Reg Mombassa & Some Serious Baffoons
Nanda Ormond and The SW Art Team Visit and Interview Revered Australian Artist, Musician and Cult Surf Icon, Mr. Reg Mombassa.
My first meeting with Reg Mombassa was at a free drinks kind of gig in an art space in Auckland, NZ. Reg and his band Dog Trumpet played, and it was pretty good as I remember. I must have realised at some point that the man with the long grey hair playing guitar was the famous artist Reg Mombassa, a personality I knew little about other than that he was a national icon of either NZ or Australia, or maybe both, and that I was distantly related to him. Bubbling with this wealth of knowledge, and a fair bit of free Dutch courage, I decided I owed it to him to introduce myself. I found my opportunity outside as the band carted their gear.
ME: Hey Reg, it’s me Nanda, Jonathan’s son. I’m told we’re related…
REG: Oh… Hey. Oh yes… I see, you do look a little like Jonathan. How is he?
ME: He’s fine. Hey, I’m an artist too!
REG: Oh great…
ME: Wow Reg, it’s great to meet you. Reg… that’s you. Famous Reg, I love your work.
At this point, Tim or Neil Finn, who’d played music with Reg that night, leant in and said, “Okay, Chris, we’re gonna take off now…” and he actually underlined that name, I could hear it. Reg went to go sort out an amp with him, bidding a not unkind farewell to me, and I was left there wondering, “Who the fuck is Chris?”
Chris O’Doherty, I now know, is Reg Mombassa. Guitar man in the iconic Australian buffoon-rock band Mental as Anything, eminent Australian art giant, and champion of surf sub-culture brand Mambo. Those of you interested in either Chris or Reg should really read the excellent biography, The Life and Times of Reg Mombassa, it’s really much better than this story will be. Truly. I lost the recording I made during the interview somehow, so most of the questions and answers I have just made up. Haha, nah, Danny Johnson (SW’s Creative Director) recorded most of the interview as well, he really saved my arse.
Prior to the interview, I took to studying Reg’s biography in great earnest, hoping perhaps to find some commonalities in our formative years, some clues that would point to my being on the same path to greatness. There were almost none. Being skinny and liking drawing, being terrible at fighting, and wearing op-shop clothes are about it. The unique cocktail of ingredients that turned Chris into Reg are his own and not to be repeated, unfortunately. Ask anyone that knows him and they’ll gush lyrically about his pleasant manner and sharp wit, his impressive intellect and lexicographic musical knowledge, and the far-reaching effect that his art and music have had on Australian culture, and surf culture worldwide.
Whenever I read or watch an interview with my favourite artists or inspirations, I look for something I can steal and introduce to my own life. Often I just wear the clothes they are wearing or try to speak like them for a few weeks until I get bored, but occasionally I will look a bit deeper and try to find some common thread that links them together, some secret to success. Many of my heroes say, as Reg does, that their success came down to luck and being in the right place at the right time. I believe this to be true, that you can only do what you can do and the results are somewhat out of your hands. This is why I have stubbornly refused to be anything other than an artist, because whether I am ever a success or not matters little if I enjoy doing it. The other thing that I can confidently say links many of my heroes together is their work ethic. All of them are, without question, completely mad. In the words of Ronald Searle, the greatest British cartoonist of all time, “What I enjoy particularly is work, I find the whole business so exciting that I rather resent having to go sleep.”
So here we can tune in after we’d bowled into Reg’s house and made our introductions and talked about family for a while. I won’t bore you with the details because it was mostly Reg gushing about my art and wishing we’d met sooner and cursing the fact that he couldn’t legally adopt me. It was kind of embarrassing for SW Art Director Corbin Nash and Danny because they were really left out, I mean, it kind of felt like they shouldn’t even be there. Real shame I lost the recording of that bit.
SW: How did Willie Nelson end up wearing a Dog Trumpet T-shirt?
RM: Oh, well we met Wille’s daughter at SXSW in Austin. We played the same kind of music and we were hanging out and one night she said, “Well come out to my dad’s ranch.” He had a ranch about an hour out of Austin, we’d done three gigs that day and we were pretty knackered, when she invited us it was probably about 10.30pm and we thought, “Oh yeah, we gotta go to Willie’s place.” We got there about midnight but he’d already gone to bed unfortunately, so we missed him. He’s got a complete Western village on his ranch, like a reconstructed Western town which he hires out for Western films so we walked around that, it was a full moon, and we went to his studio and it smelled of really strong pot. He smokes all the time so he’d obviously been in there not too long before.
DJ: Isn’t he like a full on gangster? Like a pretty dark character who mixes it up with some pretty heavy people?
Nah nah, that’s just the outlaw thing, he does get busted all the time for smoking pot, which is about the only illegal thing he does anymore. He didn’t pay any tax for years either and he got busted for $8,000,000 or something.
