I’m Still Talking: OG OZ Boogie

Back in the mid-‘80s, while the echoes of biffo at Chisel concerts and beer-swilling “gimme head” sing-alongs by Radiotors fans still hung stale in the air, Australian music remained largely paralysed in a protracted pub-rock headlock. In the midst of the boozy boys club, a band called I’M TALKING rose from the ashes of Melbourne post-punk-funksters Essendon Airport, and were the unlikely winners of ‘Best New Talent’ at the Countdown awards. Yes, it’s true there were other Aussie pop-flavoured bands making dance music at the same time and getting their heads around drum programming while lugging synths and Simmons kits to their gigs. Sometimes these bands got booed off stage at the shows I went to. Hell, even INXS were honing their own brand of danceable funk at the time and sounding slicker on breakthrough album The Swing than on their previous albums, but then mid-song Tim Farriss could still blast out the kind of rock solo that had those of us who’d sworn off guitar-posturing, cringing with disappointment. And there was still plenty of flannel and packed Winnie Reds in their swelling crowds.

In stark comparison, I’m Talking were far more in tune with London’s soul scene, or the kind of Stateside r’n’b/electro-funk that drew young men who gave a damn about their hair, clothes and personal hygiene towards inner-city nightclubs. Plus, the band’s ranks boasted three remarkable women: bassist Barbara Hogarth and lead vocalists Zan Abeyratne and Kate Ceberano. Now, almost 35 years after their debut, the long-awaited re-issue of I’m Talking’s Bear Witness album arrives on both vinyl and as a deluxe-CD package collecting a staggering 36 tracks. These include rarities inspired by their New York experiences with hip hop culture and 12” mixes produced by folks like Martyn Webster (ABC).

With plenty of laughter and often finishing each other’s sentences, Abeyratne and Ceberano talked to 2SER’s Paris Pompor recently from their Melbourne label’s offices. Below are some highlights from that conversation.

I’m so glad this I’m Talking reissue is happening at a moment in time when the ’80s boogie sound you almost singlehandedly pushed in Australia, is so popular again. There’s a whole crop of current artists around the world mining that sound, including local labels Gulf Point and artists like Kylie Auldist.

KC: Yeah, totally. Kylie and I even talked about it, because she wasn’t in Australia when I’m Talking were created – she was still in New Zealand. We were absorbing all these sounds from America and England, but we didn’t sound like any of them actually. We were the first women of colour to front a [pop] band, I think in Australia. And [we had] a female bass player!  Three women in a band playing dance music in the height of Oz pub rock!

PP: Did you feel a bit out of place at the time?

ZA: I think we just found our own place within the landscape…  somehow!

KC: We were like a band in a bubble. 

PP: That said, there were other pop bands pushing the envelope at the time – bands like Machinations, Pel Mel, VitabeatsFlotsam Jetsam… and even Models whose first album is almost entirely synthesized and who you both sang back-up vocals for. Was there much camaraderie when your were touring with other Australian bands?

ZA: Yeah, totally, I think Kate used to use the word “communal” to describe it. We used to tour together a lot and be at award shows backstage together and things like that. It was a really fun time.

KC: You notice in the Australian Made film – [director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about the 1986/’87 tour series featuring I’m Talking, and other Oz bands] we’re all just loitering and going into each other’s tents, and drinking each other’s riders, and wearing each other’s clothes and… sleeping with each other’s boyfriends!

After hysterical laughter, there’s a half-hearted request to strike that last bit before Kate continues.

KC: Zan and I dearly miss our friends Michael Hutchence, James Freud and Chrissy Amphlett. These were people we knew on [another] level, and we’re blessed that we got to see that part of them.

PP: Both the engineers who worked on your tracks – Fred Maher of Scritti Politti, and Martyn Webster  of ABC fame, were associated with the London scene, but you had far more in common with a US sensibility: artists like Gwen Guthrie, Midnight Starr, Aurra and even Aretha Franklin’s ‘80s albums. What were you listening to at the time of making Bear Witness?

ZA: Aretha was a huge influence of mine, I listened to her a lot when I was growing up. I actually saw Gwen Guthrie live in New York singing Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent – that was pretty cool. We loved Chic, I love Chaka Khan. I guess we brought a lot of those influences into what we were doing.

KC: We all came from different tribes. As a teenager I loved British pop music – which was as broad ranging as Siouxsie Sioux – who’d just been at the Ballroom the week before Hunters & Collectors and Bow Wow Wow – so I came armed with a pop-punk sensibility, while [the other] guys were really r’n’b. You can hear that.

ZA: And the other guys – Robert Goodge [I’m Talking’s guitarist and one of two main songwriters], Ian Cox [saxophone] and Barbara came from Essendon Airport which had a bit of a jazz bent as well.

KC: Robert Goodge is responsible mostly for this remix and remastering project.

ZA: Yeah, Rob’s been the driving force of putting this back together again. He managed to get a hold of the old analogue tapes. He had to bake the analogue tapes apparently, so that they didn’t disintegrate when they were being remixed. They had to find a special machine to play the tapes!

