Rai Thistlethwayte – a bit mongrel-ish

Rai Thistlethwayte

Outside the jazz scene, many people know Rai Thistlethwayte as the front man for Thirsty Merc. It can be a surprise for people who know  ‘Someday, Someday’ or ‘Mousetrap Heart’ to hear him do the jazz thing.  It can be a surprise for the people who know him through jazz to hear the very powerful energy and rock ‘n’ roll sensibility of his Thirsty Merc presence. And yes, there’s more. He’s a poet too. We published one of his pieces in extempore in 2009. We caught up with Rai by email and asked him about all that, as well as his musical influences, his plans for the Stonnington concert and a list of what he’s listening to now.

Rai will be playing at Stonnington Jazz on Saturday 19 May at Malvern Town Hall from 8PM

Jazz-planet: For you personally, what’s the difference between what you do with Thirsty Merc and the gigs you do in a jazz context?

Rai Thistlethwayte | Photo: supplied

Rai Thistlethwayte: I guess I have a different headspace for both those types of gigs and writings and all of that. That said, I also don’t really have as much of a division in my mind and heart for any style of music, it’s all some type of expression and storytelling and being in the moment and sharing that. The elements and principles of rock and pop and jazz would definitely delineate each other from the other. For instance, central to when I’m gigging with jazz I’m improvising, and when I’m doing rock and pop I’m playing more of a set list worked out, and I feel like I’m a ‘front man’ telling stories of lyrics that I’ve written myself; with a guitar mostly too, so it’s of course different. I’ve always liked the fact that a guy like Miles Davis didn’t consider himself a ‘jazz musician’ so to speak, he referred to himself as a ‘musician’. Now, I’ll never even put myself in the first steps of being in the same league as Miles, but I dig that way of looking at it. It’s all just sonic output that has some kind of intent, on an emotional level. I actually traverse different ‘jazz’ ideas even when doing pop and rock, and vice versa, although it’s hard to explain when and how and why. I guess maybe I can’t decide what I like, I just like it all, and although that is hard to ‘market’ to the world, it’s true to me, so I’m a mongrel. I reckon musos for the most part are all a bit mongrel-ish in terms of their listening, and that’s not a problem.

J-P: Poetry seems a large component of what you do, and we published your poems in extempore before – when did you start writing poetry and who would you say are your influences or mentors?

RT: Firstly, thanks for publishing the poems, it was a real highlight for me to see anything I did on that trip in print!! I think I got this poetry thing from my dad originally, who is a ‘words man’, a linguist; he taught French, German, Indonesian and Japanese in high schools while also being a musician, playing bass and guitar. Words and music make up songs. I started writing ‘high school poetry’ I guess as a way to try and internalise love letters to girls, even if I never sent them. Hormones were kicking in at teenage years in a big way – so that was a driving force.

Even just an intrigue with the areas between sleep and awakeness, or those subliminal areas of creativity, and to spew them out onto the page. The abstraction of it, putting it through a different kind of lens, however you get there. What I’m saying is that I’d be out on the town after a few beers and whatnot and I’d write while out in a club, venue, party. Any of these thoughts I’d write them all down in my mobile phone notes and do nothing with them for ages, although even songs that got ‘popped’ like ‘Mousetrap Heart‘ – a Thirsty Merc release – was a line in one of those poems between 2007 and 2009. Along the way, friends told me about John Cooper Clarke and people like rappers and Mike Skinner and the crossover artists like Saul Williams added to the mix. The poem ‘ID takeover’ (written about an internet fraud case) and a lot of the Michael Albatross stuff was written around a trip to New York for 3 weeks while the JVC jazz festival was on.

ID takeover

Between us
We had the place cased
Infiltrating bloodlines
Like every tomorrow
There was incredible triangulation
And variable geometry
Like some great visionary
The emotional dome was constructed
Placed over the district
Wires were tapped
And identities stolen
I could hear the machine hum
Kicking on downbeats
Like the hip hop thud of a subway car
And Asian cities contacted
Reconnaissance majors
So no inkling went unheard
I was reading decades of past espionage
Finding 2600 hertz anecdotes
The blurry line between advancement
And electrical romance
And a life of crime
Fraudulent beginnings
Taunting victims
I was in the middle of a barbed wire
Warehouse line
Alphabet avenues
And screens unwilling
Blanking broken folders
Thru syntax and text marauders
My brothers would have been enthralled
Mall statisticians dumbfounded
Film czars open eyed
We had the whole place cased
We had the area covered
Sacredly underpinned
Groundshifted and landslidden
This was more than a fifth interval vinyl video
Documentary style sped up tape book reversed
Jazz bounced back into the iridium of yestermonth
It was a true conspiracy
I was a bicycle spider
And she was a try-cycle masterpiece
I was
At last
In heaven
At random central

(published in extempore Issue 2, May 2009)

J-P: Who would you say are your influences and mentors in jazz?

