Brisvegas pioneers throughout the 1990s, when they were the wittiest and most highly hummable option on Triple J, they went on hiatus at the decade’s end.
McCormack, guitarist Matthew Strong, bassist Paul Medew and drummer Glenn Thompson started playing shows together again in 2009 (reforming for Queensland’s 150th anniversary) before venturing back into the recording studio in 2015. Now they’re about to release their third album in five years with the arrival of the eclectic and exceptional Respect All Lifeforms.
The lesson of this mid-career comeback? Keep matters to a bare minimum. “We’ve figured that the less we see of each other or interact, the more productive we are in little flourishes when we do get together,” says McCormack, who has lived in Sydney since 1998.
“Even when we tour, we often get to the gig independently of each other,” says Thompson, percussionist and studio wonk who McCormack credits as the smartest member of Custard.
“I remember we flew to Melbourne a few years ago to play shows and we all came on different airlines and landed within half an hour of each other and then shared a cab that took us into the city where we all had separate hotels booked within 250 metres of each other. That summed us up perfectly: we’re apart but with the same goal.”
Both Custard and Bluey are pleasurable side-projects for McCormack, whose day job is creating music for film and television projects — his current assignment is for the next season of Ten’s Five Bedrooms — through the company he co-owns, Sonar.
Part of Custard’s present good standing stems from the wisdom gained in being popular but never outrageously successful; in the 1990s, they could easily sell out the Metro Theatre but never contemplated the Hordern Pavilion. They have few illusions — or royalty cheques — from their heyday.
“I found some old video-eight footage of us touring America in the 1990s, and what a waste of time that was,” McCormack says. “We flew into Los Angeles and then drove seven hours to Phoenix to do a gig, and when we showed at the venue, which looked like something out of Mad Max, they had no idea who we were and no record of us playing. So we drove seven hours back to Los Angeles.”
McCormack believes that an executive at ABC Music, the band’s label, may have a plan for the group, but as far as he and his bandmates are concerned, this is a matter of occasional fun mixed with sustained creative satisfaction. “We’re hobbyists,” he insists.
It means that on Respect All Lifeforms, the idiosyncratic songwriting can’t be pigeonholed: the indie-rock groove of Funky Again matches up to the bittersweet ballad Come Tuesday and the gorgeous glam rock opera Harlequin Records, which revisits the record store a teenage McCormack haunted in the mid-1980s while working as a supermarket trolley collector.
The group once more sports three songwriters, with Medew getting his Elvis Costello on with the new-wave belter Wishing alongside McCormack and Thompson’s contributions.
“It’s fantastic to have Paul back,” Thompson says. “Quite often, he would have an idea that would half-eventuate, but not kick on, but this time he had the ideas, and he came up to my studio and we all did it together.
“Having Paul’s songs there reminds me of when I first went to see Custard play before I was even in the band, back in 1991, and Paul would always sing a song or two he’d written.”
Allowing for his ropey mathematics, McCormack believes he’s responsible for 40 per cent less of the songs on Respect All Lifeforms than Custard’s recent albums, 2015’s Come Back, All is Forgiven and 2017’s The Common Touch. The singer is solidly in favour of this.
“I love it. It means I don’t have to fill in any gaps,” McCormack says. “You can’t have an album with one singer doing one kind of song. That’s boring.
“I’ve always preferred a Fleetwood Mac Rumours vibe to Paul McCartney’s first solo album, where he did everything. And by that I do not mean we had massive cocaine habits like Fleetwood Mac did.”
The backbone of the new album was recorded in a single day in March last year day at a recording studio in Fremantle. Custard were in Perth to play a music festival, so Thompson booked the space to take advantage of their proximity.
Midway through the session, an eccentric local named Cowboy John stopped by to bum cigarettes from Strong, play a song on acoustic guitar and offer the album’s title as a piece of advice. A picture of him on another visit to the studio is now the cover art. It’s all typical of Custard’s laidback demeanour.
“We’re definitely not exclusive and we don’t hold anyone to a values regime. We shun elitism and earnestness of any form,” Thompson says. “There’s never any spite in anything Dave does, or says, or sings.”
As for McCormack, he’s looking forward to Custard playing live again when the coronavirus restrictions are eased enough to allow live music venues to reopen.
He believes this is the sweet spot for 1990s bands to reach out to their former audience and, based on the smiles he’s seen at gigs over the past few years, it’s working, even if Custard haven’t yet been booked to play a winery show with the likes of You Am I or Spiderbait (he’s working on it).
“We’ve got five or six years ago to go until the bands and their associated audiences are just too old,” McCormack says. “The average age of the ’90s bands is 48 to 53 now — if you don’t count Jebediah, who are still young — so give us until we’re 60 years old and then it will be slim pickings.
“Without really thinking about it, sometimes you wonder how old you really are, and when I do that, the answer is mid-20s. But then you look in the mirror, or try to do something physical, and it’s easily double that.
“My stage moves have certainly become a lot more efficient than in the ’90s. I’ve got them down to the bare minimum, too.”
Respect Al Lifeforms is released on May 22. For tour updates, go to custardband.com
BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE
Australian television has always had a fictional dad who manages to sum up the era their show aired in, whether it was Dave Sullivan (Paul Cronin) from The Sullivans in the late 1970s, or Packed to the Rafters’ Dave Rafter (Erik Thomson) at the end of the 2000s.
Australian television’s present definitive patriarch, who is not called Dave, is a Blue Heeler, archaeologist and caring parent named Bandit, one of the anthropomorphic canines from the ABC’s celebrated animated success Bluey. But he’s voiced by a Dave — Custard’s Dave McCormack.
“It’s always fun to read the scripts and record the shows. I do a couple of episodes in an hour or two, then nothing for weeks or even a month or two, so it’s definitely a sideline,” says McCormack, whose voice is now beloved by pre-schoolers around the world due to the care and thoughtfulness Bandit puts into playing with and educating young daughters Bluey and Bingo.
McCormack’s own daughters were six and four when Bluey debuted in 2018, which meant they were readily receptive to the show’s considerable charms.
That’s starting to dissipate now, and McCormack jokes he’ll probably start embarrassing them soon, reaching a crescendo in his kids’ teenage years. In general, he’s happy to play a small part in the show’s considerable success, but as per Custard’s track record of missed opportunities, he and his bandmates aren’t expecting flow-on success.
“I know that David gets a lot of attention for it, but this is the first Custard release since it’s happened,” says bandmate Glenn Thompson. “There’s been some chat on the Facebook page, although one fan said that they played their daughter Girls Like That (Don’t Go For Guys Like Us) and her daughter said, ‘I don’t like Bluey’s dad any more!’”
Bluey screens on ABC TV and on iview.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.