Diesel on turning “jamming with oneself” into the masterpiece that is 'Bootleg Melancholy', slaying the anxiety dragon and sharing a bizarre pre-performance ritual with Tina Turner.
“I didn't want it to be as obviously Americana as the last record,” Diesel shares of his intentions for Bootleg Melancholy. “Sunset Suburbia  was a bit more like that, ‘cause it was coming off the back of the record that I made before that, called Americana , which was a bunch of my favourite covers by American artists that I grew up with and so there was a little bit of residue from that in the sonic palette. But, with this one, I just made a really fun blues album all by myself. And so that was kind of like a lemon sorbet that cleansed the palate.
“I've been really lucky, ‘cause I've done so much guitar work with my daughter Lily, b, in the last couple of years. When she was working with the Brockhampton camp – this is probably going back about 18 months – they were going, ‘Send guitar stems over, just ideas’. And I was, every day. It was really good, ‘cause that's when we were in lockdown at that point – the first one – and it gave me something to do every day. I was just making guitar musings and sending ‘em over, and I got really attached to a couple of the guitars that I've got in my collection.”
The majority of Diesel’s awesome 16th record was recorded in his home studio during lockdown as well. “I didn't really work out of a very big area – like, literally one corner of my studio – and it started looking like an extreme-hoarding episode, just pile-up all around me, and, yeah! I just kept everything really close to me.”
This enforced isolation also meant that Diesel was restricted to what he refers to as “jamming with oneself”: “I’d come up with these virtual scenarios and hear it all in my head first, most of the time. As a child, I had an imaginary friend – like a lot of kids – and I would sit and imagine that I was in a band, and playing in bands. There was a lot of make-believe. I would put myself in scenarios and imagine, imagine, imagine. And that's all songwriting is, really. Like, most of what I do is just something that I've either dreamt or summoned up and imagined. The rest of it, the hard part, is getting in front of all the tools and the equipment and making it into something that is ultimately tangible, and listenable for people.”
Diesel’s also obviously a celebrated guitarist’s guitarist, and it’s impossible not to pull a stank face during that Corduroy And Crumbs solo. “I just did it on the guitar on the spot!” he enthuses. “Once those strings hit my fingers, it's a visceral reaction thing that happens. Where it goes to the E, it sorta goes da-nah, DA-NAH, da-nah, you know? And after I’d let it unravel for a few bars, I thought, ‘That would be a good place for me to pop in a manic kind of solo,’ then stop the song and then da-da-da and then go back into the chorus. ‘Ooh, nice. Yes!’ That's when I knew it was gonna be like a cool change after a bit of fire, you know?”
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Saxophonist Bernie Bremond, previously of Johnny Diesel & The Injectors, parps brilliantly on two Bootleg Melancholy songs: the title track and Never Giving Up, featuring Diesel’s trademark smoked-honey timbre crooning instantly hummable hooks, which is this scribe’s favourite album track at present. “I wasn't sure if that one was a song for me at first,” Diesel admits. “I thought, ‘I'm intrigued by this. Is it for me? I dunno. Who cares!?’ [laughs heartily] I think the song can draw you into a different space, you know? And most times it does, but sometimes it's more intense than others – strange, but kind of intriguing and inviting – and you feel like, ‘Ooh, where am I? What's this?’ Kinda like walking into someone's house for the first time and looking around going, ‘What's that on the wall?’”
Lee Moloney, who’s been Diesel’s drummer of choice “for 20 years now” also plays on some tracks: “When we were allowed to have people in our house again [post-lockdown], Lee came in. He was reluctant, ‘cause I'd played the drums already, but I was using my smallest set-up, and so I recorded the drums with three mics, which can be a cool sound. But once I started laying more guitars on, the drums started kinda disappearing.
“They needed the weight of more mics and more harmonic content and whatever, and I was like, ‘Nah, nah, dude. Thanks for the compliment, but it's not about how they feel – I need bigger drums! I need you to come over and hit ‘em properly with more mics on and me recording over there in that other room behind the door. And he was like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah, sure.’ So, he came in and, yeah! All I can say is that, when that happened, it was like Christmas! Yay, someone's coming in and playing on this record that I've made completely by myself!” he recalls, laughing. “It just felt so sweet, I really savoured it.”
Album opener and lead single Forever was actually inspired by a photography exhibition Diesel’s son Jesse – who shot Bootleg Melancholy’s cover image – mounted in Sydney. “[Jesse] didn't put [the photographs] in frames like the usual kind of exhibition; he actually used the wall as a canvas and plastered them on,” Diesel recounts. “The whole room was just like a big collage: people – some that I knew, some that I didn't, some who aren't here anymore – friends, places… It was really confronting but in a beautiful way. I got a great feeling from that. It made me think, ‘God, life's just going so fast!’ You know, there have been times that I've definitely felt I wanted to last forever – in the back of my mind, in a subconscious kinda way – and of course they don’t!”
