Interview with BOB EVANS (Q&A)
by Julie Ink-Slinger
“I always wanted there to be a clear difference between the two,” Jebediah frontman Kevin Mitchell said in 2003 as he launched Suburban Kid, his debut album as folk-pop alter ego Bob Evans.
An interesting beginning. We caught up with Bob recently and asked him some questions to find out more about him and his music.
Hi Bob, you have said that you “always wanted there to be a clear difference between” Kevin Mitchell, your name associated with Jebediah, and your folk-pop alter ego Bob Evans. How have your Jeb’s fans and your Bob Evans fans responded to the two musical identities?
Well I think what has happened is that over the years two quite different and independent groups of “fans” have developed which is kind of cool and is what I always hoped would happen as a result of playing under an assumed name. There is a small crossover of people who come to every Jebs gig and every Bob gig and support everything I do. But the majority of Bob fans probably aren’t really in to Jebediah and vice versa. Some people have actually discovered Jebediah through Bob Evans which is a bit of a topsy turvy concept for me to get my head around! What’s interesting is there are some people who absolutely hate Jebediah with a passion but love the Bob Evans stuff and there are old school Jebediah fans who wish for nothing more than that I stop doing Bob Evans stuff and make another Jebs album. Those really strong polarising viewpoints are the most interesting to me.
How different are your gigs under the name Bob Evans as opposed to Kevin Mitchell in Jebediah?
Well I hope they are as different for the audience as they are for me on stage. They are different beasts on so many different levels it’s hard to know where to begin. In very general terms, when I am Bob it is all about me but when I am on stage with Jebediah I don’t feel much like “the frontman” because Ness and Chris are such fantastic performers on stage. So I really do feel like I am a cog in the machine that just happens to be in the centre and singing into a microphone. The funny thing is, if I feel like I’ve had a terrible show with Jebs and the other guys all thought it was good then I generally just figure that it must have been alright and try not to worry about it. When I play Bob Evans shows even when I’m playing with my band if I’m not happy with the show then there is no pulling me out of that feeling. Although it must be said, most of the time I come off stage feeling pretty bloody good about things. The other really big difference is that when I play Bob Evans shows I can talk for as long as I want about whatever I want and I can play anything that comes to mind and stop and start and change things on the fly and just do anything. It’s complete indulgent freedom and that’s a very satisfying thing in and of itself.
You have moved from Perth, a major city and home of Jebediah, to Victoria’s Bellerine Peninsula, a beautiful part of the world, with your wife and daughters. Has the change in scenery helped inspire you to write such pretty songs as My Matilda, Don’t You Think It’s Time, Someone So Much, Sadness and Whiskey, Don’t Give up on Yourself and so many others or can you be inspired to write new material no matter where you’re living?
It’s hard to say what influence that has on my writing. I’m not sure that it has really shown yet but it might in time. I think I’m influenced by so many different small factors that the place that I’m living is only really a small variant. The things I love about where I live are that every day kind of feels like I’m on holiday because it’s a small beachside tourist town. I like being away from the inner city and just living an almost reclusive life with my little family. If I didn’t tour so much that life might start to feel a little isolating and insular but I get my city fix every time I go on tour so it’s a happy balance for now. Another big thing about it is and this probably comes with having kids and being almost forty, is I just appreciate the clean air and the open space after spending the first 37 years of my life in big cities. The cities are only getting bigger and bigger and dirtier and more congested. I still love Melbourne and it’s inner city culture and I still dip my toe into that every few weeks. I’d hate to live too far away from it!
Your album Suburban Songbook (2006) sold gold and earned you your first Aria for Best Adult Contemporary album as well as a nomination for Best Male Artist. Your 2009 album Goodnight, Bull Creek received two Aria nominations for Best Male Artist and Best Adult Contemporary album and your single Pasha Bulker won an award at the International Songwriting Awards. Your album Familiar Stranger (2013) received another Best Adult Contemporary album Aria nomination. How does it feel to receive such high praise as well as such high volume album sales? Also, how do your wife and daughters respond to your accomplishments?
Well you don’t really appreciate the high album sales fully until they go away! Between Jebediah and Bob Evans I’ve experienced a lot of undulation when it comes to commercial success. I’ve had it, lost it, had it again and lost it again. I wish I sold more records now but what can you do? I’m lucky just to be where I am and to have experienced a little success. As for the other stuff it’s nice to get a pat on the back from the industry from time to time but I learnt early on not to go looking for it or place too much importance on it. By the time I started to experience critical praise I’d spent ten years in Jebediah receiving none at all really. I learnt not to worry about it though because we were doing fine without it. I have noticed a thing though with other artists, the pop artists who are selling bucket loads are often desperate for the critical praise and the cool artists that have all the industry credibility are often desperately trying to sell more records so that they can pay their rent. Very few artists in this world have both, like , say, Radiohead. What’s the moral of this story? I guess we all just have to be grateful for whatever comes our way.
