Tim Freedman On 'Love This City': 'It’s All Over The Shop, But It Has The Whitlams’ Trademark Of Inner-City Romance'

10 July 2024 | 2:17 pm | Steve Bell

Tim Freedman reflects on the success (and backlash) feeding into The Whitlams’ acclaimed fourth album, 'Love This City', ahead of the 25th anniversary national tour.

The Whitlams

The Whitlams (Source: Supplied)

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Back at the very tail-end of last millennium, as Sydney singer-songwriter Tim Freedman set to work on what would become his band The Whitlams’ fourth album Love This City (1999), he’d suddenly found himself in something of a novel (for him) predicament. 

After over a decade working independently at the musical coalface—including stints as a sideman in bands like the Sunnyboys and The Hummingbirds—his own project, The Whitlams, had suddenly broken through with their third album, Eternal Nightcap (1997), augmented by the runaway success of its second single, No Aphrodisiac.

That relatively unassuming ballad captured the imaginations of the Australian listening public - taking out the coveted #1 spot on the 1997 instalment of triple j’s Hottest 100 countdown - as well as pushing Eternal Nightcap to #14 on the ARIA album chart (a remarkable achievement at the time for a completely independent act), on its way to achieving triple-Platinum accreditation.

Then the industry paid its own respects to The Whitlams, the band scoring three statuettes at the 1998 ARIA Music Awards - Best Group, Best Independent Release for Eternal Nightcap and Song Of The Year for No Aphrodisiac (the latter famously presented by former Australian PM Gough Whitlam, whose name they’d co-opted at the outset) - so when the dust settled and it was time to embark on a follow-up, Freedman admits to being at something of a loose end.

“Well, I’d been very busy, so a bit like Eternal Nightcap, I probably only wrote three new songs for Love This City - the others were just in my back pocket from my 20s,” he recalls. “So when the dust settled after touring Eternal Nightcap - which, as you can imagine, was about 100 dates in six months, the sort of schedule only a young man can submit to, especially as we were celebrating our surprise success and having a bit of fun - but when the dust settled I didn’t have a concept in mind, so approached each song as a bit of a project unto itself.

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“I didn’t have a band either, which is why there’s about 50 musicians on the album: about five drummers, three or four bass players, probably five guitarists and three other keyboard players doing all the fancy or ‘fiddly bits’ as I like to call them, me being just a rhythm player in its essence. 

“So I didn’t know how it was going to come together, which is why it has a lot of different moods. It was recorded in Sydney and Gosford and Memphis with three different producers as well - there was Rob Taylor who produced the first three albums, and then I got Daniel Denholm in at the end to produce a few of the new songs that I write towards the end. Luckily, because they ended up being the two biggest singles, Blow Up The Pokies and Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst).

“And I experimented with going to Memphis and recording with ZZ Top’s producer Joe Hardy, who ended up producing Made Me Hard and the closer, There’s No One. So it was a bit of a compilation, with a lot of different moods.”

Nonetheless, even all these years later, the album sounds remarkably cohesive, given its ad hoc genesis.

“I suppose because I was in the room for every minute of the process, so I’m a constant,” the singer smiles, “And I could say, ‘Oh, that’s not quite what we do. Can you stop swinging that as much’ or ‘get a bit less flowery in that section’. I was like the tastemaker in the back of the control room in a way.”

Was he feeling more pressure during this creative phase, given the runaway success that they’d enjoyed in the last 18 months or so?

“It’s hard for me to throw my mind back to exactly how I felt,” Freedman reflects. “I think I did feel the pressure because, let’s face it, if the album had been a stinker, then I would have been just another one of those one-hit wonders. I think that’s why I almost tried too hard and put too much into it.

“Rob and I should have been told to stop a bit earlier - I think we had a good album after five months, but I went nine months because I do have a bit of a strong work ethic when I get ambitious. I spent a fortune on it - I had a couple of hundred grand to make an album, which is ten times what I’d made the previous one for.

“That’s just what it cost in those days to spend six months in a studio with orchestras and three two-inch tape machines slaved together - it was one of the last analogue albums, too, and that wasn’t cheap. It was just before recording costs plummeted with the rise of digital technology.”

Despite its very Sydney-centric core - tracks like You Gotta Love This City, Blow Up The Pokies and God Drinks At The Sando are firmly rooted in the geography of the NSW capital - Love This City also includes a swathe of love songs and some broader political commentary as well. 

“Someone said to me once, ‘You’re called The Whitlams, why aren’t you more outspoken politically?’” Freedman offers. “So I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I am what I am’, which is why I put the spine of social issues through it, highlighting that in Sydney, not everyone necessarily opened their arms to bread and circuses - which is what the Olympics were - and poker machines, which were already very close to my heart, and East Timor, which I’d been interested in as an issue for a number of years.

“But there’s always some wry love songs on a Whitlams album, so I didn’t want to move entirely away from them. I also chose some songs by friends which fitted that angle, so Made Me Hard is a Bernie Hayes song, and Unreliable is very wry, but that was from my friend around the corner, Chris Abrahams, who’s best known now for being in The Necks, but he played a lot of keyboards on the early albums because we were close back in those days.

“So it’s all over the shop thematically, but it has The Whitlams’ trademark of little one-act plays of inner-city romance.”

As the current incarnation of The Whitlams prepares for an extensive national tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Love This City, Freedman has a new appreciation for his work on the album.

