It’s more than 20 years since WA musician David McComb, the singer-songwriter of The Triffids, died of heart disease, aged just 36. He’s still heralded by fans worldwide as a brilliant musician and lyricist. One of his greatest fans is writer director Jonathan Alley, who has devoted 13 years to making a film about David McComb. Now at last, the long-awaited Love In Bright Landscapes is here. Its world premiere is on Thursday September 9.Love In Bright Landscapes reveals the man behind the songs, and includes home movies and interviews with family and friends.
We can’t wait to see the film! David is still remembered fondly by many in Perth, including those at Starfish HQ who went to school with him.
Jonathan Alley talks to The Starfish about the film:
What is it about David McComb that you love so much?
David’s canon presents the opportunity for an ever-evolving relationship with the songs. They’re always moving along, your experience of them can be ever-changing. It’s very, very rare. His imagery, lyricism and the emotive power imbued in his music is unsurpassed. There are eight billion people on this planet and these songs all came from this one person; this leads me to believe he was remarkable. Even the most recognised ‘successful’ global artists have the odd release that people ignore; that ‘bad record’. That doesn’t happen with David. It’s all quality.
How was he different to other musicians of his era – and why do you think he didn’t reach the same level of recognition as others no more talented than him?
David fails to fulfill all those dull rockstar cliches , he was a writer more than anything and was plainly disinterested in the boorish extravagances other bands seemed to aspire to; he possessed an extremely sharp intellect and was darkly funny with it. I think the singularity of his vision was incompatible with the demands of the music industry: Dave was out to succeed on his own terms and wasn’t given much to compromise or bending to the industry’s demands. Also , commercial radio is hopelessly conservative and out of touch, and this was even more so in the 1980s.
When did you decide to make a film about him, and what did you hope to achieve?
I picked up a magazine in pub, read two pages of his life and times, and decided then and there to make a film. I wanted to elevate the emotive elements of his story , both uplifting and sad, beyond the music world’s dusty broom closet of yesterday’s stories. I wanted to make him present again and in so doing, inspire people to hear his music and read his poems.
What did you learn about David and the Triffids during the research?
In terms of my approach, I simply maintained a certain curiosity about who he was, what he did and why. Barring that I knew his songs were masterful; I had no preconceived ideas about him. But I knew people already cared about him – so, if we got that right, we could make an audience care as well. He’s innately complex, very enigmatic in ways, and was very, very driven. Early in our film, one close childhood friend says, “What is the real David McComb? It’s an open door…” Another close musical colleague and friend says, “He needed to be about five different people to be happy.” Very astute: the pressure he placed on himself to keep producing seemed immense.
Do any revelations stand out?
His humour. Also, his quite carefully preserved sense of self; in all the archival interviews he very rarely reveals anything too personal; he speaks a lot about his music (as you’d expect) and ventures opinions about all manner of other artists , and very astutely. But he hardly even talks about where he’s really at; a fairly private man — and fair enough. My main revelation was this : that such a driven, determined, focused person seemed to get so lost; when things went adrift professionally in the early 90s it seemed to me he was really grasping at straws; and perhaps he had little choice about it then.
Did you interview family members and old friends (and have they seen the film)?
Yes : his parents and siblings were all interviewed and his father’s home movies and collection of colour slides from the ’60s and ’70s feature strongly, contributing to the very deliberately analogue feel of the film Several old non-musical friends appear, which is enormously important in telling David’s own story, as opposed to simply the story of the band, I discovered the old adage is pretty true: you discover a lot about someone by the company they keep. It was also apparent that some interviewees had been waiting for years to really ‘say their piece’, and those folk were very forthright, very candid, very honest. All one can ask, really. Some have seen the film , most haven’t ; and I hope this changes very soon!
This movie came about thanks to crowd-funding, did it take long to raise what was needed?
Yes and no. We cannot express our gratitude enough to those who donated via the Documentary Australia Foundation; an organisation who simply do a huge amount for documentary filmmakers in Australia. While those much-needed and appreciated funds formed a strong element of completion funds, we were also fortunate to receive FIlm Victoria funding at the project outset and conclusion, and also the support of the MIFF Premiere Fund. We also raised money privately with our live album Deep in a Dream : An Evening with the Songs of David McComb (still available via our website) and via a benefit gig when the project first started. All up it took a decade — on and off — to raise all required funds. A labour of love , as they say.
