Ed Kuepper on 40 years of making music
Ed Kuepper isn’t particularly disposed to analysing his legacy. But maybe he doesn’t need to be. After all, there are people out there willing to do that for him: the discography of the celebrated musician, a player who has contributed to bands as diverse as The Saints and Laughing Clowns, has been lauded as one of the most celebrated in contemporary Australian music history, and he is an endlessly canonised creator.
So no, in conversation, Kuepper keeps his answers considered, and whenever possible avoids making grand, sweeping statements about his legacy or the nature of his art. When probed about whether or not his approach to performing has altered over the some 40 years since he began playing – particularly whether or not it’s gotten easier over time – Kuepper bucks giving an easy answer. “It’s hard to say,” he muses. “It kinda depends on so many variables. Some aspects get easier over time, and other aspects stay pretty much the same as they always have. I guess I don’t sort of focus on the difficulties. Not much point. Some things you really can’t do much about.”
Part of Kuepper’s somewhat guarded nature evidently also comes from the high regard with which he considers music: all music, that is, not only his own. To hear the man talk about playing live is to hear a scientist talk about the extremity of space, or the endless whorls of hard maths and calculus – something that is mysterious even when quantified.
For instance, when probed on whether or not he manages to be fully in the moment while playing, or if he remains aware of the audience there to watch him, Kuepper speaks of a hesitancy to pitch his camp on either of those two sides, and remains invested in the mysterious alchemy of his art. “I think you have to find a kind of position where both of those things are possible. To actually play the sort of music that I play, it does sort of involve a pretty singular sort of focus. But at the same time you can’t ignore the audience in the process because they are there, and they are there to see you. So you have to engage them. If you fail to do that it doesn’t work. But on the other hand you need to focus on what you’re doing. So it’s a balancing act really.”
That’s not to imply that the musician gets overly swept up in the more esoteric nature of what he does for a living. He is, and always has been, a pragmatist. That’s evident across his discography, and is the key to his impressive work ethic: there’s a reason he has managed to churn out an album pretty much every other year since the mid-’80s. For him, the songs are important, but they’re not some kind of alien structure, or pages torn from his diary: they’re real world objects. “I don’t kind of get too caught up in the personal aspect [of the songs],” he says. “I don’t get overwhelmed by the sort of personal nature of any of that stuff … It’s more about how to actually perform the songs so that they are unique to that night, and in a way trying to push them in a way that they haven’t been pushed before.”
Ultimately then Kuepper never really considers his work done. His discography is an ever-changing one, and even if you think you know an Ed Kuepper song, Kuepper himself doesn’t. For him, nothing is written in stone, and his entire body of work is one ever-shifting piece of transient art. “I think it’s important to not expect that once a song is recorded that that’s the definitive version,” he says. “I kind of work in an opposite way. You build something up – you kind of construct an arrangement around a song – and then before you play it you deconstruct it to see what the kind of core is. Sometimes it changes quite significantly if you’ve been playing it for a long period of time. You find nuances that weren’t apparent when you first started. So it’s always a kind of exploration in a way.”
By Joseph Earp