FasterLouder story: “The incredible story behind INXS’s ‘Original Sin'”, February 2014

An extended Q&A with Andrew Farris, in which the celebrated INXS songsmith talks about the origins, writing and recording of the band’s 1983 hit single, ‘Original Sin’. This was a hard interview to arrange — Farris is a notoriously private individual — but very rewarding. Excerpt below, full story on FasterLouder.

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It’s not the most famous INXS song, but perhaps the one everyone can agree on. Both now and back in 1983.

Upon its release, ‘Original Sin’ was a game changer – not just for a Sydney six-piece emerging from the endless grind of touring pubs and RSLs, but for Australian music in general. Gone were the fist-in-the-air anthems of 1982 album Shabooh Shoobah, replaced instead by a classy Eastern Asian-flavoured riff and a monstrous, dance floor-filling groove. Gone too was the boyish lyrical romance, Michael Hutchence instead delivering a subtle dose of bittersweet social commentary, and in the process adding yet another layer to the song. But where did ‘Original Sin’ come from? And how would it change INXS’s future?

Andrew Farriss emerges from the crowds milling about Manly Wharf on a grey Melbourne Cup Tuesday. At 54, the keyboardist and songwriter has silvered at the temples, but retains the boyish button eyes and curly crop of hair so familiar from the band’s press photos. Farriss is an almost infamously private individual. Earlier, he called from a hidden number and in person he’s far from gregarious. Rather, it’s intimate: sitting together in one of the wharf’s cafés he leans close, let’s off a wide smile and looks me in the eye, like he’s imparting the club secrets. Farriss talks with affection about the band (half of whom are family) and in particular Hutchence – you quickly get a sense of the depth of their friendship.

Together we cover the background of both ‘Original Sin’’s music and its lyrics, working with Chic’s Nile Rodgers – who at the time was just setting out on a remarkable run of production credits – and receiving death threats in the American south, as well as some of the stories behind the song’s inimitable music video. It feels like a heady trip for Farriss: there are times he rides roughshod over questions just to remind himself of a particular memory or anecdote. ‘Original Sin’ isn’t just about recording studios and chart numbers. Rather, it comes with its own origin story, and found the band at the crossroads between their hardworking, hard-touring past and a stadium-filled future.

 Andrew Farriss on ‘Original Sin’:

Were you surprised when I wanted to talk to you about this song in particular?
Not totally surprised. But I’ll start at the beginning. As Aussies growing up in the period when we did the great path was never through the United States, it was always through Europe, because everyone thought the British invasion into the United States was the road to Mecca in terms of pop music.

Go to Europe and then go to the States?
Yeah. So what happened with us: We watched a lot of bands – Little River Band, AC/DC, Air Supply, and a bunch of others – and managed to talk to some of them about their experiences. And you heard these stories about what it was like to try to go overseas. Then you also had this manic control thing within the Australian record companies. They’d treat you like Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where you’re to be kept in a cage and not able to spread your wings and have any success in the rest of the world.

We’d already gone overseas as a band in 1982 – our music was being well received in New Zealand. That was a good place to start. We [then] looked at each other and asked what were we going to do with ourselves? Were we going to be an Aussie pub rock band? That would be nice – play the RSLs, call it a day, and then get a real job. Or were we going to take it a lot more seriously? So I think about that time we made this decision that we were going to have a serious crack at it.

Then a series of things happened. Shabooh Shoobah was released in the United States and did really well. MTV was just starting up so we could send over all these videos, which they loved because to them we were kinda quirky. So suddenly we had this big promotional push in the United States and Canada. Europe’s a different story – they liked things about us, but also hated things about us. One review said, “They’re crap, and they’re Australian.” [Laughs] Which sort of sums up exactly how they looked at us, or anyone from Australia.

We realised, “OK, we’re getting some reaction from the United States. Let’s go with the US.” Also, around about that time Michael and I had been talking a lot about our songwriting. When we were The Farriss Brothers – before we were INXS, in the early pub years – we used to play all sorts of music. We used to play funk and ‘70s disco. We liked playing that stuff. But what we began to discover is that [with] the roll-your-sleeves-up, cigarette-in-the-mouth, tats approach, there wasn’t much room or breathing space for any other style of music.

So when we went to the US we sort of felt, “What are we going to be? What is it that we’re trying to do, songwriting-wise?” Were we wanting to solve the world’s problems, like U2? And we thought, what we can do is talk about social situations without coming to some sort of judgement – that’s not our place as artists, I don’t think. It’s only your place to point out things.

To provide a reflection rather than solutions?
Yeah. And I think that’s what Michael was doing when he constructed the lyric for ‘Original Sin’. We were on a tour bus in the United States and we saw a bunch of kids playing in a schoolyard. In Australia, back then there was less of a cultural melting pot, but the US has always encouraged that. So when Michael saw that, we started talking about writing more funky music. Because things were beginning to shift. You had bands like Talking Heads, you had Blondie coming out with ‘Rapture’. People were beginning to experiment, and we all knew how to play it.

So I put the music together – all the riffs and so on to create pretty much what we now know as the final song – just at home on a drum machine, with the guitar parts and keyboard riffs. I played it to Michael and he said, “Let’s use that!” and I said, “OK, what do you want to do with it?” He said, “Because it’s funky, I think the lyrics should reflect some sort of universal theme that everyone can relate to.” So we got into this idea from what he’d been observing. He was saying, “Dream on. Just keep dreaming, because that’s what it’s going to take.” That’s really the theme of the song, what it’s all about, then matched to that funky thing.

When did you start thinking about getting Nile Rodgers involved?
We’d already been listening to some Nile Rodgers stuff, like Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove and then his earlier stuff. We were aware he was recording with David Bowie at the time, making ‘Let’s Dance’. So we put some feelers out to Nile. He came to one of our shows in Canada, came backstage and I remember almost falling off my chair.

He said, “Hey, I loved the show, man. It was really good. I’ve seen you guys on MTV. I’m a fan of the band and what you’re doing is different.” And we were like, “Cool! Guess what? We’ve got this song.” [Laughs] He said, “Give me a copy of what you’ve done.” So we gave him a copy of the ‘Original Sin’ demo. And the next minute we found ourselves rehearsing in Florida, then going into The Power Station in New York City, literally just after David Bowie and his band had left the studio. We walked straight in and the best part was the engineer who had worked on a lot of those albums with Nile, Jason Casaro – he was there too. When I listen to ‘Original Sin’ and compare it to other recordings, geez that sounds good. At the time there was this cutting edge of people who were really good at what they were doing, and two of them were sitting in that room.

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