The exhibition was called …And It Felt Like Forever, and Diesel confesses, “I was like, ‘God, that's such a great title; I'd love to do something around it.’ And then I just realised, ‘I'm gonna steal it’ – stealing from your own spawn!” [laughs]. “Look, he's got my lyrics tattooed on his chest, so…” Which ones? “He’d be so embarrassed,” Diesel hesitates. “No, actually, maybe he wouldn't be, because, you know, you got a tattoo so you must be okay with it. It's a lyric from a song of mine called 15 Feet Of Snow, and I think it's, ‘Wherever your love light shows’ – I didn't know until it was done.
“But, yeah, he's used his body as kind of a memo board. All the upper half of his body and some of his backside is covered. He's left his neck, face and hands clean, which is nice, so he can still put a shirt on and look like an un-tattooed person as an option as well, which is a good thing. I think it's nice to be able to have two looks. If I was gonna put tattoos on me, I'd wanna have options, ‘cause sometimes you just don't wanna look at them.”
“Late at night you stand there, darkening my door/ Just like a shitty rom-com flick from 1994” – anxiety is personified during track two, Backpedal. However, this dark subject matter is camouflaged by the song’s jangly, upbeat ‘90s feel.
“[Backpedal is] just wearing those clothes,” he confirms. “[The song’s meaning] really is disguised in this fuzzed-out Dinosaur Jr. kind of chord pattern that cycles around and then expands out a little bit in the chorus. But it's kind of hypnotic. I mean, bands like The Presidents Of The United States Of America and even Pavement really tapped into that, too. Back then, sorta early- to mid-’90s, was a really good time for music; just before it became ‘Kmart’, I guess – which is my terminology for when it goes ultra, ultra mainstream – it was exciting, and then it sorta went up its own arse like everything does eventually.
“I'm a Gen X person, so I went and saw the movie Slacker when it came out – the week it was released – at Angelika in New York. I was living there.”
Diesel was born in the USA before his family moved to Australia when he was nine. Then in 1996, he decided to relocate his own family – wife Jep and their two children, Jesse and Lily – back to New York. He spent six years in the City That Never Sleeps, occasionally returning to Australia to tour. So Diesel was immersed in “that whole culture of ringer T-shirts and fuzzed-out guitars and writing about underachieving and being a loser and all that” that Backpedal channels.
“Personally, I've had to slay that dragon [anxiety], and keep slaying that dragon, all the time,” he continues, referring to this song’s lyrical inspo. “So, I name that feeling that you get in the middle of the night. And it's so predictable! Just like an old partner that comes knocking at your door at three in the morning. And it's cheesy because I feel like the panic attacks or whatever – those feelings that I have now – are almost cheesy, because it's like, ‘Oh, you again.’
“I think those feelings are so powerful and so foreign. And still, every time, I say, ‘Why? Why now? Why me?’ you know? All of those questions. Until I read this book that actually my son passed on to me, which was the most powerful and beautiful moment ever.
“[Jesse] found me one morning just in a mess. I hadn't slept, and he found me in our house, and he was like, ‘Dad, Dad, what's going on?’ And he took me into his room and then he sort of, like, consoled me. And I said, ‘I don't know what's going on,’ blah-blah-blah. I was having a nervous breakdown, you know, my mother had died, my father died, our dog died – that's just the beginning of it. I’d swept it under the carpet and then made a big bump. And then I tripped on the bump, as you do.
“And he gave me this book by Barry McDonagh called D.A.R.E. – it’s an abbreviation for something [Defuse, Allow, Run-Toward, Engage]. I can’t remember now, but that’s the first thing he unpacks for the book. So it unpacks what chemicals are happening in your body when you're having those feelings and then says you're actually just getting excited, but it's not excitement where you go, ‘Yippee!’ It's an unwelcome excitement. And you go, ‘Oh, okay. Alright, well that's adrenaline. I know that, I get it, and I live off it when I'm doing gigs; I thrive on that shit.’
Diesel listened to the audiobook version of this book and recounts, “I would go out every day to this little spot in a park across the road from us, sit under a tree and just listen and absorb it, chapter by chapter. It just really gave me – I know everyone says tools, but it really did give me tools. For me, [the book] was a great thing. I mean, therapy can help you with that as well.
“I went through sleep hygiene with a therapist, and that was another thing: all my sleeping habits were really bad. So I'm not perfect now either, of course – no one is – but I've talked to so many people who go, ‘What's sleep hygiene?’ And they all laugh, and then I start unravelling it with them, and they go, ‘Oh, gee, I’m terrible! I do that, and I do that,’ and it's like, ‘Well, yeah. There you go’.”
Touring circumstances can easily trigger mental health issues, and Diesel acknowledges, “It can all go to muck when you've got things on your mind and stuff, but I know the things that don’t help me, and so I stay away from those. I don't watch TV when I'm in hotel rooms, ‘cause it just doesn't do anything for my mental health. I put Jazz on. And I just try to get the right alpha or beta or whatever it is – I can never remember – brainwaves going and make it my own little sanctum.
