The line to enter Waves Nightclub in Towradgi is the kind that makes your heart sink. It snakes out through the carpark and begins to zigzag in front of Waves’ glossily-furnished beer garden. But although it’s inching forward slowly, no-one seems disheartened. Most are on beachside home turf and they’re here to see the original line-up of Tumbleweed play for the first time since ’96.
Tumbleweed’s Waves show was originally slated as a modest “warm-up” for their big comeback at Homebake’s 15th anniversary last weekend. Fifteen years ago, the band was bumped from headlining on Homebake’s main stage due to disastrous weather, but things had come full circle again.
As a sell-out crowd of 1500 fans trickle into the cavernous nightclub, happy shrieks ring out as old friends reconnect. This is a reunion in many ways. Ever since the Waves show was announced gossip had circulated that “all of the Gong will show up”.
Some rumours even suggested that competing gigs in Wollongong were cancelled for fear of a desultory turnout.
Erected above the speaker stacks on both sides of the stage are two huge pictures of a guy in a top hat smoking a spliff. The swirling psychedelic iconography is vintage Tumbleweed and I even think I recognise the spliff guy from one of their EPs. Everything about the image is dated and representative of the nail-biting weirdness of waiting to witness five musicians, average age 40, return to play songs that represented the zeitgeist of the 1990s. Although Tumbleweed have preserved their reign as Wollongong’s most revered “longhairs”, there’s always the risk with a comeback that when the golden memories are unlocked and offered another dance around the room it might not quite be the giddy waltz it once was.
A man marches to the front of the stage. He’s holding a stubbie, has a long goatee and looks intensely familiar. Like old-school promoters of yore, he screams into the mic: “It’s been a long time coming, it’s been too long coming. So give it up now for Tumbleweed! Tumble! Weed! Tumble! Weed! Tumble! Weed!”
He beckons to the crowd to take-over the chant. It’s been so long since I’ve been manipulated by a (once all-too-common) crowd gee-up that I break into a spontaneous grin. And, of course, the American accent has given it away. Our special guest pep-talker is none other than Nick Oliveri, bass player from seminal ’90s stoner rock band Kyuss.
When I moved to Wollongong in ’96, people were divided into two camps: those who saw Kyuss in ’93 and those who missed it. The division was partly in jest but mostly not. Gongsters took music seriously. Seeing Kyuss play live delivered a measure of status indicative of the stoner/surfer/Sabbath-inspired musical culture that was dominant in Wollongong at the time. By the mid-’90s something of the stoner sound had crept into the repertoire of a disproportionate number of local bands.
Yet Wollongong’s most famed stoner rock emissaries Tumbleweed came from a different musical heritage. According to singer Richie Lewis the stoner sound was negligible in Wollongong during the late ’80s. He was more interested in Australian punk acts and Wollongong’s resident R&B garage band The Unheard.
“Our influences were Radio Birdman, The Celibate Rifles and faster punk stuff,” he says during an interview conducted a few weeks prior to the show. “When I was 15 and 16 I also used to go and see The Unheard a lot who were the biggest band in Wollongong – I thought they were pretty great.
“Stoner rock came later when people were smoking pot in that environment and getting onto this Sabbath groove, the heavy slow stuff. Then they’d get into Hawkwind and start their own musical discoveries. That become Wollongong much more so than when we started out.”
In around ’86, Lewis (on drums) and three teenage Curley brothers, Lenny (guitar), Jay (bass) and Dave (vocals) formed Proton Energy Pills with guitarist Stewart Cunningham (Asteroid B12, Leadfinger). Proton Energy Pills played raw, somewhat bratty punk with a similar power and pace as their Sydney contemporaries The Hard-ons. They amassed a cultish local and national following culminating in Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis producing their 1990 single ‘Less Than I Spend’.
Tumbleweed emerged later in ’90, when Lewis and Lenny and Jay Curley from Proton Energy Pills teamed up with The Unheard’s Paul Hausmeister (guitar) and Steve O’Brien (drums). When combined, the riffs, power, fuzz and sheer volume was formidable. Not to mention five heads of extraordinarily long, glossy hair swinging from side to side – Tumbleweed’s signature posture.
“There was this really cool punk attitude toward playing in Wollongong,” recalls Hausmeister of Tumbleweed’s early days. “A lot of guitarists never learnt, they just started whackin’ a guitar, bought the noisiest pedal they could, usually the cheapest fuzz they could find in some second-hand store. I did the same thing!”