That’s pretty gangster… let me just read some of my questions here…
Do you want to tape it?
Oh, I already am, I’ve already been recording you, I didn’t ask permission.
(Everyone laughs gaily, oblivious to fact that I would later delete the entire thing. Danny shows Reg the cover I did of SW, clearly in awe and barely able to contain his wonder, he can only utter in a deceptively offhand tone…)
…oh that’s a pretty good cover.
(We could pretty well wrap up the interview there, I got what I came for within the first 10 minutes; Reg’s praise, so we could leave. Unfortunately, we talked for hours after this about Reg and his work and his life, if you consider this interesting then read on but honestly, he basically said I’m an amazing artist so you know all you need to know.)
What do you think the secret to your success with art and music is?
I consider myself fortunate to have been able to survive as a musician and an artist, ’cause it’s really hard as you probably have realised, it’s not easy. (Hearin’ that Reg!) There’re a lot of artists and musicians of my age who are really good but I’ve just had lucky breaks and been at the right place at the right time on a number of occasions and that’s why I’ve managed to do reasonably well. I often say it’s a dirty job being an artist but someone has to; I think the world would be a pretty bleak place without it.
I guess since we’re from a surfing magazine I should ask about Mambo and the influence that you had on the whole surf industry in Australia. Are you involved with them anymore?
Yeah I still do things occasionally, I don’t do a lot anymore, they’ve just had a 30-year exhibition in Melbourne and Sydney and I’ll be in Newcastle, Dog Trumpet are gonna play at the opening. You know it’s funny, I was about the only artist at Mambo who wasn’t a surfer. I did surf very briefly in Auckland when I was 16, I could barely swim actually, the water was too cold… Occasionally I’d have a go in Aus but I don’t even like swimming much, I sort of swim in the ocean once a year, if that. I don’t do anything except music and art, I’ve got no interests at all, I very rarely go and see other bands, I don’t go to the theatre, not really into films, I just can’t be bothered. I’m not interested.
DJ: What is the average day for you? Have you got any morning routines or anything
Yeah, I read the paper. I have breakfast and read the paper, and then I work on pictures…
DJ: Every day?
Yeah, every day. Seven days a week. And then, you know, in the evening I’ll sort of play guitar and learn some songs, rehearse a bit and whatever, then maybe some more artwork after dinner.
What keeps you being so prolific do you think? What keeps your energy up to put out so much work?
Partly because you have to, the fact that I had three kids meant I had to earn a living and maybe if I’d had no children I might’ve been lazy, I dunno. In terms of music we’re just doing it because we like to do it, there’s no record company that’s hassling us and wanting stuff, and that’s kind of good because I never liked the influence of record companies, their demands and their interferences.
What about with drawing and art, do you like having a brief or something to work to?
No there’s no brief, I like doing exactly as I please, that’s why I liked working for Mambo because there’s no brief, you just do what you want. Occasionally people want me to do ads but I rarely do, unless it’s something like a book cover or for an art festival I might be interested in. I’m not interested in doing ads ’cause they’re always so specific and it doesn’t interest me.
DJ: What did you think you were gonna do when you were young?
When I left high school all I wanted to do was go to Nelson and be a fruit picker. That’s all my ambition was. Oh, you know, I wanted to be an artist. I’d always wanted to be that or play in bands. But I didn’t have any particular idea that that would occur or that I’d be successful at it or make money from it.
Did you experiment at art school? Were you trying a lot of different styles?
Not really, I could’ve got more use out of art school in a way ’cause I sort of taught myself to paint when I was a teenager, copying pictures out of art books. By the time I was at art school, the first two years I was there were a bit boring, there was a lot of lecturing but the useful things were things like figure drawing. If you’re wanting to do any vaguely traditional art, that is a good way to learn how to draw people.
And learn how to draw fast and not be precious…
Yeah exactly, I mean I do a lot of drawings in the car. That’s really good ’cause you have to be really quick, if you see some interesting scene, you’ve only got a minute or so to get it down.
DJ: So as a passenger you’ll just stop, and see something and quickly draw it?
I don’t stop, no. Obviously, if I’m driving I don’t draw, but sometimes I’ll take photos with a cardboard camera while driving. I do a lot of photos in the car. But as a passenger, I’ll draw as we go.
I read about there being quite a lot of violence in your early years, like people would beat you up quite a bit.
Yeah, there were a few incidents, not just in Sydney but in Auckland too… but I think that’s common for lots of young boys, teenage boys.
I always seem to dodge it.
You dodge it? Well you’re lucky.
No, I got punched, kicked and headbutted on a number of occasions. I must have had an irritating face or something (laughs).
DJ: I’ve been headbutted and punched.