“When you're at home, whether it's a rental or a place that you own when you've been there for a certain amount of time, you make it your own, and it feels and smells like your own place. But this thing of touring is: you walk into a room, and it's literally just a public, rented space that someone else has been in sometimes literally minutes before you walk in; someone else's energy is in there.
“This might be too cosmic for some people to take on board, but you're putting your head on a pillow where thousands of other people’s dreams have been. And there’s that smell that always makes my heart sink when I walk in, of commercial cleaning products and just other people's whatever, so, yeah! I've got my bougie Japanese incense that I light up [laughs]. So when I come home later it's like, ‘Oh, I can smell my own incense,’ and that sort of triggers some kind of familiarity in my brain. These are all just tricking mechanisms, really, that I try to share with not only touring musicians but also every person I know that travels.
“It was interesting, ‘cause I always felt that Michael Gudinski – to me – was like this person who never could be scared of anything, you know? He was just so vivacious and gung-ho and everything. And he told me in a cab one day that he was terrified of being in hotel rooms by himself. I’m like, ‘What!?’ And it was like, ‘Okay, that now explains why he's out most of the time and when he does have to spend time in a hotel room, he’s probably just medicating himself to get to sleep and stuff.’ He just wasn't good on his own in a hotel room, and a lot of people aren't. The minute you put your key in the door, this detachment comes straight away. Just walking into a hotel room can be terrifying.”
Diesel features on (Simply) The Best, the Tina Turner/Barnesy duet that has an ongoing association with the National Rugby League (NRL), and describes the recording session as “one of those ‘pinch me I can't believe I'm experiencing this’ sorta days”. “I didn't want it to end,” he continues. “I was invited to replace the epic sax solo, which is [performed by] Edgar Winter on the record, and my first gut reaction was like, ‘What? Really? They wanna replace that sax solo with a guitar?’ And I then thought, ‘Who cares? I wanna meet Tina Turner!’” he confesses, laughing.
“That day, we got there first, and then when Tina turned up, it was just her and one other person, her PA or whatever. It was just the three of us and Chris [Lord-Alge, producer] in the studio. And then someone came in and out with a camera, but they were so noninvasive and only filmed bits and pieces.
“We were out in the countryside, in the Netherlands, and we finished all our work probably around five, six o'clock in the evening. And she could have just pissed off right then and there, but she was like, ‘Let's order some takeaway Thai,’ and we sat on the floor in this green room at the studio. There was a bottle of champagne there, and someone popped it. And there were just plastic cups – the ones that you see around water fountains – and so we just had takeaway Thai on paper plates with champagne in plastic cups.” What Diesel describes as “fun chatter” ensued: “Instantly I felt, ‘God, she makes us feel like we've known her forever!’”
Diesel later toured with Tina and recalls, “Every night she was always like, ‘Make sure you come and see me,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah’ – I was still a little in awe of her. Her tour manager would come and grab me, and sometimes it’d actually be her manager, Roger Davies, and he would go, ‘Come on, come and see Tina. She wants to see you before she goes on,’ and I'd be like, ‘Oh, wow, really?’ ‘Cause I know how people are before they go on stage. She just wanted to see how my show was and give me a little peck on the cheek.
“One evening I went in, and she had her back to me, and she turned around, and she had this alarmed look on her face. She had this tissue which she made into, like, a corkscrew and had it fully up her nose, and she was like, ‘Oh, my God’ – you know, felt embarrassed for a second – and straight away I said, ‘Don't worry, I do the same thing!’
“This is something that I've probably never spoken about [laughs], but I'm pretty sure that sports people would probably relate to this story. So we all have boogers up our nose, let's face it, and once you start sweating profusely on stage they have been known to betray you and just suddenly appear on your face – it's fucked-up! So I make a point of really clearing out my nose before I go on stage, because I do not want that to happen, and she was doing exactly that!... And when I told her that I did it as well, she knew that I wasn't lying and we just pissed ourselves laughing for a sec, and that was that! We moved on.”
Bootleg Melancholy is out now via Bloodlines. Diesel is taking the album on the road in 2024.
SAT 13 JAN 24 | AVOCA BEACH THEATRE, AVOCA BEACH NSW | AA | 8-10.15pm
SAT 24 FEB | DUNSTAN PLAYHOUSE, FESTIVAL CENTRE, ADELAIDE SA | AA | 8-10.15pm
FRI 01 MAR | ATHENAEUM THEATRE, MELBOURNE VIC | AA | 8-10.15pm
FRI 22 MAR | REGAL THEATRE SUBIACO, PERTH WA | AA | 8-10.15pm
SAT 23 MAR | HEART THEATRE, MARGARET RIVER WA | AA | 8-10.15pm
FRI 12 APR | SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE, SYDNEY NSW | AA | 8-10.15pm
SAT 13 APR | THE TIVOLI, BRISBANE QLD | AA | 8:00-10.15pm