote to the university and said “Are you going to be doing anything about this? One of our members who is a prominent academic is being slandered, vilified, death threats”, and the university said “Alright. We will conduct an investigation into him to see if he has bought the university into disrepute”.

(laughter)

Because universities, since the 1980’s have primarily become instruments of neo-liberal capitalism. That is what they are. They are tertiary education providers and research business partnership facilitators. The idea of university as a place where knowledge is generated that cannot be instrumentalised, that cannot be monetised is almost completely dead.

So they conducted an investigation into me to see if I was bringing the university into disrepute. They decided it wasn’t and they dropped it. They said “We’re not going to criticize the people who’ve criticized Dr. Grant because whatever reason. We’re not going to take it any further. We don’t want to antagonise the situation”, because universities primarily don’t want to get sued.

Ez: That’s understandable. It looks bad. Even if you’re completely in the right, it still looks bad.

Stuart: The Andrew Bolt involvement helped us to sell a lot more records, which was good, and I’d welcome an involvement this time ’round from somebody like that to help us sell more records, but it had the impetus to make me think “I’m an old, straight, white cis male in a position of power, with a voice. I should use that for a little bit more good” and I tried to do that on this record.

Ez: So, on ON DRUGS, which is a weird thing to say… uhh… you included a redo of “I Can’t Stop it”. Why?

Stuart: ‘Cause our manager at the time, Paris, said “You should be doing more of the old songs”. (Laughter)

Ez: Did you think that was probably the best choice to go for?

Stuart: Well, you know, “Pumping Ugly Muscle” had been done to death. Could have been “Do That Dance”, or “I Can’t Stop it”. It had to be one of them ’cause they were the hits, and that was the one I chose.

I’m not happy with it. I really like the groove on it, but I don’t like the singing and the words and stuff.

Ez: Do you think the singing was a bit too much of what it was?

Stuart: No, I think it’s not enough. I think that there’s an element of urgency and desperation in the original recording of that and I was reaching for something else in this one and I didn’t quite focus it properly.

Ez: Okay, fair enough. Maybe that urgency is there because you were young and more naive at the time, and maybe looking for something else, you didn’t capture it because maybe you’re not at the right age for it yet?

Stuart: Well, I think it’s probably that it wasn’t coming from a contemporaneous, spontaneous impulse like the other songs were, so it was always trying to do something that was never there in the first place.

Ez: I’ll wrap it up very shortly after this, but just a few more questions. So, performing live; How well, in your opinion do the songs translate live?

Stuart: I think that we’re much better live than we are on record.

Ez: Do you think the sound is fuller, or more chaotic, or?

Stuart: I just think it’s got an urgency and presence that [we’ve] never been able to capture on record.

The reason I did performance studies is that I’m interested in performance, and performance to me is the greatest mystery in the world that’s a key to a lot of things. We don’t quite understand what performance is. We don’t quite understand that moment of being in the performance, the way it changes time, the way it changes self, the way self emerges from that moment and everything. It’s kind of the bulk of my study as a performance philosopher. It’s around that moment of performance.

Ez: Do you think the reason why we don’t understand is because… when people really… umm… the most evocative of performance is because they lose themselves in that particular moment and they stop thinking so much and just… translate, so to speak?

Stuart: Yeah, that’s part of it. It’s an entirely different mode of temporality. An entirely different way of being in the world, in that moment. I think it’s a window into something more primal, before time, before order. It taps into some underlying, fundamental stream of beingness.

Ez: That’s fair enough. Well, I’ll cut it there then. Thank you very much.

Stuart: Thank you.

Primitive Calculators are playing in Sydney at The Gaelic Club on the 24th of August 2018.
Tickets can be purchased here.

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