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Australia's INXS: To know them is to love them

Australia's INXS: To know them is to love them

The biggest unknown band in the world.

That's how Michael Hutchence sees INXS. And since he's the lead singer of

the multi-platinum Australian band, he should know.

"People who buy our records and know about us -- one way or another, they're

music fans," he says matter-of-factly. "But particularly in America, where

we've never gotten into the Betty Ford-tabloid thing, we haven't entered the

psyche of the other side of America -- the side that doesn't get into bands.

"There are a lot more famous people who are not doing as well as us,"

continues Hutchence, warming to the subject of celebrities who routinely make

more headlines for their offstage antics than for their work.

Indeed, INXS' fortunes have improved considerably since the days, more than

13 years ago, when Hutchence and his five teenage buddies would cram into a van

and drive to pubs all over the Land Down Under to experiment with their hybrid

of rhythmic rock and funk. These days, jets whisk the band around the globe for

dates in stadiums and arenas, including a current American tour.

"Kick," released in 1987, booted INXS into the multimillion-selling ranks,

and its follow-up, "X," has kept the band there.

Recent television appearances on the American Music Awards, "The Arsenio

Hall Show," and "Saturday Night Live," could heighten INXS' public

profile -- and just maybe stop mispronunciations of its name. (It's "in

excess").

But if those things don't happen, it won't bother Hutchence or his mates --

the Farriss brothers (keyboardist and guitarist Andrew, drummer Jon, and rhythm

guitarist Tim), lead guitarist and saxophonist Kirk Pengilly, and bassist Garry

Gary Beers.

"We've never gotten caught up in all the nonsense," he says. "We've always

tried to keep things simple and be as real as possible."

And that's exactly how Hutchence comes across in a lengthy, two-part

telephone conversation, which originates from California a few days after INXS

returns from South America, where the group took part in the massive "Rock in

Rio" festival, and concludes from Florida, several days after the start of

INXS' 3(R)-month American tour.

Hutchence may be INXS' front man and resident sex symbol -- his lithe,

sensual movements and smoldering vocal style recall those of The Doors' Jim

Morrison -- but he's not full of himself. Straightforward, intelligent, witty

and charming, the soft-spoken Hutchence more often than not answers questions

with "we," not "I."

"We're not here for the wrong reasons," he says, elaborating on the band's

ethics. "We all love music, and that's why it works."

INXS also works because the band works -- hard. Its reputation was made

through live performances, where its songs take on vibrant new lives.

The band, says Hutchence, begins reworking its songs in pre-tour rehearsals,

and the tinkering -- or sometimes wholesale changes -- continue throughout the

road trip.

`If you don't want to kill a song, you can't play it over and over the same

way," he says. "So each night, we try to go out with a new attitude toward the

song and try to discover new things about it."

As an example, Hutchence cites "Shine Like It Does." During the 1 1/4-year

tour in support of "Kick," INXS performed an acoustic version of it; this time

around, the band is doing a harder, "almost Velvet Underground" variation.

"I always find people who say, `I didn't understand you until I saw you

live,"' he says. "But from the very start, the live aspect of the band was

important."

Capturing the give-it-all-you-got feel on records was also essential to the

band, but the task proved more elusive. It was only when Chris Thomas took

control of the production helm for 1985's "Listen Like Thieves" that INXS got

on course.

"The first thing Chris said to us was `How come your albums don't sound like

you do live?"' says Hutchence. "And when we began to work with Chris, he really

demystified the entire recording process."

According to Hutchence, Thomas just put mikes on the amps and offered this

advice: "Shut up, boys, and be a rock band. Stop messing with things, and just

play your music."

They were simple enough suggestions, but they helped INXS immensely. "What

You Need," a track from "Listen Like Thieves," became INXS' first Top 10

hit in the United States. The success of the album nudged the band from

American clubs to theaters and paved the way for "Kick" to catapult them into

rock's upper echelon.

Thomas would return to work on "Kick" and "X," which is the band's finest

work to date -- an assessment with which Hutchence agrees without a hint of

smugness.

"On `X,' I think the pop sensibility is different -- perhaps a little more

hidden. On most of our albums, each song is like an avenue we go down. We do a

blues song; we do a dance song. All quite defined styles.

"On `X,' we really wanted to go across the board, and as difficult as that

can be, I think we accomplished it."

"X" has a rawer, more soulful sound than "Kick." And songs such as

"Who Pays the Price," "Suicide Blonde," "Hear That

Sound" and "Bitter Tears" deftly blend the band's various musical

influences.

The new album also features some of the band's strongest writing from

Hutchence and his partner, Andrew Farriss. The most striking of the

collection's 11 songs is "The Stairs."

Slowly building to anthemic proportions, "The Stairs" is an eloquent, poetic

statement on the tragedy of suburban isolationism. It puzzles Hutchence,

however, that some critics have cited "The Stairs" as INXS' first message song.

In the past, INXS has used its song to convey messages against war ("Guns in

the Sky"), heroin use ("Biting Bullets"), racism ("Original Sin"),

and mistrust of the media ("Listen Like Thieves").

Because of the phenomenal success of "Kick" -- 4 million copies sold in the

United States, four top 10 singles, and five MTV Video Music Awards -- INXS

faced the inevitable question of how the band would follow it up.

"People who asked that really don't know anything about us," says Hutchence.

"We didn't finish `Kick' saying, `This is the one that's going to do it for

us.' There's a lot of music in this band, and we'll always continue to explore.

"We'd lose a lot of fans if we just duplicated what we've done in the past."

INXS came together as friends who shared a love of music, and it's

friendship that has kept the original lineup intact. Last year, however, rumors

circulated that trouble was brewing in the band. Hutchence recorded an album

with another group, Max Q, and some took that as a sign that he would be

leaving INXS.

Hutchence has also done some acting: He portrayed an odious junkie in "Dogs

in Space" ("Definitely not a glamour role," he says laughingly) and

played poet Percy Shelley in the Roger Corman film "Frankenstein Unbound."

But Hutchence says he has no intention of leaving the band. The rumors also

ignore the fact that other band members have worked outside INXS. Andrews

Farriss produced Jenny Morris' new album, and Beers recorded an album with

Absent Friends.

"If you stop people from doing what they want, that's when you can have

problems," says Hutchence. "The outside projects allow us to come back to the

band stronger. For me, Max Q) made me feel good about what I was doing and my

ideas.

"We share an emotional attachment that goes beyond being in the band. We

have respect for one another, and you don't find that in a lot of relationships

today."

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