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The Backsliders Speak

By: Aaron Leverton Posted: January-01-2006 in
Aaron Leverton

The Backsliders were in Cambodia for their first tour and they say they'll definitely be back. The day after their wildly successful Phnom Penh FCC gig, the Sydney-based roots-inspired blues trio took it easy. Drummer Rob Hirst and guitarist Dom Turner sat down at the scene of the previous night's triumph for a chat with EAS about blues, architecture and life after the Oils.

As any Aussie worthy of the name will know, Rob Hirst was the drummer and songwriter for Midnight Oil. The Oils were Australia's most successful politically-aware rock band. While Adelaide's Redgum were more politically polemical, they fit better into the folk scene. The Oils, however, had number one hits, extensive FM airplay, US tours, and an instantly recognisable frontman, all in spite of Australia's legendary political apathy.

With that instantly recognisable frontman entering politics, it was, after a quarter of a century together, time

for the other Oils to find new pursuits. For Rob Hirst and Dom Turner the timing was perfect.

"What I didn't want to do was become a drummer/singer/songwriter for hire in another big touring band," Rob Hirst said. "What I wanted to do was just fall into something that I felt comfortable with and also felt creatively satisfied with, but something that wouldn't take me away for a long time and also something where I could expand my knowledge."

Midnight Oil were an Aussie Pub Rock band with a message (or three), The Backsliders are a Blues Band. To be more precise, they are a Blues trio.

"Travelling around with The Backsliders has been a big Blues education for me because both Dom Turner and Ian Collard have an encyclopaedic knowledge of where this music comes from," Rob says, paying his bandmates a compliment I'd like to hear. "I've kind of connected the dots over the last 7 years. I've got a lot more to learn, of course, I see music as a lifetime thing that you never stop learning and I hope I don't."

Dom Turner, guitarist and founding member of The Backsliders explained a little of where that encyclopaedic knowledge came from.

"The idea of the band was to play early southern American music, particularly from the areas of the Mississippi; Louisiana, Texas, even over onto the east coast, but the southern states," Dom said. "To play Mississippi Delta Blues and Piedmont Blues, which is an east coast form."

Despite this beginning, The Backsliders moved into creating their own Blues music.

"We're not a purist band, in that we don't see Blues as being one particular form from one area, it's linked in folk music throughout the world," Dom says.

"It's not a purist Blues band by any means," Rob Hirst agrees. "I hope we never sit in our little safety zone and regurgitate the known."

Phnom Penh certainly isn't The Backsliders' safety zone. Playing without their usual sound engineer to a crowd that hadn't paid exclusively to see them, Dom, Rob and Ian literally rocked the joint. And it rocked them.

"So, here we were, downstairs, at the foreign Correspondents' Club, Phnom Penh, with probably the best backdrop to any gig we've ever played, bar none," Rob Hirst said with no trace of irony. "I could sit there drinking Angkor beer for the rest of my life perfectly happily," Rob declared in what is possibly the best recommendation the FCC has ever had.

"The crowd," Rob and Dom both remarked on that. "Expats, but also some of the local Cambodian folk came to see us," Rob was happy to say and Dom nodded in agreement.

"We weren't carrying our sound guy, but I don't think it mattered, really. I think the spirit of the evening was the most important thing," again Rob said it and again Dom voiced his agreement.

"There was a lot of frenetic drunken dancing, as it should be," Rob declared. "We had a really good gig. In fact the whole Cambodian experience has been amazing." It must have been, because Rob could be applying for the position of tourism spokesman. "Our first time in Cambodia - we're really hoping to be asked back, just quietly."

Asked if he wanted to make his wishes known Rob stood up to call out "WE REALLY HOPE, DOWNSTAIRS, THAT WE CAN COME BACK NEXT YEAR!"

Dom, likewise, is looking for any opportunity to bring the band back and when he learnt the FCC plans to renovate the colonial-era mansion opposite the National Museum immediately put his hand up for the position of opening act.

Like most first-time visitors to Cambodia, Dom and Rob (and Dom's wife Ida) were struck by the city's old-world charm (to use a well-worn cliche).

"My wife and I noticed [the mansion] immediately, looking out from the back balcony of the FCC. If we had money and if we wanted to live in Phnom Penh that would be the place to buy and that would be the place to live," Dom declared. No small number of Phnom Penhois, locals and expats alike, would agree.

"It's a fabulous building," Dom went on. "I just love that style of French-influenced architecture. So if the FCC are thinking of using it as another venue they need to get the Backsliders to play there."

We've all heard the jokes about Drummers' intellectual limits and we've all laughed at them. Rob Hirst probably laughs at them, too, but don't think his is a one-track, or is that 8-track, mind. After his first trip to Phnom Penh, Rob had a singular plea.

"It's obviously the jewel of Indochina, I had no idea that it would be so beautiful," Rob said. "I didn't realise that so much of the French colonial architecture would still be intact."

"I just hope that whoever's looking after the town planning and architecture n the city won't make the mistakes of so many other cities and tear down the beautiful buildings, that open space will be kept and then it will truly be the Pearl of the Orient; which it was and can be again."

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