CN: I’ve been stabbed. (The first and only words Corbin uttered the entire time, amazing).
Stabbed! Oh well, that’s serious. Well... that explains the haircut (referring to Corbin’s Mohawk. He’s metro-punk).
Very briefly we started carrying knives when we went into Auckland in the 60s but I never used it. I couldn’t fight, I was hopeless, I was very scared of all that stuff. Some of my friends were a bit more capable, they were good street fighters which saved me a couple of times.
So Reg you’re really very famous, has it ever gotten to a point where people were bothering you, or you would get recognised on the street and chased around?
No, well, no I’ve never been that famous. The Mentals were fairly popular but we weren’t the kind of band that people chased around for some reason. I do get recognised still, but it’s usually pretty low key, just people saying, “Oh I like what you do.”
DJ: And what about on the other side of infamy? Have you ever had people that your art has offended? Is there a big stack of hate mail anywhere?
No, there’s not a big stack of hate mail, but there’s been letters written to the paper and three guys actually went into the Paddington Mambo and said, “Oi, get that banner down by next week or we’ll firebomb the shop.” They were these Christians and they’d been to a football match apparently…
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You were making fun of rugby and the church?
I wasn’t making fun of rugby, no, it was an Australian Jesus and he was naked and a bit overweight and he looked a bit gay and I guess that was offensive to them. I mean apart from that there’s been a few letters to the paper, like some woman saw this sculpture, one of my figures, and she said, “Oh I was really, really disgusted, we were seeing friends off from Australia and the last thing they saw as they left the country was this horrible sculpture of a naked emperor.” But that’s pretty mild, I got attacked by the Government once over a T-shirt I did for Greenpeace about the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. I just had a picture of the reactor as a red brick building and cracks in the ground, and dogs with suicide belts, and ravens with bits of dynamite attached to their backs, and I think the tag-line was, “Mr. and Mrs. Sydney, Australia would prefer not to have a nuclear reactor situated halfway up their arse.” And next thing the Science Minister told me I’m trying to take away people’s nuclear medicine, which is bullshit anyway.
So are you conscious of having to censor yourself?
Often you do stuff and no one could care less. I’ll think, “Oh maybe I’m going a bit far this time,” but nothing happens. But I mean, what I do is not hugely insulting, a lot of Christians actually like it, the more sort of hard-core fundamentalists don’t. I mean, I don’t care what people believe, it’s fine, but I’m not so keen on hardcore fundamentalism of whatever religion, it generally leads to excluding certain people, like women, homosexuals, ethnic and religious minorities et cetera… Apart from that this is a pretty tolerant country, I’d be too scared to do what I do if I lived in Iran, or some African countries.
On the flip side of being attacked by the government you’ve also been awarded a few times. You were recently made a Fellow of The NSW Arts thingy?
Yeah but that’s got nothing to do with the Government. That’s just an arts thing.
The government gave you your own minted coin, didn’t they?
No I designed one. But again that’s the National Mint, it was just another graphic art job. I did stamps too. So you know… I’m against the establishment and also part of it, in that respect.
DJ: You don’t seem to have the personality of a tortured artist, is your process a struggle at times? Are you ever battling with ideas or concepts?
No I wouldn’t say I was a tortured artist but sometimes it can be difficult, you feel disappointed or ignored sometimes, and other times you feel you’re getting a bit of attention.
DJ: I’d be interested to hear how you view your own role in the art world. I imagine that when your art has a lot of humour in it, it can take you out of the art realm a bit?
I’m not sure if this is accurate ’cause I’m naturally paranoid about stuff like that, but certain elements of the mainstream art world would just think I was a fucking buffoon. A drawer of T-shirts or something, they don’t take me so seriously. I’ve been exhibiting in galleries since I was 23 or something, I’ve had a lot of one-man shows.
DJ: Yeah, I was wondering if you feel like you’re a part of it or if you feel like an outsider, or whether anyone feels a part of it?
Yeah, probably no one does really, you always think there’s someone else who’s more part of the establishment or in the mainstream or whatever, I’ve exhibited in the same gallery since I started and they’re one of the few galleries that are very loyal to their artists. I’ve only ever really dealt with them, I don’t really deal with the art world as such. Plus, I was in a band for years so I wasn’t really concentrating on art, I was still having shows but not being a fully paid up member of the art world, whatever that is, whatever that entails. But I’m serious. There is an element of absurdity, but it’s a serious business being a fucking buffoon.
I must extend a big 'thanks heaps bro' to Reg for letting us in his house and tolerating our chatter, I’m sorry I left my drink bottle under your table. To SW for letting me go hang out with my cuzzy, to Danny for saving my arse and asking the better questions, and to Corbin for not stealing the print Reg gave me or stabbing me with a knife. - Nanda Ormond
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