How do my wife and daughters respond to my accomplishments? Well my wife of course is always very proud of me whenever something good happens. The kids are too young to care. They are more impressed by my hilarious slapstick comedy routines I perform at home than anything I do musically.
In My Matilda, you sing “Broken, beautiful, shining in vain, the belle of the ball in a sea of champagne … Oh my Matilda, it’s killing me watching you sink … every closet is full to the brim, open a door, the world could cave in, she don’t want to be buried alive, under a truth that’s grown too big to hide …” What is going on for Matilda, what are her struggles?
Matilda is like one of those people who has it all on the outside but on the inside she is completely messed up. She is also stubborn and ignorant and would rather go down continuing to play along with the illusion than she would face up to the cold hard truth and actually change.
I love your video for Nowhere Without You, with your talking clock and tv and piano and how they are your background singers. It literally made me laugh out loud. How did the concept come about?
It had nothing to do with me. That clip was made a long time ago now, more than ten years! It was all the director’s idea but I do remember being really excited when I saw the treatment because i had wanted to do a clip like this for ages but this was the first time it had been presented to me so I knew immediately that it was the one I wanted to do for that song. We made it up in Brisbane and it was great fun and probably my favourite video clip of mine that I have ever done.
I also love your video for Don’t You Think It’s Time? The painting of the mural of you and some beautiful woman is genius. Where did the idea for this come from?
Again, not me but the directors. I’ve never seen that song as being a romantic love song although I can appreciate that many many people have interpreted it that way and I get that and love it. The director steered the visual concept for that song down that line and it did strike a chord so kudos to them. People think the girl in the mural is my wife but it isn’t although I must admit there is a slight similarity but that is pure coincidence! The best thing I remember about that video shoot was that it only took a couple of hours for me to do it. All of the mural painting had been shot the day before and all the crowd stuff aswell. They shot all day and very late into the night I think and I wasn’t required for any of it. I came in the next day and shot my stuff in front of a green screen and because it was all done in one take I only had to do it about 4 times or so and that was it! It’s to this day still the shortest amount of time I’ve ever spent on set for a video. I couldn’t believe my luck!
During the Welcome Stranger tour, you drove yourself from gig to gig and sold your own merchandise, in your words, “travelling salesman style”. I love the no frills attitude you take. How differently is the experience between the songwriting and touring and separation from loved ones with a successful rock band in Jebediah, and writing and performing as a solo musician?
Well touring like that is a lonely business because I am quite literally the artist, tour manager, driver and merch seller. The days are long and the work is very hard but there is an enormous sense of satisfaction at the end of the night when I’m back in my shitty little motel room having gotten through another day and everything worked. I guess it’s no secret that the more you put into something the greater the feeling of reward. So it’s a bit like that. Jebediah tours can also be pretty D.I.Y aswell although we always have atleast one person with us doing front of house sound. I guess every time I tour as Bob Evans it’s a little bit different and same with Jebediah. I think these days that’s kind of important, to be able to tour really small or really big when needed.
Your Lonesome Highways Tour kicks off at Front Bar in Canberra on April 20th, finishing up in Castlemaine Bridge Hotel on June 9th. How excited are you to play to your ever expanding fan base? And what can fans expect from the gigs?
Well of course I’m really looking forward to getting back out there and playing solo shows again because it’s been nearly four years since I’ve done a tour like this. People can expect to maybe hear a few songs they haven’t seen me play live before aswell as some cover songs and a bit of everything really. The great thing about playing solo shows is that I can kind of make it up as I go along so often the gig is as much a surprise to me as it is the audience which hopefully becomes part of it’s charm.
My parents raised me listening to music which was the best part of my childhood. I imagine you are exposing your daughters to all kinds of music. Are they showing any interest in learning an instrument or singing or any other kind of artistry?
It’s funny because this comes up quite a bit and my answer is not often what people are expecting. The truth is the music my kids are listening to now is not the stuff I am exposing them too but what they are discovering for themselves, like the Trolls movie soundtrack and the Moana movie soundtrack which i must say, as musical style soundtracks go are both pretty good! They also love Taylor Swift which I’m okay with. I don’t force The Beatles and Beach Boys and Dylan and Nirvana down their throats, although they do like “Here Comes The Sun”. All of that music is there waiting for them when they are ready or if they want to discover it. Until that time I will keep indulging them in the music that they like for the moment. We do sing along to music in the car and my eldest daughter sounds like she might have a good singing voice. I just want them to follow their own path. I didn’t have anyone telling me what to listen to. As a kid all I listened to was chart pop music until I was about 12 years old and then I started getting deep into what I liked. When they want me to help them or guide them I am here. It’s the same with learning an instrument. When they want to play guitar and sing with me I’ll be ready to go! I see viral video clips of these tiny kids who are already virtuoso’s and it is mind blowing and amazing and they are obviously incredibly talented but you also know that behind the scenes there is a parent working that kid to the bone because that’s invariably how it’s done. That sort of thing doesn’t interest me as a parent. My kids are 3 and 5 and I am happy for them just to run around outside and play pretend all day if that’s what they want to do.