PP: What was it like for you two re-listening to all that music, more than 30 years on?

KC:  It’s sort of like reliving your youth a little bit. Sonically, to be honest I never really listened to Bear Witness because I thought I sounded really shrill. Zan’s always sounded warm, but I sound like a chipmunk on steroids!

PP: Oh, you do not!

KC: I felt like I did.  But by listening to it again [now] and actually having it remixed in a way that has given it the full spectrum of sound, I love the interplay of our voices – it was the very key to what made our sound. And then this really hectic rhythm that was being established by Rob and then also Barbara has a such a distinctive way of playing. I think every part of it was exactly where it was meant to be and now I can listen to it as if I was never in the band. I can truly be objective. It’s fucking awesome! … You can delete that [laughs]. 

ZA: It certainly brings back a lot of good memories for us.

One of those memories for Ceberano revolves around I’m Talking’s UK tour of 1986. Ceberano remembers their tour bus in London was being driven by Jon King of Gang of Four, who also happened to be their tour manager and something of an idol for other members of the band. Having inked a deal with London Records (where DJ Pete Tong had just set up his dance subsidiary FFRR), a 20 year-old Ceberano found herself in the UK capital (where Abeyratne was born) with some pretty cultured bandmates/travel companions.

KC: There were some really well-educated people in the band – art wise – so going to major cities like London [I was] being introduced to all the popular artists of the time. Ian Cox and Barbara would lovingly take us through galleries and for me, assembled a whole history of modern art. 

Ceberano and Abeyratne go on to explain that the ex-Essendon Airport members of I’m Talking were very keen to bring this knowledge and interest in modern art to their new group’s aesthetic.

KC: Even down to album cover art, they were very well considered. 

Case in point:

KC: The cover of Trust Me was a pretty savage and forward-thinking piece of art. I mean, Elvis clutching his penis!? I remember at the time trying to explain to my Grandma why it was necessary!

PP: Let’s talk a bit about the band’s style, it’s another thing that made you stand apart in Australia. Beyond the posters and record art, there was the clothing and film clips. There’s the classic look in your debut single’s video, where you both look fantastic and Kate’s wearing the beautiful pillbox style hat and her lapels are super wide. Did you have a stylist or were they just clothes you grabbed out of your own wardrobes on the morning of the shoot?

KC: That was just us! We were very enthused with the Melbourne Design Council and the scene here: great new artists building reputations. In fact Martin Brown’s gone on to become one of Australia’s most famous exports in fashion. There was Christopher Graf – who made my sculptured outfit – and the girl twins from Empire, and Bettina Liano was there right from the get-go.  We were just discussing if we should get out on the road again and what designers we would like to talk with.

Hang on! They’ve just casually dropped into conversation that I’m Talking might be getting back together for some shows.

PP: Well I’m excited to hear that you might do some reunion gigs, how likely is that?

KC: Well, we wanna dance! Just to sweat like we used to. God we used to have so much fun!

ZA: Obviously we’re waiting to see how things transpire, but we’d like it definitely. We’re up for it.

PP: A couple of the tracks on this new deluxe package – Take Me To The Bridge and Scratchin – reveal some other influences on I’m Talking, namely hip hop.

KC: We had Rock Steady Crew open for us back in the day. They actually bought their own cardboard boxes which I thought was so cute. [On those tracks] Rob would try to reproduce what we were hearing in New York, but I remember on stage we had this red and yellow vintage record player that we’d manually scratch the records on.

After the demise of I’m Talking towards the end of the ‘80s, Kate Ceberano’s solo career took off with hit singles like Bedroom Eyes, she had her own ABC TV cabaret-style variety show, and had soundtracks and jazz outings, but Zan Abeyratne seemed to largely disappear.

In reality, Abeyratne has continued making music, but did tricky things to throw off record nerds’ scent by changing the spelling of her name to Xan and leaving off her family name. In the interim years came her solo album as Xan for Polydor featuring people like Faith Evans, alongside tracks for Eddie Piller’s Acid-Jazz series Totally Wired and gigs with her Melbourne group Zan and The Good Things.

PP: Tell us what else you’ve been up to Zan?

ZA: Basically I lived in London and New York for a time and did a bunch of recordings and had bands. More recently I’ve been doing tracks with my husband [Neil Corcoran] who was from the Acid Jazz scene. He was the bassist in a band called Mother Earth. Hopefully we can finish that up this year and get it out there. I call it future-soul. It’s kind of a mix of soul – and I’ve always loved funk – and it’s got jazz, and a bit of r’n’b and gospel – it’s a mixed bag. It’s different to what I’ve done in the past.

PP: Your sister Sherine was also in Big Pig  – they were pretty out there too.

ZA: Yeah, they were. She lives in LA [now]. Kate and I were just talking about how we all used to sing together at one point. People used to get the three of us to sing together, we used to call it Diana Boss & The Extremes [more fall about the floor laughing].

I’M TALKING’s BEAR WITNESS has just been reissued on vinyl, double CD or 36-track deluxe package via Bloodlines/Mushroom Buy it here http://smarturl.it/BearWitness and stay tuned for any tour updates.


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