RT: My fave living musician is Keith Jarrett.

The list is huge. Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Steve Gadd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Pat Metheny, James Muller, Steve Hunter, Phil Stack, Charles Telerant, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Steve Coleman, cheesy fusion and chill out records, some bastard put a box of tapes of elevator music in a box at a fete in Sydney and I picked it up by mistake and chewed through it and I’ll never forgive them for it coz I will always love cheese now which is a blessing and a curse. No relation to that last sentence, but directions in groove (Terepai Richmond was my fave drummer when I was in my early teens, still one of the best cats in crossover jazz influenced stuff today),The Subterraneans, Paul Bley, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, and all the people at the conservatorium when I was studying there in Sydney in 1998. My friends in the SIMA scene, Jazzgroove gigs, guys like Paul MacNamara who taught me early stuff and got me on the trip before then, my old school friend and vibraphonist Ed Goyer who I played in a band with when I was 16 called ‘The Box’ where I played left hand bass, Phil Stack actually jammed with that band in 1996 and decided not to join because he was already super busy with James Morrison. Cameron Undy who has Sydney club 505, who even taught classes at the con when I was there, I played for his masters recital and he made me learn ‘Moments Notice’ for it. The first grand piano in that club was actually my old Kawai, and Cameron and Kerrie have been so amazing for the whole scene. Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan too I guess, Pretzel Logic and The Royal Scam albums.

So many other people, it’s a huge network of amazing people and the Side On Cafe on Wednesdays was a great hang too, the vibe was electric some nights, I wish these venues didn’t close down. It was romantic, and loose. The Bald Faced Stag Jam, the nights we had there!!! Jonathan Zwartz and all the Winebanc crew, Darren Percival and Danielle (now De Andrea)… inspired me to sing. I also have to mention Melbournite Lindsay Gravina too, one of the most interesting figures IMO in music anywhere, he produced two and a bit Merc albums and Living End albums and so much indie rock stuff but his studio is called ‘Birdland’ and he is completely obsessed with (late 50s, early 60s for the most part) jazz. He knows so much about it all too, wow.  And for me – these people are just the tip of the iceberg.

J-P: What music first switched you on to becoming a musician?  At what stage did jazz become part of the picture for you, and when did you first hear it?

RT: My mum played classical piano at home; that got me into music more than anything else. and my dad playing the guitar and electric guitar and bass in the garage. their record collection(s). jazz came into my world through listening to and trying to play the 12 bar blues, and jazz blues was a more complex chords version of that same form. then oscar peterson swung it in an irresistible way and I went from there, and then when I heard keith it spun me out coz it was so rubato I was like ‘can this guy play!?’ and then within a year I was so hooked on it it was the best thing I ever heard. Still is. I saw him a few weeks ago at Disney Hall here in LA, what a legend.

J-P: What can people expect from your set at Stonnington? Will it be something like the YouTube we embedded here?

RT: It’ll be solo, piano-based, just me. There will be elements of that YouTube for sure. I might have a loop pedal with me so I can sing, with a few grooves going on – a backbeat always makes it different and people have liked that. I tried that in Wangaratta and it went well. I don’t think I’ll do any spoken word but you are giving me some ideas!!! I guess it’s not a cop-out when I say this, but I don’t want to plan too much because central to jazz is improvisation.

J-P: Where are you based now and what are the challenges of being located there?

RT: I’m based in LA for the moment and it is awesome on so many levels, but also it’s a total layer cake. You need a car, downtown is desolate (where I live) but I also find it interesting. Hate to talk about this silly element of it all but it’s weird going from being ‘known’ in Australia to a total nobody, but also really refreshing because I got a bit too comfortable being in Australia on levels. Now I’m feeling the bumps again, which is great for the creative spirit, if nothing else. Also I can’t find a good bloody coffee!!!!

J-P: What are you listening to now?

RT: I’ve been listening to poolside, LA hip hop with all that crazy subdivision stuff going on in the hi hats (triplets then 16ths then 32nds then back to triplets etc) and the beat is super slow. That just gets played in clubs that my roommate takes me to, and you can’t help but hear it. I dig it though. At the Piano Bar in Hollywood there’s some classic country rock stuff going on which is different to anything you’ll really hear in Australia for the most part, kind of like a weird corruption of Credence with more jamming elements; it’s super feel-good and as my friend would say ‘it’s a vibe and a scene’ hahaha. I have been working there with my trio so it’s got into the system. In LA there is a lot of studio-based stuff too, everyone’s songwriting projects and the electro stuff and tracking sessions and that goes on here all the time, so you hear a specific brand of drum tones and studio vibes.

KJAZZ the radio station is all jazz here, only jazz so we put it on and leave it quietly on for days. They play everything and it’s a bit smooth but still great.

Rai will be playing at Stonnington Jazz on Saturday 19 May at Malvern Town Hall from 8PM