Some People is a moving song about your concern for your daughters regarding online trolling. The Urban Dictionary defines online trolling as: “Being a prick on the internet because you can. Typically unleashing one or more cynical or sarcastic remarks on an innocent by-stander, because it’s the internet and, hey, you can.” Can you share why you wrote this song for your daughters and, I imagine, other potentially vulnerable children online?
Yeah well I think I had just started using Twitter. I was a very late adopter to Twitter. I only started using it around 2013 I think. I resisted it up until then or I didn’t have a phone that was new enough to use it or whatever. Now I quite like it. Anyway, I got my first glimpse into online trolling, not because I was being trolled, although I have been a little since and it hasn’t really affected me. I did however follow the trolling of somebody else who I shan’t name out of respect and I was deeply troubled by what I saw. This was trolling beyond words. It also included images that were so graphic in nature I’d never even seen anything like it before. It really disturbed me! I started to realise then for the first time what a dark place social media could be and how on earth my kids were going to manage it when they get older. It does concern me. They are both so innocent and the world can be such a fucked up place. As the song says, the truth is there are people out there that will try and tear you down, that think they know you, that wish the worst for you. In the face of that we need to stay strong in the knowledge that these attributes are a reflection on those people and not on us. Only somebody who is lonely and loathes themselves would go to such desperate lengths to try and make someone else feel that way. It’s easy for me to say this and know this and practice this but it’s not necessarily going to be for someone more vulnerable.
You have written songs about shock jocks, climate change deniers, and bullying. So often songs are about intimate relationships which certainly have a place. You are a self-confessed romantic. However, I believe socially, politically, philosophically relevant songs are especially important. If we remain open minded, through song we can learn and be challenged and, ideally, become better people. What are your motivations for writing such reflective kinds of songs?
Most of the time my only real motivation is just to get it out. If I’m thinking about something, or feeling something then it is just my natural inclination to use it for a song. I think that has always been my motivation to write songs. I guess in more recent times I’m hopeful that people might get the message that I’m putting out there but I’m not really staking everything on that. I’m really just trying to excite myself with how I put things together. You never really know how people are going to interpret your stuff anyway, unless you whack them over the head with it, which isn’t really my style.
You have written Happy Tears for your daughter Ivy and Wonderful You for your daughter Ella. Did these songs evolve fairly easily or did the songs take time to get “just right” because they are about two of the three most important people in your life? Also, how does your wife feel about those two songs, in particular?
Those songs were very easy to write, especially “Happy Tears”, that song came together in a day fully formed. Most songs take weeks or months or years. The clearer the concept is that I’m trying to write about the quicker the words come, generally. I think my wife thought “Happy Tears” was kind of funny the first time she heard it! I dunno, she generally likes all my stuff but not always.
You recorded Suburban Songbook in Nashville with acclaimed producer Brad Jones. Was the vibrant music scene inspirational as far as your own songwriting process goes? And what was it like working with Brad Jones?
The city of Nashville didn’t really inspire my songwriting at all as i was there to record only. It was still an incredibly inspirational city in most other respects. Working with Brad and all the session guys was an incredible experience and the city itself is so cool and not at all like what a lot of people in Australia think it’s like who haven’t been there. It’s reputation for country music precedes it but it’s a big college city with an awesome music culture that stretches way beyond traditional country music. It has great food and bar culture and of course so many people who love music move there to live cos it’s relatively cheap and has such a great history and community. I’ve been to many parts of the US and Nashville is the only town in that country that I’ve ever been to and thought that I could live.
I have listened to your songs over and over again and I am a fan. A three part question: 1) Are you a fan of your own music? 2) What songs of yours do you tend to favour? And 3) What songs do you love playing live?
Of course I’m a fan of my own music! Otherwise I would stop. I don’t love everything I’ve done that’s for sure. I think I am my own harshest critic. But when I get it right and happen upon something that really excites me, there is no better feeling in the world.
As for what songs of mine I prefer, it’s hard to say cos it depends on how I’m judging them. A lot of the time I judge them on the quality of the writing but other times it’s about the recording and other times it’s about how much I enjoy playing them live and that can also change over time. I’m really proud of a lot of the songs off “Suburban Songbook” because i think I took a big step forward around that time. I guess I always tend to favour my most recent stuff too, cos it’s fresher and still exciting for me and sometimes older songs can just get a bit old.
I love playing all of my songs live but the song that still to this day always seems to get the biggest response is “Don’t You Think It’s Time?” so that will always feel a bit special to me.