He's traversed the globe as a founding member and chief songwriter for a band that has sold nearly 60 million albums. But Andrew Farriss is still searching for new musical stories to tell. On a recent songwriting trip to the US, he talked to Keyboard about his current musical outings.
What have you been up to of late? Rumor has it you’re in Nashville writing songs?
Yeah, that’s right. Obviously, I’ve always been a songwriter. I wrote most of the music for the band INXS, and I had a lot to do with other artists at that time as well, mainly Australian and New Zealand acts like the group Yothu Yindi, Jenny Morris and some other folks down there. But I also work with a lot of people as a songwriter, and more recently I’ve worked as one in Nashville. I’ve also been working on some new sounds with keyboards, trying-out new ideas. But my main thing is I write songs. And that’s why I’m in Nashville and it’s been good for me. I get to work with a lot of people who work in all different kinds of musical genres. I think that’s made me a more open-minded writer as well. I’ve always written sort of funk and rock things, but I don’t try and follow anyone else’s train. I like to just say, “Well, I like this. Let’s go down that road, whatever that is.” I like to be a little different.
Is the majority of what you’re doing now co-writing? Or do you have any aspirations to do a solo record on your own?
Actually, there’s a bit of both. I’m writing by myself, but I’m also writing with other writers as well, from all different genres. Some are more straight kind of country guys, others are sort of rock people, and other people are kind of EDM and other genres. And interestingly too, I think for me all of this has been a way for me to define what I want to try to do with my own music in my recordings. It’s making me have a kind of a mirror to see where I stand in the landscape. I’ve always experimented, but this is interesting because once you inject songwriting into soundscapes, it tends to steer you in directions you didn’t necessarily think you were going to go. And that tests me, which is a good thing.
As a guy that came up in a different time in terms of recording and music distribution technology, how are you feeling about the landscape of all of that nowadays?
I think the songwriting will dictate a lot of what you can and can’t do. Sometimes when you limit yourself to what instruments you have and go “old school” with acoustic guitar and piano, that’s what also really tests you against yourself. In terms of technology, I remember back in the day, we went to Japan in the early ‘80s and I began to really look more into that than I ever had before. I was always into synthesizers, and I had an old Ace Tone organ, which was a terrible thing that the local church fellowship group lent me because I didn’t have enough money as a teenager to get a keyboard. I used to plug this thing into a tape echo, which wasn’t one from Roland, which I always wanted. And so it had a kind of chorus thing because it would run slow and fast, and then I would open up the delay on it. So I was scrambling. I couldn’t afford the technology that I really wanted when I first started playing. But my point is, you use what you can at the time. That’s all you do. I remember when I first got a Roland SH-7. I thought it was like a Rolls-Royce compared to what I had been using. And the same with tape recording. Now I’ll come back into the 21st Century, with laptops and things. When I first went to Japan, I started messing around with computers and in those days, it was right when Mac first started too. I didn’t have a Mac because I couldn’t afford one so I bought one with this other sort of DOS technology. And then I was starting to actually write software programs so that I could understand what it was I was trying to do. And here we all are and everyone’s got a laptop. Yes, you can write an album with a laptop. There’s all kinds of things you can do with them, but I think at the end of the day, all of these things are just tools.
The songwriter Dan Wilson once told me that he thought a song should have a degree of portability - the idea that a good song can transcend the format that it’s in, the gear that it’s played on, and the audience it’s played in front of.
You’re exactly right. There should be a degree of portability to be able to play a song around a campfire, which is going to be tricky with a piano around a campfire! Maybe you’ve got a few friends around your house and it’s kind of quaint and you start playing piano and people sing or whatever. Yeah, that’s cool. I play guitar as well. I always have, as well as piano, and I’ve written a lot on both instruments - on keyboard and guitar. But keyboard was the first instrument I ever learned. I learned how to play piano when I was nine and I learned on my uncle’s Beale piano. It’s a tiny little piano, which I thought was huge when I was a kid. And recently my uncle gave me that piano. It was pretty cool. It’s like 50 years later, and I was quite moved emotionally with that because I feel like I’ve done a complete rotation where it finally arrived back with me. And its physicality is interesting because physical instruments require you to do things that you can’t necessarily do on a laptop. But having said that, I have tried to use cutting edge technology with things. Recently my band INXS put out a special edition for a remastered in 45 RPM double album version of Kick and it was done with the Atmos technology at Abbey Road Studios by Giles Martin. So my point is that there’s always some new technology thing coming through and it’s going to come and it’s going to go and it’s great. And by embracing those things, it creates change and that’s a good thing because the one thing that’s certain is change. I do think though that there’s a kind of sense of humor to some of this modern music where you do go to a campfire and if all you ever do is work on a laptop and you’re sitting around and it’s dark and someone hands you an acoustic guitar and says, “So how does your song go, pal?” And if you can’t play your song, you’re actually a computer programmer, aren’t you?
