Jonathan Alley first met David McComb in 1994, interviewing him on Alley’s long-running Triple R radio show.
McComb had been the lead singer and guitarist of 1980s band the Triffids, which broke up in 1989, and now McComb was plugging in a new solo album, Love of Will. But the record company hadn’t sent him to the station yet – and the musician arrived 45 minutes late.
“He knew right away that I hadn’t heard his record,” says Alley. “And if you want to piss off an artist in an interview, not listening to them is pretty much top of the list.” But as the conversation progressed, McComb relaxed; they talked about Al Green and his love for hip-hop.
Beginning in Perth, the Triffids were a group of friends and family – David’s brother Rob, Alsy MacDonald, Jill Birt, Martyn Casey (later of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and “Evil” Graham Lee – who have become the key to alternative music. scene in Australia.
Along with the birthday party and the Go-Betweens, they were celebrated by the British press, toured the UK and Europe and appeared on the cover of NME, which proclaimed 1985 “the year of the Triffids”. Their atmospheric music combined with McComb’s brilliant lyrics produced some of the most beloved songs of the era, including Bury Me Deep in Love and Wide Open Road.
When McComb died suddenly in 1999 at the age of 36, many were stunned. “That very visible, striking, charismatic person who was so driven to have this music career was all but gone,” he says. “It was the feeling that we kind of missed Dave. The nation had lacked a great spirit.
Alley began working on her biopic Love in Bright Landscapes 13 years ago; A first-time writer/director, he wanted to celebrate McComb’s incendiary talent for words and music, and bring the music to a wider, more contemporary audience. But Alley didn’t want it to be a standard rock documentary. “I wanted to do a biographical piece about an artist and what was going on in that person’s life, and Why these things were happening,” he says.
Love in Bright Landscapes is screening in Melbourne and Sydney this week, after a continued postponement caused by the pandemic. The film mixes interviews with his parents, friends, girlfriends and bandmates; readings of his poems, diaries and letters by the author DBC Pierre; and clips of McComb talking about his music and his influences, including Television and Bowie.
It traces McComb’s childhood, his teenage bands and the comics he made with his best friend MacDonald, while offering a wide-ranging look at the Perth punk scene at the time and how the band stood out from other bands in Australia and overseas. There are never-before-seen home movies filmed by David’s father, Harold McComb, of family vacations on the beach, as well as early music videos and rare live performance footage shot by filmmaker Megan Simpson Huberman, the McComb’s girlfriend at the time.
In the documentary, his mother Athel says she knew from birth that he was different from his brothers. “His life was unique,” she says. His father remembers a sweet and calm boy. “We never dreamed of slapping him. He would have dissolved. Triffid Graham Lee says he had never met anyone who took music so seriously, like it was life or death.” The music should be amazing and if it’s not? What’s the point.” And Paul Kelly agrees, describing the band as having a European sensibility, and Wide Open Road as a stunning example of “interlocking pieces, like buttresses and struts on a cathedral, this beautifully constructed thing that’s full of air “.
Twenty years after his death, the grief remains visceral and questions linger about what happened in those last years, months, moments of McComb’s life. The film explores the factors contributing to his growing sense of desolation and deteriorating health in glimpses: a lost love, heart disease and a transplant, alcohol abuse, pain relief from a from behind, a feeling of isolation, heroin consumption, an unrecognized talent. and seemingly forgotten. It alludes to the mystery of McComb’s inner world, alongside the hidden depths of his songs.
While McComb is celebrated as a songwriter, the posthumous poetry collection Beautiful Waste confirms him as one of the leading lyricists and poets of his generation. Taught by novelist Elizabeth Jolley at the Western Australia Institute of Technology, her brother Rob McComb says David would like to be remembered as a writer. Early Triffids and Blackeyed Susans member Phil Kakulas says that, like Leonard Cohen, McComb was a meticulous craftsman, devoted to the power of words – but also happy to play with clichés. “If we were working on a song, there would be the lazy line, and he’d be like, ‘No, we’re going to leave it like that because it doesn’t look like we’ve worked too hard,’ or he’d repeat a line that was in another song,” Kakulas says. “Just to make it look improvised. So he worked very hard, like all creative people, to make it look effortless.
After a recent screening of the film at the Randwick Ritz in Sydney, The Friends of David McComb – a band consisting of Rob McComb and Lee of the Triffids, Rob Snarksi, JP Shilo and Kakulas of the Blackeyed Susans, and Mick Harvey – took to the stage to cover the classics of Triffids as well as the solo work of McComb. For Snarski, performing McComb’s songs is bittersweet. “It can be quite exhausting, but we all struggle and the memories tend to come back,” he says. “You can end up in a puddle if you’re not careful and I just have to remember that we’re here to celebrate Dave and his songwriting talent – and it’s supposed to be joyful.”
As with McComb’s finest writing, the film raises more questions than it answers, but what remains clear is that he is still deeply missed and his work seems unfinished. With glimpses of tenderness – quiet moments with his mother on the beach as a toddler, his enduring love for Will Akers (who was with him when he died and named his solo album after), his partner Jo’s memories of a soul-damaged good time – the film works like a pixelated portrait, each little story coalescing to make a clearer picture when you step back. While the narrative truths are elusive, perhaps the answers can only be found in the songs and poems themselves.
It’s been over a decade since he began working on the film, but Alley remains inspired by the longevity of McComb’s work and artistry. “It draws you in so immediately, the imagery is remarkable, and you can have this ever-changing, instinctive relationship with the music that takes you deeper and deeper, and makes you ask more and more questions all the time,” says -he. “Each of his songs is a world – and I think that’s very rare among people who make art…there’s no bad David McComb record.”
Love in Bright Landscapes is in cinemas across Melbourne and opens in Sydney on May 12. Friends of David McComb perform after a screening at the Astor in St Kilda on May 15.
Kirsten Krauth’s interviews with Jonathan Alley, Rob McComb, Rob Snarski, Phil Kakulas and the Triffids feature on an episode of her podcast Almost a Mirror.