GOD: Higher Power

CLASSIC UB INTERVIEW: MATTY WHITTLE, GOD
BY DANGER COOLIDGE
Originally published in Unbelievably Bad #10, 2013

 

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Formed in ’86 by pimply punk kids Joel Silbersher, Tim Hemensley, Sean Greenway and Matthew Whittle, GOD put in a few years of fine service to Australian rock ’n’ roll, recording the now iconic “My Pal” single in ’87 and rocking many a Melbourne pub to its foundations until mid-89, when the members decided they couldn’t stand one another and scattered to play in various other bands like the Powder Monkeys (Hemensley), Hoss (Silbersher), Patterson’s Curse (Whittle) and the Yes-Men (Greenway).
Tragically, Sean Greenway died of a heroin overdose in 2001. Tim Hemensley followed two years later. A GOD reunion is obviously out of the question.
To keep their memory alive however, Afterburn Records released a self-titled GOD retrospective – forty tracks on two platters that debunk the myth that “My Pal” was GOD’s only begotten son.
UB editor Danger Coolidge took Matty Whittle for a drag down memory lane.

 

Were all the members of GOD really teenagers? Where did you meet?\
If I’ve got my dates right, when GOD started I was sixteen (and the eldest) and Tim Hemensley was fifteen (and the youngest). Sean Greenway and I had already played together for a few years in Foot and Mouth and Tim had started with Royal Flush when he was nine. Joel Silbersher had a radio show on RRR (he interviewed in Foot and Mouth once). We met through various contacts and at gigs, especially punk shows at the Sydenham Hotel. We were lucky to meet up when we did. Although we had a fairly broad range of musical interests, we were all pretty enthusiastic and really threw ourselves into the band. 

The band members would swap around instruments. Was this because you were all so incredibly multi-talented, or did everyone just want to play guitar and sing?
At the start it was mainly Tim and I alternating between bass and drums. I’d started off in Foot and Mouth on the drums, and Tim mainly played bass before GOD. So I’d had more drums experience than him, but he was a really fast learner and picked it up in no time. I’d already played bass a bit on F&M recordings. Tim picking up the guitar was a later development, but he was great at that too. I suppose we did it because we could, and because we were showoffs. I don’t think it ended up sounding inconsistent. If you didn’t know who played what on each song it’d be hard to tell the difference, we ended up developing pretty similar styles. There were practical problems with it though. I used to play drums with the sticks the usual way around, but Tim would play them the wrong way around (like Grant Hart, with the butt ends). So I’d whittled (haha) the usual playing ends of the sticks on the hi-hats so they were really jagged and rough. Tim would then use the same sticks with the hacked up ends in his hands, and he’d bleed. Then he’d switch to bass and bleed all over that, and the guitar. And Sean would sometimes play guitar with no plectrum, just with his fingernail, so he’d bleed too. Just as well there were no diseases going around. We could’ve swapped around more, I could’ve played some guitar too I guess, but it was already complicated enough. Joel was wise to stick to guitar. We didn’t really argue about it much; the drumming was about a 50/50 split. Some of the songs I wrote I ended up playing drums on, either because I wanted someone else to sing, or because I wanted the drums done a certain way. So we did argue about some stuff, but not so much about that.

How much does the original “My Pal” 7” go for on ebay these days? Got any copies tucked away under the bed for your retirement fund?
I think one went off for about $125 recently. That’s the one with the orange cover (first 2000 copies). The next 1000 were yellow. I only have a couple and I’ll be keeping them. 

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“My Pal” has become an iconic track. When they closed The Tote back in 2010 The Drones played it as the final song, joined by Joel. Were you there? What were your feelings about that?
I didn’t make it to that show unfortunately, but I did listen to it on the wireless. It was good that they did it. I gather Joel took a bit of persuading. I must admit, listening to it, I didn’t think it was Joel singing at first. I heard the Drones chap beckoning. “Joel, please come to the stage…,” then I heard them start the riff and I thought, no way is Joel going to do this! But I was wrong, so there you go. It actually generated a fair bit of interest in GOD I think, and it was good timing because they did it right before the reissue came out. 