As contemporary as the music that your band wrote was, it seemed to me to be investigating all kinds of universal ideas.
I’ve got to say with our band INXS, we didn’t necessarily try to be any particular genre of music. That only happened when we turned up in the US where they like to stick you in a radio-friendly area and then they try to saturate the market with you. But we started off playing rock and funk and blues and all kinds of stuff mixed together, including Steely Dan jazz-ish things. And we were just like in our late teens when we were doing all that in the late ‘70s. And then by the ‘80s it was all about punk and smashing things and playing eighths. You weren’t allowed to play blues or anything like that. And then it kind of morphed from there. Then Michael [Hutchence and I wrote most of INXS’ music. A a big game changer for me and our band was when Nile Rodgers saw us on MTV and he flew to Canada and said, “I really want to cut a record with you guys in New York” and we said, “Sure, that would be awesome.” We’re looking at each other, you know. He said, “Let’s write a song. Let me hear it.” David Bowie had just finished the Let’s Dance album with Nile and Jason Corsaro, who was engineering and they humped their gear out, and we humped their gear in immediately after that, literally the next day. And then we cut a song called “Original Sin” that Michael and I had written. It was a funk thing that I came up with a guitar riff for that, which then Niles said, “Hey, that’s cool. Let’s do that.” My older brother Tim and Nile played it at the same time on that record. We did some BVs for it. And then Nile said, “Yeah they’re pretty good. Let’s make them stronger.” He said, “Do you mind if I bring someone in?” I said, “Sure, ok. Who do you have in mind?” And Daryl Hall walks through the door. He sang backing vocals on that track. Now, that’s a funk-rock thing. And we had death threats from it being on radio here in the US. We definitely started to wander outside the pop genre when that stuff started happening. That’s why we began to blend more and more and more rock with funk because we realized that just because people want to label you as something in your life artistically, it doesn’t mean you have to stay there. You can be a young fart, and old fart, but you know what, if you keep farting maybe eventually you’ll get there! I think that the real thing is you just stay true to what you’re trying to do because then that makes you you, whoever you are. I think chasing trains is never a good idea because everybody left the station.
When we first spoke, I mentioned that our Keyboard Corner message board was abuzz with people talking about the sounds you used on the INXS track “Don’t Change.” You checked the master tapes and reported that they came from your Roland SH-7, Roland Juno-60 and Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. These days, are there any recent things that you you’re excited about in terms of gear?
I’m interested in pedalboards at the moment. A friend of mine who’s back in Australia, a guy called Lawrie Minson, has always been a kind of techie guy. He’s also an awesome guitarist and a pedal steel player. He works more in the country music field, but he experiments with electronics and makes guitar pedals. They’re made in an analog way and he uses the highest grade of components in technology he can find. What I like about his pedal is any kind of modern synth is sweetened by sticking them through the analog pedal. That’s what gives you that nice round smooth tones to things. And then his board is interesting because it’s not digital technology where you can dial in some perfect thing. It’s not like that. You have to keep fiddling with it like an old analog synthesizer to make it go where you want it to go, and that’s what I find interesting about it. So that’s one thing. I’ve also started to repurchase old synths that I used, not in the late ‘70s-‘80s when these things were first being made, but like an MKS-80 and an MPG, the programmer that goes with it. The programmer is like the holy grail of those things. It’s not the synth, it’s the programmer man.
The Super Jupiter, right?
Yeah. That’s right. But there are two versions of it. One is better than the other one. I somehow got hold of the better one. I used to have one of these things, but I went back to find it again because I was listening to the recordings I was making and I really liked them. There’s something about the tone of it and I went back. Also with keyboards, the other thing I like to do is use the old MIDI idea of layering keyboards. That’s something I like experimenting with too because then you get hybrid sort of sounds that’s not just one keyboard. Like, I’ll retrograde MIDI into a Prophet-5 and then you put that along with another keyboard from whatever era, and then again the same thing happens. You get a modern synth like a Virus or something or one of the newer synths out, whatever it is, and then you MIDI it up with the older keyboard. And another older keyboard that I really love fiddling around with is the Emulator II. It drives me nuts because the thing keeps failing and breaking and whatever. But there is something about that particular keyboard and those particular samples that were done way back then. It’s very interesting. I’ve always liked them and there’s something about it. But I also use acoustic pianos as well. I’ve been really lucky to have three or four really cool pianos besides the little Beale upright piano that I now have that I learned on when I was nine. I have a Model B Steinway that I bought at the old Steinway Hall on 57th Street in New York. I also had a Blüthner from 1903. I’ve been really lucky to have had some pretty amazing keyboards. And I have a little upright Steinway from the ‘70s that’s pretty cool. It’s like a little jazz model. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those. It’s like a school practice piano. And you can pull the front of it out.