“I’ve listened to it a fair bit in the last three weeks because I’ve been listening for what parts to add brass to for the shows,” he tells. “Then the other night, I had to put on the vinyl test pressing from Germany and listen to it from start to finish to approve the vinyl cut, and I think some of it works really well, especially the lavish stuff towards the end, such as Unreliable and Your Floor Is My Ceiling

“I think Blow Up The Pokies worked really well, and I love the way that it’s just a trio playing God Drinks At The Sando because you need that breath in the middle - for God’s sake, stop having 72 tracks and just play with a trio!

“So I like the fact that that works there, but naturally, when you listen back to something, there are bits you’d like to revise. For example, I would have put Pretty As You a lot later. I’m not a big fan of that one; I think it ended up being a bit over-eager, and I think Higher Ground is a little bit over-egged as well. 

“But overall, I get surprised by how much is in it - God, there’s a lot happening! Just the textures in it make me tired listening to it; I can’t believe the amount of work that went into it! It was a long ten months.”

While Love This City ended up being a massive success in its own right—rising to #3 on the ARIA album chart and being accredited double-platinum—it experienced something of a rocky start, with eventual lead single Chunky Chunky Air Guitar proving a polarising choice for their post-success reintroduction.

“It was a real novelty,” Freedman admits. “I was a big fan of - and very close to - the Machine Gun Fellatio boys, and it was essentially a Machine Gun Fellatio song which I loved and said, ‘Can I try and record it?’. So that’s a lot of their palette with the synths and stuff.

“I loved it so much that I really went in to fight for it as the first single - Warners didn’t want to release it as the first single. And they were right because you should probably follow up with something that’s one step ahead of your audience but not two.

“Also, I didn’t realise what a sensitive time it was for the band because whenever you’ve had that surprising success, suddenly a lot of people are out to get you, and I’d had no experience with that because I’d always been a battler. I had no experience having people wanting to bring you down a notch because you might have had some more success and luck than one person should have.

"So it came out in that funny time and became sort of a theme song to The Whitlams backlash. If I had my time again, I just would have put out Blow Up The Pokies first, and it would have gone bang, but that’s the benefit of hindsight; I would have put Chunky Chunky Air Guitar out third when it didn’t matter so much, and it was more just a breath of fresh air instead of a weird song that’s a little bit cheeky to put out straight after No Aphrodisiac.”

Following the success of Eternal Nightcap, the Whitlams dipped their toes into the major label world by signing a distribution deal with Warner Music Australia. Freedman explains that this was a resoundingly positive experience for the formerly diehard independent.

“It was really good,” he tells. “Mark Pope and Michael Parisi were excellent A&R guys; they understood that we’d already set our course, and they just sat back and let us go. They weren’t in the studio at all, they were just delivered the record and worked it. 

“And they worked it really well, they worked hard and Blow Up The Pokies was the first song of ours that got on commercial radio, and it was just blaring out over building sites on MMM for a year because it just researched well, apparently, which is why it’s still played today because it became part of the fabric. I probably couldn’t have done that on my own label, so I appreciated having the muscle at last.

“We were very well-known given that we’d been so staunchly independent, and winning an ARIA for Best Group when you’re not on a major label is unprecedented, but I just knew how hard we’d had to work to do Eternal Nightcap, and I was tired and really wanted some help with money and muscle. 

“My partners in [indie label] Black Yak would have been happy to continue independently, but I said to Sebastian Chase and my manager Tim Thomas that I wanted to see what it was like on a major label, and I ended up being on Warners for three years and made a lot of friends. It was a very positive experience for me. We had a really good run.”

Now, 25 years after its birth, Freedman is looking forward to revisiting his ambitious fourth album, even assembling a brass section to help bring the complex arrangements to life in the flesh.

“Yeah, usually I don’t worry too much about the lavish nature of some songs,” he laughs. “I’m happy to just play a muscular four-piece of the songs - which is what we usually are, just four blokes with no backing tracks just belting it out - but this album, in particular, required some extra instrumentation because it was very lavish, and there’s lots of interlocking melody lines and splashes that the brass section is going to have a ball with.

“I went through the album slowly with Matt Keegan - a Sydney arranger and saxophonist who’s in charge of the brass section - and he’s going to be very busy. There’s quite a bit of brass but the tenor will also take some cello lines and some string lines that were written in various parts of the songs, so it’s not all ‘tower of power’ stuff, some of it will be textural. 

“But the response so far has been uniformly positive and the shows are selling really well, so we’re all excited to get back amongst it. It’s going to be really fun.”

The Whitlams are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Love This City with an Australian tour later this year. You can find tickets here.




Thursday 3rd October - Corner Hotel - Richmond, VIC - NEW SHOW

Friday 4th October – Corner Hotel – Richmond, VIC

Saturday 5th October – Corner Hotel – Richmond, VIC - SOLD OUT

Friday 11th October – City Recital Hall – Sydney, NSW - SOLD OUT

Thursday 17th October – Canberra Theatre Centre – Canberra, ACT

Friday 18th October – Odeon Theatre – Hobart, TAS

Saturday 19th October – Craigie Knowe Vineyard – Cranbrook, TAS

Saturday 2nd November – Princess Theatre – Woolloongabba, QLD

Friday 8th November – Anita’s Theatre – Thirroul, NSW

Saturday 9th November – Newcastle Civic Theatre – Newcastle, NSW

Thursday 14th November – Astor Theatre – Perth, WA

Friday 15th November – Shelter Brewing Co – Busselton, WA

Saturday 30th November - City Recital Hall - Sydney, NSW - NEW SHOW

Saturday 7th December – The Gov – Hindmarsh, SA