Jimmy greg Simon JoelSimon Juliff flanked by Jimm Sfeftos (left) and Joel Silbersher with Greg Bainbridge on drums. 

Simon Juliff might be the best Australian songwriter you’ve never heard of.

Not that he’d ever be so egotistical as to suggest that. Or that it’d be easy to find evidence of Juliff’s songwriting. Indeed Juliff’s career is as sporadic as it is enigmatically impressive.

Juliff formed his first band, The Evil Dead, in his teenage years in hometown Melbourne, in the shadows of more prolific and now legendary Melbourne bands such as GOD, Powder Monkeys and Hoss, vehicles for Juliff’s high school friends Tim Hemensley and Joel Silbersher. Some years later Juliff joined with his younger brother Felix, bass player Dave Bryan and future Dan Sultan collaborator Scott Wilson in the three-guitar, country ’n’ rock band The Roys.  

Their ranks included Sultan for a while on drums and they released two criminally underappreciated records on Bruce Milne’s Infidelity Records before fading from view.

It would be more than a decade before Juliff’s songwriting rose to the surface again, this time via long-time fan and Dog Meat Records boss, Dave Laing. Indeed Laing was so impressed with Juliff’s unrecorded material that he decided to release his debut solo album, "Stars", on the rejuvenated Dog Meat label.

Patrick Emery spoke to Juliff about his origins as a musician and recent re-emergence.

What music did you grow up listening to?

I grew up listening to a lot of old music, though in hindsight it wasn’t probably that old as I thought it was. When I was around 9 or 10, I started my parents’ record collections, and my parents’ friends’ records because we lived sort of communally in a sort of hippie, not a commune but a community in the suburbs of Melbourne.

All my friends’ parents had records and some people had big boxes of records in our shed. So I just worked through the records to find what I really liked. And that was mainly The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and I found the Small Faces and The Who, all of those ‘60s rock bands; Stones, Hendrix. That was really what I was into until I met Joel [Silbersher] and [Tim] Hemensley and those guys, who got me into slightly more modern, harder stuff.

When did you first start playing music?

My dad used to play in bands, small unsuccessful bands before I was born. He taught me how to play guitar when I was about 10. He said he wanted me to perform at his 40th birthday party and we did manage that with our teenage band The Evil Dead. And I’ve continued to play since then on and off.

I have had enormous breaks. Like The Evil Dead, we were jamming all the time, then I hardly did anything for a long time and then I did The Roys, maybe with a five-year gap inbetween, which was a huge gap at that age.

When did you form The Evil Dead? Was that with Joel?

No, that was with mutual friends. Joel came to a couple of rehearsals and thought it was really good and made a tape and played it to Dave Laing. The band wasn’t that good, but Joel liked some of my songs and recognised something in them that Dave Laing might like and sure enough he did. So instead of using the shit band, we kind of changed it around and Joel played guitar and Todd [McNeair] from Hoss played drums. So I have this history of using Hoss to do my stuff [laughs].

Simon joelSimon and Joel. Playing that rock and roll. 

Did The Evil Dead play live at all?

We played one gig at The Tote with Tim Hemensley on drums. But we weren’t a working band at all. Then Joel had organised for us to record a single, and we did that. That was the only official thing that we ever did. Dave Laing has apologised for not releasing it, but I can’t blame him because we weren’t a working band! So it was a bit of a leap of faith for Dave to record this new record [laughs]. The Evil Dead stuff does exist and might one day see the light of day but I find it a bit cringey.

So when and how did you meet Joel and Tim?

I met Tim before I went to high school. A friend who I grew up with was friends with Tim Hemensley. They were a year above me. I used to sometimes hang out with them and they were jamming music with their band called Morbid Dread – I think they got the name by flicking through the dictionary.

It would have been a great double bill – Morbid Dread and Evil Dead. Sounds very death metal.

Yeah, it sounds that way! But I also though Evil Dead could have had a French existentialist angle [laughs] So, anyway, just pre starting high school I met Tim Hemensley. He was a pretty abrasive, know-it-all dude and charismatic and you wanted him to like you, but he was tough to break through. When I started school, it was a community school where all the different year levels mixed and we became friends fairly quickly, started hanging out with him every day.

