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  • Gavin King

    Tropic Now editor

    Email Gavin King

    Smoke and mirrors held up to a sombre kind of society

    He's the genius songwriter and former Cold Chisel keyboardist responsible for some of the greatest songs in Australian music history, including "Flame Trees", "Cheap Wine" and "Khe Sanh".

    But before his interview with TropicNow kicks off, Don Walker is less concerned with talking music and instead focused on a disturbing smell emanating from somewhere inside his apartment. He calls out to someone else nearby to find its source.

    "Is there something burning? I can smell something burning! No? Really? It smelt like something was burning."

    Perhaps the stilted start to our interview is appropriate. The symbols of smoke and fire feature throughout Walker's stellar career, from the shot of him smoking a cigarette on the cover of his memoir "Shots" to some of his most quotable lyrics like "...And there's nothing else could set fire to this town." 

    Once satisfied his toaster wasn't about to explode, Walker apologises and settles in for a wide-ranging chat about live music, streaming services and why he refuses to collaborate with anyone except his best buddies Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen.

    Tex, Don and Charlie arrive in Cairns to play the Tanks on Friday September 15th for an intimate evening showcasing their latest record "You Don’t Know Lonely", together with tunes from their previous two albums. 

    This latest tour is the first time the weathered, sometimes sombre, always insightful trio have joined forces to play a new album in over a decade. 

    Despite regular requests from other musos to write and perform together, Don tells TropicNow he clicked instantly with The Cruel Sea frontman Tex and renowned multi-instrumentalist and producer Charlie.

    "From the very beginning it was just very easy," Don recalls. "We sat in a room, tried a few songs, and it just sounded good. It meshed, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

    "I don’t like doing a lot of collaborations, to be honest. If I collaborate I’m going to do it with Tex and Charlie."


    Don is less complimentary about the rise of music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. 

    Musicians and bands have a love-hate relationship with streaming. They rail against the pitifully low royalties they're paid from streaming but recognise they need the services to reach a wide audience. 

    "The payments are very low and the streaming companies are thieves in that way," he says.

    "But they are no more thieves than record companies and radio stations and TV shows going back 60 or 70 years. Popular music has always attracted a bit of a cowboy approach where there are no laws or regulations. 

    "The way to look at streaming services is that they're just like a radio station, and nobody ever made much money out of radio stations. They just exist to get our music out there.

    "And hopefully, when people hear it on the radio, they want more and they want to hear it at a better resolution. Hopefully people are discerning enough to want to hear albums in all their full sound and glory." 


    While Don concedes he's not really up to speed with the health (or otherwise) of live music in Australia, he laments the scene will never return to the heydays of the 1970s and '80s.

    It was a golden era when his band Cold Chisel were part of one of the greatest periods of live rock any country in the world has ever witnessed, when every band from AC/DC to Midnight Oil and so many in between were playing in venues large and small across Australia.

    "I don’t think we can ever get back to the old days, and you'll never unwind the damage and dominance of poker machines," he tells TropicNow.

    "When I was starting out, there wasn’t much of a record industry here so the whole focus was on playing live, and bands had to compete with each other to get on the stage.

    "The rest of the world had moved on 20 years before and overseas you'd find people would make a record and figure out how to play live later.

    "But in Australia everybody would play live and then try to work out how to make a record afterwards.

    "It meant that when Aussie bands started overseas, they were absolutely phenomenal live, but the drawback was the audience wasn't as knowledgeable about the band because they weren't making records.

    "Look at AC/DC going to England in the second half of the '70s. There wasn’t a band on the planet who could compete with what they did on stage." 

    When it comes to alt-country in this day and age, you might say the same about Tex, Don and Charlie.

    Tex, Don and Charlie play The Tanks on September 15. Click here for info and tickets.