Gentle Ben and his Sensitive Side
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Gentle Ben and his Sensitive Side

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‘Gentle’ Ben Corbett, the suave punk crooner at the heart and soul of Gentle Ben And His Sensitive Side, hasn’t ever visited Magnetic Island, off the coast of northern Queensland.

Gentle’ Ben Corbett, the suave punk crooner at the heart and soul of Gentle Ben And His Sensitive Side, hasn’t ever visited Magnetic Island, off the coast of northern Queensland. Notwithstanding, Corbett’s dystopian image of Magnetic Island – replete with sleazy, boozing holiday makers – was sufficiently commensurate with the characters in the latest batch of Gentle Ben tracks to see the island provide the title for Gentle Ben And His Sensitive Side’s latest album. "They were a couple of words that stuck with me," Corbett figures. "The words together created an image in my mind of a womanising alcoholic at the bar. Even one of my friends said after I’d told him that it made him think of alcoholic isolation. I haven’t been there – maybe it’s actually a tropical paradise," he laughs.

Corbett’s primary musical pursuit is Sixfthick, the two-headed cane-trash punk band Corbett leads alongside his brother Geoff. Some years ago Corbett decided he needed a musical outlet to compliment – and contrast – the blood and sweat of Sixfthick. The seeds of Gentle Ben were sown. "It just struck me many years ago that it was time to do something more than screaming at the top of my lungs and bleeding everywhere," Corbett explains.

His initial thoughts were to form a country covers band; as the Gentle Ben concept evolved, however, it headed in a more pop direction. "I’m into a lot of other stuff," Corbett clarifies. "I wanted to form a band a bit like Maurice Frawley And The Working Class Ringos, but from Brisbane. We started off doing covers of country songs, but then we realised we weren’t that good at doing covers, so we started writing more pop stuff instead."

The contrast between Sixfthick and Gentle Ben And His Sensitive Side begs the question: who is the real Ben Corbett? Corbett laughs at the inquiry – one which he’s fielded a few times previously. "I always get asked ‘what’s the real me’," he chuckles. "It’s two sides of the same coin, I suppose. In Gentle Ben I’m taking on more characters, but you have to put a little bit of yourself in anything you’re singing. I pride myself on having audiences for both my bands who understand that."

For the previous Gentle Ben record, The Sober Light Of Day, Corbett took much of his lyrical inspiration from the scenes of depravity and decadence that confronted him after a shift at Ric’s Bar in Brisbane. Corbett is no longer working there, but he’s still seeing enough "inner city grime" to fill plenty of songs. "A lot of the songs on the new record are written from the perspective of people that you might not necessarily want to meet," Corbett says. "I try and approach some of these characters from a point of view that’s not particularly sympathetic."

One such character can be found in The Story Of The Swan, a tale of an especially intimidating rough diamond with ‘fuck you’ tattooed on the inside of his lip. "That comes from my childhood, growing up around Namboor, near the Big Pineapple," Corbett explains. "I was at a blue light disco when I was about 11 or 12, and there was this guy with ‘fuck you’ tattooed on the inside of his lip. I was impressed and terrified at the same time!" Corbett laughs.

"Lyrically with that song I was trying to do this thing that Dylan [McCormack, guitarist in the Sensitive Side] told me Iggy used to do, where he’d only use seven words in a song, just repeated over and over. I didn’t quite manage to get it down to seven words, but that was the basic idea," Corbett grins.

Corbett is coy about the personal element of the opening track, Regret It, in which the narrator – possibly based on Corbett himself – pleads his case to a distrusting romantic partner. "Yeah, I probably shouldn’t talk too much about that one," he laughs. "I don’t want to turn everything into a big confessional – I think you can get a lot of yourself across without talking too much about yourself." What Corbett is happy to discuss is the interplay between the dark themes of his lyrics and Dylan McCormack’s pop melodies. "Dylan and Naughto [Nick Naughton, drummer] have a real pop sensibility," he admits. "Dylan comes from a real pop/surf background, as well as having some of that classic epic pop, Burt Bacharach style."

Magnetic Island also features a cover of The Go-Betweens’ Was There Anything I Could Do, a tribute that goes back to McLennan’s tragic death in 2006. "Dylan, Nick and Trevor, our old bass player, knew Grant McLennan very well, and I knew him a bit as well, and we all went to his funeral," Corbett explains. "We had learnt that song about a week before he died, and when we played the night he died, we did this raucous, substance-fuelled version of the song. Then we revisited the track a bit later and decided to record it. We didn’t approach it with too much reverence, and I think that’s in part why it works. And it’s also a nice tribute to Grant," Corbett adds. "We can blast it out at the end of the set, which is not what you’d expect from a Go-Betweens song."

Not long before the release of Gentle Ben’s previous record, Corbett had been recovering from a couple of choice blows delivered on a Hobart street after a chance remark to a passing local drew offence. Corbett says he’s learnt his lesson from that incident. "No, I’ve been good since then," he laughs. "I keep my mouth shut these days – most of the time."

GENTLE BEN & HIS SENSITIVE SIDE launch their brand new – and completely kickarse – album Magnetic Island (out now through Spooky Records – it’s also our Album Of The Week this week, check out page 72) with a huge show at The East Brunswick Club this Saturday February 5 – with The Toot Toot Toots and The Priory Dolls. Tickets at the door.

BY BRUCE LAIRD