Then I met Joel and the other guys from GOD because of Hemensley, hanging out together, going to the same parties, smoking dope, all that sort of stuff. And then Joel and I were neighbours in the late ‘90s and early 2000s for years and years. We didn’t collaborate that much on much, though he did come over and get me to play some parts on his Christmas albums that he used to make for people, horrible, twisted versions of Christmas carols, he used to do!

The Roys were a great live band and that EP from 2004 and the album you put out around 2007 are seriously underappreciated records. What actually happened to The Roys? Did you break up after Dan [Sultan] left?

We did just stop rather than break up. We did keep playing after Dan left, we had Michael Noonan on drums and did a fair bit of gigging with him. We should have recorded another album because we were getting to the peak of our powers in a way. But everyone had different lives and moved a bit further away and it became inconvenient to keep on playing to hardly anyone, go on tours for hardly any money. It just petered out.

The record came out basically when we stopped gigging, which I think happens fairly enough, to the disappointment of the label [Infidelity Records]. But it was nobody’s fault. It was also around the time anybody bothered to release a CD. Literally, as they were manufacturing the record, all the shops were not ordering CDs anymore.

What have you done musically since The Roys stopped playing?

I’ve tried some collaborations with one or more members of The Roys or with a girl singing but mainly I’ve just written songs myself, sometimes made recordings for fun but with a view someday doing something with them.

At one stage I went up to NSW to do some semi-professional demos with some musos because someone shouted me the experience, a friend who had a studio invited me up. I kept meaning to do stuff but I had little kids and was working and just never got around to it. I kept thinking that if I sat around long enough on my arse, eventually something would happen [laughs] And it did!

One day Dave Laing contacted me, not that I was psychically calling him or anything. But I had a whole lot demos of songs, some of which weren’t finished, but I had a head start. Dave got me just when I didn’t have a newborn or anything, I was just starting to get pretty keen. So when he contacted me, I immediately sprang into action, called Joel, finished all the demos and got it happening.

So I’d only have myself to blame if the opportunity was missed. I knew there was every chance it wouldn’t come out, and two years later, with COVID and everything, I was thinking ‘I don’t think the gods want me to re-launch my career. This whole pandemic thing is about stopping me!’ [laughs].

So why did Dave Laing get in contact with you?

He’d been in contact with someone else from The Evil Dead, a guy called Tim, who was asking if Dave had copies so he could listen to them. My name came up and Dave had always followed what I’d done, even though I hadn’t done very much, he’d kept his eye out. So he just sent me a message asking if I was doing anything musical these days. So I said no, but I’d written some songs. Then Dave said if I did a solo album, he’d release it and suggested I use Joel as a producer, which I was into straight away because I knew Joel would do the job I wanted straight away and would help getting the other musos together. I did ask Dave if he was drunk and he said no [laughs].

So we just went from there and kept him in the loop, so he knew I was taking action straight away, that I wasn’t treating it like some conversation that may or may not have an effect.

stars simon juliff

You’ve re-recorded “Til Next Time” for the solo album, which was on that first Roys mini-album. Why did you decide to record that song again?

Because Dave Laing asked me to! He had asked us to re-record it years ago as The Roys, he just thought it was a great song. He wants me to write another song that he likes as much but it’s impossible because it’s an accident when someone really likes a song. Some other people have had similar reactions to it, usually musos or music nerds really like that one.

Other people don’t care much for it and don’t know why Dave is so keen on it. But I can see why he felt that it could have been more explosive, a bigger rock’n’roll song than we did it as The Roys. I wasn’t at all sure we should try. But it was almost a condition – in fact, he said he'd release my solo record but I had to put “Til Next Time” on it. He even mentioned another Roys song but I said I’d only put one Roys song.

What was the other Roys song he wanted to put on the album?

“Sabrina” from “Holus Bolus”. I wasn’t super keen to put “Til Next Time” on it, no-one had noticed it the first time. But with Joel and the other guys in the band, that’ll work. But what was more pleasing was that I really enjoyed playing it again because I wasn’t sure if that would happen. It was different enough. Now when I listen to The Roys version, I thought it wasn’t nearly as good.

Can I ask you about “Salad Days”, which has a bit of a Beatles/George Harrison feel to it. What’s the story behind that song?

The story lyrically is based on high school days and high school people. “The salad days of a crisp white kid” was a line I think that I stole from something I was reading, just as a first line that turned into a song about high school.

