Mick Turner: Mellow Giant of Australian Music

When I was ten, I asked my dad what the best song ever written was.

He looked at me, and then contemplatively at the wall as though there was something written there I couldn’t see. Then he glanced back and said, ‘”Everything’s Fucked” by the Dirty Three.’ I gave the song a listen, and it was some wishy-washy bullshit with a lamenting violin, drums that wouldn’t pick a beat, and a guitar that had forgotten how to walk.

That guitar was played by Mick Turner, and it’s a guitar that has singlehandedly shaped the sound of contemporary Australian music. Like broad brushstrokes on a canvas, Mick’s sprawling chords imbue any song with a beauty so fragile, it might break if you listened to it too hard.

On May 26th, he’s playing at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid Live with the Dirty Three, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their self-titled debut album. The one with ‘Everything’s Fucked’ on it. I called up Mick to see how he felt about playing the best song ever written one more time.

The Dirty Three have become quite mythologised recently. What’s it like to be seen as one of the gate-holders of Australian music?

I was really flattered when Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett asked me to play on their record. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guysthey created their own careers doing stuff entirely off their own back. They’re very original artists.

How would that differ from how the Dirty Three started? You guys were really different to anything else that was being played in Australia at the time.

We ended up playing together by chance, and it just had this chemistry. I’m not really sure why it works so well, but it does. There was this musical communication going between us that we all found very exciting. We did a little residency at a small bar, and we just got some material together in the afternoon before our first gig. We had to do three sets over three hours, so we would just jam these pieces out, these ideas, and it felt really good early on.

Your guitar playing has this real organic and delicate feeling that you don’t see anywhere else. Is that intentional or does it just happen?

I think it just happens. Before the Dirty Three, I played in a lot of punk bands, but I had material that wouldn’t fit into any of those groups. So, the Dirty Three was a real outlet for that. Also, I never got guitar lessons, so it’s a bit of a naive style. I can’t play a Neil Young riff exactly how Neil plays it, that’s not my forte, but I think I can kind of reach behind that and find the thing in it that I really liked, that inspired me, and it just comes out differently.

All of your work favours the emotional over the technical. How do you find the confidence necessary to pursue that?

Painting is another thing where I didn’t go to art school, I kind of developed a naive style. It’s really similar to what I said about music where I’m not technically good enough a painter to replicate another person’s style, but I do get influenced by other painters and I try to reach behind and use that inspiration to create my own piece. I look at what they did technically, but I don’t bother even trying to imitate it, because I know I can’t. I wouldn’t be able to.

You did a similar show at the Opera House last year for the 20th anniversary of Cat Power’s Moon Pix which you and Jim White both played on. What’s it like revisiting albums and playing them in their entirety?

It’s been really nice, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a bit like a reunion in some ways. It definitely takes you back to then, to when you made those records. Because most musicians I know, we don’t go back and listen to our records. I certainly don’t. To listen back to how you played then, you hear things and you understand things in retrospect. It was really intriguing revisiting those Cat Power songs because of that. They’ve got this idiosyncratic thing where she’d improvise a bit and how she played the guitar would change depending on where the vocal was at the time. It actually makes for really interesting listening. It stimulates the listener when something doesn’t go exactly how you expect it to. It’s a great way to play.

Do you reckon it’ll be different playing your record this time?

We never did play those songs exactly the same. We have this communication where we don’t really talk about it, if we want to know where a bit’s going, with dynamics especially, we just follow each other and we find it. With a change of key or a new part or something, there’ll be some sort of signal. How many bars and all that is indeterminate, we just listen for the signalmaybe Warren yelling, me playing a particular line…

A little high-kick on Warren’s part.

Yeah! For sure. When we made this record we just went into the studio and pretty much played live like we had for the past year or so. That thing of playing live, improvising, working with dynamics and tension and musical interplay, that’s pretty much our formula. That’s what we do the best. So, going back to this record feels good because we’re going back to the very core of what works best with us.

You’re really good at tapping into a broken melancholy. What gets you up in the morning?

I have to make breakfast for my kids. And their lunch for school. I really like to create, I’ve always got an urge to make something, and I think if you ever tried to stop me doing it I’d become a really sad person. I’ve definitely got a creative drive that’s essential to my wellbeing.

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