The Backsliders
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The Backsliders

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The term ‘roots ‘n’ blues’ has become common fare in recent years. Its precise meaning isn’t clear – though John Butler can always find a spot, physically or spiritually, in any festival proclaiming an affiliation with roots ‘n’ blues.

The term ‘roots ‘n’ blues’ has become common fare in recent years. Its precise meaning isn’t clear – though John Butler can always find a spot, physically or spiritually, in any festival proclaiming an affiliation with roots ‘n’ blues. It’s also a term that Dom Turner, founding member and guitarist with blues-surf band The Backsliders, finds misleading. "All contemporary music has its roots in the blues," he figures. "The term ‘roots ‘n’ blues’ is an incorrect term. And even blues in itself has roots. In any culture you’ll find music that’s based on emotion, not chords and notes. That’s what blues is about. The music in my playing is like another voice."

Turner came to the blues via his siblings’ record collections. Scouring the album credits on early Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Donovan records, Turner realised that there was a pre-history waiting to be discovered. "I realised that a lot of the early Rolling Stones songs were written by other artists, so I started following them up," he recalls. "So I got into Leadbelly – I still do a couple of Leadbelly tracks – and Robert Johnson."

Like most Australian blues players, Turner’s early blues education came from listening to the records he was able to procure. Eventually Turner travelled to the United States and found himself in the Appalachian mountains, being taught blues guitar direct from seasoned blues guitarists. While many of Turner’s tutors on that defining trip presumably had colourful histories common to many legendary blues artists, Turner doesn’t believe a lifetime of tragedy and loss is necessary to understand the blues. "That said, the original musical form did stem from hardship," he concedes. "The blues is a form where hardship itself created a restriction on the music that people were able to create, and how the music sounded – you didn’t have a lot of money, so you were forced to play with whatever gear you could get hold of."

"So if you translate that to a modern setting, then a rich kid with access to great equipment is probably not going to come up with great blues music."

 

Turner returned from his US sojourn (he’s since returned to the ‘States on a number of occasions) and formed The Backsliders, an outfit founded on the blues, and flavoured with another of Turner’s childhood musical influences, surf music. "I got into surf music through my brother Keith, who’s still a surf music guitarist, in the style of The Ventures," Turner says. He sees a strong connection between blues and surf music. "The connection is that both are very guitar-based – surf guitarists probably took their basic guitar style from early blues guitarists. And surf music uses that very tribal drumming style that you hear in artists like Bo Diddley."

After The Backsliders’ original drummer left in 2000, Turner turned to an old friend, Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst, to fill the vacant drummer’s seat. "Rob was the first person to put their hand up when we needed a new drummer," Turner explains. "Rob’s background is actually in jazz – when you look at him playing, he has lots of jazz style, especially in the lighter moments."

While interviewing Hirst before a tour for The Break last year, he suggested Turner came up with the term ‘The Beards’ to describe the blues purists who’d compliment The Backsliders after a show but note "that it wasn’t really blues" that the band were playing. Turner is familiar with the concept, but denies responsibility for the term. "I’m not sure if I can lay claim to that!" he laughs. "But I do know what’s being referred to – it’s a group of strict purists in the blues sense. I must admit that I don’t have a lot of respect for that concept. Even if you look at the early artists they were doing lots of different music – someone like Robert Johnson was playing vaudeville as well."

Not surprisingly, Turner confesses to being something of a ‘gear nut’, always on the look out – especially with his fellow Backsliders Broderick Smith and Ian Collard – for new and interesting playing and recording equipment. "I’m a complete and utter gear nut!" he admits with a laugh. "When Brod, Ian and I are in the van, we’re always talking about gear – but it’s not about needing the best gear, it’s about searching for a particular tone," he says.

With a new album due out around the middle of the year, and a re-issue of a 2000 DVD available through The Backsliders’ website and at the band’s upcoming shows, the band have still got plenty of territory to explore. "We have a lot of improvisation at our shows," Turner points out. "We all know the structure of the song, but anyone has permission to go in any direction at any time. The idea is that you want to have a bit of tension up there – some nights it’s better than others, but it never goes wrong."

THE BACKSLIDERS (Dom Turner, Broderick Smith and Rob Hirst) hit Melbourne for The Caravan Music Club at Oakleigh RSL this Saturday March 5, and The Way Out West Club at the Williamstown RSL on Sunday March 6.