In ’91 Sydney’s iconic independent record label and storefront Waterfront Records released a 7” single called ‘Captain’s Log’. It was recorded prior to O’Brien and Hausmeister joining and mixed by Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Seattle producer Jack Endino. Considering how young this first incarnation of Tumbleweed was, the single’s B-side, ‘Space Friends’, is astonishingly self-assured songwriting with overtones of Sonic Youth’s more melancholy moments.
Predictably, the 7” lassoed in pretty much every member of the misunderstood youth that heard it.
By ’92, Tumbleweed had released its first self-titled LP and two EPs, Theatre of Gnomes (1991) and Weedseed (1990). According to author and M+N contributor Craig Mathieson in his book, The Sell-In: How The Music Business Seduced Alternative Rock, the self-titled LP quickly sold 20,000 copies. That same year, a record executive from US label Atlantic was in town. When he popped into Waterfront, Tumbleweed was playing (no surprise, since Waterfront partner Chris Dunn was also Tumbleweed’s manager at the time). The Atlantic executive was impressed.
“We rushed up and did a half-hour showcase set for him that night at the Hopetoun and he signed us up,” remembers Hausmeister.
“I wholeheartedly believed I was manufacturing my dream,” says Lewis. “I was a total dreamer and I believed a lot of things people told me because so far in my life everything I had imagined was coming true.”
It was a year of intense touring for the band, including a brief series of dates in the UK and US for Atlantic reps.
“Jay was only 17 or 18 when we started,” says Hausmeister. “We had to sneak him into venues in America by kicking doors open or smuggling him in with the equipment.”
Meanwhile, the singles ‘Stoned’, ‘Carousel’ and ‘Acid Rain’ were doing the rounds on triple j. Then, the biggest coup yet. Tumbleweed scored the support slot for Nirvana’s Australian tour. Unlike other hyped-up bands Tumbleweed toured with, Hausmeister says Nirvana lived up to the buzz.
“Yeah, far out, amazing. They were an incredible band live. Especially the three sold-out Melbourne shows at The Palace, the energy was just incredible.
“The sad thing was Kurt wasn’t in good shape, he was pretty crook with gut problems so he’d turn up, do sound checks and disappear. Whereas Chris and Dave would get there early to see us, then hang out afterwards, drink beers and try to play cricket with us. They were obsessed with emus and kangaroos.”
Lewis recalls the size of Cobain’s … elbows.
“I remember watching Kurt at The Phoenician Club doing his sound check,” says Lewis. “He had pink hair and he sat on the drum riser playing one note on his guitar for about half-an-hour. He had really big elbows, compared with his arms and his stature.”
The Atlantic deal “fell flat on its face pretty quickly”, says Hausmeister.
“They released an album that was a comp of our first two EPs and a couple of B-sides. And then it was like, ‘OK boys, go off and finish recording your album and we’ll release it over here.’ But when they got it, they didn’t like it. Eventually they plucked five songs off it and released it as an EP and said, ‘With any luck your next album will be heaps better’, and that was basically the end of hearing from them.
“With major labels the A&R guys sign up 20 acts a year and if one goes big they forget about the other bands. They were looking for the next Nirvana.”
Ever since I heard ‘Captain’s Log’ I’d been a regular at all-ages Tumbleweed shows. The single ‘Stoned’ affected me profoundly too: the guitar tones, the harmonies, Lewis’ yearning for things to be simpler and, of course, his solution (“Why don’t they all get stoned?”). ‘Stoned’ was the most feelgood song on my Walkman – otherwise dominated by Massappeal, Rollins Band, The Cure and Sonic Youth – and it was my anthem. Maybe only for a summer but that’s a whole era when you’re 15.
Even after managing Ratcat through its heady days of teenybopper love, Tumbleweed’s manager from 1996-2000 and founder and promoter of Homebake Jo Segretto, observed the growing fervour of Tumbleweed fans with awe.
“The popularity was just insane there at one point,” says Segretto. “I was shaken by how big they became and how feral their fans became too. The shows all sold out. People were desperate to see them.”
Tumbleweed’s show at the Hordern Pavilion at The Big Day Out in ’94 still looms large as one of the most saturating wall of sound I have ever heard. Pre-mobile phones, I’d lost all of my friends and crept into the pitch black of the Hordern to escape the madness.