Does it annoy you that “My Pal” often overshadows the rest of the band’s output? Nobody wants the one-hit-wonder tag.
Yes and no. It’s obviously preferable to being a no-hit-wonder! The song really got us off to a good start. I’m glad that we did it. But we went off the song for a little while. We would do gigs where we would start the riff then deliberately fuck it up and run it into the ground and stop. We’d do that several times in a show, but not do the whole song, just to whip up a bit of hatred. Because we knew some people were there just to hear that. We were shocking like that. “My Pal” was obviously our most popular song, but back then we actually sold more albums than singles. So Rock Is Hell and For Lovers Only did pretty well, but in recent years “My Pal” has had more exposure for various reasons, like the umpteen cover versions of it, being on Underbelly, and various other comps. So part of the idea of the reissue is to get all our other stuff out there. I think the song haunts Joel more than me, so in that sense I’m actually glad I didn’t write it!

What were some of the best / biggest / wildest gigs GOD ever played?

It’s all a bit of a blur really, so it’s hard to recall individual gigs. The last one (on Disc 2 of the reissue) was one of the better ones, but maybe not the absolute best. Some Prince of Wales gigs were awesome, and some were disastrous. It was all quite dependent on whose gear we were borrowing on the night, because our own equipment was mostly pretty sub-standard. When everything was going well, we could pull off a blinder potentially. Not in terms of being “tight” in the usual sense, or musically precise, but just the energy of it all, it was the best fun you could have. But when we were bad, we really really sucked, it was embarrassing. We just wanted to crawl away and hide. It was too hit-and-miss like that.

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Rock Is Hell (1988) was released with four different cover designs, one by each band member. Was this because you couldn’t agree on one design? Was it expensive to make four covers? In hindsight, whose cover design was the best?
That’s about right. It was an act of desperation on the part of Bruce Milne (Au-Go-Go). He was probably tearing his hair out with our impossible ways. We were pretty dysfunctional like that sometimes. My cover design (with the horse on the front, and the money notes on the back) is obviously the best one, but none of them were that great. I don’t think it was that much more expensive, as they were all just two-colour designs. There was a statue of a soldier holding a gun out the front of the old Melbourne Museum, and for a while we toyed with the idea of using that, with a guitar superimposed over the gun. We should’ve gone with that really.

By the time For Lovers Only (1989) came out GOD had split. Why?
You could’ve asked all four of us that and got four different answers. Here’s my perspective on it. I was on the verge of quitting the band many times, as were the others. The practical aspects of being that young, not having our own decent equipment, transport etc, and the ensuing chaos that resulted in some really appalling shows was the biggest factor for me. But the knowledge that we could, and had done great shows kept me from actually walking out. We were also not getting along that well towards the end, it wasn’t like the start when we hung out together a lot. I think being that young, the moderate amount of success that we had went to our heads a bit. There was a bit of that going on, and I wasn’t innocent of it. All that attention and adulation might be gratifying and fun, but all those ego trips don’t make you a better person, and they don’t make you easy to get along with. So we didn’t really manage to stay very down to earth about it all really. And we were fairly immature and petulant, and even small amounts of alcohol didn’t help that. My memory of it was that Joel quit the band. His take on it now is that he suggested we should break up. Maybe it’s a grey area. Quite frankly I didn’t want to split at the time. We had a lot of momentum on our side and it seemed such a shame to squander it, but maybe it was too far-gone. We even turned down a support spot with the Ramones. And there were probably opportunities to tour overseas, but that would’ve destroyed the band anyway. The other guys might’ve thought musical differences were an issue, but that never really bothered me.

