Interview with punk bear Eric Kuhlmann
Little Bastard and Bryon Fear caught up with punk bear Eric Kuhlmann after his stomping show at Wotever Sex to talk about the bear culture in Australia, the band Armpit Stench, and his upcoming Edith Piaf cabaret show, Edith Woof …
It’s not every day you meet a punk bear. The lead singer for Australian Bear Punk Band “Armpit Stench” (one of the best band names in history) Eric Kuhlmann a.k.a. Stout Bear, bares his chest, plays guitar and sings nasty songs about sex and hairy chests. It’s the sort of irreverent, tongue-in-cheek material that despite playing close to the bone (their song about a dumpy chinese guy called China Bear got them labelled “racist” in Sydney) still makes you belly laugh. As a solo artist, Eric’s songs are filthy, energetic and deeply personal.
We met up with Eric at Caravan, an aptly antipodean bar in Exmouth Market. The welcome Bloody Mary suggested that his short visit to London was going well. The previous night we had the pleasure of seeing Eric perform live at Wotever Sex’s Punx Sex Night at the RVT. Moving from acoustic guitar ballads (with balls), to dance music with a gay punk sensibility, Eric showcased songs from his cabaret show Red Light Songs of Lust, Love and Death and, despite his obvious nerves ahead of his UK debut, within minutes he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. It was a genuinely special experience, and through the stories about lost friends, new love and gay club anarchy, ending with a brilliantly translated Edith Piaf finale, we left feeling like a proud mate.
How did you think last night went?
It was a bit rough.
Yeah. I’m getting over a cold so I couldn’t hit notes very well. And the fold back wasn’t very good for me. I had no fold back on the backing tracks so I couldn’t really hear very well.
He takes a sip of the spiced tomato juice.
But the audience was into it obviously, so from that perspective it went well.
It was a really nice atmosphere last night. You went down extremely well.
Yeah, I got that impression. (He laughs.) I’ve never had an audience react like that before. In Sydney they just sit there. Last night’s audience was the best audience I have ever played to. They were amazing.
Where you expecting it to go that well?
I didn’t know what to expect, you know? I didn’t know whether my stuff is too Australian, because I’ve never played outside of Australia before. I didn’t know how it would translate to another culture, even though our cultures are quite similar.
I think our cultures are similar enough, but if you were to go somewhere else, you might have a bigger problem translating to them.
So Sweden is gonna be interesting!
Is that what has brought you to Europe for the first time?
Yeah, I have a gig at the Stockholm Fringe Fest. That was the sparking point. I thought if I’m coming to the other side of the world, I should go to a few other places.
How did the fringe festival gig come about? Adelaide is a long way from Stockholm.
I came across it on Facebook and I applied for it and they accepted me. It’s a cabaret show that I’ve done in Australia; in Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth. So it’s a bit different to last night – there’s a lot more spoken word and it’s scripted.
And that’s the show you’re thinking about taking to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next year? What is it about?
It’s called Red Light Songs of Lust, Love and Death. Some of the songs I did last night are in the show. It starts off with my character at school, perving on the teacher and the guy that sits across from him. He then moves to the city where he becomes a part of this queer family, and falls in love… and then a couple of people die.
The abrupt summary makes him laugh.
So that’s basically it… in a nutshell. (And he’s still laughing …)
It sounds autobiographical. How much of it is formed from life experience or is it a creative piece of fiction?
It is based on events that have happened to me or people I know, but I exaggerate things and I take bits of different people and combine them into one character. So it’s a bit of both.
Do you play those characters as individuals or do they just exist within the songs?
I am a character. I talk about the other characters and I sing songs from other characters’ perspectives.
We were saying that the solo material you played last night is much more personal than your work with Armpit Stench…
That could be because we write together, when I’m with Armpit Stench – it’s three people’s ideas coming together, not just me.
Generally, your solo work also seems to be much more electronic than the material you performed last night. Do you produce your stuff yourself?
Yeah. That’s why it’s not very good. (He laughs. Loudly.)
Actually, we were wondering if you had worked with a producer because we think it’s very well produced.
Oh. Ok. I just do it on a laptop in my bedroom. I use a programme called Cakewalk Sonar and I use a really old programme called Buzz which was a free programme that came out about ten years ago. It’s all numbers based so, the nerd in me loves using that programme.