I like combining real piano sounds with synths and I’ve been doing other things like that. One of the things I really do like about laptop technology is that you have a mind boggling array of choices. But what’s interesting is if you listen to a lot of work people put out as artists these days, one of the things I’m noticing more and more is that it’s sometimes hard to know what artist you’re actually listening to. It’s not because you’ve tuned out of being aware politically or because you’re not aware of what’s fashionable or because you don’t really understand their music. It’s got more to do with the fact that because everyone is using all these great sounds and energies that have been created in the last 30 years that are all available, they throw them all up in the air like confetti and then they’re landing on the soundscape of modern radio. It’s not like when you listen to an artist from a particular genre who had a particular musical sound and that was their sound. And because of that to me, everything starts to homogenize itself into processed food. You lose a sense of personality or character in your music. Or, “Wow that’s Joe Zawinul” because he used Oberheims or whatever he was using. People lose the distinction of having their own sound. You start thinking, well, with so much choice you could take it anywhere. And that’s great on the one hand, but you really need to think carefully. I ask myself, “Why am I using that sound as I’m recording? What am I trying to do to the song?” And then I’ll put anything in. Sure, I’ll whip out any kind of instrument, any kind of laptop, any technology, any kind of old keyboard, new keyboard. To me, it becomes, “How can I increase the value of that song?"
I guess what you’re saying is in an era where many artists have become almost unidentifiable, songs have become the last frontier of originality?
Exactly. And you know what too? It tests you. One of the most amazing things if you’re fortunate enough to become an international touring musician is you get exposed to things outside your neighborhood, outside your community, outside your comfort zone. You really start to question some other stuff that you see and always accepted as the way it is or the status quo of life. You start to really look carefully at a lot of things. I think as a songwriter, that’s where it gets interesting too. There were definitely some highlights and things that were strange, like when our band was recording our album Full Moon, Dirty Hearts. We were in Paris at the Studios Guillaume Tell and someone said, “Ray Charles is downstairs.” And we said, “You’re kidding.” Our manager Chris at the time said, “Why don’t we send him down a song and see if he'd like to do it?” Michael and I looked at each other and said, “Why on earth would Ray Charles want to do our song?” He said, “We don’t we just send it down to him and see what he says?” So we sent down two songs and we get a message back from Mr. Charles, “Yeah I like this. I’d like to do this.” We’re like, you’ve got to be kidding me. And then we found ourselves eventually cutting a video with Mr. Charles and then playing live on the David Letterman Show with Mr. Charles and then playing with him. And I had to play piano in front of Ray Charles. That was interesting [laughs]. I remember as a kid growing with my dad who was an ex-Royal Navy and Navy guys in those years tended to buy a lot of vinyl—interesting vinyl records—and there were Ray Charles vinyl records lying around our house. So to me, those sort of things—experiences—would never have happened if we hadn’t left, if you like, the launch platform of being safe. It’s not until you really start to put yourself into areas that aren’t comfort zones musically and you’re not entirely comfortable in certain areas that you really test yourself and I think it makes you a better musician.
What’s coming up for you next
At the moment I’ve got some interest from labels. I’m trying to make sure that with the music that I’m currently writing that the instruments suit the song. I’m very fortunate to still have a lot of my old keyboards. But I’m also rediscovering things I didn’t know that I liked. I’m also going back into some of my older work and listening to some of the keyboard sounds and some of the things I was doing and discovering that there’s different ways to use things that I thought at the time were disposable. And it’s like, “Wait a minute. I kind of created that sound,” as I’m doing something. So that’s an interesting journey for me too.
Recording-wise, I’m using both new and old technologies. I like to work with modern technology and I also like to work in my studio where I get a bunch of guys or girls together and we get in my studio, which is on a remote farm in Australia. I think I have the only recording studio in the world that has an open fire in it. I just throw logs in it and we sit in there and you have a fire running. We talk a bit and we create stuff as we’re going along. I think I’m going to do more and more of that, sort of old school playing where I don’t really care what instrumentation anybody chooses to use, as long as we all play it live. That kind of stuff to me is really interesting. If you want to play your laptop, that’s great. If you want to play bass, that’s cool too. If you want to play live piano, great. Lyrics are something I’m really zoning in on too. I want to say what I really believe in and things that matter to me. What’s the old Chinese saying? “We are living in interesting times?” I think there’s a lot of change going on. Your children and mine are growing up in an era now where there’s this massive social experiment going on with social media. So songwriters and storytellers are the people who are going to tell these stories. I think it’s definitely fantastic that the art of songwriting is coming back into focus again because it’s time for people to tell stories again in a good way and tell it like it is.