Look Who's Stalking

David McCormack interview, The Age, Aug 2004

At the start of David McCormack's new album, The Truth About Love, the singer-songwriter declares: "I'm here to change your mind about love/It comes out of a can of poison in the water/And you're drinking all the time."

The rusty meat cleaver on the album's cover, and track titles such as I'm Going To Execute Yr Ex-Boyfriend and If You Leave Me (I Will Hunt You Down and Kill You) confirm the suspicion that McCormack's truth about love may be out there. As in out there: stalking, prowling the streets, going through the ex's rubbish bin.

"To be in love," explains McCormack, "or infatuated with someone ... In your brain, it's only one neuron, one little synapse away from becoming a stalker. Or sending weird presents to people you hardly know."

McCormack's interest in the dark side of male desire places him in good musical company. "I've become a little bit obsessed of late with that Screamin' Jay Hawkins song," he says. " 'I put a spell on you/Because you're mine/Stop the things you do.'

"Not that my music is anything like that, but that's where I'm coming from - that primitive voodoo blues idea. I think in the human brain, love or infatuation or whatever is very strong, but it can easily be derailed. Quite sinister - and illegal, I might add."

McCormack's personable charm and good humour provide reassurance that the stalker is a mere lyrical device. It's just one facet of an album of considerable songwriting and thematic depth.

"There's still the happy love songs," he says. "I guess the truth about love is that it's all those things - it's good and it's bad, and it's good-looking and ugly, and tiring. The truth about love is that it's not black and white. It's all over the place.

McCormack worked with three different producers in several studios, bringing in a string section and arranger to add to the lushness of the album's production values.

"I was going for that Brian Wilson Good Vibrations vibe," he says, "in that there were lots of different people contributing, taking bits from one session with one producer and combining it with another session. I guess I was going for 35mm, full-colour, cinematic surround sound."

The grandeur of his production ambitions is mirrored by the album title. "Calling the album The Truth About Love was a grand gesture," he admits, "but some of the arrangements are quite grand and sweeping, and I thought I could probably get away with it this time."

Musically and lyrically, the scope and intent of The Truth About Love place it light years beyond the quirky power-pop of Custard, whom McCormack fronted throughout the 1990s.

"The Custard thing," he says, "sometimes didn't really connect on any level apart from sugary pop, which was of its time. I'd like to do something that has some sort of meaning, at least to me - some sort of sense and order. And if other people can understand a meaning to it, then that's good."

The measure for the distance McCormack has put between himself and Custard is his growth as a writer.

"I think I'm always gonna be that guy from Custard, but I still basically do what I do, which is write songs and sing them. There's always going to be a consistency, but hopefully I'm getting better. God, I'd want to be, after all these years!"

McCormack's two previous post-Custard albums, The Matterhorn (2001) and Candy (2002), were self-released. On the recommendation of producer Wayne Connolly, McCormack shopped The Truth About Love around to record labels, choosing Laughing Outlaw, the indie run by music journalist Stuart Coupe.

"Stuart's a very enthusiastic gent," McCormack says, "and he did the fantasy record-label response: 'We've gotta put this out! This is fantastic!' "

McCormack was amused by the reaction of two major labels, who insisted they would have put out the album. "Major-label people - they only want what they can't have," he says with a chuckle.

"When they can have it, they don't want it! They're crazy! There's only gonna be one major label soon anyway. I'm enjoying having a record label again, especially one as enthusiastic and cottage-industry as Laughing Outlaw."

McCormack's expectations for the record's success are modest.

"If people buy it, then that's good. It's not like if this record doesn't sell, I'm never gonna make a record again - otherwise I would have given up ages ago. I'm pretty realistic with my hopes and dreams," he says.

The McCormack cottage industry is run on self-sustaining principles and a view to the long run.

"It's just not in my nature to put all my eggs into one massive shot at becoming famous and huge," he says. "I'd rather just potter along and put out an album or a DVD every couple of years, make a video and just assemble a body of work, so when I'm dead and buried they can say, 'Well, he had a nice collection of CDs under his bed!'."

Likewise, he's laconic about the album's prospects overseas, although he's previously made inroads in the US, having toured Candy with former Custard producer Eric Drew Feldman.

"It doesn't wake me up in the middle of the night worrying about it; I just like doing what I do and see what happens. Otherwise, you're never gonna get any sleep. You're gonna be yelling at everyone - 'The reason that we haven't got a record out overseas is 'cos you didn't turn up to practise on time!' - and stuff like that."

McCormack and his band, the Polaroids, are based in Sydney, where he's lived since Custard split in 2000, but he still can't call it home.

"I still very much feel like I'm on holiday in Sydney," he confesses. "Eventually I'm gonna move back to Brisbane - I've been saying that for four years. I think I've got too much of an ingrained Brisbanite in me.

"In Sydney it's a little bit easier to start worrying about what everyone else thinks. You start going, 'Is this cool? Will so-and-so from that band think this is good?' In Brisbane I found you never worry about that. Sometimes I catch myself and say, 'Don't worry about it - who cares?'.

"It doesn't matter," he concludes cheerfully. "I always do what I think is good. And hang the consequences!"