We were kind of dickheads then, and then there was that girl who I hated because she was a bitch but then she was nice to me and she “brushed my arm with her denim breast” which was a big thing for a 16-year old, if a girl does that when she’s talking to you, “and now she’s the one that I like the best”, which rhymes with “breast”. Then there’s a bit of a musical interlude and then he’s talking about how he’s middle-aged, he looks her up, they may or may not both be in relationships, and he goes on a date with her and it’s disappointing. They meet at the same place they met as kids, he feels fat and ugly and he doesn’t like the crowds that are there.

Sounds like hanging out in a Facebook group of your high school friends and realising how disappointing it is …

Yeah, absolutely.

How did the rest of your live band come together?

Joel had a think about it. Jimmy Sfetsos, I’ve known for a while and I love his guitar playing, he’s been around for a while. Joel knew more about what he could do than I did, and Joel knew that he could do anything he put his mind to it, he could think about a song in the terms that I gave him, he’s really good at appreciating where I’m coming from, even more than I am. Joel had worked with Greg [Bainbridge] before and he knew he was a great drummer, technically versatile and could do all of what we wanted.

But mainly what happened, once we got together, which was the band that Joel had put together, which was half of Hoss except that Joel plays bass in my band, the guys Jim and Greg really liked what I was doing, didn’t want me to pay them [laughs], said let’s just be a band. So I said if we’re going to be a band then maybe we should be called something other than Simon Juliff but Dave and Joel said the record should be a solo record.

I understand that’s what it is and that changes how you produce and market it. Even though I didn’t like it to start off with, not because of modesty but because the name doesn’t really roll off the tongue, but I got used to the idea, and I liked the idea of creative control. And having been in a band with 5 people who all want to write songs, as happened with The Roys, I certainly appreciated the nice crisp and clean direction of a solo album.

How much influence or direction did Joel have in the studio?

When I say I had creative control, Joel was the producer and it's hard to control him [laughs] But Joel’s shown me more that I know what I want. He gives me the confidence after such a long break. He said “You really do know what you want, these demos show that you do know what you want”. And he just makes it happen.

But he also pushes me away from bad decisions, from making something strange that doesn’t need to be strange: “Sing it normally, don’t do any weird shit’”[laughs] Like saying a song is good enough to do it straight. And Joel also knows when the mistakes don’t matter and we don’t need to do it again because the feel is good. So the album is riddled with mistakes but I like it. I don’t mind any of them now. It's the kind of the record I really like – as in, full of mistakes! [laughs].

Are you still writing songs now?

Yes, and I had about 30 songs to choose from for the new record, so there’s still others that haven’t made the album. I told Joel to choose the songs. He chose mostly the songs I thought he would but a few surprised me but I was happy to go with that. I wanted him to choose songs that he wanted to produce. I wasn’t at all sure that he’d like all the songs, though I thought he’d like some of them. I sent 25 or so and I’ve got others that I haven’t demoed. He said there was an album’s worth easy.

But of the leftover ones, I’m not sure there’s a whole album’s worth that Joel would like to produce, so I’ve been writing more songs because I like to write and we need more for the next album. Same approach, but it’s evolved, naturally. I’m not prolific compared to other people who really write a lot of songs. I probably write a song every two months. Plus, I’ve been writing some songs with Joel, which have been making their way into the live set.

simon juliff portrait

Do you spend a lot of time finishing songs?

 Yeah, I do now. With The Roys I sometimes I rushed them into the rehearsal room and see what the guys could make of them. But there’s three different elements to a song and I like to think about how times each bit should happen, and where and when before getting into a debate about those things. Sometimes I write a song very quickly then fuck around with it for a while, just getting rid of bits or whatever. So it’ll sit there as a song for a while before I finish it, so if later on someone says ‘that bit shouldn’t be there’ I can say, no, I’ve thought a lot about it [laughs]

Are you enjoying playing live after such a long time away from live performance?

Yes. The first gig back after basically a decade not playing, was cancelled over and over because of COVID, which I know happened to everyone, but made me very nervous. When it finally happened, it was such a relief, people came because they had tickets. It went well, there was a happy vibe.

Since then I’ve done a whole bunch of small gigs, getting better at it, it’s been really enjoyable and I’m so glad the band wants to do it. And I still feel like they deserve a better name than Simon Juliff, but that’s what it’s called! Though I did suggest to Joel calling us Simon and the Juliffs [laughs].

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