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Mental As Anything

Mental As AnythingInterview by Joy Williams

first published in Artist Magazine, San Francisco

"We used to alter these really awful paintings they have in hotels. You know, those pictures of Paris after the rain, and it's foggy and there are puddles of water in the street. Reg would paint in a little shark's fin, or ... we'd put McDonald's golden arches off in the mist."

Coming from a common background of art school in Melbourne, Australia in 1977, Reg Mombasa (guitar, vocals), Peter O'Dougherty (bass, vocals, guitar), Martin Plaza (vocals, guitar), Wayne Deslile (drums) and Greedy Smith (vocals, keyboards, harmonica) formed Mental As Anything, not with world conquest in mind, but basically to kill time.

"When you're in art school in Australia, there's not a lot to do, other than be in a band or get drunk. We found that by being in a band not only could we kill time, but also get free drinks, so it only seemed the logical thing to do," asserts Greedy.

Perhaps not having held the lifelong dream of being in a band and striking fame and fortune paradoxically led to their seemingly casual approach to the business of making music. Though they really are very professional and skilled when it comes right down to it, this disarmingly nonchalant air remains about them (which is rather refreshing after all the bands who view music with such deadly seriousness). As a consequence, the Mentals have a great time while performing, and so does the audience—and wasn't that always one of the original, basic appeals of rock'n'roll? The release, the good times....

When faced with the prospect of meeting this band in person, we could only hope to come away with mental facilities intact—or would we, too, become Mental As Anything? (The phrase, "mental as anything", by the way, is basic Aussie-speak for someone who is more or less off his rocker, loony, insane.... Not far off the mark, as Joy and veteran San Francisco scenester Zoë were to discover.) The band prepares for their set casually, nonchalantly: there's no need to get nervous and panic about possible equipment failures or whatever, 'cause it's just a way to kill time and get free beer, right? And, "well, guitar players always have lots of guitars; it's their obsession. And, actually, this one only cost about $100. We really don't spend  a lot of money on this sort of thing. I think a few of these are second-hand, and none of them are very expensive."

Their easygoing attitude is reflected in the music itself, which nonetheless has a sound all its own. It's an alloy of rock, new wave and country: Working for the Man, from the Creatures Of Leisure album is a cover of an old Roy Orbison tune. But then, "In Spirit Got Lost," their bizarre sense of humor exhibits itself; this is a song about waking up in the morning and finding yourself dead, and the difficulties thus encountered in trying to get a date. Not your normal Top Ten treatment of a love theme.

Indeed, the closest these guys ever get to a traditional rock'n'roll heartbreak ballad is in If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? from their first album of the same name. And what do they do when not out touring, paying or recording, I wonder when the playing stops and we're backstage, drinking again: "Australian bands tour ten months of the year," reports Greedy. "The live market is far more important than the radio, like it is here.

But after this tour, we're all going to take holiday. I'm going to Italy, and Reg is going to go back home because his wife is pregnant and the doctor has told her its going to come a little early, and he's a little anxious." Touring ten months out of every year doesn't seem to me to be a particularly relaxed way of life. But the Mentals deal with the boredom of life on the road by redoing artwork in motels. They what? "We used to alter these really awful paintings they have in hotels. You know, those pictures of Paris after the rain, and it's foggy and there are puddles of water in the street. Reg would paint in a little shark's fin, or two dogs mating in the corner. We'd put McDonald's golden arches off in the mist. And the motel people would never notice it," he laughs.

"Then, one time we were on an Australian TV talk show, and we told how we used to add to the paintings, and we suddenly started getting calls from these hotels, infuriated that we had done this, when all along they hadn't even noticed."

We talk a bit about the US Festival (a huge, free 3-day rock festival in the Mojave Desert, paid for by Steve Wozniak, the founder of Apple Computers) and Greedy starts to laugh. "Reg has this obsession about Steve Wozniak because of his name. He almost idolizes him because he has such a strange name." Somehow, I don't find this at all surprising from a man who changed his name from O'Dougherty to Mombasa (he and Peter are brothers).

But how is the band going to approach their next album, given the success of Creatures Of Leisure, I wonder. Does this mean they're going to seriously work this time around? "Yes. It means that we're going to learn the songs this time," vows Greedy. And what of this publicity thing you did earlier, going into a radio contest winner's home to do some chore, who came up with the idea, anyway?

"We came up with it as a joke in Australia, and all these record company people don't understand the meaning of humor, so we went ahead and did it. I think we mowed lawns in every major city in Australia. On this tour, we mowed a lawn in Phoenix, we fixed someone's curtain rods....   Actually, Martin did it because he's the only handy one of us. Then in New York we just had lunch at some girl's house. But the thing that was nice about it is that we got a chance to meet real people."

We get onto the subject of videos, particularly  their Spirit Got Lost clip, which is really good, with a mixture of action and animation. Given their art-school background, I wonder if they themselves had a direct hand in the design. "We come up with the ideas, but on the Spirit Got Lost video, some of our friends from art school did the work. We've just done a new video for Working for the Man," which we did everything on. We just hired a camera man and told him what to shoot." Ah, someone is pounding on the door.

It's very, very late and the employees of the club want to go home now, thank you very much. Besides, Greedy is informed of the imminent departure of the tour bus, whether or not he's on board. As we walk upstairs to the door, I ask him what it feels like coming to America for the first time. "You see it on TV all the time, then you land at the airport, look around and figure, no problem, you can handle this. But then you realize that, unlike TV, you can't turn it off!"

Backstage with Mental As Anything next


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