I found a seat high up in the back stalls and, utterly drenched in guitar, I watched as the entire front section writhed like a hairy, multi-headed beast, with the occasional Doc Martin sticking out at a dangerous right-angle.
“There’s a lack of understanding of how big Tumbleweed were and the impact they had,” says Segretto. “Their popularity was especially misunderstood by many in the commercial sector who just heard noise. I don’t know how far we could have taken it and obviously we’re never going to find out but at the time it was like we were creating a movement.”
Wollongong understood Tumbleweed’s sound perfectly. Amid what the confused suits mistook for “noise”, fuzzed-out Sabbathy riffs, pounding drums and mystical references, it was as if the town heard itself.
In ’96, Tumbleweed was still riding a five-year wave of mainstream popularity unprecedented for a heavy Australian “alternative” band. Yet in their hometown, tall poppy syndrome was surprisingly rare. Instead, there was a lot of genuine pride pulsing through the scene, and a lot of bands wanting to be just like them – consciously or otherwise. Despite the hero worship of Tumbleweed and acts like Kyuss, Hawkwind and Black Sabbath no one in Wollongong was too intimidated by their icons to strap on a guitar.
Everyone was either in a band, dating or living with someone in a band.
Countless local acts served it up, usually free, every weekend at the North Gong, The Oxford or The Cabbage Tree Hotel. The music scene was vibrant, inclusive and DIY, buoyed by the sandy, outdoorsy energy that accompanies beachside living and tempered by the terminal shadow of BHP’s smokestacks.
“There’s a sound that Wollongong has, where I automatically go, ‘Yeah, that’s Wollongong,’” says Lewis. “As far as our contribution to that, well I don’t know. There may have been a bit of, ‘If they did it, we can do it too.’
“Part of it was drawing from a common well. We all grew up here feeding off the same environment. There was also the influence of bands we related to like The Stooges who were also from an industrial city, Detroit. Seattle is similar too. Something with a bit of dirt, working-class, we were into that stuff. Wollongong is also a small town and everyone who plays music here are friends, or friends of friends.
“If you’re in a big city, you’ve gotta be fashionable. Not if you’re from a suburban place like Wollongong.”
At the end of ’96, Tumbleweed guitarist Paul Hausmeister was – in his words – “booted out” of the band. The real reasons for his ejection remain murky but stem from the harder-edged, more “realistic” attitude he and O’Brien had concerning Tumbleweed’s affairs. Lewis and the Curley brothers – bonded by their beginnings as the Proton Energy Pills and younger than the other two – were more laidback and idealistic. This contrast in perspective caused friction, as did their problems with record labels and with settling on a manager prior to Segretto taking the reins.
“[Steve and I] were wary of the industry and probably took it a bit more seriously,” says Hausmeister. “We took a pretty good look at contracts and sussed a lot of stuff out. Steve would look after the budgets at the end of tours to make sure we weren’t getting ripped off. The other guys kind of just rolled along.”
After his unexpected ejection, Hausmeister found it hard to make the transition from playing to thousands of fans back to regular life in the Gong.
“I threw all the CDs in a box and shoved them under my bed and I didn’t listen to any of it again,” says Hausmeister. “That was the end of it for me.
“The only time I heard Tumbleweed is if ‘Daddy Long Legs’ came on Rage or if it was playing when I dropped by someone’s place. They’d take it off really quick though because I didn’t want to know about it.”
“[The friction] certainly wasn’t there from the beginning,” adds Lewis. “Early there was an amazing connection, before things were too demanding, before we were thinking about what the record company wanted or what interviews we had to do.
“When we felt we weren’t in control of our own lives and destinies then we started getting frustrated and taking it out on each other and noticing these divides in our personalities.
“Traveling and playing all the time is great when you’re young and it’s your dream, you’re going for it, but four years into it you want a week off and you feel like you’re owned by management and they’re not listening to you, and it just becomes a real drag. And when it becomes a drag you start arguing and everything suffers. The music is the first thing to start suffering.”
Lewis says he now has respect for O’Brien and Hausmeister’s perspective.
“Some opportunities are smoke and mirrors, they’re not real. It should be more about looking after the collective and doing what’s right for you individually as people, not doing something because the record company wants you to do it. Paul and Steve had more personal power in that way.”
