Tonk's Steve Gray: "We wanted the record to sound as big as possible for whatever we could afford"...

Canberran rockers Tonk have a storming new album out now, and guitarist Steve Gray was keen to tell us all about it - who are we to turn the man down?

It’s the bane of the telephone interviewer’s existence. The posh woman apologising that ‘the number you are dialling is not available’ is looking down her nose at me and today I really don’t have time for this. Try again. Same reply….

OK, I’ll try once more. Bingo! Its Canberran rocker Steve Gray of Tonk on the other end of the line, very apologetic. “Sorry mate, I had some wingnut on the line wanting to talk to me about microphones’…

All in a days’ work for both of us I guess (Steve spends his days working, like so many musos – even the ones with albums out – in a musical supplies emporium). Still you’re here now. Let’s talk about Tonk’s splendid new album Ruby Voodoo. Tell us a bit about it if you would? "It was really a positive experience. No matter how much you prep for these kind of things there are always things that come up unexpectedly, but I think we got through it pretty well”.

You opted for a bigger name to produce than you’ve used before didn’t you? How did that go? “Well obviously with Nick Didia, he’s done a lot of stuff"… That's right. Names like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine spring to mind. " Yes. And we were hearing a lot of stories relating back to stuff that he’d done previously. At one point we were working with the voices and I said, ‘wow, I’d really like to get one of those AM Radio-type effects going on there, you know like you did on that Stone Temple Pilots song?’ And he’d go ‘oh yeah!’ - pressed a button and there it was! So that was pretty cool”. 

So were they good stories? “Some quite interesting stories, stories I don’t think I should really mention publically, especially about Jackyll”.

He goes on to elaborate, telling a very amusing tale involving the chainsaw-wielding hair metallists that quite clearly you are of too delicate a sensibility to hear in all its glory – remind me to fill you in on the details next time we find ourselves standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar.

How does a band like Tonk get to work with a guy like that? “You pay for it” (laughs).

I realise that, but in the beginning, was he at the top of some sort of ‘producer hitlist’, were you introduced by mutual acquaintances, how did it really come about? “There were several reasons It happened; Because of the way we track, which is to record most of the tracks live as a band before overdubbing solos and bits of vocal afterwards, just to create the vibe that everybody else used to have, there weren’t heaps of options to record like that as far as studios or producers are concerned. Most producers want to pro-tool the shit out of everything, autotune… we’re really not into that sort of recording. It has its place, but just not with what we do. I looked around at some of the studios in Australia, and probably the thing about 301 in Byron Bay (where Ruby Voodoo was birthed) was that they have this early seventies Neve desk which used to belong to (iconic Australian label) Festival Records, and on which was recorded many of the big hits of the seventies and eighties in Australia. When Festival went under, they were selling off their gear and a lot of overseas places were tripping over themselves to get hold of this stuff. So Peter Garrett (the erstwhile Midnight Oil vocalist who at the time just happened to be Australian Minister for the Arts) heritage listed it so it could stay in Australia! So it ended up at 301 studios. It was set up in a certain way with the outboards so that it’s the same as in that Dave Grohl docco. I can’t remember the name of it?”

Sound City? Ah yes. ‘How do we keep music that's sounding like it’s made by people?’! “Yes. There’s something magical about those desks. I can’t put my finger on it technically but it does sound really good. So that was a big consideration; we wanted the record to sound as big as possible for whatever we could afford. Also, we’re friends with (Airbourne manager) Gregg Donovan, who was in discussions with 301 about putting some of his artists in there to record as it happened; Being a friend he made the introductions… like I said though if you’re willing to pay the money you can make these things happen. We were lucky that it didn’t cost nearly as much as it could have!”

Talking of money, despite your luck at getting a good price, the recording did wipe you out financially, didn’t it? Which leads us neatly to my next question – tell us all about the Pozible campaign you launched to get the album out. “I always looked at those things a bit suspiciously, you know, kinda like is it begging? But then I thought well as long as we can get just enough money to cover the costs of getting the record pressed it would be alright. Realistically, without these sort of ‘modern’ methods, it’s very hard to get stuff out. We asked for seven thousand dollars which was just to cover the costs of getting the thing out”.

The band sailed past that mark, which at least gave them some product to punt around, with the extra bunce towards the filming of a promo video; but again it wasn’t cut and dried getting the record on the shelves was it? “We had three deals on the table, or at least being talked about, with Frontiers, Melodicrock and Bad Reputation. Frontiers liked it, but we’re small fish, you know, and we were going up against Whitesnake and Def Leppard! So the deal with MelodicRock was great because it allowed us to hold on to the album for Australia and New Zealand but get really good coverage promotion-wise overseas. Andrew McNeice from the label is a really nice guy too, and that this stage of my life I’m more about the relationships than the business, you know?”

I do indeed. So let’s talk about the actual record, shall we? It’s very much a progression from your first record isn’t it? It still very much a Tonk record – the signature sound is there – but it’s gone beyond Sister Switchblade, hasn’t it? “Yes. But the first album was a bit juvenile (laughs). And we were aiming for that! And I still had to keep that in mind when I was writing the new stuff. But obviously there is material on ...Voodoo that is a bit more progressive. There’s still some juvenility there though!’’

I guess you could say that was a hair metal record whereas the new one is a more straight-up hard rock record, yes? “Yeah”.

Good. I’ll say that then. Did Nick Didia have any say in the final makeup of the songs, arrangement wise? “No. He didn’t do any arranging. I got the producing credit for the album. We’ve been writing this album for so long that we kinda knew what we wanted”. 

And, on the evidence of the recorded document subsequently produced, you’d have to say the man was right…