What did you do after the split?
Not sure if you mean me specifically, or all four of us, so I’ll give you the run-down on everyone (with my five cents worth)… I did various things in the 1990s. After a few years’ break I formed Patterson’s Curse with Greg Bainbridge, Josh Koch and Tristram Larkins. We had an EP on Au-Go-Go which was pretty cheaply recorded and not as good as it should’ve been, and another album’s worth of stuff which unfortunately never made it to release. We were a good, tight band and usually played well and had a decent following in Melbourne. Patterson’s had some dirty guitar sounds but had more progressive elements and different influences and styles to GOD. I was sharing the lead vocals with Tristram, and whilst he was a technically better singer than me, he had a pretty sweet and clean style, which didn’t really sit that well with mine. And Josh and I were writing most of the material separately, and it all ended up a bit too fragmented really. Some of that stuff is OK, but I listen to other things and don’t really know what we were thinking. It would’ve appealed to GOD fans less than the other GOD-boys’ later projects. Greg ended up joining Kim Salmon and The Surrealists. Shortly after Patterson’s split, I switched from bass to guitar and formed the three-piece Sauce with Craig Maunder and Spot Billing. The material was more consistent, but I’ve never been a brilliant vocalist and I struggled with it a bit. It wasn’t that musically dissimilar to Patterson’s in some ways. I think I was writing better material by then, but in other ways Patterson’s was a better band. It was good fun, I enjoyed getting into the guitar, and I’m really proud of the Oral Love album that we did, despite its flaws. It didn’t get much attention really, partly due to my unwillingness/inability to play the industry games, but never mind. The world doesn’t owe me success! It was fairly well liked by many who heard it, but it wasn’t flavour of the month or anything. After that I had a short-lived band at LaTrobe Uni called Offal Pump, which was a seven-piece instrumental big-band, which included some players with jazz experience, not that we were jazz exactly. I was the conductor. It counted as a subject. I also drummed for Ripe for a while, amongst others. Haven’t done any music to speak of in the 2000s, but have done many other worthwhile things, like travelling the world, opening (and closing) a CD shop, getting married to my dear Mrs, and having two beautiful daughters. I’d like to form a new band, so anyone in Melbourne who wants more info can get onto me through the GOD channels below. Joel has done a vast amount of stuff over the years. He got Hoss going very shortly after GOD split. He was already writing that material and rehearsing with them before the end of GOD. He had Mick and Todd from the Seminal Rats in the band at the start, so those guys were really solid and more reliable than GOD in a practical sense. They sounded like a GOD/Rats hybrid then. They were arguably more proficient musicians, but I don’t think their material was as strong as GOD’s, and they didn’t have the same over-the-topness and excitement that we had. But they were unlikely to do a really pox gig. Their first album, Guzzle, whilst it had some good songs on it, sounded really rushed and not very well produced. I think Joel was in a hurry to get something out ASAP, maybe just to put GOD behind him. Their next two albums, You Get Nothing and Bring On The Juice are more solid “classic-rock” records, they’re pretty good. I don’t know their fourth and fifth LPs that well (Everyday Lies and Do You Leave Here Often), but I’d like to check them out properly. I like Hoss’ stuff when they get a really good riff going (like “Magpie”), but some of their more derivative sounding stuff (like “Cranky Tonkin’”) I find a bit naff personally. Joel’s Tendrils project (with Charlie Owen) is really good, very original sounding. I picked up his Greasy Lens solo record a few years back. Not really sure what to make of it, it’s OK. I find that stuff a bit static and inward-looking, and I can’t really remember much about it once it’s finished. He’s obviously not trying to sell a million records with that one, but good on him for doing what he likes. If Joel had ever wanted to, he could’ve done a commercial sounding record that would’ve sold really well, but he doesn’t really think like that. Anyway I certainly take my hat off to Joel for all he’s done. Sean got really prolific with his songwriting later on. In the early 90s he started The Freeloaders with three members of The Philisteins, who did some good stuff. But his best work was definitely with The Yes-Men, and in particular their Prosody album. They seemed to get more attention overseas than in Australia. Anyone who’s a fan of GOD, Powder Monkeys, Hoss and other related things should really have a listen. There was also a posthumous self-titled album which I was involved in putting together (as part of my grief therapy), which is a compilation of later tracks (including “The Great Charade”, possibly his best song) and some older recordings, including some with me drumming as a stand-in which he may not have even wanted to come out, but we liked them, so on they went! Sean was doing his best material around the time that he died, what a shocking waste that that was the end of it. Tim was enlisted as Bored!’s new bassplayer very shortly after GOD’s demise. I think they’d had their eye on him for a while. Once he and John Nolan left Bored! to form the Powder Monkeys, Tim had already forged his musical direction and identity. For that style of music they were pretty hard to beat when they were on their game. Of course they went on to great things, and are probably the best known of all the post-GOD bands. They had that craziness and wild edge to their sound that is pretty much impossible for others to replicate. You can’t fake that sound of desperation. They played as if their lives depended on it. Maybe they did? Anyway, I was rapt for Tim that he got the chance to tour overseas with those guys. John is working on remastering their three studio albums, so that’ll be great when that happens. In terms of remembering Sean and Tim, I find listening to The Powder Monkeys or The Yes-Men more sad and depressing than the GOD material. Maybe partly due to the subject matter of the later material, and that it was more of an indicator of what might have been.