What would you say your musical influences are? This may surprise you, but during your acoustic set last night, I kept hearing traces of Morrissey.
There is a HUGE Smiths / Morrissey influence there. I grew up listening to the Smiths, Joy Division – lots of English bands, particularly Manchester stuff. New Order of course! Billy Bragg is a huge influence too. Tom Waits. Lots of different influences. But that album, The Queen Is Dead I used to listen to that, over and over and over and over and… yeah!
So would you say your musical influences are rooted in your past rather than your present. Are there any contemporary bands you like?
I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music to be honest. I have no idea what’s happening in music now. I don’t buy music anymore. I just flick through radio stations. A lot of the time I don’t know what I am listening to. We’ve got a really good radio station in Australia called Triple J which is a youth radio station. I listen to that a fair bit. And I listen to a lot of community radio where you’ll never hear the same song twice because it’s just people coming in with their personal record collections and play whatever they like.
That sounds great. Have you ever been on?
No. (Laughs) I’ve never done it.
Have you been tempted?
(Belly laughs … ) Yes! Very tempted…
It seems to be nigh on impossible to buy any of the back catalogue of Armpit Stench. What would you say the artistic goal of the band is given that there is no way to own the music you make?
There’s nothing available. There’s no real musical agenda. We’re just three mates that want to have fun. Although one of us has just moved to Melbourne so we don’t know what’s happening at the moment.
Would you say that your career, if you even see it as a career – your music and your solo shows… is that where you want to focus your creativity now?
I’m concentrating on more cabaret / theatre now. I’m working on a new show at the moment which is gonna be Edith Piaf songs, which I’m translating into English. It’s going to be called Edith Woof. It’s going to be a bear character, taking things from Edith Piaf’s life and turning it into a bear story – I don’t know how it’s going to work. (Laughs.) At the moment I’m concentrating on translating the songs.
So what are your plans for your future?
My next goal is to do Edinburgh Fringe and see what happens. And I want to do Berlin next time I come over too because it is the home of a certain type of cabaret I’m attracted to. And in Adelaide I run a Bear festival every year.
He pulls out a programme of events for Bearstock 2012.
Because Adelaide is so much smaller than Sydney and Melbourne who have massive bear events, we try and do something different. We have a film competition, an erotic writing competition. We do bear-lesque / cabaret / performance events. A lot of the other bear events in Australia are now looking at us and are starting to do film and more of what we do.
It seems unusual to us to have an arts festival based around a subculture like the bear scene. Is that common in Australia?
Not a lot. We’re kind of… it. Though Harbour City Bears, in Sydney, have been very supportive of us. They brought Armpit Stench to Sydney and my Red Light Songs show. I did that on my way here at Bear Pride in Sydney. The bear scene is becoming more cultural.
Do you think creating events for a specific group of a subculture is in danger of marginalizing that group or is it more of a case it’s by a subculture but for everyone?
The bear scene in Australia is inclusive. You don’t have to be fat and hairy with a beard to be a part of the bear scene. We can’t be exclusive in a place like Adelaide. There just aren’t enough people! To be in a small place, forces you to welcome everyone, because otherwise you won’t have anyone at your events!
How big is Bearstock?
It get’s bigger every year. When I first started doing it five years ago, there were four events. This year we’ve got thirteen. We’re part of what’s called the Feast Festival which is the queer arts festival in Adelaide. They’re very supportive of us. That’s an amazing queer festival. It’s two and a half weeks of queer culture. They take over one of the city squares in the centre of Adelaide and they have circus tents, temporary venues, art exhibitions in shipping containers. It’s really cool…
As we wind down the interview we order more drinks and try to convince him that he really needs to make his music available to buy, either on iTunes or Bandcamp (which he hasn’t heard of) so that his fans can appreciate his music more regularly. A couple of days later an EP appears on… Bandcamp! This prompts a Facebook exchange:
SUCH a good idea! I wonder how you thought of that!! 😉
Some smart geezers told me bout it … 😉
Eric Kuhlmann will be performing Red Light Songs of Lust, Love and Death at the Stockholm Fringe Fest on the following dates:
22:15, Thursday 23 August, KulturhusTaket, Stockholm
18:00, Friday 24 August, Sergels torg, Stockholm
19:45, Saturday 25 August, KulturhusTaket, Stockholm
and his EP can be listened to, bought and downloaded at Bandcamp by following this link: Stumpy Songs EP