Healer: The Rise, Fall and Return of Tumbleweed
$20 + $6 postage
Last Day of School
Australian readers can buy a paperback copy from me – signed by yours truly – via the Paypal link below ($20 + $6 postage). Overseas readers can get it via any of the usual online retailers.
You can also check out some details about the book and read an excerpt below.
With their long hair and fuzzed-up guitars, Tumbleweed rose out of the ashes of late-80s Indie band The Proton Energy Pills. Just over a year after their 1990 birth, they’d recorded with Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, scored a support slot on Nirvana’s only Australian tour (just as the grunge wave hit) and signed a US record deal.
The Wollogong band hit their peak of popularity in the wake of the 1995 album Galactaphonic. And then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot. Guitarist Paul Hausmeister got the sack, and then drummer Steve O’Brien left in protest.
From there the band went downhill, chopping and changing band members, releasing albums that met an increasingly uninterested public and playing shows where there were maybe a half-dozen people in the crowd. So it was no surprise when they called it quits in 2001.
That was supposed to be it for Tumbleweed. With the acrimony that swirled around the members for years afterwards, it was hard to ever see the hometown fans’ wishes of a reformation come true. But in 2009 they managed to heal their wounds and reunite, releasing their fifth studio album a few years later and survive the sudden death of bassplayer Jay Curley.
Journalist and music writer Glen Humphries has interviewed the members of Tumbleweed numerous times and, in Healer, takes the first complete look at the band’s career.
READ AN EXCERPT
Looking at the story of Tumbleweed, it’s hard to believe no one has bothered to make a movie about the band. As stories go, this one has it all; fame, success, top 10 hits, infighting, hubris, treachery, regret, redemption and tragedy. And there would be a killer soundtrack to boot.
In Column A there are all the good things: being signed to a US label after an exec walked into a record store and heard their single playing; scoring the support slot on Nirvana’s Australian tour on the back of a promise made in a pool; releasing a top 10 album; smoking joints while sitting beside Daryl Somers’ pool; touring the US and UK; a surprise reunion not even the band saw coming; and having a ridiculously loyal hometown fanbase.
Then there’s Column B, the bad stuff: a messy split with your manager; getting caught up in the demise of an iconic indie label; sending the band into a slow death spiral by sacking a member; following up your most successful album with your worst; a brother who played a hand in kicking two of his siblings out of the band; and dealing with the trauma of a member’s death.
The way it tended to work for Tumbleweed was that they’d get something from Column A but then follow it up with something from Column B. So they would release that top 10 album Galactaphonic, play all the big festivals and have people keen to see them on tour. Then, just when things were going well, when they were at their peak, they sacked guitarist Paul Hausmeister and then watched as drummer Steve O’Brien left in protest. As they would find out too late, they couldn’t just replace them and keep Tumbleweed rolling along.
Sometimes it was self-inflicted. Other times the cruel hand of fate chose to intervene. In 2009 the seminal line-up of Richie Lewis, Steve, Paul and brothers Jay and Lenny Curley reunited and, in 2013, would release their best album Sounds From the Other Side. The band had finally managed to overcome years of acrimony and were making up for all that lost time. Then, in 2014, Jay passed away – a tragedy which rocked the remaining members and put the future of the reunited band in doubt.
Another reason to tell the Tumbleweed story is that they never really got the respect they deserved. They were generally thought of as that stoner rock band, those guys with long hair who smoke joints all day. Now, while the latter may have been true (and, in the early days, the band didn’t do much to make people think otherwise), the former never was. The way the music world works is you get put in a category early on and then that’s where you stay.
So Tumbleweed were dismissed as stoner rock, which missed the breadth of what they were doing. Tumbleweed songs weren’t slow, thick dirges. They had swing, speed, energy, they had a groove. They were pop, they were psychedelic, they were anthemic rock, they were garage, they were old-school heavy metal (the tune Lullaby, released on a compilation disc in late 1992, even has shades of indie darlings Slint). People thought they were all about volume, but they could turn things down to beautiful effect (go listen to Drop in the Ocean and try and tell me I’m wrong). Musically, there was a lot going on in their heads underneath all that hair. It was all there if people wanted to listen, but it seemed too few really thought to bother.
While the band may have meant something to people in other parts of Australia – and perhaps the world – they meant the most to people in Wollongong. With the exception of Hockey Dad, it’s hard to think of another band Wollongong has embraced so openly (and I would expect that, were Hockey Dad to break up and reform a decade later, no-one would be more excited than people in Wollongong). For years after Tumbleweed’s quiet end in 2001 people would bump into one of the guys and want to talk about the band. They must have been asked about getting back together by almost everyone in Wollongong. People don’t do that unless you meant something to them.
Sure, part of the reason Tumbleweed was embraced by the city was because they were successful; everyone likes to back a winner. But it was more than just being able to gloat and say “Hey, that band? They come from my town!”, it was the message they sent to people in Wollongong. Tumbleweed (and their precursors Proton Energy Pills) showed that you could come from Wollongong and be a success. That was a huge lesson for Wollongong bands, many of whom had struggled to get even the crappiest gigs in Sydney. It told them that it could happen.
It wasn’t just bands they inspired; discovering Tumbleweed was from Wollongong would give local lad Jeb Taylor the courage to start his own record labels (first High Beam and later Farmer and the Owl) and the Music Farmers record store. And Taylor would go onto repay the favour by re-releasing the Tumbleweed debut on vinyl in 2018.