The GOD discography has just come out through Afterburn. Were you and Joel involved in putting that together?
Joel’s involvement in putting the reissue together has been virtually zero, but that’s OK. I quite enjoyed doing it really. I think he would rather get on with his current projects. He’s also not inclined to dwell on his past too much. He’s usually pretty reluctant to revisit the GOD material for a whole lot of reasons. I think he might be embarrassed by some of it, for reasons I don’t understand really, I think he should be proud of everything he contributed to the band. We did manage to get him to come out and do an interview with Patrick Donovan from The Age. That was the first time I’d seen him in person for a few years, so it was good to catch up with him. And we got steaks on the Fairfax tab! 

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How do you feel listening back to the GOD material now? Are you proud of what the band achieved. What are your biggest regrets?
Sure, I’m really proud of all of that stuff, warts and all. I think especially with Simon Grounds’ excellent remastering job, it even sounds a bit more modern now, and hasn’t dated as much as a lot of things from that era. It’s good that people still remember the band, and it’s sort of amusing that the word “legendary” gets bandied around a bit, but who am I to argue with that?! I think the public perception / legacy / legend / whatever you want to call it of a band from that long ago can really change a lot over the years. It can even be manipulated and inflated, so that we are more popular and well-known now than we were then. History only really exists in people’s brains anyway, so it’s all a bit malleable. As for regrets, it’s pointless to dwell on it. I guess it had done its dash. 

Do you think Sean and Tim would have been happy to see GOD remembered with this release? Do you think a reunion gig could have been on the card if they’d been alive?
I think they would’ve liked the reissue. I know Tim and Sean’s families are really happy that it’s come it; it really means a lot to them, as well as us getting our pictures in the paper! As for reunions, we still get asked to reform now! Including by people who should really know better. Joel and I getting a GOD covers band together with a couple of stand-ins would be dismal, what a fuckin’ stupid idea, what are these people thinking?! To get up and call that “GOD”, when it clearly isn’t and can never be, would be really off. As for the hypothetical situation of Sean and Tim still being with us, I can only cast my mind back to about 1999. The four of us got together and went out for dinner to celebrate a long-overdue royalty payment from overseas, which had been the first time in yonks all four of us had been in the same room together. Was a good evening. Prior to that, I had privately sounded out Tim and Sean about the possibility of playing again, and they would’ve done it. Over dinner I gently raised the prospect with Joel and he smote it down promptly. So that was the end of it. Whether it would’ve been any good if we had done it, I don’t know, possibly not. I don’t think that there ever would’ve been any substantial money involved anyway.

Did you and Joel get together and have a beer to celebrate the release of the CD?
Only with Patrick for The Age interview so far. I’d like to catch up with Joel again sometime, though. 

Will you sign my copy of For Lovers Only? Do you get asked for your autograph much these days?
Sure! No, not very often. I should get out more.

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