Not Planning To Rock

23 May 2012 | 3:36 pm | Dan Condon

Cold Chisel songwriter and keyboardist Don Walker tells Dan Condon about getting along with his bandmates, making Jimmy Barnes swear and playing with “a nose full of speed”.

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No Plans is the first Cold Chisel record to be released in 14 years and the second in 28. There were murmurs about the band reforming for a little while, but after the shock death of drummer Steve Prestwich, it seemed as if the possible reunion would run out of steam before it ever really got a chance to start.

“The choices were to finish Cold Chisel right there, which is quite a valid view and a view that definitely made a lot of sense to us,” Don Walker begins from his Sydney home. “Cold Chisel was the five of us and now the five of us aren't here, so that's the end of that. The other choice was for the four of us to make a record and get somebody in to help us on the drum seat. Ultimately, a couple of months after Steve's passing that's what we decided to do, I think helped along by the fact that when Charley [Drayton, Prestwich's replacement]'s name came up, on paper it just made such perfect sense that this could really work.”

A mammoth tour was the first order of business for the Aussie pub rock legends and Walker is pleased (and perhaps a little surprised) to report that they managed to get through it unscathed.

“Yes, it was a long tour – 36 dates over ten weeks – but we came out of it as in a good mood as we went into it,” he says. “Everyone's happy and getting on; any other band you wouldn't mention that, but for us that's not the experience in history.”

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These were big shows – stadiums and arenas all around the country – and for a band who had barely played together in over a decade, it was rather daunting.

“For those of us in the band it wasn't until we actually faced a couple of audiences, in particular the second or third show in Cairns; big crowd, 12-and-a-half thousand people, rain sleeting down and for the first two or three songs we couldn't hear ourselves onstage…. That's the first time it came home to the band that this tour might be somewhat bigger than we had in mind, a lot bigger, and that the crowds would be that enthusiastic,” Walker recalls. “Before that, we saw the numbers – yes, tickets are going well, yes, we have to add extra shows – but it's not until you're onstage and you're confronted with that reception that you realise what it's really gonna be like.”

Apart from the fact that a core member was no longer with them, Walker says there are a few major differences between the Cold Chisel of now and that of the past.

“If you're talking 1982 and that era, then yes,” he recounts. “We used to play a lot faster – not surprisingly – there was a year or two where we were, as often as not, onstage with a nose full of speed. And also, there's a certain energy and power you get when you never get a holiday. Around 1979, I think, is our peak as a live band – just before we became really big – [it was] just before we could afford to take holidays. If we took two weeks off we'd come back and we'd feel incredibly rusty.”

Did they feel incredibly rusty after a 14-year absence?

“Oh very,” Walker admits. “There was a lot of hard rehearsal that went in over the best part of a month before we played the first dates of mainly me, Phil [Small, bass], Charley and Ian [Moss, guitar] out in a concrete room in Sydenham [in Sydney's Inner West] just playing the set every day. Then when we went into production rehearsals in Townsville, we were playing the set twice a day which was… well it was pretty rough.”

The new album kicks off with its title track, a vicious rock'n'roll stomper that has the band sounding hotter than they have in living memory. But Walker, who wrote the song, says it's just a song that worked rather than a way of Cold Chisel telling the world that they're older but no less mean than before.

“No, I don't think we need to state that or intend it, that's kinda what we are,” he says. “That song was written as that kind of song before there was any prospect of a Cold Chisel reunion. And it was written for fun, it wasn't written as a statement of intent, it was a fun song to write because it's just playing around with the kind of lyrics and rock'n'roll that I enjoy writing.

“But there was no question almost from the beginning that this is going to be a lyric that, if ever the situation came up, Jim [frontman, Jimmy Barnes] would probably be the right person to sing it. Then you start to think, 'If you had to write a song for Jim and you could write anything and he would have to sing it, what would you have him yell?'”

Walker goes silent and this scribe realises his cue. “Fuck you!” I pipe.

“Of course,” Walker confirms in his typically nonchalant manner.

On the other end of the record, the closing track is Steve Prestwich's final contribution to the band, a gorgeous song called I Got Things To Do, which seems such a touching way to finish the record. But Walker says it wasn't always going to be that way.

“That was a last minute decision, because it wasn't going to be on the record and then when the mix came through with Steve's vocal on it we thought we'd put it on as a hidden track,” he says. “Then in the last weeks as it was being compiled we thought, 'What is this shit with a hidden track? Thirty seconds of silence and then… let's just put it on there.'”

The legacy of Cold Chisel is gargantuan; be it the legend that surrounded the band's hard touring ways, the countless hit songs that you'll still hear flogged on radio and in taverns every day. But, despite their lengthy absence, the band weren't at all worried about tarnishing their legacy.

“Ian was talking about this this morning; basically you face that same situation with your second album,” Walker begins. “Especially for us, our third album [1980's East] was a really big one and then you come around to do another one and… if you thought about that, why would you ever get onstage and play Bow River? They don't know this song yet, how's it gonna be received? I think we all feel individually, whatever we do, that we're probably doing it better now than we ever did. You have a certain confidence that you know what you're doing.”

As far as the future goes, we have seen the last of Cold Chisel for a long while, it seems.

“That's it. I think Cold Chisel will be quiet for a year or 18 months at least.”