O’Brien, already disenchanted, left soon after in solidarity and, with some other mates, he and Hausmeister started a band called Group Zero. “As in Zero weed killer,” Hausmeister clarifies.
The implosion of Tumbleweed’s original line-up marked the beginning of a long, slow decline for the band.
“When it isn’t enjoyable anymore and you realise your dream is becoming your nightmare, you just want to get out of it,” says Lewis.
Lewis, guitarist Lenny Curley and bass player Jay Curley played on with various line-ups after ’96 but it was never the same again. “After the break up with Paul and Steve I feel that the years were trying to fill that void and recapture the magic we originally had,” he says.
Records were released, including Return to Earth (1996) and Mumbo Jumbo (2000) but they didn’t have the power or appeal of Tumbleweed’s releases in the early ’90s. Bassist Jay Curley departed in ’98.
Segretto managed Tumbleweed right through to their “nondescript demise” in 2000. “The band seemed to be cursed with problems left, right and centre through no doing of their own after Paul and Steve left,” Segretto says. “Trying to hold it all together was really tough for everyone. They never really made an announcement that they split up, it just came to a grinding halt.”
One Tuesday night at a venue in the Entrance, playing to a crowd of four or five people, Lewis finally realised he had to call it quits.
“I thought, ‘This is enough’. I jumped into this straight from school and it was time to close a chapter and open up a new one and find other facets of life. It was a difficult adjustment but, for me, the band had declined gradually over the years.”
Segretto, also a close personal friend, didn’t give up and kept in touch, gently suggesting the possibility of a reunion. But it wasn’t until Segretto realised the 15th Anniversary of Homebake was approaching that he made his most persuasive case yet.
Halong Bay Vietnamese restaurant on Crown Street in Wollongong is an unlikely backdrop for the moment that sparked the Tumbleweed reunion. But, in early 2009, when Lewis showed up there for dinner the restaurant was full. Barring one chair – next to Hausmeister.
“It was really awkward,” says Hausmeister. “Richie walks in and sits right next to me and it was like, ‘Fuck! Do I talk to him or what? I don’t know, fuckin’ hell!’ We ignored each other.”
At the end of the uncomfortable dinner, Lewis had a change of heart and decided to correct the record on an Illawarra Mercury article that had suggested it was him “holding out” on a reunion. The timing of Segretto’s suggestions, this time, had been right and Lewis had Segretto’s words on his mind.
“I lent over and said: ‘You know what the Mercury said? That’s not entirely true.’ Paul said, ‘Well, maybe we should talk about that.’”
Segretto was beside himself.
“We’re going full circle and doing what we meant to do 15 years ago by putting them on the big stage,” says Segretto. “I’d told Richie, ‘If there’s any reason to reform it’s this 15th Homebake anniversary. It wouldn’t make sense on any other year, maybe your 20th, but by then you might all be too old and look really stupid.’
“I said, ‘Here’s the podium, this makes sense.’ It’s your chance to say goodbye, this is closure for everyone.”
A few months later the original five members fronted up at the same sound-proofed garage in a Tarrawanna backyard they used to jam in.
“Everyone was pretty nervous and arrived with a knot in their stomach,” says Lewis.
“We all plugged in, got the sounds up and then just looked at each other as if to say, ‘Well now what do we do?’ We ended up playing ‘Sundial’ and it just sounded so awesome that we couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces.
“After all those years, playing and jamming again was almost effortless. It all clicked, it was still there. It was something we couldn’t manufacture, like each individual person brought their own chemistry.”
I’m up the front, in front of the right speaker stacks at Homebake’s main stage, deep in a pack of Wollongong locals. Tumbleweed open with ‘Stoned’ – just plunge right in and own it.
Never thinking about tomorrow
If you’re living life like yesterday
If you smile on someone else’s sorrow
You live the life that you create
The main stage at Homebake is, as promised, big, really big. Sporadically, the screens flash a close-up of one of the guys but if you close your eyes it could be 15 years ago – it sounds exactly the same. A couple of chancers flip themselves up for a crowd-surf as a chant starts up:
“WollonGONG! WollonGONG! WollonGONG!”
They’re playing ‘Carousel’ by now and I’m bathing in the beauty of its extended outro. I bat away an inflated condom that sails above my head and a beam of sun breaks through the muggy clouds. Just one of those sweet festival moments; just like old times for them, just like old times for me.
Mess+Noise version here.