When Powderfinger broke up, guitarist Darren Middleton drifted for a while. After taking a European holiday with his family he returned home and immediately packed up again, this time to move from Brisbane to Melbourne. “I landed in a city that I loved and I had good intentions,” he says – but even with the best of intentions, transitioning out of being part of one of Australia’s best-loved bands into whatever came next wasn’t going to be easy.
“Unexpectedly, I found myself lost for probably about a year, untangling the threads of my previous existence and essentially needing to work out who I was and what I really wanted to do with my life. Although towards the end of our time in Powderfinger we might not have been the best of mates, we still had a purpose, I suppose. Or at least we were on the same road musically. Departing from that existence, I’m suddenly faced with a four-way intersection – excuse all the metaphors. It took me a while to find out what I wanted to do.”
What he did at first was produce, working with bands like Geppetto and July Days as well as some solo artists, co-writing and helping to usher other people’s creative projects into the light. His own projects never seemed to take off, however, with songs started but never finished. He calls it “wallowing in this emotional wasteland”, but fortunately he didn’t wallow forever. “I suddenly stopped about a year ago now, looked back and went, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of good stuff there [that] just needs to be finished.’ There’s a lyrical thread that runs through the whole thing, it’s all very personal, so I think there’s a real reason for these songs to exist. I really needed to feel like there was a reason to make a record, not to just satisfy a contractual agreement or because I should put one out. I needed to feel like whatever I did I could stand behind, tell the stories of the songs. I really needed to have splinters of myself in these songs for them to exist. Then I looked back and went, ‘Well, there kind of is.’ That’s way more focused than I’ve been in the past, any Powderfinger stuff or even Drag records.”
Drag was Middleton’s side project during the Powderfinger years, who released an EP called Gas Food Lodging in 2003 during the hiatus before Powderfinger recorded Vulture Street. Drag provided an outlet for Middleton’s songwriting when he needed it, but the new songs he’s written will be released under his own name on the album out this week, Translations. “I think the solo thing is what I’m gonna be doing [from now on],” he says. “One of the reasons I didn’t get Drag together for this project is the songs have a real pointed focus and they’re all kind of personal, not as universally themed and full of obscure metaphors that don’t really mean anything, which is what I really did with Drag. There wasn’t really any focus in that project. I’ve decided to run under my own name in the future.”
Even after deciding that, he wasn’t quite confident enough to go alone. “I ended up asking a whole bunch of friends to get involved because I just didn’t think I could really carry off ‘lead singer’,” Middleton admits. The album features guests including Powderfinger mate Bernard Fanning, Clare Bowditch, Nic Cester from Jet and Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey. Though they were all eager to lend a hand, they ended up helping him in a different way than he expected. “Nic Cester and Paul Dempsey both got in the studio and went, ‘It sounds better when you do it. Just step up and bloody sing it. You can do it, so do it.’ They were both just slapping me. There’s a song that Nic sings on that’s kind of a rock song and it sounded really rockin’ and bluesy, but we still both listened back to it and went, ‘It’s just not right.’ Which is crazy – I could have had Nic Cester singing lead vocals on a song!”
Some of the songs that ended up on the album were partly written before Powderfinger split up, and were resurrected and re-tweaked with help from co-producer Simon Walbrook. Although Middleton’s happy producing for others on his own, with his own work he wanted a second opinion. “[Simon] took the ideas – and then the songwriting at that point had kind of been done – but he started shaping songs a little differently, he would loop something and just loop it for ages, which is not how I would usually construct anything. And so he introduced these new flavours to the record. He puts drums in different places to what I would have imagined. So essentially we’ve got this record that I feel is kind of old school and new school I suppose. It’s got this organic band-y kind of sense but also a more modern, electronic element to it.”
Before I let him go, I have to ask Middleton the question: Is there any chance of Powderfinger re-forming? “Certainly not yet,” he says. “No, I can’t really imagine it happening, but who knows? Bands have split up under way more heinous circumstances than we split up under and somehow reformed and gotten on with it. Water under the bridge and a period of time, I don’t know. It’s not on the cards but you never know what the future will bring.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR