Perry Keyes

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Perry grew up in the inner city working class area of Sydney known as Redfern. He grew up in a home populated by various uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. Every Saturday morning his grandmother would do the house work whilst playing the likes of Ray Charles and Roy Orbison at a volume loud enough to spill out onto the neighbouring streets, lined with tightly-packed terraced houses, warehouses and textile factories.

When he was 12, he got his first guitar from the local pawn shop and within six months he’d written his first song. It was during his first year at high school that his family moved to the neighbouring area of Waterloo, with its high-rise Department of Housing blocks.

It was within this environment that Perry formed the band The Stolen Holdens in 1989. Musically inspired by the likes of The Clash and Elvis Costello and lyrically taking his cue from artists like Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen, Keyes and The Stolen Holdens developed a small but loyal following in the local Sydney music scene. The band faded by the early 90’s.

Perry re-emerged in 2003, playing solo sets featuring songs that would make up the bulk of his debut double album Meter – released in 2005 to critical acclaim and numerous years end best-of lists.

His next album The Last Ghost Train Home was received with even greater acclaim upon its release in 2007. It went on to be short-listed for the Australian Music Prize and was named the ABC Radio National Album of the Year.

Johnny Ray’s Downtown contains 16 tracks that once again draw on Perry’s local environment – the marginalised, often neglected and rapidly decaying inner city areas of Sydney – for their inspiration.

These are songs about growing up, or trying to grow up, in the face of an environment that often suggests that the mere thought of getting past your late adolescence is hoping for more than what’s actually on offer.


Perry KeyesJohnny Rays Downtown : an interview with Vinny Ramone of 2SER FM's Outpost

It’s early in the afternoon and it’s a typical sunny winter’s day in Sydney . Perry Keyes is sitting in the beer garden of the Coogee Bay Hotel, overlooking Coogee beach and the cluster of rocks that sit a half kilometre offshore that’s known as Wedding Cake Island. He’s wearing a black open necked shirt, black Levis and a black pork-pie hat – he calls it his Zero Mostel / Johnny Cash look.
Oh yeah, and he’s holding a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’

 “A friend gave it to me. I thought it’d be a nice touch to have it with me whenever I’m at the pub.”

Keyes has just finished recording his third album – ‘Johnny Ray’s Downtown’. It’s the follow up to his critically acclaimed ‘The Last Ghost Train Home’ which won a slew of album of the year awards, including the ABC Radio National Album of the Year. It was also voted into the top ten albums for the Australian Music Prize.

What’s the new album about?

I guess it’s a kind of rights of passage thing. Y’know, it deals with growin’ up in the kind of environment that I’ve been a part of all my life. Anybody who’s heard the first two records would be familiar with the places I’m talking about. More specifically, the songs deal with that period of your life when you’re like fifteen to twenty or twenty-one. It’s a volatile time – especially in a place like the inner-city here – or, at least, the part that me and my friends grew up in. It was kind of like a one false move existence (Laughs)!

So, it’s not about growing up in the inner-city right now?

Well, I’m 43. Obviously I have no idea what it’s like to be on the streets right now as a fifteen year old boy. I could pretend, of course. I’m thinking that the dynamics are probably still the same – just a lot harder and faster now. Kids seem a lot more sophisticated now – even the ones that can hardly read or write. They seem to have the whole instantaneous communication thing down pat. In my day, there’d be a tap on the window and three guys outside
sitting in somebody else’s car – and it would only be then, at that moment, that you knew what you’d be doing for
the rest of the night.

It’s a long record – 16 songs.

Yeah. We thought of doing another double but I kinda didn’t want to break up the flow so we went with a single
disc and it comes in at just under 75 minutes (laughs)!

We recorded the album over a nine month period and there were a lot of songs. It seemed like a big idea and I just wanted to cover it. I don’t expect people to sit through the whole thing at once, but if they do, hopefully, it’ll feel
like a big story.

Y’know, even more so than on the other two albums, these songs are about real people that I know – guys that I
grew up with, my family and friends. The stuff that happens in these songs is stuff that really happened. The two boy
on the beach in ‘1982’ and the guy in the backseat in ‘Ray’s Dashboard Light’ and the girl in ‘Queen of Everyone’s
Heart’ , they’re real people with real names and these things really happened to us. I just wanted to tell these
stories about those guys and what happened to them.

How would you say it differs from the first two albums?

It’s richer in texture. I mean, I’m never gonna re-invent the wheel but we got some different things going on. We got horns, a choir and a pump organ! Something that makes me happy is, if you look at the people playing on the record, it looks like the front bar of the old Sandringham Hotel in 1992! There’s lots of people on there like Bernie Hayes,
Tim Freedman , Peter Kelly, Matty Galvin, Mark NaNa and Bek-Jean. I first met these guys back when I was playing in
my first band. I used to sit at the bar and watch them play on a stage propped up with old milk crates!
There’s some history on the record.

Just like on the first two albums there’s a strong reference to heroin throughout these new songs.

There’s like two types of people that take drugs – there’s those that do it because it enhances their night out (laughs)
and then there’s those that do it so that there’s some sort of strong distraction from whatever reality they have to
deal with.
Most of the people in my songs fit into that last box.

This one’s ‘Produced’ by Grant Shanahan?

Yeah. Grant made the first two albums with us. It’s his studio that we record in. The idea was that I’d give up a little
more control on this record in the hope that we would create some differences between this and the last album.
Grant spent a lot of time re-working the arrangements, especially the vocals. He’s contribution was invaluable.
He’s also the calmest guy I know, so we kind of moved through all the stuff with a minimum of madness (laughs).

He and the guy who plays drums on the album, Lloyd, drove together from Perth to Sydney over 20 years ago when
they were just kids and to have the two of them working on the record was something to see. A lot of the characters
in the songs are people I’ve known my whole life and a lot of the people that play on the album have relationships 
with each other that stretch back over a long, long time. It’s kinda cool.

This is your third album. What do you want from making records these days?

I dunno. If you attach any kinda expectation to this stuff it’s probably that it’s a great way to connect up with other people - with new people. Music’s a great way to fight off isolation and if that’s all it’s doing for someone, then it’s working fine.

Perry Keyes’ ‘JOHNNY RAY ’S DOWNTOWN’ is released through Laughing Outlaw Records in March 2010.


Vinny Ramone

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