Mess+Noise interview: Cold Chisel: ‘We Don’t Like Labouring Over Things’, November 2011

I interview Jimmy Barnes for Australian music website, Mess+Noise. It was on the eve of Cold Chisel’s latest tour, during which the band will cover a mammoth 37 dates in just over two months. Excerpt below.

Are Cold Chisel the finest rock’n’roll group this country’s ever produced? It’s a question that could only ever lead to circular arguments, the kind that invite thrown drinks and internet invective. But when it comes to Australianrock royalty you’d be hard-pressed to find a band with a purer bloodline: AC/DC, their metal-wielding contemporaries, drummed up plenty of success on foreign shores, but Chisel have very much always been a local phenomenon.

Built upon the songwriting of keyboardist Don Walker, Cold Chisel are more readily identified with Ian Moss’s soulful, blues-driven guitar playing and, of course, the lead-minted vocals of Jimmy Barnes. It’s a recipe that’s almost become strangely fashionless over the years, the group’s music passed down organically from one generation to another. triple j’s recent Hottest 100 Australian Albums Of All Time poll was derided in some quarters for its skew towards younger bands, but Cold Chisel made a strong showing: East landing at number 42 and Cold Chisel at number 65.

I spoke to Barnes just a couple of days before Cold Chisel embarked on their biggest tour in almost 30 years. He was in Sydney and would soon head off to rehearsals.

The tour kicks off in a couple of days’ time. Are you ready?
Yeah. We’re up and running. It’s good. We’ve been pounding it for about three weeks in the rehearsal studio, and it sounded really tight. It’s great.

Does it take you long to get back into the swing of things? Or is it immediate with you guys?
Um, well I guess the chemistry’s immediate. But it’s like anything – being a golfer or a bloody boxer or something – everything’s there and you’ve just got to hone your skills a little bit and tighten up some loose ends. As soon as we started playing it felt great, it sounded good, but there were a few trainwreck endings and a few bad chord changes, and I’d forget the odd word here and there. But that’s what rehearsals are for: getting all the stuff back so you can run on instinct and not have to think about it.

You went through a tough patch 10 years ago, Jimmy, and then open-heart surgery in 2007. Looking back, are you surprised you’ve made it this far?
Well, not really. I’m surprised that I’m still making music and doing all that, and as far as the public is still interested in all that stuff. I guess that’s because I’ve tried to keep an open mind and listen to what people like, and try to improve what I do, and learn and continue to grow. I think if I’d sat back and rested on my laurels I would have been gone a long time ago. It’s the same with Cold Chisel, where you’re trying to make yourselves better at what you do: better players, better band, better communicators, better songs, and basically that’s what I’ve been doing, personally as well as musically.

Tell me about that turn of the millennium period. What was the trigger for going down that path [Barnes was reportedly downing 10 grams of coke, six to eight ecstasy pills and three bottles of vodka a day), and how did you claw your way out again?

I just felt that that over a period of time it was getting harder and harder to recover. So I’d still go out and work as hard and still put everything into my show, but it would take me longer to recover. I’d find that I’d just be knackered, basically. So I decided that I would start training, that I was getting older and that I had to get fitter. So I went and started training, and I found that really hard. My chest was hurting and because I’d smoked years ago I thought it could have been my lungs. So, I went to a doctor and he put me through a whole series of tests before telling me that my lungs are fine. But I said, “Well, there’s something wrong.”

That’s when I remembered that years and years ago – before doing one of the big entertainment centre shows – I’d done a physical, and one of the doctors said that he thought he could hear a murmur in my heart. He said that it could be a dodgy valve and that in 10 years or so I might want to get it checked. And it was almost 10 years to the day, actually, looking back at it, that I was talking to the doctor about it. So we checked my heart and the doctor said, “You’ve got a bicuspid valve.” That’s as opposed to a tricuspid, and it means the valve opens two ways instead of three and has to work twice as hard. Basically, the valve had worn down. The doctor said that I would have to have immediate open-heart surgery, and before I knew it I was in hospital.

That took me about six months to recover, because I’d keep getting out of bed to go to work. I wouldn’t stay down long enough to recover, which is a tip for anyone who has open-heart surgery: do exactly what the doctor tells you. [Laughs] But once I did recover and got back on my feet, everything made more sense – I had more strength, more energy. Just the fact that I’d stayed sober and straight all of the time that I was recovering – and prior to it, thank God – made it a lot easier. It was all about that, really. And the fact that I was healthy, sober, straight, focussed, and my heart was working well meant I had twice the energy I had prior to going in. I just did what I did, and it all came back.

Full the full article, visit Mess+Noise.

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