What do the other former Triffids think of the film?
Robert McComb, David’s brother and Triffids band-member, has seen several cuts over the years and has been outstanding, generous and utterly devoted in his support. We cannot thank him enough. Graham Lee has seen the finished cut and did express his admiration for it. Marty, Alsy, and Jill — as Perth based Triffids — we inevitably have had less contact with being based in Victoria; but our understanding is that they support it in broad terms. Marty is also playing the event at Luna Cinema on Sept 9, and the newly added event on Sept 11. You WA people are lucky to be able to go see live music (no gigs in our state, or NSW!) so make sure you see The World’s Best Bass Player (and we mean that) play Dave’s songs!
If David were alive and making music today, what do you think he’d be doing?
He’d be writing. In all its permutations: writing songs — for himself and possibly other performers, as this a strong idea of his — and he’d also be writing poetry as he always did, writing short and long form fiction, or reviews; he was a thinker and very literate with it. It’s well within the realms of possibility he had a novel in him, perhaps a film screenplay, or a stage play. I think a collection of his humorous letters might have been quite wonderful. But over and above everything, writing and performing songs.
Sadly David became a drug addict; does the film make much mention of his addictions, and was there much debate here over how much to include about this?
I’m not sure I’d term it that way, myself. To me any issues Dave had around addiction aren’t strong enough to make a film about. It’s about his art. So, no, there wasn’t a lot of debate at all. David’s most severe addiction seems to have been to alcohol : although, as distinct from many in a similar position, this hardly seemed to blunt his creative impulses, those never seemed to let up. He was always writing, always composing.
This film has taken many years to make; how does it feel now that it’s finally finished?
To me, it it isn’t finished until it’s been given the widest opportunity possible for people to see it. We’ve stopped making it, but our overall project continues; we’re still at work adding to our website, working to get the film into as many overseas markets as we can, preparing a home /streaming package for release a-ways down the track (this won’t be for some months yet, but we need to prepare for it). There are slightly fewer late nights and around-the-clock weekends than there were before, but to answer your question everything feels exactly the same as it did when we were in production and post-production, the project doesn’t stop until there’s nothing more we can do to help people see it.
Unfortunately the lockdowns in the east have had an impact on screenings of the film. That must be so disappointing; how will you work around that?
We’ll just keep working until everyone who wants to see it, has seen it. No matter what. In WA you are lucky: you can go about your business, and go out and see films and music. Because your state has done so well in containing and dealing with the pandemic, we can show Love in Bright Landscapes there: so we rate you guys big time. Thank you. This also means the film has its first official screenings in front of an audience in David’s home state: we know that’s only fitting. We’ll be back with theatrical seasons in every state before we take it to home release, when we’re able. Was it disappointing ? Of course. Will we deal with it? Yes.
Finally do you have a favourite Daivd McComb/ Triffids memory you can share with us?
Oddly, I’ve seen The Triffids reunion show without Dave four times, and saw Dave perform several times AFTER The Triffids, with other bands he was in. But I never saw Dave fronting The Triffids: I was too young. However, when Dave was performing with The Blackeyed Susans I did see them play outside a flower shop in Fitzroy (Melbourne) as part of an album launch. The version of Leonard Cohen’s Memories that Dave delivered that day was just stunning. As for The Triffids, seeing their first Australian gigs in 19 years in Sydney when they decided to play Field of Glass as part of an encore was transcendent. But then, it would be:)
To see Love In Bright Landscapes book your tickets today at Luna Leederville.
It’s hosting a special event on September 11 (also September 9 which is already sold out) in which before the film, at 6:15pm a live set of Triffids songs will performed by a special collective of renowned local musicians put together specifically for this event to celebrate David McComb.
There’ll also be a Q and A session with Jonathan Alley hosted by national music journalist Barry Divola at Luna SX on Thursday, September 16.